While the public was making predications about Big Hit's next actions, the answer was hidden away in plain sight. Just like how Iris was on YouTube before revealing she was a Big Hit trainee who was going to be on Produce 48, Cindy and the others similarly were openly visible to the public.
Since their busking evaluation, the girl trainees' next task were to manage their social media accounts and gain followers. Other than not revealing their status as potential Big Hit girl group members, the girls were free to do whatever they wanted on social media whether that be music, fashion, eating, or any form of hobbies or entertainment.
That also included if they wanted showcase drinking or smoking, but it was an unspoken expectation that they wouldn't if they ever wanted to become an official trainee and debut. It wasn't a deal-breaker so much for the company as much as what they would face from the public. The conservative minds of the Korean society were long-standing and strict.
In this challenge, Big Hit was testing not only their ability to attract the public like they had during the busking, but to maintain it and be creative in the process. The goal was to show their true, authentic sides, not just their best sides.
Additionally, because two members were supposed to be eliminated after the busking evaluation, but two extra had been eliminated in the previous round, the staff revealed the last bit of information necessary about the future girl group to the trainees.
The group would only have four members. Six of the trainees were left. But the staff never confirmed or answered their questions about if the four were coming from the six, or if it were only three with Iris filling in the last spot.
IZ*ONE still had about one year left on their elusive segment of time on their contract. As it had only been barely half a year with April as the sixth month since their debut at the end of October.
While the Big Hit trainees were still gaining lessons everyday to hone their skills, it was inevitably up to each individual to secure their success. They had to create their own content and performances. They received no help from the staff besides vocal and dance training.
Because the long-lasting challenge was so unstructured with only the information of a final four lineup, the girls unconsciously grouped into threes. They all felt that the staff was only trying to mislead them to think that Iris wouldn't be part of the debut group.
So naturally, Cindy paired up with Jiyeon and Ahreum. But this actually wasn't as easily done as expected, for the other trainees actually wanted to be in on this group by kicking Ahreum out.
In a reversal of circumstances, the three other girls realized that Cindy was necessary for the group. Although she lacked the experience and level of skill, she was hardworking with a good personality underneath a rough exterior.
Thus, as she was blessed with beauty, it was likely that she would be a powerful force for propelling their group. As twisted as this underlying reasoning was, that was the reality that many idols faced. No matter how talented individuals in a group were, if their looks weren't up to snuff, then the group would be quite literally snuffed out. Every idol group needed at least one strong visual if not as many as they could.
Jiyeon was the second or third most stunning amongst the trainees depending on if one valued sharp, charismatic looks, or elegant princess looks like Rinah. After that, it was a toss up between Minhyun and Ahreum.
The general crowd might prefer the cutesy, innocent looks of Ahreum, but Minhyun was so striking in her androgyny that it made people turn toward her first in a crowd of a girls. Since androgyny was a rising trend along with girl crush looks over cute ones, Minhyun was more fashion and time-forward in a new generation kpop group.
And regrettably, Haebin was dead last. She wasn't ugly by any means, she was simply too plain for an idol. Being plain equated to being forgettable, something which could figuratively kill individual success within a group by causing envy toward other members and self-loathing.
All of these superficial deliberations ran by in each of the girls' minds without ever being spoken aloud. It was human nature to be judgmental and critical on the inside. Seeing only the good in everyone would be a near impossible feat for a human. And for idols, it was second nature due to the harsh industry and vast competition. Minds became attuned and skewed to these shallow factors and determinations.
"Jiyeon, when do you think we'll debut?" asked Rinah, the pretty acoustic guitarist while tuning her instrument.
The short haired girl narrowed her eyes slightly at Rinah. "Probably in two years at the earliest."
"That long, hm? However, I agree. That's enough time for TXT to settle in as well as for IZ*ONE to start toning down their group activities before disbandment."
The two made light chatter about the debut topic, and Cindy merely listened with half of her focus. Rinah had somehow wriggled her way into their trio, almost knocking Ahreum out according to their unspoken group of three division.
Minhyun was too focused on individual activities to wholeheartedly bother with "getting in" on the winning group, figuring that because the ultimate decision laid with Big Hit, establishing her own personal success was more important. Furthermore, she still kept up good relations with the others, so group chemistry wasn't a concern for her.
Haebin was the only one struggling alone without support, and oddly enough, Ahreum had been spending more and more time with her. Perhaps, they related with each other the most. And of course, Rinah capitalized on this to get closer to Jiyeon and Cindy.
On the inside, Jiyeon and Cindy were irked at the princess's not-so-hidden agenda, but they remained polite for the sake of any future decision that would bring them together as one group. Still, Cindy was the one who could least stand being fake-nice or highly tolerant, perhaps because she was of a different culture from the Koreans who value and practiced courtesy and manners. So, she often just ignored Rinah whenever she could.
This in turn made Rinah drop most of her efforts in getting closer to Cindy by instead trying to be closer to Jiyeon. If she couldn't reel in Cindy, then the natural group leader that was Jiyeon could be a pillar of support to eventually get the American to come around. And worst case scenario, Minhyun was the back-up option in place of Cindy.
"Nooonnaaa~~" whined Cindy to Jiyeon as she laid on the dorm cot.
"Ey, don't call me noona, unnie. You're getting into a bad habit," gently scolded the older girl.
"Noona. When you going tell Rinah to stop bother us already? I'm worry about Ahreum who is getting more distant and quiet lately." Cindy glared at the short-haired girl with pouty lips. Her Korean had improved, but she was still lacking.
"Geez, where did you pick up calling me noona from? I'm literally only two months older than you! Do I really look like a guy to you?!"
Cindy huffed. "You are. Girl crush!" She squished her face while exclaiming her words in a half-dramatic and cute way. It made Jiyeon chuckle and shake her head. Despite Cindy's prickly exterior, this girl was randomly cute at times.
That included her calling Jiyeon 'noona' incorrectly, a term properly used by males to older females. For Cindy to call another girl this, it insinuated that she considered herself a guy.
But in truth, the American just liked the sound of the word and liked to tease Jiyeon with it. She would've preferred the girl to an older guy term, which was 'oppa,' but it just sounded wrong for Jiyeon. Cindy was too used to that when referring to kpop idols.
The Korean girl could only sigh at what went on in the American girl's head. Just when she thought she understood her, Jiyeon would be surprised at some new aspect of Cindy. That girl really held a lot of hidden charms with her many sides and spontaneity.
As that girl was currently giving her a mock death glare for not answering her original question, Jiyeon half sighed and laughed. She ruffled her short hair, now blond, with an oddly charming air of annoyance, making any boy or girl's heart possibly skip a beat if they saw her.
"Yeah I know. It's annoying, but what do you expect? This is the last challenge before the final lineup is decided. Of course we're all desperate. Although I don't know why she seems to think sidling up with us is the winning decision…"
"Urgh." Cindy rolled over on the bed and flopped down her arms out in defeat. She already knew the answer herself and expected Jiyeon's words, but she was still upset.
They were all stuck in a tight, awkward place and had to tiptoe around one another. They were competition, but also possible future comrades. Since Big Hit valued team chemistry, no one could cut ties with one another at this stage.
"Anyway, let's go find Ahreum and record tomorrow's video," declared Jiyeon with a smile.
Cindy instantly perked up and jumped off the bed alongside Jiyeon's chuckles. Their YouTube channel still consisted of the original trio, so thankfully they had remained together because of that.
From Jiyeon's compelling lessons and demonstrations of her composition and other musical work, to Cindy's awkwardly adorably and entertaining self-practice and lessons about both music and Korean culture, to Ahreum's mini-variety show of silly feats and stories, their channel was a rather smashing success.
They each demonstrated their strong suits while gathering together for performances. Even during the few times that they busked together as a group, they had, on occasion, been recognized by a couple people. That rare recognition further made others intrigued about the trio.
Eventually, most of the crowds became their subscribers. From here on, more people shared clips of their performances to their friends and social media. And soon enough, the trio became pretty well known locally by the common folk in the music and dance areas of Seoul.
'Three more months,' reminded Cindy to herself as she skipped down the stairs. She was heading outside to record the video with Jiyeon and Ahreum whom they had picked up in the practice room.
'And then I'll finally start training as a real girl group so that by the time I see you again cuz, I can stand confidently next to you. I hope I can be with you….'
Cindy didn't know when it had started, but her vision of Iris had changed ever since Produce 48. From the girl she used to protect from bullies to now someone whom as she aspired to be while at times even being jealous, Cindy saw Iris in a new light. She was both her own personal idol and goal in who to become. But she was also still her dear cousin and best friend.
She wasn't sure how their relationship will have changed in the last few years, but Cindy hoped that they were merely turning a new chapter of their life together. Time would tell if their bond would remain strong or weaken, or perhaps take on a whole new meaning and strength.
Days turned into weeks into months. The last hurdle toward the aspired future path had quickly approached. D-Day was now just around the corner. Dreams would be made as well as broken on this day.
But while the dream of one cousin was up in the air, the dream was still continuing and growing for the other. In just three more short months, Iris would finally unfurl her wings and fully reveal the last tidbits of her rise to fame——keywords: Pied Piper, Dionysus.
A longer chapter than usual. Now that most of the foundations (it was a lot of exposition I know >_<'') have been laid, it's time for the girls to soar with their new wings in the next chapters!
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