Yunho tries to spend the first day of his two weeks off sleeping in, and promptly fails.
He’s out of bed by nine in the morning, spending the last two hours tossing and turning.
There’s nothing for him to work on in Seoul. Both Hyukjae and Taemin are back at the dance academy, and between them and the freelance instructor they hired, the three of them have got Yunho’s classes sorted out perfectly. In lieu of Sing! Idol, he’s also found replacement choreographers for the dance groups that were under his wing, and there have been no complaints so far.
Hyukjae’s still convinced Yunho will win, but Yunho’s not so sure. Not now, at least.
There isn’t even an excuse of popping in to teach last-minute stragglers, but he heads down to the academy anyway, pulling on a set of old training clothes. Being stuck in a limbo between the two feels odd; his routine at the Sing! Idol mansion, and his usual routine when there are classes to teach and dances to choreograph.
Makes him feel lazy. Like he’s cheating at life.
Taemin’s busy with his intermediate jazz class, but Hyukjae’s just finished subbing for a class. It’s one of Yunho’s usuals, advanced modern ballet.
He greets his regular students, and laughs when all of them profess to supporting him weekly by watching Sing! Idol religiously.
“Thanks, guys,” he gives a quick bow, and waves them off. He lingers as Hyukjae tidies the practice room and wipes down the barre, although they’ve got cleaners for doing that.
They hug. Hyukjae wraps a companionable arm around his shoulders. “How’s the gang?” He enquires. “I know you can’t talk about potential spoilers, but has anyone gone insane yet? Has Chanyeol flooded the mansion with his insatiable desire to win? You’re in the top ten!”
“They’re good. Still crazy, but the mansion’s starting to feel empty with just the few of us,” Yunho says. He opens his mouth again, and thinks better of it, and closes it.
He picks at the thread that’s unravelling from the left cuff of his long-sleeved training top.
Hyukjae’s staring at him, keen gaze not covered up by his usual easygoing smile.
“And how’s everyone’s favourite socially awkward chef?” He wants to know.
“Good,” Yunho utters. He tries for a smile. “Also more than a little terrifying now, because he sat up after Judges’ Choices and started paying serious attention to the competition.”
“My sacrifice wasn’t in vain then,” Hyukjae declares facetiously, but he’s still got a beady eye trained on Yunho and it feels a little like he’s an unsuspecting bug pinned under a microscope. “Is he still breaking out into those mad cooking binges?”
It feels odd thinking about Changmin like this, back in the real world. Like worrying at the soft tissue of your gum that holds a sore tooth. It doesn’t quite fit in yet it’s a part of you. And even after the tooth is removed, the phantom pain lingers.
Unbidden, a smile creeps across Yunho’s face. “He made all of us gourmet steak and eggs last night, before we all went back to our rooms to pack. With the way Henry and Zhou Mi fought over it, you’d have thought the production team starved us for a month.”
“Mmm.” Hyukjae taps a finger hard at Yunho’s jaw. “Lovesick is not a look you wear so well.”
Yunho blows out a breath. “It’s that obvious, huh.”
“Only to me, doofus,” Hyukjae’s sympathetic but blunt. “Don’t worry. If it’s any consolation, I don’t think Changmin has any idea. I don’t think any one of them does, to be honest. It’s just my bad luck to know this face of yours,” he taps Yunho again, “for nearly twenty years. Gets a bit easy to read a man after that.”
“I know my father for more than thirty years but I still have no idea what he thinks most of the time,” Yunho says, and that’s a separate can of worms altogether.
Hyukjae doesn’t say anything about that, preferring to remain on the safer topic of Changmin. “But how is he- doing better? He was such an anxious little thing, in the beginning.”
“Little,” Yunho snorts, he's tall enough and yet Changmin’s got a very visible inch over him and woe betide all of them if the stylists decide to put him in anything but extremely flat shoes; which is all the time.
He’s spent many a conversation talking to Changmin whilst trying not to sweat at that penetrating gaze, staring down at him from above. Changmin has a singular way of looking at a person, where his eyes are fixed on you and it feels like you’re the only person in his world, or at least the only one he cares about enough to let that detached gaze sharpen with interest.
It’s both rather flattering and extremely nerve-wracking.
“Earth to Yunho,” Hyukjae says, and he waves a careless hand that nearly blinds Yunho with jabbing fingers, had he not jerk back in reflexive response. “Are you drooling over Very Tall, A Little Dark, and Handsome yet Neurotic? You look like you are.”
“Don’t call him ‘neurotic’,” Yunho protests, but he steeples both hands together.
He says suddenly, angry at Changmin on Changmin’s behalf, “can you believe he actually thinks himself ugly? ‘Scrawny and too tall and my mouth is too big and my eyes are two different sizes and my ears stick out’. That’s what he said to me when I told him he looks good in one of his show outfits.”
“You tell him he looks good every week,” Hyukjae scoffs. “You should see yourself. You have an ‘I should not drool over Changminnie’ expression. It’s standard procedure by now. The producers announce the next challenge, everyone plans, the stylists help come up with new concepts, Changmin tries his, you drool, everyone performs. I haven’t forgotten how you looked during the Rock Challenge. Like you wanted to eat him up and to hell with all the cameras, when Yoonju was tossing him around backstage.”
Yunho runs a hand through his hair. He hasn’t washed it yet and hair product from the recording session last night is still in, so calling it a mess is an understatement. “He’s skittish, though. And I’m not sure this is the best time to… try anything. At the end of the day, I’m still there for the competition. That’s first and foremost and should be my only priority, to be honest.”
And they’ve finally acknowledged the elephant in the room.
Hyukjae sighs, stretching his legs out. “You and your insatiable need to prove yourself. Are you going to see him?” He’s not talking about Changmin anymore, and Yunho’s very aware of that fact.
“I was thinking of driving down to see my mum,” Yunho says. He isn’t, until he is at this very moment. Hyukjae doesn’t need to know that. “I texted her last night. He’s at home this week. No big cases to preside over.”
He looks over at Hyukjae, mirthless. “So yes, I’ll probably see my dad while I am there.”
Hyukjae sighs again. It’s long, laden with accumulated patience. “He’s trying, Yunho.”
Yunho lifts a shoulder in a careless shrug. He looks at the floor. It’s scuffed from countless feet dancing over it in pointe shoes, although they do still try to keep it as polished as possible.
Hyukjae warms to his topic. “He really is. You’re the first person to talk about how alike you and your dad are, in the fundamentals. Is it any wonder that he’s bad with words too?”
“He’s a district judge, Hyuk,” Yunho points out tiredly. “He was a prosecutor for twenty-five years and a judge for nine. He makes a living with words. If he’s bad with words, what does that make the rest of us?”
“Interrogating criminals,” Hyukjae dismisses. “Forcing the truth out. Dispensing justice. Not the kind of words that matter, between you and him. Look, he went from telling you to never darken his doorway ever again for even entertaining thoughts of a career in show business, to having your mum text you that he watched the first episode of Sing! Idol from beginning till end. If that isn’t progress, then I don’t know what is. It’s certainly more progress than whatever is going on between you and Changmin.”
“Hey,” Yunho says, mildly enough. “There’s nothing going between Changmin and I. Just like there’s nothing with my dad. It’s too late for that. He killed any part worthy of reconciliation himself, after my grandfather had to practically order him from his deathbed to speak to me. His only son.”
“So stubborn,” Hyukjae shakes his head, reaching over and flicking a finger hard against his ear. Yunho grimaces, and tries a glare on Hyukjae. It doesn’t work.
“How long will you be down in Gwangju?” Hyukjae asks, clearly giving up on that avenue of questioning. Yunho gives another shrug and offers him a weak grin instead.
“Maybe a couple of days. Why?”
“Your favourite skittish deer in human form,” Hyukjae pats his pockets for his mobile. “He just texted me this morning. He hasn’t forgotten his promise to feed me strawberry things. Atta boy. I’m invited to a taste test thingy, only he didn’t call it a taste test, he used some weird French word, and I’m allowed to bring a plus one.”
Yunho feels his traitorous heart leap.
He had thought he won’t be seeing Changmin at all for two full weeks, except perhaps onscreen. He’d comforted himself with the thought that at least the Sing! Idol group chat is good for something, or he can always drop the other man a private KakaoTalk message, if he gets truly desperate.
Changmin’s university hoodie is still with him. Yunho never did manage to give it back before they all left for their break.
Hyukjae rolls his eyes and knocks his elbow against Yunho’s. “In case your stubborn thick head doesn’t get it, you’re totally my plus one.”
“Of course I’m your plus one,” Yunho says, smiling winningly. “You don’t have any other friends.”
“Careful,” Hyukjae just grins back at him, teeth all on display. “I can always tell him I am going alone since I evidently don’t have friends.”
“You’re the bestest friend I’ve ever had and I love you,” Yunho adds another dash of sunshine to his smile and a twinkle to his eye.
“Yeah, yeah,” Hyukjae says. “I’m also your Changmin’s favourite and he loves me forever and ever. You can suck on that. Shall I tell him we’ll be at Choidot’s for dinner in four days?”
“Three,” Yunho isn’t asking at all.
He drives his Jeep down south, to Gwangju that afternoon.
Jeollado is gorgeous around him; vibrantly red with the scent of deep autumn in the air. There are neat piles of leaves of either side of the highway, likely the work of hardworking road sweepers. Along the way, Yunho espies more than one group of migratory birds soaring their way in formation across the blue sky. Maybe stragglers, given how late in the year it is. Like him.
It’s a Monday, so he makes good time with minimal traffic. Even with the shortening daylight hours, he arrives at his mother’s doorstep at three in the afternoon, when it’s still bright enough.
His mother knows he’s coming, because he texted again while pulling into a rest stop during the final leg of his drive.
She’s at the driveway, practically at the gate, when he pulls up.
He’s barely out of the car before she flings herself at him, arms tight and clutching onto his jacket. He’s dressed up a little, which is what a man should do when he doesn’t see his mother every other day. She smells like the softener brand -the same one Changmin uses- and flowers.
He hugs her back tight. Everytime he sees her, she feels smaller, softer. More fragile.
“Hi, Mum,” he says.
She presses her face to the front of his shirt for a long time, then lifts away. “You look tired.”
“Not tired now that I’ve seen you,” he says honestly, but she laughs, and smooths a hand over his lapels. “Charmer. Bad form doing that to your own mother. Come, Jihye’s here too. I told her her big brother is coming home.”
She curls an arm around his elbow and tugs him in, past the gardener who’s trimming at the bushes, tilting his sunhat up with a shout of welcome, and past the housekeeper who drops her stack of towels with a muted shriek of joy. She joins his mother in fluttering around him, and he’s pulled into a sitting room and Jihye is there.
They embrace for a long time.
Yunho still can’t get used to the fact that little Jihye, who used to be slightly more than half his height, is now tall enough to comfortably tuck her head into the crook of his neck. He pats her on the back with slow strokes, mindful of how her knuckles are fisted in his shoulders.
Between her and their mother, his jacket is now hopelessly wrinkled.
He vaguely registers there’s someone else in the room with them, but it’s not his father, so Yunho ignores it and continues patting Jihye.
After a while, she pulls away, sniffling. “Hi, big brother,” she says. “You look good on TV.”
Yunho grins sheepishly. “It’s the hard work of all the stylists.”
“All my friends say you dance like you are still nineteen,” Jihye threads her arms around his waist and tilts her head back slightly to regard him. “The older ones who actually still remember you, anyway. The newer ones think I’m lying and just claiming a link to someone famous.”
“I’ll break the spines of anyone who dares to call my sister a liar,” Yunho says, only half-joking. She just laughs, and dabs a little at the undersides of her eyes. She pats at his chest. “Come back and visit us more often and no one will say that. I can’t believe I missed you at Chuseok!”
“Filming began before that, so I drove down to see Mum earlier,” he explains, but then Jihye’s wriggling out from his embrace, and beckoning to someone, who turns out to be a visibly nervous-looking young man in the corner of the room.
“I wanted to introduce you two at Chuseok,” she’s saying, and Yunho doesn’t quite understand. He doesn’t get it even when she threads her arm through the boy’s. She’s patting him, instead of Yunho. Then she’s looking, her gaze still direct, and going, “but that’s fine, since the two of you are meeting now. Big brother, I want you to meet Seokhee. Seokhee, this is my brother, Yunho. I wasn’t just being a crazy fan whenever I make you watch him on television every week and here’s the proof.”
Yunho looks at the young man. He looks at the hand the young man’s got stretched out. It’s trembling slightly, for all that he’s standing straight-backed and looking at Yunho in the eye. “I don’t understand.”
Jihye bites her lip. “Seokhee is my fiancé, big brother. I’m getting married.”
Yunho’s quiet throughout dinner.
He shook Seokhee’s hand, of course. He’s not a savage. There was painfully polite small talk, until his mother takes pity on him and lets him go so he can roam around the extended neighbourhood, checking in on his friends from schoolboy days.
They’re delighted to see him, and Yunho spends a couple of hours reminiscing until his mother summons him back for a late dinner, because his father had a phone call with the attorney-general and they only just wrapped things up.
He feels disconnected somehow, body going through the motions.
He runs into his father as he is coming in, at the foyer. They pause in their steps.
He bows, body folded into a perpendicular angle. “Father.”
“Ah.” His father says, inclining his head. “You’re here.” He gives a slow nod of his head back.
They don’t speak.
The silence drags, and Yunho shifts slightly.
His father coughs, the sound gun-shot loud in the cavernous space. “You’ve been doing well.”
Yunho looks at him, surprised.
“On television,” his father clarifies. “I- your mother has been watching. You are very talented.”
“Thank you,” Yunho says formally. His father looks slightly expectant, but he doesn’t say anything else.
When the silence spills into awkwardness, Yunho bows again and states, “I believe it’s dinner time.”
“Ah,” his father starts. “Yes, yes. Shall we?”
Which brings them to the current tableau, where his mother is glowing and chattering a mile a minute, ecstatic that all of her brood is at the table. Jihye is glowing too, only slightly dimmer as she laughs at Seokhee and piles food in his bowl with the ease of long familiarity, tempered by uncertain glances flicked at Yunho. Seokhee’s polite and extremely correct, using formal speech and thanking all of them, even Jihye, and eating as neatly as possible. His spine is straight and he doesn’t slouch in his chair. He knows how to use all the chopsticks and spoons and utensils the helpers have laid out.
Yunho hates him with the heat of a thousand suns.
He’s aware of his own father’s eyes on him. The older man doesn’t speak too, and whenever he shifts in his seat at the head of the table, Seokhee sits even straighter, whilst Yunho’s own mother laughs and teases him about being frightful, “darling, stop frightening the poor boy with your glares. And our Yunho’s here today too, so poor Seokhee must be feeling doubly nervous!”
He should. That’s Yunho’s baby sister. Yunho bites back all the retorts crowding his tongue, and reaches for the water glass.
“Wine?” His father’s voice is mild. Yunho looks over and he’s got the decanter lifted, a questioning eyebrow cocked.
“I shouldn’t,” he demurs, “I’m driving back tonight.” He doesn’t know he made that decision until it’s out of his mouth.
His mother pauses, laughter gone.
His father’s brow creases. “So soon? I thought you would stay at least two days.”
He casts a glance at Yunho’s mother, who’s got her lips pursed and blinking rapidly, and continues. “Stay the night, at least. It’s not safe on the road this late.”
Yunho looks at his mother too. And he looks at Jihye. They’ve got identical tense, crestfallen expressions, and Yunho feels more than a little sorry for being an ogre. “Yes, all right. I’ll stay the night.”
The housekeeper’s done up his old boyhood bedroom for him.
Yunho doesn’t visit frequently, but his mother insists on keeping it as a dedicated guest room for him anyway.
He’s smoothing a hand over the duvet, looking at all the trophies he earned in middle school, bright and shiny and polished.
There’s a knock on his door. He goes to pull it open, and it’s his father, holding a decanter of whisky and two tumblers. “Since you’re not driving tonight,” he states, “you can drink.”
In the lamplight, his father looks old. His back is still ramrod-straight and his voice is still as robust, but there’s a lot more silver at his temples and his face is creased and weathered, lines bisecting the folds of his cheeks. It’s a startling picture, even though Yunho last saw the man a mere four months ago.
“Sure,” Yunho relents. “One drink. I’m not good with alcohol.”
They drink silently. Yunho’s almost done with his shot, and more than feeling the effects since dinner was hours ago.
“You are happy in Seoul,” his father says suddenly into the quiet. It’s not a question.
“It’s going well,” Yunho says cautiously, setting his tumbler down. His picks up the whisky bottle, pouring when his father indicates that he was open for another shot. He doesn’t refill for himself.
They sink back into words unsaid, until his father goes, “you really love what you are doing.”
Yunho puts aside all pretence of socialisation and sits up straighter. “May I ask what you are driving at, sir?”
His father’s brow creases, and smoothes. He picks up his glass, and sets it down again without taking a drink.
Yunho makes to stand and bow. “It has been a long day, so forgive me if I-”
“Sit down,” again, it’s not a question.
Yunho hesitates, and sits again slowly. He crosses one leg over another, a tiny rebellion, because his father had shouted memorably in Yunho’s teenage years that a true man sits with his back straight and his legs perpendicular to the ground.
His father had shouted a lot of things in Yunho’s teenage years.
When his father speaks, his voice is worn like ragged leather. “Sometimes I wonder… We are very alike, aren’t we?”
He looks at Yunho. Yunho does a half-bow in his seat. He doesn’t offer an answer.
His father takes a deep breath, and another. “I have golf in the morning with the other Jeolla-si judges. Drive safe. Don’t speed. Call your mother when you reach your Seoul flat.”
“I never do,” Yunho says politely. “And I will.”
His father nods. Nods again. Then he’s the one to stand, picking up the two tumblers, his own still half-filled. He doesn’t take the bottle of whisky. “Bring the whisky back to Seoul. Your mother will watch you on television. She tunes in faithfully.”
“Mum is very supportive,” Yunho agrees. His father pauses, and nods. He leaves the room, footsteps in his cashmere slippers, staple since Yunho was a boy, nearly soundless.
Yunho takes a deep breath and picks up the bottle of whisky. It’s an expensive brand, old and with roots likely hailing from Scottish distilleries. Highly plausible that this one bottle costs a few hundred thousand won and also probably it can’t be bought without an invitation from the owner.
He picks it up and brings it over to the shelf containing the trophies from days long past. Tucking it behind the row of them, he heads back to the turned down bed, and sleeps.
His mother sheds tears over him and leaves his car boot heavily laden with newly washed clothes, two cooler bags worth of banchan, a new goose down duvet she’s ordered off the internet. Jihye just introduced her to the joys of online shopping months ago, and she informs Yunho that once he’s won Sing! Idol and back living in his flat, she’ll use his address for shipping so he can get the purchases directly.
“Mum, you don’t have to buy these things for me,” he starts, but she just talks over him and announces she’ll be up in Seoul over the weekend, to look in on his flat.
“I’ll be home,” he reassures, and then she smoothly changes it such that she’ll come visit him instead. Yunho gives up, and accepts that he’ll be eating her packed meals till she’s up in the weekend and cooking proper meals for him.
She hugs him one last time, and then cocks her head at him.
“Darling, I think I must be getting old and senile,” waving away his automatic protests to the contrary, “but isn’t your alma mater Myongji University?”
“Yes,” Yunho says in confusion, because his mother has a memory like a steel trap, then blinks at the slowly blossoming grin on her face. She straightens a non-existent crease on his sleeve and says with an innocent tilt to her voice that makes the hairs on his arm stand, “so why do you have a Kyunghee University men’s hoodie with you?”
Yunho freezes momentarily, then forces himself to laugh. “Oh, you washed it?”
“I checked the label,” she goes on. “It was made in 2011. It’s not yours, is it, darling.”
“No,” Yunho says, breezily enough. “It belongs to a friend of mine. He loaned it to me.”
“Hyukjae went to Paichai and Hojoon went to Songwon, and they graduated even before 2011, didn’t they?” She looks at him. “You have friends that I don’t know of? That are close enough to loan you clothing?”
“Just a boy at Sing! Idol,” he adds on hastily, smiling sunnily at her. “A fellow contestant. I was cold.”
“Hmm.” She grins at him, the original variant of his trademark grin wide on her face. “A rival?”
“Actually,” Yunho thinks about it, and answers in unexpected seriousness. “Yes, you are right.”
“Oh?” She’s steadily inching him away from his open car door, her face open and curious with a million questions, so he gives her another hug, and then makes her promise to take the KTX up to Seoul over the weekend, rather than do something harebrained like drive.
Then he jumps into his car and sets off, avoiding his own gaze in the rear view mirror.
He sets to cleaning his flat that evening, humming his favourite songs beneath his breath, even though Hyukjae texts him that the usual suspects in their dance circle are asking after him.
There’s a thin layer of dust over almost everything, including the side of the bed he didn’t sleep on before he left for Gwangju, so Yunho knows it’ll probably take him two to three days to pull the rest of the flat up to his mother’s cleaning standards by the time she comes up for the weekend.
Yunho knows she’ll cluck at him and just deep-clean the entire place again.
Somehow it doesn’t sit right with him though, that a fully-grown man of thirty-three would just leave something as simple as cleaning house to his mother.
He’s halfway through mopping the floor when he decides to unpack the things she’s packed for him from Gwangju. She’s had all his clothes washed as well as laundered and pressed, and now because of the softener, Yunho feels like his clothes all smell of Changmin.
He puts Masked Singer on, on his television. They have the best covers.
He hangs half of the freshly pressed clothing in his wardrobe and then is distracted by packing away the banchan she’s sent with him. They’re in cooler bags, so at least nothing smells bad as he removes them to slip into his fridge.
Come out for dinner, Hojoon texts. Everyone is here.
Yunho would have ignored it, but Hojoon sends a follow up, we’re at Haenamjib and there’s tteok galbi and kimchi jjigae and Jungin’s mother is the one cooking today, and Yunho’s weak for Auntie‘s cooking, so he looks at his semi-organised fridge, closes the door and heads out.
Yunho’s not nervous. He’s perfectly fine.
He smiles fixedly into the mirror by his front door, and pokes a little at his coat. He’s got a jumper beneath, and he paired it with a white shirt and a pair of slate grey trousers. Leather oxfords are on his feet. Hopefully he’s got the dress code right. Michelin-starred restaurants are a thing of his very distant past. Even when he was a young boy, his father preferred to eat with the family at home, more trusting of the menu his mother and their family cook would come up with; rather than new-fangled culinary inventions by yet another rock star chef.
He tweaks his fringe. It’s getting long. Maybe he should have gotten a haircut yesterday instead of cleaning his flat. Checks his phone, balks a little at the time.
Hyukjae drops him a text then, through KakaoTalk. You’re picking me up right? Don’t be late. We’re eating during their break.
“Right, right,” Yunho mutters, and walks out of his flat. He’s back in two seconds, because he forgot his car keys.
He’s in the car and on the highway to Hyukjae’s place when he catches sight of himself in the wing mirror, and lets out a startled laugh at the expression on his own face. Taking a deep breath, he dials his smile back down to the level of ‘socially acceptable’ and feels fairly proud of himself by the time he pulls up at Hyukjae’s building.
His confidence is promptly shattered when Hyukjae slides into the passenger seat, takes one look at him and starts chuckling, even as his hands find the seatbelt.
“What?” Yunho says, eyes back on the road. “What what what what what?”
“I mean, you, well,” Hyukjae utters through his laughter, gesturing at the car interior. “You’re driving the Audi instead of the Jeep and I was going to tease you that you look like you’re going on a blind date, then I realise that the only thing wrong with that will be calling it ‘blind’.”
Yunho aims a smile Hyukjae’s way, frantic. “Come on, bro, the restaurant is Michelin-starred, right? There’s a dress code- formal wear, usually!”
In contrast, Hyukjae’s in a tee and jeans, feet capped in sockless loafers. His only concession seems to be a canvas jacket, and that seems to be more due to the crisp November air than anything else.
Hyukjae laughs more. When he’s finally calmed down, he rests an elbow against the car door, and takes another look at Yunho, and sighs.
Yunho just smiles harder.
They’re turning into Cheongdam-dong, so Yunho takes advantage by asking Hyukjae to help him navigate the GPS, to prevent further teasing.
The building is unassuming from the outside, just another steel-and-glass edifice amongst legion in prestigious Gangnam. They pull up and in. The valet booth is empty, but a young man dressed in a black chef’s uniform pokes his head out of an alcove by the building’s entrance and hurries over.
“Party of two, Lee Hyukjae?” He asks, tentative, then comes forward more boldly with an arm outstretched. “Yup, I recognise you. You look nicer than on TV!”
Hyukjae preens at the unexpected compliment, and is clearly gearing up for a quip, but the young chef -Changmin’s colleague?- sees Yunho and does a classic double take, eyes widening and jaw dropping. “Oh! Wow! It’s Yunho! Oh my God! Hi. Hi! I’m a fan. Hi! I’m Manjae. You dance really really well. You sing really well too. You’re amazing. Wow. Changmin didn’t say anything- he didn’t tell us you’re coming today. Hi!”
“I’m just riding on Hyukjae’s coattails, today,” Yunho accepts his hand and shakes, laughing as Manjae tries to wrench his arm off in unmitigated enthusiasm. Hyukjae’s clearly been forgotten, but he’s not offended, clapping a hand on Manjae’s back, who remembers himself after a while and tries for a more professional tone. “Um- I mean, please come this way?”
“Are we taking up your rest time, though? Coming over at this hour,” Yunho can’t help but ask, concerned, as the young chef (“I’m not a chef yet, I’m cold support,” he says, to Yunho and Hyukjae’s jovial confusion) guides them into the lift. He’s still gazing at Yunho with a faraway smile, so it takes two tries and Hyukjae being the one to ask the question for Manjae to actually register it.
“Oh!” Manjae blinks, and waves the question away. “Don’t worry about it. We’re actually closed for the day. Hyunseok and Jinwoo and Changmin discussed it and they felt it might be better, so you guys don’t eat all rushed. We only opened for lunch today. I think Changmin thought Hyukjae might be bringing more people, but you told him two pax, right? He didn’t quite believe you!”
“He told me to only bring a plus one,” Hyukjae fake-complains, and Manjae laughs. “He tends to understate things, that’s him!”
The lift informs them they’re at the third floor, and Manjae shepherds them out, chattering the entire time. They linger in the lobby and Yunho enquires, curious, since Manjae is so forthcoming, “is Changmin your boss?”
Somehow that makes Manjae snort, and emit a snigger before going, “Changmin hates having to officially lead things. Even the kids in his part don’t dare to call him ‘boss’. I’m cold, so if I call him ‘boss’ even as a joke, he’ll probably punch me in the throat. The big boss is always amused by that,” which doesn’t quite make sense to Yunho, so he presses, “what do you mean?”
“Oh!” Manjae seems to think of something, and his hands flutter. “Sorry, this probably sounds all weird, I forgot you guys are not- We have parts in the kitchen,” he explains, “and Changmin’s in charge of the hot part, where the stove, or rather fire’s used for cuisine. I’m support in the cold part, where we do things without fire, for a simple explanation. We also have a grill part, as well as pastry. Our big boss is our executive chef and owner Choi Hyunseok. Him and our head chef Jinwoo is in charge of the kitchen. Our general manager Naejin is in charge of the front of the house. The servers and the wine team.”
Yunho nods, and Hyukjae goes “ahhhhh” in comprehension.
Manjae tilts his head at their expressions. “Didn’t Changmin explain this to you guys?”
“Changmin barely talks,” is Hyukjae’s riposte, and Manjae snorts again, “yeah, well, that sounds like him.”
He remembers himself, and guides them into the restaurant proper. It’s all sleek lines and minimalist decor, a lot of white with black accents and marble and snowy-white tablecloths. He herds them past all that, to a pale wooden panel running the length of the restaurant, which somehow splits open to reveal the entrance into a private room.
A server accompanies him, offering still or sparkling water and yet another one approaches with little offerings on two curvy platters. Amuse-bouche, Yunho suddenly remembers, Changmin having explained the concept to them about a month ago.
Manjae has the servers attend to them, promising that he’ll let Changmin know they’re here. He shakes Yunho’s hand a last time, “can’t believe you’re here! Ah, Hyukjae too!” and then slips out, closing the door behind him neatly.
Hyukjae’s lips are trembling from holding in his laughter. “I think we just met a Jung Yunho fanboy,” he deadpans, and thanks the server helping him spread the cloth napkin open onto his lap.
“Hush,” Yunho says, and would have said more, but the door opens again, and Changmin comes in.
He’s looking taller and even more handsome than Yunho remembers him, and dressed in a neat black chef’s outfit. It’s identical to Manjae’s yet the way it sits on him is completely different. He’s standing taller and straighter than Yunho’s seen him, with none of the anxiety and self-deprecation and awkwardness that suffuses him during the months Yunho’s known him in Sing! Idol.
Yunho saw him four days ago, but already it feels like a lifetime.
He’s barely in before he’s sniping at Hyukjae, “you should be eating the amuse-bouche! It’s freshly made and you’re just letting it get cold,” and his gaze darts over, bird-like, and lands on Yunho.
Yunho offers him a smile, and a little wave. “Hi, Changminnie.”
Someone else enters after Changmin, but Yunho’s more concerned by how Changmin sees him and then just sort of… glitches. He’s frozen, his mouth half-open like he’s in the middle of saying something.
Hyukjae takes a portion of the amuse-bouche and shoves it into his mouth, lips trembling suspiciously.
“Hi,” Yunho tries again, ducking his head in an attempt to peer into Changmin’s eyes. Maybe Changmin’s not happy, because he only expected Hyukjae to come by himself. Or with a large party of people, like Manjae had said. “Changmin?”
Another man, older, comes out from behind him, but he’s dressed in white to Changmin’s black. “Don’t mind him,” he says offhandedly, slapping a casual hand against the back of Changmin’s head, who yelps and clutches at his hair, but at least he’s moving again. “We got him for sale years and years ago and now he’s acting up and prone to stalling. Hi. I’m Hyunseok.”
The last part is said while stretching a hand out at Hyukjae, who shakes it firmly and goes, “hi, I’m Hyukjae.”
“Ah!” Hyunseok -Changmin’s mentor, Yunho realises, the man he speaks of so fondly that it’s clear he’s more than just an employer- raises both eyebrows. “Strawberry man. My pastry chef almost went over our monthly budget for fruits because of you.”
“Yup, although I’m sorry to hear that,” Hyukjae laughs, then looks at Yunho. “Technically, we both are strawberry men. He loves strawberries too.”
Changmin’s faint “Yunho likes strawberries?” goes unheard, because Hyunseok’s eyebrows have risen higher and his hand is in front of Yunho, now. “Yes. Jung Yunho! I watch you on TV. You are very good. Top ten of Sing! Idol now, yes?”
“Thank you, and hello,” Yunho says, shaking his hand, grinning at him and at the sly look Hyunseok’s sent Changmin’s way. He likes the older man already. “Changminnie is very good, too. You must be very proud.”
“Ah, yes,” Hyunseok says loftily. “Our Changmin- I mean, Changminnie is a very hard worker.”
“Oh my God, Hyunseok, go away,” Changmin mutters, and the paper-thin veneer of civilisation breaks, as both Hyunseok and Hyukjae cackle very loudly.
They chat for a while more, pleasantries said, and then Hyunseok tells Changmin, “I’ll leave you to the introductions. Are we doing the nine course?”
“I’ve briefed Jinwoo to do a twenty-part dégustation,” Changmin says, and Yunho supposes something in that must be very surprising, because Hyunseok’s head goes back a little, and he purses his lips.
Yunho notices that Changmin’s ears are turning red- a classic sign of his discomfort. He however, has no qualms with pointing at Hyukjae and going to Hyunseok, “this is a thank you feast for this man, who actually made sure I could dance on national television. Otherwise your restaurant would have been on the evening news for an entirely different reason. Nearly half of the twenty is the strawberry menu that Hyemi has crafted.”
He sends another glance Yunho’s way, “Hyukjae only brought Yunho, but since Yunho likes strawberries too, can you help me ask Hyemi to double the portions? We can start with the hors d'oeuvres, then the hot appetisers. I’ll be back soon because I need to make some tweaks to the savouries.”
“Already on it,” Hyunseok replies, smirking for some reason. He nods to Hyukjae and Yunho, and leaves the room.
Changmin’s staring at Yunho again.
Yunho prompts him, “your chef- Hyunseok- he said something about introductions?”
That seems to jolt Changmin out of whatever is on his mind, and he straightens. “Right! Introductions.”
He launches into a complicated spiel about fusion cuisine concepts peppered with lots of French terms, and how they at Choidot propagate something called ‘molecular gastronomy’, words smoothing out and demeanour professional. Most of it is lost on Yunho and Hyukjae, though.
Yunho thinks molecular gastronomy sounds like something from a chemistry class, long ago in high school.
Hyukjae just leans back and uses his phone to take discreet photos of Changmin, which Changmin absolutely doesn’t realise, still going on and on about multi-sensory cooking, and experimental flavour pairings. Yunho half-expects him to whip out a lab coat to put over his uniform and start making them eat out of beakers.
Then he’s got people coming in with all sorts of beautiful dishes, dainty and storybook-like and it’s not quite food as Yunho knows it.
It isn’t even the pretty dishes Changmin whips up for their Sing! Idol team, whenever he buckles to their whinging, in the first half of the competition. It, well, the dishes don’t quite look edible. They’re more similar to the fragile little objets d’art that Yunho’s mother collects, on glittering display in her study.
There’s a delicate bird nest with four robin-blue eggs; the twigs are miso, and somehow the eggs are actually little pouches filled with a cold savoury cream that burst open when they bite into it. Changmin calls it ‘gazpacho’. There’s a pasture field in miniature form that’s somehow a salad made out of autumn vegetables, dotted with beautiful edible flowers and something that looks like soil, but Changmin says is made out of panko (Yunho doesn’t know what panko is) and squid ink reduction. There’s a gorgeous little pond that’s filled with what looks like reeds and generally just looks like a real pond shrunk into a bowl but when they taste it, it’s watercress soup. There’s something that looks like a white smooth pebble blooming with a profusion of wildflowers, but is cheese that’s both sharp and sweet at the same time.
Hyukjae goes mad, waving his phone all over them, snapping photos and taking videos. Changmin’s looking super pleased at their reactions, startling a little when Yunho looks at him and goes, “which one is your favourite, Changminnie?”
“Ah,” Changmin stutters, and suddenly Yunho can see the shade of the awkward man Yunho’s been introduced to these months, “they’re all my favourites.”
“I mean,” he rubs a hand at the back of his nape, “Hyukjae really pulled through for me that week, you know? And you guys have always been so nice and encouraging to me. This is me paying back just a fraction of it. And… I’m not going to spoil anything for the strawberry feast later, but these dishes and the savouries are done in a way it leads up to them, in a journey.”
“It’s like you’ve pulled scenes out from a book of fairytales,” Yunho marvels, and Changmin’s entire face flushes red. “Like little pieces of the European countryside and forests.”
“That’s- that’s precisely it-” he stammers, and makes a quick, aborted gesture.
Yunho abruptly realises how rude they’re being. Changmin’s made all these absolutely beautiful food for them, and here they are talking and gesticulating and letting the food go cold. He jabs Hyukjae in the side and says so.
“You go ahead, I need to get this shot of red red Changminnie framed by this bird nest,” Hyukjae says, phone still glued to his hands. He gets scowling Changmin with a receding flush instead, who treats Hyukjae with none of the distance he’s afforded Yunho. Yunho just rolls his eyes and tries the cheese pebble.
“Changmin,” Yunho says, and Changmin stops scowling at Hyukjae long enough to focus on him, “Changminnie, this is amazing.” He takes a miniature egg, savouring the creamy salty-tart taste upon his tongue. “This is so delicious. This is. You have so much talent and it just shines through.”
Changmin turns very red very fast, and lets out a noise like a cat whose tail was trodden on. “I- I’ll let you two eat, need to change savouries, will be back soon,” he manages and bows like he’s running on hyper-speed and is out of the room before Yunho can apologise for whatever it is that he’s said.
He’s always just so clumsy around Changmin.
Hyukjae just starts laughing again, and pops an egg into his mouth too. “Oh wait, you’re right, this is delicious,” he hums.
Changmin only comes back once during the savouries, only to direct the servers in and share a quick, “I’ve done a bit of tweaking but I hope you two will like it, I need to see to dessert,” then he’s gone again, flitting back out.
They’ve got another cornucopia of beautiful cuisine, all bucolic settings carved out in platters. Strawberries are used in all of them, interestingly enough. Either they spot it as garnish; or they eat, and there’s a faint taste that makes them wonder “is that strawberry?” out loud at each other. Somehow the taste doesn’t overwhelm and pairs nicely to the individual courses, acting as a consistent red thread.
It isn’t food quite like Yunho knows. It’s turned into an exploration, a journey of sorts that involves sight and smell and touch and taste.
Yunho’s attention is especially arrested by something that looks like a miniature island complete with an erupting volcano dripping lava, which he tries and to his delight, “Hyuk, this is kimchi jjigae, I think? And-”
Darts for what is masquerading as a mountainous ridge, “This tastes like galbi? I love kimchi jjigae paired with galbi!”
Somehow though, even though it’s Korean food elements, it tastes- different. Different, yet delicious, an integrated part of the story Changmin is telling with food, even with less exotic and home-grown ingredients. Familiarity amidst novelty.
“I’m not so sure this taste test thing is actually done in my honour,” Hyukjae mumbles, but he’s got his mouth crammed full of food, so Yunho must have misheard.
Changmin comes back in properly when dessert is served, together with tiny cups of steaming black coffee, divine-smelling.
“To cleanse the palette,” he explains, ushering in a girl that only comes up to his shoulder. She’s also dressed in black. “This is Hyemi, our pastry chef. What you eat next is all wrought by her hands.”
Yunho smiles at her, polite. And then he remembers. “Ah! You’re the Hyemi that threatened to break sugar spheres on Changmin’s face? Hello!”
“What?” Hyemi says, and turns around to drive a fist into Changmin’s chest. It makes an audible thud. “I can’t believe you told other people that, you dickhead- Um! I’m sorry! Hello!”
Hyukjae’s got his phone out again. “I filmed it,” he says with relish, to Changmin’s eye roll and Hyemi’s panicky, “oh, no, I’m sorry! So sorry! That was so rude!”
“We like it when girls beat Changmin up. Have you been doing that long? We have a stylist that throws him around too,” Hyukjae informs her, and Hyemi brightens up, calming. “Really?”
“Can we talk about the food?” Changmin interrupts crossly. “The two of you can bond over doing physical violence to my person later.”
Both of them ignore him.
Hyemi’s badgering Hyukjae for more stories of Yoonju destroying Changmin. Yunho folds his hands on the table and beams at Changmin. “Yes, we can. Do you need to introduce the food? Or do you want to sit down and eat with us? You must be tired. That was a lot of things that you fed us. Is this how a normal day at work is like for you? Or are we more trouble?”
Changmin chokes, and coughs.
Yunho half-rises out of his seat in concern, but he sits back down when Changmin waves him back down and swallows twice very hard. “Am fine,” he utters, hoarse, then calmly enough, “sorry, my spit just went down the, er, wrong way.”
“Because you’re drooling too much,” Hyemi mutters, but Yunho and Changmin don’t hear her. Hyukjae does, and gives her an interested glance.
His attention on Yunho, Changmin comes over, closer, and pulls up in Hyukjae’s empty chair.
Hyukjae doesn’t notice, anyway. He’s intent on recounting to Hyemi how Yoonju had basically browbeat and also physically beat Changmin into his Rock challenge outfit.
Yunho really liked that outfit, too.
Changmin gestures at the desserts. They’re all on individual serving plates, and there is bread decorated with strawberries and strawberry tea cakes and little pink scones with pots of jam and pats of butter. There’s also tumblers and what looks like shot glasses filled with ice cream, various shades of pinks and reds, “sorbets,” Changmin says, not that Yunho knows what that is.
The centre-piece on a filigreed platter, however, is what that draws Yunho’s eye. It’s a stunning miniature house, colourful and glazed and intricate. It’s got a white chimney and a darker cherry roof and windows and a door. The house itself is made with pale pink slabs delicately stencilled with a brick-like pattern.
“Strawberry-chocolate flavoured marzipan,” Changmin offers, a rare full-blown grin on his face.
The shape of the house itself looks familiar somehow, long and low, with a wing that stretches around another little panko bed of edible soil and colourful pops of flowers.
Yunho stretches out a finger, entranced. The little door can be opened. There’s a profusion of macarons inside, each barely bigger than his fingernail, and of the palest rose. They’re stacked together like, “beanbags and sofas,” Yunho realises.
There are even smaller bits, white and almost cloud-like, (“Meringue,” Changmin supplies.) placed on them. Like throw pillows.
Like the living room in the Sing! Idol mansion.
Yunho thinks his mouth is open. He looks across at Changmin, who quickly shakes his head.
“Not me, I can’t bake,” he refutes, but he’s still smiling and he looks shyly pleased at Yunho’s amazement.
“Yes,” Yunho says, playing a light finger over the wing that arches around the miniature garden. It’s filled with flowers when the real garden has already surrendered to autumn fading into winter.
He looks up, and offers Changmin a smile. “But she made this from your stories, didn’t she? You told her what it’s like. So you made this too. Just with words.”
Changmin’s ears pinken. He gives Yunho another slow grin, painfully sweet and devastating.