Yunho's thankful he went on stage before Changmin did.
It's dark and cramped in the wings. Given how his cameraman Myunghwan is hardly a stick, he's relegated to the hallway outside. Only Amber's here, at stage left with him. Kyuhyun's... somewhere.
Yunho folds his arms across his chest and sinks into himself to properly watch, as Changmin's performance plays itself out.
He’s thankful. He's glad. He doesn't quite think he can control his face at what's being illuminated under the dimmed staged lights now.
The lights themselves are low and flirty, swooping bright arcs and playing shadows over the smoke that's billowing out, and creeping into the wings.
Changmin moves like liquid sex on stage.
It’s effort, it’s hard work, it’s his frankly frightening diligence, and it’s beautiful. There's no other way to describe it.
Yunho is already very aware of how extraordinary Changmin's voice is. With this, though. He’s something else.
The way Changmin kept secreting himself away with Jaewon in the past fortnight did give the three of them some inkling that Changmin might do a dance performance, especially given how he’s not Team Jaewon in the first place, so that frequent contact was suspicious. But Changmin’s been completely mum about his song choice, only shaking his head and smiling whenever they asked him about his preparations.
Now, looking at him moving and moving under the light, Yunho understands.
It's hard to explain. Changmin probably was nervous. Is nervous.
Changmin’s anxiety is barely noticeable these days, unless one know where to look for it. A few times, when the instrumental bridges occur; he jerks, just a little twitch that’s barely noticeable between the lines. His hands clench into fists, only for his fingers to uncurl when it’s time for him to sing and perform the next move in the choreography. It’s not visible unless one's looking for it.
Yunho can't quite believe that this is the same man who went down on his knees in apology and flailed awkwardly around in the snow barely two weeks ago.
But then again, Changmin's always been surprising.
Next to him, Amber chortles. She pats his hand. "He's finishing up. Can you work on looking less like you've swallowed your tongue?"
Without looking at her, Yunho reaches out, and gives her a pointed pinch on the underside of her arm. She only cackles harder.
Kyuhyun is the one who is eliminated.
Then again, it’s only because Yunho nailed his sultry rendition of the popular hit Gashina, with glitter and fire and roses and undulating around on stage and everything; and Amber one-ups him by tying a male dancer to a chair while on stage and sticking her tongue down the throat of another. On national television.
And then there was Changmin, who did nearly five minutes of hip-thrusting and bedroom eyes and come hither glances while feeling up his own abs and took his shirt off and put it back on again. Also on national television.
The result is that Kyuhyun’s version of an upbeat pop song, originally performed by a group of prepubescent girls, pales in comparison- though not for lack of trying.
"Yeah," Kyuhyun shrugs, when the cameras are off and the audience has been shuffled out to head home in orderly lines. "Well. I can't even be mad at myself for losing, because you're all nuts."
"It just goes to show that it’s true," he continues, where they're all backstage and the producers are giving them a little time on their own before hustling Kyuhyun off to his exit interview. "Sex sells."
Yunho offers him an amused grin while Amber smirks, but Changmin's sputtering. "W-what?"
He's also in a large bathrobe that his cameraman Jihwan threw at his head, after he had enough of filming Changmin shrinking and cowering. It's rendering all the footage unusable because it wasn't even funny after a couple of shots, just awkward.
Only Amber had laughed, and went over to jam her fingers against Changmin's ribs.
Kyuhyun's pointing his finger at Yunho now, so Yunho tunes back into the conversation.
"Sex sells," Kyuhyun enunciates, his finger almost on Yunho's nose. Yunho snaps his teeth playfully at the appendage, and laughs for real when Kyuhyun reels back with very real terror in his face.
"Sex sells," Kyuhyun sniffs and marshals himself by jabbing his finger at Amber instead. Amber sticks her tongue out at him.
Finally his finger lands in the direction of Changmin, who's still cringing. "Sex definitely sells."
“That wasn’t-” Changmin’s still trying to protest, so Yunho takes pity on him and goes over.
“Yes, we know, Changminnie,” he soothes, patting a hand against Changmin’s back, and flags down a passing staff member. “Why don’t you go change out of your stage outfit first-”
“Not much of an outfit,” Kyuhyun cracks, but Yunho darts him a look. The younger man puts both hands up, and opens his mouth.
Whatever quip Kyuhyun's got has to wait. He's instead grabbed by Youngjin, who barks, “you! Exit interview, now! Stop faffing around, you people will still have your chance to say your goodbyes later!”
They do. There are hugs and tears and Yunho is one of the many who end up taking a video of Changmin and Kyuhyun hugging a little too long. Their embrace, if it can be called that -Changmin’s getting snot into Kyuhyun’s hair, whilst Kyuhyun’s trying to shove at him- continues at the sound of Kyuhyun’s vehement protestations: “Chef Shim, stop it, stop pawing at me, you’re going to get me beaten up!”
He refuses to elaborate on his claim, even when he repeats it too often and too loudly and people start asking questions.
Even Yunho asks him about it, curious despite himself.
Yunho doesn’t know what he was expecting. Certainly not a straight answer, because it’s Kyuhyun. But it’s definitely not what happens:
He’s instead grabbed by Kyuhyun, who tries for a headlock, and then shifts his hands very correctly to Yunho’s shoulders after Yunho raises both eyebrows at him. “I’ll miss you too, my dancing king, but I won’t miss how you keep making us practice practice practice.”
Someone -probably the crew- breaks out the alcohol when they’re back at the Sing! Idol mansion to pack. They’d finished Kyuhyun’s white wine weeks ago, but someone -definitely the crew- has got a new cask of white, full of Chilean and French labels.
Kyuhyun, who’s been dry-eyed up till now, definitely gets a bit teary over that.
Escaping the drinks session midway, Yunho sends perfunctory texts to both Hyukjae and Hojoon, to very different replies.
His own message is short, and simple, and to the point. I’m still in Sing! Idol. Heading back home now instead of bunking at the show's housing.
Top three then? I know, I know, no spoilers. But still! You’re going to win this unless you feel like giving way to your favourite chef. Lol I kid! Yunho fighting! Make our academy proud! See you in a couple of days? Hyukjae responds, his excitement manifesting the form of a few GIFs and too many stickers. One recurring one he keeps sending is a GIF of a smiling Changmin, looking impossibly handsome during the Rap vs Musical episode.
Hojoon, however, is his usual laconic self. Yunho knows he owes his best friend a drink and then some. It’s been nearly six months since they’ve been able to sit down and properly hang out, and talk. Still? You’re going to win it. When do you have to go back? Let’s go have barbecue in the meantime.
It feels odd, to pack up and clean out the room that has been his, for so many months.
He can't be bothered to fold up his clothes- why did he bring so many?- and instead rolls them into tubes, and chucks them into his bags. It seems like only minutes when he’s summoned by the executive producers for a final round of briefings, and Yunho goes.
The three of them are being given final instructions about the structure of the semi-final and finale, which will occur across a couple of days. A day for preparations and final rehearsals; and a day for the actual recording and live telecast of the final two rounds, when they congregate again.
Any special requests for set and blocking, they’re being told, can be made between themselves and the producers during the next fortnight.
There’s last minute nagging on their non-disclosure agreements, and scattered laughter when Amber mugs for the camera and mouths along to Youngjin’s stern spiel.
Soyoung threatens to come after them if they insofar as breathe a word to the outside world the identities of who’s left in the game. The crew will release the news in their own time, once the Role Reversal episode is aired.
At that, their cameramen jostle to shoot small reaction shots, meant for social teasers and whatnot.
Yunho doesn’t get to chat properly with Changmin. They’re all too busy lugging suitcases and making their rounds, yelling out goodbyes interspersed between Youngmin’s reminders to please remember to prepare their song choices, and to keep in contact.
Instead he tries for a wave across the crowded foyer, where it seems like everyone’s chattering and shouting at everyone else.
He’s heartened when Changmin drops his own suitcases to wave back, with both hands.
Yunho comes home to his flat with his bags in tow, and tosses them into his living room.
There’s the smell of an unaired flat in his nose, musty and ticklish. His senses tell him he should at least open the windows, and maybe have a go with the vacuum cleaner, but he’s also been fed half a bottle of white wine by the Sing! Idol crew and that’s half a bottle too many.
“I’ll clean in an hour,” Yunho promises his flat, out loud. He staggers through his living room for a little lie-in on the sofa. It’s always been sinfully comfortable, ever since he splurged a few months' worth of his salary to get it, four years ago.
Hojoon has once spent a year on this sofa, and swears by it.
“Your sofa, man,” he had said, when he finally managed to buy his own flat, and Yunho had showed up with a case of beer (for Hojoon), and a hoppy (for himself). “It’s magical. Evil. It just sucks you in.”
“I’ll clean tomorrow,” he promises the sofa pillows, and falls asleep.
He wakes up with the sun shining in his face, and the scent of breakfast in his nostrils.
“Get up, darling,” his mother scolds. “Come eat before it gets cold.”
“I’m up,” Yunho says accordingly, and he sits himself up on the sofa, flicking the blanket off of him.
Habits ingrained by the military -he had enlisted early so that he, Hyukjae and Taemin could stagger their national service periods and thus not bring too much disruption to the teaching schedule over at the academy- means he’s standing and folding said blanket into a neat square, feet tucked into cashmere slippers, before he realises there’s something wrong with this picture.
He looks up and around, trying to straighten his sleep-mussed hair in vain.
Yes. He’s in Seoul. He’s in his flat.
But he's just heard his mother.
“Mum?” He exclaims more than asks, dropping the blanket and craning his neck. It crumples down on the floor by the sofa.
Yunho takes two steps and rubs his eyes.
His mother is standing there like it’s her kitchen down in Gwangju, instead of his own up here in Seoul. She’s got breakfast laid out on the big dining table; the one that Yunho only really uses if she comes up to visit him, and insists on cooking.
When she’s not around, he eats in this little folding table nook he’s got in the kitchen. Or whilst perched on the sofa, a habit his mother used to lament when he was a teenager.
What she doesn’t know now doesn’t hurt her.
“Mum,” he says again, and blinks at her. “How did you…? You shouldn’t have. I only texted you last night that I’ll be back just so you won’t rush up from Gwangju to clean on the weekend again. Did you- you didn't drive, did you. Did you take the train?”
Folding her arms, his mother smiles at him and says, in deft and blatant avoidance of his question, “happy birthday in advance, darling. I came in this morning and there was even dust in the sink. I don’t know how you do it. Are the slippers comfortable?”
“They’re lovely, thank you,” Yunho says automatically.
Oh. He had forgotten that it’ll be his birthday in a couple of days.
He blinks, and looks down. Wiggles his toes. “But I don’t wear house slippers at home, Mum. Even if they're comfortable.”
“Now you do. It’s better than tearing around with your shoes on like a barbarian,” his mother dismisses. She’s untying her apron, and seating herself at the right of the table, where she’s laid out a place and portion for herself too. “Now come eat your birthday breakfast, darling, before it all gets cold.”
“Mum, it's not even today, you didn’t have to,” Yunho starts, and stops.
Her smile only widens. She ladles a bowl of miyeok guk, and sets it at the head of the table. She always sets his place at the head of the table, when she comes up to his flat and makes her inspections. “Must we have this conversation every time? I'll make this again, and a feast for you on the actual day. Ring Hojoon and the others to come eat dinner then.”
“Mum,” Yunho says again, and gives up. “It smells delicious.”
She beams at him.
They fight over who will clean the flat after breakfast, and as usual, Yunho loses.
His mother shoves him out the door (“Go to your academy and your students, darling, and stop standing around the flat like a big lug!”) and then proceeds to become a whirlwind of household cleansing efficiency.
He goes, scratching his head. At least Hyukjae and Taemin appreciate his efforts.
And they do, welcoming him back with shoulder hugs and slaps on the back.
Yunho finds himself back at work, like Sing! Idol never took him away for months.
On the actual day of his birthday, Hyukjae buys him a strawberry cake for lunch and takes joy in smashing it very thoroughly into his face and hair. Taemin films the whole thing while laughing himself sick.
He throws himself back into his usual classes. Between that, and hunkering down in his office to sort and prepare his performances for the semi-final, he’s swamped. He spends his days ducking his head in frequent thanks during teaching, as his regular students regale him with tales of them watching him on television; and staggers home too late at night after repeated practice.
The academy sees a slight spike in enrollments, especially in the beginner classes for adults. It's apparent that the newcomers are not really interested in dance when they spend too long at the barre giggling at Yunho's reflection, and too little on actually trying to dance.
It makes some of their regulars scowl, and attempt to close ranks about Yunho, which is drama they really don't need.
"Drama?" Hyukjae says, gleeful. "What drama! Don't you dare stop this. This is the most fun I've had all year. Although... Teaching your favourite chef comes a close second."
He bears it with as much grace as he can afford, but by the end of Day Three, he can't resist expounding on the benefits and qualities of dance to the new folks, eager to make them see.
With a smile on his face, of course. He's not a monster.
Taemin laughs at him, after. "You're the best, bro, but you know they're not listening to you speak when they stare at you like that, right?"
"They're quite focused," Yunho argues.
Taemin snorts. "Yeah, but not on your words. "
His mother has also brought ingredients and pre-made banchan up to Seoul with her, and it appears she’s staying for quite a while this time round, instead of her usual fuss-and-go that takes up a weekend at most.
Four days thus pass. That fourth night, she looks at him and goes mildly while they watch the home shopping channel together, “darling, just because I’m here doesn’t mean you don’t sort out your own groceries, you know. You make me worry about you.”
“You’ve got my fridge stuffed,” Yunho protests, but he allows her to drag him the next morning to the markets in Jayang-dong, which is a little out of his usual neighbourhood.
“The things here are fresher than that ridiculous hypermart you have around the corner,” his mother is saying, as she shakes out her eco-bag. “Seoul prices are mad. The amount you young people pay for vegetables! No wonder everyone is eating their lives away at those convenience stores.”
“I can afford vegetables,” Yunho tries, mild enough.
His mother merely continues on her merry way, “Jihye found this place for me. She checked on her phone. This is where all the good meat gets sold, darling, you should come here in the future. The ahjussi-deul here know their meat, and their morals.”
“Mum,” he says helplessly, something he does too often these days.
Yunho dogs her steps into a little nook by the mouth of the market, which widens into the meat section where all the butchers are. She’s showing him the Maps function on her phone, where his little sister had, bless her detailed heart, marked out the walking route beforehand.
They turn a corner and he comes face-to-face with Changmin.
He’s so surprised at the sight that he stops, and stares.
It’s Changmin. Yunho had resigned himself to not seeing Changmin until they’re back at Sing! Idol.
Sure, he’s excited about the semi-finals, and how his efforts are paying off, but more and more, the excitement that fills him whenever he thinks about Sing! Idol is because there’s also Changmin.
It’s a dangerous feeling.
Yunho had a plan. It was simple, and straightforward, and easy to work towards. He just needs to win Sing! Idol, or do his damnednest trying.
Nothing’s straightforward now, because nothing about Changmin or his feelings about Changmin is straightforward.
Nothing’s been straightforward since November, when Yunho had tried to offer care but was given comfort in return. When Changmin, who should have been hurting and anxious and upset, took a look at him and shed his hoodie immediately. Just because Yunho was stupid enough to go out into the November chill without a windbreaker.
A part of Yunho is happy for this break.
He has no illusions about his feelings for Changmin. At the same time, they were all kept in a very insular environment for months and months with no one but stress and a dwindling number of very competitive personalities for company.
It doesn’t matter that everyone’s mostly nice and Yunho’s always been near the top of the pecking order. A pressure cooker is a pressure cooker.
Yunho knows he loves Changmin. He’s just not sure if that love will last once they’re back in the real world.
It doesn’t really matter anyway. Most of the time Changmin looks like he can barely bear to spend time in Yunho’s presence. Notwithstanding all that kneeling around in the snow and talk about friendship two weeks ago, which had been equal parts baffling and flattering.
But there he is.
There he is, a couple of metres away and right at the storefront of a meat shop, facing Yunho. In this market.
Seoul’s large enough. What are the odds? Changmin’s turning back to the butcher. There’s a brown sack in his hands. Has he bought meat? Is he going to cook a meat dish for himself? It looks too small a portion -only one sack!- for him to be buying it for his work. Is he here with company?
Changmin hasn’t seen him yet.
“Yunho?” His mother finally realises she’s lost her faithful shadow, and comes back to stand next to him. Her eco-bag is hanging from the crook of her arm. It’s pure muscle memory and his autonomic nervous system that makes Yunho reach out for it, to sling it over his shoulder.
It’s already got a heft to it. She’s bought persimmons and he didn't even realise.
His mother lets him, without fuss, but her tone is questioning. “What is it, darling?”
It means she’s got a prime seat in the peanut gallery as Changmin takes two steps away from the butcher’s and looks up, and at Yunho.
It means she has a very clear view of Changmin walking forward another two steps and finally realising who he’s making eye contact with. He does that in an almost comical double take.
Yunho has half a mind to look away, to check if there are cameras bobbing about them.
It means she’s taking it all in, as Yunho lifts his other hand in a wave, and Changmin turns inexplicably yet hilariously red.
They’re but a step away from each other.
Yunho squashes any and all odd whisperings in his heart at the sight of Changmin’s valiant attempt at impersonating a tomato. Changmin’s a shy boy. He’s just surprised. His blush doesn’t mean anything.
Right. Yunho opens his mouth to speak, but Changmin beats him to it.
“It’s not two weeks yet, right?” Changmin blurts, and goes white.
Yunho can’t help it. He doubles over in laughter, and by the time he straightens, Changmin’s flushed again.
“Hi,” he manages, around a chortle.
“I didn’t mean-” Changmin shakes his head, and pauses. His complexion is back to his usual tan, although his ears are still pink. “I mean. Hi! What are you doing here?”
“I’m here for…” Yunho starts, and trails off, as he’s again made aware of the weight at the crook of his arm. Tamping down a sense of foreboding, he pastes a smile onto his face, and turns slightly. That keeps Changmin still very much in his line of sight, but now he can check his periphery, too.
His mother beams at him. He can see all of her teeth.
“Right,” Yunho says, and offers his own version of her grin at Changmin. “Just here for a grocery run! Buying meat and all! You?”
“I, yes, well,” Changmin stammers, waving the brown sack. “Same! I live down the street. Do you- we never talked about this- if you don’t want to say it, it’s absolutely fine- Is this your neighbourhood, too?”
“Oh, no,” Yunho hastens to reassure, because Changmin’s clutching at the sack like it’s a lifeline and Yunho’s a little concerned at how his knuckles are practically white with the strain, “er, no, don’t… worry? I don’t live here. I’m in Seocho-dong-”
“I’m not worried,” Changmin talks over him. Somehow, he looks upset.
“Darling,” His mother interrupts. She’s got a good grip around his arm. “Aren’t you going to introduce your poor neglected mother to your friend?”
The thing is, even though he doesn’t see Jihye often, they keep in frequent, almost daily contact via social media, and messenger apps. Jihye’s grown a habit of sending Yunho weekly videos of their mother and her fiancé huddled on the family home sofa and intently watching Sing! Idol.
In her videos, Seokhee is a relaxed audience, dutifully cheering whenever his future brother-in-law appears on screen.
(He still isn’t worthy of Yunho’s baby sister. No one is.)
His mother, on the other hand, tends to sit ramrod straight, with an expression on her face that Yunho knows is also quite at home on his own face; when he’s too engrossed in choreographing, or after two hours of dance practice, when he’s properly in the zone. She knows all the names of the Sing! Idol contestants. Jihye has even recorded her dissecting Chanyeol’s chances, and ranking his abilities in a sweet but brutally frank analysis against the rest of them, way back when.
The thing is.
The thing is, Yunho’s mother knows exactly who Changmin is. There was that disastrous phone call Yunho had with her, where Changmin overheard him and then came up with a misunderstanding so out there that even now, Yunho feels himself cringing whenever he thinks about that.
He tries not to think about it. Except maybe Changmin’s mad apology in the snow. That was… nice. Still baffling and unnecessary, but nice.
The thing is, his mother probably knows Changmin better than Yunho does, given how there are some of Changmin’s interviews and behind-the-scenes segments and social media teasers that Yunho hasn’t yet watched. His mother watches everything on Sing! Idol.
Yunho knows it. His mother knows it. He doesn’t doubt that she knows he knows, too.
It just makes her request for a proper introduction more unnerving. There’s something going on in that head of hers, judging by the widening grin on her face.
Yunho clears his throat, but Changmin beats him to it again.
He flicks a quick glance at Yunho, and performs a very correct ninety-degree bow from the waist. Yunho’s mother coos at the sight of him.
“Mrs Jung, my name is Changmin. It’s very nice to meet you,” he says, voice soft and formal. But Yunho’s mother lets go of Yunho, and latches on Changmin before they both can blink.
“No, no, we can’t have that,” she is saying, while Yunho is trying to recover his bearings.
She’s fluttering her lashes at Changmin, and dimpling at him, while Changmin looks torn between being frozen and hopelessly charmed.
His mother -is she touching Changmin?- leans in and says sunnily, “that’s Auntie to you, dear.”
Now she’s winding her arm around the crook of Changmin’s elbow instead, and smiling up at him, while Yunho’s still looking for his tongue. “I love meeting my Yunho’s friends. Changmin! You are in the singing competition as well, yes? Oh, you’re tall.”
“I- Yes,” Changmin stammers, although he’s also leaning in.
Yunho sighs, and scrubs a hand over his face.
By the looks of it, Changmin is a goner. He’s grinning bashfully down at Yunho’s mother, a sunflower curving towards the sun.
“Don’t do that to my friend, Mum,” he warns, but Changmin’s got stars in his eyes and he actually looks a little indignant at the stern tone Yunho’s adopted.
“Hush, darling,” Yunho’s mother flutters a hand. She hasn’t looked away from Changmin, but she’s deftly steering him -and Yunho by default- to the side off of the pavement, into a little alcove for some (relative) privacy. “I don’t know what you are talking about. Now, Changmin, dear, it is so nice to meet you. You live here too then, you said? In Seoul?”
“Oh, I. Yes,” Changmin returns. He’s bending close to Yunho’s mother. There’s a funny tug at Yunho’s heart at the sight of the two of them.
He squashes that, too.
“Oh, oh, a city boy,” his mother exclaims. She pats at Changmin’s elbow. “What a nice warm hoodie. So you went to school here, and such a famous one, too! Your parents must be very proud.”
Her comment, apropos of nothing, makes Changmin look down at himself.
It makes Yunho look, too.
The familiar red is jarring. “Kyunghee University” shouts out at both of them, scrawled across Changmin’s chest.
Yunho knows his own grin is wide, and just a tad too frantic. He doesn’t doubt that his mother recognises that particular hoodie. “Mum, stop scaring Changminnie.”
It’s the wrong thing to say.
Changmin shoots him another quick look; wide-eyed and startled. Yunho’s mother raises her eyebrows at the nickname, her own sunshine grin gleaming and at full power.
She’s got both arms wound around Changmin’s arm now; a sweet motherly spider to Changmin’s hapless fly.
“Am I scary?” She says, and laughs when Changmin immediately shakes his head with vehement exclamations to the contrary. She covers his hand with her own, and sighs, smiling, “dear, you’re so sweet. Such a nice polite young man! Oh, forget it! You must call me Mother.”
“Mother.” Changmin smiles back at her, helplessly captivated.
Yunho pinches at the bridge of his nose. Friend. Changmin is his friend. He’s just calling Yunho’s mother that because he’s polite and sweet and an amazing person and doesn’t seem to, in the months Yunho’s known him, have a very good grasp on social norms.
There would have been more of an overture from his mother towards Changmin, were it not for the fact that all three of them hear squeals in the vicinity.
These days, they all get too easily recognised. Amber had texted him last night with her picture and signature at a barbecue restaurant per the request of its owner, who is apparently a Yunho fan.
“Are those the boys from that singing competition? Korean Star, right?”
“No, Ae-young, don’t be silly! It’s Sing! Idol-”
“So handsome! Look at them! So tall!”
“Ah, to have one of them as my son-in-law-”
“Your daughter should be so lucky! Now, my niece, on the other hand-”
“Yes, well,” Yunho says, one hand at his mother’s elbow and coming forward with her, until he’s shoulder-to-shoulder with Changmin.
Changmin’s back to staring at him mutely again. He doesn’t seem to have noticed the gaggle of extremely interested aunties barely five metres away and rapidly growing in number.
Yunho just smiles hard and goes, “why don’t we walk and talk at the same time? Since we’re all appearing to be going the same way.”
“I was walking in the opposite direction,” his sweet shy friend Changmin points out. His tone is one of pure confusion.
Probably Yunho’s mother has scrambled his brains.
Yunho chances a glance to his other side. The culprit is pouting.
Smiling harder, Yunho grasps Changmin gently by the cloth of his sleeve. “I meant that we are all shopping for groceries. The same way. Let’s go.”
“Such a lovely, lovely boy,” His mother is still raving, half an hour after they parted ways with Changmin and finished the grocery run. They’re in the car, Yunho’s driving back to the flat to drop his mother and their supplies off, before he heads back to the academy. “So tall! So handsome! He’s got such long legs. So intelligent! And he knows how to cook!”
“Yes, yes,” Yunho says tiredly, as they come to a stop at the red light. “Changmin’s nice.”
His mother hasn’t stopped smiling, since her overly long and detailed conversation with Changmin down an alley in the market at Jayang-dong. Her grin dims a little, now. “You know I like meeting your friends, darling.”
He slides a glance at her, from beneath his lashes. “You know a lot of my friends, Mum. You’ve never looked like you wanted to devour them, before.”
“I did not want to devour,” she begins, affronted, and pauses. “Well. Perhaps. But he is so very handsome and shy. Like a sweet little mochi. No, not little. A very tall, very shy mochi. With peach filling! That I can eat up in a mouthful.”
“Mother.” He says, shocked, as she erupts into peals of laughter.
The light turns green, and he tries his best to focus on driving and not running them into the road divider. She laughs until they turn off the highway, and sobers, a little. “Don’t think I’m not going to ask you about the hoodie, darling.”
“There’s nothing to ask about,” Yunho says as calmly as he can, flicking on his indicators to signal a turn. “I told you when I went to visit you in the last break. I was cold, and he loaned it to me.”
“Close enough to share clothing,” she muses, clearly intent on ignoring him. “And the look on your face when you saw him! The look on his! Like something out of an MBC primetime drama!”
“Changmin was just startled, Mum. It isn’t like that. Stop it,” Yunho refutes, voice hard. He rarely speaks to her like this, and it’s usually reserved for times when his father is the topic of conversation.
She jumps, and quietens.
The silence blooms in the car. Yunho feels like the shittiest son alive. He doesn’t know why he always does this to his mother. All he does is to take her laughter away.
“I’m sorry,” he says, as he turns into the road leading to the gated estate housing his flat. “It’s just… Changminnie- Changmin’s very shy. He isn’t very good with people, and I just. I don’t want us to scare him.”
She doesn’t respond, looking out of the window.
A moment later, her reply comes. It’s almost too quiet, “were you worried I wouldn’t approve?”
They cruise into the carpark. Yunho slides the car into his usual lot, and shifts the gear back into park mode. He pushes the ignition button, and they both listen as the engine powers down in a low rumbling purr.
He looks at her.
“There’s nothing to approve,” Yunho says honestly. “We’re friends.”
“But you like him,” she counters.
There’s no point in lying to her, not when her eyes are sharp and she seems to like Changmin, too. “I do,” he admits. “But it’s not like that. We’re friends. And he’s- he’s shy.”
She hums, considering, and looks at him. “You can go after him. I know my own son’s charms very well. With that face, and that body, and your brain, you can go after him. He won’t stand a chance.”
“Mum!” He exclaims, half-laughing, half-horrified. At least she’s smiling at him, again.
Yunho rakes a hand through his hair.
Maybe it's because he's still feeling guilty over his outburst.
Maybe it's because his mother is here, and not by his father's side, and it's been half a week since they both made any deliberate mention of him.
Maybe it's the memory of her smiling prettily up at Changmin. And Changmin smiling back.
In any case, Yunho can't hold it back anymore.
Everything tumbles out in a rush. “That’s horrible, you make me sound like some- It isn’t like that, really. I didn’t plan for this. Changmin and I, he’s got a bit of a hero worship thing going on, and he thinks I’m so much better than I am, and that is just terrifying sometimes. The rest of the time he can barely talk to me. He’s so shy. Anyway, it doesn’t matter that he’s open to men, because there’s this competition, and I’m pretty sure there’s probably clauses against fraternisation in Sing! Idol, and we all signed contracts, and non-disclosure agreements, and.”
The words dry up. Yunho spreads his hands. He doesn’t know what else to say.
The car cools around them.
How does he articulate to his mother -of all people!- that he’s in love with Changmin, and he’s frightened about barking up the wrong tree, because it frequently feels as though Changmin builds him up to impossible standards and Yunho’s terrified that doing anything to break that will end up with Changmin disillusioned with him?
Yunho doesn’t even like to think about this too often, in the quiet of his own head.
He’s been silent too long.
“I like him even more now than I did, earlier,” she muses. She’s still quiet, but at least she’s looking at him now. “I rarely see you so discomposed, darling.”
“I,” Yunho takes a deep breath, and shakes his head.
What does he even say to that?
“Think about it,” his mother advises. She opens the car door and trots out, to fetch the groceries from around back.
Her voice echoes at Yunho from behind, where he’s still in the driver’s seat. “Do you realise, darling? Throughout your entire spiel, you didn’t once mention that Changmin isn’t a possibility because you want to win Sing! Idol?”
Despite himself, his fingers tighten on the steering wheel.
Behind him, she’s relentless. “Once, you practically lived for the stage.”
Wanting to win Sing! Idol to prove himself, to fling his victory in his father’s face in a fit of petty vindication, to show that he can, that he couldn’t once due only to circumstances. That he might work in performing arts, and on the sidelines of the entertainment industry, but it doesn’t mean he’s given up his passion for the stage. That he’s still not too old, too burnt out, too adult for a childhood aspiration.
All that almost feels like a fever dream from long ago.
Yunho looks at his reflection in the rear view mirror. Meets his mother’s eyes.
“That was a long time ago,” he says slowly. “I’m happy at the academy. Sing! Idol is… I wanted to see if I could now, since I couldn’t then. And since I got in, it doesn’t make sense to do anything else but try my best.”
“Just like your father,” she murmurs fondly, before she can stop herself.
He doesn’t answer her. He doesn’t want to. The air chills.
“Oh, pish,” She sighs, heavy.
“Mum,” he takes a deep breath, and smiles at her through the mirror.
“Oh, just. Think about it,” she says again, not unkindly. “Give yourself a chance, darling. Sometimes you get so focused on your goals, you lose sight of the entire journey and the sights along the way."
After that particularly delightful bit of maternal psychoanalysis, his mother doesn't bring Changmin up in conversation.
Yunho's thankful. That one chat was enough. He hunkers down on his preparations for his song choices, and after some thinking, swaps out one of them entirely, to the surprise of the executive producers. But he's lucky, and there's still enough time.
Meanwhile his mother changes her phone screen's wallpaper to Episode Nine's Medley Changmin. Before, it had featured Yunho and Jihye cheek-to-cheek at a Seollal gathering a couple of years back.
Yunho only finds out when her phone buzzes, and he is ordered to check for the identity of the caller, since his mother is cooking fish and that is a delicate operation she can't walk away from.
It's Jihye, but it’s only a KakaoTalk text notification from her, and not a call. When it fades into the previews blurb at the top of his mother's phone screen, Yunho is instead confronted by a smiling Changmin, one hand clasped around his guitar and looking absolutely fantastic in denim.
He wanders back into the kitchen, where he was shooed out half an hour ago. He had been happy to work in his study on curriculum plans for his Urban Ballet (Advanced) class.
"Mum," he says slowly. "Mother. Why do you have Changmin as your lock-screen wallpaper?”
She doesn’t look away from the fish. She sounds breezy enough. “Oh, I’m a fan.”
“You’re a fan,” he echoes, and looks back down on her phone, now a black rectangle in his palm. Presses the button on the side, just so that it lights up again, with Changmin lit up. “You?”
“He is a lovely young man,” she says, flipping the fish. It’s a beautiful golden brown- something that Yunho knows he can never achieve.
“Besides,” and here her tone turns slightly gleeful, like a child hugging a secret, “he said I could.”
“He said you,” Yunho looks up, nonplussed. “Did this come up in conversation the day we bumped into him?”
He had texted Changmin after, to drop an apology about how his mother all but molested the other. Changmin had only responded to him with a sticker and a short effusive ‘Don’t say such things! Mother is so nice!’
Yunho didn’t quite know how to respond, so he only texted back a smiley and their conversation had tapered off, just like that.
He misses Changmin.
It has always been a bit of a challenge talking to Changmin when they’re not face to face, and sometimes challenging still even when it’s an actual conversation happening physically in real-time.
“Oh,” his mother says now, deliberately casual. The fish is done, and she slings the wok expertly into the sink.
Water hisses and sizzles, as she takes a scrub to the cooling cast iron. “We talk. I did ask him for permission!”
“You talk ?” Yunho most definitely does not squawk. His voice is maybe a tad too loud than usual. But he is calm. Definitely calm. “You have Changmin’s number? You’re in contact with him? ”
He is not jealous of his own mother. Definitely not.
But she only met Changmin by chance a few days ago, and now they talk? Enough for her to ask permission for Changmin to use his picture for her phone’s wallpaper? And he allowed it?
Maybe that’s how his mother has kept his father docile to her for nearly thirty five years.
Maybe he’s a little jealous.
Maybe he should text Changmin, just to ask.
“Yes, yes,” she’s done with the wok, and flits over to the stove to check on the soup. She’s still not looking at Yunho. “He sends me recipes of things I want to try. He’s so sweet.”
“He sends you recipes,” Yunho starts, and nearly chokes when she shoves a scalding spoon into his mouth, all bright and sunny, “darling, taste this for me, will you? Do we need more salt?”
He practices his song choices for the semi-final and finale, because it’s either that or try and pry in vain at his mother’s friendship(?) with Changmin.
It’s not as though the song choices will stop him from thinking about Changmin, but at least it’s indirect. A man can only spend so long brooding about one subject in particular before he drives himself mad.
Winning Sing! Idol is still Yunho’s wish, no matter how disconnected it sometimes feels now.
More than actually winning; he just wants to see how far he can go.
He wants to see if a childhood aspiration still has room to fit in, in his adult life.
He doesn’t tell anyone this, except himself, in the privacy of his own head.
Already there are entertainment agencies reaching out to him, companies Yunho has worked with before in a professional capacity, to either choreograph for and train their pop acts in some of their performances. They’re very interested in any potential plans he might have, after Sing! Idol.
He suppresses the flare of excitement at these emails in his work inbox and probing texts in his Kakao. The only replies he offers, sent out only after he’s read through them three times to ensure they all sound correct and polite, are all variants of how he is currently still contractually bound to his appearances in Sing! Idol, thank you so much for your interest, President, perhaps we can take this discussion further after the competition ends officially?
Yunho teaches too many classes in between his calls with the producers and working on his performances for the final two challenges, including the newly formed Dancing with the Idol (Basics). It’s either that or actually be home to ask his mother when she’s heading back down to Gwangju (and to his father).
He does like having her around, even though he knows she’s playing him like a fiddle and managing him and his routine and his meals as though he were still a child.
Once upon a time as an obstinate teenager, he would and did chafe at that.
Now he sees her too little, to truly mind it.
Yunho goes to meet his friends, has gathering after gathering with one of them, a few of them, an entire group of them, because it’s either that or stare at his phone to think of something to text Changmin.
It doesn’t help that he’s still stuck on ‘hey!’ or ‘how’s it going?’ or ‘man have you been practicing?’ for conversation starters.
He refuses to send them because they’re all too inane and he is not in high school and thus should not be this pathetic.
The end of the fortnight draws nearer, and he manages to get in some much anticipated time with Hojoon, because it’s been too long since they hung out, just the two of them.
It’s a quiet winter night. Their group of friends had a gathering earlier in the evening, belated birthday celebrations for Yunho.
As expected, there are plenty of questions about Sing! Idol and the top four, since the latest episode has just aired.
The topic of conversation veers at times, to how the others are doing, and the various updates everyone’s got to their lives.
But it’s never interesting enough to sustain, and they keep routing back to the competition, where his friends start to dissect the chances of the other contestants. Yunho just smiles, because there’s too many things he can’t say, and he’s tired of all the verbal gymnastics.
“That Changmin is a bit of a dark horse,” his close friend Jinyoung offers.
His ex-classmate Soojung begs to differ. “No, Amber’s the one Yunho has to be wary of. She’s good at everything, and she acts friendly, too! You need to stay on your guard, Yun.”
Yunho just smiles, and smiles.
Occasionally, he glances towards Hojoon for help. For a few minutes after that, there’ll be a change in the subject, or a boisterous drinking game (which Yunho toasts to, with his cup of Cola).
But always, always; the conversation circles back to Sing! Idol.
Yunho keeps the smile on his face, and it stays affixed until they've run through two clubs, and did a bit of a cafe crawl and finally, finally, it’s just Hojoon and he.
They end up at the pocha Yunho frequents, when he can.
Of course it’s better, with just the two of them. He relaxes for the first time tonight.
They had managed to get barbecue and drink too many glasses of Coca-cola, while Yunho talked circles around his Sing! Idol experience and what his non-disclosure agreements allow him to say, and Hojoon offered careful platitudes that Yunho knows were precisely engineered to calm him down.
He also knows he’s talking too much, and about nothing really substantial, since he’s not allowed to.
But Hojoon doesn’t pry. It’s not quite his style.
Yunho does catch his best friend eyeing him strangely, when Yunho cuts himself off too many times from mentioning Changmin.
The whole mess of his feelings is too convoluted to get into, anyway. Between the fans at the academy, Hyukjae and Taemin’s teasing, his mother’s cat-got-the-cream simpering, well.
Maybe he just wants to have his best friend to himself for a little while, where he doesn’t need to think about how his half-finished text to Changmin is just sitting there in the message field on their KakaoTalk chat.
If Hojoon doesn’t know about Changmin, then he won’t ask about him.
This is just like that thought experiment about paradoxes, the one with a possibly dead cat in a box.
Changmin mentioned it to him once, when he was making Yunho breakfast during the months in the Sing! Idol mansion. Though Yunho can’t, for the life of him, quite remember what it’s called.
“Yun, are you okay?” Hojoon asks him at the end of it, when they’re enjoying soondae soup at Auntie Park’s stall around the corner to his flat.
It’s so late that it can be considered very early.
Now that Yunho’s mother is in residence at his flat, going back this time in the morning(?) will just earn him a lecture, for all that he’s newly turned thirty-four years of age, not to mention independent for more than a decade.
Better to stay out till it’s fully light, and then pretend he’s dropping back into the flat after morning errands.
“Of course,” Yunho says, after he’s finished swallowing his spoonful of soup. It’s a testament to how much Hojoon has missed him, because the other man hates blood sausage. “Why do you even ask?”
Hojoon doesn’t offer a response. Instead, he just pokes at the sausage-y bits, and makes a face at Yunho. “You know you can tell me anything. Well. Unless you signed some very thick contracts to specifically not give me certain details. Then you can talk around those details, like you just did for the past hour. I’ll still listen.”
“Ah, Hojoon,” Yunho knows his face is probably an embarrassment to him right now, if the squicked out look on Hojoon’s is any indication.
“Don’t even start,” Hojoon warns hastily, and shoves an entire soondae into Yunho’s mouth.
When he finishes choking on the blood sausage, he looks up to see his best friend gazing contemplatively at him, over the rim of his soju glass.
Yunho clears his throat, and reaches for his glass of Cola. “What is it?”
Hojoon hums, clearly ruminating. Then he offers a tentative, “you had fun, right? You’re having fun. This singing thing. This competition.”
“Yes,” Yunho gestures towards Auntie Park, who flashes an ‘okay’ gesture with her fingers at him and bends over a batch of frying hotteok. “It is fun. I never did thank you properly, for telling me about the auditions and sharing the contact for the producers.”
Hojoon waves him off with a hand, and pauses. “Any regrets? I know you’ve never felt good about flunking out of the auditions as a teenager.”
“Regrets? You mean when we first came up from Gwangju and my tryout at SM?” Yunho looks back towards him in surprise. “That was a long time ago. And I scored my way into Seoul Arts after that, didn’t I?”
“Well,” Hojoon finishes up his soju, and sets it aside with a flourish. “It was a long time ago too, that your father threw you out over that. And yet you still can’t forgive him. Time doesn’t matter in the face of these things.”
Yunho blinks, and reaches for the half-full soju bottle. “Did Hyukjae call you? Let’s not discuss that, please. I have made my feelings very clear on that subject many times over.”
“He did,” Hojoon murmurs, and tactfully acquiesces to the latter part of Yunho’s rejoinder. Instead he goes, abruptly, “you haven’t talked much about friends in the competition. Did you make any? Hyukjae and Taemin left earlier, didn’t they?”
“Earlier.” Letting out a snort, Yunho fills Hojoon’s glass. “Don’t let them hear you say that. Hyukjae’s very proud he ranks within the top fifteenth.”
Hojoon accepts the shot with a murmur of thanks. “Oh? So the others left in the competition are now- just competition?”
Yunho sets down the bottle, and fiddles with his chopsticks. “Something like that.”
There’s Changmin. Hojoon really doesn’t need to know that. Yunho reaches for a spoonful of soup. “They’re all nice, and there’s a couple of people I talk to, and… We’ll probably stay in contact, after. Everyone is very hardworking. I think we all want to see how far we can take this thing.”
Hojoon just looks at him while sipping at the liquor. “You’ll probably win, if you truly set your mind on it. You’re the one with the most consistently high scores throughout this thing.”
Yunho knows he’s hesitated too long when Hojoon’s eyebrow rises, very slightly. “Or am I wrong, Yun?”
Auntie Park comes with freshly pan-fried hotteoks, and luckily there’s no more room for conversation.
To his surprise, his father shows up at his doorstep to pick his mother up during the weekend that heralds the end of Yunho’s break.
The intercom beeps ten minutes before breakfast. Regarding the meal itself, it’s something their family has been conducting at half past eight for years.
“I’ll get it,” Yunho’s mother calls out from the living room, where she’s marinating a fresh batch of kimchi to store, since Yunho won’t be away from his flat for long absences now.
She’s already had breakfast done, and they’re just waiting for the rice to finish cooking itself.
Darting from the loo, Yunho beats her to the intercom. “No, no, you sit. Don’t get up. I’ll scoop out the rice later, too. Now I’ll… check…”
He trails off when he realises what he’s seeing on the screen. Who, actually. Standing awkwardly beneath the ground-floor gate, waiting to be buzzed up.
The last time his father was at his flat, Yunho was twenty and drunk off of the success of choreographing a top Melon hit for a rather well-known pop group. His earnings for which had topped up the down payment he made for this very flat; and then some.
His father had shown up and made disparaging comments about how Gangnam is a soulless pinnacle and how Yunho’s flat has the temerity to be not quite in Gangnam, which is clearly unacceptable because Jungs strive for the best of everything.
It hadn't been pretty. He hasn’t darkened Yunho’s doorway in the years since.
Now he’s here again.
Yunho lets him up without comment, and leaves the front door unlocked. There’s a low buzz of resentment through him.
Abruptly he remembers Hojoon’s words: ‘yet you still can’t forgive him’.
There is nothing to forgive when you feel nothing for something.
His father comes through the door and he’s already talking.
Rather, his mouth is open and sounds are issuing from it. “Is it safe to leave your door unlocked like this? Seoul is not Gwangju. The people here are not nice. You are too trusting. Security here does not look top class. I can give you the contact number of the Seoul branch of our security company. We just did a rewiring of the property borders last month. I’ll ask him to bill the improvements for your flat to me.”
“Darling!” Yunho’s mother cries. She’s still on the floor, with her hands full of kimchi, but the surprise on her face is genuine.
Yunho supposes she knew his father was coming, but perhaps she had expected him after breakfast.
He bows at the waist, in the general direction of the front door.
“You’re early, darling,” Yunho’s mother is chattering. Her hands flutter around the cabbage heads. “Did you see Jihye yesterday? She rang me that she and Seokhee will drop by for dinner.”
“That boy needs to grow a spine before their wedding,” is his father’s dismissive response, and he starts in on Yunho again. “You really should take more care with yourself.”
Yunho just looks at his father, and waves his phone. He knows his voice is matter of fact. It’s an effort to maintain it thus. “I unlocked it ten seconds ago with my phone.”
“Oh,” his father says, undeterred. “Smart locks are not very good. There might be a blackout and it will just be a useless hunk of metal. I can-”
“I suppose you can have breakfast,” Yunho says, toneless.
He turns towards his mother, and his voice softens, despite himself. “Mum? How much longer do you need for the kimchi? Shall I set the table now?”
Silence, and then his father clears his throat. He lingers at the entrance space. It’s too short to be called an entrance hall, as is the wont for Seoul flats.
His father’s hands are by his side, opening and closing next to his pockets, and he’s a round-shouldered stoop in his trousers and shirt. They’re perfectly pressed -courtesy of their housekeeper- and the only deference he’s made to the weather is that he’s in a navy blue windbreaker. His hair is neatly parted in its usual two-eight ratio hairstyle.
Yunho’s mother looks between them. “Y-yes, you can, darling.”
“I’ll set the table for two,” Yunho says, and tries for a smile when his father draws himself up, chest puffing out in indignation. He talks over anything the old man may have to offer in the face of such a declaration. “I’m not hungry. I’ll pack a dosirak to the academy. I’ve got a jam-packed morning.”
“You work too much,” his father blusters. “You have staff, let some of them take care of things for you. You’re supposed to be preparing for your competition.”
“Sure,” Yunho replies.
He aims his smile into the living room this time, because his father has walked in and is already seated on the sofa, at his mother’s right hand. He’s got on another pair of cashmere house slippers that Yunho’s mother had brought and slipped into Yunho’s shoe rack. “My colleagues and I divide and conquer, as much as our individual specialisations allow. As we have been doing for years.”
With that, Yunho performs another very correct bow, and retreats into the kitchen.