It's the launch party for Deok Mi's first photography exhibition at a little boutique gallery in Insadong, and Eun Gi is miserable.
But tonight isn't about him. He wouldn't spoil Deok Mi's big day for the world, so he just chugs another glass of expensive champagne and tries to turn his grimace into a smile when she corners him mid-party.
"Eun Gi-ah!" Deok Mi is glowing. All her earlier nerves, when she'd been fussing and fussing over making sure everything was just right, seem to have disappeared. "It's going so well, don't you think? I didn't think so many people would come!"
Eun Gi snorts. "Who'd be stupid enough to miss the best show in town?" He reaches out as though to ruffle her hair, and laughs for real when she swats his hand away with an indignant squeak. "Hey," he says, more seriously now. "I'm really happy for you. You worked hard. You always did have a way with a camera."
"Thank you," Deok Mi says, hugging him impulsively. "For helping out with the set up today. And for everything."
She gives him one more radiant smile, and then she's off, the star of the show, just as she's always deserved to be. He sees Ryan wrapping his arm around her shoulders, every inch the proud, supportive husband, the pair of them completing each other. He's glad for them, truly.
Until he sees Cindy, smiling and congratulating them both, and his mood drops back down immediately. He downs yet another glass of champagne before grabbing a beer and heading outside.
He pushes his way through the crowd, down the hall and onto a balcony overlooking the street. He leans on the railing, tie loose, beer in one hand, feeling lonely and sorry for himself, regretting this afternoon's scene with Cindy. Why did he have to open his big mouth? Eun Gi wishes he could go back five hours and tell himself to shut up, to forget about it.
It was mostly the humiliation of rejection, he knew that, something he'd get over in time. It was just a little crush, nothing as desperate or painful as the torch he'd once carried for Deok Mi. It still hurt.
He just - he'd thought it could've been something more. They were such good friends. They worked well together. They'd had so much fun putting up their silly videos on Youtube. But it was clear the thought had never even crossed her mind. Typical Cindy, blunt as ever, she'd looked at him with huge, shocked eyes and said, "Me? And you?"
At least she'd hadn't laughed.
"It'd never work between us, ahjussi," she'd said, seeing his crestfallen face, giving him little pats on the shoulder. "You know the only man to live in my heart is Si An-ssi."
As if on cue, the door to the balcony slides open and speak of the devil - it was the man himself.
"Oh! I hope I'm not disturbing you, Eun Gi-ssi?" Cha Si An says, polite as always. "I was just hoping to get some fresh air."
Eun Gi makes a show of looking around the empty balcony and shrugs. "Plenty of room. Make yourself at home."
They stand an arm's length apart, looking out over the city lights. Eun Gi can't help sneaking glances at Si An's handsome profile. He's so composed, so put together. It makes Eun Gi uncomfortably aware of his own dishevelled state - jacket discarded and sleeves pulled up, tie askew, about to cross the line from tipsy into drunk. It makes Eun Gi annoyed.
"Do you always have to be so -" he blurts out.
Si An looks at him, head tilted, puzzled and patient.
"You know," Eun Gi says, stumbling over his words, cheeks growing hot. "You're just so..."
He makes a helpless gesture in Si An's general direction, and Si An looks down at himself, frowning, as though expecting to find a stain on his shirt or something. Of course there isn't. Of course his outfit is spotless.
"Perfect," Eun Gi spits out at last. "Why do you have to be so damn perfect?"
Si An blinks at him slowly. "Eun Gi-ssi," he says slowly, eyebrows very high. "I think you have the wrong idea about me altogether."
"Oh yeah?" Eun Gi sways forward a step. Maybe he's drunker than he thought. He jabs a finger at Si An's chest. "Then why does every girl I like think that you're so much better than me? Huh?"
Shit. He hadn't meant to say that out loud. But now that he's started, it's like he can't stop.
"What's so special about you?" he says, his voice rising. "Just because you're handsome and successful and you can sing and you, like, help old ladies cross the street -"
"I think you've had enough to drink," Si An says, looking very pink and flustered, taking him by the arm. "Maybe you should go home, Eun Gi-ssi."
"I help old ladies cross the street too," Eun Gi says gloomily. But he lets Si An lead him from the balcony and down the stairs to the private garage, successfully avoiding the gallery crowd. "I'm good with kids. I own my own business. I'm an athlete, and I'm tall. Isn't that worth anything? Anything at all?"
"Of course it means something. You're definitely a catch and anyone would be lucky to have you," Si An says, sounding only slightly strained as he bundles Eun Gi into the passenger seat of the car. Yawning, Eun Gi does up his seat belt as Si An closes the door.
"Okay," Si An says, getting into the driver's seat and locking the doors. "So what's your address, Eun Gi-ssi? Eun Gi-ssi?"
"Unfair..." Eun Gi mutters, eyes already closing, "so unfair..." and after that he doesn't remember anything else.
Eun Gi wakes up half-naked in an unfamiliar bed, in an unfamiliar room, with a pounding headache and a mouth that's drier than the desert. "Shit," he says, panicking. He doesn't think anything happened last night, but clearly, some questionable decisions were made and he has very little memory of them.
He rolls out of bed, hastily pulls on his clothes (very tidily folded on a chair, which seems a little odd) and grabs his phone (plugged in at the wall, fully charged) and opens the bedroom door, holding his breath as he prepares to tiptoe away.
"Good morning!" Si An says cheerfully, looking bright and handsome and cleancut, like an advertisement for some brand of organic breakfast cereal. "Coffee?"
Eun Gi freezes. Rubs his eyes. Wonders briefly if he's dreaming or if he's accidentally transmigrated into one of those fan stories that Deok Mi used to read. But no - he's really here, in super-famous idol Choi Si An's apartment, being offered coffee with a smile after having spent the night.
"Or maybe you'd prefer tea?" Si An says, sounding just a little uncertain, as Eun Gi continues to stare at him blankly.
Eun Gi unfreezes, clears his throat, and sits down on a barstool at the kitchen counter. "Uh, thank you. Coffee is fine."
Si An has a proper espresso machine, one that uses beans and not just pods. He busies himself at the machine, humming a little to himself. "I played a barista in a drama one time," he says to Eun Gi conversationally. "So I took a course on coffee-making. I got quite good at it, actually!"
"Of course you did," Eun Gi says under his breath, just before Si An slides a perfectly made cappuccino across the counter. More loudly, he says, "Thank you."
"No trouble," Si An says, beaming as though he's the one who's received the favour, before turning away to rummage through the fridge. "I can also make you some hangover soup..."
Eun Gi nearly chokes on his cappuccino. "No need, no need!" Thankfully, his phone chooses that exact moment to ring. "I'll just, uh." He points at his phone and slowly backs out of the room.
"Eun Gi-ah?" Da In says. "Are you not at home? Where are you?"
"Where am I? Where are you? I thought you were gonna be there at the party last night!" Eun Gi says immediately. "You should've been there to save me! Drinking buddies forever!"
Da In sighs. "It's a long story. Are you free to meet up for -"
"Yes, please get me out of here," Eun Gi says immediately, and they make quick arrangements before hanging up.
"Wait, you're leaving so soon?" Si An says, as Eun Gi makes his excuses and starts pulling on his shoes (placed neatly in the shoe rack by the front door, naturally).
"Sorry, I uh, have an appointment," Eun Gi says. He finally gets his shoes on and then bows apologetically. "Thank you for taking care of me. I'm sorry to be such a burden on Si An-ssi and I promise it won't happen again."
Eun Gi bows again. He thinks he sees a flash of disappointment on Si An's face, but that seems incredibly unlikely, so he dismisses it out of hand as he rushes out the door.
Da In had meant to land in Seoul with plenty of time to spare. Two flight delays later, she was well and truly late.
When she finally arrives at the launch party, it's all but over. Deok Mi and Ryan had already gone home so she sent them an apologetic message, promising to catch up with them soon. Then she tried calling Eun Gi, but his number just went to voicemail.
She goes into the gallery anyway. The only ones left are a few stragglers stubbornly hanging onto the last of their drinks and the attendants cleaning up the mess from the party. She heads over to the bar only to be given an apologetic headshake from the bartender, who's just closing up.
Da In sighs. But as she turns away from the bar, she bumps into a familiar person.
"Cindy!" Da In says, pleased and surprised.
Cindy, pretty in a pink frock, looks shocked. "Da In-ssi! You remember me?"
"Of course I do, don't I watch all of Eun Gi-ah's videos on Youtube?" Da In almost laughs aloud when Cindy's eyes get even wider.
"You watch our videos?" Cindy says, disbelieving. "Oh my god... this is so embarrassing." She puts her hands to her face.
"Don't be so surprised, I think you're - I think they're cute," Da In says. She clears her throat. "Ah, are you busy? I've been travelling all day and I need a drink, or at least a coffee. I'd like it if you'd keep me company."
"Sure," Cindy says, after just a moment's hesitation. "Just let me get my coat."
Da In understands Cindy's surprise. It's true that the videos aren't really her usual style. Da In had watched the first few out of curiosity and obligation, more because she was Eun Gi's friend rather than any deep interest in judo, or mukbangs, or make-up tutorials.
Maybe it was the make-up video that did it.
("Stop fidgeting," Cindy had said, slapping Eun Gi's arm as she gave him her best attempt at smokey eye. "Or do you want me to accidentally jab this pencil into your eye?"
"I don't want you putting make-up on me at all!" Eun Gi said, his voice rising. "How is this going to help promote my business?"
"Shut up, ahjussi," Cindy said cheerfully. "It's all part of the plan. People love this stuff, trust me." She turned to the camera and made an exaggerated 'ta-da!' gesture at the judo school logo in the background.
"Do I look okay, though?" Eun Gi said, anxiously, a few minutes later.
"You look very sultry," Cindy promised, as she glanced right into the camera and made a face, as though to say please, I'm a professional, can you believe the nerve of this guy?
I like her, Da In texted to Eun Gi later. That smokey eye looked real good on you too. She'd laughed when Eun Gi just cursed her out, and then started watching another video.)
After that it had become a habit - tuning in every couple of weeks to watch Cindy cutely bullying Eun Gi while they did some random activity. Sometimes she'd drag him to amusement parks or dance classes, and other times he'd insist they cook a meal or go hiking. Every once in a while, they'd even try to demonstrate some judo.
Da In would watch and feel a little bit closer to Seoul and to Eun Gi... and fine, if it also meant a chance to watch Cindy, that was alright too.
They end up at a little late night cafe near the gallery. Da In orders an Americano, black. Cindy has a strawberry milkshake and chatters to Da In easily, artlessly, about her work at Cheum Art Gallery.
"I've been doing tons of marketing and promotional stuff for the gallery these days," Cindy says. She wrinkles her nose and leans forward confidingly. "Old people don't know how to use social media at all! They don't even know how to get a hashtag trending."
"Old people, huh?" Da In says wryly, thinking of the uniformly youthful staff of the gallery, headed up by the equally youthful Deok Mi. She points at herself and makes a stern expression. "So am I an old person too? I'm Eun Gi's age and I know you call him 'ahjussi'."
"Oh no," Cindy says. "I mean, I didn't mean you of course -"
"Forget it, I'm just kidding," Da In says, waving aside Cindy's flustered backtracking. "Really." She reaches out and holds Cindy's hand, just to emphasise the point.
"Sure," Cindy says, staring down at their hands with wide eyes. She clears her throat and says, "So what brings you back to Korea?"
"Ah, a few different things," Da In says. "Seeing my family and friends of course, and Deok Mi's exhibition. I also have a couple of installations at the Busan Biennale."
"Ooh!" Cindy says, impressed.
"And I'm hoping to get some time to work on some new projects. Maybe you can help me out - you must know everything about the Seoul art scene these days." Da In takes out her phone. "Here, you should give me your number."
It's so smooth that Da In almost wishes there was someone around to see it. See, Eun Gi? she says in her head. I have game. I know how to ask girls for their numbers!
Cindy claps her hands in delight when Da In sends her a cute sticker to confirm her number and doesn't protest when Da In insists on paying the bill.
"Next time," Da In says, walking Cindy to the subway, "I'll treat you to bingsu. That place in Hongdae is your favourite, right?"
Cindy stops in her tracks. "What?"
"What?" Da In says. Oh shit. "I mean. Eun Gi told me. He said it was your favourite." That seemed safer than admitting that she'd trawled through Cindy's Instagram.
(One of her friends had caught her at it weeks ago. "Why are you stalking this poor girl's Instagram again?"
Da In locked her phone immediately. "I'm not stalking her! I know her. We have mutual friends. We worked together on an exhibition. Her profile is public!"
"Hmmm," her friend said. "You don't sound defensive at all."
"She's just." Da In sighs gustily. "She's cute, okay?"
"...was that so hard to admit?")
But at the mention of Eun Gi's name, Cindy furrows her brow. "Eun Gi... Are you going to see him soon? I'm just a bit worried about him." She bites her lip. "The - the person he likes doesn't like him back. So I think he was very upset today."
"Huh. Is that why he's not answering my calls?" Da In gives Cindy a reassuring smile and squeezes her hand again. "Don't worry. I'll talk to him tomorrow."
She'll drag him out for brunch or something, make him spill all his troubles. It'll be the perfect opportunity to ask him more about Cindy too.
Da In's already waiting at the cafe when Eun Gi arrives. "Walk of shame?" she says with raised eyebrows, looking him up and down, sipping at her coffee.
He hadn't had time to go home, so he's wearing his dress shoes and slacks and button-up shirt from last night, suit jacket unbuttoned, the only thing missing - dammit. The only thing missing was his tie, probably left behind at Si An's in his rush to be gone.
"Fuck off," Eun Gi says, hugging her tightly before collapsing into the seat beside her. She pushes an iced Americano over to his side of the table. "This is not a walk of shame, okay? Besides," he says grumpily, "where were you last night? Maybe if you'd been there I wouldn't have ended up like this."
"Of course, it's my fault that you got drunk and went home with a stranger," Da In says tartly.
"Not a stranger," Eun Gi mutters. "Cha Si An."
"Cha Si An?" Her voice goes up sharply.
"Shut up, shut up, shut up," Eun Gi says, slumping in his seat. "It's not a big deal. I got drunk and he let me sleep in his guest room like a perfect fucking gentleman, that's all."
"Si An," Da In repeats softly, still sounding quite strange, staring into the middle distance.
"Ugh," Eun Gi says, disgusted. "Do you have to say his name like that? 'He's perfect, he's handsome' - yeah, yeah, trust me, I know! Don't tell me you like him too."
"Oh god no, I would never," she says instantly. Hesitantly, she puts her hand on his shoulder. "So... you're okay? Last night Cindy told me you, uh, you were upset. For what it's worth, I think it was very brave of you to confess. I know you've been hurt before."
"Cindy told you?!" Completely mortified, Eun Gi lets his head thump down quietly on the table. Then he hauls himself upright, forcing a gritted smile. "It's fine. I'm fine. I'll get over it."
They sit for a while in the sunshine, drinking their coffee in peace.
"Anyway, speaking of Cindy," Da In says eventually, in a brighter tone. "We hung out after the launch last night. We're going to meet up again tomorrow."
"Oh? Oh good, I'm glad you're getting along," Eun Gi says vaguely.
"Yeah," Da In says, before casually adding, "so tell me more about Cindy."
After Da In grills him in what seems like unnecessary detail ("yeah, I'm pretty sure that's her favourite colour," Eun Gi says, bewildered, in between bites of a sandwich; "sure, I guess she likes cat cafes? I don't know?") they chat a bit more until it's time to go. They make plans to catch up again soon, to make the most of Da In's visit to Seoul.
He goes home, changes, takes his suit to the dry cleaners, curses under his breath again when he remembers the missing tie. But he'd rather give it up as a lost cause rather than go through the embarrassment of contacting Si An about it.
Instead, unexpectedly, it's Si An who contacts him a couple of days later.
Eun Gi is at work trying to tidy up some paperwork from a few newly enrolled students when his phone buzzes.
I think this is yours? says the message, accompanied by a photo of the tie, laid across a clean white bedsheet.
Eun Gi blinks.
Another message quickly follows: Sorry, this is Si An. Ryan gave me your number.
Hi, Eun Gi texts back cautiously. This is Eun Gi. Yes that's mine.
Great! Are you free to meet up tomorrow?
He's about to emphatically refuse, because who needs a repeat of their last awkward meeting? Until he hears Deok Mi's mother in his head, scolding him for taking advantage of Si An's hospitality and not offering a single thing in return. He took you home! He let you sleep in his fancy guest room! He made you coffee!
Maybe he can buy Si An a drink or something for his trouble - it's the bare minimum for Si An rescuing him from passing out in a gutter somewhere.
Yeah... okay... he says.
Great!!!! Si An replies, with entirely too much enthusiasm.
They quickly arrange a time and a place, and then Si An signs off with a heart sticker that Eun Gi puzzles over for way too long before concluding that idols are weird. Imagine signing off every message with a heart sticker! Way too affectionate.
Then his phone buzzes again. Another message from Si An. This time it's a sticker of a kitty blowing a kiss.
Eun Gi stares at it for a long, horrified minute before hastily locking his phone and shoving it in his drawer and turning back to his work with ferocious concentration.
(His part-time accountant, some days later, trying to sort through his papers: "These are a mess! What were you thinking?"
Eun Gi, hunched over his phone with his ears bright red, pretends to be typing a message and says nothing.)
He doesn't make a particular effort to dress up. It's just a drink in a bar. But he does try to be neat and tidy, putting on a buttoned shirt rather than a tee, and apparently that's different enough from his default slovenly state that his grandmotherly neighbour says knowingly, "Ah, so you have a date tonight."
"It's not - " Eun Gi starts to say heatedly, before forcing himself to take a deep breath. "Thanks," he says at last, rather than go to the trouble of denying it.
They'd agreed to meet at a little underground bar, the kind of place that an idol could slip into without fear of being recognised, or at least not being followed or mobbed by fans. Eun Gi's just found a booth when Si An shows up and slides into the seat across from him.
"Hello," Si An says, smiling. "You look nice."
"Uh," Eun Gi says. "Thanks. So do you?"
Wrapped up in an expensively soft grey sweater and with his glasses perched on his nose, Si An looks both effortlessly casual and much better dressed than him. Eun Gi can almost hear Deok Mi saying approvingly, boyfriend looks. And right after that, Cindy sighing, he's so dreamy...
Eun Gi shakes his head, as though to rid himself of their voices, and covers it up by offering to go to the bar. "Tonight's on me," he says firmly.
When he comes back with their beers, Si An thanks him very politely, but then says, "I have something to say to you. It's been on my mind since our conversation at the gallery. You never really gave me the chance to reply, and then the other morning, you ran away before we could talk."
Oh god. Eun Gi can just, barely, remember some of the stupid things he'd said before passing out in Si An's car. He takes a gulp of his beer, grimaces, and says, "Okay. Hit me."
"You kept saying..." Si An looks down at the table, tracing the wood grain with his fingers. He takes a deep breath and looks up again. "You kept saying I was perfect. I didn't like that."
Eun Gi blinks. That's not at all what he was expecting. "Why?"
"Idols are meant to be perfect. That's how people talk about us, how people see us. And I feel it, you know, this constant pressure to live up to the fantasy." Si An frowns. "But I can't. I'm just a person. I'm not perfect. I should be allowed to make mistakes and say the wrong things or - or even date people, if I want."
He says the last part all in a rush, and then he too downs a huge gulp of beer and looks away, as though deeply embarrassed. In a smaller voice, he says, "Does that make sense?"
"I mean. Yeah." Eun Gi scrubs his hands through his hair, feeling taken aback. "Yeah, it does."
"So please don't look at me as an idol," Si An says. He tilts his chin up, his back very straight, cheeks flushed but his eyes very steady. It was the look of someone who didn't want Eun Gi's pity or his envy or even his adoration, but simply his respect. It's... devastating. "I'm just. I'm just a man."
Eun Gi swallows. Just a man. But what a man, he catches himself thinking wistfully.
"Look, for what it's worth," Eun Gi says, babbling a little to cover his nerves, stomping down on any and all thoughts that he definitely didn't have about how attractive Si An was in that moment. "I never - I didn't really mean those things I said the other night. So just. Forget about them, okay? Forget I ever said those stupid things! Let's start over, okay? Just you and me, Cha Si An and Nam Eun Gi. Sound good?" He raises his glass.
Si An smiles again. And it's a real, big, genuine smile, brighter than any of the ones he's given Eun Gi before. "Sounds great."
They clink glasses.
For a while they just talk, the kind of small talk that Eun Gi usually finds excruciating but which is somehow easier - even pleasant - when Si An is the one across the table.
Not because he's a celebrity, or because Eun Gi knows more about Si An than he'd ever care to admit, thanks to years of secondhand exposure via Deok Mi and Seon Joo, or because Si An's intimidatingly good at anything he sets his mind towards. It's because once he sets aside all the things he just thought he knew about Si An, it turns out that yeah, fine, Si An is a pretty great guy. A pretty great, pretty attractive guy...
After a while the bar grows more crowded and noisy. "Should we get out of here?" Si An says eventually. "We could take a walk?"
They end up in a green area by the Han River, just walking and watching the lights on the water, the city all glittering on the opposite bank. Everywhere there's pairs of people walking and holding hands together, and it's all very peaceful and very - very - uh -
Eun Gi tries hard to think of a word that means 'romantic' without actually meaning 'romantic' and is still occupied with this problem when suddenly Si An pats the pocket of his coat and exclaims, "Oh, I nearly forgot!"
"Huh?" Eun Gi says, as Si An reaches for his hand and places something in it.
"Your tie," Si An says, beaming. He doesn't let go of Eun Gi's hand, their hands clasped together around this one narrow strip of silk.
He has nice hands, Eun Gi thinks absently, and doesn't let go either. "Thank you," he says. Nice eyes too.
"Eun Gi-hyung," Si An says, looking up at him with a smile that makes Eun Gi's heart beat faster. "Hyung, I-"
"Oh my god," Cindy says, seemingly from out of nowhere, sounding like her soul had left her body. "Is that Si An-ssi?"
"With Eun Gi-ah?" Da In says, sounding much happier about it.
Eun Gi lets go of Si An very quickly. "Hello," he says, much too loudly, trying not to panic. "Wow, you're both here too? Wow. Great."
"It's Si An-ssi," Cindy says, giant hearts in her eyes, while Da In, inexplicably, gives Eun Gi a thumbs up.
Only Si An seems completely unbothered. He greets Da In and Cindy politely, and then adds, looking down at their joined hands, "Oh, are you here on a date too?"
"...too?" Eun Gi says in a daze, at the same time Cindy says, "Wait, this was a date?"
After leaving a regretful Si An and a shellshocked Eun Gi to their own devices, Cindy had hauled Da In away by the hand until they'd found a quiet place to sit and talk.
"I'm sorry," Da In says for the fifth time. Cindy has never seen her quite so crestfallen, and she finds she dislikes it a lot.
"Stop saying that!" Cindy says, stamping her foot.
Back when they'd first met, when Da In was working on Si An's album and exhibition, she'd admired her, but from a distance. Back then Da In was someone cool and confident and impossibly composed, talented enough that even Si An wanted to work with her, someone who'd stepped over the invisible line between fan and celebrity and been welcomed on the other side with open arms - the kind of person Cindy could never be.
After that, she was Eun Gi's artist friend, the one who lived in America and went to all the hottest parties in Brooklyn and was always wearing all the best clothes. Someone had once commented on her Instagram, admiring her collection of earrings. Thanks! Da In had replied, I made most of them myself.
But it turned out Da In was more than that. More complicated than that, more messy than that. She was kind of shy, and not very good at stalking Cindy's Instagram (it was pretty obvious when she accidentally liked a post from two years ago), and absolutely terrible at asking people out on dates. She had a secret addiction to Pokemon and a dorky laugh and she made Cindy's heart beat just a little too fast.
Even if Cindy hadn't known it was a date... she'd still liked it a lot.
"Unnie, I like you," Cindy says frankly, cutting Da In off mid-apology. "If you want to date, then let's date."
Da In looks up, eyes wide and hopeful.
"But!" Cindy holds up a finger. "I want us to be completely honest with each other, so first I need to make one thing absolutely clear. There's something about me that you should know that I've never mentioned in any of those YouTube videos."
"Um. Let me guess, you've never dated a woman before?" Da In says, cautiously.
"Oh no, not at all. I've only ever dated women," Cindy says reassuringly, patting her hand. "However... you should know that there is one man who will always live in my heart. If we're going to date, I hope you can be okay with that."
"Cindy," Da In says solemnly, "I think I can try."
So that was all sorted out.
The next thing was cornering Eun Gi and forcing him to talk.
"Look, I know it's been weird. One day I'm confessing to you and the next I'm kind of dating your idol," Eun Gi says, making a face and rubbing the back of his neck in embarrassment.
"Yeah," Cindy says, folding her arms, refusing to let him off the hook just yet. "Yeah, you're right, it is extremely weird!"
"I really do - I mean I really did like you. I really did think we'd be good together." Eun Gi shrugs, hunching himself up defensively the way he does sometimes, a big man making himself small. "But then I met Si An and it's just..."
"Ahjussi," Cindy said, a little more gently. "I understand. It's Si An. He's magical."
"No, he's not!" Eun Gi says, unexpectedly. But he smiles, as though he can't help himself. "He's way too serious for his own good and he doesn't know how to do his own laundry and his music is actually pretty terrible."
Cindy gasps aloud. "Oh my god, take that back right now or so help me -"
"But, you know." Eun Gi sighs, shrugging. "All that stuff actually makes me like him more. Isn't that stupid?"
Overwhelmed by fondness, Cindy pulls Eun Gi into a hug. "I'm glad for you, ahjussi," Cindy says. "I hope you're happy together. I don't want you to be lonely anymore, okay?" He pats her hand, a little helplessly.
Then she pinches his arm.
"Ow!" he says, indignant, though it can't possibly have hurt. "What was that for?"
"If you ever dare hurt my Si An-ssi," Cindy says sweetly, "then I'm going to make you pay."
Four months and many successful dates later, Da In doesn't even blink an eye when Cindy stops in the middle of their romantic home-cooked dinner and turns the tv on to Mnet's M Countdown. White Ocean are nominated for number 1, and as Cindy had carefully explained, live votes counted for a full 10% of the final score.
"Ready?" Cindy say, very focused, laying out her mobile phones on the coffee table. She has five phones in total, plus her personal laptop plus her work laptop so she could send votes through the website. Hopefully it would be enough.
"Ready," Da In says, with her one phone and one laptop.
"Okay," Cindy says, watching the show intently. "Live votes start... now. Go, go, go!"
Two hours later, White Ocean are declared the winners, with the maximum 1000 points from live votes, narrowly beating out Wanna One alumnus Park Ji Hoon and rising girl group Nature. "Yes!" Cindy says, flinging herself into Da In's arms in delight. "We did it!"
"To think all it took was a week of non-stop streaming and voting, plus purchasing an entire crate of albums on release day," Da In says drily, though she's smiling as she says it. "This is more work than my actual job." She'd decided to freelance from Seoul for a while, saying her design jobs and art projects could just as easily be done here as they could in New York.
"But unnie, I didn't even go all out this time," Cindy says, her arms around Da In's neck, pouting cutely. "I didn't attend a single fansign or even one music show taping. See? I've changed! I'm not a fansite master anymore - I'm just an ordinary fangirl."
"Is this what ordinary fangirls do?" Da In says, before kissing the pout from her lips. "Because you seem pretty extraordinary to me."
"That was really cheesy, unnie," Cindy says, wrinkling her nose. "Please don't say that again."
Cindy's so busy kissing Da In that she actually misses Si An's winner's speech and White Ocean's encore performance, and has to watch it on Youtube later. If that's not considered seriously committing to a relationship, then what is?
After all the speeches and the encore stage and saying goodbye to the fans, Si An and his members finally make their way backstage. White Ocean is five members, but behind them there's an entire team that works just as hard. So Si An is careful to work his way around the room and thank everyone - managers, costume and make-up artists, personal trainers, personal assistants...
"Thank you, you worked hard," Si An says sincerely, bowing for the twentieth time, before looking up and realising it's Eun Gi. "You?" he says, stupidly. "I thought you were going home!"
"Well, I didn't," Eun Gi says. He brings out a bunch of roses from behind his back and shoves it in Si An's direction. "For you," he says, unnecessarily.
They can't really do anything, not in front of everyone and inside a major tv station studio, so Si An just says, "Hyung, they're beautiful!" He touches Eun Gi's arm, just lightly. "Thank you," he says, "for waiting for me. I know you didn't have to, these music shows really do go on forever."
"Eh, it's nothing, don't make a big deal about it." Eun Gi gets that look on his face, the look that says he's embarrassed but pleased. Si An wants to kiss it from his face.
For the past couple of months, there's never been quite enough time for each other. First Si An was busy recording and rehearsing and filming for White Ocean's comeback, and then Eun Gi was finding new premises for his ever-growing judo school (the YouTube videos did work). With White Ocean in the midst of a comeback, the best they can do right now are these fleeting moments backstage at music shows, or in cars ferrying them from one fansign to another.
It's not much, but every little moment with Eun Gi where Si An can let his guard down and be himself is precious and worth it. In the backseat of the car as they drive back to Si An's apartment, Si An rests his head on Eun Gi's shoulder and they hold hands in the dark and neither of them say anything.
On a night like tonight, after Si An's been up since the crack of dawn and then has to be up at a brutally early hour again the next day for Music Bank's pre-record, he pretty much just faceplants into the sofa as soon as he walks in the door, mumbling 'thanks' when Eun Gi tugs off his shoes and socks.
"Come on," Eun Gi says, trying to coax him up. "Get up and have a shower. You smell like hairspray and sweat."
Si An sighs gustily, but then turns his head and says, looking Eun Gi up and down very obviously, "Only if you shower with me."
It's been four months now but Eun Gi still goes bright red.
He'd asked Si An once, pretty early on, why he was even attracted to him. Si An had blinked, laughed a little, and then repeated Eun Gi's own words back at him. "What was it you said, that time at the art gallery? Oh yeah. You're good with kids, you own your own business, you're tall, and you're an athlete. It's all true, so what else am I meant to say?"
"Shut up!" Eun Gi said, absolutely horrified. "I never said that!"
"You did! You really did!" Si An laughed and laughed, until he calmed down enough to say, "although you missed one thing." And he'd slid into Eun Gi's lap, hands sliding under his shirt, his smile still too, too innocent. "You forgot to say you were hot, too."
Sometimes Si An wonders if anyone's ever said these things to Eun Gi before - or maybe they had, but he hadn't listened. He wonders if that silver medal weighs on Eun Gi more than even he knows, so used to being the second lead in his own life that he's shocked when Si An says, in every way he knows how, I want you, I choose you.
Eun Gi really is a catch. The first time Si An watched him teach a class of five-year-olds - patiently instructing them again and again, then afterwards letting them tackle him to the ground with the most long-suffering expression - Si An had nearly proposed there and then.
Not to mention how fit he was from all those years of judo. The sight of Eun Gi in the shower would be enough to bring Si An back from the dead, and even after from the long day he's had, he's very far from dead.
"I thought you were exhausted," Eun Gi says, in between kisses, sounding faintly surprised by the enthusiasm with which Si An is pinning him to the shower wall.
"Not too exhausted for this," Si An says, reaching down to bring Eun Gi off with his hand. "Hyung," he says softly, when Eun Gi is close, "you're beautiful," he says, and watches the expression on his face change as he comes.
Si An's going to say it as many times as he has to, until the day Eun Gi finally believes it too.
Afterwards they curl up in bed together, Eun Gi behind him like a warm, solid weight. Tomorrow Si An will have to slip back into the fantasy, an idol once more. But until then, he'll be here in Eun Gi's arms, content knowing that this much is real, this much is true.