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 Now, right this instant, I know for certain that my love is coming towards me. He is coming around the street corner.

  

At the next window, he will call out to me.

-

 

 

He clasps his hands in front of him in contrition, as she drags her wheel-less suitcase behind her in the direction of the KBS waiting room. When he next sneaks a glance at her face, her lips are downturned.

“Let me help you with-” he begins, tentatively.

“A win is a win,” she says determinedly. “You won. Again. So I’ll carry my own bags. Again.”

“Sorry,” he says, slightly guilty, “it’s a reflex.”

She nods. “It’s okay. A win is-” she begins, before clearing her throat, clearly amid the realization that she’s already said it. Then lapses into silence.

He opens all the doors she walks through. That much he should, he knows.

 

 

-

 

 

“Operation Cindy?” he repeats blankly.

She shoots him a look of disappointment which lets him know he’s got it wrong again, “Operation You And Employment Save Cindy Officially. Operation UNESCO for short.”

“Oh,” he says inadequately, at a loss for words.

“Have you not heard of the UNESCO, PD-nim?” she asks, kindly, “it’s an agency of the United Nations; it deals with their cultural stuff. I am a cultural artifact of this nation, so I’m keeping up with the references. It’s smart and topical, and it makes me look smart and topical and well-informed. But it also makes me look like I need saving, and people like that. It’s okay, if you haven’t heard of it, google it when you get back home.”

He thinks, for a brief moment, of his third-year college internship with UNESCO, endless hours spent helping with the drafting of the charter of the National Committee on Education for Sustainable Development. It seems like a lifetime ago.

“UNESCO sounds catchy,” she ends, “catchy is good.”

He considers that for a moment. “'You’ begins with a ‘y’, and ‘and’ begins with an ‘a’, which would be YAESCO for short. Cindy-ssi, I’m not sure how-”

She reaches up and pokes him in the middle of his chest, “1960 called, they want their grammar police back. Have you also not heard of the internet? Statistics show that 70% of my fans fall in the age-range of 12 to 27, which is squarely the Y2K generation. And with the influx of messaging platforms, it’s reasonable to assume that everyone who loves me is familiar with and uses slang, keep up.”

She’s thorough. This he’s learned about her. He can feel a smile threaten to break out, so he hastily converts it into a cough.

“I don’t,” he admits, before he’s completely thought it out, “use slang.”

“Yeah, well,” she says, busying herself with the flyers and turning away, “you don’t love me either, PD-nim, so you’re not the target demographic.”

 

 

-

 

 

The full weight of Operation UNESCO only hits him when the entire internet picks it up and the Cindy-alert on his work laptop pings every three seconds and twenty centiseconds. He takes off his watch and times it thrice, just to be sure. His new watch is very accurate.

“Omo,” Ye Jin sunbaenim says, reading over his shoulder, “the kid has gone crazy. I always knew this would happen. The moment she jumped into your car out of nowhere and wanted to be a stowaway, I knew she was borderline, and it was only a matter of time. My instincts are very sharp.”

He clicks on the latest link out of habit. After all, he has to keep tabs on Cindy. She is an important member of his cast. This is only due diligence.

FORMER TOP-STAR CINDY TAKES UP PART-TIME JOB AS WAITRESS, the Dispatch headline screams.

He drops his new watch.

         

                                                                                                                                     

-

 

 

The café looks like a movie set, when he finally locates it, mobbed by cameras and…more cameras. The paparazzi milling around, and everyone in the nation who owns a camera-phone.

He makes his way in, pushing through the crowd. It's a whole minute before he finally sees her. She’s vigorously scrubbing at a spot on one of the tables. Wearing a uniform. With an apron. With what looks like a name badge.

He gets stopped on his way to her by a man who looks like he might be the manager of the establishment, or might be someone teetering on the borderline himself.

“I thought it would be great for business,” the harassed man complains. “I’m man enough to admit that when she came here looking for a part-time job, my eyes may have lit up with won signs, like they do in those cartoons that my three-year-old keeps watching. Goddamn cartoons, never let a man watch any sort of sport in peace. Those damn things are always on. Is it too much to ask for some beer and to get an hour alone to watch a few good men kicking some balls? Anyway, the point is, ain’t nothing wrong with a man wanting to make some good, honest money. But she keeps telling the customers off for ordering extra cream because it's unhealthy, and she’s arranged the entire coffee cabinet by some system that needs a special numerical code for deciphering it and she’s been scrubbing that goddamn table since over an hour. You need to take her back, sir, what sort of-“

“Do you know me?” he interrupts, hastily, before the monologue can reach Shakespearean proportions, which it seems well on its way to achieving. The familiarity with which the man seems to imply that Cindy-ssi is his to take care of, is... disconcerting, to make an understatement.

The other man glares at him suspiciously, like he suspects he’s being conned, or is on candid camera at the very least. “Of course I know you, you’re her boyfriend.”

That makes him pause. “Pardon me?”

“Aren’t you that guy who tied her shoe-laces all nice and held her when she almost fell on that show? I saw a repeat of that episode. It was obvious you were-”

“Oh,” he interrupts again, he’d almost forgotten about that. For some reason, it’s important to explain, “I’m not her boyfriend.”

The manager looks unconvinced.

“I’m not,” he insists.

The other man look at her side of the café. Seung Chan follows his gaze. She’s still bent over the table, completely focused. It makes something- something strangely like affection, course through his veins. An understanding of sorts. Like he's maybe beginning to understand her a little. “I don’t care who you are as long as you get her out of here.”

“Cindy-ssi,” he calls, as he reaches her.

She looks markedly unsurprised to see him, pushing her hair away from her face with the back of one hand. There’s a fine sheen of sweat layering her skin.

He offers his handkerchief.

“Did you know coffee stains wood?” is her cold open, as she wipes her face. He's about to answer with the fact that coffee is sometimes used specifically to stain wood, which would suggest that it... does, in fact, stain wood, but one look at her tells him that it was probably rhetorical and it would be wise to stay quiet. He's smart. His mother always said he was smart. “It’s outrageous, to open a café and keep no cleaning agent that removes coffee stains. This is maladministration. In fact, I’m sure it’s illegal, it’s destruction of public property-”

“-this is private property,” he supplies, helpfully.

“-destruction of public property,” she repeats, glaring at him. “There must be some sort of law against it. Like a tort of public nuisance or something. I’m pretty down with the law these days; I read a lot of it during those last few months with omm- Byun daepyo. One of my anti-fans works at the Judicial Research and Training Institute, he recommended a lot of books. It wouldn't be entirely inaccurate to say that I'm sort of an expert at this.”

He can’t help it. He laughs.

“Are you laughing at me right now?” she questions, threateningly. Raising herself to her full height. Of five feet three inches.

He schools his face into blankness, looking down at her. “Never. How could I possibly ever laugh at you," he checks the badge, "Lee Min Ho-ssi. You're the sort of person who would make an anti-fan want to give you legal advice.”

"They couldn't make a name-tag for me that fast," she defends, "so I had to use one left by their ex-employee."

"A rose by any other name-" he quotes grandly.

She looks unconvinced by his flattery- he’s clearly doing a bad job of that today- but apparently decides to let it go. “Anyway, I’m going to look up the legal part when I get back home. It’s a terrible state of affairs. When you think of the number of cafés in Korea alone…”

“Speaking of home,” he begins, placating, “don’t you think this is enough exposure for one day? You don’t want people to get tired of Operation UNESCO in the middle of its first real public appearance.”

She appears to consider that.

“You’re right,” she admits, reluctantly, “over-exposure is one of the most surefire ways to get more antis, because people who were earlier indifferent start hating you when you're everywhere and taking away airtime from their precious favorites.”

He nods his head, “exactly. That…exactly. So, let’s go. Only for now.”

She smiles for the cameras once, then keeps the cloth down.

The manager has her day’s pay in the envelope, before they’ve even reached the counter. “Severance pay,” he clarifies, hastily.

She picks it up between two fingers. “This isn’t over, ahjusshi,” she says, quelling, “not till Daehan Minguk is still a country under the rule of law.”

The café manager looks suitably quelled. Then, as a peace-offering, “your boyfriend seems to take really good care of you.”

“I already tol-” he begins, before she interrupts him with a casual, “he’s not my boyfriend.”

He swallows back his words.

(If he thinks about it, she didn’t really have to be that quick with the response. He was going to clarify anyway. Given a few more seconds, he would have. He’d already explained it twice. It wasn’t like he hadn’t already made it clear. If she’d waited a few seconds to respond, it wouldn’t have made any difference. He would have said it himself in that time.

Not that he does. Think about it.)

 

 

-

 

 

Outside, he offers his hand to help her pass through the throngs. He doesn’t know if he can protect her here, but he has to try. She’s a member of his cast, and he's learning to be a good variety producer.

She looks down. “Mine’s dirty,” she says, voice small, hair still plastered over her forehead, clutching his handkerchief tightly in one hand. She looks younger, somehow. Like a twenty-three year old girl, instead of top-star Cindy. Like Cindy outside the range of the main camera. It messes with his head a little.

“It’s okay,” he replies. Takes it in his.

He can’t tell if it’s dirty, but it’s warm.

 

 

-

 

 

He gets the text from Joon Mo sunbae at night, when he’s just about to reach home from office.

You need to take care of this Cindy business.

It strikes him then, that he… already kind of took care of the Cindy business. Without appropriate directions in the matter. And that he kind of… forgot that it wasn’t actually his business to take care of it. Her.

But, he reasons, it was a fair presumption to make, that he would be asked to settle it. Since he’s mostly assigned to her. Or she’s assigned to him. He’s hazy on the terminology in the variety world. But they’re assigned to each other.

And, after all, he is being asked to settle it. So by already having done something, he’s just being a model employee. He’s being a real PD. He’s growing in his profession.

I willsunbaenim, he replies. Which is not a lie exactly, just an inadvertent mistake of tense, which is of no real consequence.

His phone sounds almost immediately. And wtf is Operation UNESCO???

He doesn’t actually know that, he realizes.

Operation You And Employment Save Cindy Officially, he texts back. It sounds even more bizarre in writing.

-_________-  is the eloquent reply. But then again, there really is no appropriate response to that, he’d imagine.

He hesitates, before clicking on her name. But it’s okay. He’s just getting to know his cast, as Joon Mo sunbae said he should. He’s doing his job. This is important.

Cindy-ssi, he texts, what exactly is Operation UNESCO?

It’s a feint, her reply reads. It’s like I’ve lived all my life as a star, but I’m now one of the people and I don’t make enough money to sustain myself, so I take up part-time jobs like ordinary 20-somethings my age. That’s the sell. You made me beggar Cindy, now I'm just graduating to Cindy of the Middle Class.

You don’t make enough money to sustain yourself? he asks.

He can read her exasperation across mediums, clear in every syllable. It makes him grin. He knows this now; he was reading her wrong before. Reading the Cliff Notes version, instead of the actual novel. Somehow, it feels like he missed out.

Aniyeo, PD-nim, it’s an image building exercise. It’s like saying ‘your support and your kind of work is saving me when my kind of work almost destroyed me’. Like I need to be saved. People like being saviors. It’s in the human psyche. Did you know that doing a favor for someone makes you more inclined to like them? Crazy right? I read it in a psychology book once, when I was preparing for the psychological warfare aspect of the contract negotiation with Byun daepyo.

The Ben Franklin effect, he thinks. He remembers having read about it long ago. She always somehow makes him think of things he thought he’d forgotten.

Psychological warfare, he thinks next. Puts his hand in his mouth to not laugh out loud and wake hyung sleeping next to him.

You’re very thorough, Cindy-ssi, he texts. And, because it’s- worrying- her choice of words. Purely a business worry: do you need to be saved?

She doesn’t reply for three minutes, twenty six seconds and thirteen centiseconds. His new watch, even with the slight crack at the edge of the glass now, is still very accurate.

Of course not, is the answer, when it finally comes. It’s a business strategy. Do I look like someone who needs someone else to save me?

For a brief moment, he thinks of her hand in his. Thinks of the slight shaking of her voice that she’d tried to hide when she’d told him she’d have no one to hold onto when she got back to Seoul. That she only wanted to hold his hand once. Just once. She’d held once, let go and smiled beatifically for the cameras in the morning.

He looks down at his hands.

No, he replies, truthfully, you don’t.

 

 

-

 

 

She really doesn’t.

 

 

-

 

 

His workstation is flooded with mail and boxes the next morning.

“Don’t open it,” Min Joo sunbae advises, “it’s probably hate mail and rotten tomatoes.

“Sorry?” he inquires.

Hyoung Geun sunbae comes behind him and slaps him on the back, “looks like our maknae PD just started the Notting Hill loveline without any scripting. You’re the man, Seung Chan-ah.”

He’s about to go for another, more emphatic, more questioning sorry? when Joon Mo sunbae calls him from across the room.

“You really are amazing, Baek Seung Chan,” he sighs. “By ‘take care of it’, I didn’t mean ‘declare yourself her boyfriend in the national media’. Can you do anything right?”

“I have no idea what anyone here is talking about,” he says, a little desperate by now.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” Joon Mo sunbae replies mysteriously.

Which he does, as soon as he switches on his computer and FORMER TOP-STAR CINDY AND HER TOP-SECRET BOYFRIEND is the headline of the first alert that greets him. Out of a hundred and seventeen. Complete with a picture of her hand clasped in his in front of the café. Apparently, according to the article, she’s looking at him adoringly, and he’s protecting her, like a man, and they've been dating for two years, and he's the reason she agreed to do 1N2D and the reason she was kept on during her scandal with CEO Byun, and she's the reason he became a PD in the first place. Because he wanted to be close to her.

He drops his head down on his desk.

“Think of it like this,” Hyoung Geun sunbae offers soothingly, “if there was no photograph, everyone would assume they were talking about TOP from Big Bang. So this way, at least you get your fifteen minutes of fame.”

Cindy-ssi doesn’t seem like the type to go for someone like Big Bang’s TOP, he almost says, but stops himself in time. That is not the point here.

“Throw out the boxes,” Joon Mo sunbae calls, “nobody wants the KBS headquarters to smell of rotten tomatoes. It would offend the fish market theme the office has going on.”

 

 

-

 

 

Sorry, is the text he gets in the evening, a week later, when he’s still in office, walking through the corridor assigned to the Star Wars team. It’s worse than theirs, at least for now, which is how it should be, in his considered opinion.

It's been radio silence for a week and it's been...too quiet. He assumes she's been lying low because of the scandal. But it's not like- it's not his phone is about to be hacked by crazy samchon fans, so he's pretty sure they can...talk.

Why should you be sorry? he replies He was the one who sought her out and got them into a mess, after all. Operation UNESCO had nothing to do with him, till he made it his business.

Just, she replies.

He’s about reply with a just what? even though he should just let it go, when he runs into her. Literally.

She lets out a soft sound as he steps on her foot, hard, and he immediately steps back.

“Cindy-ssi,” he says, startled.

“PD-nim,” she exclaims.

He watches her face turn white with pain.

“Sorry,” he says, immediately. He’s about to kneel down to get a closer look at her foot, but before he knows it, she has him by the wrist and is dragging him into the Star Wars room.

It’s dark inside. He doesn’t even know where the light switch is, although he can make an educated guess. But, as he reaches out, she pulls his hand back by the sleeve.

“Leave the lights off.”

He stills. She’s pressed against him, his back to the wall, and he hasn’t ever quite realized before how…small she is. She always seems so much bigger in his head. Loud and confusing and tough and alive and far too honest, much too sincere. Just taking up a lot of space somehow. If he said it out loud, she would hit him, he's sure. Remind him of their photograph and how her face was much too big because he took a step back. She does that. Even though she's always pretty. Like now.

“We can’t let anyone see us together,” she says, utterly failing at stage-whispering. “It’ll never die down otherwise.”

“I’m fairly sure,” he says, “there is no paparazzi in the KBS office at 10:00 P.M., Cindy-ssi. We can take our chances.”

“PD-nim,” she begins, seriously. He can’t make out her expression, but her tone suggests she thinks his stupidity just reached a level it would be difficult for gravity to reasonably withstand, “it is not the paparazzi we must fear, but the insiders. Most entertainment industry leaks are insider business.”

He tries to disguise his amusement. “Is that so?” he asks, solemnly.

She nods her head. He can feel the movement somewhere at the center of his chest. It’s an odd feeling. It makes it hard for him to breathe, for some reason.

She appears to register it then, the closeness. Moves back so quickly, she almost hits the table behind her. He reaches out to stop her trajectory. Lets her go once she’s stable on her feet.

He clears his throat, “why were you here, Cindy-ssi?”

Her voice is quieter now, practically a whisper, “for Music Bank.”

“Oh,” he says. Waits for the familiar hurt to flood back, as it does every time he looks at Ye Jin sunbaenim. But it’s a dull ache now, over time. He forgets to even remember some days.

She hesitates for a moment. “I’ll be leaving, then,” she states, moving towards the door, hand already on the handle.

A crash sounds from the corridor. And- maybe it's the dramatic atmosphere of secrecy, or maybe a moment of madness, but before he knows it, he has her pressed against the door, under him this time, on pure protective instinct. He looks out through the slight crack. Da Jung chaka is watching, blank-faced, as Ye Jin sunbaenim bends to pick something she's dropped.

Cindy-ssi cranes her neck to the side, trying to look outside. "What is happening?"

He rubs the back of his neck awkwardly. "Nothing. Sorry, I just- I thought it might be...dangerous," he ends, lamely. Obviously it would be someone from the KBS office- this isn't a makjang drama- what was he even-

She peers through the crack, "Tak PD-nim. She must be done with Music Bank."

He moves to open the door, but she covers his hand, "Don't."

There's a pause.

"Tak PD-nim," she says, subdued, "might get the wrong idea. If we...come out from from this room together. Since it's so dark and everything. And since she's the person you like, there's no point in creating any... unnecessary misunderstandings between you and her." 

He looks down, but she's determinedly not looking at him. I can't bless it, but I don't want to disturb it either. It hits him again, then; Cindy-ssi is a good person.

"Anyway," she's louder, but he can read her bravado now. Read past the armory and ammunition and automatic defence. He's spent days on end in this office, in the closed editing room, just watching her. "Unnecessary misunderstandings are the part I most hate in every drama, because it's so endlessly frustrating."

There's a pause. He listens to Ye Jin sunbaenim's footsteps grow more distant. She must already have turned the corner. It's hard to tell accurately over the staccato of his heartbeat and Cindy-ssi's shallow breathing right next to him.

She waits till the sounds completely fade away, before turning away again, "I shall see you at the next shoot, PD-nim."

She's already half-way down the corridor, before he can even register her movement. 

“Wait,” he calls, “how are you going home, Cindy-ssi? It’s late.”

She turns to him, assessing for a moment before replying. “I’m not going home. There’s construction work going on, and it's all a complete mess, and I can't stand it, so I’m going to take a taxi to a hotel.”

Her funds are still tied with Byun-pire, he remembers Joon Mo sunbae telling him. He can make out through the sliver of light through the now half-open door; she’s avoiding his eyes.

“You can come over to my house,” he’s already said it, and he’s pretty sure he didn’t mean it, but he’s just—not sure of much these days.

“No,” she says quickly. “You have—you said you have your entire family, and your teenage sister also. Thank you for offering, though.”

He can’t believe she remembers that so accurately. Maybe it’s that which makes him push.

“You can wear a face-mask,” he suggests. Even though he should have let it go. Even though this is the worst idea he’s had in a long time, and he’s sure Joon Mo sunbae would gladly vouch for the true depth of what worst means in the context of his ideas.

She hesitates again. Then, indignantly, “are you taking pity on me, PD-nim?”

This was not how he saw the conversation going. “No,” he says immediately, “of course not. Who would I be to take pity on you. I meant—”

“So you’re not taking pity on me, but you’re…calling me over to you house anyway. At night.”

That doesn’t sound good, no matter how he plays it in his head. “Not in that way, Cindy-ssi. All of my family will be home. I just—”

“So you need to clarify it’s not in that way because look at that poor girl, head-over-heels for you. She’ll definitely get the wrong idea if you don’t make it absolutely clear that you didn’t mean it in that way, isn’t that right, PD-nim? Waah, you really are looking down on my unrequited love.”

“No,” he begins, again, desperate, “I would never look down on your- you. That is not at all what I was say—”

But when he looks up, she’s laughing quietly, hand over her mouth. It makes something in him flare up, the sound. He’s getting far too used to her laughter. A habit, almost.

“Thank you,” she says, eyes bright. “I promise not to take it in that way.”

He smiles back at her. He can’t help it. And snaps his fingers, "dangyunhaji."

    

                                                                       

-

 

 

It’s when they’re in his car that he remembers her foot. And when he looks down to assess, it’s already starting to bruise.

He stops the car on the side of the road, and pulls out the First Aid kit from the glove compartment. Slips off her heels, and takes her foot in his hand.

“It’s okay,” she says, easily, trying to pull back, “I bruise easily. It always looks worse than it is. Anyway, with the number of concerts I've given, this doesn't even register.”

He’s starting to understand her a little, he realizes, again, unexpectedly. Just a little.

“You don’t,” he says, slowly, holding her foot more gently, “have to be okay, if you’re not.”

She looks straight up at him at that, and she looks- tired. Exhausted. He hadn’t noticed that before. He’s never been good with it. He hasn’t quite wondered how much it takes to hold up in the middle of everything she’s going through. But he does, now. Wonder.

“Okay,” she says quietly.

She’s embarrassed, he can tell, she keeps fidgeting when he tries to apply the cream and bandage her foot.

“What if someone saw us leave together,” she says, concern evident, “that would blow this up even more.”

He finishes bandaging her foot. “We’re already in a scandal, Cindy-ssi,” he says, starting the car again, “might as well make it worth their time.”

She turns to him, the corner of her mouth upturned slightly, “you’re becoming quite bold, Seung Chan-ssi.”

It's the first time he can remember her using his name.

He glances at her, “only sometimes.”

 

 

-

 

 

She wears the disposable mask he “borrows” from Il Yong sunbae, from the pile sunbae always keeps beneath his desk, just in case his allergies start acting up. Thankfully it's made more for convenience than celebrity intrigues and leaves her mouth free, so it's not completely suspicious. There’s still a moment when Yoo Binnie looks hard at her, her eyes calculating the situation, and he holds his breath, but she’s soon busy texting her friends again.

She’s Ye Jin sunbaenim’s friend, he ends up telling his family, which, he’s guessing is not really even a lie, and his mother will be more willing to be nice to her that way. She has severe allergies is why the mask. She hurt her foot and it was late is why he brought her home. No, she doesn’t need to go to the hospital. Yes, she’ll be fine with a good rest. Yes, it will earn him Ye Jin sunbaenim's undying favor.

There's another moment when they're all sitting at the table for dinner, when, even though the mask doesn't exactly cover her mouth, he's not quite sure Cindy-ssi is going to be able to maneuver the eating part. And there is no way his mother is going to let a guest go hungry at their house- allergies or not. But she gives him a look of determination and raises her mask each time she takes a bite, even though it's probably annoying to do it, and he can feel his heartbeat even out, just a little.

“Seung Channie,” his mother starts sternly only about three minutes in, and god, he should have known this would be a disaster, “why are you in the newspaper today with that girl who comes on T.V. in her underwear. I told you to stay away from her, didn’t I? Girls like that are just out to seduce innocent boys like you. You still don't know how the world works, but girls like that do.”

He chokes on his glass of water. Hyung reaches across and thumps his back. He can’t look at Cindy-ssi, though she’s sitting right beside him.

Omma,” he mumbles incoherently, “I work with Cindy-ssi. She’s a good person. Don’t talk about her like that.”

I think you’re a good person. But I think you don’t think it. When he glances at her, she’s looking at him. And he can’t see anything but her eyes, but he knows she’s thinking of it too. And he wants to tell her this again; he’s sorry. He’s so, so sorry. He was completely wrong. About everything.

“Can you get me an autographed photo?” Yoo Bin pipes up, finally looking up from her phone, plate untouched. “It’s not as valuable now as it would’ve been before that scandal with her agency, but I’m sure there’ll be guys in my class more than willing to pay for it. Especially if it’s in her underwear. When she took her jacket off on Music Bank that one time, Hong Soon said it was the sexiest th-”

There’s a sound from his left. Like muffled giggling. But that can’t be it. Maybe it’s a sound of anger, a string of foreign curses. He doesn't even know what other languages she speaks. She must be really mad at him for making her sit through this.

He frowns at his younger sister, then reaches over the table to smack her on the head.

Ow,” she complains, “that hurt.”

“Eat your dinner and shut up,” he snaps. "And stop talking to boys like Hong Soon."

"Hong Soon is a girl," his sister mutters defiantly, rubbing her head, and throwing him a much-practiced wounded look of betrayal.

Waah,” Jae Hee noona says, “he’s really worked up. He must actually be in love with that singer or something. First he's tying her shoelaces on T.V., now he's holding her hand in the newspapers, next you know he'll be kissing her in our living room. Omma, I’d take that article seriously if I were you. If you’re not careful, who knows, that might be your daughter-in-law on the television in her underwear soon.”

This time, Cindy-ssi chokes on her food. Her mask slips over her nose and almost covers her mouth. She hastily raises it back up. He viciously stabs the rice with his chopsticks. Noona thumps her back. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” she says, her voice distorted by the mask covering half her face, and the effort she’s obviously making to make it sound two octaves higher. Cindy-ssi never does anything half-way, he’s starting to figure out. “I’m perfectly fine. Thank you. It’s the allergies.”

“You’re allergic to the food?” omma asks in concern.

“No, no,” she raises her hand, “the food is- it’s- actually the best food I’ve had in a long time. I don’t…I don’t often get home-cooked food. Thank you, ommo-nim.”

He turns to look at her, but she’s not looking at him. When he looks down, she’s clutching her dress far too tightly with one hand, knuckles turning white with the effort. He thinks for a brief, mad moment, of reaching under the table and holding her hand. But he doesn’t have that kind of courage, so he rests his hand on top of hers instead.

It's okay, he says under his breath, you're okay. She doesn’t reply, but he can feel her hand relax under his. He doesn’t pull away.

His mother looks pleased at that, “you’re most welcome. You can come here any time you want home-cooked food. Your sunbae’s friend is so nice, Seung Chan-ah, why don’t you make friends like her instead of that girl on-”

“Oh, just stop talking about that girl,” aboji grumbles. “At least being next to her got him in the newspaper.”

Which is most grateful he’s ever been to see a conversation end.

“I’m so sorry,” he says, later, standing at his sister’s bedroom door, “for my mother, noona…everyone.”

His sister’s clothes are too big for her, and she’s folded everything twice. It makes something inside him cross-wire. A strange longing that he can’t remember having ever felt before. He doesn’t even know what it's for.

She sounds wistful when she replies, “don’t apologize for your family. It was fun. To be with so many people. At home.”

She’s sincere, he can tell now. She’s so painfully sincere; he must have been blind to have missed it that first time.

“I’m sorry,” he says, again.

“For what.”

He’s not sure himself; he’s sorry for everything.

“Just,” he ends, lamely.

“If you’re so sorry,” she says, businesslike, “get me some cold water. With lime. Don’t make it too cold. But not lukewarm either. I hate lukewarm water. It’s so pointless.”

 

 

-

 

 

But, she texts, later at night, from his sister’s room, when he’s sitting and researching on old Gag Concert recordings, FORMER top-star?? That’s twice. I’m speechless, seriously. I bet this counts as defamation.

He laughs, then quiets down, when hyung starts to stir.

I’ll look it up for you, he promises.

When he finally lies down, he wonders if she’s asleep yet.

 

 

-

 

 

He’s about to leave for work, when omma stops him.

“Drink some water before you go,” she says, which is just a prelude to a conversation he knows.

He takes the glass.

“Your sunbae’s friend left early,” she says, clearly angling for something. "It was raining when she left, so I gave her your umbrella."

“I know,” he gulps down three sips, and sets the glass down, “she left. She had some work.” He should remember to text her about the umbrella.

He thinks of her message again. He can’t go without thinking about it for longer than a minute, twenty seven seconds and fifteen centiseconds.

His mother hesitates, “she went out with me today to sort the trash. And her mask came loose in the middle, so I reached out to tie it, but it accidentally— came off.”

Oh-

He picks up the glass again to give his hands something to do, “I can exp—”

“Do you know,” his mother exclaims, more animated than he’s seen her in a long time, “that pretty agasshi knows everything about separating the trash that there is to know? She even pierced the cans. And took the labels off all the bottles. She was up early, and asked me if she could organize the kitchen, and now it looks like it did when we first bought the house. She even re-stacked the refrigerator," omma opens the door demonstratively. Everything's arranged in a gradient. It's oddly calming. "Isn’t she a celebrity? How did she learn all that? I read in all those magazines recently that her parents died when she was young. It’s simply inexplicable that she knows so much.”

He exhales. Thinks about it for a moment. “Cindy-ssi is… hard to explain.”

She’s easy to read and too complicated to understand. She’s a mess of contradictions. He’s not sure he can figure her out completely, even if he sits down and writes a thesis on her. She’s always more than he can research. Somehow, she’s always more.

“Anyway,” his mother says firmly, “there should be more young girls like her in the world.”

“I thought,” he points out, guilelessly, “that girls like her who come on T.V. in their underwear are-”

His mother smacks him on the arm. “Why are you talking about other people’s underwear? Did omma not teach you better than that? And that too like it’s an alien invention. Doesn’t everyone wear underwear? Are you not wearing underwear right now? Should she come on T.V. without any underwear? Don’t go around saying nonsensical things, son.”

He downs the rest of the water, even though he’s not really thirsty. Turns his head to hide a smile.

 

 

-

 

 

She was already gone by the time he woke up, though he woke up earlier than usual, just in case she might leave.

I had a schedule, her text had read. But thank you, for yesterdaySome people are worth building houses for.

 

 

-

 

 

Joon Mo sunbae catches hold of him by the collar as soon as he reaches the office.

“Is this punishment?” Sunbae asks agitatedly, shaking him, “Did I do something wrong to you, Baek Seung Chan? Have you finally gotten tired of putting too much sugar in my coffee? Is this your attempt at creativity?”

He discreetly frees himself, “I don’t think you did anything wrong, sunbae.”            

Sunbae shoves a phone in his general direction, “read.”

CINDY’S TWO DAYS AND ONE NIGHT WITH THE MAKNAE PRODUCER.  Complete with a photograph of Cindy-ssi in a mask. Entering his house.

Damn—

“I should call Cindy-ssi,” he mumbles. This is bad. This is very bad. Entire careers have been destroyed on lesser grounds than this. Maybe giving people something to talk about wasn’t the best first attempt at rebellion. He could’ve just jumped into the Han if he wanted to live dangerously. “We don’t know if she’s okay. Fans can get very angry over things like this. And she’s living alone now, without the Byun Entertainment security system. It might not be safe. I’ll go and find-”

“Is Cindy the one you should be worrying about right now?” Sunbae asks, exasperated. “Worry about yourself first. I only just stopped this going to the press, because the guy who wrote it is a hoobae of mine. And now I probably owe him my first born.”

“This,” he asks, slowly, “didn’t get published?”

“No,” sunbae replies, “No thanks to you. Why have you suddenly taken it into your head to start taking that child to your house? Aish, seriously. Am I running a daycare center here? Am I an elementary school teacher, that I have to keep running after both of you to keep you out of trouble and wipe your lips and stop you from crayoning all over the walls? Such a pain in the—”

He has his arms around sunbae before the sentence is overwhich turns out to be more awkward than he’d imagined it would, and he really should have thought this through. He really should start thinking things through.

Sunbae pulls back. Then covers his mouth with both hands, as if Seung Chan might suddenly kiss him or something. Which is an extremely strange reaction to have, he thinks, considering the situation. He is grateful, not insane. “What are you doing?”

“Thank you, sunbaenim,” he says, sincerely. And means it.

Joon Mo sunbae snorts, but he’s been with sunbae long enough to know now when the real exasperation turns into mere pretense. “So this guy knows how to say thank you. Who would’ve thought. Yah, if she had nowhere to go, you should’ve brought her over to my place. It’s not like you don’t already treat it like a free-for-all boardinghouse. How could you have taken her home with your entire family there?”

“But,” he says. Somehow the idea doesn’t sit right in his head. It hadn’t last night either when he’d considered it for about three milliseconds that even his watch can't register, and dismissed it. It was better risking his sister instagramming the entire world, than that. “Ye Jin sunbaenim doesn’t live with you anymore. To take a single woman to the house of a man who lives alone doesn’t seem right.”

Joon Mo sunbae’s mouth falls open in shock. “What is this kid suggesting. Woman? That child? Is she a woman to you?”

That— makes him pause. There’s no answer to that. He thinks, for a brief moment, of the dark and bright light and amusement parks. He doesn’t realize he’s touching his lips till several beats in. Then forces himself to pull his fingers away.

“He doesn’t want you to be alone with Cindy,” Ye Jin sunbae says, casually, coming up behind them. “don’t want you to be alone with Cindy. Is that not a natural reaction to have, Joon Mo-yah?”

“But,” Joon Mo sunbae protests, “we’re dating, it’s different. There is no reason—”

Then stops. And turns to him with a full-blown glare of suspicion. “Oh.”

“No,” he protests, “I know what you’re thinking and it’s absolutely nothing at all like that. At all.”

“Of course it isn’t,” Ye Jin sunbae says, agreeably.

“At all,” Joon Mo sunbae adds.

“It really isn’t,” he insists. “Cindy-ssi’s house is under construction, and I was just-”

“-playing the part of a good PD,” Ye Jin sunbae completes.

“Taking care of the cast,” Joon Mo sunbae supplements.

 “…yes,” he trails off.

(There’s something about saying it out loud which makes it sound like— an excuse. Not that it is one. At all.)

He thinks he hears something muttered which sounds suspiciously like methinks the lad doth protest too much, and he’s about to protest that he wrote fifteen thousand words on Hamlet for extra credit in Advanced Literature in English in school, and that is not the context of the quotation at all. And anyway, the correct quotation is the lady doth protest too much, methinks, even though it’s often misquoted in the popular media, so the correct contextualizing, accounting for his gender, would be the lad doth protest too much, methinks. Not that that is the point. The point is— but both his sunbaes are looking in opposite directions and whistling quietly to themselves by then.

(He is not protesting too much. At all. Just very much the right amount.)

 

 

-

 

 

Did you reach home safe? is his next text. And all this texting is becoming—a habit, or something. The conversation is punctuated randomly with lines from Demian in the middle.

Your thoughts are deeper than you yourself are able to express.

But where paths that have an affinity for each other intersect, the whole world looks like home, for a time.

My story is neither sweet nor harmonious, as invented stories are; it has the taste of nonsense and chaos, of madness and dreams –

She sometimes sends those to him, without context, without explanation. Lines he’d almost forgotten he’d ever read, ever underlined. Somehow, she’s a long process of remembering things he didn’t even realize he’d forgotten in the first place.

Yep, she replies.

That sounds like a definitive end, but he resumes, for some reason, how’s Operation UNESCO coming along?

Not good, she replies, immediately, like, I figured I’d start this moving company thing for small household deliveries, but did you know there are people who don’t want things to be placed in exact squares on the model tiles and complain that it’s taking too much time or whatever?? THAT MAKES NO SENSE. THE SQUARES ARE THERE FOR A REASON. WHY WOULD GOD HAVE MADE SQUARES OTHERWISE.

He bites down on his lip. People, he texts, are stupid.

The worst. He can read her frustration across five miles. Btw, thank you PD-nim, for the continued support. I saw my shampoo in your bathroom. Although I heard they’re using Suzy for the next batch's advertising. Please, like Suzy's hair isn’t just a glorified beech tree by now, under all those bad dye jobs.

He thinks about it for a moment; her face on the sticker, skin glowing, eyes not tired like the real Cindy’s. It’s strange, how much he’s starting to see, behind the image, behind the two dimensions of her face on hoardings, on shampoo bottles, on soju bottles, on the television, in the editing room.

I’m sure your hair is softer than Suzy-ssi’s, he types, it looks like it would be. Then adds hastily, I always turn your face away, Cindy-ssi. When I change. Just in case she gets the wrong idea about it. He’s not a pervert. He’s not sure of what the ethics of a PD taking their clothes off in front of a picture of their cast member, but it doesn’t sound like it would qualify anyone for a professional ethicality award.

Her reply is a long time coming. He stares at his phone. Then tries to stop. But the trying takes as long as her reply does, so it’s kind of…a moot venture.

 “Yah,” Joon Mo sunbae’s voice calls from outside the glass door, startling him, “have you gotten any work done at all or are you waiting for a sign from the heavens that this is what you should be doing with your life? A message like Seung Channie fighting, hashtag YOLO, hashtag U MADE 4 VARIETY, hashtag ThisIsDaFatherInHeaven. Because I’ve passed by thrice, and unless you’ve been editing the preview on your phone—”

“Sorry, sunbae,” he mumbles. and turns back to her face on the computer screen. The main camera is off, and she’s frowning at something in the distance. There are no shots of her frowning in the main camera footage. He traces the line between her eyebrows with his eyes.

He keeps his phone out of reach. Doesn’t pick it up again, even when it finally buzzes.

If he looks in its general direction fifteen times in the next thirty six minutes, twenty three seconds and five centiseconds then—well, that’s neither here nor there.

 

 

-

 

 

That’s a pity, is her reply, when he’s finally finished with work and can use his phone again because he was just a model employee, and is well within his rights to use his phone if he wants to. He knows his labor law, he was in law school after all. In the University of Seoul. He's kind of smart.

That’s a pity. It's a pity he turns her gaze away.

A strange, unfamiliar heat curls somewhere low in his stomach.  A frisson of current.

Maybe the wiring in his phone short-circuited. His phone has been acting up. He should have actually gotten it fixed long ago. Except he kept pretending it would get okay on its own and he didn’t need to make the trip to the repair shop. And now he’s been electrocuted.

 

 

-

 

 

She steps out, just as he pulls up in front of her apartment. Her hat so wide-brimmed, it hides her face entirely. Which is probably the point.

He waits for a moment for her to look up. It's his cap- he realizes belatedly. The one he gave her all that time back at their first shoot. She still has it. He didn't know she still had it. He honks, to give his hands something to do.

“PD-nim,” she exclaims, when she’s raised her cap enough to be able to see beyond it, “what are you doing here.”

He’s strangely nervous, he realizes, his hands clammy on the wheel. That stupid cap is just adding to it. This is beyond ridiculous. “Cindy-ssi, I just— I thought I could drive you down for the shoot. Because your manager is so often late in taking the bus, and we’re on a tight schedule today. And most taxi drivers just don’t know how to navigate through the shoot locations. Besides, since this is an official visit, the gas is paid for by the company, so it seemed reasonable. Economically speaking.”

The schedule is not…tight, exactly. But it’s also not not tight. As it stands, none of the sunbaes mentioned to him whether it was tight or not, so, taking that into consideration, it’s a probability of 0.5 either way. And if he has to make a presumption anyway, he should err on the side of caution. That’s definitely the mark of a real variety PD.

She stares at him for a moment, an unreadable look on her face. He shades his eyes against the sun.

“Okay,” she gives in, and she’s already climbed in before he can open the door for her, “good. This is good.”

“Good,” he echoes.

She’s unusually silent on the way. When he looks over, she’s staring out the window. All six times.

“You aren’t saying much today, Cindy-ssi.” He ventures, after a sufficient amount of time has passed, and it would be reasonable for him to start wondering about it.

“We talk too much…clever talk is absolutely worthless,” she quotes. He remembers the line.

“All you do in the process is lose yourself," he completes. “I meant to underline that. But I didn’t have anything to underline it with the time I came across it, and then I forgot.”

“It’s okay,” she shrugs, “I underlined it twice.”

She’s silent for a while again. It’s not awkward exactly—he’s starting to realized. It’s just…comfortable.

“Here,” she says, finally, taking something out of her purse, “if you know someone who needs help moving something—”

And suddenly there are some fifty pieces of paper in his lap. He picks up one, taking his eyes off the road for a second. It’s a business card. Professional in the extreme. CINDY’S DELIVERY SERVICE. It states, with a picture- clearly a selca- front and centre. Cindy Delivers Happiness! Also Stuff!

He clears his throat. “I’ll be sure to recommend you to everyone I know.”

She nods, “good. If you ever need any more, just let me know, I have nine hundred and fifty cards left. I'm thinking of making a new batch, maybe calling it Operation ILO- I Love Organizing. It's in keeping with the overall employment references.”

He pulls up next to the shoot equipment, “I’m almost certain I’ll need more at some point. I'll call you.”

“Look who it is,” the maknae chaka-nim yells from the other side of the field, as he opens the door for her, “it’s the Rom Com couple. Arriving together. Maybe we should rename them the One Night Two Days couple.”

He can feel himself turn red, “Cindy-ssi.”

She stops, and looks back at him, “what?”

“I—” he begins, awkwardly, “I should probably inform you, that the 1N2D team wants to do this whole Notting Hill concept- top-star falls for…rookie producer…thing- they think it’ll help with the ratings. And with the…scandal and everything being in the news. I wasn’t involved at all, I swear. I have no say in it. I would have vetoed it, if I did. But I’m not even a permanent member of this Security Council. Not even a temporary member. Not even a member. Not eve—”

“Cool,” she interrupts him, “it’s been a while since I’ve done a drama. You haven’t seen my dramas, right? I’m pretty good at acting.”

“I’ve seen— some,” he deflects. He’s seen all of them by now. Purely for research purposes. Of course.

She strikes an affected pose and begins dramatically, “I’m just a girl, sta—”

He can’t see her face through her cap, but her pose is— he tries to stifle a laugh. Fails miserably.

“Is it my acting that you're finding so funny, PD-nim,” she says ominously.

“No,” he backtracks instantly, “of course not. Your dramas had such high ratings, Cindy-ssi. Who would I be to find your acting funny.”

She’s taken off her hat now. Three steps back, and she’s right in front of him.

“I’m just a girl,” she begins softly, head tilted up, her eyes straight on his. She looks younger, suddenly, clutching her- his- cap tightly in one hand, more vulnerable. Like he’s only ever seen her look when the main camera is off and she thinks no one’s watching. “Standing in front of a boy. Asking him to love her.”

He can barely make out the sounds of the location through the white noise in his head. He feels charged, electric. Like she passed on her electrons to him somehow, without even touching him.

“That was pretty good, huh,” she turns away, voice uneven, “I told you I’m good.”

“You—uh,” he swallows, hard. “You’re—”

“Anyway,” she interrupts, brightly. But—here’s the thing, he’s spent hours filming her, spent hours in a dark room editing her, spent hours looking at her looking at him in her mirror. She’s a good actress, he knows, but he’s a better reader by now. “Do you want to play rock, papers, scissors? The loser has to carry my luggage to the tent.”

“Don’t you have your own delivery service?” He points out. “This is practically your job.”

She stares at him in open-mouthed outrage, “I’m off duty right now. Do you really expect me to work a part-time job like a full-time profession? Have you ever read any of our country’s great labor law manuals, PD-nim? What a bourgeois suggestion to make. Anyway, I’m going to pull scissors—rock, paper, scissors!”

He takes out a hand as pure reflex. Waits for the familiar down-turn of her mouth. She always does it far too unexpectedly, he wants to tell her. If she just gave him some prior warning, just did it a little slower, he could probably bypass his reflexes and let her win.

“Sorr—” he begins, but when he looks up from her scissors pose, she’s smiling widely.

He looks down at his outstretched fingers. Paper. A losing hand.

“I won,” she crows in delighted triumph, “I won! See, I told you I’d win one of these days.”

She crooks a victorious finger in his direction, then points to her luggage, and walks off.

If you happen to think of me, and wonder what kind of houses I’m building—like whether it’s a villa or a one-room house— if you ever get curious...just turn back and look at me.

He breathes in. "Cindy-ssi," he calls after her, "let's go together." 

Watches as she stops, then turns around to wait for him. 

"You're late," she laughs.

(And he is. Very late. Which is inexplicable, considering his watch gives the time down to the centiseconds.)

"Sorry," he says. He really is.

He adjusts the strap of her bag on his shoulder, takes the handles of her suitcases in both hands, and follows her into the sunlight.

 

 

-

 

 

(Here’s something he’s starting to learn about Cindy-ssi. Somehow, she’s both easy and difficult to read. Like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story. The kind he used to read all the time in school. The kind where he had to make choices on every page, and where he sometimes thought he'd reached an ending, but it was only one of the twenty available endings, and he had to keep going back and taking all the roads not taken the first time, because there was no point in even reading the book otherwise.)

 

 

-

 

 

It rains in Seoul during the 2018 World Cup semi-final against Brazil. The projector set up in Yeouido Park malfunctions.

“It’s nothing like 2002,” she complains, her voice muffled by the mask, “we were hosting back then. There is no point in watching a match that is actually happening in Russia on a projector in the middle of a crowd. Crowds suck. And a projector that isn’t even working, by the way. When did we decide you were qualified to make decisions like ‘let’s go to Yeouido Park and watch the match during a storm, than sit at home and order beer and chicken like everyone sane ever’?”

He tucks back the rain-drenched strands of hair plastered to her face. Leans over her and pulls the umbrella from her bag.

“You still haven’t returned it,” he notes, seriously. “Do you know KBS has been cutting three years of late-fines from my paycheck every month? I haven’t mentioned it, because it seemed a bit awkward to after the nine hundredth and twenty sixth time, but just so you know.”

She stares at him, “what does this umbrella even do? Open the closet-door to Narnia?”

He shrugs.

“Anyway,” she continues, “let’s decide it the usual way. I win, I get to keep it. You win, you can take it back. No more late fines. I’m going to pull paper. Rock, paper, scissors—”

“That is so unfair and you know—” he begins, but his hand is already fisted, before he’s so much as completed his own sentence.

She doesn’t even bother looking down.

“A win is a win,” she declares, pulling her cap lower over her face, to hide her smile, he knows.

"I’m sure I’ll win one of these days,” he swears, tugging at the sleeve of her jacket so she practically falls on him.

Unfurls the umbrella over them.

 

 

-

 

 

It’s strange how much it still feels like he won.