donghyuck carefully inspects the vegetables in the stall.
it’s a good thing he wakes up way too early to have one of his roommates tag along on his morning grocery shopping adventures. there is no jaemin to nag him to hurry the fuck up, or jeno to get distracted by a dog and wander off, or yangyang to point the dogs out to jeno. renjun never bothers to come so he’s excluded from this scenario.
so he takes his sweet time fussing over every radish, every eggplant, every cucumber in the outdoor market a couple of neighborhoods away from theirs. it’s around six in the morning and he’s the only person there under sixty.
“that’ll be 20,000 won,” the middle aged woman running the stall says without looking at him. she knows what’s about to come.
“20,000 is way too much, auntie,” he whines. “i’ve been coming here almost every week for how long now?”
she forces herself to look up and scans him in disdain. “you look a little more grown since the first time i saw you.”
“five years! five whole years, and you still won’t give a discount to your favorite customer? come on, i have four mouths to feed.” six if he includes jisung and chenle, who always come over to annihilate their fridge.
“i’ll give them to you for fifteen if you spare me from hearing your life story this time around.”
donghyuck breaks into a big grin, and she smiles back. she can’t help it, his energy is contagious. “i love you! you’re so good to me!”
“i always am. just promise you won’t abandon us and go to that giant mall across the street instead. business hasn’t been good since it opened,” she sighs.
the neo group’s newest shiny department store had set shop only a month ago, fully equipped with a movie theater, food court, and underground supermarket. there is something cold and lifeless about it. donghyuck thinks it’s an ugly and unnecessary addition to their otherwise quiet part of the city.
“of course i won’t,” he winks at her. “i’ll be your favorite customer until i’m forty.”
she snorts. “you better not still be single and living with four roommates by that time.”
“maybe i’m saving myself for you.”
“donghyuck, take your vegetables and get the hell out.”
mornings at the aptly named dream house are a bit hectic, but it’s exactly what you’d expect from the living space of five guys in their twenties.
donghyuck and jaemin share breakfast duty, alternating depending on the days of the week, and while jaemin is all about efficiency and getting as much food in as many mouths as quickly as possible, donghyuck likes to take his sweet time, waking up at five in the morning and preparing an elaborate meal that he makes sure to force everyone to be awake enough to appreciate and give him his due credit.
it’s been that way since they started living together in their first year of university, thrust together by fate and maybe a bored god who wanted to see what would happen if little grumpy renjun was forced to cohabitate with four over excited puppies. his various threats to move out over the years proved empty, because most of them had graduated but grew far too attached to move out.
the part about donghyuck staying there until he’s forty might not have entirely been a joke.
jeno emerges from his and jaemin’s room first. his eyes are still closed but his nose has detected the smell of donghyuck’s food and his body started to move on its own.
“no thanks, already had that yesterday.”
“lee jeno i put a roof over your head and feed you and this is the first you say to me on this unholy morning? take it back or your breakfast goes in the trash.”
jeno finally opens his eyes, but only to narrow them at donghyuck questionably. “first of all, i pay my own rent. second, jaemin is still sleeping. third, you’re a bit testy today. did you not get a good price for our groceries this time?”
“of course i did, i am a haggling god.” donghyuck puffs his chest as he continues setting the table. jaemin shuffles in next and presses a kiss on jeno’s cheek before taking his usual seat across from him.
“you tried to flirt with her again didn’t you?” he asks in a rather accusing tone. donghyuck doesn’t like it, especially because jaemin used to flirt with anything with a pulse prior to dating his roommate. jaemin is where he gets all his awful pick up lines in the first place.
“that’s none of your concern,” donghyuck mumbles back. “she was telling me that the neo department store is hurting their business. kinda makes me feel bad for applying there.”
despite graduating top of his class with a business administration degree at sm university, his job search had been fruitless in the six months that followed. so when he saw an online recruitment ad, he thought it would be funny to apply to the largest corporation in south korea.
one month ago
there is literally no reason for him to be nervous. it’s not like he ever has a chance of ever working here.
but donghyuck still finds himself fixing his tie for ten minutes in the reflecting glass of the skyscraper where he’s supposed to be having his interview. when he’s finally satisfied with it, his attention strays to his hair. has it always flopped down his head like that? it looks so stupid and now he’s freaking out because he probably should have asked jaemin to fix it up for him in the morning. too late for that now. he’s going to walk in there looking like a distressed poodle and there is nothing he can do about it.
that place is a monstrosity, he thinks. it’s in the heart of the financial sector of seoul, so grand that the nearest subway station is named after it, with a fountain outside and the signature grass green color that represents the company present everywhere, but most prominently in the giant letters proudly spelling NEO right next to the revolving front door. just in case someone gets lost and misses every other clue of where they might be.
it makes donghyuck wonder if all the trees in the street were planted just to match their brand.
he drags himself inside, and he can’t shake off the irrational feeling that everyone in the sprawling reception area is staring at him, probably chuckling to themselves about his stupid looking hair.
donghyuck ignores the polite but confused smile from the receptionist and takes a seat in the cafe.
he’s still in disbelief that he ever got a call back from them. it really feels like one big practical joke. there are hundreds of much more qualified and experienced people out there and they choose lee fucking donghyuck.
so he sucks it up when the barista cheerfully asks him to fork out 8,000 won for a fucking latte. it’s not like he’s ever going to have a chance to taste their overpriced bourgeoisie coffee again. might as well, right?
donghyuck checks his phone and chuckles to himself when he finds thirty new messages from his friends.
they know exactly how he can tense up when forced into a stressful situation, so they all spammed their group chat with memes and jokes and encouraging messages (well, just one from jeno) to get a laugh out of him before he goes into the scariest interview of his life.
he drinks his latte (which, fine, tastes pretty fucking amazing) while watching the big screen taking over one of the walls in a daze. it’s lee doyoung, neo group’s chairman, talking about some humanitarian initiative designed to make his corporation seem less evil. it’s obvious why he let his face be a part of their public image: doyoung is young, handsome, charismatic and has a warm smile that only compliment his perfect features.
that smile might have been what lured donghyuck into this place. not that it mattered, he’s engaged to another obscenely rich heir. jung jaehyun.
he’s so lost in doyoung’s explanation on why he’s saving the world that he almost falls out of his seat when his alarm goes off.
this is it.
donghyuck sheepily walks over to the receptionist, who greets him with the same bright smile, and tells her that mr. nakamoto was waiting for him upstairs.
if he thought he was nervous before, the waiting room filled with all the other sweaty and panicked candidates makes him want to pass out. the air is thick and stuffy, and donghyuck keeps having to remind himself to breathe.
it’s an unusual setup. most of the companies he applied for interviewed multiple people at once, but everyone here is being called in for one on one interviews. not efficient, but less embarrassing for him.
he watches people come in and out, some with faint smiles, others on the verge of throwing up. he’s pretty sure someone was trying to muffle the sound of their sobs in their sleeve. but it’s going to be fine. he’s not like them. he never had any hopes or expectations so he’s not going to be crushed when he gets laughed out of the room. donghyuck is just here for a laugh and a story to tell his roommates over dinner.
he braces himself and steps inside. there are three men sitting behind a table and scrutinizing him as he makes his way to the sad looking foldable chair in the middle of the room. geez, they could afford every fucking chair in south korea and they go with something that looks like it just got dug out of a supply closet. is this some kind of intimidation tactic? implicitly reminding him of his worth?
he feels like he’s about to audition for the latest season of produce 101, and the mental image involuntarily makes him smile. the guy sitting in the middle misunderstands his expression and grins back at him. good start.
“welcome donghyuck,” he says. “i’m nakamoto yuta. you nervous?”
“nah,” donghyuck’s stupid big mouth moves all on its own. “i’m the best fit for your company. you know why?”
this isn’t going to go anywhere, so he might as well have some fun with it. donghyuck doesn’t want to be that person who pukes his guts out in the nearest bathroom, and blabbing is what always helps him calm his nerves.
the three men exchange incredulous looks and the taller one on the left is the one who asks: “why?”
“everyone here is obscenely good looking,” donghyuck responds in a theatrical whisper. he’s not lying. it’s not just doyoung. yuta looks like he escaped from a japanese youth drama, to his left is a giant with elvish features, and to his right is perhaps the best looking person donghyuck has seen in his life, with pretty eyes and a jawline that looks like it was carved by the gods. he gestures to his own body. “and i mean, i don’t think i need to explain myself further.”
yuta stares at him with his mouth open, looking completely unamused by this answer, but the elf snickers. “the flattery won’t get you far, mr. lee.”
“i’m in neo group’s head office, how much further could i get?” that earns an unexpected snort from yuta. there you go.
there is no way for him to spin the questions about his education and background into a comedic routine, so he answers them honestly. then the chiseled greek god (lee taeyong, donghyuck soon learns) asks him about his greatest strength.
“i can talk my way into and, if the situation requires, out of anything.” he winks at taeyong as if to say, i know you guys are shady as fuck, i get it .
the elf, john, rattles off before he could. “overconfidence, talking too much, lack of experience….”
ouch. “you really understand me, i feel like we made a real connection here,” he replies with a warm smile.
the second he walks out of the room, his shaky legs finally begin to feel like they’re about to give out. he did it. he really made a complete fool out of himself
he does rush to the bathroom, but only because the latte from earlier did not sit well around the tense nerves in his stomach. the one here is completely packed. fuck. he takes the elevator and heads a couple of floors up.
the twenty seventh floor bathroom is not only deserted, but also noticeably fancier. but donghyuck doesn’t have time to marvel at the gaudy marble and golden sinks, he locks himself into a stall, and as soon as he begins to process what a fucking weird day he’s had, someone busts in.
“so this is the day you decided you gave a shit about me, what gives?” the voice sends a chill down donghyuck’s spine. the man on the other side is not shouting, but there’s an undercurrent of anger in his voice that makes him feel like he’s listening in on a bubbling volcano.
also, he clearly has no idea donghyuck is there.
“i don’t care, doyoung, i’m not going. i don’t want to see him. or you for that matter.” doyoung ? as in the fucking president and owner of this fancy toilet that he’s trying to poop in uninterrupted? he should have known wandering around the building unsupervised would land him in trouble.
there is a long pause as the static of doyoung’s voice replies to this mysterious, but admittedly terrifying figure. he can’t think of any person here who has the authority to talk to him like that.
“appearances…..that’s all that matters to yo- no, let me finish. that really all that fucking matters to you. do you actually want me to be there for any other reason, doyoung?”
another pause, and then the person chuckles. “i’ll call you that when you earn my respect.” and then the two beeps signifying the end of a phone call. it’s silent again, only the sound of the running water and what donghyuck feels like is his very loud breathing.
the guy stays there for a while, an excruciating five minutes, and donghyuck tries to reach for his own phone, but the rustling of his clothes betrays him.
the flowing of the water abruptly stops. “who’s there?”
donghyuck stops breathing, and he stays frozen, afraid that any movement will make more noise and have the terrifying guy break through his door and kick him out of the building.
they both stay still, waiting for the other to make the first move. to donghyuck’s surprise, the guy only heaves a very long sigh and leaves. strange. maybe he exhausted all his anger on that phone call.
he takes a peek out of his stall as soon as the person steps out the door, and he only catches a glimpse of the back of his black hair and a suit that probably costs three months of donghyuck’s rent.
there is something strangely familiar about him.
“neo group’s run by a bunch of dickbags in suits,” donghyuck makes a disgusted face as he takes a sip of his (reasonably priced) coffee.
“you couldn't shut up about how hot everyone there was for an entire week,” jaemin points out. “you’re just mad they’ve ghosted you.”
donghyuck turns red. was he really that embarrassing about it? “you don’t understand, jaemin. there is some sort of evil aura in that entire place. it made me so uncomfortable, i hated being there.”
he thinks of the guy in the bathroom. who the hell could that be? he searched the internet for clues and to learn more about the neo group hierarchy and all that turned up is a bunch of old farts. there was no way it could be any of them.
“there’s that face again,” jeno whispers to jaemin, snapping him back to reality.
a loud thud comes from yangyang and renjun’s room, followed by a string of very impolite german words that donghyuck wishes he didn’t know the meaning to.
“yangyang, if you’re going to swear at least do it in a language we can understand,” jeno says, rubbing his temple.
“fuck!” yangyang screams back in korean. “i missed my morning class. why didn’t any of you wake me up?”
jeno and donghyuck stare at each before reciting the speech that yangyang gave them just last week. “‘i’m a grown adult, i don’t someone to drag me out of bed and take me to school.’”
everyone in the dream house has already obtained their bachelor’s degree except for him. yangyang transferred at the beginning of their second semester, and renjun still calls him the newbie sometimes.
he’s sitting down on the table and gorging on donghyuck’s breakfast in seconds. “i was wrong! i’m a baby!” yangyang says as he chews loudly.
“i don’t think your professor will accept that excuse,” jaemin snickers.
he’s gone in a flash, and donghyuck goes back to their urgent topic. “tell me, what face was i making?”
“you always do this thing when you mention neo, you just space out like you’re deep in thought about something. literally every time, and it’s so weird!” jeno replies. “did anything happen there that you’re not telling us about?”
donghyuck rolls his eyes. “what the hell would i keep from you?”
they’ll only think he’s crazy for getting so fixated over some random dude’s voice, and the fact that he was eavesdropping on someone’s conversation while taking a shit doesn’t bode well for him, no point in telling them.
renjun finally comes out of his cave around noon. he joins donghyuck on the couch, where he’s idly watching a daily drama. the plot is awful and somehow managed to shove in three birth secrets and one amnesia plotline, but he’s over a hundred episodes deep and he can’t stop until he sees it through.
“sleeping the entire morning….not having to worry about job hunting….i’m really jealous of your life, huang,” he says as he throws an arm around his shoulder. renjun squirms in irritation but doesn’t move, like a cat begrudgingly accepting affection.
“no you’re not,” he says. he just pulled another all nighter doing some gruelling research work. realistically, donghyuck understands that grad school is difficult and that he’s not equipped for it at all, but he still likes to daydream sometimes.
“found any aliens yet?” is what he’s been asking renjun on a weekly basis since they met and renjun excitedly informed him that he’s an astronomy major. he only ever looks excited talking about the stars, and it makes donghyuck wish he was that passionate about something.
“you’ll be the first to know,” comes renjun’s usual reply, with a hint of fondness in his voice despite his stoic expression.
the two of them have been spending a lot of time together after graduation. with yangyang frantically trying to get through his senior year and jaemin and jeno settling into their new jobs, only their odd schedules seem to align.
“how many interviews are you going to this week?” renjun asks. he can smell donghyuck’s job hunt induced anxiety from a mile away.
“zero,” donghyuck replies, trying to keep an easy tone even though it hurts to say it out loud. “it’s really rough out there, maybe i should go back to school.”
“hey, come on now. you got as far as an interview with the biggest corporation in the country. that counts for something, right?” renjun tries to comfort him. “something is coming soon, i can feel it.”
“how can you tell, is it because of the new moon or saturn’s retrograde?”
the corners of renjun’s mouth twitch. “what did we say about astrology talk, donghyuck?”
“not inside the house.” there is nothing that his best friend hates more, and he has gone off on more strangers at parties who told him that ‘they’re such a gemini’ than donghyuck can count on his fingers, but he can’t resist the urge to push his buttons.
they finish the drama and then share a pot of ramyun, and as donghyuck drops his head on renjun’s lap for his afternoon nap, he feels like he’s carrying the world’s entire weight along with him.
he hates feeling like that, weak and helpless against the unstoppable force of sadness that hits him whenever he thinks about how badly he’s fucking up this whole being an adult thing.
the traces of positive energy and hopefulness that he carried with him throughout his college years are starting to fade, and instead he’s faced with a deep sense of dread. no bright future, only darkness and uncertainty ahead.
maybe he started to get invested in that neo incident because he liked being there and how important it made him feel on some subconscious level, and it’s the only connection he has left with that place.
his eyelids grow heavy, and he falls asleep as a neo-owned candy brand commercial plays on the tv.
he wakes up after an hour to an email notification.
he’s standing there again, and the skyscraper feels impossibly tall, stretching above him like a dark cloud over his miserable existence.
donghyuck must be insane to walk back into this place again. willingly. but then again, nakamoto is not in his right mind either for not deleting and burning all his contact information after that disaster of an interview.
he checks his hair in the exact same spot. he is a distressed poodle no longer, he’s a confident adult man who does not compare himself to puppies in times of hardship, and he can fucking do this.
the friendly receptionist recognizes him immediately, and when he explains why he’s here this time she happily leads him to the twenty seventh floor.
“as soon as you get off the elevator, take a left and keep walking straight, his office should be at the end of the hallway,” she instructs. “congratulations, by the way.”
he furrows his eyebrows and hesitates in front of the door at the end of the hallway. maybe he should have asked nakamoto for instructions beforehand. as if he was reading his mind, nakamoto texts him at that exact moment. go up and meet him first. i’ll be there soon.
he tries knocking, but there is no response.
he’s not answering!
the reply comes quickly. just open the door, he doesn’t care.
mark lee’s office is big and the city view from the window behind him is breathtaking, but the space is cramped and still makes donghyuck feel a little claustrophobic. he wants to skip greetings and start clearing the mountains of paperwork scattered everywhere right away.
not that mark would notice. he still hasn’t looked up from the laptop he’s furiously typing on, and despite donghyuck never seeing him before in his life he still feels a little starstruck. mark is boyishly handsome, his youthful features contrasting with the sharp angles of his face and high cheekbones. his office might be a mess but his look is meticulous in every aspect, from his perfectly styled black hair to the expensive watch reflecting the early morning sun rays to his dark green tie, and when he leans back towards his chair, deep in thought, donghyuck’s mouth goes dry as he notices how well his crisp white shirt compliments his broad shoulders and lean figure.
it takes him an entire minute to remember how to speak again. “mr. lee? i’m lee donghyuck.”
mark looks up from his laptop, startled. he blinks once, then twice, then his eyes widen in recognition. they’re so round and pretty, and donghyuck is a little dazed. “come on in.”
his voice registers in donghyuck’s head in an instant. it’s the guy from the bathroom.
and today is donghyuck’s first day as his personal assistant.