He pulls his dark beanie just above his eyebrows before looking around to make sure he isn't followed or noticed by anyone. He secures the mask covering two-thirds of his features, adjusts his round glasses and tries to blend into the throng of pedestrians as he walks along Myeongdong street.
His fidgety fingers are stuffed into his pockets as he keeps his head low while scanning the rows of shops and vendors along the sidewalk, hoping to find something suitable as a gift for a special someone. He can't return empty handed again, today is his last chance to present the gift.
People roughly brush past him and he groans inwardly. Of all times, why does it have to be crowded now? It's a good thing no one has noticed him.
He has just avoided a group of rowdy tourist when a girl in school uniform bumps into him, her arms flailing and body losing balance. Instinctively, he grabs the girl's arm to prevent her from tripping and face planting the ground. He immediately lets go when she is able to stand and quickly mutters an apology.
He is about to turn around when the person speaks. "Wait, aren't you Jong-"
He hastily puts a hand over the high school girl's mouth before she can complete her sentence and staggers into a backstreet, pulling her along. "Please, not in front of all these people, " he whispers, panic rising in his chest. "Let's not make a scene."
The girl's eyes are wide but narrow after hearing his plea. She is also wearing an identical black mask, so he can't see if her mouth is turned down to match the look in her eyes. She gently pushes his hand away. "I think you just called attention to yourself when you dragged me here while dressed like that. Why, people would think you're trying to rob a teenager!"
He stares at her in bewilderment. No girl has ever spoken to him like that, not when they know his true identity. His hands crawl back into the comfort of his pockets." Look, uh, this whole thing is unconventional but please don't tell anyone that I was here."
"Sure, no problem," she replies immediately and smoothens her skirt while he sighs in relief. "Thank you, miss..."
"N. Just call me N. I'm keeping a low profile too just as you are." She says cryptically.
"Okay then, Miss N. But how did you recognise me?"
She shrugs, her schoolbag rises and falls along with her shoulders. "It's not that hard to identify you, your eyebrows and your eyes. Plus, the height matches the profile."
He raises an eyebrow. "Nancy Drew much?"
N shakes her head with a laugh. "I'm your stan, that's why I could easily recognise your features."
"You're my what?" He isn't familiar with the term used.
Half of her face is shielded but Jongdae bets her cheeks are red. "Soondingie. I'm your fan."
His lips curl up. "Nice to meet you, miss soondingie. Thank you for keeping a low profile with me, I guess. Just call me JD and we will be fine." He likes this enigmatic girl, not just because she's a fan but she's also calm and relaxed, also intelligent, maybe she can help him.
"So, why are you in Myeongdong? Shouldn't you be heading home after school? "
"Well, I..." N plays with the straps of her bag, her gaze flitting about as if embarrassed.
"It's okay to tell your bias anything, N. I won't judge."
N shoots him a grateful look before looking down at her shoes. "I'm here to buy a gift for someone I like."
Can this day get any weirder with coincidences? "Oh, me too! How about we look together? I'm having a hard time trying to find the perfect gift."
She raises an eyebrow. "Will I get something in return if I do?"
"A signed album," he says without hesitation.
"Deal. So...anything specific you're looking for?"
He puts his hands back into his pockets and shuffles his feet a little. "Well...what do you give someone who's leaving for a long time.
The girl exhales. "Ah, it's almost the 7th. Looking for a present for Frosty, I see."
Jongdae nods, amused. Miss N is witty with code names, he likes that.
N sighs. "Gosh, I'm gonna miss him so much. Well, is there anything he likes?"
Jongdae chews on his lip, a billion things whizzing past in his mind as they make their way back to the main street. "Um...cats?" N gives him an amused look and he hurriedly adds, "and simple stuff, nothing too complicated or expensive."
She gives the streets a once over to make sure that their conversation isn't eavesdropped on. "Hmm something simple with cat designs, huh? Cat collar?" She suggests and he almost chokes on his own spit when he inevitably pictures the guy wearing a cat collar with a bell on his neck, what even-
"Gosh, JD. I'm just kidding. That sounded a little kinky, sorry." She laughs at his red ears. She scans the shops in front of them and points at the one at the far left. "Let's try this one."
"N, I think he would like this watch, he definitely would need one in the army!"
"...you can't be serious right now."
"Why? What's wrong with a watch?"
"It's a taboo to gift timepieces to people, it's equivalent to wishing someone to the afterlife in Chinese culture."
"Let's...let's keep looking."
Ten minutes later, they walk out of the shop with a purchased gift and a satisfied JD. They find an empty bench further away, a secluded corner under an oak tree with some bushes, for a rest.
Two heads are better than one, the short time it took to find a gift for Jongdae's best friend is impossible without the girl sitting beside him. He turns to the soondingie and places a hand on her shoulder. "Thank you, you are of great help. "
Her eyes crinkle into petite crescents "No thanks needed. As a fan, I'm always happy to help."
Jongdae considers himself lucky to have met his fan even in this inconvenient setting. N is different from other fans, she didn't freak out or scream and announce their encounter to the whole world for clout when she recognised him. She just adapted to the situation like a pro and successfully helped him with his buy-a-special-gift mission. He wonders if she's really a fan at all, but shakes off the thought. Of course she is, or she wouldnt have helped him despite having her own errand to run-
"Oh I almost forgot, we should go look for your gift too." Jongdae makes a move to stand but N tugs on his sleeve and pulls him back to the bench.
She shakes her head. "It's fine. Actually, I just bought it before I ran into you." N takes a gift box out from her bag and hands it to Jongdae.
He lifts the lid, admiring the intricacy of the gift. "I made the wristband and the key chain, and I got the effect pedal from a music store a block away from here," she explains, sounding a bit giddy.
Jongdae studies the handmade items in awe. "Wow, these are perfectly made. That person must be someone special."
N tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear, a faraway look in her eyes. "Yeah...he is."
Jongdae carefully closes the lid and puts the box back into her bag. "Tell me about this guy, what's he likeand why is my little soondingie so whipped for him?"
His shoulder is met with a light smack. "Hey!"
"I almost forgot that you can be a troll sometimes," N shakes her head although she can't help but giggle.
"...so are you gonna spill the details or not, miss soondingie?"
N takes a deep breath. "He was my senior in high school, now he's in his second year in college studying music. We kinda got to know each other through a school event and...he's a really nice guy. I was going through a lot back then, and he cared enough to check on me although we weren't close enough to be friends yet.
"I don't know when I started to like him in a more-than-a-friend way. Maybe it happened when I saw him play at a gig with his band or maybe it was way before that...he's affectionate to all his friends so I don't know if he likes me too or just thinks of me as a younger sister...but it's his birthday soon so I wanna give him something to let him know that I appreciate his music and friendship." N gestures at her bag." I know he has an eye on that effect pedal for a while now, he likes experimenting sounds on his guitar and all, so I thought it would be a great present for him."
She adjusts her mask bashfully and stares up at the abundance of leaves shielding them from the sunlight." So that's my story, an ordinary girl crushing on a guy in a band who's way out of my league. Isn't that pathetic? "
Jongdae has been listening all the while and gently wraps an arm around her shoulders. "You're anything but pathetic. You're sweet, smart and kind. He would be a fool to let you go. I bet he's the luckiest guy in the world to have someone like you rooting for him."
Her eyes are glistening when she turns to him. "Of course you would say that to your fangirl."
He pats her shoulder. "I'm saying that because I know. The way your eyes light up when you talk about him, he really is an idiot for being oblivious to your feelings."
She throws her head back with a laugh. "He is an adorable idiot after all, he reminds me of you sometimes."
Jongdae raises an eyebrow, waiting for her to elaborate but she stands up, though leaving her bag on the bench. "Wait here, I have something for you." She then races off, leaving a confused Jongdae staring after the high school girl.
"Wait...what do you mean your adorable idiot reminds you of me sometimes?"
N returns with a brown paper bag five minutes later. Warmth spreads through Jongdae's palms when she hands it over before plopping back down next to him. Even through the mask, his nose picks up the rich scent of food. He peers into the bag, his eyes immediately lighting up.
"Steamed buns! One of my favourites!" Jongdae exclaims gleefully. N is certainly a fangirl full of surprises.
"I know," she says proudly. "You can share this with the boys later, especially Frosty."
"Thank you, miss. I will let him know that you bought them, it's his favourite food after all."
N nods, before slumping down on the bench with a sigh.
"Hey, what's the matter?" Jongdae sets aside the bag and guides his full attention to her.
She shakes her head, he can't read her face since it's covered by her mask but Jongdae catches the bittersweet tone in her voice when she says, "I just can't believe he's going to the army soon... I mean, we all saw this coming but it's hard to let this fact sink in when we won't be seeing or hearing much from him for two years."
Jongdae nods, uncertain of what to say.
“And then it'll be your turn in 2021," she continues, sorrow reflecting in her dark eyes. "How does a soondingie survive two years without their bias? But I believe you'll return safe and sound, and stronger than ever." She turns to him and raises a fist in a 'good luck' gesture although her gaze is still sad.
An inexplicable knot twists in Jongdae's chest. Every male citizen in the Republic of South Korea must serve the country in military training, it's inevitable and as hard as it sounds, he has to accept that he won't be in touch with fans for quite some time. He can't help but pull the girl beside him into a hug.
N freezes in shock for a second, then relaxes when Jongdae pats her shoulder comforting. "Thank you for caring about me, I won't forget you when I'm in training. But don't miss me too much, listen to my songs so that you can feel that as if I'm just right beside you."
"I... I..." N struggles to string words together as warmth engulfs her body, putting her in a state of calm. "I can't believe I've lived to this day for my bias to hug me, the last 18 years of my life was definitely worth it for this moment."
Jongdae snorts and playfully pushes her away. "You really know how to ruin the mood, don't you?"
N sticks out her tongue and shoves him to the side in return, but rougher.
"Hey! Be careful with the steamed buns!"
The celebrity and the fangirl occupy the bench for another 30 minutes, chatting about everything and nothing as if they are best friends.
"About the signed album, I'll ask the company to deliver one to you, just give me an address," Jongdae says, checking the time on his wristwatch. He should be heading back now, his manager won't be pleased if he's out for too long.
She holds up a hand. "No, it's okay. I don't need it, with or without a signed album I would've still helped you with your gift hunting mission."
He smiles, he is right about her being different.
"But I have a question for you, sir."
"Sure, what is it?"
She pauses for effect. "So.... you like Frosty?"
Jongdae doesn't know why he is stammering when he answers. "W-well, I...I love all my members! So yeah."
"You do know that although I can't see your cheeks, your beanie isn't covering your ears." He consciously touches them, only to feel their strange warmth. This girl sure is observant, he can't hide anything from her.
He sighs in defeat. "Alright, alright. You got me. I surrender."
She covers her mouth in what he assumes is to scream silently. He stares at the eccentric girl next to him. "I knew it, I knew it! So you like him, like, like him." She offers as conclusion.
He nods bashfully.
"It's pretty obvious you're crushing on him, you know. I mean, here you are at Myeongdong, a busy street, in search for the perfect present. You took quite a huge risk to come out here alone. Talk about doing anything for love."
He admits with another nod, kicking at a stray pebble. "It's strange, right? It's like I can do anything for him, everything fades away when I'm with him."
She hums a little. "Damn poetic. You know what, you're the perfect present for him."
"You know him best, he understands you the most. You guys tell each other everything, and he did say that you're like his wife. So, he would still be happy if you only gave him a hug right before he enlists. He would be happy with just anything you give him."
Her words leave him deep in thought. "Damn, you're smart. I have never thought of it that way." He lifts the gift bag, "this is a bonus, though."
They sit in silence for a while before he speaks up again. "It's nice to talk to a fan like this, especially a soondingie. It's as if I'm talking to an old friend I haven't seen in ages."
She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. "Likewise. I'm glad that I'm not making you uncomfortable."
"Uh, about that...you're not gonna tell anyone my secret, are you? I mean, you are a fan and-"
She makes a cross over her heart. "Worry not, your secret is safe with me."
How is it that he trusts her so much when they only just met hours ago?
She checks the time on her phone. "I have to go now. I will see you at the next fansign, I guess." She stands up and adjust her bag pack. "Send my regards to the other boys, will you?"
"No problem. See you soon, N. Maybe you will tell me your real name next time." He waves at her.
She returns a smile and turns to leave then stops. "Oh, I have a confession to make."
He looks up curiously. "Yes?"
She leans down close to his ear and he waits.
"I'm a huge Xiuchen shipper since the beginning."