Chapter 1: The Ring
Chapter by CherieoftheDragons (SignCherie)
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Zen really wanted a cigarette.
He wouldn’t smoke, of course -- he’d quit shortly after Carina came into his life -- but the urge never completely went away, and at moments like this, it came back in force. He tried to tell himself that what he was about to do was no big deal, but he couldn’t make himself believe it. This would be one of the most important decisions of his life. It had to be perfect.
No. He wouldn’t smoke. Instead he paced the sidewalk in front of the shop, fighting his nervousness and impatience, wondering what was taking so long.
Finally, a small grey car pulled into the lot and slid into a parking space. A moment later, Carina’s cousin was hurrying towards him, an apologetic grin on her face.
“I’m sorry!” Eunbyeol said. “Jihyun came home early, and I couldn’t think of a good excuse to get out of the house. I finally convinced him that I needed to go pick up some books for school.”
“It’s all right. Thank you for coming. I -- this is so important. I need to do it right.”
She smiled, excitement all over her face. “Don’t worry! It’s going to be perfect, I know it!”
“God, I hope so.”
She laughed, turning to the shop in front of them, and then stopped, tilting her head and wearing an expression that he couldn’t read.
His nervousness flared. “Is something wrong?”
She shook her head. “No, it’s fine. Let’s go in, shall we?”
Zen hesitated. Something was wrong; he could see it. But she’d said it was nothing, so he shook off the feeling and opened the door, grinning and giving a slight bow as she stepped inside, shaking her head at him.
Elegant decor surrounded them: art with gilded frames adorning the walls, a glittering chandelier suspended from the ceiling, and rows of glass cases spread out before them. Eunbyeol squinted as she approached the nearest one and surveyed the contents, teeth nibbling on her bottom lip.
That wasn’t a good sound. Zen came up behind her, looking over her shoulder at the display of earrings to see what had provoked it. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Just…” She frowned, then shook her head and continued in a light voice. “Just wondering where the rings are.”
Before he could respond, a woman in an impeccable suit approached them from the other side of the display, smiling knowingly. “Is there a certain kind of ring you’re looking for today?”
Zen realized he was fiddling with the cuff of his jacket, and he forced his hands to his sides, doing his best to stifle his nerves. “An engagement ring,” he told her. “For someone very special.”
“Of course,” the saleslady said smoothly, then addressed Eunbyeol. “Congratulations. Do you have an idea of what you’re looking for?”
For a moment, he was confused at the sudden change in the woman’s attention, and then realization dawned. “Oh -- no, we’re not--” he began, just as Eunbyeol said, “He’s not my--”
They both cut off, looking at each other awkwardly. Then she smirked, and a second later, they burst out laughing.
When the giggles faded, Eunbyeol turned back to the lady behind the counter. “It’s for my cousin. And it’s a surprise. I’m just here to help.”
“Of course.” Amusement twinkled in the woman’s eyes. “Let me show you our selection.”
The two followed her across the room, and Zen let his eyes skim along the cases as they walked. A display of sparkling ruby rings caught his eye, and he stopped, forgetting to follow the saleslady, drawn in by the sight before him. His hand rose unbidden toward the glass. Carina loved red, and the color looked gorgeous on her. Maybe--
“Ooh.” Eunbyeol sidled up next to him. “Good instinct, Zen.”
A small cough made him look up to see the lady behind the counter, her face neutral. “You have unique taste.”
“I wouldn’t say that.” Eunbyeol crossed her arms. “My cousin has unique taste, and as we’ve said, we’re looking for something for her.”
With a nod, the woman began to move away. “I understand what you’re saying, but if I may? I’ve been in this business a very long time, and if there’s one thing I’ve found constant, it’s that brides are looking for diamonds, and they’re disappointed with anything else. Why don’t you take a look at what we have over here, and we’ll see if we can’t find something that might suit your girlfriend’s fancy.”
Oh. Zen couldn’t let Carina be disappointed. This was one of the most reputable jewelry stores in town, and it came highly recommended. If the saleslady believed rubies were a bad choice -- he couldn’t take that risk. With a nod, he followed her to the back of the store, where a large display beckoned.
“Now then.” She slipped a key into the back of the case and opened it, removing a ring that sparkled with diamonds. “This one is very popular with unconventional brides. What do you think?”
With nervous fingers, he took the ring from her hand. It was beautiful, certainly. The diamonds glittered in the light, and there could be no doubt that many brides would love it. It was impressive, and his princess deserved nothing less. And yet--
“It doesn’t feel right,” Eunbyeol said beside him, and he nodded his agreement. It wasn’t right. Not for Carina.
“I understand.” The lady reached for the ring with a smile that was just a little too tight. “We have plenty of options.” She put the ring back in the case and moved her hand thoughtfully over the display. “What about…”
Several rings later, with not a one seeming even remotely acceptable for his offbeat princess, Zen’s heart was in his stomach. Why did nothing feel right to him? Could it be he didn’t know Carina as well as he thought he did? Maybe someone else would be better for her, someone who had more time to spend with her, someone…
“You know, we’ve got a lot to consider here.” Eunbyeol placed a firm hand on Zen’s arm and gave it a gentle pull. “I think we’ll talk it over and come back another time.”
Head spinning, Zen followed her out the door, and when they stood blinking in the sunlight outside, she turned to him, shaking her head. “This,” she pointed at the window, “is not the right place.”
“Should I find somewhere more impressive?” His mind started whirling through the options, trying to think of someplace even grander than the shop they were currently at. “I don’t know if I can afford--”
Eunbyeol chuckled. “Leave it to me, Zen. I’ll figure that part out. Trust me. You’ll find something perfect.”
Her text came a week later. He picked up his phone after a grueling rehearsal to see four simple words. “Can you meet tomorrow?”
As it happened, he had the morning off, and Carina would be out on a freelance job for a few hours. He’d been lamenting the unfortunate timing of their schedules, but now it suddenly seemed fortuitous. His fingers scrabbled at the phone as he typed his response. “Ten o’clock?”
Zen was expecting another shop, something with a different vibe than the first one, but still a storefront. But when he pulled up at the address Eunbyeol had sent him, his jaw dropped in amazement.
It was a street fair. A handmade jewelry show.
Eunbyeol was standing at the entrance, bouncing on the tips of her toes. As soon as she saw him, a broad grin split her face. “It’s perfect, right? Isn’t it perfect?”
Yes. Yes, it was. Hope filled his chest, and on impulse, Zen swept his hopefully soon-to-be cousin-in-law up into an impromptu hug. She yelped as he lifted her clear off her feet, then batted at his shoulders halfheartedly, giggling.
When he set her down, she beamed up at him, clearly proud of herself. “Come on! What are we waiting for?”
The moment Zen saw the ring, he knew.
It jumped out at him from the case, white gold in the shape of a rose, petals unfurling around a single ruby. Elegant leaves adorned the detailed band. At the sight of it, his heart jumped into his throat. It was beautiful and unconventional and breathtaking. Just like Carina.
This was her ring. There wasn’t a shred of doubt in his mind.
“Eunbyeol.” His voice was quiet and hoarse enough that he wasn’t sure she would hear him, but she was at his side in an instant, looking up at him expectantly. With his heart so full, he couldn’t trust his powers of speech, so he raised a hand to point at the ruby rose ring.
Eunbyeol’s eyes followed his finger, and a gasp escaped her. Her hands flew to her mouth, and she looked up at him with wide eyes.
Words weren’t necessary. They both knew. This ring was the one.
Zen wanted to bring the ring home with him. He wanted to be able to take it out and look at it over and over. But as Eunbyeol pointed out, the chances of Carina discovering it hidden in his sock drawer or something were pretty high, and it was safer if Eunbyeol kept it instead.
“Don’t worry,” she promised. “I’ll take good care of it.”
If there was anyone he could trust with his princess’s engagement ring, it was Eunbyeol, so after one last lingering look, he snapped the box shut and pressed it into her hands.
Carefully, she slipped it into her purse, then smiled up at him. “How will you ask?”
There was only one way he could. Only one way right for him.
“On stage,” he told her.
This chapter is written by Fumm95. It's also published in her fic collection Snapshots.
The whole thing with Monster of the Opera is from one of Zen’s spaceship thoughts, and also because he would totally sing All I Ask Of You to MC to be romantic, let's be real. (If anyone wants to listen to the music while reading, be my guest. I personally recommend the 25 anniversary recording because I love Ramin Karimloo but feel free to pick your favorite!)
Zen has been a bit too fidgety all day.
Sure, as a musical actor, he’s got near boundless energy, but this is another level entirely; Carina would almost suspect it to be nerves if it isn’t already the closing night for the Monster of the Opera and if Zen hasn’t already brought the house down in every single performance in the past two weeks.
Thanks to Jumin’s finagling, the RFA has the best seats in the entire hall, front and center. When she tried to protest the placement, he only cut her off with his usual cool detachment, though she still suspects she saw something—amusement?—lurking deep in his normally unfathomable gaze.
Beside her, Eunbyeol is nearly vibrating with excitement, clutching the program listing Zen as the titular monster so tightly that she’s not sure whether the paper will even be legible by the time the musical starts.
She leans around her cousin to grin at Jihyun, on Eunbyeol’s other side. “Someone’s eager today. When did she start preparing for this?”
He smirks. “Maybe two hours ago. Maybe earlier? I think she was pestering Hyun about what to wear and what she was and wasn’t allowed to bring at least two days ago.”
“Hey!” She stifles a laugh as Eunbyeol elbows him in the ribs. “Don’t encourage her. I don’t need my cousin and my boyfriend teaming up against me. And I’ll have you know that you can never be too prepared for an exciting night at the theater, especiallywhen it’s The Monster of the Opera.”
Carina’s grin widens. “Yes, yes. We both know it’s the musical you’re excited about and not just because you have a major crush on the Monster.”
“I—What are you talking about? He just has a nice voice…”
Jihyun’s eyes fairly dance with amusement as Eunbyeol’s voice cracks. “Oh, is that why you’ve been counting down the hours for nearly a week? Should I learn to sing and play the organ as well, now?”
“Better start lurking under opera houses as well,” she quips.
“Don't forget rowing boats across mysterious underground lakes to a secret lair.”
“Writing operas with extremely unsubtle metaphors about sex.”
“Dropping chandeliers on party-goers’ heads.”
“Are you two done?” Eunbyeol’s glaring at both of them now, but is also failing miserably at hiding the way the corners of her mouth twitch, threatening to ruin her look of annoyance.
She opens her mouth to reply in the negative just as the lights dim in the room and Eunbyeol offers her a prim, almost arch, look, sitting up and folding her hands in her lap.
That doesn’t stop her from leaning back across with a stage whisper. “Strangling and hanging people by lasso?”
The sound of Jihyun’s hastily choked back laughter is totally worth the sharp elbow that’s jabbed into her side.
Nonetheless, as the overture begins to sound, she sits back herself, content to enjoy the show and her boyfriend’s performance once more.
It’s always been one of his dreams to play the monster, she knows, and he leapt at the chance to audition for the musical as soon as he heard about it. As she watches the young Kristey and listens for his first appearance, she can definitely appreciate the effort he put in, so much that she had to drag him out at times before he could push himself too hard once more. But in the end, it’s worth it.
“Insolent boy, this slave of fashion, basking in your glory!” His voice rings out, strong and clear and true, and without thinking, she grabs Eunbyeol’s hand, squeezing tightly as he appears in a haze of white mist, dressed all in black and bedecked in the famous white mask.
Even with half of his face covered and the thick caking of stage makeup, he is absolutely stunning, and she can hardly look away as he leads his soprano through the mirror and down to the aforementioned lake, singing all the while, strong and commanding and undeniably irresistible.
The music changes as the pair alight their boat, turning soft and slow, and she can’t help but close her eyes, remembering the tenderness in his voice and the warm arms that wrapped around her whenever he sang that particular song at home, at once alluring and comforting. Just like he himself.
God, but she loves him.
She shakes herself as the tale continues: the first unmasking, the notes that she and Eunbyeol never fail to laugh at, the absurdity of Scarlotta. The comforts and promises between Kristey and her young suitor Rolf. The perceived betrayal at the top of the opera house and very real anguish that roughens Zen’s voice, that screams out of his every motion and is nearly enough to draw tears to her eyes, even as the chandelier falls and the first half comes to a close.
Intermission passes in a blur. As the lights brighten, she vaguely notices Eunbyeol dart out of the auditorium, coat on and hands shoved into her pockets, but Jaehee turns to her with a comment on the intensity of Zen’s acting and, in the ensuing discussion, she forgets all about her cousin’s curious behavior.
She does notice when Eunbyeol returns, dropping into her seat with a sigh of relief just as the lights dim once more. “Where were you?” she hisses, but Eunbyeol only shakes her head, tilting her head towards the curtains.
When Zen returns to stage during the masquerade ball, there’s something different in his acting now, as though he is throwing himself even more into each note and gesture. As though he is determined to fully embody the Monster, pouring his soul into the role, and win over the girl. As though something is building, sizzling in him, contained only through force of will.
She’s pretty certain that his performance of Point of No Return, even as carnal as it usually is, has never been so electrifying, so utterly seductive. She’s spellbound, cannot look away from the push and pull, the constant friction. The intoxicating chemistry.
Until suddenly, he freezes, his hood gone.
It’s a part of the story and she knows this, but even so, her heart nearly stops in her throat at the raw vulnerability in his gaze, at how he stands, frozen. The pause stretches, each second strangely feeling like an eternity, until, suddenly, Zen’s eyes stray, shifting from his co-star out to the audience. To her.
“Say you’ll share with me one love, one lifetime. Lead me, save me from my solitude. Say you want me with you, here beside you.” At last, he looks away, back to the woman standing across from him, but she can still feel his gaze lingering, impossibly gentle. “Anywhere you go, let me go too…”
She sits, unable to move, hardly noticing as the story moves on, the tension bubbling over. The scream of agony and the descent. The mob and the fight and the kiss. She vaguely senses when Eunbyeol turns away to Jihyun, and wonders briefly whether the sniffling she hears is from him or her or both. But the musical’s end doesn’t sink in until the stage is suddenly dark, light illuminating the single white mask, the audience is on its feet, and an elbow nudges her side, though gently this time.
Almost mechanically, she stands, clapping and watching as the cast files on, one-by-one, to cheers and wild applause. Rolf and Kristey enter, meeting in center stage for an embrace that is met with screams and wolf whistles. And then…
For a moment, she thinks she’s going to go deaf from the sheer amount of noise that heralds Zen’s return to the stage, and she stares in surprise. Unlike all the other curtain calls she’s seen, he’s changed into a suit, his wig and costume, other than the mask that Mel still carries, nowhere to be seen. He takes his bow with perfect elegance, a grin of absolute triumph on his face as he gestures to the rest of the cast and the crew and the pit orchestra, and then he simply stands, hands by his side, while the rest of the cast files silently off stage.
Beside her, Eunbyeol is nearly dancing on the spot, clutching at both her and Jihyun so tightly that it’s a wonder that her arm is still getting blood.
Finally, the room quiets enough for Zen to step forward, his eyes roaming across the audience, taking in the crowd.
“I know you’ve all been here for quite a while and I hope none of you are in any rush but just in case, I’ll try to keep this short. As I’m sure at least everyone who has read their programs tonight knows, I’m Zen, and I played the Monster in tonight’s performance. I—”
Before he can continue, the crowd bursts into applause once more, and from her position, she can see the faint blush it brings to his face, the pleasure and confidence that straighten his spine as he waits once more for calm.
“I know it’s unusual for anyone, even the leading role, to stop and give a speech after a performance, but there are a few people I’d like to thank for helping me be where I am today. To all of my fans who have supported me through everything. To my friends, who have in the past few years become like my family, giving advice and telling jokes and sometimes even making things an absolute mess. And…” Slowly, his eyes shift along the row, coming to rest on her, bright and warm and oh so loving. “And to one person in particular.”
He takes a deep breath. “I don’t talk about my past very much, and it’s for a reason that isn’t entirely relevant so I won’t get into here. Suffice it to say that I spent much of my first years as a musical actor living alone, struggling to survive and accepting whatever roles I could get. Acting was, and still is, my entire life. All of my time outside of rehearsals was spent practicing, and I had no social life to speak of. I couldn’t risk my career.
“But then I met someone who could see beyond my exterior, who loves me for who I am and who I was. Who has never wavered in her support, even in the face of scandal, and who stayed even when I couldn’t find myself. And who has been waiting, never complaining when she has to stay in the background. And I don’t want her to wait any longer.”
Suddenly, he gives a little laugh, sharp and nervous. “I know this is the part where I should say something beautifully romantic and moving and bring everyone to tears, but everything I can think of is from some musical or another, and this should be a time of my own words. So I’ll just say that I love you, Carina, for now and forever. I know you’ve said that you’re willing to wait however long it takes, but I’m an impatient man.”
She draws a shaking breath as he lowers himself to one knee on stage, pulling small box out of his jacket pocket. “Carina Lee, will you marry me?”
“Oh my god.” The words barely escape her lips, choking around the sudden lump in her throat, and so quietly that she thinks only Eunbyeol can hear. Before she can try again to speak, a shove on her shoulder sends her moving on numb legs, and the crowds part as she stumbles her way to the stage, to where Zen is still waiting, endlessly patient.
She comes to a stop before him with his face upturned towards her, shining with adoration so clear that her eyes sting with tears and the rest of the room simply melts away. “Carina?”
“Yes. Zen, yes!” Again, the words catch in her throat, but even so, pure bliss crosses his face as he rises to his feet in the still-silent room, taking her hand and sliding the ring onto her finger before lifting her off of her feet entirely, laughing as cheers erupt.
In the uproar, he sets her back on her feet, though his arms remain around her waist, almost as if he never wants to let her go, and she looks up, catching his gaze. “I love you, Zen.”
Her words are not nearly as poetic as everything he said, but as he leans down to capture her lips, she knows that that’s really all they need.