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on the art of unplanned serenading

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Dokja’s never thought of himself as a particularly competitive person. In fact, he’s probably one of the least competitive people he knows — he’ll only try hard at things when he’s on a team, and that’s just because he doesn’t like dealing with the aftermath of causing others to lose. So really, it makes no sense that he’s visiting every fried chicken stop within a thirty mile radius to see if they match Yoo Joonghyuk’s capabilities.

“It’s hopeless,” he sighs. “It’s like I don’t even like chicken anymore.”

“It can’t have been that good.” Han Sooyoung squints at her laptop, sticking her tongue out as she frantically deletes and retypes something. “Do you think I can tell my editor I’m never doing deadlines again?”

Dokja blinks at her. “Maybe,” he says, and then, “I lied. No.”

She groans. “You’re useless.” Before Dokja can say thanks, he knows, she glowers as if daring him to do so in her presence and continues, “Apparently Lee Hyunsung’s friend has a good recipe. I can ask him to send it over for you if you’re that obsessed.”

“I’m not obsessed,” snaps Dokja. He clears his throat. “But yes, please.”

Han Sooyoung rolls her eyes, typing with a renewed vigor. “Acceptance is the first step to recovery, you know.”

“Then have a full conversation with Yoo Sangah.”

“I don’t — it’s not like — it’s not the same situation,” says Han Sooyoung finally, easing back into practiced nonchalance, “and I don’t even like her like that. I don’t even like her at all .”

“Acceptance is the first step to recovery,” Dokja parrots.

She glares. “I hope your date is shit.”

“Not a date.” Dokja looks down to a text from Lee Hyunsung — sure enough, it’s a recipe for fried chicken, though ridiculously long for no reason. Whoever he’s friends with has to be a huge stick in the ass, but if it helps Dokja, he’s not one to complain. “Do you think I should text him now or after I make it?”

“Ugh,” grumbles Han Sooyoung. “It’s like giving advice to a high schooler.”

“I’m never talking to you again.”

“Finally,” she fires back, but she adds, “Text him now, not later. At least you’ll have a deadline then.”

Dokja stares at his phone. “You’re right,” he agrees, wondering why he feels so strangely nervous.

To: Unknown Number
It’ll be done by tomorrow at noon. Same spot?

To: Unknown Number
I’d say get ready for the best meal of your life, but you already know that.

Yoo Joonghyuk doesn’t reply, but Dokja wasn’t particularly expecting him to, so he doesn’t sulk too much. “Are you smiling at your phone?” Han Sooyoung demands, snapping him out of whatever semi-reverie he let himself sit in.

Dokja fixes his mouth back into a neutral line. “I was just smiling because I love chicken so much.”

“You’re disgusting.”

“You’re one to talk.”

Han Sooyoung flaps her hands in the air and slams her laptop shut. Dokja weighs the pros and cons of lecturing her on the price of breaking a laptop as a writer before wisely deciding to keep his mouth shut. “I always forget I can’t get work done with you around.”

“You say that like it’s my fault,” he replies as she packs her things. “Send me your draft when you’re done.”

“Whatever,” Han Sooyoung calls as she leaves, flipping him off.

Now that he’s alone, Dokja opens the recipe and stares at the mountains of text in front of him. “All right,” he murmurs, steeling himself. “I can do this.”

Theoretically, making fried chicken shouldn’t be too hard. Unfortunately, it’s one of the things he’s stayed away from — the combination of his incoordination, his skittishness around hot objects, and splashing oil is one he’s not particularly fond of exploring. It’s only natural that he wouldn’t be fantastic at it on his first try.

“Yeah,” Dokja says to himself aloud, fully aware that he both looks and sounds insane, “I’m doing fine. This is normal. By tomorrow, I’ll be a chicken cooking genius — ”

His monologue is interrupted by rapping at the door. He wonders why the last time he was able to be at peace in his own apartment was the day before he met Yoo Joonghyuk. Seriously, the man has to be some sort of bad omen. “Hyung,” Lee Gilyoung calls plaintively from outside. “Can we come in?”

“The door’s open,” Dokja replies, and Lee Gilyoung practically breaks it down anyway, a mildly disgruntled Shin Yoosung in tow. “It’s late.”

“It’s only ten,” says Lee Gilyoung, clambering onto a stool and resting his elbows on the table. Shin Yoosung looks as if she’s debating shoving him off. “Yoosung’s parents aren’t home, so we told the lady next door you were my dad so we didn’t have to go to my place.”

“And she believed you?” Really, how old does he look?

“She said it’s no wonder you’re not married,” Shin Yoosung relays cheerfully. Before Dokja can consider the implications of that (and ponder upon the apparent judginess of his neighbor), she adds, “What are you making, ahjussi?”

“Fried chicken,” says Dokja, dipping his tongs into the pot and flinching back when oil flies up toward his face.

“My friend’s brother makes really good fried chicken,” sighs Lee Gilyoung. For a brief, desperate moment, Dokja almost asks if he can have the recipe. “And really good dumplings. And he’s really good at video games and he drives a really cool car, too. He’s good at everything.” 

Shin Yoosung eyes Dokja anxiously. “You’re good at everything too, ahjussi,” she offers with a bright beam.

“Thanks.” Dokja struggles to keep his smile plastered on. “I’m not sure I’m good at everything, though. You don’t need to be.”

“You are,” Shin Yoosung insists, and Lee Gilyoung nods vehemently. Dokja wonders exactly how pathetic it is that he’s fishing for compliments from ten year olds, but that’s a problem for another day. She peers over him into the pot — when did she get that close to the stove? — and stares for a moment before stepping back. “I think your chicken is done.”

Dokja looks into the pot to see just barely charred chicken, which would be serviceable under most circumstances but will undoubtedly get him killed (or worse, give Yoo Joonghyuk a reason to feel so superior) under this one. “Ah.” He turns off the oil. “Thank you; you saved me.”

Shin Yoosung smiles so brightly that for a moment, Dokja’s fine with the fact that his chances of proving Yoo Joonghyuk wrong are foiled. (This time. He’s sure he can get away with pretending this was a one-off, maybe.) “Can I pour the sauce on?” asks Lee Gilyoung after a minute, fingers already twitching toward the bowl.

“Go ahead,” Dokja replies as he gingerly sets the final now dried drumstick in a bowl. Lee Gilyoung beams as he empties the sauce onto the chicken. The coating is mildly uneven, and Yoo Joonghyuk is bound to point this out with whatever almost-smile he wore the other day, but it strikes Dokja that he doesn’t really mind anyway.

+

He’s a liar. He does mind, and even thinking about it is giving him a headache. He’s never been one to back down, though (that’s also a lie, but he doesn’t need to think about it), so at eleven thirty in the morning, he walks out the door with a basket he stole from Han Sooyoung in one hand and a Minion patterned picnic blanket he bought as a joke in the other.

Annoying someone to death while accepting defeat is an art, Dokja thinks, and he’s going to master it.

He arrives exactly two and a half minutes late. Yoo Joonghyuk is already standing under the tree, throwing him a painfully unimpressed look. It doesn’t even have enough energy in it to be a glare, and somehow, this is more infuriating than anything else could be. “You’re late.”

“Traffic,” replies Dokja with an easy smile. There was no traffic, but it’s also only been two minutes, so he thinks he’s fine. He spreads the picnic tarp out and plops down on top of it, setting the basket down and patting the spot next to him. “Join me.”

“What the hell is this,” says Yoo Joonghyuk, staring down at the blanket.

“Minions,” Dokja answers. He blinks. “Have you never seen the films? The first one is sweet, but I think the next few went a little off the rails, and by the time they got their own movie — ”

“Is this the only blanket you have?” Yoo Joonghyuk’s voice sounds mildly strained already. It’s so easy to get under his skin that Dokja might just have to do it forever.

Dokja looks up at him and shifts his smile into something innocent. “It’s my favorite one.” He shakes his head. “Are you really going to shame me for my interests, Yoo Joonghyuk? You’re twenty-eight and still playing games; I don’t know if you’re one to talk.”

“How do you know how old I am?”

“You have an entire Wikipedia page; I was just curious about if I was older,” says Dokja, although now he’s wondering if he sounds obsessed. “I’m sure I could find your height, too, if I wanted.” Yoo Joonghyuk seems too confused to answer — which is good, because that saves Dokja from an awkward conversation on exactly how far he went during his deep dive. “Are you sitting down or not?”

Although Yoo Joonghyuk looks as if it physically pains him to do so, he takes a seat on the blanket a careful distance from Dokja, like he’s afraid of touching him. It’s a little funny. “I’m older, by the way,” Dokja adds, just to fill the space. “And happy belated.”

Yoo Joonghyuk squints at him. “How old are you?”

“You don’t need to know,” Dokja says airily. If he admits it’s only a few months, he’ll lose whatever small edge he has now. “Just know I’m older.”

“You’re lying,” Yoo Joonghyuk decides.

“I’m not. You can ask Yoo Sangah yourself.”

“I will.”

“And you’ll be disappointed.” Dokja cheerfully pops the lid off the basket, peeking inside to confirm that yes, this is his food and yes, it’s unevenly coated and a little burnt on the edges and yes, he will be humiliating himself once again.

Yoo Joonghyuk glares at the chicken before picking a piece out of the basket and bringing it up to eye level. “This isn’t your recipe.”

“Who’s to say it’s not?” Dokja argues, silently wondering how Yoo Joonghyuk figured that out so fast. Seriously, does he have some sort of telepathic power? Is Dokja in a — whatever this is — with a psychic? “Maybe it’s been passed down my family for generations. You know, my ancestors might curse you just for — ”

“It’s my recipe,” Yoo Joonghyuk interrupts, “and you butchered it.”

Ah.

“You’re friends with Lee Hyunsung,” says Dokja, his voice coming out weaker than he wants it to. 

Yoo Joonghyuk glances at him impassively before turning back to the chicken and saying, “The coating is awful.”

“Hey.” Dokja frowns. “A ten year old helped me with that; be nice.” He’s half-expecting Yoo Joonghyuk to say the ten year old is awful, then, but something in his face shifts instead.

“It’s not that bad,” he admits finally.

Yoo Joonghyuk has a soft spot for kids, Dokja notes. Weird.

“Are you going to eat it?” Dokja asks.

“What if you poisoned it?”

Yoo Joonghyuk is capable of both making a joke and remembering past conversations, Dokja notes. Really weird.

“Very funny,” says Dokja flatly, and before he can bluff about the chicken being a little ugly but fantastic on the inside, Yoo Joonghyuk takes a small bite.

“This is horrible.” He makes an expression far too dramatic for what Dokja thinks is incredibly average chicken. “Do you even cook at all?”

Dokja clears his throat. “I have a lot of theoretical knowledge.” He used to read cookbooks to destress during university because they didn’t take too much work to get through. Whether he retained any of that information remains to be seen. “How do you know Lee Hyunsung?”

“It’s none of your business,” Yoo Joonghyuk says coldly.

“Ah, is it because you’re friends with Jung Heewon?” Dokja continues. “I forgot they were dating now.” He pauses, considering. “Wait.” Yoo Joonghyuk doesn’t say anything, but he’s looking at Dokja with something that could be interpreted as curiosity.

There’s no way, Dokja thinks, that every avenue of his adult life ties back to this man, but he asks, “Do you know a kid named Lee Gilyoung?”

Yoo Joonghyuk’s stare is suspicious now. He has to think Dokja’s a stalker. Honestly, he’s a little justified. “Yes,” he says, cautious, and then he doesn’t say anything else.

“He’s the one who helped me with the chicken,” says Dokja brightly. “Is he friends with your sibling? He only really ever talks to one other kid outside school; I was getting worried.” Yoo Joonghyuk opens and closes his mouth, a complicated look crossing his face for just a moment. It’s unnerving. He’s usually freakishly easy to read.

“My sister,” he answers finally, splaying his fingers so that his hand fully covers a minion and gazing up at the sky. He really is handsome, Dokja thinks, eyes drifting across his jawline before he tears them away. It’s disgusting. “I drove him home a few times.”

“Maybe you can bring her over to hang out with him sometime,” Dokja says thoughtfully. “He’s always at my place or in the hallway.”

“You want to — ” Yoo Joonghyuk makes a face that Dokja thinks would signify bewilderment on a normal person, even if his eyebrows are drawn close enough that it feels angry instead. “You want to meet up again?”

Oh. Dokja really must be coming off like a freak right now. “For the kids,” he explains hastily. “Lee Gilyoung’s a little lonely sometimes.”

Yoo Joonghyuk inhales, then exhales, then inhales again. “Sure. Fine.”

“Great.” Dokja beams, fully genuine, and it strikes him that this is the first civil conversation they’ve ever had. “Text me whenever you’re free.”

Yoo Joonghyuk frowns. “No. You text me.”

Ah, well. It had to end sometime.

“I don’t have your entire schedule memorised,” Dokja says, as if explaining math to a child. He revels in the way Yoo Joonghyuk’s jaw clenches so tight it looks like it’ll lock. “I’m sure you’re very busy. Besides, since I’m hosting, you should send me a time so I can get the place adequately ready.”

“Do you live in a dump?”

“No.” Dokja forces his smile wider. “Is it such a crime to want things to be cleaner for guests? I’m a good host, you know.” The only adult he ever has at his apartment is Han Sooyoung, but Yoo Joonghyuk doesn’t need to know that. “Unless you want me to bring Lee Gilyoung to your place, but I’m sure you don’t.”

Yoo Joonghyuk’s face looks as if it’s stuck in an even more severe version of his permanent scowl. “Fine.”

“You’ll text me?” Dokja asks even though he doesn’t need the clarification. Yoo Joonghyuk nods once, seemingly unwilling to provide a verbal answer. “Good. I’ll see you soon, then.”

He really has to stop scheduling these, he thinks as he walks away, but somehow, he doesn’t want to.