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Loveboat in μ„œμšΈ


The red velvet drapes muffle the roar of voices beyond. Completely unprofessional, I make an eye-sized slit and peer out. Yonsei kids and counselors cram the front half of the theater, and the rest of rows to the topmost balcony overflow with strangers.

"We're sold out!" I whisper.

"And the better our show, the more people will bid at the auction. They'll be in the right mood." Sohee hugs me. "He'll be here."

Program in hand, she slips out between the curtains.Β 

The show runs an hour, plus intermission, and our number is the finale. Joohyuk still has time. I refuse to worry. My ankle twingesβ€”I seem to have injured it a bit after all, and I rub it, and take the second pill, hoping that will be enough to get me through. I smooth my braid to the bit of red lace at its end, then adjust the neckline of my dress. Every tuck and curve molds to my contours. There's no hiding my body in this dress, and instead of wishing for Wendy's legs or Sohee's curves, I feel beautiful in my own right. Tonight, I'm showing what I can do, not just to Seoul and Yonsei, not just to Aunty Yumi and Uncle Gongyooβ€”

But to Appa.

"Annyeonghaseyo yeoleobun!" The mic amplifies Sohee's welcome through the theater. "Hel-lo, Seoul!"

An answering roar shakes the stage beneath my feet.

Κ•ΰ₯-Μ«Ν‘-Κ”ΰ₯ΰΎ‰*α΄Έα΅’α΅›α΅‰α΅‡α΅’α΅ƒα΅—βœ²οΎŸβ±βΏ*γ€‚β‹†Β μ„œμšΈγ€‚β‹†Β *

I watch from the wings with Sulli and Krystal as Sohee announces each act: Korean kicking sacks, martial arts. Lucas and Jackson's comedy routine draws laughter from the audience. A guy from Bus G flies through Rachmaninoff'sΒ Γ‰tudes-Tableaux, his body and hands digging into the piano keys with so much fire and passion that understand what Joohyuk understood when he switched from music to basketball.

At intermission, Sohee encourages everyone to peruse the silent auction in its last minutes. I cover my red dress in the black smock again and slip out to peek at the progress. Hundreds of people swarm the auction tables, making up bid sheets, and then the auction closes. I smile at the crowd gathered around Kang's easels. Kang himself is seated beside them, long black hair falling into his eyes as he presses his chop to an inkstone, and sets his seal on each painting.

So he's sold them all. And carved his chop, too.Β Three Old Men, that slice of hope, is now cast like a die into the world.

As if he can feel my gaze, his eyes lift to mine, and he returns my smile.

Κ•ΰ₯-Μ«Ν‘-Κ”ΰ₯ΰΎ‰*α΄Έα΅’α΅›α΅‰α΅‡α΅’α΅ƒα΅—βœ²οΎŸβ±βΏ*γ€‚β‹†Β μ„œμšΈγ€‚β‹†Β *

The second half of our show kicks off with a bang. Subin's nailed Koreaβ€”with their own independence close to heart, his thunderous "I Have a Dream" rendition gets a roar of applause that rattles the chandeliers.

"A vote for Yoo is a vote for you!" yells a voice.

Sulli and Krystal play a duet on zithers. A trio of kids and a counselor from Bus D improv a jazz number on keys, bass, drums, and a wind instrument hand-whittled from bamboo.

Then Sohee announces the Gang of Five, the last act before ours.

I duck into the dressing room, the hallway behind the stage, but Joohyuk is nowhere. As I lean my bo staff against the wall, my stomach clenches. Five minutes to go before showtime.

He'll be here.

"Where's Dohyun?" Sulli murmurs. "This is his act, but I haven't seen him today."

I bend my knee back and massage my aching ankle. "Haven't seen him all night," I admit.

Runway music blares through the theater, a mash of electronic piano and a synthetic beat that demands all our attention. I crane my neck at the stage as a tall girl in a short fur coat over fishnet stockings struts into the spotlight. Heavy black hair frames a strong face with cherry-red pouting lips and devastatingly made-up eyes.

"Whoa, she's stacked," Sulli whispers.

She isβ€”and proud of it. Her red lace bra is covered only by the middle button of her coat. She strikes an exaggerated model pose: arm up, wrist bent, chest outβ€”to uncertain titters and a few whistles.

"Um, whoΒ isΒ that?" Sulli asks.

"I don't know." Sohee folds her arms over her clipboard. "Subin's been passing messages for Dohyun. I haven't spoken to Dohyun myself." her jaw clenches. "This had better be good or there will be bloodshed."

I stare at the girl. "She looks familiar." But I'm positive I've never seen her. A friend of Dohyun's? I still haven't met all five hundred kids, but a girl like her would have stood out. And where's the Gang of Five themselves.

The music accelerates as a second girl steps from the wings, small-boned and delicate in a pink gown embroidered in darker cherry blossoms and white, elbow-length gloves. She's followed by a third girl in leopard print, bursting with cleavage deep enough to drown someone. The heavy scent of perfume reaches my nose.

"Is thatΒ Dean?" I ask.

Sulli gasps.

I stare hard at girl number one as a fourth and fifth girl in silk hanbok join the lineup.

I grab Sohee's hand. "I think that'sΒ Dohyun. And Sungwoon."

"No!" she cries.

The first girl takes the microphone. Her warm contralto fills the theater.

"Ladies and gents, I'm Dohyunie, and I'm pleased to introduce the delicious Debra, Woonie, Kang-Jammin', and Gayoon. Welcome to Ms. Yonsei Beauty Contest! Contestants, please line up. Audience, prepare to cast your votes!"

The audience erupts in cheers and piercing whistles. Dohyun. And Dean, Sungwoonβ€”facial hair shavedβ€”Kangjoon, and Garam. The Gang of Five, taking back the effeminate Asian male stereotype on their own terms.

I whoop so hard my throat aches. This is too awesome. Too crazy. Joohyuk should be here to see this. I peer into the audience, wondering how our grown-ups are taking it. To my surprise, in the front row, the Dragon is clapping with her arms over her head. Two dignitaries flanking her are cheering equally hard.

Who's have guessed?

The Ms. Yonsei Beauty Contest goes way overtime as the would-be queens strut their stuff. but the audience is roaring. They vote down one after another, until, at last, it's down to Kang-Jammin' and Dohyunie, who rips off his fur coat and what turns out to be a faux-skin leotard to reveal . . .

The Dragon's green hanbok!

The Dragon herself rises from her front-row seat, her matching hanbok sparkling in the glow of stage lights. Grinning, she raises her clasped hands overhead, shaking the as she turns a full circle, lapping up the applause. On stage, Dohyunnie is crowned and the others lift him onto their shoulders and parade around, tossing confetti.

I dab tears from my own eyes. Dohyun's destroyed Sohee's careful makeup job.

"We will never top that," I say, turning to Sohee.

But she isn't here.

Instead, Joohyuk emerges from the curtained wing. His damp black hair gleams like raven feathers over his black tunic and slacks, courtesy of Sohee. He drops his sneakers into the trash, but not before I glimpse their soles flapping like hungry alligators. He's holding his bo staff. Grabbing mine from the wall, he tosses it to me and I, too stunned not to, catch it.

"What happened to your shoes?" I croak.

"I ran all the way here from the hotel. Traffic was jammed up. Sorry I'm late. Just showered." He smiles. "Couldn't let Dohyun show us up."

"You ran your shoes off." I can't believe it.

He walks up to me and kiss my forehead. "I bought them in Cobra Alley. Got ripped off, looks like." He then kneels to tie on his black dance shoes.

"Her grandparents' flight was delayed. I ended up calling her dad and both he and her mom flew out to be with her. She's with them now." He takes my hand, eyes suddenly serious in a way that makes my heart lurch in my chest. "I told her I'd made a commitment to be here. I told her she needed to let me go."

Let him go.

Happiness wars with guilt. I know what that's cost him.

"Do youβ€”do you think she'll be all right?"

There's a weight on him, the boy who shoulders his responsibilities with a maturity beyond his years, making a choice with no assurance that all will be well.

"We talked a long time. We both realized she's stronger than she or I gave her credit for. Flying here on her own surprised even herself. This was the first time we've realled talked openly about her depression. I told her what you said about finding the right counselorβ€”not from you, I mean, just the advice. She didn't say yes, but she didn't say no either. She gave this back." He holds up his knuckles. Light glints off the sapphire on the class ring from Rosie's necklace. "It's mine, actually."

So she let him go.

A choked sob escapes my lips. "I was afraidβ€”"

I break off, unable to say what it was I'd feared. He draws me to his warm chest and wraps his arms around me. Puts his mouth to my ear. "When I was a kid, my parents took me to see their favorite baseball player. The player noticed me and handed me a signed baseball. It said, 'Follow your Dreams.' I was always following my parents' dreams instead of mine, I didn't know what was my dream. When I'm with you, I just know. My dream is a person. I want to follow my dream, you."

His brown eyes smile down at me. A miracle on the order of the universe.

But Sohee is calling the audience back to order.

"My ankle's a little injured. My shoulder, too."

"What happened?"

"Just a twist." I center Joohyuk's collar and kiss his frown before he can protest. "Don't worry. I can do this."

My dancers line up in the wings, black hair swinging free of bands and ribbons, the gem colors of their dresses and ribbons and fans hidden under gauzy black overshirts buttoned to their necks.

Sulli flashes Joohyuk a thumbs-up.

"Thank you, Dohyunnie, and thank you, generous benefactors," Sohee says. "Our auction has closed and we will announce proceeds at the end of tonight's performance. For those disappointed folks who haven't won yet, we have one more itemβ€”this stunning mural behind me, which I will auction off after our grand finale. Again, all proceeds go to families in the islands west of Korea impacted by the typhoon."

I spin my staff a revolution to center myself.

"And now, ladies and gentlemen! I'm pleased to announce the international debut ofΒ TheΒ Wanderer, an original dance created and arranged by our very own Bae Suzy!"

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