In some ways, it made things easier to hide behind a mask - be it a literal one, pulled over one’s face to hide their features from unwanted attention or something less tangible like a pseudonym printed on published copies of book covers just so no one knew the real name of the person who hammered it out. People could appreciate the work this cover provided for what it was - a fine piece of art that spurred thought and formulated opinion on a subject, a masterfully crafted piece of furniture that was the perfect addition to one’s living room, a riveting tale of suspect, adventures, and drama that one couldn’t keep their hands off of just to get to the next page - without letting their opinions about the person behind the scenes sway them though, truth be told, there wasn’t much controversy to be found when it came to the work he had done behind the scenes of a restaurant kitchen to pull together dishes the customers of Mugunghwa were happy to eat up.
As far as they needed to know, the restaurant’s owner - his mother - had been the one behind whatever new dishes they had added to the menu, not that, while she was certainly a part of it, they were a collaborative effort between mother and son, especially when “son” didn’t quite resonate with appearances.
Tonight, thankfully, it had.
Waking up in the body of someone approximately the same age and just as so the same height was a welcome change from some of the other faces he had woken up to - a balding old man who looked far more monk than he did someone to be working in the back of a restaurant; a wild child with bright blond hair who had no business at all being in the kitchen among hot stoves and ovens and open flame; and an old man who might have belonged, might have known everything that was going on and could handle himself in such a place, but perhaps not at the highly advanced age he had been, being only a handful in what felt like years of changing and shifting and being someone he decidedly wasn’t. This - a shaggy haired young man with a stature slightly taller than anticipated - was just fine, perfect, and as close as he could be to his own skin even if his vision hadn’t quite agreed with the change.
Pushing up glasses that were perhaps far too large for his face back up the bridge of his nose, he had stolen some time in the front of the house to sit, relax, and eat some food - perhaps a vain effort when leaning over the bowl of yukgaejang in front of him only resulted in him fogging them up. Frustratingly, it had been a constant battle throughout the day, attempting to keep them on his face or keep them from fogging up when the hot steam of whatever dish he had been preparing plumed in his face, the warm entrees of particular favor in the cool air of Autumn; but in those last lingering hours, there, thankfully, didn’t seem to be anyone coming in to require him to fire up the stove once more. There were a few lingering, already with their dishes finished and simply enjoying some lasting conversation among themselves, but nothing that was of any concern to someone who, while they would be there the next day, wouldn’t show up again.
He had managed a few bites before sitting himself up and away from his bowl, watching the group of customers walk out, leaving behind their signed receipt and potentially a cash receipt - not that he saw people doing that too much these days. Standing up, he moved languidly to the table, gathering up the small tray containing the payment along with a few of the dishes that had been stacked up and juggling them over to the respective stations. The try to the register and the dishes to the busing bin, it was only one more trip to collect the rest of the dishes and wipe down the table before he was at the register again - just in time for someone to walk in.
“Oh uh,” Connor started, glancing around for a second to the relatively empty kitchen, what skeleton crew staff that remained either outside for a cigarette or relieved of their work early. “여보세요,” he greeted, “Welcome to Mugunghwa. How may I help you?”
He didn’t haven’t to work. A last minute text from one of the other staff employed at Mugunghwa had told him that much just as he was leaving the Downtown office of Warren Aviation and making the trek out to his car. Granted, he had enough of a buffer between the end of his day shift in the busy city center and the beginning of his usual night shift at the restaurant to not bother with trying to rush from getting from Point A to Point B. The last thing that Sandra Armitage needed was to worry about any reckless driving Aiden might have gotten himself into just trying to get to work on time. Truth be told, there had been a handful of those incidents that she had considered shifting his hours so he would be more careful after all the scolding she had to dish out was said and done. During those occasions, he had tried to assure her that they hadn’t been his fault - a number of cars running an obvious red light at a busy intersection that he couldn’t avoid without adding another ten minutes to his commute; a car crossing all the lanes only to cut in line at the turn lane at the corner whose light had just turned green that almost resulted in his T-boning the other vehicle; a couple of outrageously souped up and customized cars looking for a little Fast and Furious fun when it seemed his car seemed like a worthy opponent to take down the straightaway - but no amount of proof could save him from the punishments she could still hand out to him for being in the way of potential danger. In Aiden’s eyes, it was almost as bad as trying to fight with Nathan except Sandra wouldn’t take to the dojo to show him just who had the upper hand in the argument over his well-being.
To save himself an earful - in the event that she was present at the restaurant on this particular night - Aiden had taken his time and had even taken the most scenic route possible before he found himself at the restaurant. No, he didn’t have to work tonight, but at the same time, it didn’t mean that he didn’t have work to do. While his days were plenty work-filled as pointed out by a couple of people via social media, these side endeavors helped keep him busy. The projects he buried himself in kept his thoughts elsewhere - on things that needed to be decided on and done with by a certain deadline and not to be mulled over and considered in every possible scenario there was - kept him productive and tired him out enough to rest and repeat the same process over again the next day. Was it unhealthy in terms of having a social life? Maybe, but it wasn’t to say he didn’t completely lack one. Those moments came once in a while, disguised as unexpected run-ins, random lunches, or short chats. Could there have been more than there had been? Sure, though making time for them was almost always a little on the trickier side no matter the intention.
Deadlines waited for no one.
The current deadline looming over his head the moment he stepped through the main entrance of Mugunghwa made him feel grateful to see the scarcity of diners in the restaurant and almost feel blessed that the need for another set of hands to help around the establishment wasn’t necessary. That fact in and of itself just left room to relax - at least for a little bit - before he would set out to complete what he needed to on a freelance project he had to finalize and send it out into the air of the World Wide Web before he could relax fully over a well-earned reward in the form of a delicious home cooked meal. Even if that home cooked meal came from a restaurant, it was more home cooked to him given his living situation with the very proprietor and her husband than probably anyone who had ever walked through these very doors speaking the same home cooked praises of the meals that were prepared here.
Regardless of the location where he had these home cooked meals, the faint smells of the dishes that had been shortly consumed or were still being enjoyed by those still present made his mouth water. At the end of a long workday, he could use the tease of sustenance to encourage what burst of revisions he still had to do before he could officially call it a night where work responsibilities were concerned. He definitely wasn’t the type that could enjoy a proper meal when there was something - work or otherwise - nagging at him so, in a strange way, estimating the time in which he could finish something in relation to how long it would take to have a meal prepared somewhat dictated what sort of dinner he was going to have.
If his stomach had a mind of its own - and he was sometimes convinced that it did - he considered his meal options as he shook his bangs from his eyes before he raised them to meet those of the taller young man behind the register. Easily enough, the sight of him brought a smile to his face. The unruly fluff of his hair was amusing, like he had just woken up from a nap, though he was sure that was hardly the case given his position at the register, but given the number of guests currently present, he couldn’t rule that possibility out completely. He wouldn’t blame him if it were true. Then there was the shape of his eyes. Wide-eyed and depthless. He may have temporarily been taken aback at how nice they were to look at, lost for a second before he caught himself smiling a little more - perhaps even grinning - at his ears, which were reminiscent of a fictional character, but still cute and somehow...they suited him?
Taking a quick glance down at the counter, Aiden tried to hide his smile and perhaps what laughter he might have exuded then before he returned his greeting, for a moment unsure of what he was to say since at this hour, he was usually the one asking that question. “Hi, um...table for one, please?” He said, looking away at the sound of his own voice and how weird those words seemed to be uttered in his voice, a strange break from routine. Almost immediately, he turned back to him curiously, head tilting in consideration. “I don’t think I’ve seen you here before. Are you new?”
“Uh,” he started, pushing his glasses back onto his face in no particularly elegant manner, nodding once an answer had been found through the quick fire mulling his mind had been doing. It was a lie, the notion that he was new in any sense of the word, but what else was he going to tell someone that worked there most nights out of the week? That he was the proprietor’s son, stuck in a different body each day of the week? It was far more believable to say that he was new - a recent hire who had to work the late hours due to a full time job during the day though Connor truthfully hadn’t gotten so far in concocting a story for himself, especially when it would change the next time he put his head down to sleep and woke up on the other side a completely different person in appearance.
“Yeah, I just started,” Connor managed to fumble the words out of his mouth, looking down to the register for a second before his eyes scanned the room. It wasn’t like the seats were full for him to play host, no wait staff on rotation to handle the flow of customers that had normally been in there during lunch and dinner hours, so he nodded his head to the expanse of the house as he gathered up the menus - one, the standard, and two, the seasonal specials, the orange-brown paper a sharp contrast to the light pink and white of the regular print. The Autumn specials had been of particular pride to Connor, one body or another, and reasonably so considering his handiwork in cultivating the recipes, plenty of trial and error making up the finished projects, so he made sure to stack them in line accordingly.
“There’s not too many people around, so you can sit wherever you’d like,” he said, making sure to gather a set of utensils from the bin where they had been carefully wrapped in anticipation for the next day, all necessary pieces present for the fare they had to offer their guests, before following Aiden to his choice seat that he anticipated - if only because it would have been where he would have sat - would have been away from anyone that might have been lingering about the restaurant. The menus were set down with the utensils, Connor veering off to grab a glass, filling it with ice and then some water as standard, before returning to the table where he took up space standing next to it in lieu of a drink order.
“Can I get you something other than water?” He asked, not pushing quite yet for a decision on the menu though he did consider just what steps he would have to go through to make any of them, glancing to the kitchen behind him as he heard someone come in from outside. There were still some things left for the kitchen staff to do, cleaning of everything in the immediate area as well as inventory on some of the more farm fresh, straight to the table ingredients they often picked up when the farmers’ and community markets were afoot, bringing about some life to the quiet backdrop of the restaurant though that did little to change his current standing as the only person in the front, ready and able to take Aiden’s order by memory without the typical pad and paper in tow.
“Ah,” Aiden voiced, tilting his head again, not exactly offering to mention that he worked here too. There wasn’t the time for it nor was he able to make it believable considering he didn’t even have to work. For all he knew - this fresh new face manning the register - he could have been lying had he said such a thing so for now, he’d keep quiet about it, not much time between his own response and the one that followed from the other young man’s mouth. When he gestured to the rest of the restaurant, Aiden looked where he had, also scanning the room prior to making a decision. Had he known or had been privy to the other man’s string of thought, he would’ve been right to assume what he had. Shifting the weight of his backpack however light it was - really just containing his laptop, a notebook, a reference text he often reached for, and a pencil case with an assortment of writing instruments - he made a thoughtful sound, humming a bit as he considered his selection among the available tables.
He took his strides slowly, but surely, considering this table or that, the tables surrounded by other tables or those that were walled at one side whether by a window or an actual part of the building itself. He bypassed a table that he knew to have a pad missing under the chair leg, lightly touching it as if to move it out of the way, but really it was to check to see if it had been tended to. When the chair didn’t move, he left it alone, finally settling - not that he was in much of a situation to be indecisive of where he wanted to sit; he knew exactly where he wanted to sit - on the far table in the corner away from anyone else that still lingered or would otherwise not choose unless there weren’t any other tables available.
Sliding his backpack off his shoulder, he set it down in the empty seat next to where he’d eventually sit, getting comfortable as the utensils and menus were placed in front of him. With a slight bow at his waist, Aiden voiced his thanks, scanning them over - particularly the seasonal specials that were put together rather recently. It was no excuse to say that his trip back home to Seoul kept him from being a diligent part-time host/waiter/busboy/delivery boy or otherwise in memorizing these things so he could better serve the patrons that walked through the restaurant’s doors, but there had been far too much weighing on his mind than he would’ve liked that even memorization over something as exciting as new menu items often were wouldn’t be enjoyed to its fullest. Still, in the time that his host was away, he attempted to take some dishes to memory, reading each item aloud, almost as if he were reciting a script, like his explanation of a dish was a performance all in itself if it would help to sell a dish to hungry customers.
The appearance of the ice water stirred him from his memorization, another word of thanks given as he thought on the question that was posed to him. Aiden pursed his lips at the glass in consideration. “Peach soju, please? If there’s any,” he said with a slight nod as his hands blindly arranged the collection of menus he was given back into the orderly stack he had been presented with, an obvious indication that he didn’t need any extra time to look anything over. The new additions that stood out in his mind from the Autumn menu at the ready even if he did take a moment’s pause to go over that short list again to make sure he got it down. There were quite a bit of things selected…
Then he thought against it.
“This Autumn menu is amazing,” he breathed instead in genuine awe, foregoing to place his order as his eyes continued to skim the rust-colored page a second time at familiar and unfamiliar dishes yet to be had. He wasn’t looking to add to what dinner spread he already had in mind just yet, but he had been curious about some things. “Have you had anything off this menu yet?” he asked, obvious excitement in his tone and the vague hint of another smile wanting to tug at the corner of his lips more out of the anticipation of food and the moment that it would finally arrive. “Indecision be damned,” but that was hardly the case. It wasn’t terribly difficult to choose - his stomach, more often than not, called the shots here and he was rarely disappointed with any of its choices - but it wasn’t to say that the thought of wanting to eat the entire Autumn menu in one sitting hadn’t crossed his mind. He probably could have if he had the time, but time, unfortunately wasn’t on his side, a quick side eye to his backpack reminded him of that impending deadline he had yet to meet, but Curiosity was, for the moment, edging Responsibility out in the race for his attention. Feigning deep contemplation, he took a second to think before his eyes left the menu to look at the fresh new face at his side. “What would you pick?”
In the time it had taken for Aiden to review the menu, if not look over it a number of times to read down the items that were unfamiliar even though a decision, per his soon-to-be question, had yet to be made, Connor had taken down his drink order only to go fish through what bottles of soju they did have. While not particularly prevalent in other restaurants who might have opted for one or two flavors depending on what sort of cocktails they might have had on the menu, Mugunghwa had plenty in a variety of flavors - some of which, naturally, were better sellers than the other. While many people liked citrus for its lemony kick and some, particularly the older generations of patrons, opted for the regular, there were still those who opted for the smoother, if not at times overpowering, flavors of peach or blueberry. Thankfully, the pink bottle was procured easily enough and, alongside a glass of Sprite just in case, set out in front of Aiden once the cap had been broken open at the table.
“Ah, I’ve had a few things,” he said, nodding as he glanced at the menu if only for orientation on the direction of the list - soups, skewers, and then the more hearty of meals before the follow up of dessert - before his mind started rolling over the options. There were good points to each of the entrees otherwise, he suspected, they wouldn’t have been on the list, but it all depended on what the customer wanted their meal to be and, in the cases of the bossam and even the skewers, whether they cared to eat with their hands or not.
“I’m particular to the Chicken n’ Ube Waffles, which I feel is going to be the one that stays on the menu for good once Autumn is over,” Connor said, “but if you’re looking for something warm - like, that deep soul and stomach sort of warm, any of the soups are a good choice. I had the yukgaejang today.” Naturally, he neglected to mention that his serving of spicy beef soup had been sitting at another table, vacant for the moment while he took care of the more business-related affairs first and then he could finish filling his stomach with just a quick reheat or splash of fresh broth to warm it up again. “And if you like persimmons,” he said, knowing there were quite a few people unfamiliar with the fruit or turned off by one that was, unfortunately, not ripe enough to not be bitter, “definitely the mooncake. That seemed almost too good to pass up once -” Connor paused for a moment as ‘eomma’ nearly ran right out of his mouth “-요리사님 told me how she made it.”
It wasn’t so much a pit that seemed to form in his stomach just then rather a recognition of, in just that moment, how frustrating it was to be excited about something that was ultimately kept secret. Perhaps tinges of it had come up here and there, but working the back of the restaurant didn’t exactly give him the benefit of seeing people mull over their orders or, in this case, room to give input on what he thought of each dish. Resent, he was sure, lingered though it hadn’t been towards his mother who had done her part to keep his secret, giving him some reprieve from simply barricading himself away, no way to hold down a full-time job when he would just be another face the next day, but given a few minutes to shake it off - he’d blame it on a rumbling stomach if nothing else, spurred on by the talk of such delicious food despite the mentioned spicy beef soup - he offered Aiden a small smile.
“If you’re looking for something filling, rouladen,” he said, “which is our take on a German rouladen with pickled vegetables instead of - well, instead of diced pickles, with minced pork belly, scallions, and a parsnip gravy, but I’d say all are good options.” Connor nodded, patiently awaiting whatever order Aiden might have been building between one menu and the next.
For a split second, Aiden’s gaze caught sight of the familiar pink bottle, sitting up just a little straighter when he noticed its green clad companion who hadn’t been requested, but was welcomed just the same. Neither kept his attention long once both items left the hands of his waiter in favor of the table and he began to respond to his question. There was a glance at the menu, however brief that was, and Aiden shifted a bit to make sure to accommodate where he could, tilting the menu ever so slightly if it would help as he himself scanned the menu for the things that he started to name. Attentively, Aiden followed along, refamiliarizing himself with the menu’s description along with whatever insight his waiter had to offer.
His waiter’s first pick - easily the one that Aiden had been the most curious about - held his attention and may have made his mouth water a bit as he reread the description. Though he didn’t say much about the dish itself, the description left Aiden to wonder about it and the different honey pairings that were offered. The soup - any of them actually - were just as appetizing, though he supposed anything would be on an empty stomach. The yukgaejang had easily been a top choice for Aiden as well - any dish with the word ‘spicy’ in the description often sent them toward the top - until something else down the menu knocked it out of place.
There were a couple of other dishes that were vying for a spot on Aiden’s table - namely the Spiced Pork Baozi and the Apple-Infused Bossam - but with the inevitable deadline approaching, he knew himself well enough to know that some of that appetite would dwindle as he worked even if the food to be had would be enjoyed after the fact. If any of the dishes he already had in mind held some sliver of surety, it had been the mooncake the moment he had ordered the peach soju, meant to be that sweet buzz he was positive he’d need once his day was finally done and over with.
He hadn’t fully considered the rouladen despite its tempting ingredients list, but he also wasn’t looking for ‘filling’ as much as he was looking for ‘variety.’ Maybe on a different day, he would consider it, but for now, he was pretty decided as he took one last glance at the Autumn menu, straightening the stack in his hands. “She must like you,” Aiden said when he spoke of Sandra without even naming names, the smile on his own face, slight and small before he looked to the empty table, imagining his meal. “I’ll um...I’ll have the yukgaejang, the waffles, and the mooncake. Seems like it would be a nice balance of everything. Spicy, salty, and sweet.” Then there was a momentary pause when he caught sight of the soju in his peripheral. “Oh! And smooth!” He added quickly in realization, his childish glee uncontainable as he thought both on his witty alliteration and the assault of flavor combinations that he couldn’t wait to experience within these dishes.
Briefly embarrassed by his own excitement, Aiden apologized unnecessarily, but still smiled. “I know it's a bit...sparse in here,” he began, his eyes wandering into the dining area behind where his waiter stood and further still beyond what he could see of the kitchen and the minimal staff there, quickly taking into account the hour, “but take all the time you need. I don’t mind waiting.”
“Omo, huh?” To Connor, it had been a given. Of course his mother would like him, but there was that little nagging reminder in the back of his mind that told him that, while she had known well enough of his circumstances, even if not the reason why, no one else did. It was a family secret, something that he could probably chalk up to some sort of curse or something especially superstitious as passed down through generations though, truth be told, he couldn’t recall anyone else in his family tree having such a problem.
But then there was an order and he was no longer thinking on just what “she” - his mother - might have liked about him and more about getting the order in before the kitchen staff found themselves unfortunately restless and ready to leave just as he was changing in. With a quick bow at the waist, he excused himself for a moment with a smile on his face - in part, politeness and, the rest, amusement at the alliteration ramble that had fallen out of Aiden’s mouth - to disappear into the kitchen, the ticket repeated in due time to the staff who were quick to fire up what was needed to make each of the entrees fresh and, by way of the oven, to warm up the crispy bottom mooncakes made earlier in the day. Though there had been no rush as indicated by Aiden himself, it certainly wasn’t like Connor would see the food brought out late or untimely, making quick, but diligent work of washing his hands and rolling up his sleeves so he could do his part.
In a time perhaps not customary on a full staff, but certainly not one that had made Aiden wait too long for his meal, Connor emerged from the kitchen again with the various dishes in tow, carefully balanced in his hands and across his arms in lieu of a tray. One by one, they were set out in front of Aiden. “We have the chicken and ube waffles, both honey options to pick from,” considering he had neglected to ask, “and the yukgaejang and, of course, the mooncake.” With a spare few napkins and selection of banchan set out on its own compartmentalized plate, Connor nodded, pointing back to where he had been sitting. “If you need anything else just let me know. I’ll be right over there.”
It took on a few strides to rejoin his yukgaejang, sitting himself down in the seat once occupied prior to bussing the table and, eventually, taking Aiden’s order, looming over his soup for a moment so he could mix everything back up by stirring it about until it was the desired blend of ingredients and - most importantly - color to the spicy broth that everything was swimming around in. An occasional glance was afforded to Aiden in his attempts to make sure there was nothing of concern about his experience or the food he had ordered, careful in his representation of the restaurant if only because he knew bad experiences wouldn’t wholly fall on his shoulders as much as they would his mother - never mind that Aiden did indeed work there.
When he had buried his head enough to finish off what remained of his soup, he was up to his feet once more, carrying with him his utensils and plating as he swung by the table. “How is everything going?”
Aiden hadn’t caught it; that moment of confusion that had been temporarily stuck on his waiter’s face as he shifted a bit in his seat to get a little more comfortable. With his order placed and the bow he received returned, Aiden leaned back in his chair and watched him go if only for a few seconds before his attention diverted elsewhere, his eyes begrudgingly settling on his backpack as he twisted to take it out and get to work. In silence, he began to scan the dining area in its entirety as his laptop booted up. Another table was well on its way to getting cleared within the next few moments. He recognized the tells - hands in laps or otherwise busying themselves with their phones or purses; glasses close to empty and more often than not, the water glass barely touched; utensils found a permanent spot next to half-eaten bites or the remains of otherwise indigestible pieces; and of course, body language when conversational tells were harder to come by given his distance.
Before a thought could settle in his mind, his laptop chimed and he straightened, letting out a sigh as he got right to work, clicking at keys and sliding gestures across the trackpad. “Before the food gets here,” he muttered to himself, placing himself on some self-imposed time crunch if it meant he would be able to enjoy his meal to the fullest...and that mental distractions wouldn’t be horribly intrusive. There was nothing about User Experience, Dropdown Menus, or Analytics that told him to think about home - to think about Seoul - and what had happened. Logic statements of
If this...then thatdid as he skimmed the backend of the application’s code that he was working on just to better understand what it was he needed to tweak in the front-facing design that he was developing. Some elements didn’t work. Some didn’t make sense and getting from one page to the next was a headache and a half, one that he was fighting not to have as he shot narrow-eyed glances to the clock in the upper right corner of his screen.
“A lot of things don’t make sense,” he mumbled behind a loose fist, forcing himself to focus on what he could fix in the code and the design he was working with and not everything else that weighed in on him as the statements continued to become more and more generalized. There was frustration and a grasp at something invisible when his hand closed tightly and he leaned in further to scrutinize the Debug window at the bottom of his screen. Discrepancies were spelled out, but they were so vague that it didn’t make any sense. Terminology he wasn’t yet completely familiar with begged to be understood, but he didn’t have the time to dedicate to that as the minutes continued to tick away. Another skim through code, another review. A test of a string of keystrokes and the click of the Live Server preview garnered a sigh of surprise. One click after another, as per the Project Brief, the prototype was working as it should, no longer stuck on one page without a means to go back to the Homescreen. Buttons and menus functioned as described, and graphics and scripts worked together flawlessly as dictated by the final flowchart.
His timing couldn’t have been better. Although he was quick and resourceful under pressure even when his head was in a flurry of panic and distress, it didn’t take long for Aiden to allow himself that sense of calm the moment his food was finally brought to his table, an exhausted, but grateful smile gracing his face as he took that short moment between his waiter’s trek to his table and the second the entirety of his meal was set before him to package his work and get it sent off, glad to be done with it. One less thing to have weighing on his shoulders. Nudging his laptop out of the way, Aiden bounced a little in his seat, all too excited to finally dig into a nice meal after a long day. “Everything looks amazing. Thank you.” With his parting words, Aiden nodded, glancing back after him to see where it was he was going before he noted the table some distance away, noting the bowl of soup awaiting his return.
Aiden ate in silence as he often did whether at home or at work, finding comfort and quiet in the food he ate. Sometimes, Mochi filled that comfort role - the quiet, not so much as he almost always had a toy within reach - but he couldn’t always be with him when he needed it. He took that time to think - not like he didn’t do enough of it when he was consciously working - to remember; to solve what he wasn’t sure how to work out; to forget. None of them were easy. None of them dared to leave him alone. None of them would until he figured them out or, at least, took the first step in doing something about them, or dropped altogether, but making those decisions? That was always the main struggle.
He sighed again, unlike the frustration he felt earlier, but more out of an exhaustion that was more mental than it was physical, though that bled right into it eventually. The yukgaejang and the assorted banchan didn’t last long. In fact, they had been the first to go when he wanted that warm body and soul comfort of home - of nostalgia and memory. The next had been the chicken and waffles to help it all settle and perhaps relieve what residual stress there might have been that lingered well after his deadline. The hint of sweetness that the ube left with him laid a red carpet out for the persimmon mooncake that he would enjoy with the smooth peach soju, easily making him ignorant to the buzz that would build in his head. This had been the part of the meal that he took his time with, looking to relax - to run - distracted only when a voice pulled him away from himself.
“Good,” he said, just a bit startled when he didn’t even realize he had come up to the table. “Everything was wonderful,” he added shortly, looking to the dishes he had finished before he turned back to the mooncake and soju that he was clearly nursing. For a moment, he was tempted to stuff a whole one in his face if he was looking to clean up, time clearly not something Aiden had checked back on since. “Is the restaurant closing?” It was a silly question considering he was employed here too, but, again, his waiter didn’t know that. Staying after closing would be a bit weird otherwise.
He took a pause from bussing his table not only for the question, but to flip his wrist around, checking the watch that resided there most days - at least when his wrist was large enough to actually wear it without it sliding right off and dropping to the ground somewhere where it could easily be lost - for the time. Yes, in what was rather short due time, the restaurant would be closing, but given there were still tables to clean up and a second run through to do of the kitchen following what he anticipated to be the last order of the night, Connor didn’t see a particular rush to usher Aiden out with his bill and receipt. “It’ll be a few more minutes so no need to rush out,” he said, spying that there was only what remained of the mooncake and soju to wash it down while he was gathering up the other dishes that had been left vacant of their former food contents with, thankfully, another beam of appreciation for the flavor.
“I’ll get your check together once I finish with the dishes,” he nodded with a smile on his face, as he headed towards another table to pick up the dishes that had remained there from the last set of patrons to leave. All were set carefully into the proper bin before he stepped into the kitchen once more, washing up his hands before grabbing some cleaning supplies, spray bottle and rag finding themselves in tow, so he could start wiping down tables and setting up chairs, starting from the far end of the house where he wouldn’t disturb Aiden while he enjoyed the rest of his meal. There was still no rush and still no urgency, each diligently sprayed down and wiped up before they were flipped easily enough in his hands to be set on the edge of the tables that had gone through the same cleansing treatment.
Of course, he hoped that someone else wouldn’t come in while he was in the process of cleaning up and the kitchen staff that remained in the late hours were eager to leave, both parties always early in if only due to the preparation needed for some of the dishes to be made throughout the day. The chairs, however, he expected would be a good sign to anyone passing by on the street, peering into windows to see what the nightlife of San Francisco had brought out on that particular evening, to seek another restaurant - no matter how unfortunate for their business it might have been - for their late night cravings. There was always another day for their staple menu items or the seasonal menu that wasn’t pulled together by a number of tired employees, up and working for the better part of the day and night to follow.
When there was still a handful of tables to clean, including that which Aiden had been sitting at, Connor took pause in his work to head back to the register, filing away what tickets had already been paid and tallying up the receipt for Aiden - not that there was much to do about that with the preprogrammed items, a simple press of a button doing all the work for him in quick fashion. Some chatting from the back came into ear shot, the parting pleasantries of the kitchen staff who had been quick to finish up their necessary evening tasks, which stopped Connor momentarily in his return with a quick “잘가” thrown into the quiet ether before he headed once more to Aiden’s table to set it down.
“Omo, almost forgot -” Connor said suddenly, moving back to the counter to shuffle around underneath for a quick second before popping up with a couple of yakgwa, individually packaged, which also found their place on the table. “A little thank you for trying something off the menu,” he said, lips pursing a little bit in an almost awkward for a smile, a curt nod downward his assurance it was on the house.
With what remnants of mooncake he still had in his mouth, Aiden chewed slowly as he watched in slight worry. The glance at the watch on his wrist and the assurance that followed was comforting, letting him know that he didn’t have to rush - that he didn’t have to reconsider stuffing his face like the little chipmunk Nathan may have referred to him as once or twice when he tried to sneak extra snacks before dinner - and just sit and enjoy the rest of his dessert while the clean up routine went on around him. No imposition at all. He was familiar with it, this after-hours routine - he had been for as long as he had been helping out - and had taken part in it on more than one occasion given the hours that he usually ended up working. It wasn’t out of mere curiosity that he observed this wipe of cloth to table or the waltz with a broom or mop that he entertained himself with as waitstaff - familiar and unfamiliar - moved about the space as the last of the guests - not to include himself - had gone to retire to their homes for the evening. There was something calming about it. Perhaps one would go as far to say therapeutic; that the simple act of cleaning - erasing what was soiled to reveal something pristine or what was otherwise hidden - could provide a clean slate.
The same went for time. Aiden glanced down at his own watch, still an unfamiliar piece of technology that he could barely recall being gifted or otherwise, but he wore it religiously, timing this or that for whatever reason he needed to. Everything is new at zero o’clock, Aiden found himself singing to himself in the relaxed and slightly fuzzy state that his mind was sinking into as the cleaning around him resumed. Thoughtfully, he continued to eat away at what he still had left of the mooncake, taking in the small details of its shape and even doing so much as breaking down the infusion of flavors that had made up the dough and its fruity filling, and what sort of care and time had gone into actually creating it.
He took the silence to think on his own mother who wasn’t as skilled in the kitchen as Sandra so truthfully, he would be thankful for his father, but it wasn’t to say that the attempts weren’t there to take on a role that was, for lack of better phrasing, stereotypically hers. It hadn’t bothered Aiden in the slightest, nor did it ever bother his father when culinary duties were often defaulted to him. His mother had always been the type that went against the grain - against what was expected - and prevailed given what she had accomplished for herself, but she always tried, in her own way, to be the kind of mother she wanted her son to be proud of. Perhaps he saw that reflected in the food - felt it, tasted it, smelled it - even as the commotion of pots and pans indicated that whatever ingredients and stocks were getting stored for the next day’s service and the homecooked scents no longer lingered. Comfort, nostalgia, familiarity, love - it was all there and it was a simple reminder of why he wanted to make this dessert last.
With his last bite of mooncake, he chased the sweet persimmon down with the smooth peach soju, downing it in its entirety, staring out at the window in front of him. The city lights danced and moonlight lit the way for those still heading home. It’d be a nice drive - a slow one despite what small alcohol intake he did have - to take back to the Marina District residence he had taken so long to call ‘home,’ but even now he still had his doubts. Doubts that he didn’t think too long on when his waiter returned with his receipt. His mochi cheeks barely held a faint shade of pink when he turned to look at him, gaze shifting between the tally of his order and, shortly after, that of the yakgwa that joined it. As simple as it was, it was a nice surprise, surely one that he hadn’t gotten the memo on since he had come back from Seoul, but he wouldn’t tell - not the other waitstaff and not eomma. For all he knew, this fresh face was showing appreciation for trying something off the seasonal menu though Aiden was reading far too into his words - something off the menu - to wonder whether there was something that wasn’t there that he had somehow ordered, but wasn’t aware of.
That brief confusion was written on his face for a while, but a goofy laugh and a bashful smile quickly covered that up as he took the sweet dessert in his hands, marveling at it, though it wasn’t unfamiliar, like it was something he had never seen before or didn’t want to break into. “Thank you,” he said with a couple bows of his head, the words he said next were almost hesitant, but he still wanted to say them. “I can’t wait to try it,” then he paused, turning the dessert over in his hands to face up, his voice hopeful. “Will you be here tomorrow?”
That was a loaded question, wasn’t it? It hadn’t dawned on Connor to make up a story about why he wouldn’t be there the next day, sure he could go into the long-distance and claim he was going to be heading out of town, perhaps out of country for some time, or play it off as if it was simply his day off. A quick mental dilemma between the two, considering what pros and cons there might have been in either as well as how disheartening the options actually felt, had him go with the latter - something that couldn’t exactly be proven without a name on the schedule, but was far less of an end all as disappearing from the face of the planet could have been.
“Ah, no,” he said, shaking his head off. “It’s my day off though with some luck, I might find a way to get something to eat off the menu.” It wasn’t like that was hard to do in any respect - he could very well just order from wherever he happened to be that day, no matter what body he happened to be wearing, but chances were he would be there and right underneath Aiden’s nose. Connor just didn’t know what he would end up looking like when the next day rolled around.
“But thank you for coming in,” Connor said with a bow of his head. “Easily one of the more appreciated late night customers,” he added, laughing a little bit as he took some time to ruminate over the types of customers that often came in during the late hours, pre-gamed into an already drunk state and hungry for something that would ultimately take the edge off, even if that something was a little more soju over a hot bowl of soup.
With that, he continued to wash up the tables again, still moving around Aiden as to not kick him out of his seat had he not been ready to leave quite yet. There was plenty of time as far as Connor was concerned and still plenty of work to occupy it.
What smile there was softened only slightly when he heard that he wasn’t going to be around the restaurant tomorrow, but Aiden nodded slowly in understanding. He was new. He may have even worked a couple of shifts earlier in the day throughout the week that had earned him his day off already. It was only slightly unfortunate, how his own schedule - between his day job at Warren Aviation and that of his part-time one at Mugunghwa - rarely left freetime to just socialize, most of it limited by availability and only really obtained by way of the aid of technology, but even that left more to be desired beyond pixels and screens.
That was better than nothing, he supposed as he turned his empty soju bottle upon the table, his fingers lightly drumming against the glass. The same went for the fact that this new face would only be away from the restaurant temporarily. There’d be more time in the future, he convinced himself, to talk more about food with someone who seemed to appreciate it just as much as he did. Of course, it wasn’t to say that he was the only one who felt similarly. There were others, he was positive, who were just as passionate about food and all things culinary who could talk his ears off and make his stomach grumble with properly placed adjectives, but under the roof of Mugunghwa, if it wasn’t Sandra that he was speaking to about food, there weren’t many who would go into the little nuances that differentiated stocks from broths from consommés.
“Maybe next time then,” he conceded with a slight nod. “You can tell me her secret to her mooncake recipe.” He wasn’t completely serious, a bit of a light airiness in his tone suggested that much, about the young man divulging his boss’ secret technique in perfecting mooncake if there was even one to speak of. He had seen Sandra prepare them a few times and even tried to follow along once, but couldn’t seem to get it right. If he wasn’t going to get any mooncake secrets any time soon, it was a simple rain check; an invitation to talk more once their schedules aligned and perhaps make a new friend in the process of it all.
The thanks that followed reestablished the smile on his face into something a little more flattered and perhaps a little nostalgic beneath it all, a distant memory squeezing its way to the forefront of his mind as he focused on a table at the opposite corner of the restaurant. There may have been an ulterior motive to take the late night shifts for that reason alone despite a full workday already behind him and sure, it may have contributed to his lack of a social life when all he seemed to do was work day in and day out, but he had his reasons. “I try,” he said, for lack of better words as he glanced at the front door and the large windows that faced the street, following the phantoms that were composed of a memory of a drunken fight in the street and the flash of sirens that took them away.
The wrapped dessert found itself on the table as the hand it was in favored the empty bottle of soju, nails digging into the adhesive separating paper from glass, small shreds tearing away and collecting in his palm. The cleaning continued around him and Aiden sat in silence with himself. When doing nothing seemed to weigh down on him, he traded his present distraction for that of something aural. His laptop still on, he queued up a playlist that began in this way, reminiscent of a thought from earlier and as a means to forget the weights of the day, to clear his head for the next, and start over.
Once the tune started playing, Aiden got up from his seat and moved around the dining area, putting up chairs in the same way that the young man had done - the same way that he had done during his own late night shifts - picking up stray pieces of trash that may have escaped the dustpan and broom, taking up his own trash in the process. He would expect questions - why he was helping when he seemingly didn’t have to - but he already had an answer for that. It was just a matter of waiting to be asked if that question ever came up.
He paused in his cleaning to hold a hand up to shield part of his cheek, an attempt to hide his mouth as he spoke from individuals who surely weren’t there in these late hours, Sandra already back home to settle into what he expected would be a peaceful night. It was as if it was a secret, but considering it was his own - though, truth be told, the process of actually making said mooncake was something he was still working on, sure he had flubbed and messed it up on more occasions than he had made anything presentable - what was the harm in revealing some of the magic behind it?
“There’s dried persimmon in the batter, like you would make an English pudding,” Connor said, a wink and a finger crossed perpendicular to his lips as if to seal the secret launching him into cleaning up the rest of the tables that he still had to wipe down. The counter had been on the radar next, then a clean sweep of the floor before mopping it down and ensuring everything had been as spotless as it possibly could be for the next day’s guests who, in circular fashion, would dirty it up again for the process to start all over again - whoever he happened to be at the time; but with the addition of music, it was hardly a problematic task, not so reminiscent of cleaning up the dojo which had been an exercise in consequence and discipline more than the restaurant had been. He sunk into the music while focusing on what it was he still had to do, drawn out of what focused haze he might have been in at the sound of chairs moving around, clearly not by his hands.
“Omo, I appreciate the help, but you don’t have to do that,” he said, shaking his head a little bit. It wasn’t required. He was perfectly capable of it, but admittedly, two sets of hands were better than one when it came to getting out of the restaurant at a reasonable enough hour though it would still take him a good fifteen minute drive to get home. Connor continued to clean down the counter, picking up a few errant receipts that had been left out in the rush to store them away in the register - something he still had to count which resulted in him setting the cleaning supplies aside to snap the register drawer out with a few clicks of the buttons to unlock it before setting it aside.
“There is always something to do. I don’t think it ever actually stops and I’m not sure how she did it for so long without even more help,” Connor mused while he counted, bills rifled around between his hands as quickly as he could possibly count them - something far easier in recent days than it perhaps had ever been - before setting a fraction of them back into their respective slots again as the starting till for the next day. The rest found themselves banded up, sorted by monetary value, before being dropped into a money bag for his mother to deal with when she was in the restaurant in the morning - all part of the clockwork schedule that seemed to work out for the restaurant well enough. Once he had finished, the drawer was secured again, cash and receipts set in a small office behind the scenes where they could ultimately be balanced, an aside written on a Sticky Note of the due for the drawer from Aiden’s uncounted ticket, still sitting on the table as he went back to wiping down the counter, shortly exchanging it for a broom and dustpan though he hoped there wasn’t too much left on the ground from the day’s interim cleaning.
The whisper came as a shock, if only temporary. The hush of breath coming with a secret meant to be kept under wraps - at least to whatever wait staff didn’t have a need-to-know of this particular piece of knowledge - not that there were many of Mugunghwa’s staff shuffling around the front of the house when there was still a customer enjoying the rest of his meal or otherwise preparing to return home, wherever that may be. The secret was just as unexpected to be lingering on the lips of someone that probably hadn’t even been working at the restaurant for longer than a week. At the moment of that first inhale, Aiden straightened in his seat, confusion and surprise crumpling his face for a split second as his features morphed into something absurd and disbelieving.
“Oh that makes so much sense,” he practically hissed, glancing at the empty plate where the mooncakes once were, mentally dissecting them all over again. “Dried persimmon… I would’ve guessed a homemade jam of the stuff,” he added, just a bit hushed when he saw the finger come up to his waiter’s lips in a cautionary measure to not say a word. Eyes wide, Aiden pantomimed zipping his lips. Not even Mochi or Jeff would be hearing of this, though even if they did, it’d be less in the context of secret recipe, more generally delicious treat.
As the melody filled the dining area, Aiden caught himself glancing at the other end of the room as he placed chair after chair upside down on the clean tabletops of their respective tables. It didn’t take long for the other young man to be pulled from the tune of the song to realize what it was he was doing to say something about it, but Aiden simply shrugged, drawing his lips inward as he moved to the next set of tables. “I know,” he said with a few curt nods, noting the whole lot of no one left in the dining area to stare at him in confusion when he should be plopped in his seat, at the very least, relaxing and enjoying the rest of the playlist before he decided to call it a night like any normal Mugunghwa patron would. That, though, he was not. Even off the clock. “Just thought it’s the least I could do to help you get home sooner.”
Employed at Mugunghwa or not - even part-time - Aiden thought for a moment if he would’ve done the same thing otherwise. It wouldn’t be his place to, but he could understand the demands of a long workday and he knew that every little bit of cleaning - throwing away stray pieces of trash or stacking dishes waiting to be bussed - made the usual restaurant chores that followed just a little easier. For those little bits of consideration from the occasional guest in his experience, he had been thankful.
Moving from one end of the restaurant to the other, Aiden eventually met the point in cleaned tables and propped chairs where the other young man had left off. Hands loosely gripped the legs of the chair he held as he turned in the direction of his voice when he spoke up from behind the register, briefly taking note of the lone receipt still yet to be paid. Slowly, Aiden crossed the room, his shoulders barely rising and falling in a half-shrug, uncertain if he meant it to be so or not, reaching into his back pocket for his wallet as he stepped up to the counter, fishing around for exact change if it would also make recounting the till easier as well. “Work eventually ends,” he began, eyes glancing at the amount he owed, silently counting bills, while slender fingers searched for the proper number of coins, “passion doesn’t. Unless we let it.”
He met his gaze briefly, a small smile of admiration on his face as he took in the restaurant for a moment, thinking of the restaurant’s owner and that fire he always tended to notice in her eyes on those few nights they found their paths crossing. No matter what went on in the restaurant - good or bad - that fire either dimmed or burned brighter, but hardly was it ever on the verge of extinguishing. Collecting his dues, Aiden slid the money the short distance along the counter toward the receipt."It's amazing what could be accomplished if you have enough of it," he added speaking further of Sandra without naming names.
Would there be any problem with it? Not likely. Someone could just as easily dissected the cake themselves to figure it all out - the consistency of the batter when there were likely still tiny chunks of persimmon within, the interior walnut paste which one could likely guess the ingredients and the chill it had been kept at to make sure it didn’t get too warm and melt or, conversely, freeze up until it was rock solid and basically useless. Even cooking could have been guessed at given the slightly crispy bottom, but that was something far fewer people would have known given the number of steps involved to make them just so: Fully baked on the outside with a center pocket of warm, creamy filling that easily went will with a cup of tea during the winter. That one more person knew - someone told by Connor’s own volition than simply by finding out - was hardly, if at all, going to make anything difficult for them and their attempts to keep it relatively underwraps.
“Ah, I don’t think that is going to happen any time soon,” he said, shaking his head as he took care of the last little bit to go into the till, securing it in the drawer rather than making the trek again to the back - the note would suffice easily enough for the overcount in the drawer and if, once she got into the restaurant in the morning, she wanted to balance it out, it was simple as pulling it from one draw and putting it into the bag for deposit where it would naturally fly out again in the process of restocking and paying expenses like rent and employee pay. It was the never-ending process and with his mother behind the wheel, one of a generation of business owners in the family, he doubted Mugunghwa was going anywhere soon.
“I think all I’ve left to do is mop up and then I am done,” he said, glancing around the restaurant similarly as if going through a mental checklist of what had been done and what needed to be done, a few errant tasks left like wiping down the glass panes in the front door to make sure they were streak-free, but those would be of quick work once he actually got around to it. “Which isn’t by any means kicking you out, but eventually there might be no more dry floor left to walk on.” The company was nice, he had to admit that even if it wasn’t in so many words before he made a move once more to grab the mop and bucket, stored away in the kitchen somewhere, to start filling with hot water and floor cleanser.