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The Legend of Dusty Kim

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“And up next is the favorite to sweep the field on this season of Baking Battleground, none other than the Prince of Pastry himself, Lee Dongmin.” The announcer’s voice was deep and booming.

Dongmin smiled politely for the cameras and inclined his head modestly; he really hated that nickname, because people focused more on his good looks (which he’d done nothing to deserve; his favorable genes were all from his parents) than his baking (which he’d worked long and hard to perfect).

“Next to him is the wild card, the Singing Sunshine - Kim Myungjun!”

Myungjun beamed and waved for the cameras, flashed some heart symbols as well, and Dongmin resisted the urge to roll his eyes and sigh. He’d been startled - all of the bakers had - to discover that Myungjun was the eldest of them, three years Dongmin’s senior and already finished with his military service. After all, Myungjun acted like he was younger than Sanha, who was three years younger than Dongmin (and a few centimeters taller, dammit).

Dongmin hated being at the workstation beside Myungjun’s, because the man was distracting. He was always flitting around, giggling and singing to himself, being cheery and sometimes even flirty to the cameramen. And when he worked, he was sort of a disaster - flour and butter everywhere, fruit stains on his sleeves and jacket, a dab of powdered sugar on his nose.

Also, he never seemed to properly weigh or measure anything, crooning to the camera about a handful of this and a dash of that and just eyeball it.

Baking, Dongmin knew, was science just as much as it was an art, and Dongmin knew the science inside and out. He wasn’t a slave to a recipe by any stretch of the imagination, but any alterations to a recipe were carefully thought-out and calculated to maximize the effects of the ingredients and their reactions to each other.

Baking Battleground was supposed to be a battle of amateur versus professionally-trained chefs, and the judges had no clue which competitors had what kind of training, if any. The audience wasn’t supposed to know either, but Dongmin had had a reputation when he was at Le Cordon Bleu, and someone from his graduating class had made a post on the internet about how he’d been top in their class, so of course the other competitors knew.

Dongmin remembered Park Jinwoo from Le Corden Bleu as well, and they’d acknowledged each other early on during the filming for the first episode, a murmured Dongmin-ssi and Sunbae and So you remember me? and Of course, sunbae and I remember you too.

Dongmin could tell just from watching Park Minhyuk that he’d had formal training as well, because his workspace discipline was highly technical, and the way he talked about proofing and gluten and utilizing the acidity of buttermilk to keep a cake moist spoke to his knowledge of the science behind his craft.

Moon Bin, Dongmin suspected, had no formal training, given how often he mentioned tips from his mother and grandmothers and various aunts in the ways he did things in the kitchen, things that spoke to their vast technical knowledge and experience and his own naturally good instincts.

Yoon Sanha had had perhaps some formal training, was perhaps only partway through his formal education, but he had also learned plenty in his grandmother’s kitchen, and at this stage in his baking career he relied more on his experience and instinct than technical skill, but by his own telling he’d started baking when he was quite young, and he had plenty of experience.

Kim Myungjun was a mystery. The way he wielded his tools spoke to some kind of professional training, his comfort with tools that most housewives didn’t bother with indicative of some kind of professional experience, but that wasn’t necessarily training, and his tendency away from using recipes at all was mind-boggling, and the way he tasted everything as he went along, gleefully licking his fingers and giggling like a child after was highly unprofessional (at least he washed his hands before he went back to work, but still). If Kim Myungjun had had professional training, he’d probably washed out due to being walking chaos.

Walking chaos that was right beside Dongmin’s workstation for the final round this week, which was to be baumkuchen, a German cake made of multiple delicate layers and was also hollow in the middle, and also had to be frosted impeccably.

Myungjun was dancing in place, humming along to the little battered radio he kept at his workstation, and mixing up the batter, talking about a pinch of this and a dab of that, and Dongmin had to put Myungjun out of his mind, because this cake was fiendishly difficult on a technical level, and getting it right was even harder.

“Too bad we don’t have a cake spit, hm?” Myungjun said idly to Dongmin as he stirred.

Dongmin glanced at him. “Pardon?”

“We’d have a better chance, as a group, if we had a cake spit,” Myungjun continued. “Then the cake layers would all be uniform and neat. The contest would come down to decorating after that, though. And you know I’d win.”

“I know no such thing,” Dongmin retorted, and Myungjun just laughed.

“They call me golden hands for a reason,” Myungjun said. “In school they called me - well, they didn’t call me, did they?”

And he continued humming along to the song on the radio, which was American classic rock. It took Dongmin a moment to parse the lyrics, as he was busy checking his recipe, but then he understood.

All we are is dust in the wind

What a strangely melancholy song for the Singing Sunshine to be listening to.

But Dongmin put Myungjun out of his mind and kept on working.

Because baking was chemistry and reactions had roughly uniform times, they all moved along at about the same pace, with little variation, timers dinging again and again as they baked the individual layers of the cakes. Myungjun was the first to finish icing his cake, and he hadn’t been lying - he did have golden hands. He’d proved to have steady hands in the earlier rounds this week, but the chocolate gilding his cake was perfectly smooth and flawless, and it had the perfect shine that people expected from a professionally-made cake even though Myungjun’s constant tinkering with the heat as he melted his baking chocolate had been worrisome.

“Have to let it set before I move on,” Myungjun said to the camera, and with that he drifted around to the other workstations.

He helped Minhyuk hold his bowl of melted chocolate while Minhyuk coated his cake with it, and then he let Bin borrow his special chocolate grater so Bin could make artful chocolate curls for the top of his cake. He held a piping bag so Sanha could pour his frosting into it, and then he helped Jinwoo get his cake onto the cake pedestal so he could start in on decorating it.

There was no rule against commingling, and Jinwoo had helped Dongmin a bit last round, but Dongmin could only shake his head. Myungjun would have been better served thinking about the final decoration design for his cake.

Instead, he drifted over to Dongmin’s workstation. “Need anything?”

“I’m fine, thank you,” Dongmin said, as polite and friendly as possible.

Something about Kim Myungjun just rubbed him wrong.

But Myungjun shrugged and smiled, unoffended, and returned to his own station. “All right. Let me know if that changes.” And he scooped up a frosting bag and set to work.

Which. When he had had a chance to mix and color seven different bags of frosting?

But he set to frosting immediately, decorating the cake with a bright rainbow.

Of course, he finished before the timer went off, and he washed his hands and snapped pictures of his cake with his phone from several angles before Sanha called out,

“Myungjun-hyung! Help?”

And Myungjun was there, piping leaves around the flowers that Sanha piped first. Myungjun helped Jinwoo set some artful spun chocolate centerpieces onto the top of his cake, and he let Minhyuk borrow one of his frosting knives so he could clean up the edges of his cake, and then -

“Time!” the announcer cried.

There was a break in filming for all six chefs to get presentable before the judges were brought in. That was the chance for Dongmin to go see the others’ cakes. All of them looked delicious, but the cakes’ true quality would be revealed once the judges cut in and had a taste.

“Good luck,” Myungjun said, grinning at Dongmin.

“Thank you,” Dongmin said distractedly, watching the three judges enter, trying to read their reactions as they looked at the six cakes.

The director counted them in, and even Myungjun managed a serious expression before the judges addressed them, discussing the technical difficulty of the cakes and what they looked for in a cake that was up to par.

And then it was time for each cake to be assessed.

Dongmin wasn’t surprised that Sanha’s cake had uneven layers inside once it was cut open, but it was decorated prettily and the flavor was good. Minhyuk’s cake had even layers but he’d overheated the chocolate glaze and it didn’t have the glossy shine it ought to have. Bin’s cake had more even layers than Sanha’s but more uneven than Minhyuk’s, but the artistry of his chocolate glaze made up for the deficiency. Of course Jinwoo’s cake was textbook perfect, and it might have withstood the judges’ scrutiny if not for some of his spun chocolate toppings collapsing right at the last second, which honestly could have happened to anyone.

Of course Dongmin was confident in his own cake’s quality, and the judges had glowing praise for him.

They also had glowing praise for Myungjun’s cake, which had perfectly even layers, flawless chocolate decoration, and the different colors of frosting each had different flavors, which made a lovely garnish.

Dongmin resisted the urge to crane his neck and peer at Myungjun’s workstation. Hadn’t he just used food coloring?

Myungjun was declared the winner, and he bowed and beamed and accepted the other competitors’ and judges’ applause, and like that, filming was over.

The judges left, and Dongmin stared at his cake. Second place was better than last place, poor Sanha. And Dongmin had come first in previous rounds and on previous episodes. They’d all had their first-place moments, so he shouldn’t be upset.

Myungjun plunged into the crowd of staff and crew. “Who wants some free cake? I can’t eat it all by myself.”

“Good thing I have brothers,” Sanha said. “I’m pretty sure the reason they’re cheering me on for this show is for all the food I bring home.”

Dongmin wondered what he ought to do with his cake. Probably give it to his younger brother to share with his friends. He reached for his phone to send a message to his brother, and then Myungjun was in front of him.

“Want a bite of my cake? So far reviews have been pretty good.” Myungjun grinned.

Dongmin stared at the half-eaten cake. Half of the rainbow was gone.

“Come on.” Myungjun waggled the cake platter enticingly - and a little dangerously. “I know you love blueberry and lavender. Of course the dark blue is blueberry and the purple is lavender. For you.”

“For me?” Dongmin echoed, startled. When had he ever talked about his flavor preferences? In an interview, perhaps, but they did their interviews separate, and half the time what they said didn’t make the final cut anyway.

“Minhyuk likes banana, so the yellow is for him,” Myungjun continued. “Just a small bite.”

Dongmin stared at the cake, and finally, he nodded. “All right. I’d like a bite.” He wanted to know what the judges had tasted in Myungjun’s cake that they hadn’t tasted in his, after all.

Myungjun happily forked up a piece and held it out to Dongmin. For a moment, Dongmin hesitated, because he wasn’t used to anyone feeding him who wasn’t his family or a boyfriend, but -

Dongmin made a wordless sound of pleasure.

The cake tasted amazing. It was soft and fluffy and moist, and the faint bitterness of the chocolate had top notes of the blueberry and lavender, and - no wonder Myungjun had won. He’d deserved every point.

“Is it all right?” Myungjun asked, sounding genuinely anxious even though he knew his cake was all right, that the judges had declared it much more than just all right.

“It’s good,” Dongmin admitted.

Was it just his imagination, or did Myungjun’s smile dim a little bit?

But then more members of the staff and crew were swarming around him asking for some more cake, and he surrendered it to them with a laugh and a smile, and went to clean up his workstation.

Dongmin asked one of the staff to bring him a box so he could take the rest of his cake home, and he set to tidying up.

By the time Dongmin was done, he and Myungjun were the only two competitors left, Myungjun carefully portioning up the last of his cake for people to take home to their families and loved ones.

Dongmin surrendered his apron and jacket and cap to the costume mistress so it could be laundered before the next episode, and he found his coat and hat and scarf so he could venture out into the brisk winter chill outside the studio walls.

Dongmin had just reached the bus stop when Myungjun caught up to him, shivering despite his heavy padded coat, his breath puffing on the air.

“Good work today,” Myungjun said.

“You too,” Dongmin said, a little grudgingly, and kind of hated himself for it. He’d always thought himself open-minded, that he was fair and not a snob, but the thought of being bested by Kim Myungjun who was uneducated and undisciplined was a little galling.

Myungjun eyed him. “You think I’m a slob and a hack, don’t you?”

“You rarely measure ingredients properly,” Dongmin said.

“If my cake looks and tastes as it should, I suppose my measurements were proper, weren’t they?”

“Results do matter,” Dongmin said, and hesitated.

“But?” Myungjun arched one eyebrow, and he looked amused.

“But one should be disciplined in all that one does,” Dongmin said finally. “Disciplined and organized and exacting and thorough.”

“I must be disciplined enough, to bake as well as I do,” Myungjun pointed out.

Dongmin bit his lip.

“Are you jealous of me?” Myungjun asked.

Dongmin said nothing.

“It was just one round of one episode of many episodes,” Myungjun said. “What’s there to be jealous of? If I’m so undisciplined.”

“It’s just - you sing and you dance and you’re so cheerful all the time and you’re always helping the others and -”

“And those are bad things?” Myungjun asked. “I’m not forcing anyone else to sing or dance. And Jinwoo likes my music, besides. Classic rock.”

“Well - you played a sad song today,” Dongmin said.

“It’s not sad, just contemplative,” Myungjun said.

It was Dongmin’s turn to eye him. “That song was in English. You’re awful at English.”

“First of all, yes, both of those things are true, but it’s not as if I’ve never heard that song before or, I don’t know, taken the time to look at a translation of the lyrics, unlike Minhyuk and his unfortunately enthusiastic rendition of Versace on the Floor.”

Dongmin had to smother a chuckle before it escaped. Minhyuk, attempting to borrow some of Myungjun’s mojo, had tried singing while he worked as well, but his song choice had left something to be desired on a family-friendly baking competition. None of the others had had the heart to tell him what he’d actually sung, but Jinwoo had gently suggested he look up a translation of the lyrics.

“Why Dust in the Wind?” Dongmin asked.

“Why do you hate that I like music and that I’m nice?” Myungjun countered.

Dongmin ducked his chin into his collar. He didn’t hate those things about Myungjun. He just hated how distracting Myungjun was.

“Besides,” Myungjun said, “it’s kind of a joke. My nickname was Dust.”

“Nickname?” Dongmin echoed.

Myungjun nodded. “When I was at school. I’d come in, do my thing, and go, barely leaving a trace of dust behind.”

Only Dongmin had a vague memory of coming into the academy kitchen late at night to try to perfect his souffle and finding a platter of blueberry and lavender macarons waiting for him, with a note attached bearing a quick tip (make sure the eggwhites are room temperature!) and a signature that wasn’t a name, was just Dust.

Dongmin turned to Myungjun. “You - you were Dusty Kim?” 

Myungjun sang, sweet and high and clear, All we are is dust in the wind.

“You went to Le Cordon Bleu too?” 

“Shh! No one’s supposed to know.” Myungjun pressed a finger to his lips and winked.

And suddenly Dongmin remembered, the legendary Dusty Kim, from the class ahead of Jinwoo’s, the chef who had the baker’s equivalent of perfect pitch, knew the weight of ingredients to the miligram just by looking at them no matter what they were.

“You made macarons for me,” Dongmin said.

“You liked my macarons.”

“Did you…like me?”

“Who doesn’t want their own fairytale prince?”

Dongmin blushed. “I’m not a prince. I hate that stupid nickname.”

“And I wasn’t just a trace of dust, but we all move through the world differently.”

Dongmin studied Kim Myungjun and wondered how he’d ever gone unnoticed, this ray of sunshine and energy.

Dongmin swallowed hard. “When this is over, will you go out with me?”

“Ask me again if you win,” Myungjun said, and reached out a hand, flagging down the approaching bus.

“You mean when I win!” Dongmin called after him.

Myungjun tossed him a sunny smile. “Guess I’m going out with you then!” And he clambered onto the bus.

Dongmin watched him go, heart pounding. Then he fished his phone out of his pocket and texted Jinwoo and Hyeonggu. 

Hey, do either of you remember Dusty Kim? From the class ahead of Jinwoo’s. What kinds of flavors did he like? For macarons and whatnot.

The response from Hyeonggu was immediate. Who? What?

Jinwoo’s reply was more helpful. Cherry, orange, lemon, pistachio. Why?

Dongmin didn’t answer. He scanned the bus schedule on the wall beside him, then reached out and flagged down the next bus rumbling his way. He had to stop by his favorite specialty baking store on the way home.