So much had changed, in so little a time.
He wasn't even sure how the hell it happened, or when the change all began to take effect. It seemed like one day, he blinked and in the next moment his entire world had shifted, was no longer what he knew, wanted it to be.
It seemed like one day, he woke up and every single one of his friends were gone.
Jun Pyo was busy touring most parts of Korea, fulfilling his role and inescapable fate as Shinhwa heir - not that he was escaping it lately. Ji Hoo and Jan Di both moved closer to Shinhwa University to prepare for pursuing a promising (for him) and difficult (for her) career in medicine. Yi Jung had gone to Sweden, perhaps to look for ways to improve himself and his skills as a potter, perhaps also to look for his own path and purpose in life.
Only Woo Bin had remained rooted to where he was. Unsurprising, since his life was mostly grounded, built, constructed here. He had the freedom to come and go as he pleased, of course, but always, always, he had to come back. Chose to come back. Where else was he supposed to be?
The world had yielded, shifted, changed, all in too short a span of time. So why the hell did Woo Bin feel as though, unlike all his friends, he merely remained immobile, stoic, static against the fast moving tides?
Phone calls among friends were frequent, but it could never compare to their physical presence - which made their absence even more pronounced. Hell, he missed them, every single one of them, though his arm would have to be twisted out of its socket and a bullet put into his mouth before he admitted that thought out loud - even to himself. They all punctuated their phone calls with invitations to visit their respective locations, but laughingly Woo Bin declined and dismissed each one, claimed that he had things to do, too, and ended the connections with, Yo you take care, all right? I'll know if you don't; I have eyes over where you are. Don't ask.
It was mostly true; Woo Bin's family had underground connections everywhere, and could readily move outside their jurisdiction if ever he gave the word. Such was the power of Woo Bin's family, and admittedly one of the benefits of being a mafia lord's son. However, his father was likely to retire soon, though soon was too vague a term that could mean anytime between the next hour and the next decade. Which meant his obligations, unlike Jun Pyo's, could wait for some time more - or not, depending on his father's health and mental aptitude.
Which, nowadays, remained as sharp and shrewd as ever.
Perhaps he should be responsible enough to take his mantle on today; his father was not getting younger, and neither was he. And in their world, loyalty, respect, fear had to be earned, worked for, never handed on a single platter because he was born an heir - and currently, Woo Bin's name only held an iota of power compared to his father's. Worthless, in the face of what could be, what he could have.
Working now would also give him a path and purpose that would help fill his seemingly empty, aimless days.
...no, would be his next thought, so soon after the first one came. And he would rub his temples in frustration because really, where did that initial thought even come from? Tomorrow. I'll be more responsible tomorrow.
It was hard to have fun and be responsible at the same time, after all.
It was an accident, really, that he managed to spot her among the crowd at all. He was on his way to one of the most exclusive clubs in the area, phone in hand and laughing at the irritation in Yi Jung's voice ("time differences, goddamnit man, why are you calling me at this hour? don't you know I've-") when he thought he saw a familiar figure turn the corner. Woo Bin straightened in his seat, strained forward to see if his hunch was correct.
"...what?" Suddenly Yi Jung's voice sounded alert and focused.
"Later, man. I'll call you back," he said to the phone. "Go to sleep." Then Woo Bin disconnected the line, told the driver to pull over, and stepped out of his vehicle.
It was odd, Woo Bin thought, as he moved alongside the throng of people on the streets at this hour. He hadn't given her much thought, really. Why should he? They rarely talked to each other, if at all - it seemed Ga Eul's eyes were only on Yi Jung, and on Jan Di, and only spoke to him when addressing everyone all at once. He barely knew her outside of being Jan Di's friend and the 'nice, naive, foolish girl' that Yi Jung, oddly enough, offhandedly mentioned every now and then (though knowing Yi Jung, perhaps it wasn't odd after all). But through their similar, tenuous connections, he considered her as close to a friend as a person outside of F4 and Jan Di could be.
Some people could only wish for such a blessing, recognition, from him.
He quickened his pace, then reached out to grab her arm. She positively squeaked, and turned with her handbag raised, poised to smack him on the head with it.
"Yo!" Woo Bin said, letting go of her and pretending to cower before the mighty wrath of her handbag. "Ga Eul, is that any way to greet someone you know?"
Ga Eul's mouth worked a while before she found her voice. "...Woo Bin-sunbae!" she said, lowering her bag to gape at him in surprise. "I-"
"Sorry I scared you," he said sheepishly, tucking his hands in the pockets of his coat. "Probably should have warned you I was coming after you, right?"
"Y-You didn't scare me," she said, moving her chin up and clutching her bag to her chest like a shield. "You just... surprised me, that's all."
Woo Bin raised his brow, but let the comment slide. He grinned at her. "Let me make up for it, then. Where are you headed?"
"Home," she replied easily, pointing at somewhere in the distance. "I just finished my shift."
"At the porridge shop."
"You still work there?"
"Yes." A frown had made its way to her brow. "With Jan Di gone, I'm the only one minding the store now, though sooner or later we'll get someone new to take Jan Di's place."
Interestingly enough, Woo Bin thought he saw a shadow cloud her features at the mention of her friend's name. An odd, but welcomed source of comfort.
Just like the thought that she still worked at the same place for all this time.
It seemed like he's not the only one who remained behind, after all.
"Come on, I'll give you a ride home." He indicated the car that was parked and waiting for Woo Bin's every command.
Her eyes moved towards the car, and hesitation was written on every corner of her face as she looked back at him questioningly. He was, after all, not above an acquaintance of hers - and both Jan Di and Yi Jung, their strongest ties - were not around.
He smiled in reassurance and said, "I'm sure the car I brought isn't as flashy as Yi Jung's, but I can assure you it's just as comfortable. And I can be as charming a host as he is - if not more." As if to prove his point, he dimpled and gallantly offered her his arm.
Ga Eul shook her head, even as twin spots of color bloomed in her cheeks. Such was the effect of Yi Jung's name to her, he guessed. "I wasn't-" Then she glanced at his pre-offered arm and sighed. "...all right, since you insist."
"I do," he said affably. And quietly wondered why he did.
The next week, he showed up unceremoniously in the porridge shop.
Woo Bin found it warm, tidy, and empty as ever, save for the cook behind the counter and Ga Eul, who blinked owlishly for a second, then broke into an easy, practiced smile to welcome him in.
"Sunbae," she said cautiously. "Did you come here to tell me something?"
And he was confused over the question before he remembered that the last time he was here, he and Yi Jung brought her and Jan Di the news that Jun Pyo had been released from the hospital. After eating their porridge, of course.
Quickly recovering his composure, he shook his head. "I had a hankering. For-" His eyes scanned the menu: "-Abalone Porridge. I remembered it was good."
It was obvious from her expression that she wasn't expecting that. Still, dutifully, she showed him to a cozy spot and left, presumably to get him his order.
His phone sounded in his pocket. It was a message from Yi Jung ("sorry I didn't return your call earlier. got holed up in my schedule. it's been a long week but I-")
And he stopped reading and shoved his phone in his pocket when Ga Eul appeared, arms full of his order.
It was as good as he'd remembered, hot and thick and heavy. Woo Bin flashed her a thumbs up, then indicated the empty chair in front of him - silently asking her for her company.
Some girls would kill to be in her position right now.
But Ga Eul - just like that night at the streets - showed some hesitation before carefully depositing herself on the chair.
"You're not attending university?" he asked bluntly, as he stirred his porridge to let some heat escape.
She blinked at the question, then shrank back and quietly said, "No."
He raised his brows, silently asking her why.
Ga Eul shrugged, looked over the edge of the table. "We- I can't afford it." It was said in a voice so small that Woo Bin strained to hear her words. "But I'm working on it. I just need to get enough money and I'm sure next semester I'll be able to attend."
Get enough money. Commoners' problems. At first they sounded so foreign, so alien to all the members of F4.
Then they met Jan Di.
"What are you planning to take up?"
She chewed her lip. Woo Bin almost smiled, anticipating that she'd say 'pottery', though she surprised him by saying, "Education."
She smiled at him. "I've decided to study to become a teacher."
A teacher? That job where she'd be surrounded with homework and incorrigible kids and laughing kids and annoying brats-
He couldn't help it; Woo Bin shuddered.
Ga Eul laughed. "It won't be that bad," she said. "I like kids."
"If you say so," he said dismissively, though inwardly he groaned. Women.
"Sunbae... what about you?"
"-what about me?"
Ga Eul inclined her head, regarded him earnestly. "You're not attending university?"
For a moment, he contemplated lying to her. Telling her that he was, that he's going to an exclusive school somewhere abroad, somewhere as impressive as Sweden - say, Italy - but one look at her face and he knew he wouldn't be able to keep the facade.
So Woo Bin shrugged and replied, "Practical learning." Her brows drew together, and Woo Bin elaborated, "Some things can't be learned in school. You have to witness and experience them first hand."
Ga Eul nodded, accepting his answer. She probably thought he was talking about their construction company.
He wasn't, but always it was easier to let people think that way.
"Can I have another?" He indicated his empty bowl, and wagged his brows suggestively. "I remembered this tasted good. I didn't remember it tasted this good, though."
She smiled and rose from her chair, and moved to get him his second order.