They settle into a familiar pattern. Go Eun-bi, the integrated outcast, and Gong Tae-gwang, the integrated delinquent. Head slaps, finger pushes, faces and smiles in class when no one seems to be looking.
Some call them inseparable. Tae-gwang wants it to be true, but knows that to entertain the thought would be foolishness.
Eun-bi does not look at boys. She does not look at boys because deep inside, she cannot really distinguish between boys and girls. To her, they are all friends, close to her heart. Warmth and community, surrounding her after years and years spent in isolation, in loneliness, in anguish. She loves some more than others, treasures some more than others, but the romance is unthinkable to her.
Oh, she understands it, at least, what she thinks it is. That flutter of attraction at a certain slope of the shoulders, or crease of the eyes, or flourish of the hair. She has read of it and seen it and heard it. If she is honest, she has experienced it herself.
But love? True romantic love? The thought is too enormous, too overbearing. Too much for her.
At the very least, her relationship with Han Yi-an is simplistic. He sees her as a friend. She sees him as a friend. There is no longer guilt or anger between them. When she is around him, she finds no need to analyze every little thing he does, take it into subtext, tread carefully as if she were on eggshells. She does not need to worry about hurting his feelings—not like with Tae-gwang.
So she smiles and lives life, full to the brim with happiness that cannot be contained, surrounded by friends and family and everything she never had.
Then Han Yi-an confesses.
It is the last month of their last year in high school and Han Yi-an confesses.
He takes her to the bridge and they're staring into the water, marveling at the dancing lights from the lampposts onto the liquidy surface, and Han Yi-an threads his fingers together and clears his throat and creases his brow, searching for the perfect words to say.
Then he confesses and Eun-bi nearly drops her phone into the river.
"But my sister," she stammers, utterly bewildered. "You like my sister!"
He shakes his head desperately. "I like you," he says emphatically.
"S-since when?" Eun-bi whispers, kneading at her aching head.
"From the beginning," Yi-an says. "When I met Lee Eun-bi."
"You hated me," Eun-bi says.
"No," he says sharply. "I... was angry because I liked you."
Eun-bi is quiet. Mulls this over. Leaves Han Yi-an gripping his hands together. Then speaks. "You don't like me, Han Yi-an. You like the idea of me."
Because to Han Yi-an, she is neither Go Eun-bi nor Go Eun-byul. She carries the childhood sentiment of Go Eun-byul, the charisma, the confidence, the power of Go Eun-byul, but also the meekness of Go Eun-bi, the gentility, the selflessness.
He could not have liked her from the beginning, because she was Go Eun-byul, not Lee Eun-bi. He liked her because in his mind, they had thrown frisbees last year and frolicked in the pool the year before and cut class ever year prior. Then, with that foundation, he liked the image that followed: all his childhood dreams, but with a pinch of softness, a dash of optimism, an extract of civility.
Han Yi-an likes a person who does not exist.
"Are you saying," Yi-an whispers lowly, "that my feelings are fake? After I've finally worked up the courage to confess?" He paces, wringing his hands. "We're friends, Eun-bi! We know each other! I'm not mistaking you for anyone else!"
"Then why," Go Eun-bi whispers back, "are you bracing your head as if I'm gonna hit you? Like my sister?"
Yi-an lowers his arms, mouth open. Then closed.
"I swear, Eun-bi," he says,"our friendship is real. You think that I don't know you?"
"You do know me," Eun-bi says quietly. She also thinks that he is confused, because romance is something that takes straight lines and bends them into corkscrews, but she will not say that now.
Han Yi-an clenches his hands into fists, but he restrains his anger. He pushes away from the railing, stalking into the night.
One year ago, Go Eun-bi would have wallowed in guilt. One year ago, Go Eun-bi would have burst into tears.
But one year ago, Go Eun-bi was Lee Eun-bi. And Go Eun-bi is no longer Lee Eun-bi.
So a tearless Go Eun-bi returns to her home, mind spinning at this sudden turn of events. She thinks everything and nothing all at once, and before she knows it, she is raising her phone and typing with steady thumbs.
Gong Tae-gwang. You awake? she sends.
There is no reply for a half hour. Then there is one. Sorry. Was eating with Pops.
She smiles. You had dinner together? That's great.
Yeah, it would've been if he hadn't cooked. Unbidden, she pictures his playful smirk in her mind. So, Go Eun-bi. 'Sup?
She pauses. Something happened, she types lamely.
No duh, Tae-gwang replies. Then sends another message hurriedly: On a scale from stubbed toe to nuclear disaster, how serious is it?
Somewhere around the stubbed toe, she answers, choking with laughter. Han Yi-an confessed. To me.
There is silence and it suddenly dawns on her that maybe she shouldn't have told this to Tae-gwang, who she thinks—well, he hasn't been acting like it lately, but she still thinks—has feelings for her. She should have told Eun-byul. Tae-gwang is her closest friend, but Tae-gwang is a boy.
Never mind, she hurriedly types, but Tae-gwang beats her to it.
I think that's somewhere around the nuclear disaster range, he replies.
Just forget it. I shouldn't have told you.
You don't think I deserve to know about a nuclear disaster?
I'm going to bed. Don't tell anyone, okay? Not a single soul.
Oh, then I can tell your sister, Tae-gwang jokes.
She has a soul, thank you very much, Eun-bi chides with a smile. A very good one, at that.
Good night, Eun-bi, Tae-gwang says. And that's when she knows that he won't tell a single soul, nor anyone who he believes to be soulless.
So Eun-bi washes up and snuggles into bed and curls her blankets around her figure, Han Yi-an's intent gaze replaying in an empty loop in her mind. She groans, kneading at her temples, and good heavens, when did the world get so complicated? Why couldn't Han Yi-an have been the one simple relationship of hers?
She turns over and grips her phone and deliberates for a moment. Then:
Gong Tae-gwang, she sends. You awake?
Am now, he replies wryly. Why?
She pauses. With trembling fingers, she types. I don't know.
She breathes. Stares.
Han Yi-an's hurt, Go Eun-byul's absence, university plans, everything, too much. She curls deeper into her blankets, feeling empty.
I just really want to be alone right now, she types miserably.
Ten minutes and twenty-four seconds pass and Eun-bi clutches her phone, terrified.
Gong Tae-gwang? she types tremulously, but just as she is about to send—
Come outside, says Tae-gwang's message.
Her face lights up. She goes outside.
Tae-gwang doesn't ask her about Yi-an. Tae-gwang doesn't demand answers. Tae-gwang takes one look at her face and nudges his scooter toward her without a word. So Go Eun-bi boards the scooter and rolls down the streets, hollering like a lunatic. Tae-gwang elbows her in the ribs and she bops him on the head and she allows herself to be lost in a peaceful moment when there is nothing but night air and lights in the sky.
Eventually, they must return, as always. Eun-bi bites her lip and waves. Tae-gwang waves back.
And Tae-gwang doesn't hug her, doesn't kiss her, doesn't even cast a longing glance as she slips through the door. To some extent, she feels relieved. To another...
Well, no need to think about that.
Han Yi-an is avoiding Go Eun-bi, even as the last weeks of school draw to a close. She tells herself that she is surprised by his behavior.
But really, she isn't.
She has always appreciated Han Yi-an's friendship, but if she knows one thing about him, it is his stubbornness. She knows that when facing pain, Yi-an draws himself into a shell like a turtle in a war zone.
Just give him time, Go Eun-byul assures her. He always comes around. And give him a good hit when he does.
It's too much amidst final tests and worrying about university and anything and everything, so Eun-bi manages to put it out of her mind—for the most part. She spends more time with her friends, never pushing Yi-an away, but never initiating. He will come when he is ready.
For now, she lets herself smile and laugh and do everything that she was not allowed to do for years.
It's the final day of school, and Han Yi-an has still not spoken to her, so she spends the afternoon with Gong Tae-gwang in an idle sort of amusement after giving long hugs to every classmate and shedding more than a few tears.
"Time really flies," she muses, closing her eyes against the bronzed sunlight. Photosynthesis. She feels it now.
"That it does," Tae-gwang accedes.
"It's weird to think that I'll be in uni before I know it," Eun-bi says.
"Studying teaching?" Tae-gwang says.
"You know me," Eun-bi says with a smile. "And where are you headed? You never told me."
Tae-gwang raises an eyebrow. "Headed?"
"For uni," Eun-bi says.
Gong Tae-gwang laughs. "Me?" he guffaws. "Uni? With my grades and track record?"
"You're not stupid," Eun-bi protests. "You could pass the tests."
"Or," Tae-gwang says with a spark of mischief, "I could become one of those brilliant hotshot CEOs who start megacorporations from their backyards."
"Or you could pass the tests," Eun-bi smirks.
He pokes her forehead. She slaps his arm. He flicks her chin. She ruffles his hair.
"Look at us,"Eun-bi giggles. "Acting like a bunch of kids."
"Guess we never grew up," Tae-gwang says.
They leave without saying goodbye, even though Eun-bi will move the next week to prepare for uni. Only people who do not plan to stay in touch say goodbye.
But if Eun-bi is honest, very honest with herself, she is surprised when Gong Tae-gwang only hugs her for 3 seconds (not that she's counting) and pats her head and smiles, as if she's just a friend, not his crush, not someone he likes.
Maybe Gong Tae-gwang grew up after all.
Go Eun-bi smiles and tells herself that she is relieved.
It is midway through Go Eun-bi's first semester at university and everything is blazing so fast, so busily, so full and so much that before she knows it, she's hopped on the nearest train to Tongyeong and she's standing in front of the Love House. She has no excuse for it; she's memorized all of the children's birthdays and today isn't one. She just needs something calm, something quiet, something familiar in the bustle of university life.
She quietly creeps through the door, disturbed to see that the orphanage is oddly empty.
Then she hears shrieks of laughter from the backyard and a single, boyish laugh and her heart thuds unexpectedly in her chest. She races to the backyard, mouth agape.
Gong Tae-gwang is jogging around the back field, surrounded by a charging crowd of children, her children, face lit up with the brightest smile in the world.
Perhaps it is because she has spent months away without seeing him, perhaps it is because her only contact has been texts and the occasional phone call; perhaps it is because the shirt he is wearing has its sleeves rolled up to his elbows or because his hair is swept sleekly over his forehead in a way she has never seen. She cannot place the exact reasons, because perhaps there are many of them. All she knows is that for one deadly moment, her heart trembles in her chest and she is suddenly taking cover behind the nearest bush like a common crook.
Then, as abruptly as it came, the vision breaks; she only sees her dear friend, Gong Tae-gwang.
(But that moment should never have happened in the first place.)
Confidence regained, she emerges from hiding, cheerfully calling the children to her side. Ra-jin is the first to hug her, as Ra-jin always is. She holds up her grocery bags of ddeokbokki and ruffles their unkempt heads as they cheer in delight.
The children rush inside to clean up after playing outdoors, and Go Eun-bi's gaze meets Gong Tae-gwang's.
(And if Go Eun-bi is honest, perfectly honest with herself, she sees the flash of something in Tae-gwang's eyes, the twitch of his fingers, and she feels just the tiniest tinge of satisfaction deep inside her mind.)
"Hey, Gong Tae-gwang," she says coolly. "Long time no see."
He walks up to her, staring intently. She bites her lip beneath his intent gaze.
He pokes her forehead.
"Ever heard of making a reservation?" he teases with his signature boyish grin.
"Excuse me?" she snorts. "I lived here for sixteen years, and I'm the one who has to make a reservation?"
"Duh," he says drily. "If someone's there first, you need to make a reservation."
"Technically, I was here first. When I was born," she responds. "And why aren't you washing up? I'm not letting you eat dinner if you're all grubby from playing outside."
He rolls his eyes. "Yes, Mom," he says sardonically, poking her shoulder.
She hits him across the head.
The visit to Tongyeong is far too short, and it seems as if Eun-bi has scarcely blinked before she's back in the whirlwind that is university.
Han Yi-an contacts her as the winter holidays approach. She is pleasantly surprised to receive a phone call, not a text message, and even more so when his words are more than civil.
I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking straight. I haven't been acting at my best. I put you in a really uncomfortable position. Can we still be friends?
The words are so soft and direct that she almost wonders if Go Eun-byul had anything to do with them. She smiles and she accepts his apology and she says that there shouldn't be secrets and guilt between them—not any more—not after all this. He laughs at that, and for a moment, they're back to the routine of Han Yi-an and Go Eun-bi and they're just close friends, brought together by unlikely circumstances.
But just before the call ends, just before Han Yi-an hangs up, a few words come whispering through the call.
"Who am I in love with, Eun-bi?" he mumbles, out of confusion rather than malice.
She sighs. "That's something that only you can answer," she says.
They hang up with an unspoken promise to talk again—comfortably, as two close friends.
Go Eun-bi returns for Christmas holidays just as Go Eun-byul returns for Christmas holidays. The two spend late nights chatting in their rooms about America, university, jobs, dreams. Eun-bi asks jokingly if anyone has caught Eun-byul's eye, and to her utter shock, Eun-byul blushes.
"Oh, no way," Eun-bi gasps.
Eun-byul giggles. Legitimately giggles.
Eun-bi is debating on whether she should call the asylum when Eun-byul abruptly recovers, snarling.
"Just a random kid who's kind of cute," she snarks. "No one important."
But there was a giggle. An actual giggle.
Eun-bi narrows her eyes. "Huh," she says.
"Huh yourself," Eun-byul responds immediately. "How about you?"
"We're both devastatingly attractive, Eun-bi, but I'll admit that you're made of much nicer stock than I am." Eun-byul smirks wrily. "You should've had a boyfriend or two by now, you know?"
"Sis, I've barely finished my first semester," Eun-bi balks.
"And no one's caught your eye? Not one?" Eun-byul presses.
The face of Gong Tae-gwang leaps into Eun-bi's mind before she can stop it. Aghast, Eun-bi quickly pushes it away. Gong Tae-gwang has caught her eye, of course, but for all the wrong reasons. Not for that reason.
"A-ha," Eun-byul crows triumphantly. "You just thought of someone, didn't you?"
"Did not," Eun-bi says weakly.
"You suck at lying," Eun-byul says.
Eun-bi buries her face in her pillow and wonders what has happened to her brain.
Go Eun-bi returns to university. It doesn't take her long to make friends; she is a likable character, especially now that she is regaining her long-shattered confidence. She joins clubs and studies late in the library and goes shopping for hours on end.
Three guys confess to her by the end of the semester, which shocks her. In high school, no one would approach her, much less like her. Why is she suddenly facing so much popularity?
She calls Gong Tae-gwang into the early morning, half-incoherent from the potent combination of sleep deprivation and bewilderment. Tae-gwang listens until she falls asleep, breathing softly into the phone.
The semester ends and Go Eun-bi returns to her home in Seoul. She visits Han Yi-an and they talk and laugh over rainbow slushies. She visits Lee Shi-jin and Cha Song-joo and they chat the whole day away as if they've been separated for a day, not a year. She wants to visit Gong Tae-gwang, she really does, but something about the thought makes her feel queasy.
To her surprise, Gong Tae-gwang never visits her. He knows she's returned, of course, and he keeps up with her texts and phone calls, and they still talk like they always have—but she never directly invites him, and he never comes.
When she timidly brings up the subject in the company of Lee Shi-jin and Cha Song-joo, they blink in amazement.
"You don't know?" they say.
"Don't know what?" Eun-bi asks, feeling a vague sense of panic.
Cha Song-joo opens her mouth, but Lee Shi-jin nudges her in the shoulder.
"I think Tae-gwang would tell you himself," Shi-jin says wisely. "But I will say that he's got to be awfully busy."
"Busy," Eun-bi muses, sipping at her rainbow slushie.
Gong Tae-gwang really has grown up, she marvels.
Eun-bi's second year of college begins, busier than the last. Her next months are a flurry of activity with which she can barely keep up.
She visits Tongyeong for the children's birthdays, but Tae-gwang is never there. Ra-jin says that he comes by quite often, but he is always "dressed up and carrying this huge briefcase." Eun-bi's mind entertains the thought of drug dealing before she quickly slaps it away, horrified.
She spends her twentieth birthday, her alleged claim to adulthood, alone in a library; thank exams for that. Her eyes drift to her phone, but although Go Eun-byul has sent her congratulations and Han Yi-an has sent his, there is no sign from Gong Tae-gwang.
In fact, it's not until she packs up her textbooks that the message comes.
And she is smiling, smiling too widely, why is she smiling so widely, and she slings her backpack over her shoulder and bounds up the stairs two at a time, why two, just go one—and she bursts onto the rooftop of the library, freshly twenty years old and not a centimeter taller, staring at the back of a man who is familiar and unfamiliar all at once.
"Gong Tae-gwang," she says.
The man turns around.
He is smiling, dressed in a trim suit, hands in the pockets of his trousers, hair neatly combed. Her breath catches and her fingers tighten around her backpack as he smiles brightly at her.
"Yo, Go Eun-bi," he says.
She steps closer and pauses. There is darkness beneath his eyes from lack of sleep and wrinkles in his forehead from stress. Concerned, she opens her mouth, ready to chide him for not taking better care of himself—
In one fluid motion, Gong Tae-gwang has drawn something out of his pockets and thrust it toward her and suddenly she is covered in confetti.
"Happy birthday!" he chortles, waving the popper in the air.
She slaps his shoulder, but can't stop a grin from spreading across her face. "You're such a little kid!"
"Hey, hey, chill," he says, laughing.
"Ever thought of what would happen if campus security thought that was a gunshot?" Eun-bi scowls, lunging at the popper.
His eyes widen and suddenly, his arm is snaking around her waist and pulling her back, and she realizes that the railing of the roof is just a hair away.
"Careful," Tae-gwang murmurs in her ear. The rumble of his voice shudders from the tips of her fingers to her knees, which suddenly feel shaky. She tries not to think about how her back is flush against his chest and how she can feel his breath brushing her ear.
"There's a railing," she stammers.
And Gong Tae-gwang promptly releases her, face blank. "That there is."
A brief silence descends and Eun-bi knows that something has changed between them. She twists her fingers together behind her back, as Tae-gwang retrieves his signature smile.
"Got a present for you, young lady," he says. "To celebrate your adulthood."
He presses a weighty package into her hands. She holds it to her ear, shaking it lightly.
"If this is alcohol," she begins warningly, but Tae-gwang only laughs.
"Alcohol?" he chortles. "Please, if I had any, I'd keep it for myself."
She elbows him in the side with a mocking glare. "If you ever drunk dial me, I will record you," she says.
He only winks cheekily, and she feels a twinge of regret that she's had to miss his past two birthdays.
She's about to pry the package open when Tae-gwang's phone rings. He picks up with an apologetic look, turning away with a lowered voice. His words are polished and precise, nearly foreign to her ears.
"Yes. Ah, the contract's in? Forward it to me. I'll get through it tonight."
He promptly jams his phone back into his pocket, regaining his boyish grin.
"Sorry, Eun-bi. It's a busy season. Looks like I have to get back." He pauses, then thrusts out a box wrapped in a plastic bag. "I got you cake. For your birthday."
She accepts it with a faltering smile. "You... have to go?" she says.
He sighs, ruffling his perfectly-kept hair. "Yeah. I'm sorry."
"No, no. Thanks for doing all this." She stares at the cake in her arms, feeling her throat swell. "Thank you. Really."
He pinches her cheek. "Welcome to adulthood, Eun-bi."
He strides off the rooftop. She stands, frozen, regarding her elevated pulse with dread.
Go Eun-bi spends the winter holidays going camping with friends from university. She sits in the snow and feels the cool air on her face, relishing the space and peace that is usually so rare. When she is indoors, bundled in blankets and sipping hot cocoa, her mind assaults her with images of Gong Tae-gwang's embrace on the rooftop, which she barely manages to shake away. She fills the time with stories told in a heated lounge, snowball fights on the slopes of icy hills, and makeshift skating during late nights.
When she returns to Seoul, she is astounded to find Gong Tae-gwang's face on every billboard, every newspaper, touted as a "brilliant up-and-coming entrepreneur in the video game industry." When she frantically contacts Eun-byul, she is shocked to hear the response.
"You just noticed?" Eun-byul says. "Wow. Someone's behind on the news."
"He's an entrepreneur?!" Eun-bi whispers.
"I mean, wow, this is just a whole new level. I thought I was the one who was overseas."
"He's... he's considered a genius in how he approaches game design? I don't understand..."
"Isn't he your best friend? No, wait, don't you have a crush on him?"
"How do you know that?!" Eun-bi shrieks.
"Guess. Looks like I'm right."
"Sis," Eun-bi groans.
She digs further into the mess and finds the design philosophy of the alleged boy genius Gong Tae-gwang: "Everything is more enjoyable when you're with the one you love." Hence, the goal of his independent game company, which apparently has skyrocketed thanks to online platforming, is to create games that would provide an immersive experience for two players rather than one.
She feels a swell of pride in her chest and saves the article.
Looks like you really became a brilliant hotshot CEO, Gong Tae-gwang, she muses.
Spring semester begins and Go Eun-bi is not surprised to find that Go Eun-byul has gotten a boyfriend. Giggles, she thinks in disbelief. Actual giggles.
She visits the orphanage for Ra-jin's birthday. So does Gong Tae-gwang, dressed in loose, sporty clothing for the first time since high school. She is relieved to see that he appears to be on break; it is well-deserved. She briefly sends pleasantries on the state of his company, congratulating his propulsion to fame, and he only pokes her head and runs outdoors.
Tae-gwang plays soccer with the children as she cooks up bulgogi for a special treat. Her heart warms to hear their songs of laughter and whining cries of "Daaaaaaad!"
Until they change her title from "Sis" to "Mom."
She's just dishing out the bulgogi when it happens: little Sang-hyuk bangs his spoon lightly against his dish and clears his throat, pointing at Eun-bi and Tae-gwang with two fingers.
"You two should get married and be our mommy and daddy!" says Sang-hyuk.
Go Eun-bi chokes on her soup. Gong Tae-gwang stares, open-mouthed. Both of them immediately regress from twenty years old to fifteen in ten seconds flat.
"Don't—don't point, Sang-hyuk," are the only intelligible words that come from Eun-bi's lips.
"If I stop pointing, will you get married?" Sang-hyuk asks innocently.
Eun-bi turns beet-red. "N-no!"
Tae-gwang pokes Sang-hyuk in the ribs and Sang-hyuk promptly lowers his spoon. Dinner proceeds as usual.
Save for the scheming look in Ra-jin's eye.
Summer holidays arrive before Eun-bi knows it.
She spends some much-needed time with Eun-byul, who has broken up with her boyfriend after six months. "I've learned a lot of things, Eun-bi," she says. "Feelings are not the same as compatibility."
"What?" Eun-bi says.
"You can meet plenty of men who you'll swoon over in the space of five minutes," Eun-byul continues, "but a man who you'll swoon over for fifty years? That's a different kind of breed."
She seems to be talking to herself just as much as Eun-bi. Eun-bi squeezes her shoulder reassuringly.
"You'll find him one day," she says.
Eun-byul sniffs back unshed tears with a wry grin. "Best case scenario," she laughs, "I'm friends with someone for years and years before I fall in love. At least I'll know we're compatible."
Eun-bi thinks of Yi-an and Eun-byul and smiles to herself.
Eun-bi's third year begins. She scores an internship as student teacher in a local high school. It's tiring, thankless work, but every smile from her students' faces gives her the energy to keep going.
She notices something interesting as time proceeds. Shy, moody boys, once separating themselves to the back corners of the classroom glued to their mobiles, begin to exchange devices, hover over each other's shoulders, laugh in unison. The common denominator is the release of Tae-gwang's breakout co-op story adventure game, hailed as a unique and captivating precedent. She smiles as the ostracized begin to bond and form their own community, and something in her chest bubbles with pride.
Tae-gwang's game did that, she muses. Tae-gwang's game.
Her twenty-first birthday passes quietly. She gently runs her fingers over Tae-gwang's gift from the previous year, a notebook with colored tabs and scrawled signatures from the orphanage children on the cover. She knows that notebooks are made to be used, but she can't bring herself to write in this one, even during exam season. So she traces the rim with one finger and types with her opposite hand, cramming facts into her head until her birthday has come and gone.
Winter holidays arrive and Eun-bi visits Tae-gwang on Christmas Eve, more on a whim than anything else. When she finds that he is not home, she retrieves his work address and makes her way over to a multistorey corporate building in the heart of Seoul.
She is aghast to find Gong Tae-gwang hunched over his desk, alcohol stirred blandly in a shotglass clamped in his hand. He is terribly blank, emotionless, even as he raises the glass to his lips with shaking hands.
Before she knows what she is doing, she is storming to his side and slapping the fragile cup out of his grasp, shattering it against the wall. He blinks at her, eyes narrowed, as if he can't comprehend what he's seeing.
"No drinking," Go Eun-bi scolds, the tremble in her voice betraying her fear. "It's a terrible habit. Bad example for the kids."
He slumps against the chair, closing his eyes. "The kids aren't here."
"Habits are habits," she says sharply. "Why... why do you even need to drink...?"
He opens an eye, reaches out, and pokes her cheek. Then sighs. "This is weird," he mumbles. "Never had such a vivid dream."
"Answer me, Gong Tae-gwang," Eun-bi says coldly. "Why are you drinking?"
What secrets are you hiding? What's hurting you? How did you get like this? Since when has this been happening?
Are you okay?
"What do you think?" Gong Tae-gwang says with an empty grin, gesturing to the empty office.
"I think," she says, "you need some rest. You look really tired. And stressed."
"Mm, rest," Tae-gwang mumbles.
"You're so young that—I should've thought of this sooner—how can you not be stressed running an upstart company at your age?" She cups his face in her hands, examining him from every angle. "Have you been eating properly? Sleeping properly?"
He only laughs harshly and thrusts something in her face. She sees large printed letters: Crazy Boy Murders Classmate for Refusing to Play Video Game Together.
"This," he whispers, "is what my brilliant hotshot CEO abilities have led to. Kids killing each other." He curls his fingers in his hair, looking terribly lost.
Eun-bi's stomach rises to her throat. "Oh, no. I'm so sorry, Tae-gwang."
"Murder, Eun-bi. Over a damn"—language, her mind instinctively chides—"video game. My video game." His fingers shake as he reaches for the half-empty soju bottle. She grabs it from him. "If I hadn't made it... If I just..."
"If you hadn't," Eun-bi says softly, "that kid would have killed someone else for a different reason. It's not the weapon, Tae-gwang. It's the heart."
He is still. She kneels down and wraps her arms around his neck, lowering his head onto her shoulder. His body shudders.
"Let me tell you what your game's been doing, Gong Tae-gwang," she says soothingly. "In a high school near the border of Seoul, there are three quiet boys and a hapless student teacher..."
She tells him of the shy students in her class, once borderline mute, now adorably enthusiastic friends. She tells him of a repaired mother-daughter relationship because of a simple lesson in working together to uncover an enjoyable story. She tells him of the joy and connection that she's witnessed, because the most enjoyable way to pass the time is to spend it with a loved one.
She looks down and he is asleep on her shoulder, hair pressed gently into her neck. She smiles quietly and lies her head against his.
When she comes to, their fingers are laced together. Her pulse jumps and she quickly feigns sleep until Tae-gwang rises. With a tinge of disappointment, she notes how he easily extracts their fingers and slips his hand into his pocket as if nothing had happened.
She opens her eyes and Gong Tae-gwang is grinning at her.
"Go figure," he says. "It's not a dream."
"It's not," she says.
He sighs. "You caught all that sappy stuff, didn't you?"
"That I did," she says. And apparently, he caught some of hers, because his mood seems significantly lighter.
He ruffles his hair. "Well, that was embarrassing. Just forget it all, would you?"
"Not a chance," she snickers. She allows a moment of seriousness. "You should know, Gong Tae-gwang, that you can talk to me about anything."
His lips twitch. "So don't drink, is what I'm hearing."
"It's your liver if you want to trash it," she snorts, "but if you die, the kids will be devastated."
Tae-gwang waves a dismissing hand. "Merry Christmas, Go Eun-bi," he says, then smirks. "I'm heading home to get some actually pleasant company."
"Merry Christmas, Gong Tae-gwang," Eun-bi says, smirking back. "Try not to drool so much when you sleep."
Horrified, Tae-gwang wipes at his (actually dry) mouth. Eun-bi laughs until her stomach aches.
Another semester, and Eun-bi is back in her ordinary routine with one exception: she and Gong Tae-gwang call each other once a week to rant about anything and everything that might be bothering them.
She complains about homework load, biased teachers, and loud neighbors at four in the morning. He complains about attempted scams, embezzlement, and government regulations.
In comparison, she feels insignificant, like her problems are grains of sand next to Tae-gwang's mountains. But whenever she quiets, Tae-gwang is the one to urge her problems out of her, probing with questions that draw out her frustrations. He listens to even the smallest things with care and precision, warming her elevated pulse and bringing a smile to her face.
When she talks to Tae-gwang, she feels important.
She starts to look forward to Saturdays a bit too much.
Summer holidays come around and Eun-bi spends most of her time visiting the orphanage. The children are rapidly growing now—hitting that stage of life where they must, of course. Very few have been adopted, but if Eun-bi is completely honest with herself, she is secretly glad that so many of the same faces are waiting for her every time she comes. She is not sure what she would do if someone adopted Ra-jin, as much as the girl deserves it.
Tae-gwang comes too, bestowing the children with his usual display of love and bright affection. Eun-bi smiles like an idiot when she sees how much they like him and often takes pictures discretely, storing the perfect frame of happiness and adoration in her mind and phone.
During the summer, she becomes more brazen. She stares a little longer than she usually does, brushes her fingertips against his whenever there's the slightest opportunity, even rests her head on his shoulder more than a few times. She catalogues his reaction and she's not sure what to believe, because sometimes he stares back with a blank, restless look, but then he shakes his head and it's over before she can analyze it.
Ra-jin is the one to give the final push. It is dinner time when she lays down her utensils, clears her throat, and tilts her head in a very adult manner.
"Daddy Tae-gwang," Ra-jin says. "You love Mommy Eun-bi, right?"
He blinks for a moment, surprised at the question, then dons a quick grin. "Of course," he says smoothly, and Eun-bi's heart hammers traitorously, even though she knows that there is love and then there is love, and of course Tae-gwang loves her, even if he doesn't love her.
Ra-jin nods, satisfied, then turns to Eun-bi. "Mommy Eun-bi," she says coolly. "Do you love Daddy Tae-gwang?"
Eun-bi smiles, trying to come across as completely normal, even though the question sends her on the verge of panic. "Yes, Ra-jin," she says.
"I've seen mommies and daddies who love each other," Ra-jin says with (fake) wide-eyed innocence, "and they kiss a lot. Why don't you ever kiss?"
Oh, that little devil. She's thirteen. She knows.
Gong Tae-gwang laughs airily, ruffling the top of Ra-jin's head as if he is completely unaffected by this statement. "Sorry, kiddo. Still gotta finish your vegetables," he says.
Ra-jin narrows her eyes. "This isn't about distracting you from my vegetables," she says petulantly. "This is about love."
It is the final shove.
An alien confidence surges through Eun-bi, who abruptly stands to her feet, placing her eating utensils neatly on the table. Tae-gwang eyes her warily as she marches to his side of the table, plopping next to him. The children scoot back to give her room as Ra-jin looks on, eyes sparkling in anticipation.
"Shall I, then?" Eun-bi whispers quietly, her pulse fluttering.
Tae-gwang's gaze is still blank. "Shall you... what?" he says.
She knows that if she speaks, she'll be too embarrassed to continue. So, without a word, she gently wraps her fingers around the edge of his shirt, leans in, and presses her lips to his cheek. The skin is warm beneath her mouth and her nose gently bumps against his cheekbone. She quickly withdraws, releasing him.
Tae-gwang's eyes swivel to her, roaming across her face. The calm blankness of his eyes has dissipated, replaced with something dark, coiling, something that makes her instinctively lean away. She pulls her knees to her chest, about to stand to her feet, but his hand abruptly cuts behind her back, trapping her against the table.
"Go Eun-bi," he says quietly.
She sees questions in his eyes, confusion, maybe—just maybe feelings that mirror her own, although perhaps that is simply her wishful thinking. But the children; not in front of the children.
"The kids, Tae-gwang," she whispers.
Tae-gwang's gaze flickers to the children around the table, whose spoons have dropped out of loose fingers, mouths agape in awe. He slowly withdraws his arm, as if the motion takes physical exertion.
"Time to wash up, kiddos," he says coolly. His eyes cut to Eun-bi. "Mommy and I need to have a little talk."
Eun-bi feels a flush creeping up her neck to her ears even as dread pumps in her stomach.
He is angry. And there would only be one reason why he would be angry: he does not return her feelings.
"But we just had dinner," Sang-hyuk complains, only to be elbowed in the side by an impatient Ra-jin.
"Come on, guys, to the bathroom!" Ra-jin says a touch too sweetly, and promptly gathers the rest of the children, pushing them down the hallway. Eun-bi swears that she winks over her shoulder as she closes the door.
For a moment, they sit in silence. Go Eun-bi, Gong Tae-gwang. A studying teacher, a brilliant hotshot entrepreneur. Both twenty-one years old. The silence ticks on until Gong Tae-gwang clears his throat, hands stuffed in the blazer that fits his shoulders too well.
"That was just for the kids," he says slowly.
"The kids," Eun-bi echoes hollowly.
He laughs, but the sound is dry coming out of his throat. "Don't worry. It was just a kiss on the cheek." He runs his hands through his hair, rumpling it boyishly. "I'm overreacting."
But he's scarcely paused for a moment before he reaches out an arm, pressing Eun-bi's shoulder against the table, face just an inch away from hers.
"Just stop... stop confusing me," he says raggedly. "I know you can't see me in that way. I know. So... help me out here, yeah?"
To hell with it, Eun-bi thinks. Then automatically chides her mind for its language.
"That was three years ago," she says, and grips his collar, pressing her lips to his.
Her neck is tilted upward and her back is arched toward him and everything should be awkward, but it isn't; it just isn't. She feels sparkles kindle from her mouth, rushing through her veins to the tips of her toes, quickening the heartbeat that is already hammering at an angry pace in her chest. She impresses the texture of his lightly chapped lips in the corner of her mind, breathes in his subtle spray of cologne, lets her fingers rub against the polyester of his collar. She indulges herself for exactly five seconds, then backs away.
For a terrifying moment, there is only stillness. He stares at her, eyes wide, hands clenched into fists on the rim of the table.
Fear pulses through her. She clears her throat. "I was just... I mean, I should have asked—"
And then one hand is crushed against her back and the other around her neck and Tae-gwang is kissing her, desperately, mouth searching hers as if for confirmation. Eun-bi wraps her arms over his shoulders and returns his attentions enthusiastically, momentarily forgetting that fifteen children are in just the next room, because it feels like she has been waiting forever for this, forever, even though it's scarcely been a year since she really realized her feelings, while Gong Tae-gwang must have been storing them for three.
When they break away, it's with flushed faces and short breaths and collars slightly askew. There is a long silence in which everything and nothing is said.
"Well, then," Eun-bi says.
"Well, then," Tae-gwang echoes, clearing his throat.
"Hit me," Tae-gwang says. "I need to know that this one isn't a dream."
She obligingly does so.
It's the last week of summer vacation and Eun-bi is spending quality time with Eun-byul when the unthinkable happens.
They're chilling by the fountain, sipping at slushies while talking about school, and someone suddenly catapults around the corner, driving to a stop just a pace before Eun-byul.
Eun-byul stands, mouth agape. Eun-bi stares.
"Han Yi-an?" Eun-bi says.
It is indeed Han Yi-an, now twenty-one years old, who reaches out and grips Eun-byul by the shoulders.
"You rude, bad-mannered, insensitive girl," he croaks.
Eun-byul pushes his hands away, glaring defiantly. "Don't touch me," she says flatly.
"You should have told me!" Yi-an blusters angrily.
"Why?! What does it matter to you?!" Eun-byul blusters back.
Oh, Eun-bi thinks vaguely. Something definitely happened here.
"I don't know. Maybe because I'm your best friend?" Yi-an hisses through gritted teeth.
"Oh, yeah, because you've totally been acting like it these past few months," Eun-byul drawls sardonically.
"And that's my fault, is it?!"
"Well, whose fault would it be otherwise?!"
Eun-bi winces. "Um, guys, think you can take this somewhere else?" she murmurs. "Everyone's staring."
Theyre completely ignoring her, as if no one but each other exists. Han Yi-an is gripping Go Eun-byul's shoulders and Go Eun-byul is gripping Han Yi-an's collar and they look as if they're about to throttle each other to death.
"You're the one who's been avoiding me!" Yi-an yells.
"And do you know why?" Eun-byul demands.
Yi-an falters, his fingers trembling.
Eun-byul's voice drops. A shade of disappointment colors her eyes. "Do you know why, Han Yi-an?" she says quietly.
One moment, they're frozen. The next, Han Yi-an is bending down and Go Eun-byul is tiptoeing up and their lips crash together and Go Eun-bi immediately covers her eyes.
"Oh, gosh, guys," she mumbles. "In public? Really?"
But on the inside, she's smiling for Go Eun-byul and Han Yi-an.
The day before the new school year begins, Eun-bi is sitting with Tae-gwang on the rooftop of his corporate building, munching on freshly cooked ramyun as the sun slips beneath the horizon in vibrant shades of red, purple, and gold.
"This is always something I've wanted to do," Tae-gwang says with a satisfied sigh.
"Eat ramyun?" Eun-bi laughs.
"On a rooftop. At sunset." He grins. "With the girl I like."
She blushes and elbows him in the side. They sit in contended silence for a long moment, absorbing the fresh night air, the fading traffic of cars on the road, the flicker of street lamps in the distance.
"If we get married," Eun-bi says suddenly, "I think we're going to have to adopt a lot of children."
The significance of her statement makes Tae-gwang smile. "That's good," he says. "I've always wanted to make a soccer team."
"What about a gaming team?" she teases.
He laughs and slides his fingers through hers. She leans against his shoulder. Silently, they watch the sunset, allowing time to slide by just a little quicker.
Nothing is set in stone, really. But it's alright; they're just twenty-one.