(A year and a half later…)
Ga Eul’s POV
I hiked my bag up higher on my shoulder and scanned the street for my ride, but didn’t see any cars. Settling down on a bench to wait, I found my mind drifting to the major changes the last year had brought into my life. Had it really been so long since Jan Di and I had graduated from high school and begun our university studies? She was well on her way to being a doctor and I was learning a lot in my classes to become a pre-kindergarten teacher.
Although my life was almost the same as always, my horizons had expanded while I worked toward my dream. One of the things that did change was my closest friends. By that, of course, I meant Ji Hoo and Woo Bin.
For one thing, though we didn’t have much time to meet due to our different schedules, we tried as much as we could to plan times to hang out together that would suit all four of us. Jan Di and I talked almost every day and saw each other more often than we saw the other two, but if we planned a group outing, it was always us four.
For another thing, though I may not have changed very much since high school, Jan Di was another story. My friend had grown up so much that if I hadn’t been by her side to witness it, I wouldn’t have recognized her. It was obvious to me that a great part of her change was due to the man next to her, Yoon Ji Hoo.
He and his grandfather had taken Jan Di in as family so completely that no one doubted Jan Di was truly the doctor’s granddaughter. Ji Hoo, for his part, had entirely reassessed his career path. He was still Jan Di’s sunbae, but now he was helping her study for medical classes. He was a semester ahead of her. Being brilliant and the grandson of a great doctor, he was well able to hold his own with students who’d been there longer.
When Jan Di was next to Ji Hoo, I felt as if some sort of bubble surrounded them, an atmosphere that only they shared and understood. Many times I had wanted to ask her if there was more than friendship between them, but I hadn’t dared for fear of reminding her of painful memories of the last time she’d fallen in love.
Another big change was my friendship with Woo Bin. Since Yi Jung had left for Sweden, Woo Bin had proven to be a great friend and surprisingly good company. Jan Di had told me many times that his family’s involvement in the mafia didn’t directly affect Woo Bin’s heart. At first, I hadn’t believed her; I’d always been a bit intimidated by him. But with time, he had earned my trust and friendship.
In truth, Woo Bin had become something more than a friend to me.
Suddenly, the honk of a car horn shook me from my reveries.
“Yah! Ga Eul! How long are you going to sit there staring into space?”
“Woo Bin sunbae!” I jumped up and ran around to the passenger side of his car, tossing my bag into the back before sliding in next to him.
“What were you thinking about?” he asked me.
“Mmm? I don’t know, I already forgot.”
“As always, your mind is in the clouds,” he teased with a grin. Starting the engine, he pulled away from the curb. “Well, are you ready for today?”
“I t-think so…”
“Come on, Ga Eul. I already told you all you need to do is relax and go with the flow. It will be okay as long as you follow my directions.”
“But sunbae, the last time hurt a lot.”
“I know,” he sighed. “That was my fault. I didn’t control my strength. But I promise it will be different this time. Besides, you have you work with me if we’re going to do this. Okay?”
“You’re right,” I agreed, taking a deep breath. “Let’s do it.”
We arrived at his house, a place in which I was now known and gladly welcomed.
“Make yourself comfortable; I’ll be there soon.”
As I took off my boots and jeans, I started to feel more and more nervous, but I knew everything was going to be alright. I just needed to trust Woo Bin. A few minutes later, I came out of the dressing room and Woo Bin was there already, waiting for me.
“Okay, no foreplay this time. Are you ready?”
Without warning, he dove at me and raised his arm to land a punch. Quickly, I took a defensive posture and dodged him, twisting my body to come in low in an attempt to kick his feet out from under him. He leapt away just in time, a mischievous light in his eyes.
This dance went on for some time until, without knowing how, I managed to capture his arm and bend it behind him while my foot tethered him in place. Woo Bin finally fell to the floor of the training room. I put my knee on his back for good measure.
“Do you yield?” I asked between heavy breaths. He started grumbling, but I had him trapped so firmly that I knew it would be only seconds before he surrendered.
“Fine, fine. I yield. Let me go, Ga Eul. It actually hurts.” I did so, a smug grin tugging on my lips at his pained expression.
Woo Bin had become my personal defense instructor.
I had decided I needed to learn to defend myself after something that had happened several months ago. Soon after I entered college, a guy in my classes started to talk to me. It all was fine and seemed normal. We even went out a couple of times, and I started to like him a bit. The problem arose when one day he tried to kiss me and I refused. Suddenly everything sweet about the guy disappeared in an instant, and I found myself pinned against a wall as he tried to take the kiss by force. Thankfully, the whole thing happened at a club where Woo Bin was drinking with some friends. Somehow, he saw what was happening and came to the rescue. If I hadn’t been so shaken up, it might have been funny. When Woo Bin introduced himself as my friend “Prince Song”, the jerk went pale and begged for forgiveness.
Anyway, that didn’t save him from a couple of punches from Woo Bin.
After that, it had taken some effort to convince Woo Bin to teach me personal defense. Who better than him or one of his men to do it? I asked him over and over, presenting all the logical reasons for me to learn to defend myself, but he kept putting me off. Upon learning that I was going to enroll in private defense classes after college, however, he decided that he preferred to be the one to teach me instead of someone he didn’t know. And once he decided to take me on, he didn’t go easy on me.
Today was the first day I had ever managed to beat him. In our last session, I had ended up with a strained muscle in my leg from trying to escape a tight head lock Woo Bin held me in.
It hurt like hell.
“You’ve learned a lot, Ga Eul. I hope you never need to make use of what I have taught you, but if you do, I think you’ll be able to hold your own.”
“Thank you, sunbae.”
“Woo Bin, are you here?” called a deep voice from outside the training room.
We both scrambled quickly to our feet.
“I’m here, father,” Woo Bin replied.
A tall man with a stern look came into the room, and Woo Bin and I lowered our heads respectfully in his presence.
“Oh, Ga Eul. I didn’t know you were here.”
“Kwan Suk-ssi, I’m sorry to have bothered you again today.”
Song Kwan Suk was leader of the Song Family and head of the most powerful mafia group in Korea. His name suited him perfectly: Kwan, meaning strong, and Suk, meaning without movement. The man was a strong and immovable mountain.
“Of course you don’t bother me, Ga Eul. Quite the contrary. Do you have any classes later? Wouldn’t you like to stay for dinner?”
“Umm…” I turned and peeked at Woo Bin, who winked at me in return. “I would love to,” I answered Kwan Suk.
“Perfect.” Now his gaze fell upon his son. “Woo Bin?”
“Did she beat you?”
“I must admit an embarrassing defeat.”
“That means you must practice more. Ga Eul, well done,” he said, giving me one of his rare smiles and a thumbs up. “I’ll see you at the table, children.”
After he left, Woo Bin went for a towel and handed me one as well.
“My father adores you.”
I laughed. “It must be because I’m the one female friend you have who is close to your age, decent, and unmarried…”
“Hey now, all of my friends are respectable women.”
“Whatever you say, sunbae.”
“Yah! You want to end up on the floor again?”
“I thought it was you who ended up there today, sunbae.”
Before I could stop him, Woo Bin had hoisted me over his shoulder, spun me around, and flung me to the floor, where he mercilessly tickled me.
With time, our skinship, as he called it, had increased a lot. Before, I used to blush or feel uncomfortable when he was too close to me, even if it was in a defense lesson. But then I had realized that the way Woo Bin touched me was not with the desire to seduce me as he did with his other ‘friends’. Our games now included many tussles that forced us to touch.
The realization that it was pleasant for me, to the point that I anxiously expected it, surprised me. It was something I absolutely had to hide from him. I wasn’t in love with Woo Bin, but my reaction to our closeness had confirmed that I was definitely attracted to him. The fact that I had admitted that to myself made me blush.
“Come on,” he told me after leaving me breathless from laughter and curled into a ball. “My mother probably has the table set and ready.”
He offered me his hand to get up and I took it… gladly.
Ji Hoo’s POV
College was always in chaos at this time of the year. The reason? Final exams.
You had only to stroll down the halls to find more than one person sitting down on the floor with books or notes trying to learn what they couldn’t cram in the night before. To get into the library was nearly impossible, as it was already packed with students. The small study cubicles had all been reserved for this week since early in the semester.
I was already finished with my exams. I had taken my last test this morning, and I was sure I would pass it with flying colors. Right then, I was looking for someone.
“Sunbae! Jan Di sunbae!”
My eyes searched out the source of the voice, a male student, and I found her standing nearby. Jan Di turned to look at him as he ran towards her, his books in his arms. Many younger students seemed to seek out Jan Di for help and advice these days, and it was a role in which she shone.
Jan Di had surprised not only her closest friends, family, Grandfather, and me, but herself.
She showed an amazing dexterity not only in studying medicine, but also in her English lessons, in Grandfather’s business instruction, and in her etiquette training. I was witness to how much effort it had cost her, and I worried that she would overexert herself, but after months of long, packed days, she was finally starting to see the fruits of her hard work: her accent wasn’t perfect, but she could now speak fluent English without trouble, her speech and manners had become more refined and useful for business relationships, and though she wasn’t number one in her class, Jan Di was definitely a diamond in the rough from whom much was expected in the future.
A few days after her graduation, Jan Di had sat Grandfather and me down together and made him tell me about his heart condition. The guerilla tactics earned her a reprimand from him and a debt of gratitude from me. Thanks to her intervention, we finally convinced him to go for regular checkups, and now my grandfather lived calmly, as did I, thanks to a bypass that would buy him several more years by our side.
With grandfather healthy, Jan Di had started her college life with very few problems. There were always bitter people who called her ‘commoner’ and the usual jealousy from those who resented that she was still F4’s protégé. However, I had been surprised by how many others were more friendly and relaxed now that I was the only one of the F4 by her side. Some of them had gone as far as to try to form a friendship with her. Jan Di had no problems with that, but I noticed she always kept a certain distance.
“It isn’t easy to find someone like you guys or Jae Kyung,” she had told me when I asked her about it. However, once I thought about it, I was thankful for her caution. I had never paid much attention before to the number of guys who found Jan Di attractive or interesting, but suddenly they were everywhere. According to school gossip, more than one of them had invited her out to ‘study’, but Jan Di always refused. Unless it was with a big group, she never went to anyone’s house. I was a little surprised by the revelation of the string of contenders for Jan Di’s attention. Jan Di wasn’t exactly the ‘typical beauty’ Shinhwa guys looked for, but it seemed that was exactly what made her stand out. And while her manners were soft and delicate in situations that called for it, she was still the same: defending the weak and righteous with her own hands and at great volume wherever she saw injustice.
What could I say? I was still in love with her.
If time had achieved anything in the months Jan Di had lived in my house, it was to make me more aware of her. Her manners, her changes of humor, her looks, her smiles, the way she slept—and even snored, her insatiable appetite, her sweetness, her tenderness…
If anyone had asked me to tell them how I felt about her, they would have been bored after the first hour, because I was pretty sure it would take me a whole day to describe everything I was keeping inside of me… even if saying it out loud sounded corny.
But despite having her close, despite living with her, even after sharing birthdays, Christmases, New Years, and more, I still didn’t dare tell her what I truly felt for her. I was still her sunbae, her best friend, and her firefighter, and I had no intention of losing all that.
Coward, I would berate myself daily, but I managed to push the thought to the back of my brain when she was near.
The Jun Pyo wound seemed to have healed completely. I never asked, but her demeanor had changed, and when she read something about him in the paper, it no longer triggered her to hide away in her room or put on a falsely cheerful facade. Her peace gave me peace, and I was thankful for it.
Now, as Jan Di greeted her junior, I moved through the crowd to get a little closer to her. After a few seconds of staring at her while she explained something to her hoobae, I managed to attract her notice. Jan Di held my gaze, and I made a subtle move with my head. She gave me a small smile and a slow blink of her eyes before she returned to the explanation.
For us, that was enough: See you at the emergency staircase.
Shinhwa University had a wide emergency staircase on the side of the main student building, just like the one where Jan Di and I had first met at the high school, and the landing on the seventh floor was an ideal place to hang out without being disturbed. I got there first and sat down to read a book while I waited for her. It wasn’t too much later when I heard fast steps coming up the stairs.
“Welcome. Breathe,” I told her and handed her a bottle of yogurt I had bought at the campus store. “How did you do on your exams?”
“Good. I think. I know everything about first aid backwards and forwards, but I still stutter on some of the medication names. I know which ones they are when I look at them and read the boxes, but in an oral exam I might die.”
“You’ll make it. Besides, learning the names is really important because-“
“-we will be the ones telling the nurses exactly what to give the patients. I know, sunbae,” she huffed and rested her head on my shoulder while I slipped my arm around her to caress her hair.
Somehow this kind of touching was far more common with us now: holding hands, leaning against each other, hugging. I wasn’t sure how it had happened, but it did, and I wasn’t complaining in the least. Of course, we weren’t together all the time, but these were ways we had to show what we were feeling when we’d rather not talk. The silence Jan Di and I shared was still as comfortable and special as always.
It seemed the whole student body had come to their own conclusion about the nature of our relationship, even if it wasn’t true. Most thought we were a couple, or on the way to being one, due to the great amount of time we spent together; I hadn’t taken the speculation seriously until a conversation with a friend made me think.
“So… you’re finally together, huh?” Woo Bin asked me.
“What do you mean?”
“What do you mean what do I mean? Aren’t you, you know… together? A couple?”
“Jan Di and me? No, not at all.”
“What!? After that display of affection I just witnessed? After your meaningful glances and inside jokes and having whole conversations without having to say a word?”
“…we do that?”
“Ok, look. Ji Hoo, you don’t have to pretend with me, especially after all this time. It’s been more than a year since Jun Pyo left.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“You’re in love with Jan Di, right?”
“We never found out, Yi Jung and I, what happened in New Caledonia. We just knew the fight started after you said you were going to date Jan Di. Somehow I knew then that the love you had for her went beyond friendship.”
“The only thing I wanted to do was protect her.”
“Is that enough? Seriously? What will happen the day Jan Di falls in love again, only this time with someone else? Would you smile and help her with her new relationship, all the while feeling like shit inside?”
“I can’t tell her…I can’t. If she doesn’t accept me…”
“She… well, I guess I should shut up. I’m just telling you, you shouldn’t hold your feelings back just because you’re afraid.”
I’d had a lot of time to think over Woo Bin’s words since that day.
I felt that Jan Di loved me, but what if she only saw me as her sunbae? What if to her I was only the friend who had supported her so many times? I couldn’t bear to have her reject me and then avoid me out of sensitivity to my feelings. I knew that at some point I wouldn’t be able to stand it and would spill it all, but for now, I wanted to be selfish and enjoy her love, even if it was just because I was her friend.
I want to be with you forever, Geum Jan Di.
“Huh? Did you say something?” she asked, lifting her head from my shoulder.
“No, nothing,” I answered.
“I thought I heard you say my name.”
“I think you’re sleepy.”
“Don’t doubt it. But I have to present this paper in…” she checked her watch, “twenty minutes. And after that, clinic time.”
“Sleep those twenty minutes then, and I’ll wake you up.”
I made a space between my legs. Jan Di sat down in front of me and leaned back against my chest. Her head rested perfectly in the space between my neck and shoulder, and within minutes she was asleep.
Woo Bin’s POV
I couldn’t believe how fast time was flying by. Ji Hoo, Jan Di, Ga Eul, and I had all successfully passed our final exams, and we were now on our way to the fifth and fourth semester of our studies.
We knew almost nothing of Jun Pyo except what we read in the papers, Christmas and birthday calls, and what Jae Kyung told Jan Di in her letters; none of the F4 had spoken to him face-to-face in all that time.
The other person who had become something of a stranger was Yi Jung. We skyped very occasionally; between his classes and the women who still surrounded him, he didn’t have a lot of free time. There was also a seven hour time difference, so I was surprised when I heard my phone ring early in the evening and saw his number on the screen. He was up late, even for him.
“Yo, man, how’ve you been?” I greeted him.
“Good, thanks. A little bit busy as you can see,” he said with a smirk, pointing the phone’s camera to his bed. I could just make out a blonde bundle hidden beneath the sheets.
“You can’t even imagine. What about you? Don’t you have some sad woman waiting whose husband isn’t giving her the attention she needs?”
“No, I don’t. Hard to believe, huh?”
“What’s happened to you, Don Juan?” he teased.
That was something I had been asking myself more and more lately. My dating life, which used to be a daily source of entertainment, was practically non-existent now. The worst part was that I knew the reason behind it but didn’t dare to say it out loud.
“Classes are taking up more of my time now,” I lied.
“I see, I see…” He paused for a second. “Hey, how’s that thing with Ga Eul coming along? Are you still giving her the personal defense lessons you told me about?”
I swallowed hard.
“Well, she has improved amazingly since the last time you and I talked. She can even hold her ground for a couple of minutes with my chief of security.”
“Who would have guessed that little Ga Eul had it in her? It’s hard to believe,” he chuckled.
“That’s because you haven’t seen her these past years. She’s changed a lot…”
“Hey, hey… Woo Bin, don’t tell me that you…?”
“What? Me? Of course not! Ga Eul is a good friend. I only offered to give her classes so she would save her money. Besides, you and she-“
“Me and she nothing. You know she rejected me.”
“Come on, Yi Jung. Anyone could see she was still in love with you, and you were an idiot for not realizing it.”
We remained quiet for a few seconds. We hadn’t mentioned that since the day he told me about it.
“Maybe you’re right, but that’s in the past. Now I’m a free man living in a foreign country. What better scenario for the number one Casanova in the world?”
“Sounds perfect for you.”
“Anyway, to be honest, even if you liked her –which I find highly improbable– I just can’t picture you and Ga Eul as a couple.”
“Are you insane? If, by some twist of sorcery, anything like that ever happened, Jan Di would kill me! That’s enough to keep me at bay, man.”
“You’re totally right.”
We talked on about nothing for the next twenty minutes and then said goodbye, but even after hanging up, I was still thinking about what Yi Jung had said. He seemed to have completely forgotten he had ever had feelings for Ga Eul; the clear proof was lying in his bed. However, what about Ga Eul? Had she forgotten him? I had never dared to ask. Besides, when we were together, we never mentioned Yi Jung, as if by tacit agreement. I was curious to know whether her silence indicated sorrow, or that she just didn’t care anymore.
While I was thinking, I felt my cellphone vibrate.
Class canceled. Ice cream? My treat. ~Ga Eul~
Those few words swept the last few minutes of pondering out of my head while I grabbed a jacket and typed a quick answer.
10 minutes. Usual parlor? –Woo Bin.
Jan Di’s POV
The beginning of my fourth semester in college had been quiet. Time had gone by like a flash living with Grandfather and Ji Hoo. I hadn’t realized how much until I found myself anxious to go back home while I visited my parents. I just couldn’t feel otherwise for the place in which I had lived so many experiences and found my life’s direction.
My family had returned to the city, and my father was taking care of the laundry shop again. Right after they moved back, Ji Hoo told me that if I wanted to go back to living with my parents he would get Grandfather to let me do it, but I knew deep inside me that the place I now belonged was with the Yoon family.
All would have gone on as it was if it weren’t for a girl I met during the consolidation of classes. After every year of medical school, the student population shrunk considerably, weeded out by intense testing and increasingly difficult classes. I had Ji Hoo to thank for always helping me with my studies.
The girl’s name was Han Ju Mi, and from the first time we met, she reminded me somehow of Jae Kyung; born in a golden crib like the rest of the F4, but with a strong character; not caring what the rest of the world thought about her, and determined to do what felt right. I liked her, and we became friends instantly. There was just one teeny tiny problem…
“Sunbae! Ji Hoo sunbae!”
Ji Hoo turned around.
“Jan Di!” Ju Mi ran to catch up to me and Ji Hoo. “Hey! How are you?”
“Hi, Ju Mi. All good.” I smiled at her.
Ji Hoo bowed his head slightly and pressed his hand on my back to let me know he would go ahead to our staircase, then he turned to leave.
“Oh, sunbae… you’re already leaving?” Ju Mi asked him with a pout.
“Lots to study,” he said as he walked away.
“I’ll see you later, sunbae!” Ju Mi, undaunted, waved goodbye. When he was out of sight, she turned to face me. “Oh, Jan Di, you’re really so lucky to be so close to one of the F4.”
“I’ve never looked at it that way. We’re good friends whether he is part of the F4 or not.”
“Of course! I know you don’t care about that kind of thing,” she said, elbowing me playfully. “But either way, I just can’t understand how you don’t melt under that gaze of his… He’s just too handsome.”
I really didn’t need her to tell me the obvious, but Ju Mi had a habit of remarking on how handsome Ji Hoo was, or intelligent, or talented, or any other of his many qualities.
“Jan Di, are you serious when you tell me that nothing has ever happened between you and sunbae?”
I blushed immediately.
“Of course I’m serious. As I told you before, we’re really good friends.” And I’m not planning on telling you he kissed me once.
“I envy you. If sunbae gave me even a tenth of the attention he gives you, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell him how I feel.”
That was Ju Mi for you, uncomfortably honest. Lots of guys had confessed to her since I’d met her, and I couldn’t begin to imagine how many more there must have been before that. She was extremely beautiful, with hair falling in light brown waves around her face, and she always looked radiant. I introduced her to Ji Hoo the same day I met her because she saw him when he came to pick me up. From that point on, she had been smitten. Every day, Ju Mi asked me something about him, and I’d seen her trying to talk to him many times. It was clear that she liked him.
Ju Mi and I talked a bit more and then she went to her class, but not before asking me to send her greetings to Ji Hoo.
I quickly made my way to the seventh floor staircase and found Ji Hoo, peaceful as always, reading a medical text with his glasses on and a couple of yogurt bottles beside him.
He greeted me with his typical “Welcome.”
“Thanks, sunbae,” I said, taking the bottle he offered me. I sat down beside him and sipped the drink. “Oh yeah, Ju Mi asked me to tell you she sends you a warm hello.”
I wasn’t sure if Ji Hoo had heard me because he didn’t respond.
“Maybe I should stop calling you ‘sunbae’ so often,” I mused aloud after I finished my bottle.
“Why?” he asked me.
“Because I’ve noticed how frequently Ju- other people do it. And I think I called you that even more repeatedly than the rest… I wouldn’t want you to get bored.”
He put the book down and softly brushed my cheek with the back of his hand.
“The way you call me ‘sunbae’ is special. Never compare it to the honorific by which everyone else calls me. Okay?” He leaned over and bumped his head softly against mine. I couldn’t help but smile at him. “Are you done for today?”
“Yes, but grandfather gave me a day off from the clinic, so I think I’ll go see Ga Eul. We haven’t had girl time in a while.”
“Have fun then. I would take you there, but I still have classes.”
“No worries. I can take the bus.”
I scooted away from him a little and took out a book from my bag. Soon I felt his head resting on my lap while he resumed his own reading.
I settled in to wait until he needed to go to class. He didn’t have to ask me to stay for me to know he hoped I would. It was understood. Ji Hoo and I communicated in our silences as if we spoke out loud.
I played with his hair while we read, and mentioned once or twice some medical vocabulary we needed to remember for later.
After fifteen minutes I heard him sigh, a sign that our time together was up. We put away our books, picked up the bottles, went down the stairs to second floor, and said good bye at the emergency door. Ji Hoo ruffled my hair and I chuckled.
As soon as my feet hit the ground floor, I started running, excited that I was going to see Ga Eul.
“Ga Eul!” We hugged each other. It had been nearly a month since we last spent time together. “How are you?”
“Good. Just give me a sec while a finish this text.” I watched her move her fingers furiously across her touch screen. We had both received the latest model of smartphone for Christmas from Ji Hoo and Woo Bin.
I looked around the small coffee shop for a waitress and ordered us both cappuccinos. Ga Eul put her cellphone down, and we got down to chatting; we had lots of catching up to do.
She told me about her personal defense lessons with Woo Bin, her college classes, the friends she’d made, the papers she needed to work on, and how excited she was to finally get to start practice teaching next year, which meant working directly with children.
I told her about the projects in Yoon group, the weird teachers, Grandfather’s health, the clinic, my patients, and Ji Hoo. When I reached that point, it was impossible not to mention Ju Mi.
“You’d like her, Ga Eul. She is very like Jae Kyung unnie, but she has this unique spark that makes me think those two would clash a bit, although I know they would also be good friends.” I smiled.
“I never thought there might be a person out there with Jae Kyung’s character. But at least this time you know that this Ju Mi is someone without any ulterior motives.”
“Well… now I’m not so sure.”
“What do you mean?” I internally chastised myself for bringing it up, but if there was someone I could talk to about everything running through my head, it was Ga Eul.
“I mean that, I know that she’s not just friends with me for this reason but… she definitely likes Ji Hoo sunbae.”
“Who doesn’t like Ji Hoo sunbae? He’s an F4.” That was true.
“It’s not only that. She really likes him, and every time she sees him, she starts calling him ‘sunbae’. And when Ju Mi and I are together, the only thing she can talk about half the time is ‘sunbae this’ and ‘sunbae that’.”
“Does that… bother you?”
“Well, it doesn’t bother me, bother me, but it’s not like she doesn’t have a huge line of guys dying to be with her. She’s really pretty, you know? I find it weird that she hasn’t picked any of them; there’s more than one handsome guy after her.”
“Yes, but maybe to her, none of those guys compares to Ji Hoo sunbae.”
“Well…” I thought about it for a second. “Yeah, I guess I can understand that.”
“Jan Di, have you stopped to think a bit about the reason you feel… bothered by Ju Mi’s interest in Ji Hoo sunbae?”
“Not really. Besides, I already told you it doesn’t bother me. It was just an observation.”
“I cannot believe you’re still this dense.” She covered her eyes with her hand.
“Haven’t you considered for just one minute the possibility that you might like Ji Hoo?”
“Of course I like Ji Hoo.”
“And there we go again. I meant, have you considered that you might like Ji Hoo as a man? You two get along better than most couples I know. You literally talk with your eyes and gestures, you spend most of your days together, you know each other’s tastes better than anyone, you have a natural skinship-“
“Skinship?” I laughed. “Where did that come from?”
“That’s what Woo Bin calls it, but that’s not the point, Jan Di. The point is that I’ve always wanted to tell you this, but I’ve held myself back because of…” she took my hands in hers, “…well, because of Jun Pyo. I’ve never mentioned it because I was afraid to bring back bad memories. But after all this time and watching you change so much through the years thanks to Ji Hoo sunbae…” she sighed. “I just want you to be happy. You’re my best friend.”
“Ga Eul…” I realized how much it weighed on her to mention Jun Pyo’s name to me. “It wasn’t necessary to get so worried about me, but I appreciate it. Hearing or talking about Jun Pyo is no longer an issue for me. Healing took time, but I assure you that everything that happened is already part of the past; and it’s true that sunbae helped me get through it, but there was also Grandfather, and Woo Bin, and you.”
“That’s good to know, but let’s return to the main point. Do you really, really feel nothing more than friendship for Ji Hoo sunbae?”
“What are you saying Ga Eul? He and I are-“
“Don’t you dare say ‘just friends’, because that would be the most hypocritical thing you could say to me.”
“Come on, Ga Eul. I care for Ji Hoo sunbae very much, but to say that I see him as something else…”
“You’ve never imagined it?”
“Okay, what’s going on here? Since when do you have such an interest in my love life? And with Ji Hoo sunbae, for that matter?”
“It’s just… you don’t see yourself when you talk about him, or know how you look when you stand next to him, Jan Di. I bet you anything that every person who sees you thinks you’re a couple.”
I was at loss to answer that, so I quickly tried to turn the tables.
“I could say the same thing about you and Woo Bin sunbae,” I finally told her.
“What!?” She looked shocked.
“It’s true! You’re always together, you go out for dinners and ice cream and movies, he helps you with your homework, he picks you up from college, he teaches you how to defend yourself-“
“He taught you, too!”
“Ga Eul, I had some lessons with his family’s instructor. You have been having ‘private lessons’ directly with him. If you tell me I should feel something for Ji Hoo because we get along, fine. Then I can say the same thing about you and Woo Bin.”
Truthfully, I had just wanted to rebut her arguments about Ji Hoo because it had made me feel uncomfortable, but I wasn’t expecting Ga Eul’s cheeks to flare up, making her look like a ripe tomato.
“Ga Eul…” I gasped. “Don’t tell me that you…”
“Who? Me? Nooo, how can you say something like that Jan Di?” She gave a high, nervous laugh, but I wasn’t buying it.
“Who were you texting before I arrived?”
“A friend… from college.”
“I’ll say I believe it just for the sake of laying this to rest.”
We subsided into temporary silence, lost in our own thoughts, but the arrival of some pastries helped bring us back to safer topics. After a couple of hours, we said goodbye, promising to get together much sooner next time.
Ga Eul’s POV
After my meeting with Jan Di, I went straight to Woo Bin’s house; as she’d guessed, it had been him texting with me before Jan Di’s arrival, but for some reason I hadn’t wanted to admit it when she asked me about it.
On the bus ride, I started thinking about our discussion. Woo Bin and I –and the rest of the world– had long ago noticed the bond between those two, but according to what Woo Bin had told me, Ji Hoo sunbae was afraid to let Jan Di know what he felt and risk ruining what they already had. That was why we had decided to intervene. I had been the obvious choice to talk to Jan Di, but what I wasn’t expecting was for her to turn the tables on me.
It was true that I was attracted to Woo Bin. I felt insanely curious to know what it would feel like to be the woman he lavished with attention and care. The few times I’d seen a woman by his side while he was the “Don Juan”, she’d always seemed happy. Thinking about it, though, I had to admit that I hadn’t seen Woo Bin with a new ‘girlfriend’ in quite some time.
But to go from ‘attraction’ to ‘love’? That was a bit too much.
I got off the bus near Woo Bin’s house and let myself in, walking through the foyer and into the living room to find myself intruding on a fraught scene between Woo Bin, his father, and two other men I’d never seen before. One was a short, chubby man with the same dangerous aura as Kwan Suk, while the other was a guy close to Woo Bin’s age. They were all startled to see me there, and I had the same reaction.
“Then, Kwan Suk-ssi, I hope we can reach an agreement,” said the short man.
“Of course, Dong Yul-ssi. We will.” Kwan Suk turned to me with a smile. “Ga Eul, don’t just stand there; come in.”
“I apologize for intruding like this. Nobody told me you were busy.” I was mortified to have walked into the middle of a private meeting like that.
“Don’t worry, my dear. We had already finished,” Kwan Suk assured me. I saw the man who I now knew was Dong Yul bowing down and leaving with the young man behind him.
“Ga Eul,” Woo Bin rushed to my side. “I’m sorry! I wasn’t able to let you know we had visitors.”
“Don’t worry, sunbae. Is everything alright?”
“It would be best if we go out. Father, is there something else you need from me?”
“No. We said all we had to say. Now we just have to wait. Go on, you two, have some fun.”
Woo Bin took my hand and led me to his Ferrari –one of the many outrageous sports cars he owned. We hopped in, and Woo Bin drove aimlessly for a long time. He was tense and wasn’t talking, but I had learned that driving relaxed him, so I sat quietly and let him do it for as long as he needed.
After thirty minutes, we stopped near a park and got out to sit on a bench. He looked down at the ground as he began talking.
“One of the things I hate most in the life I live is the pointless fighting. Lee Dong Yul is the chief of the northern territories and has been slowly but surely expanding his dominance. Still, the head of the Song family is the absolute chief of all the territories and is in charge of administrating them. There’s no way to forget or disregard that, and now we have to settle a dispute between the south chief and the north chief over a territory they both want.” He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “This could end in a river of blood.”
“There are days I wish I could forget. My family ruling over the biggest mafia in Korea.”
“But you’re not like those gangsters we watch on TV. You and your father live your lives following a code. You still believe in words like ‘honor’ and ‘loyalty’. Don’t put yourself on the same level as those people.”
“It’s not that simple, Ga Eul.”
I took his face in my hands and forced him to look at me.
“I know you, Woo Bin. I know who you are. Don’t you forget who you are. Believe in yourself as I do.”
Before I could react, he pulled me into his arms and held me tightly.
It was in that moment that I realized how hard it must be for Woo Bin to carry the burden of being the heir of the Song family on his shoulders. I snaked my arms around him and hugged him back, and hoped against hope that this small gesture could provide him some kind of comfort.
I didn’t know that at that moment a pair of eyes was watching us.
Jan Di’s POV
Ga Eul’s words made me think.
She’s not the first person to ask me if Ji Hoo and I are a couple. In the years since high school, more than one girl has asked me before going to confess her feelings. I’ve always told the truth and never felt uncomfortable about it. But maybe… maybe it’s because I know Ji Hoo will never accept girls like those. I care very much for Ji Hoo, maybe even more than he cares for me. And I need him. My life wouldn’t be complete without him-
I halted my thoughts and my steps. My life wouldn’t be complete? Wasn’t that a little too dramatic? I pondered over it a bit more and realized that I actually couldn’t imagine a life in which Ji Hoo wasn’t with me. Even if I had to return to my old life with lots of half-time jobs and a public university, I would want him to be there.
But then, what would happen in the future?
We would finish college and I would have to leave Grandfather’s house, but we would still be friends.
And what would happen when we looked for jobs?
We would still see each other when our paths crossed professionally.
And what about when a girl he truly likes comes along? What will you do then, Jan Di?
I couldn’t answer myself. In the cold silence following that question, a hole opened up inside me at the thought of Ji Hoo making a life with someone else.
What was this sudden pain?
I wasn’t sure, but it was definitely not the feeling I should be having. Because I cared for Ji Hoo, the thing I wished for him the most was his happiness, right? That happiness would be complete with a woman by his side with whom he could have a family, the family he had always wanted. I hadn’t realize how much the idea bothered me until this moment, and it made me feel angry at myself. It was ridiculous to feel something so absurd.
Before I noticed it, I had arrived home.
“I’m back,” I called as I came through the door.
“Oh, hello, Jan Di.”
I can’t begin to describe my surprise when I found Ju Mi sitting in the living room.
“He-Hello, Ju Mi.”
“Why are you here so late?” She asked me curiously.
“Um… well, I…” What was I supposed to say?
“I help Jan Di with her homework several times a week. Besides, as you already know, we’re very good friends.” Ji Hoo came to the rescue, entering the room and giving that explanation as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
“Oh, I see. Sunbae, you always manage to help everyone.” Ju Mi smiled at him warmly.
“Jan Di, would you help me prepare some tea?” Ji Hoo asked me.
I followed him to the kitchen and watched him start a kettle.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“I tried to call you to warn you about this, but your phone was off.”
I took out my cellphone; the battery was dead.
“I must have forgotten to charge it yesterday,” I grumbled.
“That’s okay. I know this is a bit unexpected, but don’t worry. She doesn’t know you live here.”
“What is she doing here?” I shocked myself with my petulant tone and the harsh way the words came out of my mouth.
“As I told you, it was unexpected. When I finished my class, I headed to our staircase to read a bit before coming back because I knew you wouldn’t be here until later, but then I found Ju Mi crying on the third floor landing.”
“Did something happen to her?” Now I was concerned about my friend.
“Her brother suffers from a strange heart condition, and it seems today he had a heart attack. He’s older than her, but only 34, married with one child. His is an odd illness, and the doctors haven’t been able to discern the reason he’s like this. He’s a healthy man apart from his weak heart, and when the doctors told him today they couldn’t find a way to help him, the shock led to his attack. The thing is, as you know, we have lots of connections thanks to the Yoon group, and I know a doctor that may be able to review Ju Mi’s brother’s case and maybe offer a second opinion. I offered to bring her home so Grandfather could also give her his opinion.”
“Did you bring her on your bike?”
He looked at me, puzzled.
“No, I had Secretary Park pick us up.”
Why did I ask him that? That’s not the issue here!
“Oh, I see. I’m glad you’re trying to help Ju Mi, sunbae. She must be so worried about her brother. I hope the doctors can come up with some answers.”
“So do I.”
We stood there with nothing else to say, and I started to feel oddly nervous.
“Well then, I guess I’ll go to Ga Eul’s house for now.”
“Just do your homework in the living room. Grandfather will be here soon, and then I’ll arrange a ride home for her. You don’t need to go.”
I was about to ask ‘Really?’ but I bit my tongue. I had already said enough to make me feel ashamed of myself.
We went back with hot tea, and I immediately started to do my homework while Ju Mi and sunbae talked more deeply about her brother. You could tell Ju Mi was truly worried about it, and in that moment, she was completely focused on everything Ji Hoo told her about the cases the doctor he knew had resolved.
Ten minutes later, Grandfather arrived. After Ji Hoo explained the situation to him, he promptly joined the discussion.
It was almost half an hour later when Ju Mi stood up to say goodbye.
“Thank you very much, Ji Hoo sunbae, Yoon seonsaengnim; you have given hope back to my family. I’ll make sure that my sister-in-law goes this very weekend to meet with this doctor.”
“Don’t mention it. Just let me know how he progresses.”
“Miss Han,” Secretary Park appeared behind her, “the car is ready and waiting.”
“Yes, thank you. Jan Di, are you coming?”
“I still need some help with next week’s paper. I’ll leave in a while.”
“Oh, okay. Then will you walk me to the door?”
“Um… yes, of course.”
We walked to the car, but before entering, she pulled me aside, far from Secretary Park.
“Jan Di, I just want to ask you this again, because we’ve been friends for some months now.” She inhaled and looked deeply into my eyes. “Between you and sunbae, there’s only friendship?”
I had answered that question a million times before; I’d told her more than once that there was nothing else between me and Ji Hoo, and I should’ve done it again, but for some reason, it was proving difficult to say ‘yes’.
“I’ve already told you, Ju Mi.” I answered her, a bit exasperated.
“But I need to hear it one more time.”
“Yes, between Ji Hoo and I… there’s only friendship.” She beamed at me. I tasted vinegar.
“Then, I want you to be the first one to know it, because you’re a very dear friend to me. I’m going to confess.”
“I’m surprised too! But after today, I’ve realized what a great person sunbae is. Not only a pretty face, he’s someone who cares and can make you feel at peace just by being next to you.”
“W-When will you do it?”
“At the end of the semester, I think. I’m so nervous! I’m not happy about my brother’s misfortune, but it had given me a chance to talk more to sunbae, and I will seize everything within my reach to get to him. Jan Di, will you help me?”
I felt an awful déjà vu sensation when Ju Mi asked me this.
“I think… I think that when it comes to something as important as this you should do it on your own. You wouldn’t appreciate it if I were to push a guy who was in love with you in front of you, right? You would like him to get your attention by his own means.”
“Well, when you put it like that… I think you’re right. You know me so well. Anyway, it means a lot that you’ve listened to me. See you tomorrow, Jan Di.”
“Yeah, see ya.”
I watched the car drive away and wanted to jump off a cliff.
Since the moment I laid eyes on Ju Mi in the living room of the house-of my house, I had been seized by jealousy. The very thought that she may have ridden Ji Hoo’s bike had made me snap at him like a shrew; and despite knowing that she was there to look for any hope for her brother’s health, I had wished with all my strength for her to go away.
When had I become such a despicable and selfish person? And worse than that, how could I have been so blind? It was as clear as water! I was in-
“Jan Di? Are you alright?” Ji Hoo had come out to get me.
“Yes, all good. I’m just a bit tired. I think I’ll go to bed early today.”
“You won’t eat dinner?”
“No. Make my excuses to grandfather, please.”
I was about to go inside when I felt him take my hand.
“Are you really alright?” He had a worried look on his face.
Was this what Ga Eul meant about all the girls who had come to ask me if Ji Hoo and I were a couple?
I had seen Ji Hoo suffer after falling in love with Seo Hyun, and what I told him that day on the beach was still true: all I wanted was for him to find happiness, because if he wasn’t happy, I couldn’t be happy, either. So? Why couldn’t I be happy for the possibility that Ju Mi might have caught my sunbae’s attention?
That was exactly it. He was my sunbae, my firefighter, my Ji Hoo…
“Yes, don’t worry. I’m just tired, sunbae.”
I quickly went in, gathered up my stuff, and hid in my room.
I couldn’t remember the last time I had cried. Since I had started living with Ji Hoo and Grandfather, I hadn’t had a reason to shed a single tear, and now they were flowing uncontrollably.
Is it too late? Does he feel the same? What would happen if I were to tell him?
I’d never stopped to think about us as a couple because I’d never thought that at some point we would have to separate. When had this feeling begun? How long had it been living inside of me? Why didn’t I see it when it was right in front of me?
One thing had suddenly become excruciatingly clear: I was completely in love with Ji Hoo.