A/N: Just a little something that popped into my brain after finishing Heart of Porcelain :)
Ga Eul had honestly expected better cake. Beneath its flowery white fondant, the vanilla confection crumbled too easily and parched her throat. The thick white strip of icing in the center tasted like sugarcane wrapped in plastic.
It was a bad habit of hers, really. The whole eating-whenever-she-got-nervous thing. One day she'd be puffed up like a hot air balloon from all the cake she consumed at tedious work events and extended family gatherings and extravagant birthday parties where she barely knew anyone like the birthday party she was at right now.
It had been two months since she left Yi Jeong on that staircase. She hadn't heard from him since, and while she had been more than a bit disappointed at his lack of protest over her leaving him, she supposed it was for the best. She needed to get over him and move on with her life. She needed to accept that he would never want to be part of her life in the same way she wanted to be part of his. Tonight was his birthday, though, and she'd decided it wouldn't hurt to make one last exception. An appearance for old times' sake. After all, she'd worked so hard on his present over the past few weeks—a clay tea pot her teacher had glazed for her. It would be a shame if she didn't deliver it in person.
A parting gift, she'd told herself, warring against the logical parts of her brain.
He was her bad habit too.
Instead of going up to where he stood amidst a crowd of schoolmates and admirers, she'd been lurking at the buffet table at the far end of the room for the past half hour, unable to muster the courage to approach him. Flocks of elegant women circled around him, doubling back as often as they were either greeted casually or rebuffed.
At least he didn't seem very interested in them.
Not that it was any of her business if he was.
He was talking with Jun Pyo, as well as a few other guys she had never met before but she assumed to be from their school. In fact, looking around her, she realized she didn't know anyone here aside from the other F4 members. Jan Di had been held up by a family commitment at the last minute, which left her here alone with the love of her life twenty feet away and nothing but a plate of cake crumbs to show for it.
Worse than that, this party showed her exactly why someone like Yi Jeong would forever be out of her league. His parents' house looked like something out of the Heirs drama. As large as Jun Pyo's home and littered with priceless art and ancient artifacts, the three story mansion boasted eighteen rooms, expansive gardens, an indoor and outdoor pool, tennis courts, and a private shooting range. At least, that's what she'd read online before visiting his house. She had walked past the indoor pool on her way to the bathroom earlier, but she had yet to see the gardens or any of the outdoor amenities, as dark as it was.
Over the past year, her visits to his studio had become so frequent and his presence in her life so familiar that she tended to forget how different they were. Maybe it was the size of his studio—the space was rather intimate, now that she thought about it. It was certainly larger than that small apartment Jan Di had lived in but nowhere near as large as his bedroom probably was in a house this size.
She shouldn't be thinking about things like that.
She wondered how many girls he'd taken up there after a party like this one.
She shouldn't be thinking about things like that.
Ga Eul sipped on her flute of champagne.
It left her throat warm but dry.
She needed water.
And as if his family weren't enough, she mentally continued, he just had to be a world renowned prodigy too.
Honestly, she couldn't think of one thing about herself that even her own family would consider outstanding. In school, she had made average grades. Not bad grades, just average. She wasn't a budding genius in any subject. She couldn't play an instrument. She couldn't sing. She hated giving speeches or presenting any sort of material—artistic or otherwise—in front of anyone. She cried far too easily and trusted people she shouldn't.
Yi Jeong was right. She was a nice girl. An innocent. The type of girl people liked to take advantage of. The sad thing was people did take advantage of her, and half the time she didn't even know it was happening until it was too late. Most of her life had been spent in Jan Di's shadow—Jan Di the protector—outspoken, resourceful, always taking care of everyone and everything.
Compared to her, Ga Eul was a ghost.
Yet Yi Jeong had once looked at her like she was the most important person in the world.
She'd loved how she felt when he'd looked at her like that.
She'd stupidly believed he'd keep looking.
She looked out the window and tried to imagine him looking at her from across this room like that, but someone elbowed her and she had to move away from the cake.
Positioning herself closer to the wall so that she could halfway hide behind the curtains, Ga Eul sighed inwardly.
Pessimism and self-pity had never been her thing. She had been perfectly content with her plain, uneventful existence until she'd started liking him.
Maybe some of his personality had rubbed off on her.
She didn't like that feeling miserable only made her feel closer to him.
Not one bit.
Yi Jeong had seen Ga Eul when she came in. Really, how could anyone have missed her in her bright red coat that she'd refused to take off like she planned to flee at any moment?
Laughing half-heartedly at a joke Jun Pyo made, Yi Jeong kept her in the corner of his sight, though she'd backed herself behind a curtain. He'd expected her to come greet him for some time now, but apparently she had no intention of doing so. Whether she felt intimidated by the crowd of people or was simply sticking to her plan to avoid him for all eternity, she hadn't moved from the buffet table for half an hour.
It was beginning to annoy him.
He had taken her for a lot of things but never a coward.
And if she didn't want to see him, then why was she here?
He didn't necessarily blame her for not wanting to see him. He'd done nothing but put her through pain, first by pushing her away, then by using and humiliating her, and finally by running after his first love only to realize she was not the one for him anymore. He'd always believed Ga Eul deserved someone better than him, and he'd done everything to prove his theory right.
And on top of that—on top of everything else—he was a coward.
He hadn't said anything to her on the stairs—partly because he had been shell-shocked by her declaration but partly because he still feared rejection. She had made it clear she didn't want to see him. Why should he expect her to rescind her statement? Ga Eul had always been honest with him—at times irritatingly so.
Perhaps they missed their moment the way Ji Hoo and Jan Di had missed theirs.
Perhaps he should just leave it alone.
Yet two months later, he still found himself driving by the porridge shop, hoping to catch a glimpse of her waiting on customers.
He hadn't expected her absence to hurt the way it had. He hadn't expected to miss her the way he did. He thought his heart was finished with love after Eun Jae, but Ga Eul had revived it somehow, in ways he didn't fully realize until after she left.
"Bro...Bro...Bro, you there?" Woo Bin waved a bandaged hand in front of Yi Jeong's face.
He had a broken hand now too but on the opposite side, courtesy of his family's profession.
"I'm sorry, what?" Yi Jeong asked, unwillingly tearing his eyes away from Ga Eul.
"I gotta ask you something." He slung his arm around Yi jeong. "We'll be back," he called over his shoulder as he steered Yi Jeong away from the crowd. When they were far enough away not to be overheard, Woo Bin asked quietly, "Aren't you going to talk to her?"
"You want me to invite her over here?"
Yi Jeong narrowed his eyes.
"You know you can't lie to me."
Setting his empty champagne flute down, Yi Jeong shoved his hands in his pants pockets. Woo Bin's intense stare made him feel like a criminal under interrogation.
"Fine," he muttered. "Okay, fine, I'd like to talk to her, but obviously she doesn't want to see me."
"If she doesn't want to see you, then why did she come?"
"Because clever Jun Pyo gave her an invitation. Because she's Ga Eul-yang. She's too fucking polite for her own good." Yi Jeong mumbled the last sentence into a new glass of champagne he'd proffered from a passing waiter.
"Didn't I tell you to contact her after what she said to you at Namsan?...You didn't do it, did you?"
Contact her and say what? He'd reached out to her already, and she'd pushed him away.
"You know, when you pushed her away before, she came back to you. She came back and picked your sorry ass off the literal ground, and now you can't even go over there and say hello?"
Well, Woo Bin certainly wasn't pulling any punches tonight.
Ignoring the guilt niggling at the base of his throat, he replied, "You want me to try again? You really think she wants that?"
"I think you know the answer to that question already." Woo Bin clapped a hand on Yi Jeong's shoulder. "But...if it'll help you along...I'll see if I can talk her into coming over here."
He thanked his best friend with a nod and watched him trek across the room to the lone girl in the red coat.
He had too many regrets behind him, but she had come back one more time. It could be nothing, but maybe fate was giving him a nudge.
"You, uh...you really like him, don't you?"
Ga Eul spun to see Woo Bin leaning against the buffet table.
She choked on the new piece of cake she'd shoved in her mouth.
"I'm...sorry?" She gulped down the cake with some effort.
"Yi Jeong. I've been watching you two for a long time. You like him, right?"
Ga Eul's cheeks heated.
"Lots of people like Yi Jeong Sunbae."
"You love him."
Ga Eul opened her mouth to protest, but only a croak came out before Woo Bin continued, "I think he likes you too."
Likes her too? Is Woo Bin already drunk?
Ga Eul looked down at her plate and scraped a few pitiful crumbs onto her fork.
"W-where...where would you get a silly idea like that?"
"You convinced him not to give up on his art. Even I couldn't do that. He listens to you. He respects you a lot."
"Well...respecting me and liking me are two different things." Ga Eul shifted her weight and considered reaching for another slice of cake. "Anyway, why do you think he likes me?" Ga Eul laughed nervously. "I mean...look at me. I know I'm not his type. He likes girls like...like...like that." Ga Eul pointed to two elegant, slim figured women chatting near them. "You said so yourself when we went on our fake date."
"No." Woo Bin took her plate away, unfortunately causing her to look back up at him. "He dates girls like that. But...he actually cares about girls like you."
"Then he views me as a friend. Like Jan Di. But that's all I am. I—"
"Why did you let him go?"
"He told you about that?"
"I'm his best friend. We tell each other everything."
Did he also tell you about the night he offered me up to his father like a menu item at a buffet?
"Look, Sunbae...I thought he liked me once, and I was very, very wrong. I don't particularly want to relive that experience. Besides, he has someone else."
"Someone else?...Ah, you mean Cha Eun Jae?"
Ga Eul nodded.
"I sort of helped him find her again."
"I know. But I think you've got it wrong. Eun Jae is engaged to his brother."
No wonder she hadn't heard anything about her and Yi Jeong getting together.
Not that it mattered.
"Doesn't matter," she replied matter-of-factly. "He still loves her, doesn't he?...Don't lie to me, Sunbae. I saw the way he looked at her. I'm sorry, but I don't have any interest in being anyone's backup option. Excuse me. I've got to get home."
Woo Bin grabbed her arm.
"He's always liked you. I'd swear to it."
"Did he send you over to talk to me?"
The look on Woo Bin's face told her what she wanted to know. Yi Jeong had seen her, yet he'd made no effort to come to her himself.
"If he likes me, then he can come get me," Ga Eul replied. "Other than that, it's late, and I have to get home."
Jerking her arm away from Woo Bin, she tore through the crowd of people and headed for the front door.
On her way out, she shoved her present on top of the countless others piled onto a table in the foyer. For some reason, speaking with Woo Bin had made her angry.
What did he mean, Yi Jeong had always liked her? He'd liked her so much he'd treated her like a joke? If that was the way he treated people he liked, she'd hate to be someone he despised.
The tears started before she could stop them.
Walking out to the drive, she tried to look dignified, like she was waiting for her own chauffeur instead of a cab, but it was a losing battle as snot ran down her upper lip and she choked on her own saliva.
Unwilling to remain in the entrance with everyone gawking at her, she walked around the side of the large house and into the dark of the garden, deciding to stay there just until she calmed down. Alone, and suddenly unbearably tired, she let the sobs erupt from her throat and into her hands.
Who did Yi Jeong Sunbae think he was?
The lights came on in the garden, strings of them woven through bushes and wrapped around the wooden slats overhead. Her tears blurred them until she saw only fluorescent gold specks bleeding together. The last of summer's flowers opened sleepy heads toward her and beckoned her with their vibrant colors. A fountain in the center of the garden also sprung to life while she sat there, like it had decided to weep with her.
She hadn't the heart to appreciate such beauty at the moment.
She hadn't a heart to open to anything at all.
Her insides ached with everything she had spoken...and everything she had not.
Curling up on a rough concrete bench near the fountain, she buried her head in her hands and continued sniffling quietly, unaware of another person's presence until he spoke, softly and familiarly.
"Why do I always find you like this?"
Ga Eul didn't uncurl herself.
"I told you girls don't look prettier when they cry."
What do you care if I look pretty or not?
Keeping her eyes on the ground, she slowly sat up.
"Aren't you supposed to be at your party?" she croaked, her voice deeper than normal even to her own ears.
"Aren't you supposed to be at my party? What are you doing alone out here? Woo Bin said you had gone home."
She stood up, facing him with every ounce of courage she had left.
Gosh, this was embarrassing.
"If you knew I had gone home, then why were you looking for me?"
"I didn't say I was looking for you."
"You said you found me. What else does that mean?"
When Yi Jeong didn't answer, she sighed and continued, "I'm sorry, I was just waiting on my cab." She wiped her eyes on her coat sleeve. "I'll be going now."
"Not until you tell me why you were crying." Yi Jeong grabbed her wrist and pulled her to him. Their shoulders brushed.
"Not until you tell me why you were looking for me," she shot back before she could catch herself.
Great. All she needed were his mind games right now.
Yi Jeong loosened his grip, and she took a step back.
They stood at a respectable distance from each other—not comfortable, exactly, but respectable.
"I'm sorry. I think I've gone over my feelings a few too many times at this point. Why don't you start for a change?"
"If I interpreted your last words correctly, I thought you never wanted to see me again. So why are you here?"
"It was a mistake. I shouldn't have come here."
"So why did you? Or maybe I can ask a better question. Why did you leave? After all you did, after all you disrupted, what made you think you could just leave like that?"
"You didn't exactly come after me, Sunbae. You didn't say a single word. I wasn't aware it bothered you."
"You didn't give me a chance to say anything! You just walked off!"
"A chance to say what?! What were you going to say that would make me feel so much better about never being good enough for you?!"
She'd said that last bit too loud. Any second now she expected someone to run out of the bushes and tackle her, making sure she didn't cause their precious F4 member any bodily harm.
Sure enough, a group of muffled voices drifted over to them, drawing closer and closer to where they stood staring at each other.
Yi Jeong held out his hand to her.
She stared at it.
"Ga Eul-yang, take my hand," he urged.
She must have looked suspicious because he amended, "Please."
Glancing toward the entrance, she saw a couple step out of the shadows. They hadn't noticed her or Yi Jeong yet, caught up in each other as they were.
Then the girl spun around to face them.
Ga Eul grabbed Yi Jeong's hand, and they ran.
Following the winding path that led deeper into the garden, they ended up in a secluded corner surrounded on three sides by hedges and covered with vines stretching over the top. Yi Jeong surveyed the path behind them to make sure no one had followed them or was otherwise loitering around.
When he turned back to her, the look in his eyes told her she was in for it.
"Look, for the record, I never said you weren't good enough for me. Honestly, you could do a hell of a lot better than me. Do you even...do you even get how much of a saint you are?"
"It doesn't make any difference, does it? You wouldn't want a saint."
He dropped his voice.
"I want you."
"No...You don't. You and Eun Jae Seongsaengnim—"
"You were right. I did love her...once...I thought I'd never be happy like that again after she left. Then I met this silly commoner. She always shows up at the most inconvenient times. She asks the most aggravating questions. She's ridiculously stubborn...and really...unbelievably...beautiful." He touched a strand of her hair. "I was going to tell you that...remember that day I came to see you at your pottery lessons? I was planning on asking you out. On a real date, I mean."
Ga Eul said nothing.
He tried again, "You told me that once you found your soulmate, you wouldn't let him get away. That you'd regret it for the rest of your life if you did."
"I never said you were my soulmate." Ga Eul bit her lip.
Yi Jeong's expression hardened, then lapsed into indifference.
"Fine then...Go...I'm sorry I held you up." He stepped back.
She didn't move.
She'd imagined her soulmate as someone sweet and honest and uncomplicated.
Someone totally unlike Yi Jeong.
She didn't move.
Her eyes stayed so concentrated on his face that she barely noticed him step closer until he stood right on top of her.
She wondered whether he recognized her perfume.
He'd bought it for her on their fake date.
"You're not going to leave?" he whispered.
Shaking her head, she took in a nervous, shallow breath.
Had she been breathing at all for the past few minutes?
The look in his eyes told her her he was going to kiss her now, or at least try to like he had in his studio.
She closed her eyes just as she had done on that day. She'd only kissed one of her short-lived boyfriends, but he'd initiated it and it had felt so awkward at the time that she was too embarrassed to try it again.
Yi Jeong's lips felt foreign on hers, like she was touching something forbidden, and at first they brushed hers so gently she wondered if they'd really touched. Then they pressed against hers harder, and she grabbed his suit jacket, pulling him to hold her. She needed to feel his arms around her. She needed to make sure she wasn't dreaming.
Grasping his shirt collar, she let him back her into an unlit hedge. He had one hand on her back now and one in her hair, messing up the curls she'd spent an hour doing in her mom's bathroom.
Leaning into him to keep from falling over, she let him slip his tongue between her lips, let him breathe heavily into her mouth while she clung to him greedily.
He smelled like aftershave tinged with alcohol and something else she couldn't describe as anything but him.
After a minute, she had to stop, if only so she could take a proper breath.
She lowered her face, let her lips touch his collar, while he removed his hand from the back of her head and began smoothing out her hair.
Shutting her eyes, she thought the feeling of his fingers running down her back was the most calming sensation in the world.
His other hand touched her cheek, and she jumped back when she realized she had started crying again.
Well, as far back as she could with that stupid hedge in the way.
"I just...it's silly."
"What is it? Did I do something wrong?"
"No, no...um..." She squirmed and glanced to the side. The lights had completely gone off. Maybe they were on a timer.
They were alone in the dark.
Alone, so why was she questioning everything that just happened?
Maybe it wasn't fair to him after everything he'd just said, but she wanted to make sure. She wouldn't be a fool this time.
Swallowing before she could lose her nerve, she blurted out, "Is this real, or will you want me to forget this tomorrow?"
She couldn't see his expression, only a shadowed outline of his face.
"I hope so," he mumbled.
"You hope what?" she asked tentatively.
"I hope it's real. I was going to ask you for a date tomorrow."
She smiled though she knew he probably couldn't see.
"You really want to?"
"Of course. You're the best thing that has happened to me in a long time. That is...if you still want to be with me."
"Pabo. If I didn't want to be with you, I wouldn't have been so mad at you," she replied, her voice barely above a whisper.
"Well then, you can be mad at me for as long as you want," he whispered back, taking her in his arms again.
"And what if I don't want to be mad at you?" She slid her fingers through his hair.
"Then you can kiss me again."