Sixteen is one year from seventeen, which is one year from eighteen, which is when he'll be an adult and free from his father's tyranny. At least that's how Young Do has planned it. He is one year closer to being invincible.
He starts by preparing his body – besides the vigorous bouts of sparring during judo, he takes up weight training and swimming. He experiences another growth spurt, bringing his already lengthy frame to an even more impressive height. The weight training fleshes him out while the swimming keeps his body toned. He looks less lanky and more solid. Stronger.
The changes are not just physical – he starts paying more attention in school, at least in the subjects he's interested in. He even turns in a few homework assignments. His Literature teacher actually starts weeping in class when he turns in a long overdue essay.
Everyone's startled by the 'new and improved' Young Do, except for Myung Soo who tells anyone who bothers to listen, that he always knew Young Do had it in him to excel.
Bo Na merely scoffs and flips her hair. "What's the matter, Choi Young Do? Realized you can't rely on your money and name anymore?"
Young Do leans back in his chair and smiles sunnily at her. "You forgot my devastatingly good looks, Lee Bo Na. And also my impeccable style."
Bo Na makes a wretching noise while Ye Sol rests her hands against her palms and looks at him adoringly. "No one is as fashionable as you, Oppa."
Myung Soo raises a hand in protest. "I strongly object."
"Kang Ye Sol, did the surgeon fix your eyes or ruin them?" Bo Na says in disbelief. "Besides, no one looks better than Yoon Chan Young."
"Has your reluctant prince finally said yes to you?" Young Do stands up and stretches his arms ostentatiously over his head. His shirt comes untucked, revealing a strip of skin and Ye Sol nearly falls out of her chair.
He shrugs. "I'm disappointed, I was betting he'd hold out for much longer."
Bo Na predictably flares up. "Yah, Chan Young will be my boyfriend. He's even tutoring me."
"In English." Bo Na has the sense to look away in embarrassment. "I was improvising, all right?"
"Does he know you lived in California for four years?"
Myung Soo whistles. "Lee Bo Na, you devious girl. I knew you were bad." He shakes his head. "Poor Chan Young doesn't know what he's getting into."
"Oh, shut up," Bo Na says. "Ye Sol, let's go." She gives them a withering glance. "I don't care for the present company."
Yesol looks at Young Do then back at Bo Na. "I don't know, it seems fine to me?"
Bo Na narrows her eyes. "What?"
"Don't bother leaving, I'll go first." Young Do waves at them dismissively. "I have a date anyway."
Both Ye Sol and Myung Soo look at him incredulously. Bo Na's mouth drops open. "In your dreams, Choi Young Do. Who's crazy enough to date you?"
Young Do brings his finger up to his mouth. "It's a secret," and he winks.
Ye Sol sighs audibly.
Bo Na looks at her friend in horror. "Yah, Kang Ye Sol!"
Myung Soo watches Young Do's retreating back and wrinkles his brow. Young Do had a date? It was the first he'd heard of it – and really, it was the first time Young Do had ever even mentioned girls in more than a dismissive manner. He teased Bo Na, and whenever Rachel deigned to sit with them at lunch, he would smirk and tease her too. It was just the way he communicated, in sly innuendos and with a scornful curl of his lip.
Myung Soo wonders if he'll ever be able to fully decipher Young Do's moods, even with all the experience he's accumulated over the past few years. He fishes his phone out of his pocket and calls Eun Sang. If someone knew about Young Do's date, it would be Eun Sang.
Ever since Young Do had come to them – well, to Eun Sang's house, they had grown closer. Eun Sang had even friended him and Young Do on her social network account, which was a big deal, because her only other contacts was Chan Young and a classmate she knew from her old school.
He thought it strange that Eun Sang had so few friends, but Eun Sang explained it was because her family moved around a lot when she was younger, due to her father's constant job changes. It made it difficult for her to form lasting friendships, when she was just going to move again. Then her father had found a good factory job, and they moved into the apartment next door to Chan Young's.
"History was made," Eun Sang said grandly. "Chan Young and I found each other. Actually, I ran into his door."
She smiled fondly at the memory. "Split my lip. Chan Young thought I was a vengeful ghost and started crying for his mother."
"That sounds like you," Myung Soo said peevishly. "Blood and tears all over."
Eun Sang wrinkled her nose at him. "It's a precious memory."
"It sounds like those horror movies you like so much," Myung Soo said. "I like how we met better."
"Oh yes, you yelling at me from your car." Eun Sang rolled her eyes. "So much better."
"Every romantic comedy starts out that way," Myung Soo protested, then looked at her coquettishly. "Haven't you fallen for me yet?"
"Yah, Jo Myung Soo!" Eun Sang smacked his arm, a little harder than necessary. "Don't say such idiotic things."
"I am very lovable," Myung Soo pressed on. "Really, Eun Sang. Don't you think so?"
"I'm not answering that," Eun Sang said, laughing.
"You don't need to," Myung Soo retorted. "I know you love me."
"Well if you know then…."
Eun Sang patted his arm, where she had hit him earlier. "Let's not say anything, and just stay like this."
His skin tingled from her touch.
Myung Soo shook his head. "One day, you're going to say that to someone and regret it."
"I'll worry about that when the day comes, then."
Myung Soo clicks on Eun Sang's name. She answers within two rings.
"Myung Soo, what's up?" Eun Sang yawns.
"Were you asleep? Did I wake you up? Yah, Cha Eun Sang, how many jobs are you working now?"
"I was resting my eyes. Resting," Eun Sang says defensively. "It's the same number of jobs I had last time you called."
"Which was three too many, I remember. Are you outside? You are, aren't you?"
"If you know the answer already, why do you ask?" Eun Sang says, and swallows another yawn. "I like being outside, it's free."
"There are bugs and sticky children and strange men outside," Myung Soo argues. "At least inside, there's air conditioning."
"You're too spoiled, Myung Soo. Anyway, I have to go. I'll talk to you later, Eomma."
"Cha Eun Sang!"
Eun Sang hangs up just as Young Do saunters over to her. "Why aren't you in the waiting room? I told you it was okay. Unless," and his right eyebrow lifts, "you were waiting for me?" He breaks into a grin. "Cha Eun Sang, I'm touched."
"Don't you start too," Eun Sang sighs. "I was just taking a nap –" and Young Do frowns. "There's a private room for that purpose, why do you like sleeping outside so much?"
"Because I just do," Eun Sang snaps. "Anyway, you're late."
"Your watch is five minutes fast," Young Do says. "I'm on time. Come inside, Sensei is waiting for us."
Eun Sang's face brightens. "What are we doing today? Throws?"
"I'm doing throws, you're warming up," Young Do corrects her. "Sensei says you need more practice before he allows you on the mats again."
"I wasn't that bad," Eun Sang protests.
"You weren't that good either," Young Do says, then neatly side steps Eun Sang's raised arm. He clicks his tongue. "Your reflexes need work, Cha Eun Sang."
He smiles and recites. "Remember what Sensei says, you can't improve until you let the energy come in purely and freely."
Eun Sang groans. "I'm starting to wish I had just let you buy me a purse instead."
"This is what you wanted, and I delivered," Young Do says. "It's not my fault you're such a lacking student."
"For that, when I get on the mat – you're dead," Eun Sang vows. "I mean it."
"I'll believe it when I see it."
Eun Sang grabs the collar of his gi and tugs. "Remember that when you're flat on your back," she says sweetly, and lets go. She takes the lead and walks into the dojo first.
Young Do swallows.
Young Do doesn't like being in debt to anyone. Monetary debt was unheard of in his world – his family has been rich for decades, and the way they stayed rich was by not spending unnecessary money. Of course there was the upkeep of maintaining their wealth – which meant the drivers, the real estate in the most exclusive suburbs of Seoul, the executive penthouse suites in all of the hotels under the Zeus brand, the designer clothes and shoes, to the stylist who visited his hotel room every month to give him a haircut. He was wealthy because his family spent money on things that lasted, that came with history and service, a pedigree.
Which was probably why he delighted in the small rebellion of eating convenience store ramyun, the rustling of paper against his palms as he slid the wooden chopsticks out of their wrapper, and the aromatic steam as he peeled back the thin paper lid. It was bliss and it could be his for under three thousand won. It felt like he was spitting in the face of tradition and so many years of board meetings and carefully brokered mergers and acquisitions. Which suited him just fine.
It's the emotional debt he doesn't know what to do with.
Ever since that night, he feels something's changed between Eun Sang and him. It feels different, he feels different. He can't quite explain it in words, not to his complete satisfaction. It's – a heightened awareness of her. He finds himself anticipating the moment just before they meet – whether it's by coincidence or appointment.
He's been making a lot of appointments lately.
At first it was because he wanted to thank her for taking care of him. He and Myung Soo had stayed in her room for a few more hours, until Myung Soo gently prodded at him to get up. They went to the study room and Young Do spent the rest of the night there. Eun Sang sent him texts throughout the night, and he saved every one.
When he met Eun Sang again, his eye had healed and the bruises were faded yellow against his skin. He shoved his hands in his pockets and tried not to fidget as she looked over at him – and then her gaze returned to the enormous gift basket in front of her.
"This is a thank you," Young Do said, and when Eun Sang still didn't say anything, he reached for it. "I can return it and get something else, if you want – I didn't really know what you liked best, so I just guessed."
Eun Sang's fingers brushed against his, and he stiffened. "Young Do-Ah," Eun Sang said slowly, "you didn't have to do this."
It was the way she said his name – gently and with warmth, like it was something to be cherished. His eyes drifted shut and he tried not to shake. "Say that again," he said.
"Choi Young Do."
"No, like before."
Eun Sang looked at him curiously. "Young Do-Ah?"
There it was again, the sudden rush of warmth and comfort. Young Do balled his fists inside his pockets. "What do you want, Cha Eun Sang? Anything, I'll get it for you."
"Just name it."
Eun Sang fixed her eyes on his face, and she smiled a little. "Let me get back to you. I have to think about it."
The basket stayed in his room, ostentatious and accusing, until he finally got rid of it.
He composed a witty text to send to Eun Sang, then deleted it at the last second.
It's not something he's accustomed to, the feeling of uncertainty and – what is it?
The prickling of his skin whenever she touched him – and she touched him more often now, casually and lightly. It wasn't always due to him being hurt, but just a brush of his shoulder or a flick against the back of his hand.
He found himself looking at his skin after she had touched it, for a mark or sign that explained the sensation she left. There was none, of course – but he could still feel it, and then she would touch him again. He half expected to find the whorls of her fingertips tattooed on his skin, and was always disappointed when there was nothing.
Then there was the way Eun Sang carelessly slept anywhere, usually outside – that really tested the limits of his patience.
It was absurd. He knew that Eun Sang didn't get enough sleep due to the amount of part time jobs she worked, but that was still no reason to just sleep outside. He ticked off the reasons – the elements, the noise, the potential kidnappers and perverts just passing by, and Eun Sang laughed.
"One, it's not like I'm wearing pajamas. I'm always fully dressed and two, once I fall asleep, I don't really hear anything. Three, CCTV – and why would anyone bother a sleeping person. I see drunks on the street all the time."
"They're men. It's different because you're a girl."
"Yah, Choi Young Do. Do you always assume the worst?"
"Are you really that naïve?" He shot back. "The world is a bad place."
"I know," she replied. "Don't you think I know that? But it's exhausting to think so all the time. All I can do is live the way I want to, even for a little while."
"Is this how you really want to live?"
Her face tightened, and she looked at him. "What about you? Is that any way to live as well?"
It hurts because it's true and because it's her saying it.
Just as she can put him together, it seems more and more like Eun Sang can take him apart with just words.
She apologized soon after, with a box of fried chicken and a liter of coke.
"I shouldn't have said that," she said earnestly. "Your situation is very different from mine –"
"I'm not going to live like that anymore," Young Do interrupted. "I'm making plans to get away from him. From this," and he gestured at his hotel room. "I want to live how I want, too."
Eun Sang nodded. Her expression was thoughtful as she looked at him. "Young Do, why don't you ever wear the bracelet I made you? Did you lose it?"
He gaped at her. "What?"
"I know what I want from you," she replied. "If you don't like the colors, I can make you a new one. That's what it is, right? You've lost it."
"You want me to wear your bracelet? That's all?"
"Should I ask you for a purse? Is this how it goes?" She tilted her head and looked at him speculatively. "What do you think suits me?"
"I'll buy you one all the ahjummas use," he retorted. "With big black handles and patterns everywhere. Ask for something else."
Eun Sang's eyes narrowed. "You did lose it, otherwise you're avoiding the question."
"Ask for something else," he repeated. "And I didn't lose it. I just –"
"Cha Eun Sang, just ask for something else. Please."
His soft entreaty made her pause, and then she nodded. "Actually, I did think of something else. Do you know someone who could give me self-defense training? Not you," she hastily added. "An actual teacher."
"You mean like judo?" Young Do asked. "And I'm offended. I happen to be excellent at telling people what to do."
"I said teacher," Eun Sang stressed. "Not dictator."
"You didn't have some of my teachers." Young Do scoffed. "At least you're taking my warnings seriously now."
"This isn't about me sleeping outside," Eun Sang said. "I just want to be able to take care of myself." She shot him a steely-eyed glance. "You don't have to save me, you know."
"I didn't mean—"
"You do. Even if you don't say it out loud. Myung Soo, too. Even Chan Young forgets sometimes." She flipped her hair over her shoulder. "I don't break easily, Choi Young Do."
He found he had nothing to say, so he nodded.
Young Do phoned his sensei later that day, and asked him if he would be willing to take on another student. "She's a girl I know. And I think she'd be good at it. I'll pay for the time."
After he hung up, he went over to his dresser and pulled out the top drawer. He spotted the box containing Eun Sang's bracelet, and lifted it out. The bracelet coiled against his palm and he ran his fingers over it. She had picked out his favorite colors and he knew without trying it on, that the bracelet would be the right size. He squeezed it and thought about her words – "You don't have to save me," and shook his head.
"Who said anything about you needing to be saved?"
He dropped the bracelet back into its box and pushed the drawer shut.
Young Do keeps one eye on Eun Sang as he goes through the forms. Eun Sang is running laps around the dojo, her pony tail flying behind her. She has a look of extreme concentration on her face as she runs, and it's completely adorable.
Sensei clears his throat, and Young Do drags his attention back. "Sorry."
"You've changed," Sensei says, and smiles. "Before, you were always angry. I told you that you could not advance further with that anger."
"So you keep on insisting," Young Do says, then looks over at Eun Sang. She's stopped running and is doing stretches, her arms a graceful arc above her head.
"You still need to work on your focus though," Sensei says matter of factly, and before Young Do knows it, he's flipped to the ground.
Sensei looms over him, amusement written all over his features. "At this rate, Eun Sang will catch up with you easily."
"I'd like to see her try," Young Do says, and gets to his feet.
"She just may surprise you." Sensei says.
Eun Sang takes a drink of water, and Young Do watches as she tilts her head back smoothly, the smooth column of her throat visible.
He bites his lip. "She already does."
He waits for her outside of the changing room. Eun Sang walks out, twisting her damp hair into a bun on top of her head.
She grins at him and he feels it again, the flare of heat against his cheeks and over his heart. She shows him her phone. "Call Myung Soo, he thinks you have a secret girlfriend, and won't stop texting me about it."
"Myung Soo's got an overactive imagination."
He sees the lines of frantic faces and frowns at the excessive hearts Myung Soo sends in his texts. "Just like a kid," he mutters, and punches in his text.
"Do you want to die? Stop bothering Cha Eun Sang."
"So you are with her! I knew you couldn't be on a date. That'll make Kang Yesol happy."
"Why should I care about what Kang Yesol feels?"
"Because she likes you, idiot."
Myung Soo sends a shocked face.
Young Do raises an eyebrow. "So?"
"So, you should be kind to her heart."
"I don't owe her anything, why do I need to be kind to her heart? Her feelings have nothing to do with mine."
He doesn't know he's scowling until Eun Sang places her hand against his cheek, her thumb pressed against his face. "What's wrong?"
"Just Myung Soo saying unnecessary things again. Forget it. I'll take you home."
"Actually, I'm going to meet up with him. I can talk to him, if you like?"
Young Do stills. "No, that's fine. I'll see you later, same time?"
"Of course. See you later, Young Do."
Myung Soo is sprawled out on the couch in the study room when Eun Sang lets herself in. He scoots over and pats the cushion next to him. "Eun Sangie, you've come!"
"You asked me to, remember?"
Eun Sang drops onto the couch, her legs briefly tangling with his before she moves away. "What did you say to Young Do? He was annoyed when I left."
"You've been keeping secrets," Myung Soo says accusingly. "Both of you."
"What do you mean?"
"Why was Young Do with you? He said he had a date – was it with you?"
Eun Sang's mouth drops open from shock. "Jo Myung Soo, are you crazy?"
"Maybe." Myung Soo hugs his cushion. He sounds oddly plaintive. "I just know that he's been spending a lot of time with you."
"So do you. Besides, Young Do just visits me at work sometimes. It's not like I have a lot of free time." Eun Sang elbows him. "What is this really about?"
"I feel like I don't see you as much anymore. And Young Do too – and now it seems like you're always with him. You were my friend first."
He peers over his cushion, and gauges her reaction. "You think I'm being dumb, don't you?"
"Idiot," Eun Sang says, but with no malice. "Are we five years old? I'm not a toy to be fought over." She sighs. "Myung Soo, you're my friend too. It's not what you think between Young Do and me. I'm just taking judo lessons from his teacher, and he trains as well."
"But he said it was a date," Myung Soo says, then sinks back into the couch. "Why would he say that?"
"You know him better than I do," Eun Sang says and shrugs. "He was probably teasing you, like he always does."
"That elementary school kid," Myung Soo scowls, then punches his cushion. "I really don't know what he's thinking sometimes."
"So are we all right?" Eun Sang prods at his thigh with her shoe. "We can do something together this weekend, I have an early shift at the café."
Myung Soo's face lights up and then he remembers his family's vacation plans. "I can't. My family's leaving for Jeju this weekend, we'll be there for two weeks for summer vacation."
He sighs dejectedly, and Eun Sang can't hold back her laughter. "Yah, Jo Myung Soo, do you know how ridiculous you sound? Oh no, you're going to Jeju. What a terrible summer."
"I'll bring you back tangerines and chocolate," Myung Soo promises. "Just remember to text me once in a while, hmm?" He bats his eyelashes at her. "I'll miss you, Cha Eun Sang."
Summer in Jeju is tangerines and elephant rides and the immaculately cut emerald green of an exclusive golf course. Myung Soo spends as much time with his parents as he can stand, and leaves them holding hands mooning over the sunset or whatever.
He checks his SNS.
Eun Sang hasn't texted him once during his summer vacation and he feels slighted – no, beyond slighted, affronted.
Eun Sang's status feed is full of updates about her latest part time jobs – a picture of her holding up a puppy catches his attention. "Looks just like our Myung Soo."
He scoffs. "I'm way cuter."
Eun Sang scooping ice cream, Eun Sang mopping – who takes a picture of herself mopping, seriously – Eun Sang dressed in a mascot outfit scowling at the camera – Young Do had tagged that picture and commented, "My favorite," Eun Sang asleep while Chan Young flashed bunny ears behind her head.
Myung Soo sighs. She was probably too busy to contact him.
He checks Young Do's feed next, and it's typically blank, except for a few comments on Bo Na's page. However, he's liked all of the photos Eun Sang's posted, and there was a lengthy conversation underneath her mascot picture.
Young Do started with, "You owe me dinner, Cha Eun Sang."
Eun Sang replied, "And why is that?"
"Because of my efforts, your café improved their daily take almost 200%."
"Did you go and talk to my manager?"
"Of course. I wanted to make sure my hard work was appreciated."
"Your hard work? I was wearing the costume."
"And it looked very nice on you."
So it went, and Myung Soo's eyebrows nearly hit his hairline as he scrolled further. This was definitely not standard operating procedure for Young Do.
"You like her," he said out loud, and felt that familiar twinge of pain. During that long evening at Eun Sang's house, he had dismissed it as worry over Young Do's condition – but now he knew. It was realization.
He looked at her smiling face and felt his heart beat faster. "I do too."
Myung Soo couldn't pin point the exact time – it wasn't the lightning moment he had with Lee Bo Na, or the casual flirtations with other students – he had even fancied himself a little in love with Yoo Rachel, after all, but something slow and steady had developed beyond his imagination.
And now with Young Do in the picture, it felt beyond his grasp.
Young Do stirs his iced coffee and checks his watch. He is taking Eun Sang to a matinee showing of something with a lot of violence and stupid teenagers in it, and he wants them to be on time.
His phone vibrates, and he sees Myung Soo's contact information pop up. He swipes his screen and reads, "A chemical reaction?"
He furrows his brow in confusion. "Did you fall off an elephant? How are you, by the way?"
"I'm coming home in three days. I've got presents. Tell Eun Sang."
"Tell her yourself, I'm not your secretary."
"I just figured she'd be there. You guys have gotten really close, right?"
"What's that mean?"
"You're the genius, you figure it out."
Young Do stares at his phone, then shakes his head. "What's his problem?"
"Who's having a problem?"
Young Do nearly drops his phone from shock. Eun Sang has appeared out of nowhere – well, obviously from the employee entrance, but her sudden presence startles him.
Eun Sang's dressed in a button down plaid shirt, and faded blue jeans. Her hair is slightly wavy as she's pulled it free from her pony tail, and softly frames her face. He knows if he looks down, he'll see her trusty black Converses. It's an outfit he's seen before – both on her and other high school girls. Everything completely ordinary and familiar, but now he notices the way Eun Sang smiles, the dimple in her chin and her bright eyes.
Eun Sang is suddenly unspeakably, unknowingly beautiful and he blinks, as if he's emerged from a dark room.
"Cha Eun Sang," he says, trying to keep his voice steady. "Don't scare me like that."
She rolls her eyes. "Yah, the scary Choi Young Do is so easily surprised? Are you going to survive this film? I didn't think you'd be so soft," she teases, and picks up his coffee. She takes a sip, and makes a pleased noise. "Still good," she crows. "But of course, since I made it."
She checks her watch. "Ah, we better get going. We can still catch a bus – unless you brought your driver?"
"He's out in front," Young Do says. "Just give me a minute, okay? I'll be right there."
She gives him a funny look. "All right. Thanks for taking me, again. Chan Young is too chicken, and I didn't want to see it by myself."
When she pushes through the swinging doors, Young Do exhales. "The only thing soft about me is you."