Zen really wanted a cigarette.
He wouldn’t smoke, of course -- he’d quit shortly after Carina came into his life -- but the urge never completely went away, and at moments like this, it came back in force. He tried to tell himself that what he was about to do was no big deal, but he couldn’t make himself believe it. This would be one of the most important decisions of his life. It had to be perfect.
No. He wouldn’t smoke. Instead he paced the sidewalk in front of the shop, fighting his nervousness and impatience, wondering what was taking so long.
Finally, a small grey car pulled into the lot and slid into a parking space. A moment later, Carina’s cousin was hurrying towards him, an apologetic grin on her face.
“I’m sorry!” Eunbyeol said. “Jihyun came home early, and I couldn’t think of a good excuse to get out of the house. I finally convinced him that I needed to go pick up some books for school.”
“It’s all right. Thank you for coming. I -- this is so important. I need to do it right.”
She smiled, excitement all over her face. “Don’t worry! It’s going to be perfect, I know it!”
“God, I hope so.”
She laughed, turning to the shop in front of them, and then stopped, tilting her head and wearing an expression that he couldn’t read.
His nervousness flared. “Is something wrong?”
She shook her head. “No, it’s fine. Let’s go in, shall we?”
Zen hesitated. Something was wrong; he could see it. But she’d said it was nothing, so he shook off the feeling and opened the door, grinning and giving a slight bow as she stepped inside, shaking her head at him.
Elegant decor surrounded them: art with gilded frames adorning the walls, a glittering chandelier suspended from the ceiling, and rows of glass cases spread out before them. Eunbyeol squinted as she approached the nearest one and surveyed the contents, teeth nibbling on her bottom lip.
That wasn’t a good sound. Zen came up behind her, looking over her shoulder at the display of earrings to see what had provoked it. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Just…” She frowned, then shook her head and continued in a light voice. “Just wondering where the rings are.”
Before he could respond, a woman in an impeccable suit approached them from the other side of the display, smiling knowingly. “Is there a certain kind of ring you’re looking for today?”
Zen realized he was fiddling with the cuff of his jacket, and he forced his hands to his sides, doing his best to stifle his nerves. “An engagement ring,” he told her. “For someone very special.”
“Of course,” the saleslady said smoothly, then addressed Eunbyeol. “Congratulations. Do you have an idea of what you’re looking for?”
For a moment, he was confused at the sudden change in the woman’s attention, and then realization dawned. “Oh -- no, we’re not--” he began, just as Eunbyeol said, “He’s not my--”
They both cut off, looking at each other awkwardly. Then she smirked, and a second later, they burst out laughing.
When the giggles faded, Eunbyeol turned back to the lady behind the counter. “It’s for my cousin. And it’s a surprise. I’m just here to help.”
“Of course.” Amusement twinkled in the woman’s eyes. “Let me show you our selection.”
The two followed her across the room, and Zen let his eyes skim along the cases as they walked. A display of sparkling ruby rings caught his eye, and he stopped, forgetting to follow the saleslady, drawn in by the sight before him. His hand rose unbidden toward the glass. Carina loved red, and the color looked gorgeous on her. Maybe--
“Ooh.” Eunbyeol sidled up next to him. “Good instinct, Zen.”
A small cough made him look up to see the lady behind the counter, her face neutral. “You have unique taste.”
“I wouldn’t say that.” Eunbyeol crossed her arms. “My cousin has unique taste, and as we’ve said, we’re looking for something for her.”
With a nod, the woman began to move away. “I understand what you’re saying, but if I may? I’ve been in this business a very long time, and if there’s one thing I’ve found constant, it’s that brides are looking for diamonds, and they’re disappointed with anything else. Why don’t you take a look at what we have over here, and we’ll see if we can’t find something that might suit your girlfriend’s fancy.”
Oh. Zen couldn’t let Carina be disappointed. This was one of the most reputable jewelry stores in town, and it came highly recommended. If the saleslady believed rubies were a bad choice -- he couldn’t take that risk. With a nod, he followed her to the back of the store, where a large display beckoned.
“Now then.” She slipped a key into the back of the case and opened it, removing a ring that sparkled with diamonds. “This one is very popular with unconventional brides. What do you think?”
With nervous fingers, he took the ring from her hand. It was beautiful, certainly. The diamonds glittered in the light, and there could be no doubt that many brides would love it. It was impressive, and his princess deserved nothing less. And yet--
“It doesn’t feel right,” Eunbyeol said beside him, and he nodded his agreement. It wasn’t right. Not for Carina.
“I understand.” The lady reached for the ring with a smile that was just a little too tight. “We have plenty of options.” She put the ring back in the case and moved her hand thoughtfully over the display. “What about…”
Several rings later, with not a one seeming even remotely acceptable for his offbeat princess, Zen’s heart was in his stomach. Why did nothing feel right to him? Could it be he didn’t know Carina as well as he thought he did? Maybe someone else would be better for her, someone who had more time to spend with her, someone…
“You know, we’ve got a lot to consider here.” Eunbyeol placed a firm hand on Zen’s arm and gave it a gentle pull. “I think we’ll talk it over and come back another time.”
Head spinning, Zen followed her out the door, and when they stood blinking in the sunlight outside, she turned to him, shaking her head. “This,” she pointed at the window, “is not the right place.”
“Should I find somewhere more impressive?” His mind started whirling through the options, trying to think of someplace even grander than the shop they were currently at. “I don’t know if I can afford--”
Eunbyeol chuckled. “Leave it to me, Zen. I’ll figure that part out. Trust me. You’ll find something perfect.”
Her text came a week later. He picked up his phone after a grueling rehearsal to see four simple words. “Can you meet tomorrow?”
As it happened, he had the morning off, and Carina would be out on a freelance job for a few hours. He’d been lamenting the unfortunate timing of their schedules, but now it suddenly seemed fortuitous. His fingers scrabbled at the phone as he typed his response. “Ten o’clock?”
Zen was expecting another shop, something with a different vibe than the first one, but still a storefront. But when he pulled up at the address Eunbyeol had sent him, his jaw dropped in amazement.
It was a street fair. A handmade jewelry show.
Eunbyeol was standing at the entrance, bouncing on the tips of her toes. As soon as she saw him, a broad grin split her face. “It’s perfect, right? Isn’t it perfect?”
Yes. Yes, it was. Hope filled his chest, and on impulse, Zen swept his hopefully soon-to-be cousin-in-law up into an impromptu hug. She yelped as he lifted her clear off her feet, then batted at his shoulders halfheartedly, giggling.
When he set her down, she beamed up at him, clearly proud of herself. “Come on! What are we waiting for?”
The moment Zen saw the ring, he knew.
It jumped out at him from the case, white gold in the shape of a rose, petals unfurling around a single ruby. Elegant leaves adorned the detailed band. At the sight of it, his heart jumped into his throat. It was beautiful and unconventional and breathtaking. Just like Carina.
This was her ring. There wasn’t a shred of doubt in his mind.
“Eunbyeol.” His voice was quiet and hoarse enough that he wasn’t sure she would hear him, but she was at his side in an instant, looking up at him expectantly. With his heart so full, he couldn’t trust his powers of speech, so he raised a hand to point at the ruby rose ring.
Eunbyeol’s eyes followed his finger, and a gasp escaped her. Her hands flew to her mouth, and she looked up at him with wide eyes.
Words weren’t necessary. They both knew. This ring was the one.
Zen wanted to bring the ring home with him. He wanted to be able to take it out and look at it over and over. But as Eunbyeol pointed out, the chances of Carina discovering it hidden in his sock drawer or something were pretty high, and it was safer if Eunbyeol kept it instead.
“Don’t worry,” she promised. “I’ll take good care of it.”
If there was anyone he could trust with his princess’s engagement ring, it was Eunbyeol, so after one last lingering look, he snapped the box shut and pressed it into her hands.
Carefully, she slipped it into her purse, then smiled up at him. “How will you ask?”
There was only one way he could. Only one way right for him.
“On stage,” he told her.