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You Don't Have to Be Lonely

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“They’re great.” Eunbyeol was rocking on her feet and grinning from ear to ear. “You’re going to love the RFA. I’m sure of it.”

Carina smiled at her cousin’s excitement and restrained the instinct to roll her eyes. “Yes, so you’ve said.”

Clearly, Eunbyeol was unconcerned about repeating herself, because she began to chatter enthusiastically about her friends once again. “Remember to watch out for Seven. He likes to mess with people, but he’s got a really good heart. And don’t let Jumin intimidate you. He might not smile much, but I promise you he’s really sweet, even if he seems stern.”

“Yes, I know. Don’t worry, it’ll be fine.”

“Of course it will. They’re all excited to meet you. Yoosung is already planning how he’s going to convince you to play games with him, and Jaehee asked me yesterday whether you liked musicals.”

Oh, boy. “Why do I get the feeling you’ve been talking me up too much?”

Her cousin completely ignored the question. “I think she’s hoping she’ll have someone else to fangirl over Zen’s acting with. Oh yeah, Zen. I should warn you, he’s a huge flirt.”

“Zen, he’s the one who talks about himself a lot, right?”

“That’s him. I mean, to be fair, he is ridiculously good-looking, but his bragging? It’s excessive. Still, he’s a good guy, and I’d trust him with anything.”

Yes, this information was nothing new, either. “I’m sure I can handle him.”

“Of course. You’ll love him. You’ll love all of them.” Eunbyeol grinned. “I can’t wait for you to meet them.”

Carina looked forward to it as well. It had been a few weeks since she came to Korea from the US to move in with her cousin. The two got along wonderfully, but the move was a big change, and Carina had yet to meet anyone else outside of work. So the promise of meeting Eunbyeol’s closest friends at a small welcoming party -- well, she was nervous, but excited at the same time.

“I can’t wait, either.”

---------

The party was supposed to start at 2:00. The first knock at the door came at 1:45.

Eunbyeol looked up from the snacks she was setting out to give Carina an exasperated look. “And so it begins. I wonder which of them was so excited that they couldn’t wait fifteen more minutes to get here.”

Carina couldn’t see why any of them should be that eager, but nonetheless, it felt good to know someone was looking forward to meeting her. “I guess I shouldn’t keep them waiting.”

With a wave of her hand, Eunbyeol turned back to her task. “Thanks. I’ll scold whoever it is later.”

Amused, Carina opened the door to see a blond young man, grinning broadly and shifting his weight from foot to foot. “Hello! You’re Carina, right? I’m Yoosung. I’m so happy to meet you!” To her chagrin, he thrust a gift bag at her. “This is for you. A welcome gift!”

“Oh, no. You shouldn’t have.” Thoroughly embarrassed, Carina took the bag gingerly. It was heavier than its small size would suggest.

He beamed. “Open it! It’s coffee beans, the good kind. I just joined a barista club, and I thought you’d like it! Eunbyeol said you have a coffee grinder.”

“I do. Thank you.” The gesture was very kind. With a smile, Carina stepped aside to let Yoosung come in. “It’s very nice to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Me, too! You’re an interpreter? How do you say “I’m going to rage all night” in English?”

She laughed and told him, then helped him with the pronunciation as he repeated it carefully.

“That’s so cool! Your accent is really cute. Have you ever played LoLoL? It’s so much fun!”

----------

Jaehee knocked on the door at 1:55. Carina answered to find an unassuming woman dressed very professionally with a polite, warm smile. “Hello. You must be Eunbyeol’s cousin. My name is Jaehee Kang. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” She held out a book with a bow tied around it. “I believed a gift might be appropriate, to welcome you to Korea. It’s a guidebook of the city. Since you are new here, I hoped you would find it useful.”

Another gift. Carina felt her cheeks warm at the attention, but when she looked at Jaehee’s face, the kindness in her eyes was unmistakable. It was an extremely thoughtful thing to do, and Carina was suddenly glad the woman had thought of her even when they’d never met. “It’s exactly what I needed,” she said honestly. “I’m so happy to meet you.”

----------

At 2:00 on the nose, a tall man in an impeccably tailored suit arrived, bearing a serious expression and an expensive-looking bottle of wine. This could only be Jumin Han, and she was coming to realize that she wasn’t going to be able to avoid the welcome gifts. “You’re Carina, then.” He spoke stoically. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”

“And you must be Jumin.” She took the bottle from his hands and remembered what Eunbyeol had told her about him. “How is Elizabeth the 3rd?”

His lips quirked in what was almost a smile. “She’s well. The new cat food I’ve given her suits her. Her beautiful white fur has become quite shiny, and her eyes are very bright.” He gave a small but appreciative nod. “Thank you for asking. You are clearly a considerate person.”

----------

It was 2:05 when a young man with curly red hair and very unusual glasses bounded into the apartment without knocking, his arms full of bags of chips. “Helloooo!” he exclaimed, startling Carina. “Seven Zero Seven, Defender of Justice, has arrived!” Seven scanned the room, and when his eyes landed on Carina sitting on the sofa, he lunged toward her and unceremoniously dumped the bags onto her lap. “I hope you like Honey Buddha Chips! The ambrosia of the gods!”

He was just as lively as Eunbyeol had described him, and when he smiled at her impishly, Carina couldn’t help but laugh. “Seven Zero Seven, Defender of Justice!” she responded in kind. “At last we meet!”

---------

Ten minutes after the party’s official start, the only member yet to arrive was the actor, Zen. So far, every person here was very good-looking -- how strange that Eunbyeol would single out the one man she hadn’t yet met as handsome. Surely this Zen couldn’t be that much better looking than any of the others.

Deep in conversation with Yoosung, who was bemoaning the amount of work his professor had given him, Carina almost didn’t notice the knock at the door. It was Eunbyeol who moved to answer it, and seconds later, an animated voice drifted into the room. “I’m sorry I’m late! The taxi took me the long way around. Honestly, I think the driver did it on purpose.”

“We understand,” was Eunbyeol’s response. “Come on in.”

Footsteps padded into the room. “Where is this cousin of yours? It’s so unfair that I have to be the last person to meet her.”

Carina rose, turning to greet the final member of the RFA.

And froze.

An inhumanly beautiful man stood in front of her. Silvery hair framed a pale face with startlingly ruby eyes. A tailored white blazer did nothing to mask his tall, athletic frame. His enthusiastic smile faltered ever so slightly at the sight of her, and his eyes slid down to her feet and back up to her face. Then a mischievous glint came them. “Hello, Carina! I didn’t know you would be so cute!”

For a moment, all she could do was gape at the gorgeous creature before her. Then the English words, “Oh my god,” spilled involuntarily from her lips.

The man who could only be Zen crinkled his eyes and tilted his head in confusion.

Dear lord. She needed to pull herself together. Her mouth opened, but instead of words coming out, uncontrollable laughter bubbled over. Zen’s smile widened, but the confusion never left his face.

Oh, my god. I’m an idiot. Stop laughing, doofus.

She forced the giggles down. God, there was no way to explain her reaction that didn’t make her look ridiculous. Well, all she could do was be honest. It was going to sound stupid, but there was nothing for it. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I wasn’t prepared. Eunbyeol told me you were handsome, but I wasn’t prepared for you to be so stunning .”

Two things happened at once. Surprise swept over Zen’s face -- and a collective groan filled the room.

“You can’t say things like that!” That was Yoosung. “He’ll be impossible now.”

Zen recovered quickly and bestowed a dazzling smile on her. “What can I do? I was born this way.” He held out a red rose that she hadn’t even noticed he was holding. So every last one of them had brought something for her. “I’m absolutely delighted to meet you, Carina. I can’t wait to get to know you better.”

----------

Eunbyeol had been right. The RFA was an amazing group of people, although the attention they paid her was a little disconcerting. Carina was used to blending into the background, at least until she became comfortable with new people, but it seemed Eunbyeol had been bragging about her since she’d moved in, and everyone here was eager to get to know her.

Zen’s blindingly good looks were almost impossible to get used to, but as the afternoon went on, his words and actions spoke far more about him than his face. Okay, so he was beyond a doubt the most attractive person she’d ever seen, but honestly, that didn’t matter much. Physical beauty was nice and all, but hardly what she looked for in a man. She’d much rather have a boyfriend who was loyal and honest. A sense of humor, a passionate nature, those were things that mattered. So even though Zen’s looks were distracting, they weren’t incredibly important.

If only he could have been handsome and nothing more, Carina would have been fine. Unfortunately, the more she saw of him, the more she saw all the qualities she admired. His playful energy became apparent very early on, demonstrated by his dynamic body language and the affectionate way he joked with the ladies. He spoke enthusiastically about his acting, showing a devotion and intensity that she couldn’t help being captivated by. There was an honesty in his manner that was rare to find. He bickered like brothers with Yoosung and Seven, and when Jaehee mentioned how overworked she was, he defended her fervently. He was protective and brotherly towards Eunbyeol in a way that was subtle but undeniable.

And for some reason, he hadn’t left Carina’s side since arriving, except occasionally to refill her drink. When he looked at her, he seemed to be searching for something, and there was a warmth in his eyes that she didn’t understand.

It was a bad idea to think too much about it. A man like that could have any woman he wanted. Besides, Eunbyeol had already warned her that he was a terrible flirt.

Carina wasn’t stupid. It didn’t matter how attractive she found him; she wouldn’t go down that path. He would be a friend. There was no need for anything more.

Although Zen didn’t leave her side, as the party went on, he became increasingly restless and fidgety. Was she doing something wrong? Just as she was really starting to be concerned, Seven let out an exaggerated sigh and jabbed a finger towards the apartment’s balcony.

“Zen. Just go smoke already.” He smirked and added in a teasing tone, “Carina will still be here when you get back.”

Zen’s cheeks turned pink, and he looked at her in some alarm.

“Are you still smoking, Zen?” Eunbyeol’s voice was thick with disappointment. “You said you were quitting.”

“I am!” he said in dismay. “I will! I’m going to a meeting for a quit-smoking group tomorrow.” He eyed Carina nervously, waiting for her reaction.

Cigarette smoke was not exactly Carina’s favorite thing in the world, but she had no room to throw stones. College had seen her through a brief period as a smoker herself. Cigarettes were a difficult addiction to overcome, and stigmatizing smoking could make it even worse, so she gave him an encouraging smile. “Good for you.”

His proud grin lit up the room. “I’m really going to do it.” He winked. “I think if you support me, I can’t possibly fail.”

God, he was charming. Eunbyeol’s warning that Zen was a flirt had been an understatement. He knew exactly what he was doing, and Carina was flustered to realize it was working.

Get a grip, Carina . Mentally, she shook herself. He’d been asking for her support, and of course she would give it to him. “You’ll do it. I believe in you.”

She’d support anyone in his situation. This wasn’t special. Right?

Eunbyeol crossed her arms. “If you’re quitting, does that mean you’re not going to smoke right now?”

“Er-- I--” He looked back and forth between Carina and Eunbyeol like a deer caught in the headlights.

His flustered expression was priceless, and Carina decided to let him off the hook. “Go. It’s fine. Start tomorrow when you have your support group.”

He exhaled in relief, throwing her a grateful look. “Thank you. I’ll be right back.”

As soon as Zen had disappeared onto the balcony, Seven flounced over to take his place on the couch. “Not to worry! You won’t be alone! God Seven will stave off your loneliness!”

His bubbly enthusiasm was contagious. Seven was going to be a very fun friend to have. On her other side, Jaehee huffed in exasperation.

Seven ignored her, sighing dramatically. “I thought Zen was never going to stop monopolizing you!” His eyebrows waggled. “He’s handsome, right? His looks made an impression on you?”

His looks -- no, Seven had it all wrong. “It’s not like that.”

The redhead laughed. “‘ I wasn’t prepared for you to be so stunning! ’” His imitation of her, complete with American accent, made her want to hide her head in her hands.

A small sound from Jaehee drew her attention, and she turned to see the other woman’s lips pursed in disapproval. “Carina,” she said carefully. “We don’t know each other very well, but please allow me to say this. Zen is an actor with many female fans. If he were to get involved with someone, his fans would undoubtedly become jealous, and that would damage his career.” She frowned, and Carina thought she detected a worried glint in her eye. “I do not know your intentions, but I hope you will consider yourself a fan and nothing more. For his sake.”

Carina could have laughed at how impossible it would be for a man like Zen to be interested in her, but the surprising emptiness she felt at the thought took all the humor out of it. So she just said, “I don’t think you have anything to worry about on that count.”

Jaehee didn’t look convinced. “Hmm. I hope that you are right.”

“Jaehee.” Seven’s lilting voice cut in. “Zen hasn’t had a girlfriend in years. If Carina is interested, that’s a good thing for him.”

“Zen’s acting career has always been his priority.” Jaehee’s retort was prim. “He’s worked very hard to get where he is. I would hate to see everything he has built for himself crumble.”

Of course. If there was one thing obvious about Zen, it was his devotion to his craft, and naturally he wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize that. Yet another reason why Carina needed to shove her feelings for him firmly into the box marked “friendship”.

Without really thinking about it, she found her eyes wandering toward the glass doors of the balcony. With shock, she realized that Zen was watching her, teeth nibbling on his bottom lip. When her eyes met his, he looked quickly away, rubbing the back of his neck.

An impulse -- a very foolish impulse -- overtook her, and she was on her feet before she could think. “Excuse me for a moment.”

She was too embarrassed to look back, especially when she heard Seven cackle triumphantly behind her. It was only when she reached the balcony door that the realization of what she was doing hit her. This was… incredibly inappropriate, and a very bad idea. But it was too late for it now, so she slid open the balcony door and shut it behind her.

Zen’s face was startled, and Carina wanted to sink into the floor, thinking about how stupid it had been to come out here. What was she going to say?

“You -- did you want to talk to me?” He tripped over his words, surprising her. He came across as so self-assured. “Doesn’t cigarette smoke bother you?”

“It… does, yes,” she had to admit, feeling even more foolish. “But it’s okay, I don’t mind.”

He moved to put out his cigarette, but she stopped him with a hand on his arm. An unexpected jolt of electricity went through her at the touch, and she pulled back quickly. Had he noticed her reaction? Trying to hide her chagrin, she glanced up at his face. Some emotion crossed his features, but she couldn’t read it at all.

“I don’t mind,” she repeated. “Really. I’m the one who came out here. That was my choice.”

“But…” His brow creased with concern. “You shouldn’t breathe this stuff in. It’s one thing for me to pollute my body. You shouldn’t risk your health, too.”

He was concerned for her? Carina felt a little warm. “I promise I won’t make a habit of it.”

Zen hesitated, then stepped backwards, putting some space between them before taking another drag on his cigarette. “I really am going to quit.”

“I know. I believe you.”

“Thank you. I’m glad you do.” The smile he gave her was lopsided. “It’s not good for my skin, and looks are important in my line of work. If I don’t quit smoking, my skin care routine will all be for nothing.”

Eunbyeol had been right; Zen did place a high priority on his looks. Was that really the first thing he thought of? There was nothing wrong with caring about appearance; Carina liked to look nice herself. But if that was his first thought, he couldn’t be taking care of himself properly, and that disturbed her more than it probably should. “Taking care of your skin is important, yes. But I’m more worried about the deadlier risks of smoking. It’s so dangerous. I’d hate for anything to happen to you.”

He blinked. “You’re worried for me?”

Was that really a question? “Yes, of course.”

The grin he gave her was deliberately seductive and made her a little dizzy. Looks might not be high on her list of important qualities, but that didn’t mean she was completely immune to them, particularly when they were unleashed on her in full force like that. “Well,” he said, raising an eyebrow, “I really do have to quit now. I can’t have such a cute lady worrying.”

It couldn’t really matter what she thought. She was nearly a complete stranger to him. But even knowing that, his words made her feel warm.

“Besides, smoking will ruin my voice. It’s death for a singer’s career. I can’t let anything interfere with my ability to perform.” He hesitated. “Although… no, never mind.”

Carina frowned, confused. “What is it?”

He looked embarrassed. “It’s silly. Forget I said anything.”

“I don’t mind silly.”

“Well, it's -- sometimes I wonder.”

“Wonder?”

Zen chuckled, but in a way that suggested he didn’t find anything funny. “I wonder if it really matters how good I am. Sometimes I don’t know if I’m being cast because I have talent -- or it it’s just because of the way I look.” He rubbed the back of his neck again. “That sounds stupid, right? Forget I said anything.”

She responded automatically. “I can’t believe that.”

“No?” His face had gone unreadable again. “You don’t think I’m handsome enough to get by on my looks?”

Looking up at his face, there was no way she could deny that he probably could, and she wouldn’t lie to him. “You’re the most gorgeous human being I’ve ever seen,” she admitted. “So yes, I do think you could get by on looks alone. But do I think it’s actually happening?” She shook her head. “No.”

“...I’m the most gorgeous human being you’ve ever seen?”

“Yes. But that’s not what’s important.” She paused, searching for the right words. “There’s an energy about you. You’re passionate, and it shows. If even a tenth of that passion makes its way into your acting, then I think you must be amazing.”

To her surprise, Zen’s cheeks flushed. “Wow. Thank you.” He ran a hand through his hair. “You’re cute, you know that? Why are you so cute?”

Now it was her turn to blush. “Oh. I…”

“I know how this must sound, but... I can’t always tell, you know? How much of the way people treat me is because I’m handsome, and how much is because of me?” He exhaled. “It really is hard to have a face like this. A lot of people get jealous or intimidated. They don’t want to know me or be friends with me. So I’m not close to many people.”

“Oh.” She wouldn't thought of that, but there was no doubt from his tone of voice that it was true. “That must be lonely.”

“It is.” He examined her with soft eyes. “Funny. Most people laugh if I say something like that. It sounds like I'm whining, right? I should be happy with what I have.”

“I don't know.” He was opening up to her so much, and she searched for the right words to reply. “Everyone has different troubles. I used to have a really hard time in school because I was at the top of my class. I never really thought of myself as someone to be jealous of or intimidated by, but maybe that was it, just like you.”

“The kids gave you a hard time?” His sudden indignation caught her off guard. “That’s not right. Someone like you shouldn’t have to go through that.”

“Well.” She tried to hide how flustered she was. “That’s not really the point. I just wanted to say that I understand what you mean. If you struggle with how people treat you because of your looks--” How did she say this? “I can understand. Just because your problems aren’t obvious to the world -- it doesn't mean they're not valid.”

“Really? So… you don’t think I’m pathetic for complaining about this?”

“Of course not.”

Zen tilted his head, still gazing at her. “Thank you. You're different from most people, you know?” He laughed quietly. “Why am I telling you this? Why do I feel like I can trust you?”

She had no idea why herself. There wasn’t anything special about her. But hearing him say that -- she felt warmth fill her chest at the words. “You can. Trust me, I mean. I’ll always be honest with you.”

When he answered, his voice was a murmur. “I’ll always be honest with you, too.”

Shaking his head as if to clear it, Zen put out his cigarette and dropped it into an empty beer can. “I suppose we should go back in.” He hesitated. “Shouldn’t we?”

Carina glanced back through the glass doors at the room full of people who had come to meet her. She really should be social right now. It wasn’t right to ignore them.

When she turned back to Zen, his eyes were locked on hers, softly searching, and she made up her mind. “Let’s stay out here for just a few more minutes.”

It was a foolish thing to do, but when she saw his face light up, she couldn’t bring herself to regret it.

Chapter Text

-----EUNBYEOL HAS ENTERED THE CHATROOM-----

ZEN: Eunbyeol!

Eunbyeol: Hello, Zen :)

ZEN: How’s Carina? She’s doing well?

Eunbyeol: lolololol

Eunbyeol: She’s fine. She’s working a lot.

ZEN: She must be good at her job. She’s smart, you know?

Eunbyeol: Yes. Yes, Zen, she’s very smart.

ZEN: You don’t think she’s working too hard, do you?

Eunbyeol: Hmmmm...

Eunbyeol: You know, I think she might be. Now that you mention it, somebody should probably spend time with her outside of work.

ZEN: You think?

Eunbyeol: Definitely. Why don’t you call her? You two seemed to hit it off.

ZEN:

ZEN: Do you think so?

Eunbyeol: Call her.

ZEN: Oh. I can’t.

ZEN: She didn’t give me her number .

ZEN:

Eunbyeol: Is that all? I’ll text it to you.

ZEN: You can’t do that. What if she doesn’t want me to have it?

Eunbyeol: …

Eunbyeol: I’m sure that’s not a problem.

ZEN: She didn’t choose to give it to me when she met me.

ZEN: It’s not right to give a woman’s number to a man without her permission...

Eunbyeol: {exasperated emoji}

Eunbyeol: All right. Can I give her your number, then? Do I have your permission?

ZEN: Of course!

ZEN:

Eunbyeol: Great. I’ll do that right now.

ZEN: Right now? This exact moment?

Eunbyeol: ...yes?

ZEN: Do you think she’ll want it?

Eunbyeol: …

Eunbyeol: …...

Eunbyeol: I’ll talk to you later, Zen.

-----EUNBYEOL HAS LEFT THE CHATROOM----- 


When Carina came home from work Friday evening, tired from a freelance job that was more complicated than expected, Eunbyeol was sitting at the kitchen table, typing something on her phone. She looked up immediately, apparently trying to hide some exasperation.

“Something wrong?”

Eunbyeol shook her head. “Never mind it. I’m going to text Zen’s phone number to you, okay?”

It took a moment for the words to penetrate the haze of exhaustion hanging over her. When they did, she froze.

“Wait. What?”

“I’m texting Zen’s phone number to you. You remember Zen, right? Cocky bastard, spent the entirety of your welcome party attached to your hip?”

“You’re -- why are you doing that?”

She blinked. “Because you two like each other, and you should talk?”

“That’s crazy.” Carina’s heart sped up at the very thought of contacting Zen. “I can’t talk to him. He didn’t say anything about wanting to see me again.”

Eunbyeol stared at her in disbelief.

“...what?”

“If you don’t talk to him, he’ll never get the chance to make up for that, will he?”

That made zero sense. “If he wanted to see me, he’d have said something.”

Eunbyeol crossed her arms over her chest. “Or maybe he was too nervous, and he needs a second shot.”

Ha, there was no way. Zen, nervous over her ? “Yeah, right. Come on, quit teasing me.”

Eunbyeol frowned. “What have I said that would make you think I’m not serious?”

“The part where a devastatingly handsome man, one who could have any woman in the world, would be even slightly interested in me.”

“Carina.” Eunbyeol sighed. “He is just a person, you know. He has likes and dislikes and wants and needs just like anyone else.”

“Of course he does.” Ugh, she could never explain this part right. “I know he’s a person. He’s a really good person. That’s why I li--” She stopped herself. “That’s why he was so nice to me at the party. But it doesn’t stop being true that other people are going to see him and be drawn to him right away. He’s not exactly limited in his options.”

“Why would Zen want to be with someone who only likes him for his looks?” Eunbyeol looked at her closely. “Carina. Do you really think that someone could only like you if they had no other options?”

“It’s -- I--” It did sound pretty awful when she said it like that. “That’s not really it…”

“So take his number. I’m texting it to you now.”

Eunbyeol resumed her typing, and Carina couldn’t think of anything else to say.

A moment later, her phone buzzed. Gingerly, she pulled it from her pocket to stare at the new text. She had Zen’s phone number. She could text him right now. Or call him, hear his voice. The thought made her heart pound.

What on earth would she say? She was a virtual stranger to him. No matter how hard she thought, everything possibility seemed strange and awkward coming uninvited from someone he’d only met once.

After a moment of trying to muster her courage, she gave it up for a lost cause and put her phone back in her pocket. Dodging Eunbyeol’s disapproving stare, she disappeared into her room before her cousin could say anything.


Saturday morning, Carina stumbled out of her bedroom after sleeping far too late to see Eunbyeol standing in the kitchen with her phone to her ear. “Yes, mom. Carina just got up. I’m going to hang out with her for a bit, okay?”

Still half asleep, Carina crossed to the cupboard and tried to decide what was easy enough to make for breakfast in her barely-awake state.

“Yeah, I’m sure she’ll love to talk to you. Just a sec.” Eunbyeol held out the phone. “My mom wants to say hello.”

“Oh -- sure.” Carina blinked the sleep out of her eyes as she reached for the phone, ready to greet her aunt.

Before she could say a word, Zen’s voice floated out of the receiver. “Eunbyeol, what are you talking about? Is your mom there?”

Carina froze, suddenly wide awake. Oh. Oh, no.

She lifted her eyes to her cousin, meaning to give her the most withering glare she could, but she suspected her face was more terrified than angry. Grinning impishly, Eunbyeol waved and slipped from the room.

“Eunbyeol...? Hello?”

Oh, Carina was going to kill her cousin. But later. There wasn’t time to think about that now, not with the man she’d been thinking about non-stop waiting for her to say something. Taking a deep breath, she turned her attention to the phone. “Um. Hello, Zen.”

A pause. “...Carina?”

“Yes. It’s me. Um… how are you?”

The excitement in Zen’s tone was unmistakable. “I’m better now that I’ve heard your voice! How have you been? Eunbyeol says you work too hard.”

Eunbyeol had been talking about her? To Zen?

Wait -- had Zen been asking about her?

Quickly, she gathered her thoughts. “Um, yeah. I guess I have been working a lot. Which is good, considering I just moved here. Lots of demand for English interpreters.”

“I bet you’re great at it, too. You’re so smart. I think you’ll have even more jobs when word gets out about you.”

Zen thought she was smart. Her head felt a little light.

“But you’re not working too hard, are you?” His tone turned concerned. “Don’t do that, okay? You should take time for yourself.”

That was a little strange coming from him. “Didn’t you tell me that you were a workaholic yourself?”

He chuckled, sounding self-conscious. “You got me. I do work a lot. Maybe we should both take a break. Maybe… we should take a break together? Get out and do something?”

He couldn’t be saying what she thought he was saying. “You and me?” As soon as she’d said it, she cringed. Good job stating the obvious, dummy .

Luckily for her, Zen made no comment about how stupid she sounded. “That’s what I was hoping. Ah…” he hesitated, “we could invite someone else if you’re not comfortable.”

“I’m comfortable!” The words were out of her mouth before she could think. “I mean, that would be nice.”

“Yeah?” He sounded enthusiastic. “I think so, too!”

An awkward pause followed. Carina tried desperately to think of something to say, but her brain had apparently short-circuited at the idea that he really did want to see her again.

It was Zen who broke the silence. “I guess I should think of what we should do, then, right? Heh… I didn’t think that far ahead. I wasn’t expecting to talk to you right now.” His laugh sounded almost nervous, but that couldn’t be right. She must be imagining things.

“I don’t think I can be much help. I’m not sure what there is to do around here.” A shaky breath escaped her. “I’ve only been in this city for about a month.”

“That’s right!” For some reason, he brightened at the reminder. “Hey, this an opportunity! I should surprise you with something really special.”

“Oh -- really?”

“Yes! I’ll think of something great for you!”

Not only did this incredible man want to see her again, but he wanted to surprise her with something memorable. It was almost too much to believe.

“I, um. Thank you. That sounds... wonderful.”

“Really? Then… can I have your number to get in touch with you?”

“Oh, of course! Eunbyeol gave me yours, so I’ll text you. Is that okay?”

“Yes! That’s great!” His laugh sounded self-conscious. “I can’t wait to hear from you.”

Carina’s throat was dry, and she had to clear it before she could answer. “I can’t wait, either.” 


As soon as the phone disconnected, Carina stalked into the living room. Eunbyeol was sitting n the couch, looking entirely too innocent.

“How could you do that?” Carina growled.

Her cousin just blinked up at her. “Do what?”

She threw Eunbyeol’s phone down on the seat. “Put Zen on the phone without telling me!”

Eunbyeol squinted at her and crossed her arms.“Listen to me. I spent half your welcome party  stopping Jaehee from storming out on the balcony and interrupting you. I’m not going to let the two of you avoid each other after that.”

Carina’s face warmed. “We weren’t out there for half the party. It was maybe twenty minutes.”

Eunbyeol smirked. “Twenty scandalous minutes.”

“I--I was just talking to him!”

“And ignoring all the other guests that came to meet you. Honestly, I should have gone out there and dragged you back myself.”

Uncertainty swept through her. “...was it really that bad?”

A sigh. “No. You two deserved a little time to yourselves. But I’m not going to sit by and watch while you ignore each other from now on.”

Carina tried to scowl, but she found she couldn’t muster it. Now that the call was over, all the anger went out of her in a rush, and she flopped down on the couch. “He wants to see me again.”

Her cousin raised one eyebrow. “Really. Imagine that.”

“Oh my god.” Zen wanted to see her again. Zen wanted to see her again . She was going to go out with him. Alone. Just the two of them. Her head felt a little light.

She didn’t know what she looked like, but it must have been concerning, because Eunbyeol leaned forward, brow creased. “Hey. Carina. You okay?”

“I’m fine. I’m okay. It’s just--” She took a breath, and her next words escaped her before she could think. “What am I going to wear?!”

Eunbyeol laughed. And laughed and laughed and laughed.

Carina prickled. “It’s not funny!”

“I’m sorry.” She wiped tears from her eyes. “Don’t worry. I’ll help you figure it out.” 


Zen hung up the phone and collapsed into his chair, trying to calm the adrenaline coursing through his veins. She said yes. They were going out on a date.

His excitement was too much to contain; he had to let it out. With a deep breath, he threw his head back.

“AAAAAAAAAAHHHH!”

It was a good thing he lived alone. A roommate would have thought he was crazy, screaming into an empty room.

When he caught his breath, his head started spinning. God, what was he going to do? He’d promised to come up with something really special for her. After that promise, he needed to do something amazing. Something that couldn’t fail to impress her.

Ha. No problem. It was okay. He could do this.

Right?

His phone buzzed, startling him, and he snatched it up to see a text from an unfamiliar number.

Hey. This is Carina. :)

Immediately, he saved the number to his phone, then hesitated. What did he say back to her?

Hey, cute lady. I'm so lucky to be able to talk to you now! <3

He hit send, then waited, wondering if what he'd said was okay, wondering if she'd answer right away, wondering what she was doing right now…

About a minute later, his phone buzzed again, and her reply popped up.

I think I'm the lucky one, lovely Zen

His breath caught in his throat. Lovely…!

He made an effort to pull his thoughts together and respond with some semblance of coherency.

Lovely Zen?! Ha, you can't say things like that without any warning! I think my heart just stopped~

As soon as he hit send, he started to worry. Was that too much?

After a short pause, her response came through.

I’m blushing~

God, she was so cute! Really, it wasn’t fair to him how cute she was. He already couldn’t stop thinking about her. What was he supposed to do if she kept saying things like this?

I can’t wait to see you again. I’m going to make it really fun, okay? Are you excited?

Only moments later, she replied.

Very. I’m looking forward to it.

Zen sighed with relief. He knew he was grinning like an idiot, and he couldn’t bring himself to care. This brilliant, insightful, caring woman was looking forward to seeing him again. He was so happy he thought he might explode.

There was only one problem.

He’d promised her something special, and he had no idea what to do.