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Who knows if he never showed up (what could have been)

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She’s been called all of it before – heartless, an ice princess, a stone-cold bitch and if they hurt last time, these names bounce off her now; pebbles against an impenetrable suit of armour, whose chinks slowly seal shut over the years. She gets stronger. Or so she thinks that’s what it is.

But she didn’t count for Lee Chul-San – this dope of a boy, getting in those cracks, prying her open until her armour is a mess of fracture lines, threatening to come apart at the next breath.

She’s met way too many guys like him before; puppy-dog hopeful, hovering for any bone that she’s willing to toss that day. It’s always the same thing that draws them all in at first – her looks. So, she gives it a month or two of working together, before he sees her for what she truly is – heartless, an ice princess, a stone-cold bitch, how can such a pretty face hide the fact that you have no heart….

But he never seems to see that; not when everything he says is met with an eye-roll or a cutting remark, not even when she takes advantage of his obvious crush on her to prove a point that lying always ends painfully. This boy wears his whole heart on his sleeve; from the way he leaps out of his seat in ecstasy, the giddy expression on his face when she insinuates that she might actually like him. There’s almost a grim pleasure in crushing his joy to smithereens a few seconds later. You need to learn, Lee Chul-san. You need to get smarter, get stronger so people like me can’t hurt you for the fun of it anymore.

And then a few days later, he turns the tables on her.

She doesn’t even realise she’s taken his hand again – all she’d thought about was getting out of there; giving Do-san and Dal-mi some space to settle whatever it is going on between them (so the rest of them can actually get some work done). But then, a few seconds of silence later, it clicks. She registers the blush suffusing his cheeks, the sudden clamminess of his hand against her own – Lee Chul-san is nervous. And the rest of it comes easily; the sting in her words clear as she vocalises what she truly thinks of him. Why are you so easy?

But he surprises her.

He removes her hand from his face, his face so soft and serious that she freezes in spite of herself. He’s just so honest; so unlike other men who huff and puff, hiding their unrequited feelings behind anger and bluster. Lee Chul-san lays all his feelings open before her, as if wholly unafraid of the fact that she will trample over his heart again and again.

He detangles his fingers from hers, returns her hand gently and politely to her side.

“I want you to stop confusing me,” He says. His eyes flicker up to meet hers, and she honest-to-god feels it – this bolt in her stomach – because Lee Chul-san has such a side to him too? “Please.”

What else can she say in the face of that?

She doesn’t think about it much after, also because everything is unravelling as fast as it came together with 2STO carrying out the most vicious acqhire, effectively leaving her and Dal-mi out in the cold. She should be angrier, should be raging more against the unfairness of the situation and where it leaves her – but mostly, she’s tired. Tired of having to fight for every step forward as a budding start-up, of being taken advantage of at every turn. Maybe that’s why she starts having trouble sleeping; her brain struggling to find a solution for an impossible problem, only to have all these imagined solutions evaporate by the first light of morning.

So she watches as the three of them pack up the office, preparing for their move to Silicon Valley. The worst thing is – she isn’t even upset. She’s worked with them long enough to know how good they are; anyone with a working pair of eyes can tell that these three are the heart of Samsan Tech, the diamond waiting in the rough. The diamond that 2STO has now mined for itself.

But sitting here in this obnoxiously vibrant room, with the stupid RGB company logo burning into her back is just too much. So she gets her things together, gets up. You got to leave before you get left.

True to form, Lee Chul-san is nothing but hopeful till the very end, asking if they can stay in touch even after he leaves. True to form, she shuts him down. What’s the point? Silicon Valley will be the turning point of his life. He’ll go on to do greater and better – which includes finding someone better than her. Soon, she’ll just be a blip in a lesser past; something she refuses to become. Still, she wishes them all luck, and she’s surprised by how much she genuinely means it when she tells him to stay healthy. And she does – hopes that this goofy nerd of a boy stays happy and healthy, even as he runs towards a brighter future. She wishes him well.

She tells herself this chapter of her life is over; starts preparing her resume to re-enter the world of corporate law again, which is a solid known after the turbulent unknown of the start-up world. Not looking back is thankfully, something Jung Sa-ha does well.

But on the day of their flight, her phone chirps with a message from Lee Chul-San, and in spite of herself, she can’t help but open the message immediately. There are no niceties, no farewells – only a single link, which piques her interest further. As the video loads to show him sitting with some recording equipment, she braces herself for the worst. Is he going to confess for real; tell her all the things he likes about her? Literally whisper sweet nothings to her? Guys. They’re all the same, she thinks, pressing play, on the verge of an eye-roll –

And then he starts to recite the numbers of pi, talking in the husky whispers of someone attempting to record ASMR for the first time. It’s enough to startle a real laugh from her, the first in days, because this is Lee Chul-san – the most gigantic nerd she’s ever met.

She loses count of how many times she plays the video over the years; the numbers blurring unintelligibly, the cadence of his voice washing comfortingly over her as she finally drifts into sleep.

She said they couldn’t stay in contact, but she never said anything about not keeping up with him. So when he starts a vlog channel two years later, she creates a fake account under another name (just so he doesn’t get any ideas) and follows him. His vlogs are an extension of him – hilarious, honest and 100% dorky. They mostly feature Yong-san and Do-san; the unwilling pair who get dragged on vacation, get forced to try strange American foods (she loses it at the video where they attempt to create an American Thanksgiving meal, burn everything and end up eating packs of Shin ramyun instead). Even through the videos, the changes are obvious – his oversized plaid shirts get swapped out for crisp suits, the boyish bangs evolve to a more polished, gelled-back style. He no longer looks like the boy she once knew, but a man.

A man who still lives 6,671 miles across the world, she reminds herself. Anyway, it’s just videos. They’re like… a harmless little indulgence. Everyone has one. This is hers.

Then he comes home on holiday, and she wonders if he remembers her. Wonders what he would say if he saw her. Wonders if he already has a beautiful Korean-American girlfriend, waiting for him back in Silicon Valley, one who just happens to keep out of all the vlogs.

That train of thought is what leads her to the hanwoo restaurant beneath the old Samsan Tech office, as she talks herself in and out of this terrible idea. There’s a reason why the past is in the past; what if he looks at her like he doesn’t care about her anymore, doesn’t recognise her –

And then there he is, right in front of her for the first time in three years, eyes wide with surprise, and her breath actually stupidly catches in her throat for a few seconds.

Of course, there’s no way she’s going to tell him that she essentially stalked his ongoing vlog and waited out here twenty minutes for him to show up. So Jung Sa-ha does what she does best; feigns ignorance, pretends surprise at this totally coincidental meet-up. Her efforts are rewarded though; his expression droops slightly as he asks her if she’s waiting for someone, but she doesn’t miss the way his face lights up when she says she’s just waiting for a relief driver to take her home.

Then, Yong-san intervenes – that boy is probably the only one in Samsan Tech with any common sense at all – and before she knows it, they’re sitting in his car as they speed across the Han River.

It shouldn’t make her this happy to see how little he’s changed. Sure, everything about him, from his job, his dressing to his car, is an upgrade from three years ago. But at heart, Lee Chul-san is still the same; shy and bumbling as he asks after her, self-deprecating about the awful state of his English. But his last comment is enough to draw concern; he’s been living there three years and he still can’t speak it fluently enough? Does he not have any friends besides Do-san and Yong-san in America? How does he fend for himself on a regular basis – going shopping, running errands, ordering take-out?

God help her, she’s not actually worrying about Lee Chul-san, is she?

Offhandedly, he says he’d love some intensive tutoring and Jung Sa-ha isn’t dumb; she can recognise an opportunity when she sees it, and so she takes it. It’s just ten days after all, but it’s his goofy grin that finally extinguishes the last of her silent fears – that Lee Chul-san has outgrown his crush on her; that he no longer needs her in his life, no longer cares about her.

From there, it’s as if the universe has finally decided that enough is enough - that this is their lucky break, because everything starts to come back together. The boys don’t leave; they join the CheongMyeong Company and Dal-mi hires her back on board as well - a resurrected Samsan Tech under the guise of a new name. But the beating heart of the company is still the same - made by Dal-mi’s sharp instincts, the boys’ impeccable drive, the easy camaraderie and warmth that sets off a pang in her heart; makes her wonder how she survived all these years in its absence.

They win the temporary self-driving operation permit, and she doesn’t even care when Do-san’s excitable cousin sprays them all with champagne in celebration. She tips her head back; breathing in the tang of champagne in the air and laughter bubbles out of her, impossibly free and unrestrained. After talking about developing self-driving cars in a shithole office three years ago, after all the numerous detours and diverging paths they’ve taken, they finally made it. They finally found their way back to each other.

She feels arms come around her; it’s Chul-san, foolishly but valiantly attempting to shield her from the spray of alcohol, but she doesn’t even want to try to muster any kind of remark. All she does is relax into him; laughter still spilling from her and it’s the first time she can remember feeling this light and carefree in years.

A week later, she still smiles to see this captured in his new vlog, but the smile doesn’t last long when she scrolls through the accompanying comments. Who is she? Protect me too, Chul-san nim! Omo, his manners. I love you so much, Chul-san oppa!

There are 476 comments and the numbers keep ticking up, even as she walks back toward their office – coming in fast and furious, with their declarations of love and heart-eye emojis. It takes her a minute after she’s sat back down, to realise how fast her heart is thumping. How it’s almost hard for her to breathe, to swallow. Almost as if…

“Are you okay, Sa-ha nim?”

She startles in her seat, raising her eyes to meet his. “What?”

If her harshness wounds him, he doesn’t show it. Instead, he leans closer to her, a worried crease appearing between his brows. “You haven’t put down your coffee cup for at least five minutes and you were just staring at your computer like it insulted you. Is everything okay?”

Angry, she realises sudenly, her fingers curling deeper into the cardboard sleeve of the cup. I’m angry at all these girls, who call Chul-san ‘oppa’ like they know him, who’d die for just a fraction of his attention. Knowing him, he’d be too nice to turn them down, to discourage their attention even if he didn’t like them –

She stands so quickly that it sends her chair rolling, until it collides with the wall behind her with a thud and Dal-mi looks up at her from over her monitor at the noise. But all she can think about is how short each breath is coming, how hot and prickly her palms feel, why won’t he stop looking at her like that

“I’m fine.” She snaps, striding out of the office, but not quickly enough to miss Yong-san’s bewildered, “What’s wrong with her?”

What’s wrong with her, indeed?

Whatever this is - it doesn’t go away. Chul-san comes over to her work station the next day; starts talking about weather conditions and driving environments. She’s listening at first, but it’s the smell of his cologne that makes her look up. It’s the first time they’ve been this close since he came back from America; close enough that she can see where he nicked himself shaving this morning, the tiny bumps scattered across the apples of his cheeks, the graceful slope of the bridge of his nose. And unbidden, those comments resurface in her mind once again.

Chul-san oppa, you’re so cute when you’re having your iced vanilla latte. Your sweet eyes are going to give me diabetes.

Lee Chul-san is perfect. Lee Chul-san is flawless.

Chul-san, you have nice teeth. I’m a dentist. Let noona know if you need dental scaling!

And then too late, she realises that he’s looking quizzically at her; as if he said something and she missed it. Her stomach bottoms out uncomfortably; her brain finally catching up in quick succession. Lee Chul-san just caught her zoning out, and all because she was staring at him. Thinking of those comments. Agreeing with those comments.

Oh my god.

She… She likes Lee Chul-san? Seriously?

“Are you listening?”

She’s torn between hyperventilating and laughing hysterically in his face in the face of this new revelation, but he is still there, still looking at her, and so she forces herself to pull it together.

“Yes, of course,” She manages, fully aware that it is her poorest lie to date, but Chul-san, kind Chul-san just looks away, laughs in that nervous way of his, instead of ruthlessly calling her out like she would.

When she’s finally able to escape, she settles herself on the outdoor grounds of Sandbox, taking a deep breath to calm her still-thundering heart. Of all people – it had to be Lee Chul-san. Why? There’s nothing particularly special about him; he reminds her of an over-eager, slobbering puppy most of the time and that is definitely not Jung Sa-ha’s style whatsoever.

But images unfurl, layering themselves over each other in her mind. The way he frowns at his monitor, mumbling unintelligibly to himself as he tries to reconcile a bug in the system. The grim satisfaction that twists his lips, as he types away feverishly – a sign that he’s hit a breakthrough in his coding. His cheerful ‘good morning’ to everyone in the office, his grin turned to full wattage as he comes around to place an iced vanilla latte on her desk. How he intentionally draws Tae-yong and Jin-hee, the new developers, into friendly conversation over lunch, as if not wanting them to feel left out in a group that has known each other for much longer. How the room always seems to loosen and relax under his jokes and antics, especially after long stretches of intense work.

Fine. So she’s been noticing him too. Maybe… she’s got a crush on Lee Chul-san. A tiny, miniscule one.

Why does he have to be so damn good and kind and thoughtful, she thinks, huffing out an exasperated sigh. Why couldn’t he have just been one of those guys she could get rid of easily with a mean comment, an eye-roll? Why did he have to stay and look at her with those eyes, and do all those stupidly gallant things like bringing her an iced vanilla latte every morning and offering to drive her home each night, no matter how late they stay at work that day…

She rubs angrily at the corners of her eyes, which are beginning to sting. What are you crying about, Jung Sa-ha? There’s nothing to cry about.

Here’s the thing about Lee Chul-san.

He makes her see herself as she truly is; a rude, arrogant girl who doesn’t care a jot about anyone but herself. Who uses people to make herself feel important and needed. She’s mocked him, disparaged him over and over again – and still, he looks at her like she’s the axis on which his universe spins.

The glaring truth of the matter that Jung Sa-ha can’t avoid? She doesn’t deserve someone like Lee Chul-san – not in this lifetime, not in the next ten.

So why even bother? She thinks wearily. Just shut him down for good, set him free to find a nice girl, someone who might actually deserve this boy.

She blinks, and for a moment, everything in her vision blurs and swims with tears she’s too proud to cry.

But then her line of vision slips to her lap, to where her hand is fisted against her thigh. She stares for a moment at it; at her fingers curling furiously in on themselves, nails piercing the soft bed of her palm.

She can’t. Can’t bring herself to do it.

Fine, she thinks furiously, out of patience with her thoughts and she stands so abruptly that it startles a sparrow nearby. So I don’t want to let him go. I’m fully aware that I don’t deserve him.

But I’m Jung Sa-ha. I can do anything.

I’ll just have to make myself deserving of someone like Lee Chul-san.

She corners him in the photocopy room later. “I have two favours to ask of you.”

He blinks, his chin dipping in a definite nod. “Anything for you.”

It’s effortless and absolute; that promise, and this question will recur often in her head over the next few days, months, years – how did I end up with someone like him?

She forges on. There will be time for sentimental meandering later. “I want you to stop vlogging.”

This is who she is – someone who makes demands, without giving reasons or explanations. But this time, there is an unexpected touch of fear even as she does it. Will he say no? Has he changed; become stronger and more independent, become someone who doesn’t have to indulge her every whim and fancy?

He frowns. “I have about 50,000 subscribers now…” Her heart tightens involuntarily within her chest, as he deliberates her request. “Can I ask why?”

She wishes she was better girlfriend material, or just a better girl in general. Someone who didn’t just snap her fingers and expect everyone to jump. But things like that have never come naturally to her – at least not now, and she finds herself reverting back to that cool, care-less skin that’s worked so well for her over the years. “You don’t want to?”

“It’s not that…” He says thoughtfully, but a few seconds later, he continues. “Okay. I’ll stop doing it. I was going to stop doing it anyway.”

That’s Lee Chul-san for you. Someone who would take the shirt off his own back, bleed himself dry to make you happy, no questions asked. And again, the inner voice within her pipes up, more insistent this time – what makes you think that you could ever deserve someone like him?

“What’s the second one?”

No.

Never in a million lifetimes could she be worthy of Lee Chul-san. But maybe, just maybe, she thinks hazily as she takes a few steps closer to him –

She could make him just as happy as he’s made her.

“I hate it when people are obviously dating a co-worker, so don’t show it.”

“Gosh, me too.” He says, responding instinctively to her question, but then he blinks, recognition slotting into place in his eyes like the pieces of a puzzle. “What?”

“I don’t want anyone to know,” She says, watching his face closely. “That we’re dating.”

And there it is; that quiet choke of disbelief in his throat, but this time, the flare of joy in his eyes dim as he looks right at her. “Sa-ha nim.”

“Is this another prank? Because if it is…”

And she knows this is her chance to make up for just a fraction of what she’s put him through, what they’ve put themselves through the past three years, and she closes the gap in between them, touching her lips to his. This isn’t her first kiss by any means, but it is the first time she feels inexplicably shy as she kisses him, her hands curling fiercely into the lapels of his jacket. She feels everything at once – the surprise rolling off his body, the spice of his cologne, the tweed of his jacket under her hands, the way his lips respond instinctively, overcoming his shock to capture her own; sweetly, gently.

They are at work though and anyone could walk in, so she draws back slowly, her hands unfisting in his coat. “You can do that for me, right?” Her voice doesn’t even sound like her own to her ears; quiet, uncertain.

He licks his lips, and her eyes are instinctively drawn to that movement. “I won’t… I won’t show it.” His throat works, and she already misses the feel of him against her; already wants to curl her hands around the back of his neck and draw his lips back down to hers. “You have my word.”

That was five months ago; of surreptitious smiles across computer monitors, him sliding his hand into hers as they wait for the lift together after pulling an overnighter; of weekends spent together tasting the vanilla latte on his lips, of hearing his boisterous laugh, of curving a hand into his cheek - just because.

Now, she watches as Do-san and Yong-san wrestle her boyfriend down into a chair, brandishing a pair of electric clippers.

“We signed the papers with DQ Group a week ago,” Do-san says gleefully.

“I transferred Tae-yong a billion won yesterday,” Yong-san says, some of his initial ebullience clearly leaking away at the memory. “Anyway, it’s your turn today, Chul-san nim!”

Chul-san sighs long and loud, clearly regretting his spur-of-the-moment declaration, but he gets up all the same; plops himself in the chair. Beside her, Dal-mi holds up her phone with a grin, ostensibly to record this moment for posterity. “Just make sure you do it cleanly, you punk,” her boyfriend says grimly to Yong-san, the one in possession of the clippers.

“Wait a minute.”

All the faces in the room turn towards her, each holding varying degrees of curiousity and surprise. But she really only has eyes for one face – the face she’s getting better at reading after months of dating. The face that always softens inexplicably whenever he looks at her, and in the most secret part of her heart, she hopes she never, ever loses that.

She takes a few steps forward and thrusts out her hand towards Yong-san. “Give it here.”

Yong-san shakes his head. “Sorry, Sa-ha nim. Do you even know how to use these? What if you end up cutting Chul-san – I don’t want this to be like the milk incident all over again…”

She sighs, long-suffering. “I said, give it here.” She fixes him with her best withering look. “I think it’s only right for me to shave my boyfriend’s head, right?”

It takes a few seconds, but she looks around; lets herself savour the looks on their faces. Do-san’s mouth has dropped open, wide enough that she can see his tonsils. Dal-mi’s face is a mirror of her boyfriend’s; although her eyes are sparkling with a knowing mirth that suggests she’s not too surprised by this plot twist. Yong-san and the new developers stare at her like she’s grown a second head.

Ah, maybe she should have set up a secret camera to capture this moment, she muses. What a waste.

Finally, the proverbial penny drops.

“You’re joking!”

“You and Chul-san?”

“What the heck?!”

“How long have you two kept it a secret?”

There will be time enough to answer all that later, she thinks, looking down into the face of her boyfriend, ignoring the swell of rising questions, protests and shock. “Do you trust me to do a good job?”

His hand comes up to capture her own, and while there is amusement in his eyes, the trust she sees there is staggering. She thinks part of it will always feel undeserved. “Of course. Always.”

Some other girl would probably swoon at that, but not Jung Sa-ha, and she snorts. “It was a rhetorical question. Let’s get this show on the road.” She plucks the shaver from Yong-san’s limp hand, clicks it on and over its electrical whirring, she adds, “And if not… there’s always a good hat.”

 

Coda

Another recurring thought that will haunt her in the days to come is this – you were so foolish. You could have had all this for longer, since earlier.

This being the way they walk into the office together, hands interwined as Chul-san calls out his morning greetings. The way he texts her in the middle of a meeting, when Dal-mi is talking about their next pitch – You’re so beautiful. Do you know that? The way his hand covers her own, as she clicks through the deck of slides, explaining that no, RGB is not a good colour scheme for any professional deck of slides, ever. The way they blatantly ignore Yong-san’s gagging, when she walks in with a fresh iced vanilla latte for him and he presses her hand to his cheek in silent thanks.

“The romance is overflowing in this office,” Yong-san complains. “How are any of the rest of us supposed to work here?”

She rolls her eyes, slipping easily into English, as she does when she’s annoyed. “Please. You already had Romeo and Juliet over there, making eyes at each other since the start of the hackathon. This is nothing.”

“I’m sure we weren’t that nauseating,” Do-san interjects from where he’s standing behind Dal-mi’s desk, although there is no bite to his words. His good mood has been impossible to dent, since his successful proposal two weeks ago.

She snorts, straightening up, “The two of you were cockroaches in love. It was disgusting to watch.”

“Going to take that title from us?” Dal-mi teases, and there is a glint in her eyes now, even with her head resting affectionately against Do-san’s arm.

Well. Jung Sa-ha’s never been one to back down from a good challenge.

She looks down at her boyfriend; his woolly beanie pulled to just above his eyebrows, the edges of his amused grin around the straw of his iced latte.

“Please,” She says, eyes flickering back up to Dal-mi, and the smile that curves her lips isn’t sarcastic, but real. “We could take you any day.”