Sometimes, telling older people about happy things is a mistake. And right now, Taeng is experiencing the truth in that statement. His excitement over making a new friend in Steph Hwang is diminishing by the second as Advisor Kim advises him on the perils of investing too much attachment into someone he doesn’t know well enough.
“But she’s really nice. She brought me to the secret hiding place of her puppy and everything.”
“My King, you have not been exposed to the world out there for eighteen years. The world outside isn’t like Jebu-do. Here on this island, you are king and your subjects are loyal to you. But in that school, you are not king. People use one another in ways you cannot imagine. Now, I’m not saying you can’t make new friends. In fact, I will encourage you to. But please be careful. Hold back a part of yourself and watch these people carefully. Don’t take what they say at full value. Observe what they do. Action speaks louder than words.”
“I will try my best, Advisor Kim.”
Advisor Kim pats Taeng on his shoulder like a grandpa would. “You are like a nephew to me. I would say son, but that’s a little too much when you’re the king. I don’t mean to throw cold water on you like that but I’m just trying to prepare you for what you might face.”
“I understand. You are like an uncle to me too. Even if I call you grandpa most of the time.”
Advisor Kim chuckles. “I know, your Majesty. I know.”
“The new boy?” The brown haired girl turns up her nose and shakes her head. “He’s nothing much. Choi Minho is much better looking than him.”
“You should be nice to him, Ha Min. He’s new after all. Show him your charms. Who knows, he might turn out to be your King Charming.”
“It’s Prince Charming, Dad. Not King.” The girl rolls her eyes. “You’re the principal of our school but you still manage to embarrass me every other day.”
Gim Yongmin shakes his head. “I’m not wrong,”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I’m not wrong.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“Take my advice and you’ll thank me for it later.”
“Is he secretly rich or something?”
“That’s not what I said.”
“Daddy! Stop trolling me.”
“Bring him around tomorrow. Be his friend.”
“If you’re not gonna tell me, I’m gonna find out myself.”
Gim Yongmin chuckles. “Be my guest.”
Taeng boards the bus with anticipation the next morning. He isn’t disappointed as he scans the bus passengers. There she is, asleep, head leaning against the window pane. There are other free seats on the bus but Taeng heads straight for her and takes the empty seat beside her. Feeling pleased with himself, he grins while looking at his schedule for the day. There’s biology class today—something he looks forward to. Learning about life is fascinating and he loves nature. Biology is right down his alley.
The girl beside him yawns and stretches her arms, hitting him in the face. She turns to him, expression apologetic, but it dissolves into a smile when she realises who he is.
“Good morning, Taeng.”
“Good morning, Steph.”
Her smile morphs into a frown, however, as she blushes and stands abruptly. “Stand,” she says to him.
“But this isn’t our stop.”
“Oh.” Steph’s blush deepens as she sits. “It looked like our stop.”
“There’s five more to go.”
Taeng smiles. Steph’s energy level is infectious from the moment she wakes up.
“You’re unreal. You’ve never tried KFC before?”
Taeng shakes his head. “What’s KFC?”
“Korean fried chicken.” Steph palms her forehead. “Where have you been living all this time?”
“J—Jeju-do. I only moved here recently.” I’m really sorry for lying to you Steph. One day I’ll be able to tell you where I’m really from . . .
“That’s no excuse. Jeju-do has KFC too.”
Taeng is running out of answers but is saved by the bus bell. “It’s our stop, Steph. Let’s go.”
Taeng stops in his tracks at the entrance of the classroom and turns around with Steph by his side. A brown haired girl, taller and slimmer than Steph, is strutting towards him.
“I’m Ha Min. Gim Ha Min.”
Taeng smiles politely. “It’s nice to meet you, Ha Min. We’re in the same class, right?”
Ha Min smirks and flips her hair over her shoulder. “You noticed.”
“Er, I did take a good look at everyone in class while I introduced myself yesterday.”
Steph smothers a giggle and Ha Min scowls at her. “What?”
“Oh, nothing.” Steph touches Taeng’s arm. “I’ll go sit down first.”
Taeng nods and smiles before turning back to Ha Min. “I’ll go to my seat too, if there’s nothing else.”
“Sit with us during lunch at my table today,” says Ha Min.
Taeng stares at Ha Min. “Why?”
“Why? Are you clueless or pretending? Don’t you know who I am?”
Taeng scratches his head. “I know who you are. You’re Ha Min.”
“Do you know how many people want to sit at my table during lunch but can’t?”
Shaking his head, Taeng asks, “How many?”
“You’re hopeless.” Ha Min rolls her eyes. “Where are you from? Are you sure you aren’t from some weird planet?”
“Er, no. I used to live on Jeju-do but I moved here recently.”
“I’m gonna burst a blood vessel talking to you.” Ha Min rolls her eyes again. “Whatever it is, just come to my table at lunch time. Understand?”
Taeng nods despite feeling confused, and Ha Min breezes past him into the classroom as though they were complete stranger and hadn’t just had a weird conversation. How strange. When he gets to his seat, Steph asks what they talked about outside. She doesn’t look happy to hear that he was invited to sit at Ha Min’s table.
“Is it not a good thing?” he asks.
Steph shrugs. “A lot of people want to sit at her table.”
“That’s what she said.” Taeng leans closer. “But do you?”
Steph shakes her head.
“I don’t want to pretend to be someone I’m not.”
“Do you have to do that to sit at her table?”
“She’s the principal’s daughter. His only child. If you get to sit with her, it means you’re her friend and you will never fail a class. Most of the people at her table are all too happy to flatter her and lick her boots.” Steph shrugs again. “I can’t bring myself to do that. Even if it means I’ll never get into trouble.”
“Never getting into trouble sounds good, but it sounds complicated too.”
Steph laughs. “It is. But since she invited you to her table, I suppose she likes you. Which is strange. She usually only invites the ones who are rich or good looking, or both. You . . .” Steph gives him the once over, “you’re not rich, neither are you drop-dead handsome like Choi Minho, so I don’t know why she’s inviting you.”
Taeng feels a little unhappy about losing the comparison to Choi Minho. “Who is Choi Minho?”
“He’s in the next class. Ha Min is smitten with him.”
Steph laughs. “Choi Minho? No, the boy I like has graduated. We broke up when he left to study in another country.”
Taeng’s curiosity is pricked. “Where is he now? What does he look like?”
“Tokyo. It was always his dream to study there. He has a huge thing for Japanese anime, a regular otaku.”
“Oh, so I’m kinda like him too.”
“You like anime too?”
Taeng nods, then shakes his head. “I like anime, like Attack on Titan. But I only watch it sometimes, when I have free time. I meant it more as in staying at home a lot.”
“Sounds like an otaku to me.”
The bell rings and Taeng looks at his watch. “Yay, it’s time for biology class.”
Beside him, Steph groans as though she’s suffering from the worst stomach ache ever.
“What’s the matter?” Taeng asks, instantly worried.
Steph pulls her hands down her face. “I hate biology.”
“Do you like biology?”
Taeng nods enthusiastically.
“Good. Then you can be my partner.”
Lunch hour arrives and Steph skips to the garden shed to feed Prince Fluffy while Taeng heads to the cafeteria to look for Ha Min. He would rather be visiting Prince with Steph but it wouldn’t be polite to go without telling Ha Min about it first. Half way down the corridor, he is stopped by Seo.
“Do you have a minute?”
Taeng looks at the cafeteria and decides Ha Min can wait a minute more. “Yes.”
“Great. Come in here for a minute.”
Taeng steps into an empty classroom with Seo. “What’s up?”
Seo sighs and paces in front of Taeng a few times before stopping in front of him. “Firstly, you have to swear you won’t tell anyone.”
“Why is everyone in this school asking me to swear? First Steph. Now you.”
Seo narrows his eyes at Taeng. “What did Steph ask you to swear for?”
Taeng shakes his head. “I can’t tell you.”
“Right. That makes sense. I suppose it’s a good thing you won’t tell me if I need you to keep my secret too.”
“I’ll keep your secret. I promise.”
Seo turns on him, eyes glaring. “No. You have to swear you won’t tell anyone.”
“Okay, I swear I won’t tell anyone.”
Seo calms down. “Good. Now, tell me how you are able to talk to Steph so easily.”
Taeng’s eyes widen right then. “Huh?”
Thanks @artenikat for drawing such a lovely piece for TFK!