“Do you have time to go somewhere with me today?” Taeng asks Steph as they walk to school from the bus stop the next day.
“Where are you going?”
“Why the florist?”
“I need to buy some flowers and I need your help to choose them.”
“Who are they for?”
Steph’s eyes narrow. “A female friend?”
Taeng shakes his head. “Not yet. We are still just friends.”
Steph gasps. “Are you talking about me?”
“Yes, the flowers are meant for you.”
“Why would you tell me that? Why would you ask me to choose flowers you’re planning to buy for me? What are you even thinking, Taeng?”
“I’m thinking we’re friends and friends don’t have to hide anything from each other.” Taeng looks straight at Steph even though his cheeks are heating up like a pan on fire. “I spent the weekend thinking about it. And I even asked for advice from someone who has experience in crushing. I’m sure I like you. I can feel the crush. And I want to tell you about it.”
“You’re really—I dunno what it is—unconventional? I don’t even know what to say.”
“Is it wrong, though? I watched some dramas and read some books over the weekend and I learnt that most of the problems that happen between people happen when people don’t tell each other how they truly feel. I don’t want to make the same mistake.”
“How did you manage to sound wise while talking about learning life lessons from dramas?” Steph breaks into a laugh and shakes her head. “How do you manage to surprise me with something every single day?”
“Do I surprise you? Why are you surprised?”
“You’re unbelievable, you know that?” Steph stops walking suddenly and Taeng bumps into her. She turns, unperturbed and looks into his eyes. “I’ve known you for a little more than a week. In this week, I learnt that you’ve never been to a school like this,” Steph sweeps her arm in the school’s direction, “and never had a crush before now. You haven’t talked about your parents, only your grandpa you say you’re close to. You like Biology. You’re wealthy. You’re a nice guy, a loyal friend and kind to dogs. I learnt that you’re not afraid to apologize to a girl first, even though it’s not entirely your fault.”
“And? Why is this surprising?”
“None of it fits, Taeng. None. You’ve been home-schooled all your life and don’t seem to have any friends but you’re friendly and nice. You’re wealthy but you don’t brag about it. You like Biology. You like Biology and you’re rich and you’re totally fine with apologizing to me first after I blew my head off at you without hearing you out. And you’re supposed to be totally inexperienced in crushes and girls but here you are blatantly confessing your feelings and asking me to pick out my own flowers you plan on giving to me.” Steph is laughing by now. “I can’t with you, Taeng.”
“You can’t be with me?” Taeng’s shoulders sag and he hangs his head.
Steph shakes her head, her shoulders shaking too.
Gloom descends upon Taeng’s heart. He looks at his feet, sighs, and looks back into Steph’s laughing eyes. “Why can’t you be with me?”
Steph stops laughing right away. “I didn’t say that.”
“You just said it.”
“I said I can’t with you. As in I can’t understand the things you do or say but I think you’re cute anyway.”
Taeng’s chest puffs up with pride. “Does that mean you like me too?”
“Taeng, you are very direct.”
“Well, of course. I’m a—” I’m a king and kings are supposed to be direct.
“I’m an honest guy.”
“That you are. Another rarity.”
“Are honest guys rare?”
Steph looks him up and down. “Honest guys with all your qualities are quite rare.”
But kings have to be honest men. “Honesty is important.”
“I agree, it is.”
But you haven’t answered my question…
All through the morning, Taeng tried to ask if Steph will go to the florist with him but something would interrupt—the bell, the teacher, a book falling onto the floor . . . anything and everything. When the bell rings once more for lunch, Taeng seizes his chance by walking with Steph as she leaves the classroom. But before he can ask, he is interrupted yet again—by a harried Yoona and a taller boy accompanying her.
“Steph, we came to warn you.”
Yoona grabs Steph’s arm and drags her away from the classroom. Taeng follows suit, wondering who the tall boy is. Could he be the Sooyoung that Yoona mentioned before?
“We should be good here,” says Yoona as she shuts the door to the school’s health clinic.
“Why did you bring me to here? Are you sick?” Steph asks.
“It’s lunch time. The nurse won’t be here for a while,” the tall boy informs them with a grin. “I’m Sooyoung, by the way,” he adds, lifting his hand and tossing a casual wave at Taeng.
“I know. You’re Steph’s new good friend.”
Taeng beams. “Yes, I am.”
“So, the warning,” Yoona continues.
Steph nods. “Yes, what about it?”
“Well, you know how Sooyoung needs his food all the time.”
Steph nods again, listening intently.
“So we’re out during class to grab some food so we go around the back side to avoid teachers and guess who we saw huddled in a dark corner whispering?”
“Gim Ha Min and Ri Chae.”
“Those two are bad news.”
Yoona nods hard. “Very bad news. We hid behind the wall and listened. We think they’re planning to throw you in the muck again.”
“Again?” Steph’s eyes widen and blink. “How? Why?”
“We don’t know why, but we heard a bit about the how.”
“They seemed to be planning some kind of account hack. Like hacking into your Instagram and posting the pictures from the last episode.”
“Seriously?” Steph’s voice is in the highest of registers.
“Shh . . . keep it down. We’re serious. We literally heard Ha Min say ‘hack into the slut’s account and post them so she can’t deny it anymore’ and Ri Chae was like giggling after that.”
“Those two bitches.”
“We gotta stop them.”
Steph bits her lip. “But how? If I confront them about it, they’ll deny it ever happened.”
Yoona grins and raises her phone. “We have pictures and we tried recording their conversation. But the recording is not fantastic and very soft so it might not be good enough.”
“But we have another idea,” says Sooyoung, grinning as he leans against the wall like a cool anime character.
“Out with it.”
“They’re not smart enough to hack into your account by themselves so they’ll need help.”
Steph gasps. “You’re gonna help them?”
Sooyoung puts up his palm. “Chill, sister. It is not I. I’m best at eating, not hacking. But I think I know who they’ll ask to help.”
“Sunny,” says Yoona.
“The girl who games all day err day?”
Sooyoung nods. “Mhm. Ha Min could bribe her with a free pass to skip all the classes she wants to game and not fail.”
Taeng is enraged by this dark, evil plot of Ha Min’s. “We can’t let that happen.”
Sooyoung pats Taeng’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. We won’t. We’ll look for Sunny right now and I think I know just the place to find her.”
Taeng follows the group and together, they troop into the computer lab and true enough, tucked in a corner of the room, is a girl in a hoodie, wearing a headset. But to his greater surprise, he notices the existence of another boy next to her, typing away furiously on the keyboard. A boy he knows quite well by now.
“Seo!” Taeng exclaims.
Seo looks up from the computer screen and casts his eyes on them. He first hones in on Taeng, then Steph, then Yoo—Taeng starts when Seo leaps up from his chair glaring at him. “You said you wouldn’t tell anyone!”
Taeng blinks. “Huh?”
“Hold up, hold up,” says Sooyoung, stepping in front of Taeng with his hands in the air. “What’s going on here?”
Seo seems to have realized his folly and slaps his hand over his mouth.
Sooyoung turns back to Taeng, brows raised. “What’s the deal, bruh?”
Taeng heaves a deep sigh. “It’s a long, long story.”