The weather has warmed considerably, enough so that when you stand in the sun little trickles of sweat tickle the back of the neck. But Yong-ha can’t bear to take off the jacket with the gold embroidery and fur lining that his father brought back from China; not yet, not while he’s still madly in love with it. And not until that boy with the dark face has seen how beautiful he looks in it because see, he decided he had to be wearing this jacket when he finally introduces himself to the boy.
The dark-faced boy hadn’t been around for several weeks now. It was puzzling since he used to pass every day at precisely the same time like clockwork. In fact, Yong-ha had figured out exactly how many seconds he had after inhaling his lunch (under the frowning eye of his mother) before he could slip into his red and silver shoes, race across the yard, and hop onto the kimchi jars to peek over the stone wall in time to see the boy appear around the corner.
The boy was always whistling like something good had or was about to happen. And when he smiled – and he did smile often at the littlest things, like a barking dog or a humming bird – it was all teeth, such a great, open smile. He usually carried a bundle, the size always varied, which led Yong-ha to believe that he was visiting someone every day. Who was the question that haunted Yong-ha until the day he finally scrounged up the courage to tail the boy.
The boy had led him through the open market, never faltering in pace, always determined in step; Yong-ha had almost lost him a couple of times, but that clean blue headpiece was an easy mark to follow. Then they had left the market and entered banchon, the poorest area of the city. This was actually Yong-ha’s first trip into banchon, and he would’ve been too squeamish had not the dark-faced boy been a motivation to keep walking. He had cringed as the bottom of his clothes darkened with mud and dirt, not to mention his shoes, but he had trudged on.
The boy had finally stopped in front of a large pair of wooden gates, and Yong-ha’s eyes had widened when he realized they were at the main gates of Sungkyunkwan, the school of Confucian learning. The boy had boldly knocked on the door like he had done it many times before, and the person who opened the door recognized him and greeted him in a friendly tone. And almost as if he had been waiting just inside the gates, a tall nobleman had stepped outside and quickly swept the dark-faced boy into his arms.
And that was how Yong-ha found out that the dark-faced boy had a brother in attendance at Sungkyunkwan. A brother that the boy clearly adored, seeing how he would make the trip across the market and banchon every day to see his brother’s face. And it was easy to see why the boy worshipped his brother: his face was kind as well as refined, his voice gentle yet strong, and he looked at his little brother like a most valuable treasure. Yong-ha almost wanted him for his own brother.
After that day, Yong-ha sometimes followed the boy on his daily trips. His feet grew used to skirting in and out of the crowds and he learned how to tiptoe around the mud puddles in banchon. After a while, he forgot that banchon was supposed to be a foreign land for a merchant’s son like himself. In fact, the walk to Sungkyunkwan became so habitual that he almost believed that he was a student there himself.
And all the while, he never revealed himself to the boy; the moment never seemed just right. For some unfathomably reason, he had decided that everything had to be perfect and he had to look perfectly handsome when it happened. Something deep in his gut told him that he had to impress this boy with a bang, or else the boy would never agree to be friends.
That’s when the boy stopped turning the corner. For the first few days, Yong-ha made up excuses in his mind. He was out of town visiting relatives. He had nothing to deliver. He had a fight with his brother. His brother was on vacation from school. His pet dog was sick. Then thoughts turned to the idea that perhaps the boy was sick, and Yong-ha nearly followed suit of this imaginary illness by worrying himself into a fever. But he couldn’t lie still and eat gruel when the boy might finally make a reappearance, so he forced himself to be healthy. And with each passing day, Yong-ha’s decision to finally introduce himself grew greater and more determined. If only the boy would come.
But the boy didn’t come. Weeks passed, the snow melted, and the warm winds signaled the coming of spring. The jacket from China was washed time and time again so that it would look clean when the boy finally saw Yong-ha in it, but the fur had taken too many beatings now and drooped just a bit. As did Yong-ha’s spirits and hopes.
Finally, perhaps the day has come for Yong-ha to give up. It is possible that the boy moved to a different city, and Yong-ha can only berate himself for never finding out where the boy lived. Yong-ha can’t shake the terrible feeling that he’ll never see the boy again.
At present, Yong-ha stands on a kimchi jar and peers forlornly over the wall. Please, he pleads silently, please just allow me the chance to say hello. His mother already looks at him like he needs professional help, so this day will be the last he waits for the dark-faced boy. After this day, no more.
But the sun makes its daily walk across the sky, and soon it’s at the end of its arc. The skies turn an orange-red, then purple, and soon enough the moon is giving him a crooked smile. Soon it will be pitch dark and the last rays of hope Yong-ha holds close will disappear along with the setting sun. It’s too much for Yong-ha’s weakened heart, and he bolts out of the gates before his mother can gather her breath to call his name.
Perhaps she does call his name, but it’s faint and he’s already down the street and in the open market, where some shops are beginning to close and others are lighting candles to prepare for the evening crowd. The smell of roasting meat fills the air as the restaurants prepare for the evening diners, and Yong-ha vaguely remembers that he hasn’t eaten all day.
It’s already dark when he reaches banchon quicker than usual, in the blink of a blurry eye, and soon he’s zipping through banchon, mud puddles and all. He doesn’t know what he expects and what he’ll do when he actually gets there. It’s not like he can knock on the gates and ask to see the dark-faced boy’s brother; particularly since he knows neither’s name. Yet Yong-ha runs, hanging onto that last strand of hope because he’s sure they’re supposed to meet someday and somehow; if not now, when?
Sungkyunkwan’s main gates come into sight as he steps onto the foot of the lighted bridge, and that’s when he spots the tall white hat. He slows to a walk, and with every step, he steps higher on the bridge, and the hat appears perched on a dark head. Another step and he sees neck, then shoulders. When he reaches the top curve of the bridge, he sees the back view of the boy’s full frame. The boy is standing at the opposite end of the bridge, still like a statue.
Then – he staggers. His mind registers that the boy isn’t wearing white but actually brownish beige clothing, and he realizes there has been a death. The boy’s sagging shoulders are carrying the weight of the world on them.
Pit, pat, pitter, patter. The ground darkens as raindrops invade the silence of the bridge.
And suddenly, Yong-ha knows. He knows who died, and he knows why the boy stopped turning the corner with a smile and a bundle in his arms. He knows why the trips to Sungkyunkwan stopped altogether.
Gu Yong-ha, the lover of style and fashion and all things beautiful, stands in the now pelting rain, his hair plastered to his face and his fur bedraggled like that of a wet dog. Mud-splattered and emotionally beaten raw, he opens his mouth and lets out the loudest sob he’s ever uttered; louder than when his father canes him, louder than the cries he stifles with his pillow late in the night when he feels so very small in a very big world. And he cries his little heart out, for something so very dear has been lost forever.
The dark-faced boy turns around in surprise and stares up at Yong-ha crying at the top of the bridge. He doesn’t understand why this stranger is wailing at the top of his lungs, looking like someone who’s just lost a dear, dear friend.
And so Moon Jae-shin meets Gu Yong-ha in this imperfectly perfect moment.
[I wrote this without thought of the timeline set by the drama. So please disregard any inconsistencies since this was written all in good fun.]