Han Gyul watched indulgently as Eun Chan was welcomed by his family, enveloped into the fold as if she was their own already. His mother and father were beaming, especially father, who kept saying she was a brave, clever girl to manage studying overseas. His mother, while not saying much (she would withhold her assessment until after Eun Chan had relayed more information), kept trying to feed her. Surely she had missed Korean food? Would Eun Chan like some apples?
“You look tired,” His mother said, already hurrying into the kitchen. “Sit down. You’re skin and bones! Mother, I’m going to fix some snacks.”
“Will you stop fussing!” His grandmother yelled from the couch, where she presided regally. “I can’t even see her face.” She beckoned. “Well? Will you not greet me? Have you lost all manners?”
Eun Chan brightened, scampered over to Grandmother’s side and bowed deeply. Han Gyul’s hand was firmly gripped in her own slim one, so he got jerked forward as well. “I’m back, grandma! I missed you so much!”
“She’s a great liar,” Grandmother told his father, who merely chuckled. “Who misses grumpy old women in Italy? You’ve become more glib in the last year. And,” she added reluctantly before Han Gyul could protest, “more mature too. Good hair. You look more like a girl.” She paused. “Well? You may give me a hug. Then start talking. I want to hear if I wasted my money or not.”
Eun Chan laughed and obeyed, chattering away excitedly at full Eun Chan speed. Italy was amazing; the people who studied with her knew everything about coffee- really!; the language was hard but she got better; she had to change her hair because 1) she couldn’t afford hair-cuts and 2) she was thrown out of the ladies bathroom and nearly arrested for public indecency and-
“What?” Han Gyul squawked. “You didn’t tell me that!”
Eun Chan ducked her head. “Um...I might have forgotten?” she said meekly, rubbing her thumb over his hand in a soothing manner. And it did. Sooth. Huh. Why was he yelling at her again?
Grandmother saw the rubbing gesture and tsked. “What are you, an octopus?” she barked, glaring. “Cease that immediately! Just because you haven’t seen each other for nearly two years doesn’t mean you can start cuddling in front of your elders!”
“Aw, Grandma, cut her some slack.” Han Gyul wheedled. “She said she’s not ever letting me go.” And I’m not either, he silently promised. “She’s still cute, isn’t she?”
Grandma muttered something about “indecent” and “strange foreign manners” but let it go in favour of berating Han Gyul’s fashion sense.
Eun-Chan didn’t let go. Her hand was still clasped firmly over his, even when she devoured the apples Han Gyul’s mother had peeled. It was physically awkward, but really, Han Gyul didn’t mind.
Okay, so he minded the constant touching. Just a little bit.
A couple of weeks had passed. The first strange thing he noticed was that Eun Chan slept a lot. And while that wasn’t the strangest thing (the hair- what was with the hair? Had she struck up a strange Italian friendship with a strange hairdresser? Had she blatantly ignored his warning about hanging with strange people in a foreign country? Well, that was the result there wasn’t it? Really....strange....hair), it was still disconcerting to be greeted with threadbare pyjamas, puffy eyes and a yawn at midday. Wasn’t he supposed to be the lazy one in this relationship?
“Hey,” he said, frowning. “Sorry to wake you. I thought we could go cycling today.”
“Oh.” Eun Chan muttered, rubbing her eyes. “Ok. Let me get dressed.”
“You don’t have to go if you’re tired.” He said quickly, shuffling from one foot to another. When had this been so difficult? It was like they were back to square one after he found out that Eun Chan was actually a girl and everything had shattered and had to be built from scratch. It felt so fragile, knowing that she was back, coming to terms with the fact that she was here to stay.
Or was she?
When Eun-Chan re-emerged, looking a little disappointed but smiling brightly, he smiled back, and opened the door for her with a flourish. “My lady.”
She grinned, the corners of her eyes crinkling in amusement. “Why, thank you, kind sir.” Then, quite casually, she leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. Well, nuzzled was more like it, as if she was mapping his jaw line with her lips. It was extremely ticklish, and couldn’t be comfortable for her, but she couldn’t have any idea what it did to his innards every time. Of course they’ve kissed before, hundreds of times- but Han Gyul couldn’t remember a time when she had kissed him like this, curious and soft and lingering. It made him think of locks, doors, and a sign that he kept beating over head of well-built Roman centurions declaring "MINE! ALL MINE!"
“What’s wrong?” she asked softly, her eyes huge and languid.
“Locks,” he said desperately, pulling his head back. “I was thinking about locks.”
Eun Chan blinked, and then laughed, easing her body away from his. “You’ve become crazier.” She declared. “Come on, I want to go cycling then visit Seja!”
Han-Gyul sighed. Something was not quite right, and he had no idea what it was.
Han Sung tore his eyes away from the trio of amateur singers in his backyard. Yoo Ju had a surprisingly rich contralto voice, compared to Eun Chan’s girlish soprano, but the two ladies had nothing on Seja, who was belting out one howl after another. He had no idea what was being sung, but it was highly entertaining. He might record it for posterity. “Hmm what?”
“She keeps doing this...” his cousin had a vague hand gesture that could have been the beginning of donut-making or playing the harp. “...touching thing. You know. Every time.”
Han Sung looked at him in disbelief. “And this bothers you because...?”
Because it’s harder and harder to not touch back, he wanted to shout. It’s hard to accept it all as if I can have it when I’m not sure if she’s back for real.
Instead, he scrubbed his hair in frustration. “I don’t know. It’s like she’s using the touch thing to avoid talking about marriage,” he said sullenly.
Han Sung winced in sympathy. “Still no answer?”
Han Gyul shook his head.
“Give her time.” Han Sung waved at Yoo Ju, giving his seal of approval for the impromptu concert. “She’s still adjusting.”
“Isn’t two years enough?” Han Gyul dropped his head onto his arms.
“If you’re setting limits, you’re asking the wrong question.” with that cryptic remark, Han Sung got up to help the girls set up the barbeque.
“Some help you are.” Han Gyul muttered into his beer.
Han Gyul barged into Sun Ki’s kitchen. Well. Technically it’s Han Gyul’s kitchen, being the owner and all, but still. The holy trinity of Waffles, Whipped cream and Champagne strawberries are created in the kitchen, and the creator is Sun Ki. The argument ends there.
“Why is she such a girl with you?” His boss demanded.
Sun Ki blinked, Homestyle Vogue still in his hand.
“Is it your hair? The withdrawn sulk? The- the waffles?” Han Gyul pointed furiously at the innocent magazine, full of pastel colours and delicate chinaware and 1000 count linens. “Why does she actually read that crap with you when all she does is hit me with it?”
Sun Ki regarded his boss carefully. “Because,” he said seriously, “you are a blithering, jealous and insecure idiot.”
Han Gyul stared at him in disbelief, but not, Sun Ki noted, with anger. “There is a rule I read somewhere,” he said ominously. “I can’t remember all the details, but I think you just gave me enough grounds to fire you on the spot.”
“Fine,” Sun Ki started to unknot his apron. “Good luck with those waffles.”
Han Gyul blanched, aghast. “You would actually hold your waffles ransom for blackmail purposes?”
Sun Ki pretended to consider it, the bastard. “Yes.” He said finally. He sighed. “Since you’re so hopelessly dim, I’ll tell you.” He tapped the magazine. “She said she wasn’t used to the finery that she saw at your place. She wanted to go window shopping for household stuff that she might have to pick out one day. For you.”
Han Gyul blinked.
Sun Ki rolled his eyes. “You really are an idiot,” he enunciated in Japanese, and pointedly turned his back just for good measure. Stupid people were not welcome in his kitchen.
He jerked awake, thinking there was a burglar in his house. After the first second of complete disorientation, he figured that burglars don’t usually run a finger down his face, following his nose and brushing past his lips to trail down his neck. Unless they were those creepy ones in the teenage horror films that Ha Rim keeps making him watch. The flims didn't really scare him but sent Min Yeop screaming for the door everytime, and Ha Rim into hysterics. They were good, those two- they seem to know exactly when his place got too quiet, too still.
“Surprise,” Eun-Chan whispered, grinning down at him. “You shouldn’t leave your door unlocked at night, you know.”
“nurrgh,” Han Gyul replied coherently, starting at her blearily. “What are you doing here?”
She pouted. “Can’t I come visit any more? You’ve been really mean to me the last few days.” She accused. “You don’t even hug me anymore. Are you mad at something?” she started to knead his shoulders and damn that felt amazing.
Maybe it’s the massage that unravels his brain, or the waiting for the other shoe to drop. Han Gyul really didn’t know. He blurted out, “Are you home?”
Eun Chan paused. “What do you mean?”
He sat up. “Are you home?” He repeated. “Is this what you want? Here, with me? Or do you want to go study some more?”
Eun Chan huffed a laugh. “You sound like your grandmother,” she said, smiling. “I want to be here. Really, I do. Han Sung said you were a bit weirded out by me doing all this-” she started to pepper him with butterfly kisses on his face.
Han Gyul decided to kill his cousin later, because Eun Chan was still talking.
“- before I left, I had no idea how much I’d miss this,” she said, ghosting a path down his ear. “I never realised how much I wanted to be with you. I still can’t believe I’m back, being able to do this.” She cupped his face until his lips resembled a fish pout. “So don’t get worked up. I’m not going anywhere.”
“I didn’t say I got worked up,” Han Gyul said, which came out as “ wuhdudunhaiwworhedoop”. He freed his face. “You’re staying?”
“You want to live with me?”
She bit her lip, nodding quickly. “Grandmother would kill us.” she giggled through her hands, eyes bright.
“She adores you. You’ve got nothing to worry about. On the other hand, your mother and sister would kill me.” He grinned. “You might have to fend them off. You know, protect me from their wrath.”
“Okay.” She laughed. “I can do that.” She hugged him tight. “Just hold my hand when I do, yeah?”
“’Course,” he agreed. Enough, he thought. He would be content with that. She was home.