Chapter 1 – Welcome Home
He was different now than four years ago. His hair had grown long, wavy and unkempt and nearly shoulder length. He wore it back, tied up and out of the way, and it made Ga Eul think that his face looked like a blade, like naked steel. His eyes were still the same, the same troubled look even as the corners would lift up when he winked. He was saying something now, but she wasn't listening. She narrowed her eyes and watched his mouth move. Yi Jeong had been away from Soeul for four years, and in those four years, Ga Eul had learned to live without him.
"Sunbae," she smiled, her lips peeling back to reveal her sweet mouth, "how does it feel to be back?"
He stretched like a lazy cat and she noticed how thin he had become. There wasn't the boyish softness that used to occupy his body-gone were the rich jackets, polished shirts, silky scarves and ties. Yi Jeong was a changed man. Here he was, sitting across from her at a smoky bar and looking for all the world like a cat that had finished sunning itself and was interested in her again. She could still see the corded tension in his neck.
"Not much has changed here." He rolled up the sleeves of the hoodie he was wearing. Ga Eul felt a strange jar of familiarity. Yi Jeong always worked in his studio with his sleeves rolled; years before, he preferred the turn of the century bartender looks; armband included. She smiled a little at the memory. They were stamping a giant pile of clay together with their feet, warming the cold mass with their bodies. She tripped and he caught her. She remembers catching her breath, his arms became rigid, and he leaned in close-
"What are you thinking about?" His slow lazy smile began unevenly. Ga Eul smiled back serenely.
"That night, in the studio. When you almost kissed me."
"I still regret that I didn't." He took a sip of his soju and continued to smirk from across the table.
Ga Eul looked down at her phone, Anders' name flashed across the screen. She turned the phone off. She smoothed down her skirt before she spoke again.
"It was probably best that you didn't, Sunbae." She leveled her eyes at him. She thought she saw a hint of surprise, but Yi Jeong was too good at this to reveal any of his cards.
"You liked me. You didn't want to kiss me?" He leaned forward.
Ga Eul was drawn in to his eyes. His eyes, she always felt, were bottomless pits of sorrow. Hungry for love, hungry for pleasure, and now they were hungry for her. She swallowed and gazed at her nail bed, which were flushed and pink.
"I did. But Yi Jeong-shi, I was such a kid then. My head was full of silly notions. I hope you can see that I've grown up now." She cheerily laughed, "Tell me about Sweden?"
Yi Jeong frowned, this time visible to everyone. This Ga Eul was so different than the one he remembered leaving four years ago. That girl was fiery and blunt, without a single pretense of feminine wiles. The girl in front of him was the same girl, but somehow washed out. Somehow, a little dimmer than his memory. His mouth twisted. Maybe loving him gives every woman the same side effects. A little less of themselves after he was through with them.
He was no angel in Sweden. There were women. Scores and scores of blondes and brunettes. They liked him. He was exotic and tall, something different than the line up of Alexander Skarsgaard look alikes to which they were accustomed. A different option on the buffet. Yi Jeong had never had trouble getting women. He spoke his soft, accented Swedish and Rika or Sonya would swoon into his car by the end of the night. Swedish men always waited until they were almost too plastered to talk. Yi Jeong knew it was language, not puerile interests that moved women from disinterested to enflamed in the space of a few minutes.
He shifted uncomfortably and settled his shoulders. His plan was going to absolute shit. He thought that by Ga Eul's armor might be up. After all, he had been away for four years with no contact. There was no reason to bring up the promise he had kept-that he would seek her out first when he returned. The fulfillment of that promise laid between them silently. He wanted to nudge it towards her, for her to acknowledge that he had done what he said all those years ago. Instead, Ga Eul smiled at him without happiness, asked him questions without listening, and she looked past him to where the entrance of the bar was.
"Ga Eul. When those children said that your boyfriend was in Sweden, what did that mean? Have you been telling them about me?" He saw a weakness and began drilling his gaze into her.
Ga Eul gave a short laugh. Not the reaction he was expecting.
"Oh, that's Anders. We met about a year ago when I was Sweden."
Yi Jeong felt like the floor had dropped out underneath his chair. His plan wasn't falling apart, it didn't even exist in the right universe.
"You were in Sweden?" He could feel his jaw slackening, but he quickly reigned himself back. She had already surprised him twice today, now was not the time to be soft.
"Before I graduated, I was researching my thesis on childhood education." She blushed, "Sunbae, I was so lucky. I got this grant to go study abroad for two weeks, and I did." She said simply. "That's why I asked you about Sweden. I liked it so much there."
"You were in Sweden, a year ago." He let the meaning sink into his alcohol addled brain. That means, she had come to Sweden. To see him. Or maybe it was really for school. Whatever reasons there was, she had come to Sweden and decided not to find him.
"Near Göteborg, the university? That's how I met Anders. He was returning for vacation at home." She smiled to herself at the memory. The look of contentment on Ga Eul's face galled Yi Jeong. He hated her. He hated how she had changed. Her smile wasn't for him anymore. They were for some unknown blonde giant. He sullenly sneered, but Ga Eul didn't see his bitter expression. She was smiling at the entrance of the door.
"Anders!" She waved enthusiastically.
Yi Jeong choked on his drink and sprayed across the table. The thick headed country girl had thought it was a good idea to bring her boyfriend here? To meet him?
"Aish Sunbae!" Ga Eul had just stood up in time to avoid his accident. She took a napkin and wiped herself down carefully. Just like a good girl, Yi Jeong thought as she grabbed a stack from another table and blotted it down.
Yi Jeong almost knocked the table off its legs when he stood to turn. He wanted to tower over whoever the hell Anders was. And to Yi Jeong's great joy, he did.
"Anders, this is my friend Yi Jeong." Yi Jeong barely heard her voice but extended his hand and nearly mangled Anders'.
"So Yi Jeong-shi, it's great to finally meet you!" To Anders' credit, he didn't flinch at Yi Jeong's hostile handshake. Yi Jeong wanted to spit in his face, but instead his face slid into its usual mask. This Anders was nothing to be feared. He was short, well not short, but shorter than Yi Jeong. He had crop of curly brown hair and intense green eyes. Anders leaned down and kissed Ga Eul who was looking expectantly between them.
"Sunbae!" She playfully swatted at him. "Stop."
Anders actually blushed. Yi Jeong was pissed at this sincere son-of-a-bitch.
"Ga Eul, I'm so sorry. I just got back from Sweden and I always have trouble transitioning." Anders bowed in apology. Yi Jeong grounded his teeth, this SOB also happened to speak perfect Korean.
"Yi Jeong, I'm so glad to finally meet you." Anders shook his hand again.
"Why is that?" Ji Yeong narrowed his eyes at the smaller man.
"Because, you're the reason that I met Ga Eul in Sweden."