"I haven't even told you what the offer is."
"Whatever it is, it can't be as easy as it sounds, and my answer is 'no.'" Rang shoveled more naengmyeon into his mouth while Yeon watched with his trademark 'exasperated older brother' expression.
Rang should have known his brother would come up with something like this eventually. Some hapless ploy to save Rang's eternal soul. Even though Rang had avoided punishment for his crimes against humanity thus far, he knew Yeon would prefer it if he took some step—any step—towards repaying his debt. Towards redemption. Towards, well, not going to hell or being reborn as a shrimp.
Oh, Rang might not need the cherry tree to stay alive anymore, but he knew he was still on borrowed time. He'd have to atone for his numerous sins one day. Rang wasn't delusional...so he definitely wasn't delusional enough to think he could actually come out on top in the afterlife. He'd fucked himself over, and that was that. An unalterable fact. Better to enjoy the time he had left than to spend it panicking over whatever happened...after.
And yet, Yeon was still talking.
"Just hear me out," he said, depositing his egg in Rang's bowl of noodles. Maybe he thought to bribe Rang into taking Taluipa's offer. "You'd only have a contract for a couple hundred years, ridding the world of evil spirits, misbehaving foxes—"
"You mean your old job? 'Cause I've always wanted to be just like you." Rang rolled his eyes.
"Hey!" Yeon made as if to hit Rang's head with his chopsticks, and Rang instinctively flinched, immediately regretting having done so. "After all the trouble you've caused, you should be grateful. You're only getting this offer because of your help defeating imoogi. And you know how stubborn the afterlife gods are. Do you think an opportunity like this is going to come up again?! Take advantage while you can." Yeon swirled his chopsticks around in his bowl and brought them up with a charitable amount of noodles. "Besides, you like beating people up. I'm just giving you a way to do it legally."
"Pass," Rang answered unaffectedly.
"Don't you want to get reincarnated?" Frustration bled through Yeon's voice.
"As a human? No. What I want is to eat my noodles without getting indigestion."
Yeon stared at him incredulously, and Rang would have smiled if he wasn't so irritated. Honestly, he would have grown tired of Yeon's needling long ago if he didn't enjoy annoying him so much. Even so, it had been a while since they'd shared a meal, just the two of them, and he'd hoped to avoid any talk of the afterlife or evil spirits or Taluipa or any number of topics that had recently plagued their existence. But no. Yeon had to bring this up.
The phone in Yeon's coat pocket vibrated, and Rang could tell the call was from Ji Ah by the nauseating smile that lit up Yeon's face.
"Ah, excuse me for one second. Ji Ah said she'd call after she got done with her doctor's appointment."
Rang waved him off, and Yeon stepped out of the restaurant to take the call. Through the clear glass of the restaurant window, Rang watched Yeon talk on the phone as he polished off his late lunch; whatever the doctor had to say must have been good, judging by the barely concealed excitement he glimpsed whenever Yeon turned to the side.
His brother and Ji Ah were having a baby—a mini Ji Ah—in three months. He'd been forced to look at ultrasound pictures a few weeks ago. Rang didn't think he'd wrap his head around the whole thing even when he saw the child in the flesh. Great. Another human in the family.
Rang stood up abruptly and snatched his own phone from his pants pocket. Glanced at the time.
His late lunch with Yeon—it had been more like early dinner—had run over, and now Rang was late for his standing Thursday appointment.
Heading for the door, Rang nearly collided with Yeon as he returned from outside.
"Sorry about that. Ji Ah said—"
"I have to go. Thanks for lunch. I'll pay for the next one."
"Tell Ji Ah I hope the kid's as smart as her so she can see through your bullshit," Rang said, rushing for the exit.
"Hey!" Yeon called after him. "What are you doing these days, anyway?!"
Over the past month since he'd seen Ga Eul at the restaurant with her friends, Rang had developed a less antagonistic view of Soo-oh's teacher.
They weren't friends, but she intrigued him, possibly because she was his very own antithesis—a living vessel of pure goodness, sweetness, and warmth. She didn't possess any of Ji Ah's cleverness—he could trick her easily if he put his mind to it—and usually people who weren't clever either bored or irritated him. Or both.
But what Ga Eul didn't have in street smarts, she made up for with an unreasonably endless supply of patience and goodwill. She never seemed to tire of Rang's insensitive remarks or his lack of manners or his careful evasions of her personal questions. In fact, she always acted like she was glad to see him, and that perplexed him more than anything had for a long, long time.
All the same, he'd decided not to question his interest in her too much. She was a welcome distraction from the boredom, nothing more. And she was pleasant to look at; he would admit that now.
And he was late.
When he entered the apartment—straightening his hair because he had not run through the lobby a moment ago—he heard the sound of Ga Eul's melodious voice, letting him know she was still in the apartment. He chucked off his dress shoes and slid noisily into his slippers, deciding he would act surprised that she was still there, as though he hadn't just left his brother holding the check at the ridiculously expensive restaurant Rang had suggested.
He turned the corner to see Ga Eul sitting on the couch, her eyes shut and her hands nestled primly in her lap, counting. As she hadn't noticed his arrival, or had chosen not to be distracted from her task, he took a moment to study her. Gray cardigan and skirt today. Her hair had been up in a neat bun earlier that day, he guessed, but by now stray hairs spilled sloppily over her pearl-studded ears and her bared neck and the edges of her white blouse. Faded pink lipstick, smudged minutely in one corner of her mouth, coated her supple lips, and he found himself drawn to those lips as she patiently counted, "Ninety...ninety-one...ninety-two...ninety-three...ninety-four...ninety-five—"
"What are you doing?" Rang asked.
Instead of answering, she cracked an eye open, held up one finger as a signal to wait and continued counting.
"Ninety-six...ninety-seven...ninety-eight...ninety-nine...one hundred! Ready or not, here I come!" she called out, then dropped her voice to a whisper and leaned towards Rang. "I promised Soo-oh I'd play hide-and-seek with him if he finished his work early. Yu Ri went to the parking garage to get something from her car if you're looking for her."
He hadn't been looking for Yu Ri; he supposed, technically, he'd been looking for Ga Eul, but that didn't bear mentioning.
"Then, for his sake, I hope you're worse at seeking than Soo-oh is at hiding," Rang commented, knowing the boy could probably hear him from whatever nook he'd not-so-cleverly ensconced himself in. That kid couldn't keep still for anything; she'd find him soon enough.
Ga Eul laughed.
"Don't put so much faith in me," she replied. "I don't live here. I'm already at a disadvantage. I don't know how I'll ever find him in an apartment this big." She'd raised her voice, and Rang realized she was lamenting for Soo-oh's benefit. The tactic reminded him of Yeon. She reminded him of Yeon. Again.
"I'll check my room," Rang offered. Soo-oh wasn't allowed in Rang's bedroom when Rang wasn't home, but that never stopped him from breaking in if he could, and given that Ga Eul probably told Soo-oh to hide somewhere in the shared living space instead of one of their bedrooms...Rang knew Soo-oh was in one of the bedrooms.
Most definitely Rang's.
Most definitely Rang's wardrobe.
"Oh, I told him not to hide in any of the bedrooms except for his," Ga Eul answered predictably.
"Ah," he responded. "Then I'm sure he followed your instructions to the letter." Sarcasm, intended to provoke her, that ultimately did nothing.
She smiled guilelessly and told him she'd start by searching Soo-oh's bedroom.
He humored her by returning her smile. When she'd left the room, he made his way to his own bedroom, intent on snuffing out the intruder. Well, that and freshening up a bit.
Rang shrugged off his suit jacket and opened his wardrobe.
"What did I tell you about trespassing in my room?" he commented, hardly sparing his puppy a glance as he hung up the pinstriped suit jacket over Soo-oh's head. The boy had wedged himself into the bottom of the wardrobe as he usually did when playing this game or whenever he wanted to hide in Rang's room and scare him while he was getting dressed.
Rather than showing an ounce of repentance, Soo-oh whispered, loudly, "Ahjussi! You can't tell her you found me." He shook his head as if that would help his case.
Rang methodically unbuttoned his shirt sleeves and rolled them up a quarter of the way. When he was satisfied with how they looked, he knelt down to Soo-oh's eye level and reprimanded, "Why not? You should have chosen a better hiding spot." He cocked his head sternly. His puppy didn't understand it yet, but Rang was trying to teach him a valuable lesson. There was no salvation in this world if a person didn't save themselves.
"Please, ahjussi!" his puppy begged, and Rang raised an unimpressed eyebrow. Should he make this into a teachable moment? Or let the puppy go bored out of his mind when his teacher failed to find him after so many minutes?
On second thought, it might be fun to mess with the little teacher for a while. Making up his mind, Rang let Soo-oh know he owed him later and closed the wardrobe door.
"Well, you're right. He's not in my room," Rang announced, shutting his bedroom door as he re-entered the living room.
"Really?" Ga Eul gave him an odd look. "Well, I couldn't find him in his room or anywhere out here, but I guess I'll check the living room again," she announced, smiling as she padded back over towards the couch. "Although it feels a little weird opening your closets."
"Most of the stuff out here isn't mine. It's Shin-joo's. He likes to keep house. He's more like a maid than a man."
Ga Eul giggled.
"Most women would like that," she said, then sat down on the couch instead of peeking inside any of the aforementioned closets. "A man who can cook and clean. Especially a man who can cook," she crossed her legs and leaned toward him as though she were offering him top secret information.
But why? Was that a hint? Was that the type of man Ga Eul liked? And why did that send an unbidden surge of jealousy through him?
Rang opened his mouth to say something about actual maids—he could afford them, and he could definitely buy her any type of dinner she wanted, even if he couldn't cook it himself, that is, if he wanted to buy her dinner, which he didn't—but instead he blurted out, "Shouldn't you be looking for Soo-oh?"
"Oh, I'm sure he'll come out eventually. When he gets bored," Ga Eul replied, settling herself more comfortably on the couch.
"You're awfully unconcerned with a kid who was left in your care."
"Oh no." Ga Eul shook her head. "I'm not concerned because I know that you know where he is." She gave him a searching glance. "Let me guess. Your closet? Under your bed?"
"Why would I lie about something like that?" Rang scoffed, re-evaluating her gullibility.
She giggled again, a spark in her eyes.
"It's not about why you would lie. I just know kids well enough to know how persuasive they can be. Especially if they don't want to be caught."
Rang didn't know what to say to that, but it turned out that he didn't have to say anything because, as if summoned there by her words earlier, the front door opened, and Shin-joo bustled in with grocery bags, interrupting his brief moment alone with Ga Eul. Yu Ri, giving Ga Eul an apologetic look, followed close behind the veterinarian-turned-house-husband.
"Sorry! It's past time for you to go, isn't it? I was so sure I left my phone in the car, but I couldn't find it anywhere," Yu Ri sulked.
"Oh no! It's fine." Ga Eul waved her hands, all too accommodating. "Soo-oh and I have been playing hide-and-seek."
"Soo-oh!" Shin-joo called out—already, his voice was giving Rang a headache. "Come out here! What did I tell you about putting stickers all over the bathroom mirror?!"
It took a few moments of searching on Shin-joo's part—Rang was no snitch—but soon enough, Shin-joo dragged Rang's puppy from the darkness of his bedroom, and so began a bout of intermittent scolding and wailing. And then Yu Ri perched on the edge of the couch to discuss Soo-oh's lessons with Ga Eul, and Rang was rendered invisible as he sat down on the opposite end of the couch and sighed. Things had been so blissfully quiet—not to mention, he and the teacher had been virtually alone—until the dynamic fox duo had burst in and ruined it.
"And then the dinosaur fell down, and there was this ginormous earthquake. But I saved everyone."
Soo-oh was supposed to be doing Math problems, but somehow he'd talked Ga Eul into hearing about the nightmare he'd had the night before. Rang had already heard several different versions of the tale. In the original version, Soo-oh had been chased down the street by a tyrannosaurus rex, nearly being eaten several times, before he'd woken up, crying, and Rang had let him sleep in his room for the rest of the night. Apparently, in this one, Soo-oh defeated the monstrous beast by trapping it in spider webs and shooting it with laser beams.
The kid had quite an imagination, Rang would give him that, but...laser beams? Come on. Spiderman didn't have laser beams.
He wondered if laser beams would work on zombies. That would have been helpful in the Forest of the Starved. Shivering, he dismissed the memory.
"Wow," Ga Eul intoned, in that voice of shock and awe she used to humor Soo-oh. "And you weren't scared?"
Soo-oh shook his head.
"He's scared of water!" the kid cried out suddenly, swiveling around and pointing at Rang, who shot him a murderous glare from his usual seat at the kitchen table. So much for protecting that puppy from invisible dinosaurs. From now on, he'd be on his own at night.
"Hey, quit spouting nonsense," Rang scolded. "Aren't you supposed to be working on your lesson? Your teacher can't stay here all night, and you can't be a superhero if you don't do well in school. So pay attention."
Soo-oh pouted, but before he could say anything further, Ga Eul chimed in, "He's right. Lesson first. Let's finish this page." She tapped her finger to the open page in Soo-oh's workbook. When the boy grumpily picked up his pencil and began writing again, Ga Eul turned her head to smile at Rang and mouthed, 'Thank you.'
She didn't look at him again for the remainder of the lesson, but he felt warm all over for the rest of the night.
Perhaps it was a consequence of Ga Eul having become good friends with Yu Ri, and not necessarily with him, but either way, Rang was glad she'd been invited to stay for dinner again, especially since he'd missed that first dinner so long ago.
Not that he announced that sentiment to anyone. When Shin-joo had mentioned she'd be staying for dinner after Soo-oh's lesson on Thursday night, Rang simply muttered an 'okay' and didn't look up from his computer screen.
But five minutes before Ga Eul was due to arrive, he found himself in his bedroom, scrutinizing five different dress shirts like he'd never had to choose what to wear before.
Black was his signature color, but since he wore it so often, perhaps he should wear a different color. Something that would make him stand out. Yu Ri had passed by his room some time ago, wearing a black dress.
His white dress shirt with his white suit. Rang snapped his fingers and wrestled the recently dry cleaned suit out of his wardrobe. That would do it. Ga Eul liked good guys—guys like Shin-joo—and good guys wore white, right?
They did in the movies, anyway, and Ga Eul seemed like the type to sit alone in a theatre crying over some knight in shining armor. And Rang could pretend to be anyone for an evening.
A few minutes later, satisfied with his choice of attire, Rang emerged from his bedroom to find Ga Eul already sitting on the floor, engrossed in Soo-oh's lesson, which she'd spread out on the coffee table, like always.
She smiled when she noticed him standing there, a lovely expression that started at her mouth and ended at her eyes, lighting up her whole face.
"Can someone chop these vegetables over here? I got a late start with dinner," Shin-joo called out. Of course when referring to 'someone,' Shin-joo had meant Yu Ri. He always meant Yu Ri because it was a known fact that Rang did not cook anything for anyone. Not even himself.
So Shin-joo's eyes bugged out of his head when Rang sauntered over and announced he would do it. He would chop the vegetables.
"Do you even know how to use that thing?" Shin-joo pointed at the knife Rang had picked up, and honestly, could he talk any louder?
"You think I don't know how to use a knife? Me?" Rang growled, low enough that only Shin-joo would hear. He swatted the menacing tip of the blade in Shin-joo's direction.
"Right, right. Of course." Shin-joo picked up another knife that had been lying on the counter next to the one Rang held. "But this is the correct knife to chop green onions with."
An hour and three near-misses at chopping off his fingers later, Rang sat down next to Ga Eul for a meal of doenjang-jjigae with rice and kimchi. Steaming bowls of the soybean paste stew had been placed in front of them, laden with onions, chili pepper, garlic, shrimp, tofu, anchovies, potatoes, zucchini, and green onions—half of which, he would like to point out, he had helped prepare himself.
There might be some blood in the stew.
"Mmm, Shin-joo, this is almost as good as my mother makes it," Ga Eul commented upon taking her first bite. "Of course, nothing can be quite as good as hers," she continued, almost apologetically, and Shin-joo beamed from his seat opposite Rang.
"There's plenty left in the pot. Eat as much as you want," Shin-joo offered.
"Oh my god," Yu Ri groaned over her empty spoon. "You're right." She playfully pushed Shin-joo's arm and grinned. "Your food keeps getting better and better."
Shin-joo blushed, and Rang wanted to groan also but for an entirely different reason. Even Soo-oh, seated at the end of the table, slurped down the stew like he hadn't eaten in days.
Rang opened his mouth to say that Shin-joo's cooking was entirely adequate and that it was really his proper application of vegetable cutting techniques that brought the flavor out, but before he could, Ga Eul turned to him and placed a helping of kimchi on top of his untouched rice.
"Tonight we're going to break the curse of the kimchi," she explained. "If you can eat that without spilling it on me, I think we're in the clear." If it were another person, he would have thought they were truly mocking him, but she'd said it in such a matter-of-fact tone and followed it with such a genuine smile that it took him a moment to realize she was teasing him. In a friendly way. Like they were friends.
"Oh, I remember that!" Yu Ri mumbled around a bite of rice. She swallowed, ignoring the look Rang gave her. "Did you ever get that stain out of your shirt?"
"Uh...not totally." Ga Eul pulled a face, then shrugged. "But I didn't like the shirt much to begin with, so I just took myself shopping." She grinned.
"I couldn't get the stain out of my shoes either," Rang chimed in, drawing her attention back to him. "I had to buy another pair."
"Really?" Ga Eul twisted her head, frowning. "I thought you just wiped it off with the paper towel."
"That was Italian leather." He gave her a dubious look. "You think stains come out of Italian leather that easily?"
"Unlike those patent leather shoes of yours. But what's a couple million won to me, anyway?" He sighed and stirred the kimchi into his rice.
"What? A c-couple m-million..." Ga Eul stared at him, wide-eyed, for a long moment before realization crept over her face. Relief. Then her eyes narrowed.
"It was a joke," he mumbled in clarification. "I'm joking."
"You were joking," Ga Eul remarked slowly. "You were joking, so you had to insult my shoes? My shoes are perfectly fine, thank you. And, unlike your fragile Italian ones, they can withstand paint wars and juice spills and clumsy child guardians spilling kimchi on them." She mimicked Yu Ri's playful slap on the arm from earlier, then began gulping down stew like nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.
Except that Yu Ri covered a laugh with her hand and Shin-joo gave him a look he didn't want to decipher.
"Ahjussi, can we play the racing game?!" Having emptied his bowl, Soo-oh bounced up and down in his chair, oblivious to the entire situation.
By the time dinner ended, Soo-oh had convinced Ga Eul to play his favorite video game with him and Rang. The 'racing game' Rang let him win occasionally when he was feeling generous. Rang was no Yeon in that respect; he wouldn't just hand his puppy the victory every time. But he wasn't heartless, and Soo-oh wasn't bad at the game. The poor kid just didn't have Rang's lightning fast reflexes.
Soo-oh always used the solid white controller; Rang always used the solid black one. There were two more controllers, an extra black one and a pale blue one that Yu Ri used whenever she played with them.
Ga Eul chose the black one, and maybe he shouldn't have assigned any special meaning to that choice, but he could, and he would. And he did.
Blue struck him as more her color, but she'd chosen black.
And maybe he was being ridiculous now.
And maybe he didn't care.
Abruptly, Ga Eul reached up and undid the hair tie holding her hair up. She shook her hair out, the silky strands gathering loosely around her shoulders. To his surprise, she didn't pile her hair back on top of her head more neatly like she usually did but left her hair tie around her wrist and her hair down. She plopped down next to Rang on the couch so that he sat between her and Soo-oh, breathing in her perfume.
"I'm not very good at video games," she confessed, almost in his ear, as she sank further into the couch cushions. As she selected a car on the screen, Ga Eul worried her bottom lip—a nervous habit of hers, he'd realized, that was more attractive than it ought to have been.
Rang swallowed and looked resolutely at the screen; he didn't say anything to her little confession. Already, he was too aware of her presence—he wanted to run his hands through her hair just to see if it was as soft as it looked—and where the hell had that thought come from?!
Ga Eul spoke the truth. She was horrible at video games—she constantly forgot which button was which—but Rang had fun watching her frustration boil over when she lost. At first, he'd thought maybe she was trying to be bad for Soo-oh's benefit, but then Soo-oh got called away to wash up for bed, and Rang talked her into playing against him alone, just one more race, and, yeah, she had no idea what she was doing no matter how hard she pretended to know.
Of course, that didn't mean Rang made it easier on her. In fact, he scored as many extra points as he could—despite the suit and his attempt at good behavior preparing dinner, he was that type of asshole. Which led to her protesting adorably—adorably?—about every disadvantage she could possibly have—and some she really couldn't—and slapping him on the arm—again, multiple times—when he quipped that he was glad she wasn't on the road in real life.
When Shin-joo appeared to let them know it was Soo-oh's bedtime—and ask if they could just keep it down—Rang felt a rare surge of embarrassment. He'd been so busy laughing his ass off, he'd forgotten anyone else was in the apartment.