Eun Cheol was grateful he’d thought to visit Dusik on Sunday night after his shift, but he was also grateful to leave.
It had been four days since he’d watched Chief Hong wave farewell to the back of Hyejin’s car, off to a professional conference in Daegu. She wasn’t due back until tomorrow afternoon, and the Mr Available 24/7 had slowly transformed into Mr Irritable 24/7 as the week had progressed. Having been told off or sent away by friends and employers fed up with his crabby attitude, Dusik had banished himself to the mountain to tinker with his boat.
Always brave in the name of civic duty, Eun Cheol was ready to sacrifice himself for the evening if it eased some of his friend’s agitated loneliness. He entered the door code and let himself in, the smell of lemon oil, cleaning vinegar, and rosemary rising from every surface in the scrubbed clean house.
Finding Dusik in his kitchen, he examined the teapot of hot water taking the brunt of a scowl of disgust.
“How did it offend you,” Eun Cheol asked, keeping his smile to himself.
“I’ve been brewing nothing for the last five minutes. I forgot the tea.”
The younger man took over, prying the glass jar of loose leaf from Chief Hong’s whiteknuckle grip before it broke.
“Twelve more hours?”
“Fourteen, at least,” Dusik grumbled.
“Have you heard from her?”
“Texts at night. The conference program has them on the go from dawn until midnight. But nothing this evening so far. Why are you here?”
“Borrow a book,” Eun Cheol shrugged, pouring the plain water from the teapot back into the kettle. He’d read most of Dusik’s novels by this point in their friendship, but there was always something. “Anything new?”
Dusik waved at the pile under the plant table against the wall.
“Check that stack,” he said dismissively, checking his phone.
The pair of men ended up at opposite ends of the couch, reading their own books until the second pot was empty, and the house had been left in a gentle silence for hours. Dusik had put on a record when they’d first sat down, but it had ended long ago, and he was too occupied pretending to read to select another. It was nearly midnight, and Eun Cheol hadn’t heard Dusik’s phone buzz once.
An aggressive knock on the door startled them both. Frowning, Dusik went to see who was there. The moment he opened the door, arms flew around his neck, nearly toppling him as they pulled him down onto the step. Her scent hit him before all his other senses caught up. Burying his nose in her loose hair, he breathed in flowers and relief.
“How are you here?” he asked, eyes skimming down her tailored business suit and silk blouse. “Are you okay?”
“No,” she deadpanned, her eyes liquid and wide as they met his. Anxiety flushed through him.
“What’s wrong, tell me?”
Behind him he heard a muffled laugh, and threw Eun Cheol a Look. He patted Dusik on the shoulder while he slipped on his shoes.
“She missed you, that’s what’s wrong.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to drive you out,” Hyejin blushed, “you’re welcome to stay, I can come by tomorrow instead.”
“I know my place here,” he said kindly. “If the situation was reversed, and I hadn’t seen my girlfriend in days and she showed up, I’d have Dusik out on the curb before she could get her shoes off.
The complicated part was that words like girlfriend and boyfriend were still jarringly new to Hyejin and Dusik. Often at a loss to know what the other was feeling about their relationship, they’d reached a mutual hesitation on progressing further, neither willing to push at the other’s perceived boundaries.
For weeks, a quiet embrace has been the extent of their intimacy, with the occasional pink-cheeked peck, and it had been enough.
Alone in the entranceway now, Dusik wrapped his arms around her middle and let his chin rest on the top of her head. All his rough edges smoothed, the frantic quest for distraction, the crabby lethargy. She was home.
“Is this a hello-and-goodnight, or do you have time to stay a bit?” he asked, praying she’d say she’d stay.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said, her voice muffled by his shoulder. “I gave up a lecture on neural crest cell migration tomorrow morning to be here.”
Easing his hold on her, she looked past his shoulder to spot the tea cups on the table.
“I am sorry to interrupt your evening.”
“We were just reading,” he dismissed. “Have you eaten? You look tired.”
She slipped off her shoes, took his hand and led him to the couch to look at him.
“Just a little sore after driving.”
Biting his lip, he did a rapid assessment of the situation.
“Here,” he said, leaning back against the arm of the sofa. He raised one leg to rest along the back of the cushions, the other down on the floor, and patted the space in front of him. “Boyfriends are meant to be useful, are they not?”
She eyed him suspiciously, but came and sat in the gap. Her knees raised self-consciously, she felt him turn her away from him so she was presenting her back and shoulders.
“Jacket off,” he said, averting his eyes while she removed it despite the perfectly modest blouse underneath.
“Tell me where it hurts,” he said in a mock-professional tone, breathing into his fingers to warm them. Blushing, she swept aside her hair and pointed out the spots.
“Are you a masseuse as well,” she teased.
“Today I will be,” he answered, taking a steadying breath before starting gentle pressure with the calloused pads of his fingers. Her muscles were tight, knots dotting the stiff angles.
“How was the conference?” he asked, prepared to hear more than he probably wanted to know about human teeth.
By the time Dusik had worked his way down her neck and across both shoulders, eliciting several unexpected moans from his victim/patient, she had talked herself out and fallen asleep. He closed his eyes, savouring the weight, warmth, shape of the woman in his arms, cradled against his body. It was surreal that she was here now, and a delight she’d come straight home to him.
She should go home, he thought. Change out of her business clothes, get some proper sleep in a proper bed, but he had no desire to see her move or leave. A sense of peace followed her, even when she was at her most chaotic, and he wanted to bask in it like sunlight. He was going to stick to her like a burr tomorrow, maybe the day after too, haunting her with made up excuses until she scolded him.
Dropping a kiss on the top of her head, he sighed, content.
I’ll wake her in a few minutes, he lied.
It was dark when he woke alone to the sound of a clatter and a quiet curse from the kitchen.
Disoriented, he let his eyes adjust to the sole source of light, the kitchen nightlight. Something was moving, or someone. Uncertain if this was real or a nightmare, he rose silently, coming around the open shelving.
His eyes grew wide, taking in the domestic scene.
Hyejin wore one of his plaid flannel button downs, the sleeves rolled at the elbows. It was long enough it draped to her mid-thighs, the cutaway up the side revealing a peek of sensible white underwear. At the top it gaped around her slim form, resting against her shoulders like an evening gown, forming a sweetheart neckline down to the first button.
Sitting on the edge of the dinner table, her bare legs swung to the rhythm of the song she softly hummed. She was eating peanut butter straight from the jar with a spoon and a smile, her hair a messy pile atop her head. He caught a flash of yellow against the black as she moved. The bun had been stuck through with the pencil from his crossword puzzle book.
It took him a moment to catch the familiar tune of the melancholy song he’d once sung at the coffee shop, her mood brightening the notes.
Pressure formed in his chest, watching her be so at home in his house, queen of his tiny kitchen. She was real, his subconscious had never produced anything so beautiful.
“I’m so sorry, did I wake you?” Hyejin gasped, covering her mouth, “I got hungry. I also borrowed a shirt, hope you don’t mind, my clothes were too uncomfortable to sleep in, I left them on your be-“
Her words were background noise to the pounding in his chest. He was mesmerized, drawn in with painfully acute adoration.
“Dusik?” she said when he didn’t respond, “are you sleepwalking?”
He approached her, her eyes watching curiously. Slowly enough she could pull away or object, he slid a hand behind her neck, the other settling on her lower thigh. He leaned in, her knees parting to allow him nearer.
Capturing her mouth, he kissed her.
Her toes curled against his jeans, accepting it enthusiastically. He was never going to be able to eat peanut butter again without coming back to this moment.
He felt like he was going to pass out, his ears ringing, his head spinning, but she grounded him. Leaning into his kiss, Hyejin pressed her knees to his hips. The spoon and nearly empty plastic container clatter to the floor as she dropped them. Reflexively he began to move away from her to pick them up but stopped, instead doubling down on his focus on her.
The mess could wait, he thought desperately, sealing his mouth over hers.
She cupped his jaw and throat, her thumb stroking his cheek bones, her fingers pressing gently into his pulse. After a moment, she whispered “are you okay”?
He kissed her harder, teasing in past her lips.
“Dusik,” she said weakly after a moment, easing away, prompting him to respond. He leaned his forehead to hers, his breathing loud.
He closed his eyes, nodding, trying to smile reassuringly and failing in the urgency of his own need, unable to form words. Gripping the fabric at his sides, Hyejin summoned him back down to her.
He slid his hands under her bottom, tugging her to the edge of the table. Her legs wound around his body. The length of her body was flush with his, the heat of her warming him. Angling her head back slowly, her weight leaning on his bracing arm, he pressed his lips to her throat and removed the pencil. Her loose hair pooled over his elbow, trickling through his fingers. He swirled his fingertips into it, not pulling, but letting it catch and slide to the rhythm of the pulse he could feel throbbing through her neck under his mouth. His cheek and nose pushed at the collar of the shirt, straining the top button, revealing fresh territory for his explorations.
Feeling a moment’s resistance, Dusik broke off, giving her space. Hyejin’s face was determined in the dim kitchen light. Her knees tightened on him, holding him in place. Gripping the bottom of her borrowed shirt, she pulled it up over her head all at once instead of using the buttons. The fabric dangled from her fist for a moment before she dropped it. She watched his face.
Dusik exhaled, his breathing shaky.
His eyes focused on hers as if he didn’t want to be disrespectful despite her offerings. Smiling at his shy response, Hyejin threaded her arms around his neck and kissed him until he forgot everything but the moment they were in. Captivated, his hands found their own way to the soft line of her spine, her waist, drawing her in closer against him.
Over his shoulders he felt a tickle, slow up strokes he didn’t understand until a draft through the window caressed his lower back. Smiling against her lips, he realized Hyejin was sneakily gathering up his shirt into her palms like she was raising a sail. He let her, waiting until all he had to do was duck his head to slip it off. It fell to the floor with the other debris, forgotten.
Hyejin’s unreserved interest in the broad planes and intricate lines of his body emboldened him, allowing his hands to edge closer to the sides of her breasts while they kissed. Hye Jin shifted, angling her body so the heavy curve half rested in his palm. A whisper of a moan encouraged him, his head swimming as he watched her eyes close.
Daring to finally look down, it felt surreal that he could see, could touch, a part of her that he had to admit had caught his attention from the first day they’d met. Her skin glowed golden in the kitchen light. Tipped with warm sandy brown, it moved like silk under his calloused fingers as he gently rubbed at the pressure lines left by sleeping in her bra.
Trailing his touch down the taper of her waist, he grazed the elastic of her underwear then moved his fingers away with a flash of guilt.
God, she’s beautiful, ran on repeat in his mind. He gathered her in, hoping she knew how precious she was to him when he was lost for words.
The gentle compression of her breasts against his bare chest almost undid him. She kissed away his gasp, rocking into him.
“I’ve got you,” she said. Her tone was tender, sinking her fingers into his hair, but he could hear the tension in her voice. Sweeping his hands down her waist, he let his thumb brush the thin fabric below the waistband. She squirmed, releasing a pant of a breath. His suspicions were correct: Hyejin was experiencing the same intense need he was trying to rein in.
“I’ve got you,” he was finally able to whisper in response. She kissed him while he searched his memory for the methods of what to do next. Curving his fingers under the elastic, he slowly explored the heat of her. Hyejin dropped her head to his shoulder, receiving his careful movements.
The roar in his ear grew louder, though all her sounds were soft, until a cry broke from her. She tensed against him, her heels digging into the back of his thighs.
“Dusik,” she said helplessly, lost to the feel of his long fingers bringing her to crisis. He revelled in her loss of composure, in his success, dropping open mouthed kisses down her throat. Her face was scarlet as she steadied herself. He wondered absently how much she would blush next time if he asked to use his mouth.
Picking her up off the table, he carried his girl to the couch and laid her down to admire.
He could let her sleep now, with those flushed cheeks and contented smile. It was late, she’d had a long day. A gentleman should let her drift off now, he thought. One hand splayed over her navel, the other encircled her thigh, his thumb brushing slowly under her knee. There would be other times, other nights. He would satisfy himself with her satisfaction, pleased that he’d pleased her.
But Hyejin rose up and kissed Dusik again, and kissed him, and kissed him, until the last of his restraint-disguised-fear began to ease, and his only thought was more.
“Look at me,” she whispered, taking his face in her hands. His eyes focused on her.
“You make me so happy,” she said, smiling.
It felt like fireworks exploding inside of him, letting go.
Relief and lust mixed in a heady combination, his inhibitions evaporating with the understanding she wanted this, wanted him, as much as he wanted her. He touched her more freely, soaking up her reactions. She teased him, made him laugh as she tried to remove his pants, infusing their lovemaking with playfulness.
He loved her enthusiasm once her mind was set on something. His cool collected Hyejin was turned feral by the arching of his back over her, the slow careful tempo he set. Her recklessness was contagious as she made demands, until he was lost to heat and sensation.
“You good?” she asked, her voice sounding younger than usual, unguarded.
It was such a simple question, but he couldn’t remember the last time he could answer so honestly.
“I am,” he said. “Shamelessly so.”
“Be shameless with me, Dusik,” she urged him sleepily, his name rolling off her tongue so easily he smiled. “Take what you need, make demands. It’s only fair.”
“You’ve been so patient while I’ve been all over the place since we met,” he breathed into her hair. His hands felt permanently stuck to her skin, resting on her back and hip where she lay over him on the couch.
“Sometimes the world makes people harder,” she murmured, tracing the freckles on his arm, “sometimes it makes people softer, so soft they lose their own edges.” He held his breath as she ghosted a kiss over his heart. “There’s no shame in needing time to rediscover the shape of who you are.”
It was suspiciously quiet for a moment. Hyejin reached up to stroke the tear away from the corner of his eye. He cleared his throat.
“Next time you’re hungry, just wake me,” he scolded, aiming for his usual tone. She had the grace to ignore how much he was off the mark. “I’ll make you something so you don’t resort to eating condiments.”
“I can fend for myself,” she said, “it was dark and I didn’t want to wake you.”
“Just wake me next time, I’ve seen the disaster you leave in your wake in the kitchen. The floor’s a mess right now.”
“I can’t wake you every single time I’m hungry,” she said, exasperated.
“Oh, you’ll be here a lot, will you?” he teased, her cheek heating against his collarbone while she gave him a light smack on the shoulder.
“You’ll have to change your door code to keep me out,” she said, snuggling closer into him. He breathed a short laugh, smoothing his palms over her bare skin.
“Oh God, I do need to change it,” he said suddenly, looking between his naked girlfriend and the front door only a few steps away.
“Why’s that?” she asked, missing his tone. Dusik mentally prepared for her explosion.
“Half the village knows my door code.”