031

DERANGER
you are pushing your trolly around the supermarket when you pass by the snacks aisle. you don't usually stop there, knowing nothing is worth buying.
 
but your eyes glimpse a section filled with coloured cans you know your lover is particularly fond of.
 
so, you stop and think.
 
after a bit of contemplation, you put five long cans in your trolly. then you stare at your grocery, changing your mind last minute by putting two cans back in the aisle.
 
no. you won't allow her to eat this much unhealthy food in a week.
 
your phone then beeps. seulgi says she's inside. you tell her your location.
 
it was her graduation ceremony that morning. you let her spend some time alone with her mum and joy since you still have work to finish after the event.
 
you told them to have fun. seulgi promised she'd be back by dinner and requested that you prepare that special burger patty recipe you recently come up with. she loves it so much you had it for dinner for three days straight after the first time she tried it.
 
a few more seconds, and seulgi appears from the aisle.
 
"hey. you got everything in here?" she takes the trolly from you, eyeing the items. "am i only imagining things, or did you purposely put three cans of pringles in here?"
 
you chuckle. "that's the special dinner you requested for."
 
"oh. so, this is it? no cooking or anything?"
 
"yup. that's it."
 
"and i thought that the special dinner was you."
 
you slap her arm. "yah! i bought some ingre--"
 
"irene!"
 
you immediately turn at the call, eyes widening at the sight of your sister approaching.
 
"unni... w-what are you doing here?" you unconsciously place a hand over your heart.
 
seulgi looks at you, then at your sister.
 
jihye points at her trolly. "shopping. need to prepare for the retreat, remember? have you not been reading our group chats? i'm on leave now."
 
"ah. yeah. the retreat."
 
"were you two shopping together?" jihye looks at you and seulgi.
 
you immediately parted from seulgi after realising how you two are close.
 
"ah. no, unni. i was looking around when i saw her." you touch seulgi's arm. "by the way, this is my student--or, was my student--kang seulgi. and seulgi, this is my sister, jihye unni."
 
"it's a pleasure to meet you, doc." seulgi bows. you're quite amazed at how calm she seems. "i'm not sure if you remember, but you've given me a doctor's letter before to help me get back to my classes."
 
jihye's jaw drops. "oh. was that you?"
 
seulgi nods. "and i would like to take this chance to thank you for your help. i wouldn't have graduated today if it wasn't for you."
 
"really? wow. congratulations! glad to be of help!"
 
"thank you." seulgi gestures to the trolly. "i was shopping for some ingredients when i ran into professor bae. i'm glad i finally get to meet you too."
 
jihye smiles. "pleasure's all mine."
 
"i will always be grateful for what you've done." seulgi bows again. "if there's anything i can do to repay, let me know."
 
jihye waves a hand. "no need. it's a--" she pauses. "hold on. i have thought of something just now."
 
you look at your sister.
 
"our church is hosting a retreat the day after tomorrow. if you have nothing else to do over the weekend, i would be delighted to see you there. all expenses covered. you only need to bring yourself and some clothes."
 
"unni, it's a three-day event. seulgi might be busy," you say.
 
"ah. no. it's fine, professor." seulgi waves a hand. "it's so nice of you to invite me, doc. but am i allowed to attend there even i'm not part of your congregation?"
 
"that's fine. in fact, it's our tradition to invite guests," jihye says. "there will be fun activities and nice food. i'm sure you'll enjoy it."
 
"i see. then it'll be my pleasure to be there."
 
you look at seulgi, wondering how can she agree to this so quickly.
 
"nice!" jihye claps. "i'll have irene here email you the details, okay?"
 
"gotcha." seulgi gestures to the trolly. "i should pay these now. it's nice meeting you, doc. and bumping into you as well, professor. enjoy the rest of the evening, ladies."
 
"take care..." jihye nudges you when seulgi's out of earshot. "she's quite a charmer, isn't she?"
 
---
 
"you haven't told me you have a retreat coming up," seulgi says over dinner.
 
you sigh. "i'm sorry. i forgot about that. i was so occupied with your graduation i didn't realise it's the time of this year."
 
seulgi opens a can of coke and drinks from it. "what's going to happen there?"
 
"just a few session programmes to build rapport and help strengthen faith. it's usually three days and two nights."
 
"sounds fun."
 
"the sessions are usually religious or life-related." you grab the coke from seulgi and lean back on your chair to chug it. "but the food is nice, and the place too. there's beautiful scenery outside that centre."
 
"will your ex be there?"
 
"i don't think so. he and his family don't attend events like that."
 
"that's great. lesser awkwardness for us." she chuckles.
 
"but are you sure you want to come? we can't be together there like this, you know?"
 
seulgi purses her lips as she thinks. "er... but will i still be able to see you?"
 
you hum to agree. "we'll surely be in the same contemplative programme and activities. but i'd probably be rooming with my family. as for you, they might pick someone randomly."
 
"ooh. exciting!"
 
you glare at your lover.
 
"what?" seulgi reaches out to take the coke from your hand, but you hold it tight.
 
"if you ever try sleeping with someone in there, i swear i'm going to break up with you."
 
"what?" seulgi furrows her brows. "i'm not like that." she pulls away to sit back down. "i won't cheat on you, irene. i swear that to whomever gods you are praying to at night."
 
you can sense her mood changing. "i was only kidding. why do you look upset."
 
"because you always say things like that, and i hate it." seulgi hisses. "i only want to see you there, okay? i want to see your other side, how you are with your family, with your churchmates. i'm fine even if you can't introduce me as your partner. i only want to be exposed to that other side of yours."
 
despite seulgi's obvious irritation, her words make you smile.
 
you put the coke down and stand to your feet. you make your way around the table to hug her from behind.
 
"hey. i'm sorry." you kiss her cheek. "it's just that this is all new to me. i'm excited, to be honest. but i am worried too, knowing you are very likeable. but i swear i trust you."
 
seulgi holds your arm. "i would never do something like that to you."
 
"i know. i know." you hug her tight. "forgive me?"
 
seulgi untangles herself from your hold and pulls you to sit on her lap.
 
you squeal a bit.
 
"alright. forgiven." she wraps her arms around your waist to support you. "i'm curious tho. why did your sister invite me there?"
 
"well, inviting guests is one of their ways to grow our members," you say, fixing her hair. "expect everyone to be kind to you because they are all hoping that by the end of the event, you'll decide to join us."
 
"join you like... convert to your religion?"
 
"yeah. definitely that."
 
"oh."
 
"but they will not force you. i can assure you that."
 
"fair." seulgi nuzzles her face into the side of your head. "as long as i get to see you and eat nice food, i'm okay with everything. besides, that might be a perfect place for me to think about my life too, of what next step i should take with my career. who knows, the retreat might help me in some ways."
 
"can you promise me you'll not join our sect after?"
 
seulgi laughs. then she starts tickling you until your screams fill the room.
 
---
 
you can already tell that your family likes seulgi.
 
you can't blame them. seulgi surely knows her way with people.
 
she's immediately invited to breakfast when she arrived at your parent's house.
 
your dad happily joined in the conversation when seulgi and eunwoo started talking about instruments.
 
your mum even told you to make sure you sit beside seulgi on the coaster so she won't feel left out while you travel to the retreat centre.
 
your sister, jihye, is also making sure seulgi's properly fed by asking her every hour if she's hungry or not.
 
seulgi's also acting well towards you, not forgetting your student-professor relationship whenever people are around.
 
you feel a bit awkward somehow, but seulgi seems to be enjoying the company of your family.
 
and you, you're trying your best not to cling onto her whenever she's near. it's quite a challenge now, given how you've grown comfortable around her.
 
but it's all worth it, you think. because despite introducing seulgi to your family as your previous student from the university, having them know of her existence in your life makes you somewhat happy.
 
you may not be able to introduce her as your lover, but you're happy to know that they like her as a person.
 
---
 
the retreat centre is located on a hillside with a mountain-top view. it's a three-storey lodge with a terrace adjacent to a forest.
 
it is a perfect place to spend events like this, away from the noise and bustle of the city.
 
you love going here as it gives you peace. and having seulgi experience the place too makes you twice happier this time around.
 
the first programme immediately starts upon your arrival. seulgi and the other guests were officially introduced to everyone.
 
after the briefing, you were ushered to the dining area for lunch. seulgi sat with your family. they still throw questions at her from time to time, which she answers well--making sure to leave the facts you know would raise an eyebrow.
 
they ask seulgi if she has a boyfriend. she says she's looking to focus on her career for now.
 
you almost choke when eunwoo says seulgi looks like a girl magnet. jihye agrees. seulgi smiles at them.
 
another programme rolled in after lunch. this time, the facilitators announced the room arrangements.
 
your parents are together, of course. you will be sharing a room with your sister as her husband isn't around due to a seminar. eunwoo would be with one of his friends.
 
while seulgi will be rooming with a girl named tzuyu.
 
it shouldn't have bothered you because you know tzuyu's family since you were young. in fact, you were in the same choir group as her older brother.
 
but the squeal that came out from tzuyu's group of friends after the facilitator's announcement, and the way they tease tzuyu when seulgi shakes her hand, makes you feel uneasy.
 
you take a good look at tzuyu--a pretty shy-looking kid who's way taller than you are. and she's having a hard time looking at seulgi's face like she's embarrassed to the bones.
 
it's only three days and two nights. you are seriously hoping everything would go well.
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