95 Shes a Keeper Pt.2

    Through the foggy window of the storage house, Jimin eyed the sanatorium. It was a shoddy building that was in desperate need of repair as prominent cracks decorated its pillars like tiny fissures on the walls. Jimin's lips formed a tight line the longer he deliberated on the fact that one of the Waekugin, his esteemed guests, was being hospitalised in an environment more befitting of a peasant.

    The thought alone made him blush.

    I hope that the royal physicians have come to visit him already, he mused as he distractedly distributed the loaves of bread to the vagabonds. This will reflect badly on the kingdom if one of the diplomats perish under our hospitality.

    "Chim Chim?"

    Jimin snapped out of his reverie as he directed his attention to the sound of a feminine voice. He had been so immersed in his thoughts of the Waekugin that he hadn't realised who was in front of him. A frown tugged at his lips when he saw who it was.

    "What?" he replied curtly.

    Gyuri nervously fiddled with her sleeve. "Can I- can I talk to you?"

    After distributing the last of his loaves, Jimin leaned back against the wall while regarding her with suspicion. He didn't know why he always acted so coldly towards Gyuri. When he was with Mayu, he didn't mind her presence at all. But with Gyuri... There was just something about her that made him feel he had to always stay on guard.

    "About what?"

    "Erm..." she mumbled. "I- I guess I just wanted to chat with you. Get to know you more."

    Jimin arched his brow at her response.

    "You come to the soup kitchen so frequently" Gyuri pointed out. "And you even help out when you don't need to." She scratched her head as she continued to remark, "And I guess it's strange that we've never really had the chance to talk."

    Jimin remained quiet as he stared at the young maid.

    "So..." Gyuri said, her voice losing confidence, "do you wanna... talk?"

    "If you have time to talk" Jimin answered coldly, "then you have time to work instead." He was about to walk away when he spotted Zeren glaring at him from the other end of the storage house.

    What? Jimin mouthed.

    Zeren's face morphed into an unimpressed expression as he leered at Jimin. It appears he had been watching them from afar. Talk to her! Zeren mouthed back.

    I do not want to.

    Zeren's eyebrows arched even higher. Don't forget our challenge, his gaze said.

    Jimin scowled.

    I've been keeping my end of the deal, Zeren signalled by emphasising the distance between himself, Pho and Gyuri with his arms. So, you should keep yours. He jutted his chin out as if to point at Gyuri, who had started to retreat. Talk to her!

    Jimin rubbed his neck as he reluctantly cleared his throat to catch Gyuri's attention. "On second thought..."

    Gyuri peered at him.

    "We should- we should talk" he stuttered. Begrudgingly, he added, "You are right. Even though I have been coming to the soup kitchen frequently, I have not had much of an opportunity to talk with you."

    Gyuri smiled, taking Jimin by surprise. It was the same smile that, unknown to him, made his heart flutter ever so slightly. "Great, then, erm..." Gyuri searched the storage room for inspiration. "What should we, er, talk about?"

    Internally, Jimin groaned, I really do not want to do this... But as much as he disliked talking to women, his unbroken streak of accomplished challenges was something he took pride in. For Jimin, breaking it because of a woman would be his greatest tragedy. "I do not know" he grumbled. "You suggested it, so you pick a topic."

    Gyuri furrowed her brows at his unenthusiastic tone. "Fine then" she retorted. "Why don't we start with something easy?" She folded her arms across her chest as she brazenly demanded, "Tell me about your childhood."

    Jimin matched Gyuri's impudent stare. "There is nothing interesting to say."

    "Sure, there is" she coerced, "I mean, you grew up with monks, right? Why don't you tell me more about them?"

    "How did you know I grew up with monks? I never told you that."

    "I heard from Zeren" Gyuri carelessly divulged.

    Jimin frowned as he quickly shot daggers at Zeren's turned back. "I see..." He met eyes with Gyuri again before questioning, "what else did he tell you about me?"

    With a sly smile, Gyuri replied, "He told me that you're as stubborn as a mule. You're also witty when you want to be and..." Gyuri's voice trailed off and Jimin gaped at her expectantly.

    "And?" he prompted.

    "And..." Gyuri began but then just smiled. "The third thing he told me is confidential."

    Jimin was perplexed.

    "It's nothing bad, I promise you" Gyuri reassured him, but her unflattering grin was anything but comforting. She leaned in closely as she teased, "But I gotta say, you have a good eye. She's definitely a keeper."

    "She?" Jimin repeated, even more puzzled. "What are you talking about? Who is she?"

    Gyuri backed away and refused to say anything more on the topic much to Jimin's dismay. Instead, she shifted the conversation onto something else. "I've always wondered, what's it like working in the palace?"

    Reluctantly, Jimin replied, "It is... interesting to the say the least." He pinched his nose bridge as he was suddenly reminded of the mountain of papers that he needed to read before meeting with the Waekugin consul. Thinking about it made his head hurt.

    "Really?" he heard Gyuri say. "Is it as grand as everyone makes it out to be?"

    "It is the royal palace" Jimin wearily responded while fighting the urge to roll his eyes. "So, of course, it is grand."

    Ignoring his sass, Gyuri questioned further, "Then, have you seen the emperor?"

    At this, Jimin flinched.

    "I heard he's handsome" Gyuri continued to say while trying to imagine what he looked like. "All the maids back at the household say he's gorgeous."

    Heat rose up Jimin's cheeks at the unexpected compliment. She thinks I am handsome? Surprisingly, Jimin felt a tinge of happiness at Gyuri's words. After all, it was his first time being complimented by a woman other than his sister. The royal maids in the palace were too afraid to ever approach him. And there was also the matter of his reluctance to approach them...

    "But then again," Gyuri added, "I might be wrong. He might just be a wrinkly, old man. You never know."

    Jimin's face instantly fell. "The emperor is not an old man!" he exclaimed, causing the peasants eating in the storage room to turn to his direction. Feeling the weight of everyone's stare aimed at him, Jimin averted his gaze in embarrassment, his face flushed crimson.

    "I was just- I was just joking" Gyuri awkwardly laughed it off while trying to divert everyone's attention back to their food. "Geez, Chim Chim, I didn't know you were a royalist."

    "I am not-"


    Jimin and Gyuri jumped at the sound of a high-pitched voice. When they had turned around, they were both startled to find a little boy running towards them from the entrance.

    Jimin eyed him in bewilderment. Mama?

    The little boy approached Gyuri with his short arms outstretched. In response, Gyuri bent down to receive his embrace. "Gulnar" he heard Gyuri say. Her smile widened when she spotted a young girl trailing behind him. "And Chun Chun too! I didn't think I'd see you today."

    "We wanted to surprise you," the girl said as she leaned in to hug Gyuri as well.

    "Yeah!" the boy agreed. "We came with Papa!"

    Papa? Jimin was even more confused.

    "Hey, Gyuri."

    As if on cue, another person appeared through the door. In a blink of an eye, Jimin saw a young boy smiling at them from the doorway, his mouth stretched into a box-like smile. With a confident stride, the boy sauntered over to Gyuri and the orphans, his crescent eyes never wavering from Gyuri.

    "Taehyung" Jimin heard Gyuri call him. "What are you doing here?"

    "Visiting you, of course" he answered and Jimin noticed how his voice sounded juvenile. "I wanted to see what the soup kitchen is like." He broke away from their stare and took a quick glance at the musty storage house. "So, this is what you do while you are away from the household."

    Jimin observed from a short distance as Gyuri started conversing with the young boy named Taehyung. It befuddled him that the small children called him 'Papa' and Gyuri 'Mama'. Never had it crossed his mind that Gyuri could possibly be married and a mother.

    So, he is her husband?

    Jimin inspected Taehyung inconspicuously. Judging by his boyish features and squeaky voice Taehyung was younger than Jimin. And the children too, looked much too grown for Gyuri and Taehyung to have conceived together.

    Something is amiss.

    "Pretty lady! We've run out of..." Zeren stopped midway his sentence when he noticed the additional people in the room. The orphans and Taehyung stared back at him blankly. "Oh, hey there" he brightly greeted before addressing Gyuri, "more friends of yours?"

    "Why are the imperial guards here?" Taehyung asked Gyuri, completely shunning Zeren. "Is something the matter?"

    "No," Gyuri quickly replied. "Taehyung, these are friends of mine." She gestured to the bronze-skinned guard, "This is Zeren" and then to Jimin, "and this is Chim Chim."

    "Chim will suffice" Jimin corrected. He directed his gaze at Taehyung, mentally sizing him up while Gyuri proceeded with the introductions.

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    "And this is Chun Chun and Gulnar" she concluded as she gestured to the young children. The young pair peered up at Zeren and Jimin warily as they drew closer to Taehyung. "Say 'hi' to them, guys. Don't be shy."

    "Hello, young'uns" Zeren greeted as he kneeled so that he was eye-level with the little boy. "Are you here for some soup too?"

    "No..." Gulnar meekly responded, "we're here to see Mama."

    "Mama?" Zeren repeated. "Did you lose your mother here?" He got up from his crouching position and bellowed across the room, "Did anyone lose a child?"

    "He's not lost!" Chun Chun corrected. "He was talking about Gyuri!"

    Zeren's eyes rounded. "Huh?"

    "Mama, can we go now?" Gulnar asked as he pulled on Gyuri's skirt. "Papa promised us that we can play cuju once you've finished working."

    "But, Gulnar, I'm still-"

    "Wait" Zeren interrupted. "You're their mother?" With bulging eyes, Zeren blinked several times in disbelief. "Since when did you have kids?"

    Gyuri was taken aback. "No, Zeren, you've got it all wro-"

    "Who's the father?"

    Before Gyuri could respond, Gulnar pointed to Taehyung. "This is Papa!"

    Zeren shifted his gaze to Taehyung and his eyes widened. "This kid's the father? You never told me you were married!"

    Taehyung and Gyuri exchanged looks.

    "We're- we're not married!" Gyuri rushed to explain, her cheeks turning bright pink. Zeren glanced at the lad beside her who had turned away to hide his reddened cheeks. "Taehyung's like a brother to me!"

    "He's like a brother to you?" Zeren repeated dubiously. "But why do your kids say he's the father?"

    "They're not my kids!" Gyuri swiftly responded. Noticing Gulnar's wounded expression, she elaborated, "I'm-I'm not their real mother but I-I take care of them. I'm like their adoptive mother and Taehyung, their adoptive father."

    "Oh!" Zeren let out a sound of acknowledgement. "I see." He turned to look at Jimin and noticed the relieved expression on his face too. "You almost gave me a shock there, pretty lady."

    "Mama, can we go and play cuju now?" Gulnar whined.

    "I brought the ball!" Chun Chun interjected as she revealed the worn, leather ball in her hands. "We can play in the same teams as last time." She peered up at Taehyung, "Right, Tae?"

    Taehyung had a distracted look about him. "Er, yes..." He stole a glance at Gyuri and pursed his lips. "But we cannot play near the river anymore."

    "We can play outside!" Gulnar suggested enthusiastically. "There's a small field nearby."

    Jimin listened to the young children chatter noisily, their high-pitched voices grating against his eardrums. Despite their ceaseless screeching, the orphans' excited voices overwhelmed him with a surge of nostalgia that reminded him of the way his younger brothers used to talk back at the temple. A small smile curled up Jimin's lips as he recalled a fond memory of him and Zeren competing against each other in a game of cuju. It had been so long since they had last played.

    "...Chim Chim?"

    Jimin jolted back to his senses and turned to face Gyuri. "Yes?"

    "Do you wanna go?"

    "Huh?" He glanced around and saw that everyone was looking at him. "Go where?"

    "To play cuju. We're all going after we're done here."

    "We should go, Chim!" Zeren chimed excitedly. "It's been a while since we last had a match."

    "But I-"

    "We're definitely coming" Zeren finished his sentence for him. "It's only a quick match, right? We can make time." He snuck a glance at Jimin who was still stunned from being cut off. "And besides, cuju is too fun to miss out on!"
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