“I missed you so much”, she said by way of greeting. “And I didn’t even think you’d really come.”
She pulled him in his arms for one short, sweet moment, before making a step back again, holding him at arm’s length.
She looked so different than she did in France, with her hair pulled into a tight knot, and the Chinese traditional clothes she never wore in France. And something else was different too, something Sean couldn’t find words for. He watched her closely, searched for answers in her eyes, in the curves of her lips.
“Why wouldn’t I come”, he asked. “You know I’ve been here before, you know I will come here again. This land holds so many mysteries, so many treasures to unearth.” And you are one of them, he thought to himself.
“Because it would be better if you didn’t”, she said.
Sean stared at her, and her words didn’t make sense to him. This whole scene didn’t make sense to him at all. He blinked, and took a breath. “I don’t understand”, he managed to say. “You told me all those things. You made me promise I’d come for you. I couldn’t come earlier, I had to take care of my family, but I’m here now, and I won’t leave without you.” The worlds spilled out of him, and he shuddered at the pain he suddenly felt.
“It had been so easy in France”, she said. “But now that you’re here, it’s not easy anymore. I have kept a lot of things from you. And now I have no choice but to tell you, because if I don’t, you will find out on your own, and then you would hate me.”
“But I would never hate you”, Sean said, feeling a sudden flare of hope. “We will figure it out, no matter how complicated things are.”
She made a tiny sound and looked around, as if to check if somebody was watching. There wasn’t.
“You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into”, she said. “Come to the Temple of Heaven tomorrow. I will tell you everything.”
In a desperate attempt to cross the gap that had opened between them, Sean leaned forward and kissed her.
She didn’t move away, at least. She didn’t move at all, even as he reached for her hands. She seemed cold and distant, even if her lips were not, they were warm and tasted like dreams came true, and sent tingles all over his skin.
At night, sleep eluded Sean. He threw himself from one side to another but couldn’t find a comfortable position. Downstairs some of the other tourists and adventurers seemed to have a party or maybe an argument, and on any other day he would go down and check it out, but all he could think about was Kim, and how she had treated him.
She was right. It had been so easy in France. He was enchanted by her, completely in her power. He didn’t even notice how she eluded his questions every time when he asked her about her home, or her family. But it seemed very clear to him now, and he didn’t know how he didn’t see it before.
If he could turn his feelings for her off, he would have done it in a single heartbeat now. But he could not. He loved her like no other before. Her presence had an effect on him he never felt with anybody else. Not even his high school girlfriend Christian, whom he thought to be the love of his life for a short while, before she dumped him out for no apparent reasons. Being rejected by her hurt, of course, but not that much as seeing Kim so distant, so… frozen.
It was almost sunrise when sleep finally claimed him, but Kim haunted his dreams just as she did his waking thoughts. In his dream, she welcomed him with open arms, melting into his embrace, only be pulled away by another man the next moment.
When he woke up, he knew with a cold certainty that he would fight anybody who would try to take her from him.
She already waited for him at the Temple of Heaven, watching as he climbed the steep path and the hundreds of stairs that led to it.
Hope battled with fear of rejection as he looked up at her, fighting the urge to just take her in his arms and never let go.
“Where should I start”, she asked, avoiding meeting his gaze. She was clearly uncomfortable with this entire situation.
“At the beginning”, Sean said. “As if it was a story in a book. With everything that you have avoided in our conversations. Everything that you have been dancing around – and you have, I see it now. I could not see it because I was so in love with you, but you have pointed it out to me yesterday.” He had to fight to keep his voice hard and unyielding, even if he wanted to take her in his arms and tell her it would be alright, they would make it, no matter what happened. But now there was a voice of doubt whispering into his ears. He needed to know the things she had kept from him.
“My first name is Naree”, she said. “Kim is my family name. It gives me a sense of anonymity when I’m travelling abroad. There are so many people named Kim in the world, but maybe not so many named Naree.”
Sean nodded. He could live with that. It was just a name, and even though it displayed her lack of trust in him, he didn’t mind it that much. Naree, he whispered. To him, it was as beautiful as the rest of her. He urged himself not to give in to his feelings. To remain strong.
“My family moved here from Korea”, she said. “I was married at a young age. My parents chose my husband, as it was custom. Our families moved together upon my marriage to Ho Sung. It was a big improvement for my parents. Ho Sung was older than me. He had a very traditional upbringing. His family is very ancient and influential.” Sean listened. His insides were cold. Did he fall in love with a married woman? What was the right thing to do? Fight to keep her and ruin the life of another man? Or let her go? But could he do that? Could he let her go, just like that? “There had been an earthquake”, she continued, “and our house was destroyed. Me, Ho Sung and his sister Sun Young were the only survivors. Everybody else died.” She took a deep breath to gather herself. “It was just a few days after when I found out I was pregnant.”
So there was not only a husband, but also a child. Sean was devastated. He did not know what to think, what to feel. He nodded quietly, to show her that he still listened.
“Ho Sung is a good father”, she said. “But we never got along. We are too different. I wanted to study medicine. I wanted to be a doctor. He said that we had enough money and I didn’t need to work. I had to stay home and raise our daughter. Especially after we were alone. And I tried. I really tried. But no matter what I did, I was not happy. The life he envisioned for me felt like a cage. Like prison. I broke out one day. I left him, and managed to get a divorce. It is legal here now. It didn’t use to be.”
Naree still avoided meeting his eyes, her gaze lost in the distance. “Then there was Lee Yao. He took me in, took care of me when I lost my path. I wasn’t used to being alone. Taking care of myself. I never learned how. But in his own right, he was worse than Ho Sung.” She shook her head. “I thought it was because of me. I thought I deserved to be treated like this. Then I met you. And you actually kept the promise you made. But now that you know everything, you will turn away from me.”
It took a moment for him to process her words, and another to be able to respond.
“I will not”, he said vehemently, and reached out to take her hand in his. “We will figure this out. We will make this work. I promise.”