"Good God! What on earth were you thinking! Why didn't you just tell me you wanted the rest of the food? I would've asked for a takeaway box!"
"B-but I did tell you! You didn't hear me because you were too busy dragging me out the door!"
"I didn't hear you? See, here's the thing, princess. I couldn't hear you! Not with your mouth so full, Miss Chipmunk."
"Cheap monk? Ugh! How many times do I have to tell you that I'm not a Buddhist monk! And you just called me cheap! How could you!"
"You— Argh! Never mind..."
Zhou Qin pressed her lips together to stop herself from laughing. She had spent pretty much the entire cab ride to New Hongsheng District listening to those two bicker. And they were relentless, both of them, almost like they were a couple who had been married for years. Zhou Qin bit down on her bottom lip; the sharp pang in her chest was now impossible to ignore.
A loud ding announced the elevator's arrival.
Zhou Qin followed Li Yundong and Su Chan into the elevator.
"But you can't just run back in and then gobble up the food that is about to be served to another table!" Li Yundong pressed the button for the 20th floor.
"What choice do I have? I was already outside the restaurant because you dragged me out! Besides, what's wrong with going back in to finish our food?"
"What's wrong with— It's impolite! God, you just embarrassed all of us!"
"Impolite? How could that be worse than wasting food? Hello? Don't you know that it's a bad habit to waste food? Food is a precious resource! There are a lot of people out there who are starvi—"
"Tsk! Don't talk back to me." Li Yundong smacked Su Chan's forehead.
Then, Su Chan burped. Loudly.
Zhou Qin couldn't take it anymore. She clamped her hands over her mouth, and her shoulders trembled with laughter. She even had to lean her body against the metal wall of the elevator to support herself.
Somehow, neither of those two seemed to have noticed the spectacle that Zhou Qin was making of herself.
"Yes, fine... Wasting food is bad, I get that. But you could have asked the waiter politely for the food instead of just yanking the plate straight out of his hand. And the way you ate... You have no table manners at all! How hard is it to grab a goddamned spoon!"
Su Chan had a contrite expression now. Zhou Qin honestly thought the poor girl was about to burst into tears.
Zhou Qin reined in her laughter and studied Li Yundong closely to see his reaction.
Li Yundong's response surprised Zhou Qin. He reached out and pinched Su Chan's cheek a few times. "I know you have a healthy appetite. But remember what I said about respecting other people, hmm? Table manners is a form of courtesy too."
Su Chan nodded obediently. "Oh. I'm sorry... I won't do it again next time..."
It baffled Zhou Qin how clueless Su Chan was and how tolerant Li Yundong was towards her. How could a girl in this modern age know so little about social decorum and polite behavior?
It all seemed so strange. Su Chan was already in her teens. Well, at least she looked like a teenager. Yet, sometimes her behavior was like that of a three-year-old. Did nobody teach her anything when she was young? Was she an orphan?
How did Li Yundong and Su Chan meet each other?
The elevator arrived at the 20th floor. The three of them stepped into the corridor after the doors slid open. Li Yundong and Su Chan walked ahead. Zhou Qin followed behind them and watched their interaction without saying a word.
"Did you at least enjoy the meal? I mean, out of all three of us, you're the one who ate the most."
"Hmm... I don't think I managed to savor the taste..."
"Because I ate too fast!"
"Yeah? And you only realize that now?"
They stopped right outside apartment 20A, and Li Yundong began shifting the grocery bags to one hand.
"Need a hand with that?" Zhou Qin asked.
Li Yundong turned around. "Sorry?"
"With the bags, I mean."
Li Yundong smiled. "Nah. Don't worry. I got this." He pulled out his keys from his pockets using his free hand.
Zhou Qin suppressed a smile. Such a gentleman...
The large mahogany door creaked open, and the three of them stepped into the apartment.
"Well. This is it. Our humble abode." Li Yundong spread his arms out wide.
"Nice," Zhou Qin remarked.
Li Yundong chuckled. "I'm sure our place looks like a hovel compared to yours."
Zhou Qin couldn't disagree with that assessment more. The apartment was wide and spacious. There were four balconies in total, each of which had a sliding door and windows. When the windows were opened, the apartment would be airy and cool even during summer. Plus, she liked the decor, which filled the apartment with warmth. The place looked lived-in, like an actual home.
"No," Zhou Qin said, shaking her head. "This is a home." She sighed. "My place is a prison. Both literally and figuratively."
There was a long pause.
"Uh... I think I get the figurative part..." Li Yundong said. "But why literally? I mean, your place isn't surrounded by metal bars or anything, right?"
Zhou Qin hid a smile behind her hand. "No. Of course not. It's just... Well. The security there is pretty tight. There are guards with guns stationed everywhere." Zhou Qin shook her head. "It doesn't feel like a home at all."
Another stretched of silence ensued.
"Anyway!" Zhou Qin smiled. "Your place looks really nice. And I mean it. I like how spacious it is. And the decor is perfect. Like I said, this is what a real home should look like."
Li Yundong's lips curved into a smirk.
Zhou Qin found that smirk dangerously attractive.
"Well. Make yourself at home then," he said before turning around.
Li Yundong disappeared into the kitchen for a minute. When he came out, he was no longer carrying the grocery bags.
"Is this place rented? Or did you buy it?" Zhou Qin couldn't help but ask.
Li Yundong looked at her as though she'd grown two heads.
Zhou Qin suppressed the sudden urge to blush.
"Of course it's rented," Li Yundong said with a chuckle. "You must have had too much wine earlier if you think a penniless guy like me owns a property."
Zhou Qin didn't know how to respond to that, so she decided to go with a joke. "So. Li Yundong. What does it feel like to live under the same roof as a beauty?"
Li Yundong put his hand beside his ear. "Sorry, what? Did you just say beauty? I think you meant pig."
There was a loud gasp.
"Wha— How could you! Meanie! Meanie! Meanie!" Su Chan smacked Li Yundong's arms endlessly. "Grr! You're the pig!"
"Uh-huh..." Li Yundong dodged a few more of Su Chan's swipes. "I'm not the one who eats like a pig. That's you, missy. So you're the pig. And since you ate so much at the restaurant earlier, I won't be cooking your portion later."
Su Chan stomped her foot. "You see? You see? He's always bullying me!"
It took Zhou Qin a second to realize that Su Chan was talking to her.
When Zhou Qin looked at Su Chan, she couldn't help but find the girl endearing. Even though Zhou Qin was harboring not-so-platonic feelings for Li Yundong, she couldn't bring herself to dislike Su Chan at all. That girl was just so… cute.
Zhou Qin smiled at Su Chan. "Oh, don't look at me. It isn't my place to interfere with your private matters."
The huge pout on Su Chan's lips nearly made Zhou Qin laugh. Gosh. Zhou Qin had never had to suppress her laughter this much until she met these two. Life just seemed fuller and brighter around them. They were like a tornado or a whirlwind that blew away the dark and dreary clouds which defined her life.
Still pouting, Su Chan plopped down onto the couch and picked up the TV remote from the coffee table. Then, she began switching channels randomly. Zhou QIn honestly thought the remote would snap in half at any time given how hard Su Chan was pressing it.
Li Yundong chuckled. "Look at her. She's sulking now."
Su Chan turned and made a face at Li Yundong.
"I won't take long," Li Yundong said. He had donned an apron now. "You can use my laptop if you want?"
Zhou Qin smiled and shook her head. "Don't worry about me. Go do your thing. I'll just look around your apartment, if that's okay with you?"
"Sure. Go ahead!" Li Yundong yelled from inside the kitchen.
Zhou Qin glanced around the apartment. There were two bedrooms in total, and beside each bedroom was a bathroom. She glanced towards the living room. Su Chan was still on the couch, sulking. The noise from the kitchen told her that Li Yundong had already begun whipping up their lunch. It shouldn't count as snooping if he gave me permission, right? Zhou Qin's legs were already moving towards one of the bedrooms as that thought ran through her mind.
She stepped quietly into the bedroom, the one whose door was open. She knew the moment she entered that this was a guy's bedroom. But wait... That doesn't make sense. They're a couple aren't they? It shouldn't look like a guy's room at all... Zhou Qin surveyed the room, looking for a feminine touch. There were none. She didn't see any cosmetics lying around the nightstand. There wasn't even a comb. Wait... there were two rooms! Could it be that they haven't slept with each other yet?
That thought eased a tight knot inside Zhou Qin's heart.
Zhou Qin padded over to the bed and sat down. She ran a hand gently across the sheets. Li Yundong's masculine scent wafted to her nose.
Zhou Qin bit down on her bottom lips and stole a glance at the living room. Su Chan was curled up on the couch, staring at the TV. Li Yundong was nowhere to be seen, but the sounds from the kitchen left little room for doubt as to his whereabouts. Deep inside Zhou Qin's chest, a spark of boldness ignited. Slowly, her hand crept along the sheets until it reached Li Yundong's pillow. She then lifted the pillow to her nose and took a long sniff. God... his scent is so...
Zhou Qin gasped and dropped the pillow as though it had burned her hands. Heat rose to her cheeks as she stared at the pillow in her lap. Her body felt as though it were on fire, and there was an uncomfortable ache between her—
Zhou Qin grabbed the pillow and quickly put it back in its original place.
Ugh! What is wrong with you, Zhou Qin? What were you thinking!
She had no idea what came over her just now. It was like someone had cast a spell on her, a spell which turned her into a shameless and wanton—
Zhou Qin stood up from the bed and backed away a few steps. She had to put some distance between herself and the bed before she did something stupid.
She glanced around the room, hoping to find something to distract her from her… issues.
A bookshelf in the corner of the room caught her eye.
Most of the books on the shelf were novels. She ran her index finger over the spines of the books, then removed one of them from the shelf. When she flipped through it, the book opened naturally to a bookmarked page.
Zhou Qin had to suppress a laugh when she saw what Li Yundong had used as a bookmark. It was a CD titled, "Cohabitation with A Flight Attendant."
Granted, Su Chan didn't look like a flight attendance, but the resemblance in the circumstances was a bit amusing.
Zhou Qin slid the CD back into the book and returned the book to the shelf. She spent another while in Li Yundong's room until she was creeped out by her own snooping.
Su Chan was still watching TV when Zhou Qin came out of the bedroom. Instead of joining Su Chan in the living room, she headed to the kitchen. She opened the door slightly, then peaked into the kitchen through the narrow slit between the door and the door jamb. Li Yundong was slicing vegetables with what appeared to be impeccable knife skills. Not that she was qualified to make that assessment, but those even slices of greens seemed pretty amazing. When Li Yundong added the ingredients into the pan and started stir-frying (was it stir fry? She wasn't sure) them, Zhou Qin was once again struck by how attractive Li Yundong was.
Especially the look in his eyes, which were filled with intensity. Those eyes held so much focus that they were like the lens of a magnifying glass under the sun, generating so much heat that she felt as though she was burning up. Was this not what she had been yearning for all this while? A simple life? She didn't have to be rich or wealthy. She didn't crave status, nor did she long to live in a big house. She just wanted a man who would love her, cherish her, cook her meals, and then cheer her up whenever she was down.
She would give anything to have all that.
Zhou Qin opened the door wider, then stepped into the kitchen. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
Li Yundong looked at her briefly before turning back to the pan. "Nah. It's good. I've got this."
"Let me help too! Let me help too!" Su Chan barreled into the kitchen.
Li Yundong burst into laughter, which, again, Zhou Qin found to be endearing.
Zhou Qin bit down on her bottom lip, hard.
God, she was in trouble. Deep trouble...
"Hey, you! Stop right there!" Li Yundong was pointing at Su Chan. "You're not coming anywhere near this kitchen today. Nope. Nuh-uh. In fact, I'm banning you from the kitchen forever."
"You are so meeeeaaannn! I just wanted to help! Hmmph!"
Zhou Qin laughed. "Why are you so against her being in the kitchen? She can't be that bad, right?"
Li Yundong raised a brow. "Is causing a gas explosion bad enough?"
Zhou Qin felt like she had to pick her jaw up from the floor.
"Oh my God! A gas explosion?" Zhou Qin looked around the kitchen several times. "Then the repairman must have done a fantastic job. I mean, this doesn't look like a kitchen that had survived a gas explosion at all."
Li Yundong chuckled. "Oh, no. The explosion was back at our old place."
"Your old place?"
Just how long had he and Su Chan been living together?
"Oh yeah, I don't think I've told you yet, but we just moved here. In fact..." Li Yundong glared at Su Chan. "We got kicked out of our old apartment because of the explosion."
Zhou Qin shook her head in disbelief. "But a gas explosion! What did she do?"
Li Yundong seemed to consider her question for a moment. "Okay, well. It might have been caused by a faulty stove, I suppose..."
Zhou Qin stole a glance at Su Chan, who was blushing to the tip of her ears.
By the time Li Yundong was done explaining the ins and outs of the explosion, Zhou Qin realized that she hadn't heard a single thing Li Yundong said. She cleared her throat. "I'm glad you guys made it out okay. I mean, you didn't get hurt, right?"
"Nah, we didn't. But it was a close call though. That's why I'm not allowing this one"—Li Yundong pointed at Su Chan—"near the kitchen anytime soon."
"But I just wanted to help..." Su Chan mumbled.
Li Yundong chuckled. "Yeah? Trust me, you'll be of a much greater help outside the kitchen."
Zhou Qin pressed her lips together to suppress a smile. She then turned to Su Chan. "Why don't we both get out of Master Chef's hair and go hang out in the living room?"
Su Chan was looking at Li Yundong with piteous eyes. "Was I really that bad?"
Li Yundong smiled. "Nah... You're not bad. You just didn't know how things work in the kitchen, that's all."
Zhou Qin wondered if he was just sugar-coating it.
"Anyhow! Shoo! Shoo! Off you go, ladies! Go hang out in the living room." Li Yundong waved his hand. "The food's gonna be done soon, anyway."
Zhou Qin left the kitchen with Su Chan, then shut the kitchen door behind her. They sat on opposite ends on the long couch, watching a soap opera that was playing on the TV. Neither of them had spoken a word to each other yet, though Zhou Qin could feel Su Chan's gaze boring holes into her body.
Zhou Qin resisted the urge to squirm.
Was she angry with her after all? Was she jealous that Li Yundong was friends with her?
"Hehe... Can I address you as elder sister from now on?"
Zhou Qin's head snapped to the side, her eyes wide with confusion. Elder sister? Why would she...? Oh my God... Did she mean in the traditional sense? Like when the younger wife addresses the older wife as her elder sister...?
But would that be such a bad thing though? Since they would both be Li Yundong's…
Heat rose to Zhou Qin's cheeks.
Zhou Qin cleared her throat. "U-uh... Wha- I mean, I don't think that's... appropriate?"
Zhou Qin had rarely lost her composure. But this. This was something else.
"It's okay! It's totally believable that you're my elder sister!"
Zhou Qin gaped at Su Chan. She honestly couldn't tell if Su Chan was being serious or just messing with her head. Neither options sounded ideal. Zhou Qin took a deep breath and cleared her throat again. "Do you… Do you have an elder sister?"
Okay. Now it definitely sounded like Su Chan was just messing with her. You either have a sister, or you don't. How could anyone "sorta" have a sister?
The kitchen door opened before Zhou Qin could question any further.
Su Chan leaped off the couch and pointed a finger at Li Yundong. "Lunchtime! Yayy!!!"
"Nuh-uh. No lunch for you, you pig!"
"Who are you calling a pig!" Su Chan stomped her foot.
Li Yundong pinched Su Chan's nose. "You, of course! You're a pig. A chipmunk!"
"I told you I am not a monk! And I'm not cheeeapp!"
Zhou Qin burst into giggles and rose from the couch as well.
Li Yundong gestured towards the dining area.
"Go grab a seat," he said to Zhou Qin. "I'll bring out the dishes."
Turning to Su Chan, he said, "And nope. Nothing for you."
Su Chan made a face at him. "Hmph! I'll just steal from your plate, you meanie!"
As it turned out, Li Yundong was only kidding about not giving Su Chan any food. Su Chan now had two bowls of rice in front of her, and she seemed to be making a quick work of those too. Zhou Qin was starting to believe the truth in Li Yundong's claim about Su Chan finishing twenty bowls of rice.
Zhou Qin gave Li Yundong a smile. "Wow. This smells amazing. I'm impressed, Li Yundong."
"Nah... I bet this is nothing compared to those Michelin-star places you often dine at. But thanks. I hope you enjoy it."
Zhou Qin picked up her bowl and chopsticks. "Bon appetit, then!"
Zhou Qin tried the dish that she thought had the most amazing smell, some kind of duck meat.
"Oh my Gosh! This is really good... What's it called?"
Li Yundong smiled. "Stewed duck in beer."
Zhou Qin took another bite, then arched her brow. "I think this tastes much better than the stuff served at these Michelin-star restaurants that I allegedly frequented."
"Now, now, Zhou Qin. I'm sure that's a complete exaggeration—" Li Yundong suddenly stopped talking and was now gaping like a fish.
Puzzled, Zhou Qin followed his gaze and nearly spat out the duck meat in her mouth. The plate containing the stir-fried mixed vegetables—which was still full about a minute ago—was now nearly three-quarters empty.
And Su Chan, it seemed, was proving herself to be every bit a squirrel's namesake—if those pouches on her cheeks were anything to go by.
"Tsk! Su Chan! We have guests, for Buddha's sake. Guests! Where are your manners! Oh, wait! Don't answer that." Li Yundong did a face palm. "I already know the answer. You have none. But come on! At least leave some for others!"
Li Yundong shook his head and turned to Zhou Qin. "Hey, you might wanna hurry up and start eating. That pig is gonna gobble up the rest if we don't hurry."
"Oh," Zhou Qin answered blankly. She was still busy trying to wrap her head around one very curious question—how could any woman eat that much food and still maintain that kind of figure?
Zhou Qin shook herself out of her reverie and went back to her food.
The rest of the meal went on in a rowdy and riotous fashion.
The Food War. That was what Li Yundong called it. And apparently, it was an every-day occurrence at la Casa de Yundong.
It was probably the most unpolished and unsophisticated meal she ever had, where table manners and dining etiquette were almost non-existent. But it was also the happiest and most delicious meal she ever had.
It would've been the most satisfying meal too, if she didn't have to fight tooth and nail for every bite.