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the thirty-eighth parallel

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"My game has no rules," he tells her. It's a threat. Maybe a warning. Maybe an admission. He's not sure. But with the right amount of menace, it sounds meaningful.

(My mat has no rules.)

"It's not a game, then."

She looks tired. He doesn't know if it's him or the three jobs she's working or being poverty stricken or being in love with an asshole like Kim Tan. He'd like to believe it's him.

"If there were no rules, there'd be no game. The game is the rules. If every game didn't have different rules then there'd be no difference between them. You would keep playing and nobody would ever win and nobody would ever lose." The idiot part is unspoken, but it makes the corners of his mouth twist up.

"Our new money sure is smart," he says, less because he understands and more because she fires up at his compliments more than she does at his insults. It would be fascinating, if he were the kind to be fascinated by novelty.

Unexpectedly, she tosses her head, instead, "wouldn't expect you to understand. 99th place is the 99th place for a reason."

 

 

-

 

 

She throws a plate at him, once. He remembers it like inertia creeping, standing in the pull of some sort of gravity in her coffee shop, while it leaves her hand and makes for his head and the sound of breaking is softer than her shocked gasp.

That she immediately runs over, hands over her mouth, eyes wide, kind of ruins the effect. He tells her as much.

“I didn’t mean to,” she says, “god, I’m—”

“—sorry?” he asks, agreeably. It hurts like fuck, but he’s used to hurting like fuck, that’s not the important part here. Not even close to the most interesting. He can feel the wetness against his temple. Doesn't make a move to wipe it off, battle scars are badges of honor. You learn something while making maps out of bruises on your body. They're going to take you somewhere eventually, one step closer to victory.

“Yes.” She’s avoiding his gaze, but he’s catalogued the angle of her hands, the depth of the crease between her eyebrows, the shuffling of her feet, and if he was familiar with the kind of psychobabble bullshit that his therapists spout, he could have probably added those up to make something.

Sorry won’t prevent this scarring,” he says, reasonably enough, if he does say so himself, “try again.”

She looks worried, it’s kind of amusing. If this is concern for his well-being, it’s more than amusing, it’s downright hysterical. She bends down, at his feet, and for a moment his world dissolves into white noise, before she picks up the first piece of glass, “I really am sorry.”

He wants to stay longer, but he’s late for duty at the hotel and for some reason, he’s not in the mood for confrontation. It’s a phase, it’ll pass. Preferably in the middle of washing the dishes. Then he can break some of his own.

 

 

-

 

 

(He pays for the broken plate, leaves a napkin with an ominous you owe me scrawled across it. But if she knows him at all, she’ll know it’s a formality, for the sake of appearances. She doesn’t need to owe him for him to collect.

He pays for the plate anyway. He can.)

 

 

-

 

That she’s leaning against his locker is new. He hasn’t seen her in three days, but she looks like she did three days ago; worried, possibly terrified. It’s getting boring.

“I’m fine,” he drawls out the syllables, fills in the space with meaningful pauses, “you don’t need to check up on me like a good little girlfriend.”

Across the hall, he can almost see Tan go rigid. Can tell the moment down to the second when his eyes land on them. He leans in closer, just because. Shoots a smirk in the space across, diagonally.

Sweet of you to be worried, though, new money.”

“Please—”

“— forgive you,” he says, “We’ll have to see won’t—”

“Please don’t sue,” she manages, in a rush, the words dripping over one another, making him pause, really pause, for a nanosecond.

“What?”

“Please don’t sue,” she says again, “I really am sorry, I don’t know why— just,” the lowering of her voice, this is a secret, “you know I can’t afford it. Please.

It irrationally annoys him, this line of conversation, because he's reading this wrong, he's been reading her wrong and you don't get to people if you read them wrong, that's Getting To People 101. 

"I wasn't going to sue you," he snaps, "I don't have time enough to waste on lost causes like that."

What annoys him the most, he decides later, is that pause.



-



I thought you were worried, he'll laugh, later, when he's-- something other than what he was he was back then.

I was worried, she'll say.

No like-- he'll stop. Won't complete the thought, because that way lies madness, and it's not like he doesn't have enough issues without adding that to his repertoire.



-



The silence is radio. 

He eats a final meal, makes her keep a final promise and lets her go. Or, whatever the grammatically correct term would be to weigh in the fact that he never had her anyway.

And, well, that's the end, really.



-



(But nothing actually ends, obviously.

The dramatic exist is the easy part. What comes after is harder. He can look the other way, but she's still two feet away, about thirteen times a day, and her gravity isn't any weaker than when he looks straight. He can stop looking, but he can't stop his other senses going into overdrive to compensate.

He can stop telling, but it wouldn't be over. He's old enough to know that by now.)



-



She cuts her hair in the winter, it makes her look different, her face more angular. It makes him stop in his tracks for a full moment. He hadn't even realized he was still looking.

"You're getting Seoulified," he says, before he can stop himself. Feels an inexplicable urge to shove his hands in his pockets.

She turns, her hair barely scraping against her collarbone, her edges so sharp he could cut himself on them, "you're not avoiding me. This is new."

"Wasn't avoiding you," he has Myung-soo's campfire pictures somewhere at the bottom of some desk, but she doesn't need to know that, "I've been far too busy being a chaebol heir to bother. You wouldn't know the drill, considering your're dirt poor and your sainted boyfriend gave up everything for the love of his social welfare girlfriend etcetera."

"I wasn't countrified before," she sticks her tongue out and he could have this, he could have this if he could just ask for a little less, if he could just pretend a little more. But he always wants everything, "I've lived in Seoul all my life."

"I miss you," he says, abruptly, angry with himself. He sometimes likes to believe the actual indifference surpasses even the effort to be indifferent.

He wanted to tell her how oddly specifically he misses her. How he misses the exact way she pronounces Jeguk, and the way she taps her pen against the desk thrice when she knows the answer but doesn't want to say it out loud in class, and the angle of her head when she falls asleep in the strangest places.

She can't curtain her face with her hair anymore, this is something that changed, "I know."



-

 

(Never give up anything for love, she'll tell him, one night, at Rachel's grand party for Hyo Shin sunbae's return. She'll be half drunk and happier than he's seen her recently, and he wouldn't mean to end up there at all, next to her, like they're all a part of the same social circle, like she fits in there now, like love actually fucking makes the world go round, if it feels like giving up, it's not love anyway.

Experience?  Just to be a dick.

She'll reach out, absent-mindedly, and straighten his tie, and he'll have to remind himself to breathe: wisdom.)



-



He runs into her in the supermarket.

"Of all the supermarkets in all the towns, she walks into mine," he remarks, Casablanca is his mother's favorite movie. He remembers everything from it, Bo Na still makes fun of him for it.

She doesn't get the reference, her forehead creasing, "it's the one I always come to, you should know that, with that impressive stalker's profile you built up two summers ago."

You will always be a woman to me, he'd said once. He tried, not to, if anyone cares. It didn't work, but he tried. It has to count for something. 

He never really learned how to cope with anyone's scars except his own. But he's older now.

"Choi Young Do," he sticks his hand out.

She looks at him for a moment, assessing, then takes it in hers, her lips turning up slightly at the edge, "Cha Eun Sang, I think I've heard of you."

"I'm fairly well-known around these parts." Somehow this doesn't feel like he's playing a part. She won't take more than he gives, and if he gives too much, it's his fault. But he needs honesty, sometimes. He needs honesty more than he needs distance. 

"I'm looking forward to seeing if the rumors are true."She's awkward, because she isn't any older than he is, doesn't know how to do this any better than he does. And she's a mess, he knows her well enough to know that. She cries when she's angry, sometimes, and smiles when she's angry, other times, and god, she's a mess. 

She walks past him, clutching her packet of ramyun and he doesn't trip her just because he wants to hold her. 

She turns back once she's on the other side of the glass door. It's easier to see with distance, he, of all people, should know that, "I'm glad," she mouths, her smile refracted by the rivulets of water, short hair sticking to her skin, and then she's gone.

He doesn't follow. It's okay, she'll be around tomorrow anyway. 

(It doesn't feel like giving something up. There are a lot of things he learned about her that would be completely useless knowledge if this ends entirely, clogging up his head to no purpose, no end, and he's the selfish, use-value kind of guy. Everyone knows that.)

This is something to know: not saying it out loud anymore didn't make it not true, it was never a zero sum game. His father's right sometimes; for someone with an IQ of 150, he's fairly stupid. 

 






-



It's still raining when he finally steps out, the leather seat of his bike is drenched. He can't see her anywhere, but he can wait out the hours. He kind of has a graduate degree in that, anyway.

It sucks that he's in love with her, yeah, but he tried not to be and that sucked even more, so really, it's the lesser of two evils. And if he's choosing the lesser of two evils, she'd call it progress.




-



(She'll get a head-cold later and glare at him in school, "most guys would have offered their jackets. Or a ride back."

She won't get the reference again when he makes it, but whatever, that's okay, really, he has enough time to slip his mom's DVD in her Texas Chainsaw Massacre collection someday. He's not really going anywhere. This isn't the thirty-eighth parallel, he doesn't have to be cut up along her fault lines, she never asked for him to be.

He doesn't get a do-over, he knows, but he gets this moment and every single moment after this moment, and, well, even if he didn't have an IQ of 150 and couldn't tell exactly how much, that's a hell lot of time.

He'll grin, "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.")