It takes him a while to find the house, tucked away in a forgotten part of a city he’s lived in all his life. The paint is peeling, the latch on the gate broken. The lights are on, though. He thinks, for a moment, of how the lights should always be on wherever she is. Then unthinks it, because that’s a ridiculous thing to think.
He knocks on the door with his knuckles, thrice.
When she opens it, he slings his bag over one shoulder. It makes him wince, just a little bit, when the bag grazes the wound- wounds- the skin still scraped raw, broken. He’s only whole in parts these days.
But only children wear both straps. He’s not a child.
“Jo Bang Wool,” he says.
Her eyes stare past him, for a moment, far away, and he’s about to give in with a Jo Kang Ja-ssi, before they appear to focus on his chest, the only thing in her direct line of vision.
She raises her eyes to meet his. He shifts uncomfortably.
“Jo Bang Wool,” he repeats. It’s a question, he thinks. He can’t really tell. Her name is all sorts of things in his head. It’s not even her real name.
She steps aside.
Ah Ran looks unsurprised to find him sitting at their table, eighteen years of his life in two bags and him.
“What,” is all she mutters, picking up a half-read book from the table, “are you living with us now?”
He can see the bookmark inside. It’s colorful, too much silver glitter lining the inspirational quote, like she made it herself. Ah Ran doesn’t seem like the glitter-type. But maybe she was, once. Before.
He shrugs, trying to quiet down the uncertainty with bluster. It’s not his question to answer anyway. “I don’t know.”
She nods, like she does, head bent over her book, thumbing the pages. “Okay.”
He expects questions, so obviously he doesn’t get them. This is Jo Bang Wool. She never does anything he expects her to.
There’s an odd sort of domesticity in the air when she sets the table. He lounges about, unsure of where to stand.
“Do you need help,” he mumbles. He leans against the table. The edge digs into his side uncomfortably, but it’s too late to change positions now. He crosses his arms.
She turns to him, her gaze sharp, completely focused. His skin feels stretched across his bones. “Are you helpful?”
“Not particularly,” he answers abruptly, unable to tone down the automatic defensiveness in his voice. But he’s honest, at least, if not helpful. Not with things like these. Not with homes in general.
She laughs, it’s sudden, quick, bright, and he thinks he’s been waiting his whole life for this. And he doesn’t even know what this is.
“My unhelpful Bok Dongie,” she says, affectionately, leaning across the table to ruffle his hair.
He closes his eyes. For a moment. Only for a very, very brief moment. Resists the urge to reach out and capture her hand with far too much strength, and trap her against a hard surface- again- and tell her this isn’t how he wants to be defined.
“Don’t you touch me, ahjumma,” he says, instead, gruffly, moving away. Her hand left grasping air.
She picks up another plate with both hands, and only laughs, again.
He sleeps in the spare room. There’s only one, and she tells him it’s his if he wants it.
She makes it sound like she’s the one offering. Like he didn’t just land up at her doorstep and ask to be a part of this. Of them. Like it’s a choice they’re making, to have him.
The house is new-old. One of Gong Joo ahjumma’s properties. They pay full rent, because it’s Bang Wool. Although they probably don’t know what the actual full rent is, because it’s Gong Joo ahjumma.
Halmoni doesn’t want to live with us anymore, he can remember Ah Ran saying in that matter-of-fact tone she’s taken to saying everything these days, so we don’t.
Bang Wool still visits her old house every day. He knows because he follows her once. She makes enough food for four people- five sometimes, when she forgets. Enters with the food and leaves without, like a ghost. Her head bent, shoulders weighed the entire time.
The one time it rains on her way back, he drops the pretense, and moves away from the shade of the tree, to cover her head with his jacket.
She looks unsurprised to see him suddenly appear from nowhere, and he thinks of Ah Ran’s non-surprise at the kitchen table, and thinks that maybe, just maybe, he’s predictable.
“Thank you,” she whispers. She starting to shiver by now, hair glued to her face, but she still leans in closer so he can cover them both.
It takes just two minutes before his cloth jacket is soaked too. It was a stupid idea. But she doesn’t move away, and he doesn’t really care.
The seventh time he enters the classroom the exact same time as Ah Ran, Wang Jung Hee says in her best bitchy princess tone, “are you, like, living with her or what?”
Everyone turns, but these days it feels like an automated response. A reflex action brought about by years of conditioning. Nobody really cares, he can tell. Not anymore.
He glances across the room. Sang Tae sits on the third seat from the back now, in this temporary building. Maybe it’s a power shift. Or maybe there’s real power in getting to choose wherever the hell he wants to sit.
“Shut up,” he says quietly, keeping his bag down. Jung Hee’s been spoiling for a fight since weeks. Since that week.
“Do you also sleep together?” she drawls, ignoring him. “It was terrible, wasn’t it, Ah Ran-ah? Not like everyone doesn’t know he’s a virgin. I thought he finally gave it up to Yi Kyung-ih, but guess it was Do Saem after all. So he's probably still a virgin, unless you decided to do something about it.”
In his peripheral vision, he can see Ah Ran flinch, just slightly, looking to her left. Sang Tae’s back is taut. His shoulders stiff. But the other boy continues to stare out the window.
“Shut up,” he says, again, a little louder.
“Oh, I forgot,” Jung Hee dramatically slaps her forehead. He can see her hand shaking. “You’re lusting after Bang Wool unni, not Ah Ran. That must suck, Ah Ran, to be so undesirable that boys your age would rather do your own mother. That’s just-”
Sang Tae pushes his desk aside, hard, getting up from his seat. The desk skids across the floor. Bok Dong's fingers close around Jung Hee's wrist. She doesn’t protest when he drags her out.
“What are you going to do,” she says, the coquetry fading into dull sullenness, “hit me? Go ahead, hit me. It’s all you’re worth anyway.”
He shoves his hands in his pockets.
She laughs. An ugly sound. "Come on, loser. Hit me."
He waits, still.
Her fist meets the center of his chest. He can feel the pain blooming like a ripple current. Everything hurts. Having a building collapse on you will do that to a person, he's starting to realise. “Don’t just fucking stand there. Hit me.”
She hits him again. Again. Again. And when she finally starts crying, he’s just about to kneel from the pain. He thinks he should maybe comfort her, but he doesn’t know how. So he continues to stand there awkwardly. Doesn’t move.
She doesn’t rest her head on him, when she’s tired, leaning back against the wall instead.
“It’s not fair,” she says, eyes swollen, gasping for breath, “all of them- Do Hee- it’s not fair,” and he thinks something mean like welcome to the world, princess. But he doesn’t say it out loud, and god, maybe that’s growing up.
Park Saem comes over for dinner once, and keeps looking at him, like he wants to say something. So he’s not particularly surprised when Saem steers him to the side afterwards, while Bang Wool pretends like she can’t see them standing ten feet away.
There’s nowhere to go around here, in this house. It’s too small. No secrets. He likes that.
“Come live with me, Bok Dong-ah” Saem says earnestly, “I’m going to file the papers for guardianship. It’ll be your home.”
“I’m eighteen,” he mumbles, by way of an answer. And adds a “who wants to be the foster child of a homeroom teacher anyway,” out of sheer habit, but No Ah Saem is unruffled.
“You still need a guardian.”
There’s just a slight emphasis on need, which he's sure is not an accident, and at one point it would’ve made him furious because he doesn’t need anything.
But now it just makes him feel warm, somewhere deep. Like there’s a light on inside him too.
“It’s not,” Saem lowers his voice when Bang Wool forgets she’s supposed to be pretending she’s not listening in, and glances over at them, “right for a man to be living alone with two women like this.”
But there’s no real judgment, no fight in his voice. Bok Dong knows that with everything they’ve come to understand is wrong with their world, this? Just falls very low on the relativity scale.
“I will,” he says. Thinks of Dong Chil hyungnim in what feels like a very long time. Remembers sleeping with Saem’s arms around him. He doesn’t know how this man exists in this world. It’s an- that word that he was taught in his English class in July last year, when he was actually listening once, when he was still the king’s right hand, and there was a king, and nobody was dead. That word; oxy-something. “Later.”
Saem just nods, ruffling his hair in that way that Bang Wool sometimes does. But this time he doesn’t move away. It feels different when Saem does it.
“What did you say?” Bang Wool asks him, casually, when he’s helping her wash the dishes later. Ah Ran is out for ice-cream with Jung Hee, like they’re friends or something. Maybe they are. Honestly, he doesn’t try to understand how the girl world works. But at least he’s starting to get the hang of this home stuff.
He snorts. “Like you weren’t listening to every single thing we said, Bang Wool Tomato.”
She’s unembarrassed. “Hey, it is my house.”
He flicks soapy water at her, the plate in his hand dripping grease down to his rubber-covered elbows, “you act like a child sometimes, ahjumma.”
Her hand stills for a moment, and he knows he pushes sometimes with the you’re-such-a-child thing, and they both know what he’s doing.
But it’s only a moment, and she resumes wiping the plate dry. “You’re still here, though.”
“Still here,” he echoes. That was always the answer.
Sang Tae is awkwardly shuffling near the front gate, when he comes back from his arubite. Hands dirty with the concrete construction material. Maybe he just has new shoes to fill. Or maybe he’s growing into his own.
The other boy’s mouth sets in a straight line when his wandering gaze settles on him. But it’s not personal. Bok Dong gets that. It’s the thought of another guy close to someone he’s waiting for. He can’t not get that.
“Is Ah Ran inside?” Sang Tae asks, with obvious reluctance. But she comes up from behind just then, and well, that’s that.
“Ah Ran,” Sang Tae acknowledges, his voice going lower, deeper. He leans against his motorcycle, arms crossed, and Bok Dong thinks of how this is the youngest, the most vulnerable he’s ever seen the other guy look, in all the years they've known each other. Just when he’s trying so hard not to.
The color is high in her cheeks as she glances over at him, motioning him to go inside with a toss of her head. And he decides to stick around just to piss her off.
“Sang Tae,” she says, shy. He laughs. They both turn to glare at him.
He raises his hands in defeat, moving backwards slowly towards the gate, deliberately infuriating.
But they turn around almost immediately, to each other, fumbling with easy words.
He thinks, briefly, of how nearly every evening Bang Wool and Park Saem sit around with legal file after legal file, fighting to send Hong Sang Bok to jail. Thinks of all the times Hong Sang Bok hurt Bang Wool. He glances over, again, at Sang Tae and Ah Ran, absorbed in each other.
It’s a strange, strange world.
“Your daughter is shamelessly flirting with Capulet’s son,” he tells Bang Wool on going inside. She raises an eyebrow at his literary reference. He rolls his eyes, because, come on, they were both bottom of the class, she really has no high ground here.
But she’s a mother, so obviously she rushes out, and he knows it’s less to do with Sang Tae and more to do with her daughter and any boy.
But the loud sound of the motorbike tells him that she’s too late, so when she comes back, he just grins.
“You’re letting that child of yours run wild,” he informs her insolently.
She throws a cushion at him, "you're a true ahjusshi at heart in an eighteen-year-old body, aren't you, Bok Dong-ah."
He takes it as a compliment.
Maybe she can tell, because she rushes to cover almost immediately, "the things you keep saying to your noona- I should wash your mouth with soap and water."
"What noona," he mumbles under his breath, just loud enough for her to hear, "this ahjumma, seriously, pretending like she's a noona and not just an aged ahju-"
She interrupts him with a headlock, the corner of her mouth turned up, just slightly, as she rubs her knuckles against his hair. She's strong. She's always been the strongest person he knows.
"Take that back," she demands, half-seriously.
He pushes back, trying to throw her off, but it's barely a moment later when she has him pinned against the table, the back of his knees hitting wood, both hands behind his back, trapped under hers.
She takes it as a concession of defeat, sending him an easily interpreted look of triumph: who's the jjang now.
It's only later, alone in his room, that he realizes this: he's getting much too used to losing.
There is this time when he gets caught in the wrong side of town. Dong Chil hyungnim’s old crowd blocking his way.
There are lots of times, actually, but this time it shows, and when he finally gets back home, deliberately late, later than she should be up, she’s still up.
“What,” she starts, and he can almost taste the panic at the back of her throat, wonders if it’s a fraction as much as he’s felt- feels- every time she’s in danger, “what happened to you?”
“You should see the other guy, Cherry Tomato,” he says cheerily, through a split lip.
But she’s not put off by the bravado, and he wonders whether that has to do with her being thirty four, a mother, or a woman.
“It’s okay,” he mumbles, when she gets a bottle of antiseptic and soap and water, and roughly sits him down like she’s angry with him.
She’s strong, his Bang Wool, he remembers, when he unceremoniously lands on his bed, he’s forgotten how strong.
The first touch of the antiseptic stings like all hell, and he almost cries out before clamping his teeth down on his injured lip, just as she says, a free hand cupping his cheek, “it’s okay to cry. Cry if you want, Bok Dong-ah. It’s okay to cry when I’m here.”
She raises the hair covering his forehead so gently, it almost breaks open his heart a little. And he thinks maybe this is what it was supposed to feel like to have a mother.
But when he looks up, her hair curtaining his face, shoulder-blades shifting under smooth skin, as she presses the cotton against his forehead, biting her lip, like it’s hurting her too, like hurting him hurts her too, he feels a tightening somewhere in the pit of his stomach. Her hair still smells like vanilla. Like cinnamon. Like strawberries. Something. He can't tell. Something he knows he's had at some point in his life, can almost remember the taste of if he closes his eyes. Her hair still smells like it did all the way back then, amidst broken concrete and cement dust and endless summer, when he was allowing himself to fall.
And knows, then, with a lurching, sickening certainty that she’s always going to be a woman to him. Jo Bang Wool will always be a woman to him.
It won’t pass, like he knows everyone around him thinks. Saem, Gong Joo ahjumma, Ah Ran, Bang Wool herself. Like he's half-believed all this while because everyone else did. It won’t pass because he wants to talk to her, walk with her, touch her, sleep with her, protect her, and he’s somehow moved past being unable to say jo- Jo Bang Wool- right down to fucking being in love with her.
His mouth is dry. He swallows hard. Pushing her hand away on instinct.
But when he looks up next, straight at her, something in his eyes makes her move back a little.
She recovers almost immediately, but her body is angled away from his the next time she leans over, unconsciously self-conscious, and he thinks: good.
It gets to be a routine, this living arrangement, and he asks Ah Ran once, “is it weird,” casually, like he’s not looking for an answer, but Ah Ran is her mother’s daughter, and her gaze is far too knowing for comfort.
The TV is on, but they’re neither of them watching, sitting on the ground, leaning against the sofa, sharing lemonade that’s much too sour, and he thinks something absolutely ridiculous like Ah Ran doesn’t feel like his daughter or anything. Then remembers Park Saem saying something about how you don’t make relationships through people, you make relationships with them.
He doesn’t have to make a relationship with Ah Ran through Bang Wool. He doesn’t have to make a relationship with Bang Wool through Ah Ran.
“No weirder than other things people think are weird,” she says.
When he looks over at her, her eyes are fixed on the toy hanging on her phone. And he remembers, randomly, that Yi Kyung had the same one. Remembers watching them; dancing in the rain, laughing too hard, holding hands on the street on the way back from class, walking slower than necessary. Watching them all those times Sang Tae told him to make sure she got back safe. Remembers turning away sometimes when they looked at each other, because it was just between them, and he had no right to be watching.
Something changed in Ah Ran when Yi Kyung died, he can tell. Maybe it's the part of her that was silver glitter.
Maybe, he decides, all love is weird. Maybe no love can be explained. Maybe it wouldn’t be love if it could.
When Bang Wool gets back from the restaurant, she smiles seeing them sitting together, and says something about how they’re her good kids and asks them about homework for the day, and Ah Ran’s face lights in an amused, impudent grin, the kind he has when she’s with Sang Tae
“Yah, Jo Bang Wool,” he bites. Ah Ran rolls her eyes at him and says “Jo Kang Ja,” in this obnoxious, riling tone, and this times he glares at her.
Glares at Bang Wool too, but she’s very deliberately not looking at him. And by the time he stretches his legs to stand up; she’s already in her room.
He doesn’t miss her at all in school, he wants to tell her. He doesn’t not let anyone sit next to him now, because that would be insane. He’s not insane. She’s the crazy one for wearing a school uniform at her age, and tying his shoelaces when there was no reason for her to.
It’s later, when he’s helping her wash the dishes, and maybe because it’s on his mind, that he says, without meaning to, “I miss seeing you in your school uniform.”
It comes out dirtier than he intends. Suggestive, almost. That part of him that’s never held a woman’s hand apart from the times she’s held his- blushes.
For what it’s worth, that’s not what he meant to say at all. He meant to say that school’s so much better now that this crazy ahjumma is not wearing a schoolgirl’s uniform and encroaching on his territory and beating people up and following him into the men’s room and generally ruining his days fourteen ways from Monday.
But when he gives her a quick sideway glance, her skin is aflush, starting at the hollow of her throat, and when she next speaks, it’s too loud, and nothing about a school uniform, and he thinks that maybe she’s trying too.
They’re trying the exact opposite things, he knows, but maybe- maybe if they both have to try, it still means something.
They keep the news on. Not because anyone wants to, but because it’s kind of a necessity in what they’re doing.
There is this time when Kang Soo Chan is on the television, talking about how he’s being framed by an ungrateful, illegitimate son who holds a grudge against him for that his mistake so many years ago, and the woman interviewed next sniffs about how it must be his mother’s blood in him, that he hears the sound of shattering glass, and when he looks back, Bang Wool is clutching broken pieces of a cup, her hand bloody, her eyes still hard, fixed on the screen.
Her hand clenches into a fist, dripping blood on the carpet.
When he leads her inside, she’s unresisting. Unseeing, almost. She stops abruptly in front of the photo of- her husband- he forces the thought- her husband- in his room. There are three in the house that he’s yet seen and he thinks back to how he- more than once- punched the guy.
It’s the stupidest thing he’s done in a long litany of stupid things. Maybe being in love with Kang Ja is just as difficult as being in love with Bang Wool. Maybe he’ll grow into being in love with Kang Ja. Understand Jin Sang a little better then.
He bandages the cut. She’s still staring at the photograph, dry-eyed, silent.
“You can cry if you want,” he says, “it’s okay to cry when I’m here.”
She crumples to the floor, like she’s just tired of standing, but he catches her mid-way.
His hand tangles in her hair. He’s still awkward with comfort. But she doesn’t seem to need anything other than warmth. When she tightens her grip around him, he thinks of how it’s probably hurting her hand. Doesn’t say anything.
"I was so afraid when you wouldn't wake up," her voice is muffled against his sweater. He can feel the reverberations from her words against his rib cage, "in that hospital room. I was so afraid."
"I'm sorry," he says, over and over, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
When Ah Ran comes back, Bang Wool is sleeping against him. He hasn’t moved in an hour. His body feels like it’s fallen asleep without him.
“What are you doing to my mother,” she scowls, but there’s no heat there. Only concern when she catches sight of the bandaged hand.
“As if I’d ever want anything to do with any ahjumma,” he starts, but that knowing look is back in her eyes. He’s starting to find that look incredibly pissing off.
She wakes Bang Wool up gently, and leads her slowly to their room, still half-asleep. She’s exhausted- Bang Wool. He can see that now. He’s so used to her fighting; he sometimes forgets she’s a person too. Not just a fantasy. He didn't make her up inside his head.
Ah Ran comes back to shut his door. He still can’t move. He can feel his body breaking into agonizing pins-and-needles.
“If you hurt my mother,” she begins carefully, hand on the knob, “I will hurt you.”
She looks genuinely threatening. He acts like he’s not intimidated. “As if I could.”
He doesn’t have enough of Bang Wool to be able to hurt her. It’s an open secret around this town.
Ah Ran isn’t fazed.
“You may someday,” she says, “be able to. So remember it for then.”
“You come home too late,” he frowns at her, as she keeps her bag on the table and takes off her coat, carelessly draping it across the head of the sofa, "there is no reason for a woman your age to come home so late."
She reaches over to ruffle his hair, “were you waiting for me, Bok Dongie?”
He thinks of saying god, no, of course not, get your head on straight, ahjumma. Why would I be waiting for you. I’m not the crazy one here.
Says, instead, “every day.”
Maybe this is growing up.
He's looking at her, so he can make out the exact second when she can't meet his eyes anymore, half lowering her hand before it touches him, like she's startled by the honesty.
He leans forward this time, linking his fingers through hers, mid-air. He doesn't know why, but right now, the courage feels liquid inside him, like he's drunk on her.
"What are you-" she begins, moving, as if to draw back.
He tightens his grip, heart beating in his throat.
"I li-" her eyes are wide, "Jo Bang Wool." Dammit.
There is a pause. He holds his breath.
The silence stretches. He knows she can tell that something changed. That it's different.
It's different because, this time, he almost said it.
She still can't seem to look at him and maybe- god- maybe he ruined everything. If there's one thing he's been taught in life, over and over again, it's to not need anything. Not need anyone. He can almost hear Dong Chil hyungnim's voice in his head: have you never played tennis, boy, love counts for nothing. But it's no secret that he's always been a terrible student, so maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that he's somehow now managed to screw up that lesson too. Maybe if he'd just been beaten up more, he'd have understood better. But instead, he's ruined everything.
He can feel his hand shaking. He lets go of hers, before she can feel it too. Turns away from her, blindly picking up the first thing out of her shopping bag to give his hands something to do.
He looks down at the label, gripping the shampoo bottle so hard, he can feel his skin indenting to the shape, "what the- how can anything smell like the summer rain in Seoul? That's not a flavor at all. Yah, Jo Bang Wool, do pabo aniya? Are you that trusting? Getting conned by every fake manufactured product with a fancy name. Do you know nothing about the world? This girl, aish. You need someone to look after you all the time or you go and do stupid things like-"
She laughs, then, unexpectedly. Cutting through his panicked words. So hard, she has to lean against the table to keep herself standing. He loses his train of thought entirely.
"Bang Wool Tomato," he mutters, face hot with embarrassment, "my shoelace is undone and since you seem to enjoy tying it so much-"
She deliberately steps on the aglet, and he trips. On his words, on his feet. And before he knows it; he's allowing himself to fall.
She leans over him, when he's hit the ground, smacking him on the forehead with an open palm, "what did I say about asking nicely?"
For what it's worth, he resists. For a moment, he resists. But some battles aren't for the winning. He's getting so used to losing with her, it's almost beginning to feel like he's not. Not losing.
"Please," he manages, mouth closing awkwardly around the unfamiliar word, pretend-sullen. Please. He doesn't even know what he's asking for.
She laughs, again. Open, alive, awake. And he thinks, his thoughts a mess: he's never tasted the summer rain in Seoul.
I lik-Jo Bang Wool-
And it still wasn't his moment, not just then, not right now, but the sound of her laughter makes something flare in his chest. Bright, hopeful. Like a burning light. Like the lights are always on wherever she is.
She bends down. Offers her hand.
He reaches up, takes it. It's warm in his.