Hwang Shi Mok was dreaming, and he knew he was dreaming. He existed in that lucid place between sleep and being awake, except the scene in which he was a player, had already happened. He was standing before Prosecutor Lee on that half-finished building, watching him fall to his death, unable to stop him. The helplessness he felt, the futility. It always came to him in his dreams. He could move, he could shout, but he could never stop him. Sometimes he came close; but always, Lee Chang Joon would fall, and the last image Shi Mok would be left with, was him laying on the plywood below, blood seeping from his broken body.
“Ladies and Gentleman, welcome to Incheon, where the current time…”
Shi Mok started and opened his eyes, the images fading away to the recesses of his mind where they would stay until he was asleep, and had no control to keep them there.
Departing the plane, he felt the cold air woosh through cracks in the tunnel and shivered. It was colder here in Seoul than in Namhae. Somehow, he had forgotten that in just a year.
Upon entering the lobby, the first face he laid eyes on was his new assistant, a woman named Kim Shi Eun. She gave him a dignified smile, but he saw the pleasure in her eyes. She had joined him in Namhae for a short period of time before he came back to Seoul, and while she was very good at what she did, he had grown wary of her behavior towards him. In some ways she reminded him of Eun Soo.
He walked towards her, when he suddenly stopped, his gaze falling on another woman whose face he knew. It was Detective Han. She was also smiling, but unlike Ms. Kim, it was unbridled. Her eyes crinkled up and her cheeks and nose, flushed from the cold were makeup free. There was nothing wrong with either of their smiles, but he couldn’t help lingering on Han Yeo Jin’s face a tiny bit longer.
“Detective Han,” he said evenly. “What are you doing here?”
His assistant made a small coughing noise, and Yeo Jin looked over at her, slightly taken aback.
“Oh!” She glanced back and forth between them. “I came to pick you up, but I see you are already taken care of.”
“Yes, he is.” Ms. Kim was watching her carefully, the smile not quite gone from her lips, but now guarded. It was in the squaring of her elegantly clad shoulders, the way she slightly turned her body in towards Hwang Shi Mok that betrayed her hostility.
Still, Yeo Jin turned to her and bowed slightly. “I’m Detective Han Yeo Jin. Nice to meet you.”
She inclined her head. “I know who you are.”
Yeo Jin blinked. “But I don’t know who you are.”
The woman’s smile left her face completely. Shi Mok frowned. The silence that followed was awkward, but Yeo Jin just smiled, and left it for Shi Mok to introduce the women in his life to one another.
“This is my assistant, Ms. Kim Shi Eun,” Shi Mok said then changed the subject before they could acknowledge the greeting. “Detective Han, how did you know what flight I would be on?”
Yeo Jin shrugged, not really wanting to get into how she had contacted his old team leader to let her know. She had never expected he would have someone waiting for him. She stepped back, and gave a small salute. “Well, since you have everything you need, I’ll be off.”
He nodded but she had already begun to walk away. He picked up his books and turned to leave when he heard her call his name.
“Prosecutor Hwang.” He turned. She was grinning at him, one that took over her entire face.
“I’m glad you’re back.” Then without waiting for an answer, she strolled off, arms swinging by her sides, head high.
Still bemused, Shi Mok watched her leave.
Distracted, he turned back to Ms. Kim, who was looking at him intently. The slight downturn of her lips indicated she was not happy, and he knew it had to do with Detective Han. Still, he could not fathom why.
“You have a dinner appointment with Chief Kang, at five thirty.” She glanced at the dainty watch on her wrist. “It’s four now, and we still have to pick up your luggage.”
“Yes,” He agreed. As they walked towards baggage claim, he turned back once to see if he could still catch sight of Detective Han’s short hair bobbing up and down, but she was already gone.
Yeo Jin sat down on the subway and slumped her shoulders, letting out an aggrieved sigh. She hadn’t imagined he would have anyone to meet him, or she never would have gone. He obviously had acquired a new assistant since he left Seoul, but had never spoken about her in any of his emails. How was she supposed to know?
It had been over a year since he had left for Namhae, and while they had exchanged emails, he had never been very verbose. She had been looking forward to seeing him, even bringing money to pay for a taxi, and now…now she was on the subway, alone.
There were two girls, likely students sitting across from her, neither pretty, but fresh-faced and young, chatting with each other and giggling over something they had found on their phones. Yeo Jin smiled at their innocence, trying to remember when she was last like that. It had been a very long time.
It was going to be a long journey back, so she got out her notebook and began to draw the girls When she was finished, she turned the page and thought back to the strange confrontation with Hwang Shi Mok’s assistant. It was obvious from her behavior she had more than professional feelings for him, and didn’t seem to mind telling other women that with passive aggressive hostility.
She began to sketch again, and what was emerged a while later, were two lionesses, their ears laid back growling at each other, and between them, a lion, looking stupid and oblivious, a telltale frown on his face. As the traditional music sounded announcing the train’s approach to Seoul Station, she looked up and realized she had acquired an audience, including the two young male office workers on either side of her, and an older man in an ill-fitting suit standing above her. He was looking down with a leering sort of interest.
“Looks like my wife and mother in-law,” he said with a smirk as he caught her eye. There was a hostile edge to his tone Yeo Jin didn’t like. The young men next to her laughed, and she wanted to slap them.
She stood, forcing the man to take a step back. “Then that makes you the idiot in the middle,” she said in a cool tone. “You should be kinder to the women in your life. I’m sure if you took responsibility for yourself, they would not act like lions on the Serengeti.”
He sputtered in outrage, but before he could say anything, she pushed her way past him, leaving the two young men gaping, and the girls across from her, giggling, as the doors slid shut behind her.
Her tolerance for misogyny had fallen pretty far since the departure of her Chief for engaging in underage prostitution, and the increasing distance of some of her male colleagues on other teams had only made things worse. Jang Gun was still by her side, as were the members of her own team, but many refused to look at her anymore. It was, for some, an unforgivable act of betrayal. Loyalty was rewarded above all else, and she had chosen justice for a prostitute over that loyalty.
It also didn’t help that she was a woman.
Some justice had been provided, but there was still so much to change in this country called “Hell Jeoson.”
Shi Mok was briefed By Lead Prosecutor Kang over dinner about the Prime Minister’s case, and then listened to him complain how Dong Jae had not made any effort since Shi Mok had left, to change himself. It was late by the time he got home.
He let himself into his apartment, and was overcome with a stranger’s scent. He had let the place when he had moved to Namhae, and he knew he shouldn’t have expected it to smell as it did when he lived there, but it bothered him more than he thought it would. It was as though he had never been here at all.
Setting down his suitcase, he went over to the window and pulled back the curtains. It was a bitterly cold night in November, but had not yet snowed and the tension in the air was making everyone restless. He thought of Detective Han’s cheeky, but genuine offer to let him sleep on her porch when he returned, and his lips tilted up slightly, an unfamiliar warmth spreading in his chest. He knew she knew he would never accept, but the invitation was there just the same. That was what mattered.
He went to suitcase and opening the front pocket, he drew out the last picture that Detective Han had drawn for him, the one of him smiling. He had, as she had requested him to, practiced everyday he was in Namhae. He still did not smile easily, but when he looked at this drawing, it came as naturally as it would to any other person. Going into the bedroom, he gently placed it in his nightstand, fingers brushing lightly over the paper before leaving to get clean bedding for himself.
The closet smelled of the sandalwood soap he used, and he relaxed, feeling as though he hadn’t been completely erased from this apartment. It remembered him, and he was finally home.
He didn’t see her for a week or so after coming back. The Prime Minister’s case kept him busy, and he had no time to do anything else. He did remember to eat though, even if it was ramen at the pojangmacha. He wondered if he would run into her, but it wasn't until one Wednesday night a week or so after he arrived in Seoul, that he saw her there.
He was pouring a glass of soju when he heard her familiar voice.
“Ah!" Came her surprised noise of recognition. "Prosecutor Hwang!”
He turned and there she was, nose pink from the cold, her coat wrapped tightly around her thin frame. He gestured for her to take the seat across from him.
“And invitation this time!” She smiled and sat down. “I’m so lucky.”
He indulged her teasing, and raised his hand at the owner. “One more ramen, please.”
She turned around as well. “One more glass, too!”
Her hair whipped back and forth around her cheeks, the movement making her look younger than she was. As he looked upon her fondly, he realized how much he’d actually missed meeting with her the last year.
The woman brought over a steaming bowl of ramen and a clean glass, and Shi Mok poured her a drink. She returned the favor and they clinked glasses together.
“Ack!” Her face screwed up from the soju’s bitter bite, eyes squeezing shut.
Shi Mok smiled briefly, but it was gone before she opened her eyes. She was about to speak when he pointed at her bowl. “Eat first, then talk.”
“Right,” she agreed. He watched her pick up her chopsticks, noticing the flat nails, trimmed short and unpolished. The skin on the back of her hands was smooth. There was a sheen to it, almost like silk in candlelight. She slurped her noodles and smiled at him, her mouth full.
They ate together in a comfortable silence, save the sound of noodles being slurped up and the occasional clink of their glasses on the table.
“How is building evidence for your case going?” she asked finally. “It must be difficult, it being the Prime Minister.”
“Yes. There are many people with power and secrets they are loathe to give up.” Shi Mok poured another glass of soju. “And some of the people I work with…still do not fully understand the consequences of what happened last year.”
Yeo Jin gave him a wry smile. “Seo Dong Jae?”
Shi Mok nodded. “Him, and others.” He felt his stomach tighten, feeling slightly ill. Thinking about Dong Jae made him think of Lee Chang Joon.
Yeo Jin’s smile faded and she looked sad. “It’s been just over a year, hasn’t it? Since Prosecutor Young’s death. And Lee Chang Joon.”
Baffled, again he nodded. Sometimes he was sure she could read his mind.
She let out a big sigh and propping her elbows on the table, placed her chin in her hands. “I don’t much like this time of year. Too many bad things happen in November.”
Shi Mok regarded her with interest. “What do you mean?”
She blinked and sat up. “Oh. I—my parents divorced, and my dad left at this time of year. I suppose these things are unconsciously cyclical, aren’t they?” She picked up her glass and began to spin it around on its edge. “My mother left too, eventually. It seems winter is the hardest time for people to pretend everything is okay.”
Wordlessly, Shi Mok poured her another glass of soju and then filled his own glass. He felt warm, but he couldn’t tell if it was from the alcohol or her companionship. He hadn't realized how much he missed this ritual they had begun the previous year, and it was sort of bittersweet to have it brought to his attention.
He held up his glass. “To better Novembers.”
She smiled, the melancholy aura about her disappearing like the smoke of burning incense. “To better Novembers.”
When they toasted, her knuckles accidently brushed the back of his hand. Shi Mok drank his soju down in one shot and raised his hand for the check.
They felt like silk, too.
As Yeo Jin made her way home through the dark streets, she began to feel a strange sort of prickling feeling on the back of her head. It was like someone was standing right behind her, blowing on her neck. She turned around, heart thumping, but there was no one there. The small alleys and roads were badly lit, twisting and turning, with many shadowy places, making it easy for someone to hide. She might have been a police officer with finely-honed instincts, but she couldn’t see in the dark. The feeling of being watched eventually vanished as she stood there, peering into the shadows.
She stuck to lit streets, constantly checking behind her, but the prickly feeling never came back. When she got to her small rooftop apartment, she firmly locked the door behind her, and checked the latches on the windows. It wasn’t the most secure of places, but she couldn’t afford much else. Placing her taser next to her bed, she washed up and passed out, exhausted.
The following morning, when she opened her door, she found one of her flowerpots had tipped over, the dirt spread across the concrete. Once again, the hair on the back of her neck stood on end and she shivered. Calmly, she crouched and turned the pot right-side up. She swept the dirt into her palm and dumped it back into the pot. She couldn’t even remember what had been growing in it the previous spring. She’d probably killed it.
Jittery, she side-eyed every person on the bus. She took a detour to work, stopping in random shops and watched from the window to see if anyone waited for her. She did this so many times she was late for work.
“Yah, Detective Han.” Jang Gun leaned back in his chair, his hands folded behind his head. “One little promotion, and now you’re late.”
She didn’t smile. “You got a promotion, too, don’t forget.”
He smiled. “I’m not—” he looked at his watch “—twenty minutes late.”
Ignoring him, she put her bag down on her desk. Turning to him, she folded her arms and leaned her hip against the desk. “Have you ever felt as though you were being followed?”
Startled, Jang Gun sat up. “What? You think you’re being followed? By who?”
“I don’t know.” She sighed. “I felt it last night, as I was walking home from meeting Prosecutor Hwang.”
A sly smile spread over Jang Gun’s face, the topic of being followed, forgotten. “Ooh, first it was Jung Bon, but now the Handsome Prosecutor has returned.”
“Hey!” She jabbed her finger at him. “I didn’t date Jung Bon. Nothing happened with him.”
Jang Gun held up his hands in mock surrender. “Okay, okay.”
“And I’m not dating Hwang Shi Mok,” she muttered. “We’re just colleagues.”
Jang Gun looked serious. “You’re more than that.”
Yeo Jin busied herself with the reports on her desk. “Friends,” she said eventually. “We’re friends.”
“So what’s this feeling you had?” he asked absently, typing in his laptop.
“The hair on my neck and arms rose.”
“Maybe it was a ghost.”
She paused and looked over at him in exasperation. “Okay, we’re done.”
“What? What did I say?”
Over the next few weeks, she felt nothing. No more overturned flowerpots or feeling of eyes on the back of her head. She was so busy, she almost forgot about it, chalking it up to stress.
She met Shi Mok every few days or so at the pojangmacha, and they talked through their cases, colluding with one another, helping whenever they were able, and it was legally possible to do so.
One night in early December, the first snow began to fall as they were walking through the streets near her house. A chestnut vendor was packing up for the night, so Yeo Jin bought two bags of chestnuts for a discounted price, and handed one to Shi Mok.
He looked at it dubiously. “What is this for?”
“It’s snowing, so you should eat roasted chestnuts.”
“Because I do.”
He silently held the bag as she happily dug into hers. Eventually they stopped at another food stall for odeng guk.
As Shi Mok sipped the hot broth, Yeo Jin got out her notebook and drew chestnuts with crying faces being eaten by a little cartoon Shi Mok. She ripped it out and handed it to him. “There.”
He stopped and frowned at it. “This is terrible.”
Yeo Jin only laughed. “I know. That’s why I’m a cop and not a webtoon artist.”
The drawing forgotten, he looked at her interestedly. “You wanted to be a webtoon artist?”
“Not really.” She popped another chestnut into her mouth, savoring its sweet warmth. “Drawing is my hobby, but as you can see, I’m not very good. I enjoy it, and it relieves stress. I became a detective, and that’s what I’m good at.” She looked over to find him watching her intently. “What about you? What did you want to be?”
They moved on. The snow had begun to accumulate, their footprints leaving light tracks in the dusting on the ground. Shi Mok stopped as he pondered the question. “I don’t know. I never really had the chance to figure it out.”
“Ah.” Yeo Jin stood next to him quietly. They began to walk again, the cold air turning their breaths into white puffs in front of them.
“I went to university and discovered the law. It was the right path, so I took it.”
“That’s normal,” she said brightly. “Lots of kids don’t know what they want until college, and sometimes, not even then.” She laughed. “I was a pretty hopeless student, but somehow I managed. Considering I’ve been living on my own since I was sixteen, I see myself as a success.”
Shi Mok glanced at her with interest. “You’ve lived alone since you were that young?”
“Oh. Yes.” Yeo Jin ran her hand through her hair. “After my dad left, my mother was very depressed. She used to play the same Kim Chu Ja song, the one about her man leaving, over, and over again, on the record player until it was warped. It was my sixteenth birthday and she had had it on since early in the morning. She hadn’t made me seaweed soup. I got angry and smashed it against the wall. We never spoke of it. But after that, I was on my own.”
As soon as she finished, she wondered if she had said too much. Feeling awkward, she shoved the remaining chestnuts into her mouth. Instantly, she regretted it. They had gone cold and were quite dry, and they felt stuck in her throat. She had finally forced them down, relieved, when Shi Mok held out his own bag of chestnuts, completely untouched.
“You can have mine. You seem to like them a lot.”
That night she dreamed about snow, and Shi Mok. He was smiling warmly, and affectionately. When she woke up, the image of his smiling face lingered, and she wondered if she would ever see the man in her dream in real life.
She didn’t see him for almost a week. The station was busy in the middle of December with a lot of drunken brawls and loitering charges. The cells were full almost every night. By Friday, it had grown tedious, but had slowed down. At these times, she almost wished for the 80 hour plus work weeks when she had a complex investigation going on. It could be so boring otherwise.
By late afternoon, she had wrapped up her reports on some burglaries, and arranged to testify in a sexual assault case she had finished investigating. Feeling tired, she decided to go home early.
Packing up her things and saying goodbye to Jang Gun, she walked out into the chilly night air. It was already dark, but the streets were lit, and the stores were especially bright with Christmas decorations and lights. The bakeries had part-time workers wearing Santa Claus costumes and selling Christmas cakes, and there were many groups of people out, drinking, laughing with their friends, and having a good time.
It cheered her up to see it, and because she was paying too much attention to the festive atmosphere, she neglected to notice she was, indeed, being followed. It wasn’t until she turned away from the shops, and into a park that she became aware she was not alone. Something was wrong. Very wrong. But by then it was too late, and when something heavy hit the back of her head, she was out before she hit the ground.
She woke up shivering and her head pounding. She cursed herself for being stupid. She should not have been so lax. She should not have gotten distracted.
Light snow was falling around her. She was leaning against a pine tree, slightly protected from the snow, but she was tied up, and very, very, cold. As she examined the knots, a chill went down her spine that had nothing to do with the cold air. Her captor knew knots used by police officers to detain criminals.
After seeing that, she knew who it was, even before she saw his face.
She heard crunching footsteps coming towards her, and when Kim Soo Chan stepped out from behind a tree, Yeo Jin scoffed in disdain. He looked terrible, like he hadn’t slept in days. His clothes were crumpled, and he hadn’t shaved recently.
“Really, Kim Soo Chan? What are you doing?”
He smirked, his arms crossed over his chest. The only thing that betrayed his lack of calm were his eyes. They slid side-to-side, too rapidly for someone who was not agitated.
“Are you doing this because I handcuffed you to a hospital bed after punching you in the face?”
The smirk vanished, and he glared at her. “You shouldn’t have done that.”
“What, and let you get rid of Kim Ga Young?” She shook her head. “I never liked you, but you brought it on yourself. You broke the law, just like Chief Kim did.”
His eyes flashed. “I was loyal!” he spat out. “You were the one who betrayed us. All of us. They should never have let you in.”
Anger at his self-righteousness coursed through her. “Oh, because I’m not a man?” she shot back. “Maybe if there were more female detectives and less of your lot, we wouldn’t have had to face such a humiliating loss of pride. Under-age prostitutes, Soo Chan! Little girls. Children!” she was pleading with him by that point, wanting him to see, to understand, but he wasn’t listening. He didn’t want to.
“He wasn’t a pedophile!” Soo Chan shouted. “He shouldn’t have gone to prison. He was a good chief. A good boss.”
“If he wasn't a pedophile, then what would you call it?” she asked quietly. “What is the point of consent laws, and the Juvenile Protection Act? What laws are we enforcing, as police officers, if we allow our own to break them? Is it all just lip-service, so that powerful men can look good, but do whatever they want when no one’s looking?”
Something like guilt flashed across his face, but was gone faster than it had been there. “You betrayed Chief Kim, and the rest of your colleagues, and they gave you a promotion.”
“Then what of Jang Gun?” she snapped. “Why isn’t he tied up here next to me?”
“Because, he only followed you. He didn’t lead, or instigate any of this.”
“And he’s a man.” Yeo Jin felt suddenly exhausted. “What is the point of this, Soo Chan? Are you going to kill me? Torture me? What?”
“I wanted you to see the consequences of what you did and apologize,” he snarled. “You’ve been prancing around like some princess, taking cases, you have no business taking, while other, better detectives, have gotten nothing.” He loomed over her, menacing, his fists clenched tightly. “I was fired because of you. My career, ruined!”
“So really, this is all about you,” Yeo Jin said in a low voice. “Not the station. Not your former colleagues.” She looked up at him in disgust. “You only really care about yourself.”
Rage contorted his face, and he punched her. Pain radiated through her head and neck, and she felt her nose gush blood. It was warm and tasted of iron.
He grabbed her collar and pulled her up towards his face. His breath was hot and rank. “I gave everything to that department. Everything!” He clenched his teeth. “And you took it all away.”
The sound of a ringing phone suddenly filled the air. It came from somewhere off to her left.
“Is that my phone?” She spat blood out of her mouth, but it filled up again. “Soo Chan, give me my phone.”
He laughed, and it came out high pitched and off. “Why would I do that? It’s already been ringing for hours”
She gave him a pitying look. “You didn’t think this through, did you? Even though you’ve been following me for weeks.”
He grinned. “You never saw me.”
“No, but I knew someone was there.”
“I only had to wait until you had your guard down. You and that pretty-boy prosecutor sure spend a lot of time together.”
At the mention of Shi Mok, Yeo Jin suddenly remembered she was supposed to meet him at the pojangmacha tonight. She had completely forgotten. The call was probably from him. Hope spiraled through her. At least someone would know she was missing when she didn’t show up or answer the phone. She could only hope he wouldn’t assume she went home or fell asleep.
The phone stopped ringing.
Please, Hwang Shi Mok, she thought desperately. Please.
“So?” She looked at him scornfully. “Why do you care.”
He frowned. “I don’t. But you both talk too much.”
“Oh, so I should be quiet like a good woman, is that it?” Her own sense of helplessness, fear, and rage overtook her. “Let the men decide everything? Lower my head to the floor, kneel, eat last, cook and clean for you? Is that what your wife did?”
The moment it came out, she regretted it. Soo Chan turned the color of a plum. “Don’t—you talk about my wife!” he burst out in agonized fury. “If you’d only kept your damn mouth shut, I wouldn’t be here. My family wouldn’t be ruined. She left!’ He gasped. “She left because of you!”
“No,” Yeo Jin said thickly through the blood that poured from her nose, voice trembling in anger. “It has nothing to do with me. You took an oath and you broke it. It was no one’s fault but your own. You chose to save yourself, ignoring the people you were supposed to protect, and in that you failed your family. You are nothing but a coward. A sniveling coward, who won’t take responsibility for anything.”
“Shut up!” Soo Chan swung his arm around, backhanding Yeo Jin across the face.
Pain exploded in her already aching head, making her feel like vomiting, but suddenly there was a pressure on her throat, cutting off her air.
She blinked through the falling snow, and saw Soo Chan in front of her, his hands wrapped around her throat, his features twisted, ugly and almost inhuman. She didn’t recognize the man she had sat across for so many years. He was no longer there.
Yeo Jin tried to kick him away, but he was sitting on her legs, and he was too heavy. Her head pressed against the pine bark, and she could smell the fresh scent as darkness began to seep into the edges of her sight. It receded when a burst of adrenaline shot through her, forcing her to remain conscious. She tried to get him to see her, really see her, but he was too far gone into the rage and self-pity.
Soon the darkness came again, and this time she couldn’t fight it. There was no more air left in her lungs, and the pain was giving way to numbness. Falling limp, she closed her eyes. She didn’t want to die looking at Soo Chan’s ugly expression.
In the distant part of her consciousness she thought she heard a shout. She forced her eyes open, and saw a shadowy shape coming towards them. Then there was a loud noise and the pressure on her throat was gone. There was a moment of weightlessness before her lungs seized and she was gulping in great breaths of freezing winter air. Coughing she rolled to her side and retched, and then coughed more. Blood from her nose spattered the ground. Her lungs burned, and her head throbbed, but she was alive.
“Han Yeo Jin.” Someone was calling her name.
There was the sound of crackling leaves nearby and then she was lifted from the cold ground into a warm embrace that smelled so very familiar. A soft hand wiped her face gently, clearing the blood from her mouth and nose.
“Hwang Shi Mok,” she rasped, her throat burning with the effort.
“Don’t talk,” he said in his familiar, calm tone. “The ambulance will come soon.”
He cut through the ropes and wrapped his coat around her. Her teeth began to chatter, and she shivered violently. There was a terrible expression on his face, the only thing that belied his fear. She could see it, and she was also afraid. Of what, she didn’t know.
“Soo Chan, is he—”
“Yes.” Shi Mok looked down into her eyes without blinking. “He’s dead." He brushed the snow from her hair, his fingers touching her forehead lightly. He closed his eyes and let out a long breath. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
She let out a shuddering, painful, sob and closed her eyes. It wrenched out of her, causing her to squirm in pain.
“Don’t cry,” Shi Mok ordered, but his tone was gentle. “It will hurt more.”
Yeo Jin knew that, but she couldn’t help it. She tried to stop, but the tears kept coming. She gripped his sweater, trying to steady herself, trying to breathe without such unimaginable pain, when she heard him begin to sing an old familiar song, soft and faintly out of tune.
“What do you think? Your man went away.”
She opened her sticky eyes. In the semi-darkness, the falling snow muffled the world. There was only his voice. She stared up at his cheeks, reddened with cold, and her tears began to subside. Through the physical pain from her injuries, she felt her chest begin to ache. Joy and longing, they clung to her soul and her heart like honey—sticky, sweet, and slightly painful.
“What do you think? Your man went away.
I tried to run and catch your hand, I was too far away.
Where did he go? What about you?”
“How do you know—that song?”
He looked down at her, his face solemn, brow slightly furrowed. His voice was light, but there was a darkness in his eyes. “You mentioned it.” He paused. “But I had a mother, too.”
Off in the distance, the high-pitched wail of sirens reached them, like the cries of lost spirits echoing through the desolate woods.
“What do you think? Your man went away.
I tried to run and catch your hand, I was too far away.
She blinked, and she was back that room listening to her mother sob, her heart broken over her father leaving them, the familiar warped noise of the record player filling the lonely house with its melancholy tune.
The ambulance grew louder and louder, and then it was cut off suddenly. Yeo Jin blinked, the last lines of the song fading as she lost consciousness.
“Where did he go? What about you...?”
When she opened her eyes again she was in the hospital, the harsh lights and white walls causing her eyes to hurt. Breathing caused her pain, but she was alive. She felt a warmth that wasn’t from the heated blanket radiating from her hand, and ignoring the stiffness in her neck, she looked over to find Shi Mok sleeping beside her, his head resting on the bed, his hand in hers. Gently she reached over to press her fingers against his brow, trying to smooth the wrinkles away. He stirred at her touch, and she gently moved her hand away.
She watched as he blinked the sleep from his eyes, and focused on her. They looked at one another for a moment and something passed between them, fleeting--then it was gone, and he asked,
“How are you feeling?”
Yeo Jin tried to speak, but no sound came out. Her throat felt swollen, and it was very painful.
“The doctor said you won’t be able to speak for a while.
He picked up a small plastic bag beside him and took out a small notebook and pen.
So I bought you this.”
He handed her the small spiralbound book, which was made for children, with animals and silly phrases about love on it. She took it, raising her eyebrows at him.
He seemed to understand her question. “I thought you might like it better than black.”
She nodded, but she was taken aback that he had thought about it at all.
She scribbled on the paper, her fingers weak, but determined. “How did you find me?”
“You didn’t show up to our meeting, and when I called Jang Gun, he told me you mentioned to him you felt like you were being followed. The first suspect I looked for, was someone with a grudge, and Kim Soo Chan was the most recent and obvious choice. I had Jang Gun put out a BOLO, and someone called in his plates. Also, I called your phone, hoping it was still on, and it was. I heard it."
Thank you, she mouthed.
He nodded, and then picked up his coat from the back of the chair. “I have to go. I promised I would let your captain debrief me when you woke up. I’ll come and see you later.”
She nodded, watching him go. If he hadn’t been debriefed, what was he doing here? He’d shot and killed someone. And where had he gotten ahold of a weapon?
A nurse walked in right after, holding a clipboard and wearing a smile that could only be called giddy.
“Oh, he is really handsome, isn’t he?” She looked down at Yeo Jin eagerly. “Is he your boyfriend? Husband?”
Yeo Jin shook her head, amused that she was asking about Shi Mok, not how Yeo Jin was feeling, but the girl looked so excited, Yeo Jin indulged her. She always enjoyed seeing young women carefree and happy, even if for a few minutes. She shouldn’t be ridiculed for that.
“Well, if he isn’t, he should be!” The nurse huffed, taking the blood pressure cuff and strapping it to Yeo Jin’s arm, still chattering away. “When you came in, he waited outside, refusing to go with the other officers. They tried to take him away, but he kept repeating in such a calm voice, “when she wakes up. I’ll go when she wakes up…” She fell silent as she took Yeo Jin’s blood pressure.
Yeo Jin didn’t know what to think, but she felt her heart begin to beat a bit faster, so much that the nurse frowned at the reading. When she was done, she picked up right where she had left off. “…so they let him stay. The officers waited, too. Your blood pressure is a bit too high. Rest more, and I’ll have juk sent up to you.” She gave Yeo Jin a bright smile. “But no salt.”
She was discharged after 36 hours. Except for heavy bruising around her neck and on her face, and a painful larynx, she had not suffered any other obvious trauma. She was ordered to rest and keep track of her symptoms, and if she experienced nausea, vomiting, or problems breathing, she was to go back to the hospital right away. Shi Mok had not returned, so it was Jang Gun who drove her home.
“Text me if you need anything,” he said as sternly as he could. “Anything.”
She nodded, and rolled her eyes. After he left, she looked at the stairs up to her rooftop room, and sighed internally. She was wearing the clothes she had been brought in with, and though they had been cleaned, they were not in the best shape, nor was she dressed warmly enough for a long trek up the stairs with, probably, a numerous amount of rest stops.
She was about to start the climb when she heard a voice behind her. “I thought you were smarter than this, Detective Han.”
She turned to see Shi Mok standing there in the snow, dressed in more casual attire, with a puffy down coat and scarf. He had another coat draped over his arm, and he was looking at her with an expression that she could only call angry.
“Hwang Shi Mok—” she rasped out, but he cut her off, his voice tight.
“Was that Jang Gun I saw driving off? How do any of you catch criminals when you can’t take care of yourselves, or each other?”
Bemused at his rare display of anger, she was silent. He approached her, holding out the coat. She turned around obediently and let him help her into it.
“Jang Gun is an idiot, and he should never be allowed to take responsibility for someone.”
He said this in such a formal way, but the term “take responsibility” had come to mean so much more, and in a way Shi Mok was probably oblivious to, she couldn’t help snorting. She regretted it immediately afterwards when pain tore through her throat.
“Did I say something that amuses you?” Shi Mok looked over at her, a hint of displeasure on his face, then replaced with a one of satisfaction when she grimaced in pain. She glared at him, but he ignored her.
“You shouldn’t be alone right now. You may have internal injuries.” He grasped her arm leading her to the car, but she waved the paperwork in his face, the instructions about keeping track of her symptoms. He glanced at them, then tucked them under his arm and opened the passenger door for her.
“You can stay with me. I will take responsibility for you.”
Yeo Jin couldn’t help the blush that climbed up her neck to her cheeks. What was wrong with her? She wasn’t twenty years old and dreaming of her first love. Why was she acting this way over some stupid turn of phrase? And it really was only that, so she quashed the feeling down and chalked it up to her rather overly productive imagination. But she admitted she was pleased at the idea of staying in an apartment that wasn’t drafty and didn’t have a bazillion stairs to climb. Though there was a certain uncomfortable intimacy of staying in another’s space, that he should want to take care of her while she recovered made her feel extremely happy.
“Okay, okay,” she whispered patting him on the shoulder. “You can take responsibility.” Then she climbed in and buckled her seatbelt. Wordlessly, Shi Mok got in and started the car. Beside him Yeo Jin fell asleep, bundled in a cocoon of safety and warmth.
Shi Mok looked over at her occasionally as he drove, unable to rid himself of the anxiety he felt when he had found her gone from the hospital. He had worried more in the last four days than he had in the last twenty years of his life, and he couldn’t seem to stop.
She looked so vulnerable, curled up on the seat in that fluffy coat. Her mouth was open slightly and she was breathing rather loudly through her nose, occasionally snorting.
It must be difficult for her to breathe, he thought.
He glanced over again, taking in the bruises, the smudges of purple under her eyes and swollen nose, and the little red dots from the broken capillaries around her eyes. He suddenly felt sad, but it was not for himself. It was a moment before he recognized the feeling as pity. He felt pity—along with the remains of fear.
They arrived at his building, but she was still asleep, so put the car into park and turned off the ignition. He didn’t know if he should wake her, or let her sleep more. He was still deciding when she woke up by herself.
“We’re at my house,” he said unnecessarily. “I realized you have nothing with you. No clothes or toiletries.”
She brushed it off and wrote in her notebook. “I don’t need anything right now. Just a toothbrush and pajamas?” She looked hopefully at him, and wondered if it would be weird if she borrowed his clothes. He seemed the sort to hate having anyone dirty his things, though he didn’t seem to mind her touching him.
He thought about it a moment. “There is a convenience store around the corner. We can get a toothbrush there.” He didn’t say anything about clothes, so she let it go. She would sleep in her own things if she had to.
The boy behind the counter stared at them as they wandered around the store, his eyes wide behind his thick rimmed glasses.
“Does he know Shi Mok?” Yeo Jin murmured to herself as she looked through the small selection of toiletries. “Or do I look that bad?” She knew what she was saying, but to anyone else, it sounded like an unintelligible jumble of words, so when a woman passed by her and gave her a strange look, she made a “what did I do?” face, and the woman hurried out of the store without buying anything. Yeo Jin grabbed a toothbrush and a fruit-yogurt smoothie and went up to the counter to pay. That was when she realized she didn’t have her wallet. Before she could say anything, Shi Mok was beside her, his own wallet in hand.
“How much?” he asked the boy without looking at him.
“Five thousand won,” the boy stammered.
Shi Mok handed over the bill. “Let’s go.”
He left without waiting for her, so she shrugged and rolled her eyes. She grabbed her purchase, ignoring the boy’s gaping look as she followed him out the door. “What was that about?” She scribbled in her notebook and held it up in front of him as they walked.
Shi Mok glanced sideways at her. “I’m guessing you haven’t seen your face, have you?”
Yeo Jin stopped and put a hand to her cheek. She hadn’t. She hadn’t wanted to look, so she just avoided the mirror in the bathroom. “That bad?” she croaked.
His apartment was much like it had been before: books stacked neatly everywhere, an immaculate kitchen, and a TV that had likely never been used. She followed him to his bedroom door and peeked inside. She was a little sad to see it was as boring as his living room. His bed was gray, and despite a book on the nightstand next to it, there was nothing personal there. It was as though he were living in a stranger’s house. So, what did that make her? A guest of a stranger? The stranger’s guest?
She flopped down onto the couch and lay back. It was more comfortable than her bed at home.
She heard his approaching footsteps and sat up quickly. He appeared, handing her a stack of neatly folded clothes, to her utter delight. “I’ll get you a pillow and blanket.” He hesitated. “The couch…is it okay?”
Surprised, she looked up at him. “Of course.” Her voice was raspy. “It’s better than my bed at home!”
He still looked hesitant, but nodded. “Alright.”
She got up and patted his shoulder as she went by him and into the bathroom. Removing her shirt, she inspected the bruising around her throat and on her cheek. It was nasty looking, not to mention the burst capillaries around her eyes making her look like she had some weird skin disease. She also had a lump on the back of her head from where Soo Chan had knocked her out. All in all, she was a mess. No wonder the kid at the convenience store had stared at her like she was crazy.
Gingerly she washed up and brushed her teeth. She eyed the bathtub longingly. It was a luxury she didn’t have at home, but she was too tired to take one now. She took the rest of her clothes off and surveyed what Shi Mok had given her. There was a pair of drawstring pajama pants and a sweater that was so soft, she seriously considered taking it with her when she left. She looked at the tag and snorted. 100% Cashmere. Of course, it was. She was definitely stealing it.
They were too big on her, but comfortable. They also smelled faintly of cedar and sandalwood, which was pleasant and comforting. There was something about it that smelled familiar, but she wasn’t sure what.
She left the bathroom, the scent of sesame oil filling the air, and her stomach growled. She hadn’t realized how hungry she was. He in the kitchen making juk. She looked over his shoulder to see if he could actually cook, and found herself surprised. He could, at least make this. Even if he could barely find the time to feed himself.
“It will be done soon,” he said without turning around.
She wandered over to the couch. It had been made up into a bed, a fluffy comforter folded at the bottom. Water and paracetamol had been placed on the coffee table beside it. Upon seeing this, she felt touched. He often came off as inconsiderate and oblivious, but she wondered how much of that was really a shell to guard against being hurt.
She turned to find him staring at her, two bowls in his hands. “The clothes fit,” he said finally.
She nodded and tucked her hair behind her ear, suddenly self-conscious.
Betraying nothing of what he thought, he came over and set the steaming bowls down on the table. “Eat.” Then he sat down on the couch across from her made-up bed and began to eat his own.
Happily, Yeo Jin dug into her food. It had been days since she had eaten a homecooked meal, and while his cooking skills weren’t amazing, they were better than hers. She gave him a thumbs-up sign, and watched as a smile flashed across his face, brief, but beautiful. She was so shocked she choked. He thought it was because of her throat, and quickly handed her the glass of water. “Careful.” The lines of worry between his brows only made her choke more. “You are always eating too fast.”
That night, even though she was exhausted and in pain, she couldn’t sleep. Her heart pounded in her chest, and he mind raced with thoughts about her feelings. She liked him. She liked Hwang Shi Mok. It was then she recognized the scent of the clothes as the scent of him; his car, his clothes...his skin. Groaning, she pulled the blanket over her head, and then cried a little as it hurt her face to have anything touching it. She felt pathetic and lonely.
She stayed with him for almost a week. It was strange at first, but as they began to build a routine, it was oddly domestic. Obviously, she wasn’t at work, so she was always home when he came back in the evenings. He testified, and was cleared of all charges, even in the matter of getting a firearm. He had strong-armed Jang Gun into giving him one. It wasn’t within policy, but with a detective’s life on the line, they gave both a warning and let it go.
Shi Mok grudgingly brought her clothes and comics from her apartment, and gleefully, she read them all. She watched a lot of television, too, for there were many Christmas specials on, and his TV was so nice, much better than anything she had ever had.
On Christmas Eve, he came home early with fried chicken, and they spent the evening together talking and eating. It was so very comfortable and felt natural, but somewhere in the back of Yeo Jin’s mind, she knew it was only temporary.
Eventually they ran out of things to talk about, and silence fell. It was a comfortable silence often found among people who had been friends for years. She mentioned to him that she felt like she had known him for a very long time.
“It does feel that way, doesn’t it?” he replied. “I—”
She watched him carefully, not daring to move or breath for fear she would scare him into being quiet, like a spooked cat.
“I am not an easy person to be around.” His said eventually. “I don’t form lasting relationships because it’s hard. Except…when I’m with you I don’t feel that you wish I was different.” He looked bewildered. “I don’t disappoint you.”
“No,” she said softly. “You don’t.”
“But, you see...I have always been a disappointment.”
There was no trace of self-pity or anger in his voice. It was as though he had accepted it was a fact that was, and would always be. “I could never be the son my mother wanted me to be. And Eun Soo…” he broke off, his eyebrows scrunching together.
“Her death was not your fault.”
“Just the same, I have, in some way, failed everyone in my life.”
Her chest grew tight when she heard him say that, and there was a sour, prickly, feeling in her nose. “Have you ever thought,” she said slowly, trying to keep her voice under control. “That perhaps it was not you who failed them, but the people in your life, who failed you.”
He tilted his head. “My parents divorced because of me. My father left—”
“What child, Hwang Shi Mok, could be responsible for his parents, when they were the adults? When a parent abandons a child, emotionally or physically, it doesn’t matter. It still leaves a mark; one that stays forever. The wound never fully goes away. You were a child. So was I, when my mother finally couldn’t care for me anymore. We are not responsible for the choices and actions of our parents. We can only choose to make different ones than they did.”
They sat in the darkness together looking out over the city, with its neon signs and twinkling lights. From the Great Gates to the Han River and beyond, there were millions of people out there, all struggling to survive in the world that had come so quickly upon their small nation. They were so very modern, and yet, in many ways, not. Many were left behind and forgotten. It was their job to make sure at least some of them were saved.
After she had gone to sleep, it was Shi Mok’s turn to lie sleepless in his bed. It had begun as a small ache, but as she talked, the ache had grown, spreading in his chest. It was similar to the feeling he had had when watching her sleep in the car, but a bit different—sweeter, if he could call it that. This time, he felt that he knew her, understood her. While it hurt, there was also the feeling of not being alone, and in that he found comfort.
She moved back home the following day. He dropped her off at her apartment and she waved as he drove off. A smile spread across his face, staying there until he was home, where it disappeared the moment he stepped through his front door. As he looked at the empty couch where she had slept, he was struck by an intense feeling of loss. It was very strange. She had only been living with him a week, but he felt like it had been much longer. The house, which had seemed so comfortable and safe when he had moved back from Namhae, now felt empty.
In January, Shi Mok formally charged the Prime Minister with corruption charges, and the trial began. He succeeded beyond expectation, speaking so eloquently, he was invited to go on sabbatical and teach international law in the U.S. He accepted it with polite interest, but ever since Lee Chang Joon had died, his desire to broaden his experiences had dimmed somewhat. He felt that there was still too much to do for his homeland. It didn’t matter how many presidents or prime ministers were jailed, there was always someone else to take their place; someone just as corrupt, with everything to lose.
Both Head Prosecutor Kang and Shi Eun convinced him it was for the best, that his career would be better for it, and when he came back, he would have a lot of knowledge and experience to infuse into the Prosecutor’s Office.
He met Yeo Jin for dinner and soju at their usual place, and told her he was leaving.
She stared at him for a long moment before smiling, and saying, “Congratulations. You finally are going to the U.S!”
He nodded and poured soju into her glass, then his own. They toasted, and drank.
“When are you leaving?” She poured the next round, but he noticed it was sooner than she usually did.
She almost dropped the soju. “That soon?”
“They want me to begin spring term.”
“Oh, I see” she murmured. “Then I guess you must go.”
“Yes, he replied, frowning at her. She was being so strange. “Are you alright?”
She looked up and smiled again. “Of course.”
“You’ve been going to therapy?” he pressed.
She rolled her eyes. “Yes. But you haven’t, I know that.”
Shi Mok acknowledged that. He had shot Soo Chan to save her life. There was nothing to regret.
“I’m fine.” She said, and poured them another round. “You think you don't need it, but you should go anyways."
“Yes, Detective Han.” He drank the soju down, but this time it was extremely bitter on his tongue, and he didn’t know why.
Yeo Jin got drunk that night and spent most of their time together scribbling out drawings, and handing them to him. His “gifts” she called them. He accepted each one silently. One was him eating ramen. Another was his frowning face with a prominent wrinkle between his eyebrow. Again, she drew his brain, parceled out, with pieces labeled ramen, and soju. Another was his emotions, the biggest being pride and self-importance, though kindness was another large one. He was touched by that. Then she drew a small bubble and called it “Yeo Jin.”
“That’s me!” she said proudly, holding it up. “I’m right there in your brain. Even if it’s a small part, I’m still there.”
He didn’t know what to say.
Her smile dimmed. “Don’t forget about me,” she said solemnly. “I have a part of your brain, so if you forget, you won’t have all of it.
“I won’t forget you, Han Yeo Jin,” he said softly, feeling the now familiar ache in his chest growing larger.
“Good,” she replied sleepily, blinking at him. “Good.”
He took her home and made sure she got into bed. He filled a glass with water and put it next to her.
“Sleep well,” he whispered as he locked and closed the door.
They met a few more times before he left, but she didn’t mention anything from the night she got drunk. He figured she had forgotten about it, and let it go. He convinced himself she was fine, that she would be fine without him around.
But the truth was she wasn’t fine. When he had told her he was leaving, she felt as though ice water had been poured over her head. She had gotten so used to him, so accustomed to their talks, and his presence in her life. She tried not to let how much it was going to hurt when he was gone, show, when they were together. She didn’t want him to feel uncomfortable. But then the day came that he was leaving, and she met him at his office in Gangnam. His flight was that night, so it was better for her to say goodbye there than the airport. His assistant let her in with begrudging look on her face, and then left to make some final preparations before their flight.
“Aish,” Yeo Jin said under her breath watching her go. “You’re the one going with him, not me.”
“What’s that?” Shi Mok was suddenly right in front of her.
“Nothing,” she said quickly. “I was just saying goodbye to Ms. Kim.”
Shi Mok raised his eyebrows doubtfully. “She doesn’t like you.”
“I know,” Yeo Jin muttered. “You don’t have to remind me.
“I haven’t figured out why.”
Yeo Jin stared at him. “Really? It’s obvious.”
He looked surprised. “Is it?”
“She’s jealous.” Yeo Jin laughed at his blank look. “She likes you.”
His usual frown appeared, and his brow did that funny little furrow she tried so hard to get him to fix. Without thinking, Yeo Jin reached out and put her fingers there, trying to smooth it out. “Stop that,” she murmured.
He looked taken aback, so she removed her hand sheepishly. “Sorry.”
He shook his head. “It’s fine.” And he really didn’t mind.
She watched as he finished packing the books he wanted, and when he picked up his bag and turned to face her, she smiled fondly at his beautiful face. “So, you’re off then.”
“Well, be good, and eat lots of new things. There are many good restaurants in D.C., or so I hear".
He looked at his watch, then back at her. They regarded one another for one last time.
“I will miss you, my friend,” she said quietly, with a slight tremble of emotion. “Very much."
He stood motionless, his soft eyes flitting across her face as he studied her. Then, almost affectionately, he said, “I will miss you as well…Han Yeo Jin.”
Hearing her name said in such a way, it made her heart hurt and she began to feel an overwhelming sadness bloom within her. “Well, go on then. Go catch your flight.” She smiled again, but this time it felt was stiff and forced. He frowned at her, and she grasped his shoulders and forcefully turned him around, giving him a little push towards the door. “Go, Hwang Shi Mok. And stop frowning, or it will eventually stay that way, and then no one will call you the Handsome Prosecutor anymore.” She walked him over and patted his back, feeling it’s warmth one last time.
He turned back briefly at the door and gave her a nod before stepping out. The door shut behind him with a final-sounding click, and then Yeo Jin was left alone in silence. She began to tidy up, moving papers, woodenly placing pens and pencils in the pen holder. She didn’t realize she was crying until the tears dropped from her nose onto the desk, one after the other, until they poured in a stream. She sat down heavily in the chair behind his desk, and when his scent surrounded her, she could no longer keep them at bay. Tilting her head back, she began to sob.
When the door shut behind him, Shi Mok stood in the hall, his heart beating loudly against his ribs. Something was wrong with her. Afraid at what he might see, he turned slowly and looked through the door window. He watched as she shuffled things around on his desk, and then burst into tears. A deep pain tore through his heart and he gasped for breath, feeling shattered. He jerked away from the door, his hand on his chest, and forced himself to walk down the hall of the darkened building, out to the taxi that was waiting to take him to Incheon.
But he didn’t go to Incheon. He went to see Prosecutor Lee.
The mausoleum was cold, but not bleak; there were incense sticks burning, and the scent of spiced sandal and aloes woods filled the air.
He stood in front of the small urn, looking at the smiling face of the man who had once been his mentor and his protector. “I don’t…” he started, and found his voice catch in his throat. “Sunbae, I don’t know what to do. I’m so very tired of being alone, and I—” He choked, his throat closing off. Closing his eyes, he leaned against the glass. “What am I going to do?” he whispered. “What should I do?”
He stayed there for a very long time, until the security guard came to tell him he was closing for the night.
Shi Mok called a taxi and had it drop him off in Gangnam, where he walked. His assistant called him numerous times, but he ignored her, and instead let his mind wander. He couldn’t stop seeing Han Yeo Jin through the window, sobbing as though her heart were breaking, after sending him away. She said she would miss him and then she cried. What did it mean?
His chest tightened. No one had ever said they would miss him before, and it affected him more than he had thought. He had even responded in kind, and he never did that. It was though his mouth had a mind of its own, and ran off, saying whatever it wanted.
But it was true. He would miss her if he left. He would miss her terribly.
He found himself in front of work, and staring up at the large imposing building, he felt a sort of hatred for it. He had the aptitude for a prosecutor, but it was so difficult when there was so much corruption. If Han Yeo Jin had not come into his life, he would have remained numb to how hard it was to fight alone. He may not have even been able to solve the murder of Park Moo Sung without her, that he could admit. The more he thought, the greater his conclusion that she was a gift to him. She exuded light in the darkness; a genuinely kind person who, even with everything she saw, everything she experienced, remained steady.
She had also reached out when others were afraid of him. She had given him the benefit of the doubt, believing in him when no one else would. She had pushed him, made him uncomfortable, but she had never treated him as though he were anything less than a person with feelings. He trusted her, and in that she was unique in his life. That she existed at all was by mere chance.
When he had thought she would die and he would never see her again, he had felt terror. He had never felt such fear before, and he never wanted to again, but if he was honest with himself, it had also been magnificent to feel something so strong. Having spent so many years feeling numb, it was as though the world had become colored, and he hadn’t even noticed. Around her his feelings were heightened and he was present in himself.
“Is that what love is?” he asked aloud. A couple walking by looked at him strangely, but he didn’t even notice, he was so startled. Why was it that word that came to him just now?
He had never really understood the concept of love. It always seemed to far away, so foreign, and yet he knew what the word meant.
An intense feeling of deep affection.
Well, he did know he liked being with her over anyone else. He liked eating with her, talking with her, working with her, and he knew he would miss her when he left.
A deep romantic or sexual attachment to someone.
He had never really thought about that part of their relationship before. Romance. Excitement. Mystery. There wasn’t much of that, except…he sometimes wondered if there was more to discover about her. Could he find out with physical touch? The image of her lips came to his mind, pink and smiling. Really, the idea of kissing her wasn’t unpleasant. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he liked it. They were rather pretty lips, and her eyes... He grew strangely hot. Her neck as she sat next to him in the car, the curve of her jaw, rose up before his eyes, and he felt a jolt of desire course through him.
Mildly shocked, he leaned back on the bench. It wasn’t as though he never felt desire for a woman before. He had, but the idea of acting on it was overwhelming to say the least, and impossible at best, when he couldn’t give the requisite affection. But for the first time, he felt desire for a whole person, not just a scent or an image. Her skin, her hair, the way her breasts rose and fell when she breathed. He wanted to touch her and see how she responded. He wanted to experience that, knowing that he would wake up in the morning and still want her there in his life. It wasn’t just desire or affection. It was both, together.
The snow began to fall around him, light at first, then heavier. The wind began to pick up, pushing against him, reminding him of Yeo Jin's hand on his shoulder. She had always been affectionate with him, and somehow, he hadn't even noticed that he did not react to her as he did others. When she touched him, he didn't cringe or recoil. He never had.
Go, go, go, the wind seemed to say. Go.
Yeo Jin went home, feeling as though a part of her soul had been ripped out. She changed for bed, brushed her teeth, and turning on the heated mat, lay down, pulling the blanket over her head. Tears still seeped from her eyes, though she didn’t make a sound. She squeezed them shut and tucked her knees up to her chest as she used to do as a child; she was a small ball of misery.
She must have fallen asleep, because she was awoken suddenly, gasping in fright by someone banging on her door. Forcing herself to get up, she grabbed her taser and quietly approached the door. She was trying to decide if she should ask who it was first, or open the door and brandish her weapon when—
“Han Yeo Jin. It’s me. It’s Hwang Shi Mok.”
Yeo Jin froze, unable to move, her heart thumping against her ribs.
“Han Yeo Jin, open the door. I have something to say to you.”
Torn between wanting to open the door and throwing herself back under her covers, she made herself open the door.
He stood there in the falling snow, his usually immaculate appearance gone. His hair was mussed, and his tie was askew.
“You didn’t go.” She felt shaken and confused.
He tilted his head and looked at her intently. “Obviously.”
She didn’t move, but continued staring at him. “Why didn’t you go."
“May I come in? It’s quite cold out here.” He glanced down at her hands warily. “Or are you going to taser me?”
Startled, Yeo Jin realized she was still clutching it tightly in her hand. Flustered, she stepped back and let him in, dropping the taser onto the shelf beside the door. She flipped on the light and blinked as it hurt her eyes.
“Do you want some tea?” She grabbed the kettle and turned on the tap. Her fingers were trembling, but she didn’t know if it was left over adrenaline from being frightened awake, or if it was because he was here in her flat, and she was feeling so vulnerable.
“No,” he said quietly. “I don’t want tea.”
She set the kettle down and looked up at him. He was watching her, but his usual certainly was gone.
“Your nose is all red.”
She touched her nose, feeling exposed. Her cheeks flushed in painful embarrassment. “Oh, it’s nothing. It’s very cold outside.”
A myriad of complicated emotions flickered across his face, and she could tell he knew she was lying. She'd been in bed, after all.
“You were crying.”
She didn’t try to deny it, since he obviously wasn’t going to leave her pride intact. She felt her lower lip tremble involuntarily, and she looked at her feet. The clock above the sink ticked loudly, almost overwhelmingly so in the thick atmosphere of what was unspoken.
“I want to tell you…” he began, then faltered.
She looked up. He never hesitated. He always knew what he wanted to say, but at this moment he seemed almost lost.
“I have always known I would spend my life alone. I have never had a lover, and it has never bothered me. I have my flat and my books, but…there have been times when I have been overwhelmed by loneliness, and my books are not enough to make it go away. We are friends and colleagues, and yet, to me, you are infinitely more precious.”
Her heart stilled, then skipped forward to catch up to the beats it had tripped over. “What do you mean?”
He looked at her, his soft eyes filled with a tenderness she had never seen there before.
“Am I not clear?” he asked softly. “I want to eat ramen with you, and talk about our day. I want to walk home with you. I want to kiss your lips—because they are pretty. I want to sleep with you, and hold you in my arms.” His voice wavered slightly, and the tips of his ears turned pink, but he didn’t look away from her. “I want you.”
Yeo Jin felt as though she were burning from the inside out, her stomach hot and molten; her skin flamed and prickled.
“I have no experience in romance or dating—I cannot say I will always know what to do, but I can tell you with certainty, Yeo Jin-ah.” He said her name so lovingly, it sent goosebumps scattering down her arms and her stomach to flip. “Yeo Jin-ah. There will only ever be you.
She shivered at the intimacy of her name on his tongue without her surname.
“Will you accept me?” A wonderful expression of hope shimmered across his face, so vulnerable and beautiful, and just for her.
She went to him and placed her hands lightly on his cheeks.“Shi Mok-ah.” He smelled of cold night air, of sandalwood, and the faintest hint of temple incense.
Their heights were similar, so she did not have to reach very far when she pressed her forehead against his. They stood there in the darkness listening to each other breathe, feeling the gentle caressing warmth of each exhale over their skin.
In the end, it was the one who no one could have imagined saying anything at all who said everything there was to say. Even though he didn’t use the word “love,” the weight of it was behind each carefully composed word.
Outside, the snow whirled around, laughing, as it danced together with the wind.
After a time, she pulled away and looked at him. He was watching her intently, as though waiting for her to make the first move, whatever that might be.
So she asked him, “Will you stay the night?”
He searched her face, and she felt her cheeks flush. She had always been like this, saying what she felt, what she wanted, and without thinking too much about the consequences beforehand.
She blinked and then turned her attention to his coat. She felt his eyes on her as she unbuttoned and pushed it off his shoulders. Next came his tie, and suit coat and when she started on his shirt, he grasped her hand. “I need to shower.”
“I don’t care.”
“But I do.”
He stepped away from her and looked around with interest. “Do you have something I can wear? My suitcase was with my assistant.” He frowned. “Speaking of which…I should probably tell her I am not going to America.”
She froze. “No?”
“Of course not. How could I leave now?”
Happiness welled up inside her, and her nose prickled with tears. She turned to her dresser and busied herself finding him some clothes while he called his assistant. She found sweatpants and the cashmere sweater she had taken from him,
“I’m sorry I didn’t answer. No, I’m not going,” he was saying. “I know. Yes. I understand the consequences. Go home. I’ll talk to you on Monday.”
When he hung up, she held out the clothes which he took without a word. He went into the bathroom and shut the door.
Yeo Jin let out a shaky breath and pressed her palms against her hot cheeks. Oh, God, her place was so messy. She quickly tidied up, shoving her comics in the book shelf and checking her pillow to see if it smelled funny. In the kitchen, she binned the empty ramen packages and rinsed out the bowls in the sink.
When she was done, she fanned her face. Her heart was pounding, and she was so very nervous. She hadn’t been with anyone in a very long time, and here she was, the one with the most experience. At least she figured she was. It felt slightly unreal, but when he opened the door ten minutes later dressed in the most casual clothes she had ever seen him wear, she knew there was no way it wasn’t. His hair was damp, and he smelled of her shampoo now, instead of his own. It was jarring, but extremely sexy.
He approached her. "This is mine," he said, pulling on the sweater. "I wondered where it had gone."
She smiled at him, sheepishly. "Sorry." But she wasn't sorry at all, and he knew it.
"You can have it," he said simply, making her blush.
Feeling shy, she reached out and took his hand. They lay down on her bed, and she tucked her quilt over their feet. They lay face to face, his hand cradling hers between them, just looking at one another.
“What are you thinking?” Yeo Jin asked softly, breaking the silence.
He tentatively reached out and touched her cheek, his fingertips ghosting over her skin.
“I always wondered if I was worthy of love, of affection, and found myself lacking. Before the surgery, I was always angry. Then after, I felt so empty. I thought I was incapable of feeling. When people called me a sociopath, I thought, “maybe they are right.”
“No.” She grasped his hand and brought it to her chest, holding it tightly. “People can be so cruel when they don’t understand something, but you are not that. Never.”
There was a slight tilt of his mouth, a scrunch of his eyes that suggested a smile. “You drew that picture of my brain and told me I had all those emotions I wasn’t showing. It was the first time someone had acknowledged that I had feelings, and so I began to believe it.” He smiled then, a real, warm smile that took her breath away. “Thank you...for believing in me, Yeo Jin-ah.”
“Always,” she whispered.
The smile faded, and he grew serious. “And yes, you are in my brain, though the part you occupy is larger than the one you drew.”
She burned that he had noticed her moment of vulnerability and not forgotten it. “I hoped…I wanted you to think about me, even just a tiny bit.”
“It took me a little while to discover why, but I have thought about you a lot." His voice turned husky. "There is never any danger of you leaving my thoughts, ever.”
The air was thick and warm. She moved into his arms and pressed her hands against his chest, fingers arching against the soft material of his sweater.
She lightly pressed her lips against the corner of his mouth, feeling him tense in anticipation. Inhaling the scent of his skin, warm and sweet, she kissed the place just in front of his ear. Dragging her nose across his cheek, her lips finally found his. They parted ever so slightly against her own, so she coaxed him, lightly sliding her tongue between them until he responded.
She moved even closer, her breasts skimming his chest as she wrapped her arms around his neck. She flicked the tip of her tongue against his, and when he tentatively pushed his tongue further into her mouth, she relaxed and let him take her where he wanted to go. They kissed for a very long time. He seemed not to be able to get enough of her mouth, nipping her lips, stroking her tongue with his own; but his hands, even as they ran up the length of her back to her neck and back down to her waist, never went further than that.
Impatient, she took one of his hands and put it against her breast. She slowly moved his palm around her breast in gentle circles and then let go, leaving him cupping her.
His eyes darkened and narrowed, and then she was pressed beneath him, his hand on her breasts, his lips on her neck, his tongue sliding over skin in such as sensual way, she felt a jolt of desire in her belly. She was taken aback by his vigorous response, for he was always so calm, so composed. Eagerly, her fingers found the sensitive skin behind his ears, and then she gently pulled on one of his earlobes, leaning in and kissing the underside of his jaw at the same time.
He groaned, and his hands gripped her waist tightly as he buried his face in her neck, his breath hot. He shivered under her touch and she responded, goosebumps breaking out over her skin. She didn’t know what she was doing, but she couldn’t help herself. She felt intoxicated by him.
He rolled onto his side, pulling her with him, and his hands slipped down to her bottom, kneading and stroking. She draped her leg over his hip so the most intimate part of her was against him. She felt his hardness and suddenly his fingers were on her bare skin, and he was tugging her shirt up over her head. The cool night air whispered past her breasts, making her nipples hard. He reached out and ran his thumb over one of the hardened peaks. She gasped and pushed closer, her arms wrapping around his head. His lips closed over her breast, teeth skimming the sensitive flesh, and she felt a moan emerged from somewhere deep inside her throat. He rolled on top of her again, and pulled his shirt off. She pressed her hands against his chest, fingertips on his flat nipples. His skin was smooth and warm, and she ached to feel him against her own bare skin. She pulled him down and they lay quietly for a moment, her hand cupped around his head, feeling each other breathe, and the intimacy of skin-to-skin contact.
After a time, his hand slowly slid down her breast, across her belly, to the waistband of her pants. After a brief hesitation, he slipped his fingers inside.
She didn’t move, but let him stroke her hip. He grew bold and moved lower and lower until he ran his fingertip over the curve of her bottom. She lifted her hips and he moved back. He took her pants off and discarded them. She relaxed her legs, letting her knees fall to the sides, watching him as he turned back to her. His eyes widened. He looked so enamored she couldn’t help but feel embarrassed.
She looked so enticing, her eyes hooded, pink lips parted. His heart was pounding in his chest, so hard, he wondered if she could hear it.
And she was so warm. So very warm…
He leaned down slowly, watching her eyes close, her chin tilting upwards as she anticipated what he was going to do. When he finally found her mouth, her lips were already parted, waiting for him, soft, moist, and sweet.
Then his gaze shifted into one that burned dark and hot, and she felt a faint thrill course through her. He came to her slowly, achingly, and when he slid his tongue into her mouth, it was hot and wet. Suddenly, in a movement that felt too practiced to be something he’d never done before, his hand slid into her underwear, all the way down until his fingers were between her folds, gently caressing that small bundle of nerves. Before she had time to process it, he then slid one finger inside her and pressed up.
Startled by the pleasure that coursed through her, she couldn’t help the whimper that escaped her lips, nor the way her hips thrust up into his hand. She tore her mouth away from his, gasping.
“Where did you learn that?”
His face was flushed, but his expression serious. “I read.”
She scoffed playfully. “Porn and dirty comics wouldn’t teach you anything about that. What do you read? Books on cunnilingus?”
She hadn’t expected an answer. “What, right before coming here?”
His eyes flashed, and suddenly there was another finger inside her. “Oh!” She clutched the blankets below her.
“Of course not.” He still looked so serious. “After. In the bathroom.”
Yeo Jin’s mouth fell open in shock and he took the opportunity to kiss her, pressing his tongue against hers, stroking with an urgency that had not been there before. Her senses were heightened, nerves flaming as she felt the ache deep within her begin to build.
Suddenly he removed his fingers, and she almost cried out in disappointment, except he was now pulling her underwear down and off, and spreading her knees apart, he moved between them. She watched as he knelt before her, and his fingers were inside her again and his thumb was on her clitoris. She came soon after, her hands in his hair, trembling as her orgasm coursed through her, over, and over again, until she was reeling from the overwhelming pressure.
Wordlessly, she sat up and tugged his pants and underwear down, and took him into her hand. His eyes fluttered shut and his lips parted. His fingers slid over her scalp, sending goosebumps down her spine. As she stroked her thumb around the head, she felt wetness coat his skin, making it slippery. He felt like velvet, warmed under the sun.
“Oh, that's wonderful,” he whispered. His formal language was so endearing, so adorable, she wanted to both laugh and cry that she had found such a person to love.
He gently removed her hand and threaded his fingers through hers as he pushed her down, settling in between her legs, and placing his forearms on either side of her head. He brushed her bangs off her forehead, and leaning down, pressed his lips to the exposed skin. When he pulled back, his black eyes glimmered. “I never thought I’d be here,” he said softly. “Never.”
She pressed her lips together, trying not to smile. “Between a woman’s legs?” She couldn’t help herself.
He frowned as she expected, and she tried to smooth the wrinkle between his brow. “Stop that, or you’ll—”
“Yes, I know,” he interrupted, batting her hand away. When she tried to touch his forehead again, he grasped her hand and pinned it to the mattress. “Yes, actually, between a woman’s legs.”
His voice was rough and low and she pricked with desire at his sudden aggression.
“But, no. I meant you. I never thought I’d be with you. You took me completely by surprise.”
There was something romantic about his words, so much so, that she felt she wanted to surprise him again. Emboldened, and without much thought, she swiftly lifted her hips and grasped his buttocks, pulling his hard length inside her. He let out a gasping moan, and looked down at her with wide eyes. She held his gaze, and rolled her hips again, taking him in even deeper.
She was so turned on, so relaxed, there was no pain, even though it had been a long time since she had last had sex. A very long time.
“Oh.” His eyes glazed over with lust as he looked down at her. “Yeo Jin-ah.”
“You feel exquisite.”
She felt her face heat up. He kissed her and began to move inside her. She whimpered as pleasure once again bloomed within her. She tried to keep up, but his pace eventually overtook hers so that she could only cling to him. He was panting, each exhale one of pleasure.
He took his hand and brushed it along her cheek, his thumb dragging down her bottom lip. She took his thumb into her mouth and watched all his emotions pass across his beautiful face. In this moment he was unguarded and unconscious to all he showed her, and it felt like a gift.
He felt her pulse around him as she came for the second time that night. Overcome by the complexity of his feelings, of the sensations that built from deep within him, he was unable to hold back any longer. His release was explosive, rolling over him in waves of pleasure. It was nothing like anything he’d ever felt before, and he could only ask himself how he could ever have lived without it.
The answer was simple: because she hadn’t been in his life.
He wanted to tell her he loved her, but the words felt meaningless, empty. They did not express all that he felt, so he kept silent. But emotions have a way of emerging regardless of words or intentions, so it was with a startled, shuddering breath, the he realized tears were sliding down his cheeks.
“My Shi Mok-ah…” She smiled gently, and wiped the tears away. “I love you…so very, very, much.”
He couldn’t speak, but he didn’t need to. He knew she understood.
He had been broken, and so very alone. But she had found him, and he was no longer lost.