Sooyoung does not celebrate her birthday.
Simply speaking it’s because there is no one to celebrate it with. Her parents deliver gifts and the housekeeper greets her, but that hardly counts. On her thirteenth birthday, she sneaks out of the house through the kitchen window and gets herself what the employee at the bakery calls a ‘birthday cupcake,’ probably for those who can’t afford an entire cake. There are a variety of flavors and designs on display, and Sooyoung spends several long minutes staring at them through the glass, trying to decide which one looks most appealing.
The employee smiles down at her. There’s flour on the tip of their nose, their eyes crinkling in a way that tells Sooyoung this is the kindest someone has ever smiled at her. The very image of it is unfamiliar, and Sooyoung spends several long seconds staring at their face, trying to memorize the curve of that line. “Can’t decide on what you want, dear? Let me see… how about this?”
Sooyoung scampers back home, careful not to jostle the cupcake in its box, and very carefully sets it atop her desk in her bedroom. She wastes three matchsticks before finally managing to light the candle, and she turns the lights off so the small, flickering flame is all she sees, amidst her textbooks and pens and papers. For a moment, all she does is watch it burn, a bright light cutting through the darkness.
On her thirteenth birthday, Sooyoung makes a wish. She blows the candle out and has her first taste of lemon-flavored cupcake.
“This is stupid,” Sooyoung grumbles, crossing her arms and glaring out at the small crowd. Most of them are gathered around the makeshift buffet table, which is maybe half the reason she’s as annoyed as she is. “Who celebrates their birthday in the middle of the apocalypse? It’s just another reminder of how fucked up you’ve gotten that you’ve lived long enough in this hellscape.”
“You think too much, unni,” Lee Jihye cheerily replies, handing her a plate of food. “Here! Come on, just have fun while you can! The next main scenario starts tomorrow, y’know.”
“Ugh.” Sooyoung takes the plate anyway, because she’s not an idiot and her stomach has been growling like crazy for hours. At least the food is good. Still, despite the slightly-strained festive atmosphere for the day, it’s not hard to see that Lee Gilyoung doesn’t look particularly festive himself—he keeps sighing despondently and staring up at the sky, as if hoping for Kim Dokja to come crashing down from wherever he’s fucked off to.
Sooyoung jabs her fork at the boy’s direction. “Hey, we’re celebrating his birthday, right? Not holding someone’s funeral? Because it sure looks like he wants to be dead right now.”
“Eh, don’t say that!” Lee Jihye protests. Sooyoung doesn’t miss how she droops right afterwards too, though. “But… I mean, I can’t blame the brat. That stupid ahjussi isn’t even here to celebrate his birthday with him, so of course he’s feeling down.”
Sooyoung says nothing, spooning food in her mouth instead as she lets her thoughts drift. It’s been a few weeks since Kim Dokja had pushed her to push the rest of the party into killing him when he became the 73rd Demon King or whatever had even happened back then in the Dark Castle, and most of them—Lee Gilyoung and Shin Yoosung especially—still haven’t gotten over it. “They’ve gotta move on sooner or later,” she mutters.
Lee Jihye looks at her, a frown tugging down at her lips. “Do you… really think he’s dead, unni?”
Sooyoung sighs and pushes the plate and its half-eaten contents back in Lee Jihye’s hands. “I should go.”
The cold night air feels both refreshing and stinging on her face as Sooyoung leaves the building they decided to use as the party venue. She’s still hungry, but she doesn’t have much of an appetite anymore, and she exhales heavily when she walks a decent distance away from the building to lean back against a lamp post instead. The lamp post isn’t working, but funnily enough the vending machine beside it is, and though it’s been thoroughly ransacked of its contents, it’s still emitting a broken, flickering light that occasionally lights up Sooyoung’s immediate vicinity for a few seconds before going dark again. She rests her head against the post behind her, watching as her breaths rise up into the air as faint, foggy clouds.
It’s stupid. He’s just a kid, but Sooyoung can’t help but feel irrationally jealous. At least there are people here who care about you, she thinks, picking at an old cut on the back of her palm. At least there are people who want to see you happy, even with all this end-of-the-world shit going on.
Footsteps. Sooyoung already knows who it is without having to look, based entirely off the dread rising up in her as if a warning sign. Her gut instinct is proven right when that familiar, annoying voice speaks. “What are you doing alone out here? It’s cold.”
“Mind your own business,” she groans. Dealing with this woman is the absolute last thing she wants right now.
But Yoo Sangah, queen of not minding her own business so she can poke her nose in others’, steps closer anyway until the light of the vending machine brushes against the tips of her shoes. Her long brown hair is swept over to one side, her arms are crossed over her chest, her coat draped over her shoulders flutters ever-so-slightly in the wind. One brow is arched up as she gives Sooyoung a questioning look.
She is so perfect, it is absolutely infuriating. Sooyoung looks away with a scowl. “What do you want from me?” she snaps. “Can’t I do anything around here without you asking after me? What are you, my keeper?”
Yoo Sangah sighs. Her breath clouds her face for a moment, and Sooyoung watches the brief movement from the corner of her eye. There’s something poetic about the way she exhales. “It’s not that. Even if… we didn’t get along at first, we’re still in the same boat now, aren’t we? We might as well make an effort to cooperate.”
“Yeah. I know that. How is me taking a break from some kid’s birthday party me not cooperating?”
The short pause is all Sooyoung needs to know exactly what Yoo Sangah thinks of her. “Oh, no, wait,” she says, sneering, “you don’t trust me still, do you?”
“Han Sooyoung-ssi,” Yoo Sangah starts, which is as far as Sooyoung lets her before interrupting. If she has to hear that soft little voice speak her name one more time, Sooyoung might just explode.
“No, no, it’s perfectly fine! I get it. I get it. I wouldn’t trust me either, after everything you know about me.” Sooyoung’s scowl feels ugly on her face. “I don’t care what you think of me. But can I ask for one thing around here? Try not to make it too obvious next time.”
She stuffs her hands in her pockets and trudges off into the night, ignoring Yoo Sangah calling after her.
Yeah, see, a snarky little voice that sounds awfully like her own self mutters in her head, this is why friends don’t celebrate your birthday. You don’t have any.
“Fuck off,” Sooyoung snarls, but she’s not sure if she’s saying that to Sangah or herself.
Sooyoung is used to being second-best. It’s no big deal. She’s grown about as accustomed to it as she’s grown accustomed to treating the first of April like any other day.
It doesn’t matter, she tells herself. She’s not competing with anyone, trying to be perfect all the time is tiring and pointless and impossible, and she’s better off just doing the bare minimum and improving on it until it looks like she put more effort than she really did. It’s entirely how she breezed through college, really, and all the work it brought her way. Webnovels suit her more than published books, if only because she can go back and edit previous chapters while still keeping a regular update schedule rather than aim for perfection in something she can never change again as soon as it leaves her hands. So what if she’s not perfect? Who is, anyway?
Sooyoung really wishes she had never gotten an answer to that question.
“Don’t fucking touch me,” Sooyoung hisses, jerking sharply away when she feels those fingers brush her arm. It had only been for a moment, barely even a blink of an eye, but her skin had felt simultaneously hot to the touch and cold to the bone from that one moment of contact alone. “You knew! You knew, and you still let him leave!?”
“Sooyoung-ssi.” Yoo Sangah sounds physically pained, and Sooyoung swallows back the guilt that rises up at the back of her throat like bile. “It wasn’t an easy decision. I—”
“Bullshit. How many times has that idiot bastard left us now? Telling him to stay right here where he belongs should have been the easiest decision in the world!”
Something shifts and flickers in Yoo Sangah’s gaze, and suddenly her next words crack like a whip. “Do you think I rolled over and just let him make that… outer world contract without argument?” she snaps. Sooyoung’s never heard her this incensed before, and she takes an instinctive step backwards before she realizes it, but Yoo Sangah doesn’t seem to notice. “I told him to stay. Again and again! I told him that we need him, that he can’t leave us again, that there had to be another way. But there wasn’t, alright? It wasn’t that he wouldn’t listen to me. He couldn’t. Every time we spoke, he… he…”
She stops there, her words fading into broken syllables and then eventually into a shaky silence Sooyoung is afraid to touch lest it shatter under her voice. Yoo Sangah hangs her head, her shoulders trembling, her fists clenched at her sides, and Sooyoung has no Goddamn idea what to do.
“But you’re still the one he talked to about it,” Sooyoung hears. It takes her a very long moment to realize it’s her voice saying these words. “He trusted you. Maybe you could have stopped him still.”
When Yoo Sangah lifts her gaze, Sooyoung is hardly surprised to see red framing her eyes. “I—”
“Forget it,” Sooyoung says, numbly.
Yoo Sangah is perfect. She looks perfect and acts perfect and embodies that perfection down to the very structure of her molecules, as far as Sooyoung can tell. She’s always the one acting as leader when Kim Dokja isn’t around, reigning Sooyoung in, telling her off for acting on her own, dragging her back to where the rest of the party is instead of just fucking leaving her alone when she wants to be, and Sooyoung hates it. She hates it and she hates Yoo Sangah and everything she stands for and she hates knowing that despite everything, Kim Dokja had still trusted Yoo Sangah more than her, had still chosen Yoo Sangah over her, had reminded her of how it felt when she read an apology in the first line of a publishing company’s email.
Sooyoung tenses instantly, and even though she’s already standing at the doorway, she pauses. She waits, in that minuscule pocket of time it takes for Yoo Sangah to say her name the exact same way she’s always said it: softly, almost gently, but with that underlying bit of scorn that tells Sooyoung the feeling of hatred is mutual. But Yoo Sangah is silent, Sooyoung’s name left unfinished in the air, and somehow this infuriates Sooyoung more than if she had just called her in the way she detests.
She leaves. Sangah doesn’t stop her.
The halls of this building—this industrial complex, whatever—are unfamiliar, but that hardly stops Sooyoung from turning down every corner until she finds a sufficiently-secluded spot at the bottom of a staircase to duck underneath before anyone else can pass by and see the red tingeing the corners of her eyes. She leans against the wall and she doesn’t mean to slide down and drop to the floor but she does, and she’s shaking too hard to stand up again; she doesn’t even realize she’s drawn her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around herself like that could do anything for the aching pain in her chest.
Why does it even hurt so damn much? Stop it, she tries to tell herself. Kim Dokja doesn’t matter this much to you, so quit it, stand up, take control of the party and start telling them what to do now before the scenarios start back up again. But she’s shaking and shaking and the world blurs into fragments around her, and for the briefest, most fleeting of seconds, Sooyoung wishes, for once, that she weren’t alone.
It’s an ugly thought. It doesn’t leave. Sooyoung tightens her grip on herself and thinks about how she hadn’t even gotten to be there when Kim Dokja had left, thinks about how Yoo Sangah apparently couldn’t be bothered to say the rest of her name earlier. Would it have been so hard for either of them to stay?
Alone again, her own brain taunts. But you’re used to that too, aren’t you?
“Fuck off,” Sooyoung whispers, burying her face in her arms.
Kim Dokja is gone. Kim Dokja stays gone.
Sooyoung gets used to that, too.
Governing the Industrial Complex in his place is an absolute pain. They split responsibilities among all of them, eventually delegating entire areas of Korea amongst themselves, and somehow things work out. The kids sulk less. Lee Hyunsung stops looking like a lost puppy all the time. Jung Heewon starts actually thinking for herself rather than keeping up the whole WWKDJD (What Would Kim Dokja Do) thing she has going on. Yoo Joonghyuk… well, fuck that guy, really.
Yoo Sangah… don’t even think about her.
Months turn into a year, and Sooyoung idly notes she’s turned older several weeks after her birthday. Shin Yoosung celebrates hers sometime afterwards, and they hold another little party for her, albeit this time it’s much grander than what they’d given Lee Gilyoung before thanks to having more Coins, and it’s also got better food. Sooyoung spends most of the celebration in one of the empty rooms in the complex, staring at her phone and pretending to be extraordinarily busy every time someone passes by her.
“Unni!” Shin Yoosung shouts, jolting Sooyoung back to attention. “What’s wrong? Why are you just standing here on your own? I couldn’t find you anywhere downstairs!”
“Oh.” Sooyoung sighs. “I’m… thinking up plans for the next scenario—”
“What?” Shin Yoosung sounds aghast. “No! You can’t do that!”
“What the… Who are you to tell me what to—”
“It’s my birthday!” Shin Yoosung interrupts. “And, um, as the birthday celebrant, I want you to come downstairs and eat the cake with the rest of us! Okay? Please? This sort of thing only happens once a year! I promise you can plan for the scenario after!”
Has Shin Yoosung always been this clingy with her? Sooyoung groans and massages her temples as the kid tugs on her wrist with surprising strength and drags her all the way down to a wide room at the complex’s ground floor, where the rest of the party is gathered around a giant cake. Sooyoung does a double-take when she sees it, because holy shit, it’s fucking humongous, it’s nearly the same size as Shin Yoosung herself. The amount of sugar in there could kill a man.
“I found her! She was just sulking upstairs,” Shin Yoosung cheerfully says.
“I was not sulking, you little—”
“Okay, blow the candles!” Lee Gilyoung cuts in. Sooyoung hates these kids, she really does. “Wait, someone turn off the lights!”
Lee Hyunsung does, because he’s standing closest to the light switch. The room darkens immediately, leaving the array of candles on the cake the only source of light in the room; Shin Yoosung scampers up to stand on a chair, and Sooyoung grudgingly stands next to Lee Seolhwa near the edge of the circle. “Make a wish, kid,” Lee Jihye says, looking close to salivating as she stares at the cake.
Shin Yoosung nods and closes her eyes, brow furrowed in concentration. Sooyoung doesn’t need to see how her mouth moves silently to know they’ve formed the words Dokja-ahjussi. She fixes her gaze on the candles instead, how they make everyone’s faces glow with a flickering, ethereal light. Lee Gilyoung and Lee Jihye both have that same stupid hungry look on their faces. Jung Heewon looks nostalgic, like she’s thinking back to the last time she had a party like this. Lee Sookyung’s smile is the most genuine Sooyoung has seen it within the past few months.
She moves her gaze a bit too far to the right, and instantly regrets it when she meets Yoo Sangah’s eyes.
Sooyoung immediately turns away, but in that brief moment of time she had seen the look on the other woman’s face: the strained smile, the deep bags under her eyes, the exhaustion weighing down on her entire person. Everyone’s noticed by now, but despite multiple attempts to get her to take care of herself, Yoo Sangah just waves them all off with her trademark infuriating smile. What’s worse is that Sooyoung lives with her, and so she has to see that annoying face nearly every second of the damn day.
Anger rises up in her again, hot and furious, and it’s a feeling she’s all too familiar with. But Sooyoung suppresses the emotion, at least for as long as it takes for Shin Yoosung to blow out the candles, to a round of scattered cheers, and cut the cake. “Here, unni!” she exclaims, holding a plate up for Sooyoung. “You should have some too!”
“I’m…” not hungry, Sooyoung means to say, but the longer she looks at the slice of cake, the less inclined she is to believe her words. In the end she takes the plate with a sigh. “Ugh, fine, thanks or whatever.”
She finishes the cake quickly, both because she wants to leave as soon as possible and because she may have been hungrier than she thought, and makes sure Shin Yoosung sees her eat it all before stepping out of the building. It’d technically be easier to just leave together with Lee Sookyung and Yoo Sangah, since the three of them live in an abandoned company building some ways away from here, but like hell Sooyoung would voluntarily choose to be alone with them for any period of time when she already suffers through that every waking (and sleeping) moment of her life.
Sooyoung sticks a lollipop in her mouth to roll idly around, mostly to get rid of the overly-sweet aftertaste of the cake. She leans back against a building wall this time, some half-destroyed house just across the street, and exhales harshly. Unlike the last time she’d escaped from a birthday party, it’s a bit warmer out tonight, enough that she’d probably work up a sweat in her hoodie if she walks too fast or climbs some stairs.
She bites a piece off the candy in her mouth with an audible crack. Overhead, a cloud passes over the moon, darkening her surroundings; when next Sooyoung looks up, someone else has already joined her.
She pulls the stick out of her mouth with a pop. “Getting pretty good on sneaking up on others now, are you?”
Yoo Sangah is quiet. For once she’s not in her usual combat suit, and though she still has one of her numerous longcoats draped on her shoulders, she’s dressed much more loosely today in a plain blouse and those flared pants Sooyoung has never been able to pull off, damn her short legs. She’s leaning against the wall opposite Sooyoung, soft brown eyes like a beacon in the darkness of the night, her gaze heavy and expectant. What she’s expecting from her, Sooyoung has no idea, and she has no desire to find out either.
She tilts her head to the side, soft brown hair falling in waves down to her chest. It’s unfair. How can she be so haggard and exhausted but still look utterly perfect? “Don’t like parties?”
“I figured that was obvious. This party doesn’t even have alcohol.” Sooyoung squints at her. “Tired, aren’t you? Let’s grab Sookyung-ahjumma and get home already, I want some sleep before the scenario tomorrow.”
Yoo Sangah’s indifferent gaze softens into something almost akin to fondness, and Sooyoung wants so terribly to punch it off her face. Does she think Sooyoung’s pushing for them to return home so Yoo Sangah can get some rest? Damn it, who does she think she is? Of course Sooyoung just wants to get back to the building already for a good night’s sleep, not for Yoo Sangah’s sake or anything. She opens her mouth to say as much, but Yoo Sangah beats her to it, her voice soft and slow. “When is Sooyoung-ssi’s birthday?”
“Hah? What kind of question is that?”
“I was just wondering. You’ve never brought it up, even though it’s been years since we’ve started working together now.” Yoo Sangah stares at her, her eyes probing, and Sooyoung tries not to make how nervous she gets under that searching gaze too obvious. “Surely you have a birthday. It wouldn’t hurt to let us know.”
Sooyoung scoffs and turns away. “Why, so you can throw me a party like this one?” she asks, instead of asking, When did we start getting into civil conversations again, the real question on her mind. “No thanks. I’d rather just get gobbled up by a monster before my next birthday.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Don’t tell me what to do.”
“Don’t be so difficult,” Yoo Sangah says, and maybe in the past her tone would have hardened and her gaze would have sharpened, but now she just looks endeared, like she’s playing with a hissy cat. Sooyoung absolutely detests it. “Just tell me. No birthday parties, I promise.”
“Ugh…” What is wrong with this woman? “April,” Sooyoung finally bites out. “The first.”
Yoo Sangah’s eyebrows rise. “That was just a few months ago. Belated happy birthday.”
“I should at least get you something for next year, then,” Yoo Sangah continues, her tone turning contemplative. “If not a birthday party, anyway…”
Sooyoung crosses her arms with an irritable huff. “Quit it, I don’t want anything from you. Can we just get back already? Those brats aren’t planning to stay up all night, are they?”
“Let them have their fun. A birthday is only once a year.”
Somehow Yoo Sangah’s smile is even gentler than usual in the moonlight like this. Sooyoung snorts. She can’t help but wonder if this woman really thinks she can hide anything from them—everyone already knows she’s been working herself to the bone, enough that she’s been growing too weak to even pull her weight in a fight when before she could take on any amount of monsters on her own. “Still,” Sooyoung grumbles, looking away more to avoid Yoo Sangah’s gaze than anything.
If Kim Dokja were here… Sooyoung hates to admit it, but if Kim Dokja were here, he’d know what to do to help Yoo Sangah out, or at least lessen her burden, wouldn’t he? Meanwhile, Sooyoung’s right here, but she can’t even lift a finger to do a thing. It’s frustrating and infuriating and just another reminder she’ll never be on either of their levels.
“It’ll be easier to get them to rest once they’ve tired themselves out,” Yoo Sangah says, but—is Sooyoung imagining things, or does she sound even more tired than usual now? She knew she should have pushed harder for them to get home early. “We can wait… a little longer…”
Sooyoung frowns. “Hey, what’s with you? Are you—”
In the darkness, Sooyoung sees the light in those brown eyes flicker and die like a fragile candle flame, blown out by the evening breeze. Yoo Sangah falls soundlessly, and Sooyoung moves on instinct to catch her in her arms—long hair falls past her hands like a waterfall. Sooyoung has never quite held anyone like this before, and she has never held up anything quite this heavy before either.
“H-Hey.” The voice trembles. That can’t be Sooyoung’s voice, can it? Her voice never trembles. “Hey, you… Yoo Sangah, don’t play around. What do you think you’re doing right now? People are gonna get the wrong idea… hey… Sangah?”
So Yoo Sangah’s dead. Kim Dokja’s fucked off to who knows where again. Lee Hyunsung is a literal sword.
Sooyoung is tired.
She knows she’s an arrogant, overbearing, know-it-all bitch, but she isn’t a leader. She’s always stuck to the sidelines during group projects in class, finishing her part and doing nothing else, leaving everything up to someone else who could lead the rest of them better. Writing, more often than not, is a solitary affair too—she can count the number of times her editor has actually given her useful criticism throughout the time they had worked together, before the apocalypse had started and all. She’s used to it, she is.
Pain stings the first joint of her index finger, and Sooyoung hisses a curse under her breath as she forces herself to keep typing in spite of it. Going with the flow is fine and all, but she can’t expect to go into this scenario without even a shred of a plan in mind, and even just a rough outline should be enough for her to refer to whenever she gets stuck. The rest of the group is depending on her for this, after all…
That thought gives her pause, and her hands still on the keyboard, only for them to curl into shaking fists.
She isn’t a leader. More than that, she’s not one of them—she knows no one trusts her the way they trust Kim Dokja or Yoo Sangah, so why are they letting her do this now? Why are they putting their lives in her literal hands, like she couldn’t just up and leave them all to die like she had back during the Absolute Throne scenario? Sometimes she almost misses that period of time where they all hated her, because at least then Sooyoung understood what was happening. She’s used to anger, frustration, hate—she’s not used to Lee Gilyoung sharing his snacks with her, or Jung Heewon correcting her sword form, or Lee Seolhwa replacing the bandages on her arm.
She hadn’t been used to Yoo Sangah looking at her with those eyes while she had lain in that hospital bed, and she hadn’t been used to the way her chest felt like it was caving in when Yoo Sangah whispered, “Sooyoung-ssi. You don’t have to do that.”
The curtains are drawn, but even then evening has already fallen outside; in this room, only the faint glow of the panel screen casts light. Sooyoung stares down at what little she’s written, idly massaging the ache in her right hand. Kim Dokja had promised Yoo Sangah would come back, but when? And how? He may be a Constellation, but he still isn’t a god, that much Sooyoung is sure of. How can he really bring her back just like that?
Sooyoung bites down on her bottom lip hard enough to draw blood. And why does she care so much anyway?
“Han Sooyoung? You still awake?”
The door creaks open, a shaft of light from outside slanting against the floor, coming to a stop by the foot of Sooyoung’s chair. She rubs her eyes and turns to blink blearily at someone she initially doesn’t recognize, until she remembers, oh, right, white hair. “What is it?”
Jung Heewon frowns at her. “It’s late. Head to sleep already, the scenario can still wait a day or two.”
“Che. Mind your own business. Aren’t you busy mooning over—”
She wisely cuts herself off when Jung Heewon’s eyes narrow. Sooyoung turns away with a sigh instead, propping her chin up on her left hand. The stinging pain in her right one refuses to leave, and she supposes she’ll just have to deal with that now. All those points invested in her strength stat, and her hand complains after a bit of typing. “Have you eaten?”
“Dinner.” Jung Heewon pushes the door further open, and Sooyoung’s glad she’s facing away, if only so she isn’t blinded by the light spilling in from the hallway. “Sookyung-ssi put some away for you. Here.”
“I’m not…” Sooyoung sighs when Jung Heewon walks in and sets a plate atop the desk anyway. It smells good, annoyingly enough. “Fine. Whatever. Thanks.”
Jung Heewon doesn’t respond for a moment, which is unlike her, and Sooyoung looks up to ask what her problem is at the same time Jung Heewon reaches down to grab her right wrist. Pain shoots down her entire arm, from a combination of Jung Heewon’s typical iron grip and the ache that’s been building there the whole day, and Sooyoung just barely manages to stifle what would have been an undignified yelp. “You’re hurt, aren’t you?”
“How did you—”
Sooyoung realizes her mistake a second too late when a victorious gleam glimmers in Jung Heewon’s blue eyes. “I thought so. Get Seolhwa-ssi to take a look at this. She’s not busy right now, and she sleeps late anyway, even if I tell her not to.”
Sooyoung attempts to wrench her arm out of Jung Heewon’s grip, but as she’d been half-expecting, Jung Heewon doesn’t budge. It doesn’t even look like she’s making an effort to hold on. Sooyoung hates her. “Mind your own business. Who made you my keeper?”
In the past Jung Heewon would have drawn her sword on her in an instant, and then Yoo Sangah probably would’ve had to intervene, but now all Jung Heewon does is roll her eyes like Sooyoung isn’t the least bit intimidating. (And Sangah isn’t here—but Sooyoung tries not to think about that more than she already has.) “Yeah, yeah, heard all that before. Quit being a brat and just ask for help already. How is something like that so hard for you?”
She drops Sooyoung’s arm and leaves the room afterwards without so much as a backwards glance. Sooyoung sits there, stunned speechless.
How is something like asking for help so hard for her? Her first instinct is to get up and shout that of course it isn’t, what idiot finds it so hard to ask help from others, but cold logic keeps her seated there, keeps her staring blankly into the darkness with the knowledge that Jung Heewon probably hadn’t been thinking when she’d said that, but she’d hit the nail way too hard on the head. Because it’s weak, Sooyoung wants to say. Because asking for help means I can’t do it on my own, because asking for help means I actually trust you idiots to do anything for me, because…
Her right hand rests on her knee where she had let it fall after Jung Heewon let go of her arm. It still stings. For some reason all Sooyoung can think of is when she had sat by Yoo Sangah’s bedside those weeks ago, and Sangah had placed her hand ever-so-carefully atop Sooyoung’s, like she was afraid Sooyoung would duck and run at the first sign of physical interaction.
Her hand had been rougher than Sooyoung expected, and her palm littered with scars from deep and shallow cuts like. When Yoo Sangah hadn’t been used to it yet, Ariadne’s Thread would cut into her skin by accident instead of the enemy’s, and she’d needed to practice for days to finally master the ability. So you’re not so perfect after all, Sooyoung had snarked, unthinking and still as bitter as ever.
No, Yoo Sangah had said, softer than Sooyoung had been expecting, not sounding irritated, or annoyed, or anything but somehow small and sad. I don’t think I’ve ever been.
Jung Heewon hadn’t closed the door behind her. Sooyoung gets up and pushes it all the way open, letting light flood in the room, before setting off down the hall to search for Lee Seolhwa.
Sooyoung’s not sure when she had started missing the blue sky of Seoul. She only knows that, when she gets off the subway carriage and she looks up into that wide, cloudless expanse, for the first time since the scenarios devoid of smoke, system messages, and flying monsters, something in her chest twists up like a starving snake rising up to stare into the light after ages of nothing but darkness.
She breathes in deep, exhales through her mouth. Beside her is Kim Dokja; beside him is Yoo Joonghyuk. Ahead of her is Yoo Sangah. It’s over, now, she tells herself: there are still things to do, places to go, people to look for, thoughts to think. But it has to be over now, right? They couldn’t have gone through all that just to be plunged into another scenario. It’s over. They can all live in a big house together like they want to, and maybe Lee Jihye can graduate, and maybe Lee Seolhwa can look for the old hospital she used to work in, and maybe the kids can have normal birthday parties now, and… maybe… maybe.
It’s over. Right?
Sooyoung doesn’t celebrate her birthday next year. Or the next one. Or the next one.
She’s not sure Yoo Sangah even remembers it, and she had told no one else the date, which suits her just fine. Throwing a party over getting a year older has never been something she particularly understood, but then maybe that’s just her being lonely and bitter. Even now she remembers being thirteen years old, surrounded by her classmates inviting each other to their expensive birthday parties or showing off their equally expensive birthday gifts, and apparently little Sooyoung had been affected enough by how no one had spoken to her then that she had left to get herself her own small, sad cupcake and make an even smaller, sadder wish over it.
She rolls the lemon candy around in her mouth, tilting her head back to rest it atop the back rest of the wooden chair. What birthday wish? she thinks, still as lonely and bitter as she had been back then. She can’t believe she had ever been stupid and desperate enough to light that candle like it was the most important thing in the world for her, then.
The door to the hospital room creaks open, and Sooyoung hardly needs to look up to recognize the familiar cadence of those footsteps by now. They come to a stop beside her, and for a while neither of them speak, both of them staring silently at the body on the bed. Like this, Sooyoung can almost fool herself into thinking Kim Dokja is only asleep, ready to wake up at any moment.
He isn’t, obviously. She knows this. She hates it.
“Sooyoung-ssi.” A hand rests on her shoulder, warm and familiar. Everything about Sangah is like that, far too familiar for comfort, and Sooyoung knows this, and Sooyoung hates it. “It’s late. You’ve been here all day. Have you eaten?”
Sooyoung shrugs listlessly, not even hard enough to dislodge Yoo Sangah’s hand.
The silence lingers a beat longer before Yoo Sangah speaks again. “The restaurant across the street. I’ll pay. Hm?”
“Sangah.” Sooyoung cringes internally at her voice, cracking from hours of disuse. “Go away.”
“You need to take care of yourself—”
“Will you just leave me alone. I don’t,” Sooyoung snaps, raising her voice when she hears the soft intake of breath Yoo Sangah makes before she would have spoken, “need your—your—” goodwill, charity, pity—“you, I don’t need you, just go, I don’t—I hate—” how familiar you are, how you know me too well, how you keep coming back to me—
Fuck, she can’t even say it. Sooyoung settles for balling her fists instead, shuts her eyes tight so she doesn’t get tempted to punch a wall like a certain idiot with anger management issues might have done in her place. “Just go,” she breathes out. There’s fury laced in those two words, but she can’t tell to whom that fury is directed towards. “I can’t stand the sight of you.”
It’s quiet again. Sooyoung listens to Yoo Sangah breathe, in and out, in and out. Not the slightest change in rhythm. Not the slightest stray from familiarity.
The hand on her shoulder falls away. Despite her jacket, Sooyoung feels freezing cold. “Alright,” Yoo Sangah says, her voice so very soft. Not a touch of anger, not a hint of hate, but Sooyoung would have preferred either of those over the pang of guilt that stabs her in the chest. A long pause, and then, “Take care.”
Footsteps. She leaves. The door closes with a click.
For a long while, Sooyoung doesn’t move, staring blankly down at the sleek white tiles on the floor as she draws her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around herself in a pathetic attempt to stave off the sudden chill inside her. “This is all your fault, you know,” she says, voice rough, moving her gaze just slightly upwards so she’s staring at white sheets instead of white tiles. A pale hand rests atop the wrinkled blanket, and Sooyoung refuses to look any further than that. “If you were awake, I… I…”
She presses her forehead against her knees, shuts her eyes tight this time to pretend they don’t feel as hot and wet as they do. If Kim Dokja were awake, would he have been able to stop Sooyoung from saying what she had? No, if Kim Dokja were awake, that entire conversation wouldn’t even have happened, would it?
She drifts off like that at some point, stirring awake when she feels a warmth settle over her shoulders and hears the soft sound of chair legs scraping against the floor. “It’s fine. Go back to sleep,” someone—not Sangah, her minds sees important enough to tell her—says, and while she doesn’t recognize the voice right away in her sleep-addled brain, it’s familiar enough that Sooyoung closes her eyes again.
She wakes up properly in the morning to see Lee Seolhwa, still in her work clothes minus her usual doctor’s coat, sitting asleep in a chair on the other side of Kim Dokja’s bed; her hair is a mess, still messily tied back in a loose, low ponytail, and her glasses are askew on the bridge of her nose. Golden morning sunshine comes in through the gaps of the window curtain and falls across her face.
Sooyoung unfolds her legs, every part of her body sore from the uncomfortable position, and feels something shift off her shoulders—she reaches behind herself and heaves a sigh at the white coat she retrieves.
The digital clock blinking on the bedside dresser tells her she has half an hour before her first lecture at the university. Sooyoung drapes Lee Seolhwa’s coat back over her, doing her best to make it look as careless as possible, and drops a can of coffee from the vending machine in Seolhwa’s lap before leaving the room.
In Sooyoung’s opinion, everything would be marginally better if Yoo Sangah was just… not Yoo Sangah.
This sounds stupid, but Sooyoung is always right, so obviously she can’t be wrong about this, even if it does sound extremely stupid, even for her. Dealing with a comatose Kim Dokja is difficult enough, despite how many times Sooyoung has dealt with exactly that throughout the scenarios, but having the specter of Yoo Sangah lurking behind every nook and cranny really doesn’t make things much better. Maybe if Sooyoung were any other person, she wouldn’t notice, but somehow over the course of the literal apocalypse, she’s grown used enough to Yoo Sangah that she knows the faint click of heels that disappear around the corner of the hallway are hers, used enough that she knows the discarded water bottle in the hospital room trash bin was hers because ‘this brand tastes better’ or whatever bullshit she likes to spout.
“Noona,” Lee Gilyoung says, balancing his math textbook on one knee, “you know you’re whipped if you get sad over a water bottle.”
“Did I ask for your opinion—I’m not whipped, where did you even learn that word,” Sooyoung snaps, swatting at Lee Gilyoung’s head, but he just snickers and dodges with, unfortunately, the same sort of agility he must have learned from either Yoo Sangah or Sooyoung herself. Sooyoung’s not sure which idea she dislikes more. “I was just… lost in thought and… happened to be looking at the garbage, alright, maybe I want to join them in the dumpster, whatever. Ugh.” She plops into the chair on the other side of Kim Dokja’s bed. Before they used to keep their voices down in here, as if he were only sleeping and they didn’t want to disturb his rest, but now Sooyoung pitches her voice as loud as it can go in some vain hope she does disturb this idiot’s way-too-long and way-too-drawn-out rest.
“Riiight, okay,” Lee Gilyoung says, in the most annoying little voice she’s ever heard him use, never mind how she swears he uses his most annoying little voice every other day. “More importantly, you’re like, super-smart, right? Can you figure this question out for me?”
Sooyoung had actually only gotten semi-decent math grades back in school, but she’s not about to say that to a kid who already makes fun of her at any given opportunity. “Give me that. Which one?”
She’s nose-deep in the textbook, reading the passage of a vaguely-familiar lesson to understand the theory behind it, when she hears a telltale sniffle. Her pencil stills where it had been scribbling down the important details from the text; no matter how long it’s been, the kids still get teary every time they stay in here, she idly muses. It’s late in the afternoon now, the sky outside painted in reds and oranges, and the setting sun casts golden rays of light across the stark-white sheets of the bed. From here Sooyoung can see Lee Gilyoung’s fists trembling on his lap, and though he had a growth spurt a few years ago that meant he relentlessly teased Sooyoung about needing him to help her get things off the top shelves now, all she can see are a pair of hands, still too small for the world back then, gripping onto the edge of a white coat.
“Noona,” Gilyoung mumbles, his voice a miserable thing, “how long… has it been?”
She doesn’t answer. She knows he knows how long it’s been since they returned from the 1865th round, since Kim Dokja fell into a coma, since Sooyoung held a knife to his face and asked just who the hell this avatar thought he was. She runs a hand through her short, coarse hair and almost wishes she had been like the rest of them in the past, pretending this Kim Dokja was still the Kim Dokja they knew and not just half of the person they wanted him to be.
Gilyoung shuffles closer to the bed. His eyes are dry but rimmed with red, and he looks like he’s physically restraining himself from crying. “Will Dokja-hyung ever wake up?” he asks, turning to give her a pleading look. “He will, right? He promised. And we heard him, he said… he wanted to be with all of us too… doesn’t he?”
Just what is Sooyoung supposed to say here? She sighs and gets up to place a hand on Lee Gilyoung’s shaking shoulders, even if she has to reach up higher than she’s used to for it. “‘Course he will,” she mutters gruffly. “Kids like you grow up way too fast. Shrink down a little so he recognizes you when he wakes up.”
It’s lame, but after another pitiful sniff, Gilyoung draws back from the bed and grumbles, “You sure you’re not just saying that for your own benefit?”
“Look, just because you went through the apocalypse during your formative years does not mean you’re excused for not knowing manners—”
Sooyoung gives him a rundown of the math problem afterwards, and then she shoos him away Lee Sookyung comes to pick him up, leaving her alone in the hospital room to stare blankly at the bed sheets like she’s been doing for the past how many months. She’s hungry, but she hadn’t bothered bringing any food with her aside from some candy she pops in her mouth, and she can’t be bothered to get up and get anything from the vending machine outside. It’s already dark out, and if she stays here any longer, she’s going to miss her usual train that takes her back to her place.
Not like Sooyoung particularly cares anymore, though—it’s the same whether she spends the night here or in an actual bed. Cold and dark and alone.
She lifts her head on instinct when she hears footsteps outside the hall, automatically assuming it’s just Lee Seolhwa or some other hospital staff, when her breath catches in her throat at the familiar clicking rhythm of heels on the floor. Sooyoung’s first thought is, obviously, to escape, but judging by how close the footsteps sound, there’s no way she’ll be able to leave before she runs into the person outside. Maybe if she jumps out the hospital window, but the Star Stream isn’t like how it used to be, and there is a very real possibility she will break a leg and just end up getting herself in this very hospital, if not the same room…
The door opens. Sooyoung gives up on escaping and remains seated and staring at the bed, pretending she doesn’t hear the door closing and the footsteps coming to a stop just behind her. Maybe if she just sits still and plays dead, there won’t be a need for a conversation.
To her credit, it works. Neither of them speak. Sooyoung listens to Yoo Sangah breathe for what must be the longest three minutes of her life.
And then, to Sooyoung’s horror, her stomach rumbles.
It’s weak enough that she barely even notices at first, but then in the next few seconds, it evolves from a low rumble to full-on snarling like a starving animal, unnecessarily audible in the otherwise completely silent hospital room. Sooyoung stares at the ceramic tiles, head in her hands, like the floor can save her from the sheer mortification of trying to appear Cool, Calm, and Unaffected by the presence behind her only for her stomach to choose now, of all times, to bitch and moan about how she hasn’t had a proper meal this whole day.
Yoo Sangah shifts behind her. When the room is quiet again, she coughs and offers, “I was on my way to dinner. Would you like to come with?”
“I…” Sooyoung groans. What kind of cruel and unusual torture is this? She can’t say she’s not hungry unless she wants to make an even bigger idiot out of herself than her own stomach already has. “Fine,” she grumbles, standing up and turning around to face Yoo Sangah. She’s dressed in work clothes tonight, so she must have come straight from wherever she even works nowadays, like hell Sooyoung knows. (A publishing house. She’d dropped the government job a few months ago because twenty years had, apparently, been long enough to get men thinking their brains were even half the size of hers.) “Where is it?”
Yoo Sangah shifts, her expression uncertain, like she hadn’t planned this far ahead. The top few buttons of her blouse are undone. This is altogether not something particularly rare, because Sooyoung knows Yoo Sangah always unbuttons them straight after work to let herself breathe, but today Sooyoung notices this detail and finds herself paying an unnecessary amount of attention to it. “There’s a nice place near the complex.”
“Is there soju?” At the tired look Yoo Sangah gives her, Sooyoung adds, “Or beer, at least?”
“Beer,” Yoo Sangah graciously allows.
Sooyoung’s not an idiot—she’s well aware Yoo Sangah is being annoyingly nice and going to a place near the Industrial Complex in consideration for whatever drunken state Sooyoung will probably end up in later tonight, even if Yoo Sangah lives somewhere further away from the complex. Who even goes out to eat dinner alone? She was definitely planning on just getting takeout somewhere, or heating up leftovers at home, considering it’s already nearing ten in the evening.
But Sooyoung doesn’t voice any of this aloud, just keeps her gaze fixed on the pavement and kicks every single rock she sees while Yoo Sangah walks beside her, blessedly quiet. The hustle and bustle of the night streets is just loud enough to drown out any more embarrassing sounds Sooyoung’s digestive system decides to make.
They don’t speak the entire way there, they barely look at each other once they sit down at a table for two—the waiter taking their orders is visibly uncomfortable—and they remain in stony silence when the waiter leaves. Sooyoung picks at some loose thread on the tablecloth. Yoo Sangah stares blankly at the plate before her. Some Top 100 song Sooyoung has heard an illegal number of times on the radio plays overhead, grating on her ears and driving her even more insane than she already feels.
“What,” Sooyoung says, responding more on habit than anything. She immediately regrets it when she sees Yoo Sangah’s eyes light up. Why is she happy about just being replied to? Just what on earth is wrong with this woman?
Yoo Sangah manages a small smile. “I’m, ah… glad you’re here with me. I wanted to apologize for last time.”
Sooyoung feels the gears in her brain suddenly grind to a halt. “What?” she says again, with just slightly more inflection than the first time around.
“I didn’t mean to… do what I did, back then,” Yoo Sangah continues. Her words are slow and her voice is carefully measured, as if she’s reading from a script in her head. Sooyoung wants to interrupt, mostly because she has virtually no idea what Yoo Sangah is saying and she’s starting to believe Yoo Sangah got the wrong person this whole time, but she’s so utterly bewildered that she can’t say a word. “I was just worried about you. I wanted to do something for you but went the wrong way around it. I’m… sorry.”
It takes Sooyoung a few seconds to realize Yoo Sangah is probably waiting for her to say something, but all she can really get out is, “What?” for the third time in about as many minutes.
Now Yoo Sangah looks concerned. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine—that’s my question to you, what the hell are you even talking about?” Sooyoung finally manages to splutter. “You, you—you didn’t even do anything! I get it, I’m an idiot who said stupid shit I didn’t mean because I wanted to be alone, there’s no need for you to be giving me those big dumb eyes and apologizing for nothing!”
Approximately one second later, Sooyoung realizes just how obvious of a trap she’d fallen into when Yoo Sangah’s smile widens. “You didn’t mean it?”
It isn’t even the smile she gives strangers on the streets, or the smile she glues on her face during office hours to peel off as soon as the clock hits 6pm, or the smile she throws on when she’s tired but doesn’t want to show it. It’s a smile Sooyoung recognizes but can barely remember, a smile she had wanted to trace the line of, once, before Kim Dokja collapsed and Sooyoung stopped seeing that smile entirely.
“…I hate you,” she says, out of lack of other things to say. She downs her glass of iced water in some pathetic effort to cool her warming cheeks, something Yoo Sangah’s still-present smile does nothing to alleviate.
“That’s nice. Anyway, I heard you’ve been skipping meals,” Yoo Sangah says, her tone going from something soft to something approaching conversational. As if on cue, their waiter returns to deposit a handful of dishes on the table, along with—Sooyoung’s embarrassment fades to make way for delight—two cans of beer. “You can’t expect to survive off candy and iced coffee from the vending machine forever, Sooyoung-ssi, especially when you have work.”
“Ugh. Don’t tell me what to do,” Sooyoung grumbles, thumbing one of the cans open only for Yoo Sangah to snatch it out of her hands before she can take a sip. “Hey!”
“Eat first,” Yoo Sangah says, her smile angelic. This situation feels all too familiar, and Sooyoung realizes with startling clarity how many times Sangah has done exactly this in the past, during the scenarios, when Sooyoung would make a grab for the alcohol before anything else and Yoo Sangah would keep it out of her reach, hanging the bottle overhead with the use of Ariadne’s Thread. “At least have some dinner before drinking, Han Sooyoung-ssi,” she would say. Or some nights it would be, “You’ll get sick if you drink on an empty stomach, Han Sooyoung-ssi.”
Sooyoung absently stirs her noodles now, staring at the oil bubbles on the surface. She would always begrudgingly have some bites of the food and then get roaring drunk afterwards, and she’d never admit half the reason she coaxed Sangah into drinking with her was because she wanted to hear that voice of hers loosen up just the tiniest bit, wanted to hear how her name would sound if Sangah ever slipped and called her Sooyoung-ah.
…Of course, Yoo Sangah just had to have an iron liver. Sooyoung sighs irritably.
She gobbles her noodles up and cleans off the dumplings Yoo Sangah had ordered, only now realizing she may have been hungrier than she’d expected, and finally manages that first cathartic sip of beer when Yoo Sangah relents and lets her have the can back. Sooyoung isn’t a complete idiot, she’s aware her alcohol tolerance isn’t the best, but damn if that’s going to stop her from drinking as much as she wants anyway; she tosses back the first can, drains the second, and downs a third before Yoo Sangah can wrestle it away from her.
“That’s enough,” Yoo Sangah sighs, taking the empty can to set it on the table. Sooyoung throws her arm up in the air to order another one, but Yoo Sangah grips her wrist and holds her down with frightening strength. “It’s still a weekday. Don’t you have work tomorrow?”
“Fuck. Who cares,” Sooyoung groans, resting her forehead atop the table. She can feel herself getting warm, her body teetering on the border between sober and drunk, and there is no way she is letting herself fall back to being sober. She runs through her schedule for tomorrow and says, “I only have afternoon lectures. Just… give me one last.”
Yoo Sangah gives her a long-suffering look. “Hold still.”
Some two minutes later, Yoo Sangah pushes a cold can in her hand, and Sooyoung doesn’t think twice before popping it open and taking a swig—before, damn it all, immediately spitting it out. “What the hell? Is this orange juice? It tastes like shit!”
“Really? I like it,” Yoo Sangah says mildly, sipping from a glass. Of course she’s the type to pour stuff from a can into a glass, Sooyoung notes. She slides a different can across the table, and Sooyoung squints at the print to confirm that this is real, actual beer this time rather than the acidic orange juice Yoo Sangah had attempted to assassinate her with.
She finishes half of it in one go just to wash the juice’s aftertaste out, sighing as she sets it back down on the table. “Don’t ever do that to me again. Feels like I lost years of my life.”
“That’s your last beer. Think about your health.”
“Fuck my health.”
“Sooyoung-ssi,” Yoo Sangah sighs. Still that same, distant, detached tone Sooyoung had come to expect from her throughout the scenarios—she tightens her grip on the beer can until her fingers sting with phantom pain. “Are you even alright to go home by yourself? I know it’s just close by, but it’s also a bit late…”
Sooyoung traces the rim of the can with her thumb. “Meh.” She had been planning to stumble her way back to Lee Seolhwa’s hospital—most of the staff know her by now, enough that they won’t bother her if she decides to crash on one of the couches in the lobby. She’ll get an earful the next morning from Seolhwa herself for stinking the place up, sure, but it’s nothing Sooyoung isn’t used to by this point. “I’ll be fine,” she mutters, when she catches Yoo Sangah frowning at her like how Sooyoung imagines she would frown at an unruly child. “S’nothing I haven’t done before. And I can take care of myself.”
“But…” Yoo Sangah worries on her lower lip, a sight Sooyoung can’t help but stare at for a precious few seconds before she looks away. “I’m still worried.”
“Sounds like a you problem.”
“Let me walk you home, at least.”
Damn it, Sooyoung knew she’d offer that. She had been banking on Yoo Sangah just minding her own business for once and leaving Sooyoung to wallow in alcohol-induced self-pity in the hospital alone, but Yoo Sangah has never really been one to mind her own business, now that Sooyoung thinks about it. “I… Just why do you even care,” she groans, right before finishing the last of the beer. She regrets it as soon as she sets the can back down on the table—she should’ve savored that, because Yoo Sangah isn’t lenient enough to let her have another now.
There’s a brief pause, short enough that Sooyoung wouldn’t have noticed it if she’d gotten herself another can. Then Yoo Sangah speaks, and an indescribable emotion creeps into her usual distant tone, turning it into something warmer than Sooyoung is accustomed to. “Of course I care.”
For all her words, Sooyoung can’t put a finger on what emotion, exactly, she heard just now; all she knows is that it had been something soft and tender and far more than what someone like her deserves. She snorts and turns away. “Can’t we go back to the time when we hated each other? That was easier to understand.”
“Do we still?”
Sooyoung blinks, slowly. Her vision is blurrier than it probably should be. Either she needs her glasses, or she’s tipsier than she realized. “Still what?”
Yoo Sangah shifts in her seat. Her expression is unfamiliar to Sooyoung, despite her carefully-organized catalogue of expressions everyone in the company, but especially Sangah, has made over the years: her brows are furrowed, her lips turned down at the corners, her gaze darting up to glance at Sooyoung before returning to some spot on the tablecloth. Then she manages a small, strained smile, as if only now realizing she had been frowning the whole while. “Hate each other.”
Over the years, Sooyoung has unfortunately learned more than she would have preferred to learn about Yoo Sangah. She’s 166cm tall, she likes walnut cookies, she’s capable of taking her coffee completely black and still thinking it tastes a bit too sweet, she’s the noona Yoosung and Gilyoung still sometimes go to when they’re struggling with something in a video game, she’s ruthless when it comes to editing manuscripts, she never minds her own business so she can poke her nose in everyone else’s… and that is not anywhere near the end of things Sooyoung knows about her. Sooyoung’s not sure where her brain even keeps all this information, considering she finds it significantly harder to remember random details about anyone else on command.
She props her chin up on her left palm, balancing her elbow on the edge of the table, toying with a cloth napkin next to her plate with her right hand. “Why? You changed your mind about me or something? I knew you couldn’t resist my charms.”
Yoo Sangah’s smile softens into something more genuine than Sooyoung had expected. “Not entirely. Sometimes I still want to punch you in the face.”
“But I also think you’re a good person.” Yoo Sangah reaches across the table to take Sooyoung’s right hand in both of hers. Her palms are as soft and warm as her eyes under the restaurant’s lights are, and stupidly enough all Sooyoung can think about is how Sangah’s thumb is resting right above the joint in her finger that used to twinge in pain every time she bent her hands over a keyboard before she got it checked. “I… really… like you, Sooyoung-ssi. I’ll try harder from now on, so… I just don’t want you to push me away. That’s all.”
Sooyoung blinks, slowly, trying to give her brain some time to process the past few seconds. This… Is this happening too quickly, or is she just too drunk to deal with this right now? Her head is spinning and her vision is swimming and if she moves too fast right now, she just knows she’s going to fall flat on her face and pass out right then and there, which would be one hell of a way to end the night. A handful of deep breaths later, she finally manages, “Wow! Well, that sounds fun. Now are you sure you didn’t drink more alcohol than I did?”
Something Sooyoung thinks might be disappointment flickers in Yoo Sangah’s eyes, but considering how she has to squint to make out the finer details of the other woman’s face, it could very well have been something else instead. Yoo Sangah draws back, the warmth fading from Sooyoung’s hands, and sighs. “Let’s just go home.”
The night had grown deeper than Sooyoung had thought. A light snow had fallen earlier, leaving the streets bereft of anyone but themselves and the streetlights standing sentinel over them when Sooyoung stumbles to a stop in the middle of the damp pavement. “Just dizzy,” she mumbles, when Yoo Sangah asks what’s wrong. “Ugh… I want more beer.”
“No. No more drinking. You already had an extra one,” Yoo Sangah scolds. She’d insisted on paying the bill while Sooyoung insisted on splitting it, and halfway through their argument—with the poor waiter from earlier standing at the side and looking deep in meditation—Sooyoung had threatened to get herself another beer if Yoo Sangah insisted any further. She’d been stunned enough by the unwavering resolve in Yoo Sangah’s face when she said, “Go ahead,” that she hadn’t pushed any further and let her pay the bill, extra beer and all.
Sooyoung presses her forehead against the streetlight, in the vague hope that the freezing-cold metal will ease the heat in her face a little. All it does is give her a headache, which she can’t say she hadn’t been expecting. “‘M so tired.”
“Which is why we should get you home.” A warm hand wraps around hers again, tugging lightly to pull her away from the streetlight. “Come on. It should be just a bit further now.”
Sooyoung lets herself be tugged along, but her foot catches on a crack in the concrete and she stumbles again—she’s too far gone to try and steady herself, so she just resigns herself to her fate and braces for impact, but a pair of arms catch her instead. “Sooyoung-ssi,” Yoo Sangah says, sounding distressed. “Are you sure you’re alright? Tell me if you’re going to be sick.”
“Urgh. Why? So you can find a trash bin for me to puke in? That’s sooo sweet of you.”
“No, because I’d rather you not be sick all over my clothes.”
“Wow. Thanks for clarifying.”
Sooyoung feels alright enough that she doubts she’s going to go tripping over things anymore, but she stays in place still, Yoo Sangah’s hands warm and steady. Her touch is just on this side of unfamiliar, and Sooyoung swallows back the strange feeling that wells up in her at the thought that she can’t remember the last time Sangah held her like this, was close to her like this. “Sooyoung-ssi,” Yoo Sangah says again, her voice so infuriatingly gentle. “Can you walk? Let’s keep going.”
Sooyoung leans forward until she can rest her forehead against Yoo Sangah’s shoulder. She half-expects Sangah to push her away, but after a brief pause, she only reaches up to pat stray strands of Sooyoung’s hair down. “Yoo Sangah,” she mutters. “I’m tired.”
She’s not talking about the walk back home, and Yoo Sangah can probably tell, if the way her hand stops moving is any indication. She breathes, in and out, and Sooyoung listens to the familiar rhythm, takes comfort in the fact that she can breathe again after Sooyoung had once thought she’d taken her last breath in that hospital bed, so long ago. “I know,” Sangah eventually whispers.
“I don’t—” Sooyoung swallows, breathes, forces her voice not to wobble when she speaks again. “I don’t know what to do.” She thinks about Lee Gilyoung earlier in the hospital, standing over the bed, his eyes shimmering with unshed tears, how he’s grown up and hit the age where children think they can’t cry anymore. She thinks about Shin Yoosung visiting everyday, about Lee Seolhwa still performing daily check-ups, about Lee Sookyung sitting in her car outside the hospital building for hours on end without ever stepping foot in the room, about Yoo Joonghyuk and his radio silence. She thinks about how she knows the cadence of Yoo Sangah’s footsteps by heart now, after fleeing every time she heard the hint of them around every corner, and wonders why she had even tried to avoid someone so utterly inescapable.
Yoo Sangah is quiet, and Sooyoung doesn’t mind. They stand there in silence under the dim streetlight, snow melting under their shoes, clouds casting shadows on the streets. In the distance, a dog barks. Ever so slowly, Yoo Sangah reaches down to clasp one of Sooyoung’s hands in her own once more.
“‘M sorry,” Sooyoung mumbles. It’s probably—no, definitely the beer, because she doesn’t even recoil at herself for using the s-word. Yoo Sangah tenses in evident surprise. “I really am. It was stupid. I was stupid. I felt like shit and I felt like I did something wrong even though I didn’t really and I wanted to be angry at someone but the only someone I could really be angry at was Kim Dokja the bastard himself, and then you came around, and I… I didn’t…” want you to see me like that. “I didn’t know what to do,” she says again, lamely. “You were always so… above me. In everything. I hated that. It came out again that day.”
“Above you?” Yoo Sangah repeats, disbelief lacing her voice.
Sooyoung buries her face further in her blouse, her forehead brushing Yoo Sangah’s bare neck. “Don’t act like you don’t know what I mean, Miss Perfect,” she grumbles, voice muffled. “Maybe you weren’t stronger than me during the scenarios, but you were—everything else! Everyone liked you more and no one trusted me then and, and, fuck, you know what I mean, right? And I used to think you were so Goddamn condescending, it made me sick, but now I’m realizing that was just me trying to make you look worse so I felt better about being so damn bitter all the time, and… and…”
She trails off, gripping onto Yoo Sangah’s hand instead—she hadn’t even realized they were still holding each other. The silence stretches on for a long two seconds before Yoo Sangah, of all things, laughs.
It isn’t a very loud laugh, nor does it even sound particularly amused, but Sooyoung looks sharply up at her in a mix of astonishment and betrayal. “Don’t laugh at me!” she snaps, embarrassment heating her face several times more than the alcohol does. “Seriously, is this what you do to everyone who apologizes to you? God! I was right, you are the worst! I’m going! Don’t you dare—”
“No, wait,” Yoo Sangah says, her grip holding fast when Sooyoung tries to pull away from her. Sooyoung makes the mistake of looking up at her face: she’s still smiling, wide and genuine, her eyes a sweet shining brown, the streetlight forming a golden halo around her head. Sangah looks at her, really looks at her, and Sooyoung makes a jerky, aborted motion with her other hand, because for a moment it had looked like she could touch the stars in the sky if she just reached up to hold Sangah’s face in hers.
The sort of beauty that could strike the moon down with a single glance. The sort of beauty that could light a dark room up forever and ever, long after the candle flame has been blown out. Sooyoung could try and speak, but in this whisper of time she thinks all that would leave her mouth is a prayer in the form of Sangah’s name.
“I forgive you,” Yoo Sangah is saying. Her smile looks like it’s only growing brighter. “Really, you said as much before.”
Sooyoung turns away with a huff. “Still wanted to make it official. Y’know, so you don’t dangle it over my head next time you need a favor from me or anything.”
Yoo Sangah’s grip on her hand tightens briefly before her thumb moves to rub slow, gentle circles on her knuckles, on the same joint that still twinges in pain if Sooyoung spends too long editing one of her students’ essays. “I don’t know,” she says, a teasing tone creeping into her voice. “I felt really hurt when you said you couldn’t stand the sight of me.”
“Shut up. Don’t talk. Not another word from you.”
“But you didn’t mean it, right?”
“I already said that, don’t make me repeat myself!”
“Just this once.” Yoo Sangah’s expression softens into something almost like fondness—Sooyoung has only ever seen this on her once before, when she had asked her for her birthday, all those years ago. “Say it again.”
Why is she being so Goddamn weird today, Sooyoung wants to ask. She turns away instead, suddenly far too conscious about their hands in each other’s and how Yoo Sangah can probably feel how Sooyoung’s palm is starting to grow clammy, but she doesn’t pull away, nor does Sangah let go. The streetlight flickers above them, the snow on the pavement melts under their shoes, and moonlight glimmers on the shine of Sangah’s patient smile.
If only they could stay like this forever, Sooyoung thinks, before immediately banishing that thought back to whichever hell it had spawned from.
“Fine,” she mutters. “I… don’t hate seeing you around or whatever. Good enough?”
“Hm… I’m a little disappointed. Is that the best you can do?”
“Don’t make me punch you in the face.”
“That’s my line.” Yoo Sangah shakes her head, but there’s no hiding the smile still stubbornly stuck on her face, nor the endearment Sooyoung can see from her. It’s mildly sickening. Fondness? Endearment? Since when did emotions like those have any place on Yoo Sangah whenever they were together? It’s unfamiliar and distressing and Sooyoung doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do about it—fine, maybe they don’t hate each other anymore, but does that really warrant all these stupidly soft looks Yoo Sangah keeps giving her? Not to mention this whole hand-holding situation that, despite all her bitching and whining about it, Sooyoung can’t bring herself to pull away from…
Through some miracle, they finally make their way back to Sooyoung’s place—she tugs Yoo Sangah inside under the pretense of being too drunk to get in on her own, then collapses in genuine exhaustion on the couch. “I knew it,” Yoo Sangah sighs, already poking around in the kitchen. “Sooyoung-ssi, you really need to keep your constitution in mind. What happens if you drink too much on your own?”
“Shut up, what the hell, who are you to tell me about my constu… conti…” Sooyoung scowls and buries her face in one of the throw pillows on the couch. She’s not that drunk, it had just been a beer or two… “Just shut up!”
Yoo Sangah’s soft laugh drifts over from the kitchen, and then Sooyoung hears the faint padding of her socked feet coming closer until she stops just before the couch. “Here. Water.”
“Just a sip, Sooyoung-ssi. You’ll feel better.”
“Ugh,” Sooyoung bemoans, but rolls over to sit up just enough to gulp down the glass of water Yoo Sangah hands her without having it all spill down her front. Annoyingly enough, Sooyoung does feel better afterwards, but like hell she’s telling Yoo Sangah that. “Okay, there, I drank it,” she grumbles, lying back down and throwing an arm over her face. The lights aren’t even on, but just looking at Yoo Sangah’s face is already blindingly bright, like the sun itself is picking a fight with her.
There’s a pause, as if Yoo Sangah is weighing her next words, before she hums in acknowledgement and takes the glass to set it atop the nearby coffee table. “Alright. I’ll be going now. Goodnight, Soo—”
“What?” Sooyoung sits up so fast her head threatens to spin right off her neck. Doing her best to ignore the stars exploding in her vision, she bites out, “No! It’s… It’s late! Just stay here for the night. I don’t want to hear you, I don’t know, got lost in the city in the middle of the night or somethin’. And the subway here doesn’t run this late at night, so where would you even be going?” she remembers to add, before realizing Lee Seolhwa’s hospital is, unfortunately, always a viable choice for any of them.
Yet another pause. “Stay here?” Yoo Sangah repeats. Sooyoung’s vision is still blurry, but she can make out the disbelief in her voice.
“Did I fuckin’ stutter?” Sooyoung mumbles, lying back down on the couch and turning away from Yoo Sangah in case she attributes the warmth on her cheeks to anything else but the alcohol. “There’s a room and a bed and… just, go already, ugh. Not outside! I mean go in the room and sleep!” She’s a mess. This is embarrassing. Sooyoung has never wished this couch could just throw her into an endless void for her to hide in forever so bad.
Instead of just agreeing and heading to the room and not making things difficult for either of them, Yoo Sangah lets out another small laugh. “Sooyoung-ssi is too kind,” she murmurs. There’s a hand in Sooyoung’s hair the next second, fingers carding through and untangling the knotted strands, then resting on the curve of her cheek. “There’s a bed, but you’re going to stay here on the couch?”
Sooyoung sighs, too tired to bother keeping up an annoyed front. She leans into Sangah’s touch instead, closing her eyes under the gentle brush of fingers on her skin. “S’ comfy here.”
“Your neck’s going to get stuck that way.”
“Whateverrr. Who are you, a… a neck specialist? Huh? Huh?”
“Sooyoung-ssi.” Her voice sounds closer than earlier, and Sooyoung reflexively opens her eyes, immediately regretting it when she sees Yoo Sangah leaning down over her. She isn’t too close that their noses might touch, but she’s definitely closer than Sooyoung is used to, and she desperately hopes Yoo Sangah isn’t close enough to hear how her heart rate spiked up just now. “I like you. I really like you, okay?”
Sooyoung swallows. “Yeah, uh… you… said that, a while ago.” She takes a tentative sniff, then wrinkles her nose. “Hey, you definitely drank when I wasn’t looking, you kinda stink. You can take a shower if you want, there’s a bunch of towels, just get whichever. I don’t have any clothes you can borrow, though…”
She trails off when Yoo Sangah still doesn’t move. “W-What?” Sooyoung mumbles, squinting through the haze in her vision to get a better look. Yoo Sangah… looks disappointed again, this time Sooyoung is sure about it, but she can’t figure out why. Does she want Sooyoung to say she likes her, too? Sure, Sooyoung doesn’t hate her, but isn’t it a bit much to say something as embarrassing as that out loud?
Still, Sooyoung doesn’t like seeing that expression on Sangah’s face, so she swallows her embarrassment and sits up, fighting through the wave of dizziness that nearly overtakes her, and drops her forehead to rest it against Sangah’s shoulder again. “Okay, okay, fine, you’re not so bad either,” Sooyoung huffs, fumbling blindly until her hand finds Sangah’s and giving it a squeeze. “Can you not look so sad? It’s freaking me out…”
Yoo Sangah lets out a small, sad laugh. “Thank you,” she whispers, her voice shaking in a telltale manner. Sooyoung is exactly one teardrop away from making a break for it. “You know, I… These days, I don’t know what to do either.”
Sooyoung frowns. “That…” Even when Yoo Sangah likely hadn’t known what to do during the scenarios, she had always done her best to look like she did. Sooyoung’s fairly certain it had been because losing her composure when so many people were relying on her would be detrimental to everyone involved, but… “Hey, it’s fine,” Sooyoung says, wincing at how unsure of herself she sounds. “S’not like you need to know what to do all the time.”
Yoo Sangah is quiet for a long while, enough that Sooyoung feels her eyes beginning to close of their own accord. It’s been a long day and an even longer night, and ever since the scenarios had come to an end, her body has reverted back to being incapable of going through too much excitement without needing to shut down for 15 straight hours; it doesn’t help that leaning on Sangah like this is more comfortable than she wants to admit, her body warm and her hand still gently stroking Sooyoung’s hair.
She hears a soft exhale. “Then… we just need to keep doing what we do best, huh?”
“Mm,” Sooyoung sleepily agrees, forgetting the words as soon as she hears them. She buries her face in the crook of Yoo Sangah’s shoulder, breathes in the fragrance of her shampoo, and drifts off to sleep.
She wakes up some six hours later with a pounding headache, the sun shining directly on her face, and in her bed. This is altogether not something very unique, considering the amount of times Sooyoung has gone out drinking and regretted it the very next morning, which is why she only groggily tugs the blanket further up to block the sunshine, but in the next instant she remembers everything that had happened last night and shoots straight up. Her mouth is already forming Yoo Sangah’s name before she catches herself and shuts up, staring blankly at her room instead.
Nothing looks different. It’s the same as it always is, messy and disorganized, her laptop half-open atop her cluttered desk, her favorite jacket hung up on a hook on the door. Sooyoung rubs her eyes, trying to will away the headache, only for her eyes to go the size of dinner plates when she does see something out-of-place: beside her neatly-folded glasses is a cup of water on the bedside dresser, next to the bottle of painkillers she usually keeps in the bathroom cabinet.
Sooyoung has half a mind to ignore it so she can jump out of bed and search for Yoo Sangah right away, but the massive headache that refuses to leave on its own compels her to down the glass and a pill before staggering off the bed and out of the room, needing to catch herself on the doorknob before she topples face-first onto the floor. “Yoo—”
She pauses, giving herself a moment to both regain her balance and register what she’s smelling. This… Is this… food? “Yoo Sangah?”
Footsteps, then Yoo Sangah pokes her head out from the kitchen doorway. “Good morning, Sooyoung-ssi.”
“Why are… Why was I…” Sooyoung doesn’t even know where to start. She does her best to arrange her priorities within one short second, then eventually decides on, “What’s that smell?” Could Yoo Sangah be cooking breakfast for her? The thought is both frightening and exciting. What sort of food does Yoo Sangah eat for breakfast? Sooyoung vaguely remembers bumping into her in the grocery store once and seeing a ridiculous amount of eggs in her basket, so maybe…?
“Ah, it’s takeout.” Yoo Sangah holds up a McDonald’s hashbrown. “I should be on my way to work, but I thought you might be hungry after waking up, so I bought some from the nearest place and went back here. I’m not sure what you like, so I got a bit of everything…”
“…Oh.” Sooyoung shouldn’t be this disappointed. She takes the offered hashbrown, bites into it, and tries to tell herself she doesn’t wish she’d gotten to see Yoo Sangah cooking in her kitchen. “Thanks. I guess.” When was the last time she’d had breakfast? Or even woken up this early in the morning? She has most of her lectures at the university scheduled in the afternoon for a reason. She chews in silence and thinks that only Yoo Sangah could make her spring out of bed first thing in the morning like that, torturous headache and all.
Yoo Sangah stares at her for a while, then says, “Are you feeling alright? You didn’t drink too much last night, but I found the painkillers in your bathroom earlier and thought they might help anyway.”
“Yeah. They did. Thanks.” Sooyoung frowns. “Wait a minute. You stayed the night here, right? Tell me you did. There aren’t any hotels nearby anyway, so you must have.”
“I did, yes,” Yoo Sangah says, sounding amused. She heads back into the kitchen and Sooyoung follows, more than a bit distracted by how… at home Yoo Sangah seems in here already. A plethora of fast food is arranged neatly on the counter, from fries to a burger to… is that coffee takeout too? “Oh, I remembered your order from before,” Yoo Sangah says, when she follows Sooyoung’s gaze. “Mocha frappe, right?”
“Yeah,” Sooyoung says again, more than a bit stunned. She takes a long, refreshing sip, then checks the small sticker tag on the cup where the order should be printed. Yoo Sangah had even remembered the ice and sugar level… “Hey, don’t think you can coffee your way out of the obvious question,” she hurries to say, squinting back up at Yoo Sangah, who looks entirely too pleased with herself. “I told you to take the bed, so why did I wake up in there a while ago!?”
Yoo Sangah leans against the counter, taking her own iced americano out of the paper bag. “It didn’t seem right to let you just lie on the couch of your own home.”
“So you… slept on the couch.” At Yoo Sangah’s nod, Sooyoung groans and attempts to bury her face in her hands, only to realize she’s holding a hashbrown in one and a coffee cup in the other. She settles for hanging her head in despair. “I can’t stand you, I swear. Just what is… Just why… damn it, I give up, I can’t win against you, it’s insane.”
“Mm,” is all Yoo Sangah offers, before she takes a long sip of her coffee.
Sooyoung glares at her, just to make sure Yoo Sangah gets the message, before her attention is drawn to the wall clock. It’s only eight in the morning and she’s already up and awake, which is in itself a horrifying concept, but more confusing is why Yoo Sangah is still here, leaning on her kitchen counter, sipping her coffee and idly watching Sooyoung munch on fast food. “Don’t you have work?” Sooyoung asks, finishing off the last of the hashbrown so she can shamelessly paw through the rest of the paper bags. She’s not about to say no to free food, after all.
“Maybe,” Yoo Sangah says, now blankly staring out the window as if contemplating the mysteries of life.
“What the hell is maybe. You either have work or you don’t.”
“Schrödinger’s work. As long as I don’t enter the office, it can both exist and not exist at the same time…” She breaks off with a laugh at the look Sooyoung gives her. “Fine, I do. I’m late by now, but it doesn’t really matter. They can send an email if they really need me, which I think they do.” She pauses, then adds, “They’re all incompetent idiots.”
Sooyoung almost chokes on a fry. “What? Really?”
“I’m not sure my manager can tell the difference between a misplaced and dangling modifier if he was held at gunpoint,” Yoo Sangah says, her voice remaining perfectly mild the entire time. “My coworkers all approved on publishing something they had me check at the last minute, and I believe I can confidently say I have never seen a novel with quite as many plot holes as that one. It’s really…” She tilts her head, then sighs. “Well, it would be too much trouble now to find a new workplace, but…”
“Damn, if they’re all dumb as hell, might as well leave ‘em to crash and burn without you,” Sooyoung says, although her words come out all garbled as she speaks through a mouthful of cheeseburger. Yoo Sangah doesn’t even blink. “If I were still writing, I’d hire you to be my editor. No idiot managers, just a beautiful genius girl author… and…”
And this is starting to sound an awful lot like a proposition, isn’t it!? Sooyoung clears her throat and pretends to be extremely preoccupied with her burger, just to ignore the burning weight of Yoo Sangah staring at her face. Damn it, why had she gone and said something like that? Not the part about the beautiful genius girl author, obviously, but the literal job offer. In the literary world, saying that is akin to professing your undying love to someone and then asking for their hand in marriage… This is why Sooyoung never gets up before noon most days.
She half-expects something mortifying to leave Yoo Sangah’s mouth when she opens it—like a rejection, or even worse, acceptance—but she only asks, “You don’t write anymore?”
The question gives her pause, and Sooyoung stares contemplatively down at her food. “No.”
Yoo Sangah doesn’t ask why not, like how any other person might have done in her shoes, and Sooyoung is glad for it. She hums in acknowledgement instead, turning to look out the window, and Sooyoung can’t help but watch how the morning sunlight caresses Yoo Sangah’s face in the way that all aspects of nature seem to do so, bending to her will to make her look even more disgustingly radiant than she already is. The moon had done exactly that last night, and now the sun is following suit as if unwilling to be shown up. Frankly Sooyoung thinks it’s a pain. Can’t she get a break around here?
The quiet stretches on until Sooyoung finally sighs and gives in. “I’ll drive you to work. Come on. It’s not that far from here, right?” Yoo Sangah wouldn’t drop by the hospital every night if it were.
The smile Yoo Sangah gives her reminds Sooyoung of the feeling she gets when the overcast sky finally clears up to make way for daylight. “Sooyoung-ssi is too kind.”
She writes the first line one rainy day in the hospital room.
Sooyoung will be the first to admit she’s been visiting less and less, these days. Hope is an exhausting burden to carry, and her chest has been caving in under its weight little by little every time she steps in this room and sees the same unchanging machines, the same unwrinkled sheets, the same sleeping face. Sometimes all she can do is stand outside the building for several long, cold minutes, two steps away from the sliding doors, only for her to turn back around and blink the dampness out of her eyes. The first time she had done that she had felt guilt pressing down on her shoulders, heavier than the weight of the world; afterwards, it grew easier and easier, to walk away and let the visiting chairs in the hospital room gather dust.
Schrödinger’s hope, she tells herself in the car one night, forehead pressed to the steering wheel, a dry smile on her face. If she doesn’t see him, maybe she can let herself believe he’s awake.
She hadn’t even meant to visit that day, but the rain had been coming down hard after work and the traffic was bumper-to-bumper, so her nail-length patience had driven her to park by the hospital building as soon as it came within sight. It’s silent, the rain pattering on the windowpane and the low beeps of machines the only sounds in the room; Sooyoung drags her usual chair over to plop down on, sighing as she wipes a few stray raindrops off her laptop. “Hey, idiot,” she mutters. “It’s pouring out there. Don’t think you’ve got an umbrella to lend me around here, do you?”
No response. Sooyoung pushes her laptop open and pretends this doesn’t bother her.
There’s not much to do but grade some essays, so she types mechanically, leaving comments she could swear she’s already left on these same students, only it had been on their previous essays. Kids these days, they never read past the grade she gives them, do they, she grumbles internally. She finishes off the last one and stares blankly at the empty document left open on her browser after she’d closed all the other tabs, before looking up to watch the rain slide down the windowpane.
It had been sunny just this morning. Sooyoung runs a hand through her hair, some ends damp from when she’d scrambled out of her car and made a break for the hospital entrance. “Hey,” she says again, almost too soft to hear over the drumming of the rain, “do you have any idea how long it’s been, bastard? If you stay like this any longer, I’m really gonna start forgetting how you sound like, you know?”
That’s a lie—Sooyoung can confidently say that, for better or worse, there is no voice quite more memorable than Kim Dokja’s sleazy-businessman drawl—but she says it anyway, looking away from the window when she does.
The beeping of the machines goes on, and on, and on. Sooyoung closes her eyes, but she sees it anyway: Lee Gilyoung and Shin Yoosung curled up on either side of the bed, Lee Hyunsung’s face pressed against the sheets, Lee Jihye sitting still and silent for once, Jung Heewon tucking the blanket under his chin, Lee Seolhwa nodding off on a report with the same records as all the previous ones, Yoo Joonghyuk placing his rough, scarred hand atop Kim Dokja’s with the sort of gentleness Sooyoung had never seen from him before. She sees Yoo Sangah standing in the corner of the room, arms crossed and gaze lowered; she sees Yoo Sangah sitting by the bed, murmuring something too low to be audible; she sees Yoo Sangah, standing before her, eyes rimmed with red, her mouth forming the words, There had to be another way. But there wasn’t, alright? It wasn’t that he wouldn’t listen to me. He couldn’t.
“Hey,” she says, again, slowly, the word cracking like glass, “you idiot, why… why do you keep leaving me to do all the work around here? What am I supposed to do now? Huh?” I wish I never learned how to make the kids stop crying, I wish I never had to see Yoo Joonghyuk make that sort of expression—“After everything, are you just going to leave us alone again, asshole? You said… you promised you’d read my…”
The metal of the bed railing is cold against her forehead. Sooyoung curls up there, back hunched, knuckles white from gripping onto the railing, her eyes far too warm for this point in time. It’s been two years, going on three, she tries to remind herself—hasn’t she cried enough by now? Hasn’t she exhausted the rest of her life’s worth of tears?
The rain falls. In the distance, thunder crashes. Sooyoung closes her eyes, but wetness trickles down her cheeks anyway, drips down onto the trackpad of her laptop.
She takes a handful of deep, shuddering breaths, then straightens up to wipe her face messily on her sleeve, then doing the same to the droplet on the trackpad. Sooyoung pauses once she’s wiped it off, staring listlessly at her laptop screen—the cursor is still blinking on the blank document, the only tab left open after she’d finished everything else, and that empty expanse of white space frustrates her like nothing else. She used to be someone with a name out there, she used to be someone bigger than herself, she used to be someone, and now she can’t even stand the sight of her own novels from twenty years ago.
If only you were here. Sooyoung shoots the body on the bed a frustrated look. “If only you were here,” she says, aloud, though she had meant her voice to come out a bit more aggressive than the pathetic whisper it sounds like. “Stupid… idiot… I don’t always know what to do when you’re not around, alright…”
The words are familiar, and Sooyoung frowns as she wracks her head for when she might have said them. Had it… been during that night with Yoo Sangah? Most of the finer details from it have left her by now, leaving her with the more embarrassing memories like when she’d fallen asleep on her shoulder, so she can’t say for sure, but it sounds the most likely.
…Then… we just need to keep doing what we do best, huh?
Sooyoung sniffs, rubs her eyes with the back of her hand one more time, and stares down at her screen, the cursor blinking tauntingly up at her. Kim Dokja’s breathing is the same as always, and Sooyoung watches his chest rise and fall, rise and fall.
You don’t write anymore?
Her fingers twitch where they hover above the keyboard. Slowly, carefully, Sooyoung bends them into that familiar position, tense and ready, far from the lazy, effortless manner she types when she grades papers and leaves comments. “Kim Dokja,” she says, ignoring how after all this time the name still tastes familiar on her tongue, “I’m not breaking my promise, alright? This isn’t my next official novel. I just don’t want to get rusty when you finally come around so you don’t make fun of how my writing’s deteriorated since twenty years ago. So… So you better not break your promise either.”
Her only response is the beep of the machines, the patter of the rain. Sooyoung inhales, exhales, sets her hands on the keyboard.
The voice is just on this side of familiar to stir Sooyoung awake, until her brain processes the actual words and she shoots straight up from where she’d been laying her head on the desk. “What—What’d you just call me?”
Standing over her, Yoo Sangah blinks innocently. “Sooyoung-ssi?”
“…Oh. Right.” Sooyoung sighs and turns back to her laptop, trying to remember where she’d been when she conked out on the table. Her glasses are smudged from when they’d probably rubbed against her sleeves, and she pulls them off to absently wipe the lenses clean with the edge of her shirt.
“I didn’t mean to wake you up, but your neck will hurt if you rest like that.” Yoo Sangah lays a hand on her shoulder, her touch feather-light, a finger just barely brushing against her neck. Sooyoung swallows and angles her face away from the other girl, in a pitiful attempt to hide the growing warmth on her cheeks. “If you’re tired, the bed is right there.”
“Mmn. Whatever. There you go again being a neck specialist,” Sooyoung grumbles, sneaking a glance up when she hears the bell-chime of Yoo Sangah’s laugh. This time it’s neither the sun nor the moon lighting her face up, but the dim glow of Sooyoung’s laptop screen and the desk lamp just beside her, which is just ridiculous—how is it that even these weak sources of light are enough to make Yoo Sangah glow like a beacon in the darkness of Sooyoung’s room? “What’re you still doing here anyway? Thought I told you to get out…”
“Oh. I saw dirty dishes in your sink and thought I might as well,” Yoo Sangah says, leaning against the edge of the desk. “Then I noticed you hadn’t taken the trash out yet either, and it’s not a long walk, so I went ahead and did it… I cleared your fridge of some expired and rotten food, by the way. I’m starting to think you and your milk are the reason Seolhwa-ssi was grumbling about the hospital restroom for the whole day—”
“Shut up, what the hell!” Sooyoung shouts, jumping out of her chair. “Why me specifically!? Like the entire hospital couldn’t have been at fault for that? And the milk tastes fine, thanks! Why’d you throw it out? Now I need to go and buy a new one!”
Yoo Sangah gives her a disappointed look. “The milk had been expired for almost a year. Also, I already did.”
“You… what?” Realization dawns on Sooyoung in the next instant. “All those plastic bags you brought over? Seriously?”
“There’s some cereal too, and candy, and coffee beans, and—well, you’ll find out,” Yoo Sangah says, speaking like buying groceries for someone she doesn’t even live with is perfectly fine and normal. “It should be enough that you aren’t subsisting on one meal a day anymore. Don’t worry, you don’t have to pay me back,” she adds, her smile crooked and charming. “You’re busy with the novel, so I’ll be busy with taking care of you.”
“T… Th…” Sooyoung groans and turns away. “I do not understand how you can just say shit like that with a straight face.”
“Is it so strange?”
“Yes! You’re freaking me out!”
“Do you want me to stop?”
Sooyoung glares up at her. “Who do you think you’re fooling. As if you would even if I wanted you to,” she huffs; she’s only proven right when Yoo Sangah turns away to hide her smile behind her fist. “Okay, okay, enough, what is this, Making Fun of Han Sooyoung Day? Get out, go home, I’m not driving you to work tomorrow, damn it.”
She hadn’t really been thinking when she’d invited Yoo Sangah to have dinner at her place—it was a natural decision, really, the two of them left the hospital room and Sooyoung had walked her to the station when they found out Yoo Sangah’s usual subway was down for maintenance for the next few hours, but not late enough that Yoo Sangah would need to stay the night again. So, because she’s not a complete barbarian, Sooyoung had offered her to get takeout somewhere and have dinner at home, and Yoo Sangah had agreed. That was it! That was it.
Still, Sooyoung would know better than anyone what today is, and it isn’t Making Fun of Han Sooyoung Day. Is it so bad if she wants to have dinner with a friend on her birthday? It’s the first time in years she’s spending this day with someone she actually has a working relationship with, after all. Yoo Sangah’s probably forgotten that bit of information by now, too, so there’s no risk of being embarrassed about it either.
Unexpectedly enough, Yoo Sangah’s face lights up like she had just remembered something. “Right! Hold on. Stay right there, Sooyoung-ssi, don’t fall asleep just yet. I’ll be back in a second.”
“Uh, okay,” Sooyoung says, but Yoo Sangah is already hurrying out of the room and down the hallway, her footsteps eventually fading. Where is she even going in Sooyoung’s own house? It unnerves her that Yoo Sangah knows this place like the back of her hand by now, actually, but… Sooyoung will admit she doesn’t completely hate it. Much like how she doesn’t completely hate everything about Yoo Sangah.
…Who is she kidding? She sighs and props her chin up on the edge of her palm, scrolling up and down the document on her screen. She’s supposed to be wracking her brain for everything that had happened during the tenth scenario back then, but the only thing entering her mind at the moment is Lee Gilyoung’s little bastard voice: You know you’re whipped if you get sad over a water bottle. Much as she hates to admit it, the stupid kid might have had a point.
She can hear the faint rustling of plastic bags outside, but Sooyoung returns her focus to the words on-screen, doing her best to recall all the details about the Dark Castle. It was just right after the first time that idiot Kim Dokja had sacrificed himself… She bends her fingers over the keyboard, but winces at the twinge in the usual finger. It’s fine most of the time, but she’s been typing way more often these days, and she doesn’t have time to stop and ask Lee Seolhwa (who will probably just give her a lecture on self-care) for help again…
“Sooyoung-ssi?” Yoo Sangah pokes her head in the doorway, her eyes widening when she sees Sooyoung holding onto her own hand. Oh, no, is all Sooyoung gets to think before Yoo Sangah is rushing in, bending over her to take Sooyoung’s right hand in both of hers. “What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”
“I-I’m fine, it’s nothing serious,” Sooyoung mutters, trying and failing to tug her hand out of Yoo Sangah’s grip. “Just… you know, old ache. It’ll go away soon.”
Yoo Sangah frowns. “This just means you need to rest. Stop here for now, then get Seolhwa-ssi to look at this for you tomorrow as soon as she can. Honestly…” She sighs, not letting go of Sooyoung like Sooyoung had been expecting, but moving to stroke the joint in pain instead. It’s just the right amount of force and pressure to soothe the ache, and Sooyoung finds herself relaxing against her own volition. “This is why I don’t want to leave you alone.”
“Worried I’ll hurt myself?” Sooyoung says, dryly. There’s probably no point trying to hide the heat she can feel creeping up her neck, but—maybe it’s the late hour, or maybe it’s just the way Yoo Sangah is looking at her, but she can’t be bothered to hide anything about herself right now.
“Worried you’ll run yourself ragged and suffer from worse things than joint pain.” Yoo Sangah’s fingers brush against the rest of Sooyoung’s hand, both her gaze and touch gentler and kinder than Sooyoung deserves, before she shakes her head with a rueful smile and finally draws back. Sooyoung lets her hand drop back down to her lap, feeling oddly bereft. “Hold on. I got you something.”
Sooyoung frowns. “Something other than cereal, candy, and coffee?”
Yoo Sangah gives her a mysterious smile, then hurries out of the room once more just to pick something up off the floor outside in the hallway then return to Sooyoung’s side. In the relative darkness of the room, it’s not hard to recognize the light of a candle, but Sooyoung still has to shove her glasses back on to make sure she’s not hallucinating from overwork. “What… is that?”
“A cake.” Yoo Sangah tilts her head and smiles. “Well, not really… it’s a cupcake, the lemon-flavored one, from that bakery we went to the other day. I was going to buy a cake, but I figured your habits are unhealthy enough as is. I also, ah, wanted to bake one myself, but I tried and the result was a bit… anyway, that’s not important, but I remember you looked at this one for a while, so I thought you might like it. Happy birthday, Sooyoung-ssi.”
When the seconds threaten to stretch out into an entire minute, Yoo Sangah says, in a very small voice, “Er… I… did get the date right, didn’t I?”
Something feels stuck in Sooyoung’s throat. She opens her mouth, but she can’t find the words she needs to say—she looks down at Sangah’s hands, at the little cupcake with one little candle stuck on top, but she can’t understand a thing. The candle flame flickers, its gentle light caressing Sangah’s cheeks, reflected in her eyes. “Why?” she ends up asking, disgustingly vulnerable; she can feel her shoulders shaking, her breathing going out of rhythm, and she forces herself to calm down to the best of her wavering abilities. “Why would you… for me…”
Sangah is quiet for the longest time. She sets the cupcake on the desk, and Sooyoung has to resist the irrational urge to shove it to the floor. “I care about you, Sooyoung-ssi,” she says, reaching out to place one hand on her cheek, bending even further down to be eye-level with her. “Is it that hard to understand? I… Even if you don’t feel the same, I—”
“Huh? Wait.” That singlehandedly brings Sooyoung back to reality. “What do you mean I don’t feel the same?”
Sangah stares at her. “You told me as much.”
“I did not.”
“You did. I told you, ‘I really like you, Sooyoung-ssi,’” Sangah says, an uncharacteristic but utterly fascinating blush rising to her cheeks, “verbatim, twice, and you asked me if I was drunk. If that hadn’t been a clear rejection, then—”
“What!?” Sooyoung shrieks, nearly jumping out of her chair before realizing she’d crash heads with Sangah and barely holding herself back at the last second. She settles for making some garbled, unintelligible noises vaguely reminiscent of a dying animal before finally managing, “I—I thought that was just, you know, a-a general way of saying you… like me! Like, as a friend! A pal! A buddy!”
Sangah looks at her like Sooyoung is truly the least intelligent person she has ever met. “And if I said something like that to Hyunsung-ssi or Joonghyuk-ssi?”
“That’s not the point, you don’t like men!”
“Never mind.” Sangah leans in, and Sooyoung is suddenly, terribly reminded that they are, in fact, closer than two people should be. Sangah’s hand is on her cheek, for God’s sake—Sooyoung could move, could lean in, and they would… they would. “The point is—I like you. I care about you. It’s fine if you don’t feel the same. Like I said before, I… just don’t want you to push me away.” She worries on her bottom lip, then continues, her voice more unsure than Sooyoung’s ever heard her before: “When you told me you couldn’t stand the sight of me… I thought I could understand. These days I can’t stand my own reflection in the mirror either.”
“But—” you’re beautiful, Sooyoung bites back. I could waste days upon days just looking at you. “Why?”
Sangah’s smile is wry. “I don’t know. Does self-loathing need a specific reason? I could say it was because I felt useless, because I couldn’t do anything to help Dokja-ssi, because we had all drifted away from each other before we realized it and I felt—alone, again, alone in a way I had never felt before, but those are all just parts of a whole. And you…” She pauses, her fingers curving against the line of Sooyoung’s jaw. “I’m not quite sure when it started. But I knew at some point I learned to look at you and think there were still some things worth living for, if not for myself.”
“You…” Sooyoung swallows again, her mouth so dry and her throat so clogged, the action physically hurts. “This is…”
When it becomes evident she can’t find the words to say, Sangah speaks again, her voice almost too low to make out despite the lack of distance between them. “I like to think we both saw each other at our worst during the scenarios,” she murmurs. “After I… was absorbed into the Fourth Wall, I missed you terribly. I wanted to tell you I was still alive, just waiting for the right time, but you were always too far away to hear me. I felt exactly the same while we were avoiding each other. Life is… so short, Sooyoung-ssi,” she whispers. “Transient. Temporary. I don’t ever want to be that far away from you again.”
Seconds tick by once more, silence hanging between them. Eventually Sangah draws back, her hand falling away from Sooyoung’s cheek, heavy as a teardrop. “That’s all,” she says, voice soft and threatening to tremble. “I just wanted to tell you all that, now that you’re not drowning in alcohol, I suppose… anyway, happy birthday again. I’ll get going n—”
Sooyoung grabs her arm, pulls her close, and kisses her hard.
Let it be known that Sooyoung is not a great kisser. In fact, considering her experiences through the ages, she is probably an absolutely terrible kisser, and even worse when she tries to do literally anything else other than mash her mouth against someone else’s. But Sooyoung is also nothing but a fast learner, and after all the shitty romance webnovels she’s had to read just for the sake of instructing her students not to fall into the same traps those failed authors did, she likes to think she’d done something right at the sharp intake of breath Sangah makes, and then the small, contented sigh right afterwards when Sooyoung lets her other hand tangle in Sangah’s long, soft hair. “Sooyoung—wait,” she gasps out, drawing back just enough to speak. “What—What are you…?”
“What am I doing? Do you have to ask?” Sooyoung says, although what little bite might have been in her voice is effectively drowned out by how dazed she sounds and probably looks. Had she just kissed Yoo Sangah? Yoo Sangah? On what level of delusional had she been to do that just now?
“Y-You…” Sangah reaches up to touch her lips with her fingers like a blushing virgin, before she seems to realize as much and hurriedly puts her arm down. There’s no hiding the ‘blushing’ part, though. “But I thought you didn’t…”
“Fine, I’ll admit it, I was stupid, I was an idiot, I was a stupid idiot, I didn’t know you meant you liked me, like, for real,” Sooyoung says, all in one breath, well aware she’s making little to no sense right now but too energized by that kiss to particularly care, “but I do, I mean, I—I feel the same, so, so can we just do that again already please.”
“N-No, hold on a moment,” Sangah protests, backing away when Sooyoung tries to lean in again. “Are you sure? I thought—this is all so—”
“I like you!” Sooyoung ends up blurting out. Embarrassment has her squeezing her eyes shut and turning away, but not before she’d caught the glimpse of Sangah’s cheeks flushing bright red. “I really like you, Yoo Sangah! Okay!? I… Don’t expect me to give you a long heartfelt speech, I’m a writer, not a—a talker,” she says, lamely, opening her eyes just to stare at the edge of the desk. She can’t avoid the faint glow of the candlelight, though, and something in her chest aches at the sight of it. “But I do. Just… you get it, right? Things are easier when they’re familiar. So—So I thought it would be easier if I could just… pretend we still hated each other.”
It’s quiet, and just as Sooyoung begins to let her hand drop from where it had still been in Sangah’s hair, Sangah moves back in, her breath brushing against Sooyoung’s forehead from how close they are again. “But we don’t,” she says, voice soft as the flicker of a fire. “Do we?”
Sooyoung swallows, lowers her gaze—but, really, what exactly does she have left to hide by now? She angles her head up to face Sangah and meet honey-brown eyes, and for a moment Sooyoung feels thirteen years old again, young and hopeful and watching that dancing flame brighten up the darkness around it. She could make a wish on those eyes, to never have to blow out the light within them. “No,” she says, for once the smile on her face mirroring the one that blooms on Sangah’s. “We don’t.”
Sangah leans in first this time, and she initiates the kiss a lot gentler than Sooyoung had earlier, which really just has Sooyoung feeling more embarrassed than she already is, but what’s new. Now that she isn’t running on a mix of shock and adrenaline and her thoughts are actually flowing at a semi-decent speed, Sooyoung has no idea what to do; she’s really only kissed a handful of people before, and she hadn’t exactly done so well, so she ends up freezing in place, letting Sangah take the lead. And Sangah does exactly that; she tilts her head just so, sliding their lips together, one hand returning to cup Sooyoung’s cheek while her other one intertwines their fingers together, so tender Sooyoung’s heart aches. This close Sooyoung can smell her shampoo again, the faint fragrance of almond, and she breathes in as much of it as she can.
“Are you alright?” Sangah asks, drawing back just enough to speak almost directly against her lips. Sooyoung blinks, more than a little out of sorts, and she doubts it’s from the lack of oxygen. “You’re not moving, Sooyoung-ssi.”
“Maybe when you stop calling me that,” Sooyoung huffs, draping her arms around Sangah’s neck to tug her closer. Her mouth misses its mark and she ends up kissing the corner of Sangah’s lips, which is just so embarrassingly on-brand for her that she can’t even bring herself to be ashamed of it anymore.
Sangah fails at stifling a disgustingly adorable giggle but turns her head ever-so-slightly to the side to press their lips together for a proper kiss anyway. “Wait, wait,” she says, pushing Sooyoung back when Sooyoung tries to lean further in, “before that—your cake—”
“My what?” Sooyoung says, stupidly, then remembers. “Oh, right, the—it’s a cupcake, really.”
“It’s the thought that matters,” Sangah insists. She detaches herself from Sooyoung with what looks like an incredible amount of effort, then holds the cupcake right before Sooyoung. The candle flame glows, a gentle thing in the dark room. “Here. Make a wish first,” Sangah says, her expression softening at the last few words.
Sooyoung watches the ember flicker contemplatively. Some fifteen or so years ago she had watched the exact same thing, lemon flavor and all, but she had been alone, then, even smaller than she is now. In the years that followed she did not celebrate her birthday again—it was something about how everyone else in class would laugh and smile with their friends while she had been happy with one tiny cupcake she had bought by herself, and the memory of that event had humiliated her that she simply refused to think about it any longer. In the years that followed it grew easier, to pretend she didn’t need anyone, to pretend she was fine on her own, to pretend hate and scorn was something easier than everything else in the spectrum of human emotions. And it had worked, for a while.
Yeah. For a while.
Once again, Sooyoung is not a complete idiot—she’s been through far too much by now to still be as young and stupid as she was a handful of years ago. Before she genuinely couldn’t stand even being in the same room as Yoo Sangah, because just looking at her made her feel rage like nothing else; now she looks down at her hands, at the finger that had begun to twinge in pain after Yoo Sangah had died, and wonders if she had ever hated the other woman at all. She doubts the feeling is mutual—Sooyoung had not held back on the scathing insults for the past several years, and Sangah hadn’t bothered hiding the disdain on her face every time they spoke either—but really, what had Yoo Sangah done to Sooyoung to deserve the hate she got?
Maybe it hadn’t been Yoo Sangah Sooyoung had hated—no, maybe she had just hated herself all along, both for what little she had and for all the things she didn’t. And Yoo Sangah happened to be herself: she was kind and beautiful and perfect, everything Sooyoung could only dream of truly being, and when standing next to her made Sooyoung feel like second-best was as good as she could get, it was only too convenient to hate her, to push everything Sooyoung detested about herself onto someone else and loathe her shortcomings from a safe distance.
She closes her eyes. It had been unfair, for both of them but especially to Sangah. Sooyoung had already apologized once, and it had been painful enough reliving the memory the morning after that mess of a night, so she isn’t keen on doing it a second time, but…
“Sooyoung-ssi?” Sangah calls, sounding a mix of confused and concerned. “Are you there?”
Sooyoung inhales, exhales, opens her eyes. “Yeah. I’m here.” She gives Sangah a critical look in the next second. “Hey, didn’t I tell you to quit calling me that?”
Sangah sighs. It does nothing to hide the smile on her face, and for a moment Sooyoung feels thirteen years old again, lonely and reckless and looking up at the bakery employee, flour on their nose, their smile the kindest anyone has ever smiled at her. “Sooyoung-ah, then,” she indulges. Sooyoung had not quite been prepared for the way her heart leaps into her throat at both the change in honorific and the warm fondness just about dripping off Sangah’s voice. When had anyone ever called Sooyoung’s name and sounded that endeared? “Made a wish yet?”
Sooyoung gives the candle one last look. Dozens of wishes cross her mind—for their plan to work, for Kim Dokja to wake up, for Yoo Joonghyuk to come back safely, for Lee Jihye to pass her upcoming exams, for Lee Seolhwa’s hospital to flourish, for the kids to grow up better than how she turned out, for Sangah to be here again for the next year and the next and the next—but in the end, she settles for blowing the fire out in one swift breath. “Nope.”
“Eh? Why not?” Sangah sounds comically devastated.
“Don’t need to.” Sooyoung takes the cupcake from her and sets it back on the desk, making sure it’s not too close to the edge to be in danger of falling off, then pulls Sangah closer again. She vastly miscalculates the strength she’d needed and how Sangah hadn’t been paying attention, though—probably still preoccupied with Sooyoung blatantly disregarding birthday etiquette or whatever—because with a little yelp, Sangah stumbles onto the chair, her knees on either side of Sooyoung’s thighs and her hands grabbing onto Sooyoung’s shoulders for balance.
Sangah blinks, looking adorably flustered for once, before she hurries to school her face into something close to composed. Sooyoung tries not to be too disappointed—at least she’d gotten a glimpse of a ruffled Yoo Sangah. “You don’t need to?” she repeats, then laughs softly under her breath. It’s cramped on the chair, but Sangah makes no move to step away. “Are you going to say something cliché, Miss Beautiful Genius Girl Author, about how you have everything you need?”
“Oh, shut up,” Sooyoung says, tangling her hands in Sangah’s hair to pull her close again. For all her teasing Sangah doesn’t pull away, her eyes brighter than any candlelight.
At thirteen years old Sooyoung snuck out of the house, bought herself her own birthday cupcake, and made a wish to celebrate this day with someone next year. Thinking logically, it had taken some fifteen years to come true—if all birthday wishes take that long to happen, Sooyoung would rather just bet on her luck.