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They’ve got three minutes left, and Sae-byeok has her hands fisted in Ji-yeong’s jacket. She feels stripped open, raw and exposed and aching at the pain of it all.

This isn’t fair.

Ji-yeong’s got tears glinting in her eyes but she’s still smiling, and Sae-byeok hates her for dropping her marble, hates her for making Sae-byeok care about her, hates her for choosing to value Sae-byeok’s life above her own, as if that’s something anyone has ever done before.

Sae-byeok inhales, squeezing her eyes shut, and when she opens them, she accidentally catches sight of the soldier standing at the end of the alley. He’s not moving closer.

“Wait,” she says. “Wait, wait. The marbles—let’s swap them. I’ll take yours, you take mine. We don’t have to pick a winner, okay?”

Ji-yeong falters in place, eyes darting quickly between Sae-byeok and the marble on the ground and the soldier with the gun. “There’s no point,” she says, uncertain. “Just take mine and get out of here, okay?” Sae-byeok shakes her head emphatically, stepping backwards and dragging the other girl with her.

“Take it,” she demands, pointing Ji-yeong towards her thrown marble, and after a moment of hesitation she does so. In the meantime, Sae-byeok picks up the closer marble and tips out the rest from her bag onto the ground. Ji-yeong returns quickly, aware of the timeframe they’re facing, and quickly mimics what Sae-byeok’s done to her pile.

They stare at the marbles: two piles for two girls. One bullet, still unused, stands above them.  

“On the count of three, we grab the opposite pile,” Sae-byeok instructs. “We have to do it at the same time—there can’t be a winner, because it has to be a swap, not a competition. Got it?”

Ji-Yeong nods after another uncertain second. “Okay,” she agrees, and waits for Sae-byeok to count down: one, two, three. In tandem, their hands dart out and gather the marbles close, scooping them up into their fingers and breathing a little harshly at how much adrenaline is coursing through them.

Ji-yeong is the first to look up, and she’s smiling. It makes Sae-byeok’s heart squeeze, as though in victory, but first she hops up to her feet and presents her cupped palms to the soldier. “We’ve ended up with our partner’s marbles,” she announces, daring him to object, but he nods easily and jerks his head to the side, towards the exit.

“We did it,” Ji-Yeong says, voice awed. “Oh, you’re a clever one. You saved my life. You saved us!”

Sae-byeok can’t help but smile, feeling brilliant and fierce for just a second instead of worn down, but then she remembers what just happened and scowls. “Don’t do that again,” she says fiercely. “We’re partners now, okay? We play together.”

Ji-Yeong looks up at her, and there’s something complicated in the way her brows furrow, before her expression softens. She’s got expressive eyes. “We’ll play together,” she agrees. “Come on, he’s leading us out—next stop, Jeju island?”

Sae-byeok was intending to keep frowning, but she finds herself laughing for what might be the first time since she entered the squid game. “Jeju island,” she repeats, and it sounds like a promise without her intending to make it one.

When they get back to the dorm, Sangwoo goes pale at the sight of the two of them. His jaw clicks visibly, and he turns away from them, sitting down on the floor with his arm curled around his knees.

“Ali is gone,” says Ji-yeong softly. Sae-byeok nods jerkily, chest feeling tight, blood running cold in her veins—she was sure that what had taken her twenty-seven minutes to realise would have taken Sangwoo only ten.

Gi-hun always says Sangwoo is meant to be the smartest of them all, and up until this point he hadn’t disporved the claim—if Sae-byeok were a kinder person she’d never even consider Sangwoo’s survival to be a deliberate choice on his part, but she wasn’t lying when she told Gi-hun that she doesn’t trust people. He must have known. Or even if he didn’t, Sae-byeok knows that he would have fought harder to win than Ali, who had a good heart and a kind soul.

Ji-Yeong shifts a tiny bit closer to Sae-byeok, and they sink down to the floor—facing the door, and angled a little bit away from Sangwoo. People trickle in, some triumphant, some numb. Nobody says much.

Sae-byeok thinks about Ji-Yeong being greeted with this game of unbeatable odds straight out of prison and wants to scream. Safety does not exist, for them. Only prisons of various kinds.

Gi-Hun is one of the last through the door. His face is wet, and he stumbles over towards the remainders of their group as though in a daze.

“The old man—” he says, and then breaks off.

Nobody reaches out to him, but Sae-byeok almost wants to.

“Yes,” says Sangwoo, after a moment of silence. Sae-byeok’s not sure what he’s trying to do—comfort Gi-hun, or dimiss him?

“Oh—and Ali—” Gi-Hun stammers, and Sangwoo’s expression turns harsh and unfriendly. He faces away from his old friend deliberately, and Gi-hun flounders in the wake of it. Then he seems to register exactly how many of them made it out, and his eyes go wide. “Oh—you both made it out? How?”

“We traded our marbles,” Sae-byeok tells him, keeping her voice quiet. She doesn’t know what she feels about Gi-hun. He’s never hurt her, even though she stole money from him—all bark, no bite. He cared for the old man, and he was kind to her and Ali. He didn’t seem to agree with Sangwoo’s “boys only” rules. Sae-byeok doesn’t know how he’ll survive the next two games.

Oh,” he breathes, “Oh—I didn’t think—oh.”

Ji-Yeong’s lips quirk, but she looks away. Sae-byeok can see her holding back a biting comment, knowing that Sangwoo is the only one in their group who resents their dual survival, and lashing out at Gi-hun is pointless and almost cruel.

Across the room, Jang Deok-Su snarls to his restless gang that his ex-partner was a filthy rat. Sae-byeok thinks of the rat that had run over her arms in the vent and has to fight the urge to shudder.

That night, Sae-byeok sits watch with Gi-Hun again. Still thinking about her earlier conversation with Ji-Yeong, Sae-byeok asks what he would do with the prize money, and he shrugs. He tells her he wants to buy his mother a shop and be a father to his daughter. She’s ten years old.

“Ten years old,” Sae-byeok echoes. “That’s how old my brother is.”

Gi-Hun tilts his head towards her and smiles. He’s got a kind face, weathered by age but still soft. Sae-byeok almost asks him to promise her that he’d watch out for Cheol if he won and she didn’t, but no—it’s too early for that. They’re both here for family, though, and that endears him further to her against her will.

Instead of making him swear to look out for Cheol if she dies, they talk about their city and what their dreams are—anything that doesn’t address the horror of what they’ve all gone through over the past few days. When she closes her eyes, she can see a dozen heads bursting apart. She wonders what he sees.  

In a moment of silence, Sae-byeok glances over at the supposedly sleeping Ji-yeong, and their eyes meet. Ji-yeong lifts her lips into a half-smile, and lifts up her fingers one by one in a wave. Her hair is splayed over the arm curled under her head, and when she decides Sae-byeok’s been staring vacantly for too long, she widens her eyes comically and sticks out her tongue.

I want to live, thinks Sae-byeok. I want her to live.   

“Hey,” she says to Gi-Hun. “Get some rest. I’ll keep watch by myself for an hour before waking up Sangwoo.”

Gi-Hun’s brow furrows. “Are you sure?”

“Mm. Besides,” she says, gesturing around them, “Nobody is awake. Nobody will attack us tonight. Get some sleep.”

Gi-Hun smiles at her, eyes crinkling, and nods. He brushes a hand over her head as he stands, and she bats at him irritably but the movement makes her whole chest ache. Nobody has touched her like that since her father died. “Hey, Gi-hun,” she says abruptly, and waits for him to face her. “Be careful around Sangwoo.”

The man’s brow furrows, and then looks between Sangwoo and her in confusion, but she won’t say anything more.

Hopefully that’s enough to plant the seed of distrust that will keep him alive even after Sangwoo decides to eliminate him, just like he must have decided to eliminate Ali. These are all games that Sangwoo knows how to play better than Gi-hun, who has yet to show a truly malicious bone in his body.

In the morning, the mourning husband has killed himself in the bed next to Sae-byeok’s.

She stares at his limp body, and watches him lowered into his coffin.

This is a trap, she thinks to herself, this is all a trap, we are going to die here, and it’s not new information but it just makes her angry now, determined in a different way.

She wants to escape, not to win. There is no winning. That man won a game and killed his wife—Sangwoo delivers his speech and it does nothing but solidify her conviction. They are a fox gnawing at its own leg to escape a foxtrap, not knowing that the barrel of a gun waits behind it.

 “I’m going to ask to go to the bathroom,” Sae-byeok whispers to Ji-yeong, who had appeared at her side the second that the masked men arrived at the door, voice so soft she can barely hear herself. “Wait five minutes, then follow.”

Before the masked men leave the room with the dead man’s coffin, Sae-byeok waves one of them down and announces that she’s bleeding through her pants. He makes no noise, but nods and leads her towards the bathroom.

Once inside, Sae-byeok spends a few seconds staring at her reflection and pacing across the tile. What she’s thinking of is impossible, and reckless, and makes the entire competition pointless—but she can’t stop thinking of it.

When she closes her eyes, now she sees the man swinging from his bedsheets.

Ji-yeong slips inside the bathroom, hands in her pockets, and says, “What’s up?”

Sae-byeok grabs her hand and pulls her towards the bathroom stall she’d used to spy on the masked men making dalgona. “There are vents above the stalls,” she says, keeping her voice low. “I’ve been in them, and there was a rat that crawled over me—you said you don’t have anything to go back to out there, Ji-yeong, but I do, and I want to get back to it. Come with me. If a rat can find its way in, we can find our way out.”

Ji-yeong blinks at her. Her lashes are long, and her eyes are bright. “We’d be giving up the money,” she points out.

“I know,” says Sae-byeok, and takes a breath to keep her control, feeling on the verge of fraying apart. “I know. But we’ll die here. I’d rather take my chances out there.”

Ji-yeong tilts her head. They had been standing shoulder-to-shoulder, looking up at the vent, but somehow they’ve pivoted to be chest-to-chest instead. Their faces are very close. “Will you take me to Jeju island, if we get out?”

Sae-byeok feels like laughing, and feels like crying. “Sure,” she says. “Girls’ trip, right?”

Ji-Yeong pulls a face. “Alright.” She steps even closer, her hands finding the divots of Sae-byeok’s hips even through their bulky jackets. “It’s a date.”

There’s not enough air in the stall for Sae-byeok to breathe. There’s not enough space in her lungs, which are filled up to the brim with sudden longing—longing to get out, to be free, to squeeze Ji-Yeong in her arms and bury her face in the other girl’s neck. “Our Jeju island date,” she agrees. The words make her cheeks flush. “You’ll come with me?”

Ji-Yeong’s face splits into a wide smile. “Didn’t I show you earlier that I’d give up my life for you?”

Stop it,” Sae-byeok demands. “Don’t say that. I don’t want you to give up your life. I want—” she breaks off and takes a breath. “I want you to come with me, and I want us to get out of here. They’re never going to let more than one person win the game, and I don’t want to die. I can’t. I have too much waiting for me to waste my life on this stupid game, and you—you have too much life you haven’t lived.”

“Jeju island,” Ji-yeong whispers, in a sing-song voice. “Mojitos on the beach—we’re coming for you.”

It’s too much. Sae-byeok lifts her hands to cradle Ji-yeong’s face, and leans forward to press their foreheads together, hard enough to bruise, close enough that she can feel the shorter girl’s breath on her skin.

She is so beautiful, and she has had her whole life stolen from her, and when asked to dream she decided to include Sae-byeok. It makes Sae-byeok want to scream, want to cry, want to melt.

“Let’s get out of here,” she says, before her heart can burst out of her chest in a gory, weeping mess.

They move quickly to get Ji-Yeong lifted onto Sae-Byeok’s back, where she unscrews the vent, then slips up into and uses her arms to pull Sae-byeok along with her.

The vents are as small and cold as Sae-byeok remembered. “Where now?” Ji-yeong’s voice echoes throughout the steel even when she whispers.

“I went this way to see the kitchen,” Sae-Byeok whispers. “The rat came over my legs—let’s go the opposite direction.” They’re taking a risk, but this whole game was a risk and the chances of winning it have grown too slim to justify.

They crawl on elbows and knees, moving as fast as they can, only pausing when they hear footsteps thundering underneath them. Sae-byeok’s heart pounds in her ears and her terror is so thick that she can taste it like iron in her tongue, but she needs this to work. For Cheol, for Ji-yeong, she needs this to work.

Eventually, the vent drops off into an edge. They follow it, and emerge into stairs that lead down into darkness. Following the path brings them to a room with diving gear—they strap each other into oxygen tanks and masks with trembling fingers, and strip out of all of their outer clothes before plunging into the ocean.

Ji-yeong is not a strong swimmer, and Sae-byeok has to wrap her fingers around the other girl’s wrist to tug her along as they leave the island further and further behind them. Underwater, sound travels, and Sae-byeok can hear what she guesses are boat engines. Their tanks will last them—they keep swimming, and do not breach the waves even once until they’ve kicked their way onto land.

“God,” Ji-Yeong pants, lying bonelessly on the sand, “I can’t go further—I can’t—”

“We have to,” says Sae-byeok. “We have to. Keep your equipment on—they can’t know we were here. We can do this.”

“Go on without me, Kang Sae-byeok, it’s okay. I can’t go further, go on without me—”

No.” She drags Ji-yeong up onto her feet, every muscle screaming, tired beyond description, but even more determined to steal their freedom back.

Sae-byeok is a thief. She is good at stealing things. She can do this. She needs to do this.   

It takes a day and a half of sheltering on the island, bodies pressed against each other and hardly daring to breathe when they hear masked men landing on the island before leaving after a fruitless search, but a fishing boat appears on the horizon and they manage to wave it down.

They spent the time curled together, silent, and yet Sae-byeok almost feels that she has never known anyone better. Every time one of them jumped at some distant sound, the other was there to soothe them, fingers interlaced, eyelashes caressing cheeks.

Ji-yeong cries and begs and explains to the fisherman that they’d gotten lost, that their boyfriends must be worried sick by now, and the fisherman lets them catch a ride with him to the mainland.

“These waters are dangerous,” he says sternly. “People go missing here all the time. Some people say it is a cursed place.”

He does not mention the island. They do not speak of it. All the things that go unsaid make Sae-byeok’s heart pound, and she keeps her hands buried in her jacket pockets to hide how they’re fisted. Ji-yeong slips her arm through Sae-byeok’s and rests her cheek on her shoulder.

The fisherman drops them off at the closest dock and says to stay on the boat so he can call the police for them to find their boyfriends. Ji-Yeong thanks him, and they wait until he’s out of eyesight before jumping overboard and rushing off, holding hands tightly and keeping their faces turned towards the ground.

Most people still cannot be trusted, not matter how accommodating they appear to be. there are exceptions, though, and Ji-yeong is one of them.

The place that Sae-byeok lives is rundown and unsafe, but she has never been so glad to see it. Ji-yeong stands in the middle of the single room and spins with her arms spread wide. The sight of it makes something catch in Sae-byeok’s throat. “We made it,” she says, as though in disbelief.

Sae-byeok shrugs off her jacket slowly, body aching, and cannot tear her eyes away from the other girl. Ji-yeong quirks her head to one side and steps closer, one foot at a time. She’s smiling again. “We made it,” she repeats, and reaches up with her hands to cradle Sae-byeok’s face. When she tugs at it, Sae-byeok goes easily, and their foreheads meet in the middle.  

Sae-byeok closes her eyes, and exhales. Ji-Yeong’s skin is warm against her own, and her fingers are gentle.

“We made it.”

For the first three days, they only leave the apartment to steal some food from the market, and they keep their faces covered when doing so.

Sae-byeok is the thief, so she’s responsible for getting them food. When she comes home, Ji-Yeong has decorated the apartment by displaying origami flowers on half the surfaces.

She’s found paper and folded them all herself, all different kinds, and strung them up against the walls.

“Until we get to Jeju island, these will have to do,” Ji-Yeong says, satisfied, and Sae-byeok strides across the room to gently touch the sides of her neck, leaning forward, their bodies easily making way for each other.

“They’re perfect,” she says, and means more than that.  

Ji-yeong is the one to close the distance between them, reaching up on her toes and touching their lips together. It feels like Sae-byeok’s heart only kicks into gear once they kiss—like all the softness she’s worked so hard to bury suddenly overflows and seeps into the room around them, kept safe by the flowers on the wall.

That night they sit on the ground, snacking on Sae-byeok’s market haul, surrounded by origami petals, and plan for the future. First, they will need to figure out how safe they are, which will depend on whether or not the squid game is finished.

Ji-Yeong sits with her back to Sae-byeok’s chest and suggests they go to Gi-hun’s neighbourhood to ask his mother if he has returned. If the timeline in the game has continued the way it had been, then the game should be over by now—either Gi-hun will have made it home, or he will not.

If they manage to confirm that the game is over, they’ll grab Cheol and start afresh. Ji-Yeong flips through the newspaper and complains at the lack of job advertisements, holding them up so Sae-byeok can read over her shoulder.

If the game is still being played—if anyone from the game finds them—they’ll run. They’ll run anywhere, so long as it’s away from Korea and away from the squid game.

Later, lying on the ground on her single bedroll, Sae-Byeok stares at the ceiling and tries not to think about everything that could go so easily wrong. Ji-yeong has her face nestled against Sae-Byeok’s chest, her arm wound around Sae-byeok’s waist, and she shifts closer in her sleep. Sae-byeok shuts her eyes and hopes, desperately, that the game is over. More desperately, she hopes that Gi-hun somehow survived, despite all the odds. He tried to protect her sometimes, in the game—she doesn’t want to think about how she turned her back on him, no matter how little they knew each other.

“Go to sleep,” Ji-yeong whispers, pressing a sloppy kiss to Sae-byeok’s shoulder. “Hey. Sae-byeok. Go to sleep, hm?”

Sae-byeok turns on her side, drapes her arms around Ji-yeong to pull her closer, and does her very best to listen.

It doesn’t take long to find the place that Gi-hun and his mother live. He announced it to most people he met, after all, and Sae-byeok knows the area. A white-haired woman with manning a fish stall points them in the right direction, and Ji-yeong hums the whole walk over.

“What do we do if nobody answers?”

Ji-yeong shrugs, and sways in place. “Break in?”

Sae-byeok huffs out a laugh, and knocks before she can think better of it. Nothing happens, so she knocks again, long and harder this time. Distantly, they can hear movement inside the apartment, but nobody comes to the door.

Sae-byeok takes a breath and steels herself, and then says, “Gi-hun? Are you there?”

Silence. She knew it was a long shot that he’d get away from the game alive, but her heart sinks anyway.

“I think this is our sign to break and enter,” Ji-yeong announces, trying to bolster her spirits, and the door swings abruptly open.

Gi-hun stares at them, mouth dropped open, face so pale it’s white as paper. A trembling hand comes up to cover his mouth. “O-oh,” he stammers, “I don’t—I—I don’t understand, you’re alive? Player 67? You’re alive?”

Hi,” Ji-yeong says pointedly, surly.

Gi-hun stares at her blankly.

“We escaped,” Sae-byeok tells him, keeping her voice down. “Did—did you escape too?”

Gi-hun doesn’t move, and then suddenly lunges forward—Sae-byeok stumbles backwards, but not fast enough, and Gi-hun’s arms encircle her whole body as he clutches her into a rough hug. Her hands hover above his back uncertainly, and she makes eye contact with Ji-yeong, who widens her eyes comically.

“I thought you were dead,” Gi-hun tells her shakily, “we thought you were both dead—come inside—I don’t know if they’re watching—I can’t believe this.” Inside the apartment, he brings his shaky hands up towards them and then back to cover his mouth.

“I’m sorry we didn’t take you with us,” says Sae-byeok, at a loss for words.

“No, no,” says Gi-hun. His voice is distant. “I can’t believe you made it out. I can’t… Chan Sangwoo is—dead. They’re all dead.” He shrugs, helpless. “I’m all that’s left.”

Ji-yeong says, “You won?”

He shakes his head. “I’m all that’s left. Everyone is dead, everyone is gone.”

“I’m sorry,” says Sae-byeok, although it’s not quite true. Sae-byeok is not sorry Sangwoo is dead, because she knows men like him—he stole money from his clients, he was a misogynist— but she knows also that the games were an illusion of choice and they pushed most people into doing things they might not have done otherwise. He got Ali killed, but he also figured out how to free everyone after the first game.

Nobody is perfect. In the games, barely anyone could be good at all.

“I came home,” says Gi-hun, gesturing around himself, “for my mother. She was sick. But she’s—she. She’s dead.” He clears his throat roughly, and swipes a hand over his face. “I got the money.”

“Oh,” Sae-byeok gasps.

“What’ll you do with it?” Ji-yeong asks, curious, and Gi-hun just keeps shaking his head.

“I wanted to look after my mom,” he says. “I don’t know.”

“Hey,” says Sae-byeok, stepping a little closer to him, reaching out to grab his sleeve despite how nervous it makes her to do so. “Your daughter. She needs you, right?”

“She has her mother,” Gi-hun says. “Her stepfather is moving them to America. I don’t know what to do.” For the first time since stepping inside his home, they see his eyes clear a little. “What about you? You got away, but—are you safe?”

Sae-byeok glances over at Ji-yeong, and their eyes meet. Ji-yeong shrugs carelessly. “I need to get my brother,” Sae-byeok says. “And I need to find a way to look for my mother, and get her across the border.”

“And we’re going to visit Jeju island,” adds Ji-yeong, and when they both turn to look at her, she lifts both eyebrows and smiles cheerfully. Everything she does is a declaration. The things that Sae-byeok feels for her are too big to name.

Gi-hun nods. He takes them in, baggy-clothed and gaunt, still half in the shadows, clinging to their lives and their freedom by the skin of their fingers. They’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder, and Sae-byeok’s still got blood behind her ears. The games were a nightmare, and none of them have woken up entirely.

“Let me help,” he says. “Please. That money—it’s yours, too. I don’t want it, it’s blood money. Let me help.”

When they pick up Cheol from the children’s shelter, he runs to Sae-byeok as soon as he spots her and crashes into her legs. She stumbles backwards, laughing, feeling like something stuck in her chest has finally been dislodged.

Once she’s hugged him back, he stays attached to her legs, peering shyly at Ji-yeong and Gi-hun. “Who are they?”

“These are my friends,” says Sae-byeok, and Cheol’s eyes widen in surprise. “Ji-yeong,” who waves, “and Gi-hun. We’re roommates. You can leave this place now, Cheol. We’re here to take you with us.”

He gasps, and swivels to stare up at her. “Really?”

“Really,” Sae-byeok confirms. “I’ve already got a school picked out for you—it’s got uniforms and everything.” She kneels down to his level. “I told you things would get better, right? Things are getting better. I keep my promises. Let’s get out of here, hm?”

Cheol nods so hard his hair flops over his face, beaming from ear to ear, and Sae-byeok presses a kiss to forehead, wondering at the many turns her life has taken in the past week.  

The sun is warm on Jeju island.

The sand is warm, too, even through the towel Sae-byeok is lying on top of. It’s soft and green, and Ji-yeong picked it out for her.

Ji-yeong likes to pick out all sorts of things for them in their house: the curtains and the bedsheets and the wall colours. It’s partly because she’s been able to make so few choices in her life, and it’s partly because she just likes to pick bright colours that Sae-byeok would never have selected on her own.

She’s lying down beside her now, too, one arm thrown lazily over her eyes, the other hand all tangled up with Sae-byeok’s. Her thumb is rubbing circles into Sae-byeok’s skin, and feeling a gaze upon her, she turns her head to the side. “Mm?”

“Nothing,” says Sae-byeok, smiling back, propping herself up on one elbow to reach over and kiss Ji-yeong’s lips. They taste like strawberry lipgloss. Every day that they spend together is one that Sae-byeok cherishes.

The sound of sand crunching draws Sae-byeok’s attention reluctantly away, and she lifts a hand to shield her eyes from the sun—Gi-hun’s headed over to them, and he smiles widely when he sees her looking. She raises a hand in greeting, and he nearly returns it before remembering what he’s carrying. The tray of drinks wobbles in his arms.

As he comes closer, he calls out, “Sae-byeok! Ji-yeong! Look what I’ve brought you!”

Ji-yeong, having returned to the hiding under the shade of her arm, pulls a face at his exuberance. Sae-byeok reaches over and nudges at Ji-yeong’s shoulder with her nose. “You’ll want to see this,” she murmurs against the other girl’s skin. “He’s brought us a gift.”

Ji-Yeong peeks out from under her arm, curiosity piqued, and immediately gasps excitedly. “Oh yes,” she crows, sitting upright, “finally! What took you so long?”

Gi-hun, tumbling gracelessly to the sand, makes an offended noise. “Maybe if you hadn’t already used up half their ingredients when we were here yesterday— hey!”

Ji-Yeong’s hand has darted out to snatch up one of the glasses he’d carried over. “Ah, you know we’re grateful,” she tells him, grinning, twirling her straw around the glass rim. “Moving your old self all the way to the bar for a couple of mojitos. We appreciate your hard work.”

Sae-byeok laughs and reaches out for her own drink, which Gi-hun passes over easily despite whatever nonsense he’s now spouting at Ji-Yeong, who rolls her eyes at him and slurps obnoxiously through her straw.

“Cheol! Ga Yeong! Lunch!”

The kids look up from the shoreline, where they’d been building a sandcastle, and Sae-byeok waves at them.

Gi-hun reaches for their lunch basket, opening it up and pulling out their pre-packed food; chicken and rice and fruit of all kinds, something for everyone—in preparation for the two kids running towards them, sand flying everywhere, their giggling so loud that Sae-byeok can hear it already.

“It’s good that they get along so well,” says Gi-hun, glancing over at Sae-byeok. He’s got such a kind face, thinks Sae-byeok, not for the first time. Soft eyes and a good heart—he won the squid game but he never killed anyone with his own hands, and now that he’s got all that money he barely even touches it.

He flies his daughter out for the summertime to take her on holiday, and he pays for the two big houses side-by-side where they live, Ji-yeong and Sae-byeok with Cheol in one, and himself in the other. (Sangwoo’s mother lives in a new apartment too, financed by Gi-hun even if she doesn’t know it exactly.)

He’s paid off their debts; they’re free. Sangwoo's mother is cared for, and Ali's family has more money than they could ever use. Other than those expenditures, Gi-hun doesn’t much use his prize money. His hair is longer than it used to be, and his face less clean-shaven, but he’s not unkempt. The games were hard for him, hard for all of them, and he has as many bad days as good ones.

On the bad days, he will stay inside his room and not leave it, or he will wander outside and not come home for weeks at a time. Sae-byeok usually tracks him down and sits beside him until he feels ready to return. Sometimes they talk, sometimes silence is better. He’s the closest thing she and Cheol have to family— Sae-byeok found their mother, but she was too late to save her.

(The day that she found out, Ji-yeong held her close and wiped her wet cheeks while Gi-hun bustled around quietly in the kitchen, delivering her tea with a sweep of his hand over her hair to muss it up. It was the first time he’d seen her cry, and he’d given her an awkward hug, doing his best, with Ji-yeong cooing comfort into her ears. It was the deepest grief, and she had felt so loved.)

They all have bad days. They can’t play classical music in the house, and Ji-yeong avoids pastels. Cheol doesn’t know about the squid game, but he knows that there are some games his sister won’t play with him, and especially not to bring marbles in the house. It took months for the instinct to flinch to fade, and even now it re-emerges when least expected. They all get nightmares. Loud noises make them edgy, and sometimes Ji-yeong shuts down and doesn’t respond to anyone for hours.

There is guilt that all three of them carry, for having escaped or having won, for having seen the things they saw— but there is joy too. Such is life.

Ga Yeong facetimes her dad every week from America, and her Korean accent hasn’t faded like his mother swore it would. Cheol goes to school, now, and he’s blooming like Sae-byeok had hoped so desperately that he would be able to in South Korea. Most nights, Gi-hun eats dinner with them, and they feel a like a family, with Ji-yeong’s chin perched on Sae-byeok’s shoulder and Cheol laughing uproariously at Gi-hun’s stupid dad jokes. They bought houseplants to honour those who had passed in the games, and they keep them perched in the windowsill. They care for each other.

Right now, sitting on Jeju island with a mojito in her hand and Ji-yeong leaning against her side, Sae-byeok is happy. Cheol and Ga Yeong are exclaiming over the lunch and loudly describing their sandcastle structure to Gi-hun, who nods along in genuine interest and offers architectural advice.  

“Hey,” says Ji-Yeong. She’s placed her chin on Sae-byeok’s shoulder, and looped one of her arms through one of Sae-byeok’s.

Sae-byeok looks down at her and quirks her eyebrows up. “Mm?”

“We made it, partner,” Ji-Yeong says. "I love you." There’s a smile on her mouth and she’s got her hair brushed behind her ears when she leans in, easy as breathing, to connect their lips.

"I love you too," says Sae-byeok, and means it with everything that she is. They made it, they lived, and they are happy and warm. They are free.