Kang-woo hated waking up. He hated that cluster of seconds, wedged between dreams and reality, when he forgot that his entire world hadn’t completely fallen apart.
He hated the way his heart fell for it, every time.
And he hated the way it then shattered horribly ... every time.
Rolling onto his side, he groaned, pushing upright.
His head pounded, reminding him of his questionable decision to drink last night. And his heart joined in, recalling the unnecessarily sharp words he’d thrown at Min-joon, when the younger man had pulled him up on his drunken state two steps within the door.
Raking a hand over gritty eyes, Kang-woo's stomach clenched. He hadn’t meant to speak so harshly. It was just …
He sighed, straightening. Pulling a steadying breath against the room’s gentle sway, he re-gathered his seams.
Min-joon staying here stirred emotions he wasn’t quite ready to face. Having a meal cooked for him, someone to greet him as he walked through the door, another presence to fill the space that had been stripped of life for so long …
It was sudden.
Somehow, Min-joon had managed to bring a splinter of colour to previously washed-out spaces; a splinter of life .
And Kang-woo didn't want to pick such a thing apart, just yet.
So, he shuffled the feelings away and dressed stiffly, bones protesting.
Walking to the door, he paused, his fingers curled over the handle for a heartbeat, before pulling it open and stepping into the area he hated the most -
The living space.
Made for living; not painful reminders of the dead.
Kang-woo wandered towards the fridge, shooting a glance at his unofficial housemate who sat on the couch.
Min-joon sat silently with book in hand, earphones plugged in; casually making the apartment feel just a little less hollow.
The younger man didn’t even seem to notice Kang-woo’s emergence - nor the effect he was having on the space around him (and the rest of Kang-woo’s life).
Kang-woo yanked open the fridge - his annoyance immediately doubling as he was met with freshly packed shelves. His grip tightened on the handle, his jaw clenching. Frustration bubbled, and he slammed it shut again, turning his attention back towards the couch.
“Yah -” He stalked across the room. “Kim Min-joon.”
Min-joon didn’t move.
“Yah - ” Kang-woo repeated, louder this time, plucking an earphone free.
The younger man startled, his eyes jerking up from the book’s page. Fumbling, he removed the other earphone.
“Do you actually want to die?" Kang-woo was aware his words had re-grown their barbs, but he couldn't help it. "You went out again.”
The briefest flicker of annoyance passed over Min-joon’s face. “I can guarantee,” came the weary response, “that I wouldn't dream of dying. At least, not until we’ve seen all this through.”
Kang-woo didn’t buy it. He’d experienced Min-joon’s version of sensibility, and had decided that the value the young man placed upon his own life was … questionable.
But Min-joon didn't waver. “I didn’t step outside,” he assured, his voice thinner than usual. “Not even for a second.”
Kang-woo jabbed a finger towards the kitchen. “What’s all that in the fridge then?”
Min-joon deflated against the couch a little, his eyes skittering away. “Ha-ri brought that yesterday,” he eventually replied, biting the end off his sentence.
And Kang-woo’s frustration fizzled, leaving him with an all-too-familiar pang; his wife and son watching on from their portraits, unimpressed. He shifted uncomfortably, fishing for an appropriate response.
But Min-joon continued before he had a chance. “Detective Jo’s daughter went in for her surgery,” he stated quietly, returning to his book.
He hadn’t forgotten, he’d just ...
“You were so concerned about Hwan-hee’s surgery,” Min-joon muttered, avoiding eye contact - which was probably for the best. “But you came home drunk last night, and then slept in.”
There it was.
Kang-woo swallowed jaggedly, feeling the words cut, yet unable to deny their sharp edges weren’t deserved. God, why was he constantly screwing things up lately? A huff broke free, tumbling into a reflexive, “What?”
Min-joon didn’t reply, just carried on reading.
Irritated and overwhelmed, Kang-woo spun away, knocking a fist against his chest - pretending to be exasperated, whilst attempting to dislodge the uncomfortable knot of emotion stuck just behind his sternum.
He walked back to the fridge, yanking it open again and removing a bottle of water. Twisting the cap, his gaze caught upon the shelf above his dish rack, and his racing thoughts crashed to a halt with the drink halfway to his lips.
Two mugs sat, side by side, where previously there had only been one.
The sight brought the urge to pound his chest again, but Kang-woo successfully chased it away with a long drink of water, smothering it down.
Min-joon was now horizontal on the couch, eyes closed and earphones back in; looking completely at home.
Kang-woo’s brow twitched, pulled by a mess of emotions he couldn’t accurately pinpoint. He took another gulp of water, feeling it grate all the way.
Forcing his feet in the direction of the bathroom, he resolved to take a shower, hoping that it might help him feel better.
The hot water worked to wash away the seediness from his hangover, but not Kang-woo’s resident discomfort.
Grief was like that, he'd learnt. It gutted, scraped, and hollowed-out, until all that remained was a feeling that couldn't be scrubbed away, no matter how hard he tried.
Some days, he was sure he would have disintegrated, had it not been for his team.
Some days, he still wondered whether he would, when no one was looking.
Drying off and sweeping a hand across the fogged mirror, Kang-woo stared back at his tired reflection.
At some point, his frayed threads had snagged. They'd snagged not only on each stubborn member of his team, but on a particular individual who currently slept in his son's old bed, and apparently thought it was okay to add his own mug to the shelf in the kitchen, as well as his own toothbrush to the holder beside Kang-woo's.
Kang-woo pulled a long, steadying breath, staring down at said toothbrush.
In a place that housed nothing but suffocating loss and loneliness, Kim Min-joon had somehow achieved the impossible.
He’d managed to make himself at home .
And Kang-woo didn't know how to deal with that.
The truth was, he hadn't asked for a housemate. Min-joon had simply washed up through a series of regrettable events, and it had been practical and sensible to keep him.
Because at least here, he was safe. At least here, Kang-woo could keep an eye on him. At least this way ...
You wont lose him.
The thought sounded a lot like the echo of his wife's voice, and Kang-woo's treacherous eyes prickled as it cut through his chain of thoughts.
He muttered a curse.
That was it, wasn't it?
Min-joon had gone from being someone inconvenient to lose, to being someone Kang-woo absolutely couldn't lose.
And sometimes, he got the impression Min-joon was clinging to him just as much as he was clinging to the younger man. Like they were each other's life raft.
Kang-woo pulled on a shirt and some jeans, flinging his towel into the hamper along with what remained of his pride and bull-headedness.
He would make more of an effort with the kid.
It was obvious Min-joon was trying to make more of an effort with him.
Perhaps, an extra mug and toothbrush could be tolerable ...
Kang-woo was only mildly surprised to see Min-joon still snoozing on the couch when he emerged from the bathroom.
He arranged himself some breakfast, trying to be as quiet as possible - only grumbling a little at the fact a grown man was taking a nap mid-morning, causing him to have to creep silently around his own home.
But eleven o'clock arrived, and Min-joon had barely stirred. Han-wu messaged to say that Hwan-hee was still in surgery, and Kang-woo typed a reply with one eye skipping to the couch every second word.
Eleven-thirty came and went, and, well … enough was enough. Kang-woo stopped trying to be quiet - distantly wondering whether this was what having a teenage son might feel like, and immediately regretting it as the air went out of him.
If he had couch cushions to throw, he would have. Instead, he settled for placing his mug down purposefully upon the table, clearing his throat deliberately.
But Min-joon's eyes remained closed, and Kang-woo found himself hovering halfway between annoyed and concerned, stepping closer.
The younger man’s ears were muffled by music, so perhaps he couldn’t hear. And he had certainly been through a lot lately, so it wasn't surprising he was exhausted. Although …
There was a flush to pale cheeks that wasn't obvious until Kang-woo came up alongside, as well as beads of perspiration gathering along Min-joon's brow. The hand that draped over ribs was trembling, and his chest was rising and falling just a little too rapidly.
Kang-woo’s stomach dipped. Hastily, he reached to shake a shoulder, his concern ratcheting up a notch as he silently berated himself for not noticing sooner. "Min-joon?"
Min-joon’s head lolled with the movement, but he didn’t respond. Terrifying heat radiated through his thin sweater.
Kang-woo's mind stumbled. How on earth had he missed this? The younger man's demeanor had been a little off when they'd chatted earlier, but Kang-woo had put that down to the fact that …
You were too busy ripping into him, his mind supplied bluntly.
Of course, Min-joon wouldn't have said anything, when all Kang-woo had to offer were accusations and prickly words.
Quickly removing earphones and placing them to the side, Kang-woo gently touched fingertips to a fiery neck, feeling a racing pulse.
Min-joon groaned, his eyelids lifting to half-mast, and his gaze swam as he blinked groggily. Worryingly, he didn't fight or protest as Kang-woo slid an arm behind his shoulders and juggled him into a sitting position. He simply murmured, “Kang-woo?” Before tilting over.
“You should have told me you weren’t feeling well.” As the words slipped free, Kang-woo thought of Joo-won and all the times he was ill - all the times it was his son’s burning forehead resting against his shoulder just like this. He nearly lost his grip as the memory drained the feeling from his arms, but he caught himself at the last moment.
Min-joon groaned again. “Think ...got flu.”
"Easy,” Kang-woo offered, fighting the assault from the past. He managed to pull one of the younger man's limp arms over a shoulder, wobbling them unsteadily upright. “We need to get your fever down.” He dragged them away from the couch, muttering tensely, “I could fry an egg on you like this.”
Min-joon’s lack of snarky response was unsettling, and Kang-woo tried not to dwell on it as he led them both towards the bathroom. "This wont be fun,” he warned. “But you can curse me later, okay?”
Min-joon was a dead weight, ragdoll-floppy; his socked-feet trailing unhelpfully as they went. He made a vague noise resembling a shakily exhaled "What?"
But Kang-woo ignored him, maneuvering them into the boxy bathroom. Carefully, he lowered the younger man down against a wall, keeping him steady until he was sure he wouldn’t topple. Then he went to the shower, twisting it on and stepping back from the spray.
Min-joon whimpered, face scrunching. He shifted against the wall, tilting precariously.
Kang-woo lunged, catching him and tapping his cheek. “Yah, stay with me.”
But Min-joon was only half present, lost in fever dreams.
Realising he was on his own, Kang-woo managed to slip uncooperative limbs through sleeves and trouser legs. Awkwardly, he undressed the younger man down to his boxer shorts - ignoring the slurred, confused protests, as well as how uncharacteristically small and vulnerable Min-joon appeared.
Long-gone was the arrogant jerk he’d initially thought Kim Min-joon to be. If someone had told him then that he would be worrying over the brat like this, Kang-woo would have laughed in their face - and possibly punched them out.
Yet, here he was.
Min-joon's body vibrated with tremors; his cheek resting upon Kang-woo's shoulder, his teeth chattering jarringly. He stirred, murmuring incoherently and pushing against the arms that held him in place, but his strength vanished nearly as soon as it had come and he sagged, coughing miserably.
Kang-woo kept him from falling. "You're feeling lousy, I know." His words creased with worry. "And this will probably make you feel worse before it makes you feel better, but I promise it's for your own good."
So don't hate me too much , he thought, lifting Min-joon into the shower without further hesitation, and tightening his grip.
Min-joon stiffened as the cool water hit him, brokenly crying out. Fighting weakly, he curled in on himself, unsuccessfully trying to shift away from it.
Kang-woo ignored the splashes and squirms, as well as the way his sleeves - and the rest of him - became drenched in an instant. "Quit being difficult," he grit, his tone gentle but firm. "Endure it for a little bit, okay?"
Min-joon's eyes were slits, his lashes beaded with water. “K-Kang-woo..?” He blinked frantically, his teeth violently knocking together as he fisted the soaked fabric of Kang-woo's sleeves, confused and disoriented.
Kang-woo squeezed what he hoped was a reassuring smile, but it was strained. He also began to shiver under the shower's spray - or perhaps it was second-hand tremors, traveling through him from where his skin met Min-joon’s.
They stayed like that for another minute or two, until Min-joon’s shaking lessened somewhat, and his grip loosened. Kang-woo held him upright as the younger man’s chin drooped; keeping him from folding completely into a boneless heap.
Gently, Kang-woo guided the still warm forehead to rest upon his shoulder, bringing a hand to cup tangled hair. It should have felt awkward, but it didn’t. His thoughts once again drifted to Joo-won, but this time he allowed them - squeezing his eyes closed and swallowing hard against the grating lump in his throat.
Mercifully, the cool shower had worked to take the edge off Min-joon’s fever. Hopefully, medication and sleep could do the rest.
“Yah,” Kang-woo whispered eventually, voice breaking as he pulled free of his memories. “This is no place to sleep." He jostled Min-joon upright.
Min-joon blinked his eyes open, glancing around dazedly. "Kang-woo?"
"We've already established it's me,” Kang-woo sighed. “We'll both have pins and needles for weeks if we stay like this. Come on, enough with the laziness. Up you get.”
The journey from bathroom to bedroom was easier than Kang-woo had anticipated. Thankfully, Min-joon roused enough to get his feet beneath him, and at least carry a very small portion of his weight.
At some point along the way, Kang-woo thought he heard a murmured apology slip from the younger man. But he chose to ignore it, knowing that if such a thing was required, it should come from his own mouth.
(Which it would. Later. When Min-joon could actually hear and appreciate it - and perhaps offer some form of snark in return.)
With an arm behind shaking shoulders, Kang-woo supported the younger man down onto his pillow, and then proceeded to pull up the sheet, fussing over its creases.
His fingers slipped clumsily as his mind unhelpfully flashed back to an image of Joo-won in this very bed; nights he’d been sick, nights he’d asked for a story to be read, nights he’d woken from a bad dream and had needed comforting …
Min-joon turned his head to the side, brow scrunching as he released a string of coughs.
Kang-woo’s hand was moving of its own accord, brushing at sweaty hair, guided by muscle memory even as his heart ached.
He’d been okay with Min-joon sleeping here, so far. It hadn’t bothered him, mainly because he’d never actually seen the younger man occupying the bed. But now he was perched upon the mattress edge, tucking Min-joon in just like he had done, over and over, for his son …
It was nearly too much.
Kang-woo’s eyes filled, his throat closing as he blinked back tears. He regarded Min-joon’s pale face, his twitching lashes, the way he shrank into the pillow, and he couldn’t help but wonder ...
Who had been there for Kim Min-joon, when he was young?
Who had comforted him whenever he was sick, read him stories, or chased away his bad dreams?
From what Kang-woo understood, the Gebauers never loved him; they’d cast him aside once they had a child of their own. And Kim Bum-joon hadn’t been around.
Heart pinching, Kang-woo knew the answer. Which explained a lot, really, about why the younger man was the way he was - hiding his vulnerabilities behind a facade designed to convince people he had none.
Kang-woo swallowed thickly, pushing up from the bed.
“I’ll be back in a moment,” he reassured, when Min-joon scrunched his face and groaned. “I’ll get you some medicine.”
And a cool cloth for your forehead.
And a humidifier to help you breathe easier .
Because everyone should have someone to look after them when they’re sick - including annoying brats, who wormed their way, uninvited, into someone’s life.
Tablets successfully swallowed, and cool cloth adequately positioned on forehead, Kang-woo crouched beside the bed, checking the settings on the humidifier.
He’d messaged Ha-ri, asking her to let the others know that Min-joon was sick - politely declining her multiple offers to come and help; eventually settling for allowing her to bring dinner later.
Shall we send for Ms Oh?
Kang-woo had decided it wasn’t necessary. He’d re-checked Min-joon’s temperature, and was satisfied that it had, indeed, come down.
Soon-jung says he’ll make baesuk. We’ll bring it with dinner.
Kang-woo had twitched a smile, replying that modern medicine was sufficient.
Too late. He’s already left with Noo-ri to buy the ingredients.
Of course he had.
Finishing with the humidifier, Kang-woo flipped the compress, repositioning it against Min-joon’s forehead. He had no doubt his team would barge in long before dinner time, probably bringing enough supplies to last a week - because they were great like that, and sometimes he wondered what he’d done to deserve them.
Kang-woo turned to leave, but a sudden curl of trembling fingers around his wrist stopped him.
Min-joon lay, regarding him blearily through shuttered eyes. “Hyung,” he whispered. “Don’t leave ...”
Kang-woo’s chest tightened. The younger man was obviously still delusional from the fever. Gaze skipping between the bed and the door, he sighed, patting the hand that latched onto him.
Perhaps he could stay, for a little while. It wasn’t like he had anything better to do.
The curled fingers didn’t release, even as Kang-woo lowered himself to the floor with his back against the mattress - careful not to break their connection, as awkward as the angle was.
Min-joon’s next words caught him off-guard.
“Thank you … Kang-woo-ssi.”
Kang-woo’s attention stuttered, as he realised Min-joon was aware enough to know him. Eyes prickling, he half-turned back towards the bed, glancing over a shoulder with the splinter of a warm smile. “Get some rest, Min-joon-ah,” he replied after a moment.
And Min-joon’s eyes slipped closed, an answering smile ghosting his lips for the briefest heartbeat.
Kang-woo used his free hand to scrub over his face, letting it come to rest over his mouth. He stared at the walls of his son’s old bedroom; all the belongings exactly where Joo-won had left them, frozen in time since that terrible day.
Joo-won … who wasn’t ever coming back, no matter how much Kang-woo wished for it.
Kang-woo breathed unevenly through the space between his fingers, throwing one more over-the-shoulder look at Min-joon.
He’d lost a son, and yet, somehow, had gained a younger brother.
A younger brother in the form of a pain in the ass.
… One that he’d never known he’d needed, until now.
Three hours later, when afternoon sun slanted through the gaps in the blinds, casting long shadows up the walls, the door to the bedroom cracked open, and Ha-ri silently peeked in.
Her gaze travelled over the bed, taking in Min-joon's sleeping form, before skipping to Kang-woo beside him on the floor, also fast asleep - with his cheek resting upon his outstretched arm, and Min-joon's fingers over his wrist.
Her expression softened, and she smiled at the sight.
From around her shoulder, Noo-ri stole a look, his face breaking into a grin as he shot a look behind him at Sung-joon - who was lifting his phone, angling for a photo.
Ha-ri slapped the device away, hurriedly shooing the two of them backwards. "Let them sleep," she chided. "God knows they need it "
She pulled the door shut, careful to latch it silently - casting another warm smile through the gap before she closed it.