When Yerim showed up at his apartment door half past midnight, Jeongguk was not sure what to make of it.
The rampant, frantic knocking startled him at first. But as the knuckles on the door increased in frequency, he tensely considered if it was either someone desperately in need or help, or a serial killer come to murder him. It would be a prime time for one to do so — it was his parent’s anniversary this weekend and they had left for a trip on an ocean-liner casino, not to return until Monday. If someone wanted to kill him, nobody would notice for days.
Despite these misgivings and a coward’s heart, Jeon Jeongguk was brave on the outside, if anything, and with complete outer calm he peeked through the eyehole to see the damp, blotchy face of Kim Yerim.
Jeongguk’s urgency made him fumble unhooking the deadbolt three times. By the time he grabbed the knob and yanked the door open, his hands were clammy and his heart was in his throat.
Said girl nearly jumped out of her skin when he answered like that, like she hadn’t actually been expecting him to. She sniffled wetly and rubbed her palms across her eyes, blinking, looking lost and very small in her giant t-shirt.
“Jeongguk,” she croaked out. “Can I come in?”
Jeongguk gaped at her and then came back to reality.
“What? Yeah, of course, get in here. Are you okay? What happened to you? Are you hurt?”
Each one of his questions went unanswered, and much like watching a wrecking ball crash into an ancient castle, Jeongguk could do nothing but witness the impenetrable fortress of Yerim crumble, crumble, crumble. The sensation vaguely felt like the floor was tilting under his feet as he numbly shut the door behind them and relocked it for good measure (he saw her follow this motion carefully with her eyes), and felt his throat tighten.
Because he did not know what to do.
Crying girl was not part of his endless list of skills and abilities. Jeongguk was a jack-of-all-trades, not a miracle worker. In fact, it was a miracle that he and Yeri had made it this long to begin with.
Jeongguk frowned, pensive. Then he sighed.
“Okay. Well. Don’t talk if you don’t want to. I’ll... make tea. Go sit on the couch or something, okay?”
He had all the lights off, since he’d just been lounging freely on the couch watching Hell’s Kitchen and apathetically scrolling on his phone, so he couldn’t tell if she’d acknowledged him or not. But he did watch her totter off in the direction of the living room, so he tried not to worry too much.
As Jeongguk went about filling up the kettle and lighting the stove, he failed not to worry too much, though he succeeded at not acknowledging that fact. His hands were still shaking as he stretched his arm up into the cupboard to procure the single box of genmaicha that was kept here just for her. He didn’t drink that gross garbage.
A sniffle from the living room made him falter, and he was alarmed at his vague desire to stop making the tea and go check on her.
Alright, he reasoned. He’d known Yeri for years. Way too long. They’d been neighbors in the same apartment complex for more than a decade, and played together as children. He could remember with vivid, cruel clarity how she used to stomp around the apartment when she didn’t get her way, and how she obsessively wore pigtails until middle school, and how she was always greedy, greedy, greedy, until she’d gotten old enough to fathom how much money was needed to actually live a life. That shut her up real quick. Yerim had always been a spiteful and confident girl, though, and that never changed a bit.
It was a wonder that they had remained friends. Then again, Jeongguk reasoned further, he couldn’t think of a single soul as patient and self-sacrificing as his to take the burden of her friendship off the hands of everyone else.
So it really shouldn’t have come as such a surprise that he was reacting very strangely to her having a breakdown in the middle of the night at his place. Even if he hadn’t seen her cry in years.
The kettle startling whistling and after Jeongguk prepared the tea in her favourite, stupid mug, he returned to his spot with slightly more haste than usual.
He found Yeri curled into herself against his pillow leaning on the left arm of the couch. She was still crying, though much more quietly now, and he thought he heard her mumble “thank you” as the steaming mug clinked onto the coffee table.
They lingered there like that for a moment, only illuminated by the tv and the silence filled with the quiet hum of the A/C, the faint murmurs of the commercial on in the background. Yeri’s shoulders trembled and her hair was a mess, sticking to her face as she burrowed into her corner; Jeongguk looked down at her with his hands shoved into the pockets of his oldest and most comfortable hoodie.
Eventually, he sat down. No reason for her fit to interrupt his couch potato session entirely.
It was only when the steam from the untouched mug faded into wisps and the credits were rolling, her raspy voice came from the corner.
“Do you ever think about everyone you love dying?”
Ahhh. There it was. Jeongguk honestly could not help but roll his eyes. This would be what she had a conniption over. At least that meant nothing directly bad had happened to her.
He took a deep breath, and answered, “Yup.”
“...Doesn’t it bother you?”
“Do you really think about it, though? Everyone you’ve ever known and met is going to die one day, and you won’t be able to do a thing about it. There’s always going to be a last time you see someone before you won’t ever get to hear them talk or see them exist again. They’ll just vanish. And it won’t even be after a long, good life — y, you or I could just die right now, from the roof caving in or a plane hitting our building. Someone could break in and murder us. It might even be slow and painful — what if you get cancer and they won’t let you have legally assisted suicide? What if the serial killer likes stupid, angry high school girls, and he takes me and he shaves my head and rapes me until I’m not alive in my own mind anymore? How are we supposed to go on and do anything when everyone is constantly in danger of their entire lives being torn away from them without warning?! Any of this could happen without warning! What’s the point of even being alive if you have to spend your whole life waiting for it to be over?!”
The huddled lump of girl stiffened, but he could still feel how violently she was shaking from here. Suddenly, Yeri jerked up, clamping her hand to her mouth, and Jeongguk grimaced because he knew exactly what she was about to say—
“I-I’m gonna be sick.”
Much to his admiration and relief, she did actually jump up and sprint to the bathroom fast enough to make it to the toilet. And much to hers - when she saw the ajar door push open fully, and bare feet walk towards her, cold hands pulling back her hair. It was a slightly meticulous process, since her tears had plastered many tangled strands to her cheeks and temples and forehead, but he merely pulled each of them away with his fingers like a spider working on its web. Gingerly, methodically he combed back her hair into a ponytail that he held, and even as she coughed and sputtered and felt morbidly humiliated that Jeongguk was seeing her like this, she could not help but cry a little more because nothing in the world felt as good as his hand rubbing vague, drifting circles on her back right now.
Vomiting, especially from nerves, takes a lot out of you. Her stomach still buckled even though there was nothing left in it, and she was limp and rubbery by the time the tremors died down, only able to cross her arms against the seat and rest her head on it, breathing raggedly.
“Good now?” Jeongguk said after a minute. His soothing motion did not stop.
Yeri nodded weakly. When her knees started working again, she got up unsteadily — his hand ghosted near her, just in case — and after she flushed and wiped down her mess, she turned to see that Jeongguk had procured an unopened toothbrush for her.
Yeri took it, careful not to touch him. She couldn’t look him in the eye; then again, neither could he.
“Thanks,” she whispered, and then he was gone.
Jeongguk hovered soundlessly outside the door, leaned against the wall. He just wanted to make sure she didn’t fall apart while he wasn’t looking. Only once he heard the faucet turn on again and her rinse off he crept back to the couch, where she followed him a moment later.
Jeongguk forced himself to put on a relaxed, unbothered expression. This wasn’t hard — he’d been a fantastic liar and horrible person the vast majority of his life. But this wasn’t done maliciously. He just... had a feeling if he kept sucking on his bottom lip with his brow screwed up in the center it might give away something he didn’t quite want to share yet.
Yeri crawled back into her spot much more delicately this time around, and pulled her knees up to her chest to hug tightly. A sidelong glance told him she was trying to look more put-together, too. Yeri had never been as good as hiding things as he was.
“Sorry,” she mumbled.
Jeongguk managed to say evenly, “Don’t worry about it.”
“You didn’t have to do that,” she added, though not unkindly. Maybe guiltily.
“I know,” Jeongguk said. He still stared straight ahead at the tv screen.
The quiet lingered until there was breaking news; something about a thunderstorm warning. And Jeongguk had the sense to pick up the remote — unhurried, casual — and flick through the channels instead.
“So,” he finally said. “What brought this on?”
At first, he thought she might not answer him again. But then she adjusted; a small scoot to the right, a thoughtless pick at a stray thread in the upholstery, a tilt that made her shoulder bump against his.
“I was marathoning Criminal Minds,” she began slowly. “And waiting for mom to come home. And she was really late. I wasn’t really worried, just confused, so I called her, and she didn’t answer. So I just kept watching Criminal Minds. And then there was some breaking news about a car accident on the interstate, and this whole thing about road rage and two people were killed, and my heart... started beating so fast, and I called Mom again, and she wouldn’t answer—” The pitch of her voice was rising steadily, the tremble returning that meant more tears, more abject terror— “And she finally did and I was so scared. But she... she told me that she had a workshop this weekend. And I had just forgotten all about it. And when we got off the phone, I, I kept watching this stupid show, but I couldn’t stop shaking.” Yeri’s voice was a strangled whisper, and he wasn’t sure if he had reached for her hand or she reached for his, but their fingers were now laced tightly like death, like her life depended on it, like if she let go of his hand the entire world was going to unravel into chaos and nothingness, “And I had been trying so hard not to think about it but I finally did and it was all at once and I don’t... want anyone to die... ever... but... but they...”
“Yeri,” Jeongguk said again, and his voice cracked much to his embarrassment. “Nobody is going to die.”
For what seemed like the first time since she’d arrived on his doorstep, Yeri raised her head and looked up at him, and looked at him. Really looked at him. Her nose was red and so were her eyes, and she looked raw and none of her usual mischievousness was present in her gaze.
Jeongguk’s heart missed a beat. She looked pretty.
“That’s not true,” she protested, sniffling harder and wiping her face on her arm. “You know that’s not true! You’re lying!”
“I mean nobody is going to die right now,” he reiterated firmly. “Everyone is going to die eventually, but not right now. People dying doesn’t erase all the things they’ve done. That’s like saying why go see a movie or go on a roller coaster if it’s going to have an end. The experience still happened. And be reasonable — you know that the chances of all those crazy things happening are so low they’re not even worth thinking about. Yeah, this whole place could suddenly fall apart and we all die, but there’s an equal chance that I buy five winning lottery tickets in a row and I’m filthy fucking rich for the rest of my life. And I don’t see you getting excited about me becoming a billionaire.”
Yeri’s face contorted and there was a flicker of encouraging petulance. Jeongguk went on before she could come up with something else to complain about.
“And you realize that people are dying like, constantly, right? Every single second? Everywhere in the world, somebody is dying. But! Where we are, people go on to live very long and fruitful lives. All those old ladies you see at the park, smiling and feeding the birds? They’re not stupid. They’ve lived. They fell in love, had children, worked hard, did things that made them feel that they had a life well-lived. You and I aren’t ready to die yet, but as you get older or sicker, you learn to be okay with it. You shouldn’t be okay with dying right now. Yah, don’t interrupt me! I know what you’re going to say, you’re going to tell me,” Jeongguk made his voice a very unpleasant whine, “‘What about all the young people who die with no warning? Who are taken away from the world too soon!?’ It happens. It’s happened a million times and it’ll happen a million more times. Humanity knows that as a whole, and sometimes I think about what would happen if my parents died out of nowhere, too, and I know it would crush me. I know it would be the worst thing that has ever happened to me. But I also know that I will be strong and find some sort of peace eventually, because their parents have died, and everyone’s parents have or will die at some point. People are built to die and accept that death will happen. So you are going to be okay.”
At some point during the course of his rant, the space between them had all but disappeared, and Jeongguk craned over the stunned figure of Yerim, breathing hard and his heart racing. Yeri gaped up at him, lips vaguely parted with no real response, and he looked at her mouth. He had looked at her mouth before, but he had not quite registered the scenarios that ran through his mind this time.
Ears getting red, Jeongguk quickly looked away to the television and pretended to pay attention to it.
It only helped a little. Her little hand was still clasped tightly in his, and he could feel how sweaty their hold had gotten. Absently, he ran his thumb over the back of her knuckles, still pretending that he was watching whatever the hell cartoon was on.
“Okay,” Yeri murmured, unexpectedly. “Okay. I guess that makes sense.”
Jeongguk exhaled, and slumped his head back onto the couch.
“Glad to hear it,” he said sincerely. “You can’t just obsessively watch things that make you upset.”
Yerim swallowed thickly, and did not think much of it when she laid her tired head on the shoulder of her best friend.
“I hated feeling upset,” she whispered. “I hated it. I felt weak and stupid and foolish. I thought if I pushed through it I would come out stronger for it. And now here I am, crying on your dumb couch, watching Winnie the Pooh.” Holding your hand. She didn’t add that part.
Jeongguk’s mouth quirked up in a smile despite himself.
“Yeah,” he said wryly. “My dumb couch. How about I never comfort you on my dumb couch ever again?”
The speed in which her entire body froze against his was remarkable, and it was only thanks to Jeongguk’s unnatural reflexes and instinct that he instantly rambled on, “But that would be stupid, and I would rather you always come to my dumb couch and I will make you gross tea that you will let get cold and we can watch things that won’t make you cry until you feel better and you can still stay even when you do feel better. Because I am kind, and generous, and my heart is pure and giving, and—”
“You’re a helldemon.”
“Ah!” Jeongguk smirked. “There she is, there is Kim Yerim. Good to see you, my eldritch princess.”
He heard her private humming-laugh that she did when she didn’t want him to know she was happy. And though Jeongguk had a coward’s heart, he was brave on the outside: he rolled her arm onto his and reached over to hold her hand securely between both of his instead.
Yeri leaned her head back onto him. She didn’t seem to mind. Neither did he.
The Disney Channel was doing a late-night marathon of Winnie the Pooh, as it were, and Jeongguk got up only once to put her tea in the microwave. He sat back down beside her with not a single breadth of space between them, and Yerim wordlessly placed her hand back on his pajama pants, and he in turn scooped it back into his own.
The apartment gradually faded from its nervous state to a sleepy quiet. Yerim finished her tea before it got cold this time, and was drowsy enough that each time she blinked, the episode was in an entirely different place that she couldn’t identify. Jeongguk did not fare much better — his head lolled to the side, and when it inevitably bumped into hers he’d straighten, clear his throat, and blink furiously to keep himself awake.
But it was warm, and comfy, and the couch was so inviting.
“Jeongguk,” Yeri admit in a mumble at some point, “I’m scared to fall asleep.”
“Why’ssat?” he mumbled back.
She didn’t answer him. She closed in on herself, instead, and Jeongguk was too tired to watch himself.
“C’mere,” he said, and did not wait for her permission as he released her hand and coiled his arms around her instead. She was cold, and he scowled at that — why hadn’t she told him? — but then tugged her artlessly into the space between his knees until she was perfectly caged in. Her hair tickled his nose from here, and it smelled like lilacs, and her.
Maybe lilacs just smelled like Yeri.
It was a pleasant surprise how nicely she fit. Yeri was too tired to fight it, either, and maybe it made her feel a little bit better to be trapped somewhere that she actually wanted to be. He hugged her like a spider would. That shouldn’t have been nice, but it was. It really was.
A shiver ran down her spine and a fresh wave of tears threatened at her stinging, exhausted eyes, and she took a shaky breath to try and stop it from coming. She wasn’t even afraid, she was just anxious and the emotions all still felt so pent-up and—
“Stop,” Jeongguk commanded into her tangled hair, all warm and very sleepy. “I’m not going to let anything hurt you. Nothing’s going to hurt you. Stop thinking ‘bout it.”
“I’m trying,” she pleaded with frustration. “I don’t want to be thinking about it!”
He hushed her.
“Yah. Listen to me. Listen to my voice—” Well that was very hard not to, considering it was right against her ear and making all the fine hairs on her neck stand on end and a million cruel tingles follow down her skin. “—and watch Pooh Bear.”
Yeri pouted, but tried to focus on the show nevertheless. Slowly, they sagged towards laying down, until their heads were on the pillow and Jeongguk was still smothering her her, providing weight and warmth and a feeling of security.
The welcoming darkness of sleep clawed at her, trying to pull her in, but each time she got close the memory of the possibility of the reality of a nightmare would drench her like ice water and she’d jolt awake, only to be lulled back by the heart beating steadily against her back. The breathing she felt. The scent of Jeongguk that curled around her and was familiar and soothing and good.
Jeongguk rested his chin on top of her head.
“Can’t sleep?” he asked.
“I’m trying.” She insisted this again, though more forlornly now.
Jeongguk sighed. She felt her insides twist with the dregs of humiliation that this was what she had fallen to, and more heat welled against her eyelids. She was inconveniencing him more than she ever wanted to. She was never going to sleep again, was she? She—
She stopped thinking.
Jeongguk’s singing was low and rough, but very steady, and quiet enough only for her to hear.
“You’re just a little black rain-cloud, hovering under the honey tree...”
Yeri shut her eyes tightly and smiled so big her cheeks hurt.
“You’re just a little black rain... cloud... Pay no attention to Ye-ri... Everyone knows that a rain-cloud... never has nightmares, no not a bit... You’re just floating around, over the ground... wondering... where.. you will... sleep...”
It didn’t rhyme, or make sense. Still smiling, she curled tightly into Jeongguk.
The last thing she saw before she fell soundly asleep was Pooh Bear gazing kindly at a nervous Piglet.
“Yeri?” Jeongguk’s voice was barely audible.
“Nothin’. Just wanted to be sure of you. Goodnight.”