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These Walls and These People

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Im Sung-Min hands back to Song Ji-Won the bundle of journalism books without prompting.

The trial was over, at least their part of it. More women have come forward and Han Gwan-Young will have to answer for some of his crimes, even if it was too late for Moon Hyo-Jin.

Song Ji-Won smirks as she takes them back. “I bet I can pass the exam faster than you.”

Sung-Min recognizes the boast for what it was: a deflection. Ji-Won was good at smoke and mirrors; it was a rare person able to see what’s underneath. Her anxiety mixed with a newfound determination.

“Call,” he answers with a smirk of his own. “I notice you didn’t say anything about being in the top percentage. It’s good to know your limits.” He pats her curly hair, resisting the impulse to rest his palm on the curve of her head.

“Yah, Im Sung-Min, I’ll make you pay for that!” She tries to kick at his leg but she’s hampered by the books in her hands.

Sung-Min laughs at her. (With her, for her.)

Everything was fine just like this. Friends or lovers, it didn’t matter what labels they used. She relied on him and trusted him with her whole self. That was enough. (For now.)

Kang Yi-Na had given up on being a designer once she realized all her so-called designs were copied from clothes she used to own, back when she could charge them to someone else’s credit card. But she still doodled every now and then, from possible window designs for the shop to outfits she found interesting, then eventually focusing less on clothes and more on the women. Women she saw on the streets, her salespeople who were starting to become family, and her family, who were far away but whose faces were engraved in her memory.

It wasn’t that long, really. Two years for everyone else and one year for Eun-Jae and brief moments with the new girl, Jo Eun. It wasn’t long enough to really be called family, and yet they were the ones who knew her and accepted her, even loved her.

She comes back whenever she can squeeze in the time, bringing food and good cheer. She comes back partly out of fear, that they will have forgotten her, that she no longer has a place there in that house. (Jo Eun was a good kid, but it felt weird knowing she sleeps in what Yi-Na still considers her room.) And she comes back partly out of need, to rest and replenish her weary soul, like in those prayer books that Ye-Eun reads. She lies down on the couch, letting the girls’ voices wash over her, and she falls asleep.

Later, she will tell stories about the shop she manages, what she jokingly calls her baby. And she will listen as they update her. She’s still in the loop, still gets group texts, though she rarely responds. But it’s different when they tell her face to face.

When they told her about that night a man came in and terrorized them all, she got spitting mad, mad enough to consider tracking him down and stomping on his balls with her pointiest heels. But Song Ji-Won stopped her. “I’ll handle it.”

Yi-Na looked at her calm face and relents. Ji-Won was different these days, and something in her expression was closed off, yet at the same time expectant, like she was waiting for the right path to appear.

Last year, Ji-Won had lied to everyone about the ghost in the shoe closet, and yet Yi-Na still believed in its existence, as if Ji-Won, while playing the fool had managed to speak hidden truths. She trusted in the other girl’s intuition.

It all unfolded as if a higher power had guided their way. Ye-Eun would probably laugh if she realized how much her faith had seeped into Yi-Na’s consciousness. From nihilism, she had come to believe in fate. Living diligently was still a hard path to walk, and her previous life feels like a dream now, as if she fell asleep in the water and it took her years to wake up.

She remembers Jin-Myung’s little brother and felt a pang of kinship. She woke up. That was the difference.

She comes more frequently after that, checking in on all of them, especially on Ji-Won. Jin-Myung smiles at her, with gratitude and understanding, and she recognizes the burden the older girl feels watching over them all. She nudges her shoulder, and gives an exaggerated wink just to get her to smile wider. They were the unni; they shared a similar responsibility.

After the trial, they celebrate with a party. The rules of Belle Epoque are relaxed a little under the circumstances, and Yi-Na officially introduces Seo Dong-Joo to her girls. He’s the same as always, affable and charming, sporting a designer shirt and an expensive watch, and smelling really good. She recognized a restlessness in him that usually meant he was ending a relationship and beginning another, but he doesn’t talk about it like usual. She wonders if he was getting tired of that life, too.

The thought pleased her, but she didn’t know why.

---

Park Jae-Won loved visiting Belle Epoque. It was strange at first, because the Yoon Jin-Myung he knew was different in that house. She smiled more, and there was a lack of tension in her shoulders that changed the way she moved. It was like falling in love all over again.

Being apart like this was hard. He worked long hours, and came home to an empty apartment. Still, it was a relief knowing that Jin Myung wasn't alone. She had people at her side, making sure she didn't work too hard.

He loved listening to her voice. She still kept her troubles to herself. But sometimes, she would tell him things over the phone, tell him stories, maybe complain a little. And when he visited, there would come a light in Jin-Myung’s eyes. He lived for those moments.

He got along with the girls. They liked to tease Jin-Myung by calling him oppa. At one party before he left, he got dragged into a corner by a scantily-clad Kang Yi-Na. “You better treat Jin-Myung right,” she whispered, her lips curved flirtatiously, but her words sharp as knives. “Or else I’m going to break all your fingers, chef-nim.”

She would have continued but Jin-Myung lost her temper and shouted at her. “Ya! Leave him alone!”

Kang Yi-Na just laughed. “Miracles do happen,” she said, while Jin-Myung shook her head.

Jae-Won could only agree.

---

If anybody had asked Jung Ye-Eun how long she wanted to stay at Belle Epoque, she would have answered, "Forever."

This last year, she couldn't have made it without the others. When her mom came to take her back, she felt like her heart was breaking, like she was drowning on dry land.

But she was able to stay in this warm house, surrounded by these people who have seen her at her worst, and loved her anyway. Here she was free to be herself. Even after they get attacked, she never wanted to leave.

But when Kwon Ho-Chang proposed to her, what else could she say?

"Yes!" She kissed his lips shyly and made him put the ring on to her finger. It was pretty. Nothing like the expensive ring her cousin's fiance gave her. But it suited Ye-Eun's hand. Ho-Chang beamed at her, and she beamed back.

It was too soon, maybe. Ho-Chang had just graduated after all, though he had already started working long before he got his diploma. And Ye-Eun was still catching up for the term she missed.

Ye-Eun knew her parents didn't expect her to find work. They let her study nutrition to become a house-wife for some rich, important man they could show off to their relatives. But she couldn't be a burden on Ho-Chang. She wanted to be his equal in everything. So she had asked Ji-Won unni to help her find a part-time job.

"My mother says it'll be hard on you to move in to our house, but we'll need to save up to buy our own place," Ho-Chang was babbling at her when she tuned back in.

Her heart skipped a beat. Of course. Yes, of course she had to leave Belle Epoque. She couldn't actually stay forever. "I don't mind," she murmured to him. "I like your mother." Ho-Chang's family was warm and open, and when they get married, they would be her family too.

Ho-Chang met her eyes, biting his lip. "Is this really okay? We haven't been dating that long..."

Ye-Eun wrapped her arms around him, closing her eyes when he hugged her back. "If you back out now, I'm going to get angry with you," she teased, then laughed when he got flustered and denied it.

The future had been so dark to her since that night Go Doo-Young abducted her. But now... She closed her eyes again. Was she really allowed to be this happy?

---

Yoo Eun-Jae kept holding her head high. It was hard. She thought she would die from the embarrassment after making a fool of herself for Yoon Jong-Yeol. But it became easier to live with her choices when she realized that she did her best. Yes, it didn't work out, but she learned a few things along the way.

Next time, I'll be a better girlfriend, she promised herself. But even though she went on dates, she wasn't in a hurry. She was waiting for her heart to fully heal.

She still felt his eyes on her sometimes. And she still felt that pang of hope when he smiled at her. Getting over someone wasn't that easy after all. Especially not your first love.

But she had everyone around her. Learning from her lectures was easy, but Eun-Jae had never had friends before. She was learning now, how it felt to rely on other people. How it felt to be strong for others, too.

She didn't much like the city. Her heart sometimes yearned for the mountains and the trees of her childhood. But for now, these walls and these people were home.

---

Jo Eun stayed. She got scouted as a model, which was a weird experience, but Ji-Won unni and Ye-Eun and even Kang Yi-Na made her stick it out.

"Imagine Seo Jang-Hoon's face when he comes back," Ji-Won said, smirking at her.

"It'll be good training," Ye-Eun piped up. "And good money, too."

"Imagine the free clothes you can get!" Yi-Na interjected, looking her up and down. "You look like you need them."

Jo Eun stuck out her tongue at Yi-Na unni, who stuck out her chest instead. Alright. So she'd never have curves like those. Jang-Hoon still chose her. Jo Eun still doesn't understand why.

The job was a good distraction to missing him. And when her mother threatened to cut her off when she refused to get another haircut, the job was a good fallback option. At first they styled her like a man, but they started having her wear dresses that didn't make her look like a cross-dresser, and Jo Eun started learning some make-up tricks.

She slipped photos in her letters to Jang-Hoon. "Don't be too surprised," she wrote him. "And tell me if you hate it."

He doesn't hate it. His reply made her giggle and cover her face. "I'm going to have to fight off a lot of men when I finish my training. Don't worry, I'm training hard for you."

Ye-Eun was planning on moving out after she got married. Kang Yi-Na was going to be her maid of honor. Who knew when Jin-Myung unni would leave too? Song Ji-Won would stay until she passed her exams, but after that she was planning on traveling. And Yoo Eun-Jae was looking at jobs outside of the city.

But Jo Eun would stay. Because she promised to wait for him.