It isn’t a catastrophe. What makes Jiseok break in front of her is something insignificant, something that three years prior, when he’d been a person with different goals and different burdens, he would have dismissed and forgotten within minutes.
It’s Saturday, the end of a long week of work and an even longer night of chasing down men who insist they’ve just been looking at the time on their phones, and not recording unsuspecting college students who are coming home from a night of drinking and dancing at their favorite clubs. Yooyrung sees it happen. She walks through the door Jiseok holds open for her like he always likes to do, and just as he lets it swing behind him it closes on his outstretched hand.
He doesn’t make a sound. He jerks his entire arm back and holds his fist tight within his other, uninjured hand. He bites down hard on his lip and screws his eyes shut, and his breathing comes harshly through his nose.
Yooryung darts over to his side, cries out, “Chief, are you okay?” She lays gentle fingers over his clasped hand, wanting to see how badly he’s hurt. But Jiseok doesn’t answer her. He stays absolutely still, only his chest rising and falling with his breathing, his shoulders rigid and raised up almost to his ears. She looks to his face and sees that it’s red, his brow furrowed in pain. A fierce feeling comes over her then. She wants to be big, big enough to cover him so that nothing hurtful can reach him.
It’s easy for her to reach out to the victims she works with every day because their pain is clear and immediate. She has the authority to help them and they seek her out. Even when they don’t at first trust her, they listen to her. She can offer them her compassion, find who has hurt them, promise them to do everything in her power to make sure they will be safe. But with Jiseok it’s different. He makes her feel soft in a way she hasn’t felt since she was very young, when both her parents had been alive and the responsibilities of her and her sister’s livelihoods and wellbeing hadn’t been hers alone to carry. The way he treats her, his attention sincere, his touch solid, gentle, present, reminds her what it is to be cared for, what it is to be other than alone. He keeps worry from her. He makes her think that maybe she doesn’t need to be punished for her failures. He is so good at giving care that sometimes it’s hard to see the ways he needs taking care of. Yooryung wants to do for him what he does for her, but she doesn’t want it only as an act of gratefulness, of reciprocity. She wants to take care of him, show him that he doesn’t have to earn it and that it doesn’t make him any less dependable to need it. She thinks even if he weren’t so especially kind to her she’d still feel this way about him, because kindness for him is an ethos, his fundamental way of interacting with the world, and not just something he gives only to people he cares for.
“Chief,” Yooryung says again, softly. “Let me see.”
Jiseok shakes his head. “I’m fine,” he says. He takes a shaky breath and lets it out, then opens his eyes. When they meet hers he smiles. It’s weak, faint and wobbly around the corners, not at all like the smiles Yooryung is used to from him. She doesn’t smile back.
“Really, I’m fine,” he says again. His voice is insistent, like he wants to reassure her, as if she’s the one in need of comfort. He makes to shake out his hand, show her it’s nothing. Instead he gasps. He stops abruptly in the middle of the movement. He bows his head with the pain that shoots through him, and Yooryung sees the tears that spring to his eyes. He is frozen, injured hand held in mid-air, and he lets out a half-sob, choked in his throat.
“Chief,” Yooryung says. Her voice is full of tenderness. She doesn’t reach for his injured hand, though she wants to. She instead takes his other arm and drapes it carefully across her shoulders. She places a hand around his waist and urges him gently forward. “Come on,” she says, “come on.” He doesn’t try to pull away from her, but Yooryung feels his hesitation. He doesn’t want to burden her. He wants to make as if he can stand anything. If there is one thing she doesn’t like about him, it’s this, how even when his pain is clear he refuses to acknowledge it. Yooryung recognizes it, because it’s something she does too. She recognizes the desperation and the way he flinches away from his own weakness. She recognizes how sometimes it’s not even conscious, how sometimes he only sees he’s been hurt days after it’s happened. How many times has she seen a bruise on his arm or a cut on his neck and asked him if he’s all right, only for him to be surprised that there was anything there? How many times has she wondered what he does with all the pain for which he has no physical evidence? Her own weaknesses and her own fear of them are things she hates about herself. It’s a loathing that runs deep and is shaded dark. It sends a wave of uneasiness through her to think that Jiseok might feel the same way about himself. For her it’s merited, because her weakness, her pain, is just cowardice, just her flailing in the face of what life has handed her; but Jiseok, he should never feel the way she feels, he’s too good for it.
Before he can deny his pain again, Yooryung grips him tighter to her. “It’s all right,” she says. “I know you’re fine.”
She feels when he lets go. He relaxes against her and lets her shoulder some of his weight—not all of it, because always, always he is careful to hold himself in check. Yooryung is strong; she can bear all of him. It’s part of their department’s training and process of being paired with a partner. If he were to be knocked unconscious while on duty, Yooryung could carry him from any of the areas they’re designated to cover to a local hospital or back to the station. But she knows Jiseok only allows himself this now because he is exhausted, and so she doesn’t push him. She guides him. Together they take slow steps to his desk. She eases him into his chair, and after sitting down Jiseok uncurls his fist and stares at his hand. It trembles. His palm is red from where the door hit him. A spasm crosses his face and quickly, as if he wants to hide from her, he brings both hands up to cover his eyes. His shoulders shake. Yooryung doesn’t look away. She rubs a hand across them, slowly, firmly so he can feel the weight of her, and tells him what he needs to hear.
“It’s all right. You’re all right, you’re okay.”
She repeats it so it becomes a mantra, her voice low and her cadence in time with the movement of her hand against his back. She says the words to mean “This won’t last. You’ll make it through. The way you feel now isn’t the only thing in your life, and soon, maybe tomorrow, maybe the day after, you’ll remember how big your life is, how varied, and how deep your capacity for joy runs. I’m here with you, and I’m not leaving.” She hopes he understands.
Later, Yooryung brings him a pack of ice. “Here,” she says. She takes his hand and places it on the pack. Jiseok is slack in his chair, slouching. He hasn’t bothered to wipe his tears away, and he sits with his face passive, his eyes following Yooryung’s movements. She’s never seen him look so defeated. She knows it isn’t his hand, not really. It’s working so hard at a job that isn’t much valued, and seeing men at their worst and trying to get away with it, and struggling to make the money he needs to live, and missing being loved by his mother. It’s doing all he can for the people he loves and never asking for help himself.
Yooryung reaches out and brushes at the ends of his bangs. His eyes fall closed under her touch. With her thumbs Yooryung wipes at the tears on his cheeks. She lets her fingers linger, and Jiseok catches her hand with his uninjured one. He holds it against him for a long moment, and when he opens his eyes the vacant look in them is gone. There is some kind of keening in the look he gives her, some kind of longing. Yooryung’s breath catches in her throat. Jiseok never lets himself look this vulnerable. He’s already told her he wants her. But right now he wants what she’s giving him, her tenderness, her touch, her attention. But he’ll never say it aloud. Yooryung leans over, then, and hugs him. There is no hesitation from him this time. He leans into her, brings his arms around her and buries his face in the crook of her neck. She can feel his injured hand against her, cold from the ice she’d gotten him. Even with the pain she knows he still feels, he curls his fingers into the fabric of her shirt.
Yooryung wants to hold him closer but the angle of their embrace is awkward. She wants him to know that she understands why he is so afraid to say out loud that he needs help; it’s because if he does it will make everything too big and too real, and then maybe he won’t be strong enough to hold everything he needs to up. Speech has a way of making things crushingly concrete.
And so, easily, without a word, she slips into his lap. She sits sideways across his thighs and Jiseok pulls her closer. She wraps her arms around his head, cradling him to her chest, and rests her chin on top of his head. She’s smaller than him, but she envelops him. She won’t ask him to ask her for anything. She will just give him what he needs, give it to him freely, with the same generosity she admires so much in him.
Finally, finally, she feels him ease.
Yooryung thinks Woohyuk is wrong about presents. She gets Jiseok things he needs but will never think to ask for. She gets him a jacket that actually fits and ducks her head to hide her smile when Manjin and Sooho tease him, saying he's dressed all sharp now that he has a girlfriend. She gets him a pair of new Chucks and smiles unabashedly to herself when she sees them sitting outside her apartment door, laces floppy and undone, next to Yoojin’s shoes. She likes the moment when she returns home and he’s already there, so she can toe her shoes off and leave them next to his, and mornings when she leaves before he does, so she can turn his shoes around so they’re easier for him to slip on.
She can do this now, have this casual intimacy, show him small examples of what she feels for him, because they live together. Her place is now their place.
Jiseok’s first night living with her is unplanned. She invites him over just because she doesn’t want to say goodbye to him for the night, and they end up on the low, wide table set out on her rooftop, talking so long they hear Seoul’s traffic fall from a thrum that seems to power the city to a barely noticeable hum. They amass a pile of beer cans and water bottles and go through all the snacks she has in the fridge. When the night’s chill bites through their jackets, Yooryung doesn’t even invite him in, really, just holds her door open until he follows. She sits on her couch cross-legged, leaning over with her elbows on her knees, and he settles across from her on the floor, long legs crossed at the shins, arms around his raised knees. She soaks up how scratchy his voice gets from talking so long, and how he runs his fingers through his bangs, and then, when he lowers his legs and leans back with his palms flat against the floor, how broad his shoulders are in his plain white t-shirt.
Hours pass. They talk about work and music, news and the best places to get spicy pork. Yooryung covers her mouth to laugh because when he isn’t stressed out from work or exasperated with her for not listening to him, Jiseok is really funny. He starts talking about his mom, and he isn’t nostalgic or sad, but delighted, his hands gesturing animatedly, because he’s telling her a story about how his mom once farted in front of his teacher during a parent-teacher meeting and blamed it on him. It leaves Yooryung doubling over on the couch.
“No, Newbie, you don’t get it.” Jiseok’s face is open and he’s grinning from ear to ear. “We couldn’t even ignore it cause it smelled so bad. And it was one of those loud ones, the kind that’s like a string. I got her to up my allowance by a whole two dollars.” Yooryung likes him like this, loose-limbed and carefree. She wonders if this is what he was always like before she met him, before his mother got sick, wants to find a way for him to be like this as much as possible.
They’re surprised when grey dawn light starts filtering through the window of her tiny living room. Yoojin walks out of her bedroom, rubbing her eyes and mumbling, “Good morning.” She yawns, and then Jiseok yawns, and then Yooryung yawns. Jiseok laughs at this chorus of yawns, and his smile at her is broad and goofy the way it sometimes is, and she’s sure her’s is the same.
The second night they spend together has an awkwardness to it because they both know they’re on the precipice of something new between them. At the end of their shift together they clock out and Yooryung says, “Are you coming?” She lays her words out carefully. She’s not inviting him over. She doesn’t want him to come home with her. She wants him to come home. The night before had been so precious. It’s already taken root in her, claimed her somehow, made itself formative—from now on when she thinks of easy warmth and giddy happiness she’ll think of it. Yooryung wants to be selfish, just this once. She wants Jiseok’s stories from when he was a kid, and the way he shoots his empty beer bottles at her recycling bin and makes a face when he misses, and how he’ll randomly bob his head and wiggle his shoulders in imitation of her bad dancing, just because he wants her to laugh. She wants his closeness.
He nods. His half-smile is unsure but hopeful. He climbs onto the pink scooter behind her, the one she thinks of as theirs, so that his legs bracket hers, then brings his arms around and clasps his hands together low against her abdomen. They’re quiet the entire ride over, but Jiseok holds onto her tight as they whizz past cars and under overpasses. He leans with her when she turns left or right, lowers his feet to the ground behind hers when they stop at a red light. His chest is pressed up against her so she can feel his heartbeat at her back. Yooryung is the one driving, but she feels like he’s holding her, keeping her safe.
When they reach her place, she keeps looking back at him as they climb the steps up the five stories to the rooftop. She’s nervous, even though he’s been to her place before, has seen how tiny it is, was there just the night before. He saw it back when the only thing sustaining her was looking for Yoojin, and all she had in her home were dozens of packets of ramen and a wall that detailed every place she’d looked for her sister but hadn’t found her. Each time she looks over her shoulder, Jiseok smiles up at her reassuringly. His hands are in his pockets, his shoulders curled in and head ducked because he’s so tall his hair brushes the underside of the staircase above them.
Inside Yoojin is sitting on the couch with the TV on mute and a book open in her lap. “Oh, you’re home,” she says. She looks up from her reading as Yooryung steps in, and then, when she sees Jiseok, she says, “And you’re back.”
“Ah, yes,” Jiseok says. He toes his shoes off quickly while giving a bow, then goes to Yoojin with his hand extended to shake hers, bowing again. He’s in such a rush that he skids a little in his socks on the floor. Yooryung has to stifle a small laugh. “I’m sorry about this morning,” Jiseok says. “Ah, last night, I mean. I lost track of time.”
Yoojin ignores this and says, “I know you. You’re the one who found me.”
“I, uh, yeah,” he says.
“You helped me find my way back to Older-sister.”
Jiseok is dumbstruck at this, but Yoojin continues without his answer, “Are you having dinner with us tonight?”
“Yes,” Yooryung answers for them both. Jiseok looks back at her, and the hopefulness from before has turned into something else. It makes her feel warm and shy, and she turns away from him to walk into the kitchen. Still, Yooryung hopes he can tell the promise she’s making him. She hopes he understands what she’s offering.
She cooks a meal for the three of them that night. As she dices onions and cuts vegetables, as she brings the stew to a boil and scoops steaming rice into serving bowls, she listens to snippets of Jiseok and Yoojin’s conversation. They fumble at first, but then they fall into a rhythm. Yoojin’s voice is soft and a little high-pitched, and Jiseok keeps laughing at the observations she makes about what she’s seen on the television and what she’s been reading. Twice he calls out to Yooryung to ask if she needs help with the food, and when he comes into the kitchen she puts her hands on his arms, turns him around, walks him back to the living room, and tells Yoojin, “Don’t let him get up until I call you both.”
During dinner Jiseok introduces himself formally to Yoojin. He asks for her blessing.
“Chief,” Yooryung says mock-reproachfully. “We’re just eating, this isn’t a marriage meeting between the families.”
But Jiseok’s eyes go wide, and the hopefulness on his face is back, sincerity, too, and Yooryung has to look away.
Jiseok helps with the dishes. She washes, he rinses and dries, and Yoojin places them in the cupboard. They three sit outside looking at the night sky until Yoojin goes in to get ready for bed. Yooryung waits for Jiseok to stand and say he’s headed out. He doesn’t. He stands up after she does and follows her back inside, and when she sets bedding out for him his “Thank you” is quiet.
In the bathroom Yooryung sets out fresh towels and a new toothbrush. These are presents, too. She’d gotten them a few weeks before, when she’d been making her way home from work and had seen a store that was having a sale. She’d thought of Jiseok, gone in wondering if he cared what color toothbrush he had, how big a towel he used. This happens to her all the time now, thinking of him and wondering what he likes and how she can give it to him. It’s nice to have someone to think about. Yooryung recognizes it as part of companionship, is glad for it because it eats away at the loneliness that had become so much of her life.
That night, in the darkness of their little home, Yoojin calls out “Goodnight, goodnight!”
Yooryung echoes her. “Goodnight, Yoojin-ie, goodnight, Chief!”
A moment passes, and then Jiseok’s low voice comes. “Goodnight Yoojin-sshi, goodnight Newbie!”
Yooryung never asks Jiseok to leave, and he doesn’t.
It’s unsurprising to Yooryung that living with Jiseok is in itself pleasurable. With the space he takes up, with the sounds of him in their home, he brings new rhythms to her life. She sees who he is outside of work, what preoccupies him when he’s not filing reports or coming up with a plan to catch a perp. And because what she knows of him changes, widens, deepens, Yooryung feels like she changes, too, in response. There’s more of him for her to love.
He visits his mother four or five times a week. He comes back tired from each visit, but there’s no weariness to it. It’s a bittersweet kind of tired, as if he’s done something he had to and wanted to do, but it ended up taking more out of him than he’d anticipated. When Yooryung asks him how his mother is doing he never says much, just that she’s well, but his visits leave him somehow vulnerable. He comes back wanting her touch. Yooryung can tell from how quiet he is, from how close to her he stays. He lingers near her with no reason, and if they settle on the couch to watch Yoojin’s favorite variety show, he reaches for her hand. He asks her if she wants to go look at the night sky with him, and when she sits on the pyeong-sang he stretches out beside her and lays his head in her lap. He reaches for one of her hands, laces his fingers with hers, and with her other Yooryung runs her fingers through his hair. He falls asleep sometimes. Yooryung tries not to think what it means that he can do so so easily with her. She just enjoys the weight of his body against hers, how soft his features look with his eyes closed and his shoulders easy, and puts off waking him.
He likes cooking for her and Yoojin. He does it most days, and Yooryung lets him, even though years of cooking for herself and her sister and working at restaurants to make extra cash have made her good at it. He’s learning their favorite meals, how they like their side dishes seasoned. For late-night snacks Yooryung cracks an egg into their ramyeon because that’s how Jiseok likes it, even though she prefers it without. She lets him use the lid, too.
When Jiseok cooks he narrates what he’s doing out loud so Yoojin can follow along. He leaves rinsing the rice and putting it in the cooker to her, and asks her to help him keep time when he sautés vegetables or cooks meat. He always shoos Yooryung out of the kitchen, and Yoojin picks this up, starts to mimic him, so that when Yooryung tries to set the table she’ll shoo her away and do it herself.
On days he has off, before visiting his mother, Jiseok takes Yoojin with him to the street market to shop for groceries. Every time they leave together Yoojin gives her a task. “Since I and brother-in-law are getting you beer, you have to air the rug,” or “Since I and brother-in-law are buying the squid snacks you like you have to dust the living room,” or “Brother-in-law and I will remember to get instant coffee this time, so you have to hang the laundry.” The whole while Jiseok will stand behind her grinning. It fills Yooryung with joy to know she can trust her sister with Jiseok, to see them getting along so well, and to see Yoojin so confident. Yoojin’s voice is still soft and she still holds her shoulders close to herself, but she speaks with a self possession that’s new. Yooryung always says “Yes, Yoojin-ie,” very solemnly, and does exactly as her sister directs so that when she and Jiseok return she can inspect her work and give her approval.
Slowly, over the course of months, Jiseok brings more and more of his own things to their home. He’s cautious at first. He explains the reason for each item he brings over, what it is and what it’s for, as if he’s apologizing. But Yooryung doesn’t want Jiseok to feel as though she’s doing him a favor, or like his being there and the space he takes up is a disturbance. She wants him in her life, even in the most mundane ways. When she sees him coming up the steps with something new, she rushes down to meet him so she can help him bring it up. She makes room on her shelves for his books and photos, rearranges her drawers to leave some empty for him.
At first it’s just his clothes and toiletries, but then Jiseok starts bringing the things that make him who he is, that give Yooryung more to know him by. A baseball mitt from when he was a kid. His diploma from when he graduated top of his class from the academy. Books of nonfiction and manhwa with broken spines from how many times he’s re-read them, stacked and tied together with ribbon to make them easy to carry. The photo albums his mother kept and a box full of unorganized pictures. Yooryung sees his childhood in them, the friends he had as a kid and the family pictures of him standing between his parents. His father is tall and handsome like him. She sits on the living room floor with him and Yoojin and they go through the albums, and then Yoojin pulls out their own family album, so he can see what they’d been like as kids, too.
“Where was this?” Yooryung asks him.
“This house? We were just outside of Seoul, about an hour from here. We didn’t move to the city proper until I was about fourteen, I think?”
“Hmmm,” she makes a thoughtful sound and brushes her fingers over the plastic of the album. She and Yoojin are Seol-ites born and bred. “So you’re a country bumpkin, then.”
It jolts a laugh out of him, and his laugh fills her with warmth.
Jiseok’s an early riser, so Yooryung always wakes up to him already fluffy-haired from his shower, towel around his neck and coffee brewing in the kitchen. Though they’re partners, they don’t work all their shifts together. They arrange cleaning days according to their schedules and when they have a day off and aren’t too tired, they start early so that they can get through their list of tasks. She and Jiseok bring the sheets and towels outside, roll their pant legs up, and put the radio on to have something to listen to as they wash. Yoojin wakes up later. She waters the plants out on the rooftop, talking to them softly as she does. There are more of them, now, because Jiseok likes to grow his own herbs. There’s a row of basil and chives and parsley, and there’s a tomato plant, too. After they three hang the laundry, they head inside. Jiseok cleans the bathroom while Yooryung sweeps and mops and Yoojin dusts. Yooryung snaps a picture of Jiseok with huge pink rubber gloves on and one of her hair ties holding his bangs back from his forehead like a little sprout coming up from his head and keeps it on her phone to look at when she misses him. He’s tall and good-looking and he knows it, she can tell he does by the way he wears his jeans so low on his hips and tucks in just the front of his shirt, but it doesn’t keep him from dorkishness. They finish in the evening, and to congratulate themselves they order delivery and eat it out on the rooftop.
One night, as they’re having dinner, Yoojin takes a sip of the stew Jiseok’s made and asks, “When will we meet your family?”
A hush falls around the table, immediate and heavy. Jiseok looks up from his meal to stare at her. His brows are at first raised in surprise, and then his mouth falls open in an unsure half-smile. He lets out an aborted huff of a sound before turning to Yooryung.
“We’re all that’s in our family,” Yoojin says, “And you’ve met us. Shouldn’t we meet your family? It’s just your mom, isn’t it? Unless, Older-sister, you’ve already met brother-in-law’s mom.”
Yooryung isn’t sure what to say. She doesn’t know how to explain to Yoojin that Jiseok’s mother has Alzheimer’s, doesn’t want to use the wrong words. She could hurt Yoojin with what she says, and she could hurt Jiseok, too.
“I have met her,” she starts.
“And what’s she like? Is she nice?”
Yooryung looks at Jiseok before answering. He’s folded his hands in his lap and he’s looking down at them, as if the conversation they’re having doesn’t involve him. But Yooryung can tell he’s listening to see what she’ll say. He always gets like this whenever his mother is brought up, quiet and removed. The only things he willingly shares of himself are his happiness and his excitement, never his worries, never his hardships. Sometimes it’s as if he’s ashamed to have them, and other times Yooryung thinks maybe he just doesn’t have the words for them.
“Yes,” she says. “She was really nice. I met her during one of our investigations, and she helped us.”
“Can I meet her?”
“I don’t think—”
“She’s sick.” Jiseok’s voice is low and raw. Yooryung looks over to him, and he’s still not looking up. “Yoojin-ie, do you know what Alzheimer’s is?” He speaks to Yoojin with the same gentleness and patience he always does.
Yoojin shakes her head.
“It means she forgets things sometimes. Most of the time, actually. And she gets confused easily. By the time of day, and by places, and by other things.”
Yooryung wants to reach for his hand, so she does. He takes it, holds on to it. “It’s hard for her to remember people and their names,” he says. “It’s hard for her to remember me. She doesn’t—she doesn’t know who I am. If you meet her, you won’t be able to call her mother. She won’t understand it. So it’s not that I don’t want you to meet her, it’s just that…” Jiseok trails off into silence. He looks to Yooryung and his face is full of pleading.
“You want to protect her?” Yoojin asks. Yooryung looks at her in surprise.
“Yeah,” Jiseok says. There’s something muted about his tone. “Yes.” He bites his lip, and then, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right,” Yoojin says, “I know how it feels to want to protect someone.”
That night their home is full of an uncommon tension. They don’t stay up talking to each other or gather to watch a TV program. Yoojin goes into her room and shuts the door with a soft click. Yooryung stays outside, sits at the kitchen table with a book laying open before her, but she never flips a page. Jiseok puts on his jacket. At the door he slips on his shoes and tells her he’ll be back, but he doesn’t tell her when, or where he’s going. Yooryung gives up pretending to read the moment the door closes behind him, and then she sits and stares blankly ahead of her. An hour passes, then another. She gets up to turn off the light and settles in a corner of the couch, where she can look out the window. The streetlights are on. They cast a steady orangey glow that streams in through the window, and Yooryung keeps herself still like that light. Her view is of those tall lights, and of the rooftops of neighboring houses, and of telephone lines slung from one poll to the next, criss-crossing over each other. Yoojin comes out again to prepare for sleep and has no comment for her sitting in the dark. When the green glow of the clock on their cable box blinks to midnight, Yooryung heads in for bed.
She waits for him there, too. It’s a while, but she hears when he comes in. She listens for more sounds of him, but their home is quiet. All she can hear is the television from the downstairs neighbor, the noise of cars from the street outside, and her own breathing. This kind of silence reminds her of the years she spent here alone, before she’d met Jiseok, back when Yoojin was missing because she’d abandoned her. It’s a shock to Yooryung, to feel this way now after being so long with Jiseok. He’d made her forget how scary it is to be lonely.
When she gets up from her bed, she finds Jiseok sitting with his back against the couch, hugging his knees to his chest. She hovers just inside the doorway between her room and the living room, where he sleeps. He hasn’t set out the bedding she bought for him to sleep with, and this makes her feel her loneliness all the more. It pulses right in the center of her chest, as if it’s some essential organ. She watches him for a long while, the way he keeps his head lowered, unmoving. If not for the tension she can see lining his shoulders, she would think he’d fallen asleep like this, sitting up and holding himself.
“You’re here,” she says finally.
“Oh,” Jiseok jumps a little, startled. “Hi. Sorry, did I wake you?”
“No,” Yooryung shakes her head. “Can I join you?”
Jiseok shrugs. Yooryung makes her way over to him, crouches down across from him so that they’re facing each other.
She doesn’t ask him where he’s been. “Are you ok?” she asks.
“Yeah. I’m always ok.”
There’s a ruefulness to his tone, and in the light from the streetlights Yooryung sees him smile. She hates that smile. It’s the one he gives her when he’s thinking something he won’t share with her. Yooryung knows Jiseok won’t tell her if he’s tired or if he’s hurt, so that night she shares something with him instead.
“Chief, can I tell you something?” she asks.
“Can you promise you won’t get mad?”
He frowns at her. “I promise I’ll listen,” he says.
Yooryung waits a long moment, and then she tells him a secret. “I’ve been visiting your mother.”
She doesn’t tell Jiseok that she wanted to meet the person who raised such a good son, meet the woman responsible for the person he is—someone kind and warm, someone who can love her with all her faults, touch her gently and with reverence, and make her feel like she deserves it. She doesn’t tell him that sometimes she feels selfish in her love for him, because while she loves him for who he is, she also loves him simply because he loves her, simply because he wants her and he tells her and shows her. He makes her feel so good. He makes her want to be who she is, with her anger and her shortcomings and fuck ups and all, because he likes that person. He makes her think if he can want her like this, then maybe it’s all right for her to be as she is.
What she tells him instead is that even though his mom doesn’t know him, her son, she does know the person he is to her now, the friendly young man who often comes to read to her. Yooryung tells him how each time she visits, she re-introduces herself and tells her she’s someone who cares deeply for her friend, and his mother tells her she’s glad he has someone to look after him. She tells him how she’s been reading out loud the novel he once told her was his mother’s favorite, some foreign thing from the 1800s full of exchanged letters and a heroine who’s gossiped about and a happy ending. She tells him how she’s learned his mother loves those little square caramel candies, just like he does. And she tells him about the one time his mother had a lucid moment with her. Her voice shakes as she tells him, and she clasps her hands tight together to keep them from shaking, too.
“She remembered you,” she says. “She called you ‘her Jiseok-ie.’ She wanted to make sure you weren’t skipping meals. She said she missed you and wanted to know how you were doing.”
Jiseok says nothing to this, and Yooryung is unnerved. She wants to stop and apologize, wrap Jiseok up in a hug and ask him to forgive her, but instead she keeps speaking.
“So I told her. I told her how much you love her, and how you’re doing everything you can to take good care of her. I told her not to worry for you, because she did such a good job raising you that you attract good people to you, people who want to be by your side and help you.”
Jiseok’s face is inscrutable in the shadows of the room. The light from the streetlights falls across his hands. They’re clasped together so tight Yooryung can see a vein running from his middle knuckle down to his wrist.
“Are you angry?” she asks.
Jiseok takes a long moment before he speaks.
“Are you one of these people who wants to help me?”
“I—” Yooryung stops herself. “Are you angry?” she asks again.
“Don’t you have anything to say?”
His answers are curt, but in his voice Yooryung doesn’t hear the anger she expected. There’s something else in it. It’s then she realizes Jiseok is scared, just like she is. She’s scared of the loneliness she thought she wouldn’t feel anymore now that she loves him, she’s scared he’ll realize he ought to give his love to someone who deserves it better. She’s scared to hurt him. But she can’t think of what he could be scared of.
“Why do you want to be alone in this?” she asks him. And then, so quiet she almost doesn’t hear herself, “You never leave me alone.”
“It’s not the same.”
Joseok doesn’t answer her.
“Are you ashamed?”
“Are you embarrassed?”
“Then what is it?”
This time when Jiseok doesn’t answer, Yooryung reaches out and pulls his hands from each other. She takes one in her own, holds it and runs her thumb back and forth over his palm. “Talk to me,” she says.
He shrugs. “I—I should be able to do this. …I should be able to take care of her. It should be easier. It should be easier for me.”
Yooryung understands him. She knows intimately what he means, though he’s only said a few words. He’s talking about the frustration that comes from meeting your own limits, and how the actual work of care seems to loom outsized to the love you have for a person. It’s probably harder for Jiseok, she thinks, because for so long in his life he’d been a golden boy, and this is the first time he’s encountered something he can’t overcome with his charm or his intelligence or his skill or sheer will. But he has so much decency about him, so much compassion. He faces his struggling with a quiet dignity, and more than anything, a deep love for his mother, and this draws Yooryung to him.
“I wish I could give you more,” Jiseok says.
This Yooryung doesn’t understand. He listens to her. He’s good to her and her sister. He trusts her and he shares himself with her. What else can he give her?
“What do you mean?” she asks.
He shrugs again. “Just when Yoojin-ie asked to meet my mom…I don’t know. I wanted that. I wish I could do that, have a family for you the way you have one for me. I wish I’d met you before this, back when I was still in violent crimes, instead of now, when I’m kind of…” he lets his sentence trail off into silence.
The aching in Yooryung turns into something else. She can’t name it, but it’s something that reaches out to Jiseok. A part of her, the part that was so sure Jiseok would be repulsed by her, the part that keeps a tally of her failures and shortcomings and knows she has not been as good as she should have been, thinks that if he’d met her back then he wouldn’t have wanted her. But Yooryung listens to the selfishness in her instead. It tells her all she has to offer as family is herself and Yoojin and yet Jiseok thinks it’s something to be grateful for. He gives her so much and still he wants to give her more.
“Do you know what else I told your mother?” Yooryung asks. She doesn’t wait for him to answer. “I told her how good you are at your job and how you help people every day, even when it’s with something insignificant, like they lost their transportation card. I told her how you treat them like actual people, and not just paperwork you’ll have to fill out once you’re done with them. I told her how good you are at being chief, how much you’ve taught me, and how you let me and Sooho and Manjin teach you, too. I told her you make me want to be like you.”
In the darkness she hears him swallow. He doesn’t comment on what she’s said at all.
“It’s weird,” he says. “She doesn’t remember me, but she’s still the same. She flicks her hair over her shoulder the same way, and she still uses the same turns of phrases she always used. And her walk is the same, too. She has very light footsteps. I remember when I was a kid at night I’d listen for them, cause she’d always come check in my room to see if I was ok.”
“Jiseok,” Yooryung says his name. She stands and doesn’t let go of his hand. “Come to bed.”
He looks up at her for a long time before he stands, too, and then Yooryung leads him to her room. They climb into her bed together. She wants to hold him, but Jiseok pulls her into his arms. She rests her head against his chest and raises her leg to place over his hip. She listens to his breathing even out and deepen as he falls asleep. From that night on he no longer needs the bedding she got for him.
Yoojin’s changed since having been kidnapped. There’s an independence about her that comes as a surprise to Yooryung. She’d expected their life together to return to what it had been before the day she’d shown both herself and her sister how awful she could be. It’s what she’d wanted, a home to themselves that she kept through the work of her hands and body, and Yoojin the way she remembered her. Safe. Vulnerable. Dependent. In the days when Yoojin had been missing and all Yooryung had was her fear and her anger and the smallest sliver of hope that she was alive, she’d gotten down on her knees and prayed for her life to be again what it had been. She’d sworn that if she could get that life back, if she could get Yoojin back, she’d never break again. Loneliness was a small price to pay, was nothing at all, for her sister and the love they shared between them.
But now in their home is Jiseok. Yooryung knows the barrenness her life is without Yoojin, but having Jiseok there beside them both throws their relationship into further relief. She sees how before when she was anxious Yoojin absorbed it and became anxious herself, reflected that anxiousness back at her. Yooryung sees how she’s like a sponge, taking in what her environment puts out. All her years of caring for Yoojin, and Yooryung had never noticed it. She’d always thought that it was Yoojin who would never leave her side, Yoojin who needed constant reassurance, Yoojin who needed so much of her that there was little left for herself. But two years Yoojin had been away from her, and in that time Yooryung had been a wreck, while Yoojin had, somehow, come into herself.
Yooryung can berate herself for how little well she knew her sister, and some days she does. Some days, when she’s very tired, she’ll wonder if she ever took good care of Yoojin and why, when she’d had to make a decision, Yoojin had chosen to stay with the old woman who’d taken her away. But other days, most days, days when Jiseok tucks her hair behind her ear as they wash the dishes because he wants to see her face, she instead lets herself be happy to have her sister again. She lets herself marvel at how Yoojin has grown. When she feels relief that she doesn’t have to give up on a life of her own or on being loved outside of Yoojin, she lets the feeling come and then lets it go, doesn’t fight it for fear that it means she doesn’t love Yoojin the way she should. She’s already done the worst thing she could ever do, but now she also knows the lengths to which she will go to make up for her failures.
Yoojin starts visiting the group home even before Jiseok moves in. She likes going there for a few hours in the day while Yooryung and Jiseok are at work. It’s only just one neighborhood over from where they live, and she can get there with just a half-hour bus ride. The first weeks she goes, Yooryung takes her there and brings her back to help her familiarize herself with the route. Yooryung writes the number of the bus down for her, and lists out the stops between their home and the group home. She draws a map, too. She buys Yoojin a phone, and in it she puts in herself and Jiseok as contacts. The second week after Yoojin starts going to the group home on her own, Yooryung notices more contacts listed. There’s Jeongeun, the head nurse, Gitaek, the music therapist who comes every Thursday, and Inah, a woman about Yoojin’s age who lives at the home full-time. When Inah calls, Yoojin’s face lights up. She picks the call up, goes into her room to take it, shuts the door behind her for privacy.
It’s a decision Yoojin makes on her own, and though it makes Yooryung’s heart seize up with worry, she tries her best to keep it to herself. It’s the first real thing Yoojin has wanted since she’s come back outside of small things like a special dish for dinner or a new hairbrush. She’ll stay at the group home during the weekdays and come back home during the weekends. This is how Yooryung thinks of it in her mind, how she thinks of it when she signs her name under Yoojin’s on the contract, but she wonders if Yoojin will still consider their place her home, when she’ll spend more time somewhere else, surrounded by people she’s chosen.
The day Yoojin moves in—Yooryung forces herself to say this instead of moves away—she and Jiseok help her. They pack her few suitcases of belongings into the back of a rented truck and drive the short distance to the group home. There’s a whole gathering of people there to welcome her. Inah is there in a long white dress and glasses that make her eyes owlish. She’s shy and quiet. She doesn’t look Yooryung in the eyes and she twists her hands around each other like Yoojin, but her smile is bright when she sees her. She takes Yoojin’s hand and tells her how excited she is that they’re going to be neighbors.
After setting up her room, Yoojin gives Yooryung and Jiseok a tour of her favorite places. There’s the library, where she helps re-shelve books, the music room with the big piano she’s learning to play on, and the garden outside that she can see from the window in her room. They sit there in the afternoon, sharing a picnic with food Jiseok had packed. Yooryung lingers because the only time she’s ever left her sister she was in crisis. She realizes she doesn’t actually know how to leave her. But Yoojin reaches out and hugs her. She says, “It’s okay, Older-sister, I’ll see you again this Saturday, and the next one and the next one.” Yooryung can hardly speak. She hugs Yoojin back, her embrace tight, her voice wavering when she whispers, “I’ll miss you.” Yoojin walks her and Jiseok back to the truck, and it takes Yooryung a moment to realize she’s talking to Jiseok when she says, “Take care of her.”
He does. In the middle of the week, not even four days after Yoojin’s moved, he switches shifts with another subway squad, so that they’re covering different turf. Yooryung doesn’t even notice they’re in the neighborhood of Yoojin’s group home until they turn the corner to walk up the hill to its gate. She slows down and falls behind him, but Jiseok comes back for her, takes her hand and walks with her, leads her. “See?” he says. He kisses the back of her hand. “It’s not like before. You know where she is, you can come to her.”
One night she and Jiseok sit outside together. There’s a breeze she can feel through her shirt and their cans of beer are sweating. They have the radio on, but it’s low, so they can still hear the city pulsing around them. Yooryung is relaxed and easy.
“Did you know?” Jiseok asks.
“Before you asked me to stay, did you know I’d sold my home?”
Yooryung looks over at him, but he’s sitting leaning back on his hands, his long legs crossed at the ankle, his face tilted up at the night sky. For a moment she wonders if she should lie. She had known, but she hadn’t invited him over to save him or help him. She’d just wanted him with her. She wants to be by his side.
She tells him the truth. "Yes."
Jiseok says nothing. He's more open with his feelings than she is, but he’s so private in some ways. She doesn't want him to feel pathetic, or that her understanding is simple pity or even compassion.
"I like that you're here,” she says. She isn't as eloquent as he is, but she wants to explain herself, wants to be clear about what he means to her. "I like having you here with me. Without you, I'd be lonely." She scoots over closer to him, lays her head on his shoulder.
They stay like that for a while, quiet and close and enjoying it, and then Jiseok turns toward her and places a kiss on her forehead. Yooryung nuzzles closer, raises her face to his. He presses his lips against hers. His kiss is soft and gentle, but chaste. Yooryung doesn’t want chaste from him right now. She’s seen it before, the need bare on his face when he looks at her, and that’s what she wants. She wants to know what he’ll do to her if she lets him do what he wants. She wants to know how good she can make him feel by doing what she wants. She raises herself to her knees and leans over to kiss him properly.
Jiseok doesn't let her pull away. He cups the back of her head with a hand and deepens the kiss, then tugs on her arm so that she crawls closer to him. But it’s not enough. She climbs into his lap, folds her legs underneath her on either side of him. He tilts his head back for her and she wraps her arms around his neck and when they finally pull apart his hands are gripping her waist and his gaze is full of love and longing. He looks drunk with it. Yooryung likes that look on him. She kisses him again because she wants him to look wrecked with it, and they fall back so that he has to catch himself on an elbow. He keeps one arm wrapped around her as they kiss and holds her weight up on top of him.
This time when she pulls away he arches after her and says, “I don’t want to do this here.” His eyes are on her lips and his voice is hoarse.
“Okay,” Yooryung says. She makes to get off him, but Jiseok just picks her up and carries her inside, one hand braced against her back and the other under her thigh to keep her legs wrapped around him. It makes her stomach swoop. She gives him small, delicate kisses as he’s walking, against his temple and his nose and the place right behind his ear, bites down on his lobe and sucks on it. She misses the slant of his mouth beneath hers so she kisses him again hungrily, and he has to stop and press her up against a wall before they can make it to their room.
They end up on their knees on her bed, kissing and clinging to each other. Yooryung runs her hands up underneath Jiseok’s shirt, skimming over his sides, her fingers light over his abdomen and chest. She curls her fingers to rake her nails over his nipples, and he reaches back with one arm to pull his shirt up over his head. He takes his watch off, too. He’s thin but muscled. There’s a gracefulness to his body that makes Yooryung want to kiss her way down it, place her tongue against it to feel it with more than just her hands. He keeps his eyes on her and Yooryung takes him in as he moves. He unbuckles his belt and steps off the bed to pull his pants and underwear off. He’s already half hard and that makes something low in Yooryung’s belly curl deliciously. She moans out loud just from looking at him. He climbs back onto the bed, reaching for her, kissing her again. She buries her fingers in his hair and kisses him hard. She touches him so she can know him, so her pleasure in him and her knowledge of him meld together. Her fingers map his jaw and his neck, his arms and the expanse of his back, cup his ass and press him against her so she can feel him hard against her belly. She caresses him with the fervor she feels so that he moans, so that he’s trembling under her hands. She moves lower over his abdomen and then lower and takes a firm hold of him. He’s hard and heavy in her hand and it’s so satisfying she groans with it. She pumps him twice and he shivers, grabs hold of her wrist to still her hand and says “Wait, no, no, not yet,” against her lips.
He has his hand on the back of her neck and his forehead pressed against hers. His breathing is ragged and so is hers. He cups her face and gazes at her. It isn’t longing anymore, it’s something darker, something more urgent. He kisses her brows and Yooryung closes her eyes. He kisses her eyelids and her cheeks and each side of her lips. Then he kisses her on the mouth, long and demanding and intense. It leaves Yooryung feeling molten and heady, loose in her limbs and hot in her skin.
“Take this off,” he says. Together they pull off her sweatshirt and her shirt underneath, and then her bra. “Lay back,” he says, and she does, and he tugs off her pants and her underwear. She wants him so much she’s soaked through them. She wants him on top of her so she can feel the weight of him, the warmth of him, wants to kiss him and put her hands on his neck and in his hair, slide them down his chest to feel his heartbeat, but instead Jiseok only comes up part way. He kisses and sucks on her breasts, making her moan and arch up against him needfully, then moves down, leaving a trail of wet kisses down her stomach. He caresses her thighs so delicately she sighs, but then he pushes her knees wide and his fingers dig into her thighs and Yooryung feels his tongue on her. He gives her long, firm licks and sucks her swollen clit with just the right amount of pressure. He feels so good she fists a hand in the sheets beneath her and another in his hair. She shuts her eyes tight as she gasps and tears start coming out the sides. She moans out his name so it comes out as nonsense and bucks her hips against him, fucking his face as he eats her out. Then he pushes two of his perfect fingers in her and curls them, strokes that soft place inside her and she comes hard, her legs clamping around him. He doesn’t pull away from her till she comes down. She’s breathing heavy and sweating, she feels like her body is the only thing she needs to understand the world, invincible and vulnerable all at once.
Jiseok sits back on his haunches and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. Something about that movement is so gorgeously filthy. His hair is disheveled from her hand and his mouth is wet from her and he’s hard and looking at her like she’s all he’s ever wanted. “Come here,” Yooryung says, and he does. He settles over her and his hips fit snug between her thighs. She takes his face in her hands and kisses him with all the love for him she has in her.
“You’re so good,” she says. She doesn’t know why she says it, or where it comes from. But it’s true, and she wants him to know.
“Yeah?” he says.
Jiseok kisses her hard. “Tell me again,” he says.
“You’re so, so good,” Yooryung says. She runs her hands through his hair and brings her arms around his neck. Jiseok starts to move against her in sharp, shallow thrusts, so that she can feel him against her slick folds and so that the head of his cock hits her clit. She’s still sensitive from her first orgasm and it makes her cry out and whimper.
“Tell me,” he says, and Yooryung knows he’s asking for something else. He kisses her so the sounds she makes end up in his mouth. “Please?” he says. He’s begging but it’s also somehow a command, because Yooryung will give him whatever he asks for.
“I—fuck—I want, I want—” She’s getting close again and words won’t come to her easily. He grinds against her, teasing her, keeping her on edge.
“Just tell me and I’ll give it to you,” he says.
A spark of fear flashes in her then, chases her need, makes her vulnerability stark and makes how much she wants him and how much she wants him to fuck her even sharper. Her heart is pounding and she feels raw with desire.
“I want you to love me.” The words come out choked and she clings to him. She knows the next day he’ll have marks from her nails on his back. Jiseok’s answer is immediate. “I do, so much,” he says. And he says it again, “I love you so much.”
He laces his fingers with hers before he fills her slowly. She’s tight and slick and hot around him and he lets out a broken “Fuck” before he starts to move. He pulls almost all the way out before thrusting back in, deep and steady. He lets go of one of her hands and says “Touch yourself,” and Yooryung does, reaches between their bodies down to her clit to rub it roughly. Jiseok pushes her breast up, sucks a hard nipple into his mouth and Yooryung comes harder than before, crying out with it. He fucks her through it, and then she feels him come, too, his hips erratic and bucking against her. They hold each other, breathless and satiated and sweaty and muttering elated adoration at each other between languid, open-mouthed, messy kisses.
In the morning Yooryung feels sore and luscious. She hears a faint sound coming from outside and realizes they left the radio on the night before. Jiseok is still sleeping and she stretches against him. She looks at him a long while and promises, both him and herself, that she will love him so he knows. She will take such good care of him that all his worries will ease out of him and all he’ll have left is the smile that takes up so much space on his face when he’s happy. That and the love he has for his mother and his job and his friends—and for her.
One day during their shift a riotous group piles into the car Yooryung and Jiseok are patrolling. Yooryung sees them all running down the subway steps, and they rush into the train car just as the doors ding to signal they’re closing. They’re all breathless from their running, shirts untucked and hair flying away, but they still cry and cheer and call out each other’s names and pull members still on the platform into the car by their arms and backpacks and even the backs of their shirts. Some of them are foreigners. They’ve got instruments with them, guitars and a violin, a saxophone and cymbals, and things Yooryung can’t name, and they’re stomping their feet and clapping their hands, and once the car doors close and the train starts moving, they start playing a song and singing aloud in voices harmonious and discordant all at once, but full of liveliness. There’s even dancing.
They’ve clearly been drinking. They all seem young, maybe college students, maybe kids with their first jobs, maybe ones who’re unemployed and still living at home, waiting for a chance to start their lives. The people who were already on the train watch them warily, some out of the corner of their eye, some while pretending to scroll on their phone. But then they switch from their strange, uproarious cheer of a song to an old pop song. It starts with one of the guitarists, who begins strumming the chords to something Yooryung hasn’t heard in ages. It’s from the 90s and she can’t remember the title but she remembers the boy band, their bad clothes and their even worse haircuts, and then the other guitarists pick up alongside the first one, and then the saxophonist, and then the singers.
And the strangest thing happens. One woman on the train starts to sing along with the group. Another gets up to stand with them. A man puts his phone away and starts clapping to the beat. One keeps his phone out and starts filming, even as he sings along. Before they reach the next stop the difference between the people who’d already been on the train and the group of young singers and dancers and musicians who’d swept in is gone.
It’s clearly a case of public disturbance. But neither Yooryung nor Jiseok move to intervene. There’s some kind of magic taking place in their train car, it’s electric and it’s lighting everyone up. The lyrics of the song come to Yooryung unbidden. They fill her with a sense of belonging. She knows this song, and these strangers know this song, and they can sing it and dance to it together. She doesn’t, though. She and Jiseok watch the people around them shake their hips and wave their hands in the air.
They watch as new passengers jump into the car at each stop, wild-eyed and cautious when they enter, singing and utterly changed by the time they get to the next stop. It goes on like this for four stops, and then the group exits. They take their singing and music and cheering with them, pouring out just as they’d poured in, loud, unruly, laughing, trying to move as one body even though every face is distinct in its joy. The group is larger now. Some of the passengers who’d been there before them have joined in, as well as some who’d gotten on after them. The people left in the car are out of breath, like the group had been when they’d first come on, and they’re smiling, elated, refreshed, other from how they had been. The magic is still there. When they get to their destinations they’ll try to explain to their spouses and cats and children and parents and friends and neighbors what had happened during their commute and their words won’t quite capture it, but their faces will be alight with it.
Yooryung looks across at Jiseok, and he’s looking across at her, and they’re grinning at the beauty of it all.