In hindsight, no one saw it coming. Except maybe for Jae Seob. And maybe he should have pushed a little harder, and not accepted her answers. But he didn’t, and now there’s no way he can go back and change what happened.
These past seven months have been some of the longest and most stressful periods of Ji Won’s life. She’s always thought of herself as unshakeable, unmoveable, but the previous seven months came very close to shattering that long held belief.
But now, that ordeal is over. It is in the past. There’s no longer a Baek Hee Seong or secrets that tumble out of the closet one after the other. There is just Do Hyun Soo. No, there is just her husband, a man she has loved for fourteen years so deeply and reverently that the thought of losing him seemed more unbearable than anything else. It does not matter if his name has changed. He is still hers.
They can now begin anew. Him, her and Eun Ha.
A clean slate.
Ji Won finds this new normal a lot more harder to navigate than she first imagined it would be. The brain is a creature of habit. It’s hard to let go of old ways. More than once, Hee Seong slips out of her mouth and Ji Won always notes Hyun Soo’s pained expression but she cannot help it. It is not intentional. It was her past. How do you let go of a past?
And the more time passes, the more Ji Won begins to feel a sense of uneasiness. She shouldn't feel different. She has her family back, her job is secure and she’s doing okay. She should be happy.
There is no reason for her to feel like she’s going to jump out of her own skin. But all the same, she does want to. She wants to disappear into nothing.
However, as always, she pushes the discomfort behind and soldiers on. Time will heal everything, eventually. At least Ji Won thinks it will.
The more Ji Won suppresses her thoughts, the more she struggles to make sense of her environment. Her uneasiness has not abated. In fact, it has increased. She feels so sick at times that she barely can get out of bed. She doesn't want to doubt Hyun Soo but the fact is, she does.
A sharp little voice in her head always has something painful and truthful to say.
Can you trust a man who lied to you for 14 years?
What if who he is now is simply just a different front? She sometimes imagines there is something lurking in his eyes and it makes her skin crawl when that emotion passes over her. She was always so sure of her beliefs. But not anymore.
When he says he loves her, does he mean it? When he buys her sweets, is it because he likes buying things for her or because he knows sugar will placate her?
When he smiles at her and hugs her, Ji Won wonders how real his emotions are? Does he feel affection or is it just something he does because he's expected to?
When he looks into her eyes, what does he see? Does he even know her at all? She's so much more than bright smiles and warm affection. Can he see the ugliness in her eyes, the way she does when she looks into a mirror?
These questions churn in her gut and she wants answers. But she has no one to turn to, because how do you explain something that you haven't been able to understand in the first place?
Hyun Soo picks up on the changes in her demeanor and tries to find out what is wrong. But Ji Won always brushes him off. This is her secret, her achilles’ heel and she does not want anyone else to know, especially Hyun Soo.
She has been too transparent and vulnerable all this while. It’s exhausting to be an open book and having someone read your innermost thoughts. Her openness has cost her more than anything else. She wants to just lick her wounds in peace.
She loves Hyun Soo. She truly does. But in her heart of hearts, there’s a nagging sense of dread. Ji Won is waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Maybe happy endings belong to fiction alone.
Jae Seob once takes her out for coffee.
“Ji Won-ah, is everything alright?” His eyes are shrewd and knowing. Ji Won tries to meet his gaze as long as she can, but in the end, she looks away and takes a deep breath.
This question has no answer that is good or bad. Ji Won hasn’t yet been able to separate the two, because the boundaries have been blurred far too much.
“I’m good Sunbae-nim. Everything is good. I’m happy.”
Her smile is so bright, and her eyes shine. Jae Seob speculatively looks at her.
“Why do you ask?”
Jae Seob shrugs. “Call it a hunch. My gut is telling me a different story.”
Ji Won laughs. “Don’t worry Sunbae-nim. Your gut has been wrong before as well.”
That earns her a wry smile. “It has.”
Jae Seob picks up his coffee and takes a sip, he doesn’t push it any further. Ji Won knows, no wait, they both know that Ji Won is lying. But she’s grateful he’s not pressing her any further.
It is hard to explain to people, that the wounds on her heart are still fresh, and still raw. No one else can protect her. It is something she must do herself. If she guards her heart now, she won't make the same mistake the next time. Her logical brain asserts that the possibility of making the exact same mistake the second time around is a statistical impossibility. Extraordinary circumstances make for extraordinary situations. And her situation is no longer extraordinary. She’s come back to her normal routine. But the imp in the pit of her stomach as a different assertion.
“Can you ever believe everyone around you? Can you even believe yourself? You were wrong for 14 years afterall. You are a cop, but also a fool.”
Ji Won pushes back and tries her best to squash that mean horrible creature, but with every passing day, the imp grows a little bigger and Ji Won finds herself more defensive and on the edge as she cedes space to the imp. Her will to resist is slowly being chipped away.
It’s suddenly very weird to interact with Hyun Soo’s family. His real family. With the Baeks, there had been a sense of the two of them against the parents. But with Hae Soo and Moo Jin, it is not like that.
There’s a linked bond the three of them share: Hyun Soo, Hae Soo and Moo Jin. They are the perfect triangle and Ji Won is the circle who has no space in this geometric figure.
Sometimes, she does not want to see them. She finds it stressful to spend time with them even though once upon a time, it had been one the things she desired the most. Their acceptance of her would have meant so much and it would have become an integral part of the foundation that defined the relationship between her and Hyun Soo.
But now, seeing them weighs very heavily on her. They are a poignant reminder of the time her husband was at his realest and most vulnerable self. She doesn't know them as well so she cannot read them and she finds it hard to trust them. Ji Won is an open book, but the other three are not. Sometimes, she wants to fit in with them so bad. And sometimes, she just wants to erase them from her life because she sees how different they are. Among the four of them, Ji Won is the anomaly. The exception.
But each time Hyun Soo mentions wanting the four of them to go out or even go on a trip as a family, Eun Ha and her mother included, Ji Won caves and swallows a stone and smiles and agrees.
She can do this. If it makes him happy, she can do this.
She just does not know for how long though.
They are in October now. Fall has begun. But there is no cozy warmth for Ji Won to luxuriate in. She has spent the entirety of the last month in a daze, going from day to day like an automaton, holding herself up by sheer dint of will power. Everything that was once an uncomfortable prickle at the back of her mind has now made its way to the forefront. And it’s no longer a single thorn. It’s a bramble of thorny bushes, maze-like and sharp and Ji Won finds herself being sliced day by day, losing a little more of herself every day.
The tiredness that is taking over now is slow and insidious. Her thoughts are sluggish. Her world feels confused and jumbled. She feels like she can hear sounds that others can’t. Her sleep turns into a nightmare-fuelled prison. Both Eun Ha and Hyun Soo seem like distant figures. Sometimes, she is unable to register them even. And sometimes, she doesn't even know if she exists anymore.
She vaguely realizes this is not normal. She has to see a doctor. There must be some medicine that will make this better, that will make her go back to being the person she always was.
Ji Won has a rare day off, so she invites Hae Soo and Moo Jin to lunch at a restaurant nearby. The last time they met, Hae Soo had expressed interest in wanting to check it out.
Hyun Soo smiles at her bright and soft, whenever she does things like these. His smiles are so beautiful but Ji Won’s heart just sinks a little more. The more she interacts with them, to maybe bring them closer, the further away she feels.
A few hours before their lunch date, Ji Won feels a massive headache coming on. All she wants to do is take a painkiller and curl up under a blanket. But she doesn't want to back out. Afterall, she was the one who suggested the meet-up. She does not want Hyun Soo to think that she’s not interested in bonding with his sister. She just finds everything so tiresome.
So she will take a painkiller, put on some makeup and show up. Sleep can wait a little longer.
When she looks into the mirror, concealer in hand, the person in the mirror seems so hazy. There are greyish purple bags under her eyes and she looks so devoid of energy. She finds herself using a lot more concealer than she has ever needed to. And she needs to pack on the blush as well. Her cheeks are hollow.
Hyun Soo notices.
“Ji Won-ah, are you okay?” he asks carefully.
Ji Won catches his gaze in the mirror. He looks like he always does, thoughtful and a little serious. She takes a second before she turns to see him.
“Of course I am!”
“You don't look very well. You look tired.” Hyun Soo points out.
Ji Win laughs it off in pitch perfect beat. “I have been slacking on my skincare this week. I’m completely all right.”
She’s not lying. She has been slacking. But not for the reason Hyun Soo assumes. She's just too tired to take care of herself anymore. But she does not know where to turn or who to ask for help. So she will take care of alone, like she has been doing for the past few months. She knows she has done her job well when Hyun Soo is placated by her answer.
Just a few more hours. She can then come back and relax.
Ji Won slips in and out of the conversation, instead preferring to nurse her drink and just listen. It’s all very mild and mundane and she's relieved that she does not have to exert herself mentally to participate.
She slowly finds herself drifting off, when suddenly she snaps back to the present.
Moo Jin is saying something. Something about their childhood and how Hyun Soo was even creepier back then. His words don't faze the siblings but they bother Ji Won. But she swallows the lump in her throat and lets it go. This is the dynamic the three of them are comfortable with. Only Ji Won is not. Therefore, there is nothing she can say.
Another thread of conversation pops up.
“Do you know how much your sister begged me to look for you?” Moo Jin scolds. “I had to dig through so much information just to find you. And now, you don’t even respect me. Aren't I your brother-in-law?”
Hyun Soo shakes his head. “No, you are not.” His dry response earns a bark of laughter from Hae Soo.
“Ya! You are such a psycho! How can you treat family this way? You are just so cold and heartless!” Moo Jin gripes. And maybe this is a joke Hyun Soo and Hae Soo are privy to and are okay with. But Ji Won is not. She stands up abruptly, hands curled into fists, shaking. All three of them look at her in alarm.
“Ji Won-ah?” Hyun Soo begins but Ji Won cuts him off. She addresses Moo Jin.
“How can you be so cruel? How can you complain about him and his manners when you were the one who threw stones at him and wanted to send him to prison?” Ji Won’s voice cracks but she still has so much more to say. Moo Jin is stunned into silence. And now it is Hae Soo’s turn to listen.
“Hae Soo-ssi, why do you let him talk like that to your brother? Doesn't it bother you when he talks like that? What right does he have to do so?”
“Ji Won-ah!” Hyun Soo once again interjects and Ji Won does not know if she’s imagining this or if it’s really happening - but there's a warning in his tone. But Ji Won is not done. She still has something to say. She has something to say to Hyun Soo, ever since he upended their lives. The anger that has been slowly bubbling all this while has now reached its boiling point and she does not care how her words sounds or how they affect others. She just needs to get it out of her stomach.
“And you. What is wrong with you that you let everybody berate you? Do you know how hurtful it is to watch you be that way? Why must I be the only one who understands you? Why can’t others?” Tears are streaming down Ji Won’s face and she feels so overwhelmed by the onslaught of emotions bombarding her. She's just so tired of having to do it all.
“Unni, please. Do not be angry. Moo Jin has always been thoughtless from the start. But he means no harm.” Hae Soo tries to comfort her but Ji Won cannot hear her. She instead focuses on Hyun Soo, who appears before her like a distorted image. Is he even her husband? The person she fell in love with?
“Ji Won-ah. Moo Jin’s words don't affect me. Don’t be upset. I shall ask him to stop.” Hyun Soo smiles at her reassuringly before gently holding her hand.
Ji Won shakes her head. It’s a lie. It’s all a lie!
“It does not affect either of you. And it’s not going to change!” Ji Won tugs her hand out of Hyun Soo’s grasp. “You always lie to me. You make me doubt everything! I hate this. I hate you! I hate everything! I cannot do this anymore!” To her own ear’s her voice sounds so distorted and jumbled, so far and distant.
She cannot be like this anymore. She just. She just can’t.
Time seems to have come to a standstill and Ji Won feels the world around her closing in.
Her knees give out and she abruptly sits back down and bursts into painful sobs, curling into herself, her mind slowly collapsing into itself. Her heart pounds, frantic and arrhythmic. It wants to tear away from her chest. But she has to keep it within, lest people damage it. She curls further into herself, her body now shaking with pitiful and wracked sobs. She can hear herself and she sounds so foreign. Who is this creature? Why is she in so much pain?
When her vision begins to gray and her entire body is trembling with the force of her emotion, Ji Won finally gives in. She stops fighting. It’s a relief to just stop having to be and having to manage. Her body can now take over. Because she cannot deal with this anymore.
It is all so easy. Her eyes flutter shut, her body goes limp, and she simply slips out the side of the chair and falls into a crumpled heap on the ground.
Hyun Soo watches in paralysed horror as Ji Won breaks apart in front of them. He’s never seen Ji Won like this, almost half out of her mind with anger and pain.
But he’s seen this very emotion before.
She reminds him of the time he came to her at the side of the road, in so much pain that he could barely breathe, so desperate for the comfort and warmth of her embrace.
There’s a desperation in his voice as he tries to reassure her, tries to stop herself from feeling worse but it’s of no use. Ji Won shakes off his hand, as if it were nothing.
Instead, she sits down and curls into herself, her body shaking as she cries in a way he’s never heard her cry before. He should take her home. He will then be able to take care of her, to console her and reassure her.
But he never gets to do that because before he can even stand up and excuse them, Ji Won slides to the floor in a boneless heap and all he can do is watch, stuck in place, with guilt and shame.
He leaps out of his seat and rushes to her side to lift her off the ground, to cradle her body in his arms, to wake up his wife and to undo whatever mistakes he has made until now.
But her eyes don't open. They simply flutter. He feels for her pulse on her throat and realizes with some horror that it is racing wildly out of rhythm.
What is happening to his Ji Won? What should he do?
He vaguely hears someone calling for an ambulance and Hae Soo and Moo Jin rushing to his side but all he can do is clutch Ji Won, rocking her back and forth. She feels so frail and breakable in his arms and he hates that he has been the one to cause it.
What has he wrought?
At the hospital, Hyun Soo tries to answer the questions the doctor fires at him at breakneck speed.
Does she have a history of mental illness?
Is she currently taking any medication?
Has she experienced an episode like this before?
Has she experienced the loss of a loved one in the past six months?
Has she been displaying any behaviours or emotions that are unlike her normal self?
Has she experienced any stressful situations of late?
The questions give Hyun Soo no clue as to what is happening until he hears the final two questions. They drive the nail into the coffin.
Hyun Soo recounts the past six months, and everything that led up to it. He tries to be as concise as possible. But no matter how he phrases it, when he says it out loud, it drives home the fact that there is no human being who can experience so much and not crack under the weight of it all. Ji Won is the strongest person he has ever known. But only now does he realises the actual meaning of what she told him at the hotel. She is only human. There’s only so much she can do. And there’s only so much she can deal with.
He knew he had been hurt and he knew Ji Won had been hurt as well. He just didn't know how deep the wound was and how sharp the blade was.
The doctor’s expression becomes grim as the recap progresses. Hyun Soo finds the world around him disappearing. There’s just him, and the words that pour from his mouth. He can vaguely hear Moo Jin leading Eun Ha away and he can hear Noona console his mother-in-law who bursts into tears as soon as Eun Ha is out of earshot.
The doctor asks to meet him in his office.
Hyun Soo sinks into a hard uncomfortable chair and the doctor sits on the other side. The antiseptic astringent smell that dogs all hospitals sits uncomfortably in his nose. He hates these places.
“Do Hyun Soo-ssi, based on all that you have told me, it seems your wife has experienced a psychotic break.”
Tears begin to run down Hyun Soo’s cheeks. Somehow, he managed to break the one person in the world who had been his rock for so long. And he didn’t even see himself doing it. Ji Won has been breaking all this while, and Hyun Soo has been blind to it.
The doctor pushes some tissues his way before continuing calmly.
“A psychotic break is in essence a breakdown. When our minds and bodies are overwhelmed with emotions or stress, the body shuts down in order to protect itself. A psychotic break can be caused by many different factors. In this case, your wife experienced a tremendous amount of stress and shock in the past few months. When you don’t treat trauma right away, your mind may forget, but your body remembers. Your body learns to stay on guard because it does not know what to expect next. All it can do is be prepared. But staying on the edge takes its toll. And eventually, a person buckles under the weight of all the stress.”
Hyun Soo finds bile rising up his throat. He feels cold and clammy and maybe the doctor notices because he immediately comes around with a sick bag and Hyun Soo violently retches into it. He feels so sick and worthless.
He retches and retches until his throat burns and when he finally sits up, the doctor passes him a bottle of water.
“Sorr-” Hyun Soo begins but the doctor waves away his apology.
“If you hadn’t reacted, then I would have been worried. Reacting to any sort of stress, however late is a very normal reaction. But watching a loved one break down is horrifying, because there is nothing you can do.”
Hyun Soo wants to say something. Anything. How can he fix what has happened? How can he help Ji Won? How can he take care of her? But the words are stuck in his throat and his lips move, inarticulate and helpless.
The doctor watches him for a little while before continuing.
“Your wife will wake up in a day or so. We’ve currently sedated her and want to keep her under observation for 24 hours. We can discuss a treatment plan in another few days, when she has rested a little.”
Hyun Soo nods in dumb acknolwedgement before he steps out of the office, the sick bag still in his hand.
He heads to the men’s bathroom, tosses the bag into the trash and washes his hands.
He feels so adrift. And so ashamed. The reflection in the mirror mocks him. For Ji Won, he had learned to smile, learned to predict her moods and learned to comfort her in the ways he could.
But the most important thing that he should have learned is to look beyond the surface. To look beyond her face and look into her eyes, to understand that suffering is not always something that can be communicated physically.
Ji Won trusted him till the very end. She still trusted him enough to endure this far.
Was he even worthy?
It’s not easy to acknowledge what has happened, especially in front of Ji Won’s mother. He can kneel in front of her a thousand times and it still wouldn't be repentance enough. She has every right to be angry and he tells her as much.
But she takes his hand in hers. “Hyun Soo-ya, I am angry. But not at you. I am angry for how much you both suffered. I’m angry at God because of how much he made my Ji Won-ie suffer.”
Hyun Soo stares down at their hands for a moment, trying to compose himself. But it’s too hard. He just cannot do it. The kindness and compassion of his mother-in-law only drives the stake deeper into his heart.
“Omonim, how can I ever look at her in the face again? I promised her I would take care of her. I promised you and Abonim that I’d treat her like a queen. But all I have done is hurt her. The person I love more than anyone, I have hurt her so badly. I don't know what to do!” The words tumble out of Hyun Soo’s mouth like stones of different weights.
There’s a heavy weight on his heart and the one person he could always turn to, he destroyed her as well in the end.
His mother-in-law puts an arm around him and lets him cry into her shoulder. No matter how many times he screws up, Ji Won and her mother have an infinite amount of care and love to give to him. And all he has given them is grief and lies.
The village was right. The Village Headman was right. Moo Jin was right.
He is a monster.
Hyun Soo sends his mother-in-law and Eun Ha home, with the promise to contact them as soon as Ji Won wakes up.
He sinks into a seat next to Hae Soo and Moo Jin. They have yet to speak a word ever since Ji Won collapsed. What can be said after all?
He turns to the two of them. “You guys should head home. I’ll let you know how Ji Won-ie is doing.”
“Hyun Soo-ya, I’m extremely sorry. I never thought of how Detective Cha would feel.” Moo Jin sounds contrite. And maybe he’s truly remorseful. But Hyun Soo finds anger churning in his gut.
He blamed Ji Won for not understanding him. But he never once stopped Moo Jin from misunderstanding him. And neither did he ever encourage his sister to stop enabling him.
He’s angry at himself. But he’s also angry at them.
“Don’t apologize to me. Apologize to my wife.” Hyun Soo snaps.
“Hyun Soo-ya…” Hae Soo gently interjects. And for the first time in his life, Hyun Soo feels betrayed by his own flesh and blood.
“Noona, I don't expect anything from him. But you are my family. Why did you let me continue to be this way? And why did you let him say all those things to me? I know you love him. But don't I deserve your concern as well? Ji Won never knew me or my past. And even when she did, she still supported me. But you knew me Noona. You knew I was not bad. And yet…” Hyun Soo breaks off, unable to continue. He’s not the only one crying. Hae Soo is too. But he does not feel sorry. He will pay for his own mistakes. But he’s not ready to take the fall for anyone’s mistakes once again.
“You know, I once told Ji Won that as long as she understood me, it did not matter that the rest of the world didn't. But I was wrong. I placed the burden only on her shoulders. I should have asked the same from the both of you as well.” Hyun Soo pauses, to clear his throat and roughly swipe away his tears. “Because every time he said I was abnormal or thankless or that I didn't think of you, you didn’t bother to correct him. I thought maybe one day you would. Because it did hurt me everytime he said that. But you never did. You asked everyone else to stop, but you never asked him to stop.”
And there it is. Hyun Soo has finally voiced one of the thoughts that always haunted him. In her heart, deep down, did his Noona also believe he was a monster?
He turns in Moo Jin’s direction. “You came into my life and destroyed it. I became a criminal for my sister. I took the blame for my father’s crimes. What more could I have done for you to believe I was good? You told me that I was my father’s son. That I was just like him. And I believed you for the longest time. All I should have done is thrown your words in the trash. Because you are just the same as everyone else in the village. I believed your words over Ji Won’s even now and I think that maybe you are right. But if your beliefs make me hurt Ji Won, then I cannot accept them. I won’t accept them!”
Moo Jin opens his mouth, but Hyun Soo turns away. He’s tired of letting other people exercise power over him. And he cannot bear to look at Moo Jin in the eye anymore. He’s the most telling reminder of the violence that he has inflicted on Ji Won’s spirit.
“Hyun Soo-ya, I’m sorry. I should have been a better sister.” Hae Soo sobs through her words and is remorseful ; he can see that. But Hyun Soo wonders, what can that remorse fix now?
“You should have Noona.” It is all he can say. He gets up from the seat, feeling as empty as the time he thought he lost Ji Won to death. However, the irony here is that she is alive. But he just may have lost her once again.
“I will go check up on Ji Won. You both should go home.” Both of them are crying but he politely excuses himself and heads into Ji Won’s room.
His priorities have never been more clear to him than they are now.
Hyun Soo pulls up a chair and sits right next to Ji Won’s bed. Now that he knows, the signs are all so startlingly clear. The skin under her eyes is bruised. The normal healthy bloom she sports is missing. Instead, her cheeks are drawn and distressingly pale.
In her sleep, she looks so fragile against the white of the pillows and bed, and so alone.
He’s texted her team members, who predictably react with concern and shock and want to head over right away. But visiting hours are over, so he asks them to come tomorrow morning. They comply, though not without some grumbling.
An hour or so later, he hears a knock on the door and sees a nurse standing at the doorway.
“Do Hyun Soo-ssi, you have a visitor waiting for you.”
Hyun Soo stands up in surprise. He does not know who it could be. He nods at the nurse who steps inside to keep watch while he steps outside to meet his visitor.
And the person is Ji Won’s sunbae. Choi Jae Soeb.
Jae Seob smiles wryly at Do Hyun Soo’s shock and surprise. The man looks an absolute wreck.
He heads to the seat next to the door and indicates at the open spot next to him. Hyun Soo sits down as if in a daze and Jae Seob feels a sudden rush of sympathy for the man. Ji Won and him just can’t seem to catch a break.
He hands over a package to Hyun Soo, who accepts it with some amount of confusion.
“I’m pretty sure you haven’t eaten for a while. My wife made you a dosirak.”
“Thank you Hyeongsa-nim. I will enjoy this later on.” Jae Seob nods, feeling a little awkward and not knowing what to say next. Maybe he hated the guy before. But now he doesn’t. It’s Ji Won’s influence, that wicked girl.
He knows what happened. And he's angry that he did not push Ji Won enough to talk that day. He didn't want it to seem like he was prying, but now he wishes he had. Because he knows that this was eventually bound to happen.
If there is one thing that working in law enforcement teaches you, no matter how unflappable a person is, everyone has a breaking point. It’s a cruel rite of passage.
“Hyeongsa-nim, what should I do?” Hyun Soo sounds so defeated and broken and Jae Seob takes a few minutes to formulate his thoughts before speaking.
“Do Hyun Soo-ssi, there’s one thing you must know about Ji Won. Even after everything that happened, she never regretted marrying you. In fact when I found out, uh- that you were you know, her husband and not Baek Hee Seong, the first thing she did is beg me not to tell anyone else.”
A look of wonder dawns across Hyun Soo’s face. “And you didn’t.”
Jae Seob nods. “I didn’t. Until I had no choice but to say so. That idiotic girl even wanted to resign from the job so that nobody would ill-treat or call you names. ”
Jae Seob turns his gaze towards a cluster of plastic plants and continues, with some degree of discomfort. He’s not a big advice giver. But there's a thing or two he knows about love and devotion. He knows this because it is the one subject on which he and Ji Won have absolutely no disagreement.
“Sometimes, your relationship needs to fall apart before it can become stronger. It’s a cruel lesson but a very effective one.”
Jae Seob sighs before continuing. Why do difficult things need to happen for people to understand? It’s one of those contradictions of life that he has never managed to understand.
“Do Hyun Soo-ssi, you should realize you are not alone. You have Ji Won on your side and that’s one of the best things that can happen to you. She’s a stubborn brick wall. And once or twice, she may break. But Ji Won will never let herself stay down for long. And obviously, by now you should know that if you have Ji Won, you also have me, our teamjang-nim and our Ho Joon-ie on your side by extension.”
Out of the corner of his eyes, he can see Hyun Soo nodding as tears drip down his face.
Jae Seob grimaces. Relationships are complex beasts.
“When you love someone, there’s nothing you wouldn’t do for them. If my wife asked me to drink poison, I would do it, even if it killed me. It’s not because I want to die. It’s because I love her so much, that I would even accept poison from her. It’s a choice I’m making; you understand?”
Jae Seob tears his face away from the plants and turns towards Hyun Soo, wondering if the man truly gets the meaning of his words.
“I think I do? For our loved ones, we go to extremes?” Hyun Soo sounds this out in the manner of someone who has just been slammed on the head with a giant hammer.
“Bingo! Love is not just the cheer and romance. It’s sorrow as well. We know which choices can hurt us. And even then, we choose them. Love is stupidity. But it is also powerful. That's why you see people lose themselves in it. Because the heartache is worth it.”
“I’ll bet you all the money in my wallet right that when she wakes up tomorrow, Ji Won-ie won't be angry at you. She is just going to be angry at the way you let the world walk over you.”
Hyun Soo finally smiles. Small and unsure, but it is there all the same. Jae Seob heaves an internal sigh of relief. He was kind of running out of advice to share.
“She once told me that if I saw myself the way she saw me, I would understand why she loved me.”
Jae Seob chuckles. That sounds very much like Ji Won. She’s always been a romantic.
“Trust Ji Won. She’s a lot stronger than you give her credit for. And it’s not because she knows the three quickest ways to end a person’s life. It is because Ji Won has a good head on her shoulders. But she can only help you, when you ask her for help. A relationship takes two people to work. Remember that.”
Jae Seob claps Hyun Soo on the shoulder in a gesture of comfort before he stands up.
“I will leave you to your dinner. I need to head back to the station now.”
“Hyeongsa-nim?” Jae Seob looks at Hyun Soo with a raised eyebrow.
“Thank you. For coming, for helping me understand. It means a lot. I know we didn't have the best of introductions, but I hope things will be different now on.”
“They are already different! Somehow or the other, Ji Won-ie got me to care for you. And you already know how blunt I am. You are now stuck with me as long as Ji Won-ie is. Good luck! You haven't even seen how annoying I can be!” Jae Seob winks at him, very much like a cheesy dad and it is somewhat comforting to see Hyun Soo crack another smile.
Mission accomplished. Ji Won owes him.
When Ji Won wakes up, sunlight is weakly filtering in through pale curtains. The light is not hurting her eyes, rather it softly illuminates the room.
She feels so groggy and her head feels so heavy. It takes her a few moments to orient herself enough to understand her surroundings.
She’s in a hospital room and her husband is sitting next to her and has fallen asleep by her side.
Slowly, her memory comes back and Ji Won begins to remember what exactly happened yesterday. As the fragments piece themselves together, Ji Won does feel some amount of guilt. Perhaps that was not the way she should have spoken. But she has no regrets about what she said. She also realizes, yesterday she reached her breaking point. And with the clarity of this morning light, this hospital room, and the way she was so grateful the day before to just give up, it tells Ji Won something she has known for a while now, even though it was a thought she had pushed way back to the edges of her mind.
She has seen people break. And it’s not a pretty sight. But as always, with things like these, you assume they are not going to happen you. Ji Won was so sure of her own determination and love, that she didn't think that her reserves of patience and tolerance would soon empty themselves.
In hindsight, she and Hyun Soo should have had a conversation the moment they returned home, Eun Ha in tow. Shared all those broken, sharp thoughts, those worries and that anger she had seen festering in the both of them. But she was so grateful to have her life back, her husband and child back, that she ignored that conversation. Maybe love would be enough. Afterall, wasn’t it love that had carried her so far all this while?
Ji Won lets the pale sunlight warm her as Hyun Soo continues to sleep beside her. She does not want to wake him. Some things are easier to decide when you don't look a person in the eye. As long as you don't meet their gaze, track all those little expressions, you can decide upon your next course of action.
And Ji Won has decided. For a few months, she had thought about it. But maybe she also needed that reality check from yesterday. It was that final push she had been trying to find.
It is very hard to love someone who does not believe they are worthy of love. Ji Won did that for 14 years, only to find out that maybe it didn’t help at all. Ji Won does not regret those 14 years. Maybe she always knew that she loved Hyun Soo a little more than he did her. Because if he loved her enough, wouldn’t he have shared the truth, especially when she needed to hear it the most? Maybe all of the love she received was not love. Rather, it was the normal care and concern you exercise towards your family. A form of affection, but not the kind of affection Ji Won feels. Ji Won feels so much, she sometimes worries her heart will burst because of it.
When he staggered into her arms at the edge of the cliff, for a moment, she felt that incandescent experience of being one person’s all, both literally and metaphorically.
The bullet he took for her had felt like a bullet shooting through her own heart. The two weeks she spent next to his bed, praying every damn day that he would wake up alright, she couldn’t wait for the day he would wake up and tell her he loved her. That he truly loved Cha Ji Won. Because she didn't want to hear those words only when push came to shove. She wanted to hear it as they held hands together. As they rebuilt their life together.
And then he woke up. And he was the husband she still knew. But what she wanted to hear, she never did get to. The past was left in the past and Ji Won foolishly thought that this time around, it would be different.
But now she knows it's not. And now, she is not the same person she once was. She doesn't have another 14 years to give.
Ji Won had always been a romantic, but adulthood and becoming a mother have instilled some sense of pragmatism in her as well. Her mother always did tell her that her head was in the clouds.
She looks down at the sleeping form of Hyun Soo and is overcome by a rush of bittersweet tenderness. She loves this man with all of her heart and more. She loves him so much that she cannot bear to see him be slowly crushed by the weight of his demons, as he continues to ignore them. Not when they affect him, and not when they affect her and Eun Ha. Her decision does not change the fact that she loves him and that she will probably never love anyone else as much as she does him. But that bitter pill of acceptance that she swallows tells her that sometimes love is indeed giving up and letting go.
She doesn't know how they are going to sort this mess out and neither is she ready for the inevitable heartbreak, but one day, perhaps she will thank her younger self for it. And if it pushes Hyun Soo to seek the help he so clearly needs, then it will have all been worth it.
A sigh of relief escapes her as soon as she acknowledges the elephant in her mind and it is that very sigh that wakes Hyun Soo up in a matter of seconds.
The man that she expects to see and the man in front of her are both very different in appearance. Ji Won is shocked to see how pale and washed out he looks. His eyes are swollen, his lips cracked and bleeding a little.
She wonders what else happened after she essentially checked out of that moment in time.
“Ji Won-ah! You’re awake!” Hyun Soo clutches at her hand and bursts into tears. Seeing her normally unflappable husband cry like a heartbroken child is something that Ji Won is still not used to. And as always, her first instinct is to comfort him. She pulls his hand a little closer so that she can stroke his hair and get him to calm down. But instead of reassuring him, it has the opposite effect. So she cups his cheek and tilts his face to get him to look at her.
“Chagiya, I can't help you unless you tell me what is wrong.” With a pang of irony, Ji Won realizes that this is the same tone of voice she uses when it comes to consoling Eun Ha as well. Like father, like daughter.
“I’m sorry Ji Won-ah. I’m sorry for everything. I troubled you and hurt you so much. I’m so sorry.” Hyun Soo is barely able to speak as he cries through his words and Ji Won is confused.
“What are you sorry for?” she gently questions him.
“For everything. And for the way that I have been behaving. You were the only person who supported me and so I selfishly expected you to know me the best. To understand me without me telling you anything. I asked so much of you without giving you anything in return.” His voice breaks and Hyun Soo drops his head, his shoulders shaking.
“I’m sorry,” is all he can say repeatedly as he cries and Ji Won knows there is nothing she can do right now except wait it out.
Just a while ago, Ji Won was so sure. Now she’s uncertain again. Perhaps there is something he needs to say and she needs to hear?
Ji Won ends up staying for three more days at the hospital and there is a weird sort of tension between him and her. Hyun Soo knows there is so much he needs to tell her, but after his emotional outburst he realizes that he needs to wait. The last thing she needs is to deal with his idiocy. Because, he truly has been an idiot. And he cannot keep expecting her to understand his thoughts without him saying them aloud. How quickly he had forgotten the way that particular coping mechanism had backfired on him.
When they get home Hyun Soo sets up Ji Won on the bed and sits next to her.
“Shall I make you something? Is there anything you would like to eat?”
At the mention of food, Ji Won perks up. “Naengmyeon?”
Hyun Soo smiles. “I’ll make it for you.”
“Chagi, don't just make it for me. I would like you also to eat with me.” Ji Won smiles up at him and Hyun Soo has never been so glad to see her smile as he does now.
Once the dish is done, Hyun Soo comes back with a small food table. He’s amused to see Ji Won already sitting up and comfortable, in the anticipation of food.
They eat in silence and every once in a while, Hyun Soo looks up, wanting to see her expressions as she consumes the noodles.
Something tells him that there is something she wants to say, like he does.
When Hyun Soo returns, Ji Won pats the space next to her. He clambers onto the bed and sits opposite her.
“Chagi, there’s something I want to tell you.” Ji Won begins and Hyun Soo nods. He will never be as courageous as her when it comes to speaking his mind.
“I apologize for my rudeness, but I will not apologize for my words. To all the three of you. I understand it may hurt you, and while I am sorry about that, I’m not sorry about what I said.”
Hyun Soo nods.
“Ji Won-ah, there's nothing you need to apologize for. I’m the one who must apologize for putting you in that place to begin with. I thought the ideal husband would be one that understood all of his wife’s needs and desires. But I never once thought of asking my own wife what she actually wanted.”
Ji Won bites on her lips, her hands coming together in a vice-like hold.
Hyun Soo continues, “You have always been so honest and truthful to me. But I haven’t. And when it came to the time where I should have been honest, I wasn’t. I chose to lie. I assumed if I lied to you, I would keep you safe. Now I know how much I hurt you by not trusting you. I asked you to trust me. But I didn't give you the chance to even do so. I fucked-up Ji Won-ah.”
Now that he looks at it, in trying to protect the life he had built, he went and lit in on fire. What use was this life if there was no Ji Won in it?
“You did.” Ji Won quietly agrees, a small sad smile on her lips.
“When you said those things that day I thought about them after we took you to the hospital, I finally saw myself the way you always saw me.” At this, Ji Won tears up and Hyun Soo feels his eyes well up too. He scoots a little close and holds out his hands. Tentatively Ji Won places her own on them.
“It was not a lot. But it was enough for me to realize that there was no one who could call me names and assume things about me. And the one person who did have the right to do that hadn’t said anything to me. She hasn't given me anything else other than all of her love and trust. I had everything I needed right next to me, but I was too blind to see it.”
Hyun Soo’s head drops and he grips Ji Won’s hands on his own, as if it were a life jacket. And that is the truth. It is. Ji Won is his lifejacket.
“Even when I heard you tell your sister that you didn't love me, it didn't break my heart as much as it did when you held the knife to my throat and you got angry at me for not understanding. I tried so hard to understand, but I couldn’t, because you didn’t let me.” Ji Won sounds so matter of fact, that Hyun Soo flinches internally. She is right. He didn't let her.
“You let your sister and your friend see the real you, even when you didn't seen them for 18 years. And here I was right next to you, hoping that you too would give me the privilege of knowing the other side of you, you as Do Hyun Soo the person, not Do Hyun Soo my husband. But you didn't.“ Ji Won withdraws her hands from his own and forces him to look up.
“That is when I felt like maybe 14 years of all my love and warmth weren't enough.” She’s smiling through her tears and now Hyun Soo can see all the pain he has caused her. It is on her face, in her eyes and in her tears.
“How could you carry on without even thinking of all that? Did you know how alone I felt? I loved you but I also hated you. You couldn't see me even though I was screaming. Everyone else did, but the person who had my heart didn't.”
Ji Won laughs, a hollow bitter sound. “And that day, I think I had enough. When I woke up the next day, I made up my mind. I needed to let you go. I didn’t like the person I became, so desperate and emotional. And here is the truth, Chagiya. I still don't know if I have reason enough to stay.”
Her words are a punch to his gut. A sharp knife twisted around his insides.
All of his fears come rushing back but for once Hyun Soo can understand why Ji Won feels the way she does. And he does not want to be the source of her sadness.
He wants to speak but it takes a while for the words to come out. “Ji Won-ah, I won’t stop you.” He chokes on them, they are like thorns in his throat. And it takes him a little while to continue. “I want to be a better man for you. I want to be the person you see me as. I’m going to do my best. But I don't want to make you wait to see me change.” He tries to smile at Ji Won, but he knows it's a sad facsimile of one.
“Chagi, answer me this one question truthfully. How do you feel about letting me go? I know I said I would leave, but I want to know what you are thinking.”
Hyun Soo can see how much it hurts Ji Won to ask that question, but she’s doing a much better job of approaching this question like a mature adult.
He squares his shoulders and takes a few deep breaths. He has been given a chance to tell the truth and he is going to make the most of it.
“Honestly? No. I don't want to let you go. I want to be selfish and keep you with me forever. But I don’t want to be the person who hurts you anymore. When I thought you had died, I just went crazy. I lost myself. And that day when you broke down, the same thing happened. It felt like I was losing my mind. I didn't care that there were other people around me.”
Hyun Soo pauses to roughly swipe away his tears.
“All I cared about was that you weren’t next to me. That once again, I would lose you. And it would be because I never let you know how much you mean to me. You are my world Ji Won-ah. I love you so much that a world without you is one I can't live in. Without you, there is no meaning.”
This is the most honest Hyun Soo has ever been and it is terrifying to be so vulnerable and naked. But there is also something so freeing about setting the words in your heart free.
Ji Won does not respond, she just looks at him with tears rolling down her cheeks. Minutes tick by as the words hang between them. Hyun Soo is okay with waiting however long it takes.
But he doesn't have to. A few minutes later, Ji Won crawls into his lap, hugs him tight, her hands and her body conveying the message just as effectively as any words would. His own arms wrap around her and he buries his face into her neck. Home has always been Ji Won. Home is the way Ji Won hugs him. Home is the smell of perfume Ji Won always wears, the first gift he ever gave her and one that he buys for her everytime she runs out of it.
It's so easy when he thinks of it now. Love, safety, shelter, warmth, they are all Ji Won for him. They always have been.
All the time before this feels like a fever dream. Ji Won still cannot believe it. Just an hour ago, she told Hyun Soo that she had no reason to stay. She asked him to give her one. And he did.
And perhaps the most brightest and beautiful part of that answer is this. It is the answer she has always wanted to hear. And the joy she feels right now, it is beyond any other joy she has ever felt.
Once their emotions get out of the way, the tension that had been holding them up suddenly dissipates. They deflate like balloons. Ji Won is tired. And she can see that so is Hyun Soo. They disentangle before crawling under the covers and then once again, they attach themselves to each other, like magnets.
Ji Won always wondered what love was. Before she assumed it was getting married, having children, building a life etc.
But if you ask her now what love is, it is this very moment. It is tears and honesty and the courage to ask difficult questions and give difficult answers. It is lying next to the person you love, knowing that there is still so much to be done, but feeling secure in the knowledge that it is not something you have to do alone. It is the relaxed sense of contentment that permeates your body, heart beats in sync. It is -
“I love you.”
Ji Won laughs. “I love you too.”
It is not just hearing the words you have always wanted to hear.
Instead, it is the act of loving and being equally loved in return.