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Different kind of Goodbye

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When his phone rings, Si-mok is writing his closing speech for the current case. It’s a simple fraud and he feels that for once, he doesn’t have to look at all angles. He passes a glance at the screen and sees Senior Inspector Han’s name. She checks in from time to time, to ask him how he’s been or complain about this or that. Si-mok likes those calls, they often make him smile.

He can feel she isn’t exactly okay but she’s still fighting for what she believes in. He does feel slightly guilty about leaving her but for him, following his work is the only option.

“Hello Senior Inspector Han,” he greets as he picks up. It would be a welcome reprieve from thinking about the case for a while. What he learned, mainly from the Inspector, is that he needs to relax more. It helps him also with headaches. He didn’t have an episode as long as he’s in Wonju.

There are sounds of the traffic on the line and Si-mok realizes she’s probably calling from her car, but he can’t hear her and repeats his greeting.

“Ah, prosecutor Hwang, that damn voice dial, I didn’t call you on purpose,” the inspector finally answers, and her voice sounds strange to him. When he concentrates better, he can hear she’s sniffling slightly.

“Is everything okay, Inspector?” he asks because even he knows that means something has happened.

“Getting better I see,” she answers but her voice still sounds dull. “My grandmother had a stroke; I’m currently driving to see her. My cousin told me that it doesn’t look too good.”

So, he was right. He stores the small feeling of pride for later and tries to understand what should be said in cases like these. Compassion, she needs compassion and only she can tell him what else.

“I’m sorry to hear that. I’ll hope for a speedy recovery. How can I be of service?” Si-mok doesn’t know if his voice sounds right but he wants to help her, wants to be there for her, and hopes it all comes through those few words.

“Thank you, being there is enough. I’ll call you later. Goodbye, prosecutor Hwang,” she says and ends the call. It seems a little bit abrupt, but he supposes she must be distraught. They didn’t talk much about their families, but she confided in him that her grandmother was for her more than either of her parents, who ran away to the opposite sides of the country after their divorce. He wasn’t aware whether she was in contact with any of them.

No matter, she was clear on what she needed, “being there” he can, and he picks up his office phone to call in a vacation request. Few more checks in the internal system let him know where exactly in Geosan Senior Inspector’s grandmother lives and he books a hotel near the largest hospital in the area.

Si-mok quickly looks over the speech, it looks good enough to him, so he closes his notebook and takes it with him.

---

He’s close to what he suspects could be the hospital where the Inspector's grandmother can be when he stops by a supermarket. He supposes it would be better to send a text as she can be currently with the doctors or her family.

I’m close, is your grandmother at Geosan University hospital?

Si-mok doesn’t expect an answer straight away so he exits his car to get himself something to eat. He left quite abruptly and realized it was getting quite late. Maybe he should’ve arrived tomorrow. There are still too many things he must learn and this, doing something for another person just because she needs it, is too new entirely. Especially taking a vacation and traveling across the country.

He’s getting himself a bun when his phone rings. It’s Inspector Han.

“Good evening,” he greets but doesn’t have a chance to say anything else.

“Are you really here?” she asks, and he can hear surprise and disbelief in her voice. She wanted him here, why is she asking? But her grandmother might be dying, of course, she’s distracted, he just needs to be more understanding.

“Yes,” he answers clearly, not sure what to expect from his distraught friend.

There’s silence and he checks whether either of them haven’t accidentally canceled the call but no, it’s still ongoing. For some reason, a feeling of dread runs through him. Did he really misunderstand what Han Yeo-jin meant?

“Thank God,” she finally continues. “Please come to the hospital. It's on the 6th floor. I’ll wait for you at the reception.”

“I’ll text you once I arrive at the hospital,” Si-mok tells her, and she thanks him before ending the call. He quickly pays for his groceries and walks to his car. The drive to the hospital should take at least 20 minutes and he quickly dismisses taking a break to eat. He can do so afterward. Han Yeo-jin needs him to be there as soon as possible.

Si-mok maneuvers the traffic with an unknown urgency in his bones. He isn’t sure what to expect. He saw her sad before, when Eun-soo was killed, when Choi Bit disappointed everything she had believed in, but this is different kind of sad. Even he understands that.

Her grandmother is her closest family member. He cannot emphasize, he has no relationship whatsoever with his family, but he remembers the fondness in the inspector's voice when she spoke about Nam Sook-joo. She never provided details about her parent’s divorce, but he understood that most of her childhood was spent with her mother’s mother, Mrs. Nam. She was the person guiding her through all her life and he can at least imagine that losing someone this important cannot be painless.

There’s a strange ache around his heart as he’s nearing the hospital. He probably should have eaten before making this trip.

Han Yeo-jin is waiting for him when he exits the elevator. She gives him a small wave when she spots him and walks towards him with a purpose. Si-mok still isn’t sure what he should be prepared for. Will she cry? Does he have any paper tissues? He quickly runs his hands through his pockets. No, he doesn’t, maybe he can tell her to wait a little, that he forgot something in his car. She’s close now and he’s about to open his mouth when she suddenly crashes into him.

A second later he realizes she’s hugging him.

“Thank you for coming,” she murmurs over his shoulder and he’s raising his hands, acting on instinct to pull her closer, give her strength, anything to dissolve the mist of sadness hanging around her. She steps away from him before he has a chance.

“My grandmother woke up, but they need to do more tests before they tell me anything. Come, I want you to meet her,” she seems excited about the prospect, and before he has a chance to say anything he’s being pulled by his arm. Inspector Han seems to do that a lot and he wonders if he ever minded.

She tells her greetings to anyone they meet and at the end of the hall, she drags him inside a half-dark room. An older woman lies on the bed, a gas mask strapped to her face. She looks extremely frail. If he could guess, he doesn’t think she would live for too long. His heart aches for Senior Inspector Han. He hopes she’s aware of how serious her grandmother’s condition is, but he suspects, as hopeful as she is, she might rather expect good news.

Inspector Han releases his arm and walks towards the bed. She leans towards her grandmother who opens her eyes and blinks sleepily.

“Halmeoni, I brought Prosecutor Hwang to visit. Remember I mentioned him before,” she says and turns to the side to point at him.

He bows respectfully. “Good evening Mrs. Nam, your granddaughter mentions you very often. I’m glad to finally meet you,” he greets her hoping that each and every word is correct. This isn’t a situation where he wants to make any kind of blunder. He respects this woman even though he only just met her, but he learned a while ago that she must have been the role model Han Yeo-jin looked up to. He believes in her moral compass more than in his own.

Mrs. Nam nods her head at him, and he can see her squeeze her granddaughter’s hand. He hopes it’s a good sign.

Han Yeo-jin is about to speak when the door suddenly opens, and a nurse enters. “Ms. Han, the doctor would like to discuss your grandmother’s condition,” she says and exits keeping the door open. The Inspector looks from her grandmother to him. He suspects what she’s going to ask.

“Would you mind staying with her?”

Si-mok nods. “Of course not, go talk to the doctor. I’ll call the nurse if anything happens,” he answers moving closer to the bed to usher her out. She gives him a small smile and leans back towards her grandmother kissing her forehead.

As soon as the door closes, Mrs. Han pulls the oxygen mask from her face. Si-mok moves frantically towards the bed to help her put it back on. She stops him with a hand on his.

“Please let me talk, Prosecutor Hwang. We both know I don’t have that much time,” she rasps out. Immediately after she starts coughing and motions with her hand to the cup on the bedside table. Si-mok grabs it and supporting her head helps her take a few small sips. She puts the mask briefly on, taking deep breaths, in between asking him to take a seat next to her.

He grabs the chair and puts it close to the bed. Si-mok doesn’t know at all what to expect. The whole situation is completely foreign to him, he never took care of anyone beside himself, never was close enough to someone to help them in situations where their loved one is dying. He wants to ask if he’s doing it correctly but suspects it’s not the right time.

It takes another few seconds for Mrs. Nam to catch her breath.

“Thank you,” she murmurs after a while. “I’m very glad you’re here. My Yeo-jin needs someone to take care of her. She acts tough but I know my granddaughter, she wouldn’t take well to my death.”

Si-mok bows his head. “I’ll gladly be here for Senior Inspector Han.”

The old woman gives him a small smile, so similar to her granddaughter that it feels like it warms his heart.

“You love her,” she states it as a fact and Si-mok feels his heart stop. Is it so? Is it the real reason why he jumped to his car and drove all the way here? Is this feeling of need to keep her happy and safe love? He knew for a while that he wasn’t just keeping Inspector Han in high regard only for her skills. There was something about her that attracted him from the beginning. Not just her capabilities, tenaciousness, he enjoyed spending time with her outside of his work and that was completely new for him.

He doesn’t really know what to reply but soon Mrs. Nam continues.

“I can see that, and it makes me very happy. Please, take care of my Yeo-jin,” she manages to get out before she submits to another coughing fit. This one is taking longer, and he helps her sit up a little to ease the pressure on her lungs. He caresses her back slowly, counting each breath the same way he was taught to do through his attacks.

She calms down quicker this time and lies down sending him a grateful smile. At last, he thinks it’s grateful. She then grabs his hand and holds it and Si-mok doesn’t mind. Maybe, she was really right and for a moment he feels deep sadness that he won’t be able to get to know this woman who shaped Han Yeo-jin into the person she’s today.

Soon, Mrs. Nam dozes off and when the door behind him opens, he expects the Inspector.

“Who are you? Why are you here?” an unknown voice exclaims, and he turns around slowly as not to rouse the sleeping woman.

Two women are standing behind him looking outraged, but before he has a chance to reply, Han Yeo-jin enters. Her eyes are red, and he guesses she finished speaking with the doctor a while ago but kept trying to calm herself enough not to bother her grandmother.

She introduces him immediately.

“Imo, Min-hee, this is my friend Hwang Si-mok. I asked him to stay with grandmother while I spoke with the doctor,” she tells them and nods her head outside. Both women bow, apologizing, and follow her out of the door. This time they’re back much earlier and Si-mok stands up, leaving the chair for the Inspector's aunt.

The younger woman, which he thinks might be Han Yeo-jin’s cousin, bows in greeting and stretches her hand out. “Nice to meet you Hwang Si-mok, I’m Wan Min-Hee. Thank you for helping to take care of our grandmother,” she says with a different kind of smile that Han Yeo-jin usually gifts him and holds his hand for a slightly longer time.

“That’s no problem,” he answers looking for Inspector Han. He can see her standing outside the door, she’s holding tightly onto a handkerchief. She must be upset. Without another glance at her cousin, he walks outside and stops in front of her.

“Would you like some tea?” he asks, touching her arm. She looks up, surprised at the casual touch, and nods. They walk in silence and enter the empty elevator. Only, when they start moving down, does Si-mok notice how late it is. A yawn escapes him before he has a chance to catch it.

“Oh, aish, you must be tired. Where are you staying?” she asks him looking worried. He suddenly notices how close she’s standing. He can still see the wetness in her eyes and has an insistent urge to reach and wipe the tears from their corners. He must really be exhausted.

“At Royal Hotel, it should be just fifteen minutes from the hospital,” he answers, still trying to find his footing and keeping himself from touching her. He knows that between friends, this kind of intimacy is usual, she touches him casually all the time, but this doesn’t feel similar.

Han Yeo-jin nods, pulls out her phone and looks up its location. “Yep, it’s really close. Let me drive you there,” she isn’t asking, he knows that and doesn’t oppose her. Maybe he can make her take some rest herself when they arrive.

She’s quiet for the entire drive, follows him up when he promises the tea. Si-mok doesn’t even need to force her to sleep, she does as soon as she curls on the chair in front of the bed. He covers her with the spare blanket he finds in the cupboard and fights with himself whether to move her to bed or not. In the end, he doesn’t but sits against the headboard and watches her.

Mrs. Nan’s words are haunting him. Does love feel like this? Is he really able to have such strong feelings? He knows that if he’s, he would only be able to do so for Han Yeo-jin. She left a mark on him, deeper than any of the doctors or teachers, she forced him to accept his own reactions and accepted him in return. She was what made him believe in humanity and in himself as well.

Yes, maybe he really could love her.

---

Both are woken up by the Inspector's phone, she quickly picks it up and finds his eyes with her own. She doesn’t need to tell him.

---

He only barely manages to get her tea before she drives him to the hospital to get his car. She then runs off to help her aunt to prepare the funeral. Si-mok isn’t sure whether he should wait for her but rather sits down in the hospital cafeteria. He could pull out his computer and do some work, but he finds himself distracted by thoughts of Han Yeo-jin.

Is she in pain? Does this mean she won’t ever smile at him? Will she be sad forever?

Si-mok remembers feeling dull pain when Young Eun-soo died. It weakened after days, now it’s simply a memory but she was a colleague. How long does it take to stop hurting when someone close to you dies? Months? Years? He doesn’t want Yeo-jin to be hurting for so long. He’ll be there for her, as he promised to her grandmother.

He keeps on sitting, his phone on the table in front of him.

“Are you waiting for me?” a soft well-known voice asks next to him.

He nods.

Han Yeo-jin sits down next to him and sighs quite loudly. “I hate this, these preparations, calling the family, acting as if this is a normal daily situation,” she murmurs running her hand through her hair and wipes away the ever-present tears. “I just want to wake up.”

The last part is whispered and Si-mok wonders if this pain he’s feeling now it’s his heart breaking. He needs to distract her, just for a moment, maybe make her smile or at least, chase away the tears. He can’t just take her away from here, there are obligations she just wouldn’t ignore but maybe, maybe he can use them somehow.

“I didn’t bring a black suit. Would you mind helping me pick up some?” he asks hoping it’s the right call.

She looks up quite suddenly, her eyes wide but then there’s a mischievous glint in her eye. “You can still rent one?”

She then starts laughing at his disgusted face and he thinks that he can keep on doing this for the rest of his life.

---

He senses he’s out of place when he enters the parlor. There are groups of people obviously knowing each other talking quietly or sitting down with the food. He buttons up his new suit and makes his way to pay respects to someone he only knew for a few minutes. It isn’t for the first time, but it feels so. There is a strange undercurrent to the sadness he can feel. It isn’t about knowing the person but about the possibilities.

Si-mok could’ve known her, could’ve gotten to know her. She could’ve been a family to him.

He takes a deep breath and enters the chamber with the coffin. Han Yeo-jin is standing there next to her aunt. They both bow when he walks in and he does so as well, then turns towards the picture of smiling Nam Sook-Joo. He bows to her as well, murmuring a prayer his mother taught him long ago.

Si-mok gives one more greeting to the Inspector and her aunt and catches her mouthing to him. He translates it as “wait for me” and he nods briefly walking to the common area. He hides in a corner and observes people around him. He doesn’t know much about Han Yeo-jin’s family besides her relationship with her grandmother but has no trouble identifying her mother who enters the parlor quite frantically. There is a resemblance. An older man follows, and he wonders if she knows she might have a stepfather.

He keeps entertaining himself by people watching when a familiar face stops next to him.

“I was wondering if you would come,” Wan Min-Hee notes, her perfume making his nose itch. “Umma said you’re a Prosecutor in Seoul, is that how you know Yeo-jin?”

Si-mok turns towards her and nods. “Yes, we met on a case,” he answers, looking over her head for the Inspector.

“So that means you’re only colleagues, right?” she asks him and there’s again a change in her tone he doesn’t exactly understand. For some reason, he even minds it.

“We’re friends,” he tells her a little bit louder than he intended and then notices Han Yeo-jin standing a few feet away. She seems to be giving him a warm look and takes a few steps towards them.

“Thank you, Min-hee for making him company,” she says to her cousin coming a little bit closer to him than is usual. Whatever message she’s sending by that, Min-hee obviously understands and immediately wanders off. Si-mok has questions but he swallows them and looks at bemused Yeo-jin.

“I heard her asking her mother how much a prosecutor makes. You should be careful, or we end up a family,” her joke is flat, and he finds her eyes in order to understand. He looks at her, notices the tightness of her mouth, her tightly closed fists and connects it with the arrival of her mother. He believes she needs some air, and he tells her so.

They walk towards the nearby park but then Yeo-jin suddenly stops and wraps her arms around herself. Something is bubbling under the surface. He can almost taste it coming.

“How dare she come here and pretend that she cares about me? That she knows about me? She even had the gall to suggest that she liked my longer hair better,” her angry words are spilling out and he’s reminded of her interrogating Prosecutor Seo’s kidnapper. She’s glorious when she’s angry but now she’s hurting, aiming vitriol at her mother because she misses the person that was the real mother to her.

Without thinking he takes her arms into his hands and pulls. She doesn’t expect it and stumbles into him holding onto his chest. For a moment, none of them moves, but then they maneuver each other in a strong hug. Yeo-jin buries her face into his neck and he can feel wetness, he caresses her back and hopes that the tears will help this time. That there is sense to them.

Holding her like this, he can admit that he craves closeness with another human being, but only if it’s her. It’s her scent he wants to smell and her hands he wants to feel on himself. Love is quite clear once you become aware of it. Si-mok wonders if he should tell her. Is this the right time? Is there even such a thing?

She continues to cry quietly, and he simply holds her.

----

Once he’s back at the hotel, he calls the chief that he’s back at the office tomorrow. It’s Saturday but no one really took care of his cases and he has to prepare for Monday. He carefully folds the new suit into the box and looks over the room. He didn’t take that many things to really forget anything, but he wants to be sure.

He was playing with the idea to drive back to Wonju tonight, but he admits to himself he’s tired. It’s a different kind of tired, something new, his thoughts are in chaos and he’s only sure of one thing. Nothing will be the same after this. Si-mok wants tonight to be the last night he allows himself thinking about what loving Yeo-jin might mean, what will change for him, for them. Then he’ll go back to his life, his cases, his loneliness. It’s comfortable like that because it’s something he’s familiar with.

Laying down, he closes his eyes and remembers the funeral. Accepts the sadness and hurt he felt, lets his heart beat stronger when he remembers the soft curves of Han Yeo-jin against him. She held onto him so strongly, as if she was afraid, he was going to disappear. They only parted when her mother came out looking for her. She gave him a small smile and left.

He’s thinking about that sad little smile when someone softly knocks at the door. Si-mok really wants to ignore it, it’s too late and he’s in his sleepwear. Whatever it is, can wait till the morning but then a thought occurs to him and he practically leaps from bed, and yes, it’s her behind the door.

“I’m sorry for disturbing you, I know it’s late,” she tells him looking at her feet when he opens the door. She’s still dressed in her funeral clothes and her voice is raspy. He stands aside to let her in, and she does, kicking off her shoes right at the door. She heads immediately for the chair she slept in last night.

“I wasn’t sleeping,” he states and pulls a bottle of soju from the minibar. Han Yeo-jin takes the glasses from the small TV table and holds them up for him to pour. She passes one glass to him and he sits at the edge of the bed opposite her.

“To my wonderful halmeoni,” she exclaims and then drinks it in one go. He follows her suit and waits for her to start the conversation. She obviously came because she needed comfort, and he suddenly feels very proud that she came to him. He must be doing something correctly then. Yeo-jin seems to be having trouble finding the right words, she’s idly playing with the glass, looking around the room till her eyes finally find him.

“My mother wants to keep in touch. She has been following my career and she tells me how proud she is, but it means nothing to me. She isn’t my halmeoni, she wasn’t here when I needed her and yes, it’ll be nice to have her back in my life but it’ll never be the same and I’ll always feel this emptiness where the person I knew best in my life resided. I feel like I’ll never be complete again,” she’s talking and Si-mok is glad, leans forward and takes the glass from her hands.

“Thank you,” she murmurs when he passes it back full.

“I just…,” she tries to continue but those tears are back and now he doesn’t know. Are they the healing tears? They’re now pouring down her face and he wants them gone, wants to wipe one by one and finds a smiling Yeo-jin under them. “I just feel like I’ll be alone till the rest of my life because I lost the most important person in my life.”

“You won’t be,” it slips out without thinking and she looks at him, a question written on her face. He didn’t plan on it, didn’t want to do it but it could make her stop crying and that’s good enough reason for now.

“I talked to your grandmother,” he starts, and her eyes widen. “When you went talking to the doctor, she asked me to take care of you and I promised I will.”

The tears are still there, maybe for slightly different reasons but it’s not what he aimed for. He wants her to know.

“She said that I obviously love you, and I’m still not exactly sure what everything it entails but I think that she might be right,” Si-mok finishes and his heart is beating strongly in anticipation. What will happen now? What should?

Yeo-jin is looking at him, slightly gaping, opening and closing her mouth and he’s starting to be worried. Are you supposed to say these things? He used to watch romantic dramas over his mother’s shoulder and it never made sense to him. If he wants to be with her, why doesn’t he tell her? It can be resolved quick and clean but no, there was lots of crying and stupid decision making. Si-mok couldn’t imagine himself acting like that, so he didn’t. Now, watching Han Yeo-jin remaining silent, he’s starting to think that he must have gotten something very wrong.

“I…,” he starts unsure what will follow, but Yeo-jin suddenly stands up and for an unknown reason he does as well. Then there’s a quick movement and her arms are around his neck, her body in full contact with his. It takes him a while, but he responds, curling his arms around her back.

He can feel her breath on his neck and goosebumps rise on his skin. It’s an unknown feeling, strange but not exactly unpleasant. He hugs her tighter, allows himself something he didn’t even know he wanted, closeness, intimacy.

“Thank you. I needed to hear that,” she whispers against his skin. “And there are so many things I want to tell you, but maybe let's just sleep for now?”

Si-mok nods against her, untangles their arms and moves to his packed bag to fish out a white shirt. He’s glad for this, he isn’t sure what she could tell him and how he would react. She obviously needs time to accept the new circumstances in her life, and in fact, he’s quite good at waiting.

She accepts the shirt and runs off to the bathroom to change. Si-mok adjusts the sheets and waits for her standing next to the bed. Did she mean they will share? Is she expecting to sleep in the chair again? He hopes that waiting for her like this will give her enough evidence to accept the bed and he will see what will happen after. These are unknown waters for him. Too unknown and the variables are all mixed up in his mind. Why are human emotions so complex?

Yeo-jin exits the bathroom turns the light off and faces him. She looks unsure but he nods to the bed, hoping that it will be an invitation enough.

It seems to be.

“Thank you,” she whispers as she slides under the sheet and turns around as if to say, ‘now it’s your turn’. He doesn’t argue and finds himself pressed against the Inspector’s, not that’s not right, Yeo-jin’s back. She finds his hand and takes it into hers, pushing it against her waist. He’s unsure if there’s anything he should say or do so he lies quietly, listening to her breathing. Soon, her breathing changes, and leaning over her, he realizes that she’s sleeping.

“Good night, Yeo-jin,” he whispers even though she cannot hear him. It’s very easy to fall asleep afterward.

---

Si-mok never expected to wake up next to someone, never knew that it could be pleasant and warm and cozy. It’s all that and more and then it’s familiar, she’s teasing him and asking him to hurry because she needs her coffee. They have breakfast at the hotel restaurant, and she walks him to his car.

But this goodbye is different, it doesn’t taste new as the first time, nor unfinished as the second. This time he feels comfortable enough to hug her, enjoys the spark in her eyes longer than it’s probably appropriate. Yeo-jin makes it special too when she stops him by his arm when he’s about to get into his car.

She leans in and gives him a small kiss on the corner of his mouth.

“And Si-mok, I think I might love you too.”