Somewhere along the way, Han Yeo-jin gets a cat.
He’s never quite understood the practice of keeping animals as pets, but it is common enough that he knows his misunderstanding is an outlier, another symptom, rather than an actual opinion. His mother got a pet dog a few years after marrying her second husband, and he’s seen her call it affectionately her “other son.” A part of his brain understands that his mother will love this second son in a way that he will never experience, and for some reason, it makes him never want to see the dog again.
When Yeo-jin opens the door for him with a rather large, rather ugly animal in her arms, the same part of his brain has a similar reaction. He takes a step back, his eyebrows lifting.
“What is that?”
Yeo-jin lifts the cat by its front legs, swinging it in front of him like a dish towel. “His name is Hana-chan.”
“That’s rather unpatriotic.”
Yeo-jin tsks at him, folding the cat back into her arms until it settles contentedly into the crook of her elbow. She frees one hand to spell out the name in mid-air. “Han Na-chan, if you’re being picky, Mr. Patriot. My last name is Han after all. Na-chan, meet Mr. Patriot.”
Shi-mok looks down at the cat, which is now staring at him with green eyes and pupils slitted with distaste. He suspects it will hiss at him if he gets too close.
“Anyways, what can I do for you this evening? It’s rather late.”
Shi-mok doesn’t look away; the cat has now closed its eyes and is now vaguely crooning under Yeo-jin’s persistent petting. “I needed to ask you something. I can come back if it’s not a good time.”
Yeo-jin pretends to hem and haw before opening the door wider with a smile. “Don’t mind the mess,” she says simply, and he follows her inside.
Yeo-jin has moved apartments several times by now, but the inside has never changed very drastically. The walls by her desk are plastered with animation drawings; the furniture is old but sturdy. There are no pictures, save for a framed photo of her Yongsan team members grinning at the entrance of the station. Next to it, pinned with a shiny brass tack, is a drawing of a man in a suit looking pensively at a city skyline.
One thing that is new is a single Christmas tree in the corner, a fake plastic plant that looks too small for its surroundings, its lights blinking haphazardly. Yeo-jin catches him looking at it as she heads towards the kitchen, the cat still swinging in her arms.
“I felt festive,” she says. Shi-mok lowers his backpack against the sofa and shrugs, as if to say, I didn’t ask.
She wrinkles her nose back, as if to say, I know you were still curious, and asks, “Tea or coffee?”
“Coffee,” he replies, and she makes a face at him but runs the kettle anyways.
At some point, Yeo-jin puts down the cat, so that when Shi-mok unwittingly has his guard down, it comes close to him with its eyes still slitted in suspicion. It perches on top of the coffee table and watches, its tail twitching against its legs.
“I think he likes you,” Yeo-jin says, coming in with two hands loaded with mugs. Shi-mok hurriedly rises to take one, and the cat, startled at the movement, leaps away to watch the two of them from the top of the television stand.
“Animals don’t feel those emotions. They just differentiate between who’s safe and who’s not safe,” Shi-mok tells her, and Yeo-jin just shakes her head.
“I guess he thinks you’re safe then.”
“He’d probably be wrong.”
“So,” she replies, ignoring him. “What’s the question?”
Shi-mok sips his coffee and swallows, looking down at the mug and pointedly looking anywhere except the cat. The coffee tastes vaguely burnt; hard to do, he muses, with instant coffee.
“What are you doing on Christmas Eve?”
Yeo-jin blinks at him, freezing mid-sip. Shi-mok stares back, his eyes darting from Yeo-jin’s face to the Christmas tree to the cat, who is now licking its hindquarters in a rather undignified way. He becomes abruptly aware of the slight radioactive hum in the air, probably from the Christmas lights that must be contributing an additional ten percent to Yeo-jin’s normal electrical output.
“What is this familiar feeling?” Yeo-jin murmurs, setting down her cup. “I feel like we’ve had a conversation like this before.”
“In a way,” she says. “But no, I’m not doing anything in particular in the evening. Why?”
Shi-mok rummages in his coat pocket, producing two slightly grimy tickets to a musical show. He hands them to Yeo-jin, whose expression morphs from vague amusement to something like shock. “Oh, you were serious?”
Shi-mok drinks the rest of his coffee and slowly rises to head towards the kettle. “What do you mean?”
Yeo-jin laughs a little, still staring at the tickets. “I mean, I thought you were going to ask me to help you with a case or something. Or maybe a suspect said something about Christmas Eve and you became confused.”
Shi-mok sets the water to boil and watches her from the kitchen. “What would I be confused about?”
Yeo-jin motions towards the Christmas tree. “You know, the holiday spirit, dating, men, women...that sort of thing. I don’t know.”
“What does any of that have to do with Christmas Eve?”
Yeo-jin laughs again, louder this time. “Well normally, Prosecutor Hwang, the good people of South Korea will go on dates during Christmas Eve. It’s why single people get depressed in December.”
“Oh,” Shi-mok says. The water is boiling, but he doesn’t turn away. “Is that why suicide rates are up during the winter?”
“My god,” Yeo-jin replies. “This is very quickly becoming an unpleasant conversation. The water is boiling, Prosecutor Hwang.”
Shi-mok quickly turns off the kettle, shaking open a packet of instant coffee mix and stirring himself a new cup. Yeo-jin watches him move, her fingers steepled to her lips.
“So what are these tickets for? Is someone from one of your cases planning to be in this theater on Christmas Eve? Do you need me to go with you?”
Shi-mok drifts back to the living room and leans on the opposite end of the sofa. “No. I received them from Inspector Park who works in my office. He bought them personally for himself and his wife, but he said he could no longer attend because his daughter is coming home unexpectedly. He said everyone in his vicinity had other plans scheduled and he didn’t want them to go to waste. I told him no, but he said that they don’t qualify as a bribe since he doesn’t want anything from me, and left them on my desk. I was planning on throwing them out but I thought that you might want them, so I brought them here.”
Yeo-jin sucks in a breath, her eyes round. “Wow. That’s a really long way of saying that the tickets were complimentary. Well, thank you, I suppose, for thinking of me. I don’t know if I should feel insulted that you automatically assumed I would be available on Christmas Eve, but thank you anyways.”
Shi-mok nods, quietly finishing his second cup of coffee. As he rises for a third, Yeo-jin grabs his wrist. “Prosecutor, it’s 11 in the evening. Are you not planning on sleeping tonight?”
“I have some paperwork.”
Yeo-jin clucks her tongue at him and gently removes the mug from his hand. “I think you should save it for tomorrow morning. Anyways, I’d be happy to go to the musical with you. I heard it’s a fun show.”
Shi-mok frowns, staring at his empty hand. “Why would you go with me? You can use those tickets with someone else.”
Yeo-jin stares at him in silence, and Shi-mok again hears the low hum of electricity from the Christmas tree. He shifts uncomfortably, looking away at the cat on the TV stand. It hasn’t moved since it settled into its spot, staring him down with its tail twitching. Shi-mok abruptly feels rather cornered.
Yeo-jin finally sighs, shaking her head and looking down at the tickets before clapping him on the shoulder. “Prosecutor Hwang, I don’t exactly have anyone else to go with. As much as it scratches my dignity to admit, we could go together, if you'd like."
Shi-mok blinks again. “But I don’t like musicals.”
Yeo-jin throws up her hands then, and sweeps away both mugs to take to the kitchen to wash. In the space of time that it takes her to rinse them and for him to hear her mutter, “— get into SNU with that brain?”, the cat crawls off the TV stand and makes its way towards Shi-mok, its nose twitching in curiosity.
Shi-mok doesn’t move. The cat first winds its way around his ankles before jumping onto the sofa, brushing against Shi-mok’s arm. It approaches his hand and sniffs while Shi-mok concentrates very hard on not moving, before the cat treads across his thighs and settles onto his lap. It fluffs down with a slight chirp, curling into itself.
When Yeo-jin comes back with a bag of corn chips, ready to offer them to the prosecutor as a peace offering, Shi-mok is blinking faster than normal, as if to say, Help me.
It takes Yeo-jin a full minute to stop laughing, pushing the corn chips onto the table as she kneels next to the sofa and holds her stomach. Shi-mok and the cat watch her in vague alarm, both of them unable to move.
“Prosecutor Hwang,” she finally says. “I really do think Na-chan likes you.”
Shi-mok just shakes his head, and she smiles, leaning forward to scratch behind the cat’s ears. “You can pet him if you like.”
Shi-mok shakes his head more vigorously. Yeo-jin sighs, dragging herself up to lean over him. She raises his hand and lays it on her own head, moving his arm so that it rubs back and forth over her hair. “See? Like this. Pet him like this, but down his back, in the direction of his fur. He likes that.”
She releases Shi-mok's arm, but his hand doesn’t move away. Shi-mok stares at her instead, as if fascinated by her hair, and moves his fingers through her bangs, stroking her forehead. There’s a single curl on her left temple, which he pushes aside and tucks neatly with the rest of her hair.
The Christmas lights hum; the electricity is loud in his ears. Yeo-jin stares down at him with her eyes wider than usual, her lips slightly parted. There’s a slight flush to her cheeks that wasn’t there a moment before. She seems to be holding her breath.
“Like this?” he asks, his voice quiet. He looks back down at the cat yawning in his lap. He wonders if its fur is as soft as Yeo-jin’s hair, if it is quite as fine. He has a feeling that regardless, he might not like it as much.
The cat looks up lazily at the two humans before yawning again, stretching, and digging its claws directly into the inner flesh of Shi-mok’s thigh. The prosecutor yanks his hand away from Yeo-jin’s head and lets out a surprised sound, pushing the cat down to the floor.
There’s a scramble and a disgruntled meow, and Na-chan scurries away back to its position on the TV stand. It stares in disapproval at its owner before turning away to curl up against the television screen.
“Oh god, are you okay?” Yeo-jin asks, hurrying back to the kitchen for her first-aid kit.
Shi-mok inspects his thigh. There are a few holes in his pants from the claws, but it doesn’t look like the cat made any actual damage. He shows his leg to Yeo-jin, and she sighs in relief before dropping the first-aid kit onto the coffee table.
“I’m so sorry,” she says, but Shi-mok shakes his head.
“It’s a cat. I don’t think it meant anything by it.”
Yeo-jin laughs awkwardly, and Shi-mok slowly rises, grabbing his backpack from the floor. “It’s fairly late. I’m sorry to have been a bother.”
“No, it wasn’t a bother. Thank you for the tickets. I’ll use them well.”
Shi-mok turns at the door, his expression blank. He looks at her for a moment, and then at the two little slips of paper in her hands.
“Aren’t we seeing the show together?”
Yeo-jin coughs, blinking back at him in surprise. “Oh. Yes, I mean, we can. I thought you didn’t want to.”
“You said you don’t have anyone to go with you.”
Her face grows slightly pink. “I mean, that doesn’t mean you have to go.”
“I’ll go.” He opens the door, already half a step outside, before he looks back, his expression softening slightly. “I’ll see you on Christmas Eve.”
Yeo-jin stares back at him, and then she waves the tickets in the air. Shi-mok thinks the smile on her face could light the entire rooftop, bleeding out into the rest of the cityscape, into the December night.
“See you on Christmas Eve,” she says, radiant and warm in the cold night air, one curl slipping loose against her left temple.