Han Juwon felt thoroughly out of place. It was his day off, and instead of spending it relaxing and recharging in his Seoul apartment, like he sensibly should, he was here, in Manyang, in Lee Dongsik´s front yard. Again.
It had been a while since had been here last and the place had already been overgrown back then. Now it was a right wilderness. But that was not important, what was important was that Dongsik had been released from prison almost two weeks ago, and what mattered even more was that when they had met last week, they´d barely had had the opportunity to talk.
In all honesty, he´d missed Lee Dongsik. Missed his teasing and the infuriating way he drove Juwon up the wall. Missed the silent way in which he cared for others. He missed the rest of his former colleagues too, and yet that had not stopped him from slipping out of touch over the past year. It was his biggest flaw, his father had said, his inability to reach out, to connect to others. Well, here he was, willing to once again, prove his father wrong. Spite was a wonderful motivation sometimes.
He made his way up to the doorbell and rang it, fighting his way through the brambles. Dongsik should really consider hiring a gardener. He stood and waited, wondering if anybody was home. Juwon felt twitchy somehow, contemplating what to do in case Dongsik was not in. He felt like a trespasser which was deeply ironic, considering that when he´d stopped by before, that´s usually what he had been.
Eventually there was shuffling behind the door, and it opened, revealing a dirt-smudged Lee Dongsik, dust-bunnies in his hair. At seeing Juwon he smiled.
“Inspector Han” he greeted “Is this Gangwon province now?”
“Hardly” Juwon scoffed. “I have the day off and figured I´d drop by. Is that okay with you?”
The crows´ feet around Dongsik´s eyes crinkled as he pushed open the door. “Come on in then”
The inside of the house was not quite as neglected as the outside, instead it seemed, that Dongsik had been deep cleaning the place to make it inhabitable again, when Juwon interrupted. The furniture had been pushed to the side and the floors scrubbed. What knickknacks stood around had been packed into boxes and stacked in some corner or other, even the walls were stripped bare.
“There was dust and grime everywhere” Dongsik explained, and it was hardly surprising. Dongsik lived alone and with both him and Park Jeongje in prison, who was there to look after the place, Oh Jihwa?
“I understand” Juwon said as he continued to give the place the once-over. Although he had seen the living room before he mostly remembered being downstairs in the basement. Those memories had an odd aftertaste now. They were bitter.
“What happened there?” he asked instead, nodding at the patchy wallpaper above where he vaguely remembered a mantelpiece standing.
Dongsik gave a contemplative hum, “My mother collected newspaper clippings, regarding Yuyeon´s disappearance. I could not bear to put them away.”
“Now, they´re in that cardboard box over there.” Dongsik pointed at a small, greyish box adding to the clutter on the already otherwise cluttered sofa. He shrugged “The case is closed, Yuyeon is buried. There´s no reason for them to stay up there. I always hated them anyways.”
Juwon suppressed the urge to offer his condolences, again. They would be no use. “You´ll have to paint it” he offered instead. The whole place needed to be painted, not just the mismatched wall.
How Han Juwon ended up accompanying Lee Dongsik to shop for painting materials up in the big Hardware store in Chuncheon he might never find out, but he had the sneaking suspicion that Dongsik was trying to be mindful of his desire for cleanliness and suggested the trip as a way to offer Juwon an out from his only semi-cleaned house.
The drive was an awkward one. And long. “It´s a pity about the redevelopment.” Dongsik said. “There used to be a hardware store in Munju. It was small, sure, but you could shop there. Now we have to drive over half an hour, just to get some paint and brushes.”
Juwon agreed. The more time he spent out in the countryside, the more he noticed how the infrastructure fell more and more into disrepair. Manyang was only one of many examples.
At least the depot store was well stocked, and so it did not take long until Dongsik had found his brushes and paint, a warm cream for the living room, not the tan colour it used to be.
Stopping for lunch afterwards had been Juwon´s idea. To balance Dongsik´s unspoken concession to him. He even let Dongsik pick the restaurant.
“Some things never change” Dongsik goaded, pointing his chopsticks at Juwon´s bowl of Naengmyeon.
“I do not know what you are talking about.” Juwon of course, knew exactly what Dongsik was talking about. He was honestly a little flattered that Dongsik remembered his dislike for beef broth.
It earned him a chuckle. “If that´s how you want to play it…”
It was a nice lunch.
Of the many things to change during his stint in prison, the closure of Manyang substation was probably the most significant. It made sense, in general terms, after all the entire staff had been either arrested, killed or had quit, Oh Jihun being the notable exception. And it was Oh Jihun he would now be partnering with once again, only this time they would not be patrolling the streets of Manyang but instead typing down case files for General affairs in the dingy basement of Munju main station.
“I can´t wait for Jeongje to come back.” Jihun groaned while carefully stretching his wrists after finishing to digitize the second cold case of the day, this one a break-in from five years ago. “This is useless” he gestured and is computer and files “And it´s so boring. I don´t know how he could stand it.”
Dongsik shrugged, he did not mind his new position. Sure, the typing was boring, but it was necessary. He idly wondered how often, pouring over old details, new leads would come up. It had not happened yet.
But if Yuyeon and Bang Juseon´s cases had proven anything, then it was that it was never to late for the law to prevail. It would not have prevailed, the law, of course, had Han Juwon not marched into Manyang substation acting like he owned the place and poking and stirring at any inconsistency he could find. And harassing Dongsik, mostly harassing Dongsik.
He smiled, looking down at today´s speeding tickets, his own charge for the day. He was glad that Han Juwon was a part of this new life of his, although what kind of part he would be had yet to be determined. As for the work? The people that mattered knew to call him on his private number in case of emergencies.
“Inspector Han visited? Voluntarily?” Jaeyi giggled at Jihwa´s disbelieving tone. She did not begrudge Han Juwon´s radio silences as much as the rest of them, but then again, had she too not dropped off the proverbial face of the earth after the death of Kang Jinmuk?
“Congratulations Dongsik, this calls for a celebratory drink.” She declared, fetching two bottles of homemade Makgeolli from under the counter. They´d split a bottle of Soju already so she swayed a little as she poured.
“You´re getting out the good Makgeolli?” Jihwa asked her “What´s so special about that little punk growing a pair and showing up?”
“What´s special-“ Jaeyi began, steadying herself on Jihwa´s shoulder and it was still a little surreal, this thing between them “is that I just won a bet with Jihun. He said that Inspector Han would be too chickenshit to show up uninvited, I said, as soon as Dongsik is back he´ll be around. And guess who was right.”
“Then let´s toast to you being right” Dongsik offered, raising his glass for her to fill as Jihwa fondly shook her head. They were, admittedly, cute together.
He had always been a morning person, and prison had done little to change that. So, he was up already drinking his morning tea and idly musing how long it had been since he´d last gone hiking. A while, to say the least.
Silent cursing from outside stirred him out of his thoughts, and true enough, he found Han Juwon in his front yard, bleeding.
“What are you doing?” he asked and Juwon shrugged, defensive.
He was wearing what counted for working clothes in Han Juwon´s wardrobe, an empty cardboard box was waiting next to Dongsik´s mother´s old figurines and he had obviously just had an unpleasant encounter with a bramble of blackberries.
“I figured, that if you´re cleaning out the house, the yard has to be done too.” he announced.
Dongsik smiled. “You drove out here, at half past six in the morning, to help me clean my yard.” Juwon said nothing. “You must really hate those figurines.”
Juwon did, in fact hate the figurines, Dongsik knew this. He hated what they stood for, what they reminded him of, had even said so before. Nevertheless, it was Dongsik´s yard and those angels, ducks and geese were his demons to get rid of. Even if he did hate them too.
“So do you intend to help me or not?” Juwon asked, all audacity.
And Dongsik did help him, after getting some protective gloves and a first aid kit. They cut back the blackberries as much as they could, weeded out the stinging nettles with only minor injuries, even clipped the bushes. And put the figurines away into the basement. This was Dongsik’s house, after all, and it was his decision what he kept in his yard.
They made good progress over the course of the morning and by the time they walked over to Jaeyi´s for lunch the yards original structure was at least back to being vaguely discernible.
“You are gardening” Jaeyi grinned as she served them a meaty stir-fry.
Dongsik just nodded, noting how Juwon´s “Yes” sounded oddly embarrassed. That man really was adorable at times.
“Honestly, I´m still not used to the fact that you´re back, Dongsik. Can´t believe that you´re staying either.”
It was understandable, with everything that has happened and Dongsik would be lying he said he hadn´t thought about leaving. “I´m staying.” He said.
She snorted “I noticed. You even got your old job back, more or less.”
“You did.” Juwon turned to face him “I still fail to grasp how that was even possible.”
“They were desperate. Hopelessly understaffed.”
And they were: even discounting Manyang substation the Munju police force had been cutting it close even before they lost Jung Chulmun and Park Jeongje, the latter had been more or less replaced by Oh Jihun, the former´s position was filled by promoting Kwak Ohsub for his achievement of being the only senior officer not involved in any major policing scandals. This left the Dangerous crime division short-staffed and spread the officers doing Ground patrol worryingly thin. New transfers there had been none.
Once Park Jeongje was out on parole, he too would be able to go straight back to work.
“But that´s way too few officers” Juwon complained, upon Dongsik relaying to him the structural changes.
“Mostly we just don´t keep track of traffic.” He excused.
“They should cut the staff on the dangerous crimes team.” Jaeyi suggested, “to fill the shortages in traffic. It´s not like there´s much dangerous crime going on around here, and if anything happens, you can always transfer them back.”
“Would Jihwa like to dole out speeding tickets?” Dongsik asked, all amusement.
“Dunno” Jaeyi answered. “Might be a nice change from the usual drunks smacking their families around.”
Both Dongsik and Juwon hummed in agreement, there was likely not one cop cruising the streets who did not harbour a special piece of hatred for domestic abusers.
“Anyway, Jaeyi.” Juwon attempted to switch to a lighter topic, “how are you doing? I thought you were thinking about staying in Busan for a while?”
“I did.” she agreed laughing “And then the lot of you pissed off and I was stuck here consoling Jihwa and Jihun.”
“Not that you minded consoling Jihwa” Dongsik teased.
“Oh shut up, you” Jaeyi shot back, all good sport “Like you need to talk.
But no,” she turned back to Juwon “I´m staying. Not saying that there is nothing I´d rather do with my life than running my parents butcher shop, but with things as they are around here, and with things as they are with me and Jihwa, I´m needed here.”
When Han Juwon once again found his way back to him, he did not ambush Dongsik at home, in fact they did not meet in Manyang at all, or alone. Hwang Kwangyeong and his wife Choi Myunghee had invited the entire team to have dinner at a moderately fancy Japanese restaurant in Munju, the same place incidentally that they had confronted Do Haewon in a year prior. Only this time, the occasion was an indisputably happy one.
Congratulations regarding Choi Myunghee´s pregnancy were offered all around, while Im Sunnyeo and Kang Dongsu, the only parents at the table promptly began barraging the happy couple with baby related inquiries.
Dongsik didn´t bother to listen, he liked his former colleague all right, despite his gossipy nature and he was happy for Hwang Kwangyeong and his wife, still regretting to have missed their wedding, but he understood little of children and had no intention of changing that.
So instead, he enjoyed the excellent food and watched poor Han Juwon as he tried and failed to entertain little Kang Huimang.
The slight furrow between his brows indicated that he was concentrating hard as he cut funny faces at the baby, probably trying not to panic, in vain, as the little bundle got hold of one of his fingers and promptly plopped it into its mouth. Once again, Dongsik caught himself thinking, that despite everything Han Juwon was fucking cute.
Luckily for Juwon, this was when Jihwa noticed his keening distress and relieved him of holding the baby. Dongsik slid him a glass of liquor as consolation.
It did not stay at one.
By the time the evening´s round disbanded neither Dongsik, nor Juwon were in any position to drive, so Oh Jihun, who was significantly closer to sober kindly volunteered to drop them of at home.
That dropping them off at home meant leaving both of them in front of Dongsik´s house should not have come as a surprise and yet here they were, with Han Juwon grumbling that he did not live here, while Dongsik tried to find the keyhole in the dark.
“Where am I even supposed to sleep?” Juwon asked as Dongsik maneuvered him inside.
He switched on the light, left Juwon standing in the middle of the living room and headed right into the kitchen, to get them both some water.
“Normally I would suggest the couch… “ He indicated the cluttered shape squished into the corner “but given it´s present state I suggest you take the bed.”
Juwon seemed unimpressed. “As far as I was aware you do not have a bed.”
“Wrong.” Dongsik replied, mildly cranky at being reminded of his couch-sleeping habits. “As far as you were aware, and that information is over a year outdated I do not use a bed. I have several.”
“You started using the bedrooms again? Congratulations.”
“Thank you.” He even meant it; despite being rankled by Juwon´s surprise. “I mostly use the old master bedroom right now, but I´ve started organising my old room as well. You can have the big bed tonight. I´ll even change the sheets.”
Juwon followed him as he led them upstairs into his parents´ old room, watching him rummage in the linen closet for something suitably clean.
“What are you doing with your sister´s room?” he asked.
Dongsik shrugged. “Nothing for now. Right now, the main goal is making this place inhabitable for me. I have more than enough space without doing anything about her room. And even if I had a use for it, I don´t feel like I could just put it all away. Her life I mean.” He grabbed some clean white sheets and moved over to make the bed.
“Isn´t it odd? Living here still.” Juwon was still stood in the doorway, regarding him, there was something fragile in his gaze, it seemed the conversation wasn´t about him anymore. “I can´t go inside. In my father´s house, I mean, even if it is supposed to be my home too, it just… doesn´t feel like it.”
It had been the same for Dongsik, at first, back in 2018 when he returned to Manyang from the city. The house had been empty and cold, devoid of warmth with all memories set there tainted. He´d lived like a ghost there for years. “I understand.”
He was almost done with the bed, sitting down to fluff the last remaining pillow as Juwon cautiously stepped closer. He looked up at him.
“It may sound stupid. But time does help. Time and closure. You´ve had one and the other is hardly running away. So, it will get better.”
“I know,” Juwon settled down beside him, not quite close enough to touch. “I don´t feel it yet, but if you managed to move on, manage to move on, then I will, too.”
“Well… what will you do with your life?” Dongsik drawled. “You don´t have to life up to your old man´s expectations anymore so what will you do to disappoint him. You won´t quit the force, we´ve ruled out that one…”
“I won´t” Juwon confirmed.
“…So, what then? Marry some pretty little bargirl from a poor family, or worse, don´t marry and live in sin. Possibly with a bastard thrown in…”
Juwon only rolled his eyes. “Hardly.”
“Hardly? Do you not intend to marry, or do you only want to do it prim and proper?”
“I don´t want to marry. I don´t want children either.”
Dongsik could not say he was surprised, especially about the part with the children, and yet, somehow it seemed like a waste.
“What about you?” Juwon turned on him. “You´ve reached your big goal, Yuyeon has found justice, what will you do with your life now?”
“Is that your way of asking if I intend on getting married and settling down?”
“Yes.” He said, always direct. “You asked me, so I have every right to ask you the same.”
“Yes,” Dongsik said, not entirely certain as answer to what “Maybe.”
He was surprised at how well he slept. Usually, Juwon avoided strange beds wherever he could, and yet he was well rested when he heard Dongsik stir at seven o´clock in the morning. It was a ridiculous thing but the fact that even after a night of drinking they were both early risers made him absurdly happy.
He caught Dongsik in the hallway, putting his blankets away, his old childhood room visible through the doorway. The bed, it seemed had been turned into a resting place for all kinds of files and boxes over the years. Said boxes were now stacked on all sides of it, leaving barely enough place for Dongsik to move his way through. Before long, it would become a makeshift archive once again.
“I have shelves for this kind of thing” he commented, gesturing vaguely at something undoubtedly work related. “A whole wall of them. It´s very convenient”
“Of course you do” Dongsik snorted. “Well, I have boxes.”
“You´re remodelling the house anyway.” Juwon said, following Dongsik downstairs and into the kitchen. “Might as well put in a work room.”
“Thank you for your concern.” Dongsik got out some leaves for tea. “I was planning to.”
“Good.” Juwon did not know why Dongsik laying ownership to the house mattered so much, but it very much did. “I assume you are moving permanently into the master bedroom”
“Not that it concerns you, but yes I am.” With the water for the tea set to boil he checked if there was any leftover rice, and satisfied, began chopping vegetables for porridge. It seemed Juwon was staying for breakfast.
He glanced out at the living room, at the once patchy walls that were now even and light. At the lumpy old sofa and the clutter in the corners, all waiting to be thrown out or reorganised. This place might be cosy someday.
“Please tell me you are replacing the couch.”
“Oh.” Dongsik goaded. “More interior design tips from Inspector Han. Do you have any suggestions? Let me guess: Black and white.”
Lee Dongsik was a plague when he wanted to be. “It is classic for a reason. But no.”
“It is boring. And looks like you´re trying too hard.”
That smug smile made him raise an eyebrow. “You think my place looks like I´m trying too hard?”
Dongsik snorted and reached over, ruffling Juwon´s hair. Leaving him grumbling under his breath. “You were trying too hard.”
The next time he visited, Dongsik did not answer the doorbell. Leaving Han Juwon feeling like a fool for driving out unannounced. He did not even have the day off, spent it working instead, looking to track down a mother who took her child and fled an abusive marriage.
He took a detour here on his way home, hoping Dongsik´s presence might calm his unquiet mind. Some days were just like that, had been since he first met the man and even when he had been gone, imprisoned, Juwon reminded himself, every once in a while, he found himself parked in front of the gate, not quite daring to go in.
Dongsik was back now, he was allowed to enter.
He did the sensible thing. Calling Dongsik.
And it was a good thing he did, Dongsik´s cell phone ringing audibly from the basement, and Jaeyi who soon opened the door to let him inside to join them.
A lot of basins were laid out on the floor rendering the basement barely recognisable, the huge empty pots which used to catch dust in the corner taken out, scrubbed clean and now standing open, waiting to be filled.
The whole cellar smelled of cabbage and spice, and little wonder as Dongsik and Oh Jihun were seated on the ground in front of the sofa, sombrely covering salted cabbage with marinade.
“You´re making Kimchi” Juwon caught himself stating the obvious.
“We are” Jaeyi confirmed.
“Although the cabbage is not in season.”
“Although the cabbage is not in season.” the way Jihun´s face twisted into a grin made it obvious, that this was not Dongsik´s first complaint on the matter.
“Then why are you making Kimchi?” Juwon could not help but ask.
“Because I ran out again, and the closest grocery store is on the other side of Munju” Jaeyi explained. “And their Kimchi isn´t even good.”
“It´s really not spicy enough.” Jihun agreed. “We decided to make our own.”
Juwon cast a look towards Dongsik “Are there truly not grocery stores left in Manyang?”
“No.” He shook his head, “None that are nearly as well stocked as Kang Jinmuk´s Manyang Grocery store. There´s a corner store east of the Salon that sells alcohol and non-perishables, but for fruits and vegetables, you have to drive out to the one in Munju. Another thing for which Kang Jinmuk can be blamed.”
“Minor in comparison” Jaeyi mumbled, and Juwon realised that this was the reason the mood was so off, the unspoken presence of the old grocer, Kang Jinmuk, and of Kang Minjeong with him.
He settled down on the couch behind Dongsik, just so brushing his shoulder with his leg and began narrating in detail the twists and turns of his day. If offering a distraction was all he could do, for these people, then by all means, a distraction he would offer.
Of course, Manyang, being known as a murder town already, would not fail to reassert its title, and only a little over a year after its last homicide, Manyang was once again home to a murder investigation.
The apparent straightforwardness of the crime did little to dampen to shock and grief Mrs. Lim Hayun´s friend´s and family were facing in the wake of her death.
She had been a known face at Manyang substation, if only for her involvement in the Manyang Salon´s gambling endeavours. The involvement in which turned out to have cost her her life.
Unsupervised by the now spread-thin police, the gambling circle had resumed its business and with Mrs. Lee Kangya no longer able to supply them with money, they had found other channels. Mrs. Lim had had a knack for gambling, her co-conspirators confirmed, a knack which not infrequently saw her accused of cheating, and when she won a hefty sum off a man of dubious character, he´d sworn revenge. And taken it, along with most of her savings and jewellery.
The only problem was finding the gentleman in question, as he had used an obviously false identity when doing business with the smalltown housewives.
It was Han Juwon who solved the case in the end. Informed by both Lee Dongsik and Oh Jihwa he called his contacts from both his time working in women´s issues and immigration and true enough: a young woman working in the backrooms of a seedy karaoke bar, had seen one of the regulars gift a ring to a colleague, the description of which matched one of the stolen pieces. The colleague revealed upon questioning that the client had bragged about settling a debt and a warrant was soon issued, the remaining pieces of jewellery proving the suspect guilty.
For most people the case was a success.
“He quit the force?” Han Juwon could not believe his ears. He had come by to drop off some paperwork and take lunch with Dongsik, only for the entire precinct to be talking about Oh Jihun of all people.
“Yes,” Dongsik confirmed. “I knew he was miserable working in General affairs for a while, it´s too isolated for him, too far removed from the people. And with the murder investigation going on and us being stuck in the basement, I´m not surprised, that he felt even more useless than usual.” He shrugged.
“But to quit…”
“Yeah, I know” Dongsik agreed. “I do this work out of conviction, and I know it´s the same for you.” It was. “But for Jihun it was the contact with the community… once he lost that, he lost his passion for the job. It´s just a shame about the precinct. We were short-staffed already. We need more people, preferably yesterday.”
“Have you requested transferrals from headquarters?” Juwon inquired.
“You bet. Repeatedly even, of course nothing happened. It almost feels like they are punishing us…,” for the corruption cases, if not the Kang Jinmuk situation remained unspoken. “But then again, who would willingly move to Munju?”
Han Juwon, it turned out, would willingly move to Munju, or at least agree to work there. Despite the failing infrastructure and the underfunded police force he not only agreed, but requested to help Ground-level policing with the option of joining Dangerous crimes whenever required.
Although they would not be working the same team, him and Dongsik would get to be colleagues again, and hard as it was to believe Manyang welcomed him back with open arms.
Of course, it helped that he put the home-making practice he´d gained on Dongsik´s place to good use on Jaeyi and Jihun´s new General store (and if he had slipped it´s freshly minted owners some of his father´s money after they depleted their saving buying the empty house next to the butcher shop, nobody needed to know). But before long most of the local police force was spending its days off stocking shelves, preparing Kimchi and other canned and pickles vegetables, smoking fish and sausages out in the back and brewing homemade Makgeolli after the Kang family recipe.
Manyang needed a store, and Jaeyi and Jihun needed a calling and with property prices as low as they were, their needs matched up.
After they were, once more, done for the day, they settled as always, around the heavy-laden table in the butcher shop and let Jaeyi and Jihwa preside over their meals. And when they had drunk to much of the good alcohol too drive, or just enough that Juwon could pretend it was the case, he let Lee Dongsik walk him home, shoulders brushing in the dark.
Maybe someday soon he´d tell Dongsik, how it wasn´t that he didn´t want to settle down or marry, it was just that the only place he could imagine as home was Manyang, and the only person with whom he wanted to settle down, was Dongsik himself.