To Juwon, love is atonement.
Love is religion; it's hands in prayer and knees scraping against the dirty ground.
To Juwon, love is a block away and two right turns from devotion and God fearing.
But, for three long years, he finds love in forgiveness. Self-love, a rare vintage. He enjoys the rain and revels in local foods. He isn't afraid — not anymore.
He's alone as ever while he taps a rhythm against his thigh, hikes up the mountain, flashlight reflecting tacky off dewy leaves and damp soil.
He's alone as ever when he retreats to his apartment. It's new, a ground-related concept, a townhouse if anything. It's homey and warmer than his penthouse. Sounds absorb rather than bounce when they hit the walls. He never made much noise anyway, but it makes a difference.
He's alone as ever, no new friends, never really visiting his old ones in any way that meant permanence. Manyang always accepts him back, though it took time to work up the nerve to ask if he'd be allowed to return.
(He texted Jaeyi. On KakaoTalk, which she finally convinced him to download. She sent back a sticker that rolled its eyes sarcastically and then added him to their group chat. Jungjae and Dongsik's contacts sat silently on the sidelines.)
Juwon has a hard time interacting with them, still, despite it all. They're regular people like anyone else; somehow this makes it that much harder. Juwon was taught to look at the world like a case study: he explores the wonders of life through clinical notes and distrust. Never once does he stretch his arms outward to feel the world. His fingers don't remember the feeling of fresh grass, he's never swam in the ocean. He'd be caught dead before someone saw him in a tee-shirt and shorts, so the wind is best known as frosty winter's bite.
That's okay, right?
Maybe one day he'll reach out.
For three years, Juwon isn't sure if he's really working through anything. Some days he's caught in a half-assed parody of that man. He helps elders descend the mountain, but can't force his hands into softer guidance. He tries to develop relationships with some of them, but small talk is. Embarrassing. To him.
Ah. It's hard.
Poor Juwon, right?
That man would've never had this problem, words came too easy in that lilting, teasing tone that could hook anyone.
So he tries again. It's challenging when he doesn't have anyone else to look up to. It's not that he's ever had to model himself after someone, but this new chapter is rocky and unfamiliar. He's trying to fully heal through something that was only half his to begin with.
Less than half.
Because who hadn't been hurt by his father?
Juwon smells like lavender detergent and something darker to offset flower-sweetness. He takes care of his hair and skin, he still makes the time to shop for high-end fashion, because he likes it. He likes looking good, he likes the confidence.
But, he also buys a sewing kit. It gives him something to do when he comes home. A missing button here, a weak seam there. He's always been a good cook, but this is a different kind of home care.
He can show love for little things like this. Everyone starts somewhere. Instead of tossing away his favorite pair of mittens, he patches them up and quivers slightly with pride. Pride can become love in time.
And it does.
To Juwon, love becomes fresh and less intimidating. Like the air by the lake or the new pillows on his couch. They're burnt orange and they match the painting on the wall that he made the first summer he spent alone. More alone, rather. Alone in this sense is to say that, hypothetically, if things had been different, he wouldn't have to be.
He painted a painting, fixed a scuff mark on his boots, and added a splash of color where it never would have shone before.
Juwon loves this for himself, and loves himself a little more in the process.
It's important he does this.
He can see the whole world from the top of the hill. He's not here to search for anyone this time, just to decompress after work.
There are only three months left. Of course he's been counting.
The air is light, up here so high. It's thin and dizzying. He pauses to take a sip of water and then sits down.
Three months until his partner's sentence has been served. Until he's free and roaming the streets again. Horrible posture and that college-age fashion sense, all of it. Juwon laughs under his breath, hangs his head to hide his smile from no one.
He rests his forehead on his bent knee and looks at the ground for a long while. The grass is patchy up here.
He hadn't seen him since that night, simultaneously yesterday and ten years prior to now. It's not like he couldn't, though. Dongsik was on parole at this point, but Juwon always made a concerted effort to avoid Busan.
Juwon wonders, briefly, if Dongsik was waiting for him to reach out first. To send a text, dial his number, the one he knows by heart. He aches at the respect and space he's been given that he knows he doesn't deserve.
Fuck. He takes another sip of water, head rising to come up for air. The sting is there, the threat of tears that he refuses to heed. But, isn't that growth? To let those tears fall and feel something so wholesomely?
He can't face him until he feels comfortable with who he is. Until he knows himself. Because when he comes back, Juwon wants to be there to hold him and not let go. He wants to hold him steady and link their arms together. Steady, steady. He would slap the back of Juwon’s head for such a slight, because he wasn’t that old yet, thank you very much.
Three more months. Juwon has never counted on anything.
There he is.
He's in front of you, Juwon. He's really here.
Reach out. Go on.
You can't? Why not?
He hasn't made it yet.
There are still lines of guilt on Juwon's face. He's still paralyzed by nightmares and stray headlines. The feeling of his first time shooting a gun, it's still embedded in his hand.
He's almost there, though. Love is no longer punishment. It's no longer something to beg against or isolate himself from. Juwon has surrounded himself with little bitesize amounts of love, and is still getting used to it.
Loving someone else would be different.
He's protective and jealous and avoidant, naturally.
Over the past few years he has also learned he's a quiet comfort, dependable, and strong.
Then, Dongsik's shoulder presses against his at the table and he wants to throw it all away and just grab him and touch him and feel how real and alive and —
Bastard. He's always been so addicting.
Juwon will come back for him.
Dongsik is settling, and he deserves to settle on his own.
Just like Juwon needs to heal alone.
So, he walks away alone because he has to. He loves himself for his strength, and finds yet another thing to feel good about, amongst the pain and guilt.
Once he comes back, they can start something new. Together.