Technically it was the second night, but somehow the first didn’t seem to count when Hye Jin did her mental tallies later.
His phone vibrated away on the coffee table while he worked, fitting layers of cardboard wrapped in a garbage bag into the broken window’s frame.
“Check those,” he called from her bedroom, balancing the tape and the knife on his knee against the wet drywall.
Frowning at his tired, authoritative tone, Hye Jin left the laundry pile on her kitchen table and picked up the device to scan through alerts. The thumb she’d cut cleaning up the broken window glass was bandaged, and she kept forgetting it wouldn’t work on the touch pad.
“Gam Ri says she’s doing well and don’t you dare come check on her in this.” She scrolled through her with index finger. “All the grandmas sent you similar texts.”
His back to her, she saw relief melt his shoulders. The big black umbrella he’d brought was outmatched by the direction the night had taken, a wild beachfront storm that would require a community clean up tomorrow
“That’s good,” he sighed, rubbing one eye with the palm of his hand. “I don’t think I could handle another emergency tonight.” He smiled at her wearily, returning his tools back into the box. “Where’s Pyo Mi Seon, does she need to be rescued? Any stray branches through her bedroom window?”
“She’s at Choi- a friend’s,” she corrected. “I imagine she’ll use this as an excuse to stay over.”
Du Sik nodded, his expression inscrutable. The wind picked up, shaking every window with torrents of rain.
“Maybe you should wait it out here,” she mused, watching lakes form on the sidewalks through the unbroken side of the window. Shivering, she pulled her loose sleep sweater tighter around her shoulders.
“No, I should go,” he said, his voice weighted with fatigue.
Tools crashed out as he tried to pick up his unlatched tool box by the top handle. Losing his balance, he sat down hard on her bed with a soft curse.
“You can barely stand,” she accused, “as if you could make it home right now.”
“It’s not far,” he said, rubbing at his eyes. Hye Jin knelt and carefully pried the metal handle from his fingers.
“Sorry,” he said, trying to help, trying to rise.
“Just stay,” she said, a hand on his elbow to stop him. Hail battered the window, a crack of lightning hitting so close they heard the sizzle. “Don’t go out in this.”
“People will talk,” he warned, shaking his head.
“No one will know,” she dismissed, “you’re exhausted, you’re going to get sick if you go out in a dangerous storm.”
The tools gathered, she lifted the box to her chest, cradling it like a cat.
“I’m holding this hostage.”
She heard him sigh as she left the room, looking for a place to hide it.
When she returned, triumphant that he’d now have to choose between a night on her couch or returning home without his precious tools, the jeers died on her tongue.
Denim-clad legs still dangled where she’d last seen them over the side of her bed, but the top half of his body had collapsed onto her duvet. His head had missed the pillow, nearly onto the nightstand.
Hye Jin’s eyes widened. This hasn’t been the plan.
The deep rise and fall of his chest in the soft glow of her bedside lamp said he wasn’t going anywhere. She certainly couldn’t lift him. Pink-cheeked, she slid a hand under his head and shifted him to the pillow. She gently tugged off his slippers, and lifted his legs one at a time onto the bed. It was like positioning a heavy rag doll, he was so far from awakening.
Perplexed, Hye Jin put her fists on her hips, pondering what to do next. She could sleep on the couch, but if Mi Seon came home and found her there she’d have to explain the Chief Hong in her bed. She didn’t expect Mi Seon to accept that the arrangement was platonic and accidental. Hye Jin certainly had her own assumptions about what was likely going on at Choi Eun Cheol’s home right now.
The most discreet course of action was to crawl in next to him and close the door. He could sneak out in the night and Mi Seon would be none the wiser.
Feeling guilty, Hye Jin took his boots and jacket from the entrance way, retrieved his hidden toolbox, and brought them all into her bedroom.
She had to admit, listening to the wicked storm around them as she fell asleep, it was nice to have his steady breathing, his warmth beside her. In the darkness she felt safe, and sleep came to her easily.
An apocalypse-loud rip of thunder overhead woke her once in the wee hours. She rolled over to find him sitting bolt upright beside her, his fingers threaded through his hair.
“Hmm,” she hummed soothingly, patting his thigh. His breath was coming in noisy gasps. “Go back to sleep.”
Capturing his hand, she pulled it under her pillow. Obligated to shift, Du Sik curled up on his side, his forehead close to hers. Obedient for once, his eyes closed. Breathing slowing while she gazed at him, he fell back asleep. Hye Jin squeezed his hand under her pillow, and faintly, he squeezed back.
In the morning Du Sik, and all his things, were gone. His side of the bed had been straightened up. Hye Jin grabbed her phone to switch off the alarm and found a text.
“Apologies for the inconvenience. Thanks for letting me stay. The window should be ready for pick up at the hardware store this afternoon.”
“Why are you so tired all the time,” Hye Jin wrote back.
“I’ll have it installed before you’re home from work,” was Du Sik’s only response.
“I need a favour.”
“You can say no.”
“The only night I’ve slept in the last three weeks was the night I crashed at your place.”
“Maybe you’re good luck.”
“Sorry, this is too much. This was a terrible idea. Please forget I asked.”
“Good night, Ms Dentist.”
Messages flashed across Hye Jin’s phone screen in quick succession, alerts interrupting the music she was drifting off to.
“Wait,” she whispered out loud in the dark, as if he’d be able to hear her.
Without pausing for thought, Hye Jin flew across her room, through the house, to the front door. She unlatched it, staring into the darkness. On the sidewalk below was a figure in a simple dark t-shirt and jersey shorts moving slowly down the road. He looked up at the sound of the door, embarrassed. Waving once, Du Sik ducked his head and kept going.
“Get back here,” Hye Jin texted him, watching him read and receive it. Hugging her belly, she didn’t have a plan, but she knew she couldn’t let him go home like this. The man was too proud by half, and if this was his weakness, she wasn’t going to push him away. He stopped and looked at her from below, his hair disheveled.
“Mi Seon is sleeping,” she wrote, “be like a cat.”
“Why,” he answered simply.
“A tired Chief Hong helps no one. Consider it my civic duty for the community.”
He tentatively stepped back towards her, stopping to text.
“I promise I just want to sleep.”
“I know,” she wrote.
He was asleep before she returned from the bathroom, curled up on what she was rapidly thinking of as his side of the bed.
They both slept through the night, Hye Jin switching off her alarm as quickly as possible. It hadn’t woken Du Sik, there he was in the early morning light filtering in through her curtains. He still looked grey with exhaustion, his broad shoulders slumped in towards her.
She collected her clothes for the day, everything she needed, and brought it all to the bathroom. With the door closed behind Hye Jin, Mi Seon had no idea they had a visitor as the pair of women went about their morning routine.
All morning, the residents of Gongjin commented on Chief Hong’s absence. He was missed at the coffee shop, deliveries piled at the post office, Mrs Huh’s sink wasn’t fixing itself, and yet he wasn’t reading his messages.
Du Sik was finally spotted around noon in exercise clothes, hastily jogging down the beachfront near his house. Consensus was that he’d gone off for one of his day off adventures and forgotten to tell anyone.
“You didn’t wake me?”
Hye Jin looked up from her desk at the soft-spoken intruder closing the door behind him. He dropped a coffee down on her desk for her, his excuse for coming.
“You still looked tired.”
“I can’t sleep the day away.”
“Evidently you can,” she said wryly. Hye Jin glanced him up and down, watching him fiddle with the coffee. This man had spent two nights in her bed now, with nothing more scandalous than a hand touch. It was comforting and maddening.
“I feel much better,” he admitted. “But I won’t impose on y-“
“I never changed my door code,” she blurted out. His eyebrows rose, his mouth opening and then closing. “Come when you need to sleep. Just don’t get caught.”
Sometimes a week would pass and Hye Jin fell asleep alone, woke alone, her night undisturbed. Sometimes it would be every night for a week that she’d hear the chirp of the door in the darkness. Her body would relax at the careful click of her bedroom door, the cushioned clunk of his shoes on the little landing spot mat she’d made for them.
Anticipating the feel of him sliding in next to her, she found herself sneaking towards the middle.
“Goodnight, Ms Dentist,” he’d whisper if he thought she was awake, the sound a caress.
The only times the unusual arrangement felt awkward were the nights Mi Seon was out with no risk of returning. Hye Jin would send cryptic texts, aware if anyone read their conversations it would be clear something suspicious was going on.
“Officer Choi has company for the night”, “runway clear for takeoff and landing”, “up late for solo movie night, bring snacks”. The last had been meant as a joke, but Du Sik had shown up dutifully carrying a bag of treats along with his homework.
“You eat, I’ll study,” he said, dropping into her armchair with his law clerk textbook. “I have an exam next week.”
“You’re not going to watch the movie?” she asked, already prying the peel off a tangerine. He shook his head with a faint smile, accepting the handful of segments she poured into his palm. Hye Jin turned back to her movie, suddenly conscious of her pajamas, her bare feet, as if she were underdressed for a first date.
Sneaking a glance at him, expecting to see him buried in Walters Kluwer South Korea Civil Practice 2022, she caught him instead looking at her with a soft, vulnerable expression that filled her stomach with butterflies.
They went to bed at the same time that night, taking turns in the bathroom, sitting on either side of the bed while they put down their phones. Hye Jin watched Du Sik unfasten the line of buttons on his casual flannel shirt, pulling out of the sleeves to sleep in his cotton t-shirt, her mouth glued shut against saying anything that would break this fragile arrangement. His belt coiled on the bedside next to his keys and wallet, he tucked in, facing away from her to switch off the lamp.
There was a vague memory of a nightmare in the night, Hye Jin thought she may have comforted him. It would have explained how in the morning she found herself wrapped around his back, her arm under his, around his chest, her knees nestled into the hollow of his.
It was so warm, her cheek pressed to his back. Du Sik’s hand pressed over hers, keeping it resting on his heart, his pulse thudding into her palm.
When her alarm went off the next morning she felt him tense. Du Sik didn’t move, didn’t immediately extricate himself, nor did he nestle in or scoot closer. He simply appeared to be taking in the moment for what it was.
They lay there for several minutes, both playing dead.
“Hye Jin, do you and Chief Little Spoon want eggs?” Mi Seon called through the door.
Hye Jin bit back a curse, rolling away like Du Sik was made of fire. Storming out to the kitchen, scarlet-cheeked, Hye Jin tried to explain.
“This isn’t what it looks like,” she said emphatically. The sentence was unfortunately punctuated by the distinctive slither and click of Du Sik’s belt as he followed her. He greeted Mi Seon with a cheerful hello, only Hye Jin able to see the tension around his mouth. Eun Cheol stepped out of Mi Seon’s bedroom, buttoning his blue uniform shirt.
“This is exactly what it looks like,” Mi Seon said casually, gesturing with an eggy wooden spatula to the wide-eyed man leaving her bedroom to an audience.
The long-time friends shared a nod of greeting that spoke volumes, their mutual understanding immediate. They would neither expose nor interfere with the other man’s courtship.
“Serious?” Du Sik asked Eun Cheol as they both hopped the back wall. The young officer had blushed, nodding once.
“You?” he asked in return.
Du Sik stuck his hands in his pockets and forced a well-practiced laugh.
It was just starting to turn chilly, the night Du Sik crawled into Hye Jin’s bed reeking of squid entrails and makgeolli .
“No,” she said firmly, putting her feet against his back and pushing. “Out, get out before you make the entire bed smell. Don’t you DARE TO-“ her shrieks turning into laughter, cut off by his arms coming around her to pull her into a tight, putrid embrace. She bit his arm, instantly regretting it when a brine-squid tang filled her mouth. He released her, though, obediently rolling off the bed.
“Can I come back if I shower,” he asked, pulling his shirt out from his pants.
“Those clothes stay outside,” she warned.
“I don’t have anything else,” he pointed out.
“I don’t care, there’s no squid guts allowed in this bed.”
“So be it,” he said, throwing up his arms with a scoff as he walked past Mi Seon’s empty bedroom door.
Tired, Hye Jin had the lamps out when she felt him tuck in again. The scents of her own soaps and shampoos filled the darkness, his grumbling complaints undiminished.
“Are you drunk?” she asked.
“Not really,” he admitted, “it was just a good night out on the fishing boat, I’m happy.”
“Happy is good,” she said, sleep closing in.
Hye Jin recognized it as a dream as soon as it began.
It was sunny on the beach, a cool breeze drifting in from across the water. She sat with her back to Du Sik’s chest, their knees twin peaks as they enjoyed the view. One of Du Sik’s hands was occupied with a popsicle, lifting it to his mouth for long, slurpy licks and sucks. His other hand traced the inside of her thigh with his fingertips. “If you squirm I’ll drip on you,” he warned.
Hye Jin awoke with her body thrumming.
Rolling over to face her visitor, the lines of Du Sik’s face highlighted in the moonlight through her new window, she realized something critical.
“Are you naked?” she cried.
“Mm-hm,” he mumbled, “you wouldn’t let me wear my squid clothes. Just stay on your side and you’ll be fine.”
“Just keep a set of pajamas here for next time,” she hissed. “I’ll make you room in a drawer.”
He had already fallen back asleep.
It should have been a dilemma later when he became restless with a nightmare, but Hye Jin was too sleepy to care. She gathered the big man into her arms, his skin smooth and cool under her touch, and let him use her rib cage as a pillow. His cheek tucked between her breasts, his body draped over hers, Hye Jin stroked his shoulders and back until his unconscious fears were calmed.
“Why are you so warm,” he murmured, his palm coming to cup her cheek. “Did you have a nightmare too?”
“Something like that,” she said softly. He was everywhere, long legs, long arms, long torso, everything heavy and broad against her.
He hummed into her, the sound resonating from his jaw through her chest. The song was unfamiliar, but the cadence was gentle like a lullaby. His thumb brushed her arm, slowing as he drifted off. With a contented sigh, Du Sik nuzzled against her like a cat, his song falling away..
Hye Jin lay awake, her hand hovering over his head. Deciding to cross one more line, she let her fingers sink into the rich weight of his hair. It slid smoothly between her fingers, her fingertips trailing lightly along his scalp. She could feel all of him against her, could feel him breathe, could feel every intimate plane and curve of his body.
“What on earth are we,” she whispered.
“I think Gam Ri may be starting to suspect something,” Du Sik told her, looking at his phone. He was sprawled out across the bed in the morning sunlight, basking in the lazy start to a day off. “She said my lights have been out every night this week as she went by from the seniors centre, but that she hasn’t heard of me working any night shifts, and the weather’s been too poor to be out at the boat. Clever Grandma.”
“What will you say?” Hye Jin asked, patting moisturizer onto her cheeks in front of the vanity mirror. She saw him sniff at the floral fragrance, so she wiped the final dab from her finger across his cheek. Rubbing at it with the back of his hand, and gave her a flash of a teasing smile.
“My skin’s already baby smooth.”
“You’ll have to be smooth to fool Gam Ri.”
His face fell.
“It’s not really fool, a secret isn’t the same as a deception.”
Hye Jin raised an eyebrow.
“So if she asks where you’ve been at night?”
Blowing out a breath, pushing the hair off his face, Du Sik looked troubled. She caught him looking her up and down from the corner of her eye.
“I don’t think I can explain this,” he said, and she saw his gaze shift to the drawer in her dresser where he kept pajamas, underwear, deodorant, a toothbrush, a hairbrush, extra phone charger, and a battered copy of Leaves of Grass. “What did you tell Mi Seon?”
“The truth,” Hye Jin responded dryly, carefully looking at her make-up brushes, “not that she believes me. She does appreciate all your little presents, though.”
Once Du Sik had been caught by Hye Jin’s roommate, he’d taken to leaving fairy gifts like fruit, bunches of wild flowers, a pair of fresh pastries, sweets, pretty seashells, and once a halibut, as thanks for hosting his now nearly nightly slumber parties.
“What’s not to believe, she’s seen me here so many times now?”
He looked so innocently perplexed, Hye Jin couldn’t help but laugh as she rose from her chair and left the bedroom to find breakfast.
“She doesn’t believe that you’re just here to sleep.”
“You’re so early,” Hye Jin said, “are you okay?”
Du Sik moved past her to the bedroom, energy radiating off his body. He slung an empty backpack down from his shoulder and knelt down to open his drawer.
“This has to stop,” he said, his voice formal. “I won’t get in the way between you and the producer.”
“What?” she asked, blindsided. Watching him strip the drawer, his possessions disappearing into the bag, drove her anxiety into high gear.
“You can’t start a relationship with a man when you’ve got another one sleeping in your bed every night,” he explained patiently.
“Who said I was starting a relationship with Ji Seong-hyun?” she demanded, her fists on her hips, blocking the bedroom door.
“He does,” Du Sik answered calmly, staring resolutely over her shoulder. “He spent the evening at the coffee shop talking about his beautiful girlfriend, how he kissed her on the beach in the moonlight.”
“Are you serious?” she gasped.
“I won’t get in the way,” he said, failing to hide the irritation in his voice.
“He is not my boyfriend,” she said fiercely.
“He seems to think he is,” Du Sik said, finally facing her eye-to-eye.
“Are you jealous?” Hye Jin asked, putting the pieces of the conversation together.
“Yes,” he admitted, agitated. “So please let me go.”
“No,” she said simply. She refused to budge and he refused to touch her.
“Did you kiss him?” he asked.
“In university, yes. It was twelve years ago!”
Pulling his hair off his face and holding it back, he stared at her, shaking his head.
“I don’t know what to do. I can’t do this. You’re going to wake up one morning, decide you’ve had enough with Gongjin, and move back to Seoul. If not today, if not with him, then sometime, and I-“ he swallowed, “I will be devastated.
He reached for her cheek, the barest touch, and for a moment she thought he was going to kiss her.
“You’ve been so kind, tolerating this, tolerating me,” Du Sik finished softly.
Hye Jin stood frozen in the doorway.
“Do you think,” she said slowly, her temper rising, “that I would let just any man into my bed for months out of basic human kindness? ”
He opened his mouth to speak and she slapped a hand over it to stop him.
“Do you think that’s how I tolerate people? I thought you were supposed to be smart!” she scoffed, her eyes flashing. His eyes flicked over her, assessing the coiled tension in her muscles like a snake on the trail. “If you’re so jealous of Ji Seong-hyun, why haven’t you kissed me? Or asked to be my boyfriend?”
Frustration flared in Du Sik, gently pulling her wrist down to free his mouth.
“It won’t be enough to kiss you, to be your boyfriend. I want to make a home here with you, I want to marry you, have children with you, know that we’ll sleep in the same bed every damn night for the rest of our lives. My dreams are different than yours, and the only way I’m not going to get my heart broken is to not even start down that path.”
Hye Jin took in his blisteringly vulnerable words, expression, in a silent beat.
“How dare you underestimate me,” she said coolly. “Do you think I’d abandon someone I love for fancy buildings and bright lights? Am I so shallow?”
“No, I just don’t want to make you choose between-“
“Between two good things?”
“Between me and your dreams.”
“What if you’re my dream now,” she said angrily.
Du Sik looked taken aback.
“Am I?” he asked in a normal tone, as if they hadn’t just been arguing. Hye Jin ducked her head, pink.
“Crazier things have happened.”
An alarm went off on his phone, and he silenced it without looking.
“I have to go, they’re short staffed on the squid boats tonight. If you’re saying there’s a chance for us, can we come back to this conversation?” he asked cautiously.
“Leave the bag before you go,” she demanded, holding out her hand.
With a moment’s hesitation, he gave her the backpack of his possessions.
“Kiss me before you go,” she said in the same tone, pressing her luck.
Du Sik smiled wryly.
“If I do, I’ll never leave.”
After his departure, Hye Jin felt like she was made of bees. She couldn’t settle, couldn’t sleep. Mi Seon wasn’t coming home, so she didn’t have anyone to talk to.
The bed felt wrong without him.
She had put Du Sik’s things back in her dresser, but she couldn’t get the image out of her head of him packing the bag.
He was so afraid. She was so unsure how to reassure him. She couldn’t promise marriage and a family and a lifetime in Gongjin. Could she? Would he accept that she wanted to be wherever he was for as long as she humanly could? Was that the same thing? She liked kids. It had never felt real that they were something she personally would have since she’d never had a partner who was interested.
Hye Jin stirred her tea at the kitchen table, imagining Du Sik as a father, teaching a child to paddle out on the surfboard, a baby on his shoulder while he made dinner, up to his elbows in boat engine showing a little one where to put the screwdriver. It felt like all her insides clenched at the images, and she blew out a breath.
He was right. This wasn’t a path to take lightly. If she admitted how hard she’d fallen for Du Sik, it wasn’t going to be a trickle of kisses at the gate and courtship and a we’ll-see-how-this-goes. Once they broke that dam, their relationship was going to be a flood of passion and intimacy and an inseparable binding of souls that would sweep aside any of the flimsier goals she’d made before they’d met.
God, she couldn’t wait.
Leaving her tea on the table, Hye Jin texted Mi Seon to postpone their Saturday morning shopping date, and slid on her running shoes. She hit the sidewalk, slinging her bag over her shoulder, and walked quickly into the night.
The neighbouring Mrs Jo waved at her from her window, where she had been turning off lights for the night.
“Dr Yoon, where are you going so late!”
“Chief Hong’s,” Hye Jin said brightly, done with discretion. “See you tomorrow!”
“Do you have any idea how many messages I got last night? Mrs Jo posted on the town’s group chat that you were spending the night at my house, and there I was stuck on a squid boat,” a hoarse voice said near her ear.
Hye Jin cracked an eye into the dawn light, where Du Sik sat on the floor beside the bed. His hair was wet, and he smelled of soap in his clean tshirt and sweatpants.
“Why is your bed so small,” she said, curling against the wall to make room for him. Instead he wrapped his arms around her, and brought her to the floor, duvet and all. She squeaked, landing with her head in his lap.
“I want it all,” she said. “Give me all of it. You, a family, Gam Ri, the hedge hog, Gongjin, my practice here.”
“Greedy,” he teased, but she could hear his heartbeat pick up against her ear.
Reaching up, she held tight to his cheeks and brought his face down to hers.
“Right now, what I want is you,” she whispered.