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a heart like an open highway

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The car was too warm. She was starting to sweat.

Whether it was too warm either from the humid weather or her own embarrassment she didn't know and didn't care. She felt like climbing out of her own skin she was so uncomfortable.

It was so difficult to get the words out.

It was too important, what she was doing right now.

And she wanted too many things from him:

Don't say a word.

No, don't even look at me.

Just let me talk.

Listen to me.

Love me back.

Understand me.

Make this easy on me.

Reassure me that I didn't wait too long that you didn't change your mind that I'm not too late that you still want me like I've wanted you since we were nineteen.

Forgive me.

Don't let me down.

And once it was done, and she got the words out, well, he didn't, of course.

Ikjun had not let her down for such a long time and she hadn't really expected him to now. But still she was so nervous, her heart in her throat when she finally gave him the answer he had once asked for and that she could never give him before this moment.

In return he gave her everything she wanted and more. So like him, Lee Ikjun. After all, the first thing she ever knew about him was that if she needed something, he would give it to her.

*

Three days after she confessed to him in his car, he kissed her in her office.

Ikjun had kissed her several times already between then and now - and she had kissed him a few times, too - but this time it was different. Something happened. Something small. The tender kiss he had pressed to her mouth just before heading off to attend his morning rounds lingered just a little too long.

There was a moment - hard to pin down later as she played it over in her mind - but there was something, some signal that passed between them. She sighed or made some small sound, or he shifted his weight in such a way, or her hand on his sleeve tightened, or his hand on her waist pulled her closer. Something like that.

And suddenly she was stumbling back and he was following after till her back hit the closed door, their breathing came faster as their mouths parted and they shifted and she dragged his head back down to hers because he wasn't kissing her again fast enough. His hand was under her scrubs top then, palm sliding around her waist to the small of her back, his thumb grazing the edge of her ribcage. Her hands made fists in his hair and in the collar of his medical coat. His tongue was in her mouth; she could taste his morning coffee and chased after it, seeking more of it, kissing him back harder, deeper. He was leaning into her, pressing her into the door with his body, and she was half a second from hitching her leg up over his hip, wanting more contact, more pressure, when someone's phone beeped.

And they froze.

And they parted.

She swallowed and a moment later began to straighten her glasses, smooth her hair, surreptitiously wipe her mouth on the back of her hand. She cleared her throat, opened her mouth, and was unable to think of a single thing to say.

He was turned half away, fumbling with his phone with one hand and scrubbing his other hand through his hair. He read the text message he had received only to remain staring at the screen for several seconds as if he couldn't process the meaning of it.

It was the most scattered she had ever seen him. And she felt just like that; like there were pieces of herself all over the place, flying off in every direction.

She wanted him. Badly.

But this wasn't the right time or place for that sort of thing and it was only with great effort that she took a deep breath, swallowed hard, and pulled herself together enough to step away from the door, hand reaching to the side to turn the handle and open it.

"So, I'll see you later."

"Mm." The phone was still held in his motionless hand, but he had lifted his gaze. He was staring at her throbbing lips. If she looked in the mirror right now she knew they would be red and swollen.

"Ikjun."

Belatedly he managed the same feat as her, snapping out of it with a small shake of his head. "Right. Yes."

She opened the door wider. The rest of the hospital existed suddenly, not just the pair of them here together.

He left without another word, his eyes not meeting hers again. His hand, however, brushed hers as he passed her. The thrill it sent through her was beyond all proportion that such a small thing could reasonably warrant.

Alone in her office she turned to look at her mirror, examining her kiss-reddened mouth, her messy hair, that look in her eyes.

Her feelings for him weren't knew, nor were his feeling for her. It had all been building for such a long time - decades, in fact. But this was definitely new.

She touched her fingers to her still-tingling lips and contemplated how, really, everything felt new these days.

*

Chae Songhwa wasn't the sort of person who made mistakes.

Except she did make mistakes, of course - she was human, not the saintly figure her juniors sometimes made her out to be. Her mistakes weighed heavily on her, though. She never wanted to be the sort of person whose flaws and poor choices made the lives of others worse. She saw it as a serious failure when she made the wrong decision and someone else suffered for it. This was, of course, the entire ethos of a medical professional:

First, do no harm.

Songhwa always wanted to live like that, to take that much care in all areas of her life, not just in her career. But she was not perfect. She screwed up.

Most recently she had failed as a daughter. That had been hard to accept about herself, but she had, and she had done her best since to make amends in that regard.

Tonight, standing over Ikjun's unconscious form she recognised another huge mistake that she had made.

Because she wanted to be with him - not just as a friend anymore. She knew it; she recognised her own feelings for what they were, and they were most certainly not the lingering feelings of a teenager, heartbroken that her first crush didn't like her back - something like that could never be reason enough to change a dear friendship two decades in the making.

Her feelings now were deep, well considered and examined, and they weren't going away, and she had been too much of a coward so far to do anything about it.

She kept thinking it would happen whenever it happened. There would come a moment when it felt right to speak up. There was no rush, and she didn't even know how he would respond after all this time, after her initial rejection of him, so waiting a little longer was no problem, was it?

She had been fooling herself.

She had been making the wrong decision every day she put it off. It was the wrong thing to do when she knew what she wanted, and she was almost - almost - certain it was what he was waiting to hear from her.

Now he was seriously hurt - even knowing the prognosis was good, still it was beyond terrible to see him lying in that bed, and she wanted to do so much more for him than she was able.

She could have been there for him as more than his friend. She could have done all the things she wanted to - stroke his face, tell him she loved him, cry into his chest because he was going to be all right. When he woke up she could have kissed him and let him know how dear he was to her.

This was a mistake, and it was all on her, and she felt the consequences of it cutting deeply as she watched over him night and day from the polite distance their friendship required.

And she knew she would have to make a different choice in the days to come. Not right away - no, that would be selfish when he wasn't fully himself. But he would recover in time and then - no more excuses.

She would have to find a way tell him everything.

*

Going on a date with Ikjun - a real date, not meeting him for coffee outside in the courtyard, or ordering food they ended up sharing with their friends in her office, but a real, proper date - felt strangely like an accomplishment.

Like somewhere hidden inside her there was a young Songhwa who was falling over herself in gleeful triumph.

She didn't bother even trying to hide how much she liked it, smiling at him over the top of her menu, her heart fluttering every time their eyes met.

We did it, she told her younger self. It took us only twenty-two years but we are out on a date with the boy of our dreams.

She realised something then that had been true for a while now - that she no longer regretted those days, with all their disappointed hopes leading to her broken heart. She'd held onto it for a long time but it couldn't have mattered less to her now.

Still, it was strange to think that all of that remained a secret from him. For the first time she found she wanted to share it with him - not to dredge up hurt feelings but just because she wanted him to know everything that had come before, and to explain how she got here now. She wanted to hear about it from his perspective, too, all of it, even if some of it was hard to hear.

And so after the server had appeared to take their orders, collected the menus and left them with nothing to look at but each other, she told him her longest-held secret.

"I liked you. Did you know that? I always wondered if you knew."

"I -"

"Not now," she hastened to explain. "I mean, not recently. When we were students. Back then... did you know I had a huge crush on you?"

His mouth opened slightly but he didn't answer immediately, his eyes searching her face.

She reached out and he turned his hand over automatically to accept her grasp. "It's all right. I just think - isn't it time we talked about all of this?"

"If you want to." He nodded slowly. "Okay. Let's talk."

*

In the long months after his half-delivered confession that day in Sokcho, and after she had warned him off completing it, Songhwa was convinced it had been the right decision.

She couldn't have made another one. She didn't want to hear that from him. She was mad at him, for a while, that he would even bring it up like that. Just out of nowhere, right on the heels of his divorce.

Even if whatever he wanted to tell her about his feelings was the truth - what good could it come to in a situation like theirs? Yes, she had felt something for him a long time ago, and maybe he had felt something back then too, but that didn't matter in the here and now, and it hadn't for a long time. What mattered was their relationship now. What mattered was being a good friend, and not risking that out of loneliness or the dredged up ghost of what might have been.

So yes, she told him not to say anything more about it, as gently as she could. And it was the right thing to do. She was sure of it. Mostly.

But his disappointment, try as he did to keep it from her, was tangible and it couldn't help but affect her. And he was such a good friend all the while. He cared so much and never held it against her. And it crept in, bit by bit, the uncertainty. The maybes.

Although it never came up again, still she kept thinking about it, mostly without really thinking about it at all; just these idle half-thoughts floating at the edge of awareness that she endeavoured never to pay much attention to. They were questions surfacing and drifting away before ever taking up too much space in her head:

what might happen if

but what would it be like if we

could it be something more than expected

would it really be such a bad idea?

They were persistent, though, like cravings for foods you know you shouldn't indulge in. And they occurred at odd moments while Songhwa assessed a tumour, walked on the beach, attended her physio appointments, woke up in her bright, airy apartment in Sokcho some morning or other thinking maybe.

*

Over a year after the morning she lay in her bed in Sokcho and thought maybe, she woke up in Ikjun's bed for the first time.

It was a long moment before she had a single coherent thought in her head other than, perhaps, oh.

Her eyes opened and his face was the first thing she saw and she was so glad; just glad because there he was, beside her. And in this slow, hazy waking moment everything was him. Everything in her head, every inch of her skin that his hands and mouth had explored last night, every muscle fiber comprising her heart was currently beating its steady rhythm solely for him.

Lying side by side, facing each other, they weren't even touching except for one of his feet hooked over her ankle. She would have to shift her hand several inches over the expanse of mattress between them to touch him. She didn't, choosing just to watch for now, taking in his sleeping face, his soft breathing, just existing in this warm, happy experience of waking up next to him.

They were both of them used to rising early, being at the hospital on time. Sleeping in was an almost unheard of luxury. So even without an alarm to rouse them, even considering the rather tiring activities they had indulged in the previous evening, here she was awake at this early hour, and it didn't surprise her to see him begin to stir just a few minutes later.

He let out a long sigh, shifting slightly, his toes twitching against her calf. His eyes opened next, barely more than a crack, and then his hand slid across the bed towards her, lifted up, and he patted her on the head.

It struck her that there was a good chance he had just mistaken her for Uju.

There was a pause, and his eyes still didn't open fully but the hand patted again, this time in a more exploratory fashion as it registered smooth chin-length hair rather than short bristles. A crinkle of confusion appeared between his eyes for a moment before his face relaxed and his eyes opened all the way and he actually focused on her.

The urge to tease him fled. He just looked so happy to see her there.

"You are... very pretty in the morning."

His sleepy voice rasping out what was, truly, a very smooth recovery was attractive in a way she had not anticipated, but liked quite a lot. It more than made up for the fact he had briefly forgotten she would be there when he woke up.

He settled more comfortably into his pillow, smiling at her, and she couldn't quite bring herself to say you are very sexy in the morning so instead she took his hand, now gently stroking her hair, and captured it between her cheek and the pillow, pressing a kiss to his thumb.

"I'll make you breakfast," he said, eyes watching her like a precious gift had been delivered to him he could hardly believe was real. "I want to eat breakfast with you before we go to work."

She nodded.

"Are you hungry?" he said next.

Her smile widened and she nodded again.

"Do you want to use the shower while I cook?"

Another nod.

"Tell me, do - do you sing in the shower?"

A very definite nod this time. She loved singing in the shower. She sounded even better than usual in there.

"All right, good. That's... good." His thumb, pressed against her cheek, moved slightly, stroking her skin. "Songhwa."

"Mm."

"I love you."

Her pause before nodding a final time was not from uncertainty. "Me too."

*

"Go ahead and cry," he said. They had left the hospital grounds, pulling out onto the road busy with evening traffic.

The word 'no' got stuck in her throat. She had cried in her office. She wanted to keep it together until she was home with her mother. Her mother who had a serious degenerative neurological condition that she had missed.

What use was crying? Her eyes would be red, her nose stuffed up. Her mother would know. But the refusal failed to make it past her lips.

"Go ahead," he said again.

She looked over at him. His eyes remained fixed on the car in front, the traffic lights up ahead.

"I'll let you know when we're close to your parent's house," he said. "I think... fifteen minutes. When we're fifteen minutes away, I'll tell you. You'll have enough time to calm down, fix your eyes. So it's all right. You can cry."

He said it so matter-of-factly, and punctuated his statement by reaching for the radio, turning on some music at a low volume, presumably so she wouldn't feel self-conscious.

And of course he thought of everything, considered everything, anticipated everything. He took care of others as naturally as he kept on breathing - it wasn't something all that noticeable about him at first, to most people. But she had always seen it. And she had never really questioned that knowledge, that feeling of always being safe with him.

It almost made this harder to bear. She wanted to keep it together, feeling almost like she didn't deserve to feel so bad; guilt currently at war with her misery. And if it was anyone else, anyone but Ikjun, it would be easier to sit here and remain composed. No, I'm fine, I'm not going to cry, don't worry about me. Those words would be easy to say.

But there was nothing she needed to say, not here with him beside her, with his steady, silent presence and with no reason to hide what she really felt. No reason at all.

She slipped her feet out of her sensible leather shoes so she could bring her feet up onto the seat. Curling her knees up to her chest, she buried her face in her arms and let go.

When the car pulled to a stop on the narrow street outside her parent's home she was calm.

She didn't move yet, taking a moment to collect herself and her scattered thoughts. Her eyes were dry, a fistful of damp tissues clutched in one hand as she stared listlessly out the side window.

Ikjun reached over and switched off the radio.

She sighed. "I'm a bad daughter."

"Mmm." The sound Ikjun made in response was thoughtful; neither agreement nor disagreement.

She looked over at him, eyebrows raised, until he elaborated.

"If that's true, then there's only one thing you can do," he said.

"Really?"

"You know what to do."

After a beat she nodded, turning away to look out at the familiar residence, the light on in the window facing the street. "Yeah. I know."

"Go inside," he prompted.

She nodded again. "And be better."

"Mmm." This time the sound was full of reassurance, affirmation, as well as tenderness that she didn't really want right now, even if she needed it.

She gathered herself, her things, opened the door onto the cool night air. She leant back down briefly once she was standing on the footpath. "Thanks."

He waved her away as if it was nothing. "Take good care of your mother. See you tomorrow."

He started the car as she closed the door, but sat there waiting until the front door had opened and she had stepped inside. Only then did she hear the car pull away.

"Who was that?" her mother asked, looking out past her as she slipped out of her shoes.

"Just Ikjun."

"Ah. Of course. Do you -"

"Mom."

"Oh, oh, Songhwa."

She was folded quickly in her mother's arms and hated that she couldn't remember the last time she hugged her like this, and hated too how small and fragile and human she felt against her, and hated how much she needed this as her mother stroked her hair and rocked her slightly.

"It's okay. I'm really all right, Songhwa."

"I'm sorry," she choked out. "Yes, of course you're all right. It's all going to be fine. Just fine."

For her mother's sake she forced herself to believe it.

Sheer force of will carried her through the rest of the evening. She helped her mother in the kitchen. She listened to all she had to say, answered all of her questions, and her father's questions, and her brothers' questions. She was patient, tolerant, humble. She may not have been a good daughter but tonight at least she managed to act like one.

The next morning, very early - even earlier than she would usually be up because of the longer commute to reach the hospital on time - she had just gotten out of her bed in the spare room when she received a text.

Do you want a ride to the hospital?

No, my dad wants to drive me, she texted back. And then quickly sent a second message: Thanks.

You okay? was the next message Ikjun sent her half a minute later.

I'm okay, she typed out and hit send. It wasn't really true, and he wouldn't really believe it, but what else was there to say?

She stared down at her phone a moment longer. She knew he would be there for her, comfort her, do whatever he could for her if she only asked for it. But he'd already done enough. If she was feeling lonely, wasn't this the situation she had created for herself? This was her own problem to face.

Still, as the day went on, back at work, needing space from everyone as she sunk further in her dark mood and guilty recriminations she was aware of him hovering out of sight, still watching over her.

She didn't deserve it, his steadfast friendship, but still she appreciated it. More than she knew how to tell him.

*

A few months after he had driven her to her mother's house while listening to her cry her eyes out, another car ride ended on a much happier note. When they drew up outside her apartment building it was late, almost no traffic around at this time of the evening. They sat quietly for a moment, but it was an easy silence. Not at all like the tension she had felt before, sitting in the rain, trying to form words with her heart in her throat.

"I'll see you at work tomorrow," he said, with just the slightest hint of a question in what was offered as a statement.

It occurred to her that if she asked him to come inside with her right now, he would. But also knew that he wasn't expecting that, and that it was probably for the best, for all that she didn't want to part from him right now.

This new intimacy between them felt precious, achingly so, but it wasn't fragile; it would not come to any harm in the space between telling him goodnight and seeing him again as usual at work just as she did every day.

Besides, the thought occurred to her that her bedroom was a mess, there was almost certainly dirty laundry on her floor, and she had not shaved her legs in over a week.

All of these considerations passed by in a flash while she was already smiling in understanding to match his accepting gaze.

"Tomorrow. Let's get coffee."

"All right." He glanced down at their long abandoned coffee cups with a slight quirk of his lips. Maybe they would actually drink the next ones.

She took off her seatbelt and gathered her handbag from the footwell.

He remained in place, ready for her to depart, and instead of wondering if he was going to kiss her again she moved forward, leaning with her hand on his shoulder so she could reach his face. It might have been a kiss on the cheek but he turned his face towards her and happily she took the alternative on offer.

It was just a gentle press of her lips to his. It was a goodbye, but it was also a starting point; a sign on the long winding path that was their relationship. It was saying:

We're a couple now; from now on we do this kind of thing.

He sat waiting in the car, idling at the curb, watching until she was inside the building.

While waiting for the elevator, feeling giddy, she pulled her phone from her pocket to send him a text, because this was something else that couples did, wasn't it?

She chose a single heart emoji and hit send before questioning whether this was appropriate or if it was indeed as ridiculous as she suspected it was the second it was done.

Less than two minutes later - she knew he must have pulled over to answer it; he didn't text while driving - just as she let herself into her apartment she received a text back. It was three solid lines of hearts, followed by two doctor emojis, a kiss emoji, and an exploding head emoji. Then there was also a basic smiling face, a cup of coffee, and another six hearts.

She stared at this until she felt about ninety percent sure she understood - which was close enough. She sent him back another single heart and went to bed.

*

The morning after she confessed her feelings to Ikjun she arrived at the hospital at her usual time and was not even a little surprised to find Yulje's top liver transplant surgeon loitering in the parking garage as she pulled into her parking space.

The two of them could barely seem to keep their expressions under control as they greeted each other and made their way to the elevator. Every glance from one to the other spurred another silly smile.

Anyone seeing them now would probably think they were drunk.

But the elevator was empty when the doors parted and they stepped on, moving in and turning in unison to face the front.

Songhwa pressed the button for the main floor. "You have time for coffee?" she said, just to be sure.

He nodded. "Of course."

Another wide smile was shared between them.

The doors opened and they looked over to see Junwan there, staring at them.

Songhwa looked back at Ikjun, who bounced his eyebrows at her. She started laughing, and the two of them stepped forward, past Junwan, one on either side of his unmoving form.

"What is with you two?" he burst out.

Ikjun patted his shoulder. "Good morning, Junwan."

"Seriously!" came his indignant response.

The two of them left their spluttering friend behind.

"We'll have to let them know," Songhwa said, sobering a little.

"Yes, probably. That was fun, though."

"Yeah." She laughed again.

There would be time to deal with that later. For now, she was just happy to start her day in the best way she could imagine.

*

The cafeteria has bulgogi today.

She paused in the hallway outside her shared office to read her text from Ikjun, smiling as she sent a quick reply.

We never have bulgogi.

What is it today for lunch? Did you eat? he sent as she retrieved her medical coat from the back of her desk chair and put it on.

Not yet. I'll let you know what the menu is, she texted back, before heading over to the hospital's main cafeteria.

He texted her regularly when she was in Sokcho.

Not every day, but regularly. He made an effort to keep in touch - and she kept in touch with all of the guys, and other friends in Seoul, more or less as the year passed. But Ikjun was her most reliable correspondent, never more than a few days passing before he sent her a message about something or other. Sometimes it was just a silly joke or a picture he'd taken of something - a nice sunset, Uju, Junwan asleep and drooling on the sofa. It was nice.

Sometimes she would swear he knew exactly when she needed a little pick-me-up - when she was feeling a bit lonely or out of sorts. She would get a text just saying hello or to give her some odd bit of news or hospital gossip, and it always brightened her day.

She missed it. She missed them: Yulje, her colleagues, her friends, everything. She didn't regret her decision or wish to cut her time working at Yulje's sister hospital short, but she was lonely now and then, at times wishing the drive between Seoul and Sokcho were shorter.

Her phone buzzed with another message and she quickly drew it from her pocket to see.

Smiling as she read the newest message she had to admit that her life back in Seoul never really seemed too far away.

*

In the end it only took a few days before everybody knew about them - Yulje's latest but hardly most surprising new couple.

Songhwa didn't really mind the gossip. Carrying on in secret wasn't her style, and there was no reason for them to be anything but open about their relationship. There was the slight awkwardness of letting their closest friends know, but after that hurdle had passed she just went about her days at the hospital as if there was nothing of note to talk about.

People did talk, of course. They were curious, but that was only natural, and it was all well-intentioned, and anyway she knew it wouldn't last long before she and Ikjun being a couple instead of close friends became old news.

And in the meantime Ikjun loved the attention. So even if it didn't affect her much one way or the other she enjoyed this aspect of their new relationship just because he did.

They were chatting with Seonbin and Yunbok on the way to her office one morning. Ikjun was entertaining the two younger women with a story about Uju's adventures at his grandparent's house which Songhwa had already heard twice already that day.

But when they reached her office door she saw Seonbin and Yunbok halt in their tracks just as she and Ikjun were about to go inside.

"I'm going to make coffee. Come in and have some," she encouraged them.

In response they both held up their hands and took a step back.

"No, it's okay."

"I have rounds."

"Thank you, but I have so many charts to do."

"We'll go then."

"We'll go."

Both women turned and fled.

Songhwa sighed.

Ikjun shook his head. "Do you feel like no one wants to hang out with us anymore?"

She laughed, preceding him in through the door. "They're trying to be polite."

"I know. They think it will be awkward. It really disappoints me. I'm the least awkward person in this place, and you're not too bad either. Why would it be awkward?"

She snorted at his faint praise of her as he came in through the doorway and she shut the door after him.

He turned to see the door shutting and gave a mock gasp. "You closed the door!"

"Of course."

"Chae Songhwa, what are your intentions for me?"

"Coffee."

"But what will people think?" He threw himself down on her sofa. "They'll think we're up to no good in here."

"Oh, really?" She brightened, the thought amusing her as she set the kettle to boil. "Will they? They'll suspect me? I don't know. No one ever thinks badly of me."

"It's because you're the saint of Yulje. It's a gift and a curse."

She tutted. "Tsk. More people like you than like me."

"Oh? Should we take a vote?"

"No."

"It's true, you'd probably lose."

"Hey."

"Especially now that you drag your boyfriend into your office and get up to all sorts of scandalous things with him."

She gave him an incredulous look. He was the one who had pinned her to the door and kissed her like that only yesterday.

The fact that she had been an equal participant in the kiss in question was put temporarily out of her mind.

She huffed. "All right. Well, it's just coffee, after all." She opened two sachets of instant coffee, not having time to brew it properly with filtered grounds. After pouring the hot water she passed him his cup. "Isn't it a bit disappointing now?"

"Are you serious? This coffee - it's the most notorious coffee this hospital has heard about in years."

"Oh, now we've become notorious?" She threw her head back, clapping her hands together as a delighted laugh escaped her.

"You really like that."

"I do, so much!" She continued laughing as she took her own cup over and settled at her desk.

He just watched her, looking amused.

"Listen," she went on, "I'm always the villain around here. Even I know it's boring. Do I really get to be a bad guy for once?"

He nodded, hand rubbing over his mouth. "Um, mm-hm. Yes."

"Oh, I'm in such a good mood now."

"Don't you have a surgery scheduled soon?"

She gestured with her cup. "I just have time to drink this. And I want to check over the notes one more time."

He nodded and fell silent for a few minutes as she pulled up the patient's charts and screens, completing her final preparations for the upcoming procedure. They were all more than familiar to her by now, but this was her routine. She always wanted the information fresh in her mind before she went into surgery.

She was just taking her last swallow of coffee when Ikjun spoke up.

"Hey. Come over tomorrow night. You're free, aren't you?"

She looked over at him, and after a brief pause replied, "Yes, I'm free. All right."

"I'll cook dinner."

"Sounds good."

He nodded, and their gaze held for a moment longer before she turned back to her computer screen.

That was it. Neither of them said it, but they both understood. He was asking her to come over, but he was suggesting that she spend the night, and she was saying yes. Yes to both. Yes to everything.

"I should go," she said, standing up.

He stood, too, coming over to take her cup from her. "I'll wash up."

"Thanks."

He didn't move away from her, though, blocking her path from behind her desk over to the door.

"Now," he said, looking down at her, "Songhwa, you might be wondering - and it's okay, it's only natural to be curious about it."

"About what?"

"Ah, that Lee Ikjun, he's so good at everything. So I wonder - is he also good in bed?"

Her mouth dropped open. "Hey!"

"I think you definitely want to know. But should I spoil the surprise? I could just tell you -"

She pushed at his chest and he stepped back out of her way. "I - I have a surgery right now."

"I know. I won't keep you. Go ahead."

She walked past him and then immediately rounded on him. "You -"

"You'll be late. Go. Ah, I see." He nodded sagely. "You'll be too distracted now, thinking about it. Songhwa, you can't have these kinds of thoughts at work, it's unprofessional."

"You're the one who brought it up!"

"Well, we should be able to talk about these things, we're adults, it shouldn't be awkward between us."

She scoffed loudly.

He smirked. "Shouldn't you be going?"

"No." She folded her arms over her chest. "Tell me. Go ahead, is it yes or no?"

"What do you think?"

"You really want to know what I think?"

"Songhwa! What kind of things are you thinking about me?"

She closed her eyes and shielded her glasses with one hand. With the other she pointed towards the door. "Get lost!"

"Hey. It's true, you know. I am good at everything. Seriously, I'm - wow - so talented. If this was an Olympic event? Gold!"

She opened her eyes to see him holding a champion's pose with a beaming grin, as if he was indeed standing on the podium accepting his first place medal.

She laughed all the way to the surgical suites.

She was still chuckling all the while she scrubbed in, and her smile was still broader than usual as she greeted her team and took her position in her chair. He was just so hilarious to her.

But damn Ikjun if she didn't think all sorts of unprofessional thoughts for the next eight hours spent staring at brain tissue.

The following night couldn't come soon enough.

*

And then it didn't come at all.

"I could wait here for you," Songhwa offered.

Ikjun shook his head firmly. "You know it will be an all-nighter. You'll just be alone in your office - you may as well go home."

A liver had become available for one of Ikjun's most needful patients, and so of course the transplant surgery couldn't wait. The patient was already being prepared, and it only now required for the organ to be transported to Yulje and Ikjun would begin the procedure.

She frowned. "You waited for me the other night."

She had returned to her office after a long surgery, it had been nearly dawn and still she found him asleep on her sofa. He was always taking care of her. She wanted the chance to do these things for him.

"I was called in for an emergency so I was already here. It's different."

"It's not that different. I can sleep here and then drive you home in the morning so you can rest. You shouldn't drive after being up all night."

"I'll call for a ride." She was about to protest again but he held up a hand. Once she was silent he sighed. "We're not going to agree on this, are we? We'll have to fight. Just watch out for my face, it's too perfect to damage." He put up his fists and began to dodge and weave.

She snorted, unable to hold back a short laugh at his antics. But she still wasn't happy about not getting her way. "Fine. Fine, I'll go."

He put down his fists and straightened. "Thank you."

"But make sure you call for a ride in the morning, don't drive yourself."

He nodded. "I will."

"And don't drink coffee on the way, you won't rest well."

"Mm." He was looking amused. "Anything else?"

"Well... don't forget to brush your teeth and take out your contact lenses before you go to sleep or you'll feel terrible when you wake up."

"Mm, mm," he nodded along obligingly. "Very good advice, Professor, but you forgot the most important thing."

"What?"

"Remember, Ikjun, to kiss your girlfriend good night."

"You need to be reminded to do that?"

"Well, no, but I would have remembered to brush my teeth, too, and you scolded me about that."

"Don't complain, I know you like it when I scold you."

He nodded emphatically "I do. I love it. Seriously, don't ever stop fussing over me."

"All right," she agreed easily, having no intention of ever doing so. And then she was sinking into a breathless kiss, his smiling lips pressing eagerly to hers and how was it she had lived 41 years of her life without kisses like this?

It ended all too soon.

"Go on. Go and sleep in your own bed," he said.

She had really not been expecting to sleep in her own bed tonight. But then they were both busy doctors and the demands of their jobs didn't disappear because they had become a couple and wanted to spend time together.

She sighed and voiced an unenthusiastic agreement. "Yeah. All right. You know I'm mostly just unhappy our date got ruined."

"I know. Another time. We've got plenty of time."

"It sucks, though. We've been too busy lately. Too many people are sick these days."

He was barely restraining a laugh. "You love your job, Songhwa."

She repeated it dutifully. "I love my job."

He stepped back from her and made a heart shape with his hands and projected it from his chest towards her, and then exploded it into imaginary sparkles which he pretended to throw around until she laughed helplessly.

"Good luck with your transplant," she said, shaking her head.

"Mm." He waved her off.

As she left his office she stopped in the doorway to cast a final look at him, standing there watching her go. She had to turn away quickly then before her heart simply burst with how much she adored him.

*

In the car, in the rain, his arms around her, the storm passing by overhead, thunder rumbling off into the distance. Their mouths found each other again - and again - and all she could think was that she was so relieved. She was accepted, forgiven, loved.

She tried to express everything she felt as she kissed him back. It might take forever to tell him all of it this way, without words, but honestly she didn't mind. It was wonderful kissing him.

Which was a relief in itself - to think it could have been awkward or strange, after all this time, to kiss him, but no. Just wonderful.

After a while - a good long while, their coffees long grown cold - they separated far enough to retreat back into their seats.

Songhwa had to rub at her hip where it had been jammed against the seatbelt buckle.

Ikjun let out a chuckle. "Are we too old to do something like this in a car?"

"Oh, it's so uncomfortable," she burst out, both of them laughing suddenly.

"Ah," Ikjun shook his head, "too old for dating in cars. Our bodies can't take it."

"Is this a date, then? Like this?"

"No. We'll go on a date sometime, but it will be better than this."

"This is good for me. This was perfect."

As he smiled in understanding she reached out to him again - just her hand, this time. He took it.

"Of course. The rain." He glanced out the windscreen at the rain still pattering away, more gently now than before.

She nodded. The rain, and him. Perfect.

She let out a long breath and let her head fall back against the head rest, closing her eyes. They still stung a little from the effort of not letting tears fall earlier when she was so choked up she could barely speak.

"Ah," he said softly. "You've had a hard time, Songhwa."

She shook her head mutely. Any worries she'd had of late had been purely of her own making. If anyone had had a hard time, it was him.

"It's okay," he said.

She turned her head enough to glare at him a little. "You were assaulted. Your head was cracked open."

A smile played around his lips. "I worried you a lot. I'm sorry."

His answer was infuriating. She blew out a breath, and said what she really wanted to say: "I turned you down when you tried to tell me - to be honest with me - and I just -"

"Hey. That doesn't matter."

"It would have mattered a lot if you didn't wait all that time for me. You were hurt. I hurt you. That matters. And what if you changed your mind because you thought I was right back then, and we should just stay friends."

"You were right back then." It stopped her indignation in its tracks. He nodded decisively as she stared at him. "It was the right answer that you gave me then. It was the right thing for you. So... it was right for both of us. And of course we should stay friends. We'll always be friends, no matter what. Whether we're together or not. If you dump me tomorrow, we'll still be friends."

"I'm not going to dump you tomorrow."

"Good."

"I'm never going to dump you. I'll dump myself before I dump you."

His lips twitched. "I'm just saying, don't worry about what happened. I know you have been worrying a lot - don't do that anymore. It's okay. I wouldn't have wanted it to happen any other way than just like this. Like you said - this, it's perfect."

"You... you are..." She shook her head. "It's you that's perfect."

"Yes, I am, it's true. Don't worry, I don't let it go to my head."

If she didn't laugh right then she was going to cry for real this time. So she just laughed as he reached for her again.

*

She was wearing her favourite dress. She didn't have many dresses; didn't often have much cause to dress up, certainly not to the point of wearing a skirt. But still, of the small selection she owned, this was her favourite one.

It suited her, and she thought she looked pretty good, and that felt important, somehow, as she sat there at her friend's wedding.

Ikjun looked happy with his wife. They were cutting the cake, holding the knife handle together. She couldn't hear what was said but Ikjun made a joke in her ear and Hyejeong smiled, ducking her head.

It still hurt, just a little bit, if she was completely honest with herself. It had been far too long a time since she'd moved on from liking him - she'd dated, had several boyfriends since then, but still.

It was probably just because they were good friends, her and Ikjun. The other men she'd dated, felt something for - after they broke up she didn't see them again. But Ikjun had been her first real crush, and he had stayed in her life, and had only become more important to her as her friend as the years passed. That's all it was. Just a little twinge of lingering disappointment that nothing ever came of her past feelings, that's all.

Ikjun had never been interested in her that way, anyway, and she had accepted that. And now he had made his choice - Hyejeong was beautiful and talented, smart and charming, and she was the one Ikjun wanted to spend his life with, and she made him happy, and that was that.

There, Songhwa decided. That's it. That's the last time I think about it. He's a married man now. It's finished.

"It's not surprising he was the first of us to get married, is it?" Junwan said from his place at her side. He drained his wine glass.

Songhwa thought that was a good idea and picked up her glass to do the same.

"He's dated so many girls, one of them was bound to stick around," Jeongwon agreed.

"So which of us will be next?" Seokhyeong wondered, lifting his head up from his phone screen briefly.

"Not me," Jeongwon said quickly.

Junwan bumped her elbow with his. "You, Songhwa?"

She shrugged. "Who knows? It could be. But I'm in no rush."

"It'll be Seokhyeong," Jeongwon said. "His family is going to talk him into that arranged marriage any day now."

Seokhyeong hid his face back in his phone screen and went back to ignoring them.

Across the room the bride and groom were sharing a couple's toast, their arms linked together as they sipped from champagne flutes.

"It could be me," Junwan said. He sighed. "I wouldn’t mind it, if I found someone I actually wanted to marry. I suppose it isn't very likely, though."

"I'm sure you will," Songhwa said, not wanting the mood to turn any more morose than it already had. "You'll find the right person. Maybe we all will."

Looking around at her three friends none of them seemed very optimistic. But she didn't like to think they were hopeless - any of them, including herself. As she watched Ikjun smiling and talking to everyone around him she badly wanted to believe that somewhere out there was the right someone for her.

*

It was their first band practice after the last one that had ended with coffee in the rain and a conversation a long time in the making.

The actual practice part of it went on as usual. Mostly as usual. If a few extra meaningful glances passed between the lead singer/guitarist and the base player there was nothing wrong with that, was there?

Afterward, after Seokhyeong had waved goodbye and the four of them had trailed out into the cool night towards the cars parked along the road, a quick round of teasing began.

"Oh, Songhwa, you need a ride home, don't you?" Jeongwon said. He slung an arm over her shoulders. "Come on, I'll take you."

"No, no," Junwan interrupted, coming to walk close on her other side. "I'll drive her home. I'm sure I'm the preferrable option here. Right, Songhwa? Of course, of course. You'd like me to drive you home, wouldn't you?"

"All right, all right!" Ikjun herded them away from her like a long-suffering sheepdog cursed with the most irritating of flocks. "Why would she ever want to go anywhere with such a cheapskate? Or you, the guy who can't even use google maps?"

Songhwa, laughing, took Ikjun's arm and pulled him away before it turned into an argument. He followed obediently, although not without sending their two friends a smug look over his shoulder at winning what had never been a real contest to begin with.

As they drove off she hummed quietly the song they had just finished rehearsing. She wondered idly if she should tell him how attractive he was when he was performing. And then she wondered if he would ever wear that crushed velvet shirt again, the one he had worn when they dressed up as rockstars for his birthday.

Such interesting thoughts occupying her mind, it startled her a little when he spoke up suddenly.

"So, your place? Or maybe you'd like to get coffee again? It could be a new tradition after rehearsal."

"Oh." Smiling, she started to agree, but then stopped. A better idea occurred to her. "No."

"No? You just want to go home? Okay," he agreed easily.

"No," she said again.

"No?" He glanced over at her briefly.

"Your place."

There was silence. He looked over at her again, apparently struggling to keep his eyes on the road.

She nodded. "Your place."

Another period of silence before he managed a casual, "Okay."

She relaxed into her seat, content with her choice.

For a few minutes Ikjun focused on driving. But then he said, "You know Uju will be home this weekend."

"Yeah. You must have missed him."

"Mm, of course. Of course."

It was Thursday night, and Uju would be returning home from his extended visit with his grandparents on Saturday. In the back of her mind it had occurred to her that this was important not just because Ikjun had of course been missing his son, but because her relationship with Uju's father must naturally involve Uju, too.

Ikjun was not a sole entity; he and his son were bundled together and she couldn't be a part of the life of one and not the other.

How they proceeded from here, how the situation with Uju was handled, was not up to her. And she was glad about that because she didn't know what the right thing to do was in this case. She loved Uju, but she wasn't a parent.

"I have to tell him about this, you know," Ikjun said, revealing that his thoughts had been following along similar lines.

"Is it - how do you think he will react?" she asked somewhat hesitantly.

"Oh, I'm not worried. No. He'll need some time to adjust to the idea, that's only natural, it's a big change for his dad to be dating. But don't worry. You know he likes you, you're one of his favourite aunties. Plus you know where all the good camping spots are. We'll have to take him again sometime."

She nodded, accepting the reassurance as it was intended. She could only trust him in this regard, and she knew that he was an excellent father, and if there were any problems that arose as Uju adjusted to the new situation then his father would take care of it the way Ikjun took care of everything that was important to him.

They arrived at Ikjun's apartment building just a short time later, driving down to the underground garage, through the security gate that rumbled open at what seemed like a glacially slow pace.

She was glad the two of them had had another matter to think about and discuss on the ride here because suddenly the tension in the car was thick enough to cut with a knife.

Nerves battled with a growing warmth building up inside her as he pulled into his parking space and they each got out of the car. They walked in silence, side by side, over to the elevator and stopped there in front of it. He reached past her to press the button and the sudden nearness of him made her breath catch.

She stared up at the numbers descending slowly while beside her Ikjun's face remained turned towards her, staring at the side of her head.

She grabbed his hand with hers. She was nervous. He was driving her crazy just standing next to her. The least he could do was help her out by giving her something to hold onto.

"Songhwa -"

"Sh."

She absolutely could not handle a conversation right now.

"I -"

"No!"

"But -"

"Do you really want to talk right now?" she demanded.

The elevator dinged and the doors parted. She darted inside, yanking him after her, and stabbed at the floor button, and then the close-door button several times.

She straightened and felt him once again staring down at her, almost certainly with that amused look on his face. She didn't care if he was laughing at her. She did not care at all.

But she risked a glance up at him to check and found him looking at her with, yes, a little amusement, but mostly just with love. It was the same way she had seen him looking at her often over the years, but that was a more restrained version of the unguarded expression he was showing her now.

His hand lifted to her face and he leaned in, his lips just brushing hers softly as the elevator halted. When the doors parted, so did they.

She squeezed his hand as they moved down the corridor, trying to let him know, if not with intelligible words, that she was fine. Yes she was freaking out a little, but only because she wanted this so much. She had been with other men before, had enjoyed sex before, but never in her life had she wanted to tear off all her clothes and fall into bed with someone like she did right now, with him.

They arrived at his door and he had it open a moment later.

She looked up at him, holding his gaze evenly as they paused there together in the doorway.

What he saw in her eyes spurred him to nod once and smile a small, satisfied smile. Then he stepped inside, drawing her in after him.

The end.