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Slipping the pain away

chapter 2
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In the initial days of profound shock and pain, the entire family of Park Dong Hoon found themselves compelled to entirely restructure their lives, with their prime focus shifted to vigilantly standing by his side. Yoon Hee, who maintained the greatest emotional distance, though suffering immensely within, gathered details from all those desiring to keep vigil at the hospital. She meticulously listed who was available and when, generated a monthly schedule of visiting hours, and rationally allocated time slots to each individual for spending moments with her husband.

No objections were raised. Everyone gratefully accepted her duty roster proposals, declaring their willingness to make additional visits should any need arise. One had to witness the remarkable solidarity and empathy that guided both the family and friends of Dong Hoon. Truly magnificent!

Yoon Hee also ensured that the room was always stocked with essentials—food, beverages, blankets for warmth—literally everything necessary was thought of. She kept a close eye on the finances tied to Dong Hoon’s treatment and his stay in the VIP room.

One might ponder, was it the lingering burden of guilt or love for her husband that motivated her actions? I wager it was both. After her betrayal, humiliation, and despair, thanks to her husband, truly a man of conscience who placed the welfare of his loved ones above all, including the well-being of their son, despite the absence of any marital passion, tolerated all other aspects of married life. They no longer discussed it, but she sensed it would remain so until Ji Seok was mature enough for them to divorce without harming his psyche.

Of course, there was also Dong Hoon’s mother, who until now remained unaware of her betrayal. Everyone knew her greatest dream was for her sons to have happy families of their own. No one wished to shatter that for her, so for those two family members, efforts were made to function in a way that minimized the impact of this traumatic experience on everyone.

Contrary to appearances, maintaining such a facade was not as straightforward as it seemed. For a long time, Park Dong Hoon had been living alone in a small apartment close to his company. Yoon Hee took care of Ji Seok in the United States, having made that decision when a law firm was seeking a representative in the city where their son studied. Seeing it as a favorable opportunity, she left Korea for an indefinite period, returning with their son a few times a year.

Dong Hoon’s mother did not approve of this arrangement, but everyone, citing their grandson’s best interest, convinced her it was the optimal choice. Meanwhile, she closely watched her middle son, fully aware of his suffering, though clueless about the true cause of his solitary pain.

There was yet another person who had a much clearer insight into Dong Hoon’s complex emotional situation—his younger brother, who, from the moment his hyung confessed there was a girl who truly understood him, sensed a profound affection. This observation only became more evident over time, witnessing how this concealed love continued to grow.

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Gi Hoon, for all his outward appearances of being immature and impulsive, was in reality a man of deep sensitivity, attuned even to the most subtle signals from his surroundings. With higher education and as a director, he had the capacity to correctly classify and understand these signals. He seemed to lean more towards introversion than extroversion, despite his explosive nature often misleading others. After returning to the industry following years of unemployment and squandered potential, and an enlightening stint as a cleaner, he surprised many with his keen and fresh perspective, original ideas, and consistency in narrative building. Unmatched by many peers whose careers flourished while he remained an outsider, feeling relegated to the scrapheap of filmmakers.

When he and Yu Ra took a break for a few months, he penned his first script after a period of downfall, and swiftly secured funding for its production. His comeback film shattered expectations and eclipsed the ranks of mediocre directors. No longer was he the subject of mockery, criticism, or avoidance. After winning prestigious awards, agencies and producers clamored to secure him for their projects.

Indeed, my dear readers, Park Gi Hoon achieved tremendous success. Once he valued himself rightly, he stopped pushing his beloved away. He reunited with Choi Yu Ra, who, with his earlier support, regained confidence in her abilities and freedom to act on set and in front of the camera. She too became famous, maintaining top status for years.

But let’s return to the storyline where the youngest brother, aware that Dong Hoon loves Lee Ji An—even if he conceals it from himself—now needs her presence. Desperately so! Only his sister-in-law was also aware of this, and despite the girl essentially becoming her rival for her husband’s affections, she accepted the situation due to her betrayal. She decided to schedule duties so Ji An could be with Dong Hoon as much as possible, without crossing paths with his mother or son.

It wasn’t easy or pleasant, but she resolved to fix as much as possible, sincerely trying her best. Gi Hoon often marveled at her humility and honesty towards his younger brother. He appreciated her gentleness, dedication, and consistency. Sometimes, he found himself regretting the cruel betrayal. As a man and Dong Hoon’s brother, he knew a full reconciliation was impossible. It was unthinkable for his elder brother to ever embrace his wife with love, much less passion, as before. That bridge had been burned, and they had to come to terms with it.

Therefore, Gi Hoon closely observed Dong Hoon regarding his new feelings, suspended in limbo and waiting. He occasionally prodded about Ji An without mentioning her name, but stopped once he realized it only upset his brother. Now with numerous valuable contacts, he used them to keep tabs on Lee Ji An, her dating life, and social circle.

He immediately knew when she was transferred to Seoul, which delighted him as he could now personally check on her from time to time, without revealing himself. He was aware—and indeed hoped—that the two would soon meet. Once they saw each other, there was no denying the resurgence of their feelings. His directorial intuition left no doubt that Park Dong Hoon and Lee Ji An were inevitably bound for a beautiful, deep, and pure love. He eagerly awaited the moment it would erupt.

Just like us, right?

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Life often brings forth great surprises. Some are joyous and fortunate, others sorrowful, even tragic. The ordeal that befell Park Dong Hoon was perceived by all as a colossal injustice. For he was a man of unparalleled moral standards, guiding his life always by his conscience and the welfare of others, heedless of personal consequences. His life, not bedecked in roses, saw him climb the social ladder to a considerable height. Yet, in the realm of fulfilling his inner dreams and expectations from the world, much was left desired. The accident, which brought him to death’s door and led to several severe surgeries including plastic surgery on his head and face, was deemed grossly unfair by everyone.

His mother, perhaps, lamented the most. Like any mother, she would have rather it happened to her than to her child. His brothers and wife shared this sentiment. Yoon Hee, profoundly shaken by her husband’s suffering, did not allow herself a moment’s reflection. She was always doing something, busying herself with her son, mother-in-law, and husband. She oversaw the hospital vigils, constantly in motion to drown out the persistent guilt that the misfortune had once again struck Dong Hoon instead of her.

Sang Hoon, having returned to his wife, experienced the situation differently. He often wept, even at his cleaning company office in front of his employees. Luckily, most of them came from families in their neighborhood, so no one mocked him; on the contrary, they offered sympathy and support. Ae Ryun rushed to the office to take over. Their family life had considerably improved from before. Debts were paid off, their financial situation was stable, they communicated better, and they had recently welcomed their first granddaughter.

Gi Hoon was currently working on a new production, still in the planning stages. When not at his brother’s hospital side, he was fully engaged in refining his next project. Occasionally, he would fall into a foul mood over his younger hyung’s situation, but as always, the straightforward Yu Ra came to his rescue. Their relationship, after going through tough times, had also risen much higher. They understood each other better, trusted each other more, offered each other much more warmth than before. Their careers were flourishing just as they were. Now, another trial came where Gi Hoon needed more support, and his girlfriend was excellently managing to provide it.


After the visit of Jeong Hui and Ji An to the hospital, Yoon Hee meticulously analyzed the vigil schedule for Dong Hoon and found a pattern that would allow Ji An to spend as much time and as often as possible with her ahjussi. It involved placing her shifts between those of Yoon Hee and Gi Hoon, ensuring that no one else would stumble upon her. While not guaranteeing total privacy, it was hoped that neither the mother-in-law nor their son would encounter her during her time by Dong Hoon’s bedside.

Moreover, Ji An expressed a preference for night shifts, further reducing the likelihood of accidental visits from distant acquaintances, which also had to be considered. Yoon Hee scheduled her first vigil two nights after their visit. Ji An had to formally arrange for extended leave, as working after spending the whole night in the hospital would be challenging.

Yoon Hee felt peculiar about the young woman who had suddenly become so prominently involved with Dong Hoon during such a dramatic moment in their marriage. She quickly understood that Ji An comprehended her husband far better, was willing to sacrifice her well-being for his, and was genuinely altruistic and sincere in her actions. Yoon Hee, despite obvious reluctance and jealousy, found a way to like, appreciate, and respect her for her behavior during the campaign for the directorial position at Semen, proving that it wasn’t about her but Dong Hoon. Such an unprecedented trait, especially among the youth, made Kang Yoon Hee, despite her initial reluctance and jealousy, somewhat fond of, appreciate, and respect Ji An.

She couldn’t answer why she had failed to understand Dong Hoon as well as Ji An did in such a short time. She told herself that the listening device gave Ji An an advantage, but deep down, she didn’t believe it. She knew one thing for certain: their marriage would never return to normal. She saw and felt that her husband couldn’t overcome the barrier of her having belonged body and soul to another man, his fierce enemy. Her declaration to remain with him formally as long as he wished was still valid and implemented, without using it to exert any pressure on Dong Hoon. In this regard, one must acknowledge the fairness of this woman – as Ji An once called her – the adulteress.

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Beneath the cloak of night, the streets of Seoul whispered untold tales, unfulfilled dreams, and secrets the city kept only to itself. The moon, like an ancient guardian, cast its glow upon the glass facades of buildings, creating shadows that seemed to dance in rhythm with the slumbering metropolis. Within one such restless building, on an intensive care unit, life and death, internal and external forces, as Dong Hoon might say, performed their silent ballet.

Ji An sat by his bed, her hands gently resting on his right arm. The room was bathed in a cozy dimness, with only the rhythmic hum of medical equipment piercing the quiet. At one moment, she briefly bowed her head and rested it against the edge of the bed, striving to find within herself the strength to articulate all that she felt, though she knew Dong Hoon couldn’t hear her. Yet, her inner intuition whispered that he sensed it all, if not with his mind, then with his heart. After all, they had reached a stage where they communicated from a distance, whenever they wished.

„Ahjussi,” she began, her voice quivering with emotion, like a leaf in the wind, „do you remember how you spoke of the clash between internal and external forces in life? Do you remember? – please…” – she continued gently, yet her grip on his hand tightened – „don’t give up! You have so much inner strength… and I’m here for you, outside, ready to help” – she caressed his hand tenderly – „You must endure this and come back to us” – she paused uncertainly, adding – „you must come back to me… I don’t want to be here without you. Understand?”

At that moment, a nurse entered the room. Such visits were frequent, as Park Dong Hoon was officially in intensive care, but given his stabilized condition, he was allowed to stay in a private room designed for strict monitoring of his state.

Lee Ji An bowed slightly and moved away from the bed, not to disturb the nurse. However, in her usual manner, she observed carefully, letting no nuance of the nurse’s reactions to the readings escape her attention. When the nurse finished, she asked if everything was alright, to which the nurse merely nodded, bid farewell, and exited.

„Thank you, thank you for fighting,” Ji An returned to her monologue, sitting as close to the bed as before – „Don’t worry about how you look… It’s really nothing. You’ll get used to it!” – she pondered what he might be thinking if he could hear and feel what was happening – „The most important thing is for the wounds to heal and not bother you, and the doctors believe it’s doable, once you get through the hardest stage. Your task is to survive, understand? We’ll take care of the rest, the doctors and all of us. Ahjussi, I need to step out to the restroom, and I’ll be right back.”

She needed a moment to compose herself, as emotion began to affect the steadiness of her voice. She wanted to calm down and regain control, to avoid transferring any anxiety to poor Dong Hoon. After all, this was her first vigil and the first time she was alone with him since returning from Busan and the accident. Whether she wanted to or not, emotions were making themselves known, and she wasn’t fully in command of them.

She washed her face with cold water, took several deep breaths, looked deeply into her own eyes, and loudly proclaimed:

„It’s nothing! Fighting!”

A few minutes later, she returned to her position, but this time, she said nothing. She merely held his hand, resting her head on the edge of the bed. She listened to his artificial breathing and didn’t even notice when she fell asleep.

The air hung heavy with silence, filled with promises yet unspoken. And the moon, a silent witness to the scene, cast a pale light on Ji An’s face, which bore a mix of pain, longing, and unwavering determination.

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In the morning, Gi Hoon appeared to Dong Hoon. Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t taken aback by Lee Ji An’s presence, having conspired with his sister-in-law in their unique secret pact. He readily agreed to a schedule where either would replace the other to be with Ji An, depending on necessity. This time marked their inaugural exchange.

Ji An was already awake when he knocked on the door. Indeed, that brief nocturnal repose was her sole respite during her first vigil. She spent the remainder immersed in thought and listening to Dong Hoon’s breathing. Fatigue was foreign to her; she would have gladly extended her stay, but their mother was due at the hospital, necessitating her departure. She was slated for another late evening and overnight duty in two days—a timeline that felt distant yet prompted no complaint from her. She knew Dong Hoon was surrounded by loved ones eager to support him and his family. Resignation was her only recourse.

„Good morning!” Gi Hoon greeted her warmly and with courtesy, observing her demeanor. He hadn’t seen her since their farewell before her trip to Busan.

„Good morning!” Ji An returned the greeting, stepping away from the bed.

„Any changes? Was the night uneventful?” Gi Hoon inquired, maintaining the conversation as duty bound them to report any disturbances immediately. Since he hadn’t received any calls from her, he surmised the night had passed peacefully.

„No, nothing happened,” Ji An responded. „The nurse checked in several times, but all was normal,” she reported politely.

„That’s good to hear,” Gi Hoon acknowledged. „You may go now. We’re very thankful,” he added.

„I’m just grateful I could help and spend time with ahjussi,” she said, looking down, aware of how odd her words might seem.

Gi Hoon, however, responded naturally, without pretense. He truly wanted Ji An to feel comfortable among them. He remembered the hope and strength she brought into his brother’s life during the hardest times, all without expecting anything in return. His trust in her was complete, built on her demonstrated loyalty and dedication. Unbeknownst to her, he had grown fond of her, recognizing her inherent goodness—a depth perhaps unseen even by Dong Hoon. But that was a contemplation for another time.

Ji An felt a discomfort towards him, pondering why Yoon Hee had brought Dong Hoon’s younger brother into their circle. As she gathered her belongings to leave, she watched him from the corner of her eye but noticed nothing unusual. Previously, Gi Hoon’s erratic behavior during social gatherings had painted him as unstable. Now, he appeared calm, friendly, and utterly devoted to his brother, showing towards her a sincerity and… almost brotherly affection. Internally, she was surprised by her positive response to the youngest of the Park brothers.

„I’ll be going then. Goodbye!” she said, bowing before she left.

„Goodbye!” He turned and bowed politely. „When’s your next shift?” he asked warmly.

„In two days, I’ll be back for the night shift,” she replied.

„Aha, so you’ll be relieving me then,” he said, smiling amicably.

„Goodbye!” She bowed again and quietly left the room.

Gi Hoon noted her departure, admiring her gentle nature and acute awareness of her own manners. Ji An passed this test with flying colors, her delicate disposition endearing her to him even more.

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After several weeks that seemed to meld into each other in a blurred haze of suffering and uncertainty, Dong Hoon’s hospital room slowly became the stage for an extraordinary transformation. Wrestling with the burden of burns that had unimaginably altered his life, Dong Hoon remained submerged in an artificially induced coma, a safe haven from the pain and chaos of reality.

In this dreamless silence, however, events began to unfold that gave a new dimension to the concept of hope. With precision akin to that of geniuses, the doctors carried out the treatment process step by step, aiming not only to save his life but also to restore as much as possible of what he had lost.

Facial plastic surgeries were considered from the outset, though they had to wait for the right moment. Initially, the focus was on saving life and minimizing damage, and now, as Dong Hoon was gradually awakened from the pharmacological coma, everything began to move towards the future – his new, though uncertain future.

The gradual awakening applied was like gently rousing a world covered in frost under the rays of the rising sun. Though his body remained weakened and his face hidden beneath bandages, the first sparks of consciousness began to flicker in his comatose dreams. He started moving his fingers, then his hands, speaking in his sleep, whispering names, fragments of conversations, expressions filled with various emotions, including fear, tenderness, longing.

Each day brought progress, though not always visible to the naked eye. Those on duty around him relayed information about Dong Hoon’s achievements during their stay, and the most spectacular were immediately communicated by phone to everyone involved.
This wide dissemination of information was managed by the tireless Yoon Hee, who used a group chat to send out the latest and most important news about Dong Hoon. The response was always immediate and enthusiastic. However, Ji An – unfortunately – could not be included (for obvious reasons) in this chat, so she always received separate updates, and sometimes Yoon Hee or Gi Hoon would screenshot conversations from the group chat to lift her spirits.
She understood the situation perfectly and never sulked. After all, sulking was not in her nature. Over those weeks, she cherished every moment spent with ahjussi, and when she had to return to work, she didn’t even ask for a schedule change. She managed to go directly from night vigils to work for a few hours. Only then would she rest and catch up on sleep.
It was beside her that Dong Hoon first moved his finger, and beside her that he began to babble in his sleep. But officially, he did so in the presence of Gi Hoon and Yoon Hee.
„It’s no big deal,” Ji An thought to herself, „it really doesn’t matter. The most important thing is that you’re making progress,” she praised her charge.
„I even suspect you can hear me, you know,” she said as she squeezed his hand, which immediately responded in kind.
Ji An jumped with surprise. She addressed Dong Hoon again, „Ahjussi, it’s me, Ji An, can you hear me?” But this time, she didn’t squeeze his hand, waiting for him to do it first to be sure it was a response to her question and not just a reflex to the touch.
Dong Hoon’s reaction was immediate. He squeezed her hand even tighter. Ji An burst into tears, sobbing with emotion, „Ahjussi… Director… you really can hear and understand me? Really? Are you in pain? Do you need anything?” A flurry of exclamations and questions poured from her, but she quickly composed herself. The realization hit her that she shouldn’t pressure him so much, and secondly, she needed to inform the doctors and Yoon Hee about what had happened immediately.
„I’ll be right back, ahjussi,” she squeezed his hand again, „I’m going to tell the doctors. I’ll be right back.” And she ran out of the room.
She reported to the doctor what had just happened, and he immediately went with her to Dong Hoon’s room to conduct his observation. In the meantime, Ji An called Yoon Hee and recounted Dong Hoon’s conscious reactions. This wonderful news spread instantly like wildfire, and everyone was almost euphoric, thinking that Yoon Hee had been the first witness to Dong Hoon’s significant progress.

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Yoon Hee informed Ji An that she would be arriving soon and, knowing life’s unpredictable rhythms, Dong Hoon’s mother-in-law, brothers, and perhaps even a friend or two of his might show up. She advised Ji An to be ready to leave, better yet to leave now, to avoid any awkward situations should Dong Hoon’s mother miraculously appear at the hospital too quickly.
„I’m already leaving work,” she told Ji An, „so you don’t need to worry about leaving him alone for a few minutes. Really,” she insisted.
„Of course,” Ji An responded quite calmly, though she was not pleased with this turn of events. She had hoped for more time to 'speak’ with ahjussi, but what could she do? His wife was right. The hospital would soon be filled with his nearest and dearest, so it was better not to cause any additional commotion.
She packed her bag, took her jacket, and quietly left. She didn’t even wait for information from the doctor, deciding it would be better passed on to his wife or mother. Formally, after all, she had no connection to Park Dong Hoon.
Exiting the hospital through a side door, she felt a mix of joy that her ahjussi was beginning to communicate but disappointed she had to leave at such a crucial moment. The world around her seemed to suddenly brighten and vibrate with life. She had stopped noticing the explosion of spring, with its colors, scents, and sounds. Previously indifferent to all seasons, this time the beauty of awakening nature and the joy of her awakening ahjussi intertwined in her heart, leaving her breathless.
Riding the subway home, Yoon Hee called.
„Ji An, I’m really sorry you had to leave at such a time,” she heard Yoon Hee’s sincere voice. „I know it’s not fair, as you surely played a big part in Dong Hoon’s quick responsiveness to external stimuli…”
„It’s okay,” Ji An cut in. „I understand… Really, don’t worry about me. Ahjussi is what matters,” she assured.
„That’s true,” his wife agreed, „But still, I feel awkward about your situation…” she paused. „Are you really okay? You see, it’s good we did what we did, because no sooner had I entered Dong Hoon’s room than the mother-in-law and brothers-in-law showed up. I just stepped out to call you. I don’t even fully know the doctor’s opinion yet, and I’m sure you want to know what they think too,” she said in one breath, anxious to return to the room. „So, I’ll call you again later, okay?”
„Of course,” Ji An replied. „I’ll be very grateful for the information,” she added.
„Then it’s a plan. Talk to you later.” And Yoon Hee hung up.
Ji An stared at her phone’s display for a moment longer, as if through it she could know everything happening with ahjussi. But the device was cruelly silent, and she was left to wait patiently for information from Yoon Hee, not knowing when she would find the time to share it. A familiar grey sadness returned to her heart, and even the subway seemed to grow darker and emptier.

 

 

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Yoon Hee remembered the promise she had made to Ji An and called her as soon as everyone had dispersed. It wasn’t immediately, for each person wanted to savor Dong Hoon’s milestone, but the doctor himself expedited their departure by gently reminding those present to let the patient rest. He explained that if Dong Hoon could hear them but was unable to see or move, he might feel considerable discomfort. It was crucial to allow him peace, to gradually acquaint him with his condition, and to inform him bit by bit about what had happened and what lay ahead.

No one needed to be told twice. Even Dong Hoon’s mother, with a humility seldom seen, made her exit, leaving only Yoon Hee, who had officially taken over Ji An’s vigil by his side.

„I’m calling back as we agreed,” Yoon Hee initiated the conversation without preamble, her voice tinged with the excitement of the day’s events but also a detectable distance from Ji An. „It took some time because everyone was so thrilled they didn’t want to leave until the doctor had to shoo them away.”

„Thank you,” was Ji An’s succinct response.

„As for Dong Hoon,” Yoon Hee got straight to the point, „the doctor confirmed that he’s indeed aware and seems to comprehend his situation. He briefly described his injuries and condition, explaining why his face is bandaged. Dong Hoon even responded sensibly to some of his questions.”

There was a pause, an opening for Ji An to ask anything.

„Ahjumma, did the doctor say when they’ll at least uncover his eyes and mouth?” Ji An inquired directly.

„Well, he didn’t specify, but from the context, it appeared they would check within the next day to see if they could adjust the bandages to leave his eyes and mouth uncovered.”

Ji An’s tone shifted slightly, „Ahjumma…”

„Yes?” Yoon Hee encouraged, sensing the change.

„Could we meet for a brief chat somewhere?”

„Of course,” Yoon Hee replied quickly, though evidently surprised by the request. „How about tomorrow, before your shift, in that café next to the hospital? Would that work?”

„And who will stay with ahjussi?” Ji An’s concern was always for him first.

„Don’t worry, he’ll be fine alone for half an hour with medical care at hand,” Yoon Hee reassured.

„Alright, I’ll come early then and wait for you in the café. Thank you for the update on ahjussi.”

„It’s no trouble at all. You have every right to know. Anything else you’d like to ask?”

„No, thank you.” Ji An’s reply was once again brief, with no desire to prolong the conversation.

„Well, I’ll be off then. See you tomorrow. Goodbye, Ji An!”

„Goodbye.” And with that, the call ended.

Ji An was left with mixed feelings. Joy for Dong Hoon’s progress mingled with an intuitive sense of his pain, confusion, and uncertainty. She wanted to offer him constant support, but it was impossible. Accepting this reality, she tried to offer as much comfort as she could from afar. With these thoughts, she finally fell asleep in the early hours, while Jeong Hui, rising for work, tiptoed around not to disturb her. Aware of everything, she chose not to ask any questions.

„Poor girl,” she thought, „She must wish she could be by Dong Hoon’s side all the time. Let her sleep now that she’s finally managed to.” She gently pulled the blanket back over Ji An and quietly left the small room above the restaurant.

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***

You may be wondering what has been happening at Park Dong Hoon’s company during his prolonged absence? Rest assured, everything is functioning almost normally. The reins have automatically been taken over by Song Seok Beom, while the rest of the team has simply broadened their responsibilities. Yoon Hee oversees formal matters and personally supports her husband’s deputy, sometimes helping him with important decisions.

Park Dong Hoon has indeed chosen his team perfectly, and since they were united not just by education and work but, above all, friendship, no one complains about having a bit more on their plate now.

From their very first client, word of their excellent work spread quickly, and the company now has a lot of clients. During Dong Hoon’s absence, not only has the number of clients not decreased, but there has also been an influx of new ones, with many potential clients regrettably being turned away with promises to revisit their cases as soon as the boss returns to work.

Have I reassured you? Well, let’s return to the scheduled meeting between Yoon Hee and Ji An.

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***

Both entered the café almost simultaneously. They chose the most secluded table and sat opposite each other. After ordering a cup of coffee each, and upon its arrival, Yoon Hee initiated the conversation:

 

Thank you for coming – she began – I, too, wanted to have a calm discussion with you.

Ji An merely looked at her with her once familiar, melancholy gaze, as if pondering where to start.

I know you worked quite a while in Busan, but now you’ve returned to Seoul, right? – she asked, aiming to ease Ji An into what appeared to be a difficult conversation for her.

Yes. President Jang arranged a good job for me with one of his friends, along with a company apartment – she spoke without emotion – I was warmly welcomed there and treated well – she continued, with Yoon Hee listening intently – In March, I was transferred to the Seoul headquarters.

Ah, so I gather you must have made quite the impression, since they need you here – Yoon Hee complimented her sincerely.

Ahjumma – Ji An changed her tone – I don’t want ahjussi to be alone for long, so let’s get to the point – she looked at Yoon Hee now with a probing gaze.

Alright. I’m listening – Yoon Hee felt a bit flustered but quickly regained her composure.

Our relationship is very strange – Ji An started – and I won’t say it’s comfortable for me. You are the official wife of the man who is the most important and closest person in the world to me. You have a son together and many years of life shared – she spoke more quickly, as if eager to unburden herself – You betrayed him, but Ahjussi still remains with you in a formal relationship and – she paused for a moment, looking closely at her interlocutor – and… I don’t know if he will stay with you forever. Why then – she paused again – why then did you not only allow me to visit him but also help me to be with him as long as possible? – she finally voiced the crucial question.

The directness and honesty of this girl had from the beginning both shocked and fascinated Yoon Hee. And this time too, she was pushed into a corner by it, where she could only give honest answers, without sugar-coating.

You see, Ji An, though we’ve managed to keep the secret of my betrayal from my mother-in-law and son, when it comes to our relationship… – she trailed off, visibly moved – our relationship is beyond repair… Though we don’t speak of it, we both know it well. Dong Hoon is, of course, gentle and polite to me, but there’s no longer talk of a deeper affection… – tears appeared in her eyes as Ji An observed – and it’s true that just as you were once jealous of Dong Hoon because of me, I can now say the same about myself… – she stopped and looked at Ji An.

Ji An, as usual, managed to maintain a stoic expression, though the words she heard struck straight to her heart. She responded to Yoon Hee’s gaze calmly and without a hint of triumph, almost with compassion, but said nothing.

So, I’ll be as honest as you and say that… – she paused momentarily – that I am certain Dong Hoon holds deep affection for you… – she couldn’t hold back a tear that trailed down her cheek – He hasn’t forgotten about you during this time and I know he has missed you deeply. I know because I have lived by his side for many years – now she had to pull out a handkerchief to wipe away her tears – I lived beside him for so long, yet I never understood him as well as you do, nor appreciated him as much as you – she bravely continued her promised honesty – I don’t know why I couldn’t accept him for who he is, with all his family and friends from Hoogye – she said these last words with a hint of anger – After what I did, it’s too late to mend things, but you taught me that one should care for the happiness of loved ones even at one’s own expense. – she wiped her tears again – So, when Jeong Hui told me you were in Seoul, I decided, if you still have feelings for Dong Hoon, to do what I can to give you both a chance… That’s the whole explanation of my behavior towards you – she concluded, sipping the last drops of her coffee.

Ji An was moved by her confession. For two reasons. It was the first time she saw her so open and honest, and secondly, what she said and how she said it disarmed her heart. She confirmed Ji An’s own observations from meeting Dong Hoon and explained that what connects them now is merely formality, and she does not count on regaining her husband’s affection. This last piece of information was very important to Ji An, as she had been harboring doubts about whether it was right to re-enter such a deep relationship with ahjussi without his knowledge of it.

I’m sorry to ask this – Ji An took up the baton of honesty – but what do you both plan to do about the formal aspect of your marriage?

Well, I promised Dong Hoon a long time ago that I would remain formally with him as long as he wants. I think he’s waiting for our son, Ji Seok, to mature enough to understand everything and for it not to negatively impact his psyche. Since our son is already at such an age where this seems quite possible, I suppose that decision will soon be made – Yoon Hee concluded in a subdued voice.

Ji An did not comment, remaining outwardly cool though internally everything was tumultuous.

If you have no further questions, let’s go to Dong Hoon – Yoon Hee stood up. I’ll just check with you to make sure no one has looked in on him during this time, and you can take over the night shift with him – she smiled very sadly.

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In the quiet of Dong Hoon’s room, solitude reigned. Yoon Hee briefly peered through the door and summoned Ji An. One entered while the other returned to her duties.

Ji An immediately noticed the change in the bandages encasing Dong Hoon’s head, now revealing his eyes and lips. As she drew closer, her heart stirred at the sight of his closed eyelids—lashless, though the skin around his eyes bore minimal burns, suggesting that perhaps in a last instinctive motion, he had shielded his face with his helmet and arm. His lips were exposed too, visibly marred by burns. Her heart tightened painfully at the sight, and she trembled, overwhelmed by emotion and pain.

It was unfortunate that no one had forewarned her of this significant alteration. Had she been mentally prepared, perhaps she could have contained her emotions. Instead, she was overtaken by them and burst into uncontrollable tears, her sobs echoing loudly.

At that moment, Dong Hoon opened his eyes. Ji An, drenched in tears, missed the initial flicker of his eyelids. She tried to stifle her crying, not wanting to wake him, but when she finally looked at him, she froze…

There they were—those eyes… That same gaze… Filled with tenderness and sadness, he looked at her so intently that she found herself speechless.

„Ji An…” she heard a raspy, unfamiliar voice— „Lee Ji An,” he repeated, laboriously raising his hand toward her.

„Ahjussi…” she whispered, standing frozen as if turned to salt.

Summoning his strength, Dong Hoon lifted his hand higher, and Ji An finally saw the gesture. She gently grasped his hand with both of hers and pressed her cheek to it, bending down so he wouldn’t have to strain.

He tried to stroke her face with his fingertips, but the bandages hindered him.

„Ji An,” he repeated, his voice strained with evident pain.

„Ahjussi, you don’t need to say anything…” she responded, realizing how much this effort was costing him in pain.

She moved closer to his head, and their gazes met again. They looked at each other for a long moment, communicating more in that silence than words could ever convey. They had become adept at this silent exchange, understanding each other without the need for spoken words. Ji An first heard him when she deleted a spy app from Dong Hoon’s phone, and he had loudly said, „Let’s be happy!” since then, there had been several moments where they communicated only with looks, like at their parting, and now at this unexpected reunion. Indeed, Ji An and Dong Hoon were now conversing without words, and though it is not yet time to reveal their silent dialogue, you might well guess its profound significance.

As Ji An’s tears subsided, Dong Hoon gently pulled her hand down, signaling her to sit. She obediently moved a chair closer to his head and sat down, leaning towards him.

„Ahjussi, do you need anything?” she asked aloud. „Do you want a drink?” There was a glass of water with a straw on the bedside table.

Dong Hoon shook his head slightly. Clearly, he did not want her to leave his side, not even for a moment. For him, the moment was also deeply moving, but his ability to communicate was still severely limited, so he desired her closeness, as close as possible, for it brought him happiness.

Ji An understood and drew even closer, resting her head on a corner of the pillow. Once again, she listened to his breathing, which soothed and healed her. Meanwhile, Dong Hoon needed to feel her warmth near, as the old and new conflicts within his lost heart and mind continued to create turmoil.

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Dong Hoon’s mother lamented the imposed schedule dictating when she could visit the hospital and how long she might sit by her son’s side. She was persistently dissatisfied and threatened to go whenever she wished.

„Omma, no one is stopping you from visiting Hyung whenever you like,” Gi Hoon assured her, „but we had to organize a schedule because at times the room was overcrowded, and at other times, no one was there to stay with him.”

„Why are you upset if I want to go outside the assigned times?” she challenged boldly.

„Because it’s a waste of your energy and time. You also need to rest and you always have plenty to do at home, with Jeong Hui…” His voice trailed off uncertainly as he checked what his mother might insist on next.

„Really? I can?” she asked, her eyes piercing into his.

„Yes, you can!”

„Then I’m going to see Dong Hoon! Right now!”

„Ommmma!” Gi Hoon lost his patience. „I don’t have time to drive you, and I don’t want you to struggle with the subway and buses.”

„I’ll manage,” she declared firmly, slipping into her shoes and grabbing a bag of food. „I’m leaving.”

 

„Ommmma!” Gi Hoon capitulated, imagining her squeezed in the subway during rush hour. „Alright, I’ll call the studio and tell them I’ll be a bit late. I’ll drive you.”

Indeed, all three brothers cared deeply not only for their mother’s health but also for her safety. Now, the youngest had no choice but to yield, as he would otherwise be consumed with worry about her.

He helped his mother into the car and asked her to wait a moment while he made a phone call. He stepped away to a safe distance and dialed his sister-in-law’s number. When she answered, he immediately asked:

„Who’s with Hyung right now?”

„Your elder Hyung,” came the reply. „Why do you ask?”

„Because Mom insists on visiting him outside her shift, and I’ve already got her in the car. I just wanted to make sure Lee Ji An isn’t there.”

„She’s not. She usually sits with him at night. I relieved her this morning, and your brother took over from me, so you’re clear to go,” she confirmed.

„OK. Good. I’ll drive her there now. Thanks! Goodbye!” He hung up and returned to the car.

Traffic in Seoul was increasingly congested, making their journey take much longer.

„I told you it was a bad idea,” Gi Hoon muttered under his breath.

„When you have your own children, maybe you’ll understand me a bit,” his mother overheard and added with a twist of disapproval as she turned to gaze out the window, „Although fathers don’t worry about their children quite as much…”

Finally arriving at the hospital, it was challenging to find parking. Gi Hoon grumbled under his breath but eventually squeezed the car into a spot, and they made their way to Dong Hoon’s room.

Sang Hoon was quite surprised to see them. He gave his younger brother a meaningful look, who could only roll his eyes and spread his hands in helpless resignation.

„Omma!” the eldest brother approached her warmly. „You shouldn’t have troubled yourself at this hour…”

„How can you say it’s unnecessary?” the elderly lady protested. „A mother’s place is by her child’s side, especially when he is sick! You have a daughter, don’t you understand?” She coldly brushed him off and moved closer to her middle son.

Dong Hoon had just awakened, alerted by his mother’s indignant voice. He greeted her with a hoarse voice, „Good morning, omma!”

„Don’t talk!” she scolded. „The doctor says you shouldn’t speak much yet.”

Dong Hoon resigned himself. Speaking was indeed difficult and caused him considerable pain, as his airways were severely burned, and it was still too early for him to speak normally. He was also advised to refrain from talking too much.

Meanwhile, his mother settled into a chair and gently held Dong Hoon’s hand. Gi Hoon informed them that he was leaving and left the task of driving his mother back to his elder brother. Sang Hoon, somewhat flustered, sat on the sofa and nervously began eating the lunch their mother had brought. Sounds of Seoul’s rush hour filtered into the room. Dong Hoon closed his eyes and fell asleep again. Sleep continued to be a true blessing for him, a respite from the past and the challenges ahead, shortening the wait for Ji An, whom he missed more each day.

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From the hospital, Gi Hoon dashed directly to the studio where his next project, based on his own screenplay, was just beginning. Today’s agenda was to determine the optimal cast and technical crew, a task that promised a mountain of work. His assistant was already on site, busily preparing for the meeting and the inevitable brainstorming session that was sure to unfold. Gi Hoon had surrounded himself with individuals known for their fresh ideas and unconventional thinking. He could only truly communicate with such minds; all others merely irritated him, and he would explode, like a grenade primed but delayed.

Upon arrival, he could hear animated voices from afar, but the tone of the discussion struck him as oddly different than usual. He opened the door to the conference room and stood, rooted to the spot. The faces that turned towards him bore a mix of sadness and uncertainty.

„Mo? Mo?” he demanded, sensing that he had missed something crucial.

His assistant was the first to speak. „Director, haven’t you heard about Lim Seung Kyu?”

„How could I not have heard when he’s top of our list for the lead role?” he retorted irritably. „Are you joking?”

„Director…” The assistant and others looked visibly uneasy. „How to put this…”

„Out with it, clearly!” Gi Hoon’s impatience grew. „Has something happened?” His usual method was to burst forth first and think later, and from the reactions around him, he began to sense that something was indeed amiss. „Just spit it out!” he snapped.

„Lim Seung Kyu is dead…” she said in a soft, sorrowful voice.

Gi Hoon was floored. He looked around at everyone in turn, but he understood that this was no crass joke of the kind they sometimes played on each other. A deathly silence had literally fallen over the room. Gi Hoon moved to the large table and sat down, signaling to the others to do the same.

„Now, explain to me slowly what Ji Woo just articulated,” he said, his gaze stern.

„Lim Seung Kyu,” the cinematographer took over, „was found dead two hours ago in a parking lot on the road to Mount Namsan.” He paused, taking a breath, intending to continue, but Gi Hoon rose sharply at the news.

„If this is some kind of joke, stop it right now!” His choleric disposition surged, the shocking news throwing him completely off balance.

„Unfortunately, Director,” the cinematographer continued, „you could turn on any news channel and see for yourself.”

Gi Hoon reached for the remote and turned on the television. He didn’t need to change the channel; the current one was already reporting on the tragic death of Korea’s beloved actor. They showed his pictures, clips from his roles, and fan meetings while relaying what had been determined about the incident. Gi Hoon turned the television off and sat, petrified, for a long while. His mind was racing, yet he struggled to comprehend the news. Just that morning, before he had to take his mother to the hospital, he had been gathering arguments to persuade Lim Seung Kyu to accept the role. They had met several times at film producers’ gatherings and seemed to be on the same wavelength. Their conversations flowed easily, quickly grasping each other’s thoughts and ideas. Gi Hoon had also held a high regard for the roles the nearly fifty-year-old actor had accumulated. Heading to the meeting today, he was intent on strongly advocating for his participation in their series. But now, this news. His brain continuously reset itself, reprocessing the information with thoughts like 'I expected,’ 'I hoped,’ 'I was sure.’ None of those anticipations matched the reality anymore. He was left to reboot the hard drive and software of his mind to unresistingly accept what had occurred. Rising from the table with a pale face, he apologized to his team and said he needed to leave; the meeting would be rescheduled for the next day. He walked out on stiff legs, and those gathered only looked at each other and returned to the discussions they had been having before their boss arrived, now absorbing this sensational information and processing it in various ways.

 

 

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Our beloved director was truly in shock, beginning to despair. After leaving the agency building, he got into his car and drove straight to Jeong Hui. He needed to find himself, to analyze the situation, to learn what truly happened to Lim Seung Kyu, and to devise a Plan B.

As he drove, he listened to the official news, which was – naturally – dominated by the story of the well-known actor’s death. Suddenly, all media and the police were sympathizing with him and extolling his achievements. Yet, for months they had practically savaged him, ever since news had leaked from the police to the media about ongoing proceedings related to suspected substance abuse. Everyone had pounced on Lim Seung Kyu as if a verdict had already been rendered, racing to speculate about him. Agencies had terminated their contracts with him and demanded compensation. He had become virtually persona non grata in his circle, his chances for future roles all but extinguished.

That’s why the rebellious Gi Hoon had intended to recruit him for his project. Since he made all decisions independently, he didn’t need to ask anyone for permission. He couldn’t care less about a potential boycott of his new series; he wasn’t making it for those susceptible to manipulation and sensation. He firmly believed that there were still wise, just, and value-sensitive individuals in Korean society. He made his films for them, and this one was meant to be special.

How he regretted now not having contacted Lim Seung Kyu a day, two, or maybe three days earlier… Who knows, it might have saved him…

„If only he had someone by his side,” Gi Hoon thought, „If only he knew I was with him and needed him…” Gi Hoon reached for his glass. He sat alone at the bar, not wanting to talk to anyone – he felt a great depressive cloud approaching, one he might even name ‘Too Late!’ He missed his younger hyung, who was practically the only person with whom he drank and discussed things when such emotional and mental lows struck. Dong Hoon didn’t ask foolish questions, didn’t judge, didn’t criticize. He knew how to listen and – most importantly – understood without words.

„Why didn’t I call Lim Seung Kyu earlier?” Gi Hoon tormented himself with the thought again. „Why is it so final and irreversible… I can’t do anything for him anymore… Nothing can be fixed…” He poured himself another glass of soju, but his guilt continued to surface.

Jeong Hui had been watching him for a while, concerned by the aura of sadness emanating from the youngest of the Park brothers. Soon Gi Hoon would fall off his chair, and certainly wouldn’t make it home on his own two feet. She signaled to two guys from the neighborhood to take him home, but it wasn’t that simple. Gi Hoon demanded another bottle, claiming he hadn’t yet drowned his guilt.

Jeong Hui called Sang Hoon to come and take his brother home, as he wasn’t listening to anyone.

He arrived after half an hour and, along with three other friends, managed to get a thoroughly drunk and crying Gi Hoon into the car. He drove him to Dong Hoon’s apartment, not wanting to upset their mother. With great difficulty, they hauled him upstairs. The eldest brother stayed with him while the rest went back to their own homes. He removed the unconscious brother’s outer clothes and tucked him into bed. He called their mother to tell her not to wait up for him because he was urgently called to a film set. Then he called his wife and said he wouldn’t return that night because he was on an extra shift at Dong Hoon’s. He undressed, washed up, and lay down next to his drunken brother.

„Oh, you’re going to have a hangover from here to Jeju,” he sighed compassionately, looking at the sleeping form, and within minutes, he too had fallen into a peaceful sleep.

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When Sang Hoon arrived for his shift at the hospital and entered his brother’s room, he was frozen in place. There was no sign of Dong Hoon or his wife, whom he was supposed to relieve. His legs buckled under him as his panicked mind conjured the worst scenarios for what he was seeing. Desperate for answers, he headed to the nurses’ station, but just as he was about to open the door, the elevator nearby opened and Yoon Hee stepped out.

„Oh! Hi, brother-in-law!” she greeted him with ease. However, noticing his pale face and trembling hands, she quickly realized the empty bed had terrified him and immediately reassured him, „Dong Hoon went for the first round of facial transplants – this morning the doctors decided to check how his wounds were healing and concluded it was time to take the first step, as he’s doing well.”

Sang Hoon, leaning against the wall, slid down to a seated position. The shock of what he had just experienced overwhelmed him, and now the strength he had mustered suddenly deserted him, leaving him unable to control his body. Yoon Hee noticed that any moment now – as was his habit – her brother-in-law would start crying like a child.

She sat down next to him on the floor. At first, she said nothing, just held his hand. Then, in a gentle voice, she explained, „It’s alright. You had every reason to misinterpret the situation… I should have warned you… But everything happened so fast and unexpectedly…” she apologized, realizing she had indeed lacked foresight, „I’m sorry… let’s go to the room, and I’ll explain everything.”

She stood up, faced her brother-in-law, and offered her hand to help him up. Sang Hoon, still shaky, managed to stand. Like a small child, he obediently followed her back to the room.

Yoon Hee first poured him a glass of cold water, then offered him coffee, which he always liked. They sat on the sofa. Sang Hoon finally found his voice: „I thought something had happened to him… Really…” he said, his voice hoarse with emotion, „Those few minutes were probably worse than when I heard about his accident,” he added.

„I know,” Yoon Hee admitted, „I’m really sorry I didn’t immediately pass on the information, but I genuinely lost all sense of time with the emotion of it all,” she explained, „I sat first outside the room where they were examining him and where consultations about his case were ongoing, then when they moved him to the operating room, I was stuck there thinking only of Dong Hoon. When I looked at my watch, I remembered about you and came back straight away, but you had already seen everything and got scared…”

„Why do we have to go through this…” Sang Hoon was still shaken, „Why did this happen to him? We? We?” His emotions were evidently still raw, tracing back to the initial incident which he had yet to come to terms with.

„There’s no answer to that,” Yoon Hee spoke as calmly as she could, „Accidents just happen…”

„But why do they happen more often to good people? Why?” Sang Hoon persisted.

„Maybe because they prefer to risk themselves rather than others?” Yoon Hee realized at that moment that this was often indeed the case. Dong Hoon hadn’t sent any of his employees on that unexpected check but had gone himself, keeping only the youngest behind him, as she rightly imagined, though she didn’t voice this out loud – „Our Dong Hoon is just such a person…” she concluded.

„What are they actually doing to him today?” he finally asked a more specific question.

„Supposedly they’re trying to improve the mobility of his neck, but they haven’t explained it to me in detail yet. We’ll ask when Dong Hoon comes back,” she stated, „Can you manage on your own now, because I need to rush to Ji Seok?” she asked, assessing whether her brother-in-law had recovered somewhat.

„Ka!” he responded, reaching for his cup of coffee, „I’ll manage and wait here for him.”

„If anything happens, call me immediately,” she requested, grabbing her purse and jacket from the sofa.

„Sure,” he replied.

„Well, I’m off. Take care!”

Yoon Hee exited with some reluctance, but she had no choice. Since Dong Hoon’s accident, her responsibilities had significantly increased, and she lacked time for unexpected situations like the one with her shaken brother-in-law. In her car, she dialed Gi Hoon’s number, briefed him on what had happened, and suggested that someone should join Sang Hoon, as he was very upset.

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Late in the evening, Ji An arrived for her shift. This time, she was relieving the youngest of the brothers, who had called her before she reached the hospital to inform her about the day’s events. He didn’t want her to experience another shock upon entering Dong Hoon’s room. But it turned out that her sister-in-law had already informed her, and the girl was mentally prepared for the seemingly minor, yet significant changes for all of them.

Dong Hoon was still sedated, as his partially healed wounds had been tended to, but from a distance, changes in the bandages were visible. Especially his hands were almost completely uncovered, which made a profound impression on his loved ones. They could see the extent of the burns and changes in his skin and could imagine the pain he endured during the explosion and then during the healing process. On the other hand, the removal of the bandages on his hands was a sign of optimism and proof that everything was moving in the right direction.

Ji An, as usual, knocked gently on the door and entered at Gu Hoon’s invitation.

Oh, you’re here! – he greeted her with a note of sympathy.

Good evening! – Ji An didn’t even look at him, for from the moment she entered, she was magnetically drawn to the sleeping Dong Hoon.

Well! Hyung is making progress, as you know – Gi Hoon walked with her to the bed – look, his hands are uncovered, and the openings for his eyes and mouth are a bit larger.

Ji An did not respond. She stood motionless and thought intensely. Gi Hoon felt the need to address this awkwardness and gave her a condensed version of today’s events. Including how scared the older hyung was when he came here and saw the empty bed. However, she seemed unimpressed. She was lost in her thoughts. Gi Hoon stepped back and observed her reaction with the interest of a director.

Hmm – he murmured to himself – she really is unique – he thought – so genuine in her behavior. Nothing is for show, yet she controls everything within herself. He liked to analyze her movements, looks, words, and the way she spoke. He planned to use this in creating one of the most important characters in his new project.

Ji An – he finally addressed her.

Yes? – surprisingly, she heard him.

Will you be okay? – he asked quite seriously.

Yes, please don’t worry – she assured.

Hyung is still on sedatives, and doctors can’t accurately determine when he will start regaining consciousness. He may feel pain then, and their support will be necessary – he told her this, closely watching her reactions, especially the very subtle, non-verbal microexpressions of Ji An that fascinated him.

I’ll remember that and notify the doctors when he wakes up – she said calmly and confidently.

In that case, I’m off – Gi Hoon gathered his directorial paraphernalia and closed his laptop – Have a peaceful night, Ji An! – he said as he left the room.

Good night! – she replied with a bow, but he neither heard nor saw it.

They were alone. Finally.

Ji An relaxed a bit when she no longer felt the watchful gaze of the youngest brother, who was unaware that she knew just how closely he was observing her. She wasn’t really doing anything to pretend, but subconsciously she controlled herself and stiffened. She was still unsure of what he knew, what he thought, and what his intentions were regarding her and her relationship with Ahjussi.

She leaned over Dong Hoon and listened to the familiar sound of his breathing. Gently, she touched his exposed hand, its healing skin wrinkled and rough.

Ahjussi – she whispered – does it hurt a lot? – and two large tears rolled down her cheeks, then onto the sleeping man’s bed.

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