The clock hung above the reception read ten minutes past twelve in the afternoon. It was warm and sunny outside, the brilliant white light was filtered through the closed blinds and created a ripple of shadows upon the marble floor. There were shadows of legs propped utop another, of files and papers and forms of expressionless heads, and in the quietness of the room, it was all that he’d stared at for the past two hours. Sung Gyu had been sitting out at the reception for nearly two hours now; expectant and anticipant, glancing up at the clock above the reception multiple times. The lady who sat there had caught his eyes far too many times that she seemed to have grown accustomed to his agitation. It was how things were always like in this place. So many disconcerted, worried faces, waiting for their turn or waiting for a loved one, counting hours, minutes and seconds that passed by. If Sung Gyu’s calculations were accurate (And it should be, given that calculating time was a part of his occupation) he had waited for about one hundred and ten minutes, and it should be over in about ten more. The doors would open and another name would be called in as the previous occupant would exit, carrying whatever the outcome it may be.
Sung gyu had his fingers crossed for the positive end of the spectrum. His intuition, as it happened, was never wrong.
The large wood paneled doors opened, followed by voices; two of them, then footsteps upon the marble floor. Sung Gyu’s heart leapt to his throat, yet by appearance he was as calm and poised as he’d forever be. Approaching him with a little bounce in her steps was Choi Minhee, her things clutched to her chest; a small portable computer, a neatly stacked set of papers in a file. Sung Gyu could almost tell by the brilliance of her smile that he was indeed about to hear something good.
He buried his hands in his pockets and smiled. “Well?”
Minhee did yet another little hop on her feet, something wildly endearing that she often did; when she was excited, when she was happy. There hadn’t been a lot of such moments for her for the past few years. But slowly, for her, life had started to change again.
She gave him the most brilliant smile. “You’re speaking to Choi Min Hee, doctor in Marine Biology and Ecosystems!”
Sung Gyu perhaps, already knew how the outcome of it would have been. After years and years of struggle, countless sleepless nights, research and study sessions, Min Hee had finally defended her doctoral dissertation, and Sung Gyu already knew that she would. He’d been with her, following every step of the way. She hadn’t had the easiest life, and this achievement was long overdue. What made him the happiest, proudest at that time was the fact that she had made it to this length after having fallen and risen multiple times. What made him the proudest was that she had somehow lived to see this day.
“I knew you’d do it” He muttered and pulled her into a brief hug. He stepped back, she gazed up at him and he laid his hands on her shoulders; they no longer felt terrifyingly frail the way they used. These were the shoulders of a strong woman who’d carried the burden of the world on her own and had lived. He couldn’t be any prouder.
“You did well, Doctor Choi” He told her and wondered if the smile on his lips was any way able to depict just how indescribably happy he’d been. “You did well”
Kim Sung Gyu and Choi Minhee were the bestest of friends. If one asked of them from one of their mutual acquaintances, they would most likely describe them as inseparable, indivisible, one and the same. Sung Yeol, Sung Gyu’s Research Assistant often equated them to chopsticks and spoons. For him, it was how the two of them could function on their own but worked the best and made the most sense when the two of them were together. Sung Gyu had known her for nearly ten years now. When he started off at college at the age of Twenty three, fresh out of the army in a completely different environment, it wasn’t exactly easy for him to blend in and make a place for himself. He’d always been passionate about the ocean, given that his father was a captain of a ship himself, that he’d even joined the marines against his mother’s objections. He’d thought the army would make him tougher, but sudden new changes in life had always left him lost and unreeling. He was left astray in the crossroads of life when he met Choi Minhee. It was her who’d brought him back on track again and he’d found comfort and friendship in her. In a matter of years, the two became dependent on each other, and their relationship was strong and rigid as steel. Sung Gyu thought that ‘friendship’ wouldn’t exactly define them. Nor would lovers, perhaps. Soulmates, he realised, was a better description to whom they were for each other.
It was sometime early in the spring, exactly three days before the day of his birthday and Sung Gyu had just finished a class with his final year students. He was to have lunch with Minhee after class, and then meet up his fellow researchers afterwards. Minhee was already waiting by the entrance, a blank look on her face. The corridors were glass paneled and open to the view of the pacific ocean beyond, and under the warm afternoon sun, it appeared a beautiful jaden blue. Minhee appeared breathtaking in that backdrop, he thought, gazing at her across the hall as he gathered her things. Minhee appeared breathtaking, wherever she was, whatever she did.
Other than being probable soulmates, both Sung Gyu and Minhee were academic researchers at Korea Maritime and Oceanic university. The two of them, along with many other researchers as themselves, resided in Yeongdo-gu, an island adjacent to mainland Busan which was almost completely overtaken by the sheer size of the University. Their scope of work included, although not limited to, maritime ecological research, protection of marine ecosystems, rescue and rehabilitation of marine life and conducting classes at the university. It was quite the coincidence that both of them had almost too much in common; their occupations, their interests. Although Minhee acquired her doctorship title in front of her name a little later after Sung Gyu did, he believed that she was far more expertised in the field than he was. She had proven this multiple times with the number of papers that she’d presented, the number of times that she’d been cited and quoted. It was one of the things that Sung Gyu found compelling about her among many others. If he were ever asked what perfection was like for him, he would promptly think about Choi Minhee.
“Did you wait long?” He asked her as she approached him, light as a feather on her feet. There was something about the way she carried herself; gentle and carefree like a bird, which he always loved.
“No, I met Myungsoo on the way. They’ve located another leatherback towards the east coast, entangled in a fish net again” Minhee let out a heavy sigh as he looked up at her.
“Another?” He called, a little concerned. “We haven’t even released Doejjeongie yet”
Doejjeongie was yet another female leatherback turtle that their ocean life conservatory rescued a few months ago, severely malnourished after having been caught among sea debris. It was Sung Gyu and Minhee who rescued her along with Myungsoo, a marine Biology researcher and their resident Marine life activist. When he was not out on the streets conducting climate marches with his students and other activists, Myung Soo would be out in the sea, swimming among the turtles.
“It's a juvenile male, this time around. We’d be able to release him sooner than Doejjoengie” Minhee replied.
The two of them exited the hall together out into the corridor. Minhee was petite and walked as slow as a slug that Sung Gyu often had to slow down at his own pace to let her catch up to him. The two of them traversed the corridor at the speed of a pair of turtles as students around them rushed by.
“Has Myung Soo gone down to see it yet?” He asked her, referring to the leatherback.
Minhee shook her head. “It's some tourists who’d found him. It's about five hundred meters into the sea, actually. Under water. We’d have to go down, I think”
If there was anything that he loved other than diving or snorkelling, that was to do either of them with her. Not that he would ever admit it to her himself.
“Today?” He asked and looked down at his watch. It was just a few minutes into lunch, then he had the meeting which he had no idea how long would take.
“I don’t think it can wait”
“You’re right” He shrugged, making up his mind. “But I thought we were supposed to meet up with the researchers from the aquarium”
“About that'' Minhee started, and they both stopped on the track. There was a small, mischievous smile on her lips, and Sung Gyu already knew.
“What?” He asked, raising his brows.
“I hope you don’t mind just a sandwich today” She muttered, and he could only stare at her in response, mouth agape. It wasn’t long before he heard it, Dongwoo’s voice across the hall.
“Hyung! Sung Gyu Hyung!”
He turned to Minhee, just about to give her his most honest opinion, but when she smiled apologetically, when his heart skipped a little upon this, he could say nothing more.
“Sorry” She told him in a feeble voice, and he had no choice but to give in.
“It’s alright” He replied with a heavy sigh. “Make it up to me with a meal another time”
As expected from Choi Minhee who never stopped working, she had moved their discussion to their lunch hour. They could have done it on the boat on their way to the turtle for all he cared, or even better, they could have done it the next day. Sung Gyu had been really looking forward to lunch, if he was to be honest. It was Jajjangmyeon Wednesday. He never missed Jajangmyeon Wednesdays.
The discussion was on the Aqua Life, the famous Busan aquarium who had decided to extend their marine life museum towards the east of the coast side. While the intention wasn’t bad, as it would help in preserving the ocean life while making profit out of it, the east coast was highly populated of leatherback turtles, often nesting in the region, therefore, Sung Gyu and his team was against any construction that could put the nesting area in compromise. Leatherbacks were highly endangered, as it happened, and they’d had to rescue two of them for the past few months due to unsafe fishing practices. How many more were they willing to put in danger? How many more did they have to lose to make them understand the risks and consequences? Sung gyu often wondered which part of ‘Highly endangered’ that corporate fools could not understand.
There were four in his team; Sung Gyu, Dongwoo, his RA Sungyeol and Minhee. If it was any other day, the four of them would have been enjoying a hearty warm meal in the cafeteria, a stroll along the beach perhaps, before they hit the waves for the turtle rescue. All thanks to a bunch of low qualified corporate goons, all the possibilities of a well spent lunch hour was tossed right out the window.
They could have moved the meeting to another day as well, as the turtle rescue was more imperative and couldn’t possibly be postponed any further. But the thing with those company people was that they never understood the concept of time. If it's today, they would understand it as tomorrow, and if they moved it to tomorrow, the aquarium people wouldn’t want to meet them until next week, and meanwhile, they will secretly start digging the valley across the east coast.
“Hello Doctor Choi, Hi Hyung” Dongwoo greeted the two of them as they joined the other two on their way to the meeting room. “Aqua Life people are already in, we were waiting for you”
“Funny how they have life in their name when they’re trying to kill turtles” Sung Gyu replied begrudgingly.
“Hold yourself back, hyung” Dong Woo went on, and Sung Yeol caught up with them beside him. “They aren’t exactly the kind of people to take lightly”
“I heard they’re backed by the city counsel or something” Sung Yeol also put in.
“The next thing you know is, they’d withdraw your research grants” Dong Woo went on.
“And I’ll be unemployed” Sung Yeol added in the end.
Sung Gyu let out a sigh. It was always this or the other. The research grants were important for him; it was his life’s work. But if it's at the expense of putting his beloved creatures’ lives in danger, he’d rather choose to give up on his work for them. He could never begin to understand why them, of all the people, the academics, the ones who knew better than all the politicians and corporate owners, had to bow down and their boots, change their narratives to their every beck and call. It was almost as if all the hard work they’ve put into research and academic education had no worth after all. Sung Gyu wasn’t someone who’d easily give in, not without a fight. He was determined to terminate the aquarium extension project, no matter whether they retrieved the research funding or not. He’d tackle it with his own money if he had to. He’d work without an assistant.
“Don’t worry, I’ll keep him in check” Minhee put in, all of a sudden, almost as if she’d read into his mind. Sung Yeol had said once that it was why they were like chopsticks and spoons. If Sung Gyu went over the board and ‘spilled things’ all over, as he put it, Minhee was always there to put them back in place again. If he was a kite, Sung Gyu thought, Minhee was like the string that held him from floating away.
“Thank goodness for you, Doctor Choi,” Dongwoo said with an awkward little laughter. “Or I’m sure hyung will feed them to the sharks”
They were at the foot of the meeting room by then. They stopped at the door, and Sung Gyu’s hand grasped the brass knob. He paused and turned to the others.
“Wait” He called and narrowed his eyes at Dongwoo. “How come you call her Doctor and not me? Why am I Hyung to you?”
Minhee looked at him and spluttered, followed by Dong Woo’s quiet laughter. Of course he had nothing against Minhee being addressed by her title all the time. After all, she had to suffer hundred times more than he did to earn it for herself, and she deserved nothing more. But Sung gyu was someone who took honorifics quite seriously. He was the oldest of them all, and naturally he was leading them. Besides, it was only right that he was called his title too.
“Because that’s what you are, hyung” Sung Yeol replied, pushing him away to get to the door. “Meeting. Now”
Sung Gyu let out a heavy sigh, letting him have his way. He guessed he had to work harder than he thought to earn the title from his very subordinates, as it happened.
Sung Gyu felt a hand on his arm before he stepped in. Minhee looked up at him and smiled. It was gentle, a little mischievous. She reminded him of warm summers and salty sea breeze.
“Don’t take it to your heart, Professor Kim” She told him and patted his hand. “Come on, now”
His heart picked up almost too naturally, although it was just a smile he could give her in return. If there ever came a day that he could tell her how she made him feel with even the simplest little gestures, even the most trivial things that she did, he didn’t think any words that were existent as of now would suffice.
The meeting went a lot worse than he imagined.
In his defense, it was completely and undeniably the fault of the Aqua Life representatives, who drove him to the edge of his patience and had him explode. First of all, they kept trying to convince Minhee and him that the constructions would take place far off from the east coast and certainly avoiding where the turtle nests would be. Sung Gyu had lived on this island for ten years and walked the length around shore on his bare feet an uncountable number of times. He knew the east coast of the island as well as he did the back of his palm. He could say without a second thought that there was no way that the constructions could take place without the nesting site being put in danger. Then they went on to argue on the nesting seasons of the turtles. True, the animal nested on the shore only during the time of low tides, and only twice during the year, but during that time up to when the eggs would hatch and the hatchlings would be released safely into the sea again, they require a quiet, uninterrupted surrounding, protected from possible poachers and human inhabitation. It's what they’ve been fighting for for the past few months now, in order to protect the last of the remaining leatherbacks in the region. On top of all the trouble that they already had, An Aqua Life aquarium (As ironic as it was) was the last thing they needed.
Somehow, what started out as a mere discussion, went into a full on argument between Sung Gyu, Minhee and the two company representatives, one of whom claimed to be a Marine biologist, although his lack of turtle-related expertise seemed to say otherwise. What was even more infuriating was that he seemed to continuously mock and attack Minhee when he did the complete opposite to Sung Gyu, returning his claims with facts and figures while with Minhee he seemed to dismiss her or imply that she needed to ‘Shut up’; the typical subtle ism on display. It appeared obvious that he was blatantly downgrading an expert in the field, someone so much more knowledgeable than he was, someone with an ample of experience that Sung Gyu was certain he hadn’t even gotten close to getting, only because she was a woman. What was ironic was that at the end, the so called marine biologist hit back with what was obviously a very badly interpreted figure that he’d taken straight from one of Minhee’s own researches. Sung Gyu knew this because it was him who’d done it with her.
It was the very last straw for him. Sung Gyu slammed his hands on the table and climbed up on his feet. Minhee was quite disconcerted by then, and he felt terrible for her. This was her passion, what she’d committed her entire life on, the life that’s been on the edge for so long, on a standstill, the life she’d once thought she wouldn’t live, but had finally won. Sung Gyu wouldn’t let them get away with what they did, although it would probably cost his research grants. But at that point, he didn’t give a flying .
“Who you quoted, and also wrongly, just now was Doctor Choi Minhee,” He muttered through gritted teeth as Dong Woo called his name beside him. “Before you come here with your baseless arguments, get your facts straight...and learn to respect a woman, ”
With that, Sung Gyu climbed up on his feet and promptly fled the room. He felt that it was rather dramatic, and it was probably something that he would regret deeply and would think thousand more comebacks for in the shower that night. But he did what he had to do. He traversed the corridor hurried on his feet, across the main hall and straight out into the balcony that led to the left wing. It was only after then that he could finally pull himself together and get his thoughts straight. The warm sun on his face, the saltiness of the wind, the sound of the waves. Only then did he feel calm again.
He heard the shuffle of feet behind him after a while, and then voices. He didn’t feel as annoyed as he thought he would. Sung Gyu turned around to be greeted by Dong Woo, Sung Yeol and Minhee, all of whom looked like they were trying hard to hold in their laughter. Something fell on the ground behind them, then a flurry of noises. It was the point that Minhee was pushed to burst into a contagious round of laughter.
They laughed and laughed and laughed so hard, recalling back to the incident, the looks on their faces, the things that were said. In all honesty, it probably wasn’t even something to laugh about. Sung Gyu was most liable to lose his research grants now, Sung Yeol would probably lose his job following that. But with the mingle of the students behind them and the sound of the crashing waves, the cry of seagulls and the gentle hum of the wind, they found home again. Sung Gyu looked at Minhee across, she glanced at him with glimmering eyes. She didn’t say it in words at that time, but it was exactly what she’d wanted him to do. Take her side when she couldn’t stand up for herself. Protect her when she felt that she couldn’t, be there for her when she needed him the most. For the past ten years, he’d been for her just that. And he would continue to be so in the many years to come.