Taking it as that Minhee was indeed engaged in something important, Sung Gyu didn’t contact her for the rest of the day. But that didn’t mean he was no longer worried about her. In fact, he could think about nothing else. The rest of the day went past with Sung Gyu imagining all the worst case scenarios and shaking off his ill thoughts simultaneously, maintaining his composed outlook all the while. He took over Minhee’s class, and although he didn’t mean to scare them, the poor young first years were already terrified when they saw a new, unfamiliar face entering the hall. He hadn’t any more lessons to attend to afterwards, so he spent the rest of the late afternoon, trying to distract himself with other work. Sung yeol joined him somewhere into the evening where they worked on his research together, and that evening, they met up to talk about possible solutions to address the upcoming disaster of the east coast. Although both Sung Gyu and Sung Yeol agreed on vandalising the main building of Aqua Life, both Dong Woo and Myung Soo weren’t in the same boat as themselves. His idea was to take a legal approach towards it first, building political connection on their own side. Dong Woo believed that they should still have protests and social media movements, given the possibility of all failing at the end.
Even until that time, not a word did he hear from Choi Minhee. As the day became darker, as the sun began to set from the horizon, Sung Gyu’s worries only grew a multitude. She hadn’t been out of town for a long time like this in a while now, and especially not without telling Sung Gyu anything about it. He considered calling her once more, but he also didn’t want to trouble her with his worry fest. He decided to return home for the time being, and if she didn’t get back to him until late, he would definitely call her, and if anything, drive to Busan if he had to.
But thankfully for him, somewhere late into the evening, Minhee texted him, saying that she had returned home, that she was feeling sleepy after a long day and that she was going to hit bed soon. That didn’t exactly make him feel better. But at least she had returned home. He decided to check on her later in the day, or the next morning so she could have time to rest. While she rested and possibly had a good night’s sleep, however, Sung Gyu remained worried and widely awake, sitting on the ground in his pajamas, leaning against the bright blue of the fishtank in the dark as Hotteokkie did his usual rounds around it.
“Hotteokkie” He called his pet fish who, of course, made no sound in response. He turned to the tank as if seeing each other would prompt the fish to respond. “Hotteokkie, do you think Minhee is hiding something from me?”
There was silence as his own subconscious clarified this thought for him. Indeed she was, and whatever it was, required her to be at the hospital for long hours and also one that she would probably tell him in another two days' time. But what worried him was whether she would tell him the whole truth or just half of it. He knew that she was a grown woman and that she had all the right not to tell him things that she did not want to. But the last time that she kept a secret from him, she’d been diagnosed with stage 3 cancer while what she did tell him was that it was just a little tumour that they could get rid of. And unfortunately for him, he believed her.
“Do you think I should call her and see?” He continued to ask from his uncaring shark. “She did sound like she didn’t want to be disturbed in her text…” He picked up his phone again and opened her last message once more. She didn’t sound any different, just her usual self. Minhee did get easily tired, and he expected that especially if she had been driving around for a long time today. He didn’t think it was right to call her again, not at this time of the day. It was somewhere past eight in the night, and the whole island seemed to have gone to sleep by then. He reconsidered his last message, which was just an ‘Okay’, nothing more, and wondered if he should have asked how her day went.
“What do you think she did at the hospital today?” He thought out loud and turned back to the shark. It was small and grey, angrily swimming about with little care to the world. “Did she have another check up?”
Sung Gyu was aware of her clinical schedules, for he had accompanied her to certain of them. As she was in remission, she had tests to be done only every six months. Her last one was in the beginning of that year in the winter, and the next one wouldn’t be for another couple of months...unless, unless there was a concern.
A concern that she just hadn’t told him.
Reacting almost immediately, simply as Sung Gyu couldn’t keep his thoughts at bay, he shuffled for his phone again, which he had haphazardly thrown to the carpet before him. Just as he picked it up, however, as if she’d been reading his mind from the other end, his phone started to ring with Minhee’s number blinking up at him. Panic settled in his heart. It wasn’t common for Choi Minhee to call him on his phone in the dead of the night, especially not after she’d claimed to have gone to sleep.
He picked up right after the second ring, and held his breath when an unmistakable sob erupted from the other end.
“Minhee?” Sung Gyu called quietly, as an uncomfortable feeling settled inside his heart. “Minhee-yah….is-is everything alright?”
A moment of quietness, and Sung Gyu could hear the sound of waves rolling in her background, and the gentle howl of the wind. Minhee sobbed again. “No” She replied, her voice tearful and breaking. “Sung Gyu….it’s-it’s Dubu…”
Sung Gyu didn’t know what he was thinking when he immediately climbed up on his feet and scrambled towards the front door. He grabbed a jacket that was just thrown on the hangar and fled out into the cold spring night.
“Just wait there, I’m coming to you, okay?” he told her breathlessly as he crossed his way down the street.
“Okay” Minhee muttered, followed by another quiet sob. “I’m at the conservatory”
“Okay, okay….just stay there”
The university’s resident sea turtle conservatory was situated about two kilometers away from the university itself, a little further away from the nesting site in the east coast. While it was much closer to the university, to Sung Gyu who resided even further from the hustle and bustle of the island city, the distance away from the conservatory was at least twice as more than that. So he didn’t even know how he crossed that entire length along the beach across the island to get there, on record speed to reach Minhee fast enough. When he approached the conservatory, Sung Gyu could hardly catch a breath. He was cold, his head was light, his heart pounding with adrenaline as his lungs constricted, trying to make him breathe again.
Through his blurry eyes, he could see Minhee in her pajamas and a dressing gown, both her hands covering . He could see the gentle way that her shoulders shook, her hands trembled, her hair in a complete mess, probably after she ran her fingers through it far too many times. A little further away from her was Myung Soo and Sung Jong; their resident veterinary surgeon who was examining their most recent rescue Dubu.
“Minhee” Sung Gyu called out when he could finally catch his breath. She heard him, looked over at him, and approached him in a run.
“Dubu- dubu is acting weird, Sung Gyu! He-,” She stammered, struggling to breathe as she spoke. He had a fair idea by then, what might have conspired, and his heart pained by the possibilities. It was as if his worst fears were answered.
“Ssh...ssh...Minhee, breathe...breathe….slow down, okay?” He muttered as he gently put an arm around her. He gave her time, allowed her to garner her composure and watched her closely as she took long, deep breaths in an attempt to recollect herself.
“I came down to see them…” Minhee started in a teary voice, once she’d deemed she could breathe again. “I went to see Deojjoingie, and she was fine. But Dubu….dubu...he was just-just floating….and I tried to touch him, and he’s usually really snappy right?”
“He was,” He nodded encouragingly.
Minhee broke apart again. “He wasn’t being snappy again, Sung Gyu, he just didn’t respond, he’s just not himself, and-,”
When Minhee started crying again, Sung Gyu felt like his heart had fallen through the floor. That’s what scared him the most about her attachment to all their rescues. They could have saved the animals from dangerous circumstances, but that didn’t always reassure their survival. Certain of them came already badly injured while some find it difficult to adapt to their new environment. Certain develop other complications resulted by even their minor injuries, and the part that rescuers could do for them was making the last of their lives as comfortable as they could so they could pass on in peace. All the rescuers were aware of this, although they hardly talked about it, for the goodbyes were always difficult. For Myung Soo, Sung Jong and himself, they have understood the possibilities and tried to live through the pain of their parting, and didn’t get too emotionally attached to them. Unlike the rest of them, however, Minhee always grew easily attached and somewhat emotionally dependent on them. She had so much of love in her heart to give, and all of that love, she would give to all the animals that she’d saved the lives of, and when certain of them didn’t survive and when they had to leave, it would end up breaking her apart.
“Minhee, hey, it’s okay…” He muttered quietly as he pulled her into his arms. She grasped onto a handful of his shirt and held onto him so hard that her knuckles seemed to appalle, and she felt so small in his arms. Sung Gyu could only wish there was something he could do to take that pain away. But he also knew that this was so much more than the end of a turtle’s life, and there was only so much he could do or say to comfort her. Therefore he just held her, warmly and as long as he could. They were then approached by Myungsoo, and as Sung Gyu continued to hold Minhee in his embrace, Myung Soo announced to them, his head lowered and eyes filled with tears, that Dubu, unfortunately, had passed.
“What was wrong with him?” Sung Gyu asked him and Sung Jong who joined them as well. He needed answers so they could be prepared for forthcoming similar situations.
“Blood poisoning, more likely” Sung Jong sighed, rested his hands on his waist and glanced over at the turtle, peacefully afloat in its tank. “There were several injuries on its shell, underneath as well as some crucial places. He must have been stuck in the nets for too long that they’ve cut badly into him...and the wounds must have been infected”
In his arms, Minhee had turned to look at the others although her hand still clutched onto his shirt. “But he was doing alright when he first found him, wasn’t he?” She asked him in a tearful voice. When he looked down, she was gazing up at him. “He was really feisty and he even tried to bite me”
“He was a juvenile, so we didn’t expect that either” Sung Jong agreed. “But complications do happen, and his wounds may have been infected by then as well”
Sung Gyu nodded, Minhee closed her eyes and buried her face in his chest. Sung Gyu tenderly ran a hand through her hair and caressed the back of her head. “What-what should we do now?”
Myung Soo’s voice was quiet as he replied. “Lets send him back home again...that’s where he belongs”
Sung Gyu, Sung Jong and Myung Soo together, carried the turtle across the shore towards the sea. Even the waves seemed to have been angered, devastated by the loss that it was quite rough that night. Usually when they released a living turtle back to the sea, they would leave it on the shore and wait until it swam back into the water by itself, like parents watching their children finally leaving their nest. With Dubu, however, they had to go further and further into the sea against the rough waves so his lifeless body would get caught by the currents and float away on its own. What could happen with an animal like this would be that its corpse would feed the other dependents. Seagulls, other fish, turtles. It was, after all, the circle of life.
Minhee stood back on the beach and waited for the three men to return, who did after they had sent Dubu off to a safer place. They were wet and dripping by then, Sung Gyu’s pajamas soaking and stuck to his skin. He ran a hand through his hair to shake the sand off and tried to catch his breath again. Fighting against the late night rough tides wasn’t exactly easy, and was likely to be dangerous as well.
They were quiet as they walked back to the conservatory where the rest of their rescues were asleep deep into the night. Deojjongie was in her tank, floating about in her usual languid pace. Then there were the new little hatchlings that weren’t grown enough to hit the big blue yet. Sung Jong went inside and emerged with fresh towels to pat themselves dry with, and while they did, Sung Gyu watched her as Minhee walked around the conservatory, lovingly and gracefully watching over the animals whom she loved as if they were her own. And it broke him. He couldn’t even imagine how that pain must be for her, to lose a creature whom she had rescued and treated with so much love. She probably didn’t know it but he’d often seen her going out in the night, just to come to the conservatory to see them. There was something about the look in her eyes, her gentle gestures and the quiet voice she used on them which seemed to tell so much about the motherly affection that she earned to give, but had lost the chance to do so. And it broke him even further to know that there was nothing that he could do about it.
“Shall I drop you off to your place?” Sung Gyu asked her as she returned to his side again. Her tears had dried in the breeze by then. But her eyes were still filled with moisture, even as she smiled.
Minhee slowly shook her head. “My roommate is having some friends over...I can’t go home like this...I will go in a while”
He pondered it for a moment, and given that they had classes the next day, he came to a better solution. “Would you like to crash over at mine? You can get back early before class”
Minhee looked up at him cautiously. “Would that be fine? I mean, I don’t want to trouble you-,”
“It’s no trouble at all” he reassured her, and he would have even added how giddy and delighted it made him feel to have her staying over at his small, lonely apartment, but he sure hoped his smile would have conveyed all that he felt. Besides, it wouldn’t really be the first time that she did this, counting all the instances where she was just too drunk to walk back home again.
“Okay” She sighed heavily and pulled her dressing gown even tighter around herself. “I feel like I could do with a good sleep”
After bidding goodbye to Myung Soo and Sung Jong, the two of them headed back along the strip of the beach on their way back to Sung Gyu’s place. The sea was quite rough, yet the sound of crashing waves gave a sense of tranquility to them. For the longest time, it was only the sound of nature and the quietness of their own thoughts. Minhee walked beside him at a lazy pace, Sung gyu easily striding along. She had her arms folded on her chest, her eyes downcast, deep in her thoughts. He could almost imagine what she was thinking about. He could read it right off her face. Her mind was probably filled with unnecessary guilt; that she was burdening him, that she was being irrational and overbearing, that she probably shouldn’t have called him in the middle of the night, all the while not knowing how worried sick he had been, just about to call her himself.
Minhee stopped mid stride all of a sudden, and so did he. Her eyes were set on the sandy ground below them. He gazed at her, concerned.
“Sung Gyu” She called and looked up to face him. “You’re-you’re wearing your house slippers”
He looked down at his feet and felt heat rising up his neck. In the heat of the moment, panic stricken upon receiving her call, Sung Gyu could only think about getting to Minhee sooner. He had thought about nothing else, and had grabbed a jacket in a frenzy because it was in the spring. But slippers never really occurred to him.
“They’re old, it's fine,” Sung Gyu replied dismissively, although he was pretty sure that’s not what she meant.
Minhee laughed just the slightest at his answer, shaking her head, looked ahead, and then started walking again. She was quiet for even longer, and he was certain that she had so many thoughts festering in her mind. He wondered what he could ask her, prompt her to let on whatever the worries that she had in mind. But he just didn’t know how to. Despite having been best friends with Minhee for the past ten years, sometimes he really did fail in making conversations, especially when it's about something that mattered for him.
He didn’t realise that it was quite a long way from home to the conservatory when he’d run there in a frenzy, but when they walked back, it felt like an arduous distance that they had to go. Yet it was comfortable, the quietness was comfortable, the company they had was comfortable. The company of each other was exactly what they needed. Across the ocean, they could see the faint lights of the harbour, ships moving in the dark like ghosts with only their lights flashing away. It seemed to get closer and closer the more they walked towards his house in silence, and soon, they were home.
Sung Gyu took off his battered and dampened house slippers, and tossed them into the bin outside his gate. He hadn’t even remembered to close it, and he thanked God for his safe neighbourhood, for his house would have been broken-in a long time ago, given how impulsive he could get. Minhee quietly followed after him, he opened the door and allowed her inside. It was completely dark except for the brilliant blue glimmer or Hotteokkie’s fish tank, his shadow casted across the living room.
“Hi Hotteokkie” Minhee greeted his pet as Sung Gyu hung his jacket by the front door. Hotteokkie, of course, made no response whatsoever, and Minhee didn’t seem to mind.
“Make yourself comfortable, I might need to have a shower before hitting bed” Sung Gyu informed her and ran his hand through his damp locks in emphasis.
“Sure, take your time” Minhee called out after him “I’ll be here with our Hotteokkie, keeping him in company”
Sung Gyu smiled, his heart picking up at the endearing way that she addressed the shark. She really didn’t pick between them. Turtle or a ferocious shark, they all will be babies for her.
He tried not to take too long in the shower, although he’d gotten quite a bit of sand in his hair from the high tides. By the time he stepped out of the bathroom, a towel resting on his shoulders and in fresh pajamas, Minhee was on the floor beside the fish tank, having gotten herself a glass of water.
“You alright?” He called as he approached her.
“I’m good” Minhee returned, but the tone of her voice seemed to say otherwise. Sung Gyu nodded, nevertheless, and crossed the room towards her.
He sat on the floor himself, his legs crossed, and thought of what he should say next. He was in dangerous waters right now. Anything he’d say or do could possibly burst her bubble. And although she wouldn’t say it in so many words, Minhee would certainly end up being hurt by his words, and he didn’t want to be the one to do that to her. Whatever it was, he waited for her to come forward herself.
“Sorry about today” Minhee, just as he imagined, broke the silence between them. “For a lot of things….I-I just panicked, and I didn’t know whom to call...but you”
Sung Gyu nodded, gazing down at her hands, watching her anxiously fidget with them. “It’s good that you called me” He returned quietly. “I could see Dubu off thanks to you”
This made her smile the slightest, a little sorrowful curve on her lips. “I must have worried you a lot”
“You did” Sung Gyu sincerely replied. For him, the whole day was a worry fest, starting from her leaving early in the morning for an unknown reason, her speaking to him while waiting on a queue in the hospital, to her vague text then calling him in the middle of the night, crying.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to” Minhee quietly muttered in response and made a sad little laughter. “I’m a real pain, aren’t I?”
Sung Gyu sighed in response. His suspicions had been right, as if he’d read right into her mind. “You know that isn’t true, Minhee”
“Even if it was, you’d never tell me, would you?” She raised her brows.
“I wouldn’t, because it isn’t”
She smiled, shook her head and looked away. Silence fell once more, their thoughts much louder than their words. The ocean continued to roll against the shore, rising higher than it usually did, and Hotteokkie continued to make shadows across the living room; round and round and round.
“I think you were right” Minhee’s voice cut into the silence again, and Sung Gyu raised his head to look at her. “About Dubu I mean...and all of them”
“What do you mean?” He asked her.
Minhee smiled, looked up and met his eyes. “You wouldn’t let me name them or spend too much time with them...you always remind me that they have to go...I think I finally understand why you’ve been doing that for me”
Sung Gyu swallowed, feeling his heart pounding faster. “I didn’t mean to be too obvious about it,” He replied.
“No” Minhee shook her head. “I should have understood, and Thank you, really...for doing that…” She trailed off, sighed heavily, and looked at the sea beyond his parted curtains, past the french windows. “I don’t know what I’ve been feeling the past few days...I don’t know if it's what you call it, but-,”
She swallowed hard and faced him again. “I think I am having baby fever, Sung Gyu. The turtles, the hatchlings, sometimes even my students. I feel like there’s something struggling to burst in my heart, something that I want to let out, yet I haven’t quite found the outlet, you know? And I thought long and hard about it, talked to my therapist, all of that, and-,”
“And?” He pushed on, but she fell quiet again. He gazed at her, hopefully, worriedly, unable to understand the emotions that were mirrored in her eyes.
“You know what I was doing at the hospital today?” She asked him.
His heart skipped a little, and he swallowed hard, now knowing that the possibilities weren’t the same that he thought they were.
“Are you ever going to tell me about it?” He asked her.
“I wasn’t going to” She replied, smiling to herself. “But I don’t think that I can keep it in anymore”
Sung Gyu remained quiet, and Minhee finally looked up at him. “I wanted to check if I can still bear children. I know its stupid and far fetched and-,”
“It’s not stupid” He told her, as he felt warm inside him, all over him. Sung Gyu had probably known this all along.
“It is” Minhee replied and shook her head once more. “I know it fully well that I don’t have what it takes, but still….” She took a deep, shaky breath. “Anyway, I certainly can’t. So I looked into other options. I was thinking about adoption as well...but then my obgyn suggested that I can look into surrogacy”
“That…” He started breathlessly, and tried to give her a smile. “That...sounds like a good option, doesn’t it?”
“Right?” She laughed lightly, and tucked her hair behind her ear. It appeared to him now, Minhee appeared less rigid, less preoccupied, as if she had set down a weight that she’d been carrying around for too long. “Yeah, well….that is all I can tell you for now, about it. That I am going for surrogacy”
He hummed, feeling like his heart had inflated, yet another worry had been taken off his back as well. All this time, Sung Gyu went through his day while being stricken with fear, the anxiety of not knowing, gnawing inside him. Now that it was all out there, at least a part of it, Sung Gyu felt like he could finally breathe again.
“Is that what you’ve been keeping from me?” He asked her, just for clarification. He could never be too sure. It was Choi Minhee after all.
“It is. That’s all” She laughed again.
“But why?” He raised his brows.
“Because I didn’t want to jinx it”
“Fair point” He nodded. Minhee was superstitious like that.
“But now I realise that I didn’t need to be'' She shook her head, almost in disbelief. “...because it's you”
Sung Gyu couldn’t say another word in response.
He didn’t know what it was about her, if it was her words, or whether it was just the tone of her voice, but she left him speechless, breathless, with butterflies fluttering inside him. He could only smile in response, looking into her eyes and seeing the sheer joy within them. Choi Minhee had gone through far too much in her young life, so much more than he himself could bear. All through that struggle, the pain and constant changes, she had stood strong, holding onto the last string of hope and was slowly climbing back on her feet again.
Everyone had one of them, he thought, a hero. If one asked Sung Yeol who his hero was, he would promptly say that it was Iron Man, because he acted like that sort of a child at times. If they asked Dong Woo, he, most sincerely, would reply that it was his father. If they ever asked whom Sung Gyu’s hero was, there’s only one that would come to his mind, and that would be the love of his life, Choi Minhee.