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Chapter 23: DNA

Kim Namjoon was in the midst of strolling down the well-lit pathway leading to his favorite childhood park, whistling the tune of their latest music video. The rapper had managed to score a couple of days off to see his family for the Chuseok holidays and so far, everything had been perfect until a bumbling figure had crashed right into him and shattered his reverie.

He looked down in surpise to meet Hong Ji Ah's wild gaze, eye shadow smeared around the corners of her eyes, hair disheveled and body heaving with breathlessness. "Woah there! Who're you trying to outrun, the Flash?"

Ji Ah didn't answer and sensing the fatigue wafting off her trembling frame, Namjoon guided her into the serene park, mostly deserted and peaceful. A few kids milled about, engrossed in their own games and paying the two adults no attention, something the rapper was thankful for. Steering the silent videographer towards a bench concealed by tall trees and a giant swing set, he pushed her down gently and occupied the space beside her. Ji Ah made no move to speak and Namjoon sighed. "The fact that you're in Ilsan…I take it you're here to see your family?"

No answer. Ji Ah just stared at the ground, her fingers tightly entwined. The nightfall was a beautiful amalgamation of twinkling stars speckling the horizon, a light wind blowing across the park and rustling twigs and leaves. Namjoon glanced at her, never before having caught Ji Ah in such a vulnerable state. After a few minutes of deadening silence, the rapper finally decided to speak again. "You have snot running down your nose, you know."

It worked. Ji Ah instantly whirled towards him, her fingers exploring her face as she glared in his direction. "I most certainly do not!"

"At least you're not moping anymore," he chuckled softly and Ji Ah found her annoyance ebbing, slipping away with the last vestiges of her irritation. Namjoon smiled at her and she felt a twinge in her chest which wasn't quite related to the argument with her parents. He didn't speak further, just letting her collect her thoughts and the videographer couldn't help the gratitude she felt for this small act of consideration on his part.

It was Ji Ah's turn to break the silence. "Namjoon…how had your parents reacted when you told them you wanted to pursue music?"

If Namjoon attributed the sudden question to her decision to visit her family, he didn't show it. Instead, he rubbed his nose, stroking his chin as he contemplated an answer. "My mother asked me to give her three good reasons why she should allow her perfectly intelligent and scholarly son to run off and become a rapper," he stated with such a serious face that Ji Ah couldn't help but laugh in a low voice. She didn't doubt this fact at all, knowing Namjoon's mother well. "I told her that I would make it and that if I didn't, I would return and dive into my books and notes and continue studying. That seemed to be good enough for her. It wasn't difficult to convince my dad after this; he always had a soft spot for my mother's decisions and a softer spot for me," he finished with a smirk and Ji Ah punched his arm playfully. Namjoon laughed with her, carefully weighing his next question. "How was it?"

Ji Ah sighed, sinking into the bench and rubbing her palms. "Not even five minutes in and everything tumbled down like a house of cards," she replied quietly, averting her gaze. "I thought I could do it but I think I was wrong."

"You weren't," Namjoon stated firmly and Ji Ah blinked at the conviction in his voice. "You weren't wrong. And your parents…Ji Ah, you need to understand that they were worried about you. That's what parents do. They worry even if it smothers their children."

Ji Ah considered his words, realizing the truth in them but it didn't sting any less. "They made it sound like they were the only ones who suffered and that I took off without a care in the world. It hurt," she complained but her voice didn't waver. Strength was beginning to seep into her bones again, providing her a modicum of ease.

"Ji Ah, I understand how it must've felt. But you should know that they would never, ever want their daughter to be unhappy. You just need to talk to them. Really talk to them." He tugged at her elbow causing her to finally face him. "You'll find that sometimes, just talking without blowing heads helps a lot more than flinging curses. And if there's anyone who can pull this off, it's you."

Ji Ah allowed her lips to curl into a small smile as she held Namjoon's gaze. "You've grown into a wise man, Kim Namjoon."

The rapper grinned, his endearing dimples hollowing his cheeks. "What can I say? I learned from the best." He winked at her and Ji Ah willed her cheeks to not redden.

"Well, if you'd been so wise eight years ago then we'd never have broken up," she found herself saying before she could realize the bad timing of her retort. Panic flitted across her features and she gripped Namjoon who had gone completely still beside her. "I'm sorry! That was inappropriate and I shouldn't have said it and-"

But Namjoon silenced her, his hands cupping her face and Ji Ah's breath caught in her throat as he leaned in. "Don't worry about it. I'm not offended in any way." His dimpled smile was back and Ji Ah relaxed, pulling away from his grasp and smiling tiredly.

"I'm relieved then. And I guess it's time to return and rectify the situation," she announced, rising and deftly twisting her hair into a bun. Namjoon placed a palm on her shoulder and she turned sideways to face him.

"You're still a little worked up," he observed and Ji Ah couldn't counter the statement. "How about cooling off at my place?"

                                 ***                                          Despite Ji Ah's vocal protests, Namjoon practically dragged her to the Kim family home. He assured her that his parents and sister would love to have her but the videographer remained uncertain right until he pushed her up the porch steps and ushered her into the two-storey house, just a lane down from her own.

The interior was a clash of black and white, patterns intricately etched on the walls. Vases and flower pots were lined on a neat row of shelves and Ji Ah could see various music apparel and books cluttered over the living room desk. The sweet aroma of songpyeon wafted towards her and she inhaled the fragrant scent of the traditional rice cakes which Namjoon's mother had prepared for the occasion.

"Is that you, Joon-ah?" a mellow voice called out from what Ji Ah assumed to be the dining room and the rapper placed a finger against his lips and smiled.

"Yes, mom! And I have a guest with me," he answered and the videographer could discern the shuffling of feet as they padded into the living room. Kim Rae Ya was clad in an apron, her short-cropped hair pushed back from her angular face. She was as tall as Ji Ah and her full lips spread into a soft smile when her brown eyes landed on the brunette-haired woman. Years hadn't dimmed the sparkle in Rae Ya's orbs and Ji Ah wondered if both their mothers had some immunity against ageing.

"Oh my! Is this who I think it is?" Her eyes were shining and she strode over to where Ji Ah was standing by the wooden divan, her toes twitching with anxiety. "Hong Ji Ah?"

"Mrs. Kim, it's been a long time," she greeted the woman, bowing politely. She felt a hand patting her head and Ji Ah quickly jerked up as Namjoon's mother pulled her into a warm embrace.

"It's so good to see you again, Ji Ah," she mumbled into her silk tresses and a bubbly feeling pooled in the pit of the videographer's stomach. Rae Ya led them into the dining room, adamant that Ji Ah should try some of her songpyeon. She informed them that Namjoon's father and Geong Min were currently out on a shopping spree and wouldn't return until later so the house was relatively empty. As the videographer settled at the glass table, her eyes roved over the polished glassware and cabinets which held crockery and other utensils.

"My mom makes some of the best songpyeon in the whole of Korea," Namjoon whispered into her ear, his breath tickling her lobe and she resisted the urge to shiver. She knew that very well, remembered it just as she remembered the taste of the cakes on her tongue by memory the one time she had been able to savor them. It had been Chuseok then, too and Namjoon and Ji Ah had been dating for a whole of three months.

This town was painted with too many memories.

Rae Ya ambled into the kitchen with a tray of her renowned rice cakes, setting it before the pair who stared at the songpyeon with glazed eyes. "Go on, don't be shy now."

Ji Ah didn't need any further invitation and dove in, Namjoon close behind. Between them, they devoured the entire tray and Ji Ah laughed when the rapper almost choked in his haste to swallow the cakes. Wiping the residue that had collected on the corners of her mouth, she thanked his mother who simply grinned, her dimples uncannily similar to Namjoon's.

"How is Yeo Na?" Rae Ya inquired once she had cleared the table and brewed hot coffee for the pair. Their mothers had been friends even before their kids had started dating. Running in the same circles and working in the same field-interior designing- the women often had the chance to bond, a friendship which had been cemented tenfold when Namjoon and Ji Ah began going out. And unlike them, Rae Ya and Yeo Na had remained in touch even when their kids were no longer together.

"She's the same as always," Ji Ah replied, trying her best to sound nonchalant despite the uneasiness in her gut. Rae Ya chuckled, accustomed to her friend's cold and unyielding exterior.

"Still tough as ever, huh?" Ji Ah nodded in response and the woman leaned in to voice another question when Namjoon's phone rang. The rapper frowned, whisking the device out of his coat pocket. When his eyes skimmed the caller id, a grin formed on his face.

"Excuse me, but I need to take this. Yoongi Hyung is calling me for the hundredth time because Hoseok is probably driving him nuts," he remarked wryly. Ji Ah raised her eyebrow quizzically and Namjoon shrugged. "They decided to stay at the dorm alone before leaving tomorrow to visit their families."

He strode out of the room and the women chuckled. Ji Ah could feel the weight of Rae Ya's eyes on her so she turned to meet them. "I hope you don't mind Namjoon telling me how you two came to be reacquainted," the older woman said quietly, startling Ji Ah.

"Of course not, Mrs. Kim," she assured the rapper's mother who smiled, the crinkles around her eyes deepening, so like her father's that Ji Ah felt the urgency to clutch her chest and shield it from the pain wringing her ribcage.

"Yeo Na and I still meet, though not as frequently as we used to," Rae Ya told her, her eyes resting on a spot beside Ji Ah's clasped fingers on the table. "And whenever we do, there hasn't been a single time where she hasn't brought you up, in some way or another."

Ji Ah looked up at this, her veins pulsing with an unacknowledged emotion. "Really?"

Rae Ya nodded, chuckling softly. "Almost like how Namjoonie used to when you were together." She bit her lip, obviously vacillating between venturing another statement and holding her tongue. "You may not know it, but you were a great help to Joonie." Taking Ji Ah's silence as a cue to continue, the rapper's mother propped her elbows on the glass table. "The change in him was clear. He was more confident, less anxious, more determined. And even after you broke up, these qualities just amplified as if he was finally embarking on a journey towards loving and accepting himself. I think he's close to getting there." Rae Ya looked straight at Ji Ah now. "You propelled him."

The videographer could only stare at Namjoon's mother. "You both give me too much credit," she finally replied, wondering how Rae Ya would react if she knew that even though Namjoon had taken her advice, she herself hadn't been able to abide by it.

But Rae Ya shook her head. "You're very special, Ji Ah. You may not think so but we know it. And your parents know it. They love you and they miss you."

I do too, she thought sadly. But Ji Ah didn't voice the words out loud. "They're so angry that they wouldn't even care if I took off again," she replied instead, a sudden surge of bitterness coursing through her. But Rae Ya only reached out and squeezed her hand.

"Give them the chance they couldn't give you. And maybe then, you'll finally begin to heal." Namjoon's mother smiled at her, a smile which warmed Ji Ah from within.

"All of you."

                                  ***

When Ji Ah stepped into her home, she expected her father to throw a fit or her mother to scrunch her nose in disappointment. But what she hadn't expected was her family to be huddled before their flat-screen TV and watch videos, videos she had worked on as a videographer of MSL. She tiptoed into the living room with the parcel of rice cakes Rae Ya had sent for them, not wanting to disturb her family but Chan Hyuk was quick to notice her.

"You've worked on these," he stated quietly and there was something akin to awe in his voice. Yeo Na's eyes were glued to the screen playing a clip of a variety show Ji Ah had worked on editing and directing. Ah Ra was seated next to her, eyes wide with wonder.

She nodded slowly, plunking onto the bean bag beside the couch. "It was the first solo project I was allowed to work on," she said with a hint of pride and her father chuckled, causing Ji Ah's jaw to drop wide open. It was the first time her father had smiled in her presence today. "But how did you come across this?"

"I googled it with some help from Namjoon!" Ah Ra exclaimed, turning to her shocked sister. "He sent some other links, too."

"And now you're working with an internationally recognized boy band," Yeo Na observed, but her voice was laced with subtle praise."That's…incredible."

"You have no idea how jealous the girls at my school are going to be when they find out," Ah Ra added but Ji Ah instantly placed a finger against her lip.

"It's a secret, okay? You can't tell them anything now," she warned lightly and Ah Ra made a motion of clamping her lips shut.

"Don't you worry. My lips are sealed," she replied with a serious face and Ji Ah couldn't help but grin. To her utmost surprise, her parents, both of them, were smiling, too.

"You like doing this, don't you?" Yeo Na finally asked, turning to face her. Chan Hyuk paused the video and a silence settled over the living room.

"I do, Mom. This is important to me," she replied, more calmly than she had thought she would. Ji Ah's gaze didn't waver, affixed on her parents. "But I'm sorry I disregarded your concerns."

Chan Hyuk shook his head slowly. "We're sorry we didn't try to understand, Ji Ah. We're sorry we forced you into a corner where you felt like you had no other choice but to leave."

"And we're sorry we didn't realize how happy videography made you," Yeo Na added. "Though we should've noticed. I mean, you did go around shooting all kinds of stuff in your teenage years."

Ah Ra chuckled but Ji Ah couldn't respond. She felt the stinging sensation behind her eyes but she made no move to stall the tears which began streaming down her face. For the first time in a very long time, Ji Ah bawled, sobs rocking her body. Chan Hyuk's eyes grew misty as he lurched forward and pulled his daughter into a hug. "It'okay, Ji Ah. It's okay now."

Ah Ra inched towards them and nuzzled her head against Ji Ah's neck and even Yeo Na, stern, unflinching Yeo Na couldn't help but place a palm over the videographer's head, patting it ever so slightly. This just made Ji Ah cry harder and Chan Hyuk chuckled. "I can't believe the two most obstinate women I know are finally displaying some emotion. But I'm not that surprised. You do share the same DNA after all."

Yeo Na swatted his arm at the same time Ji Ah snorted. But cocooned in the familiar scent of her father's cologne, surrounded by the boundless affection of her sister and the silent but omnipresent love of her mother, she felt like it was going to be okay. It would take time but she felt like it was going to get better.

It felt like she was going to heal.

"I know Rae Ya fed you her scrumptious rice cakes," Yeo Na said after a few minutes of blissful repose, "But I've baked an apple and cinnamon pie. Do you want to taste some?" Ji Ah raised her head at her mother's question, a smile tugging at her lips.

"I'd love to."


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