A/N: I'd seriously meant this to be light and funny when I started it, but I have since realized that I would not be fully representing Rang's character if I didn't acknowledge some of his less virtuous actions in the drama. So there's a bit of angst and self-loathing that starts in this chapter and will carry over into the final two chapters. I wouldn't call it remorse, exactly, but...you'll see.
"She's not coming today."
"What?" Rang looked up from the kitchen table where he'd settled himself with his laptop not a minute before.
With each passing week, he found it harder and harder not to seat himself at the table as early as possible in blatant anticipation of Ga Eul's arrival. He never knew when she might arrive ahead of schedule and he might have a few minutes of conversation with her before she commenced with her tutoring duties. The school year had started again, so she didn't have much time to hang around afterward, but he would take what he could get.
That fact must have caught the notice of Shin-joo, who had taken to giving Rang secretive looks at every opportunity when Ga Eul was either present or mentioned in conversation. The veterinarian swept past Rang into the kitchen, on his way grabbing two half-empty coffee mugs that had been left sitting out.
"Chu Ga Eul," Shin-joo elaborated. "Soo-oh doesn't have tutoring this week. She took the whole week off work to go to her friend's wedding." Shin-joo rolled up his sleeves and turned on the tap at the sink.
Well, that explained why Yu Ri hadn't brought Soo-oh home from school yet, but Rang didn't like the meaningful glance Shin-joo had given Rang when he'd said Ga Eul's name. Not least because Rang didn't know what the glance meant—it held suspicion but also something else, something Rang couldn't see even with the sharpness of his fox eye. But if Shin-joo thought Rang was up to his normal mischief, wouldn't he have voiced his opinions out loud by now? And if Rang didn't care about involving the teacher in his usual schemes, then why would he want her—uh, what would he want with her?
What did he want with her?
"Why would I care about that?" Rang answered. "I'm just sitting out here because it's stuffy in my bedroom." To prove his point, he produced a pair of earbuds from his pocket; he always brought them but hardly ever used them, eager as he was to listen to the lyrical softness of Ga Eul's voice. Her voice had a calming effect on him that few things did. He had a feeling if he listened to her long enough, he could forget every painful thing that had happened to him in his long life—every misguided deed, every haunting wound—and god, some things he wanted to forget.
"Yu Ri said she went to California," Shin-joo continued like Rang hadn't spoken, soaping up a dish as he talked. "Something called a 'destination wedding.'"
California. Wasn't that...all the way across the ocean?
Rang's chest constricted, but he made his voice level, dispassionate even, as he responded, "Oh...That's great news then. Maybe she'll stay there." He closed his laptop and got up from the table before his distress could show on his face.
"Where are you going?"
"I'm not telling you," Rang snapped, a little too quickly. He hoped Shin-joo read that as Rang's irritation towards him and not the depressing piece of information he'd just offered Rang.
Shin-joo eyed him carefully, but finally shrugged and remarked, "I thought you said your room was stuffy."
"Well, I'd rather be stuffy in there than out here listening to all that racket." Rang gestured to the pile of dishes Shin-joo was clanging together as he washed them.
When he'd shut himself back in the privacy of his own room, Rang felt overwhelmingly bereft. Achingly so.
He couldn't remember the last time he'd gone a week without seeing Ga Eul; worse, he couldn't remember the last time she'd appeared and he hadn't wanted to see her. Worse still, he couldn't think of anything he had to do in the next week—in the foreseeable future—that was more important than seeing her.
That thought needled fear into his ill-used, villainous heart. He used to be so careful about getting attached to anyone. But since he'd let his guard down with Soo-oh and even let his brother in, bit by bit, he'd begun craving things he had put out of his mind since he was a small child.
He'd gotten the smallest taste of it in this family Yu Ri and Shin-joo had cobbled together, and now he'd allowed himself to get swept away on the wave of that emotion straight into the warm, hospitable gaze of a human. Such an inconsequential being, but she wielded an inordinate amount of power over him. He realized that now, anxiety spiking in his chest when he remembered anew how far away California was. Literally the other side of the world.
Affection and companionship weren't enough anymore, not if they didn't come in the form of a teacher who never took off her damn cardigans. He'd had a dream not too long ago where he took it off for her, crept up behind her and carefully edged it down her shoulders. Then he'd freed her hair from its delicately messy bun, only to brush it aside so he could kiss her neck.
Rang wished she'd wear her hair down again, wished she'd wear a dress like the one he'd seen in the restaurant, but for him instead of her friends.
He needed to claw that wish, that feeling out of his heart. Burn it. Crush it. Whatever it took.
But would he claw it out? He couldn't say.
His little hobby was getting out of control.
Deciding it might be best not to feed Shin-joo's suspicions about his non-relationship with Ga Eul—whatever those suspicions were, not that he cared—and also that he needed a break from his hobby before it became an addiction—if it wasn't already—Rang stayed out of the apartment on the following Tuesday until well after the end of Soo-oh's lesson. But when he entered the apartment, he heard giggling from the balcony, and when he crossed over to the balcony, he found Ga Eul standing with Yu Ri, both of their backs turned and huddled over something in Ga Eul's hand.
"What did Soo-oh do now?" he asked.
Ga Eul was still there. Why was she still there at such a late hour?
Why did he feel like his chest might explode with that revelation?
Yu Ri turned to him first, exclaiming, "Oh! Ga Eul's showing me her pictures from the wedding. California is so pretty! We should go!"
"Would you like to see?" Ga Eul held up her phone. She shuffled closer to Yu Ri so that Rang could stand on the other side of her.
He didn't want to move closer to her—he was supposed to be cutting back on his interactions with her—and yet he did want to be closer to her. It almost physically hurt being this close to her and not being able to touch her. His feet had carried him over to her before his mouth could protest.
"This is the beach they got married on," Ga Eul explained, holding out her phone so both Rang and Yu Ri could see the photos on the screen. Rang sincerely hoped she didn't drop it onto the pavement below. "And this is a vineyard we went to on our second day there." She scrolled through the photos at a moderate speed—not so slow as to be annoying but not so fast that he couldn't get a good glimpse of the subjects in the photos.
Finally, she paused on a photo of three women and four men, immaculately dressed in wedding attire. The prettiest girl was her. "That's my friend who got married"—she pointed at the bride, and he realized it was the JK group heiress he'd seen her having lunch with—"and this is my best friend from high school"—the other lady he'd seen at the restaurant—"and this is my best friend's husband"—holy crap, was that the CEO of Shinhwa?! "And the other three guys are his best friends, including the groom," she finished explaining in a nonchalant manner. "Song Woo Bin, that's the groom's name. His family owns Song Construction, where my father works." Rang nodded. He didn't recognize the other two men in the photo, but he assumed they were chaebols as well. It was on the tip of his tongue to ask how she knew such people, but suddenly she smiled at him and he didn't know why but words...any words...Everything slipped.
"The wedding looks nice," he managed.
Nice? The wedding looks nice? What the hell was he saying?
The wedding looks nice...but you look like an angel.
The wedding looks nice...but I want to kill the guy whose hand is on your shoulder.
The wedding looks nice...but please don't leave the country ever, ever again.
Because I felt like I was losing my mind the entire week you were gone.
"Everything looks really...nice," he repeated, instantly wanting to throw himself over the balcony railing.
Thankfully, Yu Ri saved him from that fate by excusing herself to greet Shin-joo as he arrived home from work, leaving Rang alone with Ga Eul, who said thanks and set her phone down on the patio table.
Stretching her arms out over the railing, she commented, "You have an amazing view up here."
Rang supposed he did, although he didn't look at it enough. He was glad she appreciated it.
"Soo-oh says you're a nine tailed fox," she remarked, smiling.
But then she laughed and continued, "Don't kids say the funniest things?"
"I'd be careful if I were you," he replied, studying her to make certain she hadn't taken Soo-oh seriously. "You never really know who anyone is."
"Oh? Should I be afraid you're going to eat my heart?" she teased. A light breeze blew her hair about—half-up, half-down today—and when she smiled the light from the outdoor lamps caught her eyes. She was radiant against the somber night.
"No. You're too happy for my taste," Rang answered truthfully, a lump in his throat. "Nine tailed foxes like to feed on human misery. The more miserable a heart is, the better."
Something indiscernible flashed in her eyes. "Oh," she said, a bit softer. "Well, that's a relief."
"But since I'm a nine tailed fox," he persisted, "don't you think you should ask me for a wish?" He didn't owe her anything anymore, but he was curious as to what she would ask for. Just curious. It didn't have anything at all to do with the distant, sad look she'd gotten a moment ago, that she still wore as she stared off into the dark sky with its waning moon and barely visible stars; she didn't answer for so long that it seemed she'd forgotten he was there.
She'd started biting her bottom lip again, and he would have repeated the question, but Shin-joo poked his head out to greet Ga Eul. Which led to Ga Eul checking her watch for the time. Which led to her realizing how late it had gotten. On a school night. Which led to her leaving without answering his question.
Well. Another night maybe. She'd be back on Thursday.
Rang didn't notice it until after he'd changed into a t-shirt and a more comfortable pair of pants and had gone back out there to get some air, but Ga Eul had left her cell phone sitting out on the balcony.
If he hurried—which, of course, he could hurry—he could give it back to her; she couldn't have gone far in the few minutes she'd been gone, and in any case he knew the way to her apartment.
The bus. She took the bus, so she'd be at the bus stop near their apartment complex.
Maybe now it would be her turn to owe him a favor. He didn't know when that would be helpful, but he was sure he could use it to his advantage somehow. He could always twist situations to his advantage; it was his signature skill.
It took no time at all for him to change back into his suit, make it out of the apartment complex, and approach the bus stop at the end of the street. But as he drew closer and closer to Ga Eul's lone figure sitting underneath the street light, he heard the unmistakable sound of her crying. She'd taken a pack of tissues out of her purse and kept blotting her face with one.
Had someone been bothering her?
Rang scowled and scanned the area, ready to attack whoever it was, but he saw and sensed no one in the immediate vicinity. Which, oddly, also irritated him. He hoped she didn't make a habit of sitting around all by herself at bus stops in the dead of night. Anything could happen to her; she was nothing but soft limbs and a softer heart.
Then he remembered the odd look she'd had earlier when he'd basically asked her for a wish.
Was that why she was crying? But who would cry over someone offering to grant them a wish?
Staying out of her line of sight, Rang crept behind the bus stop and off to the side of it.
Of course, she wouldn't tell him anything. He could see it now. He'd approach her with the phone, and she'd be so terribly embarrassed over being caught in such an emotional display that she would scarcely say anything to him for the next month, and that wouldn't do at all. He couldn't stand for her to start avoiding him—for some peculiar reason, he couldn't stand to be away from her at all—but he needed to sate his curiosity. He needed to take the form of someone unimposing, someone innocent and trustworthy. Someone she'd be likely to open up to.
An idea formed in his head, and he snapped it into place without a second thought.
When he sat down beside her on the bench, he looked like a mere female high school student.
Ga Eul didn't look up at him, though, so he asked, tentatively, "Oh...excuse me, but...is everything okay?"
Wiping her tears on her cardigan sleeve—pink today and nestled in her lap now due to the end-of-summer heat—she offered him a watery smile.
"Um...yeah...yeah, I'm fine. Thanks for asking."
He nodded, unsure how to proceed when she didn't say anything else.
For someone who was fine, she sure was sniffling a lot.
"My mother always says if you're upset about something, it's better to let it out than to keep it all inside. Maybe it would help you to talk to someone?"
Ga Eul said nothing; she sat completely still.
"I've been told I'm a great listener," he added for good measure.
A few laborious minutes passed. All right, maybe seconds, but it felt like minutes.
But finally, she started talking, the words tumbling out over shaky breaths and frequent pauses.
"My first love's name was So Yi Jeong...but I always called him Yi Jeong Sunbae 'cause he was a year older than me. He went to...high school...with my best friend's boyfriend, and that's how we met. We all used to hang out together."
"Ah...and you...you were...together, back then?" he asked, perplexed as to why she was talking about someone she'd had a crush on in high school. He knew Ga Eul wasn't too old in human years, but she was a few years removed from high school, at least.
"Uh, no, actually." Ga Eul scratched her head like the thought irritated her. "That's...that's a long story. We were never actually, you know, a thing. But I really, really liked him, and he made me a promise before he went to study abroad that if I didn't find someone else before he came back, he would come back to me, and we could be together." She gave him a knowing look. "I know, stupid of me to believe such a thing, but I was young and impressionable, I guess. I wanted to believe in soulmates and true love and all that crap." She tried to smile but winced instead. "So, anyway, I waited for him. At first it was easy. He'd call me every other week or so, and we'd talk. We'd send each other pictures and stuff. But then, I think his program got harder...or maybe his parents got stricter, I'm not sure...but we stopped talking as much. And then one day he called me to tell me the good news. That he wasn't coming back to Korea. And I know...I know...it was stupid of me, but by that point I had waited on him for four years. Four years! And...I don't know why I'm crying about this now. It's just...his best friend got married last week, and I had to help plan the wedding because I was a bridesmaid. And it was the first time I was going to see him since he told me he wasn't coming back. And no one in our friend group even knows about that stupid promise he made me. Not even my best friend. And I've had to act so happy and put together for months while I had ulcers in my stomach just thinking about seeing him again and then...I got to the wedding, and he talked to me for all of five fucking minutes. And here I am, wasting my twenties, still crying about some jerk who didn't come back for me. Don't be like me. Don't waste your life like that. It's not worth it." Ga Eul heaved a sob when she came to the end of her rant, tears streaming freely down her cheeks, and for once Rang really, really did not know what to say. Ga Eul gave her affection so freely. He'd assumed she was that way because she'd never been hurt and so she had no self-preservation instincts. But she'd been abandoned by someone she loved, just like him.
He wanted to find that bastard and beat the crap out of him.
"Well...fuck him," he answered; it seemed the only appropriate thing to say, considering.
That elicited a laugh from her, at least.
"Yeah." She nodded and echoed, "Fuck him." It was odd to hear her curse...and also so adorable, he had to bite the inside of his mouth to keep from smiling. Which was an inappropriate action anyway, considering that she was still crying.
Ga Eul sniffled and wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her cardigan again. Then she laughed even more. A humorless, bitter sound. "Only I didn't. And the truth is, I'm probably the only one," she announced, a statement that sounded sad and proud at once. "That idiot never even kissed me!" she announced with sudden vehemence. "Although maybe it would have been worse if he had," she continued glumly. "I don't know. But now I'm twenty-six, and I've never even been kissed. Isn't that pathetic? Because I waited on him for four years. I was heartbroken for, like, a year and a half after that. And now...well, now I'm still attracted to...unattainable assholes." She bit her lip and waved her hand at some invisible asshole.
Rang frowned. What 'asshole' was she 'attracted to' at the moment?
"It doesn't change once you get out of school, unfortunately. All the attractive men are still mostly...mostly assholes."
She glanced over at him, and he guessed she was looking for an exuberant confirmation of her assessment of men, but he could only give her a weak laugh.
"But, I guess, look at me. I mean, who would leave a budding artistic career in Europe just to come back to me?" She gestured to herself, though he didn't know what she expected him to find wrong with her, aside from her puffy eyes and red nose. "I'm...I'm happy for him." She nodded as though she were trying to convince herself. "I am. He's an artist. Europe is good for him. What would I do in Europe?" She let out another of those fake laughs, and that did it.
"Who cares about that?" Rang burst out. "You're beautiful...and nice. I mean, you seem nice. And I bet you have a good job, and you make friends easily, right? That guy's the one missing out. I can already tell you're ten times better than him. So just tell him to fuck off and be done with him already."
Ga Eul gave him a curious side-glance, then laughed, a bit more normally this time.
"You're right," she said. "I know you're right. I just..." she trailed off and looked off in the distance. "Someone asked me if I wanted to make a wish tonight. And the last time I made a wish, like, a real wish, in a wishing well...it was for him to come back to me. I guess the whole thing just came flooding back." As she finished speaking, the headlights of a bus rounding the corner near-blinded him. It pained him to look into those bright lights just like it pained him to realize he had inadvertently caused her to remember someone who had broken her heart.
The bus pulled up to the stop, and she hoisted her purse over her shoulder along with the satchel she kept her school papers in. Dazedly, he watched her collect her things. She took a few steps towards the open doors of the bus, then turned back to him.
"Aren't you coming?" she asked, an expectant gaze on her face, and for a moment, he wanted to say that of course he was coming. He'd go anywhere with her—or stay anywhere with her—unlike the faceless bastard who hadn't come back for her. That bastard hadn't deserved her.
But then he realized she was talking about the bus.
They were at the bus stop, and she expected him to get on the bus too.
"Uh...no, I'm...I'm waiting on someone," he stammered.
"Oh...Okay. Are you sure you'll be okay out here by yourself?"
"Yeah...They should just be, like, two minutes."
Ga Eul nodded.
"Okay, then. It was nice talking to you. Well, I mean, thank you for listening. Sorry I was kind of depressing. Don't listen to me. I'm just having a bad night."
"It's okay," he said, but that seemed an inadequate response to all he'd learned about her that evening, so he added, "Good luck with everything."
"Thanks." She smiled brightly and added, "Good luck with school."
Good luck with school.
The statement confused him for a second because he'd sort of lapsed into just talking with her, no longer trying to play a role, but as she alighted the bus stairs he looked down at his hands and remembered who he'd impersonated.
A moment ago, he'd wanted to make her smile again. Keep her safe. Make her forget the reason she was crying. Now the sweltering humidity in the air threatened to choke him.
These hands weren't his, and neither was the voice he'd used to comfort her.
He'd stolen them.
What irony—only by wrapping himself in his cruellest, most calculating artifice had he coaxed her into telling him her most painful secret, one buried so deep even her best friend didn't know anything about it.
Maybe So Yi Jeong—whoever and wherever he was—didn't deserve Ga Eul, but neither did Rang. And he was probably the sicker, more wholly twisted option between the two of them.
The bus doors were closing, and suddenly he was on the bus with Ga Eul, only it was a different bus, different night, different road. The lights had gone out, and they were traveling through a tunnel, and he felt the pressure of a pulse and warm skin under the hands that were in his lap as those same hands snapped an unsuspecting woman's neck.
Rang jolted up, seized by panic. He couldn't let Ga Eul get on the bus.
Anything could happen to her on there. Someone could...kill…
Rang couldn't breathe. It was too late. She was already sitting down, and the bus was lurching away from the stop as quickly as it had come.
Of course, it was a ridiculous thought. No one waited to devour Ga Eul on this particular bus. No nine tailed fox with a vendetta against his brother, against humanity. But it wasn't until the bus had disappeared around a corner that his heart stopped inhumanly racing, and it wasn't until he'd entered the apartment complex elevator that he remembered to change form.
The distorted mirror in the doors captured, mockingly, the image of him transforming from a naive schoolgirl—the one he'd killed—into himself.
An expensive suit to conceal a monster.