A/N: Thank you to the guest reviewers who left such lovely reviews on the last chapter! If you haven't watched Tale of the Nine Tailed, I highly recommend it! Splitting another chapter...I hope you like angst! There's also a good bit of cursing in this chapter, just fyi.
I made a small error in chapter three when I (well, Ga Eul) said that Rang owned the apartment. Rang does NOT own the apartment where they are living in the last episode of TOTNT. It's actually Shin-joo's apartment. I've corrected that bit of dialogue, and I mention this now because it's relevant to this chapter.
Rang's knuckles connected with the elevator wall, and the reflective metal made a sickening crunch. When he pulled away, his fist was bloody, but that didn't stop him from kicking the shit out of the wall as well.
Damn it, damn it, damn it, damn it, damn it!
He swung his fist back and punched the wall again, aiming right for his own face in the mirrored surface.
He only ceased his assault when the elevator doors opened to his floor, and even then he didn't get out, instead bending over and leaning his weight on his lower body, hands pressed to his knees. His chest heaved. His head surged with adrenaline and panic and fuck fuck fuck.
A metallic taste flooded his mouth from where he'd bitten his tongue. He spit the blood out on the elevator floor and cursed under his breath.
What the hell had he been doing the past few months?! Dancing around that gullible human like he'd ever meant well towards any human who hadn't been reincarnated from his past life.
He wanted to protect her? What a fucking joke.
Maybe Ga Eul was an innocent, and Rang had always possessed a weak heart for innocent, vulnerable things. Maybe it was because he'd once known how it felt to be innocent and vulnerable, with no one to defend him.
But he wasn't so innocent now, was he?
So far, he'd shown Ga Eul someone she wanted to see, but he couldn't keep that up forever. One day, instead of crushing her heart, he'd rip it out and...and…
Rang slammed the apartment's front door, not caring if he woke up Soo-oh. Then he stormed over to the kitchen, intent on finding at least one fucking bottle of alcohol to drown himself in for the evening.
"Mister Lee Rang?" Yu Ri called out as Rang opened one cabinet—an empty one—and slammed it shut.
Yu Ri ventured, uncertainly, "Um...there's something Shin-joo and I wanted to talk to you about. Do you have a minute? It's kind of...important."
"Unless Imoogi has returned, then no, I don't have a minute." Rang opened another cabinet. Slammed it shut. He did the same with the next cabinet. Then the next one, then the next. Surely, there was some alcohol in this damn apartment. Any alcohol.
"It's about Ga Eul," Shin-joo remarked, and Rang felt Shin-joo's hand on his shoulder, pausing him from opening another cabinet.
"What about her?" Shrugging Shin-joo off, he spun on his heel, his jaw tightening.
"Oh my god, what happened to you?!" Yu Ri exclaimed.
"Hey, are you..."
Okay. Are you okay? He bet that was what Shin-joo had been about to say. But he must have recognized the feral look in Rang's eyes because he backed down.
Rang caught sight of himself in the mirror opposite the kitchen—the disheveled hair, the blood on his knuckles. If he bothered to look at them where he'd cast them off at the door, he'd probably see he'd scuffed his black dress shoes. He knew he'd bruised his knuckles, though that would heal up soon enough.
"I ran into someone I had unfinished business with," Rang lied. Well, not a lie. Not technically. He always had unfinished business with himself. It was his penance, he supposed.
"A human?" Shin-joo's eyes narrowed, and it was the wrong thing to say at the wrong time.
"Actually, I have better things to do than beat up every human that passes me on the street. Like find a fucking drink," Rang snapped. "Where the hell did you put all the alcohol?"
Shin-joo's mouth hardened further.
"Out of the kid's reach. Who, by the way, is asleep if you could keep the noise down. Mind telling me what's up with you? You were fine when you left earlier."
"I got rained on. I forgot to bring my umbrella," Rang spat, glaring at the pair of them.
"You can cut the bull—"
"Mister Lee Rang," Yu Ri interrupted; she sidled up to him and put a hand on his arm. "Why don't you come out to the balcony, and Shin-joo can get us some beer?"
Rang wanted something stronger than beer, and he wanted to be alone, but he grudgingly followed Yu Ri out to the balcony, willing all his irritation to settle in the roiling mass of his gut instead of his twitching fingers. Instead of giving into his earlier impulse to smash up all the cabinets.
Once there, he didn't sit but leaned against the railing, arms crossed, as he studied Shin-joo and Yu Ri. An image of Ga Eul stretching over the same balcony railing, not an hour before, rushed back to him, and he blinked it away. He was glad he hadn't mentioned to Yu Ri or Shin-joo that he was taking her phone to her. Her phone, the one he still had in his pants pocket. A weighted reminder of their conversation at the bus stop.
Shin-joo brought out the beer as promised but didn't hand it to Rang, opting instead to place it on the little glass table to Rang's left, just out of reach. Shin-joo probably didn't want Rang drunk in his current mood. Wise, perhaps, but irksome.
Yu Ri shut the balcony's glass doors then; he supposed whatever they had to say to him, they didn't mean it for Soo-oh's impressionable ears.
"Well, go on," he prodded when neither of them spoke. "What do you want? What's so important about that insignificant little human that it couldn't wait until the morning?"
Instead of answering, Yu Ri exchanged a glance with Shin-joo.
"Uh, well...maybe this isn't the best time," she began. "Like you said, we could talk about it in the morning."
Rang scowled at that. Yu Ri usually wasn't one to avoid saying anything she felt was important, regardless of his mood or how much she thought he would like it—it was one of the things he liked about her, her bluntness—which could only mean she was, uncharacteristically, hiding something.
"What is it?" he repeated. "You're awfully friendly with that human, after all. So what happened to your best friend? She decide to move to California permanently?"
Yu Ri tilted her head in thought, then smiled.
"You know, you're right! We are friends. She's the first human friend I made myself," she announced proudly, and Rang could have groaned. He'd meant it as an insult.
Not that anything was wrong with Ga Eul—because for all his searching, he couldn't find a single thing that truly bothered him—but had he taught Yu Ri nothing about the general fickleness of humans?
Ga Eul was perfect, and he was...
Remembering his earlier irritation, Rang's frown deepened, and the smile dropped from Yu Ri's face.
Nonetheless, she swallowed and pressed on, "We have something to tell you. It's nothing bad. Just...we thought you ought to know, and we feel sort of...wrong for keeping it from you all this time."
Rang wiped his hands on his shirt, staining the expensive black-and-white-striped fabric red; then he reached for the beer and popped it open, already sensing that he'd definitely need a drink for this conversation.
Shin-joo interrupted, "Yu Ri, are you sure that now is the best time to—"
"You're her soulmate," Yu Ri blurted out.
Rang coughed on the beer he'd been swallowing, sending the liquid spilling out of his mouth and onto his blood-stained shirt.
"Sorry, what was that?" he managed between coughs, certain he'd heard her wrong. A trick of his unruly subconscious desires, perhaps.
"You're her soulmate," Yu Ri reasserted, with yet more confidence in her voice, to Rang's chagrin.
"Her soulmate? I'm a fox," Rang scoffed, straightening up. Unfortunately, his attempt to look condescending and dignified was undercut by the mess on his clothes.
"Half-fox. You're half-human too," Yu Ri reminded him.
Rang rolled his eyes and cracked his neck.
"Right, and because I'm half-human, you've decided to play cupid with me and the human teacher." He brought the beer up to his lips again.
"No, no, it's not that," Yu Ri cried out. "I didn't mean for this happen."
At that, Rang lowered his drink. He placed it coolly on the table.
"For what to happen?" he asked as he stuffed his hands in his trouser pockets. "Did she put you up to this?"
Did she? Had he really not been imagining Ga Eul's crush on him?
"Your human friend," he mimicked Yu Ri's excited voice from earlier.
"No, no. She doesn't know anything about it. Well, not really."
Rang sighed. If she would only stop rambling like a rabid fox and get to the point.
"It's um...you can blame me, I guess. When she agreed to help Soo-oh, I granted her a favor."
A favor? The word made the hairs on the back of Rang's neck prickle, made him a bit more wary.
"I knew how lonely she was," Yu Ri was saying, "and she mentioned that she'd wanted to meet her soulmate when she was younger, so I gave her a charm. If she carried it on her person at all times, it was supposed to make it so that running into her soulmate would be inevitable. But...I think the only person she's been running into lately is you, right? I mean...you like her, don't you?" Yu Ri looked quite taken with the idea of him liking the human teacher. The hopeful spark in her eyes begged him to say yes.
And what was wrong with her that she wanted to tie him to a human?! What was wrong with him that he'd allowed himself to get so distracted, to walk right into this...this...trap? What had happened in the past year to make him so off his game? Unguarded. Vulnerable. Weak.
No, no, suddenly it all made terrible, terrible sense.
It was why he'd kept bumping into Ga Eul everywhere, in the most random places.
It was why, once he'd stopped running from her, something about her, something warm and familiar and longed for, called to him and drew him ever closer; a feeling of coming home nestled in his chest and wouldn't leave, no matter how he'd dismissed it or tried to wave it off as being related to Yu Ri and Soo-oh and possibly Shin-joo.
It was why everything shifted when she walked into a room, the rest of world becoming a blur while she was in hyper-focus.
Why he couldn't bear to be away from her.
Why he'd felt a gut-wrenching pain rip through him when he'd found her crying, so attuned to her emotions they might as well have been his own.
Why no one could ever hurt her without risking their neck being broken.
Well, no one besides him.
A soulmate charm. Rang didn't know where Yu Ri had procured that from, but if he was thinking about the correct talisman, its effects were strong and virtually irreversible. Sure, the charm guaranteed that the carrier would meet their soulmate, but it came at a cost, as most things from the spirit realm did. Yu Ri might not realize it, but she'd set Ga Eul up to be alone the rest of her life by trying to avoid that very thing.
Once the carrier of the charm met their soulmate, a bond was forged between them, like the proverbial red thread but worse. They would find each other in every lifetime, but if they were separated for any reason, no matter the state (or non-state) of their relationship, a dull, throbbing emptiness would carve itself into the carrier's heart. A void that would never be filled by anyone except their soulmate. Even if they married someone else, they would always feel bereft, longing for something they couldn't name. The work of that charm was a cloak of sadness they would carry for the rest of their life.
A soulmate charm worked exactly as one might expect it to but very few understood. One soul matched to one soul. One soul bound to one soul. No less...and no more.
And now they were bound by that...that...thing...and if Ga Eul had grieved the loss of that idiot in Sweden, what worse fate awaited her now. Rang had spent most of his life with a hole in his chest and nothing to fill it but trickery and rage. If someone gave him their heart now, he wouldn't know what to do with it. It was best left alone. She was better left alone than with him.
"You did this," Rang whispered, shocked, then numbly. "You did this."
"She likes you too. She told me," Yu Ri insisted, bright with excitement. "I think she'd sleep with you if you asked her."
"Why would he ask her that?!" Shin-joo exclaimed, causing Rang to swivel his head in his direction. "He should ask her on a proper date first! Show some manners!"
"It worked with you!" Yu Ri argued.
Shin-joo tried to hide his blush, but it was useless.
"I'm a fox! Ga Eul's human!" he sputtered. "They...they...they like their traditions! They can get offended when you don't—"
"No, no, don't listen to him. Just go for it."
"You did this," Rang seethed, louder and with venom this time; at that, they both finally noticed his darkening expression.
"Hey," Shin-joo said, "Isn't this good news? You found your soulmate. You don't have to be alone. You can—"
"Don't lecture me about being alone," Rang ground out. "I get enough of it from Yeon and now you. I'm sick of it."
"Hyung," Shin-joo began.
"And stop calling me that! You are not my brother." Rang pushed himself off the railing and stalked towards them. "Did I ask to move here?! You"—he pointed at Yu Ri—"married him"—and then at Shin-joo—"and dragged me into it. And now you've got that brainless teacher, who hasn't got any sense at all if she still hasn't figured out that you're a fox." He pointed at Yu Ri again. "It's not like you've ever been convincing as a human. And now what? You think I'm going to marry her and keep expanding your happy little family for you? Have you forgotten who I am?"
"Mister Lee Rang," Shin-joo barked in warning. "That's enough."
"No. I don't want anything to do with this. Do you have any idea what you've done? Not only have you succeeded in annoying me for the past few months, but you've messed that teacher's entire life up. Permanently. There's no coming back from a charm like that. She can never be truly happy with anyone ever again. Because she won't be with me, I guarantee you that."
Rang muscled past them and shoved open the sliding glass door. He marched over to the front door and swung it open while hastily jamming his feet into his discarded dress shoes.
"But why?" Yu Ri pleaded, following him. She still hadn't understood the weight of what she'd done. Typical. "We saw you two together. You like her. I know you do. I know you."
"No...No, I tolerate her." Rang shoved his finger in Yu Ri's face. "The same way I do Nam Ji Ah and that snot-nosed kid you've got living here. But I quit. I'm moving out, and you two can take that soulmate charm and shove it up your—"
"Ahjussi!" Rounding the corner, Soo-oh barreled into Rang; the stubborn puppy clung to his leg, preventing him from stepping out the door. "Ahjussi, you can't leave," he begged, his dinosaur pajama pants dragging the floor.
"Hey!" Rang kicked his leg out in an attempt to free himself. "Hey, get off of me. Aren't you supposed to be asleep?"
"Don't be mad, Ahjussi. I won't go in your room anymore. I promise."
Oh great, the kid was crying now.
"Did I say anything to you?" Rang scoffed. "Let go before your spiderwebs permanently glue you to my leg."
"I'm sorry I broke it," Rang made out through the kid's muffled sobs. "I'll fix it, Ahjussi. I promise."
"What are you going on about? Broke what?" Rang asked irritably, not in any mood to comfort the boy or have another exhausting conversation.
"He was playing in your room today, like he's not supposed to," Yu Ri explained, and he could hear her mentally add if only someone would lock the door, "and he climbed on top of your desk to reach something on one of those high shelves. He knocked over a vase."
Rang had exactly one vase in his room, perched up high along with some other showy trinkets—a Thomas Stearn hand-blown Venetian glass piece worth around three hundred million won. A few years ago, he'd stolen it from a wealthy human who'd thought they could outsmart him; or rather, they were unable to outsmart him, and upon their untimely passing, Rang had helped himself to their art collection.
The last remaining piece of which had now also met its demise.
Rang pinched the bridge of his nose; how had the evening gone to hell so fast?
"He's mad because I broke it," Soo-oh wailed.
"No, sweetie, he's not mad at you." Yu Ri knelt down and pried Soo-oh off of Rang, managing to glare up at him even while she spoke so sweetly to the inconsolable little boy. "He's just...he's mad about adult stuff. Come on, come on. Let's get back in bed. Let's go."
Rang sighed. Once a puppy, always a puppy. But he supposed he'd have to forgive Soo-oh, if only so he'd let him leave the apartment in peace.
"Listen to her, Blacky. It's just a stupid vase. I don't care."
Soo-oh rubbed the tears from his eyes.
"But w-will you...c-come back?"
"I promise I'll be back in the morning. But don't even think about waking me up."
"O-okay," he sniffled, and Yu Ri pulled him away.
"Now you've upset the kid. I hope you're happy," Shin-joo offered when Yu Ri and his puppy had disappeared to Soo-oh's bedroom.
"I'll be happy when I'm drunk and far away from you," Rang answered.
He slipped out the door before Shin-joo could reply.
Rang had little luck searching for a new residence on Friday morning and was in no better mood on Friday afternoon when he answered the door to find Ga Eul standing outside the apartment.
He'd left Ga Eul's phone on the dining table after he'd come in around three in the morning on Tuesday, and he believed Yu Ri had returned it to her though she'd made no mention of it. Neither she nor Shin-joo had said much to him the past few days, not that they could say much given how he'd slipped in and out of the apartment while they were gone; while there, he'd been stonily silent, taking all his meals in his room and wearing his resentment of their meddling like a thick, scratchy overcoat.
So he had no idea how Ga Eul had known he would be at the apartment. Yu Ri, Shin-joo, and Soo-oh certainly weren't, and judging by the pure delight on her face upon seeing him, she hadn't come to see any of them.
Damn it to hell.
"Yu Ri's not here," he offered brusquely. He hoped she'd take the hint and get lost.
"Oh, um, I'm not looking for her. I wanted to talk to you, actually," she replied, apparently unbothered that he hadn't greeted her properly or invited her inside—had, in fact, wedged himself into the doorway in such a fashion that a more observant person might assume he was hiding something—or someone.
"Yes?" he answered in a tone that neither invited nor rejected her request.
"Um, well..." She bounced on her toes nervously, and he suddenly realized she had worn her beautiful hair down; it cloaked the shoulders of her lavender cardigan like a dark, delicate shawl. "I was wondering," she continued in an unsure voice, "if you would still like to grant me a wish."
Rang frowned. He didn't recall offering to…
Soo-oh says you're a nine-tailed fox.
Should I be afraid you're going to eat my heart?
No. You're too happy for my taste.
He had said something to her about a wish then, hadn't he? Honestly, he'd put their conversation earlier Tuesday evening—before his deception, before Yu Ri and Shin-joo had ruined the evening further with their deception—out of his mind.
"What is it?" he found himself asking.
"With me...would you go on a date with me?" she asked, startling him.
A few days ago, she'd been crying her eyes out over that guy in Sweden who'd broken his promise to her, and now she was grinning up at him, all starry-eyed and hopeful.
By the gods, how did she do that? When his brother had left him, he'd gone on a killing rampage that spanned multiple centuries.
Despite himself, Rang had to admit a degree of awe towards her. Towards the sunlit smile that was slowly melting from her face the longer he took to answer.
And that cemented what he had to do.
He wouldn't trick her anymore into believing he was better than he was.
He wouldn't be like the guy who'd traded her for Europe. He wouldn't give her false hope.
Maybe, because of Shin-joo and Yu Ri, she'd always feel like there was something missing...but she'd be happy again. Eventually. She was the sort of person to look on the bright side of things. She would damn fate rather than be damned by it.
Besides, he was a fox. Foxes had one mate for life. Humans were different. Probably, the charm didn't affect her the way it affected him.
At least, that was what he told himself as he dislodged a single word from the back of his throat.
"No," he answered.
If he'd been a weaker being, the confused, wounded look in her eyes would have rendered him powerless. But as it was, he couldn't afford not to hurt her, just this once, to spare her an eternity of misery. Perhaps she would never understand it, but he was being good to her, in his own twisted way. The sooner they both got away from each other, the better chance they had for the charm to wear off. Another lie he told himself.
She didn't say anything for a moment, then slowly replied, "No? That's it? Just...no?"
Rang adopted the cocky stance he liked to take when dealing with dumb little mortals out of their depth. An easy feat considering he was much taller than her.
"It's a 'yes' or 'no' question, isn't it? I know you're a teacher, but is this really something that requires an essay?"
"Um...well, no, but...can I at least know why? I mean—"
"It seems we've had another misunderstanding," he interrupted. "Unless you have business with Yu Ri or Soo-oh, please don't show up at this apartment uninvited again." Rang didn't wait for her reply before shutting the door in her face.
All the same, he stood by the door while she made a few pitiful, then angry, entreaties for him to open it and have some manners; he stood there until she stopped ranting and stopped knocking, until he heard her footsteps retreat toward the elevator.
Rang uncorked some wine and drank it straight from the bottle, though he couldn't wash the bad taste out of his mouth. Then he called his real estate agent again. He should move out of the apartment sooner rather than later. He wouldn't hang around, wouldn't be crueller to her than absolutely necessary. Out of character for him, maybe, but he was done lying to himself about how much he cared for her.
There was no point.
But even with that cursed charm at work, surely he could lose himself in a city of nearly ten million people. Go back to perfecting that languid sadism, that self-serving indifference that had served him well for so long.