As he walked through the crowded streets of Daegu, the overwhelming sounds of industrial machines whirring, whizzing and crashing, in a sort of cacophony that made his head ring, Seokjin mused that this wasn’t the best job he’d ever worked. He always felt a little dirty, both because of the areas he had to go to, and the things he asked from people. Still. The war had just ended, and somehow, he’d survived Japanese forced conscription.
It was better than being a Japanese dog.
Still, he mused, just barely avoiding a textiles factory dumping out a huge batch of clothes out of their top floor window, it wasn’t a good job, not by any means. Still, it paid well, and once he had got enough to actually buy a place near Seoul, instead of just renting, he’d run away from this job and never look back.
But for now….
Seokjin looked down at the address name he’d been given, looked up at the kanji still emblazoned on the road sign, instead of good old hangul, frowned, and entered down the dark street. The air had gotten thicker and gloomier here, and Seokjin pressed his handkerchief to his face, to try and help breath easier.
His suit was cheap, and his shoes were falling apart, if you looked at them properly, but he looked a far sight better than most of the workers here, and it drew far too much attention for Seokjin’s liking. Keeping a very close awareness of his wallet, tucked into his front breast pocket, and the camera parts in his briefcase, Seokjin quickly found the small townhouse where his client was supposed to live, and knocked.
He waited a good fifteen minutes, worried, before the door was opened by a strict-looking ahjumma, iron lines etched in her face by her age. “What?” she demanded, unfriendlily, staring at his clothes with clear disapproval. Here was a woman who was working class and proud.
“I’m looking for Min Yoonji and Jeon Jeongmin?” asked Seokjin, politely, tipping his hat at her politely, and tugging at the back of his collar, already getting a little sweaty from the conditions.
“They’re on the top floor. What do you want with them?” asked the old woman, suspiciously, eyed narrowed. “They’re good girls, they don’t get into any trouble under my roof.”
“They’re not in trouble. But my employer heard about their circumstances and wanted to see if he could help out in any way.” said Seokjin, diplomatically, pulling out a business card from within his suit. She stared at the piece of paper, eyebrows knitting furiously as she glared at it, for a long time, before nodding.
Seokjin took it back, not pointing out that it was upside-down, so as to not embarrass her. “May I see them?”
“…well, I’ll have to go check with them.” She said, before retreating behind the door, and presumably up to go and get permission. These factory communities had always been tight, Seokjin mused, as he looked around. There were clothes-lines hanging out of a window on one side of the street, leading straight into the window on the other side, laden with clothes from residents, at all levels, creating a weird artificial darkness. Combined with the smoke, puffing away above, it was a bleak and dismal place.
Seokjin had been to far too many places like this in the past six months.
The old lady returned, and nodded, looking quite reluctant. “They’ll meet you.” She said, fully opening her door, and letting him up into the crowded townhouse. As he climbed the stairs up, old lady trailing hind him nervously, he couldn’t help but feel like a specimen, as he passed by women doing laundry on the stairs, women cooking on the stairs, and others just chatting and gossiping, because every single one of them gave him a look of confusion and appraisal. At another time or location, it might have been flattering, but it was just mildly concerning, coming from women who looked honestly like they could probably give him a good run for his money in a pub brawl.
Finally, he reached the top floor, and mused he had to keep up on his fitness, he was panting far too much for what should have been an easy climb. He knocked on the door, firmly, and it opened almost instantly, by a girl with a large nose, and a big brown, earnest eyes.
“I’m Jeongmin.” She said, quietly, bowing, as he entered the room, and instantly felt the noise of the house fade out. The room was filled with pots and pans and piles of clothes, and they all seemed to absorb the nosiness of the place around them. Despite how small and dingy the room was, much like the rest of the house, it was spotlessly clean, and clearly very well-maintained. “Landlady said that you wanted to see us?”
“It’s a pleasure to meet your acquaintance.” Seokjin said, bowing low as well, removing his hat entirely, as he took a seat opposite her, on the neat wooden floor. “My name is Kim Seokjin. I come from Seoul University, under the employ of Professor Lee. He is a specialist in tattoos and kept a lot of tabs on those who were tattooed. And I’d heard that just two days ago, your mother had passed away…My condolences.”
Jeongmin’s lower lip trembled a little, but she nodded, firmly. “Yeah. She died. Factory accident. It happens but…” Jeongmin looked away momentarily, looking a little distressed.
“I also heard…” Seokjin broke off hesitantly. Somehow, it was more difficult to do what he usually did, when faced with such a clearly distressed, pretty young girl. But he needed money too. “I also heard that you hadn’t been able to afford a burial yet.”
“So, what’s your angle?” asked another voice, loud and drawling from behind Seokjin. Seokjin turned, and laid eyes on one of the prettiest girls he’d ever seen in his life, leaning against the doorframe into their bathroom. She had short cropped hair, that only reached until her throat, and her hands were large and veined, but her face was a pale white, and she had pretty, delicate features. Despite the hard work she clearly did, she wore lipstick and took pride in the clean black shirt and skirt she wore. “Big-shot professor met us once, so what? He’s never cared before, when we were in worse conditions. Why now?”
It was a good question, and one that Seokjin wasn’t sure he could answer in a polite way, in a way that felt reasonable. But then, the job wasn’t really reasonable.
“I think you know.” Seokjin said, quietly, “If you met the Professor. You’d know.”
Yoonji’s face looked wary, and the confident sneer left her face slowly. “Rich man comes to us now, when our mother is dead, and we are struggling. You wonder.”
Jeongmin looked between them, her head darting between both of them, eyes wide like a deer. “Prostitution?” she gulps out, shaking her head firmly. “I’ll go! I’ll go instead of Yoonji, it’s okay.”
Seokjin blinked in shock, and Yoonji scoffed, her face suddenly turning incredibly fond, and soft. “It’s not you he wants, Jeongmin. He’s a tattoo professor, idiot.” Yoonji shook her head. “But even if he wants me, he can’t afford me. Tell him he’s wasting his time.”
Seokjin blinked, once, twice, and realized that maybe his employer was more creepy and terrifying than he’d been expecting. “No. No, he’s not interested in—no. He wants your mother’s skin.” And that was maybe the worst thing to say, because Jeongmin and Yoonji both recoiled, eyes wide and mouths wide. “Not to fuck!” Seokjin exclaimed, shaking his arms frantically. “To preserve. And store. She’s supposed to have a very beautiful tattoo. He wants to preserve it. Make sure it’s never forgotten. He’ll pay for it.”
Jeongmin still looked shocked and appalled, but Yoonji’s face had transformed, into a look of deep calculation. Seokjin had to concentrate strongly on something else, to make sure his body didn’t betray his own enthusiasm, at such an expression upon her beautiful face. “Her skin? And how much will he pay, to bury her and feed us, once he takes her skin?”
“Three thousand won.” Seokjin said, lowly, and Jeongmin, who’d been kneeling on the floor fell backwards in shock. It was double the amount Professor Lee had been wanting to give, but Seokjin knew that the Professor could afford this. Besides. He’d entirely flubbed up his delivery, and it would probably take this much money to convince them
“That’s a lot of money.” Yoonji said, lightly.
“It’s supposedly a pretty tattoo.” Seokjin shrugged.
“How will it get to Seoul?” asked Yoonji, frowning. “I want her to be buried here. She lived and died here, she should be buried here.”
Seokjin exhaled. This was the most uncomfortable part. “I’m training to be a doctor.” He said, with a soft sigh. “I’ll likely make the incisions, to remove and preserve the skin. The rest of her body can be cremated and have the ceremony.”
Yoonji looked down at Seokjin, through her eyelashes, and smiled, a sort of devilish smile. “Give me four thousand, and I’ll let you take detailed photos of mine as well.”
It was unabashedly tempting. What skin he could see was pale, and beautiful, and entirely unblemished by mortal things like spots and visible hair. And somehow, this woman was tattooed so well that she wanted another thousand won?
“Some confidence you have there.” Seokjin said, dryly, trying to hide his own desire and curiosity. He didn’t know that he had 4000won to offer, after all.
“You know nothing about tattoos.” Yoonji said, eyes lidded and nose upturned. “You are simply working on the word of your Master, trying to gain experience for your medical degree. You don’t know the reverence with which my father’s name was spoken. He tattooed my mother and he tattooed me, before he died for the Japanese. My tattoo is his opus magnum, and your Professor knows that too.”
Seokjin looked at Yoonji, and wondered, briefly if she was bluffing, but realized the sincere look on her sister’s face was all the tip-off he needed. She was for real. And of course, Seokjin had a camera, Professor Lee had wanted proof he’d managed to accomplish his task, before Seokjin would be able to travel back up to Seoul himself.
“Yoonji-unnie…” Jeongmin murmured, looking quite concerned.
“3500 won. And I only take three pictures.” Seokjin said, firmly, brushing off his thighs, as he got up.
“Deal.” Yoonji said, firmly, reaching her hand out, like a western businessman. Seokjin took it, and shook it, carefully, ignoring Jeongmin rising up in protest behind him.
“No!” Jeongmin said, firmly. “No way.”
“Jeongmin, shut up.” Yoonji said, firmly. “Go over to Sunmi’s house and stay there until tomorrow. I’ll see you at the factory.”
“No.” Yoonji shut Jeongmin off, with a firm, but gentle hand. “You don’t want to see it.”
Well, if that didn’t make Seokjin even more dirty inside and out, he didn’t know what would. God, he hated this job with a passion. Meeting women like Yoonji was to be done in high society events, or during university classes. Not when he was attempting to take advantage of their poverty for his Professor’s creepy interest in tattoos.
Jeongmin pulled a face, but got up, grabbed some things from the corner, and left. The room was somehow, quieter, upon the moment of her departure. Yoonji looked aside, not meeting Seokjin’s gaze as she beckoned him to the inner room, and for the first time, she looked truly out of her depth, as she lowered herself to her knees, on top of the blankets tossed across the room.
“Look…” Seokjin said, a little uncomfortably, “I just need to take your mother’s skin. If you’re uncomfortable with the photos, you don’t have to.”
“I know.” Yoonji said, through gritted teeth, turning over her shoulder, “But I need the money, and I offered. This is less humiliating than other avenues.” She exhaled, and her eyes softened. “There are worse things in the world than taking off my shirt for an attractive man.”
Her fingers had been moving as she spoke, shirt getting looser and looser on her back, until she slide the black shirt off her broad shoulders entirely. And there was no free skin at all.
Her entire back had been turned into a canvas of the most beautiful proportions. Two haetae graced her shoulders, tails melding into a beautifully pastoral scene, with cherry blossom scattered across a mountainous landscape, and a curled crimson dragon around the bottom of a mountain, its scales almost gleaming against Yoonji’s pale skin. A river with fish and water spirits frolicking around the reedy banks, and pale person, in a white-and cream hanbok stood playing the flute at the edge of the waters. Cherry blossoms entangled with his hair, and across the river, a deer and a tiger slept, intertwined in one another.
It was beautiful. Seokjin was entirely speechless, and it seemed, that the picture was not entirely on her back alone. The ink seemed to creep and edge around her sides, and Seokjin was entranced by how the picture had moulded itself perfectly to her skin, how the slight movements of her shoulder blades gave the cherry blossom petals the illusion of movement.
He couldn’t help but reach forward, to touch the ink, and only just managed to catch himself, when Yoonji made a noise, from the back of her throat, as she shifted. Seokjin pulled away, before she noticed his slip-up.
“There’s more on your front?” asked Seokjin, uncertain, but quite sure, at once.
“Yes.” Yoonji said, with a sigh, and turned around, slowly. Between the valley of her small breasts, a phoenix rose, its crested feathers almost glimmering it. Underneath it, covering most of Yoonji’s belly was blue-gold fire, cascading and roiling: stopped only by a thin line of vines and flowers that marked her hips.
“Beautiful.” Seokjin said, a little breathless, uncertain if he meant the tattoo or her. With her black hair almost floating away from her ears and chin, and her body covered in the most beautiful art, she looked a little otherworldly. “How young were you…?”
“He started when I was twelve.” Yoonji said, quietly, her eyes tracking Seokjin, as he got up to prep his camera. “He stopped when I was eighteen, and when he died.”
“Did you want them?” asked Seokjin, voice hushed, as he started to attach the pieces of the camera together, slowly.
Yoonji titled her head to the head, contemplative. “Not at first. It’s a lot for a child to get tattoos. It hurts and it feels too…” she paused and frowned, as if searching for the word.
“Vulnerable?” Seokjin suggested.
“Vulnerable.” agreed Yoonji, a little displeased. “But it was nice to spend time with my father. And it’s easy to find yourself in a different sort of mentality when being tattooed…” She trailed off, before coughing, a little uncomfortably. “Have you ever gotten tattooed, Mr. Kim?”
Seokjin shook his head, as he finally put together the camera and inserted the film reel. “No, it never really occurred to me, until I got this job. And now, I think I spend too much time around needles handled wrong to be particularly enthused.”
Yoonji laughed, drily, tucking some her of her hair behind her ears. “Then you won’t understand. There’s something about it, Mr. Kim, that never fails to make me remember that both the process and the art is valuable. It’s a dying art, these days. Tattoos are only for criminals and old people.”
“It’s beautiful, nonetheless.” Seokjin said, putting the camera to his eye. Yoonji turned to face it, staring directly into the lens. She looked fiercely defiant, as if daring the viewer to judge her for taking this photo or having tattoos that so thoroughly covered her body. It was mesmerizing, but Seokjin was nothing if not thorough.
“Lift your chin up a little—there. Pull your arms further back, you’re causing wrinkles near your shoulder—there.” Seokjin instructed, posing her to look even more intimidating. It was entirely attractive, and he felt far too hot under his collar. He took the photo, and smiled, gently.
“Lie on your stomach.” Seokjin said, quietly, ushering her down. Yoonji’s lips pursed together in dissatisfaction, and he smiled reassuringly. “You look beautiful.”
Yoonji exhaled slowly, gave him a shaky smile, before lying down, to reveal the river-mountain scene once more. Her hair cascaded forward, parting to reveal the soft nape of her neck, and the smooth line of vertebrae down across her skin. The dragon seemed to be more alert, somehow, when her vertebrae settled like this, and her shoulder blades were pulled back, and Seokjin carefully took another photo, of how the hyper-real scene.
“Done?” asked Yoonji, her voice somehow a little hoarse.
“One more picture.” Seokjin reminded her. Still. He didn’t know what he wanted that third picture to be. The phoenix’s flames on her front? A more detailed section of her back, either in the river or mountains? Or her face, as he so desperately wanted to, despite it not at all being something the Professor would want to pay for?
“One more picture.” Yoonji murmured, pushing herself onto her side, propping herself up from the bed, with an elbow. Like this, she looked languid, and loose, like a snake in waiting. “What do you want me to do, Mr. Kim?”
Their gaze met, and Seokjin was struck by how playful the look in her eyes was, and how relaxed her shoulders were, in comparison to when he had first come in. “Many things.” Seokjin said, slowly, “But perhaps I shall just take a picture of the most beautiful part of your tattoo, according to you.”
Yoonji’s smile turned a touch triumphant. “But there are so many things that are my favourite.”
“Oh yes?” asked Seokjin, tilting his head to the side, with a slight smirk, in return. She was definitely reciprocating, just a little.
Yoonji shrugged. “The phoenix is one of the more beautiful things I see, whenever I wake in the morning. He rises to greet me, and it is unique from my view.” She offered, before smirking and leaning forward. “But there’s something you might enjoy more.” She reached forward, and grabbed his hand, his fingers somehow larger and warmer than his, as she pulled it to touch her back.
Seokjin’s fingers reverently came to rest against Yoonji’s lower-back, shakily, fingers gently rubbing over the inked plants, and the soft embossing of Yoonji’s skin, to make a textured tattoo. “How—” Seokjin asked, breathlessly.
“My father learnt it from one of the people in the International District. Apparently, there are some people in Africa who tattoo like this, and my father was eager to do it. He experimented on himself, and then on me. It hurt more than usual, but….it only adds to this.”
“His magnum opus. In more ways than one.” Seokjin murmured, fingers still brushing over the tattoos, unable to help himself. And Yoonji didn’t seem to mind so much, as she arched her back, a little, and her mouth dropped open a little. Seokjin exhaled, heavily, at the sight, and he couldn’t help the full shudder of arousal that ran through his body.
She was gorgeous, smooth and scarred in equal turn, soft and brittle in equal measure, and Seokjin wanted nothing more than to touch her like this for some time longer.
He reached up to his collar, and unbuttoned the top button, loosely, to give him more room to breathe, as he continued to run his fingers up and down her vertebrae, and along the small plant-shaped tattoos. “Incredible.” Seokjin murmured, reaching his other hand forward, to cup her cheek, and felt gratified as she leant into that touch. “Just incredible.”
“Tell me more.” Yoonji said, turning to face him, eyes hot.
“Tell you more? About how you’re one of the most gorgeous women I’ve seen? About how you simply looking at men can turn them into putty for you?” asked Seokjin, circling her waist, to pull her closer to him. She hadn’t expected that, and squeaked a little, as she leant into him. Carefully, he pushed forward, burying his head into the crook of her neck, and inhaled the clean scent of fresh soap. “How much you’re a temptation for anybody who gets to see you like this.”
Her breathing had turned shaky, and content. Seokjin pressed a wet, open-mouthed kiss to the soft skin there, and relished in the way she balanced her large hands against his back, holding onto him for support. Seokjin licked her neck, carefully, and continued to press slow, wet kisses down her neck, across her collarbone, and down towards her breasts.
As Seokjin’s mouth closed around a brown areola, she moaned, softly and tightened her grip on his shoulders. “Fuck.” She swore, as Seokjin sucked a little, before moving onto the other one. Her hands tangled in his hair, just a little on the side of the painful, but Seokjin didn’t mind, as he continued to press kisses down her lithe body, as he leant back against the bed, pressing her into the mattress.
Her tummy was soft and plump, and Seokjin pressed more kisses there, as one of his hands swept down, to caress up her thin thighs, and up towards her ass. He squeezed her ass tightly, just as he came up, back towards her breasts, and she moaned, loud and melodious. “Look how easily you fit into my grasp. Look how gorgeous you are.” Seokjin murmured, lowly, as he straddled over her hips, rocking lightly against her.
Yoonji didn’t say anything, just looked up at him, her face flushed, and her baby hairs clinging to the slight sheen of sweat across her face. But she rocked against him with more vigour, arms firmly settled across his chest, pressing into the cheap button-down forcefully.
“Is this okay?” asked Seokjin, as he shrugged off her jacket entirely, and started to unbutton his shirt a bit more.
“I—yes.” Yoonji said, firmly, as her eyes fixated upon the slow unbuttoning of Seokjin’s shirt. “Yes. You can’t fuck me, but anything else…”
“No?” asked Seokjin, teasingly.
“No, I’m not that kind of modern girl.” Yoonji said, wryly, her hands sliding away from Seokjin, mockingly.
It was an offhand, teasing comment, but it struck Seokjin hard. What was he doing? He was not here to seduce beautiful, cunning women. He was here to take that woman’s mother’s skin back to Seoul for his creepy employer, as well as pictures of her own tattoo. And…well…he didn’t want to have this simply be an awkward one-night stand that sincerely clouded his moral judgment.
“No.” Seokjin murmured, moving off her, gently. “No, you aren’t.”
Yoonji blinked, confused, and even that looked gorgeous. “What?” she asked, blankly, her arms still balanced back against her mattress.
“I’ve taken advantage of your trust, Ms. Min.” Seokjin said, quietly, not meeting her gaze as he quickly buttoned up his shirt again. “I shouldn’t have—allow me to make it up to you.”
Yoonji’s eyes instantly shuttered, entirely closed off. “How.” She said, flatly.
Seokjin reached into his back pocket, and pulled out his business card, carefully presenting it to her with both hands. “This is how you can contact me. Call me, anytime, and if I’m not in an operating theatre or travelling, I’ll be within reach. I’ll take you out, for drinks, for food, to a show…anything.”
Yoonji frowned, but took the card, examining it, quietly. Now she knew how to read, he could tell. “That so?”
“Indeed.” Seokjin said, reaching for the free hand, pulling it up to his lips, in a quiet kiss. “That much, I promise you.”
Yoonji’s eyes flickered upwards, still wary, and seemingly more aware of her nudity than before, but still pridefully defiant. “A date. I’ll hold you to that, Mr. Kim.” She said, drily, reaching over for her own shirt, sliding it on again, before pausing. “Three photos?”
“No.” Seokjin said, shaking his head. “I’ll save that for when we next meet.” Seokjin smiled, lightly, and she looked at him, appraisingly again. She didn’t smile, but there was something approving about it nonetheless.