You weren't a stranger to unkindness. As you grew, along with the problems that came and went, as well as those that have decided to make a permanent home in your small, quiet life, you found that you and unkindness were siblings, twins almost— joined to the hip ever since you cried your way into world. However, that does not mean that you did not fight it.
There had been a conscious fighting even before your soulmark had failed to show itself at the age of fourteen. Normally, one would welcome them once you hit five years old, when happiness isn't quite complicated yet and celebrations easily found. And it was a thing of celebration, soulmarks.
More than words to be exchanged at the first encounter, they were the evidence of a tie that would knot your soul to someone else's. A binding contract, so to speak. For the parents, on the other hand, it meant something else. They were promises; a thing of comfort to ease worried minds. Soulmarks were inscriptions that did not only mean, but assured, that even when life gets too unkind, their children wouldn't have to fight alone.
Naturally, when yours didn't appear on the eve of your fifth birthday, it had been the source of worries and confusion, and you had an inkling that problems would soon arise with the then small predicament. But it was soon pacified when everyone else assured that it was normal and a little bit of waiting will have to do so don't cry, alright?
And you did just that. Until the next birthday and with bright optimism you hurriedly searched for the string of words (maybe it's pink and it says, ’ Hi how are you, I love you’ that's why it took so long), your small hands mapping your skin (my friend said it’s usually on your chest), too excited and too sure because of course fate wouldn't be so cruel as to deny you this one thing, right? But then exhilarated seconds ticked into cold minutes, and you were only left with your skin bare and painfully bereft of a soulmark.
The seventh birthday was also faced with the same disappointment.
And it was unkind, to rob a child of a small hope. So, you fought it, treated it with the same gentle stubbornness you had every time you were faced with cruelty. Many told you that you were really being naive rather than putting up a fight, that you ought to toughen up more. But that was not you, and 'fighting' for you did not entail stinging retaliation against your bullies, or willfully putting up your claws with the intent to hurt someone back.
No, 'fighting' for you was the decisive turn of the other cheek, and when compromised, 'fighting' for you was especially firmly planting your feet on the ground, daring everyone to just try and move you from where you've dug your roots.
And thus, with an unrelenting optimism that was half yours and half your parents', you dared to hope.
Because even when it was not impossible to have no soulmate and even still when several friends, out of pity, told you that in this day and age soulmarks were irrelevant, a thing of the past, you found the strength to meet both with a clear smile that was unapologetically romantic and left no room for discussion; you were going to wait.
That same steady heart became a much-needed anchor, because it took you seventeen years to finally realize that there exists a greater unkindness outside the ones you have grown with. It came slowly, creeping into the crevices of your family's peace; daily news was filled with scandals of some political figure involved with some criminal family of some sort. And in the myriad of names written in bold, black ink, all signifying a tip in the balance of power and politics, there was one that stuck in every headline:
And if you once thought your own world too far off from the one those names revolved in, you were again proven wrong when a call pierced through the comfortable silence of your home; the simple idyll of your life shattered with a collision, of your world and theirs.
Your parents were on their way home. A fight broke off. It happened on some highway. You didn't catch the name, didn't really hear anything amidst your ugly sobs.
Cars crashed against one another. Fortunately, (fortunately, they said) the few innocent lives caught between the cross fire got off with injuries and only two (Mine, you thought, those were my parents; my family) took the deadly blow.
Four men died (a bullet in each one), all of whom were involved with one of those big named politicians, and you couldn't remember which one, couldn't muster the will to care past the tears and anger and disbelief pushing up your throat. They said that if they only hadn't angered the Han family (God, it's that name again) it wouldn't have gotten so ugly.
As lilies slipped from your hand, and as deafening wails laced with the funeral hymns, you thought you knew unkindness best then, all her depths and many faces. But when the night came, and you felt a different kind of pain on your chest, you begrudgingly thought maybe not yet. Your feet felt heavy as you dragged it across the floor, the old wood creaking with a warning to not open the lights and not look at the mirror.
What stared back at you made a laugh slip past your cracked lips, but it was not the happy sort of laughter. It had an edge you hadn't heard before, and it was sharp and bitter and wrong to your ears.
For your soulmark was a wound that looked like it did not want to heal; a nasty bruise of purple atop the valley of your breasts. The letters were raised, as if someone held you down and forced it on your skin.
It's alright. I'll take care of everything.
This, however, was a different kind of stranger. It's the kind that you know you'd never welcome even after hours of acquaintance. Everything here was foreign and unwanted; your prolonged exposure to the bass booming through the speakers and the loud, bright colors flashing on the dance floor gave you a splitting headache. It was all too much, thousands of different things seem to happen all at once and you could barely keep up.
"C'mon, please! Mom and dad would kill me if they found out!" she was a sweet girl, your cousin. You've always been willing to help, especially if it's family, having been forced to learn the importance of cherishing one's connections the hard way. But what she was asking you made you take a step back in reluctance. So,
"No," was what you said, but the look you gave her didn't seem to match the hardness of your refusal. Damnit, you've always been weak to matters like this.
"Please! It's just one night! He went out of his way to invite me there, to meet his friends, and I just need-" she swept her hand towards you in exaggeration, and you immediately cursed yourself for the chuckle that bubbled through your chest "-you! O, responsible adult! to! come! with! me!"
“Kyung-ju,” you warned, the utterance of her name a familiar scolding. Your mouth quirked in a gentle smile, remembering those days when she would get in trouble and you had been the nearest adult to reprimand her. Your hand absentmindedly stroked her brown hair as you let her plea sit in the air, carefully weighing the dangers and benefits of her request.
"I met someone," she suddenly said, her voice turning soft and wistful. "Not just anyone could get in that place, so for him to invite me, that must mean I’m special? Right?" she paused, doe eyes looking up at you, a lethal weapon. There was a retort sitting at your tongue but it died the moment she held your hand.
"I know I already have a soulmate, and this person, he’s not it, but I'm tired of waiting. I want to live."
Although a sigh escaped past your lips, you knew by the dawning of a knowing (and all too pleased) smile on her face that she understood that you were far from exasperated.
"Just one night?" and then you didn't bother suppressing a fond laughter as she gave a mirthful squeal and an overzealous clap at your approval. You let your shoulders slacken when she enveloped you in warm hug, and even for just one moment you allowed yourself to hope that maybe you wouldn't regret this.
You were quickly regretting this. Any request could've worked, but this was something beyond your capabilities. The golden letters sitting arrogantly on the wall behind the DJ's booth made you snort in annoyance. 'R.F.A.', it boasted.
It was gigantic, like a king on his throne, looking below at the peasants at his disposal. You immediately flinched at the thought of how much it must've cost seeing that it seemed— no, you're very sure that the blasted thing was made of actual gold. It wasn't just the place itself that dripped with opulence, the people did too. You were wearing the best dress you've got but judging from the clandestine peeks you took and the glances you stole, the average person frequenting R.F.A wore something that was worth more than your student loans.
Feeling entirely like a primitive alien exposed to human civilization for the first time, you found solace in a secluded spot in the club, just a floor above all the dancing so you could keep an eye on Kyung-ju. This position gave you a bird's eye view of whatever situation she could get in, and you found that being here made you more comfortable (or as comfortable as you could get), like you've gained control once again.
You immediately turned around at the voice's owner, surprised that someone bothered to even talk you. He looked about Kyung-ju’s age; from his distance you could clearly make out the red of his hair (and it was incredibly messy you had to fight the urge to comb the thing yourself).
You cleared your throat. "Good evening, sir," you wanted to kick yourself for letting your awkwardness take reign.
You only hoped he didn't see the unforgiving blush that crept up your cheeks. 'Relax, they're normal people too,' you told yourself, repeating it like an oath. He gave an amused chuckle as he walked closer.
"Yeah, it is a good evening isn't it?" and with the hint of mischief in his smile, he leaned towards you and added, "madame?"
You couldn't help at the brow that rose to your hairline. The remark didn't go over your head, and for all his show of ease and nonchalance, from his jeans and hoodie (a complete deviation from what everyone else wore) down to his casual, friendly teasing, you strangely thought that he fit in the place like a glove.
You doubted you'd ever get comfortable with this man, but you humored him with a refuting snort, if only to make him go away.
He pressed his hand on his chest and opened his mouth, feigning a look of a hurt and offended man. "What? You don't like the free chips?" he whined, and for a moment there you thought he sounded genuinely hurt. You only shrugged.
"Too plebeian for my refined tastes," you said. That was a lie. You didn't even know if there actually were free chips; you were too busy worrying and being anxious to touch anything edible this godforsaken place offered. He laughed and gave a contemplative hum.
"Any more complaints, miss? Who knows, I just might bring this up to Management, improve this watering hole," he leaned against the railing, that cheeky grin still present.
There was no witty quip at your mouth, ready to fire at the same speed he comes up with his, but you really didn't care at the moment, your eyes busy following Kyung-ju’s movements. You also didn't care at the strain you were giving your eyes with all the lights that kept on flashing, but you willed yourself to pin your gaze on her.
'I know you don't like dancing so go have a drink or something,' she had told you, a subtle way of telling you to keep a distance and not spoil her evening with your constant discomfort. As sweet as she was your cousin was also younger, too eager and too spoiled for her own good (perhaps you were also at fault, for indulging her).
'Have fun!' was what she also told you, but a heart attack was more accurately what you're currently having with how she was grinding on a tall man, his large hands a vice grip on her waist, long, platinum hair sliding against her bare shoulders as he pressed his mouth on Kyung-ju's ear, the smirk on her lips an invitation for him to-
"Poor girl," he whispered, shattering the sharp focus you had on your cousin. You turned your head so hard you almost caught whiplash.
"What?" there was an unintended cut to your question that he must've caught on, something you immediately felt guilty about. You didn't doubt that he saw it in the way you flinched. Your father had once told you that you had an honest face, that your secrets reveal themselves on their own volition. That's why you were no longer surprised that he so easily deduced the source of your intense worries.
"That your sister?" he asked, gesturing towards your cousin.
"Ah," you paused, "no, my cousin". You didn't bother telling him, ‘Yes, my sister in all the ways that matter, not by blood but by affection,’ because you knew he understood, the fondness in your voice making the reply softer than necessary. Your eyes staring at a far-off place, to those times when small hands stroked your hair, too innocent to understand but comforted still, whenever you cried and longed for your own home.
You looked back at him and saw the playfulness and effortless swagger gone away, replaced with something you can't put your finger on.
He heaved a sigh, ruffling his already mop of a hair.
"You have no idea, don't you?" there was a disbelief in his voice, as if there's an unspoken rule that everyone knew except for you.
"What is it?"
He looked at you now, sizing you up, sharp eyes searching for all the ugly truths you buried. You kept your lips in a tight line, tilted your head up and met his scrutiny. Ugly or not you know that you lay your truths for everyone to see, that you may be afraid of many things but never of wearing your heart on your sleeve. You had nothing to hide.
Another sigh, but this time there was an incredulous smile on his lips. Then it was gone the moment it appeared, his gaze turning serious and almost business like.
"That's Hyun Ryu," he said, pointing at the man who's currently the subject of your cousin's...affections.
"The actor?" You asked, the tension on your body gone for a moment, immediately leaning closer against the railing to squint your eyes. Now that he was facing in a direction you could easily see, your brain instantly recognized that famous platinum white hair and that beautiful, beautiful face. The man's a gift.
You know it's inappropriate, to be amused and proud at a time like this, but that did not stop the short, breathless laugh that came out of your lips. Your cousin snagged the Hyun Ryu? 'Atta girl.
"Well, yeah," a pause, "but look," he directed your attention to another person, this time to the young man with blonde hair, sitting at the bar a drink in hand. He was surrounded by a couple of people, humor and comfort found in each other's company.
"That's his friend: Yoosung Kim," he said, emphasizing the words, and with a hard look towards you, "scion of the Kim family".
All at once the room felt too cold, it pricked at your skin, mocking you for letting your guard down for just a second. You wrapped your arms together, for warmth and for leverage. You know that name; you didn't live under a rock. They own several major gaming and entertainment corporations, but everyone also knows that it's all a front. There had been countless rumors about the family, talks of dirty money being the main source of their wealth. It took the country by storm when an enemy of theirs had the guts to indict them. But justice was nowhere to be found, and soon enough the hype died down, the case forgotten like foggy dream.
You fixed your attention on the young man, and you couldn't help but wince at how wrong the name looks on him. He was all easy smile, eyes youthful and full of mirth, completely at odds with the phrase "scion of the Kim family".
"Okay, now do you see that man near the entrance?" it took a few seconds before you shifted your gaze, searching for the current subject amidst all the people and all the noise. When he sensed your struggle, he quickly added, "The one with the blue hair, with those big, bald guys looking like they got sticks up their asses".
You didn't miss him now, the wall of muscled men surrounding him made him stand out even through all the chaos. He sported dark sunglasses that went with his crisp suit, a single hand curled around a cane, the same one that made its appearance in every paparazzo stolen photo after-
"That's also his friend: Jihyun Kim"
He didn't need to explain further. It had only been a few years since the death of Rika Kim. Their wedding had been the cause of a national celebration; he was a renowned photographer who carried the country with his success and she a beloved philanthropist. They bore their soulmarks on their wrists with pride and love, testament to a fairy tale ending weaved by the fates.
It was not unthinkable for her death to be mourned by the masses and for thousands to cry for justice, even though no one exactly knew how she died. And for all their willingness to exhibit their devotion to the general public, both their families and friends, and even the man himself, were silent.
There were speculations, of course, some said she committed suicide, that maybe that happiness was all a front, some even said that maybe it was a jealous lover or an enemy carrying an old grudge. In the end what mattered was that the tragedy was a gold mine, and the media was quick to take advantage of it. Rumors, slanders and accusations soon surfaced, saying that Jihyun Kim had a close relationship with the criminal world, that it was his doing that led to Rika Kim's demise.
This was the least likely place to find a bereaved widow. But you didn't let the thought linger when cold sweat dripped at your spine, when the whole building felt too big and too small all at once. The music got louder, and the people shouted. It took all your strength to keep yourself from putting your palms on your ears and just curl in a ball.
A woman approached Jihyun Kim. They exchanged a few words before heading to the nearest elevator, then up they went, to those floors that were restricted to people like you. And you saw, with the way they carried themselves with military precision and with such cool, indifference that they weren't here to have fun. That this place, along with Hyun Ryu, carried its own secrets.
Your frantic eyes scoured the whole place, and you saw the people who had the same air as Jihyun Kim and that woman, and you hear the man beside you name each one of them like he's simply reading off his grocery list, like he's not uttering the names of criminal big shots.
And you finally, finally looked at him. His mess of a red hair played with the shadows, his eyes now a deep, dark well, and then you understood, why despite his mask of playful nonchalance, it still seemed to you that he is to this place like a vital piece to its elaborate puzzle.
He’s one of them, you realized, as he continued to pin point each one of them, known smugglers, so-called businesspersons who were really arbiters in the criminal world, people who starred in the news whenever something bad happened but no one dared touch. And most of whom, he told you, were Hyun Ryu’s “friends”.
"Oh," he suddenly said, you blinked away as he broke the train of names, "he's here". He straightened his posture, slack arms slowly moving away from the railing, as if indicating that his business with you was done, that he had fulfilled his end of the conversation. You quickly saw why, because at the entrance and walking, sauntering towards Hyun Ryu and your cousin, was—
“Jumin Han,” you breathed.
The fear that sat at the pit of your stomach rose up to your chest, stinging the mark there, creeping up your throat to settle at the roof of your mouth. Immediately you saw the ones near him come to a halt, he didn’t need to say ‘excuse me’ to get through, the sea of people parted itself to make way for The Jumin Han. Anyone would recognize the man, he appeared everywhere.
He was on the news, on the front covers of magazines, on the headlines of the newspapers, on every article written about power, business and politics. They said he owned the country; you couldn’t have said it better yourself. His father left a pile of dead bodies in his wake and Jumin Han, the devil himself, he used them as steps to climb all the way to the top.
‘A puppeteer and we are toys on his strings’, everyone would say. You didn’t wait for the man beside you to add ‘also Hyun Ryu’s friend’ because you already knew, the same way you didn’t wait for him to tell you why he said all of these things and what he meant because you also knew.
‘You’re not supposed to be here; this is not your world’
And you did just that. The ground swayed and your feet trembled at the adrenaline and dread that took a hold of your body. You didn’t bother apologizing as you pushed aside the people that stood in your way, and your mind was hazy, everything blurred to a single focus. You saw the damn bastard introduce your cousin, your family, to Jumin Han and you had to bite your lip to keep from shouting, ‘NO. NO. STAY AWAY. DON’T YOU DARE TOUCH HER.’
This place, with all its noise and grandeur, may be a stranger to you but what’s happening now—you know this one all too well. This same unkindness has let their cruel world spin out of its axis and allowed it to collide with yours, leaving it broken and mourning.
But not this time.
Your heels clicked loudly on the floor as you walked with wide, urgent steps. You approached the bar with clenched fists, one goal in mind. Hyun Ryu’s friends stopped as you got closer, surprised at this stranger who barged in on their circle, but you couldn’t care less. Kyung-ju was talking animatedly, her good nature so out of place.
“Oh, hey!” she stopped mid-conversation as you walked towards her. “This is my cousin! She accompanied me-”
“We need to go,” you cut her off, and your resolve almost weakened as you saw disappointment flash in her eyes. You steeled yourself and continued. You turned to Hyun Ryu and prayed your voice wouldn’t crack.
“I’m sorry, but we really need to go,” then to Kyung-ju, “your mother called, she’s worried sick”. You know the lie was evident, coating the words with thick desperation.
“No. What the hell? What’s gotten into you?” she said in a shouting-whisper. She was just as stubborn, so you held her hand and hoped she would understand.
“Please,” you begged with gritted teeth, your eyes solely on hers. Your clipped nails unknowingly dug at her palm and she winced in discomfort. Please, please he'll destroy you, he'll destroy all of us.
Everyone was staring now. You knew that you were making quite a show, but she decided to make it into an even bigger one when she suddenly pulled away from you, anger and annoyance making her put unnecessary force in the act.
Her heels skewed with her balance. Her back hit the tall table behind her. Glasses of different shapes and sizes shattered into pieces.
And then even the music stopped.
Oh, you were fucked. You were the adult in the situation and that also makes you the liable one. But looking at the mess before you and knowing how much this place valued luxury, you knew the measly money you have wouldn’t even cover half of it.
You looked at Hyun Ryu first, and you were taken aback by the genuine concern you saw, but you ignored it and decided to address the trouble you brought. Any moment now a staff would come and have your ass handed to you, financially.
“Look, we’re really, really sorry about all of this,” you said, "I-I'll pay for it I-I just-," and Hyun Ryu was about to say something when Jumin Han himself, stepped forward and looked down at you.
The single movement made the room drop its temperature and reduced the people to hushed tones. You wanted to look away, to finally drag Kyung-ju and go home. But you couldn’t help but be frozen at your spot and be at the mercy of his shadow. He was tall.
The pictures didn’t do him justice because the man was unbelievable up close. You couldn’t believe how he looked even more menacing with that dark coat draped on his broad shoulders. You tilted your head up and detachedly thought that he looked younger in person, his untamed hair making him look quite boyish. Then your eyes landed on his.
And you felt your soulmark burn; it hurt so much that you wanted to pound your fist on your chest to make the pain go away. Those cold, grey eyes bore themselves at you, forcing you to carry the weight of its unkindness, eyes capable of taking and destroying without an afterthought.
“It’s alright,” you heard him say, “I’ll take care of everything”.
Your eyes widened. The barely there mutters of the people completely silenced. You felt the wind knocked out of your lungs.
You were supposed to say something, this was destiny, but you killed the words before they could escape from your mouth (the same words you just knew were inscribed on his skin).
You breathed slowly, and then you closed your eyes.
You were no longer in R.F.A. No obstinate cousin and no famous actor unknowingly dragging her to hell. There was no longer the lingering thought of shattered property that you needed to pay for.
All at once you were seventeen, your parents buried six feet under and labeled “collateral damage”. You were in the living room surrounded by your relatives.
“I’m sorry,” they said (that’s what they all said).
“We can’t do anything”
“They already sent money”
“It’s not enough. It will never be enough”
“But what can we do?”
And then you were in your room, your throat hoarse from all the screaming and crying. And then the night came and the soulmark etched itself on your skin. And then you couldn’t find the strength to stand, the physical and emotional pain mingled together, making you retch and cough ‘till you could do nothing but wheeze in anguish. And then—
You were no longer a child.
You opened your eyes and you’re standing here, here in the lion’s den with the devil before you. No longer seventeen nor crying on your knees but you find that it remains, the hurt and the anger were still there and years and years of grief and fighting did nothing to quell it.
You remembered then, that despite the fact that you were a nobody and you couldn’t do anything to make them face accountability, you still fought. In your own small ways you fought the unkindness that had befell upon you; you moved on with your life, studied hard to support yourself, loved the people in your life and you laughed and you lived. Because they can take everything away from you but never, never that steady heart with its gentle strength.
You now stood your ground and levelled your gaze with his. Although there was something in his eyes that you could not understand, you find that it did not scare you a bit. They said that the happiness you feel at the first encounter was incomparable, that after that you’d be eager to know everything about that person, then as the fates foretold, you’d find that you were a perfect fit, you’d have your happily ever after etc. etc.
Maybe it would have been like that, especially for you, having waited for so long. Maybe it would have been, in another existence, where your soulmate was not a monster. And you wanted to laugh, because even when the mark hurt you you still had the audacity to hope that the person would be worth it. Of course, of course it would be him of all people. Fate had been cruel to you before, what made you think they wouldn't be again, fool girl?
You suddenly thought that you're in over your head; someone like him, who could easily buy anyone would have no care for such an archaic thing as a soulmate. Even if you say the words they wouldn't matter to him the same way the lives of the people you loved did not matter to them.
“Miss…?” he pressed on, deep voice pulling you from your thoughts. You saw him raise an arrogant brow.
No, you thought. This was the only way you knew how to fight. People said that you were too gentle for your own good, but you thought that they were the foolish ones if they think gentle waters do not become tidal waves when disturbed.
Jumin Han could own the whole damn universe if he wanted to, but if there were something you could do, it would be this. You would deny him this.
You would deny him you.
He was your soul’s mate but he did not have the right to it in the first place.
So, you pulled your lips in a tight smile, bowed in gratitude, then grabbed your family by the wrist, towards the exit and out of the devil’s lair. Your silence a loud declaration of war against the Fates; and an earsplitting crash of a promise broken.