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Excerpt Alert: VICIOUS SPIRITS by Kat Cho

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Vicious-Spirits

PROLOGUE

As with any tragedy, it came about because he loved.

When he was on the cusp of manhood, a young man met a girl. She was beautiful, desired by everyone in town, and— unbeknownst to him—desired by a powerful sansin.

However, despite the many scholars and noblemen offering their love, she chose the young man who was only the forgotten last son of a lower noble family. She professed her love for him, and they planned to marry.

In preparation for their marriage, he commissioned a ceramic vase that he would present to her.

He didn’t know that, as he prepared his gift, she was preparing one of her own. For the girl he loved was not a girl at all. She was a fox, a gumiho, and she wished to become human for him. But she was tricked by the sansin who coveted her. He persuaded her to kill to gain mortality. One hundred livers devoured in one hundred days. It would allow her to take the gi of her victims—energy that fuels all living things. She did not know that the world demanded balance. That if she took the souls of others, she was sacrificing her own.

The night before their wedding, she came to her young man.

He awoke to see her washed in the light of the moon.

He cringed in fear of her. For she wasn’t human, but half woman–half demon. Her nine tails wove around her as symbols of her true form, and her soul was shrouded in shadows.

He denied her love. The gi she’d devoured fueled her despair, and the gumiho lashed out, killing him in a blind rage.

But that wasn’t to be his end, because he awoke again. This time not as a man but as a beast. A dokkaebi. He was cursed by a shaman that served the sansin to roam the earth as an unnatural goblin.

In despair, he planned to kill the shaman who turned him. But before he could, she told him that because of his rejection, the gumiho had hired the shaman to curse the man to this dokkaebi form. And the shaman gave him a chance for his own revenge. She helped him capture the gumiho for the rest of her immortal life. So the vase that was to be his wedding gift became the gumiho’s prison.

And Junu lived the rest of his life as a dokkaebi.
CHAPTER ONE

Miyoung loved her mother.

Miyoung mourned her mother.

Miyoung was haunted by her mother.

She didn’t use to dream much, and when she did, they were often of her victims. But now, it seemed, she dreamed of her mother as well.

At night, Gu Yena came to Miyoung. Her skin so pale it seemed translucent. Perhaps that’s what happened to gumiho when they died. They became spectral things that could haunt you.

“Eomma,” Miyoung said. The innocent title a child gave their mother. The title she hadn’t called Yena since she was a toddler. Except for once. Except when Yena lay dying in her arms. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?” In death Yena’s voice sounded hollow, distant. A shiver raced down Miyoung’s back.

“I should have tried harder to save you.”

“How could you when you can’t even save yourself?” Yena asked, sorrow tingeing her words. They hung thick in the air. More accusation than question.

“What do you mean?” Miyoung asked, fear joining the chill that spread over her.

“You can’t save yourself because you don’t even know what trouble you’re in. My sweet girl. My ignorant saekkiya.”

The words stung, but Miyoung couldn’t dwell on that.

“What kind of trouble? Is it because I don’t have my yeowu guseul?” Miyoung had always worried losing her fox bead would have dire consequences. She just didn’t know it would involve her mother.

Yena’s eyes shifted at the mention of Miyoung’s bead. A light pulsed, then faded into nothing. “I didn’t prepare you enough.”

“No, you did everything you could for me.”

“And now you must do for yourself.”

“How?” The chill seeped into her, so deep it took root in her bones.

“I wish we had more time.” Yena sighed, and it seemed as if she started to sift away, fading into the dark around her.

“Eomma!” Miyoung cried out as the cold spread from her spine to take over her limbs. She could barely move them, as if her very blood were freezing.

“How will you go on without me?” Yena asked. “How will you survive?”

“Maybe I won’t,” Miyoung said moments before her body petrified. Before she became stone, so cold she couldn’t even release the tears that pooled.

“Maybe you won’t,” Yena repeated before the world faded to an icy void. Darker than dark, like a vacuum engulfing everything it touched.

And when Miyoung awoke, her eyes burned. Not from tears. Her cheeks were dry as bone.

When she’d first started having dreams about her mother after her death, she thought they were just that, dreams. A kind of coping mechanism. A way for Miyoung to mourn. But now she was worried they were more. Now she was worried something was wrong. Ever since she lost her fox bead, she’d felt like she was living in a weird kind of limbo. Not quite human, but not really a gumiho either. And it seemed that these visits from Yena were becoming more frequent. And her riddles becoming more threatening. They must be connected.
CHAPTER TWO

Junu loved a good deal. Sometimes he hated doing business.

But a dollar was a dollar, no matter the hand that gave it to you.

This was what Junu repeated to himself over and over as the . . . customer explained what he needed.

“I think I understand,” Junu said.

The creature in front of him huffed, his rancid breath blowing at Junu. His face was broad with a large nose and deep-set eyes. He wore baggy pants and an ill-fitting shirt. A threadbare coat covered him even though the early August heat was sweltering outside. His skin was ruddy, like a man who’d lived his life in the bottle. Or the hue of a creature that many humans refused to believe existed, unless they were under seven years old.

A dokkaebi. The kind of goblin that graced the pages of folktales and myths.

And the kind of thing that Junu was. Though, Junu was the first to point out that there were different kinds of dokkaebi and if anyone was to do their research, they’d know that.

Junu was a chonggak dokkaebi, the only ones made to be charming. The ones made so beautiful they could woo anyone they pleased.

So, even though the thick-muscled, slow-witted creature infront of him shared the name dokkaebi, Junu would never call itkin.

“I think I might have something to help you with your . . . problem,” Junu said delicately. He didn’t want to give the dokkaebi an opening to start explaining the gruesome plan he wanted to enact.

“Good,” the dokkaebi mumbled. “I didn’t know if you would. I’ve never heard of one of our kind having to be a merchant.”

“Ah, I see,” Junu said calmly, though inside he burned from embarrassment and annoyance. Embarrassment because most dokkaebi, despite their horrendous hygiene and taste, looked down on him. And annoyance because he knew it shouldn’t matter to him, but it did. “Tell me, how did you come to learn of my services?”

“I ain’t been quiet about my plans, and one day this guy appeared, definitely no human. But I’d never seen someone like him before. He seemed almost godlike.”

“A god told you about my business?” Junu asked.

“Nah, he wasn’t no god, but he just had something about him like he was above us all.”

Something sparked in Junu’s mind at that.

“Anyway, he told me about you, but I wasn’t sure, because buying stuff from a dokkaebi seemed like a scam.” The goblin eyed Junu.

He would have been insulted, but it was true: Dokkaebi didn’t usually need to do anything menial to earn cash, even though they were known for their healthy greed. They could summon riches with their bangmangi, a goblin staff that some of the more indelicate dokkaebi also liked to use as a club. The only thing dokkaebi liked more than money was mischief. So, to see one running a business—even a black-market one that traded in talismans—would definitely seem suspicious. Like a scam waiting to rob them of every dollar.

“Oh, he actually did want me to give you a message.” The dokkaebi snapped his fingers. “He said to tell you ‘Hyuk had sent me.’ He said it would ensure good service.”

“Ah, he did, did he?” Junu asked, turning to a large wooden chest to search through his wares. It also gave him a chance to hide his face and his obvious surprise. Hyuk. A jeoseung saja. And a figure from Junu’s past he’d rather forget. What did that old reaper want from him? Junu wondered as he searched through dozens of small drawers that held different knickknacks and magical potions alike. He riffled through a few before he found what he was looking for.

The goblin let out a rumbling noise, and Junu worried it was signaling an attack. Then he realized it was a laugh, and he knew what was coming next.

“Can’t you just summon it?”

“My bangmangi is in the shop.”

“You don’t have it? No dokkaebi would ever give up their staff,” the dokkaebi said with a grunt.

“I guess I’m not like other dokkaebi,” Junu muttered.

“So you have no magic?” The dokkaebi laughed.

Junu clenched his jaw so he couldn’t bite out a reply. Better this way. Wouldn’t do to lose his cool in front of a customer, even one as dense as this one. His palms burned, and he realized his nails were digging in so hard they almost broke skin. Slowly he loosened his grip and turned, placing a congenial smile on his face.

“Well, you’re lucky that I won’t need magic to fill your order.” And Junu switched the envelope he’d first selected, plucking out the one next to it. “I think this will help you get far.”

“What a strange dokkaebi you are. Having to work like a human.” The goblin chuckled.

Junu gritted his teeth, then forced a smile. He pulled the golden talisman from its envelope. “I said, I think this will help.”

The dokkaebi glowered, but he leaned forward to study the talisman. His coat swung a bit open, and Junu spotted a wooden handle. The dokkaebi’s bangmangi.

Junu wondered if he could snatch it. Would it even work for him? He hadn’t held one in so long.

His hands itched to reach out, but the dokkaebi’s fist came up to grab the envelope. Thick and meaty. And something that could snap Junu in half. If he was good at anything, he was good at self-preservation.

Junu stepped back, pulling the envelope out of reach. “That’s one million won.” Twice the usual cost, but this goblin had annoyed him.

The dokkaebi sneered but took the staff out from beneath his coat. Unfortunately, he shook the dusty thing out, and from the smell that wafted forward, Junu was certain this dokkaebi didn’t wash his clothes very often.

With a thud against the floor, the dokkaebi summoned a small stack of bills to his hand. It was the magic of the goblin staff. The ability to summon what the dokkaebi desired was a convenient trick, and one that meant all dokkaebi had a stash somewhere. In that Junu was just like his brethren, except he had to use his mind to earn the money instead of magic.

Speaking of money, Junu plucked the cash from the other dokkaebi’s hand, holding out the envelope with a genteel grin. The small revenge he’d already enacted would have to be enough. And he watched the hulking goblin exit his house, giving a silent prayer to whatever god that was listening that the talisman would carry this dokkaebi far, far away from Junu’s doorstep.

As the door closed, Junu thought of the dokkaebi’s words. Hyuk had sent him. Which meant Hyuk was in the mortal realm. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been able to talk to a dokkaebi. Junu almost took out his phone, but he didn’t. Whatever the reaper was doing in the mortal realm, Junu wanted nothing to do with it.

 

There once lived a boy from a poor family who went into the woods every day to chop firewood to sell in the village and help feed his family. One afternoon as he was out gathering wood, he came upon a walnut tree. He climbed it and gathered walnuts for his family and then sat among the branches eating his fill. However, he stayed too long, and soon it became dark. Knowing he could not find his way home through the forest in the dark, he remembered a small abandoned cottage a few kilometers back. He did not want to sleep on the floor for fear rodents would find him, so he climbed into the rafters and quickly fell asleep.

At midnight a cacophony of sound woke him. Below he saw a group of dokkaebi gathered. They were bragging about the mischief they’d spread that day. One had hung on the tail of an ox all day. Another had teased a naughty boy. Another had danced loudly under a floor, scaring the occupants of the house. Finally, another dokkaebi said it was time to stop chattering and feast.

The boy watched as the dokkaebi pulled out a staff and yelled, “Tudurak tak tak, come out, food, come out, drink!” as he banged his club on the ground.

No sooner had he finished banging his staff than food and drink appeared out of nowhere. The staff was a bangmangi, a magical summoning club. The dokkaebi danced and ate their fill. And all the while the boy watched. Seeing the feast, the boy began to hunger. So he took out some walnuts and began cracking them with his teeth. The dokkaebi heard the cracking and started to shout, “The roof is breaking! It’s going to collapse!” Then they all went running from the shack.

The boy climbed down, ate his fill of the feast, then retrieved the bangmangi from where the dokkaebi had dropped it.

The next morning, the boy made it home. His parents had been quite worried, afraid he was eaten by a tiger, but the boy told them his story and demonstrated the magic of the staff. They were elated; now they would never have to worry about how to feed their family.

But news traveled of the boy’s adventure and his new treasure. The son of a rich merchant, who had never worked a day in his life, decided he wanted his own bangmangi, though his family had never been hungry or wanted for anything. He persuaded the poor boy to tell him the details of his adventure. Then he ran off into the forest. First, he found a walnut tree and ate his fill and stuffed his pockets with walnuts. Next, he ran to the shack, climbed into the rafters, and waited for midnight.

The dokkaebi arrived like clockwork and summoned their feast. The rich boy, seeing his prize, did not let the dokkaebi even begin to eat before he cracked a walnut in his teeth. But this time, the dokkaebi were not fooled. They looked straight up and saw the rich boy.

“You again!” they shouted, and pulled the rich boy from the rafters. They punished the boy by making his tongue grow a hundred meters long. And when he tried to stumble home, he fell in the river. He would have drowned except the poor boy heard his screams and rescued him. From that day forward, the poor boy was no longer hungry and the rich boy never did anything selfish again.

 

CHAPTER THREE

Somin hated summer. And in this first week of August, it was at its worst—sticky and humid and the air felt too thick. Plus, her shoulder-length hair, fried from too many at-home dye jobs, was not in the best shape, and the humidity of summer made it frizz in unflattering ways.

Sometimes she dreamed of leaving Seoul, just packing a duffel and leaving. And those fantasies tripled when the summer got truly unbearable like it was now. But Somin knew she could never really leave. She had too many responsibilities here.

One of those responsibilities lay in the small apartment above the dark, empty restaurant. Jihoon’s halmeoni’s little restaurant used to be a bustling place, a hub in the neighborhood. But it had been closed for months now. The landlord had used Halmeoni’s illness as an excuse to change the terms of their lease. And as soon as it was clear he couldn’t pay the rent, Jihoon had received an eviction notice. Even thinking about it made Somin’s blood boil. The second-floor apartment door was unlocked. The space inside felt like it should be musty, like she was opening a time capsule. But she knew better. Jihoon and Miyoung had been living in the apartment for the past few months. A strange fast-forward in their relationship that would have worried Somin. Except now she knew that worrying about dating teens living together was nothing compared to knowing the real horrors that lurked in the shadows of the world. Things that could rip out your liver or your throat without a second thought.

Somin liked to think she was pretty tough. She didn’t scare easily. She would never run from a fight, especially if it meant defending someone she loved. Still, knowing that the monsters in her childhood storybooks were real was a cold shock to the ever-practical Lee Somin. Now she had to readjust her whole way of looking at the world. And for a girl who always liked to be right, it was a hard thing to accept.

As Somin let the door close behind her, she wasn’t sure what she expected, but Gu Miyoung in an apron, dusting the shelves, was not it.

“Did I step into an alternate universe?” Somin asked.

Miyoung glanced up. She was beautiful. With ebony hair that swung halfway down her back, long legs, thick lashes, full lips. But when she looked close enough, Somin saw the worry in the pursed set of Miyoung’s mouth.

“I know how to clean an apartment,” Miyoung said. “I’m not a total slob.”

“Oh, I never thought that,” Somin said. “I just figured dusting was beneath a gumiho.”

“Well, I’m not really a gumiho anymore,” Miyoung muttered.

The only thing weirder than realizing that her new friend had been a gumiho was learning how she’d become a not-gumiho. Betrayal, lost fox beads, a long-lost father, and an overprotective mother.

Somin had grown up hearing stories about gumiho— nine-tailed foxes with the ability to live forever as long as they devoured the energy of men. And in the span of one night, she’d had to accept that they existed and that there was one who wanted to kill her best friend, Jihoon. Miyoung’s mother, Gu Yena, to be exact. A gumiho who had lived for hundreds of years and had been willing to do anything, even kill—even die—to protect Miyoung.

It had been a few months since she found out Miyoung’s secret, and sometimes Somin still forgot that Miyoung wasn’t just human.

Jihoon walked out of his bedroom, a tall boy with a lanky frame and hair that always looked mussed, probably because, more often than not, he’d just woken up from a nap. He spotted Somin and gave her a sad smile. It looked wrong on his handsome face. His face was better suited for wicked grins that made his dimples wink. But Somin supposed he had nothing to really smile about today.

“Jihoon-ah, are you putting your girlfriend to work while you sleep away the day?” Somin said, but there was no bite to the words.

His smile deepened a bit, so there was a hint of dimples. Like a ghostly trace of the affable boy Somin had grown up with.

“She volunteered for cleaning duty. Don’t offer to do the boring work if you don’t want me to accept.” He shrugged. Jihoon was never one to make excuses, but his blunt honesty was part of his charm, usually.

“I’d rather dust than try to clean out the black hole you call a bedroom,” Miyoung said.

“You make fun of it, but when the government pays me billions to study the natural phenomenon of a black hole right here in Seoul, you’ll be sorry,” Jihoon quipped.

Somin rolled her eyes, but secretly she was relieved her best friend was still able to make jokes on a day like today. “What job should I do?” She glanced at the empty boxes scattered throughout the room. Not even a dish towel packed away yet. Perhaps because these weren’t just things. This was everything that Jihoon had left of his halmeoni—the woman who had raised him. And now she was gone. Somin understood why the boxes were still empty: because packing away these things was like packing away memories.

She started to reach for a box at the same time Miyoung did. When their hands brushed, she felt a spark, like static shock. It happened often when she came in contact with the former gumiho, as if Miyoung’s latent fox abilities still hungered for energy.

“Sorry,” Miyoung muttered.

“No worries,” Somin assured her. “As long as you don’t suck out all my gi, we can stay friends.”

Miyoung pursed her lips at that. She still wasn’t quite able to joke about her old gumiho life. Somin couldn’t really blame her. After all, she figured it had to be traumatizing to survive by taking the lives of others.

“Knock, knock.” Somin’s mother opened the front door. “Sorry I’m late. Traffic was horrible. Iwas going to take the subway, but I just didn’t want to deal with so many sweaty people. I hate public transportation during the summer. But then I guess everyone else had the same idea to drive, and it took way too long to get here.”

Somin almost laughed. Usually, it was a toss-up who was taking care of whom between the two. Her mother was all spark and energy and light. But she was also so scattered she’d forget her own brain if it wasn’t shut securely in her head. Even though Somin was just a nineteen-year-old high school senior, she was definitely the more responsible out of the two.

There was no one in this world Somin loved as much as her mother, except maybe Jihoon. They weren’t quite a traditional family, but Somin considered them a unit.

“It’s all right, Ms. Moon, we haven’t even gotten started,” Jihoon said.

“Some of us have,” Miyoung muttered.

“Well, what should we tackle first?” Somin’s mother clapped her hands together and looked expectantly at her daughter.

Now Somin did laugh. It always fell on her to take charge. “Jihoon, why don’t you take care of your black-hole room. Miyoung, can you do the bathroom? Mom, can you do . . .” She hesitated, then said, “The back room?” because she couldn’t quite bring herself to say “Halmeoni’s room.”

Her mom gave her a knowing smile. “Of course.” She picked up a box and headed to the back.

Jihoon stared after Somin’s mother as she opened the door to Halmeoni’s room. He still didn’t move as the door closed behind her.

“Jihoon-ah,” Somin said.

“Clean my black hole of a room, got it,” he said, his voice way too bright.

“Is he doing all right?” Somin asked Miyoung when Jihoon was gone.

“He’s surviving,” Miyoung said as she picked up a box and hauled it into the small bathroom.

Somin sighed. That wasn’t what she had asked. But she knew that Miyoung had lived the first eighteen years of her life shutting the rest of the world out. For Miyoung, surviving was the main goal of life.

The living space of the apartment was small and cozy. The well-used couch slouching in the middle from decades of use. Yellow bujeoks fluttered against the door frame—talismans taped around the entryway to ward off bad energy.

Somin started on the kitchen, putting pots and pans into boxes. She wondered if they should save the mugs and dishes. Maybe Jihoon would want some later? Or was she overthinking this?

She wiped her arm against her sweaty forehead and turned to rummage through the fridge for a drink. It was empty. Honestly, Somin had no idea how those two had survived together in this apartment the last four months.

The front door opened and let in the noise of the outside.

That must be Oh Changwan, the final one of their motley crew. Late as usual. With some halfhearted plan to cheer herself up by giving Changwan hell, Somin stepped out of the kitchen. Changwan was tall and gangly. With a buzz cut that highlighted his too-big ears. He hated the cut, but his strict father insisted on it. Changwan was a sweet boy with a nervous energy that probably came from the high expectations his rich father had for his firstborn son. Somin always felt like Changwan would do much better with more carrot and less stick. But she also knew she couldn’t poke her nose into another family’s private business.

“I know, I know. I’m late. But I brought iced Americanos.” Changwan was trying to balance a tray of iced drinks and Somin almost wept with gratitude. There was no air-conditioning in the apartment, and she was roasting. But she stopped short as she saw who stood behind Changwan.

Where Changwan was tall and gangly, this other boy was tall and lean in an almost athletic way. Though, Somin had never seen Junu exercise once since she’d known him. He had the kind of figure that wore clothes well. His hair was silky and perfectly styled. His eyes were striking as they met hers. And Somin glared in greeting.

“How did you get in here?” she demanded.

“Why? You thought I only existed in your dreams?” Junu winked.

She almost groaned. She really hated this dokkaebi.
CHAPTER FOUR

Junu would never claim the title of saint. Far from it, in fact. Even when he was human, he never pretended he held any more virtue than the average person. Still, he wasn’t a complete monster, though many would argue he was, seeing as he was a goblin. And honestly, he found it much easier to meet expectations most of the time. Which was why he was a bit perplexed with finding himself standing inside the threshold of Ahn Jihoon’s apartment. Or old apartment, he guessed, as he surveyed the packing boxes littering the floor.

He was really regretting all his decisions that day. Junu hated physical labor. This was not how he thought he’d be spending his Sunday when he woke up this morning.

Then there was Lee Somin, who stood, hands on hips, blocking his path. The pose was meant to threaten, but it only accentuated her short build. Junu acknowledged he was tall at 185 centimeters, but if he took a step forward, Somin’s face would be squarely planted in his chest. A funny image, now that he thought of it.

“What the hell are you smiling at?” Somin demanded.

If he were a lesser man, it would have frightened him. Okay, fine, it did frighten him a bit. But over his centuries of life, Junu had learned the power of a good bluff. Added to that, he wasn’t quite fully a man, per se.

“I bet I could pick you up and put you in my pocket,” Junu said. He knew exactly what reaction he would get from that. And as if on cue, Somin’s face reddened, her cheeks puffed out all cute, and her fists clenched. Junu shifted on his feet, ready to jump away if she came at him. He’d learned the hard way that Somin was as much bite as bark.

Still, it was worth it to see her eyes flare. They sparked like she held fire inside. It always intrigued him. This firecracker of a girl.

“What is he doing here?” Somin asked Changwan.

“I’m just here to help out. Looking to be assigned a job,” Junu replied before Changwan could.

“Changwan-ah, you’re here.” Somin’s mother rushed out of Halmeoni’s room. “Let me have one of those coffees.” Her mother took a sip, closing her eyes to savor the iced Americano.

“And, Junu,” she said, turning to the dokkaebi with a dazzling smile. “I didn’t know you were coming.”

He gave her a congenial smile and a small flush rose in her cheeks. With a bow he said, “Good to see you again, Somin’s eomeoni.”

“Oh, that makes me sound so old,” she said with a giggle.

“You are old, Mother,” Somin said, taking a cup of coffee as well.

“Yes, but we don’t have to always be talking about it,” Somin’s mother said, with a wink to Junu.

He laughed and wondered why the daughter had not inherited the mother’s good humor.

“Well, where can we help?” Changwan asked, placing the tray of coffees on the living room table.

“Why don’t you pack up the living room?” Somin’s mother said. With a grunt of disgust, Somin retreated back into the kitchen. Soon Junu heard the angry clatter of dishes.

“Wrap everything well,” Somin’s mother said before disappearing down the hall again.

Junu looked around at the knickknack-filled space. It would take a while to make sure everything was put away with care. He wondered if he was in over his head. Maybe it had been a mistake to volunteer for this. He could just leave, but Junu always kept his word. And if he said he was here to help, he was going to help. Even if the August heat was somehow worse in here than it was outside.

As Changwan took frames off the shelf, Junu started wrapping them in old newspapers. He wasn’t sure whether he was doing a good job or not, but he figured the more padding the better.

“Maybe that’s too much newspaper, Hyeong?” Changwan said.

“Really?” Junu asked, crossing his arms and studying the box that was probably 70 percent newspaper and only 30 percent actual things.

“Yeah, you might be great at strategizing video game battles, but I think we’ve failed at packing.” Changwan frowned, and it made his too-big nose scrunch.

“Well, being good at packing is only a required life skill if your job is a mover,” Junu said. “And I doubt any romantic pursuits will care if you can wrap frames in the right amount of newspaper. Make a note of that, Changwan-ah.”

Just as he said it, Somin stomped out of the kitchen. “Don’t take dating advice from him, unless you want to get slapped.”

Junu held a hand over his heart. “Lee Somin, that hurts. I get slapped only like fifteen percent of the time. I swear.”

Changwan laughed and earned a glare from Somin.

She looked down at their half-packed box. “You two are horrible at this.”

“Are you out here to check up on us?” Junu asked.

“No, I needed more tape.” She picked up the roll of packing tape as if that were proof enough. “But I’m glad I came out here. If you keep going at this rate, you’ll use ten boxes for one bookshelf. Maybe you should wash the dishes instead.”

“I don’t really like doing dishes, they make my hands all pruney . . .” Changwan trailed off as Somin sent him a pointed look. “But then again, that’s what they make dishwashing gloves for.” He scurried into the kitchen like a frightened rabbit.

Somin had started unwrapping the frames and laying them on the table when Junu knelt beside her. “What are you doing?” she asked.

“Dishes is a one-man job. I figured you just wanted an excuse to be alone with me,” Junu said, wiggling his brows.

“Fine, it’s probably better than letting you fill Changwan’s brain with your ridiculous advice. Why are you so obsessed with the idea of turning him into a clone of you, anyway?”

“Is that so bad?” He held up a hand before she could answer. “Never mind, I know already. To you, that would be a fate worse than death.”

She carefully folded the paper around the delicate frames before stacking them in the box. “Well, I wasn’t going to be quite so extreme, but yes. Let Changwan be his own person. He’s nothing like you.”

At that Junu almost laughed, but he knew Somin wouldn’t get the humor in what she said. And Junu wasn’t about to give up any secrets from his past. If you asked Junu, the past was behind them for a reason.

Instead, he shrugged. “I just want to give him some more confidence. He’s a smart boy; he can be anything he wants if he puts his mind to it.”

“You don’t know anything about Changwan.” Somin’s voice became harsh. The voice she got when she was being protective of her friends. Junu didn’t know why it bothered him, except that the person she was protecting them from was so often Junu.

“Changwan and I are friends.” It came out a bit more defensive than Junu had intended.

Somin let out a snort. “You’re too selfish to have any friends.”

That stung, and Junu was about to give a sharp retort when Somin’s mother walked back in, extra boxes in her arms. “Found these in the back room, figured we could use them out here.”

Somin jumped up to help her mother with the pile. Junu was debating whether to stick out his tongue at Somin’s back when her eyes shot to him, an unspoken warning sharp in her brown irises. If he didn’t know better, he’d have thought her a gwishin or other evil spirit descended on him as some kind of curse.

Somin’s mother was on the shorter side; it was clear that’s where Somin had gotten her height. Her black hair was pulled back in a bun, but a few wisps still fell around her forehead, giving her the illusion of youth. She was energetic, always ready with a smile that created lines around her eyes. Instead of adding age, it made her look like a warm welcome. She was more scattered than her tightly controlling daughter. But Somin also broke rules, like the dress code at her school, and got into fights. It would seem like a contradiction, except Junu could tell that it wasn’t that Somin didn’t live by rules; she just lived by her rules. She truly fascinated him.

“Junu, I can’t say how nice it is for you to come and help,” Ms. Moon said, and there was that kind smile.

“Of course. I’m always here for a friend.” He emphasized the word and gave Somin a wink.

Her mouth formed a thin line, and he imagined she was trying to hold back harsh words that would earn her a smack from her mother.

Junu almost gave another wink just to annoy her, but Mi- young stepped out of the bathroom.

She was hauling what looked like a very full and very heavy box. The sight of her made Junu lose any of his glib words. He never knew the right thing to say in front of Miyoung these days. Every time he saw her, he felt a rolling in his stomach. In the past, when he felt uncomfortable around someone, he’d just leave. But for some reason the idea of leaving made him feel even worse. For the first time in his immortal life, he felt like he owed a debt to someone. And he hated it.

Despite her disheveled hair, tired eyes, and the light sheen of sweat on her brow, Miyoung was gorgeous. Though, Junu would expect nothing less from the former gumiho. A girl so beautiful men fell instantly in love with her only to find themselves missing a liver. He’d once thought they could be confidants, two immortals living with the burden of being seen one way and, when that glamour faded, labeled as monsters.

But that was the old Miyoung, and she hadn’t even been that good at the whole predatory immortal lifestyle of the fabled nine-tailed fox.

Miyoung stopped short when she saw him. Her eyes narrowed as if deciding how to handle his presence. It was clear she wasn’t happy to see him.

“Hello, Miyoung-ah,” Junu said. “You need help with that?”

She tilted her head in a way that reminded him of a fox, then set down her packed box on a far pile and turned to Somin’s mother. “I need another box.”

“Here you go.” Ms. Moon handed her one from her pile.

Without another word, Miyoung disappeared into the bathroom.

Junu watched her retreating back, wondering if she would ever truly talk to him again. It wasn’t that he missed her conversation. Miyoung had always been a prickly companion at best. But he couldn’t deny that her company had been an interesting change from his loner lifestyle. The three months they’d lived together had been quite eventful. And if he was being honest, he’d become quite invested in Miyoung’s life.

But of course, he’d made mistakes that had cost them their unlikely alliance. Perhaps Junu could have even called it a friendship for a time.

Still, one mistake had cost a life. It had cost Miyoung her mother. A long time ago, Junu had sworn to himself he would no longer deal in games of life and death. So, whether she would accept it or not, Junu felt like he owed some kind of restitution to Miyoung for his actions. He would stick around until he’d paid back the debt. The problem was he wasn’t sure when that would be. He might be an immortal dokkaebi, but even he couldn’t know when this weight of guilt would ease from his chest. It was damned inconvenient if you asked him, but it was something he could not ignore.

“So, Junu, how are classes?” Ms. Moon brought him back to the present.

He thought about whatever lie they’d told Somin’s mother.

“At Hongik University, right?”

“Ah yes,” Junu said with a pleasant smile. “It’s great. Love the area.”

He forever looked like he was just leaving his teens. Some, Ms. Moon’s daughter being one of them, might even claim he still had the maturity of a prepubescent child, but he was centuries old. Still, he accepted the fact that Ms. Moon lumped him in with her daughter’s classmates, though the story was that he was a twenty-year-old student in his first year in university. He hadn’t even remembered whether they’d told her an actual university when they made up the lie of who Junu was—Miyoung’s cousin.

“So will Miyoung be moving back in with you?” Ms. Moon asked, and Junu didn’t process the words at first. He’d just assumed Miyoung would find a place of her own, but he remembered that nineteen was still one year away from being a legal adult even though he could argue that it was an arbitrary designation. He still didn’t feel like an “adult” half the time.

Somin paused in her packing, turning toward them. Her eyes were wide, as if warning Junu to tread carefully. So, of course, he wanted to do the exact opposite.

“Eomma, I don’t think Miyoung has decided where she’s going to stay yet,” Somin said at the same time Junu blurted out, “Of course,” without pausing too long to consider it.

Somin’s mother let out a relieved sigh. “Oh, good. I was so worried about where Miyoung would go.”

At the sound of her name, the girl in question poked her head out of the bathroom. “Did you call for me?”

“I was telling your cousin I’m so glad to hear you have a place to stay,” Somin’s mother said.

“What?” Miyoung’s eyes shifted to Junu with suspicion.

“I told Somin’s mother that you’re moving back in with me, right, cuz?” Junu said, plastering a bright smile onto his face.

Miyoung’s scowl was so immediate that he wondered if it was brought about by the mere sound of his voice. “I don’t—”

“That’s such a relief,” Somin’s mother said, giving a small laugh. “I really was worried when Somin said she had no idea where Miyoung was going to live. And with our place so cramped already with Jihoon now, I didn’t know how we’d cram another teenager in there.” It was almost cute, how Ms. Moon babbled to cover her obvious discomfort with the idea. She really wasn’t one to filter her thoughts.

“Thank you for the thought. And I appreciate the offer . . . , cuz.” Miyoung bit out the last word like it was a vile curse. “But I don’t want to be a burden.”

“Oh, it wouldn’t be a burden at all. I’d be happy to have you.” Junu added one of his charming smiles.

There was a minute of silence. Even Somin seemed frozen. But Ms. Moon, either completely unaware or willfully ignorant in the face of an easy solution to her guilt, spoke up. “I think it’s best if you stay with Junu,” she said. “Wouldn’t you be happier to be with family?”

The look in Miyoung’s eyes seemed to transmit a message clear as if she’d spoken the words. You’re going to regret this.

So, because Junu couldn’t help himself, he gave the hornet’s nest one more poke. “That’s right. Trust your oppa.”

“Sure,” Miyoung bit out.

 

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