Edit #424433 (and counting): So even though I decided I would lay this fic to rest, there are just some things that keep bothering me so it’s been through *another* rehaul.
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Disclaimer: I don’t own these characters. They belong to Heartless City, JTBC. If I did, I wouldn’t have had to write this!
Illumination and Umbra
I was utterly convinced that in these past four years, this was unequivocally turning into the worst night ever.
That stated, this night honestly didn’t hold a candle to that day I never wanted to think about again. The one that ended with a man, a man who had held my unwanted heart in his hands, sprawled on the deck outside of Chairman Jo’s, my frantic hands desperately trying to clasp his limp ones as his strained gasping breaths rang through my ears, blood pulsing through them. My last sight of him had been his too-still body being loaded onto a stretcher. Or my second worst day, the one where I found out the man had survived but he had decided to leave, no goodbyes, no final message to be relayed, not a single indication of his whereabouts; a finite statement that everything was over, all ties were cut, even if Officer Hyung-Min hadn’t told me bluntly so much. As if I hadn’t already figured it out from our last meeting in front of Kyung-Mi’s grave, when his parting formal and stiff address to me had felt like rusty nails being driven into my skin. Or perhaps there was that third day that had marked an end of the stage in my life where I still given unquestioning trust to authority, the one when I had been unquestionably defeated by the very system I had dedicated myself to for so long. Unable to swallow the schemes and duplicity in the name of “justice”, I had laid my badge on my superior’s desk, turned my back on my former life, and walked away. I could still feel the reprimanding gaze of Officer Hyung-Min planted squarely between my shoulders; its burn searing with censure and disappointment that after everything, I had stopped fighting.
But there’s only so much you can do when you open your eyes to the realization that your world has turned to ash and colors aren’t as vivid as they used to be. I moved on, a little bit wiser and lot more jaded, as best as I could, finding small jobs here and there. I did have a talent for pouring drinks for old men and smiling pretty, and through unspoken words Jin-Sook had understood my situation. She understood, I felt, perhaps even better than I did. One could say I was walking in the imprints of life she had left behind when she too had first watched the world turn grey. She’d offered me my old place, with a slightly modified position. I had, though grateful, turned her offer down. A fact, I think, for which she was secretly grateful, having her own scars to mend and however well-meaning my intentions, my presence would not have been welcomed. And, maybe I was being stubborn, but after having seen the ramifications of being so dependent, physically, emotionally, I didn’t want to rely on anyone. I had once played the damsel in distress and had gotten my heart ripped out of my chest and smashed while I watched with clasped hands.
This night I was currently loathing so much had started out fairly normal, I’d gone down to the club, owned by the Madame Jung Hwa, a madame of reputation almost rivaling Jin Sook’s. It had been Jin Sook in fact that had recommended me to her, reassuring me “the old plastic battle-axe” would not ask any troubling questions. Outside the club doors I’d smoothly avoided the disreputable lowlives that seemed to flock around the area, masquerading in expensive suits and stifling cologne. I had seen one of my “admirers” lurking around the corner, a younger business man who would puff up like a peacock at the sight of nubile flesh. He’d been strongly warned before about getting to handsy with the girls but a few drinks in him he’d forget all previous warnings. I tried very hard not to maim the customers, bad for business as a general rule, but the sight of the cretin lounging outside put a foul taste in my mouth.
I had gone in and performed my duties, keep a watchful eye for his sneering face, but hadn’t seen him. It wasn’t until I finished with work and headed outside that I’d caught sight of him. With my focus zoned in on him I had completely missed the blinding slap that had come from nowhere. Caught off guard, I’d hit the floor and taken a kick ,complete with pointy heel, to the face before security had pulled the rich scum’s screaming girlfriend off of me. Girlfriend being an over-made, too teased, clothing over-revealing vulgar piece of trash, raving about my audacity to steal her man. She must have seriously low standards, I had thought, staring at her in disbelief, still on the ground, as she had been pulled off me and strong armed to the side by the bouncer. These things normally only happened on TV. And how unfocused and off-center was I that she’d been able to lay a hand on me?
That had been Round One and the first hint that was my night was not going to go well.
Round Two had been finding out that the police had been called by a well-meaning, but not required! witness and I’d found myself in the unpleasant situation having to answer questions to a former co-worker at the station, who had taken in my appearance with a raised eyebrow that screaming disgust. My jaw had started to nicely swell and ache at this point. There had been no words exchange other than the routine questioning, none were needed, but I could almost hear the disappointment and disgust in each pen stroke as she’d written her report. I wanted to take that pen and break it over her nose, an action I barely contained myself from acting on.
Round Three had occurred as I’d been heading home from the station. Rounding the corner into my neighborhood I had heard a strangled, choking noise, a noise I had become far too familiar with. Mentally preparing myself for the worst, I approached a darkened alleyway where the noises were coming from. In the shadows I could make out the figure of a woman as she struggled against three men, three men who had only one intention in mind. They were drunk and weaving back and forth with drunken slurs, but the aggression coming off of them in waves had been unmistakable.
Instinctively, no time to even rationalize a decision, I moved quietly towards the scene, hopefully to utilize the act of surprise. I’d gotten close enough to sneak up on one disgusting fellow hanging slightly back and smash my arm over his head, but he’d been surprisingly quick to recover from the blow. Desperately wishing I had a bottle, a book, a pipe, anything, I’d dived right in. Three against one, especially when one is trying to protect two, are terrible odds. In the ensuing fight I’d proved that I definitely knew how to fight dirty, using teeth, nails, and well placed knees. However, before I’d incapacitated them all, one had pulled a knife unexpectedly and in the ensuing tussle to gain control, he lashed out with the hilt and I’d taken it directly in the jaw, adding another layer of bruises to my stinging face.
Round Four, which was without doubt the worst round, had been being yelled at by Officer Hyung Min, who had unfortunately happened to be the one who responded the call I had made after I had finally immobilized the would-be rapists. I’d finally landed well placed punches to their faces using my “dainty fists of fury” as a former co-worker had once said sending them crashing groaning to the ground. When you are as small as me you either protected yourself or waited around for the too late rescue.
I’d been feeling rather proud of myself when I’d caught sight of his figure exiting the police car, his apparent disappointment radiating off of his frame. I had found out that he’d been alerted to my earlier scuffle outside of work and when my voice had been recognized over phone he’d taken the call personally. This was not the first time he’d been called regarding my “vigilantism” as he called it, his utter dislike with the concept coating his words.
He’d pulled me aside, emotion causing him to grip my arm a bit rougher than normal. He had been fairly vibrating with anger, but I hadn’t expected the cruelty of his words as he’d railed on me, calling me a complete idiot and reckless fool. I had no business sticking my nose in such a situation, one of the men had a knife, who knew what the others were carrying, and how the hell would he have been able to explain himself if I followed in my sister’s footsteps? Did I want to get myself killed? Did I have a death wish? Did I need to be locked away in a room so I wouldn’t cause trouble? I wasn’t a police officer anymore, so what the hell was I doing constantly being in these situations?
Then he had used the worst and cruelest weapon in his verbal arsenal, he said looked me straight in the eye and asked me what he was supposed to say to Jung Shi-Hyun now, that he would have been disgusted with the waste I had become, that complete lack of care that I had for my life. Should he tell him that I had become an even more spoiled brat, that my vigilantism was a cry for attention? To say that name, for him to have brought it out of nowhere and it had never been spoken between us, since that day for. For him to use that name on me, to try to sucker punch a reaction out of me, so cruelly.
It had taken everything, everything, every single bit of concentration and shredded control I had not to punch my former superior in the face.
I didn’t need any reprimand, didn’t deserve any reminder, of what had been, that I didn’t fit in that final played out scene, that I was a minor side character, an after-thought. How dare he make me feel so worthless?
I was no longer an after-thought, not in my life. I’d made my decision, and while it might not have been the one that went with multiple badges of honor, it was my life. I wasn’t a failure, a mess, I’d saved a woman by putting my life at stake. It was my choice to determine the worth of my life, and in the distant past that woman in the alley could have been me.
It would have been me.
Fighting back tears of anger with every inch of my being, I had turned around walked away. He had left me go. The jackass probably expected the next call to be about me in a body bag, asking for him to come and identify the body. So I lived recklessly, so I put my life on the line.
It was My Life.
Now slowly walking home after dropping by the pharmacy and grabbing some pain killers, I ran my fingers, complete with bruised knuckles, along my jaw and touched my sore lip. I winced against the pain.“I’m going to look like to freaking flower bouquet” I grumbled, seeing in my mind’s eyes the blossoming of green, blue, yellow, and red that was going to greet me in the mirror tomorrow morning. My feet complained, I rued the fact, again, that I had gone to work wearing such high heels. My feet were going to be sore in the morning and all I wanted right then was a nice long bath to soak my aching body in. Or least a steaming fifteen minutes in the shower, if I was being realistic.
As I trudged up the steep hill of worn steps leading to my small apartment, I wondered again why I had made the decision to move about of Kyung-Mi’s house and into my own tiny place. But that house had begun to feel like a shrine, especially when I had discovered how the house had been come to be, and despite the happy memories it gathered within it, the weight of loved ones gone had proved to be too much for me and I had decided to leave. My first of many attempts to move on, move forward. After all, hadn’t everyone else? It was moments like these though that I wanted nothing more than to curl up on the green outside and let the calming winds and blades of grass beneath me absorb my thoughts. I couldn’t afford a green area at my own place, and somehow lying on hard cement didn’t hold the same appeal.
Trying to hold back groans as I walked up the last steps, and seriously debating at whether I should throw away decorum and slip out of my shoes as well, I almost missed the out-of-place shadow that tangled with the darkness that the small street light failed to unveil.
It was tangible, a solid mass held together with a certain hardness, and I knew instantly, beyond a doubt, that it belonged to only person. In this twilight hour, I could believe that these shadows were coated in the essence of the person they were attached to, and in the unwavering stillness of this one I read the answer to my unspoken question.
The toll of the past few hours caused my thoughts to be given a voice before I could regulate them. “Are you going to hide in the shadows, or are you going to show your face?”
The shadow detached itself from the wall and half into the dim light stepped the man I had expected, his face still partly masked by the dark. There, standing in these shadows, stood the ever distant Paksa Adeul, my Gangster Ahjussi, Jung Shi-Hyun. Jung Shi-Hyun. The name I had found too often on my trembling lips upon waking after a particularly painful memory had made it’s way into my dream. Even now, his face was still obscured in the shadows which I desperately sought to face away.
I had not seen him for four years, I had thought despairing too many times that I would never seen him again, and now that he was in front of me I craved his sight like a parched man who had suddenly discovered an oasis. My eyes greedily traced what little I could make out, taking note of his rigid stance, he was collected but tension ran through him as he stared at me. I could see more than a little bit of censure directed at me through the clenching of jaw and pursing of his lips.
His bottomless eyes took in my less than presentable appearance, his gaze landing on each questionable aspect in rapid order. They first narrowed slightly on the flashy skirt and top, signs of my profession, then quickly moved to the tangled and messed up hair half coming out of it’s clasp. They lend quickly follow the line of my jaw as they took in the bruises of various size littering my face, jaw, and neck, finally honing and coming to rest on my split lip. I raised my jaw in defiance, I had nothing to be ashamed of. And he missed my bruises knuckles in his pass over.
The pain killers had finally started to work, and I felt a bit heady, a bravado and lack of restraint taking over me, causing me to speak before thinking.
“Wow, I must have made some impression earlier, for you to be here after four years. So Hyung-Min made good on his threat. Did Hyung-Min call you? Did he tell you to check up on the poor reckless girl living up the hill? Or did you just arrive in the city and decide to pay a call to a former quick fling? One final night to enjoy for old time’s sake?”
I admit, I wanted to illicit a reaction from this man, but the only sign my words had had any impact were in his eyes narrowing again at my harsh words and a slight movement of his jaw.
“What are you doing?”
“What am I doing? I’m living my life, trying my damn-dest not to depend on anyone.” And not be a burden, I retorted back, “The real question is, what are you doing, here?”
I didn’t know what had possessed me at this point, this was not the way I had imagined our next meeting to play out. But the pain and humiliation of today, the fact that Hyung-Min’s cruelty had succeeded in ripping my heart out of my chest, again, and that the person who had done the initial ripping was standing in front of me, here of all nights, playing witness, loosened my tongue. He just kept staring at me, with that restrained and held back expression, his eyes so devoid of feeling, a look so similar to that day in the cemetery four years ago that it made me want to march over and shake him. To evoke something, some reaction, any emotion.
Realizing the suddenly violent nature my thoughts were taking, I breathed in and out in an effort to calm myself. I closed my eyes for moment, attempted to gather my composure and started speaking again.
“What is that you want?” I asked calmly.
“I got a call. Hyung-Min thinks you’re slipping off the edge.”
Of course. I gritted my teeth, feeling my temporarily achieved composure start to unravel again.
“So, now, four years later, you decide that you’re going to come back and save me? Again?
“Someone obviously needs to.” He could have been a block of ice for all emotion he was displaying.
I felt a mounting rage start to build within me. I still couldn’t believe that Hyung-Min had followed through on his harsh threat and called Jung Shi-Hyun for an intervention, knowing what this man had done to me, after four years. Yes, things had been rough, but this was not the way I wanted to see this man again, when he had been called in to jar some sense into the needy child, to coddle her, to babysit. I wasn’t a damn child, and I hadn’t been spoiled as one for a very long time.
I opened my mouth and closed it, absolutely convinced beyond a doubt that if I didn’t walk away now I was going to tell my Gangster Ahjussi to “Go to Hell.”
“I don’t need an intervention, I don’t need you saving me,” I heard my voice speaking calmly, but the strain running through it was starting to shatter me. “If this is how you were going to make an re-appearance in my life, you should never have come. I. Do. NOT. Want. Your. Pity.” I emphasized with hissing breath each word. I meant every last one of them.
The words tasted like burnt ash in my mouth. I hadn’t meant to, but I, if I dared to admit it to myself, had held out hope that one day he would come back, and maybe we’d have a second chance, I could show him I was a main character. Maybe in a perfect story I should have become rich and successful, but this wasn’t a perfect world. I had done what I could, worked on the obvious issues, to become someone he could be proud of to have by his side.
Truth be done, I’d stepped right into the underbelly so the shadows didn’t hurt as much as before. I had known he was not the man to walk in the light, he’d live in the shadows and fiercely protect his people from there. And it was in the shadows that I’d kept my ears pressed to the ground for even a trace of him, but he had proven to be as elusive as the smoke that was currently started to curl from my ears.
And now it seems he’d come back out of pity, not for lingering feelings, not elusive second chances, but because of some misplaced duty that he played guardian. That he’d spoiled me for normal life and now he had to play counsellor to my broken patient. He was probably going to give me some speech any moment and then walk away coldly, again, duty fulfilled, until the next emergency call he got from Hyung-Min.
I spun around and ran up the last of the stairs, refusing to give in to tears, even angry ones.I grabbed my key from my purse, thrust it into the lock, flung open the door, and ran inside. My chest was heaving from the weight of unspoken emotions, my raging feelings, and my utter dejection. This was almost as cruel as Hyung-Min’s last words to me. The pain of my jaw had nothing on what was happening with my heart.
An arm reached out from behind me and spun me around to face Paksa Adeul’s harsh face. I briefly recalled how often this exchange had occurred, I’d go to leave and he’d grab me by the arm, then let go immediately as if shocked by his own motions.
This time I shook him off, looking him straight in the eye, ignoring frustrated tears that were threatening to spill. I wasn’t going to call him my Gangster Ahjussi and this wasn’t the Shi-Hyun I remembered, looking at me with an expression I could only compare to having daggers pointed at me.He looked torn between wanting to strangle me or perhaps take one of his knives and stab me.
“Stop acting like a child!” He spoke with an exasperated tone in his voice, tempered with seething hostility. Finally some emotion.
“A child? Is that what you see me as? Some reckless kid? Do you want to throw me over your lap and spank me?”
“Enough, stop!” The exasperation in his voice grew, and I started to see a crack in his composure.
Too little, too late.
“Why? Why did you follow me? I don’t want to hear anything! I’m fine, I can take care of myself!” I was beyond caring if I actually did sound like a child, my solitary goal was to have this man leave my presence before I broke down in front of him.
“You can take of youreself? Which is why you have a bleeding lip and busted jaw?!”
“I’m not your concern! You cannot make me some twisted sense of duty left over from Kyung-Mi!” I almost couldn’t believe that I had said those words.
A complete crack in his emotion. He hissed sharply inward at my voicing of my dead sister’s name, but I was too far gone to spare any pity for his pained reaction.
“Just throw some money on the table, then you can count your duty done! I’ll tell Hyung-Min that you did gave a moving speech. Much quicker and easier than actually having to stay here and listen to me and pretend you care!” I lashed out in his face.
It was a low blow, even for me, but there was no stopping this tide of feelings that was currently ripping through me, threatened to shatter me apart. The emotions on his face further cracked with shock, and I knew I had pushed too far.
This is the end. He’s going to walk away…
“I picked up the phone for the past four years every day and tried to call you! I’m not here just because Hyung-Min called me! I’m not here because of some obligation! I missed you! I couldn’t help it, I had to see you!”
I stood there, chest heaving, shocked into complete silence by his unexpected confession. I tried to process his words, our previous shouting match entirely forgotten. I was torn between so too many emotion, between wanting to take a step forward to…to…. to get in his face, to scream, cry, wail on his chest. And more than anything throw my arms tightly around him and cling for dear life.
Our assorted past had not allowed for casual physical attention, save for that one night, so I continued to stand there hesitated, torn as I attempted to understand the impact of his words.
The man in front of me had forever been balanced in a game of chess, a master strategist. As Paksa Adeul, I had learned that early on that each phrase he uttered had layers up on layers of meaning. Each word had been carefully constructed to steer his targeted individual towards his intended goal. For me, he’d put up a wall and each word spoken had been for one purpose only, to push me out of his dark and disturbing world. What he hadn’t realized is that his image of Paksa Adeul could hold for only so long and in each cold rebuff I saw Jung Shi-Hyun, the man he was underneath the cold and emotionless mask, peeking through his eyes, silently asking forgiveness for each biting word.
You couldn’t separate the two, Paksa Adeul was as much Jung Shi-Hyun, two sides of the same coin, and I knew that each time I had found myself in trouble it was Paksa Adeul who had come to my rescue, despite the harsh words had he directed to me in the past.
In the past I would have taken comfort in his strangled confession, been satisfied to just hear those words, but now it wasn’t enough for me. The raging fire within me had simmered down and spread within, a slow rush of heat.
I had been an innocent, a spoiled child, when I had first entered Paksa Adeul’s world. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I had survived. My trial by fire; I’d been assaulted, kidnapped, beaten, drugged, nearly raped, and a multitude things of other terrible things I still carried the flesh memories of.
I had also been thrown headfirst into an intense passion, a flash fire that had further shattered my simplistic girlish fantasies of a happy romantic life. My Gangster Ahjussi didn’t fit behind white picket fences.
There had been no debauchery, I had walked in willing, not wholly aware of what would be demanded, but unconditionally surrendering every single inch. His relentless intensity had coaxed responses from me that still brought a burn to my cheeks when I allowed my memory to wander down that path. He hadn’t wanted a passive companion, he had wanted a partner that night, an equally passionate individual unafraid to hold onto his open flame and not be burned. But then he had pulled away, perhaps afraid of fully unleashed what wounds he might unintentionally inflict. I had been too naive at the time to understand how to counteract his coldness. He had been my hero cloaked in broken shadows, adamant that his blood stained presence would taint everything around him. The beast hidden away in the castle, convinced he was unredeemable yet silently longing for the simple blush of spring.
And even before that night, I had been no blushing bride, no innocent virgin, I had walked through his world, followed his shadows even as I had been clawed and scratched. I had seen his most wretched and human moments. He was no fairy tale hero to me, he was Paksa Adeul, Jung Shi-Hyun, a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders and a mission he would unfailingly sacrifice everything for, and undeniably without any hesitation himself.
And even after everything, he was still sacrificing, still pushing everyone away, still burying himself in his fortress of ice. Four years ago I would have only been capable of respecting his decision, his aggressive isolation. I wouldn’t have been able to do anything but.
I understood that his confession came with conditions, little tiny thorns that still pricked when you came too close. But these four years had been long four lonely years, and each ensuing moment had built up my tolerance to pain until I could walk the knife’s fine edge and run my fingers along the blade.
I had discovered I could even relish the inevitable sting.
I realized that I had been lost in my thoughts, still breathing heavily, facing him. My eyes soaked his appearance now that he was fully visible to me. He was still wearing black, immaculately dressed head to toe, black dress shirt, black suit jacket, tie, pressed black pants. His sharply cut figure was almost too much a heart wrenching similarity to my last moments with him when he’d been lying on the deck, my hands cradling his head as he struggled to breathe through two bullets.
My eyes took in his features, his absence of four years had not changed him much, he was still whip thin but with rigidly honed strength hidden under his suit, coiffed hair, darkly lined eyes, perhaps only a slight increase of fine lines fanning his dark eyes indicating the passage of time. His stiff posture demonstrated his control, even now the only indication of what his words might have cost him in a fine line of sweat above his brow and the subtle moment of his throat as he swallowed.
No, he was uneasy, I thought with a start.
The normally impenetrable and unreadable Paksa Adeul was displaying signs of not being in fully in control. It was as if his failure to re-attain absolute composure had been an unspoken signal of him stretching out his hand. It was now my turn to decide whether to continue this careful dance, to allow his lead or reject his offer.
There are moments in life that you know you only get one chance, no option for another round.
Silently, with my eyes still locked with his, I raised my hand to my top and started slipping the buttons out of their holes. His eyes followed the movement of my fingers and swallowing of his throat visibly increased.
If there was ever a time to prove to him I didn’t need to someone to save me, this was it.
“Three years ago, attempted store robbery by two teenagers” I finished undoing the top three buttons and spread the top over my collarbone, the edge framing the slightly raised scar crossing under it. “One of them slashed me with a knife, which was careless and sloppy on my part for not dodging it. I received fifteen stitches but we captured them.” His expression darkened slightly.
Continuing to hold his eyes with mine, I raised the hem of my shirt over my abdomen revealing now smooth skin, taking note of the muscle that jumped in his jaw. “This was a case of wrong place, wrong time, a co-worker was being harassed by her boyfriend. I received a emergency call from her and headed over with security. I managed to get her away but then the boyfriend came after me with baseball bat. I suffered internal bruising, there was a scary moment with internal bleeding so I ended up in the hospital.”
I hope that this the right thing to do, to show him that I’m not some fragile wildflower.
I turned around and pointed to my left shoulder, continuing with my story. “He also got me here, nasty temper, dislocated my shoulder which added another couple of months of rehab.” I pivoted back around, almost stumbling from the look that had swept over Shi-Hyun’s eyes. The normally unreadable pools were sparking; his upper lip starting to disappear as his mouth tightened. The lines of his face grew stark with intensity. An intensity he fixed entirely on me.
His hand stretched out towards me through the charged air. During my quick turnaround he must have taken a few steps forward. This time he kept our gazes locked together as his long fingers made contact with my exposed skin. He lightly, carefully, but with hesitant purpose, traced the scar below my collarbone.
My skin felt as if had been traced by fire, my fingers unconsciously echoing that moment so long ago I had executed a similar move, a gentle smoothing of my fingers, over his own battle scars.
Slow, careful steps.
I stepped back, cutting through the cobwebs of tangled memories and emotions to make a decision. I knew that I had shaken this man, my Gangster Ahjussi. His hand remained raised in the absence of my flesh that still felt the echo of his touch. In the precious moments that I took to make a decision, his hand started to return to his side and the fine quivering that had overtaken his frame was settling. I needed to keep him unbalanced, before he repaired the chinks in his armor, before he flung out razors to ward me off.
With my heart in my throat trembling in my throat I spoke. “I showed you these scars for a reason. Not because I’m asking for your sympathy. Not because I am reprimanding you. These? They are my badges of honor, proof that I defended those who needed help. I willingly bled for each, I accepted the physical cost.”
Seeing a tiny crack in his composure, I took a quick step forward and raised a hand over his mouth, stopping his words. His eyes took note of the bruises and bloody knuckles. The Soo Min of the past would not have been so bold. “This is not your fault. You weren’t there, but that doesn’t make these your responsibility. They are mine, and I claim them as mine alone.”
“I am not that same girl you once had to constantly protect. I am not a shrinking violet, I am no longer that flower that you can’t touch to avoid damage to the petals.”
I paused, trying to calm the pounding of my heart. “I am me. I am young, I am foolish, yet I am strong. I have made mistakes, and will continue to do so, but they are mine. I get hurt, I cry, but I pick myself up and I keep going.”
“You staying the shadows doesn’t protect me, because I walk through the lonely shadows myself. I don’t want you there in the shadows, I want you…”
My tangled emotions had exposed me further than I had intended.
The damning thought riding my skin, I stopped myself, biting my lip, now fully aware that my attempt to entice emotion out of this man had turned into an unexpected confession on my behalf.
I hissed against the – until now – forgotten pain of my lip, feeling the blood trickle down it, proof that I would indeed bleed to protect those I had chosen, not unlike the man before me. The pain had startled me out of my thoughts and I realized with sinking worry how my words may have seemed to him, perhaps like the untried confession of a thoughtless and infatuated girl. I was no skilled chess player like he, no master manipulator. My honest words and feelings were the only weapons that I had, and to able to those properly I needed to re-collect myself.
I started to drop my hand from his lips but found it captured by his hand, the pressure of his palm light but firm against my tender knuckles. He pressed my pam deeper against his lips, not to graze with a kiss but just to hold it steady. His hand trembled, his lips trembled, a fine line of tension throughout his body building until I felt the fragile skin of my palm had been connected to a live wire.
I desperately wanted to do nothing more than curve my palm around his firm jaw, to trace his features, to smooth his brow, but I forced myself to keep still.
As much as I wanted to play on the passion and attraction we had always had in abundance, I couldn’t coax and seduce him. I couldn’t allow him to use his physical weakness to me as an excuse to leave me with only the echoes of another shared night, then disappear. I knew that if this happened again I wouldn’t be able to stand strong. It would break me. I wanted him, but all of him, my Gangster Ahjussi, Paksa Adeul, Jung Shi-Hyun, each intricate puzzle piece locking together to create the man in front of me.
His hand slightly increased the pressure on mine as he tugged me towards him. As my feet shifted towards his and the space between us diminished further, he dropped his gasp on his hand, releasing with a casual caress. He reached with the same same to touch my abused face.
My own hand, now released of its prison, trailed limply down until it found a natural resting place at the joint between his neck and shoulder. My own fingers seemed unwilling to bear the absence of flesh as they curled slightly around his neck. His hand lightly stroked my jaw, mindful of it’s soreness. His thumb brushed away the slight trickle of blood from my lower lip then remained there, moving gently back and forth, as if he couldn’t help the movement of his fingers.
I felt myself leaning into touch and pressing my cheek against his palm, not caring about the sudden flare of pain the pressure caused. He noticed my slight discomfort and started to shift away. At the loss of pressure I raised my other hand to hold to my lips, a mimic of our movements only moments ago.
“Don’t, you’re not hurting me.” My softly spoken voice echoed through the air.
There were layers upon layers of meaning in those words, and I knew that he read the surface and deeper truth they concealed. Looking up at him, I saw the moment in which he made his decision in the slight narrowing of his eyes and determined tightening in his jaw.
Wrapping his other arm around me, tugged me even closer, catching me off-glance, until we almost pressed against each other. Through the bare inches of space between us I could feel the heat seeping from his body. I steadied myself, grasping his jacket in my hand, feeling the play of muscles of his back. I cursed under my breath my unhealthy habit of wearing uncomfortably high heels.
My heels in this case gave me unexpected moment of relief, as I rocked back on them to slightly open the gap between us.
While I wanted nothing more than to press myself so close, to clutch him so tightly as to melt into his skin, to almost climb through him, I was still aware of our controlled and tentative dance. However woefully outmatched I might be, I was determined to make this man mine, to risk all and hopefully win all.
I would walk through fire and laugh down death if it meant that he would admit to me, if not only in the private of moments, that he would call me “His” and I would call him “Mine.”
But while the heart wants what the heart wants, the mind will throw an icy bucket and reality intrude will intrude. If I suddenly stumbled in this careful dance, if I let him adopt his past protector to my unfortunate damsel in distress, then I would lose him. The hero who thought he didn’t deserve the princess, as I had been labeled in the past.
I had to try to rise as his equal, this man who honestly awed and overwhelmed me, to show him that my princess carried a sword of her own hidden among her skirts, and she would defend her man until her final bitter breath. I had tried my best to hone my own spine of steel, encased in my slender frame. I had also learned how to fight dirty and dig my heels and teeth in to rancid flesh in order to win if I must.
Mentally steeling myself, I stretched out a hand and laid against his chest, feeling the rapid tattoo of his heart. I took mental note that he was definitely still affected by my close proximity. Chemistry, though, had never been our problem. The firm grip of his hands had not allowed for much separation. We were still close enough that I could feel the heat of his skin evident beneath his layers of clothing, the solid strength of his muscles as he remained still, dark eyes flicking back and forth between my face and my hand on his chest.
I felt my own heartbeat increasing.
I took a full step back, pushing slightly against the strength of his hands. He resisted momentarily then let me go, allowing me to take another step back, then another, until the cold and empty distance that stretched between us.
I spoke before I lost my nerve.
“In the past, in our every voluntary meeting, I have been the one to come to you. I was the one who called you, who waited for you. I approached you, I poked and prodded at you. And every time you pushed me away, I chased after you, no matter how many times you told me to go and forget you.” I paused, the next words particularly painful to get out. “On that deck, four years ago, I watched you slip away, like a ghost, even though you were alive. I understand the reasons behind your actions, why you kept pushing me away. Even though I can’t completely forgive you you, I do understand.”
“But here I am now” I pointed to the space around me. “You pushed me away and I am now away. You succeeded in that goal, you won.” I took a deep breath, struggled to find the strength to utter my next words, my ultimatum.
“I could lose,” I suddenly thought with startling shock, a icy vice grip on my heart. Even though he’s here right now, I could lose him in the next few words. Do I take the small pieces of him that I can get. Do I take comfort in the scattered stolen moments he might offer? Do I risk that he could walk away? That he could leave me picking up the ashes from yet another ghost? But the one thing four years had taught me was that I could not settle, not bend, not on this matter. I couldn’t compromise my heart, and I couldn’t allow him to ignore his.
Fighting to speak through the block in my throat, my voice coming out reedy and strained, I started to speak again. “Four years later and here we are. Or there you are and here I am. I picked up the broken pieces after you left and I put them back together, stronger.”
One final chance to stop.
“This must be your choice, your move. I can’t come to you. If you want me, then you must step to me.” As I spoke, I watched as his face settled back into unreadable lines, Paksa Adeul now standing in front of me
“But,” my voice faltered as I tried to find the right words. I had sketched out this moment, these phrases again and again, but they were ill preparation to the reality before me. “If you come to me, you accept me and my terms.” I watched as his head lifted slightly and jaw tightened, as if preparing himself for my next words.
“You let me in, into your world, to your life, to your pain, your sorrow. You let me share with you the moments of your life, be they harsh moments, quiet moments, light moments, terrifying horrible moments.” I paused for a moment. “I am not asking you to announce me as your partner in public. I understand your need for secrecy. But I want the chance to be your partner in life. I have only seen glimpses of you, my Gangster Ahjussi, Paksa Adeul, Jung Shi-Hyun. Only small moments within each that you allowed in my presence, or I coaxed out of you, or that broke through despite your attempts to hide.”
“If you step towards me, if you enter my hemisphere, then you agree to let me in. I can’t just have you for this one night and let you walk away, it is all or nothing. You accept to try, we agree to try.” Through my speech, I had watched his body stiffen with each word. His hands clenched and unclenched. His throat contracted as he listened silently to the weight of my words.
“In return,” I continued, pushing through until the very end, unable to stop until my final word was uttered. If I stopped now my fear would choke me into submission. “I will give you me, utterly and completely. I will share your pain. I will shield you from monsters. I will take the sword from your side should it fall and fight in your stead without hesitation. I will laugh for you until I can laugh no more, just to see a smile on your face. And I will cry for you when you are unable to shed tears. I will take you by the hand and walk through whatever horrid place you now exist in, be it the foulness depths of hell, because it is your hand I am holding. And I will never let go.”
“But, you have to remove your cloak of thorns for me. We will clash, fight, throw harsh words at each other, shed tears, try to shield each other from pain, but we will try to love deeply, fully, and completely. I can’t have anything else. I won’t accept anything else.”
I paused, only aware now of the tears that had been silently rolling down my cheeks and his. “All I want is you, and all I can give you is me, and I hope that you decide that is enough. I will stand here, like a hopeless fool, waiting. But I know that I can’t walk towards you. That is the only thing I can’t give you.”
“You now have to decide to accept or not.”
My final words echoing the silence, I stopped. I was overwhelmed by the finality, the complete stripping of my soul.
I had put everything on the line, asked for everything, and given everything I had. I had bet that the passage of time had not weakened our link, that what I seen behind his eyes then had been everything I imagined. And that I was now strong enough to accept what had been there, to take on the responsibility of a main character in this play.
He was standing on a cliff and I was waiting below to catch him, arms stretched wide. I didn’t know if he was going to jump or step away.
I had taken my eyes off of him as they threatened to overflow with tears, and now I brought them back to his face. His pupils had dilated so much that even from our distance I felt they had swallowed up his eyes. His own cheeks showed traces of tears, I could see faint marks against his jacket and shirt as further evidence of his reaction to my impassioned words.
He had put his hands down by his sides, fists clenched. His head was turned slightly away as he tried to calm himself, to refocus, to perhaps block the sound of my words ringing through his head as strongly as they rang through mine. I recognized the signs of him pulling away. I had seen this stance so many times before, when he was preparing to push me away. Perhaps this time he might use gentle words but they would solidify that lonely stench of emptiness between us.
I was not going to let him regroup, to go misplaced chivalrous knight on me. He didn’t get to finish it that way, to send me off with a polite “I’m sorry but thank you” rolled together in one speech. He had said those similar words to me at Kyung-Mi’s grave and I had never forgiven myself for being a coward and letting him walk away.
Suddenly spurred by my thoughts, I was compelled to act in a way I had not in the past four years. I picked up a pillow on the nearby couch and flung it at him. His head was still turned slightly away, his Paksa Adeul reflexes not quite top-notch at that moment. It hit him square in the chest, ejecting a slight “Oof” from him.
He caught the offending pillow before it dropped, and stared at it, then me, my hand still in mid-throw. Was that slight frown that tugged at the corner of his lips? I dropped my hand, now utterly humiliated by my completely childish act. For all of my best intentions, I had in one action just shattered the argument that I wasn’t a child. I had shown him how much of an equal I was not.
My cheeks were burning now with embarrassment. I lowered my eyes, feeling a new steady trickle of tears leaking out and dripping onto the floor. Tears that tasted of despair.
I had promised myself not to participate in a self pity party should I fail in this. But I had four years alone. The memory of a single night and briefly shared moments afterwards had been my only companions in my darkest of hours. I couldn’t bear the admit the fact that I’d lost him to my own foolishness.
I had put my heart on the line and it hadn’t been enough. It wasn’t a matter of blaming, there were simply some things that you could wish for all you wanted and simply not get. A painful reminder that life wasn’t fair.
I heard a movement, but in my utterly dejected state I could only assume that he was walking away. I couldn’t bear to see the sight of his final leaving back so I remained, eyes glued the floor. I waited to hear the door softly close. I listened as the clock ticked away the minutes, my tears unending, my heart completely broken.
Looking down through salty haze of my bitter tears, I saw the winged tips of two black shoes. It couldn’t…? Hoping against hope, I raised my eyes slowly, tracing achingly familiar long legs, past a trim belted waist, narrow but strong chest, lean neck, until my own eyes were resting on my Gangster Ahjussi’s face. He had taken all but two steps towards me. For the first time I could recall, I could see that he was as physically affected as I was.
From his own eyes trails of tears dripped, creating new salt tracks, his lips slightly reddened as if from biting them. His hair had been run through by his hands as black locks fell over his forehead. His throat convulsively swallowing, he started to speak three times before he could form his emotions into coherent words.
Those two words came from a voice I had never heard before, a voice that sounded as through it had been screamed raw.
My mind latched on those two words. My lips parted, my breath sped up, my chest now heaving with emotion. I was unable to take a breath, all of the oxygen had been sucked out of my lungs, my heart now resting in my throat.
I watched foggily, as if through a haze, the corners of his lips lifting slightly before his arms came up and around me, pulling me flush against him. One hand wrapped around my back, the other burying itself in my hair. There was no line, no space, between where he ended and I began, we were pressed so tightly as to almost share the same body.
He had picked me up slightly and I found my face pressed slightly above his collarbone, my lips tasting the salty traces of his tears. His hand moved to stroke the nape of my neck. My own hands were clasped tightly around him, my Gangster Ahjussi, my Shi-Hyun.
His hand against my neck pressed upward slightly and I found my face tilting up towards his as his lips bent down to part mine. They trembled as mine did, coaxing my mouth wider. He tipped my head further back, lips alternating between playful kisses to sweet nips and tugs at my lower lip to pressing our mouths together so hard the taste of him seared through me.
I was drunk on him, my senses overwhelmed with his touch, his taste. Both of his hands now lifted to cup my face as he directed the angle that he bestowed his attentions. My jaw was aching, my lips stinging against the salt from our combined tears, but I didn’t care.
Both of my hands now were tangled in his shirt, his jacket at some point having been thrown on the floor. My fingers slipped buttons out of holes to caress his bare skin beneath.
One of his own hands trailed down my face to trace over the scar beneath my collarbone, a movement he then aching followed with his mouth.
My mind grew hazy as it turned to thoughts of only the pleasures of tonight. I knew though that this was only the first step. There was a long road ahead of us, ghosts of loved ones and betrayals scattered behind so eager to pull us down.
There were still so many obstacles in our way, but I knew that we could survive. I had put a claim to him and no one would hurt him as long as I was there, and he would allow nothing to hurt me.
The words were still unspoken, but he and I both knew that there was no need to speak them, not yet.
Our eyes met and I could feel the curve of his first real smile to me against my own.
A simple word like love didn’t cover what we had, we were simply each other’s.
End Chapter One
A/N: Wow, that took a lot longer than I was expecting to revamp. It was needed to be done to make it work with Chapter Two, as this was originally meant to be a one shot.