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Not a Whisperer. Not a Hunter. An Avoider.

Chapter Text

    4:53am

    It was a strange time for a phone call. A suspicious time. And there was an unfamiliar number on the caller ID. Most people would be immediately anxious about family members, mind jumping quickly to thoughts of heart attacks and car accidents and hospital emergency rooms. 

    My concern was silence. 

    I almost didn’t answer it.

    “Is this Min YoonGi?” 

    A voice. A simple question. Nothing to worry about. 

    “Yeah, that’s me.”

    “Ah, this is Jo WonSeok. I work at Hopeful Giving Resale. I’m really sorry to call you so early in the morning, but I want to let you know that we’ve got a problem with our truck. So, we won’t be able to do this morning’s pick up on time.”

    “Is that so.” 

    “Yeah. We’re gonna take the truck over to the auto center first thing and get it looked at. If it’s something that can’t be fixed right away, we’ll go rent a truck. So, I’d say we’ll have everything out of your way by noon at the very latest.”

    “Alright. Thanks for letting me know.”

    Shit. I stared blankly at the computer screen full of text in front of me. Pushed my fingers through my hair. 

    Shit. Shit. Shit. I did not want to deal with a delayed pick up. Not when I’d been engrossed in writing chapter 8 and the words had been flowing effortlessly from my fingertips. Not when it was still dark outside. 

    I thought about waiting for the sun to rise. For the blurring of dawn. I recognized it for what it was. Avoidance and unnecessary cowardice. I wouldn’t be in any danger out on my porch or in my tiny front yard. I just didn’t want to deal with it. Didn’t want to see. Didn’t want to hear. Didn’t want to think. I wanted to stay inside and pretend like nothing else existed. 

    But darkness is a shield as well as a menace. It would hide me from the neighborhood and curious, suspicious, judging eyes. At sunrise, more people would be waking up, glancing out their windows, heading off to work. I didn’t want to be out there dealing with the problem when that happened. 

-~*~-

    So I went outside. I live in the first of a line of row houses, tall and narrow, each sharing a wall with its neighbors. Mine is 1271 and my neighbor is 1273. We share a large cement porch that opens on a wide set of steps that leads down to a sidewalk that’s about 12 feet long and splits the front yard in half, my side and his side. There’s a lawn of scruffy grass surrounded by a wrought iron fence. 

    My side of the porch and my half of the yard - hell, even my half of the sidewalk - were covered in a mess of objects. On the other side of the fence, crowding together, pushing forward as much as possible without touching the cold iron, were hundreds of ghosts. 

    It had been awhile since I saw them at night. I avoid leaving my house and it’s protected with every possible ward for keeping them out. If I do go out, it’s always during the day, when the light fades them, makes them weaker. When they’re easier to ignore. 

    Not that I can’t protect myself. I’m always carrying the proper herbs and spices, amulets and geegaws. All but the strongest of them can’t get near me. But they can stare and they can scream and beseech me for help. Help that I can’t and won’t give. 

    With a sigh, I began halfheartedly sorting through the jumble on the porch. Trying to stack everything and at least make it look orderly. As if I had purposefully taken a bizarre assortment of objects out of my house and arranged them neatly on my porch and lawn. 

    Normal people might do that, right? If they’re getting ready to move, or spring cleaning, or preparing for a yard sale. Not likely. At least, not like this. And the things themselves made the story even less believable. Everything from diamond rings and gold watches, to filthy tennis shoes and a half eaten hamburger. A case of apple juice. A little girl’s dress. A blender. A hammer. A cell phone. 

    The list went on and on. The ghosts pick them up anywhere that’s outside, since they can’t take a solid object through walls. Well, most ghosts won’t walk through walls themselves, even though they can. They pick up the goods stores have displayed on sidewalks, get them from outdoor markets, snatch belongings from people who’ve dropped them or set them down and taken their eyes off of them. 

    They carry them to my doorstep and leave them as offerings. Bribes. Pleas for attention and aid. They cross over the iron fence between 2 and 4 am, when their power is at its highest and they dare to suffer the pain. 

    There’s more than the iron to contend with. I’ve sprinkled so much sage and coriander seeds over the lawn during the last few years that it’s nearly impossible for them to stay in the yard. And the porch is painted haint blue. The weakest drop their gifts just inside the fence and flee. The strongest make it to the porch. 

    The era the ghost died in determines what sort of gifts they bring. As well as their personalities and the issues they drug over the border with them into the world of spirits. Recent deaths know the importance of smart watches and laptops. Ghosts that died long ago favor food, clothes and shoes, things that they understand. Housewives bring small appliances, jewelry and decorations. Business men bring briefcases, watches and golf clubs. Children bring toys. 

    I keep none of it. It all goes to a charity resale shop. They pick it up every morning before sunrise, dispose of everything that’s trash and sell everything else. They keep all of the money. It’s an arrangement that suits me well. I don’t have to deal with anything and I’m left with nothing of what’s been offered. Not a single penny of profit. 

    If some of the items they carry away and put up for sale on their shelves are possessed, well there’s risk woven into everything. It’s easy enough to go to the grocery store and buy a can of corn with a ghost attached to it. They’re everywhere. Always trying to get a little closer. Always trying to resolve some issue, though they’ve often been gone from the living world so long, forgotten so much of what it’s like to be alive, that their actions are nonsensical. Their means of striving for a solution forever doomed to fail. 

    That’s why they want me. I can see them. I can hear them. And they know it. They smell me or sense me or something from miles and miles away. They never stop coming. They want me to find their wife, their son, the man who killed them. To turn in the report, feed the children, pay the rent. To throw water on the fire, to give them medicine, to stop the car from rushing forward. 

    Things that I can never do, even when the things they ask are possible. When their death is fresh enough that I can find the people and the places and the things. It never works. Because it isn’t me that needs to do it. It’s them. And they never can and never will.

    Their only hope is to slowly give up and fade away. Dissolving bit by bit into the afterlife. Disappearing from this world of pain. 

-~*~-

    “What is all that stuff?”

    The voice surprised me. Decidedly human. I turned quickly to see my new neighbor, Kim NamJoon. I’d only met him once. He was tall and attractive, with a bright, open, guileless face. He’d bought the row house connected to mine after the crazy old lady who used to live there died. It hadn’t been long since he’d moved in. Maybe a couple of weeks. 

    The length of wall that abutted the porch was inset a few feet into the face of our houses. It created an alcove that was topped by the second floor and protected our front doors from rain and snow. He was sitting in a chair in a shadowy corner of his side of the alcove, looking at me curiously.

    I sighed. I’d been muttering and cussing angrily to myself as I sifted through the shit that littered my property. Tossed the trash into a corner of the yard. Tried to create a half-assed order out of everything else. 

    I took a moment to wonder how long he must have been watching me, but the answer was obviously since I’d stepped out of my door. If he’d walked out of his house in the time I’d been outside, I would have noticed him.

    “It’s gifts from my fans.” It was the best explanation I’d ever come up with. Because really, how the fuck was I supposed to explain it? “Don’t worry. They won’t put things on your side.”

    The offerings were for me and there was no way that the ghosts would set their gifts on his property. 

    “Your fans give you old broken stuff? What do you do?” 

    “I’m a writer. I’ve got haters, too. And some people just have a weird sense of humor.”

    I picked up a worn dog leash, a toy car with a missing wheel and an open bag of chips and tossed them over to the trash pile.

    “Really?” His voice was suddenly excited. “I love to read. What kind of books do you write? Maybe I’ve read one.”

    “Psychology textbooks.”

    “Ah...I didn’t know textbook authors have fans.”

    I had to bite back a short burst of bitter laughter. “It takes all kinds. And I write articles for journals and magazines, too.”

    As if that explained everything. He was silent for a little while and I kept working my way through the pile.

    “Did you ever think, maybe the people who are doing this are psychotic or something? It would probably explain some of the stranger gifts and...well, is this stuff up here real?”

    I turned to look up at him. The sky was starting to turn gray as dawn approached and he was growing easier to see. He was motioning to the pile of jewelry and high end tech.

    “Of course they’re crazy. You’d have to be crazy to go out in the middle of the night and drop a gift off at a stranger’s house just because you like something he wrote. Someone did it years ago and the idea caught on and spread. There’s really nothing I can do about it. I’ve tried. And, yeah, that shit’s real.”

    It had rained the previous afternoon. So there were quite a few umbrellas. I tossed a few more onto a pile that already held about twenty of them.

    “What do you do with it all?”

    “I donate it to a shop that sells it and then donates the money to charity. I donate so much, they let me choose which charity it goes to each month. This month is orphans. Next month it'll go towards conducting funerals for people who die without family or friends to do it for them.”

    “Ah. That’s nice.”

    I did the funeral one every other month. It’s not like I was ever going to notice a difference in the number of ghosts, but if a proper funeral could send a spirit off to the afterlife, it was worth the attempt. 

    “This stuff usually gets picked up by a truck from the shop. It broke down this morning. So, don’t worry. It shouldn’t be a big problem for you.”

    “Yeah. Well. That’s good to know. I’ve got to go get ready for work. You have a good day.”

    “Thanks. You, too.”

    The sunlight was growing stronger. First illuminating the ghosts that littered the sidewalk, the road and the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. Then quietly washing them out, fading their color until they were barely there. Outlines of human forms with a scant brush of watercolors. Upper bodies floating with no legs to support them. Standing unmoving, staring and wailing, even as school children ran and adults hurried and cars, trucks and buses zoomed right through them.

Chapter Text

    “You brought champagne?” I stared hard at Jung HoSeok. Just being around alcohol makes me uncomfortable. “I don’t drink at all and you can barely handle one glass.”

    “Come on. Don’t be lame.” He was whining and pouting cutely. “Let’s have fun tonight.”

    With a resigned sigh I shrugged off my concern and stepped back to let him in the front door. Whatever. I’d just keep him at my house all night long if he got too drunk to safely go outside.

    “I’ve got something to celebrate.” His finely drawn lips curved into a big smile. His eyes were sparkling. 

    “Okay. Have a seat. I’ll get you a glass.” He sat on the couch while I went into the kitchen and came back with a big jar that had once held jelly. “Here. This is the best I can do.”

    “I should have known.” He accepted the jar, looked at it curiously, his features clearly showing his consternation, and then handed it back to me. “Hold it a second.”

    He stood back up to open the bottle, stripping off the packaging and then working at the cork.

    “Don’t let that spray everywhere. I don’t like to clean.” The reminder wasn’t necessary. He complained about my messy house every time he visited.

    His response was a grunt and then the cork popped free from the bottle. He snatched the jar from my hand and held it up to catch the foam that spilled out. “This looks delicious.”

    His voice held happiness and excitement. It made my heart jump and my blood run faster in my veins. Desire and anticipation taking hold. He sat back down and I tugged my t-shirt over my head and dropped down next to him. “Why did you buy such a big bottle? Don’t they make smaller bottles?”

    “I thought I’d be able to tempt you into drinking with me.”

    “No.”

    My answer was short and strong. There was no way that I would drink. Even safe in my own house. Protected by all of my wards. There was no fucking way.

    “You are the least bohemian bohemian that I have ever met.” He began sipping at the champagne, relaxation and pleasure falling over his face.

    “What makes you think I’m a bohemian?” 

    He was drinking the alcohol far too fast and he’d filled the jar to the brim. I knew that he couldn’t handle it. He waved his hand around in response to my question, indicating the room around us. “If you aren’t bohemian, I don’t know how you explain this decor.”

    I ventured a guess. “Flea market kitsch?” He’d been coming here for three years and had never once asked about my house.

    “This is not flea market kitsch.” He looked around, trying to find a word to describe the wards that covered the walls, cluttered the surfaces, draped over the backs of chairs. “Most of it’s not exactly disturbing, but-”

    I quickly jumped in to turn the conversation. I wasn’t going to be explaining anything. “What are you celebrating? You’d better tell me before you pass out.”

    My voice was cajoling. I was sliding my hand along the back of the couch, on the way to burying my fingers in his hair when he spoke. “I’m getting married.”

    The blood froze in my veins. My hand stopped. I pulled it back. Let it fall into my lap. My mind was racing. My heart was really thudding now. Potential ramifications of his words flew through my mind. A high speed slide show. “I didn’t know you were dating anyone seriously.” 

    “You know that woman I was fucking? Things got a little more involved.” He took another deep drink of champagne.

    “That-” I bit off my words and started again. “Why didn’t you tell me?” 

    “What does it matter? You already knew about her.”

    I stood up. Took a deep breath. Tried to get the anger that was building in me under control. Scooped my t-shirt off the floor where I’d dropped it. Turned it in my hands to position it to put it back on. Tossed it away with a scoffing sound. I didn’t need it. Didn’t need clothes as a shield to keep him away. He wasn’t going to fucking touch me. 

    “She was your fuck friend and I was your fuck friend and that was fine, but once you started dating her, you should have told me.”

    I didn’t know what to do with my anger. I lived alone. I rarely went out. Most of the things I bought were delivered. I spoke to the people that I worked with through emails and texts with a few phone calls thrown in. Everything perfectly businesslike. I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d been angry at a human. 

    Throwing spices and muttering verses wasn’t going to do anything. I was full of a boiling energy and there was nothing to do with it.

    “I still don’t see the difference. Unless you fell in love with me.” His voice was flippant. He wasn’t taking any of this seriously. He was already diving back into the jar.

    “Stop drinking.” I kept my voice low, but the command was clear. 

    “Why? I want to celebrate and you’re getting all worked up. You’re being too serious. I want to hold you down and fuck you. Feel all that emotion inside of you tightening down on me.” 

    “That isn’t going to happen. You’re engaged.” I stepped over and snatched the jar from his hand. It was nearly empty. I picked up the bottle of champagne, dodging his grabbing hands. 

    They ended up on me. Circling my waist and holding tight. Fingers creeping over my bare skin. Making me sick.

    “Let me go. You have no right to touch me when you’ve committed yourself to someone else.”

    His arms loosened and then disappeared from my body. For the last time. I didn’t turn to look at him. “I’m going to make you some coffee. You’re going to sober up and get the hell out of here.”

    “See?” His voice was whining. Complaining. Drunk. “What did I tell you? You’re not bohemian at all. You’re like a fucking senior citizen. Why are you so uptight?”

    Ignoring him, I walked straight to my sink and dumped the champagne down the drain. Popped a k-cup into my Keurig and stared at it. Tried to get my heart to settle down. The anger to fade. The fear to dissipate. 

    I didn’t do this. I never got myself involved in anything that could be carried to the grave. One moment of revelation and HoSeok’s fiance could easily form a grudge that would last a lifetime and beyond. I hid from the world outside my front door because it was filled with ghosts, but I also hid from this. The attachments. The anger. The hate. The longing. The love. 

    They were all too dangerous. Trailing pain to death and beyond. I didn’t allow them in my life and I did nothing to create them in the lives of others. 

    “You seriously need to lighten up.” He was in the kitchen doorway. I didn’t look up. The coffee was almost finished streaming into the cup. Turning into droplets. “She was my fuck friend, too. Remember? She’s cool. This is no big deal.”

    “Really?” I didn’t believe him. He’d always been just a little too smooth. A salesman at heart. His pretty face. His infectious smile. He never hesitated to grasp for whatever he wanted.

    I’d liked it. He’d been the first to try to reach past my walls. Not for love or any kind of real relationship. Just for sex. But that had been the only thing I’d wanted. The only thing allowable. No feelings beyond a friendly comradery. Nothing deep. 

    “Yeah.” He thought I was going to give in. I glanced over. He was smiling. Leaning forward flirtatiously. Wobbling on his feet. Holding on to the doorframe to keep from falling. “It’s all good. We don’t need to stop.”

    “So she knows about me. She knows where you are right now?” I picked up the coffee cup and turned to stare at him.

    “No. Not…” He grimaced. Tried to collect himself. “She started out as my fuck friend. She understands fuck friends. It’s no big thing.”

    “That’s shit.” I pushed the coffee into his hands and slipped past him into the living room. “Drink that.”

    “You’re acting like a little bitch. What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. You think you’re gonna get someone else to come in here and fuck you if you don’t have me? You’re gonna get on Tinder and find someone looking for a neurotic recluse living in a creepy house?” 

    I spun on my heel to face him. Rage flaring. Ready to shout at him. The words turned to lead on my tongue. My lips refused to budge. I would not open my mouth to anger. Just the thought chilled the fury sparked by his words. His selfish decisions. His deceit. 

    “What I do after you leave here is none of your concern.” My voice was flat. Emotionless. I could see that it pissed him off. He wanted my rage. Wanted a fight if he wasn’t going to get my ass. “You have a fiance. Soon you’ll have a wife and a family. That’s where your loyalty should lie. That’s what you should focus on.” 

    “Who are you to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do with my relationships? You’ve never even had a relationship. You were nothing but a pathetic virgin before I gave you a sympathy fuck. You’d have nothing if I didn’t come here.”

    I took a breath. Gave him a moment to reflect on what he’d just said. “I didn’t ask you to fuck me. I don’t need you to come here. Drink your coffee and get out.”

    “Fuck that. I’m leaving now.”

    He looked around for somewhere to put the coffee. Every surface was covered with wards. 

    “You can’t just walk out of here like this. You’re drunk.”

    “Not that drunk. I’ll just get a taxi.”

    People never take drinking seriously. Don’t know or don’t believe the stories about ghosts attaching themselves to drunk people, taking over or taking advantage or doing a hundred different types of harm. 

    “You’re not gonna get a taxi on this street at this time of night.”

    “I’ll get an uber, you fucking grandma.”

    “You do that.”

    He pulled his phone out and fumbled to open it and use the app one-handed. The coffee was still in his other hand. 

    “It’s gonna be fifteen minutes.”

    “Drink the coffee.”

    “I’m not staying in here.”

    “Fine. Take it with you.”

    Anger and anxiety warred inside of me as I followed him to the door. I wasn’t going to beg him to stay inside until the car arrived. People went outside drunk every night. It was his decision. His risk to take. 

    It was 10:37. Not so very late. The spirits’ power didn’t really start picking up until midnight. It could be worse.

    I paced around my living room. Gave up. Went back to my entryway. Peered out one of the small, thick squares of bevelled glass. He was out there. Sitting on the top step. Sipping the coffee. 

    I watched until the car showed up. Watched him walk down the sidewalk and open the door. Walk right through the crowd of ghosts. All of them staring at him. Mouths opened on cries that he would never hear.

    I turned away before he slipped inside and closed the door. I didn’t need to know. Ghosts had followed him in. Were trying to attach themselves to him. Were attaching themselves to the car. Intent on following him home. Following him inside. Finding weaknesses. Opportunities. Creating chaos. Discontent. Torment.

    I sighed. I’d lost my fuck friend. My chance to have sex. Those hot minutes of erotic bliss. 

    There was no telling what HoSeok may have lost. 

Chapter Text

    “What the fuck?!?!?!”

    I dropped the dumbbell that was in my hand. It fell heavy to the floor. Alarmingly close to my toes. But my focus was on the ghost that had just walked through my living room wall. Even though it was 11:14am. Even though the wall was covered with wards.

    Just the wall itself should have kept her out. Ghosts can pass through solid objects, but they usually don’t do it intentionally. People, vehicles, pets, anything really. They’ll let it all pass right through them, but they won’t step through them of their own free will. They’ll walk around the telephone pole. Drift over the fence. Stand behind the truck, but let the car park right on top of them. 

    So this woman. This female spirit. Was powerful. Very powerful. She was even fully present. Perfectly visible even in the full light of a July morning streaming through my large bay window. Head to toe instead of fading away below the waist like most ghosts do. 

    My heart was thudding so hard in my chest that it felt as if it would burst. Shock transforming into a fear so strong it was nearly terror. One of my hands snaked automatically into my pocket, fingers clenching around a pile of salt. 

    “That won’t work.”

    She spoke. Voice loud and clear. A lot of ghosts, when they talk it sounds like they’re underwater. Sometimes they’re completely unintelligible. 

    I threw the salt anyway. Hand already moving as she spoke. I’d have tried anyway, if I’d had time to think. It passed through her and she didn’t even shimmer. She smirked. She scoffed.

    “What do you want?” 

    I was trembling. Trying to calm my reaction so that I could think straight. Figure out how to get rid of her.

    “Where’s your friend? You haven’t been fucked lately. You’re weak.”

    My body jerked in surprise at her words. I recognized that they were true. I had been...feeling HoSeok’s absence. Honestly, I’d been horny as fuck. I hadn’t thought about the fact that it would weaken me. That the emptiness and desire would lure ghosts. That I was opened up to malice as my body called out for a dick.

    “What do you want?”

    She laughed outright. She knew what I was. What power I had. All ghosts do. And she wasn’t afraid. She walked over and sat on my couch.  

    Ghosts don’t do that. They don’t sit. They don’t use objects beyond possessing them or pushing them or flinging them or stealing them to leave as an offering to still living family and friends or people like me. 

    She was smirking again. She knew exactly how special she was. She was getting off on it.

    “I’m Na YooJin and you’re Min YoonGi.” Her eyes moved down my body and back up again. “You’re more than a little pathetic. What kind of man with power like yours hides in his house lifting little weights and doing craft projects.”

    Her gaze traveled around the room. Taking in the wards that I’d made as if they were nothing more than art made with yarn and glitter and glue by kindergartners. She should be screaming. She should be writhing in pain. Scraps of her should be being torn away, ripped into the afterlife in the face of so much torment. She should be running away as fast as she could.

    “What do you want?”

    “It’s hard, isn’t it? When you don’t have your man?” She was musing. A little smile on her face as if we were having a friendly chat. Her eyes staring off into the distance dreamily. 

    I shouldn’t be able to see her this clearly. She shouldn’t be this comfortable. Even miles from a ward she should have been fidgety and uneasy. Ghosts were never at rest. They were never okay.  

    “I know all about that. I’ve been missing mine since I passed.” She spoke of her own death. She knew it. Understood it. 

    So many ghosts don’t. They’re fixated on that one last thing that they’d wanted to do. Pass the test. Take the kimchi jigae off the stove. Get to work on time. Even when they want revenge on their killer it’s often for a vague reason that they don’t quite understand. Could never articulate. 

    “Is that what you want?” My eyes were taking in her clothes. A short white dress with a pattern of vines and little pink flowers. I don’t know anything about women’s fashion. Just enough to tell me that her death couldn’t have been too many decades ago, or her dress wouldn’t have been so short. Was her “man” still alive? “You want me to find your man and tell him that you love him?”

    She laughed and reached up to comb her fingers through her hair. One more thing that ghosts never do. “No, I just want you to keep an eye on him for me.”

    “Keep an eye on him?” I didn’t bother to try to keep the surprise out of my voice. “Why don’t you do that yourself?”

    Hell, she’d walked through my wall. Fuck. She’d passed through the front wall. That means she’d gone over the iron fence. The lawn full of sage and coriander seeds. Probably even the haint blue porch.

    “You shouldn’t need any help watching your boyfriend or husband or whatever.” 

    She gave a little growl of disapproval. Besides walking through my wall it was the first thing she’d done that was ghostlike. The sound was not human. It made my stomach turn.

    “He’s my fiance, and I can’t see him or get near him.” Her voice was full of a bitter anger. “Someone’s put a protection on him. Probably some stage show shaman performing tricks for penny tips at a festival when he was a child.” 

    She hadn’t been looking at me. Her eyes had been cast forward as if her own thoughts were what were most important. Now they turned to me. “I need you to do it.”

    “There’s no way I can go follow some guy around. If I leave the house the passed will flock to me. I’ll never be able to concentrate on your fiance.” I tried to keep my voice reasonable. As if we were two friends talking something over. 

    “Fuck the other ghosts.” Okay. Ghosts never say the word ghost or spirit or even apparition. Never. I was beginning to wonder if this bitch wasn’t something else. Something I hadn’t encountered before. “You shouldn’t have any problems. He’s your neighbor. Kim NamJoon. You keep an eye on him and be ready to report to me whenever I come.” 

    I let out a puff of air. Allowed myself to feel a little relief. “There’s really nothing to report. The guy goes to work and comes home. He spends a lot of time sitting on the porch reading books. Even if you come back once a week, there isn’t going to be anything else to say.”

    She stood up and looked at me. Eyes full of a malevolence that was nothing short of monstrous. My skin crawled. “Then you make friends with him. Get him to invite you into his house. Let him tell you all of his little stories. Ask him a lot of questions. I want to know everything.”

    Her eyes left mine to scan my living room. A smirk on her lips.

    “You’d better have information when I come back.”

    She turned and walked through the couch. Through the table that was behind it. Across the floor and back out through the wall. 

    It took me a couple of seconds to get my feet moving. I hurried over to the couch. Sat down where she’d been sitting. Opened myself up. Breathed deeply. Let images and words fall into my head. 

    None of the things I made my wards out of were effective against the ghost Na YooJin. Not the old standards like salt and iron. Not the newer ones I’d discovered myself like circuit boards, drinking straws and Cheetos crushed into a fine powder. 

    She had her own list. MSG. Navy blue eyeliner. Tulle. Toile. Window cleaner. Uncooked macaroni noodles. River stones. Spiders. Braids of seven strands. Idocrase. Paperclips... 

    I went over to my computer to start some online shopping. It was time for some arts and crafts.

Chapter Text

    “Hey.”

    NamJoon looked up from a book. He was sitting in the chair on his side of the alcove. “Hey.”

    His eyes skimmed over me. Took in the old kimchi container full of colored string that I held in my hand. Looked back up curiously. 

    I avoided his eyes and sat down on the top step. Pulled the braid of seven that I was working on out of my pocket. Stuck the end of it under my foot on the stair below me to hold it in place. Started working the strings together.

    And I thought. I was already fucking this up. I wasn’t used to talking to people. Starting conversations. Keeping them going. I’d spent a few minutes googling ‘how to start a conversation’ just before I came outside. It had just pissed me off. I’d decided to just wing it.

    Obviously, it wasn’t going well.

    “You’re making a friendship bracelet?” His voice revealed how strange he thought that was.

    “No. It’s something for a project.” Good. He’d asked me a question. He knew how to start conversations. That should make this easier.

    I needed to talk to him. I didn’t know when YooJin would be back. I had to have something to say to her. 

    And it was pissing me off. Yes, I avoided ghosts. They were fucking annoying. They wanted things from me that I couldn’t give. If I didn’t have my wards, they crowded me. Begged. Pushed. Demanded. But YooJin, she was something else. Something far too powerful. An unknown danger. Possibly a very real threat. 

    I had no idea if I was going to be able to keep her away from me. No idea of what damage she would be able to do if I didn’t do as she asked. I was worried that I’d have to become her bitch. Carrying useless gossip about my neighbor to her. 

    And if that happened, then for how long? She was practically opaque. She wasn’t going to fade away into the after life any time soon. She’d be trying to follow this guy around and get information for the rest of his life and beyond. Probably for hundreds of years.

    If I didn’t find the right wards to keep her away from me, I might have to keep having conversations with this guy for the rest of my fucking life. 

    He was mumbling. “Ah, I see.”

    Maybe he wasn’t very good at conversations. It was time I used my quickly gleaned knowledge and take control. “What’s that book you’re reading?”

    “Oh. It’s a mystery. I just started it, but it’s pretty good so far.”

    “Right.” Jesus. This was harder than it looked on tv. 

    “Do you mind if I ask...is that how you normally dress?”

    I startled and looked down at myself. Living alone, I never paid attention to my wardrobe. Usually I just wore a pair of shorts. Anything was fine as long as it had pockets for carrying some salt. That day, I was wearing a pair of sweats that had once been a bright green but had faded over time to a weird gray-green-brown. I’d taken a pair of scissors to them years before, haphazardly cutting them off above the knee. 

    I was also wearing a pair of mismatched socks. Who the fuck has time to waste on matching socks? And I’d grabbed a shirt to throw on over my bare upper body before I went out on the porch. It was a crisp white dress shirt, straight out of a bag from the cleaners. I hadn’t touched it since I’d worn it four years ago to a job interview. I hadn’t bothered to button it up.

    There was also a lot of jewelry. All of it wards. Rings and bracelets - ah, I’d told him that I wasn’t making friendship bracelets, but I was wearing three of the 7 braids I’d made on each wrist. Three necklaces. Three sets of earrings. 

    “Yeah. I’m bohemian.” That probably explained everything. The friendship bracelets and the strange assortment of clothes and the fact that I hadn’t showered or combed my hair in a few days. “It’s my aesthetic. That and flea market kitsch.” 

    “AhhhhhISeeeee.” He ran everything together. Skeptical. Confused. “And you...make things?”

    Okay. This was good. Things were rolling. “Yeah. I’m going to make a bunch of these and soak them in a solution of msg and water. See if that makes them stronger.”

    “Like a science experiment?” Once again he sounded skeptical.

    “Yeah. Something like that.” Time to start getting some information. “What about you? What do you do? Like for work?”

    “I work in the accounting department at the main office of an insurance agency.” 

    “Ah.” Fuck that sounded boring. Ugh. Poor guy. He’d lost his fiance and all he did all day was add numbers? What a life. He’d jump right over the line into the afterlife. Not a fucking thing to stay for. “How’s that going for you?”

    “It’s going well.” How else would it go? What could go wrong? Calculators stop working? “Can I ask...you don’t seem to go out much?”

    “Yeah. I work from home. I don’t like to go outside.”

    “Yeah. I think I’ve only seen you three times. The day I introduced myself, the day you were sorting your gifts and today. It must be nice to get a little fresh air.”

    I looked up doubtfully. Sniffed at the air. My eyes scanned over the flood of ghosts that stood on the other side of the fence. Staring at me. A cacophony of cries for help and desperate moans. 

    Nice. Right.

    “I’ve got a candle in my house. It smells like soft blankets.”

    “I guess that does sound nice.”

    “You’re out here a lot. You must like the fresh air.”

    “Yeah. Lately, I’ve really preferred to be outside. Inside feels...oppressive.”

    This must be it. He was probably describing how he was dealing with the grieving process. I needed to encourage him to talk more. “Times can really be tough.”

    “Yeah...I think everyone has their own shit to deal with. Life’s never easy.”

    “The thing is attachment. You’ve got to recognize when something is hurting you and let it go. No matter how hard that is. Holding onto it will only continue the pain.”

    “That’s pretty deep.” Alright. This was a real conversation. Hell, maybe he’d even start talking about YooJin and I’d be able to figure out what was up with her. Why she was so powerful. “It sounds like Buddhism, or is it something from your psychology textbooks?”

    “It’s actually a concept that can be found in many religions, and yeah, in different approaches to therapy.” I frowned. This was going in the wrong direction. I needed him to break down and start crying about YooJin. Talk about how much he loved her and missed her. “It can really help to put things in a different perspective.”

    “That’s what I’ve always found.” His voice got a little more excited. “I’ve been trying to do some new things. I made some aglio e olio the other day. It’s this Italian pasta dish. It’s pretty simple, but I really don’t know how to cook.”

    “I can cook, but I’ve never made that - aglio e olio, was it? What’s in it?” This was something new. Something that happened after YooJin died. Maybe it was one of the ways he was trying to cope with her death.

    “Pasta, olive oil, garlic, red pepper, parmesan. Like I said, it’s really simple.” He sounded sheepish. Apologetic. “What do you cook?”

    “Korean food, mostly. And meat.”

    “You like meat?”

    “Yeah. And tangerines. They’re my favorite. What’s your favorite?”

    “Ah. I really like steak and kal-guksu. I tried to make steak when I made the aglio e olio, but it didn’t turn out so great.”

    “It can be tricky.” I tried to think of another question, but the only thing that came to mind was ‘what’s your favorite color?’ That was too lame. And he might think I was going to use the information to make him a surprise friendship bracelet. 

    “So, you just hang out in your house all day writing textbooks and making...stuff with thread?”

    “Oh, I write articles, too, and I do a lot of research. Take online classes. Watch tv. Play a few video games. It isn’t that hard to find something to do.”

    “Yeah. I just can’t imagine staying home all the time. Though, I guess sometimes I’d rather not go to work.”

    “Is accounting stressful?” Huh. Maybe it wasn’t boring after all.

    “It can be. There are deadlines and sometimes the numbers don’t add up. Or they do add up but you know somebody’s going to be pissed about the results.”

    “That can’t be your fault.”

    “No, but people like to blame the bearer of bad news or blame it on the math instead of taking responsibility. Sometimes they want us to try again, try to make us get a different result.”

    “Isn’t that called massaging the numbers?”

    “Yeah. And I don’t do it. Ever.”

    So, he was a fine, upstanding young man with a solid moral compass. He couldn’t cook, but maybe he had other skills. He liked to read, so maybe he was unobtrusive and quiet. There had to be some reason YooJin was so attached to him. 

    YooJin. I’d forgotten about her as the conversation built up a decent momentum. Suddenly anxious, I wondered what I should ask next. What sort of information she would want. I was just about to ask him if he had a girlfriend when he stood up.

    “Well, it’s getting a little late and I’ve got to be in early for work tomorrow. It was nice talking to you. I hope your msg experiment works out.”

    “Thanks. Have a good night.”

    “You, too.”

    His door closed after him and I looked out across the front yard. The summer sun was beginning to set. The ghosts growing more distinct. Their cries louder. 

    I wondered where YooJin was. Most ghosts would be hanging around their fixation if they knew where he was. Even if she couldn’t see him, her attachment should keep her nearby, unable to leave his vicinity, but I didn’t see her.

    Was she roaming around? Fucking around with people? Just being a general nuisance? 

    Whatever. At least she wasn’t messing with me. 

 

Chapter Text

    “Are you fucking kidding me?”

    I looked up with a start to see YooJin standing on the other side of my couch. I’d been standing in my living room. Lost in thought. Wondering if it was too dangerous to try to hook up with someone on Tinder. Wondering if anyone would even come into my house. And if they did, would that mean that they were dangerous?

    YooJin’s eyes were running over me and she was laughing derisively. “Do you really think that’s going to work? You look like you belong in a mental hospital.”

    I was wearing shorts and my usual jewelry. Plus the three 7 braids on both wrists. Plus a 7 braid that I’d made into a necklace and another that I’d tied around my waist like a belt. And two that I’d draped across my bare chest like sashes. I’d added uncooked macaroni to the 7 braid for the necklace and sashes.

    Yeah. I looked ridiculous. But making a ton of YooJin specific wards to add to the ones already covering  the walls of my house was going to take a very long time. I had to go with what was possible in the moment. 

    So, I shrugged at her. “There’s no shame in trying to protect yourself.” 

    “You must have no pride, but I guess that comes as no surprise. I don’t see much for you to be proud of.” She walked over and took a seat on my couch. Looked up expectantly. Haughtily. With raised eyebrows. “What do you have for me?”

    “He likes to spend time outside.” 

    “And?”

    “He works for an insurance agency. He’s an accountant.”

    “I know that stuff already.”

    “Well, I just met him. I have to start with the typical stuff first.”

    “You need to move your ass. What else? What about the place where he works. Where is it?”

    “I don’t know. He didn’t say the name of it.”

    “Find it. I want to know the name of it and where it is.”

    “Shouldn’t you already know?”

    She was suddenly furious. “I forgot. When I died.”

    “Huh. Maybe it has something to do with the protection that’s on him. I don’t know. I’m not a shaman.”

    “I’m not a shaman, either. Obviously.” She was snapping. Impatient. “Tell me something else.”

    “He made some food recently. Something Italian. He’s trying to learn how to cook.”

    She jumped up from the couch and I took a quick step back, thinking she was going to attack. 

    But she was smiling. Bouncing with glee. Eyes darting here and there around my living room as if she was trying to find something. “What is it? What did he cook? What’s it called?”

    I watched her warily. “Something like olly a oli. It’s a pasta dish.”

    “Do you know how to spell it? Where do you keep your paper? Write it down for me.”

    I crossed the room to step into my office. Swished my mouse to wake up my computer and did my best to spell whatever it was NamJoon had cooked into the Google search bar. “Aglio e Olio. That's what it was.” Google had corrected my terrible attempt. I copied the words down on a piece of paper.

    “Why do you need me to write it down, anyway?”

    She was standing in the doorway watching me. “I’ll forget. I just keep forgetting things about him. Tell me something else. I might want you to write it down.”

    I sighed. Thought back to our conversation. “His job is stressful. There are deadlines and shit. People who want him to fake the numbers.”

    “What? Write that down.” Her voice held anger again. “And I need to know where he works. The next time I come you’d better have all the information I’m asking for. Write that down, too. Write that you’re supposed to find out where he works.”

    She was probably going to go and try to get her revenge on his coworkers. Oh, well. Not my problem. I wrote everything down. Looked back up at her.

    “What else?”

    “He likes books. Mystery novels. He’s a little picky about fashion. He had trouble making steak. But he likes steak. And kal-guksu. He’s a good guy.”

    “Write it down. All of it.”

    I made a list and then turned around to hand it to her. Frowned when I realized I’d made a mistake. Ghosts can’t take things off people’s bodies or out of their hands. I lay the paper on my desk and stepped back.

    She moved forward. Eyes glued to the notes I’d made about NamJoon. Read them all before picking up the sheet of paper and hugging it to her chest until it disappeared inside of her. It was the way ghosts were able to get away with stealing things. Dragging shit from all over the city to my front door. No one ever saw objects floating through the air because ghosts carried them inside themselves. As if they were a big pocket.

    She raised her eyes to stare at me for a long moment. “You’re trying to make wards against me.”

    “It’s what I do. Did you expect anything less? Do you think I want to ask my neighbor questions all the time and carry the answers back to you?”

    “You’ll do what I tell you to do. You selfish little prick. You’re not going to stop me. You’re just a little bitch in heat begging for a dick. You think I can’t smell that on you? You just wanna bend over and let some man shove it up your ass?”

    She stepped over in front of me and I raised my hands to ward her off. She grabbed at me. Ending up with one hand around my right forearm and another on my left hand and wrist. Her touch was hot and it just kept getting hotter as she held me in an unbreakable grip. 

    I could tell the wards were bothering her. It wasn’t as if they were doing nothing. Her hands were right on top of some of the bracelets. They were wavering. Their outlines shimmering. But it wasn’t enough. 

    “You’re wide fucking open. I could possess you so easily right now.” Her hands had grown hot enough to burn. I held back a whimper. “I’m going to go out there and tell them. All your little friends are waiting to talk to you. What will they think if they know you’re this weak? This pathetic? They’ll be ready to take advantage of you the moment you slip up.”

    I cried out in pain. Her hands were seering my skin. I dropped to my knees. She let go of me. 

    “So you remember, the next time you want to complain about getting me my information. You can make as many of your little decorations as you want to, but they’re not going to stop me. Ever. So, you just do what I say.”

    She walked away. Through a bookshelf and the wall and out of my house. 

    I stared down at the red handprints on my skin. Tears in my eyes. Trembling. I wasn’t going to give up. It wasn’t a big deal to talk to NamJoon and tell her what he said. But I wasn’t going to allow a ghost to have this much power over me. To come into my home. To fucking hurt me.

    There was a lot more that I could do. I scooted forward to sit on the spot where she’d been standing. Opened myself up again. Looked for more ways to protect myself from her. A few wards might not work. The 7 braid might not be the right trick, but I would do more. More and more and more. Until I found something that worked. 

Chapter Text

    “What are you doing here?”

    HoSeok smiled confidently. As if there was nothing wrong. “They want articles about personality disorders for Therapy Monthly. Mr. Kim wants to know if you want to do one of them.”

    “You could have asked me that in an email.”

    “Come on, YoonGi.” His smile faltered a little. His eyes skewed to the side. “I wanted to see you.”

    I stepped out onto the porch. Closed my front door behind me. He stepped back to give me space. Ran his eyes over me. His smile returned.

    I was still wearing the 7 braids and macaroni. They may not have stopped YooJin, but they made me feel better.

    “Here I am. Tell me about the articles.”

    “They want the new theory by Meisner - you’ve heard of it?” I nodded. “They want it applied to therapy for personality disorders.”

    “What’s free?”

    “Bang WonHo took Narcissistic Personality Disorder.”

    “Of course. I’ll take Borderline. When’s it due?” 

    “Next month. The 12th.”

    “Gotcha. That all?”

    “No… Listen. Will you just listen to me?”

    I sighed. “I’m standing here.”

    “I don’t understand why you’re making such a big deal of this.”

    “Let me get this straight. You’re marrying someone and you don’t understand why you should put her first and have consideration for her feelings?”

    “There’s no way she’ll find out, and like I said, she understands fuck friends.”

    “You keep saying that, but I don’t think you even believe yourself. If she was so open minded, you’d just tell her.”

    He shook his head. Looked away again. “She doesn’t know I’m bi.”

    “So, you want to hide me, hide other guys you’re fucking, and hide who you really are. Your marriage is going to start off nice and strong.” 

    “I’m not fucking any other guys.”

    “What about that guy with the hairy legs?”

    “He got a boyfriend and broke things off.”

    “Yeah. Funny. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.”

    “There aren't rules for this. We can just do whatever we want.”

    “Stop lying to yourself. There are rules. You don’t fuck up someone’s life with your selfishness.”

    “YoonGi.” His face suddenly collapsed. He put his hand to his forehead. “All this is happening really fast and I’m struggling.”

    I remembered him opening the door to the uber. Ghosts standing all around him. 

    “How are you struggling? What's changed?”

    My eyes roved over him. Looking for signs that a ghost had attached itself to him. But there were none. There couldn’t be. Anything clinging to him would have been knocked off when he stepped into my yard. And I couldn’t see auras. Had no way of knowing what state his was in.

    I looked over his shoulder at the mass of ghosts. Wondering if there was something out there waiting to jump back in the spot it had created for itself.

    “I just expected things to go slow, but there are all these plans and decisions to make. I thought we’d take our time, but everything is right now. It’s like the future’s looming over my head.”

    “Any dizziness? Disorientation? Nausea? Forgetfulness?”

    “What are you talking about? I’m just freaking out because I’m not ready to do all this adulting. I’m not ready to trade all the fun stuff for nights spent at home watching dramas and vacuuming the floor.” 

    “You just need to decide what you really want. If this isn’t the right thing for you, you should back out sooner rather than later. Don’t keep stringing that poor woman along.”

    “If I break it off, we can just continue on like before, right? I’ll just go back to my old way of doing everything…” His face betrayed his panicked need to return to the familiar.

    “No. We won’t be returning to the way things were. I will never fuck you again. We’re done.”

    “Why? You seriously can’t be that upset that I’m getting married. I know that you’re not in love with me. Hell, sometimes I think you don’t even like me that much. You just like my dick.”

    “I like you just fine or I wouldn’t let you in my house. But I can’t trust you anymore. You kept fucking me even after you started a serious relationship with your girl. That’s a no go.”

    “Come on, man. This isn’t right. I’m bi. I can’t just have pussy for the rest of my life. I need both.”

    “Yeah. I’m pretty sure that isn’t how things work. You need to decide what you really want and then go for it. Who knows? Your girl may know you better than you think. She may be okay with you fucking around, but it won’t be with me. We’re done. Stop coming over here. Email me about work.”

    “YoonGi.” His voice had lost a lot of its confidence. “I know you’re not going to find another fuck friend. How can you when you won’t leave the house? You’re wearing a macaroni necklace for fuck’s sake. You need me. I know you do.”

    He was more right than he knew. A tiny part of me was tempted. Not by his dick. I could control that. The temptation to fuck was nothing in the face of creating attachments, but my defenses were weakened. 

    I was standing outside on my porch. Ghosts just a few yards away. And all of them had to sense that I was vulnerable. That if they got through my wards, I’d be weak as fuck. There was a huge hole in my aura and they’d be able to jump right through. 

    Hurt me. Damage me. Possess me. I couldn’t step off the porch in this state. For any reason. The two or three errands I ran a month were impossible. I couldn’t guarantee that they wouldn’t try to kamikaze through my wards just like they tried to power across my lawn each night. 

    I also didn’t know if it would get any better. I had no experience, no way to gauge. Would my body grow used to the fact that I wasn’t getting fucked? Would it forget about it? Would the hole in my aura grow smaller? Close up? Disappear? 

    “It doesn’t matter what you say. I don’t need you. I need to know that I’m not fucking up someone else’s life. That I’m not a landmine waiting to be stepped on by your future wife. You think your dick is more important to me than my conscience? You’re crazy.”

    “I don’t know why you’ve gotta be so fucking serious about this.” He really was getting angry. Feeling desperate. Grasping...for something.

    “And I don’t know why it has to be me. You don’t need me. You’re not wearing a macaroni necklace. Go out to a club and find another fuck friend. Use Tinder. You’re handsome and a good fuck. You won’t have any trouble.” 

    “I don’t want anything to change. I want everything to stay the same.”

    “It’s too late for that now. You’ve made your decisions and you’re going to have to live with them.”

    He was tearing up.

    “Hold on just a second.” I went back into my house, grabbed some shells that I’d picked up at the beach, filled with a mixture of salt, sage, coriander seed and powdered jasper and then sealed with wax. 

    I went back out to the porch and handed them to him. “Put these in your pocket and keep them there until you get home. Keep some near your front door and have at least one on you whenever you go outside for at least three months.”

    He didn’t question me. Just accepted them, divided them into two handfuls and pushed them into his pants pockets. 

    “And don’t come back here. I mean it.”

    If a ghost had gotten a hold of him, it would be too dangerous. I didn’t know if it would wait here for him or try to follow him to his front door and wait for a time when he would be vulnerable. After drinking. After fighting with his fiance. After a particularly bad day. 

    He looked at me. His expression a mix of humor, defeat and acceptance. “Yeah. I get it. You’re even giving me some of your weird shit. I’ll take it as a parting gift. I just…”

    He was tearing up again. I waited for him to gain control of himself.

    “We had a lot of fun together. I really enjoyed it, and not just the sex. I’m sorry I didn’t do things differently. We could’ve at least stayed friends.”

    I sighed. “Time changes everything. Get yourself together and keep emailing me for work. Who knows.”

    “Alright. Okay, I’ll do that.” 

    I watched him walk down the stairs. Down the sidewalk. Open the gate and step out of my yard. He turned right and started walking. He’d probably had to park his car down the street because there weren’t any spaces available. 

    Ghosts followed him. It was normal. Something about him would attract a number of them. His sadness. His anger. His confusion. The color of his hair or the set of his shoulders. The way he walked. The way he smelled. A hundred things that might remind ghosts of what they were looking for. It was the same with everyone. 

    I wondered if one of those ghosts had already managed to work its way into one of his vulnerabilities. They were all keeping a few feet back now. Held off by the ward shells. Was one of them following him, intent on making its way back to the home it had made for itself. Not ready to give up until it found another opportunity to get to him?

    I turned back towards my door, but froze halfway there. My eyes met Kim NamJoon’s. Wide and shocked behind a pair of glasses. Book forgotten on his lap.

    I sighed again. Continued turning. Disappeared back into my house. 

Chapter Text

    “Fuck.”

    I stared angrily at YooJin. She’d walked through my kitchen wall. I’d been reading the back of a package of pumpkin cream soup. Some new brand I’d thrown in my cart while shopping online. 

    I snatched at my instinctive anger. Held onto it. Strengthened it. Made it stronger than the fear that had me taking a step back. Cultivated my natural desire to protect myself and my home. 

    She scoffed and looked around. “This place is a mess.”

    I didn’t bother answering her. 

    Her eyes skimmed over my counters, littered with empty packages and dirty dishes. My sink full of old dishwater. Cold and gray. Abandoned the last time I’d impulsively washed a few dishes. A lone dishcloth bloated and floating. Growing a bit of mold. 

    Then her gaze flicked to me. Again, I was wearing a pair of shorts. Necklaces and sashes draped over my bare chest. I hardened my spine and my resolve. I didn’t need to be embarrassed about my exposed skin or my wards. I would allow no weak emotions.

    “You’re still wearing your preschool necklaces. Didn’t I show you that they don’t work?”

    I shrugged. Pushed out words flippantly. “I like them.”

    She laughed. “You’re a pathetic little man. You know that, right? It’s one of the reasons you hide in your house. You want to avoid the ghosts, but you know the humans won’t accept you either. You’re all alone in the world, trapped in this shithole.” 

    I let her words bounce off of me. They were meaningless. She didn’t know a thing about my life. She was a fucking ghost. Doing nothing but searching for chinks in my aura. I wouldn’t allow her to find them. 

    “A man’s home is his castle.”

    “Nice fucking castle.” Her face suddenly switched from anger to girlish excitement. “Tell me all about NamJoon.”

    I fought back the worry that made my cheeks grow hot. “I can’t. I haven’t had a chance to talk to him. He hasn’t been around much. I think he must be really busy with work or something.”

    “Or something? You aren’t even sure what he’s doing?” 

    “How would I know if I haven’t been able to talk to him?”

    “Does he have a girlfriend? Did he get a girlfriend?”

    She was breathing heavily. Starting to freak out.

    “I don’t know.” I kept my voice low. Considerate. Trying not to rile her up, but still trying to prepare her. “Since you’ve passed, it’s only natural that he’d move on. Especially since he’s so young. If it happens, you shouldn’t take it personally. It doesn’t mean that his love for you disappeared. It’s still in his heart, waiting for when you can join each other in the afterlife.”

    Do I know this for sure? No. I don’t know a fucking thing about the afterlife except that some people don’t go straight there after they die. Heaven, hell, rebirth or something else. There’s no telling what waits on the other side. I only know about this side. 

    I just knew that she was wasting her time. Trying to get information about him. Sustaining herself with crumbs. Dragging it all out. Possibly for centuries. I’d never talked a ghost into crossing over before. I’d never even tried. But she was able to hold an actual conversation. So maybe it was worth a try.

    She was pulling the list that I’d made during her previous visit from her chest. Her eyes scanned it several times before she looked up. Completely ignoring what I’d said about the afterlife. “You were supposed to find out where he works. They’re being mean to him there.”

    “He’s an adult. It’s all part of his job. He’s a capable guy. He can handle it.”

    I watched her carefully. The way my compliment made her brighten up and then the thought of him being tormented made her sink straight back into fury. She was unstable. I regretted that I’d spent so much time studying psychology but had neglected practicing any therapy techniques. This bitch needed a seasoned professional to talk to her. 

    She was having trouble keeping her eyes off the list. “He made a new food. It’s called aglio e olio.” Her eyes scanned my kitchen again. “Can you make it? Now?”

    “I’ve never made it and I don’t think I have the ingredients. Namjoon told me what they are.”

    “He told you?” Her eyes grew warm. Full of love. Devoted. “He’s kind. Right? He’s so kind.”

    “Yeah. He’s really kind.” 

    “I want to see what the aglio e olio looks like. I want you to tell me how it tastes.”

    “I can buy the ingredients and make it the next time you come.” I was not happy to make this promise. I didn’t want her to come back.

    “Good. Good.” She looked down at the list again. Reading the words over and over.

    “And you said he might have a girlfriend?” The words came out in a snarl. Shocking me. 

    “No. I didn’t say that. I only know that he’s busy, not that he has a girlfriend. I think he’s just working late.”

    She rushed at me. Grabbed my upper arms. Hands hot. Eyes blazing.

    “I told you I haven’t seen another woman. There’s no reason to think he has a girlfriend.” Her hands grew hotter. “Don’t burn me! When you leave marks I can’t go talk to NamJoon because he’ll ask questions I can’t answer!”

    She let go. Fell back. Look around in confusion.

    I grabbed the opportunity. First dashing to the fridge and yanking out a bag of carrots. Then running into the living room, over to a basket and grabbing a christmas decoration out.

    It was a christmas bulb. One of the colored balls that people hang on christmas trees. Old fashioned ones. Not the newer ones that are made of plastic. The ones that filled the basket were made of a very thin glass. I’d ordered a few dozen of them online.

    I’d made a mixture of msg, pencil shavings from a navy blue eyeliner pencil, powdered idocrase, cinnamon and millet and filled the christmas bulbs with it. Then sealed them with wax. 

    YooJin was right behind me. Coming fast. I spun around and threw the bulb at her feet. Watched it explode against my floor. The powdered ingredients rising into a dusty cloud. 

    She screamed. The sound shrill and bone jarring, raking over my skin. Leapt back to avoid the ward. Eyes darting in pain and confusion, looking for an escape. 

    It didn’t last long. A moment later she was focusing on me. Eyes fiery. So full of rage that her edges were wobbling, the lines of her being becoming skewed. Redrawing her as something horrendous, something out of a movie rather than the pretty woman in the pretty dress that I usually saw.

    She was drawing together her anger and strength. Preparing to attack despite the puddled remains of the ward bomb that lay between us.

    I raised another ball. Threw it the moment she moved. This time she screamed louder and fled towards my front door. 

    It was telling that she ran towards the door. She could have darted through the wall that was behind her. But she was in enough pain and freaking out enough that she’d fallen back on her human habits. She actually waited for me to walk over and open the door. Rushed out on the porch in front of me. Intent on escape.

    She hesitated a bit when she got outside into the sun. Turning to look at me. Preparing to sort her thoughts and regroup.

    I took a chance on the carrots. Not sure they’d work. But the idocrase wasn’t easy to get and it was fairly expensive - especially with the shipping - and a bitch to crush into powder. I took one out of the bag and flung it across my yard. It sailed through the wrought iron fence and landed on the public sidewalk. 

    YooJin ran after it at top speed. The ghosts on the other side of the fence were already converging around it. She was just another one of them after all. She had different wards. She was stronger and smarter. But she still couldn’t stop herself from chasing after a phallus-shaped carrot.

    “That’s right you bitch!” I shouted. Heart still pounding with adrenaline and fear. “You want the dick just as bad as I do! Stay the fuck out of here! Don’t drag your ugly ass into my house ever again! If you do I’ll be waiting for you! I won’t hold back!”

    My tirade had drawn her attention as well as some of the ghosts. They straightened up and turned to look at me. Wondering at what I was saying. I felt it. Felt when some of them found the hole that rent my aura because I hadn’t been fucked lately. It was ground glass under my skin. A painful warning.

    The spirits began moaning louder. Crowding tight together as close to the fence as they dared. Wanting to get to me even more desperately than usual.

    And YooJin was turning back, venturing through the gate. Eyes staring at me. Wary. Pondering. Testing.

    I grabbed two more carrots and chucked them over the fence. Some of the nearby ghosts flocked to them. Some didn’t budge. Kept staring at me. Concentrating on my weakness. YooJin took several steps towards the carrots and then turned back again. Stalking up the sidewalk. 

    I held a christmas bulb up on my palm. A pretty swirl of silver and red. Shining brilliantly  in the sun. “You wanna test me bitch? Then you mother fucking test me. I made fifty of these.”

    “I’ll be back. You’d better have information for me. I won’t be gentle next time. I’ll jump right in that hole and possess you. I’ll walk straight up to your rooftop and dive off head first.”

    “You wouldn’t. If you hurt me, you won’t get what you want.”

    She smiled. Shrugged. “You’re right. I can’t kill you, but I can hurt you real bad. So you’d better have my information next time, Little Man. And my list. I left it in your kitchen. Keep it somewhere safe. It’s mine. I want it back.”

    “Don’t come back. You think I’ll just let you walk in here again? There’s no fucking way.”

    She laughed. “This won’t hurt me next time. I’ll get stronger before I come back. You’d better get my information.”

    She turned and swept down the sidewalk. Through the gate. Disappeared into the crowd of ghosts. 

    I ran forward immediately. Sat cross-legged in the spot she’d been standing. Closed my eyes and opened myself up wide. I knew that I was taking a risk. I was way too fucking close to my fence and the ghosts on the other side. But I had to find more ways to repel her. I had to keep her away from me.

    Coal dust. Robin feathers. Sand from Wales. Frozen corn - not on a cob, just the kernels. Rain. Motor Oil…

    When I finally opened my eyes I felt weak. Not just my aura, but my body. I slowly pushed myself to my feet. Didn’t spare a glance at the wailing ghosts behind me. Walked up the sidewalk and the stairs to my porch to gather the carrots and christmas bulbs that I’d left there. 

    Kim NamJoon was sitting in his fucking chair. Staring at me with a blend of fear and awe in his eyes. 

    Shit. I averted my gaze. Grabbed my things. 

    I knew that I’d need to talk to him again. Probably again and again and again. Until I had enough wards that I could trust to keep YooJin away, I’d have to keep trying to placate her with information. 

    But he probably thought I was insane. He’d probably avoid me. I’d have to figure something out.

    I closed myself back in my house.



Chapter Text

    “Hey.” 

    NamJoon’s eyes scanned over me. I gave him a friendly smile. Or at least what I hoped was a friendly smile. I was feeling fucking awkward, so who knows how it turned out. 

    But I’d done better with my wardrobe. I was wearing a pair of black shorts, matching socks with a pair of slides. I had all my wards on, but I’d thrown a t-shirt over the necklaces and sashes. My chest looked lumpy, but it was something.

    I had to be extra careful. My plan was definitely dangerous since it involved going into NamJoon’s house. My yard made it hard for ghosts to get across it and the porch was haint blue, but there was nothing stopping them from taking any other route into NamJoon’s house. 

    My pockets were full of wards. I’d chosen ones that weren’t too smelly or noisy. Hopefully, he wouldn’t even notice them. 

    “Hey. I’ve got a problem. My scanner’s not working and I need to scan a few pages from the play I’m working on. Do you have a scanner I can use?” 

    “Uh. Yeah. Sure.” He stepped back from his front door. Motioned me to follow him. 

    I stepped into his entryway and slipped out of my slides. Looked up and froze at the sight of his house. My heart gave a bump of shock.

    Every door frame, every window frame, every bit of wood that was an unmovable part of the house was covered with carved symbols. Runes and glyphs. Logograms and ancient alphabets. All of it meant to repel ghosts. All of it wrong.  

    And there were ghosts. Crowded at the edges of the room. Visible through doorways, packing other rooms. Not coming closer than about ten feet to me. Staring hungrily. Moaning. 

    Shit. This was worse than I’d thought. Worse that I’d ever imagined. There was no way those ghosts had followed me in there. They hadn’t seen me going in NamJoon’s front door and then rushed around and come in the back way. There was no time and there was no way he’d left his back door open. They’d already been in there.

    A cold shiver went down my spine. I remembered NamJoon saying he found it oppressive inside. No shit.

    And my previous neighbor. The old woman that had died. I’d thought she was batshit crazy, and maybe she had been. But if she was, it had been my fault. Those ghosts were there because of me. I’d brought them upon her and NamJoon.

    The thought sickened me. I’d thought I’d made the best choice. The first rowhouse. A wrought iron fence. Covering my walls with wards. But that only kept the ghosts away from me. They were still clogging this neighborhood. I usually didn’t see them in other frontyards because they all had iron fences.

    But they also all had backdoors and windows. Doors and windows ghosts could slip into whenever they were opened. They would fill up all the rooms. Everyone in my vicinity would be particularly vulnerable. Always surrounded by ghosts. Ghosts that were waiting to take advantage of any weakness they displayed. 

    “Hey. You alright?”

    I looked up at NamJoon. “Yeah. I just got distracted by a random thought. What...what's with all these symbols?”

    I crossed the living room. Touched the door frame that led into the kitchen. The ghosts shifted around me like water. Moving away as I approached. Filling up the spaces that I’d left. Avoiding the right side of the room. The wall that his house shared with mine.

    “Oh. I thought maybe you’d like them. Since you’re bohemian and stuff? I think the previous owner made them.” He put out a hand and rubbed it over the surface of the wood. “I plan on sanding it down and refinishing it. I’m just waiting on autumn. If I do it now, I’ll have to turn off the ac and open all the windows and doors and this summer’s been so hot. It’ll be more comfortable if I wait.”

    “Yeah?” I could barely think. The audience of ghosts. The fucked up carvings. The guilt. 

    “Sometimes I think it’s the carvings that make it feel so oppressive in here. They’re just weird. You know?”

    I studied the symbols. Almost every single one of them was wrong. A stem or a curve going in the wrong direction. Something missing. Something added. The mistakes rendered them absolutely useless.

    Had the old lady done this? Had she seen ghosts? It was unlikely. The ability was extremely rare. But she could have sensed them. And she could have been able to open herself up to the means to repel them. Just like I did. Only, her ability was fucked up and had her doing the wrong thing. 

    It was so sad. How long had it taken her to carve all of this? Had she only begun when I moved in and brought a flood of ghosts with me? Or was the normal number of ghosts that slipped in and out of open windows and doors enough? 

    How much had she suffered?

    “They’re messed up. You should let me fix them for you.”

    “What? You know what this writing is?” He was shocked and confused. “You don’t need to fix it. I’m just going to sand it all off.” 

    “Nah.” He needed these to be right. To protect him from the ghosts. To make his home safe and livable. “You should let me try to fix them first. See how that makes you feel. I think it’ll fix the feeling of oppression. If it doesn’t work, there’s nothing lost. You can just sand them off.”

    “I don’t understand why it would make a difference. I don’t even know what these symbols are. So, besides looking strange, I don’t think they affect me.” 

    “Nah.” I waved away his doubts. “It’s a psychology thing. The collective unconscious and all that. Plus the balance of art and aesthetics. Your unconscious mind knows these are wrong, even if you aren’t consciously aware of it. It’s probably causing things to feel off when you’re in here.”

    “Ah. Well. I guess if you want to try…”

    “I do. If it works out, I might even be able to write an article about it.”

    “Oh, okay. That’s good then. Thanks.” He looked confused. He was obviously trying to make sense of the lies I’d just told him. “Well, my computer and scanner are in here.” 

    His house was a mirror image of mine and he was using the same small side room as an office. I followed him into it and watched as he took a seat, logged into the computer and turned on the printer/scanner.

    “You’re doing a play?”

    Oh, yeah. This was my chance. This was why I was here. My brilliant plan. I’d ordered a script just for this purpose. 

    “Yeah. I’m part of a recluse acting group. They’re becoming more popular on the internet. People who want to act but don’t want to leave their homes. We get together through Zoom and act out plays together.” 

    Listen to the shit I was making up just to try to set things straight.

    “I see. Is that what you were doing the other day when you...uh, threw those carrots? Were you practicing your play?” His voice revealed how much my strange behavior had freaked him out. “That was you a-acting?”

    “Well, I was acting, but that wasn’t the play I’m working on.” I was able to breeze through the story that I’d prepared. “It’s acting practice. Someone in the group gives you a prompt and then you just go with it. Keep it going as long as you can. It’s pretty fun. Takes a lot of imagination and the whole ‘spur of the moment’ thing really gets your emotions going.” 

    “Ah. I see. That sounds really interesting. You must really be into acting.” He reached over and lifted the lid of the scanner so that I could place my script down on it. “Did you ever think that might be where all those gifts are coming from? Maybe they’re from acting fans instead of textbook fans.”

    I shrugged. “Nah. We just do plays within the group. It’s only for ourselves. There’s no audience.”

    “Oh. That’s a lot of work for just you and a few other people. Your practice thing seemed really intense.”

    We were working our way through several pages of the script. “Well. I just do it for the fun of acting. That’s what really matters.”

    “You have a really interesting way of looking at things. I like that.”

    “Thanks. These are the last two pages. Can you email them to me?”

    “Yeah. Just hold on while I pull up my email.”

    I felt a rush of relief as I waited for him to log into his account and start a new email to attach the files to. He’d bought it all. And he was going to let me fix his carvings. I’d have to come to his house a lot for that. When I started fixing the wards, he’d start feeling better right away. He’d let me fix his whole house. 

    It was a win-win situation. I’d be able to talk to him to get information for YooJin - if I actually needed it - and I’d protect him from the ghosts that were trying to get to me. It was perfect.

    I felt lighter as I followed him to the front door. Acting to solve a problem is one of the best ways to feel better, even if your actions aren’t the perfect solution. The moving forward, the doing something, is what’s important. 

    “When can I come over and work on your carvings?” 

    “How about Saturday afternoon?” He opened the door and turned to look down at me. “And...uh...afterwards, can I take you out to dinner?”

    His chin was dipping down. His cheeks flushing. I was stunned. “What? Like a date?”

    “Yeah. Like a date.” He reached up to run his hand over the bridge of his nose. Cutely embarrassed.

    What kind of gift from fate was this? I’d fixed his image of me, I was going to fix his ghost problem, and now he fucking wanted me. This was perfect. The dating probably wouldn’t go well. I could easily win awards for being socially awkward and creepy, but we could still end up as fuck friends. 

    I’d be able to repair the hole in my aura! 

    “Yeah. That sounds really great.” I didn’t bother to try to hide my excitement. But I also had to be practical. “I don’t really want to leave my house, though. Maybe you can come over for dinner?” 

    “That’s fine, but I really wanted to get dinner for you. Not have you make dinner for me.”  

    “It’s okay. I love to cook. Why don’t you bring the ingredients for aglio e olio. I’ll make steak and a salad. We can cook together. But don’t bring wine. I don’t do alcohol. Ever.”

    “Okay. Yeah. Let’s do that. That sounds really nice.”

    I fished in my pocket and snagged the first thing my fingers closed around. Pulled it out. It was a peach pit carved into a rose. I handed it to him. “Here. Take this and keep it in your pocket. It’ll bring you good luck.”

    It’d keep the ghosts at bay. At least a couple feet away. They wouldn't be breathing down his neck. 

    “Thanks. I’ll do that.”

    “Okay then. I’ll see you Saturday afternoon.”

Chapter Text

    “Thank you. I can’t wait to read these.” NamJoon tapped the stack of three books that sat next to his plate on my dining room table and then relaxed back into this chair. Smiling at me. Warm. Happy. “And I’ve really enjoyed this meal. I...really like talking to you.”

    “Yeah. The conversation’s been great.” It was a big surprise. I’d expected things to be awkward. To be grasping for things to say. Tongue tied. 

    But he was better read than I’d expected and more knowledgeable. He knew about a lot of things, not just math and mystery novels. It made him interesting to talk to. 

    And he...understood the things that I talked about when it came to psychology. He found them fascinating. It wasn’t what I’d expected. It was very satisfying to speak my thoughts, ideas and opinions aloud. It was something I’d never been able to do. I’d avoided people and the outside world since I’d started seeing ghosts. I didn’t have friends. 

    The closest thing I’d ever had was HoSeok. But with him, talking about psychology had been talking about work. So the topic had been off the table. Not that we’d done a lot of talking, anyway. 

    NamJoon’s eyes shifted from me and traveled around the room. Taking in the wards that covered the walls. Littered every surface. “Did you make all this stuff?”

    It wasn’t the first time he’d taken a moment to check out my wards, but it was the first time he’d asked about them. “I made most of it. It’s my hobby. Keeping your hands busy is powerful. It can quiet your mind and give you space to really think.”

    He nodded. Reached into his pocket and pulled out the peach pit rose that I’d given him. Sat it on the table. “Did you make this?”

    I watched it wobble on the table after he released it. Very relieved that he was carrying it with him. “No, I bought it. My carving skills aren’t that great. Hold on a sec.” 

    I went into the living room to grab a small basket full of carved peach pits. He pushed his place out of the way so that I could set them on the table in front of him. “These are some of the ones I’ve done.” 

    He looked through the carvings. Murmured at what he found. Finally pulled one out and held it on his fingers. Rubbed it with the pad of his thumb. 

    “That’s a salamander.” I felt a little breathless. It meant something that he’d pulled one out and was paying attention to it. It meant that it would be especially powerful in protecting him. “You can have it.”

    He nodded. His eyes not leaving the carving. “I like it. I know it might sound silly, but...I think the rose has helped me. I feel more comfortable when I have it with me. I would like to keep this one. Thank you.”

    I breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Started explaining his feelings with logical psychology. “Just knowing you have a good luck charm or something like that can really help you to feel better. More confident. It’s a psychological phenomenon. Like the placebo effect.”

    He was nodding. Taking a last look at the salamander before slipping it into one pocket and the rose into the other. “I hope that works with the carvings in my house. You did a lot of work today. I wouldn’t want it to be wasted.”

    “I believe it’ll work. You’ll have to let me know right away if you notice a difference.”

    He’d decided that he’d get the most benefit from a change in his bedroom since he’d been having a lot of trouble sleeping. I’d spent several hours working on fixing the carvings nearest his bed. Erasing the wrong marks with wood filler. Adding to the carvings where necessary. 

    “I’m surprised that you’re so artistic...or is it more like arts and crafts? Crafty? I really didn’t expect it.”

    His eyes and voice reflected that he was still trying to figure me out. To make all the pieces come together. It probably didn’t help that his eyes kept straying back to a large ward that hung on the wall behind me. A length of heavy chain, the kind you’d find at a construction site, was draped across the wall like a banner. Multiple ribbons were tied to each link of the chain, every one of them covered in symbols written with a mixture of my blood and black ink. 

    If I was an artist, if I was into arts and crafts, most of my works were far from pretty. HoSeok had used the word ‘disturbing’ and I was watching very carefully to see how NamJoon reacted. 

    It was like a psychological experiment. He liked me. He seemed to find me intriguing. He’d grown more interested in me during our dinner conversation. So he was turning over the odd things about me. The strange ‘art’ that I made. The fact that they covered every possible surface in my home. The fact that I didn’t leave my house. He was looking at all of them from different directions. Finding the right angle to make them acceptable. Just as HoSeok had done when he’d labeled me bohemian.

    I was creative. Artistic. A free spirit. Eccentric. Fascinating. He was avoiding dozens of negative ways to describe me and the things I did. All to make it okay for him to be attracted to me. To get closer to me. 

    It was good. I wanted to get closer to him, too. He was nice. He was fun to talk to. We’d get along very well. I’d push things forward to a certain point, until we were having sex. Then I’d stop. Leave it at that. Allow no feelings to take root and grow. No deep connections to spawn. 

    It wasn’t a perfect plan. He probably wouldn’t want to be my fuck friend for the rest of his life. He’d meet someone else and move on just like HoSeok had done. But it would help now. It would help for as long as it lasted. And I’d learn from it. When he was ready to move on, hopefully I’d be better prepared to find someone to replace him. 

    “Why don’t we wash the dishes together? I helped make the mess, I’d better help clean up.” He was smiling again. Temptingly. Dimples appearing in his cheeks. My heart suddenly dipped.

    I’d always been focusing on so many different things. Getting information. Finding the right words to say when I wasn’t used to conversing. Passing off lies about practicing for a play. The wards, the ghosts, the danger. I hadn’t looked at him properly. I hadn’t seen him. I’d seen a list of annoyances and problems to be solved. 

    Even that night I was looking at him as a solution to my problem. A patch for the hole in my aura. I’d had a lot of fun talking to him, but that had felt like nothing more than a perk. But this, his curving lips, gently flushing cheeks, sparkling eyes...I wanted him. 

    My skin was tingling, my body heating up, my heart pounding a little faster, blood quickening, breath shortening. This was awareness. This was desire. I tried to step outside myself, to look at it, to analyze it, but that was impossible. I was caught up in it. Lost to it. Trapped by his gaze. Ensnared by the sound of his voice. 

    It made doing dishes together a task fraught with emotion. He washed. I rinsed and stacked the dishes in the drainer. He talked. I did my best to keep up. While my mind raced. Bounced from one inappropriate thought to another. While my heart skipped, plunged, soared. Drawn by his voice, his laughter and deep chuckles. 

    It was a new feeling. Not desire and attraction, I’d felt those before. They were nothing new. With HoSeok they’d been pure and straightforward. With NamJoon, they were tangled up with other feelings, clouded by the things I’d learned about him, the things I liked that drew me nearer, made me want to learn more. By curiosity and confusion, expectation and apprehension.

    And the nervous high of the unknown. Did he want me? He wanted me, right? That’s why he’d asked me out. Why he was there. Why a little star shone in his eyes. Why there was so much enthusiasm in his voice and animation in his movements. 

    But what would happen? When would it happen? How would it happen? I didn’t know anything about dating. This was only the first one, and I was sure it wouldn’t be like the day HoSeok got flirty and we had a little talk and just went for it. This was different. This was slow. Like playing a game with hidden cards and blurred intentions. 

    It was exhilarating and scary all at the same time. I was full of the hope of what could be and fear of what might not happen, so worried that I might make a wrong move. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was supposed to feel this way. On television people were generally cool and quippy or a clumsy, nervous, goofball. Was I a goofball? Could he tell? Would he mind? How was I supposed to carry on an intelligent conversation when I felt as if I was standing on the edge of a tippy boat?

    When I finally followed him to the front door, I was actually feeling relieved that he was leaving. I needed time to calm down and put things in perspective. It felt as if everything was racing forward, my heart and mind set to high speed, even as we walked placidly through my house. 

    He turned to me when we reached the door. A gentle smile on his face. “I’ve been meaning to tell you that you look really good tonight.”

    “Thanks.” 

    I’d ordered some clothes online. A pair of black slacks and a black button up shirt with a faint purple stripe. And I’d taken a shower. And I’d cleaned my house. I’d done all the things a person should do when they were preparing for a date. I was doing my best to make things work.

    He raised a hand and slowly drew a knuckle down a long lumpy line under my shirt. “You don’t have to hide your necklaces. I like them. They’re like a signpost that points to your inner layers.”

    All I could do was nod. His nearness and the deep hush in his voice had my breath locked in my throat. My body frozen.

    “And this one.” The pad of his thumb fell on a larger bump in the center of my chest. “This one’s a peach pit?” 

    “Yeah.” My voice came out rough as I forced my vocal cords to move. “It’s really old. More than three hundred years. It was carved by a Chinese monk.”

    “I want to see it next time. I want a closer look.” 

    His hand was rising. His thumb hooking under my chin, tilting my face up. He was there. So close. Descending. His mouth touched mine. Slightly off, hitting awkwardly and then sliding into place, fitting perfectly..

    I was sighing. My whole body relaxing. Melting. His lips were so warm. Moving gently over mine. Light. Tentative. And I could feel it. The way that the movement of his lips on mine was slipping through my veins. Healing me. Strengthening me. 

    It was all too brief. I wanted and needed so much more. But he was pulling away. A flush coloring his cheeks. He raised his hand to rub his fingers over his nose. “I’d like to do this again soon. Maybe we can watch a movie or something?”

    “Yeah.” I somehow managed to speak. “That sounds good.” 

    I wanted to step back into his arms. Pull his lips down to mine. Close my eyes and take everything I needed. But that would be wrong. I had to follow the rules and I wasn’t even sure of what they were. I had to follow NamJoon’s lead. 

    “And you’re coming over tomorrow to work on the carvings again?” When I nodded he reached for the doorknob. A big smile on his face. “I’ll be looking forward to seeing you then. Goodnight.”

    He opened the door onto the night. Wails and shrieks pierced the air. The ghosts were especially loud. Riled up by the kiss. By the scent of passion when so many of them were clinging to this world because of love. By the happiness and exhilaration that must have been coloring our auras. By the promise that the hole in my aura would soon disappear. Maybe it had already begun to shrink. 

    I stepped out on the porch. Gave NamJoon a smile and a wave and a goodnight. Feeling a little hopeful and just plain belligerent. If Namjoon hadn’t been there, I’d have turned and flipped the ghosts off.

Chapter Text

    “This movie’s kind of boring.”

    “Yeah.”

    I couldn’t really tell. I was too nervous, my mind bouncing between thoughts - wondering what he was thinking, wondering what I was supposed to be thinking or doing or feeling. Was I supposed to talk or stay quiet and focus on the movie? Would we just do all the talking after it was over? How would I hold up my end of the conversation when I could barely keep the characters in order, let alone follow the storyline? 

    “Do you want to move a little closer?”

    “Yeah.”

    I watched him pick up the bowl of popcorn and put it on the coffee table. I’d been trying to keep my eyes on the tv screen. It had been a real struggle not to look over at him every thirty seconds. Now I could look without being weird or creepy. Take in the way his t-shirt fell over the strong lines of his chest. Short sleeves revealing the smooth skin and muscles of his arms. All of it made my heart pound. Made my hands restless, wanting to touch. My body longing to press against him.

    I slid across the couch. Closer to him. Into the bubble of his warmth. Feeling it closing around me. It felt safe. Comfortable. I wanted more.

    His hands were already reaching for me. Settling on my shoulder. Cupping the side of my head. Holding me in place. Tilting my face up to meet his mouth. 

    His kisses were soft and all too brief. Pressing gently, plucking lightly, breaking away to change the angle and return, repeating the process again and again. Until heat and need built in me to the point where I could no longer hold back. 

    I followed his lips when they withdrew from mine. Opened my mouth. Caught his lower lip and stroked my tongue over it. Tasted him. Heat and depth. The saltiness of the popcorn. 

    He released a faint groan. The sound of it trembled on my lips. Shivered down my spine. Started a low throb behind my dick. I sucked his lip into my mouth, an answering moan in my throat as the hand on my shoulder slid down to the small of my back and pulled me closer.

    His mouth pulled away and came back hot and demanding. Supple lips, tongue probing and commanding. Hungry. I responded readily, parted my lips and gave him everything he wanted. Pressed my chest closer to his. Reached to tangle my hand in his t-shirt, to hold on tightly. 

    The hand that cupped my head slid up, fingers catching on the hair tie I’d used to put my hair up in a bun, tugged gently. His lips barely left mine, “Can I…” I answered with a garbled moan that he understood as agreement. He pulled the tie away, freeing my hair, burying his fingers in it. With a satisfied sigh, his mouth returned to mine.

    Hungrier this time. Claiming more. Tongue bold and searching. Compelling a response from deep within me. Melting me. Drawing desire and pleasure from my bones. Licking and plunging. Robbing me of breath. Leaving me dizzy. 

    He broke the kiss. Lowered me slowly to the couch. His breath ragged. His eyes dark with passion. “Do you know…” His fingers went to the buttons on the shirt I was wearing. Another new one that I’d ordered online. Black again, with a swirling dark red line that resembled roses. Black buttons that mimicked the rose shape. He was unfastening them one by one.

    “Do you know the first time you talked to me, out on the porch. You were wearing this white dress shirt and-” His fingers had made quick work of the buttons. He was dragging the ends of the shirt from the waistband of my black jeans, flicking it open. “-I kept catching glimpses of your nipple when you moved. It was driving me crazy. I still think about it all the time.”

    A hand pushed my necklaces aside and fingertips brushed over my nipple. “And they’re pink. Fuck. I have to taste you.” 

    He lowered himself over me. Tongue licking. Lips sucking. Teeth nibbling. I moaned and combed my fingers through his hair. Growing hotter. Wanting more. I squirmed until he shifted and let me rearrange myself. Spread my legs and felt him settle between them. His heat cradled between my thighs. 

    “You taste so good. You make me greedy.”

    His words feathered over my skin. Cooling the wetness that gleamed on my nipple. Making me shiver and moan. He pushed my necklaces up into the well of my collarbone, his lips trailing little kisses across my chest to find and suck my other nipple. Fingers pinching and plucking at the one he’d just abandoned. 

    I was aching, hot and needy. My body crying out for more. My dick hard and throbbing. I raised my hips, searching for his warmth, for stimulation, for more pleasure. His hand swept over my skin, down my stomach, between my legs, cupping my cock and balls through my jeans, gently squeezing, pressing, rubbing.

    A cry escaped my lips as I bucked myself up into his hand. Tugged at his hair. Wanting to beg him to take off my pants. To touch me without anything separating me from his fingers. But I couldn’t find the words. 

    He pulled away. Sat up. Groaned. Pushed fingers through his hair and wiped his palm over his face. “I’m sorry. This…”

    His eyes dropped to meet mine. He grimaced. I lay there breathless. Heart pounding. Trapped in the moment. 

    “I didn’t want to do this. I went too far. I’m sorry.”

    I tried to think. To escape from the tangle of desire. Struggled to speak. “Did I do something wrong?”

    “No.” His face flashed from shocked to concerned. He leaned forward. Hands sweeping towards my face. Fingers trailing from my forehead to chin. He bent over me. His eyes capturing mine. “No. You’re beautiful. You’re so fucking tempting.”

    His lips met mine. Devoid of heat. Holding comfort and reassurance instead. Broke away so that he could speak. His face close, gaze holding mine. Deeply earnest. “You didn’t do anything wrong. I just want to treat you with more care and respect than this. This is only our second date and we didn’t even finish the movie.”

    He sat back up. Eyes now betraying confusion and regret. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to be an asshole and leave you like this, but I want to take things slow. Alright?”

    “Yeah.” I agreed with him. Nodded. Gave him what he wanted. What was I supposed to do? Demand that he fuck me? Beg?

    His hand cupped my knee. Squeezed. He stood up. “I’d stay and finish the movie with you, but I can’t trust myself right now. I’ll call you tomorrow when I get back from meeting my mom. You can come over to work on the carvings and we’ll talk.”

    “Okay.”

    One last look of apology and he left.

    There was so much to think about. What did it mean that he’d left? What if he’d been lying when he said that I’d done nothing wrong? If he wanted to take things slowly, was it wrong that I didn’t care how quickly we went? That I’d been ready to give him whatever he’d wanted? And what about the way he’d felt? It was so very different from HoSeok. He made me feel different than HoSeok had. What did it all mean?

    There were so many questions to answer, but I ignored all of them. Let myself slip back into the heat and the passion that NamJoon and I had created together. Closed my eyes and remembered the taste and feel of his lips. The heat in his hands and the erotic pleasure of his touch.

    I unfastened my pants and took my dick in hand. Imagined that it was NamJoon’s hand. Pretended he’d never left. 

 

Chapter Text

    “Hey! Watch out!”

    I looked up in time to see two of the kids who had been zooming up and down the sidewalk on rollerblades crash into each other. Right in front of my gate. The little one took most of the impact. Bouncing off the bigger one and falling down. 

    Not that the bigger one didn’t try to catch hold of him and keep him upright. It just didn’t work. The little one ended up sitting on the sidewalk, hunched in on himself, protecting a hurt knee, trying to hide his tears. The handful of kids who’d been further down the block arrived to check out the damage. 

    They looked up and around, scanning the neighborhood for an adult. I did the same. There wasn’t another adult in sight. Only me. There weren’t even any other kids. Just the rollerbladers who’d collected in front of my yard. 

    And there were ghosts. Of course. Closing in on the boy who was crying. Hoping to find a break in his aura. 

    I stood up with a sigh. Grabbed the basket of carved peach pits that sat next to me. Headed for the kids. They watched me warily as I walked down my sidewalk and stopped on my side of the gate. No doubt I was known as the weird guy in the neighborhood. There were probably stories about how strange I am.

    “Hey. Are you okay?” The little boy looked up at me with big eyes. Hugged his knee tighter. “Is it bleeding? Do you need a bandaid? I’ve got some in the house.” His eyes grew so big he looked comical. The other kids gasped and began to intervene. I looked around at them and shook my head. “I’ll go get the bandaids. I’m not trying to get him into my house.”

    The kids relaxed and shuffled around a little. Cast their eyes down guiltily. The little one finally spoke. “It’s not bleeding. It just hurts really bad.”

    I looked around again. Just to see if a capable mom was hurrying down the sidewalk with a first aid kit and a box of popsicles. No such luck.

    “Okay. Well, when I was a kid, I’d always try to move my leg. And then if that worked I’d try to stand up. Can you move your leg?”

    He slowly straightened his leg out and then bent it back. Looked up and gave me a nod. The older kids fell back a little as he pushed himself up. Wobbling on his rollerblades. He raised his arms to wipe the tears from his face. Looked at me for guidance.

    “How does it feel? Are you ready to get back to skating, or do you think you should go home and take it easy for a while?” 

    “I want to go home.” His voice wavered.

    “Good. You’re mom’s there to check you out?” He nodded. “Okay, but before you go, would you like one of these?”

    I lifted the basket of carvings over the gate and displayed it to the kids. “They’re carved peach pits. They’re good luck charms. If you keep one in your pocket, it’ll give you good luck.”

    The kids stared at the basket with excitement and want. Looked at each other with questions in their eyes. Looked at me with concern. Finally, one of the girls said, “Is it really okay?”

    “Of course. I wouldn’t offer them if it wasn’t okay. Carving is my hobby so I have a ton of them and it’s just a peach pit. Most people throw them away.”

    They edged nearer the basket. Heads bent to check out the contents. A hand raised to shuffle through the pits. 

    “I want this one! It’s a dragon!” 

    The find sent exclamations through the group. Now everyone was eager to find their own treasure. I watched as they each found and claimed a carving. Said their thank yous. Began skating back up the sidewalk. Ghosts moved like a wave around them, staying a couple feet away, backing off and closing in as quickly as the group zipped over the concrete.

    One boy suddenly stopped and spun around. Skated back to stand in front of me. “Can I have another one? For my little sister?” 

    “Yeah.” I handed the basket over the fence and watched as he plucked out a butterfly.

    “Thanks. She’d cry if she saw mine and she didn’t have one.”

    “No problem. Be sure to take care of them. Try to keep yours in your pocket all the time. That way the luck works better. If you lose it, just come and get another one. And...if anyone else wants one, just come by and ask.” 

    I watched him skate away. Looked at the row of houses that filled the block. I’d been thinking about it a lot. The fact that they must be filled with ghosts because of me. I’d pictured myself sneaking out in the dark of night and hiding wards near doors and on the underside of window sills, but it would be no use. What good would it do? Block out the ghosts waiting outside, but trap in the ones that had already gotten in. 

    The peach pits in the boys’ pockets made me feel a tiny bit better. They wouldn’t be completely protected. A ghost only had to be stronger than most, or especially angry and determined, and it would break through the barrier that my carving created. But it was better than nothing at all.

    I walked back to sit on the top step of the porch I shared with NamJoon. I was pretending that I was enjoying the sunshine and the fresh air. The sounds of birds chirping and children playing. Carving peach pits and relaxing. 

    Really, I was just anxious for him to get home from work. I’d been ansty in my house. Unable to settle down. I wanted to see him. I wanted to feel that feeling that spread through my chest when he smiled at me. I wanted to hear his voice. It felt better to be out on the porch. To be able to watch the sidewalk. To know that I would see him as soon as possible. 

    We’d decided that it was okay to eat dinner together each evening when he came home from work. That it wasn’t too much. We were two singles guys and it made sense for us to share a meal. And we could talk and get to know each other better. That was what was most important to NamJoon. That we knew each other well before we had sex. 

    Not that we didn’t kiss. We did. There was just an ‘above the waist’ rule that we had to follow. And we didn’t let ourselves get out of hand. It was hard. I was more than ready for things to get out of hand. But I followed the rules. I didn’t want to see him frown at me. Didn’t want to disappoint him or cause him to do something that he’d regret. 

    It was all so new to me. I didn’t know what was typical. What to expect. What I should agree with or what I should question. I’d ended up calling HoSeok. Needing reassurance because I was worried that NamJoon didn’t want me. That waiting involved some hidden test that I might not pass.

    He’d laughed at me. “You’ve got yourself an old fashioned guy or something. Is he old? Like a grandfather?” 

    “No, he isn’t old. He’s your age. Take this seriously. I’m freaking out here.”

    “Okay. Okay. This is just hard for me to comprehend. You actually got a boyfriend? He’s been in your house?”

    “Yes, he’s been in my house. He’s my neighbor. And I don’t know if he’s my boyfriend. We’ve had a couple official dates and we hang out a lot. And kiss a lot.” I’d felt panic swelling. “How do I know if he’s my boyfriend? Do we have a talk and come to an agreement?”

    He’d laughed again and then grown serious. “Listen. It’s great that you found someone. I mean, I’m a little jealous, but it sounds like this guy is being really careful and sincere. If you weren’t a hermit you’d probably be dancing around saying you’ve met the man of your dreams. It sounds like he’s really into you and wants a real relationship.” 

    I’d swallowed nervously. Still unsure. “So, I should just go with it?”

    “You like him?”

    “Yeah. I like him a lot”

    “Then go with it. Just let him take the lead. But wait, you’re so freaking vulnerable. Don’t just go with it if he hurts you or makes you feel uncomfortable. Take care of yourself. Just call me if anything weird happens or you have more questions. Don’t let him take advantage of you. I mean, it sounds like he isn’t going to do that but you never can tell when people are going to switch things up on you.” 

    “Alright.” I tried to keep up with what he was saying. “I’ll just go with it and call you if things get weird.” 

    So far nothing had been weird. It had been fun. It had been nice. It had been all too exciting. Colored in new feelings that filled me, pushed me, pulled me. Lifted me up. Spun me around. 

    I was excited for each day. Counting the hours until I could see him. Losing myself in the moments we shared. Happy in a way that I had never been. I knew that I would have to put a stop to the upward climb of my emotions. That I would have to freeze them in place once we fucked. 

    But, at that time it sounded perfect. We got along so well. The feelings were so good, countless pleasures that I’d never before tasted. I would be thrilled to have them every day. To have a fuck friend that was actually a real friend. That I shared time with outside of bed. That made my life so much more enjoyable. 

    I looked up and saw him crossing the street to the corner that my house stood on. Smile on his face. Evening sun glinting off his glasses. My hands rushed to gather my things together. Sweep peach pit shavings off my clothes. 

    I took a deep breath and stepped off the porch again. Met him at the gate. Ignored the ghosts.

    “It’s nice to see you outside. What’ve you been doing?”

    “Carving a peach pit. I’m trying to do a tree.”

    “Mmm. That sounds nice. Show me.”

    We walked to the porch and I showed him the pit I’d been working on. Watched as he held it up to the light. 

    “I like it. You’re doing a great job. When I look through all the carvings, I can really see how much you’ve improved.”

    “Thanks.” His words made me feel shy and embarrassed. “I’ve been doing it for a while.”

    I picked up my things and started towards my front door. He followed me. Held up the bag in his hand. “I got the french bread.”

    “Good. The salad’s prepped and the lasagna’s ready and waiting in the oven.”

    “I feel so special. You’re making Italian food for me.” 

    I turned to look up at him. Forgot all about the words that waited on my tongue. He was closing the door behind him and his eyes had gone from sparkling happily to intense. He took my things from me. Sat them on a nearby table along with the bread and his briefcase. Reached for me.

    “I missed you a lot today.” His voice dropped. Suddenly husky. Sending tremors over my skin. “Did you miss me? Is that why you were on the porch?”

    “Yeah.” I lifted my lips for his kiss. Accepted his tongue hungrily. Falling into the now familiar taste and feel of him. 

    This was it. This was what I’d been waiting for. The warmth that was in his arms. The heat that was in his touch. The way he always held me with tenderness and then devastated me with his kisses. HoSeok was right. He was nothing but sincere. There was no playing games. Nothing careless. Nothing selfish.

    He was focused entirely on me. On finding pleasure in me and in giving me pleasure. He was all slow, thoughtful movements and deep kisses. Ragged breaths and satisfied sighs. Hot gazes and whispered words. With NamJoon, everything was about connection. Finding each other through touch and taste and sensation. 

    I knew all of the psychology. The fact that I’d lacked human contact and warmth for so long. HoSeok had given it to me fleetingly. With him it had mostly been lost in the sex. But NamJoon had it in abundance, shared it as if it was his mission to smother me in him. His taste. His scent. His heat. 

    I let myself get lost in it for long stretches of time. Allowed myself to forget that it was dopamine and testosterone. Hid from the science and the logic. Buried myself in the feelings and the thrill. Accepted everything he had to give me and returned it with clumsy abandon. 

    “The food will keep, won’t it?” 

    His hands were up inside my shirt. His nails drawing gently over my skin from my shoulders to the small of my back. Making my spine arch. A moan fell from my lips. We’d spent so much time above the waist. He’d discovered a thousand ways to please me. Remembered them all. 

    “Yes.”

    It was why I’d made the lasagna. Why I was exploring recipes for casseroles. Foods that would wait quietly in the oven while we played with each other until we couldn’t take it anymore. Until he went to the bathroom and I retreated to my bedroom and we got ourselves off alone. Ate dinner. Started the process again. 

    It had become our habit and I tried not to let myself think about more. I knew it would come. I had faith that it would come. We got closer every day. Shared conversation over dinner and between kisses. 

    I knew that my aura was growing stronger. The happiness that I was feeling was the best thing for it. I could feel myself strengthening. But I didn’t know about the hole. If it had grown smaller. If it was still the same. 

    I sometimes had to bite my tongue to stop myself from begging NamJoon to fuck me. Because I wanted him so badly. Because his touch drove me crazy. Because I wanted to make sure that hole closed up.

Chapter Text

    “Okay. I’m done.” I pushed myself off the floor to a standing position and looked down at NamJoon. He was still doing sit-ups. “I went harder than usual. I’m all sweaty. I’m going to have to take a shower before I go work on your carvings.”

    We’d been working out together for a few days. He came over and we used my free weights. I worked out daily to maintain my body because it was one of the fundamentals of ghost defense. NamJoon said he worked out for his health. 

    I’d finished repairing the carved symbols in his bedroom, master bathroom and kitchen. I was halfway through working on his living room. He’d noticed a difference right away and given me the go ahead to do the whole house. Expressed amazement over and over again that it had actually worked. Often talked about how much better he felt in those rooms and how there was still a negative feeling in the rooms I hadn’t worked on yet. 

    Now, I reached up to pull off a hair tie and rake my fingers through my hair, shaking it out of a ponytail. Wiped sweat from my face with the palm of my hand. 

    “Hey”

    NamJoon had halted his sit-ups in an upright position. He was extending a hand up to me. I accepted it and pulled, assuming he wanted help standing, but he didn’t budge. 

    He tugged on my hand and I bent at the waist, thinking he wanted a kiss. He pulled again, until I was on my knees next to him, looking at him expectantly. He released my hand and moved to ruffle his fingers through my hair.

    “You look so cute when your hair’s messy. It does something special to your eyes and your cheeks and your lips.” 

    He swept his thumb slowly over my lower lip, his eyes following the movement, and after a moment’s hesitation I slipped my tongue out to steal a lick. Sweat and salt and NamJoon. Desire unfurled in my chest.

    I rarely made any move on my own. Always nervous, or even afraid, that I would do something wrong. Always waiting to follow his moves and the directions he sometimes gave me. Doing my best not to rush ahead, to betray how much I wanted and needed him when he was restrained, comfortable with walking down the track rather than racing.

    My eyes raised to capture his. To study his response as I teased his skin with the tip of my tongue. His gaze darkened. He waited one moment. Two. And then pushed his thumb past my lips and into my mouth.

    I closed my eyes. Felt the weight pressing on my tongue. The response, hot and visceral, deep in my stomach. Twisting. Needy. I sucked on his thumb. Stroked it with my tongue. Felt the satisfaction of it filling my mouth. Dropped my head to the side and took in as much of it as I could. Until my lips hit his hand. Treated it like a cock. Showed him how I wanted to pleasure him. Felt the aching need to taste his cum.

    “YoonGi.”

    He pulled his thumb away. Tangled his fingers in my hair and devoured my mouth. Tongue plunging deep. Searching. Taking. Demanding. Desire overflowing. I raised my hands to his neck, slick with sweat, combed my fingers through his damp hair. Met his tongue with my own dark passion. Moaned my delight and my greed. 

    He broke the kiss. Breathing heavy. Fingers tightening in my hair. Eyes burning. “I don’t want to wait any longer. I need all of you. Can we go to your bedroom?”

    So this was it. Not a special dinner with candles and confessions. But his hand on my waist as we walked upstairs. A hurried mixture of passion and anticipation and shy awkwardness. 

    His eyes scanned my bedroom walls. A smile on his lips. There are even more wards in my bedroom. The place where I sleep while the ghosts are at their strongest. “When I’m in your house, I feel like I’m surrounded by you. I’m in a YoonGi bubble.”

    “Is that okay?” I was still unsure. Still concerned that he was feigning acceptance or maybe just morbidly curious. Willing to ignore the weirdness just to have me.

    His hands fell on my hips. Pulled me close. Arms closing around me. Holding me tightly. Lips brushing my temple. “I really like you. I want to be surrounded by you. I want to be inside of you.”

    Yes. That was exactly what I wanted. Everything I needed. I needed fucked and I needed him. I needed to feel him inside of me. As close and as deep as he could get. 

    For a moment the profound rush of need made me pause. Made distant alarm bells sound. I recognized that it was too much. That I’d allowed myself to go too far. But the thought was vague. Weightless. It held no hope in the path of the desire and hunger that flowed through my veins. It disappeared in their wake. 

    He was tender and passionate. Taking off my shirt and laying me on the bed. Focusing on doing the things he knew made me hot and needy. Slowly plying me with pleasure. Mouth and tongue hot. Sipping at my nipples. Pressing wet, open mouthed kisses over my stomach. Teeth biting gently, increasing pressure until whiny moans escaped me. NamJoon chuckling against my skin, happy and cocky, licking over the marks and indentations he’d left on me. 

    He raised up on his knees to pull his sweaty shirt over his head. Infectious smile on his face. Fingers catching beneath the waistband of my shorts. Stripping them off of me. Hands trailing up my legs. Eyes fiery as they took in the sight of me lying naked and waiting.

    The warm skin of his palm settled on my dick. Fingers curling around it. Squeezing softly. Thumb stroking circles over the head. Sliding through precum. My gaze trapped by his as he took in my every reaction to his touch.

    He played with me. Tested. Explored my responses to touches light and firm. Slow and fast. Gentle and verging on painful. Murmuring words of approval when I sighed, whimpered and groaned. Telling me how pretty I looked raising my hips to press into his hand, silently begging for more. 

    He bent to claim another deep kiss that seemed to last forever. His hand slowly tugging my shaft as his tongue fucked my mouth. Tension and pleasure flooding through my body in waves. Arms wrapped around his shoulders. Hands clenching at his smooth skin. 

    He trailed a path of kisses across my cheek. Lips sucking at the tender skin behind my ear. Voice husky. “You’re mine. All of you. Say you’re mine.”

    “I’m yours.” The words met the air on a needy whine, washed through me in a dark wave. Rang with truth. Altered me down to my cells. Realigned everything. All signs pointing to him. 

    “Spread your legs for me.”

    I parted my thighs. Watched as his fingers left my cock and moved to circle and press at my hole. “Do you have condoms and lube?” I motioned towards the drawer in my nightstand. Closed my eyes and enjoyed the cool excitement of the liquid falling on my skin. A fingertip slipped in and pushed deep. I tightened around it, greedy for the sensation of him inside of me. 

    His free hand went to my nipples, pinching and tugging as he fucked one, two and then three fingers into me. Opening me up for him. Sending hot waves of arousal through me. I settled into a flurry of moans. Focused on nothing but him and the quaking pleasure and the aching need that was growing ever stronger. 

    He stood up from the bed to take off his shorts. I drank in the sight of his naked skin. Stared hungrily at the hard length of his cock as he settled between my legs. 

    “You always get so quiet when I touch you. You give me so many delicious moans, but you barely speak.” His hands slid down my thighs to hook behind my knees, pushing my legs up. He rubbed the length of his cock over mine. “Tell me what you want, Peach.”

    I groaned. Reached down to rub my fingers over his shaft. “I want you to fuck me. Please.”

    He was at my entrance. Pushing inside carefully. His eyes never leaving mine. My walls stretching to accommodate him. A tingling satisfaction spreading through my body as it finally had what it needed. Healing. It was deeply healing to have him inside of me. Connected to me at the deepest level. Becoming a part of me.

    “You feel amazing.” His words were slightly breathless. He was fully buried inside of me. Trembling slightly as he gently rocked his hips forward, pushing in just a little further. 

    I reached up to catch his shoulders, pulled him down to me. Chest against chest, sweat and heat mingling. Hid my mouth in his neck and spoke in gasps and moans of how powerfully right he felt. My body spasming around him, clenching greedily. My hips bucking up, wanting more.

    “Ah. Wait.” He put a hand on my hip and held me back. “We’re going to go slow. I’m going to show you just how much I’m falling in love with you.”

    The joy and wonder of his words burst inside my already crowded chest. Making me feel as if I would explode. And he’d begun to move. Started a rhythm of unhurried withdrawals and slow, forceful plunges. Began kissing me and never stopped. If his mouth wasn’t on mine, it was on my skin, licking and sucking, covering me with butterfly kisses.

    Built an orgasm so slowly that it was nearly painful. Tension tightening and spiralling through me. Layer upon layer. Until I couldn’t stop the cries that fled my mouth and filled the room. My arms and legs were wrapped tightly around him. Holding him close to me as I began to break apart. His lips at my ear, whispering warm words of encouragement that my mind couldn’t hold onto. 

    I came hard. Shooting cum onto my stomach. NamJoon growling his satisfaction. Kissing me with a clumsy fervor. Changing his angle and thrusting harder and faster. Until he plunged deep and came. Moaning. Sighing. Gathering me into his arms and rolling us over to our sides. Hands rubbing my back. Lips still dropping kisses. 

“That was so good. We’re a mess. I’ll take you to the shower in a minute. I want to wash you.” He was rambling. Voice full of a quiet giddy excitement. “I called you Peach. I’ve been thinking...but, it just sort of slipped out. Is it okay?”

    It felt like I was poised at the edge of a cliff. Staring down at all of the things that I’d meant to forever avoid. The things that got tangled up in your soul. The things that could grow thorns, dig in deep, refuse to let go. The things that could keep you bound to this world even after it was time to leave. 

    But those barbed vines were covered with flowers. The valley that lay below was a lush temptation that I couldn’t resist. It didn’t matter anyway. It was too late. The vines had grown up and around me while I stood staring at the sun. Whether I stepped off the edge of my own accord, or if I was dragged to my fate, it didn’t matter. I was falling in love with him. Maybe I was already in love with him. I didn’t know enough to tell the difference. 

    “It’s okay. I like it.”

Chapter Text

    “Well. Look who got fucked.”

    I was so relaxed, so content because things were going so well between NamJoon and I - and I was being fucked very well and very regularly - that I barely even twitched when I heard YoonJin’s voice behind me.

    “Give me a few minutes to finish this.” I didn’t even bother to turn around and look at her. “Then we can go into the kitchen and I’ll make some aglio e olio. If you don’t remember, aglio e olio is the dish that NamJoon recently learned to make. You wanted me to make it so you can see it.”

    I typed a few more paragraphs for the textbook that I was working on. Got out all of the concepts that I’d already planned and lined up mentally. Thought about what my attitude would be towards YooJin while I worked.

    I was fully prepared with new wards. Christmas bulbs filled with an updated blend of ingredients that were specific to YooJin were ready and waiting in every room of my house. I had new necklaces and bracelets threaded with robin feathers. There were wards with all of her deterrents hanging on some of my walls. It wasn’t enough to keep her out, but I was hoping it would at least make her uncomfortable.

    I wanted to avoid a confrontation. If she really had grown stronger since she left, I was worried about getting caught in a vicious cycle. If we began a pattern where I attacked, she left to grow stronger and returned, how long would it be before she was so strong that I had no hope of fighting her off? 

    I had no idea what she was doing to get stronger. I didn’t even know if she’d actually succeeded. I only knew that she was back even though I’d chased her away the last time she came and she sounded pretty sure of herself. 

    But I was feeling pretty confident, too. As I led her out of my office and across the living room to the kitchen, I realized that I was full of a cocky brattiness. I felt as if I had the upper hand because I had enough information to keep her satisfied for years, but I also felt as if I’d already won. 

    NamJoon was mine. Not Hers. Mine. It was immature and it was wrong. She wasn’t my competition, she was dead for fuck’s sake, but I still felt the giddy euphoria of victory. The deliciously cruel satisfying stab of taking something away and hurting someone. 

    I added the feelings to my growing collection. I was experiencing new emotions all the time and I’d become greedy for them. Gluttonous. Everything new because I’d closed myself off from the world for so many years. Created a bubble of loneliness. A reservoir of bland and shallow feelings. 

    NamJoon had brought a torrent of heady sensations. Happiness and joy. Excitement and anticipation. Worry and doubt. Longing and lust. Love. It was all dangerous. Fraught with attachment. But it was too sweet to turn away from. 

    All of the years and the vows that I’d made to myself disappeared with a single glance from him. The slightest touch of his hand. Sometimes, I would grow anxious and start to panic at how far I had strayed from my convictions. But it was a fine mist under the heat of the sun. Impossible to grasp and evaporating into nothing. 

    “You came at just the right time. I was just about to stop and make myself some lunch. This is perfect. I have plenty of time to talk to you.”

    I was trying my hand at a subtle reinforcement. I didn’t want her coming to my house in the evenings when NamJoon was likely to be there. The afternoon was the perfect time. 

    “And I’ve talked to NamJoon three times. So, I’ve got some good info.”

    “You’re being really cooperative.” She was suspicious. Watching me carefully as I filled a pot with water.

    I shrugged and walked over to put the pot on the stove, noting that she jumped out of my way rather than letting me walk through her. “You were a real bitch the last couple of times. You want me to help you, but you come into my house acting like that? It’s not a problem to talk to my neighbor and get a little information for you, but you can’t come in here and treat me like shit.”

    I turned to watch her expressions change as she riffled through emotions, finally settling on avoiding the issue and going on the offensive. “Where’s my list? You’ve got my list. I want it back.”

    I walked over to pull it out of my junk drawer, again heading right towards her and making her jump out of my way. “Here you go.” I sat it down on the counter and stepped back. 

    She rushed to pick it up and stared at it, devouring the lines I’d written. Looked up at me anxiously. “Did you find out where he works?”

    “Yeah.” I turned to pull the drawer open again and took out a pen. Held out my hand for her to give me the paper back. “It’s in Yeouido, not far from Kookmin Bank. It’s called Hana Insurance.”

    She watched over my shoulder while I drew a little sketch of how to get to the building NamJoon worked in. Not that I’d been there, but I’d looked it up on Google Maps. 

    “Are you going to be able to follow this?” I stepped back and she rushed forward to snatch up the paper again.

    “Yeah.” She was studying the map carefully. “I can get to this place. No problem. It says here they’re being mean to him at work. Is that true? What are they doing?”

    I turned to start gathering ingredients. A subtle display of power. Showing her my back when she’d asked a question. “I don’t think so. He says things have been easier at work. He’s not doing as much overtime.” 

    “I’ll have to see.” She was deep in thought. “I’ll have to go there and see. I’ll be able to watch what everyone’s doing. I’ll be able to hear the things they say about him. If they’re being mean, I’ll find out and I’ll do something.”

    “He won’t be happy if things start going crazy at his office.”

    “He’ll be happier if I take care of his problems for him. He’ll feel grateful to me.”

    “He won’t even know that you did it. Right? Why would he feel grateful to you?” I knew I was pressing my luck, but that was my intention. I wanted to see how far I could go. Test the waters. If she got mad, would I be able to calm her down with words?

    “That’s…” Her brows knit together as she stared at me accusingly. “He’ll just be grateful and it’ll be for me because I’m the one who helped him. He doesn’t need to know it’s me. I’ll know that it was me.”

    “That’s actually a pretty mature way to look at things.” Well, either mature or crazy depending on the underlying sentiment. I was willing to bet that her foundation was pure insanity.

    But she took the compliment without question, brightening up and turning to me as if I was a confidant. “You’re right. It’s like true love transcending all else. It’s so hard not to be able to see him. It’s the worst thing in the world, but I’m okay with it. I’ve got you and I can wait. I can wait forever if I have to. That protection spell will wear off or we’ll be together when he passes to this side.”

    “Is that what you’re waiting for? Him to die?” I looked up from the cutting board where I was slicing garlic and cast a glance over my shoulder at her. “Isn’t that selfish? To wish for his death?”

    “I’m not wishing for his death.” Her words were whiny and defensive. “I said that I can wait. I can wait as long as I need to.”

    “What will happen if he crosses right over when he dies? Will you even know it’s time to follow him? Will you even know how?” It was something that I’d always wondered. If the ghosts could see the exit clearly. If it was readily available, but they were too caught up in their attachments to notice the door and step through it.

    “I can follow him.” This time her voice was angry. I’d offended her. “I can go wherever I want to go. I’m not like all these other ghosts. They’re all stupid. They can only think of one thing. I’m not like that. I understand so much more than they do.”

    “I wonder why that is?” I kept my words casual. Kept my eyes focused on the pot where I was sliding spaghetti into boiling water. 

    “I don’t know, but they’re all crazy and stupid. Even the ones who stayed back because they’re looking for their man. They just keep saying, ‘My JungWon. My JungWon.’” She was cruel and disgusted as she mocked them. “They don’t have the first clue how to find their precious JungWon. They don’t even try. They just moan and stand out there trying to get to you or pathetically wander around not even knowing the right direction to go. They’re really idiots.”

    “But you found Kim NamJoon, even though you can’t see him.” 

    “I’m smart. I told you.” She was getting impatient. “I know where his parents live. So I waited there until he visited. I knew he was there, they were talking to them and I could feel him...pushing me away. When he left his dad drove him home and I followed the car. All I had to do was watch for where he was dropped off and which door opened when he went into his house.”

    Her mood suddenly turned dark. “And here you are. Just perfect, right? You can keep an eye on him and tell me everything I want to know.”

    I let the words pass as if I hadn’t heard the threatening undertones. “What do you want to know? Maybe I can answer a few of your questions and we’ll write the other ones down. I’ll ask whenever I get the chance, but I can’t be too awkward during our conversations or he won’t want to talk to me anymore.”

    “You’re worried about being too awkward? Have you seen yourself?”

    “Yeah. He definitely thinks I’m weird, but he talks to me now and then. So, I can’t complain.” I set a frying pan on the stove and turned the heat on under it. “Your questions?”

    “What…” She fell silent. Momentarily tongue-tied. I turned to look at her. She was rubbing a hand over her forehead. “Just...just tell me some of the things you found out.”

    I weighed my options. It had to be information that he’d share casually with a neighbor. It couldn’t be too intimate. “He works out. He thinks fitness is important and tries to take care of his health.”

    “Really?” Her eyes had suddenly brightened. Tracked quickly back and forth as she excitedly absorbed the information. “Does it show? Does he have a good body?”

    “Yeah.” I paused as I was about to drizzle oil into a frying pan. I felt the weight of what she’d asked. “You can’t see him and you can’t remember what he looks like?”

    I thought that my question would make her angry, and it did, but not at me. “I remember that he was handsome.” Her words were laced with a futile frustration. “I remember he was tall.” She was concentrating. Chasing wisps in her mind. Grasping at air. “And his laugh. He has a good laugh. And a good smile. But I can’t picture them. I can’t remember the sounds. I just know.”

    “That must be hard.” I was remembering his smile. The way I felt when it was directed at me. His laugh and his dimples. The color of his eyes. The way he combed his hair back for work and let it fall over his forehead at home. All of it making me feel warm and mushy. What was it like to forget those things? To miss them but not be able to recall them? 

    “You should take a picture of him!” The idea burst joyfully from her lips. “Take a picture and print it out and I can keep it with me!”

    “I can’t just take a picture of him. He’d notice and it would be weird.” Or, I could take pictures of him fucking me all the time and he didn’t mind, but I couldn’t show her those or justify any of the casual pictures I’d taken since I was pretending like we were barely aquaintances. 

    A thought suddenly occurred to me. “Have you been in his house?” 

    “No. I can’t go in.”

    “I’ve been in there. It’s actually got a lot of wards carved into the wooden trim, but they’re all messed up.” She was staring at me, trying to figure out what my point was. “I offered to fix the wards for him, because his house was full of ghosts and it was making him feel pretty bad.”

    She gasped. “Other ghosts are in there?”

    “Yeah, but I’m fixing the wards and clearing them out.” 

    I didn’t jump to any conclusions, but she made the connections herself. “Why can they go in there but I can’t? Why doesn’t the protection spell work on them?”

    “I don’t know.” I turned my back on her to saute the garlic. I really had no idea why she couldn’t go in his house but the other ghosts could. “My specialty is seeing ghosts and making wards. Protection spells and how they work are beyond me.”

    “So some of those ghosts out there saw him. They were in his house.

    “Are you going to go talk to them? I doubt they’d be able to answer your questions. They usually only talk about what keeps them here.” I began adding pasta to the oil and garlic. “Fortune tellers always claim they can get more out of them. So maybe you can too.” 

    When she didn’t answer immediately, I looked over to see that she was rocking back and forth from one foot to the other. Furious. “I want to hurt them. I want to punish them. What the fuck do they think they’re doing going into his house? He’s mine. Do they think I’ll just let them attach themselves to him? I’ll tear them apart and throw them across the golden boundary straight to hell.” 

    I stopped messing with the pasta, not caring if the sauce evenly coated the spaghetti. I dumped it into a waiting bowl and turned to face her. “It’s a golden boundary?”

    “What?” I’d interrupted her train of thought. She looked around herself with a frown. At me. At the aglio e olio on the counter. At the sheet of paper still clenched in her hands. She quickly tucked it into her chest. “Be ready to make that again for me next time. And don’t forget anything that you know about NamJoon. I’ll be back.” 

    She swept across the kitchen and out the door. I grabbed the pasta and a fork and followed her. Standing on the porch and slurping up noodles. Watching as she entered the crowd of ghosts. She was speaking, but her words weren’t quite understandable and they were spoken at a strange pitch. After giving her spiel, she began targeting some of the ghosts. Hurrying up to them, hitting and pushing until they suddenly disappeared.

    She was doing it. Forcing them to the other side where they belonged. And they were sitting ducks. Too stupid to even understand what was going on. Not one of them tried to flee or fight back. They only looked at her in confusion. Continued to cry out for their loved ones, moan about the rent, mumble nonsense while she abused them. 

    When the bowl was empty, I turned and went back into my house. It was good that she was freeing them from this world. If only she would push each and every one of them out. 

    I was feeling more confident. I’d handled her well. I’d gotten a little information. If I played my cards right, maybe I’d eventually be able to figure out a way to make the ghosts leave myself. There were so many of them, I wasn’t sure how much help that would be. It wasn’t like I’d be able to spend all day, every day forcing ghosts to leave this world. But knowing more and being able to do more would make me feel so much better. 

Chapter Text

    “Strip.”

    I looked up from where I was reading a manga on my couch to see NamJoon in the entryway. His tie was already undone. One hand working down the row of buttons on his shirt. The other setting his briefcase on a table and moving to join the first. 

    A shiver of anticipation went through me as I dropped my book and stood up. “I thought you were going to come home and tell me about the restructuring meeting.” 

    His eyebrows raised. Just a little. His eyes dark and intense. Voice rough with hunger. “Is that what you want?”

    “No.” I loved it when he was like this. Intense. Focused. Ravenous. It didn’t take me long to slip off my shorts. They were the only thing I was wearing. Reaching down to rub my cock, enjoying the feeling of it waking up, I watched him toss aside his shirt and stalk towards me in his gray slacks and white tank undershirt. 

    He backed me up until I hit the wall behind me. Snagging a bottle of lube off the coffee table on the way. Shoving it in his pocket. My back pressed against a tapestry I’d woven from silk threads that I’d dyed with indigo, woad and madder. It was soft against my skin. NamJoon’s lips were softer. He’d knelt before me and was trailing kisses over my stomach. I brushed my fingers through his hair, still warm from his walk in the evening sun.

    “Tell me what you did today.”

    I moaned as his mouth stopped and began gently sucking my hip bone. “Finished chapter 18… Had a zoom meeting about chapter 19…”

    “I thought about you. Thought about being inside you. All day.” He bit down on my hip bone. First gently and then slowly increasing the pressure. Until a moan escaped me and turned into a cry. Stopping just before it was too much. Leaving me gasping as fire burned under my skin.

    He stood and kissed me. Mouth hungry. Tongue hot and demanding. Hands running up and down my sides. Chest pressed too close to mine to allow them to come between us. I tugged the undershirt from his pants and slipped my hands beneath to explore the warm smooth skin of his back. Feeling his muscles tighten beneath my palms as he moved. 

    Passion filled me. Hot and needy. Demanding and greedy. I was enthralled by the way he made me feel. Sensations that filled me up and overwhelmed everything. Conducted by his hands and his lips. I bucked my hips, searching for more, wanting all of it at once. Buried my face in the crook of his neck, breathing his scent, safe in the bubble of his heat. Licked and sucked at his skin. Tasting him. Feeling him on my tongue.

    His hand stroked down my thigh and caught my knee, raising it up. “Hold this.”

    Hooking my hand behind my knee, I pulled it as high and wide as I could manage, opening myself up for him. His hand slid down my thigh, his fingers slipping between my cheeks and brushing over my hole. “Is this what you want, Peach? Do you want me to touch you?”

    “Fuck, yes.” I trembled under feather light, teasing touches, moaning. Taking advantage of the fact that he’d moved back a bit. Using my free hand to palm one of his pecs. Massaging the firm muscle through his shirt. Pinching and tugging at his nipple.

    His touch became firmer, fingers rubbing and pressing. His other hand reaching down to cup a cheek, squeezing and massaging, making the pressure behind my cock build higher, until I was ready to beg for more.

    “Ah, Joon, please…” I moved my hand to the side to slip my fingers into the opening of the tank, sliding past his armpit until my fingers found his nipple. Smooth skin ruched rough beneath my touch. Nipple hard. Tempting. I wanted it in my mouth, but I was all but trapped with my hand holding my leg in the air.

    “You want more, Love?” His hands left me. Dug the lube out of his pocket. Prepared his fingers so they could enter me. Slow and slick and wet. Stretching me open. A tumult of need centered on his touch. Wracking my body. 

    He was quick. Opening me with expert strokes, completely familiar with my body. Pulling back to undo his belt and unfasten his pants, releasing his cock. I reached for it. Hungry to feel him. Impatient.

    He pushed my hand away. Guided it to my own dick. “Keep your hand here.” I obeyed. Wrapping my fingers around my shaft lightly. Remaining still. Not wanting to make myself come. Waiting for him. 

    His head bumped against my hole. Pressed. Slipped inside. All of my focus on the way that he felt. Thick. Stretching. Long. Going so deep. Filling me so fully that it left me breathless. Stopping. Deep. Deep. Deep. Pulling me close. I buried my face in his neck. Gasping. Trembling.

    “My Love. My Love. My Peach. There is nothing in this world that feels as good as being inside of you.”

    His lips soft. Dropping tiny kisses on my earlobe and down my neck. Hands stroking my back. While my body quaked around him.

    “What the fuck are you doing you pathetic pervert? Some kind of yoga masturbation?” 

    My heart stopped. I slowly turned my head to peek over NamJoon’s shoulder. YooJin was staring at me from the other side of the living room. Upper lip curled in disgust. My heart gave a heavy beat, beat, beat. My mind refused to move. My body caught in the grasp of desire. Fear and shock and passion tangling. Signals crossing. My hips jerked forward and my entire body tensed. Ass squeezing NamJoon’s length.

    He took it as a request. Began fucking me. Hard. One hand moving to help keep my leg poised in the air. The other knotting in my hair. His mouth still near my ear. Breathing ragged, flecked with moans. My body revolted. My body cried for more. Everything confused. My hand tightened instinctively on my cock. My every breath a gasp as I struggled to find focus and control. 

    “Say my name.” Words hot in my ear. Shivers down my spine. Panic and passion. Moans falling from my lips. NamJoon growing impatient when I didn’t immediately respond. Fucking me even harder. Chin nudging my head to the side. Exposing my neck. Voice Harsh. Accompanying deep plunges that jolted my soul. “Say. My. Name.” Mouth closing hot on my throat.

    I cried out. Caught. Torn. His name escaping. “...NamJoon...NamJoon...Joon…” Coming out as I obeyed him. Coming out as I tried to warn him. To get his attention. To get him to stop.

    YoonJin was in and out of my line of sight as I was fucked against the wall. My head bobbing. My eyes closing when sensations overwhelmed me. My mind wandering and returning. She was staring at me with confused impatience and loathing. When NamJoon’s name hit the air, her face fell in shock and then twisted in fury.

    “NamJoon?! NamJoon?! You’re fucking MY NAMJOON?!” She stalked forward but suddenly stopped in her tracks. Her rage growing so that her lines and edges began to melt. Sag. Her image nothing more than a construct of her mind. Loosening as all of her attention focused on NamJoon and I.

    But she couldn’t come closer. Was held off by whatever spell was on NamJoon. She shrieked in frustration and batted at a dish full of agrimony and sage off a nearby table. It fell to the wooden floor with a clatter, but NamJoon ignored the sound. Continue to drive himself into me with powerful thrusts. Oblivious. Mouth working down my throat. Tongue licking over my collarbone. Murmuring gentle words of encouragement and love. The sounds lost in the heavy beating of my heart and YoonJin’s cries.

    Her voice had turned inhuman. Bloodcurdling screams tore at my eardrums. She threw herself at the invisible barrier that kept her on the other side of the room. Once. And then again. And again. It was no use. She rippled before my eyes. Began to truly come apart. Splitting at the seams. Revealing a darkness so black that it was both painful and terrifying to look at. I closed my eyes, fighting off terror, burying my face back in the crook of NamJoon’s neck.

    Crashes and bangs erupted. I looked up, squinting against the pain, to see that she was grabbing everything she could get to and tossing it at the barrier. All of it was deflected and fell to the floor. Mirror shattering. Wooden carvings clattering. Lightbulb from a lamp exploding into tiny shards. 

    NamJoon lifted me off of his dick and spun around. Backed me into the wall. A hand up in defense. A hand reaching back to touch me. Protecting me. YooJin continued to hurl wards and smaller pieces of furniture futilely through the air.

    NamJoon using his body to shield me set me in motion. I was the one who needed to do something. I pushed at him, slipped from behind him and ran over to a shelf. Grabbed a box of christmas bulbs. Rushed at the barrier that protected us, stopping just before I reached it. 

    I could barely look right at YooJin. The facade of her body was faded and in tatters. She was a blackhole. The vague shape of a human. Terror and evil. Something that should not be on this earth. 

    I threw a bulb at her. My aim poor as I shook with fear and tried to avoid looking directly at her. But the makeshift bomb burst near enough to her that she paused. Dropped the boxwood wreath she was holding. And maybe turned to look at me. Still howling. 

    Tossing more bulbs, one after another, I drove her to the front door. Stepping carefully through the invisible forcefield. Picking my way quickly through shattered bulbs. Following on her heels. She was too far gone to leave through the wall. She jumped through the window on my front door. Shattering the small panes of glass. Fleeing into the growing dusk. 

    “Fuck.” I was terrified. Shaking. Close to breaking down. But there was work to be done. 

    The floor was covered in the wards that had spilled from the bulbs, the shards of glass from the exploded ornaments, the window, the mirror and the lightbulb. All of the things YooJin had thrown in her fury. I ran to the kitchen to grab the broom. Swept a short path to the place where she’d stood the longest. Cleared a safe place to sit down and dropped to the floor. 

    Cheap lace.

    I dropped my forehead to my knees and covered my head with my arms.

    Powdered gravy mix.

    Tears spilled from my eyes. Pattering on my skin. Trailing down my naked thighs. 

    Broken crayons.

    Seconds fell. Piled up. I willed there to be more. Strained. Nothing came. My stomach hollow with fear. Body trembling. Everything off. Everything broken.

    “YoonGi.”

    I lifted my head slowly to see NamJoon standing nearby. In the untouched part of the living room. Holding the blanket that I kept thrown over the back of my couch as if he didn’t quite know what to do with it. 

    “Come...come here.”

    I stood, legs wobbly, and walked over to him. He shook out the blanket and wrapped it around me. Guided me to the couch. I curled up. Holding the blanket tight. Mind blank. Fighting off all of the horrors that threatened to fill it.

    “What’s going on? What was that?” 

    Looked up at him. He was confused. Shaken. Eyes scanning the mess. Looking at me with fear and concern. My chest tightened. Everything was changed now. We stood on a threshold. We could never go back. 

    “A ghost.”

    “A ghost? It’s not…” He hesitated but continued on. “It’s not the time to joke.”

    “It was a ghost.” My stomach twisted with misery. “What else could do that? That’s what all this stuff is about.” I pushed a hand out of the warmth of the blanket to indicate the wards. “It’s not art. It protects me from ghosts. Keeps them away. I’m sorry. I couldn’t...couldn’t tell you. You would have just thought I was crazy.”

    His voice came out tiny. “I feel like I’m going crazy. This can’t be real.”

    “It’s real. Not so many people believe in ghosts anymore, or if they do...they just think of them as a fun story or an exciting movie. They don’t use wards or try to protect themselves.”

    “Why do you believe in them then? Why is one supposedly in your house? You said this stuff was to keep them away.” His voice was growing heated. He was converting his fear to anger to make it easier to deal with.

    “I can see them.” I’d started to tremble again. Not wanting to speak aloud my next words. “The ghost is your fiance, Na YooJin. I don’t know why she can get in here. She’s really strong and the usual wards don’t work against her.”

    There was a deadly silence. “How do you know about YooJin? You’ve been looking into my past?”

    “No. She’s a ghost. She introduced herself to me. I don’t know anything that she didn’t tell me herself.”

    There was a faint tinge of accusation in my comment. He hadn’t told me about her. Hadn’t mentioned that he’d nearly gotten married. That someone important to him had died. 

    “That’s bullshit!”

    I sighed. Feeling drained. Feeling hopeless. Knowing I’d already lost. “Listen. I’m sure that if I looked it up on the internet, I’d find stuff about your engagement. But I didn’t do that. Na YoonJin is a ghost and she came to me. I really don’t know anything more than the fact that you were engaged. She has problems remembering things about you. But she’s definitely a ghost. You saw for yourself. There’s nothing else that can do this.”

    “Why would she go to you? Why would you even talk to her? None of this shit makes sense.”

    “She can’t go to you. You’ve got some kind of protection spell on you that keeps her away. She can’t even see you. And I...I have to talk to her. She can hurt me if she gets mad.”

    “She hurt you? How?”

    “She can touch me and burn my skin.”

    More silence

    “What does she want?”

    “You, but she can’t get to you. She can’t see or hear you and she’s forgotten nearly everything about you. So she wanted me to get to know you and tell her things about you.”

    “That’s why...that’s why you talk to me? Because you’re spying on me?”

    I shook my head. This was all so fucked up. “It’s why I started talking to you. I usually don’t have anything to do with people. I keep to myself. It should be obvious that it isn’t why I continued talking to you.”

    He winced. “This is a lot to think about. I need to go home and think.”

    A canyon of loneliness opened up inside of me and grew to fill the world. I was losing him. I looked for words, not sure of what I should say. Should I ask? Should I beg? Was I supposed to just let him walk away? How was this supposed to work?

    “But I’ve got to help you clean up this mess, first.” He bent down and picked up my shorts. Shook off a fine layer of dust that had settled on them. Handed them to me. “Put these on. This is going to take awhile. Once we get things looking halfway decent, I’ll order some pizza.”

    He swept up the glass and the strange mixture that had been in the bulbs. Watched with a dark look in his eyes as I sorted through wards, throwing away what had been destroyed, replacing those that were still in good condition, setting aside the few that could be salvaged with a little repairing. Cautious and mildly curious. Fearful. Giving me plenty of space. 

    He didn’t leave until everything was clean and cardboard had been duct taped to cover the missing window in the door. Even though it took hours and he had to get up early the next day. He stood on the porch and quietly contemplated me. 

    “I need time to think. I’ll probably come over tomorrow after work.” He reached up and ran his hand over his face. Exhausted. Strained. His head shifting to the side. His eyes catching on a money clip lying in the corner. “It’s not fans bringing all this stuff here.”

    “Yeah. If I’d said ghosts…” 

    “Why do they do this?”

    “Because they want me to help them. But I can’t.”

    I lay in bed, staring at the shadowed ceiling. Alone. Not that NamJoon had been spending every night in my bed, but even when he hadn’t been there I’d felt secure in our relationship. Excited and content. 

    Now I was empty and afraid. Facing a future that threatened to be very different from my past. If I lost NamJoon, nothing would be the same. He’d already colored my past with a loneliness I hadn’t truly felt or been aware of. I looked back at the way that I’d been living and saw it as pale and meaningless. It was just barely getting by when compared to the happiness that my life had with him in it. 

    I thought about HoSeok. He’d brought heat to my life, but not warmth. Conversation, but not comfort or connection. And even then, when he left my aura had a hole in it. If NamJoon and I couldn’t work things out, I’d be shattered and empty emotionally and I couldn’t even guess what it would do to my aura. I’d be left vulnerable and alone. And I might never recover.

Chapter Text

    “You don’t look so good.”

    I grimaced. He was sitting in an armchair instead of next to me on the couch. The distance was...unnerving. “I couldn’t sleep last night, and you don’t look so good yourself.”

    “Yeah, I didn’t sleep much either.” His eyes had been flicking around the room, but now they came back to mine. Searching. His voice a little accusing. “Why couldn’t you sleep? Aren’t you used to ghosts?”

    “I was afraid YooJin would come back and...I was worrying about our relationship.”

    My heart pounded. Silence stretched out too long. Flooding me with misery.

    “So. Tell me about ghosts, I guess, and why you see them.”

    I wondered if it was some kind of test. If I gave him the right answers, would everything be okay? What were the wrong answers? How was I supposed to know?

    “I’ve never talked about this with anyone before. So…” I waved my hand. There weren’t words to say how wrong it felt to speak my secret aloud. “I just started seeing ghosts when I was 14. I have no idea why. I...They all want something. They’re always so upset. So, I tried to help them but it never worked.”

    “Why didn’t it work?” 

    “Ghosts always have one thing on their mind. One thing that’s keeping them tied here. If they were sick or starving and I give them medicine or food, it’s too late. Nothing can help them now. If they’re looking for their husband or wife or their children to tell them they love them, I can’t do it for them. They have to do it themselves. There’s never anything I can do to help.”

    “You said YooJin wanted you to get information about me.” 

    He was doubting me. I sighed. “What she really wants is to get to you. Probably to tell you that she loves you or just to be with you, but she can’t. The information is second best, and...YoonJin isn’t a normal ghost. She’s much stronger, much smarter and much more like a human. I don’t know why, but I’ve never seen a ghost anything like her before.”

    “You said she hurt you. Do all the ghosts try to hurt you? Is that why you have all this protection stuff?”

    “No. A ghost has never tried to hurt me before. I don’t even know if they’re capable of hurting people in the way that YooJin did. They normally just moan about whatever it is they want and wander around looking for it. They’ll also attach themselves to people if they can, to try and steal a bit of what you have for themselves.”

    “So, are they dangerous or not? Why do you hide if they can’t hurt you?”

    I held his gaze to make sure he knew I was serious. “Ghosts know that I can see and talk to them. They must sense it. I’m like a beacon, calling them to me. When I was 14, I think that beacon must have been pretty weak. I only had two or three ghosts approach me a week, but it got worse over time. There are thousands of ghosts surrounding this house, all trying to get inside to get to me, to beg me for help that I can’t give them. I can’t step out of my yard without being swarmed by them. I wear these charms, but it only keeps them a few feet away.”

    “That’s what those carvings are about in my house, right? They’re to keep ghosts away.”

    “Yeah. I didn’t even know they were in there. The woman who owned the house before you must have done them. And I didn’t realize that ghosts were going into other people’s homes, but they’re attracted here because of me. They’ll watch everyone in the neighborhood and take advantage of them whenever there’s a chance. I...I don’t know what to do about that. I guess...I guess if you want to break things off, I’ll look into moving somewhere secluded. Like a cabin in the woods or something.”

    “I didn’t say I wanted to break things off.” His expression was pained. “I’m just having trouble taking all of this in. I didn’t believe in ghosts and suddenly one’s trashing your house and it’s Na YooJin? I don’t even know what to think.” 

    I nodded, searching for the best thing to say to him. “Ghosts are all around. They’ll look for a weakness in your aura and attach themselves to you if they can. When they’re attached, they’ll suck up some of your energy, make you feel depressed, bring you bad luck, and just leech as much of your emotions as they can. But you can wear a ward to keep them away. For the most part, one carved peach pit is enough. They’re not something that normal people need to worry about as long as they take simple precautions.”

    “So I don’t need to worry?” He was getting angry. “They’re not a problem for me and that makes it okay? You can’t even go outside and YoonJin is harassing you and hurting you because of me.”

    “It’s not your fault that YooJin became a ghost. As far as I can tell most ghosts are created because of something to do with love. Love is just a really powerful emotion. It makes people not want to let go when it’s time.”

    “I should be able to protect you.” He stared down at his hands. Clenched them into fists. “I want to protect you and I can’t even see the things that are hurting you. I just have to stand by while the person I love is being hurt? I don’t know...I don’t know how to deal with that.”

    My heart ached. I got up and walked hesitantly over to him. Wanting to give comfort. To get closer. To feel him. “Can I?”

    He opened up his arms and helped me onto his lap. I felt his warmth around me but I also felt how fragile it was. Tenuous. Love felt as if it was nothing but a bubble. Ready to burst at the slightest disturbance.

    I wrapped my arms around him. “I really love the fact that you want to protect me. I’ve always been so alone and having someone say that...it just means everything to me. But when it comes to ghosts, I’m the one who needs to protect you.”

    “Ah.” The sound was frustrated. He rubbed his head against mine. “There’s got to be something I can do to help you with YooJin. What does she want from me? We broke up. We broke up almost a year before she died.” 

    “She didn’t tell me that.” I thought back to the conversations we’d had. “She really can’t remember much at all. Maybe she’s forgotten that you guys broke up. What happened? Did she still love you?”

    He hesitated. “This is bad, okay? I’m the bad guy in this story.”

    I felt tension climb up my spine. And surprise. He was always so caring. I had trouble picturing him as the bad guy. “What happened?”

    “I was hiding the fact that I’m gay. I’d never told any of my friends or family. I never had relationships with guys, just hookups. I dated women very briefly and very casually, just to try to make myself look normal. After I’d graduated from university and had been working for a couple of years, my parents really started getting onto me about dating seriously and finding someone to marry.”

    “I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I’d lost my chance. Like I was too old to suddenly say that I’m gay. If I’d done it when I was younger, my parents might have gotten used to the idea. But they were breathing down my neck to get married and settle down and start a family.”

    His voice was a mix of sadness, frustration and anger. His hands moving endlessly, nervously. Rubbing over my back, arms and legs. “I was a coward. I gave in. Na YooJin was my best friend’s little sister. I’d known her since she was a baby, and I knew that she’d always been in love with me. I told myself I was doing the right thing. Making my family happy. Making YooJin happy. Doing what society expected of me.”

    “But I didn’t stop going to bars and hooking up with guys. I told myself that as long as YooJin didn’t find out, it was all fine. It was like a secret trade. She’d get me and I’d get to keep fucking guys. Of course that was wrong. Of course it didn’t work. She had a key to my apartment and came over to surprise me with dinner one night when she thought I was working late. I was on the couch, balls deep in the first guy who’d met my eyes when I stepped in the bar after work.”

    He gave a long heavy sigh. “It was a mess. YooJin and I broke up. For a while there, she kept coming back and trying to make it work. I actually think she was a little crazy. She kept saying that she’d keep me straight, but things had blown up and I’d finally told my parents I’m gay. I wouldn’t get back together with her. She didn’t take it well.”

    “Did she kill herself?” It was something I’d always wondered. Something you couldn’t just ask a ghost.

    “No. There was a gas leak in an empty office in the building she was working in. There was an explosion. A lot of people were killed. It was really tragic. I’ve been best friends with YooJin’s brother for so long, the two of them are like family.”

    “I’m sorry. I don’t think you’re the bad guy in this story. You were trying to give the people you love what they wanted.”

    “The truth would have been better.”

    “It usually is.” I leaned my head against his and breathed in his scent.

    “You’re really precious to me.” His voice was low and a little pained. “You’re the first person I’ve ever seriously dated. There are so many things I love about you. I love that you’re so unique. I work in this office where everyone’s in suits and things are always the same and then I come home and you’re right next door. So different from everything and everyone. And I guess it doesn’t matter if that uniqueness is because you see ghosts instead of being artsy. It’s still you. You still made all this stuff.”

    “But I don’t know if I can handle it. I don’t know if I have the strength. As time goes by, will I learn more and get stronger? Or will I get weaker and weaker until I give up? I wish I had more faith in myself. I think you deserve someone who doesn’t doubt that he’ll be able to stay by your side.”

    “Isn’t that what everyone deserves? But it’s never guaranteed. We get what we get and do the best we can with it.”

    “That’s a good philosophy.” He fell quiet for a moment. “I don’t want to leave you. I see how alone you were. I don’t want to abandon you to that. I’m going to do my best. For us. I promise. Just give me time.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

 

 

 

 

*** As usual, my characters have gotten away from me. This isn’t how I planned the chapter. YoonGi and NamJoon are just too lovey dovey. But I almost always let my characters do what they want to do, so it is what it is. However, because the conversation got off track, I wasn’t able to include some information about YoonGi that I think people might be curious about. It isn’t likely this stuff will come up in the remaining chapters (we’re halfway through the book, if you’re wondering). So, if you’re interested, here’s this:




Q&A With YoonGi:

You started seeing ghosts when you were 14. When did it start to become a problem?

      Well, obviously it was a problem right away because I was just a kid and I was freaking out. I was trying to figure out how to help them with limited knowledge and resources. A lot of them I couldn’t do anything for at all and they’d just keep following me around everywhere I went. The ones I could do something for, the ones who just wanted food, medicine and water, I quickly learned that I couldn’t actually help them. They’d just keep following me, too, begging for the stuff that I’d already given them.

That does seem like a lot for a teenager to go through. How did you deal with it?

     When I needed help, when I kind of opened myself up and prayed for a way to make it end, these words would pop into my head. A lot of them I didn’t even know. Salt and sage, stuff like that, I could get from the kitchen, but flourite and rubies? I didn’t have the money for things like that. I kept salt and sage in my pockets and it worked to hold the ghosts back a little, but they were still near me. I started eating a lot of peaches and carving the pits. I kept opening myself up to new ways to keep the ghosts away.

     I made wards as best as I could and started hiding them. First all around our apartment and then our apartment building. I made it so that ghosts couldn’t get near where I lived, but that didn’t take care of the rest of the world.

Like school? How did you deal with them at school?

     In the very beginning, when there were only a few, I tried to ignore them and get by. But that didn’t last for long. I started skipping school and obviously my mood was fucked up and I was acting strangely at home. My parents took me to see a psychiatrist.

How’d that go? Did you tell them that you were seeing ghosts?

     I wasn’t that stupid. I knew they’d lock me up for sure. I told them some bs about feeling depressed and not wanting to go to school. They diagnosed me however they wanted to and prescribed pills. I pretended to take the pills and I pretended to be better - it wasn’t so hard, I’d succeeded in keeping the ghosts out of our apartment - but I still refused to go to school. My parents tried to make me for a while, but they finally caved in and I started doing distance learning. I was trapped at home with very little to do, so my grades were great. That kept my parents happy and they stopped bugging me about going back to school.

How did you end up studying psychology?

     At first it was just to try to stay a step ahead of what was going on with psychiatrists and therapists. When therapy sessions and pills didn’t automatically fix me and make me want to go back to school, my parents would randomly decide to take me to a different doctor or a different therapist. I wanted to know more so that I could say the right things, so I could figure out how to not come off as crazy, so everyone would believe that I was doing okay and leave me the fuck alone. 

     After a while, I just became fascinated with it all. There are these two worlds. The logical, medical world based on scientific data and observation and the metaphysical world full of ghosts and I don’t even know what else. I wanted to understand both of them. I wanted to know where they overlapped and how they affect each other.                 

I’m assuming you went to university online?

     Yeah. As I grew older, more and more ghosts were attracted to me. Enormous swarms of them. I got my degrees online and well before I graduated I’d figured out that I can make a decent living writing articles. I even got a gig writing textbooks, so money isn’t a problem. 

So, that’s it? You planned to spend your entire life alone in your house?

     I really don’t see where I even have a choice. If I go out, the ghosts follow me everywhere and make me miserable. I’ve had years to get used to the idea that my life isn’t going to be normal. I have to make the best of things based on my limitations. 

What does that mean?

     It means I have tons of time to keep myself up to date on the latest research in psychology. So, I’m in demand to write articles. It means that I read a lot of books, watch a lot of movies and play a lot of video games. It means I have a lot of time to make new wards. I keep myself busy. 

What about protection spells? YooJin said NamJoon’s protected by a spell. Have you tried going to a shaman to get a spell to protect you?

     I don’t trust shaman. Many of them have no power at all. They’re just putting on a show to get money from people. Some of them actually do have power, but they’re still just using it to trick people and get their money. In the end I’ve never seen any evidence that a protection spell would really help me. Even with NamJoon, YooJin was able to get into the same room with him as long as it wasn’t in his house. A spell that keeps ghosts a few yards away is useless to me. I’m basically doing the same thing with my wards.        

If I missed something that you’d like to know, feel free to ask questions. As long as it isn’t a spoiler, I’ll answer whatever.            

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Chapter Text

    “Hey.” HoSeok's voice was tentative. If I hadn’t seen his name on my phone’s screen, I probably wouldn’t have recognized it. He sounded nothing like his usual brightly confident, brash self. “I wanted to tell you that we’ve gotten a lot of good feedback about your borderline personality disorder article and Mr. Kim is really happy-”

    I was stiffening, blocking out the emotions that tried to rise up at the sound of his voice. Anger and resentment. The need to escape. “Yeah, well, thanks. EunHae forwards me all the comments about my articles. So…”

    He sighed, not even trying to disguise his disappointment. “Mr. Kim is very happy with your article and your track record. He wants to give you a cover article sometime next year. Right now everything’s open starting in March. Pick a few topics you’re interested in and send him some blurbs.”

    “Ah.” This was big. A huge step in my career that I hadn’t been expecting. “Okay. I’ll do that.”

    “Great.” The word was said with clipped finality that made it seem like he was ready to hang up but was quickly followed by a quick intake of breath and a rush of words “I’m really sorry, YoonGi. I know I was being an ass that day, and just a complete ass about the whole thing.”

    “Okay then. Thank you for apologizing.” I was still standing rigid. Unwilling to suddenly bend and let him in.

    “I...Things are better between HyeMi and I now. We had a long talk and I told her how I felt. We’re pushing the wedding back six months more to give me time to adjust and...well, we worked out something where I can still fuck around a little on the side.”

    “Is that what this is about? You want to pick things back up? Well, I can tell you right now that’s not going to happen.”

    “No. No, that isn’t what this is about. I get how you feel. You made it crystal clear. I’m calling you because you’re one of the few friends that I have and I feel like I could use a friend.”

    I was silent while thoughts chased themselves through my head. He thought of me as a friend? It had been so long since I’d had a friend that the idea was both intimidating and invigorating all at once. But I couldn’t help but wonder at the thought. We’d had snippets of conversations on the phone and before and after fucking. That’s all it took to be a friend? He didn’t have better than that in his life? The shallow human contact that I’d needed so badly had also been important to him? Even though he was normal? Friendly and outgoing? Out in the real world every day?

    “Okay.”

    He made a noise. A burst of sound. Somewhere between a scoff and a laugh. “Okay. We’ll be friends again. This is good. Maybe you can come to my wedding. I know you never go out but you’ve got almost a year to prepare yourself.”

    I was silent again. Thinking about it. It wasn’t impossible for me to go out. And a friend’s wedding was pretty important. It was just so unexpected. I’d never imagined my life would turn in this direction. A friend. A wedding. It sounded so normal. A world that had always been beyond my reach.

    “Hey. Don’t get all bent out of shape. You have a ton of time to think about it and you definitely don’t have to go.”

    “Okay. I’ll think about it.”

    “Great. For now, I was thinking that maybe I can come over sometime. I’ll bring some chicken and beer and we can hang out.”

    “Aaah. I don’t know how my boyfriend would feel about that since we used to be fuck buddies.”

    “You have a boyfriend?!”

    “Uh. Yeah.”

    “How? Tinder? Is he normal? Have you actually met in person?”

    I didn’t know whether to get angry or laugh. I decided laughter was better since we were trying to be friends. “He’s normal and we’ve met. He’s my neighbor.”

    “Huh. Your neighbor. I was worried about you being all alone. So this is good. He’s treating you right?”

    “Yeah. He’s really nice. But I guess things are a little rocky.”

    “Really? You need some relationship advice?” He sounded a little too excited.

    “From you?” I was blatantly skeptical.

    “You got somebody else?”

    “No.” I pretended to think. “I guess I could ask on Reddit or take a relationship counseling course online.”

    “You’re gonna counsel yourself?”

    “I’m sure it would give me some insight.”

    “Just tell me what’s going on.”

    I paused. It was fun joking around with him, but there was no way I could tell him what was really causing problems in my relationship.

    “He found out more about me and he’s not sure he can handle it.”

    “What’s that? Like he can’t handle the real you? He can’t deal with all your baggage?” 

    “Yeah. I guess that’s it.”

    “That’s normal, right?”

    “Normal?”

    “Yeah. Love’s like a flower. At first it’s a beautiful bloom but then it withers away and everything depends on what’s left. A strong plant or a little stalk that was only there to hold up the blossom and now it’s just going to die.”

    “What the hell are you talking about?”

    “Sorry. I’ve just thought about this a lot since I had to decide what I really wanted with HyeMi. In the beginning a relationship is all fun and excitement and sex, but there comes a point where you have to face who the other person really is and who you are. You have to accept reality and it isn’t all sunshine and roses. There’s bad habits and your values and goals don’t fully align and all that.”

    “Okay. Yeah, I guess that’s what this is like.”

    “So, your boyfriend rolled over one morning and realized all that shit on your walls is a lot creepier than he’d thought when the only thing he could see was your ass.” 

    “Fuck, HoSeok. Is that how it happened for you?”

    “Nah. I never stopped looking at your ass. He’s having second thoughts?”

    “He just isn’t sure he can handle being in a relationship with me. You know I’m not normal.”

    “This is making me feel protective. I kind of want to kick his ass.”

    “He’s a lot bigger than you.”

    “Size doesn’t matter. He should appreciate what a great catch you are.”

    “You think I’m a great catch?”

    “You’ve got a good job. You can cook. You’ve got lots of hobbies, so you’re not too clingy. You won’t be constantly whining at him to take you places or buy you expensive clothes. Hell, you barely even wear clothes. He should treasure you.”

    I joined him in a little laugh, but my heart wasn’t in it. “The thing is, he’s got doubts so he’s pulling back. I’m worried about him pulling back, so I’m pulling back. It’s like a distance has opened up between us and it’s getting bigger all the time. I don’t even know how to make it go away. I can’t snap my fingers and get rid of the things he’s not comfortable with. I just have to wait for him to figure things out, but if the distance between us just keeps growing, will it even matter? What if, when he decides he can accept who I am, we’re already so far apart that there’s no going back?”

    “He’s what you want?” 

    I paused. Realized that I’d never thought about it that deeply. He was NamJoon and I wanted him. I wanted to cling to him. I wanted to keep him. But my feelings were shallow. Instinctive. Reactionary. I’d never really thought deeply about them. “I...I think so.” 

    “You think about it really hard, YoonGi. It’s easy to want the relationship, but wanting the person and everything that comes with it is something else entirely. If he’s really what you want, then cross that divide and hold onto him. That’s what I did with HyeMi. I don’t feel 100% ready for marriage, but she’s the one that I want and I’m not going to let go of her. If you really want him, stay close. Hold on tight so that if he figures things out and turns to you, you’re right there. Don’t let your doubts and fears come between you.”

Chapter Text

    I stood on my porch. Cool fall breeze blowing over my skin. Cold concrete beneath my bare feet. It was really too chilly to be standing outside in nothing but a pair of shorts and a collection of necklaces, but I wanted it. Needed it. Longed for a change of scenery. Hoped the fresh air would cleanse my blood and wake up my sluggish mind. That I’d find answers if only I stood in the right place and faced the proper direction.

    I leaned on the iron railing that ran around the edge of the porch and purposefully unfocused my eyes. I didn’t want to see my surroundings. I wanted to picture the distance that stretched invisible between NamJoon and I. I wanted to cross it, just as HoSeok had said. 

    I’d spent a lot of time thinking about NamJoon and our relationship. If what I really wanted was just a relationship, just someone to be there so that I wasn’t alone. If I was attached to the idea rather than the man. But NamJoon had passed every test in my mind. I wanted him. He was intelligent, interesting, kind, thoughtful, earnest, patient, and so much more. Beyond all of that there was just him, and I needed him. Needed to find a way to make the distance between us disappear.

    That was easier said than done. It was ephemeral. A feeling. An idea. A hesitation. A fear. I couldn’t exactly find it in reality. NamJoon and I continued on the same path we’d walked before YooJin had shown up and ruined everything. He came over for dinner. We talked. We touched. We kissed. We fucked. But there was something not quite right. A slight deviation. A feeling of holding my breath, waiting for the wrong word or a misstep to bring everything crashing down.

    But I could be wrong. Maybe all that was broken was in my head. Living and breathing because I’d given it life. Maybe NamJoon didn’t feel a distance at all. Maybe in his mind he was standing where he’d always stood and it was only me that felt as if we were drifting apart.

   I was afraid to ask. Afraid to know the answer. Afraid to hear that he was well aware of the separation. That he found it even wider and more profound than I did. That he was on the verge of giving up. If I acknowledged it. If I spoke it into existence. Would I breath life into it and make it more powerful than it would have been if I had left it sleeping in the shade? 

    And how was I supposed to cross it? How would I walk across nothingness? Did I need to build a bridge? And if I did, what were the right tools and where were the instructions? How would I even begin to find them?

    It couldn’t be just about effort. Holding back was definitely not the right thing to do, but holding him tighter, kissing him harder, inviting him deeper inside of me. None of those things were the answer. Words too, felt as if they would fall short. And it was because HoSeok had been wrong. 

    It wasn’t just about me ignoring the void that stood between us and rushing to his side. Because even if I got there, he might not accept me. HoSeok had laid his soul bare to his HyeMi and she’d accepted him. Compromised. Offered a way that they could move forward.

    I’d already laid myself bare to NamJoon. Now I could only wait to see if he could accept me. It left me breathless and pained. Afraid. Frustrated with my own impotence. Angry. Selfish. Wanting to demand that he hurry and sort himself out to return fully to me. Too timid to even open my mouth and broach the subject.

    A blur of color and movement caught my attention and I refocused on the world around me. There was a small group at my gate and I frowned in confusion. A tall man wearing the traditional white clothes of a shaman was surrounded by several children.

    “Hello. Can we come in?” His voice was cheerful. His smile warm. The children peered around him, waiting expectantly.

    “Yeah. Come in.” I straightened to greet them. Bowed to the man when he stopped in front of the stairs to the porch. “What can I do for you?”

    The man’s smile got even bigger. He was way too handsome to be a shaman. It set me on edge. Made me think he was a charlatan. He put a hand on the shoulder of the boy who stood on his right. “This is my adorable nephew JaeWon. He showed me the carving that you gave him.”

    The boy dug a peach pit out of his pocket and held it up to show me. “Yeah. I did. I’ve still got it.”

    “It’s really powerful.” The shaman was watching me.

    “Is it?” I was so skeptical of his intentions. Territorial and defensive just because they were near me. In my yard. When normally only delivery people came through the gate looking for me. 

    “You don’t know?” His eyes and voice were so clear. As if he wasn’t trying to hide anything. That in itself was suspicious. 

    “No. I just make them.”

    “And the necklaces that you’re wearing. You made those? They’re powerful, too.”

    “Yeah. How…” I hesitated. Did I want to get into this with a stranger? “How do you know how powerful they are?”

    He shrugged carelessly. “It’s one of the things I can do. I can sense how powerful wards are. So, you carved this peach pit knowing what you were doing? It wasn’t just a random carving”

    “I knew.”

    “Why do you need so many wards?”

    I frowned. “The children…”

    He shrugged again. Smiled at me reassuringly. “Children are more open minded than adults and I rarely see any reason to hide the truth from them.”

    Seconds ticked by while I contemplated whether I should answer or walk back into my house and slam the door behind me. I thought about the divide that separated NamJoon and I. Maybe the step that I needed to take to close it wasn’t a step in his direction. “I can see and talk to ghosts. They won’t leave me alone.”

    He was nodding happily. Not at all shocked by what I’d said. “And the wards? You looked up how to make them to protect yourself?”

    It wasn’t easy to answer him. I forced out the words. “I’ve done a little research, but mostly I don’t need to. I can sense what can be used as wards and how to make them.”

    “You’re powerful. Powerful.” He was laughing. Apparently from joy.

    "Who are you?” 

    “I’m Kim SeokJin. I’m a shaman. I can’t see ghosts. I can’t even sense them, but I can speak incantations and spells to control them. Mostly I can speak to the ancestors on the other side.” 

    “What do you want with me?”

    “I wanted to meet the person who makes such powerful wards. I like to help people like you. People with powers that aren’t understood by the modern world.”

    “How are you going to help me?”

    “I’m not sure. It depends on what you need.” The smile remained on his face, but his eyes were suddenly penetrating. “You’ve had an agma gwishin here. Haven’t you?”

    “A demon ghost? I don’t even know what that is.”

    He raised his eyebrows. “You’ve had an agma gwishin here and you didn’t even recognize it?” 

    I knew he had to be talking about YooJin, but for some reason I didn’t want to admit it. It felt like letting him in too far. “Ghosts are ghosts.”

    “It doesn’t help to lie to me. The ancestors know you’re lying. You can’t tell me you don’t know you’ve had something out of the ordinary here. You’re wearing strange wards. You didn’t make all of those necklaces for regular gwishin.”

    “You’re not speaking to ‘the ancestors’. You’re not even in a trance.” I was starting to feel threatened. He knew too much and I was used to keeping everything a secret. It made me angry and defensive.

    “Speaking to ancestors is my power. I don’t need to use a trance to do it. The other side is always right here. Tell me about the agma gwishin. Did you banish it? Where is it now?”

    My heart thudded in my chest. Was it really possible to banish YooJin? “I chased her away, but she’ll be back. I don’t know what she does, but she goes somewhere to get stronger and then comes back.”

    “You need help.”

    I reached up to run my fingers nervously through my hair. “Yeah. You can banish her?”

    “No. Not me. I know a guy in Busan. He can probably do it.”

    I fought to control the hope that was rising inside of me. I didn’t know if I could trust this man or the one he spoke about. Didn’t know if it was right to start lining up expectations and believing in an end.

    “How...how would that work?” 

    “I’d have to give my friend a call and see what he has to say. What can you tell me about the agma gwishin? What kinds of things does it do? Can you see it?”

    “Yeah. I can see and talk to her. She’s a lot more human than other ghosts. I guess that must be the demon side.” 

    For the first time his expression showed something other than bright enthusiasm. His eyebrows fell and his full lips turned down. “You’re talking to it? What does it want?”

    “She’s my boyfriend’s ex fiance. She wants him back.”

    “This isn’t an ordinary ghost. She can hurt you. She can hurt him.”

    “Yeah. She’s burned me. When she figured out we’re dating she tore up things in my house, but she can’t get close to him. There’s some kind of barrier. She thinks it was probably done by a shaman when he was a child.”

    “I’ve never heard of a shaman - or anyone - that can make a protection against an agma gwishin that could last for more than a few hours, let alone years. And those protections are always for a specific entity, not just any agma gwishin.”

    I shrugged. “I don’t know. Something’s keeping her away from him. I don’t know if it’s caused by the same thing, but she can’t remember much about him, either.”

    “Interesting. So, she’s his ex, she can’t get near him and can’t remember things about him. I’ve never had this kind of information about an agma gwishin before. Usually all we know is the damage they do and sometimes there’s a local legend about who they were before they died. But she’s newly dead and talking to you?”

    “Yeah. What about the ancestors? Can’t they tell you about her?”

    He paused, his gaze growing thoughtful. “They can tell she’s very angry, but that’s all. She belongs to the other side, the dark side, so they can’t see her well. Not like they can see humans.”

    “That’s what people do after they die? Hang out on the other side and watch humans?”

    He smiled. “They’re waiting to be reincarnated. Sometimes it can take a long time, and sometimes old souls decide to take their time. They don’t jump into a life unless they’re sure it’s the one they want.”

    I sighed. “I didn’t know what it was like on the other side. All these ghosts.” I waved at the crowd filling the sidewalk and road. “They’re wasting so much time in misery trying to get something they’ll never have, and they could’ve already had another chance at life?”

    “That’s right. They get lost and turn in the wrong direction because they’re clinging to their old life. Isn’t that right? Is that what you see?”

    “Yeah. That’s right.”

    “How many are out there?”

    “Thousands. They’re filling up the whole neighborhood, waiting for a chance to get to me.”

    “Ah. Okay.” He was nodding and smiling, reaching for a little girl that stood next to him, pulling her forward. “This is MiYoung. She has something to ask you.”

    She looked up at me with big brown eyes. “Can I have one of those lucky charms, too?”

    Kim SeokJin’s eyes were on me. He knew. He knew that the ghosts were affecting the people in the neighborhood. “Do you have some more?”

    “Yeah. I have a lot. I’ll go get all of them. Hang on a minute.”

    “Grab me your business card or write down your phone number and email for me while you’re in there.”

    I went to a closet to pull out a tote full of carved pits. I’d saved nearly every one that I’d ever made. Even stored away they did their part in warding off the ghosts. I snagged a business card and the basket full of my latest carvings on the way to the front door.

    SeokJin took the card and examined the peach pits carefully when I presented them to him. “I can see how your abilities have grown as you worked on these. Your latest are in here, right?” He reached into the basket and pulled out a pit that was carved into a bunch of grapes. “This is the strongest one. I’m taking it for my sister. She’s really been struggling.”

    I nodded, a lump in my stomach. “I’m sorry. The iron fences keep the ghosts out of the yards most of the time. I didn’t realize until recently that they were going into the houses. I don’t really know what to do about that.”

    He was silent, contemplating me. “You’re a recluse?”

    “Yeah.” My throat grew dry. I was suddenly feeling guilty. This man had taken up the robes of a shaman even though shaman had been women for centuries. He was going out in the world, helping people. But he wasn’t contending with the ghosts the way I was.

    “Because of the ghosts?” I nodded and he continued. “What is it they want from you?”

    “They know I can hear them. They think they can tell me about their problems and I’ll fix them, but that’s impossible.”

    “And all you can do is hide from them in your house and behind wards?”

    “If I go out, they swarm me.”

    “This is a unique problem. Sometimes people can see ghosts or at least glimpses of them. Sometimes they can hear them, but it’s just noise. It sounds like you’re actually having conversations. I’ll contact some of the people that I know and see if there’s something that can be done. I won’t make any promises, though. You’ve already got some amazing wards and spells don’t tend to last long.”

    He grabbed the basket and handed it to his nephew. Picked up the tote. “Something’s got to be done about that agma gwishin. She talks to you, do you know her name?”

    “Yeah. It’s--”

    “Don’t speak it. Don’t ever speak it again. Someone’s probably unable to let go and is speaking her name aloud too often. Her mother, most likely. She’ll get power from that. Your boyfriend knows her parents I’m guessing. Does he have their contact information?”

    “If he doesn’t, I’m sure he can get it.”

    “Alright. One of the things we’ll do is visit her family and do a grieving and release ceremony. It’ll be dangerous if she’s there. I’ll have to put together the right team. You shouldn’t be there.” He set the tote on his hip and dug into a pocket to pull out a business card. “Text me their info as soon as you can. We’ve got to stop her. After she gets what she wants, she’ll just become more powerful and start terrorizing other people, feeding off their pain.”

    "What do you mean, ‘gets what she wants’?”  

    He sighed. “It depends, but she’s a love agma gwishin. When she finds a way to get to your boyfriend, she’ll stick by him. She’ll wrap herself around him and hover there, watching him. The problem is that she’s a demon. Just hanging out isn’t going to be enough for her, so she’ll have all this rage building up. She’ll leave him on a regular basis and go on a rampage, destroying things and hurting people. And you know that she probably wants you dead, right? You need to be careful.”

    “Yeah. I’m making more wards for her all the time but they never seem to stay effective for long.”

    "I’ll call you as soon as I know something. The kids and I will start distributing these wards to the neighborhood and I’ll give the rest to my sister. She knows a lot of people in the area. She’ll make sure everyone gets one. Can she keep whatever’s left over so people can go to her if they need more?”

    “Of course. And I’ll work on making more wards for people, but I’ll have to focus on- '' I caught myself before I said YooJin’s name. “-on the agma gwishin first.”

    “I’ll do what I can about your ghosts, but it won’t last more than a few days.”

    I watched him walk out my gate and start down the sidewalk, chanting loud and clear along the way, ghosts fleeing as his words filled the air. 

Chapter Text

    “You’re dressed?” NamJoon looked at me with surprise and consternation. “What’s going on?”

    I was wearing a pair of black skinny jeans and a black and white buffalo check shirt. And shoes. It felt weird. I hadn’t been fully dressed in front of NamJoon since our first handful of dates. I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d had actual shoes on. 

    “I met a shaman today. He cleared away the ghosts in the neighborhood. It isn’t going to last, but I’d thought we could go to the bibimbap restaurant down the street while we have the chance.”

    “A shaman. I thought you said most of them are fakes?” He slowly put down his briefcase, eyes on me.

    “Yeah, they mostly are, but this guy’s the real thing. Do you want to go?”

    “Of course I want to go, as long as you’re comfortable. And-” He stepped in front of me and reached into the neck of my shirt to pull out a couple of my necklaces. “I don’t want you to hide too much of yourself away under those clothes.”

    When I looked up his fingertips were trailing gently up my throat and his lips captured mine, soft and comforting. “You look amazing in these clothes, by the way, but I have to admit I prefer you barely dressed.”

    Out on the street he took my hand in his. “Tell me about this shaman.”

    “I gave peach pit carvings to some kids in the neighborhood. One of them’s his nephew. He came because he saw it and could tell that I have abilities.”

    “Ah, so he’s someone like you. Someone who can see ghosts.”

    “He can’t see ghosts, but he can talk to people who have passed away. The ones who aren’t ghosts. The ones on the other side. He knows what your ex fiance is and he told me that we should never say her name.”

    “Really? What is she?”

    I told him about the conversation that I’d had with SeokJin as we walked. We stood outside the restaurant talking until I’d finished explaining what had happened so that no one would overhear us. He took some time to think about it while we looked over our menus and ordered.

    “Did he say why X would have changed into an agma gwishin instead of a normal ghost?”

    “No, I didn’t ask him about that. I can send him a text if you want.” I’d already texted SeokJin YooJin’s parents’ contact information.

    “No. Why don’t we give it a little time.” He sighed, took off his glasses and wiped his hand over his face. “I can’t help but worry that it’s because of me, because I lied. What if I didn't just fuck up her life? What if I fucked up her death, too, and made her into a horrible monster?”

    “I really don’t think this is your fault.”

    “But you said you don’t know. I tricked her. I used her. If I’d just left her alone her life would have been so much better and maybe she would have crossed over normally.”

    I met his eyes. Made sure he was paying attention to me. “You were doing the best you could at the time. You may have been using her, but you were also giving her what she wanted. It didn’t work out. You tried. That’s all anyone can do and there’s no way you could have known how this might affect her afterlife. Don’t blame yourself.”

    “That’s easy to say, but I knew her her whole life and now she’s a demon.”

    “I’m sorry.” There wasn’t anything else I could say. He needed time to work through this. I couldn’t help but add more. “It might have been better if you hadn’t met me or if we’d at least never gotten to know each other. I could have fed her info little by little just by having brief conversations on the porch with you. That way, you’d have never known anything about this.”

    “No. All of this is hard. Accepting a world that’s all around us and I’ll never even see it. It’s hard, but I wouldn’t trade you for that. I wouldn’t.”

    “I’m glad to hear that. Really glad.” I let out a sigh that felt as if it had been trapped deep inside for a long time.

    “Did he say what happens to her if they’re able to...what? Exorcise her? Defeat her?”

    “No, but I can send a text.”

    “Alright, we’ll hold off on the texts and ask when I’m ready. I might have a lot of questions. If she’s part of ‘the dark side’ then, does that mean if they make her ghost go away she’ll go to the dark side? Is that like hell? Will she be trapped there forever?”

    “I don’t know. The other side has always been a big mystery to me and I didn’t even know there was a dark side until today. If I ask, SeokJin will probably come over and talk to us about this, that way we can ask all of our questions. You just let me know when you’re ready to talk to him about X.”

    “Okay.” 

    The waitress came with our food and we took a few bites in silence. “This is really nice. It’s different from getting takeout. I never thought I’d be able to have this.” I realized that I was trembling a little. Near tears. Getting overly emotional. “The thought that I might be able to do this more often is unbelievable.”

    “Do you think you’ll be able to go out regularly?”

    “I don’t know how often SeokJin comes to our neighborhood, but his sister lives here. Even if it’s just a few times a year, it’s something.” My thoughts were caught up in the possibilities. “He cleared almost a two block radius. There are a few restaurants and a coffee shop that I’ll be able to go to and stores, too. And I’ll finally be able to get a real haircut.”

    He was watching me carefully. “Don’t get too much cut off. I love your hair.”

    I felt a flush building in my cheeks, imagines of his fingers tangling in my hair and pulling slideshowing through my mind. “Yeah, thanks. I won’t get much cut off. Just a real haircut instead of my own pathetic attempt.”

    He was smiling across the table at me, but his lips suddenly twisted and his face crumpled. “Shit. I...I don’t know.” I watched as he struggled to put his thoughts into words, worry taking hold and leaving me a little breathless. 

    “Dating you has really made me see who I am, and I’m a fucking bastard.” He shook his head. “You’re so beautiful and special and small. It captures me, but it also makes me domineering. I tell you what to do and I... like you being at home. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I don’t want to share you. I want to keep you all to myself. I like knowing that if I need you, I know exactly where you are. Like you belong to me. I shouldn’t...I shouldn’t feel like this. It isn’t right.”

    It suddenly felt as if the earth beneath my feet was beginning to shift. “Is that why you started dating me? Because I’m stuck in my house and that’s where you want me?”

    “No. I’m just realizing this about myself now. Before...I was just enjoying the situation without thinking deeply about it. Now that things are changing, things have been changing, I’m discovering this dark side of myself.”

    “You really only give me orders when we’re fucking. I always had the impression that you lean towards the dominant side, and that’s okay with me. I like it. Do you want to give me orders outside the bedroom? Do you want to tell me not to get a haircut? Not to go outside?”

    “No, I don’t. I want you to be happy. I want you to enjoy this world as much as you can, but...I also feel like I want to keep you close, keep you safe, keep you mine . I don’t like the idea of you getting together with all of these other ghost people.” His expression was strained. “I’m afraid that you’ll discover this other world where you belong. If you find people that understand you better, will you leave me behind? Doesn’t it make sense that you’ll fall in love with one of them? That I won’t be good enough for you any more? I’m so selfish, I should want what’s best for you, but I just want you all to myself.” 

    I held my emotions and thoughts at bay, wanting to truly understand what he was saying before I jumped to conclusions. “So, what are you going to do? Are you going to ask or tell me not to meet with the other people with abilities?”

    “No. I won’t do that. I know it’s your choice. I’m just upset that I’m even thinking or feeling this way. You’re my first real relationship. I never would have thought that I’d react this way. You deserve better.”

    “Are you going to ask me not to leave my house?”

    “No.”

    “So, you’re struggling with the fact that you want to do those things.” 

    “I already wasn’t very happy with myself. Hiding my sexuality for years and then getting engaged to YooJin. I wanted to make a fresh start and do things right, instead I’m finding out that I’m even worse than I’d thought. I’m going to work on it. I’m going to get myself straightened out.”

    “Why don’t we work on it together? Why don’t we compromise?” I was thinking about how HyeMi had made concessions for HoSeok. “You can give me more orders in bed and even some around the house. We can figure out what works for both of us, find a place where we’re both comfortable.”

    “I don’t know if that’s the best thing to do. I feel like I should be erasing all of it.”

    “I think your feelings are valid and you’ll be happier if we find a way to work them into our life together instead of trying to repress them.”

    “You might be right. I just don’t want to get out of control.”

    “Let’s keep each other in control.” I reached across the table to curl my fingers around his. “And let me assure you that I’m not going to fall in love with any of those ghost guys. I’m in love with you. You’re the only one I want.”

Chapter Text

    “Ah. Something smells good.”

    I smiled over at NamJoon as he walked in the door and set his briefcase down. I was curled up on the couch with a clipboard in my hands, planning out a couple of chapters for a textbook. “It’s some kind of casserole. I found a recipe online. I don’t even remember what it’s called. I got wrapped up in a meeting about an article and started prepping it late. So, it’s going to be another thirty minutes or so before it’s ready.”

    “What?” He feigned anger and walked over to the couch. “My dinner isn’t on the table the moment I step in the door? You’ll have to be punished.”

    I tipped my head back to accept a few light kisses. “Punishment? That sounds good. I’ll add it to my schedule.”

    “What kind of punishment do you want?” His voice had transitioned into a teasing whine and he’d turned to walk towards the kitchen. “Nothing too strenuous. I’m tired and I’ve got work tomorrow.”

    I chuckled to myself as he disappeared into the other room and added a few more lines to my notes, trying to get everything out of my head so that I could set it aside and focus on NamJoon.

    He returned from the kitchen with a bottle of tea in his hand. “Tell me about your day.”

    “SeokJin called. He’s gotten in contact with X’s parents and they’ve agreed to meet next week to do the grieving and release ceremony.” I watched his expression, wondering how he’d react. We hadn’t done much talking about YooJin and he hadn’t asked to talk to SeokJin yet to get his questions answered.

    “I’m surprised they agreed. It must be weird to get a call from a stranger about your daughter’s death.” He was focusing on the practical rather than his own feelings.

    “SeokJin’s got a unique way of dealing with people. I’m sure it’s because he’s a shaman. Whatever he did, it worked.”

    NamJoon shook his head. “I still don’t get it. If someone called me up, told me he was a shaman and asked to come over and do a ceremony, I’d flat out tell him no. It’s too suspicious. I’d be asking so many questions. ‘How do you know my daughter’s dead?’ ‘How did you get my name?” Things like that.”

    “That’s a good point. Maybe they’re struggling. Maybe they need help, so they’re accepting it as soon as an offer’s extended.”

    He shrugged and took a long drink of tea before turning and walking over to the stereo. “What’s the ceremony supposed to do, anyway? Did he say anything more about it?”

    “He thinks someone’s not letting her go. He says it’s usually the mother. She’s probably too attached to the memory of her daughter, thinking and talking about her too much rather than moving on and starting to let go. He says that will feed X and make her stronger. The ceremony will cut the ties that bind her to her parents. So, they can continue talking about her, but she won’t be able to feed off them anymore. They’ll feel a lot better after it’s done.”

    “You want some music? Something relaxing?” When I said yes, he started fiddling with the controls. “What if it isn’t her parents feeding her? What if it’s her brother?”

    “I don’t know if there’s a way to even know that. It seems like he’s just assuming it’s her mother or father because that’s who it usually is. But you know her family, do you think it’s her brother?”

    “Nah. I don’t think so. YooSuk’s always been level headed. He isn’t the type to get stuck in the grieving process like that. SeokJin’s right. It probably is her mother. I’m just being difficult because all of this is hard for me to swallow.”

    “Well, I’m sure he didn’t call up X’s parents and tell them she’s a demon. He probably just said that he knows they’ve suffered a loss and offered help. You’ve had to deal with a lot more information than that.”

    “Yeah.” He turned the volume up on a song but quickly powered the stereo off when his phone rang.

    I shifted my focus back to my notes as he answered the call.

    “Hello.”

    My pen scritched lightly across the paper.

    “Hello? Is anyone there?”

    My heart stopped and I turned to look at him just in time to see YooJin slip out of the phone like something from an animation. 

    “NamJoon!”

    He had a look of annoyance on his face as he looked at his phone. He turned to me when I shouted his name, surprised and confused. 

    YooJin took a few seconds to regain her normal shape. She was turned away from me, facing NamJoon, and she never once looked away from him. 

    I threw my clipboard down and jumped up, looking around in a panic, trying to remember where I’d put the box of christmas bulb bombs that I’d made for the living room. But I wasn’t fast enough. On the other side of the room, YooJin raised her hand and hit NamJoon hard across the face.

    NamJoon made a strange noise. Shock and pain. He hadn’t been at all braced for the blow, head twisting to the side on his neck. His face turned back towards me. Eyes wide. Afraid. Questioning. Seeking. “Is it her?!”

    “Don’t talk to him!” YooJin shrieked. “Don’t talk to that man stealing slut!”

    She hit him again, raising both fists and slamming them down haphazardly on his chest. “Look at me! Only at me!”

    I’d been frozen, but I finally broke free of shock. Jumped over the coffee table and rushed to the two of them. NamJoon had turned towards the shelf that held the stereo. Arms crossed protectively over the back of his head. YoonJin raining blows on his back. 

    I tried to grab her and pull her away. Stupidly. Wasting precious time. My hands sweeping right through her. She cackled as she felt my ridiculous attempt to stop her. Raised her foot and kicked at NamJoon’s legs. 

    “You’re pathetic, you ugly bitch. You think you can stop me? You think you can have him? He’s just confused. He’s mine. He’ll always be mine.”

    NamJoon’s cries had raised to a higher pitch. I looked around in a panic, saw a ward that I’d made to deter her hanging on the wall. A long braided piece woven with as many of the things she hated as possible. I grabbed it and hit out at her. Watched as it flew through her head.

    Her image blinked. One moment a pretty young woman and the next a dark shape that felt as if it sucked at my very soul. In the blink of an eye, her facade was back and she was turning towards me. Fury burning in her eyes.

    I glanced down at the ward that was still clenched in my hand, half afraid to use it because I didn’t want to see the black thing that was her true self again. But it didn’t matter. The ward was disintegrating, crumbling into pieces that fell to the floor like ash.

    “How dare you? How low will you stoop to steal him, useless scum?” She changed again. This time she didn’t drop her human mask, but her attitude shifted. A quick, deadly change of personality. She went from jealous young woman to enraged evil. Eyes flashing black. Stepping towards me with deadly intent.

    “NamJoon! Run! Get out of here!”

    “I am going to kill you.” Her voice was low and steady. “He will never look at you again. You will never tempt him away from me. He will belong to me forever.”

    I took stumbling steps back. Wanting to look around for another ward, another weapon. Unable to take my eyes off of her. Heart pounding with terror. No time to think straight. To pull myself together. To think of a plan or find a way to escape.

    She moved towards me. Unnaturally fast. Making my skin jolt with terror. And her hands were around my neck. Squeezing. “I will kill you. I will make you disappear. Nothing will stand in my way.”

    She continued speaking, but the sounds were fading in and out. Words overtaken by the amplified, echoing, pounding of my heart. The panicked rush of blood in my ears. By fear and desperation. 

    I struggled. I flailed. Tried to twist away. But there was nothing to fight. Nothing to push against. Just her hands, burning hot on my throat. Squeezing. Crushing. And when I tried to touch them, there was only my own skin. It was all happening too fast. My body screaming for air. Every heartbeat suddenly important.

    “Aaargh!”

    NamJoon was there. The sight of him clouding as I struggled to stay conscious. He’d grabbed another ward. Was lifting it. Bringing it crashing down on YoonJin. On me, since it went right through her. It slammed into my stomach. The feeling far away as I clawed at my neck.

    YooJin’s hands left me. I crumpled to the ground. Dragging in painful breaths. Coughing. Rolling over onto my side, trying to keep them in my sight. NamJoon swinging the ward through the air, hoping to hit her, even as it fell apart. 

    “What the fuck are you doing?!” His voice was full of countless emotions and so much pain. “You know this is useless! You always fucking knew! You knew I was in love with YooSuk. You knew I’m gay! It’s your fault! It’s your fault if you didn’t give up! I never wanted you and you always knew!”

    My eyes were focused on NamJoon. YooJin’s voice shattered through the air. A screaming howl that seemed to blast through my every cell. And then she was running. Her feet coming towards me for a few steps and then right through me. 

    She ran through me and it tore me inside. An instant burning pain. Making it almost impossible to breathe. A tangle of sounds spilling from my mouth. I’d lost all reason. There was only torment. Moaning. Whimpering. Screaming. And NamJoon was there. Bent over me.

    “YoonGi. YoonGi. YoonGi.” His voice calling to me. Drawing me. Holding me. “Please, YoonGi. Please.”  

Chapter Text

    I opened my eyes to lights that were painfully bright. Quickly closed them again.

    “He opened his eyes.”

    “YoonGi.” Fingers on my face, stroking my cheek. NamJoon’s voice. “YoonGi, my Peach. Are you awake?” 

    I sucked in a slow breath. Cracked my eyes open. “The lights are bright.” My voice was rough. Painful. “I’m thirsty.”

    There was a flurry of motion behind NamJoon. Shapes moving. Most of the lights turning off. A cup being passed to him. He put it in front of me. Set a straw to my lips. 

    “Take it slow. Really slow.” His words were gentle. Free hand stroking my hair.

    I sipped tentatively and fucking hell, it hurt to swallow. I pulled away from the straw. “Shit.” Memories were coming back. Images of YooJin’s face as she strangled me. NamJoon hunkering down to protect himself from her blows.

    “Are you okay?”

    He was setting the cup down on a nearby table. A low chuckle escaping his lips. His face was swollen and bruised. “You’re asking if I’m okay? You’re the one in the hospital bed.” His hand came back, tenderly tracing my jawline. “I’m fine, Peach. I got beat up, but it’s nothing compared to what you’ve suffered.” His eyes clouded, his voice grew husky. “I thought you were going to die. I thought she was going to kill you right in front of me.”

    “You saved me.” Gratitude and love were welling up inside of me and I was too weak to control them. Tears pricked at my eyes.

    He bent. Pressed a kiss to my forehead. Took a deep breath. “I don’t know how.” There were tears in his voice, but when I looked his eyes were dry. “I’m just so glad, so glad you’re still here.”

    “I think it was what you said. It made her upset and she ran away.”

    There was movement behind me and someone said, “I’m sorry to break up your moment, but what did you say?”

    I looked past NamJoon to see three men standing behind him. The one who’d spoken, short and too pretty, eyes waiting expectantly for an answer. SeokJin, almost unrecognizable in a pair of jeans and a pink hoodie. And HoSeok. 

    “HoSeok?” 

    He opened his mouth, but NamJoon spoke first. “I called him because I thought he might know how to contact your parents. He insisted on coming. We’ve explained stuff to him because he wouldn’t believe the answer we gave the cops.”

    “What?” 

    “We had to have an explanation for the cops so that they wouldn’t think I was the one who did this to you. We said you have a stalker. Some guy you met in a bar and hooked up with. You didn’t get his real name, but he’s been harassing you a little. He showed up and attacked you and then me when I got home from work and tried to help you. That’s the story, okay? They’ll probably be back to question you.”

    I blinked at him. “Okay.”

    “Obviously, I wasn’t going to believe that you went to some bar and picked up a guy.” HoSeok. Loud and audacious. His eyes met mine and became more serious. “So, all your weird shit is about ghosts, huh? I guess that’s better than just having terrible taste.”

    “Can we get back to the agma gwishin?” It was the pretty man. Words careful and considerate. Eyes wanting answers.

    “This is Park JiMin, YoonGi. He’s the guy from Busan I was talking to you about. He can sing incantations to control and combat demons.” SeokJin’s voice was gentle.

    “It helps to know a lot about her. I’ve never had an opportunity like this to meet someone who actually knew an agma gwishin when they were alive. They’re not very powerful when they’re new. Usually by the time they’re really doing damage, they’re nothing but a legend and legends are often incorrect.”

    “She seemed pretty powerful to me.” NamJoon was frustrated. Angry. But it was a faded emotion, as if he’d already had this argument with Park JiMin.

    “I’ve explained to your boyfriend that the agma should still be attached to her human self, still acting more like a woman than a demon. She doesn’t really understand the scope of her own strength or how to use it.”

    “Yeah. It’s like she switches back and forth between normal and evil.”

    The smaller man sat on the edge of the bed and looked at me seriously. “What did NamJoon say to make her run away?”

    “That she’d already known he was gay before they got engaged. She knew and she knew their relationship was doomed to fail.”

    “Is that right?” JiMin turned his attention back to NamJoon.

    “Yeah. She knew. When I was younger I was in love with her brother. It was a bizarre love triangle. I was secretly in love with YooSuk - he only ever saw me as a friend - and YooJin had been in love with me for what seems like forever. She always watched me like a hawk. I know she knew I was in love with him. I could see it in her eyes, but we never talked about it.”

    “And then?”

    “I asked her to marry me, to cover up that fact that I’m gay and try to meet everyone’s expectations. It didn’t work out. She caught me with another man.” 

    “Mmmm. How did she react to that?”

    “She was devastated and furious. I broke off the engagement, but she wasn’t ready to give up. She kept saying she could fix me. I...by that time I was pretty sure that she was unstable. It seemed like the best thing to do was to cut ties so that she would move on.”

    “Interesting. She obviously didn’t move on, and the mental instability goes along with what I’ve been taught about agma gwishin. If she was still obsessed with you and still holding onto her anger when she died and struggling mentally on top of that, it was the perfect recipe to create a demon.”

    NamJoon turned to look at me. Eyes filled with guilt.

    “What did she do to me?” I wanted to change the subject. I didn’t want to see NamJoon suffering. “My stomach. She ran through it.”

    “She ran through you? How exactly?” JiMin wasn’t ready to stop asking questions.

    “I fell down. When she ran away, she went right through me.”

    NamJoon took my hand in his. “There’s some internal bleeding. Nothing too bad. It’s like she bruised your organs. They’ve never seen anything like it, of course. Your skin is untouched, but there’s damage inside. They’re giving you medicine for the pain and to speed up healing. They say you should fully recover.” 

    “The ancestors say you’re going to be fine.” SeokJin looked at me very seriously. “They say you need to rest and eat well when you’re able.”

    I nodded. Wondered how much the ancestors knew about anatomy and medicine. “What if she comes back?” That was the only question that was important to me. 

    “I’m here.” JiMin’s full lips parted into a reassuring smile. “I probably won’t be able to banish her the first time, but I’ll be able to drive her away. I’ll learn more about her and be ready the second time. It’s possible that the information you and NamJoon can give me now will be enough for me to get rid of her on the first try.”

    “We’re going to go to Busan and stay at JiMin’s place with SeokJin while you recover. Hopefully, she won’t be able to find us there. I told them that she only found me because she hung around my parents until I visited them. So, she probably won’t be able to find us, right?”

    I nodded. “Yeah, but she’s gotten stronger. I don’t know if she can do more. Maybe she will be able find us.”

    “I’m going to be with you all the time. If she comes back, I can definitely take care of her.” JiMin gave me a big, reassuring smile. His eyes were sparkling with excitement as if he were excited about taking her on.

    “I’m coming, too. HyeMi already said it’s okay and I got some time off work. I can’t wait to see this guy banish an agma gwishin. I’m probably going to write an article about it for a ghost mag.”

    “This isn’t fun.” I frowned at HoSeok. He didn’t have any business getting wrapped up in this.

    “It’s okay.” JiMin’s smile had grown bigger. “I can handle her no problem. The more the merrier. It’ll be like a fun vacation banishing party.”

    “It’ll be okay, YoonGi. This guy knows what he’s doing.” SeokJin was calmly reassuring. “When she comes back, we’ll take care of her.”

    “She usually doesn’t come back right away and I’m hoping it’s the same this time.” NamJoon took my hand in his and squeezed my fingers. “I want YoonGi to have as much time to recover as possible.”

Chapter Text

    “Hey! YoonGi! Did you know I’m really good at dancing?”

    HoSeok was over in the corner of JiMin’s living room, in front of the stereo, bobbing around and wiggling his arms. Shouting over the loud music in order to be heard rather than turning down the volume.

    “That’s how I met HyeMi. At this excellent club. She fell for my awesome moves.”

    I wanted to remind him that at first they’d been nothing but fuck friends, so it was unlikely that she’d fallen for him, but shouting over the music was just too much. I was improving, but I was still struggling with pain and the fatigue of recovering. I was lying on the couch. It had become my usual spot and everyone else just kind of moved around me.

    “Raaaaaawr! Dipsy! Dipsy! Raaaaaaawr!” JiMin ran into the room, chasing after his little white dog. He had a toy in his hand, squeaking it incessantly as he followed Dipsy at high speed. Exaggerated growls interspersed with giggles burst from his mouth as they flew around the room. “The ducky is going to get you!”

    “JiMin! Dance with me! Dance!” 

    “Daaaaance paaaaaarty!”

    JiMin joined HoSeok in front of the stereo, dancing while waving and squeaking the toy as Dipsy jumped around them barking, trying to snatch the toy from JiMin’s fingers. I gave up on the book I’d been trying to focus on and tossed it onto the coffee table. There were supplies for making wards lying on its surface, but I was too weary to be interested.

    “What the fuck is going on in here?!”  

    NamJoon stormed out of the hallway, dripping hair covered with a towel, damp clothes showing that he hadn’t been careful about drying off when he’d gotten out of the shower. He stalked over to turn the stereo off with an angry flick. 

    “YoonGi is supposed to be resting. It sounds like bombs are going off in here. The music needs to stop, the shouting needs to stop, and the two of you need to get the fuck out of here. Take the dog for a walk.”

    HoSeok frowned, he really didn’t like it when NamJoon told him what to do, but JiMin smiled. “That's a good idea. Let’s go for a walk. There’s a great park with an awesome creek and trail. We can hike along the trail and find a place to make out.” 

    At the suggestion, HoSeok immediately stopped glaring at NamJoon and turned to JiMin with a big smile. “Really?”

    JiMin was playing games with HoSeok, giving him sporadic kisses and makeout sessions, but not much else. Insisting that he wouldn’t go any further even though HoSeok had gone so far as to have HyeMi tell JiMin on the phone that she was okay with HoSeok ‘having a little fun’. His refusal to have sex had HoSeok following him around like a puppy, always ready to do whatever JiMin wanted. It was just one more bit of craziness added to the day to day life of five men hanging around in an apartment waiting to see if an agma gwishin showed up.

    “Don’t come home until SeokJin’s back.” NamJoon shut the front door firmly behind them and crossed the room towards me, toweling off his hair as he walked.

    Everything was always a lot calmer when SeokJin was there. He was a stabilising force, even when he acted just as goofy as JiMin and HoSeok. His presence alone meant that the teasing and roughhousing wouldn’t get out of hand, the sound level wouldn’t get too loud and the spats between NamJoon and HoSeok wouldn’t go too far. He had an inner peace and quiet that translated to everything around him, but he'd break into shouts at the drop of a hat if the other guys went too far. 

    But he was out for the day, visiting local shaman. 

    “Hey, how are you doing?” NamJoon, voice so gentle and caring, sinking down on the floor, hip pressed against the side of the sofa, facing me. He reached a hand up and began rubbing my stomach, setting the towel on the coffee table with his free hand.

    “I’m fine. Thanks for getting rid of the other guys. I really could use a little quiet.”

    “Me, too.” He was smiling but it was obviously strained. 

    “NamJoon.” I caught the hand that was stroking me and threaded our fingers together. “Are you okay?”

    While I’d been steadily improving, he’d been growing more and more tense as the days passed by. With JiMin’s small apartment crowded full of men, there hadn’t been any time or privacy for us to talk. 

    He looked at me. Eyes wide like a deer caught in headlights. “I’m alright.”

    “I can tell this is hard on you. Is it HoSeok? You know I don’t even think of him like that anymore, but if he’s bothering you, I’ll tell him to leave. He doesn’t need to be here anyway. He's just goofing off.”

    “No. It’s not HoSeok. You don’t need to make him leave. I know you like having a couple of people here that you know. You just met SeokJin and JiMin and suddenly we’re living with them.” 

    “You, too. Right? It can’t be easy for you. I can see that it’s stressing you out. Maybe you should go back to Seoul and just visit on the weekends. This isn’t even-” 

    “This isn’t even my thing? Is that what you’re trying to say? You and SeokJin and JiMin are all part of this special metaphysical world and HoSeok’s tagging along like a groupie and then there’s me. Is that what you mean?” 

    My stomach tightened painfully at his words and the anger and resentment behind them.

    “No! No, that isn’t what I mean. I mean that you got sucked into all of this just because you’re dating me. You have to put up with all this chaos and I know you like things to stay quiet. I just feel bad for messing up your life like this. You’re using up all your vacation days--”

    “I’m taking care of you because I love you. Don’t set me to the side or feel guilty about me because I’m ‘normal’. I know I can’t see or hear or sense all this ghost shit, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t care about it. It doesn’t mean that I don’t want to understand. I want to be a full part of your life.” 

    “I don’t…” I swallowed painfully. Tried to line up my thoughts. “I want you to be a full part of my life, but I don’t want you to be hurt by it. I’m fucked up and it already inconveniences you because we can’t do the things normal couples do. I do not want it to be so bad that it puts you in danger. Besides wards, there’s not anything you can do to protect yourself-”

    “Stop! Just shut your fucking mouth!” We were still holding hands and he flung my hand away. Face suddenly going dark red with anger. “Don’t treat me like I’m a helpless child! I saved you, didn’t I?”

    His face twisted and he jumped to his feet, pacing away from me. 

    I sat up. Confused by his intensity. Fear prickly up my spine in response to his rage. “NamJoon.” He didn’t turn back. I stood and started walking towards him. “That’s not what I meant. I don’t think of you as a child.”

    He spun on his heel to face me. His arm raising, his finger pointing at me. “Sit back down! Sit back down and do not get up!”

    My stomach clenched at the anger in his voice. At the command, harsh and arrogant. Full of threat. I stood for a moment, near trembling, weak from my injuries, unsure of what to do.

    “Okay.” I kept my voice quiet. Passive. Knowing it was not the time to challenge him. “Okay, I’ll sit down.”

    I turned to walk back to the couch, his footsteps coming up behind me. I turned quickly to sit down, instinctively raising my hands to protect myself. Nervous and afraid. Everything happening too fast. 

    He sat down next to me, hands grabbing mine, but they were gentle. They tugged me closer. His arms wrapping around me. 

    “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” His voice was full of anguish. “It’s just that this is what’s been bothering me all along. I told you that I’m a bastard. I’m so sorry.”

    I was momentarily at a loss for words. Trying to shift from worrying that he was going to get violent to the sudden warmth of his embrace. Definitely not wanting to tell him that it was okay. I wouldn’t be able to tolerate him screaming orders at me. What was forgivable once wasn’t forgivable many times. “What’s been bothering you all along? You think I treat you like a child?”

    “No. No of course not.” He pulled away from the hug, but his eyes didn’t meet mine. He looked out into the living room. 

    “I feel like I need to be stronger than you. I’m bigger. I should be able to protect you...I’m supposed to be the man in our relationship. And I know how fucked up that is. We’re both men, but I can’t get rid of it. I want to protect you. I need to protect you. I fucking caused this problem. I fucked her up and made her into a demon and still I can’t do a fucking thing to protect you.”

    “But you saved me, and it isn’t your fault that you can’t see ghosts. Most people can’t see ghosts. Even I fucked up the last time she came. I should have done a much better job protecting you. I panicked and didn’t do anything right. If it wasn’t for you, I would be dead. You did protect me.”

    “I curled into a fucking ball like a dog when she was hitting me. I didn’t even know what to do. I couldn’t see her. I didn’t know how to escape and then she was killing you right in front of me. I just happened to grab the right thing to hit her with. It was all luck. All fucking luck.”

    “We did our best in the moment. What else were we supposed to do? There aren’t instructions for this, or if there are, I don’t know them. I’ve never had to fight a ghost before. I just see ghosts. It doesn’t make me stronger than you, it makes me weaker than you. It traps me in my fucking house.” I groaned in frustration. “I like that you’re bigger than me and that you want to protect me, but as big as you are, sometimes you need to let me protect you. This needs to be an equal relationship. It needs to be balanced.”

    “I hate feeling so helpless. I hate feeling like all I can do is sit back and watch. And everyone’s taking this so casually. JiMin’s excited to fight her, HoSeok’s acting like this is a party and SeokJin is just too fucking calm. I’m panicking inside. I’m so afraid to lose you. I just found you and I need you forever. I need to keep you safe.”

    “SeokJin would say that fear and stress just make us weaker. They put holes in our auras that will let the ghosts in.”

    “That’s easy for SeokJin to say. He’s practically enlightened. He isn’t in any danger of losing his love. You’re my heart YoonGi. I can’t lose you. I need to find a way to protect you and keep you by my side where you belong.”

    I wrapped my arms around him. Held on tightly. “Then let’s work on it together. I can teach you about the wards so that you can use them when you need to. We can ask SeokJin if there’s anything you can learn or do that will help. There’s probably plenty more things I can do, too. Let’s be as happy as we can to make our auras stronger. Let’s work together to be as strong and prepared as we can be.”

Chapter Text

    “Look at this. I found the instructions online. If you wrap the tips of the feathers the right way, they stick out like this and look really pretty.”

    JiMin held up the ward he was working on, an ten inch long braid woven with feathers that stood out in an artful sweep. I stared at it with a frown on my face. His wards always looked like something you’d buy in a shop, while mine usually looked destined for the trash can. 

    JiMin noticed me glowering. “It wasn’t hard.”

    “Show me.” NamJoon reached to take the ward in his hand and study it, caressing the feathers with his fingers. “I wanna make a choker for YoonGi that has feathers like this. It’d look really pretty on him.”

    I transferred my frown to NamJoon. “I don’t like being called pretty.”

    “What?” He raised his eyebrows teasingly. “You mean in front of other people, right? Because you always seem to like it when we’re alone.” 

    JiMin giggled. “You are pretty.” 

    SeokJin came over to join us, sinking down to the floor in his hanbok. We were sitting around the coffee table in my living room, working on making wards to fill the time. I was fully recovered from the damage YooJin had done to me, though there were still shadows of bruises on my neck. 

    The five of us - SeokJin, NamJoon, HoSeok, JiMin and I - had relocated to my house in Seoul as soon as my doctor had given me a clean bill of health. We’d been hanging around for almost two weeks, waiting for YooJin to show up.

    We were all doing our jobs to some degree. I’d been working on a textbook, NamJoon was doing some of his accounting work at the office and some at home, HoSeok had set himself up a space in my office and was working from there, and Jin and JiMin sometimes went out on ‘metaphysical business’. 

    There was plenty of room for all of us since NamJoon’s house was available as well as my own. There had even been talk about knocking a door in the wall between our houses to make one big house. SeokJin had said that it would be nice to have a place for other people with abilities to stay when they traveled to Seoul. Our rowhouses, safely protected by wards, were perfect.

    I’d expected NamJoon to say no to the idea. Instead, he’d taken it very seriously and had a long conversation with SeokJin about how we could make it work. His goal was to do everything that he could to help us, in any way he possibly could. He’d even started joking about running a Bewitched Bed and Breakfast. 

    I was the one who had issues with the idea. After so many weeks of sharing first JiMin’s small apartment and then our houses, I was beyond ready for peace and quiet and having NamJoon all to myself. I’d agreed to using NamJoon’s house for travelers, but there would be no door connecting our two homes. An Airbnb was fine, not a hotel or a bed and breakfast. 

    “I like this.” SeokJin plucked the ward from NamJoon’s fingers and wrapped it around his neck. His face suddenly morphed into a wide-eyed sexy pout. “How does it look?”

    “You look ridiculous.” JiMin laughed as he reached over to retrieve his ward. “This is too wide to be a choker.”

    “Hey! You said it would look pretty on YoonGi. Of course it looks pretty on me! My neck is much more swanlike than his. If it’s too wide, keep working on it. Make it into a scarf.” SeokJin was in such a good mood that he could barely hide the laughter behind his feigned affront. 

    “These aren’t your colors.” JiMin always had to mess with him. “And the msg will leave weird stuff on your clothes.”

    “Not my colors? Have you seen me? Every color is my color!”

    Next to me, NamJoon was sighing, half exasperated, half content. I set a hand on his thigh and rubbed over the smoothness of his jeans. “Do you have any more work to do today?” 

    “Not much. I’m waiting for an email with some figures from the Incheon branch. I should be able to finish it all within an hour once I get it. We’re making dinner tonight, right? What were you thinking?”

    “A shaman? You brought a shaman here? And a male shaman? You think that’s going to stop me?”

    YooJin. Of course. The guest of honor that we’d all been waiting for. My head snapped up and my hand tightened on NamJoon’s thigh. “Guys.”

    JiMin had already sensed her. He couldn’t see her, but he knew where she was. She’d walked through the rear of my apartment and was standing behind him. He jumped up and spun around, raising his arms towards YooJin. She curled her lips at him in derision, obviously not understanding what he was. 

    SeokJin stook up behind JiMin, moving more carefully. He began speaking, his voice low. “Let go, YooJin. Let go of the darkness. If it ends here, you’ll be trapped there. Your ancestors want you on the other side. You’re a good girl and you deserve another chance.”

    He kept speaking, repeating the same message. Encouraging her to leave the dark side and go to the other side where she belonged. YooJin ignored him and JiMin both. JiMin’s hands were moving slowly through the air as he searched for her weaknesses. 

    She stalked towards the coffee table, eyes on NamJoon and I as we sat between it and the couch, but we weren’t there for long. We both jumped up and raced to the nearest baskets full of christmas bulb bombs. It was a move we’d practiced many times, wanting to be ready for the next time she came, wanting to make sure we didn’t freeze in shock and fear. 

    She cut through the corner of the table as NamJoon and I reached a shelf and grabbed bombs. She wasn’t in a hurry, I knew that she could move much faster, she was confident that we were no match for her.

    “Don’t throw them!” 

    Our hands stilled as JiMin shouted and he immediately began singing a strange melody in an unfamiliar language. YooJin stopped as soon as the sounds floated into the air and turned to face him. She said something in a loud, angry voice. Something unintelligible that sounded like rocks breaking and tumbling from a cliff. 

    An electric buzz wafted through the air as JiMin’s song filled the room. It was as if every note was trapped inside, piling up, creating an energy that was palpable. I began to tremble as it crept over my skin. NamJoon reached for my hand and held it tightly in his. 

    “Hey, what’s going on? Is she here?”

    HoSeok. Stepping into the room with Dipsy in his arms swaddled in a towel. He’d been giving the little dog a bath. His eyes grew wide as he took in the four of us focused on an empty spot on the floor, JiMin’s incantation still crowding into the room.

    “Damn. I’m missing it.”

    Dipsy suddenly burst into loud barking, writhed in HoSeok’s arms, escaped the towel and jumped to the floor, hitting the ground running. She went straight for YooJin, obviously able to see or sense the agma gwishin, emitting growls and barks from deep in her throat. 

    JiMin’s song faltered as Dipsy attempted to attack YooJin’s feet and slid right through them. She scrambled on the hardwood floor and spun around to dart at YooJin’s feet again. YooJin raised a foot and kicked the dog across the room.

    HoSeok was already running to try to get Dipsy. He flew towards YooJin just as JiMin’s song turned into a cry of shock and rage as his dog tumbled across the floor. Freed from the spell, YooJin reached an arm towards HoSeok, an arm that stretched unnaturally long, and her hand slashed across his body. 

    He screamed in pain, blood blooming across his arms and chest, and fell to the floor. JiMin’s song returned. Louder, stronger, words somehow bigger and heavier. They weren’t painful, but they were so uncomfortable, making my chest tighten and my skin crawl. I gasped for air, eyes on YooJin as she began to waver, her human facade crumbling, the darkness of her soul an expanding black hole. 

    I turned towards NamJoon. As usual the sight of her true self was too much for me, and this time the image of the living YooJin wasn’t coming back. He pulled me towards him, pushing my face into his shoulder, arms coming around me protective and strong. “He’ll do it. Even I can feel it. He’s going to banish her.”

    He crooned the words into my ear as JiMin’s odd lyrics began to fall like bricks and Jin’s suggestions for YooJin to let go of her rage grew louder and louder. Almost desperate. He was doing his best to save this one soul. 

    The pressure in the room built until there was a sudden snap, a pop and then a rending, and then she was gone. A sudden huge absence. The weight of JiMin’s song collapsing to the floor. An echoing silence as JiMin stopped singing and Jin stopped shouting. Only HoSeok’s whimpers remained. 

    We all rushed to him at once, but he stopped us with a furious shout. “No! Don’t touch me! Take pictures! I need pictures for my article!” 

    SeokJin was the first to respond. “Well. I guess he’s not dying.”

    JiMin pulled his phone out of his pocket and began taking pictures.

    I turned to look at NamJoon. His eyes were on SeokJin.

    “Did she let go? Did she go to the other side?”

    SeokJin was quiet, listening to the voices of the ancestors. 

    JiMin spoke into the silence. “You’re bleeding a lot, HoSeok. I’m calling an ambulance. There’s no way a taxi driver’s going to let you in his car.”

    “Great.” HoSeok’s voice was a mix of pain and triumphant laughter. “An ambulance is a lot more dramatic than a taxi anyway.” 

    “No, NamJoon. She didn't cross over. Her ancestors are upset. They were waiting for her.”

    I looked up at NamJoon. His face was strained. “Yeah. I guess we can’t have everything we want. It’s really too bad. But she’s gone, right? She won’t be back?”

    “She won’t be back.” JiMin was dialing his phone. “She’s definitely banished.”

    “Okay.” NamJoon turned to me, a weary smile spreading on his face. “It’s over then. Things can go back to normal now.”

    “Oh! Gross! Dipsy’s licking my blood!”

    NamJoon and I looked around at the three other men. JiMin raising his voice to be heard on the phone, SeokJin bending in his colorful hanbok to pick up a blood-flecked Dipsy, and HoSeok making exaggerated gagging sounds. 

    “Or as normal as they can be.”