Hoseok pushes open the car door, steps out to the blinding flash of paparazzi cameras. He squints against the disorienting light, holds one hand out in front of his face to shield his eyes.
“Shin Hoseok!” calls out the amorphous mass of reporters crowding around him, all clamouring to get a good picture or maybe even a punchy quote. The security guards push back against the surging crowd. “Shin Hoseok! What do you expect from today’s reading of your grandfather’s will?”
I expect to be told how much of an inheritance I’m getting, and then I expect to leave, Hoseok thinks. His grandfather’s been dead almost four months now. He doesn’t understand why it’s taken the lawyers this long to sort out the will.
“Hey, you,” Hoseok says. The valet who’s been hovering around him lets out a squeak of surprise. Hoseok rolls his eyes and tosses the keys to his car to the trembling young man. “Take care of her,” he says sharply, nodding towards his car, even though he doesn’t really care, at this point. The inheritance should be more than enough to buy him a fleet of new Lamborghinis.
“Do you really think you are the right person to take over Shin Enterprises!” shouts one plucky reporter, darting beneath a security guard’s arm and grabbing onto his sleeve.
Hoseok snatches his arm away. “What kind of question is that?” he snaps. “I’m the heir to Shin Enterprises. Of course I’m the right person.”
“Master Shin,” greets Secretary Moon, rushing forward and getting in between Hoseok and the reporter. He bows deeply and holds the doors to the building open for Hoseok, who gives the reporter once last withering glare before striding into the Shin Enterprises building. “You’re late.”
Hoseok shrugs, heading straight for the lifts that he knows will take him directly to the top floor. The receptionists in the lobby all bow as he passes. “This meeting is too early,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Grandmother knew I was out with Mingyu and the boys last night.”
“Yes,” Secretary Moon says, grimacing, “the Chairwoman wasn’t happy about that.”
That comes as no surprise to Hoseok. His grandmother has always taken issue with what she calls his ‘wild, partying ways’. Never mind that it’s nothing out of the ordinary for a young man in his twenties. Never mind that the only reason why she objects so strongly is because she was married and pregnant with Hoseok’s dad, when she was his age.
“Is Minhyuk here?” Hoseok asks, changing the topic. He’s going to get enough stick from his grandmother when he arrives, no need to hash out the same stuff with Secretary Moon beforehand.
Secretary Moon nods. “He got here half an hour ago.”
“And mom? Aunt Youngmi?”
“Madam Kyunghee and Madam Youngmi are both here as well,” Secretary Moon replies. He opens his mouth to speak, then closes it again.
Hoseok frowns at Secretary Moon’s hesitation. “What is it?” he asks. “Spit it out.”
“I’m sure the lawyers will explain in more detail when you get there,” Secretary Moon says. The lift doors ding open, and he holds them open for Hoseok. “But they’ve gone through most of the will already. There’s just — there’s a bit that requires your special attention.”
“Special attention?” Hoseok gives Secretary Moon a look, but the doors to his grandmother’s office are being thrown open and there’s no time to ask for more detail. Hoseok squares his shoulders, and steps through.
“Ah, Hoseok-ah!” His mother leaps to her feet, crosses the room and places both hands on his forearms. “You’re late! Where have you been?”
Hoseok’s grandmother, sitting like a marble statue at the head of the table, arches one eyebrow at him. “Hungover, I’m guessing,” she says, voice tight.
“Aish, grandmother, don’t be angry,” chirps Minhyuk, placing one placating hand on her arm, “he’s here now, that’s all that matters.”
Hoseok drops into the empty seat next to Minhyuk, gives his cousin a nod in greeting. “So,” he says, hands on his knees, “what we are talking about?”
The lawyer clears her throat. “We had just finished running through the allocations made by your late grandfather in his will,” she says. “We were just about to move on to some — special issues.”
“Great.” Hoseok leans back in his chair, folding his arms across his chest. “How much money am I getting?”
“This is actually the subject of the special issue we were about to discuss,” the lawyer replies. She glances over at Hoseok’s grandmother warily, and they exchange a look that Hoseok can’t be bothered trying to decipher. He gives Minhyuk a questioning glance, and his cousin shrugs, as if to say, ‘I don’t know what they’re talking about, either’.
Hoseok’s grandmother clears her throat. “I will explain,” she declares firmly. There’s a steely look in her eyes that Hoseok really, really doesn’t like the look of.
“Hoseok,” she begins, “your grandfather left you a very generous inheritance.”
That’s not a surprise. Hoseok’s the oldest grandchild, and the only one born to a son. It makes sense that he should have the lion’s share. But that’s not all, judging by the way his grandmother is looking at him.
“There is, however, a condition attached to it.”
Hoseok groans. “What now?” he grumbles. “Does he want me to work my way through all the departments in the company, or something?”
The corners of his grandmother’s lips twitch slightly in a smile. Hoseok narrows his eyes at her warily. If she’s amused, this can’t possibly be anything good.
“Your grandfather had a close childhood friend,” she explains, and Hoseok blinks at what seems like an abrupt change of topic. His mother and aunt look equally confused, but they all just let the old lady continue. Mostly because to interrupt her is a feat too terrifying to imagine. “His friend moved to America when he and your grandfather were around your age. But, before he left, the two of them made a promise.”
“What promise?” Hoseok asks. “And what the hell does this have to do with his will?”
Hoseok's mother tuts under her breath. "Language," she mutters.
“The promise was that they would one day join their families,” Hoseok’s grandmother continues, ignoring her daughter-in-law. “If not by their childrens’ marriage, then by their grand-childrens’.”
Minhyuk’s eyes widen, and he gasps quietly. “No,” he exhales, like he already knows where this is going. But Hoseok still has no idea.
“Your grandfather’s friend has one grandson. We have spent the past few months trying to locate him. His name is Im Changkyun.”
Hoseok’s mother exchanges a worried glance with his aunt. They seem to have caught on to what’s going on as well. Maybe because this concerns him, and Hoseok’s too worried to think straight, but he still can’t figure out what’s going on.
His grandmother smiles serenely at him. “The condition to you receiving your inheritance is — you have to marry Im Changkyun.”
Hoseok freezes as the words sink in. Marry? Some stranger named Im Changkyun? It’s all so ludicrous he has to laugh.
So he does — a loud, barking laugh. He throws his head back, slaps his knee. “Absolutely not,” he says, “abso-fucking-lutely not.” His mother doesn't tell him off for his language this time.
“If you want your inheritance, it’s what you have to do.”
“I’ll find a way out of it,” Hoseok snaps, shoving his chair back and getting to his feet. “This is fucking insane. I’m not doing it.”
Hoseok’s mother stands up as well. “Hoseok-ah,” she says, casting nervous glances between him and his grandmother. “Sit down, we can talk about this.”
“I’m not talking about anything! This, this — this arrangement you’re talking about? It’s inhumane!” He storms across the room, throws the doors open with such force that they slam into the wall. The door handles will probably leave a mark, but Hoseok doesn’t care.
“Hoseok! Come back here!”
Hoseok ignores his mother, just stomps out of the office and stabs fiercely at the button to call the lift. Secretary Moon, who had been waiting outside, looks deeply alarmed by his outburst. “Master Shin!” he calls out, faltering in the doorway, waiting for instructions as to whether he should be stopping Hoseok from leaving. Hoseok doesn’t wait for Secretary Moon to figure out what to do, just steps into the lift when it arrives.
“Let him go,” comes Hoseok’s grandmother’s voice from inside the office. It’s the last thing he hears as the lift doors start to close. “He’ll change his mind.”
Hoseok scoffs. The lift doors shut, and he starts to descend.
“Change my mind?” He makes a derisive noise in the back of his throat. As if.
It’s dark, by the time Changkyun leaves his studio to head home. His stomach, which had been so quiet and patient as he’d worked, now grumbles with hunger. Changkyun considers stopping at the nearby street food market, but decides against it. He’ll just have some instant ramyeon when he’s home. It’s cheaper that way.
He makes the short walk back to his flat in no time at all, hunger gnawing at his insides and speeding up his steps. Kihyun’s going to scold him for not eating, he already knows this. But if he pouts cutely enough, maybe Kihyun will also cook ramyeon for him.
As Changkyun had expected, he’s barely through the door before Kihyun’s popped up in front of him, looking stern.
“What time do you call this, young man?” Kihyun scolds. “I’ve been calling you.”
“Ah, hyung, you know I don’t check my phone in the studio,” Changkyun replies, grinning sheepishly at Kihyun and ducking around him to drop his backpack on the dining room chair. “The music was just flowing, you know?”
Kihyun rolls his eyes, but fondly. “You haven’t had dinner, have you?” he asks, but he doesn’t wait for Changkyun to respond. He knows Changkyun far too well. “We saved you some food, come sit down and eat.”
That’s even better than the promise of Kihyun-made ramyeon. Changkyun flings his arms around Kihyun and nuzzles with exaggerated affection into his neck. “You’re the best hyung ever!” he cries out, making Kihyun yelp and squirm away.
Changkyun knows that Kihyun had meant for him to sit at the dining table, but he instead heads for the sofa and flops down on it next to Hyungwon. The television is on, and the ten o’clock news is playing — almost certainly Kihyun’s pick, rather than Hyungwon’s. Not to mention, Hyungwon’s put the news on mute and is lazily scrolling through his phone, not paying any attention.
He does, however, put his phone down when Changkyun sits down next to him. “You should really eat dinner at a normal time,” he says, nudging Changkyun with his shoulder. “If only so Kihyun will stop worrying — he’s going to give himself an ulcer.”
“I’m fine,” Changkyun replies, shrugging. And he is, he really is. His parents had given up everything, used up all of their life’s savings, just to put him through college. They’d even happily let him go to an arts school, study music production. He’s working hard for them, just as much as for himself.
“Both of you will give me an ulcer,” Kihyun says, handing Changkyun a large bowl of pork and kimchi heaped over steaming white rice. He squishes onto the couch next to Hyungwon, and unmutes the television.
Changkyun beams happily at his bowl of food and tucks in, picking up a piece of meat with his chopsticks first. Kihyun’s cooking is unbeatable, and even microwaved leftovers taste amazing. Much, much better than instant ramyeon.
“Fucking chaebols — how is this news?” Kihyun says suddenly, and Changkyun looks up in surprise. He hadn’t been paying attention to the news, but he does now. There’s a video clip of a young man in a suit, hopping out of a shiny sports car and walking into a glass-fronted building. The caption beneath him reads: Is the Shin Enterprises heir really the right pick for the job?
“Who’s that?” Changkyun mumbles around his mouthful of food.
Kihyun puts the television back on mute. “Shin Hoseok,” he replies. “His grandfather was the Chairman, but he passed away a few months ago. Today was the reading of his will, to split up the inheritance.”
Changkyun shovels more food into his mouth, watches the silent clips playing on screen of Shin Hoseok popping a bottle of champagne at what looks like a rooftop pool party, then hurrying through an airport with his head ducked, then leaving a nightclub with his arm around a pretty, pink-haired boy. He doesn’t know much about chaebols and all that stuff, but he knows Shin Enterprises. Everyone does. It’s the biggest company in Korea, a conglomerate that has investments in practically everything that’s worth anything in the country.
Still, he’s inclined to agree with Kihyun — he doesn’t get why this rich kid’s partying lifestyle is news. “Imagine being born that rich, though,” he says instead, grinning at his two roommates. “That would be the life.”
Hyungwon laughs. “And what would you do with all that money?” he asks. “You’d probably just hide out at home and buy some really fancy music equipment and live pretty much the same life as you do now.”
Changkyun wrinkles his nose at Hyungwon, but he can’t deny it. “It would be really fancy music equipment, though,” he says. “And I’d get you a better mixing table, and Ki would get a new camera and all the lenses he could possibly need…”
“Nice daydream, kiddo,” Kihyun interrupts, chuckling, “but last I checked, music producers didn’t make billions of won.”
Changkyun shrugs and pops a piece of kimchi into his mouth. “That’s probably for the best,” he says. “Can you imagine me as a chaebol?” He stands up with his rice bowl in one hand, chopsticks in the other, and does a twirl.
“You’re dropping rice grains everywhere,” Kihyun complains, picking one off his knee where Changkyun had accidentally flicked it from the tip of his chopsticks.
Hyungwon snorts out a laugh. “When’s the last time you even put a suit on?” he asks. “You wore jeans and a sweater to graduation.”
Changkyun sticks his tongue out at Hyungwon. “It’s arts school, hyung,” he says petulantly, “and I was expressing myself artistically.”
“By following in Yoongi hyung’s footsteps?”
“Don’t look at me like that.” Changkyun drops back down onto the sofa and elbows Hyungwon in the ribs. “Kihyun hyung’s the one with the crush.”
Kihyun, predictably, turns bright red. “I do not have a crush on Yoongi!” he shouts.
And then Hyungwon’s cackling and recounting a story of the time Kihyun had startled so hard when Yoongi had spoken to him, that he’d dropped an entire tray of food in the middle of the cafeteria, and Kihyun’s threatening to murder Hyungwon in his sleep, and Changkyun just smiles and settles into the sofa.
He may not have much to his name, but he gets to do what he loves, and he lives with his two best friends in the world. This is his life, and it’s not much, but it’s his, and he wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.
When Hoseok opens the door to his penthouse apartment, Minhyuk’s already there, draped across the sofa and watching what looks to be a buddy cop comedy on Hoseok’s flat screen. He sits up, though, upon hearing Hoseok return, and turns the television off.
“I gave you the key to my house for emergencies,” Hoseok says tiredly, even though he knows it’s no use, and Minhyuk will never stop letting himself in unannounced. He shrugs off his coat, chucks it over the back of the sofa, and sits down next to Minhyuk. “What are you doing here?”
Minhyuk blinks his big eyes at Hoseok. “What, your favourite cousin can’t pop round to hang out with you?”
“You’re my only cousin, Min.”
“Irrelevant!” Minhyuk mimes doing a hair flip, then stretches out, flinging his legs onto Hoseok’s lap. “Grandma was really angry after you stormed out yesterday.”
Hoseok rolls his eyes. “Good,” he says. “She wants me to get into an arranged marriage with some random? No thank you.”
“It’s not her will, you know,” Minhyuk points out, and Hoseok knows that, but his grandfather is dead and so his grandmother is the next best person for him to direct his wrath at. Minhyuk sighs, wrinkling up his nose. “Speaking of, though — I came here because I have something to tell you.”
Hoseok makes a face. “Don’t look at me like that,” he grumbles, “I already know it’s going to be something bad.”
Minhyuk makes no attempt to deny this. “I was speaking to Jooheon today,” he says, unusually subdued for him, and hence extremely unnerving. “He got fired.”
“Fired?” Hoseok frowns. Jooheon’s family owns the largest telecoms company in the country, and even though he's the youngest grandchild and therefore not going to head up the company, he still has no need to work a day in his life. Instead, he's studying to work as a child psychologist, and volunteering at a charity for children with special needs as he does so. Hoseok doesn't understand why a charity would fire a volunteer as dedicated, and skilled, and well-off, as Jooheon.
Hoseok gapes at Minhyuk. “She didn’t.”
“She did,” Minhyuk replies, nodding gravely. “The charity was really apologetic, but they said the donation was what they would otherwise raise in a year. It wasn’t something the could refuse.”
“So they agreed to fire him? Isn’t that bribery?”
“Bribery that will help hundreds of children, which is why Jooheon isn’t more mad about it.”
Hoseok lets out a strangled yell. “Well, I’m mad about it! How dare she go for my friends!”
“She knows you,” Minhyuk says, shrugging. “Jooheon wasn’t even going to tell you, which is probably why she told my mom, who then told me.” He quirks a half-smile. “She knows us all too well.”
Hoseok drags one hand through his hair in frustration. “This is fucked up, Min,” he says. “I don’t want to marry a stranger.”
Minhyuk sighs. “I know, and I don’t want you to have to do that either. But — and Jooheon doesn’t know I’m asking you this, he’d be pissed off with me if he did — can’t you do something to appease grandma? At least go talk to her?”
Hoseok glowers at Minhyuk, who doesn’t deserve it, but he’s the only one here. “Oh, I’ll go talk to her alright,” he declares, getting to his feet and snatching his coat up. “Let yourself out when you’re done,” he calls out to Minhyuk as he throws the front door open. “And don’t eat all of my food!”
“Good luck!” shouts Minhyuk, waving brightly at him from the sofa, just as the door slams shut.
Hoseok breaks just about every speed limit on his way to the family residence, but he doesn’t care. He needs to get to his grandmother before she starts fucking about even more with his friends’ lives. Jooheon, in particular, deserves this the least — which is probably why she’d picked him to start with.
He flies through the main entrance of the grand mansion, ignoring the flustered greetings of the house staff as he stomps through the foyer, demanding to know where his grandmother is. He’s directed towards the conservatory, so he charges in that direction, already working himself up into a furious frenzy.
His aunt, Minhyuk’s mother, is the first to spot him, looking startled by his unexpected appearance. Or maybe by the murderous look on his face. Possibly both. His mother just looks exhausted.
“I can’t believe you!” Hoseok shouts. “Jooheon’s innocent!”
Hoseok’s aunt turns back in surprise. “Mom,” she says, in a weary voice, “what did you do?”
Hoseok’s grandmother purses her lips. “Don’t be so dramatic, all of you,” she says, as if she wasn’t the one who’d gone and dragged Hoseok’s friends into this. “I just wanted to send my tantrum-throwing grandson a message. And look — it worked. He’s here now.”
“Grandma,” Hoseok says sharply, dropping into one of the free armchairs in the sun-drenched room. “You can’t do this to people. Jooheon doesn’t deserve this.”
His grandmother just tuts at him softly. “I know, dear,” she replies, “and I’ll get him the job back. I just wanted to talk to you.”
“You couldn’t call me?”
“As if you’d pick up my call when you’re angry at me,” his grandmother says, and Hoseok has to admit she’s right. It would take him at least a few days to cool-off. Knowing that his silence means he’s conceding she has a point, she takes a small, delicate sip of her tea. “I know your grandfather’s request is asking a lot of you.”
Hoseok sighs, and leans back into the armchair. “Grandma,” he says, “you can’t possibly want me to give up my life’s happiness for this.”
His grandmother just shakes her head at him, and sets her teacup down on the saucer with a barely audible clink. “Nonsense,” she says, primly. “Look at your grandfather and me. Happily married for decades. Who said arranged marriages can’t work out?”
“That was like, a century ago,” Hoseok says, earning him a smack from his grandmother. He laughs, despite himself, and ducks away. “Grandma, seriously, there has to be some way out of this.”
She levels him with an icy glare, but then gestures at one of the many assistants hovering around her, and goes on to say, “It’s not so much a way out as it is — an opportunity.”
Hoseok doesn’t even have time to ask what she means, because the assistant reappears almost instantaneously, a thin leather-bound folio in her hands. She presents to Hoseok’s grandmother, who takes it with a grateful nod, and hands it to Hoseok.
“Take a look,” she says, opening the folio in Hoseok’s hands and flipping through the document inside, which Hoseok realises is a copy of his grandfather’s will. “Clause seven is the bit that has to do with you. If you look at clause seven, subsection twelve, under point roman numeral five—”
“Grandma,” Hoseok says, firmly. He closes the folio, sets it down on the coffee table. He knows what she’s doing, trying to confuse him with legalese until he agrees to just about anything. “Just tell me what you’re trying to say.”
His grandmother smiles at him, almost proudly. “One year,” she says. “The full amount of your inheritance will be released to you, as long as you stay married for one year. Of course, you could always stay married for more than one year—”
“Nope!” Hoseok beams at his grandmother. “One year? That sucks, but I could probably do one year, and then what? Get divorced?”
“The one year would be treated as evidence that the marriage is not a sham,” his grandmother says, narrowing her eyes at him. “You would still be expected to treat this as a real marriage. If there is other evidence that suggest you are not, the condition could still be broken. Also, if you stay married for more than a year—”
Hoseok shakes his head vehemently. “I’ll stay married for one year, to the day,” he says, emphasising each syllable. “Where’s the marriage certificate? I’ll sign immediately. Get that clock ticking, you know? No time to waste.”
“The wedding is being planned for three weeks’ time,” his grandmother declares. “Not long after your birthday.”
“The wedding? So you just knew I was going to agree to this?”
His grandmother takes another sip of her tea. “I had a feeling you would come round.”
Hoseok scowls at her. “Fine,” he grumbles. “Now do I get to meet this guy, or is the first time I see him going to be on my wedding night?”
“Of course you’ll meet him,” his grandmother says. “I just need to meet him and convince him to marry you, first.”
“You haven’t even met him?” Hoseok buries his face in his hands. “Then this is all moot, isn’t it? Because why would he agree to marry a stranger, let alone in a few weeks’ time?”
His grandmother just gives him a withering look. “You agreed, didn’t you?” she points out, and Hoseok grimaces, because he supposes she isn’t wrong.
“You gonna find some friend of his to get fired as well?” Hoseok asks glumly.
His grandmother sets her teacup back down, and smoothes out the folds of her skirt neatly. “You leave that to me,” she says. “You just make sure you’re free for brunch this weekend.”
Hoseok forces a fake smile onto his face. “To meet my future husband?” He claps both hands over his chest in feigned delight. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
It’s a perfectly ordinary day when Changkyun leaves his studio, this time well before the sun has had time to fully set. He’s going to help Kihyun prepare dinner, he thinks, and then he and Hyungwon can play Overwatch or maybe they can all watch a movie. He’s running through the possibilities for his evening as he pushes open the front door to his flat, and everything perfectly ordinary about his life fizzles up in smoke.
“Uh. You’re back,” Kihyun says, standing awkwardly in the middle of the living room. Hyungwon’s sitting at the kitchen counter, looking midway between bored and alarmed, which Changkyun hadn’t realised was possible.
Then his eyes come to rest on the elderly lady sitting on his sofa.
Changkyun blinks once, and then again, just to make sure he’s not dreaming. But the lady doesn’t disappear, and Changkyun doesn’t stop staring. She clears her throat gently, one perfectly manicured hand coming up to cover her mouth as she does so.
“This — this lady,” Kihyun says, hesitating, “she’s here to see you.”
Changkyun exchanges a look with his roommates. ‘Who is she?’ he mouths anxiously, but Hyungwon just shrugs at him.
The mystery lady gets to her feet, and walks over to Changkyun. She extends one hand for Changkyun to shake, which he takes, in bewilderment. Her handshake is far firmer than Changkyun would have expected.
“You must be Im Changkyun,” she says, and it’s not a question, nor does she wait for Changkyun to reply. “I must speak with you. In private.” At this, she casts a glance over at Kihyun and Hyungwon.
Kihyun coughs like he’s startled to be looked at, and bows robotically. “Hyungwon and I will go to the shop and get groceries for dinner,” he announces, even though Changkyun knows full well the fridge is fully-stocked. He smiles at Changkyun, tight-lipped. “Call us when you’re done?”
Done with what? That’s what Changkyun wants to scream, the voice in his head increasing in volume as he starts to panic. Hyungwon places one hand on his shoulder as he passes, gives him a reassuring squeeze and a smile. Changkyun feels his chest relax, if only just slightly.
When his roommates are gone, the elderly lady gestures to the sitting area. Changkyun sidles over nervously, perches on the edge of the armchair. His guest takes her seat on the sofa once more. Changkyun wonders how she’s managing to make him feel like the one who’s a guest in his own home.
“My name is Shin Soonja,” the lady says, once they’re settled, “and I’m the Chairwoman of Shin Enterprises. I would like you to marry my grandson.”
Changkyun blinks at her. He doesn’t know how long it takes for him to speak, but in the entire time he stares mutely at this person who’s claiming to be the head of the largest company in Korea, she doesn’t utter a single word. Just waits, patiently, for him to respond.
When he finally finds the words in his throat, what he says is, “I’m sorry. I thought I heard you say that you would like me to marry your grandson.”
The lady — Shin Soonja, apparently — smiles at him. “You heard correctly, young man,” she says, perfectly calmly, like she had proposed something utterly banal. And not what Changkyun thinks she’s proposing. She goes on to explain something about her late husband, and Changkyun’s late grandfather, and it’s all making absolutely no sense to Changkyun whatsoever.
“So,” she says, at the end of her speech, “will you marry my grandson?”
There’s something to do with said grandson’s inheritance, and a will, and a wedding in three weeks — but Changkyun doesn’t think any of that matters. “You’re describing an arranged marriage,” he says, forming the words slowly. “In this day and age. An arranged marriage.”
“Correct,” Soonja says. “Will you do it?”
Changkyun makes a face — it’s probably rude, in the presence of this rich old lady who feels like she might be the queen, but Changkyun can’t help it. “No, of course I will not,” he cries out. “An arranged marriage! No!”
“You sound exactly like my grandson, you guys would be a great match,” Soonja says, smiling to herself. “But, in any case, I expected that you would say that. So — name your price. What would it take? One million won? One billion?”
“It would take nothing at all, because I won’t do it,” Changkyun replies, fiercely, now that he’s composed himself a little. “I don’t want your money,” he says. “I may be poor, but I will work hard to achieve my goals. I don’t need your handouts.”
Soonja purses her lips and nods thoughtfully. “I thought you might say that — and I must say, I’m impressed, most people your age would jump at the promise of so much money.” A smile crosses her lips, once that makes Changkyun sit up even straighter with something akin to fear. “Of course,” she adds, “you’re young. You have your whole life ahead of you to work hard and earn the money you need to achieve your dreams. But — what about your parents?”
Changkyun feels the colour drain from his face. “Are you — are you threatening my parents?”
This makes Soonja frown, and she looks annoyed for the first time since Changkyun’s met her. “No,” she says, sharply, “of course not. That would be so uncouth. We’re not the mafia.” She tucks a stray strand of her short, snow-white hair behind her ear. “Your mother used to paint, didn’t she? And your father is a scientist?”
Changkyun doesn’t know where this is going, so he just nods, slowly and warily.
“They’ve worked very hard to bring you up, haven’t they? The music program you studied in — that musn’t have been cheap.”
The fact that she knows all of this about him unnerves Changkyun, but no more than the entire encounter already has. He doesn’t say anything, just continues staring, and waiting for the penny to drop.
Soonja smiles at him. “What would you say if I offered to help your mother fulfill her life-long dream of opening an art gallery? And I could also fund your father’s research, so he can actually do the work that he wants to do.”
Changkyun can’t believe this, but she’s actually managed to tempt him. He swallows around the growing lump in his throat, feeling like he can feel his pulse hammering under his skin. “And all I would have to do is to — marry your grandson?”
“And stay married,” Soonja adds, “for as long as you can bear it. At least a year, ideally — so he can get his inheritance.”
“And you want me to do this to help him get his inheritance?”
Soonja hesitates, considering the question. “If he lost the inheritance, it would go to charity, which wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world,” she replies. “And we have more than enough money even without it.”
Changkyun cocks his head to the side. “So, why do you need me?”
“Between you and me,” Soonja says, smiling, “Hoseok needs to settle down and start getting ready to take over the company. Stop partying so much, stop sleeping around.” She nods at Changkyun. “I think you might be a good influence on my Hoseok.”
“But — you don’t know anything about me.”
Soonja chuckles lightly. “I know more than you think, young man,” she says. “I knew you wouldn’t even think of agreeing to this for your own benefit, but that you might consider it for your parents.”
Changkyun has to admit she’s right, that he’s actually considering it. He looks down at his hands, twisted in his lap. His parents have given up so much for him. Surely he can do this one thing, for them?
“Don’t make a decision now,” Soonja says suddenly. She stands up, and Changkyun scrambles to his feet as well, taking the business card that she’s presenting to him. “Think about it, discuss it with your friends if you want. But we don’t have much time — will you call me, tomorrow? Whatever you decide.”
Changkyun nods. “Okay,” he says. “I will think about it.”
“Thank you, young man.”
Changkyun walks her over to the front door, though he feels a little more like he’s scuttling after her as she sweeps majestically out of his home. He bows deeply as she steps through the threshold, out into the corridor, looking somehow both utterly out of place and also perfectly at ease.
“Oh, and — Changkyun?” Her words make Changkyun look up in surprise. There’s a warmth in her eyes, Changkyun realises, beneath the steely exterior. She beams at him, like she’s proud of him, even though Changkyun doesn’t know what she could possibly be proud of. Then she nods at him, a gesture of respect. “It was lovely to meet you,” she says, “and I do hope you say yes.”
Once she’s gone, Changkyun steps back into the flat and looks at the business card in his hands. He should call Kihyun and Hyungwon to come back, he thinks. Discuss this madness with them.
But, as he drops back down into the armchair, still staring at the business card, he realises with a start that he already knows. He’s going to say yes.