Soohee clutched her album tightly and reminded herself to breathe. It shouldn’t be that difficult. She’d done it every single moment of her entire life. And yet. From the moment she and Eunha had claimed their spots in the long line at the fansign venue--a ridiculous number of hours ago--she’d had to remind herself a million times to breathe, both in and out. She shivered occasionally, too, though it had little to do with the early May breeze and everything to do with nerves.
She wasn’t the only one losing it. Despite the long wait, Eunha was still practically vibrating beside her, buzzing with all the adrenaline her tiny body could pump through her system. Eunha reached out and gripped Soohee’s arm, to ground both of them in the reality of the moment. They were about to meet Bangtan Sonyeondan . Their eyes locked, then widened simultaneously. They muffled tiny squeals of mangled disbelief and manic joy. Taking deep breaths, they calmed a fraction. Copy and paste this process every few minutes for the last hour or so. The frequency increased the closer they got to the doors.
The line inched forward, finally slipping over the threshold of the venue doors and into a large room, allowing them to catch their first glimpse of their favorite idol group. The first thing that hit her eye, from meters away, was Kim Seokjin’s majestic, Disney-prince-esque face. Even in the crappy lighting, he managed to glow with ethereal beauty. For a wild moment, Soohee wondered if she had chosen her bias wrong. But then, the crowd at the other end of the table parted slightly, revealing a boy with skin the color of pancakes and hair made of magic.
She was absolutely certain she had chosen correctly. Her inability to speak or move or do anything remotely useful was a surefire sign. She gripped her forearms hard, tucking them against her chest. She felt like she might explode or shatter into a million pieces from sheer excitement. She and Eunha stood on their tip toes to catch a glimpse of all the boys. They were seated at a long table, greeting fans with broad welcoming smiles and signing albums with an impressive speed and practiced lack of attention.
“I can’t believe we’re actually here,” Soohee whispered for the hundredth time that afternoon. She swallowed hard to repress the niggling terror that she might embarrass herself. Or worse, embarrass them . “You are the best friend anyone has ever had, ever. I’ve never gotten a better birthday present. I still cannot believe you did this.”
“I had to get you back for that gorgeous necklace you got me last year,” Eunha said with a smirk. Soohee rolled her eyes. This was, in no way , the same kind of gift. Eunha lifted her shoulders carelessly. “Plus, I’m not exactly suffering over here.”
Soohee raised her eyebrows in mock-challenge. “Not ten minutes ago, you told me you felt like you were being tortured.” Eunha laughed, though the sound cracked at the end as the line shuffled them forward, putting them a few dozen people away from Bangtan. Eunha gripped her arm.
“This is the best and worst thing that has ever happened to us and I am loving every second of it,” she whispered dramatically. Though the logic was deeply flawed, Soohee couldn’t help but agree. The anticipation was killing her and she didn’t mind a bit.
A round of giggles from the table stole their attention. As she peered over the heads of the people in front of them, Soohee felt the strangest urge to do a headcount. She nudged Eunha. “I don’t see Kookie.”
Eunha stretched her neck above the crowd. “Ummm…. He’s on the other side of Namjoon. He was ducked down for a second. See? He’s wearing pink bunny ears.”
Soohee located him and sighed, ignoring the ridiculous headwear. They’re all here. Of course they were. It was fansign. Where else would they be? But the sight brought a soothing sense of stability. They were all there, taking care of their fans. And Soohee got to be a part of it.
The line was moving faster than she expected. The doors had only opened about twenty minutes ago, but they were being drawn inescapably forward. She tried her best to banish her worries of saying the wrong thing. She mentally chanted what she wanted to say to each of them. It’s so good to meet you. Thank you for your music. Be healthy and rest well. Fighting! She knew if she tried to come up with something for each of them, she’d scramble her words and mess it all up.
Before she knew it, they were three people away from Seokjin. She felt panic well up in her chest. Eunha sensed it and snagged her hand, squeezed it, and flashed her a look full of emotions. They were beyond speaking now. Just then, a fan whispered something in Seokjin’s ear and a delicate blush spread across his cheeks before he dipped his head in a quick bow and thanked her. Soohee felt another wave of calm. They may be idols and they may be beautiful specimens of humanity, but they were still just…boys. Famous boys. Stupidly talented boys. But, at the end of the day, just boys.
Soohee watched the last fan between her and Seokjin push a parting gift across the table. She took a deep breath and repeated her pep-talk mantra for the last time: It’s going to go so fast and you’re never going to get to meet them again. Don’t waste this opportunity being shy and awkward and nervous. Just enjoy.
And as she expected, the time flew. Seokjin, ever the gentleman, quietly asked her name and made small talk with he signed her album. With a gentlest of high fives, her interaction with him was done and she shuffled awkwardly down the table to Min Yoongi, with his sleepy eyes and strawberry hair. She repeated her greeting to each of them in turn, absolutely certain it was nothing they hadn’t heard a million times before but still glad to be able to say it. In the back of her mind and out of the corner of her eye, she kept track of Eunha, but she could barely focus on the boy in front of her. She only hoped Eunha was enjoying herself as much as she was.
Soohee tried to absorb everything she could, from the dimples on Namjoon’s cheeks to the way Hoseok’s eyes practically disappeared when he grinned at each of them. Or how Yoongi played grumpy but couldn’t keep his gummy smile from sneaking through every few minutes. And with every handshake and high five and press of palms, she noted their fatigue, knowing they still had hours ahead of them. The fansign wasn’t even half over and they were appearing on Music Core tonight, but their gracious attention to each fan made her so proud of them. This comeback was making waves all over the country. She knew it came at a heavy price, lost sleep and skipped meals and long hours, but she was so excited to see their star on the rise.
And then, before she knew it, she was centimeters from Taehyung. His face should be registered as a deadly weapon , she thought idly. The freckle on the end of his nose was visible today and working all of its lethal magic. As she scooted over to greet him, she noticed a weird lag in the line that left Park Jimin sitting alone, waiting for fans. Rather than take a break like she might have expected, he leaned over and and scolded Taehyung with “Stop hogging the fans, Taetae. Can’t you see they came here for me?”
She thought she might burst into flames as the boys jokingly bickered over her. She was sure it was a routine they pulled out anytime the line slowed. Even so, she felt oddly honored to be a part of it. Eunha must have noticed what was happening, because her grip on Soohee’s hand in front of the table redoubled. Soohee couldn’t respond to Taehyung and Jimin’s antics with anything more eloquent than a mildly terrified chuckle. Hoseok released Eunha with a kissy face and a shrill giggle that stalled her for a fraction of a second. Then they were both staring up into the faces of the 95 line.
Taehyung shoved Jimin away and turned his best sexy-smoldering look on the two girls. “I’m pretty sure these two are my fans, not yours,” Taehyung teased, and Eunha gave them away by looking down with embarrassment. Jimin flung his arm around Taehyung’s shoulders and pretended to punch him while looking offended. Somehow Taehyung had managed to sign her album unnoticed throughout the banter, so he said goodbye with a double high five and turned to Eunha. Soohee prayed his rectangle smile wouldn’t kill her friend.
She scooted out of the way and into Jimin’s zone. His grin was infectious and made hers spread further than she’d thought her face was capable of. She thought it might split her face in half.
“Hi, I’m Jimin,” he said unnecessarily. “I’m in charge of good looks for Bangtan. You can ignore this guy. He’s not that pretty.” Soohee couldn’t stop the laugh that bubbled out of her throat. His charisma was everything she had grown accustomed to from Bangtan’s appearances online, but she was still blown away by the way he undercut it with his tiny giggle, like he didn’t fully buy it himself. “What’s your name?”
“Lee Soohee,” she answered. Then with an impish grin, she tossed out, “I’m not in charge of anything.” Jimin looked up from signing her album in mild surprise, them laughed with genuine delight. She could see the staff eyeing her like she was holding up the line, so she said, “It’s very nice to meet you. Thank you for your music. Be healthy and rest well. Fighting!” Her words came out slightly too fast and maybe a little mechanically, since she’d already said them six times before. It also felt somewhat strange, since he must have just heard her say the same thing to Taehyung. “Also, I really loved your dance at the MAMAs last year,” she blurted.
Jimin gave her a suggestive smile and did a small body roll in his chair. Soohee blushed but couldn’t look away. The staff members began to move in, so Jimin finished signing her album and held up both hands for a high five. She obliged, knowing it was time to go, but at the last second he threaded their fingers together and held on. He wiggled their hands around and did a few movements that were like seated dance steps. She laughed and followed along as best she could and was encouraged to hear him chuckle again. She tried to ignore the fact that they were basically just holding hands.
Finally, he let go, bowed to her one more time, and said, “Thank you for coming. Please go on with us forever. We will work hard!” Then her turn was over and Eunha was taking her place. Very quickly, the staff came and herded her and her friend toward the seating area while directing Jimin back to his task. She gave the busy line one last look over her shoulder and was rewarded with a wink from Jimin and a giant wave from Taehyung.
The little bits of fanservice they did afterward were delightful. She and Eunha joined the crowd in calling out ridiculous suggestions and answers to the members as they goofed around on stage, singing fragments of their own songs and wrestling with one another like a litter of puppies.
By the time the event was over and they made it out of the venue, Soohee was floating. Eunha flagged a cab with a sly grin spreading across her features.
“Why are you in such a rush to get home?” Soohee asked. “We have the day off and nowhere to be.”
“We’re not going home,” Eunha answered. Her face as positively evil. “Your birthday isn’t over yet.” A cab pulled up and Eunha shoved her inside. “MBC Dream Center, please,” Eunha told the driver. Soohee turned to her in confusion, but Eunha just shoved a packet of papers in Soohee’s hands. Soohee choked.
“You got--” she started, then had to take several deep breaths as she stared into her best friend’s face. “Kwon Eunha, you did not get us tickets to Music Core .”
Eunha licked her lips smugly. “I did .”
It had already been a day filled with long lines and waiting, but Soohee was game for whatever was next if it meant seeing Bangtan Bangtan perform I Need U live. She was pretty sure she’d never have the money and the vacation time to go to one of their concerts, so she wasn’t going to waste this. It was so amazing, she couldn’t even be disappointed that they didn’t perform a second song. She was a little let down by their second place showing. In her estimation, they deserved every prize in the world.
Finally, the show was over and they were spilling into the street with wobbly legs and hoarse voices. As they walked to the subway station leaning on one another for support, she replayed the best moments of the day. She had to admit that meeting Jimin had been pretty fabulous and was reconsidering her bias in the group. She had found herself watching him more closely than any of the others while they were on stage and was continually impressed by his dancing and his high notes. It’s not that she had disliked him before, but she felt like he was no longer being overshadowed by the other members in her mind. He really was an excellent dancer. His hips alone…. She giggled and Eunha joined her.
“Best birthday ever?” Eunha asked, her throat tight and scratchy.
Heart thumping and sweat slipping down his temples, Park Jimin tripped his way through the halls backstage of the music show. All he could think of was getting his stage clothes off and going home to his bed. Well, that and the three beats of choreography he’d screwed up. He was sure no one but his members had noticed, but it still irked him that he’d gotten it wrong.
Hoseok caught up with him as he turned down the hall toward the dressing room and swung his arm around Jimin’s shoulders. “Don’t worry about it.” Jimin sighed and opened his mouth to argue. “Seriously, Chim. It was nothing. I don’t want you kicking yourself over this.” Jimin nodded, but knew the fact that Hoseok noticed and felt the need to say something meant it wasn’t nothing. He also knew that when he dragged himself to the practice room at 5:30 tomorrow morning to fix it, Hoseok would be there. He nodded again and decided to let it go for now.
He slumped onto the couch in the dressing room, suddenly too tired to be vertical. Three minutes. He was pretty sure he could steal three entire minutes before someone came to hustle him to change. “Jiminie, head’s up!” Taehyung called as he tossed a bottle of water across the room. Jimin lazily stretched his right arm out to snag the bottle out of the air, but winced when it hit the heel of his hand. He looked down and was surprised to see a vivid bruise across his palm. It wasn’t uncommon for them to walk away from practice and stupid backstage stunts with their fair share of bruises and scrapes in strange places, but he was pretty sure this was a first.
He gently flexed his hand and felt tenderness all over. He lifted his other hand to poke at the bruise and saw a matching one on his left hand. He sat up and stared. It wasn’t just his palms. Tendrils of purple extended between his knuckles and onto the back of his hand. In the shape of...fingers? The marks were a deep fuchsia with sickly green edging, as if someone had tried to crush his bones. These were not ordinary bruises. He’d seen this somewhere before. A documentary? The news? Something about...soulmates. The water bottle fell onto the couch next to him, forgotten.
Oh. My. God.
“Jiminie?” Taehyung had apparently been watching him from across the room while he scrutinized his hands. “What’s wrong?”
Jimin instantly hid his hands under his legs. He didn’t even know why he did it. He had no secrets from his best friend. And yet, he didn’t know what else to do. His mind reeled. He’d met his soulmate? Wouldn’t he have noticed? But no, everyone said the bruises came hours after First Touch. That’s why this fate was so dangerous--it was really easy lose your soulmate in a crowd and never see them again, but it was imperative to find them. Jimin’s chest suddenly felt too tight.
I’ve literally touched hundreds of people today .
“Jimin?” Taehyung’s voice was concerned now and much closer than before. Jimin looked up and saw his own fear mirrored in his best friend’s face, although shaded with confusion. “What’s wrong?” Taehyung asked again, his tone urgent enough that several other members looked up. Jimin slowly pulled his hands out from under his legs and silently held them palms up. Taehyung stared for a second before grabbing Jimin’s hands and examining them. “What happened, bro?
“I think…” Jimin had to clear his throat. “I think I met my…” He couldn’t get the word out. Soulmate . It seemed like such a loaded phrase. And also kind of childish, a thing out of fairy tales and bedtime stories. Taehyung looked bewildered.
“Met who? How’d you hurt yourself like this?” Taehyung cocked his head for a moment and something knowing spread across his face. Slowly, he threaded his fingers through Jimin’s and matched up the bruises to his hand print. His fingers were much longer than those of whoever had left the marks, covering them up completely, but the effect was enough to bring clarity to the situation. “Oh. You met your....” Taehyung’s eyes met his and Jimin knew he couldn’t say it either.
The other members, all but Seokjin, had made their way over in time to hear Taehyung’s last sentence and to see the bruises reappear from under Taehyung’s fingers as he let go of Jimin’s hands. For a moment, no one said a thing. They all just stared at one another as the reality sank in. He was the first to meet his soulmate. It’s not like it was that common; nearly three-quarters of the population never met theirs. Jungkook opened his mouth to say something just as Seokjin walked in from the hall. Sensing the palpable emotions in the room, he walked directly to the group standing around Jimin, who was still seated on the couch.
“What’s going on?” Seokjin asked.
Jimin held his hands up again and shrugged. His voice was caught in his throat.
“Jimin met his…soulmate,” Namjoon said, finally giving sound to the words they were all thinking.
“Wow…” Seokjin breathed. He picked up Jimin’s hands and went through the exact same motions Taehyung had done moments before. “This is huge.” And then a grin split his face. “Congratulations, Jimin. That’s excellent!”
The rest of the members seemed to collectively relax and several started grinning. Hoseok smacked Jimin on the shoulder, and Namjoon ruffled his hair. There was a cascade of arms and legs and bodies and they were all suddenly tangled together in a laughing mass on the tiny couch. Jimin was buffeted by his members but made no move to join in. His mind was racing.
How was he ever going to find out who she was? He finally remembered the TV show now, the one about soulmates. It was an emergency broadcast. There’d been an uptick in Strays--an unkind but accurate term for people who had Bonded but hadn’t reunited with their mates yet--at the local hospital. City officials were hoping to find their partners before it was too late. Before they starved to death. Because that was the thing about soulmates: skinship became sustenance and nothing else could satisfy. After soulmates touched the first time, there was a small window of opportunity to find each other again before death was imminent.
“Who is she? Ooooh, is she pretty?” Hoseok asked, his voice muffled by most of Yoongi across his chest. All the boys stopped wiggling and looked at Jimin with wide, excited eyes.
“I don’t know,” Jimin answered and was startled to find his hoarse voice tainted with tears. “I touched hundreds of fans today. I don’t know who she is or how I’m going to find her.” And suddenly the boys were sitting up, their laughter forgotten as they realized what that would mean. Jimin fearfully sought the eyes of his best friend. “What do I do?” Taehyung’s eyes widened helplessly.
Namjoon cleared his throat and said, “Kookie, go find Sejin.” At his leader’s command, Jungkook extracted himself from the pile, leapt to his feet, and disappeared from the room to find their manager. The other boys’ faces had turned serious. Taehyung pushed his way through the tangle of bodies to get to Jimin and wrapped himself around his friend.
“Don’t worry, Jiminie. We’re not going to let anything bad happen to you,” he mumbled, scrunching his face into Jimin’s neck. “We’ll find her.”
“There’s a lot of time,” Namjoon said reassuringly. “It can take weeks, even over a month, for your body to fully reject food. We’ll find her by then.” Leave it to Namjoon to know the details of this.
“And she’ll be looking for you, too,” Seokjin offered. “And she’ll probably know better who you are, since she only touched the seven of us.” Jimin felt the knot in his chest loosening as their words sank in. He nodded along as they continued to reassure him, hoping they were right.
The next morning, Soohee woke feeling achy and wrung out. They had stood for the better part of eight hours, all told, so her feet were tender. Even her face and ribs ached from the grinning and laughing. She didn’t even care. She stretched luxuriously in her bed, grateful it was Sunday and she had the day off. She tried to rub the sleep from her eyes and immediately winced. She pulled her hands away from her face and stared at the bruises she found there. Both palms were black and blue. When had that happened? Her thoughts ran back over her Saturday, before and during the Bangtan events. Had she fallen? She could be a little accident prone at times and frequently had tiny, light bruises she couldn’t entirely explain, but she would have remembered doing something bad enough to cause marks like this.
“Unnie?” she asked quietly. “Are you awake?” The lump of blankets next to her stirred and she heard a small groan from its depths. It had not taken much persuading to convince Eunha to stay the night after she had almost fallen asleep on Soohee’s shoulder on the subway. Finally, a mass of tangled black hair and a pale face emerged from the covers.
“Hmmm? What’s going on?” she mumbled, still not entirely conscious.
“Did I fall yesterday?”
Eunha blinked slowly and pursed her lips thoughtfully. “I...don’t think so. Why?”
“I can’t remember how I got these,” Soohee answered, holding out her hands. Eunha stared at them, her eyes becoming more alert by the second. “What do you think I did?”
Suddenly, Eunha gasped and flung all the covers away from her in her haste to grab Soohee’s hands. Her eyes were round and her mouth hung slack. She flipped Soohee’s hands all around, checking every inch of them again and again. “Oh my God, Soohee, do you know what these are ?”
“No? That’s why I’m asking you.”
“ First Touch ,” Eunha whispered as if the words were sacred. Soohee stared at her friend.
“They’re the marks of First Touch,” Eunha said, enraptured. “I’m sure of it. They’re the bruises you get when you touch your soulmate for the first time.” Soohee looked down at her hands in surprise. Soulmate? No way. Eunha rolled her eyes a nearly dismissive fashion. “But you should know this better than anyone. I mean, your parents...”
Soohee nodded slowly. Her parents were, in fact, soulmates. It was not something easily forgotten. Everyone always told her how beautiful and special it was to be the child of soulmates. The whole proposition was so romantic and amazing and even a little bit rare.
What no one saw was the fact that she had been preparing her own meals since she was five, because her parents frequently forgot that eighty percent of the population didn’t survive by skinship alone. No one knew that they so preferred the life-giving touch of one another that they had stopped touching her, had stopped hugging and kissing and snuggling her, long before she’d stopped needing it. No one knew how vehemently she’d hoped she would never meet her own soulmate.
In her estimation, it turned two normal people into bond-absorbed, obnoxious parasites.
One time in high school, she had tried to explain this to Eunha, but her best friend had been too caught up in the destiny of it all to hear her out. She might have just finished one of the million dramas centered around the concept. Now, though, Soohee was sure her distaste was written on her face. She was uncomfortable with the idea of fate matching her up with a stranger for the rest of her life, of using another person’s body to survive every single day. Of becoming like her parents.
“Oh, stop,” Eunha said lightly. “I can see where your brain is taking you. It’s going to be fine. Plus, it’s not like you can exactly turn back now. It’s done.” Soohee nodded glumly. The next second, Eunha tackled her with a scream. “Oh my GOD!”
“What?” Soohee asked, looking around the room for some kind of threat.
“Do you know who your soulmate is ?” Eunha’s eyes were wider than ever. It only took Soohee the space of a heartbeat to understand her friend’s meaning.
“Bangtan…” Soohee whispered. It was all she could get her lips to say. Eunha stared at her agape, obviously trying to from words that wouldn’t come. Soohee shook her head in disbelief, even as she mentally walked through the evening. Other than Eunha, she had only touched the members of Bangtan. She was sure of it. She didn’t usually touch people at all, Eunha being one of the few exceptions and almost always at the other girl’s initiation.
Her soulmate was a member of Bangtan Sonyeondan? Oh my God… she thought desperately. Maybe soulmates aren’t such a bad thing after all. Holy shit, what if it’s Tae? She froze. Looking down at her hands, she really examined the marks for the first time. Her entire palms and the pads of her fingers were bruised, but so were the spaces between her fingers and portions of the backs of hands. Who did I hold hands with? She ran through her memories like a flip book, starting with Seokjin and rolling down the table. A gentle and flat palm-press, a handshake, a fist bump, an E.T. finger poke, Hoseok’s adorably enthusiastic and repetitive hand slapping, a double high five… Jimin .
“Jimin?” Eunha squealed, and Soohee realized she must have said that last thought out loud. She remembered the way he had turned their double high five into a grip and then into a dance. She looked her best friend in the eye and blinked rapidly, stunned.
“Park motherfucking JIMIN is your soulmate ?” Eunha exclaimed. Soohee nodded in mute terror. “Happy birthday to you , Lee Soohee.”