Grace

It was raining. Actually, it was more of a torrential downpour that immediately made me homesick. I could almost smell the Seattle air.

It had to be a good omen, right? I had left rain only to land in rain; everything was going to be one hundred percent fine!

I waited impatiently for my turn and breathed a sigh of relief when I was able to step out into the aisle.

Nerves crashed over me as I grabbed my black Nike backpack and threw it on over my white hoody, thankful Id packed something warm in my carry-on so that I didn freeze in the rain. The last thing I needed was to get sick before I even started the internship.

My leggings were sticking to my legs, and it didn help that my feet felt swollen in my gray Allbirds shoes. But none of that could be helped.

Did anyone actually look good after eleven hours on a plane?

Plane sweat was a real thing, and I had a thin layer of it all over my body.

I made a face and quickly adjusted my clearly dyed light blond hair in the messy bun, then stepped into the aisle and walked toward the door.

This was it.

My adventure was officially starting.

I ignored the way my heart pounded as I trekked from the plane to the gate. I don know what I was expecting—maybe for culture shock so strong that Id freeze up—but it didn come, the paralyzing fear.

In fact, everything just looked…

Normal.

Like an airport would.

Lots of people, lots of cell phones out, and announcements over the PA that had me feeling oddly like I hadn landed in a different country but in a place just like home.

That feeling lasted for a total of five seconds.

Until I made my way toward baggage claim.

This wasn a normal airport.

Not at all.

It was insane.

Breathtaking.

High tech, forward-moving, busy.

Clean with a stark white design that screamed expensive and modern.

I gaped as I walked, looking every inch the tourist; all I needed was to pull out my phone and start snapping pictures. I held in a snort as I thought of Moms fanny pack—yeah, that would be a dead giveaway, wouldn it?

I turned in a slow, tight circle as I finally made it to baggage claim. Everything was so bright and big like the actual airport was a sculpture of pure genius architecture.

With a giant grin on my face, I found myself at baggage claim studying the various sign bearers for Siu. Dad said he would be at the airport waiting for me in baggage claim—he followed that with a ridiculously long speech about prostitution rings in foreign countries and a reminder that Ted Bundy was good-looking too. I patted him on the head and yet again reminded him that I had survived at University of Washington and knew not to take drinks from strangers, always have a buddy at every party, and make sure the Uber driver isn a serial killer.

I kept looking at the signs; they were all in both Korean and English, which was a small blessing, so at least I knew I was in the right place.

My mental process felt extremely slow as I searched for my name on the signs some of the drivers were holding. Would it be spelled in English? Korean? And at what point did I need to just text him and ask where he was? I had his cell number for emergencies. I chewed my lower lip and pulled out my cell just as the sound of my name rang out.

”Grace! ” It was loud, feminine, definitely not Siu.

I whirled around and nearly collided with a large iPad with my name scribbled on it.

Digital.

Cool trick.

”Hi. ” I offered a mini wave.

She blinked at me.

Slowly.

Like she was either having a stroke or was confused why I answered to my own name.

And then I stupidly did a little bow. ”Annyeong. ”

It was literally the only word I knew.

Hello.

But at least I pronounced it correctly, right? Wrong? Her eyes narrowed as she blinked even slower. Was there another Grace? Was I wrong?

I cleared my throat.

”You. ” She drew out the word in English like I would struggle with my own language and needed extra time to process the meaning. ”You
e Grace. ”

”English, oh thank God. ” I exhaled and then winced. ”Sorry, my Korean is a bit sub-par. ”

Understatement of the century.

”Define. ” She looked irritated and panicked all in one. ”A bit? ”

I gulped. ”I should get my suitcase. ”

”Owner Siu, he said you would work out just fine, that you majored in production. I was under the assumption… ” She reached for me, gripped my arm, and then released it with a blush hitting her cheeks. ”We all were under the assumption that you were Korean-American. ” She paused and then added. ”Native. ”

I frowned and almost touched my hair, suddenly feeling self-conscious about how bright and messy it was. ”Um, I was born in Seattle, lived there my entire life. My dad and Uncle Siu are brothers, both of them were enlisted at the same time in Korea. Dad saved his life, and while we don really have a super close family, theyve stayed in touch over the years. So my dads Korean but my mom… ” I trailed off. What did a person actually say in this situation? My Korean dad fell in love with my American mom, and the rest was history? One of the greatest love stories of all time that transcended any sort of language or cultural barrier, because wasn that what love did? It was the first time Id been uncomfortable in my own skin since middle school when I had girls mock my eyes or call me names behind my back like I wasn good enough to sit at their table. My confidence came from my parents, and then slowly, I realized I could choose to let people hurt me, choose to let the arrows dig into my skin, or I could stand taller and be better than the ones shooting them.

I chose the latter.

Not that it meant I had zero insecurities, but at least in college, I found people of every race, sexual orientation, background—and I accepted them just like they accepted me. While there was the occasional asshat, at least I was able to find friends and not panic every time I walked into the lunchroom. I shuddered. Not fitting in, no matter how great your upbringing is, always reared its ugly head whenever I was feeling out of place… Like now.

”Oh… ” She looked worried. I think she was close to my age. Then again, I couldn tell; I immediately felt like a decade older than her. My skin would never look that perfect, and I suddenly realized I needed to get my brows waxed. My hair looked like a bird had made a nest in it then suffocated on the ratty strands. And again, plane sweat.

This girl? Her hair was pulled into a low bun with pieces falling out front; it was so shiny I would need sunglasses if I stared any longer, and I couldn find a flaw on any part of her perfect skin.

Not that I was looking for something to be wrong with her, but it would be nice if she had something out of place, a strand of hair stuck to her cheek or smudged makeup, so I didn feel so grungy like I needed to suddenly go on a diet and buy face wash that I would actually use rather than just stockpile in my bathroom.

”Um… ” I started chewing on my thumbnail.

Her eyes widened in horror.

No nail chewing. Got it.

I dropped my hand and gulped. ”Is everything okay? ”

”No, ” She said it quickly, almost violently. ”Its not okay. ”

The loud thud of bags getting thrown onto the belt interrupted our awkward stare-down. I held up my finger, motioning for her to give me one minute, and went to retrieve my bag.

I was gone maybe three minutes.

She was nowhere to be found.

I looked left, right, center.

I started shaking.

And then I saw her appear from behind a column on her cell phone, her hand waving in the air like she was irritated.

And then she locked eyes with me again. How could someone be so pretty up close? It didn even look like she was wearing makeup!

Her black leather dress was super chic; her red knee-high boots looked like shed plucked them right off a magazine cover.

She shoved her phone back in her light blue purse. I frowned at the design; a Barbie-typeface was pressed on the front. It looked more expensive than everything in the banged-up black suitcase I was currently rolling in her direction.

To what appeared like her absolute horror.

Great first impression, Grace!

”Is my Uncle Siu coming? ” I tilted my head, waiting for her answer.

She bit down on her glossy lower lip. ”No. ”

Don panic, obviously she worked for him or with him. ”Are you taking me to see him? ”

She said something in Korean, followed by ”fired ” in English. She pressed her perfectly manicured fingertips to her forehead and whimpered.

”Are you okay? ”

”You ask a lot of questions. ” She nodded her head in finality and turned on her heel like she was mentally making decisions for both of us. ”This way. ”

She was a fast walker.

I struggled to keep up with her as I balanced my luggage in an effort to exit the airport without falling off the curb and into oncoming traffic.

A black Honda Sedan had its trunk already open. The driver didn ask for my luggage. He just approached and took it from me.

The door was already open in the back, so I got in while my new bestie got in the front seat and started texting like the world would end if she didn go fast enough.

I buckled up and leaned forward. ”Hey, whats your name? ”

She squeezed her eyes shut and then stared straight ahead; either she couldn remember what it was, or she didn want to tell me.

I was betting on the latter.

”Solia. ” She stiffened in her seat as the driver took off at an alarming speed amidst honking from other cars.

I gripped the door handle. ”Thats pretty. ”

”Thank you. ”

More silence.

”Is there a problem? ”

She shifted in her seat; her posture was perfect. Was I hunching? I moved against the leather seat and tried to sit up further as we passed more cars and accelerated forward.

”I was told you were perfect for the internship—I assumed you were fluent in the language. The position youll be working in is… ” She sighed. ”Tedious. ”

”Tedious how? ”

”Do you have any nicer clothes in your bag? ” She asked it so courteously that I wasn even insulted that shed changed the subject.

This was not going to go over well. ”I like to be comfortable. I brought one dress and— ”

She started choking and then started fanning herself like she was going to pass out. ”Ill make notes. ”

”Notes? ”

”Of what well need. ”

”Need? ”

”Do you often repeat everything you hear? Is this why he sent me? Is this some sort of test for my promotion? ”

”Oh, you
e getting promoted? ” I smiled wide. ”Good for you! ”

She turned in her seat and leveled me with a curious stare. ”I guess that depends on how easily you can manage. ”

”Manage what? ”

”Them, ” was all she said.

Id never been so terrified of a word in my entire life.

It wasn just the way she said it.

It was the look she gave me.

Completely hopeless and empty.

I gulped and looked out the window, surprised that it didn feel as foreign as I thought it would. It reminded me of LA, only a lot cleaner. We still weren into the main part of the city, but the closer we got, the worse traffic became. Add that in with all of the skyscrapers I could see up ahead and flashing signs, and I was in heaven.

It was loud and exciting, so bright and different from Seattle that I couldn wipe the grin from my face.

The signs were in English and Korean, and I breathed a sigh of relief that I wasn going to walk into a coffee shop only to realize it was for ramen.

See? I was going to be fine.

And despite the fact that I was causing the girl in the front seat to have a nervous breakdown, it was great. It would totally work out. She was probably just high-strung. In the research I had conducted, Id discovered that Koreans were expected to include a freaking headshot with their resumes, often worked sixteen-hour days, and sacrificed everything to move up in their jobs. I imagined she wasn just exhausted but extremely stressed out. I only hoped that I could help her in some way during my internship. God knew the woman could use a coffee and a sedative.

I was still admittedly nervous about seeing Uncle Siu again, but my dad was an incredible judge of character, and since they were close, I knew I probably didn have anything to be worried about. Besides, hed called us, right? That had to count for something, plus duh, he was family.

I yawned behind my hand as my eyes got heavy. I had no idea what time it was back home and suddenly didn care. I just wanted to close my eyes for a little bit, but the minute I finally succumbed to exhaustion and started to dream about street tacos with extra cheese, the car jerked to a stop.

I jolted awake and bumped the window with my fist, nearly taking it out.

Solia turned around and stared me down. ”You have drool. ”

I swiped my fingers across my mouth. Good, now I looked sloppy on top of all the sweat. Oh, dear God, I didn even want to look at a mirror; it would probably traumatize me for life. ”Sorry, I fell asleep. ”

”We
e here. ” Ignoring my apology, she got out of the car and opened my door. I gaped up at a huge building that didn look like a hotel or a house.

It looked more like an apartment building, a really fancy one with a waterfall in front and so many trees placed around it that I felt like theyd set the building in the middle of a park.

”Its beautiful, ” I whispered. ”Is it like a AIRBNB? ”

She didn answer.

I was suddenly getting used to her lack of communication, like wasting words on me was beneath her or just took too much energy, but who wouldn have questions? I knew next to nothing!

She grabbed my suitcase from the driver and inclined her head toward the metal doors. ”This way. ”

Did we not tip here?

Was I expected to?

Panicked, I had a moment of being paralyzed before I cleared my throat, put on my backpack, hooked my fingers in the straps, and followed dutifully—question-free.

A tall security guard with dark hair and an easy smile waved at Solia, then slowly eyed me up and down, his eyes widening with each second.

Did I still have drool?

I quickly wiped my face, forced a smile, and waited.

Was everyone going to give me that exact same look of disbelief?

I did just get off a long flight, and it wasn like I had a T-shirt on that read: ”Im not from here! ”

I frowned and followed her into a waiting elevator. It was half glass and gave you an amazing view of the city and the trees as it carried us upward. I hoped I would have some free time to explore.

The elevator kept going up, up, up, and finally stopped; had it gone any further, we would have Willy Wonkad ourselves completely out of the building on a direct route toward the moon.

We were obviously at the penthouse.

I assumed she was taking me to see Siu. Where else would we go right after getting off the plane? Honestly, it was probably best to meet him now before I went back to wherever I was staying and crashed. Hed told my dad that I was staying in the VIXX dorms, whatever that meant. I hadn seen a sign on the building, but I assumed I was going to be in one of the many rooms in the building I was currently standing in.

Jet lag was hitting hard and fast as my heavy feet followed Solia. We reached a black door with a silver handle. Next to the door was a white marble table with a phone, a green plant, and mints.

Huh.

She typed in a number on the small keypad and turned the flat handle. And then she just held it, like she was afraid to push it open. She literally had the same look on her face Id had when I stumbled inside my house after my twenty-first birthday, completely wasted off margaritas and too much tequila.

Interesting.

She pressed her forehead to the door for a few seconds then shoved it open.

I followed her in, immediately stunned at the modern entryway with its dark hardwood floors and white walls. The right wall was massive with no artwork, not even a picture to interrupt its massiveness. To the left was an open stairway with metal steps leading up to a second level. The entire place was stark, extremely modern, and somehow a bit cold. It screamed expensive with its white walls and architecture.

Raised voices were coming from deeper inside the apartment.

She looked heavenward and then slowly zipped out of her boots and stared me down. I got it—I needed to pop off my Allbirds.

”Oh, oh, okay. ” I quickly took off my shoes and grabbed the white slippers in front of me, mimicking her actions and hoping I didn just steal some poor grandpas house shoes in an effort to fit in.

Solia stiffened as she rolled my suitcase forward, suddenly moving so fast that I had to jog to keep up with her as she rounded a corner. The voices continued to rise. One of my slippers nearly came off as I tried to keep up.

I almost ran into her when she stopped and gave a small bow to a man with shots of silver in his dark hair. He had intense brown eyes that, even through the lenses of his black-rimmed glasses, showed flashes of anger.

Solia sounded like she was apologizing, and even if she had talked slower, I would have had no idea what she was saying. I couldn remember if I was supposed to bow too, and I suddenly hated the fact that it was such a rushed commitment that I hadn had time to research more.

After a long sigh, she said my name.

And again, I was reminded of what it sounded like when you name-dropped someone you wanted to also run over with your car.

I frowned. Was she apologizing because she picked me up and we were late, or was she apologizing on my behalf?

Because of me?

Slowly the man lifted his gaze to me and visibly flinched.

Awesome.

”Grace? ” His voice was warm at least, his smile tentative but at least present as he eyed me from head to toe then gave me a slight bow.

It felt like they were both waiting for me to do something—anything, so I jutted out my hand like a lunatic and blurted, ”Uncle Siu, its so good to see you again! ”

Solia squeezed her eyes shut while Siu smiled at me and reached across the space between us, squeezed my hand, and said, ”Hows your father? ”

”Hes well, thank you for asking, and thank you for this opportunity. I promise I won let you down. ”

His smile turned into a full-on beam. ”I trust your father with my life, and now Im trusting you with this internship. I know youll make us both very proud, Grace. ”

I had the need to turn to Solia and say something like, ”See, told you so! Stop freaking out! My dad saved his life. Hes my uncle. Ive got this! ” Before I said anything, though, more footsteps sounded, followed by what might have been arguing.

Siu seemed to stiffen a bit as rapid Korean filled the air, and five guys made their way into the living room, looking ready to murder each other if the pitch of their voices was anything to go on.

More interns?

Maybe this was a meeting?

I had no idea what my job was, but it would make sense that he would pull all of us together and give us a quick—please, God, let it be quick—debriefing.

I bit down on my lower lip as the newcomer in the center lifted his head. He had gorgeous red hair and the clearest blue eyes Id ever seen in my entire life. No way were they natural. I almost complimented him when he looked to Siu and then to Solia and fired something off in Korean.

Solia smirked next to me and whispered, ”He asked if you were homeless. ”

Oh lovely, she was going to translate insults.

Perfect.

What a day!

I semi-glared back at him only to earn an equally taunting glare in return. Seriously? If we were going to be working together, he needed to back off.

I switched my glare to a smile and said one word I knew was universal. ”No. ”

The guys all snickered right along with him, and one of the others whispered something under his breath. I knew it wasn good when more looks were shot in my direction.

”Ugly, ” Solia offered, louder than I would have liked.

Was the middle finger universal too?

If Uncle Siu wasn there, I would have been tempted, but this was more than an internship, It was about my dad, and their relationship too. I held my head high and ignored them.

Uncle Siu turned toward the guys and spread his arms wide, then seemed to scold them in Korean before turning to me and saying, ”They apologize. ”

He was watching me so he couldn see them

Every single one of them looked anything but apologetic.

In fact, they looked every inch the bullies that parents warned their kids about: too good-looking, too rich, too everything to care about anything but themselves.

I could play that game.

I wasn a child.

And I wasn going to let them taunt me just because I looked different than they did. They wanted ugly? Id give them ugly.

When my uncle turned back around, I quickly took off my sweatshirt, wrapped it around my waist, and tied it, may as well embrace the homelessness and all that, besides why did it matter? They were in the same boat I was! Just because they were dressed better and didn look like they were begging for cash on the streets didn mean that they were any different than me. I almost stuck out my tongue when the one with red hair choked on another laugh and said something to the guy next to him.

Whatever. He could ignore me the entire three months for all I cared.

I shrugged and crossed my arms as if to say, what? Is that all you got? I mean, I had to deal with Aisha Taylor for four years of high school—I could handle anything at this point in my life, and even our school counselor had been scared of her.

I lifted my chin in defiance and waited for them to say more. Its not like I could understand them anyway… I mean, it sucked the same, but whatever, I was here to learn, I was here so that I could do what I loved, cultural barriers be damned.

One elbowed the other.

My eyebrows arched as if to say, you really wanna go down this road?

And weirdly enough, they all looked away.

All but one.

The one who called me ugly.

Well, if he wanted war.

Hed get it.

Because I wasn quitting.

I wasn leaving.

And I would stay even if it killed me.

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