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Second City Bombshell

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Chapter 1

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.”

- Carl Jung, 1933

 

Seunghyun was a diligent student and an ardent chemist. He loved the logic and method of science, and he loved its surprises even more – even when bits of him got scorched in the process. He went through life for the most part according to the rules, and liked it. But sometimes, just sometimes, it wasn’t enough; and then he would become explosive as a volatile cocktail of chemicals. It was at times like these that Seunghyun was certain there was more – that the world was both darker and more brilliant than his current field of vision. And at twenty-two years old, on a rainy night in Chicago, he was finally proved right.

 


 

 

“Well, how’s school?” inquired Seunghyun’s father over the broad leaves of yesterday’s Chicago Tribune, only his glasses and the top of his graying blonde head visible.

“I’m a grad student, Dad,” Seunghyun told him for the hundredth time. It was hard enough convincing strangers he was a proper researcher without his own family getting in on the act. But Seunghyun knew that his father, as Geography teacher at the local middle school, could never quite abandon the idea that all young people were fundamentally children.

“How’s Professor Wyeman?”

“Great,” said Seunghyun with more satisfaction. “He just got a big grant to carry on the ethylene glycol study, that’s what I’m gonna be doing for my postgrad. And supervising the freshman Chemistry kids at the lab.”

“Don’t let ‘em give you any trouble,” said his father. One green eye appeared again as he flipped down a corner of the paper. “At that age they can be a real handful.” It was his usual mild tone, but Seunghyun could read concern in that eye and he knew what it meant: many U of Chicago students, especially the ones from wealthy families, found it hard to get alongside the idea of an Asian in the Department, still less one who got better grades than them. Even some professors were iffy with him, and legally speaking there wasn’t much he could do about it. It might prove even harder now he’d been put in a position of authority over the freshmen.

“I’m used to it, Dad,” he said breezily. It was true, too: from kindergarten upwards Seunghyun had felt the sting of having a Korean mother in a Scandinavian neighborhood – even if every ignorant kid throughout his school life had assumed he was Chinese. Seunghyun loved his mother, but sometimes he’d used to wonder what it would be like to look like everyone else. He figured he had heard every slur for an Asian person under the sun, and while it was less blatant now he was in college it was perhaps more insidious.

“Hmm,” said his father.

“Anyway, I have to, it’s the only reason they’re giving me the scholarship. But the Prof won’t stand for it if they do try and back-talk me.” Wyeman was legendarily single-minded: he didn’t even notice what color your skin was as long as you were a passionate chemist. That was half the reason Seunghyun had aimed to be his assistant.

“Good, good.” His father disappeared behind the paper again. Seunghyun absently read the front page while his mother dusted the piano and waited for lunch to finish cooking: Lawyer Remus Arrested over Multi-Million Liquor Empire, ran the headline. It was always something like that, or a gangland turf war, or some corrupt official building himself another mansion. The news had lost some of its novelty since the early days of Prohibition, and now Seunghyun was at the lab full-time he’d almost stopped reading it. Still, it was nice to know his town was the same old mess as ever.

“Lunch!” ordered Seunghyun’s mother as the kitchen clock began chiming. Seunghyun and his father rushed for the table. They were both tall men and needed a lot of feeding, and since Seunghyun had moved out to a room nearer campus he was missing home cooking something fierce: it didn’t smell the same, taste the same, it didn’t even look the same without his mother’s blue-and-white ombre tablecloth. He sat down and salivated.

When it came it was the usual inimitable mix of Korean and Swedish dishes: jjigae with homemade kimchi and fishballs, rice, potato casserole, and cabbage rolls. Seunghyun was sure you couldn’t get another meal like it anywhere in the world. He restrained himself until his father was done saying grace, then dove in.

“Are you living on air at that place?” asked his mother with raised eyebrows. Seunghyun’s mouth was too full to answer, so he made a theatrical gesture to the effect that his landlady’s cooking was nowhere near as good as hers. She tutted at him. “How’s a boy like you meant to do…whatever it is you do down there…on an empty stomach?”

“Explosions,” his father said sedately. “That’s his specialist area: explosions. That’s what ethylene glycol’s for, they used it in the War.”

What? You told me you were researching car engine coolant!” Seunghyun’s mother switched abruptly to Korean, which happened whenever she was angry. “I’d never have agreed to your doing a Master’s if I’d known you’d be blowing yourself up!”

“That’s what Professor Wyeman’s new grant is for,” Seunghyun explained in English – it was easier to avoid a fight that way. “To refine some of these undeveloped chemicals and find different uses. It’s not all about dynamite.” That wasn’t a lie. But Seunghyun had his own interests too; and he dearly loved to make things go bang.

“If you say so, darling.” His mother waved the soup ladle at him. “But if something happens to that handsome face I’ll be down to the laboratory so fast! And then your teacher will see an explosion!”

Seunghyun nodded obediently and got on with his lunch. He didn’t mention that his fellow researchers had dealt with quite a few of his explosions already – and not of the chemical kind.

 


 

 

It happened again the very next week: sometimes Seunghyun simply could not control his temper. It wasn’t exactly a frequent occurrence, and usually he could hold himself back. But when he failed it was apparently quite something.

“What was it this time?” asked Daesung after classes were over. He and Youngbae had come to fetch Seunghyun from the lab and were now at their usual isolated table in the refectory. They were almost the only other Asians on campus – the only Koreans of his own age Seunghyun even knew – and they had gravitated naturally to each other despite their glaring differences. Somehow, when they were all three together, other students didn’t seem to want to sit near them.

“Doesn’t matter.” Seunghyun glowered at his cup of coffee. It was annoyingly weak. They were speaking Korean; Daesung had only been in America a few years and his English accent was bizarre. Despite this he was more popular than Seunghyun could ever hope to be. Daesung grinned at him, perennially good-natured – perhaps that was why. Youngbae gave him a consoling pat on the shoulder. The younger boy was still wearing his apron; he’d be at work chopping and cleaning until the refectory closed. “Sorry,” said Seunghyun, subsiding a bit as he reminded himself that he was privileged compared to Youngbae. At least he was a student, with a scholarship and prospects; and at least he had one white parent. That helped.

“Don’t worry about it,” Youngbae told him. “Just…count to ten next time, see what happens. That’s what I always do.” Daesung nodded sagely.

“Know what’d make you feel better? Some music. And a wee drink or five.” Seunghyun laughed shortly. He knew where this was going: it was Daesung’s inevitable medicine for anything from a cold to a bad grade to a broken heart.

“It’s illegal, you know,” Youngbae told them, as he did every time. And, as ever, Daesung beamed at him.

“Come with us,” he urged. “We’ll wait ‘til your shift’s finished.”

“Can’t,” said Youngbae. “I hafta go work in the grocery store for a bit; my brother needs new shoes.”

“Hell, I’ll get him shoes!” Daesung offered. “Come out and have fun.”

“No thanks.” Seunghyun knew he’d say that. The kid would never go near alcohol, and he’d never take money from them, even though Daesung was probably as rich as any student in college. At least, his family back in Seoul was rich, and they sent him wads of spending money if his clothes and apartment and sweet sports car were any indication.

“Suit yourself.” Daesung ruffled Youngbae’s short hair, then grabbed Seunghyun – who wasn’t done being antsy – and pulled him out of his chair. “Let’s go!”

 

On the walk from the train Daesung finally got it out of him. Seunghyun had thrown a fit that afternoon at the recurring incompetence of one of his undergraduates – and with good cause, the kid would burn the whole Chemistry building down if he didn’t learn to put dangerous substances back in their proper places! Seunghyun didn’t care to mention that the freshman in question was an infuriating little smartass who had been overheard calling him a very insulting name when Seunghyun had told him to clear away the equipment. But word had got around about his latest shouting spell, apparently even as far as the Politics department, which was how Daesung had known he would need consoling.

“You don’t belong in a lab,” Daesung told him, not for the first time, as they wandered down South Wabash under cover of darkness. “You’ve not got the temperament. You oughta be a starving artist in a garret somewhere: bohemian tantrums and no money. And after you die you’ll get famous.”

“No, thank you,” replied Seunghyun primly, as he always did. He used to think he might have been an amusing person like Daesung if his circumstances had been different; he figured life in the Second City had knocked a lot of the natural humor out of him. “I can create more beauty in a compound than any man could on canvas. And if I didn’t have to deal with people I wouldn’t have tantrums at all!”

“Tell me why we’re friends again,” said Daesung in his usual amicable tone. “You’re such a wet carpet.”

“It’s ‘wet blanket’,” Seunghyun corrected him in English, and scowled. But it was hard to be mad at Daesung. “And because you, me and Youngbae are the only people in a ten-mile radius who know what kimchi is.”

“That’s true.” Daesung linked an arm through his. “Well, what d’you say we hit the Friar’s Inn? It’s a bit of a mobster hotspot but the guys on the door know me – at least, they know my wallet. And the Rhythm Kings are playing tonight! You could do with losing the rest of that tension.”

“Do I have to dance?” asked Seunghyun suspiciously. ‘Foreign’-looking or not, his handsome face tended to draw a certain type of adventurous modern girl, and he wasn’t sure he was in the right frame of mind to handle them with good grace tonight.

“Just pass ‘em along to me,” said Daesung, who was used to this. And so off Seunghyun went to enjoy an evening of his wealthy friend’s favorite pastimes: cool cocktails and hot jazz.

 

Seunghyun was walking back from the Inn to Madison-Wabash so he could catch the L train. He’d declined a ride from Daesung, who never took public transport at night if he could help it, because he’d thought the walk might help him sober up. Now it was raining and Seunghyun was starting to regret it.

He crossed over to cut through one of the alleys off East Van Buren; the cramped proximity of one building to another blocked off some of the rain. There were dingy shopfronts here, but they were all shut. The only noise and light came when somebody opened a door below street level to let out the familiar ragtime rhythm Seunghyun had been hearing all evening: another speakeasy. Someone was shouting in Italian. Seunghyun got his ass in gear.

He had just turned into the next road when a figure dropped down from nowhere off a wall up ahead of him and bounced lithely to its feet, close enough that by the time Seunghyun stopped dead they were almost nose to nose. Seunghyun’s heart contracted in apprehension for a moment; it wasn’t as if this place was the safest at night, even if you were flat broke. But his assailant was so slight that even he ought to have no problem defending himself.

“Hey! How about taking a look before you just drop in on a guy?!” he said, cross but not seriously angry – he had vented all that earlier, at the infuriating undergrad. The figure laughed, a flighty sound. Without a word it stepped even closer, took his face abruptly in both hands, and kissed him hard on the mouth. The hands were soft, and the lips; up close Seunghyun could smell rain and something else beneath it, something elusive and sweet. He made a noise he had certainly never made before, but could do nothing; he was too shocked.

At last his attacker let him go, rocking down on its heels and laughing again. Seunghyun took a convulsive step back, and stared. All he could see were workman’s overalls, a mess of pale hair under a flat cap, and a face that glowed even in the dark of the alley. It was sporting a black eye, but that didn’t stop it being the most intriguing face Seunghyun had ever seen. He couldn’t tell from looking if it was a girl or a boy, just that the features were Asian and far more delicate than his own.

“Ahh!” came a giddy, satisfied voice. “Always wanted to do that.” The boy – Seunghyun was now sure it was a boy – was speaking Korean! Seunghyun gawked: he didn’t think he had ever heard that from a stranger on the street. He opened his mouth to reply, to protest, to do anything other than stand like a mute in the middle of the road. But before he could the kid had turned on his heel and darted off down the alley, faster than Seunghyun could manage in his current state; he cleared a stack of delivery crates with an effortless vault and disappeared round the corner.

“…The hell?” said Seunghyun lamely, too late. He stood staring after the boy for several minutes, forgetting the rain. Then he gave up and went home.

 


 

 

Seunghyun didn’t tell anyone about it. He wasn’t sure why, but he couldn’t. After a while he got over the shock and affront of being kissed by a complete stranger; the kid had obviously been drunk. He even dismissed the fact that it had been a man. But no matter what he did, he couldn’t forget that face. It popped up at odd moments, distracting him in the middle of experiments and during conversations with his mother. Seunghyun wasn’t exactly sure what he thought about it: the figure had been so skinny and the complexion pale enough to look consumptive, yet the boy had exuded energy and physical fitness. The clothes had been a laborer’s, but the face: round and sharp at the same time, with those almond eyes and lush, clear-cut lips. It was a jewel of a face. Seunghyun was almost sorry he had got such a good look at it, because he had no idea if he would ever see it again.

Daesung had told him there were fewer than fifty ethnic Koreans in Chicago during the last Census year. He always knew that stuff. Which made the encounter with the mystery boy even more astonishing and the likelihood of a repeat remoter still. Seunghyun personally knew only three other Koreans aside from his mother, and he was having lunch with two of them right now.

“What is it?” inquired Youngbae, shoveling his sloppy joe and greens down his face with his arm curled protectively round his plate, the way only kids who had grown up poor did. “Those boys in your lab giving you the hump again?”

“What?” Seunghyun realized he was frowning – it didn’t feel angry, more pensive, but when he touched his fingers to his brow he found a marked groove that was becoming habitual. He made a deliberate effort to smooth his forehead out.

“Yeah,” added Daesung, who was eating his own fancy department store lunchbox at a more civilized pace in between reading them lurid stories about the North Side Gang from the paper. “We weren’t gonna say anything, but you’ve been in a mood for weeks now. Months, even! Is it the freshman brats? Or are you not getting to blow up as much stuff as you’d like?”

“It’s not that.” The older man twiddled his fork between his fingers. “I handle all the explosive experiments, the Prof lets me. It’s just…” He pondered the best way of voicing it. “I want to meet more people.”

“You?!” his friends said in unison.

“You’re hardly a social caterpillar,” Daesung pointed out.

“Butterfly.”

“I mean, don’t you think you’re about at your limit already?”

“I mean people like us,” said Seunghyun. He pushed his plate away absently. “It’s different for you, Dae, you grew up with kids who look like you all around.”

“I do like to consider myself unique!” Daesung scolded him, smiling all the while. “But you make a fair point. Even more than Youngbae you’ve been cut off from your diaspora.” Youngbae shrugged and waited until the budding sociologist explained the word.

“Oh,” said Youngbae. “Well, yeah, I guess. There were East Asians everywhere where I was raised; still are, with the leftovers from old Chinatown so close. And a few Korean families nearby, parents came over via Hawaii like mine did. So I didn’t have it too bad.”

“Do you still see each other?” asked Daesung.

“At church and stuff.” Youngbae took another bite. “Since we all started working, though, most of us have drifted apart. Probably for the best.”

“Too bad. I thought maybe you could introduce Seunghyun to some, if he must try the luxury of having more than two friends.”

“It’s not that you guys aren’t enough,” Seunghyun assured them, because he needed to hang on to the friends he did have. But in a way they weren’t; not since he had seen that boy.

 


 

 

Seunghyun gazed down at his mystery assailant: at the fair skin, the expressive mouth, the incongruous bruised eye. This time the boy didn’t move, and he was free to look his fill. Seunghyun paused for a minute to figure out the smaller man’s clothing: no cap this time, so that peculiar blonde hair would lie tousled around his face in a soft mop; a simple shirt and slim tweed pants instead of the overalls. Yes, that was pretty. Time started again and the boy took Seunghyun’s face in both hands; the fingers were slender, their touch cool. He leaned up on the balls of his feet, and here it was, the kiss, those pretty lips eager but yielding in their pliancy. Seunghyun drew it out, allowed himself the leisure to indulge in the feeling. Perhaps the boy would make a little sound in that sweet voice – a laugh, or a soft moan.

Seunghyun spun out the moment as long as he possibly could. In this span of time he didn’t care that it was a man he was kissing, a man whose face he could not look away from or forget. He had not spent a great deal of his life considering his sexuality; he knew he ought to be appalled at the idea, and that his previous flings with college girls should preclude the possibility that he could find a boy so utterly fascinating – shouldn’t they?

Any idea of self-loathing over the problem soon dissolved, as it always did, in the sheer pleasure of the smaller man’s presence. When his attacker at last broke the kiss Seunghyun didn’t let him back away, but caught his hand and bent to renew the caress. He was filled with an excitement and anticipation he had only ever felt when his thumb was on a detonator. The boy looked up at him and smiled. Then –

Mr. Nevander!” came a distant voice. Seunghyun thought about glancing around for it, but that face was too captivating.

A moment later Seunghyun felt a sharp dig in the ribs. He jerked in shock. The boy disappeared, the scene sputtered out, and there he was in the teaching lab surrounded by undergraduates and with someone’s elbow in his side.

“Prof’s calling you!” whispered the owner of said appendage. Seunghyun looked to his left and saw Jennings, a skinny redheaded boy who was rather more tolerable than the rest of his cohort. The kid nodded urgently to the front of the room.

“Thank you, Jennings,” said Professor Wyeman crossly, giving his graduate assistant a somewhat puzzled glare. “Mr. Nevander, if you’ve rejoined the land of the living kindly come and run the experiment for us.”

Seunghyun’s ears went red with embarrassment, as if his professor could see what had been going on in his head. With the rest of his face rapidly turning crimson he pushed his way through the boys – and the one female student, who always got overlooked – to the workbench, enduring their titters as he went. While he supposed it was sort of funny if you weren’t the one being glared at, he thought the tone of some of those sniggers was nasty; he was going to have his hands full when he had them for lab practice.

He performed the experiment with his usual precision, and was rewarded by some grudging noises of enjoyment as the sample at last exploded after enough heat was applied. Professor Wyeman gave him a terse pat on the shoulder, then resumed his lecture. Seunghyun slunk off to the side of the room to pull himself together. This was getting ridiculous; Daesung and Youngbae were right, he was letting the memory affect him too much. The daydreams were encroaching on his work hours, and he was definitely feeling shaken. But he had no idea what he could do about it.

 

“…And as the Professor discussed,” said Seunghyun, holding forth to his dozen students, “we’ve found that the addition of ethylene glycol dinitrate to nitroglycerine produces dynamite with a lower freezing point. Now, what’s that good for?”

“We could explode some snowmen?”

“Or some Eskimos,” added another wiseass, with a snicker.

“Shut up, Watkins.” Seunghyun fixed the tall boy with a disapproving stare through his goggles, though they might as well be opaque for all the good it ever did. He waited until someone finally gave the correct answer, then continued. “All right, who can tell me why EGDN is more stable than the trinitrate?”

He ploughed through Professor Wyeman’s review questions, and a wide variety of stupid answers, until he was as fed up of the topic as they seemed to be. It was quite a relief to show them how to actually set up the experiment, though he had to keep snapping at them to make them listen. There were only around four students, including Jennings and the girl, who seemed to have a real brain between them, so he divided them up among the rest of the idiots when it came time to make groups.

“Okay, you’ve got the equipment, you’ve put it together and checked it. Now one person from each group come and get the sample.” Four students came forward, and Seunghyun very carefully doled out a tiny vial of EGDN to each of them.

“It’s just oil,” said one.

Don’t shake it!” barked Seunghyun, alarmed. “It’s still volatile! Take it back carefully. Watkins, put your damn goggles on!” His problem student sneered, but slowly did as he was told. “You don’t want this on your bare skin or anywhere near your face,” Seunghyun warned them, feeling flustered. He’d told Professor Wyeman they were too immature to handle the new research, but the Prof was so enthusiastic he couldn’t bear to force the issue. So here they were, and if this didn’t have someone’s eye out before the end of class Seunghyun would be deeply impressed.

“Right, burners on.” Four blue flames appeared without delay; these kids sure liked to play with fire. “Make sure the screens are shielding it properly. Now carefully introduce the sample to the heat. With the tongs!”

“Jesus, we know!” muttered another boy in Watkins’ group, who had been in imminent danger of third degree burns.

“Stand back just in case. It’s gonna decompose some, but it won’t explode until it reaches two-fifteen Celsius.” The students all peered over the thick screens; it would only be a tiny bang, Seunghyun had made sure of that, but better safe than sorry with this lot. A minute later the first explosion went off, followed by the others. “As you saw, it’s the rapid increase in heat that causes it, and that’s how it’s being used in explosives. We’re also working on what we can make it do in coolant at lower temperatures.” Seunghyun gave a private sigh of relief. “All right, leave the equipment, it’s too hot to touch.”

“Was that it?” demanded Watkins, inevitably. “That pathetic little pop? Come on, can’t we do a proper one?” He strode over to Seunghyun’s bench, hand outstretched for the EGDN bottle.

“Stop right there!” burst out Seunghyun, horrified and physically panicking at the thought of this imbecile getting anywhere near it. Without thinking he grabbed Watkins’ wrist hard and yanked his hand away from the chemicals. “Never touch without permission,” he growled. The boy looked down at his wrist, up at the older man, and an expression of pure, disgusted offence appeared on his pasty face. Seunghyun felt it like a stab to the gut, because he knew what that look meant. It never failed to hurt, and there it was, the black conflagration in the pit of his stomach and the fury at a lifetime of prejudice rising up.

He saw Watkins open his trap, and knew that if he let the little bastard insult him now he would not be able to control himself. So he opened his own mouth instead, and proceeded to yell in the kid’s face at point-blank range for a good three minutes about the dangers of volatile chemicals and the importance of lab rules and the fact that he, Watkins, was a goddamn brainless waste of space in this Department. He was dimly aware of the other students staring at them for a bit, then sidling off to leave them to it and presumably go tell all their friends that the crazy Asian was at it again.

“I think that’s what they mean by the ‘Yellow Peril’”, he heard one of Watkins’ friends say to another with a sneer as they walked out, and if Seunghyun had had one bit of energy to spare from browbeating Watkins he might have actually punched the speaker.

It was no doubt a good thing he didn’t. At last he managed to gain control of himself – barely – and released the outraged young man, who looked quite deafened but still managed to threaten Seunghyun with his oh-so-important relatives’ wrath. Seunghyun didn’t care, he was too angry. Besides, once he told Professor Wyeman about Watkins’ disregard for lab safety he felt sure he’d get some support. So he told Watkins to get lost and proceeded to clear up the experiments with great zeal, smashing two retorts in the process.

He was sweeping up the glass when Daesung walked in, took one look at him, and sighed.

“Again?” said his friend. Seunghyun scowled.

“News sure travels fast.”

“I think another dose of my patented medicine is called for,” advised Daesung, beaming at him. “I know a good joint where they’ll let us in.”

“I don’t feel like it,” Seunghyun told him darkly.

“Come on. It’s Friday!” Daesung stepped around the remaining glass and gave him a comradely squeeze. “You don’t want to spend the weekend hating the whole world.” Seunghyun glowered at his broom. “I’m buying,” offered Daesung.

“…All right.”

“There’s a good chap.” Daesung commandeered the broom and took over sweeping. “Go and get your things. We’ll grab dinner with Youngbae at the refectory and then take a cab up to the Near South Side.”

 Seunghyun nodded, and suddenly felt vaguely guilty about spending so much time pining after a boy he had never even spoken to. This was a good friend, right here. He gave Daesung as much of a smile as he could manage, and went to get changed.

 

Many hours later, after several experimental cocktails had happened, Seunghyun was walking back to his room at the boarding-house having declined a ride in Daesung’s return cab as usual. He felt rather better, as his friend had predicted. Still, he wanted to clear his head before he went to bed – he was having lunch with his parents tomorrow – and was now strolling through the streets forming the invisible boundary between the still-wealthy part of the Near South Side and its underbelly. The wide, well-kept roads looked perfectly respectable during the day; it was only at night that you got a hint of what might be going on behind the neatly painted doors.

He was passing a series of imposing houses on upper Prairie Avenue that had probably been built by old money – old by American standards, anyway. This one looked like a mansion, and he would have sworn it was some rich family’s home had the front door not opened for a moment, disclosing the festive sounds of tipsy laughter and music. Bright light spilled out onto the sidewalk before the door was pulled to, but Seunghyun caught a glimpse of men in evening dress and the scent of cigars. A classy drinking joint, then; probably the cops were paid to ignore it. Seunghyun was meditating woozily on the injustices of the class system vis-a-vis Prohibition when he heard voices from one of the house’s third-floor balconies.

“Come back inside!” a man was saying in a coaxing tone. “Promise I won’t do it again!”

“No!” A younger voice with a great deal of pout in it, a voice that could almost have been a woman’s low tone but Seunghyun knew better because he had heard it before. He looked up, breath catching in his throat with a feeling that was close to panic. It couldn’t possibly be…

There, leaning over the balcony and shouting back into the house, was the slender figure of the boy who had kissed Seunghyun. Even two stories down there was no mistaking that face, turned as it was so the lights from the house revealed its fine features. Seunghyun stopped in his tracks, all his drunken feelings vanishing to be replaced with petrified wonder. He stared: The boy had no hat on this time and his hair was pure pale gold, combed close to his head in a neat pattern of waves that Seunghyun had only seen on Hollywood starlets in the most recent pictures. He was wearing a short dressing robe and nothing else; one shoulder had slipped down to reveal the top of his slim arm, but the young man didn’t seem worried about people on the street seeing him. If anything, thought Seunghyun, it looked deliberate.

“Come on, Jiyong!” called the older voice again, and it was music to Seunghyun’s ears because now he knew his name; Korean for sure, as if he had needed any more evidence. Seunghyun was shocked at how excited this made him. The silhouette of the speaker appeared by the balcony doors, the red tip of a cigar glowing in the half-dark.

“You’re mean!” the boy retorted in English, still sounding cross. He had the same South Side accent as Youngbae, which was odd because his clothing – what there was of it – practically screamed upper-class, nothing like what he’d been wearing the night they’d met. “You haven’t been to see me for ages, and you told me you’d be extra nice tonight.”

“…All right, you brat.” The older man didn’t seem angry, though Seunghyun couldn’t imagine being as rude to his elders as this kid was. “I brought you a present from Paris.” Seunghyun saw the boy briefly turn away from the balcony doors to let a grin appear like lightning on his pretty face; he reined it in after a second to regain his pout, just like a professional actor. “If you come back in like a good boy, you can have it.”

“…Okay.” The other man gave a pleased grunt upon hearing this and advanced onto the balcony. He looked old enough to be the boy’s father, but he was clearly white so he couldn’t be – those pretty features had no hint of the Caucasian. To Seunghyun’s shock he slid his hand over the younger man’s bare shoulder; his thumb caressed the collar-bone for a moment before he tightened his grip to draw him inside. The boy – Jiyong – acquiesced silently. As he turned to follow he glanced down into the street, directly at Seunghyun. Their eyes locked, and Seunghyun felt the sizzle like an electric current to his spine. But it appeared Jiyong did not: the smaller man just stared at him blankly for a long moment before his brows drew down in a frown. He tossed his beautiful head and disappeared into the house.

Seunghyun remained where he was, rooted to the spot by a mixture of helpless excitement at seeing that face again and perturbation at what he might have just learned about its owner. There were only a few interpretations Seunghyun could put on what he had witnessed, and they all caused an ache in his stomach. But he had to find out; he had to know this boy. There was no letting go now.

 

Seunghyun stood in the street a long time, long enough for passing revelers to start giving him looks. He didn’t know what to do – probably all those drinks earlier hadn’t helped. How could he learn anything about this place? He could hardly march up and knock on the front door; the glittering scene he had glimpsed inside told him he’d have it slammed in his face.

He supposed he ought to go home, sleep, then think this over properly. He should tell his friends; maybe they would have some advice. There were many sensible things Seunghyun could have done. But in the end he tore himself away from the sidewalk below the balcony, strolled around the corner and into a smaller road behind. There were more people here but it was still part of the semi-decent area: plenty of middle-class men, and even a few adventurous girls in groups or with their boyfriends. After a bit Seunghyun found a café that didn’t look too pricey or too white.

“Coffee,” he told the waitress.

“You want a little pick-me-up in that, honey?”

“…Yeah,” said Seunghyun, after a second. It might be a long night.

In the end he sat and smoked nearly a whole pack of Chesterfields, playing those two scenes over and over in his head: his first meeting with the then-unknown Jiyong, the boy’s face and clothes and the kiss. And then the way he had looked just now, the sweet pertness of his voice, that elegant dishabille and the man at his shoulder. Why had it happened at all? he wondered almost desperately. Why could he not forget that fleeting glimpse of the younger man? And what were the odds that in this whole vast city he would see him again? Seunghyun couldn’t answer any of these questions. But there was plenty of time for that ahead, endless hours of reflection and self-doubt in which he could grapple with Jiyong’s strange appeal. The important question now was: how could Seunghyun get closer to him?

Around five-thirty in the morning the café closed and the kind middle-aged waitress chivvied him out along with the other drunk customers. Time to go home, decided Seunghyun; he’d made no progress at all. But instead of walking in the direction of the streetcar he found himself in the mouth of a narrow alley across from the big house, staring plaintively up at that balcony like a bad amateur Romeo. He couldn’t seem to make himself go, so he decided he might as well see if he could learn the inhabitants’ early routine.

Ten minutes later a man came out, not the man he had seen with Jiyong but the same type: white, considerably older than Seunghyun, and with a distinct air of wealth. He waited on the sidewalk for only a moment before a town car pulled up and ferried him off. After another few minutes two girls walked up to the house, but instead of ascending the broad steps to the front door they slipped round to the servants’ stairs and down. Seunghyun assumed they must be maids. All right, maybe there were people he’d have the courage to talk to there.

Seunghyun yawned, and decided that if nothing else happened in the next five minutes he would go, and he really meant it this time! God knew what his mother would say when she saw the state of him. To his excitement the front door opened again to disgorge three more men: two of the first type but even older, and one who looked younger than Seunghyun and was most certainly not a guest. Seunghyun peered from his hiding-place. This kid was Asian too! He was very dapper and was speaking to the men with a smile as their car, a beautiful gray Lincoln Phaeton, glided up. Seunghyun would have pinned him as an under-butler had it not been for his clothes, which were definitely not servant material. The boy was wearing a swell suit like a gangster; it looked odd on someone his age and ethnicity, but he carried himself casually enough that it was probably habitual. He gave the retreating men a slight bow as the chauffeur opened their door, and held it until the big car purred away. Then he loosened his tie and lit a cigarette. He stood there for a while, enjoying the cool dawn air. Seunghyun steeled himself: this seemed like the best opportunity he would get.

“Hey,” he said awkwardly, crossing the street and sidling up to the young man, who was lounging against a pillar at the foot of the imposing stone steps.

“Yeah?” The kid took a drag on his cigarette.

“What is this place?” Seunghyun sounded tipsy still, but maybe that was all to the good. “Looks fun!” The boy gave him a narrow look.

“Are you with the government?” Well, that answered one question: whatever happened inside that house, it wasn’t a meeting of the Temperance Society.

“Do I look like I am?” asked Seunghyun, switching to Korean although the kid could be from any background really. But his face brightened up a bit, and Seunghyun knew he had understood. Maybe he was related to Jiyong? “I’m a grad student!” he went on.

“Huh!” said the young man in the same language. “Out for a night on the town, were you?” Seunghyun nodded; he probably did smell of liquor right now. “Well,” continued his informant, blowing out smoke, “you better find somewhere else; this is a private club.”

“How do I join?” Not that he planned to.

“You an aristocrat? An influential official?” Seunghyun shook his head. “A millionaire?” Again. “Then you ain’t getting a look-in.” The kid shrugged, not unfriendly.

“You’ve got the high-quality booze, then,” ventured Seunghyun.

“The best. Best liquor, best music, best girls.”

“Oh.” There: that was what Seunghyun had suspected ever since he had seen Jiyong with that man, and what he had fervently hoped wasn’t true.

“Finest bordello in Chicago!” boasted the boy.

Seunghyun nodded heavily. Now he knew. Jiyong, that eccentric, beautiful creature, the face Seunghyun had been unable to banish from his thoughts all this time: he was a… Seunghyun racked his brains to find a kinder word than ‘rent-boy’, but they all sounded bad. He supposed this ought to disgust him – and it did. Sort of. Perhaps a closer feeling was dismay, and something like fear of the alien world he could sense opening up in front of him – Seunghyun knew nothing of such things. But was it enough to make him forget that face or want to retreat from its owner? No, he thought feverishly, he needed to know Jiyong. Even now.

The kid was watching him, eyebrows raised in amusement. When it became clear Seunghyun had no more questions he pitched his cigarette butt in the direction of the gutter and went back into the house – the house where Jiyong did things Seunghyun had never imagined in his life before. But he was imagining them now. The corners of his mouth drew down and he strode away, trying to put those thoughts from his mind. First things first: he had to find a way to meet him.

 


 

Chapter Text

It had been a week since he’d had a glimpse of Jiyong. All that time Seunghyun was kept busy in the lab, with his own experiments and the younger students. Trying to manage the freshmen was like herding cats; he was sure he had never been as stupid when he was their age. After a few yelling sessions over the course of the last month or two they seemed to have gained some healthy wariness of him, or perhaps Professor Wyeman had given them a talking-to, which would carry much more weight. But every Monday he had to begin a fresh battle, and by the time they started toeing the line on Wednesday Seunghyun was het-up like he hadn’t been since he’d had to wait a fortnight longer than everyone else for his college acceptance letter. The anticipation now was just as bad – the desire to lay eyes on Jiyong again.

Seunghyun managed to lurk outside the house – the brothel – for several hours on the Thursday and Friday nights. Rich men in luxury automobiles went in, even a few women: respectable-looking women, he thought, though it was hard to tell in this new age of female license. Occasionally a younger girl in some daring outfit would come out and be driven away, and tradespeople would call at the basement door. But not once did he see Jiyong, so he blew off his home visit that weekend and spent his daylight hours around the house and the adjoining streets. Seunghyun got to know the area pretty well: he knew which tradesmen delivered groceries and linen and coal to the house, he knew what time the domestics changed shift. He knew that after about six in the morning the place was still, only servants coming and going. After lunch curtains would start being pulled back, and in the afternoon a few guests would pop in for an hour or two. It was around this time that the workers – Seunghyun still didn’t like to call them what he knew everyone else called them – might come out and take a stroll, or be driven off in taxis and private cars to who knew what destination. In the daytime they looked just like everyone else, thought Seunghyun, only prettier and more fashionable. That seemed strange to him. Surely when you saw a – one of them – you would know it.

And at last he was rewarded: at last he saw Jiyong. The boy came down the steps with the other Korean kid. He was wearing a very svelte pair of pants and a wool coat with a huge fur collar against the chill breeze. It fluttered around his face, his fair hair slicked back in a simple but still elegant style; his small features made him look like a flower amid the deep fur. Seunghyun felt his heart skitter for a moment, not certain if it was surprise or attraction or satisfaction, or what it was. Would this happen every time he saw Jiyong? The boy got into the Phaeton and was whisked away. He returned two hours later, just as Seunghyun was getting back from the coffee shop. He looked slightly disheveled, but otherwise pretty chipper.

The pattern was repeated on the Sunday: Jiyong emerged mid-afternoon, got into a car – Seunghyun wasn’t sure what kind, just that it screamed money – and was back within a couple of hours. He lingered on the sidewalk for a minute after it drove off, looking up at the gray Chicago sky. Seunghyun saw him close his eyes. Before long a window opened on the third floor and a head with a gorgeous mass of red hair poked itself out.

“I’ll tell Mrs. Moore on you if you clutter up the street much longer!” it called. Jiyong gave it the finger without looking; Seunghyun found the crude gesture both distasteful and charming, coming from someone as lovely as Jiyong. The boy smiled a small, crooked smile, then sighed and went indoors. And finally Seunghyun had a time-frame in which they might meet; provided waiting another week didn’t drive him crazy first.

 


 

He sure felt crazy by the time the weekend rolled around again, but most likely that gave him the courage to do it. Seunghyun sat in the café round the corner, drinking coffee until he had the jitters and the waitresses – most of whom knew him by now – were raising their eyebrows with every refill. What if this didn’t work? What if it did?

When he judged the hour was about right for Jiyong to be leaving the house Seunghyun headed for the narrow street opposite and took up his usual position on a trash-can. At last Jiyong came out, and Seunghyun sighed with pleasure just to look at him. It was warmer today and Jiyong was wearing a slim-cut single-breasted suit in a daringly light blue-gray. His short hair was waved again, and the sun flashed off a jewel in his ear. Seunghyun had never seen a man with pierced ears before; the thought disturbed him, but at the same time something in that sparkle of light made him swallow heavily. Jiyong hopped in the back of the waiting car – the Phaeton again – and was driven off. Seunghyun sat and waited, and fervently prayed there would be no-one there to meet the boy when he returned. With every car that came down the street he felt his stomach clench, half-relieved when they turned out not to be the Phaeton. When it at last pulled up again in a whisper of polished chrome Seunghyun experienced a nervous shudder that almost disabled his movement. But he had to go! Jiyong was exiting the car, jacket slung over his shoulder to reveal his slim figure. The Phaeton drove off. Jiyong watched it go, then turned and ambled over to the steps. Seunghyun had to move now. Before he could second-guess himself he dashed across the street, slowing down as he reached the sidewalk so as to look less of a maniac.

“…Wait, please!” he called, and his deep voice sounded odd even to him. Jiyong turned back, startled. “Umm…can I talk to you a sec?” asked Seunghyun.

“What?” Jiyong looked him up and down briefly. “Do I know you?” Seunghyun didn’t want to go there yet.

“I’m not a suspicious person!” he said, suspiciously. “I just want to talk for a minute.” Jiyong stared at his face; he seemed dubious, naturally, but perhaps a little curious, which was probably the best Seunghyun could hope for.

“…All right. This better be entertaining.” Jiyong threw a glance up at the windows of the huge house, then jerked his head at Seunghyun. “But come round the side.”

Seunghyun followed him into a tiny avenue that divided the house from its neighbor. He could scarcely believe his luck. Jiyong flattened his back against the wall near the entrance and gestured Seunghyun past so his escape route was clear.

“Thanks,” said Seunghyun, who could feel a blush travelling across his face, because what was he supposed to say now he was here? He was sure he’d prepared something, something pleasant and not creepy, but all he could think of to say now was: “…I’ve wanted to meet you for ages.” So much for not creepy. He indulged himself while he waited by looking at Jiyong; if this all went belly-up, he told himself, it could be the last time. The young man’s hair was a platinum blonde that had to be dyed – not even mixed kids had hair that color, and Jiyong looked pure Korean. It suited him enormously.

“…Who are you?” said Jiyong at last, half his attention suspiciously on Seunghyun and half on the street behind him; he seemed poised to run.

“You really don’t remember, do you.” It was a shock to Seunghyun, how downcast that made him. He had carried Jiyong’s face in his mind’s eye for months since their brief night-time encounter – it had been indelibly fixed there. But it appeared he held no such significance for the smaller man.

“No,” replied Jiyong shortly. His dark eyes narrowed. “Are you Korean?”

“Yes,” said Seunghyun, switching languages. Jiyong seemed to perk up a bit. “At least, my mother is. My name’s Seunghyun.”

“And you think…what, that we’ve met?” The boy still sounded wary. His black gaze inventoried Seunghyun’s face, his good quality but well-used clothes, his chemical-roughened hands. Seunghyun imagined that the men Jiyong met on a day-to-day basis presented a much more imposing appearance; no wonder he seemed doubtful.

“Not exactly ‘met’,” he confessed. He bit the bullet and went for it. “You dropped in on me one night in a street off Van Buren, a couple of months ago. Then you kissed me without so much as a ‘hello’, and ran away!”

“…Oh!” said Jiyong, and for a second his expression changed to one of sheer surprise. He peered more closely at Seunghyun’s features, then burst out laughing; it was a sweet sound. “That was you!”

“And just the other day I was walking past this house, and I saw you. On the balcony.” Jiyong’s face sobered quickly. “I wasn’t looking for you!” Seunghyun assured him. “But…I can’t say I wasn’t pleased.” He felt himself go redder. “I wanted to see you again.” Jiyong pursed his lips at that, evidently not delighted. But he sat down on a crate and crossed his legs. He was exquisite up close, in daylight! Seunghyun stood there and marveled.

“You know what kind of house this is?” Jiyong demanded – no prevaricating. Seunghyun nodded. The smaller man sighed, and nodded to a crate opposite him. “All right, sit down. What didja want to see me for?”

“I wanted to get to know you.” Seunghyun didn’t say that Jiyong was so lovely it made his chest hurt – that not knowing who he was had been an infuriating niggle at the back of his mind for months.

“You must know something about me. You knew when to spring yourself on me today.”

“…I know your name,” said Seunghyun, feeling like a creep again. “And I know you’re… I talked to that other kid who works here,” he continued; he couldn’t say it straight out for fear of offending Jiyong. “He told me about this place.”

“Then you know I’m a whore.” Seunghyun gulped and flushed deeper; he would never have dared use that word. Jiyong looked unfazed, though there was a defiant gleam in his eye. “That’s why most men want to see me,” he said blandly.

“That’s not why!”

“But I bet you didn’t know I’m the most expensive good time in Chicago,” the boy continued. He gave Seunghyun’s clothes another visual once-over. “Too much for you to ever, ever hope for.”

“I never even considered it!” That was almost the truth. All right, Seunghyun hadn’t been able to stop himself imagining having the same privileges as the man he had seen with Jiyong that night – being allowed to enjoy him in the same way. The erotic possibilities of that smooth, bare shoulder had haunted his dreams ever since. But buying that privilege? He felt grubby just thinking of it. He could see Jiyong didn’t believe him, though.

“How much do you make in a month?” asked Jiyong bluntly. Seunghyun frowned.

“Nothing, really, just a scholarship. I’m a research student. Chemistry.”

“All right, what does your father make?”

“I dunno…two hundred dollars, two-fifty? Whatever a schoolteacher earns.” A smile composed equally of pathos and derision crossed Jiyong’s perfect mouth.

“That’s what it costs for an hour with me. Barely.” He laughed as Seunghyun’s mouth dropped open – Seunghyun had said he wasn’t interested in such things, but the sheer scale of it knocked him flat. Dismay unfurled and sent its miserable tendrils through him. “Bet that kiss seems a whole lot more memorable now,” said Jiyong. “You’re lucky you’re so good-looking or I wouldn’t even be giving you the time of day.” A church bell rang out, signaling the hour. Jiyong hopped to his feet. “I gotta go. I have another date.” He shrugged affably. “I’m glad the detective work paid off for you; I hope you got some closure. Now you can forget about me.”

“I can’t,” said Seunghyun, unfortunately earnest. Jiyong sighed.

“That’s gunna be too bad for you. But if you ever become a millionaire, feel free to look me up!” And with that he was gone.

 


 

Seunghyun went home to his parents’ house and moped around for the rest of the weekend in a haze of depression and yearning. He had made himself known to Jiyong, and where had it got him? He was still trying to decide if there had been more pleasure or dismay in their meeting. Yes, it had been wonderful to see the boy up close, to hear that pretty voice say he was handsome. But what a definite rejection it had been! Jiyong’s personality was evidently a lot more prickly than his enchanting face would suggest; he seemed mercenary and jaded. Exactly what you were taught to expect from a member of his profession.

“What’s with the face?” asked his mother, handing him a glass of ginger ale and pausing to stroke his hair fondly. “Did you meet a girl?”

“No,” said Seunghyun dolefully.

“Did someone call you something nasty at school again?” she demanded. “You have to rise above it, darling, or it’ll never stop hurting you.” Seunghyun shook his head. It was a far different feeling, as much wistfulness as pain in Jiyong’s dismissal of him. “Don’t give up,” his mother told him, giving him a good rattle by the hair.

“Ow, Mom!”

“Don’t let anyone stop you aiming high,” she told him. “You’re a wonderful boy, Seunghyun. You just have to show them, over and over until it gets through!”

“You think?” His mother smacked him gently on the cheek.

“Of course. You think your father and I would be married if we’d listened to what people said? Don’t give up.”

“…I won’t,” said Seunghyun. He brightened up a bit. He would try again. What could it hurt?

 


 

 

“Dae,” said Seunghyun a few nights later, “how do you make people like you?”

“What?!” The younger man leaned closer, almost knocking his drink over. Seunghyun repeated it at a shout.

“I dunno,” Daesung replied helpfully over the up-tempo beat of Muggsy Spanier, who was trying out some new stuff on the critical African-American jazz crowd. “I smile a lot, that seems to help!” Seunghyun made a face; his own smile was rarely seen in public, in spite of his mother’s insistence that it was the cutest thing.

“I mean women and stuff. Not the ones that approach me ‘cos they want to try something different. The ones I like.”

“Who do you like?!” demanded Daesung. Luckily he was quickly distracted by the interactions between the clientele and the musicians as they came offstage. Daesung maintained to his parents – and to Youngbae – that he only came to these speakeasies to study Americans’ sociological habits. He was a student under the famous Professor Merriam at the University; his parents had sent him to learn Political Science in the hope that he’d go home to Seoul and forge a shining public career, but as far as Seunghyun could tell all he was doing was highly detailed research in the field of South Side jazz dives and bootlegged liquor.

“How can I get a cold person to warm up to me?” the older man tried.

“I shouldn’t think you’d need to!” said Daesung vaguely, still watching the other tables. “Not with that face. If you try scowling a bit less I reckon you’ll have ladies lining up round the block!”

“Not this one.”

“Okay, okay.” Daesung turned back to him. “It’s not so complicated. Just act like a decent person: ask her about herself but don’t interrogate her, then listen to the answer. Be nice. If you’re gonna give her a present, make it something original. Oh, and try not to put the moves on her as soon as you get her in the back of a cab!”

“It can’t be that simple.” And it wasn’t, not with Jiyong; but Seunghyun wasn’t about to tell his friend that. “And I don’t wanna put the moves on anyone! Just make friends.”

“Well, try it once.” Daesung beamed at him and took another swig of his Sidecar. “And if the combination of that and your face doesn’t hook her…then there’s something wrong with her.”

Seunghyun frowned as he downed his own drink. That was what he was afraid of.

 


 

The next Saturday Seunghyun took his courage in both hands and marched right over to Jiyong. The boy was later than usual getting out of the car and Seunghyun had been close to giving up. But he remembered what his advisors had unintentionally told him, and stood his ground.

“You again!” exclaimed Jiyong, who was wearing silk pants and a jacket with a high Chinese collar. “Thought I made the situation clear last time: you can’t afford me.”

“I don’t want to buy you!” said Seunghyun indignantly, though his hands were shaking with nerves. Jiyong looked as seductive when he was cross as when he smiled. He let out a disbelieving huff at the bigger man’s words.

“Well you sure ain’t getting it for free!”

“That’s not why I came back.” Seunghyun gave him a beseeching look. Jiyong spread his hands in an expressive gesture.

“Then what do you want?”

“Nothing. To know you, that’s all. I…” The boy stared at him with his mouth open, as if he had never heard anything so peculiar.

“That’s just-” began Jiyong, when the door above them opened and a middle-aged lady with a matronly but elegant bun peered out.

“Kwon Jiyong!” she called, in a low but very definite tone. “Don’t you be buying any more rubbish from street vendors, you’ll get fat!”

“I-”

“Come on in now!” she ordered, shooting Seunghyun a suspicious squint.

“Oh, for-” Jiyong rolled his lovely eyes, suddenly looking rebellious. “Look,” he told Seunghyun quickly, “you wanna say whatever it is you wanted to say? Meet me somewhere tomorrow, around five.” Seunghyun nodded eagerly, unable to believe his luck. “Not in the alley,” Jiyong added. “It smells!” Seunghyun hurriedly told him the name of the café he frequented, and Jiyong nodded. “I know it. Wait there.” And without saying goodbye he gave Seunghyun another pitying stare and trotted up the steps.

 

The next day Seunghyun cooled his heels in the Bluebird Café until well after five o’clock. He wondered if Jiyong would show up at all. He was chatting distractedly with one of the elderly waitresses when he saw a slender silhouette stroll through the door. Seunghyun forgot whatever he had been saying and waved like an idiot. Jiyong didn’t smile, but made his way over to the older man and dropped into the seat opposite him. He was flushed as if he’d been running, his clothes the dusty workman’s duds he’d been wearing the night they’d first met.

“Well,” said Jiyong in a charming, breathless voice, “here I am.” He didn’t apologize for his lateness but observed Seunghyun’s reaction to his appearance. “I had to sneak out the hidden way, you get really dirty.” He looked around the café and curled his lip. “Not exactly the Palmer House, is it.”

“…If you want to go someplace fancy, we can,” offered Seunghyun, who couldn’t afford it. Even if he could have, he knew the really smart hotels wouldn’t serve anyone who looked like them. He supposed it was different when Jiyong went with a rich client. Jiyong snorted as if he knew perfectly well what Seunghyun was thinking, and ordered hot chocolate and coffee cake.

“So…?” he said, after Seunghyun had gawped at him in admiring silence for a minute. “Didja wanna talk, or just stare at me with those big cow eyes?” Seunghyun blinked, opened his mouth, then shut it again as the waitress brought Jiyong’s order. His exotic appearance got him a second glance, as did the Korean they were speaking. Seunghyun bet they never saw anything as rare as Jiyong in here.

“How was your week?” he asked, trying to follow Daesung’s rules.

“Busy,” said Jiyong shortly. “I had nearly forty tricks.” Seunghyun had no idea what the right thing to say to that was, and was rather too shocked to attempt anything. The boy smirked at him. “How was yours?”

“Um…I got to blow some stuff up.” Jiyong’s eyebrows rose suggestively at the word ‘blow’, but he looked slightly less bored than previously.

“You’re not a total goof, then. What kind of thing d’you blow up?”

“Oh…” Seunghyun felt his ears go red at the younger man’s attention. “They’re mostly just small controlled explosions in a lab. But sometimes I go out and detonate oil drums and stuff when we’re ready for bigger tests. Even a car once! And hopefully someday a building…”

“Hmm,” said Jiyong ambiguously, but he looked somewhat impressed. Seunghyun remembered he was supposed to be taking an interest in the boy, and fished around for a question whose answer might not terrify him. Jiyong stared at him unhelpfully, demolishing his cake in four bites while he waited.

“…Why did you do it?” said Seunghyun before he could think better of it. He had been dying to ask; he’d tried not to, for all sorts of reasons, but now it slipped out.

“What’s that?” said Jiyong with his mouth full.

“Why did you kiss me?”

“Oh!” Jiyong paused, swallowed, then for the first time ever gave him a genuine smile; it was gummy and made him look childish, but Seunghyun’s heart stuttered nonetheless. “It was my birthday! So I snuck out and had some drinks, and then I got the idea. Twenty years old, and I wanted to try it just once in my life: to choose the man I kissed. I figured the world owed me that much. And you were young, and handsome, and best of all you were there.” He reached under the table and patted Seunghyun’s knee in a patronizing manner, carefully observing his face. “You wish I hadn’t?” he asked.

“No,” said Seunghyun shyly, thinking what a sad story that was. “But since you did I can’t forget you.” Jiyong sighed.

“You’re gunna be a pain in my ass, aren’t you?”

“Maybe.” Seunghyun stared at his feet; he was aware he was blushing like a schoolgirl. “I just want to talk to you sometimes.” There was a nonplussed silence.

“…I suppose I wouldn’t mind that,” said Jiyong at last. When Seunghyun glanced up the boy’s expression was ambivalent. “But don’t get in my way!”

 


 

For the next month Seunghyun met Jiyong as often as he was allowed, usually on a Saturday or Sunday when Jiyong took a break between his afternoon assignations and the main night shift. He couldn’t possibly be awake in the mornings, he told Seunghyun. So the older man had seen a lot less of the family home recently; it was the most absorbing thing ever, to talk to Jiyong.

Sometimes Jiyong would only spend a few snatched minutes with him after he was dropped off by his clients. Neither of them liked that, Jiyong because he didn’t care for lurking in the alley and Seunghyun because mere minutes were not nearly enough for him to get his fill. Jiyong preferred it when he could escape the confines of the house – Seunghyun had no idea how he did it – and meet him in the café, which soon became the bigger man’s favorite spot in Chicago. It wasn’t as though they talked about anything deep, or that he’d really learned much about Jiyong’s life. But Seunghyun now believed that underneath the spectacular surface and the acidic layer of Jiyong’s speech there might be someone genuinely fascinating, even likeable. Or maybe that was down to his infatuation.

“How did you come to be here?” Seunghyun asked one afternoon. They’d been chatting for more than an hour in their cozy corner away from the window, and Jiyong looked relaxed and comfortable among the litter of coffee cups and cake. The boy loved sweets and seemed amused whenever Seunghyun paid for him. Perhaps, thought Seunghyun, it was time to try and deepen their acquaintance. But the younger man answered the question with an odd look. “Unless you don’t want to talk about it, I didn’t mean to offend you!” Seunghyun continued hurriedly. And perhaps it was too soon after all!

“…It’s not that,” said Jiyong after a moment. “It’s just that no-one’s ever asked.”

“That’s…sad.”

“Hmm. Why would they care?” Jiyong crossed his legs casually. “Nobody who winds up whoring is gunna have the happiest story, are they? Mine’s pretty short, all told. Still, if you really wanna know…” Seunghyun motioned him to go on. “I grew up in the Loop,” Jiyong began. “Around the edge of where old Chinatown used to be before they moved it over by Armour Square.”

“Clark and Van Buren?” Seunghyun had been down there on escapades with Daesung.

“Well, yeah,” said Jiyong. “But not actually in Chinatown, and not exactly in the business district. We kinda lived in between. The slum streets, really.” He smiled coolly. “Story of my life, being between; you must’ve felt it too, with mixed parents. But for the Korean families – there were a few of us round there – it was like you couldn’t win. Couldn’t buy property without a white mediator and couldn’t live in their districts, exactly the same as the Chinese. On the other hand, even though everyone figured we were Chinese, we aren’t. Different cultures, right? So we didn’t fit in round Chinatown, either. Not that they were so bad,” he added. “But the way we lived we didn’t belong anywhere, and we knew it.”

“I bet.” Seunghyun had felt it himself, growing up in the Swedish part of Edgewater. But it had been a relatively nice area of the Far North Side, more or less middle-class, where people kept themselves to themselves. He reminded himself that even in terms of racism he was privileged compared to Jiyong.

“We were poor, you know?” Jiyong continued. “Mom and Dad both worked factory jobs, no other choice; I quit school at eleven to look after my little sisters. Still, it was okay, we had friends and just enough to eat and all that. But when I was twelve my dad got in an accident down at the meat packing plant – he worked in the Union Stock Yards, they had no safety regs at all then. Anyway, he lost a leg, and that was that.” Jiyong spoke matter-of-factly. “Union didn’t give a crap about some Asian guy, and neither did anyone else – there were enough crippled Vets coming home from the War to take care of. And afterwards family life was not sweet. Just about a year later…I left.”

“Running away?” Seunghyun didn’t blame him, and was no longer surprised he had ended up here. It was a depressingly common pattern.

“No!” said the boy indignantly. “I mean…not really. I wanted to get out of the house so there’d be one less mouth to feed. I figured I’d get a job and send money home.”

“What job?” Jiyong made a face.

“Don’t laugh…I was gunna join the circus.” He slapped Seunghyun’s arm. “I said don’t laugh!”

“I’m not.” Seunghyun sobered up.

“I thought I could be an acrobat; I’m good with heights. Or a contortionist.” Jiyong gave him a grin. “I’m really bendy.”

“So what happened?” That was a kid’s dream, thought Seunghyun. Still, he admired the younger man’s resolution; he doubted he could have done the same.

“I managed to get as far as the station. I had a little bit of cash, and I’d heard there was a circus stopped at Cicero. I was sitting on the platform and trying not to chicken out; I’d never been out of the South Side before, let alone left the city. I dunno, I guess I made a mistake with the timetable – I couldn’t read very well – ‘cos the Cicero train never came. Or if it did I missed it.” He laughed shortly. “What a dumb thing to change my life from that to this.”

“You were just a kid,” said Seunghyun. “And you were doing your best.”

“Right?” Jiyong agreed. “Anyhow. It was night-time by then, and I was getting freaked out. But if you hadn’t guessed already, I’m that stubborn: I couldn’t give up and go home. I was worrying what I should do when this man came and sat on the bench next to me: a bona fide rich guy, I could see that before he even got close. And unlike everyone else who’d sat by me that afternoon, he didn’t pretend not to see me or give me the side-eye like I was gunna pick his pocket. He asked me where I was going and I told him. I think I was so shocked he’d actually deign to talk to me that I couldn’t help but talk back. He said there were no more trains to Cicero that night, and anyway, it wouldn’t be safe for me to go on my own.” He shook his head at his own naiveté. “He was so well-fed and dressed, older than my parents, and I thought he must know everything. He told me he could get me a job if I wanted one.”

“Jesus.”

“Oh, save your pity,” said Jiyong scathingly. “Yeah, I was a kid, but growing up where I did I wasn’t a complete idiot! I guessed whatever he offered me wouldn’t be any kind of work I wanted to do. But I owed my family, and by then it was clear I’d need someone to give me a leg-up. Besides, it was getting real cold on that platform. He asked if I was hungry and said he’d take me to dinner. So I went with him, and it was goddamn delicious; first time I ever ate steak in my life.” He looked down at his hands. “I’ll never forget that.”

“…And then?” Seunghyun was almost afraid to hear, although he already knew.

“Then he showed me exactly how I could pay for it.” Jiyong shot him a crooked smile. “And here I am.”

“That was him? The one who owns the whole…where you work?”

“That was Samuel Insull. I had no idea then that the guy owns the L trains and half the Chicago theatres too; hell, he built the station he picked me up at! It’s his electric company lighting every joint on this street, and he gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to charity – only his charitable urges took a pretty weird shape when it came to me.” Seunghyun made a disgusted sound at that, but Jiyong just laughed. “Anyway. After that he kept me in an apartment for a while, a real fancy place on the Lake. He’d come see me and teach me all the basic stuff I’d need to know: how to use cutlery properly, how to read and talk to high-class people, how to satisfy a man.”

“But what about your family?! They must’ve been scared to death for you.”

“I guess. I wrote them, once he fixed my handwriting, and he always gave me money to send them – enough that I got over hating the stuff we did together pretty quick. He had me to himself a long time; at least eight months, I’d say, he was crazy for me. Then he had to go abroad, business or something. So he moved me into the House to work and the girls taught me the rest.”

“And you never tried to run away? To go home?”

“What for?” inquired Jiyong. “He’d only have people find me and bring me back; even now he loses it if they can’t keep tabs on me for an afternoon. And besides, I’d never seen so much money or lived anywhere so beautiful. The South Side back then was getting scary: guys coming back from the War and finding ‘foreigners’ had taken their jobs; some of them kicked off, and then…things turned nasty. You heard about that, right?”

“The race riots,” agreed Seunghyun. He remembered being banned by his parents from even setting foot in the neighborhood for at least a year after those people got killed. “…But they weren’t foreigners, just workers who moved up from the South!”

“Don’t be dumb.” Jiyong clicked his tongue at him. “To the jerks who pushed for segregation anyone who’s not white is a damn immigrant. Doesn’t matter if they’re a fourth-generation African-American or a Korean who just stepped off the boat.”

“I guess,” Seunghyun said gloomily.

“You know that’s what they call Chicago: the Second City. And for us, or anyone who looks like us, it really is. A whole ‘nother world.” Seunghyun gave a grimace of agreement.

“We live under the surface, my friend says. In the margins; where the best you can be is invisible. I hate that.”

“Right. And I wasn’t wild to go back to it. I visited home a couple of times, later,” Jiyong said. “I wanted to see them, especially my mom. But once my dad found out where the money came from – I told them I was training for domestic service, but somehow the truth got around – he banned me from the house. So now I only see her occasionally, and I have Seungri give her my earnings on the sly.” Seunghyun supposed he meant the other boy he had met in front of the house. “It’s hard, knowing my sisters are growing up without me,” Jiyong admitted. “But I’m doing this so they can grow up. And odds are Dad’s right: it’d do them no good to be around me. Not now everybody knows.”

“…I think that’s the worst story I’ve ever heard,” said Seunghyun, after a pause. Jiyong snorted and took a sip of his neglected drink.

“Then you have had a sweet life, if you think this is the worst there is! I’m the most pampered whore in Chicago if you don’t count official mistresses. I live in more luxury than you’ll ever experience. I have furs and diamonds and Tiffany lamps just showered on me; all because I can make bored rich men see heaven.”

Seunghyun almost reached out and touched his hand, but didn’t dare; he sensed Jiyong would not react kindly to anything he perceived as pity, and anyway it felt impolite to make skin contact without permission. He no longer wondered why the boy acted as acerbic and flippant as he did. But he did begin to doubt they would ever understand each other.

 


 

He was thinking it still as he wandered through the Loop arm in arm with Daesung on yet another night of live music and illicit drinks. They’d spent a couple of hours off Wabash at a real hole-in-the-wall dive; Daesung would take him anyplace the tunes were hot and where his hard cash or sheer likeability could get them in. Lucky for them, thought Seunghyun, that jazz was one of the only music scenes in which the main movers and shakers weren’t white.

They turned onto Congress Parkway, and up ahead Seunghyun saw a prime example of the other kind of scene. The vast, elegant edifice of the Auditorium Theatre took up half the block, and tonight its lower floors were glowing, casting golden light over the crowd that was exiting the building to stand chatting outside or be driven off in smart automobiles.

“Looks like a show just got out,” said Daesung with interest as they neared the imposing square structure. “What is it, vaudeville?”

“No way, look at them.” They were close enough now to see the formal evening dress of the attendees, the invariable white tie for the men and the women in swathes of silk and fur and glittering jewelry. “See, this is the kind of thing your parents probably think you’re going to,” Seunghyun told his friend.

“Not my scene at all,” exclaimed Daesung. “C’mon, let’s find someplace dirty and get in the groove.” They had reached the Theatre, which seemed to stretch on forever. “Man, it’s huge!” Daesung said, sounding slightly impressed.

“I know. Me and my dad went and saw an indoor baseball game there once.”

“Now that I’d pay for. You crazy Americans!”

“But tonight it’s…” Seunghyun peered at one of the banners. “…Carmen. Opera,” he said decisively, observing the extra-fancy nature of some of the dresses. “And gotta be first night, they’re really going all out.”

“Opera, I dunno,” replied Daesung. “I can’t get behind an entertainment where I have to read a book first to figure out what’s going on.”

“You’re so lowbrow for a rich kid.”

Daesung said something else, but Seunghyun didn’t hear him. They were passing one of the arched entrances to the building, where a low set of steps had elevated some of the theatre-goers above the rest of the milling crowd. It was a group of older men and a few women, uniformed staff hovering obsequiously nearby while they smoked and talked. Seunghyun guessed they must be fat cats with some kind of connection to Opera or the Theatre – everyone seemed very interested in them. As Seunghyun glanced their way two of the men strolled off; and there, directly in his line of sight and shining gently like a marble sculpture, was Jiyong.

“Hey.” Daesung gave a puzzled tug as the taller man stopped dead, but Seunghyun ignored it. Jiyong! Was it fate that kept them running into each other all over town, he wondered briefly, or a long string of coincidences? It was the first time he had ever seen his acquaintance out in public with other people; somehow this was the last place Seunghyun would have expected to find him. Now he had, though, he thought Jiyong seemed custom-built for such a setting.

“What’re you looking at?” demanded Daesung, peering in the same direction.

“…Nothing.” Jiyong was a good distance away but to Seunghyun his fair head was like a beacon. He was wearing a painstakingly tailored evening suit, cut in the new youthful style; his small frame made it look stunningly sleek. He had an overcoat folded across his arm but had evidently chosen to display himself instead. His hair was brushed back, a slight graceful wave instead of the usual pronounced curves, and his profile was revealed in all its sharp delicacy. He was standing very straight, his chin raised, as if he was born to pose on Opera-house steps and be stared at.

Seunghyun spent some long moments admiring the beautiful boy without even considering what he was doing there. But once he had the leisure to examine his surroundings he became sure Jiyong was not a core member of the group. No, he was someone’s companion, and that someone must be a customer. Seunghyun felt his heart contract at the realization, and took an unconscious step forward to see better. He wasn’t sure why he wanted to, but the curiosity was ungovernable.

Jiyong’s client wasn’t just older, he saw with a shock, he was old: late fifties or early sixties, at least. The man beside Jiyong was tall, probably as tall as Seunghyun, with gray hair and an authoritative moustache. He was wearing an expensive-looking overcoat on top of his evening-wear, and was smoking a cigarette. Unlike the other men in the group, who gesticulated largely with their cigars as they talked, he seemed restrained – not aloof, because he was speaking with them actively; just a little more reserved. Jiyong was standing very close to him. Seunghyun wanted the smaller man to look over, to notice him, but he was too busy observing his client with every sign of attentive interest. It was clear, though, that Jiyong was not part of the conversation: he listened, but ventured no opinion. Seunghyun thought it was probably scandal enough for the older man to bring him there in the first place, without him trying to converse with the upper crust too. God knew what the other theatre-goers thought; that man must have some real sway for the Chicago aristocracy – such as it was – to overlook the fact that he had brought a Korean kid of dubious status to a first night instead of his wife.

“Will you come on?!” Daesung was obviously getting tired of the view.

“Just a minute.” As he watched, a lackey in theatre uniform attracted Jiyong’s attention. Jiyong turned, listened, nodded, then laid his hand gently on the tall man’s forearm. The gesture was one of such familiarity it made Seunghyun blink; instantly he disliked it. The man paused in his conversation and bent his gray head. Jiyong murmured something. He nodded in turn, and just for a second lifted his hand to tuck an errant strand of hair behind the boy’s ear. The movement seemed proprietary but also comfortable, as well-used as Jiyong’s touch had been, and Seunghyun began to suspect that this was not a client at all but the brothel’s owner: Samuel Insull himself. It made sense; he was one of the biggest patrons of the arts in Chicago. No wonder he had dragged his favorite pet to the Opera – perhaps it was even a regular occurrence, which would account for his companions’ unconcern. And no wonder he was allowed to get away with it! The man was a billionaire.

Seunghyun felt his face darken. The sight of Insull made him angry – he knew the terrible things he had done to Jiyong in the past. But it was the sight of them here, together, that really made him ache. Jiyong didn’t look like he hated Insull, not at all. Seunghyun knew that didn’t necessarily mean anything – he bet Jiyong could act any way he needed to – but the spectacle of their intimacy caused a tight knot in his stomach. Seeing them in this lavish setting and knowing that this was what Jiyong was used to only put the boy further out of his reach.

It was about then that Daesung gave up trying to force conversation on Seunghyun and instead dragged him bodily away. This time he didn’t resist; he was too stricken. As Daesung marched him off he saw Insull take leave of his friends and guide Jiyong absently into a stunning Packard that was idling at the curb. The chauffeur shut them in, and he was gone.

They walked on towards Van Buren, and try as he might Daesung could not brighten Seunghyun’s mood. The taller man was grateful to him for bothering, but his head was too busy playing over what it had seen. It was the first time he had ever fully conceptualized the divide between his life and Jiyong’s. Tonight, with that sea of people parting them and Jiyong high above him beside his keeper, Seunghyun felt it was perhaps insurmountable. Why indeed should Jiyong want to know him? What could Seunghyun possibly offer him?

But Seunghyun thought the worst part was that, despite this realization, he was more on fire for Jiyong than ever.

 

Episode 2

Unimpressed Jiyong :)

 

Chapter Text

They had known each other around two months and the wind had lost its chill by the time Jiyong got used to him, and at last Seunghyun had managed to push the Opera incident to the back of his mind. He knew there were still vast differences between them: not least that the boy just could not understand the concept of a man wanting to spend time with him without sex. Seunghyun sensed that, for Jiyong, his own charm was not something that had an independent existence but was an advertisement for and a prelude to fucking. He seemed to find it abnormal for Seunghyun to bask in the charm itself, to let Jiyong’s presence and conversation be its own reward. But at last he accepted the older man as a well-meaning eccentric and relaxed around him.

“When did you get your tattoos?” Seunghyun asked, taking a plate of cinnamon buns from their waitress and thrusting them at Jiyong. He had noticed the ink on the boy’s shoulder that first night on the balcony; there was more on his neck and slender fingers, and who knew where else? Seunghyun didn’t know if it was Jiyong who had commissioned them or whether his owner had caused them to be put there, either as decoration or as a kind of possessive brand. Everything about Jiyong made him curious; in all their stolen conversations he had never yet run out of things to ask.

“The first time I was about sixteen,” said Jiyong, smiling in reminiscence and tapping the Roman numerals just visible at the curve of his neck before grabbing a cake and unrolling it with his tattooed digits. He was never chary of talking about himself; Seunghyun wondered whether he displayed more mystique with his customers or if he was like this with everybody. “I guess that one was rebellion. Or trying to convince myself that my body was mine.” Seunghyun tried not to look dismayed; he knew how little Jiyong liked to be pitied. “Mr. Insull whupped my ass so hard they couldn’t sell it for a week.”

“That’s what my mom would have done if it was me,” agreed Seunghyun. He immediately felt stupid at the comparison, but Jiyong laughed.

“I dare say! But turned out most customers liked it. So I started getting more when I could sneak out for long enough, and I haven’t got in trouble again.”

“How come they like it? Not that I don’t!”

“Seems that as long as I’m still pretty I can accessorize my body as weirdly as I like – they just find it more titillating.”

“I don’t understand.”

“They’re buying the exotic when they buy me,” Jiyong explained wryly, fiddling with a piercing. “That’s why they’re always putting me in kimono and stuff – anything that generically says ‘Asia’”. He snorted. “The ‘Orient’? Hah! I was born in a fucking Harrison Street alley.”

“That makes sense, anyway.” Finally, here was something Seunghyun could relate to, though admittedly not in the perverse way Jiyong’s clients thought of him. “I grew up in Andersonville with a bunch of Scandinavians. Even today people round there blink when I open my mouth and American comes out. They all figure I’m Chinese.”

“Or Japanese,” agreed Jiyong. “I get that a lot too.”

“And maybe five percent of them ever bother to ask.” Seunghyun had had a couple of good childhood friends in his neighborhood, descendants of Swedish or Norwegian immigrants, who had taken the time to really get to know him. They’d grown up into decent men; but they were the rare exceptions.

“It doesn’t bother me much these days,” Jiyong admitted around a mouthful of bun.

“It does me.”

“They can think I’m from the depths of Siam as long as they’re paying nearly three hundred an hour for me.” Jiyong sniffed. “Who gives a damn what they think? Anyway, I know who I am: I’m an American. Korean, sure, but still.”

“That’s probably a good way to look at it.” Seunghyun did admire Jiyong, even when his frequent allusions to being sold made the bigger man angry and sorry in the same breath.

“It helps if you think men are idiots,” Jiyong told him, raising an eyebrow to let him know that he considered Seunghyun part of that category. “You can put up with all sorts of shit when you know you’re smarter than them. I mean, how can you take someone seriously when all you need to do is wiggle your ass and wink to have ‘em falling over themselves to give you money?”

“…What about women, then?” said Seunghyun, interested despite the insult that was more or less being aimed at him. He recalled the rich-looking ladies he’d seen going into the Corner House – or just ‘the House’, as Jiyong told him everyone called it. They couldn’t possibly be workers, so they must be clients.

“What about them?”

“Are they idiots too?” Jiyong peered up thoughtfully at the ceiling.

“They have a bunch of the same prejudices,” he said. “But they’re a lot more complicated. If you’re looking for tips on how to catch one, though, you’re asking the wrong guy; there’s only a certain type visits the House. And the girls who work there are just like me.”

“Have you ever been with a woman?” He hadn’t meant to say that, it sounded so prurient. But the boy didn’t look surprised.

“I learned to.” Jiyong smiled at his expression. “I had to: sometimes men bring their wives – they like to share me or compete for me, depends on the couple. And sometimes the wives bring themselves. Rich people can really get away with anything!” He looked proud, thought Seunghyun, in the same way a craftsman might. “I can please whoever I hafta please.”

Seunghyun didn’t know what to say to that. Whatever it was Jiyong was bound to call him a pervert or a prude, depending on the reply. The boy had no patience with Seunghyun’s reticence about sexual matters. Jiyong defiantly stuffed another piece of cinnamon roll down his face and leaned back. And, perhaps luckily, at that point they were interrupted.

“Heeey!” came an exuberant voice from the doorway of the café, loud enough to make the other patrons look round and tut at the speaker. “Didn’t expect to see you in here, Jiyong! Slumming it a bit, aren’t you?” To Seunghyun’s dismay it was the smartly-dressed young Korean man he had spoken to in front of the House, the night he had discovered Jiyong’s whereabouts. Jiyong twitched at the voice too, and glanced at Seunghyun anxiously, though the bigger man was unsure quite why. But he knew the kid approaching them worked for the brothel, and that could mean trouble for Jiyong.

“I didn’t even know you were out of your room!” said the boy at a slightly lower volume. He spoke English with a strange twang, not unnatural but a mix of Chicago and what might be British. He grinned in Jiyong’s direction. “You sly-boots.”

“Panda,” said Jiyong warily, but gave the younger man a smile all the same.

“You’re up early,” said the kid, switching to Korean to match him. He took a second look at Seunghyun and blinked. “Hey, aren’t you that guy who wanted to know about the House?”

“Yes. You’ve got a good memory, that was ages ago.” Seunghyun was worried for Jiyong right now and felt defensive, but hopefully his good manners hid his nerves.

“Well, you’re quite a looker,” said the younger man genially, and took a seat beside Jiyong. “Aren’t you gonna introduce me?” he asked, nudging him. Jiyong shot him a glance Seunghyun couldn’t analyze. “I won’t tell on you!” exclaimed the kid, with an exaggerated look of mock offence. “Anyway, it’s nice to see another one of us around. Are you purebred like Yongie or a mongrel same as me?”

“…Mixed,” admitted Seunghyun, blinking at the newcomer’s motor mouth. Jiyong interrupted them, which was probably just as well.

“Lee Seungri,” he announced, gesturing between them, “this is…” He paused. “I don’t even know your last name!”

“Nevander,” said Seunghyun quietly.

“Seunghyun Nevander,” continued Jiyong in the American form, as if he hadn’t missed a beat. “What a mouthful!”

“I know. My dad’s family is Swedish. My mom’s maiden name is Choi, if that helps.”

“Wow,” said Seungri, with what was apparently real surprise. “Your parents are mixed and married? Don’t see that every day. Must’ve been tough when you were a kid.” Seunghyun was thrown by his friendliness – ought he to be suspicious of this person? He glanced over at Jiyong, but he was watching Seungri with an unhelpful combination of indulgence and ambivalence.

“It was,” he acknowledged at last. There was no need to go into details: all three of them had doubtless experienced the same racial slurs. “But I suppose you had your own problems.”

“Yup.” Seungri grinned. “But at least my dad’s rich! And Uncle Sam lets me work with this bundle of joy.” He nudged Jiyong, who pulled a sour face at him. Seunghyun couldn’t work out their dynamic at all, and it was starting to bother him. “Well,” said Seungri, “guess I ought to get back and welcome the early birds.” He called an order for a takeout bag of buns and downed the last of Jiyong’s coffee. Seunghyun didn’t care for how proprietary that looked, but Jiyong wasn’t acting particularly deferential. “You too, Yongie; I can sneak you back in easy if you come with me.”

“Thank you, Panda.” Jiyong gave the younger man a most charming smile, one he’d never used on Seunghyun. Seungri just chortled and slid a confident arm around his shoulders. Jiyong pushed him off with a well-practiced air; but before Seunghyun could feel pleased about it he leaned over and planted a kiss on Seungri’s cheek. Seungri beamed.

“I’ll see you around,” Jiyong told Seunghyun, who nodded carefully, trying to figure out if the boy was sending him a hidden message. If he was, Seunghyun couldn’t find it. “Maybe you can help me with that,” Jiyong suggested, turning to Seungri and giving him another dose of the smile. “I hafta get out of the House sometimes!”

“I reckon I can,” Seungri said affably. “If you keep saying thank you.” He waggled his eyebrows. Seunghyun gave up trying to understand, and instead waved Jiyong goodbye. He wasn’t sure whether to be jealous of Seungri or not. Then again, the kid got to be under the same roof as Jiyong, all day and all night if he wanted! Seunghyun decided he would be jealous, on principle. He sat there with his coffee going cold and wondered what he could do about it.

 


 

“…Sorry,” acknowledged Jiyong, joining Seunghyun in the alley beside the House and sitting down next to him after dusting off the crate with his hankie. He looked a little harassed, one lock of his fair hair out of place and his fine linen shirt rumpled, but seeing as he’d just got out of another dirty old man’s car – so Seunghyun presumed – that was hardly surprising.

“I was worried!” Seunghyun told him, more earnestly than he could conceal. “I thought you were sick, or something had happened to you…”

It had been three weeks since they had spoken and he was antsy as hell over it. Not being able to telephone Jiyong he hadn’t known where or when they could meet – there’d not been time to arrange anything, not with Seungri there. So Seunghyun had waited in the café for hours the past two weekends, had checked the alley for Jiyong, or for a note or anything. But nothing doing.

After a fortnight he’d been worried enough to begin staking out the House again; he had seen lights in Jiyong’s window but neither hide nor hair of the boy himself. But this afternoon it paid off, and as soon as he saw Jiyong get out of the Rolls Seunghyun had moved into the street, almost getting run down by a passing Ford but drawn by a yearning so complicated he could not articulate it. The smaller man had turned and peered across the road as if he’d known he would be there. When he had seen Seunghyun he’d jerked his head towards the alley, and after darting a furtive look at the House had preceded him with an unobtrusive air. And when Seunghyun at last joined him he was rewarded by a smile from Jiyong – a rare real smile, the older man thought.

“Yeah, I know.” Jiyong looked pretty fed up too, Seunghyun thought, almost with relief – he’d been scared that perhaps the young man had simply tired of their acquaintance. “I got shut in my rooms for three weeks, only allowed out to entertain in the Salon or visit clients.”

“Shut in?” said Seunghyun indignantly. “What are you, twelve?!” Jiyong gave a resigned shrug.

“Mr. Thompson said he knew I’d snuck out. I dunno if he knows how many times, or how I did it, but they found out somehow.”

“Who’s this Thompson?”

“He’s like the manager,” Jiyong explained, a wave of his hand dismissing any importance in that. “But once he told the boss I got punished. Mr. Insull hates it when they lose track of me.” Seunghyun found himself bristling with anger on Jiyong’s behalf. He was of course aware that the work Jiyong did was an ugly necessity at best and coercion at worst; but he hadn’t imagined they would physically keep him prisoner!

“How did they find out?” he demanded.

“I dunno.”

“Someone must have ratted,” Seunghyun decided, and immediately thought he knew who. “I bet it was that Seungri kid! He knew for definite you were out with me.”

“Panda?” Jiyong’s handsome eyebrows drew down pensively. “…Maybe. But I don’t think so. Yeah, he has kind of a runaway mouth, but I’m sure he wouldn’t tell on me.”

“How sure?”

“Pretty sure.” Jiyong observed the bigger man’s tight jaw and stiff hands curiously. “Look at you,” he said, with some amusement. “Getting all angry for me!”

“It’s just…not fair,” Seunghyun mumbled.

C’est la vie,” said Jiyong, in a terrible French accent. “Anyway, I was a good boy for three weeks so they’re gunna unlock my door from Monday.” Seunghyun couldn’t raise a smile, but he made a valiant effort to calm down.

“I missed you, that’s all.”

“Did you?” Jiyong gave him another searching glance. “Oh, well, here I am now.” He touched Seunghyun’s shoulder, a light pat and gone, but it was enough to make the older man seize up again. It was a rare day that Jiyong made contact with him.

“I’m glad,” Seunghyun told him solemnly. He’d been trying to go by Daesung’s advice and not come on too heavy, but he couldn’t act light-hearted right now. “It does have me scared, all those men around you: Thompson, and your clients, and your damn Insull. Guys as powerful as that, they could make you just disappear if you get them mad. And no-one would ever know!”

“They’re not mobsters,” Jiyong told him with a snicker quite inappropriate, given Seunghyun’s concern. “They’re not the Chicago Outfit, they don’t just off small fry who cross them! Not while they can still get some use out of them.”

“There’s barely any difference,” said Seunghyun, a little sulky that Jiyong was being flippant with his own wellbeing once again.

“You don’t really know much about wealthy white men,” the boy surmised. “If that’s what you think.”

“Can’t say I’ve ever actually met one.”

“They’re a whole ‘nother breed; they’ve got a much different set of issues. And those are what I’ve been trained to handle. So don’t worry about me, huh?”

“Issues like what?”

“Have you read that novel?” asked Jiyong, apropos of nothing. Seunghyun blinked. “The Great Gatsby, by Scott somebody. It just came out a couple of months ago.”

“No,” said Seunghyun, distracted from his questions. Jiyong nodded.

“I don’t think it got great reviews, but one of my lady clients loved it and she gave me a copy. She’s educated up to her tits so I figured she’d know what she’s talking about.”

“Is it any good?” Seunghyun liked to read, encouraged by his parents, but he hadn’t made a lot of time for it lately. All he saw these days were research papers. Jiyong made an ambivalent face.

“Ehh…it was educational,” he said. “I’ll bring it for you next time. You wanna know the problem with my clients? This might help fill you in.”

 


 

“I read that book,” Seunghyun told him a week later, once he’d taken a perch on a neighboring crate in the alley beside the House – Jiyong’s owner was coming by, and he had to be back inside the second Seungri whistled for him. Seunghyun still didn’t know what he thought about the other Korean kid being privy to their meetings, but he was willing to go along with anything that would help him see Jiyong. “The prose is stunning. And you’re right, it was actually kind of illuminating. My dad reckons it’s a masterpiece.”

“Glad to know you educated people agree,” said Jiyong. “He did use pretty words, even if I didn’t understand half of ‘em. And the parties sounded wild! But that dumb man in the title? I’ve got no patience with him.”

“I know what you mean. Kind of.”

“Like, I think I get what the writer was trying to say.” Jiyong spread his hands in frustration. “But who else in the whole world feels like that? Wealthy white Americans, with their stupid ‘ennui’! I see it in a certain type of customer all the time: doesn’t matter if they’re old money or self-made men, they’re always dissatisfied with something, yearning after something, and that’s why they get so hung up on us. Like the guy in the book, obsessed with that girl when it was really some flighty imaginary bullshit making his life miserable.”

“I take your point.” Seunghyun smiled; he would love to see Jiyong present that analysis to his old high school Lit teacher.

“And that’s why we can’t understand them,” Jiyong went on. “‘Cos even when they have everything they could possibly want it’s never enough. Hell, it just makes things worse for them! Can you imagine it?” he said wistfully, “having the money to buy everything you need? Forever? Plus respectability. You’d be satisfied, right?”

“I should think so.”

“You wouldn’t go pining for some lost perfect past, or sabotage your own future because it didn’t match whatever high-faluting vision you had in your head.”

“No.”

“No,” agreed Jiyong. “What a bunch of crap: the ‘failure of the American Dream’, the constant goddamn navel-gazing. It’s entirely the upper-class disease, and it makes me fucking mad; the ungrateful pricks. But it did help me understand what makes them tick – or rather, what makes them run down. I can use that.”

“How so?” asked Seunghyun, both impressed and tickled by Jiyong’s interpretation. He leaned back against the alley wall and gave the boy an encouraging smile.

“Rich white men are idiots,” Jiyong concluded succinctly. “Knowing that makes it easier to manipulate them. I won’t be like that girl in Gatsby, letting him win her – I’ll stay one step ahead. That way they’ll never catch me, and they’ll never find out the priceless thing they’re chasing doesn’t exist. And so they’ll keep paying for me.”

“You think that’ll work?” said Seunghyun. Jiyong shrugged.

“It’s pretty much what I’ve been doing on instinct anyway. Though on some men it doesn’t work. Oh, they’re still morons, but they’re a different type – no time for philosophy! And unfortunately they can be real mean, too. Hence the shiner I was wearing the night you met me.”

“Why, for God’s sake?!” Seunghyun forgot all about literature – he remembered the vivid black eye Jiyong had had when he’d kissed him, but he hadn’t known it was deliberately inflicted!

“Some men get off on hurting people.” The younger man appeared quite blasé – Seunghyun couldn’t imagine why. “And they pay good money to do it. Other guys, sometimes they get jealous, sometimes they get mad.” Jiyong sighed. “Not everyone likes my smart mouth.”

“Then I ask again, why? Why stay here and get treated like that?!” These were brand new thoughts for Seunghyun. He was used to problems he couldn’t solve, both in the lab and out of it. But this might be the first time he’d encountered a problem he simply couldn’t begin to understand.

“What’re my alternatives?” asked Jiyong. “I’m not like most of the girls in the House, I can’t just walk out. And if I could, what would I do? We’ve been through this before: I hafta support my family. So, get another job? What great careers are there for an uneducated, unskilled, undersized Korean boy, huh?” Seunghyun opened his mouth. “I’ll tell you,” Jiyong went on before he could speak. “Factory work fourteen hours a day, where you’re as much at risk of losing a limb as getting a black eye; my dad proved that. Or running messages, maybe, that could bring in a couple of dollars a week. The very best I could hope for would be shop boy, and who’s to say my boss wouldn’t be as bad as these guys?” He sat back. “So no, thanks all the same. Right now, right here, this is the smartest thing I can be, because I am not some genius in disguise – I’ve got no great intellect, no artistic vision. But I’m really, really good at whoring: I make a ton of money to keep Mr. Insull sweet on me, and I hold on to enough to send my mom; I live in the lap of luxury, and I have job stability. While I’m young and pretty, anyway.”

“You’ll always be pretty,” Seunghyun assured him, besotted even while he was appalled at Jiyong’s worldview. Jiyong smiled.

“Not young, though.”

“And what then? What’s your game plan for middle age?” Had this kid even thought about the future? Seunghyun wondered, or was he blinded by the shine from the diamonds showered on him by these rich perverts? “…I’d wait for you,” he said out of the blue, and with a shock realized it was true. “I’d wait ten years, if that’s how long it takes. Just to see you free and happy.”

“That’s sweet,” Jiyong said airily, as if Seunghyun wasn’t laying bare his heart right now. “But stupid. And what a waste of your time! Of course I have a plan, I hafta think ahead; anything but end up working the streets.” The older man saw him shudder. “I’m already saving what I can in cash and jewels. And as you might imagine, I’m pretty fucking spectacular at making rich men adore me; not women so much, they’re too sensible. But the young guys and the old ones are easy. So I’m working on getting a few so crazy for me that they’ll leave me part of their fortune when the old codgers kick the bucket. Don’t pretend to be shocked,” he scolded Seunghyun. “This is me: I’m callous – or practical, as I prefer.”

“…At least you’re honest.” Much as it hurt Seunghyun to hear the amoral things Jiyong sometimes said, and the tragic circumstances that led to him saying them, he couldn’t deny he respected that. Or that, in spite of those things, he had grown to care for the boy in a more meaningful way than the initial fascination with his looks.

“It’s…easy to be honest with you,” Jiyong told him slowly, as if this was his first time thinking it. “It’s actually kind of weird. Then again, I never had someone to really talk to before you so maybe it’s just the novelty of it.”

“What about your friends?” Jiyong flashed him a bleak smile.

“I haven’t had a friend since I was thirteen.” That was impossible, thought Seunghyun; even in his current unenviable situation Jiyong surely drew people like flies to honey.

“Not even the women you live with?”

“We work well together,” Jiyong allowed. “And the odd catfight aside, we get along. But Mrs. Moore doesn’t like me being too cozy with any of them.”

“That’s hard. Why not?” The younger man made a crude gesture.

“Guess she’s afraid we’d end up fucking, and the boss doesn’t like us to do that. Not unless there’s money involved.”

“…But there must be someone,” said Seunghyun in horror. The idea of having nobody was almost inhuman. “How about that Seungri kid?”

“Hmm. I dunno if I’d call us friends,” Jiyong replied thoughtfully. “I mean, I like Panda. Sometimes. And he’s good to me. But he’s Mr. Insull’s nephew, so how can I talk to him freely?”

“He is?!”

“Born on the wrong side of the sheets, of course.” Ah. That explained it; Seunghyun couldn’t imagine a man with the status of Jiyong’s owner having any non-white marry into his family. “No,” Jiyong went on. “There’s no-one I can talk to like we’re talking now.” Seunghyun plucked up his courage.

“Then let me be your friend. Please,” he entreated, as the boy’s look turned dubious: Jiyong still thought Seunghyun was fishing for a way into his bed. Even now. “I want to really know you. I want to listen to you; to be there if you need me.”

“Why?” asked Jiyong simply. Seunghyun twisted his hands awkwardly together; he saw Jiyong observing them.

“I just…I think I love you.” There it was, no more and no less than the truth.

“You don’t love me,” said Jiyong immediately; “you don’t know me. And if you did you wouldn’t.” Seunghyun scowled; he didn’t like to be told how he felt. “I’m fuckable,” Jiyong informed him. “Not lovable.”

“That’s for me to decide, isn’t it?”

“Well at least act like a scientist about it.” Jiyong wasn’t taking this seriously at all. “Better get some more data before you come to any big conclusions.”

“I already did. I love you, Jiyong. Whether that’s as a friend or…or something else. And what’s more, I’ll show you!”

“What you gunna do, buy me an engagement ring?” Jiyong sniggered to himself for a bit at the thought of Seunghyun having money.

“No. Something else.” A vague idea was forming in Seunghyun’s head; childish and fantastical, perhaps, but still a plan. “Something spectacular!” The boy laughed outright at that, and for a brief second Seunghyun thought the brat didn’t deserve what he had in mind. But Jiyong was Jiyong: however mean he acted he was still utterly lovely.

“I gotta go,” said Jiyong suddenly, as a shiny car idled past the alley. Seunghyun recognized it as the brothel owner’s big Packard, and felt the anger gathering like a thundercloud at the sight.

“Wait!” he said on impulse, before it could take over. “Can you get out tomorrow night?” Jiyong shook his head.

“I’m booked solid all night.” Seunghyun tried to ignore the images that conjured up.

“Just onto your balcony would do. They unlock it when you have people in your rooms, right? Get one of your guests to take you out there around midnight. And look up.”

“Why?”

“You’ll see.” Seunghyun squeezed his wrist quickly, feeling very daring. Jiyong gave him an odd look before shaking his hand off and leaving to shinny easily up the drainpipe and disappear onto the roof. Seunghyun hurried away. He had a lot to do if he was to have a hope in hell of impressing Jiyong tomorrow.

 


 

“Umm,” said Seunghyun to the storehouse technician, “I need…wait, have you got a pencil? You’d better make a list. I need potassium nitrate, charcoal, sulphur, potassium perchlorate, aluminum, magnesium, strontium carbonate…oh, and have you got some cardboard?” The technician raised his eyebrows and pushed his glasses up his nose.

“It’s not Fourth of July yet, you know! Or is this a Chinese New Year thing?”

“I’m not Chinese,” Seunghyun said for at least the tenth time that month – people on campus could never tell the difference, not that they seemed to care either way.

“You have a note from Professor Wyeman?”

“You ask me that every time I need explosives.” Seunghyun was careful not to raise his voice, though he was starting to get irritated. “And every time I tell you I’m his graduate assistant.” He couldn’t say for sure that it was a deliberate form of discrimination; but it still stung.

“All right, all right.” The man scribbled in the log book. “Sign here, I’ll go find it all. But you might be waiting a while!”

It was over thirty minutes. Seunghyun suppressed his anger at being kept hanging by running over the logistics of his plan. He had reconnoitered the streets and buildings in front of the brothel yesterday, so he knew where he was going to do it. He fished out the old book he’d borrowed from the Chemistry library and checked his recipes, then jotted down the timings on the back of a spare syllabus. By the time the technician returned Seunghyun was all ready to get started; he carefully wheeled his haul back to one of the spare labs on a trolley, masked up, and shut himself in.

It took several hours because he had to keep emerging to direct the freshmen. Even Professor Wyeman noted his distracted behavior. Seunghyun sheepishly told him what he was doing – though not why, of course – and the older man didn’t scold him for neglecting his research but laughed and asked him for a report after. He was a good man, most likely the kindest in the whole department; provided you loved Chemistry.

By the time he was done Seunghyun’s hands were black and it was dark outside. Daesung had come and tapped on the window, but beat a hasty retreat at the sight of what looked like explosives. Seunghyun washed his hands, locked the lab, and went to get something to eat. He would need all his energy and focus to make this work.

At ten o’clock he was on the flat roof of a drugstore, two streets away from Jiyong’s balcony with a clear line of sight. It was a tall building but it had an outside staircase so it hadn’t been too much trouble to haul his boxes onto the roof. Once he got there he found a couple of stools and an old blanket, which at least suggested he wouldn’t crash straight through it to the storage floor below. Seunghyun had never done anything illegal before; it might only be trespassing but it gave him quite a thrill.

“Right, then,” muttered Seunghyun to himself. He fished out his hand-drawn schematic and began to arrange his creations. It took almost an hour to make sure everything was in order. He patted his pockets for matches, then settled down to wait. Seunghyun had gone all the way home and borrowed his father’s binoculars to watch for the boy – if Jiyong didn’t appear, this whole thing would be a washout.

It was a pleasant night: chilly, but clear and not too windy. The perfect conditions. Seunghyun hummed to himself, increasingly nervous that the younger man wouldn’t show, that his customer would keep him inside or that Jiyong himself would dismiss the whole thing.

“Ah!” Seunghyun exclaimed aloud. A light appeared at Jiyong’s French windows as the curtain was pulled back; then the door opened and he saw that blonde head appear, followed by another figure. Seunghyun fumbled for the binoculars and squinted through them: it was Jiyong all right, accompanied by a woman. She was older than him and a little taller, and they wore matching silk dressing robes. That made him blink; despite what Jiyong had told him, Seunghyun found it hard to imagine him with female clients.

Jiyong leaned his elbows on the balcony, and they stood there making what looked like flirtatious conversation: her arm was through his, their tousled heads close together. But Seunghyun could see the smaller man surreptitiously glancing at the sky, just as he’d been told. Seunghyun set down the binoculars and hurriedly – but carefully – sprang into action. Time to find out if he’d got this right!

Thirty seconds later Seunghyun let out an exhilarated whoop as a huge golden flower burst high in the sky above them, cascading down in streams like liquid metal only for the sparks to disappear before they hit the street. Seunghyun was too far away to hear Jiyong’s reaction, and he couldn’t see much of anything, either – he’d thrown on an ancient pair of driving goggles and thick gloves, just in case. But he could just about spot the faces of people in the road below him as they turned to stare up at the night sky.

Yes! Come on, baby, now you…” Seunghyun said excitedly to the second firework, which followed the first in smaller balls of crimson; the next one was silver-white, then gold again, the colors and shapes distinct for a moment before they merged together in a display that lit up Prairie Avenue. Seunghyun was frantically setting them off, holding tight to his control because of the danger but with his heart racing and the adrenaline making him want to sing. He could hear the shouted exclamations of the growing audience in the street. He let off the last batch in a synchronized blast, each firework adjusted for height and brightness. For twenty seconds the sky was like treasure spilled on black velvet, all the colors Seunghyun associated with Jiyong. He shoved the goggles up his forehead and clapped the binoculars to his eyes before the crescendo ended. Jiyong was watching with his mouth open, his beautiful face bathed in gold and silver light: the only riches Seunghyun would ever be able to give him.

The final firework died away. There was a minute’s astonished silence. Then he saw Jiyong begin to laugh; not snide or cynical, but delighted, unaffected laughter. The woman beside him was watching him, puzzled and indulgent. Seunghyun could have watched him forever too; but now he could hear people in the road below debating where the fireworks had come from. They were beginning to look in his direction.

Seunghyun ducked back from the edge of the roof. He doubted whether anyone in this area at night would bother calling the police, given that most of them were partygoers and probably doing something illicit themselves. But the drugstore owner or someone from the nearby buildings might figure it out. Seunghyun reluctantly turned away from Jiyong’s balcony, grabbed his belongings, and clattered down the fire escape to disappear into the back streets with his borrowed bicycle. He was jumpy but pleased with himself: if this didn’t show Jiyong he was serious, what would?

 


 

“Come with me,” ordered Jiyong the day of their next meeting, sticking his head round the door of the Bluebird and beckoning. Seunghyun set his half-full cup of coffee down, quickly shoved some money on the table, and went to greet him. The fireworks must have paid off – Jiyong had never been on time before, and had never asked him to go someplace else. Seunghyun felt nervous but excited. He couldn’t wait to hear Jiyong’s reaction.

“Where’re we going?” he asked, followed by a belated, “How are you, anyway?”

“Smashing,” said Jiyong. “I figured we could both use some sun. I’ve got a bit of time today, one of my regulars had to go out of town. Come on.”

He led Seunghyun unprotesting across several streets, in the direction of the Lake. It was a pleasure to be seen walking with Jiyong, the older man decided; he turned more heads than Seunghyun ever had, and while not all the looks were admiring it felt special just being next to him – like strolling with an It girl or a movie star. Fifteen minutes later Seunghyun found himself in the sprawling environs of Grant Park. It was full of people enjoying the sunny weekend afternoon, mostly white but enough from other backgrounds that Seunghyun didn’t feel too singled out.

“Buy me an ice cream?” asked Jiyong with a winning smile. Seunghyun returned it, and took him over to one of the kiosks to get them both cones; he thought Jiyong’s sweet tooth was adorable. They wandered on, the sun making Jiyong’s pale hair gleam as he ate his ice in a most distracting way. The smile hadn’t left Seunghyun’s face: out here, in public together, it really felt as if they were close. It was more than he had expected from his explosive display of affection the other night; Jiyong was so caustic it was hard to expect anything of him. So right now Seunghyun was happy.

Once he was done eating Jiyong led him away from the formal gardens at the center of the park and into one of the many shaded nooks where picnickers could enjoy some privacy. This one was overgrown, probably waiting its turn for maintenance, and quite empty except for some smooth stones that could serve as benches and tables. Jiyong gestured for him to take a seat; then without a by-your-leave he plumped himself down on Seunghyun’s knee.

“Um…” The bigger man went rigid as Jiyong’s slim arm in its rolled-up shirt sleeve slid around his neck.

“That was quite a show you put on the other night,” said Jiyong, leaning against him companionably. “Didja make those things all by yourself?”

“Um, yeah.” Seunghyun blinked, unable to elaborate. The boy’s body was warm and supple against his side, the closest they had ever been since that first meeting, and the scent of him mingled with the earthy green smell of the Lake was almost hypnotic. He didn’t know what to do with his hands.

“You actually surprised me,” Jiyong continued; his thumb was brushing along the edge of Seunghyun’s collar. “I was kind of impressed.” Seunghyun blushed down at the grass. He could feel Jiyong trying to make eye contact, but it took a moment for him to be able to look up. When he did the smaller man was smiling at him again.

“Then…you understand?” Seunghyun asked, almost hopefully.

“What’s that?” Jiyong leaned more heavily into him, and if he hadn’t been so anxious that might have had a very unfortunate physical effect. Only in his dreams had Seunghyun been able to picture having Jiyong this close to him.

“…How much I care about you,” he said solemnly. “How…deeply I…”

“Yeah, it was a pretty bold statement.” Jiyong chuckled. “Hey, you don’t hafta sit there like a stuffed teddy bear; I shan’t break if you touch me.” With some trepidation Seunghyun set his hand in the small of Jiyong’s back to help steady him. But the boy’s physicality was terribly distracting, and with the touch he forgot all the eloquent things he’d been trying to say.

“Jiyong,” he began rashly instead, unable to stop himself. “Do you like me at all?” Jiyong’s fingers paused, then touched the nape of his neck. “I showed you how I felt, didn’t I? That it’s real. So…I mean…would you go away with me? I’m not saying today, but one day…if I could support you. Look after you.” Seunghyun was quite aware of how deeply he had fallen, how much he would give to take Jiyong away from Insull, away from that place.

“Would I run off with you?” Jiyong laughed, even as his eyebrows were travelling up his forehead. “No. Would I if you had money? No. You could buy me, maybe. But you’d hafta be rich as Croesus for the boss to even think of letting me go.”

“Why?” demanded Seunghyun, his good mood fading. He couldn’t believe Jiyong was content to be sold to herds of different people every week, to be locked up in literal bondage when he didn’t toe the line! Seunghyun was willing to work until he could offer the younger man everything he deserved. Wasn’t that worthy of…something?

“I have security, that’s why.” Jiyong sat up straight. “That’s worth more than any grand romantic gesture. I know what men are like,” he explained more softly. “They’re all diamonds and fireworks ‘til they get what they want, but after that it almost always fades. And seeing as you can’t exactly put a ring on my finger, it’s just not worth the risk.”

“I’m not like that.” Seunghyun was offended that Jiyong would even think it; not once had he tried to put the moves on him or shown himself to be fickle. Jiyong sighed.

“Poor baby,” he said, almost kindly. “I know you want me. And you did go to a bunch of trouble to show it.” He took Seunghyun’s chin in his slender fingers and lowered his head to the older man’s. “And you’re awfully handsome. So I don’t mind if you have me this once. Right here, if it’ll cheer you up…” His hand left Seunghyun’s face and slid along his throat, over his waistcoat and down.

At that Seunghyun experienced one of those moments in which he couldn’t think at all. He wasn’t sure if it was the familiar helpless anger or something like blind panic, but the next thing he knew he had set Jiyong bodily on his feet and was scrambling upright himself. The boy looked absolutely astonished at Seunghyun’s expression, though even the older man couldn’t tell at whom all this sudden rage was directed. All he knew was that Jiyong had hurt him.

“I don’t just want to ‘have’ you, Jiyong!” he announced. “I want us to…to have each other. Forever.” Seunghyun knew he sounded like a romantic fool. For a moment Jiyong didn’t reply, but stared at him as if he’d grown a second head. Then he opened his mouth.

“…Looks like I hafta revise my earlier statement about white guys. Turns out Korean men are fucking idiots too!”

“Maybe I am,” said Seunghyun angrily, though now it was more at himself than Jiyong – what a stupid thing to say, after the boy had made his lack of interest clear. “Maybe that’s why I’m in love with you.” And that confession was stupider still.

“…I don’t know what you want from me!” Jiyong told him, spreading his hands in exasperation. “You’re a sweet guy. I wanted to make you happy today, I thought I was doing something nice. But I’m never gunna run away with you; and I don’t fall in love. So if you don’t want to screw me, what more can I offer?” Seunghyun gaped at him for a bit, because he didn’t have an answer to that question. Jiyong stared back.

“I want to be your friend,” Seunghyun said at last. “Your best friend.” It was the only thing he could think of that came anywhere near the profound longing he had to be close to Jiyong. It wasn’t perfect by a long shot; but it was a damn sight better than the prospect of a quick fuck, however spectacular that would be.

“I don’t know how you can do that,” Jiyong replied quietly. “I don’t know what that even looks like.”

“…Neither do I.” Seunghyun glowered at him. “But I’m gonna figure it out!” And before either of them could make any more infuriating statements he turned on his heel and strode off. He would have Jiyong in his life – whatever it took.

 

 

Chapter Text

Seunghyun lay awake all night, thinking: what did he want from Jiyong? What would the younger man let him have? And what could he do to bring about the greater intimacy he craved? He didn’t find many answers to the first two questions, but perhaps there was something he could do about the third – provided he had the guts. And no time like the present to find out.

There were no cabs in the quiet streets around his boarding-house, and he couldn’t afford one right now anyway. So when he left his room in the early hours of Sunday morning Seunghyun had to walk the considerable distance to the House. He arrived around five-thirty, when he knew the last clients of the night would be making their way home. Taking up his old lurking position in the alley opposite he waited for his target to appear.

“Hey, Seungri,” he said fifteen minutes later, strolling across the street with a decent appearance of nonchalance and raising his hand in greeting. The kid nodded at him affably, hands in his pockets. He was lounging against the gatepost, taking the morning air as the sun began to rise. Seunghyun had noted this habit, and had timed it just right. “You want a smoke?”

“Sure.” Seunghyun lit it for him. “You been out carousing again?” inquired Seungri with a yawn.

“Not exactly.”

“Well if you wanted to speak to Jiyong, he’s in bed already. Saturday’s always a tiring night, y’know.”

“I can imagine,” said Seunghyun, who didn’t want to. “But actually I came to talk to you.”

“Oh!” Seungri looked pleased, and for a fleeting moment the older man wondered what this boy’s life was like – if he was as alone as Jiyong. It must be hard, growing up a bastard and then working for the family of the man who couldn’t – or wouldn’t – marry your mother.

“What’s it like to work here?” Seunghyun asked. “I mean, what do you actually do?” The kid took a drag on his cigarette and smiled.

“I’m, like, a cross between a maître d’ and an entertainer and a referee,” he said. “Basically I’m the public face of the House: I show clients in and out, make chit-chat with them, relay drink orders, recommend girls – and Yongie – and let the enforcers know when a fight’s gonna kick off. Stuff like that.”

“And the bosses treat you okay?”

“I hardly see Uncle Sam,” said Seungri thoughtfully. “He’s sure got his hands full: his own family on the country estate plus another mistress across town. He comes by maybe once or twice a month to check up on everything and see Jiyong. He’s never rude to me, though. I get shouted at a lot by everyone else,” he added with a grin. “But the pay’s not bad, better than you’d get in a regular job.”

“Is it busy?”

“Oh, crazy.” Seungri gave him a sideways look. “Why?”

“I…need some part-time work,” Seunghyun told him, trying not to let his mixed feelings for the kid show. “Grad school’s getting expensive and I don’t wanna lean on my parents.” That sounded pretty convincing.

“Huh. But you’re so smart if you’re in college, right? Why not get a white-collar job?”

“It’s hard,” said Seunghyun bluntly, “when you look like us. You know that too, I bet.” Seungri nodded. “I don’t know many Koreans,” the older man continued. “And there’s you here, and Jiyong…I thought it’d be nice to be around you.” Seungri gazed at him for a minute; Seunghyun decided it was a genuinely friendly look. He still didn’t trust the kid, not being Insull’s nephew. But if Seungri would help him maybe they could get along.

“If you like,” offered Seungri, “I could introduce you to Mr. Thompson. I dunno if he’ll take you or what you could do around here, but there’s always cleaning and bar work going. And a good-looking educated guy like you might have a shot at impressing him.”

“Yes. Please.” Seunghyun couldn’t hide the eagerness in his voice at the chance to be in the same room as Jiyong, to help him and do things for him. “When should I come back?”

“Swing by tonight around eight.” Seungri pitched his cigarette. “I can at least get you an interview, I reckon. Oh, but come down to the side door or I’ll get in trouble.”

“Thanks,” said Seunghyun, and meant it. Seungri surprised him by shaking his hand. Then he turned and ambled up the steps into the House. Seunghyun caught the train back to his parents’ place to pick up his best suit, but fell straight into his old bed as soon as he reached it. He’d need all the sleep he could get if he was going to show himself at his best.

 


 

“So, which is it?” enquired Seunghyun’s dad, as his child laid his nicest clothes carefully on the back of a chair and joined him by the radio – his pride and joy. “A job interview, or are you courting?”

“An interview, I hope,” said Seunghyun cagily. His father turned the volume down and looked at him expectantly. “Nothing exciting, just some part-time book-keeping. But I wanna make a good impression.”

“You’re not hurting for money, are you, son?” Seunghyun shook his head. “Well. It’s good life experience.” His father gave him a mildly approving glance. “Don’t be upset if you don’t get it, mind,” he said carefully. “I know…I mean, I know it can be hard. It took years for your mother to recruit a decent number of pupils, and you know she plays the instrument like a dream. It might take time to find someone who’s willing to hire you.”

“I’m not gonna get upset. Anyway, there are other guys with Korean parents working there.”

“I see!” The older man folded his newspaper. Seunghyun read the headline Bureau of Prohibition Strikes Again, and could just see the words ‘Gray Wolves’ along the fold, but was too distracted to be curious. “Your mom would be pleased if you get it,” acknowledged his dad. “She always was upset that she was the only one you could speak the language with. Mother!” he called into the kitchen, where Seunghyun could smell jijimi frying. “Seunghyun might be working with some Korean boys!”

“That’s good!” she shouted back. “Which one, Youngbae? I daresay Daesung doesn’t need a job!”

“Uh…yeah, Youngbae!” replied Seunghyun. “At the store where he does nights.” That would save him the trouble of inventing a whole new fictional workplace. “But it’s not guaranteed,” he told his dad. “I have to impress them.”

“How could you fail to?” Seunghyun smiled at him then, the un-curated, genuine smile he kept for home. His father smiled back, and turned the volume up on Rambling with Gambling. Seunghyun wished he could tell him about the amazing thing that had happened – that he was in love for the first time in his life. But it was impossible; and so he’d better get good at lying instead.

 


 

On the dot of eight o’clock Seunghyun rang the bell at the side door. After a minute a girl who looked like a maid – a real maid, not the sexy French fantasy – opened it and peered at him blankly. She seemed confused that he didn’t have anything to deliver.

“Er… Is Seungri there?” he asked, feeling awkward in his good suit.

“Oh. Hold on.” She left the door ajar and walked off, briskly enough but not in such a hurry that it made Seungri look important. Seunghyun cooled his heels for some time before Seungri emerged in another dandy pinstripe suit: brown this time, with shiny correspondent shoes and bottle-shaped cufflinks at his wrists.

“Sorry,” he said, beckoning the older man inside. “It’s crazy again tonight!”

“Will Mr. Thompson see me?”

“Yeah, he’s in his office now.” Seungri led him through a warren of corridors that appeared to form the back of the old house, past storerooms and a large kitchen, a laundry-room and stairs that must lead down to the cellars. “He’s no pushover,” he warned Seunghyun, ushering him through a door that took them into more spacious regions in the middle of the building; the ceilings were higher here, the floors carpeted plainly but comfortably.

“That’s okay, I can handle it,” said Seunghyun, who wasn’t at all sure that he could. He hadn’t been this nervous since he had first plucked up the courage to speak to Jiyong. But that was what he was here for! He set his jaw determinedly as Seungri knocked at a door and opened it at a terse reply.

“Yes?” barked the man behind a large desk overflowing with paper and such incongruous items as a folding fan and a bag of bonbons. “What, more problems?”

“It’s the guy who wants a job,” Seungri reminded him. “My acquaintance, the one I was telling you about.”

“Ah. Right. This him?” The man gave Seunghyun a brisk visual going-over, so he tried to look pleasant and useful. Thompson was maybe forty years old, with thinning russet-brown hair; he was cultivating a smaller version of the moustache sported by Insull and had ink spattered up his shirt-sleeves, which added to the air of impatience and industry.

“His name’s Seunghyun Nevander,” Seungri informed him helpfully.

“Hm.”

“College student, smart as a whip. He’ll work hard, Sir.” Seunghyun almost frowned at the unexpected character reference, unsure if it would help him or not. Thompson didn’t seem to pay Seungri much mind.

“All right, scoot back to the Salon,” said Thompson, waving him away dismissively. “I’m sure somebody’s complaining about something already.”

“Yessir.” Seungri promptly hopped it. Seunghyun and the older man stared at each other for a minute. He wondered if he should say something – he’d never had a job interview before, and certainly not at a brothel. He had no idea what the etiquette was.

“So tell me,” said Thompson, gesturing off-handedly to a chair once he’d made Seunghyun feel uncomfortable, “what do I want with another Korean dogsbody?” He jerked his head at the door by which Seungri had exited. “The one I’ve got doesn’t do a lot for me.”

Seunghyun sat down and opened his mouth, then paused. He was well used to the institutional prejudice that operated at every level from kindergarten to graduate school, so it wasn’t too surprising to find it here. He had always tried to deal with it by being formal and polite enough to help himself feel superior in front of whoever it was, and then exploding in private later. But he sensed meekness probably wasn’t going to get him very far in this world.

“I’m smarter than that kid,” he said, trying to hide his anxiety at talking back. “Even if he is related to Mr. Insull.”

“Not something you oughta be flapping your lip about,” Thompson warned him. Whoops. “The boss doesn’t spread it around that his nephew is a half-breed bastard.” Seunghyun bristled at the slur, less on Seungri’s behalf than his own. Thompson was watching him with a laconic air. “Good,” he said at last. “You can control that temper, at least. I saw you had a chip on your shoulder the minute you walked in, boy.” He poured himself another drink from an unmarked bottle at his elbow. Seunghyun recalled what he had seen in the paper that day. And with a flash of inspiration he knew what he could do around here.

“I’ll tell you what you want with me,” he ventured, trying to sound cool. “I don’t know if Seungri told you, but I’m a chemist. A graduate research student at U of Chicago.”

“And how does that concern this business?”

“This place doesn’t just sell sex.” Seunghyun gathered up his courage and went for it. “It sells fun, and seduction, and the good time rich people think they ought to be having in spite of the Volstead Act. Bottom line, Sir, this place relies on being able to provide alcohol. And good stuff, not like they serve at the speakeasies.”

“Go on.”

“I know the bootleggers and mob-run distilleries get hit all the time,” said Seunghyun. “There was one in the paper again today, and the Feds are just getting better at it. That must affect your supply; if you can’t get the prime vintages from Europe or at least the average stuff in from Canada, what do you do? If this place goes dry your boss will lose half his custom.”

“Mm-hmm. Yes.” Thompson was tapping his pen against a pile of ledgers and looking at him with something approaching interest.

“Well, give me a space to work in and I can supply that need.” Seunghyun smiled earnestly. “I’m a chemistry professional, not like the cowboys who cook it up round here. You know the industrial alcohol they renature still has poison in it? Not me. For me distilling the smoothest, best-tasting liquor you could want is easy as A-B-C. Let me set up in your basement or any place close, and that’s one big worry off your hands. And if you let me tend bar I reckon I can whip up a mean cocktail, too.”

He watched Thompson consider. He was clearly not a stupid man, which was a pity. Seunghyun knew it was a big ask: he was an unknown quantity, came with no recommendations but Seungri’s brief introduction – he couldn’t let on that he knew Jiyong. If Thompson suspected him of having eyes for the House’s priciest commodity he wouldn’t be allowed within a mile of Jiyong ever again. With dismay he saw Thompson was wavering on the side of doubtful. He was about to despair when the door opened and the middle-aged woman he had noticed before bustled in.

“Jerry, that boy is fighting with Mr. Elgin again!”

“Physical?” inquired Thompson quickly. She shook her neat brunette head.

“Just yelling, as usual. But they’re loud enough to hear from the Salon!”

“Oh, don’t bother about that.”

“The man pays a fortune for Jiyong,” she pointed out. Seunghyun stiffened. “If his smart mouth loses us another customer, I swear, I will wear it out of him!”

“Elgin likes it.” Thompson sat back. “Let the kid have a free rein, Mrs. Moore; he knows just what he’s doing, the sly little fox! Elgin will get his money’s worth in tail when they make up after.”

“If you say so.” The woman – Seunghyun presumed she was the ‘Madam’ he had heard was a fixture in most brothels – shrugged and turned to leave. For the first time she appeared to notice Seunghyun. “Another Chinese? Aren’t the ones we have handful enough?”

“Korean,” corrected Thompson, without rancor. Seunghyun tried to look open and pleasant and not as if he’d just been offended.

“Handsome creature, isn’t he,” said Mrs. Moore, sounding surprised. “Stand up.” Seunghyun got to his feet and made an effort not to shuffle them. “Tall, too. Not like that minx upstairs.”

“My father’s from Swedish stock,” Seunghyun offered. They both raised their eyebrows and he subsided.

Very handsome,” concluded the madam. “That never goes amiss.” And on that note she left them to it.

“…All right,” said Thompson when she had shut the door. “We’ll give you a try, and you can thank Mrs. Moore for that.” Seunghyun sucked in a breath. “Four nights a week, starting behind the bar; one of our regulars just left to work in some cabaret. Your face seems like it’ll entertain our lady customers. And between times you can help out with carrying and cleaning. Whatever you’re told to do, you do. Got it?”

“Yes, Sir.” Seunghyun hoped he didn’t sound too eager. Finally! Four nights a week he would be under the same roof as Jiyong. He would see him, learn all about him. Seunghyun felt grateful.

“And if we do hit another dry spell…well, we’ll see if all that boasting comes to anything.”

Thank you,” said Seunghyun. He waited, but Thompson clearly wasn’t about to shake hands with the likes of him. “You won’t regret it, Sir. I’ll put my whole heart into it.” Well, that was the truth, wasn’t it?

 

He ran into Jiyong in the corridor as he was leaving. The boy looked resplendent in a silk robe and his face was flushed with exertion – perhaps from fighting with his client. Jiyong stared in perplexity to see him there; to Seunghyun he almost looked scared.

“It’s fine, I didn’t sneak in. I got a job here!” Seunghyun told him excitedly. “Barman and general helper-out. I start next weekend.” A fleeting look of what might be panic flashed across Jiyong’s face, then disappeared. He continued to gaze at Seunghyun, long enough for the older man to feel unsettled.

“…What about your studies?” Jiyong said eventually. “Your professor, your research and all that.”

“That’s just in the daytime. At night I can be right here!”

“And sleeping is no nevermind to you.” Jiyong looked torn between an expression of scorn and one of amusement; both of them suited his face.

“I’ll be okay.” Seunghyun would make it work. Jiyong sighed.

“Idiot. Why have you done this?”

“You know why,” said Seunghyun in a low voice. The smaller man tipped his head back on his elegant neck to look down his nose at him.

“If you got this job to see more of me,” he told Seunghyun, “then all I can say is: you’re gunna regret it.”

“Why?” Jiyong gave him a dry smile.

“Just wait and see.”

 


 

“You’re working at a bar?” said Daesung incredulously.

“Yeah. So I need to learn how to mix cocktails. You must be chummy with some bartenders, right? I need a few lessons.” Seunghyun had been too excited after his interview to remember that in order to be in charge of serving drinks one had to actually know about drinks. He didn’t think getting hammered on unnamable mixtures of moonshine would count for much when it came to tending bar for the cream of Chicago’s degenerates.

“Can I come visit? I have to see this! Does it have music too?”

“Nope, you can’t. It’s private; members only.” And thank God for that. Daesung looked unfazed.

“Then how much does it cost to join?” Dammit, that’s right, he was rich.

“I dunno if that’s how it works,” said Seunghyun. “But even if you did have the money…they probably wouldn’t let you in.”

“…Ohh,” said Daesung thoughtfully. “It’s like that.” The smile dipped for a moment, but was soon back on his face. “So tell me, how did a strait-laced boy like you get a job at a rich-white-guys’ version of a speakeasy? That’s what it is, right?”

“Kinda,” agreed Seunghyun, edging round a lie. “I…got an introduction from one of the other Koreans who work there.” Daesung looked astonished, then curious.

“What other Koreans do you know?! Where did you meet them? Can I meet them?”

“No!” Seunghyun couldn’t imagine what that would be like. “Not right now, anyway,” he said. Perhaps, if he and Jiyong ever became real friends…

“Shady.” Daesung beamed at him. “Very shady. But I’ll let it go for now. Have you told Youngbae you’re working in this fancy den of iniquity?”

“Of course not, he’d give me a lecture.”

“Fine, I suppose I’ll keep it to myself. Now let’s go find you a teacher!”

 


 

By the following Saturday Seunghyun was armed with a notebook stuffed full of recipes, some observations of his own about proportions and changes that might make them even better – it was a kind of chemistry in itself – and a list of liquor-related lingo. His teacher was a dark-skinned little man in his sixties, obviously sweet on Daesung for his smile and generous tips. It wasn’t a fancy speakeasy but a smoky underground joint populated by a group of regulars who looked and sounded like elderly mobsters. The bartender, Marty, did no fancy shaking or presentation – like he had no flair at all. But Seunghyun tasted many cocktails in the course of that week, and when he compared Marty’s to the drinks served by the young swell guys there was no contest.  Marty let him practice eventually, Daesung testing the results, so that by Friday night his friend was permanently tipsy. Seunghyun knew he didn’t have it down perfect, but with a little trial and error plus the fine spirits he was sure they served in the House he thought he might make a go of it.

He arrived early for his first shift, so early the sun was still shining. Seungri came down to greet him again, this time wearing a more sober pair of pants and a shirt with the sleeves rolled up.

“I’m not dressed yet,” he told Seunghyun immediately; he was really as vain of his appearance as Jiyong. He looked the older man up and down. “I gather you’re not, either.”

“I didn’t know what to wear, so I brought everything.” Seunghyun hefted his travelling bag. The bartenders at the speakeasies had been in shirt-sleeves, as informal as could be. But this place was another sphere entirely.

“Dress shirt and waistcoat, bow tie, waist apron,” listed Seungri. “It’s okay, I figured you wouldn’t have it; I’ll give you some of my old stuff, you’re taller but if you roll the sleeves up no-one’ll notice.”

“Thanks very much.” Seungri’s friendliness was disarming every time, and the older man was almost sad in that moment that he couldn’t feel more sanguine about him.

“They’re a couple of years out of style, but you won’t mind, right?”

“Hardly!” The kid nodded and gestured him further into the House.

“I’ll show you round. Everyone gets lost a bit at first but you’ll get the hang of it.” He led Seunghyun through the rear part of the building with its narrow corridors, and to a set of stairs behind a door that led down into the dark. He unlocked the door, pulled a lever at the top of the staircase, and electric bulbs sputtered into life. “Here you are, then!” Seungri said grandly, sweeping his arm around the wide, low-ceilinged space at the bottom.

It was a large cellar, Seunghyun found when he got down there, easily as big as one of the college labs. Half of it was filled with boxes, and wine racks that stretched off into the darkness. There was a sink with a pump handle, spare furniture stacked in the corners, and enough cobwebs to decorate a haunted house. All in all it was spooky.

“This is your cave!” Seungri announced. “You can use it for whatever you want. We store most of the hooch and mixers down here and bring ‘em up to stock the bar through the night. There’s ice boxes over in the corner for cocktails and chilling bottles, it’s delivered fresh every afternoon. And you can do all the mixing and messing about you like. Mr. Thompson says to order in any glassware and equipment you’ll want if you need to start distilling. The other bartenders and me will be down sometimes getting stock, but we’ll leave your stuff alone.”

“O…kay.” Seunghyun wondered how much time he’d be spending down here; it wasn’t exactly cozy. But it was all in a good cause, he reminded himself.

Seungri took him back upstairs and began showing him other rooms: storage, the lavatory, the laundry. Seunghyun assumed he’d be running other errands when he wasn’t stationed at the bar so he tried to remember what they all were; but the place was a warren. There were doors and random hatches that Seungri ignored or confessed to not knowing about, which added to both the confusion and the eeriness. They turned another corner, possibly in the vicinity of the kitchen, and Seunghyun started as they almost collided with Jiyong. He was wearing pajamas and a sleepy expression that made him look like a kid, and was carrying a glass of milk.

“What,” said Jiyong with a yawn, “you’re here already?” Seungri beamed.

“Yongie, you’re up, great!” He slid a persuasive arm across the smaller man’s shoulders. “Your boy here came early to get the grand tour. I showed him his workspace already, but I’m swamped! Mrs. Moore wants me to go out and buy God knows what fripperies for the girls. Can you be a good boy and take him round the rest of the House?”

“Why should I?” demanded Jiyong, grouchy with sleep.

“I’ll bring you a bunch of pastries from that patisserie you like.”

“The French one?” Jiyong looked mollified. “Yes please!” Seungri gave him a squeeze and dashed off. “Come on, then,” said Jiyong. “Christ, you’re a pain.”

“Sorry.” But Seunghyun was elated – not even five o’clock, and already he had Jiyong to himself! He was awfully curious to see him on his home turf. Jiyong just sniffed, and marched off with his milk. Breathless now with apprehension and excitement, Seunghyun followed.

“So you’ve seen the back end of the House,” Jiyong said over his shoulder. “And you know the offices, yes?”

“Thompson’s, anyway.”

“Okay. The boss has one there too, only it’s fancy. And Mrs. Moore and Seungri’s rooms are nearby. Now I’ll show you the parts our guests see.” Jiyong sounded perfectly normal – not angry, as Seunghyun had been afraid of, but not overjoyed to have him here, either. It was hard to guess what he really thought about it. He led him through a larger door than any he had yet seen and shut it carefully behind them. “We don’t usually let tricks go back there,” Jiyong explained. “It’s like seeing an actress without her makeup on; spoils the illusion.”

Seunghyun found himself in a wide hallway with lofty ceilings modelled in plaster and gilded. There was deep crimson carpet on the floor and expensive-looking art on the walls. It was like stepping into a different world. Jiyong looked very odd there in his pajamas, but he strolled along as if he was quite at home. Seunghyun remembered that it was his home, and had been for at least six years. It was a strange place: like living in a theatre.

“Sunroom and dancing room, powder rooms, private dining room, lounge,” Jiyong reeled off, stalking past a series of imposing chambers without pausing or going in. Seunghyun craned his neck to see; he spotted more lush carpets and beautiful furnishings, each room with a different color scheme, and was sure he’d caught sight of a few female figures napping on the sofas in the late afternoon sun.

“Do customers go in there?”

“Sometimes, if there’s a big group of ‘em wants to have fun together. Mostly just the powder rooms, though; everyone’s gotta piss after all.” Jiyong stopped and with some effort pushed open a set of elaborately painted double doors. “But here’s where the seduction happens – the lead-up to the real good time they come for.”

Seunghyun stared. The room he had walked into was huge, as elegant and lavish as a Hollywood set for a royal party. Part of it was carpeted, in deep red again, and the rest was shining hardwood. The drapes and soft furnishings matched the wood in pale, mellow gold rich with embroidery. There were lots of sofas and plump, comfy chairs by low tables. Placed before the tall windows was a grand piano, and in one corner a raised dais for a band or small orchestra; this must have been a ballroom, Seunghyun concluded, once upon a time. And against the back wall sat a long, gleaming bar.

“There you go,” Jiyong told him. “That’s where you’ll work your magic, and let’s hope you have some! Our tricks expect the very best.” Seunghyun examined the bar minutely. There was a collection of liquor and mixers already, and space for ice and more bottles. The glasses were crystal and clearly worth an arm and a leg. Now he had seen the setting he was meant to work in he was starting to feel really anxious. If he couldn’t perform, his career as a bartender might be the shortest in Chicago history.

“So…you all spend the evening here?” he ventured. “What’s it like?” Jiyong shrugged.

“You’ll see. It’s mostly talking; flirting, a bit of dancing. Mr. Insull likes classical music so he hires quartets a lot, but we get some jazz in when he’s not around. Sometimes the tricks book the girl they want beforehand so it’s just a matter of warming ‘em up. Other times they don’t know who they feel like fucking, and that’s when we work our charm.” He gave Seunghyun an arch look. “And you know I can charm!” The bigger man nodded silently, remembering the sweetness of Jiyong’s smile, the warmth of his touch. “Mrs. Moore or Seungri notes who they’re having, how many hours and any special services, and then we take ‘em upstairs and do our thing.”

“…Of course.” Seunghyun was really, really hoping he could downplay that aspect. With luck he’d have his hands so full with tending bar he wouldn’t even notice.

“Then we clean up, come back down, and on to the next.” He shot Seunghyun another look. “Regretting this yet?”

“No,” said Seunghyun stubbornly.

“Please yourself.” Jiyong smirked. “Come on, you’d better learn the upper floors too, or you’re gunna come unstuck when people start shouting orders at you.”

“Lead the way.” Seunghyun caught a glimpse of the clock: less than three hours until he officially began his shift. He was starting to feel slightly ill, and Jiyong wasn’t helping.

“This is the women’s floor,” Jiyong informed him once they’d climbed the broad staircase, sweeping him along an extensive hallway. “Almost everyone has their room up here. You’ll hafta learn whose is whose, ‘cos clients order drinks and stuff to the door.” He gave Seunghyun a sharp prod in the arm. “But if you get caught here without a decent reason Mrs. Moore will whup your ass! Just ask Seungri, he learned the hard way.”

“Do I have to go in?”

“Don’t you dare, not if there are people in there! Not unless someone from management or a client tells you to.” Seunghyun didn’t mind that. While he could admit to a certain amount of curiosity about what such a room would look like, he thought he would find it too mortifying to be in there with one of the inhabitants – unless, of course, it was his current companion.

Jiyong showed him the enormous bathroom at the end of the hall, with at least five tubs and showers and more powder rooms attached. One contained two young women in dressing robes, chatting and shaping their eyebrows: the first looked European and the second East Asian. They turned to give Seunghyun an interrogative stare.

“New bar staff,” Jiyong told them briefly. “Just showing him the ropes. Seunghyun, Sarah and Lin. He’s a bit of a prude,” he added meanly. The Asian girl raised an eyebrow.

“Oh, this should be entertaining.” From her accent Seunghyun pinned her as first-generation Chinese.

“Yeah, well, we’ll see if he lasts long enough to make fun of.” The woman flapped her hand at the two of them dismissively and turned back to the mirror, and Jiyong walked off. Seunghyun trotted after him.

“How many…umm, workers live here?” There were more doors than he could count.

“Fifteen whores,” said Jiyong bluntly; Seunghyun knew he kept using the word on purpose. “Actually fourteen right now, we’re one down – she got pregnant and wanted to keep it, so she went to stay with her sister or something.” The boy shook his head, as if in disbelief that anyone could be so foolish.

“…Are there any more men?”

“Nope.” Jiyong cracked a smile. “Just me, the one and only.” Seunghyun didn’t have anything sensible to say to that, so they climbed in silence to the top floor: another broad corridor, more mansion-grade carpets and lighting. Unlike the floor below there were only three doors, one in the center of the hallway and one at each end. “Middle door leads to more storage rooms,” Jiyong told him. “But they’re not really used. The boss says it’s dangerous.” Seunghyun reflected dubiously on the scale of the building, its mysterious doors and labyrinthine look.

“Who is your boss, H.H. Holmes? This place is creepy.”

“Mr. Insull was here when that was going on,” said Jiyong, somewhat ghoulishly. “He was working on the electrics at the World’s Fair – right down the street from that murder castle. It’s still in Englewood if you wanna go see.”

“Ugh!”

“It’s not like he knew.” Jiyong grinned. “But speaking of spooky, this floor’s haunted.”

“Okay,” said Seunghyun, finally cracking a smile. “By what?”

“A girl,” replied Jiyong with a deadpan face.

“Have you seen it?” asked Seunghyun. He was genuinely curious; you didn’t find many aficionados of the supernatural in the chemistry lab.

“Nope.”

“Then how-”

“Lily told me when I first moved in; we had a séance once to try and find her but nothing happened.” The smaller man walked on. “She was someone’s mistress when this was a private house, but consumption got her young.” Seunghyun wasn’t surprised to hear that: tuberculosis was a specter that had hung over every person in America for decades, it was only natural that someone would turn it into a literal ghost story. “Anyway, all these cavernous old piles have a resident spook. So keep an eye out.”

“…I’ll bear that in mind.”

“Down on the left there, that’s Lily’s apartment; she’s a bitch. Then again so am I. And over here is mine: biggest in the House, you know.”

“Can I go in?” Seunghyun was still tickled by the haunted house thing.

“Heck no,” said Jiyong. “The same rule applies: unless you’re on a legitimate errand being caught up here will get your butt kicked for you, and they’ll watch you like hawks at first. You don’t wanna be fired for laying hands on the goods – believe me, it’ll hurt a lot more than getting canned for incompetence!”

“I’ll be careful.” Seunghyun was crestfallen; so much for spending time alone with Jiyong. They walked back along the corridor, where the younger man opened the door to the storage area. It was very large, another web of rooms and hallways unto itself.

“And that’s where I get out,” Jiyong informed him in an undertone, nodding to a dusty narrow skylight almost hidden in an awkward corner of the roof. “I think they forgot it’s even there.”

“You can’t possibly!” Seunghyun squinted upwards. “Not at that angle.”

“Oh,” said Jiyong, “I’m pretty limber. I told you I was gunna join the circus, right?” To exhibit this he handed his empty glass to Seunghyun, leaned forward in a low bow, and from there bent himself completely in half. “See?” came his voice, down from where his arms were wrapped around his calves. Seunghyun stared. As an encore Jiyong sat down on the hall carpet and with no apparent effort put both legs behind his head. “As you can imagine,” he said, bouncing to his feet again, “this makes me pretty popular!” He smirked, observing the older man swallow heavily. “And it means I can get out and play. Sometimes.”

“Good God.”

“I know,” said Jiyong complacently, and led him back down the stairs. “I’m full of surprises. Now, I gotta get ready. You should go set up too; kitchen will give you anything you need. And later we’ll see what surprises you’ve got up your sleeve.”

 

The night Seunghyun began his new job and first saw Jiyong at work was among the worst nights of his life. It would have been hard enough at the best of times: struggling to make the drinks under the curious eyes of the customers and workers who began to gather in the Salon as the evening drew in; trying to learn who each client was, whether they had a bar tab to be recorded in the monthly ledger or if they were visitors who had to pay cash; dealing with people talking about him as if he wasn’t even there. He was garnering a lot of praise for his looks from the female portion of the room, and speculation about his background from the others. All this with the vision of Jiyong before his eyes.

“Two Martinis,” ordered Jiyong, appearing beside the bar in a pair of loose starlet’s trousers and a short lavender-gray kimono that bared a narrow V of pale skin below his collar-bones. “On Mr. Elgin’s account. One dry with an olive, one sweet with orange. That’s mine,” he added. “It means put a dash of syrup in it. Oh, and a cherry. A green one.”

“I got it.” Seunghyun cast around for the ingredients and began mixing the drinks, trying not to let the sight of Jiyong distract him; he looked simply gorgeous, his blonde hair flawlessly waved and kohl pencil darkening his eyes. He was almost done when a well-built if slightly portly man in his late thirties entered the room and made a beeline for the bar.

“There you are, honey,” he said, taking Jiyong in his arms without formality and kissing his cheek after an appreciative sniff. Seunghyun suppressed a wince as the trick surreptitiously gave Jiyong’s ass a squeeze, and pretended he wasn’t looking.

 “You’re late!” replied Jiyong in a cute, saucy voice unlike any Seunghyun had heard him use before. He wriggled himself out of the older man’s embrace with a pout. “I got your drink all ready, too.” Seunghyun pushed the Martinis smartly across the bar; Jiyong didn’t even give him a glance, his entire focus on his client.

“That’s sweet of you, baby.” Elgin took a sip. “Not bad. New guy, huh?”

“Hmph,” said Jiyong.

“Wanna take them upstairs?”

“You can do as you please,” Jiyong told him, still sounding cross. “But I shan’t play with you ‘til you say you’re sorry for keeping me waiting!” Elgin’s broad eyebrows drew down, but he looked like he was enjoying himself.

“We’ll see about that,” he warned the boy, watching with pleasure the toss of his pretty head. “Two hours, I’ve got you for; I’ll straighten you out by then!” Jiyong’s dark eyes blazed.

“I’d like to see you try!”

Elgin smiled. He fished in his pocket and absently laid a half-dollar on the bar, then followed Jiyong out of the room with both their drinks. Seunghyun looked at the money, a tight, sour feeling in his throat. He pursed his lips and forced out the thought of what was about to happen right over his head. Luckily there were more drink orders coming in and more women wanting to interrogate him. He was sure he’d never remember them all.

“That’s a tip,” said Seungri, coming round behind the bar to stand with him. “Stick it in the jar, it’s all yours at the end of the night.”

“It’s a lot,” Seunghyun observed, passing him the coin.

“Not to them.” The kid nodded at the clientele. “And wait ‘til they get a bit drunk! Saturday night’s always good.” He looked at Seunghyun’s flushed face and the empty glasses piling up behind the bar. “See that phone?” he said kindly. Seunghyun turned: he had noticed the telephone below the bar earlier. “That’s a direct line to the kitchen. You can call them when you want to place a food order or have the bus-boys come get the glasses for washing; they’ll bring back the clean ones. Also if you need Mr. Thompson or one of the enforcers – you know, those big guys you met earlier.” Seunghyun remembered: they looked like prizefighters, and neither had seemed very pleased to see him.

“Am I likely to?” Seungri leaned against the bar and helpfully passed him a stirrer.

“Not really. Occasionally a fight kicks off over a girl or business or even sports. More likely a customer will get so drunk they can’t walk. But usually I’ll be in here, or Mrs. Moore. We’ll deal with anything that needs dealing.”

“Thanks.” Seunghyun got on with it.

Jiyong returned to the Salon later, without his client but with a small, irrepressible smile on his face; his lips looked flushed and tender. Seunghyun assumed his tip had been impressive. He watched Jiyong wander through the room, pausing to be sociable and flirtatious and generally putting himself on display, just as the others were doing; already he could spot the subtle competition in the pattern of their interactions. After a while Mrs. Moore, who had already told Seunghyun off for ‘wearing a face like a goddamn vicar’, drew the boy over to another man. This one was much older than Elgin, rather stern; he looked dubious at having Jiyong in front of him but didn’t object when Jiyong tucked an arm through his. The Madam stayed with them a while, presumably making introductions and warming the man up to the idea of shelling out hundreds of dollars to enjoy the pleasures of a skinny Korean boy.

“That’s right,” said Seungri, delivering a couple of empties to the bar and ordering some more. “You’ve never seen Yongie do his thing.”

“No.”

“He’s the best here.” Seungri sounded proud. “Complete knockout. And he has to work the hardest; takes a lot to persuade normal tricks that they’d have fun switching teams for a night.”

Jiyong had assumed a far meeker demeanor with this prospective client than with Elgin; he looked young, and soft, and somehow more docile than he had a moment ago. They strolled across to the bandstand and stood with some other guests listening to the string quartet. Occasionally Seunghyun would look up from his work to see Jiyong murmuring a comment in the older man’s ear. The guy’s hand was on his shoulder now, his assessing gaze sweeping the boy’s face and body.

“He’s gonna get him,” predicted Seungri confidently, when he had returned from showing a couple of guests to their cars. “Clever thing! You oughta remember that guy,” he advised Seunghyun. “Alderman Coughlin, he practically runs the city. Well, him and the Mob, hand in hand. He’s a regular here and Mrs. Moore said he’s been looking to spice it up; but I never thought Yongie would snare him.”

“Why should he want to?” asked Seunghyun quietly; they were speaking English and had been since the Madam had told them to ‘knock off their foreign gabble’. “He looks really…strict.”

“Oh, Jiyong can play submissive when he needs to,” said Seungri, taking payment for a bottle of Haut Brion from an out-of-town visitor. “And speaking for all of us, it’s good business to get a powerful man attached to you. Look, see? There they go.” Seunghyun looked: Coughlin was holding Jiyong by the wrist and talking to Mrs. Moore. She nodded, and he led the smaller man towards the doors. Jiyong looked back and threw Seungri a wink; the kid gave him a thumbs-up.

“He won’t hurt him, will he?” asked Seunghyun, in some trepidation. Even from across the room the man’s eyes had been gray and quite cold. It put the shivers up his back.

“Probably not.” Seungri wrinkled his nose. “It costs a bunch extra, and Yongie will be especially well-behaved ‘til he gets the measure of him. But even if it happens, our boy can take it.” He sounded admiring. “Jiyong can do anything.”

 

Another hour passed. Seunghyun served drinks, answered nosy questions, and tried not to look disapproving of the whole proceedings. While the quartet was on break some of the workers who weren’t engaged took command of the grand piano and hit the jazz tunes, collecting a group of men around the instrument. A few of the girls were fairly decent, thought Seunghyun – not that he was any musical expert, but Daesung had dragged him to some of the hottest joints in town. A young woman with a low-backed satin dress and a mass of red hair in a chignon was playing passably well, and one of the African-American girls with the prettiest nose Seunghyun had ever seen sang some upbeat numbers in a low, rich voice that really turned heads.

She was finishing up a cool version of Nobody’s Baby when Jiyong re-entered Seunghyun’s view. He’d been gone for some time and the older man had been desperately trying not to think about what that man had been doing to him. He looked fine, though he was walking a little carefully and had discarded the trousers beneath the kimono to show off his slim, smooth calves. He was with another guy already, who was nudging him persuasively in the direction of the music; the previous singer was being escorted off by a customer. Seunghyun saw Jiyong exchange a couple of quick words with the redhead, who changed her sheet music. The boy parked his ass on the piano with the help of his client, and after a short intro began to sing.

Seunghyun stared: he’d had no idea Jiyong was musical. It was a slow number, plaintive and very romantic, which wasn’t an image the older man associated with Jiyong at all. The boy lounged on the piano, languorous and supple; it was a plainly seductive performance, and seemed to be pretty effective if the looks these men – and one woman who had already propositioned Seunghyun, making Seungri crack up – were giving him were any indication. Every customer’s gaze was on his lips. Of course Seunghyun was transfixed too; but it was the voice that absolutely enthralled him. In contrast to the previous performer Jiyong’s singing voice went up high as a young girl’s, sweet and breathy and surprisingly unguarded. It was a huge contrast to his usual spoken tones, and utterly charming.

“Not bad, right?” said Seungri, appearing from the hallway where he’d been noting a client’s special request and coming to prop up the bar next to Seunghyun. “He writes them too. I mean, he’s got no power but that just makes the tricks more excited; and it’s damn cute.”

“Huh.” Seunghyun didn’t care for the thought of that, of men like Coughlin finding the spectacle of Jiyong’s vulnerability erotic. What worried him even more was the possibility that he might like it too; he’d certainly been unable to look away. The song finished while he was still berating himself. There was some applause. Jiyong batted his eyelashes, hopped down into his new customer’s arms, and was led off to a sofa to be flirted with and fed sherbet. Seunghyun concentrated hard on polishing glasses, and vowed not to look again for the rest of the night – he hated where his thoughts kept leading him. Perhaps Jiyong was right after all: perhaps taking this job had been a very bad idea.

 

Around two a.m. Seunghyun was starting to yawn; he wasn’t used to working such late nights, and Jiyong wasn’t currently around to keep him on edge. Seungri came by periodically and chatted to him, telling him about this customer or that and ordering drinks for them. The cocktail requests had largely stopped now and they were on hard liquor, the good imported stuff.

“Order for champagne from Lily’s guy,” Seungri told him, still looking bright and chirpy; he was in his element here. “Take up a bottle of Bolly, the 1915, and two glasses. Ice bucket, too. I gotta show Grandpa Palmer out, he’s real important.”

“Which one’s Lily?” He couldn’t possibly keep track of all their names.

“Third floor apartment, opposite Jiyong’s.”

“Okay.” Seunghyun tramped downstairs to his cellar room and after some searching located the correct Bollinger. He arranged everything on a tray, checked in the hallway mirror to make sure he looked presentable, and trekked up to the third floor.

“Your drink order,” he said awkwardly, when the door opened to reveal the woman who had been playing the piano earlier. She was wearing a diaphanous lace peignoir now, her hair streaming down her back like fire. Seunghyun tried not to look, it felt impolite; but she was really something.

“Thanks.” He passed the tray of champagne to the stunning redhead, and she gave him a brisk smile that took in his good looks. At the same moment there was a heavy thump from the apartment door along the hall – the rooms that belonged to Jiyong. Seunghyun jumped, all of a sudden on edge, especially since he knew some of the boy’s customers liked to hurt him. Should he do something? The girl didn’t flinch, but her smile widened. Were they really that callous here?!

Aahh…!” The moan came as Seunghyun was still panicking, accompanied by another rattle of the door. The redhead’s grin spread again, and Seunghyun went from outrage to mortification as he realized what kind of moan it was.

“He’s energetic, I’ll give him that,” she said, as Jiyong’s pretty voice came in a rhythmic, muffled echo through the hardwood. Seunghyun blanched and practically sprinted down the stairs, followed by the sound of her laughter and his beloved’s erotic cries. He hurried back into the Salon and returned to improvising cocktail recipes for future use. He wished they had a band on tonight – he didn’t think the classical quartet was loud enough to drive that sound from his head. He didn’t think anything could.

 


 

Seunghyun didn’t recall much about getting home; everything was a haze by then. He remembered having a drink with Seungri and a couple of the girls after the Salon had emptied out around five; he remembered goggling at the combined amount of his tips – enough for him to take a cab back to his room and still have dollars left over; and he remembered looking around for Jiyong and not finding him. He didn’t know if the boy was still with his final customer or if he had gone to sleep. All he knew was that when he woke up at eleven he was still tired, a heavy physical and mental weariness that made him feel stupid. Even in his dreams he had had to endure Jiyong as he had been last night: magnificent and sickeningly seductive, surrounded by other men. It took all his stubbornness to persuade himself that he should go back tonight.

He was due at his parents’ in the meantime – Sunday dinner was a tradition he was rarely allowed to miss. He dragged himself out of bed and up to Edgewater on the train, and collapsed again on the blue sofa in his family’s living-room. It was trying to be sunny, and the old cushions were warm and so inviting…

Seunghyun’s father came in, took one sniff at him, and his blonde eyebrows shot up.

“Good God, boy, you smell like a brothel!” His wife gave him a sharp look. “Not that I’d know!” he added hurriedly. Seunghyun supposed that if he meant liquor, cigars and perfume, he probably did; he hadn’t had time to bathe or wash his hair before he came, he’d been that exhausted after last night’s shift.

“…I went to Daesung’s friend’s birthday party,” he lied. It was easy to use him as an excuse; Daesung was so wealthy Seunghyun’s mother already had a series of fantastic ideas about his high-flying lifestyle.

“That’s nice, dear,” she said. “As long as you’re behaving yourself!”

“Yes, Mom.” As far as Seunghyun was concerned he was the only person at the House who had been. He yawned.

“You want to have lunch and then take a nap?” Seunghyun nodded. His mother came and stroked his hair briefly before sending her husband to clear his marking off the table, and disappeared into the kitchen. Seunghyun was glad he had come; it seemed a return to the real world after the lovely, tawdry illusion that Jiyong inhabited. He could ground himself here. Still, tonight he was going to step into that world again. He was less sure now that he wanted to; but he couldn’t help himself.

 

 

Chapter 4

Chapter Text

“So how was your first week?” inquired Jiyong, very early the next Monday morning. He pulled the yard door to behind him and came to sit beside Seunghyun on the back steps; it was the first time they had spoken alone in days. “Oof.”

“You all right?” The sun wasn’t up yet, but Seunghyun could see enough to notice Jiyong pulling a face as he sat down.

“Just ready to give my butt a rest!”

“Jesus.” Seunghyun passed the younger man a cigarette, already lit.

“You still being a bluenose?” asked Jiyong with a wry grin at his squeamishness. “Surely you’ve heard worse than that by now.”

Yes.” He had, and he still wasn’t used to it. He’d stopped coming early to his shifts since the second day, just to avoid running into young women discussing their bodies in intimate detail all over the House. His embarrassment and their amusement was too much.

“Anyway, we don’t open the Salon on Mondays, just see regulars who make a prior appointment; so I oughta be able to sleep it off soon enough.”

“Sleep,” said Seunghyun, with feeling. “Christ, I never realized how great it is.”

“Then shouldn’t you go home and get some?”

“I’ve got hours before I have to be at the lab.” He planned to do nothing but study and sleep until Thursday; and then, Seunghyun knew, the whole rigmarole would start round again. He sighed.

“You don’t like it here, do you,” observed Jiyong, exhaling smoke.

“I don’t mind it.” The boy gave him a sidelong glance. “…I hate seeing you with customers,” Seunghyun admitted. “I hate the way they talk about you with each other.”

It wasn’t only those who praised Jiyong’s talents in the most graphic and degrading terms; there were plenty of guests who declared they wouldn’t touch another guy with a barge pole, and that men who sold themselves were… There were several words for what they thought of Jiyong, and Seunghyun didn’t care to repeat any of them. The one thing he did agree with was that Jiyong was a thoroughly mercenary creature: the way those black eyes shone when some trick produced a ruby and dangled it in front of him! Customers must love that expression – and the way Jiyong would treat them after. Seunghyun didn’t like it at all.

“Yeah, well, I never asked you to come here!” pointed out Jiyong.

“…Are you angry?” The smaller man clicked his tongue at him.

“When I first ran into you after your interview…I dunno. I’d kind of got used to it: having someone to talk to who doesn’t know me like this.” He gestured to his makeup and exotic outfit.

“I never thought about that,” said Seunghyun quietly. “I just wanted more chances to be with you.”

“I know.” Jiyong bumped his shoulder against the bigger man’s. “I got that, once I was done being mad at you. Besides, what would it help? It’s too late – you’re in here with us whether you like it or not; you can’t un-know me now. And if you can handle me like this…I guess maybe you could be my friend.”

“It’s worth it,” Seunghyun declared.

“Mr. Thompson finally paid you, huh?” As a matter of fact he had: ten dollars a night on top of the tips, which Seunghyun considered fabulous wealth. But that wasn’t what he meant.

“No. Just to spend time with you.”

“You’re so funny.” Jiyong stubbed his cigarette out in a pot set there for the purpose and clambered to his feet. “Go home and get some kip, Seunghyun. I’ll see you Thursday.”

“Night,” said Seunghyun. The boy patted his head as if he was a good dog, and left him to it. He sat there a few minutes longer, reflecting on the fact that he had indeed invaded Jiyong’s territory without even asking if he minded. He’d been so gung-ho to know him better that he simply hadn’t considered it. Seunghyun vowed that from now on he would be less selfish in his affections, and that he would make it up to Jiyong. Perhaps he could spend some of his new-found fortune on him. But first he had to stay awake through another four days of school.

 


 

It was on a Friday night almost three weeks after he had begun working that Seunghyun met the boss. He knew he still didn’t fit in at the House, but people were starting to get used to him as a solemn fixture behind the bar. He’d been scolded by Mrs. Moore more times than he could count for not being engaging. He was trying his best, but he couldn’t perform with the same vivacity as Jiyong and Seungri, and he couldn’t yet banter with anyone: not the wealthy clients he so thoroughly disapproved of or the women who liked to tease and flirt with him just to see him stammer. Compared to the lab he found it utterly exhausting – chemical compounds didn’t demand good grace and charm! The best he could do was smile.

Realizing this, everyone but Jiyong and Seungri had evidently decided to treat him as a handsome piece of furniture; and Jiyong rarely talked to him during work hours. Tonight was an exception: the boy had actually come to sit at the bar and was criticizing his lack of theatricality in mixing the cocktails. He must be waiting for someone, Seunghyun concluded. He was dressed very classily in a tailored pair of pants and a linen shirt, and his eyes were watching the room as they talked.

“I’m not saying you hafta juggle or anything,” Jiyong was telling him. “Just-”

Seunghyun spotted the moment Insull walked into the Salon: Jiyong sat up straighter, stopped his conversation, and looked right at him. The bigger man couldn’t tell if that pretty face showed anticipation, nervousness, resentment, or what; but for the time being Jiyong was aware of no-one else. Seunghyun absently dropped some lemon into a gin and tonic, and likewise followed the brothel owner with his gaze. Insull made the rounds of the room, pausing to chat with various clients, most likely about business and other lofty matters; they were all magnates, Seunghyun reminded himself, and between them probably owned half Chicago. He would occasionally spare a word for one of the workers. As Seunghyun had noted that night outside the Auditorium, Insull’s demeanor was more reserved than most of the customers’, even in this bacchanalian setting; or maybe it was just impossible to see any expression under that moustache.

They had spent over twenty minutes watching their employer when he at last made his way across to the bar. Seunghyun was sure he had known Jiyong was there the whole time, had known he was waiting for him and was pleased. Insull did not sit down but leaned one elbow on the bar, made himself comfortable, and finally acknowledged the boy.

“Well, how’s Jiyong?” he asked, not exactly smiling but crinkling up his eyes. He had a marked British accent. Jiyong gave him the full set of white teeth and moved along to perch on the adjacent bar stool.

“All good, Sir.” Seunghyun watched them surreptitiously through his eyelashes, half his attention still on the Manhattan he was making. Insull, to his surprise, made no move to touch Jiyong at all. He quietly ordered a malt whiskey for himself – Seunghyun brought out the best bottle he could find – and a Martini for the smaller man beside him. Seunghyun mixed it just the way Jiyong liked it. Insull watched him take a sip, observed his face and the faces of the customers drinking around them, then finally made eye contact with Seunghyun.

“I gather you’ve settled in,” he said coolly.

“Yes, Sir.” Seunghyun was as polite as he knew how to be, though from the moment Insull had entered the room he had hated him – no, before that; since the day Jiyong had told Seunghyun his history. Seeing Jiyong come to sit near him so eagerly just made the urge to punch him stronger. But despite what Jiyong maintained, Seunghyun wasn’t an idiot.

“A college student, aren’t you?”

“Yes, Sir. A graduate assistant in Chemistry.” Insull gave him another measuring glance, from his face to his hands to his barman’s apron.

“I’m surprised Seungri would be in any position to make the acquaintance of someone like you,” he observed drily. “I hear he introduced you.” Seunghyun didn’t know what to say to that, other than the truth – that he had accosted Seungri in front of the House because he’d been desperate to meet Jiyong – and he was hardly about to let that story slip. He cast around for an answer while Insull watched him. Seunghyun was getting really nervous when Jiyong suddenly distracted his owner from grilling the new bartender.

“Sir,” he said softly, “do you want to come up to my sitting-room? I can have you all to myself then.” He shot Seunghyun a glare with the tiniest hint of a wink. Insull raised one weathered hand to touch his cheek, a subtle brush of the smooth skin that almost looked affectionate before he lowered his hand again. It was the first sign Seunghyun had seen that Jiyong’s keeper felt any desire for him whatsoever; he couldn’t help but wonder why Insull insisted on having him stay here. Then he remembered the money.

“Certainly,” the older man said. “Do you want some sweets? Champagne?” Jiyong smiled at him happily. Insull tapped his fingers on the bar.

“See to it, if you please.” Seunghyun nodded glumly. Jiyong had taken hold of the older man’s jacket sleeve, unobtrusive but enough to generate a pleased wiggle in the vicinity of Insull’s moustache. He escorted Jiyong from the Salon and the boy never looked back.

 


 

“What do you really think of the boss?” demanded Seunghyun the next time they were smoking outside.

“Sshh,” said Jiyong. “You sick of working here already?”

“He’s kinda hard to figure out.” Seunghyun lowered his voice, but persisted. Of all Jiyong’s clients so far he was most curious about and jealous of Insull.

“Not for me.” Jiyong passed his cigarette to the older man. “But I’ve known him a long time.”

“So, what’s he like?” Seunghyun set his lips to the filter where the boy’s had touched it.

“Like he looks,” said Jiyong. “Quiet, proud. English. He likes fancy things, though; he taught me to be this showy. Hell, his wife was a primadonna actress before he made her respectable. What else? He’s got a sense of humor but you’ll never see it.” The wind tossed a scrap of newspaper across the grassy yard and he shuffled slightly closer in the darkness.

“I hate him,” Seunghyun admitted quietly.

“You’re jealous?” Jiyong sighed. “You gotta learn to stop this green-eyed crap. Men are my livelihood, and Mr. Insull most of all!”

“I’m not jealous,” the other man lied. “But how can I think otherwise when I’ve heard your life story? When I’ve yet to see anything to make me think better of him…”

“My life story,” said Jiyong sarcastically, and took the cigarette back.

“Didn’t he take advantage of you when you were a kid?”

“Yes.”

“Didn’t he bring you here to whore you out?”

“He did.”

“Hasn’t he beaten you, and had you shut in, and God knows what else?”

“Yes.” Jiyong squinted at him. “What’s your point?”

“How can you like him?!”

“I never said I did,” the boy pointed out.

“…You looked like you did,” Seunghyun mumbled. “The way your eyes followed him, the smiles you were giving him. It’s different from how you treat your other tricks.”

“You are jealous. Stupid boy. Of course I treat him differently! I don’t care for some of the things he’s done to me, obviously. But I don’t have any pride; why should I? Where would it get me? I know Mr. Insull real well, and I know he still likes me; it’s why he’s tough on me the way he is. I’m gunna use that, and I’m gunna be good to him so he’ll go on liking me. Because I’m better off with him than I would be with anyone else, Seunghyun, and I know that’s what’s got your goat!”

“You’re saying you’re using him as much as he’s using you,” said Seunghyun incredulously. He wondered what percentage of the hundreds an hour Jiyong actually saw; it couldn’t be more than a couple, not if Insull wanted to keep his pet from independence. Surely Jiyong was aware of that!

“That’s the way I am with everybody!” Jiyong announced with some frustration. “Anybody can use me, but only if I can take something back.”

“Even an abusive old bastard.”

“Oh, shut up about Mr. Insull, you don’t know anything.” As Jiyong spoke the yard door opened and Seungri’s cheerful voice cut into their argument.

“You two aren’t fighting, are you?”

“No,” they said in unison. Glancing at Jiyong, Seunghyun saw the same anxious flicker he had spotted before when Insull’s nephew came upon them unannounced. He suspected that, however much he liked Seungri, Jiyong would not wish him to hear any part of their previous conversation.

“Okay, hurry up and come in, huh, Yongie? Your next trick’s due in five minutes.”

“Coming,” Jiyong assured him with a charming smile. Seungri beamed back indulgently and retreated out of the wind. “Don’t make that face,” Jiyong told Seunghyun. “He’s a good kid really. He helps me out a bunch and I wanna keep him sweet on me. So play nice!” A thought dawned on the older man.

“…Has he had you, too?”

“Yes,” said Jiyong easily. “I was his eighteenth birthday present from his uncle.”

“That’s sick!” Seunghyun burst out without thinking. “Who’d buy a…”

“A hooker for a gift?” Jiyong smirked. “Why not? Better than getting him a car: I cost the same as a Bentley, but I’m a much more exciting ride.”

“…Why do you insult yourself like that?” It always made Seunghyun depressed to hear such things from Jiyong’s own lips.

“For a guy who claims to be in love with a rent-boy you sure have a stick up your ass about it.” Seunghyun scowled. “Look,” continued Jiyong, “I know you’re trying to be sweet. You wanna tell me I’m worth more than what someone will pay for me, right? Well, maybe that’s true; from my experience to date I can’t say that I know. But it’s also true that they’ll pay a lot. So why should I sell my body short? It’s keeping my whole family in shoes.”

“It’s a beautiful body,” said Seunghyun sadly. “And so is the rest of you.” What good was it trying to impose his ethos on this person, who had spent his entire adolescence being shown quite pointedly that his body was the only thing of worth about him? Seunghyun peered dejectedly down at his feet, then started as Jiyong leaned over and planted a lingering kiss on his temple.

“You’re a nice guy,” admitted Jiyong, sitting back cool as a cucumber and taking a last drag on his cigarette before climbing to his feet. “I forget that’s what makes you so naïve. But keep your mouth shut about the boss around here, ‘kay?”

Seunghyun didn’t reply; he knew he had gone red. A little from humiliation at Jiyong’s pitying tone but mostly at the sensation of his lips, the intoxicating scent of his hair and the all-round magic of his proximity. He also knew that he would replay this moment forever – unless one day Jiyong gave him something better.

 


 

“Seunghyun,” came a familiar voice, drawing him out of his reverie. Seunghyun blinked and the touch of Jiyong’s lips disappeared; and here he was in the campus refectory. His coffee was cold in front of him and his chair was mysteriously surrounded by small beige-colored pellets.

“Huh?” he said vaguely.

“I was calling you for ages.” Youngbae threw a careful look in the direction of the kitchens and took a seat beside him. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah…”

“Those kids were chucking bread at you.” The younger man nodded surreptitiously at a table behind Seunghyun, but when he turned to look they all faced away and started laughing. Not that it mattered; he knew who they were, the usual suspects from his seminar group and their friends – all money where their brains should be. “One of them called you…something.”

“I failed Watkins on a test this morning,” Seunghyun explained. If this was their idea of retaliation it was more pathetic than usual, but no doubt their goal had been to make him explode again. Seunghyun tried to find some satisfaction in the fact that he hadn’t. It wasn’t from any noble restraint on his part, though; it was simply that he was so tired, so lost in melancholy dreams of Jiyong and frustration that after weeks at his new job he had barely made any inroad into knowing the boy better. All he had done was argue with him.

“I was gunna tell them to get lost.” Youngbae gave him an earnest, worried look. “But if they complained about me…”

“I know. It’s all right.”

“I could lose the job.” His friend’s eyebrows contracted in concern. “Are you sure there’s nothing wrong? You’re so…vague these days, when we see you at all.”

I got a job,” Seunghyun confessed. “Just to help along the scholarship. Honestly, I don’t know how you do it, it’s exhausting!”

“Ah!” Youngbae smiled. “No wonder. You’ll get used to it, then, don’t worry. I find guys like us can get used to most anything.”

“Isn’t that the truth,” agreed Seunghyun, thinking of Jiyong.

“Hang in there.” Youngbae clapped him on the shoulder, then jumped to his feet at an irritable shout from his supervisor and jogged back to the kitchens, apron flapping around his toned waist. Seunghyun did wonder how he managed it: to work multiple jobs and look that strong and energetic. Then again, Youngbae didn’t spend his nights pining over the most expensive prostitute in Illinois.

Seunghyun shook his head and finished up his coffee; it was grosser than usual but he didn’t care. All he cared about was seeing Jiyong; it had been four days since his last shift. He glanced at the big clock: two-thirty. He had no more teaching duties today. Perhaps if he slipped away now they could talk some before Jiyong prettied himself up for the night shift. With a last resentful look at the undergrads he pushed back his chair and quietly sloped off.

 

Jiyong wasn’t there, one of the day maids informed him when he arrived. Seunghyun was despondent for a bit; he plodded down to his cellar and sat on the table, swinging his legs and wondering if it was safe to take a nap in the sunroom or whether one of the girls would find him and pounce on him – they liked to flirt with him, largely because getting an awkward response from such a handsome face was novel to them. The House was very quiet so perhaps it was okay. Seunghyun was on his way up when he found himself pausing in the back stairwell and thinking a very bad thought. If Jiyong was away and there was no-one around to see…maybe there was something he could learn about him today. With bated breath he continued up to the third floor.

Seunghyun knew he shouldn’t be here. He wasn’t allowed into the girls’ rooms under any circumstances, and even Jiyong’s were still off-limits; he suspected Thompson didn’t trust him yet, and with good reason because here he was, with every intention of snooping. But the urge to know more about Jiyong and his way of life was eating him up, and so while the younger man was out – shopping on an indulgent client’s dime and supervised by Seungri, the maid had said – he thought he would see what he could see.

The apartment wasn’t locked; only management had keys, Mrs. Moore had told him weeks ago when she’d given him a lecture on where he could and couldn’t go. He guessed they were only used when someone misbehaved and needed confining to their room; that probably happened to Jiyong plenty. Seunghyun shut the door softly behind him. He was in a short corridor floored with thick, golden-beige carpet. He didn’t turn on the lights, but could see some art on the walls and the elegant outlines of cabinets. It was nicer than anything in his parents’ house, and matched the extravagance of the Salon below. The first room on his left was a lounge, done up perfectly in the French Deco style. With a couch, chaise-longue, and other sundry blue-gray furnishings that were surely imported straight from Paris it was a picture of sophisticated elegance. On one wall was a highly stylized portrait of a blonde youth, without a doubt Jiyong, naked but for a few strategically draped lengths of chiffon and gazing languidly at something beyond the frame. It was a glorious painting. Seunghyun felt both envious of and sorry for whatever artist had gotten Jiyong for a model: imagine anyone trying to keep control of their paintbrush with that in front of them. He gawped at it for far too long before moving on.

The bedrooms – not one, but two! – were another story. The first was what Seunghyun’s infrequent visits to the pictures had taught him a British aristocrat’s room would look like: all dark wood fittings and an air of respectable antiquity. It didn’t seem to suit Jiyong at all, but then he remembered Samuel Insull was English so presumably this was for his benefit. Seunghyun scowled but went on, through the white marble bathroom and the dressing-room – it was filled to bursting with silk and velvet, everything from formal white tie suits to the extensive range of kimono and high-collared Chinese jackets ignorant customers liked Jiyong to wear.

The big second bedroom matched the wardrobe. Seunghyun’s mouth dropped open, partly in astonishment at its opulence but mostly at its gaudiness. It looked like someone had taken a Hollywood set for Arabian Nights and crammed it with every cliché of exotic Asia they could think of: there was Chinese brocade, Japanese silk and fans, and what looked like Indian lamps and ivory carvings. Starting to explore, Seunghyun found a few books of poetry in Korean – he couldn’t imagine where Jiyong had got his hands on them – and more trinkets, gifts from far-flung places like Thailand and Singapore. Jiyong’s clients were really buying into the pan-Oriental thing hard.

Both the luxury and the vivid colors were starting to give Seunghyun a headache. He had no idea how Jiyong could sleep here. Then again, he remembered glumly, sleeping was not what this room was designed for. On that note it was probably time to leave; he had satisfied himself that Jiyong did indeed live like a king up here, and in doing so had depressed himself. He didn’t dare peek in any of the closed cupboards or drawers for fear that he’d find something shocking. He took a quick look round to make sure he had put everything back where he’d found it, and headed for the bedroom door. But as he touched the handle he heard movement from the corridor outside.

“Shit!” muttered Seunghyun as the sound of Jiyong’s voice reached his ears. What would be worse? To hide until Jiyong left for the Salon or to step out and confess right now? Seunghyun was not usually an underhand man, and he already felt sneaky; perhaps it was better to admit his nosiness. But he very quickly changed his mind when he realized Jiyong wasn’t alone.

“Y’know, you could help carry some of this!” came the unmistakable tones of Seungri. “It’s not like I encouraged you to buy so much crap!”

“Oh, hush up, Ri,” said Jiyong, from the sounds of it entering the sitting-room. “You want Mrs. Moore to notice how late you were bringing me back? Anyway, it wasn’t my money.”

Seunghyun gave up all thought of announcing his presence and started to panic instead. While he didn’t actively dislike Seungri he certainly didn’t trust him, not when his uncle was virtually Jiyong’s jailer. The kid had a big mouth, he’d almost definitely tell. Seunghyun looked around the bedroom, located a large floor-to-ceiling wardrobe in the corner, and frantically climbed inside. Pushing aside more silk robes and furs he huddled up on the floor and silently tugged the door to. It wasn’t solid but made up of intricate metal latticework; he could see through it into the bedroom, and fervently hoped he wasn’t visible from the other side.

To his dismay Jiyong didn’t spend long in the lounge. Seunghyun caught his sweet-dictator tones from the dressing-room as he instructed Seungri on where to put his purchases. His voice grew louder, and then he was in the bedroom.

“There!” said Seungri, following him. Seunghyun could just see him over by the door, but Jiyong’s figure was blocking his view. The smaller man unbuttoned his jacket and shrugged it off. Seunghyun prayed he wouldn’t come and hang it up in the wardrobe. Thankfully Jiyong tossed it haphazardly on the bed.

“Thank you, Panda,” he said. Seunghyun couldn’t see his face, but it sounded as if he was smiling. It was a tone Seunghyun had heard before, but only when Jiyong talked to customers. Encouraged, Seungri advanced into the room.

“You wanna try that again?” he asked. “I did get Mr. Thompson to let me take you out. And you promised.” Jiyong chuckled.

“Yeah, I did.” And he stepped forward and slid his arms around Seungri’s waist.

Upon seeing that Seunghyun let out a gasp – couldn’t help himself – then clapped one hand across his mouth and automatically closed his eyes. Just as helplessly he opened them again, and as he did he saw Seungri lean down and kiss Jiyong. Seunghyun was appalled, at the knowledge this was something Jiyong would allow and at the fact that it was happening right in front of his face.

“Wow.” Seungri cupped the smaller man’s face in both hands and kissed him again. “You always are just so…” They had turned enough that Seunghyun could see them both quite plainly. Not that he wanted to, but despite his best efforts he couldn’t force his eyes to shut again. Jiyong had tightened his hold and was returning the kiss, teasing and delicate, the soft brush of lips and tongue causing a flush to spread its way across Seungri’s sallow cheeks. Seunghyun noted that Jiyong himself looked perfectly collected for the moment; he was obviously an expert manipulator. Somehow that didn’t make him feel better.

“…Can I take these off?” asked Seungri in patent excitement, sliding his hands down Jiyong’s crisp white shirt and over the curve of his hips to grab his backside enthusiastically. Jiyong made an erotic little noise against his mouth, smiled again, and Seunghyun began to feel as giddy as Seungri looked. He had never heard such a sound, not up close, anyway.

“No way, no time,” Jiyong murmured. His slim fingers went unerringly for Seungri’s belt buckle, and he tipped his head back to give the younger man access to his throat. Seungri took immediate advantage, pressing his lips to Jiyong’s long neck with a hungry rumble that intensified when those expert fingers began to tease his cock into life through the fabric of his pants. Seunghyun had another valiant try at looking away. This was the filthiest thing he had ever seen, and him being here was surely degrading to everyone involved. He felt a crushing sense of guilt, accompanied by absolute horror as he realized the sight of Jiyong with his hand inside another man’s pants was starting to make him hard, too.

“Please,” he heard Seungri say eagerly. “Let me put it in you!” What a collection of words Seunghyun had never wanted to hear!

“…Like this?” Jiyong dropped to his knees, and now Seunghyun could see him even better. He gazed up at Seungri with an expression the reluctant voyeur could have sworn was arousal. It was all there on that beautiful face, every man’s fantasy: hunger, submission, compliance – Jiyong was even beginning to blush. This was the worst. The thought crossed Seunghyun’s mind that perhaps Jiyong actually liked this kid – that perhaps they had something real between them that he knew nothing about. He pushed the idea aside.

“Oh my God, yeah, like that,” agreed Seungri, and a moment later his erection was in Jiyong’s hand, then in his mouth. No, revised Seunghyun, aghast, this was the worst! Jiyong’s tattooed fingers were gentle and sure, encouraging Seungri on while his pink lips took the younger man deeper. Seungri clutched at Jiyong’s fair hair; he let out a groan of pleasure, echoed by Jiyong’s moan. The noises Jiyong was making were truly scandalous, the most titillating sounds Seunghyun had ever heard. Just closing your eyes would be useless, he thought feverishly; you would have to cut off all your senses not to be enflamed by this boy. Without even experiencing his skills first-hand Seunghyun now understood how Jiyong’s owner could charge nigh-on three hundred dollars an hour.

Jiyong blew Seungri for what seemed like an eternity, to Seunghyun at least. He would take him faster, deeper, until he was almost at the edge, then bring him back from it and tease him with fingers and tongue until Seungri was literally begging him to finish. Jiyong was thoroughly in control of the kid. That was perhaps partly to Seungri’s credit, admittedly; he didn’t force Jiyong to hurry up or take charge himself, as Seunghyun figured paying customers might. But it was Jiyong’s pure skill that rendered Seungri helpless. Seunghyun couldn’t begin to imagine what that much pleasure would feel like.

“I’m gonna…!” Seungri warned at last, as Jiyong took him in completely with a charming frown of concentration. Jiyong didn’t stop, just clasped Seungri’s hips in a firm grip and sped up. Seungri cried out, and finally, finally Seunghyun could shut his eyes, much good it did him now. He heard Jiyong make an indulgent sound; then silence, broken only by Seungri’s harsh breathing. “…C’mon,” gasped Seungri, laughing in a delirious way, “swallow for me, huh?” Seunghyun grimaced to himself. “…Oh, good boy!”

“Don’t be getting above yourself…!” said Jiyong, also breathless. His voice had turned hoarse and soft, but he still managed to give Seungri an affectionate scolding. Seunghyun cracked an eye open. Both men were sitting on the edge of the bed, Seungri with one arm slung happily around Jiyong’s shoulders.

“Can’t we play some more?” Seungri was asking. “I wanna try out the toys that perverted oil baron gave you…” Seunghyun was very glad he hadn’t looked in the cupboards.

“Don’t push your luck!” Jiyong warned him. “You’ll hafta do a lot more than take me shopping to use those on me. Go on now, get lost. Don’t you have any work to do?”

“All right.” Seungri gave up, though not without another kiss for good measure. “See you downstairs. And thanks!” He got to his feet and ambled out of the room. Seunghyun heard the apartment door close quietly, and wondered how long he would be stuck here now. How much time did Jiyong spend getting ready for the evening? He wanted to get the hell out of here and repress all memory of this dreadful scene before he had to start his own shift.

Jiyong pulled his feet up to sit cross-legged on the plush bed. He licked his gorgeous lips and leaned back comfortably on his hands.

“Seunghyun,” he said casually. The older man jumped, then froze. “You can come out now.” Jiyong sighed with some impatience. “Come on, you planning to live in there?”

Oh, he was in for it now. With shame already tracked scarlet across his face, Seunghyun pushed the wardrobe door open and slunk out. Cheeks burning and gaze suitably downcast he stood there, wishing the ground would open and swallow him up. Jiyong sat and watched him with interest.

“…How did you know I was there?” Seunghyun mumbled, after it became clear Jiyong wasn’t going to start.

“The bedroom door was shut,” Jiyong told him coolly. “I never close it when I’m out, and neither do the maids; they leave it open to air it. They’re the only ones who come in here. Well, them and the higher-ups, and why would they hide? I could feel someone was in here,” he continued. “And as soon as I kissed Seungri I heard you. You have a real distinctive voice, you know that? So I knew it was you, and I knew where you were.”

“Why didn’t you…I dunno, expose me?” said Seunghyun miserably. “You could’ve got Seungri to throw me out, tell Mr. Thompson, anything.”

“Why should I?” The smaller man shrugged. “You weren’t putting me off any. You think I never had clients who like to watch before?”

“I snooped around your rooms,” Seunghyun reminded him. “I invaded your privacy!”

“Privacy!” Jiyong snorted. “And are you glad you did?” he asked sweetly. Seunghyun shook his head, feeling thoroughly disgraced and disgusted. “Well, then, it’s been a pretty productive afternoon for me,” said the boy. “I got to go out, I kept Ri happy, and I taught you a lesson. And next time you come to my rooms you’ll knock like the nice polite boy you are. Right?”

Right.”

“Okay then.” Jiyong looked up at him expectantly.

“…I’m really sorry!” Seunghyun burst out. “I’ll make it up to you any way you want.”

“Actually I was just waiting for you to leave,” said Jiyong. “But thanks, I’ll bear that in mind.” There was another silence while Seunghyun worked himself up to ask the question.

“Is…Is Seungri your boyfriend?” he said, after agonizing for a bit. Jiyong’s eyebrows shot up momentarily. Then he laughed. “You looked really…affectionate.” It was maybe this that had dismayed Seunghyun the most.

“By affectionate you mean…like I thought his dick was the most amazing thing in the world?” Seunghyun winced. Jiyong’s lovely face split into a grin. “I’m damn good, aren’t I?” When Seunghyun frowned, he added: “It’s my job. When people give me things – money, favors – I give them something back. But I’m the best: when a man’s getting my favors he believes he’s the only one I’d ever give them to.”

“…Oh.” For a moment Seunghyun felt comforted. Jiyong and Seungri, it was just an arrangement after all. But the more he thought about it the more depressing he found it.

“Better to try and have me be friends with you than try and get me to fuck you,” Jiyong advised him sagely. “Better for you all round. If you do somehow end up in my bed you’ll find yourself sharing with a hundred other people. If you show me you’re my friend…you’ll know you’re the only one.”

“That’s what I want,” Seunghyun said fervently, and for a second Jiyong looked almost hopeful. “I’ll do better, I’ll show you. I promise.”

 

Chapter 5

Chapter Text

“Pretty, isn’t he,” were the words that woke Seunghyun from his nap in the sunroom. He had been so exhausted; the long hours of his double life were beginning to tell on him, and lately he’d spent all his free hours running menial errands for Jiyong. He had to do something to make up for snooping in his rooms, and he didn’t mind the accompanying weariness: he deserved it. But no way could he sleep with people standing over him. He could feel them there; still, his vanity was tickled and he kind of wanted to hear more, so he kept his eyes shut. “I’m surprised Mrs. Moore will keep such a handsome pet in the house.”

“Mmm.” That was the Spanish girl’s voice; Seunghyun thought the first was Lily’s. “It’s nice though, having such a dish around! Look at him, all tawny and gold and sleepy. Just like a tabby cat.”

“That’s cute.” As soon as he heard Jiyong’s voice Seunghyun’s eyes shot open. His watchers – there were four or five of them – laughed. “Rise and shine, Tabi,” said Jiyong, who seemed to have shaken off Seunghyun’s voyeurism much more easily than the man himself. “I’m totally gunna call you that now, you big pussycat.” Seunghyun blushed.

“It works,” Lily agreed. “Your given name is so hard to pronounce.”

“…Did you all want me to do something?” ventured Seunghyun.

“Nope.” Jiyong grinned. “Just thought we’d come and annoy you. But since you’re awake we could use a hand moving some records and stuff. Mr. Thompson says he’s actually booked a jazz band tonight! Seeing as the boss is out of town and won’t have his classical ears offended. So we want to bring the gramophone back in here. And later we can dance to the real thing!”

“Not me!”

“Of course not you,” said Lily. “You think Mrs. Moore would let you have any fun with us for free when there’re guys around who’ll pay for it?”

“Good,” said Seunghyun fervently.

 

As Lily had predicted, Seunghyun was kept in his place behind the bar all night by the Madam’s stern eye. He didn’t mind at all because, for the first time ever, he had the privilege of seeing Jiyong genuinely enjoy himself.

“Oh my God,” said Jiyong, doing a nimble solo two-step over to the bar, “this combo is hot!” He gave the customer next to him a breathless smile – the older man was looking a tad perplexed at the invasion of the fast ragtime and dirty lyrics of Jelly Roll Morton into his sophisticated hangout, but that look was enough to make him perk up and buy Jiyong a drink. Seunghyun had seen Morton before, and agreed he was perfect for the boy and his co-workers; Daesung had told him the pianist had got his start playing in brothels as a teenager, so this was probably a home away from home.

Jiyong drained his champagne cocktail almost as soon as he was handed it, hooked one arm around the customer’s neck and gave him an exuberant kiss on the lips, right in Seunghyun’s eyeline. The bigger man grimaced to himself but he couldn’t resent it, not with Jiyong as he was right now, dizzy with bubbles and music. The next moment the boy was back in front of the bandstand, doing the shimmy with the girls and such of the younger clients as could keep up. The House was jumping and rolling, and almost certainly audible to any beat cops who might be walking by. Seunghyun, tapping his foot involuntarily, was for once grateful to Insull and his crooked connections, and equally thankful that the old man wasn’t there to see his pet shaking his perfect behind on the dancefloor.

“You better get some more of the expensive stuff up,” Seungri advised him as he boogied past with Bethany in his arms. Seunghyun guessed he was snatching the chance to enjoy himself while Mrs. Moore was giving Thompson the latest batch of bookings. “It’s turning into a party and these guys are gonna spend like crazy!”

Seunghyun nodded and went to fetch more ice and champagne. He could tell it would be a wild one: his tips were already double what they usually were, and even the most distinguished gentlemen were losing their inhibitions. Not that it took much, he acknowledged, but usually the dirty old coots at least waited until they’d retired to their partner’s room. Now he could see wandering hands all over the place, and there was Lily heading towards the powder-rooms with an excited young man eagerly dragging along after her by his bowtie. Seunghyun had no idea how Mrs. Moore was going to keep all the orders straight, but he imagined it would be a lucrative night.

“Tabi, come dance with me!” said Jiyong in a beguiling if tipsy voice more than once, leaning across the bar.

“Can’t,” Seunghyun would reply each time, “busy!” And off the boy would shoot again, disappearing and coming back, each time more disheveled but grinning delightedly. Seunghyun had never seen anything so crazy, so attractive.

Jiyong danced and drank and fucked his way through ‘til morning, and Seunghyun was nothing short of bewitched. The younger man eventually collapsed on one of the Salon sofas with a pile of his similarly burnt-out colleagues and fell asleep. Seunghyun tidied up the bar area while Seungri, who was surely superhuman to still be chipper at this hour, paid Jelly Roll and the band. Seunghyun was fairly sure the pianist had gotten some free service from one or more of the snoring pile during his breaks – the man went away with the broad grin of a satisfied customer.

“And that,” said Seungri happily, dropping into one of the chairs and gesturing for Seunghyun to take a load off too, “is why Uncle Sam doesn’t let us book jazz.”

“That was actually smashing,” the bigger man told him. He meant it, too, though he was yawning so hard his jaw clicked. That vision of Jiyong, happy; he wanted to see it again. They both watched the slumbering boy with his dopey expression and mussed-up hair, his head pillowed obliviously on Bethany’s chest.

“Yep,” agreed Seungri in a fond voice. “It was a good night, all right.”

 


 

The boss was in England for several weeks, and it seemed the House had caught the jazz bug hard. Seunghyun heard those rhythms in his sleep, as he yawned over test-tubes in the lab, and of course every night in the Salon. The staid older customers had been replaced temporarily by their sons and grandsons, not to mention more female clients, and the Salon had become a party spot for the loose-moral, open-purse young swells of Chicago. Seunghyun was over the excitement fairly quickly – he sometimes fell asleep while actually polishing glasses at the bar, and they were going to run out of champagne – but Jiyong and his gang were having the time of their lives.

Seunghyun arrived mid-afternoon on the Friday, intending to do some experimental mixing down in his cellar; he wanted to improvise a cocktail that would ease the strain of their dwindling bubbly supply but still taste great. Hopefully a few of the girls would play tester for him. He soon located them: some of them had rolled up the big rug in the sunroom next to the Salon and were dancing with each other to gramophone records. Seunghyun poked his head in and found Jiyong and Lily copying a series of energetic steps from one of the beautiful Creole women and surreptitiously trying to trip each other up.

“Quit it, you bitch!” said the tall redhead, half in amusement and half irritation as Jiyong crowded her. She was leading, as far as Seunghyun could tell, and they made a very handsome couple; but Seunghyun was starting to figure out the rivalries within the House and these two were the prime example. Jiyong was plainly top dog in the hierarchy – the size of his apartment and his fee showed that. Lily shared the third floor with him, but her rooms took up less space so Seunghyun assumed she held second position. He’d bet anything that she was vying to be first.

“Tabi!” called Jiyong as the music stopped and one of the girls went to restart the record. “You’re here early. Come dance with us, we’re learning the partner Charleston.”

“We do need more leads,” said the young woman teaching them. Seunghyun thought her name was Queenie, but he hadn’t quite got them all straight yet. “Jiyong has to be able to dance both roles, and anyway it’d be nice to have someone tall for ‘em to get used to.”

“I don’t really dance!” Seunghyun told them hurriedly, but Lily advanced on him and marched him into the room. Not to be outdone, Jiyong took his other arm.

“Just ‘til Seungri gets back,” he said, giving the older man a winning smile. “That boy can move.” Seunghyun was immediately hit by the sharp sting of jealousy, which was no doubt Jiyong’s intention.

“Me first,” said Lily, pulling him towards her. Jiyong tugged him back the other way.

“Who’s top earner around here?” he said. “Me first!” Lily made a face at him that was miles away from the sultry femme fatale persona Seunghyun had seen her play in the Salon at night.

“Neither of you first,” announced Queenie, and beckoned Seunghyun over. He was glad to escape. He had come to realize that being a lowly employee here meant being put at these women’s disposal, regardless of his actual job. He shot Jiyong a pleading look, but the smaller man was too busy exchanging jibes with Lily to notice. “I’ll teach him and y’all can follow along,” Queenie instructed. “Whoever does it perfect can have him.”

A minute later Lily was back in Jiyong’s arms, their positions switched, and the record had started up again. A minute after that it became clear to both rivals that Seunghyun really couldn’t dance – at least, not in time with another person.

“All right,” said Jiyong, looking at his talented partner with rather more complacence, “guess I’ll stick with you!” Lily nodded and they glided off around the floor. Now of zero interest as a prize in their mutual tug-of-war, Seunghyun quickly hopped it.

He spent the rest of the afternoon hiding in his peaceful cellar, testing the results of his mixing by thrusting various beakers at Seungri and making him ferry them upstairs, where the dancers could judge the recipes without getting him involved in any more of their antics. The hands-down winner was a cocktail of sugar, bitters, orange, and champagne; but Seunghyun discovered that you could replace half the wine with ginger ale, with a little vodka for an extra kick, and no-one thought any less of it. Now he just had to try it on some refined palettes.

 

“How come you need to learn the girl and boy’s parts anyway?” he asked that night, when Jiyong came over to the bar to pick up drinks for his customer before they went upstairs.

“Two South Side Fizzes,” ordered Jiyong. “Have you got any of that weird science glassware like you were using this afternoon? Put ‘em in those, it looks so spiffy.” Seunghyun dredged up the recipe from his mental files and added some lime as a personal twist. “What were you saying? Oh, right, the steps. Sometimes guys wanna dance with me, and they always take the lead. But I hafta learn this new Charleston variation both ways ‘cos a married couple’s taking me to a drag ball tomorrow, and boy do they love to shake a leg.”

“What’s a drag ball?”

“You’ll see tomorrow.” Jiyong picked up the beakers and winked at him. “Cheers!” Seunghyun wiped down the bar surface with his apron and wondered how much more bizarre this job was going to get before the boss came home.

 


 

As soon as he got to the House on Saturday he found out.

“Turn around,” he heard Queenie order from the Salon amid a chorus of admiring aahhhs. “You look the bee’s knees, boy!” Seunghyun had arrived early again, mostly out of curiosity, but now he had got here he was frankly nervous of whatever Jiyong might be showing them.

“Oh, hey, it’s you,” said Seungri, trotting out of the Salon in another gangster suit. “Wanna see something amazing?” Without waiting for an answer he propelled Seunghyun into the room. Seunghyun stopped dead, stared, and groaned to himself, because here was another sight to add to the list of things he really ought to forget.

Jiyong was standing in the middle of the carpet, having his outfit praised by half the women in the House. Tonight he looked just like them.

“Well?” demanded Jiyong, noticing Seunghyun. He strolled over to the grand piano and hopped up to sit on it, crossing his legs coquettishly and curling one side of his mouth up as the older man gawped at him.

“It’s…you’re… Goddammit, will someone tell me what a drag ball is?”

“It’s this,” said Jiyong, and gestured to himself. He was wearing a beaded satin cocktail dress in a kind of silver and pewter; it was straight up-and-down with a drop waist, slinky, and very daring, almost short enough to show his knees. It had no sleeves, a low back, and the dull shimmer of expensive fabric. Seunghyun had seen something like it in the movies, and in the fashion papers the women left lying around, but never in real life. “You like?” asked Jiyong, giving it an experimental shimmy. “It’s a Coco Chanel. Mrs. Palmer had it made just for me!”

“Er…Okay.” The girls all rolled their eyes at Seunghyun’s ignorance, but he carried on staring; he couldn’t seem to help himself. Jiyong’s hair was freshly brightened and set in the usual sleek, picture-perfect waves around his face, with a little curl like an upturned comma drawing attention to his high cheekbone. In addition to the feminine fripperies of stockings and heels and gloves, he was wearing paint – not the powder and subtle kohl pencil he used nightly to enhance his features but smoky shadow that made his eyes sparkle, and precisely painted lips the color of dark cherries. As if that wasn’t decadent enough he had two long strings of pearls – real, Seunghyun could tell at a glance – and diamonds in his ears and hair.

“You’re gonna knock ‘em dead!” said Bethany, a pretty, full-figured girl who nevertheless looked young enough to shock Seunghyun whenever he saw her. “Compared to those queens in their steamer-ship ball gowns you’ll look like the sportiest little roadster ever!”

“Thanks, I think.” Jiyong gave her a smirk and extracted a cigarette from his silver net purse, inserting it into a holder and waving it around until Seungri came to light it for him. The kid seemed entranced with Jiyong’s image change; Seunghyun was still too flabbergasted to have an opinion.

“What’re they planning to do with you?”

“They’re coming for a drink first, then taking me there in the Rolls.”

“Ooh, the Silver Ghost?” said Bethany enviously, passing Jiyong a silk hankie to tuck into his glove. “It only came out a few months ago, right?”

“I dunno, you’re the one who’s wet for automobiles,” Jiyong reminded her. “I just drive ‘em.” He grinned. “I’m sure if I ask the wife nicely she’ll let you eat her in the backseat sometime. Anyway, I don’t know why they’re even bringing it, the party’s only down the street at the Annex.”

“Boy looks like Josephine Baker,” Queenie was saying at the same time, dragging Seunghyun closer to give him the full view. “Got the same perfect pins, don’t he: textbook blonde bombshell.” She prodded him. “What do you think, good-lookin’?”

“I think he looks like Clara Bow. …No?” There was a dissenting chorus at this.

“It’s all right,” Jiyong called, and shook his head pityingly. “He doesn’t know any other actresses.” He patted the piano stool. “Come over here and I’ll explain, seeing as you were so very curious.” Seunghyun took a seat at his knee, keeping half an eye out for Mrs. Moore because he wasn’t meant to sit down in the Salon at all.

“You look beautiful,” he told Jiyong. Which he did; just very disturbing, too. “But I don’t get it. Is this another deviant rich people thing?”

“Nope. It’s a deviant everyone thing.” Jiyong blew out a stream of blue smoke. “A drag ball is the wildest party you’ll find this side of Ancient Rome, and the South Side has the best. It’s where the fabulous queer people let loose, and where the artists come to watch them. And where the rich and fashionable go to play with anyone they can get their hands on.”

“Who’re the fabulous queer people?” Seunghyun couldn’t believe Jiyong didn’t feel strange gussied up like a girl.

“You’re such a drip, Tabi,” said Jiyong tolerantly. “Get out of the lab for once! It’s boys dressed as girls, girls dressed as boys, and the crooked freaks who love us. White, black, mansion and gutter, the one place in Chicago they can get along. And all of ‘em with bathtub gin hidden in their garters.” He hiked up his hem enough for Seunghyun to see the engraved silver flask tucked into his stocking-top, and a flash of smooth thigh. Seunghyun gulped.

“I think we can do you a little better than that, honey,” an older female voice interrupted. “I’ve got Glenlivet if you want it!” Seunghyun turned his head as Jiyong hopped smartly off the piano and sashayed over to the couple Seungri had just led in. They were both wearing white tie and dinner jackets, the wife matching the husband in pants, patent-leather pumps, and spats. It was almost as odd to see a woman in men’s clothing as to see Jiyong in a dress, though it didn’t make his heart beat faster the same way. To Seunghyun they seemed averagely good-looking but carried themselves with such knockout vivacity it fooled you into thinking they were beautiful.

“Wow,” exclaimed Jiyong, now standing between them to grant both spouses the benefit of his ensemble, “you look real swell, Mrs. Palmer!”

“Nothing compared to you, darling,” she told him, spinning him slowly to let her husband get a good eyeful. “See?” she said over Jiyong’s head, “I told you the Chanel was him. Look at that chassis, any It girl would be just green with envy!” She should know, thought Seunghyun; if he remembered rightly from Seungri’s lessons, her father or grandfather owned the luxurious Palmer House hotel.

“You’re quite right, Maudie.” Mr. Palmer – so Seunghyun presumed – was staring openly at the younger man as if he couldn’t wait to get a taste of those cherry-colored lips. “At this rate we’ll be lucky if we even make it outside!”

Jiyong preened, leaned into the woman’s manicured touch as she slid the tips of her fingers over the pearls at his neck. Seunghyun hated the sight of it, even more so because of how titillating he found the spectacle. He liked to think he was better than these people and their degenerate games; but seeing Jiyong like this, seeing the three of them so mixed up together and knowing what they would do…it excited him. Not intellectually, but on a purely physical plane. And he wasn’t the only one: Seungri was grinning broadly at Jiyong and his clients.

“So, what’s the plan, Sirs and Ma’am?” Seungri inquired. Can we get you a cocktail? When should we expect you back?”

“Fetch us a couple of Sidecars, will you, baby?” the wife asked Jiyong, giving his sequined bottom a judicious pat. Jiyong smiled at her, jerked his head at Seunghyun, and headed for the bar. Seunghyun followed to mix the drinks.

“What d’you think?” Mr. Palmer asked his wife. “Some jazz and drinkies and hedonism at the Ball, then a bit of supper and perhaps give our pretty new Miss a test-drive in the Ghost.” Jiyong overheard and turned to drop them a wink before getting back to criticizing Seunghyun’s cocktail presentation. “Then I think it’s off to a nightclub and tango like Valentino ‘til we all fall into bed!”

“We’ll make sure it’s ready for you,” said Seungri happily. Jiyong took the cocktails from the bar, observed Seunghyun’s face, and smiled; the lipstick made his teeth look even whiter.

“Don’t be such a sourpuss, Tabi,” he said. “Tonight, for once, I think work might just be fun.”

 


 

“I’m sick of this house,” announced Jiyong the next week, sneaking down to Seunghyun’s lair once he was done with his afternoon client. “Entertain me!” The older man put his nutmeg and grater down.

“…Did something happen?” Usually Jiyong would take the opportunity for a nap or spend some quality time bitching with his co-workers.

“Not really,” said the boy, and flopped into one of the old chairs. “Only…last Saturday was such fun, really wild! You wouldn’t believe the stuff we did, and the Palmers always play so nice. But the boss got back yesterday, so no more jazz for me. And then today…”

“What?”

“Nothing.” Jiyong pushed out his bottom lip. “I just had some particularly crappy sex.”

“Sorry,” commiserated Seunghyun awkwardly. He had no idea how to make the younger man feel better in that respect, and he didn’t dare ask what had been so bad.

“Remember when we first knew each other,” said Jiyong, getting out of the chair and coming over to lean against Seunghyun. He started sniffing the beakers. “You were such a pain in my ass, but…I actually enjoyed our little outings. Even when it was just to the café. It was something different.” He looked up at the taller man. “Can’t we do that again?”

“Of course!” Seunghyun had missed it too, having Jiyong entirely to himself without the possibility of interruption.

“Great! You can come and go as you please, right? Meet me outside the Bluebird in, like, fifteen minutes.”

“Today?” Seunghyun stared around at his messy workstation. Jiyong huffed impatiently. “Yeah, sure, I’ll see you there. Just…be careful, okay? I don’t want Insull locking you up again.”

“All right.” The boy squeezed his arm. “Ready? Break!”

 

It was twenty minutes by the time Jiyong arrived at their café in a pair of old tweed trousers and a plain shirt that was too big for him. Seunghyun reached up and pulled a strand of spiderweb out of his hair.

“Thanks,” said Jiyong; his dark eyes were sparkling. Like this he looked more beautiful than in his most expensive costume under the glittering chandeliers of the Salon. He began to walk away from the Bluebird.

“Aren’t we going in?” inquired Seunghyun, striding after him.

“I don’t wanna sit still.” Jiyong crossed the street and headed in the general direction of Little Italy. “Let’s nip over to the Near West, there’s a bakery off Halstead with the best cannoli. I went there once or twice ‘til I started getting popular, and then I couldn’t. Panda bought them for me a couple of times but they go all soggy if you don’t eat them right away.”

“That’s kinda far to go for sweets, isn’t it? Won’t someone notice?”

“Thirty minutes each way, give or take. There and back, no longer than we’d spend in a coffee place.” Jiyong bumped him lightly. “Don’t you wanna treat me?”

Seunghyun gave up and nodded. He let the younger man take the lead, and before he knew it they were strolling leisurely in the May sunshine as if they did this every day. Jiyong’s enjoyment was infectious; even Seunghyun was beginning to appreciate the sensation of being naughty. He didn’t go over to the Near West Side much; there was nothing in particular to draw him there, and Daesung’s haunts were closer to the district around the House. Walking through it now he saw an interesting mix of cultures and ethnicities: Italian, Jewish, Greek, African-American, Danish, Mexican. In the midst of all that they didn’t stand out one bit; even their speaking Korean wasn’t noticeable over the babel of languages.

“Did you really like coming to talk to me?” asked Seunghyun, as they threaded their way through a crowded street of food stores.

“Course I did. Anything to get out of the House.” Jiyong smiled to himself. “You mean because it was you?” Seunghyun smiled back bashfully; was it that obvious he was fishing for a compliment? “Yes,” said the boy after keeping him hanging for a minute. “No-one talks to me like you do.”

“Thanks.” Seunghyun moved a little closer. “I’m glad you asked me out today. Even if all I can afford to get you is cake.”

“You hate that, don’t you.” Jiyong looked at him. “That I’m a gold-digger.”

“…Yeah.” The bigger man pulled a face. “But I guess not enough to make a difference.” Jiyong just grunted contentedly. Somewhere along the way he had taken Seunghyun’s arm, as a genial friend would do. He seemed to have no problem keeping up with the bigger man’s long stride, and so Seunghyun was thoroughly comfortable; he hadn’t felt this happy, this light, for a long time.

“…I can’t see it,” said Jiyong after they had been wandering the edge of Little Italy for a while. “I could swear it was here.” He peered up at the street sign: they were on Congress. “Yeah, it was!”

“Maybe it closed.” Jiyong sighed. Seunghyun felt bad at his disappointment; the smaller man didn’t have a lot of opportunity to enjoy the simple pleasures. His life seemed to vacillate between extremes: caviar and bondage, diamonds and beatings.

“Oh, well. I think I saw a Danish bakery a little way back, maybe we can…” Jiyong trailed off.

“What?” asked Seunghyun. “Did you find it?” Jiyong was staring a short way up the street. Without answering he tightened his grip on Seunghyun’s arm and drew him smoothly into the narrow space between a hardware store and a half-built house on the next lot.

“…See that alley near the corner of Sangamon?” he murmured, standing on tiptoe to speak into Seunghyun’s ear. “By the grocer’s. There’re men in it.”

“What about it?”

“I saw shotguns.”

“Oh, come on.” Jiyong squeezed his forearm.

“I’ve got good eyes, Tabi, I know what I saw!” Seunghyun stiffened at that, at the genuine alarm in the boy’s voice. He ventured a glance along the road and could see nothing out of the ordinary, just a few people going about their business and the hanging dust from passing cars.

“I mean…should we tell the police?”

“Are you kidding?” said Jiyong. “I’m not getting involved with the cops, the boss would have my hide!” Seunghyun opened his mouth to object, but the smaller man went on hurriedly. “I think we should nice and quietly go home. Let’s just-”

Before he could finish his sentence there was the rumble of an engine and a large Hupmobile passed them; Seunghyun felt Jiyong physically shiver, though it looked no different from any other automobile. As it drew level with the greengrocer there was a noise that he thought was the car backfiring until it happened again almost instantly, and again, the sound resolving into something Seunghyun had never heard in his life before but which he instinctively knew was gunfire. He stared with his mouth hanging open as pedestrians began screaming, his body frozen and unable to turn away; Jiyong was clutching his arm so hard it hurt. After mere seconds the Hupmobile’s windows were completely shattered but it didn’t stop, and the men Jiyong had seen in the alleyway were now firing on it from the main street. Everyone else had taken refuge in the nearby stores or behind parked cars, and Seunghyun had a fair view of them: white, dark hair, a couple without hats or jackets.

As they watched, the car, torn up by bullets to its frame but miraculously still functional, stopped its frantic retreat into the distance and swung round to barrel down on the shooters. There was a flash of gunfire from inside; Seunghyun saw it hit, and one of the men staggered while the others dashed for a nearby Cadillac parked on the street. The ruined Hupmobile was careering closer, so close that Seunghyun could see sunlight burst off the edge of one of the ragged slug-holes in the bodywork. Something punched into a wooden strut not ten feet from them in a shower of splinters, and Jiyong gasped. Still he could not stop watching, and who knew what could have happened if Jiyong hadn’t slugged him hard in the bicep and grabbed his hand, digging his nails in as he dragged the older man deeper into the building lot.

“Fuck, Tabi, let’s go!” snarled Jiyong, and then they were running, ducking beneath timbers and around piles of bricks. Seunghyun could still hear the pop of firearms behind them two streets away. A minute later he caught the distant sound of a fire bell heading south. “Police,” gasped Jiyong shortly, and said nothing more. He held tight to Seunghyun’s wrist until they reached the safety of Prairie Avenue; it had taken them less than fifteen minutes to cover the distance. Jiyong led them the back way into the alley beside the House, and finally stopped. His color was high, his slim chest heaving, and Seunghyun was in much the same state.

“…Jesus Christ,” managed Seunghyun, once they had spent a minute staring at each other in appalled silence. Jiyong took a harsh gulp of air.

“Remind me…not to go out of my way for dessert again!” he said, and his voice shook as he tried to smile. “Right. Um. I’m gunna…gunna go back in by the skylight.” He returned Seunghyun’s hand to him at last. “Give it a few minutes and then come in as usual, like you just popped out for a snack.”

“Okay.”

“And I don’t even hafta say this, but…mouth shut, right?” Jiyong gave a tremulous laugh, though whether he was more shocked or excited Seunghyun couldn’t tell. On impulse the taller man leaned down, cupped his damp face in both palms and pressed a quick kiss to his temple; the skin beneath his lips was fever-hot. The boy shot him a more believable smile as he let go. Then he was up the drainpipe and gone. Seunghyun collapsed on a wooden crate and put his face in his hands.

 


 

Seunghyun somehow got through his shift, though he managed to break two glasses and spill lime slices down Seungri’s shirt. By the early hours of the morning there were already vague rumors of a shooting circulating among the customers, the gossip picked up by his co-workers. It made him jumpy and he was sure he looked strange, but seeing Jiyong act exactly as he always did gave him some fortitude. He snatched a couple of hours’ sleep after the final customer left the Salon, collapsing on one of the sofas. Jiyong had come down limping after a protracted session with his perverted oil baron; he seemed washed-out but calm, as if it had vented all his adrenaline. He rubbed Seunghyun’s shoulder for a moment, told him to close his eyes, and covered him with a blanket before disappearing upstairs again.

When Seunghyun woke up on Sunday there was no-one but the day maids around. He’d had the oddest dreams. He couldn’t find the energy to get himself to the station so splurged on a taxi to his parents’. As soon as he was in the door he commandeered the morning paper from his bemused father and shut himself in his old bedroom. He turned to the front page, and there it was: Police Shoot Genna Brother in Gang War.

He exhaled shakily; though the bloody violence of the North Side Gang and the various Italian factions in the South filled the pages of the Chicago papers almost weekly, their actual warfare was something far removed from most regular folks’ lives. Sure, you heard about it if you bothered keeping up with the news; maybe you walked down the same streets. But really, the Mob kept themselves to themselves – it was between them and the city officials. Civilians like himself and Jiyong weren’t important enough to be involved. So seeing it, hearing the impact of the bullet that had flown past them, shook Seunghyun to the quick. Those sounds had infested his dreams.

“Are you okay, baby?” came his mother’s curious voice through the door. He mumbled something and skimmed through the article; there wasn’t too much detail, but not surprising given that it had all taken place not twenty-four hours ago. It seemed to be the latest in a string of hits on both sides of the line: revenge, dead mobsters and dead cops, and the valiant efforts of the Chicago PD. The sensationalist tone in which it was written didn’t do anything to calm Seunghyun down. When eventually he opened the door his mother was sure he was sickening for something, and was this close to sticking a thermometer up his ass like he was still a baby.

“I’m fine,” he said quietly, and sat on his hands to stop them shivering. His father looked up from his pile of homework to give him a concerned, measuring glance.

“I think you’d better stay off work tonight, son. Why not sleep here? Lord knows we’d like to see more of you.” He must be looking bad, he thought: his dad never suggested that he shirk his duties.

“No.” Seunghyun shook his head. His mother came and whapped him on the back of the skull before stroking her fingers through his hair. He leaned back into the comforting touch. It was tempting, awfully tempting to hide away inside, up here in Edgewater where the worst that had ever happened to him on the street was old Mr. Erikkson calling him a Chink every morning on his walk to school. But he couldn’t do that. He had responsibilities now: he had Jiyong. The thought made him feel braver, so he patted his mother’s hand, set his jaw, and manned up.

 


 

“Tabi,” Jiyong called from the kitchen as Seunghyun walked past to put his things in the cellar. “Come sit with us!” Seunghyun peered in and saw his friend at the center of a bunch of people lounging around the big scarred table: as well as Jiyong there was Seungri, Sarah the pretty Irish blonde, a couple of maids just arrived for the night shift, and an under-cook. He noticed the half-demolished apple cake on the table, which explained Jiyong’s presence in this lowly region of the House.

“Didja hear about Mike Genna?” enquired one of the maids. “This town’s really turning into a pulp novel!” She and her friend shivered; but they didn’t look scared, they looked titillated.

“…Yeah, I read it in the paper.” Seunghyun took a seat beside Jiyong and shot the younger man a careful look: he was flushed with high, excited color, as he had been yesterday. No doubt he was as edgy and shocked as Seunghyun. But:

“Then you don’t know anything,” Jiyong piped up dismissively, and he didn’t sound afraid, just intrigued. “The paper doesn’t have half the facts! But Sarah does.”

“How?” Seunghyun frowned, both at the statement and at Jiyong’s smile. Sarah shrugged.

“I’ve got a standing ‘appointment’ with the Chief of Police, every weekend, regular.”

“One way Uncle Sam keeps them out of our hair,” explained Seungri. “I figured he might cancel today what with all the excitement, but it was business as usual.”

“Tell him what really happened,” Jiyong urged Sarah. So she and Seungri both opened their mouths and began to talk.

Seunghyun caught the gist of it, but hearing two people tell the story was pretty confusing and he didn’t recognize half the names anyway. All he caught was that it had been a set up. Less than a month ago ‘Bloody’ Angelo Genna was assassinated by the Northsiders, and yesterday should have been his brother’s turn. But the men in the Hupmobile – the car Seunghyun and Jiyong had seen being fired upon – hadn’t been his. No, Mike Genna’s men were the guys attacking them from the alley, and it was all some big double cross. Seunghyun lost the thread for a bit there, but he gathered the men in the car were intending to kill Genna, only he got wind of it and went after them first. Then he’d jumped in his Cadillac with his crew and sped off, only to be intercepted by the cops in a huge police chase – the alarm bells they had heard – which ended when Genna tried to escape on foot and was shot in the leg by a patrolman. He’d bled out on the way to the hospital.

“And you know,” said Sarah to her captivated listeners, “the Chief thinks it might’ve been a double double cross. Because the guys with Genna actually belong to Al Capone, so maybe they’re the ones who put him in harm’s way in the first place!”

“Could be,” added Seungri eagerly. “Everyone knows the Chicago Outfit wants to run the whole town.”

But Seunghyun wasn’t really concerned with who had done what to whom and why, or with such a distant and mythic figure as Al Capone. He had his eyes on Jiyong all the way through the story, and was perturbed to see him react with the same detached interest as the others. Why wasn’t Jiyong freaking out?

“What d’you think, Seunghyun?” asked Seungri once they’d wound down.

“I…” Jiyong gave him an encouraging nudge in the side. “I dunno,” Seunghyun admitted, unsure how Jiyong wanted him to react. “I’m not really up on all these characters.”

“Honestly, Tabi, read a newspaper!” scolded Jiyong. “We’re right in the middle of a saga here, these guys have been at it for months.”

“It’s better than the pictures!” said one of the maids. “And cheaper.” And they all began discussing it again.

“…Can I talk to you?” Seunghyun asked Jiyong in an undertone. Jiyong glanced at him, surprised.

“Now? I gotta get dressed.” The boy took in his expression. “But I suppose I’ve got a bunch of clean laundry needs bringing. You could go grab it and follow me up.” Seunghyun nodded and hurried off to find it.

He knocked on Jiyong’s apartment door and was let in. He hadn’t been inside since he’d got caught snooping, and for a minute the memory of that mortifying incident overwhelmed him. Jiyong smirked like he could read the older man’s mind.

“Just put that stuff down anywhere,” he ordered, nodding to the huge pile of folded sheets and clothes. “Maria will come sort it out tonight.” Seunghyun did so gladly, and Jiyong walked off through the beautiful white bathroom into his dressing-room. He began to unbutton his shirt, so Seunghyun wisely elected not to follow him but sat on the edge of the huge tub. His reflection in the fan-shaped mirror looked as disturbed as he felt.

“So…are you okay?” he asked, keeping his eyes well away from the dressing-room.

“Course,” came Jiyong’s voice. “I oughta be asking you that; you’re acting kinda funny. You see the resident ghost or something?”

“I can’t stop thinking about yesterday.”

“I should think not!” said Jiyong, somewhat muffled as he got changed. “You don’t see that every day.”

“We could’ve been killed!”

“Maybe. But it’s not like they were gunning for you.”

“I was actually sort of scared to go out on the street today.” Seunghyun felt an echo of it again, the prickly, tight-chested sensation of danger.

“You big baby.”

“You were scared enough at the time!” Seunghyun pointed out crossly. “…I don’t know why you aren’t now.” Jiyong appeared in his eye-line with a long Chinese brocade robe and bare feet. One eye was darkened with kohl, the stick still in his hand.

“I’ll tell you why,” he said, perching himself on one of the elegant cabinets. “It’s ‘cos you’ve lived too safe. I bet you’ve never spent time thinking about your own death.”

“I really try not to!”

“Well, I have,” said Jiyong calmly. He turned to the mirror and began to darken the other eye. “When my dad had his accident, when I thought we were gunna starve, when I was first alone with Mr. Insull and he told me to take my clothes off…” He shrugged. “The possibility was there every time. It always is, every day.” Seunghyun saw him smile at his reflection. “But the odds of one of us getting killed by the Mob are pretty slim. The only reason I’d be afraid to step out on the street is some cuckoo in a Bugatti running me over!”

“That’s very…” Seunghyun wanted to express the pathos he felt at how the world had forced the boy to face his own mortality at such a young age. But it would only come across as pity, and Jiyong never would tolerate that. “…Logical,” he finished up lamely.

“Tabi,” said Jiyong, rather fondly. He slid off the cabinet and took Seunghyun’s chin in one hand, tilting his head up to smile at him. “Rich men and gangs rule this whole show, and as long as Prohibition goes on it’s only gunna get worse. You’ve just gotta get used to it. Keep up with the news. It’s very unlikely that any of it’s going to touch us with the protection we’ve got here. But there’s no getting away from it – not without leaving the city.”

“You know what I think about that,” Seunghyun told him, unable to help himself. Without considering what he was doing he took Jiyong’s fingers in a gentle grip, though he knew enough to know it would do no good.

“Yeah,” said Jiyong. He drew his hand back and patted the bigger man on the cheek. “Never gunna happen. So just…stay out of Little Italy, keep your ears open, and we’re all gunna be fine. Okay?”

“All right.”

“Good,” Jiyong said with finality. “Now skedaddle out of my room.” Seunghyun went, not exactly comforted but with a new sense of perspective; and, mostly, with the realization that Jiyong was the strongest person he had ever met.

 

Chapter 5

Chapter Text

When Monday rolled around Seunghyun discovered that the Mob hit and its subsequent excitement were great sources of entertainment in scholarly circles too. Inasmuch as you could refer to his undergraduates as ‘scholarly’. Right now it was debatable; they were supposed to be making revisions to their attempts at observation notes, half of which were so laughably bad he had returned them with a simple red line slashed across the pages. It didn’t seem to bother them. Nothing did on Mondays.

“Mr. Nevander,” called Jennings, whose group was the only corner of the lab that appeared the slightest bit industrious. The red-haired boy had his hand up. Seunghyun thanked God for having one diligent student and went over to answer his question.

“Didn’t you hear?” he heard someone say at the next table. “He left a trail of blood twenty yards long.” Seunghyun twitched – he was still haunted by the shooting in spite of Jiyong’s pep talk, and the words sparked a flash of unwelcome images across his eyes.

He blinked and looked over: one of Watkins’ friends was sitting close to Emma, the lone female student, and was murmuring at her enthusiastically. This wasn’t too unusual: Emma was quite pretty and her family was well-off, which did her no favors in the Department. As with Seunghyun, almost no-one took her seriously as a budding chemist; and to be honest her abilities were average at best. But at least she tried. It didn’t help that there was always some idiot trying to flirt with her.

“It’s all about Volstead, you know?” said the boy, as if he was the resident expert on Prohibition. Watkins was watching them with amusement, neglecting his own red-scrawled lab notes. “The G Men are finally getting a clue, and doesn’t that make the criminal element nervous! But you don’t need to worry, honey: I know some good nightspots that’ll be swinging even after all the Mob scum in Chicago bump each other off.” Seunghyun raised his eyebrows. The kid was nineteen, tops, and certainly no Seungri; likely he had never seen the inside of a real speakeasy. “How about we take you out sometime?”

Emma sighed. Taking this as his cue Seunghyun marched over, extracted the girl from between Watkins and his friend, and assigned her a seat next to Jennings.

“Come on!” complained the would-be ladykiller. “I was just paying her some attention. Even the bluestockings like it really!”

“You just pay your work some attention,” Seunghyun advised him. “You’re both on track to fail Professor Wyeman’s class.”

“Doesn’t matter.” The boy gave him an insolent smile. “I’ll get my father to have a chat with the Dean.”

“Yeah,” Watkins chipped in. “Isn’t it your fault for not teaching us properly? I bet he’d love to hear that.”

“Your marks speak for themselves,” said Seunghyun implacably. This was a typical Monday tug-of-war. “When compared to the other students’. You’re not stupid, Watkins.” Untrue. “But you might as well be, if you spend all your class time flirting and gossiping about gangsters!”

“My God, you are such a sap. Don’t you ever get out and have fun?”

“I expect you can’t afford it,” said Watkins’ friend with a straight face. “Being on scholarship and all. But you can’t blame him for that,” he told the other boy. “Not too many families from his neck of the woods have money.” Seunghyun narrowed his eyes at them but decided to let that insult ride. It was only the beginning of the week, after all, and there were so many more important things to worry about. In any case, it was laughable to hear them: if only they knew how he spent his nights!

“Did I tell you?” said Watkins, after it became clear he wasn’t getting a rise out of the older man today. He ignored Seunghyun and turned to jaw with his companion, elbow on his notes. “My godfather’s in town, he described some hotspots you wouldn’t believe. He promised he’d take me next time!”

“For your birthday?”

“Yeah, and you know money’s like water to him.”

Seunghyun left them to it and walked away. He knew he shouldn’t, or at least should make an official complaint to the Prof about their attitude to work. He would have, before; he would have gotten angry at their disregard for his authority, for those underhand comments about his family. But after four nights solid on duty at the House he was too exhausted to care. There were only three things he could bring himself to care about right now: his research, Jiyong, and avoiding the Mob. Baby bigots would just have to wait their turn.

 


 

“Do I look extra pretty?” demanded Jiyong, tilting his head.

“You look beautiful, same as always,” said Seunghyun wearily, wiping down the bar with his apron. As usual he had spent the first part of the week looking forward to Thursday eagerly; and, as usual, the sight of Jiyong with customers brought him down to earth with a bump. “Why?”

“‘Cos Arthur Cutten’s coming to visit me, and he’s one of the richest guys in the country – after the boss, of course.”

“Rich how?” The older man got on with putting away the clean glasses.

“I dunno, something to do with wheat. Very tedious, but luckily he doesn’t go on about it, unlike some of them. Anyway, he just bought a fancy camera so he’s coming to take dirty pictures of me.”

“Urgh.” Seunghyun instantly shut down his imagination; he was getting pretty good at that now. “Don’t you mind?” he asked. Jiyong preened.

“Why should I? He already photographed Queenie last week.”

“I mean, what if he shows them to people?” The boy laughed.

“If he does they’ll be the type of people who’d come here anyway. So personally speaking it’s free advertising; Queenie says she got a new customer already. C’mon, Tabi,” he went on, observing Seunghyun’s face. “It’s not like I have a reputation to damage!”

“I know,” said Seunghyun dolefully, turning aside from the sight of Jiyong preening in the reflection from a whiskey bottle. He just wished there was something – anything – he could do to make Jiyong look forward to seeing him that much. Or, failing that, to at least make himself indispensable.

 


 

Seunghyun racked his brains over the course of the next few days – and, inevitably, could think of no essential reason for Jiyong to need him around. Friendship was what he was aiming for, but how far had he achieved that? And how much did Jiyong actually need it, after all? He thought the boy liked him well enough, enjoyed talking to him sometimes. He had no idea if Jiyong missed him when he wasn’t there. But what else could he do?

The question was spinning in the back of his mind as he arranged a bottle of wine and two glasses on one of the ritzy silver trays. He was about to come round the bar and carry it over to the table where Sarah was waiting when her customer – supposedly a regular, but Seunghyun had never seen him before so he must have been travelling – stopped him.

“I’ll take it,” said the man affably.

“Thank you, Sir.” Seunghyun made a note in the account book.

“New, are you?” enquired the guy. He was one of the younger ones, the kind who liked to make conversation as if they were equals – until they discovered Seunghyun’s lack of amusing banter. Then they’d generally go off and trade wits with Seungri.

“Months now, Sir.” He snuck another look at the account book, he was terrible with their names. “Mr. Miller.”

“Are you Seungri’s cousin or something?”

“No.”

“Oh, well.” The man picked up the tray – another customer Seunghyun had bored into walking away. “You’re jolly tall for a Chinese. But I hear your cocktails are something to write home about.” And with that he wandered off.

“I’m not Chinese,” said Seunghyun, almost under his breath – if the guy wanted to hear it, he would. Most times they didn’t bother; they were only ever making a façade of conversation. He’d almost given up trying to explain, and even if he wanted to he wasn’t allowed to get angry.

“It’s not such an insult, is it?!” asked Lin, popping up beside the bar as the customer left and looking quite insulted. Seunghyun blushed. A few seats away he saw Jiyong smirk, then turn back to the client beside him and resume complimenting her; from the look on her face she’d be undressing him in the next ten minutes.

“Sorry,” he told the Chinese woman. Lin tossed her perfect black bob at him. “It’s just that nobody ever knows where Jiyong and I come from.” He didn’t mention Seungri – the younger man’s relationship to Insull somehow made him seem more other than either of them. “How would you like it if people kept calling you Japanese?”

“I’d like it,” said Lin with a short laugh. Her accent was quite charming. “Japanese girls can make a ton of money. It’s the Madame Butterfly effect.” She nodded at Jiyong. “That one plays it for all it’s worth.” Seunghyun thought she sounded a bit sour. “And when the house Number One has the Oriental Princess role all sewn up I can’t exactly get in on it.” She gestured to her eccentric, expensive cocktail dress. “So I go for ‘artistic’.”

“Fair enough.” She was definitely jealous of Jiyong.

“But tell him if he ever fancies an image change I’ll take his kimono collection; I dare say you could persuade him. Seems he’s got a real soft spot for you – one Korean to another.” Seunghyun supposed he deserved that. Still: he had influence over Jiyong? The girls thought Jiyong maybe liked him? Seunghyun smiled and made her a drink as a silent peace-offering. He hoped she was right. And it wouldn’t hurt to be a little more proactive in making himself useful – just to be sure.

 

“It’s me,” called Seunghyun through Jiyong’s door once his work was all done. He was very sleepy but he didn’t want to go home without saying goodnight. It had been getting harder and harder to just leave when his shift ended, particularly when Jiyong didn’t come back downstairs after his last trick of the night.

“Yeah?”

“You busy? Can I come in?” A pause, and the door swung open. Jiyong left him to close it and padded back to his dressing-room. Seunghyun followed. “I brought your clean laundry,” he said – any excuse to be allowed up here.

“Oughtn’t you to be asleep by now?” said Jiyong, glancing at his jeweled wristwatch. Seunghyun didn’t care to think about what he’d had to do to earn it. “It’s almost six.”

“I could say the same to you.” Jiyong sniffed and sat himself down at the dressing-table, the blind raised off the barred window and lamps turned up full to illuminate his face. He looked tired.

“I still gotta prep for tomorrow. And I can sleep all day.”

“It’s okay.”

“You wanted to see me that badly?” said Jiyong, and sighed. He was wearing yet another silk bathrobe, his blonde hair clean and dripping onto the collar. Seunghyun just gave him a smile. “Fine,” continued the younger man, giving in. “If you’re gunna come bug me in the mornings you can at least learn to make yourself useful.”

“Whatever you need,” replied Seunghyun eagerly. That was exactly what he wanted. Jiyong yawned at him and beckoned him to the table.

“I’ll teach you to do my hair. It’s hard for me to fix right when I’m tired.” He picked up an ivory comb and pushed it at Seunghyun, who proceeded to fumble it; was Jiyong really giving permission to touch him? Seunghyun was so glad he hadn’t gone home. “Do the parting first,” Jiyong instructed him. He drew an imaginary line along his scalp. “Deep, on the right. No, you dope! What, you never brushed your own hair? Do it with the tail end, it makes a sharper line.” Seunghyun did as he was told, still a little nervous to actually touch that beautiful head.

“Okay?”

“If you get behind me it’ll be easier. Now, check in the mirror. Does it look straight?” Seunghyun nodded humbly. “Fine. Make sure it’s combed out smooth.”

The older man took a breath and set his fingers to Jiyong’s scalp. The boy’s hair was softer than it looked. He ran his fingers through it once, couldn’t help himself, then began to brush it out as gently as he could. There were no tangles anyway; the comb drew smoothly down to the nape of Jiyong’s neck. The hair there was fine, the skin delicate and pale gold beneath its angel tattoo. Seunghyun swallowed.

“…What do you use to make it this color?” he asked, attempting to sound normal. “Peroxide?”

“Yeah.” Jiyong considered his reflection complacently. “Mrs. Moore does it for me every few weeks. It stings like fucking hell, I can tell you that.”

“It’s pretty,” said Seunghyun quietly, and continued to brush.

“Mmm. Take your time.” When he looked up he saw Jiyong had closed his eyes and was basking cat-like in the attention. A small, relaxed sound escaped his pink lips. Seunghyun couldn’t swear he was doing it on purpose, but either way the effect was highly distracting.

“What next?” he asked, trying for brisk. Jiyong blinked, then rummaged in the dresser drawer and extracted a handful of long, toothed metal clips.

“This is a double wave clip. It’s for doing the marcel style. Think Bebe Daniels.” He rolled his eyes at Seunghyun’s expression. “She’s an actress. Trust me, this is all the rage. It lasts longer if you use a curling iron, but I might burn myself.” He showed Seunghyun how to place the clips to achieve the distinct flat waves that accentuated his face so well. He took the bigger man’s hands and guided him as if he was a kid or an idiot – and right now Seunghyun felt like both. He couldn’t concentrate on a word Jiyong was saying, not with those cool fingers directing his own, but he did his best. The younger man chattered away as he worked, scolding Seunghyun in between asking him about his day at the lab.

At last Jiyong was satisfied. He preened in the mirror for a minute, checking his hair from every angle. Then he sprayed it with an unidentifiable sweet-scented concoction, and relaxed in his chair.

“Thank you, Tabi.” Seunghyun blushed as usual under that smile. “Will you remember all that?”

“Er…”

“Oh, well, you can try again next time.” That was encouraging, thought Seunghyun. Jiyong patted an index finger against his high cheekbone. “You can kiss me,” he said archly, and that made it all worthwhile ten times over. Seunghyun leaned down and brushed his lips reverently across Jiyong’s cheek, logging away the sensations to replay later. Maybe that would stave off some of the horrendous pictures his mind conjured whenever he saw Jiyong with his clients.

“…By the way,” said Jiyong after a moment’s consideration, “Mr. Cutten brought my photographs to show me.” He looked pleased.

“How were they?” asked Seunghyun reluctantly. He didn’t need to hear about this, not now; he’d been having such a nice moment.

Filthy. I was quite embarrassed to look at ‘em!” The bigger man snorted. “But he’s fairly good. And he did give me this.” Jiyong fished a small piece of card stock out of his dresser drawer, only a couple of inches high. “Well look at it, Tabi!” he ordered. Seunghyun didn’t want to – he had a hard enough time not imagining Jiyong in a sexual context without seeing it. Especially knowing it had been taken by some disgusting billionaire! “Oh, don’t be such a prude, it won’t make your eyes bleed.”

Rather unwilling, Seunghyun took a peep; then he peered closer. To his relief it was only a portrait shot. There was Jiyong’s beautiful head, nicely lit and taken at the perfect angle to capture both the soft and sharp aspects of his face. His hair shone, the eyes were dark and soulful, and his exquisite mouth held the smallest hint of a pout. It was so very Jiyong it made Seunghyun catch his breath.

“It’s…lovely,” he admitted, greatly surprised.

“Told you he was good.” Jiyong smiled at him in approval and tucked the little picture into his hand. “If you want to, you can keep it. Yes?”

Yes,” said Seunghyun. And then, fervently, “Thank you!” Jiyong reached up and patted his cheek.

“See? There’s always a silver lining.”

 


 

The furor over the Genna killing eventually cooled off, elbowed out by the latest scandals, and after a month Seunghyun’s consciousness had put it on the back burner. He was almost having a nice time: his students were still imbeciles and his customers objectionable, but Jiyong was letting them spend more time together. Even if it was only to do his chores, the older man felt privileged. And sometimes Jiyong was sweet. Seunghyun kept the pretty little photograph locked in his desk at the lab – it was where he spent most of his daylight hours – and considered himself a lucky man indeed.

Then one evening Seunghyun was called into Thompson’s office, and there he discovered that every silver lining had a lining of its own; and that it was about to make his life twice as complicated.

“You’re a fair bartender,” the manager began, his desk overflowing with paperwork as usual. Seunghyun nodded; he was instantly suspicious. Nobody here buttered him up unless they wanted something. “But it’s time you really got to grips with the job.”

“How do I do that, Sir?” Seunghyun asked, trying not to sound reluctant. He hadn’t spent a lot of time around Thompson – they only really spoke when Seunghyun had earned a scolding about his speaking Korean or his lack of social skills or when he was otherwise being a nuisance. He didn’t know who was tattling on him; Mrs. Moore, probably. So on any day other than payday his attitude towards the manager was one of wariness.

“The Feds raided one of the storehouses where our importers stash their hard liquor,” said Thompson without further preamble. Seunghyun blinked. “Someone in central government is getting over-enthusiastic; they’ve been cocky since they indicted George Remus at the beginning of the year.” Seunghyun grimaced to himself: he’d read about it, of course, how the renowned bootlegging lawyer had been convicted and sentenced in less than two hours: goodbye millionaire lifestyle, goodbye loving wife, hello Big House. Not that he had either of those things to lose, but he certainly didn’t fancy the same fate. And that was what Thompson was asking; he was sure of it. “It’ll even itself out in a while, but until then we’re short.”

“Won’t Mr. Insull buy from the local suppliers? I heard they have a line to New York and Atlantic City now,” Seunghyun ventured. The older man shook his head.

“The boss doesn’t want to buy from Capone’s men. Especially since the fine citizens of Cicero went all vigilante on the Mob-run whorehouses. He’s kept the Outfit out of our hair so far, and we want it to stay that way – good job he’s so savvy.”

“How?” asked Seunghyun, who figured he ought to learn as much as possible about the intricacies of the bootlegging business. He knew what Thompson was leading up to and, while he didn’t welcome it, it was the whole reason he’d been hired.

“Between you and me,” said the supervisor, “Mr. Insull’s cozy with Alderman Coughlin. The one who fancies our little Jiyong.” Seunghyun nodded; now he remembered. The man and his buddy were the most powerful officials in Chicago, the ‘Gray Wolves’ whose palms every businessman, and half the mobsters, had to grease in order to get anything done. Coughlin, according to Jiyong, liked complete control – even in the bedroom. “The boss gives him a big discount to keep the gangs’ attention away from private clubs like this. So, bottom line: no booze from the Outfit.”

“And so…” began Seunghyun.

“So it’s time to deliver on your promise: we need smooth liquor in the next week. At least sixty proof when ready to mix, and preferably flavored for brandy and gin.”

“Can you get me supplies or do I have to arrange my own?” Seunghyun had started work on recipes for compounds months ago, and he had a very long list.

“Give me the list,” said Thompson. “The still will be installed downstairs tomorrow. Let me know if you have a good glassware wholesaler, I don’t know squat about that science stuff.”

“Yes, Sir,” Seunghyun replied meekly. He’d need to take some days off school: it was an insanely tight deadline. He’d better find a convincing illness to fake. On one hand he was resentful of that, and nervous – this was a far graver offence than merely serving alcohol. But on the other he was almost excited, with the chemist’s genuine joy of creating something new. He hadn’t felt that in quite a long time, what with the routine work of supervising the freshmen and his exhaustion from working nights. Perhaps…perhaps this would even be fun.

“All right, then,” ordered Thompson. “Get cooking!”

 


 

Some days later Seunghyun was in the basement, singing to himself tunelessly with a handkerchief tied across his face. He was feeling rather giddy, and had been for…he didn’t remember how long. He couldn’t recall when he had last seen the sun, either. It didn’t seem to matter: he was an alchemist, a pioneer, a magician! Seungri opened the door and tottered down the steps.

“Three of gin,” he said to himself, also sounding somewhat slurred, “one of brandy… champagne from the back…oops!” He edged his way past Seunghyun to reach the imported wine, giving the older man a broad smile. Seunghyun beamed back under his improvised mask; they were getting on famously since Seungri had started helping him with the operation down here.

“You gonna come up ‘n have a break, old thing?” inquired the kid. “Yongie and the girls’re missing that pretty face, the fill-in guy just isn’t the same…”

“Later!” said Seunghyun brightly, and treated Seungri to a chorus of California Here I Come. They grinned dopily at each other; then Seungri wound his way back upstairs with his crate-load of illicit alcohol. Seunghyun continued to create.

“…My God,” came a sweet, familiar voice an untold amount of time later as the basement door swung open again. “What a reek!” Jiyong made his way carefully into the distillery to find Seunghyun still humming amid boxes of corn sugar, potatoes, yeast, his own renatured alcohol, juniper berries, glycerin, nutmeg, and other sundry flavorings he’d been experimenting with. The smaller man clambered over crates of empty bottles waiting to be filled and arrived at the table where Seunghyun was compounding a passable imitation of vodka.

“Hey, Jiyong!”

“Tabi, you’ve been down here all night. And all day and the night before and…”

Yeah, everybody loves my baby,” sang Seunghyun cheerfully. Jiyong raised his eyebrows in astonishment.

“You know, your gin’s actually pretty good,” he said, when he could get a word in edgeways. “Even if Ri was a little slapdash helping with the cocktails this evening.”

“…But my baby don’t love nobody but me!” Jiyong narrowed his eyes, then reached out and tugged the handkerchief down off Seunghyun’s face.

“You’re drunk!” he exclaimed. Seunghyun chuckled: Jiyong looked like he didn’t know whether to laugh or flounce off in disgust. Either way he was so pretty! The boy sniffed at the fumes hanging round the table. Seunghyun had got used to it, but there must be quite a pungent fug throughout the distillery. “And no wonder!” He stared at the bigger man some more, and Seunghyun felt nothing but warm, fuzzy affection. Then Jiyong did smile. He drew Seunghyun forward by the handkerchief around his neck. “I’ve never seen you drunk, Tabi,” he said softly. “It’s kinda funny. And cute.” Seunghyun leaned towards him eagerly, almost fell across the table but somehow kept his balance.

“…You wanna try my new recipe?” he asked, stifling a hiccup. For answer Jiyong pulled him forward even further, one hand on the scruff of his neck, and kissed him. Almost; almost. Seunghyun felt the faintest brush of his lips, the soft caress of his breath. Then it was gone and he was stumbling after, craving one more touch. “Blimey,” Jiyong murmured, backing him toward the stairs, “I reckon I can taste it from here! You better come get some fresh air…”

“Don’t tease,” said Seunghyun huskily. His head was still spinning, but in a pleasant kind of way, even though he knew Jiyong was just messing with him to coax him out of the basement. Feeling the most daring he ever had in his life he took Jiyong in his arms and leaned down to bury his face in his neck, gasped at the press of that magical body against his own. That felt so nice! Jiyong was so smooth, his skin and fancy clothing pure luxury beneath Seunghyun’s hands; he was beyond thrilled that they had at last reached a point where being this close was even imaginable. He inhaled, trying to catch the wonderful scent that was unique to his friend. But above it, stronger and almost insolent, was the smell of cigars and another man’s cologne.

“…What?” said Jiyong as Seunghyun went still. His hands were on Seunghyun’s waist, perhaps on the verge of encouraging him.

“Uhh… You didn’t shower yet, huh.” Seunghyun sounded tipsy, even to himself. He knew it was stupid as soon as he said it – but the smell of someone else, perhaps several someone elses, was infuriating on some primal level now he was in such intimate proximity to Jiyong. The boy froze. There was a pause. Then without drama he disengaged himself from Seunghyun’s now ambivalent embrace and stepped away.

“You didn’t hafta say that, Tabi,” he said in a quiet voice. Seunghyun could have kicked himself once he realized what it sounded like – he hadn’t meant to offend him! “I’m glad you did, though. Before I let you do something that is never, ever gunna happen.” Jiyong turned and picked his way back through the debris. To Seunghyun – whose judgement admittedly wasn’t on top form right now – he looked smaller than when he had come in.

“I’m sorry, Jiyong!” he called urgently. Jiyong paused, then walked up the steps. He shut the door behind him without looking back. Seunghyun cursed to himself, but went back to his table, his head still reeling. He’d make sure to fix this, yes, of course; it was going to take some time, though. So until his friend forgot, he might as well continue his experiments. Seunghyun hiccupped again, then sighed. Bathtub chemistry was a good deal safer than handling the delicate element that was Jiyong.

 


 

Jiyong was cool with him for a good week afterwards. Seunghyun tried to apologize numerous times, in between perfecting the liquor Insull needed to keep the customers happy. He was doing well at that, anyway; but Jiyong was stubborn.

“Got the sulks again, I see,” said Lily as Jiyong brushed past him and out to join Coughlin, whose visits had increased lately; Seunghyun could only assume he was getting some freebies. Jiyong didn’t look back, just slid beneath the gray-haired man’s arm with Lin on the other side, and let himself be led over to a sofa. Lily patted Seunghyun’s hand. “It’s not your fault, Tabby Cat. He’s just like that.”

“It is,” Seunghyun told her. He set down his bottles on the bar. “I said something so nasty to him…”

“As if anything you could think of would be half as mean as the stuff our tricks call us!” Lily leaned on the bar, displaying her magnificent cleavage. “We’re all big girls. And a boy. Believe me, he’s used to it.”

“That doesn’t make it right! For any of you,” said Seunghyun hotly. He didn’t want to explain that it wasn’t so much what he’d said as the fact that he said it – how shocking that must have been for Jiyong. He didn’t want Lily to know he had never given the smaller man a harsh word because he was that stuck on him.

“Aren’t you sweet.” The redhead looked at him like he was a brand new lifeform. “Well, if you wanna make him jealous or anything, let me know. That should bring him round fast enough!”

“…No.” Seunghyun sighed. “I’ll just have to be a decent friend and wait.”

He tried his best: stayed patient and miserable for as long as he could, enduring Jiyong’s emotionless glances and the way he’d begun to flirt with customers in the Salon – a performance that went beyond clever innuendo and subtle touches to blatantly taunting the older man. He’d even had to see Jiyong get spanked, bent over some decrepit fuck’s knee in an armchair and letting out the most provoking squeaks of discomfort and pleasure, a half-dozen of the girls and their tricks whistling and egging him on. Jiyong would never have done that before. Seunghyun had almost snarled at him later, he was that het-up. Thankfully he had restrained himself, and instead took it out on whoever else was around: his relations with Seungri had reverted right back to their lowest point.

Seunghyun was half crazy with remorse and irritation – and the constant alcohol fumes probably didn’t help any – before the both of them came to their senses. He was tramping down the back stairs with a mop and bucket after dealing with a drink spill on the girls’ floor, the maids being busy doing who the hell knew what. Suddenly Jiyong’s slim figure appeared from the first-floor stairwell. Seunghyun was about to squeeze up and make room so Jiyong could get by without feeling the need to shoulder-barge him, when he noticed the boy was moving…oddly. Surreptitious, with one hand holding something to his cheek.

“Hey.” Seunghyun gathered up his courage, stepped down and blocked his retreat. “You okay?”

“Fine,” said Jiyong in a low voice. It was the first word he had spoken to the older man in days. “Let me past, huh? I’ve got stuff to do.”

“What’s up with your face?” Jiyong shook his head dismissively. Seunghyun thought about pulling his hand away but didn’t want to touch him without permission, not with the way they’d been lately. “Come on.” Jiyong met his eyes, read whatever was in them, and pursed his lips. Slowly he lowered his hand. It was dark on the stairs, but not dark enough for Seunghyun to miss the glaring bruise on Jiyong’s smooth cheek. He took a harsh breath.

“Calm down,” warned Jiyong pre-emptively. “It’s not that bad.”

“Who hurt you?!” demanded Seunghyun, his temper threatening to flare into that black inferno he was powerless to restrain. It pushed out everything else: Jiyong’s recent coldness, his own stupidity. “I’ll punch his fucking lights out!”

“Don’t be so dramatic.” Jiyong put one finger to his lips in a hushing gesture. “I just told Mr. Thompson; he’ll see the trick gets charged extra. Now quit making a fuss or you’ll get us in trouble.”

Who was he?” That was no kind of justice for the abuse Jiyong had to suffer in service to the dollar! This was completely different from a spanking.

“What makes you think it was a guy?” inquired Jiyong, taking the wind out of his sails. Seunghyun paused, because it was a blurrier line with a female client. Wasn’t it? He had just decided that no, it wasn’t – physical strength aside, the power balance was still stacked against Jiyong whenever money changed hands – when the younger man cut in on his thoughts. “Don’t be difficult, Tabi,” said Jiyong in a quiet voice. “I’m so tired…”

Without thinking Seunghyun set the tips of his fingers to Jiyong’s bruised cheek. It was cold from the handkerchief of ice he’d been holding to his face. The boy didn’t flinch, just looked at him with those dark eyes.

“I am sorry, Jiyong,” Seunghyun muttered – it was more than past time he made him listen. “For what I said to you before, and for trying to put the moves on you, everything… I just want to look after you.” He felt his hand curl into a fist as he lowered it back to his side.

“Please,” said Jiyong. “Not now. Mrs. Moore said I’ve got time for a break, so…just take me upstairs?” Seunghyun knew Jiyong was distracting him on purpose, playing the wounded bird. But dammit, he couldn’t resist. So he laid aside his anger, let Jiyong slide one arm through his, and led him up to his suite of rooms. He could hear one of the maids changing the sheets in the first bedroom so he escorted Jiyong to the door of the second.

“I’m gunna go to bed for a bit,” Jiyong told him. “But stay while I get ready, willya?” Seunghyun hadn’t heard that sweet tone in what felt like forever.

“If you like.” The smaller man disappeared into the bathroom. Seunghyun leaned against the door and stood there quietly fuming. Every second Jiyong was out of view his rage and disgust came creeping back: not only did he want to punish Jiyong’s client but also Insull, the man who had taught him it was acceptable to tolerate such cruelty. He was getting quite worked up when Jiyong emerged again; but as soon as he did every cogent thought flew out of Seunghyun’s head.

“You don’t hafta stare, Tabi.”

Seunghyun swallowed painfully. He knew he ought to look away, but couldn’t. He had seen Jiyong now in everything from a kimono to a dress shirt to a Roman toga – but this was the first time he had ever, ever seen him naked. Jiyong padded across the thick rugs as if he had been designed to never wear clothes at all. He had more tattoos than Seunghyun had realized, cryptic words and phrases scattered from his shoulders down to the enticing lines of his thighs. The curve of his ass rewrote everything Seunghyun thought he knew about male beauty. In every respect he was magnificent, even to the finger-shaped bruises on his hips; the marks and tattoos only served to highlight his perfection.

As soon as he humanly could, Seunghyun shut his eyes.

“Please get in bed,” he said urgently. He heard a soft laugh. Then:

“Okay,” came Jiyong’s voice. “You’re safe now.” Seunghyun cracked one eye open and was relieved to find the boy in his huge bed with the linen sheets pulled up past his torso. Jiyong looked rather pleased about something.

“…Will you be all right?” asked Seunghyun. “Do you need anything?”

“It’s fine.” Jiyong patted his tender cheek. “I put ointment on it.” He lounged there in silence for a minute, watching the older man. Seunghyun felt he was being weighed up. “Don’t worry,” he said at last, and snuggled down. “You can get back to the Salon – Seungri’ll be pissed if he’s had to cover for you. Apparently no-one mixes the cocktails like you.”

“If you’re sure. I mean…that we’re okay again.”

“Goodnight, Tabi,” murmured Jiyong, without acknowledging that. Seunghyun shut the door behind him; he supposed that was as much as he could expect. It was better than the cold front, anyway.

He accepted an armload of laundry from Maria on his way out and made his way back downstairs entirely without thinking. All his cognitive power was already engaged in plastering the image of Jiyong’s naked body on every wall of his memory. God help him, Seunghyun was as bad as the rest of them, if this was all he could see after what Jiyong had endured tonight! He returned to his post amongst the music and the girls and their satisfied customers, and promised himself that he would never, ever imagine that sight again.

 


 

Whatever Seunghyun had promised himself it was nigh-impossible to forget what he’d witnessed that night: the specter of Jiyong’s body haunted his lab-time and sleep-time both, much as the boy’s face had done after the night they’d first met. Jiyong seemed to realize it, although Seunghyun wasn’t sure if he actually minded or if he found it amusing. Perhaps inflicting that sight upon him had been a neat way to make the older man forget about the bruise; or perhaps it was payback for what he had said to Jiyong. Seunghyun still felt bad about that.

“You really wanna make it up to me?” said Jiyong, after Seunghyun had apologized for the tenth time. He had more chances now they were on speaking terms again. “‘Cos this is getting old.” Seunghyun nodded. “All right,” Jiyong told him, and rubbed absently at his healing cheek. “I’ll think about it.”

 

“You were serious, right? About doing me a favor.” Seunghyun glanced up from where he was filling bottles, and there was Jiyong padding down the cellar steps. It had been a week since that conversation.

“I was.” Jiyong was wearing a voluminous bathrobe, not yet dressed for the evening. He wove his way through the distillation apparatus and perched on the edge of the table after giving it a fastidious dusting. Seunghyun threw him an interrogative look, because there was an absence of archness in Jiyong’s expression that seemed…different. “What is it?” he asked.

“…I told you about my family, before,” said Jiyong, in a tentative voice that seemed to be testing the waters. Seunghyun remembered: their difficult circumstances, Jiyong’s inability to go home to his mother and sisters, and his determination to help provide for them even so. As with most things in Jiyong’s life the bigger man found it both admirable and depressing. “So, I try and slip my mom some of my earnings every month,” Jiyong reminded him. “Usually Panda drops it round for me.”

“Hmm.” Seunghyun still didn’t have the faith in Seungri that Jiyong did, but it was none of his business if the boy wanted to give him wads of money to mule around town.

“The thing is, she’s expecting him tomorrow – my dad’s gunna be out for once.” Jiyong bit his lip, an absolutely sure-fire way of making Seunghyun want to do anything he asked. “But Ri just heard that his dad’s gunna be in town, and the guy actually wants to see him!”

“Okay.”

“I mean, that’s rare,” said Jiyong without being prompted. “Sure, he pays for most of the stuff Ri needs, but he’s married and can’t let on to his wife that he even has a son; so it’s Mr. Insull who raised him. And now the guy wants to take Ri out for once: there’s some big sports thing on, I think. I can’t ask Panda to blow off a chance like that just to run errands for me!”

“Fair enough,” Seunghyun admitted. He’d thought Seungri looked excited when he’d passed him in the hallway earlier, but the kid was always unfeasibly lively. Now he experienced another rare moment of feeling sorry for him; Seungri’s father sounded even worse than Insull himself, which was saying something. But that meant… “Wait, you want me to go?”

“Yeah.” Jiyong looked at him earnestly. “The rent’s due this week; you know how it is with us, we gotta pay cash for everything. It’s hard to get credit.” Seunghyun knew it, and reflected once again on how fortunate he was, practically speaking, to have one white parent. The boy reached out and took his sleeve. “And I can’t trust anyone else.” Seunghyun was touched. It would mean skipping lab time again, but he could maybe get one of the other grad tutors to cover for him if he slipped them some of his tips. And an extra day without the sight of Watkins’ face sounded pretty appealing.

“If you’re sure,” he agreed. He liked the way Jiyong was holding his sleeve: plaintive and careful. You could never tell with him whether it was just for show, but it felt nice all the same.

“Yeah.” Jiyong smiled at him. “And…you can meet my mom. I’m sure she’ll approve of a nice handsome boy like you.” Seunghyun blushed, sure now that he was being teased. “If you go after two-thirty she oughta be home,” the smaller man told him. “She works in some shop, sells Korean food to Chinese customers. Ri told me it’s quite popular. It’s not like she needs to anymore.” He made a wry face. “But I don’t think she’d know what to do if she wasn’t working. And it’s better than the factory, at least.”

“She sounds nice.”

“She is,” said Jiyong, and smiled again. “Even when I was being a brat and she had to wear it out of me, she was nice.” He dug in the pocket of his bathrobe and passed Seunghyun a fat bundle wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. Seunghyun couldn’t guess how much it contained, but even at a low estimate it was more than he had expected. “Give her this, will you?” Seunghyun took it solemnly. “And…if you have time, talk to her a bit?” Jiyong looked aside. “Tell her I’m doing okay.”

“All right. Give me the address.” The younger man exhaled, and gave Seunghyun’s forearm a squeeze.

“Thanks, Tabi. And after this we’re even.”

 


 

It was a nice day, but that didn’t stop Seunghyun being nervous. The more he’d dwelt on it last night behind the bar the more this errand had amplified itself in his mind, and somehow it had grown from a simple favor to an official meeting with the mother of the man he loved. He’d put on his best suit and everything. He felt a bit silly about that, but now he’d got off the streetcar and was approaching the Kwon family home he was glad he’d made the effort. Jiyong had given him directions to a street off Cermak Road, on the edge of the new Chinatown. As Seunghyun walked down it he saw just how far a step up it must be from the neighborhood Jiyong had been raised in. That was a slum tenement, the boy had said, or near enough; this was a clean, fairly wide road with a few trees and motor-cars. There were Chinese and Caucasian women carrying shopping and pushing perambulators, most of them nicely dressed. He guessed they were the wives and housekeepers of local businessmen or maybe store owners, and their homes looked spacious enough. He could smell delicious spices coming from some of the houses.

After a bit of searching he located the right building; first-floor apartment, Jiyong had said. It had a smartly-painted blue front door and some hanging baskets full of geraniums and milkweed. He stood there and dawdled for a minute, half hoping there would be nobody home so he could put the money through the mail-slot and leave. What if Jiyong’s mother disliked him? After all, how could she approve of anyone who worked in the establishment that kept her son a virtual prisoner? But Jiyong was relying on him. Besides, he was curious. It further occurred to Seunghyun that it would be extra points for him if he could bring the younger man some nice messages from his mother. With mixed reticence and anticipation he knocked on the door.

“Yes?” It was opened in less than ten seconds, and there Seunghyun was, face to face with the woman who had surely given birth to Jiyong: the mouth and the eyes were exact. “Can I help you?” she asked in accented English, after he’d stood there in silence for just as long.

“Um…Mrs. Kwon?” he said, as if it could be anyone but. She nodded. “My name’s Seunghyun Nevander.” It felt so odd to be doing this without Jiyong there to introduce them; he should be there, thought Seunghyun, and was angry all over again at the fact that he couldn’t be. “I’m a friend of your son. Er…Seungri couldn’t make it today so Jiyong asked me to come by instead.” Her dark eyes had lit up at the mention of Jiyong, though Seunghyun thought it was as much with anxiety as pleasure.

“You’re Korean?” she asked, switching languages. He nodded. “Well. Come in for a moment, won’t you?”

Seunghyun was hard-put not to stare around rudely as he stepped inside. It was a nice apartment from what he could see; not luxurious, exactly, but easily on a level with his own family home, and in a pricier district to boot. Jiyong’s mother led him through to a small parlor; there was a bright rug on the floor and a cross on the wall. He could see evidence of the boy’s sisters in the form of a cute straw hat and a couple of fashion magazines, but from the quiet that pervaded the house he assumed they were out.

“Sorry the place is such a mess,” said Mrs. Kwon, bustling around unnecessarily, exactly like Seunghyun’s own mother. “I just finished my shift.”

“Please don’t bother on my account!” he told her. She smiled and gestured him to a chair, then despite his protests went off to fetch tea. So much for a quick visit, Seunghyun thought. He wasn’t looking forward to the interrogation he knew must be coming.

“How long have you been friends with Jiyong?” she inquired, easing herself into a chair opposite him. Her voice was soft, though not in the same way as her son’s – it was more as though she was constantly tired. “I haven’t seen him for…oh, so long.”

“Almost six months,” he said, after a pause to count. She nodded.

“That must be why I never heard of you before. I’m sure he’d have wanted to tell me he made a friend.” Seunghyun tried to imagine not seeing his own mother for that long, and failed. Jiyong really did have more fortitude than he let on. “And you met him…um…” Mrs. Kwon took a hurried sip of her black tea; likely she didn’t want to mention what they both knew her son did for a living. That was fine by Seunghyun.

“I’m a graduate student at U of Chicago,” he explained, and didn’t that make her look surprised. But he was used to that. “I met Seungri one day at a…a music event, and he introduced me to a job where he and Jiyong work.” He could feel himself flushing dully; he dropped his gaze. “I serve drinks there and tidy up, things like that.”

“Ah.” They sat there in vaguely painful silence. “…But he’s well, is he?” she asked at last. “He’s…looked after?”

“Oh, yes,” Seunghyun assured her quickly. She hadn’t even mentioned the money. Unbidden he fumbled in his bag and brought out the thick, paper-wrapped bundle. “He wanted me to bring this…” He laid it on the table. Very briefly Mrs. Kwon met his eyes, and he read embarrassment and gratitude and a certain wistful curiosity all at once.

“Thank you, dear,” she said softly, and set her cup down. Her fingers were long and elegant, like Jiyong’s, but even at this distance he could see the scars and calluses from a lifetime of manual labor. “He must trust you a lot.” He blushed again. “I’m so glad,” she added. “Seungri’s a nice boy, but…I always think about it, how lonely Jiyong might be in that place. I try and see him,” she assured Seunghyun, as if he would think her a bad mother. “But he won’t come here, and it’s difficult for me to be away from the house too long.” She didn’t elaborate, so he nodded.

“I’ll look out for him,” he told her. “He’s a good man, he deserves someone who’ll…” He got a smile then, and for an instant the expression in the eyes as well as their shape was Jiyong’s. He loved that dark sparkle; it put him at ease directly. He sat and drank his tea, glad that the transfer of money was done with so little ceremony, and answered her questions about his studies and his family. She spoke of her daughters with pride. Seunghyun thought Jiyong would be proud too; this was why he worked so hard, after all, to give them the prospects he’d never had. He was doing a fine job: the younger daughter was in high school, and the elder had graduated and had a job in the gift-wrapping section of a big department store. Neither of them would have to do factory work or put up with more than the usual amount of unfair treatment, Mrs. Kwon said. And it was all thanks to Jiyong’s hard graft.

Seunghyun was about to ask if there were any letters or messages she wanted him to carry when the parlor door opened and in burst two girls, who skidded to a halt as soon as they saw him. They were actually young women, Seunghyun realized as soon as he was over the odd double vision their entrance had caused: the two of them were so like Jiyong it was crazy, far more than their mother because of their youth.

“Mom!” exclaimed what he assumed was the older girl in English – she was the same height as Jiyong and just as slender, her hair cut in a modish poker-straight bob. “We saw a guy’s coat in the hall, we thought it was Ri!” She gave Seunghyun a wary but more or less approving glance.

“Seungri was busy,” explained her mother in Korean. “So Mr. Nevander came instead. This is Ella,” she told him. Seunghyun blinked at the sudden English name. “And my younger daughter, Claire.”

“They’re not our birth names,” the smaller girl piped up, dropping casually into a chair opposite him. Her sister was still watching him curiously. “But it makes things easier to use them, don’t you find? Nice to meet you, Mr…?”

“Call me Seunghyun,” he offered, a little awkward from this sudden attack of sociability.

“Oh!” said the younger girl, and stuck out her hand without ceremony. It was sticky; the stain on her full underlip suggested chocolate. Bemused, Seunghyun shook it. “Guess you don’t find. Well, maybe it’s easier for boys not to put on airs.”

He smiled at her stupidly. Not having any sisters himself, he wasn’t quite sure how to talk to nice young ladies – and these were ladies, despite the candy hands and the informal chatter. Ella – who had all the sharp parts of Jiyong’s face, making her look like a pretty, naughty fox – was sporting a less expensive version of the stylish day clothes the women in the House favored. Claire had the soft features, a round baby face with traditional long straight hair. She was wearing a uniform Seunghyun didn’t recognize but which was obviously from a private school, and her accent was free of the nasal South Side drawl Jiyong had never lost.

“Um…I should probably be getting along,” he tried – they were both staring at him as though he was absolutely fascinating. He wished briefly that he hadn’t dressed so fancy; the last thing he wanted was to attract too much of their interest. It further struck him that here was the kind of girl he should be interested in, one he could bring home to his parents: pretty, educated, lively. And the older sister was so similar to Jiyong… But it wasn’t the same. It was nowhere near the same, and in that moment it hit Seunghyun that there was no-one in this world quite like Jiyong, and that there never would be; at least, not for him.

“You haven’t finished your tea,” pointed out their mother. Ella – he hadn’t asked her real name – didn’t bother beating around the bush:

“You’re not going anywhere!” she said, with the same raise of her pointed chin he had seen on Jiyong a thousand times. She took a more graceful seat next to her sister. “You’re friends with my brother, aren’t you? If he trusts you enough for-” She cut herself off and shrugged at her mother’s half-formed hushing gesture.

“How is Yongie?” asked Claire, and suddenly both girls were gazing at him eagerly, almost pleadingly. Seunghyun abandoned his efforts to leave for the moment; he wondered if Seungri ever told Jiyong how deeply his sisters missed him. It was right there, on those faces that were half reflections of his.

“He’s good,” he told them, and it wasn’t a lie, not exactly. “He’s healthy and busy and…and all that.” He could hardly go into detail, could he? He had no idea how much they knew – especially the younger girl – about Jiyong’s circumstances.

“Does he talk about us?” she demanded wistfully.

“Yeah,” said Seunghyun. “How he misses you; how happy he is you’re growing up well.”

Is he happy?” asked Claire. Seunghyun paused, because wasn’t that the ten-thousand-dollar question.

“…I think so.” Comparatively speaking, anyway. Things could be a lot worse. Jiyong was successful, was slowly saving for his future – though it must be a lot less than Seunghyun had thought, if he was the one keeping his whole family in this style – and now he had a friend who would do anything for him. Wasn’t that as much happiness as anyone could expect?

“Good,” said Ella. Seunghyun saw her squeeze her sister’s hand. “Tell him…we’re happy too, thanks to him. Oh! And tell him I’m engaged!” She waved her other hand and there it was: a plain ring on her fourth finger. “Two weeks ago! To a Texas boy.” The other women gave her an indulgent smile; clearly they considered this a coup. “He works in an office across from Marshall Field’s. Tell Jiyong…he’s good to me, he’ll take care of me.” She swallowed. “I wish he could come to the wedding; it’s going to be next spring.”

Can’t he?” Claire butted in, addressing their mother, who pursed her lips in a way that was also very familiar to Seunghyun. “Mama, it’s been five years since I’ve seen him, and I know you and Ella have met him on the sly without me!” The older girl pulled exactly the same face as her mother. “He’s my brother too!” Claire exclaimed hotly.

“You know he can’t come,” said Ella under her breath, looking just as sick about it as Seunghyun was feeling.

“Why not?” snapped Claire, obtuse like her brother could be when he got his stubborn shoes on. Ella shot her a warning glance.

“Because-” The front door shut with a clatter and all three women jerked in their seats. “…Because that,” Ella said, very quietly. Her mother gave Seunghyun a look, but the older girl shook her head. “Too late to sneak off now; he’ll have seen his coat.” Seunghyun froze: in the fluster of feminine chat he had forgotten the other inmate of the house – and the one biggest obstacle besides Insull to Jiyong coming home.

He heard footsteps approaching the parlor, leisurely but oddly stilted. The two girls sat up straight, and whatever tension those footsteps had created in them transferred itself straight to him. The door opened, and Seunghyun gulped: it could only be Jiyong’s father. Mr. Kwon took a look around the room and a line appeared between his brows. Seunghyun stared: whatever he had been expecting, the reality was a lot less intimidating.

“I thought it was George,” the older man said in Korean, looking at Ella with his eyebrows raised; presumably that was her fiancé.

“Hi, Papa,” both girls greeted him, also in Korean – the first time Seunghyun had heard them speak it. Mr. Kwon would seem to be a traditionalist. He was taller than Seunghyun had imagined, what with Jiyong being so small, and older, too; he was pale compared to his female family members and the lines were easy to spot. He was dressed tidily but more simply than the women, as if he didn’t care to spend money on himself.

“Who’s this, then?” Mr. Kwon asked, nodding at Seunghyun. He took a few more steps into the room, and the younger man was suddenly aware that beneath the sturdy fabric of his trousers must be a wooden leg. The mild wince every step caused him went some way to explaining the lines on his face: pain, not age. The three women looked at each other quickly, and Seunghyun wondered if he’d be left to explain himself.

“…This is Nevander Seunghyun,” Ella piped up at last, still in Korean. “He…”

“He’s a student at the University,” Mrs. Kwon added in her low voice. This appeared to puzzle her husband even further.

“Not another boyfriend, Dami!” he exclaimed, frowning at his eldest daughter. “Or are you not engaged now?”

“Of course I am!” Ella retorted. “He’s-”

Don’t tell me he’s Soomin’s.” Mr. Kwon gave Seunghyun a glare, then turned it on the younger girl. “She’s not seventeen!”

“No, Papa!” said Claire hurriedly. Ella opened her mouth again, but before she could speak Seunghyun finally grew a pair and did it for her.

“I’m a friend of your son,” he said simply. Ella sat back with a sigh; he could see Claire – Soomin – peering at him as though he was very brave and very stupid. Mrs. Kwon did nothing, just waited implacably.

“…Girls, go to your room,” ordered Jiyong’s father. He took a seat in a chair by the window, but it did nothing to ease the lines in his face. Seunghyun felt his apprehension come creeping back.

“Papa-” Ella began, with a flash in her dark eye that was a muted version of her brother’s.

“Go on,” the older man said with no raise in volume. It did the trick, nevertheless: Claire took her sister’s hand and tugged until Ella pursed her lips and stood up.

“Bye,” ventured Claire shyly, and pulled her out of the room. The door shut behind them; Seunghyun could hear some muffled but pointed words on the other side, but they quickly faded into silence. He braced himself and waited – though he was no longer quite sure for what.

“You know…him?” said Jiyong’s father in a low voice, as though he could not stand to refer to the relationship between himself and his son. Seunghyun nodded; if there was one thing in the world he was not ashamed of, it was being close to Jiyong. “How?”

“I work with him.” Of course, as a character reference that was unlikely to do him any favors.

“And you have the nerve to sit in my house, in front of me?” Seunghyun darted a frantic glance at Mrs. Kwon, hoping for some guidance. She remained quiet, so he tried to take his cue from that; after all, Jiyong hadn’t asked him to come here and start a fight.

“With respect, Sir,” he replied, tamping down his anger, “I wasn’t here to visit you. I had no intention of intruding on you; I’ll be on my way.”

Friends of that boy aren’t welcome here,” said the older man, leaning into the word to emphasize the distasteful implications of what being friends with Jiyong would entail. Seunghyun wondered what that made Seungri, but quickly concluded that the kid must be smart enough to time his visits better. “Now you know; and you can tell him so, too.”

“I’m proud to be Jiyong’s friend!” announced Seunghyun, unable to rein himself back as far as all that. “Why would I not be?” A deeper wince than any he had yet seen crossed Mr. Kwon’s features.

“So you’re screwing him too?” The man still hadn’t raised his voice. Seunghyun’s mouth dropped open in shock – not that it was the worst thing anyone had ever said about Jiyong, but at the idea that a man would use such words in front of his son’s own mother. Mrs. Kwon looked pained but not surprised, as if she had heard it all before. That made it worse.

“No,” he said tightly. Mr. Kwon scrubbed a hand across his face; Seunghyun thought he saw it shake, and couldn’t tell if it was anger, drink, or the first sign that the man was indeed an invalid.

“It’s not enough that he gets on his back for every rich white bastard in town.” His face when it emerged again was as weary as his wife’s. “He has to corrupt his own people as well?”

“From what I can see people are plenty corrupt by themselves!” Seunghyun retorted, holding on to the edge of courtesy for Mrs. Kwon’s sake. “And what I’ve seen has shown me Jiyong is nothing but a good son.”

“You don’t see far, then.” Seunghyun could not understand it: surely even an outsider could not deny that Jiyong had single-handedly raised his family from the gutter.

“…Didn’t you love him?” he asked without thinking. Jiyong’s father stared at him like he was mad. “And if you did once, how can you stop?” It was beyond difficult to conceive, the idea that one could really know Jiyong and not adore him.

“What do you think?!” answered Mr. Kwon, finally provoked into raising his voice. “My first child, my only boy. Of course I did. And then as soon as he turns thirteen, old enough to shoulder some of our burdens…” He glanced at his leg resentfully. “He ups and runs off.”

“He didn’t run away,” Seunghyun reminded him, incredulous. “He only wanted to help.”

“That’s what he told you?” There was no sneer in the older man’s tone, merely frank disbelief.

“He just wanted to earn some money!”

“So he sold himself to sin.” Seunghyun gaped at him. “Everyone knows it. I can’t have him around my girls, around any respectable house.” Oh, this was too much.

“Isn’t it Jiyong’s hard work that pays for this whole place?!” Undiplomatic, but there was that kernel of temper inside him, waiting to explode – the gall of the man! Mr. Kwon looked outraged.

“If you think we ever asked that…whore for a single cent…!” Mrs. Kwon threw an anxious glance at the wrapped bundle still on the table. And there was Seunghyun, suddenly on his feet and providing a very timely distraction.

“Whatever you want to call him he’s a better man than me, and certainly a better man than you. Your son is a goddamn saint, to still love you like he does!” Jiyong’s father had gone even paler, his eyes widening at Seunghyun’s final words. He looked almost ill, but that was no kind of defense.

“Out!” he ordered, hands scrabbling at the arms of his chair to push himself up. “Get back to your cat-house and take that tramp’s love with you. Tell him no-one here wants it!”

Seunghyun slung his bag across his chest, his own hands trembling with the urge to hit someone. He couldn’t, of course, which made them shake more. When he turned to Mrs. Kwon she was still sitting silently, patiently, and no doubt wisely – the money had disappeared from the table. She didn’t say anything. He gave her a short bow, because God knew she deserved it, and slammed out of the room and the apartment.

He strode along the pleasant street with his indignation a pulsing thunder in his head. Seunghyun had thought he could experience no kind of abuse worse than the racial hatred he had endured throughout his life; but this was worse, this venom directed at Jiyong with such passion. And the most disturbing thing was not the older man’s words; it was the grief that had accompanied them. He hadn’t imagined it, but there it was: Jiyong’s father did love him – and still he would not relent. Seunghyun could not understand it, and he found that quite terrifying.

“…Hold on!” came a breathless voice, intruding on the verge of his fury. He spun round with more violence than he’d meant to, and saw Claire hop backwards skittishly. “You forgot your jacket!” said the girl, her round cheeks red with exertion.

“Sorry,” answered Seunghyun. “Thanks.” He couldn’t manage anything more polite, not right now.

“I went out the kitchen window,” she told him. “I’m good at that.”

“…Jiyong is too,” he managed, because it was a kind thing to say. She smiled at the comparison.

“We…heard you shouting at Papa.”

“Sorry,” he said again, more ungraciously.

“It’s all right. I know why.” He wondered if she really did. Claire pulled a folded envelope from her long wool sock and pushed it into his hand.

“If you’re really Yongie’s friend, can you give him this? It’s from both of us.”

“Course.”

“Come round again. When it’s a better time.” She gave him another smile, a faint novice version of her brother’s effortless seduction. “You’re cuter than Ri!”

Seunghyun stammered something, he didn’t know what. By the time the girl had extorted a promise from him not to read the note – “We wrote stuff about you in it!” – he discovered that the horrible tangle of rage in his stomach had gone off the boil and reduced itself to a low simmer. Truly, the family had a natural ability to charm, with the exception of its one obvious member. Claire shook his hand again, then darted off back toward their apartment, her long hair whipping buoyantly behind her. Seunghyun unclenched his jaw, tucked the letter into his pocket, and started for the House. At least he’d gained one thing from this visit that might make Jiyong happy.

 


 

“Didja give it to her?” was the first thing Jiyong said. Seunghyun had gone to sit on the yard steps for his smoke break and the boy had found him there after his latest assignation. He knelt down carefully on the step beside the bigger man.

“Yup.” Seunghyun heard Jiyong breathe out in relief.

“Thanks, Tabi. My mom’s sweet, isn’t she?”

“Yeah,” agreed Seunghyun. “I saw your sisters, too.”

“Oh!” Jiyong shuffled closer eagerly. “Are they okay?! Do they miss me?”

“Course they do. Claire gave me something for you…” Seunghyun unwrapped his barman’s apron to reach his pocket.

“Soomin?” said the younger man. “She’s such a cutie, isn’t she?” He pinched the cigarette from Seunghyun’s mouth and took a thoughtful drag on it while Seunghyun continued to dig around for the letter. “…At least, she was when I knew her. But it’s been years.”

“They called her Claire. And your other sister Ella.”

“I told ‘em to do that,” Jiyong informed him. “Pride be damned; if it’s easier to fit in with an English name they should use it. It’s only me who has to play the Asian flower card.”

“Seems they’ve got used to it, anyway. They even sound posh. Well, compared to you.” Jiyong gave him a sharp dig in the ribs for that, but it was probably the least Seunghyun had coming to him. “Here,” said Seunghyun, and finally handed him the letter. Jiyong tore it open and turned it to face the light from the open back door as he read.

“It’s Soomin’s writing – wow, it’s pretty! – but she says it’s from both of them. She says…oh my God, Dami’s getting married?!”

“To a white guy,” Seunghyun told him. Jiyong made a smug noise.

“See? It pays to go to private school, take a western name. It’s exactly what I wanted for them.”

“I can’t imagine why,” said Seunghyun. “Given your general opinion of the customers here.”

“These guys are rich and entitled.” Jiyong slung an arm around him; he smelled shower-fresh. “Here’s hoping this boy is more like your dad. If he wants to marry her, that’s gotta be a good sign.”

“Fair point.” Jiyong gave him a satisfied squeeze.

“Let’s see what else… They think you’re handsome. No surprise there.” He read on. After a minute he lowered the paper, and Seunghyun felt the arm loosen around his neck. “You met my dad. You didn’t mention that.”

“Thought I’d give you the good news first,” the older man said miserably. “I…I made him really mad. He threw me out.”

“Oh, Tabi.” Jiyong paused. “What didja do?”

“Told him you’re my friend.” The younger man took a breath, but didn’t speak. “Told him you’re a better man than either of us and he’s a hypocrite for barring you from the home you pay for. And I was being restrained, believe me! You don’t even want to know what he said.”

“…Wow,” said Jiyong. “Not even Ri went that far. He got kicked out first time as well,” he added. “It’s not your fault; just bad timing.”

“I think your mom was upset. And your sisters.”

“They know it wasn’t your fault, too,” Jiyong assured him, more gently than Seunghyun was used to. “They gave you the letter, didn’t they?”

“I just…can’t believe a father would act that way. Even if he’s in pain, it’s no excuse.” Jiyong shot him a questioning glance. “His leg, I think,” said the older man; he felt awkward mentioning it.

“He could get a better prosthetic.” The boy scowled helplessly. “But knowing the money came from me? No way.”

“That’s what I mean; he even said as much. So I…lost my temper.”

“Hmph.” Jiyong passed the cigarette back. Seunghyun inhaled and then stared bleakly at the glowing cherry.

“He loves you, you know,” he muttered.

“…Does he?” asked Jiyong in a strange voice. Had no-one thought to tell him that before?

“He wouldn’t have looked so hurt if he didn’t.” Jiyong’s arm grew heavy across his shoulders again. “If he saw you…” ventured Seunghyun, “I think he’d realize it too.” The smaller man emitted a short, surprised laugh.

“It’s okay, Tabi.” The surprise had turned to resignation in the space of a breath. “Even if he did, it wouldn’t do any good; not while I’m here.”

“But-”

“This is the life I lead, and there’s nothing I can do that’ll make him think any better of me,” Jiyong continued. He drew his fingers calmly through Seunghyun’s hair, leaving shivers in their wake. “It’s sweet of you to think it, but this is the price of helping my family live better. I don’t mind paying it. We all pay for who we are; one way or another.”

“I know it,” said Seunghyun, soothed and saddened by Jiyong’s hand on the back of his neck. “I’ve seen it all my life: my dad should be head of Geography by now. But not with my mother as his wife. That’s the price both of them pay.”

“You’ll pay, too,” the boy predicted. “I don’t mean for not being white. For being close to me.”

“…I know.” Seunghyun turned to look up at him. “But I don’t care.” Jiyong was gazing down with bemusement and something else on his pretty face, something bright and warm. And Seunghyun might have found out what it was if they hadn’t been interrupted by the jarring voice of one of the House enforcers, dragging them both back to the Salon. He went reluctantly: Jiyong might still be hurt, might have more things to tell him – might look at him like that again. But at the same time Seunghyun felt he had at last been forgiven; and that made the whole disastrous encounter worth it.

 

By the end of his shift Seunghyun was absolutely ready to drop. The physical fatigue of being on his feet since morning, added to the mental exhaustion of his confrontation that afternoon, had just about done him in. And soon he would have to wake up, drag himself to school, and do it all over again.

“You all right? You look like you’re about to fall down dead,” Jiyong observed critically, coming down the back stairs after his final shower of the night to steal cookies from the kitchen. He stuffed the last one in his mouth and raised an eyebrow at him.

“‘S okay.” Seunghyun yawned. “Still got a few hours ‘til I have to be in the lab, I’ll just…take a rest down in the distillery or something.” It was hard to sleep in the sunroom these days – even the maids had decided he was too much fun to tease – so he’d got Seungri to let him have an old mattress for when he absolutely had to sleep.

“So you’ll be exhausted and drunk on spirit fumes.” Jiyong clicked his tongue, not unkindly, and held out his hand. “C’mon, quiet now; you can sleep in my rooms for a bit.”

“But-”

“I’m done seeing clients for the night,” Jiyong assured him. “And Maria changed the sheets!” he added with a roll of his eyes, correctly interpreting Seunghyun’s expression.

Seunghyun knew he probably shouldn’t – if he got caught sleeping up there he’d also catch hell from Mrs. Moore. But he was so tired. And besides, it was Jiyong asking; being kind. Seunghyun couldn’t remember that ever happening before. So he nodded like a man under hypnosis and let Jiyong sneakily lead him upstairs by the wrist.

“Get in,” ordered Jiyong, nodding at the huge bed in the English-aristocrat room. Seunghyun supposed he ought to be feeling something more significant at this moment – he had dreamed of being invited to do this a thousand times. But he was so burned out right now that all he could see were the crisp, clean sheets and plump pillows. He flopped onto the bed, eyes immediately sliding closed as Jiyong lowered the electric light.

A minute later he felt the covers shift. A sweet scent wafted over in his direction.

“Get in, I said,” Jiyong scolded him. “You’re pinning down the duvet.” Seunghyun opened his eyes to find Jiyong in the bed beside him, one bare, tattooed shoulder visible as he burrowed under the covers. Jiyong tugged at them until he had rolled Seunghyun aside, then draped them back over the older man. “That’s better.”

“Mmph,” said Seunghyun comfortably, not even wondering why Jiyong hadn’t opted to sleep in the second bedroom. He guessed he would be kicking himself the next day at not taking the opportunity to say something profound or romantic, but it really was divine to just lie here. And he was so tired even the specter of a – presumably – naked Jiyong beside him wasn’t working him up the way it should.

Jiyong arranged the pillows to his liking and laid his smooth cheek on them, clean of powder and eye pencil. Seunghyun noted absently that his naked skin was flawless there as everywhere else.

“…Thanks for today,” said Jiyong quietly. “You didn’t deserve to hear all that.”

“Well. You don’t deserve it either. Sorry I was rude to him.” Jiyong smiled, and Seunghyun felt vindicated. He didn’t even start when the smaller man reached out and touched his fingers.

“You have handsome hands,” said Jiyong, leaving behind the subject of his father with enviable ease. He took Seunghyun’s left in both his own and examined it curiously. His skin was cool. “Shame about the burns.”

“Mm. Comes with the territory.” Seunghyun felt the ghost of a nervous flutter at Jiyong’s touch; but mostly he felt soft, and happy, and above all sleepy. Jiyong played with his hand a little longer, curling their fingers together. He seemed pretty relaxed himself, not dwelling on the stupid thing Seunghyun had done that afternoon. That made Seunghyun even happier. He watched his beloved shuffle closer.

“…Wanna do something?” he heard Jiyong ask, a small smile on that perfect mouth. Jiyong’s fingers slid up his wrist, and there was no mistaking what he meant. Something in the back of Seunghyun’s brain was hammering on the walls and telling him to be aroused, be afraid, it didn’t matter, just react!

“I…” began Seunghyun. And that was as far as he got before he fell asleep.

 

 

Chapter Text

When he saw Jiyong the next night on his way up to the Salon the first thing Seunghyun felt was immense embarrassment at falling asleep, followed by the exquisite regret of not taking him up on his offer of… He didn’t know quite what it had been, that gentle advance, but it was surely an unheard-of gesture on Jiyong’s part. He was about to apologize to this effect when Jiyong cut in.

“Why do you look so weird tonight?” he demanded, a genuinely perturbed expression on his face.

“Well, I-”

“You were pretty yesterday,” Jiyong went on. He frowned, peering at Seunghyun, whose arms were starting to ache from the crates of hooch he was holding. “How’d you get so ugly in one day?!”

“…Are you referring to my eyebrows?” said Seunghyun. Jiyong squinted at him.

That’s what it is.” Jiyong looked horrified. “Where the hell did they go?!”

“Experiment went bad,” Seunghyun told him shortly. “I measured it wrong.” He didn’t tell Jiyong how much trouble he had been in with Professor Wyeman, or how lucky he was that there were no younger students around when the compound had gone haywire that morning. He didn’t tell him that he was so exhausted these days, so distracted by thoughts of him, that it was a full-time job just ensuring he didn’t blow up the lab. He didn’t have to: of course Jiyong knew.

“That’s awful,” said Jiyong, for once looking somewhat sympathetic. He laid a hand on Seunghyun’s overloaded arm. “I’ll see what I can do about it.”

“It’s okay. It’s not your problem.”

“Poor Tabi,” Jiyong added, then started to laugh, slim shoulders quivering beneath the silk of his kimono. “They were such handsome eyebrows too… Oh, but you do look freaky! Are you gunna be able to tend bar like that?”

“Seungri said it’s okay. He said the customers would find it hilarious.”

“He would!” Jiyong reached up and brushed a thumb across the scorched skin of Seunghyun’s brow, and now the older man was sufficiently awake to appreciate it the touch made his aching arms shake even more. The same House enforcer as yesterday strode by, scowling at Seunghyun, who wasn’t sure if it was because of the contact or because they were speaking Korean.

“I better get in there,” he said quickly, before Jiyong made him drop the whole lot.

“All right. I’ve got a full night, too.” Jiyong sighed philosophically. “Come talk to me before you go, huh? I’ve got some stuff that might help ‘em grow back.”

 

After an evening in which he was ragged on relentlessly about his new look – including another scolding from Mrs. Moore about upholding the glamorous image of the House – Seunghyun was very glad to slip up the back stairs to the third floor. He was extremely tired of seeing the sun rise when his body was resolutely demanding that he sleep, but he was hardly going to miss an invitation from Jiyong. He ran into Lily on the landing, retiring to her own apartment with a cup of tea. The redhead gave him a knowing look but didn’t say anything. He wondered if she alone suspected the true nature of his feelings for the younger man, or whether every woman in the House knew it. He hoped she would mind her own business.

“Get in, quick,” Jiyong told him, and shut the door. He led Seunghyun through to the bathroom and pushed him down on the edge of the tub. “Glad to see you survived the teasing,” he said, rummaging in one of the vanity drawers. “Think I even saw you being witty at one point!”

“Thanks,” said Seunghyun drily. “Compared to what people have been getting at me for my whole life, eyebrows are a pretty minor point.”

“Still, you want them back, right?” Jiyong set a peremptory finger beneath his chin and tilted his face up, unstoppering a small, gorgeously-carved glass jar. “You’re so good-looking, you oughta take it more seriously.” Seunghyun smiled at him; he was flattered the smaller man found him handsome, but Jiyong said it so matter-of-factly, in the same way you’d say someone was good at tennis: an objective evaluation. When Seunghyun called Jiyong beautiful he meant it with his whole heart.

“God,” said Jiyong. He had paused with his fingers in the jar and was scrutinizing his patient’s face. “It’s weirder up close. You look even more like Frankenstein!”

“Shut up.” But Seunghyun couldn’t resist a grin.

“You know that’s what the girls call you, right?” The boy snickered. “The maids, too. I mean, they still think you’re a cutie, but what with your cave and the lab stuff and all…”

“That wasn’t even the name of the monster!”

“Oh, whatever,” said Jiyong fondly, and smoothed his fingers along the scorched part of Seunghyun’s browbone. The older man closed his eyes; the cream, whatever it was, felt cool, and Jiyong’s fingers were kind.

“What is this stuff?” he asked. He sensed a shift in the air and the proximity of another body; Jiyong had sat down beside him.

“Not sure. Mr. Insull brought it from London; it seems to work on various bumps and bruises. God knows I’ve gotten plenty of use outta it.” Jiyong finished up his ministrations, and the next thing Seunghyun knew those fingers were cupping his cheek. They smelled of something fresh and green; the bigger man’s heart gave a little stumble. “You hafta be more careful, Tabi.” Jiyong was scolding him but his tone was soft. “You still have a real life, remember? You need to look after it.” His thumb rubbed along Seunghyun’s cheekbone. With his eyes still shut Seunghyun felt it like the most intense of caresses. “Why not tell Mr. Thompson you want to take less bar shifts?” continued Jiyong. “The stuff you do in the distillery is way more important to them, they can’t expect you to be on top of both.”

Seunghyun nodded. It wasn’t just about overwork, his recent distraction, but there was no denying it would help to spend less time in the Salon.

“…And the things you do for me,” Jiyong added more quietly. “You don’t hafta. I know I was asking you to prove something to me, but all this…helping me out in the mornings, skipping school to run all over town. You can say no to me; I’ll still like you.”

“I want to do them.”

“You do have odd priorities.” Jiyong chuckled affectionately, and Seunghyun finally opened his eyes. The boy was very close to him.

“I was thinking about your family,” he admitted. “All day; I got distracted.”

“About my sisters?” Jiyong drew back a little to regard him. “They’re very pretty.”

“No. No, not that.” Seunghyun couldn’t tell if the smaller man was at all jealous; but just the thought that he might be excited a series of possibilities and hopes that really ought to be suppressed. “About your dad.”

“Ah.”

“And you,” said Seunghyun. “Always you.” Jiyong looked at him a moment longer and sighed. Then he leaned in and laid a slow kiss on his forehead, above the reddened patch of skin.

“Silly boy,” he murmured. “Take more care of yourself. I don’t want you exploding because of me!” And he sounded so touched, so solicitous, that Seunghyun could not help himself: he reached out and took him in his arms. Jiyong sank into the hug, and for once it felt natural; not terrifying or electrifying, or as if the boy was testing him. It was just…perfect. Seunghyun exhaled, and let himself drift.

 


 

He should have known it couldn’t last, was what flashed through Seunghyun’s mind as unknown hands grabbed him and ushered him urgently into the car; he ought never to have let that moment of peace and serenity seduce him! Because as soon as you started thinking you were happy the world threw you something like this. But now was no time to be lamenting – not when he ought to be afraid for his life.

He had left the House around six in the morning, his usual sort of time. What was unusual was that he could still feel the delicious warmth of Jiyong’s embrace. Seunghyun was walking with a smile on his lips, in the rare state of being happy and knowing that he was. He had a fair few half-dollars in his pocket – tips from regular customers who’d found his lack of eyebrows highly novel – and was only walking until he could find a cab to take him home. He turned off Prairie and into the busier streets around the Bluebird, where there were bound to be taxis waiting for partygoers to start returning to their beds. He was wandering quite sleepily and contentedly – not exactly in a dream, but only paying enough attention that he wouldn’t get run over. And so when the car pulled up beside him he gave it enough of a glance to tell it wasn’t a cab, but mostly ignored it. That was his first mistake.

“Hey. Kid!” Seunghyun didn’t pay that any attention; who would be calling for him on the street? He noted vaguely that the car – a black Ford – hadn’t stopped but was drifting along a little behind him. Maybe the driver wanted directions, but Seunghyun had finally caught sight of a taxi up ahead, its passenger just exiting, and he wanted to nab it before anyone else could. He sped up.

“Hey, Shanghai!” Seunghyun did look round at that, a frown at the ready for whoever had thrown him that line. But it wasn’t the driver of the car, it was two men just behind him on the sidewalk. They moved up to flank him, and belatedly Seunghyun’s sense of danger kicked in: they were bigger than him, older, and without doubt Italian.

“…Sorry, I’m in a hurry,” he said lamely, and made to back out from between them before he could get mugged.

“Ah, now!” said one, and grabbed his arm. Seunghyun stared up into his face, shocked; the man did not look angry. What the hell was this?! “We need to have a bit of a chat,” his assailant informed him. The back door of the Ford opened; he thought he saw more men inside. Seunghyun finally opened his dumb mouth and let out the beginning of a yell that was cut off as the second guy gave him a decisive push in the direction of the car, knocking his head against the door-frame.

But surely someone had heard it! Seunghyun glared around wildly, his vision blurring, resisting the implacable hand on his wrist as best he could: the street continued as normal. Some people glanced at the group beside the Ford but just as quickly looked away, and Seunghyun knew then that nobody would help him. Not because he looked foreign, or not only that; but because this was so clearly Mob business. Again he was struck by the idea that there were two Chicagos: a respectable up-and-coming city where people were duty-bound to give a damn about your welfare – and the real one. And here he was in the middle of it. But perhaps he always had been. With one silent curse at the universe for tricking him into a moment’s happiness Seunghyun gave up, let pure pragmatic fear take over, and got in the car.

It started moving again as soon as they were inside, but there were too many people around him for Seunghyun to see where it was going. It was dark and smelled like sweat and tobacco, and now the metallic tang of his own unease. There were five other men in the car, four of them watching him with what appeared to be interest while the other kept his eyes on the road. Seunghyun racked his brains for some logical reason why this should be happening – anything that made sense. To his horror his mind threw up an image from weeks ago, one he had tried to suppress ever since: the glint of sunlight off a bullet-hole and the thunder of a shot-out Hupmobile bearing down on him in petrified slow motion. Was that it? thought Seunghyun frantically. That day, the assassination attempt with Genna as the unwitting puppet of Al Capone: did they know he’d been a witness? Did they know Jiyong was there too? Did they plan to shut him up, and if so, how?

“Mother of God, calm down,” the man on Seunghyun’s left told him in a New York accent. Seunghyun had gone absolutely rigid against him. “This ain’t a kidnapping.”

“We just got a couple of questions,” said the guy on his right. Seunghyun stared down at the wood floor, hands clamped between his knees; he didn’t want to look in their faces, didn’t want to be able to recognize them again. “One bein’: what the hell happened to your mug?” He didn’t reply; he had never felt so useless in his life.

“Looks like an explosion near took his face off,” observed one of the other men. “You guys remember old Joe? This boy’s on his way to looking the same.”

“Turtle Joe?” The first speaker laughed; Seunghyun could feel the vibration against his side, and shuddered away from it. “Bald as a coot. That was when he was just gettin’ into the game, right? His still blew up on him three, four times before the dumbass got his chemistry straight.” He looked at Seunghyun pointedly. “Joe’s this guy who works for us,” he explained. “Bootlegging. Makes pretty average moonshine out in the woods past Cicero.” Seunghyun blinked.

“Our boss takes a great interest in the business,” the right-hand mobster informed him. Cicero, thought Seunghyun, trying to knock his brain into gear: that did mean Capone, which must make his current interrogators members of the Chicago Outfit. “Who’s buying, who’s sellin’…who’s cookin’ up juice from scratch.” They all gave him another look.

“…What do you want with me?” he said at last, as humbly as possible. The memory of the shootout in Little Italy was mercifully retreating with the unexpected turn of the conversation. But Seunghyun thought he knew what they were driving at now, and it didn’t make him feel any better.

“We heard you’ve got quite a talent in that line.” The man on his left was evidently in charge of the explanations. “Heard you’ve a neat little operation going in that fancy cat-house on Prairie.”

“Who told you that?” demanded Seunghyun, biting his tongue too late to take it back. Thompson had assured him that the Mob had no interest in the House. So who was talking to them?

“Never mind.” The speaker still sounded comfortable, not much put out. But Seunghyun was beginning to be distracted by the fourth man, the one sitting unobtrusive in the opposite corner. He hadn’t yet said a word, but more than any of the others he set Seunghyun’s primal alarm bells ringing. He looked young and quite mild; it gave Seunghyun the creeps. “We just wanna know what you’re about; and assure the boss that you won’t be steppin’ on anybody’s toes. Up-and-coming young guy like you… We’d hate you to become a problem we gotta deal with.”

“No, Sir,” said Seunghyun, with an involuntary grimace as his voice shook – with fear, of course fear, but also an untimely surge of that black anger at what was happening to him. He swallowed hard. “It’s not my business at all, I’m a regular bartender! I just make up a few bottles a night to help out our stores. We don’t sell it to anyone outside, I swear.”

“No plans to expand?”

Seunghyun shook his head emphatically. They all looked at him. He took a few deep breaths as the car trundled on – God knew where they were now – and hoped his demeanor was convincing. He couldn’t manage anything more intelligent, and that distressed him most of all. When he dared to glance up at the silent young man in the shadows opposite him he saw a faint light between his fingers: the glint of metal. It was only after some seconds that Seunghyun realized it was a pocket knife. The guy was twiddling it dexterously in his hands, easy as if it was an unconscious reflex movement. But that glint took Seunghyun’s breath and slammed his lungs full of panic; more than anything the man next to him had said, that little movement of light transfixed him like an animal in the headlamps.

“I think he got the point,” the first speaker said with another laugh. Seunghyun felt an elbow nudge him. “We’ll keep an eye on your place, and so long as you’re a good boy we won’t have ta ambush you again.” The Ford rolled to a stop and the back door opened. Seunghyun was pushed out, more gently than he had been put in, and was surprised and unnerved to find himself only a few streets from his boarding-house. “Give your boss the message,” advised the mobster, sticking his head out. “Now, off you go, kid, before you piss yourself.”

Without any more ado the car moved off, leaving him there on the sidewalk. Seunghyun, whose level of fear they had judged pretty accurately, watched it go. Without really thinking he took note of the license plate, then sneered at himself. What was he going to do, tell the cops? He now understood Jiyong’s dismissal of his suggestion that they get the police involved back when they’d seen the shooting: Seunghyun was a criminal now too, the House had seen to that. Whatever he did from this point on would have to be beneath the eye of the law, god-fucking-dammit.

He clenched his fists and strode off towards his room, refusing to let the terror and fury overtake him. He had chosen this, he reminded himself. For love of Jiyong he had become part of this world; and if he wanted to be the kind of man Jiyong could rely on he’d need to get brave and get smart. He squeezed his eyes shut against the childish, reactive tears that were trying to leak out. No more of that: it was time to handle things like a grown-up.

 


 

“What the fuck is wrong with you?!” Seunghyun found himself yelling five sleepless hours later. “This is a university! For grown-ups! If you can’t behave like one then get out.” His entire seminar group had stopped messing with the ice and sodium chloride at their own lab benches and were staring at the free show. They’d gradually become inured to their graduate tutor’s fits of pique, but even Seunghyun was aware that he’d outdone himself this time; he’d been too tired of late to lose his temper in earnest, but today Smythe had provoked him beyond belief. The deserving target of his outburst was looking down his nose at him, half humiliated and half disgusted.

“It’s only ice,” snapped the boy, who had gone quite red beneath his curly hair. “It didn’t hurt her!”

“You pulled open her blouse,” Seunghyun snarled. Never, ever had he seen such a liberty taken with a lady outside the confines of the House – and here, even more than there, it repelled him. What was worse, this poor excuse for the cream of Chicago’s youth didn’t have the decency to look sorry; not even when Emma had run from the room in tears. Seunghyun couldn’t tell if she was more embarrassed by the ice down her shirt, the unwanted hands on her clothing, or his own volcanic reaction, but whatever it was this boy was going to be punished.

“I-” began Smythe.

“I told you to leave, goddammit. I’m reporting you.” The kid opened his mouth again – next to Watkins, who was mercifully absent today, Smythe was the stupidest damn brat in class. It was no coincidence that the two were best friends. Goaded, Seunghyun took a step towards him, and Smythe buttoned his lip in a bare second, flinching backwards. Seunghyun supposed he looked crazy right now but couldn’t suppress the movement: he was too full of leftover emotion, the fear and anger from the aftermath of this morning translating into a quickly-forming urge to punch his student in the face. “Set foot in my lab again today,” Seunghyun promised Smythe through gritted teeth, “and I’ll see you wind up in the infirmary!”

Smythe swiped his textbook off the bench and grabbed his jacket, his expression outraged but his movements fast enough to point to his nervousness.

“You’ll be sorry,” he told the older man. “When my-”

“Out!!” Smythe finally scarpered, and Seunghyun took a breath. Then another. And didn’t feel better; he was still about to explode, in anger or plain bawling fear. His hands were shaking.

“Um…” he heard a cautious voice begin, somewhere to his left. It sounded like Jennings. Seunghyun inhaled again, trembling.

“…All of you,” he managed, careful as could be. “You’d better go too. We’ll try this again tomorrow.” His class picked up their belongings and prudently fled. Seunghyun had just enough presence of mind to order Jennings to find one of Emma’s girlfriends, and then before he had checked that everyone had left the lab he crumpled. He sank down on the tiles, thumped his head back against one of the benches, and groaned to himself tearfully. He had no doubt Smythe or one of his friends would make a complaint about him, and that on top of everything else… How could today get any more catastrophic?

 


 

He had work that night. Normally the prospect of a sleepless shift at the House wouldn’t make Seunghyun much happier – Jiyong notwithstanding – but at least it meant he could spread his problems around a bit. He shut himself up in his basement and got on with the criminal activities that had brought the Outfit’s unwanted attention his way. The logical chemical processes soothed him a little, and by the time Thompson arrived after his dinner Seunghyun thought he could talk to him without any more outbursts or panic attacks.

“…That’s a damn shame,” said Thompson from behind his desk, once his bartender had given him a potted version of his encounter with Capone’s men. “The stuff you make is rather good; we were thinking of selling it to some of the customers for their private use.”

“You never told me that!” retorted Seunghyun, riled by the manager’s lack of panic – it ought to be him bundled into the back of a car and threatened.

“It was none of your concern.”

“It is now!”

“Well.” Thompson sat back and regarded him narrowly. “We’ll have to scratch that plan, obviously. I wonder how they found out.”

“Me too.”

“All right. I’ll tell Mr. Insull. Off you go now and start your shift.” Seunghyun stared at him. Was that it? No commiseration for his terrifying experience, no offer of a night off or even thanks for taking a hit for them?

“Sir,” he began, more sharply than he’d intended. “What about those guys? Aren’t you worried? Now I’m – we’re – on their radar!” Thompson raised his eyebrows.

“The boss wields considerable influence, you know that. As long as Alderman Coughlin has a good relationship with the gangs, the House gets protection.” That was all very well, thought Seunghyun bitterly, but it made no promises as to his personal safety. Who was he kidding? Thompson didn’t give a damn about Seunghyun’s wellbeing beyond his usefulness, and Insull barely knew he was alive. He resolved then that if anything else happened he would not hesitate to throw his manager or his boss to the dogs. Thompson waved him away and he went, still dissatisfied, still afraid, but with a determination to protect only those who merited protecting. He was here for Jiyong, he reminded himself; and no-one else.

 

Around eleven Jiyong came back downstairs and perched himself on a bar stool opposite Seunghyun. He’d been giving the older man curious looks all evening, and had gone so far as to ask him what was wrong. Seunghyun knew he really must look terrible if even the self-centered Jiyong had noticed.

“It’s nothing,” he said casually as Jiyong scanned the Salon for his next prospective catch. “Just didn’t get much shuteye.”

“Hey, that’s your own fault,” the smaller man told him, with a flash of his teeth that spoke to the pleasant moment they had shared in his suite that morning. To Seunghyun it felt like a distant memory, it had been so quickly stained by the rest of the day’s events; he smiled back feebly and returned to his work. Jiyong chattered away, waiting for a target. “Oh!” said the boy. “Over there, that’s Mr. Cutten; the one who took my picture.” He leaned across the bar to snag a maraschino cherry while Seunghyun peered around the Salon.

“Which one?” He was only feigning interest; part of him was still busy shuddering from the memory of his interview with the Outfit and Thompson’s blasé response, while the rest debated whether he should worry Jiyong by telling him what had happened. He wanted to; he wanted sympathy and kindness. He wasn’t sure if he’d get it – Jiyong’s moods were quite mercurial. But he was tempted all the same.

“I hope he picks me again, he’s such a good tipper. Pearls, last time.” Jiyong popped the cherry between his lips and nodded towards the door, ignoring Seunghyun’s eyebrow-less frown of disapproval. “The fair-haired guy. Next to the – hmm, who’s the baby? I didn’t know he had any sons.” Seunghyun craned his neck and spotted a suntanned blonde guy who looked out of place in the standard evening-wear, standing beside a wide-eyed, gangly young man who –

“Jesus Christ,” muttered Seunghyun faintly, and the cleaning cloth slipped from his hands. It was Watkins.

“Seems a little young to be bringing in here,” remarked Jiyong, as if he hadn’t been an inmate of the House since he was an adolescent.

“…It’s his birthday,” the older man told him in a weak voice. No wonder Watkins hadn’t been in class. He remembered now: that irritating episode in the lab – months ago, it felt like – Watkins and his boasts about wild nightspots and his rich relative. And here he was – no bullshit. What astronomical odds were these? What spectacular ill-luck?! And today of all days. “And that’s not his dad, it’s his godfather.”

“Now how the hell would you know that?” demanded Jiyong. And then, “Hey, where’d you go?” His head appeared over the top of the bar; from where he was crouching Seunghyun saw him wearing an expression of amused incredulity. “Erm, what the fuck’re you doing down there, Tabi?”

“Go get Seungri!” hissed Seunghyun. And, as Jiyong opened his mouth, “Oh, hush, just go!” The boy gave him a cool raise of the eyebrows, but his head disappeared. Seunghyun hunkered down and tried to stifle what he suspected was an encroaching panic attack. Watkins! If he saw Seunghyun here… Well, who knew what he would do? All Seunghyun knew was that it wouldn’t be anything good. If Cutten was truly his godfather he had more influence than Seunghyun had believed.

Fuck,” he said, with feeling.

“Yongie says you’re being peculiar,” commented Seungri a couple of minutes later. He had come round the bar and was staring down at him with a puzzled grin. “I heard what happened this morning, but you got my word for it there’s no mobsters in here!”

“Sshh, get down a minute!” Seunghyun didn’t ask how he’d found out. The younger man squatted back on his heels. “You gotta take my shift for a while,” Seunghyun told him urgently. “And I need to get out of this room quietly.”

“But I’ve got stuff to do!” Seungri observed his face. “Wait, you really are scared? Or are you sick?”

“You know that guy Cutten.”

“Of course, he’s a billionaire.”

“That boy with him?”

“Oh, the kid,” said Seungri breezily, although Watkins couldn’t be any younger than him. Mind you, in terms of life experience Seungri probably had twenty years on the other boy. “What about him?”

“…He’s my student.” Seungri’s mouth formed a silent O of comprehension; he looked fascinated. “He detests me,” Seunghyun explained, because he needed to get the goddamn seriousness of this situation through the dimwit’s skull. “And the feeling’s mutual!”

“Ah.” Seungri’s expression turned sympathetic, but he still seemed highly entertained by the older man’s panic.

“If he sees me here he could tell the university; I might lose my scholarship, even get expelled! Not to mention what his godfather could say to your uncle.”

“Yeah, but…he’s here too, isn’t he? You’re not the only one breaking the law.”

“Use your brain, you already told me Cutten’s one of the richest guys in the country! You don’t think that makes us different?”

“Fair enough,” allowed Seungri. “All right, I’ll cover for you. Just ‘til he picks a girl. You can slip out the side door, move slow. Odds are he won’t even look at your face. Being a servant and all.” At one time Seunghyun might have bristled upon hearing that. Now he merely felt grateful. Following Seungri’s lead he slowly stood up – and there was Jiyong.

“We didn’t expect you back so soon,” the boy was saying happily to his customer, and Seunghyun knew beyond a doubt that it was Cutten. He didn’t have to look, because here was Watkins on his other side, now smack in front of the bar and not three feet away.

“The lad just turned nineteen,” Seunghyun dimly heard Cutten reply. “Where better than here to make him a man?”

Jiyong said something else at that, something soft and flirtatious, but Seunghyun didn’t catch it. He was staring at Watkins, who was staring right back at him while Seungri watched the whole tableau with his mouth open. Watkins’ expression reflected everything Seunghyun was feeling: shock, disbelief, and a healthy amount of horror. It was the first time the older man had ever seen his student lost for words. Jiyong was still chattering away to the kid’s godfather, oblivious to the fact that he had finally screwed Seunghyun – in the worst possible way. At last Jiyong broke off and turned to the bar with one of his charming smiles.

“Can we get some drinks, please?” Seunghyun and Watkins continued their silent stand-off of mutual dismay. “Hello?” ventured Jiyong. He reached out to prod Seunghyun’s arm.

“What’ll it be?” inquired Seungri, mercifully coming to life and nudging his frozen bartender out of the way to address Cutten. “I hear it’s a celebration, so…champagne?”

“The best,” ordered the man, who had his arm around Jiyong’s waist. Seungri nodded and gave Seunghyun a push.

“Go on and get it,” he suggested. It took another push to get him moving, but once he was out of Watkins’ eye-line it felt like Seunghyun had never shifted so fast in his life. He barreled down the basement stairs, fished the champagne from the ice bin, then stood gazing at it vacantly while his mind raced. It was an overreaction, he knew, especially compared to what he had gone through only this morning. But the idea of a sinister brat like Watkins knowing about this part of his life – standing next to Jiyong, for God’s sake! – made him nauseous in a completely different way to being trapped in a car with five hoodlums.

He found no kind of solution, so took the champagne to the Salon with shaking hands and what he hoped was a poker face; though he felt anything but numb. Seungri had disappeared. But what could he do now anyway? thought Seunghyun, for once without rancor; it was far too late.

“Your drinks, Sir.” He handed over the open bottle and three glasses – Jiyong was still pressed to Cutten’s side and seemed to be in a good way to earning another expensive gift. Seunghyun didn’t meet Watkins’ eyes but took a sweeping glance across his face. To his dismay it seemed the kid had got over his shock: he was now looking rather thoughtful – for once in his damn life – and worryingly alert. He caught the older man’s gaze and smiled. Seunghyun swallowed.

“Are you okay?” Jiyong inquired in a low voice while Cutten was addressing a remark to his godson over his head. His small features were puzzled but the tone sounded solicitous. Seunghyun didn’t have an answer for that, not with Watkins in front of him. Worse, he saw the little bastard’s eyes slide sideways at Jiyong’s words, observing their interaction. When Seunghyun didn’t reply the beautiful boy reached out and set one hand quickly on his forearm, eyebrows arched questioningly. Watkins looked interested. And all of a sudden Seunghyun discovered a worse fate than being expelled or fired or even kidnapped by the Outfit: the possibility that Watkins might take Jiyong.

The kid was still staring at them. He’d do it, thought Seunghyun wildly; not because Watkins was attracted to Jiyong – until now he’d been eyeing his godfather’s flirtation with the Korean boy with some distaste – but out of sheer spite. If he knew Seunghyun was close to him… The idea of Watkins’ hands anywhere near Jiyong’s precious body made him want to throw up, though whether it was from jealousy or general hatred he could not say. Jiyong was peering at him anxiously while Watkins regarded him; oh, Seunghyun had to put a stop to this before it got started!

“It’s nothing,” he told Jiyong coolly, and jerked his arm away. Jiyong frowned at him. He scowled back, let his upper lip curl a little, and turned aside. To his relief he found Bethany waiting at the other end of the bar. Seunghyun hurried over to her, gave her a broad smile as he took her drink order. She was a sunny girl; easy to make her smile in return.

Seunghyun could feel Watkins’ eyes on him while he made the cocktail. So he gave it as much flair as he was capable of, chatting to Bethany all the while. It had been a long time since he had flirted with a woman, but he hadn’t been disastrous at it. He couldn’t tell if she was responding or if it was her natural friendliness, but it had the same effect: he knew he looked interested in her.

“Who’s the kid?” Bethany asked speculatively. She must feel Watkins’ eyes on them, too.

“Cutten’s godson.”

“Oohh.”

“I wouldn’t,” advised Seunghyun, sliding a glance toward the group and shaking his head, knowing that Watkins would see him warning her off. “Looks like he doesn’t know one end of a woman from the other.”

“I don’t mind the beginners,” said Bethany with a grin. “They’re so easy to handle!” Seunghyun sighed theatrically, and as he did so heard Jiyong calling down the bar.

“Hey, Beth! Come here.” She did so immediately, tipping Seunghyun a wink; he did his best to look crestfallen as he followed her to deliver her drink.

“I’ll get it,” Cutten told him magnanimously. Bethany thanked him and was introduced to Watkins, who immediately began to chat her up. Seunghyun caught the kid shooting him a sly look; he scowled back, relieved beyond belief. Cutten was welcome to Jiyong so long as Watkins kept his damn hands off. Jiyong glared at Seunghyun from beneath Cutten’s arm – plainly he wasn’t pleased. Seunghyun returned the look coldly; he didn’t dare do otherwise. Jiyong could be angry at him all he wanted, he would apologize later. And now Seunghyun could return to the awful prospect of…whatever Watkins decided to do next. He set his jaw and got on with his work; whatever it was, there was no way he could prevent it. But it didn’t stop his hands shaking.

 

“You wanna tell me what that was about?” demanded Jiyong. “Huh?!” He had gone upstairs to play with Cutten hours ago, but evidently the billionaire’s presents hadn’t eclipsed Seunghyun’s earlier rudeness. Jiyong stalked down into the distillery, to which Seunghyun had retreated as soon as Seungri offered to spell him for a bit. He glared at the older man. Seunghyun was sitting on his mattress, absolutely worn out by the various miserable emotions clamoring for pride of place. He tried to think of something decent to say, something that would pacify Jiyong, who had grabbed an old stool and was dragging it screeching across the floor, probably on purpose. The boy sat down, folded his arms, and waited for an apology.

“So?!” he snapped, while Seunghyun was still circling inside his own head. Jiyong pursed his lips. “You wanna be my friend, Tabi?” He nudged Seunghyun with his foot. “Friends talk, or so I’m told! And you’re so good at saying sorry; so what gives?”

Seunghyun opened his mouth, still not sure what would come out – he hoped it would be an apology. But instead he burst into tears, and once he started he couldn’t stop. He could sense Jiyong gawping at him, appalled, but he couldn’t explain what he was doing even to himself. He just sat on his mattress and bawled.

“Jesus Christ!” Jiyong’s voice came dimly through the inelegant sound of his caterwauling; he sounded utterly disconcerted. “What the fuck is with you today? Please,” he said, at a slightly louder volume, “please calm down, this is too weird!” Seunghyun sniffed, tried to say something, and failed. So much for being a man! he thought, disgusted with himself – but it felt so cathartic to cry.

After a few more minutes of this Jiyong made an exasperated noise. Seunghyun heard the stool scrape closer, and then Jiyong’s fingers grabbed him by the ear. The younger man pulled, quite ungently, until Seunghyun’s head was in the general vicinity of his lap. Through his tears Seunghyun registered a sharp tap on his cheek, hard enough to be called a slap; Jiyong’s brand of comfort was very like his mother’s, it seemed. Seunghyun understood that, it was familiar, and automatically he wrapped his arms round one of the boy’s legs and held on. He had never been so close to Jiyong before, and it certainly wasn’t how he had pictured it; but his lap was soft and warm, and felt safe. Seunghyun let his head drop, and cried on.

“Finished?” asked Jiyong some time later. Seunghyun thought he was. He took one more unsteady gulp of air and looked up: Jiyong was reading a book, one of the cocktail guides Seunghyun had lying about the place. His expression was half bored and half expectant; as the bigger man raised his head he snapped the volume shut. “Ready to tell me now?” he said. So Seunghyun did.

“…You stupid idiot,” was Jiyong’s kindly response once he was done. Seunghyun blinked his reddened eyes miserably, but didn’t debate it. “Why didn’t you say something earlier?”

“I didn’t want to worry you. And then there was no time…”

“Poor baby,” said Jiyong, a shade under sarcasm; he softened the bite with a gentle sweep of his hand across Seunghyun’s hair. “But it must’ve been scary. I bet a nice boy like you was never threatened before.”

“It was.” Seunghyun leaned into his touch. “But it’s not just that. Watkins…that little fucker, that was the last straw.”

“Mmm.” Jiyong sighed. “You do have a funny sense of what matters! But if he tries to make trouble just ‘cos you work here…well, that’s plain wrong. This place isn’t the real world, everyone knows it. His godfather certainly does, he oughta teach him how to be a man. Tattling on you to your school, that’d be low.”

“Yes.” Seunghyun grimaced. “But if it happens…I’ll handle it, somehow. It’s better than the thought of…of him having you.”

“Dimwit,” said Jiyong, and slapped him again. “I thought you were done with your jealousy! And of that dumb kid, no less! What do you care if he takes me to bed? You know he’d be hopeless at it.”

“Just…don’t even say that.”

“You even got used to Mr. Insull,” Jiyong reminded him. “What’s with this Watkins?”

“…I hate him,” said Seunghyun fiercely. “He’s vindictive and stupid and sexist and racist. But mostly I just hate him.” He tightened his hold on Jiyong’s thigh. “And I love you.”

“You sap,” Jiyong murmured after a pause, and in that pause his voice had become fond. As a faint warmth blossomed in Seunghyun’s chest the younger man leaned down, supple as ever, and brushed his lips across the top of Seunghyun’s head. One arm curled around his shoulders. “I’ll never be his – I don’t belong to any man. Remember that.”

Seunghyun clung to him, still frightened and slightly hysterical but more than willing to be soothed by Jiyong’s sweetness. He had just begun to relax when footsteps clattered on the stairs above them; Jiyong shoved him away as he recognized Seungri’s familiar tread, and by the time the kid’s head appeared Jiyong had his nose back in the recipe book. Seungri shot them a friendly if puzzled look, but Jiyong’s reaction had revived all Seunghyun’s wariness of the younger man, as well as his anxiety that had only just begun to calm.

“Yongie, you got a customer,” Seungri announced. He turned to Seunghyun. “You feeling better? I can carry on serving if you want, it’s not so busy.”

“No. I’m fine. I was just…telling Jiyong about this morning.” Seungri glanced at his tear-stained face but made no remark. For a moment Seunghyun wondered what he was thinking. Then Jiyong hopped up without giving him a second look and trotted away up the stairs. Seunghyun followed more slowly, Seungri beside him with his arms full of bottles. He had to be more careful, he thought; he had to remember that Jiyong’s embraces were as risky as they were rare. More than anything, he had to remember that Jiyong didn’t – or at least shouldn’t – belong to anyone; least of all to him.

 


 

Seunghyun didn’t dare go to Jiyong again that night, and was too shaken to be in his boarding-house room alone. So in the faint rising light of Saturday morning and taking care to stay off the streets, he went home. It was early still when he let himself in but he found his mother awake and cooking up rice for breakfast; the kitchen was warm, and smelled friendly. She jumped as he called to her.

“We didn’t expect you today!” she said after a mild bit of surprised cursing. “You can come peel some potatoes.” She beamed at him. She was in her dressing-gown, long hair tied up in a scarf. Seunghyun felt about five years old as he crossed the room, shedding his adulthood and the horrors of the previous day along with his overcoat. Then:

“What have you done to yourself?!” exclaimed his mother in Korean and in pure shock when he removed his hat. She dropped her spatula and yanked his head down to examine the sparse patch where his eyebrows had been. Seunghyun let her; after everything that had happened it felt good to put himself in her hands. “I told you,” she continued fiercely. “Didn’t I tell you I’d have your professor’s head if anything happened to that face?!”

“It wasn’t his fault, Mom. Ow!” He winced as she touched his forehead, none too gently.

“Oh? Then whose was it?”

“Mine,” admitted Seunghyun; with great relief he bent down and rested his head on her shoulder. “I wasn’t concentrating.” His mother stopped her scolding.

“What’s the matter, darling?” she asked. After a pause he felt her hand pat him comfortingly between his shoulder-blades.

“Nothing.” He couldn’t tell her, of course. But it already felt better – simpler – just being at home, in her presence.

“Nothing, my foot! My great big son comes in with no eyebrows and suddenly wants cuddles? I wasn’t born yesterday. Was someone nasty to you again?”

“No more than usual. I just wanted to see you; to see if you could stop it stinging.” He raised a hand to gesture vaguely at his face.

“I don’t know,” said his mother, sounding slightly less interrogative. “Can I?”

“Yep. You already did.” Better she didn’t know anything. This place was safe, perhaps the only place left to him that felt that way; even Jiyong’s embrace came with its dangers. Seunghyun put his arms around her and smiled for the first time in what felt like forever.

 

Jiyong: "...I gotta pee."

Chapter Text

The security of his mother’s arms didn’t last. The weekend was only so long, after all, and soon enough Seunghyun found himself in the teaching lab giving his freshmen a lecture on adequate penmanship, of all things.

“If Professor Wyeman can’t read it,” he said tiredly, “he’ll grill you in person. Even I had to go through it ‘til I straightened out my writing. And if you can’t explain it right there in front of him he’ll fail you.” Bored expressions from all but Jennings, Emma on his right, and one more boy. Seunghyun pursed his lips, anxious. He hadn’t wanted to come in yesterday, or today, but here he was.

“Sorry I’m late.” And here was Watkins, sauntering into the classroom with a new swagger that spoke to whatever distasteful encounter he’d had with Bethany last Friday night. Seunghyun stiffened: he’d been so relieved when he’d called roll and Watkins was absent again. He’d been away on Monday and it had felt like a reprieve; and now…

“Sit down,” he muttered. He could see the fucker trying to catch his eye, and studiously refused to let him.

“I was just having a word with the Prof,” Watkins informed him, in apparent enjoyment. “About…something. But I dare say you’ll hear all about it presently.” Seunghyun’s heart turned over in his chest. The boy plonked himself down beside Smythe and began murmuring at him eagerly. The other students gazed at the older man, nonplussed.

“…All right,” said Seunghyun, fighting a sudden faintness that was either fresh terror over what might happen to him now Watkins had tattled – and he had, no doubt of it!  – or the beginnings of a truly volcanic rage. “If I made a note on your paper from yesterday you need to write it out again; better yet, use a typewriter at the Library.” Watkins whispered something else, and Smythe turned to stare at him with his mouth open. Seunghyun clenched his fists. “Well…let’s split into groups and try Friday’s experiment again, shall we?”

The ice experiment couldn’t possibly go as badly as it had last time, he thought, not with Emma segregated from the little beasts on the far side of the room. He just had to hold it together until the end of class; whatever Watkins had done it was his own personal problem. Not right to involve the other students. He just couldn’t rise to him, to those taunting whispers and sidelong glances. Couldn’t. Mustn’t.

Seunghyun was doing a pretty good job of ignoring the boy’s existence. He’d split Watkins up from Smythe and put him in a group with Jennings, which was at least lending a façade of competence to the proceedings. But the brat had too large a following to separate him from his cronies entirely, and judging from his gestures across the lab he was now recounting his coming-of-age night in unnecessary detail to another classmate. Jennings was scowling distractedly as he set up the experiment. Seunghyun looked away; he could feel a small, outraged tic in his clenched jaw, but it was probably under control. He let out a long breath.

“-My God, you should’ve seen them!” he heard Watkins drawl, loud enough for it to sound deliberate. “It’s not ‘til you go to a top-class street like Prairie that you get your pick: the most divine tramps you ever laid eyes on! And they’d do anything.”

“Like what?” inquired his hanger-on excitedly. Quieter, Seunghyun could hear Jennings muttering at them to concentrate, not that it would do any good.

“Anything,” said Watkins. “They’re hookers. I had the choice of blondes, brunettes, big tits, small tits, this redhead with the greatest rack you ever saw-”

“Shut up!” came Jennings’ voice suddenly over the pair of them, and then Seunghyun did stare: he’d never heard the kid be that loud. Jennings was glaring at Watkins, his always-pale face white enough that every freckle stood out.

“Make me, virgin.” Seunghyun pushed himself away from the bench beside Emma’s group and started across the lab to intercede; he should have known Watkins would make himself simply impossible to ignore. He’d only taken a few steps when the bastard picked up a handful of the experiment ice and tossed it in Jennings’ face. “I bet not even a whore’d agree to sit on your Irish mug!”

The entire class, who’d abandoned their experiments yet again to gawk at the altercation, gasped – some in amusement, the rest in clear offence. Seunghyun opened his mouth to begin his own personal war with Watkins right there, and damn the consequences; but before he could do so Jennings flung himself at the bigger boy and then both of them were on the floor, along with a lab stool and assorted equipment they’d brought crashing down around them. More gasps from the class, and everyone scrambled nearer to get a good view of the fight. Jennings was the kind of kid who looked like he’d never thrown a punch in his life, but he was giving it his all now, along with the judicious use of knees and elbows to stop Watkins using his weight to pin him. They were both bellowing like bears.

“Oi!!” yelled Seunghyun, dashing through the rest of the crowd and their suggestions to break it up or keep at it. “Gimme a hand, for Christ’s sake!” Watkins’ friends seemed reluctant to do so until blood appeared on his face – Jennings’ elbow had found the bridge of his nose – but then they waded in to help split up the oblivious pair. Seunghyun, almost numb with dismay, grabbed Jennings. By now the ruckus had drawn the attention of his fellow grad students, and two came running from the next room to assist. They yanked the boys to their feet, Jennings in particular still snarling in a way that had his classmates gaping at him in astonishment.

“…What the hell, Nevander?” panted one of the other tutors. “What were you doing this period?!”

“The ice experiment,” said Seunghyun, surveying the damage helplessly. Jennings’ shirt was ripped and he had a black eye, but Watkins had certainly come off worst. Sadly, he couldn’t find any satisfaction in that right now.

“He broke by dose!!” Watkins accused in a bunged-up voice, kicking at Jennings. Blood was dripping over his chin. Jennings only gave him a wild look.

“Get him out of here.” Seunghyun nodded disgustedly to Watkins’ friends, who were more or less holding him up. “Take him to the infirmary already! He really started it,” he added in an undertone to the other grad students. “He always does.”

“Not us you’re gonna have to explain to, old chap,” one told him, and turned to address the rest of Seunghyun’s class. “All right, you lot better clear out. Come to Lab C-5, Weiss and I will take you ‘til lunch.” They all filed out, not without more stares at Jennings and Seunghyun, who finally let the boy go and collapsed onto a stool. Jennings swayed for a bit, then took his own seat.

“…What,” said Seunghyun heavily “…the fuck.”

“He makes me want to hurt him.” Jennings coughed; he was trembling all over, and now Seunghyun had more leisure he saw a clump of his red hair had been torn out. “…I never fought anybody before.”

“A lot of people want to stick one on Watkins,” Seunghyun informed him. “But we don’t. Because this is a university, and we’re here to be better than animals!” He felt like a hypocrite, given his own urges. “Not only that, in the lab! You’re my best freshman, you know how much dangerous kit we keep in here. Jesus, when I think what might’ve happened if we’d been doing a different experiment…!”

“I know,” said Jennings, with remorse but still shivering angrily.

“You wanna tell me why?” Seunghyun scraped his hands through his hair and rubbed at his temples in despair; it made his singed eyebrows sting sharply. “I mean, why today out of all Watkins’ charming days? ‘Cos I’m gonna have to explain to the Prof.” And perhaps the Dean, and God knew who else. On top of the other damning news they’d probably heard about him today… Seunghyun’s palms went sweaty. Jennings mumbled something unintelligible. “Speak up,” ordered Seunghyun wearily.

“…He said bad stuff about women.”

“That’s not a news headline.” Seunghyun peered at him.

“I mean, about…working girls.” Jennings was blushing now. The older man frowned. In a low voice, Jennings confided: “My cousin’s one.” He seemed to be bracing himself for derision; when Seunghyun didn’t offer any he hurried on, the words tumbling over each other as if he’d never spoken them aloud before. “My parents would kill me if they knew I told anyone, we’re not ever s’posed to mention her but she’s still my cousin, she used to babysit me! I don’t want to hear rich pricks like Watkins talk that way.”

“…Calm down.” Seunghyun couldn’t think of anything better to say, but he needed to know what exactly had sparked that outburst. “What happened?”

“Her dad died,” said Jennings, misunderstanding. “Her mom – my aunt – she was ill after that.” He made an odd face, but didn’t go into detail. “So she came to stay with us, but…she’s not like us.” The boy gave a hopeless little smile. “She’s not boring, or studious, or religious. She wanted to have fun. So she left and – well. I heard she chose it. She writes me sometimes, and when the letters don’t get confiscated I gather she’s doing pretty well.” He spread his hands. “Why’s that so bad?”

“It’s not,” Seunghyun told him staunchly. He felt an ache of empathy for this kid.

“She lives in one of those big bordellos-in-disguise on Prairie.” Jennings shook his head; his black eye was spreading and he looked very sorry for himself. “So when Watkins started saying… Mr. Nevander, you didn’t hear the things he was saying! I just…lost it.”

Seunghyun nodded absently. He thought he could get away with putting all the blame on Watkins without having to reveal Jennings’ family secrets. Then he blinked.

“Say, Jennings. What’s your cousin’s name?”

“Why?” asked the younger man, understandably defensive. But his face quickly cleared before clouding over again doubtfully. “Oh… Then…is it true, what else Watkins said?” Whatever it was, he appeared to find it hard to credit.

“What?”

“…That you tend bar in one of those places.” Seunghyun paused, aghast for an instant before deciding there was no point denying it now: it would surely be all over the Department soon, and for all he knew his days as Jennings’ teacher were numbered.

“Sort of.” He smiled crookedly. “Don’t worry, I won’t turn you all into drinkers. I get it, I do: we all have our secrets. I won’t be telling anyone about yours. I just wanted to know her name.” Jennings thought for a moment, the careful, sensible boy that Seunghyun respected emerging on his battered face. He looked up, and half-defiantly, half-proudly said:

“Lily.”

 

He didn’t have time to digest that bombshell; it was simply the latest in a long line of ridiculous events that had followed one another over the past week, and before he could try to absorb it Seunghyun was called away to face to the music.

Professor Wyeman’s office was usually a place of great interest and learning. Sure, it smelled of old books, sulphur, and miscellaneous abandoned sandwiches, and every couple of months Seunghyun had to come in and tidy up so his teacher could actually sit down, but it had never been somewhere he was afraid to be. As he slunk in, braced for the inevitable worst outcome, he found himself resenting everyone who had forced him to view it differently: as the site of his sentencing and likely execution.

The professor was scribbling as usual, his notebook stained with coffee rings. He glanced up briefly at his miserable assistant, then jotted down something else.

“Sit,” he suggested. Seunghyun did, and after a minute was given Wyeman’s full attention.

“I hear you have two freshmen in the infirmary.”

“Yes, Sir.” Added to his outburst at Smythe last week, that did not speak well for Seunghyun’s classroom control.

“An accident, was it?” The professor’s gaze darted to his notebook, which was littered with formulae, as if he couldn’t wait to stop dealing with personnel issues and get back to it.

“…No. A fight.” That sounded worse, but surely Wyeman knew it already. In confirmation of this the older man said:

“Avery Watkins gave us to understand that you let Jennings attack him.”

“I didn’t,” Seunghyun retorted dully. “I broke them up as soon as I humanly could. And if Watkins hadn’t thrown ice in his face Jennings would never have lashed out.” Wyeman looked at him for a long time, chewing the end of his pen, so that Seunghyun had to fight back the angry moisture collecting beneath his eyelids; he didn’t want to look any more unstable.

“I know,” said Wyeman at last. “These boys are not strangers to me, Mr. Nevander. I know what Watkins is likely to do, and what Jennings is not. And frankly, an accident in the laboratory would have me a lot more concerned about you than a commonplace teenage fight.” Seunghyun raised his head at that, surprised. Could it be that he wasn’t about to be dropped in it? “On the other hand,” continued Wyeman, “I’m also aware of who Watkins is: who his family are, and their relationship with the heads of this institution.” He leaned forward to observe his student more closely. “Before lab practice this morning I was called to the Dean’s office, where I had a delightful meeting with Watkins and his father. They gave us some…information. But perhaps you can guess the details,” he ventured, as Seunghyun’s expression turned stony.

“Watkins says he saw me.” Seunghyun didn’t try to prevaricate; he’d done many things during the past year but he hoped he was above outright lying to his mentor when challenged. “Serving alcohol, in a brothel.”

“Close enough,” said Wyeman. “And perhaps you were planning to point out that, if you were in there, why, so was he.” Seunghyun just pursed his lips and folded his hands under his arms to stop them shaking. “All true enough. But the fact remains you were, and as tutor to his dear impressionable son Watkins Senior is rather concerned about you.” Seunghyun winced.

“Sir, I never-”

“Personally,” announced Wyeman, holding up his pen to stop the younger man talking, “I loathe getting involved in this sort of thing; it’s all noise to me. I don’t care what you do in your off hours, my boy – you could be procurer to the Mayor’s personal mistress for all it has to do with me.” He perked up slightly. “Do you simply serve the spirits or do you make them, too?”

“I do,” said Seunghyun quietly. “I’ve experimented extensively. It’s…actually fascinating.”

“Well. Isn’t that something. All terribly illegal, of course.” Wyeman shrugged. “But what I don’t like, Mr. Nevander, is distraction. That’s what this is, and I don’t mean this morning’s debacle. I’d been wondering for months about you: the sleepiness and absences, the increase in undergrad problems…” He gestured to Seunghyun’s patchy eyebrows, which were still smarting; he needed more of Jiyong’s medicine. “That.”

“…I know. I’m sorry, Sir.”

“I started to think that perhaps you aren’t cut out for advanced research.” Seunghyun opened his mouth, horrified, but Wyeman cut him off. “But that seemed odd because you were so promising before, and I’ve come to rely on you. And now I know: a time-consuming, more-or-less dangerous side job.” He sighed drily. “If you want the truth, I’m rather relieved – as long as your heart is still where it belongs: in the lab.” The younger man nodded hurriedly; it was half-true, at least. “Still, we can’t be seen to do nothing,” Wyeman went on. “The Watkins’ demanded your expulsion. There was even talk of the police.”

Seunghyun bit the inside of his lip. It was exactly what he’d anticipated. The thought of a life without his research, without the joy of explosions and discovery, left him as hollow as he felt when he tried to imagine a life without Jiyong.

“But I’m glad to say I have some sway in this Department,” added Wyeman. So I’ve spoken to the Dean, at length, all morning.” He looked annoyed at this further waste of time. “And you can continue your program of research under me. You’ll still be my assistant, provided that – officially – you quit this illegal job immediately. But you’ll no longer supervise the freshmen, so you’ll have to forego the bulk of your scholarship.” He watched Seunghyun’s reaction. “Is that reasonable? More to the point, is it practical?”

“I…yes.” Seunghyun took a trembling breath. With the money he made in pay and tips at the House he ought to be able to manage; he would officially put an end to his life of crime as loudly as the Dean liked, then carry on regardless. And he could give up tutoring without shedding a tear. But it was a punishment all right, and it stung.

“Of course,” said the professor, “this may have some impact on your reputation around campus. I doubt Watkins will bother keeping it to himself, and people will naturally question your demotion.” He looked at Seunghyun thoughtfully. “Then again, perhaps you’ve never been burdened with particularly high social standing here.”

“Very true, Sir. It’s not as if I’ll be missing anything.” Seunghyun smiled bitterly, and was only slightly surprised to see it echoed on Wyeman’s features. His teacher ignored most personal issues when it came to his research team, but that didn’t mean he was blind to them. Wyeman had probably noted every hardship his students faced, and in his own way tried to alleviate them. In the end, all he cared about was the science. Seunghyun had never been so thankful for that.

Having dealt with his distracting human resources problem Wyeman proceeded to fill his assistant in on what prep needed doing for an upcoming conference, then sent him on his way with a flick of his pen. Seunghyun hurried out. He didn’t know how to react: should it be elation at still having a position, or shame over the loss of his scholarship and teaching job – the gloating he was sure to endure from Watkins, and the disappointment of his parents? He didn’t know; it was all too much. So he decided, for the rest of the day, to feel nothing at all.

 


 

The first sensation he had upon emerging from his self-imposed stupor was the desire to bury his head in Jiyong’s lap and confess all his problems. He’d gotten a mixed reception the other night, sure, but it had still been wonderful. So even though he wasn’t technically on shift tonight – the beginning of the week was when he usually caught up on his sleep – he headed over to the House. But once he finished decanting the latest batch of gin and made his way up to the bar to give the fill-in guy a break, Seunghyun knew he’d be getting no comfort from that quarter. Jiyong was in one of his flippant moods, hovering charmingly on the line between humor and acidity. He was flirting and teasing but not with Seunghyun; the older man saw him with a quick succession of customers. None of them were regulars, so the boy was working extra hard to figure out what they liked.

“…Ahh, gimme a drink, will you?” Jiyong demanded on his third trip back to the Salon. He was in loose pants and a short, traditional Korean jeogori in exquisitely embroidered violet silk. Seunghyun’s mother would have been in raptures over it.

“What d’you want?” Seunghyun took in his glittering eyes, the hectic flush on his high cheekbones. Beautiful. But apparently not tranquil.

“Strong, sweet,” said Jiyong shortly. “Satisfy me.” Seunghyun blushed, but the younger man wasn’t looking; he craned his neck to peer across the room, puffed his cheeks, and blew out a stream of air. “Jeez, Mrs. Moore’s got my next already.”

“Hey…can I come talk to you later?” Seunghyun ventured, somewhat timid now. He wanted to share with Jiyong, however blasé his friend might be upon listening. It felt…right.

“More talking!” Jiyong rolled his eyes. “As if I hadn’t worn my tongue out already tonight.” His lovely eyes narrowed. “Oh, all right. Come see me when you shut down the bar, I’ll give you some more of that ointment. But you’ll have to make it quick, Tabi, I’m so tired.”

Seunghyun spent the rest of the night waiting for it to end, and every minute the ramifications of the day’s events grew clearer and more massive in his mind.

“You’re looking very droopy,” commented Seungri in the small hours, bringing up another box of liquor from the cellar. Seunghyun grunted. “How’s the new batch, by the way?” the kid continued.

“Seems good.” Seungri beamed at him disarmingly.

“So how about we have a taste test after we close? You seem like you could use some liquid therapy.”

“Ah…No, I better head home after I clean up,” Seunghyun muttered. He swiped his apron across the bar, making sure to look unenthused. “I only came in to check on the distillery.”

“And yet here you are still.” Seungri raised his eyebrows and, as always, Seunghyun was reluctantly reminded of who the kid was and how suspect his motives might be. He could hardly admit that he was only hanging around so he could spend private time with Jiyong.

“…Okay.” There’d be time for a quick drink, Seunghyun allowed. It might even do him some good – there was plenty he could stand to forget. And then he’d say goodnight to Jiyong properly. It wasn’t as if Seungri was planning to throw an after-hours party. Right?

 


 

Seunghyun woke up with a splitting headache. The only consolation was that it was pillowed on something warm and soft. Jiyong’s lap? Wait, that wasn’t right. He opened his eyes and found himself staring up at the basement ceiling. So far, so familiar; he had woken up on the mattress down here more often than was good for him. With an effort he moved his head, and instantly felt sick: partly from the undeniable hangover and partly from the sight of a half-naked Lin, whose midriff he had been sleeping on.

Seunghyun sat up with a gasp; the movement stabbed into his eye sockets and he winced. There on his other side was Bethany, in a similar state of dishabille. When he plucked up the courage to glance down at himself he found he was in his undershirt and his pants were undone. It didn’t take any stretch of the imagination to figure out what had happened in the early hours of the morning. But how?!

Stretching his unwilling brain to its best efforts, Seunghyun remembered having a drink down here after the Salon closed its doors. It’d been just him and Seungri at first; he’d made the younger man a new cocktail. And then…who’d invited more people? Probably Seungri, but it could have been him; Seunghyun was not a wise drunk. He’d likely been testing recipes on them, but it seemed he’d gone at it as hard as anyone else because try as he might he had no recollection of what had happened after that. As he sat there panicking he saw Lin wake up, pull a face that suggested she was similarly suffering, and open her eyes.

“…Hey,” the Chinese woman said groggily, taking in their collective state. Her accent was stronger than usual. “So, that was fun…I think.” She nudged Bethany, who didn’t react. “We must’ve really worn her out.”

“Do you remember…anything?” asked Seunghyun, looking aside until she covered herself. He wished he’d had the forethought to sneak out before the girls woke up. It wasn’t just the embarrassment of having done something that went so against his better judgement; he also really wasn’t sure that he liked Lin, what with her attitude towards Jiyong – and if she wanted she could surely use this to tease him beyond bearing.

“Actually, not much,” replied Lin, sitting up. “But it must’ve been okay ‘cos your balls are still intact.” She smirked, then groaned softly. “Goddammit. Ease up on the gin in those things you make, huh?”

“…Yeah.”

“Regretting it?” she said.

“Yes.” Lin gave him a dry smile, and he didn’t dare ask her not to tell anyone; that’d be like a red rag to a bull.

“Make yourself presentable,” she told him. “Then go upstairs and check it’s safe for me to take Sleeping Beauty back to her room.”

“Okay.”

“You know how much trouble we’ll be in if any of the management find out you did this, yes?”

I did this?! I don’t even remember it!”

“You’re right,” agreed Lin. “That’s giving you way too much credit. Just go on now, there’s a good boy.”

Seunghyun went. There was no-one around, only faint voices from the kitchen down the hall. Lin and Bethany, who was still half-asleep, went softly up the back stairs and away. Seunghyun slumped down on his mattress and pressed his palms against his eyes. He couldn’t believe he’d done that. Had the impact of being stripped of his academic privileges by Watkins really screwed with his judgement that much?! Yes, he was a man, and he’d never denied the women in the House were spectacular; but he hadn’t thought he’d stoop to enjoying a quick fuck with any of them, not when he was so in love with Jiyong.

 Jiyong. Christ, that was the worst of it: would he find out? And if he did, what the hell would he think of Seunghyun then?

 

Seunghyun woke up again mid-afternoon; evidently all that self-recrimination hadn’t been any match for the severity of his hangover. He lay with a bag from the ice-box on his forehead for a while, then forced himself to get up. He changed into the clothes he’d been teaching in yesterday and made his way upstairs.

Once he’d scrounged a cheese sandwich from the kitchen he went to reconnoiter at the front of the House. There was the usual group of girls napping or chatting quietly in the sunroom, and he thought he heard Seungri’s voice from somewhere behind the door to the offices. He passed Queenie with a plate of snacks in the hall. She nodded at him affably, with no sign that she had heard about what he’d been up to. Then again, Seunghyun had no idea how any of these women would react: would they be shocked or amused? Or maybe they already knew and thought nothing of it at all. It seemed the only one suffering over it was him.

He went out into the grassy backyard to get some fresh air. As he came down the steps he saw Lily lounging in a deckchair wearing a bathing costume, her curls sweeping the ground in a fiery curtain. Dimly he remembered the revelation Jennings had laid on him: that they might be related. At any other time that would seem hugely important and he’d try to talk with her about it; right now it was just too much to deal with.

“Come to make your little friend feel better?” she asked lazily.

“Er…” Seunghyun didn’t know what to make of that. She raised her eyebrows at his confusion.

“It wasn’t an innuendo, silly. I meant Jiyong.” She jerked her thumb towards the roofed-over woodpile. “He’s in there, having one of those days.”

“…What days?”

“Those days we all have occasionally,” she said comfortably. “How many times have you walked into a room in this house and found a girl crying there?” As a matter of fact Seunghyun had at least three times, and beyond awkward questions and a promise to go get someone he’d never known what to do about it. And lately it’d been him who needed comforting, so it wasn’t as if he didn’t understand.

“You mean he’s…” Seunghyun’s heart leapt into his throat, because why else would Jiyong be upset, today of all days?

“Yeah, but don’t worry.” He frowned at her tone: he did like Lily even if she was Jiyong’s rival, but she sure could sound cold. “It’s just a pressure valve,” she told him. “Helps us stay sane.”

Seunghyun’s lips thinned. Perhaps it was, but not for Jiyong; no, Seunghyun thought he knew what was wrong with him. And whose fault it was. He gave Lily the closest thing to a smile he could manage, and headed for the woodpile.

“Jiyong?” he called hesitantly. He ducked beneath the overhang. There was a silence, followed by a sniff.

“…Oh, it’s you,” came a weepy voice from above him. He looked up, and there was Jiyong’s flushed face peering down at him from the top of the stack. “You want something?”

“Lily said you were upset.” The sight of those lovely features all damp and pink with tears rekindled Seunghyun’s guilt over what had happened last night in an instant. He’d promised to go see him, hadn’t he. And instead…

“She would,” said Jiyong crossly, and took an unsteady breath. “Tattle-tale.” Seunghyun climbed up the pile of logs, shuffling along precariously when he got to the top until Jiyong was within arm’s reach.

“Are you all right?” he asked, not daring to touch him. Jiyong swiped at his eyes with his shirt-sleeve.

“I’m fine. You oughta…be sleeping off your hangover, I heard you got plastered last night.”

“…I’m so sorry,” Seunghyun announced impetuously.

“Why?” said Jiyong. He snatched at the hankie the older man offered him and wiped his face again. “What did you do? Other than throw a party in your cave instead of coming to say goodnight to me.”

“I…” Seunghyun paused, perplexed. What if Jiyong hadn’t found out? What if Lily was right and this had nothing to do with him at all? But his dumb conscience was feeling too bad about the whole thing to hide it from his friend. “…I think I slept with Lin.” Jiyong stared at him, expressionless. “And Bethany,” he confessed. “I don’t remember it, but I-”

“Yeah,” Jiyong told him coolly, “I know. Lin told me.” Dammit, he should have known; it must have been irresistible to throw it in his face, even if the fuck itself had been an accident.

“I didn’t mean to!” Seunghyun assured him, although he knew it was a lame excuse. “I don’t know what happened… I got fired from my tutoring job yesterday and…”

“Ah, who cares what you did when you were upset?” said the smaller man, and waved his hand in dismissal. “Not me! It has nothing to do with anything, believe me.”

“But-”

“You think I give a damn who you fuck?” demanded Jiyong, and laughed. “I screw dozens of guys a week, as if that means anything!”

“But that’s your job,” said Seunghyun. Jiyong sniffed.

“Oh, I know. Still, you think it has anything to do with feelings?”

“No?”

“No,” agreed Jiyong. He leaned towards Seunghyun. “I’ll bet your little indiscretion didn’t either. You still love me, don’t you? Like you always want me to believe. Not Lin or Bethany?”

“Nobody else,” swore Seunghyun, completely in earnest. “Only you.” Jiyong gave him a watery smile of satisfaction. “As your best friend and…and anything else you want.”

“There,” said the boy. “That’s what matters to me, Tabi. Not where you stick your stupid drunken dick.”

He laughed again, a sweet sound this time, and Seunghyun for once thanked God that Jiyong’s life had made his concept of morality so very different to everyone else’s. Jiyong looked at him carefully, then held out a hand. Scarcely believing his good fortune Seunghyun took it; it was damp and too hot but he clutched at it tightly anyway, to comfort himself as much as anything else. Jiyong sighed.

“All of us end up in here sometime,” he told the bigger man. “Some days things just feel so heavy, and a little cry lightens them right up. You know how that feels, right?”

“Of course.” Especially after his breakdown in Jiyong’s lap.

“It’s just…I dunno.” Jiyong rubbed his thumb absently over Seunghyun’s knuckles. It wasn’t sexual; it wasn’t anything, but the older man felt touched anyway. “I’ve been thinking about my dad.” Seunghyun was about to speak up at that, though he wasn’t sure if it was to console Jiyong or tear into his father again; he’d almost forgotten that ugly scene at the Kwon house, so much had happened since. But of course Jiyong was still hurting. “It’s not only that,” Jiyong went on. “The clients I’ve had the last couple of weeks have all been the same kind, nothing to break the pattern or distract me. And it wears on me, is all.”

“How d’you mean?” Seunghyun did not generally care to hear the details of Jiyong’s customers – his own jealousy was still a pressing thing. But if the boy needed to talk, that was exactly why he was here: to listen the way Jiyong had listened to him.

“There are tricks who’re work,” Jiyong said with a fainter sniff. “And tricks who’re fun. I mean, the Palmers? They treat me as a playmate: we all enjoy each other, even though we’re perfectly aware of the gap between us – that they could buy me outright and barely notice a dip in their bank balance. Even Mr. Insull likes to talk with me, and better yet he’s interesting – and when he’s in the mood he makes sure to please me. But the guys I’ve had recently? I’m a toy, at best. Not that I hate that,” he added hurriedly. “It’s less complicated, in a way. But when it’s only that, night after night…it drags you down.” He pursed his lips in the way Seunghyun loved. “And with your life blowing up in your face I don’t even have you to lean on.”

Seunghyun squeezed his hand, the one expression of sympathy he knew Jiyong would endure. He felt guilty again for a whole different reason; but this, at least, he might be able to do something about.

“It’s usually pretty quiet on Thursdays, right?” he said on impulse. “If I can get one of the girls to convince Thompson how off-color you are, d’you think you can get out of your afternoon appointments tomorrow?”

“…Maybe,” said Jiyong slowly. “Sometimes when they know one of us is real bad they’ll give us leave to sleep right through ‘til the Salon opens.”

“Then let’s do it.” Jiyong was looking at him curiously; it was a good feeling. Seunghyun didn’t want to see that miserable face another minute. “We can go for a drive!” The smaller man laughed again.

“More of your spontaneous nonsense?” he said in a soft, pleased voice. Seunghyun just smiled at him, slightly goofy with premature anticipation; he pushed his own catastrophes to the back of his mind, and oddly he felt better. “Sure,” agreed Jiyong. “Ask Lily, she’ll convince Thompson for you.”

“Really? I thought you two were at each other’s throats.”

“But she likes you,” Jiyong informed him. “I mean, she thinks you’re an idiot, but at least you’re entertaining. And good-looking. And if you offer to do her a favor she can be quite indulgent.”

“I thought that’s why you like me.” Seunghyun smiled again as Jiyong smacked him on the shoulder before helping him down off the woodpile. He was a lucky son of a bitch, he thought, when Jiyong at last let go of his hand. What a turnaround the day had been! And if only Lily – and Daesung – would help him out, Thursday might be even better.

 


 

“Dae,” said Seunghyun, sidling up to his friend in the refectory and giving him an attempt at a winning smile. “Can I borrow the Bearcat tomorrow?” He had hoofed it over to campus, knowing that Daesung was nearly always there at the end of the day waiting for Youngbae to get off work.

“If you want. It just came back from the mechanic.” Daesung looked at him. His eyebrows rose. “Sit down! A date? After everything that happened yesterday?” So everyone knew about his disgrace. Seunghyun’s heart sank, but it was nothing he hadn’t expected. And this was more important.

“No!” He took a seat, more to keep the other man’s voice down than anything else. “Just…my Korean friend at work, remember? We both have the afternoon off – hell, I’ve got nothing but free time now I’ve been kicked off the tutor roster – so I figured we could take a drive out to the country.”

“It is a date. Or a distraction.” Daesung shook his head good-naturedly. “What, you’re going to settle down with a nice Korean girl? How boring.” He perked up. “Mind you, if she works in a drinking joint she might be fun.” Seunghyun scowled; he knew this was Daesung’s MO, to act out against his traditional family by trying to encourage the wild life in his American friends. But he wished he’d leave it alone this once.

“He’s not a girl, and it’s not a date. He’s my friend.” The younger man gave him another considering look and his constant smile turned puzzled.

“He must be a very special friend.”

“What?”

“Well, I’m your friend. But I bet you never have that look on your face when you talk about me! He’s gotta be really something to make you smile when you just got fired.” Seunghyun didn’t even want to ask, but he knew he was blushing at whatever it was Daesung was thinking.

“Oh, just…can I borrow the car or not?”

“Yes,” said Daesung, still looking curious and more than a little concerned. “But someday I’ve got to meet this guy.”

 


 

“Aahhh, it’s a Bearcat!” Jiyong exclaimed the next day as Seunghyun led him around the corner. Seunghyun knew he was meant to be resting indoors rather than tearing off round the country, so they’d arranged to meet in a side street; it was the same road Capone’s men had picked him up in and it was giving him the jitters, so the sight of Jiyong was even more pleasing than usual. From the look of the boy’s clothes he had come via the skylight. “Holy moly, look at that chassis. Whose is it? Not your dad’s, surely.”

“As if.” Seunghyun opened the passenger door for him and he slid inside, running his slender fingers across the interior. “It’s my friend Daesung’s,” the older man said. “You know, the rich one from Seoul.”

“What’s the top speed?”

“Eighty-something, I think. But you won’t be seeing it!” Seunghyun rarely drove, only when his father lent him the old Fiat once in a blue moon. Technically he was supposed to know something about automobiles, given his professor’s latest research on coolant; but knowing about engines and enjoying them were two different things. He liked to take it easy, and being essentially a race car the Bearcat was an absolute terror to drive: the gear shift was on the outside, it had a center throttle, and a perilous switch on the floor that did something Seunghyun didn’t even care to ask about. But Jiyong seemed impressed, and that was pretty satisfying.

“C’mon, then, let’s go!” Seunghyun obediently engaged the starter motor and swore at the car until it turned over, then eased it away from the sidewalk.

Jiyong sat happily in the passenger seat and criticized Seunghyun’s driving until they got out of the city proper. When they stopped at a lone store to get some drinks and picnic food, though, he balked at getting back in.

“Saaay, Tabi!” he said, batting his eyelashes at Seunghyun persuasively. “You drive like an old lady. Can I have a turn?”

“I don’t know, can you?”

“Hey, I can drive.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, Mrs. Palmer taught me.” Jiyong gave him a reminiscing smile. Seunghyun sourly recalled the fancy car in which the socialite had taken him to the drag ball.

“…All right,” he said. “But be careful or Daesung’ll kill me.”

“Sure, sure.” Jiyong hopped into the driver’s seat, checked all the dials and pedals with what looked like competence but could mean anything, and put the top down. It was a warm day, and the sun glinted on his hair until he popped a dapper cap on it. Seunghyun took his seat nervously as Jiyong depressed the air pump a few times and started them off.

To his relief it soon became clear that Jiyong could drive, though he did it while biting his plump bottom lip in an adorable expression of concentration. Once the city was in the rear-view mirror and they were on the open road Seunghyun saw him lean down and hit the large metal button on the floor.

“What the hell is that?!” Seunghyun demanded as the engine noise increased.

“Exhaust cut-out!” Jiyong shouted back. “Only the racers have ‘em!” He shifted gears and the car leaped forward.

“Jesus!” Seunghyun found himself clutching his seat with both hands. Jiyong laughed aloud as the speed picked up, the needle creeping over sixty, over seventy. “Fucking fuck!!” yelled the bigger man, appalled. “Slow down!”

There was too much noise what with the roaring engine to hear Jiyong’s gasp as the wind blew his hat clean off his head and sent it bowling along the road behind. His blonde hair fluttered and streamed into life, any style it might have had demolished with the speed of their passage. Jiyong laughed again, his lovely eyes bright and focused behind the windshield. He looked insanely beautiful like this; but also, not to put too fine a point on it, insane. Seunghyun held on for dear life.

After another half-hour of silent prayer and shouted directions Seunghyun heaved a sigh as Jiyong eased the Bearcat to a crawl. They passed a sign announcing they had entered Fox River Valley.

“How about here?” Jiyong said, gesturing to the scenery dawdling past: a tree-studded meadow that sloped down to the water. The blue river sparkled in the sun; there was no-one else around. Seunghyun nodded – he’d happily picnic in an iron-works if it meant Jiyong stopping the car. The younger man pulled off at the side of the road and finally cut the engine. Seunghyun’s hands slowly loosened their grip.

“…You’re a fucking maniac!” he told Jiyong fervently; he had never sworn so much in one afternoon. “Is that how Mrs. Palmer taught you?!” Jiyong chuckled.

“Oh, she’s fast, Tabi. In all kinds of ways. Anyway, you’re all in one piece, aren’t you?”

“Barely.” Jiyong just snorted dismissively, so Seunghyun clambered out of the low-slung car and heaved the food from the trunk. He felt positively weak. By the time he had done so Jiyong had hopped the ditch into the field; the smaller man took a deep, luxurious breath and began to run. Seunghyun watched him, the wide-open sky above him, and wondered how long it had been since Jiyong had felt even the illusion of freedom. He felt like running himself; but he was too laden down.

 

They sat on the riverbank for a bit, dangling their bare feet in the water. Seunghyun told Jiyong all about his catastrophe at school on Tuesday and what Watkins had done; out here in the bright open air it seemed to matter less. The smaller man smacked him again, chiding but not really angry.

“No wonder you got wasted,” he said. “But you should’ve come told me. I could’ve made you feel better.”

“I know.”

Soon Jiyong got hungry and strolled them over to a prime spot under a shady tree, arm tucked through Seunghyun’s elbow the way Daesung always did. He ate with his usual unrefined hurry; one childhood habit he’d never managed to abandon, thought Seunghyun, or maybe the food was really that good. It was certainly one of the best meals he had ever tasted, but that was likely the fresh air and the company. They drank stolen Belgian beer together, lukewarm from being in the trunk for hours but still heady.

“You feel better?” Seunghyun asked him hopefully. His own troubles had faded out, retreating to lurk in a corner of his mind where they might stay trapped until he had time to deal with them.

“Yeah.” Jiyong tipped his lovely head back and let the sun bathe his features. “Yeah, Tabi; this is just the ticket.”

After lunch Seunghyun lay down in the grass, sleepy as usual – it seemed his constant state of being these days. It was pleasant but odd to hear no cars or people.

“Come here,” he heard Jiyong say through a mouthful of cake. “You might as well be comfortable.” Seunghyun opened his eyes to see the boy leaning back against the tree trunk, beckoning to him impatiently. He obediently shuffled over, then had to restrain an excited breath as Jiyong took him bossily by the hair and laid his head in his lap after brushing his pants free of crumbs. Seunghyun lay there awkwardly for a minute; he didn’t know how to act. But Jiyong began gently petting his hair, relaxed and casual, and Seunghyun gradually felt his tension ease. This must be an expression of thanks for the afternoon out; or at best a gesture of benign comfort.

Seunghyun almost fell asleep after a while, he was that soothed. He heard Jiyong yawn. He figured this was what heaven must feel like – not the mind-blowing intensity that sex with the smaller man would surely involve, but this: softness and sweetness, the breeze stirring the leaves above them and Jiyong’s high voice tranquil as he hummed a snatch of song. It was a Jiyong he had never encountered within the confines of the House.

“…Tabi,” murmured Jiyong, fingers still idle in his hair, “what’re you gunna do after you graduate?”

“Mm.” Seunghyun rubbed his cheek luxuriously against Jiyong’s thigh. The late summer sun was warm on the other side of his face and the smell of the grass was making him increasingly drowsy; he couldn’t be bothered to think at all. “Depends. If I asked, my Prof would maybe help me get funding to do my Ph.D. Especially if I carry on with his research. Mind you, who knows if I’ll make it that far at this rate? I’m not exactly in his good books.”

More education?” Jiyong sounded incredulous. “I mean…what for?”

“Well,” said Seunghyun with his eyes closed, “I could get a university position then. Our Physics department has world-famous scientists; I wanna try and make the Chemistry department famous too!” And it might be nice to put Korean-Americans on the map.

“By blowing yourself up?” Jiyong was teasing him, but to Seunghyun it almost felt affectionate. You could never be sure with him.

“Or I could stop at a Master’s,” he mused. “Get a good job at one of the chemical firms. Carbon and Carbide already offered me a research position, right after I finished my undergrad. It’d pay quite well, and I doubt many other companies would give a high-level job to someone who looks like me.”

“Why not take it, then?”

“It’s in West Virginia.” Jiyong’s fingers stopped their combing and Seunghyun shifted to squint up at him, the sun obscuring his view. “…That’s too far from you.” He wasn’t ashamed to admit it. They had grown used to being friends, but Jiyong still knew how he really felt.

“Oh,” said Jiyong, after a moment. He didn’t sound displeased. One finger traced the outline of the bigger man’s ear, and Seunghyun sighed.

“If I thought you’d come with me – if we could get away – I’d take it in a heartbeat.” Jiyong went still again. Seunghyun plunged on regardless, because more than ever this seemed the perfect solution to everything. “We wouldn’t be rich but I know we could have a good life together. As friends, as…as whatever you wanted. We could leave all this bullshit behind.”

“No,” said Jiyong, and for the first time ever Seunghyun caught a faint tone of what might be regret.

“I figured you’d say that,” admitted Seunghyun. “That’s why I never mentioned it; and why I’m still here.” He knew it perfectly well by now, the line Jiyong wouldn’t cross in terms of supporting his family and his own lifestyle. He was almost resigned to it. This was sweet enough, wasn’t it? he thought, nuzzling his head against Jiyong’s knee. Anything more was just greedy.

 


 

“Why don’t you ever take me anywhere?” demanded Jiyong, head lolling back under the soporific touch of Seunghyun’s comb.

“Are you kidding me?” It was less than forty-eight hours since Seunghyun had spirited the younger man off to the countryside. Jiyong had relaxed, regrouped, and was back to his old self after his blue spell. Seunghyun was less adept at rising above his troubles, but even he thought it had been a successful trip. “What d’you want now, dinner for two up the Eiffel Tower?!”

“Sarcastic,” scolded Jiyong, handing him a box of hairpins. “And no. If I wanted that I’d beg Mr. Insull.” Seunghyun glowered at him in the mirror. “I mean why don’t you ever take me anywhere yours?”

“Eh?” Jiyong smiled, the bare-bones, affectionate smile without makeup.

“You’re in my domain every day, Tabi. You know all about me, and you never get bored. But it’s only lately you’ve been opening up about you. Why? You don’t want me that close to your real life?” The boy covered one of Seunghyun’s hands with his own and patted it. “Sensible, but I thought you liked me better than that. I’ve never been afraid to let you see me. How about you return the favor?”

“…You want to really know me?” said Seunghyun, suddenly stupidly happy at something that ought to be a routine part of their friendship but which he had never presumed to foist on the younger man; Jiyong had enough strife of his own to wade through. “The boring stuff too?” Jiyong smiled at him.

“For me, I should think that’d be the most novel.”

“I always wanted to show you my life,” the older man confessed ardently. An expression of mild surprise appeared on Jiyong’s face. “I want you to meet my friends, my parents…” Jiyong went from surprised to aghast at that. “Sure, maybe that’s a bit much to start with,” Seunghyun acknowledged with a flighty chuckle. “But my research, the lab – would you like to see them?”

“It’ll be something new, anyway.” The boy tilted his head to one side, thoughtful. “But then most everything is new with you.”

 


 

They met on campus once Seunghyun had wrapped up his research for the day. Jiyong was supposed to have come the afternoon before; Seunghyun waited more than an hour before resigning himself to being stood up. Jiyong had explained later, after Seunghyun went all the way to the House to complain: a sudden booking, he couldn’t get away. The older man knew better than to feel disgruntled. He put the image of Jiyong with another man out of his head, and agreed to try again.

When Seunghyun spotted the boy lounging at the edge of one of the fountains he breathed a sigh of relief, followed by one of pleasure at the sight of him. Jiyong was in a natty and colorful slacks-and-sweater combo, a marked change from his usual attire. He hadn’t bothered with a hat. With his hair brushed back naturally and his piercings removed the only things that drew your attention were the platinum blonde and that startling face. Seunghyun hurried over to meet him; there were a few undergrads staring at the smaller Korean boy impolitely, and the older man didn’t want there to be a scene. Not that Jiyong seemed bothered.

“Hey,” Jiyong greeted him casually. “These kids are awfully rude, aren’t they.”

“Sorry.”

“What do I care?” said the younger man in Korean, drawing more stares. He stood up and stretched, giving Seunghyun a smile. “They’re children.” Seunghyun wished he had some of Jiyong’s sangfroid.

“Come on, I’ll show you around.” Without exactly rushing, but not hanging around to be glared at – he felt increasingly paranoid on campus these days, as if everyone was gossiping about him – he guided Jiyong toward his home away from home.

He took him to the Biology building first. Seunghyun was still friendly with a couple of the grad students, and they allowed him to tinker around there in his spare time – back when he’d had spare time. This would be the perfect place to show Jiyong the magic that could be found in science.

“Look through here,” he suggested, drawing the smaller man over to a line of shining brass microscopes in one of the labs. The resident research assistant gave Jiyong an ambivalent glance but nodded vaguely at Seunghyun and wandered out.

“What’s this, then? I thought Biology was all dissecting frogs.”

“Hardly. Here, see for yourself.” Jiyong squinted down one of the microscopes. Many times Seunghyun had been on the receiving end of the old prank, wherein the class joker would blacken the edges of the scope sight and the viewer would end up with a hilarious sooty monocle around his eye, then walk around for ages looking stupid until he noticed everyone laughing at him. If Seunghyun had been feeling slightly more puckish he’d have tried it on Jiyong; but although he was delighted to have him here he didn’t quite dare attempt that.

“…It’s blurry,” said Jiyong.

“Close the other eye.” Jiyong did so, and shrugged, so Seunghyun nudged him aside and adjusted the focus properly. “Try again. If it’s still fuzzy I’ll put the binocular attachment on, and if that doesn’t work you’d better see an optometrist.” This time the boy took a sharp, wondering breath.

“Oh, Tabi…! What is it?”

“Guess.”

“I mean…it looks like a luminous painting. My tricks would pay thousands to have this thing on their wall!”

“That’s right,” said Seunghyun, pleased at his reaction. “I asked ‘em to find the nicest things they could. This is your personally tailored gallery; I can’t take you to the Art Institute, but maybe this will do just as well.”

“It’s so pretty.”

“It’s scales from a butterfly wing,” the older man told him. This close they looked like metallic peacock-colored petals.

“I wanna wear it.” Jiyong turned to smile at him. “You oughta sell these pictures to couturiers.” Seunghyun smiled back and set a hand on his shoulder to guide him to the next microscope.

“Ohhh!”

It was quite captivating, thought Seunghyun, to watch Jiyong come alive in the face of a different kind of beauty to that of a gold coin or a diamond bracelet: to show the jaded boy something he had never before imagined. Jiyong was responding to Seunghyun’s world, not dismissing it, and was glowing gently with enjoyment. Seunghyun wanted to wrap his arms around him and thank him because it felt like acceptance.

Jiyong took his arm when they were done with the Biology lab, and Seunghyun escorted him to his own building. He was experiencing an odd mixture of apprehension – he hoped the freshmen were done with their classes and gone – and incredible pride at being able to show Jiyong one of the most important parts of his life. They entered Seunghyun’s experiment room, and Jiyong’s sudden inertia tugged him back. The smaller man wrinkled his nose.

“Ugh, it smells!” He always was fastidious about that stuff, Seunghyun remembered.

“It’s explosives,” he said, and tugged Jiyong across to a stool in front of the reinforced window that was the only view into what he fondly called the ‘boom room’. He wanted him to have a front-row seat. “You wanna see what I do all day?”

“Hmm.” Jiyong gave him a crooked grin. “You trying to impress me?” The older man just clapped him on the back and hurried away to set up the sample and heat source in the fireproof room. He ignited the burner, shut the steel door, and took his place at Jiyong’s side. “…So, what happens?” inquired Jiyong politely.

“Be patient, it’ll get there.”

“Don’t fret,” said Jiyong after a pause, sounding tickled. “It happens to every man sometimes. We can try again later if you-”

To Seunghyun’s immense satisfaction he cut himself off with a little shriek as the explosive attained the required temperature and detonated with a deep, full roar and shrapnel that hit the thick glass, making Jiyong jump out of his skin. A rumble of smoke unfurled in crimson red – Seunghyun had added a colorant to the mixture for a bit of theatricality. It seemed to have worked: Jiyong was clinging to his arm and laughing breathlessly, the same charming high tone as his singing voice. He punched Seunghyun’s bicep hard; his face was flushed and shining.

“What’s that you were saying?” said Seunghyun, teasing.

“Goddammit!” Jiyong laughed again and hopped to his feet, still holding on. “That was quite the spectacular climax.”

“Shut up with your dirty talk.” Seunghyun was thrilled. He hadn’t seen that face, that perfectly amazed expression, since he had treated the boy to his own firework show. He liked to imagine he was the only person who could prompt it, and at this moment he certainly felt like it. He squeezed Jiyong’s forearm with his free hand, and for once didn’t wonder if it was okay to touch him.

“That’s what I do,” he told him. “At least, that’s what I try and make sure we can do in the right circumstances, in various controlled ways.” Jiyong turned to him, lips parting on what he hoped would be another pleasant bit of flirtation; but before he could speak the lab door was pushed open and Daesung of all people stuck his head inside.

“I figured you were here!” he exclaimed merrily in Korean, the rest of him entering the lab. Jiyong stiffened in surprise at hearing it, but Daesung’s irrepressible smile only widened.

“What’re you doing over here?” Seunghyun asked, not very graciously. Jiyong was still attached to his arm but more unobtrusively, fingers lightly gripping his sleeve.

“Something goes bang, who else is it gonna be?” Daesung advanced on them. “I’ve not seen you since you brought the car back so I thought I’d pop in.”

“Really?”

“No, not really.” Daesung gave Jiyong a dose of the smile, which broadened again at his owl-eyed silence. “Someone told me they saw you with – and I quote – ‘a Chinese kid from the circus’. So I figured it must be your friend from work.” Jiyong, who had let out an involuntary snort at the circus line, went quiet again. Seunghyun could feel the tension in his fingertips, and groaned to himself. This was turning into one of those situations in which his limited social etiquette was totally insufficient.

“Erm…” he began. Daesung sensibly ignored him.

“Don’t mind him,” he said brightly, addressing Jiyong. “My name’s Kang Daesung, Political Science. I’m this goof’s school chum.”

“…Kwon Jiyong,” the younger man offered after another moment spent sizing up Daesung, his expensive clothes, and his overwhelming goodwill. “I, uh, I work with Seunghyun.” Immediately Seunghyun wished he’d had the chance to fill Jiyong in on what his friends did and didn’t know about his part-time job.

“Yeah, the fancy club!” Daesung grew, if anything, more affable. “Hey, do you ever get jazz acts there?”

“You like jazz too?” said Jiyong cautiously. “But I thought you were posh!”

“I’m still hip! Lemme think, did you ever see Duke Ellington?”

“Once.” Jiyong gave a shy smile. “I snuck out when I was a teenager, he was amazing!”

“You lucky old thing!” Daesung grinned his hundred-watt grin. “Wish I’d caught him before he moved to New York. But how about the Rhythm Kings?”

“I don’t get to go out to many clubs,” Jiyong admitted. “But I’ve danced to all their records!”

“What a cool little cat you are.” Without further ceremony Daesung detached Jiyong from Seunghyun’s side and swept him off to a pair of more comfortable stools. “How does Seunghyun manage to attract exciting friends like us, huh?” Tentatively Jiyong’s small face broke into a grin of its own, and a minute later he and Daesung were having an animated conversation about legends and newcomers and how Jiyong simply must come club-hopping with them some night. “Not that Seunghyun ever plays with me these days,” lamented Daesung.

Seunghyun gave him a sour look. Not that he was unhappy Daesung was making Jiyong so comfortable, and not that he was ashamed of the boy, not at all! But he’d been enjoying the smaller man’s undivided attention and admiration. That was hard to come by, and here was Daesung and his preternatural likeability hogging the limelight!

“Come here, Tabi,” called Jiyong, and stretched out a hand. Seunghyun obediently tramped over and was included in the discussion whether he liked it or not. Jiyong leaned comfortably against his side, one arm still through Daesung’s, and as they talked the older man found himself relaxing. Daesung was smiling at them both, hadn’t asked any awkward questions. Seunghyun wished now that he had done this before; what had he been so afraid of? Then Jiyong, who happened to be facing the lab door, tensed up as it opened, and in walked Youngbae to join the party.

“You took your time,” scolded Daesung. He scooted his stool back to make room for the new addition. “Here’s the mysterious extra friend Seunghyun’s been hiding from us! Such a dark cow you are,” he added, nudging Seunghyun with his foot.

“Horse,” corrected Seunghyun.

“Yeah,” said Youngbae, stretching. “Super kept us late today.” From between them Jiyong was observing him with a fine line between his eyebrows as if trying to recall something. Shortly after, his expression changed to one of astonishment.

“…Youngbae?” he said doubtfully. “Oh my God, you look exactly the same!!” Seunghyun and Daesung both whipped their heads round to stare at the source of his amazement. Youngbae looked purely puzzled. “We used to play together,” continued Jiyong eagerly, “don’t you remember? In Harrison Street, and-” He clammed up abruptly, one white tooth visible as it bit into his lower lip. Youngbae was still frowning, eyes inventorying his face and blonde hair, but Jiyong didn’t venture any more hints.

“What, you two grew up together?” exclaimed Daesung. “How small is this city, anyway?” Then Youngbae’s eyes widened in apparent recognition.

“Kwon…Jiyong?” He sounded almost disbelieving. Oddly, to Seunghyun’s ears it didn’t ring as excitement so much as shock.

“Talk about coincidence,” Daesung was saying, oblivious to Jiyong’s sudden silence and Youngbae’s strange tone. “How long since you two saw each other?”

Years,” answered the latter when Jiyong didn’t speak. Seunghyun was concerned to see a dark flush appear on Youngbae’s gold face. “I heard…” He trailed off.

Jiyong bit his lip harder, his own cheeks draining to a near-consumptive whiteness Seunghyun had never before seen. And with belated insight the older man knew what unspoken exchange was taking place between them: Youngbae had grown up with Jiyong, their families all crammed together in the shadow of old Chinatown. That must be it. The neighborhood, Jiyong had said, all knew what had happened to him – his fall from virtue, his ‘shame’, his insistence on pursuing his immoral profession. His own father had admitted as much. They were staunchly religious, those poor families, rigid morality in place of wealth, and Youngbae was the perfect product of that upbringing. To suddenly find himself in the same room as an avowed prostitute who claimed his acquaintance must be the shock of a lifetime.

“Whatever you heard,” said Jiyong, pointed chin going up, “it’s true.” But Seunghyun saw him gulp. Daesung was watching all of them, perplexed but still sort of smiling. Seunghyun, in that moment, felt nothing but pride at Jiyong’s dignity. He slid an unobtrusive hand to the small of the boy’s back. Jiyong didn’t need support but he wanted to offer it anyway.

“…Did you know?” asked Youngbae faintly, turning his attention to the older man and his bracing arm.

“Yes.” Seunghyun didn’t want to sound confrontational – Lord knew that never got him anywhere helpful – but he needed to be perfectly clear. “That’s where I’m working, of course. What about it?”

To his credit Youngbae didn’t sneer, or shout, or say anything overtly insulting. But he looked at the two of them, Jiyong small and defiant in the protection of Seunghyun’s arm, and visibly winced.

“I gotta go,” he muttered. That accent, it was Jiyong’s to a tee, and Seunghyun was kicking himself at not imagining the connection before – for not thinking through the potential dangers that came with bringing Jiyong to campus. Jiyong was staring Youngbae down coolly. Those black eyes appeared quite unconcerned; Seunghyun was the only person to feel the tremors along his slender back. Youngbae gave his old playmate one last conflicted look, then turned on his heel and slipped out of the lab. Seunghyun heard his footsteps on the tile change to a run.

“What the heck?” Daesung exclaimed, finally closing his mouth. “Look, I’m sorry about him, Jiyong, he’s normally so…normal!” He grabbed his books. “I better go after him, but see you really soon, yeah? We’ll all go drown our sorrows!” And he trotted off in pursuit of Youngbae. As soon as he was gone Jiyong unbent; his hand gripped Seunghyun’s elbow and he took a hoarse breath.

“I didn’t know that was your friend,” he managed. He made no complaint as Seunghyun took more of his weight. The blood was rushing back to his face and he looked feverish – or like someone who’d been caught doing something terrible. “The one moral man in Chicago who knows I’m a whore…!” He laughed, a hollow sound, and shook his head. “You’re the scientist; what’re the odds?”

Please don’t be ashamed,” begged Seunghyun, feeling incredibly guilty for enabling this encounter. Jiyong had never shown embarrassment at his situation before; but he also never went back to his old neighborhood. It must be harder than Seunghyun knew, to face the past when it threw itself in your face without warning.

“I’m not!” said Jiyong fiercely, still blushing. He looked miserable. “But I oughta go, Tabi. It doesn’t do you any good to be seen with me in the real world. I get it now, why you never brought me before.” He turned.

“Wait!” Seunghyun burst out. How could Jiyong think such a thing?! He took a deep breath. “Can I kiss you?”

“…Here?” Jiyong stared up at him like he was mad. “After that?” Seunghyun nodded, amazed he’d found the courage to ask; Jiyong had never hinted that he’d welcome such a unilateral advance. But his suppressed emotions of the past week, all these long months, were spiraling to the surface – and he had to get that misapprehension out of Jiyong’s head. “…All right,” said the younger man in a hushed, uneven voice. “You did show me something beautiful today…”

Seunghyun felt giddy at that; he took Jiyong’s face in both hands. He tried to make his touch gentle, but it must be clear how he was shaking. Then he leaned down and carefully pressed his mouth to Jiyong’s. It was smooth and soft as he remembered from their first meeting, lips closed but warm.

“I love you,” muttered Seunghyun. “Whatever you are, it doesn’t matter to me; it’s who you are that counts.”

“You’re so cute, Tabi.” For a moment Jiyong’s lips parted, sliding sweetly against his own, and Seunghyun felt the brief brush of his tongue. He gasped at the sensation, inhaling the acrid smells of the laboratory along with the intoxicating scent of Jiyong. It was very strange, his worlds colliding like this; but Seunghyun could no longer see any reason why they shouldn’t. Youngbae was in the wrong, he thought – not them. Certainly not Jiyong, who was now drawing back, pink tongue flicking out thoughtfully as if to taste Seunghyun on his lips.

“Jiyong…” the older man began.

“Thanks,” Jiyong interrupted; the color in his cheeks had deepened. “For making me feel better. And for asking – that’s a rarity.” Seunghyun nodded, still mesmerized by the memory of his touch. “But I really do hafta go back. I promised Seungri I’d be in my rooms by the time Mr. Thompson gets in; he’ll catch it something wicked if I’m not.”

“All right.” Seunghyun didn’t give a damn if Seungri got in trouble, but he wouldn’t wish the same on Jiyong. “Come on, I’ll get you a cab.”

“What a gent you are,” said Jiyong approvingly, and slid an arm around his waist. Seunghyun nodded; he hoped one day that would count for something.

 

Chapter Text

Seunghyun had known there’d be questions, and the very next lunchtime he was proved right. He just hadn’t expected Daesung to be so blunt about it.

“That place you work at, it’s a whorehouse, isn’t it.” A nice way to open the conversation! Daesung sat down with his fancy lunchbox and raised his eyebrows pleasantly.

“…Yeah.” Youngbae must have tattled – he was there, over on the other side of the room ladling out hot lunches exactly as usual. But he hadn’t spoken to Seunghyun, and the older man most certainly wasn’t going to talk to him. Not until he’d apologized for his behavior towards Jiyong. Seunghyun felt himself go red, though it wasn’t with shame; even yards away he could sense Youngbae judging him. He picked grimly at the bread of his sandwich and declined to look at either of his friends.

“Thought so. And is Jiyong…” Daesung smiled up at the ceiling. “What’s the acceptable word…a courtesan?”

“Yes,” said Seunghyun, preparing to get angry. What use was there in denying it? He wasn’t ashamed – and he would not let Jiyong feel that way.

“Are you?” asked Daesung. He sounded nothing but fascinated, and Seunghyun let out an unwilling burst of laughter because that was the last question he’d been expecting.

“I don’t think I’d do very well at that. I really am a barman.” Daesung laughed too. From the corner of his eye Seunghyun noticed Youngbae glance across at them, but couldn’t read his expression.

“I couldn’t picture it, somehow. But are you sleeping with him?”

No.”

“Out of your price range, I suppose,” said the younger man sympathetically. “He’s awfully pretty. Not that you’re a sideshow or anything!”

“That’s not why!” Seunghyun was getting cross again, mostly because he did want to talk about this. He wanted advice and approval from someone who wouldn’t condemn Jiyong without even getting to know him. But Daesung’s line of questioning was too flippant. His friend looked at him for a bit, not unkindly.

“…You’re in love with him.” Seunghyun took a harsh breath.

Yes.”

“Poor Seunghyun,” said the younger man, and sighed. There was only one answer to that.

“He makes me so happy, Dae.”

Daesung nodded mildly; Seunghyun could see he had many more questions, and doubtless some sensible reservations. But he remained silent, unjudging and radiating his usual good nature. They sat at their isolated table and peacefully ate their lunch with no mention of morality or Youngbae or the certain heartache Seunghyun was crafting for himself. And for that Seunghyun felt more gratitude than he could possibly convey.

 


 

That night he wanted to talk with Jiyong – a good long talk, about the day before, about anything…about the kiss.

“Not tonight,” said Jiyong, in the kitchen. He was still in his bathrobe and was hurriedly eating apple slices at the table. He looked rather flustered, with that fine blush suffusing his cheekbones; but that was scarcely surprising given everything that had happened in the laboratory.

“Why, is the boss here?” Insull was the only man who spent the whole night in Jiyong’s bed, and his visits invariably put a stop to Seunghyun’s early morning hairdressing sessions.

“Yeah.” Jiyong swallowed then had to be thumped hard on the back to stop him choking as two kitchen girls scurried past, knocking his chair while they whispered urgently to each other. Seunghyun frowned; everyone seemed weirdly excited tonight. Between coughs the boy managed: “But that’s not all, Tabi. Listen, last night-”

“Jiyong!” interrupted the carrying tones of Mrs. Moore from down the hall. “Move that skinny behind of yours! Doctor’s waiting.”

“Wait, are you okay?!” Seunghyun demanded.

“Don’t be such an old woman.” Jiyong gave him a faint smile and hopped up, his mouth still full. “It’s the monthly checkup, we’re all getting it. You can have one too if you like!”

“No thanks. What for?” Seunghyun found it highly unlikely that Insull would provide his workers with decent healthcare out of a sense of moral duty.

“The boss says all workers should have access to a doctor,” Jiyong told him primly.

“Yeah, right.” He gave no credence whatever to displays of the man’s so-called philanthropy.

“For us, especially; they gotta make sure we’re clean,” added Jiyong, instantly proving Seunghyun’s point. “No disease, no drugs, no babies, not that I need to worry about the last.” He ate his final apple slice and abandoned the empty plate for someone else to tidy up. “Our tricks pay through the nose; they want pristine goods. Anyway, Mr. Insull needs to talk to us all before we hit the Salon. You see, last night-” Another strident shout from Mrs. Moore. “No time,” said Jiyong. For a brief second he laid his hand on Seunghyun’s wrist, much to the bigger man’s surprise. “Just…go careful this evening. If we all keep our cool everything’s gunna be fine.” And with that ominous advice he jogged out of the kitchen. Seunghyun picked up the plate absently and stood staring after him. What was with everyone today?

 

That,” muttered Lily, and nodded behind her cocktail glass as a group of five or six men strolled into the Salon. As they did so the atmosphere, which Seunghyun had found hinky all evening, sharpened to a point of tension that was almost audible: the women smiled carefully while their customers stared for no more than a second before glancing away amid a rising tide of whispers. Seunghyun noticed a few unobtrusively leaving, and without their chosen girl, at that.

“They’re…” began Seunghyun. He had stopped mixing his drink the moment they walked in, and it had taken him this long to speak because he recognized them: if not their faces then certainly their type, and it was obvious everyone else had too. You didn’t have to be a motion picture buff to know the Mob when you saw them. And suddenly he knew why Insull was here, why the House had been buzzing with mutters and anxiety before he even arrived. He took a deep breath and saw that his hands were shaking.

“Sshh,” Lily advised. She aimed her dazzling smile at two of the well-dressed gangsters, who were idly watching them from a sofa across the room. “You don’t have to say it, idiot.”

“They were here last night too?” Now Jiyong’s cryptic warning made sense: he must have guessed how frightened Seunghyun would be after his recent encounter. Lily nodded. “Did they ask about me?!”

“You?” The redhead gave him the side-eye. “I don’t think so, why?”

“…Nothing.” Who were they? Seunghyun wondered frantically. This had to be connected to his bootlegging operation, that pointed warning. The Chicago Outfit, then? Or someone else? His chest was tight with apprehension. Lily peered at him dubiously and opened her mouth; but before she could speak Insull caught her eye and with a nod motioned her over to the newcomers, who were watching her with open admiration. There was a wide circle of space around them, the remaining customers keeping their distance and observing the boisterous party with a mixture of wariness and fascination. Seunghyun wanted to tell Lily to take care; he remembered her connection with Jennings and felt…responsible. But she was already gone.

When Jiyong came downstairs to collect his second client of the night Seunghyun realized he couldn’t even help him, not with Insull watching. The boy just shot him a meaningful look, took his trick by the arm – the typical tycoon type with a familiar face and a comfortable middle-age spread – and escorted him from the room. One or two of the mobsters watched him go, their expressions unreadable. Seunghyun wanted to yell at them to stop – to keep their notice far from Jiyong and his helplessly seductive charm. But he wasn’t suicidal, so instead he grit his teeth and made cocktails as required, not charging the intruders a cent, careful not to let even one bottle of their home-made stuff show. He didn’t want to draw attention to himself before he had to.

Insull had meanwhile installed himself in a corner of the room and was viewing the proceedings, Seungri hovering close by with his mouth shut for once and looking ambivalent. Once Insull’s gaze landed on the bar, thoughtful. As usual the older man’s expression was cool. Seunghyun didn’t know what was going to happen, what had been happening; he was just waiting to be cornered, or even dropped in it by the boss himself. He liked to think he’d carved out a vaguely important, or at least useful, position in the House: as chief distiller his responsibilities allowed him to turn up whenever he liked – he even had his own key now – and surely they would regret his skills if they lost him. But he wasn’t ready to gamble on that.

“It’s one thing to have corrupt officials in here,” said Lily in an undertone as Seunghyun passed her another tray of drinks. The party was getting loud and he could tell she was nervous to be waiting on them. “In fact I’d welcome Gray Wolf Coughlin right about now. But to have guys from the Outfit, and high-ups like him?” She nodded covertly at the only man in the group who didn’t look Italian. “It gives me the shivers!” The man laughed and she hurried off to give them new glasses, taking a seat on his knee. So they were Capone’s men. But if they weren’t here to crack down on the distillery…what did they want? None of them had even tried to talk to him. Seunghyun served cocktails, and fretted.

“You know who that is?” Jiyong murmured in Korean an hour or so later, after returning from his assignation upstairs. He perched himself on a stool and leaned confidentially across the bar. Seunghyun was surprised: the younger man wouldn’t normally sit and talk to him when the boss was around, partly to avoid suspicion about their closeness but mostly because Jiyong thrived on being the center of admiration. But he didn’t seem too eager to stand out now.

“Who?” said Seunghyun in the same language. He handed Jiyong his signature take on a Martini; he looked like he could use it.

“The Jewish guy, that’s Harry Guzik! He runs the entire prostitution racket for the Outfit, right out to Cicero.”

“That’s what this is about?” Obscurely, Seunghyun felt relieved: perhaps this wasn’t connected to the liquor business; maybe their earlier warning to him had just been an excuse to move in on the House as a rival brothel. If the Mob wanted to squeeze Insull for protection money that was fine by him. He just didn’t want to be in the same room as them. “Why now, though?!”

“Sign of the times,” Jiyong ventured.

Seunghyun had read that the Outfit was now in complete control of the South Side, maybe the whole city, to the extent that even the Gray Wolves were losing their official hold. It explained why Alderman Coughlin hadn’t been in lately; he probably had his hands full of more important things than rent-boys. Seunghyun knew Capone’s mob would try and extort a cut out of any business that ran numbers or girls; but he hadn’t thought they’d got so bold as to try and take a slice of the private high-class establishments. This place was the most exclusive in town, millionaires and aristocrats all, not to mention the Chief of Police and Insull himself. The clout this bunch must have now…! Lily was right, it made you shiver.

“Don’t stare!” said Jiyong. Seunghyun caught the anxiety in his tone. “He’s tight with the leaders – they say his brother is an advisor to Al Capone! He owns huge cat-houses of his own on Wabash and Paulina Street, and all the other brothels kick up a percentage to him.”

“How d’you know all this shit?” demanded Seunghyun, hauling up more beers from under the bar to try and make it look like they weren’t gossiping.

“You don’t have a clue, do you, Tabi! The guy I was just with, that was ex-Mayor Thomas.”

“…Who’s a stooge for Capone.”

“Right,” said Jiyong. “Anyway, he’s a total gossip; even when we’re doing it he doesn’t shut up, and he tells the girls stuff too. Not that it matters what he spills, everyone knows who runs this town nowadays!” He drained his glass in two gulps. “But if they’ve got their foot in the door here…we could be seeing a lot more of them. Mr. Insull sure doesn’t look happy.” Seunghyun had no idea how he could tell from across the room and under the moustache, but took his word for it. Jiyong shrugged darkly. “He told us to play along for now. I hope it’s only for now, until they get what they want, but…”

“Why would they come back around if they run their own places, though?”

“We’re the best,” said Jiyong simply, and sighed. “Nothing else in Chicago can compare to the House since Mr. Insull took it over and spruced it up to his standards. We’re the cleanest and the prettiest and this place is a palace. And now the big boys have seen it. Why would they go back and slum it in the Black Belt when they can have champagne and stunners like Lily?”

“And you,” Seunghyun added. Oh, he did not like that thought at all!

“Maybe not,” said Jiyong hopefully. “They all came up from the street, perhaps their tastes aren’t that exotic.” But even as he spoke one of the Italians, in a suit Seungri would kill for, wandered over to the bar and gave him a tipsy grin; most of his friends had vanished upstairs with the pick of the House workers. Jiyong smiled back automatically.

“Hey, pretty.” He took one of Jiyong’s diamond earrings gently between a large finger and thumb. “You dolls sure know how to dress for success.” The man gave him an appreciative lech up and down. Jiyong was wearing tight pants and a silk dragon-patterned Chinese jacket in the male style; there was no way he could be mistaken for a woman tonight. The guy didn’t seem to care – he must be more sophisticated or more secure than Jiyong had hoped.

“Thank you!” replied Jiyong, turning on the coquette in a way that never failed to depress Seunghyun.

“Well congratulations, you succeeded.” He tapped the bar. “Hey, pal! A drink for this fine bit of tail here!”

For an instant Jiyong looked astonished, then affronted, and no wonder: their usual clients had a way of cloaking their filth with innuendo. It was a game all of them, Seunghyun included, had learned to play. Jiyong must be unaccustomed to men baldly announcing in public that he was a piece of ass. But he quickly recovered, gave the mobster one of his charming pouts, and proceeded to reel him in like he did every other customer. Seunghyun made them both cocktails, seething inwardly. He desperately hoped these guys would not become a fixture. Watching Insull’s face as he watched Jiyong leave, though, Seunghyun grew certain that they were in for turbulent times.

 


 

“My mom says do you wanna come for Sunday lunch?” Seunghyun asked Daesung. He wrapped his jacket tighter around himself and managed a half-smile as his friend nodded eagerly. That was good. Seunghyun was anxious, after the recent melodramatic turn his life had taken, to regain some normalcy. It had done the trick before and he knew it would again: home.

“You know what she’s gonna make?” Daesung was practically salivating already. He loved being invited over for meals, and for much the same reason – a taste of the familiar in a strange new world. It probably wasn’t the classy fare he was used to back in Seoul, but the flavors were the same. And Seunghyun’s mother was always so proud to have Daesung visit.

“The usual, I guess.” The younger man beamed. Then the smile turned down a few notches.

“…Did you ask Youngbae?”

“No,” stated Seunghyun, feeling petty but adamant. He knew he had bigger things to worry about, but at least this was something he could control. “Not ‘til he stops being a jerk.” Daesung looked crestfallen.

“He won’t come talk to you unless you reach out to him first.”

“Why the hell not?”

“You’re a lot bigger than him,” the younger man said, and chuckled. “And you can’t say you don’t have a reputation for temper. But honestly, Seunghyun, he does feel bad.”

“Well how d’you think Jiyong feels?! All thanks to him.” No, Seunghyun wasn’t going to budge on this one, not yet, anyway. He did miss Youngbae – he didn’t have so many friends that he wouldn’t feel the absence of one of them – but in this, at least, it seemed clear who was in the wrong. Daesung sighed, and dropped it.

“Is Jiyong coming to lunch?” Seunghyun gaped at him.

“Oh, no. No.”

It wasn’t that he didn’t want Jiyong to meet his parents; as ever he wanted to show Jiyong off, to bask in the fact that someone so spectacular wanted to be his friend. He had no doubt Jiyong would like them – he certainly liked Seunghyun’s mother’s cooking when he took kimchi and leftovers to the House. And, once they got past the bleached hair and tattoos, he was sure they would like Jiyong too. Who wouldn’t? At least, thought Seunghyun glumly, until they found out what he did…

“Jiyong would never go for that,” he explained. “Especially after Youngbae. And besides, it’s just not practical.” Jiyong had shown no further sign of the dismay he had felt after that encounter. In the days that followed he had returned completely to his usual confident persona and, other than the general horror of the Outfit dropping in at the House every other night, it was as if he hadn’t a care in the world. But Seunghyun was sure he’d been hurt.

“But if you-” Daesung began.

“Anyway,” cut in Seunghyun, “he doesn’t have time.” And that was the Mob’s fault too.

 


 

Insull was much in evidence around the House the first week after his unwelcome visitors turned up. Seunghyun figured he was frustrated, though he didn’t look it, and concerned about his business – despite being so rich from his legitimate ventures that he probably viewed the brothel as little more than an oversized dolls’ house. They’d all been back there in the boss’s office: Insull, Alderman Coughlin, the Chief of Police, and the important-looking thugs from the Outfit. Evidently something was decided because business went on as usual, but Insull stuck around to keep an eye on it. Seunghyun hated that, though to his annoyance Jiyong seemed rather relieved at his presence.

“It’s got nothing to do with you, Tabi,” the smaller man reassured him during one of their rare private conversations in the basement, where Seunghyun had taken to lurking out of sight of the Italians. Seungri was covering for him behind the bar, though not without complaint. “Mr. Insull won’t let them bother you. Sure, the distillery is what gave ‘em the excuse; but they’ve been looking to get a cut of this place for ages. And thanks to internal politics – that’s a tug of war between Capone and Coughlin – they’re finally in a position where they can.”

“How much?” asked Seunghyun. This wasn’t really what he wanted to talk about. But any discussion of Youngbae, or how Jiyong was feeling, or the kiss, was always subtly vetoed. Doubtless the boy had it right when it came to priorities. Still…

“Dunno.” Jiyong shrugged. “Nothing the boss can’t live with. It’s only his pride that stings. He has the clout and the cash to fight back if he wanted to, but even billionaires try to avoid getting in a pissing contest with the Mob. At least, if they’ve got a brain in their head, which he does.”

“I hate having them around here,” Seunghyun admitted, setting his flask down. It had almost been enough to stop him coming to work altogether; only Jiyong kept him there. “The Outfit and Insull both. It creeps me out. And I miss you.”

“Oh, hush. Silly boy.” Seunghyun was cheered when Jiyong’s fingertips touched his hand, then slid up to pat his shoulder. “Mr. Insull isn’t even here tonight! Things’ll settle down, you’ll see. Probably. And when they do we can talk about…other things.” His cool lips touched Seunghyun’s cheek, light as a breath. “There. Something to keep you going.” He flashed the bigger man an impish smile and strolled off to snag his first customer. Seunghyun put his hand to his cheek as if to trap the kiss there, and after a minute got on with his chemistry.  Perhaps everything would be okay.

 


 

Seunghyun hadn’t got all the mobsters straight yet – most of them more or less resembled each other – but he was starting to identify the main players: there was Harry Guzik, who’d been pointed out to him already. But he hadn’t come back around since negotiations had been settled and instead sent an older man, who was in almost every night and had a distinct liking for the Creole girls. A couple more looked like muscle, a visible threat to remind everyone of who had a stake in the place now; they were young and always asked for jazz. One was called MacGunn or McGurn or something, and generally kept himself to himself. He didn’t go with any of the girls but he liked to dictate the music. The other –

“Hey, kid.” The large man Seunghyun had seen Jiyong seducing that first night broke into his musings and beckoned him over to the end of the bar. Speak of the devil. “Where’s that little Asian doll of mine?”

“…You mean the Chinese lady?” asked Seunghyun, deliberately obtuse. He wasn’t dumb enough to actually be rude to these guys, but he’d be damned if he facilitated them getting their paws on his friend.

“Naw, the bottle-blonde chippy. Got a real mouth on him! But what a mouth.” The man gestured to his companion, who was staring around as if this was all new but who nonetheless looked rather familiar – maybe his mugshot had been in the newspaper – and leaned in closer. “Got a pal who wants to give it a try.” Seunghyun repressed a glower with difficulty.

“He’s engaged, I think. Let me find someone who can tell you.” For once Insull wasn’t around. Seunghyun scanned the room for Mrs. Moore or Seungri or, better yet, an unattached worker who might entertain them instead. He’d be far happier for Lin to deal with these jerks than Jiyong. He sensed the second man watching him with some interest; for one appalled second Seunghyun thought maybe the guy was going to try and hit on him.

“You’re the one who does the ‘cooking’ here, yes?” the man said, in a strong Italian accent. Seunghyun frowned, and then recognition hit. Oh, God, yes. “I recall my buddies having a little word with you, not so long ago.”

“…Yes, Sir.” He’d been so scared that night it had wiped most of the salient details from his mind, but now Seunghyun remembered him as one of the brute squad who’d questioned him about his newly-fledged distillery operation – the one who’d been holding the knife. He put down his bottle; an echo of the fear he’d felt in the back of that car was threatening to make his hands shake. He’d been stupid to think he could escape their scrutiny here.

“How’s it coming along?” inquired the guy, who looked barely older than him but a hundred times richer if his clothes were anything to go by: the standard luxury custom suit and spats. “Not nursing any ambitions for expansion, I hope.” Seunghyun shook his head mutely; the man gave him the heebie-jeebies. How the hell could he let these thugs anywhere near Jiyong?!

“Here, try for yourself, Rocco,” his companion suggested. He looked inquiringly at Seunghyun. “What’s the house special?”

“South Side Fizz,” said Seunghyun reluctantly.

“Two. Use the stuff you brew up yourself.” He made the drinks carefully, focusing only on the mixture of ingredients and not on this Rocco and his evaluative stare. Both men took a sip, and nodded.

“Not bad,” allowed the Italian. Seunghyun smiled tightly; he had noticed Mrs. Moore enter the room but couldn’t catch her eye. He wanted to offload these two on someone else as fast as possible. “You’re a Chinese, right?” Rocco continued, far too interested, in Seunghyun’s opinion.

“No.”

“What a face!” the older man exclaimed. “No need to be such a palooka, kid, I’m an immigrant same as you. Japanese?”

“Korean,” Seunghyun said shortly. “And American!”

“Take it easy.” The mobster without the accent smiled at him. “We got lots of Asian friends. Your folks all from round Chinatown like them?”

“…No.” If there was one time in his life not to lose his temper over the race issue, Seunghyun told himself urgently, it was now.

“You do sound different. Educated. That’s interesting.”

“I just have to work,” the younger man told them, eyes still scanning the room. “Same as everyone else.”

“We wanna get to know you, boy,” said Rocco. “Only polite, isn’t it? Since we’re working in the same line. We like to keep tabs on this stuff: what you do. Where you live. Where your people live.” Seunghyun twitched. “That way,” the Italian explained in a friendly tone, “we’ll know you and us are pals. And a pal wouldn’t think of getting greedy with his new business; not without asking us first. And he wouldn’t be spreading it around that we came to play with this little daisy boy, wherever the hell he is.”

“We only make friends with smart guys,” added the other man when it became apparent Seunghyun had no sensible answer to this. “You are smart, right?” Seunghyun nodded quickly; but evidently they were expecting something more concrete in response to their barely-veiled threat. And yet nothing would come out, no matter how many times he willed his mouth to open – he could only keep nodding, wide-eyed. Rocco exchanged an amused glance with his friend and began to lean across the bar.

“Oh!” came a delighted voice, and suddenly there was Jiyong, in a short satin jacket open over loose pants and nothing else. Seunghyun didn’t know whether to be dismayed or go limp with relief at the interruption. He saw Jiyong take in the tableau before him, then deliberately position himself between the two mobsters. “Hi, Mr. Scaramuzzo!” he said to his previous client with a charming expression of concentration as he pronounced the difficult name.

“Hey, kitten,” replied the first guy, taking Jiyong’s jeweled earring in his fingers as he had before and giving it an affectionate tug. Seunghyun bet he couldn’t remember Jiyong’s name. “There you are! And I said to call me Louis, huh?”

“Louis,” said Jiyong shyly, taking his arm. “Who’s your friend?” Seunghyun, who was watching Jiyong’s performance with breathless distaste and nervousness combined, found himself exhaling gratefully as Rocco turned his attention to the smaller man. Louis whats-his-name made introductions, Jiyong gave his sweetest, sultriest smile that showcased his luscious mouth, and then Rocco had no eyes for anything else.

“We were hopin’ you have some time to play with us,” Louis told him. Jiyong let out a little squeak – the big goon had just goosed him – and leaned in closer.

“I was kinda wanting to test some options before I make any commitments.” Rocco jerked his head towards the corner of the Salon, where Bethany was dazzling in a curve-hugging flamenco dress. “That looks pretty good too.”

“Oh,” said Jiyong, and pouted like no-one else in the world could. “Maybe I can convince you!” He spent perhaps a second weighing up his prospective client before leaning towards him, stretching up on tiptoe and kissing him full on the lips, correctly assuming that Rocco wouldn’t deck him for it. Seunghyun fought like mad to keep his expression neutral as Jiyong’s mouth opened hungrily; unsurprisingly he couldn’t, so he turned away and began tidying up the bottles. After far too long he heard the Italian make an approving sound.

“See?” said Louis. Seunghyun turned back to find all three men grinning. “So, how about it? You wanna keep us sweet for your boss, right?”

“I hafta check with Mrs. Moore,” said Jiyong. “It’s kind of a busy night.” He took hold of a necktie in either hand, quite unconcerned by the prospect of handling two blatant criminals. “But if it’s both of you together…” The tip of his tongue flicked out to touch his top lip, as provocative a sight as Seunghyun had ever seen. “…Maybe I can fit you in!”

“Lead the way, creampuff,” ordered Louis eagerly, and off they went, forgetting all about Seunghyun in the spell of Jiyong’s sexuality. Only Jiyong glanced back; for a brief instant he stared at the older man in concern. It was an expression Seunghyun wasn’t used to seeing aimed at him, but he figured it out: Jiyong was worried for him. Seunghyun raised one hand and laid it over his heart in a silent gesture of gratitude. The last thing he saw before they vanished behind a throng of other patrons was the boy smiling at him.

 

“You were scared of those two,” pronounced Jiyong. The night was finally over and Seunghyun was in his dressing-room, fixing his hair like he hadn’t done for what seemed like ages. It was the first bit of privacy and quiet they had enjoyed for…surely it was weeks.

“Yeah, I was!” Seunghyun widened his eyes emphatically; the smaller man was watching him in the mirror. “Aren’t you?”

“Not now,” said Jiyong, with a reassuring smile. “I was that first time, a bit. I don’t like having the Outfit come around, of course; and don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t cross ‘em! But Louis and that other one? Start flirting with them and they’re the same as any other customer. I’d be surprised if they actually paid, mind you,” he added. “Although they did promise me a nice present next time.” Seunghyun sighed; sometimes it felt like that was all the smaller man thought of.

“That one with the accent?” he told Jiyong. “He was one of the guys who first warned me over the bootlegging thing.”

“Ohh.” Jiyong leaned back into his hands as the older man pinned his hair in place. “No wonder he looked so interested in you. I thought maybe he was making a play for you! That’s why I came over and saved your bacon.”

“I’d almost rather that.” Seunghyun met his eyes. “They threatened me again: if they see the distillery operation expanding beyond the House, if I tell anyone they were with you. They asked where my family lives.”

“…My poor Tabi.” Jiyong looked back at him, solemn for once. “So much drama: my dad, then your school, and Youngbae and now this… You bit off more than you bargained for, the day you followed me here. Still think it was worth it?” Seunghyun considered this. It didn’t take long. He bent and kissed the top of Jiyong’s blonde head, and the boy smiled – the real smile, far too toothy to be seductive but full of affection.

“Yeah,” said Seunghyun with a sigh. “Completely worth it.”

 


 

The House was on edge, he could feel it: management was anxious, which made them irritable, and Seunghyun came across more women having cathartic crying sessions in hidden corners. Seungri looked torn between the danger to his uncle’s business and an almost starstruck excitement. But the workers were professionals all, and things continued more or less smoothly: the men from the Outfit were crude, no doubt of it, but they were actually fairly well-behaved and the regular customers – those who hadn’t made a smart getaway – grew used to them. And all told there were fewer of them than Seunghyun had feared. He hated it when Rocco came by and would take refuge in the distillery if he could, away from any more nosiness. Still, nothing had actually happened.

 Jiyong seemed happy enough, which was the only thing Seunghyun cared about beyond his own safety. There hadn’t been any more threats as yet. For near a month it appeared this would be the new normal: more coarse talk, more jazz – hence less Insull – and more freebies. But who was worried about that? thought Seunghyun. What did it matter if Insull was making less profit on his workers so long as the girls and Jiyong still got their tips? Jiyong was doing rather well in additions to his jewel collection. He admitted to Seunghyun that it was probably all red hot, but the fact didn’t lessen his enjoyment of the glitter.

Then, almost overnight, something changed. Seunghyun couldn’t put his finger on it; all he knew was that it centered on Jiyong. The boy didn’t act any different, didn’t talk any different, but the older man could feel it. Perhaps it was the way some of the girls started treating him: a very subtle gentling in their attitude toward the House favorite. Maybe it was something less obvious, a certain pale edge to his already fair skin or a tendency to spend more time with Seunghyun in his rooms. Not that Seunghyun was complaining about that. But as someone who knew Jiyong, probably as well as anyone in the world knew him, the fact that he couldn’t figure it out was casting a pall over his daily life at the House. Jiyong wouldn’t tell him, no matter how often he asked. In the end Seunghyun put it down to fatigue and the encroaching cold weather – Jiyong was a chilly little body. And very likely things would have continued in this vein if Seunghyun hadn’t arrived at work one afternoon to find Jiyong hiding in his distillery.

He’d hung up his jacket and was putting on his apron, ready to check the progress of some flavored gin he was working on, when he heard his name come in a whisper from a corner of his cave. Curious and slightly apprehensive – it was a spooky old place, he’d always thought so – Seunghyun wandered over and crouched down to peer into the darkness beneath an old table piled with empty bottles. And there was Jiyong, cross-legged on the floor, oblivious to the dust and cobwebs. He gave Seunghyun a little wave.

Seunghyun crawled into the tight space beside him. He could feel the younger man shivering against him; it was nippy in the cellars, certainly, and that made him even more concerned. There had to be something up for Jiyong to risk getting dirty and catching cold.

“What’re you doing down here?” he asked softly.

“…Tabi,” said Jiyong, attempting a wan smile in his direction. “We’re good friends, aren’t we?”

“What a dumb question.” There wasn’t even room to put his arm around Jiyong. Seunghyun covered the boy’s hand with his own instead; it didn’t feel cold, and he began to suspect Jiyong was trembling for an entirely different reason. “I never had a dearer friend,” he said warmly, to hide his worry.

“Then will you do me a favor?”

“Course.”

“…Get me out of working tonight.” Seunghyun blinked. Jiyong never took nights off – he was too fond of the rewards. The older man knew that Jiyong sometimes disliked what he did, especially when he had clients who tried to screw him over; but it was the first time he had heard such dread in the young man’s voice. He hadn’t thought Jiyong even had it in him to be so scared.

“What is it?” he murmured. “What’s wrong?” Jiyong shook his head quickly.

“I just can’t handle seeing him tonight! Please.”

“Who, Jiyong?” That put Seunghyun right on edge: this boy didn’t beg for anything, not unless you paid him to.

“That guy McGurn…” He said it in a whisper, as if to speak louder would conjure the man up.

Jack McGurn?”

“You’ve seen him in here, right?” Jiyong shuffled closer. “The young guy, kinda quiet. The one the papers are calling Machine Gun. You know why?”

“Why?”

“He’s Capone’s own button-man.”

“His what?”

“He kills people.”

“I figured they all did,” said Seunghyun, probably unhelpfully. “I’ll bet anything Rocco has.”

“That’s just incidental!” Jiyong’s fingers were damp with nervous sweat beneath his own. “This is his job. And he’s different from Rocco; from any of them I’ve been with.”

“But…I didn’t know he was one of yours. I’ve never seen him speak to you.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Jiyong in agitation, “he’s one of mine.”

“Has he hurt you?!” Jiyong made a negative gesture and went on.

“It’s not what he’s done, Tabi. It’s what he always seems like he might do.” He sighed. “Look, I know this sounds vague as hell. Okay, the other Outfit guys? I don’t like them, none of us do, ‘cos they hardly ever pay and they’re real volatile; but we can handle them. Most of ‘em won’t look at me twice except to call me a pansy anyway. But McGurn, he’s…different. He never, ever talks to me in public, but he’s always the one to say the meanest shit about me to his buddies; he never seems to care if I overhear or not.”

“There’re always a few customers like that,” Seunghyun reminded him. “Men who think their balls are gonna drop off if they so much as look at a pretty boy.”

“You think I don’t know that?” retorted Jiyong, but without any real sting. “I figured he was one of them too. And then he asked for me.”

“Oh.”

“He’s been with me five times in the last month. He never calls for me in front of other clients; he phones us up or corners Seungri and Mrs. Moore in the hallway. And you know the creepiest part?” Seunghyun shook his head. “When we’re alone he acts so nice. He hasn’t got the first clue how to please me in the sack, of course, none of these tough guys do. But he gives me crazy expensive presents, tells me I’m the loveliest thing he ever saw, asks me to call him Vincenzo in bed. That’s his real name, I guess,” Jiyong added. “Like he wants me to know him. Says he can get whoever I want from his club to play in the Salon: Louis Armstrong, anyone. He worships me right up to the moment he comes, and it’s freaking me out so bad!”

“Why; does he turn mean after? Does he hit you?!”

“He doesn’t…I could deal with that, ex-boxer or not. But once we’re done and he’s getting ready to skip the hell out of there, I can feel this…how to describe it? This energy coming off him. Like if he thought too hard about what he’d just done, or I touched him, or spoke to him the wrong way…he might do something. And whatever it is, it’d be bad enough that a punch in the face would seem like Christmas.” Jiyong began to tremble again. “I think there’s something…trapped inside him, and whenever I’m with him I’m on the very edge of letting it out.”

“Sshh, calm down,” Seunghyun began lamely, deeply disturbed on his behalf.

“I just…don’t know what I should do!” There was a distinct note of panic in the smaller man’s voice now. “I’ve never had men from this background before, I’ve grown up servicing rich white guys. The old money, their vices are sophisticated, they’ve been handed down for generations; fucking a boy is no nevermind to them as long as it’s discreet. And the tycoons are so complacent about their own worth they don’t feel like I’m some big threat to their virility.”

“The gangsters are so different?”

“Of course they are. They came up like I did, from the slums, they never learned the upper-class vices. Not the sex ones, anyway. And they’re Italian, and God, do those guys blow up when their manliness is called the slightest bit into question! Personally, I think that’s why they’re so gung-ho to rule Chicago: it’s all some Freudian shit.”

“You might have a point there.” Seunghyun chuckled grimly – not that he’d ever say it to their faces.

“Plus the final nail in the coffin of male eroticism: they’re all strict Catholic. Well, you know what that’s like, you’re friends with Youngbae. It means they’ve had a guilt complex since the day they were born. The Outfit boys will sin all right, oh, yeah. But when they feel guilty they spread it around as violently as possible! McGurn, he’s got it bad for me and he can’t possibly admit it, not even to himself. But Tabi, what if one of these days he can’t fool himself anymore? What’s gunna happen to me then?” He shuddered. “It makes me scared to even be in a room with him, thinking it could be today.”

“He’s here now?”

“No. I’ve got a couple more guys to see earlier tonight. But he’s coming after, he already called Seungri!” Jiyong was working himself up further; Seunghyun could feel the rapid movements of his ribcage as his breathing quickened. “Fuck, Tabi, I want out! Just for tonight, until I can get my head straight…”

“All right,” said Seunghyun, squeezing his hand. “All right. I suppose you can’t just…disappear for the evening?”

“No way. I haven’t run away from a trick since I was fourteen or fifteen. Not after the punishment I got.”

“Oh, fuck Insull!” Seunghyun growled, half to himself. “Okay.” He thought for a bit, smoothing his thumb absently over Jiyong’s knuckles. “I have an idea. Actually it’s too simple to really be an idea, but it might work just for a few hours.”

“I’ll do it,” said Jiyong immediately.

“Ask someone to go out and get you some street food. Especially something with fish in it, but anything that has an unsanitary image: Chinese or Mexican, maybe. Send Seungri if he’s not busy, he likes doing stuff for you. And make sure people see you eat it.”

“And then?”

“Simple: get food poisoning.” Jiyong laughed at that, anxious but still a good sound. “Can you make yourself throw up?”

“No,” said the smaller man frankly. “I have no gag reflex.”

“Hm.” Seunghyun refused to let that thought develop. “Okay, you go find Seungri and look hungry. I’ve got to hit up a chemist’s.”

 

Seunghyun snuck back in through the yard twenty minutes later and found Jiyong sitting on the service door steps with a couple of the girls, wrapped in furs and enjoying the air before they had to get ready. He was polishing off a delicious-smelling, unidentifiable mess of meat and cheese while the women looked on dubiously.

“I’d never eat from street vendors,” said Bethany as he finished. “Not now I’m used to the food here!”

“Maybe men have stronger stomachs,” Lin suggested. The Chinese woman was watching Jiyong narrowly. Jiyong shrugged and shot a glance at Seunghyun, who nodded and went on into the House.

“You ready?” asked Seunghyun once Jiyong had joined him in the distillery.

“Yeah. Quick, Tabi, I’m getting jittery.” Seunghyun fished a bottle out of his pocket and located a clean spoon.

“Fair warning: this is gonna make you look and feel like shit.”

“I don’t care!” said Jiyong. “What is it?”

“Ipecac syrup.”

“Oh! That’s not dangerous, right?”

“Not for just this once, but you can’t make a habit of it.” Seunghyun filled the spoon and held it out.

“…Thanks, Tabi,” said Jiyong softly, and leaned up to kiss his cheek. Seunghyun felt himself blush.

“Try not to hold it in your mouth,” he instructed. “Swallow it right down.”

“Yeah, yeah, like I’ve never heard that before.” Seunghyun flushed deeper at the innuendo, and was relieved when Jiyong took the big spoon and swallowed the ipecac in one gulp. His expression changed almost comically fast. “…Oh, gah, it’s vile!”

“I know. Now you’d better get upstairs. Drink some water, you’re going to be dehydrated. And after fifteen minutes everyone’s gonna know you’re sick.”

“My tongue and my throat feel all…oh, God, this is fucking disgusting…!”

“Better have a bucket on standby,” Seunghyun advised him. “I’ll come up and check on you later, see if you need another dose.” Jiyong didn’t look as grateful as he had thirty seconds ago, but if it could save him even an hour’s fear and distress Seunghyun thought it would be worth it. Jiyong clapped a hand over his mouth and ran off up the stairs.

Seunghyun hid the ipecac and went on labeling bottles. Some time later he heard a mild commotion from the back staircase and figured Jiyong was making his discomfort known. A while after that Seunghyun went up to start his bar shift, and found that the House Number One was indeed the victim of food poisoning.

“It was his fault,” Bethany was telling Jiyong’s first disappointed client, consoling him from where she was sat on his knee. “Fancy eating foreign food off a cart when you could have strawberry tart and champagne here!”

“Would you like some?” asked the customer – a department store magnate, Seunghyun thought he was – brightening up as the Spanish girl shifted approvingly into his lap. She nodded and Seunghyun sighed to himself in relief; it seemed his plan had worked, and nobody looked too pissed about it. Only Lin appeared skeptical – she kept staring at him thoughtfully. But she didn’t say anything.

 


 

All in all, Seunghyun thought it had gone as well as could be expected. Jiyong was off the hook for the time being, albeit sick as a dog in his private bathroom. He’d thrown Seunghyun a somewhat murderous look when the bigger man came up to say goodnight and check he was settled, but he didn’t have the energy to act on it. And, best of all, McGurn hadn’t put in an appearance once Mrs. Moore telephoned his jazz club and explained that his perfect, bewitching hire was throwing up in the water closet. It wouldn’t put him off forever, Seunghyun was sure. But at least it ensured Jiyong a day of mental rest.

Even Daesung thought he couldn’t have done better. Seunghyun gave him an edited version of the story the next afternoon in a musical café off campus – he had a much less hectic schedule now he’d been removed as tutor, and while he still felt the sting of ignominy it was giving him more time to share his woes with his one understanding friend. It was obvious Daesung thought he was a sap for falling in love with a high-rent prostitute, and a man, no less; but he seemed to agree Jiyong was maybe worth it. In the absence of his parents’ sage wisdom Seunghyun thought he might come to rely on Daesung.

 Jiyong professed to be pleased, too. But their gambit hadn’t been entirely free of consequences.

“Man, I caught so much heat from Mr. Insull today,” Jiyong complained, once he’d shut the basement door behind him and clattered down the stairs to get in the way of Seunghyun’s decanting. “I don’t think he’s buying that I was really sick, he thinks I was just being a brat. I don’t get it; I was throwing up for goddamn hours!”

“What happened?” Seunghyun remembered the look Lin had given him the night before, and how she had watched Jiyong eat. But…what benefit for someone to rat on Jiyong to the boss? It wasn’t as if she was going to take the top spot.

“Oh, I got lectured extensively,” said the smaller man. “And then a spanking.” He winked, and it was almost like the old Jiyong. “Not that I mind that so much.”

“But…what about next time? And the next?” It had been a one-night solution, even Jiyong had said as much. McGurn was sure to be back and maybe more dangerous still, now he’d been denied the delights of the boy’s body once.

“I know.” Jiyong sobered up. “But what can I do? I guess…for now I’ll just act as girly around him as possible; I’ll even don the dress again if it’ll keep him in denial. Not look him in the eye if I can help it, and scoot straight into the bathroom once he’s done with me. Then there’ll be no-one to witness the stupid shame he feels when he comes back to Earth. And maybe…maybe things will be okay until I can think of something better.”

“The Outfit can’t go on forever,” said Seunghyun, as if saying it could make it true. “McGurn or Capone will get caught for something eventually – in a shootout or even arrested.”

“Yeah, right.” Seunghyun understood Jiyong’s skepticism: Chicago really did feel like it had changed, as if the only ones who could rule it now were the Mob. But that couldn’t last – surely.

“At least you know I’ve got your back,” said Seunghyun, taking Jiyong’s wrist to try and convey his earnestness. “Anytime. Anything at all: I’ll help you.”

Jiyong gave him a soft look that Seunghyun had glimpsed only once or twice before. He seemed about to say something, perhaps even something sweet. Seunghyun loved those moments. But before he could Mrs. Moore’s voice interrupted him. Jiyong shut his mouth and darted out of the cellar, leaving Seunghyun to wonder all night what it could have been.

 

“Shall I do your hair?” Seunghyun offered optimistically. He’d brought up the clean linens while Jiyong was having his bath, hoping for a renewal of their conversation and maybe more of that sweet expression; he was so glad Insull hadn’t stuck around! But instead Jiyong shook his damp blonde head and marched right over, taking the folded sheets from him and dumping them on the carpet. Seunghyun opened his mouth to scold him. Then:

“You wanna mess around?” asked Jiyong, and slid both arms round his waist, smiling up at him. “I’m not tired yet.”

“…Huh?” said Seunghyun intelligently. Jiyong pressed closer until they were touching all along their bodies. Seunghyun didn’t know what to do with his hands.

“If you want to,” Jiyong continued quietly, “we can have sex.” He laid his cheek against the older man’s shoulder.

Seunghyun stood and gawped down at the top of his head, completely lost for words. The thought of sex with Jiyong was…he couldn’t even process the idea. He had spent so long now trying not to imagine it that as soon as the words left Jiyong’s mouth his brain simply shut down.

“We can’t,” he said, quite stupidly. “Wh…what if someone comes in? You know how much trouble we’d be in, I’d get fired on the spot!” Jiyong’s eyebrows drew down in puzzlement and he removed his arms from Seunghyun’s waist.

“No-one’s coming in,” he assured the bigger man, thumb caressing his forearm as he took it in a persuasive grip. “It’s morning, near enough, everybody’s going to bed.”

“What about the day maids?”

“They won’t come in this room if I have the door shut.” Seunghyun caught his breath as Jiyong leaned up to kiss his cheek. He heard the boy inhale as if he was taking in Seunghyun’s scent. “Come on,” Jiyong breathed in his ear, lips almost touching his skin. “For a little while. I owe you, Tabi.” That. That was it, that was what turned Seunghyun cold in the face of his own deep and ardent desire.

“No. Not like this!”

“…Like what?” Jiyong sat down on the big English bed and kicked his velvet slippers off. “I don’t get it. You kissed me, didn’t you? And finally I’m offering. Isn’t this why you came to the House in the first place, because you wanted me?”

“I wanted to know you,” Seunghyun explained, mostly truthfully. “And I stayed to be your friend.” He felt awkward and silly, as if he was over-thinking, and if he kept on he knew Jiyong would feel hurt. He bit his lip and stood there like a mug. Jiyong made a faint, exasperated noise. Then he smiled.

“Just…lie down with me, huh? Like we did before. Let’s talk.” Jiyong took his hand gently and tugged him onto the bed. Seunghyun lay there rigid on his side as Jiyong wriggled closer, but the boy didn’t make any move to kiss him, or touch him at all beyond the point where their fingers were entwined. “What is it?” asked Jiyong in a soothing, non-confrontational tone. “Don’t you want me after all?”

“You mean ‘desire’?” said Seunghyun, because Jiyong looked confused, perhaps even a little offended. “Of course I do. There’s nothing in this world I want more than you.”

“Huh.” Jiyong gave him an encouraging smile, evidently mollified. “So…what?”

“I’m just…” Seunghyun sighed. “I’m not sure my brain wants to. I don’t know if this is a good idea. Not because there’s anything wrong with you!” he added, squeezing Jiyong’s slim fingers. “But I’ve spent so long now trying to be a good friend. Your only friend, you always say. And if you let me fuck you or anything like that as some kind of…I dunno, reward for helping you…then we won’t be friends anymore.”

“Why?”

“Because that’s not what real friends do,” Seunghyun told him in frustration. Wasn’t it obvious? “When you care about someone you don’t need payment to help them. To make them happy. And I want to make you happy so much.” Jiyong frowned. “I know you have this idea of fair play,” Seunghyun went on. “Because you expect a return on your favors – you learned that the day you set foot in this place, and no wonder. But I don’t wanna be like Seungri! I don’t want your body as a transaction; only if you want me.”

Jiyong looked astonished. He lifted his head off the pillow and stared at the older man a long time; Seunghyun could almost see the thoughts racing behind his dark eyes.

“…You’re a funny old bird,” he said at last, very softly. “I never met anyone so strange.” He reached out and touched Seunghyun’s chin with a fingertip. “All right; forget about this stuff, all these crossed wires. Just kiss me once.”

Seunghyun wouldn’t refuse that. How could he? And at least he had the comfort of knowing they had done this before. He leaned across, still doubtful, and brushed his lips against Jiyong’s. The pleasure of it was such that he almost forgot his objections. Jiyong returned the kiss gently, expertly; it wasn’t playful enough to be teasing, but Seunghyun felt led on nonetheless. He found his body moving on its own to cup the back of Jiyong’s exquisite head and draw him closer. His hands were shaking again, as they had back at the lab.

“All right?” murmured Jiyong, and Seunghyun nodded. Jiyong increased the pressure with the next kiss, lips warm and eager against his, the younger man’s hands taking a careful grip on his shirt. He broke off again and Seunghyun shyly took a glance: Jiyong’s eyes were closed, his lashes black against the delicate pink suffusing his cheeks. It was the most enticing sight. For a fleeting moment Seunghyun wondered if it was deliberate. He paused.

“…What now?” muttered Jiyong, and nuzzled his nose. That felt so affectionate, and Seunghyun was close to letting himself believe Jiyong wanted this as much as he did.

“…It’s nothing.” Seunghyun caressed the nape of his neck and wondered if he looked as torn as he felt.

“We don’t hafta do anything you’re not comfortable with,” Jiyong cajoled. He gave an ironic chuckle. “Now that’s something I never thought I’d need to say.” Seunghyun bet no-one had ever said anything so kind to him, either.

“I just…can’t tell,” Seunghyun admitted. “If you really want this.”

“I do, stupid.” Jiyong kissed him again, the most fleeting touch. “Who’s putting the moves on who here?”

“This is kind of a big deal for me,” the older man insisted, as Jiyong’s fingers caressed the line of his jaw. “Whether you want me because you think it’s the right thing to do, or whether you want me for yourself… Does that make sense?” He sensed a cooling from the body next to him.

“You think I’ve got no desires of my own, just ‘cos I sell myself?” asked Jiyong rather sharply. “I’m not made of stone, Seunghyun: you’re a beautiful man, and smart, and kind. Even if you are weird as all hell.” His expression softened again. “I liked the way you kissed me that day; I’ve been thinking about it. And I can’t imagine it’d be anything but a pleasure to bed you.”

“Jiyong…”

“Here,” said Jiyong, and took both his hands. “You can touch me; slow as you like. Then you’ll find out if I really want this…”

Seunghyun leaned in and kissed him once more. How could he help it with such a temptation? The next moment his hands were on Jiyong’s neck, fingers travelling down its elegant arch to the hollow between his collarbones. His skin was flushed and warm. Reverently Seunghyun allowed his fingers to drift along the curve of his left clavicle; Jiyong looked delicate, but he felt so strong. The bigger man heard him make a pleased noise.

“Not so scary, is it?” Jiyong whispered, insinuating himself further into Seunghyun’s hands. It was, thought Seunghyun indistinctly, his fingers now skimming the collar of Jiyong’s silk robe. The boy tangled his own fingers in Seunghyun’s hair and drew his head down. “Like this, too,” he said. Seunghyun’s lips met his sternum, the robe falling half open as the older man’s hands pushed it off his shoulders. “Mmm. You’re really warm.”

Seunghyun knew it: he was blushing all over at touching Jiyong in this intimate way. Almost, he could feel the beat of his heart. He rubbed his cheek against Jiyong’s chest, felt the silk of his skin. Was that an unsteady breath he heard? Seunghyun couldn’t be sure, and wouldn’t have a clue anyway if it was real or fake – Jiyong was a consummate actor. But he brushed his lips over Jiyong’s small left nipple again, just in case. Jiyong purred; there was no other word for it.

“…Is it good?” Jiyong just laughed at that, quiet and familiar. His arms went around Seunghyun’s neck and he sank into his touch.

“You wanna really know if it’s good?” The smaller man laid himself flush along Seunghyun’s body and kissed him again. At that Seunghyun felt almost delirious because Jiyong was hard, nudging against his own erection – which Seunghyun had been trying to hide, not wanting to be the only one helplessly aroused. Jiyong exhaled on another chuckle that shifted into a sweet half-moan as he pressed himself harder into Seunghyun’s space. “I do like you, Tabi,” Jiyong said against his mouth. “I wouldn’t be like this if I didn’t.” His lips parted and Seunghyun felt the cautious brush of his tongue.

And with that all Seunghyun’s restraint was gone. He took Jiyong’s head in both hands and kissed him back passionately, in that instant not even scared that he wouldn’t have the skills to satisfy the younger man because he had dreamed of this for so long. Jiyong moaned into his mouth, surprised, and wrapped both legs around his hips. That sound, Seunghyun had spent so much time avoiding it – couldn’t bear hearing Jiyong cry out for another man – but now it giddied him.

Please…” he muttered, gasping harshly as Jiyong ground their pelvises together, “tell me what you want!”

“Just strip me,” Jiyong whispered, lips beside his ear and then teeth tugging gently at the lobe. “I’ll do the rest! That’s right, baby,” he encouraged; Seunghyun was struggling with the cord of his dressing robe, growling in frustration at the knot. At last it came loose and the bigger man hesitated for only a second before pushing the fabric away to gaze down at the dazzling sight that had been revealed to him. Jiyong’s body seemed to glow in the soft light, a faint shimmer to his pale gold skin. He was wearing satin French knickers edged with lace that just brushed the tattoos on his thighs, and that titillating vision made Seunghyun’s head go momentarily blank; it ought to be incongruous to see such a garment on a man, but everything that touched Jiyong’s flesh somehow became a masterpiece – he could look at it forever.

After a moment’s further inaction Jiyong arched up and kissed his neck encouragingly, and the older man snapped back to life. Seunghyun’s fingers were clumsy as he fumbled with the tiny buttons at Jiyong’s hip. The boy gave an impatient huff, then smiled at him wickedly and grasped the lingerie in both hands, ripping the expensive fabric apart without hesitation until it fell away to reveal his very eager erection. Seunghyun took a shuddering breath, and after another pause to stare laid his hands for the first time on Jiyong’s bare skin. They slid wonderingly up his smooth spine, across his chest and over his taut stomach with its two X’s inked above his navel. The tattoos felt no different to the rest of him. Seunghyun gulped, then glided his fingers along the smaller man’s hipbones before taking hold of his beautiful buttocks. Jiyong laughed breathily against his neck. It felt spectacular, the pert flesh giving voluptuously beneath his hands.

“Oh my God…”

“Don’t be shy, Tabi,” Jiyong ordered, leaning into his touch. Seunghyun squeezed, pushing Jiyong’s cock harder against his own; he couldn’t prevent the groan of pleasure that spilled out. But Jiyong was reaching between their bodies now, and with the speed of an expert had unfastened his belt in a clatter and unbuttoned his fly, hand snaking its way into his pants. When the younger man touched him Seunghyun thought he might come right there, not at anything Jiyong was doing but the sheer fact that he was doing it. Jiyong smiled, a pleased, intimate curl of his lips, and tugged Seunghyun’s trousers down his hips, pushing their erections back together as soon as he possibly could. He squirmed against the bigger man in a way that did simply amazing things to Seunghyun’s cock.

“I love you…!” Seunghyun choked out, unable to resist, wondering how many other men had said those words in the fury of pleasure Jiyong’s touch incited. Jiyong kissed him again and then they were thrusting against each other, holding each other tight with Jiyong’s tattooed thighs squeezing convulsively around him. It was sex with no panache or artistry – not compared to what he knew the boy was capable of – but the delight of it swallowed him up, both arms clasping Jiyong to him as the smaller man’s breath came faster.

Seunghyun wanted to watch his face when he climaxed; Jiyong was hard and trembling, they were both so close, and when those slender fingers took their cocks in hand to add to the heat and damp friction Seunghyun knew it would only be a matter of seconds. But when it happened he had no control of his vision at all; he could only bury his face in Jiyong’s neck and come ecstatically over his stomach with a muffled yell. Jiyong lasted longer, and by that point Seunghyun was useless. He felt the boy’s muscles tense all along his body, hand working feverishly between them until Jiyong froze and cried out without the slightest shame or restraint. Seunghyun clung to him after he was done, wanting to experience it all: the evening out of Jiyong’s breathing and his high voice, the way he turned soft and sticky beneath him.

“…Tabi,” said Jiyong, still holding him. “Roll over.” Somewhere in that desperate teenage frottage Seunghyun had ended up on top of him.

“Sorry,” he muttered, and flopped onto his side. Jiyong took a deep breath.

“That’s better.” He cupped Seunghyun’s face in one hot hand, thumb stroking his cheekbone, and kissed him lazily. “Well, that didn’t exactly go as I’d planned it.”

“Was it…you know, okay?” It was something Seunghyun had worried about, even in his fantasies: whether he could please the supremely talented Jiyong. But the boy just laughed.

“It wasn’t really A-grade sex,” he said. “I didn’t get to do any of my party pieces!” He chuckled again at the older man’s crestfallen face. “But seeing as you’re the first man ever to ask if I liked it and mean it…I reckon we can call it a win-win.”

Seunghyun smiled at him, shy again and a bit embarrassed at his loss of restraint. But Jiyong didn’t seem annoyed. They lay there a little while, touching each other languidly without speaking. Then Jiyong clambered out of bed and walked off. Seunghyun took this as his cue to leave: Jiyong had already spent valuable sleeping time on him, had given him something he had never, ever thought he could receive. He got up, his limbs limp and satiated, and began arranging his clothing; he could clean himself up elsewhere. He didn’t want to piss Jiyong off by dawdling around.

“What, you’re going already?” Seunghyun turned to see Jiyong pad back in from the bathroom, still stark naked and with a look of surprise on his face. “I was just getting a washcloth,” Jiyong told him. “It wasn’t a hint!”

“Oh.”

“Unless you’ve got somewhere to be.” Now he sounded pissed.

“No!” Seunghyun assured him. “I just…I didn’t…”

“Sleep here, then,” said Jiyong. “You might as well, seeing as it’s the weekend. You can sneak back down to your lair this afternoon and pretend you were there the whole time.”

“Okay!”

“Good.” Jiyong advanced on him and stripped him down to his underwear before throwing the cloth at him to clean up. By the time Seunghyun was done Jiyong was in bed. He stretched out his slim arms, inviting the older man to join him. “Turn the light out, then!” he ordered acerbically. Seunghyun did so, and slid hesitantly in beside him. Jiyong immediately requisitioned him as a pillow; he laid his head on Seunghyun’s chest and flopped one arm across his waist, the corresponding leg draping heavily over the bigger man’s thighs. Seunghyun put an arm around him and Jiyong exhaled.

“You can’t tell anyone about this,” he reminded Seunghyun, lips against his skin.

“Never.” The very thought brought him out in a sweat.

“Not even Ri.”

“Absolutely not!” Seunghyun wouldn’t trust anyone with this, let alone him. And besides, it was precious; it was his. Jiyong cuddled closer approvingly. Seunghyun was still unsure of exactly what had just happened between them, of Jiyong’s motivations and his own reaction. He didn’t know if it would ever be allowed to happen again. But he knew he would remember today as long as he lived.

 

Chapter Text

“All right, what’s that grin for?” coaxed his father. They were sitting either side of the radio while the rain drummed against the windows, and apparently Seunghyun was smiling like an idiot through a news broadcast about a gruesome gangland stabbing. “Is it a girl this time? Or a research breakthrough?”

“Um, the latter.” That was partly true, at least: with more time to spend holed up in his lab during the day Seunghyun’s graduate work was finally starting to get somewhere. The smile dropped slightly; while he didn’t exactly miss teaching the freshmen, he didn’t care at all for the whispers and sideways glances that seemed to follow him since he had been demoted. Then it rose again, because after all his father was almost entirely correct: Seunghyun was blissful, close to delirious, and he had been the entire weekend. And all for love of Jiyong. He could still feel the smaller man’s lips against his, his heat and the slick glide of skin on skin. And the way Jiyong had held him after, fingers soothing as they traced his newly-regrown eyebrows. Seunghyun wasn’t optimistic enough to expect a repeat, but even as a once-in-a-lifetime experience the liaison made him break into a dumb grin whenever he thought of it.

“There you go again.” His father leaned back in his armchair, green eyes crinkling. “You’d better tell me all about it.”

Seunghyun could hardly do that, but he pulled himself together and described his chemical hijinks with Professor Wyeman instead. And after a while he remembered he loved that too. He was proud to share that part of his life with his father. He just wished there was someone he could really talk to.

 


 

“Talk to me!” ordered Daesung on Monday. They were on a wall outside the Political Science department, drinking coffee from chipped mugs to keep off the chill because Seunghyun didn’t care to sit in the refectory. The younger man nudged him. “I know that look.”

“What look?” Seunghyun had a stab at ‘clueless innocence’, but his friend wasn’t a student of human behavior for nothing. Daesung stopped beaming just long enough to dismiss the older man’s prevaricating with a shake of his head.

“Remember two years ago? When I got you drunk enough to dance at the Green Mill and you let that cute chorus girl pick you up and pop your berry?”

“Cherry,” corrected Seunghyun without thinking.

“This is how you looked after that; only way more self-satisfied.”

“Oh, shut up,” was Seunghyun’s witty rejoinder. He buried his nose in his coffee cup and glared over the top.

“You and your lovebird got closer this weekend, huh.”

“No.”

“Come on, you’re dying to tell someone! Is there honestly anyone else who won’t judge you for it?”

There was not: whether it was shock that he could be in love with a man (his parents), horror that said man was a godless prostitute (Youngbae), or stark disapproval that he was getting an expensive commodity for free (everyone at the House), Seunghyun couldn’t think of a single person who would be happy for him. Daesung was looking at him with that encouraging smile, his little eyes almost disappearing. So Seunghyun told him.

“So, are you two going steady now?” Daesung inquired once he had heard a severely trimmed-down version of that magical encounter. “Does that mean he can come out with us?”

“I don’t think so. No, we can’t be.”

“Not even after everything you’ve done for him?”

“That’s the point, Dae. I don’t want him to come to me out of duty. I want him to love me.” Seunghyun kicked his heel against the wall; he felt like a putz for even saying it.

“Sounds like he’s in a line of work that would make those kinds of feelings pretty hard.” Daesung paused to glower at Watkins, who was passing their perch with his friends and glaring daggers at Seunghyun. It was novel to see the genial young man try and look menacing. Daesung turned back and sighed. “You’re asking an awful lot, old boy.”

“…Yeah.” Seunghyun raised his hands helplessly. “I know it. But it was the best night of my entire life. How can I do anything but hope it’ll happen again?”

 


 

Several days of Watkins and gangsters and other annoyances had passed and Seunghyun was busy in the basement when his wish was granted. Jiyong trooped down the steps, then without pausing for a ‘hello’ slid both arms round his neck and kissed him, leaning against him heavily. It was going to happen again! thought Seunghyun with quivering delight, immediately dropping his glassware because his hands were wobbling that badly. What he couldn’t figure out was why.

“…Did I do something extra-nice this week?” he asked when Jiyong’s sweet lips at last left his. He had looped his own arm around the boy’s waist, but didn’t quite dare do anything more yet.

“No.” Jiyong smirked against his mouth and let the older man take even more of his weight. “But this is what you wanted, isn’t it? No bargain, no transaction…I was in the mood to kiss you, so I did. You can kiss me too,” he informed Seunghyun, whose fingers had risen to trace the line of his jaw. “If you want to.”

So Seunghyun did, and tried to use some skill for once. Jiyong was a capricious creature and there was no telling how long this mood would last; it’d probably be a good idea to show him that he wasn’t completely clueless in bed. He had got as far as parting Jiyong’s lips and relishing the electric brush of that talented tongue against his own when he heard the door at the top of the basement stairs open – it was lucky the hinges were so sticky.

“Jiyong!” came Mrs. Moore’s voice, in the tone that said she wouldn’t be crossed. The two of them had jumped apart at the first sound of the door, but it still spurred Seunghyun to a state of mild panic. “Enough of your dallying, Mr. Elgin’s early!” Jiyong gave him a conspiratorial grin.

“Well, it was a good start to the evening,” he told the bigger man in an undertone. “If you come put me to bed later maybe you can give me a good finish too…” And with a wink he was off, scampering lightly up the cellar stairs.

“If you two have been drinking down there I’ll tan your hide!” Seunghyun heard Mrs. Moore say, and the scolding continued until the door closed on them. He licked his lips, could still smell Jiyong in the air. Then it was gone, and it was just the usual liquor fumes.

Seunghyun supposed he ought to go and do some bar work until the relief guy arrived, freeing up Seungri to play master of ceremonies. But right now there was a rather pressing problem in his trousers that prevented him from going anywhere. It was extraordinary, he thought, and then tried not to: what one forbidden kiss with Jiyong could provoke. He walked stiffly over to his workbench and attempted to focus on alcohol and nothing but. He would not jerk off in the basement! But he did wonder how he was going to make it through the night.

 


 

For Seunghyun the next month was one of both worry and wonder. He was still deeply concerned about the effect the Outfit was having on the community of the House – Jiyong’s client McGurn most of all. Luckily the creep had a busy enough schedule: as well as killing for Capone he ran the well-known Green Mill jazz club, and God knew what else. He had only come around once since Jiyong played sick and the boy had seemed mostly okay afterwards. But it was always there, hanging over them, muddying what was otherwise the most magical time of Seunghyun’s life.

As if to make up for his tense hours with McGurn, Jiyong invited Seunghyun to his bed time and again – more often than the older man had ever dared dream. He spent stolen sleepy hours in Jiyong’s arms, usually once the afternoon or night shifts had ended. Seunghyun preferred the early mornings, especially as fall drew in: Jiyong warm and drowsy from his bath, limbs heavy as he allowed the older man to explore him while the sharp Chicago wind rattled the balcony doors. It was never anything too energetic – they were both exhausted by that hour – just gentle nudges in the direction of pleasing him, Seunghyun’s hands and lips learning the most intimate of touches. Then a few hours’ kip in the huge bed before Jiyong kicked him out to shave and go to the lab or sneak back to work as if he had been in the basement the whole time. Seunghyun still didn’t know what it all meant, and to be honest it didn’t happen that frequently. All he knew was that Jiyong dazzled him.

 


 

It was a Friday night, which meant no school tomorrow. Seunghyun had spent a half-hour sitting on the edge of the tub, reading Jiyong the paper while he had his bath. Sometimes he’d tell him folktales – the younger man had a fancy for spooky stories, and the old books in Latin and Swedish on Seunghyun’s dad’s shelves were a reliable source of occult weirdness. But ever since the Outfit had started making their influence felt in the House Seunghyun thought it sensible to keep up with the news as much as possible, even if Jiyong always maintained he got twice as much information just from listening to clients’ gossip. Seunghyun had made it through two editions by the time the smaller man was done; he was like a cat when it came to cleanliness, as if compelled to wash off every last trace of the hands that had been touching him all night.

As always it was worth the wait because now here Seunghyun was, down between Jiyong’s plump thighs with smooth flesh pressed against his cheek and the boy’s cock in his mouth. It had taken him a while to get the hang of blowing another man, but now it was one of his absolute favorite treats. He was fairly sure Jiyong liked it too, though he must be no stranger to guys wanting to taste every part of his delicious body on a daily basis. Seunghyun could spend forever down there – provided one of them didn’t fall asleep first – teasing, licking, learning to do the magical things he had seen Jiyong do to Seungri all that time ago. And actually being able to make the younger man come filled him with a triumph he had never before experienced: it was better than chemistry, better than anything.

“Mmm…” Jiyong made a lazy sound somewhere between drowsiness and arousal, his fingers stroking rhythmically through Seunghyun’s hair. “You ready to finish me off, baby?”

“Not yet!” rumbled the older man, still intent on trying out all the techniques he’d been taught. “Not sleepy…” He trailed his lips down Jiyong’s slick erection and began to suck gently on his balls; the texture was different, as was the noise his friend let out. Seunghyun sensed rather than saw Jiyong’s elegant neck arch as he tipped his head back indulgently.

“Ahh… You wanna learn something new, then?” asked Jiyong in a breathless voice. Seunghyun had taken him back in his mouth and was enjoying the sensation of being filled with the man he loved. Jiyong’s fingers were still combing through his hair, and it took a sharp tug for the bigger man to pull his focus away from the pleasure of sucking him. Seunghyun replayed the question once he’d come up for air, and looked at Jiyong inquiringly. “It’ll make me feel really good…” Jiyong murmured, his face flushed in a way that flattered Seunghyun immeasurably.

“Of course I want to,” said Seunghyun, kissing the soft skin of his thigh. He loved to do anything the smaller man showed him. Jiyong smiled and drew Seunghyun up on top of him, slender body still damp and fragrant from the bath bubbles.

“Gunna teach you to eat me out.” His smile deepened and his arms slid around Seunghyun’s neck. The older man melted against him, still clueless but happy to go along with it. “Then one day…if I decide I want you inside me…” Seunghyun took an excited breath, but Jiyong didn’t pause. “You’ll be able to get me to the sweet zone first.”

“Show me.” Jiyong nodded, then closed his eyes, pulled him down and kissed him. It was a kind of ecstasy in itself, and Seunghyun would have got lost in self-congratulation at his good fortune again had not Jiyong rolled over beneath him onto his stomach.

“Grab some of those pillows,” the boy ordered with a languid flap of his hand, helping Seunghyun stack them under his hips. The curve of Jiyong’s back and the sight of his beautiful bottom at the perfect angle to play with made the bigger man catch his breath: it was the most piquant and erotic spectacle, the type he had tried so hard to repress all the long months of their friendship. He’d never thought he would see something so tempting in real life. “Start right here.” Jiyong set his fingertips to the tattooed nape of his neck. “Kiss me, real slow.”

“…You smell so good,” Seunghyun told him softly, inhaling the scent of his skin as he pressed his lips to the inked wings of the angel. He let his hands glide over Jiyong’s chest and down his small waist; all he wanted to do was lean in to him, get some friction on his own aching erection and feel that naked flesh with every part of his body. But it wasn’t about him right now, it was about Jiyong; and there, Seunghyun thought, lay the difference between him and Jiyong’s clients – that, and the fact that Jiyong had chosen him to do this. He could still barely believe it.

“Further down…” whispered Jiyong. He turned his head to the side comfortably, hair dripping onto another pillow, and made an approving noise when Seunghyun’s lips slid to the top of his vertebrae and kissed him again, and again, slowly descending the artistic length of his spine. Seunghyun paused at the small of his back and rubbed his cheek against the skin there. “Keep going,” Jiyong ordered, and wiggled his hips teasingly. So he did, cupping the boy’s perfectly formed buttocks with both hands and getting in a luxurious squeeze before parting them gently. Jiyong spread his legs wider, inviting. Seunghyun brushed his thumb over the opening between them and felt himself go red at how wicked this scene appeared. He was glad Jiyong couldn’t see him.

“Quit blushing and touch me,” the smaller man instructed with a smug smile half hidden in the pillow; evidently he didn’t need to see his partner to gauge how he’d be reacting. So Seunghyun leaned in and kissed him where his thumb was still teasing the delicate skin. It felt more intimate than anything they’d yet done together. Jiyong sighed as the thumb eased inside him. Seunghyun had been nervous of hurting him at first, but Jiyong had assured him that at this point in his career it was virtually impossible – as long as he was careful. He slid the digit deeper, opening Jiyong up so he could explore further with his mouth. The skin was soft and fine here and seemed so vulnerable – though when Jiyong deliberately squeezed down on his thumb he quickly realized how strong he was too. The thought of being inside him, the things Jiyong could do, almost made Seunghyun’s head spin.

“Is it…you know, okay?” he asked, his free hand roaming over Jiyong’s ass and flat stomach with the occasional reverent brush of his cock; he liked the small hitch of breath he heard whenever he did that.

“Mmm…your tongue, too,” suggested Jiyong; for a second it almost sounded pleading. “Ohh, good boy…” Seunghyun began to experiment, feeling the different textures and the ripple of sensitive muscle as he pushed deeper. He was almost uncomfortably hard now, from the lascivious act itself and from the growing intensity of the younger man’s murmurs. He took a breath and saw Jiyong’s hands had closed into fists in the bedsheets. “Don’t stop…!” gasped Jiyong, so Seunghyun spread him wider and returned to his teasing.

“…You’re so wet,” he told the boy admiringly the next time his wandering hand touched his cock; Jiyong must be very close now.

“Not yet,” Jiyong said in a thoroughly arousing whimper. “Please…hardly anyone does this for me, Tabi, just keep going…” The older man was nothing loath, and the knowledge that he was the only person to spoil Jiyong in this way made him still more eager. He pulled back a little and continued until the pillowcase beneath the smaller man’s hips was damp and Jiyong’s voice had reduced to a languid series of moans. Once he was all but melting into the bed Seunghyun carefully slid a finger inside him; he didn’t think either of them could go on much longer.

“Yes…” said Jiyong, his voice muffled. “…Oh, yes, find that spot, you remember it?” Seunghyun was a diligent student, and did: he had spent a wonderful session learning about it, it was quite remarkable. He rubbed the pad of his finger across the place, pressed against it and heard Jiyong let out a cry. That made him smile triumphantly but he didn’t stop, pushing harder while his lips and tongue continued to stimulate everything else. Jiyong was trembling in his hands. Seunghyun wasn’t sure if he’d be able to come without having some attention paid to his dick, but Jiyong made no move to touch himself so the bigger man didn’t either. Instead he pressed against that spot more insistently, a rhythm of increasingly long pushes to match the movement of his tongue. Jiyong’s breaths came faster and faster, until at last Seunghyun felt the strong muscles of his thighs go rigid beneath him; the boy climaxed with a sweet cry as melodious as his singing voice, tightening convulsively around his finger.

“Ohh…” managed Jiyong, as Seunghyun turned him over gently and took him back in his mouth to clean him off; he wanted to indulge him to the last moment. Jiyong’s hands reached to draw him up and then they were kissing, Jiyong lazy and unhurried and Seunghyun urgent with want. Those pretty hands kindly went for his belt, unbuckling it swiftly to ease his aching cock out and take care of him with the usual effortless, mind-boggling skill. Seunghyun groaned into his mouth, and it didn’t take but a minute before his own orgasm hit and he came gratefully over Jiyong’s stomach.

Jiyong didn’t make him get up and fetch a cloth but pressed against him, getting both of them wet and sticky as Seunghyun’s arms went around him.

“…You’re getting really good at this,” he told Seunghyun. There was a certain smugness there that let the older man know it was entirely down to his teaching; but he sounded contented, too, and was pink to the tips of his ears.

“Whenever you want to,” Seunghyun said breathlessly, smiling from ear to ear, “I want to.”

“That’s nice.” Jiyong rubbed his cheek across Seunghyun’s shoulder. “My own personal sex pet. Makes a change!” Seunghyun kissed the top of his head. Then, after a pause:

“D’you think we will?” he asked, rather hesitant. Jiyong made an interrogative noise. “Have actual sex. I’m not trying to be greedy!” he went on when the boy didn’t reply. “I know…I know it’s an important thing, and I don’t expect you to… I just…” He sighed, aware that he was probably digging himself an unnecessarily deep hole. “Is there any hope that you might like me that much one day?”

“There you go again,” said Jiyong with a yawn. “Projecting your weird hangups on me!”

“I don’t think it’s that weird,” pointed out Seunghyun, but in an apologetic tone.

“Silly boy. It’s not that I don’t like you; as my best friend, and maybe…maybe I don’t know what.” Jiyong kissed his collar-bone. “And it’s not like I’m saving myself for some special moment.” He laughed at the idea of it. “But sex in general isn’t so important to me. I mean, I love good sex ‘cos I don’t get it that often…just now was good, by the way…but I don’t find it significant the same way you do.” He ran his fingers over Seunghyun’s chest and nuzzled affectionately against him. “This is more special for me.”

“I get it,” Seunghyun assured him, touched and saddened at the same time. He was overjoyed that Jiyong looked forward to being with him in any way; but they attached such wildly different levels of importance to sex! Though it was really no wonder…

“You wanna put your dick in me,” murmured Jiyong with another yawn, “we can do that, I know it’ll feel good…I’m just so tired at the end of the day, Tabi, and to be frank I need to give it a rest sometime. So, y’know… when I have the energy to teach you properly.”

“You’re right.” Seunghyun tightened his hold on the smaller man. Of course Jiyong was tired; of course he wanted to be spoiled instead of merely fucked. “It’s not important! Forget I even said it. Being with you, that’s all I ever wanted. So go to sleep already.” He would be different from Jiyong’s tricks, he vowed to himself. He would never act this selfish again. He felt Jiyong smile against him, and was satisfied. He just prayed it would last.

 


 

Jiyong was exhausted. They all were, the icy weather sapping morale – especially the House workers’ desire to take their clothes off. Eventually Insull caved and allowed everyone to heat their rooms constantly. Only Seunghyun was left freezing in his basement, and he could handle that so long as he did plenty of taste-testing to keep warm – and of course there was the glow of anticipation as to when he would next share Jiyong’s bed. But despite the cozy fire and furs that blanketed his luxurious apartments the younger man seemed…muted.

“Is it McGurn?” probed Seunghyun as he lit Jiyong’s cigarette.

“…No.” But he would say that. Jiyong had clammed up about his encounters with the killer since he and Seunghyun had become intimate, but it couldn’t be any more fun for him than before. Seunghyun gave him a squeeze, the blue fox coat soft beneath his fingers; they were in the woodshed, smoking out of the way of the chilly rain and prying eyes.

“Is it me?” he continued as Jiyong shivered. “If I’m keeping you awake in the mornings you’ve got to tell me.” He lowered his voice. “Just sleeping beside you is plenty enough for me.”

“It’s not anything.” Jiyong exhaled irritably but cuddled closer. “Just…winter blues.” Seunghyun wasn’t buying that at all. It was easier to blame the Outfit, so he did; after all, their intrusion was affecting everyone from the boss down to the bus boys. He started to say so, then moved away from Jiyong quickly as the back door banged open.

“Bethany’s throwing a fit at Mr. Thompson!” called Lily, clicking down the courtyard steps in her heels before kicking them off to climb up the woodpile like a damp redheaded monkey. Seunghyun wondered how she always knew where they were, then forgot about it as he clocked how worried she looked. She leaned in to light her cigarette off Jiyong’s.

“What now?” Jiyong asked. He shuffled closer to Seunghyun again to make room for her. Lily inhaled luxuriously.

“That guy who’s always asking for her, she swears he’s got the clap. She’s telling Mr. Thompson to make him wear a rubber or ban him. Well, she’s shouting at him, actually. Latin blood and all, you know how she gets.”

“Fuck!” said Jiyong expressively.

“He hasn’t been with you, has he?” Lily touched his hand. Jiyong shook his head. “Good.” She slung her free arm round him. Seunghyun frowned, puzzled; for rivals they sure had a peculiar relationship.

“Is this, like, a rare occurrence?” he inquired.

“Well, yeah, it is.” Jiyong leaned against her wearily. “And that’s half the reason everyone’s skittish. These Outfit guys are dangerous, and it’s not just the obvious.”

“It’s okay, honey,” Lily told him. “We’ll look out for you.” It must be clear to everyone, thought Seunghyun, how scared Jiyong was of McGurn – no matter what he said. He supposed it was inevitable, living together with the girls, that they’d all become attuned to one another. Maybe he should ask Lily to find out if anything else was the matter. He’d been meaning to talk to her about Jennings anyway; he just couldn’t think of a good way to bring it up. “See,” Lily went on, addressing the older man, “this place has always been for the elite. And those guys only ever have the best. Whores included, so most likely when they come to us they’re clean, and when there is a problem they have the best doctors.”

“Plus they follow the rules – usually,” added Jiyong, stubbing out his cigarette. “However much we bitch about them, I’ll at least give ‘em that. If Mr. Thompson says no tail ‘til the House doctor gives them the all-clear, they go with it. If he says no fucking without rubbers, they’ll complain but they do it. But you can’t ever trust that these Mob guys will!”

“Who knows where they came from?” Lily pulled a face. “Who knows who they go with? Some of those cat-houses where the Levee used to be, they’re flea-pits and worse. And the Outfit owns half of them!” Jiyong nodded gloomily, and with a horrible lurch Seunghyun began to wonder if the smaller man was really sick: not tiredness or mental strain, but some debilitating physical ailment. It was hard to say which scared him worse.

“That’s why the doctor’s here every five minutes lately,” Jiyong told him. “To make sure we’re still in perfect rental condition. Mr. Insull-”

“Hey!” came Seungri’s voice from above them. “I know you guys are in there. If you people are done yakking, we’re missing our top two earners in here! And I’m sick of making drinks.”

“Come on, then,” said Jiyong. Lily sighed philosophically and slid to the ground, shoving her heels back on. He held out his hand. “Reckon we should go throw our weight behind Bethany. I’ll slip Mr. Thompson one of my presents, see if that’ll encourage him.”

“All right.” The tall woman helped him down from the woodpile. “Times like this we gotta band together,” she told Seunghyun as Jiyong helped him in turn. “Or we’re all screwed, and not the way we get paid for!”

Seunghyun followed them back into the House, another worry added to those already eating at him. He was no longer surprised at the constant tension he felt around him and that he saw in Jiyong’s face. It made his own troubles seem quite manageable in comparison. Still, he thought, as he slammed the door against the cold, he sure hoped there were no more disasters looming.

 


 

For some time things held steady, and despite nothing in his circumstances getting any better Seunghyun was relieved to find himself relaxing into something approaching his default state. Admittedly that had never been a paradise of mental equilibrium, but it was a damn sight nicer than waiting breathlessly for something at the House to explode. Instead he got back to his controlled detonations in the lab and the field behind campus; every bang and crash felt like a pressure valve releasing. In a peculiar way it echoed the pleasure Jiyong’s hands dealt him. The weather was cold but bright, perfect test conditions, and he and Wyeman spent bundled-up mornings tinkering with car engines and charges for building demolition and the various other applications of their research. When it was just the two of them, the Professor’s dim approval warming his cold bones, Seunghyun could almost pretend his life was easy. He avoided the refectory and Youngbae, studiously ignored Watkins and his friends’ increasingly unveiled racial and classist remarks, and allowed his studies to divert him. Fortunately the House was holding steady too.

Seunghyun emerged from his cellar with an armful of gin bottles and caught the strains of jazz piano. He smiled thinly; if there was one solitary boon the South Side gangsters had provided it was the improvement in music. The old classical quartets had been edged out by Rocco and the younger members of the Outfit, so several nights a week the Salon would end up swinging with modern records or live performers. And as an added bonus the din kept Insull away from the place. As he pushed open the hallway door Seunghyun caught the faint, saucy sound of Jiyong’s voice raised in song. He nipped in sharpish; this was a spectacle he’d never get tired of.

Maybe I’m missing you ,” Jiyong crooned in harmony with Lily, who was playing the piano and hogging plenty of limelight for herself. “ Oh-ohh!” She did look fabulous, Seunghyun allowed; but compared to the charm of the slender Korean boy and his pretty little voice…well, there was no contest.

Louis Scaramuzzo obviously thought so. The big man was gazing up in approval at Jiyong, who was sitting on the piano with the gunsmith between his knees and singing to him as if there was no-one else in the room. Seunghyun could tell the smaller man was aware of the many admiring eyes on him, the challenge in Lily’s voice, and his own entrance into the Salon. None of it fazed him; if he was tired or sick it didn’t show. He was an utter professional. Seunghyun frowned, but with resignation, because this was a routine sight. He humped the bottles of liquor onto the bar and ignored Seungri’s grin. He reminded himself it was a treat to hear Jiyong sing.

“Not gonna stick around for the encore?” Seungri said. He was polishing a glass ostentatiously and taking covert sips at a Martini when Mrs. Moore wasn’t looking. “Yongie’s sounding better tonight.”

“Busy,” grunted Seunghyun. The kid took far too much enjoyment in the Mob’s presence, in his opinion.

Jiyong finished up his song and was applauded with enthusiasm by his – what was Scaramuzzo, anyway? Hardly a client if he didn’t pay. The younger man didn’t seem to mind, though with brand new pearls encircling his wrist that was no surprise; he gave his captive audience a kiss, and allowed Scaramuzzo to lift him bodily off the piano and carry him away to a sofa. There was an Italian who didn’t mind making a spectacle of himself with a boy. Perhaps because there were no other Outfit members around right now to see him; but no, Scaramuzzo never seemed to care about that: he was shameless. Seunghyun crinkled his nose in disapproval, and narrowly avoided flouncing as he left for the safety of his den. It would be nice, he thought as he shoved a decanter and a length of hose into the sink, if Jiyong could show a bit more propriety with his tricks, at least in public spaces – especially now they were lovers. If they were lovers. You could never tell with him. Seunghyun bit his lip and attacked the washing-up.

 

He heard the noise so faintly in his distant basement that it seemed a mere pop – a champagne bottle opening, perhaps. It was only when it was followed by screaming, not the raucous applause for a hot jazz number but real screaming, that he paid it any attention. For several seconds Seunghyun froze, pipette and flask in hand, trying to parse the sounds. Then he threw both down and raced up the stairs.

He passed a maid in the hall scurrying the other way, and spotted several people hustling out the front entrance; but the screams had stopped. Seunghyun poked his head cautiously round the Salon door and stepped inside, mouth dropping open.

“Seunghyun!” A pair of strong hands grabbed him. The next thing he knew Lily was pressed against his side; she was shaking. He put a distracted arm round her bare shoulders.

“What the hell is going on?!” he demanded under his breath.

“What does it look like?” she hissed back.

Seunghyun looked: one corner of the Salon presented a tableau that was a frame right out of a motion picture. A group of people – clients, workers, the latest jazz saxophonist on break – was clustered around two men on the crimson carpet; the color was spreading a deeper red around them. One was prone on his back, Seunghyun couldn’t see his face, while the other was moving busily above him. As the second man turned to reach into the leather bag beside him Seunghyun recognized him as one of the House regulars who had been drinking in the Salon earlier: a famous private physician, he couldn’t remember his name.

“He’s alive,” said the doctor. “Call for an ambulance, quick.” One of the gawking crowd broke away and darted out of the side door – Seungri, white as a sheet but on the ball as ever. Seunghyun took a few steps closer, Lily still in his arms, and found that he did know the man lying motionless on the carpet: it was Louis Scaramuzzo. The big man’s face was damp and shining, completely stripped of color as if all the pigment was seeping from the wound in his left side to blacken the floor beneath him. The physician was pressing a bar towel to it, but the cloth was already bloody.

Ever since Seunghyun had been forced to personally interact with the Mob he had been questioning his own bravery. While the prospect of explosions did not faze him, being interrogated by Capone’s men petrified him every time they approached the bar. Now he found that the sight of blood – without doubt the aftermath of a shooting – didn’t bother him half as much as he’d thought it would, though perhaps that was because he didn’t care for Scaramuzzo one bit. He tore his gaze away from the injured mobster, glanced up at the crowd, and saw Jiyong. And that terrified him.

The younger man was standing by Scaramuzzo’s head, staring down at his trick with a totally expressionless face. Just as Seunghyun was holding Lily, so Jiyong was leaning into the tight grip of one of the House enforcers, clinging to his forearm. But what made Seunghyun’s heart almost stop in its tracks was not Jiyong’s odd look or his dazed stance: it was that his face was painted with a vivid spray of blood.

Who did it ?!” whispered Seunghyun, as soon as he could speak. Was the House to become the latest scene of Chicago’s gang warfare? Or, God forbid…no, that was ridiculous, it couldn’t have been Jiyong! Lily squeezed his side.

“McGurn, Jack McGurn,” she replied, in a voice that was little more than an exhale of breath. “Surprised?” Seunghyun shook his head, his heart sinking. Now she had said it, it was terribly believable. “The rest of us sure were. Nobody knew he was coming in tonight, nobody warned Jiyong to keep his other tricks upstairs. And you know what that one’s like,” she added, nodding at the bleeding Scaramuzzo. “He doesn’t care who sees him with his boy toy. But it was the first time McGurn got a good eyeful.”

“And…what, he just shot him?!”

“It was so quick half of us didn’t even see it,” Lily agreed. “He just…looked at the two of them canoodling, didn’t say a thing. Then he pulled this little roscoe from nowhere and the next second bang , the man’s on the floor. And while we were all yelling he turned and walked out.” Seunghyun felt her shiver, and knew she must sense the shudders erupting along his own arm, because what twisted, incredible luck that McGurn had only shot once! The sight of Jiyong with the other man’s blood on his face – how close he must have been! – sickened Seunghyun like nothing he had ever imagined before.

“…Nobody stopped him?” he said.

“A bunch of customers ran out after,” Lily told him. “But hardly to stop him! There weren’t any other Outfit guys here so nobody knows what to do. It’s a waiting game to see who turns up first: the boss or the cops or the Mob.”

“Fuck.”

“Either way,” said Lily shakily, “we’re in big trouble.”

“I…” Seunghyun took a fortifying breath. “I gotta go look after Jiyong.”

Don’t,” she said sharply, giving his side a hard pinch as he removed his arm from around her. Seunghyun looked down at her, puzzled.

“It’s okay, you’re safe now.”

“Not that, you stupid sap,” she muttered. As she spoke a gray-haired figure strode into the Salon through the door beside them, hat still in hand. She nodded: it was Insull. “That.” Seunghyun pursed his lips. “Trust me, honey, you don’t wanna show him how the two of you are lately.”

Seunghyun knew she was talking sense, but he didn’t like it; Jiyong looked so strange. Still, he let Lily hold him in place as their boss took in the shocking scene before him. Seungri popped up beside his uncle.

“Alive?” inquired Insull, without discernible panic. Seungri nodded.

“Ambulance is on its way.”

“Then the police are, too.” Insull thought grimly for a moment before raising his head to address the room. “Any ladies and gentlemen who do not wish to spend the night giving interviews would do well to leave now.” Most of them did, only a couple of ghoulish customers and the doctor remaining. None of the workers moved so Seunghyun stayed put too. “When the police come, tell them what happened,” the boss said with a suppressed sigh. If he was disturbed he didn’t show it. “I’ll speak to the Chief later and smooth things over, so don’t feel the need to invent any wild explanations.” As he spoke the doorbell rang, and at a nod Seungri went to let in the Chicago officials.

For the next hour the Salon was a theatre of melodrama. Released from their frozen state by the entrance of the cops several of the workers decided to have hysterics, two girls going so far as to faint and have to be attended to by the doctor and various young beat officers. The ambulance men had loaded Scaramuzzo onto a stretcher and all that remained was a dark, sticky patch on the carpet. The police examined the room and questioned everybody, seemingly as interested in the fully-stocked bar as they were in the shooting. Seunghyun hoped Insull would deal with that, too. From where he was waiting with Lily he saw Seungri bend down casually and pick something small and metallic off the floor. He stuck it in his pocket with a nonchalant air and wandered off.

“Bullet?” whispered Lily, who’d been watching. Seunghyun shrugged and returned his attention to Jiyong.

The younger man had been questioned for some time, but as far as Seunghyun could tell had given only monosyllabic replies. Eventually he’d been turned loose and the enforcer had guided him over to a bar stool, where he was sitting quietly with his hands in his lap and blood still on his face. Seunghyun wanted to go to him, regardless of Lily’s warning; but as he made a move at last, up came a cop to grill him. Seunghyun reluctantly separated from Lily and spent the next five minutes telling a vague story about hearing a sound and running out from the kitchen – he certainly wasn’t going to mention the basement and his highly illegal activities there.

“You speak English, right?” asked a second officer who was doing the rounds. Seunghyun briefly debated pretending not to understand so as to escape the interview, but his indignation at the question forbade it. He nodded instead. “You see the shooter?”

“No.”

“Anything that might have caused it?”

“I don’t know. We’re just a private dance hall.” The cop, who was older than his other colleagues, gave Seunghyun a sour look that said he knew damn well what this place was. Seunghyun wondered what Insull would want him to say about that, but lost track of the thought as his gaze strayed yet again to Jiyong.

The smaller man was still on the stool with his hands clasped between his knees. As Seunghyun watched, Insull finished speaking with the doctor and made his staid way over to Jiyong. He asked him something and Jiyong shook his head. Insull leaned over the bar to grab a bottle of soda water, extracted a linen handkerchief from his pocket, and set one hand beneath Jiyong’s pointed chin to tilt his face upwards. Jiyong stared at nothing in particular as his owner began to wash his face clean of blood with firm, clinical movements. After a little while his dark eyes slid to Insull’s face and focused; the older man met his gaze briefly before continuing his work. Jiyong shifted closer and murmured something, then something else, an urgent stream of words as his features came back to life. Insull nodded. His moustache twitched, and Seunghyun was irrationally dismayed to see him cup Jiyong’s clean cheek in one hand, the thumb smoothing along his temple. Insull’s mouth moved and Jiyong leaned into his touch, then took his sleeve in both hands and held on. Surely he couldn’t feel comforted! Seunghyun experienced a stab of jealousy at the sight that was quite inappropriate for the occasion.

There was a tap on his shoulder. The cop gave him a prod with his notebook as he forced his attention back to the interview.

“I said, you recognize the injured party?”

“I…sure,” said Seunghyun vaguely. “He’s a businessman, I think.”

“Hmph.” The officer shook his head, shut his notebook, and sent Seunghyun off with instructions not to leave town because they were all in deep shit.

Seunghyun had no intention of going anywhere but down to the basement to hide. Seungri nodded at him as he made for the door, miming a locking motion; better all round that the cops couldn’t casually access the distillery. The last thing Seunghyun glimpsed before he left the room was Jiyong in Insull’s arms. It was the first time their boss had ever displayed what might be a genuine human emotion in public – protectiveness, comfort, or just relief that his prized possession remained unharmed. Seunghyun couldn’t tell; but whatever it was, he felt worse about it than anything else he had witnessed that night.

 


 

Nobody went home. Morning saw Seunghyun wrapped in his coat on the old mattress while Seungri paced around the first floor in case any more law enforcement or reporters felt like delving into the House. Occasionally the kid would knock and ask if he was okay. What was he supposed to say to that?

When the building at last fell silent Seunghyun dragged himself up from the basement and saw dawn had broken. He felt bilious, his mouth dry. He hadn’t slept, of course; all he could see when he closed his eyes was Jiyong’s motionless blood-flecked face. It was eerie to have the House this quiet; as if the building was holding its breath. Seunghyun tiptoed up the stairs without encountering any of the management or other workers. When he glanced out of the landing window there were two beat cops smoking on the front steps, hopefully to prevent the return of Jack McGurn or similar but more likely to keep the witnesses to the crime on edge. It was doing a pretty good job on Seunghyun.

He tapped lightly at Jiyong’s door. There was a distinct risk that it would be Insull who opened it, but at this point he couldn’t help himself. There was some shuffling, then a pause.

“It’s me,” Seunghyun muttered. The door opened and Jiyong pulled him in, just managing to close it before the older man threw both arms around him. “Are you all right?” he demanded, wrestling back the urge to call Jiyong something sappy like ‘darling’; shell-shocked or not he didn’t think his friend would take kindly to that.

“I’m fine,” said Jiyong quietly, his hand slipping around Seunghyun’s waist. “How’re things holding up down there?”

“The cops are still outside.” Seunghyun brushed his fingers along Jiyong’s jaw. His face was white as paper and his eyes red as if he’d been crying. Well, of course he had!

“Yeah,” acknowledged Jiyong. He led the bigger man through to the French living room, where an ashtray was filled with the remains of Insull’s imported cigarettes. “The boss just left, he’s gone to talk to Alderman Coughlin. So the Fuzz at least oughta be out of our hair.”

“As simple as that?” Seunghyun attempted to help settle Jiyong on the sofa. The boy twitched him off, then pulled him down to sit beside him.

“As simple as being a billionaire. The cops are the easy part.”

“I was so scared for you.” Seunghyun knew he was being a sap while Jiyong was trying to maintain his strong front, but he couldn’t stop himself burying his face in the smaller man’s shoulder, breathing him in. If McGurn’s aim had been only a few inches out he might never have had another chance. “When I saw you like that I thought he’d…”

“He wouldn’t shoot me,” Jiyong told him in a dull voice. “He’d be more intimate about it than that.”

“…Don’t say that.”

“It was ‘cos it was Louis,” said Jiyong against his hair. “That’s what it must’ve been. McGurn’s seen me with tricks before: when he’s watching me and bad-mouthing me to his buddies. But that was the first time he caught me with one of his own. I s’pose it flipped his territorial switch.”

“He’s insane,” stated Seunghyun with a shudder, inhaling again.

“That’s what I told you.” Jiyong let out an unsteady laugh. “And at last everyone knows.”

“I’m so sorry it had to go this far! You know if I could I’d have put a stop to it.” Seunghyun squeezed him, could almost feel his heart beating. He drew back when Jiyong just sat there, and examined his face. Oh, yes. Last night… “I’d have come to you earlier,” he said carefully. He gestured to the ashtray. “But…you had enough comfort I guess.”

“Are you being snide at me?” Jiyong laughed again, a brittle sound. “Now?”

“No.” Christ, Seunghyun hoped not; he was tangled up inside, that was all. “Course not. I’ve just never seen him genuinely treat you nicely before. It was…a surprise.”

“He wasn’t being nice,” said Jiyong, and Seunghyun was perturbed to see him swipe at his eye with the back of one hand. His fingers trembled, then steadied; it was the sole sign that he’d been frightened. “Well, he was, but…not really.”

“What d’you mean?” Seunghyun ought to have known Insull’s sympathy would come with strings attached. It angered him, until he discovered with dismay that the knowledge gave him some told-you-so satisfaction too.

“He was telling me ‘no’.” Jiyong gave him a wry smile, a familiar sight; but the way it quickly crumbled was not. “…I want my mom,” he whispered. “That was all I could think after it happened! But he said no, he won’t have me leaving the House. He just wants to protect me,” he assured Seunghyun, whose immediate reaction was an indignant scowl. “But I…”

“Of course you want your mother.” Jiyong had almost been killed, for Christ’s sake! What more natural reaction than that? Seunghyun slid an arm around him again; Jiyong shook him off at first, then relented. “You want her to come meet you, at the Bluebird maybe?”

Yeah. But I can’t ask Ri to help, not after Mr. Insull refused so directly.”

“Who needs Seungri?” The bigger man gave his shoulders a squeeze. “I’ll go get her. I don’t care if I’m banned by your dad! Ignore these old bastards, Jiyong,” Seunghyun announced, all righteous determination. “If you need something I’ll see to it that you get it. Always.” The boy glanced up at him, skeptical and hopeful and still afraid. Seunghyun hated that expression. He would do whatever it took to chase it away.

 


 

Seunghyun did as he’d offered, and in doing so contrived to chase away his jealousy too. He was the one who snuck out of the House – not so difficult, the police had indeed been called off. He was the one who tracked down Mrs. Kwon in the Chinese store where she worked, thus avoiding any awkwardness with the sisters or run-ins with Jiyong’s father. And it was him who kept everyone else distracted with an intense ‘what happens now?’ debate long enough for Jiyong to slip out over the roof for a reunion that had been far too long coming. High enough on adrenaline to block out all the horrors, Seunghyun even felt worthy.

Thank you,” said Jiyong, later. He locked the door to the distillery and almost ran down the steps, threading lightly through the debris to take the bottles from Seunghyun’s hands and push him into a chair.

“It worked, then?”

“Yes. Oh, Tabi, it was good to see her.” Seunghyun heaved a sigh of relief that turned to happy anxiety as Jiyong settled in his lap; it was early evening and there were bound to be people wanting access to the liquor stash. “They closed the Salon tonight,” Jiyong reassured him, shifting closer to wrap one arm around his neck. Seunghyun registered that he was wearing no makeup and was dressed in the simple clothes he had worn to meet his mother.

“That was a good idea.” He didn’t think he could bear to be questioned by their inquisitive patrons any more than by the cops. Jiyong nodded, the tip of his elegant nose brushing Seunghyun’s. It was cold, but Jiyong was always cold.

“Mm. For one thing, they have to get the blood off the carpet.” His shiver didn’t escape Seunghyun’s notice, but the next moment Jiyong was smiling.

“…I’m glad something made you happy,” said the older man, who didn’t want to think about Scaramuzzo right now. “I’m glad I could help.” He smoothed his hand across the small of Jiyong’s back.

“You did.” The boy kissed him, one of those barely-there caresses, and grinned brighter. “But it isn’t just that. This could turn out to be the one thing I’ve been praying for!”

“How?” asked Seunghyun, blinking stupidly; the proximity of Jiyong’s body made it hard to take in what he was saying.

“I was thinking.” The smaller man shifted enthusiastically in his lap, which made things harder in all sorts of ways. “What d’you think’s gunna happen now? It’s not like McGurn’ll be slammed up – even if the boss hadn’t called off the cops they’re half in the Mob’s pocket anyhow. But this means – oh, Tabi, this does mean Mr. Insull will finally ban him! He understands what I mean now, he says he’ll talk to Harry Guzik himself!” Jiyong exhaled in pure joy. “And finally, finally I’ll be safe.”

Yes.” Seunghyun pulled him close. No wonder Jiyong was happy, so quickly seeing the benefit in what to the older man would be a scarring near-death experience. Jiyong was practical. But there it was once more, that sting of jealousy. “So Insull saves your bacon again.” For a second Jiyong looked as though he had half a mind to slap him; instead he merely shook him by the collar and shoved him hard against the rickety chair-back.

Shut up, you big handsome dope,” he commanded. Then he kissed him for real.

In an instant Seunghyun was swept back to the night they had first met, before he had even known Jiyong’s name. The kiss was the same, full of a giddiness and abandon that left him breathless; it was wildly distinct from Jiyong’s skillful experiment kisses or his drowsy responses to Seunghyun’s early-morning ardor. Like that first time it gave you no choice but to love him. Seunghyun buried his hands in Jiyong’s sleek hair and drew him closer, letting out a soft, helpless sound of pleasure as that clever tongue nudged his mouth open and pressed inside. He had forgotten to breathe through the dizzy sensuality, and was beginning to struggle for air when Jiyong broke off and grinned down at him; his lush lips had bloomed in a deep blush, his black eyes gleaming with a glee that was just this side of unbalanced.

“Mmm. You’re hard already,” murmured Jiyong, who looked as pleased as punch. He wriggled smugly in the bigger man’s lap. “No, just stay put, Tabi. This time I’m gunna treat you, so you might as well take advantage.” And with no more ado he slid out of Seunghyun’s embrace and sank to his knees between his thighs. He stretched up to kiss Seunghyun’s throat and smiled as he felt him swallow heavily. Then his lips and hands travelled down, over his shirtfront so the sensation was blunted by the fabric but not enough to prevent Seunghyun gasping.

“Jiyong, you don’t have to-”

“Shut up, I said.” The younger man smoothed his fingers luxuriously across the straining front of Seunghyun’s pants. In the blink of an eye he had undone his belt buckle and yanked his fly open. “How many times have you done this for me?” said Jiyong, his voice turning husky with what Seunghyun would swear was lust. “I know you’ve wanted me to…ever since you saw me with Ri.” Seunghyun winced; he didn’t need to imagine that again. But it was true that he’d wanted it, of course he had! And that his time in Jiyong’s bed had been very much a one-way street of indulgence. Seunghyun had loved that; but he couldn’t deny he had dreamed of having Jiyong spoil him in turn.

Jiyong smirked and slipped his hand into Seunghyun’s underwear, pushing the fabric aside. He licked his lips as the older man’s cock sprang free; Seunghyun was hard enough now that each tiny touch was amplified a hundredfold. Jiyong didn’t bother with any more talk, thank God. He just tugged Seunghyun’s pants further down his hips, ran his fingers teasingly along his bare thighs, and began to trace his erection. Seunghyun took a harsh breath at the admiring little noise he made as he brushed his thumb over the head.

“…This close already?” said Jiyong, almost laughing; but his cheeks were flushed, his eyes darker than ever. He dropped his lashes across them and bent his beautiful neck to lap at the fluid that was peeking with anticipation from the tip of Seunghyun’s cock. “Good boy,” he breathed, the warmth washing over the sensitive flesh. “Just hold on for me…” Then his lips parted and took Seunghyun in.

Seunghyun groaned out loud. It was impossible not to, with that voluptuous mouth cradling him and the wet heat of it. Jiyong took him deeper and his genius became even more apparent: the tiny changes in pressure and suction as he began to move, the elaborate artwork he was creating with his tongue on the most sensitive areas of Seunghyun’s shaft. Jiyong seemed immune to the need to draw breath. It was insane, thought Seunghyun deliriously as his fingers grasped again at the smaller man’s fair hair; and it was magic. Just when he thought he would lose his mind Jiyong drew back and began to play with him, lips and tongue and fingers working his balls and the length of his cock, enough to keep him at the edge. One blonde lock of hair had fallen forward as if on purpose to tickle his stomach.

Please…!” begged Seunghyun, sweat breaking on his forehead and at his throat. Jiyong laughed and ignored him. “You’re gonna kill me!” Seunghyun warned him, in genuine panic – surely the heart wasn’t meant to race like this!

“You’re delicious, Tabi.” Jiyong’s pink tongue licked a scalding stripe up the underside of his shaft. “Why would I rush?” Seunghyun began to plead again. Jiyong chuckled under his breath; the next moment he relaxed his jaw and took him deep into his mouth. Seunghyun’s grip tightened convulsively on his hair. Jiyong didn’t complain, though the older man was sure he was hurting him as the boy swallowed him down further, until his straight nose was brushing Seunghyun’s stomach. Seunghyun made a very strange sound, one he was helpless to control. Jiyong hummed in a pleased way and the vibrations curled around his cock like the smaller man was alight with electricity.

“Jesus Christ, Jiyong…!” Seunghyun breathed. Jiyong’s eyes flicked up to meet his and rendered him speechless. Without breaking their gaze he began to move, his expression fond and aroused as he set his hands back on Seunghyun’s body and with the sweetest sounds of concentration and pleasure began to coax him towards his climax. Seunghyun felt it approach in waves, receding and then drawing closer unbearably; the only constant was Jiyong’s eyes on his face. At last the younger man took pity on him and increased the pace with no more taunting, the trembling delight rising until Seunghyun had to grit his teeth at its intensity. Jiyong let out a gratified moan as he came but didn’t let go, drawing every drop out of him with a demanding frown until the bigger man was limp as a piece of spaghetti.

Seunghyun heard himself muttering nonsensical words of adoration as his hands finally relaxed their death-grip on Jiyong’s hair. Jiyong caressed him gently for a bit before straightening up his trouser area in the fussy way he had with clothes. Then he laid his head on Seunghyun’s stomach, which was still heaving with the speed of his breath.

“…You’re sublime,” managed Seunghyun, who hadn’t got control of his mouth yet. “You’re the most spectacular…God, I do love you!”

“You said,” Jiyong told him happily. His lips had turned an even deeper shade of rose, their outline clear-cut and quite irresistible. “But it bears repeating.”

“You want me to…?” offered the older man in a worshipful haze. He checked himself. “I mean, are you…?”

Yes,” said Jiyong emphatically, and slid a hand between his own thighs. “You don’t know what a dish you are, Tabi; and those noises you make.” He climbed back up into Seunghyun’s lap. “You’d better believe it’s my turn!” Seunghyun took hold of his waist, squeezed the delicious curve of his hips and then the insistent hardness between his legs. Jiyong pushed closer with a gasp and a sweet compliment in his ear. With some effort – his legs being rather unsteady – Seunghyun picked him up and carried him towards the mattress. He would give Jiyong the best time of his life, and tomorrow they would continue on with the boy’s wellbeing settled and his mind clear. It would be –

The basement door rattled. Both men froze. The sound came once more and Jiyong gave a growl of frustration. Seunghyun hushed him, paranoid as hell and tense all over again. Jiyong snapped at his finger with his white teeth, then groaned as someone knocked.

“Seung – Tabby!” came a female voice in a weird combination of hushed and frantic. He thought it was Sarah. “Tabby, you’ve gotta come upstairs!” Jiyong elbowed him irritably when he paused, and gestured to the locked door. Seunghyun reluctantly let him go and made a quelling motion to keep him in place before stomping up the stairs. He turned the key and opened the door a crack. It was indeed the Irish woman.

“What?” he demanded.

“Good, you’re here too!” Sarah exclaimed, looking past him. When he turned he found Jiyong right behind him, silent as a cat and equally disobedient. Jiyong cocked his head curiously, somehow looking perfectly pristine.

“What is it?” the boy asked quietly. “Is Mr. Insull back?”

“Yeah.” Sarah nudged the door open then pushed past Seunghyun to take Jiyong’s arm and encourage him along. She was pale, though whether it was from agitation or excitement Seunghyun couldn’t tell. “But that’s not the point! This is just the biggest thing ever, come on!”

“…Is it the circus?” Jiyong enquired with an unpardonable amount of levity as Seunghyun followed them through the corridors towards the Salon. “I thought we were closed tonight.”

“Sshhh.” Sarah reached back and grabbed Seunghyun’s wrist before slipping them through a side door and into the midst of what seemed a small crowd. Seunghyun turned to see Lily on one side of him and an under-cook on the other, with Jiyong poking him in the ribs from behind because he was too short to get a good view. Seunghyun dutifully moved and Jiyong stepped into the gap. The boy’s eyes widened; just like the rest of them. Everybody in the room was staring, without any attempt to hide it – staring at the man leaning on the bar, a man whose face Seunghyun knew as well as any movie actor’s. Anyone in America would know him, at least if they could read a newspaper. Seunghyun felt his mouth drop open, because there could be no doubt: he was face to face with Al Capone.

 

Chapter Text

Seunghyun’s eyes opened wide as the most notorious man in Chicago casually sipped at his drink – rye whisky, he could see the bottle by Seungri’s elbow. Capone did not seem at all fazed that every member of staff in the House had come to goggle at him in his perfectly tailored chocolate suit and diamond tie-pin. He was smiling at whoever made eye contact – not that anyone seemed in a hurry to do so – and Seunghyun remembered that the man was said to enjoy his infamy, loved being photographed by the press and recognized by crowds at baseball games. Vain, then; but terribly, lethally smart.

“So, like I was sayin’,” spoke up Capone in a New York accent much like Scaramuzzo’s. “I been meanin’ to drop in on this place for a while, try out your famous bar and amenities.” He shot an appreciative leer at Lily. “But you’re a businessman, ya know how hectic things get.” Seunghyun realized that Capone, while appearing to address the whole room, was in fact talking to Insull. The brothel owner was in a high-backed chair not far from the bar; as ever his face was expressionless, but he was listening intently. He did not react to the other man’s statement. “However,” went on Capone after another sip, “my boys raised some hell in here last night, so here I am with my apologies.” Insull’s eyebrows rose a fraction.

“That’s not necessary. In this kind of establishment fights are inevitable.” Capone grinned, and even Seunghyun, through his horror, felt the pull of his charisma. He wasn’t tall, he was tubby and beginning to bald. But he was charming.

“Talk about your British understatement.” The mobster whistled. “A murder attempt ain’t a bar brawl, ‘specially in a class joint like this.” Seunghyun sensed Jiyong’s ears prick up.

“Your man isn’t dead, then?” Insull asked the question for him.

“Nah. It was pretty touch and go, but he’s still kickin’.” Jiyong exhaled shakily; Seunghyun couldn’t tell what he was thinking, and somehow he couldn’t look away from Capone to find out. “Any damage they caused, I’ll pay for it.” Insull nodded while everyone else darted covert glances at the bloody carpet, currently covered with a sheet. Seunghyun was momentarily impressed with his boss’s cool because inside Insull had to be fuming – and unnerved, if he had any sense at all. But you couldn’t tell. Seungri, on the other hand, was gawking at Capone like he was a movie star; possibly a horror movie, but still with a decent amount of celebrity worship. Seunghyun’s lip curled.

“Give the man another drink,” Insull told his nephew quietly, and Seungri trotted forward to refill their visitor’s glass. Capone took a swig and smiled again.

“I hear you guys make a pretty good hooch of your own.” Seunghyun stiffened, terrified of being singled out. He hoped to God Capone wouldn’t press it! Insull’s eyes narrowed, but his nod was offhand.

“And we pay you a pretty penny for the privilege.”

“Yeah.” Capone’s grin widened; he was perfectly jovial, but…predator, thought Seunghyun. Too many teeth, or something. “I’m glad I have a workin’ relationship with such a powerful guy as you already. ‘Cos I got a favor to ask.”

“…Yes?”

“First, if any press come sniffin’ around I’d be obliged if you don’t mention my name. Let ‘em spin their own baseless theories.”

“And what else?” said Insull drily. That couldn’t be all there was to it.

“About last night,” said Capone. “My boy Vincenzo really fucked up.” Insull frowned inquiringly, and Seungri leaned down to whisper to him. McGurn’s real name, Seunghyun remembered, prompted by the way Jiyong twitched next to him. “Naturally you’re gonna ban him,” Capone continued. “And I’ll admit he’s a loose cannon. Bad for your regular customers, bad for business all round.”

“Quite.” Insull looked as if that was the first thing they could thoroughly agree on.

“But what I wanna ask is…don’t . Let him keep comin’.” Seunghyun heard a horrified breath from beside him. Capone shrugged. “I’ve had a long word with him. He won’t cause no more trouble. And it’s kinda important.”

“How so?” asked Insull coldly. “It seems you have plenty of men keeping an eye on us already.”

“Well, yeah.” Capone looked unabashed. “Thing is, I got a lot on my plate right now. My boss just handed me the reins completely – old kook’s retiring, ya probably read in the papers.” Seunghyun had: Torrio, the Outfit’s long-standing head, had been doing a stint in jail and then in hospital, and had decided to throw it all in for a simpler old age. That gave Capone the control he’d always been angling for, and no doubt a major organizational headache as well. “So I gotta keep things locked down tight ‘til everyone gets used to the idea; I can’t have any of my boys losin’ their shit. And in that respect Vincenzo is real useful to me.”

“And this place is so key to him retaining his…shit?”

“You know him.” Capone ran his gaze around the Salon. “One of you sure does, anyway.” Another little gasp from Jiyong. “Vincenzo, he don’t talk much,” said the gangster thoughtfully. “But last night, when the other guys brought him in…well, once I got him in private I was gonna hurt him, ‘cos he did something real bad; firin’ on one of his own! But first I asked him why . And then he wouldn’t shut up.” He frowned in the direction of the assembled workers. “Generally speakin’, ‘crime of passion’ ain’t an excuse, not in a brothel: a pro skirt isn’t a wife, after all, you can’t be gettin’ jealous over ‘em. But Vincenzo is wired different; kinda sensitive. And he’s fallen real, real hard for one of your beauties.”

“…I see,” said Insull, finally looking mildly displeased. Beside Seunghyun Jiyong was trembling.

“If it was anyone else I’d have none of it. Bad enough over a dame – hundred times worse if it’s a boy. Personally I find it disgustin’. But Vincenzo is too important right now, and ain’t his fault he’s twisted.” Capone’s eyes slid across Seungri, Lin, Jiyong, and then Seunghyun, evidently trying to put a face to McGurn’s infatuated confession. His attention fastened on Jiyong, who stopped breathing and attached himself to Seunghyun’s sleeve. Seunghyun wanted to step in front of him; but he couldn’t move. After a long inspection Capone nodded. “And if givin’ it to China Blonde over there is what keeps him in working order, I’m gonna ask ya to facilitate that. A personal favor.”

For the first time in forever Seunghyun prayed: that Insull would say no, would protect his pet and preserve his happiness and wellbeing. He was one of the richest men in the Western world – surely with his vast fortune and the Gray Wolves behind him he had enough sway to refuse! The brothel owner’s brow was furrowed, though it was hard to say if he was thoughtful or worried. Insull looked briefly at Jiyong, then at Capone, and then at the ceiling. Seungri was watching his uncle anxiously.

“…Having McGurn around could lose us customers,” said Insull eventually. “Especially after last night.” Jiyong squeezed Seunghyun’s wrist hopefully.

“Could be,” agreed Capone.

“And, given his nature, you can’t guarantee he’ll cause no more trouble.”

“That’s true,” said the other man in a friendly tone. “But consider how much trouble you might have if he doesn’t get his way. And if I don’t get mine.” There was a pointed silence. “How ‘bout this?” offered Capone, as Insull watched him. “You let him come play with his toy, and I’ll halve the payments you’ve been kickin’ up to us each month.” Another pregnant pause, and Jiyong’s grip on Seunghyun’s arm turned frantic. Insull steepled his fingers beneath his moustache.

“…All right.” Jiyong made a tiny noise and let go. “No ban. A personal favor with the requisite benefits.” Capone beamed at him, drained his glass, then strolled over with his hand outstretched.

“Good deal.” With veiled distaste Insull got to his feet and shook it. Capone snapped his fingers and Seungri nipped over with his coat. The mobster took a last cool look at Jiyong. “Tell your Asian flower there to use his head and I dare say everythin’ will run smooth. Any more trouble, talk to one of my guys.” The meeting abruptly over he strode to the Salon door, which was magically opened by one of the Outfit goons waiting in the lobby. And with that he was gone. Insull sighed, shook his head, and left through one of the side doors without so much as a glance at the boy whose peace of mind he had just destroyed.

Seunghyun couldn’t believe it – no, he could. It was Jiyong who was staring after his owner in disbelief. To Seunghyun’s amazement, though, the shock on his face gradually changed to resignation; then, even worse, to understanding.

“…Jiyong,” he said uselessly. No-one else would look at the smaller man; even Seungri had dashed out after Insull. The other workers began to leave amid whispers. There was some fear, some excitement, and some shrugs, but no word for Jiyong. And then it was just the two of them.

“Well,” said Jiyong in a hoarse voice, and stopped. He blinked furiously and swiped the back of his sleeve across his eyes. “…That’s that.” Seunghyun groped for a helpful reaction – something, anything.

“Come away with me!” was what he eventually blurted out: the same tired offer, but it was literally the only thing he could do to help keep Jiyong safe. The boy’s lips thinned, in the usual disapproval or to keep from crying. “Please,” the older man entreated. “Come with me to Charleston. It’s the only way!”

“No.” Jiyong straightened his sleeves and took a deep breath. “You heard them: this is the only way. I just…” He swallowed. “I have to be smart, like he said. Have to take care. And then…then I can look after everyone, just as I always have.” Seunghyun gaped at him.

Look after? You mean selling yourself, your safety, so those career criminals can go on their merry way with your hard-earned cash in their pockets?!” It was the kind of line that made Jiyong mad, he knew; but Seunghyun was afraid, and furious – at everyone. He was disconcerted when the smaller man didn’t snap at him, only reached out with a quivering hand and smoothed down his shirt where he had clung to it earlier.

“…Go home, Tabi,” Jiyong advised him. “Get some rest. I’ll make this work. It’s what I’ve been doing since I was thirteen.”

“Can’t I stay with you?” Seunghyun asked piteously. He wasn’t thinking of sex, not even of talking. He was overcome in that moment by a protective urge so strong that to try and resist it was like being dashed by a wave. He needed to be near him.

“No.” If the urge was a wave, Jiyong was the rock it smashed against: stubborn, immovable, and his refusal equally bruising. “I’m going to find Mr. Insull, and then I’m going to bed. Go home.” And as decidedly as Capone had done Jiyong squared his fine jaw and walked away.

Seunghyun groped his way to a chair and sank into it. He was trembling harder than Jiyong had been, a huge bubble in his chest that made it an effort to breathe: panic or rage, perhaps both. He rubbed his hand over his heart, feeling an echo of Jiyong’s slender fingers where they had caressed him not an hour before. The memory made breathing harder still: Jiyong’s exultation, his affection as he celebrated his release from the mental cloud that was McGurn, and his desperate grip on Seunghyun’s wrist when Capone and Insull had let that burden crash back upon him. What could they possibly do now?

Seunghyun wanted a drink badly, but he knew what trouble that had got him into the last time he went on a bender. So he sat there for some time while the maids tiptoed in and out, came up with a total of zero courses of action, and valiantly managed to hold off one of his attacks. In the end he could do no better than to take Jiyong’s advice: he went home.

 


 

“Are you okay?” was naturally the first thing Seunghyun asked the next evening. He had gone back to his parents’ place but it hadn’t helped as much as he was accustomed to, and he felt drained and clumsy as he took his place behind the bar. Jiyong came down late; contrary to Seunghyun’s haggard appearance he looked stunning in a silver-gray silk kimono, his face flawless. “Did they…did they tell you when he’s coming?” There was no need to say the name.

Jiyong merely gave him a sideways look and held out a hand for his Martini; Seunghyun had started fixing it the second he walked in. Before Jiyong could reply Seunghyun was called to the other end of the bar and given a complicated drink order by a group of Insull’s opera buddies, who had alighted like a flock of vultures in tailcoats to view the scene of the Mob shooting. The carpet had been replaced that morning, but Seunghyun bet all the guests were here as much for the thrill as for the girls tonight.

“Well?” he pressed when he got back. Jiyong’s Martini was drained already and he was chewing distractedly on the cocktail cherry. “What did Insull have to say for himself?” The boy stuck him with that same look. An instant later he spotted his first customer – Elgin again – and morphed into the naughty, vivacious fox this particular trick was so fond of.

“Let’s go upstairs,” said Jiyong in his pert little voice, turning smartly away from Seunghyun. “They can bring our drinks.”

“That impatient, huh?” teased Elgin with a look of mild surprise; in Seunghyun’s observation Jiyong generally played harder to get with this one.

“Hmph.” The younger man stalked past him in a whisper of silk and out of the main doors. Elgin followed, apparently amused, though that didn’t stop him having a good squint around the room for any signs of the shooting. Seunghyun peered after them with an uncomfortable knot in his stomach; admittedly he always had that when he saw Jiyong with clients, but this felt odder. Before he could get to the bottom of it another customer accosted him with orders. But it left him even more anxious to talk.

 

The rest of that night Jiyong was in and out of the Salon in a most industrious way: as soon as he came downstairs he would dart a glance around and then engage in some general flirting with a group of men until someone bought him a drink. As soon as his next trick was secured he would disappear with them upstairs to his private rooms. There was none of the usual dalliance and seduction that made him so good at getting under people’s skin. At first Seunghyun assumed he was hustling to take his mind off his dangerous circumstances and Insull’s betrayal. But when Jiyong contrived to avoid answering his urgent overtures every single time the older man began to suspect he was angry with him. For what? Seunghyun had no idea.

“You know what’s up with Yongie?” inquired Seungri, who had come round behind the bar to grab a box of cigars. He looked disconcerted, so perhaps he was getting the silent treatment too. Seunghyun pursed his lips; he didn’t really feel like talking to the kid right now, but he was glad to know he wasn’t imagining Jiyong’s behavior.

“You tell me.” Seunghyun dropped a bunch of ice into a Scotch glass with some force. “What could he possibly have to be upset about?”

“I know he’s freaked out,” the younger man said with no palpable resentment at his bartender’s sarcasm. “We all are, aren’t we? But there’re no Outfit guys in tonight so it’s not like he’s in any danger.” Seunghyun stared at him – he couldn’t be that stupid.

“He’s in danger every day now.” Seunghyun banged the glass down and turned to fetch the whiskey bottle. “Your uncle saw to that.”

“I like that he’s my uncle and not the boss when he’s raised someone’s hackles,” Seungri shot back. “As if I have any influence on his decisions!” The older man wasn’t buying that; Seungri ended up telling Insull most everything that went on in the House, he was sure of it. The kid was a blabbermouth, and if nothing else his information and opinion must have some slight sway on Insull’s choices. “Besides,” Seungri continued, “what else was he meant to do?” Seunghyun could sense his earnest gaze. He started on the next drink without meeting his eyes; any defense of Insull left him seething.

“He could have argued.”

“With Al Capone?” He had a point, Seunghyun acknowledged, but only grudgingly.

“He oughta have offered him more money to keep a leash on that madman; not accepted a cut to let him have his way with Jiyong!”

“Uncle Sam’s very pragmatic,” said Seungri with a sigh. “And he will look out for Yongie.”

Right.”

“We all have to keep a watch on our boy. Not just the enforcers, not just the managers. All of us.” Seunghyun grunted. It was no consolation for what Insull had done. “You start,” suggested Seungri. “Go check on him when the Salon closes, see if you can get him to relax.” Seunghyun squinted at him. What did he know about those early-morning visits to Jiyong’s rooms? Already cross with Seungri, all his uncharitable thoughts of the younger man flooded back. Yes, Seunghyun would watch Jiyong; but he’d have to watch this kid too, and what he said around him.

“All right,” he said coldly. “Take these drinks, will you?” Seungri seemed about to say something else; in the end he wisely shut his mouth and left Seunghyun to his own suspicious company. Seunghyun watched him go and worried.

 

The night fizzled out early. Seunghyun wasn’t really surprised given the atmosphere hanging over the House. It wasn’t just him; everyone was on edge. So not long after four o’clock he was knocking on Jiyong’s door.

“Hey,” he called softly, with a cautious glance behind him. There was no reply. He was sure Jiyong’s last client had left and he hadn’t seen Insull around that night. He knocked again, and waited. No answer. For the first time since that initial humiliating afternoon months ago, he set his hand to the doorknob without prompting and slipped into the apartment; he had to find out why Jiyong was mad at him – or, if not him, what this evening had all been about.

He opened the door to the living room. The gray kimono was draped over the elegant little sofa and there were empty glasses on the table, but no Jiyong. Seunghyun briefly wondered if he had snuck out of the House across the roof; it was freezing out, but given his probable state of mind it wasn’t unthinkable. The clink of porcelain from the bathroom squashed that hypothesis, and he walked back into the luxuriously carpeted hallway to pursue the sound.

“Didn’t you hear me knocking?” he said, peering through the door. Jiyong’s head snapped round and he glared at Seunghyun in startled displeasure. He was holding a toothbrush and wearing a warm pair of pajamas with a towel wrapped round his hair, as plain as it was possible for him to look.

“Go away,” he ordered. And then, when Seunghyun opened his mouth, “You’ve got some nerve barging in here! Just ‘cos I can’t lock you out! If I’d wanted to talk to you I’d have opened the damn door.” He slapped the toothbrush down. “Go on!”

“Why were you ignoring me tonight?” Seunghyun set his jaw; he didn’t feel he deserved this, and his confusion stirred that old simmering feeling in his stomach. “Why’re you cussing me out now?”

Please go away. I’m tired.”

“I just wanna find out what’s up. To make sure you’re okay!”

“I’m not.” Jiyong advanced on him, crowding him until he took a step backwards. “And there’s nothing you can do about that! So let me try and sleep.”

“Fine,” said Seunghyun, regaining his fortitude and coming to a halt. “But first talk to me.”

“No!” To the older man’s astonishment Jiyong actually stamped his foot in frustration. “I don’t want you hanging around me anymore! Like some sad lapdog.”

“Jiyong…” Seunghyun made a convulsive move towards him and the boy struck him hard on the chest, then shoved him, his towel slipping to the floor. Seunghyun found himself frozen with the shock of it, and didn’t move – Jiyong almost snarled at him, but he simply couldn’t.

“You fucking idiot!” spat Jiyong when Seunghyun failed to retreat. “How am I supposed to protect you if you won’t stay away?!” And he burst into tears. After a staggered pause Seunghyun wrapped both arms tight around him and dragged him close, his thwarted protective instinct going haywire. Jiyong burrowed against him, a trembling, soap-scented armful. But unlike Seunghyun, whose crying jags had proven to be lengthy and dramatic, after less than a minute Jiyong took a deep breath and pushed him off.

“…What do you mean, protect me?” probed Seunghyun. He was impressed by the way Jiyong could manage his emotions, even while the sight of that short outburst disturbed him. The younger man swallowed heavily.

“Isn’t it obvious? If McGurn’s gunna be here…and if he’s so far gone that he’ll try and take out any man who gets close to me…then I can’t have you close.”

“But he’s not here.” Seunghyun now understood Jiyong’s thought process. He was touched by his concern; but this was surely an overreaction.

“Who knows when he’ll come around?” countered Jiyong, obviously thinking of his horrific encounter the other night. “And anyway, there’re people in here who can’t stand me, or who just can’t keep their mouths shut. Even if he doesn’t see it…he could find out! I’m not gunna be the one to put you in danger – not when you’re the only one around here with a real future.”

“Don’t you think you’re being the tiniest bit paranoid?” Seunghyun stretched out a consoling hand. Jiyong looked offended and ignored it.

“No more secret sleepovers,” announced the boy, his jaw clenched, and to his consternation Seunghyun knew he meant it. “No more heart-to-hearts and cozy chats. Not for you, or Panda, or anybody else I care for.”

“But-”

“Get out,” Jiyong told him with finality. “Or I’ll fetch Mrs. Moore up here.” And he retreated to his white bathroom and shut the door.

Seunghyun stared at it for a long time. The part of him he had so much trouble controlling, the part that made him explode in public, wanted to burst through it again and shout at Jiyong, plead with him until he reconsidered. The visceral urge to shake some sense into his friend, to hold him until he started thinking straight, was almost undeniable. But Jiyong would never forgive that. Seunghyun bit his tongue until he could focus on the pain and nothing else, and for once it worked. He quietly left Jiyong’s apartment, walked along the hall, and almost without thinking knocked on Lily’s door. He heard her voice raised inquiringly. So he opened it and went inside.

 


 

In the weeks that followed Seunghyun was lonelier than he could ever remember being. He missed Youngbae, though not enough to forgive him, and was so resentful of Seungri – as an unfortunate proxy for Insull – that he could scarcely bring himself to speak to him. He even started thinking nostalgically of his old undergraduates. And above all that was the slow, crushing mental isolation that characterized the loss of Jiyong.

He saw him constantly, and if anything that made it worse. It was impossible to look at him, to serve him and his customers, without aching for his company. Every glimpse of that stubborn profile in the Salon, the delicate nose and expressive mouth, caused a near-physical yearning. It wasn’t that he missed sharing his bed… No, he did, but it was as much cuddling in the dark and the sound of Jiyong’s breath in sleep as it was their erotic adventures. More than that he missed talking: Jiyong’s acid wit and the very occasional goofy smile Seunghyun could raise on his face; and, most of all, the way the boy had confided in him. Jiyong made him feel special, he realized; and nothing in his life had managed that before.

Oh, he had Daesung, of course, who made a fair agony aunt for Seunghyun’s troubles. He couldn’t go into details – didn’t care to let his friend find out just how ludicrous his circumstances had become – but so long as it didn’t clash with his nights out the younger student was always happy to listen. And there was Lily. Seunghyun had surprised himself when he’d stumbled into her rooms that night, but she proved to be a tolerant if critical ear. Again, he couldn’t tell her everything, certainly not about his sexual exploits with Jiyong; but she already knew his secret feelings. He had blurted the rest out, sitting smoking with unsteady hands in her sea-green living room while she combed her Pre-Raphaelite hair.

“He cares for you,” was her sensible conclusion. She observed his jitters with raised eyebrows. “What else should he do? He’s smart to be cautious – smarter than you, College Man. Let him alone; once things settle down he’ll come around. It’s what we all want in here,” she said. “A friend. Jiyong’s too greedy to let that go.”

Seunghyun had made a pessimistic kind of noise. Then, prompted by her wistful expression, he finally told her about Jennings. Lily had been pleased and amused, and her good humor felt so warm after Jiyong’s rebuff that Seunghyun offered to carry any letters if she wanted to write to her cousin. So far she hadn’t, but the gesture had cemented their mutual liking – at least, he thought it had. In any case he had someone to talk to at work, and while it paled in comparison with what he really wanted it was far better than nothing. If Jiyong was jealous it didn’t show.

McGurn had not yet made his reappearance at the House; presumably he was in some kind of trouble with his boss, even if Capone was disposed to indulge him. The other Outfit regulars trickled in and out in the meantime. They seemed pretty subdued, and Seunghyun knew the workers were puzzled as to how to talk with them. One evening it was Rocco. He ordered a drink then went and nursed it at the other end of the bar, watching the room without needling Seunghyun about his bootlegging for once. Jiyong spotted the Italian as soon as he came down; he pursed his lips and approached him with uncharacteristic hesitance. Seunghyun knew he was after news of Scaramuzzo. Jiyong said something to Rocco, his body language earnest. As far as Seunghyun could tell the mobster had always rather liked Jiyong – or at the very least thought he was great in the sack. He had often asked for the boy after Scaramuzzo introduced them. This time Rocco stared at Jiyong for a minute before curling his lip, getting off his stool and removing himself to a far corner of the room. It would be the reaction of all Scaramuzzo’s friends from then on – the man was popular with the Outfit, a skilled gunsmith with a laid-back personality, and his association with Jiyong had almost gotten him killed. No wonder they were resentful.

Seunghyun might be on the outs with Jiyong right now, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t angered by the sight of his humiliation. Jiyong flushed dully as the other man walked away. Then his chin went up and he took himself off to join a group of regulars without even asking Seunghyun for a drink. The older man watched him go, feeling pity but not daring to show it. Still, when Bethany entered the Salon in one of her cheerful Spanish dresses Seunghyun figured he could do something to help. Most of the Outfit fancied her; she could surely find out what Jiyong wanted to know.

“Sure thing,” she said when he asked, and gave him an amiable smile with a side of flirtation. Seunghyun blushed, just as she’d intended: he hadn’t forgotten what he had done with her and Lin. She swished off and perched on the arm of Rocco’s chair. Five minutes later she returned with a drink order. “He says Louis is doing okay,” she told Seunghyun. “He’s not out of bed yet, he came down with light pneumonia to go with the gunshot wound. But he oughta be up soon.” Seunghyun thanked her profusely and made her an extra strong cocktail. Bethany winked at him.

The next time Jiyong was forced to come over – to get a refill for his client – Seunghyun relayed this information, making no mention of how Rocco had treated him. Jiyong looked at him narrowly; perhaps there was a hint of gratitude, even fondness in those black eyes, or perhaps Seunghyun was imagining it.

“…Thanks,” was all Jiyong said. He walked away again, and Seunghyun had to be satisfied with a vague sensation of philanthropy – because he certainly wasn’t getting any more.

 


 

As the early days of this new arrangement passed Seunghyun began to give up expecting any kind of emotional or social fulfilment from the House. He spent more time in the lab, ignoring the whispers of the students around him, and with Daesung whenever the younger man could drag him away from his experiments. It felt odd, as if he was reverting to a prior incarnation, to the closed-in Seunghyun he had been before he ever met Jiyong. It gave him no pleasure, but at least Daesung kept his mind somewhat occupied.

The Politics student was reading the crime news out loud while Seunghyun picked at a slice of toast. Far across the refectory Youngbae was at work. Daesung wanted them all to go out that night and see a hot new combo at a speakeasy disguised as a funeral parlor; as usual his wishes were shot down thanks to Youngbae’s morals and Seunghyun’s disinclination to forgive him for them. The older man had to give Daesung credit: he had the patience of a saint to put up with them both. Now Daesung had quit trying to persuade his mulish friends to play with him and was describing a recent bank robbery in the most dramatic way possible.

“Apparently it was a soup-job and they must’ve had an experienced Peterman,” said Daesung somewhat uncertainly, once the article got into the specifics of the crime.

“…I think you’re getting your English mixed up again,” suggested Seunghyun, after he’d turned that sentence a few ways and failed to have it make sense.

“No, that’s what it says right here!” Daesung shook the paper at him. Seunghyun found the sentence, read it twice, and shrugged.

“That’s what you get for buying the Chicago American. All slang and sensationalism!”

“That’s why I like it,” Daesung told him happily, reverting to Korean. “Do you wanna hear about the rest of this robbery or not?”

“Yeah, sure. Sorry.”

“Well, then.” The younger man wrinkled his nose and began to read again. Seunghyun listened with half an ear; he couldn’t focus. It wasn’t that Jiyong’s conversation was objectively more interesting or that he was anywhere near as intelligent as Daesung. But it was what Seunghyun wanted to hear every single day. He sighed and abandoned his toast; he wasn’t doing very well at getting used to this.

 

For the first time in several days Seunghyun went to work early; he was itching for some kind of interaction with his beloved. He took a casual stroll through the House, and accidentally-on-purpose walked in on Jiyong and Bethany lounging in the sunroom where the meager warmth was concentrated. They were eating pastries in between smoking and making desultory conversation, though Jiyong clammed up as soon as Seunghyun took a seat.

“How you doing, handsome?” said Bethany with a yawn before closing her eyes and inhaling. The cigarettes smelled pungent and sweet, more than likely weed – the increase in jazz musicians around the House had made it a common scent these days. Seunghyun replied with something inconsequential, peeping at Jiyong all the while. There was a pause while the heavy blue smoke curled upwards.

“Jiyong, what’s a soup-job?” asked Seunghyun eventually; surely it couldn’t hurt for them to talk with a chaperone present, as it were. The boy ignored him and continued nibbling at his egg tart while trying to avoid getting ash and crumbs on the sofa. Seunghyun knew Jiyong wasn’t likely to reply. But he had missed their conversations so acutely today that he figured he might as well keep up his side; and anyway, McGurn would hardly be dropping in to surprise them at this hour. “Daesung read it in the paper,” he explained. Jiyong raised a languid eyebrow.

“It’s when they use nitroglycerine to blow open a safe,” Bethany informed him from her prone position on the chaise longue.

“How’d you know that?” asked Seunghyun, caught by the familiar chemical name. The young woman stretched lazily, in a good mood ever since Thompson had come down on her side regarding her problem client. Her compact, curvy body was really very nice, as vital as any healthy young animal’s; Seunghyun was glad he had almost no memory of their drunken encounter. He compared it with Jiyong’s increasingly willowy frame, and not for the first time worried about him. Bethany reached out for another tart.

“The Outfit boys like me, you know that. And they like to show off, especially when they tell me how they got my presents.” She rolled her eyes before shutting them again. Jiyong snorted, possibly in recognition.

“So what’s a Peterman?”

“That’s a safecracker. A good one.”

“Huh.”

You’d be pretty good, I bet,” said Jiyong, and for an instant his voice was fond as before, almost dopey from the narcotic; but by the time Seunghyun turned to give him an eager reply he’d clammed up again, pretty lips thinned as if angry at himself. The older man smiled at him hopefully; it was strange, how much a single sentence could thrill him when it came from that mouth. Jiyong scowled, got to his feet, and took himself and his treats away.

 

Perhaps Jiyong had been right to be cautious, because that very night McGurn showed up. He strolled in with a couple of his companions as if there was nothing at all remarkable in his entrance. At first it was only the workers who fell silent; then, as their clients put two and two together, a ripple went around the room and suddenly everyone found something very interesting to look at in the opposite direction. The conversation rose again, just a little more hushed than before. Seunghyun stared up at the row of wine glasses hanging above the bar, but not before he spotted Jiyong step smoothly away from the group he was talking to and go to sit by himself.

“Everything good, Tabby Cat?” he heard Lily murmur; when he looked down she was leaning on the bar. He nodded. Even as he did so he felt the sweat beading at his temples: disgust, jealousy, fury, and at the center of all that a core of profound unease. Lily reached across the bar to grab an olive, setting her hand on his wrist as she did so. He took a steadying breath and then a sweep of the Salon. Jiyong was reclining gracefully in his chair, looking at nothing in particular; his tattooed fingers were gripping its arm tight enough to whiten the knuckles. However, if he was waiting for his obsessive client to approach it seemed he needn’t have worried: McGurn didn’t speak to him. He stayed with his Outfit buddies as they approached the bar and did not even appear to see him. One of the others ordered Gin Fizzes, and the younger mobster chatted with them quietly. It was business as usual, then. Seunghyun found that most perturbing. On the other hand, he was grateful McGurn hadn’t addressed him; he didn’t think he could handle that.

“Where’s my Queenie at?” asked one of the Outfit, calling over Seungri. The kid in turn gestured to Mrs. Moore, who was working extra hard to keep the flow of conversation normal. She nodded at him. Seunghyun noted that the Salon was rather more sparse than it had been ten minutes ago; a few customers had left, and the rest had slowly gravitated away from Jiyong. Very wise, he thought.

“You plannin’ to have a bit of fun tonight?” one of McGurn’s companions – friends? Guardians? – inquired. “Beth’s got enough curves to go around, eh!”

“Maybe,” said McGurn laconically. His gaze at last lingered on Jiyong before it swept on as if in disdain towards Bethany. “She’s the best on offer all right.” The others nodded enthusiastically, and Seunghyun knew then that no-one in the House – not workers, not customers, not the Outfit – would ever say a word to McGurn about where they all knew his passions lay. Perhaps the creep would be cautious enough to stay away from Jiyong for a while, thought Seunghyun hopefully.

An hour passed, the tension ebbing and flowing in the room. The Outfit had dispersed, one of them heading upstairs with Queenie and the other two dancing with a couple of women over by the gramophone. The longer McGurn stayed the more regular customers slipped away, and Seunghyun saw that the loom of his presence might truly be bad for business. And worse for Jiyong. The boy looked like an island at the center of an uncrossable expanse; no-one wanted to get near him. Only Seunghyun longed to approach, and God knew what Jiyong would do if he did. So he stayed put behind the bar and watched him, feeling like a coward.

And then McGurn was there, ordering another drink. Seunghyun began to prepare it, completely on automatic; he thought that if he allowed his brain to engage he would say something unpardonable, perhaps putting both himself and Jiyong in danger. But as it turned out he did not need to say anything: McGurn took his cocktail from the silent barman, then simply stood there until Seunghyun was forced to meet his eyes.

“Quit lookin’ at him.” McGurn spoke in an even lower voice than usual, but Seunghyun caught every word – it was a command pointed directly at him. And abruptly all his fears about saying something stupid or exploding at the mobster vanished in the petrified speechlessness of having the man address him; of knowing McGurn was aware of him. He couldn’t even nod – could barely blink until McGurn turned away and left the bar. Then Seunghyun heaved an unsteady sigh, grateful to his own cowardice for keeping his mouth shut. But he dared not look at Jiyong again.

Seunghyun had recovered and was making tense chit-chat with a couple of older customers, who were obviously dying to ask about McGurn but were too circumspect to do so, when he noticed the man in question had gone missing. He squinted around quickly: no McGurn, but there was his friend still snuggling with Bethany. Seunghyun’s heart sank into his shoes. Sure enough, in another minute Mrs. Moore sailed back into the room and jerked her head at Jiyong. Her expression was less draconian than Seunghyun was used to, but that wasn’t much consolation. Jiyong got smoothly to his feet, with perhaps the merest flicker of a glance at Seungri and Seunghyun; both men were staring in his direction with bated breath. He put his little head up, squared his shoulders, and followed the Madam from the room like he was on his way to be sacrificed.

When Seunghyun looked down he saw he was clutching a glass so hard he had cracked it. His urge to run after Jiyong was thankfully hobbled by his much smarter fear response, but the struggle between the two was shaking him.

“Whoa, calm down there, Hoss.” With a bum-groping boost from a property tycoon Lily hopped up on the bar and leaned her arm casually on Seunghyun’s shoulder. “Dry Martini, please,” she said meaningfully, and poked him with her elbow until the discomfort jogged him back into motion. He set the broken glass down and began to mix the drink like an automaton. “Best not to look quite so loopy,” she told him under her breath. “It’ll be okay. Jiyong’s not Number One for nothing, he’s a smart kid. And he can wrap tricks round his little finger; the crazies as well. You’ll see.”

“It shouldn’t be allowed,” muttered Seunghyun, splashing vermouth into the shaker. He gave Seungri a filthy look for good measure. “He should…I mean I can’t…”

“Sure you can, you big ham,” Lily said drily. She gave him a light slap on the head and he felt a mite better; it made him think of home. “C’mon with my drink.” Under her cool gaze he gathered himself and got on with his work – just as, above their heads, Jiyong was getting on with his.

 


 

Jiyong emerged from his session with McGurn unscathed, at least physically. The same could not be said for the House reputation. Over the next couple of weeks the traffic through the bordello lessened imperceptibly; by the time it became noticeable it seemed nothing could plug the leak. To Seunghyun’s way of thinking it was a damn logical self-protective measure – only fools like him would hang around with a heavy Mob presence and a loose cannon like McGurn liable to go off any moment. Even when McGurn wasn’t visiting the atmosphere of the House was subdued and twitchy and really not much fun at all. Suddenly all the workers had free time; everyone was losing clients, and no-one more than Jiyong. Sure, some of his regulars stuck around: Elgin still came to argue and make up, the young Palmer couple took him out for dinner and dancing. The Bentleys and Rolls Royces that arrived to collect him almost every afternoon were not deterred. But the rest of his potential clientele was more easily spooked. Seunghyun didn’t exactly blame them; no, he knew goddamn well whose fault all this was. And yet when Insull came around to keep an eye on the place he didn’t seem inclined to take responsibility upon himself. Rather, he blamed Jiyong.

Their boss was often onsite these days, in his office next to Thompson’s or quietly observing the slowing of his business in the Salon. While his unreadable eyes were on his pet more than ever, his attitude made his opinion clear: he no longer spoke casually with Jiyong, and only rarely took him to bed. The boy’s anxious look sparked no reaction. At first Jiyong seemed confused, then embarrassed in a way he couldn’t hide; he was so pale lately that every flush was obvious. Whenever Seunghyun ran into him he would try to console him, but Jiyong didn’t respond at all – until Insull made a show of his anger that no-one could ignore.

It was late afternoon and the air held the gray steel tang of the impending first snow. Seunghyun jogged up to the House after grabbing a bracing cup of coffee at the Bluebird, and as he turned the corner a huge silver automobile pulled up. He wasn’t surprised when it disgorged Jiyong, wrapped in white fur and breath steaming in the cold. The younger man didn’t greet him, merely ignored him as Seunghyun trailed him up the stone steps. Seunghyun wasn’t meant to use the main door, but now he had a real function in the House Thompson had quit scolding him about it.

“You hanging in there?” he asked, shutting the heavy door behind them. McGurn had paid Jiyong a visit last night and had spent so long with him that he’d had to cancel two other tricks. Seungri had gone to check on him when he didn’t come back downstairs but Jiyong had told him to get lost. Seunghyun gave him a visual once-over as he shed his outer layers in the foyer, and other than tiredness he looked okay. Their current dynamic made the older man feel like a mother hen and Jiyong a petulant adolescent, but he had to ask.

Jiyong stripped off another layer of insulation. Beneath the fur he was wearing a wide crystal collar around his slim throat. Peeking from beneath it Seunghyun could see a vivid purplish mark in the shape of a thumb or a large fingertip. The smaller man caught him looking.

“It wasn’t him,” he said under his breath. It sounded like a warning. He met Seunghyun’s eyes and his own narrowed. “Knock it off,” he commanded, slapping Seunghyun’s hand away as it rose unconsciously to pull the collar down. For a moment his fingers lingered on Seunghyun’s before he yanked his arm back. Seunghyun wanted to kiss him. Probably intuiting this Jiyong retreated, then looked up sharply as a dull thump echoed down from one of the upper floors. He headed for the stairs and Seunghyun followed like a dog, hating that someone had hurt him and unable to do anything about it.

“Weird time for spring cleaning,” he thought aloud as they climbed, trying to thaw out the atmosphere. On the second-floor landing a few women were standing around in bathrobes chattering. They all gave Jiyong a more blatant version of the side-eye he’d been receiving for weeks. Jiyong inhaled hard through his nose and eyed them back. “What’s going on?” Seunghyun asked the girls. There was the tap of footsteps and the sound of something heavy being dragged along the hall above their heads.

“Y’all better go see,” said Queenie. Jiyong turned and stalked on upwards, and after a dubious glance at the other workers Seunghyun went after him.

At the top of the stairs Jiyong came to a halt. Over his shoulder Seunghyun saw a chaotic scene along the usually bare corridor: it was scattered with small items of furniture and crates of clothing, and the brawny House enforcers were carrying more to and fro. The door to the allegedly haunted storerooms was open, as were Lily and Jiyong’s. Seunghyun stared with his mouth open. Jiyong appeared completely befuddled, and didn’t even notice when the older man set a hand on his shoulder. As they stood there like fools Seungri emerged from Jiyong’s rooms carrying a Tiffany lamp in one hand and a Lalique vase in the other. He immediately assumed a hangdog expression, like a kid caught pinching candy.

“…What’s going on?” asked Jiyong quietly. Seungri cleared his throat.

“Um. You guys’re switching apartments.” Just then Lily came out of her own rooms, but she slipped right past them with a shrug. She met Seunghyun’s eyes and shot him a smile that was mildly chagrined but mostly pleased. Jiyong had turned white.

“The boss’s orders?” he inquired, sounding faint. Seungri nodded.

“I’m real sorry, Yongie,” he began. Before he could continue Jiyong slapped him. He stared at his own hand for a second as if astonished at it. Then he darted past Seungri into his apartment, bouncing off one of the enforcers with an armful of heavy cosmetics bottles. Seunghyun and Seungri glared at each other: one furious and one justifiably guilty. “It’s not my fault!” announced Seungri, ignoring the red palm print across his face. “Uncle Sam said to-”

“Oh, stuff it!” Seunghyun told him crossly. This upheaval was the last thing Jiyong needed. Seungri was about to retort when Jiyong returned; he was clutching a finely lacquered box to his chest, his face grim above it. He must know as well as Seunghyun what this was all about: a petty punishment for what was entirely Insull and McGurn’s faults. No wonder he was incensed!

“It’s a pretty apartment.” Seungri hefted the lamp. “We’ll help you fix it up nice, you’ll see.” He attempted a consoling expression.

“No thanks!” To Seunghyun’s dismay the tears rose rapidly in Jiyong’s eyes. Before they could spill over the boy rushed into the storerooms, still clinging to the box, and slammed the door.

“…Shit,” said Seunghyun. “Good job.” Seungri winced.

“Are you gonna help me with this?” he asked. The older man gave him a withering look, then spun on his heel and retreated to his basement and the soothing occupation of breaking the law. He didn’t see how Jiyong would forgive any of them now.

 

Chapter Text

Seunghyun was right: Jiyong did not forgive them. After his things had been moved into Lily’s smaller apartment, the overflow boxed up in the third-floor storerooms, he came down to the Salon dressed and made-up. When he got there he ignored absolutely everyone except his customers. As Seunghyun finally caught his eye the boy looked right through him.

Lily, on the other hand, was in an irrepressibly fine mood. Seunghyun figured she’d now be in for a share of the resentful glances and backstabbing Jiyong had always attracted as Number One – he’d already spotted some whispering as she sashayed over to the bar in a spectacular green beaded dress – but she seemed too satisfied to register it.

“You don’t feel just a little bit bad?” demanded Seunghyun, mixing her a Manhattan. He plonked it down in front of her, folding his arms to distance himself in case Jiyong glanced over. He didn’t want him to get the wrong idea as to whose side he was on.

“Don’t be so grumpy, you old pussy-cat.” She took her drink. “Don’t you know how it works by now? Me and Jiyong, we look out for each other same as the other girls, because that’s how we stay safe. Jeez, we’ve even fucked when tricks paid for it. But we’re not friends.” She took a calm sip of her cocktail. “He’s been top dog the past three years, and now it’s my turn.”

“I’m worried about him. Now more than ever.”

“I know that, stupid: you’re the only one who’s not secretly pleased to have him taken down a peg – look around at those smirks. But Jiyong doesn’t care what I do, if I’m gloating or not. He doesn’t care what any of us do, so none of us are gonna help him. The only person he’s hurting over is the boss.”

“Insull? He’s not worth Jiyong’s worry.” Seunghyun sniffed; the man’s punishment of Jiyong was so thoroughly petty he would have found it laughable if not for the boy’s reaction. Insull was so rich that Capone could snatch the entire brothel from his hands and it would make no difference to his income – the tight-fisted old sod.

“You’ll see.” Lily shrugged and stood up. “As much as any real danger from McGurn, it’s losing his sugar daddy that’s gonna wring him out.” She walked off to join her client. Seunghyun wiped down the bar and watched Jiyong, cold and lovely as an iceberg. He didn’t look like he gave a damn about any man on Earth. Himself excepted, Seunghyun hoped it would stay that way.

 


 

Jiyong didn’t exactly thaw as time went on. But the more Seunghyun watched and fretted over him the more his sharp frozen corners seemed to chip away, out of loneliness or fear or what-have-you. Seungri was the first one Jiyong forgave, simply because the nature of their roles made completely ignoring him impractical. Seunghyun was jealous until he figured out the main reason Jiyong deigned to talk to the kid was to vent at him.

“…Less work all round just to give me a whipping,” Seunghyun heard Jiyong comment bitterly to Seungri, presumably about being forced to take Lily’s rooms. “Easier for me, too.”

“Uncle Sam doesn’t want to do that,” retorted Seungri. “I know he’s being shitty right now, but-”

“Oh, shut up. I don’t wanna hear about him.” Jiyong left him hanging and went to drum up some business. Seungri sighed.

The only other times Seunghyun saw Jiyong’s lacquer crack was when Insull did come around. It always made him think of what Lily had said – that this was all Jiyong was concerned with now. Insull didn’t spend a lot of time in the Salon, maybe because there were fewer fat cat clients for him to hob-nob with. He didn’t even bother looking at Jiyong now; the only time he would was when McGurn came in, and then it was with resentment. At first the boy’s gaze would follow his keeper wherever he went, not angry so much as visibly hurt. When Insull failed to return his glance he seemed to shrink into himself. Seunghyun spent a great deal of time trying to wrap his head around this, because Insull had never done anything but cause Jiyong harm.

The snow had begun falling solidly by the time something changed. Jiyong was sitting with one elbow propping up the bar, not three feet from Seunghyun but without speaking to him. He still wasn’t speaking to anyone, other than Seungri and the tricks he had to hustle extra hard for these days, but if you didn’t know him well you would think it was perfectly habitual; it didn’t seem to bother him in the least. Only his gradual weight loss and increasing alcohol intake provided any real proof of the misery Seunghyun was certain he was enduring. Jiyong serviced his clients – McGurn included – like a perfect professional, endured Lin’s teasing about his diminished status quite blandly. It frightened Seunghyun; while he sometimes hoped the boy’s depression was at least partly down to missing what they had shared together, he knew that was wishful thinking. No, this change was something more serious; and, like the Chicago winter, it had firmly settled in.

“You want a drink?” he asked, trying not to sound too solicitous.

“No.”

“Something to eat?” He could see the fine bones in Jiyong’s wrists and neck more clearly than ever.

“My trick will be here in a minute,” said Jiyong, and looked aside. As he did so Seunghyun noticed his nostrils flare and a spark ignite in his tired eye. Jiyong straightened his back and gazed fixedly at the bottles lining the bar. Seunghyun glanced round, and as he expected saw Insull on the other side of the Salon. Every time he visited recently this was how Jiyong would behave: a pained look, then cool as if he didn’t care one jot that his owner had stuck him in the metaphorical doghouse. It was an improvement on the betrayal and hurt he had shown before. And yet Seunghyun knew there was still a sliver of Jiyong’s attention reserved just for Insull.

“Don’t let him get to you,” he suggested quietly, for probably the tenth time. Jiyong gave a one-shouldered shrug, brushing off the comment as he would a fly. The bigger man got on with making drinks; it was quiet again this evening, just a few semi-regulars and the invariable early birds from the Outfit, who hadn’t had time to get excitable yet. It didn’t take Insull long to make the rounds of the old clients, even at his pace. But instead of walking out to go over the books with Thompson – Seunghyun knew he hated the soft jazz coming from the Salon gramophone – the older man made his unhurried way over to the bar. Seunghyun didn’t need to see Jiyong stiffen: the tension emanating from his vicinity was tangible. From the corner of his eye he caught Jiyong’s chin rise in that haughty, beautiful façade of disinterest.

“Jiyong,” said Insull quietly. The smaller man didn’t move, just let out a small, ambiguous breath. “I canceled your customers.”

“…What?” Jiyong did turn at that, in confusion or the shock of finally being addressed directly. Insull was looking down at him with his usual unreadable expression; though to Seunghyun’s disquiet there seemed to be an extra something in his light English eyes that Jiyong’s gaze was responding to.

“Come to the theatre,” said Insull. “It’s opening night, you’ll enjoy it.” It was hard to tell if that was an invitation or an order. Either way, the mingled doubt and hope on Jiyong’s pale face created a sour taste in Seunghyun’s mouth. He felt his lips thin disapprovingly as Jiyong stretched out a hesitant hand and took the sleeve of Insull’s jacket. The gray-haired man looked down at it, then after a pause slid his arm across Jiyong’s back to help him off the stool. He didn’t let go. Jiyong peered up at him, his aloofness melting away as if this man had never done anything to him at all. There was an answering twitch from Insull’s moustache and Jiyong smiled the smallest, sunniest smile. Without another word – certainly without an apology for the weeks of neglect – Insull ushered him out. Seunghyun watched them go, suspicious and befuddled and hating it. As he tracked them to the Salon door his eyes fell on Seungri, who was hovering just inside; and Seunghyun was yet more perplexed to discover that the kid looked as troubled as him.

What was going on tonight? Seunghyun wondered, a frown contorting his brow. Why should Insull forgive Jiyong now? He was hardly on terms with Seungri lately to ask him what it was all about; still, that face worried him, and he thought maybe he should. Before he could call out, though, Seungri shook his head like a dog shaking itself awake, and disappeared. Seunghyun bit his lip, went back to work, and waited for Jiyong to come home.

 

He wished he hadn’t been so watchful. If he hadn’t his eyes might not have slid to the front hall as he trod the corridor, his arms full of bottles for the Salon. If he hadn’t looked he wouldn’t have seen them come in, Jiyong shivering as usual with the cold and Insull absently rubbing his chilly shoulders before shucking his own gloves. But there they were, and Seunghyun couldn’t miss it when Jiyong stretched up to kiss the older man, taking his sleeve to lead him up the main staircase. Insull followed him without comment.

Seunghyun was stacking glasses with rather more force than necessary when he got a drink order from Jiyong’s new suite. He glanced around for Seungri, but typically the bugger was absent – as he generally was when he might be of any actual use. Seunghyun grunted to himself, went down and fetched the champagne and the ice bucket after checking the bar was in order. He trudged up the back stairs and rapped on Lily’s old door; it felt strange to have Jiyong open it, but there he was, his collar unfastened and a faint flush in his pale cheeks.

“Shut up,” said Jiyong fiercely, as soon as Seunghyun opened his mouth. “I’m not happy!” The light in his eyes told another story. Seunghyun found himself hating that look, that glow. Still, he didn’t have to see it for long: Jiyong took the tray and promptly shut the door in his face.

He ran into Seungri at the bottom of the stairs. Seunghyun was about to semi-rudely brush past when Seungri stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. The bigger man was surprised: Seungri was a puppy but he wasn’t dumb, and he wouldn’t usually touch Seunghyun unless he was really drunk – something Seunghyun hadn’t seen since the early days when they’d started bootlegging together.

“Is Yongie back?” inquired Seungri urgently.

“Yeah. He’s with the boss.” Seunghyun made a vague attempt to hide his disapproval at the fact, given who Seungri was.

“Damn.” The kid hesitated, gave his bartender a considering but not quite calm look, and tugged him into the shadows beneath the stairs. Seunghyun let him – he was feeling too apathetic not to, for the moment – and found himself in a broom closet.

“…I’ve got things to do, you know,” he said. It was hard to relish Seungri’s company.

“Uncle Sam told me something.” Seunghyun could just make out his features in the dark of the cupboard: for almost the first time in their acquaintance they showed some real unease. “And Jiyong needs to know.”

“Know what?” The younger man sidled closer.

“McGurn wants to buy him.”

“What?” It didn’t register, not right then – the idea of Seungri confiding secrets about his uncle to Seunghyun of all people seemed too hinky.

“McGurn came to see him yesterday,” Seungri continued quickly. “Barged right into the boardroom at the power company. And he said…it’s not enough anymore, seeing Jiyong’s not enough and he can’t bear anyone else having him. He wants to own him, lock stock and barrel! Wanted to know how much my uncle would charge to let him take Yongie away.”

“…How much?” said Seunghyun, his horror blooming more at the flat seriousness in Seungri’s voice than the words themselves. He’d never heard that tone before.

“I don’t know,” said Seungri quietly. “But he’s gotta be rolling in dough. And he’s got it bad for Yongie. Look what happened to Scaramuzzo!”

“Yes.” Seunghyun felt the strangest sensation then, the tips of his fingers and toes turning cold. It took him a minute to identify it as fear, a kind he had never experienced before and that was unconnected with his own personal safety but Jiyong’s. The idea of it… “Wait, but Insull can’t do that! Jiyong’s not a goddamn slave, it’s completely illegal. If we went to-”

“The cops?” Seungri muttered. He let out an incredulous laugh. “You know exactly where they stand by now, surely. And even if they weren’t half in the Mob’s pocket and half in Coughlin’s, you think they’d give a damn about some Korean hooker? If something’s gonna be done, they won’t be the ones to do it.”

“Jesus Christ. So he can’t go to the police, he can’t go home…” Seunghyun experienced a deep and sudden hatred that encompassed the entire city.

“That’s why I need to tell him!” announced Seungri, who plainly couldn’t keep a secret if his life depended on it. “I mean…what can he do? But he has to do something. We have to.”

“We?”

“You love him, don’t you?” Seunghyun eyed him in the dimness; if he admitted that, who knew how long it would be before Seungri blabbed to someone important? “Oh,” said the kid crossly, “I know you do, look at your face! Well I do too, Yongie’s like my big brother.” He must have a strange idea of what siblings did together, thought Seunghyun distractedly. “We oughta be like family, the three of us, with all we have in common. We ought to help each other. But you’re so…!” he shrugged.

“Of course I want to help him. He’s my friend!” That much he could admit; everyone knew it anyway. Seunghyun shook out his hands, curious. The digits were still numb; he felt that he’d do something crazy with them if they weren’t, like knock Insull senseless before he could agree to any such atrocity. So it was probably just as well.

“All right,” said Seungri. “Then as soon as Uncle Sam leaves we go tell Yongie, and we make a plan. Okay?”

“…Okay.” Seunghyun privately resolved that, should it be required, he would make his own plans to help Jiyong. Seungri nodded and gave him a comradely smack on the shoulder, then left him. Seunghyun sank into a crouch on the floor amid the mops and brushes, and let the fear take him. He shuddered it out, one cold sweat drop at a time, at the thought of losing Jiyong. When he was done he returned to work.

 

Early in the morning Seungri appeared in the distillery, where Seunghyun had been unsuccessfully attempting to sleep. He couldn’t: he could only picture…not McGurn himself, but the aftermath of his actions: Jiyong’s thin, quiet desperation, and Scaramuzzo’s body bleeding into the Salon carpet. The association of the two images was inescapable, and scared him as badly as if it were a premonition. If that man was permitted to keep Jiyong, to lock him away somewhere alone…Seunghyun couldn’t avoid imagining what might happen.

“Uncle Sam went home,” Seungri told him. “C’mon.”

They ghosted up the back stairs, silent in case Mrs. Moore was still awake. Seunghyun knocked on Jiyong’s new door. He exchanged a glance with Seungri; which of them ought to tell him? Seunghyun didn’t wish to be the cause of the distress he knew this news would prompt in Jiyong. But it was his job. He was Jiyong’s friend; or, at least, the only one that could be trusted. Seungri knocked again more loudly.

Jiyong opened up at last and stared at the two of them.

“We need-” began Seungri. But Seunghyun, gazing at Jiyong’s face, didn’t have to say a word.

“I already know,” said Jiyong. His features were held carefully immobile. Seungri shut his mouth, taken aback. “Mr. Insull told me.” He looked at them both with a detached curiosity, as if to see how they would react. Seungri shut his mouth and strode into the apartment without waiting for an invitation, Seunghyun on his heels. It didn’t matter now that Jiyong was avoiding them, this had to be dealt with. Jiyong didn’t comment, just closed the door and followed them through to the small green sitting room.

“What’re we going to do?” demanded Seunghyun as the boy parked himself in an armchair, isolating himself from his two would-be saviors. The room smelled of Insull’s cigarettes.

“Do?” said Jiyong.

“You and McGurn,” Seunghyun went on, taking a seat at the other end of the sofa from Seungri. “You know. We all know how it could end up if…”

“Yeah.” Jiyong observed their anxiety, his jaw set. “But it won’t.” Seunghyun saw him swallow. “There’s…no need to worry about me. You oughta be worried for yourselves, both up here without permission!” Seunghyun and Seungri glanced at each other; how many times, thought Seunghyun, had they both shared the forbidden pleasures of Jiyong’s bed, and at his own invitation? But Jiyong had his stubborn face on.

“We gotta at least think about it,” said Seungri earnestly. “If Uncle Sam-” For an instant Jiyong’s face crumpled.

“He said he wouldn’t,” Jiyong told them, his expression regaining its composure while his voice trembled. “He promised me! And he’s never lied to me.” Seunghyun opened his mouth indignantly, then shut it again, mindful of Seungri’s presence. “Whatever either of you think,” said Jiyong, suddenly fierce, “he never has. And anyway, it would make no sense.”

“How?” probed Seungri. “I daresay Uncle Sam finds the creep as unnerving as you do, and it’s not his way to invite trouble. Wouldn’t he at least think about agreeing?”

“Has he said so to you?” Jiyong’s dark eyes opened wide.

“I mean…no. But apart from anything else, McGurn’s got dough.”

“The profit Mr. Insull makes on me,” said the smaller man, his chin raised proudly, “is extraordinary. Say he is only motivated by hard cash – that he doesn’t think of me at all beyond my bank-roll.” Seunghyun sniffed and got a glare in return. “On a good week I can make him seven, eight thousand dollars. What could McGurn offer to trump that?”

“Fair point,” Seungri agreed. Seunghyun kept quiet, floored and disgusted as usual by the sheer scale of Jiyong’s monetary worth. But where McGurn’s obsession with Jiyong was concerned, he worried that money might mean nothing at all.

“Besides,” announced Jiyong with finality, “he promised.”

Seungri nodded slowly; if he was still doubtful he was keeping it to himself. Seunghyun gazed at Jiyong, at first amazed by his faith – it didn’t jibe with his usual cynical self at all – and then, as he thought harder, cast down by it. Because he did understand. Seunghyun had only lately grasped the complicated nature of Jiyong’s feelings for Insull. It made a sort of sense when you considered all the roles the older man had played during the boy’s formative years: father, lover, jailer, employer, teacher, pimp… He found it incredibly distasteful, but he couldn’t blame Jiyong for that. Insull had screwed with Jiyong’s head from adolescence to adulthood; no wonder he couldn’t see him clearly. But it was no longer just a matter of misplaced trust and undeniable daddy issues – now that trust might get Jiyong killed.

 


 

For forty-eight hours Insull was at the House near-constantly; and every moment he was permitted, Jiyong was beside him. Seunghyun came in after a long day at the lab and bumbled along the main hallway towards the empty Salon, only to find their boss going over paperwork in the sunroom next door. There was a fire in the grate and coffee on a side table. Jiyong was on the sofa beside the old man, his feet pulled up to lounge cross-legged with an embroidered cushion in his lap. They weren’t talking but the boy was gazing at him like a housecat, apparently quite contented. Once in a while Insull would take a sip of coffee or turn a page; then his hand might stray to touch Jiyong’s knee or wrist. It was absent, but the smaller man looked reassured each time.

Seunghyun gave up on his snooping since it only served to bother him, and sloped off to the kitchens. Still, he couldn’t stop himself from challenging Jiyong later that evening, now that he’d regained the privilege of his conversation.

“You really think it’ll make a difference?” he asked in a low voice. “Hanging on him like that… You think anything you can do would have an effect on that old icicle?”

“Yes. He likes it.” The older man frowned.

“Do you?”

“Truly? Yeah.” Jiyong looked aside. “You think I haven’t been lonely, Tabi, keeping all of you at a distance? It’s nice to be near someone.”

“I’m just worried about you. Putting all your trust in-”

“If you don’t like it,” interrupted Jiyong coldly, “you can always get lost.”

“I’m gonna,” Seunghyun told him abruptly. Jiyong’s eyes widened, the bones in his thin face sharpening further with surprise. Of course, he had gotten used to the idea that his lovestruck friend would always be around.

“What?” he said, before settling his features. “Where?”

“Going to a conference with the Prof.” Seunghyun tried to sound equally offhand as he passed him his Martini. He’d meant to tell him earlier, but compared to Jiyong’s news his own small excitements had faded into irrelevance. “To present our first research results. It’s in New Jersey so I’ll be away most of next week.”

“…Oh.”

“If you don’t want me to,” the older man ventured, watching him carefully, “just say so.”

“Don’t be stupid,” retorted Jiyong.

“That’s what I thought.” Seunghyun gave an inward sigh, but he hadn’t honestly expected a different reaction. Jiyong had made it clear that no-one but Insull could help him. Perhaps it would be good to have some time away – to remind himself that he could still be useful to someone.

 


 

In the end Seunghyun’s trip to Princeton was quite an eye-opener. There were no dramatic incidents to write home about, but it did help him clarify two things: how dearly he loved the academic world, and at the same time what his place in it was likely to be if things carried on as they were.

They went by train, Seunghyun seeing to all the practical details while Wyeman worked up his lecture notes. He swore he’d seen Scaramuzzo on the platform next to theirs but hurried on board before he could make sure of it, and soon enough the landscape of the changing states took his mind away from Chicago and the Mob. It was the first time Seunghyun had seen an Ivy League university; the sprawling grounds and venerable buildings made him feel simultaneously small and privileged, a sensation that persisted once he saw the list of famous names that would be speaking. It was a three-day conference of research presentations, practical demonstrations and hobnobbing. Seunghyun had not seen such a mix of cultures since his disastrous trip with Jiyong to the Near West Side: scientists from all over the States, from Western Europe and Scandinavia, the new U.S.S.R., even researchers from Hong Kong and Japan – though the latter must have needed special permits to get past the immigration ban. He saw the expected infighting and scholarly backstabbing, as well as the joyous sharing of discoveries and ideas. And even in these lofty circles he found prejudice.

It wasn’t as if all the attendees were jerks – plenty of them were like Professor Wyeman, careless of everything but their research and the advancement of human potential. It made Seunghyun smile to see his habitually dry teacher grow warm as he joined the animated circles of discussion about theoretical concepts and cross-discipline applications. He was proud when Wyeman introduced him to important colleagues and had him explain his part in their research. But it was the reaction of some of those influential people that reminded Seunghyun over and over of how he could expect this field to treat him.

Sure, several of the important chemists listened to him with interest, asked him probing and encouraging questions about his work, and generally made his nerves flutter in a good way. Others appeared greatly surprised when he was introduced as a graduate researcher – he didn’t know what they’d figured he was, probably Wyeman’s porter or something. Seunghyun felt the sting of embarrassment at their expressions, but he told himself he could put some of that down to paranoia. And yet he couldn’t stop himself thinking…if it wasn’t for Wyeman at his back, would any of these men take him seriously? Would they read his papers, give him future employment? He tried to dismiss the niggling thoughts, but that became impossible when he noticed a small number of the American and European scientists viewing him not merely with surprise but with covert suspicion; as if he was here for some kind of industrial espionage rather than as a colleague. Seunghyun was well aware of how a large section of the U.S. government viewed the Japanese and other East Asians right now: no longer as backwards Oriental savages but as technological rivals and a potentially dangerous enemy. The Yellow Peril – that disgusting phrase – was a common concept in the streets of Chicago. However, it was only now that Seunghyun began to suspect it had currency even in the avenues of science. Looking around at how some of the other Asian participants were being treated – the guarded way of talking with them, the careful circles of space around them during the social events – he found his suspicions confirmed.

Seunghyun retreated from his professor’s discussion group with the excuse of fetching him another drink. Wyeman beamed at him, insofar as he was able to form such an expression; his presentation had gone well and Seunghyun had assisted him admirably, so at least he was in a good mood. Seunghyun wandered across the hall towards the open bar – soft drinks only, of course.

“I say, could you get me another one?” came a voice in a vaguely well-bred drawl as he traversed the crowded room. Something tapped him on the shoulder.

“Pardon?” ventured Seunghyun, turning in confusion to see a middle-aged man he had never laid eyes on before.

“Soda and lime, plenty of ice,” said the man, shoving an empty glass into his hands. He leaned closer to Seunghyun conspiratorially. “And if you have anything in the back to spice it up a bit, m’boy, well, that’d be grand.”

“…I don’t work here,” announced Seunghyun after a speechless pause.

“What’s that?”

“I’m a guest.” Seunghyun glowered at him. “A Chemistry major.”

“Oh!!” The other man did not appear angry or embarrassed at his mistake; he just gave Seunghyun an astonished look up and down. “Terribly sorry.” And he took his glass back and walked off.

Seunghyun stood gaping after him, and might have continued to do so had he not felt another prod in the shoulder. He swung round, ready to lay into the next person who mistook him for a waiter. Was that what he really looked like to other people? he wondered in despair: a guy who couldn’t recite the Periodic elements but could find you a glass of moonshine at the drop of a hat?

“Are you okay?” asked the young woman, taking a step back at his glare. She was dressed plainly but attractively in lavender-gray the color of Jiyong’s favorite kimono.

“Fine,” said Seunghyun, not very graciously.

“Did that chump think you were a server?” He raised his eyebrows in inquiry. “I thought so,” she continued, with a hint of a Canadian accent. She reached out for Seunghyun’s arm and drew him over to a table half hidden in the shadow of a pillar nearby. “You had the same look I’ve had on all evening – old coots calling me ‘dear’ and asking for more sponge pudding.” She rolled her eyes. “They all think I’m a tea lady – honestly, you’d think Marie Curie never won a Nobel Prize! In the end I gave up and now I’m hiding out here.”

“So…not a tea lady, then.”

“Electrical engineering,” she told him proudly. She grinned.

Seunghyun took a seat beside her, relieved to be out of the throng. He wasn’t at all surprised to find her in the same boat as him; he had seen maybe three or four women in attendance, and none at all giving lectures.

“Don’t look so gloomy,” she cajoled. “You won’t get far with these people if you’re not thick-skinned.”

“I’ve been thinking about that,” confessed Seunghyun. “About how far I can get on in academia. This week hasn’t exactly been an encouragement.” The woman – Seunghyun couldn’t find the energy to ask her name, and she didn’t offer – gave him a one-shouldered shrug.

“You have a good mentor?” He nodded. “Talk to him about it – no need to be proud. Maybe he can help give you a leg-up past the bigots. Then ignore all the stuff you can ignore and charm your way through everything else.” She grinned at him again. “I should say you’ve got charm to go around when you feel like it.”

“Hmph.”

“That’s what I plan to do, anyway. Most people aren’t going to treat you fairly, so why should you play fair?” She peered across at him. “…Or quit. If you don’t get enough joy from your research to make up for all the crap the academy has to offer, go do something else.” Continuing to stare searchingly at his expression, she asked: “I mean, what does give you joy?”

“…Mm.” Seunghyun suddenly found himself missing Jiyong with an acuteness that stopped his tongue.

“Not much of a conversationalist, are you?”

“Sorry,” said Seunghyun. “Long day. But I take your point.” She shrugged again and they sat in silence until he spotted the approaching figure of Professor Wyeman. Seunghyun jumped to his feet and hurried over to apologize.

“I thought you’d fallen in the seltzer water or something,” commented Wyeman, with an eye on his student’s erstwhile companion. Then he took a closer look at Seunghyun. “Something happen?” he inquired. Seunghyun opened his mouth to say ‘nothing’, but before he could the woman’s advice floated up and knocked on his brain.

“Actually…” he began. Wyeman looked encouraging. So Seunghyun told him.

“Ahh,” said the older man when he had finished. “There are still plenty of fools in the learned section of society. That’s a lesson you in particular will learn, Mr. Nevander, you and that young lady over there. And for that I’m truly sorry.” He patted Seunghyun on the shoulder, and without room for protest led him back to the party. Seunghyun was grateful. Still, he thought a lot about it that night after he went to bed – and every night after.

 


 

“How was Princeton?” inquired Seunghyun’s father as his son collapsed limply on the sofa. His mother came in and batted at him until he moved along, then sat down beside him. They both looked so proud of him.

“It was good,” he said, and his mother smiled, though perhaps the lack of animation in his voice raised his other parent’s blonde eyebrows. Seunghyun gave them their souvenirs: a Princeton fountain pen for his dad and salt water taffy for his mother. He told them about the campus, about the states they’d travelled through and how he’d managed onstage with the Professor. When he was done his mother gave him a hug and went off to package up some radish kimchi and snacks for his friends.

“Was it everything you imagined?” asked his father over the top of the newspaper. As ever he sounded casual, but Seunghyun could feel himself being inventoried.

“I suppose…yeah.” Seunghyun tipped his head back into the worn, comfortable sofa cushions. “At least, I oughtn’t to have imagined it would be any different.”

“Ah. I was afraid it might be like that.”

“There were these incredibly intelligent men there,” Seunghyun told him. “Guys from China, Japan… But you’d think no-one cared to hear what they had to say.” He didn’t mention the waiter incident, was too embarrassed to dwell on it even in his own head.

“I’m sorry, son.” His father folded up the paper and gave him a bracing smile.

“…It made me think,” said Seunghyun carefully, and got a quizzical look in return. “About whether I want to stay in the academic track.” He had never told his parents about losing his scholarship, of course, or how he was paying his fees and living expenses without it. But his father at least knew some of what he was dealing with when it came to Watkins and his ilk, not to mention the passive discrimination of the University’s policies.

“Mm.” The older man sounded neutral. “And what else?” Seunghyun paused.

“I thought I might take that job at Carbon and Carbide,” he said at last. “They told me they could always find me something if I wanted it.”

“Would that be any better?” asked his father mildly.

“It’d get me out of school politics. And it’s still a research position – that’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do. Or even…”

“Yes?” Those green eyes were looking very thoughtful.

“I could go to Korea for a while,” said Seunghyun on impulse. “Daesung’s family has influence all over Seoul – they could probably find me a development spot in an automotive firm or construction or something. I bet American expertise is worth plenty over there.” He didn’t really have any intention of leaving the country – he wasn’t planning on going anywhere so long as Chicago held Jiyong. But he thought it might be smart to plant the seed with his family: after all, who knew what Jiyong would need from him in the future? He thought of McGurn, and Insull, and shivered.

“Good Lord,” was his father’s initial response. And then: “Well, I won’t say they’re the worst ideas I’ve ever heard.” He gave his despondent son a smile. “But you’ll carry on with college as long as you can, yes?”

“Of course.” His father nodded.

“And in the meantime…” He lowered his voice. “Don’t tell your mother. It was hard enough when you moved out, I don’t want to deal with those laments before I have to!”

“Sure, Dad.” Seunghyun didn’t want to leave his mother, or any of his family and friends; but he was sure getting sick of the rest of this city. The older man sighed – he hoped it wasn’t in disappointment.

“You could be such a fine researcher, Seunghyun. A bright light of the Chemistry world. But you’ve got to be stubborn – more than that, you have to trust that someone will give you a chance.”

“You’re such an optimist,” said Seunghyun, feeling immeasurably fond. “You and Mom both.”

“There’s that smile!” exclaimed his father, picking up the newspaper again and crinkling his eyes at Seunghyun over the top. “Go and show your mother.” Seunghyun went, buoyed by his family’s regard; and, for a moment, dared to imagine that everything might turn out all right.

 


 

He was further cheered when he arrived at work to find the boss absent and Jiyong possibly pleased to see him.

“Did you have a nice time?” Jiyong asked, coming downstairs to store his kimchi treat in the distillery ice box because the under-cooks had immediately got up in arms about the smell. “Thanks, by the way.” Seunghyun wanted to tell him all about the conference and the thoughts he’d been having since, but figured the smaller man had enough on his plate. Besides, the mere sight of Jiyong was enough to make him feel better.

“Was fine,” he said instead. “But I’d rather have gone with you.” Jiyong turned and smiled at him briefly. He looked very tired.

“That would’ve been quite the experience.” He squinted in the dimness at his jeweled watch. “…Damn. Gotta go get ready.”

“Is he coming tonight?”

“Who?”

“Either of them.” Jiyong pursed his lips.

“Have to wait and see.” And he trudged away up the stairs.

 

McGurn must have called through in advance because Jiyong looked unmoved when he entered the Salon with Rocco shortly after midnight. McGurn ignored him in turn, but after some drinks the mobster quietly disappeared from the room while his friend pretended not to notice. A minute later Jiyong followed. Seunghyun didn’t know if Insull had given McGurn an answer to his horrible proposal yet; he didn’t even know if Jiyong knew. They were gone for hours, he knew that much, long enough that it would’ve cost over a thousand dollars if any of the Outfit had been in the habit of paying. And minute by minute Seunghyun became twitchier – he was lucky there weren’t enough customers around for it to matter.

It wasn’t until the Salon was closing that he heard Seungri showing McGurn out. As soon as he was done cleaning Seunghyun headed up the back stairs; he couldn’t possibly go home until he’d relieved his mind. He knocked on the door to Jiyong’s rooms. There was no answer, and maybe he was already asleep – or maybe something else. So Seunghyun exercised his latest bad habit and walked on in.

“Who is it?!” he heard Jiyong call as the door closed. He sounded breathless.

“It’s me.”

“…Thank God,” came the boy’s voice more quietly. “I thought… Come in the bedroom.” Seunghyun opened the door to Lily’s pale blue room. The first thing that hit him was the smell of sex, followed by the sight of Jiyong sitting naked on the big bed; his hands were clasped together by the bedhead, and Seunghyun realized with a shock that he was tied to it.

“…Did he leave you like this?!” the bigger man demanded, striding over; it was thin silky rope but knotted tightly. He could see friction burns and teeth marks where Jiyong had been worrying at it.

“Just untie me,” ordered Jiyong, clearly shaken but not in the least embarrassed. “It hurts.” Seunghyun obeyed as fast as he could, his calloused fingers fumbling with the knots; in the end he opened his pocket knife and made short work of the ropes. The smaller man shook his hands free and winced as the blood rushed back. “Thanks. I thought he might come back, but…”

“Is this the kind of shit he always does to you?!”

“Sometimes. It’s no big deal, lots of tricks like to be controlling. But it’s the first time he’s not undone me after! Fucking lunatic,” he added under his breath.

“So what gives?” Seunghyun tried not to sound mad because it wasn’t Jiyong he was incensed at; but the marks around his wrists were making it difficult. “…Is it… Did he say anything to you about Insull?” He still didn’t know if Jiyong’s owner had given McGurn a refusal in so many words, but it would surely explain this behavior.

“He was rambling like crazy,” said Jiyong, wrapping a heavy blanket around himself with alacrity, though not before it hit Seunghyun just how thin he had become. He didn’t object when Seunghyun took his hands to examine the ligature marks on his wrists. “About how I’m not being ‘looked after’, how I deserve everything money can buy; the usual. Then after he was done with me he got that look on his face.” The boy swallowed before emitting a faint hiss as Seunghyun’s fingertip grazed one of the rope burns. “I tried not to meet his eyes, same as always. I hoped he was gunna untie me and shove off quick. But he made me look at him. It was…” He shook his head. “Then he said: ‘He’s had long enough.’ And he barged out and left me like this.”

“It’s getting worse,” said Seunghyun darkly. “If Insull doesn’t give him an answer soon…” He pressed his hand and stalked through to the bathroom in search of the ointment Jiyong had used on his eyebrows.

“Not really,” replied Jiyong. He took the jar and began to apply it to his wrists with a grimace. “He was nuts from the beginning.” But when his eyes flicked up to meet Seunghyun’s the bigger man saw something that looked like desperation.

“What’s gonna happen now?” he asked softly. Jiyong shook his head.

“I don’t know. But I wanna take a bath – I hafta get him off me.”

“I’ll run it for you.”

“…You oughta go,” said Jiyong. “In case he does come back.” Seunghyun looked at him, a silent entreaty. “But okay,” he relented without much hesitation. “For a bit.”

The older man went and readied the bath, and when the tiled room was warm and steamy Jiyong followed him in. He let the blanket drop to the floor and went to wipe off his eye makeup. Seunghyun knew he oughtn’t to look; he did anyway. Jiyong was skinny as the street kid he had once been, like he was one missed meal away from breaking if you hugged him too tight. He was still a breathtakingly erotic sight, in an elfin and precarious way. When Seunghyun raised his head the boy was watching him in the mirror; their eyes locked. Jiyong turned, a faint stripe of color in his pale cheeks. Seunghyun couldn’t help himself: he stepped forward and kissed him, hands smoothing across the birdbones of his shoulders. Jiyong made a soft little noise, and for an instant his fingers were tender on the bigger man’s wrists before he drew back.

“Go sit over there,” he told Seunghyun; he didn’t sound angry so much as resigned. Seunghyun got himself under control and pulled the bathroom stool into the corner. When he turned back Jiyong was submerged up to his neck in the tub.

They whispered together as Jiyong took his meticulous bath, while Maria changed the bedsheets on the other side of the door. Seunghyun was somewhat successful at suppressing the aching mixture of desire, sadness, and apprehension in his belly that the sight of Jiyong provoked. He went and fetched Jiyong’s pajamas and robe, then left the room while he got dressed. When the smaller man emerged he hovered by the bed, gazing up at Seunghyun with an expression that was hard to decode.

“…I don’t reckon he’s coming back now,” Seunghyun ventured. “It’s almost six.”

“Yeah.” Jiyong paused. “Say…I know I’ve been a dick to you lately but…you wanna sleep here? Just this once.”

“You know I do.” Seunghyun simply did not have it in him to be snide to Jiyong right now, not when he looked so small. He lay dressed above the covers after turning up the fire to keep the room cozy, while Jiyong burrowed underneath until only his head was visible. The boy reached out silently and slid one hand into Seunghyun’s. They both closed their eyes.

 

Jiyong slept immediately and deeply. His ragged breathing kept Seunghyun from doing the same. A general sense of trepidation left him on the edge of a doze full of half-dreams; every few minutes he would blink himself awake to see the younger man’s face. So when the apartment door clicked open sometime in the morning he was immediately alert. Someone stepped lightly inside; most likely it was one of the day maids, and they wouldn’t come into the bedroom with Jiyong asleep. Still, in case it –

“Yongie!” Seungri wasn’t even trying to be subtle. Before Seunghyun could decide whether he should try hiding, the bedroom door handle smacked into the papered wall and Seungri strode through. “Hey,” he said to Seunghyun in an aside as if it was perfectly natural to find them in bed together. “Jiyong, wake up.”

“…Mmph?” Jiyong scrunched his face up into a childish scowl and flopped over on his side. Seungri prodded him in a familiar fashion. The smaller man groaned but his lashes at last fluttered open. “Wha’ time is it?” he demanded groggily.

“Eleven.” Seungri plonked down beside him. He took Jiyong’s hand, stared at the marks around his wrist, then sucked in a deep breath. “Listen. Are you listening?”

“Sure.” Jiyong raised his eyebrows but sat up. His hair was mussed. Seunghyun returned his attention to Seungri, who in turn was watching the blonde man intently.

“I was walking to my room from the kitchens,” the kid began. “And I heard voices from Thompson’s office. I wasn’t eavesdropping or anything.” Seunghyun could not suppress a dubious grunt at that; Seungri clicked his tongue, indignant. “I just figured it was weird ‘cos he doesn’t come in ‘til evening normally.  And it was him, and Mrs. Moore. So I stopped and, y’know, I happened to listen.”

“…Did he stay here all night?” asked Jiyong, looking bemused and still sleepy.

“No.” Seungri’s mouth twisted. “He got a call from the boss at home, he said – and apparently he couldn’t go half a day without coming in to tell her about it.”

“From Mr. Insull?” Jiyong’s dark eyes sharpened. He returned Seungri’s grip. “Ri, what did he say?”

“He said…” The kid swallowed. “Oh, Jiyong, he said McGurn ambushed him again. First thing this morning, outside his city apartment!”

“And what then?!” Seunghyun’s heart dropped into his shoes as he saw Jiyong’s face and Seungri’s near-flinch as his grasp tightened.

“McGurn offered him something…hell, maybe threatened him some…and Uncle Sam said that this time he couldn’t refuse.” Jiyong made an indecipherable sound. “He’s gonna agree,” said Seungri more strongly, his jaw clenched. “He’s gonna let McGurn have you.”

There was a silence: Jiyong’s lovely features seemed to flicker as reactions flitted across his face while the other two men watched him without breathing. Abruptly enough to make Seunghyun jump he let out a laugh, then just as suddenly broke into a harsh sob, his skinny frame curling up on itself convulsively as he started to cry. Seunghyun had never seen Jiyong truly lose control, and it near broke his heart. Beside them Seungri was blinking hard.

“Sorry,” whispered Seungri. He threw his arms around Jiyong and held him; the boy made no attempt to push him off. “Sorry, sorry…!” Seunghyun stared at them helplessly – his worst predictions had just come true, and for the first time ever being proved right gave him absolutely no satisfaction – just a bleak understanding of his own impotence. “I had to tell you,” Seungri was murmuring to him, as if he needed an excuse for tattling on Insull. “But we’ll think of something, the three of us, we will!”

Jiyong gasped damply; and in another minute he did what Seunghyun had always envied and turned off his tears as if he was a faucet. He sniffed a couple of times, his eyes and nose red.

“Not your fault,” he said dully. “It’s his… I can’t believe he…” He trailed off again. He didn’t look angry, only lost, his small face vacant with betrayal. “What was the offer?” he asked sharply once he had pulled himself together.

“Huh?” Jiyong tugged at Seungri’s rumpled shirt.

“The price. What did Mr. Insull sell me for?” he demanded. “Well?!”

“I couldn’t hear exactly,” said Seungri. He scowled at himself. “Thompson just told her it was a king’s ransom: literally treasure, he didn’t blame my uncle a bit. But I dunno-” He was cut off as Jiyong took an incredulous gasp of comprehension.

I do. That mad son of a bitch!” Jiyong looked as though he wanted to laugh again. Instead he tipped his head back, and with a wild gleam in his eye explained: “It’s diamonds… I don’t even know how many millions’ worth. But I’d swear to it.”

Diamonds? But how…?” began Seungri.

“McGurn told me something last night while he was on his rant. That he’d done something or got his hands on something extraordinary, and he was finally worthy of having me for himself. I thought it was more of his bullshit boasting, and he was creeping me out so I didn’t take much notice…” Seunghyun could see the connections forming behind his eyes. “But now you say treasure, and I remembered what Mayor Thomas told me while I was blowing him last week: there was a huge burglary at the First National Bank, they took all sorts but the best was this famous diamond collection they were holding. Didn’t you see it in the paper?” Seunghyun shook his head – what with the conference he’d been too busy to read. “The cops figured it was pro jewel thieves, but now – no.” Jiyong’s eyes widened, convinced. “It was him, or guys who work with him. That’s what’s persuaded Mr. Insull to forget me.”

“Disgusting,” declared Seunghyun, who couldn’t help himself. “He’s already stinking rich!”

“Maybe there’s more to it,” Seungri suggested wretchedly, rubbing his hand up and down Jiyong’s back. “Even if it’s true about the robbery, maybe this has Capone’s weight behind it too… You remember how he stuck up for McGurn.” It must be hard, thought Seunghyun with venom, to try and convince yourself that your own flesh and blood was not a cold, money-grubbing scumbag.

“Who cares about Mob politics?” he snapped at Seungri. “Insull knows what he’s doing! He’s abandoning Jiyong to a maniac. Nothing you can say is gonna make that better!”

“God, I know.” Seungri leaned his forehead against Jiyong’s damp temple. “I’m not making excuses – I’m here, aren’t I? And now we gotta do something.”

“Like what?” Seunghyun wanted to snatch Jiyong away from him. He restrained himself – Jiyong wasn’t an object to be fought over – but couldn’t stop himself growling at the kid. Jiyong was quiet for a bit; he was gnawing on his bottom lip so hard it had turned scarlet, but he nuzzled his head against Seungri’s as if to comfort him.

“How long do I have?” he asked hoarsely. “Before McGurn gets to take me away?”

“Thompson didn’t say.”

“…Will you find out for me?” Jiyong patted Seungri’s cheek when the kid nodded eagerly. “Then we can figure out the best thing to do. Only…don’t let on that I know anything. ‘Kay?”

“Yeah.” Seungri kissed his blonde hair roughly, then got up and tramped out of the room as if this was entirely his fault. Seunghyun felt a spark of pity for the younger man, torn between two worlds as he was. The next moment it was gone, and the only thing left was wretchedness.

“Jiyong…” he tried to say. It came out so strangely he had to clear his throat and try again. The boy didn’t answer him; he was sitting with his eyes closed, his hands now clasped in his lap. Seunghyun couldn’t tell what was causing him the most pain: the prospect of a future as the property of McGurn or stupefaction at Insull’s treachery. He wanted to comfort him – but without the protection of the law or any halfway useful connections, how could anybody help him now? All Seunghyun could do was take his hand again. Jiyong’s fingers rested limply in his own, and he saw the nails were bitten down to the quick. After a long silence the bigger man felt a slight answering pressure.

“…All right,” said Jiyong, and looked up at him. His eyes were shining, his exquisite lips a grim line. Seunghyun frowned interrogatively. “I’ll do it.” Jiyong took a deep breath. “I’ll go away with you.” Seunghyun stared at him blankly for several seconds, unable to speak – panic, incredulity, elation were tying up his tongue. Jiyong drew back a little. “You still want to…don’t you?” The older man nodded, stunned.

“It’s what I always wanted,” he managed at last. “I just never imagined…” His mind was racing: how long did they have, what would he need to do? – too many questions. “Are you sure?” was the first that sprang to mind. For answer Jiyong abandoned his composure and threw both arms around his neck.

“It’s the only way. And you’re the only one who cares enough to help me!” Convulsively Seunghyun pulled him close, a sense of completion amid the terror at feeling his embrace again after so long. “You don’t mind, right?” Jiyong murmured; his voice was shaking with adrenaline. “That I’m only saying yes now I wanna save my own neck…”

“Don’t care,” Seunghyun told him passionately. “I wanted to leave anyway – but only with you.” He’d have to telegraph the Virginia company, explain to Wyeman, buy train tickets; they could stay in some anonymous boarding house to start with, and then… “I love you, that’s enough!” Jiyong laughed into his shoulder, understandably hysterical but also moved. He clung tight to Seunghyun for a bit, breath coming warm and fast through his shirt to caress his skin. “We’ll go as soon as you’re ready,” Seunghyun promised, trying to sound confident. “Before McGurn gets his act together. I swear, I’ll look after you the rest of my life!”

“Slow down, Tabi.” Jiyong wriggled out of his arms to sit next to him. “There’s one caveat,” he said solemnly. “We need some serious scratch.”

“Eh?”

“Money,” clarified Jiyong. “A lot.” Seunghyun opened his mouth, then shut it again, because in his selfish excitement he had forgotten all about responsibility and how seriously this boy took it.

“For your family, right?” He squeezed Jiyong’s arm. “Don’t you have your savings?”

“Sure,” agreed Jiyong. “And my jewels, it can all go to them. Thank God Ella’s gunna be married come spring, that’s one mouth less to feed. But the more I can give them the less…disgraced I’ll feel at abandoning them.” He patted Seunghyun’s hand to cut off his protest. “No, but mostly we’ll need it for us.”

“What for? I’ve already been promised the job. We don’t need to live in a mansion or anything, I can pay for all the basics ‘til my salary comes through.”

“You ever been to…West Virginia, wasn’t it?” the smaller man inquired. “Anyplace down South?”

“It’s hardly South.”

“Culturally, though.” Seunghyun shook his head and Jiyong sighed. “You think it’s hard to be an Asian face in Chicago? I heard it’s so bad out there in the sticks you may as well be a different species – I bet we’ll need to pay hand over fist even to be allowed to rent a house.”

“…I never thought that far. The lab boss at Carbon and Carbide seemed so nice.” Jiyong observed his crestfallen face, then leaned in and kissed his cheek.

“Cash is like armor, Tabi. If you wanna tell the small-town nativists to go fuck themselves we’re gunna want a pile of it. And besides…I need to be able to hide if we have to – from anyone who might come looking for us.”

“Well what d’you expect me to do?” asked Seunghyun dismally; he had not considered these realities. It dawned on him that Jiyong would be looking after him quite as much as anything else. “Rob a bank?”

Jiyong peered at him with a wry kind of expression; then it went distant. After a long minute in which Seunghyun dwelt on how bad it felt not to be able to give him everything he wanted, the boy’s eyes lit up. A strange grin spread over his face.

“No. Not a bank.”

 

Chapter Text

“What do you mean, ‘not a bank’?” said Seunghyun. “It was a joke!” Though now was hardly the time for levity, for Christ’s sake. This was a pivotal moment of Jiyong’s life, of both their lives!

“…You could though, couldn’t you?” Jiyong replied, still with that odd smile. “With all the science you know. Get into the safe, at least.”

“I mean…” Seunghyun flashed back to the melodramatic article Daesung had read him, and Bethany’s explanatory glossary of terms. What was it…? A Peterman: a chemical-wielding safe-cracker. “Theoretically,” he said with a sense of trepidation. “If I knew what the lock was made of. But-”

“And you’ve surely gotta be smarter than the average criminal,” Jiyong went on. “I bet you could do it with minimal fireworks. If you wanted to.”

“And why would I want to?!” exclaimed the bigger man, because the stare Jiyong was giving him was not frivolous but evaluative. “You know what goes into robbing a bank? And especially now, after that job you say McGurn pulled on First National! My God, Jiyong…!”

“Sshh, silly.” Jiyong was eyeing his forehead, where Seunghyun invariably got a stress vein when he was about to embark on one of his episodes. “I already said we weren’t going to!” He set his hands on Seunghyun’s rigid shoulders. “We’re gunna rob a jazz club.”

“Huh?” the older man managed, his panicky tantrum derailed by bewilderment. “What good’s that meant to…” He dragged in a breath and jerked back involuntarily as it hit him. “…Oh, no. You can’t mean-”

“Exactly!” said Jiyong eagerly, still holding on firm. “It’d be far easier than a bank. And what could be more perfect?” He bared his white teeth in what was probably a smile – it gave Seunghyun chills. “We get all the wealth we could possibly want, we scuttle that madman’s plan to buy me, and I get some god-damned payback.”

“…The Green Mill,” muttered Seunghyun, feeling faint. “You want me to steal McGurn’s diamonds!”

“Not ‘me’,” corrected the boy. He treated Seunghyun to another wolfish grin. “We. And they’re not his diamonds, they’re fair game.”

“Can you hear yourself?! You sound as mad as him!” Seunghyun took Jiyong’s face in his shaking hands – the smaller man was patently hysterical. Jiyong leaned into his touch. “Why this?” entreated Seunghyun more gently. “I get that we’ll need money. If you want me to expand my criminal résumé to acquire it – I will. But why McGurn?! If you wanna do a burglary there’re a thousand private safes in this city. Why pick the one that’s most likely to get us both killed?”

“Apart from the poetic justice?” Seunghyun nodded emphatically. Jiyong ratcheted back the grin a couple of notches and composed himself. “It’s a known quantity, that’s why. Just listen, Tabi, you can explode later. The Green Mill is a sort-of kinda public venue – that means there are people who know the layout. Even you’ve been in there! I know Mayor Thomas has, I can probably get him to describe it inch by inch if I ride him hard enough. It’s a popular joint, it’s bound to be a tempting target for rival gangs – plenty of suspects to take the heat off us once the thing is done. It’s gunna be safer than a private home to get in and out ‘cos nobody lives there outside business hours. And best of all, we know what’s in that safe.”

“How do you know?” demanded Seunghyun. He was still incredulous – the audacity of it! Though he could see how it had a vile kind of poetry to it…

“It’s where he keeps all his valuables.” Jiyong huffed. “He’s always telling me: how he’ll take me to his club, show me the best acts, let me look in his treasure-chest – all his riches, he says, he’ll lay ‘em at my feet! Then presumably I’m meant to fall at his. This is the pre-fucking speech, obviously,” he added with a sneer. “He’s not so gallant once he’s got his rocks off.”

“Stop and listen to what you’re saying,” coaxed the older man. “How would I get in? How do we get away again without anyone noticing? And how long do we have to do this before McGurn hands that damn ice to Insull and carries you off?!”

“And here I thought you were the spontaneous one,” said Jiyong. He took Seunghyun’s hands in both his own and held them steady. He looked manic and quite breathtaking, the way he did when he was driving eighty miles an hour.

“Spontaneous. Not insane!”

“We’re gunna find all this out,” Jiyong assured him. “Today. And once Panda discovers when the handover is due to happen we’ll know how long we have. Okay, baby?”

“No.”

"You said you'd do anything for me." Jiyong's strong fingers squeezed his own. "Won't you help me now? For both of us."

"...I did, but..." Seunghyun trailed off.

“Today you go learn about safes, what the best ones are made of and how they work. Then you can put on your lab coat and figure out what it’s gunna take to get inside one. Bring all your kit back here. After your shift tonight you’ll stake out the Green Mill, find out when it closes and what time the last guy leaves. The streets around it, doors and windows, coal chutes, everything.”

“…And what’re you going to do while I’m piling up these felonies?” asked Seunghyun with a heavy touch of sarcasm. Jiyong was undeterred.

“I’ll call Mayor Thomas and invite him for a date. Then I’m gunna blow him ‘til the secrets fall out of his ears.”

“You really mean to do this,” said the bigger man wonderingly. The boy nodded, his eyes bright and fierce. He squeezed Seunghyun’s fingers again.

“Yes. To try, at least. If it’s impossible it’s impossible. But we have to have money.” He raised his chin in the way Seunghyun loved so much, and with a pang of combined dread and adoration Seunghyun knew that he was not going to say no to him. He could not. Jiyong drew him close, his pale face lighting up. “And I really, really wanna stick it to those bastards – any way I can!”

 


 

To Seunghyun’s chagrin the research was easier than he’d thought it would be. He’d wanted it to be impossible, but it turned out that for anyone with even rudimentary chemistry skills cracking a commercial safe was not a hugely difficult feat. The hard thing was to do it without using too little juice and jamming the mechanism or using too much and killing yourself. He started at the central Library in the newspaper archives, looking for articles on successful robberies and advertisements for popular safes. After that he moved to the Chemistry department and read up on his options. He made a trip to the storehouse and had the usual argument with the technician, and finally took himself and his supplies to the boom room. In a twisted way he enjoyed himself.

When he arrived at the House in the early evening he tiptoed very cautiously to the basement and placed his bag down gently in a corner, as far from the alcohol as possible. Jiyong hurried in soon after, already dressed to kill; he was bubbling over with nervous energy – Seunghyun could see it simmering beneath his cool painted skin.

“Didja figure it out?” he demanded in a low voice.

“Yeah. As well as I could without seeing the actual safe.” Jiyong stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek in approval. “I brought the stuff with me – don’t go touching it, it’s dangerous! But I’ll need some things from you, too.”

“What?”

“Condoms and chewing-gum,” said Seunghyun, blushing ridiculously. Jiyong laughed at him, but agreed. He gave the older man a curious look. “What did you find out?” Seunghyun asked. “Is this gonna be even remotely possible?”

“Oh, I think so.” Jiyong led him over to the workstation. “I was right, Mayor Thomas is a regular there, and ‘cos he’s a V.I.P. and Capone’s man he’s been everywhere: probably getting screwed by Guzik’s cheap whores in every room in the place. I got him to describe it to me – told him I was envious and wanted to hear all about the great jazz joints, so of course the Mill came up. Here, this is the layout.” He dipped his finger in an open bottle of gin and proceeded to draw a plan between the debris on the wooden table. “The private office is downstairs in the back; maybe there’s a couple of locked doors but we’ll take a pry-bar. He said there’re a bunch of storage rooms down there; something like tunnels, too. I asked Thomas innocent-like if McGurn is very rich; gullible old bird, I knew he’d fall for it! He said he oughta be, he’s got a great big old safe in the basement. A Victor & Lock, I think he said.”

“Mm. The size doesn’t matter, I’m not gonna blow through the whole door. It’s all about the mechanism. So long as it’s not brand new we might be all right.” Jiyong nodded. “…You probably shouldn’t come, you know,” Seunghyun ventured. He didn’t know why he was saying it; he just felt afraid. The smaller man gave him a withering glance.

“Your chivalry’s a bit misplaced. Whose idea was this?”

“I know.” Seunghyun reverently touched his hair. “But it could be so dangerous.”

“Then you might even need me,” retorted Jiyong. “Look, I’m coming, so use me! I hear some of the other Outfit guys working the Mill keep things in there too, so we oughta get a good haul no matter if the diamonds are there or not. Might take two of us to cart it away!” Seunghyun gave up.

“How do you get this stuff out of them?” he inquired instead, wiping away the floor plan after memorizing it. “I mean, what do you ask? It sounds suspicious as hell.”

“I’m not just a pretty face,” said Jiyong. “I’ve got ears, haven’t I? Beth’s right, these guys love to boast. And I listen to ‘em. They think I haven’t got a brain in my head – just like you do! – but I know how to fish for stuff; and I remember everything. I knew that’d help me one day.” His disdain for his customers was palpable. Serve them right, thought Seunghyun, for thinking Jiyong was a harmless little toy. “So we know the inside,” Jiyong continued with some self-satisfaction. “You can go reconnoiter outside later.” He shivered. “Rather you than me, although I guess the snow will deter passersby.”

“That’s all very well,” said Seunghyun tightly. “But how long do we have? Did Seungri tell you?”

“Let’s find out.” Jiyong darted upstairs and after a few minutes returned with the younger man in tow. Seungri began loading bottles for the Salon into a crate. “Well?” prompted Jiyong. “Did you ask?”

“Didn’t have to,” said Seungri gloomily. He looked more miserable than Seunghyun had ever seen him, and still guilty. All the same, it was just as well Jiyong hadn’t let him in on their plan. “Thompson called me in. Told me not to say anything about it yet – of course he knows how you’re gonna react! – but to start quietly packing your spare things.”

“Already?!” exclaimed Jiyong in horror.

“Nah, he said not to rush. I think we’ve got a few days – apparently McGurn needs that long to furnish your secret new love-nest to your ‘standard’.”

“My cage, you mean,” the boy said bitterly. He and Seunghyun exchanged a glance; days, that was something, but it gave them no luxury of time. The prospect was terrifying. Looking at Jiyong, Seunghyun knew he would go through with it – that he would do literally anything for him. But it would have to be soon or not at all.

 


 

They spent one more full day prepping, but after that Jiyong would not wait. Seunghyun agreed: it wouldn’t be long before they were both too nervy to pull it off. Better to get this lunacy over with, success or failure. It was a Wednesday night and quiet, the usual parties and even the simple sounds of the world deadened by snow; the Chicago wind discouraged customers further, and by four-thirty Jiyong had finished with his tricks and Seunghyun was getting ready in the basement. He could not remember when he had last slept.

He put on gloves before he started. Everything went in a bag he could sling over his shoulder: crowbar, wire, more bags for anything they might manage to steal, condoms, two flashlights – one borrowed from Daesung and one pinched from home – some more sundry tools, and finally the small box of lab-made gelignite. It was better than nitroglycerine, he’d decided, there being less chance of it blasting them to pieces before they even arrived. He pinned the little detonators safely inside his coat. Then he sat down with a bracing drink of his own concoction, and waited.

At five he gathered up his things, locked the distillery, and left the House as usual. Trying to look casual he walked in the direction of the Bluebird. It was freezing; he pulled his hat down and tugged his scarf up over his face. He could still see people coming and going but most were heading home, and the warm lights in the cafés and brothels were winking out. He chilled his heels in the alley behind the Bluebird for what felt like an hour but was likely no more than ten minutes before a slight figure slipped into view.

“Hello?” came a call in the shadows. Jiyong’s voice was quivering already, but that was probably the weather. “Ah, thank God you came. You got everything?”

“Yeah.” Seunghyun groped for his hand; Jiyong was wearing thick padded gloves, but squeezed him back tight. “You’re sure about this?”

“We’re ready as we’ll ever be,” said the boy. His white teeth flashed in the darkness before resuming their chattering. “Let’s go, I’m freezing my nuts off.”

They set out. Seunghyun led them on foot to the Lake Street L, where they caught the earliest train to the North Side. As they passed beneath a harp light he saw Jiyong was dressed exactly as he’d been the day they first met: nondescript workman’s overalls and a flat cap pulled down to hide his fair hair, an old black coat covering everything. Like Seunghyun and every other man in the streets he had pulled his scarf up over his nose. They looked as unremarkable as it was possible for them to be. They sat silently on the train – it struck Seunghyun unpleasantly that here they were still inside Insull’s property and within his reach; they should’ve taken the streetcar. It was a foolish thought, but he was so jumpy.

It was a fair walk to the Green Mill, but being the dead of winter it was still night by the time they reached Broadway and padded into a narrow road behind the building that housed the club. Jiyong headed towards it but Seunghyun drew him behind a stack of crates and trash cans, hunkering down to watch the end of the street where a lone snow-covered car was parked.

“Tabi,” the boy whispered, one arm through his. “Tabi, I’m so cold!”

“We gotta wait a bit,” Seunghyun warned him. He nodded at a tiny window in the building’s wall, along from a service door; it was painted over but a muted light was visible around the edges. “There’s someone here still.” Jiyong huddled closer to him, pressed against his side, and examined the window.

“That’s where I go in?” he murmured.

“Yeah. I checked the whole place, it’s the only one we can pry open; the catch seems kinda loose. I guess they assumed no-one could get through it. You’ll have to do some acrobatics when you get inside, too, they’ve stacked boxes half in front. You’ll see if you look in where the paint’s chipped away.” He put an arm around Jiyong’s shoulders, felt their width. “You said you thought you can fit, right?”

“It looks smaller than you described,” said Jiyong thoughtfully. “But I reckon I can. I’ve lost a bunch of weight – and I’m still double-jointed. But if we gotta wait much longer I won’t be able to move my fingers!”

“Sshh,” Seunghyun muttered. The light had gone out. “Just a minute.” They crouched there in the slush. At length a man in standard winter apparel strode around the corner towards the new Ford at the end of the road; he swore to himself as he swiped off the snow, which was beginning to fall again. Seunghyun peered carefully through the crates: it was the club manager. He’d been watching his routine the past two days and every morning he’d been the last to leave. Any minute now they could begin. “All right.” Seunghyun waited until the car had moved off precariously through the snow. “Ready?”

“Y-yeah.” Jiyong’s breath was shuddering between his frozen lips. The bigger man bent spontaneously, pulled down his muffler and kissed him, cold on cold.

“C’mon.”

 Jiyong bounced up and down beneath the window to get his blood flowing while Seunghyun extracted a screwdriver from his bag and wiggled it into the gap between the frames. He couldn’t maneuver the catch to unclasp, but after a bit of force he managed to pry it from its fixtures manually and finally push the window open. It looked very small: not even if he starved himself could Seunghyun get through it. But Jiyong removed his coat and cap and chucked them inside as if he had no doubts.

“Remember, there’re obstacles,” Seunghyun warned him. “Be careful.”

“I know. Gimme a flashlight.” Jiyong took one of the small torches and clamped it between his teeth. Taking a deep breath he stepped into the older man’s laced hands and grasped the windowsill firmly. Seunghyun braced himself and boosted him upwards; he weighed almost nothing. He heard Jiyong grunt as he put his head through; he had to turn it sideways to fit. As he watched the boy began to wriggle inside, twisting to try and admit his shoulders. Jiyong disappeared bit by bit, much to Seunghyun’s admiration. There were a few soft complaining noises, presumably as he navigated the boxes stacked inside, but the bigger man knew he would make it.

Seunghyun turned his attention to the adjacent door. Its blank exterior showed it could only be opened from the inside; he just prayed it was a bolt and not a key, he hadn’t had any way to check. He could feel his heart-rate accelerate as he waited, glancing up and down the street – what if something had gone wrong? What if there was someone still at work, what if Jiyong had fallen and hurt himself? What were they even doing here – how the hell had this become his life?! He was working himself up when he heard a metallic scraping. It stopped and was repeated, and the next moment the service door inched open to reveal Jiyong’s gleaming eye.

“Hurry up!” he said around the torch. His hand shot out and tugged Seunghyun into the dark.

“Well done!” murmured the older man, impressed. Jiyong shut the door behind him, shooting the heavy bolts with both hands. He pulled his coat back on and took the flashlight out of his mouth. Its faint beam illuminated a small room much like any other storage area, filled with dusty boxes and pallets. Before he could chicken out Seunghyun headed for the interior door. It wasn’t locked, and as he stepped through he found himself in the main cabaret lounge he recalled from the times Daesung had bribed their way in here. He shone his own light around: the stage and red plush curtains, the opulent gilding on the high ceiling above the bar.

Oohh,” came Jiyong’s low voice. He had clicked his torch off and was following the light of Seunghyun’s with interest. “It’s so cool. I wish…” He sighed.

“It’s way less creepy when it’s open,” Seunghyun informed him. He didn’t like the empty space, the way it amplified their hushed voices; it was eerie. “C’mon. Let’s get on with it.” Jiyong nodded and strode round behind the bar.

“There,” he said in satisfaction, tapping with his foot at a large wooden trapdoor in the floor. “Just where Mayor Thompson told me.” It was fastened with a heavy padlock. “Damn.” Seunghyun’s lips thinned; he had hoped for fewer hurdles on the way to their goal, but there was no help for it. He fished the crowbar out of his bag. Jiyong held out his hand.

“I’ll do it,” the bigger man muttered, and Jiyong obligingly moved aside.

Seunghyun had never tried to bust a door before; he had only read about it in the papers and boys’ adventure books. First he inserted the end between the trapdoor and its frame and tried to pry it open; it looked pretty ancient, but push as he might it barely moved. Soon he was sweating in the chilly room; he could feel Jiyong watching him anxiously, which didn’t help. So he gave up, raised the crowbar, and simply smashed it down on the lock. He jumped as much as Jiyong at the burst of sound, peering around with his heart skittering. But he pulled himself together and repeated the blow.

“Yes!” exclaimed Jiyong before clapping a hand across his mouth: Seunghyun hadn’t broken the padlock but the second hit had somehow wrenched the metal hasp partly off the boards. The older man let out an unsteady breath. Jiyong didn’t give him time to regroup but easily pried the hasp off the rest of the way, then slipped through the trapdoor and down the pitch-black stairs beneath it. Not liking the look of it but not wanting to be left alone in the empty lounge, Seunghyun followed.

“There’s another door here,” came Jiyong’s voice. “Locked.” Seunghyun arrived at the bottom of the stairs; the boy gave the handle a rattle in demonstration.

“If we’d had more time to prepare I could’ve learned to pick them open,” Seunghyun commented critically. Jiyong shrugged, and before Seunghyun could complain any more he took a step back and aimed a hard kick at the door. Something cracked sharply.

“Ow,” said Jiyong, and hopped up and down.

“Was that you?!” The smaller man shook his head. “Out the way,” said Seunghyun. “You’re too light.” Jiyong aimed his torch and let Seunghyun throw his weight against the door; he was right, it hurt like hell. His shoulder was bruised by the time the lock finally gave amid a shower of splinters and the door flew open, catapulting him into the blackness beyond. Jiyong came and picked him up, then looked around.

“…Well, this is spooky,” he said. Seunghyun agreed. It was colder down here, pushing the fatigue further into his bones; a series of unmarked doors was arranged in a rough circle. When Jiyong shone his flashlight upward he saw the ceiling was ragged and uneven.

“Which one’s the office?” he prompted quietly. You could lose time down here – the small space and sense of weight above him pressed in, tightening his airways. He wanted this over and done. Jiyong bit his lip and tried one of the doors; to Seunghyun’s relief it opened under his hand.

“Bathroom,” he announced, and closed it again. When he went for the next a stream of freezing air hit Seunghyun in the face. “Oh…!” murmured Jiyong. “That’s what he meant by tunnels.” They peered in: the dim light showed flashes of a roughly paved floor and cave-like walls; the underground breeze carried a dank, earthy smell.

“Shut it,” said Seunghyun, and Jiyong did, not without another fascinated stare. The third door, typically, was locked again – more damage to Seunghyun’s shoulder as he forced it open, but at least this far underground the noise was unlikely to be noticed. He stepped through: it looked promising. Behind him Jiyong was fumbling around by the wall, and a moment later the room lit up with electric light. Seunghyun shut off his torch and squinted in the comparative brightness.

“Yes!” exclaimed Jiyong in excitement. “This has to be it.” He shut the busted door behind them. It was indeed an office: desk, typewriter, papers and filing cabinets, a few crates of booze. And, in the corner behind the desk, a solid-looking metal safe. “Okay, Tabi,” Jiyong told him, with one of those crazy pretty smiles. “Do your thing! I’ll keep a lookout.”

Seunghyun nodded and walked over to the safe, his creeping unease receding as his inner experimenter came into focus. Without removing his gloves he examined the bulky contraption all over. It was a commercial model, sturdy but fairly basic, a key lock rather than combination; he had seen ads for the same maker in newspapers from several years back. It had a heavy boltwork handle on the front. Seunghyun hummed meditatively to himself. Then he put his bag down and set his equipment on the desk. Maybe, with a great deal of luck, he might make this work.

“Can you?” he heard Jiyong say in the background. The older man gave him a vague reply, then picked up his roll of heavy-gauge wire and tied one end around the safe handle. He unspooled it until he came to the desk, thoughtfully picked up the typewriter to test its weight. It felt solid enough. Under Jiyong’s curious gaze he balanced it at the far edge of the desk and tied off the other end of the wire around it. He let go: the typewriter wobbled a moment before finding its balance, held an inch away from falling by the thick wire.

“What’s that in aid of?” asked Jiyong interestedly.

“You’ll see, if it works,” said Seunghyun without turning round. He unwrapped a condom, took another critical look at the safe, and opened the little box containing his gelignite. He placed what he hoped was the correct amount in the end of the rubber, then very gingerly added a detonator cap from inside his coat, attaching a length of fuse cord. He was attempting to fix it all in place by tying the top of the condom together with thread, but the gloves and his weary fingers were making it difficult. He grunted to himself in frustration.

“Ya want me to do that?” inquired Jiyong from over by the door. Seunghyun raised his eyebrows because the smaller man’s gloves were even more bulky than his own. As he watched Jiyong began to strip them off.

“We can’t leave any prints,” he warned the boy quickly. “They’re starting to use them to finger suspects even in minor crimes.”

“I’m not an idiot.” Jiyong shucked his outer layer to reveal a fine pair of kid gloves underneath. “Just goddamn cold. Now tell me what you need me to do.”

With his smaller fingers Jiyong was easily able to tie up the tiny explosive package, though it raised Seunghyun’s hair to have his beloved so close to it. He took the rubber from Jiyong, the fuse trailing from it, and with infinite care began to pack it into the keyhole below the safe’s handle.

“Gum?” he muttered, when it was as deep as he thought it could go. Jiyong, who had evidently come prepared, removed a small piece of chewing-gum from his mouth and handed it to him. Seunghyun used it to stick everything in place before backing off and putting his tools away again. He slung his bag across his back. “…I think that’s it.” He shook his head. “Christ. If this works it’s gonna be a miracle.”

“You’ve got this, Tabi.” The smaller man laid a gloved hand on his arm and gave him a breathless grin; the tension coming off him was acute, but he did not look afraid.

“We’ll see. Out you go, now.”

“I gotta?” Jiyong shot a wary look at the book of matches Seunghyun had pulled from his pocket, and moved sensibly towards the door.

“It shouldn’t be too big,” said Seunghyun. “But it’s not like I’ve done this before. I’ll follow you.” Jiyong pursed his lips but slipped out into the darkness. Seunghyun checked everything once more, then took a deep breath and struck a match on the sole of his boot. With a palpable spike in adrenaline he touched the small flame to the fuse cord, watched just long enough to ensure it had caught, and high-tailed it out of the room. He pulled the door to behind him and found Jiyong roaming around the underground hallway.

“How long?” the boy demanded.

“I cut enough fuse for a minute. You wanna get back from that door.”

“I found their liquor storehouse,” commented Jiyong. “It’s next to the office.” Seunghyun shuddered: if he’d miscalculated and the explosion got through to that room it’d probably blow the whole street to pieces. He decided not to mention that, and a few seconds later Jiyong wandered off, shining his flashlight through the door to those mysterious tunnels with an inquisitive expression dimly lit on his face. “They look so old,” he murmured. “Bet they’re haunted!”

“Probably old coal delivery routes,” said Seunghyun absently. Jiyong opened his mouth but was cut off by a blast of sound from behind the office door, followed by the impact of something hitting the floor loudly. They both cringed back at the noise as it reverberated through the subterranean space. Seunghyun cursed to himself – he had used too much, just thankfully not enough to bring the place down around them. But was it loud enough to reach the street above?

Wasting no time Seunghyun ran back in, his pulse hammering, and to his relief and real surprise was rewarded by the sight of the safe door hanging open. Smoke was coming from the lock, but it was still on its hinges and nothing was on fire. The typewriter had crashed to the floor, tumbling backwards as the blast shook the levers that restrained the bolt mechanism, lifting them loose. The weight of the falling machine had pulled the door open before they could drop back into place. Seunghyun gave himself a mental pat on the back; what were the odds?! Jiyong improved on this by taking one look, gasping in amazement and then kissing him hard on the cheek.

“Goddamn genius!” he declared, for the first time in their acquaintance sounding genuinely impressed with him. He shot forward and pulled the heavy door fully open. “Quick, get the bags! There’s gotta be thousands in cash here!”

Seunghyun stopped congratulating himself and removed the canvas bags, spurred into action by both Jiyong’s avaricious excitement and his worry about how loud the explosion had been. Jiyong took them and began rapidly stacking bundles of notes inside. The books and paperwork he ignored, but even so the first bag filled up quickly. The boy reached in further, his eyebrows furrowed; Seunghyun knew what he was looking for.

“If it’s not there it’s not there,” he said in a low voice. “Hurry up!” Jiyong nodded, and turned to hand him a gold bar – Seunghyun had never seen such a thing in his life before. It was too like a pulp novel. He was staring at them stupidly when Jiyong let out a soft cry of triumph and pulled a velvet box from the back of the safe. Inside was a leather pouch. The younger man opened it quickly; then he stopped, staring at the contents in pure, mesmerized awe. He looked as if he was in love. Seunghyun peered over his shoulder and saw the unmistakable sparkle from the blackness of the bag. His heart almost sank, the strangest sensation: he had known it was what Jiyong had done all of this for – but at the same time he would have felt somehow safer if they had not found the diamonds.

Jiyong was still gazing at the jewels that were to be used to buy him; his expression had become complicated. When Seunghyun touched him he shook off his trance and tucked the bag securely inside his overalls.

“Time we got out of here,” he whispered, and Seunghyun fervently agreed. The older man picked up the heaviest bag in addition to his own. Jiyong turned to grab the other, and as he did so Seunghyun heard a familiar sound that he could not for the moment place. The next instant seemed to stretch out into eternity: he heard Jiyong cry out his name, saw the boy launch himself at him; then the double impact, first of Jiyong’s body and second the crash as they hit the floor behind the desk. At the same time but somehow miles away came a sharp flash and crack, and for an instant Seunghyun was back in Little Italy with bullets flying past his head and Jiyong holding his arm in a death-grip. He blinked woozily – he must have smashed his head on the floor. He could see the underside of the heavy desk; and, as he turned his head, the open office door. In that last second of detachment Seunghyun saw the space was filled with a foreign pair of legs.

“…Okay, you kids,” came a tense voice from above the legs, and with that he was catapulted back into full awareness. He could feel Jiyong’s weight atop him and hear his harsh breaths. “Get on out here if ya don’t wanna make it even worse for yourselves.” Seunghyun turned his head, familiar panic flooding him, and locked eyes with Jiyong, wide and black and fathomless. The boy shook his head; Seunghyun felt more movement and saw his hand was inching towards his coat pocket. Then those eyes squeezed closed tight and Jiyong let out a whine of pure fright as the man in the doorway fired off another shot into the wood of the desk. It was a deliberate warning.

With a nauseous feeling of defeat Seunghyun realized they had no choice but to give themselves up – if they didn’t move the guy was going to start taking pot shots at them, and no wonder. He braced his arms against the floor, the sweat pouring off him. But before he could get up Jiyong’s eyes opened. In one movement he tugged something from his pocket, gritted his teeth, and leaned across Seunghyun’s chest. Seunghyun heard the gunshot from beneath the desk, and in almost the same instant their attacker yelled and dropped to the floor, clutching his bleeding thigh. Seunghyun stared at him in disbelief; his mind registered that he knew the face, but couldn’t place the man while he was grimacing and bellowing with pain. What his next reaction would have been he did not know. Before either of the astounded men could regroup Jiyong had rolled off Seunghyun and was on his knees, firing convulsively over the desk at nearly point-blank range. After he saw the first slug hit, Seunghyun looked away and up at Jiyong – he could not watch any more of it. The smaller man’s teeth were bared in a white snarl, his eyes bright and frantic as he poured three more rounds in the direction of the prone mobster.

Jiyong!!” Seunghyun had to almost scream at him before he stopped. Leaving him behind Jiyong jumped to his feet and strode unsteadily in the direction of the intruder, still aiming a small pistol Seunghyun had certainly never seen before. He got up with some difficulty, stumbled over, and found Jiyong staring down at what was either a corpse or very soon to be one; the boy had missed with most of his shots, but one had found its mark in the man’s neck and the floorboards beneath him were soaking up a welter of blood. Jiyong’s hand was shaking now. The boy pursed his lips in a white line and shoved the gun back in his pocket.

“Get the bags,” he breathed. Seunghyun didn’t move; he was transfixed by the sight, the second time in as many seasons: a man bleeding out on the floor with Jiyong gazing down on him. “Please, Seunghyun,” said Jiyong, his voice tightly controlled. Seunghyun blinked, then finally moved as the implications of the man’s presence began to dawn on him. Maybe it was a coincidence he was at the club at this hour of the morning, and maybe it wasn’t. They’d been so loud… He strode across the room, grabbed all three bags, and returned to Jiyong. The younger man took the lightest and without a pause stepped across the body and into the hallway. Seunghyun tried to follow, and found that he could not bring himself to walk over that man. He couldn’t figure out if it was out of some warped sense of respect, or terror that an arm might reach up and grab him. He was about to speak when Jiyong did just that, reaching back into the room to grasp the front of his coat and bodily pull him through. He kept his grip on Seunghyun and steadied him while with the other hand he slapped the office light off, hiding the scene from view.

“Jiyong, you-” began Seunghyun.

“Hush.” Jiyong clicked his flashlight on but held the bulb end between his fingers so that only a faint glimmer spilled out, the light red as it shone through his capillaries and skin. “Didja hear something? There could be…” He swallowed. “Could be someone waiting upstairs.” Seunghyun froze, another breathless wave of fear engulfing him. He strained his ears but could catch nothing, though he knew Jiyong’s hearing was more acute. “…We can’t go back that way,” Jiyong announced in a whisper.

“What? How else?!” Seunghyun blanched as the smaller man’s dim silhouette nodded in the direction of one of the doors.

“Tunnels,” he said shortly.

“…Jesus.” Seunghyun did not want to go in there; but Jiyong was already pulling him along, and then the steel door was open and that cold, loamy air hit them. Jiyong’s free hand slid down to grip his.

“It’s gotta go somewhere,” he said. He stepped forward into the shadows and silently shut the door behind them.

For a second the darkness was absolute. Seunghyun could feel it as if it had a weight of its own, pushing down on him like the tons of earth above them. Then Jiyong clicked on his flashlight again and shone it down the passageway. Seunghyun fished out his own torch and their beams joined; he noticed that in comparison Jiyong’s light seemed dimmer, and remembered with a jolt the battery life and its limits. The thought of being in this tunnel without it galvanized him with a more helpful kind of fear, and he squeezed Jiyong’s hand.

They set off along the hallway, bags over their shoulders. Seunghyun’s imagination, running wild, had envisaged a vast labyrinth beneath the city, but it was less than two minutes before they came to a junction. It had three forks.

“Which way do you think?” asked Seunghyun. He was too tired to decide.

“…I don’t know,” came Jiyong’s faint reply after too long. Seunghyun turned his flashlight on the boy’s face: he looked like one of the ghosts he was so fond of, his skin an ashy color. Even in the chill of the tunnels he was dripping sweat, while his breath steamed white. When the older man squeezed his hand again in concern he made a low noise and winced. His grip weakened.

“You’re hurt?” said Seunghyun in shock. For answer Jiyong untucked the end of his scarf and pressed it to his left bicep; it came away stained reddish-black in the torch beam.

“Got me in the arm,” Jiyong murmured, pushing the scarf back in. “When I knocked you out of the way.” He shook his head shortly as Seunghyun opened his mouth, horrified at the realization that Jiyong had been shot saving his skin. “I don’t think it’s bad,” Jiyong said; he was starting to sway. “It’s just cold…” At that his flashlight fell to the ground with a clatter and went out. Seunghyun picked it up; it was dead. Still, it probably hadn’t had long left in any case.

“…Sorry,” said Jiyong quietly.

“Don’t worry,” Seunghyun told him, trying to sound confident, trying to get himself together because all of a sudden he had to. “We’ll be home in no time.” He let go of Jiyong’s injured arm and slid a hand across his shoulders so the smaller man could lean on him if he needed to. Which tunnel? he thought, trying to remember the layout of the district above them. He could not make an informed choice. But Jiyong was shivering beneath his arm, so in the end he plumped for the left-hand path simply because it felt friendlier.

They hurried along, minute after minute, Jiyong leaning more heavily against him as they went. He made no sound of complaint but the odd gasp, and he didn’t slow. The tunnel was surprisingly dry and free of obstacles; it was only fear of being followed and terror of the flashlight going out that lodged Seunghyun’s heart in his mouth. After what seemed like a mile he thought he spotted something up ahead, above them: a pale line of what might be daylight.

“Just a bit further,” he whispered. “That’s good, come on, darling, nearly there.” He desperately hoped so. Another fifty yards brought them to the end of the passage, where a set of narrow steps led up to a double-doored hatchway. Seunghyun could see light through it, although God knew where they would come out. “Stay there,” he ordered Jiyong, sitting him on the bottom step. He climbed up and tried the hatch; rather to his surprise it was open. Without breathing he slowly pushed one of the doors upwards, and inch by inch poked his head through to find himself staring at an alley wall. He looked around: yes, an unremarkable side-street with only an indignant-looking cat witness to his rise from the depths.

Seunghyun pushed the hatch further open then retreated down the steps to collect Jiyong. The smaller man came silently, too weary for even a nervous glance as they surfaced back into the world. When Seunghyun shut the hatch behind them he saw it was indeed an old coal-chute. It was disguised with a padlock but one side of the hasp was not attached, and he guessed this must be a regular way in and out of the Green Mill for people who didn’t care to be seen by anyone watching the place. Thank God there’d been nobody using it tonight! This morning, he corrected himself: the first daylight had arrived, insofar as it could pierce the falling snow.

“Let’s see now,” Seunghyun whispered fondly to Jiyong, rubbing his thin shoulders briskly. When they reached the mouth of the alley he was thrilled to discover they were on Broadway; he could see the building that housed the Mill off in the distance. They could make it to the station from here, only… Seunghyun chewed on his lip – they couldn’t walk all the way in the snow, not with Jiyong like this. Better anyway not to ride a public train. Who knew how long it would take for their crime scene to be discovered, and who might be watching for anyone suspicious.

Having no other options Seunghyun kept them lurking in the alley, blocking Jiyong from the wind as best he could with his body. There were posters for various entertainments and attractions plastered all over this end of the road, and Jiyong stared at them vacantly while they waited. In the meantime Seunghyun undid his own clothing enough to rip off a strip of shirt and tie it tightly above Jiyong’s sleeve where he judged the blood was coming from. Jiyong hissed at him but didn’t object. There were few people on Broadway and even fewer vehicles, but at long last a taxi came trundling along, going slow on the slippery road. Seunghyun ran out and flagged it down desperately; his prayers were answered and it pulled up at the curb.

“Wherever you’re goin’, gunna charge ya double!” was the driver’s perfunctory greeting through his cracked-down window. Seunghyun nodded and opened the back door, then ran to fetch Jiyong and settle him against the padded seat.

“Any street behind Upper Prairie,” he told the driver, and slammed the door against the wind. The man pulled away carefully, squinting through the steamed-up glass. Seunghyun breathed a deep sigh of thanks; he was now truly exhausted, and he could not shake a niggling feeling that they’d forgotten something. As they turned a corner Jiyong slid against him, head falling heavily onto his shoulder. He made a slight pained noise, then yawned.

“Your mate all right, is he?” inquired the driver, looking concerned for his interior.

“Just a few too many,” replied Seunghyun airily, or as airily as he could given that they had just killed someone – no, he wouldn’t think about that now. “But he’ll be okay.” The man grunted and went back to concentrating on the road.

It took a long time; Seunghyun judged it was close to nine in the morning when the cab let them out in a road that connected with the narrow alley bordering the House. He tipped the driver well – he was damn grateful – but not so extravagantly that he’d remember them. Jiyong woke up and seemed a little brighter, enough to clamber out on his own. Scooping up the ill-gotten bags Seunghyun led them into the familiar alleyway; beside them the House loomed silent.

“Jiyong,” he began worriedly, “are you gonna be able-”

“It’ll be fine,” Jiyong interrupted. He eyed the drainpipe by which he usually accessed the roof, and swung his injured arm thoughtfully. “Honestly, I think it’s just a flesh wound. If you give me a hand up…”

And as they had no other choice, Seunghyun did. He did not love heights himself but there was no other way for Jiyong to enter the House without the day staff discovering he had left it – and it was the only method of getting their loot in without it being seen. So the older man stacked as many crates as he could by the wall and heaved himself up. True to his nature Jiyong easily swarmed to the top of the precarious pile, favoring his injured arm. Once there he used Seunghyun as a climbing frame, eventually standing on his shoulders to stretch as far up the drainpipe as possible. From that position he could just reach one of the second-floor roof abutments, and wriggled onto it. Seunghyun got down, retrieved the bags, and threw them up to him.

“Can you get up here?” called Jiyong under his breath. Seunghyun pulled a face, but compared to everything else he had done this day it didn’t seem like much. He clambered up to join Jiyong.

Too many minutes of what seemed highly dangerous acrobatics followed; Seunghyun made the mistake of looking down and got vertigo, and once Jiyong’s arm slipped, sending him sliding back several feet with his bags. But eventually the smaller man attained the apex, where he waved at Seunghyun and crawled off on his stomach to reach his secret skylight. Seunghyun got down with rather less grace, then strolled nonchalantly out of the alley and past the main House steps to the service entrance. He unlocked the door with his key and quietly kicked the snow off his boots, waving to a sleepy day-maid before making his way down to the basement. Luckily they were used to his coming and going to check on his distillery, and hopefully no-one would think twice about seeing him now.

Seunghyun shucked his outer layers and boots, and as fast as possible slunk up the back way to the third floor. Everything was quiet upstairs, the workers fast asleep – Lily’s door was closed and silent in the shuttered hallway. He eased open the door to the storerooms and nipped inside, shutting it behind him. There was no sign of Jiyong, but when he craned his neck to peer up at the skylight he saw the boy’s white face peeking back at him. Jiyong immediately opened the window.

“Take them!” he whispered, his teeth chattering so hard Seunghyun could hear them. He dropped the bags through the tiny skylight with his good hand and the bigger man caught them, then caught Jiyong in turn as he almost fell through the aperture. “…Hands froze up,” Jiyong breathed. “Was scared to get down by myself.” Seunghyun climbed on a chair and shut the window. He took Jiyong’s gloved hands between both his own and chafed them warmly; his clothing was sprinkled with snow and he radiated cold. Impulsively Seunghyun threw his arms around him and pulled him close against his own body, everything that had happened hitting him as they began to thaw: Jiyong had saved his life and had taken someone else’s. More than that, he could have lost Jiyong! Would the younger man think the diamonds worth it now?

“‘M okay, Tabi, honestly,” Jiyong assured him through his shivers, his cheek pressed icy against Seunghyun’s. “C’mon, let go. I don’t like it in here…” Seunghyun opened his eyes. The sprawling storerooms did have a strange atmosphere: the dark and dust and an uncomfortable sense of being watched. He told himself it had less to do with ghosts and more with his conscience, which had been severely shaken in the last few hours; that, and the feeling of something missing that would not quit nagging at him. But Jiyong was right, it was cold and no good for him in here. Seunghyun took the bags and turned to the door, which was hanging ajar. That was odd; he frowned but dismissed it, and stepped cautiously out into the dim corridor. Jiyong followed him without a sound. Seunghyun turned towards Jiyong’s rooms, then looked back sharply at the servants’ stairwell – he almost thought he had seen a flash of movement. No, he had: a figure turning to dart down the stairs, just a glimpse of dark eyes and dark hair, the shadows too deep to tell anything more. Seunghyun froze. One of the maids, perhaps; or perhaps not.

“What is it?” Jiyong whispered.

“…Nothing.” No need to alarm him now; what he needed was rest. Jiyong shot him a puzzled look but slipped ahead into his apartment. Seunghyun followed him, shut the door safely behind them, and leaned against it. The room was blissfully warm.

“Well,” said Jiyong breathlessly, turning to smile at him with shining, feverish eyes. “We did it!” Then he collapsed.

 

Chapter Text

Seunghyun rushed forward as Jiyong hit the carpet.

Jiyong!” he muttered frantically, dropping down beside him. But the smaller man was already leaning up on one elbow, blinking in bewilderment.

“…I’m okay, quit fussing. I didn’t pass out, I just…got dizzy. The heat, I guess…”

“I need to see your arm,” Seunghyun insisted. “No arguing!” Without pausing to give Jiyong breath to talk he scooped him up and carried him through the bedroom into the bathroom, where he sat him on a stool and set the hot water running.

“Wait,” said Jiyong, as Seunghyun attempted to unlace his boots. “Hide the stuff first!” The older man obediently went and fetched the incriminating evidence. Jiyong drew the bag of diamonds from inside his clothing, and with a touch of reluctance handed it to him; it was heavy, and Seunghyun guessed the estimation of their value was probably accurate. Still, they were not worth half as much as Jiyong. “…There’s a chest in one corner of the bedroom,” Jiyong instructed him in a weak voice. “If you move it you’ll see the carpet pulls back. I loosened one of the floorboards, you can stash it under there.”

“Okay.”

“And shut the bedroom door!” Jiyong called fretfully. Seunghyun was just replacing the carpet when a nasty thought struck him. He returned to the bathroom and began to peel off Jiyong’s coat. “Did you do it?” asked Jiyong.

“I need the gun,” Seunghyun replied. Jiyong nodded, his eyes huge. Seunghyun removed the little pistol from his coat pocket and hid it beneath the floorboards with the rest before finally removing his gloves; he didn’t know what else to do with it, but hoped they’d be long gone before it became a problem. Those objects gave him a heavy, sick feeling, the gun and the diamonds both. He smoothed everything over and returned to the bathroom, shutting them in. Steam was warming the room and Jiyong had shucked his own boots and gloves. A slight color was beginning to return to his face, but it was still shiny with sweat. When Seunghyun touched his forehead it was cold.

“Tabi…” Jiyong blinked solemnly at him.

“I want to look at you,” Seunghyun told him, trying not to sound too worried. He untied Jiyong’s scarf and cast it aside, then started unbuttoning his overalls. Jiyong didn’t object, just watched him with his pupils large and hazy; when Seunghyun eased his left sleeve down he flinched. Underneath he was wearing a wool sweater, and beneath that a shirt and thermals. They were all bloody and would have to be burned. He drew the undergarment over Jiyong’s damp blonde head – and that was when the realization struck him.

“What?” demanded Jiyong at his expression, voice tight to manage the pain. “…What is it?”

“Your cap,” Seunghyun told him after a moment. “You were wearing it in the office, and then you-”

“-And then I took a dive.” With some effort Jiyong’s eyes opened wide. “I must’ve left it there!” That was it, thought the older man in consternation, that was what had been missing – and what was now lying on the floor of the Mill for anyone to find. He pursed his lips hard, trying to suppress an exclamation of horror because that wouldn’t do Jiyong any good.

“We’ll worry about it later,” he said instead. Jiyong touched his shoulder lightly.

“I don’t think it’ll be much of a clue,” the boy offered, his small face taut. “It’s not like I have my name sewn in it, and it’s hardly couture: who’d ever imagine Kwon Jiyong wearing something so humdrum? Right?”

“…Right.” Seunghyun patted his hand, and fervently hoped he was correct. Jiyong just smiled at him, faint and shaky.

Seunghyun gradually stripped him down completely, then ran his gaze over him to check for more injuries. There were a few bruises but nothing that needed seeing to other than his arm. Jiyong hissed as Seunghyun turned it carefully in his hands. To the bigger man’s relief it looked like he’d been right, the bullet had gone through: there was a bloody hole at the outside edge of his bicep and a small exit wound on the back, right through the middle of his tattoo. It couldn’t have been a large caliber weapon but the wounds had been pulled about while Jiyong was climbing.

“How bad is it?” said Jiyong through gritted teeth.

“Not bad.” Seunghyun gave him a soft smile; he wanted him calm and relaxed. “I’ll clean it and wrap it and then you can have a nice bath. You got any liquor up here?”

“Yeah, whiskey. In the bottom drawer of the dressing-table.”

“Needle and thread?”

“Top drawer.” Seunghyun went and fetched them, along with a pile of fine linen handkerchiefs he’d found. He knelt down in front of Jiyong, who gave him a pale smile. First he washed the wounds in warm water, then in the whiskey; it was strong stuff and should work as antiseptic in a pinch. Jiyong snarled and gripped the stool with his good hand at the sting.

“Sorry,” said Seunghyun. “But you don’t want it getting infected.” He chose the sharpest needle and finest thread, soaked them again in the whiskey and then in hot water before fishing out one of his matches and holding the needle in the flame. He hoped it would be enough.

“You gotta sew me up…?” murmured Jiyong, staring at the needle with his lip between his teeth.

“Just a couple of stitches in the front.” Seunghyun touched his knee. “But it won’t be pretty, I’ve never done it before. I’d tell you to call the House doctor, but…”

“I know. I don’t care – it doesn’t matter anymore.” Jiyong covered Seunghyun’s bigger hand with his own. “You won’t mind me with a scar or two, right?” The older man shook his head dumbly, and Jiyong let out a shaky laugh. “Okay. Better gimme a drink.” Seunghyun passed the whiskey and Jiyong took several deep gulps; his eyes were watering as he handed the bottle back. “You too – you’re white as a sheet.”

“Good idea.” Seunghyun had a nip or three, felt the warmth spread through him. “Ready?” he said. Jiyong nodded and gripped the edge of the stool again. He behaved admirably while Seunghyun was sewing him up; to be fair it was only three stitches, but there was no guessing how much that bumbling surgery hurt the smaller man. Jiyong gritted his teeth and silently endured it at first, then started panting.

“Talk to me!” he urged. Seunghyun, focusing on his needle, cast about for a topic but could only think of one.

“…Where did you learn to fire a gun?” he asked at last. Jiyong gave a labored chuckle but began to speak.

“A few of us can… One, ‘cos it’s a useful thing to know. But mostly because there’re some tricks who get off on showing a pretty young thing how to shoot.” He huffed quietly, then whimpered as the needle went in again. “They can’t pretend to teach us anything about sex…but when it comes to firearms they feel like they’re the expert and the girl is the innocent student. And of course the danger is titillating. They’ll take her out to the range or to their private grounds and let her fire it off; it excites them. Ouch!”

Seunghyun could imagine it, how seductive some people might find the whole routine and the hands-on nature of the coaching. He hated the thought of some man playing with the teenage Jiyong like that, but he had to admit it had proved terrifyingly useful – though only time would tell what the consequences might be.

“It was Mrs. Palmer taught me,” added Jiyong to his surprise, after a pause to catch his breath. “But she just likes teaching me stuff in general. And thank God she did.”

“Maybe,” said Seunghyun. He didn’t know how he felt, the adrenaline was still too high at the memory of the body and of Jiyong’s face as he’d shot the man down. “Where’d you get it, from her?”

“Nah.” Jiyong finally relaxed as Seunghyun tied off the thread. “Another regular. He doesn’t come around since the Outfit got to be a fixture, but he gave it me before he left. Said I might need it, and wasn’t he right!”

“I guess you did save my life tonight,” Seunghyun admitted. “I always thought it would be me who ended up doing something so…extreme. I figured it’d be me who lost control and hurt someone.” Jiyong shrugged, then let out a thin whine as it jolted his freshly-sewn wound. Seunghyun smiled gently; it didn’t matter to him what Jiyong had done, he realized – he thought he could live with anything this boy did. With great care he tied a makeshift linen bandage over the wound while Jiyong took another swig of whiskey. “You’ll have to let me change that twice a day,” he added, smoothing out the fabric on Jiyong’s slender arm. “I heard gunshot wounds can cause a fever.”

“Ahh…” Jiyong was gazing down at him, his eyes soft and dark. “It is getting pretty warm…” Seunghyun laid a hand on his forehead; he had a temperature all right, had gone from icy to hot in the space of half an hour.

“No more drink,” he instructed, and took the bottle away. Jiyong just smiled at him, his cheeks flushing, and cupped his face in both hands.

“You were amazing today,” the boy murmured, thumbs caressing on Seunghyun’s temples. “I totally lost the plot back there and you didn’t leave me, you took care of me…you always take care of me.” Seunghyun nodded, his poor heart racing yet again. “So clever,” continued Jiyong, sounding a little dizzy now. “What you can do with your mind, Seunghyun, and your hands…” He glanced at the bandage, then back at the bigger man’s face. “Your hands,” he repeated, and licked his lips, drawing Seunghyun’s helpless eyes towards them. Jiyong took an excited breath. “Tabi, I want you.”

“Huh?” managed Seunghyun. Jiyong was drawing him upwards with both hands, legs parting to curl around his ribs.

“I want you,” breathed Jiyong again; Seunghyun could feel the heat in his fingers, the fever radiating from his small body. “Right now!”

“But you-”

“Hush,” Jiyong commanded, and kissed him, all whiskey and insistent lips, and as their mouths touched Seunghyun was lost. He wrapped his arms around Jiyong’s waist and returned the kiss, not gentle as he ought to be but hungry as though he could not live without Jiyong’s breath. The younger man made a savage, delighted noise and got a firm grip on his hair with his right hand while his bad arm slid around Seunghyun’s neck. Seunghyun felt Jiyong’s tongue press his mouth open demandingly, then those white teeth biting at his lip, and a wave of giddiness hit him as if the boy’s fever was contagious – only it was heady and delicious like no illness he had experienced before. He growled and kissed him back harder: he no longer cared what Jiyong had done, what crimes they had both committed just a few hours ago or what would happen next – all he knew was that Jiyong desired him.

“Please,” Jiyong was saying, his hands now pulling urgently at Seunghyun’s shirt and his mouth on the bigger man’s throat. “Please, I want you inside me….!” Seunghyun gasped and was immediately at full erection at the mere thought of it, he had wanted it for so long. Jiyong was hard too, pressing against him with every available inch of his naked body. He had managed to remove Seunghyun’s shirt and undershirt and his tattooed fingers were gliding eagerly across his back. “Oh…!” breathed Jiyong in an unsteady voice, “you’re black and blue!” He bent his neck and laid his lips against one of the bruises Seunghyun had inflicted on himself by shouldering the locked doors open. His skin was burning beside the older man’s, and Seunghyun wondered if this passion came from real desire or from a combination of drink and blood loss and fever. It didn’t matter, because Jiyong was not in the mood to let him stop.

“Quick, Tabi,” Jiyong said hoarsely. His mouth met Seunghyun’s once more, sweet and despotic.

“I don’t wanna hurt you…! If we don’t use-”

“You couldn’t hurt me if you tried,” the boy opined after another kiss. “…I’m far too practiced, and you’re far too nice!” The older man continued to look nervous. Jiyong huffed impatiently against his mouth but took a hold of his belt with his good hand and pushed him up to sit on the edge of the bath. He dropped to his knees between Seunghyun’s legs and kissed his stomach. Without any pause for conversation he ripped his belt and fly open and yanked his pants down, stripping him with haste but with less ease than usual – a leftover from the chilling his fingers had gotten earlier. Seunghyun had never been completely naked with Jiyong before, had always been focused on the smaller man’s pleasure, and in fact he found it slightly intimidating – especially now Jiyong was gazing up at him with the intent eyes and sharp profile of a bird of prey. “Hold on,” instructed Jiyong, and closed his lips over Seunghyun’s cock.

God…!” Jiyong was not easing him into it this time; he took the bigger man all the way in and began to suck him, his flushed face growing even pinker as he moved his head. It was wet and hot as sin, and Seunghyun was soon clinging to the edge of the tub much as Jiyong had hung on while he was being stitched. He didn’t know how long he could take this! Jiyong only made it worse when he spread his slim thighs and slid his right hand between them, pushing two fingers inside his ass to work himself open. He let out a muffled groan around Seunghyun’s cock and met his eyes with a look of sheer lust.

“That enough for you?” murmured Jiyong, his chest heaving as he came up for air. Seunghyun could only stare at him and fight not to orgasm right there. His animal side had taken over completely: he was no longer thinking of Jiyong’s injury or illness, the danger they had put themselves in. He wasn’t thinking at all. Perhaps sensing this, Jiyong smiled wolfishly and pulled himself up Seunghyun’s body to stand over him. “What’re you waiting for?” he demanded, and then Seunghyun could not wait. He picked the younger man up bodily, hands grasping his buttocks, and surged to his feet. Jiyong exhaled in satisfaction and wrapped both legs around his hips, his erection pressed ardently against Seunghyun’s stomach.

“Where?” asked Seunghyun in a low, guttural tone; he felt Jiyong’s overheated body shiver.

“Anywhere!” Seunghyun started for the blue bedroom but couldn’t even make it as far as the bed; he just about got through the bathroom door before Jiyong ground down against his cock, and that was it, he had to be closer to him! He slammed the boy up against the expensively papered wall, harder than he had meant to but he didn’t have time to apologize. He felt Jiyong’s fingers helping him and the next second his slick cock was pressing inside him. Jiyong gasped, forehead dropping to rest against his own as the bigger man filled him. He didn’t look like he was hurting, and it felt exquisite. Seunghyun might have stood there forever trembling from the delight, the fulfilment of it, but then Jiyong moved and sank down on him and he had no choice but to respond.

Jiyong began to ride him with an expertise that was nothing short of miraculous, and at the same time with a fierce hunger that seemed close to the edge of his control. Seunghyun didn’t even try to pretend he was in command of himself, but clasped Jiyong tight and pushed up into him with a series of delighted groans that were echoed by the smaller man’s short snatches of breath.

“…Feels so good, Tabi!” sighed out Jiyong against his open mouth. “Even better…than I thought!!” At another time that might have made Seunghyun paranoid, but now it was as if those old cares had never existed.

Love you,” he managed, his hands squeezing the boy’s perfect ass. He wanted to touch Jiyong more, experience what he felt like all over at this milestone moment. He wanted to be even deeper inside him. He spun Jiyong away from the wall and staggered the few steps to the bed, pushing him down amid the covers. Jiyong winced as his left arm hit the sheets but reached up to draw Seunghyun’s head down and kiss him ravenously. With his free hand he pulled the bigger man hard against him as if it was good to feel his weight. Seunghyun gasped and thrust into him; it was much easier like this. He ran his hands luxuriously over Jiyong’s chest, his gleaming stomach and narrow hips. He hooked one of Jiyong’s legs over his shoulder and nudged the other back, hand firm on his lovely thigh. Jiyong took the hint and without any difficulty whatsoever stretched his leg back to rest beside his head. He smiled at Seunghyun’s look of astonishment.

“See,” he murmured, “told you I could be a contortionist.” So saying he slid his right hand down to grab Seunghyun’s behind, urging him on, and the older man’s eyes grew even wider as he discovered just how deep Jiyong could take him like this. The sensation of connection was intense, not only physically but in the rapt gaze of Jiyong’s black eyes. He gave another peremptory squeeze and Seunghyun sped up, somehow finding a rhythm that could make Jiyong cry out. Working a hand between their slick stomachs he took Jiyong’s cock in his grip and felt that perfect flesh tighten around him; the smaller man’s moans took on a higher pitch and he nodded frantically as Seunghyun stroked him in time with his thrusts. Seunghyun leaned down and kissed him, untidy, unable to formulate any words now but Jiyong’s name. He muttered it over and over as if it was a spell, fucking him with an abandon that was matched only by Jiyong’s own enthusiasm.

Seunghyun had almost run out of air from chanting Jiyong’s name, his hips and hand moving faster and faster until his pulse was blurring, when Jiyong constricted around his cock and threw his beautiful head back, yelling out loud. The older man felt him come hot against his torso; it gave him a great deal of triumph, almost ecstatic in itself, and a few short seconds later he reached his own near-shattering orgasm. Jiyong cried out more softly, hands locked around the back of his neck. He was fighting for breath, his face and throat almost scarlet with exertion and fever. As Seunghyun’s muscles relaxed Jiyong drew him down; he was more careful this time of where his weight landed, but it felt spectacular to collapse against him, Jiyong’s body as sinuous and smooth as a snake. Jiyong’s chest heaved a few more times against his while Seunghyun blinked the stinging sweat from his eyes. Then the boy pressed his damp cheek to Seunghyun’s, and in a dazed, almost disbelieving voice said:

“…I love you.”

Seunghyun froze; surely he had imagined it! But Jiyong whispered it again, the words unmistakable, before he turned his head to kiss him. The bigger man was almost too shocked to move. He knew Jiyong was fond of him: approved of him as a lover and liked and trusted him as a friend. But not even after the desperate events of last night had Seunghyun dared to hope that this pragmatic, jaded boy could feel anything more. And yet…he had heard it.

“Say it again,” he begged against Jiyong’s lips: soft now, no longer frantic but lazy and affectionate as they kissed him. Jiyong smiled his real smile for the first time in forever; then he said it once more. The smile turned into a chuckle at Seunghyun’s dumb expression.

“You wanna hear it again, you’re gunna have to show me as good a time as you did just now.” He trailed his right hand slowly up and down Seunghyun’s spine, a lover’s familiar gesture. His breathing was still accelerated, while the older man’s slowed under the soothing caress. Seunghyun leaned up on one elbow to get a better look at him.

“You still feeling dizzy?” he inquired.

“Shouldn’t I?” murmured Jiyong. “After that…” Seunghyun pressed the back of his hand to Jiyong’s cheek.

“You need sleep.” Jiyong made a face at him. “We can’t have you getting sick,” Seunghyun said in concern. “Not now.” He kissed Jiyong to stop any more complaining, then reluctantly disentangled their limbs and went to fetch a cool damp cloth and a glass of water. Jiyong allowed him to wipe the sweat from his skin and put him in bed. Seunghyun checked his bandage, then took his hand. They probably shouldn’t have done that – but he was worshipfully glad that they had.

“Much as I’d like you to stay and play nursemaid,” said Jiyong after drinking the water, “you’d better get your sleep in the basement.” He squeezed Seunghyun’s fingers; his own were still too hot. “We don’t wanna mess up from something stupid like you getting caught in my bed.”

“Course.” Seunghyun tucked him in, then got one more kiss to tide him over; with luck it might stave off some of the recollections and dark thoughts he knew would be heading his way. “When do we leave?” he asked soberly, after he’d dressed. “Tonight? Tomorrow? I’ve only got a couple more things to get ready.” He could say his goodbyes to almost everyone after the fact, even if it had to be by telephone. Jiyong gave him a chiding look.

“Are you mad?” he said fondly. “Taking off the very day after my would-be owner gets burglarized? We’d have a target on our back in five minutes. No. We’re gunna stick around like tomorrow is any other day. We’re gunna be astonished as any of the girls when the gossip about the diamonds and the dead guy reaches us – I doubt it’ll take long. And then, after a few weeks, when things have settled down and everyone’s moved on…then we leave, and you take up your new job like a respectable scientist.”

“And what about McGurn?” demanded Seunghyun. He could see the sense in the plan, though it would take one hell of a deadpan performance from both of them under terrible pressure. But Jiyong’s would-be owner was another story. “You think he’s just gonna move on?”

“No. He’ll lose his rag, I bet,” said Jiyong, looking earnestly up at him. “But with any luck it’s gunna be the North Side Gang or some other career criminals who get the blame – who else would be crazy enough to go after Machine Gun Jack? And no doubt Capone will take charge of all that before he runs riot through the Mob alliances. When it comes to McGurn and me…” His lips thinned. “Well. No way will Mr. Insull let me go for anything less than a fortune, and for now McGurn doesn’t have one. I’m sure.” His brows drew down, and Seunghyun knew he was anxious – that he had finally begun to lose his misplaced trust in Insull. He was probably right about the payment; Seunghyun just prayed that was all there was to the transaction – and that Capone would rein his dog in if it came down to it.

“All right.” He wasn’t going to bother Jiyong about all this now; he looked exhausted, and Seunghyun felt the same. “We can talk when you next have some time to yourself.”

“Oughta be easy,” said Jiyong with a yawn. “I’m not Mr. Popular anymore.” Seunghyun was cheered that he no longer sounded bitter. He kissed Jiyong’s forehead, scooped up the boy’s bloody clothes from the bathroom, and tiptoed out of his apartment. He made it down the back stairs without anybody noticing and wandered into the kitchen to scrounge breakfast after dumping the clothes in the basement. He attempted some small-talk with the day staff and was mildly impressed with his own acting. Then he went back downstairs, still holding in check all the things that urgently needed thinking about and simply dwelling on the three magic words Jiyong had said to him. And it must have worked: ten minutes later he was passed out on the mattress.

 


 

When Seunghyun finally woke he remembered he was supposed to be acting normal. So he dragged himself up, changed into some spare clothes, and went to the lab. It was still snowing and the campus was sparsely populated; he was glad about that, didn’t think he could stand the whispers and looks – real or imagined – from the other students, not when he had woken up so paranoid. Professor Wyeman gave him a scolding for being late, but that was okay. Since he had told him about his experiences at the conference the Prof had begun to ease up on him a little. Seunghyun didn’t know what that meant, but soon it wouldn’t matter – soon he would be gone. Of course, he ought to tell Wyeman he was leaving first…

Later in the afternoon Daesung came to distract him. Seunghyun gave the younger man his flashlight back and was rewarded with a large cup of coffee.

“You look weird,” said Daesung without any beating around the bush.

“Didn’t get much sleep.” Daesung raised his eyebrows suggestively; Seunghyun was treated to a vivid mental flash of earlier that morning, Jiyong flushed and panting beneath him. He felt himself blush. “Not that,” he said unconvincingly. Daesung put the flashlight away with a thoughtful look. He hadn’t asked why Seunghyun wanted it, but he was too generous to deny his friends anything. Seunghyun was counting on that largeness of spirit: he’d have to tell Daesung too, about where he was going and with whom, and he wanted him to understand. He’d have to lie to almost everyone else: Wyeman, the other grad students, his parents. Daesung was the only person who might forgive him for running off with Jiyong.

“…You know if there’s anything on your mind you can tell me,” offered Daesung, swinging his heels against the lab bench. Seunghyun smiled at him; the younger man had no idea what he was asking.

Seunghyun’s mind was currently so full of questions his head felt five times heavier than usual. As he’d worked on his research that afternoon he’d tried to categorize them, from easy to completely unanswerable. The easiest concerned his own feelings: could he live with a man who had deliberately killed another person? Before last night Seunghyun would have quickly been able to say no; today it was just as simple to say yes. He now knew that when it came to Jiyong he would say yes to anything. That worried him some, but not as much as it should. The questions only got harder from there: how long would they have to wait before they could safely leave? Who would get the blame for the theft at the Mill? Had they found Jiyong’s forgotten cap, and what would they make of it? Who was the man they had shot? How would McGurn take it if and when Insull refused to give him Jiyong? And finally the mystery that seemed petty in comparison but which was niggling at the back of his mind the most: who had he seen this morning in the shadows of the stairwell? And who had seen them?

 


 

The only person Seunghyun could share these thoughts with was Jiyong, but when he arrived back at the House that evening and came upstairs for his bar shift he found that they had apparently gone back in time: Jiyong wasn’t speaking to him. He watched, perplexed, as the boy flirted with potential clients and spoke coolly to the other workers. Jiyong was perfectly made up as usual, the powder hiding any circles under his eyes or flush in his face. Still, when he came to give a perfunctory drink order for his trick Seunghyun could almost feel the fever smoldering beneath his skin and in his sparkling eyes. It was terribly attractive.

Jiyong had disappeared upstairs with his client, leaving Seunghyun to fret and make half-hearted conversation with the girls by himself. Lily was still basking in the sensation of being top dog, and chatted with him complacently about a generous new client who was quickly becoming her favorite. Lin and some of the other workers watched them narrowly. Seungri had been looking at him too, though not with the censure the girls had been giving Lily. Nevertheless, Seunghyun didn’t fancy being rapped on the knuckles by Thompson for fraternizing – especially when it wasn’t even Lily he was guilty of doing it with. So when a lull came in the drink orders he went down to the distillery to grab some more beer and ice and get away from the prying eyes.

“There you are!” He looked up to see Jiyong shut the basement door behind him and jog down the steps. Jiyong picked his way eagerly through the usual debris and laid his hands on Seunghyun’s shoulders, leaning up to kiss him with no hesitation. Seunghyun of course reciprocated and felt those cherubic lips smile beneath his. Jiyong kissed him for a good minute, pressed against him as if he’d not been ignoring him all evening. “There,” said Jiyong breathlessly, when he at last settled back down on his heels. “Just to reassure you I’m not being a bitch. I saw that face you were making,” he went on, tapping Seunghyun’s chest. “You gotta be a better actor than that!”

“Was I?” Seunghyun stroked his smooth cheek, felt the dancing heat of his skin.

“We have to go on like we were before,” said Jiyong more seriously. His right hand smoothed out Seunghyun’s waistcoat in a proprietary gesture. “As far as Mr. Insull’s concerned I don’t know anything about his plan to swap me for those diamonds. I oughta still be sulking at being downgraded; the only person I should be nice to right now is the boss, and I guess he’s not planning on coming around anytime soon.”

“Of course not. He doesn’t want to face you – why would he, when he’s about to sell you to a madman?” For a moment Jiyong looked miserable, and Seunghyun knew he had not gotten over Insull’s betrayal. Then he brightened up.

“Oh, well. It just makes it easier if he’s not here.”

“What about your arm?” asked Seunghyun. “…Here, lemme see it.” Jiyong pushed up the loose sleeve of his kimono shirt to reveal a neatly tied bandage.

“I managed to clean it and change it myself,” he explained. “Before I came down to work. See, it’s fine.”

“Good.” Seunghyun replaced the sleeve and gave his hand an approving stroke. “But what’re you gonna tell people when they see it?” Jiyong shrugged.

“I’ll say I was rude to a client and he hurt me. No-one’s gunna think that’s too unlikely so long as they don’t see the wound.”

“Hmph.”

“Remember, we can’t do anything out of character,” Jiyong said. “The only person who thinks any different is Ri, and as far as he knows I’m still freaking out that McGurn’s gunna get me. I’m sure the poor kid’s trying to come up with a way to get me off the hook himself! But I won’t have to act depressed very long – just ‘til news gets around about the heist.”

“…Yeah.” It was no good: Seunghyun had to say something, to share the mystery that was eating away at his already precarious sense of safety. “Listen,” he said in a low voice. He took Jiyong’s overheated hand again. The boy stepped closer and looked up at him quizzically. “You know how you felt weird in the storerooms this morning? How you thought it was spooky?”

“It was.”

“…I shut that door behind me when I came to help you in,” confessed Seunghyun. “But when we went to leave it was open.”

“I told you it was haunted!” said Jiyong without irony.

“No.” The older man pursed his lips. “I think someone was watching us. And if they were they know you came through the roof, and they saw us with the bags.”

“Who?” Jiyong took hold of his sleeve.

“I don’t know. But when we came out I swear I saw someone in the back stairwell. There wasn’t enough light to tell who it was; but they had dark hair and eyes. Then they ran off, and you were hurt and…”

“Dark hair and eyes?” Jiyong frowned. “That could be half the people in this building.”

“Right. But…” Seunghyun clammed up. He had his own suspicions but Jiyong sure wouldn’t want to hear them. Jiyong nudged him sharply.

“But what?”

“…Who’s the one person other than me who hangs around your rooms without permission? Who’s the one who likes watching you?” The younger man raised his eyebrows in a silent request for an explanation. Then they twisted incredulously.

Panda?!” he exclaimed. “Oh, come on, he’s not a spy!”

“He always knows what’s going on,” insisted Seunghyun, taking Jiyong’s shoulders in both hands as if that would make him more convincing. “He told us himself he listens at doors! He tells you all sorts of stuff about Insull, right? Why? He’s the man’s nephew – who’s to say he’s not watching you for him?” Jiyong’s jaw had dropped.

“That’s…Tabi, it could’ve been anyone: one of the maids upstairs cleaning, most likely.” He bit his lip. “Of course it’s something we oughta worry about – maybe. But there’s no reason to accuse Seungri!”

“And no reason to be naïve about his loyalties,” said Seunghyun stubbornly. “Especially now!”

“You’ve been funny about him since the day you met him.” The smaller man laid a hand on his chest and drew back to get a good look. “What is it, really?”

“…I don’t know,” admitted Seunghyun. “Just…don’t tell him anything you don’t need to. It’s gonna be hard enough playing innocent when the news breaks about McGurn. If it was Seungri watching us… All it needs is one hint for him to put two and two together!”

“Calm down.” Jiyong kissed him, right over his heart, then slapped him in the stomach. “Go back to your sulking and leave Seungri to me. I need you to stay strong,” he said more gently. “For me. ‘Cos unless I miss my guess, we’re in for a storm before this is all over.”

Seunghyun nodded. Jiyong smiled at him, secretive and affectionate and displaying no contrition at all about bumping off some guy last night. The older man gazed down at him in concern and deep admiration. Jiyong gave him a kiss, then extracted himself from his grip and tripped lightly away up the stairs. Seunghyun was left with his doubts in no way dispelled, and with slightly less willingness to trust that Jiyong knew what he was doing – but the boy was sick, it wasn’t his fault if his judgment was impaired. He finished crating up his liquor, checked on the gin still, and followed Jiyong back to the Salon. Time to put on his mask again; he just hoped it would not be for too long.

 


 

“Did you think of anything yet?” asked Seungri, pulling Seunghyun aside the very next day. “Thompson told me to get on with Jiyong’s packing, I’m sure Uncle Sam’s gonna tell him soon! That means we’re running out of time. All the ideas I could come up with sound lame: we go to my uncle together and convince him something terrible will happen to Jiyong if McGurn gets him to himself…or just spirit Yongie out and hide him somewhere.” The kid glanced around the empty pantry, then back at Seunghyun; he obviously had the jitters, or seemed to. “You must have something better than that!”

“Not really,” said Seunghyun. Even if he’d wanted to be honest with Seungri – which he didn’t – there was nothing he could offer that wouldn’t put Jiyong and himself in danger. Seungri looked almost hurt.

“Nothing? Haven’t you got more brains than the rest of us put together?!” The older man folded his arms and stared at the floor. “…Anyone’d think you’re not scared for him,” Seungri said with a searching expression.

“I’m worried plenty,” Seunghyun announced. He was experiencing one of his occasional stings of guilt, because Seungri always sounded so earnest. “But it’s Jiyong’s choice if he wants me to intervene. And right now he’s got nothing much to say to me.” Seungri gave him a peculiar glance and Seunghyun stiffened.

“…Fine,” said the kid after a pause. “But if we dawdle much longer it’ll be too late to do anything.”

 

One of the first customers in the Salon that night was a guy from the Outfit. Seunghyun recognized him as one of Scaramuzzo’s buddies, though he didn’t come around so often since the other man had been half-murdered by McGurn. He and his colleagues appeared in ill-concealed excitement this evening, talking rapidly in suppressed tones and sharing occasional laughing grimaces amongst themselves – Seunghyun guessed they didn’t think much of McGurn, not only because of his maniacal nature but because of Jiyong. They sure didn’t look too upset. Once they got hold of Bethany and some of the other workers they began the usual flirtation and gossip; and when he saw the women’s eyes go wide Seunghyun knew that word had at last reached the House of the Green Mill robbery. It would not be too many hours before the shooting and the loss of McGurn’s riches travelled up the rumor chain from the girls to Seungri, and finally to Insull. Seunghyun squared his jaw and prepared to act innocent.

“You hear?!” murmured Sarah to Jiyong when the boy came downstairs. Across the bar Seunghyun mixed her drinks and listened with bated breath. “Say, Jiyong, don’t be such a cold fish, this might actually matter to you.”

“What’s that?” Jiyong asked disinterestedly, leaning his chin in his hand and gazing over her shoulder at the Salon.

“Another Mob shooting.” Sarah looked as if she was torn between shock and extreme titillation; Seunghyun recalled how much she had enjoyed the story of Mike Genna’s assassination attempt. He was briefly surprised that a beautiful woman could be so ghoulish – but then just look what Jiyong was capable of…

“Oh?” The smaller man ate the cherry off his cocktail stick in his usual distracting way. “Who got clipped this time?”

“You know, that wag Ricky Russo,” said Sarah, pausing to blow a kiss at the Outfit members she’d been entertaining – they were beckoning her back over. “He dropped in sometimes, real bad jokes; I think he had a go with everyone but you. The boys are saying he got shot in the neck in a heist! Dead.”

“What was he robbing?” inquired Jiyong. He turned to her with mild interest. Seunghyun was amazed at his nerve – he could barely keep his face in check himself.

“No, that’s the point! It was while they were getting turned over: it was McGurn’s place. Yeah, thought that’d make you blink,” she added, giving him a significant look. “Most likely the North Side Irish, knowing them – but then again an inside job isn’t out of the question. Apparently they got the safe open, pinched thousands and thousands. But what’s sent McGurn out of his mind mad is that they took his jewel collection.”

“Wow. I’d be pretty bent outta shape too.”

“That’s why the boys’re muttering that it could’ve been one of their own: the thieves must’ve known the diamonds were there. And no secret plenty of them are on the outs with McGurn since he plugged Scaramuzzo!”

“You’re right,” said Jiyong, finally allowing his pretty eyes to widen. “He must be pissed. Did they go to the cops?”

“Course not,” replied Sarah. Jiyong nodded. “He doesn’t want the law anywhere near that club! Half the stuff in there’s gotta be red hot. I guess Capone will have to deal with it; that is, unless he wants the gang war to escalate.”

“Jeez.” Jiyong blew his cheeks out exaggeratedly. The Irishwoman made a noise of agreement. They put their heads together and continued to discuss the case under their breaths. Seunghyun did not understand how Jiyong could do it, how he could handle the pretense; he himself was beginning to sweat, his fingers fumbling with the glasses – he hoped it wasn’t noticeable, and was grateful Sarah didn’t consider him interesting enough to join in the speculation.

“But I figured you oughta know,” Sarah told Jiyong, once Seunghyun had belatedly finished with her large drink order. It was really true, he thought: being Number One in the house isolated you – and Jiyong’s fall from the top at least had the benefit that more of the girls were disposed to be friendly with him. “You know he’s gonna come blow off steam with you soon, so just take care, huh? Who knows what he might do if… Well. No-one wants to see you get hurt.”

“…Thanks.” The boy gave her a smile that seemed on the verge of surprised before she picked up her tray and sashayed off.

Christ,” exclaimed Seunghyun, sotto voce. He met Jiyong’s eyes, which crinkled up infinitesimally. The older man couldn’t imagine what he looked like to Jiyong right now, but didn’t dare speak. He didn’t think he could say anything sensible. He was called away before he could react to Jiyong’s micro-smile, but as he walked to the other end of the bar he saw, out of the corner of his eye, the younger man’s shoulders heave in a huge, shuddering sigh.

 

Word got to Seungri quickly: Seunghyun was watching him from the corner of his eye all night, and the kid had a mug on him like he was about to spontaneously combust with holding it in. When Jiyong came down for one more drink in front of the fire after the Salon emptied out, Seungri’s face lit up. As Seunghyun began to mix his lover’s Martini, still watching suspiciously, the younger man ran across the room and swept Jiyong into a hug that lifted him clean off his feet. Out of what seemed sheer exhilaration he spun the boy around in a circle before setting him down, Jiyong catching his breath and laughing.

“You heard?!” Seungri exclaimed. The few women still awake raised their eyebrows at his exuberance. Jiyong nodded. Seungri grinned and without a pause kissed him smack on the mouth. To Seunghyun’s unreserved disapproval Jiyong took his face in both hands and kissed him back briskly. “You know what it means, right?” said the kid.

“…You think it’s enough to change Mr. Insull’s mind?” asked Jiyong, drawing back a little in hesitation. “We don’t really know anything about what happened…”

“I’m sure,” stated Seungri earnestly. “I’m sure, Yongie. Without those diamonds at his back McGurn’s never gonna cut a deal with Uncle Sam.” He really did look convinced; for a moment Seunghyun’s suspicions were shaken, as they often were when he witnessed demonstrations of Seungri’s good nature. But everyone in this damn House was an actor.

“God,” breathed Jiyong shakily, proving Seunghyun’s point, “I hope you’re right! I hope…everything can go back to normal.” Seungri patted his back.

“As far as the boss goes I reckon it will. I bet he won’t even mention it; you know what he’s like, he never says more than he has to. You’ll see.” Jiyong smiled up at him and Seungri’s delighted expression drooped a touch. “…Let’s just pray McGurn shows the same restraint.” Jiyong nodded more solemnly. Seungri caught him in another hug, then shot him a questioning look as he flinched at the pressure on his injured arm. “Hey, you okay?” He peered into Jiyong’s face and set a hand to his forehead. “You’re awfully hot!”

“It’s fine,” the smaller man assured him. “Just might be getting a touch of ‘flu.”

“Funny… You haven’t been out in the cold, right?”

“Nope,” said Jiyong. He gazed up at Seungri innocently and the kid smiled back as if he didn’t know any better. Seunghyun gave up any idea of spending the morning in Jiyong’s arms; he felt tired suddenly, perhaps from the strain of pretending to be ignorant and perhaps from watching Jiyong and Seungri do the same. So he left the two of them lying to each other, and went home.

 


 

If there had been any doubt in Jiyong’s mind as to whether Insull would come down on his side, it was relieved the very next night – when McGurn let the entire House know his reaction to Insull’s refusal in no uncertain terms.

Seunghyun spent the day at his parents’. He wanted as much time with them as possible before he and Jiyong left for West Virginia, and he didn’t know quite how long that might be; every day felt like a month, waiting for the heat of the break-in to die down. It was a struggle to lie to them, to pretend everything was normal when every five minutes he wanted to simply lay his head in his mother’s lap and spill all his worries into her apron. The effort of not exploding to someone was exhausting. And now here he was at work, doing it all over again.

It was a quiet night, as most nights were these days what with the snow and the Outfit, but there were enough regulars in to keep Seunghyun occupied at the bar. He had checked on Jiyong’s wound before his first appointment.

“It seems to be healing up okay,” he told Jiyong. “But you’re still too warm. Cut down on the booze and eat right, will you?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Jiyong slid both arms around his waist and kissed him before turning to check his makeup in the mirror. Seunghyun felt a warm tingle of his own, the amazement he still felt whenever Jiyong voluntarily touched him. Nothing the younger man had done seemed to affect it; he couldn’t wait for the day when they would be able to do this any time they felt like it, to be together without fear.

“How much longer?” he couldn’t help asking before Jiyong kicked him out to go downstairs.

“I don’t know,” said Jiyong. “Soon. Calm down, yeah? It’s all gunna go smoothly – if you keep your shit together.” And for another hour or two it did.

Seunghyun was calling through a food order for Lily and her favorite beau – a divorced steel magnate collaborating on the building of Insull’s new Civic Opera House – when they caught the muffled sound of raised voices at the front door. Beside them Jiyong pricked up his ears; then he stiffened.

“…Brace yourselves,” he said quietly. “It’s him.” Heads were turning in the direction of the foyer as the voices solidified into the tones of an argument. As Seunghyun watched, Seungri slipped through the Salon door followed by the enforcer who’d been standing like a potted plant in the corner. Before it closed he heard McGurn’s voice – at least, he thought it was him. Seunghyun had only ever known the man to speak quietly, even when McGurn was threatening him; but Jiyong seemed to be in no doubt. They should not have dared imagine that he would peacefully accept defeat!

“You can’t come in, Sir,” the other enforcer was saying in the usual implacable tone. “Not when you’re intoxicated.”

“I ain’t drunk, you fuckin’ ape!” came McGurn’s voice. He sounded outraged, but also desperate. “I gotta-” Then the door swung shut and the commotion grew indistinct again.

Seunghyun forced himself to turn and look at Jiyong: his knuckles were white on the bar. All the women were staring at him too – they knew who McGurn was here for.

“Get out of here!” urged Seunghyun in a hiss. Jiyong didn’t move. “Upstairs!” The younger man made eye contact with him; he looked stuck there. And before Seunghyun could come around the bar and manually drag him to safety McGurn’s voice returned loud enough to deafen the entire Avenue.

“Jiyong!” they heard him bellow from the front hall. “Jiyong!!” Everyone had spun back and was gazing horrified at the Salon doors.

“Get down, you moron!” Lily was the only person with the presence of mind to move: she pushed Jiyong to the floor beside the bar and maneuvered her obliging trick in front of him. As she did so there was a scuffle outside and the doors slammed open, punctuating the tunes of Sidney Bechet playing in the background. McGurn burst through only to be grabbed again by the two House enforcers; they were real bruisers but looked as if they were struggling to hold the young man back, and with an unpleasant jolt Seunghyun remembered McGurn had been a prizefighter before he took up with Capone.

“C’mon, Sir!” growled one of them. “You can’t be in here armed!” Seunghyun’s heart missed a beat as he saw the gun in the mobster’s hand; he wasn’t aiming it but was gesticulating with it as if it were a natural part of his arm. McGurn glared around wildly as the big men wrestled with him. The fact that there was no Jiyong to be seen only appeared to spur him on.

“You’re mine, Jiyong!!” McGurn bawled to the room at large. “Diamonds or no goddamn diamonds!” Jiyong had frozen down by Lily’s heels and the other workers were gawping at McGurn; it was the first time they had heard him even raise his voice, let alone declare any shameful connection to the Korean boy. He must have truly gone mad, thought Seunghyun in dismay. “No gettin’ out of it!” McGurn warned them all, still fighting against the enforcers’ grip; he was red in the face and spitting. “I’ll kill you before ya spread your legs for one more man!” To his horror Seunghyun saw him begin to wriggle his weapon arm free; he clenched his fists against the fear, praying that he could overcome it long enough to protect Jiyong if he had to.

McGurn had just bitten the man on his left when there was the sound of pounding footsteps from the foyer, some confusion in the doorway as Seungri threw it open; then to Seunghyun’s joy he saw Rocco and another Outfit member join the enforcers to finally pin their comrade’s arms and disarm him.

“All right, buddy,” said Rocco soothingly, sticking the piece safely in his belt. “Let’s get outta here, we can have this all fixed later.” He muttered something else in McGurn’s ear, the only audible words being ‘the boss’, and the younger man’s struggles marginally subsided; they glared at each other. “Apologies, folks,” Rocco called to the assembled audience. “Little too much of the ol’ giggle-water and he got away from us – we’ll go sober him up. Enjoy your night!” They dragged McGurn bodily through the doors with the help of the enforcers, Seungri and Mrs. Moore on their heels.

Seunghyun hopped over the bar to crouch down beside Jiyong. He took him in his arms but to his amazement the boy wasn’t even trembling.

“I’m okay,” whispered Jiyong in Korean against his cheek before pushing him back. “Mr. Insull told him, that’s all. He knows he’s lost, that’s why he’s crazy. And we’re gunna win.” He squeezed Seunghyun’s hand and got to his feet as if this happened every day; only a momentary quiver in his fingers signaled any different. “Thanks,” he told Lily in English. “I better go upstairs; reckon I’m putting a crimp in everyone’s evening.” She nodded at him, her lovely forehead shimmering with sweat at the hairline. “See you tomorrow,” he added, patting Seunghyun’s arm.

“Tomorrow?” said Seunghyun faintly.

“Mr. Insull’s gunna be here any minute,” Jiyong predicted under his breath. “Don’t pout,” he said, at the older man’s inevitable scowl. “Soon all this madness will be behind us. I promise.”

 

Chapter Text

“So what happened about McGurn?” demanded Seunghyun. He had cornered Jiyong coming out of a powder room and pulled him into the darkened sunroom. “What did Insull tell you?!” Their boss had shown up at the House shortly after McGurn left it, just as Jiyong had predicted. Jiyong had been occupied with him all day; Insull had taken him out somewhere and dropped him back only shortly before the Salon opened. Seunghyun arrived just in time to see him laden with shopping bags in a gorgeous new fur coat; the sight surprised and vaguely disturbed him. Now Jiyong was meant to be fishing for tricks, but Seunghyun couldn’t wait any longer to learn what was to happen with McGurn.

“Just what I expected,” said Jiyong, adjusting his short jacket pedantically once Seunghyun let him go. “Practically nothing.” In the dim light from the windows he looked vaguely disappointed. “That is, nothing about the deal or the diamonds. Ri was right: he’s pretending like it never happened.” He sighed. “But he did promise he’ll try and keep McGurn out from now on – even if it means talking to Capone himself.”

“I guess he’s not keen to have that maniac waving his piece around the place,” agreed Seunghyun. “Especially since he’s the one that refused McGurn.”

“Only…” Jiyong pursed his lips and moved closer; Seunghyun touched his shoulder in encouragement. “Tabi, I want to go,” admitted the boy in a rush. “Sooner rather than later.”

“Yeah?” Seunghyun felt something lurch inside him and recognized it as a kind of panicked excitement. “What changed?” There was some relief, too: he had been avoiding the thought, but it had crossed his mind that Jiyong might back out now the deal was off and he was in Insull’s favor once more. Even that confession of love hadn’t been enough to prevent him doubting the younger man’s desire to run. It was not pleasant to admit, but he was glad Jiyong was still unhappy enough to go through with this.

“You saw McGurn last night,” said Jiyong in a low voice. “Who knows what crazy notions he might get if Capone can’t calm him down? What if he robs another bank, makes another offer?” He gave a bitter sniff. “…I can’t trust that Mr. Insull wouldn’t accept.” Seunghyun slid an arm around him. “Oh, don’t pity me!” Jiyong exclaimed. “Don’t you be pleased I can’t trust him!”

“Sorry.”

“…I love you, Seunghyun,” Jiyong said, his voice softening, and Seunghyun felt that shivery thrill again. “I want to be with you. Everyone seems convinced that the burglary was a Mob affair, and they all saw McGurn threaten to kill me. So why not go already?”

Now?” Seunghyun blurted out. His pulse was racing at Jiyong’s declaration even as the boy’s capricious nature unbalanced him.

“Not now. How much time will it take you to be ready?” The older man made some quick mental calculations, but he knew it wouldn’t take long.

“Give me two days,” he said. “I gotta send a telegram, get train tickets, talk to the Prof…and tell my parents…something.”

“…Your parents.” Jiyong looked up at him. “I need to see my mom,” he stated. “I gotta give her my jewels, my savings. And let her know I’ll be safe.” His beautiful face had turned guilty, and so sad it hurt Seunghyun to see.

“Course,” he assured the younger man. “Once we get you out of here we can stop by on the way to the station. But…what about your sisters?” He paused. “And your father…”

“No,” said Jiyong immediately. His expression hardened. “I won’t cause a scene – the girls don’t need that! I’ll write them later, maybe. But the important thing is that we go. Isn’t it?”

“The important thing is that you’re safe,” Seunghyun told him. He lifted his hand to touch Jiyong’s cheek. “And that means we go.”

“…Two days, then.” Jiyong slid both arms around his shoulders and for a brief span of seconds leaned into the older man’s embrace. Seunghyun kissed the nape of his neck, his golden hair, and was reassured yet again that this was all worth it. He trailed Jiyong back to the Salon, watched him bask in the public role of Insull’s newly-restored treasure; he saw the workers’ looks turn catty again at the beginning of his return to House favorite. Time to get out indeed, thought Seunghyun grimly. Jiyong had done his part; it was all on him now.

 


 

 

The next day was by nature extremely hard on Seunghyun. The first thing he did was telegraph Union Carbon and Carbide, letting them know he would arrive for an interview at their convenience in the next week or so; even if it took a while for them to hire him on it should be no problem – the diamonds would help in that, at least, provided Jiyong could find a fence who would convert one into dollars. Then he booked train tickets for Charleston, leaving from a station just outside Chicago and changing several times along the way; it would be safer if anyone tried to track them, he reasoned. That was the easy part.

Seunghyun would have liked to be able to say that Wyeman looked astonished when he announced he would soon be putting his studies on hold and finding a job. But the Professor just gave him a long, searching stare that made him squirm.

“To be honest,” he said in his dry, dependable voice that had guided Seunghyun through so many years of discovery, “I had half expected something like this after the conference. I didn’t care to say so, Mr. Nevander, but for the past year you’ve been slowly coming apart.”

“I’m sorry, Sir.” Seunghyun felt the corners of his mouth pull down; he hated to disappoint this man. Wyeman leaned back in his office chair.

“Well. Maybe that’s your fault, and maybe it isn’t. I’m not oblivious to your circumstances, my boy. You’ve a first-class mind, but for whatever reason – temperament, distraction, prejudice – it’s not much use to me right now. So by all means go; I’ll give a reference if your employer contacts me. If you change your mind, though…we can talk again. It’ll be such a pain to find another assistant who knows the research like you.”

“I am sorry,” said Seunghyun again.

“Hm. Just try to stick around as long as you can – if I can find someone it would be helpful if you could train them.”

“Of course,” Seunghyun lied, and knew he was turning red. Wyeman squinted at him a bit longer, then dismissed him with a wave of his pen. Seunghyun left with mixed feelings: he had been surer and surer that he wanted out of the stifling world of academia, but as he walked from the familiar office he experienced a sharp sense of regret. Still, it would pass; it would have to. Seunghyun hopped on the train and headed up to Edgewater, then over to Peterson Avenue. It was time to tell his parents.

His father took it pretty well, but Seunghyun had primed him already. His mother, on the other hand, was unintentionally – or not – leaning hard on his guilt.

“Why, so suddenly?!” she railed in Korean as he sat meekly on the old blue sofa. She didn’t need to do much to make him feel bad – the mere sight and smell of the familiar home were enough to deal him pangs of heartache and a kind of precocious nostalgia. “Why are you quitting school after everything it took to get there?!”

“I explained to Dad already,” mumbled Seunghyun. She glanced at his father, who abruptly looked guilty himself as some of the load switched to him. “It’s too hard, the academic world. Not ‘cos I’m stupid,” he hurried on – he could see her opening her mouth furiously. “Because of the people. I realized that at the conference: I won’t get far in scholarship, not until times change.” That sounded reasonable, didn’t it? She did not look pleased but that was no surprise: she had always insisted that he never give up. What a disappointment it must be, to believe your child had turned out a coward. Seunghyun clenched his fists in his lap.

“And how do you know these people will give you a job?!” she continued.

“They made me an offer when I was an undergrad,” he assured her. “I’m sure they’ll still have a use for me now.”

Virginia,” stated his mother, as if that said it all. “How can you, Seunghyun?”

“…I have to,” he said. He felt the old burning in his stomach, the beginnings of his climb towards losing his cool. It wasn’t anger, unless it was at himself; it was remorse, and shame that he had to lie to her. If only they could meet Jiyong! They would see why…but then again, perhaps they wouldn’t. Best after all to be far away before they even learned of his existence.

 


 

After spending the customary hour in the basement checking on his bootlegging apparatus Seunghyun headed up to get warm. As he mooched through the back hallways to the kitchen he peered around him idly; soon all this would be gone from his life. Would he miss any of it? Would he miss any part of this city other than the few people he loved? No. There would be no stabs of regret in leaving the House. It had fulfilled its purpose: it had brought him to Jiyong.

In the kitchen he grabbed a slice of the flat ‘pizza’ bread the Outfit had popularized in the House, bringing it in from their favorite eateries in Little Italy and insisting Thompson take on a cook who could make it. Other than jazz it was the only half-decent thing they had brought. Munching alone at the scarred table Seunghyun overheard Lin and one of the other girls casually raking Jiyong’s looks, talents and moral fiber across the coals. He didn’t bother glaring at them; it seldom dissuaded them, and the House favorites were considered fair targets anyway. It was a sign that Jiyong’s star was ascending again. Seunghyun was therefore not surprised to find Insull in the Salon, tolerating the music and chatting to patrons who had braved the snow while Jiyong stood at his elbow. The boy was sporting a stunning jeweled hair ornament Seunghyun had never seen before. So Insull was trying to pay away his own guilt with gifts? Seunghyun sneered. Billionaire he might be, but it was so easy now to look down on him.

The sparkling headpiece was drawing plenty of attention, as was the boss’s approving hand against Jiyong’s back. It was obvious the workers knew which way the wind was blowing. It occurred to Seunghyun that if things kept on like this Insull might order Jiyong and Lily to switch their apartments back. He went pale as he thought it: those swag bags under the carpet for anyone to find if they got a little too enthusiastic moving furniture! Thank Christ they were leaving soon. He wondered that Lily didn’t look more concerned about her status – she sure enjoyed being Number One. But she chattered away perfectly pleasantly as he made drinks for her, with only the odd sly look at Jiyong. Her favorite new client was by her side, tall and reasonably attractive for an industrialist; he was around all the time lately, which probably explained her cheer.

“Oops,” remarked Lily a few hours into the evening when her man had left and she was waiting for the next. “Are we about to have a little tiff?”

“Pardon?” said Seunghyun, who was on the phone with the kitchen. “Who?”

“Hush and listen, Tabby Cat.” Lily raised a finger and settled in with her satin-clad cleavage resting comfortably against the bar. Seunghyun put the receiver down and strained to hear past the slow jazz band in the corner and the conversation peppering the Salon. He could almost catch the sound of bickering behind the side door, and started as he pinned one voice as Jiyong’s. “Not quite as dramatic as the other night,” Lily acknowledged, sipping her bootleg gin and tonic. “But if your boy wants to take my spot back he’s gonna have to fight for it. Not with me!” she added, observing Seunghyun’s face. “But plenty of the others.”

“Should I go make them quit?” asked Seunghyun out of the corner of his mouth. He couldn’t tell who else it was or what they were fighting about but it was starting to turn heads, and the last thing he wanted now was Jiyong getting in trouble, or God forbid locked in his room. Lily shook her head.

“No need.” As she spoke Seunghyun spotted Insull listening to the raised voices with a disapproving cant to his moustache. The old man nodded at Seungri, who went off to deal with it wearing an expression of mingled concern and amusement. There were some insistent words outside the door, apparently from all three parties at once. Then a chastened silence. Seungri trooped back in, followed by Jiyong with Lin bringing up the rear. They both looked mutinous. Insull clicked his fingers at his pet and Jiyong walked regally over to sit on the arm of his chair. Seunghyun noticed a red mark on the boy’s left cheek, not the flush of anger or fever. Insull touched it lightly, asked Jiyong something, then gave him what appeared to be a scolding; he was too low-voiced to tell. Briefly Jiyong’s gaze met Seunghyun’s, and the bigger man was surprised to read irritation but also wry humor there. Well, if it meant he wasn’t in real trouble Seunghyun figured he could let it go.

“…That boy is the goddamn end.” Seunghyun’s charitable thoughts were eclipsed by Lin, who pulled up a bar stool and flashed a cool smile at the interested customer a few feet away. She addressed Seunghyun. “How you hang around him all day without trying to throttle him is beyond me.”

“What happened?” inquired Lily when their barman did not reply. The Chinese woman tossed her bobbed hair crossly, then sighed.

“Nothing much. He just drives me nuts: the luck of him! And the way he flaunts it. We had…words.”

“More than words, looks like,” said Lily drily, her eyes sliding to Jiyong’s cheek.

“Yeah, we got into it. And you know damn well he can be a mouthy little bitch.”

“You’re gonna land yourself in trouble.” Lily did not seem dismayed at the prospect. “Bitch or not he belongs to the boss, and the boss is looking right at you.”

“We’ll see about that. The things I could say…” Lin ordered a Gin Fizz and graced them all with a world-weary look before heading down the bar to the potential trick with a saucy expression on her pretty face. Beneath her smile Seunghyun sensed the anger she had always displayed towards Jiyong. He didn’t understand it, though he’d dealt with enough rage of his own to know that it likely wasn’t rational. He felt sorry for her – for all the women here. But he would have zero regrets about waving them goodbye.

 

Thanks to Insull’s presence and his reaction to Jiyong’s cat-fighting, Seunghyun didn’t have a chance to speak to his partner in crime until the sun came up. He was wrapped in a blanket on the sunroom sofa trying to grab some rest when Jiyong hurried in on tiptoe.

“There you are! I’ve not got long,” he said. “Mr. Insull’s still awake; he thinks I’m getting milk.”

“I’m ready,” Seunghyun told him. “I left my suitcase at the Bluebird, we can pick it up then get a taxi to your folks’.” Jiyong smiled breathlessly.

“One more day. I’ll pack after work tonight when Maria’s done cleaning my rooms, and we leave once everyone goes to sleep. I can’t do anything ‘til Mr. Insull’s gone.”

“Did he punish you for scrapping?” asked Seunghyun, getting off the sofa to check Jiyong’s arm.

“Not really. Not after he saw I was already bandaged – I told him a client paid to do it. But it barely hurts now.”

“What were you and Lin fighting about, anyway?”

“She’s jealous; she always was. Plus I stole her trick the other day. I was gunna ignore her when she got in my face but she’s really got a knack for insults. So I called her a cunt and she slapped me.” He puffed out his cheeks. “Not saying I didn’t deserve it.”

“She’s a prickly one – you oughta take more care. We’re lucky Insull didn’t lock you up!”

“I know. Thank God I’m in his good books.” Jiyong smiled again, his body language jittery and excited as if he couldn’t wait to be gone. Seunghyun shared the sentiment, though not the odd melancholy spark in the boy’s eye – trepidation at leaving Insull’s care, he would bet on it.

“I’ll take your bag when you’re packed,” he offered, wisely keeping his thoughts about that to himself. “It’ll be hard for you to get it over the roof.”

“Okay. I’ll leave it at my door. But I’ll bring our stash myself, just in case.” His eyes were shining, his cheeks pink.

“You’re sure you’re well enough?” said Seunghyun, touching his skin; anticipation or fever, he couldn’t tell. “Strong enough?”

“Of course.” Jiyong stood on tiptoe and pressed his mouth to Seunghyun’s. “Tomorrow we go; no more waiting.” Seunghyun kissed him back, hands on his small waist to hold him close for a moment. “Better go get my drink,” murmured Jiyong. He disengaged himself. At the door he gave the bigger man one last smile; he opened it, jumped, and took a half step back. “Panda!” he exclaimed. “You’re still up?” Seunghyun saw Seungri in his pajamas, apparently on his way past the sunroom. He was carrying a lamp and had a young woman in tow; she was surreptitiously buttoning her dress.

“Was just doing the rounds,” Seungri replied suspiciously. “I had to piss anyway. Found the new maid in the hall, she got…lost. Yeah.”

Sure,” said Jiyong; he sounded amused. Seungri grinned at him and strode off, tailed by the maid. Seunghyun let his breath out in a rush: he wasn’t amused, he was tired of Insull’s nephew magically turning up when significant and secret conversations were happening. He prayed Seungri had not heard anything. Jiyong turned and shot him a look – and, for the first time ever, Seunghyun thought he looked unnerved too.

 


 

Insull went out with Jiyong around lunchtime but returned late in the afternoon to go through the books and let the younger man get ready for work. Jiyong looked dazzling that night, thought Seunghyun, smitten: in his most expensive and exotic clothes and flawless makeup; perhaps he knew he would not have occasion to dress this way again. His favorite clients, the Palmers, had booked him, and Jiyong was beaming as they raised the mood and drank and danced to the ragtime band. He took them off to bed quite happily. Seunghyun supposed it was nice that he could make some good final memories of the place that had been his home for so many years. His own nerves, on the other hand, were thrumming: he broke two crystal glasses in his clumsiness, could concentrate on nothing but the steps of the plan that would unfurl in a few short hours from now. He felt as though everyone was watching him.

“Night, Tabi,” called Jiyong casually over the noise of the band, which had been tipped well enough by a group of young customers to play overtime. Seunghyun waved and tried to look natural. It was the end of his shift too, and as soon as Seungri came to take over he strode out, only a minute or two after Jiyong. He wound his way through the back corridors and surreptitiously up the servants’ stairs to the third floor. He would take Jiyong’s bag and stash it in the basement now, while Lily was still going strong downstairs.

He knocked on Jiyong’s apartment door and received no answer. That was no surprise: he was likely in the middle of packing. So he slipped in and through the green lounge to the bedroom. Opening the door he saw Jiyong spin round to face him and stare as if he was a total stranger. The boy’s face was white as death.

“What is it?!” demanded Seunghyun, his breath hitching at that look. Without a word Jiyong stepped aside, and the older man was greeted by the sight of the carpet pulled back and the missing floorboard tossed across the floor. “What?” he insisted.

“…It’s gone,” breathed Jiyong. He shut his mouth as if he could say nothing more. Seunghyun gave him a baffled glare and strode over. Peering down into the dark space beneath the floor he saw it was indeed empty.

“…You packed it already?” he asked, confused. Jiyong shook his head numbly, and the bigger man felt a clenching sensation in the pit of his stomach: a warning. It tightened further, making him gasp.

“Then what-” he began.

At that moment he heard the outer door open. Jiyong did not even look towards it – his eyes locked with Seunghyun’s, completely black, and before Seunghyun could move or react he saw Thompson bustle into the bedroom with one of the interchangeable enforcers at his heels. Thompson stared at the tableau: at Jiyong and Seunghyun standing over the empty hidey-hole, one aghast and one utterly blank.

“Come with me,” ordered the manager in a tight, slightly bemused voice. “Boss wants to see you, Jiyong.” He turned his attention to Seunghyun. “And you: I guess you know what’s going on, seeing as you’re here. You too.”

Seunghyun’s initial reaction was a freeze between fight or flight, but the months-long buildup of stress and emotion inside him quickly decided in favor of the former. He knew he had no chance, not against the thug behind Thompson, but his body didn’t care about that. He tensed his muscles, ready to spring forward, and as he did so Jiyong moved. He grabbed Seunghyun’s elbow and yanked him back, clinging to him in silence.

“Okay,” he told Thompson faintly. Letting the bigger man go he followed the manager from the apartment. Seunghyun went after him blindly, with the enforcer bringing up the rear; his vision was beginning to blur with the effort of holding back – his panic, fear, and sheer confusion were ready to explode. He did not let them; instead he stared at the back of Jiyong’s blonde head, hardly seeing it, and wordlessly begged for a miracle.

 

Seunghyun had never been inside Insull’s office before, and he wasn’t in much condition to appraise it now. All he got as they were ushered in – with a push from the enforcer for good measure – was an impression of wealth and comfort. The brothel owner was standing before his large dark-wood desk looking anything but comfortable. Beside Seunghyun Jiyong made a thin sound before cutting himself off: on the desk sat the missing bags, banknotes and sundry valuables spilling from them. From between Insull’s fingers came the unmistakable glitter of McGurn’s diamonds.

“Leave,” said Insull in a low voice. Thompson obliged without delay, shutting them in. Insull stared at Seunghyun blankly for several seconds before dismissing him in favor of Jiyong. The boy was completely still, his eyes fixed firmly on the rug after a single glimpse of his downfall heaped sparkling on the desk. His small face was pale, and shiny with sweat. Their boss drew the silence out long enough that Seunghyun began to think he was afraid to speak; but finally he did. “I trust I needn’t insult either of us by asking what you’re doing with this,” Insull told Jiyong. He gestured in his restrained way at the bags.

“No, Sir,” said Jiyong to the floor, his sweet voice flat. Seunghyun felt ignored, as if he had nothing to do with this, the confrontation entirely between Insull and Jiyong. It was somehow terrifying.

“It was you? Yourself?” the older man demanded. He seemed to be having difficulty believing it, which just went to show how little he truly knew Jiyong. The boy nodded. Insull pulled one of the bags aside to reveal the tell-tale sight of the pistol. “…And the dead man? That was you, Jiyong?” He glanced almost hopefully at Seunghyun but the smaller man nodded again; Insull leaned back heavily against the edge of his desk. He swallowed, and fell silent. The tension grew there, a triangle etched between Jiyong, his keeper, and the treacherous gleam of the diamonds. Seunghyun stood outside it with his fists clenched, as impotent as he had ever been. He did not know what they could say, what they could possibly do to escape the hand of Mob justice now.

“…Why did you do this?” asked Insull at last. He was gray from his hair to his collar; to Seunghyun he looked on the verge of…something. Despair, terror, fury, he couldn’t tell. Jiyong stood quietly for a minute, fine jaw clenched, and Seunghyun knew his mind must be racing. He knew Insull far better than Seunghyun did. At last Jiyong lifted his head, uncowed, and stared his owner in the eye.

“I was going to run away. I needed money.” Insull went even paler.

“And him?” he demanded, jerking his head toward Seunghyun. The bigger man opened his mouth to confess.

“I made him help me,” said Jiyong quickly; he swayed a little. Seunghyun stepped forward, ready to protest, because whose idea had it been to leave?! “Hush, Tabi,” Jiyong told him in a low, peremptory tone. Insull reacted to the Korean, or perhaps the intimacy of his voice. It was the first time he had looked animated since they entered the room: his moustache began to quiver, his hand upon the diamonds clenching convulsively. Seunghyun had seen many dangerous men in the last year, but none who frightened him quite so much as this British billionaire did now. Jiyong was watching Insull carefully, unhumbled but wary and nervous.

“…You want to run from me?” said Insull in a voice that showed the gradual slipping of his stiff-upper-lip English restraint. He had no more eyes for Seunghyun, if he ever had; his gaze lay fixed on Jiyong.

“I couldn’t risk staying,” Jiyong replied, his face flushed and shining. “You don’t care for me enough.” Seunghyun twitched; this was surely dangerous territory.

Not care?” ground out Insull. “You insolent…! I’ve thought more of you than any other, since you were a child!”

“And you’ve been planning to sell me.” Insull started, but Jiyong continued to gaze at him flatly. “I know what deal you made with McGurn, Sir. You finally got tired of me, huh?”

“Is that what you think, you little idiot?!” Jiyong jerked his chin in the direction of the diamonds.

“Those speak for themselves, don’t they?” Insull gestured dismissively; he did not ask how Jiyong had found out about his depraved bargain, but barreled on furiously before the smaller man could accuse him of anything more.

“This is about more than you, boy: this is one minute part of a game for control of a city – a tug of war between Coughlin, Capone and the other gangs, the ATF and players you’ve never even heard of.” He conveniently left himself off that list, Seunghyun noted. Insull exhaled. “That animal McGurn inadvertently made you a playing-piece, that’s all; and now you’re part of the move.” Jiyong listened to this spiel without expression.

“So…you think you have no choice, even if you don’t like it.”

“I do not,” agreed the older man in a choked voice. Jiyong stared him down.

“You know what will happen if you let that man take me away,” he said, without any particular emotion, though his shoulders and hands were quivering. “Sooner or later he’ll kill me. He won’t be able to help it.”

“…Perhaps not. He offered a fortune for you,” said Insull. “Until you took it.” He looked sick. Seunghyun felt sick: however much Insull might in his twisted way profess to care for Jiyong, to him the boy’s life was less important than his business and the machinations of power within Chicago.

“And you ask why I did it!” Jiyong laughed then, bitterly. “So, Sir. What you gunna do with me now?” Again Seunghyun was taken with the irrepressible urge to give himself up: to let Insull hand him over to the Outfit as the thief, the killer, if it would only protect Jiyong. But before he could step forward Insull spoke.

“The diamonds have to go back.” He looked implacable. “If I had any sense I would hand you both over to Capone tonight and buy myself some valuable goodwill.” Jiyong let out a small, despairing sound. “…But I meant what I said,” Insull told him then, and beneath the monotone was an edge of desperation Seunghyun couldn’t quite parse. Jiyong cocked his head questioningly. “I’ve always thought of you. I always wanted to keep you, and keep you safe from harm.” Seunghyun let out an incredulous breath at that, but Jiyong put out a hand to silence him.

“And so…?” he said, breath held in anticipation.

“You stupid child,” Insull replied through gritted teeth. “You’ve done something terrible to yourself; and to me, bringing all this back here! If any of them should find out, it won’t only be the end of you: Capone will have a hold on my affairs for life.” He looked around wildly at the bags. “…But I don’t wish to see you get hurt – even now. Not if there’s a way I can help it.”

Is there, Sir?” asked Jiyong, eyes wide and feverish.

“…Maybe. I don’t know.” Insull ran a shaking hand through his gray hair. “Perhaps…if there’s a way I can get this back to its owners – and especially McGurn – without anyone ever finding out it was in the House – without them knowing you stole it.” The older man’s eyes flicked across to Seunghyun, who stiffened. Jiyong noted it.

“Without dropping him in it, either!” he said fiercely. Insull’s expression darkened.

“Are you…?”

“He’s my friend. The only one I have.” Jiyong’s owner didn’t look like he gave a rat’s ass about Seunghyun’s wellbeing; rather the opposite, he was plainly jealous, and Seunghyun thought that might be more dangerous than his anger.

“If I can, I can,” said Insull. “If I can’t, I can’t.”

“…And what about McGurn?” Jiyong said, finally hesitant. “The diamonds come right back to you and the deal’s on again?”

“Don’t push it, boy,” Insull spat. “That’s now the one thing I cannot refuse.” He subsided as Jiyong walked towards him, and when the smaller man took his sleeve he didn’t shake him off. Jiyong gazed up at him, still shivering.

“Why save me from one death sentence to send me straight into another?” Insull shook his head angrily. “Please, Sir,” said Jiyong. “I’ll stay with you, I’ll never cross you again.” He raised his chin with a dignity that made Seunghyun’s heart break. “I’m begging you.” Insull’s expression changed, and Seunghyun recognized it immediately because he had felt it himself, though he’d never thought to see it on that man’s face: the same pain, and inevitability, of loving Jiyong.

“Maybe…maybe I could negotiate some terms. Make McGurn keep you in the House. You think I want you out of my sight?” Jiyong didn’t reply, just laid his burning cheek against Insull’s shoulder and leaned into him. Insull gave him a furious look but seemed unable to stop his hand lifting to stroke the boy’s hair. “But he goes,” he muttered against Jiyong’s head. He nodded at Seunghyun as if he was an afterthought. “Before I remember how easy it would be to have him take the fall. Tonight.”

“Tomorrow,” murmured Jiyong, holding him tighter. “He’s got a lot of mess to clear up. But then…gone.”

Seunghyun took a shuddering breath as Insull inclined his head. Jiyong made an urgent hand gesture, an unmistakable order for him to get out, then wound his arm around Insull’s neck. For a long moment Seunghyun could not bring himself to move; but at last he turned and stumbled from the room, startling the bus boys as he rushed through the halls and down the stairs to the shadowy distillery. Something was welling up inside him, something big enough to rip him apart if it was allowed to exit. He slammed the door and crashed through the debris, and barely made it to his mattress before it surfaced; he buried his face in the worn fabric and screamed.

 


 

He came back to himself some time later, as physically spent as if he had run a race – and lost. He lay curled in a limp heap on the mattress, staring blurrily at the bare bulb above him. What had just happened? And how was he here now, alive and free to leave? It didn’t make sense. Okay: get it together, he told himself, try to think… He supposed this was a better outcome than they could have hoped for when Insull first dragged them in – they had their lives. All it had cost was Jiyong’s safety and liberty; and the only price Seunghyun had to pay was losing him.

…He couldn’t bear it. He couldn’t.

Seunghyun did not even think about moving from his spot on the floor; he would go nowhere without Jiyong, no matter what Insull said. He would take his beloved out of here somehow, even if it meant getting his own hands on a gun and threatening every man in the House. Let Insull do as he wished with those damned rocks – Seunghyun had no clue how he would return them to the Outfit without discovery, but all the more reason to spirit Jiyong away before he tried.

The door at the top of the stairs squeaked closed, and he heard the bolt shoot. He looked up blearily and saw Jiyong in the half-dark walking calmly down the steps toward him. The younger man sat down on the mattress in silence; he observed Seunghyun’s disheveled appearance, then brushed the hair out of his eyes and took his hand to pull him into a sitting position. His fingers were hot but steady.

“…What’re you doing here?” mumbled Seunghyun, clinging to them, disturbed at his poise. “Aren’t you meant to be with him now?” Jiyong rubbed his thumb across the bigger man’s knuckles.

“He sent me out. For my own good, I think: he’s real angry, enough to knock me down.” The boy laughed softly; Seunghyun could not properly interpret that sound, not in his current state. “…But I guess now he’s a little scared of me, too.” There was nothing sensible he could say to that.

“How did he find out?” he said instead, not that it mattered now. Jiyong didn’t reply; maybe he knew he didn’t need to. “…Never mind, I already know.”

“We can’t be certain it was Ri,” Jiyong protested, but to Seunghyun’s ear there was no conviction there. “It could’ve been anyone: that girl he was with last night, perhaps.”

“Who was the one listening at the door? And almost certainly saw us the day of the robbery? Seungri fits the bill, period.”

“Why would he?” demanded Jiyong. He did not sound angry, only desperate to believe something different. Seunghyun shrugged without energy.

“When all’s said and done, Insull’s his family; you can’t be reasonable about family.” He glanced across at Jiyong’s peerless face, felt the old conviction that one could not look at him without loving him. “And maybe he just didn’t want to let you go.”

“What a way to go about it.” Jiyong gave that peculiar laugh again. It quickly trailed off. “…Well. At last I’m really, truly alone.”

“Don’t say that!” Seunghyun turned to him, galvanized out of his stupor. “I’ll never leave you – screw the diamonds, come with me now. We can still go to Charleston, all that matters is you’re free…”

“No.” Seunghyun could not believe it.

“Goddammit, he was right: you are a little idiot!” Jiyong looked at him sadly. “Who cares if we’re poor?” said Seunghyun, with a fierce grip on his hand. “You can’t possibly be fretting about your lifestyle, not when every night you spend with McGurn is a threat to your life!”

“You still think I’m that shallow,” said the boy; but he sounded fond.

“Why else would you say no?” Seunghyun did not understand any of this: not Jiyong’s words, nor his resignation. “Come on, we have to go this minute!”

“…You still don’t get it, Tabi?” Jiyong gave his fingers a soothing squeeze, trying to calm their trembling. “I can’t leave now – not ever. That’s all over.” He hurried on before Seunghyun could cut him off. “Why d’you think I promised Mr. Insull I’d stay with him? Because that’s his price, and if I don’t pay it he’ll tell. I mean it, I know him: social philanthropist, yeah; merciful to anyone who screws him over? Never. He’ll go right to Capone. He’s already on the edge of throwing you to the wolves! And it’s not only burglary, it’s murder – of a Mob guy. You think the Outfit wouldn’t find us in West Virginia if they knew we did it? They’d find us anywhere. And then we’re dead.”

“It’s blackmail!”

“Of course it is.”

“…God.” He was right, Seunghyun realized. Insull would rat if he couldn’t have Jiyong; any feelings he harbored for the boy were based on possession, and if his pet slipped from his grasp he would surely retaliate. He was cold enough to do it; he was a monster.

“You see it, don’t you,” said Jiyong, still petting his hand. “Why you’re gunna go to Charleston without me. That this is where we end.”

“No.” Seunghyun pronounced the word with as much finality as Jiyong ever had. “Are you mad?!” He took the smaller man’s chin in his free hand to ensure Jiyong was looking at him. “I’m not going anywhere,” he told him; he did not sound in control of his own voice. “I’ll leave the House if I must. But I’ll be right here even so: watching over you, making sure you’re safe. That’s all I’ve ever wanted since the day I met you – you can’t imagine I’d give it up now!”

“Don’t be stupid.” Jiyong woke up a bit in response to his urgency, his black eyes dismayed. “Quite apart from the danger of you being caught hanging around here…what a waste of your life! Your mind.”

“My life is right here.”

 “This isn’t a life,” Jiyong insisted, shaking him before taking his collar in a tight grip and hanging on as if it would physically pain him to let go. “It can’t be. Look what loving me has done to you!” Seunghyun opened his mouth to protest, but before he could Jiyong kissed him. “You’re a scientist,” the boy told him. “Not a bartender or a safe-cracker or…or a guy who skips town with a Mob stash and an expensive whore who happens to have just killed someone!”

“I’ll be whatever I want to be,” said Seunghyun grimly. He set his hand to the nape of Jiyong’s neck and pulled until their foreheads met, as if that could knock some understanding into the smaller man. Jiyong didn’t resist him but pressed even closer. “And I want to be yours.”

“…It was a dream, baby.” Jiyong wrapped both arms around him tight. “I got carried away, that’s all – by you, ‘cos you made me feel like…like I could do anything; be something, so long as you had my back. You’re a hero, Tabi, the real deal.” Seunghyun dragged him closer still, and Jiyong let him. “But this isn’t a motion picture, you’ve gotta see that! Even if we got away without anyone coming after us, if we had all that money and they gave you a decent job…can you imagine trying to live a respectable life with me? Your boss invites you to dinner with his wife, and who’s your date? A rent-boy. And that’s it: no marriage, no kids of your own, hardly seeing your parents… You don’t want that. But without me you could do anything.” His cheek was pressed against Seunghyun’s, voice gentle in his ear. “Get away from this place. Go back to real life.”

You’re my life,” Seunghyun whispered desperately.

“Not anymore.” Jiyong buried his face in the bigger man’s neck. “Not if you want to save mine.” And in that, and only that, Jiyong was right: Seunghyun could love him to distraction, could abandon everything just to be near him. But after tonight that would only get them both killed. The one thing he could do now to prove his devotion to Jiyong was to leave him alone.

“It’s so hard to let go…” he whispered, pitifully close to tears; he knew Jiyong would hear it, and that shamed him more than anything because the younger man was stronger than this. And indeed there was no answering shudder in Jiyong’s shoulders. But when the boy drew back to take his face in both hands Seunghyun saw his eyes were bright and glistening too.

“I know, Tabi. I finally know that too. But we can do it…” He nuzzled his nose against Seunghyun’s, thumbs caressing over his cheekbones, and the older man had to swallow down the urge to weep. “…If you let me have you one more time.”

“…Here?” said Seunghyun thickly. Jiyong’s mouth touched his again.

“Doesn’t matter where. I just want to remember it. To say goodbye.” Moving slowly, as if to avoid startling him, he settled in Seunghyun’s lap. “I know you’re sad, Tabi.” The bigger man grit his teeth on a sob. “…But indulge me. Please.”

“I’ll do anything you want.” Seunghyun took a deep breath. “You know that by now.” Jiyong nodded solemnly, and when their lips met this time it was in unison.

It was different, thought Seunghyun in a daze as Jiyong slowly undressed him, it was different from all the encounters they had had before. This was not an experiment, or a reward for a favor, or even the ungovernable fervor of their post-robbery tryst; this was lingering, and heart-rending, and at the same time indescribably sweet. It felt like love. For a wonder Jiyong had stopped talking, his lips instead tasting Seunghyun’s skin, inch by caressing inch as if to memorize him. When Seunghyun did the same Jiyong sighed softly, the sounds of pleasure spilling from his slender throat as Seunghyun used his mouth and hands to trace every part of that beautiful body. His fingers ran the outlines of each tattoo, each curve and angle on Jiyong’s slight frame, until it was locked in his mind like a photograph. More than anything he lingered on Jiyong’s face, returning again and again to kiss him, to lose himself in the flow of expressions over those features that had arrested him from the moment he had first seen them.

“…Want to feel you,” Jiyong murmured against his lips, once Seunghyun felt they had been touching each other forever and that it was not long enough. “Inside me.” With strong, eloquent hands he nudged the older man back on the mattress and pressed their bodies together; Seunghyun gasped as Jiyong’s fingers began to stroke him. Jiyong was hard too, but this time he did not command Seunghyun or hurry him on; he entreated him in silence. Seunghyun kissed him deeply, and that virtuoso tongue begged him again. Jiyong waited until they had to breathe, then took Seunghyun’s hand and drew the first two fingers into his mouth. The bigger man’s eyes grew wide as Jiyong’s tongue curled around the digits, the sensations as acute as if they had a direct line to his cock; he felt another frisson run through him when Jiyong let out an indulgent hum and allowed his thighs to part.

“Gently,” he told Seunghyun in a hoarse voice, his pupils dilated with arousal as their eyes met. “Go slow…I want to remember everything.” Seunghyun had nothing to say in reply; he just nodded. Jiyong smiled and guided his glistening fingers between his legs.

Seunghyun did his best, fighting to recall what Jiyong had taught him through the fog of desire and pre-emptive grief surrounding him. Slowly he opened Jiyong up, stimulating all the spots that gave him pleasure as he did so, over and over until the smaller man’s fever-heat mingled with the build of lust to form a shimmering haze between them. Jiyong was soon moaning quietly beneath him, his more delicate touch encouraging on Seunghyun’s back until Seunghyun could no longer bear it.

“Can I?” he whispered. Jiyong didn’t answer but wound both legs around his hips, drawing him closer; he wet his palm and reached between them to help. The only sound he made as Seunghyun entered him was a luxurious inhalation of breath. Seunghyun braced himself trembling above him, stunned as ever by the tight heat of him. Jiyong touched his face lightly before seeming to realize he was helpless; he slid his hand down Seunghyun’s back, giving his ass a comforting squeeze before beginning to move for both of them. Seunghyun let him set the pace with gratitude. It was slow, almost agonizingly so; Jiyong’s brow was furrowed as if he wanted to concentrate on feeling every inch of him, and Seunghyun was hardly going to deny him. He set his own calloused fingers to the boy’s thighs, loving the silken quiver of them as he thrust into him; next his hips and narrow waist, too thin but no less erotic for that. Jiyong leaned into his hands, pulling him down so his weight pressed him onto the mattress and their stomachs glided slick against each other. Seunghyun vaguely remembered to be careful of his injured arm, but Jiyong seemed to have no care for it himself.

“…Touch me,” murmured Jiyong in his ear, his breath warm and quickening. Seunghyun worked a hand between them and began to tease his erection, as awestruck as ever that Jiyong found him arousing. He was rewarded with a more acute moan as Jiyong pushed upwards but he would not do more than lightly brush the skin, fingers circling his balls to make him pant. He wanted this to last as long as possible – forever; he wanted to elicit every kind of noise from Jiyong’s perfect lips before he finally satisfied him. “That’s right, baby,” managed Jiyong, laying approving kisses all along his neck. “God, Seunghyun…”

Seunghyun blindly found Jiyong’s lips with his own and kissed him urgently, mouth locked to his until the bigger man was giddy from lack of air. Jiyong was clutching him tighter now – his finesse had given way and he was holding Seunghyun as if it would tear him apart to let go. Seunghyun knew it was merely a physical response, that Jiyong was reaching the point where he needed to climax; but he loved the feeling anyway, even the painful sting of fingernails in his back as Jiyong clung to him, because he felt the same: if he let Jiyong go now…well, he couldn’t, that was all.

“Please…” said Jiyong into his shoulder. “Please, I need to…!”

Not yet,” Seunghyun muttered, words muffled in his damp golden hair. It mustn’t end yet! He slowed right down and Jiyong let out a tearful whimper of frustration. Then Seunghyun heard him sigh and they were moving in synch again. Seunghyun felt the panic recede as Jiyong pressed their foreheads together, working to slow his breathing to match the bigger man’s. He kissed Jiyong gratefully and allowed his senses to expand, drinking in the textures around him: Jiyong’s heat and the smoothness of his skin, the skilled ripple of muscle inside him, the music of his high voice and his unique scent mixed with the dust and liquor fumes surrounding them.

Jiyong seemed equally lost in sensation, though for him every sensual movement came natural as blinking; he did not have to concentrate as Seunghyun was doing but let his intuitive rhythm align and intertwine with the bigger man’s until their bodies and breath settled into a syncopation of their own. It was as subtle and intricate as a jazz composition: only comprehensible to an expert like Jiyong. Seunghyun gave up trying to understand its nuances and simply allowed it to take him; and, like many perfect songs, in the end it boiled down to one simple sentiment:

“…I love you,” he told Jiyong, because for a beginner like himself it was too difficult to express without words. Jiyong’s face blossomed into the shadow of a smile, and he tipped his head back to press his chest up against Seunghyun’s heart. Seunghyun rode the feeling, Jiyong’s inspiriting gesture, and gradually picked up the pace; it felt right now, and he thought he could finally stand the finish because they had advanced towards it as one. He wrapped his fingers around Jiyong’s eager erection and began to stimulate him in time with the movement of his hips. He registered Jiyong’s fingertips slipping in the sheen of sweat on his back as the smaller man tried to urge him on, and Seunghyun obliged at last. For one endless moment they enjoyed perfect poise, both balanced at the same point on the edge of ecstasy; then Seunghyun lost it as Jiyong tightened around him, and he climaxed entirely without control. Jiyong tangled his fingers in Seunghyun’s hair and pulled his head down, muffling the bigger man’s groan with his lips. As if not wanting to be left behind he arched up into Seunghyun’s hand and held tight to him until Seunghyun resumed his movements on instinct. Jiyong came with a cry that could have been a laugh or a sob, it was impossible to tell with his face hidden in Seunghyun’s shoulder. But it sounded like the end of something.

Neither man moved for a long time. Jiyong relaxed and softened in Seunghyun’s arms but did not release his hold on him or tell him to shift his weight. For his part, Seunghyun thought he really could not let go: he was warm here with Jiyong, desired and fulfilled, whereas his skin where the boy was not touching him shivered from the cold air inside the basement – the chill of reality. Seunghyun did not want to acknowledge it.

“Tabi,” murmured Jiyong eventually, his cheek resting soft beside Seunghyun’s. “You’re freezing.”

“I know.” Jiyong heaved a deep sigh at that and rolled Seunghyun over in his arms. For a terrifying moment the bigger man thought Jiyong was about to let go; but he didn’t, instead reaching over to grab a sundry handful of discarded clothing and drape it over them.

“It’s all right,” Jiyong whispered. He entwined their fingers. Seunghyun gazed down at them, at how well they fit together despite the differences between them: his own long and capable but sadly battered, Jiyong’s flawless yet so thin – delicate, only the ink beneath the skin hinting at their resilience – those hands that could kill a man. “…I have to go back soon,” the smaller man said gently. “And you need to leave. Before he changes his mind.”

“Sshh.” Seunghyun tightened his grip and Jiyong returned it, belying his words. “You don’t have to say it.” Jiyong bit his lip but piped down. Neither of them tried to get up. But Jiyong, as ever, was the first to come to his senses.

“Write me when you get there,” he suggested affectionately. “Or at least write to Lily, in case I’m not allowed mail; I’ve no idea what dumb rules McGurn will make. She’ll tell me if you’re doing okay.”

“I’m not going to Charleston.” Seunghyun drew the line at that; it was unthinkable now. And, when panic rose in Jiyong’s face: “I’m gonna carry on at school here. I shan’t ‘waste’ myself if you order me not to.” The boy continued to look worried. Seunghyun didn’t know what he was going to do; but he did not wish to distress Jiyong. Impulsively he added: “But I’ll be in the Bluebird every weekend afternoon. If…if you want to see me you can try and come there. Or call and leave a message with the waitresses or…anything.”

“I won’t,” Jiyong told him, still stroking his hand. “It won’t do any good.”

“I’ll wait there anyway.” As if he could do anything else. “I’ll always wait for you, Jiyong.”

“There’s no need; you’ll only put yourself at risk.” Jiyong raised Seunghyun’s hand to his lips and kissed his fingers. “You’ve done enough for me, Tabi.”

“And look where it got us.”

“Promise me you’ll try and be happy,” said Jiyong, ignoring this, his small face grave and searching. “Your friends, your family, let them be kind to you, huh?”

“You’re the only friend I want.”

“There!” announced the younger man, a little more brightly. “That’s what you’ve done for me: you taught what it’s like to have a friend. My only friend,” he continued, and gave Seunghyun one more lingering kiss; when he drew back his cheeks were wet, and he was smiling. “That’s what I’ll remember.”

Silencing the older man’s protests with a gesture he disentangled their limbs and quickly dressed. Tucking in his shirt he jogged up the stairs. Seunghyun wordlessly begged him to turn around, to come back, and Jiyong granted him half his wish: he unbolted the door then looked round, a faint gleam of light from the hallway outside turning his perfect face ghostly.

“Goodbye, Seunghyun,” Jiyong said sweetly. “And just to make sure it is goodbye, in fifteen minutes I’m gunna send the enforcers down here: if you’re not out of the House by then they’ll make sure you go. For your own sake.”

“Jiyong…”

“Is that all you want to say? Last words, Tabi.” He was right; Seunghyun forced himself to speak.

Jiyong.” That was it: the most important word in the world. Jiyong stared at him for a long second, his face distraught; then he seemed to take Seunghyun’s meaning. He nodded hurriedly, and pulled the door closed.

 

Chapter Text

How did you rebuild a life you thought you were done with? Or worse, begin a new one alone? Seunghyun couldn’t figure it out. Or wouldn’t. He wasn’t sure, and did not have the impetus to look within himself and discover which. Instead he found himself merely…existing.

When he’d walked out of the House for the last time he had left everything in disarray: the distillery equipment, his books and notes, various other belongings. It didn’t seem important. He had gone empty-handed, not stopping to look around him or speak to anyone. The House was silent too, as if it cared equally little for him. When he stepped outside the snow had stopped and the sun was shining. He blinked away the last of his tears and squinted dully at the bright skyline; it seemed like a bad joke at his expense.

Seunghyun was halfway to his boarding-house before he realized his suitcase with all his essentials was still stashed at the Bluebird – if everything had not been ruined he and Jiyong would have been on their way with it by now. He left it there, too numb to open his mouth and order the taxi driver to go back. He knocked until his landlady let him in – hadn’t thought he would need his key again – then under her wary gaze trudged up to his nigh-empty room and went to bed. He stayed there a full day and night, only getting up to piss. It was easy: no need to move, or to think, or do anything else that might crack his heart open and force him to picture Jiyong trapped and abandoned in that place. Occasionally his landlady would knock on his door and ask if he was coming down to eat; he ignored her. He supposed he wouldn’t be able to stop here long: he’d hardly been a model tenant the last few months, and without a job or scholarship he wouldn’t have the rent.

At last hunger reminded him he was alive, and after mechanically eating some oatmeal he went outside. The clear weather had stuck around and the formerly brilliant snow was turning to slush; not having anything better to do, Seunghyun trudged through it to school. When he walked into the lab he experienced a faint sensation of disconnect: he had mentally said his goodbyes to this part of his life and had not expected to see it again for many years, if ever. The familiar chemical smells inspired feelings of both mild dismay and comfort; the emotions felt blunted, but Seunghyun thought that seeing as he was here he might as well do some work.

“Morning, Mr. Nevander.” He glanced up from sorting samples at his old bench. Wyeman was watching him from the doorway, but for some reason chose not to say anything more and soon walked away. Seunghyun wondered if he was irritated that his assistant was messing him about or was happy that he had for some reason not yet left. It probably didn’t matter, as long as he let him stick around. Seunghyun didn’t know what would happen when his tuition fees were due, but he would think about that later. Maybe. It was too mundane to worry about now – in fact he could not think of anything that did matter. He moved to his desk in the corner, which had been piled high with paperwork in the days he was absent. Seunghyun eyed it with a degree of satisfaction: sorting through it would be tedious and mind-numbing, and right now that sounded just fine to him.

The lunch hour arrived and Seunghyun was still buried in lab notes and the correspondence Wyeman always left him to deal with. It was helping some; he had created a bubble of calm around himself, the dry documents keeping everything at bay. A few fellow grad students poked their heads in to say hi, but they soon gave up on any real conversation. Seunghyun didn’t mind. He opened his desk drawer and rummaged through it for a knife to sharpen his pencil. Then his hand froze.

Oh…” Beneath his fingers was the photograph of Jiyong. Seunghyun’s hand jerked back as though the picture was red hot. He inhaled shakily, then picked it up. Jiyong’s dark eyes gazed out at him wistfully; the perfect curve of his cheek looked solemn, the familiar pout somehow reproachful. Frightened, Seunghyun felt the vast cloud of anguish hovering beyond the mental barriers he had raised – it was closer now than it had been since the real Jiyong had told him goodbye. Staring at the photograph only beckoned it on, until it was crushing down with the same pressure he had felt in the tunnels beneath the Mill. He gasped aloud at the very real physical pain of it – not in his heart, but in his gut where every repressed feeling of his life lay dormant. He had forced it all down there, what he had experienced when he surrendered and walked out on Jiyong. He did not want to feel it again!

The sensation receded just enough for Seunghyun to notice another person had entered the room. Gratefully he looked up.

“You’re still here.” Watkins was leaning on the doorframe, wrapped in an expensive overcoat and wearing an expression like he couldn’t decide whether to be disgusted or pleased. “Rumor’s going around that you got kicked out at last.”

“Go away,” said Seunghyun in a monotone. He dropped the little picture back into his drawer and shut it on Jiyong’s accusing stare; he did not want the brat to see it, even if Jiyong was now beyond the reach of Watkins and any other man.

“Either that or you just couldn’t hack it,” continued Watkins, who seemed to be enjoying himself. “Thought someone like you could represent this college in the real world, huh? I heard your feelings got hurt at Princeton.”

Seunghyun shrugged and had the dubious pleasure of seeing him look miffed. A month ago he would have been delighted that the bastard had failed to get a rise out of him. Now Watkins was just…noise.

“And yet here I am,” he told his former student, deadpan. Watkins huffed, then gave up and stalked out. Seunghyun shook his head absently and tried to get back to work. It was no good: his gaze fell over and over on the closed drawer. It loomed there large in his vision. His hand was pulled in its direction, eager to see Jiyong’s face again as if he wanted to cause himself pain. Before he could lose control he shoved his chair back and left the lab.

He drifted through the campus in no particular direction and before long wandered into the refectory. The lunch hour was almost over and there were plenty of isolated tables. He lined up, digging in his pockets for change; he was going to have to retrieve his suitcase soon or he wouldn’t even have that.

“Coffee,” he requested in a distracted mumble. When he glanced up he found himself face to face with Youngbae. The younger man took one look at the state of him and opened his mouth; the voice of the kitchen supervisor yelling behind him shut it again quickly. Seunghyun was grateful: ignoring Watkins was one thing – a confrontation with his former friend was quite another. Youngbae pulled a complicated face, but handed him a cup of the horrible school coffee. Seunghyun accepted it without responding to the unspoken question in his eyes, and walked away. He took a seat in their old corner and warmed himself up with the weak brew; he watched his scarred fingers curl around the ceramic and remembered how they had fit so perfectly with – no. He wasn’t meant to think about that.

“There you are, stranger!” Seunghyun twitched at the familiar cry that heralded the arrival of someone much harder to ignore. He raised his attention from the cup, and there was Daesung striding in his direction, beaming so widely his eyes had all but disappeared. “How are you?” demanded Daesung, sliding into a chair and plumping down a paper bag in front of him. Seunghyun opened it without argument and found one of his favorite pastries from the fancy bakery by his rich friend’s apartment. “You don’t half look skinny,” Daesung scolded him. “Were you sick? Eat, I’ve got more.” Seunghyun obeyed, because it was easier to avoid talking when he had his mouth full. “Someone in your department was telling me you’d left,” said the younger man, who could apparently carry on a whole conversation without his input. “And I’ve not seen hide or hear of you for days!”

“Hair,” Seunghyun corrected him involuntarily before taking another bite.

“I’m serious, Seunghyun!” Daesung’s perma-smile receded into concern. “We thought you’d run out on us, and no word of what was wrong or where you were heading, or…”

“Well, I didn’t.”

“…But you were going to, weren’t you,” said Daesung slowly, as if he had only just started believing it. Seunghyun shrugged. “Where were you planning to go?!”

“Charleston. I had a job offer.” He supposed he should send another telegram to the company and apologize.

“So you intended to take it? And then you didn’t.” Daesung leaned his chin in his hand. “What happened? C’mon, old boy,” he cajoled.

“Not much.” Daesung thankfully kept quiet for a minute. But there was no-one more irrepressible, and after a while he peered carefully at Seunghyun and shuffled closer.

“…This is about your Jiyong.” Seunghyun sucked in a breath and his hand tightened on his cup. Silently he begged his friend not to say that name again – the sound of it conjured Jiyong so clearly it seemed possible to reach out and touch him. Daesung stared at his tense fingers. “Is he okay?”

“No.”

“He’s in trouble?” Seunghyun nodded shortly. “You wanna talk about it?” Daesung offered, kind as could be. Seunghyun looked at him; he knew the younger man would listen, and might even help if he could. But what kind of person would he be if he laid that burden on Daesung?

“Can’t,” he said. Beside him Daesung sighed. “Enough that I’m not leaving. And that I’m never going back to that house.”

“You lost your job?” That was a nice way of putting it. “Then…what’re you gonna do now?” Daesung laid a hand on his arm; Seunghyun gave a hollow laugh, because that was the magic question. He smiled hopelessly at the table.

“Nothing.”

 


 

On the Saturday Seunghyun found his steps leading him to the Bluebird. He told himself it was to collect his suitcase – not having his daily essentials was starting to become an inconvenience. And when he sat down for coffee it was because the waitresses wanted to chat with him and he had nothing better to do. It was only after his table was littered with cups – containing increasingly strong shots of whiskey – that he could admit to himself he was there out of hope. He could sense it within, a tiny flame amid the ashen inner landscape of his soul: hope that Jiyong might find a way to come to him, that he might speak to him again. When he had spent the whole afternoon at the café and seen no sign of him, Seunghyun thought the flame had guttered out. But he was back on Sunday afternoon, and the weekend after that. It was stupid; and yet he felt it was the only action that gave his current existence purpose.

Seunghyun knew he was a fool to expect Jiyong to come, or to even remember what the older man had promised; the boy’s life as it must be now, even if Insull had persuaded McGurn to let him stay in the House… Seunghyun could not imagine it. And if Jiyong could sneak out he wouldn’t; he had said as much, hadn’t he? Suffering disappointment time and again did not seem to deter Seunghyun, however, and he kept his vigil in the corner of the Bluebird. Sometimes he found himself comparing it with that long-ago time when he had yet to make Jiyong’s acquaintance: when simply waiting and watching for a glimpse of that glorious, enigmatic creature had been enough to animate his entire life. The emotions he had felt then had been so vivid, brand new and energizing. Seunghyun was almost jealous of himself when he remembered that. Now waiting for Jiyong was just something he had to do: fruitless but inescapable.

Seunghyun took another sip of laced coffee and replaced the cup with jittery fingers. One of the elderly waitresses brought him some bread and butter he didn’t remember ordering. How pitiful did he look to them? he wondered; everyone seemed to want to feed him up lately. She ruffled his hair and Seunghyun guiltily thought of his mother: he hadn’t been to see them since he’d told them he was leaving. He knew he ought to, but like everything else it didn’t seem that urgent. Without much appetite he nibbled at a crust. Another customer entered the café, letting in cold air before the door banged closed. Seunghyun glanced up briefly, then down. Then up again, his mouth dropping open as if he’d been punched in the chest – and it had caused his heart to come to life and start beating once more.

Tabi.” Jiyong was walking towards him, unwrapping a scarf from his face. “I couldn’t see you from the window.” He stepped round to take a chair in the darkest corner; he almost seemed to float down, he was that small, but he leaned back and regarded Seunghyun like this was any other teatime. Only his fidgeting hands and the tremulous smile on his face suggested he felt any of the joy Seunghyun was experiencing. “…Tabi?”

“You’re here…” breathed Seunghyun rapturously. The return of feeling was sudden as a wave knocking him back, and for half a minute he sat there like a simpleton. Jiyong’s gloved hand was resting light and somehow hesitant on the table as he waited for the older man to respond further. Without a thought for propriety Seunghyun grabbed it and kissed his fingers passionately; he did not even have the presence of mind to remove the glove, but Jiyong just flashed him the old smile before his nebulous air of strain returned. Seunghyun released him, remembering where he was, and simply stared. “…I can’t believe you’re here,” he said again.

“Frankly?” Jiyong stripped his gloves, fur earmuffs and coat, peeking anxiously in the direction of the door. “Me neither. But…” He trailed off. While he was being pensive Seunghyun waved over his waitress, who was clearly snooping, and ordered something hot for Jiyong – he must be cold, he always was, and he’d surely gotten thinner. Did he still have a fever? “You doing okay, Tabi?” said Jiyong in a solicitous tone. “You’re everso skinny.”

“Now,” Seunghyun told him. Jiyong preened a bit; some things never changed, thought the bigger man, loving him more intensely than ever. “But you, tell me about you. Are you safe? Are you still living in the House? I’m so glad you managed to get out!” he exclaimed before Jiyong had a chance to get a word in. He swallowed hard. “…I thought I’d never see you again.”

“If I had half a brain you wouldn’t; if he finds out I’m meeting another man he’ll kill me.” Jiyong took the bourbon-laced coffee and a plate of cookies from the waitress, who looked mildly frustrated that she couldn’t understand their fervent words. He sipped at it and winced as it scalded his sensitive cat’s-tongue; Seunghyun leaned his cheek in one hand and watched him, enraptured. Jiyong blew on the coffee. “Well, I said it once, didn’t I: Korean men are fucking idiots. Guess now I can include myself in that, huh?” But his face was glowing as he spoke.

“Guess so.” Seunghyun flushed with happiness as the boy’s foot brushed his own beneath the table; for a second it was electric. Then their legs settled comfortably, Jiyong’s elegant ankle against his own. He wanted this, every day for the rest of his life. He knew he couldn’t have it; but even one day out of a hundred made him the luckiest man in America. “Now tell me: what’s been happening?”

“Oh…” Jiyong’s expression dimmed, then rallied. “Pretty much what I expected. Mr. Insull got the stuff back to the Outfit, Christ knows how; I didn’t ask. But he came through for me when McGurn came back around – I gotta thank him for that. Told McGurn it’d be smart to let me stay in the House; less chance of people finding out about his little perversion – not that everyone doesn’t know already, but fine, let him pretend. And easier to abandon me if he gets sick of me.”

“From your lips to God’s ears!” muttered Seunghyun.

“I know.” Jiyong sighed and took a gulp of coffee. “Not much chance of that, not for a while: he’s having a very nice time owning me. Mr. Insull says-”

“Who care what he says?” The older man’s lip curled. “That bastard, he’s more a wolf than Coughlin ever was! I can’t believe you still…” Seunghyun stopped. Jesus, what was wrong with him?! He would not start a fight on this most precious occasion.

“Yeah, I spend time with him.” Jiyong looked unhappy but unabashed. “I want to. He’s a great man, Seunghyun, and I…”

“Are you serious? That son of a-”

“I said great, not good,” Jiyong clarified. “And powerful enough that he holds every single card. So I have to keep him happy – keep him from remembering how angry he is with you. He’s not known for just letting things go, and I won’t risk you getting in any more trouble over me!” Seunghyun sighed miserably. “He cares for me, in his way,” Jiyong went on, as if to reassure both of them. “He likes to have me near him, especially since I was that close to running out on him. Jealous: like you.” He observed Seunghyun’s expression. “Besides, I’m forbidden from talking to any other man. McGurn only tolerates Mr. Insull near me ‘cos he’s the boss. I’m lonely, Tabi. The girls are envious too, ‘cos I get so much privilege for so little labor; it’s not exactly a nice feeling to have nothing to do and no-one to talk to. I miss my clients: the Palmers, even Louis.” He closed his eyes. “And I miss you.” Seunghyun’s chest tightened sweetly.

Jiyong. I wish…”

“On the other hand, Lily’s living in clover,” the younger man reported, cutting off what was certain to be a maudlin announcement.

“Oh?” Seunghyun didn’t care about that, but he was content just to hear Jiyong’s voice.

“She’s leaving.” Jiyong pulled a complicated face. “That boring trick who’s been hanging on her for weeks, he asked her to marry him! Said he doesn’t like to see her in there with all the hoodlums. As if she can’t take care of herself!”

“That’s…wow.” Seunghyun blinked. He had never heard of such a thing. Then again, if the guy felt for Lily a fraction of what he felt for Jiyong, he could well understand the desire to take her and keep her safe. He had to give the guy props.

“So much for our contest,” said Jiyong with a quiet laugh.

“How’s that?” Seunghyun passed him another cookie. He couldn’t do anything for Jiyong anymore, but he was far too thin and it had always made him smile when Seunghyun bought him sweets. Jiyong took it, the tips of their fingers brushing. He didn’t eat it.

“House Number One? It seems so petty now,” he explained. “She won, the second he asked her: a proposal! That’s the ultimate prize for people like us.” The smaller man gave him a brittle smile. “One I can never, ever win.”

“I would.” The older man reached that bit further to take his bare hand, regardless of the diners around them. “If we could, I’d ask you. From almost the first day we met, you know that.” Jiyong’s smile grew fractionally wider, and his pale skin took on an echo of the light with which it used to glow.

“I do know that. It’s the least of what you would do for me; what you have done for me. Why d’you think I love you, Tabi?” Seunghyun exhaled sharply. He said it. He had almost never said it. This was the most painful utterance yet, their circumstances rendering the words sour: Seunghyun wanted to cry, and punch something, and melt with sheer adoration. He squeezed Jiyong’s fingers instead – he was finally learning restraint.

“Jiyong…” The boy looked at him for a minute, the color rising thinly in his cheeks. Then he pulled his coat on and picked up his gloves, fumbling in his hurry. “You’re not going?!” Seunghyun exclaimed in dismay.

“Come with me.” Jiyong threw a handful of money down, too much but he barely even glanced at it. Seunghyun nodded like an idiot and grabbed his own things. Jiyong paused at the door and darted a quick look around; then he grasped the bigger man by his coat sleeve and dragged him round the corner and into the alley. It was the same place they had met the night they burgled McGurn’s place, and for a second Seunghyun had an unpleasant flash of that adventure and what had come of it. He and Jiyong had spent altogether too much time in alleys, he concluded, just in time: Jiyong shook him, then slipped both arms around his waist.

“Ahh, it’s cold!” He ran his gloved hands up Seunghyun’s back. The older man drew him close, warm enough with affection and relief to heat him right through. “…I want you,” said Jiyong urgently, hands caressing the lapels of his jacket. “We shouldn’t. But now I can’t have you, I want you all the time.” He tipped his head back to be kissed, and Seunghyun was amazed to realize he meant it: the idea of Kwon Jiyong giving it up in a dingy alley was too unbelievable otherwise.

“Welcome to my world,” muttered Seunghyun. He took Jiyong’s face in both hands and with great reverence pressed their lips together. Jiyong sighed softly and his mouth parted beneath Seunghyun’s, fingers clinging tightly to his coat. It was magnificent, and almost enough to make the tears rise once more because he had not dared imagine they could be this close again.

“…That’s better,” Jiyong whispered, drawing back enough to speak but not letting up his grip on Seunghyun. “I had to get rid of the taste of him!” Seunghyun nuzzled his nose comfortingly against Jiyong’s cold cheek. “Again,” ordered the smaller man, leaning up on tiptoe. “Don’t stop…”

Seunghyun lost track of how long they spent there that afternoon; it was too dark in the alley to see the waning of the light, and he was hardly in a state to notice in any case. He sat Jiyong up on a pile of crates and pushed close between his knees – they could keep warmer with those slim legs curled around his hips. It was too cold to do anything more even if Seunghyun had presumed that far. So they kissed, over and over, until to the older man the shabby little street seemed a heaven of pure decadence: Jiyong’s limbs encircling him and lithe body pressed into him beneath its layers of wool, the soft resilience of his lush mouth. Teasing brushes and hard caresses, Jiyong’s usual calculated skill ebbing and flowing as his emotions took hold… Seunghyun had not known a kiss could convey so much. And he could feel it: Jiyong’s desperation and desire both.

At last Jiyong looked up, Seunghyun’s hands still buried in the luxurious chinchilla fur of his earmuffs. His lips had turned a deeper red and the tip of his nose was pink with cold; he was quite beautiful.

“…What’s the time?” he asked, out of breath.

“Dunno.” Seunghyun didn’t give a damn – there were so many things he had been dying to ask about, but now he didn’t want to talk at all. Jiyong fumbled at his wrist, pushing back the many layers of cloth. There was a glitter in the dimness and Seunghyun saw he was wearing a new watch, even finer and more jewel-encrusted than his old one. The bigger man’s expression darkened: McGurn was obviously rewarding Jiyong magnificently for whatever he was inflicting on him.

“Shit, I better go.” Jiyong jumped down. Seunghyun bent and kissed him again, and for a moment the boy returned it as though he could not help himself. “…Seriously, I gotta get back,” he said, nudging Seunghyun away. “He comes by nearly every night and I never know what time.”

“Is it bad?” Seunghyun’s mood dropped at the mention of McGurn, and once again he was both jealous and afraid.

“Bad enough,” said Jiyong honestly. “But I can handle it.”

“Can I see you again?”

“We oughtn’t.” Jiyong rested his head on the older man’s shoulder. “…But if you keep waiting, I’ll try.”

“Don’t put yourself in danger!” cautioned Seunghyun, alarmed. “Even if you can’t get out, it’s enough to know we’re still together.” Jiyong sighed.

“We’re not together,” he told him, his voice simultaneously satisfied and bleak. “We’ll never be together again. I only came to see you because…because it hurt too much not to.”

“But then-”

“Just remember, Tabi.” Jiyong touched his cheek in apology. “If you wanna keep us both safe and sane you gotta go live your life.” And with that he extracted himself from Seunghyun’s embrace, and after a single forlorn look he turned and left the alley at a run.

Seunghyun slumped against the crates, Jiyong’s touch still tingling on his lips. He heaved a shuddering sigh: it was as if that touch had reignited the pain he had been suppressing so violently, and he didn’t know if he welcomed it. Was this what it would be like every time? Was the bliss he felt with Jiyong worth it if the aftermath was to be like this? He didn’t know; all he knew was that he was awake again – and he could not go back to sleep.

 


 

The resurrection of his emotions came with a slew of unpleasant feelings. After Jiyong, the first that struck Seunghyun was an almost overwhelming wish to see his mother, accompanied by guilt that he hadn’t done so. He was not only an ineffectual protector, he was a bad son. Prompted by a vague filial instinct, the next day Seunghyun spent some of his hard-won savings on a bunch of hothouse flowers, then hopped on the train before they could freeze and headed up to Andersonville. He let himself in and was enveloped by the sound of the piano, and the well-loved childhood smells of the wood fire and lunch cooking. It prompted a physical shiver of nostalgia, which added itself to the miasma of his mental state and wafted around him as he stepped into the living room.

Seunghyun!” The second thing to hit him was his mother’s hand: as soon as she noticed him she leapt up from the piano stool and smacked him across the ear.

“Ow!” protested Seunghyun with a swell of what felt like relief.

“Where have you been?!” scolded his mother in Korean, giving him another smack for good measure and taking the flowers from him. She stared at them with an ambivalent expression, but like a sensible and thrifty woman took them through to the kitchen and put them in a jug before returning to harangue her son. Seunghyun stood there meekly. “We thought you’d gone,” she said. “Without even saying goodbye!” She took a deep breath. “…I’ve been so angry at you!”

“I’m still here,” Seunghyun reassured her quietly; something constricted in his chest. “I decided not to go.” His mother gave him a searching look at that, her lips pursed. He had thought it would please her; but if anything she looked more disconcerted than when he had told her he was leaving.

“So I see.” Her eyes narrowed. She took him by the arm and bossed him over to the sofa, then sat down beside him. “What is it?” she asked. Seunghyun shook his head. “Don’t lie to me,” she ordered, poking him in the shoulder. “You’ve been up and down all year, and the last month…it’s like we don’t even know you!” Another poke. “So we’re going to sit here until you spill it.”

“It’s not important,” said Seunghyun under his breath. His mother gave a disparaging ‘tch!’ and continued staring at him. To his horror he felt his lower lip quiver, and bit down on it before she could see. But when her voice turned gentle he knew she had.

“Seunghyun. I’m your mother. Whatever it is, you can talk to me.” The pain in his chest grew sharper and brighter so that he had to gasp; and with the next breath he burst into tears. “…I knew it,” he heard his mother say, and a second later she had him by the scruff of the neck and was pulling him into a hug. He felt her hand fall softly on his head. Seunghyun could not restrain himself after that: he was five years old again, crying into his mother’s shoulder after the neighborhood kids called him names. He clung to her, opened his mouth, and finally told her.

“I fell in love, Mom,” he mumbled into her sweater, in between sniffs that made his deep voice sound absurd. “For the first time and the last…and now it’s over.” He had not been able to admit it before, not even in his own head; but his meeting with Jiyong had unlocked all the unwelcome truths he had frozen out.

“Oh, darling! You idiot… Why didn’t you tell me?” His mother whacked him around the back of the head affectionately, then resumed petting his hair. “What happened? You can’t tell me she doesn’t care for you.”

“I think…maybe she does.” Seunghyun wasn’t about to correct her pronouns; he wanted straightforward comfort, and there was no-one better in the world for that. He felt another tear spill over his lashes and didn’t try to stop it. “But it’s not that…”

“Then…” He could tell his mother was racking her brains for any reason why a girl might reject him – that was sweet. “Maybe her father doesn’t approve?” she said doubtfully.

“Yeah.” That was painfully close to the truth: while it was only one of the many things Insull was to Jiyong it was a significant role, all right. “He hates me. That’s why I really wanted to leave Chicago: we were gonna run away together!”

“…Oh, Seunghyun.”

“But he found out. And now it’s over.”

“My poor sweetheart,” murmured his mother. She no longer sounded mystified. “He’s white, is he?”

“And rich.” Those weren’t even close to the real reasons Jiyong’s keeper wanted Seunghyun gone, but it was far less outlandish than the truth. He felt her sigh deeply; he was sure she’d been about to say something, but now there was a pause. That was okay – he didn’t expect any consoling words, just the safety of her presence. He should have come home before, he realized; he was glad she had forced him to tell.

“…I know we’ve always told you never to give up,” she said at last. Seunghyun nodded; he couldn’t tell her he had no other choice, and presumed he was in for a lecture. She took a deep breath, and to his surprise added: “But sometimes, baby, you can’t win. I know it hurts; you feel like your heart’s breaking. And yet you’re so young, Seunghyun,” she reminded him firmly. “You’ll find someone else, someone more appropriate, and this will all fade away. Trust your mother, hmm?” It was good advice, though a tad hypocritical given the propriety of her marriage to his father; but that only showed her personal strength.

“I won’t find someone else,” muttered Seunghyun through another low sob. She shushed him fondly. He knew what she thought, that this was the simple grief of puppy love made sharper by the sting of prejudice. How could he possibly explain otherwise? “There’s no-one else in the world like h… like her. But I know you’re right: there’s nothing I can do.” Not without bringing down Insull’s jealousy and Capone’s retribution on their heads.

“Well. Don’t keep it in, baby. Let it all out.” Seunghyun rested exhausted against her shoulder. “Can you stay ‘til your father gets home?” she asked. “He’s been as worried as me; and you need feeding.”

“I’ll stay as long as you like,” he assured her. For all he knew it was only a matter of time before he’d have to move home anyway. His mother sighed and patted his cheek, as fine a model of fortitude as Seunghyun could hope to find. They sat there in the warm little room for a long time, and Seunghyun began to think that, with his family at his back, he might be able to stand all this.

 


 

“Jiyong!” Seunghyun almost knocked the chair over as he jumped eagerly to his feet and tugged out another seat for the younger man, who had whisked through the café door and was dripping a rainy path towards him. “Are you hungry? You’re soaking!”

“It’s too hard to get out with an umbrella.” Jiyong sat down and peeled off his wet coat, removing his hat and ruefully wringing it out on the floor. Seunghyun reached over and squeezed his hand; his fingers were icy when he raised them covertly to his lips. He waved for his waitress and in a fit of exuberance ordered cocoa and sandwiches and cake, enough to feed four people. Jiyong raised his eyebrows. “I’m not really hungry,” he commented. “Mr. Insull keeps making me eat. He says he’s concerned for my health but I know he just doesn’t like when I’m bony.”

Seunghyun gazed at him, drinking him in with the usual pleasure. Jiyong did in fact look a little more filled-out than last time, the pleasing roundness beginning to return to his cheeks. On the other hand he looked wearier: the smudges beneath his eyes were almost as dark as Seungri’s. The food came and Jiyong gave him a smile over the top of his cocoa mug; Seunghyun noticed faint stress-lines at the corners of his lips, and for the first time saw a slight resemblance to the boy’s estranged father. He was dying to ask what had caused those lines, to share some of the burden of Jiyong’s unsavory existence as the object of McGurn’s obsession. He’d let him eat first, though, to prolong this moment of sweetness. It had been a hard two weeks since Seunghyun had seen him: last Saturday he had waited in vain, and Sunday had been the one after Christmas and his mother insisted he stay home and go to church with them. That had been a miserable holiday – all Seunghyun could think was how much he regretted not being able to spend it with Jiyong. He didn’t have much hope that 1926 would be an improvement.

“Happy New Year, by the way,” Jiyong chimed in. He had milk foam on his lip; Seunghyun wanted to kiss it off. “What’d you do?”

“Mom made dinner. Tteokguk and roast ham, the usual mishmash.”

“Mmm. Lucky.”

“How about you?” asked Seunghyun, and was not surprised when Jiyong shrugged and replied:

“McGurn. He actually took me out for once; usually he just moons over me for hours and then we fuck, so it was a change, I suppose. Only…”

“What?”

“You know where he took me?” Seunghyun shook his head and Jiyong let out a breath of laughter. “The Green Mill.”

“Jesus.”

“I know, right? Wanted me to hear Louis Armstrong, they were throwing a real big bash. God, it’s the kind of place I’ve always wanted to go – the atmosphere of it when it’s swinging! The clothes!” He sighed. “But it was all I could do to keep myself together; I couldn’t enjoy it.”

“That’s awful.” Seunghyun could picture it: the glitter and the marvelous music mixed with the anxiety of how McGurn would behave if someone was stupid enough to comment on Jiyong; and underneath all that the knowledge that he had shot a man in the room right below their feet.

“I guess. It’s…” Jiyong paused, and pursed his lips in the familiar way that made Seunghyun’s heart swell. He took a determined breath and clasped his fingers on top of the table. “Tabi, it has been awful. These past couple of weeks especially. Sometimes I feel like…I’m only just holding myself together.” He raised a hand as Seunghyun started to exclaim and the bigger man saw his wrist was ringed with bruises, from deliberate restraints or just McGurn’s prizefighter grip. “It’s okay, I just gotta get it out; and you’re the only one I can talk to.”

“Not Seungri?” said Seunghyun, to avoid launching into a diatribe against Insull – that never went down well. Jiyong’s eyes darkened.

“…We don’t talk anymore. Not really; I don’t know if you were right about him or not, but…how can I risk it? Someone squealed to the boss, and even if it was on accident it doesn’t change what happened; I hafta be cautious now. So I’m extra lonely. But that’s not the point.”

“It’s McGurn, right?” Seunghyun jumped in, unable to help himself blowing up. “He’s hurting you?!”

“It’s not McGurn so much.” Jiyong patted his hand. “It’s impossible to relax around him, but I’m used to that. Since he got me all to himself he’s actually toned down some of the manic stuff: he ties me up but he doesn’t threaten me. Sometimes he’ll even look at me afterwards, and the presents are something to see! He’s not mentioned the robbery once since he gave the diamonds to Mr. Insull…I don’t think he even cares! He’s completely fixated.”

“That is crazy. Yeah, he got them back, but…a million-dollar heist and murder in his own joint and he’s forgotten all about it?! It’s hinky.” Seunghyun did not know McGurn like Jiyong did, sure, but it was very hard to believe any mobster could let that go. Jiyong rubbed his hands over his face tiredly.

“Maybe, maybe not. It’s not so important, ‘cos Capone hasn’t forgotten; especially since the loot mysteriously turned up again. He comes around once in a while to drink with McGurn – I reckon he’s watching him, trying to figure him out – but I can tell you, he doesn’t think much of me.” Seunghyun felt himself go pale, such was the power the man’s name carried. He remembered their brief encounter with the head of the Outfit after McGurn’s first crazy episode; it still chilled him. “Exactly,” said Jiyong, observing his expression. “I’ve been listening to the girls talk; I’m not allowed in the Salon without McGurn anymore in case some man accidentally approaches me, but during the day they gossip. The Outfit boys say Capone’s still looking to pin the killing on the North Side Gang. They’re betting he’s gunna ramp up the war, and screw the Gray Wolves and fat cats who wanna keep Chicago calm. But he’s not gunna let this go ‘til he finds out who it was – that’s what’s stopping me sleeping.”

“There’s no evidence though, right?” Seunghyun told him soothingly, shivering to himself. “You should worry about McGurn instead: I don’t trust that lunatic an inch, and now he can do anything to you.”

“Perhaps.”

“Did the girls say what the Outfit’s actually doing to find out?”

“…We’re not really on terms where I can ask.” The boy’s mouth curled down before he affected a look of unconcern. “Me and Lily both, we’re practically pariahs these days.”

“What now?” griped Seunghyun, furious on his behalf. Even after working with the House women for months he couldn’t believe how petty they could get. And with Jiyong so blatantly miserable! It was beyond cruel.

“Envy, same old thing. Lily’s leaving in a week; he says he doesn’t give a damn what she’s done in the past and he’s rich enough to make sure no-one else does either. They’re honeymooning at Niagara Falls.” Jiyong puffed out his cheeks. “Hell, I’m jealous of her! You can imagine how everyone else is reacting. And me, I’ve got the next best thing, no matter if McGurn did tell the whole House he could kill me: I only gotta fuck once or twice a day, and then sit around dripping with jewels eating bonbons.” He scoffed. “As if that’s any fun! But some of the girls are getting real catty. There’ve been fights.”

“Bitches,” said Seunghyun uncharacteristically. The younger man sighed.

“I just never realized how much being able to gripe with the others helps keep me sane.”

“If you can save it up,” Seunghyun promised, “you know I’ll always listen.” Jiyong nodded anxiously; then with some effort he forced his face back into a smile.

“But I didn’t come to bring you down.” He touched Seunghyun’s fingers and pulled a slice of cake towards him. “Distract me, huh? Tell me what’s going on with you, and school and Daesung and the others.”

Seunghyun didn’t have too much to say about all that; not anything that would cheer him up, anyway. But he did his best, carefully editing out the unhappiness that wound through his daily life. He told Jiyong about the lab and how Professor Wyeman seemed to have forgiven him; about moving back in with his parents at last, his mother’s cooking and quiet evenings listening to the radio with his dad. He didn’t mention how worried they were about him, or how worried he was for when they would find out he’d lost his scholarship. Jiyong listened mostly in silence, and gradually his small smile turned genuine. Seunghyun was relieved to see it. He wondered if Jiyong would let him kiss him again; but it was raining so hard and he didn’t want the boy to get sick…

“Does your mom make hotteok?” Jiyong was enquiring, the cake having awakened his sweet tooth.

“Sometimes.” The dense, sugary hotcakes were one of his father’s favorite treats of a Sunday. “I could bring you some, if you don’t mind them being-” Seunghyun was interrupted as the café door banged open, admitting another soaked customer. He and Jiyong looked up at the same time, and uttered twin sounds of dismay.

Seungri fought the door shut against the wind before his attention fell unerringly on their corner. Seunghyun felt the surge of a protective, even aggressive, drive, and before he knew what he was doing he was half on his feet; the only thing that stopped him was Jiyong’s hard grip on his wrist.

“Oh, don’t cause a scene, Tabi!” the smaller man whispered. He sounded frightened. Seunghyun sat back down, but Seungri as always was capable of causing plenty enough scene by himself. Other diners had looked up when the kid slammed the door, and continued to gawk at his appearance: no hat, no coat, and bearing a striking resemblance to a drowned rat. He was also hauling a large canvas bag over his shoulder. For all that, thought Seunghyun, Seungri was trying to act surreptitious. He did not cry out for Jiyong like usual but made a beeline for their table and quietly pulled up a chair, dumping the bag underneath. Jiyong squeezed Seunghyun’s wrist, a clear warning not to speak.

“Ri,” he said, almost concealing the suspicion in his tone, “what’re you doing here? Looking like that…” Seunghyun had a damn good idea of why Seungri had come: maybe he’d been sent by Insull, or maybe he’d just spotted an opportunity to get more ammunition he could use for his own nefarious purposes. As if reading his mind Seungri leaned forward and in Korean said:

“Shut up, Seunghyun. Both of you listen to me.” They stared at him. “Why am I out here like this?” He gestured to his waterlogged shirt. “‘Cos Rocco and a few of his guys just came to the House.”

“Now?” said Jiyong cautiously, glancing at his watch. “It’s early for them.”

“They didn’t come to drink,” continued Seungri, impatient. “They didn’t come to fuck.” He took a deep breath. “They came ‘cos they know what you did.”

“…What?” said Jiyong, and as he did so Seunghyun felt all the blood drain down into his toes; Jiyong, too, had turned even whiter. Seungri grabbed the smaller man’s hand and held on through Jiyong’s efforts to drag it back.

“Capone knows.” Jiyong went still at that. “It was you who stole the diamonds and all that money, and it was you who shot Ricky Russo. They came to take you with them!” As Seungri spoke Jiyong’s eyes stretched wider and wider until Seunghyun could see the whites all around; he had no clue what his own face was doing, only that Jiyong’s proclaimed his guilt more clearly with every second. Jiyong’s fingers were like iron on his wrist.

“How does he know?” the boy asked, soft as a sigh. Seungri looked grim.

“Someone must’ve told him.”

Someone?” Seungri started at Jiyong’s tone, then peered at both of them.

Why would you think it was me?!” He sounded truly outraged. Seunghyun glared at him stonily; his hands were itching to grab the kid and shake it out of him, or worse.

“Who else knew?” Jiyong said instead, pinning Seungri with a cool, evaluative look that did a pretty good job of covering his fright.

I don’t know! Who has a grudge against you, Yongie?”

“Everyone.” Jiyong laughed bitterly at that. “But you did know about the diamonds. Right?” Seungri gave a tight nod. “How?”

“Because, you stupid sods, I was the one who had to put them back!!” The younger man’s cheeks flushed angrily. “Uncle Sam comes to me and says, ‘here’s these suspicious bags, don’t look in ‘em, just get them to the Green Mill and don’t let anyone see you’. So obviously I looked. Though now I’m wishing I hadn’t.”

You,” said Jiyong in a wondering voice. “…Of course it was you. How did you do it?”

“Easy,” Seungri announced. “Left ‘em round the back by the service door, just before the final delivery one night. Of course whoever was working that shift saw them and brought ‘em in, and probably called the higher-ups right away.”

“Someone could have just taken it all!” exclaimed Jiyong, horrified. Seungri snorted.

“Who’d be dumb enough to steal from a Mob bar? Oh, right…”

“Then you did know it was me,” said Jiyong, ignoring that bit of sarcasm.

“From the moment I saw all that ice. Not before, I swear, I wasn’t the one who told Uncle Sam you had it. But I’m not an idiot, whatever you two think; and it all fit together.” He stared at the smaller man in some amazement. “…You really shot that guy?”

“I had to,” stated Jiyong, and said no more.

“Jesus.”

“This isn’t important!” Seunghyun broke in. “What we need to know is: did you rat on us to the Outfit?” Jiyong nodded, gazing almost pleadingly at Seungri.

“Of course I didn’t! Use your head, you’re meant to be such a genius! Okay, you think I’m nothing but a loyal dog to my uncle? Enough that I’d sell you both out to him, to stop him getting in trouble with the Mob. Well, why the hell would I then give you to Capone?! That is not what the boss wants, Yongie: he wants you. And if Capone finds you you’re dead.”

“Yes,” said Jiyong dully. When he looked at Seungri this time it was with a kinder light, and Seunghyun saw he was almost persuaded. Seunghyun himself did not know what to think; perhaps, indeed, it had been nothing to do with the kid at all. Maybe it was someone else from the House, or perhaps one of the Outfit had found Jiyong’s cap at the Mill – if one of those telltale blonde hairs was left inside it, or a lingering trace of the boy’s scent…that might be enough for Capone. Yes, that was possible, especially if he had spent time with Jiyong and McGurn lately. Even so… He stared doubtfully at Seungri, who was clutching Jiyong’s hand.

“And you think I want you hurt?” Seungri entreated. “Why would I?” Jiyong met his eyes for the longest time; then slowly he nodded.

“…All right.” Seungri heaved out a breath as he said it. “I believe you. And I’m sorry.” Jiyong’s shoulders slumped: resignation, relief, despair, Seunghyun couldn’t tell. “So…will you help us?”

“Wait!” interrupted the older man, alarmed. They both turned to look at him. “Say you are telling the truth,” Seunghyun said, ignoring the kid’s pained expression. “Can we really trust you to help Jiyong now? You know goddamn well you can’t resist flapping your yap! Admit it, you spill everything; you can’t help yourself.”

“This isn’t gossip,” retorted Seungri, highly offended; his nostrils flared. “This is Jiyong’s life, and yours too if you had anything to do with it! I can help you and keep my mouth shut.” Seunghyun was dubious. “Yeah, I work for my uncle,” the kid went on. “And I have some loyalty to him, ‘cos he’s family.” He made a frustrated sound at Seunghyun’s sneer. “But we’re family too! Or we oughta be. Haven’t I always said that?!” To Seunghyun’s surprise he reached across and covered his hand with his own so that all three of them were linked around the table. “This should make us family,” Seungri proclaimed. “Our skin. How else do people like us survive in this city?! You’re my brother, Yongie,” he said more gently, and turned to Seunghyun as Jiyong’s dark eyes began to well up. “And you would be too if you weren’t so fucking stubborn!”

“I…” began Seunghyun, and trailed off, too full of conflicting feelings to come up with a better response. Seungri waited a minute then rolled his eyes, squeezed both their hands, and let go.

“This is wasting time.” He glanced towards the door. “I don’t think they saw me leave; but eventually they’ll notice I’m gone. We need to figure out what to do.”

“Yes. Oh, God, you’re right.” Seunghyun saw the tears rise up and spill over Jiyong’s lashes. The boy laughed helplessly, and looked around at both of them. “What do we do?”

“You have to run.” Seungri spoke as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Today. Now.”

“But…” Jiyong seemed utterly lost, for the first time ever in Seunghyun’s experience. “Where could we go, just like that?”

“West Virginia,” said Seunghyun. “We can still go, I only told the company I’d be delayed. We can still make a life there like we planned. We don’t need the diamonds!”

“So that’s where you were gonna go,” muttered Seungri before shutting his mouth up tight.

“Right,” said Seunghyun flatly. “All I need to do is grab my suitcase on the way.” Seungri was beginning to nod. Then Jiyong spoke.

“…Are you crazy?” he murmured. They both frowned at him. Jiyong put his head in his hands and continued through his fingers. “You think we can go anyplace and have a normal life? That you can get a respectable job like this company’s offering you, under your own name?! If the Outfit don’t know by now that you’re helping me, they will soon. And they’ll find us.” He groaned into his hands. “Anywhere we go they’ll find us.” Seunghyun gaped at him, appalled.

“So I find another job,” he tried. “Under an assumed name.”

“It won’t work,” said Jiyong. “If it’s a real job as a real member of society, the Mob can track you down.”

“He’s right,” agreed Seungri heavily. Seunghyun believed them: they had grown up with ruthless men, and knew far more about life and its cruelties. “We have to think of something else.” They sat and racked their brains, shrinking as far as they could into the dark of the shop’s corner and darting paranoid glances at the door.

“…What if,” thought Seunghyun aloud after many minutes of frantic silence. “What if we left the country?” Seungri blinked at him. “I was talking to my dad about it, some time ago,” he said slowly. “What if we go to Korea for real? My friend Daesung would get his family to help us find jobs in Seoul, I’m sure.” Before this the idea had seemed extreme – but didn’t their situation warrant extremity now?

“Y’know,” said Seungri, “that doesn’t sound totally ridiculous! And it’s someplace they’d never find you.” He took Seunghyun’s wrist hopefully. “You really think your friend would help you?”

“He’s rich, and kind. If he knew how desperate we are…” Seungri’s face lit up, or tried to.

“Then let’s-” But Jiyong interrupted again.

“We can’t,” he whispered, and raised his head; to Seunghyun’s shock he looked guilty. “I don’t have a passport.” The way Seungri’s face fell would be comical in any other circumstances.

“You don’t?” Seunghyun managed idiotically.

“Why would someone like me have a passport?” said Jiyong in a self-accusing tone. “I was a slum kid and then a whore. I don’t even know if I have a birth certificate!”

“Well…we get you a fake one,” Seunghyun told him, not ready to give up. “I’ve seen it in the pictures, how hard can it be?”

“Not hard at all,” Seungri said darkly, “unless you have the Mob on your tail. He’s right again, Seunghyun: all the guys in the forgery business gotta kick up to the Outfit – that’s how much power they have these days. There’s no way we could buy a passport without it getting back to McGurn or Capone.”

Fuck Capone!!” burst out Seunghyun before the others hushed him. He couldn’t help himself: all the impotence and uselessness he had felt in the previous weeks was rushing back, only now it was ten times worse because this wasn’t just one madman bawling out jealous threats at Jiyong; now it was a smart and murderously focused crime syndicate with America’s most notorious gangster at its head. How the hell could the three of them go up against that?!

“Forget about Korea,” Seungri said at last, and Jiyong nodded.

“I’m sorry, Tabi,” he said in a dull voice.

“Shut up.” Seunghyun wrapped an arm around his shoulders. As if this was any fault of Jiyong’s!

“Anyway, you shouldn’t have to,” Seungri added. “We’re still Americans, aren’t we? This is your home – screw leaving it!” This seemed to do a better of job of bolstering Jiyong: he sat up a little at the kid’s staunch words and his jaw firmed.

“…Right,” he said faintly. Seunghyun shot Seungri an unwilling but approving look. “And besides, what could I do there? I have no job skills.”

They lapsed into thought again, but any brainpower the older man might have levered was diluted by the awareness that they were working against the clock. What if one of the other workers knew Seunghyun frequented the Bluebird? What if Rocco and his goons started searching the area around the House? What if McGurn showed up, God forbid? He grit his teeth and mentally slapped himself; still he couldn’t focus.

“…We could ask my uncle,” Seungri suggested eventually, rightfully hesitant. “He’s gonna lose his shit when he hears about this, but maybe-”

“No!!”

“He doesn’t want to see Jiyong harmed – why else would he have asked me to bring the diamonds back in secret? If it’s life or death I know he’d do something!”

No,” snarled Seunghyun. That was sheer madness. Seungri opened his mouth to give some dumb indignant argument in favor of Insull, and at the same time Seunghyun raised his hand to slam it down on the table and cut him off. They both froze mid-movement, because right then Jiyong began to laugh.

I know what we’re gunna do.”

They turned to stare at the giggling boy; Jiyong sucked in a huge breath and went on with that hysterical laugh. For one terrible minute Seunghyun thought he had lost his mind at the wretchedness of their situation – even Seungri was gawping at the smaller man like he was insane.

“What?!” demanded Seungri. Jiyong wiped his eyes, panting.

“Oh… Why didn’t I think of it before?!”

Jiyong. Think of what?”

“Skills,” said Jiyong simply. “We do have ‘em.” He leaned forward, suddenly crackling with the electric energy that accompanied his more outlandish ideas. “Listen to me, you two…okay, I’m thinking this out… Panda.” Seungri made an impatient gesture as he paused. “I do trust you,” Jiyong told him, taking his hand. “You’ve always been good to me; prove to me I wasn’t wrong. Will you help us?”

“To do what?”

“To disappear.” Seungri looked mystified but nodded solemnly. Jiyong beamed at him, excited and in Seunghyun’s opinion slightly manic. “Good! We’re gunna get out of Chicago, but first we gotta prepare. It’ll take…” He paused to count. “I think a week. And we hafta split up.”

“No,” burst out Seunghyun. “You think I’m gonna leave you alone now?! With no explanation?”

“The less people who know what I’m planning, the better,” said Jiyong stubbornly. “In case Capone’s dogs do get their claws in one of us. But to avoid that…Tabi, you said Daesung might help you, right?”

“Sure, but I thought we weren’t-”

“Then go find him and ask him to hide you for a few days. He’s rich; he can rent some out-of-the-way room for you to hole up in.”

“…I suppose. And what the hell do I tell him?”

“Whatever you have to. But before that…you gotta say goodbye to your parents.” A wave of sickness washed over Seunghyun as he realized what survival would truly mean from today onward; he had resigned himself to leaving his family for West Virginia, but now…he might not speak to them for years to come. He might never see them again. “I know,” said Jiyong quickly, reading his face. “But there’s no other way. You go get your stuff and tell them you’re moving away for a while. Use any excuse you want, but give them some misdirection they can feed to the Outfit if they come knocking! They have to really believe it, too.”

“I can do that.” Seunghyun took a harsh breath and pushed the debilitating emotion down. “Then what?”

“You lay low ‘til I come for you. There’s only one more thing you need to do in the meantime: another burglary.”

“Jiyong!”

“Nothing so dangerous,” the boy assured him, his eyes glittering. “I want you to get into your department supplies and take all the fancy chemicals you can.”

“The what…?”

“You know: the stuff that makes fireworks and colored explosions and so on. Anything showy.”

“I… What the goddamn hell for?!” Seunghyun wanted to clutch at his hair; he simply could not imagine what Jiyong was thinking, and was almost scared to try. Beside him Seungri was looking baffled too.

“Doesn’t matter. Just grab the biggest stash possible. For later. Then sit tight.”

“…Say I do,” Seunghyun challenged him. “What’re you gonna be doing?” Jiyong smiled.

“Me? I’m gunna-” He broke off and the smile vanished as his pretty head snapped towards the window. “…I just saw one of them,” he hissed.

“Rocco?” said Seungri immediately.

“I swear.” Jiyong began to sweat – Seunghyun could practically see his flight response kick in. “We hafta go, now. Does this place have a back door?”

“Wait. I’ll see.” Seunghyun got up and slunk over to the counter. The waitress who had served him the first time he came in here was working. She looked at the tall young man askance when he asked, then patted his forearm – he supposed he had always cut a pretty pathetic figure in the Bluebird, but now it looked like that was going to work in his favor.

“Sure, honey. You come with me.” Seunghyun crept back, nodded at the other two, and threw down some money. They all walked too nonchalantly to the back of the café, where the waitress led them past the kitchens and down a dusty hallway. “Off ya go, boys,” she told Seunghyun with a pitying look, and opened the back door. They quickly dragged their coats on and dashed out into the rain.

“Get well away first!” ordered Jiyong over the water hammering on the trash cans. He squinted through the deluge. “Wait! Is Daesung on the telephone?”

“Course!”

“Tell me the number. Me or Ri will keep you posted.” Seunghyun reeled it off from memory and Jiyong nodded, platinum hair plastered to his head.

“And you?” demanded Seunghyun again. “How’re you gonna survive a week with nothing but a soaking set of clothes?!”

“That’s all right,” said Seungri to his surprise. He swung the large bag off his shoulder and pulled it open under cover of a doorway. “I grabbed a few of your things, Yongie; I’m not dumb, I knew you couldn’t ever come back to the House!” He rummaged in the bag. Seunghyun heard Jiyong gasp as the kid pulled out a familiar lacquered box. “And I figured you’d want this.”

“…My stash,” breathed Jiyong joyfully. “But how did you know where…?”

“When you switched rooms with Lily,” Seungri explained with a self-satisfied grin. “This was the first thing you grabbed after you hit me so I figured it was important: you ran off into the storerooms, and that’s where I found it.”

“Panda!” Jiyong grabbed him and hugged him hard.

“Thank me when you’re out of all this!” Seungri suggested. Seunghyun agreed. “C’mon, we gotta go.” Jiyong nodded and took the bag, and Seunghyun felt an abrupt stab of terror at the thought of him leaving, at the knowledge that he in fact knew nothing and that anything could go wrong and that he might never lay eyes on him again. He cried out incoherently and reached for Jiyong’s wrist.

Please. Where are you going?”

If Jiyong was afraid now he was no longer showing it. With an adoring, frenetic smile he stepped towards Seunghyun, stretched up on tiptoe and planted a fierce kiss on his lips. Seunghyun pushed back desperately, their mouths crashing together. Jiyong embraced him tight, forcing his courage into the bigger man. He set his lips to Seunghyun’s ear and in a teasing voice whispered:

“Chinatown.”

He let go, took hold of Seungri’s sleeve, and with a jaunty salute dragged the kid off down the alley away from the Bluebird. Seunghyun stood staring after them, his heart racing as if it wanted to leap out of his chest and follow Jiyong although the rest of him was frozen stiff. To his good fortune, a second later his survival instincts took over: he trailed the two as far as the mouth of the alley, then sprinted off in the opposite direction toward a distant idling taxi. He looked back once through the rain at Jiyong’s bright-haired figure: he and Seungri turned the corner in a running spray of water, and vanished from sight.

He would never see that beautiful blonde head again.

 

Chapter Text

Seunghyun had a hard enough time getting to his parents’ – the first cab he saw declined to take him because he was too wet, and the next driver just shouted a familiar slur at him before speeding off and soaking him further. It was even worse once he arrived.

“…Son?” he heard from behind him as he was tossing clothes and money into his suitcase. “What’s all this?” Seunghyun straightened his back and turned to his father, trying his best to keep cool. The older man was holding a stack of student copybooks and watching his packing; his mild green eyes showed consternation but somehow no surprise.

“Where’s my passport, Dad?” Then he blinked, taken aback.

“Why?” Seunghyun squared his shoulders, hoping he could tell a decent lie today of all days.

“…I’ve had enough,” he said. It was difficult to look his father in the face. “I tried my hardest, but things at the university aren’t getting any better. So I’ve decided to get out of here for a while.”

“Not to Carbon and Carbide?” Seunghyun’s father backed out of the bedroom doorway as he spoke and padded off down the hallway to his den, his tall frame beginning to settle with age. Seunghyun frowned and followed him.

“It’s not far enough,” he explained, and that at least was the truth. “Maybe the men who offered me the job are decent guys; but eventually it’s gonna be the same old thing. So…I’ve decided to try my luck in Korea.” His father paused with his hand on the drawer of a carved pine cabinet. He exhaled slowly.

“I thought it might be that.” He fixed his light eyes on his son again; Seunghyun tried not to squirm. “But…did something in particular happen?”

“No.” Seunghyun shrugged. “Daesung just told me he’d been talking to his uncle – he has interests in the auto industry. He mentioned I might be looking for an introduction.”

“Ah.”

“It seems like a chance, doesn’t it?” said Seunghyun. “And I’m so tired of feeling like a second-class citizen in this damn Second City.” His father peered at him over the top of his glasses for what felt like ages; then he opened the drawer and after some rummaging drew out a slim green booklet. Seunghyun had only seen his own passport once, for a class in elementary school – his fellow pupils had shown an almost offensive surprise that it was American. The older man started to pass it to him, but checked himself with his hand half outstretched.

“Is this to do with your girl?” he ventured rather awkwardly. Seunghyun felt himself blush. “Your mother told me. Are you sure nothing else happened?”

No,” Seunghyun assured him, wrestling down the memories of that afternoon and the urgency under which he was operating. “But it’s one more reason to leave.”

“…All right.” His father nodded. He didn’t look happy, but Seunghyun did not sense any judgement being aimed at him.

“So,” he added carefully, “if anyone should come asking for me…anyone I forgot to tell