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A Million Stars Falling From The Sky

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The year is 2009 and the city is Dangjin.

At night, blood and water look the same on dirty pavements. Back alleys are littered with crushed aluminum beer cans and cigarette butts. Even at midnight, especially at midnight, the roar of traffic is apparent, and between the honks and blares of car horns there is the muffled sound of wood on flesh.

“Had enough?”

Lamplight silhouettes a hulking figure illuminated by nothing else but the weak red glow of a cigarette. He advances lazily, as one with all the time in the world, flanked by two thin lackeys. “Did you think we were done with you?” He shoulders the baseball bat he has in hand and rivulets of blood drip from the end of the barrel.

“What’s going on?” says another voice—smooth, soft. It is accompanied by the dying growl of a motorcycle engine.

“Get a load of this rat piss. Says here he wants out.”

“I’m sorry?”

A man’s polished shoes slide into view and even in dim light the reflection in them is clear as day—face slashed, one eye bruised shut. He rolls so that he’s lying on his stomach and pain so sharp and hot shoots up his throat he thinks that more ribs are broken than he initially thought. Reaching out is a colossal effort that fails halfway, and he resorts to clawing the ground with his fingernails.

“I’m done here,” he chokes, voice sandpaper on skin, “I’m done.” He coughs and a splatter of gore lands on the shoes before him. A sigh trails away over his head, and the one with the bat scrambles forward immediately, removing the bandana from his wrist and wiping it clean.

“The thing I’m most interested in knowing is what is it exactly you would gain from leaving. You lose us, you lose the protection of the Bluebloods, and if you’re unlucky, you lose your life.” Quiet rustling, and cologne wafts nauseatingly into his face. “What is it that you lack? You’ve been the head supplier around here since you were sixteen, and I’ve given you everything you wanted in return. Is the grass really that much greener on a side you can’t even see?”

He glares with his one good eye and spits, a fine spray of blood painting a delicate goatee on the man’s face. “I have no use for this shithole anymore.”

“Hmm. I have to hand it to you, you’re more fearless than I give you credit for.”

There’s a warm sting of pain under his jawline. He gurgles, reaching up to clutch at the incision just to the right of his throat, blood pulsing in pearls from under his broken fingers. The man straightens, tucking his Swiss Army knife back into the pocket of his suit.

“Finish him off,” he hears dimly, and the last thing he remembers is the bat being raised over his head.

✩✩✩

“I don’t know if this is a good idea. Are you sure about this? I don’t know, Songyi—maybe I should drive.”

“You know, Heekyung,” says Songyi, as she straightens her collar, pulling her hair out from under the neckline so that it rests in auburn waves over her shoulders, “one day you will understand the value of the word ‘no.’ Somehow, I don’t foresee it being today.”

“I know, but—still—”

“And it would do you well to, by the way, that word is far too often ignored by men who don’t know better,” Songyi says, patting him on the shoulder as she walks past, slinging a coat over the crook of her arm.

“But Songyi—!”

“Do you want to die?”

Heekyung balks. “Well—no.”

“Okay good, I will listen to your no,” she replies. “Don’t stay up for me and make sure Yoonjae eats. Don’t let him out of the house past midnight.”

“Is he a dog,” Heekyung says as he sees her out the door.

“All he’s good for,” Songyi replies, mostly to herself.

 

The thing is, Cheon Songyi, sole heiress of S Entertainment, queen extraordinaire, and manicure enthusiast, is not exactly the world’s best driver.

The dented bumper of the Lexus parked directly behind her Mercedes can vouch at least seven times for this. The first thing her younger brother Yoonjae had said when she announced, triumphantly to Heekyung, that she’d gotten her license and would no longer require his suffocating chauffeur services was “Which dick did you have to suck to get that?”

The conversation had ended in a smashed fine china teapot from Belgium, which, in the grander scheme of things, could have been worse. It could have been from Sweden.

Driving to the company press conference is uneventful and easy enough if she doesn’t count the part where someone throws a hot dog at her rear window for driving twenty miles per hour in the highway carpool lane. It’s the driving back that puts her on edge, makes her nervous—Songyi doesn’t know this part of Seoul as well, and even in a business district, it’s eerily vacant and quiet.

“It was good talking to you today, Cheon Songyi,” says one of the straggling men of the company, and she nods at him as he catches up with the caravan surrounding her mother. Simultaneously Songyi envies her and detests her—a woman with everything, who gave her nothing but riches and responsibility. A woman that had something to be proud of.

Songyi sighs and decides that now is not the time to commence an existential crisis. Pulling on her gloves in the frigid winter air, she searches for her keys in the darkness. The seat of her car is ice cold and she tilts the rearview mirror so that she can assess how her makeup has held out through the entire day. Even with her exhaustion masked behind all the eyeliner and BB cream, some of it still bleeds into her eyes.

“Smile, Songyi,” she says, starting the ignition. “Don’t let someone fall in love with your frown.”

She is the last car to leave the parking lot, long after her mother’s car sped off, no doubt to another private high-end restaurant and bar for a night of food and drinks. Songyi thinks of the way she’ll be told off if she doesn’t join them, and then thinks of Heekyung sleeping in the bedroom upstairs, Yoonjae—well, probably still awake, playing League of Legends. Cold kimchi and mandu for dinner doesn’t sound appealing in the least, but then she thinks about a whole two more hours of smiling and nodding, pleasing and poising—Songyi would rather settle on last night’s leftovers.

Her phone bleats. Making sure the road ahead of her is clear, she reaches into the folds of her bag and fishes it out. The screen is blinking furiously with a text from her mother.

You better not be late, it shrills and she can virtually hear her mother’s voice ringing in her ears. Last time you kept the president of CCompany waiting for the whole night!

Her car hums steadily beneath her fingers, and Songyi precariously takes one hand off the wheel to type back a grudging reply. Fine, she begins. Not halfway through the word, something flashes right in front of the windshield, and then there is a bone-shattering impact upon the glass.

Songyi’s scream gets caught halfway between a gasp and all the breath that gets knocked out of her lungs when the airbag inflates. Her Mercedes comes to a shuddering halt in the middle of the intersection.

Another car screeches away, sprinting ahead into the night in front of her, and Songyi watches it go helplessly as she hopes against hope that whatever she hit had been some kind of animal.

Slowly, with shaking hands, she finds the door handle and collapses out of her seat in a sprawling heap on the asphalt. Squeezing her eyes shut, she lowers her head until it touches the ground, and then peers between the wheels of the car.

There is a body, and her life swims before her eyes. Heekyung, she reminds herself firmly. Even if I lose everything, he'll be there. It will be okay.

Songyi picks herself up from the ground, and, knees knocking, drags herself to the front of her car. Her stomach churns when she sees blood pooled around her tires. A small distance away, a crushed bike rests upended, front wheel still spinning lazily in the air like a spindle.

He looks peaceful. Somehow, even in imminent death, Songyi thinks with a sinking heart, he looks like he could be sleeping. She gets onto her knees beside him, pulling out her phone and reaching for the emergency number pre-programmed into the dial pad.

“Are you here to kill me?”

The words are so faint Songyi thinks she imagined them—if she were in his position, she’d be asking if her legs were still both there, if her face was broken, not—not that. Her thumb freezes above the green call button and she stares into his face. His eyelids flutter, a shadow.

“Did he send you to kill me?” His lips are smeared with blood.

“I—no, no, what do you—of course not, I’m going to call an ambulance, you’re—hold on—”

“No,” chokes the stranger, and the word is full of forceful panic. “Don’t, please don’t.”

“W—why? I can’t let you—you’re really hurt, sir—”

“Don’t call an ambulance,” he pleads. “I’ll go myself. Leave me alone, I’ll go…”

His consciousness seems to fade then, and Songyi grabs his hand—it’s cold and scraped, oozing dark red, but the pain seems to shock him back awake. “I’ll take you,” she says. “I’ll take you. What’s your name?”

But the man blacks out on her in earnest this time, head falling to the side. Songyi looks around them, heart beating in her throat. The contents of his backpack are strewn across the intersection, and she runs about gathering everything back into it. It is a strange collection of items, from what is clearly schoolwork to a dirty apron with a KMT! Cafe decal to a wooden artist’s suitcase full of children’s books. She pauses when she finds his wallet, and opens it up to search for identification.

Do Minjoon, it reads on his driver’s license. He is only twenty-six.

 

“Songyi! Songyi!

Heekyung running into the hospital wing with nothing but a woolen coat and scarf over his silk Armani pajamas has never been on Songyi’s list of things to see before she dies. Things that are on the list, however, include the Machu Picchu, real baby triplets, and Lee Jinki shirtless.

She stands, legs still jelly, and Heekyung grabs her in a violent hug. His heartbeat races against hers and when he pulls away, his face is drawn with worry.

“What on Earth happened?” he demands. “I don’t understand—you hit someone?”

“He’s in there right now,” Songyi says, nodding weakly over her shoulder. Over the doors are the words Surgical Wing. “I don’t know, they said they needed to operate immediately.”

“Has his family been here? Have they given you hard time? Don’t worry, Songyi, I’ll take care of every—”

“They said he doesn’t have family. None, I know, I didn't believe it either. There is no one on his record, they can't even find half his legal documents,” she says. “That’s why I called you. I don’t understand any of it, Heekyung.”

“What else did they tell you?”

“There are no contacts in his phone, only ones to restaurants and business services,” says Songyi. “I’m the only person in this world that can be held responsible for him right now, and they—they said there was confidential information regarding him, and what little they could find in his personal profile, but otherwise I don’t know anything. And he himself, he said such strange things, and I—Heekyung, I almost killed someone and I—”

“What did he say?” Heekyung asks urgently, planting his hands on her shoulders.

“He...he asked me if I was there to kill him,” Songyi says, dropping her voice to a whisper. “It was so disturbing. It was the first thing he said after I hit him. ‘Are you here to kill me?’ As if he were waiting for this moment.”

Heekyung’s face darkens. He slides his hand down her arm and grabs hers, then begins marching them away.

“Wait—wait, Heekyung, what are you doing?”

“We’re leaving.”

“Are you out of your mind? What if he dies on that operating table? What if I’m arrested for manslaughter? Or hit and run?"

“Exactly! What if he dies and you're charged with manslaughter? Think about what you just said, Songyi!” Heekyung fairly shouts, and he looks around sheepishly when nurses throw him dirty looks. “The first thing he said after you hit him was ’are you here to kill me?’ Do you not understand? What if he’s an escaped convict? What if he's got blood in his ledger?”

“He had children’s books with him. And he was wearing a suit,” Songyi says stubbornly, rooting herself to the linoleum.

"That proves nothing, Songyi, and any villain can wear suits," Heekyung says, exasperated. "Come on, let's leave."

Songyi pulls back and wrenches her wrist from Heekyung's grasp. "I know I have a name and a reputation to protect, Heekyung. I know that the entire future of S Entertainment depends on every move I make. Do you think running away from a mistake is going to be good publicity?"

Heekyung purses his lips, and steps towards her, but Songyi jerks back in tandem.

"Cheon Songyi?"

"Yes!" she says, turning to the nurse. Heekyung can see her knuckles whiten around the straps of her bag, and sighs. Songyi is the kind of person who pretends to be the strongest woman in the household, puts on armor of an abrasive, grating personality as if to prove it, but he knows—and Yoonjae knows—that when she does cry, she cries alone.

He watches her disappear into the hallway, and something tells him that things are about to change.

✩✩✩

“How was business tonight?”

“More bullets than I would have liked.”

“Anyone down?”

“Haven’t heard of any. Don’t care.”

“You know, Minjoon, Boss has been talking.” The end of the cigarette flares red-orange between the sounds of bills being shuffled. “Says we might be downsizing soon.”

“What for?”

“Fuck if I know. You’re his supplier, I thought he’d tell you everything.”

“I run his drug rings. I’m not one of his regionals.”

“Still. Downsizing, huh? You hear about the fucking street rebellions in the next city over with the Black Riders? Collateral damage, civilians caught in crossfire, family dragged into the fray alive and carried away dead. Boss said he isn’t interested in seeing any of that happen his bitches.” Ash trails away, dancing like snowflakes, into thick summer air. “What do you think?”

Minjoon tucks the last stack of bills into his beat-up oil paint suitcase and closes it with a snap, brass buckles loud. “All I care about is what happens to Yihwa,” he says. “Boss promised me her protection and more than enough money to keep her alive and safe. In return I have kept his reputation spotless for half a decade. Why stop now?”

“You sound like you’ve got life planned out good and strong.” The cigarette drops to the ground and a boot grinds it into the cement.

Minjoon snorts. “Not much else to live for.”

“Pessimistic bastard.”

“Whatever. You got everything?”

“One Louisville Slugger bat, check. Let’s bounce.”

✩✩✩

“I don’t know if this is a good idea. Are you sure about this? I don’t know, Songyi, maybe I should—”

“Check if he’s still breathing,” Songyi says, swerving around another car that snails away behind her. “Is he okay?”

Heekyung sits up straighter, bringing his finger to Do Minjoon’s upper lip and hot, ragged breath hits his knuckles. “He’s hanging on,” Heekyung says, not mentioning the way that more color has drained from his lips.

“And to answer your question, yes, Heekyung, he woke up when I was in there speaking to the doctors, and the first thing he asked me is if they’d called anyone. If they’d called anyone! He almost died and—well, anyway, they didn’t of course, because he doesn’t have anyone. Anyone! How does a person live without friends? Or family?”

Heekyung bites back the comment that Songyi doesn’t live all too differently.

“Still,” Heekyung says uneasily, as the color of Minjoon’s cheeks now resemble slate more than skin, “the doctor’s decision to hand custody over to you seems a little…”

“Did you not hear him earlier? He begged me to get him out of there and to leave him behind in a place where no one knew him, Mokpo or something. He made sure he was promised absolute confidentiality, that no news of this was to be released to the public. The doctors had no choice but to let him go when he was getting up and walking and talking not two hours after surgery, he was determined to get out of there the second he opened his eyes, I can’t believe this—”

“Are you?”

“Am I what?”

“Are you going to leave him behind in a place where no one knows him?”

Songyi glances in her rearview mirror, catches Heekyung’s sleep-lined face and the signs of sunrise about to spill over the horizon. Minjoon is slumped over in his seat, head lolling on Heekyung’s shoulder, covered with his own bloody jacket as a blanket.

“I…”

“It’s the best idea.”

“It is,” Songyi says. “But.” She looks at him in her mirror again, at the pale, jagged scar along his neck and around his clavicles. No wonder he was wearing such a high-collared jacket the night she hit him.

“But what?”

“But nothing,” Songyi grinds out. “If what he says is true, and that he wants nothing more to disappear and pretend as though this never happened...then there is nothing.” She pauses. “Not Mokpo though, that’s ridiculous.”

“It is pretty far.”

“I would never put my baby through that,” she mutters, and pets the dashboard. “Don’t worry, baby. Mama would never drive you to Mokpo like that.”

Heekyung rolls his eyes.

 

It’s nearly midday when Songyi’s gas tank dangerously toes the zero mark.

They come to a stop in a far-flung, industrial city with fewer cars on the road than Seoul. Vents and pipes dot the skyline and even from here, Songyi can see steam puffing into the air in amiable white plumes and she shields her eyes. Sleep is creeping up on her and the ground sways beneath her.

“Where are we?” Heekyung says, getting out as well.

“Not entirely sure,” Songyi says. “I’ll check the GPS later when we fill up on gas.”

“Is this place anonymous enough for him?” Heekyung says, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder. “It definitely doesn’t look like a city where tourists would stop for pictures.”

“Let’s set him in the underpass over there,” Songyi suggests. “It’s out of sight.”

Minjoon is a lot heavier than the both of them anticipate and Songyi has to take off her Louboutins to haul him without faceplanting. “Mind his stitches, mind his stitches,” Heekyung cautions when Songyi nearly drops him onto his head, twisting his torso particularly hard. “Alright, set him down here.”

The ground of the underpass is littered with dead grass and stamped-out cigarettes. Heekyung arranges the stained black coat around Minjoon so that it is tucked up right under his chin, and steps back.

They stare at him for a moment.

“Pick him up,” Songyi orders.

“Wait—what?”

“Pick him up,” she repeats, shrugging out of her jacket, stained red around the cuffs. Heekyung struggles, grappling with Minjoon’s limp body, as Songyi spreads her fourteen-hundred-dollar Burberry coat on the ground under him.

“There,” she says. “Now he won’t feel the cold.”

Heekyung’s arm is warm and steadying around her shoulders. “Come on. We’ve done what he asked, let’s go. I’ll drive.”

Songyi lets him steer her away, and he catches her when she stumbles with exhaustion.

"I hope he's going to be okay," she mumbles sleepily.

"He will be," says Heekyung.

They drive in silence, and when Heekyung stops in the gas station, he goes into the store to grab a coffee for the road ahead.

“It looks like we left him in Dangjin,” Heekyung says as he checks the GPS of his phone. The gas station is crowded, and they're lined up behind a truck.

Songyi doesn’t answer, already asleep.

 

Minjoon has only known three things in his life: pain, money, and Yihwa. Two of those things he’s lost and the only one that is left comes in surges, dies down, but never really quite leaves.

When he sleeps, he dreams.

Yihwa’s face flashes through them—her smiling one, her scared one, her sick one. The only face Minjoon can remember is the last, sinking into white hospital pillows, pale as the sheets themselves. The money comes after, bank books and check books and hospital bills, one tumbling after another, clamoring to be paid. That's when the suitcases full of money come in, paper for powder and plants.

But then that woman’s eyes swim through his mind, panic clear in them as she hovered over him in the street and held his hand. What an odd feeling that had been. Minjoon has forgotten the sensation of someone's touch.

Her words blur and her face contorts and melts into a thousand colors as pain, back again like an old friend, shakes him awake. The first thing he sees is the dirty cement wall in front of him and he nearly sighs in relief that she had listened to him, left him in a place where he had nothing. Vaguely, he thinks that it will be such a pain to start anew, find two more jobs and a new school to attend, but—

Minjoon pauses as he looks around himself, then runs his fingers up the wall behind him. Even in daylight, he knows these walls, this dirty ground, this godforsaken underpass. The sensation of a baseball bat to his skull begins to pound in his temples.

“Oh,” he croaks. “Oh, no.”

 

“You look unwell, Cheon Songyi.”

“Pardon me, I apologize,” Songyi says, bowing her head. “I had a very tiring day yesterday, and I’ve been trying to gather myself.”

“Oh?” Jaekyung sets down his teacup with a dainty clink. “Is everything all right with your mother? Your brother?”

“They’re both fine,” Songyi replies. “It was a personal matter, and it was resolved.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Jaekyung says, drinking again. “Now, regarding our company merge. I hope you don’t mind if I go ahead and sign my approval of the movement? Especially since we need to discuss which departments we’ll want to keep, which we’ll get rid of, and whatever we need to add. With S Entertainment's new drama underway, we’ll want to do this as smoothly as possible.”

“Absolutely,” Songyi agrees. “You’re an electronics company, and I an entertainment agency, we’ll have to move things around—but considering our markets are closely related, I don’t foresee a need to mass-merge too many departments.”

“I will sign this afternoon, then,” says Jaekyung, pouring Songyi more tea. “I must say, Cheon Songyi, I’m delighted to be able to be working with you soon. I felt like CCompany has been running itself into the ground lately, and coming together with you will really be advantageous for us.” He smiles hugely, with all his teeth, and Songyi smiles slightly in return.

“CCompany will benefit us as well,” she replies out of polite respect, though she doesn’t adore the way he speaks as though he had bought out her empire.

“How has Heekyung been treating you?” he asks conversationally. “Any progress?”

“Not at all,” Songyi says. “He’s trying very hard, poor boy.”

“Ah, throw him a bone,” Jaekyung chides. “Wouldn’t it be great if you could be coworkers with your brother-in-law?”

“I wouldn’t mind it, I suppose.”

“You know my parents were dead-set against him living with you,” Jaekyung says. “Though they said that if he could bring back the president of S Entertainment as his bride, then they would never say a word against his wishes again. Take pity on my little brother, won't you?”

“I pity those who are pitiful,” Songyi says coolly. “Though if my feelings towards him change in the future, then he will be a blessed man, indeed.”

Jaekyung laughs heartily at this. “I do look forward to working with you, Cheon Songyi.” He grins. “I really do.”

 

The world could be ending, asteroids crashing into the Taj Mahal and the Sydney Opera House being torn apart by extraterrestrials, the whole nine yards, and Songyi would still not pass up a chance to get froyo. She’d be terrified, yeah, but somehow dying with froyo in her mouth sounds like a far better option. This is how she finds herself in Orange Tree with a jumbo cup piled sky-high with taro and chocolate yogurt, sprinkled with chopped walnuts, and decides that the ordeal she’d gone through the day before is enough to justify paying eight dollars for froyo.

“You’re the president of S Entertainment, aren’t you?” asks the girl behind the cashier. “Cheon Songyi?”

“Oh—yes, I am.”

“Your new drama is so promising!” she gushes. “Cosmopolise, right?”

“Yes,” Songyi says. “I’m glad you’re enjoying it so early, we’ve only begun releasing it last week.”

“Don’t worry,” the girl says fiercely. “I already love it.”

Songyi says her goodbyes and pulls into the parking lot of a humble neighborhood playground. She reaches over for her froyo cup and sits, staring out at the children that climb up and over the jungle him, screaming with laughter, chasing each other through the sand. She swirls the contents of the cup around until taro bleeds into chocolate and the flavors mix.

She looks up when a child’s shout changes to one of pain. His mother is picking him up where he’d fallen on the sidewalk just in front of Songyi’s car, and she surveys his scraped knee as tears stream down his face, little mouth open in a strangled cry.

When the mother straightens with her son in her arms, she catches Songyi watching, and all Songyi has to offer is a gentle smile. No advice, no Band-aids. She watches them walk away, the mother bouncing the boy on her hip.

Are you here to kill me?

A walnut gets lodged in her throat and Songyi chokes, gripping her steering wheel as Do Minjoon’s words echo in her ears. She coughs, eyes watering.

Did he send you to kill me?

She’d be lying through her teeth to herself if she believed that she hadn’t thought about that man, curled up in a nameless underpass in—Dangjin, Heekyung had murmured before she fell asleep. He’d still been beaten raw at the edges, covered in his own jacket and shivering in the cold.

It's true that he had begged and pleaded for things to be this way, but Songyi still can’t shake the feeling that everything about this is wrong. How calm he’d been after she hit him, how lonely and friendless he was. Maybe he was a convict, and maybe he was running from something, like Heekyung so cynically suggested, but if his name was really on some wanted list somewhere—why was he so resigned to death?

She’s never met someone with so little to live for.

Songyi’s hand shakes as the scrapes the cup clean. She sets it in the cupholder in the console, turns the key in the ignition, and makes, arguably, the worst decision of her life.

 

It's bleeding.

Minjoon winces as he peels back his shirt to examine the stitches along his ribcage. Blood has crusted along the incision, held together with black thread, and he feels a stinging pain pierce him when he sucks in a breath.

Being injured sucks. He's forgotten how much ballsack it truly sucks.

Just then, he hears the distant roar of motorcycles and shrinks back into the cocoon of winter coats he's been ensconced in for the last two days. On the bridge above, he hears the engines shudder to a stop and gruff voices reach his ears.

Along the street, two more motorcycles pull in by the curb and Minjoon drags his jacket over his head in an attempt to pass off as a trash bag.

He feels his pulse pounding through his brain. The bodies of the motorcycles are painted an ominously familiar midnight blue. A blue he's tried to forget. A blue he's spent years trying to black out of his life.

A blue he's bled for a long, long time.

Minjoon scrunches into the tightest ball he can manage without crying out in pain, gathering more of Cheon Seongyi's coat around his head. He seems to lie like that for an eternity, but they never leave, hovering like vultures waiting for their meal to finally stop struggling.

Maybe he was destined to go like this, not grandly in the middle of the street, but forgotten in an underpass.

Better to go this way, after having tried, than at gunpoint, he reasons.

"Do Minjoon?"

He freezes. The voice is one he recognizes, yet it is far too soft to belong to someone from the Bluebloods. He elects not to move and continues feigning trash baggery.

"Do Minjoon, it's me, Cheon Songyi...you know, the one that hit you."

Carefully he lifts his head, and there she is, in high heels and a long red coat. She looks so out of place, with her crystal teardrop earrings swaying and catching the sunlight, that Minjoon thinks he might be hallucinating.

"Are you okay? It...it didn't feel right, leaving you here alone, so I had to—"

Minjoon sees one of the bikers move in the distance and his hand flashes out, grabbing her by the lapel of her coat and yanking her down so that she sprawls onto the cement beside him. She yelps in protest.

"What are you doing—?"

"Shh," he hisses. "It's not safe."

"Why not?"

"Someone like you wouldn't understand," Minjoon says, yet even as he speaks he can smell the scent of her shampoo. "Leave. Don't come back here. It's dangerous."

"I'm not leaving here without you," she says resolutely. "I came here to take you with me and I'm not leaving alone."

"You are a woman with everything to lose," Minjoon says through gritted teeth. "I don't have to know you to know that much."

Songyi doesn't answer. Instead, she turns around, so that they're face to face, and Minjoon jerks back at the proximity.

"Pull your coat over your head and sing."

"Ex—excuse—"

"Just act as bizarre as you can," Songyi says, extricating herself from his hold and standing unsteadily. “Act weird, trust me, it’ll work. And sing super off-key.”

Minjoon sits up, lifting his head from the ground only enough for him to keep her face in his line of sight. She looks at him urgently and beckons.

“Hurry up!”

“I don’t know any songs.”

Songyi just stares at him.

"Are you serious? Do you not listen to the radio?"

Minjoon shakes his head.

"Lady Gaga? Nicki Minaj? Beyoncé?"

"Uh."

"Oh my god," she says, sounding ready to quit out of this life. “Do you know the national anthem?”

“Well—yeah—”

“Good enough, start singing,” she says, reaching down and roughly pulling him to his feet. Minjoon grunts when her hand presses into his injured side, but she stamps on his foot with her heel and he squawks indignantly.

“Sing,” she demands.

It is the most humiliating experience Minjoon has ever voluntarily put himself through, stumbling up the sidewalk in the underpass belting the national anthem of Korea, sounding like a tone-deaf macaw with the arm of the heiress of an entertainment agency around him. She arranges the jackets higher around his face, and Minjoon must admit, for someone who didn’t act herself, Songyi is good at staying in character.

“What did I tell you about running in the city at night, huh?” she says loudly as Minjoon starts in on yodeling the chorus of the national anthem. “Remember what happened with the fruit stand girl last time? Do you want that to happen again?” She continues chiding him all the way to her car until he collapses in her backseat.

“Fruit stand girl?” he says flatly as she climbs into the driver’s side seat.

“It worked, that’s all that matters,” Songyi says, throwing her hair over her shoulder. “Let’s get out of here.”

Minjoon sinks into the seat of the car he’d been in only two days before and notices that the leather is spotless. He'll have to apologize for the mess later.

“Thank you,” he murmurs, but it’s so soft that it gets lost in the roar of the engine.

“Have you been all right these last two days, Do Minjoon?” she asks. “I confess I was worried about you, and so guilty, even though I did everything you asked of me. It didn’t feel right, you know? And trust me, someone like me, my schedule is packed every second of every day and every night, I can’t just go where I want when I want to, but I came anyway. I probably shouldn’t have, either, what am I going to do with you now?”

She glances up in her mirror and sees him with his head against the window, asleep.

“Christ,” she says to herself. “Not even a thank you, huh?”

 

Songyi is in the kitchen, blankly watching her ramen soup come to a boil, when—

“Noona! What the hell?”

“What? What's wrong?”

“There is a—” Yoonjae storms into the kitchen, and throws a furious finger behind himself, a bag of Cheetos in his other hand. He drops his voice to an angry whisper. “There is a man in your room and he’s not Heekyung!”

He says man the same way people would if they'd walked into their bedroom to see a naked stripper or a dead body, or both. Especially both.

“Oh, I know,” Songyi says. She looks up sharply at him. “What were you doing in my room?”

“I wanted to have some of your Ch—what do you mean, you know? And me being in your room is not the point! Who is he? What's going on? Oh god, he's not, like, an escort, right?" Yoonjae says in a scandalized whisper.

"Yoonjae! No, god, will you just do what you do best and get out of my sight?"

"You have so much explaining to do, I swear to god," he goes on. "And Heekyung is going to lose his damn balls if he hears that—"

"I'm going to lose my what?" Heekyung says, appearing behind Yoonjae and looking pleasantly baffled.

"Hyung!"

"Heekyung," says Songyi, "you're back early."

"Jaekyung decided today's work was good enough," Heekyung says. He sweeps past Yoonjae and pulls Songyi into a hug, to which she enthusiastically responds by channelling a dead fish. "How have you been today?"

Over Heekyung's shoulder, Yoonjae glides away resentfully, but not before jabbing two fingers at his eyes and pointing them menacingly at Songyi.

I'm watching you, he mouths.

"I'd be better if you let me go," Songyi says, pulling away. "I've just been busy, what with the merge with your company and the Cosmopolise writers asking for my approval every other minute."

"No, I mean, are you okay?" Heekyung says pointedly. "You know—any bad dreams?"

"Oh," Songyi says uncomfortably. "No, I've been fine."

"That's good to hear. I'm going to go take a shower and make something for myself later, all right? Don't worry about me."

"Okay, good night, Heekyung."

He offers her his cheek in reply. When she does nothing, he opens his eyes.

"What, no good night kiss?"

"Keep trying," Songyi says, shutting off the burner. Heekyung pouts, but makes his way upstairs. She peers around the staircase to make sure he's gone before she tiptoes to her room next to Yoonjae's and slowly turns the knob.

Do Minjoon is standing right behind the door.

"What are you—" She looks over her shoulder unnecessarily before shoving him backwards as she closes the door behind her. "Why are you up? You shouldn't be moving!"

He sits obediently when she pushes him back onto her bed. Songyi steps back and props her chin in her hand, scrutinizing him.

"What are we going to do with you?" she muses aloud, as though speaking to a small, hyperactive puppy. "Where can I put you without Heekyung finding out? No use trying to hide you from Yoonjae, he already saw you..."

Minjoon says nothing.

"Not a man of many words, huh."

"Are you married?"

"I—what?"

"Are you married," he repeats. "Have I been sleeping in the bed of a married woman?"

Songyi flushes at his choice of words. "I am not married," she replies hotly. "Heekyung is just a friend."

"He sure doesn't seem to think so. Not to mention he lives in your house."

"What does it matter if I'm married?" Songyi says, throwing her hands up. "I saved your sorry life! Shouldn't you be thanking me right now?"

"You also ran me over with your car."

"I—well, I—" she stutters. "I think I liked you better when you didn't talk."

Ignoring her, he snatches his jacket off the floor. "If you are married, I shouldn't be here." He stands, though it is clear he's still in pain. As an afterthought, Minjoon turns around when he has his hand on the knob. "And thank you."

It's only when he is already halfway down the hallway to the front door, limping, that Songyi dashes outside to block his path. She grabs him by the elbows.

"I'm not married," she says under the breath. "At least leave when you've recovered. If something happens to you out there because of your condition, I won't be able to forgive myself."

Minjoon is motionless for several taut seconds, and Songyi can't quite bring herself to look him in the face. Time slows, then crawls by. He relents, fight going out of his muscles, and Songyi leads him back to her room without another word.

When she shuts her door, she sees Yoonjae standing in his doorway, shaking his head. His lips are dusted with Cheeto crumbs and he reaches into the bag for another handful.

"Don't," she cautions, sensing the oncoming shitstorm.

"My, my," he says. Songyi glowers. "You've got one secret to keep there. A tall, dark, and handsome secret, which." He blows out a breath, raising his eyebrows. "Good fucking luck, noona."

"Don't tell Heekyung about him," she implores.

Yoonjae gives a sigh of the truly martyred.

"Please, Yoonjae."

He hesitates one more moment. "You're lucky I care about you," he says finally.

"Thank you," she breathes, leaning on the doorframe for support.

"So," he says, leaning forward and lowering his voice despite the fact the sound of Heekyung's shower is still running strong. "Is he a sugar daddy?"

"Get lost, punk."

✩✩✩

“I’m sorry, sir, but the patient Yihwa passed away early this morning, and—”

“Something happened here last night,” Minjoon says, white-knuckling over the receptionist counter. “The news said there was a break-in and a patient died. Who was it? Someone died, was it Yihwa?”

The nurse doesn’t answer, face exhausted in the sickly glow of the monitor screen. Minjoon slams his fist on the wood, yet she hardly flinches.

“It was Yihwa, right? Seo. Yi. Hwa. She was killed, wasn’t she?”

“Sir,” she says wearily, “I will have to call security if you do not control yourself.”

“Answer me!”

The nurse props her hand up on the counter and nods at something over Minjoon’s shoulder. Two parents are bent over a hospital bed, jogging to keep up with the doctors that are wheeling it briskly down the hallway.

“You see those two doctors that just went around the corner with that child? They’re going to hand them over to the pediatricians, who are going to assess what is wrong with her, tell the parents, and offer them a laundry list of solutions, if there are any. They’re going to smile and say a few kind words, then go back to work and do it all over again. You think her parents are going to work today? You think work is even on their minds?”

Minjoon glares at her.

“I’m sorry I can’t give you anything but bad news,” she says. “Don’t go to work. Go home, find your family, find something to do. Whatever that patient meant to you, keep her in your heart and keep moving.”

Minjoon trudges away, feet dragging on the waxed linoleum. For the first time—even with the protection of the Bluebloods all around him, he feels so, so alone. Nurses and physicians brush past him left and right, throwing hurried apologies over their shoulders when he stumbles.

From what he has learned from seeing people die for the last five years, Minjoon knows that floor B of any hospital is storage—mops, gauze, beds, bodies. Chilled in bags like venison until someone came to collect them. He stands numbly in the elevator, watching the floors pass by until it comes to a stop.

It’s freezing, and for once, Minjoon thanks the woolen dress code of the Bluebloods, tightening his jacket over himself. His breath comes in white plumes of steam as he lifts back the veil of heavy plastic tassels. The bodies are arranged pragmatically, row by row, tagged with names and times of death.

Seo Yihwa. 3:09 AM, 22 October 2009.

The zipper crunches loudly in the sterile silence. Minjoon doesn’t know what he expected, but there she lies in the black bag, staring up at him with lightless eyes. There’s a horrible sinking feeling in his stomach when he sees the telltale dark bullet wound in her temple, perfectly circular and calculated, like someone had held the barrel to her skin before pulling the trigger.

Minjoon looks away, lightheaded with faint smell of sickness, when his eyes catch something.

On the tray below lies a heavy-duty plastic bag containing a handgun. He kneels, holding it up to the light. The sticker just below the biohazard symbol reads evidence; potential murder.

Tears pool in the corners of his eyes, and Minjoon’s nose burns as they slip down his face.

✩✩✩

Thursdays are laundry days.

Heekyung likes Thursdays. Wednesdays are okay, but unlike the rest of the world, Heekyung hates Fridays, since he has to eat dinner with his family instead of in Songyi’s house. Though, admittedly, dinner with Songyi usually is always (is actually always) an assortment of leftover side-dishes from restaurants she goes to or whatever Yoonjae decides to pick up at the market, so dinner on the daily comprises of anything from half-eaten pineapple jambalaya and bits of filet mignon to SPAM. Out of the can.

“She doesn’t cook,” Yoonjae explained once when Heekyung asked, Songyi ignoring him and stuffing half a fudgesicle in her mouth to evade an answer. “The last time she tried we had to get the smoke vent replaced.”

Which was, consequently, the last time Heekyung attempted to convince Songyi to take up home cooking.

He likes Thursdays, because unlike other people, Heekyung likes doing laundry. Somehow, doing the laundry of everyone in the house gives him a sense—a false sense, but one that Heekyung enjoys nonetheless—of belonging. Rich though he may be, he’s never felt like he’s truly contributed anything to Songyi’s life that she couldn’t do without. Laundry, however, is definitely something she isn’t to be trusted with. It's the only reason she's gone through four phones in the last two years.

He hums as he loots through the pockets of Yoonjae’s clothes, checking for loose change. Without looking, Heekyung tosses everything into the wash and sets it on regular fabrics, knowing that Yoonjae won’t care, or even notice, if his shirt is one size smaller than it’s supposed to be.

With great difficulty Heekyung picks up Songyi’s hamper, which is about the approximate size and weight of a baby whale, and balances it on the table beside the dryer to sort through her woolens and knits and delicates. His mind drifts as he piles her silks in one corner, but then a sudden splash of bright red in her clothing snags his attention.

Bewildered, Heekyung reaches down, gives a tug on the fabric, and pulls free a wrinkled, bloodstained white dress shirt.

“Jesus Christ!” he shouts, dropping it, and it flutters to the floor like an injured pigeon. “What the hell?”

Yoonjae is entirely unhelpful.

“Hey, what is your shirt doing in your sister’s hamper? And what happened? I didn’t know you got injured this bad!”

Yoonjae looks up very slowly and deliberately from his computer and throws the dirtiest look imaginable over his shoulder. His gameplay screen is currently grey and Heekyung deduces he must have just died, but he shakes the shirt that he has pinched between his thumb and forefinger. “Is this yours?”

“Nope,” Yoonjae says, and stuffs his earbuds back in.

“But it’s a man’s shirt,” Heekyung says sourly, scowling at the article of clothing like it would proclaim to whose ownership it belonged.

Songyi, on the other hand, is far too helpful.

“Why is there a man’s shirt in your hamper? In this condition, no less!” Heekyung shouts, barging into Songyi’s room. She looks up from a review of Cosmopolise.

“What’s in my hamper is none of your business,” she says, looking back at her laptop.

“It is too my business!” Heekyung insists. “If it wasn’t, why would you have made me buy you a new Chanel scarf when I ruined your old one?”

“Did it affect your finances negatively?” she asks.

“Well—no, but—”

“That’s that, then,” replies Songyi. “Get out of my room, you didn’t even knock.”

“Songyi, I live in this house and I feel like I have the right to know what happens under its roof—”

“That shirt is my dad’s,” she says severely. “Sometimes, when I miss him the most, I take it out of my closet and sleep with it in my blankets. Now, I’m not sure if you’re aware, Heekyung, women have something called a menstrual cycle. You know, that time of the month when the space between our legs basically turns into a ketchup dispenser. It can come when we are least prepared. Have you ever gone to sleep on a flag of surrender and woken up on the flag of Japan?”

“I—no, I mean—”

“Now that you mention it, I was lucky to have had that shirt with me, otherwise it would’ve ruined my sheets,” she comments, frowning at her bed. She glances back at Heekyung, whose face has surpassed red and beelined for maroon. “Is that explanation enough for you?”

“Quite,” he chokes meekly.

“Thank you,” she says. “Now, if you’d let me get back to work.”

The second the door closes, Minjoon peeks out from the walk-in closet he’s moved into (along with her five billion pairs of shoes and six different bedding sets) for the time being.

“Ketchup dispenser?” he repeats, sounding pained.

“You really are far too concerned about the means, Do Minjoon,” Songyi says. “Would you have preferred I told him the truth?”

Minjoon doesn’t say anything immediately. Then, “Where’s your father?” His voice is uncharacteristically soft.

“Not here,” she says shortly, and it’s the best answer Minjoon is getting out of her today.

(“Really,” Heekyung says, holding up the shirt by the shoulders in the laundry room. “Does that much blood seriously come out down there?”

He stares at it for a few more baffled moments, shivers, then drops it into the washing machine like it’ll bite.)

 

“Cheon Songyi, the ratings for Cosmopolise have plateaued after the third episode. What do you have to say about this?”

“All TV shows have to start somewhere,” she says into the microphone. “I trust my writers to do a good job, and I trust Yoo Semi to bring us an excellent performance. You all should, too, and keep watching.”

Songyi reaches for the bottle of water on the table and drinks as the reporters busy themselves with notes. Beside her the lead actress Yoo Semi throws her a grateful smile.

“How is the merge with CCompany coming along, especially considering that S Entertainment already has its hands full with a new drama underway?”

“Lee Jaekyung and I have a very amiable work relationship,” says Songyi. “We plan to merge even with the release of Cosmopolise, and hopefully be able to bring the public even better products and entertainment in the future.”

“Cheon Songyi, inside sources reported that you were spotted in a remote industrial area of the Dangjin district,” asks another one of them. “Are these rumors true, and if they are, what were you doing there?”

Songyi feels the ground sway under her, throat threatening to close up. She clenches her fingers in the white chiffon of her skirt, and plasters a smile across her lips.

Cosmopolise is a drama that deals with the starkly realistic city life of a girl that begins with nothing,” she says. “And, to prevent my show from further plateauing, I’ve taken it upon myself to involve my interests in the writing and plot so that I may offer help or pointers if the writers ever need it, or if the public wants to see something different in our story.”

“But don’t the writers take care of plot research?”

“They do,” Songyi says. “But there is no rule that says the head of a company cannot concern herself with what her company is producing.”

There are murmurs of assent, and Songyi relaxes. She sees Semi eyeing her in her periphery.

“What the hell were you doing back in Dangjin?” Heekyung asks after the press conference adjourns. Songyi rolls her eyes and slides her sunglasses on, heels clicking on the tile. He jogs to keep up with her. “I thought that—you know—was done and over with!”

“I don’t report to you, Heekyung.”

“I know you don’t, but how could you go back there?”

Songyi stops, and Heekyung skids as she faces him. With her eyes behind her sunglasses, she is closed off and cold.

“Our lives has been built on the backs of others who are not as fortunate as us,” she says. “It would not kill you to have one of someone else’s, someone who is not as far as you in life.”

“But, Songyi—”

“I’m going to my mani-pedi appointment now,” she announces loudly. “It’ll take at least two hours, so don’t wait for me.”

 

“So.”

Never has the world so struck so much unadulterated fear into Minjoon’s steely ex-gangmember heart, but here he is, stretching into a cupboard in the kitchen and rummaging through Songyi’s assorted canned food, instant Nongshim udon, and unopened Nutella jars. He starts so violently that he drops a can of Atlantic packed sardines with a smack on the wooden floor.

Leaning against the island is a boy, in his late teens or toeing early twenties. This must be the Yoonjae Minjoon’s heard Songyi talking to. He has his arms crossed and a look on his face that says, finally, I have successfully caught someone else with their hand in the cookie jar. Or, in this case, ramen stash.

“I can explain,” Minjoon begins.

Yoonjae holds up his hand. “No need,” he says, closing his eyes and shaking his head. “There are a lot of things about my sister that I already know far too much about, and what kind of men she cavorts with is not something I’d like to add to the list.”

“I am not cavorting—”

“You sleep in her bed.”

“Slept! Once!”

Yoonjae leans forward. “So what is it? Does she pay you to get Heekyung off her back? Are you a stand-in boyfriend? Or an assassin? Wait, that’s way cooler. And it totally explains why you were so banged up.”

Minjoon heaves a huge sigh and wonders if overassumption is something that runs in the Cheon family.

“I’m none of those things, Yoonjae.”

“How did you know my name? Hold on—spy. You’re a spy.”

“I am not a spy.”

“Then who are you?”

It’s a fair question. Who are you? Minjoon hasn’t heard these words directed towards him since he was sixteen. For five years after that he’d been the leader of Blueblood drug rings. It’s been five years since he was the leader of anything.

“Do Minjoon,” he says. “And I am nobody.”

 

“Boss.”

“Mmhmm.”

“There’s some bad news.”

“Oh? Let’s hear it.”

“Do Minjoon…” An uncomfortable pause. “Do Minjoon is still alive. We think he’s somewhere in Seoul now.”

“Bad news?” The laugh is short and humorless. “Oh, no, no. This is good news. Excellent news.”

 

“Your brother is a good kid.”

Songyi raises her head off her pillow slightly at the muffled sound of Minjoon’s voice coming from her closet. He doesn’t speak again, so she shrugs it off and rolls over, when—

“He caught me in the kitchen today, though.”

This has Songyi jackknifing upright and ripping her Guess? pink cheetah patterned sleeping mask off her face. “He caught you?” she hisses in his general direction.

“He was very calm about it,” Minjoon remarks. “He thinks I’m up to no good.”

“Which you probably aren't.”

She flips to her side so that she can hear him better, but he falls silent again.

“Did he give you a hard time? He can be kind of overprotective, playing the hero sometimes. Which is why Heekyung sleeps upstairs and has to pass his room to get to mine.”

Minjoon smiles faintly at this, curled up on the floor of Songyi’s closet and surrounded by her fifty-six pairs of Louboutins. Ah, three hundred and sixty degrees of foot smell.

“He was okay.”

“Yoonjae can kind of be a pain in the ass sometimes,” Songyi comments. “All the time. But he’s the only one who really understands me in my family—even if he pretends not to. Besides my dad.”

There it is again, the mention of her father. Minjoon shimmies his way over the carpet and slides her closet door open a crack. Even from here, Songyi can see a sliver of his face illuminated by the tiny nightlight she had given him, the orange glow turning his one visible eye into embers.

He doesn't ask, but the question hangs in the air nonetheless. Songyi finds herself answering.

"He fell out with my mother years ago," she says quietly. "It was over money. It's always about money, with my mother. The entertainment company was his, originally, they had planned to work together. After Yoonjae was born..."

Minjoon props his chin in his hands, padding his blankets under his abdomen so that the almost-healed wound doesn't chafe the carpet.

"They argued who would take their places after they stepped down. Mother wanted to do it until she dropped, Dad wanted my brother and I to run it together after he was old enough. My dad wanted us to be happy and to have each other to rely on no matter what happened.

"But my mother said that we were useless, that—I was so young at the time, I didn't understand what she meant—what was the point of having kids when they leech off of you for years only to give you nothing in return? That was the last straw for my dad, though; he wanted to leave with us, with me and my tiny infant brother, but realized that we'd be so much better off growing up surrounded by money than by poverty.

"Maybe that's why all I do is search for ways to prove to her that I can do it. That maybe Yoonjae and I, one day, we'll do it together. Better than she can. Because, maybe that day, my dad will see us online, see that we did it. And maybe he'll come back."

A somber pause pools between them. "Sorry, that was a bit much," Songyi says. "You should sleep."

Stubbornly she rolls over in bed and yanks her mask back over her eyes, but Minjoon doesn't budge.

"I'm envious of you."

Songyi raises her eyebrows.

"Of what?"

"Your family, as broken and dysfunctional as it may be."

"Do you really have no one, Do Minjoon?" Songyi asks tentatively. "Nobody at all?"

"Not anymore," he says. "But once, I did."

✩✩✩

Rain that falls during the summer heat always steams as it hits the hot, sun-oiled streets. It comes first in timid teardrops, and then as warm bullets that riddle the dirt to slurries outside.

"Minjoon-ah..."

"Hm?"

"What does the orphanage do with kids that get sick?"

“Why?”

“You remember Yoon Bokyung?”

“Yeah. That girl you’re friends with.”

“She fell really ill a while ago, and I haven’t seen her since. When I was coming back from school yesterday, I stopped by the hospital to ask if they’d taken in any patients with that name, by any chance, but they said they hadn’t.”

“You went all to the way to the hospital just to look for her?”

“I...I guess I did go out of my way, huh?”

Minjoon looks up from his desk, but Yihwa still has her chin propped in her hand, elbow resting on the windowsill. She seems to be lost in her own thoughts as she stares outside the dreary window screen, watching the rain wash away the dust on the manor roof.

“I’m sure they’re taking care of her,” he says.

“Are you still doing homework?” Yihwa asks, coming to bend over his work. “You work all day, you’re almost done with third-year coursework and you’re only a second-year. Take a break sometimes!”

“Nothing wrong with graduating high school early.”

Yihwa pouts. “Fine. I’m going to go see if anyone else has heard anything about Bokyung.”

She doesn’t close the door behind her and Minjoon sighs, getting up to do it himself, when he notices how quiet the hallways are for this hour. He looks up and down the one he lives on, wondering where Yihwa could have gone so quickly, then shuts his door and starts in the direction of Heo Bokyung’s room from what he remembers after following Yihwa there several times.

Minjoon climbs the flights of stairs, mind preoccupied with calculus, when he sees Yihwa standing motionless in an open doorway. Frowning, he takes the last few stairs two at a time and runs to her side. Her face is stricken with horror and she’s trembling, so when Minjoon follows her gaze—

—he smells it first. Then he sees it, feet dangling in midair.

“Oh,” he chokes, folding her into his embrace. She only comes up to his chest. “Oh God, Yihwa—”

“Minjoon,” she says, muffled voice breaking, “please, I’m so sorry, please don’t let that happen to me.”

✩✩✩

“Did...is she…?”

“It was malignant lymphoma,” Minjoon says, and he’s lying on his side now, with one arm pillowed under his head. “She’d collapsed in school that day and then been rushed to the hospital, so she wasn’t entirely lying when she said ‘stopped by.’ And yes,” he adds, “she’s gone now.”

He decides to leave out the part that she died from a bullet through her brain.

“I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay. Besides her, I never knew my mother or father, and if I have siblings, they have no idea of my existence.”

“Then she must have been your whole world.”

She was.

“It’s been a long time.”

“It’s been over a decade since I last heard my father’s voice, and seeing pictures of him still makes my throat swell,” Songyi says. “Time can pass, but scars always remain.”

"Maybe."

“What happened to the orphanage after you two found that Bokyung...like that?”

“We were the only two to ever find out,” Minjoon says. “And we didn’t stick around for very long after we did. We never discovered who did it, butit had to have been one of the caretakers.”

“Where did you go?”

“We ran.”

“Where to?”

Minjoon shrugs his shoulders. “Wherever.”

Songyi hums as she processes this.

“This is why you don’t have anyone you call family, huh? I can see how it would be hard to bring yourself to love someone again if something like that happened.”

“Now I’m the one that’s sorry,” Minjoon says. “But I guess, in terms of heavy backstories, we’re even now?”

“Even,” Songyi agrees, and gives a ferocious yawn. “Does she have a grave? Do you visit her often?”

“She does, but I haven’t—haven’t seen her since she passed.”

Minjoon can practically hear her scowl. “That’s no good,” she says. “I’ll take you sometime. She’s probably lonely. From the way you talk about her, you must have been her whole world too.”

“That,” Minjoon says, “that would be nice.”

But Songyi is already asleep.

 

The kimbap is gone.

As per Cheon household protocol, if the kimbap is gone and someone was saving it for himself, the first thing to do upon discovering its absence is to completely lose one’s shit. Heekyung is spectacular at this, actually.

“Yoonjae!” he says, barging into his room. Immediately Heekyung is met with a computer mouse to the face. It explodes across the floor, batteries rolling out over the hardwood, and Heekyung stands there with an empty plate and a bloody nose for all of thirty seconds before he deduces that Yoonjae’s four open Pringles cans is proof enough that he has probably been living on pure sodium for the last week.

Which leaves Songyi, who hates kimbap.

“Why would I eat your precious kimbap,” she says. “I was out all week for dinner and lunch, the only stuff I touch in the fridge is the ice cream.”

“But,” Heekyung says, staring at the plate like it had engulfed the food itself, “I swear there were at least three left.”

“Don’t you have a business meeting to get to with your father, anyway?” Songyi asks. “Go out and eat with him for once. You only eat with your parents once a week, it’s rude.”

“But—”

“It’s almost six, Heekyung.”

He sighs and flounces out of her room, and Songyi sticks her head out into the hallway until she hears the front door close. Then she leans back into her room and calls, “All right, coast is clear!”

“You sure are mean to him,” Minjoon says, emerging from the closet, detaching an aviator heel that’s caught in his sock. He’s wearing one of Yoonjae’s old t-shirts after weeks of refusing, understandably enough, since this one reads POKEMON DIAMOND across the chest.

“You haven’t had to live with him for the past year,” Songyi says, shaking her head and making her way to the kitchen. “Once I woke up to him rearranging my entire room because the placement I had it in was bad feng shui, or whatever. It was seven am.”

“Jesus. And you’re getting married to him? Priorities.”

“For the last time,” says Songyi, “I am not marrying him. I’d sooner marry my brother than marry Heekyung. There would be no difference.”

“Does he know that?” Minjoon says, eating cold Campbell’s chicken soup right out of the can. “Because that’s harsh.”

“Stop, that’s gross,” Songyi says, snatching it out of his hands and placing it in the microwave oven. “And he probably does, I mean, he’d be stupid not—”

“Wait!”

But Songyi presses the heat button just as she looks at him. First there is a spark, but then a high-pitched, demonic scream issues from the microwave and Songyi matches it with her own. Minjoon dives forward and slams his hand onto the button that pops the door open, and smoke pours out.

“No metals in the microwave,” he explains.

“Right,” Songyi says weakly. “I forgot.”

Minjoon laughs, and it must be the first time he has since meeting her. She’s never even seen his smile, nonetheless heard his laugh, but he looks like a child when he does—like someone who still saw the universe as a place of endless possibilities and not a place of endless cruelties, and she smiles slightly in return. For a moment, he turns to her with the tail end of that childish laughter, genuine light in his eyes.

And it’s beautiful.

The doorbell chimes, and they jump. Songyi waves her hands as if to say hide! and dashes past him, smashing his foot under her as she passes.

“Sorry!” she yelps, tripping to the front door. She smoothes the front of her skirt and opens it. Jaekyung looks up, in his pressed suit as always.

“Am I bothering you?”

“No, of course not! Are you here for Heekyung?”

“I actually came to discuss some things about the depart—” Jaekyung lifts his chin, sniffing. “Is something on fire?”

“No, I just had a little—accident, in the kitchen, is all. Feel free to come in, no one’s—”

Minjoon limps square into the hallway just then, still clutching his foot, and Songyi nearly trips again. At first he is like a deer caught in headlights, but eventually straightens and bows.

“—home,” she finishes in a small voice.

“I’m sorry,” he says, eyes still trained resolutely on the floor. “I won’t disturb your work.”

“It’s fine!” she says, taking his arm in hers and pulling him up to face Jaekyung, who looks, oddly, shocked. “Sorry, Jaekyung, we weren’t expecting guests at this hour. This is, uhm, this is Do Minjoon, he’s—a friend of Yoonjae’s, and I was trying to make dinner for him! You know teens!”

“Ah,” Jaekyung says pleasantly. “Nice to meet you, Minjoon. I’ve got a few things to discuss with Songyi, so I hope you don’t mind waiting a while longer for your dinner.”

“Of course not,” Minjoon replies, voice uncharacteristically cold. “I don’t mind at all.”

 

“You know, Yikyung, it’s been a while since I saw any familiar faces on the streets.”

“Is that so, Boss?”

“After the rebellions, I didn’t think I’d ever live to see another day that the cities could be my empire again.”

“The rebellions following Do Minjoon’s departure, sir?”

“Were there any other rebellions that we know of, Yikyung? You know no such things would ever have happened in my heyday.” A contemptuous snort. “Oh, Yikyung, you should have seen his face.”

“Boss—you don’t mean to say—”

“I met that little bastard, all right, and he’s living in the lap of luxury. All the better, don’t you suppose, Yikyung? Because when time comes—oh, when the time comes, and it will soon enough—he has a pretty price to pay.”

 

“Hello? This is Do Minjoon, and—”

“Minjoon! Where have you been? You disappeared for weeks without a notice, and the head of the school was going to fire you, but I said that there must have been something wrong. The children have been worried sick about you!”

“I know, I know, I’m sorry Youngmok,” Minjoon says. “I was in a car accident a few weeks back and had to stay in bed. I was calling to ask if they’d even take me back after that, I didn't expect you to pick up.”

“Why didn’t you call earlier?”

“I wasn’t able to go home,” Minjoon says, though at this point, he doubts he'll ever be able to go home. “It’s a long story, and I’m sorry I’m only explaining it now.”

“Well, I know the children will be relieved to hear you’re returning, they despise the substitute teachers,” Youngmok says. “When I take over in the afternoon they all want to go home. You remember how they never wanted to leave when you were there?”

Minjoon smiles crookedly. “How could I forget.”

“If you weren’t able to go home, where have you been staying? The hospital?”

“I—yeah,” he lies quickly. “I’m just hoping that the university hasn’t dropped me from their registrar.”

“If they have, I’ll personally write them a strongly worded letter,” Youngmok says fiercely. “You’re one of the brightest people I have ever met, and frankly I’m baffled as to why—”

“Jang Youngmok.”

“Sorry,” he mutters. “Got carried away again.”

“Thanks anyway,” Minjoon says. “Tell those kids to hang in there for a while longer. I’ll get back to work as soon as I can.”

“Hurry," Youngmok says. “They’ve been inconsolable.”

There’s a knock on the closet door when Minjoon hangs up, and Yoonjae pokes his head in.

“My sister has never bought me a damn thing in my life without me asking first,” Yoonjae says, dumping an enormous shopping bag at his feet. “So consider yourself blessed, gigolo.”

“I am not a—

But Yoonjae is already gone. Minjoon rips the Post-it note off the tissue wrap inside.

you mentioned something about going back to work. you work two part time jobs and go to school, right? i couldn’t remember, but i heard you telling yoonjae you can’t go back home right now. i’m not sure if these will fit you, but you seem to be his size, so i bought them all with his measurements in mind. i didn’t get anything blue, since you said you hate the color blue, so i hope everything fits!

—songyi

Minjoon tears open the paper and lifts out the first thing his hand touches, a white cashmere sweater that probably costs half his yearly salary. Then there are jackets, in black and grey and army green. Jeans that look too big, he’ll have to throw them in the warm cycle to shrink them down to size. Minjoon shakes his head, mind spinning at how much this must have all cost, still pulling out linen shirts and ties and possibly the bulk of half his closet back home, sits there surrounded by these new clothes and.

And he remembers that he is an ex gang member playing in someone else’s sandbox.

Who is he kidding? Before Cheon Songyi hit him with her car, he’d been a student that struggled to make ends meet, returned to a two-room apartment day in and day out, bounced between class and work—between children climbing on him for more stories and customers that wanted extra whip cream, please make my drink again. Before even that he had been on the streets, on corners and in alleys with a shooting aim that put most military to shame.

That had gotten him nowhere and nothing but a half-earned psychology degree and a dead girl that would never hear his apology.

Somehow, he can’t bear to let what happened to Yihwa, happen to Songyi—the heiress to a leading entertainment company, especially now that his presence in her house is known by possibly the most dangerous man in South Korea. She’s just someone who took him under her wing when he needed it most, a benefactor, yet the idea of harm coming to her scares him—and he can’t let it happen, nor does he think he can withstand losing someone else because of him—again. He needs to get out of her sight before she gets caught in the line of fire.

The world works in patterns. Minjoon is going to break this one.

A black Dior tie slips out of Minjoon’s fingers as he stands up. Methodically, he gathers his things—his backpack, his wallet, his shoes. He shrugs back into the laundered clothes he’d been wearing the night of the accident, then folds the new ones back into the shopping back. Outside, he uses a pen from Songyi’s desk and writes, below her message, thank you. give it all to yoonjae, i think he needs a better wardrobe. —minjoon.

His backpack feels far heavier than usual, and when he lets himself out of her room, Yoonjae—in a rare moment of awareness—looks over his shoulder.

“Where are you going, brother-in-law?” he asks in a taunting voice. “Oh, wait, she probably expects you to do something as compensation for all those clothes. What is it? Are you going to slash Heekyung’s tires so he can’t get back here?” He eats a Cheeto thoughtfully. “Actually, I’d pay you to do that, too.”

“What are you playing?” Minjoon asks, nodding at Yoonjae’s computer.

“I—what?”

“What game is that?”

“Oh—Titanfall.”

“Is it first-person shooter?”

“Yeah, why?”

“You don’t seem to be doing that great.”

“I—I am doing just fine! It’s new, I haven’t gotten used to the feel of—I usually play—don’t you have a car to total or something?”

“Can I try?” Minjoon asks, sliding his backpack off his shoulder.

“Uh. Sure, I guess.”

Yoonjae scoots his chair aside as Minjoon bends over his controls. It takes him a moment to familiarize himself with where everything is, and which keys do what, but as soon as he unpauses the game, he gets more kills in two minutes that Yoonjae has managed in twenty.

“Wait, what the hell?” he says, leaning over Minjoon’s arm. “You’re good at this!”

“I’ve had a lot of practice,” Minjoon says, killing two offenders with one bullet.

“Holy shit,” Yoonjae says emphatically. “Maybe you’re the gaming partner I’ve been waiting for my whole life.”

“Uhm—I don’t think—”

“Sorry, I’m keeping you from something super important, aren’t I? You must be a spy, Minjoon hyung. It explains everything.”

Minjoon hyung. It has a nice ring to it, and he half-smiles, though Yoonjae has already turned back to the screen.

“When you come back, I am so getting out my multiplayer stuff,” Yoonjae chunters, and Minjoon shoulders his backpack again, starting for the door. “Melee, Brawl. League, maybe?” He doesn’t seem to notice when it shuts and Minjoon sighs.

He’s lived in a walk-in closet in a big, big house for weeks now. The most he ever saw outside Songyi’s collection of shoes and clothes was the fridge. The idea of leaving all of this, though, the first place he’s felt remotely at home—

“Do Minjoon, where are you going?”

Songyi carries an armful of binders and a briefcase, exhausted as always. He didn't hear her come in just now.

“You’re home.”

“Where are you going? I thought you said—”

“I’m leaving,” he replies curtly, and tries to step around her. She steps right into his path.

“Hang on. Leaving? Why are you leaving so suddenly?”

“You asked me to stay until I recovered. I have, and now I’m leaving. I’m sorry for having intruded on your life so unexpectedly and for so long.”

She doesn't move. “Did I do something to offend you?”

“You did nothing of the sort. You do too much for me,” Minjoon says through gritted teeth. “I can’t accept it.”

He brushes past her, winces when he hears heavy binders thudding to the floor, but she doesn’t pick them up. As he reaches for the doorknob, Songyi turns to glare at him.

“You’re scared,” she says. “You’re scared because I care about you, isn’t it?”

Minjoon sucks in a breath. “Don’t talk about things you don’t understand,” he grunts, and slams the door behind himself.

✩✩✩

Yihwa was obsessed with jade.

They didn’t have much in the orphanage. When they’d run away, everything they owned fit in their school bags. But Yihwa did have one thing she treasured above all else—a hairpin of jade, as long and thin as a chopstick and wrapped in gold, ending in a delicately sculpted flower. On summer days she’d use it to fix her long hair up into a bun and make Minjoon call her majesty.

Minjoon had the feeling that she convinced herself it once belonged to her mother.

He turns it over on the grimy dinner table, watching it catch the light of the lone light bulb hanging over his head. In the background, the TV drones on, yet he hears nothing, drowning in memories.

“Before my grandmother died,” she whispered, turning the pin over in her hands, “she said that goodbyes have to be said in advance. Because if the end really comes, there won’t be time for proper farewells.”

“Lucky you and I don’t have to worry about that, right?" Minjoon said thickly. She smiled faintly, lips colorless, then held out her pin.

“Take this,” she said. “Whether or not we ever have to say our goodbyes, I want someone I care about to keep it.”

“Yihwa—”

“Do Minjoon, when I was first brought to the manor, I had only resentment and hate for the world,” she said, coughs wracking her body. “But then I met you, and whatever I was to you—even if you only saw me as your little sister—it didn’t matter, because for the first time, I had hope for my future.”

Minjoon stared at her. This wasn’t a goodbye—it wasn't, but it felt like one. There was a dull sort of sheen in her eyes, one of resignation.

“Whatever happens, I won’t forget you. Even in death, in whichever realm you’re in, or I’m in, I’ll never forget everything you’ve done for me.”

Minjoon opened his mouth to reply when his phone buzzed. He glanced at it, and saw that it was a text from the Boss.

“Duty calls?”

“Yeah,” he grumbled. “Why’d you have to make me feel heavy and sad? Boss hates it when I report in with a long face.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Don’t keep them waiting.”

That was the last time Minjoon ever saw her alive.

“The patient, who has been identified as a seventeen-year-old girl named Yihwa, is said to have been killed by gang violence. Her death is possibly related to the infamous rivalry between the Bluebloods and the Black Riders.”

Minjoon lifts his head lifelessly, staring at the glowing TV screen.

“The hospital in which she was residing is allegedly on the territory of the latter gang. Despite the fact that the victim had no identified family, an anonymous request was submitted for her to be buried in—”

The TV shuts off with a white zap. The silence is loud. Minjoon’s tears are louder.

✩✩✩

“Mother, Father,” says Jaekyung, setting down his napkin. “I’m sorry I’ll have to take my leave in advance today. I have some time-sensitive business matters to take care of.”

“Of course, Jaekyung. Ah, my hardworking son, you hardly ever have a chance to eat with us!”

“Hyung, weren't we supposed to discuss my position in the company?”

“We will, I won’t be long,” Jaekyung reassures. “I’ll give you a call.”

Songyi’s house isn’t too far from their own. Jaekyung doesn’t bother asking for a chauffeur, and when one of them offers to take him, he waves him off.

This is, uhm, this is Do Minjoon, he’s—a friend of Yoonjae’s, and I was trying to make dinner for him!

“Cheon Songyi,” he muses aloud, “I didn’t think you’d make my work so easy for me.”

She doesn’t seem thrilled to see him. In fact, there’s a deep set irritation around her eyes when she opens the door, but it dissipates into surprise when she sees him on her doorstep.

“Jaekyung, is there something wrong?”

“I’m afraid I left something behind when I last visited you. Is it okay if I come in and look for it?”

“Oh—sure, of course. What was it?”

“Just a few documents,” Jaekyung says, removing his shoes. “Alone for the night?”

“Just Yoonjae and I,” Songyi says, following him as he strides through the hallway and into the living room, surveying everything intensely.

“Oh? No friends over tonight? That Do Minjoon seemed pleasant.”

“Pleasant, my ass,” she says under her breath.

“Sorry?”

“Ah, he’s not here tonight,” Songyi says. “He and Yoonjae had a falling out.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Though with your brother on his computer like that all the time, I don’t see what there is to argue about.” Jaekyung smiles. “Well, it seems it’s not here. Sorry for disturbing your quiet night.”

“What does it look like? I’ll keep an eye out for it, and if I see it, I’ll make sure to hand it to you the next time we meet.”

Jaekyung thinks. “They’re just contracts. Agreements to pay fees if damages are sustained. High fees and large damages.”

Songyi blinks.

“All right, then.”

 

Minjoon isn’t great with planning itineraries. Even after all this time, he’s acted first, then stopped to think afterwards. This habit has landed him in all sorts of situations that he will not delineate further at this point in time, but suffice it to say he’s been chased out of a ladies’ room, off an elderly woman’s front lawn, and through a cornfield.

Which explains why he’s still leaning against the townhouse porch railings, swallowed by the shadows of the building. The sound of a door closing nearby reaches his ears, and he retreats further into the darkness, but freezes when he recognizes the outline of the man who’s currently climbing into the car at the curb. For several tense seconds, Minjoon hardly dares to breathe, and only does when the car is out of sight.

He doesn’t even wait to think whether or not this is stupid, or even safe, but Minjoon is sprinting out of his hiding place and back up the stairs to Songyi’s front door. His finger hesitates a moment over the doorbell, but he jabs it three times in a row and bounces on the balls of his feet.

It doesn’t take her long to open up, and when she does, her expression hardens.

“What do you want.”

“Are you okay?”

“What?”

Minjoon looks over her shoulders, then intently back into her face. “Did anything happen just now? Who was that man?”

“My future co-president. He stopped by for his belongings.”

“Future co-president?”

“Yes, our companies are mer—what’s it to you? Why are you even back here?”

“Listen,” Minjoon says urgently, “don’t work with him. That man is—that man is…”

“That man is?” Songyi prompts.

“Not good,” Minjoon finishes lamely.

Songyi gives him a contemptuous once-over. “If you’re going to march in here and tell me certain men are ‘not good,’ Do Minjoon, I suggest you take a good look at yourself sometime, since I’m not sure if I completely understand or trust your judgement of character, or moral compass, for that matter,” she snaps. “Good night.”

The door slams in Minjoon’s face. He stares at it, and turns to go back down the stairs, groan of frustration echoing through the street. Her door opens again behind him, a thunderous look on Songyi's face like she’s ready to throw a frying pan at him, and he hightails it out of there.

 

“You’re stressed out, aren’t you?”

“How would you know?”

“Well,” Bokja says uncertainly, “you’re currently applying what I believe is your sixth layer of topcoat there.”

Songyi numbly holds her hands up to her face to see that the leopard print manicure she’d gotten a week ago is melting off from her furious paint jobs, bleeding into her cuticles. Bokja grimaces, then reaches forward to pluck the polish wand from Songyi’s fingers. She screws the bottle shut.

“Spill. What happened this time? Did Heekyung pop another proposal on you? Hide a ring in your food again? Do something all around annoying and cliche?”

“None of that happened,” Songyi says, snatching the bottle of acetone remover off her coffee table. She tries to unfurl a cotton ball as she speaks, the soft threads getting caught on the still-wet polish. “It doesn’t even have to do with Heekyung.”

“Doesn’t have to do with Heekyung? Then is your company in trouble or something? Not that that even sounds possible right now, Cosmopolise ratings are skyrocketing again.” Bokja leans forward. “Wait, let me guess. You like someone?”

Songyi glares at her poisonously.

“I’m just asking, you know! Things happen, bad decisions are made, you’re scrambling for birth control—”

“Bokja! My life is not a shitty anime!”

“Sorry, sorry.”

Songyi sighs, throwing down the mangled cotton ball. “It’s just—people are really selfish these days, you know?”

“Yeah,” Bokja says, eyes far away, “I’ll say.”

“So you understand?”

“Huh?”

“So you understand what I mean?”

“What do you mean exactly?”

“It’s—say you do a lot for someone, a lot more than you would for anyone else. What is that?”

Bokja blinks unintelligently. “Generosity?” she tries.

“I—I guess,” Songyi says. “But you do a lot for this person for no reason, and when that person throws it back in your face you realize how much of a fool you’d been for trying so hard.”

“It sounds like you’re describing your teenage children, which I believe you have none of.”

“Oh my god. Forget it.”

Bokja gives her a sideways look as Songyi hangs her head miserably. “Are you sure you don’t like someone?”

“What does it matter if I do,” Songyi says. “Everyone knows that whatever happens, I’m still going to get married to Heekyung, because it’ll be good for the company, and everyone will be happy.”

“Will you be happy?”

Songyi lifts her head slowly, and Bokja is peeling a tangerine, picking off the gross white stringy bits from the skin.

“Why do something if it doesn’t make you happy?” she asks, stuffing half the fruit into her mouth. “Sure, you can be kind of a pain in the ass, Songyi, with your manicures and Louboutin obsession, but in terms of you know, Drastic Life Decisions, when was the last time you actually did anything for your own happiness?”

Songyi thinks, hard, and realizes with a jolt that the last—and only—time that had happened was when she drove back to that abandoned underpass in Dangjin, looking for a very broken man.

 

The place is torn apart.

Minjoon can’t say he’s surprised. He steps over the threshold, holding aside the criss-crossed yellow caution tape and ducking through the smashed doorway. The wallpaper has been ripped from the walls, his clothes in disarray across the floor, all the drawers of the desk pulled out with their contents strewn everywhere. The mattress has been slashed, its cotton and polyester guts spilling out, the spring coil skeleton apparent even from here. He steps over his shattered dishes, the glass crunching underfoot.

The gun that he’s hidden, along with its rounds, under the third floorboard beside his bed is still there. He stamps down hard until the plank creaks, jerking up, and retrieves it from its tomb.

There isn’t a trace of who’d done this, though Minjoon doesn’t need one to know that he’s a wanted man yet again. He’s had a burn notice on him for years now, and he silently congratulates himself for being smart enough not to keep any damning evidence of his identity anywhere in the house.

Except—

Minjoon bends, reaching out for the old tin box that has been the jade hairpin's home all this time. It’s open facedown; just beneath it lies the pin, fractured into glittering grit. The dented gold handle is still intact.

Somehow, suffocating sadness doesn’t punch Minjoon in the gut like he expects it to. There’s a slight sinking in his heart, as if he just witnessed the end of an animal’s life as it died in the jaws of a predator, but otherwise—otherwise, the pain is gone.

Only a scar remains.

A creak comes from outside in the hallway, and Minjoon stands up, loading the gun, the movements still ingrained into his muscles. As it turns out, there is no one there, and Minjoon relaxes. He pockets his weapon and takes the stairs back outside, and thinks wryly about how he’s back where he started: everything he owned in a backpack, no home, no family. This time, no friends either.

He jumps back as a high school bicyclist cuts across his path, and he looks upon the local high school. Sejong Science High School—and Minjoon remembers seeing it on one of Yoonjae’s old t-shirts.

Well. Maybe different friends, this time.

 

Songyi isn’t a huge fan of coffee, but she does love a cafe mocha here and there, so when Yoonjae offhandedly mentions that she should stop by a certain KMT! Cafe to pick one up the next morning, she doesn’t think too much about it.

Until, “Hi, what can I get—uh. You?”

Songyi reaches up and lowers her sunglasses down the bridge of her nose, not quite believing what she’s seeing, but that is definitely Do Minjoon wearing that stupid decaled apron, holding a coffee cup in one hand, Sharpie poised to write in the other. He looks supremely uncomfortable, cheeks flaring pink, and Songyi realizes why the name KMT Cafe had sounded so familiar.

“One cafe mocha, please,” she says tightly, and Minjoon scribbles on the cup. Songyi rifles through her wallet for her credit card, and he holds his hand out for it. She’s nearly about to place it in his fingers, too, when she stubbornly opts to slide it over the counter.

“Whip cream?” he asks mildly, moving down the workstation, setting the coffee machine to grind and opening fridges left and right.

“What is this, Do Minjoon,” she says over the glass partition, crossing her arms over her woolen shawl. “I thought you said you needed to cut me out of your life. Why go to the trouble of asking my little brother to tell me to come to your workplace?”

“No whip cream?”

“I—no whip cream,” she says. “You said—”

“I never said I was cutting you out of my life,” he replies, shaking espresso powder into the cup. “I said I was leaving your house and that you did too much for me.”

“And you did so without another word! I thought you hated—” She leans closer and lowers her voice when Minjoon eyes a woman that’s staring in their direction. “I thought you hated me, or I did something wrong.”

“You didn’t,” Minjoon says, pushing the drink across the counter. “And—are you okay?”

“I’m—yeah, I’m okay, but why?”

“Has anything strange happened?”

“Should anything strange have happened?”

Minjoon just gazes at her evenly, then holds out a paper-wrapped straw.

“Stay safe, Cheon Songyi.”

 

“Ow, ow, ow—noona! What the hell? Stop!”

“Not until you tell me why you gave me Do Minjoon’s clandestine directions to go to the cafe he works at,” Songyi says, with relish, the cartilage of Yoonjae’s rapidly reddening ear still pinched firmly between her thumb and forefinger. “Out with it. How and where did you meet him?”

“He stopped by my high school, dammit!” Yoonjae says, swatting at her. “He told me to tell you to come by!”

“What on earth for? He knows where I live, why didn’t he just come here?”

“Do I look like I know?”

“That’s so strange,” Songyi says, letting go of Yoonjae and ignoring the thud he makes when he stumble and hits the floor. “He was practically bashing in the door after Jaekyung came by, now he’s asking me if something happened...what does he have with Jaekyung?”

Yoonjae rubs his ear, looking dour. “Maybe that’s a discussion you should take up with him instead of grilling me for answers I don’t have.”

“How,” Songyi says. “He left so fast, it’s not like I had any time to ask him to leave behind his number.” She shakes her head. “He lived with us for a month and I never even knew his phone number. Amazing.”

Yoonjae noses into her space. “Did he do something to piss you off?”

“What is it with men and—no! Okay? He didn’t!”

“Well, he had to have done something,” Yoonjae reasons. “Who would get rid of a casanova like that?”

Who indeed.

Songyi flounces into her own room, drops all her things on the floor, and makes a completely inelegant swan dive for her bed. She lies with her face pressed into her fleecy zebra print blanket until she can't hold her breath any longer, and rolls onto her back, kicking her shoes off.

"He really did just leave without a trace," Songyi says, flicking the light on in her walk-in closet only to be greeted by the round empty space on the floor where Minjoon had curled up every night. Heels of her shoes hooked in her fingers, she finds an empty cubby and places them inside. Something is stuck to her toe when she steps back.

It's a slip of paper with a phone number, written in Minjoon's hand. Hopeful, she takes out her phone and dials.

"Daegwang Elementary, how may I help you?"

Songyi scrambles for words. "I—hello! Hi! I uh, I was calling to ask about Do Minjoon?"

"Ah, one of our teachers?"

Teacher? He's a teacher? she thinks incredulously. "Yes, I—I'm the mother of one of his students, and—"

"Rest assured, ma'am, Do Minjoon has already said he will be be back to teaching starting tomorrow, you're definitely not the first concerned parent to ask. He had emergency personal matters to take care of."

"That's a relief to hear," she says. "Thank you for your time!"

Songyi hangs up. She stares at the phone number and then immediately sits at her desk, booting up her laptop.

"Google maps," she says to herself. "Daegwang Elementary, is it?"

 

"Boss?"

"Make it fast. I don't have all day."

"Yesterday I spotted Cheon Songyi speaking to Do Minjoon at the coffee shop he works at. It seems that they remain in correspondence."

"Did you now? Did you manage to hear anything they said?"

"I'm sorry Boss, but no."

"That's fine. Excellent work, Yikyung, I must say. This is all turning out far more seamlessly than I had anticipated." A chuckle. "Cheon Songyi is really the most cooperative coworker I could ask for."

"What do you plan to do with her, Boss?"

"She's walked right into her own checkmate, getting to know that bastard Minjoon. This is where you come in, Yikyung."

 

As someone who has only ever seen Do Minjoon smile and laugh once, both simultaneously, Songyi is little disoriented when she stops outside the doorway to the classroom Minjoon teaches in to see him standing in the middle of a crowd of shouting children, holding a sticker sheet of gold stars over his head.

"I'm going to choose the student of the day," he calls over their voices. "And the gold star is going to go to the boy or girl that's," he presses a finger to his lips, "the quietest of them all."

The kids fall silent, some of them pressing their hands to their mouths. Other point at their friends as if to say look! He made noise!

"I think Miss Heo Yeonwoo is the student of the day today," Minjoon says, pressing a star to the cheek of a tiny girl on the edges of the circle. Several aww's arise and he admonishes, "Don't worry, everyone will have a chance!"

The children disperse and diligently begin packing up with vigor only give year olds have when Minjoon straightens and sees Songyi in the doorway. He raises his eyebrows.

"What are you doing here?" he asks, crossing his arms. He's wearing a black dress shirt that fits too loosely around his frame.

"You're good with them," she says, smiling. "Just how many jobs do you work?"

"Enough to get by."

"Do Minjoon seonsaengnim!" shouts one of the boys, running up to them. The top of his head reaches Minjoon's hip. "Is she your girlfriend?"

The other children chorus "eww!" in unison.

"Go clean your workspace, Yangmyung, I see glue and crayons everywhere," Minjoon says, as Songyi tries not to laugh. "You are enjoying this way too much."

"You're so wound up for a kindergarten teacher, chill out," she says, punching him lightly, and he belatedly looks down at the spot where her fist connected with his arm. "Where have you been living? I know you said you couldn't go home for some reason."

"In my car, for a while, but now I'm living with my coteacher," Minjoon says. "It's a bit of squeeze, since he has two daughters, but I can get out of there as soon as I find—"

"In your car?" Songyi says, looking personally offended. "How do you live like that?"

"Well, it's not exactly optimal."

"What was wrong with my closet?"

Minjoon sighs a long suffering sigh, looking back at the children.

"Why can't I care about you?" Songyi asks, eyes narrowing. "What's so dangerous about letting me be part of your life?"

"Songyi..."

"No, really. I want to know."

He doesn't answer. One of the girls tugs on Minjoon's pant leg and he kneels to help her zip her jacket up.

"Answer me. For once, give it to me straight."

"I'm trying to protect you," Minjoon says.

Songyi scoffs. "From what? From Jaekyung, the 'not good' man? He's the head of an electronics and technology conglomerate! You'd think he's safe enough, with the world watching his every move!"

She steps forward, and Minjoon physically takes one back. The sight of it is comical.

"What is it you're protecting me from, Do Minjoon?"

He stares silently at his shoes, and Songyi is about ready to do something ridiculous—like lift his face with her own hands just so she can see his expression—(she swears that's all she wants to do—seriously, that's it)—when he raises his head, and she's thrown off by the overwhelming sadness in his eyes.

"Me," he says. "I'm protecting you from me."

 

It’s just past midnight and the Jang household is silent. Youngmok wakes up and makes his routine trip to the bathroom to find that Do Minjoon’s bed hasn’t even been slept in.

“Minjoon?” he calls quietly, to no avail. The drip of the kitchen sink faucet is loud, and he flicks on the light in the foyer. “Minjoon?”

Youngmok sees the light still on in his oldest daughter’s room, and he knocks once before entering.

“Are you still doing homework?”

“Yeah,” she replies. “Why are you awake, Dad?”

“Minjoon’s not back,” replies Youngmok. “It’s late.”

“He’s usually never back until just before I go to bed. A few nights ago he didn’t come in till two am.”

“What could possibly keep him so busy?”

His daughter shrugs. “Beats me. He’s always tired. When I ask him if he wants anything, he just shakes his head and disappears into the guest room until the next morning. Sometimes I’ll see his car leaving if I’m up early enough.”

Youngmok shuffles over to the window and pulls one of the blinds down so he can peek outside at the sleepy neighborhood.

“Do Minjoon,” he says, “what are you doing out there?”

“Dad, who is he exactly? Do Minjoon?” She stands and looks down the quiet street with him.

Youngmok puts an arm around his daughter’s shoulders as they peer out her dark window together.

“He’s…” Youngmok trails off. “He’s someone.”

 

The overhead light of Minjoon’s used 2002 Lexus is shot, so the only way he can see anything in his car at night is with the use of a heavy black policeman’s flashlight that he obtained seven years ago in a less-than-legal fashion, but he can’t very well just walk into a station and say, “Hey, I think you guys lost something back there.”

He rubs his eyes under his spectacles and leans back, blowing a sigh through pursed lips as he slogs through his own homework and new lesson plans. The temperature in the car is dropping to an unbearable cold, yet he doesn’t dare turn on the heater for fear that it will defrost his windshield. There’s a good strong sheet of ice forming across the glass.

Across the intersection a figure steps between the cars parked along the curb. Minjoon squints, brows knitting together, and clicks the light off. He wipes away the condensation on the window with his sleeve cuff. The man turns around, speaking inaudibly into his phone, and looks right in Minjoon’s direction.

Minjoon jerks back and his neuroanatomy homework slips from his lap, because standing not two hundred feet away is a man he recognizes well. A man who cursed like a sailor.

A man that once had an inexplicable penchant for baseball bats.

 

“Goodnight, goodnight, thank you, thank you for coming!”

“Cheon Songyi?"

“Oh, Semi. Good job on you work in our drama, we owe it all to you.”

Semi smiles. “I wanted to thank you for that, actually. I heard you changed some of the script, right? The reviews came in and said the backstory for my character was more believable and moving after your input, and the writers are really grateful to you for it.” She cocks her head. “What inspired you?”

Songyi thinks of that night she and Minjoon had traded stories in the dark like children under a blanket fort, hiding giggles behind small hands.

“Someone who made me see the world differently.”

“Is he…?”

“I never met him again,” Songyi says quickly. “But in the short time I did know him, I learned many things.”

Semi bows. “Then one day, if you do cross him again by chance of fate, tell him he has our deepest thanks.”

Songyi watches Semi’s stylist and manager hurry along in her wake, and sighs. She checks her phone, and there it is, her mother’s demand to meet them halfway at another restaurant, and Heekyung’s worried call for her to get back home, it’s late.

The Mercedes revs under her palms when she starts up the car, but when Songyi moves to back out of her parking space, it doesn’t budge. Putting it into drive doesn’t do anything either; in fact, she presses the gas pedal to the floor of the car and it’s as dead as can be. The engine roars accordingly, but the wheels are stationary.

Befuddled, she steps back out, keys still in the ignition, and bends over the front tire on her side. It’s still attached to the car, inflated, springs in good working condition.

“That’s odd,” she says, opening the hood of the car, holding her phone out for light. “What’s wrong? Did someone tamper with—”

A hand cups roughly over her mouth from behind, and her scream is muffled when a wiry arm snakes around her middle. Songyi thrashes, kicking, her Louboutins flying from her feet as she does, but her struggles are in vain. She’s thrown into the backseat of a car, and before she can think to run, a knee jams into her back and holds her down as someone gags her, then ties her wrists behind her back. The weight disappears when she’s thoroughly incapacitated.

A tall, dark figure slams the door. The car jolts forward and Songyi is flattens into seat from the momentum.

“Let me go!” she screams at the masked man who’s driving. “Who are you? What do you want, I have money, let me go! People will look for me, people will know I’m gone!”

The car swerves violently then, and Songyi’s head slams against one of the passenger side doors. She cries out in pain, and—

The window shatters.

Glass rains down on her. Songyi instinctively ducks, most of it falling into her hair, and the car jerks to the right. It’s like a poorly choreographed amusement park ride, with Songyi sliding with the movements of the vehicle until the inertia has her backed up against the other door. She whimpers she hears bullets whiz past, and the car stumbles when the tires are pierced.

Someone else stands outside the shattered window, wrapped in a black coat and pointing a gun right into her face. She shrieks, ducking again, but the driver’s side window explodes instead with the crack of a gunshot.

One last time, the masked man throws the car into a skid turning left, and Songyi feels herself tossed forward from the impact the car makes when it hits something. The hissing sound of water tells her it must be a fire hydrant.

The man at the wheel is unconscious, a thin line of blood running down his face. She shrinks back when she sees the gunman outside approach the shattered window, breaking the handle of the door and swinging it open. Bits of glass plink to the street.

“S—stand back,” she stammers, gag falling free of her mouth. “Don’t tou—”

“It’s okay,” says a voice that Songyi can’t quite bring herself to believe, the black-coated man bending at the waist until she can see his face. “It’s just me.”

He holds out a hand for her, a small smile stretching over his lips.

“Do Minjoon,” Songyi breathes.

✩✩✩

“The fuck are you saying, you’re leaving?”

“Yihwa’s dead. The Black Riders killed her. If I hadn’t gotten involved with you guys, this never would have happened.”

“The bitch had it coming.”

“Don’t,” Minjoon says dangerously, “test me.”

“You don’t fucking get it, do you, piss shit? The Black Riders want you to get angry. You think they’re just going to sit tight and chummy with us when their gang is full of bastards rebelling? Half of them are dead and they’re betting on us taking over their territory as soon as they’re weak enough.” Yikyung jabs Minjoon in the ribs with the barrel of his bat. “Do you, piss shit?”

Minjoon closes his eyes. “I’m not rebelling. I have no hard feelings with our Boss who has taken care of me and Yihwa for so long. I just don’t have a place here anymore.”

“Not rebelling, huh?” Yikyung slaps his bat in the bed of his palm. “Sounds to me like you are.”

✩✩✩

“What is the meaning of this?

Heekyung’s feathers are understandably ruffled when he opens the door to Minjoon supporting Songyi around the waist, one of her arms looped over his shoulders. She’s standing on the doormat in her bare pantyhosed feet, shoes still lost somewhere outside the conference building.

“Heekyung, not now,” Songyi says wearily, and Heekyung watches with utter and comical disbelief as Minjoon steps inside, helping her into the hallway.

“I say,” he shouts as Songyi sinks into her couch, “that man—” he points wildly at Minjoon, “is—is not good!”

Minjoon actually laughs to himself at this, though Songyi catches the bemused smile that flickers across his face.

“He’s wearing a suit, Heekyung, it’s okay.”

“That proves—wait, what happened. What—why are you bringing her back here? Are you hurt? Are you—” Heekyung glares darts at Minjoon, who just sighs as if to say I came out here to have a good time and I’m honestly feeling so attacked right now.

“Stop, Heekyung, if it weren’t for Minjoon I’d probably be dead now,” Songyi says. “Can you—I need to talk to him, all right, can you leave us alone?”

Dead? What on—you know what, forget it.” Heekyung throws his hands up in the air incredulously as he goes up the stairs to his room.

“I’ll tell you if he tries anything weird!” she calls for his benefit.

“Still rude as ever, are we.”

“He thinks he’s a lapdog,” Songyi says, sliding her eyes closed. “It’s exhausting.”

A gentle silence falls over them, the only noise being the kitchen clock ticking steadily away. Every so often, passionate, muffled shouts issue from Yoonjae’s room, punctuated by angry cursing. Minjoon looks upon Songyi, in her approximately two thousand dollar outfit, hair pooling over her shoulders, and says, “Best I be going, then.”

“Absolutely not.” Her eyes are still closed. “There are far too many questions I have for you.”

He squirms. “I don’t know, I shouldn’t—”

“You just saved my life by shooting down a car without killing any of its passengers,” she accuses. “I think you owe me at least this much.”

There is a beseeching look in her eyes, and Minjoon takes it in, how much she looks ready to plead for answers. He thinks of the way Yikyung had tossed her into his car like a rag doll, earlier, and his own instinctive reaction to just walk into the path of an oncoming car, armed with nothing but a gun, without a shred of fear for his life.

Minjoon laces his fingers together deliberately in his lap.

“You remember how I told you that girl Seo Yihwa died five years ago?”

Songyi nods.

“She didn’t die from the illness.”

 

“I think she’s finally gone off the deep end.”

“Me too,” Yoonjae says, slowly chewing a Red Vine. “Are you sure she was normal when she came back last night?”

“Just tired,” Heekyung whispers. “But...I don’t know, did she hit her head? Should we go to the hospital?”

They go back to staring at Songyi bustling around in the kitchen, wearing her ruffled floral apron. They both have just their heads sticking out from Yoonjae’s doorway, Heekyung’s head above her brother’s, watching and cringing as Songyi makes an omelette. Make that two omelettes. At 7 am in the morning. Nothing has even caught on fire yet.

“You got up and found her like this?” Heekyung asks.

Yoonjae nods.

“Maybe we need to stage an intervention.”

“Bad idea.”

“Why?”

“If you try to talk to her, she’ll tell you you’re being annoying and to leave her alone,” Yoonjae says. “If I try to talk to her, she’ll laugh.” He slants his gaze up at Heekyung. “Lose-lose situation.”

“I like to think of that as a stalemate-stalemate,” Heekyung says, stepping out into the kitchen. “Songyi! You’re up early!” he says, falsely bright.

She jumps and promptly drops her chopsticks. They clatter to the floor, and Heekyung picks them up.

“You scared me!” she says, a hand over her heart.

“You’re scaring me, are you seriously cooking right now?” Heekyung says, and chances a backhug. She immediately shakes him off, stepping on his foot in the process. Heekyung winces, but continues, “Two omelettes? Is one for me?”

“In your dreams. I’m just really hungry and I’ve got a long day ahead, so don’t bother me.”

She plates them both and struts back into her room, door slamming without another words.

“Told you it was a bad idea,” Yoonjae says smugly, popping the rest of the licorice into his mouth.

Minjoon looks up when the closet door opens and Songyi pokes her face in. “Do you like eggs?”

“No.”

“Too bad, you’ll like these,” she says, setting down the plate of omelettes in front of his crossed legs. He watches as she settles into a position mirroring his.

“Aren’t you hungry?” she asks, noting his lack of reaction. When he doesn't move, she picks up the chopsticks and, taking his hand in hers, arranges them in his fingers.

“I’m hungry,” he admits, “but. You’re sitting in front of an ex gang member that has nothing to his name but his book bag and a gun. Aren’t you scared?”

Songyi shrugs a shoulder. “Well, you said it yourself, you have nothing to your name except your book bag and a gun. And if you wanted to harm me, you would’ve let that man last night do the job for you.”

“That is terrible logic.”

“It works well enough for me.”

“You’re too trusting,” he mutters, digging into the food.

“Is it good?” she asks eagerly.

“No,” Minjoon says, stuffed mouth betraying him.

She watches him eat ravenously, and halfway through he notices the monstrous shopping bag full of clothes she’d bought for him, shoved into the corner until her coats.

“You never gave those to Yoonjae?”

“Oh—those? No, I—they’re not his style, you know, and I thought—” She pauses, as if catching herself, but finishes her sentence anyway in a far lower voice, “you might need them one day.”

“Well,” Minjoon says, clearing his throat, “I believe that day is today, because I don’t remember if I mentioned, they came by and wrecked my apartment. Everything I own is in pieces or burned, and I’ve been borrowing my coteacher’s clothes, though they’re a bit ill-fitting.”

“Did they really?” Songyi says in a hushed voice. “Is it that bad?”

"I'm just lucky they didn't catch me when I was at home."

She reaches for the bag, body stretching out across the space between them. Minjoon leans back subconsciously, but she’s on her knees, hand outstretched, and doesn’t realize how close she is until she presses into his chest and they both stiffen at the contact.

“Uh,” he says eloquently, looking down at her with the grace of an awkward teen.

“Sorry," she stutters, pulling back. Hesitating for a second, she then steps delicately around him and pushes the bag towards him with her foot. “Oh—uhm, I have to go to work soon. Let me get—”

Minjoon catches her wrist as she’s about to hurry out. He doesn’t meet her eyes immediately, but says, “Let me follow you where you go.”

“W-why…?”

“If all the Bluebloods really want is me,” he replies, “they wouldn’t dare to hurt you if I’m in standing in plain sight with you.”

“Do Minjoon…”

“It seems, Cheon Songyi,” he goes on, letting her go and scraping up the last bits of the burnt omelette, “the only way to protect you from me is to let me stay by your side.”

 

Having a bodyguard is weird.

On the one hand, Songyi feels a lot safer with Minjoon around, especially after what had happened with—Yikyung, was it? On the other, well, it’s extremely comedic to watch Heekyung try to set fire to Minjoon’s clothes with his naked eyeballs at the dinner table.

Yoonjae is, of course, delighted that his prediction was (for the most part) correct.

“I can’t believe you had an escort—”

“—bodyguard—”

“—all this time and you didn’t think to tell me, noona. Like, what’s wrong with Heekyung? Wait, Heekyung’s kind of a wimp, huh.”

“Shh,” Songyi rebukes, looks around, and whispers, “yeah, did you hear him screaming that one time I asked him to kill a spider in my tub?”

“Pathetic. So, now that you have an escort—”

“—bodyguard, Yoonjae—”

“—technicalities. So now that you have an escort, can we actually eat real dinner at home?”

“He’s not a butler.”

“Hmm.” Yoonjae crosses his arms. “Are you sure he’s not a spy? He’s really good with first person shooting.”

“Huh,” Songyi says. “Is he really.”

Having a bodyguard is weird, because sometimes Songyi will look up from her five dozen emails, from reviews, from negotiations and queries and departmental memos, to see Minjoon watching her from his makeshift desk beside hers. He’ll have his twenty or so psychology and criminal justice books open, loose paper scattered everywhere, eyes full of something that Songyi can never quite put a finger on before it slips away.

But maybe it's a bodyguard thing.

“You never told me why I should stay away from Lee Jaekyung,” Songyi says nonchalantly one day as she approves a merge of their marketing departments, signing her name off and shuffling through her portfolios to file it away before it gets lost in a sea of papers. “Did you have a bad brush with him?”

Minjoon shrugs, scratching the corner of his eye, glasses bobbing against his knuckle.

“Well, what could be wrong with him? Does he have it out for you or something?”

“Do your work.”

“Hey, you already told me you’re an ex gang member. What else could there be that would put me off?”

“Everything I’ve told you is all I will tell you.”

Minjoon knows well enough not to tell Songyi what Jaekyung is entirely capable of. He knows even better than to tell someone like her, who wears her emotions and fears on her face, that the man she works with every day is the same one that slit his throat five years ago. If Jaekyung, with his bloodhounded sense of suspicion, figures out that she knows more than she is supposed to—

He closes his eyes.

“But, Do Minjoon, what about your other two jobs?”

“What about them?”

“Why don’t you work them anymore?”

“My one job with you pays better than even three of my own could,” he answers simply. “And I don’t even need to change into a uniform for it.”

Songyi deflates slightly, and Minjoon looks at her over his glasses. She doesn’t know why his answer, so honest and pragmatic, is so disappointing to her. Of course he’d work as her bodyguard since she paid him well—anyone would, if the money was good enough.

It’s always the money.

“The children must miss you,” she finally responds, and he laughs to himself, at some unshared memory.

“They probably do,” he admits. “The school was not happy to see me go. Neither was Youngmok, he’s getting too old to keep up with kids that young day in and day out.”

Songyi rests her chin on the heels of her hands. “You should go visit them, they seem to be so fond of you. All this is really sudden for them. They wouldn’t understand.”

Minjoon rolls his eyes, about to staunchly refuse and say that is that and this conversation is closed. But something in her voice brings him back to that night she told him of her father, how old she’d been when he vanished out of her life without another word.

“Do you have any openings in your schedule tomorrow, then?”

 

Heekyung hates his printer.

Of course it chooses to malfunction the moment he has something important to run off for the company. Frustrated, he emails the documents to himself and stalks out of his room to Jaekyung’s, muttering to himself that they can afford a goddamn koi pond in the backyard but can’t bother to get a printer in his room, which he then thinks is more his own responsibility.

“Hyung?”

Jaekyung’s shower is running, so Heekyung lets himself in and sits at his brother’s desk, hoping that the desktop hasn’t fallen asleep yet. Thankfully the screen glows to life when he shakes the mouse, no password required, and Heekyung clicks his way over to the email bookmark.

Jaekyung is still logged into his inbox, and the first message—from someone named Park Yikyung—fills up the message panel. Heekyung is about to log out when a he passes a cursory glance and sees a familiar name.

sorry boss,

do minjoon is already on our tails. we have to take a more offensive stance. my deepest apologies, boss, i didn’t see him coming at all. cheon songyi may know who you are now. we must tread carefully.

“Do Minjoon?” Heekyung wonders aloud. “How does my brother know that man?” And furthermore, who was Jaeykyung that not even Songyi could know?

Jaekyung’s reply,

Have you forgotten, you fool? He’s far more fearless than we give him credit for. Don’t you remember why you’re even in this position? It’s because of him. At any rate—did he hurt you? Did he manage to shoot you? I need to know how long you’ll be in the hospital.

the doctors say i’ll be out at the end of the week, boss.

Good. Once you are, we can get back to work. The pieces are all in place to make him pay for what he has done to the Bluebloods.

Heekyung feels his head swim. He vaguely registers the showerhead turning off, so he quickly logs into his own account and opens his files before his brother comes out, wrapped in a bathrobe.

“What are you doing?” he demands.

“Sorry hyung!” Heekyung chirps. “I had to borrow your printer again, mine is acting up as usual.”

Jaekyung loosens. “Oh. Work hard, little bro.”

He flashes a smile before heading back into his bathroom, humming under his breath. Heekyung numbly grabs the paper that the printer spits out, offers his brother a weak goodbye, and stumbles across the house back to his own room.

Blueblood. The documents flutter out of his fingers as soon as his door shuts, and Heekyung falls heavily into the desk chair. He opens a new window and types the word into the search bar, then clicks on Google news, dreading what he will find.

Blueblood Gang Activity Reaches Unprecedented Lows. January 2013.

Drive-by Shooting—Black Riders or Bluebloods? November 2012.

Blueblood Drug Rings Exposed, Dozens Arrested. October 2009.

Bile rises in Heekyung’s throat. The chair wheels scrape across the fine hardwood floor when he pushes himself away from his desk, nausea washing in thick waves over him. Heekyung hangs his head between his knees, rocking back and forth slightly, but jerks upright when he remembers.

“Do—”

 

“—Minjoon! Minjoon seonsaengnim!”

A whirling green ball of child crashes into the general vicinity of Minjoon’s knees the second he sets foot into his old classroom. He sways, chuckling, before detaching the boy from his legs.

“Yangmyung, isn’t it rude to interrupt Teacher Jang when he’s reading a story to the class? What did we learn about respect?”

(Though, Songyi notes, Youngmok looks relieved to have their attention directed elsewhere for a while.)

“But you’ve been gone so long!” Yangmyung protests. “And now that you’re gone, Heo Yeonwoo will never like me—”

The class of children erupts into laughter at this confession, save for the young lady Songyi recognizes as the student of the day last time she was here—she’s hiding her face in her hands, peeking through her fingers. The children come alive in his presence, sluggish air electrified by their excitement.

“Now, how could I be of any help? If she doesn’t like you, then she doesn’t like you.”

“You must know something! Because that miss,” Yangmyung says, pointing a condemning finger at Songyi, “she likes you!”

Minjoon looks over his shoulder at her, as if hoping he could deny her presence, with a tortured look on his face.

“She’s my boss,” he finally replies. “She gives me money to like her.”

 

Heekyung practically breaks down Songyi’s door when he arrives. He doesn’t make it two steps inside when Minjoon, in his black and grey countenance as always, appears in front of him and blocks his way.

“You!” Heekyung shouts. “What do you know about my brother? What do you know about Lee Jaekyung?”

When he doesn’t answer, expression perfectly ironed and stoic, Heekyung’s frustration and disbelief and fear propels him forward, fists reaching out to shove Minjoon backward. “Who are you?” He punctuates his words with pushes that grow harder and crueler. “What does Jaekyung want with you?”

“What’s going on?”

Songyi is standing beside him then, eyes wide and full of bewilderment, though Heekyung can sense her anger simmering below the surface already. She slips between them and Heekyung does not miss the way her hand closes around Minjoon’s wrist as she shields his body with her own. “Why are you shouting?”

“You led this man into our house,” Heekyung says. “Do you have any idea who he is?”

“Our house?” Songyi says with disbelief. “He’s living in my house, just as you are. He has as much right to be here as you do.” She draws herself up to full height. “And I know more about him than you ever could.”

“He’s a gang member!” Heekyung shouts.

“Ex,” Songyi corrects. “Ex. Gang member.”

There’s a royally awkward pause that Minjoon breaks with “Songyi, maybe you should go inside and I’ll talk—”

“Why are you here,” Heekyung spits angrily. “Why, of all people, are you the one to stand next to her?”

“Because I am paid to protect her,” Minjoon replies evenly, and Heekyung jerks back at the words that are like a slap in the face. “Something, I wager, you couldn’t do with all the money in the world.”

 

“That was harsh.”

“I could’ve done a lot worse.”

“Still. He looked like a kicked puppy.”

Minjoon grunts unapologetically. “Stop watching me work and do your own, were you not complaining about the flood of emails you were going to have to deal with on our way home?”

She picks at her split ends. “What did he mean?” she tries. “About Lee Jaekyung? What do you know about him that his own brother doesn’t?”

“Mmph.”

Songyi crosses and uncrosses her ankles in the air, watching him squint at his textbooks from her bed. “Hey, I have a question.”

“You have a lot.”

“This one is important.”

“Mmm.”

“Minjoon.”

“Mmm?”

“Do Minjoon,” she drawls, stretching out every syllable.

“What,” he snaps.

“If I didn’t pay you, what would you do? Would you quit?” She rolls onto her back, head hanging off the edge of her bed, hair touching the floor. “Would you go back to those kids? Teacher Jang seemed ready to drop on the spot and I felt so—”

“No.”

Songyi pauses. “No what?”

“No, I wouldn’t quit.”

“Really?” Songyi uprights herself. “Why not?”

Minjoon returns to his default state of selective mutism, and Songyi doesn’t manage get another word out of him for the rest of the night.

 

Youngmok startles awake at the caustic vibration of his phone on the nightstand.

It’s nearing three am and he can hardly see a thing without his glasses, yet something compels him to check his text, just this once. Do Minjoon, flashes across the screen and he opens it immediately.

do you remember the story i told you about goodbyes?

Youngmok thinks.

yes, he texts back, i remember.

you said it would happen, but i didn’t believe you, says Minjoon, but what am i to do if i’ve found someone that i can’t say goodbye to?

Youngmok types out a fast reply, though he can’t bring himself to send it right away—as if putting a name to the person will make it too real to turn back.

is it cheon songyi? that woman you are guarding?

The little ellipsis bubble that pops up as Minjoon types stays on the screen for a long time—disappearing, reappearing. Disappearing reappearing. Youngmok thinks of what he must look like: lonely and lost, erasing every reply he can think of on his end of the line, when finally,

yes.

are you going to tell her?

The answer this time takes no time at all.

how could i possibly tell her?

 

In all his life, Heekyung has never had to do a lick of book research. The mere notion of it is horrifying, yet here he is, poring over old mildewing books of old newspapers in the public library. Some of them date back twenty years ago. Some, just five.

From what he’s learned, the Blueblood gang rose in 1990, a decade of cynicism. It wasn’t until 1994 that they became a force to be reckoned with, much to the chagrin of the neighboring cities’ gang, the Black Riders. It was that year that violence spiked—drive by shootings, stabbings, robberies, and arsons spreading like an epidemic through northeast Korea. The pictures accompanying the articles are blurry at best, most of them only showing grainy crime scenes blocked off with yellow tape.

The delicate paper rustles loudly as Heekyung flips to a more recent issue. Blueblood Drug Ring Arrests Sees an Unexpected Spike in Roadside Violence, blares a headline from 2009. There’s a large picture of a shirtless, handcuffed man being led away. Heekyung skims the article, about to flip the page when he notices a tiny black-and-white thumbnail towards the bottom of the page, of a figure in dark clothes, a mask obscuring the lower half of his face.

To the right is the only known photo of the man suspected to be the leader of the Blueblood drug cartel. Officials report he is of fairly young age, tall build, and has never been sighted at Blueblood-related crime scenes. He is believed to be dead at this time, though the only evidence of his disappearance has been the significant traces of human blood and DNA at a popular Blueblood hotspot.

Heekyung squints harder at the the tiny photo of a man who’s staring right into the security camera, leaning with arms crossed against a motorcycle. It’s blurry, a bit fish-eyed from the shape of the lens, but he swears he knows that face.

However, following the disappearance of this man is a surprising jump, as opposed to drop, in gang activity. What has police scratching their heads is the fact that the Blueblood members they have arrested did not resist incarceration after their acts of violence, directed at no one in particular. All of them refused comment except the three words, ‘For the rebellion.’

“Who are you, Do Minjoon,” Heekyung asks. “What are you?”

 

“So, since you’re my noona’s bodyguard, do you know any—” Yoonjae waves his lanky arms around, flinging bits of tangerine peel everywhere, “martial arts?”

“No.”

“No? How are you supposed to defend her if you don’t know martial arts?”

Minjoon holds out a hand. “Do you want me to show you?”

Yoonjae looks distastefully at it and thinks twice. “No, I think I’m okay.”

“Then yes, I can defend her just fine.”

“But, hyung,” Yoonjae says, mouth full of citrus, “why you? If you don’t mind me asking? And what has my sister done to put herself in danger?”

Minjoon quirks the side of his mouth. “Well, I owe her,” he says. “She went out of her way to keep me safe once at the cost of her own safety, so here I am.”

“Really?” Yoonjae asks skeptically. “So this is a totally fair, even transaction of favors?”

“What does that mean?”

“Well,” he says, in a voice that makes Minjoon think oh God, I don’t want to hear the rest of this answer, “my sister hates people hovering around her, if Heekyung didn’t make that obvious enough already. She doesn’t even like me being in her space more than necessary.” Yoonjae eyes him pointedly. “Are you sure you’re—”

“—if you ask if I’m an escort one more time,” Minjoon says, “I will stick this tangerine up your—”

“Okay, okay!” Yoonjae yelps. “Jesus. She must like you a lot, then.”

“What?”

“My sister,” Yoonjae says, reaching for the fruit Minjoon had just threatened to stuff into a choice bodily orifice, “she must like you a lot.” When he meets the dumbfounded expression on Minjoon’s face, he blinks and says sheepishly, “Crap. Was I not supposed to say that?”

“You don’t even know what you’re saying,” Minjoon grumbles, looking away.

“Don’t believe me?” Yoonjae says. He crooks his finger and Minjoon leans closer so that he can whisper in his ear. After a moment, he pulls away.

“That…” He trails off. “Yoonjae, no, that’s cruel.”

Yoonjae sniffs. “Suit yourself, then.”

 

But Heekyung, higher-strung and more jumpy than he’s ever been in his life, doesn’t really see a problem with such things as digging for secrets he shouldn’t be digging for, testing Songyi’s emotions, and other extreme sports (the former two of which he’s been partaking in regularly anyway, and he’s still alive, so). He’s been surrounded by uncertainty and questions with no answers for days and the last thing he wants is to torture himself any long with the question of where her affections lie.

“So I told him I’d help him,” Yoonjae says over the ddukbokki Heekyung brought back later that night, the house quiet with Minjoon gone to his coteacher’s house. “And he refused flat out. I guess it was a pretty fucked up idea, but still. It would’ve been effective.”

Heekyung stands up so suddenly that his chair falls over backwards with a crack.

“Hyung, what are you—?”

But Heekyung ignores him, eyes wild as he crashes through Songyi’s door. Yoonjae scampers after him, and hardly has time to grab Heekyung before he is/does/says something stupid, but—

“Do Minjoon got into an accident,” he announces, and Yoonjae watches with a sinking dread as his sister rises out of her chair.

“He what? Again?” she says, pen falling from her fingers. “Where is he?”

“We don’t know,” Heekyung says, and Yoonjae drops his face into his hands. “I just got a call from the hospital.”

“You got a—? Are—oh my God, is he okay?” She nearly trips over Minjoon’s pile of forensic chemistry books as she dives for the jacket tossed on her bed. Half the contents of her bag topple out noisily, compact and mirror and loose change, when she snatches it off the floor. “Is it bad? Heekyung, is it bad? Is he going to…?”

“He…”

Heekyung’s pause is confirmation enough for her, and Yoonjae tries unsuccessfully to stop his sister as she hops on one foot, fitting the other into a shoe.

“Songyi, wait, you can’t just—”

“Yes I can,” she protests as Heekyung makes a grab for her.

“Songyi, please—”

“Noona!”

“Leave me alone!” she screams and Yoonjae cowers. “You’re telling me he got into an accident, you don’t answer me when I ask if he’s okay, and you just expect me to sit here and wait and listen to you? At what cost? At what cost, Heekyung?”

“Noona,” Yoonjae says, like he’s speaking to a wounded animal, “he’s just a bodyguard.”

Songyi stands there with helplessness in her eyes.

“He signed up for this the second he agreed to do this,” Yoonjae continues. “He’s always in danger. What would you do in the scenario that he died protecting you? Cease living yourself?”

“Songyi, don’t do this,” Heekyung says, reaching out. “Songyi, come on—”

Yoonjae casts him a look that says look what you fucking unleashed as if it wasn’t originally his idea.

“He might just be a bodyguard,” she admits, “and he might have put his life on the line for me. But he’s the only person in the world that I—” She cuts herself off abruptly, as if the words are caught in her throat. “That I—”

“That you?” they prompt.

Their voices break the spell and Songyi glares at them both reproachfully. Without answering she whirls to make for the front door again, only to—speak of the devil, and the devil shall appear—run straight into Do Minjoon, vibrantly alive and well. He has his backpack over his shoulders and rustling grocery bag in hand.

“Do Minjoon,” Songyi chokes, fingers curling around his elbows as she pats him all over. “Are—are you okay?”

“Yeah,” he says, stiltedly, gazing down at her with an unreadable expression. “Why?”

“They said you—” She puts two and two together, then, and her bag hits the floor as all the fight leaves her body.

“So this is funny to you, is it,” she says, looking back at Heekyung and her brother. “Are you satisfied?” She brushes past them brusquely, and Heekyung doesn’t bother to step out of her way. A door slams, then silence.

“How much of that did you hear?” Yoonjae asks meekly.

Minjoon slants him a murderous scowl.

“All of it.”

 

“You’re living in a house with three men? No wonder you’re off your rocker.”

“I hate all men,” Songyi says bitterly, tearing at the French fries she should not be eating. It’s the middle of her lunch break and she has a meeting with Jaekyung in an hour, but she had numbly called Bokja and now they’re both sitting in a greasy McDonald’s. It’s amazingly therapeutic.

“You don’t hate your father,” Bokja chides. “So Heekyung tricked you into thinking that Minjoon’s life was hanging in the balance to get you to confess?”

“Confess what, I am a guilt-free woman,” Songyi says defensively.

“The way you put it, it sounded like you were going to say he was the only person in the world you really lo—mmph.”

Songyi removes her hand from Bokja’s mouth slowly, eyes boring into hers, challenging her to continue.

“Love!”

“Shh!”

Bokja’s Cheshire smile is hair-raising.

“I don’t love anyone,” Songyi insists.

“Then let’s make the situation they put you in yesterday hypothetical,” Bokja reasons. “If Minjoon disappeared from your life—because of death, or any other reason—what would you do? Or, how would you feel?”

Songyi wants to deny that she’d feel or do anything. Three months ago she would’ve felt bad, maybe, but now—the suggestion of it has her closing her eyes.

“I don’t know,” she says, swirling another fry through her ketchup. “It would be like all the light would be gone from this world. That sounds gross, doesn’t it? But every morning I get up and he’s there, doing homework at his desk. Every night I go to sleep, he’s there, sleeping in my closet. Even if he didn’t live with me, he’d be in the city somewhere, and I could live with that.” She shakes her head. “I can’t imagine life without him in it. Work is the same thing every day, day in, day out. Has been for years. Put off marriage to Heekyung as long as I can. I did things and I lived for the expectations and desires of the people around me, like a robot. Mechanical and programmed. Yet somehow…” Bokja raises her eyebrows. “Yet somehow, after meeting him, I have hope for my future.”

A thoughtful pause.

“Girl,” Bokja says with finality, picking up her half eaten burger, “You are in deep. You are in so, so deep.”

 

Living with Minjoon for the past few days has been like trying to live with a new college dormmate. It’s the worst feeling ever. For many nights now Songyi has fallen asleep to the the gentle scritch-scritch of Minjoon’s pencil—so returning home to an empty room, yet knowing he’s only on the other side of her closet door, is worse than coming home to no one at all.

In fact, all three of them have been staying well out of her way since the debacle earlier in the week. Minjoon still follows her into public and work, yet their relationship is kept suffocatingly professional. He keeps his distance, nose in a book, until it’s time to leave and does so without a word. Songyi’s failed attempts at conversation have long since died and she wonders where they stand now. Until when. It's a meaningless wait for something that may never come.

Until, one night, when Songyi cannot keep her silence anymore.

“Do Minjoon,” she says to what seems like an empty room. If he’s awake, he’ll hear. “Do Minjoon, are you asleep?”

He doesn’t answer, but she forges on before she loses her courage.

“I know whatever you heard that day they pranked me put you off,” she says, “and I’m sorry if my words put you in a difficult position. I just wanted to say that you’re my closest friend—and probably the only real one I have. Heekyung might have been here all my life, watching me fall, watching me cry. Watching me get up and smile again. But I don’t get out of bed every day because of him, and I don’t wake up in the morning and feel like, because he is by my side, I can face difficulties a little longer.” She rests her cheek on her folded hands.

“I just, in the moment,” she continues, “I just couldn’t imagine living in a world you didn’t exist in.”

Songyi listens to the rhythmic ticking of her clock that stretches out after her words. Disappointed, yet a little relieved, she rolls back over in bed when Minjoon never replies. There isn’t even a shuffle from the closet.

“Good night, Do Minjoon.”

A long time after, when the night is darkest before dawn, there is movement in the Cheon household. The closer door opens and Minjoon steps out of quiet cat feet, leaning over Songyi’s sleeping form in her bed. Wintery grey light is seeping in through the curtains when he finally bends down, ever so slowly, until his lips touch her forehead.

“Neither can I,” he murmurs, “Cheon Songyi.”

 

When Do Minjoon walks out class Friday night he is greeted with a somber-faced Heekyung.

“How did you know to look for me here?”

“That isn’t important right now,” he says, and for the first time, Minjoon hears tangible concern in his words. “I need to ask you some things, and I need for you to tell me the whole truth, regardless of my safety.”

Minjoon tightens his grip around his books.

“Let’s walk.”

They do. The campus is mostly quiet now, the only students left hurrying off towards the library. Minjoon hugs the books to his chest as they start down a long, winding sidewalk through the center of the school.

“Why me?” he prompts blandly when Heekyung doesn't begin. “I was under the impression you are not overly fond of me.”

“I am…” He laughs. “Jealous of you, I suppose. But there are times when I need to put my own emotions aside for the safety of someone I care about more than my own life.”

Minjoon looks up at the raw sincerity in Heekyung’s voice.

"What is it that you want to know?"

“Who is Lee Jaekyung?”

There it is, the question to which Minjoon has been hiding the answer for ten years.

“What do you know already?” he asks carefully.

“That you once worked for him. I know that he is involved with your crowd—the Bluebloods. And I know you once gave him a reason to kill you.” Heekyung comes to a stop. “Did you not?”

Minjoon smiles grimly. “Nothing you just said is wrong. I did work for him, and he does run around with my kind. I did give him a reason to want me out of the picture once and for all.” He starts walking again. “Now, my question for you is, do you want to know why?”

“Yes.”

“If I tell you, you might lose Songyi forever.”

“Will she be safe?”

A nod.

“And will you protect her?”

“Until I die.”

Heekyung smiles. “Then I can rest easy no matter what happens.”

Oddly, Minjoon feels the urge to give him a hug. Put a hand on his shoulder, or something. The peaceful surrender in Heekyung’s expression is heartwrenching and in this rare moment of brotherhood Minjoon realizes how much Heekyung must really care about Songyi, his smothering concern his only real way of showing affection.

“Your brother,” he says, sigh loaded with years of secrets, “was once my boss. Is still the boss, in fact. We knew him as the most dangerous man in South Korea. You'd know him better as kingpin of the Blueblood street gang.”

 

Heekyung is quieter than he has ever been since the moment Minjoon met him. By the time he’s caught him up on who Lee Jaekyung is away from the title of CCompany’s president, they’re stepping in through the front door of Songyi’s house with the agreement that Heekyung will look for whatever else he can.

“Are you going to be okay?”

The question slips out of Minjoon’s mouth before he can stop himself, and the surprise is apparent in Heekyung’s eyes. He smiles faintly, however, and nods.

“I was never as close to my brother as I would’ve liked,” he says. “Now, I finally know why.”

But his shoulders are slumped with exhaustion as he shuffles back upstairs alone. Minjoon toes out of his shoes and hangs up his jacket, wondering why it’s so quiet this early in the night.

“Songyi?” he calls, knocking once on her door.

“She said she didn’t feel well,” Yoonjae supplies helpfully, and Minjoon jumps out of his skin when he appears in the doorway beside hers. “So I have to keep it down. You should probably check on her, hyung.”

Minjoon frowns and goes in. The room is dark, and he feels haphazardly along the wall for the light switch.

“Songyi?”

When the ceiling lamp flickers to life Minjoon sees her slumped over into her pillows, still clothed in the dress she wore out earlier that day. He sits down on the edge of her bed, and she cracks an eye open at the sensation of her mattress sinking under his weight.

“Do Minjoon?”

“Yes, it’s me,” he says softly, sliding a hand across her forehead. It’s searing against his palm. “You have a fever, how long have you been lying here?”

“I don’t know, a while. Since after we got back.” She groans and even from here, Minjoon can feel the abnormal heat of her breath. “Where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you for hours.”

Minjoon scoffs. “I had class, remember? Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday night.”

“Hours,” she repeats weakly, closing her eyes again. “Hours and hours.”

She doesn’t protest when he leaves to go find Tylenol, which, in a house of her size, is a Herculean challenge. Along the way he comes across a life-size taxidermy of a bald eagle, two drawers full of nothing but Q-tips, and a cabinet full of Kotex (the door of which he closes with a slam out of sheer embarrassment). Songyi hasn’t moved where he left her, though she presses her lips shut when she hears him unscrewing the lid of the bottle.

“Come on,” he says. “You’ll feel better.”

“I hate taking medicine,” she mutters. “No matter what it is, there’s always a chemical aftertaste.”

Minjoon exhales, twisting himself onto the bed. He reaches down, sliding his hands under her shoulders and lifting her until she is propped up against his body, then turns back for the capsules on her nightstand.

“Open up,” he commands none too gently, as if his tone of voice is going to nullify how hard his heart is pounding at their proximity. And her chest is pressed right upon it. Oh God, Minjoon thanks the gods that be that Songyi is too sick to care right now.

She obeys, and drinks when he holds the glass up to her lips. It’s strange for her to be of so few words, and Minjoon realizes of just how much of their silence she fills up with her own.

His mind wanders.

They’re living on borrowed time. Minjoon is waiting for a death sentence and he’s spending his last days before it comes trying to keep out of the water someone who will inevitably be swept up in the tide. Even if it all does work out—in the minute chance it does, that he lives, and so does she—Songyi is a rising conglomerate leader, and.

And Minjoon, well, can only hope to catch up in his dizziest daydreams.

He moves to set her back down onto the mattress, but as he begins pulling away, she rolls in his embrace until her face is pressed into the crook of his neck, arm snaking tightly around his torso.

“No, stay,” she mumbles. “You know they say someone gets better faster if someone else stays beside them?”

“You are going to get me sick,” Minjoon says, though he couldn’t care less.

She snuggles into him harder, like it’s a done deal. Minjoon has no other choice but to lie back into her pillows, her body stretching out on top of his. Her face is still unnaturally warm, but Minjoon finds himself pulling her blankets over the both of them, holding her thin frame against his, falling asleep to the sound of her fevered breathing.

 

Morning is as awkward as it gets.

Minjoon wakes up after Songyi does, which means he wakes up to her staring at him with eyes still soft from sleep, though she immediately looks away when he does.

“Are you feeling better?” he asks blearily. It’s only early, early morning, the time when he usually wakes but she must have been roused when her fever broke.

“Mmm,” she hums, voice still hoarse. “Yeah.”

And that is when she shifts against him and Minjoon becomes hyperacutely aware of her leg that is slung between his thighs. He commands himself to think about Jesus and old men and taxes and rent and overpriced food and Yikyung’s baseball bats and Yihwa and—oh boy, now he’s just really sad. Until she moves again and please stop your leg is literally an inch away from a week of mortification.

His torture manifests in a strained cough.

“Oh no, did I get you sick?” she asks, immediately pulling off of him, though she does not fail to knee him precisely where it matters.

“No,” Minjoon grunts. “I. Just really. Need to use the bathroom.”

(“Morning, hyung.”

“Hey Yoonjae.”

The bathroom door shuts and the showerhead turns on only for a high-pitched yelp to follow. Yoonjae sticks his head back out.

“Hyung,” he exclaims, hair dripping wet as he shivers. “Why’d you take a shower in freezing—? Oh.” His face shuffles through at least six expressions before he settles on something akin to deep chagrin. “Uh.”

“Uh.”

“I’m just…” he motions weakly, retreating back inside, “going to take a shower now.”

“Your sister’s feeling better?” Minjoon says feebly.)

 

Songyi takes her first sick day since she was "eighteen. Can you believe that? The last time I skipped work for my health was ten years ago. It was raining."

Minjoon keeps stirring the egg drop soup he's making, Songyi curled up in a nest of blankets on the couch. The house is quiet, Heekyung at work and even Yoonjae gone to a friend's.

"Here," he says, setting it down on the glass coffee table. "You need to eat something if you want to recover faster."

Songyi peers into the pot. "I hate tomatoes."

"Tough. I hate eggs."

"I hate you."

"I know you're getting better when you start acting like a wounded tiger," Minjoon mutters, standing up

"Am not," she snipes.

He raises his eyebrows. Songyi huffs, emerging from her cocoon of blankets to reach for the soup spoon.

"Why are you wearing my jacket?"

"Because it's warm," she says as if it were obvious.

"You have—"

"Because I want to," she reiterates waspishly, and Minjoon shuts up. She eats noisily, clearly starved, and he watches with something bordering on bemusement when she downs even the tomato wedges.

"Even when you're sick, you wear your emotions on your face."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"How long can you go in a staring contest without laughing?"

"I am undefeated in staring contests," Songyi declares.

"I don't believe you."

"You want to go?"

Minjoon snorts. "Fine. You're going to lose."

"Hmph."

He crosses his arms, and Songyi hugs a throw pillow to her chest. Minjoon, who once had to paint his emotions onto his face regardless of how he felt, has no trouble keeping his expression stone cold.

But, after a while, he finds that he doesn't even need to try.

Songyi doesn't know what makes her do it. She blames it on the fever, which she's pretty much positive is gone by now, but the heat is in her face and her hands and her stomach and it pushes her forward. It's not until Minjoon is pulling away from her that she realizes they're nose to nose and she'd tilted forward to kiss him. Mortified, she panics and turns to flee.

Minjoon's hand darts out, coming around to cup her cheek. It's clammy. Maybe Songyi does have a fever again, and she prays she does because something has to explain her bizarre behavior, but Minjoon is turning her head so that she can face him, and her breath catches in her throat, words like I'm sorry and it meant nothing sputtering out when he leans in in in.

 

It takes Minjoon four hours, three of which he spends reading about synapses (his have short circuited), adrenaline (still raging through his blood with a vengeance), and hormonal glandular control (this one is mostly safe), to look Songyi in the face again.

It's a little inconvenient and a lot difficult considering she's sitting across from him on her bed, glowering at her laptop, no doubt at issues with CCompany. What Minjoon doesn't know is that when he isn't stealing glances at her a la middle school, she's doing the exact same to him.

He doesn't know which is worse—this or this morning.

"Minjoon?"

"What," he says far too quickly. And loudly.

"Could you get me the Tylenol?"

This he looks up at. "Do you feel sick again?"

"I don't think I have a fever," she says, "but I'm sore all over and I still have all these reports to get through."

"Tylenol isn't going to help. I'll make you tea."

When he hands the mug to her, she takes it slowly. Minjoon forces himself not to flinch when her fingers close around his on the cup, rooting him to the spot.

"Let go," he mumbles uncomfortably.

"Do Minjoon," she says gaze trained on a spot on his arm. "Do you remember what I said the day Heekyung and Yoonjae lied to me about you getting hurt?"

Minjoon nods, and she sets down the cup of tea on the nightstand. Tugging on his hand and patting the spot beside her, Songyi slides to make room for him to sit next to her.

"You're just a bodyguard," she goes on. "Someone who'll be gone when the danger is, too. But you're also someone who can be taken away from me in a second because of that danger. I know all this, and yet." She takes a deep breath. "I'll finish my sentence now—and yet, you're still the only person in the world that I—"

Once again, Songyi never does get to finish that sentence, because Minjoon pulls her in and covers her mouth with his. It isn't shy or tentative, like the first kiss had been, but full of heat. His hand slides up the back of her neck, warm and steady.

When they break away, Minjoon presses his forehead on hers, eyes still closed.

"Whatever you were going to finish that sentence with," he whispers, "please don't. Please don't say it."

He expects a sharp protest, a burgeoning question of why. But instead, Songyi reaches up, covering his hand that still rests on his neck with her smaller, colder one.

"Okay," she says just as softly. "Okay, Do Minjoon."

 

"Here you go, Boss, the opiates you ordered.”

“Ah, thank you. Is the dinner reservation with Songyi set?”

“Yes, a table for three.”

“Excellent.”

“Do you plan on bringing your brother, Boss?”

Jaekyung laughs. “No, no. I plan on bringing the man himself.”

“How do you plan to do that?”

“He’s guarding her night and day. What better way to lure him out than to bring her to me?”

“Do you plan to dispose of Cheon Songyi first?”

“It would probably be easiest if I did, don’t you say, Yikyung?” Jaekyung says, mock-concerned. “It doesn’t matter. In the end, they’re both going to be out of the picture.” He laughs again. “It will be so romantic.”

 

The ceremony to celebrate the completion of S Entertainment and CCompany—henceforth known simply as S&C—takes place in the concession hall of a Hyatt. Songyi bows to those who come in and grasps so many hands to shake that by the time Jaekyung finally appears to seal the deal, her grip is loose and tired.

“You look amazing,” he says, speaking into her ear as cameras flash.

“Thank you,” says Songyi. “You, as always, do too.”

A microphone is passed along to Jaekyung.

“Hello all,” he says smoothly, the picture of ease, “thank you all for being here today to witness the closing of the S&C merger. I believe that with this union, we will be able to bring you even better products and entertainment for the public demand. I couldn’t have done it without my brother,” he holds out an arm, and Heekyung bows as he steps into the spotlight. “Lee Heekyung, and the tireless efforts of everyone in both our companies.”

Songyi takes the mic when he hands it to her. “Like Lee Jaekyung said, I’m glad that what we’ve done will bring more customer satisfaction to everyone. I have to—really—extend my thanks to him, and his brother Lee Heekyung, for making the entire process so easy with Cosmopolise broadcasting all through this merge. And,” she adds, eyes searching the sea of cameras and reporters until they find a lonely, dark-suited figure towards the very back, leaning on the wall with his arms crossed. “someone whom I could not have done this without.”

The faintest smile flickers across Minjoon’s lips.

Cameras flash again when the official framed document is passed between them. Songyi and Jaekyung smile for them as they hold it up together, and he turns to her, holding out his hand for one last handshake.

“Would you do me the honor of joining me for dinner next week?” he asks.

“I—” Songyi’s smile falter. “Of course, just—just you and me?”

“Would you like to invite your brother?”

“God, no,” Songyi says quickly. “It’s okay, never mind.”

“I understand you’ve had to take precautionary measures for your safety,” Jaekyung says. “Have you been well? Heekyung can hire someone to keep surveillance over the house, if you so wish.”

“It’s okay,” she replies. “I already have someone.”

“If it makes you most comfortable, you can ask him to come along,” Jaekyung suggest amiably. “I have no qualms about making room for another mouth at our table.”

“I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you.”

“Not an inconvenience at all,” he replies. “The more the merrier, I say.”

 

Yoonjae is reading at the kitchen table. The sight of it is so alarming that Songyi bends down to check if it actually is Yoonjae.

“What?” he asks when she walks back to the coat closet, shaking her head. “What, a person can’t read in his own house?”

“Not if it’s you,” she says, hanging up her jacket, meticulously straightening it around the satin hanger. “I didn’t think you even remembered how to read. What’s got you so fascinated that you’re reading at the kitchen table?”

Yoonjae drinks from his carton of Nesquick. “A book.”

“I can see that. What book?”

Interworld.

“Are you sure it’s not a gaming manual?”

Yoonjae scoffs. “I do not read gaming manuals,” he says derisively. “It’s a book about infinite universes.”

“I didn’t know you liked that sort of thing.”

“It’s really interesting,” he says. “Basically, in any other universe, we could be totally different people. You might be an actress instead of an heiress. Or a thief that steals high-security treasures and diamonds. Maybe we wouldn’t even be people. Like, Minjoon hyung could be an international pop star. Or an alien.”

“Okay, Yoonjae,” she says, humoring him. The front door opens just then, and Heekyung stumbles in. “Home?” she asks, about to turn away when the draft of alcohol hits her nose and Songyi notices the high color in his cheeks, his eyes. “Oh, boy.”

“Sorry,” Heekyung slurs, though he still seems mostly clear-minded. “My brother invited me out for drinks, and I guess I had more than I should have.”

“Jesus,” Songyi says, kicking out of her shoes and slinging one of his arms around her shoulders to prop him up. “You know you’re bad at holding alcohol, Heekyung.”

He makes sleepy noises of dissent as they traipse down the hallway, Heekyung’s feet dragging with every step. He’s a lot heavier than Songyi anticipates and she reaches out to support herself on the wall when his head lolls against hers.

“Come on, Heekyung,” she says, out of breath already. “Come on, we just need to get you up the stairs.”

“Songyi.”

“Hm?”

Songyi makes the poor decision to look at him. His face is right there in hers, soju strong on his clothes. Heekyung smiles, eyelids fluttering, before he pitches forward and—

Scratch that, he's not clear-minded in the least.

Yoonjae jumps at the thunk when Songyi shoves Heekyung off of her, his head hitting the opposite wall.

“What are you doing?” she exclaims, wiping her mouth against the back of her hand. “Why are you kis—kissing—”

“Is there a problem?” Minjoon asks, sticking his head out of her room while Yoonjae looks on with a combination of glee and disgust.

“He kissed me!” Songyi accuses. Heekyung looks halfway ashamed of himself, still slumped on the wall, and Minjoon gives him a severe once-over.

“Well, don’t do it again, she doesn’t like it,” he settles on saying.

“You’re...okay with it?” Songyi asks, dumbfounded at his lukewarm reaction.

“He’s drunk and it wasn’t your intention for it to happen,” he says reasonably.

“But I thought we were,” she gesticulates vaguely, Minjoon staring blankly at her. “I thought we were—I don’t really care if he kissed me, I mean I do, but I didn’t want it to happen when we’re—when we might be, you know. Is it like cheating? Wait, don’t answer that, just kidding. Not cheating. Never mind!”

“Uh, yeah,” Minjoon says slowly, processing her mess of fragments.

“You really don’t care?” she prompts.

“Well, if it bothers you so much,” Minjoon says, stepping out of her room completely. He closes his fist around Heekyung’s collar and Songyi lunges, expecting a punch, but then Minjoon is yanking him forward, Heekyung’s head snapping back at the sudden movement.

“Whoa,” Yoonjae says.

Whoa is probably the only appropriate way to react to the sight of Minjoon kissing Heekyung. Yoonjae makes a noise behind her like a dying animal and all Songyi can do is gape unattractively as he pulls away. Heekyung looks as if he’s just been tasered, sliding down to the floor when Minjoon releases him, eyes wide and unblinking.

“There, now we’re even,” he chokes out, wiping his lips furiously.

"I—I didn't—"

I,” Yoonjae declares, “am going to bleach my eyes now.”

(“For the record,” he says later, spitting soju into the sink by the mouthful, “I am never doing that again.” He hands her the green glass bottle and Songyi follows suit.

“That was like kissing my brother,” she says.

“How do you think it was for me,” Minjoon says, aggravated.

Songyi laughs at his expression, reaching up when he bends down, a smile ghosting across his face. They kiss in the kitchen, trying not to laugh too hard into each other’s mouths and Yoonjae screams that “this is not acceptable bodyguard behavior!”)

 

Finally, finally, Minjoon gets his summons. It comes with a confession.

“How do you feel about coming to dinner with me and Jaekyung at the end of the week?”

His brain, previously loaded with three chapters worth of criminological theory and transnational crime, blanks out.

“Dinner?” he repeats dumbly.

“It’s all right if you don’t want to come,” Songyi continues quickly. “I know you aren’t on good terms with him for whatever reason, because of your bad run-in, but he said that I could bring someone with me, and it would be weird for me to ask Heekyung or Yoonjae, and I know I told him that you were Yoonjae’s friend, but he—”

“I’ll come.”

“—seemed to—you will?”

Minjoon’s expression is dark, but he wipes it clean before he looks back at her. “Yes.”

“Are you sure you don’t mind meeting him?”

“I’d love to meet the man you’re going to be working with for the next however many years,” Minjoon says blandly, flipping pages though he’s lost all focus. “He’s probably extraordinary for being able to put up with you for extended periods of time.”

An extraordinary man. It isn’t entirely a lie.

“You’re horrible.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that one.”

“And useless.”

“That too.”

“Minjoon.”

“Mmm?”

“I love you.”

The silence that follows Songyi’s words is deafening. Minjoon turns to meet her eyes so slowly that he feels like time has been suspended in a thick, congealed gel, but she’s watching him a kind of sad wonder that he’s never seen her exhibit.

“Oh.”

“Never heard that one, have you?”

“Er,” he stammers. “No, I haven’t.”

Mechanically, he grips his pencil and goes back to writing, with absolutely no idea what words he’s putting down on paper.

“Well?” she says expectantly.

“Well what?”

“Is that all you’re going to say? I hardly ever say that to my own family and Heekyung has never had the opportunity to hear those words, I don’t even like talking about my feelings—is that all you have to say?”

“Uh, thank you?”

Songyi sighs wearily. “You really haven’t heard that one before, clearly.”

 

This is the first time Minjoon has ever seen Heekyung’s room.

It’s spotless, naturally, everything on his desk arranged into its own position, bed made, closet sorted by apparel type and then by color. He can’t imagine living so fastidiously but at the same time, Heekyung is probably the one responsible for keeping the house looking at least a little presentable.

“Do Minjoon?” he says, surprised. “Is there something wrong? If this is about the night before last, I’m really sorry, it won’t happen again—I wasn’t in my right mind.”

“It’s fine, I didn’t come here for that.”

“Oh? Then what?”

“Did you find anything else about your brother?”

“Nothing that would help either of us. He keeps himself hidden well, and his title in S&C is the perfect alibi,” Heekyung says heavily. “For once I am glad that I live here and hardly see him even at work, because it’s difficult for me to even look him in the face when we talk.”

“So you understand now why I can’t tell Songyi who he is.”

Heekyung nods.

“Actually, I came to warn you.”

Alarm registers in Heekyung’s eyes. “Of what? What do you know?”

“Lee Jaekyung has invited Songyi to dinner, two days from now,” Minjoon says. “She wants me to come. I have a feeling that Jaekyung planned this. I can’t tell her to decline his invitation, we have to stay downwind. But if we both go…” Minjoon feels his fist clench subconsciously. “I don’t think I’ll walk out of that meeting alive.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“I said I would protect Songyi until I died,” Minjoon says. “Do you remember?”

Heekyung nods.

“And I will,” he says. “But if—but when I die, you have to be the one to stay by her side until your brother is taken care of.”

“Do Minjoon—”

“I’ll make it so that he only has dead ends to run to,” Minjoon says. “And it will probably come at the cost of my life. Heekyung, you have to help me if we want to keep Songyi out of the crossfire.”

Heekyung leans back in his chair. “You really are a piece of work, Do Minjoon.”

“You asked me what I want you to do. I’m asking you because you have the power to make this happen.”

Heekyung laces his fingers together over his stomach.

“Let’s hear it.”

 

“Yoonjae-ah.”

The honorific has Yoonjae turning his attention away from his computer immediately. “Hyung,” he says. “Is there something wrong?”

“You said you always wanted to play first person shooter with me once,” Minjoon says nonchalantly. “Feeling up to it right now?”

The smile Yoonjae smiles in answer is worth a million megawatts.

 

Youngmok’s hair has greyed around his ears.

Minjoon knocks on his old classroom door the next day, watching the mess of blurred colors in the frosted glass window before peeking in.

“Do Minjoon,” Youngmok says, standing up from one of the miniature chairs beside one of the students. “You didn’t say you were coming.”

“I wanted to see the kids.”

“Is it safe for you to be walking around alone, without Cheon Songyi?”

Minjoon raises his eyebrows. “Who’s protecting who?”

“It seems to me that you need her just as much as she needs you,” Youngmok says cryptically.

Minjoon squints at him, just as there’s a shriek of excitement and he is swallowed alive by five year olds all clambering for his undivided attention to look at their cat drawing, how far they’ve gotten in the book with almost no pictures, how much water they could fit in their mouths before their cheeks were fit to burst. He laughs when one of them pats his cheek urgently, and says, “I thought I taught you guys better manners than this.”

But innocence like this only comes in children, and Minjoon is thankful to have seen it and lived it again.

“Minjoon seonsaengnim,” Yangmyung shouts. “Where’s your girlfriend?”

He pinches the boy’s cheek.

“Working, you rascal.”

 

T minus one days till the dinner, Songyi drops the file she’s reading, shoves everything off her bed in a heap and falls back into her pillows with a huff, arms flung out to her sides.

“You need to get through that before tomorrow.”

“Jesus, I thought you were asleep,” Songyi says, leaning over Minjoon. He’s taken to sleeping in her bed (the phrase “sleeping with her” is far too uncomfortable and Yoonjae wouldn’t let him hear the end of it), much to Songyi’s insurmountable delight, though Minjoon has learned in the past few days that whilst asleep she basically trains to be an Olympic swimmer. It probably comes with sleeping alone in a king size bed for most of her life.

“How could I have gone to sleep with you squirming and moving around so much?” he retorts, turning onto his back, only to come face to face with Songyi hovering over him.

“Sorry,” she says, and kisses him so quickly that it’s all warmth, no pressure. “Good night.”

She leans over him, flicking the light off, and scoots back over to her side of the bed. Her room is bathed in the yellow glow of the nightlight. Minjoon stares at the closet across the room, wondering if this is where they’re going to stand—if this is as far as it goes. Maybe it’s for the best that it stagnates here.

“Are you worried about tomorrow?”

“Not really.”

The blankets rustle as she rolls and talks over his shoulder. “Not really? So you are.”

“Just go to sleep, Songyi.”

She flips onto her back. “I should be thanking you,” she says after a pause. “I know this isn’t something you want to do, but you’re doing it for me anyway.” Songyi pokes him in the leg with her icy foot, and he jerks away. “Thank you. I’m glad I turned back that day and brought you back from Dangjin.”

“I am too.”

“You are?”

“I wouldn’t say I was thrilled that you hit me with your car,” says Minjoon, “but if that is how we had to have met, then I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s fate.”

“You’re never going to let me forget that, are you.”

“I don’t want you to,” Minjoon says, and Songyi is taken aback by the urgency in his voice.

“I—I won’t, you think I’d forget something like that?”

“Don’t forget how we met. Even if it wasn’t the best way, and we didn’t start out on the right foot or perfectly in tune with each other. I don’t want you to forget.”

“Do Minjoon,” she says slowly, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Are you all right?”

“I know,” he goes on, closing his eyes and feeling traitorous tears worm their way out of them. “I know that you’re a person that has spent her life hiding who she really is, and to everyone else, you might come off as impossible and arrogant. That's what I thought in the beginning, too. But only after I met you did I realize I was the same way. Even after ten years pushing my way through strangers I still had no one, and nothing but resentment and hatred.”

“I know,” she whispers, squeezing his shoulder.

“Cheon Songyi.”

“What?” He doesn’t answer right away, and she hears him stifling his tears into the covers. “What, Do Minjoon?”

“When sadness was the sea you were the one that taught me to swim. When time clipped its wings you were the one that sewed the feathers back on. When my life was a dead end you were the one to lay down a path where there was none,” Minjoon says, emotions spilling from his lips and down his cheeks and frankly, it’s about time. About time that he’s stopped running from a fate he knew he couldn’t change from the day they’d found Yoon Bokyung dead in her room. From the day they had beaten him to a bloody pulp in a cold underpass. From the day Songyi had run him off his bike, then held his hand on a snowy night.

She’s crying too, sniffling as her hand shakes against him.

“I love you, Cheon Songyi. Maybe you already know it, and maybe you don’t need to hear it, but I need to know that I said it,” Minjoon manages, body wracked with sobs.

Her arm comes to wrap around him and she holds him until the tears are gone and the room is silent again. It takes a while, many ticks of the clock and a couple of thumps in the night. When his breathing finally evens, she extricates herself from him and confesses, “I’ve been waiting a long time for those words to come from someone that I felt the same way about.”

“Mmph,” Minjoon says, reverting back to his usual tacitness.

“Can I kiss you?”

This he turns at, the question so oddly placed and sudden. Songyi scrambles for words.

“It’s just, you never say these kinds of things, and it seemed fitting to—”

Minjoon closes his eyes.

Songyi lowers her face until her mouth is hovering a breath away from his and promptly gets distracted by the length of his eyelashes. It’s ungodly. They cast long, spidery shadows over his cheekbones, slanting in deep grey across his skin.

He opens his eyes.

“Hurry up,” he growls. “If you’re going to kiss me, just do it.”

“Okay, okay,” Songyi says.

And she does.

 

“You clean up well.”

Minjoon snorts, fixing his tie in Heekyung’s mirror.

“I’m serious. You look good with her.”

“Okay, Heekyung, enough with the small talk,” Minjoon says, unsure of how to respond to the compliment. “Is everything prepared?”

Heekyung hands Minjoon his phone. “Installed and booted up.”

“Did you call the people I asked you to?”

“All of them I could reach. They’re like magpies, dangle something shiny in front of their faces and they come swarming in flocks.”

Minjoon turns his phone over in his hands, wiping his fingers on the black screen.

“I took the liberty of bugging Songyi’s clothes,” Heekyung says. “I do all her laundry, so it wasn’t hard. Even if that fails,” he points at the phone, “we’re still connected by the bug. Don’t let her find out about it.”

“Thank you, Heekyung.” A pause. "For everything."

Heekyung nods.

“See you later?”

Minjoon grimaces. “Probably not.”

 

Jaekyung sits alone, thoughtfully turning over the thin vial of opiate in his palms. The room he’d reserved for their dinner is quiet and comfortable, and he swills his own glass of wine before lifting it to his lips. When he sets it down, he reaches for the bottle of wine, uncorks the vial, and empties its contents inside.

Just as he tucks it back into his breast pocket, there is a knock at the door. The server opens the door and Songyi steps in.

“Have you been waiting long?” she asks, sliding her jacket from her shoulders.

“Of course not,” Jaekyung says, standing up and pulling out a chair for her. “And—Do Minjoon, what a pleasure it is to meet you again. I didn’t know you meant him when you said you had someone watching the house for you, Songyi.”

“Pleasure is mine,” Minjoon replies curtly, holding out his hand. Jaekyung takes it, carefully crushing his fingers in his hand.

“He’s quite good at what he does,” Songyi says.

“Oh?” Jaekyung says. “Have you worked in law enforcement long, Do Minjoon?”

“A while.” If Jaekyung is going to play this game, Minjoon is determined to beat him at, knowing he'll lose in the end. He glances as Songyi sweeps her hair from her shoulder, revealing the brooch pinned on her dress. It’s pearly and lined in silver, obnoxious enough to pass off as a mere accessory rather than a bug. Minjoon rolls his eyes at the aesthetic—it’s so Heekyung.

They study their menus, Minjoon wound tighter than a spool of thread, but he tries to relax himself for the sake of keeping Songyi calm, too. She’s smiling slightly, and the sight of it smoothes his nerves.

“Could I interest you in some wine?” Jaekyung asks after their orders have been placed, holding up the bottle. “It’s your favorite.”

"Chateau Petrus ’93?” Songyi asks, face brightening.

“None other.”

“I’d love some.”

“Minjoon, you too?”

“I’m okay.”

“Are you sure?” Jaekyung asks, pouring Songyi a generous glass. “I would hate for you to miss out on a gem.” He raises his eyebrows, holding the neck of the bottle forward. Minjoon sits up, then calculatedly slides the wineglass by its base across the table.

“There we go,” Jaekyung says.

“Cheers,” Songyi says after the bottle’s been corked. “To a successful merge.”

“To a successful merge.”

Minjoon grabs Songyi’s hand before the glass can reach her mouth, and she startles at his abruptness.

“Don’t,” he says under his breath.

“Why?”

“Come now, Minjoon, don’t put a damper on her fun,” Jaekyung chides. “It’s been a stressful few months.”

He stares at Jaekyung, who looks perfectly amicable, then back at Songyi. Her expression is clouded, and Minjoon slowly lets go of her wrist. She drinks and Minjoon holds the wine up to his lips as well, miming swallowing before putting it back down. When nothing happens, he relaxes marginally.

Their dinner proceeds without much circumstance. For the most part they eat in silence, silverware clinking. Minjoon wonders vaguely if this had all been a bluff, and what other game Jaekyung must be playing if he’s going to let the both of them go tonight. He thinks of Heekyung on the other side of the bug, how on edge he must be, waiting every moment for things to go wrong.

“Excuse me,” Songyi says, wiping her mouth with the napkin. “I need to use the bathroom.”

“What’s wrong?” Minjoon asks immediately.

“I just have an odd taste in my mouth is all,” she says, standing up. “It’s probably from the gum I had earlier, you know I think everything has an aftertaste.”

Songyi leaves quietly, and Minjoon turns back to Jaekyung, who shrugs and says nothing. The air is heavier than a loaded gun and with every passing minute, Minjoon feels like there’s something wrong.

“I’m going to check on her,” he finally says, pushing back from the table.

“There it is,” Jaekyung says, a smile breaking across his face. It chills Minjoon down to the bone. “I was waiting for you to say it, Do Minjoon. You’ve lost your touch in the last few years, I must say, she’s far beyond your help now.”

Minjoon tears out of the room, running headlong down the hallway to where the bathrooms are. He just barely dodges a server carrying a tray of food and a party of five, barging into the women’s room without hesitation.

Songyi is lying on her side on the cold tile, head resting in the lap of another woman who jumps as Minjoon comes in. She looks shocked, but he ignores her to kneel beside Songyi.

“Leave,” he says, and she pulls away in alarm. “Go!”

His voice ricochets off the walls of the high-ceilinged restroom and she does, heels clicking frantically as she goes. Songyi’s hand closes around his wrist briefly.

“Minjoon,” she mutters. “That wine. Don’t drink it, there’s something in it.”

“I know,” he says in a rush. “I know, hold on, I’m going to—”

Another set of feet comes into the bathroom. It’s calm and collected.

“Hello, rat piss,” comes a gruff, familiar voice. “It’s been too long.”

A pain explodes on the back of Minjoon’s head, and he has to hand it to him—even after all this time, Yikyung is still a fine, fine batter.

 

Coming to is a different story.

To start off, Minjoon is in a lot more pain. Additionally, this time, he’s the one spread-eagled on cold, hard-packed earth. The first thing that swims into his blurred vision is a woman in a dress—a woman in a dress, tied up in a chair.

“Minjoon,” comes Songyi’s voice. “Minjoon, are you awake? How are you feeling?”

“Never better,” he slurs, head pounding with a vengeance.

“Now, Cheon Songyi, I didn’t want to make this difficult for either of you,” comes Jaekyung’s voice, and Minjoon groans to himself—everything had felt so surreal, but now it was happening, all at once and all too fast. He’d hoped it had been a dream, vainly, and tries to push himself up. “But I didn’t anticipate you waking up in the middle of our little excursion, I’m sorry I had to do this.”

“Why are you doing it?” she demands, voice ringing loud in the mouth of an warehouse. Distantly, it seems, Minjoon can hear the ocean roar—they must be by the cliffs where he once made half his deals.

“God, did Minjoon really tell you nothing?”

“He told me enough.”

“Well then,” Jaekyung says, leaning in far too close to Songyis face, “did he ever tell you I was once his boss and the most feared man in Korea? That who I wanted dead turned up dead less than twenty four hours later? Everyone but him?”

“W-what are you—“

“What I’m saying, Songyi, is that it’s been five years since Do Minjoon should have died,” Jaekyung says, turning around to kick Minjoon in the ribs. “You should have left him in that godforsaken underpass after you hit him with your car, Songyi, it was so poetic. Like returning him to his final resting place.”

“What do you want with him? The fall of the Bluebloods came after his time. He owes you nothing!”

“The fall of the Bluebloods came because of him!” Jaekyung roars. “Do Minjoon is the reason my drug rings are gone, the reason my soldiers and enforcers and men rebelled and now waste away in prison, waiting for death. Do Minjoon is the reason I went from the most respected kingpin of the underground to the most laughed at, a regime toppled by a mere twenty-one-year old who had a little crush on a little bitch.”

Songyi spits in his face.

Jaekyung jerks back, and Yikyung scampers out of the darkness to hand him a handkerchief.

“You’re brave, Cheon Songyi, I’ll give you that much,” Jaekyung says, folding the fabric up neatly. “Of course, you’d have to be to run around with a Blueblood.”

“Ex Blueblood,” she corrects through gritted teeth. “He’s nothing like you.”

“That might be so.”

“What are you going to do? Kill him?”

“Oh God no, not yet,” Jaekyung says. “Killing a man is easy. Making him suffer is an art.” He steeples his fingers. “I am nothing if not an a man of great taste, Songyi, as I’m sure you know already.”

Jaekyung flicks his head then, and Yikyung steps up with his trusty Louisiana Slugger in hand.

“Finish what you started.”

Songyi watches with horror, unable to look away, as Yikyung advances on him, slapping the barrel of his bat against his palm with a threatening thwack, thwack, thwack. Jaekyung strides to her, curling wiry fingers in her hair and forcing her to watch as Minjoon inches away, already bruised and broken from the beating they’d administered on him when he was unconscious.

“Now, Cheon Songyi, let’s see how things worked around here before you came into the picture, shall we?”

“Let’s not, hyung.”

Jaekyung whirls around, eyes wild as they search the darkness. He cocks his gun and holds it out before him. The tap of footsteps bounces off the steel and Heekyung slides into the dim light, holding up the phone that’s connected to Songyi’s bug. He glances his brother’s gun levelly.

“Really, hyung, if you’re going to smash one GPS, it’d be smart of you to get rid of the other.”

“Heekyung,” he says slowly, holding up his free hand. “This isn’t what you think it is.”

Songyi feels the bonds around her wrists loosening, Minjoon wordlessly undoing them with shaking hands. His breath is coming in staccatos, and Songyi helps him to his feet as Jaekyung faces his brother.

“Really?” Heekyung asks innocently as half of Seoul’s police force and newscasting stations move out from the shadows, guns pointed at Jaekyung. “Then what were you saying about drugging Minjoon and throwing him off the cliff into the sea? Or uh, you know, doing the same with Songyi and passing it off as a double suicide?”

“You’re meddling in things you don’t understand, Heekyung.”

“No, you don’t understand, hyung,” Heekyung says, knuckles around his phone. “You’ve wanted Do Minjoon’s blood for five years. I’ve known him for maybe less than five months. But I came here to save the one person in this world I love. And the only way I can do that is to save the only person on your hit list, too.”

Jaekyung bristles, hand tightening on his gun. Heekyung barely flinches.

“Drop your weapon,” one of the officers cautions. “Come with us, Lee Jaekyung.”

Jaekyung roars in frustration, whirling around and pointing his gun right in Songyi’s face.

“You have gotten between me and that bastard for the last time!” he shouts, and opens fire.

Songyi flinches, eyes squeezing shut. She’s always wondered what it must be like, being impaled by bullets. The movies make it look so clean and painless, and it must be, because she never feels it—instead, a body slumps against her and she stumbles when Minjoon’s deadweight makes her sway.

“Minjoon!”

His body convulses as another spray of bullets hits him, but she feels his grip around her tighten. Songyi wraps her arms around his middle and feels her stomach twist at the blood that has already begun sheeting down his back.

“What are you doing?” Heekyung shouts, ramming into Jaekyung and kicking the firearm out of his hands. They collapse in a heap in the dirt, and he lands the hardest punch he’s ever thrown across his brother’s face, feeling Jaekyung’s nose break under his fingers.

“What’s it to you, little bro?” he laughs through bloody lips. “Once that bastard is dead, Songyi’s all yours.”

“If that man dies,” Heekyung says, grabbing the lapels of Jaekyung’s suit and shaking him, “if he dies, Songyi will never smile a day in her life again, you monster—are you even human? Do you even have feelings?”

“That man is dead already,” Jaekyung says, spitting blood. “He’s had a gun to his head for years now.”

“Who are you,” Heekyung whispers. “Who have I been living with all my life?”

Jaekyung laughs maniacally. “Oh, you really outsmarted me this time, little bro. I should’ve seen it coming. I should’ve gotten rid of you the second I had the chance, but I was soft, I was weak. I took pity on your obsession with your little toy.”

Heekyung feels furious tears leak from his eyes, and throws his brother down to the ground to run to where Songyi has Minjoon’s head cradled in her lap. The authorities can deal with Jaekyung, Heekyung thinks, wiping at his face with the backs of his hands, feeling the wind drying his face. He is no longer his concern, nor is he his brother anymore.

“Minjoon,” Songyi says, voice trembling. She’s shaking him with how hard her body is quaking, her hand on his cheek. “Do Minjoon, stay with me.”

“Do Minjoon!” Heekyung screams, and it’s enough to get Minjoon to pry his eyes open, though Heekyung can tell they’re losing him already. The color of his face is whitening, and the blood that trickles out of his mouth is so dark it’s nearly black. “Do Minjoon, you stay alive, you hear me? You need to live!”

“It hurts,” he croaks.

“When it hurts, you know you’re alive,” Heekyung says, and he sees Songyi’s tears falling onto Minjoon’s face, thick and wet. “Do Minjoon, you have to live, don’t you remember what Songyi was like the day we tricked her? How am I going to live with myself if you die?”

“You really do have high standards, Lee Heekyung,” Minjoon says hoarsely, and Heekyung chuckles through his tears.

“Minjoon, let’s go to the hospital,” Songyi says, voice breaking. “I’ll go with you.”

He blinks up slowly once, twice, and smiles weakly. The sight is heartbreaking.

“Okay.” His head lolls, eyelids falling shut.

Songyi’s screams pierce Heekyung’s ears as he sits back on his heels, tilting his head up. The darkness presses in, though the sky is traitorously clear. What with the tears blurring Heekyung's vision, and Songyi’s voice tearing the night apart by its seams, it's like there are a million stars, falling from the sky.

✩✩✩

Fog and snow sweep past like ghosts. There is no wind. All around, the ground is littered with dead grass and leaves. There is an icy stream, water an unforgiving, steely grey.

On the opposite bank stands a lone, tall figure in black.

Songyi is about to shout the only name that bubbles to her lips when she sees someone else—a girl in red, holding Do Minjoon’s hand and saying something she cannot hear. They walk together through golden brush and packed snowflakes. Everything across the stream is haloed in a soft light.

“Do Minjoon!” she shouts, and he comes to a stop. “Do Minjoon!”

The girl tugs on Minjoon’s hand.

“Don’t leave!”

They don’t; Songyi blinks and they appear before her on her side of the water, her breath catching in her throat when she realizes with heartrending comprehension who this girl must be.

“Are you the woman that loves Do Minjoon?” she asks, voice echoing across the landscape.

Mutely, Songyi looks to Minjoon, who watches her expectantly, and nods.

Yihwa smiles. “He’s told me a lot about you.”

✩✩✩

“Lee Heekyung, what do have to say about your brother’s recent arrest and affiliation with one of northeast Korea’s most violent gangs? Did you know anything of this?”

“Lee Heekyung, how have you taken to the new position as co-president with Cheon Songyi? Did she have any knowledge of your brother’s dealings?”

“What do you know about the man named Do Minjoon? What did he have to do with your brother and Cheon Songyi?”

“What transpired between the four of us,” Heekyung says, voice booming into the microphone, “is of no concern to the public. My brother turned out to be someone I had no knowledge of, and that I only wished I knew better. Cheon Songyi was simply someone caught between him and someone my brother had ill will against.”

“What did Do Minjoon ever do to give Lee Jaekyung a reason to act in such a way?”

“Do Minjoon once did the right thing,” Heekyung says firmly. “And for outlaws such as Lee Jaekyung, it did not sit particularly well with him. I am sorry for the disappointment that my brother has brought to everyone, and hope that under my guidance, S&C will continue to thrive as it always has—perhaps even more, now that my attention is not divided. That is all I have to say on the matter. Cheon Songyi will not be offering any comments.”

Cameras flash and the din of shouting reporters heightens as Heekyung walks away from the podium. Songyi is waiting alone in the adjoining conference room, sitting at the head of the round table, and stands up when Heekyung comes in.

“How did it go?”

Wordlessly, he walks up to her, eyes dull. She takes in his expression before reaching forward and pulling him into a hug. Heekyung’s heart is so full, then, that he finds himself breaking down in her embrace, weeping for all that he’s loved and lost. For the first time, Songyi doesn’t push him away, and he clings to her as he cries and cries and cries.

 

Heekyung moves back to his parents house the day after, and the house feels so big. Yoonjae watches apprehensively as he and Songyi eat dinner wordlessly together at the table, Songyi not even tasting what she puts in her mouth.

“Noona,” he says gently. “Eat more, you haven’t touched anything all day.”

“Yoonjae,” she says. “What was that book you were reading? About how I could’ve been an actress?”

“Oh—Interworld?”

“Do you think, in another world,” she asks, “Minjoon could have just been a regular, boring person that a regular, boring me met on the street? Or at work? Or in school?”

In an impossible moment of maturity, Yoonjae reaches forward for her hand.

“In any world, you could be anything. You could be two trees that grew together, and no one would ever be able to separate you.”

 

Even in death, the world burns.

It burns in fire. It burns in blood. It burns in dreams, and it never ends. Minjoon careens through images he doesn’t understand. It feels like falling down a long, long tunnel that never ends, like the girl in Alice in Wonderland; he swerves through streets on his rusted old motorcycle that can’t seem to brake, Jaekyung appearing and dissipating into smoke in his path. Songyi shows up when he opens doors of an endless hallway. Some of them open to Yihwa, standing there with an umbrella and the same jacket she’d worn that terrible day ten years ago. Others open to Songyi, who lunges out for him only for the door to slam of its own accord.

The world burns and Heekyung’s words fan the flames.

When it hurts, you know you’re alive.

 

The call comes when Songyi is at work, right after a press conference celebrating the end of Cosmopolise and its success.

“Noona.” Yoonjae's voice is shaking with emotion. “Noona, I wanted to tell you first.”

 

The headstone is of an ornately carved, dusky marble, abandoned and neglected in comparison to other graves that spill over with wilting wreaths, paper money, and offerings of food. When Songyi lays down the bouquet of lilies and white cosmos, she wipes her black-gloved fingers over it, watching the dust and dirt crumble from the surface. The breeze picks up and the grime is blown away like a bad dream.

“Come here,” she says, straightening. She holds a hand out behind herself. “Come say something.”

The muffled sound of crutches reaches her ears and she feels a warm hand lay into hers.

“Why were you so bent on coming?”

“Did you not want to?”

“No, I wanted to.”

Songyi steps back, offering her space.

“Then say something. She’s been waiting for a long time.”

Yihwa’s gravestone stares back at Minjoon, the forbidding stone unrelenting as he shuffles forward. He’d paid for this with all the money he had left from his deals and he’d never come to see how it turned out.

“Yihwa,” he begins. “I…”

The flowers rustle with the wind, and Songyi watches as Minjoon’s shoulders tremble and he hangs his head, the same way Yoonjae did when he cried. The crutches fall out from under his arms and he collapses with a heavy thud to his knees, sinking into the utmost formal bow.

“I’m sorry,” he stutters between gasps. “I’m sorry for what happened to you because of me.”

Songyi feels a lone tear slide down her cheek, and she breathes in hard, looking away.

“I don’t know what you said to Songyi when I was asleep,” Minjoon says. “Or if you were there that night on the cliff. But thank you for protecting her when I couldn’t, because she’s the person I care about most in this life now.”

Songyi crouches down, resting a hand between Minjoon’s shoulder blades and traces her eyes across the name of a girl wise beyond her short years. They are alone in that cemetery, two people in black, for a long time.

 

When Minjoon graduates magna cum laude with a double degree in psychology and forensic criminology, he can stand up alone and walk across the stage with his own two feet, dressed head to toe in black robes and a dark green stole.

That day, there are an awful lot of small children led by one greying old man in the stands. When Minjoon’s name is called, shrill screams erupt from their little throats, though Songyi has to say Yoonjae rivals them all alone with his furious, “That’s my hyung right there! That’s my Minjoon hyung!”

She can’t blame him. He was the one there when Minjoon finally came out of his deep, deep sleep in the hospital, discharged with the order of intensive physical therapy to regain the use of his legs. Day in, day out, night after night, it’s been Yoonjae—with his strength and height—who has dragged Minjoon to his feet, taking him out onto the estate with Minjoon’s arms slung around his shoulders. Day in, day out, night after night, he’s dragged him with his feet on the ground until the feeling came back in his legs, until the muscles in Minjoon’s back flexed without pain anymore, until—one day—Songyi rolled out of bed to see Minjoon standing in the bathroom doorway without any support, eyes alight with wonder.

When the ceremony ends, Heekyung is the first one that appears in front of Minjoon. The smile on his face fades a little, but Heekyung claps a hand on his shoulder, handing him a lone, thin carnation.

“My man,” he says. “You’ve come far.”

Minjoon’s smile is small. “Wouldn’t have came this far without you, Lee Heekyung.”

“Seonsaengnim, seonsaengnim!” come tiny voices from around their knees, and they look down to see a mass of children all holding out folded paper roses. “We have flowers!”

“Wow guys, thank you,” Minjoon says, bending down. They line up and hand them to him one by one, the last one being Youngmok. He has an armful of sunflowers.

"They all think you're a superhero. Thus explaining your sudden absence from their lives."

“You really outdid yourself this time, Teacher Jang.”

Youngmok holds out the bouquet. “I had my daughters come in to teach them. I don’t know the first thing about origami.”

“How was it, holding down the roof alone?”

“Suffice it to say that I’m transferring to high school next year,” Youngmok says conversationally, wiping his glasses on his cardigan.

“Ah.”

Youngmok squeezes Minjoon’s arm. “It was a pleasure getting to know you, Do Minjoon.”

He shepherds the kids away, and Minjoon watches them go, but is promptly interrupted by Songyi thrusting one last bouquet of roses into his hands.

“You’re popular now, aren’t you,” she comments, flicking the garden he has clutched in his arms, and on the spur of the moment Minjoon grabs her waist until she’s pressed up against him.

“Hyung,” Yoonjae protests when Minjoon leans in for a very public kiss.

“And you are more popular,” he replies when they break apart. “So have fun explaining that to the press.”

 

The press get a huge kick out of it, which is why Songyi has to deal with approximately fifteen calls a minute later that evening.

“Thanks for that, really,” she says resentfully as she goes through the paparazzi photos online. “Now the entire world is going to throw Heekyung a pity party.”

“His brother is a registered gang leader, I don’t think anyone would blame you for staying far away from that family,” Minjoon says mildly. He’s sitting on Songyi’s bed, mouse clicking rapidly as he plays against Yoonjae. Suddenly, he’s shoved onto his back, and surprise flickers through his eyes when Songyi climbs on top of him.

“Are you here to kill me?” he echoes, a grin stretching across his face.

Songyi shrugs playfully, and Minjoon surges upward until she’s pinned under him.

“He didn’t send me here to kill you,” she says. “Fate sent me here to love you.”

Minjoon grimaces. “I’m just going to kiss you now.”

Songyi scoffs, closing her eyes.

And he does.

fin