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Say Yes to the Mess

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If there was one part of Kim Seokjin’s job that he truly excelled at, it was dinner parties. The rest of his job was not so great. He was definitely out of his element sitting in on board meetings or listening to Namjoon explain the latest financing agreement. His employees probably griped about Seokjin behind his back. And they wouldn’t be wrong. He was just a chaebol who got appointed to head a division because he’s the Chairman’s youngest son. Seokjin was essentially a useless figurehead who sat back while Namjoon did all the work.

But not at a dinner party. Put him in a tux, hand him some canapés and a glass of wine, and suddenly Seokjin could make a valuable contribution. All he had to do was be himself: enjoy the food, charm the other guests with his good looks and refined manners, listen to them, make them feel valued and respected, and throw in a few jokes here and there for good measure. Kim Seokjin was the king of dinner parties.

This party was no exception. Kang Younghee, the wife of KD Financial Group’s CEO, was hosting an impressive array of Seoul VIPs in their Gangnam penthouse. It was an ideal setting for a group of sharply-dressed power players. Set on the 67th floor of the Tabseong Palace, the interior was an open floor plan done in chic glass and gold. The stark, modern lines of the decor were softened by lush plants. Vivid green palm fronds and white calla lilies burst from every spare corner, creating a visual continuity with the rooftop garden just on the other side of massive plate glass windows. But nobody was out in the garden. It was the middle of August and it must have been about 30 degrees Celsius out there. Instead, everyone stayed safe indoors, in the air conditioning where the open bar was within easy reach.

Seokjin himself was circulating, making sure to spend a bit of time with everyone. He couldn’t just stick to his friends and business partners; he had to be sure that he networked with new acquaintances as well. It was energizing to feel at the top of his game, working the room and leaving a trail of charmed, laughing people in his wake. From time to time, when he caught his father watching him with approving eyes, Seokjin felt a deep sense of wellbeing and relief. He was a good son. He was making his family proud.

Then he spotted Namjoon in the corner of the room, half-hidden behind a cluster of palm trees, frowning pensively and nursing a glass of champagne. Maybe it was time for Seokjin to make a pit stop to see what was up. After all, Namjoon wasn’t just his most important colleague; he was also Seokjin’s closest friend.

“Hey, hyung,” Namjoon said when Seokjin came to stand next to him.  

“Good evening,” Seokjin smiled, swatting some palm branches out of his eyes. “Why are we hiding in the jungle? Is this some kind of research? Observing chaebols in their natural environment?”

That got a grin out Namjoon, showing off his dimples for a brief flash. “Not quite. I’m avoiding Joohyun.”

“Oh? I would have thought the two of you had a lot to talk about. Mergers, acquisitions, stocks, giant piles of money, what have you. But I guess you lost interest , huh?”

“Seriously?” Namjoon said, giving him an incredulous look. Seokjin was too busy laughing at his own joke to care. “She won’t stop bugging me about you , actually. You’d think after six months she might be ready move on, but no . Just endless questions about what you’re doing, who you’re seeing, who your parents are setting you up with. It’s killing me, hyung. Why doesn’t she just talk to you?”

Scanning the room with his eyes, Seokjin found Bae Joohyun on the other side of the room. She was as stunningly beautiful as ever, with her glossy black hair falling in gentle waves over her bare shoulders. Joohyun always looked like a porcelain doll but, like a doll, her eyes were cold and empty. Even from this distance, Seokjin could see from her body language that she had no interest in the group of ladies she was talking with. A bittersweet wave of nostalgia washed over him and he looked away.

“I’ll never understand why you broke up with her,” Namjoon shook his head. “She’s an angel. You could have married an angel.”

“Okay, eomma,” Seokjin teased. “Next time I’ll just let you pick out someone pretty for me.”

And then, almost as if he had summoned her with his words, Seokjin’s mother appeared. She floated gracefully towards them, a vision of dignified elegance in her flowered silk jacket. Her arms opened as if she were about to embrace them, but instead she grabbed Seokjin by the arm and pulled him forward.

“Yah, what are you doing in the bushes?” she asked  as she reached up to rearrange Seokjin’s hair. “What will everyone think if they see you spend the whole evening whispering in a corner with Namjoonie? Huh? They’ll think I raised a son without any manners.”

“Leave him be, Insook-ah,” his father said, suddenly standing behind her. “He has more to worry about tonight than what your friends say about him.”

Seokjin wasn’t sure what that meant. He was even more confused by the knowing looks his parents gave each other. He had more to worry about? Worry about what? As far as he knew, everything was on track. And the two of them looked genuinely happy, so what exactly was going on? Should he be worried or not?

“Would you believe Kang is serving The Macallan 12 again?” His father said, shifting abruptly into what Seokjin liked to call his Chairman-mode. “I had a whole discussion with him last time about this. The balance is fine for your average, uninformed drinker. But does he want to do the safe, expected thing, or does he want to have taste ? I thought he agreed with me, but here we are again: The Macallan!”

Self-consciously glancing down at his own glass, Seokjin pursed his lips. The scotch tasted great to him and he could have easily pointed out that his father had already had two glasses of the stuff anyway, but he certainly wasn’t about to contradict the Chairman. He didn’t want a repeat of the infamous kimchi fiasco at Chuseok three years ago. Luckily, his father changed the subject.

“The JeonSoft deal is a go,” Chairman Kim said, leaning in conspiratorially towards Namjoon. He swirled his glass before taking a hearty swig. “You’re going to be sat next to Junghoon at dinner, Namjoon-ah. You know what to do?”

“Yes. Yes, sir,” Namjoon nodded. Seokjin could see a glaze of nervousness in his eyes, but he knew that Namjoon was ready. They’d been over it a thousand times earlier in the week. Jeon Junghoon was Chairman Kim’s favorite dongsaeng when they were in business school and their families had stayed close over the years. They knew everything about Junghoon: his wife, his sons, their dog, where he liked to vacation in winter, his favorite episode of Running Man. Acquiring Junghoon’s software company should be the smoothest transaction Namjoon had ever managed for KSJ Industries.

“And me, sir?” Seokjin asked. Surely the king of dinner parties, who had known the Jeons his whole life, would have some integral role to play here. “What should I do?”

Chairman Kim raised his eyebrows and gave his son and bright, wolfish smile. “Don’t worry. You’ll know what to do when the time comes.”

“Alright…”

“Oh, sweetheart,” his mother said, reaching out again to fluff Seokjin’s hair and brush at the shoulders of his suit jacket. “Even when you were born, you were the prettiest baby at the hospital. Everyone said so. Did I ever tell you…”

“Yes, eomma.”

“...about the man who saw you in the nursery and wanted you to marry his daughter? You have a perfect face. Don’t ever lose your confidence in that.”

“Eomma, everyone’s going in to dinner now…” Seokjin said, trying to back away from her. His father and Namjoon were already drifting along with the other guest towards the dining room, but his mother apparently needed a few more moments to primp him. For someone who cared so intensely about what others thought of her, Seokjin was always amazed at her capacity to embarrass him in public. Hopefully he wouldn’t be sitting anywhere near her at dinner.

But as he soon discovered, Seokjin wasn’t sitting near anyone at dinner. When he finally found his place card, he was at a small, round table at the far end of the room, backed up against the wall of windows. The panoramic view of Seoul’s skyline was fantastic, but he was completely cut off from the other guests. He couldn’t even see who was sitting on the other side of his own table. He had to crane his neck to see around the giant centerpiece of calla lilies just to get a view of the room. Namjoon and the Jeons were nowhere in sight. After a few long, lonely minutes of sitting by himself and picking at his appetizers, an older woman came to claim the seat to his left.

“Good evening, Mrs. Park,” Seokjin said, standing and bowing while pulling out her chair. “I hope you’ve been well?”

“Excuse me?” Mrs. Park said, blinking up at Seokjin in confusion as she sat down. That was strange. Surely Mrs. Park recognized Chairman Kim’s youngest son. They had spoken many times before at events just like this one. Seokjin would even go so far as to say that Mrs. Park was fond of him. Did he have something on his face? A bit of food stuck in his teeth?

“Have you been well, Mrs. Park?” he tried again. “I believe the last time we met was at your granddaughter’s christening.”

“I’m sorry?”

Seokjin raised his voice, nearly shouting, “How are you doing, Mrs. Park?!”

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Seokjin-ah,” Mrs. Park’s face lit up as she nodded and pointed to her right ear. “This one doesn’t work so well. I’m afraid you’ll have to speak up, dear.”

Seokjin opened his mouth to repeat his greeting, but the guest sitting on Mrs. Park’s good side caught her attention and she turned away. Perfect. Just perfect. Here he was, the king of dinner parties, exiled to a distant table in the wilderness while his father and best friend were off somewhere in the civilized world, finalizing a major business deal. He had to admit that it stung. Seokjin had put a lot of effort into preparing for this dinner, but apparently Chairman Kim didn’t value his son’s social expertise as much as he thought. Frustration bubbled up in Seokjin’s chest and he felt a sudden, desperate need to act out.

“Holy motherforking shirt balls,” Seokjin said experimentally. Mrs. Park gave absolutely zero indication that she heard him. Maybe if he tried a little louder. “Ash-hole!”

“What are you doing?” An alarmed voice suddenly came from Seokjin’s other side. He turned to see a very young man sitting next to him. God only knows how long he had been there.

“Oh, you know,” Seokjin said, leaning back in his seat and unfurling his cloth napkin over his lap. “Just cursing at a little old lady. The usual.”

“Oh… right.” The kid stared at him for a moment and Seokjin could almost hear the wheels turning in his head as he tried to figure out whether Seokjin was joking or not. Then the guy’s blank stare collapsed and he smiled. It started with just the hint of a curl at the corner of his lips and a wrinkle of his nose, but that quickly blossomed into a full-blown grin, his eyes crinkling into happy crescents. He made a move to turn away and hide a giggle behind his hand, but Seokjin grabbed him by the forearm to hold him still.

“Jeon Jungkook?!” Seokjin gasped. He hadn’t recognized him at first, but once the kid started laughing, Seokjin would have remembered that bunny smile anywhere. “Is it really you? Do you remember me?”

“Yeah, of course I do, Seokjin-ssi,” Jungkook smiled and held out his hand to shake. “How long has it been? Five years?”

“Probably more like ten,” Seokjin said, trying to think back to when they’d last seen each other. It must have been while Seokjin was still in high school. He vaguely remembered going on a weekend ski trip to Hokkaido with the Jeons and their two sons, Junghyun and Jungkook. How old was Jungkook back then? Twelve? He had been an adorable kid. Big eyes, round cheeks, painfully shy.

Suddenly it occurred to Seokjin that this was the task his father had assigned to him for the Jeon merger: babysitting. He had been put at the kiddie table in the back of the room to keep the Jeons’ son entertained while the grownups got things done. But looking at Jungkook now, Seokjin realized he was being unfair. Jungkook might still have enormous doe eyes, but all of his sweet baby fat had melted away to reveal a fine bone structure and strong jawline. As they shook hands, Jungkook’s grip was strong and Seokjin started to feel a little offended on Jungkook’s behalf. How dare their parents treat him this way? Jeon Jungkook didn’t need a babysitter. He was a grown man now, damn it! He should be involved in the merger discussion. They both should.

“It’s really fantastic to see you, Jungkook-ssi,” Seokjin said, making a point to address him like he would any other business colleague. “What have you been up to all this time?”

“Not much,” Jungkook shrugged, taking a huge swig of water from the glass in front of him. “Mom and Dad shipped me off to L.A. for high school, then I came back here for university. I just graduated in February.”

“Congratulations!” Seokjin raised his tumbler of scotch in salute. “That’s not ‘not much,’ is it? What did you major in?”

Jungkook made a face, as if to say here we go , and took a deep breath. “Photography.”

“What’s wrong with photography?” Seokjin chuckled.

“You know,” Jungkook said, looking down at his lap where he was fidgeting with his napkin. “It’s not economics or engineering or whatever. I should be doing something that would contribute to JeonSoft somehow. Like how Junghyun is already running the marketing division. Photography is just art.”

Hearing that from the younger man struck a chord deep in Seokjin’s soul. Was he looking in a mirror? Or was it a time machine? Five years ago, he was right where Jungkook was now, feeling useless and inadequacy. Of course, Seokjin gave in to the pressure and took the job his father opened up for him at KSJ Industries. At the time he had rationalized it by telling himself that making his family proud would bring him fulfillment. He didn’t need to become an actor. That was an unrealistic dream, anyway. Joining the family business was The Right Thing To Do and he could always go back to filmmaking as a hobby later on after he established himself. But did it work? After everything he gave up, here he was: relegated to the kiddie table.

“Yah, Jeon Jungkook,” Seokjin said firmly so that Jungkook looked up to meet his eyes. “Seriously. There’s nothing wrong with photography. If your family gave you the freedom to study what you wanted in college, you were right to grab ahold of that opportunity.”

Jungkook stared at him silently, the warm light from the candles on the table glowing against his skin and making his wide eyes sparkle. For a moment, Seokjin lost his train of thought and started to worry that he was drastically overstepping his bounds. Why was he saying all of this now?

“I mean, I know your parents are really lovely people and they would never want to make you feel guilty. But your family and my family are similar in a lot of ways and I just… I think you should cherish your photography degree, Jungkook-ah. Work on your art. Don’t let them take that from you.”

Before Jungkook could respond, a waiter in a short white jacket appeared out of nowhere and reached in between them to fill their goblets with red wine. An awkward silence set in while they watched him pour and Seokjin was kicking himself. He hasn’t seen this guy since he was a little kid and the first thing he does is bombard him with unsolicited advice? As the waiter stepped away, Seokjin opened his mouth to apologize for being presumptuous, but then…

“So what did you major in, Seokjin-ssi?” Jungkook asked, half turning in his chair to look at Seokjin more directly.

“What? Oh, um…” Seokjin stammered. “Film, actually.”

“Cool!” Jungkook smiled warmly. “What was that like? It must have been crazy fun.”

“Yes, it was,” Seokjin said. With relief, he picked up his wine and took a long sip. He could feel his anxiety start to unwind. Maybe all of that stress and pressure he was constantly putting on himself to be perfect wasn’t needed right now. Maybe Jungkook had grown up to be a kind, understanding person. Maybe he could just be a friend. “It was crazy fun.”

“So did you, like, direct little movies and stuff?”

“Of course! They won’t even grant you a diploma unless you make at least three pretentious black-and-white short films.” Seokjin paused to take another sip of wine and saw that Jungkook was still leaning towards him, hanging on every word. “Oh, Jungkook-ssi, you would not believe how dumb my movies were. In my second year, I made a whole series of silent films based on visual puns.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, for instance, we did one called ‘The Fork in the Road,’ where my friend Jaehwan was the star,” Seokjin said. He was already starting to chuckle just from remembering how silly it had all been. “For the first ten minutes, we played it totally straight. Jae was a salaryman who lived a soulless, monotonous life. He walked the same path to work everyday. And then one day he’s crossing at the same corner as always and he looks down and sees a fork lying in the street. We cut to a dramatic close-up of Jae’s eyes. He drops his briefcase and turns and walks in the other direction, down the road that leads to the forest, away from the city. And that’s the end. The fork in the road.”

“Oh, man,” Jungkook covered his face to hide his toothy grin. “That’s amazing. That’s so… ”

“Genius?” Seokjin supplied. They were both laughing now and Seokjin didn’t even think to be embarrassed by the high-pitched, squeaky sound he was making. “Yeah, I thought it was pretty smart, too.”

“You know,” Jungkook said once he got his giggles under control, “you would have been a good actor, Seokjin-ssi.”

“Oh really?” Seokjin put down his wine glass, brought his hands up to frame his face like a flower, and gave Jungkook a wink. “You think so too, Jungkook-ssi? It would be a shame not to put this face in front of the cameras. Should I resign my position at KSJ?”

Usually when Seokjin made vain jokes like this, his mother would slap his arm and Namjoon would cringe. But Jungkook just kept smiling his bunny smile, nodding in agreement. “Totally. You should absolutely quit and move to L.A.”

The waiter in the white jacket was back again, this time leaning down to place their entrées on the table: Kobe steak, artfully garnished with a drizzle of dark sauce and some sort of bright green leafy thing. Seokjin wasn’t sure what that vegetable was, or if it was even edible, be could feel his mouth starting to water as the aroma of the beef wafted up to his nose. Forgetting where he was for a moment, he let out a long, loud sigh.

“Ah, but Jungkook-ssi,” he said, picking up his fork and knife, “if I had decided to become an actor, would I have the chance to eat beautiful food like this? What do you think? Did I make the right choice?”

Jungkook grinned and gestured towards the plate. “There’s only one way to find out.”

Without further ado, Seokjin sliced into the steak and cut out a generous chunk. He had to open his mouth comically wide to fit it inside and he could barely manage to chew it. He was practically choking, but he was in absolute heaven. It was amazing, an explosion of flavor.

“Mmmmmph!” Seokjin moaned around his mouthful. He turned to look at Jungkook, raising his eyebrows to silently communicate his joy and amazement.

“Is it good?” Jungkook laughed.

Nodding vigorously, Seokjin swallowed. “Yaaaaaaaah! Yes, it’s so good , Jungkook-ssi!”

Jungkook went to work on his own steak and soon he was humming his approval as well. The way his nose wrinkled as he chewed made him look even more like a rabbit than before. As their eyes met and a satisfied smile passed between them, Seokjin decided he was happy he was at the kiddie table. It was a blessing in disguise and he was going to enjoy it thoroughly. And with that thought in mind, he grabbed what was left of his red wine and downed it.

 

 

 

 

After dinner, the sun had set and it was a little cooler outside. Seokjin and Jungkook decided to go and check out the rooftop garden. It turned out to be huge, going on in all directions through bushes and trees like a maze. Eventually they found themselves at an artificial waterfall that emptied into a koi pond. They sat down on the edge of the pond, balancing their wine glasses on the stones, and Jungkook magically produced a whole cluster of grapes out of his suit jacket.

“Jungkook-ah!” Seokjin gasped. “Where did you get those?”

“I swiped them off the cheese plate in the living room,” he said, popping one grape into his mouth and dropping another into the pond. As they watched, an orange and white fish appeared and ate it. “Want one, hyung?”

“Absolutely, I do.”

They were in the middle of trying to throw grapes into each others’ mouths when they heard footsteps coming down the path. Namjoon appeared, looking sweating and slightly anxious, and Seokjin reflexively stood up. Somehow in his tipsy brain, he felt guilty. Sure, on the one hand he was still bitter about getting left out of the JeonSoft deal. But on the other hand, he felt like a little kid playing hooky from school and leaving his best friend to finish their group project all on his own. While Seokjin was off playing around and getting drunk with Jungkook, Namjoon was doing all the work.

“There you are, hyung!” Namjoon said as if he’d been searching for a long time.

“Hey, Joon,” Seokjin said, gesturing towards Jungkook with the half-empty glass of wine in his hand. “Look who I found! Do you remember Jeon Jungkook?”

“Um…” Namjoon clearly did not.

“Hey, man!” Jungkook said, standing up and brushing his palms off on his pants before holding out a hand to shake. “It’s alright, I was really little. But I remember you . You were gonna be a rapper. Did that ever happen?”

“Nice to meet you,” Namjoon said, then turned to Seokjin with a stony expression. “Have you been drinking?”

“Well, duh !” Seokjin said loudly. “Everyone’s drinking, Joon-ah. It’s a party.”

“No, I mean…”

“I don’t know what you expected me to do. You left me to die in a corner while you’re off doing fancy boss stuff,” Seokjin said, waggling his fingers for emphasis. He ignored the confused face Namjoon made in response. “I had a better time with Jungkookie, anyway.”

“It’s good the two of are getting along,” Namjoon said, but his expression was still troubled. “Hyung, there’s something…”

“Damn straight, we’re getting along!” Seokjin cut Namjoon off, hooking his arm around Jungkook’s shoulders and pulling him close. “He might even replace you as my best friend. Did you know we have a bunch of the same hobbies? We both like cooking food and eating food.”

“And we both work out at Pacific Gym!” Jungkook chimed in.

“But somehow we never saw each other there before!” Seokjin was practically shouting now, ignoring how obviously uncomfortable Namjoon was. “And you know what? I don’t even care that Jungkookie hasn’t seen The Matrix yet. Nobody’s perfect.”

“We can watch it together, hyung!”

“That’s right!”

“Oh my God, hyung,” Namjoon hissed. “Will you please just settle down for a minute? Get your shit together. Your parents are gonna find us any minute now and I think it’s best if you hear it from me.”

“Hear what?” Seokjin’s arm slipped off of Jungkook’s shoulders. He knew that tone in Namjoon’s voice and it always meant something bad. “Did everything go well with JeonSoft?”

“Well… that depends on you, hyung,” Namjoon said. His eyes were apologetic. “And on Jungkook-ssi.”

“Oh, fuck,” Seokjin said, feeling his buzz from the alcohol turn into nausea. Suddenly it all made sense: His mother fussing with his hair, making sure he looked perfect before going into the dining room. Being sat with Jungkook in a dark, candlelit corner, the city sparkling just outside the window. In retrospect, it was all such an obvious set up that Seojin couldn’t believe he didn’t see it coming. He had been so worked up about being left out of the deal that he didn’t realize what his role really was. His father’s words echoed in his mind: ‘Don’t worry. You’ll know what to do when the time comes.’

“Why? What? What’s going on?” Jungkook asked, eyes darting back and forth between Seokjin and Namjoon.

“It’s a seon , Jungkook,” Seokjin said. “They want us to get married.”

“What? Really? You and me?”

Looking at Jungkook, shocked and frozen like a deer in headlights, Seokjin realized that this was worse. This was much worse than being left out of the JeonSoft merger. It would have been better to be cast aside. Even if it meant his father considered him useless, at least Seokjin would have retained some measure of control over his own life. It was so much worse to know that his father thought of him as something he owned. Something that could be traded to make a business deal.

“I’m sorry, hyung,” Namjoon said.

They could already hear footsteps and voices coming towards them through the bushes. Seokjin glared at Namjoon. How long had he known about this? Did they tell him at dinner and he agreed to it? He just stood by and allowed his best friend to be sold? But there was no time to confront him about it because the Kims and Jeons had arrived.

“Seokjin-aaaaah,” his mother descended upon him, throwing her arms around him and standing on her tiptoes to rain kisses all over his face. “Did Namjoonie tell you already? Isn’t it marvelous?”

“I’m certainly marveling at how you could do this to me without even asking, eomma,” Seokjin said under his breath while his father and Mr. Jeon came forward to shake hands. Everyone was grinning and shouting and patting each other on the back in congratulations. Another white-jacketed waiter appeared out of nowhere and popped a bottle of champagne.

“But he’s adorable!” Mrs. Kim cooed, ignoring Seokjin to reach out her hand to Jungkook. “You’ll look so handsome together in the papers. Mrs. Park told me you two had a great time at dinner.”

Mrs. Park?! That traitor! Seokjin shook his head in disbelief, but that little bit of movement reminded him of just how much alcohol was in his bloodstream. If he puked into the koi pond, would anyone be offended?

“She said you’re both such prodigious eaters,” his mother continued, giving Seokjin an affectionate squeeze around the waist. “I’m so proud of you, sweetheart.”

“Gee thanks, eomma. We do our best… at eating?”

Seokjin looked over at Jungkook, trying to gauge his emotional state. The poor guy still stood frozen in place, holding Mrs. Jeon’s hand like a child getting dropped off at his first day of kindergarten. There was a vague, far away expression on his face, like he was too surprised to know what to think. Seokjin was reminded again of how cute Jungkook was as a little boy, so quiet and impressionable and obedient. If his parents asked him to do something, he would do it immediately, without question. Seokjin felt his heart implode in his chest as he thought about how much was being taken away from Jungkook right now. He had to save him from this somehow.

Seokjin brain was spinning, trying to come up with some sort of plan. What could he say or do to stop this whole mess in its tracks? Flutes of champagne were being passed around and he accepted one numbly, barely managing to mumble a thank you to the waiter. Once everyone was served, Seokjin’s father cleared his throat and raised a glass.

“I want to make a toast,” Chairman Kim proclaimed in a booming voice, pivoting slowly so that he could look each person in the eyes as he spoke. “To two families who have stayed by each others’ sides for over thirty years, now joined together at last. To Seokjin and Jungkook, may your marriage be long and happy.”

“Geonbae!” everyone exclaimed and tipped back their glasses.

Mr. Jeon made a move like he was about to step forward and give another toast, but Seokjin couldn’t hold back anymore. Looking straight at his father, he spoke up and said, “Our marriage , abeoji? Don’t you mean our merger ?”

There was an uncomfortable moment of silence and he could feel his mother’s perfectly manicured nails digging into his forearm. His father’s eyes flashed with irritation, but he kept smiling as he responded calmly, “I still remember the day I became engaged to Insook-ah like it was yesterday. I’ll even admit that I was scared…”

“How romantic!” Seokjin scoffed, taking another gulp of champagne. He could feel it all collapsing in on him. His whole life spent trying to make his parents proud and it all came down to this: Seokjin, drunk and desperate, making a scene at a dinner party.

“Yes, it was romantic,” Chairman Kim’s posture shifted slightly. Superficially he stayed cool, but Seokjin knew from decades of experience that his father was boiling inside. “It’s a shame your generation doesn’t understand just how romantic an arranged marriage can be. Trust in your family. Respect our wishes and you will be rewarded with true love. We’re giving you a beautiful gift, Seokjin-ah. You only need the courage and wisdom to accept it.”

There was nothing clever to say to that, Seokjin realized. Anything he could come up with now, in this sloppy and emotional state, would be a mistake. The celebratory mood had deflated and everyone was already trying to find a way to escape the situation. The poor Jeons looked mortified. Jungkook was literally hiding behind Seokjin’s back, as if he thought no one would see him standing there. It was a lost cause. Better to let his father win for now, Seokjin decided.

“Oh, I just remembered,” his mother said in a bright voice, “Mrs. Kang had a cake made for us! Isn’t that lovely, honey?”

That broke the tension. Everyone started exclaiming about how considerate and kind Mrs. Kang was and how a piece of cake would hit the spot right about now and it was too humid to be outside, anyway. As they all headed back indoors, Namjoon and Seokjin lingered. Jungkook noticed and paused a moment to wait for them, a look of concern on his face.

“Go on, Jungkook-ah,” Seokjin reassured him, “We’ll be right behind you.”

Then they were alone with only the sound of the waterfall behind them to break the silence. Seokjin realized he was still holding his champagne flute, but the thought of drinking anything else made him feel ill. He dumped it out into the bushes.

“Hyung…” Namjoon said tentatively, “are you alright?”

“No, I’m not.”

“I’m so sorry, hyung. They told me about it at dinner and I didn’t know what to do. The deal was already done and they had decided it already. I mean, it kinda seemed like they’d be planning this for a while. Like… for years , maybe.”

“It’s not your fault, Joon.”

“So what happens now?”

Seokjin considered it for a moment. There had to be a way to stop the engagement from going forward. Surely he and Jungkook couldn’t be forced into this, no matter how determined their parents might be. He had never truly defied his father before and he wasn’t sure what the Chairman would do, but Seokjin knew he couldn’t back down from this fight.

“I’m going to refuse,” he said.

“Huh,” Namjoon nodded, chewing on his bottom lip.

“Are you worried about what will happen to the JeonSoft deal?”

“What? No!” Namjoon spluttered, then seemed to crumple with guilt. “I mean… I have to at least think about it. It’s my job. But this is your life, hyung. I’ll support you no matter what you decide to do.”

Seokjin snorted. “Even if my decision means that the deal falls through and we all lose millions of dollars and my family disowns me?”

“It might not happen that way. What if you just give it a shot with Jungkook first?”

“Really, Joon?!” Seokjin walked a few paces away, hands on his hips. He knew he was taking a risky stance by opposing his parents, but there was no denying it stung to hear those words from his best friend. Kim Namjoon was perhaps the most reasonable, intelligent person Seokjin knew. If he was questioning Seokjin’s choices, then maybe he really was in the wrong.

“Alright,” he said. “You go ahead and smooth things over with JeonSoft. I get it. That’s your job. That’s your future on the line.”

“Seokjin…”

“No, it’s fine. I want you to be successful. But you’re going to have to figure out how to get it done without the arranged marriage. It’s a ridiculous, cruel way to do business and I’m not going to let them treat Jungkook and me like their pawns.”

Namjoon slumped and looked down at his feet for a moment. Seokjin worried his was being too harsh, but then his friend look up again and his expression was full of resolve, his jaw clenched. “Okay, hyung. Just let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”

“Thank you, I will.”

“Good luck.”

“Good luck to you, too.”

And with that, Seokjin turned on his heel and walked back inside to face his family, leaving Namjoon standing alone by the waterfall.