From Seokjin's view at the top of the stairs, the reception room below blooms like a tropical hothouse. Jewels wink like shining insects; parrot-bright colours swoop in and out among the pillars of sombre black and blue; the twit and trill of chatter hops about glossy peaks of hair. Seokjin runs a finger around his collar and breathes in the conmingling of a hundred different perfumes and dishes and flowers. His head sizzles as he breathes out. Yoongi laughs at the way his hands tighten on the banister.
"Scared?" He gleams up at Seokjin, playful but not a step beyond teasing. Seokjin takes the light punch aimed at his upper arm without a word of complaint.
"As much as ever." Leaning further across the balastrade, Seokjin watches the procession of costly dresses and elegant champagne flutes swirl around the reception room to a graceful measure. It's not the first social function he's been to in the last year, not even the biggest, but it's certainly the most impressive. When Yoongi's reclusive family open their doors, they do it with the consummate elegance of royalty. Only the cream of society are invited, and even those favoured few are tremulously aware of the rarity of the event. Compared to the other parties Seokjin's accompanied Yoongi to, where there were more guests and no sense of being invited to glimpse past the veil, this gathering has an atmosphere he's never encountered before. It hums lightly above the heads of the attendees, a sort of diffuse light touching each of them from the amber glow of the chandeliers and the rich reddish tints in the woodwork. It's otherworldly. It's like they've been invited into a fairy palace.
At his side Yoongi looks every inch the prince of this realm. He's still small and slender, but the slow burgeoning of his vital instincts has brought a new colour to his cheeks, a vibrance to his eyes which were so dead when Seokjin had first met him. If he manages himself correctly he can make anyone watching forget about his size. His new self-possession, the upright posture of his spine and the jut of his chin, chime perfectly with his immaculate black suit and grey brocaded dress coat. Yoongi had certainly matured in the last year but he retains a flair for the dramatic which keeps his temper just on the interesting side.
Seokjin himself has been out of the black suit for long enough that his collar is chafing after only ten minutes. He tugs at it again, sends down a sideways glare when Yoongi pinches him hard on the waist. "Stop fidgeting. Everyone will think you have fleas."
"I'm fine," he protests - and he is, he's spent over a year now in this sort of company, dealing with every attitude from imperious to dismissive to repulsed, and if that hadn't shorn up his self assurance he'd have been condemned for life. But he's not going into this company as a servant to be looked down on. This time he's entering in Yoongi's company, at his side and dressed with equal care, because Yoongi had insisted so, had refused to show up at one more function if Seokjin had to trail around behind him with, 'that disgusting looking ear piece'.
Seokjin isn't sure what makes him more nervous: the idea of entering the party down below as an equal, or the fact that Yoongi had been the one to insist on it.
They've both come a long way. The last year has been a beautiful process of learning and growing, and while Seokjin can do his job now with far less obstruction, and Yoongi has finally found a way to live without sinking into stupor, there are still bridges they've not had time to cross. It was a milestone when Yoongi allowed for the first time that Seokjin might be more to him than an employee. For over a year Seokjin has brought Yoongi his breakfast, nursed him through illness, even chastised him when he misbehaved - and they talk now, more than Seokjin would ever had thought possible in that first miserable week. That Yoongi had anything to talk about beyond petty complaints - and that he would ever value Seokjin's replies - he wouldn't ever have predicted. These days when they stay up until three am it's usually because neither of them have noticed the time. Still, a distance remains. Seokjin can't complain about it, because it does respect the propriety demanded by their relevant positions. That doesn't mean he doesn't harbour hopes of bypassing it, someday.
Those hopes looked like they might be fulfilled when this function was announced. The message had been delivered in the usual way: Min Senior's secretary, always with a thin spindle of drool sliding from one side of his cracked mouth, hands over an envelope to Seokjin and disappear from the dim passage where he'd come. Seokjin hands the letter on to Yoongi and waits to see his reaction. He's seen just about every expression of contempt Yoongi can muster for his parents' wishes, from tearing the paper into small pieces and spitting on them, to turning over in bed and going directly back to sleep.
He'd never seen Yoongi just limply let the letter drift to the sheets. When Yoongi asked him to read it himself, his sudden white-cheeked look of resignation made sense. The upcoming function sounded terrifying, and he wasn't the one who was going to be 'presented' at it.
So he's there, at Yoongi's request. Partly, he knows he is responsible for Yoongi's transformation into such a reasonable, near-stable young man that his father had considered him finally worthy of presentation. Partly - mostly - he's there out of genuine sympathy for Yoongi. Seokjin had been nervous enough about taking the stage at his graduation ceremony, one in a long line of identically dressed and broad-shouldered young men. Being alone on the enormous platform at the far end of the reception room, with every twinkling eye tweezing off parts of you for judgement - he understands the uncharacteristic quaver of Yoongi's voice when he asked for Seokjin to come with him.
And he understands this now as well: the semi-conscious way Yoongi's fingers worry into his side, and the quirk of his mouth as he chews at the inside of his lip. Seokjin's nervous but he's nowhere near as nervous as Yoongi, so he submits to being prodded at and tries to smile his most reassuring smile back. It seems to work; Yoongi drops the invasive fingers and stands still, toes cocked inwards, looking down on the crowded floor like he's listening for something.
"I guess we should get down there and start mingling."
"It's about time," someone says from behind them. It's Hobeom, particular and dark as always with the comb tracks embedded in his slicked back hair. He gives Seokjin's own loose fringe a once over, clicks his tongue disapprovingly, but the sight of Yoongi so active and out of his bedroom is far more interesting than Seokjin's mop of hair. "You look well, Master Yoongi."
Despite the remove of his words there's real warmth in his tone. Seokjin watches Yoongi roll his eyes and shove at Hobeom's arm, and it's an effort to stop his jaw from dropping. "Where have you been old man? Not seen you since that time at the shopping centre."
"When I had to explain to the city police why a grown man was having a mental breakdown in the centre of the main court? I apologise if I wasn't clamouring to see you again after that."
"What happened to that guy?"
Hobeom fixes Yoongi with a sharp glare. "He took early retirement. Moved to the country with his wife and children. I won't expect you to express remorse." Yoongi folds his lips, looks cheeky.
"You mean the guy who had my job before me?" Seokjin's having trouble keeping up; he'd certainly had no idea during his initial interviews that Hobeom had ever been so closely involved in Yoongi's personal security - although, looking back, he probably should have guessed.
"I've been meaning to congratulate you for a while. You've taken a very tedious job off my perennial to-do list by sticking around."
"Hiring Jin was probably the smartest thing you've done in your life," Yoongi says, smirking and dodging away as Hobeom's hand lifts, as if by instinct, into the air by his ear. Seokjin chokes on a breath which he's still struggling to regain as Hobeom turns them by their elbows and directs them gently but firmly towards the stairs.
"You'd better make me proud tonight," he says, and Seokjin doesn't know if he's speaking to him or Yoongi. Yoongi turns, blows a kiss over his shoulder and cackles.
"Old Hobeom. Always good for a laugh. I was pretty horrible to him last time we spoke but I've missed him."
Seokjin turns just in time to see that crabby awkwardness shade Yoongi's cheeks, the way it still does whenever he admits to feeling anything beyond ennui and spite. It's one habit that will take a long time to break. He lets Yoongi gather his composure before he presses. "He's always hired your guards, then?"
"Yeah. Well, he's head of security, it's his job, but he always took it extra seriously. Especially after that one guy who - you know." Yoongi shivers a little as they descend the staircase; it's either that or the crush of the crowd that presses him up into Seokjin's side, until he can feel Yoongi's elbow against his hip. "He'd usually come and check up on them all the time but he never did with you. I thought it was just because I called him so many names last time we spoke. Maybe he didn't think you needed checking up on."
Seokjin recalls the few conversations he'd had with Hobeom since taking the post: the silent challenges, the subtle hints of how easy it would be to quit; the peculiar, almost excited gleam in Hobeom's eyes when he'd determined to stick around. He'd wanted a mentor so badly, at the beginning, had hated feeling abandoned to the whims of this horribly over-indulged little rich boy, but once Hobeom had registered his distance that had turned into a single minded determination that verged on bloodymindedness. He had fought his way through the dense brambles of Yoongi's personality with nothing but his own strength to sustain him, reufsing to be scared off or driven away. And the result had been this: Yoongi trotting at his side, making easy conversation even while his gaze slid around the crowd, measuring and judging and always ready to share his observations with Seokjin. He'd worked and pushed and stood in silence and after a year, they are here: somewhere beyond employee and employer, beyond master and servant. The way Yoongi fixes his fingers into the crook of Seokjin's elbow and tugs him in the direction of the buffet says 'friend'.
They load up two plates: Yoongi pokes fun at how wide Seokjin's eyes go when he looks over the range and quality of the food on offer; Seokjin laughs back and shows Yoongi how he can clasp his fingers around one upper arm.
"You need to eat more. Have another piece of pork belly."
"Like you need to get meatier." Yoongi pulls at a glass of champagne and Seokjin's so busy laughing at the face he makes when the bubbles shoot the wrong way up his nose that neither of them notice the approach of Min Senior.
"Are you boys having fun?" With his round glasses and shiny dark suit, he looks like an inquisitive elderly turtle. Seokjin would start laughing again if he didn't notice the way Yoongi's drawn himself in and pulled stiff. He's never seen Yoongi with his parents before; at previous functions they'd always pulled him off to one side, and Seokjin, still restricted in his role as a servant, had kept discreetly in the shadows despite his hunger to eavesdrop. Now Min Senior's watery eyes are swimming between them as if he can't quite remember which of them sprung from his loins.
"The food is excellent," Seokjin says, just to cover up the awkward silence. Embarrassing as it is, it's worth it for the way Yoongi's shoulders drop again and he shakes his head.
"We could have Park Geun-hye here and all you'd care about would be how much steak you could get in your mouth before you had to drink a toast to her."
Maybe it's the acidic bite of Yoongi's voice that rings a bell; his father's eyebrows come together in a tiny 'aha!' moment and he fixes his eyes on his son triumphantly. "Yoongi, don't tease our guests like that. I'm pleased to hear our hospitality is appreciated." He creaks to a halt there, like he's waiting for someone to put coins in a slot. From behind, slicing like a shark through the swathes of people, comes Hobeom's razor-sharp collar; he leans into Min Senior's ear and mutters something. The old man jolts back to life. "Seokjin."
Seokjin blinks rapidly between the absently hospitable eyes behind the glasses and the barely repressed hilarity on Yoongi's face, and then settles somewhere over one bowed down shoulder at Hobeom, resting his forehead in his palm. "I'm - it's a pleasure, sir," he stutters. Yoongi turns back to the buffet table and bends over a salad bowl, catching his breath in harsh gasps.
"It's nice for my son to have someone here his own age," Min Senior continues, nodding amiably now he thinks he's figured out who Seokjin is. "These functions can be a little dry for young people. I recall when I was your age - "
Whether it's the desperate look from Seokjin or the wild snort from Yoongi, Hobeom coughs against his shirt cuff and taps the old man on the shoulder. "Excuse me sir, Seo Jung-Jin has arrived."
The swimming gaze dims away from Seokjin. He lets himself breathe, edges to one side so he can gently crush Yoongi's foot under his own. "Excellent. Well, you boys enjoy the rest of the evening. Yoongi, Hobeom will give you your instructions when it's time. You will make me proud. And Seokjin, do tell your father I'm looking forward to hearing of the new improvements on data blocking, it's been rather a fraught few months for - yes yes, I'm on my way." The crisp noise Min Senior makes in the back of his throat as Hobeom urges him away is pure Yoongi, plus fifty years and a great many lessons in patience. Seokjin looks down at Yoongi's watering eyes and bitten down bottom lip and he doesn't quite know what to say first.
"Who does he think I am?"
"I have no idea." It's not terribly dignified to have Yoongi howling with laughter like that, but once he's done the nerves have been jostled out of him and he stands far more easily at Seokjin's side. "Hey, you might be the least wealthy person in this room, but you probably have the best grip on reality." A quick pause, a skimming over of Seokjin's suited figure, standing out sturdy and large among the delicacy surrounding them. "You're definitely the best looking as well."
Seokjin's eyebrows fly up at Yoongi's turned-away shoulder. He's perfectly at ease when he turns back, cocking his head to one side as he layers another thick slice of pork onto Seokjin's plate. Seokjin foregoes whatever he was going to say to keep that relaxed expression in place, and diverts his attention to his plate instead. "I hope I at least wear my suits less clumsily."
"Yep. And this one's way more flattering than the undertaker get up." Fingering at the hem of Seokjin's dove coloured waistcoat, Yoongi's intent eyes suggest he's studying the cut of the outfit he'd personally overseen, making sure every stitch is where he'd dictated. If it were just the two of them, Seokjin might call attention to the light pink flush on the rims of Yoongi's ears. Instead he cuts his eyes across the table to the ornate metalwork clock and lets Yoongi twitch his buttons straight. "What's the time?"
"Fifteen minutes to."
The build up for the big moment is beginning. With glasses in hand, floor-length skirts swirl and shining toecaps click across to one side of the hall, and the lights across the raised platform dim to molten gold. Piercing through the crowd again, Hobeom's shining head appears, cutting a path straight for them. Yoongi twists away from his approach, using Seokjin's chest as a shield. In his year of employment, Seokjin's seen nearly every shade of refusal from Yoongi: fuming muteness, furious projectiles, floods of almost poetic obscenities, even flailing tantrums which would put a toddler to shame. This is the first time he almost misses it. With hair falling across his cheeks and his gaze turned to the floor, Yoongi speaks right against the soft fabric of Seokjin's waistcoat: "I don't want to do this."
Hobeom spots them, slips gracefully past an elderly woman in a lilac dress, raises his hand to the two of them. Seokjin sucks in a breath, feeling the tremors in Yoongi's outwardly steady frame through the palm of his hand. He presses his fingers into the bones of his shoulder and leans down. "It's going to be okay. You've got this."
"I mean, I don't want to do this." He jerks his head up and Seokjin feels a twist near his stomach where Yoongi's screwed a fist into the front of his clothes. White-knuckled and damp about the eyes, he looks as terrified as the night when he'd thought he was dying. "All these people - this society, Jin. I don't want to join it. I don't want to be like my parents."
Over his shoulder, Seokjin locks eyes with Hobeom. He halts a few steps away from them, looks from the visible tufts of Yoongi's hair to Seokjin's curled over torso. His locked safe of a face creaks open, just an inch, and Seokjin thinks the way his mouth twists is the closest he can get to expressing affection. Then, with a brief nod, he melts back into the crowd.
"You don't need to be like them. It's just - "
"You know that's not true." It's quick and fierce, but not angry, and Yoongi tugs at the front of Seokjin's shirt, imploring him to listen. "You know once I do this they'll want me to go to all sorts of things. Get involved in the business. Maybe even get married, like my brother. It's not fair. They didn't care before and now they think I'm useful, they'll try to take over everything. I don't want to be like that. I don't want to - "
He takes one savage breath in, glaring up, and all Seokjin can think about is how much in his eyes has changed. Back on that first day, when Yoongi looked half-dead, when all his face expressed was scorn or boredom, and Seokjin had tried so hard to lock himself up in his dark suit, and neither of them had really understood. Seokjin knows now that Yoongi was watching him far more closely than he was Yoongi; he's seen the secretly snapped pictures, been snowed in by the most trivial of questions about his life which Yoongi's sheltered mind had spun wild stories about. He wonders how he never saw that, how Yoongi's eyes only ever seemed like zeroes to him: round, blank, malevolently empty.
Today they're wide open and piercing, deep brown catching the golden light of their surroundings, and they're as full as the window beyond. There's a future there, newborn and in need of protection. Everything behind Seokjin is dusty and predictable and all that is beyond the wide window sprawls, peacefu and inviting. Yoongi tilts his face towards it and looks back to Seokjin, begging his understanding.
Seokjin's hands close over Yoongi's fist full of cloth. "I can't do anything about your parents. You know that. But I'll keep doing what I'm here to do."
There's the talks that last for hours, and books to be finished, and the garden always waiting for them to breathe in and feel the pulse of the sustaining earth. There's infinitely more beyond the carved poise of the reception room and their choking collars. Seokjin doesn't think in poetic terms often, but as Yoongi clutches his hands it occurs to him that he was employed to protect a life, and ended up rescuing it. He doesn't dress like an undertaker any more. He won't be responsible for burying anything again.
The clock ticks towards seven, and Hobeom glides just as silently out of the crowd and takes Seokjin's elbow. If he notices their clasped hands, he doesn't show it. "It's time."
Their palms press together one more time and Seokjin watches Yoongi ascend the steps of the platform, watches everyone grow silent and turn towards him, watches his father and mother at the other side of the room hold their heads at angles of polite interest as he begins to speak. It's not the Yoongi he knows, spitting bile or lacing together delicate webs of untruths or slinging insults casually like he has unlimited ammunition; the boy on the stage is as put together as the clock on the wall, mechanical and unfaltering. But all the self-possession in the world couldn't erase the wicked glint of Yoongi's eyes when he catches Seokjin staring up from the expanse of bobbing heads.
He finishes his speech with a stiff little bow, but he's not quite out of reach of the microphone when he starts laughing. The sound of Seokjin's big hands clapping together ricochets off the high ceiling. Crystal glasses shiver, diamond earrings chink, and only Hobeom's broad back covers the two of them as they slip away, flushed and giddy, from the clamour of the hothouse, to the cool peace of the garden.