r, 5061 words, au, non-chronological order
there were some things that they were not supposed to touch. namely, each other.
a very, very belated gift for rodiy who is lovely and patient and deserves a lot of sihan in her life.
The player has a sixteen, and he takes a chance on a third.
It turns out to be an eight of spades.
"Bust," says the dealer.
Nobody gives the player a second look when he leaves the casino two hours later, half his savings now in the possession of Signet Resorts.
In this world, seven million won might easily be seven thousand.
The night continues to ebb around the shining lights of the casino.
Hangeng wishes he could have a smoke, but he never lights up inside the car out of consideration to his non-smoking chauffeur. Too many people die from passive smoking. Hangeng has long since decided that he doesn't need that kind of blood on his hands.
His car door is opened by the valet the moment his car draws up before the Sheraton. The concierge greets him by name. It's all just vanity, Hangeng thinks, but he would be the last person to deny enjoying the obsequiousness.
It takes him a couple of minutes to reach the presidential suite on the forty-sixth floor. His personal assistant messages him to ask if he would like to call for Lily's company; he sends back a negative. He wants to be alone.
He lights up, finally, finally, when he's out on the balcony overlooking the lights of Shanghai. The wind is strong up there, but when it stops it's too hot. He eases himself onto a balcony chair, watches the cigarette smoke curl in the air, feels with pleasure the nicotine working into his system.
Tomorrow afternoon he'll be headed back to Seoul.
He thinks he deserves a few slow smokes before that.
The text comes in at four twenty in the morning, ten minutes after he has discarded the empty cigarette pack and climbed into bed.
It only contains one line in pixilated black, full spelling, punctuated. We have to talk about something. See you tomorrow night, 8pm at the usual place.
Hangeng considers replying, but ends up throwing the phone halfway across the king-sized bed instead. It lands with a soft thump somewhere in the folds of the quilt. He turns his face into the pillow.
He thinks, briefly and then deeply, of the weight of another body beside him. Of getting away. Of ending up staying like this, beneath the covers, tumbled and warm. Of getting away, still.
He tries to sleep, but one hour later he's watching the first grey, smog-covered morning light making its way through the buildings of Shanghai's financial district.
What he remembers is this:
They had been twenty-six and twenty-nine then, standing six feet away from each other at an international Hotels and Casinos conference at Millennium Seoul Hilton. Hangeng, jetlagged from flying in from London just that morning, had been on his third shot of vodka when a waitress dropped a glass of wine onto Choi Siwon's tailored black pants.
Hangeng retreated behind a potted plant and watched as the pandemonium raged in front of him. The girl would get fired, he thought, no hope of keeping her job after this. She was crying now, apologizing so many times that her apologies were beginning to run together, and Hangeng felt a flicker of sympathy for her. It had to be hard.
Then Choi Siwon told her to stop crying, any harm done to his pants could easily be fixed. He turned to his personal assistant, instructed him to fetch a new pair of pants from home, and convinced the supervisor to keep the girl on staff. All within ten minutes, and with so much charm that the situation actually calmed down.
Hangeng was impressed even through his jetlag.
It wasn't, of course, the first time that they'd met; they had been acquaintances, on and off, disinterestedly, for the past four years. Big social and business events always meant running into each other, shaking hands and exchanging a few generic pleasantries. Siwon could speak only a little Mandarin, stilted and terribly off on all the tones, but Hangeng's Korean was up to the task of smoothing the awkward language barrier. They knew of each other, Choi Siwon of the family-run multi-million dollar chain of Signet Resorts and Casinos, and Hangeng of the regional chain of the rivaling Tang Hotels, both third-generation heirs, and so they were professional and brief with their conversation and Hangeng had never bothered to notice much of Siwon beyond what he had to for politeness' sake.
After all, he'd always hated mixing around with the other rich kids in his schools and universities, all snobbish and spoilt and arrogant, and there was no reason why being the president of one of Asia's top hotel chains was going to make Choi Siwon any less snobbish, spoilt or arrogant than the bored rich kids from shipping magnate families and media conglomerate families and huge banking families. Hangeng didn't have any particular desire to add one more brat to his list.
Now, though, he watched Siwon as he threw back another mouthful of vodka. Felt the familiar, welcome burn in his system as Siwon turned towards him and their eyes flicked across each other's in a mutual gaze.
He's back in Seoul by the evening, six o' clock with the glare of the setting sun cutting into his eyes. He has two hours.
He taps his fingers on the smooth leather of the Jaguar backseat, watches the street lamps and lighted shops and offices of Seoul flashing by. One Asian city is much like the other, he thinks. Always the tall buildings, the white lights, the multi-coloured signboards, the people brisk walking down the pavements.
He remembers looking down at Seoul from sixty floors up, misting the French windows, watching the lights blurring together with the night sky. Capture your breath, blow it out slowly between your teeth. Don't let your knees shake. He doesn't realize he's clenching his fists until he looks down to see his jacket material crumpled between his fingers.
A wash first, he thinks, a hot shower at full blast and then a glass of champagne, or perhaps I've been having too much alcohol, so a glass of orange juice instead?
The car passes by Signet Hotel Seoul and he tips his head back to look up the vast building, the huge SIGNET written across the façade with the words illuminated in bright white light. No purple or yellow or blue for Signet, Siwon had told him once. White has always done the job.
Hangeng wasn't sure if that was intended as a slight dig at the blue logo of Tang Hotels. Siwon never does anything that isn't pre-meditated. It is one of the things that Hangeng finds intensely annoying about him.
Half an hour later, he has forgotten the reminder of his annoyance. He's looking at himself in the bathroom mirror, studying the effect of the Shanghai smog on his skin. They'll be gone soon, he thinks, running his finger lightly over the smattering of tiny pimples near his left ear.
Just before he leaves, he reaches out for the bottle of Armani cologne that Siwon particularly likes.
The next memory Hangeng allows himself to have of Siwon is this:
They had been in the boardroom for over three hours, and there were coffee stains on Hangeng's coaster. The yellow, drawling evening light threw half of Siwon's face into shadow. It made Hangeng think of Jekyll and Hyde.
He found few traces of the Choi Siwon who'd had a cocktail with him the night of the soiled pants incident and joked about the state of the Korean economy. Even less of the Siwon who'd met him for dinner the following week to lend him a book about the Gurkhas that they had spent an hour discussing. He knew that it was only to be expected; after all, the situation that they were currently in bore no resemblance to the relaxed social chitchat of the previous two occasions, but he couldn't avoid a sneaky little disappointment, a throwing off of balance.
"I'm sure you'll agree that our offer is fair," Siwon was saying. "We'll buy the shares at any price you state, as long as it's within reason, and we'll retain some of your staff."
Hangeng looked at the wrinkles deepening on his father's forehead. Felt a touch of his rage.
Fifteen minutes later, he walked Siwon and his managing director, Kim Kibum, to the lift lobby. Kim Kibum studied the wall and Hangeng knew that he was evaluating the quality of the marble; struggled not to hate him for it.
"I hope to hear from you again soon, Hankyung-sshi," Siwon said, perfect smile in place, the picture of professionalism.
"The president never takes long to make his decisions," Hangeng replied, matching his smile. "Thank you for taking the time out to meet us today, Siwon-sshi."
Siwon shook his hand, looked at him intently for a moment, and then went into the elevator.
When he walked back into his father's office, he found him sitting at the desk staring out of the window.
"I cannot believe that young punk is trying to buy me out," his father said in their native Hei Long Jiang dialect. "Who the hell does he think he is, waltzing in here with that baby director of his telling me that it's in our interests to sell our Korean hotels to them?"
"They thought we'd be only too happy to sell," Hangeng said.
"Well, we're not," his father snapped. "And if he comes sniffing around here again, you can tell him where to go."
Hangeng left his office and went on a walk around the hotel. The casino was half-full, jackpots ringing, blackjack tables empty, security guards standing around watching a tame crowd. Down in the lobby, the café was advertising a three-hour high tea special with pictures of an assortment of cakes; to the left, the bar was advertising an extension of Happy Hour specials on weekday evenings. He stopped to have a drink.
"How's business today?" he asked the bartender whom they'd brought in from Beijing and who had handed in his resignation letter two weeks ago for 'personal reasons', avoiding the open secret that he'd been offered a managerial position for Citrus Bar at Park Hyatt Seoul.
"Slow," was his reply.
Hangeng looked at the bustling hotel lobby. An Emirates crew was checking in; a bellhop was wheeling an overloaded trolley towards the lift lobby. This was where he had grown up. This was what he had been groomed all his life to take over. This was why his grandfather had worked sixteen hours a day, six days a week for forty years, before he'd finally succumbed to heart disease.
He thought of Siwon's face when he'd laid open his proposition on the boardroom table. Thought of the absolute impudence and confidence that had looked out from his eyes. Siwon had taken over the helm of Signet Resorts and Casinos three years ago and had already won a lapful of awards from business magazines all over the world for his acumen and success. None of Siwon's decisions had yet gone wrong. In the world of hoteliers, Siwon was a breath away from the top.
But there were, still, some things that Choi Siwon should not touch.
During the sixty-floor elevator ride up the shafts of Signet Resorts Seoul, he checks his watch. It points to 7:50. He's ten minutes early.
Seoul is slightly blurred tonight, reddish through a light mist of rain that turns into fog in the distance. Hangeng observes it a few minutes through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the club; he almost feels as though he's back in Sheraton Shanghai again. One hotel is so much like another.
"Not very cheerful," he remarks to the waiter standing behind him, gesturing to blurred Seoul, and the waiter smiles and dips his head in agreement.
There's the familiar smell of cigarette smoke in the air, the clinking of glasses amid laughter, chitchat covered by the electric guitars of the live band. The place is only half-crowded now, little clusters of executives in pressed power suits standing around high tables sipping cocktails and champagne, and Hangeng knows that one hour later the club will be packed. It always is. Polaris is the treasured baby of Choi Siwon's creations, one of the triumphs of his rule.
He turns away from the dismal city and walks to the private room that he knows was specially constructed for Siwon. It isn't too flashy, nor even too luxurious, but as Hangeng sinks into the huge grey couch and looks up at the glowing red lamps, he thinks, that bastard always knows how to have a good time.
He has just ordered a Bailey's when the door opens and Siwon walks in, jacket unbuttoned, tie hanging loosely off his collar. Hangeng lights a cigarette and blows smoke through his teeth, watching him.
"How was Shanghai?" Siwon asks, smiling. Hangeng imagines working the tip of his finger into that dimple.
"I didn't want to come back," he says.
Siwon laughs, lets the door slide close behind him. "I'm sure."
It's him who initiates the first kiss; tastes the flavour of Siwon's mouth, mint and faint smoke. Runs his fingers into the warmth just under the stiffness of Siwon's collar.
"Tell me I'll be going back home tonight," he says when they draw apart. "I'll be sleeping in my own bed, alone, and I'll wake up tomorrow morning and make myself some tea, alone."
Siwon half-grins. "Nobody's stopping you."
Hangeng pretends to consider, pursing his lips as he looks beyond Siwon's face to the blackness outside the window. "Too much trouble going down the sixty floors."
"You'll have to drive yourself home too," Siwon says.
"What do you think, Siwon-sshi?"
"I think," Siwon says, leaning forward to press kisses along his jaw line, "your Korean has gotten even worse during your stay in Shanghai. You'd better stay here among Korean people and get back your fluency."
"Not that I really need it anymore," Hangeng says soberly, and doesn't miss the flicker in Siwon's eyes. He knows he has made a mistake. Violated the rules. He pulls Siwon's head down before they can say anything else.
Later, with his mouth fastened on the skin between Siwon's neck and shoulder, Siwon says softly into his ear, "Why are you still here then, Hankyung-sshi?"
But Hangeng knows he doesn't have to answer. At least not now.
Forty minutes later he's blowing his breath out onto the windows, misting the glass. There are raindrops on the exterior.
He runs his finger over the mist, draws an opaque heart. Rubs it out the next moment.
"Aren't you afraid that someone might see you standing there in nothing at all?" Siwon asks from the couch. He's already half-dressed, fastening the button at the band of his pants. He doesn't like remaining naked after sex. Something about being vulnerable, Hangeng remembers. Siwon likes being in control.
"I don't see why you should be concerned about it now," he says. "Seeing as you've fucked me here before."
Siwon laughs, takes a sip of Hangeng's Bailey's. "You have a point."
Hangeng pulls on his pants anyway. Pauses a moment before working his arms through the sleeves of his shirt.
"The thing I wanted to talk to you about," Siwon begins when Hangeng settles himself into a beanbag beside the couch. "A tabloid journalist picked up a story on us last week. My CorpComms people have taken care of it, but according to the director, they'd intended to spin it out into a headliner."
"Yeah?" Hangeng says.
Siwon looks at him curiously. "You aren't bothered by it?"
"Of course I am. But you say that you've already taken care of it, so why should I waste energy in panicking?"
"The thing is," says Siwon, "when one picks it up, another is bound to follow."
"So what are you saying?"
"I'm saying that sooner or later it'll come out."
"Maybe I should go back to China for good," Hangeng says. He meets Siwon's eyes unsmilingly. "I have business there, anyway. I don't in Korea."
"Well," says Siwon, "maybe you should. Except that China has its own paparazzi."
"But there wouldn't be anything for them to paparazzi me about." Hangeng leaves the top three buttons on his shirt undone. "I'm perfectly respectable in Beijing."
"So you don't think that the paparazzi can cross borders."
Hangeng stretches himself out. "What are you so worried about, Siwon-sshi?"
There's a long silence, and when Hangeng finally looks up, Siwon's staring into his glass with a wrinkle between his brows that he knows signals heavy thinking.
"I'm not worried," he says at last. "Anyway, plenty of time to think about it later." Hangeng doesn't object, watches quietly as Siwon finishes the last of the Bailey's, gets off the sofa and comes towards him.
The third quarter showed Tang Hotels' profits in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Macau, Kuala Lumpur, Manila; and then a severe depression in Seoul. On his visit to Seoul to investigate the problem, Hangeng heard of how the newly refurbished Signet Resorts was drawing the crowds with their daily amusements for family and couples, their huge indoor musical fountain, the dinner buffet serving over 30 different cuisines, the illustrious chefs whom they'd hired for their expensive Korean and Chinese restaurants, the luxurious interior décor of their hotel rooms, the newly open, posh club Polaris on the 60th level for the high-flying working crowd, and of course, the magnificence of their renovated casino spanning three floors.
"The hotel itself is on the map for tourism," the general manager of the South Korea chain informed him. "We've upped our promotions for rooms and food and we've hired a well-known band to perform at the bars, but the response hasn't been what we were hoping for."
"Well, obviously," Hangeng said, not bothering to mask his annoyance. "For almost the same price, someone is offering gold while we offer plastic."
He sat with the various department directors for hours on Thursday debating strategies to rejuvenate their poor sales, and finally, at ten p.m., he walked out of the hotel fighting off a stinging headache. The temperature was just starting to dip for the winter, but Hangeng had grown up in Hei Long Jiang; it was just mildly cool to him. A welcome relief from the stuffiness of the boardroom.
Half an hour later, he found himself in the lobby of Signet Resorts with no clear idea of how he'd ended up there. Perhaps it was the effect of having talked about Signet for half the entire day; it had sneaked its way into his subconscious.
The musical fountain was attracting half a dozen couples taking pictures of themselves against the background of colourful jumping water. Hangeng looked at them and thought of Gurkhas.
He heard him before he saw him, and when he turned his head he didn't ask how Siwon knew that he was in his hotel.
"Good evening," Siwon said, smiling. He was better-looking than Hangeng remembered.
"It's been a while, hasn't it, Hankyung-sshi, since the last time?"
"About four months, I think."
Siwon shakes his head. "Five months," he says, and Hangeng realises that he's referring to the dinner they'd had, not the business meeting.
"Shall we get some drinks?" Siwon says. "It's on me, since you're in my hotel."
Hangeng should have said no, but he didn't.
Siwon had built a room in Polaris for his own exclusive use. This didn't surprise Hangeng particularly, even though his father had made it a rule that top executives in Tang Hotels were forbidden from setting aside certain facilities in the hotels for their own use. Siwon didn't seem the type who would subscribe to that mindset.
He stood at the window and looked at the city from sixty floors up as Siwon answered his handphone, talked for a few moments into it.
"Sorry about that," he said when the call ended. "Handphones always seem to ring at the most inconvenient times."
"I feel that way too, sometimes," Hangeng said.
They were silent as a waiter came into the room and put their drinks on the table. The light bubbly yellow of champagne, dark sombre red of wine. The ache in Hangeng's head muted into a barely discernable throb. They talked a little, or maybe an hour, or at least Hangeng was sure enough of the former. He was sure enough of the moderately deep tones of Siwon's voice, of the way he pronounced his consonants and vowels, of the way the shadows peeked into his dark blue shirt. He was surer than ever because where there had been words before, chat and occasional laughter, now there was silence, thick and heavy and multi-layered, as Siwon sat back and he could still feel the lingering pressure on his lips.
This was where Siwon should have apologized, but he didn't.
Hangeng took up his champagne, swirled the liquid in the glass. He hadn't quite expected this of Siwon, the least scandalous of the younger generation of corporate heirs. But it was interesting, he thought, in its very unexpectedness, in the clandestinity of its nature. Siwon wasn't looking at him at that moment, and so he was able to look directly at the discomfort on his face, the uncertainty around his lips. The lips. Hangeng focused on them. They had clung to his in a brief moment of softness that didn't seem to match the rest of Choi Siwon, the young power monger.
"Does anyone else ever come into this room?" he asked.
"Not unless I ask them to," Siwon said.
He might have thought for a moment, but he wasn't too certain about that. What he did know was that he smiled, lips together, and put down the champagne in case it might spill.
It was eleven-thirty. Dark out.
He wakes up alone in Siwon's bed the next morning. The room is empty and the curtains are drawn. It's so quiet that his ears hurt. He's been in this situation before. The first time he'd woken up alone like this in Siwon's bed – the morning after they'd first kissed in Polaris – he'd thought that Siwon had left him alone in his apartment. He knows better now.
He lies in bed for a few minutes, looking up at the patterned ceiling. Hangeng isn't much for ornate furniture; his apartments in Seoul and Beijing are black and white minimalist, clean straight lines, almost Japanese-like. Siwon, on the other hand, likes big things.
That, he thinks with a hint of humour, is probably the reason why Signet Resorts is doing far better than Tang Hotels ever has.
When he finally pulls himself from the bed, every cell inside him seems to be whining and tossing with pain. He looks at himself in the bathroom mirror, takes stock of the bruises running along his neck and shoulder. Siwon hadn’t been in a particularly gentle mood last night. He never is when they've been separated for a length of time.
He leans against the sink as he reaches out for the extra toothbrush. Once Siwon had forgotten to put it there and he'd had to use Siwon's still damp toothbrush, had winced at the thought of the potential bacteria that might still be clinging tenaciously to the bristles.
"I'll be sure to leave a case of extra toothbrushes in my bathroom next time," Siwon had said courteously when Hangeng complained later of his ordeal; and then added, "Besides, you weren't too concerned with hygiene last night, falling dead asleep without bothering to wash up."
"Those are two different things," Hangeng said, but hadn't bothered to define the difference.
He walks out of the bathroom, opens the door of the walk-in closet and pulls on the first thing his hand comes into contact with; a nondescript white shirt, too big for him. He has to rummage about a little more before he finds a pair of elastic trousers. He's beginning to feel hunger pangs; perhaps he might call in delivery from the Hong Kong Chinese restaurant that he has frequented long enough to know the names of every waiter, even the names of the manager's children.
A couple of siew mai, roasted pork buns, and glutinous rice washed down with hot chrysanthemum tea; he knows Siwon will want a few siew mai too.
He thinks of the first time he'd been in this apartment two years ago. The unwilling need he'd felt to get out of there; the Korean breakfast that Siwon had cooked to make him stay a little longer. They'd sat opposite each other at the white carved dining table, shoving rice and kimchi into their mouths without talking of the night before, of the sudden, unexpectedly soft kiss, of the other kisses that had followed, of the strangely awkward groping, of the heady pleasure when it'd all come together. They hadn't talked of lying beside each other afterward in a silence that didn't seem appropriate to break, nor of the couple of words that they'd finally thrown out between them that brought Hangeng to Siwon's apartment and into his bed.
They hadn't talked of all that, and they still haven't talked of all that, and Hangeng is fairly certain that they'll never talk about it, and they will continue on in this affair they have without ever talking about it, and when they finally, eventually go their separate ways, they'll look back and wonder how they managed to avoid talking about it all those years. Wonder if talking about it would have given them some sort of reprieve to the primal, almost animalistic desire that they feel for each other.
Siwon comes out when the food arrives. He doesn't say anything, but he does get out the plates and cutlery. He likes working in the morning, Hangeng knows, says it's something about the morning air and the fresh clean feeling of everything that invigorates his mind. Hangeng works best in the afternoon. Siwon doesn't understand it.
There are, in fact, a multitude of things that they don't understand about each other.
Hangeng thinks there isn't a need to.
After all, understanding was never on the plate. They saved understanding for more important things. Things that are going to last.
It developed into an affair that neither of them wanted to walk away from.
Siwon gave him access to the Signet hotel via a heavily guarded back entrance that he himself used. "For convenience purposes," he said, but they both knew that it was to avoid the scrutiny of bellhops and front desk staff.
It was easy, almost insultingly so, to get away every other night and cab down to Polaris, to break engagements with friends for the feel of Siwon's hand moving beneath his shirt, to stop putting in hours and hours of overtime. In December he flew back to Beijing on the express demand of his father to put in some work with the China hotels and to bear responsibility for why he hadn't been able to bring the Korea hotels back on their feet.
"If you think I'm contented to let the numbers slide further and further every month, you're wrong," his father told him, and Hangeng wondered how to explain to him that Signet was growing from strength to strength, that it was almost impossible to pit Tang Hotels against a giant that had a seemingly endless budget. How to explain that his strength was nowhere near Siwon's, that he lacked the steel of Siwon's business soul, the creativity of his ideas.
Lily came to meet him in Beijing. Long-legged Lily from one of the richest families in China, Lily with the sultry voice and hand-cream-smoothened hands who declared – quite truthfully – that she sacrificed all the guys on her list for him whenever she was in town. "Because you're so special to me," she said, though Hangeng knew what she meant was that he had, so far, managed to keep her entertained in bed. He didn't mind. Lily was just another character in his schedule, a good companion to have in bed when he felt like it, a person who could be easily uprooted from his life when he wanted to be rid of her. It was okay having people like that. Relationships didn't always have to be deep and developed.
It went wrong when on the night of their reunion, he felt no desire for her, couldn't get it up. He lay there with this beautiful, sultry-voiced woman on top of him, licking his neck and chest and stomach, and he felt nothing coupled with the horror of feeling nothing.
"Have you found someone else more desirable than me?" Lily said with a pout, a hand on his flaccid cock, and he didn't deny it.
But she didn't have a reputation for being the most sexually exciting socialite in Beijing for nothing. She ran lubricant over her hands and pushed her finger into his anus, probed and smiled tightly when he jerked, drew his breath in sharp and fast. She didn't say anything then, only watched as he finally began to harden in response to her ministrations on his ass, only slid wordlessly down onto his erection and fucked him and let him think she was someone else.
"Still the best, no matter what jealous others might say," he told her affectionately when it was over. They were so little to each other, he could afford to be affectionate. Besides, he'd always liked her, her hard-headedness, her practicality and keen business sense, her unswerving determination to get what she wanted out of life. In many ways, she was like Siwon.
"Mmm," she said, and they went to sleep.
Hangeng booked his air tickets to Seoul the following morning. He'd be back in February, officially to check up on the flagging Tang Hotels in Seoul and Incheon, and unofficially for reasons that he couldn't tell anyone, not even Lily, who never divulged a secret that you entrusted her with.
He sat back in his office chair and thought of the word 付出. Asked himself if he was doing too much of it. Asked what it was that kept him going back.
Part 2 will be along shortly, or at least, as shortly as all my energies allow.
A huge thank you to ky_rin and wobaozhewo for all the support and proof reading, and it's still not over yet, fml.