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Kiss from a Rose

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The phone is ringing.

Minhyuk sets down the watering can and steps inside the little phone booth to answer it. 

“Hello, this is Minhyuk speaking.”

There is no phone in the servants’ quarters, but there are phones in almost every room in the main house, and also one in the kitchens. His mother never calls from the kitchens because the kitchens open out to the gardens, and unless he’s in the hothouse he can hear her voice from anywhere on the grounds where he’s working. If someone is calling the phone booth, it’s from the main house, and he must answer politely.

For a moment, there’s no response, then, “Minhyukie.”

Minhyuk’s heart skips a beat. It’s Bin, the young master of the house. He’s the only one who uses Minhyukie, but Minhyuk would know his voice anywhere.

“Young master, what can I do for you?” Minhyuk asks, keeping his tone polite and calm.

Bin says, “It’s happening. I can’t stop it. She’s coming today. I -”

Minhyuk closes his eyes, presses a hand to his chest where his heart has been aching ever since the news of Bin’s engagement was announced. He asks again, “What can I do for you?”

Because there’s nothing he can do. As the son of a servant, Minhyuk is allowed to do many things: work hard, study hard, enter a university and pursue a profession if he is able, love another man. But he will never be allowed to wed into a noble house.

As the eldest son of a noble house, Bin is allowed to do anything he wants in this world - except love another man.

Bin says, “Just talk to me. Please. I want to hear your voice.”

He sounds as pained as Minhyuk feels. Minhyuk’s mother warned him to stay away from the people who live in the main house. He has no business with them. She was worried about him offending or angering them. She probably never imagined Minhyuk falling in love with one of them.

“Young master,” Minhyuk says, helpless, but Bin cuts him off.

“Don’t call me that. Use my name. You can say my name. I -” His tone changes. Someone else is in the room. “Bring rose petals for my bath.”

“Yes, young master,” Minhyuk says. “As soon as possible.”

The line goes dead.

Minhyuk hangs up the receiver, leans against the cool glass that’s damp from the condensation that always forms early in the morning from all the dew from the plants. The world outside is wavering, blurred, unreal. For a few moments, Minhyuk can pretend that the world outside isn’t real, that all that’s real is how he feels for Bin and how Bin feels for him.

But Bin is getting married, and nothing Minhyuk can do will stop that, and it would be foolish - dangerous, even - for him to try.

So he straightens up, smooths down his clothes, and sets off for the hothouse where Myungjun reigns over the roses.

On the way, he spots Bin’s younger cousin, Young Master Sanha, lying beside one of the fish ponds, gazing at his reflection in the water. He’s getting dirt on his clothes, and Madam Moon will be furious with him, but he is young and still very carefree. He is only a year younger than Minhyuk, but his features still carry some of the softness of boyhood, even though he, like his cousin, is beautiful.

He trails his fingers in the water, bored, and then his eyes narrow. He straightens up. He strikes, quick as a snake, and water splashes.

“Master Sanha!” Minhyuk is beside him in an instant, ready to drag him to safety and away from the risk of drowning.

Only Sanha is grinning, his sleeve cuffs dripping, his hands cupped around each other. He holds his hands out, parts them ever so slightly.

“Look! I caught a goldfish.”

Minhyuk’s heart pounds. “Young master. You -” He pauses, swallows hard. “You did well. You have admirable reflexes.”

“Isn’t it cute? It’s wiggling! It’s so slimy!” Sanha shrieks and giggles.

“Perhaps you should let it go before it dies,” Minhyuk says gently.

Sanha looks down at the fish, his smile fading, and he nods. He lowers his hand to the water, and the fish slips off of his palm, swims to safety. In a few minutes - seconds, even - it will forget this near-mortal peril.

Sanha sits back on his haunches, looks up at Minhyuk. “Sometimes the best thing you can do for something is let it go.”

The knowing in his eyes, the apology and the sympathy - Minhyuk closes his eyes for a moment and has to turn his face away. But then he opens his eyes and nods.

“You aren’t wrong, young master.”

Minhyuk may not forget the pain in his heart for years. But he bows and continues on his way.

“Soon,” someone says, as he nears the glass-walled hothouse.

Minhyuk pauses, looks around, sees no one, looks up.

Jinwoo is perched in a tree, book in hand.

“Soon what?” Minhyuk asks.

“They’re arriving soon.” Jinwoo glances in the direction of the manor gates, then returns to his book.

Cousin Jinwoo came to the manor under much the same circumstances as Sanha - parents and siblings murdered by invading forces - but where Sanha had wept for days and was coddled and hugged and fed treats, Jinwoo had arrived on the doorstep dry-eyed with ash from his parents’ remains still staining his skin, and he set to work immediately, because everyone outside the main house must work to survive.

Jinwoo’s fine mind and dexterous hands for machinery mean he doesn’t do hard labor in the garden like Minhyuk, instead tends to the family’s fleet of motorcars and drives them when called upon, so for him to sit and enjoy a book is not so frowned upon.

From his vantage point, he will be able to see the arrival of the Lee family in their fancy motorcar. 

But it’s not the car he cares about.

It is the Lees’ oldest son, Dongmin, who always acts as chaperone for Bin’s betrothed, Dongmin’s beautiful young cousin Eunbi.

Jinwoo is older than Minhyuk, wiser. He knows only to look and not to touch. He will not be burned by a blue flame of his own making.

Minhyuk says, “Enjoy the view,” and he continues past the fruit trees and along the pale stone path to the hothouse.

Myungjun, wearing an apron and carrying a ledger, is strolling along the rows of rose bushes and climbing trellises, tapping his chin thoughtfully, studying his beautiful, velvet-scented charges.

“Hyung,” Minhyuk says.

Myungjun turns and offers him a bright smile. If Minhyuk’s heart had seen sense, he could be happy with Myungjun now, but Myungjun has never cared for romance, only friendship, and Minhyuk has only ever cared for Bin.

“Minhyuk-ah! What brings you here?”

“Young Master Moon instructed me to bring rose petals for this bath,” Minhyuk says.

Myungjun’s smile dims, his expression turning sympathetic, but he nods. “All right. Make sure he adds a bit of oil so the scent doesn’t dissolve so quickly. Today the red and the white are the most fragrant. Come on. I’ll help you.”

Minhyuk finds a basket, and together he and Myungjun gather several dozen roses of each color. Myungjun snips the stems carefully, and Minhyuk lays the blossoms in the basket, arranging them artfully. He will venture up to the main house, but he will not see Bin. He probably won’t even hear Bin’s voice. It’s daylight. They can only have each other in the shadows.

The pain in Minhyuk’s chest sharpens, and then it blooms into pain and blood at his fingertips, because his distraction has cost him, and he’s run afoul of the thorns.

“Idiot,” Myungjun says lightly.

Minhyuk sucks on his fingertips and tastes the copper tang of his own foolishness and doesn’t protest the half-hearted insult. Once the basket is full - this isn’t the first time rose petals have been requested for a bath, and it will not be the last - Minhyuk thanks Myungjun and carries the basket back along the pale stone paths that wind through the gardens to the back door of the main house, and he knocks.

Yejin, one of the junior-most house maids, answers the door.

Minhyuk holds out the basket. “Rose petals for Young Master Moon’s bath.”

Yejin bites her lip. Then she says, “Take it upstairs.”

Minhyuk stares at her. “W-what?”

Yejin glances nervously over her shoulder, then steps aside and beckons him in. “I’ll show you.”

Minhyuk has to pause and set down the basket and unlace his heavy, dirty work boots. He leaves them by the back door and is glad his socks don’t have very big holes. His heart pounds loudly in his ears as he follows Yejin through the narrow servant hallways, up the back staircase, and to the second floor. He pauses before he steps into the main hallway. He’s not supposed to be here. He’s never been here before. If he’s caught - if his mother finds out -

But then he steps out of the colorless wood-paneled alley and into the main house itself, and his breath catches in his throat. Everything is white and gold, pale marble and crystal chandeliers that glitter like stars. The ceiling is so far away it could be the sky. Light cascades into the hallway from massive arched windows. Minhyuk has never seen a place so beautiful in his entire life.

“Hurry up!” Yejin hisses, beckoning from halfway down the hallway.

Minhyuk is nervous that his mere presence will mar the whiteness and brightness everywhere, but he scurries after her, clutching the basket tightly even though his fingertips smart from the pressure.

She turns, knocks.

Bin says, “Enter.”

Yejin opens the door, and there’s Bin, still wearing a flowing white nightshirt but also sleek black trousers, barefoot, perched on the edge of a steaming bath.

He is beautiful.

Yejin says, “Rose petals are here for you, young master.”

Bin barely looks at her, looks right at Minhyuk. “Fill the bath,” he says, and Minhyuk scrambles to obey.

Yejin says, “I’ll be waiting by the stairs to escort Minhyuk-ssi back to the gardens,” and then she’s gone, the door clicking shut softly behind her.

Minhyuk casts about, sees a small fancy sofa off to one side, and sets the basket on it. He sees a fancy rotary phone on a matching chair beside the little sofa. Is that how Bin called him? Minhyuk knew there were phones in every room in the house, but -

“The roses? Before the water gets cold,” Bin says.

“Sorry, young master.” Minhyuk scoops up a blossom and sets about plucking the petals off of it as quickly and efficiently as he can without getting on the wrong side of the thorns again. 

His fingertips don’t ache as much as his heart. Bin is right there, but Minhyuk doesn’t dare look at him, let alone speak to him without being addressed.

Touching him is out of the question.

But then Bin is standing beside him, close enough that Minhyuk can feel his warmth, and he is helping pluck the petals off the roses, scattering them across the surface of the bathwater with a careless toss of his hand.

Minhyuk wants to reach out and take Bin’s hand in his.

Minhyuk knows that a single touch will burn him beyond repair.

Between the two of them, they finish quickly, and the scent of roses rises heavily in the steam.

Working in the gardens for a lifetime has made Minhyuk immune to the charm of the scent of roses, but now he will forever associate this scent with Bin’s skin.

Bin shifts, and there’s a rustle of clothing, and Minhyuk turns away instinctively even though he’s seen Bin undressed before; they’re both men and have nothing to hide from each other.

There’s a soft splash, and then Bin says, “Hand me the soap?”

Minhyuk casts about, spots a bar of soap that has rose petals embedded in it, and he picks it up carefully, places it in Bin’s waiting hand. 

“I should go, young master,” Minhyuk says, clutching the basket full of empty stems to his chest like a shield. “Enjoy your bath.” He starts for the door, pauses. “Oh, Myungjun-hyung said you should put some oil in the water with the petals. So the scent lasts longer.”

“There’s some oil on the vanity over there.” Bin points. His arm is bare. His skin is pale. The rest of him is covered by the rose petals.

Minhyuk swallows hard, scans the cluttered vanity for the appropriate glass vial. The vial of oil is familiar, and when the scent hits him, heat builds in his veins, but he takes a few deep breaths and then hands the vial to Bin, who uncaps it and empties it unceremoniously into the bath. Bin leans back and rests his head against the back of the tub, closes his eyes.

“I’ll be going now, young master, if I may,” Minhyuk says, and edges toward the door, ignoring the line of Bin’s pale throat and the knowledge of how he moans when Minhyuk kisses along his skin.

“Minhyukie,” Bin says.

He freezes.

“Young master?”

“I’m supposed to present a gift to my betrothed. The dowry and bride price and everything else are out of my hands, but I’m supposed to give her something meaningful. What should I do?”

Minhyuk knows absolutely nothing about wooing girls, let alone noble girls. All he knows is flowers. He says, “Perhaps perfume.”

Bin opens his eyes, raises his eyebrows. “You can make perfume, can’t you?”

Minhyuk can, if only because he stumbled upon the techniques while studying chemistry in school. His nose isn’t as sensitive as Bin’s, but his small concoctions have done well in the shop in the village, and when he’s entertained dreams of getting as far away from this place as possible once Bin is wed, his escape is on the strength of his chemistry skills.

“Yes, young master.”

“Make something, anything you like. I’ll send someone to collect it before the wedding.”

“Yes, young master.”

Bin closes his eyes once more. 

Minhyuk opens the door.

Bin says, almost too softly to hear, “Don’t go.”

Minhyuk has to pretend he didn’t hear. He flees.

Yejin is prancing impatiently by the door to the servants’ hall, and Minhyuk hurries to her. They dash down the hall and down the stairs and to the back door and Yejin prances some more while Minhyuk pulls on his boots, and then she shoves him outside before he even has a chance to do up the laces.

He stands there, staring at the door slammed in his face, breathing hard, heart racing, and wants to cry.

But there will be no crying for him, because he must work. So he kneels, laces up his boots, picks up the basket, and goes to return it to Myungjun.

 


Usually Minhyuk is up before the sun so he can water the plants and let the water soak in before the heat of the day evaporates it away and makes his efforts meaningless, so after lunch - scraps from whatever was made for the family that his mother has managed to set aside for him - he sleeps in the little brick shed in the garden that he claims as his own space until the heat of the day passes, and then it’s back to work until well after nightfall.

Today he does not sleep. He eats, and then he retreats to his little laboratory in the back corner of the hothouse where Myungjun lets him keep a workbench and supplies. He always has scented oils in various stages of preparation so he can mix perfume on fairly short notice.

What should he mix for Bin’s future bride?

Whatever you like, Bin had said.

Minhyuk prefers light, clean scents. Girls prefer floral or fruity scents, he knows from the perfumes he’s sold in the village. He can strike a balance.

So he gathers up the vials of vanilla, ylang-ylang, jasmine, and lavender, and sets to work.

He finds a clean dark bottle, and he finds his lab notebook, and he writes the recipe. First he adds the sweet almond oil. Then seven drops of base note. Seven drops of middle note. Six notes of top note. Two drops of bridge note. When he reaches for the bottle of vodka to complete the mixture, he deeply considers drinking some himself, but he knows better than to waste supplies, so he measures a dose out, adds it to the mix. A treadle from a sewing machine has been repurposed, so Minhyuk can set the bottle into the contraption and tread away, shaking the mixture as needed without all the risks attendant to shaking it by hand, and he can watch.

And wait.

And think.

And, since he’s finished his work for the morning, cry.

 


Jinwoo finds him an hour later and reports that the bride and her family have arrived. He’s seen what he wishes to see, and he is satisfied. He is kind and pretends he has not seen the tear-stains on Minhyuk’s face.

Minhyuk sets the bottle in a cool, dark place away from the light. In a few days, the scent will be stronger, and he will add spring water, and then the perfume will be ready. 

In a few days, Bin will be married.

Until then, Minhyuk must work with the rest of the house staff to prepare the grounds for the wedding. A strident, high-energy woman named Yeoreum makes him take her on a complete tour of the grounds so she can select flowers to be used at the ceremony. He holds a basket for Myungjun while he selects the biggest, roundest, prettiest oranges from the orchard to go on the wedding table. He supervises Sanha while he chases ducks at the small duck pond, to be caged and kept for the wedding day.

He hauls bolts of blue and red cloth to be used as bunting to decorate the clearing in the gardens where the ceremony will be held.

He hauls sacks of flour and rice and casks of wine and beer to the kitchens so his mother can prepare the wedding feast.

He and Jinwoo help build the wedding pavilion and arch, wielding hammers and nails with calm, competent hands. 

The night before the wedding, Minhyuk checks on the perfume that has been strengthening in a dark corner of the garden shed he calls home. The scent is just right. He adds some sweet springwater and gives the mixture one more good shake on the treadle, and then he asks Jinwoo to go to the house and report to the maids that he has completed the task that Young Master Moon set for him. 

Young Master Moon said he would arrange for delivery, after all. Chances are the bride and her family would be offended that the personal wedding gift from the groom to the bride was made by an inexpert servant instead of a well-trained perfumier from France or Italy, so the delivery must be made discreetly. The contents of the humble dark bottle will be transferred into some ornate glass vessel that looks more like a confection than a bottle, and the scent will not last as long there, but it will look worthy of a noble bride.

Jinwoo returns from the main house in short order and says he was told by a young, junior housemaid that Minhyuk was to wait in the hothouse after dark with the item in question.

Minhyuk nods and keeps on working. After supper, he changes into clean clothes, fetches the perfume bottle, and heads for the hothouse. On his way there, he passes Jinwoo and Myungjun, who nod at him and then deliberately walk away from the hothouse. This is not the first time they’ve done this favor for him, as much as they disapprove.

Sadness curls through Minhyuk, a dull ache, because he knows it will be the last time they do this for him, the last time they will need to.

He walks among the flowers and the citrus trees, taking in the colors and scents, which hang heavier in the evening air after a long day of heat and sunlight. Even in shadows, the hothouse is beautiful. It’s Minhyuk’s favorite place in the world.

Minhyuk stands beside a tumble of climbing pink Eden roses and holds the bottle and waits.

Even after tonight, he will always wait, whether he is in this garden or far, far away.

Bin steps out of the shadows, tall and pale and beautiful.

“Young master.” Minhyuk bows.

“Minhyukie.” 

Cool fingers on his chin tip his face up. He’s looking right into Bin’s eyes.

“Bin,” he says, the name falling from his lips like a petal from a dying flower.

“Where is it?” 

Minhyuk holds up the bottle with the stopper top. The dark glass is unmarred save for the label, upon which Minhyuk has written the name of the perfume in a careful hand: All Light.

“What does it smell like?” Bin asks. “Show me.”

It’s a small request, one Minhyuk has fulfilled countless times for countless strangers, but with Bin’s eyes on him, his hands shake as he unstoppers the bottle. He knows the most effective method is to dab a drop at his wrists and pulse points, but then Bin is wrapping long fingers around his wrist and pulling him in close, leaning in to nuzzle at the side of his throat, and Minhyuk’s heartbeat is all he can hear until Bin hums happily.

“It smells good. Light and clean.”

His lips are almost on Minhyuk’s skin.

If Minhyuk turns his head, they’ll be kissing, but he doesn’t dare.

“Every time I smell this, I’ll think of you, even if I have to go to her,” Bin says, and Minhyuk closes his eyes and bites his lip hard, and then Bin is kissing him.

Minhyuk shivers, helpless, and kisses him back.

Then Bin is holding him tightly and nipping at his bottom lip till he opens up and Bin dives in for a deeper kiss, and Minhyuk’s heart is going to explode out of his chest, but then Bin pulls back.

“I want you,” he whispers. “One last time. Please. Please.”

Minhyuk says, “Yes,” when what he really means is I love you.

They’re in the greenhouse, they have nowhere to go, there’s just dirt and floor and -

Bin tugs Minhyuk toward the door.

“What are you doing? Where are we going?” But Minhyuk allows himself to be pulled along.

To the back door of the main house.

Minhyuk stops in his tracks.

Bin turns to look at him, puzzled.

Minhyuk shakes his head, pulls free of Bin’s grip, backs away.

“Minhyukie.” Bin’s eyes are wide, hurt.

Minhyuk says, “Come back to the hothouse.” He grabs Bin’s wrist, and this time he’s leading the way, along the stone paths and through the trees and the double glass doors to the corner of the hothouse that belongs to him.

“Here,” he says. “These roses are thornless.”

Bin looks at the fragrant pink and white blossoms, confused. 

“Kiss me here,” Minhyuk says, “and then go to your future wife with your honor intact and your head held high.”

Bin swallows hard. “Minhyukie -”

“Binnie. One last time. For both of us.” He leans back against the wall of blossoms and closes his eyes, waits.

Bin’s lips on his are soft, warm, gentle.

Minhyuk wraps his arms around Bin’s neck and kisses back, equally slow and soft.

Then Bin crowds up against him, crushing him back against the flowers, and the scent of their petals washes over them as they kiss and kiss and kiss. When they finally part, Bin says,

“I’m sorry. I have to do this.”

“We both have things we have to do,” Minhyuk tells him.

Bin closes his eyes and rests his forehead against Minhyuk’s. The crescent of his lashes against his cheek is glittering with tears.

Minhyuk holds him till his tears subside. 

When Bin can breathe properly again, he buries his face against Minhyuk’s neck and sighs. 

“Promise me I’ll get to hear your voice once in a while?” he asks. 

“Once in a while,” Minhyuk says. 

Bin finally steps back. He reaches into the pocket of his jacket and draws out a letter. It’s addressed to Minhyuk. It’s from one of the universities Minhyuk applied to months ago. 

Minhyuk accepts it. He can immediately tell by the weight of it that it’s different from the others, which were all rejections. 

“Congratulations,” Bin says. 

Kyoto is far away, but it’s an amazing opportunity. Minhyuk presses the perfume bottle into Bin’s hands.

“Congratulations to you too.”

Minhyuk leaves first, making his way through the hothouse half unseeing, because he could walk its paths in his sleep and never brush against a single blossom. He doesn’t look back to see if Bin follows. 

 


On the day of Bin’s wedding, Minhyuk lays in bed. It’s Jinwoo who brings him chicken ginseng soup even though he can tell just by looking that Minhyuk isn’t really sick. 

A few hours later, Myungjun checks on him, tells him the ceremony was beautiful and the meal was delicious. 

That night, Minhyuk shows his mother the letter. 

She cries tears of joy and hugs him. She’s so happy that two of her boys have started bright futures. She’s always thought of Bin as one of her boys, because she’s cared for him since he was a child. 

The next day, Minhyuk packs his clothes, a few books, and his lab notebooks and essential equipment. Jinwoo drives him to the train station, and he hugs his mother, Myungjun, and Jinwoo goodbye before he climbs onto the train, which will take him to the port, where he’ll get on a boat that will take him across the sea to a new land where his bright future awaits. 

At the port, Minhyuk finds a phone booth, makes a call. 

Waits. 

Yejin is the one who answers. 

Minhyuk tells her his name. She summons his mother so his mother can hear his voice for herself and know he’s all right. 

After his mother tells him she loves him and wishes him a safe journey and says goodbye, the line clicks from the receiver being put down but doesn’t go dead. 

Minhyuk hears several soft breaths. 

He says, “Have a good night.”

And he hangs up.