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And, just like that, Kyungsoo falls into an easy friendship with Kim Kai. Kyungsoo, who refuses to accept help from anyone. Kyungsoo, whose defenses are almost impenetrable. Kyungsoo, whose breath catches in his throat for a little too long when he looks at Kai, who wakes from uncertain, yearning dreams that center around the General.
Kyungsoo likes him, he knows that. Kai would be almost impossible to dislike – his attractive looks and talent only softened by his warm, calm personality – but sometimes Kyungsoo thinks he might see something different, something below the surface.
Sometimes, it’s as if Kai forgets how to be Kai at all, flashing a smile that doesn’t suit his face, his controlled demeanour cracking for a brief second before it’s restored. Kyungsoo charts these changes, sudden as summer storms, and watches their progress over his impassive face.
Kai talks to him, talks and actually listens, as if Kyungsoo’s opinion matters, as if Kyungsoo is more than he seems. As they spar, swords clashing and crossing, Kai talks and talks and talks, his placid façade slipping for a few precious moments as he smiles at Kyungsoo, buoyed by his response. As they spar, Kyungsoo feels his heart race, this inexplicable mix of danger and communication becoming intimate as the hours of the day dwindle away.
“What makes you angry?” Kai asks one night, when Kyungsoo outsmarts him quicker, bringing him crashing to the ground as they lie next to each other in the starlight, breathing in warm, wet air. It’s such a departure from the usual questions about fighting and the camp and nature and everything trivial under the sun that Kyungsoo pauses for a second, breath folding in his chest as he turns his head to look at Kai.
“What makes you angry?” Kai repeats, turning to Kyungsoo in a quick movement, the world slowing to an almost stop as the stars spin around them. “What makes you so, so angry?”
Kyungsoo stops. Thinks. His mouth dries as he realises the answer comes too easy. Looking down at his hands, he resists the urge to clench them into hard, ugly fists. Freak freak freak. Kyungsoo shakes his head. No. No. There’s no need for Kai to know. The village girl, dancing again, flashes her mournful eyes at him.
He swallows. “Life," Kyungsoo spits out, a cold, mocking laugh rising in the back of his throat. “Life makes me so fucking angry. The unfairness of it all, the injustice.
How one person can be born with everything and another can never have anything they need, let alone everything they want. Fighting again and again to get some dirty coins just to stay alive. Fighting, again and again, for someone I don’t know, against someone I can’t quite hate, and for what?”
Kai’s silent, looking right through Kyungsoo, right to his aching soul, and Kyungsoo wonders if he’s gone too far. Again. He opens his mouth to take those words back, to pluck them off the air and back into the safety of his guarded heart, but then Kai smiles slightly, and he stills suddenly.
“What?” Kyungsoo asks, staring at Kai as if he can work him out by looking closer, longer, harder.
“What?” Kai repeats in confusion, tilting his head to look at Kyungsoo, faint smile still etched on his lips.
“You’re smiling," Kyungsoo whispers, fingers shaking against the urge to trace over the soft curve of Kai’s cheek. No. No. Freak. No.
“You’re different," Kai replies, one corner of his mouth turning up in a smile so soft that Kyungsoo knows this must be a compliment. This must be the truth. “You’re something new," he pauses, flames of indecision flickering in his face as he looks at Kyungsoo. Finally, he nods, jaw set, and his eyes soften even further in the hazy light. “Could I…would you…I have a book I think you might like.”
“A book?” Kyungsoo asks, holding the weight of the rare word on his tongue.
“Yes," Kai says simply, smile a burst of sunlight on his face. “A book. Do you know what that is?”
Kyungsoo bristles for a second, defenses immediately springing up around him. “Of course I do! I’m not stupid!”
Kai nods slowly, eyes calm and non-judgemental in his face. “I know that, Do. They’re quite rare, is all. Many of the recruits here have never seen a book in their lives.”
Kyungsoo softens at this, but he’s unable to apologise. Instead, he talks.
“There was this boy," he starts, eyes glazing with memory as his mind goes blank and takes him back to that moment. “Nothing but a child really – he couldn’t have been more than fifteen summers old – but somehow, he’d made it over to the streetside arenas. Pretty face, expensive clothes. Polished shoes, clean shirt. He must have ran away from home, wherever the hell that was, and somehow decided to end up there. At first, we thought he was going to bet his shoes on the fight, or some money he’d stolen from his parents. Then, the kid pulls out this book, and it’s amazing, really. The cover’s carved out of this wood, all ornate and complicated and there’s this tiny jewel at the centre of the swirls and it’s worth so much more than a tiny fight on the streets," Kyungsoo pauses, dipping his head to draw swirls in the dirt, intensely aware of Kai’s close scrutiny.
“What happened?” Jongin asks softly, the words weighing heavy on the air, and Kyungsoo’s guilt presses down on him like the humid atmosphere, thick and airless.
“It wasn’t my fault! I wasn’t the one he chose to fight! I couldn’t stop it.” Kyungsoo screws his eyes tight against the onslaught of memories. “I couldn’t stop him from being beaten to the ground. I tried to make it better, after.”
Kyungsoo swallows, the smell of blood suddenly fresh in his nostrils, the sound of the baying crowd raging in his ears. His voice becomes smaller as he grasps his legs to his chest, protecting himself. “I told myself it was all I could do, when he was lying there, beaten. I told myself I was being the big man by wrestling the book off his opponent in exchange for my own few gold coins. I thought it would help the boy, when I slid down onto the ground next to him and gave him his big, ornate book. When he finally got to his feet, though, he didn’t look back at me, just walked away, leaving that beautiful book lying in the dust. It was so out of place there – something so rare and gorgeous amongst the dirt and the blood and the common street rats – and I just wanted it. I needed it.”
Kyungsoo’s eyes flicker, almost laughing bitterly as he concludes his tale. “Of course, I sold it in the end. Made enough to feed me for a long while. I couldn’t keep it forever," he pauses, smiling as he savours the memory of those crisp pages under his fingers. “But goddamn it was beautiful, Kai. And I liked thinking I could possess something like that. Just for a second. Even if I didn’t deserve it, it was enough just to possess it. Just for that one, golden moment.”
“You did deserve it," Kai says quietly, simply, and Kyungsoo wishes it could all be true.
Kyungsoo shakes his head. “No. No. I told myself I did all that I could for that boy, but the fact is that I didn’t. I just didn’t.”
A look appears in Kai’s eyes, something wild, something wonderful, something new, but before Kyungsoo can grasp it properly, it blows away like petals on the wind and the silence echoes around them. Kyungsoo gets the strangest feeling that Kai has something to tell him, but isn’t quite brave enough to do so. In the end, they stand up hurriedly, staring at each other, unable to breach the distance between them.
When they get back to the camp, Kai tells Kyungsoo to wait while he fetches something. Within minutes, he returns, a heavy book under his arm. Kyungsoo reaches out to hold it, testing its weight in his hand, running his hands hungrily over the cover. It’s less detailed than the one from his memory, dulled by time, but it smells the like the other one, feels like it, and Kyungsoo is filled by the delicious sensation of possession once again.
“Yours to borrow," Kai whispers, not quite smiling as he looks at Kyungsoo. “Keep it safe. Keep it hidden from the others.”
Kyungsoo has a thousand questions, about how Kai claimed this book in the first place, about why he would give it to a lowly recruit, but he bites them back as he sees the look on the General’s face.
“Thank you," Kyungsoo mumbles, the words freeing his chest as they are released from his throat.
Kai stares at him in wonder for a long second, then drops his head in a nod. Once again, he looks as if he’s struggling to say something, to not say something, the words stuck in his throat.
Eventually, Kyungsoo turns to leave but Kai’s hoarse voice stops him dead.
“Kyungsoo?” He calls. “Guilt is…a difficult thing. A difficult thing. You did what you could for that boy. You did, no matter what you might think. Let it go, now. Please. Try letting it go.”
A gust of wind picks up, blowing threads of Kyungsoo’s hair across his face as he looks away from the unbearably thick shame in Kai’s voice, on his face, in his eyes.
Kyungsoo hides the book for a week, stealing furtive, longing glances at it when he’s alone. He walks his fingers over the thick cover, feeling each dent and crack in the surface as his hand slides beneath and memorises the feel of the quill marks on the parchment. The book has a scent: the other one did too, and Kyungsoo would guess that they all do, concealed deep within their fragile pages.
Kai’s book smells different to the first one. It’s rich and old, and Kyungsoo can’t quite put his finger on that one distinctive perfume rising from it until he finds a wrinkled set of pages near the back, as if they had been soaked and then dried hurriedly after. Those pages smell salty, rich, tangy, unlike the river water which Kyungsoo drinks. It’s a scent he hasn’t come across before, but it’s delicious and new.
Each night, as he goes to meet Kai, he wonders if the man will reclaim his book. He wonders how he’ll let it go. Each night, though, Kai fails to mention it and the full feeling in Kyungsoo’s chest swells as he hurries back to his bed, tracing his hands over the cover before falling asleep with it in his thoughts.
Then, on the eighth night, Kai brings it up again. They’re going over Kai’s most complicated drill, and Kyungsoo is finally starting to get it when Kai slides his eyes over to Kyungsoo. Kyungsoo’s seen this look before, seen the signs: the bob of Kai’s Adam’s apple as he swallows, the nervous flick of his eyes, the clenching of his fists as he prepares to ask Kyungsoo something. Something important. Something that matters.
Kai swallows again, ducking Kyungsoo’s strike easily and shifting away as he speaks thoughtfully. “Do you still have the book? The one I gave you?”
“Of course," Kyungsoo replies, frowning when Kai lowers his sword. The time for fighting appears to be over.
“Oh," Kai merely says, syllable catching the light summer breeze as it floats away.
“Oh.” His voice grows more hesitant, stumbling over the syllables he mumbles as he
looks at the ground. “And did you…what do you think?”
“It’s a beautiful book," Kyungsoo replies slowly, not quite sure what Kai is asking. Hoping he’s not right about what Kai is asking.
Kai’s eyes light up. “It is, isn’t it? The words… The story is quite unusual, don’t you think?”
“Words?” Kyungsoo asks, sounds sticking his throat as his vision blurs. “Story? I-” He stops, tasting bile in the back of his throat.
“It matters," Kai says quietly, simply, looking at Kyungsoo with such breathless grace that he just has to look away. It humbles him. It makes him ache. “The story matters. What does it mean to you? What do the words say to you?”
“I don’t-” The words, barely formed, catch under Kyungsoo’s tongue as his mouth dries and his heart thunders. Shame, thick like wet mud, covers his tingling skin, sinking deep into his pores and right into his bloodstream all the way to his protesting, faltering heart. “Kai, I-”
Kai misinterprets his silence, nodding his head slowly. “Of course. I understand. The meaning of the words really is indescribable. What we feel with our hearts is not what we can say with our mouths-”
“-and it’s difficult to express these emotions, but I knew. I knew you would love it. I knew you would understand. I knew-”
“-that you would know. There’s something in the way you hold the book that just says-”
“I can’t read!” Kyungsoo yells, finally stopping Kai in his tracks. “I can’t read, you fool. When would I have learnt? In between bare-knuckle matches? Where would I have learnt? On the streets? Do you think just because you’re so well-educated and refined that we all are? I’m sorry to break your romantic ideal, your highness, but we’re not. I’m not. I’m not some aristocratic general who won’t even use his real name. I’m just a boy from the streets, with blood on my hands, and violence in my nature. Don’t let yourself think we’re the same," Kyungsoo finishes, dragging himself up on leaden, shaking legs and taking slow steps back to the camp.
“Kim Jongin," Kai says quietly, slowly, eyes not wavering from Kyungsoo’s face as he turns around to face the general. “My real name. Kim Jongin.”
Kyungsoo says nothing, aware he’s teetering on a precipice of discovery, hovering halfway between obscurity and clarity.
Kai gauges Kyungsoo’s face for a reaction, and seemingly finding none, he continues. “I wasn’t born here. I was born miles from here, by the sea, to a rich family. I was their heir. I was to take over the family fortune, the estate, everything when my father died.”
Kai’s voice becomes dull and flat as he recites his family history, bleakness spreading through his eyes like blood dropping into water. His voice descends to a whisper. “They wanted so much from me. So much, from so young. They wanted me to be intelligent, handsome, graceful, accomplished. Well-dressed. Eloquent. Skilled. Merciless.” His voice hardens, eyes becoming faraway. “They wanted me to marry young. A duke’s daughter. We were betrothed from birth. My father told me I would marry her, or I would leave.”
A mocking smile curves on his face, changing how it look in the soft light of evening. “He never thought I could actually do so. Never thought he’d wake up one morning, and find his seventeen-year old son gone with no trace, money missing from his purse, possessions gone.”
Both men are silent as the watch the sky change colour, the stars brightening as the night rises.
Finally, Kai speaks again. “I toyed with leaving a note. I thought it seemed right. But there was nothing to say. I realised that I had nothing more in common with these people than blood. So, like the other boy you knew, I took my favourite book and ran. Ran away from all that privilege, and straight into the army. I always knew I wanted to do that – I’d seen the guards that patrolled our mansion. They always looked so strong. Honourable. Honest. I saw the way the village women looked at them, the way the young boys idolised them. I thought, just maybe, I could be admired for my strength. My skills. Not my inheritance or my birth. Not like Father, growing heavier each day as he sat in his mansion and counted his dirty, dishonest money. So I walked and I walked and I walked, until I came here. And then I just unleashed everything. Every last drop of darkness in my soul.”
Kai pauses, and Kyungsoo wonders why he can’t think of him as Jongin. Not yet, anyway. “I had no control back then. I’d strike anything, anyone in my path. I’d rampage. I was the secret weapon, the destroyer. I became nothing but my anger, or perhaps my anger became nothing but me.”
“What changed?” Kyungsoo asks softly, barely looking up. “What happened?”
Kai falters, head falling as he traces the dirt beneath his feet with his shoes. Then, slowly, he looks up, and Kyungsoo sees it all: Kai, the general, the man in control, the effortless smiler, the one with all the answers, just disintegrates around him. In his place stands Jongin, the boy who ran, the one born into the wrong family, the young recruit with anger and grief erupting from him like a tidal flow, and Kyungsoo knows. Kyungsoo finally knows. This is when Kai becomes Jongin. This is the moment.
“There was a boy," Jongin starts slowly, licking his lips nervously as he looks at Kyungsoo. “There was a boy, the newest recruit. Keen. Earnest. Sweet. It was his first battle, and as his commander, I should have protected him. I should have watched him. I shouldn’t have let the anger take over, I shouldn’t have let the red cloud my vision until I could see nothing but my vengeance. Until I couldn’t see the boy lying on the floor, run through by the sword I wielded as I tried to kill an enemy soldier.”
Jongin stares at Kyungsoo, as if trying to gauge his reaction, his disgust. Finally, he concludes his story, voice cracked and dull. “The wound got infected. He didn’t make the dawn.”
Silence falls around them as Kyungsoo looks at Jongin, determined not to tear his gaze away. Somehow, he can’t break that contact.
Jongin swallows, chest deflating as he looks away from Kyungsoo, and up to the blackening sky. “Don’t you see, Kyungsoo? We’re not different. We’re the same. All that anger, all that power that you hide behind your eyes, locked in your arms? I have that too. And I’m not superior to you. You’re a far better man than me, Do Kyungsoo.”
“No,” Kyungsoo starts, voice shaky as he tests the unfamiliar name on his tongue.
“Jongin. Jongin. No, Jongin," he repeats, sliding his hand, palm up, towards Jongin,
arm shaking from fear.
Jongin, quietly, wonderingly, takes Kyungsoo’s small hand in his own larger one, squeezing the fingers just tight enough for Kyungsoo to know this is real.
“Jongin," Kyungsoo starts, sad smile tempering his lips as he echoes Jongin’s own words from all those nights ago. The words that helped Kyungsoo start to let go. “It’s too much for you to bear on your own. It’s too much. Guilt is too heavy to carry around in your heart. Let it go, now. Try letting it go.”
Jongin looks at Kyungsoo, and looks and looks until the world melts away around them and all that exists is the sound of their quiet breathing and their hands, interlocked in a patch of starlight. Slowly, ever-so-slowly, Kyungsoo moves forward, hypnotized, hand still clutched in Jongin’s, until they breathe the same warm air and Kyungsoo can trace the curve of Jongin’s cheek with his eyes.
Then, on one breath, Jongin, still staring at Kyungsoo, reaches in to press their lips together and Kyungsoo’s body lights up like a match flaring in the darkness.
Jongin’s lips are soft, softer than Kyungsoo expected, and, as he melts into the kiss, Jongin’s tongue flicking between his lips, he wonders if Jongin kissed his fiancée like this.
Fiancée. Fiancée. God.
Kyungsoo breaks off, panting and frantically scrambling away from Jongin, arms wrapped tightly around himself in a self-made shield. No. No. Freak. Freak. “No, Jongin. No. This is wrong. This is so wrong.” Freak freak freak. “I’m not – can’t you see that I’m not-”
I’m not a girl. The words, unspoken, hang heavy upon the air as Jongin swallows and lowers his head.
A lit street. A clean house. Kyungsoo, barely fourteen years old, chases his little brother along the road, laughing as he tries to catch him.
“Come here!” He laughs, breathless as he gains on him. “Seungsoo!”
Rounding a corner, Seungsoo disappears between a maze of houses, giggling back at Kyungsoo. Stopping, panting, Kyungsoo looks around, calling after his breath.
“He went down there," Kyungsoo hears a voice say, cool and smoky at the same time, and he turns to see a tall boy. A few years older than him, perhaps, and the most beautiful person he’s ever seen.
He stumbles. Trips over his own feet, before a hand shoots out to steady him. The boy smiles and Kyungsoo feels sudden, unexpected warmth spread through him.
“Do you want some help? Finding him?” The stranger asks, and Kyungsoo wonders what these pulses of excitement running from his chest to his arms mean.
“Y-yes," Kyungsoo stutters, gaping as the boy runs down one narrow, sloping side street and he is left to follow, running after a complete stranger.
Kyungsoo wants to move then, to run and put as much distance between Jongin and himself as possible, to stop him being tempted to do something he shouldn’t. Wants to stop his brain from pulsing, from running into overdrive as images come into it unbidden.
When Joonyoung first kisses him, he doesn’t know how to react. His hands, fisted, stay still at his sides as Joonyoung’s lips, soft and smooth, slide over his down a dark sidestreet. The licks of fire in his chest rise and Joonyoung laughs softly when Kyungsoo finally grasps strands of his hair and kisses him back.
The second time, the neighbourhood boys catch them. “Freaks!” They yell, throwing stones as Joonyoung grabs Kyungsoo’s hand and pulls him down another sidestreet. “Freaks! Get away from here, freaks!”
They say more, words that Kyungsoo doesn’t quite understand. He tenses up with fear, squeezing Joonyoung’s hand a little too tight.
“I don’t understand," Kyungsoo says when they’re finally safe, and the shouts have faded to silence. “They didn’t react like that when Howon kissed Hyerim. Or when Noeul kissed Yoonjae. I don’t understand.”
Joonyoung looks at him then, and Kyungsoo doesn’t understand why pity weighs so heavy in his expressive eyes. “You should go home.” Joonyoung says quietly, brushing his fingerpads across Kyungsoo’s cheek. “I’m sorry, Kyungsoo. I’m so sorry.”
Kyungsoo tells himself that Joonyoung is apologising for what happened, for what those boys said. But he knows. Instinctively, he knows something isn’t right. How can it be, when Joonyoung is looking at him like that?
Somehow, his feet are stuck to the floor, frozen, as he stares at Jongin and Jongin stares at him and he wonders how it came to this. Images flick through his mind in flashes.
His mother’s stricken face. The empty silence of their home.
“Boys don’t like other boys like that, Kyungsoo.”
“They just don’t. It’s wrong.”
Why? Kyungsoo couldn’t take these words in as his mother stared and stared and stared at him.
His mother’s bottom lip wobbles. “Please, Kyungsoo. Pride is all we have left.”
Kyungsoo is wordless, the agony in his mother’s eyes needling his heart. He lowers his eyes and nods at the floor. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
His mother swallows, looking as if she wants to take him in her arms and shut the rest of the world out. Eventually, she just smiles, tiredly and sadly. “What about that girl a few houses down? The pretty one that all the boys look at? Do you like her?”
Kyungsoo’s heart sinks, but he forces a smile on her face. “Well, she is pretty…”
The hope written on his mother’s face firms his resolution. Joonyoung appears briefly in his mind’s eye but he dismisses the face with a shake of his head. Freak. Freak.
He focuses on the image of the pretty girl a few doors down, seeing her dance through his mind as he tries to tempt his stubborn, foolish heart.
His mother smiles once more at him, the movement of her lips awkward and uncertain like a child’s first steps, and Kyungsoo knows that this is where it changes. This is where the distance between them will start widening.
Kyungsoo opens his eyes. Here he is, standing in front of another man in another place, breaking his mother’s heart in another way because he can’t seem to control himself at all. He swallows. Boys don’t like boys like that. Like this.
Jongin looks up, clenching his fists as his hoarse words fill the air. “Go," he pleads, voice breaking on the syllable. “Please. Just go.”
Kyungsoo flees then, not looking back although it takes every ounce of his strength.
When he gets back to his bed, he slides his hand under his pillow to feel the smooth cover of the book, telling himself that it doesn’t smell of Jongin.
Kyungsoo doesn’t go out to practice with Jongin the next evening. The events of the last night still feel so raw, thick in the air that he can’t even look at him at drills. Kyungsoo wants to, god he does, wants to look at him and smell him and hold him until he feels safe again, but he can’t. Shouldn’t. Freak. Shouldn’t.
Instead, he spends an evening with the other recruits, sitting in the barracks and listening to someone sing off-key, someone tell a dirty story, someone else laughing into their mattress. It surprises him, but he enjoys it, this camaraderie, this easiness and lightness on the air.
Park lights up around people, and he’s the centre of a heated discussion, everyone sitting around his bed, listening attentively.
Kyungsoo, watches amused, unease growing as the subject matter changes.
“Tell us about your girl then, Park.” A short man perched on the edge of Kyungsoo’s bed snickers, looking around at the eager group.
Park stops, smiles, eyes growing distant and glazed as he reminisces.
The men hoot with laughter.
“He’s definitely not picturing her pretty face!”
“Something a bit lower down than her eyes, that’s for sure!”
Park seems to wake up from his reverie, scowling at the men. “Don’t talk of her that way! She’s as pure as fresh snow.”
“So you’re saying you haven’t-”
“No!” Park replies, face turning red. “We’re getting married and she didn’t want to…”
The men roar with laughter again and Kyungsoo can’t help but feel sorry for Park.
“You’re away for months!” A recruit Kyungsoo dislikes shouts, red in the face from a little too much alcohol. “Don’t you need a little something to keep you going?”
Park swats the man, Kyungsoo notes with a smile. “Keep talking and I’ll knock your teeth out.”
Another loud man laughs, winking at Park. “Don’t see why you need to wait. Or just one woman. There’s plenty in the village over the hill to go around.”
Kyungsoo shakes his head. God, these men were desperate.
One of the recruits with observant eyes turns to Kyungsoo, looking curious. “What about you, Do? Do you have a sweetheart back home? A girl?”
A girl. A girl. A girl. Kyungsoo almost laughs. He should, shouldn’t he? He should have a girl. A girl.
Freak freak freak freak. The word pumps through his chest like a heartbeat.
The men chip in their thoughts in a tumultuous chorus.
“Of course he does!”
“Just look at him! The destroyer! The lover?”
“Not just one! He could have any girl he wanted!”
“He must have.” One man, usually quiet, pipes up as the conversation falls silent.
“That must be where he goes at night. Park says he’s seen him leave the barracks a few times, isn’t that right, Park?”
Next to him, Park shifts uncomfortably, looking away from Kyungsoo. “Uh, yeah. I’ve seen you go out a few times, Do.”
The men wait expectantly as Kyungsoo’s mouth dries and fists clench. Going out to meet a sweetheart. A girl. The urge to laugh maniacally comes upon him, quick and dizzying. He thinks of Jongin’s face, inches away from his, of how soft his lips are. A girl.
“Look at his face,” one man crows and Kyungsoo doesn’t know who at this rate, as the faces of the crowd melt into grotesque masks before him, “just look at him. Of course he was meeting someone. What did you get up to, Do? Tell us!”
“Tell us the details!”
Kyungsoo feels sick to the stomach, bile rising to his throat. This is what he should be doing, isn’t it? Fucking some woman and telling the others about it. This is what’s normal. Images of Jongin’s strong, muscled arms and how he would feel moving on top of Kyungsoo come to him, unbidden, and he shakes them away, disgusted.
“Come on, guys.” Park says quietly, pushing men off Kyungsoo’s bed. “He doesn’t want to talk about it. Let’s play cards.”
Kyungsoo should be more grateful, he knows. He should thank Park, or even smile at him. He should try to normalise his expression in front of the other recruits, so gossip won’t fly. But all he can do is curl into a ball, holding his legs tighter and tighter as if he can protect himself from this weakness which has already seeped into his heart.
The rain lashes down like the crack of a whip, hitting the sun-baked earth in hard slaps as thunder reverberates across the campsite. It’s late – the light has seeped out of the sky in those brief inky hours of night fighting against summer’s daylight reign – and the recruits have retreated inside to sleep, warm and safe from the storm.
Kyungsoo, habitually wakeful in the dregs of the night, listens to the haphazard symphony that the storm creates around him, waiting for silence so he can slip out, unnoticed.
Shoving his dagger in his waistband, he creeps cautiously towards the punch bag in the middle of the training ground, rain pelting him like tiny stones.
It’s the first time in weeks he’s trained at night alone. Without Jongin, his brain adds, anger coursing through him as he pictures the General’s face. The General’s very male face, with those collarbones he wants to lick, that neck he wants to bite, the mouth he wants to kiss. No. No. Freak. Freak. Freak.
His fists start hammering into the punch bag almost without him realising it, feet bare and bloody on the floor, harsh noises of pain escaping his throat. It feels good, he realises as he pummels the bag harder. Like a release. Like a redemption. Like a-
“Do? Kyungsoo?” A voice asks in horror, and Kyungsoo just knows it’s Jongin without turning. Jongin, who jerks back when Kyungsoo turns to face him, all calloused knuckles and wild, dead eyes. There’s something about Kyungsoo’s blatant violence, his animal bloodlust that has always unnerved Jongin, Kyungsoo knows. He has all this emotion, all this anger, all this violence at his fingertips and it scares Jongin in more ways than he’d like to admit. Kyungsoo can see it in his eyes.
Barely acknowledging him, Kyungsoo turns back to the punching bag as his fists rain down and hoarse cries are ripped from his throat. The rain continues to pelt down, and Kyungsoo is soaked to the skin by now. Too focused to shiver, or maybe just too angry.
“Go inside, Do," Jongin says gently, softly, and Kyungsoo hears it above the rain on his back. “Come on.”
Kyungsoo doesn’t answer, his fists flying faster and harder as he assaults the punch bag and falls deeper and deeper into the roaring emotion.
“Kyungsoo,” Jongin says again, a little more firmly, “come inside now.” He lays his hand on Kyungsoo’s shoulder and it is instantly whipped off as Kyungsoo whirls around, his eyes blazing fire and fear and some kind of longing. For a second,
Kyungsoo thinks he’s going to hit Jongin, really hit him. Not just punch his jaw, but let out all his anger and anguish and emotion and beat Jongin to the ground.
Eyes burning with angry tears, Kyungsoo heaves in a painful breath and sends one quick, hard punch to the centre of the bag, slippery with rain and blood. “Why? Why should you care?”
“You’re my recruit, Do. I can’t have you risk your health like this.”
Kyungsoo’s eyes flash as he launches himself at the punch bag, words cut off by his harsh breaths. “Well, that’s mighty honourable of you, Sir.”
“What is your problem?” Jongin bites out coldly, anger barely leashed. He grabs Kyungsoo’s shoulder and is shaken off, before grabbing it again.
Kyungsoo turns this time, pushing Jongin’s hand away from him and advancing on him with eyes like burning thunder in this storm’s downpour. “My problem?”
“You’ll get sick. Or injured. Or hurt. I command you to stand by, recruit.”
“Oh you do, do you?” Kyungsoo replies, voice twisted with ugly mockery, and before Jongin can register what’s happening, a fist is swinging into his jaw, bloodying his mouth.
Quick as a flash, Jongin retaliates, hooking his leg around Kyungsoo and throwing him off balance, yet not to the ground. With a grunt ripped from his throat, Kyungsoo comes at him again, punches raining down as Jongin blocks them and counters with his own stinging blows.
As a controlled commander, Kyungsoo knows Jongin should stop. General Kim would stop. Kai would stop. But Jongin? He doesn’t. Kyungsoo wonders how he knows this with such certainty, how he knows Jongin so well already. He meets Kyungsoo’s punches with his own, joining this all-out, hard-fought, bloody, out-of-control match of wills, of violence, of deadliness.
Kyungsoo’s fist deflects off Jongin’s jaw just as Jongin sinks a punch to his stomach, and only now does he notice that he is crying, tears mixing with the heavy rain which has sunk deep into their bones. The tears aren’t of sorrow, though, but of deep, burning hatred, lodging itself in Kyungsoo’s gut. Freak.
They break off, breathing hard and angry as the storm rolls over their head and the thunder breaks. One, two – lighting cracks. Right in the eye of the storm, Kyungsoo thinks briefly, before lodging a punch against Jongin’s shoulder.
“Why are you doing this?” Jongin asks, as Kyungsoo watches Kai crack before him and melts away like a chrysalis that’s been holding a butterfly for far too long. “Kyungsoo. Why?”
Kyungsoo shoves Jongin suddenly, desperation rising in his eyes. “How can you not know?” His voice raises to a shout as he pushes Jongin again. “How can you not know?”
Jongin jerks back and then forward, shoving Kyungsoo away from him on an outward breath and then Kyungsoo pushes him back again, harder, and their faces are so close and their breath is mingling and before Kyungsoo knows it, Jongin’s kissing him.
Kissing him. Kissing him. His hands fist into Jongin’s hair as his teeth bite over Jongin’s lip as if even an act so intimate has to be permeated by this elemental
violence. Kyungsoo kisses Jongin like he fights him: openly, roughly, with a violence of emotion simmering just beneath the surface.
And maybe Kyungsoo should stop. Maybe he should drag his hands off Jongin’s waist and push him away and tell him all the hundred ways this is wrong and forget about the one way that this is right, that this feels right but it just isn’t. Maybe he should try to slow down his racing, stumbling heart, to meet all this emotion and hurt with his own ragged heart.
But he can’t, or he won’t. So he doesn’t. He grabs handfuls of Jongin’s hair with his fists, scraping his teeth over the fragile skin of his lips, trying to meet violence with violence, anger with anger, emotion with explosive emotion.
Jongin is kissing Kyungsoo, and kissing him and kissing him like he thinks he could never kiss anyone else again and he’s grinding his crotch, slow, hard, dirty into Kyungsoo’s and he’s fighting back as he’s never fought back before. Somehow, he’s pushing Kyungsoo back into a post, and they’re grinding harder, faster, angrier, eyes not meeting, Kyungsoo’s lips biting painfully into Jongin’s neck as they move faster, faster and faster and Jongin comes in a rush of anger and inexplicable anguish.
Kyungsoo follows a second after, and they break off, staring at each other as harsh breaths scrape their lungs and the simmering tension between them bubbles over.
Kyungsoo gulps, hating the way Jongin’s eyes stray to his Adam’s apple, hating the way he loves that, hating the stickiness between his legs and the violence in his own eyes.
“Freak," Kyungsoo says quickly, recoiling and pushing Jongin off him with a wildness in his eyes. “Freak of nature. You’re disgusting.”
“Kyungsoo-” Jongin starts, reaching out for Kyungsoo.
“Don’t touch me!” Kyungsoo hisses, eyes mad with fear and hatred. He stops, breathing heavily as the rain finally lets up and angry silence replaces its harsh patter. “Freak," he spits out one more time, looking at Jongin for a moment longer than is necessary, shaking his head, and turning to walk away.
Jongin is left by the punch bag, looking sodden, deflated, hollowed out.
Kyungsoo doesn’t want to look back, but he does, peeking out from the barracks. A raindrop slides from his hairline to his nose and his stinging, tender neck.
Kyungsoo doesn’t hear the next bout of thunder when it starts, nor does he count the seconds to the lighting. One. Freak. Two. Monster. His mind is empty, hollow, the village girl far from sight. Right in the eye of the storm.
Kyungsoo wakes up the next day and pulls the thin blanket over his head, wishing he could stop existing just for one second.
The idea of facing Jongin is unpalatable at the very least and impossible at the very most, so he just groans and rolls over, pulling the blanket further over him.
In vain, he tries to summon up the image of the village girl, but her pretty smile merges into Jongin’s lips as they press against his again and again and-
“Do?” Park’s voice sounds, as he pulls the covers off Kyungsoo and nudges him. “Everyone’s gone training. It’s past first light. What are you doing?”
The sharp, bright edges of the sunlight strands coming from the windows sting Kyungsoo’s eyes as he blinks up at Park, looking down at him with confusion and concern.
Then, the other’s face softens, slackens, and he crouches next to Kyungsoo’s bed, speaking softly. “It’s your girl, right? You went out last night again? Did something happen with her?”
Her echoes bitterly in Kyungsoo’s mind as he tries to push the guilt down within his chest. Her. It should have been her. It should have been anyone but Jongin.
But Park’s face is so kind, so heartbreakingly soft, and Kyungsoo can’t quite lie about this. Not completely, anyway. “Yes,” he hears himself say, his voice sounding dangerously sad to his own ears. “Yes. Something did happen.”
“And it can’t be fixed? You can’t work it out?”
“No,” Kyungsoo says, almost laughing at the absurdity of it all. “Definitely not. It’s over. It’s better this way.”
Park doesn’t say anything, doesn’t blink or nod or smile or murmur words of encouragement. He merely looks at Kyungsoo for one, long second and then stands up.
“Wait here for one moment,” he mutters, dashing out of the barracks and leaving Kyungsoo alone in the quiet.
Sitting up in his bed, Kyungsoo looks after Park in confusion, watching him run back into the room after a few minutes’ absence.
Smiling, he sits down next to Kyungsoo on his own bed. “Sorted. I told General Yang you were really sick and I was infectious from spending time with you. He’s terrified of getting sick himself, so he just sent me back here and told me to watch you," Chanyeol pauses, tilting his head to look at Kyungsoo. “I thought you could use some company.”
Kyungsoo’s first instinct is to reject all help, to tell Chanyeol to fuck off, to cope through this on his own because he’s independent and he’s strong and he’s lived so long without any support. Then, he stops. Thinks for a while. Realises he could use a little bit of company right now. After all, he’s starting to realise that strength doesn’t have to mean doing everything by himself. Strength can be found with the help of others, too.
“Yeah. I-” Kyungsoo stops, throat closing over. “I’d like that, Park.”
“Chanyeol,” the other man says softly, smiling at Kyungsoo as he reaches for a deck of playing cards under his mattress.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Chanyeol asks quietly, shuffling the cards in his hands.
“Not really," Kyungsoo says honestly, eyes straying to the soothing, repetitive movement of Chanyeol’s hand.
“Shall I just shut up altogether?” Chanyeol murmurs, a kind smile tugging at his lips.
“No,” Kyungsoo says suddenly, surprising himself entirely. “No. Tell me about you. Who you left behind when you came here. Your girl.”
Surprise flits across Chanyeol’s face. “Why?” he blurts out.
Kyungsoo stops, considering that for a second. “It’s good to remember.”
A wide smile, fresh as spring rain, spreads across Chanyeol’s face and Kyungsoo wonders if he’s underestimated just how warming friendship can be for too long now.
“Well,” Chanyeol starts, eyes growing misty as he looks past Kyungsoo and into his own imagination, “First of all, there’s Mama Park. Tiny. Fierce. Caring. Then, there’s Dad. Tall. Quiet. Loving. Then, there’s me, all tall and uncoordinated.”
“And brave. And loyal. And loving," Kyungsoo interjects, surprising himself at the force of his own voice. “You’re a lot more than you think, Chanyeol.”
“So are you," Chanyeol replies, eyes too perceptive all of a sudden. “You don’t give yourself enough credit, Kyungsoo.”
A gentle warmth spreads through Kyungsoo’s chest, as he wonders if it could actually be true. If he could be more than this lowlife, this freak. If he could be a good person.
“Finally, there’s my baby sister," Chanyeol concludes, smile growing wider, then faltering. “Although...she won’t be a baby anymore now. She’ll be growing into a woman. She’ll be so pretty. So sweet. So kind," Chanyeol says, his voice dropping to an achingly gentle whisper as his tone grows wistful. Suddenly, Kyungsoo feels a longing that’s lain dormant in his chest for many years - that familiar yearning for home.
“And your girl?”
“My girl.” Chanyeol’s grin becomes wide and stupid, eyes glazing over. “Oh, Kyungsoo. My girl. She’s so beautiful, without even trying. She looks so much better when her cheeks are all dusty from cleaning, when her hair is sweaty from cooking, when she’s barefoot, in her old apron and fraying dress. She looks real then, not just like a fairy. She looks like herself.” He stops, looking down at his hands with a smile before catching Kyungsoo’s eye. “She’s kind, and patient. She laughs when I’m clumsy, but she always helps me up afterwards. She has the worst temper and is the most stubborn person I’ve ever met. But if she loves you, she loves you. Fiercely. Loyally. Without conditions.”
“Does she love you?” Kyungsoo can’t stop himself from asking, the words falling in the hallowed hush of the barracks.
Chanyeol stops, cocking his head at Kyungsoo as if no one’s ever asked him this question, as if he’s never even considered it. Then, slowly, a smile spreading like wildfire over his face, he nods and nods and nods. “Yes,” he says, his voice growing gruff with emotion, “Yes, she does.”
“It’s good to remember,” Kyungsoo murmurs, his voice dropping as images fill his own head. Seungsoo laughing. The lightness in his chest that he’d forgotten.
“And you? Where are your family, Kyungsoo?”
“I-” Kyungsoo’s heart stutters for a second. He hasn’t talked about them in years. He hasn’t wanted to, but suddenly here, with a friend, he feels his heart opening crack by crack. “They left Seoul five years ago, when I was 20. Mom needed to move on - the money here wasn’t enough and her friend had a sister way out South who was willing to give her and my brother lodgings and work. She wanted me to come, but her friend’s sister could only accommodate two people, and we both agreed I’d do better to stay here.” Kyungsoo pauses, swallowing, the memory of their parting still fresh in his mind.
“I was 20. I should have had a trade by then. I had no time to be living off my mother. I worked for a year or two, doing whatever I could to make money. Mom’s friend, who had almost helped raise me, agreed to take me in. I’d always called her Auntie anyway. She let me stay with her family even though they had little enough for themselves. It was all so perfect, but then work started drying up and I couldn’t look at Auntie again and say I had no money to help buy dinner. She never complained, but I couldn’t let her down like that.” He stops again, preparing for Chanyeol’s judgement as he finishes his story.
“That’s how I started fighting on the streets. For money. I did well at first, but Auntie saw my bloody knuckles, my bruised face, my avoidance of questions. She knew, and I couldn’t bring any more shame on her family. I told her thank you, and I left.” Kyungsoo smiles, remembering her pure, kind-hearted generosity. “She tried to give me some money. She’d been saving it for years, for her daughter’s wedding. I couldn’t take it, but she ran out of the house after me, shouting. I couldn’t take that from her too.”
Chanyeol is quiet, taking this all in before he nods. “So you’ve been fighting on the streets since then? The last few years? Where have you been sleeping?”
Kyungsoo shrugs. “Here and there. Some of Mom’s friends let me stay for one night if I pay for dinner. Sometimes I barter for a night’s accommodation instead of money if I win a fight. But I won’t take a bed from a kid that needs it.”
“You’re a good man, Kyungsoo.”
Kyungsoo shakes his head. “I had a choice. A life before all this. These kids didn’t. They don’t deserve to be punished for something they can’t control.”
“Neither do you," Chanyeol says softly, looking right at Kyungsoo. Then, he repeats himself. “You’re a good man, Kyungsoo.”
The warmth appears in his chest again, spreading a little further, but Kyungsoo can’t quite believe it. “A good man wouldn’t resent his life like I did. A good man wouldn’t fight people for money. Hurt them for his own gain.”
“Maybe,” Chanyeol replies softly, playing with the deck of cards again, “but good men are still human, Kyungsoo. They make mistakes. They do wrong. Doesn’t make them bad. Just makes them real.”
Kyungsoo opens his mouth to speak, but finds that suddenly, he’s got nothing to stay. The silence, warm and comforting, blankets them for a few minutes as they both watch Chanyeol shuffle his deck of cards.
Finally, Chanyeol speaks again. “Do you miss them? Your family?”
Kyungsoo merely nods, not trusting himself to speak.
Chanyeol nods. “Did you see them again? After they left Seoul?”
Kyungsoo shakes his head, throat tight. “When the time is right, we will meet again,” he says, his voice hoarse. “That’s what Mom told me when they left. When Seungsoo was trying so hard not to cry.”
“Do you believe that?” Chanyeol asks, and it’s the fact that his eyes are gentle and caring, not prying or judgemental, which encourages Kyungsoo to reply.
“I have to," he says quietly, closing his eyes against a ray of sunshine that slides over his face.
The rest of day passes quietly, comfortably, as they play cards and sit watching the sky. Then, as the afternoon drags on into an early evening, Chanyeol digs under his mattress again (how much does he keep there?) and pulls out three large bottles of a colorless liquid. He passes one to Kyungsoo who uncaps it and sniffs experimentally. Strong alcohol burns his nose.
“What is it?” Kyungsoo asks, turning to Chanyeol with curious eyes.
“I don’t know,” Chanyeol begins sheepishly, looking a little embarrassed. “I bought it from one of the village uncles. He said it was strong.”
Kyungsoo eyes the bottle tentatively, giving it a sniff. The sharp heat of alcohol burns his nose, but he gulps a mouthful down anyway. “You got that right,” Kyungsoo splutters, coughing as the fiery burn touches the back of his throat. He’d only drank once before, when he came of age. He’s not sure if his memory was failing him, but this drink seems a lot stronger.
“I think we both need to let loose a little," Chanyeol says, daring Kyungsoo on with his eyes. “Scared?”
“You wish," Kyungsoo retorts, taking a huge gulp and managing to swallow without choking.
Chanyeol smiles, eyes narrowing in challenge, and the games begin.
An hour later, when Chanyeol and Kyungsoo are halfway through their bottles and Kyungsoo appears to be dancing to a song Chanyeol is singing while he drums on the ground, the rest of the recruits flood into the barracks after a long day.
They stop, gaping at the pair who are too far gone to worry about embarrassment.
“We are drinking a have!” Kyungsoo declares loudly, spinning around so many times that he falls over, giggling. From across the room, Chanyeol snorts with laughter into his bed. “Join us!”
“Knew Do couldn’t be sick!”
“Crack open a bottle, Byun!”
“Park, that song is terrible. Try something a little spicier!”
Soon, the barracks turn into mayhem, many recruits digging up their valuable supplies of alcohol as they join the revelry. Three men break into song, one shouts at another for cheating at cards, and a solemn recruit by the name of Kim Junmyeon tries to do a cartwheel.
Kyungsoo flits around from one group to another, soaking up the atmosphere, talking more freely than he has for years, laughing at too many jokes and singing too many songs. Even as the alcohol dries up, his buoyant mood continues, gratitude for these men swelling in his heart. He’d forgotten what it’d been like to have friends. To have fun. To let it all go for a few blissful moments.
Somehow, he ends up in the middle of the room, spinning and spinning and dancing, singing and laughing. Then, as quietly as the sun is descending beneath the horizon, Jongin walks in.
Kyungsoo knows something’s happened by the hush that falls over the group. The dirty chants stop, the singing quitens, the laughter turns into sober silence. Stopping mid-turn, Kyungsoo falls onto the nearest bed, looking up at the doorway to see Jongin looking at him, mirth bright in his eyes. For one second, his stomach lurches, but the warmth the alcohol has spread over his body is only heightened by Jongin’s ridiculous smile.
Kyungsoo wonders if he’s angry, his befuddled brain unable to understand what’s happening. He stands up, swaying on his feet lightly and looks Jongin straight in the eye.
“It’s my fault, Sir. I persuaded the other recruits to engage in this...shameful business. I’m sorry," Kyungsoo says, as contritely and politely as anyone who is slurring their words can.
Jongin looks at him again, admiration joining humour in his eyes. “You’re right,” he says, suddenly looking stern. “It is shameful.” He pauses for a second, and Kyungsoo feels every recruit in the room inhale sharply. Jongin looks at Kyungsoo for one more long second and then starts to laugh. “Your dancing, Do. Truly shameful.”
Kyungsoo is rendered speechless as the recruits roar with laughter, looking to Jongin with huge smiles. A surge of something warm and unexpected rises within Kyungsoo, something that feels an awful lot like pride.
“Keep it down a little, recruits. General Yang thinks spirits are the devil’s tools and will not take too kindly to you waking him up," Jongin says with a smile, turning for the door.
The recruits scramble to their feet, eyes and mouths wide as if they can barely believe their luck. They bow quickly, stumbling over their feet. “Yes, Sir!”
Jongin pauses at the doorway, looking back one more time, his eyes automatically flicking to rest on Kyungsoo. “You’ve worked hard. Training will be cancelled tomorrow. Take the time to see your families,” he smiles wryly, looking around the room, “or sleep off all this alcohol. At ease!”
“Yes, Sir!” The recruits shout back, cheering as Jongin exits the room and the festivities start again in earnest.
Good men are still human, Kyungsoo thinks, looking around at this misfit group of heroes. Good men make mistakes.
Chanyeol smiles at him across the room. It just makes them real.