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“Get up! Do, get up!” A loud hiss jerks Kyungsoo awake, Park’s pale, determined face appearing above his.
“What?” Kyungsoo mumbles, in the half-lucid state between sleep and wakefulness.
It’s been days since the drunken revelry, and life in the camp has settled back to normal.
“Can’t you hear it?” Park mutters, pulling Kyungsoo out of his bed. “They’re here. They came.”
Kyungsoo, suddenly alert, throws a shirt over his back and grabs his dagger from inside his shoes. “But why?”
Park shrugs, impatient. “I don’t know. Night raid, maybe? Just get the fuck out there!”
And he’s chasing out of the barracks, Kyungsoo hot on his heels as the sounds of metal clashing and the stench of blood hits Kyungsoo like a wave of humidity.
“Jesus,” he mutters under his breath, eyes sweeping over the utter decimation of the scene. Bodies litter the floor. Suddenly, his sword feels wrong in his hand: heavy, cold, foreign. His fists ache to strike bare skin as he stumbles forward, bile thick in his throat. It was never like this before.
No. What right does he have to feel like this? He’s just a soldier, a fighter, a body ready to offer itself up for sacrifice. Freaks don’t need a conscience.
His leg, shaking with some foreign emotion, snakes out instinctively to trip the soldier whose back is turned to Kyungsoo. Whipping around, the man lands in a heap at Kyungsoo’s feet. Raising his sword, Kyungsoo prepares to bring it down.
Kyungsoo snaps to alertness, eyes going to the face of the man beneath him, laid out like some faceless offering. He looks - really looks this time – and recoils. The youngest recruit looks up at him, a boy of barely sixteen summers whose voice was always the loudest and most enthusiastic each time they trained.
“I’m-” Kyungsoo’s lips form around that one word, but the sorry evades him, throat blocked with panic and an emotion Kyungsoo rarely lets himself feel.
“You wouldn’t have.” The boy whispers as Kyungsoo gives him a hand up. His face, usually filled with youthful bravado and excitement, is paled by terror and reddened by a bloody gash curving from his eyebrow to his chin. Kyungsoo tastes bile, hot and acidic, in his throat.
“You wouldn’t have done it,” the boy whispers, the terrified reassurance failing to quell Kyungsoo’s stomach. He’s not so sure.
Kyungsoo lurches away, dry heaving as the boy’s eyes light with a fear that no one should ever feel. It’s not right, and it’s the utter wrongness of the situation which propels Kyungsoo further into the battle. Further from himself.
It was never like this before.
It may have been bloody in those ringside arenas, may have been ruthless and lawless and a thousand things worse, but it had never been like this. It had never been boys cowering in the face of death. It had never been fighting for something intangible, something irrelevant, something unclear. It had never been bodies lying mangled and bloodied on the dry summer grass. The killing had never been, and would never be, systematic like this. Fights could be deadly, Kyungsoo knew that. He knew the danger he was in; he knew the politics of the street could be fatal. He would never defend what could happen there. But everything was so human: fists hit skin, passions collided with passions, people fought for their lives and their loves. Here, he’s not so sure.
It’s all so detached, how the soldiers kill anonymous, faceless beings with cold, metal swords that never really belonged to them at all. How Kyungsoo runs a man straight through without a second thought.
I just killed a man, Kyungsoo thinks blankly as he stares at the unidentified corpse. He looks down at his hands, surprised to see they look no different. There’s no blood staining them red, no tell-tale signs. Nothing. It’s almost as if nothing happened. Kyungsoo swallowed. I just killed a man. It was never like this before.
“General Kim!” Kyungsoo hears someone shout, his head whipping around just in time to see Jongin fall, a sword missing his chest as he jumps out of the way and sinking into his thigh just above the knee instead.
The world doesn’t exactly stop – Kyungsoo’s not sure if that’s even possible – but time slows as everything sharpens and blurs in his field of his vision.
The grass, suddenly impossibly green beneath his running feet. The sun, suddenly so hot and dizzying on the back of his neck. The silence, the deafening silence as Kyungsoo drops his sword and rounds to Jongin’s attacker, not looking at the body on the floor. (He can’t do that, because that would make it true. That would confirm that it happened and Kyungsoo hopes beyond hope that it didn’t.)
The noises of the battle roar back into his ears as he rolls up his sleeves and swings a punch at the soldier. Somehow it feels better like this, right. Better as Kyungsoo’s fists batter the faceless man, as his kick sends him crashing to the ground. Better as Kyungsoo feels the aching burn in his lungs, the blood forming on his knuckles, the pain of his fists like a redemption. This is not what Jongin taught him, but damned if he’s going to let this soldier escape so easily. Damned if he’s going to hide behind armour and weapons when the only way he knows how to solve anything is with his fists.
The man, bloodied and helpless, lies beneath him and Kyungsoo knows he shouldn’t stop. Knows this man wouldn’t stop for him. Knows this is war and this is what happens. Knows he should be stronger. But somehow, somehow, he just can’t do it. He can’t kill someone so defenseless, so weak. Someone who doesn’t know Jongin just as Kyungsoo doesn’t know him. Someone under orders.
Kyungsoo pauses. Heaves a breath. Lowers his hand for the man to take and-
A heavy object hits him squarely on the back of the head and he falls down in one blow, darkness wrapping him tight.
The world returns to Kyungsoo piece by distorted piece, the painful throbbing of his head reminding him that somehow, somehow he’s still living. There’s someone bending over him, but he can’t quite register who in the foul-smelling darkness. The wounded lie around him, the stench of blood heavy on the humid air. The wounded. The dead. Jongin.
Kyungsoo surfaces with a gasp.
“Do?” A harassed looking soldier who Kyungsoo remembers had some medical experience hastens over to him, his skin pale with nervous exhaustion.
Panic presses down on Kyungsoo’s chest like a paperweight, forcing all air out of his
lungs as they try to clench on nothingness. “What happened?” He manages to croak out, because he just can’t say the words yet. He can’t ask. He can’t know.
The man’s face softens. “We won. You’re safe now. We won.”
Kyungsoo’s eyes sweep the room, taking in the bleeding, the wounded, the expressions of fear and pain. Was this winning, then? Above him, the man’s eyes flicker with emotion, like the tiniest spark from a roaring fire.
Kyungsoo swallows, wondering where all the air has gone. “And Jong- I mean General Kim? Kai?”
“Is that why you went berserk? We all saw it, Do. Saw you pummel that soldier to the ground with your bare fists.”
Kyungsoo freezes, waiting for the condemnation, the disgust, the horror. Waits to be called out as the street vermin he is, as the freak of nature he wishes he wasn’t.
The man smiles sympathetically, reaching out to place a hand on Kyungsoo’s shoulder. “That takes guts. Loyalty. You’re a brave one, Do. Such a shame.”
Kyungsoo’s half out of his bed as he hears those words. “What’s a shame? What happened to Jong – General Kim?”
The man’s eyes shutter, bleakness spreading over his expression like a winter frost. “He’s worsening. The doctor expects infection. We don’t know if he’ll make the week.”
And then Kyungsoo is moving, standing, walking, running. Ignoring his screaming head, the man’s protests, the groans of the wounded, the burning sun, he races to Jongin. The poppies sway, agitated, as he moves through them, bursting into the generals’ barracks in one quick, violent move.
The men standing inside – doctors, generals, the highest ranks – stop their conversation and look up at him, surprise and confusion in their eyes.
Kyungsoo stops, breaths heaving in and out of him as he finally sees himself from their eyes. Dirty, bloody, with matted hair and bare feet, bruises marring his pale skin and scabs forming around his mouth, Kyungsoo sees the street rat reflected in their eyes. Shame presses in on him like a smothering fog and he lowers his head as the men begin to speak.
“Do?” One of the generals asked, a kind-hearted man who is ruthless with a sword.
“Yes, Sir,” Kyungsoo answers quietly, looking down at his calloused, dirty feet.
“Who?” Another general says derisively, and Kyungsoo can just feel those scornful eyes on him.
“Tell him to go. There’s no place for his sort here.”
Kyungsoo’s head hangs heavier, his head telling him to move but his feet sticking to the ground. Raising his head slightly, he can just make out Jongin’s figure on the bed. He doesn’t look dead, Kyungsoo tells himself. He’s not. He can’t be. He’s-
“What was it you wanted, Do?” The kind-eyed General asks softly, looking at Kyungsoo with sympathy and a hint of pity. Kyungsoo bristles.
“Just to check General Kim was well, Sir," Kyungsoo swallows, hoping they wouldn’t ask why.
The man looks at him for two long seconds, before smiling. “Oh, yes. You defended him on the battlefield, am I correct? Your loyalty is to be praised. Are you injured?”
“Only a concussion, Sir,” Kyungsoo replies, wincing as his head pounds.
“I’m afraid your General is faring a lot worse, Do,” the general says gravely, looking down for one second.
Kyungsoo waits for him to elaborate, holds his breath for the details, but they just don’t come. Lowly soldiers, he realises, will never be party to such information. Kyungsoo stills, uncertainty and panic washing through him as his fists clench. Jongin.
“Is that all, Do?” The general asks, tilting his head as he looks at Kyungsoo.
Kyungsoo swallows, looking at Jongin’s bed and wishing, wishing, wishing that everything else could just melt away until it was just him, battered, bloody, determined and Jongin, graceful, broken, hopeful. Until it was just their hands pressed together and the outside world retreating.
He snaps his head up. This is wrong. This is wrong. “Yes, Sir.”
It was never like this before.
The days get hotter as Jongin becomes sicker. Recruits have fallen like end-of-summer petals, and those left are raw from injury, fatigue and fear. They train daily, harder than before, but that fighting spirit is just gone.
They all need Jongin right about now, Kyungsoo thinks. They need Jongin and he needs Jongin, and he knows he needs to do something.
Many times, he’s been tempted. Lying on the floor, surrounded by snoring recruits, the oppressive weight of summer hanging in the air, he’s been more than tempted.
To get up. To go to Jongin. To say…
What would he say, though? What he could possibly say to this man? What could this man possibly want to say to him?
So he lets it pass, like a thunderstorm, like a flash of lightning. Momentary madness, indulged at the point of impact and then forgotten. Like an itch, a disease, a momentary scream into the abyss. Kyungsoo lets it pass as the days lengthen and the poppies wilt and the panic seems to reside like a permanent ache in his chest.
And then, out of nowhere, it rains.
It’s not really a surprise of course – it’s July, the hottest and wettest month, and monsoons are regular if not frequent – yet somehow the sticky, overbearing heat had made him forget. Somehow, as he lies watching the ceiling, the groan of thunder and heavy patter of rain sends a delicious thrill of shock to his very core.
A tingle of something, a shiver, even. Jongin’s face appears in his mind, hair dripping from the heavy rain as he pins Kyungsoo back into the post and thrusts and thrusts and thrusts. Those sad, expressive eyes peeking out under his wet fringe as words rip from Kyungsoo’s throat. Freak. Freak of nature.
Before he even realises what he’s doing, before he can stop himself, he’s on his feet. And then he’s in front of the generals’ barracks. And then he’s standing over Jongin, quietly, ever-so-quietly, not daring to breathe as he pulls the blanket up to check Jongin’s wound.
Kyungsoo stifles a gasp. It’s an angry, painful red, puffing up around his knee. Kyungsoo moves an inch closer, just to examine and-
Kyungsoo jumps a foot in the air, retreating back several steps until his eyes connect with Jongin’s, filled with confusion and hope and wonder.
“I was just…” Kyungsoo swallows. I was just looking. It’s not as if I care. Catching Jongin’s eye, he can’t spit the words out. Honesty is ripped out of him by Jongin’s direct, open gaze, his voice lowering to a shaking whisper. “I was worried. I was worried about you.”
Jongin stills, looking at him for a long while as Kyungsoo starts to shift uncomfortably. Maybe this was a bad idea. Maybe he read the signs wrong. Maybe Jongin wanted nothing to do with a street rat. Maybe he went too far last time. Maybe-
Jongin holds out his hand, palm shaking slightly, and it feels like a blessing. Kyungsoo’s traitorous hand moves forward automatically before stopping mid-air, unable to move forward or back.
Jongin tilts his head slightly, looking at Kyungsoo like he knows him, and Kyungsoo starts to feel that he does. That, more than anyone, Jongin knows him.
“I can’t,” Kyungsoo blurts out, because this is getting too much. This is not him, and it shouldn’t be. This isn’t right. “Jongin, I just can’t.”
Jongin quirks a smile that doesn’t reach anywhere near his eyes, lowering his hand to clasp in his other, knuckles white from clenching so hard. Kyungsoo winces.
Taking a deep breath, Jongin sits up and pats a space next to him on the bed. Looks up at Kyungsoo with those eyes, those damn eyes. “Please?”
Kyungsoo lets out all his breath in one exhale, the squeezing panic in his chest simultaneously increasing and lessening in that one move. He sets his jaw, wanting nothing more to crawl over the bed and burrow himself into Jongin’s side until he’s finally safe.
“Be brave," Jongin whispers, soft understanding partnering with a teasing challenge in his eyes.
Kyungsoo swears under his breath, but it’s no good. He cautiously slides onto the bed next to Jongin, putting as much space between them as possible, sitting stiffly and gingerly at an arm’s length.
Jongin rolls his eyes, pulling on Kyungsoo’s arms until he relaxes onto the bed and looks back at Jongin, properly this time. He catches the bruise on his throat, the scar at his lip, the shadows under his eyes. He stares.
Jongin winces, gesturing ruefully at his features. “Not great, is it?”
Kyungsoo shakes his head, smiling lightly. “Not so much of a pretty boy now.”
Jongin looks at him for one tiny moment, as if gauging the anger behind those words. Finding none, he bursts into laughter, a joyful, freeing sound that loosens the panic from Kyungsoo’s chest and fills him with the warmest summer sunshine.
Maybe everything will be right now. It was never like this before.
It becomes a routine after that, a secret that Kyungsoo stores warm and safe in his heart. Each night, he slips out of his bed, silent as a thief, heart pumping and folding in on itself as the panic squeezes itself over his chest.
At first, he’s nervous. At first, he stays at an arm’s length. He sits on the edge of the bed, careful not to let any of his body touch Jongin’s. Kyungsoo locks his soft, vulnerable heart under the impenetrable shield he casts around himself, hoping Jongin won’t find a gap in his armour.
Then, it starts to change, to mutate, to become something more. Jongin’s room becomes a haven, a sanctuary. A place to drag his weary bones, to relax, to patch together his sundering soul.
Then, Kyungsoo tries to touch Jongin.
It starts off as a surprise. Without realising it, without meaning to, without even thinking, he reaches out his hand and strokes his fingers along the smooth edge of Jongin’s forearm. Stops. Jerks back immediately.
“I-” Kyungsoo gulps, not daring to look at Jongin. He’s not quite sure what he’s more scared of finding there – whether it be rejection, or its more painful cousin, hope. “I’m sorry, I just-”
“You just?” Jongin replies, voice so soft that Kyungsoo’s mouth opens and the words spill out, unbidden.
“It was there. Your arm. Your arm was just there,” Kyungsoo whispers, wondering quite when his voice became so hoarse. “It was there and I was there and you were there and I…” His voice becomes smaller as he stares, hard, down at his painfully clenched fists, scarred around the knuckles for fight after fight. “You were there and I just couldn’t help it.”
Finally, finally, he chances a glance at Jongin, dragging his head up slowly as fear burns his throat like alcohol.
Jongin looks at him for one long second, two, three, four. Then, slowly, like the sun coming out from behind a cloud, like a flower’s petal unfurling in the morning sunshine, like the growing warmth in Kyungsoo’s belly, a warm smile paints itself on Jongin’s face and Kyungsoo just falls into his waiting arms.
He wants to fall asleep like that, burrowed into Jongin as Jongin burrows into him. He wants to forget all this fear, all this panic, all this anger under the warmth of the feeling in his gut. He wants this to be enough.
The last thought jerks Kyungsoo wide awake violently, as if he’d just awoken from a particularly bad dream. Jongin’s arms tighten around him protectively but Kyungsoo is gasping for air, pushing away from the safe embrace into the humid, burning air.
Kyungsoo opens his mouth, but Jongin cuts him off. “Don’t. Don’t say it. Just don’t, Kyungsoo.”
Kyungsoo remains silent, staring at Jongin, fixed in place, unable to move forward or back, stuck in this moment, staring at Jongin’s lips.
“Why do you do this?” Jongin asks quietly, sadly, drawing into himself in a way that Kyungsoo’s never seen before. “Why do you always do this?”
Kyungsoo doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t need to. They both know why, despite the fact that neither of them wants to accept it.
He looks at Jongin, who suddenly yelps in pain, clutching his leg as his shoulders shake from the effort. Kyungsoo, terrified, hurries forward to help Jongin, to touch him, to comfort him but Jongin gestures him away with a dead look in his eyes.
“Just leave,” Jongin mumbles, hands shaking as he reaches for the morphine placed on his bedside table. Kyungsoo sees one stray tear work its way down his cheek, tracing the path of his scar. “Please. Just leave.”
And Kyungsoo, like a good recruit, obeys his commander.
Kyungsoo can’t sleep. He’s never been a sound sleeper, but tonight, sleep evades him completely as he hears the slow, quiet raindrops fall on the roof of the barracks. His chest, close to bursting, tells him it’s time to venture outside and feel the rain-soaked air kiss his fever-sweaty skin.
Stumbling slightly, he pushes his way out of the barracks, sucking in air like divine nectar, feeling its cool tang scrape the back of his throat. His lungs, on fire, fight against his wildly beating heart as his feet take him across the camp. Fingers tracing through lines of swaying poppies, he tries to train his mind on escape, on running into this still night and leaving the sweating, hulking mass of these barracks far behind.
Instead, he finds himself in front of Jongin’s building. Again and again, he finds himself in front of Jongin, without any clue as to what he’s even looking for in the other man. Without a clue as to whether he’s found it. Without a clue as to whether he will.
One more time. He shakes himself, trying to force those words straight into his bloodstream, to absorb them into his traitorous heart. One last time then… no more. No more.
“I must be crazy," Kyungsoo mutters to himself, inhaling the cool tang of the air before pushing inside, lungs burning, heart beating, fists clenching.
“Kyungsoo?” Jongin doesn’t sound surprised, and Kyungsoo doesn’t know why that fills him with such deadly, deadly fear. Such aching, trembling hope.
Pacing closer, Kyungsoo closes the distance between them until he can look into Jongin’s bloodshot eyes and wonder. His eyes go to the bed involuntarily, to the spot where he used to lay, then guiltily dart back to Jongin’s eyes, lips, throat as his Adam’s apple bobs.
Jongin says nothing, blinking slowly as he eventually reaches out his shaking hand to Kyungsoo. “I must be crazy,” he mutters under his breath as hope and fear twine in his eyes and Kyungsoo’s heart lands somewhere around his feet.
Kyungsoo eyes Jongin’s hand, fingers twitching. Helplessly, wordlessly, he looks at Jongin, whose lip curls slightly.
“Why are you here, then? Why do you keep coming back?” Jongin bites out and oh, this is different. Kyungsoo’s seen Jongin wounded, hopeful, joyful but never angry. Not like this.
He flinches. “I should go.”
Jongin curses under his breath, clenching his palm and looking down at his blanket. Kyungsoo wonders if this is it, if for once he’s pushed Jongin too far, but then Jongin looks up, wearing his last hopes like war paint on his bruised cheeks. “I must be crazy," he repeats, and Kyungsoo wants to say no, wants to shout no, you’re not crazy. No, I’m just an idiot. Jongin swallows one more time, and Kyungsoo suddenly knows that this is his last chance. This is the moment where his life will go one of two ways.
This is when his path forks.
“No," Jongin says quietly, definitely, determinedly. “No. Don’t go. Stay," he croaks, and Kyungsoo feels that word like a bolt of lightning to his gut, like a punch to his jaw. “Stay.”
His tongue searches for the taste of blood in his mouth, his arms clutch his stomach for a sign of a wound, an impact, anything to tell him that this is just another fight, another injury. It’s different, though. This isn’t stinging fists and a bloody mouth, it’s an aching chest and sickness coiling with longing in his stomach. This isn’t what he’s used to.
“Kyungsoo,” Jongin repeats, and Kyungsoo knows once and for all that this is Jongin speaking straight to his soul. Not the pretty boy commander he first met, not General Kim, not even Kai. This is Kim Jongin baring his very essence open to Kyungsoo in the evening light, and that makes him feel honoured. Terrified. Open. Too damn
open. “Kyungsoo. Stay.”
Kyungsoo pauses, swallowing as his fingers involuntarily jerk towards Jongin’s. He doesn’t let their hands meet, though. Not yet. He just stands there, in the bruise-purple twilight that gilds the day and promises the night, heaving his breaths and clenching his fists as he searches once more for the blood in his mouth.
Nothing. This must be a different kind of fight.
“What if…” Kyungsoo swallows, flinching as he steels himself to speak the words unsettling his stomach, “what if someone sees us. What would…what would they think…that we are?”
Jongin tilts his head to the side. “That depends. What do you think we are, Kyungsoo?”
Kyungsoo says nothing, staring at the blanket under Jongin’s heavily bandaged leg and wishing, wishing, wishing above everything else that he could stop this desperate urge to grab Jongin’s hand and kiss his mouth open like a flower bud unfurling in the morning sunshine and knot his hands in that thick hair and curl next him, around him, into him until they’d breathe the same air and see the same sunshine-lit dust on the air.
Then, Jongin smiles, and Kyungsoo’s heart surges.
“I think,” Jongin says ever so softly, leaning forward slightly to tug Kyungsoo’s hand into his own, “I think that we are us: that I am Jongin, and you are Kyungsoo, and right now, we are together. And I think that you are brave enough for this.”
Kyungsoo looks up. “I’m only brave when there’s a fist in my mouth. I can fight, Jongin, I’m a street rat. I know the taste of blood in my mouth. That’s all. I’m not brave. I’m just a survivor.”
“Who ever said that you have to fight to be brave?” Jongin says quietly, looking past Kyungsoo’s eyes, and right to the centre of him, to his very essence, to the very heart of him. His voice is so tender when he squeezes Kyungsoo’s hand and slides their fingers together. “I think you’ve done enough fighting, love.”
And it’s simultaneously the easiest and most difficult thing that Kyungsoo’s ever done. Standing in a pool of softening twilight, he pushes through his fear and resistance, fighting against his own relentless tide until he can look at Jongin and, once again, just fall.
Fall into Jongin’s bed, and Jongin’s arm, and Jongin’s very soul.
Jongin smiles at him breathlessly, pressing kisses over his face as he whispers again and again, like a mantra: “you’re safe, you’re safe, you’re safe.”
When Kyungsoo finally falls asleep, curled into Jongin carefully around his broken leg, his mouth has stopped tasting of blood.
Jongin tastes better.
When Kyungsoo wakes to a scream, the first thing he thinks is that he must be dying.
The second, when his eyes snap open and he watches Jongin writhe in pain, mouth wide in a silent scream, is that this is somehow worse.
The next hours pass in flashes, like lightning, as Kyungsoo tries to centre himself, tries to find something inside himself to hold onto.
Flash: he’s running outside, feet bare, mouth thick with sleep, yelling to anyone that will listen, anyone that could help.
Flash: the doctors are arriving, the generals pushing him back from the building, thanking him for informing them of the situation.
Flash: the recruits are asking him what happened, why he was with General Kim, if he thinks Kai will live past the night.
Flash: Jongin’s screams carrying through the smoky air. Flash: sweating palms, drying mouth. Flash: the sky greying. Flash: Kyungsoo running.
Flash, flash, flash.
Jongin’s name sounds like a heartbeat through Kyungsoo’s head.
Jong-in, Jong-in, Jong-in. Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum.
The poppy petals disintegrate easily as Kyungsoo crushes them inside clenched
Like a fisherman, Kyungsoo waits for the tides to change. Relentless, they push on as Jongin sickens and Kyungsoo can’t quite convince himself to stay.
There are whispers in the camp that General Kim doesn’t have long left, that it’ll be soon now. How soon? Kyungsoo wants to yell in all of their pale, drawn faces. An hour? A day? A week? Kyungsoo can’t live like this, teetering on the edge of the unknown, unsure of which way he’ll fall. He can’t wait forever.
Again and again, he finds himself standing outside the generals’ barracks, wishing for a miracle, hoping for a change. He listens to the voices inside raise and lower, raise and lower, raise and lower, wondering what exactly he’s waiting for.
“Do?” Kyungsoo turns to face the kind-eyed General, peering benevolently down at him, questions in his eyes.
“Sir. I was just-” Kyungsoo pauses, gauging the General’s reaction. “How is General Kim, Sir?”
The man’s face darkens, then clears. “It is only natural that the recruits should want news, of course, my boy, but I must ask that this will not be passed along. General Kim is not long for this world, God rest his soul.”
Kyungsoo swallows, irritated despite himself. How long is not long? Is it enough time to take Jongin’s hand, to breathe his warm scent, to look at him for one final time and know that this is the man who has changed him as the sun shines on the sea? Is it enough?
“Sir...Could I…?” Kyungsoo gulps over the stone in his throat, eyes watering. “Could I perhaps…say goodbye?”
The general’s eyes flash with shock, as if asking what someone like Kyungsoo could want with someone like Jongin.
Kyungsoo pulls himself up to his full height, looking the man squarely. One last time. One last time, Kyungsoo. “He saved my life, Sir. I wish to thank him while I still can," Kyungsoo lies in a calm, quiet voice that sounds quite unlike him.
The General gapes. “He won’t be able to hear you. He’s gone to the world.”
Kyungsoo squares his shoulders. “It doesn’t matter. I want to thank General Kim for my life before he pays with his own. I tried to repay his sacrifice on the day he was attacked but as I failed to prevent his wound, I am still found wanting. Please let me make my peace.”
The General pauses for a painful moment, then nods solemnly, before placing a firm hand on Kyungsoo’s shoulder. “You have great honor, Do," he replies simply, and, for one tiny second, Kyungsoo can almost see himself as an equal to this great man. To Jongin.
“I will wait outside. Be quick, recruit.”
Kyungsoo nods, saluting sharply once, before ducking into the building, his whole body shaking.
The light streams into the room in long, thin yellow bands, covering Jongin in warm saffron stripes. Gangrene, the recruits whispered the doctor had said. He’ll be lucky to keep that leg. That’s if he even survives – fever could take him, if infection didn’t get to him first. It wouldn’t be long now.
Kyungsoo thinks it’s unfair, how graceful he looks now, even with Death staring him right in the face. Maybe Death’s familiar by now, he wonders. Maybe Jongin’s looked at him in the eyes too many times to be fearful now. Maybe Death is just another familiar face. He looks peaceful, lying here. He looks like Jongin, completely and utterly. Not Kai, or Sir, or General Kim. He looks like Kim Jongin, the man who smiles when the world is dissolving around him.
“Everyone misses you, you know," Kyungsoo whispers furtively, feeling beyond ridiculous for talking to an unconscious person. “You idiot. You stubborn, stubborn man. So if you’ve had enough of being ill yet, we certainly have. Hurry up and get better. We’re waiting for you," his voice cracks on the last sentence, but his smile wobbles through. Now is the time for Kyungsoo to be strong for Jongin.
“The other generals are ridiculous," Kyungsoo begins hopefully, wishing that this, something, anything, would tempt Jongin into trying harder, into opening his eyes and laughing and saying this was all a ruse. “They have no clue without you. Our drills are so short now, and they just can’t do it right. They try, but they’re not you. We need you.”
Jongin stays quiet, unmoving, and Kyungsoo tries another tactic.
“All the recruits miss you. They wouldn’t say it, but they miss your horrible drills at first light, and the way you made us clean the toilets as punishments for lateness, and the way you kept us in order. And the way you defended us that night," Kyungsoo’s voice drops, the moonlit night still so fresh and acrid in his mind. He swallows. “They think they’re so lucky to have a commander like you. One who will fight with them, for them, alongside them. I think I’m so lucky to have a commander like you.”
Kyungsoo reaches out a hand, trying to grasp Jongin’s cold, cold fingers, trying to ignite some life into that weak, weak pulse. Suddenly, he reaches up to shake Jongin’s shoulders, desperate for any reaction.
“Come on, Jongin! Please. You have to. You have to get better, you just have to!” He chokes, his voice coming out as a harsh cry. “Jongin, please.” Kyungsoo shakes him again and again, searching for any sign of life, anything he can pin his hopes too.
But Jongin has withered like a poppy at the end of summer, drooping under the weight of its own life.
“I won’t stay," Kyungsoo bursts out. “I can’t stay, Jongin! I won’t. I won’t watch you die. I just won’t.” He swallows painfully around a blockage in his throat, leaning down to rest his forehead onto Jongin’s for one brief, shattering moment. He breathes in Jongin’s scent, dimmed by illness but still present, listening to the faintest breaths drag over his lips and watching his cheeks, drained of colour, deflate to skeleton-like hollows.
Then, he stands up, eyes fixed, fists clenched. “I’m not going to watch you die.”
You’re not going to watch at all, then, his inner voice provides, and he bows his head slowly.
His lips form around that one word, but he can’t spit it out. Saying goodbye would mean it was permanent. Would mean it was over.
Stiffly, slowly, he raises his hand to his head. Salutes. One last time and then…
“Sir," he whispers. Jongin.
Ducking out of the doorway, Kyungsoo leaves just as the sun appears from behind a cloud, burning the back of his neck. He glances at the tree behind the barracks, shedding leaves in the gentle summer breeze, and watches the wildflowers spread out their petalled skirts as they sway in the breeze. One slender poppy dips its head as if dancing to silent music, and Kyungsoo smiles humorlessly. Jongin.
The barracks are silent when Kyungsoo heads back, windows streaming light over the rumpled mattresses on the floor. Kyungsoo stuffs his dagger in his waistband, sliding the last of his coins into his pocket, trembling, as he walks out of the door without a second glance.
The other recruits are testing their agility in the sprawling fields in the distance, so Kyungsoo can slip away quietly, easily, shoulders slumped and fists clenched.
He’s walked for a good five minutes when he hears panting behind him and a voice calling his name. Swerving around, he sees Chanyeol, breathing hard and looking at him in confusion and sadness.
“What are you doing, Kyungsoo?” Chanyeol asks, his voice so soft that it almost hurts Kyungsoo. He’s tired of all this kindness, all this goodness. Where has it ever got anyone, anyway? Kyungsoo wants to scream and shout, to punch and hurt, to release the pain encroaching on his heart.
“You know,” Kyungsoo mutters, his voice sounding less angry than he wanted. Sounding small, hurt, vulnerable. He bristles. He’s not going to beaten this easily. “Chanyeol. You know what I’m doing.”
Chanyeol sounds tired when he replies, exhaling heavily. “Do you have to go? Wouldn’t it be better to stay?”
“Easier, maybe,” Kyungsoo replies, a brittle smile stretching over his lips.
Chanyeol opens his mouth, looking for all the word as if he wants to ask why, as if he wants to stop Kyungsoo from leaving. Then, he just nods, tries a hesitant smile, and sticks out his hand.
Kyungsoo smiles, taking Chanyeol’s hand and shaking it firmly, giving it a final squeeze before letting go. “You’re a good man, Chanyeol. One of the best.”
“I could say the same about you,” Chanyeol says quietly, sincerely, with a quirk of his lip and Kyungsoo wishes that could be true. Wishes that he could be a good man. “Kyungsoo?”
“My family live about two miles East from here in a little white house under a big tree. Ask anyone in that area for the Parks. They’ll know where to send you. You’ll always be welcome there.”
“Chanyeol, I can’t--”
“Let me help you,” Chanyeol whispers, looking Kyungsoo straight in the eye. “Please. Let me do something. If you get hungry, if it gets too hard, do me a favour. Go and find them. No-one should be alone.”
Kyungsoo’s throat clenches down on a huge lump forming there as his eyes sting with moisture. “And what do I tell them about you? That you’re well?”
“That I love them, and I think about them everyday. That I’m trying to become a son they can be proud of it.”
“You already are,” Kyungsoo chokes out, sending one more strained smile to Chanyeol as he turns to go before he can lose his nerve. “You already are.”
Chanyeol’s house is small and white and starting to crumble under the shade of the big, leafy tree that dwarves it.
Kyungsoo doesn’t know quite how he got here, quite why he’s standing outside and trying to catch his nerve. He shouldn’t have come, that much he knows. Chanyeol’s family won’t want to see him – why would they? Who, when waiting for their son to come back from war, would settle for an unknown friend, an acquaintance really.
“Sir?” A girl’s voice sounds behind him, and Kyungsoo turns to see the most beautiful girl smiling tentatively at him. An old apron is pulled over her frayed dress, dark hair sticking to her forehead with sweat, eyes tired but kind. Chanyeol’s girl. It has to be.
“You are…you’re Chanyeol’s…” Kyungsoo mumbles, flinching when the girl grabs his arm, eyes growing wild.
“Chanyeol? You have news? Is he hurt?”
“No,” Kyungsoo says hurriedly, swallowing against the emotions building inside him, “no, Chanyeol is well. More than well. He’s…he’s so…he’s a good man. Truly. The best.”
The girl beams, but her eyes are filled with uncertainty as she looks at Kyungsoo. “Who are you? Do you know him well?”
Does he? Kyungsoo wonders, clenching his fists tightly. Does he really know Chanyeol at all? “I’m…a friend. Nobody, really.”
The girl’s smile softens slightly as she moves a pace closer to Kyungsoo. “Any friend of Chanyeol’s is welcome here. Let me-”
“No,” Kyungsoo says, panic rising him as she steps closer. “No, I really can’t stay, I-” His stomach protests, rumbling loudly. Taking one last look at Chanyeol’s girl, who looks at him with beautiful, sad eyes, he turns and walks away from that little white house and that beautiful girl and any chance at normality.
Life would go on when Chanyeol came back, Kyungsoo could see. He’d slot easily back into the family like a lost cog in a wheel, marrying his girl, ploughing his fields, watching his children play around his ankles.
He’d have a good life, Chanyeol would. Because he’s a good man. He deserves it.
Kyungsoo swallows against the bile rising in his throat, quickening his pace towards the dusty, bloody smells of the city. The soft fields of the country, like a dream, fade into nothingness behind him. Boys don’t like boys. What a life to throw away.
The streetside arena smells different.
Kyungsoo had toyed with relocating, with wandering around until he found something new, but habit had dogged his steps right back here again.
He doesn’t know if the passage of time has warped his perception, or if everything does smell staler, older, more tired. Dried blood colours the dust beneath Kyungsoo’s feet as he is reminded of the utter lack of glory street fights embody. The shouts, the cold, hard, blows, the never-ending wheel of violence.
A man, bloody from multiple consecutive victories, grins stupidly at the crowd from the centre of the arena. Kyungsoo cracks his neck to the side, rolls his shoulders and ducks past the crowds and into the street.
The man looks at Kyungsoo, a mocking smile appearing on his lips.
Kyungsoo locks eyes with him, throwing down his last pile of coins, world silencing until all he can hear is four little words.
Good men are still human.
Kyungsoo searches his opponent’s face from across the street, trying not to notice a mouth that resembles Chanyeol’s, eyes that look like Jongin’s.
His hands, clenched in front of him, turn into monstrous claws.
Kyungsoo’s head snaps up, walking forward as he feels his humanity melt away behind him.