Another man, graceful and slender, appears from the fog like a wraith. Kyungsoo watches as he sways closer, the calls and stenches of the street fading into blurs around him as the figure sharpens in the weak sunlight. He moves with elegance, poise. Like a dancer, like a pretty boy, like…
“You’re dead," Kyungsoo gasps, words more to himself than anyone else as his gut tightens and he draws his invisible shield around him again. “No. You’re dead.”
The man gets closer and closer as Kyungsoo stumbles forward a few paces, feet aching and bleeding, heart thundering.
“Kyungsoo.” The man says slowly, joyfully, a soft, quiet smile stretching over his face. “Kyungsoo.”
Kyungsoo searches the man’s face, body, eyes for a sign, anything, that this is not Jongin. But it’s a damn good copy – no artist could make a better one – and Kyungsoo finds himself staring and staring and staring as if he could undo the Jongin-ness of the man standing before him. As if he could ignore the long, graceful legs, bowed at the left knee from his injury, shaking slightly under his weight as he walks. As if he could ignore those big, smooth hands, so different from his small, calloused ones. As if he could ignore that particular Jongin smile that reaches to his eyes, lit up with hope and kindness and pure, sweet Jongin-ness.
There’s breaks in the perfect copy, of course: a long, thin, crescent moon of a scar rounding the circumference of his cheek, twilight-purple bruises adorning his forearms, a slight wildness, deadness, discomforted anguish in his eyes that wasn’t there before. Little things, Kyungsoo thinks, but enough to tell him that isn’t Jongin.
Not his Jongin. It can’t be.
“You’re dead," he says evenly, calmly, heart palpitating behind his serene appearance. “You’re dead.”
Jongin’s mouth crooks into a tiny little half-smile, tilting his head as he looks at Kyungsoo. “Takes more than that to kill me, Soo.”
Kyungsoo flinches back, arms automatically coming up to protect himself from the blow. Somehow, though, he can’t. It’s not a fist in his face. That would be too easy.
No, this is much harder to block. Before he realises, his hand has moved towards the man who looks like Jongin, desperate to feel that same warm skin, breathe that same scented air, know once and for all that he’s real.
His hands falter, trembling in mid-air as he can’t move any further. The eyebrows of the man who could be Jongin furrow and, with a deep breath, he grabs Kyungsoo’s hand in his. Squeezes.
“You look so like him," Kyungsoo bursts out, knowing this is stupid, but knowing that this just can’t be Jongin. He traces his thumb gently over the palm of the man’s hand, feeling that soft, familiar skin. His voice shakes. “You feel like him.” He takes a tiny little gasping breath and inhales through his nose, voice becoming fainter and fainter. “You even smell like him.”
Suddenly, the man pulls Kyungsoo into him for a tight embrace, arms wrapped around him, heart beating against his own and Kyungsoo just knows.
“Jongin," he whispers, pressing his face into Jongin’s shoulder and breathing him in one dizzying breath. “Jongin, thank God.”
“Kyungsoo. Kyungsoo. Kyungsookyungsookyungsookyungsoo," Jongin mumbles into his hair, the words eliding into one whisper of longing.
“You died," Kyungsoo whispers, accusation lacing his voice.
“You left," Jongin replies with an achingly soft, sad smile.
“I-” Kyungsoo swallows, turns away to look at the swaying, fraying poppies. “I couldn’t stay, Jongin. Not like that.” He moves away from Jongin’s embrace quickly, wiping his eyes and fortifying his invisible shield once more.
Unbreakable. Impenetrable. Unbearable.
Jongin’s eyes shutter, their dark, warm openness obscured by clouds of worry. “I understand.” He smiles, an ugly, mangled smile that doesn’t look anything like Jongin. “But I’m here, Kyungsoo. I’m alive. It doesn’t have to be like that.”
Kyungsoo pauses, looking at Jongin through the strands of sunlight that fall over his face. “It doesn’t matter.”
“When are you coming back, Kyungsoo?” Jongin says quietly. Deceptively so. Kyungsoo senses a fire of emotion burning behind those measured words. “I’m one recruit short.”
Kyungsoo swallows. “It’ll be easy to find someone else, I expect. Hundreds must be lining up to train with the famous General Kim.”
“Don’t call me that," Jongin just about gets out through gritted teeth, and they both stare at each other in the silence, shocked by the violence of his response. That’s Kyungsoo’s job. Jongin is supposed to be the controlled one, the strong one, the wise one, the kind one.
“Sorry. To train with the famous Kai-”
“Stop!” Jongin hisses, angry tears glazing his eyes. Kyungsoo’s never seen him like this, so desperate, so out-of-control.
“That’s your name," Kyungsoo replies, anger building in him. “That’s your name, for God’s sake, Jongin!”
“Not to you," Jongin mutters, throat clenching on the words. “I was never Kai to you.”
“What do you want from me, Jongin?” Kyungsoo exclaims, nails digging into his palms. “What do you want?”
Jongin lets out a sound that’s half-snort, half-laugh, barely human in the quiet summer air. He doesn’t bother saying anything. His words, unspoken, intangible, float on the humid air, and Kyungsoo can feel their kiss on his face. Soft, sweet, so very tempting.
“Listen, Jongin,” Kyungsoo starts, turning with a curse to face the parched flowers drying in the baking heat as his eyes start to mist over and his throat clenches on painful gulps of air, “I don’t…that is to say I can’t…”
“You won’t," Jongin interrupts him suddenly, eyes trained on his face like a hawk, interpreting every little movement Kyungsoo makes because, above everyone, above everything, Kim Jongin knows Do Kyungsoo. “It’s not that you can’t. Not at all. You just won’t.”
“I look out for myself," Kyungsoo shoots back, shoulders raised in a tense, defensive position, eyes keeping firmly from Jongin’s face. “Don’t you understand? I look out for myself. I have to. No one else is going to. I have me to look after me, and that’s my priority. Don’t you see?” He turns to Jongin now, face taut as he cruelly, slowly, deliberately delivers the last blow. “I’m not like you, Jongin. All I have is myself. I’m not risking that. My safety starts and ends with me and I am my top priority. That’s
how you survive. In the end, I’ve got to protect myself.”
“So you’re scared? That’s what you’re saying? Scared of what will happen, what they would do to you? To us? What’s the worst that could happen?” Jongin bites out, taking a step towards Kyungsoo as he lurches back. “Kyungsoo. It would happen to me too. You wouldn’t be alone in this.”
“You know what’s the worst that could happen!” Kyungsoo shakes his head, gathering his arms around himself, though he knows they do nothing to shield his chest from these blows. “God! Are you stupid? You know what people could do. And, unlike you, I don’t have the luxury to protect myself. To hide away with my money. To get someone in the palace to save me. Top palace guard, top general? You’d live through the scandal. Sure, your reputation would be dented. Sure, you’d need to hide away for a while. Sure, it wouldn’t be easy. But me?” He takes a moment to stop, breathe, look in Jongin’s eyes which tell him to stop, stop, stop. “I wouldn’t be so lucky. Do you think they’d hesitate? A street rat? A monster? A freak of nature? No, Jongin. I have to save myself.”
“So we’ll be secret. So we’ll hide. So we’ll-”
“We’ll what, Jongin? We’ll work something out? We’ll try our best? You’re not thinking straight," Kyungsoo pauses, a bitter smile coating his lips. “It sounds like a fairy tale.”
“I won’t put myself at risk. Not like this, Jongin.”
Words stick in Kyungsoo’s throat as he blindly salutes amidst the tears building in his eyes. Here he is again, unable to say goodbye, unable to stay silent. “That is all, Sir.”
“And what are you going to do?” Jongin asks, his face ugly with fear and anger and sad, sad longing. “Huh, Soo? What are you going to do now?”
Kyungsoo smiles though his cheeks hurt and his eyes burn. “What do you think? What I did before you, what I’ll do after. What I always do. Survive. I’m good at that.”
Jongin just looks at him slowly, silently, eyes filtering through layers of repression and defences until his gaze seems to rest right at the very heart of Kyungsoo.
“I won’t be dead," Kyungsoo says with a faint smile, the bitter joke sounding harsh and flat in the silent air. “At least there’s that.”
“Yes," Jongin agrees, reaching out his hand as if to touch Kyungsoo’s, before thinking better of it and drawing back. “You won’t be dead. But you won’t be alive either.”
And when he finally walks away, eyes wet with unshed tears, the slight limp marring his usually graceful gait, Kyungsoo crushes a drooping poppy flower between his fingers and wonders when this murderous, drying summer will end.
Somehow, Kyungsoo’s body stops feeling like his own. He doesn’t know quite when it happened – whether this feeling of dislocation, dissociation has been building for a long, long while or whether perhaps he’s always felt it deep within his bones – but he knows that when he looks at his calloused, roughened hands, they don’t look like his own.
His feet, leaden with tiredness, blur into the grass in a bloody mess as he stares and tries to remember that they are his, an extension of his body. With his left hand, he holds his right arm by the elbow, the weight dangling heavily in his grasp as he tries to will feeling into his shoulder, his wrist, his aching joints. Crabbed, curled fingers reach up to skim over his bruised face as Kyungsoo tries to relearn his own face.
It all feels distant, though, as if Kyungsoo is trapped at the bottom of a lake and he can see his body vaguely through the distortion of the water. Foreign. Unknowable.
Gripping his hand over his steadily beating heart, Kyungsoo wills his fingers to feel the heat from his chest, for his brain to count along to rhythm, for his mind to tell him this is who he is.
Nothing. A throbbing headache sets itself up in his head and his hand pushes down on his chest in a move that’s one shade too painful as this stranger’s body envelops him.
A man, taller and older than Kyungsoo, starts circling him, observing him, before throwing down some dirty coins in a pile at his feet. The man’s mouth quirks up. “You game?”
Kyungsoo looks down at the money, fist curling around a handful of gold coins as he scatters them to the floor. His lip curls. “Free combat. One on one. First to hold their opponent to the ground for ten seconds wins.”
The man nods sharply before their eyes meet in a flash and Kyungsoo throws the first punch.
He remembers little of the next moments: he remembers only the haze descending upon him as he lands the first punch on the man’s cold skin until he looks down and the man is beneath him, face bloody and arms pinned helplessly.
Kyungsoo holds the man for ten seconds, and a good five longer just to be sure before springing up and wiping the blood from his mouth. His hands tingle but he feels no pain in this stranger’s body.
The man spits at Kyungsoo’s feet as he heaves himself up, clutching his stomach.
Drawing himself up as high as possible, he regards Kyungsoo unblinkingly.
“Aren’t you going to collect your winnings?” The man says, eyes flicking to the pile of coins lying a foot or so away.
Kyungsoo jolts as if awoken from a dream. He’d forgotten the money. Hell, he’d forgotten everything over that red, dead haze.
The man looks at him, confused and a little wary. “You’re not like the others.”
Kyungsoo turns to grab the money, dropping it in his pocket and waiting for the cold feeling in his gut to subside. You’re not like the others. He clenches his fists until they’re white, waiting to feel the pain that does not come.
Kyungsoo wonders if pain will bring it all back to him. If fear, if the adrenaline rush of fighting will somehow make him feel again.
Sometimes, there are flashes. When he’s fighting someone much bigger, stronger, angrier than himself, when it looks like for a moment, he’s going to be beaten. Then, he feels a flash of pain and he almost cries out because this is it, this is what it means to be human, to be Kyungsoo again.
But then, it goes. Like a summer storm, it passes all too soon as he’s left distant from his body again, looking down on it as if from above.
So he tries harder. If anything, he’s not a quitter, Kyungsoo tells himself as a gang leader pummels his face and he brings him to the floor in a hard sweep of his leg. If he fights hard enough, then maybe it will all come back to him.
He’s starting to develop a reputation on the streets for his cold, detached mentality, for his brutal blows. Kyungsoo wishes they knew that this wasn’t him, that he didn’t know what happened during those heated minutes of fighting, that the veil came down and he was gone to the world.
That doesn’t matter, though. Not on the street. Here, it’s all about existing and fighting and forcing yourself through day after bloody day.
Today, it’s a boy. Kyungsoo doesn’t usually notice who his opponents are - it’s easier not to know - but this child is so small that he can’t be much older than fourteen summers. Kyungsoo’s seen him with his friends before, talking, laughing, watching Kyungsoo fight.
The boy drops a pile of coins in front of him, looking up at Kyungsoo expectantly. Kyungsoo raises an eyebrow, matching the amount easily as they move to the centre of the street.
Shivering, the boy puts his fists up, blinking nervously, and suddenly, it’s Seungsoo standing there. Seungsoo, with his wide trusting eyes and free laugh as Kyungsoo chases him down the street. It’s Seungsoo standing there with shaking fists, and then it’s Joonyoung, swallowing against his tears. Chanyeol, his legs wobbling as he stares defiantly forward until finally the boy merges into Jongin. Jongin, standing with a brave smile, and trusting eyes, waiting for Kyungsoo to make the first move.
The world narrows, as if Kyungsoo is being pushed through a thin tube, and then widens again in a shock of awareness that nearly floors him.
“No,” he hears his voice say as the crowd quiets to a shocked hush around him and the boy stares at him with blazing eyes.
“I rescind my challenge,” Kyungsoo says, walking forward to claim his coins and toss the boy’s to him.
“Is it because you think I’m too weak?” The boy demands, shaking with anger and youthful pride. Oh, how Kyungsoo remembers those feelings.
“No," he says honestly, wondering why he cares what this boy thinks. Wondering how his fingers are coming back to him slowly, pinpricks up and down their length. Wondering why his mind is starting to reconnect with his body. “You’re not weak. You just need to be trained.”
The boy says nothing, staring at Kyungsoo before gritting his teeth and clearly burying his pride. “Would you train me? I’ll pay.”
The words hit Kyungsoo like a stinging slap. Him? Teach this boy? Does the boy not know who he is? What he is? How can he corrupt one so young and innocent?
“I can ask someone else.” The boy says flatly when Kyungsoo doesn’t reply, turning to leave. Kyungsoo wants to refuse him, he really does, but all he can see is Seungsoo begging to be trained. Seungsoo begging to learn how to protect himself. Seungsoo might not be around for Kyungsoo to protect anymore, but this boy is, and maybe Kyungsoo can finally do something good.
“Stop," Kyungsoo says quietly, his voice full of authority. The boy stops, turns. “I’m Kyungsoo.”
“Minhyun,” the boy replies, holding his hand out for Kyungsoo to shake. “Do we have a deal?”
“Anyone who holds their fists like that needs to be trained,” Kyungsoo murmurs under his breath, shaking the boy’s hand and cursing himself for being an idiot.
By the next day, when Kyungsoo’s scheduled to meet Minhyun, he’s already talked himself out of this ridiculous training idea. The idea of someone like him teaching a kid is unthinkable. If the kid was Seungsoo, maybe he could do it. Maybe he could teach his baby brother to defend himself, because that’s what big brothers did. But this kid? He shouldn’t be here, first of all, amongst all this blood and dust. Kyungsoo owes it to Minhyun to save him from this hellhole.
But whatever Kyungsoo might be, he never breaks a promise, so he arrives at the meeting place a little early. It’s a shady alleyway, quiet and private, far off the main road. When Kyungsoo peers down it, he sees Minhyun’s small figure bobbing away at the end, punching in the air in some kind of wild drill which will get him killed if he tries it on anyone slightly bigger, older, or crueler than him.
From this distance, the kid looks just like Seungsoo (Kyungsoo’s eyesight has never been the best) and his heart lurches as he stumbles a few steps forward. It’s not that which makes him close the remaining distance between them, though. It’s not the idea that it’s his little brother down there, trying to fight a world that he’s too young to face.
It’s the image of Minhyun swinging an enthusiastic roundhouse kick which sends him sprawling to the floor, a move which would get him killed in any of the more deadly knockout matches in these ringside arenas. Enough. Enough.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do," Kyungsoo calls, keeping his voice and footsteps deceptively light as he walks towards the boy.
Minhyun scowls, but then a small smile passes his lips as he looks up at Kyungsoo. “You came.”
“Of course. A gentleman never breaks his promises," Kyungsoo says, arching his eyebrow as he adopts a fancified accent.
Minhyun giggles despite himself, and Kyungsoo sees Seungsoo flit across his features. “We’re not gentlemen.”
“Still,” Kyungsoo says, sweeping an elegant bow to the boy, “we must keep up appearances.”
The kid shrugs.
“Why did you want to meet in this godforsaken alley?” Kyungsoo asks, peering around and assessing the danger. He wouldn’t have thought twice about venturing down here alone, but Minhyun…
The boy quiets, blushing quietly. “I’m not very good yet. I didn’t want people to see.”
“I can find somewhere else,” Kyungsoo says a little too harshly, pushing Minhyun out of the alley. “Somewhere private. It’s not safe down here.”
“But you’re here,” Minhyun says with confusion, staring at Kyungsoo. “You can take anyone on. You’re Do Kyungsoo.”
“It’s not me I’m worried about,” Kyungsoo mutters, but Minhyun catches it because a flash of surprise passes over his face.
“I wouldn’t be worried, either,” Minhyun says softly, looking at Kyungsoo with such quiet faith that he suddenly remembers what it is to protect someone. To have someone rely on you. To have someone trust you with their life.
“We’re moving," Kyungsoo says brusquely, pushing Minhyun up the street. It isn’t always good to remember.
Minhyun’s a surprisingly fast learner once Kyungsoo lays down the basics. He runs through how to tuck his thumb outside his fist, the right stance, power and agility, and in only a few practices, the kid is doing well.
After an hour or so, he starts to look tired, so Kyungsoo starts wrapping up the lesson.
“Here’s the payment,” Minhyun says confidently, pulling himself up to his full height as he scatters coins onto Kyungsoo’s palm.
“You can pay me once all the sessions have finished,” Kyungsoo replies, handing him back the coins. God knows where he stole them from, and while Kyungsoo is not a wealthy man, he’s pretty sure the kid needs them more than he does.
For a second, Kyungsoo sees the fight rise in Minhyun’s eyes, but then his face drops into a small, grateful smile as he nods and moves to turn away. “Thanks, hyung,” he says quietly, before walking away down the dusty street.
Hyung. It’s been so long since he’s heard that word. A slow, reluctant smile spreads over his face as it warms him from the inside out.
“Get home safely, kid!” He shouts after Minhyun, as he makes his own way home.
And doesn’t stop smiling the whole way.
“Where are you going?” Kyungsoo asks after the next session, when Minhyun starts to slip off down the street towards the dry, grassy areas where no-one lives. “It’s getting late, kid. Go home.”
“I’m going for a walk with some friends,” Minhyun mumbles, not making eye contact with Kyungsoo. “I’ll go home after.”
“Why do I get the feeling you’re lying?” Kyungsoo says, a terrible coldness spreading over him.
“Maybe you should be more trusting.” Minhyun mutters under his breath, trying to turn away.
Kyungsoo stops him with one word, his voice growing quiet and dangerous in the falling twilight. “Minhyun.”
“Hyung, I’ll be safe.” Mihyun wheedles, looking anywhere but Kyungsoo’s face as he turns around.
“I’ll walk you home,” Kyungsoo say firmly, voice brooking no argument.
Minhyun is silent for the first few streets they cross, but eventually he bursts out. “Don’t make me go home!”
Kyungsoo turns to Minhyun, hairs on the back of his neck sticking up. “Why, Minhyun?”
Minhyun swallows, looking at the ground. “I don’t get on with my family. Please. I’ll sleep under the trees in that big field again. My friends are with me. We’ll be safe.”
Kyungsoo feels anger rising in him like hot fire, hands clenching into fists. “You slept under the trees? For how long?”
“Only a few days,” Minhyun says desperately, biting his lip. “Hyung, I-”
“Do you have any idea how dangerous that is?” Kyungsoo explodes, glaring at Minhyun as the rage damn near rattles his teeth. Reaching down, he grabs Minhyun’s arm. He shouldn’t get involved. He knows he shouldn’t. It’s not his business, and Minhyun should talk to his parents himself, but somehow he can’t leave this boy alone, vulnerable like this. Not this child. Not any child.
“Where are we going?” Minhyun asks as Kyungsoo yanks him down another street.
“You’re staying here tonight,” Kyungsoo says through gritted teeth as he goes to his accommodation for the night and explains to the family that Minhyun will be taking his place for the night.
“They’ll look after you, so stay put," he says gruffly once he’s rolled out a mattress and paid for a meal for the boy.
Minhyun looks like he’s going to argue for a second, but then he just nods and starts eating his meal.
Kyungsoo sighs heavily, before turning to leave, his shoulders slumping.
“Hyung?” He hears from the door, turning to see Minhyun watching him. “Where are you sleeping tonight?”
“Don’t worry about me,” Kyungsoo murmurs, softening at the worry in Minhyun’s voice. “You’ll be safe here. I’ve got to arrange some things. I’ll be back tomorrow morning.”
“Oh,” Minhyun says softly, looking at Kyungsoo with a mix of admiration and gratitude which makes Kyungsoo feel that maybe, just maybe he could be a good man. Good men are still human. “Thank you, hyung.”
Kyungsoo smiles as he walks out of the door, heart lighter than it has been in years. They make mistakes.
The house looks much the same as Kyungsoo walks up to it. The paint is yellowing and chipping in places, and it’s crumbling further in on itself, but it’s still the same house.
Kyungsoo knocks twice, heart thumping as he waits for those familiar footsteps.
The door swings open, and, before he knows it, he’s pulled into a tight hug.
“Kyungsoo! Can that be my Kyungsoo?”
“Auntie,” Kyungsoo whispers into the embrace, feeling home and comfort wash over him in warm waves.
“You’re home!” She declares, breaking away from the hug to hold his face in her hands, scrutinising him. “Thinner than I’d like, but I’m going to feed you up anyway. I suppose you haven’t eaten yet.”
“I can pay for-” Kyungsoo starts, but Auntie is dragging him inside the house in one quick move.
“Don’t you dare insult me by suggesting that, Do Kyungsoo!” She frowns, heaping a plate with food and placing it before him as he sits cross-legged on the floor.
She lets him eat in silence, hungrily wolfing down the food as she regards him fondly.
“Now, that’s better,” she says when he’s finished, smiling at his clean plate. “I heard you were training with the palace guards. The Byuns’ son came back from the camp. Said he saw you there. Defended a General during a night raid.” Her voice radiates pride, and he doesn’t have the heart to tell her that’s not exactly how it happened. “Are you back for a visit?”
“I left, Auntie. I just had to,” Kyungsoo says quietly, not meeting her gaze.
“I see,” she replies softly, and Kyungsoo looks up, not detecting any anger or disappointment in her kind, accepting round face. “Your mother would be so proud.”
“Have you heard from her?” Kyungsoo breaks in urgently, scanning Auntie’s face for any bad news. “Seungsoo?”
Her expression drops, disappointment colouring her eyes. “No. I’m sorry. When the time is right-”
“We will meet again,” Kyungsoo finishes, resigned. “I know, Auntie. I know.”
“Knowing you, this can’t just be a social call, can it?” she says with a smile, settling down on the floor opposite him.
Kyungsoo flashes her a grateful smile. “There’s a boy. Fourteen winters at most. Minhyun.”
“The Kangs’ boy,” she nods, face wrinkling in an expression of disgust. “Not good people, I’m afraid.”
“That’s exactly it. The kid doesn’t get on with his parents. Staying under some damn tree. I gave him my accommodation tonight, but I wondered if…”
“Of course he can stay here,” Auntie says simply, definitely, smiling at him. “And don’t even think about paying me.”
“Thank you,” Kyungsoo says fervently, taking her hand and squeezing it. “Thank you. I’m training him to defend himself, so I’ll pick him up in the morning. He’s quick, and strong, and can do any work you need.”
Auntie is silent for a few long seconds, looking at Kyungsoo until a smile spreads over his kind features. “You’re a good man, Do Kyungsoo. One of the best.”
For once, his first thought isn’t to protest. The thought still lies in the back of his mind, tormenting him with words like monster and freak, but it doesn’t overtake his whole mind anymore. The compliment makes him heart feel that little bit bigger and his smile that little bit wider. But this woman understands him more than almost anyone in the world, and so it’s easy for the next words to flick off his tongue. “I think I could be. I have been. But I’ve lost my way.”
Those kind eyes turn perceptive as they stare into Kyungsoo’s. “Did you find it again?”
“I think I’m starting to,” Kyungsoo whispers slowly, the truth of the words only hitting him as they leave his mouth.
“Good men still make mistakes,” she says, echoing Chanyeol’s words, and Kyungsoo starts to think they might just be true. “It’s not how you lose your way. It’s how you find your way back.”
For the first time in weeks, Kyungsoo thinks of Jongin again, of that easy smile, of that warmth spreading through him. For once, the chorus in his head is silent, and Kyungsoo falls asleep smiling.
Minhyun fits into Auntie’s family like a missing cog in a wheel. To her, he’s the son she always wanted. To him, she’s a mother he can trust. To Kyungsoo, he’d forgotten how it was to feel so damn happy.
The lessons continue, and Minhyun gets better and better until he can almost fell Kyungsoo. Auntie’s secured him a job harvesting from the fields as summer comes to an end, so he doesn’t need this training anymore, but Kyungsoo relishes seeing his improvement and knowing that he’s safer and safer each day.
Finally, Kyungsoo’s money starts to run out, and he can’t live off Auntie’s hospitality any longer. Sniffing about him leaving her again, she gets him a job harvesting elsewhere, and tells him not to dare coming back to her all beaten and bloody from another street fight.
After accepting her long, tight hug (he would never admit it aloud, but he loves the sanctuary of her arms), he goes to find Minhyun to say goodbye.
“I’m off, kid," he says lightly when he finds the boy playing with some new friends in the street. Kyungsoo notices Auntie’s daughter, now Minhyun’s age, watch the boy with curiosity and a little wistfulness, his smile turning wide.
Minhyun stops his game, running over to look up at Kyungsoo. “When are you coming back, hyung? Tomorrow morning?”
Kyungsoo’s heart twists painfully, trying to squeeze out a smile as he ruffles the hair of his new little brother. “I’m not living here anymore, Minhyun. I’m going to work somewhere else for a little while, to live away from you so Auntie can have some space. I’ll come back all the time, though.”
Minhyun’s face falls. “You can have my bed, hyung. Auntie doesn’t need anymore space, I can just sleep on the floor…”
“I’ve got to go, kid," Kyungsoo says quietly, squatting down so he’s at Minhyun’s level. “You’re the man of the house now, got it? You’ve got to use what I’ve taught you to protect yourself, and Auntie, and Bona. Got it?”
Minhyun’s cheeks go slightly red at the mention of Bona’s name and Kyungsoo wonders if Auntie’s already fantasising about weddings. He smiles, pulls Minhyun into a brief hug, and turns to go.
“Minhyun…” He turns back for a second, looking at the boy he now considers a brother and feeling his full heart aching a little. “Can I ask you something?”
“Anything.” Minhyun says quickly, looking eagerly at Kyungsoo. Desperate to help his hyung as ever.
“If you ever see…” Kyungsoo starts, his voice cracking in the middle. Before he changes his mind, he blurts out the rest. “If you ever see a man. A bit older than you. Around 20. Tall. Who looks like me. Called Seungsoo. If you ever see him, Minhyun...Or a woman he might be with...If they ask for me…you’ll find me, won’t you?”
“Of course,” Minhyun replies without hesitation and Kyungsoo’s heart skips a little beat, “But why, hyung?”
“Because they’re my family,” Kyungsoo says, refusing to let the tears glistening in his eyes fall. “And because the time is right, now. The time is right.”
And so it goes on. Day after day, it goes on.
Kyungsoo works, eats, sleeps. Goes home every spare moment to see Auntie and Minhyun. Works, eats, sleeps some more.
It might be tiring, it might be frustrating, but Kyungsoo is never anything less than grateful for it, every single day, because his fists are clean and his face is bruise-free and the hollow, angry feeling in his chest has mellowed into warmth and contentedness.
But it all changes when he’s working one hot day as the summer starts to tail off into a gentle fall. He’s working on the field when he hears footsteps patter closer to him and suddenly Minhyun is tugging on his hand. Which can only mean…
“They’re here?” Kyungsoo gasps, tearing off his gloves and staring at Minhyun wildly as he looks around. “Seungsoo? Mom?”
“Not them, hyung,” Minhyun says, breathing heavily from his run. “I’m sorry. Auntie told me not to come but he seemed so persistent.”
“He?” Kyungsoo asks, vision blurring as his fingers start to shake. “Who?”
“He didn’t say his name. Said he was looking for you. I didn’t want to tell him where you are but he wouldn’t give up. Said he had something to give an old friend. A book.”
Kyungsoo stands up, swaying slightly as his gaze focuses on Minhyun. “Where is he?”
“I told him to wait by the big tree. The one I used to sleep under. So you could meet him.” Minhyun says, eyes intent on Kyungsoo. “Did I do right, hyung?”
“You did more than right, little brother," Kyungsoo says, pulling Minhyun into a tight hug. “Run home now. You know the way? Tell Auntie I’ll come by later.”
“Who is he, hyung?” Minhyun asks, still a little breathless.
“I don’t know, Minhyun. An old friend, I think. I hope. Go now," he urges, throwing down his tools as he heads for the tree, heart jumping in his chest.
Kyungsoo smells him before he sees him, inhales that intoxicating scent of home and knows. Just knows.
“Jongin,” he gasps, crushing the man into a tight, tight hug as he inhales his scent and re-learns the texture of his skin. “Thank God, Jongin. How did you…? When did you…? God, I didn’t know…”
Jongin smiles at him, holding him gently, reverently at the waist as he looks down at him. “Some mouthy recruit called Park couldn’t shut up about you. It was all over the camp how you started beating anything with a pulse. How you saved a little boy.”
“Chanyeol,” Kyungsoo says with a smile, heart missing the tall man with a sudden pang.
“You’ve got a lot of loyal supporters back at the camp," Jongin says quietly, eyes sliding to watch Kyungsoo’s expressions. “They know what a good man you are.”
“Are you one of them?” Kyungsoo replies softly, curling Jongin’s shirt inside his fist.
“Are you?” Jongin counters, looking at Kyungsoo like he knows him, and Kyungsoo suddenly realises that he does. That, before Kyungsoo knew himself, Jongin did too. He can barely breathe, staring at Jongin as the moment hangs in time, suspended, lifted, held up by the warm summer air and the kiss of Jongin’s eyes on Kyungsoo’s beaten skin.
“Yes,” he states firmly, surprising himself at the simplicity of the answer, at its truthful core. “I think I am.”
Jongin’s smile, fleeting at first, grows and grows until it fills his whole face.
“I’d like to kiss you now," Jongin murmurs ever-so-softly, and Kyungsoo forgets how to breathe for one tiny, glorious second.
Kyungsoo inches closer until he can feel the warmth of Jongin’s breath and can smell the dizzying scent of home.
“God, you’re something else,” Jongin whispers on an exhale, before fitting their lips together, consequences be damned.
Kyungsoo breaks the kiss for one moment to smile up at Jongin, bracketing his hands at Jongin’s slim waist. “Not bad for a pretty boy.”
Jongin rolls his eyes, pinching Kyungsoo’s waist as he edges closer and rubs their noses together softly. “The boy - Minhyun. He thought I could be your brother coming home.”
He doesn’t push, doesn’t ask any questions, and it’s for exactly those reasons that Kyungsoo feels his heart open further. “My family...They don’t live here anymore. They moved. Out South. I haven’t seen them in five years.”
“Where? Do you know?”
“I’ve got an address somewhere,” Kyungsoo mumbles, looking at Jongin as he feels his heart lurch. “But they’re probably gone. There’s no point--” Kyungsoo breaks off as he stares at Jongin, lacing their fingers together. “In my family, we have a saying. When the time is right, we will meet again.”
“Bullshit,” Jongin fires back, and Kyungsoo recoils suddenly. “Are you kidding me, Kyungsoo? Do you think if I waited for the time to be right, I’d be standing here right now? You can’t let fate do all the work. You’ve got to help it along sometimes.”
“But it’ll be hard,” Kyungsoo starts, anxiety building in his chest as he looks at Jongin, his Jongin, skin turning to gold under the setting sun. “It’ll be hard and I might not find them and…”
“You might not find them?” Jongin quirks his head. “We might not find them, that’s true. But how we will know if we don’t try?”
“If you want me,” Jongin says, pressing a soft kiss to Kyungsoo’s collarbone as he smiles and Kyungsoo forgets what it’s like to be cold, “you’ve got me, Kyungsoo.”
“I want you,” Kyungsoo whispers, fingers tracing Jongin’s jaw. “Oh, I want you. But I’m scared.”
“I know,” Jongin says simply. “And you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. But I thought you could take on any challenge, and beat it," he teases with a smile, echoing some of the very first words he said to Kyungsoo as his eyes spark with provocation.
Kyungsoo grins, loving how Jongin always seems to know what to say. “You’re on, pretty boy.”
“That’s sir to you,” Jongin whispers against his lips as the poppies, bowing under the weight of the recent rainfall, dip their crimson skirts to the sundering sun and he kisses Kyungsoo again and again and again.