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Till we ain't strangers anymore

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“Don’t get attached,” they said. “You must always have his back, but that is as far as your duties go.”

It was a warning, but Wonshik thinks he might not be that good at following orders anymore.

*

Most people (Christians, that is) think when they die they will see a bright light, follow it and go to Heaven, Hell if you have been naughty enough. Wonshik has never been too sure what naughty enough implies, but probably not things like stealing some candies when you were six. Not that he did that. (Maybe once).

People do go to Hell. He knows little about the process because nobody (he likes to think of those up there as the Big Bosses) will tell him anything. He hears stories, though. Whispers. Little snippets from those who did go. People go to Hell, and like him, they come back. He wonders sometimes if anyone stays truly dead.

Wonshik did not go to Hell. For him, dying was sudden. He was walking down the street one day, coffee in hand, and crossed a road without checking first. When he thought of looking to the side, the biggest truck he had ever seen was driving towards him, fast. Panic overtook him, and before he could react, he was surrounded by Nothing. He thinks of it like that, capital N included, he will always do, even years after he first encountered it, even after many times embraced by its darkness, hearing those voices that resonate somewhere in his head. The first time, he could not understand, would not, because he was too confused, too scared to be able to clear his mind and get a hold of the situation. Even all these years later, he still remembers very little, and he has to wonder if it is really his mind’s doing, or the Big Bosses playing one of their tricks.

Before he knew, he was back in Seoul, standing amongst a crowd that walked by him without ever seeing him (never through him, because no, you are not a ghost, Wonshik). It was not his time, he knew. He recognized the streets but not the shops and people didn’t dress like the people he had left behind. Soon enough, he figured out why.

It was 1990.

*

“Don’t get attached,” they said, and sometimes he wants to grab them by their shoulders, if they have them, shake them and scream at their faces, asking how he is supposed to do that when they assigned him to someone who knows he is there, someone who talks to him when he shouldn’t even know Wonshik exists at all. Aren’t humans losing faith after all?

Being a guardian is lonely and Wonshik, since realizing Taekwoon is talking to him, wishes he could talk back.

*

The first years were easy. Little Taekwoon was a cheerful kid, with a small but frequent smile, too good for his own good, and Wonshik loved to watch him. He liked to watch him when he played sports – always focused on the game, or his wood sword later on, but always careful enough that he would hurt nobody, because that would have been the last thing little big Taekwoon wanted. He liked to watch him interact with his sisters and his mother, letting himself be pampered and taken care of with small smiles. And he liked the kid the most when there was some puppy nearby, or on the not so rare occasions the neighbour’s cat escaped to be around Taekwoon, or when any other animal came near him, because his eyes were always softer and warmer, his laugh loud.

For all Wonshik had complained about working in the afterlife, being a guardian, he found, was so easy it quickly got boring. Most of the things that could harm a kid that young needed not of divine intervention, and so he mostly observed, and got frustrated when things he could not change went wrong. At some point, he started telling the kid stories when he went to bed, even if Taekwoon could not, in theory, hear him.

At thirteen, the nightmares began.

*

“Help me.”

Wonshik is not in Seoul. He is not even in South Korea. You see, as the years passed and Taekwoon grew from kid to teenager to adult, Wonshik has done some stupid things, received some frightening warnings, and he has most definitely grown attached. Not growing attached has always been the number one rule to follow, yet somehow he has found himself stepping all over it. Good job, Kim Wonshik.

When Taekwoon asks for help, Wonshik is on a beach south of LA, thinking and worrying as he observes all the people that cannot observe him back. (He wonders, too, if he could have ever made it there had he been alive, and not sent back in time to be a guardian). He wishes he could let it go, even as the sound reverberates all over his body. He is his guardian angel, but he has also crossed lines, and when will he have crossed one too many? Maybe he needs to quit, find someone else willing to take his place. Maybe—

“I know you can hear me.” Wonshik freezes under the sun. He goes over the words, over the fear in every sound. “Help me,” Taekwoon asks, and Wonshik thinks he is the one in pain, maybe, feels like he is at least. This pause is longer, probably a few seconds, two lifetimes for Wonshik. “Please,” he hears him beg.

Taekwoon started talking to him at fifteen. To Wonshik’s credit, up until that happened, he had actually managed to not grow attached. Yes, he cared about the kid (don’t be silly, everybody grows fond of their charge, Youngji had told him). He would have hated the idea of something bad happening to him, but had the situation come, he would have made the right decision,

(he has heard about Right Decisions, times when a guardian has to step aside and let the universe do its thing, because the death or pain of their protegé is important, necessary. He has always prayed he would not find himself in such situation, though. He is too soft),

but he was not attached. Then, one night, Taekwoon had waken up from a nightmare, looked around, and talked. Wonshik had wondered (wondered for many years after) if Taekwoon had not been talking to himself, but no. No, he had been talking to someone, and Wonshik had been the only other person in the room, even if it made no sense at all for Taekwoon to know he was there.

Taekwoon always talked in a whisper, his soft voice barely audible for a human ear (good thing Wonshik had long stopped being human), and he rarely acknowledged Wonshik. He never asked for answers. He just talked, briefly at first, and in time, for hours, about how he felt, what he wanted. Wonshik has heard more from him in those awful nights in his room than almost any other human has had the chance to hear Taekwoon talk since the nightmares began. He poured his secrets without asking anything in return but to be listened.Now, however, he is acknowledging him. He is asking for his help, begging, and damn his life if he can stay still and not help.

He reaches Taekwoon seven seconds before the blade goes through him.

*

In the beginning, he had thought the nightmares were just that, nightmares. Maybe something Taekwoon had watched or read had scared him. Maybe he just had a great imagination, like most kids his age. Wonshik didn’t think it was uncommon and had no reason to believe they wouldn’t stop in a few weeks.

They didn’t. They became more frequent, worse if the way Taekwoon woke up from them was any indication. Days turned into weeks turned into months, and the nightmares did not go away. Back then, Wonshik had wanted to look into Taekwoon’s mind almost as badly as he had wanted to console him when he went downstairs and told his parents he was fine, had slept well, even in nights he had gone through four, five nightmares, laid awake at night telling Wonshik things that had nothing to do with what he had just dreamt, maybe hoping to forget.

Taekwoon turned fourteen with dark shadows under his eyes and a sad gaze.

(Somewhere in Seoul, Wonshik thought, he was eleven and alive and as happy as Taekwoon had not been in a long time, and despair washed over him).

*

“What can I do?”

Something that surprised Wonshik about his job was not in the job description at all: he gets to meet all kinds of characters. Funnily enough, almost none of them are guardians themselves. One would think that they having so much in common, they would come together, maybe get some drinks and talk about what their charge has done recently, or how they died if it happened recently enough, but that is not how it is. It’s demons he meets most often, and he is in fact acquainted with lots of them. They are not friends because they shall never befriend Hell’s messengers, but to be fair, it is Taemin he gets in touch with when he wants to go out for a beer.

And because it is something guardians seem to do a lot, it is also Taemin he goes to for help.

*

At sixteen, a truck almost ran over Taekwoon. Wonshik can see the irony in it. He had been the one to save him. He had gotten himself between Taekwoon and the truck, pushed him to the side as he himself received the impact and felt the pain run through him like burning lava (good thing he was already dead). He had assumed this was part of the job, this was avoidable, why would Taekwoon have to die that young, that way? Nobody ever reprimanded him about it, so he thinks that was indeed his job.

Taekwoon didn't survive uninjured, and that was the year he stopped playing football. Wonshik had been sad, but Taekwoon was never a kid to dwell on the bad things, even if his seriousness and lack of words sometimes came off that way, so he picked up something else. He started singing.

Wonshik loved it. It reminded him of himself, even if his voice had never been that sweet, that soft. He found himself sitting on Taekwoon's bed at night, as Taekwoon played melodies he also sang along to. Wonshik was happy, too, because Taekwoon poured his soul into it. Soon enough, he was writing songs, and Wonshik felt a pang of pride, thought maybe we could have been friends, maybe he could go out there and meet me right now. At some point, he started to voice out his opinion, share his enthusiasm out loud. He gave advice sometimes as well, because after all he had been composing for some more years than Taekwoon had.

One night, Taekwoon said out loud the one thing Wonshik had never noticed – all of his songs were sad.

*

The hospital corridors are as dark as hospital corridors can ever be (which is not much) and Wonshik and Taemin hide in the shadows, even knowing that it isn’t necessary. They are down in the surgery room, with the doctors – with Taekwoon, his life escaping him with every passing second.

"The problem is," Taemin says, his face very serious, "it looks like a normal blade wound to them, but it is not."

Wonshik blinks at this. He wants to ask, but the confusion in his face, he knows, is enough that he won't have to use his voice right now. He doesn't think it will come out.

"It wasn't just a blade. Whoever did this, they are one of mine, and this blade comes from Hell itself."

His voice does come out, barely a whisper. "So it's magic."

Taemin sighs, exasperated. "Think of it like poison. It is what we are, in a way, and so everything we touch is poisonous as well. That is where all the metaphors about us come from, I guess.” He shrugs. “We do destroy everything we touch, sometimes literally."

"Nice." His voice is scratchy, husky, and he clears his throat before trying to say more. "You're telling me some demon out there walks around with a big ass blade?"

Taemin looks at him, seems to linger on his eyes, "You didn't see them."

Wonshik's shoulders fall, defeated. He did not. He saw Taekwoon. He saw Taekwoon's face, terror on his features. He saw the blade, even. Big, shiny, but darker than any blade he’s seen before, a dark shade of grey. It was very long. He did not see whoever was carrying it, and he is not sure whether he didn't see it, he saw a blur, or he felt compelled not to look in that direction. He has known a few demons with tricks like those under their sleeves, and hates himself a little for not being strong enough to not fall for them.

"I think I know who it was. Come on."

*

Accidents kept happening after the truck incident. Things fell on him, people almost drove over him. On one particular nasty occasion, he fainted next to the railways, fell onto them not long before the train was to make its stop in that particular station. Wonshik wondered, thought of the nightmares, thought of the accidents. He asked questions, back in the darkness, that never got an answer. "Protect him," they said, "Just do your job", and so Wonshik did, but Taekwoon's life seemed to always be in danger.

At some point, Taekwoon noticed too. He asked out loud in the darkness of his room, to nobody (to Wonshik, he liked to think, but he never referred to him directly, maybe he never knew how to). Why me?, he would ask, his face somber as his mother's started to fill with wrinkles of worry.

He grew darker after that, Wonshik noticed. More silent. He went to the gym, he took up kendo and boxing, and soon he looked scary, face ever so serious, eyes wandering over everyone in the room almost as if he was waiting for someone to bring out a weapon.

Wonshik was the one to start talking then. Taekwoon could not hear his stories, but he would still tell, just like he had done when Taekwoon was a little kid. He would tell him about Hongbin, his old best pal, how he laughed like an idiot to Wonshik's jokes when nobody did. He told him about his first gig at some club, his first date and how he had giggled like a thirteen years old all the way home (at nineteen). He told the nice stories, the laughs and the hugs, because maybe the warmth of it would reach out to Taekwoon, but he never knew if it worked.

In exchange, Taekwoon's words were always sad, worried, but Wonshik drank them, hoping that listening from the shadows would help Taekwoon somehow.

*

Wonshik has met his fair share of demons, but none of them looked half as terrifying as this one does, with his eyepatch and amused grin on his lips and the way he walks around him as if he’s checking on him, preparing for the hunt.

“Let me get this straight – you want to know who stabbed your little toy, to do what?”

There’s an edge in his voice Wonshik cannot quite place and it makes him extremely nervous. “Kill him,” he manages to say right before Taemin opens his mouth to answer in his place.

The silence is heavy for a second, right before the demon laughs. It’s not fun, or joyful, feels like a blade is being ran over his skin, cold and paralyzing him with fear, just like his eyes when he walks up to Wonshik and stands right in front of him.

“What if it’s a lady?”

“Kill her.”

The answer seems to please the demon, who nods and smiles, and it only makes Wonshik even more apprehensive. “You are not good enough to kill her, you’d never be in a million years, but I’ll give you something that will make up for it.”

“Key.” The voice comes from the shadows, a warning that maybe Wonshik should also listen to.

“I only need one little thing in return.”

Wonshik knows he should pass on the offer, but instead he says, “Yes, whatever you want,” and maybe that is the moment he signs up for damnation.

*

Alive, Wonshik had a little sister. His little treasure. Dead, Wonshik spent years trying not to think about her, trying not to run towards the hospital on the day and hour he knows she was born, trying not to spy from behind some bushes when she made her first trips to the park with her big brother and their beautiful mother. Wonshik tries hard, until Taekwoon goes to college.

Wonshik went to college once, too, and he remembered the excitement, the fear, the hopes poured into it. If Taekwoon didn’t show, it didn’t matter to Wonshik, because he read the little gestures, and had his own experience to base his guesses on.

Taekwoon adapted easily. He didn’t make tons of friends, but shared a room with a guy called Hakyeon that made them for him, bothered him constantly in the sweetest way, and took care of him when he fell sick. Wonshik saw it, saw Taekwoon open up, noticed how he forgot about Wonshik, discovered the little smiles he allowed himself to show when he thought Hakyeon was not looking. Wonshik was happy for him, but Taekwoon soon had not talked to him in weeks, and the loneliness felt too heavy in his chest.

That’s the first time he disobeys his orders. That is also when he discovers he will never be able to see his family again.

*

“Who are you?”

“I’m your back up.”

She grins and it makes her eyes look small, her face look younger. She lookes at him with her head tilted, almost as if she is thinking he is an idiot (and maybe he is, look who he hangs out with nowadays).

“I thought,” he says as he turns towards Taemin, and his voice is low, even if she will probably hear anyways, “they’d send someone… bigger, not—ow!”

Her fist meets his stomach with a strength he would not have expected, not even from most demons, and has him doubled in half as he hears Taemin laugh next to him. “She is a warrior,” he says, “and she was holding back right now. I would recommend not pissing her off, Wonshik.”

He is gone before Wonshik can reply to that, so when he looks up he only finds the girl, smiling at him from the other side of the room. She is cute in a way that would make you think she’s harmless, but there’s a glint in her eyes that Wonshik should have seen before – it screams demon in ways that make him shiver.

“I won’t take it personally, kid.”

“Thank you?”

The silence stretches between them, charged with something he cannot name, until she sighs, gets off the wall to walk towards him.

“My name is Eunji.” She takes his hand, shakes it on her own, and when Wonshik is about to answer, she stops him. “I know who you are, so don’t bother. My question is another – do you have any clue what to do next?”

He looks down at her, and she laughs. He has never been this lost.

*

It went like this:

Wonshik gave up on waiting for Taekwoon’s words the day he started dating Hakyeon, and then gave up for real when he appeared in their room, ready to stand next to Taekwoon as he slept in the hopes to prevent the nightmares, or to be the source of some warmth when he woke up. Instead, he found Taekwoon under Hakyeon, breathing heavily and making noises Wonshik had never heard from him. He did not stick around.

That was the exact day he first forgot about the rules. You shall never go see your family, or yourself. It resonated in his head even when he was walking down his old street, surrounded by familiar buildings, as well as voices coming out of them that made his heart ache. To Hell with the rules. He turned a corner, spotted his house in the distance, and ran. He ran towards the house with everything he had, faster and faster, only to find that the house was never closer.

He tired himself instead, and who would have thought angels could get tired?, and when he stopped running, Youngji was standing next to him, looking at him with pity.

“They won’t let you,” she said. Wonshik screamed.

*

Eun Ji’s place is fancy, colorful. It feels human even if she is not, but then again she sounds and looks more human that he has since he died, so it makes all the sense. In a way, he wonders if demons aren’t closer to humans than they are. If the three ramen packages on the floor are anything to go by, the answer is yes.

“What are we waiting for?”, he asks while he sits on the red sofa.

“Answers.”

(Demons, Wonshik realizes, are a lot less prone to talk about their job when it’s a serious matter. He knows this because he has drank with tons of them, he has heard a lot of gruesome details he never wanted to know, but now that they are helping him to kill one of themselves, everyone that talks to him, everyone they walk by or interact with, is oddly silent. He wants to ask if there is some unwritten rule, like their own (You shall not kill one of your own), or if their case is special because they are angels.)

“What do we do in the meantime?”

“That is a good question,” Eun Ji says. “Come with me. I have something to show you.”

*

Taekwoon didn’t cry. Taekwoon hadn’t cried since he was fifteen. Wonshik remembered this because it had been a particularly terrible night, awful nightmares creeping on him hour after hour as Wonshik watched. He had been furious. He had demanded answers to the higher ups again, had tried to force their hand with threats he knew now were useless. Seeing Taekwoon cry again was disturbing and it made Wonshik feel physically ill.

(“Do you lack the intelligence to understand what visiting your family, yourself, would mean?”)

Wonshik didn’t need to ask what had happened (not that he would get an answer) – Hakyeon’s side of the room was empty, just the mattress and some photos on the wall left, and when he looked back at Taekwoon he felt his own heart drop. He wanted to reach out to him, tell him he would be ok, even if it was going to take time. He wanted to hug him so badly he thought the pain was going to tear him apart.

(“If you insist on this behaviour, we will find a new guardian for him.”)

He sat next to Taekwoon, like he did back in the day, except he didn’t tell stories this time. He just sat and mirrored his position, knees brought up against his chest, arms around them. It felt oddly familiar, even though his heart had last been broken at least two decades before. Taekwoon’s body shivered next to him, and he could only think that were he human, their bodies would be touching now – were he human, he could console him.

(“You will go to Hell.”)

He could not help it when he reached for Taekwoon. He had been told his charge wouldn’t feel anything – he had always avoided it, did not think he would deal with the reminder that he is dead, very, and that he now belonged to another world. But this time nothing was about him, so he did it. He reached and covered Taekwoon’s hand with his own, hoping to send some warmth, some something that would tell Taekwoon he hadn’t just been left all alone.

He did not expect for Taekwoon to stop crying, lift his head, and to hear him ask,

“You’re back?”

*

“Don’t you have a gun?” Eun Ji looks up to him in confusion. “One of those things you point at people with so you can shoot to kill. From a distance. A very prudent distance.”

Eun Ji hits his arm with mild strength (Wonshik likes to think it’s because she is warming up to him) and rolls her eyes. “I know what a gun is.” Her eyes wander back to the sword. “But a gun will not kill a demon. It would kill a werewolf if you put some silver in it, but by the time the bullet would reach a demon, he could be vacationing in Punta Cana.”

“Noted.”

The sword, Wonshik has to admit, is both beautiful and terrifying. Curved and long, with a dark blade. The hilt is covered in red and green jewelry. Wonshik has no idea how to use it, and it must show.

“Come, I will help you.”

She takes the sword as if it weights nothing, even though it looks heavy to Wonshik, and leads him to another room in the house. This one is different from the rest – tatami floors, dark walls, no windows. There are other swords hanging on the walls, even wood swords that Wonshik looks at with hope, but even he notices they are different. His is different, in fact, with a weird sheen coming from the blade. It isn’t natural.

Eun Ji stops in the middle of the room and hands him the sword – it is light. It feels like nothing in his hand, and at the same time he can feel the sturdiness of it. It’s the weirdest sensation Wonshik has felt in a while, and he is a damn angel which is pretty weird in itself. Eun Ji just stands, smiling at him.

“What?”

“Attack me.”

He does not hesitate this time – she probably knows better than him that he is going to suck – and rises the sword, tries to maneuver with it to get a hit on Eun Ji’s side, but before he realizes what is going on, she is out of the way, and the inertia is making him fall. Eun Ji grabs him from the back of his t-shirt so that he won’t hit the floor, and laughs close to him.

“We have a long afternoon ahead.”

Wonshik sighs. Taekwoon could teach him some of this.

*

Sojin, Taekwoon said, was the most beautiful girl he had ever met. She had a cute smile, a fun sense of humour, long hair Taekwoon loved to play with. Sojin came into Taekwoon’s life like a storm, gave him back his smile (the small one, but also the big one, where he laughed with his head thrown back and his body shaking – Wonshik loved it). She made him sing all the love songs, the fun melodies she liked and asked for. Wonshik liked Sojin as much as his own jealousy would let him, but his favorite thing about her was that this time, Taekwoon never stopped talking to him – even if he just talked about her.

*

Key suggested it, and he knows Eun Ji, and yet he had not expected for Taekwoon’s assassin to be a woman. Or to be a woman this beautiful, this innocent looking – until she smiles and all warmth is gone from her face. She is proud, he realizes. She is proud of what she did to Taekwoon, and she is proud that it got him down here, an angel with a sword from Hell and the drive to kill her and throw it all away.

(You know you’ll end up like me, right?, Eun Ji had asked earlier, as they walked to this building, as they spotted it in the distance, big and beautiful and something out of a fairytale. Wonshik had been confused at first, then he had remembered – you shall not kill, for that sin will send you to Hell. It had been too late to back down.)

“Why did you do it?”

They are stuck in a dimly illuminated hallway. There seems to be nobody around, and Eun Ji suggested as they walked the building that they were probably out on a hunt. Wonshik had not wanted to know anymore. The demon, however, had seemed to expect their visit.

She shrugs, smiling. “Orders.” Wonshik wields his sword, ready to attack, and her smile only grows bigger. “You think you can do it, big boy?”

“I am an angel, my kind has killed yours for thousands of years.”

She laughs and it sounds like music. She looks and sounds like every boy’s dream girl, he realizes, and maybe that’s how she lures her victims. Wonshik has no doubts that, as a human, he would have fallen for the trap.

“You are not an angel. You are a guardian. Your kind is stupid, lame and useless.” She closes her eyes. “I remember the angels you are talking about. They were nothing like you. They were scary.”

She says scary like it’s a compliment, the best thing she could say about them, and maybe she is nuts, maybe not, but she is sounding enough like it that Wonshik will not feel guilty for killing her. He can picture it in his head, the blood, the pain on her features, and it makes him feel satisfied, makes him think of Taekwoon well and alive and smiling again. He takes one step forward.

“I will learn.”

She nods. “I’m sure you will, for him.” She tilts her head, comes closer. “Tell me, Wonshik, how is my baby boy doing?”

The words hit Wonshik right in the face. He feels his breath hitch for a moment.

She’s a noona. She calls me baby boy, I think she loves the nickname.

Wonshik’s mouth goes dry. “Sojin?”

The bitch fucking cackles. Then she is laughing openly, like he has said the funniest thing in this world. Wonshik wants to smash her head against the wall.

“About time, angel. I guess he talked about me, didn’t he? How in love was he? Did I do a good job?”

Wonshik, at some point, stops listening. Halfway through that sentence, he sees Taekwoon, laying on his bed, talking incessantly about Sojin and the things they did together and the things he wanted to do with her. He hears the songs Taekwoon wrote for her, remembers Taekwoon’s worry when he talked about her towards the end of their relationship, how he would never be enough for her and he understood that. He remembers Taekwoon crying, and remembers wanting to go after her, scare her enough for hurting his share. It was never his job, that, so he went away instead. If only he hadn’t.

“You called him?”

“He came within minutes. Did not hesitate. That is how much he still wants me, Wonshik. How does that feel?”

“I doubt he wants you after what you did to him.”

“That does not matter, though, does it? He is going to die. How long do you think he has?”

Wonshik tightens his grip on the sword’s hilt and takes a step forward. Were he in his right mind, he would like to say something scary, something impressive, but instead he just takes out his sword and lurches forward, to her surprise.

He hears Eun Ji’s warning to be careful, but he will only be so enough that he won’t die before Sojin. Eun Ji was right, though, the sword knows better than him what to do, guides him, and though his lack of technique or training whatsoever hinders the sword’s movements, she still manages to land close enough to Sojin’s flesh that Wonshik thinks he will be able to do it. He will kill her.

*

Wonshik never realized this, but Taekwoon first noticed him very young – at about seven. He told his mother about the other person in the room (and Wonshik would remember this, because he was present, if he had known it was of any importance at all) and she told him it was nonsense. The idea, however, never left the kid’s mind. He had all these dreams, stories he had never heard unfolding in his mind at night – and if Wonshik had been able to look into his head, he would’ve realized they were his stories.

At about fourteen, Taekwoon could have thought someone was always there when he woke up from his nightmares, someone sitting next to him in bed, murmuring things he could hear but not make sense of. He called him Ravi, because he had read that word somewhere, because it meant overjoyed (and he had never felt like that)in some language he couldn’t understand – just like he couldn’t understand how he existed, or what he was.

*

Sojin doesn’t need the sword she doesn’t have. She avoids Wonshik’s hits like it’s a kid’s game, and even manages to have fun.

Wonshik is not having fun. Wonshik is tired, he can feel it. He is learning to control his sword better as the minutes pass by, but all he wants is to bury the sword in her flesh, watch as she dies knowing somewhere in the hospital they will finally be able to treat Taekwoon.

“Is this all you have?”

Wonshik makes a half turn, lifts his sword in the air to deliver a hit downwards, and Sojin barely makes it out of that one. He is the one to smile now, but it doesn’t last – she hits back, her foot right into his stomach, and he cannot breathe. He worries, for a second, that this may be the end. She must be bored of his poor skills, she could kill him easy and fast.

“He has me too,” he hears Eun Ji say. She takes the sword from him, and when he looks up with watered eyes, Eun Ji is standing between him and Sojin – and when did demons start protecting angels?

Wonshik watches. Eun Ji is much better than him. She dances with the sword, around Sojin. She hits harder than he can, and Sojin’s legs tremble whenever she stops a hit, sometimes with her own bare hands. The two women battle it out in ways Wonshik knows he wouldn’t be able to, and it makes him a little ashamed that he came so unprepared. If he weren’t about to die, he would ask Eun Ji for some lessons after Sojin was dead.

Eun Ji calls for his name soon enough, pinning Sojin to the floor. “Wonshik.”

The sword lays next to the two women, and Wonshik looks at it. It’s shining. It’s there, just for him. Sojin looks at him, expectant.

“Wonshik, now.”

He stands up, walks towards the sword and picks it up, his eyes fixated on it now, trying to avoid Sojin’s gaze burning holes on his skin.

“I should have known you’d fall for it.”

Wonshik blocks the words, lifts the sword. Eun Ji looks up, her eyes unreadable, and nods. Right through the heart, she told him, and so that’s where he buries his sword, fast and clean. Sojin does not scream or begs, she just gaps and closes her eyes slowly as life leaves her.

When he feels his skin burn, Wonshik is the one to scream.

*

At five, Taekwoon saw a ghost. That’s what he thinks he was, because one moment he wasn’t there, the next he was hovering over his bed, smiling at him. He said nothing, but he sang. He had a beautiful voice, warm and caramel like, even if at the time Taekwoon could have never described it like that – he only did that years later, when the dreams came back and haunted him, the only nice bits among an army of nightmares.

*

“You look awful.”

Taekwoon blinks. He is in a hospital. He hates hospitals. He has been in them enough that he feels tempted to get up and walk away, but his body feels heavy and even opening his eyes is tiring enough as it is. Focusing on the girl that just screamed at his face is even worse. There’s not going to be any walking anywhere soon.

“You don’t talk much, do you? Wonshik should have warned me of that.”

When he tries to move, the pain reminds him why he is here. The memories run quickly through his mind – the phone call, Sojin smiling at him, the short conversation before she took out a blade and apologized, and then the pain. Sharp and hot and sudden. The memory brings tears to his eyes.

“It’s okay. The docs fixed you up. You know, after Wonshik did his magic thingy.”

She is – he has no idea who she is, honestly, and she wants to ask, but – “Wonshik?”

“Your guardian, you brat.” She crosses her arms and Taekwoon can’t help but think she looks like a particularly badass teacher. “You owe him your life, you know?”

Maybe he’s had drugs. Maybe they’ve messed the dose he should have gotten and that’s why he is seeing her.

“I don’t understand.”

The girl rolls her eyes and sits on the bed next to him. She looks young, but an odd calmness makes her feel old at the same time. She is also shameless, if the way she reaches to take the hair out of his eyes is anything to go by. He would complain, but his body betrays him and he closes his eyes – it feels good to be touched gently for once.

“Guardian angels, kid. They have your back until you die, and try to keep you from dying too young. In your case, he also grew oddly fond on you. Must have been a cute kid.” She winks, “I mean, you definitely are a cute adult.”

Taekwoon almost laughs. ”Are they always with…?”

He gestures between both of them, too tired to look for the actual word.

“Not me, because I am a demon, but yes, they are always besides their humans. Or should be.” She tilts her head, looks at him as if she just understood something. “You know.”

Taekwoon nods. He knows something, at least. He knows someone has always been there, someone was there when Hakyeon broke up with him and when he had his nightmares and the day he almost died. His mother always said it was nonsense, but Taekwoon knows better – or maybe the drugs are getting to his head, but right now it feels good, to think that someone is out there standing up for him.

“You shouldn’t know. How you are aware of his existence – that is one hell of a question, Taekwoonie.”

It’s a question he would ask himself (will probably ask) too. “Were?”

She looks down, almost sad. “He quite literally died for you.”

“Angels die?”

One would have thought angels lived forever, ready to tear the world to pieces whenever necessary, if the Bible is anything to go by.

“Yes. Sort of.”

“Sort of?”

“He did die. He is just not dead anymore.” She sighs, and it sounds like she is losing her patience. With herself, probably. “Well, he probably still is, but he will not be in a while.”

“What?”

“It’s complicated.” Taekwoon keeps looking at her, waiting for an answer that will clarify this a little more. Or at all. “He is in Hell. One day, probably soon, he will come back. He will be one of mine.”

“One of yours?”

“A demon.”

*

Taekwoon recovers faster than he probably should, but if the doctors are in awe, they don’t oppose much when Eun Ji insists in taking her fiancé home. (His mother opposes a little more – he sees it in her face – speciall when she hears the word fiancé, but is anxious enough about taking him home that just goes along with the lie.) He goes home and Eun Ji appears at his door the very next day, early enough that most people are still sleeping, but she does not care much. She is there to train him, she says.

“Train me?”

“Sure, boy. You have an angel to find.”

*

Taekwoon first sees the angel a few months down the road. Eun Ji is the one to spot him, hidden in some alley. The first thing he notices are his long legs, then that his face is beaten up and bloody. His lip might be slightly broken and his eyes are barely open.

“Wonshik!”

Taekwoon has grown a tolerance to her screaming in the recent months (he thinks by now his mother pretty much believes they are going to get married, that is how much time they have spent together) but if Wonshik feels half as bad as he looks, he feels for the guy.

“Wonshik!” She straightens him, forces his face so that he is looking her in the eye. “Are you okay, kid?”

Wonshik turns his face instead, eyes on Taekwoon. If he didn’t show much signs of recognizing Eun Ji, he definitely knows who he is.

“Taekwoon?”

Taekwoon smiles and gets a little closer to his guardian angel (and it is still weird and crazy, even after everything Eun Ji has taught him, and that is a lot, though also a story for another day). He reaches for Wonshik’s hand, covering it with her own. It feels familiar although he knows it shouldn’t, they have never really touched. Wonshik seems amazed.

“You can see me.”

Taekwoon nods. “And you’re back.”