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Song of the Curse

Chapter Text

sound where there shouldn’t be sound
faltering foosteps
leather dragging across the floor
skin catching on bark
soft cry of pain

What is it? What’s happening?

We’re going, we’re going now, come on!

All of us?

We have to go now!

red glow under white light bright enough to bring tears to dry eyes
hiss of dead channels
a heap of clothes with two staring eyes

Can you walk?

I’ll crawl out of here if I have to.

smashing glass
splintering plastic
quiet cries of rage

What are you doing? Your hands, your hands, my god

dry heat baking off blackened walls
shimmer in smoky air
singed hair and blistered skin acrid in the nose

Over here, I’m over here.

Where are you - wait, I’ve got him!

scream

Sorry, sorry, here, hold on to me.

diagrams and words that make no sense but set teeth on edge
slither of maggots and buzz of insects
tarnished silver heaped with putrefaction

My god, that smell.

Get me the fuck out of here.

This way, this way!

 

What about -

Leave him.

We can’t leave him!

He’s right, we have to try.

He’s gone, you know he’s gone.

No, no, he’s not, he’s not, we have to -

a tiny, airless glass box

Oh my god.

Get him out of there.

Stand back!

shattering
falling shards catching in dusty black

We’re going, we’re going, come on!

This is a mistake.

jagged, hopeless laughter

Stop him! Grab him!

Watch the glass!

scream

It’s too late, we have to save ourselves.

Let me go!

skin impact on skin
crunch of tiny bones

I won’t lose you, too!

We have no choice, I’m so sorry.

I hate you, I hate you all!

Shut up. You know what he’s done.

Please, this isn’t the time.

Why? Why?

Run! Everybody, run!

 

I’ll come back for you! I’ll find you! Hongbin! I’ll find you!

 

*****

Before …

 

‘I really don’t see why we have to do this in the middle of winter,’ griped Sanghyuk.

‘I agree.’ Taekwoon, almost blue with cold despite being bundled into a thick down-filled jacket, heavy boots and ski mittens, regarded the snowy orchard in front of them with open dislike. ‘We’ll all catch colds, and you know Hongbin’s lungs are weak.’

‘Shut up, I’m fine,’ came the quick response, but already, Hongbin’s voice sounded slightly clogged.

You might be, but I’m freezing my nose off!’ Jaehwan cupped his gloved hands around his face, sniffling loudly.

Wonsik made a rude noise. ‘If you’re lucky, you’ll get left with a normal sized nose, so stop complaining.’ He dodged as Jaehwan lunged to slap him.

Looking like nothing so much as a bundle of padding with arms and legs, Hakyeon put his hands on what were probably his hips and sighed. Between the bright red beanie and scarf, only his eyes were visible, but no one could mistake the glare he levelled at them. ‘You should all stop complaining. This won’t take long, and we’ll keep moving so you won’t be too cold. Now, do you all have your baskets?’ One by one, they indicated the red plastic baskets at their feet. ‘Good. Now, come along.’ He bent and picked up his own, turned and led the way between the rows of trees.

‘Hey, Bean. Whose idea was this, anyway?’ asked Sanghyuk. He poked at an overhanging branch, and yelped as it dumped its load of snow almost on his head.

Hongbin, trudging along beside him, shrugged, the movement nearly lost in the layers of his clothing. ‘I asked eomma about that this morning. He just gave me one of those I-know-something-you-don’t smiles. So my guess is, this is all his fault.’

From far ahead, the subject of this accusation called to them to hurry up. Sanghyuk muttered, ‘Think anyone would notice if I just buried him up to his ears in snow?’

Hongbin’s laugh choked off into a coughing fit. ‘Dammit,’ he wheezed. ‘I hate it when Taekwoon’s right. How about we bury them both?’

‘Deal.’

The plan was simple enough. Wander through the orchard, pick satsumas and clown around for the cameras whenever they saw them. Pose for the occasional still. Maybe even - but only if they felt like it, Hakyeon stressed - maybe even have a snowball fight. The two youngest exchanged glances at that comment, in perfect agreement. They definitely felt like it, and they’d already chosen their first, and possibly only, target. Each was given a few pieces of fruit to make it appear they were being ‘discovered’ while taking part in a perfectly normal, everyday activity. They were waved off in six different directions. ‘Normal,’ scoffed Wonsik, ‘yes, because normal people always freeze their butts off prancing around a fucking orchard in the snow’. With the ease of long practice, he dodged the neck chop Hakyeon aimed at him.

Just before he walked away, Taekwoon said quietly to Hongbin, ‘Are you feeling all right? I’m sure you could go back to the van and get warm, everyone would understand.’

Hongbin rolled his eyes. ‘I told you, I’m fine. Go away and look interested in fruit-picking, or I’ll start a snowball fight right here.’ Taekwoon shrugged and turned his back. Finally, thought Hongbin. He sneezed suddenly, explosively. Without looking, the vocalist reached into one pocket and retrieved a large handkerchief, which he held out. With an irritated sigh, Hongbin grabbed for it and yanked down his scarf to wipe his nose. He watched as Taekwoon moved off, unable to see his face but convinced he was smiling. This day cannot get any worse.

Despite having feet like iceblocks and noses that dripped constantly, most of the group soon found they were actually enjoying the day. As irrepressible as ever, Jaehwan threw himself into the fruit-picking, displaying his finds proudly for the cameras and pointing out how superior they were to anything the others were able to gather. Hakyeon broke into spontaneous dance solos which, while not exactly graceful, were funny enough to draw laughter from the camera crew. He also drew fire from Sanghyuk, who proved a deadly shot with a well-packed snowball. As the end of their first hour approached, the director called a break and waved them all back to an area at the edge of the orchard where staff had set up chairs, hot drinks and blankets.

Taekwoon was the first to wrap himself up and commandeer an entire thermos of coffee, hugging it to his chest. One by one the others trickled in, until only Wonsik and Hongbin had yet to appear. ‘We only have ten more minutes,’ fretted Hakyeon. ‘Who was the last to see them? Where were they?’ They looked at each other blankly.

‘I thought Hongbin was with you,’ said Taekwoon, looking at Sanghyuk. The maknae shook his head, nose buried in his blanket.

‘We’d better find them,’ said Hakyeon. ‘Come on, everyone grab another blanket. I’m sure they’ll be freezing.’

‘That’s not all they’ll be,’ promised Taekwoon darkly.

They fanned out through the rows, calling the two missing members, voices ranging from exasperated (Taekwoon) to mildly concerned (Hakyeon). Pausing every few minutes for an answer, they were met with only silence. Where could they be? thought the leader. This had better not be some sort of prank. The back of his neck prickled. Stop it, nothing’s wrong, don’t be ridiculous, he scolded himself. ‘All right, everyone come here and we’ll regroup!’ he called.

Jaehwan arrived almost immediately, Sanghyuk on his heels. Both of them were flushed from exertion, and more than a little annoyed. ‘No sign of them,’ reported Sanghyuk. ‘Bet you anything they're already back at -’

‘Where’s Taekwoon?’ asked Hakyeon. Sanghyuk looked over his shoulder.

‘What? He was right behind me …’

‘I’ll go get him,’ offered Jaehwan, and headed back the way they’d come. The two left behind stood looking at each other, waiting.

Nothing. Not even the sound of someone crunching and sliding on the snow, or the staff at the edge of the orchard chatting to each other. The only noise came from their own breathing. There’s a simple explanation for this, Hakyeon told himself. ‘Something’s wrong,’ said Sanghyuk suddenly.

‘Of course there isn’t,’ said Hakyeon sharply, tension bleeding into his voice. ‘We would have heard if anything had happened.’

‘Really, hyung? Because I can’t hear anything except us.’ Sanghyuk gestured in a broad sweep around them with a shaky arm. ‘You think they’re all out there sneaking around? Not hearing Taekwoon, I might accept, but you don’t really expect me to believe Jaehwan is being deliberately quiet, do you?’

He’s right, thought Hakyeon. Nothing’s moving out there. Even the wind’s dropped. He shook his head briskly. ‘Calm down,’ he said, more to himself than to Sanghyuk. ‘They’ll be here soon.’

‘I’m telling you, something’s wrong. Can’t you feel it?’

‘All right, all right. Stay here in case the others come,’ Hakyeon ordered him. ‘You can explain to them how much trouble they’re in. I’m going to get the staff and start a proper search.’

‘Hyung, wait -’ but Hakyeon had already disappeared into the rows. Sanghyuk stared after him, hugging himself. I’ll wait five minutes, then I’ll go back. Eyes on his back, watching him; he spun around, nearly slipping over. Nothing. Of course, nothing. ‘Hello?’ he called, and immediately rolled his eyes at his own stupidity. Stop freaking. If it was the others, they’d call out. He waited. Okay, screw this, I’m going back now.

Off to his left, a noise. A high-pitched, almost hysterical giggle, weirdly familiar. It almost sounded like - ‘Bean? Is that you?’ The laugh came again, now seeming to come from somewhere in front of him. ‘Come on, stop fucking around, everyone’s really pissed at you and Wonsik.’

A frightened whisper: ‘Sanghyuk?’ The maknae swallowed, heart suddenly racing, because that sounded like Taekwoon, and the vocalist didn’t play this sort of game.

I’m not scared, I don’t get scared … I’m just going to go back and then they’ll all laugh at me and ... and he couldn’t make his feet move. It seemed darker suddenly, the rows closer together, not happening, the sun went in, that’s all, move, just start walking, stay calm, just walk, just -.

Hyukkie, run!’ Hakyeon, screaming, and Sanghyuk threw himself forward, scrambled for balance, fled without a backward glance deeper into the orchard, ripping his scarf away from his mouth to drag in sobbing breaths, crashing into branches that tore at the skin of his face, nothing in his head but go go go get away go.

Sharp, bright pain in his stomach knocked the breath out of him. He doubled over, smelled something sour and meaty that pulled bile into his throat.

He knew he was falling, never felt himself hit the ground.

When the staff and camera crew came looking, twenty minutes later, they found only churned-up snow, overturned baskets with inexplicably rotten fruit spilling out of them, and Sanghyuk’s scarf caught on a bare branch.

*****

where

dark

toodark openeyesopendark

boneshivergooseflesh

dripdripdripdrip throatscratch water

getupmove

movemove

can’t move

 

who’s there

don’ttouchmedon’ttouchmedon’t

Chapter Text

SBS BREAKING NEWS

All six members of up-and-coming idol group VIXX have been reported missing after they failed to return from video filming on location today. Police have confirmed they are treating the disappearances as suspicious. Members of the public with any information as to the group’s whereabouts are urged to contact the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency immediately.

The disappearance comes only a few weeks after VIXX received its first Number One award for its single, Voodoo Doll

Other major entertainment agencies, including SMTOWN, have increased security for their artists and cancelled some public appearances ...

Families of the missing young men could not be contacted for comment.

 

*****

shift of fabric against skin
soft cry
muffled weeping

I’m so hungry.

I’m not. Don’t think I’ll ever eat again.

This can’t be happening, this stuff isn’t real, it must be drugs in the water or something.

muscletwitch
footslide
can’tmove

We all saw it. We saw what she can do.

I don’t believe it. It’s too perfect.

What are you saying?

She knows how to get into our heads. How does she know?

batterywhine
cameraflash
flinch

 

Maybe we put too much online.

No, there’s something too weird here. You felt it, I know you did.

Are you all right?

Next question.

 

I can’t see from here, who did she take this time?

 

Who do you think?

distant sobbing
scream
laughter

 

My god.

 

*****

VIXX Amino

DAY 8

 

Send Your Message of Support!

 

INFORMATION HOTLINES - NO detail is too small

 

Police Links

Emergency Links

Counselling Links

 

Featured Posts

* VIXX Theories

* Music Bank Voodoo Doll Performance

* Music Bank Acceptance Speech

* VIXX Fanart

 

Public Chatrooms

* Vigil for VIXX

* Starlight Support

* Share your Favourite VIXX Moment

 

*****

 

please stop pleasepleaseplease i’ll do anything please it hurts so much

 

leave them alone, why can’t you leave them alone, why - no, don’t, don’t

 

don’t you love me best? take me

 

*****

JELLYFISH ENTERTAINMENT

MEDIA RELEASE

 

₩ 100,000,000 REWARD FOR PUBLIC HELP TO LOCATE MISSING IDOL GROUP VIXX

Jellyfish Entertainment is offering a reward of ₩ 100,000,000 for information from all members of the public who can provide authorities with information that may lead to the whereabouts of idol group, VIXX, now missing for 12 days. ‘We would gratefully accept any information, no matter how small it may appear,’ said CEO Hwang Sejun. ‘Everyone at Jellyfish is extremely concerned for the wellbeing of our young people.’

CEO Hwang said that Jellyfish was providing ongoing support for the families of the idols, and praised the VIXX Fan Club, Starlight, for their unwavering dedication.

VIXX, whose name stands for ‘Voice, Visual, Value In Excelsis’, debuted in 2012 after members participated in the Mnet reality TV show MyDol. Its six members, Cha Hakyeon (N), Jung Taekwoon (Leo) …

 

*****

 

We’ll never get out of here.

 

They’ll find us.

 

Even you don’t believe that anymore.

 

I want to die.

 

Don’t say that, don’t ever say that.

 

I’m going to keep believing. I have to.

laughter

Shut up!

 

*****

 

SBS 8 News with Kim Hyun-woo … News an hour earlier.

 

Welcome back, I’m Kim Hyun-woo with the headlines.

The Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency issued a statement today announcing they would begin scaling back the nationwide search for the six members of Jellyfish Entertainment idol group VIXX as hopes fade for their safe return. This statement was immediately followed by a media release from the company increasing their reward for information to ₩ 1500,000,000.

It’s now been 24 days since the mysterious disappearance of the six young men while filming on location. Fans continue to hold around-the-clock vigils, while …

 

*****

 

What are you doing?

 

What are you doing??

 

Get away from me!

laughter

Stop, you don't have to. Leave it alone.

 

You don’t want to do this. Please.

screams

……………... i'm sorry

 

*****

 

Run! Everybody, run!

Chapter Text

Now …

 

Metro 3 from 1663 mobile.

Metro 3, go ahead 1663 mobile.

Metro 3, 1663 mobile responding to report of disturbance, Oryu 2-dong. Multiple emergency ambulances required, priority 1. Five individuals, possibly male, approximately 18-25. Rendering emergency first aid.

Say again, 1663 mobile. Five individuals, possibly male?

Confirm, Metro 3, five. Serious trauma, could be internal injuries, shock, burns, lacerations, puncture wounds … dear god, they’ve got things stuck into them.

1663 mobile, ambulances en route to your location. More details as to the nature of injuries are requested.

Metro 3 … I can’t … they’re … they’re all messed up, they're (inaudible)

Keep it together, 1663 mobile. Are they conscious?

Metro 3, they’re awake … but they’re not here.

Metro 3 from 3928 mobile.

Metro 3, go ahead 3928 mobile.

Metro 3, extent of trauma makes identification impossible beyond what 1663 mobile reported. Can’t even tell if they’re local. They’re all in severe shock, maybe hallucinating, some non-responsive. Can’t communicate with any of them.

3928 mobile, do they appear drug-affected?

Metro 3, they’re not that lucky. It looks like torture.

3928 mobile, say again.

Metro 3, I said they look like they’ve been tortured. Some of these injuries are old. These kids have been through hell. For a long time. I don’t even know how they’re still alive.

3928 mobile, this is Dispatch Supervisor. Confirm, please, five males? Not six?

Metro 3 from 3928 mobile, confirm five. Do we know who they are?

3928 mobile, look for one more. Repeat, look for one more.

There’s no one else here, Metro 3.

 

*****

rough stone under bruised skin
nerves on fire
veins choked with ice

not here all gone allgone
alone
alone
left me

ofcourse left me

running feet
furious shriek
lifted
thrown

can’tmove

damp cloth on face
warm hands soothing
soft brush through tangled hair
quiet happy humming
clink of metal against metal
whispered words of love
pretty perfect mine

don’t
please

coldsilver punchpain laughscream

‘I know you’ll never leave me.’

laughter

*****

 

‘What do we have?’

‘Patient is male, approximately 18-25, conscious but non-responsive. Multiple impact traumas, lacerations, penetrative injuries. Pulse is 86 and thready, BP is …’

‘Trauma bay 1, please.’

‘Patient is male, approximately 18-25, conscious and agitated. Superficial and partial thickness burns …’’

‘Patient is male, approximately 18-25, conscious and responsive …’

‘Patient is male …’

‘Patient is …’

 

*****

 

It’s soft, here. Warm. It smells … new. There’s noise. Machines, motors humming, regular beeps. Voices, not far away, not familiar. Everything’s changed, open your eyes, look, look before it changes again.

Bright light. He throws up his hands to protect his eyes, sees white fabric around his wrists, sees tape binding his fingers together. Tubes running into … needles in his arm. He screams, tearing at them with clumsy hands, get them out get them out, where am I now, what has she done.

Loud bang of an opening door. Voices babbling at him, hands on him, pushing him back onto the - bed. It’s a bed. It’s not, she’s not … he tries to speak, can’t make more than the tiniest, raw sound. Instantly, a straw between his lips, brisk professional voice, just take a small sip for now. Water, fresh and clean, no aftertaste of dust and rot. Taken away too quickly; he whimpers at the loss. Swallows.

‘... hospital?’

‘That’s right, you’re at University Hospital, you’re safe, please try to relax. We need to put these back in.’

‘No, please, no more.’

Another voice. Deeper this one, older man. ‘Let that go for a moment. Give him a little time to get oriented.’

Hardly daring to ask, he whispers, ‘Are we really out?’

‘You’re safe now.’ Third voice, female, soft; he cringes away.

The man - doctor, he remembers the word: ‘Can you tell me your name?’

For a moment, there’s nothing except pain, and terror, and paralysis in the dark, and he feels the scream rising in his throat. ‘Take a deep breath … now another,’ says the professional voice.

‘My name is … Cha Hakyeon.’ And I’m alone. I shouldn’t be alone, we -. Sudden, blind panic, he struggles to push them away, run, ‘Where are they? Where are they?’

Sharp sting, warmth spreading, sight fading, ‘... no … have to watch … her … can’t sleep …’

 

*****

 

‘...hard work, definitely, but really fun as well, you know? Acting is not that different from singing, really, you have to really feel it, although there’s a lot more standing around and waiting, but at least that gives me a chance to make sure I’ve got my lines down. What I’d really like to do, though, is musicals on stage, I’d have to say that’s my dream, I mean, apart from what I’m doing now, of course, I really like that, and I love my Starlight babies, but that’s not going to last forever, is it? … Oh, that’s kind of you to say, but I have to think about such things and make sure I have everything sorted out so that when the time comes I will have enough experience. I’ll probably have to start with smaller roles, but you know I would really love to sing a lead role, a romantic lead preferably, you know, really heartfelt with duets and a solo that challenges me, my voice, I mean, something like Hamlet or Elizabeth or Death Note, no probably not that one, I don’t think it quite suits my voice, that one needs more of a … Oh, no, no, I’m not tired, really, I’m fine, I don’t need to go to sleep … no, I don’t want something to help me sleep, it’s relaxing just talking to you … You do? Oh. No, no, I understand.

‘ … could you just stay a little longer, please?’

 

*****

 

Emergency 119, do you require police, ambulance or rescue?

‘Uh … hello? Hello? Can you help?’

Are you calling with an emergency, ma’am?

‘Oh! Yes, yes, send an ambulance, it’s terrible.’

You need an ambulance? Who is hurt? Can you tell me what happened?

‘I don’t know who it is, I just found him in the lane here, he’s very badly hurt. Please send an ambulance.’

All right, we’re sending an ambulance to your GPS location now. Can you tell me what happened?

‘I’m sorry, I don’t know, I just found him. I think someone did this to him, he’s got a lot of blood on him.’

Has anyone tried first aid?

‘I don’t know first aid, I didn’t think I should touch him, was that wrong? It’s just … he scared me.’

Do you need the police as well, ma’am? If you feel you’re at risk please move away.

‘No, no, I don’t think he can get up, I just … I don’t like the way he’s laughing.’

Chapter Text

‘Look, you can let me out of these, all right? No, I know, I was freaked out but I’m okay now. Please, they hurt.’

They promise they’ll talk to ‘the doctor’ about it. Sanghyuk’s not fooled, he knows what these padded bands around his wrists mean. They think he’s crazy. They think he’ll hurt himself, hurt someone else. They don’t get it. ‘Really, I’m not trying to harm myself. It’s … when will I start being able to feel things again?’

They mutter jargon at him, axonotmesis, Wallerian degeneration, a dozen other meaningless words, all adding up to one thing; they don’t know. Maybe never. They tell him, over and over, to keep his hopes up, that he’ll be completely supported, that the therapy will be ‘intense but productive’. He nods, and tries to sound cautiously optimistic when he responds.

He learns how to play the game. Not too calm, just enough for them to relax and, after four more days (he counts), they take the restraints away. For the next two, he obediently shuffles to and from the tiny bathroom, watches the shifts change, lets them wheel him around for the hospital for an endless round of tests. He learns the way to Neurology, Radiology, Plastic & Reconstructive, even talks one orderly who’s a fan into taking him on a quick trip to the cafeteria and buying him a cup of hot mint chocolate.

On the third day he slips out while the nurses are all in their tiny meeting room, and goes searching. He finds them all easily, within a few doors of where he’s been all this time. All except the one he’s really looking for. Increasingly desperate, he seeks further afield, every ward he can get into, but comes up with nothing.

They catch him on the ground floor, heading for the front doors with one destination in mind and no idea how to get there. He fights them, and from the way they try to hold him, he knows it should be hurting, but he can’t feel anything. In the end they have to sedate him, and when he wakes he’s back in restraints again. He doesn’t even try to talk his way free, this time. Instead he throws himself into anything that will help him recover, even working so hard with the physiotherapist that he’s cautioned to pace himself. He doesn’t listen, because he only has one reason to get better, and time has to be running out.

 

*****

 

They stand at the foot of his bed, discussing him like he’s not even there. He listens from behind closed eyes and a shuttered face.

‘How has he been?’

‘He had a good night, only woke a couple of times with pain. Well, I say good, but the nightmares …’

 

(blind eyes following him, his face everywhere, nowhere to hide)

 

‘Mm-hm, I haven’t had an overnight with him yet, but I’ve heard how bad they get. Is it true he doesn’t even call out in his sleep?’

 

(swift blooming ache as metal slides through skin, white-hot spike into muscle, limbs jerked and twisted and re-arranged)

 

‘It’s true. It’s the same with hand therapy, not a sound from him. That’s the tragedy of it, of course. Did you ever hear him sing?’

‘Well, not until we got them as patients, but his voice is so lovely and high. I just hope the therapy team are right, and he’ll be talking soon.’

 

(his own harsh screams echoing back, overlapping ugly discords, throat full of splinters, learning silence)

 

‘Yes, me too. All of them have so much healing to do, it would be a shame if their careers were cut short just when they were getting real success. So, his numbers are stable, BP still a little on the low side …’

 

No real compassion in the way they speak, but it doesn’t distress him. Nothing does, anymore. He’s empty, almost everything taken from him. All that’s left is a hollow ache where his voice used to be, and a resignation that comforts him when he wakes in the night. And the memories, because he’s not allowed to forget anything.

When they move on to the next room, Taekwoon shifts in the bed to lie on his side, careful to keep his hands in place against his chest and stomach. Doing this brings a flare of pain, but not even a whimper escapes him. He opens his eyes to stare dully at the wall opposite, waiting to die.

 

*****

 

from: park.sy@trauma.snuh.org
to: hwang.jm@psych.snuh.org

subject: police access

 

SMPA are asking me when they can interview our patients again. Their first attempt failed, and I’m extremely uncomfortable that they were even permitted to question the patients when they were first brought in.

I appreciate the need for them to get as much information as possible, but frankly, I’m not sure most of them are willing, or even able, to go through that process. Maybe 24M19 or 19M18, but it’s not a call I feel comfortable making.

Can you assess, please?

Thanks,

 

Park Sooyeon

 

from: hwang.jm@psych.snuh.org
to: park.sy@trauma.snuh.org

subject: re: police access

 

Happy to prioritise this, I can see them this afternoon.

 

*****

 

‘We’re going to keep you on fluids for a while, because you were badly dehydrated. But feel free to drink as much water as you like.’

Wonshik looks at the untouched jug on the table beside him, water beading on the side of the plastic, and licks his lips unconsciously. Don’t trust it, but he reaches out and wipes his finger over the condensation, brings it to his mouth.

 

(rotslime stonedust)

 

Wiping at his mouth frantically, spitting blood from cracked lips rubbed raw. There’s nothing in his stomach; his body still tries to push out the taste. He retches helplessly, bent at the waist, feels an arm slip around his shoulder and a bag pressed into his hands.

‘That’s all right, it’s all right. Take it slowly.’

It’s not all right. It never will be. His hand tightens on the bag against the sudden surge of anger. It’s not her fault. Be calm. Be calm. He can feel her looking at him, forces himself to relax his fingers. The attempt at a reassuring smile fails utterly.

‘We’ll wait a little while longer before starting you on food again. We’ll start with clear liquids, and move on from there to -’

He jams the bag against his mouth again, heaving so violently he brings bile burning into his throat. When the spasm passes, he sags back in the bed, exhausted, stomach aching. The door clicks, and she’s gone, but he knows she’ll return soon with an anti-nausea injection; his upper arms are already littered with tiny marks, his shoulder muscles tight from bracing for the moment when the needle enters his skin.

The others are here somewhere, he’s heard the nurses talking when they think he’s asleep. We made it out, still so impossible to believe. The thought should bring relief, not the fresh spike of rage that leaves him shaking, thinned lips pulled back from gritted teeth. Calm down. Calm down. We made it out. All of us.

All except the one we should never have tried to save.

 

*****

 

from: hwang.jm@psych.snuh.org
to: park.sy@trauma.snuh.org

subject: re: police access

 

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES are police to be permitted unsupervised access to these patients.

They’re all suffering serious psychological trauma, and in my opinion most are not ready for anything but the most carefully guided interview.

24M16 is clearly showing tendencies towards mutism. How far this extends is something I’m still trying to determined. It’s possible he will respond to his friends in the absence of hospital personnel, but any attempt by police to force answers out of him could cause considerable distress and set back his recovery.

19M18 is exhibiting intermittent explosive tendencies. He could be easily provoked by the wrong questions.

18M17 is still under watch for self-harm and escape attempts. I’m not convinced he would co-operate with police.

20M15 may be ready for a guided interview. He’s showing indications that he may be developing an attachment disorder, so any access would have to be carefully monitored.

I’m cautiously optimistic about recommending 24M19 be the first interviewed, again under supervision. He’s lucid and shows insight into his situation. He’s also expressed a willingness to talk to police.

I understand you’re under pressure on this, Sooyeon. I’ll write it all up for you, and if anyone has a problem, feel free to send them to me. These boys have been through an experience so traumatic it’s comparable to the worst torture cases I’ve treated. The last thing any of them need is to be further harmed by us.

-- HJM

 

*****

 

‘Remember, you can ask for this to stop at any time.’

Hakyeon nods; it’s expected of him, but he already knows he won’t ask. This has been lying in him like poison for too long. Someone needs to be told.

The two detectives sit in chairs drawn up near his bed, not too close, under the watchful glare of the doctor (the psychiatrist). The younger one, the man, is nervous, fumbling with the controls of his phone to open the recording app. Instinctively, Hakyeon tries to put him at ease with a smile that feels entirely false. His colleague is calm and businesslike in her grey suit, the only splash of colour the bright blue trim around her shirt collar. She’s the one who reads the questions to him from her notebook.

Most of the things they want to know are easy to answer. What does he remember about the day he disappeared (picking satsumas, losing everyone, frozen in mid-step, darkness). Can he describe his attackers (just one, only one, no, never anyone else, her hands, her smile, her voice). Where was he when he escaped (blind panic, running until Wonshik collapsed, holding his head, screaming for help, no, he doesn’t know how long they ran or what direction). Hakyeon’s voice is matter-of-fact as he recites these details and watches the timer on the phone screen count higher.

Then they ask him the questions he can’t answer, at least not in ways they can understand. Knowing it’s futile, he tells them again about the paralysis, the way she knew them, the things she made them see, and hear, and feel. The doll. He doesn’t need to look at their faces to see their disbelief and pity; he can hear it when the pen stops scratching against the paper and in the uncomfortable way the young man shifts in his chair. It’s not surprising, or even a disappointment. They have no way of understanding. They weren’t there. Still, he tries, and tries, and fails again.

Finally, the question he’s been dreading from the beginning, the one that chases him in sleep and makes him avoid his own eyes in the mirror. The thing he can’t face, can’t ever talk about. And Hakyeon finds that, in the end, he has to ask them to stop, after all.

 

Why did only five of you escape?

Chapter Text

‘What do we have?’

‘Patient is male, approximately 18-25, agitated and disoriented, we had to restrain him, couldn’t get a full set of numbers.’

‘Trauma bay 1, please, soft restraints. Watch out for the glass.’

‘Did this guy go through a windscreen?’

‘He was just found like this.’

‘All right, let’s get to work. Sir? Sir? Can you hear me? Can you tell me your name?’

‘He’s been laughing like that since we got to him.’

‘He sounds crazy.’

‘That will do.’

‘Pupillary response is - holy shit, his eyes.’

‘Are they contact lenses? Let’s get them out.’

‘I … I … I can’t. They’re, oh my god, I think they’re sewn in.’

‘We’ve got another one??’

‘This one looks worse than the others.’

‘Let’s focus, everyone.’

‘Sir, can you tell me your name?’

‘… ’

‘What did he say? Everyone, be quiet for a moment, please.’

‘Can you tell me your name?’

‘Did anyone catch that?’

‘He just keeps saying “pretty”. Over and over. Pretty, pretty.’

‘Call the on-duty psychiatrist, please.’

 

*****

 

It’s the first time they’ve seen each other since being brought in nearly three weeks ago, and Hakyeon sees his own shock reflected in the faces around him. Sallow complexions, wide-eyed (except for Wonshik, who regards everything around with narrow suspicion), still heavily bandaged (except for Jaehwan, whose skin glistens here and there with green salve). All of them too thin, all trembling slightly in their wheelchairs. They’ve been arranged in a lopsided circle by the orderlies, who leave the room quietly. Immediately, Sanghyuk reaches down to unlock the brakes on his chair, straining against the padded cuffs around his wrists, and wheels himself closer to Taekwoon. No, that’s not quite right. The maknae’s chair actually angles away from Wonshik. From all of them.

There’s a spare seat, and they know it’s for the doctor who’ll be talking to them soon. It feels like it should be for someone else, and none of them can look at it.

‘It’s good to see you all,’ says Hakyeon tentatively to break the ice. The others make noncommittal noises (except for Taekwoon, who says nothing at all). There’s no further attempt at conversation, but the silence is crammed with unspoken words.

I’m okay, I’m going to be fine, look, I’ve got my friends back.

How could you leave him?

I’ll never come back from this.

I won’t let her win.

It’s so good to see them, I wish they’d let us room together, maybe when we’re a little better, I miss having someone to talk to.

I failed you all. I’ll never let that happen again.

How could you?

The doctor knocks gently on the door before entering the room, her movements slow and measured. It’s how everyone is with them now, no sudden shocks, no surprises. Everyone walks on eggshells, like they’re frightened animals who might spook at a loud noise. We are, thinks Hakyeon. Wonshik’s eyes, never still, track every tiny movement the doctor makes.

They have so many people looking after them now, and Jaehwan’s proud that he knows all their names. He recites them to himself when he’s supposed to be sleeping. Just knowing that they are out there thinking about him helps make the scared hours when he’s alone go faster. This one is Park Sooyeon. She has an official title, but he just thinks of her as doctor-in-charge. She has two children who are at elementary school, a boy and a girl, and a dog that chews up shoes. Jaehwan wants to talk with her some more, but she’s always very busy.

The doctor tells them she’d like them to reconsider having their families visit, or at least they should keep in touch more frequently. Isolation isn’t good for them, and it’s very hard on their families. Taekwoon is the first to reject the idea, shaking his head firmly without looking up. They shouldn’t see him like this, for their own peace of mind. He doesn’t want anyone worrying about him.

The others are quick to follow, all completely opposed to the idea. There isn’t anyone who’d understand. I’d love to see them but I think they’d be a bit scared. I don’t want anyone. The doctor simply nods, as though expecting this. Then she encourages them to start spending time together outside of scheduled therapy, and as they keep improving, they can perhaps pair up in two-bed rooms. Jaehwan almost can’t keep still for happiness, but Sanghyuk just turns his head away from all of them.

There’s a little more after that, a general progress report that’s couched in hopeful terms. Wonshik reads between the lines, and his mouth twists as he thinks, we’re all fucked up. Descriptions of programs with names like ‘long-term psychotherapy’, ‘reconstructive surgery’, and ‘light to medium physiotherapy’ roll off the doctor’s tongue, and to Wonshik they all add up to the same thing. We can’t fix you but we can make it so other people can’t see how broken you are.

Sitting like this for so long is still painful. For Hakyeon, it’s almost unendurable, because now that he can move, he needs to keep moving. His foot taps on the floor, his fingers drum against the arm of the chair. A brush against the back of his hand, skin banded with metal wires, and he looks up in surprise to see Taekwoon stretching out to touch him with trembling fingers. Reflexively, he moves to cover Taekwoon’s hand with his own, but the vocalist snatches his arm back.

The doctor pauses, ruffles some papers for show. Then she asks them to please remain calm, because she has some news. They say nothing, just fix her with their stares, Wonshik poised as though about to spring out of the wheelchair.

‘Your friend, Lee Hongbin, has been found.’

Oh god, he’s dead, we left him and she killed him.

I hope he is dead. He deserves to be.

That’s good news, isn’t it? But why does Sooyeon look so upset?

I hope he’s dead. It would be kinder.

pleasenopleasenopleaseno

‘He’s alive, but -’

The room explodes into noise, their voices falling over each other and tangling. Excitement. Guilt-tinged relief. Anger. And a quiet little moan of distress.

Sanghyuk shoves himself upwards, growling in frustration as he’s brought up short by the restraints. ‘Where is he? I need to see him, take me to him, where is he?’

 

*****

 

they’re watching

 

He can’t see them, can’t see much beyond blurred shadows through flaring light. They haven’t tried to change that yet. They gave him fake tears to cry, told him it would ease the pain. He knows they mean well, even if they don’t understand.

These eyes are blind. This is a pure thing, because now he can see.

Just outside the cage door, two of them looking in. He can feel them. Neither is her, he knows the hole she makes in the world when she’s near. Even without the glass, with his arms stitched and bound (and he tried, he tried to fight them when he realised what they were doing), he would know her.

 

they’re watching be still now

 

He lies perfectly motionless, staring upwards, not even blinking. Dangerous, this, easy to slip away. Lose the feel of the mattress giving under his body, lose the smell of lemon-scented chemical cleaning fluid. Go back.

 

(pretty perfect precious)

no

 

(be still and listen)

i can’t hear you

 

(are they hurting you, pretty?)

… yes

 

(they should be punished)

stop

 

(i’m the only one who hurts you)

leave me alone

 

(you don’t want that)
(you miss me)

no i don’t idon’tidon’t

 

(i forgive you for trying to leave me)

i got away from you
i got away
i got away

 

(did you?)

nonono please i got away

 

(you’re still in the box, precious)

 

Jaehwan darts a quick, fearful glance through the door, wincing at the sounds. ‘Yes. That’s him.’

The nurse (Nari, her name is Nari, she loves plum candies, she wants to get a pet but can’t decide between a rabbit and a hamster) opens her folder and checks off a box. ‘Thank you, Jyani.’ She still smiles shyly when she uses that name, even though he’s told her over and over again it’s what he prefers his friends to call him. As she looks back through the door, her expression become serious. ‘Poor thing. He must be in so much pain. I just wish he’d stop laughing like that. Do you know why he does it?’

Because it’s how he copes. Because she broke him worse than us. Because she made him into something horrible. All true, all completely beside the point.

‘Because he was her favourite,’ Jaehwan says simply. ‘Please, can I go and see Hakyeon now? I … I don’t want to be here.’

*****

‘What are we going to do?’

Taekwoon’s voice, rusty with disuse, barely more than a whisper, startles Wonshik, almost makes him trip as he paces the length of his room. He turns, but the vocalist’s head is down, studying the ugly black rods and wires that encase his hands. ‘What did you say?’

‘What should we do?’

Run, thinks Wonshik. Run again, run far enough to get away for sure this time. Sneak in and smother him with a pillow. Wrap my fingers around his throat … His hands hurt. He looks down at clenched fists, almost white with strain. Forcing himself to breathe slowly and evenly, he wills himself to relax. ‘I won’t let him hurt you again,’ he says fiercely.

‘You know it wasn’t him. It was her,’ whispers Taekwoon.

‘I don’t care.’

Taekwoon looks at him, then. ‘It’s our fault if anything happens. You know that.’ He sounds resigned, almost at peace.

‘Shut up. That’s crap.’

‘We left him, Wonshik.’

Shut up.’

‘We’d deserve it.’

Get out,’ growls Wonshik. ‘Get out now!’ He throws himself towards the opposite wall, as far away as he can get from the quiet, hopeless man who sits in his chair like he’s waiting for his own execution. They come running, then, ready to lock him down. One wheels Taekwoon out of the room; he keeps his haunted eyes on Wonshik the whole time.

Wonshik puts up his hands to show them he’s under control. He’s not, it’s taking all he has not to simply charge through them and … not now. Wait. They regard him warily, but he knows how to reassure them, now. He accepts the offer of medication, lets them help him into bed. Even as waves of drowsiness wash over him, he watches the door, flexing his fingers against the cotton blanket.

Next time I’ll be ready ...

Chapter Text

The white plastic tub is waiting on the counter when the technician arrives, clipboard in hand. In the right light, it’s just possible to see the red plastic bags stuffed inside. The Ward Clerk makes a show of checking the paperwork thoroughly, reading every word while tracing each line with his fingers. Tapping her foot impatiently, the technician fights the urge to simply grab the tub and walk away; they’re waiting for it back at the lab, and everyone’s had it impressed upon them that this is highest priority. Screwing up the chain of evidence would be a disaster, though, and she’d be the first to lose her job over it, so she forces herself to wait.

Finally, the Clerk signs on all the appropriate dotted lines, and the technician almost snatches the clipboard back out of his hands. ‘So this is everything?’ she asks, tearing off the hospital’s carbon copy.

‘Yes, all the clothes are bagged up inside. They’re not much more than rags, you understand? And they’re not intact, they had to be cut off. And of course, he didn’t have shoes,’ adds the Clerk, obviously trying to be helpful.

‘What about the rest?’

He blinks at her. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Everything you took out of him. The metal, the glass. Whatever he was stitched up with. Those freaky lenses. We need all of that.’

’We still haven’t removed the lenses, an operation has been scheduled. All of that is potential biohazard, though. We’ve disposed of everything else according to protocol.’

What?’ Her tone is sharp, loud, disbelieving.

‘It was properly incinerated,’ says the Clerk defensively.

‘You’re telling me you morons destroyed all the evidence?’

‘Your tone is unacceptable, and please lower your voice. Remember where you are.’

The technician could care less, at this point. The lab is going to be furious, and she has no intention of being the one in the firing line. ‘You have no idea what you’ve done! It’s bad enough you didn’t think to take fingernail scrapings or even comb his hair. Now all we have is whatever trace we can get from the clothes. You’ve seriously obstructed the investigation.’

‘’We followed the correct protocols. We had no instructions to the contrary.’

‘I want the lenses,’ she snaps.

‘As I said, the potential biohazard -’

‘I don’t care. I want the lenses. I’ll get a special warrant if I have to, but you will turn them over to us.’

‘You can speak to the Trauma Centre Director about that,’ says the Ward Clerk stiffly. ‘And just so you know, I’ll be filing a complaint about your behaviour towards hospital employees. You can’t just come in here and try to bully everyone into doing what you want.’

The technician snorts. ‘Oh, please, go ahead. There’s my ID, but you’ll be making a huge mistake. This case isn’t just high-profile, it’s possible we have a real, ongoing threat on our hands. Others could be in danger. No one cares about your hurt feelings.’

With that she picks up the tub (so light, too light, there’s going to be hell to pay about this), balancing the clipboard on top. Shaking her head at the idiocy of these people, she turns on her heel and leaves.

How the hell are we supposed to find who did this without evidence?

 

*****

 

Doctor Park understands his need to move. She sits, still and composed, an island around which Hakyeon flows like water picking its way between rocks. He can’t keep it up for long, already feeling a telltale tremor in the large muscles in his legs. Every day he becomes a little stronger, a little freer, though. From the moment he wakes, he moves, sometimes with purpose, sometimes - like now - just because he must. Because if he doesn’t, he’s afraid he’ll never be able to move again.

He circles the doctor’s chair once, twice, fingers fluttering, face twitching. ‘Please tell me.’

‘Well, ordinarily, I wouldn’t give you details, but under the circumstances …’

‘I know, and thank you. But I need to know.’

‘It might distress you.’

Please.’

Not everything she says next makes sense. Hakyeon understands lacerations, fractures, infection, dehydration, removal of foreign bodies. She has to explain extensive corneal scarring, and that makes him cover his own eyes with one hand as he whispers, ‘Oh my god, blind.’ Then he’s assaulted by dissociative fugue, inappropriate affect, psychosis, isolation. He stops in his tracks because he thinks he knows what that means, and can’t accept it. ‘He’s crazy?’ Of course he is, Hakyeon thinks as soon as the words are out of his mouth. We all are. Why should he be any different? ‘Is it … will he recover?’

The answer is obvious before she even opens her mouth to answer; too early to know. The unspoken, perhaps never, lies between them. ‘I should have tried harder,’ he says, distress creeping around the edges of his voice. ‘I should have got them all out.’ His fingers worry unseen at the cuticles surrounding his thumbnails, bringing fresh beads of blood welling from the existing tears in the skin.

She stands then, places herself in his eyeline. Speaks his name slowly and clearly. When he finally focuses on her, she tells him - again - that it’s not his fault. That she’s sure he did his best. He nods dumbly. It’s easier than trying to convince her what he knows for sure, deep in his bones; that he failed. The proof of his failure is all around him, walking, breathing, broken.

‘Has he talked about it?’ Hakyeon asks, to deflect her from her useless reassurances.

Doctor Park shakes her head. ‘He’s said nothing useful. When he speaks at all. Couldn’t even tell us his name, just kept repeating “pretty”, over and over.’

The flinch is involuntary, because for a moment Hakyeon doesn’t hear the doctor’s low-pitched, bland tones, but rather the voice that winds itself through his nightmares. It’s almost as though, just by hearing that one word, he’s back in that cell, locked into place and forgotten. I’m not there, he tells himself, this is a hospital and I’m safe and I am going to get better.

‘... may be only temporary, and his memory will return in time, as yours did.’

Hakyeon blinks. ‘I’m sorry? I didn’t quite hear that.’

The doctor repeats her words, and before Hakyeon can stop himself, he blurts, ‘Dear god, I hope not.’

 

*****

 

from: hwang.jm@psych.snuh.org
to: park.sy@trauma.snuh.org
subject: Intake Report (Psychiatric), 19M25
attached: 19M25_Psych_Intake.docx

 

I wouldn’t normally pre-empt the usual protocol here, but given the situation …

Here’s the short version: the intake interview was virtually useless. It’s impossible to tell how well he’s processing anything, given his lack of responses to basic questions. He bounces between completely losing touch with reality and near catatonia. When active, he’s agitated and combative - you know what happened when the team removed the implanted glass and metal. Add to that the word salad and the inappropriate affect, and we have basically nothing to go on.

There’s been an obvious psychotic break but I’m not willing to rule out organic damage or even normal response to trauma. As normal as any response to what he seems to have been through can be. Pending better results, I’m recommending against antipsychotic medication. No sense taking the risk that we might obscure some underlying problem.

We’ll try again in a few days after he’s had the first surgery. Hopefully that will give him time to calm down and process a bit.

And before you ask, you can tell the police to forget any idea of getting their hands on him.

-- HJM

 

*****

 

He’s alive.

It’s all Sanghyuk can think of for the rest of the day. During his enforced time-out after his outburst in the meeting room.

 

He’s alive.

Down in Physiotherapy, while his minder counts off the number of times he pulls down the weight bar and taps him on the shoulder to stop before he hurts himself.

 

He got out.

While picking through the dinner on his tray. Absently poking at his arms with the plastic spoon and feeling nothing.

 

He made it.

 

Just before they bring him his last medication for the night, the one that’s supposed to help him sleep, he asks again. ‘Please, I just want to see him. I won’t do anything, I promise, I’ll just look from the door.’ The refusal is expected, but still stings, makes him even more frantic. ‘You don’t understand, he’s my best friend.’ I left him. ‘I need to know he’s all right.’ I need to know he forgives me. The best answer he can get from them is that they’ll consider it in a few days’ time, depending on how they both progress. There and then, he resolves to become the perfect patient.

When they turn off the lights, leaving only the soft glow of the lamp always left on by his bedside, Sanghyuk lies on his back staring up at the ceiling. I tried to find you. I really did. They wouldn’t let me. Please be all right. Please come back to me.

He falls asleep digging his short fingernails into the bandages on his arms, feeling nothing.

 

*****

 

Pandemonium.

 

Screams, pleas, howls of rage.

 

Heavy, loud thud of a body hitting the wall again and again.

 

Running feet through darkened corridors, doors opening quickly, hushed voices falling all over each other.

 

Hakyeon, wide awake, crammed into a corner, hears everything. Watches the shadows dart past the glass panel of the door, the scribble of flashlights across ceiling and walls.

 

‘I’ve got 15!’

‘16!’

‘17’s still locked down.’

‘I’ve got - holy shit, need help with 18, he’s going nuts!’

‘Call code grey.’

‘Never seen them this bad, what set them off?’

 

Hakyeon, shaking, pulling in on himself, knows.

 

When his door opens and the nurse crouches down in front of him, he stares right through him, hands clamped across his mouth, caught in memory (show me his tears, pretty).

 

*****

 

The doctors call it ‘unmediated mutual support’. Another buzzword to throw around, and all it really means is ‘sit down and talk to each other’. As if that will do any good, thinks Sanghyuk.

Same little meeting room, same circle of five wheelchairs and an empty sixth chair that accuses them all. There’s no doctor here this time, though, and as soon as the porters leave Wonshik is up and at the door, pushing it closed. No lock, so he stands in front of it, shifting from foot to foot. Jaehwan is quick to follow but his focus is the haphazardly stacked bookshelf against one wall; he trails his fingers over the spines of the books as though reading them through his skin. All nervous, vibrating energy, Hakyeon paces, while Taekwoon simply holds himself still and watches them. And Sanghyuk angles his body away as much as he can while restrained, doing his best to ignore them all.

For a long time, no one speaks. I should say something, break the ice, thinks Hakyeon, doubling back on himself to avoid passing behind the empty chair. Something light, just make conversation. One look at everyone’s faces tells him that small talk is the last thing on their minds. All of them wear broken sleep like bruises under their reddened eyes, Jaehwan’s lips swollen from biting, Wonshik fighting off the lingering drowsiness of a sedative. Hakyeon can feel his own nervous weariness etched into the lines around his mouth. He thinks again, I need to start us talking, but there are no words in him to broach the subject that hangs in the air between them.

In the end, it’s Wonshik who shatters the silence. ‘What I want to know is, how the hell did he get out?’

From across the room, Jaehwan turns to look at him, one hand still grazing against a pile of children’s picture books. ‘What do you mean?’

‘It took all of us working together to get away,’ Wonshik says, jaw set, fists clenched. ‘We barely made it even helping each other, so how did he manage it on his own? I don’t believe it, he couldn’t have done it.’

‘What are you saying?’ asks Hakyeon, very much afraid he knows. And afraid of the implications if Wonshik is correct in his suspicions.

For the first time since being brought in here, Taekwoon stirs. Turning in his seat, cradling his hands in his lap, he looks at Wonshik with eyes that seem somehow darker than they used to be. ‘You think she let him go deliberately,’ he murmurs. It’s not a question.

‘No, that’s wrong, you’re wrong, that doesn’t make any sense, none at all.’ Jaehwan’s words fall all over each other as he hurries into the middle of the room. ‘That can’t be what happened, it wouldn’t, she wouldn’t …’ He falters, stands stock-still, lips moving silently, shaping the names he carries with him now. Hakyeon changes direction, hand outstretched to comfort, but before he can actually touch, Jaehwan blinks rapidly. As though nothing happened, he continues his protests. ‘He’s her favourite, he wouldn’t be let go, he just wouldn’t.’

‘Do you have a better explanation?’ Taekwoon asks, his tone mildly curious. ‘How do you think he got out?’

Jaehwan throws up his hands. ‘I, I don’t know, maybe he tricked her, or he was able to sneak away while she was asleep, maybe he was just lucky ...’

Sanghyuk’s voice, flat and hostile, takes them all by surprise. ‘He has a name, you know. Why won’t any of you use it?’ Hakyeon turns to him, hopeful, but the closed, shuttered look on Sanghyuk’s face is as good as a warning. He’ll never forgive us, thinks Hakyeon. Worse, he’ll never forgive himself.

There’s a contemptuous snort from Wonshik, who otherwise ignores the outburst. ‘You know we’re not safe while he’s here,’ he says to the others, and the utter conviction in his voice makes Sanghyuk pull angrily against the restraints. You hit me, he thinks, staring at the man by the door. I could have got him back, and you stopped me.

Alarmed, Hakyeon steps between them. Striving to keep himself calm, he makes abortive, placatory gestures with trembling hands. He faces Sanghyuk, but his words are aimed at everyone else. ‘I don’t think she could use him to get to us.’

Sanghyuk looks at his leader with something very like pity, ‘You know that’s not what he means. Wonshik thinks he’ll hurt us. Don’t you? Hongbin. Our friend.’

‘I don’t think that,’ snarls Wonshik, ‘I fucking know it. You might have convinced yourself otherwise about your friend, but I remember.’

Suddenly everyone is talking at once, Sanghyuk and Wonshik yelling at each other, Hakyeon trying to settle them both, Jaehwan backing away into a corner of the room reciting names in a voice that spirals higher and louder as his body starts to shake. Only Taekwoon remains silent, gaze fixed on the twisted wrecks that were once long, elegant hands able to coax beauty from ivory. He doesn’t look up as nurses burst into the room, but he hears someone speaking soothingly to Jaehwan, sees Sanghyuk’s chair wheels pass him while the maknae twists his upper body around to keep shouting. Wonshik has to be threatened with sedation before he finally subsides and is taken away.

As the room grows quieter, Hakyeon lets himself fall into his chair, muscles twitching with a sickening mixture of fatigue and adrenalin. ‘We’re broken,’ he whispers, not even aware he’s speaking aloud. Taekwoon looks up, then, and reaches out. This time, when Hakyeon gently lays a hand on his arm, he doesn’t flinch away.

Chapter Text

He doesn’t understand much of what they tell him. Most, in fact. It’s just words, and he doesn’t trust words anymore. Instead, he listens to tones, because that way, he can hear what they’re not saying. Who they really are. One of them sounds kind, but he’s an actor reading from a script; the clue is in the strange pauses between the phrases. One has a crisp edge to her tone, all personal feeling ruthlessly suppressed, or absent, he doesn’t know. She is authority, and he listens most carefully to her. Others come and go, but they leave no real impression on him.

There’s a new voice today that mutters as it bends over him, accompanied by hands that peel back his eyelids and make shadows and light move across what remains of his vision. Nothing in their tone gives anything away, not even if they’re a man or woman. He can’t tell what they want, or what they plan for him, and the thought is so terrifying he laughs uncontrollably until he nearly passes out. They act like they haven’t even noticed, like he’s not really making any sound at all. I’m here, he screams, I’m real, I got away, but the only thing he hears escape his mouth is air.

(they’re going to hurt you again, precious)

He shakes his head violently; they don’t react. You’re not here, you’re not here.

(you shouldn’t let them hurt you)
(you know what to do)

He’s held rigid by that, only his fingers flexing and stretching as though trying to grasp something. I won’t I won’t iwon’t …

(they’re going to take your beautiful eyes)

Terror bursts through him, then, and suddenly he can move, flails out at them, blindly pushing. His elbow strikes something soft; there’s a breathless, surprised grunt right by his ear from the actor. They grab for his hands, his shoulders, his legs, push him down while he twists against their hold. A sharp sting in his arm, a pin a pin no a needle, he falls away from everything.

(it’s all right, pretty, I won’t leave you)

 

*****

 

from: hwang.jm@psych.snuh.org
to: park.sy@trauma.snuh.org
choi.sk@neurology.snuh.org

subject: patients 20M15, 24M16, 18M17, 19M18, 24M19, 19M25

 

After receiving the requests from these patients re sharing rooms, I have reviewed the notes and am prepared to make a qualified recommendation. Re-establishing their previous support networks is proving difficult due to patients’ resistance, but I believe we should encourage them to continue building strong guided supports with each other.

Continued intermittent explosive behaviour from patient 19M18 remains a concern, however I take into account recent progress in this area.

I recommend we begin integrating the following patients accordingly.

24M19 and 24M16

20M15 and 19M18

At this time I do not recommend integration of 18M17 and 19M25. Although 18M17 has shown considerable progress there remain questions as to the degree to which cooperation may be false. Additionally the condition of 19M25 is not at this time stable enough for full integration. I recommend short supervised visits subject to doctor approval for the immediate future.

Visits for 19M25 from other patients should be permitted at their request subject to 19M25’s condition day to day. I note that 19M18 has specifically asked not to visit with 19M25.

 

*****

 

He tells himself he’s ready for any answer, but when they give him their decision, it’s like a punch that comes out of nowhere. Instantly, he’s back there.

(crunch of glass under bare feet, no pain, fist smashing into his jaw, head spinning)

 

Why? I’m the one who really wants to see him, why am I the only one who has to be supervised? Isn’t it enough you won’t let me room with him?’

They warn him that if he doesn’t calm down, they’ll sedate him again. At that, he almost laughs, because that threat doesn’t work on him any better than their drugs do. He holds it in, not wanting them to know; inside his head and heart are the only parts of him that can still feel pain, and he clings to that secret.

‘No, I’m sorry, I’m not trying to make trouble, you just, you don’t know … he had it worse than any of us.’ And we left him. We ran and left him.

(black cloth slipping through his fingers, scrambling, disappearing laughter)

 

They tell him that the injuries are severe, and that this is a delicate time. He shakes his head, twisting his wrists inside the soft cuffs. ‘You don’t understand, that’s not what I mean’. They ask him to explain, and he tries, really tries, but he can only manage a few words before his throat locks up.

(dragged away over and over, hand outstretched, slow twisting grin below despairing eyes)

 

‘He needs to know that we’re here, that I’m here. I can help, I want to help, I want him to come back. He can come back, I know he can.’ And don’t think about anything else, don’t dare, don’t ever give up.

(flash of steel held in trembling fingers, blind white eyes and laughter, don’t)

 

They tell him they’ll think about it, and leave the room murmuring to each other in voices too low for him to hear. He stares at the doorway long after they’ve gone. Powerless. Bound. His life in their hands, just like … don’t, it’s not the same. They think they’re helping. They don’t understand how much like her they are.

By the time they return he’s so tense every part of him is aching. The restraints have rubbed a raw patch on the heel of his hand; he studies it, fascinated that even though it looks like it should sting unbearably, he’s still numb. One of them notices, and calls for a nurse to dress the wound. If you took me out of these it wouldn’t happen, but he doesn’t ask, just looks at them and tries not to hope.

And then they tell him, and he can’t help it, he jerks forward in his chair with the force of his surprise. ‘Tomorrow? Yes! I mean, that would be great, thank you, thank you.’

Hold on a bit longer. I’ll be there soon.

They smile at him, clearly pleased at how he reacts to this show of indulgence. He doesn’t notice, doesn’t hear them say goodbye, doesn’t see the nurse gather up her things and leave. Every part of him is focused inwards, relief and eagerness and dread all snarled up inside him. Still, he grits his teeth and clenches his jaw and holds it in until he can’t contain it any longer and shakes uncontrollably.

Even then, he bites back on the sounds that try to climb up out of his throat, because they can’t know. They must never know. And if he keeps it down long enough, then eventually, maybe he won’t know anymore either.

 

*****

SEOUL METROPOLITAN POLICE AGENCY

Case no: 2014/2326NGS
Document: Offender Profile

THE FOLLOWING PSYCHOLOGICAL PROFILE IS INTENDED TO BE USED AS A GUIDE ONLY. IT SHOULD NOT BE CONSIDERED DEFINITIVE AND MAY BE SUBJECT TO REFINEMENT.

A cautionary note to begin: this is a highly unusual case. Mass abductions usually indicate terrorist activity or hostage-taking for the purposes of leverage, but here we have a completely different motivation at work. We need apply principles usually associated with serial offences.

We also wish to stress that because are confronted with both a lack of concrete evidence and a wealth of conflicting victim statements, this profile is extremely malleable. We will update this profile as further information is provided, and are available at any time for further clarification and consultation.

BACKGROUND:

The victims in this case are six young men who are members of an idol group. They were abducted in what appears to be a blitz-type attack, held for 34 days, and subjected to torture. Five of the victims escaped at this time, while the sixth was held for an additional 12 days before making his own escape. At the time of writing, all six victims are inpatients at SNUH Trauma Centre.

VICTIMOLOGY:

In this case we believe that the similarities in age and general appearance (height, hair colour, etc) are not determining factors. Neither are they victims of opportunity. Rather, it is entirely due to their being members of the same idol group. They are public figures whose lives are extremely accessible, not least of which is due to their high social media profiles. We believe this is how they were selected.

This unique social status makes them both high and low risk victims. Their visibility makes them likely to become the subject of unwanted and possibility dangerous attention; however the conditions of security and strict scheduling under which they live should make them difficult targets. That this abduction was successfully carried out speaks to careful planning and a great deal of knowledge about the victims’ movements.

*****

Jaehwan’s face is troubled. ‘I can’t stop thinking about it, how she found us, I mean, all right, our schedules are pretty easy to find but we had all the crew and the stylists and the security there, how could she get past all of them to get us?’

‘I wish I knew. It’s something that troubles me, too,’ replies Hakyeon, exhausted from therapy, but still restless in his seat. He adds, speaking with a confidence he doesn’t feel, ‘I’m sure the police will be able to work that out.’

There’s a quiet scoffing sound from Taekwoon, sitting up in bed with his hands resting on pillows. ‘You don’t really believe that.’

Hakyeon knows he should say something to that, reassure them both, but he can’t meet Taekwoon’s eyes, because he can’t let anyone see anything that’s not supportive and optimistic. Certainly not the fear that he knows creeps in around the edges of his vision every time he lets his I’m-recovering mask slip. Instead, he heaves himself to his feet and paces, despite the protests from his aching thigh muscles.

‘You know they won’t find out anything useful. They don’t believe us. They never will.’ It’s a long speech for Taekwoon these days, it sounds like a pronouncement of judgment, and it silences even Jaehwan.

*****

Case no: 2014/2326NGS
Document: Offender Profile

OFFENDER(S):

We are looking for a team.

Victim statements have indicated a single female offender aged between 20-30 years. However we believe this individual could not have effected the abduction on her own. What little physical description we have suggests she is slight of build. Even assuming she was able to gain control of the victims, it is unlikely she would be able to lift or otherwise physically manipulate them. Thus we believe she has a male partner possessed of considerable strength.

This team does not operate under typical offender dynamics. There is no clearly identifiable dominant or submissive partner. Nor do we believe this is a case of folie à deux.

The female partner appears to be delusional, perhaps convinced that she has an existing relationship with the victims (De Clerambault’s syndrome). She will have an extensive collection of social media information, photographs, and videos, as well as souvenirs. There may be evidence of prior attempted contact with the victims. In this respect, her behaviour resembles a celebrity stalker, but we believe the underlying pathology is psychotic.

From victim statements we conclude that the female partner was primarily, but not solely responsible for carrying out the torture, due to physical limitations.

The male partner will be of a similar age (20-30 years). Though physically stronger, he does not take a dominant role. Rather he reinforces the female’s fantasies and facilitates their actualisation. We believe the male partner is primarily responsible for the abductions themselves, as well as playing a minor role in the torture, possibly under the female partner’s direction.

It is crucial to stress that this fantasy is not specifically sexual in character. While elements of sexual sadism appear to be present, the primary motivation here appeared to be recreating a conceptual world from a specific music video. This is reflected in the nature of the injuries, which we believe to have been inflicted to deliberately mirror the makeup effects used in that video. Other props reported by the victims (particularly the rag doll) appear to be meticulous set dressing.

*****

Hakyeon is the first one to speak. ‘The police think she’s a fan, you know.’

‘That’s one way to put it, I suppose,’ says Taekwoon. His tone is mild, but there’s just a tinge of bitterness that creeps in. Hakyeon is relieved to hear it, even as he tells himself not to hope too much that it’s a sign the vocalist is finally starting to come back to them.

‘I can’t believe that, I won’t, I won’t, no Starlight would be capable of this, none of our babies could …’ Jaehwan’s voice disappears into a whispered litany of names.

*****

Case no: 2014/2326NGS
Document: Offender Profile

We particularly want to draw attention to the use of crude implants in the eyes of two of the victims. On the surface this was an attempt to recreate contact lenses used by the victims, but we believe there may have been an element of shame or even remorse. While this seems at odds with the brutal nature of the act, obscuring the eyes is often a way to depersonalise a victim who may remind an offender of someone in their own lives.

Despite the delusional basis for their activities, this team is highly organised and well-resourced. They would need a great deal of space to keep their victims successfully separated, likely a free-standing building that they either own or have occupied after abandonment. This structure will be in an area not subject to foot traffic, possibly an old industrial park. As it is unlikely that any existing structure would suit the purposes of this team, extensive customisation has probably been carried out. This would likely be high cost.

At least one of the team (probably the male) will be familiar with the use of sedative drugs. While physically powerful, actually accomplishing this mass abduction would have required him to use such drugs to control the victims while being transported. Additionally we believe a good portion of the confusion and the more fantastic elements in the victim statements may be due to the use of a compound that would simultaneously render them suggestible and prone to hallucinations (perhaps scopolamine combined with a high dose of desipramine or a recreational hallucinogen).

We believe the team had envisioned an endgame, likely involving the sixth victim, Lee Hongbin. From other statements it seems that the female partner was particularly fixated on this victim. This may explain why the other five were able to escape as a group, while the sixth did not escape until much later. They were an integral part of completing the fantasy, but - again following the music video - ultimately not the main focus of the abduction. However we believe that had they not escaped, they ultimately would have become murder victims.

*****

‘What do you think about what Wonshik said?’ asks Jaehwan suddenly.

‘That she let Hongbin go?’ Hakyeon shakes his head. ‘I think he’s wrong, of course. And I think he knows he is. He’s just lashing out.’

‘He didn’t want us to rescue Hongbin, I remember that, I remember he even hit Hyukkie.’

Hakyeon winces; another of his failures coming home to roost. ‘We just have to be grateful he did escape, Jyani, that we all did. She would have killed us, sooner or later.’

‘He should have died,’ murmurs Taekwoon. ‘We all should have died.’

*****

Case no: 2014/2326NGS
Document: Offender Profile

RECOMMENDATIONS:

Police should investigate:

Social media and online forums and communities. Focus on altercations between fans, extravagant claims of special knowledge and/or relationships, detailed fantasies. Repeated attempts at direct online contact, particularly from user accounts that have been recently blocked, should also be checked.

Reports of loitering or unexplained building activity in buildings not expected to be occupied or undergoing renovation.

Building contractors who may have received unusual requests or been hired to undertake activity for which they were paid above-rate. They may have also been asked not to discuss these jobs.

Reports of missing or stolen supplies of hospital grade sedatives, scopolamine, or similar drugs, and any employee investigations or dismissals.

*****

As gently as he can, Hakyeon says, ‘They’re going to lock down all our social media profiles.’

Jaehwan’s mouth works, not shaping names now, just half-formed words of negation. He shakes his head, bewildered. ‘They can’t,’ he whispers. ‘They can’t take our friends away from us, we need them, I need them …’

‘It’s just for a little while.’ Lying to his friend’s face, because he can’t bear that stricken look, can’t bear to say the rest, that no one will tell him when - or even if - that situation will change.

Unexpectedly, Taekwoon is the one to provide real comfort. ‘You can make new friends. Haven’t you made so many already?’

‘You’re right,’ says Jaehwan, a slow smile blooming on his face. ‘I’ve met so many new friends since we’ve been in here, I can spend time with them, and I have you all back, too, so I won’t be … we’ll all be fine.’

*****

Case no: 2014/2326NGS
Document: Offender Profile

CONCLUSION:

This is a unique case. We would caution investigators to proceed carefully with further victim interviews, and stress that challenging victims on the more fantastic elements of their testimony will likely cause them to become uncooperative. Working closely with their therapists on directing these interviews will, we believe, be the best course of action.

Without the fantasy to sustain them, it is likely this team will become unstable. The female partner, in particular, may lose touch with reality altogether and be unable to function socially. This will be noticeable to those around her, and may lead to hospitalisation.

If confronted, the male partner is likely to react aggressively, particularly if the female partner is directly threatened. We would recommend a cautious and empathetic approach.

At this time we cannot say for certain whether this team will strike again. The specific nature of the female partner’s delusion suggests a fixation with these particular victims. Since the team did not carry out their endgame, she may in time become obsessed with another idol group. We are reasonably confident in predicting that if this does occur, there will be similar preliminary signs of increasingly visible obsessional and stalking behaviour, and would recommend alerting other management agencies to monitor appropriately. However, we must stress that this is an outside possibility at best.

It is far more likely that the team will attempt to recover the victims in order to allow his female partner to complete her fantasy.

We cannot emphasise strongly enough that we believe this to be a real and immediate danger.

*****

Their time together is up. For now, Jaehwan thinks as they help him into his wheelchair. I can come back whenever I need to. As he passes through the door, though, a last thought strikes him, and he asks the porter to stop for a moment. ‘Do you think we’re safe here? Really?’\

Hakyeon’s voice is perfectly steady. ‘Of course we are.’ Lying again.

‘Wonshik doesn’t think so,’ Jaehwan says, and then he’s gone.

Hakyeon stares at the empty doorway. Only when Taekwoon calls his name does he look around. The vocalist regards him expressionlessly. ‘You can’t protect us all the time. Stop trying.’

‘I have to,’ says Hakyeon, ‘it’s up to me to look after you.’ Like I should have protected you then.

‘You’re hurting yourself, Hakyeon.’

At that, Hakyeon has to drop his eyes again, turn and walk away. When Taekwoon calls him again, he stops in the doorway, but doesn’t look back. ‘I know,’ he says simply.

Chapter Text

Jaehwan insists on visiting Wonshik in his room, waving aside the concerns of Susan (born in Australia, lives with her mother, her cat is very sick, he calls her happy doctor because she always smiles when she comes to see him). He’s not worried, he tells her, Wonshik would never hurt him, and he misses his friend. Although she’s clearly reluctant, she allows it on the condition that he doesn’t shut the door and will call for help if necessary. Jaehwan gives her his sunniest smile as the promise rolls easily off his tongue. It’s not exactly a lie, even though he knows that calling for help never means anything. He will keep the door open, though.

They bring a wheelchair for him, even though he insists he can walk now. They won’t even let him wheel himself because they don’t want the new, fragile skin on his arms breaking open. It’s just a precaution, they assure him, but he hates how sitting down in it means he can be moved around without wanting to be. He knows all too well what that feels like; the thought brings back far too much, so he pushes it away and tries to talk to the porter who’s busy locking the footplates into place. It’s such a short trip from his room to Wonshik’s that he only has time to learn the man’s name, Dohyun, and that this is his first job, not counting when he worked in his parents’ shop during high school. That’s all right, though. Dohyun’s a friend, now, another name to keep back the bad memories.

Wonshik’s nurse (Jaehwan can’t see her nametag, and that unsettles him) is in the room when they enter, wrapping up the blood pressure cuff. She gives Jaehwan a brief nod, and asks Wonshik if he needs something for pain. Other than a glare, Wonshik doesn’t answer. It’s rude, but Jaehwan tries to make up for it by beaming at the nurse as she leaves.

As soon as she’s out of sight, Jaehwan pushes himself up out of the chair. ‘Your room is nice, it’s a lot like mine, only mine has a blue picture on that wall instead of a green one, and I've got lots of flowers and cards and really lovely messages, oh, I should have brought some with me to show you, but I thought you'd have your own.’ He walks around the room, absently touching the furniture, the walls, the door to the little bathroom. Watching his every move, Wonshik says nothing, just sits coiled in on himself like a tightly wound spring.

‘I'm really, really glad you said it was okay to come and see you, I mean, I've made lots of new friends in here, but it's not the same, they're nice, but they don't … they weren't there.’ Jaehwan stops in front of Wonshik's chair and squats down. ‘You're not eating, are you?’ he asks worriedly.

Wonshik shrugs as though it's nothing important, but the tremor in his voice betrays him. ‘It all tastes wrong.’ As soon as the words are out, his face tightens, and he closes his fists. Calm down, calm down, he tells himself, fighting the urge to push Jaehwan away from him. He's my friend, he can't hurt me. ‘You should go,’ he says as gently as he can. ‘I'm … I don't want to accidentally ...’

Instead, Jaehwan reaches out to cover Wonshik's hands with his own. ‘It's all right, I'm not scared of you, I know you won't hurt me, I told Susan that. You're really strong, you know? You tried to protect us all, I remember that really clearly, even though there's a lot of really blurry stuff there, I remember that. So it's okay that you’re angry because I know you still want us all to be safe.’ He looks down at their hands, and his next words are quiet, halting, completely different from the high speed near-babble that's his usual way of talking now.

‘That's … why I wanted to see you. Because. Because if he can find us … so can she.’ He pulls in a shaky breath, vision blurring as his throat grows tight with tears. ‘I'm really, really scared, Wonshik.’

Silence, not even a movement. Heart sinking, Jaehwan bows his head, whispers, ‘Okay,’ and starts to get up. Only then does Wonshik lean forward and wrap his arms around the vocalist, careful to avoid the burns and the healing skin grafts. It's a clumsy sort of hug, and Jaehwan can feel how thin Wonshik's arms have become, how small he seems now. None of that matters, really, because Wonshik is his friend and Wonshik will look after him, and in the circle of Wonshik's arms, Jaehwan feels finally safe enough to cry.

They come running, of course, when they hear, but one look at Wonshik's face makes them pull up short. He stares fiercely at them over Jaehwan's shoulder, warning them away. I won't let her find you, he promises silently. Nobody will hurt you ever again.

When they finally take Jaehwan back to his room (smiling again at the nurse as though his eyes aren't swollen and red and his cheeks aren't shiny with tears), the doctor asks Wonshik gently if he needs anything to help him calm down. He shakes his head slowly. ‘No, I'm calm. I'm fine, now.’ The anger is still there, probably always will be part of him, but is focused now, quiet, because he has a purpose.

‘Doctor Park said we could start sharing rooms if we want to, right?’ He smiles at the cautious way the doctor asks what changed his mind, and says simply, ‘He needs me.’

*****

‘Here, let me take those off for a while.’

‘Not worried I’ll run away again?’

‘Not anymore, no. Stretch your legs a bit, you don’t need to sit down.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘What I said … you won’t try to go off on your own, now.’

‘Huh.’ If you really thought that, you’d take them off altogether. You just want me to think you’re my friend.

‘What’s on your mind?’

As if you could understand. ‘You know what I’m going to say. Why do you even bother asking? Just tick off your dot points and we can both be done with this.’

‘Look, what do you expect me to tell you? That I’m pissed off with therapy? That I have nightmares? That I want to beat the hell out of Wonshik? You know all that already.’ And you don’t believe me about the rest. You don’t say the word ‘crazy’, but it’s in your eyes every time you look at me.

‘We haven’t talked about your friend. You must be relieved he’s safe.’

He’s not safe.

‘Don’t you want to talk about your friend?’

‘Hongbin. He has a name. Use it.’

‘That’s important to you.’

‘How would you like it if your name was taken away?’

‘Is that what happened?’

Tricked me. Fuck.

‘You know we’ve asked him - Hongbin - to tell us his name. All he says is …’

‘I know. “Pretty”. That’s what she called him.’

‘You seem a lot more angry about that than what happened to you.’

What happened to me was nothing. ‘Were you the one who decided it was all right for me to see Bean?’

‘Is that a nickname?’

‘Was it you?’

‘Yes.’

Thank you. That’s … it’s the best thing you could have done.’

‘For you?’

‘For Bean.’ I can bring you back, I know I can.

‘What about you? What’s the best thing I can do for you?’

‘Let us be in the same room. Not just visiting, all the time. Surely you can do that for me?’

‘That depends on how your visits go. And if I’m satisfied Hongbin’s condition won’t be a danger to you.’

‘It won’t. I promise you. Look, the others … they’ve got someone, now. Bean doesn’t have anyone but me.’

‘Why don’t we talk again after you’ve visited? Your friend will still be recovering from the eye operation, but if he’s calm, perhaps we can see how well he responds to you. Just … please try to keep your expectations realistic.’

‘Sure. I can do that. Thank you.’ Whatever it takes. Whatever it takes to get through to you. I won’t give up on you, not ever.

*****

Taekwoon’s room - their room, now - is a study in contrasts. Like we are, thinks Hakyeon as he finishes rearranging his few possessions, wanting to be settled before the vocalist returns from his afternoon session with the hand therapist.

Taekwoon’s side is all drab, muted shades of blue and grey. Hospital issue linens, a cluster of physiotherapy aids on the wheeled table, plastic jug and cup that might once have been white, now faded to a dull beige after repeated trips through dishwashers, intravenous pump in the corner. Nothing personal visible, and Hakyeon knows that if he were to look in the cupboard or open a drawer, he would find only hospital pyjamas and a few shapeless, washed-out items of casual clothing. Even the print on the wall seems muted. Everything there is flat. Lifeless. A perfect reflection of its nearly silent occupant.

On Hakyeon’s side, a riot of colours to go with its restless tenant. His bed, newly relocated, is covered with a blanket of bright, knitted squares in yellow, green, and white. A deep blue vase holds long-stemmed gerberas that seem to almost glow against the off-white walls, and his beautifully soft robe, thrown over the visitor’s chair, is a rich burgundy. His table is piled high with magazines whose subjects range from travel to fashion to gardening, all handed on to him by nurses who didn’t want to take them home. He doesn’t really read any of them, but looking at the colour, the life, the sheer normality of the pictures soothes him sometimes. It helps him believe that there is something beyond these walls that might one day make sense to him again. That there might come a time when he no longer keeps watch, dreading to fall asleep in case he wakes to find himself back in the chill, paralysing dark, the tang of fear sour in his mouth and the smell of blood on the air.

They don’t speak to each other after Taekwoon is brought back, face drawn with pain and hands trembling with fatigue. Their eyes meet for a moment, and Hakyeon sees a tiny nod of greeting, but after that there is only quiet, unsteady breathing from that side of the room. It’s oddly restful, in a way Hakyeon doesn’t understand, and doesn’t care to examine too closely. All he knows is the constant urge to move, to fidget, seems to have less of a grip on him in Taekwoon’s presence. Perhaps I’ll even be able to sleep. A slim hope, and one that dies quickly as the night wears on. Unwilling to turn on his bedside lamp, Hakyeon sits up in bed in a room lit only by the LEDs on the medical equipment and the faint spill of yellowish light under the door, all his senses alert and straining.

Even without a clock, Hakyeon has come to know the hours of the night by the movement of nurses in the corridor outside. Medications at midnight and at four a.m., obs every two hours. The soft squeak of rubber-soled shoes, hushed conversations like the whisper of leaves, even the occasional chime of a patient’s call button. Familiar things, familiar sounds that lull him, so when he hears the change in Taekwoon’s breathing, it seems as loud and as urgent as a scream. He doesn’t stop to think, pushes back the covers and crosses the room on bare feet.

Tangled up in his sheets, Taekwoon shudders and twitches, face twisted into a grimace of pain and fear. His eyes move wildly behind tightly shut lids, his fingers spasming. ‘Taekwoonie, Taekwoonie, shh, shh,’ whispers Hakyeon, hands hovering in the air, not daring to touch. There’s no response; Hakyeon stands helpless for a moment before climbing onto the bed and gathering Taekwoon into his arms. The vocalist stiffens, and Hakyeon’s heart sinks. I’m making him worse, but then all the tension goes out of Taekwoon’s body and he slumps against Hakyeon’s chest.

‘You’re safe now,’ murmurs Hakyeon, rocking his friend, running a hand through his hair. ‘I’m here, you’re safe … sleep, Taekwoonie, sleep.’ Just the faintest sound then, barely a whimper, and Taekwoon relaxes completely, slipping into a place without dreams. Holding him, as he ached to do for all of them when they were captives, as he was never able to do, Hakyeon keeps watch throughout the rest of the night.

When the nurses come with their morning medications, they find Hakyeon in Taekwoon’s bed, wrapped around him from behind, both of them sleeping deeply. They exchange glances, nod at each other, and leave as quietly as they can.

*****

Now?

Then?

hands pushing through hair

cold fingers tracing lips brushing skin trailing over metal

glassshiver

don’t

‘hush now, precious, be still’

can’tmove

soft bodyweight

warmth

what are you doing

‘I'm going to make you perfect’

shift

wet heat

surrounded

quiet sigh

no

metaltwist

gentle kisses

glassgrind

warm

painpleasurepain

whispered words of love

‘does it hurt, precious?’

don’tpleasedon’t

‘you like it when I hurt you’

ohgod

'I love you, pretty'

please

'I love you'

please please

‘do you love me?'

no

'do you love me?'

nono no ...

drowning

'do you love me, precious?'

.......... yes

Chapter Text

‘I heard you’re going to see him this afternoon,’ says Hakyeon after a long, awkward silence.

Sanghyuk bridles. You, too? ‘Am I going to see Hongbin? Yeah.’

‘I’m sorry, I should have used his name.’

‘At least you thought about it afterwards,’ Sanghyuk says grudgingly. ‘That’s more than i can say for some of you.’

‘Sanghyuk, please try to understand. Wonshik is, he’s …’

‘I know.’ Sanghyuk’s voice is savage. ‘I know, you think I haven’t heard this a thousand times? We all went through a terrible experience, everyone reacts differently, give it time, blah blah fucking blah. That doesn’t change anything.’

‘It’s difficult for you …’

He hit me, Hakyeon. If he hadn’t done that, I could have saved Bean.’

Hakyeon’s hands come together in front of his body, fingers knotting together nervously. ‘You don’t know that.’

‘I had my hands on him, he was nearly free of that box.’

Oh.’ Voice little more than a whisper, Hakyeon says, ‘Don’t you remember?’

Sanghyuk glares at him. ‘I remember perfectly.’

‘Hyukkie, he was fighting us …’

‘He was fucking terrified! We all were. Wonshik just made it worse, of course he panicked -’

‘You know that’s not what happened,’ Hakyeon interrupts, uncharacteristically sharp.

Sanghyuk’s reply is swift. ‘That’s exactly what happened.’

‘Is that really what you remember?’

‘I don’t know what the rest of you have convinced yourselves of, but I know …’

‘Hyukkie, please.’

What?

‘Please try to think clearly … you must remember what he did to Jyani?’

‘That was an accident, he was practically blind!’

‘Then what about you?’ asks Hakyeon.

‘ … What about me?’

Pity in Hakyeon’s voice now, enough to make Sanghyuk grit his teeth. ‘You know what he did, I can see it in your eyes.’

‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ says Sanghyuk, too quickly.

‘Hyukkie, how did you get that pin stuck right through your hand?’

He looks mystified. ‘What pin?’

‘i know you can’t feel things properly now, but surely you remember that it happened.’

You’re crazy, thinks Sanghyuk. ‘Look, whatever you’re thinking, you’re absolutely wrong … I’d know if something like that happened.’

‘I don’t know how I can get through to you.’ Hakyeon rubs a hand over his eyes.

‘There’s nothing to “get through” … unlike the rest of you, I’m not getting her mixed up with Bean. You should all be fucking ashamed of yourselves,’ Sanghyuk says angrily.

‘He’s still my friend, please don’t think I’m blaming him for any of it.’ Sanghyuk turns his back, and Hakyeon sighs. ‘All right. just … be careful when you go to see him? Please?’

‘Go away.’

Hakyeon takes a step towards him. ‘Hyukkie …’

‘Just go.’

‘I’m sorry,’ whispers Hakyeon. When there’s no answer, he walks to the door.

‘Hakyeon?’ He falters at the sound of Sanghyuk’s voice, so cold. ‘I expected better than this from you, at least.’

 

*****

 

Sanghyuk tells himself that watching the time is a stupid idea, that the afternoon won’t come any sooner. Everywhere he goes that morning, though, there seems to be a clock in his eyeline, seconds crawling by sluggishly, minutes that are somehow much longer than they should be. The physiotherapist asks him to concentrate, so often that by halfway through their session, her irritation bleeds through in her voice. He doesn’t know how to tell her that he is concentrating, just not on the stupid exercises. The neurologist wants to know what’s on his mind; he almost laughs at that, imagining the reaction to an honest answer. I’m trying to make time go faster.

Lunch is a blur of mechanical movements, lift the spoon, chew, swallow, repeat. Barely looking down at the tray, counting down the minutes. The nurse appears in the doorway, and he shoves the table away with more force than he’d intended, already standing and reaching for his slippers. Then she tells him that before they can go, his bandages need to be checked, and it’s all he can do not to yell at her that can fucking wait. He knows that any outburst would be the excuse they need to change their minds, so he bites down on the words and endures her poking and prodding at his arms for what the lying clock tells him is only five minutes.

Finally, finally, she’s done. But he still has to wait for a porter to wheel him over there. ‘It’s only a few rooms away,’ he pleads. ‘I can walk, I’m strong enough now for that, surely?’ That’s not her decision, she explains, but it still makes no sense.

Just as the porter arrives with the chair, there’s an unexpected visitor. The psychiatrist, and Sanghyuk braces himself to be told that it’s not going to happen after all. I knew it, I fucking knew it. His fists clench. Convinced he knows what’s coming, he doesn’t even hear what’s being said at first. Be calm, be calm, don’t give them an excuse.

‘Sanghyuk? Did you hear me? I said I’m recommending we stop using the restraints as of now. You’re not a risk anymore. Are you?’ This last is spoken in the same conversational tone as he always uses, but there’s no mistaking the implied threat from the psychiatrist. This is probation only. One foot out of line (one wheel, hah), and they’ll buckle him in again.

‘Let’s go,’ he says. ‘Please, let’s go now.’

 

cool hands

silvergleam

‘like this, pretty’

scream

hands opening

metalshine falling

‘pick it up’

no

‘pick it up’

please

‘don’t make me punish you’

i can’t

punchpain

scream

 

At last they’re moving. Sanghyuk forces himself to sit still, even smile at the porter, because even now, something could go wrong, someone could call out and say there’s been a mistake. He can’t give them any reason to stop him. They pass what was Hakyeon’s room, now occupied by a body almost smothered in bandages, breathing through a tube and watched over by a crowd of machines. The nurses had talked about the new patient, a young woman, and he’d panicked for a moment, but it’s not her, it can’t be her, we got away. Just ahead of him, room 25. Hongbin. He leans forward in the chair, unable to stop himself. Turning in at the doorway, almost there.

That’s when the screams start.

Shocked, the porter yanks back on the chair, nearly spilling Sanghyuk out. Raised voices, hurrying feet, people pushing past him. He cranes his neck to see, but their bodies block him out, and he actually growls in frustration. Nobody hears him over the terrible sounds coming from inside the room. A nurse detaches from the group hovering over Hongbin and makes a shooing motion at the porter. Sanghyuk feels the chair start to move, pleads with them, ‘No, no, don’t take me back, let me in, I can help!’ He can see more clearly now, a figure, barely recognisable, twisting on the bed, fighting against their restraining hands, lips stretched thin over teeth bared in a terrified snarl.

‘You’ll have to go back, we can try -’

‘No! Let me in! Bean, it’s me!’

Suddenly, shockingly, silence. The nurses straighten, bewildered, their grip loosening.

 

soft palm against hot cheek

gentle fingers threading through hair

kisses on burning eyes

‘i don’t like punishing you’

‘pick it up’

‘now, precious’

no

glassgrind

sob

‘stop it’

‘don’t cry’

i’msorry

‘you know i hate it when you cry’

i can’t stop i can’t pleaseplease don’t

lifted

thrown

armtwist bonebreak

‘do it again’

 

Hongbin shrieks again, but there are words this time, ‘Nonononopleasenono …’

‘Take him inside.’ A voice behind him, the nurse in front of him looks up, eyes wide with surprise. Sanghyuk doesn’t need to turn to know who it is. The psychiatrist - Doctor Hwang, he remembers the name now - not raising his voice, but it cuts through the chaos.

One of the nurses around the bed immediately objects. ‘We need to calm this one, he’s -’

‘Do it,’ orders Doctor Hwang. ‘We can’t restrain him, we don’t dare sedate him while the anaesthetic is still wearing off. Let his friend try.’ Sanghyuk still doesn’t turn, so he can see clearly the mutinous look on the nurse’s face, but whatever she sees in the psychiatrist’s expression is enough to make any further objections die in her throat. For the first time, Sanghyuk thinks, maybe someone in here is on my side, after all. Without waiting for permission, he’s out of his chair and crossing the room at something just short of a run. They close ranks against him and he looks back at Doctor Hwang then in mute appeal. This time the psychiatrist deliberately speaks loudly. ‘Everyone, move back, please.’ They give way with bad grace; without the muffling effect of their bodies, the screaming hits Sanghyuk like a blow.

Oh, god. He saw the wounds when they were first inflicted, still has the horrific sight of her forcing the lenses into bleeding eyes seared into his memory. In a way, this is worse. Pristine white bandages wrap around Hongbin’s head and arms and his bare torso is patched with dressings. Gauze pokes out of the edges of the dressings, almost as though it’s foaming out of the wounds themselves, like stuffing from a battered rag doll - no. Sanghyuk clamps right down on that thought because it’s not a doll, it’s not anything from that place, this is his friend, this is Bean. As he reaches the bed, Hongbin’s cries take on a ragged, almost despairing note. He’s giving up, thinks Sanghyuk. The thought spikes terror in him, narrows his world until there’s nothing but the two of them. Don’t leave me.

He grabs Hongbin’s face with both hands, leans close to his ear, trying not to flinch from the noise. ‘Bean!’ Again, that hitch of breath. Hardly knowing what he’s saying, Sanghyuk simple babbles. ‘It’s me, it’s me, I’m here, it’s Hyukkie, you’re safe, you got away …’ The screams choke in Hongbin’s throat, become frightened moans of denial. Still holding Hongbin’s face, not stopping to think, Sanghyuk actually climbs onto the bed and kneels over his thrashing friend. ‘Bean, I promise, you made it, you got away, listen to me, please please …’

‘It’s not working,’ says someone.

‘Wait. Look there.’

Hongbin stiffens, a last whimper dying away, and abruptly the tension drains out of him and he slumps back. Sanghyuk takes a deep, shaky breath. Oh, thank god. He leans his forehead against Hongbin’s, careful not to dislodge the bandages. ‘It’s okay … it’s okay … I’m so sorry, Bean, I couldn’t get you out … but I’m here now, you’re not alone anymore … I’m so sorry … please …’

Only the sound of Hongbin breathing, too shallow, too fast. ‘Please don’t be gone,’ whispers Sanghyuk. ‘Please come back to me, say you forgive me.’

A single word, barely more than an exhalation, but it hits him with all the force of a scream. ‘Hyukkie …’

Sanghyuk breaks down, sobbing, his body shaking violently, still holding Hongbin’s face. He braces himself, knowing they’ll drag him away at any moment, knowing he doesn’t have enough fight left in him to stop them. But the hands that close on his shoulders don’t pull, only help hold him in place as the tightly-wound tension finally dissolves and his strength fails. Somehow, he knows those hands belong to Doctor Hwang. Protecting me. It’s his last coherent thought before he falls apart again, that one word - his name - tearing down the walls of anger and determination he built to keep himself going.

When there are finally no more tears, he still clings to Hongbin, trembling. The hands gently sit him upright, then. He looks up, vision blurred, and sees Doctor Hwang beside him, speaking to him. The words don’t make sense, but the intent is clear enough. Sanghyuk shakes his head. ‘I won’t leave,’ he whispers hoarsely. ‘Don’t make me leave.’

‘You don’t have to,’ says the psychiatrist quietly. ‘We’re going to move your bed in here.’ The wave of relief and gratitude that washes over Sanghyuk brings fresh tears to his eyes. ‘But … I won’t have you making yourself ill again. We’ll give you something to help you sleep, and you must promise to look after yourself, too. If I think you’re not, I’ll have to separate you again.’

Sanghyuk nods mutely. Anything, he thinks. Whatever it takes. ‘Thank you … thank you.’

‘Come on, sit down now.’ Doctor Hwang helps him off the bed, guiding him into a chair placed right next to the head. He collapses into it, utterly exhausted, but immediately reaches out again to curl his fingers around Hongbin’s. There’s no answering pressure. ‘He knows you’re here,’ says Doctor Hwang. ‘Talk to him as much as you like.’ Arranging a blanket over Sanghyuk’s shoulders, he adds, ‘I will be here for you any time you need me, Sanghyuk. Any time at all. The nurses have my number, just ask them to call if I’m not on shift, and I’ll come in.’ He gently pushes the hair out of Sanghyuk’s eyes. ‘He’s very lucky to have you.’

Sanghyuk drops his head onto the mattress, closing his eyes, unable to bear any more kindness. A last murmured reassurance, and he feels Doctor Hwang move away. For a long time after that, there’s only him, and the feeling of Hongbin’s hand cradled in his, and their breathing, and a growing heaviness in his limbs. When they bring in his bed and his few possessions, he barely notices.

They don’t try to move him until the ward settles down for the night, and by then, he’s been asleep for hours. He lets the nurse help him stand, the blanket slipping to the floor as he leans over to kiss Hongbin gently on the cheek. ‘You’re not alone. I’m just across the room,’ he whispers. ‘I won’t leave you again. I promise.’ The nurse guides him to his bed, and he’s asleep even before the covers are pulled up over him.

As she leaves the room, the nurse briefly glances over at the man lying in the other bed. He’s smiling, she thinks. For some reason, it makes her shiver.

 

Chapter Text

from: hwangjm@kt.com
to: sooyeon77@naver.com

subject: FW: invitation to lecture
 

I cannot believe this. So much for confidentiality. Someone is clearly talking, and I’m pretty sure it’s not their agency.

(Btw, Hope you don’t mind the personal email contact. Want to keep it off the hospital servers.)

-- Jongmin

------------

from: MPSanderson@ICIRR.org
to: hwangjm@kt.com

subject: invitation to lecture
att: ICIRRinfopk.zip

 

Dear Dr. Hwang,

We are pleased to invite you to give a keynote presentation at our 5th International Conference for Innovations in Recovery & Resilience. Attached is an information pack.

The committee is very impressed with your work with survivors of unusual traumas, and we feel there is great interest in your current project with the musicians. All ethical concerns will of course be addressed and travel and accommodation will be provided.

We hope to hear from you soon.

Regards,

 

Margaret P. Sanderson
Secretary
Submissions Committee

------------

 

*****

 

Hakyeon’s journal:

I suppose I should take this as a sign I’m getting better. I know you want to send me off to your recovery facility, so you want me to start writing things down. You want me to be honest and open, like in our sessions. Though you don’t think I am What you don’t understand is that it’s harder for me to write things down. It feels more exposed, because it’s permanent. I have to trust that you won’t show anyone else, even though I think you will. But I’ll try.

Are you going to do this with the others, I wonder? Some of them might embrace the idea, but others, I don’t know. And I can’t help think that it would be cruel to ask Taekwoon to do this, with his hands being so bad. (There’s probably speech recognition he could use, but would he?? I don’t think so.)

So. Leaving here.

You probably want to know how I feel about that. What am I supposed to feel? Do I say I’m glad that I can finally be out of the hospital, away from constant reminders of what happened? That I’m terrified I won’t be safe in spite of all the extra security the agency wants to give us? That it eats at me that of all of us, I’m the one you’ll probably let go first? That somehow it feels it’s wrong, like I’m being rewarded for my failure? That I’m abandoning them and it’s a relief?

They say they won’t send me alone. One of the others will go with me. But who? Not Wonshik, not until he can eat food again. Taekwoon? He still needs operations, but it might be better for him to be somewhere else between those. Would he want to come? Jaehwan might, in a little while. Sanghyuk? No. No, he won’t leave, even if he’s well enough. He’ll do anything to stay.

Of all of us, he’s the one who most needs to leave. He’s too close. Just writing that makes me despise myself, how dare I sit in judgement? I’m scared for him.

So much of what happened still won’t come clear for me. I know you all think we were kept drugged. You keep telling me that what I remember is hallucinations, that such things aren’t possible. What you don’t understand is I know that. I know I didn’t really get picked up and moved around by something invisible. I know there’s no such thing as magic or whatever it was, and that what I remember just can’t have happened.

I also know that it did happen.

I’ll never be able to prove that to you. That’s something I’ve come to expect. But you want me to be honest in these journals so there it is. It happened. Whoever - whatever - she is, she had the ability to do these things without even touching us sometimes.

You can see the signs on my skin but you can’t see everything.

I remember. I remember how it felt to have my knee pried apart. How she twisted that pin in the doll and how that made my bones move and grind. I remember that I couldn’t even lift my arm after she stabbed the doll in the shoulder.

You say that was my mind playing tricks on me.

I wish I could believe you.

I wish I could just say all right, it was a terrible thing but it can all be explained and now my job is to go back and be a normal person again and get strong for when the others come home.

I wish I could lie to myself.

 

*****

 

from: sooyeon@naver.com
to: hwangjm@kt.com

subject: re: FW: invitation to lecture

No, I don’t mind at all. It seems a little unnecessarily cautious, though, don’t you think? :)

What are you going to do?

Sooyeon

 

*****

 

Jaehwan’s journal:

Dr Park Sooyeon

doctor-in-charge
2 kids (boy and girl) … cat … dog chews up shoes

Dr Hwang Jongmin

psychiatrist
doesn’t talk much about himself (but definitely a friend)

Dr Susan Yoo

happy doctor
born in Australia! … lives with her eomma … sick cat (buy her a card)

Nari

friendly nurse
plum candies (buy some for her) … rabbit or hamster? (I think rabbit)

Dohyun

porter
worked in his parent’s shop, must find out more (like what kind of shop, where is it, did he like working there)

Kim Wonshik (best friend)

Cha Hakyeon

Jung Taekwoon

Han Sanghyuk? (I hope so)

Lee Hongbin
Lee Hongbin
Lee Hongbin?

 

*****

 

from: hwangjm@kt.com
to: sooyeon@naver.com

subject: re: FW: invitation to lecture

 

What am I going to do??

I’m going to throw it straight into my spam folder and forget it ever existed. ‘Current project’, my god.

Vultures.

And if I find out who’s talking out of turn around here they will be out of a job so fast their heads will spin. These kids deserve our protection, Sooyeon. They’ve been exploited and brutalised enough, they don’t need their recovery turned into more of a circus than it already is. So, no, I don’t think I’m being too cautious. I’ll be locking down my files with extra security first thing tomorrow.

-- Jongmin

 

*****

 

Wonshik’s journal:

Journalling. What possible good could that do? I tell you everything, anyway. Okay, no, that’s bullshit. I don’t tell you everything. I’ve given up trying to convince you.

So don’t think I’m suddenly going to come clean about all the crap that’s in my head, because I’m not that stupid. I know this is a way for you to monitor me and make up your mind about whether you can let me go home or to some new hospital.

So here it is. I still can’t eat properly. I’m still having bad dreams but honestly, do you expect that to stop any time soon? And I still have no interest in seeing him. I don’t care if he wants to see me. Not sure I believe that, anyway.

You want to know what’s good in my life right now? Having someone who needs me. I suppose you’ll say that’s not healthy, co-dependent or some shit like that. I couldn’t care less. I’m helping Jae, that’s what matters. And yeah, he’s helping me, too. He’d probably say he’s not doing anything, but that’s what he’s like, okay? He underestimates himself all the time. But if any of us are going to pull out of this in anything like reasonable shape, it’ll be him. You should let him have contact with the fans again, he needs that. And you should tell him stuff about yourself. He thinks you’re a friend, you know, but it freaks him out that you’ll never talk about yourself.

That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. You want more, write me a list of goddamn questions.

 

*****

 

KPOP CENTRAL

Live Chat Forum

 

Room topic: VIXX

Moderators: PinkBeanie, jindale_boi

 

Online: PinkBeanie jindale_boi byeolbitbby wontaek_luv WANG_YEO jaebunny kikumi

 

byeolbitbby> Wow pretty deserted tonite

PinkBeanie> u know they watch us don’t u???
ppl are getting nervous abt putting shit online

jindale_boi> Yeah they monitor everything now. Why do you think they closed down the fan cafe?

byeolbitbby> COME ON that’s such paranoid crap

PinkBeanie> nope it’s true … all the fan forums are being monitored cos they think the ppl who did it are on one

wontaek_luv> wut

jaebunny> your kidding

 

mandumandu has joined the channel

 

byeolbitbby> NO WAY IT’S A STARLIGHT

jaebunny> ^ THIS +1000000
If the police think that then they’ll never catch the animals who did do it!

mandumandu> makes sense tho

wontaek_luv> oh fuck OFF

mandumandu> no hear me out
whoever did it had to know stuff like schedules & personal details & everything
who knows that shit better than us?

byeolbitbby> So much conspiracy bullshit right there

jindale_boi> Yeah, as if we’d all get together to do something like that.

kikumi> it’s less weird than that person who was in here claiming it was god’s punishment for doing the Voodoo Doll clip

jindale_boi> Not exactly hard to be less weird than that.
Much as I hate to say it ...
I think the idea of a bunch of crazy stalkers is closer to the truth.

WANG_YEO> NOT THAT WELL EVEN KNOW TEH TRUTH ANYWAY
*THE

wontaek_luv> oh god here we go

PinkBeanie> get ur tinfoil hat all its that time again

WANG_YEO> YOU CAN LAUGH AT ME ALL YOU WANT

jindale_boi> We will, don’t worry.

WANG_YEO> THINK ABOUT IT WHAT HAVE WE BEEN TOLD
THEY GOT KIDNAPPED
THEY GOT FOUND
THEIR IN HOSPITAL ON LOCKDOWN
NO ONE GETS IN
NO NEWS GETS OUT
DONT YOU SEE
ITS ALL A LIE
THEIR DEAD
THIS WHOLE TIME THEYVE BEEN DEAD
JELLYFISH JUST WONT TELL US YET

mandumandu> ffs

 

mandumandu has left the channel

 

 

jindale_boi> You need to stop that shit.
Right. NOW.

WANG_YEO> YOU WAIT IN A FEW WEEKS THERELL BE ALL THIS NEW STUFF
ALBUMS AND MERCH
AND TRIBUTES
ITS ALL ABOUT MAKING $$$ OFF THEIR DEAD BODIES
YOU KNOW IM RIGHT

PinkBeanie> that’s it i’ve had it with u
i’m banning u RN

WANG_YEO> PLS IVE BEEN BANNED BEFORE
YOU THINK I WONT FIND A WAY BACK HERE
THE TRUTH HAS TO BE TOLD

 

WANG_YEO has been blocked

 

jindale_boi> You beat me to it by ten seconds, Pink.

kikumi> Hey
You don’t think
What if that freak is right???

PinkBeanie> cmon don’t catch the crazy
our babies will be fine
i have faith

jindale_boi> I just wish they would tell us what’s happening.
Hey, Police or whoever the fuck is reading this, TELL US WHAT’S GOING ON.
Maybe we can help, you never know. Don’t write us off just because we’re fans.

byeolbitbby> SECONDED

wontaek_luv> THIRDED

PinkBeanie> mind if i make this a sticky post jin
then they can see it every time they logon here

jindale_boi> Go for it, if you think it’ll help.

PinkBeanie> ugh after that let’s talk about something else

 

wontaek_luv has left the channel

 

kikumi> Later

 

kikumi has left the channel

 

PinkBeanie> don’t kno why i bother anymore

jindale_boi> Hugs babe, stay strong. Everyone’s going to get through this.

PinkBeanie> thx <3 <3 <3

 

*****

 

‘What’s that mark on your hand, Sanghyuk?’

‘What mark? … Oh. I don’t know. It doesn’t hurt, it’s probably nothing.’

‘Let me see.’

‘It’s fine.’

‘I know you can’t feel it, but I need to make sure it’s not an open wound. Strange. It almost looks like a needle-stick.’

(nothing there just a mark it doesn’t hurt no it isn’t there)

‘I said, it’s fine.’

‘Was there an accident with someone taking your blood? Can you remember anything like that? We should run some tests, make sure there’s no cross-infection, just to be sure.’

‘Just leave it alone! … Sorry.’

‘I’ll be back in a little bit to clean that and draw some blood.’

Sanghyuk doesn’t acknowledge that, doesn’t hear the nurse leave. He stares across the room at the wall above Hongbin’s bed, a frown creasing his brow, as though he’s trying to remember something.

(nothing to remember nothing to see nothing at all)

Never looking down, never changing expression, he cradles one hand in the other, thumb rubbing over the palm as though trying to erase the tiny scab and the reddened, slightly swollen flesh around it.

(Hyukkie, how did you get that pin stuck right through your hand)

‘Never happened,’ he whispers.

 

*****

 

from: hwangjm@kt.com
to: sooyeon77@naver.com

subject: maybe I am paranoid

 

Or maybe I’m too close to this case and it’s getting under my skin.

There’s just far too much that doesn’t add up.

-- Jongmin

 

Chapter Text

feverbright facetwitch musclemiceunderskin so you’re firstone

‘It’s good to see you, I mean, I didn’t mean that to be rude, anyway I’m sure the doctors will help you and you’ll be able to have those bandages off soon, but … um … hello.’

tumblewords stumblewords you’re afraid of silence

‘Everyone is really good here, I’ve made a lot of new friends and they all give me lovely things and they tell me so much, I could tell you stories about them if you like, that way you could get to know them so that they can be your friends, too … you know I’m your friend, don’t you?’

areyouareyoureally scaredyesnoscared saybooandwatchyoujump

come closer

‘I can’t stay very much longer, I have to go to get my burns treated again, but I did want to come and I’m really glad you got out, really, I wish we could have … they’re giving me art therapy now, it’s helping, I was surprised at how much it helps, so, um, I did a drawing for you, and I know you can’t see it yet, but I’m sure you will be able to, maybe in the meantime you could ask Hyukkie to describe it to you, I’ll just put it up on the whiteboard here, this magnet should hold it.’

gift youmademeapresent?

maybe you are my friend

even after everything?

‘It looks good there, it’s cheerful, I can’t wait until you can see it properly, I, I, I have to go now, I’ll come again soon, I hope you feel better …’

‘Jyani?’ Hongbin’s voice is soft, but Jaehwan freezes in the act of turning to leave. ‘Thank you.’

 

*****

 

boneache tremble movemovehavetomovealwaysmoving tiredsotired

‘Hello, Hakyeon.’

Sharp intake of breath. ‘Hongbinnie, how did you …?’

flowlikewater heartsore knowyouanywhere

‘I’m glad you’re awake. And I’m glad they’re letting us visit you. I’m not sure if Sanghyuk told you, but we’re all paired up, now. I’m in with Taekwoon, and Jaehwannie, well, Wonshik asked for him to stay in his room. And I can see Sanghyuk’s made himself at home here with you, and that’s … that’s good. I’m glad you’re not alone.’

neveralone no stopitstopthinkingthat

‘Everyone is recovering very well. All things considered. Wonshik still can’t eat, they’re talking about putting a tube into his stomach so at least he’ll put some weight back on. I think having Jaehwan with him is good for both of them. Jaehwan needs someone reliable and solid in his life, and Wonshik … needs something positive to focus on.’

hates me ofcoursehedoes

‘I’m worried about Taekwoon. He’s talking more, at least with me. It’s still not very much, though I suppose that is something that has to come with time.’

drythroat clickswallow youwanttocrydoit

‘I think he … I think he wants to die.’

notdie disappear

what about you

‘I’m doing my best. Is it helping? I don’t know, but what else can I do?’

whataboutyou

‘Again, I don’t know how much Sanghyuk’s told you. He has so much nerve damage, I’m not really sure of the details, but he barely has any sensation on so much of his body. The doctors are doing everything they can, we just have to hope that he can get at least some of the feeling back. Actually, I’m sure he hasn’t told you. He wouldn’t want you to worry.’

don’tdeservehim iknow

Anyway, I won’t tire you out any more now, you should sleep … as much as you can. It’s difficult, I imagine. It is for all of us.’

hidingbehindyourwords sayitsayit

‘Rest well, Hongbinnie. I’ll come again soon.’

‘You didn’t fail, Hakyeon. Please stop thinking that.’

‘I …’

‘You protected them. You took so much that was meant for them. You got them out. You didn’t fail them.’

Hakyeon leaves the room almost at a run; Hongbin tastes his tears beginning to fall, hears what he doesn’t say. I failed you. Don’t forgive me.

 

*****

 

Changing rooms was absolutely the best thing, thinks Jaehwan happily. It’s been days, but it still makes him smile just remembering the moment when Sooyeon told him that Wonshik had asked for him to be his roommate. So unexpected, and how pleased the nurses were for him. They’d helped him move that same afternoon, carried his flowers and his cards and the pictures he draws in art therapy and everything else across the corridor, and Nari even went down to the gift shop for him to buy something special for Wonshik to say thank you. Jaehwan chuckles to himself; the look on Wonshik’s face when he opened up the bag and saw the plushie cinnamon roll was wonderful, a memory to keep forever.

The first night was strange, because he had to get used to things being in different places. He walked around the room over and over again, learning it through touch, until Wonshik had sighed irritably and told him knock it off, come and play this stupid game with me. Jaehwan wasn’t fooled, he knows Wonshik doesn’t really want to play video games, but he loves that Wonshik is making the effort. Like the conversations they have, mostly one-sided, but Wonshik is definitely listening to all the stories Jaehwan brings him from talking to his friends. For me, he’s doing these things for me.

Best of all, now he sleeps so much better at night. There are still a lot of nightmares, of course, but Jaehwan doesn’t want to think about that, because in his dreams there are no friends and no safe, soft places. Instead, he thinks about how Wonshik always seems to be awake when those dreams make him wake up, trembling, and how Wonshik always lets him climb into his narrow hospital bed and how Wonshik holds him until he goes to sleep again. Sometimes, Jaehwan wishes he could sleep in Wonshik’s bed every night, but he knows that’s not practical. The beds are much too narrow and they still have so many places on their bodies that hurt to touch.

I’m so lucky, he thinks, I have many friends, old and new, I really hope Hyukkie still wants to be my friend, I hope he can calm down and not be angry with us anymore, and I hope that … that … but he won’t let himself think about that, so he thinks about how, for the first time in his life, he has a best friend.

Wonshik doesn’t like to hear how much he’s helping Jaehwan; he always turns bright red when the subject comes up. And then he always says that Jaehwan is helping him, which is sweet, even if it isn’t true, because Wonshik is already so strong, and all Jaehwan does is tell him how much he appreciates having him as a best friend, and stroke his back sometimes when he tries to eat and fails and throws up. Wonshik protects him; next to that, a few bunches of cheerful flowers and some words are nothing.

Hakyeon understands, he was pleased to hear that they were sharing a room together. You’ll be good for each other, he told Jaehwan, I’m happy for you. Hakyeon’s like that, he’s always encouraging and reassuring; even when he yells at them (used to yell at us) for getting the dances muddled up, Jaehwan can hear how much he cares. Taekwoon didn’t say anything, but that’s not because he doesn’t care, he just doesn’t like to talk these days. It makes Jaehwan sad, and he can hardly wait until they’re allowed to sing together again, because he misses having high-note competitions and trying to match each other’s voices and harmonising. But Taekwoon had smiled at Jaehwan’s news, a real smile that made him look so much more alive. Wonshik’s helped him, too, Jaehwan realises.

I should tell him about that, but Wonshik is away at physiotherapy, so Jaehwan occupies himself with watching everyone who comes and goes past their door. He checks their names off on his mental list, smiling whenever someone looks in and sees him. He sees Sooyeon, and sits up a little straighter, hoping she’s come to visit. She doesn’t look in, though, because her attention is caught by someone who walks straight up to her and stands very close. It’s the psychiatrist in charge, Doctor Hwang (that’s all Jaehwan knows about him, not even his first name, because in their sessions the doctor never talks about himself, and it makes their time together very uncomfortable).

Jaehwan tries to look as though he’s not straining to hear, but their voices are so low that he can only catch a couple of words, private, and tonight. No context, they don’t even look at each other. Something in the way they lean in, though, and the slightly furtive way Doctor Hwang glances around before handing Sooyeon a small piece of paper, are they secretly in love? The thought makes Jaehwan hug himself, thrilled, because he wants Sooyeon to be happy, and sometimes when she talks about her family she sounds lonely. No one should ever be lonely.

Lost in thought, imagining them being together and happy, Jaehwan is startled when they bring Wonshik back to their room. Not in his chair, on a gurney, barely conscious, so pale. He lets out a little cry of alarm, and one of the nurses assures him that Wonshik has just fainted. It does nothing to calm his suddenly thudding heart, because this shouldn’t happen. Wonshik is strong, stronger than anyone; Wonshik is protective and fierce and he promised to keep me safe. As soon as the others leave, Jaehwan rushes across the room to sit by Wonshik’s bed, grabbing at his hand (cold, limp, somehow smaller), whispering to him. He talks to Wonshik for what feels like hours, tells him about all the people he’s seen and how he thinks Sooyeon and Doctor Hwang are in love, and please Wonshik please wake up please don’t leave me.

When Wonshik’s eyes finally open, Jaehwan almost cries with relief. He stops speaking, then, just intertwines their fingers and tries to give Wonshik what little strength he has. I’ll buy him some more flowers, he thinks, maybe it will help, getting flowers always helps me. No, even better, I’ll draw him some more pictures. He nods to himself and Wonshik squeezes his hand gently, rubs his thumb over the knuckles and tells him again you’re a really good friend, Jyani.

Not long after that, they come back with some new equipment and shoo him away to his own bed, drawing the curtains around Wonshik. A nurse sits with Jaehwan, patting his hand, trying to talk him through his sudden anxiety at seeing so many people surrounding his friend. She explains that they will be putting a tube down Wonshik’s throat into his stomach. Jaehwan nods eagerly, tells her, ‘That’s a good idea, I wish someone had done that before because Shikkie needs to get as strong as he can, and he can’t eat properly, not that there’s anything wrong with what you’re feeding him, it’s just that he …’ Then the nurse says that he might hear some upsetting things, but that he shouldn’t worry.

Jaehwan assures her he’ll be fine, but nothing could prepare him for the horror that steals over him as he hears Wonshik choke, hears him retch and protest feebly. The nurse puts her arm around his shoulders, carefully avoiding his burns, holding him gently in his seat when he tries to go over to his friend. She tells him her name is Jenny and she moved here from England when she was five, that her favourite subject at high school was art, that she still paints whenever she has time, mostly pictures of her three cats who are named after her three favourite foods, Mandu, Honey, and Gimbap. Committing all this to memory is instinctive by now, calming; he feels his muscles relaxing, and after a while can even smile at her description of how she once found Honey sleeping cuddled up to the old teddy bear that lives on her bedroom shelf.

Finally the curtains are drawn back. Before the others can even pack up Jaehwan is out of his chair, starting across the room. Wonshik sits up in bed, a thin tube disappearing into one nostril. Something that looks almost like milk runs through the tube from a bag hung on the IV pole. Wonshik’s eyes are red, and his face twitches, but he sees Jaehwan’s scared eyes and smiles reassuringly, beckoning him over.

‘Does it hurt?’ Jaehwan asks.

‘It’s all right,’ says Wonshik hoarsely. ‘Putting it in sucked, but I’m glad it’s all done now.’

‘What does it feel like?’

Wonshik shrugs. ‘I’ll get used to it, don’t worry. It’s only a bit uncomfortable now.’ He reaches out to stroke Jaehwan’s hair back from his forehead, and Jaehwan scoots a little closer, lays his head down next to Wonshik’s on the pillow. ‘You know the best thing about this?’ Wonshik says. ‘I can’t taste anything at all.’

 

*****

 

‘Are you awake? Can you hear me?’

fearspike didn’tfeelyouthere

‘I’m not sure why I came.’

hollowman you’refading

‘I suppose I wanted to say I understand.’

come back

‘If that matters.’

come back stay

‘I’ll go now.’

‘Don’t go.’

‘You should sleep.’

‘Please don’t go, Taekwoon. Don’t leave them.’

‘I shouldn’t have come.’

‘Don’t leave them. They need you. Hakyeon needs you.’

slowblink heartstutter screamsigh

‘... All right.’

 

*****

 

warm arms thereyouare i missed you

‘Hyukkie.’

‘They came to see you, didn’t they? I knew they’d wait until I was out of the room. Are you all right?’

broken allsobroken myfault notgoodenough myfault

nevertellyou never

‘Yes.’

‘Do you need anything?’

turn back time make it neverhappen

‘Sit down and rest.’

‘I’m fine, do you want me to get you some water or …’

‘Sit down.’

‘ … Okay. If you do want something, it’s fine, I’ll get it for you.’

pleasedon’tplease

‘Where did this picture come from?’

‘Jaehwan.’

‘It looks like a kid’s drawing. Weird.’

‘Describe it. Please.’

‘Well, it’s pretty simple, really. I guess it’s supposed to be a garden, or maybe a field, something like that, but it’s just a big block of green. The whole rest of the picture is sunflowers, huge bright yellow and orange sunflowers. It’s kind of cheerful, when you think about it … Bean? Are you okay?’

takeitaway takeitaway makesmecry can’tcry hurts

‘Bean? Hey, it’s okay, I’m here.’

held

safe

loved whyloved youshouldrun youshouldleaveme

need you

‘Hyukkie, I’m sorry.’

‘Shut up.’

‘I mean it.’

‘Stop. Stop it, I know what you’re going to say.’

pushyouaway makeyougo

can’tletyougo

‘I won’t leave you again, Bean.’

‘I know,’ says Hongbin, laughing because he doesn’t even have fake tears to cry now, because he can’t do what he knows he should. ‘I know you’ll never leave me.’

 

Chapter Text

The cafe is small, just a handful of little tables crowded together along one wall opposite a long refrigerated display case of pastries. The smell of strong coffee mixes with powdered sugar and butter, and between the clatter of plates, the hiss of the steamer frothing milk, and the cheerful voices of the girls serving, the noise is so loud it almost hits Doctor Park like a blow when she pushes open the door. Standing on tiptoe to see over the crowd of people at the counter, she sees a hand waving from a table near the back. She pushes her way through to where Doctor Hwang sits and shrugs out of her coat, hanging it over the back of the chair. There’s already a half-empty cup and a plate with a garishly pink rice cake festooned with berries in front of him. To judge from his tense shoulders and the way his fingers tap restlessly on the tabletop, it’s not his first coffee, but when Doctor Park points at the cup with a questioning expression; he nods and says loudly, ‘Please. Americano, triple shot.’

Given the apparent chaos of the place, ordering is surprisingly easy, and within a few minutes she returns to the table with coffee for them both (hers is a ridiculously elaborate iced affair with hazelnut syrup and a staggering amount of whipped cream), and a chocolate mousse cake that looked far too delicious to resist. ‘All right,’ he says, and she holds up a hand.

‘I’ve been waiting all day for this, Jongmin, and I need a few minutes,’ she says with an utterly unprofessional smile as she lifts a long-handled spoon piled with whipped cream and chocolate shavings to her mouth. The expression of her face is nothing short of bliss. A forkful of cake and a long drink of her iced coffee follows before she sits back finally. ‘Now. Not that I don’t appreciate any chance to indulge my sweet tooth, but … what’s going on?’

‘I needed to talk to you about them, Sooyeon. Face to face,’ he says. They both know exactly what he’s talking about. The smile disappears from Sooyeon’s face.

‘And for that we needed to be here? Why not have a meeting? This seems needlessly secretive.’

Jongmin leans across the table, although the chances of their being overheard are virtually non-existent. This close, Sooyeon can see the tiredness in his face, the dark smudges under his eyes. ‘Because, frankly, what we need to discuss violates hospital policy. At the very least. I want to get that straight up front, so if that’s a problem for you we can just forget the whole thing.’

There’s a long pause, as Sooyeon takes another drink, then she sighs. ‘All right. What is it?’

Some of the tension goes out of Jongmin’s shoulders. ‘Thank you. I really wasn’t sure you’d be on board with this idea.’

‘I’ve backed your decisions so far, Jongmin,’ she replies, with a tiny note of reproach in her voice. ‘By now, I think I can trust your instincts.’

From the satchel at his feet, Jongmin brings out a pile of manila folders, each marked with the hospital’s logo. ‘I’ve been going over their histories in preparation for the recommendation to start moving them to psych rehab. There are things here that don’t add up. Disturbing things. Look at this, for example. This is, let’s call him number one. Just moved in with 24M.’ He shuffles through the folders, finally opening one to a radiology report, and spins it around so she can read it.

Translocation of left patella, internal lacerations and meniscus tearing consistent with penetrative injury.

She looks up at him questioningly. ‘I’ve read these already. We think the knee was deliberately dislocated.’ He taps the words penetrative injury, and she shrugs. ‘An artifact on the film, probably. There was no external sign of any wound.’

‘I know. But then there’s this.’ He turns the pages to a photocopied, handwritten page. ‘This is from his journal.’

I remember. I remember how it felt to have my knee pried apart. How she twisted that pin in the doll and how that made my bones move and grind. I remember that I couldn’t even lift my arm after she stabbed the doll in the shoulder.

She reads it twice, her brow furrowing. ‘So what are you saying?’

Jongmin makes a frustrated noise. ‘I’m not sure what I’m saying. Just that the journal matches up with the radiology report, and that’s not possible.’

‘Well …’ Sooyeon cuts another forkful of cake, pauses with it halfway to her mouth. ‘Not to step on your toes, but couldn’t this be rationalisation? The knee was definitely injured, perhaps this is his way of explaining it.’

‘That’s what I thought at first, but the more I looked, the more often it crops up, and not just with this patient. Internal evidence of injuries with no visible external cause. Deep tissue bruising, clotted blood in the muscles, even pitting on the sternum, for god’s sake - all visible to scans, but nothing showing on the outside. And over and over, this matches up with their accounts.’ He passes over another sheet of paper. ‘This is a list of correlations. Now go on, tell me I’m crazy.’

As Sooyeon reads, her frown deepens. ‘It’s not exactly one-to-one, but … yes, I do see what you mean. How did we miss this?’

‘No one was looking,’ says Jongmin simply. ‘Why would we? They were all clearly suffering from any number of post-traumatic symptoms, everything they said at the time was so fantastic we knew it couldn’t be what actually happened. We never even considered they might be telling the truth.’

Sooyeon holds up a hand to stop him. ‘Now, wait just a moment … you’re not seriously suggesting …?’

‘We put it down to them being drugged, or maybe some sort of psychotic break. No evidence of anything in their systems, but then, there wouldn’t be, would there? Anything that would cause that sort of suggestibility would be metabolised within a few hours, so we didn’t think twice about it.’

‘But Jongmin, surely … from what I’ve read, they’re claiming some kind of, I don’t know what you’d call it, supernatural perhaps, experience. That’s just not possible.’

‘I know,’ grates Jongmin, ‘I know, it’s ridiculous even to think it.’

‘Look, I think there’s a much simpler explanation for this. We both know how easily the mind can affect the body. These could be psychosomatic injuries.’

‘You’re probably right,’ sighs Jongmin, ‘and that was my first thought, too. It’s just that … I don’t know, maybe I’m too close to this situation. My judgment’s getting clouded.’

Sooyeon shakes her head. ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself. This is nothing like any of us have dealt with before. You wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve heard from the nurses about them. Well, about one in particular.’

‘Number six, you mean?’ Without waiting for a reply, Jongmin gulps down the rest of his coffee and continues, ‘I’ve heard they’re reluctant to be assigned to him. One of the Ward Clerks was complaining about it. It’s the laughter, I suppose.’

‘Not just that.’ The rest of the mousse cake disappears quickly, and Sooyeon pushes the plate away with a satisfied sigh. Pulling a pack of nicotine gum out of her pocket, she pops out a pellet. ‘I really shouldn’t indulge like this. Who’d have thought quitting would make me crave sugar so much? Still, I could really use that five million won, the kids need a holiday. Anyway, some of the nurses are getting superstitious about him. They say he watches them. Ridiculous, isn’t it? The poor kid’s been through hell, he’s virtually blind, and they’re acting like they’re scared of him.’

Shuffling through the folders again, Jongmin pulls out another transcript. ‘Look at this.’

I’m sure. I don’t want to see him.

Can you tell me why?

I … no. No. I just don’t want to. (pause) Look, it’s just … bad memories, okay? Things I don’t need.

What sort of things?

(pause) He … no, never mind. Just take it as read, I don’t want to see him.

‘That’s M19, all I could get from him about it,’ says Jongmin, ‘but the way he acted during that session was telling. You know how weak he is, but he wouldn’t sit still when I was trying to get him to talk about it. Paced around the room like he was five seconds away from walking out. Honestly, I’m not sure why he didn’t. And the whole time, he was trying to hide his emotional reaction to the idea of visiting number six. He was angry, Sooyeon, furious about something. Under that, though, he was clearly afraid, and didn’t want me to know.’

‘Surely that’s not unusual, though?’ asks Sooyeon. She picks up her drink again, frowning when she realises it’s empty. ‘With what they went through, being afraid to confront those memories …’

Catching her longing look at the glass, Jongmin smiles. ‘Go on, you know you want another one.’

‘I shouldn’t,’ she says, but there’s no conviction in her voice at all.

‘Your secret’s safe with me.’

She gives him a quick, wry smile before heading to the counter to order another. This time, she returns to the table immediately. ‘As I was saying, I’m not sure it’s unexpected that any of them would be reluctant to relive anything.’ A thought strikes her. ‘Although … there was something. One of the nurses overheard him talking, to his roommate I think. About protecting people. Specifically, protecting them from number six.’

Jongmin nods. ‘There’s a nasty fixation there,’ he says. ‘As long as he won’t talk about it, I can’t get to the cause, but until I do, there’s no way I’m going to push him into contact.’ He looks irresolutely at his empty cup for a moment, then says, ‘I’ll probably be up all night, but what the hell,’ and goes to order another. Left at the table, Sooyeon starts leafing through the papers. Now that she knows what to look for, it seems unbelievable that she didn’t notice it sooner. Over and over, correlations between physical injuries and the strange stories told by the patients. In spite of herself, she finds her mind turning to the idea that perhaps there is something to it all … she shakes her head, annoyed at her flight of fancy, as Jongmin returns with her order, a full cup of his own, and a plate with an assortment of tiny cakes.

‘Are you trying to bribe me or something?’ she says, eyeing the sweets. Jongmin just smiles and pushes the plate towards her; without hesitation, she picks up a miniature caramel eclair filled with custard. ‘I suppose, if I don’t eat dinner tonight …’ The eclair disappears in two quick bites. ‘All right, consider me bribed. For argument’s sake, let’s say I go along with your idea that whatever happened to them has a, what would you call it, unnatural explanation. How does that change anything about our treatment plan?’

Although it’s clear Sooyeon is by no means convinced, Jongmin heaves a relieved sigh. ‘At this stage, I want to rule out anything else. Let’s check radiology records, see if the same sort of artifacts turn up on other scans. It’s somewhere to start.’

‘That, I can do,’ she says. ‘And if they don’t?’

Jongmin shrugs. ‘Then I don’t know. But let’s deal with that when it happens.’

If it happens,’ Sooyeon corrects him, but the look she receives in response is quietly resigned. He believes it, she thinks, regardless of what he says, he really believes it. The idea unnerves her, because in all the years they’ve worked together, Jongmin has never been anything but completely rational, completely grounded. If he’s lost his objectivity over this ... ‘In the meantime,’ she continues, ‘we should also investigate the possibility of psychosomatic injury. And see what else they might disclose to you.’ Nodding, Jongmin takes out a notepad.

Absorbed in mapping out this new, off-the-books strategy, the two are oblivious to the ebb and flow of customers around them. More cups and plates pile up on the table as they work, only taking breaks occasionally to use the bathrooms or order more from the counter. Sooyeon switches to tea, managing to restrain herself from further pastry-shaped temptation, but Jongmin sticks to his corrosively strong coffee. It’s not until one of the shop assistants comes over and apologetically tells them the cafe is closing that they realise how dark it is outside.

As they bid each other goodnight, Sooyeon looks closely at Jongmin, who’s fairly vibrating with more than just caffeine. There are probably a dozen things knows she should say, warn him to check himself, keep a grip on these speculations, maybe even talk to someone else in a therapeutic context. Their relationship has never been that open, though, and even with this new secret between them, there are still far too many professional barriers. In the end, all she says is, ‘Get some sleep.’

He gives her a wide smile that is perhaps meant to be reassuring, undermined by the tight lines around his eyes. Without answering, he simply waves, and disappears into the crowd of night-time pedestrians as her taxi arrives.

The children are already in bed when Sooyeon finally arrives home; as always, she feels a little pang of guilt that irritates her enough to make her slightly snappy with her husband when he informs her of this. Pausing only to kick off her shoes and dump her briefcase and coat on the chair near the door, she opens the bedroom door quietly. Her daughter breathes, slowly, evenly, her face soft and entirely untroubled. Sooyeon crosses the room to kiss her on the forehead and turn out the bedside lamp. As she turns away, the light from the window falls on one of the dolls lined up on the shelf opposite the bed. It’s only an illusion, of course, but for a moment, the doll seems to be looking at her.

 

*****

 

‘please stop pleasepleaseplease i’ll do anything please it hurts so much …’

Hakyeon, awake, flinches as he hears Wonshik’s terrified, babbling screams. His arms tighten reflexively around Taekwoon, sunk so far into sleep that he doesn’t even stir. Leave them alone, he thinks desperately, as he did then, why can’t you leave them alone?

Jolted out of his doze, fighting free of tangled sheets and across the room in seconds, Jaehwan throws himself onto Wonshik’s bed, grabbing at him, ignoring the stretching pain of half-healed skin grafts and the memories threatening to paralyse him. The image of her bent over Wonshik holding open his eye, needle and thread in one raised hand, the sound of Hakyeon’s pleas scaling higher and higher.

Wonshik’s nightmare is so loud that it wakes Sanghyuk, separated by more than half the ward and around a gently curving corner. Sitting up, he looks towards the door, throws back the covers. I should go to him, he thinks, but then he remembers, and looks across the room.

Hongbin shifts in his bed, and Sanghyuk hears him, quiet but very clear, under the screams. ‘Don’t you love me best? Take me.’

Face tightening, Sanghyuk swings his legs over and stands. A single, furious glance towards the open door, then he pads across to Hongbin’s bed and looks down.

Lying on his side now, one arm outstretched, fingers splayed and reaching. ‘Take me …’

They never understood, thinks Sanghyuk, seething. They think you wanted it. They didn’t see your face. I’m the only one who did.

‘Wake up, Wonshik please wake up you’re safe now you’re safe …’

‘Jyani?’ Rasp in the voice, harsh and dry. Automatically, Jaehwan reaches for the cup of ice chips on the wheeled table, using one finger to hook a bag from the pile next to it.

‘Here,’ he says. He fishes out a piece of ice, but Wonshik turns his head away. ‘Just try? Please?’

Wonshik shakes his head, croaks, ‘You know I can’t.’

Letting the ice drop back into the cup, Jaehwan stares at his dripping fingers. Without changing expression, he gently wipes them across Wonshik’s cracked lips, braces himself for the inevitable retching. Instead, Wonshik squeezes his eyes shut, lets just the tip of his tongue push between his lips, and tentatively tastes the cold water. A shaky, indrawn breath, ‘ohmygod,’ he tastes again, more confidently this time. How is this happening, how is this possible? ‘More?’ he whispers, tempting fate.

Jaehwan dips his fingers into the melting ice again, brushes more water on Wonshik’s mouth. His breathing is slow and even, eyes half-closed, moving restlessly under the lids as though dreaming. Half-suspecting he’s dreaming himself, Wonshik tastes again. Nothing. No taint. No rotslime stonedust, just … cold. Clean. He sobs, once, loudly, and Jaehwan startles.

‘Wonshik? Are you … did I …’

‘I can’t taste it,’ Wonshik chokes, tears falling freely now. ‘It’s just water, I can’t taste it anymore.’

Gaping at him, Jaehwan stammers, ‘How? What happened? What did you …’

‘It’s you, Jyani,’ smiling now as his entire body shakes with crying, ‘you did it, you took it away, I don’t know how, but you did, thank you, thank you …’

Instinctively, Jaehwan gathers Wonshik up into a hug, letting the cup of ice chips fall unnoticed to the floor. I didn’t do anything, he thinks, but that doesn’t matter, because Wonshik, for the first time, sounds like hope.

Listening, Hakyeon hears the sounds die away to soft murmurs. They are good for each other. He looks down at Taekwoon, peaceful in his arms, remembers the shy way the vocalist asked him a few hours ago, hold me? Remembers the smile (so small, but the first one and to Hakyeon it was like the first glimpse of sunrise) when he said of course I will. Maybe we’ve turned the corner finally.

Sanghyuk watches as Hongbin stiffens, hears him make a small, pained noise, cradles his hand in numb fingers as it slowly relaxes. ‘Stop,’ he whispers, ‘stop, you don’t have to do this anymore.’ Hongbin shudders; the room is filled with sound of violent, uncontrollable retching and Sanghyuk grabs him under the arms, pulls him half-upright to keep him from choking, fumbles for the call button. ‘Stop,’ he begs, struggling to hold Hongbin still, ‘please stop it, don’t take it on yourself,’ as the light from the door is blocked by the body of the running nurse, ‘stop it, you’ve done enough, haven’t you done enough?’

‘Thank goodness he’s not on solids yet,’ murmurs the nurse, holding a bag to Hongbin’s mouth to catch the thin strings of bile. ‘I hope this isn’t an allergic reaction to the medication. Can you hold him? I’ll just do his obs, make sure he doesn’t have a fever.’ Sanghyuk doesn’t reply, caught between helpless heartache and a rage that threatens to rip him into pieces. Don’t do this, Bean. He doesn’t deserve it. None of them deserve it. None of us.

After a brief flurry of movement down the corridor, everything is finally quiet. Shifting to relieve the pressure on his arm, Hakyeon lets his head fall back against the pillows. He listens to Taekwoon breathing, slips gently towards sleep.

An agonised, despairing scream in his mind - ‘Run! Everybody, run!’ Hakyeon’s eyes fly open and he sits bolt upright, pulse spiking, breathing shallow and fast. Not his voice, not any of them stumbling, fleeing for their lives, too terrified to do anything but clutch at ragged clothes and tug on flailing limbs and urge each other with their eyes.

‘Who was it?’ Hakyeon whispers, and Taekwoon stirs, a frown creasing his forehead. ‘Who screamed?’

‘Don’t you remember?’ murmurs Taekwoon, already settling again.

Oh dear god, thinks Hakyeon. Hongbin.

 

Chapter Text

from: sooyeon77@naver.com

to: hwangjm@kt.com

subject: maybe nothing but

 

19M18 has started eating again. Just like that, according to the nurses. Woke up out of a nightmare and drank some water - not a lot, but enough. And this morning he asked if he could try to eat. I supervised it myself, he was clearly nervous, but he kept down the two spoons of broth that was all I was willing to risk. Of course I gave him an anti-emetic first, but we both know his problem has never been physical.

He credits his roommate with ‘fixing’ him. Naturally the other kid is denying that. I have no explanation for it, whatever breakthrough he’s had seems to have happened spontaneously.

But that’s not why I’m emailing you privately. Honestly, Jongmin, I don’t know whether to strangle you or thank you, because I’m seeing connections that simply can’t be there.

According to the notes on both their files, at the same time 19M18 was drinking water, 19M25 started vomiting. And he hasn’t been able to eat since. It’s exactly the same symptoms - even the smell of food sets him off. His roommate’s beside himself, blames 19M18 for it, he’s been flipping between rage and panic since last night.

I know it’s your day off, but I think you should come in. If anyone asks, I’ll tell them I wanted you to assess 19M18’s recovery (if that’s what you can call it). My real concerns are with the pair in room 25, though.

Tell me I’ve got this wrong. Please.

Sooyeon

 

*****

 

from: hwangjm@kt.com

to: sooyeon77@naver.com

subject: re: maybe nothing but

 

Of course I’ll come in, be there in about an hour.

As for the rest … wish I could tell you that, but I just don’t know.

-- Jongmin

 

*****

 

Staring incredulously at Jaehwan, Hakyeon exclaims, ‘What? Say that again?’

‘It’s wonderful, isn’t it?’ Jaehwan grabs hold of Hakyeon’s fluttering hands and squeezes tightly, delighted.

There’s something different, though, thinks Hakyeon. It’s not the usual nervous, vibrating energy he’s come to expect. In spite of his excitement, Jaehwan seems more … settled. Happy, but without that edge of near-hysteria. ‘Tell me exactly what happened.’

Jaehwan shrugs. ‘That’s just it, I don’t know what changed. He was having a nightmare, and I went to wake him up, and I was going to give him some ice, but he said he didn’t want it. Then I …’ he falters, frowning. ‘I put some water on his lips. I don’t know why I did that.’

‘And Wonshik was able to drink it that way?’ Hakyeon looks over at Taekwoon, watching them from his chair. As their eyes meet, Taekwoon gives him a smile so tiny and brief that Hakyeon wonders whether he imagined it.

Yes!’ exclaims Jaehwan. ‘And not just that, either - this morning he asked to try to eat something, and he was able to! It was only a little bit of broth, but it worked, Hakyeon, it worked. He’s better.’

Despite the leap Hakyeon’s heart gives, he warns himself not to be too quick to jump to the same conclusion. It could be a temporary thing, it can’t just disappear that easily. ‘Jyani,’ he says carefully, unwilling to dash the vocalist’s hopes, but knowing that if he doesn’t at least sound a note of caution, any setback for Wonshik will devastate his friend. ‘It’s very good news, I’m glad you came to tell us. He might not be completely over the problem, though, it will take time -’

Shaking his head vehemently, Jaehwan interrupts, ‘No, Hakyeon. No. You weren’t there. You didn’t see how easy it was for Wonshik to drink that soup. He was so happy, he wants to try eating real food now. He wants to eat.’

In the face of Jaehwan’s conviction, Hakyeon surrenders. If he’s honest with himself, he wants this to be true just as badly as the man holding his hands and beaming into his face. ‘All right, all right. I believe you. Have you … do Sanghyuk and Hongbin know yet?’

‘Well, no, not yet …’ The clear reluctance in Jaehwan’s tone is no more than Hakyeon expects; still, it hurts to hear.

Taekwoon’s voice startles them both. ‘I’ll tell them.’ They turn as he rises and slides his feet into hospital slippers. Without another word, he leaves the room. Hakyeon and Jaehwan look at each other, nonplussed.

Some of the animation leaves Jaehwan’s face as he says quietly, ‘Wonshik thinks I did it. He thinks I did something that made him able to eat again.’

‘Perhaps you did,’ replies Hakyeon. ‘I said you were good for each other. Perhaps you gave him the courage he needed to get past this.’

As he did last night, Jaehwan thinks, I didn’t do anything. He looks down, eyes troubled, and when Hakyeon pulls him into a hug, returns the embrace mechanically.

 

*****

 

As Taekwoon nears the open door of room 25, he hears someone retching uncontrollably. He frowns, his steps slowing until he halts just outside, listening. One of the nurses, soothing, A minor murmur, reassuring, calming. Sanghyuk, trying to keep his voice steady, a jagged discord of fear bleeding through. And Hongbin, no melody there at all, just harsh, helpless sounds. About to turn away and retreat to his own room, it hits him. I can hear it again, he thinks. I have the music back. His touchstone, his way of making sense of the world around him; he calls it the symphony, and it’s been his best-kept secret all his life. No one has ever known, not even Hakyeon, the closest person he has, and so how could he tell any of them what it meant to have it taken from him? To hear only words and dull, staticky noise, where once everything was harmony? It’s come back to me, he realises, he’s been hearing it more and more strongly since he woke up this morning, and there are tears blurring his eyes and a hitch in his breathing.

He hesitates. I should come back later. Why did I come, anyway? No reason, no thought in the decision, just waking up in the morning thinking of him, and then, a sudden need to see him. It makes no sense, and he turns to go.

From within the room, he hears Hongbin, hoarse and shaky. ‘Come in, Taekwoon.’ Without taking another breath, he walks in, goes straight to the bed where Sanghyuk and the nurse bracket Hongbin’s shivering body.

The maknae glares at him. ‘What do you want?’ he snaps, staccato and sharp. ‘Make it quick.’ He subsides when Hongbin lays a hand over his arm, but his eyes never lose their fury.

Taekwoon asks quietly, ‘Are you all right, Hongbin?’

Before Hongbin can speak, Sanghyuk answers. ‘Of course he’s not all right! You can see that for yourself, can’t you? Look, whatever you want, it can wait.’

Hyukkie …’ Just his name, a rough whisper, a blind turning of Hongbin’s head. Sanghyuk looks down at him, and Taekwoon can see the way his face softens.

I shouldn’t be here, Taekwoon thinks. ‘I won’t stay,’ he says. ‘Wonshik has started eating again. I thought you should both know.’ And just like that, the rage floods back into Sanghyuk, makes his shoulders hunch and his jaw clench. I didn’t expect him to be happy, but he’s even angrier than he was. Why? ‘I’ll leave you both alone then. I hope you feel better soon, Hongbin.’ Taekwoon turns to go, then stops as Hongbin, reaches out with unerring, blind accuracy, somehow avoiding the framework that surrounds his hands, and touches his palm. Automatically, Taekwoon tenses, but the brush of Hongbin’s fingers is so light there’s hardly any pressure, and it doesn’t hurt at all.

Sanghyuk’s voice shades into a tense, angry melody, B major, thinks Taekwoon. ‘Bean, don’t …’

‘Thank you for telling us,’ says Hongbin. ‘I’m glad he’s better.’

‘Bean …’ Grace note there, so much love.

‘It’s all right, Hyukkie.’ Now Taekwoon can hear music in Hongbin’s voice, still faint, a ghost of the rich warmth it once held, threnody. He smiles - it’s becoming easier and easier - but as he walks away, Hongbin starts to retch again, and the smile falters for a moment.

Then he hears them talking in his room, Hakyeon’s breathy woodwind a calm counterpoint to Jaehwan’s bright arpeggios. Something inside him opens, and he walks into the room and straight up to them and says, ‘I want to sing again.’

 

*****

 

(oh, pretty … what have you done?)

leavemealone

(this isn’t what you’re for)

leave me alone

(now we’ll have to start again)

no

won’t let you

‘Bean? Bean, you’re dreaming. Wake up.’

(you were perfect)

(now look what they’ve done to you)

(it hurts me)

good

.... i’msorry

‘It’s okay, you’re safe, listen to me, everything’s okay …’

(you’re mine, precious)

(did you forget that?)

notyours neveryours

(pretty)

no

(perfect)

don’t

(precious)

please

(mine)

… yes

(who are you?)

hongbini’mhongbini’m

(who are you?)

singerdancerfriend ihaveaname

(do you want them hurt again?)

no

‘Wake up, come on, wake up!’

(do you want him hurt again?)

nonoplease

(who are you?)

……. pretty

(and?)

…..…… yours

(that’s right, precious)

Wake up, Bean!’

‘Oh, Hyukkie,’ laughs Hongbin, sobbing, ‘you don’t understand. I’ve been awake the whole time.’

 

*****

 

Leaving Wonshik’s room, Jongmin tells himself these things happen. Sudden, inexplicable recoveries, especially from psychosomatic symptoms, are common. That the kid attributes it to some weird intervention from his roommate is just rationalisation, his mind trying to find a reason for the switch in his head suddenly flipping. There’s literally nothing to suggest anything inexplicable went on. It might not last, anyway, he thinks. Trying to sound a note of caution achieved nothing, though, because the kid’s conviction is unshakeable. I hope for your sake, you’re right.

Just before the door of room 25, he reaches the lunch cart, and his steps slow. Reluctance grips him, and he chides himself for it, self-aware enough to realise he’s relieved to have an explanation he can understand, and doesn’t want anything to challenge it. Irritated, blowing out a sharp breath, he looks in to see them, Sanghyuk sitting on Hongbin’s bed. He knocks on the open door and asks, ‘May I come in?’

For a moment there’s no answer. When it comes, it’s from Sanghyuk, and Jongmin blinks in shock at the sound of the boy’s voice. He expected anger, but what he hears is the very definition of flat affect, mirrored in the way his shoulders slump. ‘You might as well.’

The half-sketched strategy he’d puzzled out in the taxi on the way here is discarded in an instant. Jongmin crosses the room and pulls up a chair. ‘Sanghyuk, are you all right?’

I’m fine,’ just the slightest stress on the first word. As if on cue, Hongbin doubles over, retching. ‘Fuck,’ mutters Sanghyuk, reaching for a vomit bag from the pile on the wheeled table. The sight gives Jongmin a strange moment of dislocation, because it’s exactly the same setup as in Wonshik’s room, but here the table is within arm’s length, while Wonshik’s was pushed away from the bed.

‘I’ll call the nurse,’ Jongmin offers, but Sanghyuk just shakes his head.

‘It’ll be over in a minute, when that thing goes.’ He indicates the lunch cart. ‘There’s nothing they could do, anyway,’ and now there is anger, tightly controlled. Sure enough, the spasm passes as quickly as it struck when the lunch cart moves on. Hongbin leans back against the pillows, panting. A trail of saliva hangs from his bottom lip, quickly wiped away by Sanghyuk as he asks, ‘Why are you here, anyway?’

Jongmin stares at Hongbin before replying, mind whirling. This isn’t possible, there must be an explanation. ‘I wanted to check on both of you,’ is all he says.

Sanghyuk’s smile is cynical. ‘Told you, I’m fine.’

No, you’re far from fine, but after all this time Jongmin knows that pushing Sanghyuk will only make him less inclined to cooperate, so he lets the response go unchallenged. ‘Hongbin? This must be distressing for you, would you like to talk about it?’

No words, not a sound, just a slow, blind turning of the head.

‘Oh god, not this too,’ pained whisper from Sanghyuk. ‘Bean, please say something, talk to me, anything, tell me to shut up.’

One hand, hovering in the air. Sanghyuk grabs it, squeezes as best he can with his numb fingers. ‘Please, Bean,’ his voice breaking.

Catatonia? No, he’s reacting to sounds, something else. Almost like … Jongmin forces himself to concentrate. ‘Hongbin? Can you hear me? Will you talk to me?’

This time Hongbin simply lets his head drop.

‘How long has he been like this, Sanghyuk?’

The boy shakes his head, eyes never leaving his friend. ‘I don’t know, I’m not sure,’ voice hitching, ‘we were talking, and he … you just … you just stopped. Bean, why?’ Tears spilling over now, and Hongbin reaches out with his bandaged arms and gathers Sanghyuk to him, holds him close. Sanghyuk burrows into the embrace, hunched over, seeming somehow smaller, diminished.

He really is just a kid, thinks Jongmin. It’s familiar, something he’s seen far too many times. Someone far too young, taking on themselves the burden of caring for a sick or dying family member, battling with despair when nothing they do seems to help, comforted by the very person they think they’re failing. He’ll hate himself for this, he’ll think he’s weak. ‘Sanghyuk,’ he says softly, ‘Sanghyuk, I want to help you, both of you.’

‘You can’t,’ chokes the boy, and Jongmin sees anguish in the way Hongbin’s face silently twists and his arms tighten. ‘You’re too late, you can’t help, Bean …’ Sanghyuk pushes his face into Hongbin’s chest, crying.

A presence in the doorway, a nurse coming to check. Without looking, Jongmin waves behind his back, I’ve got this. There are any number of things he can say now, but as he looks at the pair, he sees Hongbin’s mouth stretch into a wide smile that jars with the anxious set of his jaw and his encircling arms. To that, he has no ready answer, and so he sits in helpless silence until Sanghyuk cries himself out and lays his head on Hongbin’s lap, eyes tightly closed.

‘I’ll come back soon.’ No response from Sanghyuk, only a tilt of Hongbin’s head that shows he’s listening.

As Jongmin leaves, he composes mental notes that tangle up the two young men in his mind, make him trip over his own thoughts. Relapse into mutism due to renewed trauma from allergic reaction, support medication review, fragile and emotionally labile, magical thinking … ha. Reducing everything to diagnoses and treatment plans is supposed to help, to put things into a manageable framework. His mind keeps betraying him with wilder speculations.

There are voices in the room to his left, two of them. He recognises the young man he’s come to think of as ‘number one’, cautious but optimistic. The other … he’s only ever had a handful of words from that one, all so quiet as to be nearly inaudible. Now, though, he’s talking, holding a conversation. Jongmin listens, hardly daring to breathe. Then the two laugh, genuine happiness, and before he can stop himself, he walks into the room and stands staring.

Hakyeon looks up and smiles. ‘Doctor Hwang, hello. Do we have a session today?’ Jongmin just shakes his head, looking at Taekwoon, who has colour in his face and movement in his body and a confident, musical voice that echoes the greeting. Before either of them can speak again, he turns on his heel and leaves.

It’s a coincidence, he thinks. It has to be.

 

*****

 

from: sooyeon77@naver.com

to: hwangjm@kt.com

subject: re: maybe nothing but

 

I read your report.

What aren’t you telling me??

Sooyeon

 

*****

 

Still cautious, Wonshik closes his hand around the cup and brings it towards his mouth. The liquid inside is thin, an unnatural shade of pink, and smells faintly of fake strawberries. He inhales deeply, waits. No revulsion, no urge to vomit. Tiny growl of hunger. ‘Oh my god,’ he whispers.

‘It’s very diluted,’ the dietitian tells him. ‘While the tube is still in place, you can’t try to eat anything too bulky or thick.’ Hardly listening, Wonshik breathes in again. It smells like cheap candy, like those special drinks they give old people who don’t eat properly, that’s what it is, old people food. He smiles wryly, remembering how as a child he’d thought his uncle’s meal was some sort of special milkshake, and was annoyed that he wasn’t allowed to have some. Look at me now, gomobu.

He can’t help the flinch as the liquid touches his lips, but the emptiness in his stomach is stronger than the fear. A small sip, explosion of strawberry in his mouth, the fluid sliding easily down his throat, sweet and soothing and nearly overwhelming because it tastes good, it’s staying down. Another mouthful, and another, and then half the cup is empty, the dietitian is telling him to slow down, but he can’t. He won’t. She’s looking at him fearfully, the sick bag in her hand, and he laughs at her. ‘I don’t need that any more.’

She starts to explain that this is just a beginning. He’ll have to be monitored. ‘Fine. Whatever,’ he interrupts. ‘I want this fucking tube out. Now.’ Alarmed, she starts to talk about precautions and small steps, but he just says, ‘You don’t get it. I’m better. He fixed me. Take. It. Out.’

Sound of wheels at the door. Wonshik looks up to see a porter bringing Jaehwan back into the room, the two of them engaged in conversation, the porter scrambling to catch up with Jaehwan’s high-speed flight of ideas. Thrusting the empty cup into the dietitian’s hand, he pushes back the covers and goes straight over to them. There’s a single, startled yelp from Jaehwan as Wonshik squats down next to the chair and pulls him into a tight hug, careful to avoid the healing burns. ‘Wonshik? What’s wrong?’

‘Strawberries,’ says Wonshik absurdly, laughing and crying at the same time. ‘Nothing’s wrong, Jyani, nothing at all.’

 

Chapter Text

 

The tray in the neurologist’s hand is covered, but Sanghyuk is well aware of the objects covered by the light blue drape, can even name the order from left to right. Needle in a sterile envelope, tiny brush that looks like it’s been taken from a make-up kit, whiteboard marker, tuning fork. Nothing wrong with my memory, he thinks bitterly. Beside him, Hongbin brushes fingertips lightly against his arm. Startled, Sanghyuk looks down. I felt … no. No, I didn’t, I saw it out of the corner of my eye.

‘Sanghyuk?’ A nurse just behind the neurologist, smiling at him, familiar face but that’s all. Unlike Jaehwan, Sanghyuk never bothered to learn anything about most of them. He knows the names of the doctors in charge, but only because their names are written on the board behind his bed. The only other name he cares about is the psychologist, not that he understands anything, but at least he makes an effort. 'It’s time for your sensory exam, Sanghyuk,’ says the nurse. ‘Would you mind moving back to your own bed for a moment?’

He sighs, irritated. ‘This is pointless. Nothing’s going to be any different, you know that.’

‘I know it’s frustrating, but you are making progress,’ she hastens to assure him, turning to the neurologist for confirmation. The doctor, Sanghyuk is almost amused to see, just gives a noncommittal nod.

‘Right. Progress. Fine, let’s get it over with.’ The sooner you give this up as a bad joke, the sooner I can get back to what really matters. He doesn’t expect an answer to his next words, but he tries anyway. ‘I’ll just be over the other side of the room,’ he says to Hongbin. No response, not a surprise, but his mouth tightens anyway, and his fists clench. Aware he’s being watched, he carefully blanks his expression as he crosses the room and sits on the edge of his own bed.

The routine is so familiar it’s become boring to the point where Sanghyuk nearly screams in frustration. Hold out each hand, watch them prick the fingertips, palm and arms gently with the needle, alternate with the brush, close his eyes and go through the whole thing all over again. Then his legs, and they make him lie down for that part. He stares at the ceiling, just wanting it to be finished as soon as possible.

With each test, the same robotic-voiced question, ‘What do you feel?’

The same answer. ‘Nothing. Just a little pressure.’

‘And now?’

‘Nothing … nothing, nothing, nothing.’ He can hear how he sounds, flippant and dismissive. Even though that will be noted on some chart somewhere, he couldn’t care less. ‘This is useless.’

‘We’re nearly finished,’ says the nurse encouragingly, although all she’s done is stand by and smile.

‘Close your eyes, please.’ The neurologist doesn’t change inflection, and Sanghyuk can’t tell if it’s boredom or annoyance. Not that it matters. He closes his eyes and holds up his hands again.

(skincrawl coldsilver pinpain)

His eyes fly open, his hand jerking away. Struggling up to a sitting position, he stares incredulously at his fingers.

‘What do you feel?’

Can’t happen didn’t happen just a memory, ‘I … I don’t … I didn’t ...’

‘Close your eyes again, please.’ Now some life in that voice, a sense of anticipation. Without lying down again, Sanghyuk closes his eyes. And waits, telling himself it didn’t happen, never happened.

‘What do you feel?’

‘... Nothing.’

‘Are you sure?’ The nurse, still trying to help.

‘I feel nothing,’ he says flatly. ‘It was … I guess I wanted it to be different. Sorry,’ he adds, without a trace of sincerity.

‘Try not to get discouraged,’ the neurologist tells him, hands moving automatically to return everything to the tray. ‘You’re recovering remarkably well, all things considered. Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do to speed up the process, but look at how far you’ve come in such a short time.’ The nurse adds her enthusiastic agreement.

Don’t try to cheer me up, Sanghyuk thinks furiously. He forces himself to stay calm long enough to thank them both, and the nurse looks pleased and the neurologist just nods again. As soon as they’re out of the room he scrambles across the room and grabs Hongbin tightly by the wrists. ‘Was that you?’ he hisses, ‘did you do that?’ Hongbin shakes his head slowly, but Sanghyuk rushes on as though he doesn’t see it. ‘Don’t, I don’t want that from you, Bean, I don’t ever want that, I won’t let you.’

Hongbin reaches up to cup the side of Sanghyuk’s face, brushes a thumb along his cheekbone. I can feel that, no mistaking it now, no way Sanghyuk can tell himself it’s wishful thinking or just his mind playing tricks by supplying what he thinks he should be feeling. ‘Bean,’ he pleads, ‘I can feel you. That’s enough. Please let it go.’ He leans against Hongbin’s hand, unable to keep the tears from spilling over, feeling (feeling) the pad of Hongbin’s thumb smearing them across his cheek. ‘Please.’

Pretty,’ whispers Hongbin, and Sanghyuk freezes in shock.

 

*****

 

from: choi.sk@neurology.snuh.org
to: hwang.jm@psych.snuh.org
cc: park.sy@trauma.snuh.org

subject: request for assessment 18M25

 

Dear Dr Hwang,

Could you please assess the above?

After extensive testing it appears this patient’s diagnosis may lie more in the realm of psychology than neurology. Results confirm some neural damage and further degeneration largely centred on the anterior surfaces of both arms. However the patient shows clear loss of sensation throughout the body to an extent that cannot be explained by injuries.

Additionally the team has observed numerous incidents that suggest the patient does experience considerable neural sensitivity. There is little to no loss of fine dexterity and during sensory exams the patient appeared to respond to both pinprick and light touch when distracted from the task. When the test was repeated that response was absent again.

There is no evidence to suggest the patient is in any way falsifying symptoms. If the problem is psychological however further pursuit of a purely neurological approach may only delay recovery by reinforcing an erroneous belief.

Thank you for your attention.

 

Dr. S. K. Choi

Consultant

Neurology Department

 

*****

 

from hwang.jm@psych.snuh.org
to: choi.sk@neurology.snuh.org
cc: park.sy@trauma.snuh.org

subject: re: request for assessment 18M25

 

You’ll get my full report by the end of the day, but your instincts were right. There’s definitely a large psychological component to this, something he doesn’t want to acknowledge.

Let’s set up a meeting to discuss how we proceed with joint therapy on this.

 

--HJM

 

*****

 

Rubbing his hands together, smiling from ear to ear, Jaehwan surveys the collection of plastic takeaway containers arrayed on the wheeled table. ‘This is going to be amazing. it’s so good of Minseo at the restaurant to agree to deliver here for me!’ He beams at the others clustered around in chairs borrowed from other rooms. Hakyeon, as usual, fidgets nervously, but Taekwoon eyes the food with undisguised interest. And Wonshik looks as though he can hardly keep himself from simply grabbing any container at random.

‘Now remember,’ says Nari, trying to sound serious but unable to keep her own face under control, ‘just clear liquids, Wonshik, a little soup is fine but don’t overtax your system.’ She shakes her head as the subject of her concern ignores her completely and reaches for a plastic fork. ‘All right, then. Don’t say you weren’t warned. Enjoy your lunch.’ With a last smile for Jaehwan, she leaves the room, carefully shutting the door behind her.

‘Isn’t she great?’ says Jaehwan. ‘After lunch we should all have one of the candies she gave me, they’re plum, not my favourite, never really liked them, but it’s hers, so how could I say no? And they taste good, actually, really good, I’m glad she gave them to me because it made me realise I needed to give them another chance …’ He subsides as Wonshik nudges him gently.

‘We get it,’ he says. ‘The candies are good and she’s a nice person. Now shut up and pass me the mandu.’

Hakyeon speaks up. ‘Are you sure you shouldn’t take it slowly?’ To his own ears he sounds severe, a disapproving parent. Already cramming a dumpling into his mouth, Wonshik just shrugs. As he chews, an expression of bliss steals over his face, and Hakyeon chides himself. Let them enjoy this, stop looking for reasons to worry.

They fall into the routine of food and conversation like it was only yesterday since they last shared a meal, instead of … nearly three months, Hakyeon realises. Since being roomed with Taekwon, they’ve eaten together, of course, but until a few days ago, those times were largely silent. I’ve missed this, he thinks, and right on the heels of that, we’re not complete.

As if catching the thought, Jaehwan says wistfully, ‘I wish the others could be here. I even got some of the spicy tteokbokki that …’ He falters as Wonshik glares at him. ‘I just mean …’

Hakyeon opens his mouth to reassure Jaehwan, but Taekwoon beats him to it. ‘It’s fine, Jyani,’ he says warmly. ‘We know what you meant. It’s good of you to think of them.’

‘Maybe we should save some and I can take it over to them afterwards?’

Oh, thinks Hakyeon. Doesn’t he know? ‘I’m afraid that won’t be possible,’ he says gently. ‘Hongbin is … not well.’ He glances over at Taekwoon, but the vocalist just looks down at his hands.

Silence falls over them, then, broken abruptly by Wonshik’s harsh voice. ‘Whatever. Is there any of the pork belly left?’ Instantly, Jaehwan’s good humour returns, and he quickly passes over the nearly-empty container that Wonshik points at.

I should say something, thinks Hakyeon, but where to start? Wonshik seems determined to hang on to his anger, even while revelling in his own unbelievable recovery. Unbelievable, why did I use that word? But it is, the sudden change in Wonshik is surreal, almost impossible to grasp. as though none of it ever happened. Unable to sit still, Hakyeon pushes away from the table and paces.

‘That last dumpling is mine,’ Wonshik announces.

Jaehwan starts to pass it over, but is stopped by a firm ‘No,’ from Taekwoon. ‘You’ve had more than enough, Shikkie, this one is mine.’ Wonshik looks at him like he’s just declared something utterly outrageous, and they fall to bickering over who has the greater right to the mandu.

Hakyeon listens with half an ear, just like back home, Taekwoon always fighting with Wonshik about food, as he moves around the room. So many flowers, all beautifully arranged, all fragrant. Soft plush toys of every kind, pride of place given to a floppy rabbit with ridiculously long ears and a vapid expression. No dolls, but then there wouldn’t be, would there? Even if no one believes their story, that psychologist wouldn’t risk triggering any of them by allowing something like that in their rooms. He has so many friends, the idea makes him smile as his eyes roam over the cards pinned to the board.

‘That’s it!’ exclaims Jaehwan. Over the scandalised cries of the other two, he snatches up the dumpling himself and stuffs it into his mouth with a mischievous, muffled, ‘Ha!’ Hakyeon turns in time to see Taekwoon and Wonshik gaping, before Wonshik lets out a loud, amused snort. Then Taekwoon laughs, and Hakyeon can only stare in wonder at the vocalist’s high colour and the way he sounds like he’s singing and the life in his eyes.

Sanghyuk’s voice behind him, low and furious. ‘Enjoying your lunch?’ Hakyeon spins around, startled. The maknae stands in the open doorway staring straight at Wonshik, shoulders hunched, fists clenched, almost vibrating with anger. ‘Tastes good? Nice to keep real food down for a change?’

‘Hyukkie …’ Hakyeon crosses the room swiftly, reaches out to take his hand. Without even acknowledging his presence, Sanghyuk yanks his arm away. ‘Hyukkie, we would have invited you, but …’ But I was a coward. I should have insisted we at least try, even thought I knew you wouldn’t leave him.

Still not looking at Hakyeon, Sanghyuk answers, ‘Do you really think I want any part of this?’

Taekwoon rises now, stands in front of the table. Although Sanghyuk’s voice is low, it sounds like barely-suppressed howling, D flat major, his mind supplies automatically, trying not to shudder. ‘Then why did you come here?’ he asks softly, and recoils as Sanghyuk turns on him, practically spitting out his words.

‘Like having your voice back?’

Swiftly, Hakyeon interposes himself between them. ‘Hyukkie, what’s wrong? Please, calm down, talk to us.’ He knows how he sounds - useless, impotent, failure, I have to try to reach him. ‘Is it Hongbin? Is he all right?’

For a moment Sanghyuk just stares at Hakyeon in disbelief. Then he laughs, jagged and horrible, completely without humour. ‘I can’t believe you’re asking me that. No, he’s not all right. While you’re all in here having such a great time he’s been throwing up because we can smell your little feast all the way down the fucking corridor. Not that he’s complaining about it - he can’t, because he can’t even talk. And you … you all just sit here and laugh.’

‘Don’t fight,’ whispers Jaehwan, unheard. ‘Don’t fight.’

Hakyeon whips his head around, sees Taekwoon’s stricken face as he flinches back. No, he thinks, panicking, it’s not your fault, don’t go back there. He pulls Taekwoon into a tight hug; the vocalist is stiff and unyielding in his arms, and he murmurs helplessly, ‘Taekwoonie, it’s all right, please stay with me, please ... ‘

‘You need to get the fuck out of this room.’ Wonshik, on his feet, starting towards the trio at the door, shrugging off Jaehwan’s clutching hands. ‘Now. Get out. You have no goddamn right to come in here and -’

No right?’ yells Sanghyuk. ‘You don’t get to say that to me. Not after what you did. This is your fault!’

They’ll come in now, thinks Hakyeon, pulling Taekwoon away to one side. They’ll stop this. He listens but there is no sound of running feet, no raised voices calling for help. Where are they?

Wonshik strides towards Sanghyuk, face livid with rage. ‘You delusional freak, I saved your fucking life!’

‘Stop,’ murmurs Jaehwan.

‘You ran like the coward you are.’ Sanghyuk’s voice fairly drips with contempt. ‘And you stopped me, you hit me. I had him, he was safe, and you hit me and dragged me out and you left him. After everything, you left him.’

‘Please, stop …please, please ...’

‘Good!’ Toe to toe with Sanghyuk, Wonshik shoves him backwards. ‘I’m glad I left him and I wish like hell he’d never got out. He deserves to be stuck there with her, it’s where he belongs. With her, or dead!’

The howl that tears itself out of Sanghyuk’s throat has no shape, no words, fury and grief and guilt all snarled up together. Before anyone can speak, he brings up his fist and punches Wonshik directly in the face, sending him staggering backwards. Hakyeon and Taekwoon shout, different names but the same panic in both their voices.

Baring his teeth, blood streaming from his nose, Wonshik raises his own fists, too late to block another blow from Sanghyuk, and another, driving him back, making him stumble and fall to the floor. Still Sanghyuk keeps coming, bending to throw yet another punch, and now Hakyeon can hear the running feet, too late, too late, and he needs to move, can’t move, can only hold onto Taekwoon and add his own useless cries to Wonshik’s grunts of pain and Sanghyuk’s growl and the sound of flesh smacking against flesh.

A sudden, wild scream, high and anguished, ‘Stop!’ Jaehwan throws himself out of his chair and over Wonshik’s sprawled body, turning his pleading face up to Sanghyuk. Oh god, he’s going to get hurt, too, Hakyeon thinks, but then Sanghyuk freezes with his fist cocked and ready to let fly and nurses and security push into the room and grab hold of Sanghyuk and drag him screaming backwards down to the floor. A flash of silver, a pin a pin no a needle, they hold him down until his voice fails and his body slumps under them.

‘Dammit, kid,’ says someone wearily. ‘Get him out of here. Four point soft restraints.’ Doctor Hwang, thinks Hakyeon, he sounds awful. They bring in a wheelchair and lift Sanghyuk into it, wheel him out without a backward glance at the rest of them. A nurse gently pulls a sobbing Jaehwan to his feet, almost holding him up with one arm. Another bends down by Wonshik, checking his pupils with a flashlight, pressing tissues to his nose.

‘What happened?’ asks Doctor Hwang.

‘He hit Wonshik!’ Jaehwan’s voice is shrill, cracking under strain. ‘We were having lunch and he came in here and we were having fun and he just …’

‘All right, thank you.’ Doctor Hwang cuts him off. To the nurse he says, ‘Diazepam, please, two point five milligrams.’ He turns to face Hakyeon and Taekwoon. ‘Can either of you tell me what this was all about?’

Hakyeon thinks, I need to say something, this is my responsibiity, my fault, I need to tell him, but he is assailed by images and sounds and sensation that threaten to swamp him, carry him right back into nightmare. His mouth works, but no sound emerges.

‘I’ll tell you,’ says Taekwoon, his tone shaded around with regret and terrible knowledge. ‘I’ll tell you, but not yet. Not until I help Hakyeon.’ He takes a deep, ragged breath. ‘Doctor, I think you should go to Hongbin now.’

Doctor Hwang frowns. ‘What do you - ‘

Grief-stricken, terrified cry: ‘Hyukkie!

Fuck,’ mutters Doctor Hwang, and leaves the room at a run.

Taekwoon looks over at the others in the room; Jaehwan, protesting, being put to bed, Wonshik, bruised and bleeding, sitting up with a doctor’s hands carefully palpating his face to check for broken bones. Neither meet his gaze, mired in their own pain. ‘I’m taking Hakyeon back to our room,’ he tells no one in particular. It’s not a request, and no one stops him as he murmurs soothingly to Hakyeon, coaxes him to move with gentle pressure, takes him away. By the time they reach the room, Hakyeon is leaning heavily on him, and it’s all he can do to keep his aching hands from losing their grip. Somehow, he manages to pull back the coloured quilt on Hakyeon’s bed and gets him to lie down.

In the bed, Hakyeon looks small and crumpled. Though he doesn’t speak, Taekwoon can hear hopelessness in the way he breathes, like even that simple act has become too much to bear. Steeling himself against the pain, he lies down beside Hakyeon and holds him clumsily. The movement rouses Hakyeon. ‘Taekwoonie … are you all right?’ The tone is fragile, all shivering incidentals with no melody to hold them together.

Still trying to protect us, thinks Taekwoon. Even when you need help, you won’t ask. You’re going to break. ‘I’m fine,’ he says quietly, not letting his voice convey anything but strength. ‘Everyone’s being looked after, Hakyeonnie, you can rest.’

‘No, I should … I need to …’

He sounds so lost. Taekwoon’s arms tighten around Hakyeon, a small wince of pain pulling at the muscles around his eyes. Voice trailing into nothing, Hakyeon lets himself be held, turns his face in to Taekwoon’s chest. ‘Rest, Hakyeonnie, sleep. I’m here. I won’t let you go.’

‘I’m so sorry,’ whispers Hakyeon. A shudder racks his slender frame, and he has nothing left, no one to be strong for, no way to build walls against the memories that crash in on him. He pulls in a sharp gasp, clutches desperately at Taekwoon, dissolves into ugly, broken sobbing. His own body shaking with the force of Hakyeon’s grief, Taekwoon holds him safe, and thinks, I won’t let you break.

It’s not until Hakyeon finally lapses into exhausted sleep that Taekwoon lets his mind turn back to what happened in Wonshik’s room. To Sanghyuk’s words, he’s throwing up … he can’t even talk. To the slight brush of Hongbin’s fingers against his hand, and the symphony, inexplicably given back to him when he was sure it had left him forever.

To Hongbin, screaming at them to run and pushing them away and stumbling blindly in the opposite direction, disappearing into a maze of half-ruined corridors, laughing like his heart was breaking.

 

*****

 

from: hwangjm@kt.com
to: sooyeon77@naver.com

subject: re: maybe nothing but

 

Can we meet after work again? This is rapidly getting out of control.

 

-- Jongmin

 

*****

 

Metro 3 from 4184 mobile.

Metro 3, go ahead 4184 mobile.

Metro 3, 4184 mobile responding to report of possible deceased person, Oryu 2-dong. Request coroner and scene-of-crime. Got a body here, one individual, likely female, evidence of violence.

4184 mobile, services en route to your location. Is the area secure?

Metro 3, area is secure. But there’s something off about it.

4184 mobile, please clarify.

Metro 3, it’s an old warehouse but someone was definitely living here. Possibly several people. Looks like they made modifications. I’m seeing what looks like scrounged furniture, rotten food - god, it stinks -

4184 mobile, do you require back-up?

Metro 3, no, I’m definitely alone here. But there’s a lot of weird stuff here, occult maybe. Or some really sick fetish stuff. And blood. Multiple locations with what looks like blood stains or spatter.

4184 mobile, please exit the area and establish a perimeter.

Metro 3, no problem. This place is giving me the creeps.

4184 mobile, stand by.

Metro 3 … I think there might have been a kid living here. I just found an old rag doll. All cut up and stuck through with pins.

 

Chapter Text

 

light footsteps

coming closer

happy sigh

(She’s here again. Where does she go? Why do I never see her leave and return? Does she even exist outside this place?)

 

fingers brushing over glass

across bars and wire

circling always circling

holdbreath wait hope pray notmenotme keep walking

shame on you

(Screaming. Always screaming sobbing pleading. I know she hears us. I see her smile. Is that why Taekwoon doesn’t make any noise now?)

 

it doesn’t hurt it doesn’thurt doesn’thurt

(Hyukkie. Why didn’t you run? You could have been spared.)

 

Please stop pleasepleaseplease

(Wonshik. Wonshik. Your eyes not you too. Why did she stop?)

 

Don’t you love me best? Take me.

pretty

yes

mine

yes

mine

you don’t need them

(Oh god I hear it now. Trying to sound happy but you’re terrified. You always were. Always were.)

(What have I done?)

 

Hakyeon wakes gasping for breath, half-smothered, held fast. No no can’tmovecan’t move; he thrashes, trying to break free. Soothing voice, ‘It’s all right, it’s all right, you’re safe. I have you, Hakyeonnie.’

Taekwoon.

‘So scared.’ Hakyeon clutches at Taekwoonie’s shirt, hands opening and closing convulsively. ‘He was so scared, I see it now, I didn’t, I thought … dear god I thought ...’

‘Sssh. Breathe.’ Taekwoon’s hands, clumsily moving in slow circles on Hakyeon’s back He’ll hurt himself, I should make him stop. ‘I know what you thought, Hakyeon. Everyone thought that. ’

‘Sanghyuk didn’t,’ Hakyeon says miserably.

Taekwoon sighs. ‘Our memories were in fragments. We’ve all been trying to make sense of something that was … senseless. Impossible. Sanghyuk remembers some things more clearly, but we both know there’s a lot he doesn’t want to think about.’

‘I should go to him. To Hongbin. I need to tell him …’

‘Tell him what? That you’re sorry? Again?’ Taekwoon’s voice is sharp now, staccato, he forces himself to a gentler tone. ‘He doesn’t want that. None of us do.’

‘But …’ I have to do something. I can’t keep failing you all.

Without letting go, Taekwoon moves just enough to be level with Hakyeon’s bowed head. ‘Look at me, Hakyeon, please.’ Reluctantly, Hakyeon lifts his eyes; what he sees there (pain, worry … love? no) makes his eyes swim. ‘We want you to be well. I … I need you to be well.’

Need. He needs this from me. It’s what I have to do, then. ‘I don’t know how,’ says Hakyeon helplessly.

‘I wish I had an answer for you.’ What Taekwoon says next is unplanned, comes spilling out half-formed and part of him is incredulous at hearing his own words, part of him wildly, dangerously hopeful. ‘But I think I know where to start looking.’

 

*****

 

After that one cry, Hongbin is silent as they move around in his room, transferring Sanghyuk to his bed. He hears everything. Their quiet murmurs, as though they think he’s asleep. The sound of straps being buckled into place. The psychiatrist, weary and baffled, giving instructions to the nurses to page him. Sanghyuk’s breathing, deep and slow. Sanghyuk’s heart, sluggish. Sanghyuk, radiating so much pain and anger that it bleeds through the suffocating blanket of the drug. What have you done, Hyukkie?

The psychiatrist comes over to him, asks him if he’s all right. Even if he still had a voice, Hongbin wouldn’t speak. The doctor means well, he knows. And he can feel how the man is, in spite of the carefully crafted lenses through which he views the world, starting to believe. You shouldn’t. You should walk away from this and let it all twist in your head until it’s something you can understand. There’s no coming back from it once you know. He answers the doctor with nothing until finally he’s left alone.

 

(you can’t protect him, pretty)

shutup

(he’ll be mine too, soon)

shut up

 

The door is still open, but Hongbin knows he won’t be seen. Moving with a fluid sureness that should be impossible with no eyes and a weak body covered in wounds that don’t want to heal, he slips out of bed and crosses the room. It’s not until he reaches Sanghyuk that his steps slow, his hands reaching out to touch the leather restraints. His fingers itch to untie them, but it would cause more trouble. As gently as possible, he climbs onto the bed and fits himself against Sanghyuk, one hand splayed across the slowly rising and falling chest. The maknae doesn’t stir, caught too strongly in enforced sleep. Hongbin presses his forehead against unmarked skin, breathing in hospital soap, angry sweat, and the last traces of raw bark and her. Sanghyuk’s voice comes to him, I don’t ever want that, I won’t let you, and he smiles sadly. Of course you would say that, he thinks, but it’s not up to you.

His eyes are held shut, but Hongbin imagines letting them flutter closed anyway. The sounds of everything else around them drop away until there’s nothing but breathing and heartbeats, falling into rhythm now, Hongbin matching with Sanghyuk perfectly. It’s pure instinct, just as with Wonshik, with Taekwoon, nothing conscious or planned. Hongbin just knows what he has to do.

 

(what are you doing)

can’t hear you

(what are you doing)

(stop it, leave them alone)

(why can’t you leave them alone)

you can’t stop me

 

Pain. Always pain. Inevitably, pain. Hongbin doesn’t make a sound, can’t, but his muscles tighten, and his lips draw back from his teeth. His stomach lurches, and for a moment he fears the retching will start again, so he locks his throat against it. Nothing but a sour taste of bile in his mouth, quickly wiped away as he smells her, stronger now, surfacing.

 

(no, don’t, don’t)

 

And then the pain starts to dissolve, almost bleed out of him. It’s not like before, though. There’s no warmth spreading through him, relaxing his muscles. Cold, so cold, creeping through his fingertips, reaching icy tendrils into his veins, winding their way towards his heart. ‘Hyukkie,’ he breathes, once, falls silent again as the chill reaches his face and steals under the bandages that hide his destroyed eyes. Forgive me. I love you.

Hongbin lies perfectly still, pressed up against a body he can no longer feel, slowly becoming numb.

 

*****

 

Sooyeon taps the ‘answer’ icon. ‘Jongmin?’

Harsh breathing, barely controlled voice. ‘He’s mute, Sooyeon.’

‘What? Slow down. Who’s mute?’

‘Number six. I went to see them and he … he can’t talk. He hears me, he can respond, he just doesn’t talk. And number two? The one who couldn’t speak? It’s like that never happened. I heard him laughing, Sooyeon. He’s … back.’

‘All right. All right. We can look into it. But why has this got you so worked up?’

Frustrated, weary noise. ‘No, not this. There was an incident just now. Sanghyuk …’

‘No names, you know better than that.’

‘Uh, yeah, uh, call him number five. He … the others …’

‘You need to calm down. Or do you want to call me back?’

‘No, you need to hear this now. I’m still working out what happened but from what I’ve got so far the others were having a special meal to celebrate number four’s recovery - yes, I know, they were told to go slow, apparently he disregarded that. Anyway, number five turned up and whatever was said made him attacked number four.’

Attacked? Why wasn’t I paged?’

‘You probably will be, it’s just happened. I wanted you to hear it from me first. Number four appears to be all right, maybe a broken nose, they’re looking at him now. We had to sedate Sang - number five. Sooyeon, number six knew what had happened.’

‘That’s impossible.’

I know that. Just like it’s impossible that he suddenly picked up identical post-traumatic symptoms to two others at the moment they recovered. But he did.’

‘Jongmin, you need to step away. Call someone in and take the rest of the day off. Get some sleep, and for god’s sake, stay off the caffeine.’

‘I can’t. You know that, they don’t trust anyone else. Hell, they barely trust me.’

‘I don’t want to have to order you.’

Sharp, indrawn breath. ‘You’d do that?’

Loud sigh. ‘No. No, I wouldn’t. I shouldn’t have said that. I’m just worried about you.’

‘I have to be here. With a crisis like this, anything could happen. I need to be on hand. Look, I’ll try to get some sleep in the staff lounge in a little bit, if everything quiets down. Okay?’

Silence. Then, ‘All right, Jongmin.’

‘Thank you.’

‘There’s my page. I suppose I’ll see you soon.’

Hanging up, Sooyeon stares at the screen off her phone until it darkens. What the hell’s going on over there? Nothing about these patients makes sense, not their symptoms, their attitudes, their inexplicable recoveries. The nurses are getting increasingly spooked, and now Jongmin sounds like he’s close to really losing it. As she leaves her apartment almost at a run, coat over her arm and her husband’s angry objections ringing in her ears, all she can think is, this is madness. And it’s contagious.

 

*****

 

When Taekwoon enters the room, he stops, confused, because Hongbin’s bed is empty. He must be having tests or something, he thinks, and turns to go. The glance over in Sanghyuk’s direction is reflexive, stops him in his tracks. Both of them there, the maknae unconscious and held down by restraints, Hongbin lying draped over him. How did he get over there? Without meaning to, he drifts closer. Sanghyuk doesn’t stir, obviously still sedated. As Taekwoon looks down at them, though, Hongbin lifts his head and seems to look directly at him. Can you see me? The thought is absurd, but Taekwoon can’t shake the conviction that he’s being looked at. ‘Hongbin?’ he says softly. ‘Are you all right?’

No answer, and somehow that’s no surprise. ‘You did it, didn’t you? Sanghyuk was right. You helped Wonshik, and you … gave me my music back.’ As soon as he says it, Taekwoon feels ridiculous, because it’s impossible. He doesn’t believe in anything like that. A memory, his own hoarse voice, there’s something too weird here, and he flinches. The doll. ‘I don’t understand,’ he says, drawing even closer. ‘How can this happen? Was it because of what she did to you? Is it even real?’ Almost to himself, he whispers, ‘Am I going to wake up and be broken again?’

At that, Hongbin pulls in a sharp, shuddering breath. His mouth works silently, and Taekwoon can’t bear to look at him, can’t look away. Another gulping breath, then calm, almost resigned, sweet B minor, nothing like Hongbin’s actual tone; ‘Taekwoon … no … free.’

Taekwoon stares, utterly at war with himself. Relief, gratitude, crushing guilt, mourning, all ripping through him, robbing him of strength so he stumbles, bumps the bed. And a crazy, awful hope, because how can he ask anything more of his friend? Still, he knows he will, and he does. Just a name. ‘Hakyeon?’

Hongbin lifts a trembling hand towards Taekwoon, who takes it without hesitation. There’s no reaction, just a questioning tilt of the head. Taekwoon squeezes Hongbin’s hand. Still nothing, so he says again, ‘Hakyeon.’

Yes. Hakyeon.’ Shaking now, and beside him, Sanghyuk stirs. ‘You,’ little more than a breath, ‘you … Hakyeon …’ Hongbin slumps back, hand still caught in Taekwoon’s.

‘Bean?’ slurs Sanghyuk. ‘What are you …’ His eyes fly wide open. ‘Oh god, no. No!’ He fights against the restraints, limbs still weighed down by the drug. ‘I told you not to, it was enough!’

‘What … what is it?’ asks Taekwoon, bewildered.

Whether Sanghyuk even hears that is impossible to tell. ‘Give it back, Bean! I mean it, give it back!’ He twists against the cuff again, growling - then lets out a yelp as the edge of the leather abrades his wrists.

That sounded like … pain. But it can’t be. Unless … Taekwoon stares at Hongbin, horrified. ‘Oh, Hongbinnie,’ he murmurs, ‘you didn’t.’

That, Sanghyuk hears, and he surges against the restraints, screams, ‘Get out! Get out, how dare you, how dare you come in here! Haven’t you done enough?’

Useless, pleading, ‘Sanghyuk, I …’

Go!

‘Hyukkie …’ Barely any sound, but they both hear it clearly even through the noise of people running towards the room and crowding in. Taekwoon freezes, because while Hongbin’s voice might be hardly there, it’s crowded with echoes, love and grief and … her. As though stung, Taekwoon drops Hongbin’s hand. It falls limply, knocking against the buckle of Sanghyuk’s wrist restraint, a bruise immediately starting to form, but Hongbin doesn’t react at all.

Backing away, shaking his head, Taekwoon collides with a nurse who pushes past him with a syringe in her hand. He doesn’t think to apologise, just turns and flees on unsteady legs. Behind him he hears Sanghyuk speaking urgently to Hongbin, hears Doctor Hwang arrive and countermand the order for another sedative; he doesn’t look back, doesn’t stop moving until he’s around the corner. Then he leans against the wall with his back to everyone and fights to get his racing heart under control. It can’t be her, he tells himself, over and over. It can’t. She’s gone. She can’t find us now. I heard wrong, I must have. It’s just because of what happened … but no one else sounds like that. No one else can do what he’s doing, where does that come from? Traitorous thought, stealing in, what if Wonshik is right?

Warm arms sliding around his waist from behind, ‘Taekwoon?’ He lets himself be turned, looks down into Hakyeon’s worried face. ‘What happened?’

‘Not here,’ says Taekwoon. ‘Please. In our room.’

This time it’s Hakyeon holding him up, guiding him into the room and kicking the door shut with a backward swing of his foot. Hakyeon making him get into the bed they shared not so long ago (a lifetime ago), Hakyeon laying down beside him and pulling him into a tight embrace. Though Taekwoon wants nothing more than to simply lose himself in it, the memory of hearing her in Hongbin’s voice makes him tremble. No matter how many times he tries to convince himself he was mistaken, he can’t deny the evidence of the symphony. Haltingly, he tells Hakyeon everything, holding back only that he asked Hongbin to help the man who holds him tightly. ‘How could I be so wrong?’ he whispers. ‘If this is because of her … maybe I shouldn’t …’

‘Stop it,’ says Hakyeon harshly. ‘Listen to yourself, when did she ever give us anything good?’ He doesn’t wait for an answer. ‘Never, and you know it. She took from us, Taekwoon. She tried to break us. She nearly succeeded, too. I don’t know what is happening with Hongbin, but if he is responsible for you, and Wonshik …’

‘And Sanghyuk,’ Taekwoon interrupts. ‘He can feel now. And Hongbin ...’

Hakyeon lets out a distressed little noise. ‘Oh. Oh no.’ Fingers flexing restlessly against Taekwoon’s back now, ‘But that just proves my point, don’t you see? Why would she undo what she did to us? If he … if Hongbin … does have something of hers, he’s not hurting us with it. He’s helping.’

That’s when it hits Taekwoon. He’s right. She would never let her pretty do that to himself. It can’t be her. Hongbin’s words come back to him, laboured breathing but such quiet resolution, no … free. ‘He’s defying her,’ Taekwoon gasps. ‘She’ll kill him …’

‘No,’ says Hakyeon firmly. ‘She won’t. I won’t let her.’

Hongbin echoing in his mind again, you … you … Hakyeon, and Taekwoon thinks, I understand. He takes a deep breath and looks Hakyeon directly in the eyes. ‘We won’t let her. You, and me. You don’t stand alone, Hakyeonnie. Not anymore. Not ever again.’ Before he has time to second-guess himself, Taekwoon leans in and presses his closed mouth against Hakyeon’s.

For a moment Hakyeon is frozen. Heart sinking, Taekwoon starts to pull away - then Hakyeon pulls him back and kisses him with a desperate need that catches Taekwoon utterly by surprise. His lips part involuntarily, he tastes Hakyeon’s breath, has time to think, should I be doing this, and then there’s nothing but Hakyeon’s lips moving over his, Hakyeon pushing his body even closer, his own useless hands trying to hold on and every part of him saying, yes.

Chapter Text

 

from: park.sy@trauma.snuh.org
to: hwang.jm@trauma.snuh.org; choi.sk@neurology.snuh.org; kim.my@ortho.snuh.org; chan.nj@plastics.snuh.org

 

subject: rehab transfers

 

Could you all please forward your recommendations ASAP regarding a timeline for transfer of the following patients to Hibiscus?

24M19(1)
24M19(2)
19M18(1)
20M18(2)
19M25(1)
18M25(2)

My primary concerns are with ongoing procedures for 24M19 and 19M25.

Thanks,

 

Park Sooyeon

 

*****

 

The way the snap of bone vibrated through his head is all the proof Wonshik needs, but it takes an x-ray for them to finally decide what Wonshik already knows, that his nose is broken. They tell him he’s lucky, a simple realignment is all that’s necessary, and there won’t be any lasting disfiguration.The bruises on his face and jaw will heal, and he’ll just have to live with the loosened tooth. They bring him painkillers and ice packs, and one of the nurses comments that it’s even luckier that the feeding tube is out, because it could have caused a much more serious injury. She shakes her head as she takes his blood pressure, never quite condemning Sanghyuk for attacking him, but there’s no doubt as to where her sympathies lie. Not with Wonshik himself, and he’s not surprised by that, not really. She’s more worried about Jaehwan, who has slept for most of the last day, only waking occasionally to use the bathroom and ask yet again if Wonshik needs anything. Every time, the answer is the same - I’m fine, it doesn’t really hurt, go back to sleep, Jyani. It’s a lie, of course, but Wonshik can still hear his friend’s scream ringing in his ears.

As the swelling develops, the bruises bloom and darken until there’s almost a mask of reddish-purple around his eyes. His entire face is sore to touch, a residual headache refuses to go away entirely, and his jaw aches from gritting his teeth. When Jaehwan finally surfaces properly, he says nothing about it. Instead, he steers their conversation away from the feast and its disastrous aftermath and lets Jaehwan persuade him to try some amateur art therapy. Drawing has never been something that really interested Wonshik, but Jaehwan’s clear enthusiasm is infectious, to the point where they quickly use up all the pages in his sketchbook by the time a porter arrives to collect Wonshik for another gruelling session of physiotherapy. ‘Don’t worry,’ Jaehwan assures him. ‘I can get more paper. I’ll do that so it will be here when we’re free this afternoon.’

After physio, Wonshik wants nothing more than to sleep. Fortunately, the room is empty; a note from Jaehwan left on his table explains that his roommate has gone to spend time ‘chilling out in the airlock’, which, after a little thought, Wonshik realises means oxygen therapy for his nearly-healed burns. That gives him a little over an hour to rest. Not that Jaehwan would ever try to prevent anything that might do him good, but after what happened, Wonshik knows his friend is far more fragile than he’s willing to admit. He’s already done so much, Wonshik thinks. The least I can do is be here if he needs me, even if it’s just stupid drawing. While that’s true, it’s only one part of what’s growing between them. Wonshik doesn’t have a name for it, although he knows what that psychologist would probably say. Co-dependence. Fixation. Post-traumatic whatever. Something unhealthy, but after everything they’ve been through, the last thing Wonshik cares about anymore is what someone else thinks is best for him. He’s needed, and that’s something he needs for himself. That’s what matters.

 

*****

 

‘This is getting to be a habit,’ sighs Sooyeon. ‘You’re bad for my resolve.’ She regards the tall banana milkshake and the fruit-topped custard tart in front of her with a frown.

‘I’m not making you eat it,’ Jongmin points out, lifting a mug of corrosively strong coffee to his lips. He winces. ‘Too hot. Anyway, you wanted to talk?’

Picking up the tart, Sooyeon uses her free hand to push a stack of folders across the table to him. ‘Radiology reports. And a few other things.’ She nibbles at the pastry, clearly trying to restrain herself. Catching sight of Jongmin’s raised eyebrows, she shrugs, and takes a larger bite.

‘You want to discuss this here?’ Jongmin indicates the hospital cafeteria around them with a tilt of his head. When Sooyeon just nods, he says, ‘Okay, I suppose we can keep this discreet’. He opens the first folder and skims through the three sheets of paper inside. ‘Am I reading this right? Those artifacts don’t show up on anyone else’s scans?’

‘Just our six. Don’t ask me to explain it, because I can’t.’ The rest of the tart disappears in two quick bites, followed by almost half the milkshake. She gestures with the glass. ‘That’s not all. Some of the trauma to their muscles and ligaments can’t be explained, not without assuming some kind of … medieval … apparatus was used, and there’s no outward sign of that, either. For example, number five? One of the therapists actually said it appeared he’d been racked. I’m fairly sure she thought she was exaggerating, but that’s exactly what it looks like. Except there were no ligature marks and no bruising, all the damage is internal. That’s just not possible.’

‘And yet here we are.’ Jongmin takes a swallow of coffee, hissing as it burns his mouth. ‘Want to know what number one said about that?’

Sooyeon holds up a hand. ‘Let me guess,’ she says wearily. ‘Something to do with that doll they’re all fixated on?’

Wordlessly, Jongmin rummages in his bag and brings out a notebook. Flicking through to the appropriate page, he turns it around to face Sooyeon and points at a particular paragraph. The handwriting is neat, but the page is striped with struck-out lines and false starts. She reads it reluctantly, every rational part of her insisting that she not buy in to what has to be nonsense.

Another nightmare. That’s hardly worth saying, is it? They’re all nightmares, now. This time, it was about Sanghyuk. When she was really trying to break him she’d use the doll, right where we all could see it. We couldn’t see him, but we could see her twist and pulls its arms. And we could hear him screaming.

‘Psychosomatic,’ she protests weakly. ‘The kid believed it could happen, so he felt it.’ Jongmin says nothing, but Sooyeon can almost feel his firm rejection of that idea. With a flash of anger, she thinks, this is your department, I shouldn’t have to suggest this. It’s only a moment, instantly followed by the realisation that in spite of all her training and her level-headedness, she’s starting to become very, very scared. And she can’t identify why that’s happening.

She looks up to see her own fear mirrored in Jongmin’s eyes. Though she knows, rationally, that should be something to worry about, she finds it reassuring. If I’m going crazy, at least I’m not the only one. Whatever Jongmin sees seems to settle something in his own mind, and he closes the journal with a snap, returning it to his bag. It’s enough to make her decide to share the incredible news she’s been trying all morning to disbelieve.

‘It’s happened again. Number five, this time. Complete return of sensation. He’s downplaying it, god knows why, but the responses are clear. Whatever mental block was making him think he couldn’t feel anything is gone. Just like that, just like with number four. And number two, to judge from your notes. Now, one sudden recovery from post-traumatic symptoms, I might accept. Two, at a real stretch, but not this close together. Three?’ She shakes her head. ‘Not possible. I keep coming back to that. The evidence is right there, but how can I believe -’

Jongmin cuts her off, leaning over the table, eyes intense and voice urgent. ‘He’s what? Has anyone checked number six yet?’

Taken aback by his vehemence, Sooyeon recoils slightly. ‘Number six? Nothing was reported … oh come on, you don’t think …?’

‘All I know,’ Jongmin says between gulps of coffee, ‘is that somehow number six got across the room into number five’s bed after we brought the kid back sedated and restrained. And the kid was yelling at him when we got in there to “give it back”. Practically hysterical. I talked him down in the end, but the nurse just put six back in his own bed and I didn’t even think to check … I’ve got to get back there, Sooyeon.’ He pushes his chair back from the table and stands up. Sooyeon has time to notice the shirt he wears is crumpled, as though he slept in it, before he stumbles away without a backward glance.

By the time she gets to the elevator, the doors have already closed. Another arrives within seconds, but she’s too far behind to stop Jongmin from almost running through the ward corridor and bursting into room 25. She can hear him clearly, though, out of breath, ‘What did he do? Sanghyuk, what did he do?’ The boy’s answer is too faint to make out.

She hesitates just outside the doorway. If I cross that line, she thinks absurdly, there’s no going back, and temptation to turn and walk away is almost irresistible. But these are her patients, and it’s her friend in there sounding like he’s on the verge of a breakdown. Then number six turns his bandaged eyes towards her and she thinks, he can see me. Her feet carry her over the threshold and she sees Jongmin unbuckling the restraints. ‘Don’t lie to me,’ he says, more quietly now. ‘Please. I’m trying to help, you know that.’ Sanghyuk avoids his eyes.

I need to take control of this. ‘Jongmin …’ Her phone vibrates in her pocket, and with a hiss of frustration, she digs it out, frowning when she sees the caller ID. ‘This is Doctor Park, I really need to call you back … what?’ Her eyes widen. ‘What happened?’ The tone of her voice stops Jongmin in mid-sentence, and he turns to look at her. She listens, growing more and more incredulous. ‘All right … all right … no, of course. I’ll come right away. Thank you.’ Putting the phone back in her pocket, she says, ‘Jongmin, we -’ Her voice is faint, disbelieving; she takes a deep breath, reaches for some semblance of professional detachment. ‘Doctor Hwang, come with me, please. We have an urgent appointment.’

Whether her words make any sense to him, she can’t tell, but the tone cuts through enough to make him blink rapidly, then focus on her. For a moment, indecision is clear on his face, then he takes a deep breath, and nods. ‘Sanghyuk, I’m sorry, but I will come back later. I hope you’ll talk to me.’ There’s no response; with a last, abortive gesture, Jongmin follows Sooyeon out of the room. As soon as they’re more than a few yards away from the room, he reaches out to grasp her elbow. ‘What is it? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’

There’s no one near them in the corridor, but Sooyeon lowers her voice instinctively, almost to a whisper. ‘That was the hospital administrator, the SMPA are waiting for us in his office. They think they’ve found the place where the boys were held.’ Jongmin opens his mouth to speak, but she talks over him. ‘There’s something else, Jongmin. They found a body. A young woman.’

‘Oh my god.’ They stare at each other for a moment, before turning to look back towards room 25 with wondering, fearful expressions. ‘No …’

Hongbin’s scream splits the air, raw, primal, nothing human. Appointment forgotten, both Sooyeon and Jongmin race back to the room, a nurse on their heels, pushing through the doorway just in time to see Sanghyuk scrambling onto the bed, catching Hongbin’s thrashing, arching body up into his arms. Without looking over her shoulder, Sooyeon snaps, ‘Haloperidol, two milligrams, IV push, now!’

Jongmin calls after the treating nurse, ‘Soft restraints, just in case!’

The next minutes are a blur of action, running feet and grabbing hands and raised voices, Sooyeon fighting to get access to the catheter to administer the sedative, Jongmin trying to pull Sanghyuk away to let them work, the kid snarling at them to get back, and the awful, relentless screaming. Even after the drug has had time to start working, Hongbin doesn’t stop, doesn’t even seem to pause to draw breath properly. The sound simply spills out of him, growing hoarse and cracked, but never losing volume.

‘They’re all like this,’ pants Jongmin, wrestling with Sanghyuk, ‘half the time the damn sedatives don’t work on them. Kid, will you calm down, I’m on your side!’

Sooyeon holds Hongbin down by the shoulders, using all her strength. ‘I can’t give him any more, he’s not strong enough, but at this rate he’s going to hurt himself -’

Abruptly, the sound cuts off, and Hongbin goes utterly limp. Like a puppet with its strings cut, like a doll - no, thinks Sooyeon, instantly pushing the thought away. Sanghyuk freezes, eyes wide with fear. ‘Is he out?’ asks Jongmin urgently, still holding the boy. ‘Sooyeon! Is he out?’

Cautiously, Sooyeon straightens up, but there’s no movement from Hongbin. Placing two fingers against his throat, she counts, and shakes her head. ‘I don’t think so, pulse is still rapid. I think he’s awake. Hongbin? Hongbin? Can you hear me?’

‘Fugue,’ says Jongmin. ‘That was a psychotic break if ever I saw one.’ In his arms, Sanghyuk makes a small, pained noise. ‘Damn. Sorry, let’s get you back to bed.’

‘No … please,’ Sanghyuk’s voice is thin, shaky. ‘Let me stay …’

Jongmin looks over at Sooyeon, who lifts her hands in a helpless gesture. ‘We really can’t … all right. But there’ll be a nurse in here with you until I get back.’ As soon as Jongmin loosens his hold, Sanghyuk lays down next to Hongbin, pulling him close and shutting everything else out. To the nurse, Jongmin says, ‘If anything else happens - anything - you page me immediately. Is that clear?’ He doesn’t wait for an answer, just looks at Sooyeon and says, ‘Let’s get this over with.’

It’s not until they reach the elevator that Sooyeon dares to look at Jongmin. The mask of the cool, no-nonsense doctor is completely gone; her eyes are skittish, her hands trembling. ‘Not possible,’ she says, over and over, ‘he couldn’t have heard, not possible, he didn’t even flinch and I know I held him hard enough to bruise, what the fuck is happening, Jongmin?’

The psychologist has no answer, at least nothing that will make sense, so he just shakes his head. They walk into the elevator with the reluctant steps of children about to hear bad news from a parent. Jongmin thinks, how much worse can this get? Terribly afraid that they’ve just scratched the surface.

 

*****

 

From his room, Wonshik can hear the screaming, the babbling of the doctors, the slam of the door to the medication room. As if sleepwalking, he goes to the door, and closes it gently. It’s not important. Nothing’s important except what’s happening right here. The new flower arrangement on the table, orange lilies, seems almost to mock him with its cheerful brightness. Not fifteen minutes ago, Jaehwan’s favourite nurse (what’s her name, Nari, that’s it) brought them in, her face falling when she realised it was just Wonshik here. Not really caring, just trying to make nice with someone Jaehwan cares about, Wonshik tried to make conversation, asked who the flowers were from. There was no card, and Nari was genuinely upset about that, berating herself for dropping it somewhere and promising to find it again. He’d tried to reassure her, maybe distract her a bit, because Jaehwan was due back any minute and would worry, so he’d thanked her for the plum candies. (To be honest, they’re not really a flavour I like, but Jyani was really happy to get them, so, yeah, thanks.)

She’d stared at him like he was speaking a language she didn’t understand. (Sorry, you must be getting it mixed up. I haven’t given him anything.) Even when he showed her the jar, less than half-full now, she’d just shaken her head and couldn’t get out of the room fast enough. He’d stood there like an idiot, mouth open, because why would she deny doing something so nice? Was it a rule that nurses couldn’t give gifts to patients, and he’d put his foot in it by mentioning it? Resolving to say nothing to Jaehwan, he’d put the jar back in its place on the shelf. And that’s when he realised that none of the gifts - not the jar of candies, nor the floppy-eared plush rabbit (isn’t that lovely of Susan, she must have decided not to get a hamster after all), nor the blue teddy bear (it’s a shame Sungjin transferred so quickly, but still, I can remember him when I look at this) - have tags attached to them.

He took them off for safekeeping, that’s all, thinks Wonshik. They’re in a drawer somewhere.

But it was the same with the flowers. The wilting pink tulips, the new orange lilies, even the dried arrangement, all just as anonymous as the toys. No tags with scrawled messages, not even a generic ‘get well soon’. Unwillingly, he turned to face the pinboard, crowded with cards, but he couldn’t make himself move until the noise started outside.

Now he crosses the room, slowly, dragging his steps. There are so many cards that virtually nothing of the pinboard itself is visible. He reaches up to touch them, almost expecting them to fade away under his fingers. There’s a story behind each one, told to him by Jaehwan late at night when neither of them could sleep. That group of three fat cartoon cats was chosen by a nurse who names her own cats after food. The painting of the jar of white roses is also from Susan. The family waving happily, with the caption ‘Get Well Soon from All of us’, has pride of place (I didn’t expect Sooyeon to get me anything, she’s so thoughtful, who would have guessed). So many others. All pinned carefully.

Pinned shut.

How did I not notice that before?

Wonshik watches his own hands take out the pins from the card with the cats on it, his mind yelling, don’t look, you don’t want to see, you can walk away. Inside is a printed greeting - ‘We Hope You Feel Purr-fectly Fine Very Soon!’

Nothing else.

Trembling now, Wonshik opens another. And another. Every single one is the same. Nothing handwritten at all. And now he remembers how he is never there when the cards are delivered; he just finds them already on the board when he comes back from physio or yet another useless session with the psychologist, Jaehwan all too eager to tell him the story of the latest gift from his friends.

He replaces each one carefully, backs away until he collapses into the visitor’s chair by his bed. Shaking his head. Chilled right through.

Where did they come from? An awful, freezing thought, what if they’re from her? Angrily, he clenches his fists, tells himself she can’t get to us now, we’re got away, we’re safe … are we safe? will we ever be? He shies away from the very next thought, never be safe with him here. This is not her, it’s something else, something he doesn’t want to think about, because Jaehwan’s optimism is what keeps him going, and if something threatens that ...

Is he sending them to himself? Does he even know he’s doing it?

What do I do now?

 

Chapter Text

 

holdingtight tearsinyourvoice can’tfeelyou

‘Please give it back … please, please … I don’t want this …’

don’tcry

‘I told you not to.’

iknow had to do it anyway

‘I don’t deserve it, I left you.’

no

‘I keep blaming Wonshik, but it’s my fault, I should have fought harder. I could have saved you.’

no savingme

‘I ran like a coward and left you there with her.’

no youdidn’t i left you

‘You can’t take it all. You know you can’t.’

ican iwill

‘It’s too much.’

takeitall takeitallaway

‘You’ll die, Bean …’

iknow

loveyouhyukkie

 

*****

 

The photographs are flat, impersonal, harsh floodlights sharpening every edge, exposing every secret. The detective doesn’t speak as she swipes slowly through them, holding up the tablet so that Sooyeon and Jongmin can see clearly. Six empty rooms, but to Jongmin they seem crowded with shadows he knows aren’t really there. Ghosts of horror that will never fade. He’s seen worse in his time - still cold shapes of ritual suicides under makeshift shrouds, mass graves of children, the piled-up shoes of the dead - and he tells himself what he looks at now is somehow less terrible, because at least they survived. It doesn’t keep his skin from crawling. Too close, he thinks, I’m too close, that’s all it is. He doesn’t believe that for a moment.

Professional mask firmly in place, Sooyeon struggles to keep her thoughts clinical. I’m a doctor, she recites to herself, over and over. I’m a doctor, my job is to analyse and diagnose and use this to better treat my patients. Even as she makes lists and mental notes for further tests to run and strategies to implement, she recoils from the images scrolling past her. The worst of it is how much the largest room - where the worst happened, where the body was found - doesn’t look like a torture chamber. It should be dark, she thinks, there should be stone walls and filth, it should look like what it is.

‘It almost looks like a therapy lab,’ whispers Jongmin, following her thought. ‘No wonder they fought us so much at first. It must have been like swapping one nightmare for another.’

The detective’s voice is as neutral as her clothing. There’s no sense that what she shows them has any effect at all on her as a person. Sooyeon regards her detachment with faint envy. ‘The building was an abandoned warehouse, but as you can see, it was reconfigured to match closely the sets from the music video. Forensics have a great deal of evidence to work through, but we’re hoping you can help us narrow things down a bit. You’ll be receiving warrants for hair and blood samples for DNA matching tomorrow. In the meantime, we’d like you to look through these photos and the videos. Anything you can tell us that might link each of these individual rooms to a specific victim would be useful. Please study the footage carefully.’

There are some similarities between most of the rooms. Straps hanging from anchor points in the ceilings and walls. A single point of entry and exit that blends seamlessly with the wall when closed, only able to be opened from the outside. Scraps of material. And overlapping bloodstains. Beyond that, they couldn’t be more different.

Untidy pile of television monitors. Some screens are smashed in, blood smeared on the jagged edges of the thick glass. Others, higher up, are intact, displaying only flickering and rolling static. There’s no sound on the video, but there are speakers in each corner of the room and Sooyeon can almost hear the white noise. Cameras mounted just out of reach, all aimed at a central space just large enough to contain a person. Reflective material on three walls. The last is covered only by open-mesh fencing. Close up, the video shows thread and hair and skin caught on the rough wire.

‘Number two?’ says Jongmin, pointing to the monitors.

Sooyeon nods. ‘Yes, that would fit with his injuries and the other symptoms.’ She looks up at the detective. ‘I’m confident this was where Jung Taekwoon was held.’

Ghastly parody of a banquet table. Corroded silver platters and goblets, candlesticks almost hidden under cascades of coloured wax. Rotting meat infested with crawling maggots. Bowls of mouldy fruit collapsing in on themselves. Unrecognisable, furry heaps on plates, buzzing with flies. Even just looking at it makes Jongmin’s stomach roil and his gorge rise.

‘Kim Wonshik,’ says Sooyeon, looking away quickly.

An impossibility, a half-dead tree broken through the concrete floor. Bark excised, exposing white wood beneath that looks to Sooyeon like pale flesh. Driven into the trunk, metal rings from which short, torn straps dangle.

‘Oh, Hyukkie,’ murmurs Jongmin. It’s all too easy to picture the kid, the missing bark implanted in his skin, bound to that tree, its mirror image.

‘Do you mean Han Sanghyuk?’ asks the detective. Jongmin doesn’t reply, and it’s left to Sooyeon to confirm it with a tight nod. ‘All right. We’ve assumed this one is Lee Jaehwan,’ she continues, cuing up the next video.

Blackened brick walls, speckled with soot. Rust-coated brazier in one corner, now holding only dead ashes and lengths of iron that taper to a rounded point. On the floor, torn pieces of stained white fabric, edges charred. Scratch marks in the linoleum, crescent-shaped indentations and a snapped-off fingernail. He tried to hold on, thinks Sooyeon. ‘Yes. That would be consistent.’ She marvels at how calm she sounds, as though she can’t picture the boy being dragged away, clawing at the floor.

Unexpectedly, the detective’s companion, a young man who she didn’t bother to introduce, looks up from where he’s typing notes into a laptop. ‘Would you like a break?’ he says. ‘Take a few minutes, perhaps get some water? I know this is very confronting.’

For a moment, Sooyeon thinks Jongmin will accept the offer, but he takes a deep breath, squares his shoulders, and starts the next video himself. If not for the dangling straps, this room would look almost normal. There’s a sagging couch, cushions ripped and springs poking through. One wall is nothing but window panels, most of them now broken. It’s not until the camera zooms in that they can see how the threadbare rug in front of the couch bears pressure marks in the shape of two bare feet, too deep to have been caused by anything but near-constant standing in place.

‘This one is Cha Hakyeon,’ says Sooyeon. When the detective raises her eyebrows in a way that clearly expects further elaboration, the doctor adds only, ‘I’m certain of it.’ He could have moved. Why didn’t he move?

The last video doesn’t show a room. There’s a pedestal, just a block of white stone a little more than a metre high, with a plaque fixed to one face. The camera doesn’t linger on it, but Sooyeon has time to make out animal features cast in metal. Broken, blood-stained glass fragments are littered on the floor, long metal pins mixed in with them, and around the edges of the top, enough shards remain caught in the framework to show that there was once a glass box in place. It’s impossible to tell how tall this box was, but to judge from the tape laid along the sides, the pedestal itself measures only about a metre square. ‘We’re not sure about this one,’ says the detective.

Jongmin answers, but his bleak eyes are turned to Sooyeon. It’s a display case.’

Unwillingly, Sooyeon nods. ‘It must be where she kept Hongbin.’

‘That can’t be right,’ objects the young policeman. ‘A person couldn’t fit in there.’

‘Not comfortably,’ the detective says, ‘but if they were seated … or kneeling …’

‘She’d want her pretty where she could see him from every angle.’ Jongmin’s voice is quiet, still speaking only to Sooyeon. The two look at each other, forgetting about the police in the room until the detective clears her throat.

‘All right, thank you. We’ll need confirmation from Forensics of course. There is one more piece of evidence we’d like you to look at, please. As their treating doctors, you may have some insights.’ She doesn’t say why, and her expression never changes, but from her tone it’s obvious that she thinks it’s a waste of time. Reaching into a plastic tub at her feet, she brings out a plastic evidence bag and places it on the table. In an instant, Jongmin is on his feet, chair overturned, backing away.

‘Oh my god,’ whispers Sooyeon. ‘It’s real?’

The doll is barely human in shape, two pieces of rough fabric crudely stitched together with black thread. One eye is replaced by a large black ‘X’, the other wide and staring. A vaguely heart-shaped patch of red is sewn to its chest. The limbs are loose. It’s precisely cut and stitched across its throat and face and down its body, but there are other ragged slashes in the material through which stuffing foams out. One tear, across the lower part of its face, gapes like a scream. A large singe mark covers most of the back.

To Sooyeon, the damage almost looks like it was done by a child throwing a tantrum. For the pins, though, she has no explanation. Long, pearl-handled, driven in with force all over the doll’s body, transfixing its joints, into its eyes, one shoved so far through its heart so that the point pokes out the other side. Pitting on the sternum, she thinks, shivering, then scolds herself. It doesn’t prove anything, refusing to let her thoughts take her any further. She tears her eyes away from the doll to look at Jongmin, seeing revulsion and horror and the kind of disbelief that is really only denial.

‘It’s exactly like they described,’ he murmurs. ‘But … the violence … that’s not … that’s someone else.’

‘Jongmin?’

Still staring at the doll as though afraid to look away, he replies, ‘That’s not torture. That’s rage.’

‘We’d like to show this to the victims,’ says the detective. ‘We need to confirm -’

No, god no, absolutely not!

Now the detective shows emotion, surprise and affront and just a tinge of contempt. ‘I beg your pardon?’

‘I won’t permit it,’ says Jongmin forcefully. ‘Under no circumstances will that thing get anywhere near those kids.’

The detective’s answer is stiff, the tone bordering on insult. ‘Then I will go over your head and get a warrant if I have to. The investigation has had enough obstruction from this hospital already.’

Jongmin whirls on her, fists clenching. Before she thinks about it, Sooyeon stands and catches him by the arm. ‘Doctor Hwang.’ She doesn’t raise her voice, but it’s crisp enough to cut through.

Some of the tension goes out of Jongmin. ‘Sooyeon, we can’t show that to them. You know what effect it will have.’

‘Yes, I do.’ And that’s when Sooyeon finally admits it to herself, that no matter how hard she tries to deny it, she’s starting to believe. It’s nothing she can tell the detective, though, so she reaches for her most authoritative persona (her doctor voice, as her children call it) instead. ‘Detective, I understand your position, but these patients’ well-being must be our top priority. This … object … played a pivotal role in their torture.’ The detective opens her mouth to object, but Sooyeon cuts her off with what she believes is a barefaced lie. ‘Psychological torture, of course. We can’t expose them to anything that might set them back.’

Again, it’s the young man who shows empathy for the situation. ‘What about photos? Maybe an image would be less confronting?’ The detective shoots him an angry look, and he spreads his hands in a conciliatory gesture. ‘We won’t gain anything if they just freak out, so, this might be a compromise.’

Clearly, the detective is unhappy with the idea, but she reins in her temper. ‘Well?’ she says to Sooyeon.

Though Jongmin shakes his head firmly, Sooyeon knows this is the best outcome they can hope for. ‘All right. Photos only.’

‘Not unless I’m present,’ says Jongmin in a tone that brooks no argument. ‘You can show them to Hakyeon, he’s the only one I think will be able to handle it. And if I say the interview is over, you leave immediately. I won’t have you traumatising him any further.’

The detective picks up the doll and puts it back into the plastic tub. Hardly aware she’s doing it, Sooyeon breathes a sigh of relief. It’s just a doll, empty words, because even sealed away, the thing seems almost to distort the world around it and leave a taint in the mouth (rotslime stonedust). ‘Very well, we’ll do this your way for now,’ says the detective. ‘But make no mistake, doctors. This is a police matter, and you can’t protect them forever.’

‘Try me,’ mutters Jongmin.

‘You might as well start preparing Lee Hongbin to be interviewed,’ she continues as though she hasn’t heard. ‘He was the last of the victims. We believe he has information that will be crucial, and we’ve been as accommodating as we can be, but the longer this goes on, the harder it will be.’ She stands, picks up the tub and places the tablet and her files in it.

The young man comes forward to extend a hand to the two doctors. ‘We know this is difficult,’ he says, still trying to be the peacemaker. ‘Thank you.’ Sooyeon shakes his hand, but Jongmin just looks at it without moving, and the policeman awkwardly draws back and picks up the tub instead. The detective motions him ahead of her, not bothering with social courtesies.

‘One last thing,’ she says. ‘Perhaps this will change your mind. Autopsy reports on the body we found are still pending, of course, but you might consider these preliminary findings.’ She pauses for a moment to make sure she has the doctors’ full attention. ‘The damage to the doll? Appears to be a very close match to injuries inflicted on the deceased.’

With that she walks out of the room, leaving Sooyeon and Jongmin staring at each other with wide, fearful eyes. ‘Do you think …’ Sooyeon starts to ask.

Don’t say it,’ grates Jongmin. ‘Just … don’t.’

 

*****

 

Hakyeon’s fingers trail over the pinned cards, tracing embossed pictures and rough-textured glittery letters as he listens to Wonshik pour out his fears. So many, he thinks, remembering Jaehwan’s stories about his thoughtful, generous friends. Can they really all be a lie? He takes down one of the cards, looks inside, already knowing what he’ll see. Or won’t see. ‘And you’re sure there aren’t any tags for the gifts? Kept somewhere else, perhaps?’

‘I already told you, I looked. I even went through his things, made me feel like a fucking spy. There’s nothing.’ Wonshik’s voice is clogged by more than the injury to his nose; to Taekwoon, listening quietly from his seat, it sounds like three clashing melody lines all trying to be heard at once, angry and bewildered and on the verge of panic. ‘He bought all of this himself, but somehow he’s convinced they’re from his friends. He’s lying to himself, and I don’t think he even knows it.’

How did I not see this coming, thinks Hakyeon. Too ready to believe everything Jaehwan told them, because after all, it all seemed so normal. So easy to accept, because who would make something like that up? ‘But they are his friends. I’ve seen them talking with him. The nurses love him.’

‘Do they?’ said Wonshik bitterly. ‘For all we know, they’re just going along with it. Maybe they’re even part of his therapy. Just another fucking lie.’

Appalled, Hakyeon bursts into motion, pacing, hands fluttering, shaking his head. So many friends, so quickly. Was it true? Is any of this true? Jaehwan was the one we all thought was really getting better. If he’s this far gone, what hope is there for any of us? ‘How can we know what’s real?’ he stammers, not aware he’s speaking aloud until he feels Taekwoon’s arms around him, holding him still.

‘Stop, Hakyeonnie. This is real. You know this is real.’ As Wonshik watches, shocked out of his own worries by the way his leader suddenly unravels, Taekwoon tilts his head to kiss Hakyeon. It’s gentle, no more than a brush of his lips, but Hakyeon’s eyes slip closed for a moment and he sighs against Taekwoon’s mouth. Lifting his head, Taekwoon looks over at Wonshik; whatever he sees makes him smile; without letting go of Hakyeon, he says, ‘You understand.’

It’s not a question, but Wonshik nods anyway. I do, he thinks. You found each other. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not something they’ll ever be able to justify to the outside world. Wonshik is past caring about any of that, though. ‘I’m glad,’ he says, meaning it. Then his face falls again. ‘What can we do?’

‘Perhaps this is a way to build walls against the past,’ muses Taekwoon, and Hakyeon makes a wordless sound of agreement. ‘Jyani was distressed when he learned we wouldn’t have any contact with Starlight. These new friends could be his attempt to replace that.’

Wonshik shrugs. ‘I don’t know, it sounds possible, but he’s got to be spending a huge amount of money, because these things just keep coming.’ He indicates the crowded shelves and pinboard with a backward sweep of his arm. ‘It’s out of control. And what if someone else figures it out and puts their foot in it like I did with Nari? I think it could …’ His voice trails off.

‘It could break him.’ Hakyeon lifts his head. Agitation still twitches along his muscles, but held like this, he doesn’t feel that compulsion to movemovemove. Held like this, held by Taekwoon, his thoughts don’t trip over that heavy stone of guilt in his mind. ‘We can’t let happen. Let’s all talk with him. Show him he’s not alone. We don’t have to confront him about it, let’s just … give him something else to rely on.’

 

*****

 

didn’t think you’d come back you wantsomething

‘Um, hello, it’s me again, are you awake? I can come back later if you’re not, I just wanted to see you on your own, because Hyukkie …’

needsyou won’t admit it

‘I just thought that I should … well, that somebody should …’

it’s allright youcansayit know i letyoudown

‘Thank you for Wonshik.’

what

‘I know what you did, I figured it out after Hyukkie came in and yelled at us, I figured it out, I knew it wasn’t me even though Wonshik thinks it was, it wasn’t me, it was you, so … thank you.’

jyani no

‘I wish I knew if you were awake or not, because I think you really should know what a good thing you did, you should have seen Wonshik eating all his favourite things, his cheeks were full he looked like a squirrel, and he and Taekwoon had a fight about the last dumpling, but guess what, I stole it and it was so … oh no. Oh no, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, here, let me get you a bag, I’m so stupid, I shouldn’t talk about …’

stopit not your fault

mychoice

‘Are you all right now? Do you need anything? I’ll just wipe your mouth then, give me that, I’ll get rid of it. Anyway, I know Hyukkie is really upset, I’m going to try to talk to him but I thought maybe I should give him time to calm down a bit, but I wanted you to know that I know what you did and I think you did a wonderful thing and even if Wonshik is still angry he’ll understand too, eventually.’

come here

‘What do you want, do you want me to hold your hand, here it is … what are you doing?’

hurts

‘Binnie? What are you …’

gobacknow goback to brightcolours and sunflowers and wonshik

‘I think I need to go now.’

goodbye jyani

one to go

 

*****

 

After Hakyeon and Taekwoon leave, Wonshik falls into a chair and stares at the stupid floppy rabbit with something like hatred. There’s a plan in place, wait until tomorrow, say nothing tonight. Don’t challenge anything and let Jaehwan get a good night’s sleep before the four of them sit down together. It’s a good plan, certainly better than getting a doctor involved or just hoping that it all won’t come crashing down because of a thoughtless comment or well-intentioned meddling from ‘friends’ who might find out what’s going on. Just until tomorrow. Then we fix this.

But Jaehwan is late back from therapy, and the time stretches out, and Wonshik is alone with his thoughts. What if it doesn’t work? What if we try and all we do is upset him? Doing nothing is no longer an option, but what if we make him worse? The memory of Taekwoon, still and silent and grey in his wheelchair, mixes up in his mind with the image of the excitable, warm Jaehwan until it’s Taekwoon laughing and smiling, and Jaehwan shrunken in on himself with his face turned to the wall and carefully-coloured pictures of fading flowers lying discarded on the floor, and Wonshik digs his fingernails into his palms to keep back hot, stinging tears.

Can’t let it happen. Can’t risk it. Can’t lose him.

He looks towards the pinboard again, remembering Hakyeon falling apart. Remembering Taekwoon, the kiss, Hakyeon calm and sure, and his own words to them, you found each other.

Can we?

Jaehwan’s voice in the corridor, chatting a mile a minute even as he hurries towards their room. The smile that breaks over Wonshik’s face brings him to his feet, his heart lifting. Then the whirlwind is in the door and heading straight to the pinboard, and it’s like sunlight in a dark place, the plan is forgotten, the words simply tumble out.

‘You don’t need that. You don’t need any of it, any of this stuff.’

No answer. Jaehwan reaches out and removes pins at random, collecting them in one hand and taking down the cards one by one to pile them on a chair.

‘You know it’s not real. Open your eyes and see what you do have.’

The board cleared, Jaehwan deposits the heap of pins on top of the cards and moves on to the shelf. He stretches up on tiptoe and snags the rabbit by one floppy ear, carefully curves one hand around the jar of candies, puts them both down on the floor. The flowers are next. His movements are quick, confident, his chatter entirely absent.

He’s not listening, thinks Wonshik. ‘Jyani …’

Finally, Jaehwan turns to look at him, focused and intense. ‘What, Wonshik? What do I have?’

It’s out before Wonshik can stop himself. ‘Me.’ He closes his eyes, exposed, afraid, waiting.

Gentle hands on his face. ‘I know that, silly. I know that now. I’m sorry it took me so long.’

What?

‘Shikkie, look at me.’

It’s hard, almost impossible, but it’s Jaehwan asking, so Wonshik forces himself to open his eyes. And sees a smile that tells him everything he needs to know. He reaches out, pulls Jaehwan close, sobs once, holds on like he’s drowning while Jaehwan kisses his eyes and the tip of his nose and, finally, his mouth. He kisses Wonshik like they have all the time in the world and there’s nowhere else he could ever want to be, kisses away the anger and the fear until there’s nothing left but the two of them, lost in each other.

 

*****

 

alone

‘Bean?’

alone alone

‘Hey …’

allgone leftme

‘Bean, it’s me.’

ofcourse leftme

‘I’m here.

hyukkie

it’s too much toomuchtoomuch

i’m scared

‘I’ll always be here.’

can’t feel you

 

Chapter Text

 

Not long after the corridor lights are turned off and the ward settles down for the night, Jaehwan climbs into Wonshik’s bed. The two of them lay face to face, Wonshik’s arm serving as a pillow for the vocalist, eyes closed, breathing together. ‘They’re not going to let us keep doing this,’ murmurs Wonshik. ‘We’re probably breaking some rule.’

Jaehwan shrugs. ‘I don’t care. As long as you want me here, I’m staying.’ He feels Wonshik’s arms tighten around him, smiles, and adds, ‘I will need to breathe, though.’

‘Sorry.’ Wonshik’s hold loosens only fractionally.

They haven’t talked about it, and part of Wonshik doesn’t want to ask, as though it might all disappear, the cards back on the board instead of in the bin near the door. His mind won’t leave it alone. ‘What happened, Jyani? What made you …’ He can’t finish.

‘It’s all right, you can say it. I know what I did, I was -’

‘Building walls against the past?’ Taekwoon’s words.

Yes. That’s exactly it.’

‘So what changed?’

Silence, then, Jaehwan shifting as though uncomfortable.

‘What was it?’

‘You’re not going to like the answer,’ Jaehwan says, clearly reluctant.

‘Tell me, please.’

‘The same thing that happened to you, Wonshik.’

‘What?’ Wonshik opens his eyes, puzzled. ‘But that was you. Do you mean you made yourself -’

‘It wasn’t me, you know that.’

Wonshik shakes his head. ‘No, no, it was, you made it go away.’

‘I didn’t do anything,’ Jaehwan says sharply. ‘You know who it was.’

‘No …’

‘He took it away from you somehow, I don’t know how, but he did.’

No.’

Jaehwan’s voice is firm and steady, implacable, nothing like the nervous babble that was all he had until only a few hours ago. ‘He took it on himself, Wonshik, and he did the same thing with Taekwoon. You remember what Hyukkie said about him throwing up? I asked the nurse that looks after them, it’s just like it was with you.’

‘I don’t believe it. I won’t.’

‘Then how do you explain me? I went to see him after therapy, and it was … it became clear to me, what I’d been doing … what i was too scared to let myself realise.’

Can’t hear this. ‘It’s a coincidence,’ says Wonshik weakly.

Wonshik … he held out his hand. And I took it. And I felt it go out of me.’

‘He wouldn’t,’ Wonshik stammers, ‘he’s not … why would he …’

‘Think. Really think. Let yourself remember.’

‘ … no …’ But he can’t stop it, flooding into him, drowning out everything else.

The seventh room, her room, clean and bright with light from everywhere catching on metal laid out on her table, somehow sterile even with the blood pooled and dried around the chair in the centre. Looking down at Hongbin, crumpled on the floor, is he breathing? The doll. Her, turning to him, beckoning.

(you can be my new pretty)

Trying to back away, but his body won’t listen to him, he sits down in the chair even as no no no no spills from his mouth. Needle and coarse black thread in her hands, bending over him, too close. Pulling open his eye, pleasepleaseplease ...

Hongbin’s voice, thready with pain, don’t you love me best?

(hush)

Hand outstretched, you don’t want him, take me.

(you’re broken)

Struggling to his knees, clothes hanging in ribbons, long ragged gashes crudely stitched, no no i’m not i’mnot see

Lifting his head, looking straight at her, eyes crossed out and bleeding, Hongbin smiles and it’s like a scream … don’t throwmeaway don’tdon’tdon’t ...

And Wonshik is forgotten, she goes to Hongbin and runs her fingers through his hair, he trembles, and it’s so obvious now, he doesn’t want her, he’s trying not to pull away.

(my perfect pretty)

yes

(mine)

… yes

Careless flick of her wrist, Wonshik is back in his cage and the smell assaults him, thick and slimy and crawling down inside him, coating his throat and his lungs, curdling in his stomach. He throws himself against the glass; it gives under his fists, but won’t break.

Laughter, jagged and hopeless, echoing ...

‘Come back, Wonshik, come back, it’s all right, I’m sorry, it’s all right.’

Jaehwan.

Oh, god.’ Wonshik clutches at him, shuddering, vision blurring and swimming. ‘Oh god, Jyani … I made us leave him, what have I done?’

 

*****

 

armwrench kneetwist muscletear bonegrind

‘Hakyeon?’

painpainpain wet hot falldown falldown

can’t fall can’tmovecan’tbreathe

‘Hakyeonnie, what’s wrong?’

stop it stop let me fall please please please

‘What’s he saying?’

‘... hurts …’

‘Catch him, he’s going to faint!’

clumsy arms warm body familiar smell Taekwoon

‘I’m here, you’re safe, it’s all right, it’s all right, it’s … oh my god.’

‘Taekwoon?’

‘What is it? What do you see?’

eyes eyes everywhere nowheretorun nowheretohide

stoplooking stop looking at me

‘This ends right now.’

‘You can’t do that. They need to answer -’

No. I told you I’d pull the plug if it was too much, now get those goddamn photos out of sight! Nurse! Some help in here!’

’Just give them a shot or something, we need to talk to them.’

‘Get out. Right now.’

‘I’ll go over your head, Doctor. This is not over.’

Go. Hakyeon? Taekwoon? We’re going back to your room. I’m so sorry.’

‘Doctor Hwang? You might be interested in this report. Maybe then you can understand the urgency here. I’ll be back, and I want access to Lee Hongbin. And you can be sure I’ll get it, with or without your approval.’

 

*****

 

SEOUL METROPOLITAN POLICE AGENCY

Case no: 2014/2326NGS
Document: Autopsy Report

Name: unknown

 

SUMMARY:

The body is that of an unidentified female, in a state of extensive decomposition … approximate age 18-25 years, approximate height 162 cm … build is slender … bone length and density suggest decedent was well-nourished …

Decedent was clothed … clothes removed (see evidence tag 2014/2326NGS/54623FT)

 

EXTERNAL EXAMINATION (see diagram):

 

Rigor mortis is abolished, livor mortis established in buttocks and lower legs, suggesting decedent was seated at time of death. No visible ligature or restraint marks, no defensive wounds. Decedent may have been chemically restrained (blood screening results pending) …

All injuries show no signs of healing, suggesting they occurred at or near time of death …

Abnormal movement range in both shoulders and knees, suggesting dislocation type injuries ...

Extensive superficial lacerations are present over the entire body … severe lacerations to the abdomen and the lower face involving the mouth … wounds are jagged and uneven, torn edges … weapon not recovered at the scene ...

Trace amounts of vomit are present in the mouth and upper airway …

Partial thickness contact burn approximately 25 cm x 14 cm present on the upper right quadrant of the back … weapon not recovered at the scene …

12 superficial penetrative injuries with weapons left in situ … weapons appear to be hat pins approximately 15 cm long (removed, see evidence tag 2014/2326NGS/54624FT)

15 superficial penetrative injuries with weapons left in situ … weapons appear to be pieces of tree bark and shards of glass ranging in size from 5 cm x 2 cm to 9 cm x 5 cm (removed, see evidence tags 2014/2326NGS/54625FT and 2014/2326NGS/54625FT)

Severe penetrative injuries to both eyes resulting in haemorrhage of aqueous and vitreous humours, partial collapse, weapons left in situ … weapons appear to be hat pins approximately 15 cm long (removed, see evidence tag 2014/2326NGS/54627FT)

 

INTERNAL EXAMINATION:

 

Cause of death appears to be exsanguination or cardiac failure due to catastrophic rupture and destruction of the heart …

Note: the cause of this injury is unable to be determined. No external trauma was present that could account for it.

Examination of the stomach contents shows ..

 

*****

 

from: hwang.jm@psych.snuh.org
to: park.sy@trauma.snuh.org

subject: see attached

att: SMPA2014/2326NGSAutopsy

Please tell me you see it, too.

 

--HJM

 

*****

 

from: sooyeon77@naver.com
to: hwangjm@kt.com

subject: not on the hospital servers

 

I see it. I don’t like it, but I do see it.

The superficial injuries correspond to the patients. Even the eyes, in a way. But the heart … no external trauma?

 

Sooyeon

 

*****

 

from: hwangjm@kt.com
to: sooyeon77@naver.com

subject: re: not on the hospital servers

 

Then you know what this means.

We can’t let them talk to him, Sooyeon.

 

--Jongmin

 

*****

 

All together again, thinks Sanghyuk bitterly, standing in the doorway with his arms crossed. What a cosy group you’ve become. Taekwoon sits on Hakyeon’s bed, pale and obviously groggy, but focused and present in a way he hasn’t been in months. On the other bed, Jaehwan has one arm around Wonshik, other hand resting on on his knee. Even through the bruising, the healthy flush in Wonshik’s cheeks is easily discernible. And Jaehwan … looks contented. It’s not the high-strung, nervous excitement Sanghyuk’s used to seeing, just quiet enjoyment in being close to the others. Oh god, thinks Sanghyuk. He got you, too.

Only Hakyeon seems unchanged, all restless movement and watchfulness. ‘Come in, please don’t stand out there. We need to talk.’

‘Unless you’re planning to hit me again, of course,’ says Wonshik, and Sanghyuk looks at him sharply over Hakyeon’s shoulder. There’s no malice in Wonshik’s voice, though; he gives Sanghyuk a sheepish smile as Jaehwan nudges him. ‘Too soon?’

Sanghyuk eyes them all warily. ‘What’s going on?’

‘Just come in and shut the door, Hyukkie,’ orders Taekwoon, exasperated.

I’m not afraid, I don’t get scared, but everything is off-balance and no one is acting like they’re supposed to, and Sanghyuk’s first instinct is to get out as fast as he can and go back to Hongbin. Who are they, he thinks, and answers himself immediately, who they used to be, oh, Bean. He shuts the door behind him, turns to face them, can’t make himself sit down. ‘Talk.’

Unexpectedly, it’s Wonshik who starts. ‘It’s about Hongbin. We know what he did.’

‘Figured it out, did you?’ Sanghyuk practically spits the words, fists clenching so hard his fingernails dig into the palms. Sharp pain; he winces. ‘Good, I’m happy for you. Can I go now?’

‘Stop it.’ Jaehwan, uncharacteristically angry. ‘We’re not your enemies. We want to help.’

Yesterday you were just a bundle of nervous twitches, now you think you can do something? Sanghyuk tries to laugh, manages only a sob. ‘You can’t help. Don’t you get it? He took all this crap from us and I’ve got no idea how he did it. I yelled at him, I begged him to give it back to me, it didn’t make any difference, and now he’s got yours too, he’s got almost all of us, and it’s killing him, and I can’t … I can’t ...’

Hakyeon’s arms are the first around him; he fights, don’t want this, but now that he can feel it’s harder to hurt himself, and Hakyeon refuses to let go. Then Jaehwan, and Wonshik, crowding in, and finally Taekwoon wrapping long arms around them all, and it’s too much. Sanghyuk’s knees fail, he slumps, and they hold him up. Wonshik, murmuring, ‘We’ve got you, Hyukkie.’ Jaehwan, ‘We love you.’ Taekwoon doesn’t speak, just looks at him with eyes that say, I understand.

But it’s Hakyeon who breaks him, Hakyeon who tells him again and again, ‘We won’t give up, we’ll find a way to save him. You’re not alone, Hyukkie, not anymore.’ Sanghyuk pulls in a ragged, shuddering breath and pushes his face against Hakyeon’s shoulder, and can’t keep back the tears because he has nothing left to fight with.

They surround him and hold him and don’t let him go, even after he’s cried himself out. ‘I promise,’ says Hakyeon, kissing his hair . The others echo him with kisses of their own, Wonshik adding in a whisper, ‘I’m sorry’. Sanghyuk tries to tell himself, don’t believe it, there’s no way, but he’s wide open and vulnerable and stupid and not alone; and for the first time, he dares to let himself hope.

 

*****

 

Late home again, bone-tired and fraying around the edges, and a careless remark from her husband about family commitment hits at just the wrong time. Before she realises she’s doing it, Sooyeon is yelling loud enough to wake the children, saying things she can’t take back. Only the sight of her daughter in the hall, frightened, hugging herself, breaks through enough to make Sooyeon choke back her words. One step towards her, but her father already has the little girl in his arms and carries her back into her bedroom. The look on his face as he briefly turns back says clearly, stay away. Shocked and ashamed, Sooyeon flees to her study, where she sits at the desk with her head in her hands and wishes she’d never seen those kids and thinks, over and over, damn you, damn you, Jongmin.

She doesn’t move until long after the light under the door goes out and her husband’s snores can be faintly heard. Cramped muscles protest as she pushes herself up out of the chair and clicks off the desk lamp. There’s enough light for her to navigate across the room and open the cupboard in the hallway. It won’t be the first time she’s slept on the couch, but every other time was out of consideration, not wanting to wake him. This isn’t kindness, she knows that; it’s cowardice, and more than a little simmering resentment. He has no idea what I’m dealing with. He never has.

The folded blanket is where she left it, at the top, but when she reaches up to pull it down, something falls towards her face. She flinches back just in time, hears it hit the carpet with a dull thud. In the gloom, she can’t make out where it landed, so she crouches and feels around with one hand until she touches coarse fabric, rough stitching, something slender and hard and cold. Her fingers close on it and her arm moves of its own accord and now she can see it. A doll, no, the doll, torn and stained and pierced and grinning at her, and she can’t help it, she screams and flings it away and scrambles backwards and lights go on and her husband comes running. Not possible, she pants, shivering, not possible, as her husband searches where she points with a shaking finger, not possible, as he turns to her with empty hands and says there’s nothing there, you’re dreaming.

She shakes her head violently. ‘You don’t understand,’ she says, ‘I’ve been awake the whole time.’ And flinches again as she hears shrill, almost hysterical laughter.

 

*****

 

‘Doctor Hwang?’

‘Um … yes … sorry … who’s this?’

‘It’s Susan, Susan Yoo. I’m so sorry to wake you, but there’s a note here saying you can be contacted at any time in an emergency, and …’

‘What’s happened?’

‘It could be nothing …’

What is it?

‘It’s the patient in room 25, he … spoke. He said your name.’

‘Hongbin? Hongbin was talking?’

‘Yes, in fact he’s still talking. Keeps repeating the same thing, tell Jongmin to call her now.’

‘Call her? Who?’

‘I don’t know, that’s all he says. He’s very agitated, though. We sedated him but it hasn’t had any effect.’

Call her? Sooyeon? How would he … I never told him my name.

‘Doctor?’

‘All right, I think I know what he means. Tell him I will call her. Do that now, while you’re on the phone to me.’

‘ … He stopped. He’s still conscious, but … Doctor Hwang? Are you there?’

Hands trembling, speed-dialing a number he put into the phone only yesterday obeying an impulse he couldn’t name, answer, answer, be asleep and yell at me for waking you, come on. Frightened, harsh breathing. ‘Sooyeon?’

Jongmin, oh, thank god.’

 

*****

 

(you won’t save her)

shutup

(you won’t save any of them)

shutup you’re dead you’redead

(i’m still here, pretty)

notrealnotreal dead you’redeadyou’redead
killed you

(i’ll always be here)
(i love you)

alone
alone
alone
allgone left me

(you’re not alone)
(you’ll never be alone again)

die and getawayfromyou

(i won’t let you)

can’tstopme

 

Chapter Text

 

Hakyeon.

Just his name, whispered, enough to wake him. The room is dimly lit from the corridor outside, the only human sound in here that of Taekwoon’s breathing, deeply asleep.

Hakyeon.

Carefully, Hakyeon moves Taekwoon’s arms from around his waist and slides out of the bed. There’s no one else, but someone’s here. Eyes on him, watching him. Shivering, he starts to pace, his hands twitching and plucking at the hem of his pyjama shirt.

Hakyeon, listen.

Stronger now, the voice, somehow both familiar and utterly strange. It stops him in mid-step, freezes him to the spot, oh god, can’t move. ‘Safe,’ he whispers without making a sound. ‘I’m safe.’ He doesn’t need to hear the heartbeat pounding in his ears to know he’s lying to himself. Desperately, he looks to Taekwoon, who doesn’t wake, doesn’t stir at all.

Come here.

No thought, no sense of a decision made, just his body turning and his legs carrying him towards the door, his hand reaching out for the handle. Out in the corridor, eyes perfectly adjusted to the gloom. No one to see.

Come here, Hakyeon. Let me take it.

Moving again, past the closed door behind which Wonshik and Jaehwan lie tangled up together, Wonshik’s body between Jaehwan and any threat, how do I know that? Past the nurses’ station, and neither of them look up from their quiet conversation to notice him. He can’t hear what they’re saying; there’s only the voice, calling him. Promising him an end to the fear and the paralysis and the failure.

Open the door, Hakyeon. Almost there.

Darker in here, but he doesn’t need to see where to go. Couldn’t see even if he did, because what little vision he has is blurred and swimming, and it’s difficult to breathe past the lump in his throat, but his steps are sure and his hand stretches out and it’s almost over almost over almost

Suddenly he’s blocked and being pushed away, someone shouting in his face out get out get out of here. He struggles, fights, strains against the arms that hold him back, can hear himself pleading no, no, let me go, I have to, please. Through the door and pushed hard against the corridor wall, bright light and running feet, Sanghyuk’s wide, terrified eyes the only thing he can see, Sanghyuk’s panicked voice loud in his ears.

‘Hakyeon, wake up!’

‘Hyukkie? What’s happened?’ How did I get here?

‘Just go, get out of here and go back to Taekwoon, stay there.’

‘I don’t …’

Hakyeon.

‘I have to … oh, my god.’ What was I doing?

‘Please, I can’t stop him, but you have to stay away!’

New voices, hands pulling them apart from each other, Sanghyuk protesting, say something. ‘It’s all right,’ Hakeon assures them. Calm, measured tones, lying so convincingly even as his mind is shrieking at him. ‘I … think I was sleep-walking. Hyukkie was worried about me.’ Both nurses regard him with a doubt that borders on suspicion. ‘I didn’t mean to cause a disturbance, I’m sorry.’ He manages a small, uneven smile that he’s sure must look completely forced. It seems to be enough, though, because one turns away and shepherds Sanghyuk back to his room, while the other indicates that Hakyeon should come with her. A last look over her shoulder, meeting Sanghyuk’s gaze in time to see a final, firm shake of his head, then he’s swept along and back in his own room, where Taekwoon wakes and looks at him with dawning fear.

Hakyeon says nothing until the nurse leaves. As soon as the door closes, he collapses into a chair and wraps his arms around his body, shaking. Instantly Taekwoon is out of bed and crouching by his side, pulling him close. ‘What happened, Hakyeonnie? Where did you go? Why didn’t you wake me?’

The face Hakyeon turns to him is anguished, his tone low and ashamed. ‘I nearly killed him.’

What?’

‘He … called me. I couldn’t stop myself .’ No, tell the truth. ‘I … didn’t want to stop. Hyukkie stopped me.’ Hakyeon shudders. ‘It’s still there, Taekwoon … pulling me.’ He hangs his head, needing to confess, unable to bear the horror he knows his next words will cause. ‘I want to go back. I know what will happen, I know what it will do to him, but god help me, I want to go back. I can’t trust myself.’

Taekwoon’s hand under his chin, pushing up. Hakyeon resists until he hears the quiet, pained hiss and realises I’m hurting him. He sits up straighter, but still can’t meet Taekwoon’s eyes.

‘Look at me. Please.’ Soft. No compulsion there, but utterly unable to be denied. Hakyeon looks, and nearly breaks down at what he sees; acceptance, understanding. Love. ‘You won’t go back. I won’t let you, I’ll keep you safe, Hakyeonnie. I’ll keep you both safe.’

‘Taekwoon …’ Too much to say, no way to say it.

‘Come back to bed now. We’ll talk in the morning.’

Sleep is a long time coming; every time Hakyeon starts to relax, he hears it again, and jerks awake. Hakyeon. Come to me. Let me take it.

And every time, Taekwoon speaks to him softly, tells him he’s safe, until at last Hakyeon lets go and lets himself fall away from everything.

Taekwoon lies awake for the rest of the night, eyes wide open and turned towards the door, listening.

 

*****

 

The desk phone shrills, startling Jongmin out of an unexpected doze. He fumbles for the handset and brings it to his ear, yawning.

‘Are you in your office?’

‘Sooyeon?’ Instantly, he’s wide awake. ‘Are you feeling any better?’

There’s no trace of the frightened woman who babbled at him last night it’s all real it can’t be it was here; Sooyeon’s voice is crisp, almost clipped. ‘Never mind that. Are you in the hospital?’

‘Yes, I - ‘

‘Room 25. Now. The police are coming to talk to him. They have a warrant.’ She snarls that last word.

Jongmin stammers, ‘What? How? How the hell did they get permission?’

‘They did an end run, Jongmin, go now. I’m on my way in, but I won’t be there for at least an hour with this fucking traffic.’

‘Already moving.’ And he’s up and out the door before he gets his phone stuffed back into his pocket. It rings twice more as he pounds up the stairs; both times, Jongmin ignores the call. By the time he reaches the sixth floor he’s exhausted, every breath stabbing his side, but he doesn’t slow down.Three more floors … two more … one more … then he’s out, startling the nurses when he slams back the door from the stairwell and stumbles into the corridor. ‘Are they here yet?’ he pants.

She’s quick enough on the uptake not to ask questions, just nods. ‘They just went in,’ she says. ‘They had a warrant, and the Director’s office rang down to advise us. They wouldn’t wait for a doctor, I’m sorry.’ She adds, with just a touch of defiance, ‘I asked Security to stay in the room. They didn’t like that.’

‘You did the right thing,’ he assures her. ‘What about Sanghyuk? Where is he?’

‘Gone to physio,’ she says. ‘They turned up just after he went. Like they were waiting for that to happen.’

There’s no doubt in Jongmin’s mind at all. They knew, all right. Divide and conquer. ‘I’ll take over now. Doctor Park is on her way in as well, let me know when she gets here.’ Without waiting for an answer, he heads straight towards room 25, raking his hands hurriedly through his hair in an unsuccessful attempt to smooth it into place. He can already hear the voice of the detective, strident and exasperated, and he tightens his jaw. What they’re doing might be legal, but running roughshod over a doctor’s authority like this is anything but ethical. Anything but decent. This won’t be the first time he’s had to directly confront police or the military, and with the backing of the hospital administration behind them, he’s on even shakier ground than usual. He doesn’t pause for a moment, just marches into the room and demands loudly, ‘Stop what you’re doing right now.’

The detective doesn’t even give him the courtesy of a glance. Her gaze remains fixed on the boy lying in the bed, who looks almost shrunken in on himself, as she says, ‘Doctor, I told you we would be speaking to your patient. We are here with the permission of the hospital Director. Show him the warrant.’ She waves a hand negligently in the direction of her subordinate, who proffers the folded paper with an apologetic shrug. He, at least, seems to realise that what they’re doing is, at the very least, overstepping the bounds of courtesy.

‘And I told you,’ Jongmin retorts, barely hanging on to his temper, ‘that you wouldn’t be talking to anyone if I wasn’t present.’

‘Well, now you are. Shall we get on with it?’ She sounds so ridiculously pleased with her petty points-scoring, smug to the point of offensiveness. For one furious moment, Jongmin actually considers laying hands on her and marching her bodily out of the room; only the quiet cough of the security guard, who gives him a look that clearly says I know how you feel, stops him.

He moves around her, takes up a stance right by the bed, feet planted solidly, arms crossed. ‘I’ll be making a complaint to your superiors, detective.’ He can’t keep the contempt out of his voice, but politeness is the last thing he cares about now. He doesn’t give her time to respond, just bends down to speak quietly. ‘Hongbin? It’s Doctor Hwang. The police want to ask you some questions about what happened. They have a warrant, and I’m going to be here with you, but you don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to.’ Even if you can speak, which I doubt. ‘I’ll stop this if it goes too far, and any time you want to stop, just say so. Do you understand?’ Silence, no more than he expected; then there’s a tiny nod, hardly more than a twitch of the boy’s head. ‘All right. Ask your questions.’ As he straightens up, Jongmin feels a weak hand brush against his arm.

The detective is well prepared, all her questions carefully written out in her notebook. They are brutally direct, and for all she keeps her words brisk and professional, her tone is nothing short of accusatory. How did your abductors take you all so easily? Did you recognise where were you held? Why didn’t you escape with the others? How did you escape in the end? She pauses after each one, waiting for a response. None ever comes. ‘I know you can hear me,’ she snaps. ‘You are not achieving anything by refusing to answer.’ And the questions continue, always circling around to what she really wants to know, but won’t come right out and ask. Did you kill her?

Finally, she turns on Jongmin. ‘You need to explain to your patient that being stubborn is only going to get him into more trouble. Co-operating with us is his best option.’

It’s all Jongmin can do to keep a nasty smile from his face as he replies. ‘He’s not being stubborn, detective. Hongbin has … suffered a setback in his recovery. I diagnosed him with traumatic mutism consequent to a post-traumatic psychotic episode that occurred yesterday.’ A lie, technically speaking; this has been going on for much longer, but the pleasure he feels in shutting down her arrogance with his own authority coupled with a fast-paced spiel of jargon far outweighs any concern with presenting a completely accurate picture.

She stares at him incredulously. ‘Well, how long before he’ll be able to talk to us? Time is critical here.’

‘At this stage, I’m afraid I can’t say,’ Jongmin says, almost happily. ‘Post-traumatic recovery is almost always a case of two steps forward, one step back. We are led by our patients, you understand.’ His voice sharpens. ‘Trying to force them into recovery inevitably causes more harm than good.’

Her eyes narrow as she says, ‘This is all very convenient, doctor. You’re telling me this episode just happened to take place right before we wanted to question him?’

And now he has her. ‘Detective, if you’d bothered to consult with me - as I asked you to do - I could have saved you a trip. Unfortunately, you decided to ignore me, and all you have to show for it is a lot of wasted time. I can’t imagine your superiors will be pleased to learn that, nor that you could have avoided all this fuss with a simple phone call.’ There’s a hastily-smothered noise from her subordinate that sounds suspiciously like a laugh, but Jongmin doesn’t let his face show any reaction. ‘Now. I’d like you both to leave so I can make sure my patient isn’t distressed.’ He turns his back and makes a show of picking up Hongbin’s hand to feel his pulse.

To give her credit, she doesn’t say anything, although there must be a dozen angry replies crowding to get out of her mouth. She stands in icy silence for a moment, then turns sharply on her heel to walk out. Jongmin can’t resist one last jab. ‘Detective? Next time, pick up the phone.’ He smiles briefly at her sharp intake of breath as the three of them leave, the security guard quietly closing the door behind them. The loud click of her shoes on the floor disappears rapidly; just to be sure she’s really gone, Jongmin waits until he hears the distant chime of the elevator before pulling a chair up to the bed and collapsing into it.

‘Hongbin, I’m sorry about that,’ he says. ‘Are you all right?’ As before, a small movement of the head. ‘It won’t happen again, Doctor Park and I will keep the police away from you unless you’re ready to talk to them. Remember,’ he adds urgently, ‘you don’t ever have to say anything.’ No response this time, just that unsettling, listening silence, not demanding anything. Waiting. Without meaning to, Jongmin finds himself speaking again. ‘Hongbin, why did you tell me to call Doctor Park? Did you know what had happened?’ Absurd, that thought, there’s no way the boy could know anything that takes place outside this room, but then, what happened to Sooyeon was just as impossible. And that’s without even considering the constellation of post-traumatic symptoms assaulting the boy, symptoms that manifested just as his friends apparently recovered spontaneously.

For a long time, Jongmin just sits, looking at the drawn, pale face, the cracked lips, the way Hongbin’s hands lie upturned on the blanket at his sides with the fingers curled slightly towards the palm. The worst of his injuries seems to be healing as expected, even if there’s little hope of restoring anything like normal sight, yet Jongmin can’t help but think, he’s getting worse. Finally, he sighs, and stands. ‘I’ll let you get some rest now. If you need anything, just let me know …’ He shakes his head at his own idiocy, and turns to go.

stay

He looks back, startled. ‘Hongbin?’

stay withme

please

Jongmin shakes his head. Just my imagination. Still, he hesitates. ‘Did you … do you want me to stay for a while?’ Nothing. Of course not. ‘I’ll see you later,’ he says, and leaves quickly, not looking back.

 

*****

 

When Sanghyuk asks for his session with the psychiatrist to be delayed until late afternoon, when Hongbin is due to go down to have his eyes checked, he expects to be denied, or at least to be asked questions for which he has no good answer. To his surprise, the nurse simply comes back to him to say that won’t be a problem. There’s something strange about her tone of voice, but it’s nothing he can identify. It doesn’t matter, anyway; he’s got what he wanted, he’ll be able to say what needs to be said, where hopefully he can’t be heard.

Doctor Hwang arrives just as they’re wheeling Hongbin’s bed out. For a moment, Sanghyuk thinks he’ll stop and speak to his still, silent friend, but all the psychiatrist does is lay a hand on his arm before standing aside to let them leave. He looks awful, thinks Sanghyuk, like he hasn’t slept in a week. There’s something different, too, something weird. It almost stops him, but he’s too exhausted after keeping himself awake for the rest of the night, too tightly wound to really care. ‘You have to send him away. Discharge him, put him somewhere else, anything.’

About to sit down, Doctor Hwang halts and gives him a bewildered look. ‘Who? Hongbin? That’s not possible, Sanghyuk, his condition is far too delicate at -’

No,’ Sanghyuk interrupts angrily. ‘Hakyeon. Get him away from here. Do it now.’

‘Well, we are certainly looking at transferring some of you to our rehab centre, but the assessment process -’

‘You don’t understand. He has to be as far away from Bean as possible.’

‘Why?’

‘He’s in danger.’

Flash of fear in the doctor’s eyes, before he says carefully, ‘Hakyeon is quite safe.’

How stupid can you be? Then Sanghyuk thinks, you don’t live in our world, you can’t understand, and forces himself to reply evenly, ‘Not Hakyeon. Bean. You have to help me protect him.’

‘What exactly are you afraid of? What do you think Hakyeon could do to Hongbin?’

There’s no way Sanghyuk can make it sound like anything rational, anything possible. But he’s come this far, and all he can do is hope that maybe this doctor, the only one who seems willing to listen, will take him at his word. ‘If ... if Bean takes it … it’ll kill him.’

‘Takes it? What do you mean?’

Sanghyuk closes his eyes, braces himself for doubt, skepticism, flat-out refusal. ‘The same thing he’s taken from the rest of us. What happened, what she did. You must have noticed how much better they are. Even me.’ He drops his eyes. ‘I didn’t want him to, but he got me, he got me when I was asleep, when you - when they drugged me. There’s only Hakyeon left now, and if Bean takes it away from him …’ Go on. Laugh at me. Tell me I’m wrong, that things like this aren’t real.

Instead, Doctor Hwang says, ‘All right. I’ll see what I can do.’ Incredulous, Sanghyuk stares at him, open-mouthed. ‘But … you need to start telling me everything. All of it, no matter how unbelievable. I need to know it all.’ Without waiting for an answer, he turns away, pushing a hand through his hair before he walks out of the room. Something small and bright, falling, tumbling through the air to land on the carpet.

Sanghyuk peers at it, and his breath stops in his throat. No. No.

A pin.

 

Chapter Text

from: nam.hj@legal.snuh.org
to: park.sy@trauma.snuh.org; hwang.jm@psych.snuh.org; choi.sk@neurology.snuh.org; chan.nj@ortho.snuh.org; jeon.jw@plastics.snug.org; kim.my@physio.psych.snuh.org

subject: notification of Warrants of Seizure and requests for testimony

att: SNUH Legal Release Form

 

The following documents have been requested via Warrants of Seizure and granted by hospital authorities subject to examination and challenge by the Legal Affairs Department:

Full Medical Records (including all test results and radiology films)

Cha Hakyeon
Jung Taekwoon
Lee Jaehwan
Kim Wonshik
Lee Hongbin
Han Sanghyuk

Please ensure these records are up to date and print and complete the attached release forms to allow records to be submitted to Legal, who will check and forward the records to Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency.

The following hospital personnel are requested to appear for formal questioning by Seoul Metropolitan Policy Agency:

Dr Park Sooyeon
Dr Hwang Jongmin
Dr Choi Steven
Mr Chan Na Jun
Dr Jeon Jiwoo
Ms Kim Minyoung

Hospital authorities have granted these requests. One of our senior attorneys will be present for all questioning to represent SNUH. Personnel are strongly advised to engage their own legal representation to attend as their advocates. Personnel are reminded that where professional secrecy may be jeopardised they have the right to consult with attorneys before answering questions.

Kind regards,

Nam Hanjae

Director
Legal Affairs Department
Seoul National University Hospital

 

*****

 

Sanghyuk, caught in memory …

 

Sprawled at her feet, body jerking under the impact as she stabs again and again with the pin, it doesn’t hurt it doesn’t hurt it doesn’t hurt

(scream why don’t you scream you have to scream)

He keeps his face hidden so she won’t see his smile, can’t hurt me anymore, beaten you, shriek of frustration and he’s lifted, spun, slammed down onto his back with the breath knocked out of him.

Propped up sitting in the corner, legs splayed out in front of him, arms limp, head hanging, Bean, oh no ...

(look at me)

Neck wrenched around and she glares in his face, her hands squeezing the doll harder, harder, can’t breathe

(broken useless thing, throw you away)

She raises the pin high and holds the doll to expose its heart. He fixes his eyes on the pin, waits for it to come down. That’s it. Do it. Set me free, willing her even as he screams to himself I don’t want to die, because this is the only way it will ever be over.

Behind her, unfolding, rising, Hongbin, hardly more than shreds of dusty black and glass and blood …

Alive, you’re alive … what are you doing?

Staggering, stop-start, limbs loose and disjointed, head down … arms coming up to hold her and in an instant her face becomes sweet and cruel.

(pretty)

She turns in his embrace, burrows into him like a child seeking comfort … his head comes up and now Sanghyuk can see his staring, blind eyes (not blind, not really, he can see, he’s looking at me), the mad grin.

(it’s broken, pretty, i broke another one)

sshhh it’s allright don’tcrydon’t youhave me

(precious perfect my doll mine)

yesyoursyes put him awaynow playwithme

Bean, no.

She raises the doll again; knowing what’s coming, Sanghyuk braces himself for it, the only pain he still can’t block out.

here letme

Hongbin, taking the doll, still grinning, but Sanghyuk sees the spasm of revulsion in his face as his fingers close on the rough fabric, how can you touch that, how do you bear it?

goback

Awful, wrenching dislocation. Then he’s back in his cell with his dead tree, but not thrown against the wall, not bound in place. Set down gently. A phantom hand brushing across his hair, cupping the side of his face, not her … He surges to his feet and rushes to the wall of windows even though he knows he won’t be able to see. Through the missing and cracked panes, he can hear the others are talking in low voices, taking advantage of the time they have when her attention isn’t focused on them. Sanghyuk tries to listen past them, straining, half-hoping, half-dreading.

‘I want to die.’ Taekwoon, quiet and hopeless. His voice is hoarse and frayed and somehow terribly flat. Still, it’s the first thing he’s said in a long time (hours? days? weeks?), and Sanghyuk sags with relief. Another one still alive.

Hakyeon’s voice is still sharp, loud enough to carry, even if it holds a telltale quiver that betrays just how close to breaking he is. ‘Don’t say that, don’t ever say that. Hold on, Taekwoonie, please. Stay with us.’

Though there’s no answer, Sanghyuk can hear what goes unspoken. It’s the same thing that comes stealing into his mind all too often. Why? What is there to hope for? All this endless, unreal time, there’s been nothing to suggest anyone’s looking for them. Even if they were, where would they even start? Maybe they don’t even know we’re gone, thinks Sanghyuk. Absurd thought, impossible, but then everything that’s happened to them is impossible. Maybe we’re already dead, Taekwoon. Wouldn’t that be a kick in the teeth.

‘I’m going to keep believing. I have to,’ declares Jaehwan. It’s a statement of desperation, not defiance; all the real fight was burned out of him long ago. Sanghyuk hears him talking to himself sometimes, when the others are asleep, holding one-sided conversations about the weather and the sort of trivial, normal rubbish that has nothing to do with where he is and what’s happening to him.

Laughter, jagged and hopeless, breaking into a scream, trailing off into sobbing. ‘Bean,’ whispers Sanghyuk, guilt sour in his mouth. That should be me.

Angry shout from Wonshik, ‘Shut up!’ Metal crash against stone walls, echoing.

Fuck you, thinks Sanghyuk, you’re getting off easy, the least you can do is listen.

 

‘Hey.’

Wonshik’s voice, his real one, snaps Sanghyuk back to awareness. There’s a moment of blind disorientation (where am I, where is she, run, run) before he focuses on Hongbin’s face only a few inches away. Most of the bandages are gone; only two white pads taped over his eyes remain, somehow making him look more blind. Everything falls into place again. ‘What do you want?’ he says, not bothering to turn.

‘I just wanted to … I can go, if you’d prefer.’

Sanghyuk sighs. ‘No. No, it’s okay, sorry. I was …’ Dreaming. Remembering. Back there.

‘Yeah,’ says Wonshik. ‘I know. Still happens to me, too.’ He moves closer to Hongbin’s bed, and now Sanghyuk looks at him. Hesitant, unsure, almost fearful, but without that constant simmering anger. The bruising on his face only just beginning to lighten in the centre, still puffy around the nose and eyes even though the splint is gone. ‘Is he … are you awake?’

The figure in the bed, curled in on itself, doesn’t stir. ‘I don’t know,’ says Sanghyuk. ‘He hasn’t moved for ages, but that doesn’t mean anything.’ He reaches out to touch Hongbin’s shoulder, then a flash of irritation crosses his face. ‘Bean? Wonshik’s here.’ Still nothing. ‘I keep forgetting he can’t feel it,’ he says angrily. Go on, tell me it’s okay, tell me I shouldn’t beat myself up about it. Lie to me. I know this is my fault.

Hand pressing between his shoulderblades, moving in slow circles, unexpected and gentle. ‘He can hear you, though. He knows you’re always there.’

‘Fat lot of good that does,’ Sanghyuk says bitterly. ‘I can’t help him.’ Useless, broken thing.

Wonshik’s voice sharpens, though the pressure of his hand stays light. ‘Stop it, Hyukkie. Stop fucking doing that. You’re … you were the only one who never stopped believing in him. You tried to get him out even when I … You’re exactly what he needs, now more than ever. None of us should be alone.’ Something in his voice there, enough to bring Sanghyuk out of himself just in time to see a small, soft smile. Jaehwan, he thinks, remembering them sitting close together. Then another flash, Hakyeon holding Taekwoon, more than just comfort there. Did you give them that, too, Bean?

‘Hyukkie? Are you still with me?’

Sanghyuk blinks. ‘Sorry. Yeah. What did you say?’

‘You need some sleep,’ says Wonshik worriedly. Instantly, Sanghyuk waves a hand in dismissal. ‘I mean it. One of us can sit with Hongbin. Go on, have a nap now. I’ve got nowhere else I need to be until after lunch.’ When Sanghyuk opens his mouth to object, Wonshik doesn’t even let him get a word out. ‘Don’t argue. Go.’

Moving away feels wrong, like he’s leaving all over again, but Wonshik hauls him up out of the chair and gives him a shove towards his own bed. Even then, there’s no force, no anger, just the exasperation of someone dealing with a stubborn friend. Once on his feet, the tiredness he’s been trying to hold at bay hits him fully. Without any further argument, he lets himself flop down on his bed, his eyes closing almost immediately. I’m sorry, he thinks. I’ll be back soon. Feeling himself start to drift, he hears Wonshik’s voice, low and choked with tears.

‘Bean? Hey. I don’t know if you’re awake, but I hope you can hear me. Look, I … I’m … aish. I fucked up. I was out of my head, and not thinking clearly, and I know that’s not a fucking excuse, but I really thought … it doesn’t matter what I thought. I was wrong. I made them leave you. I even hit Hyukkie to stop him. I left you, Bean. With her. That’s on me, everything she did to you afterwards, that’s my fault, and I can’t ever make that right. And then … then you … did this for me, and I’ll never understand why.’ Hitching, gulping breath. ‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry … what? What are you doing?’

Sanghyuk struggles to open his eyes, to see, but he’s too far gone into sleep, can only listen as Wonshik breaks down, harsh sobs and I’m sorry and you’re not alone anymore. Bean’s safe, he thinks, and lets go his last hold on consciousness, sinks down and doesn’t dream.

 

*****

 

(pretty)
(precious)
(play with me)

(I know you can hear me)
(answer me)

(pretty?)

(where are you hiding?)

(I’ll find you)
(I’ll always find you)

 

*****

 

Back again in the meeting room, the five of them, but this time there are seven empty chairs, and they walk in and pick their own seats, moving them closer to each other. ‘Does anyone know what this is about?’ asks Jaehwan. ‘I asked Nari and Susan, they wouldn’t tell me anything.’

Sanghyuk shakes his head. ‘No idea. The nurse just told me that therapy was cancelled for the day.’

‘Maybe they’re moving us,’ Wonshik offers. ‘My physio did say something about rehab yesterday.’

The three fall to discussing the likelihood of this, Jaehwan concerned that it’s too early, Sanghyuk quick to urge the opposite. Listening, Hakyeon exchanges glances with Taekwoon. The memory of the photos, the panic they both felt, is easy to read in his eyes. Whatever this is, it’s not good news, he thinks. The presence of a second empty chair puzzles him. When they first entered, he’d thought it might be for Hongbin, that somehow, miraculously, their friend had recovered. Then Sanghyuk turned up alone, and looked away when Hakyeon asked if Hongbin was coming. So who is it for? The police? No, not after last time. It must be someone else.

It’s nearly ten minutes before Doctor Park arrives, Doctor Hwang following closely behind her. His presence, haggard and haunted, confirms Taekwoon’s fears. It’s something terrible. Unable to look at the psychologist, he focuses on Doctor Park, who looks calm enough. When she greets them, though, Taekwoon hears a frantic, bewildered counterpoint threading through her voice. ‘Thank you for coming,’ she says. ‘Before we start, we want you to know that if at any time -’

‘Is it about Bean?’ Sanghyuk interrupts. ‘Has something happened?’

Shutting the door and taking the seat beside his colleague, Doctor Hwang answers. ‘No, Sanghyuk, it’s something else.’ Lie, thinks Taekwoon instantly. ‘There are a couple of things we wanted to talk to you all about, and we … we think it’s better that we do this as a conference, rather than individually.’ Instinctively, Wonshik reaches out and puts his arm protectively around Jaehwan’s shoulders, the vocalist leaning closer. The psychologist raises his eyebrows, but makes no comment.

Doctor Park opens the folder on her lap. ‘Firstly, we’d like to talk about transferring you to our recovery centre, Hibiscus. Your physical injuries are well out of the acute care phase, and we feel it would be best for you to continue your physiotherapy and ongoing counselling in a less clinical setting. Of course, you will need to come back here periodically to see the hand specialist, Taekwoon, and Jaehwan still has procedures for skin grafts, but we can easily arrange transport to and from this hospital.’

As she turns over the first sheet of paper in the folder, Hakyeon is suddenly struck by the sense that this is all theatrics. Though he can’t see what’s written, he thinks, it’s a prop. She knows what she wants to say, the folder is just there to reassure her. And then he thinks, why would she need that? Of all their carers, Doctor Park has always been the most self-assured, her exercise of authority effortless and reassuring. The way she holds herself now, though, suggests someone out of their depth. Something did happen. Something’s shaken her. Hakyeon twitches nervously, hands beginning to flutter.

‘Hakyeon?’ Taekwoon, speaking soft and low, resting his own bandaged hands on Hakyeon’s restless ones.

‘Are you nervous about the idea of transferring?’ asks Doctor Hwang.

Hakyeon shakes his head. ‘No, I’m … please go on. I’m sorry.’

Before she continues, Doctor Park hands each of them a glossy cardboard folder. Inside are brochures and information sheets. ‘This will tell you more about where you’ll be going, your rights and responsibilities, the kinds of activities you can take part in while you’re there. Each of you will have individual therapy programs, but there are groups you might wish to join. Art therapy, for example.’ She looks at Jaehwan as she says this last, a brief, small smile crossing her face at his pleased reaction.

Doctor Hwang picks up the thread. ‘The units are designed to be as comfortable as possible. We don’t have a ward set-up; small groups are housed together. You can have your own rooms if you wish … but would I be right in thinking you would prefer to continue sharing?’ At their firm nods, he says, ‘Yes, I thought so. Well, then, we’ll put you in a unit with three double rooms. You’ll have your own lounge and bathrooms, and there is a small kitchen where you will be able to prepare your own breakfast and snacks. Main meals are taken in a communal dining room. We also encourage you to wear your own clothes, and to personalise your living space with things from home. As well as therapy, we want you to look on Hibiscus as a time of transition back into your old lives.’

‘Do you really think we’re ready for that?’ Jaehwan asks. His eyes are troubled. ‘Not physically, I mean. Going … back.’

‘We’re certainly not going to force you,’ Doctor Hwang hastens to reassure him. ‘At this stage, we are looking at a four to six week stay, and as you all become stronger, you’ll be able to go out with support workers to re-acclimatise yourselves. Everything will be done in consultation, we want you to tell us -’

Sanghyuk interrupts, ‘I think it’s fantastic. Getting away from here is a great idea.’ He looks straight at Doctor Hwang, thinking thank you. Then it hits him. ‘You’re talking about the five of us, aren’t you? Bean stays here?’ At Doctor Park’s nod, he states firmly, ‘Then I’m staying, too.’

‘I’m afraid that’s not possible,’ she says. ‘This is an acute care facility, and beds are in high demand. We can’t just keep you here.’

No. I won’t go, I won’t leave him alone.’

‘Sanghyuk.’ Doctor Hwang sits forward, his voice strangely urgent. ‘I understand. I know how much this means to you, but … I’m sorry. We just can’t.’ When Sanghyuk opens his mouth to object, the psychologist continues, ‘Can we talk about it privately, after this, please?’ The maknae subsides with bad grace, jaw set. ‘Thank you.’

‘When would we leave?’ asks Hakyeon.

Clearly relieved to have the conversation turn back to practical matters, Doctor Park answers. ‘The unit will be ready for you the day after tomorrow. You’ll all have appointments with your various doctors and therapists, who’ll sign off on your transfer. And if there’s anyone you wish to have visit before you go, or contact to let them know where you’ll be, you’ll have time for that. Your management has already been notified,’ she says with just a tinge of exasperation. ‘They wanted to film your transfer for a, what did they call it, ‘VIXX TV episode’.’ At Wonshik’s groan, she adds quickly, ‘I said absolutely not. Your recovery is not for public consumption.’

‘Thank you, Sooyeon,’ says Jaehwan sincerely. She blinks at the use of her first name, but says nothing, only inclines her head in acknowledgement.

The two doctors fall silent, exchange glances, and suddenly the atmosphere changes completely. Here it comes, thinks Taekwoon. ‘What else?’ he asks quietly. ‘There’s something you have to tell us, but you’re worried how we’ll react, aren’t you?’

Another glance at each other, and Doctor Hwang says, ‘I’ll start.’ He leans forward, something in his manner seeming almost conspiratorial. ‘Hakyeon, Taekwoon, you already know a little about this. For the rest of you … the police are sure they’ve found the place where you were being held. After looking at their photos from the location, Doctor Park and I think they’re right.’ He pauses, looking quickly from one to the other, noting their reactions. Surprise, anger, a fearful shudder, Jaehwan burrowing even closer to Wonshik, and Taekwoon holding on tightly to Hakyeon’s hands even as the colour drains from his face.

‘Do they …’ Hakyeon swallows, fights to control his voice. ‘Do they want to talk to us again?’

‘They’ve asked.’ Doctor Park’s voice is curiously flat. ‘The hospital has agreed, and while you're patients here, they have that right.’

‘That’s why you’re moving us so quickly, isn’t it?’ exclaims Sanghyuk. ‘If we’re not here, they can’t just come in and talk to us whenever they want. I’m right, aren’t I?’

‘Hibiscus is an affiliated facility, but not under the jurisdiction of the hospital. If the police want to speak with you, they’ll have to go through official processes all over again.’ It’s not really an answer; it tells Hakyeon everything he needs to know. You’re protecting us. Not just because we’re your patients, why?

Wonshik speaks up for the first time. ‘What about … her? Did they find her? Is she in jail?’

No, thinks Hakyeon, don’t ask that, don’t, but it’s already too late.

‘Yes,’ says Doctor Hwang gently. ‘They found her.’ He hesitates, takes a deep breath, and looks directly at Sanghyuk. ‘She’s dead.’

For a moment, no one moves or speaks. Then Jaehwan bursts into tears and Wonshik pulls him all the way out of his chair and into his lap, wrapping his arms around the vocalist tightly, his face fierce. Taekwoon closes his eyes and murmurs, over and over, ‘I knew it, I knew it.’ Turning to him in alarm, Hakyeon calls his name, cupping shaking hands around his face. A storm of emotions buffet him, relief and terror and an awful, growing conviction; don’t break, he tells himself, be strong, they need me to be strong now.

Sanghyuk sits frozen, staring back at Doctor Hwang. ‘Bean,’ he whispers, ‘oh god ... no ... no, please, oh, god …’ the psychologist says nothing in reply; he doesn’t have to. His face is all too easy to read.

‘Jongmin,’ says Doctor Park. ‘Jongmin.’ With a start, Doctor Hwang tears his gaze away and looks at her. ‘That’s enough for now. Let’s get them back to their rooms and give them something to calm them down.’ He nods and they both rise, Doctor Park saying, ‘We’ll get you something to help, just give us a moment, can you do that?’

She’s almost at the door, her hand reaching for the handle, when Hakyeon calls her, his voice thin with dread. ‘Doctor Park?’ She turns back to face him. ‘The doll. They found it, didn’t they? Where is it?’ The shudder that goes through her is violent, her fingers opening convulsively, the folder dropping from her hand, pages of blank paper drifting to the floor to lie around her feet like the fresh snow in the satsuma orchard where all this started. Her eyes fly wide and terrified.

She knows, thinks Hakyeon. She’s seen it. She believes. He looks quickly at Doctor Hwang, seeing the same fear on his face. They both do. They’re part of it, now. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says helplessly. ‘I’m so sorry.’

 

*****

 

you can’t have them
not any of them

(they’re already mine, precious)

no
protectthem savethem
allofthem

all of them
mine

mine

 

Chapter Text

I’ll come back and talk to you. I promise.

The last thing he said to Sanghyuk, muttered under his breath as he hustled Sooyeon out of the room. No real idea what he was going to tell him, because nothing could change the fact that the kid was going to be forced to leave his friend behind. Again. But they were all falling apart, and Sooyeon was so shaken she couldn’t even speak, and all Jongmin could see was the look of horror on Sanghyuk’s face, and so he’d done the only thing he could think of to pull him back from that place. Now, with Sooyeon resting in his office, he takes the elevator back upstairs, racking his brains to think of what he can possibly say.

The others had gone quietly enough, Wonshik practically carrying his sobbing roommate and refusing any offer of assistance from the nurses. Even after he’d come in to give Jaehwan the sedative, Jongmin had to work around Wonshik, who simply refused to let go. There was none of the hostility he’d come to expect, though, just a quiet resolution that all but screamed you will never make me move. The way that Jaehwan clung, white-knuckled, was enough to put paid to any fleeting thought of trying to pry him out of Wonshik’s hold. Co-dependence, thinks Jongmin as the elevator doors open, but that’s a bloodless, clinical word that doesn’t begin to describe what’s between those two. They’re not just using each other to recover from what was done to them. They’re each other’s lifelines, he realises.

The door to the room that houses the eldest two is closed, but as he passes, Jongmin can hear them talking in low voices. Something between them as well, perhaps even stronger than the others. Something inevitable, they were always moving towards this, he thinks, and almost misses a step at the unexpected insight. He has no way of knowing that; the idea smacks of a kind of romanticism that has no place in his work, but he can’t shake it. What holds them together goes back further than their captivity. Further than they’ll ever know. This time he does stop, only a few feet from room 25. Where is this coming from? Frustrated, he rakes a hand through his hair. There’s a tiny metallic sound behind him, but when he looks, he can’t see anything on the floor. Lay off the caffeine and get some sleep, he tells himself for about the hundredth time, knowing he won’t.

Automatically, he looks at Hongbin’s bed first when he enters the room, but the kid isn’t there. ‘Sanghyuk?’ he calls, looking around in the gloom. Why aren’t the curtains open? ‘It’s me - Doctor Hwang.’ Nothing. Has he run off again? ‘Kid?’

‘Here.’

On the floor, in the corner, in the farthest point of the room from the door. Back to the wall, hugging his knees. Staring with bloodshot, swollen eyes at his friend. Jongmin crosses the room quickly and squats down by him. ‘What’s going on?’

‘Nothing.’ Reflexive answer, that, no more true than any other time he’s given it. Challenging him isn’t going to achieve anything, though.

‘I’m sorry it took so long to get back to you,’ Jongmin says. ‘Do you want to come and talk to me now?’ Sanghyuk just shakes his head, still not looking at him. ‘Then do you mind if I sit here with you for a while? If you don’t want to say anything, that’s fine.’ A one-shouldered shrug, trying to look as if he doesn’t care one way or the other, succeeding only in showing just how much he wants it. Jongmin lowers himself to the floor and sits next to Sanghyuk, legs crossed. And lets the silence grow, and listens, and waits.

‘I knew.’ Hardly more than a whisper. Jongmin doesn’t move, doesn’t make a sound. ‘I mean, I didn’t know, but … she wouldn’t have let him go. Ever.’ Now Sanghyuk turns his head to look at Jongmin. ‘And he knew that. That’s why he …’

Killed her, thinks Jongmin, but that’s not it. Not all of it, anyway. Before he can reply, Sanghyuk looks away again, down at his hands this time, rubbing one thumb over the other palm. Hyukkie, how did you get that pin stuck right through your hand? Another thought with no context, because Jongmin can’t remember that listed as one of the kid’s injuries when he was brought in. Rough metal rings tearing at crude piercings, dislocated shoulders, wrenched muscles, bruises everywhere. And the bark, embedded in his skin like it had been pushed into it. No pins, so why think of that now?

‘Hakyeon remembered that,’ says Sanghyuk absently. ‘I’d forgotten. But Hakyeon doesn’t remember it all, not properly. He still thinks Bean was trying to hurt me.’

I didn’t speak. I know I didn’t. What’s going on?

‘He did hurt me, sometimes.’ Sanghyuk grimaces, as though forcing the words out. ‘Once she started giving him the doll … she liked to watch him use it. On us. He’d laugh the whole time he did it.’

The nurses, swapping shifts with each other, trying to make themselves unavailable. Afraid to go into the room, flinching every time they heard that laughter bubbling up out of Hongbin’s throat. Horrible, utterly devoid of real mirth; it didn’t even sound like something pushed out by breath and muscle. Chilled, Jongmin sets his jaw and forces away the sudden, absurd conviction that it’s not part of Hongbin at all. That it’s something living in him, coiled and watchful, crawling up and taking over his voice and silencing him.

‘That’s why Wonshik hated him so much. He didn’t realise … Bean couldn’t help it. It was that or cry, and she would go crazy when he cried. So he let the doll ...’

Let it do what, Jongmin almost asks, but bites back on the words to preserve the illusion that he’s not really there, that Sanghyuk can believe he’s talking to himself. Transference, his rational mind supplies. The laughter is a defence, there’s nothing going on there but the boy’s own mind trying to protect him. And pushing it off onto the doll.

‘You still don’t really believe, do you? You’re so close to it, too close, and you’re still trying to tell yourself it’s not real. I don’t blame you. We all did that, at first, tried to convince each other what was happening couldn’t be what we thought it was. It’s just … after a while, you find that nothing else makes sense.’

Inexplicable injuries. Traumatic conditions that disappear overnight. The look in Hakyeon’s eyes sometimes, as though he’s staring into a nightmare that never ends. Sanghyuk now, speaking to what isn’t said, his tone mild, but somehow faraway. Jongmin's own dreams, never remembered except as fear and confusion and screaming, but it’s always sharp pain that wakes him, aching all over, too unsettled to go back to sleep.

Sooyeon. Sensible, steady Sooyeon, babbling down the phone, terrified out of her mind, insisting it was here, Jongmin, it was right here and I touched it and I can still feel it.

‘She’s still here, you know.’ For a confused moment Jongmin thinks, Sooyeon? How does he know? ‘Even if she’s dead. She’ll never let him go.’ Tears in the kid’s eyes now, his voice growing thick. ‘That’s why I have to stay. I can’t leave him alone with her. Not again.’

Jongmin spreads his hands helplessly. ‘Sanghyuk, I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do.’ He has to go away. Far away. As far as possible. That’s definitely not his thought, feels more like a whisper in his ear, and he shivers, almost feeling soft breath on the side of his face. Keep it together, he tells himself angrily, the kid needs you. ‘Look, I … I can’t be here all the time, but I promise you, I’ll see him every day, and I’ll keep you updated, and we can arrange for you to visit.’ Even as he speaks, he finds himself thinking that if no one else gets moved into this room, he can come in at night, maybe sleep in the chair by the bed, what the hell am I doing?

As though he hasn’t heard, Sanghyuk keeps talking, pushing himself wearily to his feet and walking over to Hongbin’s bed. ‘I know what you’re doing, Bean. I know you want me to go, just like I know you tried to get to Hakyeon and you didn’t think I could stop him.’ Kneeling over the still figure now, so close their noses are almost touching. ‘Well, you’ll get part of your wish, because they’re sending me away …’ He stops, gulping down a sob. As quietly as he can, Jongmin stands and moves closer, close enough to see the first tears fall on the bandages over Hongbin’s eyes. ‘They’re going to make me leave you … just like you did. I remember now, Bean. I remember you fighting me and pushing us all away and telling us to run ... and I know why you did it ... you did it for us, you knew she’d let us all go if she could keep you … but … now … give it back, all of it, let us deal with it … you don’t have to die …’ His voice fails him, then, but he doesn’t break down, just hovers over Hongbin, staring down, crying silently.

hyukkie

Jongmin starts, a cold shiver rippling over him, because there’s no sound, Hongbin’s lips don’t move, but the voice right by his ear, shaky and hoarse, is unmistakable. The same one he thought he’d heard asking him to stay. This can’t be happening. I’m imagining it.

don’tcry
pleasedon’t cry

‘Shut up,’ mutters Sanghyuk. He hears it too, thinks Jongmin incredulously. Has he always heard it?

takeitall
allofit
my choice

keepyou safe

‘Bean, it’s not worth anything if you die, we’re not worth that.’

not them

just you

Sanghyuk draws back, blinking furiously, eyes searching Hongbin’s face. ‘What?’ he says stupidly. ‘What?’

keepyou safe
takeit all withme

take her withme

Why?

love you hyukkie

Sanghyuk’s mouth works, his whole body beginning to shake, hand coming up to touch Hongbin’s face, almost paw at it. ‘No …’ It’s not a rejection, Jongmin understands that instinctively; it’s a denial of everything that’s happening, everything that Sanghyuk fears will happen. ‘No, please, Bean, please … don’t … no …’ He leans over Hongbin again, even closer than before, whispers brokenly against Hongbin’s mouth, ‘... don’t leave me …’

Jongmin sees Sanghyuk’s eyes close, tears still spilling out. He doesn’t need to see anything else to know what he has to do, because I believe now, and he can see where this path leads, and he can’t let this happen. He turns his back and leaves, still hearing their voices even though neither of them is speaking now, feeling a phantom hand brush across Sanghyuk’s hair and cup the side of his face. Aware of the moment when Sanghyuk kisses Hongbin’s numb lips like he’s trying to breathe life into him, frantic and despairing, begging silently, stay with me, don’t leave me, stay with me.

Chapter Text

Hello gorgeous, dark and twisted readers,

This fic is alive and well, but there may not be updates for a few weeks. I'm in hospital, just came out of intensive care, and could be a while recovering. I will continue to work on it as much as I can, so please forgive any delays.

I hope you'll hang in there with me while I recover.

Lots of love,

your very own Kongbeanie.

 

PS Still to come ... life in Hibiscus Recovery and Wellness Centre, every little girl loves a doll, and what shall we do about Hongbin.

Chapter Text

‘You can’t come in, Hakyeon.’ Taekwoon’s voice, soft, regretful, one hand resting lightly on Hakyeon’s chest. Just enough pressure to make the point. ‘I’m sorry.’

Hakyeon sighs. ‘I know. I just …’ He looks past, inside the room to where the others have gathered around Hongbin’s bed, all of them looking strange and awkward in street clothes and shoes. ‘I wanted to say goodbye.’ As soon as the words are out, he regrets them; already, it looks too much like a deathbed vigil, a terrible air of finality to everyone’s movements and the few looks they’ve exchanged. Appalled, he bursts into a frenzy of fluttering hands and twitching fingers. ‘I meant …’

‘Ssh,’ says Taekwoon, folding his arms around Hakyeon. It doesn’t calm him completely, but the contact quiets the worst of the tremors. ‘I know. He knows. Not goodbye, just let’s meet again. And we will.’ He speaks with a confidence he doesn’t feel, all firm top notes with nothing supporting them, because so much of him fears that this will be the last time. That they’ll walk out of here into this new place, start their journey home - and there’ll be a phone call, or a visit from Doctor Hwang with the news that could break them all apart again.

‘Will you tell him something for me?’ asks Hakyeon. Startled, Taekwon tears his thoughts away from their dark turn. ‘He needs - no, I need him to hear it.’

‘Of course. What is it?’

 

*****

 

‘Thank you for coming, Doctor Park,’ says the detective, gracious in victory. ‘Please, take a seat.’

As if I had a choice, thinks Sooyeon as she sits at the conference table, flanked by the hospital’s legal representative and her own attorney. Opposite, the detective in yet another grey suit and her junior, slightly rumpled as though just woken from an unexpected nap. The third person, standing slightly off to one side, doesn’t offer his name, his concentration entirely focused on setting up the video camera and microphone. The presence of the recording equipment, even more than the deliberately formal setting, makes it clear that this is going to be no polite conversation, one professional to another. It might not be a police interview room, but Sooyeon is in no doubt; this is an interrogation.

She sits silently as the technician runs through his final checks, speaking only when requested to check that the microphone is in the correct position to pick up her voice. Then, without any preamble, the detective launches into her introduction, a quick recitation of time, date, place, purpose. Each of them is asked to identify themselves, and to confirm they understand that they are compelled to answer truthfully and completely per the terms of the warrant. Sooyeon’s lawyer states firmly that if any private consultation is needed with her client, she will insist that the room be cleared and the recording suspended for that period of time. Although the detective doesn’t object, her irritation is obvious.

‘All right,’ says the detective finally, ‘lets begin.’

 

*****

 

Jaehwan takes Hongbin’s hand. It lays limp in his own, pale and cool. ‘Binnie? It’s me. I know you can’t feel it, but I’m holding your hand now.’ No response, no more than he expected, but still Jaehwan ducks his head to hide the way his mouth trembles. ‘We have to go now, they’re taking us to a recovery place. I wish you could come with us, but they … you’re not well enough.’ You’re dying, he thinks. No, no, I won’t believe it. ‘We’ll think about you all the time, and I’ll send you more pictures. Jongmin - I finally got him to tell me his first name - promised me he’d describe them to you.’ He pauses, looking down at their clasped hands. ‘You have to hold on, Binnie,’ he whispers. ‘Don’t give up.’

Smallest movement, then, just a curl of the fingers, and Jaehwan smiles. ‘Of course I will,’ he murmurs absently, then blinks, startled. ‘Binnie? Did you …?’ But Hongbin’s face is expressionless, his hand still, and after a moment Jaehwan sighs and lets go. ‘See you soon,’ he says, stepping back.

 

*****

 

‘You arranged two days ago for five of the six victims - Cha Hakyeon, Lee Jaehwan, Kim Wonshik, Jung Taekwoon, and Han Sanghyuk - to be transferred to an affiliated facility called Hibiscus Wellness and Recovery Centre, correct?’

‘That’s right,’ says Sooyeon.

‘What prompted this decision?’

‘The team reviewed their conditions and concluded the most appropriate course of treatment was to move into to a post-acute care phase.’

‘Why now?’

‘As I said, the team reviewed …’

‘Doctor Park.’ The detective’s voice turns sharp. ‘Do you expect us to believe it’s a coincidence that you made this decision immediately after being informed of the warrants secured for medical information and access to your patients?’

The accusation is no more than expected; the detective is far from stupid, and given how often she’s been stymied in her efforts throughout this whole situation, that she would see the timing as too convenient to be anything but deliberate was inevitable. She’s not even wrong, thinks Sooyeon, but she keeps her face and tone carefully neutral as she lies. ‘I made this decision after a review process that started over two weeks ago, detective. You are welcome to check the dates on the various reports - subject to the hospital’s permission, of course.’

From the look on her face, it’s clear that the detective doesn’t believe it for a moment, but she simply instructs her subordinate to do exactly as Sooyeon suggests. ‘All right. Let’s move on. You’re familiar with forensic procedures, Doctor Park; you’ve worked with us before. Can you explain, then, why you deliberately ignored proper protocols and allowed valuable evidence to be destroyed?’

For the first time in months, Sooyeon finds herself craving for a cigarette.

 

*****

 

Wonshik doesn’t touch Hongbin, but stands close. ‘Hey, Bean. You need to get your butt out of that bed and join us. I’m looking forward to beating you at table tennis or whatever lame stuff they have over at this new place. No lying around and being lazy, that’s my job.’ Wonshik can hear the note of forced cheerfulness in his own voice, so obviously false. ‘Aish.’ He scrubs a hand over his face. ‘Sorry. Look, just … fight. Okay? Fight. Don’t let her fucking win.’ Bending, he brushes the hair back from Hongbin’s forehead, and kisses him softly, grimacing at how little warmth there is against his lips. ‘We’ll be waiting for you.’ His brow creases for a moment. ‘Sure. Anything,’ he whispers, staring at nothing.

‘Shikkie?’ Jaehwan, edging closer. ‘Are you all right?’

‘Yeah,’ says Wonshik, puzzled. ‘Sorry, must have zoned out for a second.’ He straightens up, gives Hongbin’s shoulder a squeeze. ‘See you later.’ Still seeming a little dazed, he moves away from the bed, Jaehwan slipping an arm around his waist to pull him closer. The pair withdraw to the doorway where Hakyeon watches, hands tucked under his arms to keep them still.

 

*****

 

‘Doctor Hwang, let’s talk about Lee Hongbin.’

It’s not going to make any difference, but Jongmin has to at least try. ‘I want it on the record that I object strongly to being asked to give details about my private sessions with these patients. Doctor-patient confidentiality …’

The interruption is swift, the detective’s tone dismissive. ‘Your objection is noted. The terms of the warrant allows us to ask these questions, and your hospital has agreed to waive privacy concerns in light of the seriousness of this matter. Now … Lee Hongbin.’

A quick glance at the hospital’s attorney confirms that there’s simply no way around answering these questions. I won’t give you one word more than necessary, he thinks. The reports, which he knows they already have, contain nothing useful; this interview is just a fishing expedition. She’s hoping he’ll let slip something that will confirm her suspicions, and she’ll push him, hoping to make him lose his temper enough to not monitor what he’s saying. In this respect, she’s no different to a dozen state officials focused on making a name for themselves as high-profile prosecutors of war crimes who’ve tried to make him betray his patients so they can build their cases. What they, and she, can’t understand is that protecting those who confide in him is the closest thing he has to a sacred duty.

‘I’m afraid there’s not much I can tell you,’ he says, careful to keep his voice as mild as possible. ‘We only spoke a few times, and since he’s become mute …’ He shrugs.

‘Doctor, you’ve testified as to someone’s state of mind after only seeing them for a short time. You can do that here.’

I’ll bury you in jargon. ‘I can tell you that Hongbin is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He also has intermittent psychotic fugues, as well as the mutism I’ve already mentioned. His symptoms are extreme. His neurosis regarding food borders on anorexia, and he appears to have developed a psychosomatic loss of neural sensation, as well as a complex of parasomnias that interact in a way that …’

‘Layman’s terms, Doctor,’ she snaps.

He narrows his eyes. ‘He can’t talk, can’t eat, and can barely feel it when he’s touched. The only sound out of him is when the nightmares make him scream himself hoarse. Is that clear enough for you?’

‘So you’re saying he’s insane?’

‘I’m saying that what he’s going through is a perfectly understandable response to the horror that was inflicted on him. I’m saying it’s a miracle he hasn’t broken with reality altogether, or that he didn’t attempt to kill himself the moment he was free.’

‘Do you think he murdered his captor?’

Out of nowhere, that question, obviously hoping to catch him off-guard, but Jongmin’s been waiting for it, preparing for it ever since he read the autopsy report. The lie rolls easily off his tongue. ‘Do I think a blind, malnourished, severely injured boy could inflict that much violence on a fully-sighted, healthy individual? I think the idea is completely absurd. Hongbin’s lucky to be alive. When he was brought in to this hospital his prognosis was so poor we weren’t sure he’d live through the first night.’

‘I’m asking you if - in your professional opinion - you believe he’s capable of murder.’

‘I know exactly what you’re doing,’ spits Jongmin, unable to hold back his anger any longer. ‘You’ve got a theory in your head and you’re determined to make the facts fit, no matter how much you have to stretch the bounds of probability. You’ve made up your mind Hongbin is a killer. Well, I won’t confirm that for you. I won’t give you anything you can twist to support your idea. The boy is a victim. Look elsewhere for your murderer. I know your profilers said this woman had an accomplice, maybe you should concentrate on trying to find him instead of persecuting an innocent person.’

‘I’m glad you brought that up, Doctor,’ the detective says, sitting back in her seat and favouring him with a satisfied smile. ‘You see, we believe Lee Hongbin is the other member of the team, based on our interviews with the initial five victims and reports of what they’ve said to hospital personnel. What do you say to that idea?’

Jongmin pushes his chair back from the table and stands. ‘I say this farce of an interrogation is over.’ The hospital’s attorney scrambles up, opening his mouth to object, but Jongmin doesn’t give him time to speak, just pushes past and leaves the room, slamming the door behind him.

 

*****

 

‘Hello, Hongbin.’ Taekwoon’s voice is gentle, almost inaudible. Instead of standing next to the bed, he draws up the visitor’s chair and sits down near Hongbin’s head. ‘Hakyeon is here, but he’s not coming in. You know why.’ The figure stirs a little, just a shiver, but Taekwoon is close enough to see the slight shake of his head. ‘He gave me a message for you, though. He wanted me to tell you again that he’s sorry. And that he promises not to give up, no matter what. And … that he remembers everything now.’

Leaning very close now, Taekwoon takes a deep breath. ‘You told me to stay. It was hard; so many times I nearly gave up. But you were right.’ He closes his eyes. ‘I want to tell you to stay, too. I want to be selfish, to tell you that you have to come back to us. That you owe it to all of us, especially Sanghyuk, to fight with every single breath.’ Reaching out now with one hand to cup Hongbin’s face, knowing it won’t be felt, needing the comfort for himself, mouth trembling and voice clogged, ‘I want that … but I understand if you can’t. If you have to … go.’

He bows his head, feeling tears slip out from under his eyelids. ‘I’m sorry ... yes, whatever you need.’ Why did I say that? ‘I’ll … I’ll look after Sanghyuk.’ Unable to stay there a moment longer, Taekwoon pushes himself to his feet and stumbles blindly back towards the doorway, to be caught by Hakyeon. ‘I gave him your message,’ is all he manages to choke out before his voice fails him completely. He clings to Hakyeon, silently crying, Jaehwan and Wonshik quick to add their arms and make soothing noises.

‘It’s okay,’ says Jaehwan, ‘it’s okay to cry. We’re here, we know it’s hard, but we’ll visit soon.’

Taekwoon only presses his face harder against Hakyeon’s shoulder. You don’t understand. I gave him permission to die.

 

*****

 

‘Here.’ Sooyeon sets down a large paper cup with the hospital’s logo printed on it on the desk in front of Jongmin. ‘I know it’s not exactly what you’d rather be drinking right now, but it’s the best I can do.’

Jongmin stares at it blankly for a moment, before reaching out and peeling off the lid. The aroma of strong coffee, slightly over-brewed, rises from the black liquid inside. ‘Actually, this is better than alcohol. Passing out drunk in my office probably wouldn’t do anything for my professional reputation.’ With a wry twist to his mouth, he adds, ‘Such as it is these days.’

Instinctively Sooyeon starts to contradict him, but his tone is entirely matter-of-fact, and truth be told, his recent behaviour has attracted all the wrong sort of attention from the hospital’s administration. Anyone else would have been let go, or at least formally reprimanded, long before now; only Jongmin’s international recognition for his work with survivors of war crimes protects him. Even so, there’s no doubt someone will soon take him aside for a quiet conversation, perhaps suggest he use some of his accrued research leave. Although she’s technically his superior, their relationship has always been more one of equals, and lately, even friends. It makes her comfortable enough to say bluntly, ‘It would help if you actually changed your clothes more than once a week. You look like hell, Jongmin, are you sleeping?’

He lifts one hand in a gesture that’s probably meant to be dismissive, succeeding only in looking nervous. ‘Some. Probably not enough. Bad dreams come with the territory, sometimes.’ Taking a large swallow of coffee, he grimaces at the burnt taste. ‘You don’t look all that well-rested yourself.’

Her reply is no more convincing than his. ‘Late night paperwork.’ It’s not exactly a lie, because her workload is even greater than usual, but really, staying back every evening to get her notes completely up to date is a choice. More than once, she’s fallen asleep on the couch in her office, waking only when her husband calls to complain, yet again, that she’s neglecting her family. She knows she’s using work to avoid the situation at home, and that, by doing so, she’s only making it worse. What she can’t tell her husband is that every time she closes her eyes in their apartment, she’s back crouching on the floor with the doll in her hand. What she can’t tell anyone - not even Jongmin - is when she imagines it, her fingers itch to take one of the pins and push it right into the doll’s stomach.

‘All right, so we’ve both lied to each other to save face,’ says Jongmin, and sighs. ‘Why don’t we drop the crap? You know there’s something going on here that neither of us can explain, Sooyeon. You don’t have to tell me everything, but can we at least acknowledge how far out of our depth we are? Because after that goddamn interview, I’m too tired to keep pretending. Look at these. I just keep finding them - in my pockets, my briefcase, even found one in my hair this morning.’ He opens a drawer, takes out an envelope, and tips out the contents onto the desk. The pins catch the light as they tumble through the air. Sooyeon’s breath stops in her throat and she flinches back.

‘Jongmin, what the hell?’

 

*****

Only when the others have gone, Hakyeon casting one last lingering look back into the room, does Sanghyuk move. Shutting the door behind them quietly, he goes straight back to the bed and lays down, pulling Hongbin close. There’s no resistance, just the drag of dead weight, but even then it’s easier than expected. Hongbin seems lighter, somehow less substantial; he’s fading, thinks Sanghyuk, he’s going. ‘Don’t,’ he whispers, hating how hopeless he sounds. ‘Don’t leave me.’ Except he’s the one doing the leaving, maybe not running this time, but really, there’s no difference. He gets to escape and the person who means everything to him gets sacrificed. Again. ‘I don’t want to go,’ he begs, ‘please don’t make me go.’

Invisible fingers stroking through his hair, a feather-light, ghostly kiss. It’s meant to be comforting, Sanghyuk knows; instead it makes him hurt even more. ‘You haven’t won, you know. Yeah, I’m going, and there’s nothing I can do to change that, but if you think for one second I’m giving up …’ He can hear himself getting louder, steel entering his voice. ‘I’ll never give up, Bean. It’s not up to you, do you get it? I’ll find a way to bring you back. I don’t care what I have to do, I’m not letting you go, I’m not letting her take you from me.’

Faint, so faint that for a moment Sanghyuk thinks it’s only his imagination. Then it comes again, regret and guilt and determination all packed into a single word, hyukkie

No, Bean. You said you love me, so …’ His face works, so close to tears, but he’s not going to let himself break down, not this time. ‘If you do, if you love me … then you fight. And you hold on and you don’t stop, not even for a second, got it? Because I’ll do it, I’ll figure out how to get you free of this for good. Promise me you’ll do that, promise me you won’t just …’

It’s not really movement, only a tightening of muscles in the arm lying limply over his waist, a shudder that pushes Hongbin’s face against his. To Sanghyuk, it’s an answer, and the relief that washes through him is so immense it makes him light-headed. ‘Thank you,’ he whispers, then, almost dreamily, ‘oh, Bean, you know I will, you don’t even have to ask, I’ll always …’ What am I saying?

Memories, crowding in, threatening almost to drown him. Running away along the side of a road at night, laughing so hard he nearly can’t breathe. Standing completely still and biting the inside of his cheeks to keep from smiling as he’s picked up and carried off. Passing paper from mouth to mouth, hot with embarrassment. Listening to the first cheers and applause, hearing his name chanted and feeling like he should pinch himself because this has to be a dream. Sitting in an open field of grass, ashamed and apologetic, pledging to be a better friend, to always be there if he’s needed.

And then they’re gone, leaving only a curious weight that seems to lodge in his mind. What happened? It felt like … but already it’s fading. In his arms, Hongbin stirs slightly. ‘Bean? Are you …’ Soft, even breathing, he’s asleep.

They’ll be coming for him soon. What few things he has are already packed away and waiting to be transported with them to this new place, with the exception of a single white t-shirt, washed so often its logo is barely discernible anymore. ‘I’m leaving this for you,’ he murmurs. ‘It’s not much, but, you know … I just want you to feel like I’m still here. I know, it’s stupid. Anyway …’ He can hear footsteps outside. ‘I’ll see you soon. Remember, you promised.’

As the door opens, Sanghyuk kisses Hongbin softly, willing him to be able to at least feel this. ‘Love you too, Bean.’

 

*****

(alone)
(alone)
(all gone left you)
(it’s just the two of us again, pretty)
(like it should be)
(like it will always be)

(precious)
(are you hiding again?)
(are you playing a game with me?)
(I’m going to find you)

(don't worry, I'll fix everything)
(I'll make you perfect again)

(ready or not here I come)

 

Curled up under the sheet, Hongbin’s body twists and shudders. One hand reaches up into the space above the bed, fingers clawing and grasping at the air. He stiffens, and his mouth stretches into a delighted smile that widens until it becomes a manic, pain-filled grin.

The laughter that climbs up out of his throat is vicious and triumphant, and tears at the ears of a passing nurse out in the corridor, who crosses herself and mutters a prayer. It goes on and on even as Hongbin thrashes, shoving his hand against his mouth in a desperate attempt to push it back.

Almost a hundred kilometres away, huddled together silently in the hospital’s patient transport van, five heads snap up suddenly, staring at nothing. Jaehwan whimpers once, and Wonshik growls. Taekwoon covers his face with his hands. ‘Oh, god,’ whispers Sanghyuk, ‘oh, god.’

‘What is it?’ asks Jongmin, looking back at them from the front passenger seat. ‘What’s wrong?’

Only Hakyeon meets his eyes, tears spilling down his cheeks. ‘Can’t you hear it?’

‘No, I …’ Sharp pain, and then Jongmin can hear, and the violent shiver that racks him makes the driver glance at him curiously.

Screaming. He’s screaming. Sooyeon, what have we done?

Chapter Text

‘Is it just me ...’ says Hakyeon, looking around the unit that’s going to be their home for the next few weeks, at least.

‘Or does this look like a smaller version of the dorm?’ Jaehwan finishes the thought. ‘It’s not just you.’

The five of them stand in the common area, familiar in so many ways, just a normal apartment, furnished to use the limited space to best advantage. Four doors lead from here to the three bedrooms and a bathroom. The tiny kitchen nook holds a small fridge, and an L-shaped counter which holds a microwave oven, rice cooker, and hot water urn. A drop-leaf table fits neatly into a space at its end, flanked by folding chairs stacked against the wall. The space opens out into a living room into which are crowded couches, a single lounge chair, a low table and an entertainment unit that contains a combined television/DVD player and a Playstation. The only thing missing is an untidy pile of floor cushions; otherwise it seems as though someone went to the trouble to recreate an environment as close to their usual living arrangement as possible. It’s almost certainly meant to be reassuring, but after so long, it feels alien to the point where Taekwoon finds himself actually missing the hospital room that’s been the only home they’ve known for months now. Before that there’s only the room with the screens … and her. And the gulf between that and the life he once thought would be his is too great for his mind to grasp.

‘Which room do you want?’ asks Wonshik, breaking into that gloomy train of thought. Taekwoon looks over at Hakyeon, who makes a noncommittal noise, hands tightly tucked under his armpits. He feels it, too. How can this place ever become home to us? How can any place, now?

‘Give Sanghyuk the first choice,’ says Hakyeon, but there’s no answer from the maknae, who seems not to take in anything around him. His expression is closed, eyes focused on nothing. ‘Hyukkie?’

‘Remember the argument we had over who was going to room with who?’ Sanghyuk’s voice is low, almost sleepy. ‘No one wanted to share with Wonshik because of his snoring.’

‘I don’t snore!’ exclaims Wonshik, more out of habit than conviction.

‘Actually,’ Jaehwan observes with a cheeky smile, ‘since Hyukkie broke your nose, your snoring has improved. Which is just as well for me.’

‘Hey!’

As though as he hasn’t heard anything, Sanghyuk continues. ‘I even offered to do all the bathroom cleaning for whoever would swap with me, but even that didn’t work.’ He sighs. ‘I don’t think I slept well for the entire first month.’

Wonshik scoffs, ‘Since when did you ever voluntarily clean anything?’

Startled, Sanghyuk blinks, and rubs at his eyes. ‘What? Oh. I don’t care. You guys take whatever rooms you want.’

‘Then I choose this one!’ calls Jaehwan from one of the doorways. ‘Shikkie, help me push these beds together.’ Smiling, Wonshik goes to join him.

‘What about this one for us?’ asks Taekwoon. ‘Hakyeonnie? Did you hear me?’

‘Yes, whatever you’d like.’ Hakyeon’s eyes are fixed on Sanghyuk, his face troubled, thinking furiously. His own memory of that time is clear, and the maknae’s offered bribe to get out of rooming with Wonshik was nothing to do with cleaning. Why would you say that, Hyukkie? And why doesn’t anyone else realise you’re talking about Hongbin?

 

*****

 

The piano in the rec room is old, and could undoubtedly benefit from tuning, but as soon as he sees it, Taekwoon crosses the room to lift the lid. Unconsciously, he flexes his fingers, grimacing at the stiffness, then arranges his right hand on the keys in a simple C major chord.

‘That’s right, you play, don’t you?’ says a friendly voice behind him. Turning, Taekwoon sees one of their new nurses, someone whose name he can’t quite remember until he sees her nametag. Jaehwan would have known without looking, he thinks. ‘As long as your therapist says it’s all right, you’re welcome to come and play it any time there’s no other scheduled activity in here.’ She smiles. ‘It would be good to have some new music, everyone’s sick of hearing the same few CDs.’

Of course, thinks Taekwoon, no radio here. Nothing that might upset the patients until they’re ready to deal with the outside world again. ‘Thank you. I’ll ask my hand therapist as soon as I see her again.’ That won’t be for another three days; regretfully, he lifts his hand and starts to close the lid.

‘Why don’t I ring her now?’ she offers.

‘Really?’ asks Taekwoon eagerly. ‘I mean … please, don’t go to any trouble …’

She waves off his objection. ‘Not at all, I’m not busy right now. You wait there, I’ll be back in just a moment.’

He doesn’t see her leave the room, already sitting down on the straight-backed chair. He feels clumsy, unable to do the instrument justice, but the pull is so strong that he can’t stop himself from tentatively picking out a hesitant, fumbling melody. It’s full of wrong notes and odd pauses where he just can’t move his fingers quickly enough, and the flare of pain through his hands is enough to cause him to wince, but it’s music, of his own making, at last. Something else returned to him; and this one, at least, can’t hurt anyone but himself.

When the nurse comes back with the news that he’s to play for no more than half an hour at a time, only up to three times each day, and to let pain be his guide, he doesn’t stop, doesn’t even turn his head to look at her, just agrees with a brusque haste that borders on rudeness. Already, his hands are aching, but he keeps playing, snatches of their own songs, singing under his breath. Only when he feels Hakyeon’s warm embrace does he reluctantly lift his shaking fingers from the keys.

‘You sound happy,’ says Hakyeon quietly, smiling.

Taekwoon shakes his head. ‘I sound terrible.’

‘It’s the first time you’ve touched a piano in months. Don’t be so hard on yourself,’ Hakyeon chides him. ‘I could hear you singing. I’ve missed that.’ The statement is heartfelt, but Taekwoon can hear an odd dissonance hiding just behind the words. When he glances up, Hakyeon’s expression is puzzled.

‘What’s wrong?’ Taekwoon asks.

Hakyeon shakes his head, his smile now touched by self-deprecation. ‘It’s nothing, I suppose. I just wondered why you weren’t singing your own part to that last chorus.’

‘I wasn’t?’

‘No. You were singing the low harmony … Hongbin’s line.’

 

*****

 

hurts

‘ … no, I still have three more nights before my weekend. I envy you. Are you planning to do anything special?’

‘Nothing at all, since my wife won’t be back from her conference until Tuesday. It’s going to be me, my couch, and a lot of mindless TV. So, it’s been a fairly quiet day. His blood pressure is still quite low, and his heart rate is up, but at this stage the doctors just want to monitor him, so obs once every two hours. Let’s see … he’s due for another round of antibiotics in about an hour. Oh, and Doctor Hwang wants us to leave the reading lamp on all night. I think it’s supposed to help with the nightmares.’

‘Well, I hope something does. Poor boy. You know, he reminds me a little of my youngest? It would just break my heart if something like this happened to him.’

'Really? You’re not ... what about the …what people have said?’

‘I hope you’re not putting any stock in that nonsense.’

‘ … no. No, of course not. Now, he needs to be turned, I’ll give you a hand with that.’

‘Thank you. All right, let’s … is that blood?’

(there, pretty)

(that’s better)

‘Oh, my god.’

‘Page Doctor Park immediately!’

 

****

‘Oh, this is not happening,’ mutters Sanghyuk as Wonshik lets out a victorious whoop and waves his controller in the air. ‘You’re just getting lucky.’

‘Five times in a row,’ Wonshik says smugly. ‘No one’s that lucky.’

Frowning, Sanghyuk tests the buttons on his own controller, and checks that the cable connecting it to the console is properly seated. ‘That should fix it. Right, let’s go.’

This match ends the same way as all the others; if anything, it takes less time for Wonshik to take out Sanghyuk’s character. As the maknae stares at the screen in disbelief, Hakyeon, half-watching from where he sits leafing through magazines, comments idly, ‘I advise surrender, Hyukkie.’

‘No way,’ says Sanghyuk, ‘no … way. I always win against you, when did you get so good at this?’

‘Ha,’ beams Wonshik. ‘Just wait until we get hold of Final Fantasy, I’m gonna skewer you with arrows so fast you won’t get a chance to even try to hit me.’

‘Arrows?’ Hakyeon looks over at him, bewildered. ‘I thought you didn’t like archer-type characters?’

‘I don't, I …’ Wonshik shrugs. 'Oh, well.'

 

*****

 

‘Are you sure you want that one?’

In the act of dropping a large spoonful of curry onto his plate, Jaehwan looks up at Hakyeon, puzzled. ‘What?’

’That’s a very hot dish,’ says Hakyeon. ‘I know how sensitive you are to spicy things.’

‘What do you - oh.’ Bringing the plate up to his nose, Jaehwan sniffs it cautiously, immediately pulling his head away. ‘You’re right … that’s weird, I didn’t even think about it. I just … I wanted it. Huh.’

 

*****

 

The art room is well stocked with everything from tubs crammed full of pencils and beads to a potter’s wheel, and Jaehwan sighs happily as he opens up a large sketchbook and places it on the paint-daubed easel in front of him. Behind him, Hakyeon and Sanghyuk exchange glances. Clearly, the vocalist is in his element, already beginning to rough out a depiction of a large vase of sunflowers set on a chair that seems to glow in the light from the window. ‘It’s for Binnie,’ he says. ‘I want to do a better picture for him than the last one.’

Remembering Hongbin’s reaction to that first childlike painting, Sanghyuk shakes his head. ‘You don’t need to replace it. He loves that one, Jyani.’ The only reply is a noncommittal hum.

‘So what do you suggest I try?’ Hakyeon asks, frankly bewildered by the sheer array of supplies all around them.

Jaehwan waves his arm vaguely in the direction of the shelves. ‘Just pick whatever appeals to you. That’s the whole point, we just need to go with what feels right.’

‘What feels right …’ After a moment, Hakyeon goes to a scarred table that holds a small gas burner, on which rests a heavy saucepan. Next to it is a booklet, and a cluster of old powdered milk cans, each holding chips of a different coloured wax. Hakyeon sifts some through his fingers as he reads. ‘Candle-making. Why not?’

Nothing in the room appeals to Sanghyuk at first glance. Seeing the others become absorbed in their tasks, he drifts from shelf to shelf, opening cupboards at random, picking up books on everything from macrame to origami. His first attempt at a simple folded fish is an abject failure; he crumples it up and lobs it into a bin. It’s quickly followed by a lopsided sketch of a group of Naruto characters, and a tangle of string that, according to the book, was supposed to be a ‘simple square knot curtain tie’. After that, he just roams for a while, until his eye is caught by a Polaroid camera shoved to the back of a shelf full of jars of beads. Shrugging, he takes it down and idly snaps a few pictures of things around the room. As each photo develops, he leaves them scattered on the various work tables.

Looking over at Jaehwan, Sanghyuk raises the camera again, but this time lowers it immediately, frowning. ‘Light’s not right,’ he mutters, and moves so that his back is to the window. ‘Better,’ but when he snaps that photo of the vocalist, he lets out an irritated noise and tosses the picture onto the table. ‘Wonder if there’s a real camera around here,’ he says, opening yet another cupboard.

Face flushed with heat from the burner, melting wax forgotten, Hakyeon watches, and thinks, oh, Hongbin. What did you do?

 

*****

 

‘Hello, Hakyeon.’

‘Doctor Hwang, what’s happened?’

‘Please be calm. Hongbin has had a setback.’

‘Oh, no.’

‘As you know, his wounds from the glass were mostly healed, but today some of them … have re-opened.’

‘Are you saying he hurt himself?’

‘We’re not sure how it happened, but I don’t think so. We caught it early, so he didn’t lose much blood, and Doctor Park is consulting with Plastics now, but we wanted you to know.’

‘We shouldn’t have left him.’

‘Hakyeon, there’s nothing any of you could have done to prevent this.’

‘Hyukkie will blame himself.’

‘I know. I’m coming to see you all tomorrow afternoon, I’ll talk to him then, but I promised to keep you all informed of everything that happened, so …’

‘Thank you, Doctor. Are you going to see Hongbin again?’

‘I’m going to sit with him tonight.’

‘Please tell him we all love him. And … no.’

‘Hakyeon?’

‘Never mind. We can talk tomorrow.’

 

*****

‘They’re still blocking us. This is insane, how are they being allowed to get away with it?’ The detective crumples up her coffee cup and throws it with more force than accuracy towards the bin in the corner; it bounces off the rim and hits her junior on the side of his leg. Without comment, he picks it up and drops it into his own waste basket. ‘There’s no reason for them to do this, you’d think they would be eager to cooperate. They’re hiding something, I know they are. And I’ll find what it is, you can be sure of that.’

The junior doesn’t say anything, his expression neutral. Wise choice, the detective thinks. You might actually last a while. She still hasn’t bothered to learn his name, because these days, new partners come and go so fast that it’s simply not worth it. She’s well aware of how she’s viewed in the department; the mildest nickname they have for her is ‘dragon’, and she takes a perverse pride in it. They say she’s always angry, but how can she not be, when she has to deal with fools all day, and watch inferior colleagues get promoted over her simply because she won’t play the cringing sycophant as they do? Still, this junior is working out better than expected, so maybe she should make an effort to remember him. If only she could knock out of him that tendency to go soft on suspects, teach him that compromising only makes it more difficult to get to the truth of a situation.

‘There’s been too much compromise with these doctors already,’ she declares. ‘Their behaviour’s gone past obstruction. I’m tempted to threaten to charge them as accessories to these crimes.’

‘That’s not going to make them any more inclined to help us,’ he points out mildly.

Frustrated, she clenches her jaw and drags one of the stacks of folders on her desk closer. The worst of it is, he’s probably right, but that does nothing to make her more inclined to give them any more leeway. ‘I need leverage’, she says as she starts sifting for the hundredth time through medical records, witness statements, evidence reports, ‘there has to be something here I can use to make them want to talk.’ They’re clever, though, these doctors. Everything is muddled up with medical jargon and letter-of-the-law compliance. That psychiatrist, in particular. ‘He’s definitely hiding things. Thinks he’s more clever than we are.’

She sits back and picks up the evidence bag containing the doll, turning it over and over in her hands. ‘He should have let us confront those kids with this. Get them off balance, then maybe we’d get some honest reactions.’

‘You saw what happened when they caught sight of just the photos,’ he points out. ‘They were all over the place. If they’d seen the actual thing, who knows how they would have reacted?’

‘That’s the point,’ she snarls, her hand tightening on the doll. ‘We’ve been handling those kids like they’re fucking snowflakes, we should have gone out hard from the start.’

Her junior starts to reply, but his voices chokes off and he coughs, reaching for a glass of water to clear his throat. Ignoring him, she carries on. ‘Those doctors, if we could just get them out of the way …’ She opens another folder at random and reads. Something catches her eyes; she read closer, then grabs for another, and another, pulling out papers to compare. Slowly, a nasty smile spreads across her face. ‘I’ve got them.’

She spins in her chair to face him. ‘Listen to this. It’s a statement from one of the nurses, she says she’s concerned at the way the doctors are treating the kids. We knew they were sharing rooms, but according to her, they’re also sharing beds.’

‘It’s probably a comfort thing -’

‘No. Listen. Another one said she’s seen the two eldest kissing, right in front of the doctors. Two men. And this one, she said she tried to talk to Doctor Park about how inappropriate it was and got shut down before she got half a dozen words out. She puts it down to that psychiatrist’s influence, and she said he was getting quote, erratic, unquote.’

‘Detective, I don’t think you -’

‘Don’t you get it? This is exactly what I need! I want you to call the hospital, schedule another interview with each of them. When they try to pull their usual crap, I can use this to put pressure on them. Threaten to go to the hospital board, force them to launch an ethical review that would rake their lives over with fine tooth combs. Every decision, every last bit of their treatment, all of it under a microscope.’

‘That’s going too far.’

‘It would make their lives hell. If they’re lucky, they wouldn’t lose their jobs, but their reputations … what did you say?’

‘You can’t do something like that,’ he says firmly.

She gapes at him. How dare he?

‘You can’t honestly think that threatening to ruin them is going to make them more likely to cooperate. They’d probably just dig their heels in even harder and you won’t get any help from them at all!’

‘Watch your tone with me,’ she snaps. ‘I’m still your superior officer.’

There’s nothing neutral about him now, his face is set and determined. ‘What you’re proposing is beyond unethical. If they complain, you’d be the one getting disciplined, not them.’

‘So what? We should let them get away with it? Hide those kids behind some psychobabble about a fucking child’s toy?’ She snatches up the doll again, waving it at him. ‘You’ve been getting in my way from the word go, undermining me, and now you’re going to get upset because this situation - that you’ve created - warrants more drastic action? Call the hospital,’ she orders. ‘Now.’

‘I will not. And if you try to do this, I will lodge my objections formally with your superior, detective.’

‘You wouldn’t dare,’ she hisses, narrowing her eyes. He meets her gaze steadily, and she realises, he would. He’d go over my head, screw up everything. Destroy her chances of solving this case, maybe kill her career stone dead. You can’t let that happen. Stop him. Not her thought, but it is, really, she’s only telling herself what she should do, because there’s no way she’s going to let him climb over her to kiss the feet of her boss and make a name for himself. Her fingers close on a pin through the plastic. Staring furiously at him, lips pulled back from her teeth in two thin lines, she thinks over and over, I won’t let you, I won’t let you, and shoves the pin all the way into the doll until she feels its head hit the fabric.

His eyes fly wide, and he lets out a strangled, agonised cry that shocks her out of her rage, the doll dropping from her hand. He tries to get his breath, his face draining of colour, coughs once, and even from across the room she can see the fine spray of blood that explodes from his mouth. Out of her seat immediately, but she’s no more than halfway across the room when he topples sideways off his chair and hits the floor, clawing at his chest and throat. She screams for help as she crashes to her knees beside him and grabs for his hands. This close, she can hear his horrible, gulping breaths, feel him convulse and twist with the pain, see the bubbles of blood burst at the sides of his mouth as he stares up at her with terrified eyes.

Then there are people piling into the room, someone calling for an ambulance, pushing her aside to try to clear his airway, support his head, do something, and all she can think is it’s too late, he’s gone, he’s gone. Even over the frantic babble of voices she hears the moment when his breath rattles one last time in his throat, and though she can’t see him, the reaction of those crouched over him tells her everything.

‘Did your hear me, detective?’ She looks up at her captain standing over her and thinks absurdly, from here I could actually kiss his feet. ‘My office,’ he says, ‘now. I want a full explanation.’

She drags herself to her feet and follows him out of the room on unsteady legs, aware of every eye on her, bloodstained white shirt, trembling hands, head shaking. Telling herself I didn’t do anything, it wasn’t me, it’s impossible. Unable to convince herself of anything but the absolute certainty that no matter what happens now, her life is over.

 

****

 

Another meeting, thinks Hakyeon. No wheelchairs this time, no pyjamas or attendant doctors, the only reminder that they’re still effectively hospitalised the plastic identity bands printed with their names and the bar code of their patient numbers. And the conspicuous absence of their sixth, but if I’m right

When he tells them the news about Hongbin, Sanghyuk is on his feet before he’s finished speaking, striding into his room to scoop up a jacket and shoes, only stopping when he nearly runs into Wonshik blocking his way to the front door. ‘Move,’ he growls, but Wonshik doesn’t budge, even when Sanghyuk grabs the front of his shirt. ‘Get out of my way.’

Just like it was, and for a heart-stopping moment Hakyeon is back there, seeing them as they were, bleeding and shattered, struggling desperately as Hongbin stumbles away. I have to do something, no more able to move now than he was then. He hunches his shoulders in anticipation of the blow he knows will come in the next moment, knows will strike Sanghyuk across the temple and leave him dizzy and cursing his own weakness. Crying out in alarm, Jaehwan jumps up and starts towards the two, but Taekwoon interposes himself, arms spread wide.

‘I can’t,’ says Wonshik, anguished. ‘I promised.’

What?’ yells Sanghyuk.

‘Hongbin. I promised him I wouldn’t let you try anything like this.’

‘You had no right!’

‘Hyukkie, he asked me to.’

At that, all the fight goes out of Sanghyuk, and he stumbles back. ‘You’re lying … he wouldn’t, he wouldn’t do that … you have to be lying.’ He sounds bewildered, lost.

Wonshik whispers, ‘I’m sorry.’

When?

Scrubbing his hands over his face, Wonshik tells him. ‘That first time I sat with him. When you were sleeping. He asked me then. He didn’t talk, but … I knew. And I promised.’

His voice as gentle as he can make it, Hakyeon says, ‘Hyukkie, Doctor Hwang will be with him tonight. And tomorrow he’ll be here to talk to you - to all of us.’ He pulls Sanghyuk into a hug, and the maknae grabs hold of him and hangs on so tightly that Hakyeon winces with pain, but he says nothing until, finally, the pressure lessens. ‘Please, let’s sit down. All of us. There’s something else I need to talk to you about.’

They look at him as though he’s speaking a foreign language as he tells them everything he’s noticed, all the sudden changes in them. Playing a formerly despised game. Eating food normally never touched. Singing the wrong harmony line. The photos. They don’t believe me, he thinks. How do I reach them? ‘When we first got here,’ he says, ‘when we were choosing rooms … do you remember what you said then, Hyukkie?’

Sanghyuk starts to shake his head, then, ‘I think … something about Wonshik?’

‘You said you’d tried to bribe someone to room with him instead of you, by offering to do their share of the bathroom cleaning.’

‘That’s not right,’ Jaehwan objects. ‘You didn’t do that, you said … I can’t remember exactly, but it wasn’t that.’

‘It was Hongbin,’ says Taekwoon suddenly. ‘That was his offer.’

Jaehwan frowns. ‘Why would you say that, Hyukkie?’

‘No, I …’ Sanghyuk looks baffled. ‘I did. I remember doing it, I …’ Hot and cold and dying inside when he hears his own wrong notes, berating himself for the tears that crowd behind his eyes at those hateful words, good looking but you can’t sing; trying not to shiver as he sits on the floor and is filmed from every angle as he cries, ‘... oh, god.’

‘It’s as though we all have something of him.’ Taekwoon shivers. ‘Parts of him, in us, somehow.’

All except for me, thinks Hayeon. I never went into the room to say goodbye. That’s why I could see it when the rest of you couldn’t. He waits for them to realise the rest.

It’s Jaehwan who puts it together first. ‘If we have so much of him … then he won’t have enough strength left to fight her.’

‘We can’t let him do this.’ Now Wonshik is the first one on his feet again, poised for action, Sanghyuk echoing him a moment later.

Taekwoon says nothing, watching Hakyeon carefully. His scrutiny pushes Hakyeon into motion, pacing, thinking furiously, hands in constant motion. Finally he stops dead in the middle of the room and looks up, fear and determination warring for dominance. ‘What are you thinking?’ Taekwoon asks him.

Hakyeon wraps his arms around himself and closes his eyes for a moment. When he opens them again, he focuses on each of them, one by one, before taking a deep breath. ‘I think I know what we have to do,’ he says. ‘But it’s dangerous. And we can’t do it alone.’

‘I don’t care, whatever it is, I’ll do it.’ Sanghyuk, no hesitation at all, just fierceness and love.

‘We have to help.’ Jaehwan, reaching out to link hands with Wonshik.

Wonshik, braced as though to receive a blow. ‘We will help.’

Only one word from Taekwoon. ‘Anything.’

‘God help us all,’ whispers Hakyeon

Chapter Text

 

(you’re so small, pretty)

(what did you do?)

(it’s all right)

(I’m still here)

 

****

 

Out here in the gardens, the breeze is gentle, carrying only the faintest sounds of traffic from outside the centre’s grounds. They’re all wearing sweaters or jackets, but out in the sun, the unseasonable warmth makes them all quickly shed their outer layers of clothing. Jaehwan still wears a long-sleeved shirt to protect his arms, but even that is as light as possible. All of them fumble with sunglasses, their eyes unused to so much brightness after being cooped up in the hospital all this time. Wonshik, carrying two large insulated bags, looks around at Hakyeon. ‘Well? Are you going to pick a spot, or just stand there all day?’

His face turned up to the sun, Hakyeon smiles. ‘How about right here?’ He opens the blanket cradled in his arms, spreading it on the lawn. Immediately, Jaehwan lays down on it on his back. ‘Move over a little,’ Hakyeon scolds him, ‘we need room for the food.’

‘This was a fantastic idea,’ Jaehwan says. ‘Shikkie, put that down and come over here.’ The food bags are unceremoniously dumped, to be taken charge of by Taekwoon, and Wonshik sits down with his legs straight out so that Jaehwan can pillow his head on them. ‘That’s better,’ he sighs happily, eyes closed.

Hanging back, Sanghyuk watches them, hugging himself. The place is beautiful, relaxing, everything it was promised to be. The idea of this picnic, just the five of them, no nurses, no security or official photographers, had seemed wonderful when it was first proposed by Hakyeon. A moment out of the routine of endless rounds of therapy and standing in line waiting to be served lunch along with everyone else. Now they’re here, though, it seems wrong to be enjoying themselves, knowing what they know. They haven’t forgotten, he tells himself, hearing Wonshik laugh as Jaehwan demands to be fed fresh grapes. They just need time out. Still, he can’t make himself move to join them. Too much of him is taken up with thinking about what might be going on back at the hospital.

‘Hyuk-ah, come and help me with this,’ orders Taekwoon. Pulling his thoughts back to the present, Sanghyuk goes to the edge of the blanket and kneels down. Containers are opened and pressed into his hands, plastic cutlery and plates distributed. As he holds cups while Taekwoon pours juice into them, the vocalist says quietly, ‘I’m thinking about him, too. He’s with us.’

‘It’s not the same,’ Sanghyuk replies.

‘I know, but hopefully …’

‘Do you really think we can do it? Get rid of her, get … get him back?’

‘We can.’ Hakyeon, coming to sit by them, slipping an arm around Sanghyuk’s shoulders, speaking with a confidence he doesn’t really feel, racked with doubt only Taekwoon can hear. ‘Doctor Hwang said he’ll talk to Doctor Park first thing tomorrow, convince her to help us.’

‘Poor Sooyeon,’ says Jaehwan. ‘I wish she didn’t have to do it.’

Wonshik’s hands in Jaehwan’s hair are gentle, but his voice leaves no room for sympathy. ‘Whatever it takes.’

 

*****

 

Standing in the doorway of Hongbin’s room, Jongmin pauses for a moment. Nothing’s changed in there, but something feels different. Ordinarily, he’d dismiss it as some quirk of his own psyche, but after everything that’s happened - and everything he learned today - he can’t shake it off so easily anymore. Another pin this morning, this one lying in the middle of the kitchen counter at home, definitely not there last night, and no way it could possibly be there. He’d stared at it, stupid with fatigue after too little sleep and another late-night phone call from Sooyeon saying she’d seen the doll again. If anything, she’d seemed more frightened than last time, Jongmin reflects. She’d gone in to kiss her daughter goodnight, and seen it on the shelf nestled in with all the dolls that should be there, all the harmless dolls with their designer-style clothes and slightly stunned, wide-eyed expressions. And of course, when she’d looked again, it was gone.

The part of him that still insists that rational explanations are possible in this situation tells him that hallucinating the doll is perfectly reasonable. The phone call from the new detective in charge of the case had been curt, and light on detail, saying only that due to ‘tragic’ circumstances, the case had been transferred. It didn’t take long, though, to find out more about the death of the young man who’d always tried to counterbalance his superior’s abrasive manner with his own empathy. Sooyeon and Jongmin had read the brief email from the medical examiner, only preliminary observations, but the phrase ‘apparent spontaneous rupture of the pulmonary artery’ had leapt out at them both. It was possible, Sooyeon had insisted, there might have been an undiagnosed defect. There was no conviction in either her voice or her face. They’d stared at each other, neither willing to say out loud what they were both thinking.

And coming hard on the heels of that, Hakyeon’s incredible theory, delivered tentatively, but there was no doubt at all in his eyes. Even then, Jongmin might have tried to explain it away as guilt causing the group to act out as though their friend was there with them, if not for the memory of hearing Hongbin speaking to him without words and the strange insights that seemed to come from outside his own thinking. He’d listened, and accepted, and when Hakyeon had outlined his ideas about how they might help Hongbin, started to make plans of his own. All of which had led him back to this room, in the middle of the night.

‘Hello, Jongmin.’

So used to the silence is he that at first, the psychiatrist doesn’t register the quiet voice that speaks to him from the bed. Then, startled, he crosses the room quickly. ‘Hongbin? Did you speak?’

‘It’s good of you to come.’

Something different in the voice, not hoarse from retching or screaming, even the tone a little lighter. Still, he’s talking, Jongmin thinks, hurriedly pulling up the visitor’s chair, have to keep him talking. It’s such an unexpected opportunity that, at first, he can’t think what to say. Falling back on banalities, he asks, ‘How are you feeling?’

‘It’s all right, Jongmin, I’m not in any pain. Thank you for asking.’

Using his first name again, like Sanghyuk does, like Jaehwan. Only the two eldest seem to bother with using his title anymore. There’s been some disapproval of that divergence from the usual protocol from the rest of the team, but it’s such a small thing, and what’s happening has gone so far past normality that notions of social respect no longer matter to Jongmin. Sooyeon understands, although her habitual reserve keeps all of the kids at arm’s length, and they observe the proper forms with her. Except for Jaehwan, of course, the exception to all of that, who seems to see no difference between one of the hospital porters and the director of Plastics who’s personally overseeing his recovery.

‘Have you come to read to me again? I enjoy that.’

There is a book in the bag at his feet, just a collection of short stories grabbed at random from the shelf in the hospital gift shop. With Hongbin talking, though, the idea of reading takes an immediate back seat. ‘I thought we might talk tonight. It’s good to hear your voice.’

‘Thank you.’ The boy’s face stretches in a wide, almost mocking smile.

Unexpected, that reaction, like a private joke at everyone else’s expense. What was that, thinks Jongmin. Things aren’t what they seem, the answer coming from somewhere else. He watches carefully as he says, just a little emphasis on the name, ‘What would you like to talk about, Hongbin?’

The smile slips a little, recovers quickly. ‘We’ve never really talked about what happened. I know you want to know … Jongmin.’

Suspicion growing now, the psychiatrist sits back and makes himself as comfortable as possible. ‘You’re right, I am very interested,’ he replies, careful to avoid using names. If this is what it looks like, he’ll have to tread carefully. ‘Your perspective is unique.’

‘Do you want to know?’

No, I want to know who, Jongmin thinks, but confines himself to a simple encouraging noise, his eyes locked on Hongbin’s face. It seems softer, still unhealthily pale but with a dusting of colour across cheeks and lips now.

‘It wasn’t about cruelty. I know you and everyone else thinks that’s all it was, but you’re very wrong.’ Hongbin sighs, a note of exasperation coming into his voice. ‘It’s important you understand. You, especially.’

Why me, Jongmin nearly asks, catching himself just in time. It’s important not to let this become derailed; besides, he’s terribly afraid he knows. ‘I’d like to understand,’ he says instead. ‘Would you explain it to me?’

‘It was about becoming perfect.’ A flinch, tiny, no more than a ripple through the body, the face still smiling up at nothing. ‘So close already, they just needed help.’

There it is. They. Not we. Not quite proof, yet, have to make sure. Risking it, making his voice gentle, Jongmin prompts, ‘And you helped them.’

This time there’s no mistaking the changed cadence of the voice. ‘I wanted to. I tried … I tried so hard, Jongmin.’ Hongbin’s fingers clutch at the sheet, frustration evident in the tightening of his mouth. ‘I did everything right, I’m sure I did, but they kept breaking, they didn’t understand,’ louder now, petulant and bewildered, and Jongmin shivers at the sudden chill, ‘they were mine, why didn’t they know they were mine?’

‘They ran away from you.’

‘They left me.’ Hitch in the breathing, on the verge of tears.

Pushing us all away and telling us to run. Sanghyuk, crying, pleading, you did it for us … The last piece of evidence, Jongmin has it now, knows how to proceed. ‘They didn’t all run. Hongbin didn’t leave you.’

And just like that, the smile is back. Hongbin’s hand comes up to touch his own face, fingers brushing lightly against too-prominent cheekbones, tracing around the lips. ‘My pretty … my precious, my own … he’s the only one who loves me.’ Innocent, on the surface, but something darker underneath, hinting at a desire that goes beyond control to become complete ownership. ‘I’ll never let him go.’

Jongmin says nothing, his mind racing furiously. It’s clear what’s happening here; realistically, he should have expected it. Under the strain of captivity and torture, the boy’s mind has splintered. Dissociated, created another self to bear the burden. That he’s given it the personality of his abuser is unusual, but not unknown. Co-operating with her for so long would have formed a bond, no matter how unwilling. And then you killed her, and couldn’t face what you’d done, so you brought her back. Forgotten is the strangeness, the way Hongbin seems to know what’s going on, even the pins and the doll. This is something Jongmin understands, something he’s trained to deal with. But Hongbin - no, the alter - is still speaking.

‘He’s hiding from me. Do you know where he’s hiding, Jongmin? When I find him, we can play again. And I can make him perfect again.’ This time, a whole-body shudder, lips pulled back thin against the teeth, arm flung up as though pushing something away.

no
no
not again never again

never findme nevernevernever

The voice explodes in his head - Hongbin’s voice - babbling, terrified. Without stopping to think, Jongmin grabs the boy’s hand between both his own, and holds onto it tightly. ‘It’s all right, Hongbin, it’s all right, I’m here, she can’t hurt you, breathe, breathe … listen to me, listen closely … you can make her go away. Tell her to go away, just say the words, in your head, out loud, it doesn’t matter, tell her, Hongbin.’

Stutter in the breathing, then, Hongbin’s grip so hard it’s painful, and something like a low-level electric shock passing between them. Sharp pain (pinpain) in Jongmin’s forearm, shoulder, eye; he reels back, barely suppressing a cry, but doesn’t let go. ‘Mine,’ no force in that, almost plaintive, and Jongmin can’t help the sudden stab of pity even as he keeps talking.

‘No, let him go … Hongbin, listen to my voice … come back, come back to me. You’re in control, come back, stay with me.’ Sanghyuk again, echoing in his head, don’t leave me. ‘Come back … Hongbin, think about Sanghyuk, he needs you to come back …’

hyukkie

Hongbin arches, his free hand clawing at his face, hooking one of the bandages over his eyes and partially lifting it. The movement’s too fast to stop, and Jongmin thinks for a panicked instant, he’ll hurt himself; then a wordless cry of denial, and the boy slumps back to the bed, completely limp. Instantly, Jongmin’s on his feet, feeling for a pulse, bending to close to hear the shallow, rapid breathing. Alive, thank god. ‘Hongbin? Can you hear me? Can you talk to me?’

He doesn’t know what he expects. Maybe a turn of the head, or a lifted arm. Maybe that voice, outside and inside at the same time. Certainly not Hongbin’s harsh whisper: ‘Doctor Hwang.’

Weak with relief, Jongmin sits down heavily in the chair again. ‘Hongbin. It’s you now, isn’t it.’ No answer, only a slight nod. ‘Okay. Listen to me. I know it’s frightening, what’s happening to you must make you feel very powerless, but it’s all right. I think I know how to help you now. It’ll take time, it won’t be easy, but you can …’

‘Doctor.’ Hongbin shifts as though to look at him, face drawn and haggard, the dressing over his left eye hanging loose. ‘I want to go home.’

Totally blindsided, for a moment Jongmin can’t speak. He didn’t say that, he couldn’t, he doesn’t ... I heard that wrong. His mouth works; finally, he stammers, ‘What … what did you say? No. No, you can’t. You’re too ill, Hongbin, even if I thought you could be discharged from here I’d send you to Hibiscus. It’s too much of a risk, without proper care you could …’

‘I know.’ Hongbin smiles again, this one sweet, and soft, and utterly at peace. ‘Please let me go home.’

 

Chapter Text

 

from: hwangjm@kt.com
to: sooyeon77@naver.com

subject: MEET

 

I know it’s your ‘weekend’, but we need to talk ASAP.

 

--HJM

 

*****

 

from: sooyeon77@naver.com
to: hwangjm@kt.com

subject: re: MEET

 

We’re taking the kids to Zootopia to see the panda today. It’s more than my life’s worth to cancel again.

Can it wait until tomorrow? Or can you at least summarise?

 

Sooyeon

 

*****

 

from: hwangjm@kt.com
to: sooyeon77@naver.com

subject: re: MEET

 

It really, really can’t wait.

 

*****

 

‘Out of the question,’ Sooyeon snaps as soon as she hears. ‘There is no way I’m discharging that boy. It’d be tantamount to a death sentence.’ It’s no more than Jongmin expected, but still, hearing it makes his shoulders slump with relief. ‘I don’t care if he’s legally an adult, he clearly has no insight into his condition.’

At that, Jongmin winces, because as much as he wants to agree, he can’t just disregard everything his training has taught him. ‘He has more insight than you think. He knows the likely outcome of going home.’ It’s what he wants.

‘Then he’s suicidal, and not able to make a properly informed decision.’

‘He’s completely lucid. We didn’t speak for long, but it was clear to me he was rational. The look on his face … I’ve seen it before. It’s not despair, he’s made his peace with it.’

Sooyeon glares at him, arms folded. ‘Why are you fighting me on this, Jongmin?’

Frustrated, Jongmin pushes his hand through his hair. Tiny glitter in the corner of his eye, falling, but he doesn’t turn to watch it, doesn’t acknowledge it at all. It’s just one more part of the strangeness, so common now it almost feels normal. The same isn’t true of Sooyeon, though; her eyes widen and she follows the pin to the floor with fearful eyes. ‘Ignore it,’ says Jongmin, more harshly than he intended. The look she gives him is frankly disbelieving. ‘Really. It’s just a … thing, it’s not hurting me.’ The first outright lie he’s told her; his arms are dotted with tiny red marks, each one on its own just painful enough to be annoying, the whole adding up to an itchy kind of ache that makes it impossible to wear anything other than a loose, light shirt. Before she can press the point, he hurries on. ‘I’m not fighting you. I want to prevent this as much as you do, but we have to have a reason to keep him that would stand up under challenge, and I don’t want to involve his family in the decision.’

‘Well, what about this other personality you said he’s developed? If she’s pushing him to self-destructive acts …’ She stops with an irritated noise as Jongmin shakes his head.

‘She wasn’t the one asking. It was definitely Hongbin.’

They fall silent, trying to come up with a workable strategy. One that won’t end in even more tragedy. ‘Wait,’ says Sooyeon suddenly, ‘what about Hakyeon? Surely he’d listen to his leader.’

'Hakyeon's the one person we can't let near him.' At Sooyeon's confused expression, he sighs. 'If he gets his hands on Hakyeon, it's all over. There'll be nothing left of him to fight. I know, I know how it sounds, but …' Bracing himself for more denial, dismissal, appeal to a rational world they've both left behind.

Instead, Sooyeon's shoulders slump, tension draining out of her, exposing her. There's no longer a calm, self-possessed authority figure sitting opposite, just a weary, frightened woman. She's given in, thinks Jongmin. She believes. The realisation should be comforting; at last, someone else from his own world to share the nightmare. It's not. Sooyeon has always been his anchor, the person who could put the brakes on him when he was caught up in his causes and his passion for what he does. Now she looks just as lost as he feels, the two of them careening into the dark with no idea what will leap out at them next.

'Wait.' A spark of hope in Sooyeon's tone, tiny, but enough to make her sit forward, face alive. 'Sanghyuk. You said there's a deep bond there. He could reach Hongbin.'

Instinctively, Jongmin balks. The idea of telling the kid that his friend - no, more than that now - wants to go home to die is appalling. The question of patient confidentiality doesn’t even enter into it; at this point, they’re so far beyond all the usual protocols that it simply seems like an irrelevance. What horrifies him is anticipating the look on Sanghyuk’s face, the damage the news might do to him, already hiding so much underneath that deliberately fierce exterior. She’s right, though. Of all of them, it’s the kid who has the best chance of dissuading Hongbin from this decision. So which one do I protect?

 

*****

 

The new detective regards the untidy pile of folders and boxes with something like dismay. So much evidence, so many expert opinions and witness statements and forensic reports - and still, they have virtually nothing to go on. His predecessor, banished to some obscure part of the department after the horrific death of her subordinate, left notebook after notebook full of speculation and possible avenues of inquiry, but even a cursory glance was enough to tell him that she was so completely fixated on one theory that she had ignored anything else. No wonder she was moved, he thinks. The already deep-carved lines in his face seem to sharpen as he reaches for a fresh notebook and carefully notes the date, case number, and his name on the front page. Time to start again. This time, do it right.

It doesn’t take long for the first notebook to be filled, and then the second. By then, he’s moved past his initial irritation, through horror and revulsion, and into that icy calm where he does his best work. It’s why they bring him in on these cases, to cut through and clean up when others get mired in the minutiae. He puts down his pen, flexing cramped fingers, and reads over the last few pages. There’s a shape emerging from the chaos. The profile’s wrong, he thinks. There’s no team here. Everything points to one individual, a clearly disturbed woman, acting out a personal fantasy. The mistake was easy to make; start from the assumption that a woman couldn’t physically commit the crime, and one error compounds another. In his experience, though, there’s almost nothing that can’t be accomplished by someone in the grip of a powerful enough delusion. With some satisfaction, he takes down the folder labelled ‘Lee Hongbin’ and strikes through the phrase “person of interest”, writing instead “victim” in his neat, precise script.

Bending to his task again, he’s interrupted by his subordinate, a woman with whom he’s worked on countless investigations. The deference she shows him is born of mutual respect and experience rather than etiquette, and from the look on her face, what she has to tell him is worth disturbing him. She hands him a folder, her voice controlled but tightly excited as she says, ‘We’ve identified her.’

 

*****

 

Wonshik catches yet another strange glance from one of the nurses, curious, almost furtive. ‘What the hell’s going on?’ he says in a lowered voice across the dining table. ‘Why is everyone looking at us so weirdly today?’

‘I noticed it, too.’ Taekwoon pauses between bites, frowning. ‘The hand therapist this morning seemed distracted, but wouldn’t say anything. And she hid something in her desk when I came in.’

‘You don’t think …’ Sanghyuk doesn’t finish, but he doesn’t have to. The absent sixth, the empty chair at their table, the one who overshadows every move they make. The one they carry with them.

We’re all just waiting for bad news, realises Hakyeon. As much as we want it to be otherwise, we’re giving up hope. The urge to pace, to restlessly flex and flutter his fingers, is nearly uncontrollable; instead, he grips his fork and spoon more firmly, and plants his feet on the dining room floor. ‘We would be told,’ he says with far more confidence than he feels. ‘Our doctors promised to keep us informed, and we can trust them.’ It doesn’t completely work; there’s still doubt in Sanghyuk’s face, but it’s enough to keep him in his seat, and give Hakyeon a brief nod. ‘No, whatever this is, it’s something else.’ A flash, then, of his old self, slightly mischievous smile and a conspiratorial beckon for them to lean in. ‘They’re trying to be discreet. Why don’t we confront them directly? Politely, of course,’ he adds. ‘Let’s all pick someone, and ask, and see which one can get them to tell us.’ From their answering smiles, Hakyeon knows he’s successfully diverted them from their gloomy thoughts, at least for a moment.

‘Hardly worth it, though, is it?’ asks Wonshik. ‘We all know who’s going to win, here.’ He nudges Jaehwan, making him spill a spoonful of rice into his lap. The vocalist’s outraged exclamation is completely undermined by his smug smile.

‘Then let’s make it harder for you, then,’ Taekwoon suggests. ‘We pick who you talk to.’

‘Do your worst,’ says Jaehwan.

Immediately, Hakyeon points at the young man clearing away the discarded plates and glasses from a nearby table, someone he’s almost sure Jaehwan hasn’t yet had an opportunity to meet. ‘That one. Go on, right now.’ Wonshik laughs, but Jaehwan simply smiles, picks up his soup bowl, and goes over to the man. They can hear him introduce himself, and the man’s surprised tone, but then the vocalist moves in a little closer and they’re reduced to watching hand gestures and facial expressions. At first it looks like any conversation that could be glimpsed on the street, but then the man flushes and drops his eyes slightly. Jaehwan puts a reassuring hand on his arm, and the man pulls out his phone and taps at it, turning to display the screen. There’s little reaction, but they can all see how Jaehwan’s shoulders stiffen, and the apologetic look the man gives him. A little bow, a ‘thank you’, and the vocalist returns to their table, face troubled.

‘There’s been an article about us,’ he says in a low voice.

‘So?’ Sanghyuk shrugs. ‘We knew there would be. It’s probably one of those where-are-they-now things.’

Jaehwan shakes his head. ‘No. It’s about us - here.’ He gestures around him. ‘Somehow they found out where we were, and … there are photos. Of all of us. From the picnic. And one of me, taken through the art room window, when I was painting the picture for Binnie.’

Wonshik’s furious response is cut short by a curt gesture from Hakyeon. ‘All right. It’s unfortunate, but we can’t let it get to us. We’ll tell the doctors, and ask them for better security. No one is going to get in here to bother us.’

Watching Jaehwan closely, Taekwoon sees how the vocalist fights back tears. ‘That’s not all, is it?’ he asks softly. ‘Tell us.’

‘Binnie,’ says Jaehwan miserably, and Wonshik reaches an arm around his shoulders to pull him closer to his side. ‘They had a photo of him … in the hospital. He looked …’

Don’t, thinks Hakyeon. Don’t say it.

‘Excuse me.’ A new voice, startling them all. Hakyeon looks up to see a nurse, whose manner seems friendly enough, but there’s something else, what does she know? ‘Doctor Hwang is here, and he would like to see you, Hakyeon-ssi. And you, too,’ she adds, nodding at Sanghyuk. Hakyeon makes eye contact with Taekwoon, seeing his own fear mirrored. He wasn’t scheduled to come today. Something’s happened.

‘Go,’ says Jaehwan, voice unexpectedly strong and clear. ‘We’ll deal with this other thing. Go.’

 

****

 

It doesn’t make sense. On paper, there’s nothing to suggest the young woman who stares back at him from a school photograph is capable of what they now know she did. Average in most of her classes, except art, in which she excelled. Hockey club, Maths study club - probably at the urging of her parents. No boyfriend. Part-time job in her senior year at a local convenience store. Final exams and university just ahead of her. No different to any one of a hundred girls her age, only two things even begin to point to what she became. A casual interest in fortune-telling and so-called magic spells, especially love charms. And a sudden fixation with one particular idol group that rapidly developed into a destructive obsession that ruined seven young lives.

Statements from her parents, teachers, and peers, all able to be reduced to a single sentence, we had no idea. No warning, just suddenly gone, and there was nothing for the police to pursue. Her phone, ID, everything left behind. Everything except the clothes on her back, and the ratty old rag doll she’d found somewhere and insisted on keeping despite parental objections and teasing from her friends. The doll now encased in a plastic bag and filed away carefully with the rest of the meagre physical evidence.

The detective puts down the folder and stares around him at the bedroom. Everywhere he looks, the same six faces, clipped from magazines, printed from websites and social media, official merchandise and fan art and what have to be collages she made herself. One face, in particular, given pride of place in the frame by the unmade bed, angled to be the last thing she saw when she went to sleep, and the first thing to greet her on waking. A laptop covered with stickers on her desk. Schoolbooks shoved to one side, a stack of papers and notebooks threatening to topple over. Everything else is exactly what he’d expect to find in a young woman’s room; clothes, shoes, a little makeup and skin care products, a few soft toys left over from childhood but not yet able to be abandoned. Untidy, possessions strewn everywhere, but this, too, is expected. She had no time for anything else, he thinks. Everything important to her was on these walls.

‘Sir?’ His junior, leafing through the papers on the desk. ‘I’ve found something.’ She hands over a sheet printed from a website, a media announcement of a planned photoshoot. The date and location are circled several times with purple highlighter pen. And a single word scrawled next to that: “pretty”. It’s the first real evidence that links her with the crime, that indicates her presence in that abandoned warehouse was anything but a horrible coincidence. There are still a hundred questions - where did she find the money to convert the warehouse, how did she get her victims there from the photoshoot location, how was she able to control and torture six healthy young men on her own - but it’s a foundation. From here, he can build.

 

****

 

Hakyeon’s walk back from Doctor Hwang’s office to their unit is dreamlike, one foot moving automatically after another, seeing nothing but the doctor’s haunted eyes, hearing nothing but Sanghyuk’s soft, strengthless cry of denial, please, no … Open doorway in front of him, and they all turn and rise as he enters.

‘Where’s Hyukkie?’ asks Jaehwan as soon as he sees Hakyeon is alone.

‘What happened?’ Wonshik, sharp voice, poised to act.

Blindly, Hakyeon reaches out, Taekwoon there immediately, arms going around him. ‘Tell us.’

How? How can I say it? He’s the leader, he’s the one who has to say difficult things and hold them all together, and all he wants to do is let himself fall apart. Failure, impotent, can’t protect anyone, the old refrain hissed at him so often that it sank into his skin and became something real. No, Hakyeon thinks suddenly. No more of that. He takes a deep breath, and stands a little straighter. ‘It’s Hongbin,’ he tells them, and then the rest, and one by one they stumble backwards, fold in on themselves, collapse into the nearest seats. Jaehwan, crying, shaking his head, no, no. Wonshik, fists clenched, refusing to acknowledge his own tears.

Taekwoon, chalk-white, hands covering his face, murmuring, ‘I told him, oh god, I told him he could go, what have I done?’

‘Listen to me,’ says Hakyeon sharply. It’s only long-ingrained habit that makes them all look, but it’s enough for him to go on. ‘It won’t happen. We won’t let it. Sanghyuk’s gone with Doctor Hwang to talk to Hongbin, talk him out of the idea. Even if … even if that doesn’t work, the doctor assured me they’ll find a way to keep him in the hospital. Keep him alive. As long as he’s alive, we can still help him.’ As he speaks, his voice grows firmer, surer. I can do this. I will hold you, all of you. He sees them struggle to control themselves, grasp at the slender thread of hope he holds out to them, sit up and wipe their eyes and nod. Only a certain bleakness in Taekwoon’s eyes betrays the guilt that wracks him, and to that Hakyeon can only offer the comfort of his arms and a silent promise.

‘What about this other thing? What the doctor told you - is he saying Bean’s got a split personality now?’ Wonshik frowns.

Hakyeon sighs. ‘The way I understand it, what we went through - what happened to him - hurt his mind, and he … this is a way of dealing with it. By becoming someone else, sometimes.’

‘But her? Why would he want to make up a personality like that?’

Hakyeon opens his mouth to give the reply he got from Doctor Hwang when he’d asked that same question, but Jaehwan says suddenly, ‘Maybe he didn’t. Make it up, I mean.’

What?

*****

 

They make good time, but still Sanghyuk has to fight down the urge to wrench open the car door and simply run back to the hospital. Every traffic slowdown, every red light they catch only winds him tighter, until his fingers ache from gripping the back of the seat in front of him. You won’t, he thinks over and over, you won’t, I won’t let you go. Beside him, Doctor Hwang drives with a focused intensity that allows no opening for conversation - not that there’s anything else Sanghyuk can think of to ask. What he’s learned already is too huge, too awful. Be honest, you knew this would happen, nasty little thought in his head, his guilt given voice.

The car hasn’t stopped moving before Sanghyuk’s out, striding towards the elevator, hearing the doctor call out for him to wait, but there’s no time for that, no time for anything else. No button, just a keycard reader, and he growls under his breath until the doctor catches up, panting, and swipes his hospital ID. Then they’re in the elevator and moving upwards, so slowly, too slowly, too slow, doors parting and he’s through them before they’re fully open, running now, skidding around the corner, into the room and on the bed, grabbing at Hongbin’s clothes, pulling him up. Yelling in his face, ‘No! No! You’re not doing this, Bean, you said you’d stay with me, don’t you fucking dare give up now!’ People crowding in, babble of confused voices, the doctor running interference, and none of it matters. The only thing that does is reaching Hongbin. ‘You can’t leave me,’ shaking, pleading, ‘you can’t.’

hyukkie

‘I know, I know.’ Sanghyuk slides his arms under Hongbin’s shoulders, holding him close. ‘It hurts, I know … you’re scared … but we’ll find a way, Bean, I promise you, we’ll figure out what to do. You have to fight, just hold on, okay? Just a bit longer. Please. Please. Stay … for me?’ Hongbin shudders, then, and Sanghyuk holds on tighter, hiding his face. Phantom hand in his hair, stroking, soothing. ‘Please …’

all right

for you

By the door, Jongmin hears it; quiet, resigned, that inside/outside voice that, somehow, he can hear. He slumps with relief, and the last of the nurses remonstrating with him finally gives ground and leaves the room, though not without a last concerned glance. Dismissing her completely from his thoughts, he turns back in time to see Sanghyuk lower Hongbin back down onto the bed, tears on his face and his whole body shaking with relief. You did it, he thinks. I’m so sorry, kid. Although everything tells him to leave the two alone for a while, he goes over to them and picks up Hongbin’s wrist to check his pulse. Just in time to hear Hongbin speak.

‘Maybe you aren’t useless, after all.’

Sanghyuk jerks backwards in shock. The alter, thinks Jongmin as he hears the tone, and hastens to reassure the kid. ‘It’s all right. This is what I was talking about, the other personality. Just stay calm, talk to Hongbin. He’ll hear you.’

‘He’ll stay for you. And that means he’s mine. My pretty, my own, always.’

‘No,’ Sanghyuk stammers, ‘no. No. Get away from him.’

‘So … thank you.’ Hongbin’s face curves into a wide, satisfied smile. ‘You’ve made it easy for me.’

No!’ screams Sanghyuk. ‘Not yours, never yours! Bean, fight her! Fight!’

This is out of control, thinks Jongmin. ‘Sanghyuk, it’s all right …’ He reaches out, intending to pull Sanghyuk away; instead, his hand is knocked aside, and the boy turns on him.

‘It’s not all right, none of this is all right! You fucking idiot, don’t you get it? That’s not Bean, it’s not some weird thing his head’s doing to cope with shit. It’s her!’ Jongmin starts to reply, explain what’s happening here, but Sanghyuk just yells louder. ‘It’s really her! She’s in there, and she’ll never let him go, and we have to do something!’

‘Sanghyuk, she’s dead …’ Mocking laughter, harsh and horrible, shaking Hongbin’s thin frame. That’s not the alter. Someone else? Something else? Jongmin takes hold of Hongbin’s wrist again, feeling the racing, fluttering beat. Sudden, sharp pain; he pulls back his hand, staring in disbelief at the silver pin embedded in the palm. Not possible, Sooyeon’s voice in his head.

‘That doesn’t matter, don’t you see, don’t you understand, you … oh, fuck. Fuck.’ Grabbing for Jongmin’s hand, leaning forward, Sanghyuk’s eyes lock on the pin. ‘It’s got you, too, hasn’t it? How long has it been happening?’

Jongmin hesitates. ‘Kid …’

How long?

‘... Weeks.’

‘ Weeks. Fuck.’ Sanghyuk sits back on his haunches. ‘And you know this can’t be real, don’t you? You know it’s impossible.’ At Jongmin’s mute nod, he says, ‘Look at it. Look.’ Unwillingly, Jongmin lowers his eyes to the pin. ‘That’s real. This is all real, all of it. And you’re in it, I’m sorry, but you are, and the sooner you stop trying to pretend this is something normal and explainable, the sooner you can help me. Help him.’

The two stare at each other, Hongbin lying between them, laughing.

 

*****

 

Jaehwan says slowly, reluctantly, ‘... what if it is her?’

‘That’s impossible,’ says Wonshik flatly, and Jaehwan rounds on him.

‘Is it? Why should this be the one impossible thing? How can you draw a line and say this can happen, this can’t happen? After everything else, why not this? What if she’s in him, somehow?’

Taekwoon asks carefully, ‘What are you saying?’

‘I don’t know,’ says Jaehwan, throwing up his hands in frustration. Just … what if the doctor’s wrong?’

Then we left him alone with her, thinks Hakyeon, horrified. Again. He pushes that away, knowing it will come back to him tonight, lying awake, listening to Taekwoon’s breathing. ‘Then we drive her out,’ he says fiercely. ‘We find a way.’

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

rough stone under bruised skin
nerves on fire
veins like ice
caught
caged
no air

no

warm hands soothing
pushing through tangled hair
cold fingers tracing lips brushing skin trailing over metal

nopleaseno

not backthere notreal notreal

(still in the box, pretty)
(you never left)

kisses on burning eyes
metaltwist glassgrind
painpleasurepain

please

(you can’t fight anymore)
(you’re too small)

hyukkie

(he left you)
(they all left you)
(there’s only us now)

notyours neveryoursnever

(then why don’t you die, precious?)

… promised

(that’s right)
(he gave you to me)

notforyou
for him

(but he’s not here)
(he walked away)
(I’ll never walk away)

made him go
saved him
saved them all

(did you?)

rotslime stonedust
singed hair blistered skin
hiss of dead channels
blood and tears and sour adrenalin

notreal notreal not backthere

(I have something for you, pretty)

no
no not thisnono
i can’t ican’t pleasepleaseplease

(hush now, be still)
(that’s better)

 

*****

 

After the police leave, Sooyeon and Jongmin stand looking at each other, struggling to process everything they’ve learned. A photograph, left with them, lies on the meeting room table. Just an ordinary girl, neat uniform, slightly self-conscious smile, unremarkable in every way. No different to a dozen of Sooyeon’s classmates at high school. Impossible to believe that she could be the monster, and yet there was no doubt in the new detective’s voice. Too much evidence pointing to her, right down to the bus schedule whose route led near the orchard that was still displayed on the web browser found when they broke into her computer. For Jongmin, though, it was the description of the bedroom that convinced him; on the face of it, entirely expected in an over-devoted fan, but knowing what they know now, it almost screams a warning.

‘That’s it, then,’ says Sooyeon, breaking the silence. No more looking over the shoulder, running interference for their patients, trying to protect them from reliving the most horrific period of their young lives. The detective’s words, no need for further interviews at this time, but of course if they recall anything, and her own quick, relieved yes, of course. ‘They’re in the clear.’ Jongmin nods absently, clearly not quite convinced, and she sighs. ‘You heard him. They’re not looking for a partner now. They don’t even think she had one, so Hongbin’s not in danger anymore.’

The junior, blunt and unexpectedly brutal, if we’re lucky, he’s killed himself anyway. Hearing that, Jongmin couldn’t help but flinch, because all he could think was not yet. Urgent conference this morning, report after report delivered in dispassionate medical jargon, and all leading to one inescapable conclusion. A few days. A week, at best.

‘Jongmin? I said, it’s over.’

‘Not yet,’ he says bleakly, not bothering to elaborate, knowing he doesn’t need to.

‘Don’t give up,’ Sooyeon says, her voice firm with a conviction she doesn’t quite feel. ‘He’s still here, you succeeded in keeping him with us. We can treat him. We will -’ Her phone chimes; irritated, she takes it out and puts it to her ear, snaps, ‘Doctor Park’. She listens, eyes widening. ‘I … yes. Yes, tell them we will come. Yes, this evening. Thank you,’ she adds belatedly, just before she hangs up. ‘That was Hibiscus.’

Sanghyuk, thinks Jongmin. The kid had been almost impossible to pry away from Hongbin, finally leaving only when it was clear he had no other choice. On the way back to the rehab centre, he’d been completely silent, gripping his stomach as though it hurt, and had walked through the doors without acknowledging Jongmin at all. Something in the set of his shoulders, the way he held his fists clenched at his sides, no stopping him when he’s like that. Another thought not his own. The voice though, the way it feels in his head, is clear to him now. ‘What’s happened?’

‘Hakyeon and the others ... they want to talk to us,’ she says. ‘Tonight. They told the charge nurse it’s urgent.’ She shakes her head. ‘How they managed to convince her to make the phone call …’

‘That had to be Jaehwan,’ replies Jongmin. ‘He’s got a way with people. Sooyeon, you were quick to agree to this. Even if we leave now, by the time we get back it’s going to be late. Are you sure?’ She doesn’t bother to reply; the set of her jaw and the bleak but determined look in her eyes answer for her. There’ll be hell to pay for this decision, he knows, another fight at least, or something even worse. Talking her out of it isn’t even an option, though. ‘All right. Just give me a few minutes, I need to go and see Hongbin. I was going to sit with him through dinner, try to distract him.’

‘I’ll go with you,’ says Sooyeon.

They walk in silence, each preoccupied with their own thoughts. Sooyeon, taking the coward’s way out and telling her husband via text that she won’t be home again this evening, marshalling arguments in her head against the inevitable condemnation that will be waiting for her later. Jongmin, trying to second-guess what might be behind the urgent request for them to drop everything and make the long drive out to Hibiscus. Have they de-stabilised? Did Sanghyuk’s news set them all back, somehow? No, I would have been told. Then what? He moves on autopilot, worrying at the question, not looking where he’s going - and so doesn’t see Sooyeon stop dead in the doorway of Hongbin’s room. ‘Sorry,’ he says automatically as he bumps into her.

She points a trembling finger at the figure in the bed. ‘Jongmin,’ her voice a harsh, frightened whisper, ‘what is that?’

Puzzled, he moves around her, steps into the room. At first he doesn’t see it, just Hongbin, lying face-up, mouth tight with pain, holding his arms crossed over his stomach. ‘What do you … oh, my god.’ Cradled in shaking hands, held tight against him. Torn, stained fabric, flash of light on metal and glass, quivering with the boy’s rapid, shallow breaths.

The doll.

Sooyeon simply stares, unable to take her eyes off it. ‘How … how did it … not possible, how can it be here?’ As she says this, Hongbin’s face twists into a grin, and that horrible laughter spills from his mouth. ‘Get it away from him. Now!’

Though every nerve in Jongmin’s body shrieks at him to run, he forces himself to cross the distance and grab the doll by the arm. Pain, sharp, agonising, stabbing through him; he snatches back his hand, cradling it against his chest, stumbling backwards, nearly falling. He reaches again, crying out as his fingers curl into cramped claws. Mine, he hears, not Hongbin’s voice, not the alter’s, something else hissing into his mind. It’s the doll, it can’t be, it is.

take itaway takeit take it pleasepleaseplease

Then Sooyeon pushing past him, shoving him to one side. Spasm of revulsion racking her whole body, but her hands are steady and strong, tearing the doll away from Hongbin and flinging it across the room. An angry, cheated howl, nothing spoken but they both hear it, Jongmin seeing his own horrified flinch mirrored in Sooyeon’s eyes.

‘Where is it?’ he pants. ‘Where did it go?’

Gone. Impossibly, inevitably, gone.

Sooyeon escapes into her doctor-self, automatically checking her patient’s vitals, then turning to examine Jongmin’s aching hand. Don’t think about it, she tells herself, don’t think, do your job. Even as she goes through the motions, the memory of touching the doll, of having it fit into her hand like it belonged there, refuses to leave her. The whisper in her head that promised her a solution to all the problems with her family. I can’t go home, she thinks. I can’t risk it. And I can’t tell them why. It could mean the end of her marriage, the loss of her children, but they’d be safe. From me.

‘Are you all right?’ Jongmin, soft voice, bringing her back.

She nods once, tightly. ‘He’s all right.’ He’s not; Hongbin’s pulse is thready, his body twitching and shivering, but she can’t stay here. I wish he’d never come to me, she thinks, instantly ashamed of herself. I wish I didn’t know. But she does know, and she’s in too deep to pretend anymore, so she lifts her head and says firmly, ‘We have to go. Now.’ She doesn’t wait for him to answer, just turns and walks out of the room, knowing he’ll follow.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

We drive her out.

Easy enough to say, just breath and movement of the mouth, a little extra force behind the voice to sound convincing and reassuring. Even if it had only been something he blurted out to quiet the guilt-ridden thoughts echoing in his head. And it had worked; he could see it in their eyes as one by one they turned to him. Their actual words didn’t matter, because everything that needed to be said was there in the way they straightened their spines and squared their shoulders as though ready to assume a burden. Taking strength from him, looking to him as leader.

We find a way.

But the truth is, Hakyeon has no idea how they can possibly do it.

A touch on the arm, Taekwoon gently bringing him back to the present. ‘They’re here.’

I can’t, Hakyeon nearly says. I don’t know what to do, let me stay here looking out of the window. But he asked for this; he gave them all hope, and running away now isn’t an option. ‘All right,’ he says, knowing Taekwoon can hear the shiver in his voice. ‘Will you help me get the others, please?’

Sitting on his bed, turning the polaroid camera over and over in his hands, Sanghyuk doesn’t hear the knock on his door. It’s strange, a shape he’s not used to, but his fingers still move like they know what they’re doing, and he feels irritation at how limited he is by the simple design. It’s not his own feeling, he understands that now. Still, it gets harder to separate his own memories from Hongbin’s the longer this goes on. Don’t disappear, he thinks, not knowing who he’s talking to. The knock comes again, and this time he hears, and looks up. ‘What is it?’

The door slowly swings open, Taekwoon taking only one step into the room. ‘It’s time,’ he says softly. His hand lingers on the door, the solid wood grounding him in the moment, anchoring him in the present, the pain in his hands a constant reminder of the past. The therapists tell him to put it behind him, focus forward. He doesn’t tell them what he knows, down in his bones that still carry the ghosts of fracture lines he gave himself. It will never be behind us. ‘They’re here.’ Sanghyuk doesn’t move.

Push a little harder, Hongbinnie. From the diaphragm. You can do it. His throat, straining, his voice cracking on the note he knows is too high for him, and he winces, but there’s no judgment in Taekwoon’s eyes. There never is. ‘I’ll get it,’ Sanghyuk says. ‘Just let me try again.’

A small crease appears between Taekwoon’s eyebrows. ‘Hyukkie?’

‘I can do this, hyung. Just show me again, the breathing.’ Sanghyuk gets up off the bed, stands with his shoulders squared and hands by his sides.

Taekwoon’s eyes widen. It’s happening again. They’re all still feeling the echoes, but for most of them it’s nothing more than a momentary disorientation, a sudden realisation that they’re not themselves. They’ve learned to adjust; after one disastrous mistake with food that left Jaehwan awake and complaining for an entire night, Hakyeon started to watch them closely. All it takes, usually, is a touch or a quiet word. With Sanghyuk, it’s different. Sometimes the maknae can be lost for hours remembering things that never happened to him. And it’s worse since he went back to the hospital. thinks Taekwoon as he steps into the room and closes the door. ‘Hyukkie,’ he calls, leading tone, ‘Listen to me, Hyukkie.’ Still no answer, but the maknae’s gaze clears a little. ‘Come back now.’

‘Taekwoon? When did you ..’ Sanghyuk blinks, startled. ‘Aish.’ Exasperated toss of the head, he’s back. ‘I did it again, didn’t I?’

‘It’s all right. But you need to come out now, the doctors are here.’ Taekwoon turns to go, stops with one hand on the door. ‘We’re almost there, Hyukkie,’ he says. ‘We’ll get through this.’ To his own ears, he sounds confident and steady; only the tremble in his hands betrays the truth.

From where they’re lying on top of the bedcovers, tangled up in each other, Wonshik hears the muffled voices. ‘Sounds like the docs have arrived,’ he says. ‘Are you going to be okay?’

Jaehwan tries to put a smile into his voice, knowing his face will betray him if he lifts his head from where it’s pillowed on Wonshik’s chest. ‘Of course,’ he says. ‘You’ll be with me.’ His eyes flick nervously to the door as there’s a quiet knock.

Wonshik’s arms tighten unconsciously in response. ‘I just hope Hakyeon knows what he’s doing,’ he mutters. ‘Because I haven’t got a clue.’

Don’t say that, thinks Jaehwan. Don’t say that, I need you to be strong because I know I can’t be. Flash of memory, scrabbling for something to hold onto, snaptear of his fingernails drowned in his own terrified, babbling scream, nonononopleaseplease … ‘I can’t,’ he whispers. ‘I can’t face her again.’ There’s no reply, but Wonshik’s arms tighten around him, and for now, that’s enough.

‘May I come in?’ The leader’s voice, mild and polite as always. We’re so far past that, thinks Wonshik.

‘Come in,’ calls Jaehwan, his inflection unconsciously making it sound like a question.

The door opens only a little way, Hakyeon slipping into the room, tell-tale tremor in his fingers, but his face is composed. ‘Doctor Park and Doctor Hwang have arrived. Are you able to - will you come out so we can all talk, please?’

In the living area, Sooyeon stands awkwardly, watching the two eldest gather the others. The room hardly looks lived in; she finds herself inexplicably unsettled by the lack of any personal touches. Like they’re determined not to leave anything of themselves open to scrutiny, she thinks. It’s an observation more suited to Jongmin’s way of looking at the world, and instinctively she glances at him. The psychologist’s eyes are closed, though, his body already slumped in a chair. He’s exhausted, knowing it’s more than that, shying away from the idea.

‘Doctor Park?’ Hakyeon, crossing the room, hand held out. Bemused, she returns the handshake. Out of the hospital setting, he seems more like a gracious host than a patient, determined to set his guests at ease. ‘Thank you for coming.’ Behind him, Wonshik and Jaehwan, inseparable as they always are now, and Taekwoon, shooting a worried glance at Hakyeon before coming forward to offer a bow. Finally, Sanghyuk, who simply slips into the room and crams himself into a chair with his knees hugged to his chest.

She looks tired, thinks Hakyeon. ‘I’m sorry that we had to ask you to come out here on such short notice, but we, well, we thought that time …’

‘How is he?’ Harsh, abrupt, cutting across the room. Sanghyuk. Hakyeon turns to see him staring straight at the psychiatrist.

‘He’s holding on,’ says Jongmin without opening his eyes. Not a lie, he tells himself, not really.. He doesn’t need to know. It’s not what the kid hoped for, he knows, but there’s no response beyond a non-committal noise that he can safely pretend not to have heard. There’s a chance Sanghyuk will press him for a better answer later; it’s not a conversation he wants to have.

‘How are you all?’ asks Sooyeon.

Hakyeon opens his mouth to answer, but it’s Wonshik’s voice that cuts across the room between them. ‘Can we just take the polite stuff as read and get on with it?’ Beside him, Jaehwan starts to shush him.

Hakyeon holds up his hand. ‘No, he’s right, Jyani. Doctor Park, will you sit down, please? We need to talk to you about Hongbin. About what’s really happening to him.’

 

*****

 

So much gone.

So little of him left. The pain, the terror, the shame. Every moment in that place, every moment with her. The rest given away, pieces of himself carried by the people he loves.

Only fragments left.

Tiny things kept back and held onto, even though he knows he should have sent them out of himself with everything else. The last shreds of a life he knows is over, but he can’t bear to let them go. Not these.

Hakyeon, coming after him when he’d run and thought he’d gotten away, hating himself because not good enough, can’t do it anymore. Expecting a scolding, completely blindsided by the compassion in Hakyeon’s face and the gentleness of his hands. Crying, struggling not to make a sound, telling himself over and over stop it, failures don’t deserve pity. Hearing and not believing Hakyeon’s words. Please come back. I’d miss you, we all would. The promise, we’ll always be here for you, Hongbinnie. The smile on Hakyeon’s face when he finally agreed, all right, I’ll try again.

Picked up and carried, just another cute exit for the rapper and his artwork. Wonshik’s feet tangling up in each other and the two of them pitching forward, crashing to the ground, pinned by Wonshik’s weight, an elbow sinking into his stomach. Sprawled over each other, winded, get off me, you elephant. Hearing the horrified gasps of the others give way to laughter and unable to stop grinning even when Jaehwan frames them with his phone and sends the picture out to the world.

Most of all, held closest … only one memory. Sanghyuk’s face, soft in sleep and half-hidden against the car window. Looking across and feeling the shape of his heart change. Looking away again quickly when he sees the eyelids flutter, hears the indrawn breath that means he’s waking up.

Just those three moments. Three things he’ll take into the dark with him.

 

*****

 

‘You know that’s not possible.’

Automatic denial, no conviction in Sooyeon’s voice and she knows they can all hear it. Still she persists, even as she’s asking herself why am I still trying to fight this? Knowing exactly why; because if she can convince them, maybe she can convince herself. And maybe there’ll be something for her to salvage that will let her go back to her family and the life she used to believe would always be hers.

She’s so frightened, thinks Hakyeon. Perched on the edge of her seat, looking like she’s only seconds away from leaving the unit at a run. He remembers her from the very early days, all crisp authority and quiet confidence. Compassionate, but detached. A still point around which he could orbit. Now, she almost seems younger than he is, and completely unsure of her footing. I’m sorry, he wants to say, we brought this on you. Instead, he hardens his heart and replies only, ‘It shouldn’t be possible. I agree. But Doctor Park, surely you can see that what’s happened - what’s happening to us, is …’

‘Not normal,’ Taekwoon breaks in. ‘Paranormal.’

‘Sooyeon. Come on. You know as well as I do they’re right.’ Jongmin, who meets her glare with his own weary resignation. He raises a hand to rub at his eyes, his sleeve slipping a little way up his arm. Tiny red marks just above his wrist, a cluster of them, angry and slightly swollen; she flinches. I know, she thinks, I know they are. The strange x-rays. The sudden recoveries. The doll. Everything that she’s seen, touched, felt.

‘All right,’ she says, the words sounding like they’re dragged out of her. ‘But this … what you’re talking about now is …’

‘It’s not Bean,’ says Wonshik firmly. ‘It’s not him. It’s her.

Sanghyuk, low and furious. ‘She’s a parasite. In there. Feeding on him.’

The word is awful, enough to make Hakeyon’s fingers dance nervously, enough to make Taekwoon clench his fists and let out a sudden, pained hiss. Something they’ve all been thinking and trying to pretend otherwise, somehow made worse, made real by being spoken out loud. ‘Hyukkie, don’t,’ whispers Jaehwan.

Shockingly, Jongmin utters a humourless laugh. ‘Possession. That’s what they’re talking about.’ As Sooyeon darts a betrayed glance at him, he shifts to face her fully. ‘I know what I said before, but I was wrong. I could see the signs - god, there’s even dissertations written about it. I just told myself I didn’t.’ Seeing the fear in her eyes, he pushes himself up out of the chair, and crouches down by her. ‘Sooyeon,’ he says softly. ‘It scares me, too.’

For a long moment, she holds his gaze. Then she takes a deep breath and straightens, and her face holds the old confident, resolute expression. Hakyeon thinks, she’s back. ‘All right then,’ she says calmly. ‘What do you want to do?’

 

****

 

It should be empty in here. Just the tiny bit of him that’s left, and nothing else but blank space and silence and waiting. It’s not.

With everything else gone, Hongbin is a body crammed with laughter and a mind full of mocking voices. Whispers in the snow, come over here, that’s right, be still now. Quiet humming praise, pretty perfect mine. The voices of his friends, far away and pleading for help that never came. Promises that he’ll never be alone. That this will never be over.

Let me go, he begs, not knowing who he’s asking. The doctors. Her. His friends. The doll. Sanghyuk.

Please. Please. Stay … for me?

(you promised)

And he still can’t cry, but the press of tears behind his destroyed eyes is hot and grates like glass, and he welcomes it even as his mouth stretches and the laughter crawls slippery and cold out of his throat.

 

*****

 

One by one, the ideas are raised. Some fully realised, others little more than vague what-ifs. Hypnosis is summarily vetoed by Jongmin; no guarantee of reaching Hongbin, and even if they did, the suggestions might simply weaken him further. Using drugs is likewise ruled out. ‘His heart is too weak. It would kill him,’ is all Sooyeon says when Jaehwan proposes it, and that silences them all until Sanghyuk, his voice shaking, asks the question Jongmin’s been dreading.

How long?

It’s Sooyeon who tells them. She doesn’t dress it up in stock phrases of sympathy or bury them in jargon, just lays out the cold facts in a dispassionate tone behind which Taekwoon can hear the muted refrain of I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Before she even finishes, he turns to Hakyeon and pulls him close, Wonshik doing the same with Jaehwan as the vocalist sobs. Automatically, Jongmin looks at Sanghyuk. The kid’s face is bleak, every rigid muscle signalling how close he is to losing control altogether.

‘It doesn’t change anything,’ says Jaehwan unexpectedly. Wonshik draws back, shocked. The others look over at him. There are still tears slipping down Jaehwan’s cheeks, and his mouth trembles. His words, though, are firm and clear. ‘It doesn’t,’ he insists. ‘We knew we wouldn’t … have long. But we can’t let that get in the way, we can’t … we can’t waste any more time.’

Jongmin hesitates. ‘There is something,’ he says reluctantly. ‘It’s a trick, I suppose you’d call it. A long shot. And you’d have to believe it. All of you. So she does.’

‘Anything,’ says Wonshik instantly. The others agree more cautiously, Hakyeon the last to agree, a terrible certainty growing in his mind that whatever this trick might be, it won’t work.

‘What do you want us to do?’ Hakyeon asks.

‘You have to let him go,’ says Jongmin, avoiding all their eyes. ‘You have to say goodbye, and mean it. And then Sooyeon will ...’

‘No!’ yells Sanghyuk. ‘Not a fucking chance, I won’t give up, how can you even -’

‘Hyuk-ah,’ says Taekwoon gently. ‘Just hear him out. I think I know where this is going.’

Speaking directly to Sanghyuk now, Jongmin says urgently, ‘Trust me. Please. If she believes you’re willing to do it, let him die … I think she’ll leave him, Hyukkie.’ The nickname slips out of his mouth as naturally as if he’s been saying it for years. ‘She’ll save herself.’

 

****

 

(you don’t have to hurt, pretty)

(play with me)

no more

nomore play

(play with us)

getawaygetaway leaveme alone

(but you wanted this)

(you asked for it precious thing)

didn’t know i didn’tknow

(didn’t you?)

pleaseplease please get itawayfrom me

(come on, pretty)

(let me hear you laugh)

Trapped inside his crowded mind and failing body, Hongbin turns and runs.

 

*****

 

On the drive back, Sooyeon and Jongmin don’t speak for a long time. There’s no radio chatter or music playing, and the only sound in the car is the hum of the engine. What isn’t being said, though, looms larger and louder between them until it’s too much for Jongmin to bear. ‘Talk to me,’ he says, eyes fixed on the road. ‘What are you thinking?’

At first he doesn’t think she’ll answer; when she does, she sounds so lost that he almost wishes she’d stayed silent. ‘Are we really going to do it? Go against everything we believe … believed in? You know we can’t come back from this, Jongmin. The ethical violations alone could be enough to finish us.’

‘I know,’ he says tightly.

‘We don’t even know if it will work. What if it doesn’t? What if the boy dies? That will be on us, we’ll have killed him, and the effect on the others …’

‘What if it does work?’ interrupts Jongmin, more forcefully than he means to, because Sooyeon is saying what’s going through his own mind, and he can’t fight both of them. ‘What if we save him? They’ll be free.’ He looks over at her then. ‘And so will we.’

To that Sooyeon says nothing, her head bowed, her hands knotted together in her lap, and Jongmin fights down the impulse to reach over and cover them with one of his own, returning his gaze to the road instead. She wants to believe you, Hongbin’s voice in his head, she doesn’t know how. ‘Sooyeon …’

‘I can’t go home, Jongmin.’ Tears in her voice, but he doesn’t need to see her face to know there’s nothing falling from her eyes. ‘I can’t. Not now, not until I know they’re safe. From me.’ She swallows, loud enough for him to hear the click of her throat. ‘Maybe not even then,’ she adds quietly. It’s as close as she’s ever come to saying what Jongmin knows she won’t even admit to herself, most of the time. That no matter what the outcome of what they’re going to do, it’s already too late. Her marriage is over, her family broken. It doesn’t matter that this has been coming for years now; six horribly abused kids crashing into her life and turning it upside down may be just the final fracture, but for Sooyeon, it’s as raw as a new wound.

Jongmin’s hands tighten on the steering wheel, the urge to pull over and simply gather her close against him almost overwhelming. She’s a friend in pain, it’d just be comfort, he tells himself, not needing the other voice to tell him that’s a lie, that she hasn’t been that to him for a long time now. I’ll offer to book her a hotel room, absurd gesture given the difference in their salaries, but it’s all he can think of that doesn’t cross the line he’s been so carefully walking. His mouth is already shaping the first word when she says softly, ‘I don’t want to be alone,’ and his resolve is gone.

Knowing he shouldn’t, knowing it’s absolutely the wrong thing to do, Jongmin says it anyway. ‘Stay with me, then. Until it’s over.’

 

 

Chapter Text

Hello, my lovely, lovely readers ...

This is just a quick update to let you know that this story is nearing the final moments, and I'm working hard on the endgame ... health, as always, is getting in the way, but it will happen!

So thank you for sticking with me, and I hope you'll come with me to see it through.

Next up ... coming home again, and preparing for the battle.

And then ... will they save Hongbin?