For a moment he is surrounded by nothing but endless dark, sightless and without touch -- disembodied, almost nothing without reference to anchor him, except for the voice of the Fourth Wall whispering in his ear.
[Yoo Jonghyuk confidently followed Kim Dokja into the Dream-That-Eats-Children. He thought, ‘I am very strong. This time, I can rescue Kim Dokja.’]
[But Kim Dokja did not whisper sw eet thi n gs to him.]
In a dizzying twist, Jonghyuk opens his eyes to a grand library.
[Damn sunfish Yoo Jonghyuk. Look around. Look at him.]
Jonghyuk’s eyes sweep the room, cold and methodical. His first impression of it is the sheer scale of it. He is standing in a central court of sorts, surrounded by shelves upon shelves in every direction. Two staircases spiral upwards, branching off to other floors until they disappear into the depths of the shadows above him. The dark shelves seem to stand in neat rows, packed with identical copies of blank white books, the very picture of order; but the longer he looks at them, the more subtly wrong they feel: looming just a bit too tall and crooked, straight halls warping into impossible corners, a shifting shadow in the narrow corridors between stands. The books gleam bone-white in the light, and hover ghost-like in the dark, and there is a terrible, echoing silence covering it all.
There is nothing outright nightmarish about this dream, but nonetheless, a feeling of unease drips coldly down his spine. Jonghyuk pushes it away. Kim Dokja has always been self-assured, but lonely; it shouldn’t be surprising that a dream of his innermost fears would not be something so loud, but instead, quiet and empty.
This is almost worse, Jonghyuk thinks. It isn’t something he can fight. Nonetheless, he knows what he is here to do, so he picks a direction and starts walking, scanning for any movement -- any indication of Kim Dokja’s presence. The click of his boots on the floor echoes strangely through the great halls.
It feels like he walks for minutes, or maybe days. The path ahead of him is never anything but perfectly straight, but when he looks back, he can’t see the light of the courtyard. He can’t see a way back at all, in fact. Jonghyuk ignores the growing unease. He needs a better strategy than simple exploration. Perhaps the contents of the books surrounding him would help.
He reaches out for one of the books, but as soon as his hand brushes against the flesh-warm cover of its blank spine--
“Don’t read it!”
It’s a child’s voice, high and thin. Jonghyuk whirls around, just fast enough to see a child’s frightened face staring back at him from around a corner that wasn’t there before. Before he can say anything, the child disappears, small footsteps echoing as he flees.
Jonghyuk puts the book back. He walks towards the noise, his feet noiseless as he follows down crooked paths. It becomes easier to follow the quick, frantic breaths of the one who always seems just on the other side of the bookshelf. Black liquid begins to ooze from the books around him, slowly at first, then more and more, dripping down the shelves and spilling onto the floor in a great flood until it’s all Jonghyuk can do to keep ahead of the wave. As it squirms towards him, he realizes -- it’s not ink, like he thought. It’s letters. Hundreds and millions of letters swarming so deep around him it would blot out the sun if it was here.
He takes his final turn.
Beneath a towering stack of books in the corner, a young child is curled up in fetal position, using his own body to hide something Jonghyuk can’t quite make out.
"There's no one else here," says the child that is Kim Dokja. Unconsciously, maybe, he draws in on himself. "It's just me."
The black tide behind Jonghyuk rustles and stops at the edges of shadow, and then it recedes until it is only him and the child before him.
[Kim Dokja was alone.]
"I am here, too," Yoo Jonghyuk says.
The child looks up at him, and even though the light slanting between the shelves illuminates his face his eyes are still dark -- flat shades that do not catch the light, no matter how he moves. He looks small, crouching alone among the vast shelves, but there is something about the way the shadows twist around him that almost makes Jonghyuk feel afraid.
It takes him a moment to realize that the shadows are twisting, inky words trickling down Kim Dokja's skin -- slowly at first, then faster, and faster.
[Kim Dokja thought, 'Everyone in this world is just a story.']
['He isn't real either.']
['He is lying, just like everyone else. I am still alone.']
The words writhe as they crawl over the floor, the shelves, the walls, darkening the library like a plague of locusts ready to descend. They snake across the floor towards Jonghyuk. At first, they are simply a mild nudging against his shoes, and then nipping at the ankles, but the words start swarming up his skin and the pain begins.
[Kim Dokja thought spitefully, 'A story shouldn't pretend to still be a person anymore.']
[He thought this because he hated the stories told about him. He hated his mother for what she had done to him. He hated the world that hurt him. He hated them, and so he hated himself, and he wanted someone to hurt just as much as he had.]
Jonghyuk swipes at the shadowy words crawling up his arms, but they are insubstantial, unable to be brushed off by mere physicality. "Kim Dokja, listen to me! You have to wake up!"
The words continue to spill off Kim Dokja, filling the space around him like ink. The darkness writhes, and then, on the wall next to them, it twists into something new.
[Yoo Jonghyuk thought, 'I don't know how to fight this.']
[As he read the words on the wall, a chill came over him. It knew his thoughts. It was telling a story about him. It hurt.]
[For the first time in a long time, Yoo Jonghyuk was afraid.]
The words stop. The child stares at him, suspicious.
"You can't be Yoo Jonghyuk. Yoo Jonghyuk isn't afraid of anything."
[Kim Dokja thought, 'I don't want to be afraid of anything.']
[Yoo Jonghyuk didn't know how to respond to this person who was so different than the one he knew.]
"Everybody knows!" It is hard to tell how old Kim Dokja looks right now. For a second he looked twelve, but now he is Jihye's age. "Everybody knows what I'm like. But I don't know you. You're just a story, just like me. You're just like me, and you hate the constellations who laugh at you and pity you and give you coins instead of privacy. You're just like me....."
[Kim Dokja thought, 'I don't want Yoo Jonghyuk to disappear.’]
"You'll end! And you'll leave me!"
[At that moment, he remembered the words his mother had told him.]
[The story doesn't end just because the book ended.]
[Learn to read again.]
[Kim Dokja thought, 'If Yoo Jonghyuk is a story, he can't ever leave me.']
[Yoo Jonghyuk knew that if he didn't speak now, he'd be eaten by the story.]
[Yoo Jonghyuk desperately tried to make a sound.]
The words have swarmed up to his neck now, darkening his clothes until they are darker than dark. It feels like he's being torn apart. He can barely move. He can barely open his mouth. But he has to get them both out of here. How?
There is one thing.
[Yoo Jonghyuk thought, 'I will tell you a story.']
The words stop. The more Yoo Jonghyuk looks, the more he can see the bruise on Kim Dokja's cheek, and the fragile way he curls against the wall of the room. It’s as if he were protecting a book that has had all of its pages ripped out.
"I once met a man who was on the edge of a broken bridge over an abyss. He said, I will be your companion, who follows you through life and death. He was a liar, but he has never lied to me about that."
Yoo Jonghyuk ignores the letters that cover him, stepping forwards to Kim Dokja.
"The last time he did something like this... I was unable to follow him. However, this time I knew the man that I came to call my companion. He is someone who loves stories, but hates the constellations, and hates it when people give up before the end."
[Kim Dokja was alone.]
The words still drip from Kim Dokja's cheeks as he watches Yoo Jonghyuk approach.
[Kim Dokja only had this story to look forward to.]
Kim Dokja's hands twitch, fumbling to cover the words on his face, but the words spill over to his hands instead.
[Kim Dokja thought... If only Yoo Jonghyuk were here.]
"I am here."
Kim Dokja stares at him. His lips tremble. He looks, Jonghyuk realizes, younger than before. Shin Yoosung's age.
[Kim Dokja wanted to believe him, but he couldn't. No one had ever truly been there for him, and especially not in this place. In this place, he was always alone.]
[A person, isolated by the story that was told.]
[Kim Dokja couldn't believe that the person before him was truly real.]
Jonghyuk steps forward again, gritting his teeth against the burning pain of being undone. He can feel the words crawling up his cheeks. "I am real," he repeats, reaching out and clasping Kim Dokja's small hands in his. "I am as real as you."
[Kim Dokja couldn't remember the last time someone had touched him in such a non-violent way.]
[The man's hands were warm. He noticed that he was trembling.]
"You are not just a story. You are more than that."
[Kim Dokja was shaking.]
[For so long, he had been waiting to hear those words.]
"Are you really Yoo Jonghyuk?" Kim Dokja asks in a small voice.
Yoo Jonghyuk nods. He invokes Great Sage's Eyes, not because it can read Kim Dokja, but because it might help prove his identity. Kim Dokja's eyes widened.
[When he saw the man's right eye turn gold, he couldn't help but want to believe.]
[Yoo Jonghyuk. How long had he been longing for the hero to save him as well?]
[Kim Dokja knew that Yoo Jonghyuk was not the type of person to save just anyone. He knew that there was no reason for Yoo Jonghyuk to save him, because he was small, weak, and pathetic. He had nothing special about him and nothing of worth he could give Yoo Jonghyuk in return.]
The words on Jonghyuk's body have stopped crawling upwards. They only shift uncertainly, forming bits and pieces of thoughts and sentences that scatter as quickly as they come together. Jonghyuk can't feel any triumph, though. Numbly, he thinks. Is this truly what Kim Dokja thinks of him?
[Kim Dokja knew he was nothing, but nonetheless, he wanted to be saved.]
Jonghyuk parts his frozen lips. "Kim Dokja," he says falteringly. He has never been good at speaking. What can he say? What is there to say? "Kim Dokja. You are not nothing."
The child in front of him smiles. His small hands grasp Jonghyuk's in return.
[It was like the most wonderful dream. Kim Dokja didn't want to wake up anymore.]
[Kim Dokja thought, 'I wish this story was real.']
Jonghyuk swallows. There would be no regressions that could fix this if he didn't manage to get this right.
"Kim Dokja. You told me.. that you could empathize with me for everything I'd been through, even though you weren't a regressor. So let me tell you. Even though I've never experienced what you've experienced... it's alright to live in this world, Kim Dokja. This world is worth seeing to its end."
The dark, fragmented words on his clothing seem to settle, before slowly drifting back to hide inside Kim Dokja's skin, where he keeps all his small and terrible secrets.
The adult Kim Dokja stares back at him, their hands still intertwined. The last sentence Jonghyuk catches a glance of, before it disappears up Kim Dokja's sleeve, only says, [Kim Dokja wanted to live.]
Kim Dokja blinks at him.
"What are you doing here? You're going to be late for your big entrance, Jonghyuk."
The response is so quintessentially, infuriatingly Kim Dokja that Yoo Jonghyuk can't even bring himself to be angry, only relieved. He lets himself smile slightly.
He could leave it here, take a step back, let go of Kim Dokja's hand. It would be easy to move on, like they always do.
But he can't shake the image of that child, bruised and alone in the dark and so convinced that no one would come to save him. And he finds that there's something he wants to say; something about how life is worth living, about how Kim Dokja's life has meaning, about how much it aches to see the raw, terrible wound of Kim Dokja's heart.
But Jonghyuk is not a writer, or a story teller, so all he can do is hold Kim Dokja's hands more tightly and say, "Kim Dokja. You know that you are important, right?"
Kim Dokja stares at him, but the smile that he always carries around Jonghyuk slowly fades away as he waits for a punchline that never comes. He waves his other hand in front of Jonghyuk’s face.
“That’s pretty funny, Jonghyuk. Maybe I can give you some tips on your sense of humour. You’re the type who’s more suited to gallows humour type jokes, I think.”
Kim Dokja obviously thinks at least one of them is funny.
Jonghyuk's hand tightens around Kim Dokja's, though he's nowhere near convinced it’s enough to stop Kim Dokja from slipping away.
"It wasn't a joke," he says.
Kim Dokja stops talking.
"I saw what happened in your dreamscape."
The light of an unwelcome realization flits across Kim Dokja's face, and Jonghyuk can feel through their linked hands his full-body flinch.
"I won't pretend I didn't see everything."
He stops there, unsure of how to go forward.
A light that had always come into his eyes when he faces Yoo Jonghyuk becomes shuttered.
"I won't. I don't abandon my companions."
He can see that Kim Dokja doesn't believe him, and that terrifies him more than it hurts him. What has Kim Dokja seen?
In this world, there is Kim Dokja. Outside of this world.... he's doubted it before, and it solidifies into truth now. Outside of this world, there is no Kim Dokja. Since he's regressed 43 times, doesn't that mean that of course he's abandoned him?
Other words trace through his head, from Kim Dokja’s own lips. '100 regressions... 200 regressions..'
Is this what he should have said to Shin Yoosung?
If anything, his apology only seems to make Kim Dokja more unsettled.
"What are you apologizing for?"
"If I've abandoned you in the future."
"...You haven't. What are you worrying about all of a sudden? This isn't like you."
It isn't like him to care about his companions? No matter what Kim Dokja has seen of his future, it still stings.
"Kim Dokja. Do you believe that the future is set in stone?"
Finally, those eyes jerk to truly focus on him.
"No," he insists. "Everything can change. Even prophecies can be overcome."
He doesn't know why each word from Kim Dokja's lips seem to make invisible weight fall from his back.
"It used to be.... that I would change the world, but in the end, the only person who was changed was me."
The regret he feels at his choices at the beginning of this life.... there was no point in the way that he had begun this journey. What was 10 coins for a person's life?
"In this world, everything is changing. Kim Dokja, you make even the easiest of tasks more difficult, and you take the most difficult tasks purely for yourself. You are a very irritating, annoying, and vibrant person to be around. I am--" Yoo Jonghyuk had to make this clear. He hadn't spoken so much of his thoughts aloud in possibly a century. "I am happy we exist in the same world."
Kim Dokja opens his mouth, and closes it again. He looks lost for words.
"You don't have to respond," Yoo Jonghyuk says. Although I hope you do. "But I hope you would care about yourself more. The party..." No, that's not correct. "I want you to be happy as well."
Kim Dokja frowns. "...For the ending I want, I don't need to be happy."
Jonghyuk thinks, for someone who hates and loves stories as much as Kim Dokja does, perhaps this is the only way that he can speak and be understood. "Kim Dokja. Listen to me."
Kim Dokja meets his eyes.
"There is no meaning to the epilogue if you are not there."
Something raw and vulnerable flashes behind Kim Dokja's eyes before it dissolves behind the quiet disbelief that Jonghyuk now recognizes as simply his way of interacting with his environment.
"You're very charismatic." If that’s meant to be a compliment, Jonghyuk wishes that Kim Dokja would return to his insults.
Another quiet, self deprecating smile appears on Kim Dokja’s face.
"I want to punch you." Jonghyuk is sure he has never felt this so strongly.
"Then do it." Jonghyuk can now recognize the sounds of bravado on Kim Dokja's voice as his own voice reflects back, and it disconcerts him. His hand releases from the fist it had curled into. Instead, he reaches out and taps Kim Dokja with a single flick of his finger.
"Hey!" Kim Dokja recoils with probably more force than he'd have done if Jonghyuk had punched him. "What was that for, you grumpy bastard!"
"You remember our promise." It isn't a question.
Kim Dokja nods, hesitantly.
"Then survive until the very end."
He lets go, finally, and takes a step back. He turns away and doesn't look at Kim Dokja. Final card to play.
"If you don't, I'll regress as many times as it takes to find you again."
Kim Dokja wants him to be happy, wants for him to not have to regress ever again. Jonghyuk wants the same. But if holding his own happiness hostage is what it takes to keep Kim Dokja in this world, he'll do it again and again.