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Echoes

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Blood hanging heavy in the air.

Tears, anguish carried to her on a feeble breeze.

Death.

She walks into the cluster of small houses and sheds without hesitation. There are no streets here, just a tangle of paths cut into the turf by the wheels of overloaded carts, hard-packed with the passing of years. No signs, no people to point the way, but her steps never falter. The call pulls her, strong and desperate for hours now; she has no choice but to let it lead her through the silence to where she is supposed to be.

 

Curled around Hakyeon, one hand loosely cupping Hongbin’s elbow, Hyuk twitched. His eyes moved restlessly behind closed lids.

 

Everything here is gone, she thinks, her eyes changing as she moves, feeling the bite of oncoming winter strike up from the soil into her bare, dirty feet. Her hair, scraped back into a matted plait, swings across her back with every step. This should be a place of focused activity, harvest being brought in, holes and cracks in walls plastered over with mud and straw. She can see freshly cut wood piled up in lean-to shelters, and furs and well-tanned skins hung up to air before the cold settles in too deeply. Her own mud-spattered trousers and vest are crudely made and thin; no protection against the snow she knows is only days away, but weather never touches her anymore.

 

Sweat broke out on Hyuk’s forehead. He pushed the covers pooled around his waist away from his body.

 

Skirting an outbuilding whose door gapes off its hinges, she hears two hearts beating. One is steady but aching, the other rapid and jittery like a bird trying to escape a net. There.

She looks down at the two figures on the ground in front of her. A young man, little more than a boy, staring sightlessly upwards, limbs loose and disjointed, the shallow rise and fall of his chest the only movement. Cradling him, another man, older, this one, looking up at her with pleading eyes. She inhales sharply; they smell like each other. Father, she decides. 'Why am I here? Why did you call me? How did you call me?' 'I need your help, monster,' says the father in a voice that washes over her. She looks down into eyes like moonlight on water, and her vision clouds with tears.

 

Monster? Hyuk stilled, almost not breathing.

 

'You,' she breathes in wonder. ‘What are you doing here alone?’

His voice doesn’t change, but she sees clearly the pain tightening the skin around his mouth, the way his lips become thin and stretched. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know what’s happening, I’ve only just woken up. I don’t know where my soul is.’

She shakes her head. ‘This isn’t possible, beloved. You don’t awaken alone, you can’t.’

‘I think it happened because of him.’ He looks down at the young man lying limp in his arms.

The old tragedy, she thinks. How many times must it play out? How many lives will it destroy? Not really questions, because she knows the answer. Always. Forever. A horrible distortion of everything they’re supposed to be, made infinitely worse because she can remember a time before, when they were the best of us.

She kneels on the ground by them, takes the father’s hands in hers (dried blood in the lines on his palms) and lays them over her eyes. ‘Tell me,’ she says. ‘Show me.’ She pulls in a sharp breath as he flows into her.

 

Pain, deep in his chest, like something was tearing loose. Hyuk’s lips parted to let out a soft growl. Beside him, Hakyeon stirred, but then relaxed into sleep again.

 

 

Running, stumbling, breath sobbing in and out, heart hammering with effort and panic. Mind reeling with unfamiliar perceptions and memories crashing in on him. What’s happening to me, the father thinks. A house just ahead of him, someone inside howling, sounding barely human but dreadfully familiar. He pushes through the half-open door - and stops in horror.

A woman kneeling over a man’s body, knife in hand. Beside her, two still crumpled heaps that look like sodden clothes until he sees a tiny, outflung hand. And pressed against the wall, his own son, hands clutched tight in his own hair, keening as he stares at the family. The father falls to his knees and reaches out with trembling fingers to touch the hand. Still warm, but there’s no one there anymore. ‘What have you done?’ he whispers. ‘What have you done?

The woman turns her head towards him. Her face is bruised, tears tracks cutting through the blood smeared on her cheeks. ‘I had to,’ she pleads. ‘He told me …’ She gestures towards the boy standing against the wall, keeping her eyes on the father. ‘That one made him tell me … what he did, my little girls … I had to.’

He knows what she’s saying, somehow feels the ghost of the violations that took place within these walls. It makes him sick to his stomach. ‘But, the little ones - why?’

‘They were in pain,’ she says simply, and gives him a smile that’s sweet, and utterly devoid of reason. ‘He told me that, too.’

Careless of his own safety, not knowing where the impulse comes from, he holds out his arms to her. ‘You are loved,’ he tells her, even as his heart flinches back from what she’s done. ‘Come here.’ Such longing in her face, then, and for a moment he thinks she will. Then her face twists, and her mouth works, but there are no words, only a helpless, broken whimper before she raises the knife and plunges it into her own belly.

 

Hyuk jolted, almost waking. The dream’s hold on him was too strong, though, pulling him back under.

 

With a cry, the father pulls his hands back and hugs his son again, sobbing. ‘Help him, monster. Help us both.’

Where did everyone go, she nearly asks, but the answer drifts to her in a swirl of wind. People hurrying away, pushing past each other, desperate, frightened. Laughter as sharp as glass cutting through the air, chasing them. They’ll never come back, she realises. They believe this place is tainted, now. In a way, it is, and not only because of the deaths. The little ones, she thinks, mourning.

She bends close to the pair on the ground, already knows what she will smell. From the father, jasmine and clear water. From the son - she grimaces - burned sugar, fear-sweat, silver. It set her teeth on edge, makes her want to snatch the father away. Dreading the answer, she asks, ‘Is he awake?’

The father shakes his head, not looking up. ‘No, no, something went wrong. He broke, it broke him.’ He caresses the boy’s face with a trembling hand. ‘It was too much for him, I think, seeing that. He wasn’t ready.’

Are they ever? she thinks, but doesn’t say. ‘If he’s broken … beloved, I can’t help, I can’t bring him back to you.’

The father turns pleading eyes to her. ‘You’re all I have. I can’t call the saviour … but you, I could reach.’

His hope is almost too much for her to bear. She looks at the wreck lying in his arms, feeling helpless anger rise. She’s known this could happen, heard terrible stories, but this is the first time she’s seen it, scented it. How can this be right? How can so many be ruined? Her own awakening was gentle by comparison, just a gradual drawing away from the world of walls and manners as her memories returned. Heart aching, she reaches out to touch the tears on the father’s face.

‘He’s my son, monster,’ the man says quietly. ‘You can set him free.’

‘Do you know what you’re asking of me? There’s only one thing I can do for him.’

The father nods with quiet dignity. ‘Please. Put him to sleep.’

Her eyes are fully changed now, the scents and sounds sharp. Effortlessly, she reads him, knows he understands. ‘Then say goodbye to him, beloved.’ She closes her eyes to give him this last moment alone, feels him bend to kiss his son, hears him whisper, ‘You are loved,’ to him.

‘We’re ready, monster.’

As she reaches out to take the boy from his father, the wave of pity and revulsion that sweeps over her is almost enough to make her cry out. Steeling herself, she cradles him, brings her face close to his. Although he doesn’t stir, a breathless, mad giggle bubbles up from between his lips. ‘Be free,’ she murmurs, and kisses him.

 

Hyuk’s eyes snapped open. What the fuck was that? He stared up at the ceiling, heart beating wildly, trying control his breathing. That girl … he called her monster … and the kid … broken, what does that even mean … He strove to make sense of the dream, even as he felt it slip away from him. Only vague impressions left (blood ... horror ... awful, aching regret … beloved), nothing that fit together. His eyes felt like they were burning; he rubbed at them with one hand.

Easing out of bed, he pulled on the boxers he’d dropped on the floor earlier, and tucked the covers around Hakyeon, his hands gentle. The dancer murmured incoherently, but didn’t wake. Hyuk left the room quietly, padding to the bathroom. Without turning on the light, he ran cold water into the basin, splashed his face, cupped his hands and drank. Slowly, the burning faded, taking with it the last vestiges of the dream. Tiredness dragged at his limbs. Sighing, he let the water drain, and went back to his lovers.

As pushed open the door, Hyuk heard Hakyeon’s voice, soft and frantic: ‘- binnie, sshh, sshh.’ A shudder went through him, his skin crawling. Gripped by an inexplicable panic, he almost stumbled into the room. In the dim light, he saw them. Hongbin, twisting and thrashing, mired deep in nightmare; Hakyeon, half-sitting up, bedcovers pooled around his waist, trying to hold on to him. He started towards the bed, and Hakyeon looked up at him, his face taut with worry. ‘I need your help, monster,’ he said.

‘What’s wrong with him?’ asked Hyuk, ‘what’s …’ His voice died. I need your help, monster. A moment of dislocation, an echo, I’ve heard that before, but where?

Hyukkie,’ called Hakyeon urgently.

Hyuk started, shook his head to clear it. In a few quick strides he crossed the room and climbed into bed behind Hongbin, pushing him into the middle, winding his arms around his lover’s waist. Close enough now that he could hear Hongbin’s distressed whimpers, to feel how the muscles cramped and twitched against his body, Hyuk instinctively pushed his face into Hongbin’s hair. ‘Bean? Bean, come on, wake up, you’re scaring us.’ Hakyeon snuggled down on Hongbin’s other side, murmuring wordless reassurance. They held him between them tightly, but nothing seemed able to penetrate the wall of sleep.

He’s trapped, thought Hyuk, and on the heels of that, a surge of anger, and a thought that seemed to be at once both his, and not his. Kiss him. Hyuk cupped Hongbin’s face with one hand, turned his head towards him. As though responding to the touch, Hongbin’s mouth stretched into a grin; he laughed softly, the sound somehow chilling, a cold finger to the base of Hyuk’s spine. He hasn’t sounded like that in months. Hyuk lowered his face to Hongbin’s.

(burned sugar, fear-sweat, silver)

He pulled back instinctively, baring his teeth. What am I doing? It’s just Bean. Forcing himself to ignore the scent that seemed to rise on Hongbin’s breath, Hyuk leaned close again. Hardly aware of his own words, he whispered, ‘Be free,’ and covered Hongbin’s mouth with his own. Metallic, somehow sweet, it doesn’t even taste like him.

Hongbin stiffened, every muscle locking up. Be free, thought Hyuk, breathing into him, and Hongbin went utterly limp. Hakyeon stifled a cry of shock, but Hongbin’s face was soft, nearly peaceful, only slight tension around his eyes. Gently, Hyuk broke the kiss and looked up into Hakyeon’s eyes. ‘What did you do?’ the dancer asked.

‘I … I’m not sure,’ Hyuk answered. ‘It just felt like the right thing.’

Hakyeon sat up a little and drew Hyuk in, kissing him softly over Hongbin’s body. ‘Thank you, monster.’ Lying down again, he laced his fingers through Hyuk’s, resting them on Hongbin’s chest. Within moments, his eyes slipped closed, and Hyuk heard his breathing slow. The room was becoming clearer, dawn beginning to steal around the edges of the curtains. Hyuk lay with his eyes open and his mind racing, watching over his sleeping lovers. What the hell just happened? What did I do?

Who am I?

 

 

Chapter Text

into-the-void-fiend

Jasmine, carried on the night wind, stealing in under the screens. A whisper of silk passing her door, passing the oblivious, drowsing idiot who guards her and keeps her jailed because they’re afraid of her. Stabbing, grinding pain in her changing eyes. Here again, just like every night ... how i hate you, she thinks, and doesn’t know why.

His voice murmuring, she hears perfectly everything he says. Can picture him standing there, hair like black water and impossible eyes, holding her sister’s hands. And now her sister, answering him, she can hear the love between them and it’s so false and so real and she can’t stand it any longer, like hands squeezing her head, like teeth tearing open something deep in her chest. It makes her want to scream, but all she can do is laugh and laugh until she has no breath left. Just take her, she pleads silently, blind with pain, take her and go and leave me alone.

He’s failed again. Just like he always fails, and she doesn’t know what that thought means, only that it makes her want to weep. He’ll hurt her sister because of it, and then he’ll walk away, like he always does. When she first realised what he was trying to do, she was happy, she thought he would wake her sister and they would both take her away with them. Now she knows this will never end. Every night will be just like this one.

(you don’t have to stay in this box)

Not her thought, but it is her thought, somehow, some part of her whispering, a dark, warm breath on the back of her neck and down her spine.

(you can run, don’t you want to run?)

‘I do,’ she whispers. ‘I do want to run. I need to get away from her and from our father’s stinking breath and from this idiot who wants me to believe he’s my friend but I can see how he looks at me and what he wants to do to me and all this fear.

‘I can’t get out of here on my own.’

(you’re not alone)

‘I’m afraid.’

(i’m here)

(i’ve always been here, sweet girl)

‘Who are you?’ she asks, dreading the answer.

(i’ll help you)

(let me out)

‘I don’t know how. I don’t know what to do. Help me.’

(is that what you want?)

‘Help me. Please.’

(ask me again)

Help me.’

(pick up the vase, the blue one, your favourite one)

She hears herself call out, she sounds sweet and trusting, and the idiot opens the screen so quickly. Like he’s waiting for it. She keeps her head down and the vase behind her back until he’s so close that she can almost smell the greasy sweat in the folds of his skin. Then she looks up at him and laughs when his mouth goes slack with fear, and the sound of shattering porcelain is like music that ends with the drumbeat of his head hitting the wooden floor.

He doesn’t move again. She bends down to him, staring, her hand dripping, bleeding he’s bleeding i’m bleeding too we’re bleeding together just like sisters

(you killed him)

She can’t catch her breath properly. ‘No, I didn’t, I didn’t.’

(he’s not breathing, you killed him)

‘No I didn’t, he hit his head, I didn’t kill him.’ Wanting to back away, frozen in place.

(liar)

‘I … killed him.’

(that’s right)

All she can do is stare, and now she can see how the idiot’s chest doesn’t rise and fall, how one of his eyes is half-open and bulging and rolled up so that only the white shows, and so much blood and I killed him I killed him I … ‘... can’t,’ she whispers against the laughter that tries to climb out of her throat. ‘Take it away.’

(you need to run, take his clothes and run)

‘My head hurts … it’s so loud ...make it stop.’

(ssh, it’s all right, i’ll make it stop, you can wake up now)

‘I’m scared.’ Her hand pushes against her mouth, a child’s habit. She tastes metal, I cut myself, but this isn’t hers, it’s on the back of her hand, she’s tasting him, no, oh no, I don’t want this, ‘help me …’

(you have to let go, my love)

‘ … I’m going to let go now.’

(that’s right, let go, let me out, i’ll take care of us now)

‘You can come out.’

She laughs again, and something inside breaks, and her world is all splinters and shards and I remember. I know who I am.

touch him touch him don’t want to touch him take his skin off and wear it never find me now never …

The idiot’s clothes are too big. They stink of him, and the stains from his head and her hand make patterns she can’t decipher, but she won’t need them long, just long enough to get away and then she can find another lie to wear, and another, and another. She has so much to do, she can feel the call already. She picks up a shard from the pool at her feet, swings her long braid over her shoulder and hacks at it, here you can have this instead fair exchange nothing for nothing …

Before she leaves her jail, she takes one last look, but the clothes on the floor and the ornaments on the low table mean nothing to her now. She pats the idiot gently on the shoulder as she steps over his cooling body. i’m sorry i didn’t mean to break you but it’s probably better for you to be asleep you’re really a very bad man …

There’s still a light in her sister’s room. She grins in the darkness of the porch and slides open the screen. Although the covers are pulled up over a huddled form, she knows no one is sleeping in here. She walks into the room, leaving bloody footprints, and waits with her head tilted to one side until the woman she used to call sister turns over. Sees her eyes, moonlight on clear water, and suddenly it all makes so much sense that she has to laugh again. hello beloved i see you

The woman sits up, naked, a livid bruise just below where her robe would cover, reaches for a puddle of white on the floor. is this what you want here let me … Her hands smear it with red and there’s a cry of distress from the woman.

‘What have you done?’

i thought i should leave you a goodbye gift, she says, but i didn’t know what to give you but now i do and i’m not sure i should give it to you beloved

‘What’s happened to you? Why are you calling me that?’

you’re so sleepy, she says, are you ever going to wake up i wonder you know he’ll never stop trying it’s almost funny but he’s the only thing that isn’t funny now i hate him i hate that you love him even though it’s not your fault

The woman is on her feet, grabbing at her. ‘What are you saying to me, what do you … your eyes, what’s wrong with your eyes?’

She laughs. there’s nothing wrong with my eyes but your eyes are all blind and stupid you don’t even know … Her mouth twists. you don’t know who you are ...

The colour drains from the woman’s face. ‘That’s what he always asks me. Sometimes I think I know, but it always slips away.’ She feels the woman’s fingers shaking, clutching at her borrowed skin.

i broke the idiot, she confesses, I’m sorry about that but he wanted to do awful things to me … i don’t know how i know that but i do know it and i know our father let mother die when i wasn’t a boy and they all think i’m a demon and that’s so so funny because they’re so close but so far … i know so many things so many things now most of all i know why he hurts you and what he wants from you ...

‘Do you know? Do you know who I am?’

She knows. She always knows, always remembers, and every time she wishes it could be the last time, because if it wasn’t for the two of them, she would be whole.

i have to go now you have to let me go … And that’s when she feels it, the burden settling on her. It makes her want to cry again because she has to make the woman see the truth about herself (and him), she has to do what she’s made for, but if anyone deserves to stay asleep, it’s this one. And she has no choice ... i’ll help you remember please don’t hate me because i hate him and because i can’t let you stay asleep ...

‘You’re my sister, I’m not letting you go anywhere!’

you can’t stop me ...

She takes the woman’s face in her hands, her wet palm slipping on soft skin. Now that she knows who she is, it’s simple and utterly terrifying. i love you, she says, and there’s no laughter in her now … don’t be afraid i’m just going to kiss you

She keeps her eyes open when she breathes into the woman, sees the moment when the awakening starts, can’t bear to see everything. Stepping back, she gently frees herself from the woman’s hands, turns away.

… goodbye sister goodbye beloved i’m so sorry goodbye goodbye try not to cry …

She walks away, leaving behind bloody footprints, a ruined white robe, and a handprint on a cheek.

The last thing she hears before the night swallows her is the woman’s broken wail. ‘I remember!

*****

Hongbin, Hongbinnie.

‘ … Hongbinnie, sshh, shhh, it’s all right, wake up, love, wake up.’

‘Bean? Bean? Hey, wake up.’

‘What? What happened?’ Confused, Hongbin blinks up at the two concerned faces that hover over him.

‘You were dreaming,’ said Hakyeon, stroking the hair back from Hongin’s forehead.

‘Pretty nasty one, from the sound of it,’ added Sanghyuk.

‘I … don’t remember anything,’ murmured Hongbin, ‘just … there was a girl …’ Already, his eyes were closing again. Within seconds, he was asleep, breathing evenly, face soft.

Sanghyuk carefully disentangled himself from Hongbin and got out of bed, motioning Hakyeon to follow him to stand by the window. ‘You heard it, didn’t you?’ he asked in a low voice.

Hakyeon nodded, his eyes troubled. ‘The laughing? Yes. I don’t understand what’s going on.’

‘It’s just like before. Like it … whatever it is … is coming back. What are we going to do, aein?’ There was no immediate reply. About to repeat the question, Sanghyuk caught a scent rising around the dancer, roses and sun-warmed skin. ‘Hakyeon?’ he said uncertainly.

‘We’ll help him, monster.’ Hakyeon’s voice was quiet, almost musical. Sanghyuk breathed in the scent again, felt a warm rush of arousal that startled him. ‘We did it before, we can keep doing it as long we have to.’

In the bed, Hongbin stirred, shallowing up from sleep. He was alone, only residual warmth in the bed with him. Where are they? Lifting his head, he could just make out two figures standing close near the window. (they’re talking about you) He set his jaw. Not listening. ‘Hakyeon?’ he called. ‘Monster?’

They turned, came back to him. Automatically, he moved over to give Hakyeon the middle, but the dancer shook his head, and Hongbin found himself bracketed by them, Sanghyuk’s arms holding him firmly from behind. They both seemed wide awake. ‘Is something wrong?’

‘Everything’s fine, fiend,’ Hakyeon assured him as he pillowed his head on Hongbin’s arm. ‘We didn’t want to wake you.’

(ask him what they were talking about) ‘You’d tell me if there was anything, wouldn’t you?’

‘Of course we will … we would,’ answered Sanghyuk. ‘Don’t be so goddamn paranoid, Bean. Now go to sleep.’

Hongbin felt their limbs grow heavy over him, heard their breathing slow and deepen. Unable to relax, he stared into the dark, his eyes prickling as though irritated by something. There’s nothing, he told himself, over and over, you’re being stupid, they’re not hiding anything.

As he finally slipped into a restless sleep, he heard, very clearly, one word.

(liar)

Chapter Text

zayde-lover

 

Freshly turned soil, salt wind, and the kiss of winter in the air.

How I love this place, he thinks.

The grave is still new, the heaped dirt not yet sunk back to the level of the surrounding earth. Even so, in defiance of the season, tiny flowers have already taken root and bloomed, grass stalks poking up just enough to give a green tinge. He rests one thin hand on the wooden board that takes the place of a headstone, lets his twisted fingers run over the crudely carved words there. Just a name, Aizik, no dates, no other ornamentation. No stone for me, he remembers his love saying, and smiles sadly. In this climate, the wood won’t last long, and even before it rots away, the name will be obscured by fungus and warping. By then, his love’s body, laid in the ground without coffin or even a winding sheet, will be part of the soil on which this community builds itself. Just as you want it to be, as you have always been for them.

‘I miss you, my gardener,’ he says. ‘I miss waking up with you. I miss your beautiful eyes and your gentle hands. I even miss the way you’d curse every time the door got stuck.’ He pulls in a shaking breath, tears spilling over. ‘What will I do without you, love?’

The loss is beyond his ability to describe, an ache that has nothing to do with old bones. The people of his village are very kind, bringing him food, sitting with him to drink tea and talk with him about the many lives Aizik touched, and how Aizik was the heart of the village, and how they will try to go on in a way that would make him proud. They encourage him to speak of his own memories, never once judging him for giving his heart to another man. He’s grateful, of course, because he knows they think they’re helping keep the memory of his love alive. They don’t understand that the memory will never fade; like all the other loves over all the long, long centuries, the gardener will be part of him forever. He buried half of his soul three days ago, and the grief hasn’t yet begun to take him. When it does, he’ll need these people more than ever.

Today, his first visitor is Shana, young and strong, blooming with pregnancy. No longer the shy girl he first met when she accidentally crashed into him and knocked the parcels he was carrying out of his arm, she is confident and warm now, calls him ‘grandfather’ like all the others, and he accepts her embrace gladly. She moves about the tiny house silently, dusting perfectly clean shelves and stoking up the fire. He stares out of the window, wishing he could make himself believe, if only for a little while, that what he hears is his love. But the gardener was never quiet. If there was nothing to talk about, he’d sing or hum to himself, and if he ran out of breath for that, there would still always be little sounds of effort or contentment or good-natured grumbling.

Shana brings him tea, helping him cradle the cup in his hands, then sits down heavily next to him with a relieved sigh. The warmth steals through him as he drinks, never touching the cold place in his heart. Sipping her own tea, she finally starts to talk. It’s just the business of the village, everything from the quality of the fruit brought to market by one of the outlying farmers to the fight between two young boys over whose stone went furthest in the skipping competition down by the river. Her description of how the boys ended up overbalancing and falling into the shallows, earning themselves a scolding from their mothers, brings a small smile to his face. He would have loved to hear this, he thinks, and the smile dies again.

As if sensing his dip in mood, she sets down her cup and takes his. ‘Here,’ she says, ‘I want you to feel this.’ He carefully places his hand over her stomach and looks at him expectantly. At first there’s nothing but the feel of her breathing, then he feels it. A flutter, so faint that it’s barely there, but unmistakable. The smile is wider this time, hovers around his mouth even after his face relaxes. ‘It will be a boy,’ she says, suddenly shy again. ‘We would like to name him Aizik. I hope you don’t mind.’

‘Why would I mind, ketzele?’ he asks her.

She blushes. ‘Well … you brought us together, without you we wouldn’t even have … we all love you, too, you have done so much for us, but he ...’

He pats her belly reassuringly, tells her that he is happy that she would want his love’s name to bless her child. And he is happy, even through the tears that now threaten to rise, because although the gardener will be born again, somewhere probably far from here, Aizik should live on as more than a memory in the mind of his lover.

Covering his hand with her own, she falls quiet again, and the two of them just sit together. After a long time, long enough that the sun has moved higher to shine more fully through the window, she stirs. ‘There’s news from across the river,’ she says, and he hears fear and disbelief in her voice. ‘Something terrible happened. People started arriving before sunrise, some of them have nothing but their clothes. They say their village is cursed now. That people are dead - children are dead.’ Her arms curve around her middle, unconsciously protecting the baby within. ‘They’re so frightened, zayde. The family staying with us have a little one, but her parents are so upset, they can barely speak to each other. Will you come?’

He has to look away, then, because he can feel his eyes changing. With that comes the feeling of the burden as it settles on him; it’s too soon, he thinks, and wishes that, just this once, he could ignore the call, stay here where everything still smells of the gardener. He is what he was made to be, though, and so he tells her, ‘Of course I will. Let me get my coat.’ His voice is low, sounds much younger than it really is, makes her catch her breath.

Age has slowed him, and the sun is almost directly overhead when they finally arrive at her house. There’s a bite to the freshening wind, though. He pulls his coat more tightly around him, waving a greeting to her husband Avrom, who is surrounded by hungry goats and manages only a quick nod as he’s nearly knocked off his feet by one particularly insistent nanny trying to get at the feed bucket. ‘You’ll make a fine stew,’ he hears Avrom threaten, but there’s no real malice in it. There never is, here. Look at what you have grown, gardener, he thinks, they flower so beautifully.

Shana leads him inside the house, glancing back once and smiling when she sees his eyes. Until his eyes adjust, he sees only huddled figures, two crowding close to the fire, a third standing near the wall with arms crossed. Even glare-blind, he can feel how the threads between them are stretched tight, fraying with tension. Worst of all is the child, tied so tightly to her parents but pulled between them and tearing herself apart trying to keep them together.

‘This is our zayde,’ say the woman. ‘I brought him to help.’ The father turns half-away, not quite dismissing them, but clearly not welcoming. His wife gives a dutiful smile, but there is no real warmth there. I am only just in time, he thinks. Catching the little girl peeping at him, he lowers himself painfully to his haunches.

‘Hello, Baila ’ he says to the girl, and both parents look at him openly now with wonder.

The girl takes a tentative step towards him, mouth almost round with her surprise. ‘Your eyes are so pretty,’ she says.

‘So are yours. You have a beautiful child, Minah, Jochanan,’ he says to the parents. They exchange wary glances; he can almost hear them thinking, how do you know who we are? ‘I want to welcome you to our village,’ he continues. ‘We have a custom here. May I kiss you?’

The little girl doesn’t hesitate, throws herself into his arms and kisses him soundly on the lips. Aware of everyone’s eyes on him, he breathes into her only a little before letting her go and rising with difficulty. As he struggles, Jochanan moves quickly to slip an arm about his waist and help him to his feet. ‘Thank you,’ he says ruefully. ‘I forget I’m not as limber as I once was.’

Jochanan stares at him. ‘I’ve seen eyes like yours before,’ he says. ‘Not the same, but … the light in them is the same.’

For a moment, then, his heart leaps. Perhaps I’m not completely alone, but that’s a thought for another time. Now he has a task. He turns to face the father, lays a hand along his cheek, and kisses him. This kiss is longer, still chaste but warmer; at first Jochanan stiffens, but as breath steals into him and the threads start to knit together between him and his family, he relaxes into it. So much here, pain and worry and a deep, deep fear that his zeeskeit will never trust him again with their daughter. Something behind that, but his task is not to look for secrets, only to repair what is nearly broken.

He lifts his head and Jochanan smiles at him, a little embarrassed. There’s no time for questions, though, because now Minah rises and approaches him hesitantly. She looks to her husband first, and seeing that lifts his heart. Already, they are closer. Jochanan steps back and nods to her, and she walks into the arms of the lover to be healed.

After, he’s tired. He tires so easily these days, not just age but also so much of him wants to rest. To mourn what he has lost this time, and to prepare for the next time. The next love, perhaps the gardener again, perhaps someone else entirely. He won’t know until he sees them; even if neither of them are yet awake, he’ll know, and they’ll wind themselves around his heart and become the newest of the many, many loves he has known, and cherished, and lost. He accepts another cup of tea when Avrom comes in from his chores, reflecting with a ghost of his old humour on the certainty that his bladder will keep him awake tonight. The other family join them, sitting close together, Baila snuggled between them.

The ties between them are strong now, almost as strong as those that bind the people of this village to each other. Already, he can see new ones forming in this room, the two men cautious, the women more open. Shana peppers Minah with questions about pregnancy and motherhood, and he smiles to see Minah’s reticence give way in the face of her warmth. The little girl simply rests her head against her tatte’s arm, half-asleep. It’s a beginning only, he knows, and without the gardener they’ll have to rely on their own willingness to belong if they are to become part of this community. Still, he’s hopeful enough that he allows himself the indulgence to ask the question that’s lodged in him like a splinter.

‘You said you had seen eyes like mine before, eyes that change?’ he says. ‘May I ask where?’

Immediately, he sees the family pull in on themselves again. There’s small comfort in seeing that they become closer, but he still regrets causing them any pain. He opens his mouth to take back the question, but the answer is already out and laying between them. ‘Back where we came from. He may still be there, I don’t know. Him, and … the other one.’

What happened, he wants to ask. He holds back because the strain in them pulls at the newly-woven threads, and he can’t risk damaging them again. ‘Can you … tell me about his eyes?’ he says instead.

They struggle with the descriptions. Silver, says Minah firmly, but her husband shakes his head and insists they were white. It’s familiar, but he can’t let himself hope. And then the little girl, eyes still closed, says sleepily, ‘It’s like the moon, like when there are no clouds,’ and his breath actually stops in his throat.

It can’t be … it makes all too much sense. ‘What about the other one?’ he asks, and can’t keep the eager tremble out of his voice.

The parents look at each other again. Again, it’s the little girl who tells him. ‘He was scary. His eyes were shiny and he laughed all the time and said awful things, and he made his tatte the moonlight man so sad …’ Her mother shushes her quickly, but it’s enough. He doesn’t know why or how it could happen, but what the girl says makes it all too clear. The old tragedy, and caught up in it, one whose very presence sows chaos.

He pushes back from the table, stammering apologies for asking, for being rude, and his young friends try to comfort him, offer to help him back to his house. He tells them over and over, no, no, he will be all right on his own, and finally they let him go with obvious reluctance and he stumbles out into the dusk.

It takes only a few moments to gather a small bag of food and a warm blanket. His hip twinges again; he ignores it, his mind ranging out across the river. Hoping, dreading what he might find, and when he does, his eyes fill with tears. He looks around their little house one last time, every inch of it crowded with a memory of love, of the community he and the gardener tended. All he wants to do is stay, and mourn, and find what comfort he can in the people they both loved through all their years together, and there’s no call, he probably could, but he can’t pretend he doesn’t feel that awful, lonely grief reaching out to him from so far away.

He hesitates in the doorway. If I do this, I will never know peace again in this life. It’s not just speculation; the truth of it already settles on his aching soul. He is not for me, he warns himself, he cannot fill my heart. It doesn’t matter. His hand closes on the staff that stands by the door - Aizik’s, unused since his love became too frail to walk about the village anymore. A ghost of a touch upon his face, the whisper of a silenced voice, take it, my love, go to him.

The tears spill over again, and he turns his back and leaves his home for the last time. He sets his face to the south and walks into the gathering night. It will be dawn before he reaches the ford, and at least another day to make it to his destination. Already his hip protests, and his knees will not be far behind, but he does not falter. He carries his love within him, it feels like they’re walking together, and he thinks I am not alone.

He calls, and prays that he will be heard.

I’m coming, beloved. Hold on.

 

Slowly waking, held securely in the arms of his loves, Hakyeon stirred, eyes half-opening. For a moment the dream lingered, swamped him with the memory of old griefs and new friends and desperate hope. There was a little girl, he thought, a face in his mind, tearing herself apart, I’ve felt that before. Beside him Sanghyuk shifted in his sleep, and Hakyeon remembered holding him, listening to him, you’re both doing it, you’re tearing me apart. ‘I’m so sorry, monster,’ he whispered. ‘I didn’t know.’

Spooned up behind him, face buried in his hair, Hongbin’s arms tightened around him. He laughed all the time. A chill went through him, leaving him cold and afraid. Just a dream, he told himself firmly, it doesn’t mean anything.

The last of the dream slipped away. Hakyeon felt the warmth creeping back, and sighed with relief. Closing his eyes again, he drowsed. The moonlight man, he thought, and then, at the edge of sleep, Wonshik.

 

Chapter Text

‘Ravi-yah … Ravi-yah …’

‘Can’t hear you,’ mumbled Ravi. ‘I’m asleep.’ Through slitted eyes, he watched Leo sit up in bed and sigh, an irritated sound robbed of any real exasperation by the soft smile on his face.

Bringing his lips close to Ravi’s ear, Leo said clearly, ‘Good morning,’ was answered only by an incoherent noise.

‘Still sleeping,’ said Ravi.

‘And yet you’re talking to me.’

‘Must be your imagination.’

‘Open your eyes,’ laughed Leo.

Ravi let out a pathetic groan. ‘Do we have somewhere to be this morning?’

‘It’s still early,’ answered Leo. ‘We’re not due in the studio for two hours yet.’

‘Then why do I have to be awake?’

‘Because I insist.’ To emphasise the point Leo poked Ravi gently in the ribs. When there was no reaction, he poked harder. Without opening his eyes, Ravi grabbed Leo’s hand and tugged, pulling him down to sprawl almost on top of him. He wrapped his arms around the vocalist to hold him still. ‘This isn’t going to work,’ said Leo. ‘I’ll just talk to you until you wake up properly.’ Ravi only tilted his head to kiss Leo, effectively silencing him.

Of all the kisses he shared with Leo, Ravi’s favourite were these; lazy and gentle, slow exploration of each other’s mouths, gradually deepening, never insistent. He lost himself in the feel of Leo’s lips on his, hair sliding through his fingers, warm skin moving against skin. When Leo finally lifted his head, Ravi smiled up at him through heavy-lidded eyes. ‘I dreamed about you last night, chagiya,’ he said.

Leo blushed, ducked his head, and nuzzled at Ravi’s neck: ‘I think I can guess what you dreamed.’

‘For once, you’d be wrong …’

‘Should I be insulted?’

‘Never,’ said Ravi, kissing him again. ‘It was a weird one, actually. You were definitely in it, but you weren’t you, does that make sense?’

Leo shrugged. ‘Is a dream ever supposed to make sense? So who was I, then? A secret agent? Random person on the street?’

‘You were a woman.’ Ravi grinned at Leo’s raised eyebrows. ‘What? You always did make a pretty girl.’

‘I’ll poke you again,’ threatened Leo.

‘Promises, promises.’

Rolling his eyes, Leo pillowed his head on Ravi’s shoulder. ‘Anyway. That’s it?’

‘You were European, French, I think. At least, I think I was in France. You had long red hair, I remember that.’

Leo caught his breath sharply, going very still.

‘Chagiya?’

At first there was no response, then Leo lifted his head. Black, cloudy eyes stared down at Ravi.

‘Angel.’ What did I say? ‘What is it?’

Tell me,’ the angel hissed. He shifted into a sitting position, reached out. Ravi couldn’t help his involuntary flinch, but lay passive, waiting. The angel hesitated, a look of terrible hope on his face, then took Ravi’s hands and held them over his eyes. ‘Show me.’

‘I don’t really … what are you …’ Ravi’s voice died away as the dream rushed back into his mind, every detail almost unbearably clear.

Although it’s early in the evening, every table is already full, every sofa occupied to the point of overcrowding. A haze of blue smoke hangs in the air, tobacco and clove and sweeter, more exotic smells mingling with spilled wine and paint thinners and the sour sweat of clothes slept in for too many nights. Even without the raucous singing or the improvised duets of guitars, it’s impossible to hear the music from the gramophone over the shouted conversations. Along one wall, poets declaim their latest work and argue over questions of metre and rhyme. Opposite them, two philosophers keep score in their debate by rapidly emptying glasses whenever one concedes a point. A group of painters at two tables pushed together pass around sketches of hands, eyes, the curve of a spine, and boast about the perfection of their latest models. Near the front doors a trio of theatre girls breaks into a beautiful, impromptu harmony that attracts enthusiastic applause despite the slightly thin soprano line.

He sits alone, nursing a single glass of cheap, rough red wine, guitar on his lap, the table littered with scraps of paper and sheets of music. From his corner he can see everything, this world of passions and art to which he’s irresistibly drawn, but as always, he’s not quite part of it. He watches and listens, tries vainly to express what he feels with his scribbled poetry and musical false starts. One of the painters bursts into loud laughter, oddly high-pitched for such a big man; he starts to smile in response, but it’s only a reflex, and it’s gone before he can draw another breath. They’re all so alive, he thinks, so connected. It’s nothing he can touch. He gulps a large swallow of wine and tells himself he isn’t lonely.

A disturbance, spreading from the entrance all the way to the back. She’s here. She strides into the cafe in her man’s suit, waist-length hair the colour of an autumn leaf hanging down her back in a loose braid. They make way for her without thinking and shower her with compliments as she passes that she acknowledges with a nod and a slightly mocking smile. A glass of wine, far better quality than most in here could afford, is in her hand without her needing to ask. As she moves from group to group, she greets them like old friends. The philosophers appeal to her for judgment; she listens gravely, proposes an argument of her own, and accepts their surrender. One of the younger poets shyly proffers his newest poem. When she takes it and promises to give her opinion, he simply stares at her, stunned, until his friends drag him away and push another drink into his hand. She teases the artists by picking dried paint out of their hair and refuses, again, to pose for them. All except the big painter, who she ignores entirely.

Hand clenched around his pencil, he can’t look away, because he knows her. They’ve never been introduced, she never even looks at him, but somehow he knows her. It’s nothing more than a fantasy, but thoughts of her invade his dreams and the memory of her voice shapes his music. He heard her sing, once; husky, slightly hoarse, full of yearning echoes, bringing him to tears he didn’t even feel running down his face. Since then, it’s her voice he hears for every new song. As he watches her now, music rises in him again. Without taking his eyes from her, he begins to write.

Across the room, she listens to a riddle game, throws back her head and laughs, full-throated and glorious. She lifts her glass to toast the winner’s cleverness, but the wine never reaches her lips. He sees her head turn in his direction, eyes flicking from person to person until, impossibly, they settle on him. Then she’s moving, glass falling from her hand to shatter against the edge of a table, pushing past all the others until she reaches him and stands, staring. She points at the new song. ‘This one. Play this for me.’

It’s not finished, is what he wants to say. It’s not good, not worthy of you, don’t ask this of me. Even as he opens his mouth, he’s laying down his pencil, curving his hand around the neck of the guitar, plucking the opening notes of an introduction only half-formed in his mind. And he sings to her.

Her eyes hold his, darkening, changing, as he pours out everything he feels. When he reaches the end of what he’s already written, he keeps playing, singing purely from his heart words that he never knew were in him. He never performs in public, certainly never sings his own songs where someone might overhear and judge, but for her, his playing is flawless and his voice carries strong and clear. The song shapes itself naturally to a close, structure dropping away until it’s just arpeggios of sparse melody, slowing, dying away.

The last, whispered line of the song, ‘take all of me’.

‘I will,’ she tells him. It’s a promise of ecstasy, and heartache, and it’s everything he’s ever yearned for. She doesn’t wait, turns her back and walks away.

He rises, knocking over the half-empty wine glass, and follows, leaving behind his guitar, his music, who he used to be, because he’s only now glimpsing who he really is, and his life is two steps away, and she is all that matters. The cafe falls silent as he makes his way through the tables; all of them turn to watch, incredulous. Only one small group, clustered around a hunched figure, doesn’t look up. Their attention is on the painter, whose large hands are pushed against his eyes, who isn’t laughing anymore, who moans, over and over in his strange, light voice, ‘it hurts’. His model, a thin, exquisite boy, whispers useless words of comfort.

I’m sorry, he thinks without knowing why, but he doesn’t stop. He walks out into the cold Paris evening and falls into step with her, neither of them looking at each other, neither of them needing to.

Take all of me.

I will.

Yes.

Then the angel pulled Ravi’s hands away, and he hissed into Ravi’s face, ‘Tell me who you are.’

The same question, and Ravi had only the same answer, never the right one. ‘I’m yours, you know I am.’ The angel only snarled in frustration, flinging himself out of bed to stand by the window with his back to the room. Ravi scrambled up after him. ‘I don’t know what you want me to say.’ He didn’t expect an explanation, braced himself for the moment when the angel would turn on him. Instead, the angel hunched in on himself as though in pain, drawing shadow around him like wings wrapping his body. He’s hurting. I’ve hurt him. Without thinking, Ravi slid his arms around the angel, pulled him close, feeling him shudder.

His fear faded into the background. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said helplessly. ‘I keep hurting you, I’m sorry.’ Part of him looked on, incredulous; the angel was cruel, and dangerous, had already proved that in a dozen different ways. It was Leo’s body in his arms, though, Leo’s breath shaking. He loves me, thought Ravi, not knowing who he meant. He loves me, completely, that’s what’s driving him. Both of them. And then, from nowhere, a thought that almost felt like someone else speaking in his mind, there’s only one.

Not someone else taking control of Leo, not even just a dark side. You are something more, thought Ravi, knowing it couldn’t be true, sure that it was. Not just human. Something terrible. Something wonderful.

He calls us, that voice again. He waits for us.

The angel murmured something, too low to be heard.

‘Angel?’

‘ … Nothing.’ And he turned in Ravi’s arms, his eyes lightening, the shadows drawing back into him, and it was Leo, grabbing at him, saying urgently, ‘Did I hurt you? Are you all right?’ He sounded dazed.

Ravi brought his hands up to cup Leo’s face. ‘I’m fine. But …’ He shook his head. ‘I don’t know.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Ssh, you didn’t hurt me. Come on, come back to bed.’ Not waiting for an answer, Ravi took Leo by the hands and tugged gently, almost guiding him to lay down again. The vocalist seemed only half-aware of his own movements. His eyes were far away; when he looked up, Ravi thought, who are you seeing? Pulling the covers around them both, he turned onto his back. Leo ducked under his shoulder and curled up against him, head pillowed on his shoulder. For a long time, neither of them spoke, lost in their own thoughts. Leo’s breathing slowed, deepened.

‘It’s funny,’ Ravi said eventually. ‘The song in my dream sounded almost like something I would write.’ He smiled, ‘No rap, of course, but what I can remember of the lyrics … felt like me.’

There was no answer. On the verge of waking him, Ravi hesitated. Something happened. Something about that dream made sense to you, angel. With a shock, he remembered the woman’s eyes, darkening as she watched his dream-self sing. You were there, he thought, and then immediately, it was just a dream. Of course it was, no more than his own mind giving him something he could recognise, but he couldn’t shake the idea. Were you in my dream, somehow? So much about the two of them seemed impossible, not only the angel but also the changes Ravi could feel in himself; compared to that, was it really so unlikely they might find their way into each other’s dreams? That’s not quite right, he thought, it’s close, but it’s something more.

Voices in the corridor, moving past the door. They were speaking too softly for Ravi to make out what was being said, but one of them was definitely Hakyeon. Then laughter, high-pitched, sharp and grating, silencing the others, and he winced. ‘What was that?’ he muttered. Leo shivered. ‘Chagiya?’

‘Hmmm?’ Leo shifted, sighed, lapsed into sleep again.

The footsteps in the corridor reversed direction, heading back towards the bedrooms. Ravi could hear a change in their voices now, Hakyeon sounding concerned. And then, clearly, Hongbin, ‘... just a headache’. I’m sorry, Ravi thought, without knowing why.

Leo shivered again, lips shaping words against Ravi’s skin. What are you saying to me, angel? Swimming to the front of Ravi’s mind, a conversation he knew could never have taken place. A young woman standing in front of him, clutching a bloodstained white robe, crazed words spilling from her, tumbling over each other. Her eyes are terrible, he thought.

there’s nothing wrong with my eyes but your eyes are all blind and stupid you don’t even knowyou don’t know who you are ...

Reaching out to grab her, these aren’t my hands, that’s not my voice. ‘Do you know? Do you know who I am?’

Sleep pulled at him … not yet, I have to know … dragged him down.

goodbye beloved i’m so sorry …

 

Chapter Text

muse-paris

 

Kai. Kai.

Waking suddenly, hearing his love’s voice in his mind. Too far away for real contact.

Taeminnie.

Kai picked up his phone, unlocked it to check the time. Nearly four in the morning. Why reach for him now? The phone chimed with a text.

Taemin> What’s wrong? You were calling for me.

Kai>> Sorry. Was asleep.

Taemin> What is it, love?

Kai>> Bad dream.

Taemin> Do you want to talk about it?

Kai>> I dreamed about Paris.

Taemin> Oh, love. I’m so sorry.

In their separate beds, Kai in a hotel room in Fukuoka and Taemin in the one they share back in Seoul, they fall silent, remembering.

 

In the stunned silence of the cafe (even the gramophone giving out only a quiet hiss), Emile remembers to breathe again. To be so close to that .. to see something so wonderful, so devastating. Something he’d known of, but never thought he might see. The angel, tall and cruel and beautiful, finding her beloved. Calling him, waking him. The two of them turning their backs on everything but each other.

This place will never be the same, he thinks, watching the others slowly come back to themselves, one by one. They don’t speak, or even look at each other, just gather up their things and leave. They don’t know what they just witnessed, but Emile can feel the stirrings of inspiration all around him, feels his soul respond to strengthen them. There will be poems written about tonight, paintings, songs and stories, all trying to capture, to understand.

The painters are the last to go, offering their help, but he just shakes his head and forces a smile. ‘I will take him home,’ he says. ‘Go, drink, raise a glass for us. Or three.’ It’s the best he can do, but it’s enough to salve their consciences.

And then finally, they’re alone. Lucien still hunches over in his seat, rubbing at his eyes, making little pained noises. ‘Lucien,’ Emile calls quietly, ‘chéri, let me help.’ The big man raises bloodshot, anguished eyes to him.

‘It hurts so much,’ he says, voice shaded around with bewilderment and distress. ‘It’s as if I can’t see … no, that I see too much. But I can make out nothing.’ He clutches at Emile’s slight frame. ‘I’m going mad, mon fantôme …’

‘No,’ Emile says urgently, clasping Lucien’s large hands in his own slight ones, ‘no, you will not go mad, I am here, I will not leave you. Your vision will clear, you will amaze the world, you will be glorious.’ Even as he speaks, he pushes away the growing fear that what he’s saying is no more than meaningless words, because this has been going on for too long, and it only seems to grow worse the harder he tries to stop it.

In the beginning, it had been so easy. Called to this big man with his clumsy feet and his delicate soul and his way of seeing the world unlike any other could, Emile had loved his task. Offering himself as a model was his way into the painter’s life, but so quickly, they had become more than that to each other. The kisses with which he breathed inspiration into Lucien turned into kisses of affection, even love. It wasn’t the same, soul-deep bond he felt with Simone, his true partner, but it was real, and beautiful. He’d watched Lucien bloom, grow more confident, take risks with his work. ‘All due to you, fantôme,’ the painter’s teasing name for him, so close to the truth. Soon, he was being celebrated in their little circle. Destined for great things, they all said, and Emile was determined to make that dream real.

When it started to go wrong, it was subtle at first. Complaints about shadows in the wrong places, inadequate light, small annoyances that interrupted Lucien’s flow. Then, the frustration. Dissatisfied with everything he put to canvas, even his preliminary sketches, he drew away from Emile. Drinking himself into a weeping mess. Breaking the frames of half-finished paintings and throwing them into the hearth, crying out, ‘It’s no good!’ Staring at himself for hours in a tiny, cracked shaving mirror, fingers tracing along the breaks, catching and bleeding on jagged edges. Frightened, aching, Emile had redoubled his efforts, given everything to restoring Lucien’s confidence in his vision. And for a time, it had seemed to be working. A new triptych sat on the easels in his little studio, all three paintings developing at once. In the centre, Emile, nude, staring with wide eyes into a mirror. Left and right, distorted reflections, one impossibly beautiful, the other subtly, terribly wrong.

Emile found Lucien with his palette knife raised, ready to slash the canvases to ribbons, weeping, mumbling, ‘It’s not right, it’s not what I see.’ Alarmed, he’d stepped in front of him, catching him by the arm. Unable to think of what to do, knowing only he had to break this black mood somehow, he’d suggested wine, and dragged Lucien, unresisting, to the cafe. It had been the right thing; Lucien slowly came back to himself, drinking only enough to become expansive, even merry, and Emile had thought the crisis averted, at least for now.

Then the woman, the angel, disrupting everything with her commanding, captivating presence. Playing with all of them. For Emile, she spared only a glance, enough to show she recognised him, but Lucien, she ignored entirely. Before he could greet her, though, Emile saw the glass fall from her hand, saw her single out the shy composer in the corner. Saw the musician’s eyes change, saw everything change for them. He could only follow them with wondering eyes, but then Lucien moaned in pain, and clutched at his head, and now there were only the two of them, and everything was wrong again.

Lucien laughs, hollow and nasty. ‘Listen to yourself. Even you don’t believe what you say. What good are you?’

Emile flinches back. Such contempt. In all their time together, the painter has never spoken to him like that. ‘Chéri?’ he says uncertainly.

Lucien doesn’t even look at him, eyes focused on some point over his shoulder. ‘Well now,’ he says, voice suddenly light and teasing, ‘the saviour herself, this is an honour. To what do I owe the privilege?’ Startled, Emile looks around. There, leaning against the wall, half-hidden, a plump woman with her blonde hair scraped back into a tight bun and her hands in her apron. His love, looking at them both with changed eyes. ‘Or are you just here to collect your useless muse?’

Emile’s heart leaps. There is a chance, then. All the struggle, all the pain, the frustration at never being quite enough to truly set Lucien free - could it be worth it after all?‘Are you here to save him, Simone?’

‘I’m sorry,’ she whispers.

‘I’m afraid you missed the main attraction tonight, saviour,’ says Lucien happily. ‘So tragic, so romantic … such an inspiration to our dear friends. If only they knew the truth.’

Simone looks at Emile curiously. ‘The angel,’ he whispers. ‘She was here. She found …’

Lucien lets out a peal of mocking laughter that chokes off as he grabs at his head, pushing his palms against his eyes. ‘Emile … help me … it hurts …’

Emile embraces him as best he can, slender arms barely reaching around the large shoulders. ‘I’m here, sweetheart, it’s all right, it’s all right. Please,’ he begs his love. ‘Please help him.’

‘I can’t,’ she says softly, pain clear in her face. ‘I can’t stop this. He has to fall.’

The denial is swift, automatic. ‘No. I was called to him, I was helping him! It can’t be for nothing.’ A thought strikes him. ‘Unless … is this part of it? He falls, and I bring him back, inspire him again?’ A terrible prospect, but at least, some hope.

‘I don’t understand,’ chokes Lucien, ‘what are you talking about, falling?’ Then his hands drop from his eyes and he laughs again. ‘Still clinging to hope, muse. So touching. He loves you, you know, quite desperately. He’ll never say it, he thinks he’s not worthy of you. If he only knew the truth about you, that he’s just one more piece of human rubbish. How pathetic you are.’

‘That’s enough,’ says Simone sharply. ‘You’re not here for this.’

Ohh,’ breathes the painter, satisfaction sly and somehow horribly sensual in his tone. ‘There it is. Do your hands itch, saviour? Do you long for a sword to silence me?’ He grabs at his head again, face twisting, eyes squeezing closed. ‘Stop,’ he pants, ‘stop it, I don’t know why I’m saying these things, I don’t know what I’m saying. Emile …’

Simone moves, then, coming to crouch down by Lucien’s chair. Emile doesn’t need to be this close to see the pain in her; he can feel it, echoing through the bond they share. Automatically, he reaches out, sharing warmth, strength, love, and she gives him a quick, grateful smile. ‘Listen to me, Lucien,’ she says softly. ‘Listen to my voice.’ His head turns blindly towards her. ‘The pain will end, soon.’ A lie, and she knows it, but there’s nothing she can do, no way to explain to this man in the short time he has left. ‘You have to let go, Lucien.’

No!’ cries Emile. ‘Hold on, chéri, it will …’ He stops as she lays a hand on his arm.

‘You want to let go, don’t you?’ she continues in the same, soothing voice. ‘You’re tired. So tired. Let go, Lucien, you can rest now.’

‘I … I don’t …’

‘It’s all right. I’m here. Emile is here. We’ll be with you until it’s over.’

‘I … trust you.’ Lucien laughs again. ‘Such a liar, saviour. Even now, after all this time, after all you’ve seen, you still don’t understand. But thank you.’ The words slide from his lips, almost greasy with contempt. ‘You’re making it so much easier for me.’

Simone closes her eyes. Emile can feel the conflict in her, how she longs to reach out and save Lucien, how she strains against the bonds that hold her in place. ‘Let go, my dear. Sleep, now.’

Lucien slumps in his seat; Emile lets out a little cry, his slim hands cupping the painter’s strong chin, but already the large man is straightening, his mouth stretching into a wide grin. He tilts his head and looks directly at Emile with eyes full of mirrored shards. ‘Hello, failure,’ he says. ‘I see you.’

Shocked, Emile lets his hands slip from Lucien’s face. The reflections of himself move, and smile, and kiss, and wring their hands in despair. ‘What … who are you?’ he stammers.

‘Oh, you’re so sheltered, so precious. So young. I’m not surprised she hasn’t told you about me. No one ever speaks of me. I’m quite upset about that.’ The painter sounds anything but. ‘We haven’t met, but then, I’m the one you never want to meet. You see, even guardians have their nightmares. That’s who I am. You can call me fiend.’

He reaches out and pulls Emile close, kissing him deeply. Paralysed by what he sees in those awful eyes, Emile can only whimper, but Lucien - the fiend - doesn’t breathe into him, merely lets him go and gives him that mad smile. ‘Goodbye, muse. I hope we don’t meet again. But we’ll see.’ He stands, gives Simone an insolent little bow. ‘Such a pleasure to watch you work again, saviour.’ He throws back his head and laughs like his heart is breaking, and is gone out into the night, moving lightly on his feet, the sound lingering after him. And a single, forlorn whisper in Emile’s mind, Forgive me.

Her constraints broken at last, her eyes changed back, Simone grabs up Emile into her arms, holding him close. ‘I’m so sorry, love,’ she cries, ‘I’m so sorry, are you all right?’

Emile just looks at her bleakly, his human eyes haunted. ‘It was for nothing,’ he whispers. ‘Nothing. All those months, fighting to overcome his doubts ... everything he did, everything he was going to be … it’s gone. He’s not there anymore. Who was that, Simone? Who is he?’

She can feel it, how close he is to despair, and the terror that clenches around her heart is enough to make her gasp. ‘Hold on, love. Hold on to me.’ What she says next comes haltingly, fearfully. ‘He … calls himself the fiend. He tears things out of people, secrets, lies they tell themselves. I’ve only seen him a few times, but …’ She shudders, remembering.

‘Where did he come from?’

‘I don’t know. He’s not … one day he was just there. But there’s something wrong with him. When he wakes, it’s … terrible, because they have to fall before it can happen. And sometimes … it breaks them. I don’t know why. Oh love, I never wanted you to have to see that. I’m so sorry.’

‘But then … why was I called? Why was I even here, what good was I? If he was going to fall anyway …’

She knows why, and hesitates, because this could be too much for him to bear. But he looks at her with pleading eyes, and she has to answer. ‘He needed to know how it felt to almost touch the sky, and fail.’

At that Emile’s mouth trembles, and tears spill over, and he wrenches away from her, folding in on himself, sobbing. She reaches for him again but he flinches away. ‘Useless … useless … he was right.’

No, love,’ Simone says urgently. ‘You brought him joy, gave him hope.’

‘False hope,’ he spits. ‘It was for nothing.’

She hears it, what she was dreading, the note of despair in his voice, the ache in what she feels from him. She stretches out her hands, silently pleading. Please. Please. Don’t take him from me. And nearly weeps herself as she feels her eyes changing again.

‘So I fulfilled my task,’ he says hopelessly. ‘I did what I’m supposed to do. For nothing.’ He holds himself tighter, feeling like he’s seconds from flying apart. ‘You knew he would fall,’ he accuses. ‘You knew, and you let me …’

‘I didn’t,’ she pleads with him. ‘I didn’t know until tonight, and even then - not until I laid eyes on him. You know how it happens, love, I’m just called. I didn’t know he was going to fall. Please believe me.’

‘Then what good are you?’ he grates, wanting her to hurt, hating himself for it. ‘Why are you even still here?’

‘Emile … please look at me.’ Unwillingly, he faces her, and a fresh storm of weeping shakes him as he sees the emerald shimmer of her eyes. ‘I’m here to save you.’

This time, he lets her draw him close, hold his face in both hands. Only the barest glimmer of hope left in him, but she’s calm now, because they’ve been given this. Out of the wreckage, given back to each other. She kisses him, softly at first, breathing into him. Believe, she whispers into his soul, believe.

Emile shudders, lets out a broken, muffled sob; then he clutches at her, kissing her desperately, crying, breathing her in with unsteady gulps. She holds on, never breaking the kiss as he climbs into her lap, crushing her to him. Believe, she wills him again and again. Emile, saranghae, saranghae, their touchstone, and he clings to it, and she pulls him back from despair, back to who he is. Back to her.

 

Taemin came back to the present with a startled shudder. The memory was so strong it had taken him completely. Hurriedly, he sent another text.

Taemin> Are you all right?

For a long moment, nothing; then, just as Taemin was opening his contacts list to call, Kai responded.

Kai> It’s hard. Remembering. I can’t let it go.

Taemin> You don’t have to. I know how much you loved him. How hard it was.

Kai> I failed him.

Taemin> Love, NO. You didn’t.

I failed you both, he thinks. I couldn’t save the painter, and I couldn’t spare you.

Kai> It shouldn’t have happened. I know it had to but it shouldn’t have.

Taemin> I know.

Kai> I’ll never understand it.

Taemin> Even I don’t understand much of what we’re called to do.

A small smile crosses Kai’s face.

Kai> Even you, ancient one?

Taemin> Don’t call me that. You know I hate it.

Kai> Of course. That’s why I do it. :)

Taemin> Do you want to talk? Since we’re both awake now.

Kai> It’s okay.

Taemin> Sure?

Kai> Yeah. Feeling you with me is enough. And I should try to get more sleep before the concert tomorrow.

Taemin> I love you.

Kai> Love you too. Good night.

 

In their separate beds, hundreds of kilometres between them, they reach out, flow around and through each other, and drift into sleep, knowing they’ll never be alone.

 

Chapter Text

 

The track under his feet is hard-packed, dry to the point of cracking after a summer of no rain and heat far above anything he’s experienced before; at least, in this life. The sun doesn’t have the searing, hammer-blow relentlessness he remembers from the desert, and there is still green in the hedgerows, but even with his skin weathered by so many years working outside, he feels the prickle of its rays. That’ll burn, he thinks absently. Have to ask Mrs B. for an ointment tonight. He settles his straw hat more firmly on his thinning hair, shifts the strap of the bag across his shoulder, hefts the heavy basket in both hands, and strides on.

Though it’s only just past luncheon, there are already people out in the fields, tending their animals and gathering vegetables in danger of withering before they’re properly ripe. All of them look flushed and sweaty, but the grumbling that reaches his ears has a good-natured tone to it. He sees one woman beckon another from the next field, inviting her to share some cold water and the shade of her shippen wall, hears a father tell his son to leave off his chores and take his younger brother fishing instead, and the child’s delighted whoop. Each one catches his eye, gives him a nod and a tired smile as he passes.

Only one voice that reaches him sounds troubled, jarring enough to make him leave the track and clamber over the stile into the small yard where a boy kneels by the carthorse lying on the ground, stroking the side of its neck. As the shadow falls over them, he looks up with a troubled expression. ‘She just went down, Mr. Spraggs, and she’s in awful pain.’ The animal tosses its head, groaning. ‘I told Dad she looked poorly, but we hoped it was just the heat. And then when I went to check on her, she was like this.’

Jonathan lowers himself to the ground beside the horse. Though he’s no stableman, the cause of its distress comes to him as soon as he lays a hand on its flank. ‘You’re right, lad, it is the heat. She’s not been drinking enough, got herself a touch of the colic. Never mind, though, soon set right.’

‘But what should I do? Horses die of colic!’ The boy sounds close to panic. ‘And I … and we need her. For the cart,’ he adds quickly. Jonathan hears what’s behind the words, not just concern for the possible loss of a working animal, but a real affection. It gives him what he needs, enough insight to see how the boy’s path will grow from this moment, how he’ll become a man whose experience with animals will lead him to learn their doctoring. A small intervention, turning away this creature’s death for a few years longer, but for the family and the village, so much more.

‘All she needs is a drink, a bit of a rest, and then walk her around slow,’ he says, his hand moving slowly over the horse’s body. Under his touch, he can already feel the horse relaxing. ‘You get her a bucket, now, I’ll stay with her.’ As the boy scrambles to his feet and runs off towards the house, scooping up the empty pail near the edge of the yard, Jonathan turns his attention back to the animal, feeling his eyes change. ‘You’re a lucky lass, to have a good boy like that. Now you let him look after you, and mind you don’t drink too quickly, do you hear?’ The horse whickers softly and nuzzles his knee.

When the young man returns, Jonathan pats him on the shoulder. ‘Must get on, now. She’ll be all right, she’s in good hands with you.’

Looking at the basket and bag, the boy asks, ‘Are you going to visit her?’ At Jonathan’s nod, he says, ‘Can you stop by the house? Mam has something for her.’ Then he turns his attention entirely back to the horse. Smiling, Jonathan picks up his burdens again.

By the time he reaches his destination, his shirt is damp with sweat, and despite the shade of his hat, he can feel that his face is already burned. The basket, if anything, seems to have become even heavier, and there’s a slightly raw patch where the strap of the bag rubs against the side of his neck. Still, it’s not the prospect of finally setting them down that puts a spring in his step, but anticipation of the welcome he knows he’ll receive. Even though the door is open to catch any slight breeze that might relieve the heat, he pauses on the step to say, ‘May all in this house be blessed and grow well.’

‘Oh lord, Jonathan Spraggs, don’t you wish that on us,’ comes her reply from inside, exasperated but fond. ‘If he grows any more, I’m like to burst! Come in, now, don’t stand out in the sun.’

Laughing, he obeys, and sighs with relief as he enters, the walls of the house thick enough to keep the interior much cooler than the outside. ‘And good afternoon to you, young Nell.’

She stands by the table, floury hands busy kneading dough. Her face is flushed with heat and the high colour of late pregnancy, her dark hair sticking to the skin where it’s escaped the bun, and there’s more than a hint of pain and weariness in the way she straightens up. Putting her hands to the small of her back, she stretches, grimacing, the apron over her distended belly riding up slightly. For all that her eyes are shadowed from too many nights of too little sleep, though, the smile she gives him is wide and sweet. ‘It’s good to see you, Jonathan, but you needn’t have come all this way in such heat. Let me get you some water.’ She wipes her hands on her apron quickly, already turning towards the small bench next to the fire, stacked with her few items of crockery.

He forestalls her with a wave of his hand. ‘Now don’t get all mithered, lass, I’ve got two working legs.’ Fetching two cups, he pours water into both of them from the crock on the table. ‘You should be resting, yourself.’ Accepting her drink from him, Nell indicates the dough, but he shakes his head firmly, gives her a quick kiss on the cheek, and says, ‘Go on, sit down, duck. It won’t be the first loaf I’ve turned. If you feel the need to keep your hands busy, unpack those things.’ She doesn’t reply, but her sigh as she lowers herself into a chair is answer enough.

While he kneads, Jonathan watches Nell open the basket and lift out the wrapped food carefully packed for her. A wedge of cheese, the end of a slab of bacon, fresh vegetables deemed too unsightly for the upstairs dining table but still perfectly good, a small tin of tea, and a box of yesterday’s biscuits. In the bag are a worn but serviceable pair of shoes, much-darned stockings, and a bonnet and gloves. A separate package, collected from the boy’s mother, contains three tiny calico nightgowns and a soft, knitted shawl, both newly made. ‘You’re all so good to me,’ she murmurs, a suspicious dampness around her eyes, and she turns her head away, blinking.

It’s easy to see the thoughts going through her mind at this moment; that she’s loose, turned out in disgrace carrying a child that can never be acknowledged by its father, even her own mother leaving to stay with distant cousins rather than live under the same roof as her ruined daughter. That she doesn’t deserve to even be spoken to, let alone cared for and supported like this. Hands automatically turning and shaping the bread, Jonathan sees her mouth tremble, self-hatred clinging like a shroud about her shoulders. ‘You’re still family,’ he says simply. ‘You always will be, no matter what the gentry up at the Hall think.’

There’s a forced brightness to Nell’s voice as she turns back to him. ‘Won’t you tell me all the news, Jonathan?’ she asks, deliberately changing the subject. From the set of her jaw, he can see there’s little to be gained from trying to press the point further. I won’t give up, he vows to her silently. You belong in this garden as much as any of them. They know it, and so will you. For now, though, he lets her lead him away from her situation, and instead talks of the life of which she was once part. How John, the older stable hand, has finally proposed to Maggie the scullery maid, and the scolding she received from Cook when she dropped a plate in her excitement. How Mrs Brunton, the housekeeper, is all in a tizzy about the fading curtains, and how Mr Brunton had been forced to retreat to his butler’s pantry after incurring her wrath by being foolish enough to suggest that she should put them back-to-front on the rods, so that at least they’d fade evenly. The tale of Sir Thomas’ disastrous attempt to ‘improve’ the rose garden to help the bushes better withstand the heat brings the smile back to Nell’s face, especially after Jonathan tells her that ‘her ladyship’ was so incensed at the loss of her precious Blush Damasks that she refused to speak to him for an entire week. ‘How is Lady Whitworth? Is she … well?’ she asks, her genuine concern plain to see.

She turned you out with not even a week’s wages, thinks Jonathan, and yet you still care for her. He puts the dough back into its bowl, covers it with a cloth, and sets it on the hearth to rise, then sits down opposite her. ‘Very frail,’ he says, as gently as possible, knowing what he says will hurt. ‘Wandering in her head much more these days, forgets people’s proper names. She can’t seem to remember the new maid, calls her by your name more often than not. And she keeps mistaking Master Tom for his father. The doctor told Mrs B there’s nothing to be done.’

Nell makes a small, pained noise of distress. ‘Oh, she must be so confused. I wish …’ She doesn’t finish her sentence, but to Jonathan, it might as well have been a shout. I succeeded too well with you, he thinks. Even now, if she asked, you’d go back to her. ‘Jonathan?’ He sighs, knowing what she will ask next. ‘Tell me about Tom.’

‘Lass, this only hurts you. Let’s talk about something else.’

‘Please,’ is all she says, and he can’t deny her, never has been able to; from the moment she first screwed up her tiny face at him when he picked her up from a fall and set her back on unsteady legs to chase after the chickens in her mother’s yard, she’s had his heart in her hands. In this life, he never married, but she has always been his daughter, special in a way that none of the others are. He loves them all, every flower in his garden that is the village and the estate, but this one …

‘He brought a friend home with him from the university,’ he says. ‘Young Henry Margate, you remember him? Thick as thieves they were.’

‘Oh yes,’ Nell smiles, ‘Tom’s Prince Hal, he was always very lovely to us servants. I’m glad he’s there for Tom, now, with Lady Whitworth ill.’

‘Aye,’ is all Jonathan says, willing her not to press for details, because how can he tell her that Tom keeps Henry locked up day and night and never lets anyone else see him? How could he describe the haunted look in Tom’s eyes, the way he grows more desperate and more volatile with each passing day? And how could he ever tell this girl, so trusting and good-natured she let herself be seduced by Tom’s pretty words, that the man she thinks she loves is not a man at all, but an ancient being broken by something terrible, driven to cruelty by grief and obsessive love? It’s as well you left when you did, he thinks, knowing he can never tell her that he could have made them accept her in spite of their manners and their judgmental morals. That he deliberately stepped back, and let them treat her so shamefully, to protect her, because there is only room in that angel’s heart for one beloved, and you could never be him.

Nell gasps suddenly, her hands flying to her belly. Jonathan sits forward in alarm, but she just smiles, cradling herself. ‘I’m all right, he just kicked. You must have woken him up. I’m glad, for he’s been very quiet of late.’

Seizing on the distraction, Jonathan rises. ‘Well, I must be about my errands, lass. I’ve still to see old Mr Bartlam, and I need a word with the new vicar. There are a few things he needs to know if he’s to be a proper shepherd.’ Such as not barring the church door to you, sweet girl.

‘Will you work your magic before you go?’ she asks, half-teasingly.

He fixes her with a look that’s supposed to be stern, but only makes her smile more widely. ‘No magic, girl, you know that.’ Kneeling by her chair, he places his hands on her belly, and lowers his head as he feels his eyes changing. Nell sighs contentedly, her own eyes closing.

Blue-white streak, jagged across the sky. Crashing, splintering noise, loud enough to set ears ringing. Someone calling, ‘Fire! Fire at the hall!’ Running feet, pushing bodies, panicked cries, all sweeping towards the glow rising in the north. Rain, sudden and freezing, instantly soaking everything but too late, too late …

Left behind, clutching at her stomach, stumbling through the downpour … Nell. Barefoot, drenched, hair in her eyes, blood on her dress black in the flash of the lightning, crying out for help. No one answers … no one there, all gone to save what can’t be saved and mourn the loss of two young lives.

Collapsing in a doorway, screaming up into the rain …

Still, blue body limp in her bloody hands, and her screams break into laughter and she claws at her changing eyes, crawls into the street and hauls herself up ... lurches away, out into the flooding fields, away from the ruin of her life, laughing, running, running ...

‘Jonathan? What’s wrong? What did you see?’ Nell, struggling out of her seat, reaching for him, no, don’t ask me. On his feet, hearing himself smile and make excuses, lie to her about the fine healthy boy she’ll have, the joy of her life, mind racing, heart breaking. Her soft look, ‘I love you, Jonathan,’ and it’s all he can do not to beg her forgiveness for what he knows will happen and what he can’t lift a finger to prevent.

Out before he can stop himself, ‘I’m sorry …’

‘What? What are you saying to me? Jonathan?’

‘Jyani? Hello? Are you awake?’ Hand waving in front of his face. Hongbin, looking at him, head tilted to one side.

Jaehwan blinked, startled. ‘Sorry, what did you say?’

‘Daydreaming again?’

Teasing, but gentle, always strangely familiar, even when they first met. And now I know why. My heart remembers you. ‘Yes …’

‘Thought so,’ said Hongbin. ‘I said, we have to leave for the studio soon, are you ready?’

‘Studio?’ That’s right, Jaehwan thought. I’m a singer this time. ‘I … yes, I’ll be ready.’

Hongbin looked closely at him. ‘Are you all right?’

Out before he could stop himself, ‘I’m sorry.’ I wish I’d known then, I wish I’d been there when you needed me. He felt his eyes changing, and ducked his head, but not quickly enough.

Hongbin pulled in a sudden, shocked breath. ‘Jyani, your eyes …’

No, it’s too soon. With an effort, Jaehwan pulled himself back to the present. Rubbing a hand across his face, he rose to his feet. ‘I’m tired,’ he said, forcing a smile. ‘I suppose they’re very red. I’ll just go and get my jacket.’ Hongbin opened his mouth to speak, but Jaehwan kept walking, and ducked into his room.

It makes sense now, Jaehwan thought, leaning against his bedroom door. Taekwoon … Hakyeon … Starlight ... all of them. All those dreams - no, memories. I’m here for you, this time. ‘You’re my garden,’ he whispered, smiling to himself. Then the memory of Nell, screaming in the rain, and he shivered. ‘Not this time,’ he promised. He opened the door and went back to the common area. Hongbin hadn’t moved. ‘Now who’s daydreaming?’ Jaehwan said, elbowing him as he passed. ‘Come on, Binnie.’

Near the front door, bending to tie his shoelaces, he looked up to see Hongbin, still and watchful, watching him. This time, he couldn’t help it; his eyes changed fully, the words tumbling from his lips.

‘I won’t leave you this time,’ said the gardener.

Chapter Text

Long after Jaehwan was gone, Hongbin stood staring after him. I couldn’t have seen that, his eyes … Soft gold and brown, rippling like grain in the wind, no white, no pupil, just that impossible colour. First Wonshik, now this. What’s wrong with my eyes?

(there’s nothing wrong)

That hated voice, quiet for so long but back now, ever since that dream he could hardly remember, only goodbye sister, try not to cry. Getting stronger every day. I don’t hear you. Mocking laughter, not in his head, his own voice, stop, stop it.

(so he’s here too)

‘What? What does that mean?’ No answer. Never is, when I really need one. Still troubled, Hongbin collected his hoodie from the arm of the couch, shoved his feet into his sneakers, and went down to join the others. They were clustered around the van, talking or tapping at their phones; when he pushed open the front door, they all looked up.

Sharp pain behind his eyes ... vision blurring, doubling … all of them, overshadowed.

Hakyeon ... flowing like water, sunlight dancing in his eyes, pulling him like gravity ... love you, save me

Sanghyuk ... fierce and bright, protective and dangerous, daring the world to find fault with him … never be worthy of you

Jaehwan ... old and young at the same time, every line of his body saying home and hearth and family … won’t leave me, what does that mean

Taekwoon ... black wings, clouded eyes, torn in half and aching ... can’t look at you (hate you)

Wonshik ... fading in and out of focus, eyes closed, still dreaming but close, so close to waking, and Hongbin’s eyes filled with tears …

(looks like everyone’s here)
(not long now then)
(won’t this be fun)

‘Hongbinnie?’ Hakyeon, just Hakyeon now, face creased with concern.

‘Uh … sorry.’ Falling back on the old excuse, ‘just a headache. I’ll be fine.’

As he climbed into the van, Hyuk slid into the seat beside him. ‘I know we didn’t tire you out that much, last night. What’s up, Bean?’

‘I …’ I wish I knew. What’s happening to me?

What’s happening to us all?