Seungcheol was never one to wake up slowly, steadily. Then again, he was never one to do anything slowly or steady. But engulfed in darkness, atop an unfamiliar mattress and underneath an unfamiliar comforter, he felt more on edge than ever. Within seconds of realising he was on the edge of consciousness, he shot up straight as a pole, eyes wide and breath quickening. For a few moments, he didn’t know where he was. He didn’t know where he was or how he got there, and he was terrified.
Energy flooded his system, pumping and beating like it was trying to escape his petrified form. It felt like it was trying to escape back to where he came from, back to where he should be.
A hand wrapped around his wrist, delicately and gently, and Seungcheol flinched so hard it looked as though he’d been struck.
“Seungcheol, it’s me. You’re okay, it’s only me,” came a voice, piercing through the thick darkness. Seungcheol remembered that voice, remembered it belonged to Jisoo, remembered that Jisoo said he wouldn’t hurt him. And with that memory, came many, many more.
Seungcheol remembered what had happened that night. He remembered how he’d foolishly knocked over a jar of stormwater while searching for a spell for his maker. He remembered feeling sheer terror as he watched the water all but wash away the ink on every page it touched; washing away a whole fraction of the Moon Thicket’s records and resources. Try as he might, the pages were unsalvageable, the neat script rendered entirely illegible.
He remembered how it felt when the energy coursing through his body all but froze when the coven’s leader walked into the study, followed closely by his maker. There was silence, a toxic, thick silence. The calm as even the atoms in the air waited for the explosion to ensue.
While he couldn’t remember what exactly had been said, he remembered the anger, he remembered furious screaming, directed straight at him. He remembered cowering in a corner, trying to make himself look small as possible, whimpering as every thunderous consonant crashed against his ears.
“Go take your doll, Hangil. It would appear you still have a lot to teach it.”
“Seungcheol,” called his maker with a snarl. “In front of me. Now.”
Every step felt as though his legs were encased in lead as dread crept over him like an icy chill, pushing him back, trying to reverse his steps. His body wanted to run, wanted to be as far away as possible from the seething man walking behind him, but he remained where he was, putting one foot in front of the other. In the end, there was really only one thing he could do: pray to every deity he could think of that his maker wouldn’t deem him too big a bother, and simply choose to kill him.
Seungcheol remembered the sheer intensity of his maker’s eyes as he glared holes into him. His eyes were narrowed, turning rigid and cold, reminding Seungcheol of a viper’s slit-like pupils. He gulped nervously. If he didn’t yet realise that he’d fucked up, he definitely knew it as those eyes burned deep into his skin.
“What do you have to say for yourself, hmm?” asked his maker, his voice dangerously flat.
Seungcheol couldn’t think of anything, his throat closing up and mouth growing dry. Instead, he wrung his hands, twisting and turning them so hard his knuckles were turning white.
No other words were exchanged, at least not any Seungcheol could remember. It started with a slap so hard he stumbled back until his head and back smacked against the wall with a sickening thud. Blow after blow rained down upon him until he heard something in his leg crack, and he crashed to the ground in a heap.
And throughout it all, Seungcheol bit his tongue, barely letting more than a whimper past his grit teeth.
“You’re lucky I didn’t destroy you. Next time you fuck up, don’t expect that mercy.”
Those words rang throughout Seungcheol’s head for what seemed like hours. He didn’t move, not even when his maker left the small apartment, leaving him alone as night fell upon the city. His mind was blank; the only thing he could register was the throbbing pain coming from his leg.
The thought came to him two hours after sunset. What if he left? What if he put on a thick jacket, a cap, kept his head down, and walked away from his maker, from the coven? In the dark, no one would recognise him, no one would stop him. It was simple. So stupidly simple.
Seungcheol would laugh at himself later for really believing it would be that easy.
It hit him only after he’d been walking aimlessly for an hour. What the fuck was he doing? He was a doll; dolls didn’t do this. Dolls sat with their pretty mouths shut and obeyed their makers. That was how it worked, that was the only way he knew it to work. So, what the fuck was he doing?
He was confused; scared, confused, and completely alone. His breaths grew faster and more erratic by the second. A part of him wanted to go back where he came from. Maybe his maker hadn’t returned yet, maybe he’d be able to get away with the stunt he pulled. But would he even be able to retrace his steps? After all, he had no idea where he was. And did he even want to go back?
He knew he should want to return. That was where he belonged, the only place he should be. So why did he feel so apprehensive about simply turning around?
So caught up in his thoughts, in his questions, in his pure, concentrated fear, Seungcheol didn’t notice the figure rounding the corner he was approaching. Their shoulders collided painfully, and Seungcheol let out a yelp of surprise.
It was then that he felt the tears streaking his face.
“I’m really sorry,” said the man he’d bumped into. “I should’ve – Hey are you okay?”
Seungcheol panicked, his mind running at a million miles a second. He couldn’t say anything, not a thing about what he was doing, or trying to do. He’d fucked up enough for one day.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m…” he stammered. “I’m fine. It was my fault, I’m sorry.”
Seungcheol tried to push past the stranger, but the man grabbed his shoulders, making him stay. Gentle eyes explored his face, scanning everything from his tear-streaked cheeks to the faint bruise blossoming on his jaw.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” asked the stranger, his voice warm and gentle.
As Seungcheol struggled to reply, he felt ice run through him as he watched the man’s gaze drop to his collar bone. His jacket had slipped off of his shoulder, leaving the coven’s mark on full display for the stranger’s eyes.
When he felt a thumb glide over the mark, Seungcheol flinched, pushing himself back with a choked cry.
“Please, please, please don’t. Please don’t,” he jabbered, unable to string a coherent thought together, let alone a sentence.
“It’s okay, it’s okay! I’m not going to hurt you,” soothed the stranger, smiling softly at Seungcheol. He brought a hand to the collar of his shirt, and when he pulled it down, Seungcheol’s eyes widened at the sight of a mark just like his.
“I’m like you. I belonged to the Moon Thicket too. I ran away years ago. I’m like you.”
“You…” whispered Seungcheol. “You’re like me… H-how…”
“I was made in the States,” explained the stranger, taking tentative steps towards Seungcheol. “My name is Hong Jisoo. When they brought me here to join the rest of the Moon Thicket, I felt like something was wrong. No one expected a doll to stand up for themselves, so while they were recovering from their shock, I ran away.”
Seungcheol let the stranger, Jisoo, place a hand on his arm. He was in awe. He’d never heard this story from anyone in the coven, he’d never heard of a doll breaking every rule they knew. Never before had he even thought it possible.
“I…” started Seungcheol, struggling to keep his breath steady. “I’m Seungcheol. I ran away a few hours ago. I don’t know why I just… did.”
Jisoo nodded thoughtfully. “You trusted your gut. That’s smart. Especially when you’re dealing with people like them. So, Seungcheol, what do you want to do now?”
“I… I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m doing or where I’m going and I -”
“Shhh,” cooed Jisoo, holding onto both of Seungcheol’s shoulders. “Breathe for me, okay? If you don’t have anywhere to go, you could come home with me.”
Seungcheol didn’t know what to do, what to think. A part of him still wanted to run back, to make it back in time before his maker returned.
“Would you rather go back?” asked Jisoo, voice soft.
“I don’t know,” replied Seungcheol, his voice small and betraying every bit of fear he felt. “Please don’t let me make choices. I have no idea what I’m doing.”
“Okay, that’s okay. Is it okay if I pick for you then?”
Seungcheol nodded. He wanted direction. Whether or not it was wise to trust a complete stranger wasn’t something that even crossed his mind. All he was thinking of was that he hated being so clueless and wanted someone, anyone, to tell him what to do.
“Stay with me, at least for tonight. You can get some rest and then in the morning we can figure out what to do. Does that sound okay with you?”
Gulping heavily, Seungcheol nodded, biting his already dry and cracking lips.
“Thank you, Jisoo. I promise I won’t be too big a bother.”
Jisoo laughed a small, warm laugh. “Don’t worry about that Seungcheol. Shall we get going?”
“Okay,” agreed Seungcheol, sucking in a deep, shaky breath.
When he tried to take a step, Seungcheol suddenly was reminded of the throbbing ache in his leg. Without the mental fog clouding his senses, he felt the pain shooting up every time he tried to put weight on the injury. He hissed, instinctively holding onto Jisoo’s arm to steady himself.
“You’re hurt?” asked Jisoo, though it was more like a statement. His mouth was set in a hard line. “They hurt you, didn’t they?”
“It’s my leg,” Seungcheol replied, dancing around the question. “It hurts a little.”
“We’ll take a look when we get back home, okay? Here, hold on to me while we walk back. It’s not too far away but we wouldn’t want to risk it getting any worse, right?”
That had been hours ago, and as the memories flooded back, Seungcheol felt the need to leave. He needed to get back to his maker, regardless of the trouble he was likely in. Maybe, just maybe, if his maker found him in the morning, ready for orders, he’d get off easy.
“I need to go,” he whispered frantically in the night, pushing away from Jisoo’s comforting touch. “I need to go back. I need to, I have to-”
“Seungcheol,” started Jisoo, worry falling like a film over his features.
“I’m sorry Jisoo, I’m sorry but I have to leave. I’m already in trouble, I don’t want to cause any more problems.”
“Seungcheol, if they punished you so severely for a small mistake, do you really think you’ll be safe going back.”
“I just thought… maybe they’ll let me off if I go back before sunrise.”
“Don’t be so naïve Seungcheol. Nothing is ever that simple, but at least if you stay you won’t have to deal with it all alone. And you have to let your leg rest, it’s not gonna get better otherwise.”
“I… I don’t know. I really don’t know,” mumbled Seungcheol, tears of frustration pricking at his eyes.
“It’s okay Seungcheol, it’s okay. I know it’s scary. But remember what I told you: you only have to stay until morning. Then, if you still want to go back, you can. For now, all I’m asking is that you stay.”
Seungcheol drew his knees into his chest, curling in around himself. It hurt, having to suppress the urge to just bolt out the door. He regretted everything from the moment he clumsily that jar of stormwater over and ruined everything. Maybe if he’d just been a little more careful, his maker wouldn’t be so furious with him. Maybe, had he been a little more cautious, he wouldn’t feel so scared.
He let Jisoo carefully pull him back so his head was touching the pillow, any fight left in him completely depleted. There was static in his mind as exhaustion took its toll, so he simply allowed Jisoo’s gentle touch on his scalp lull him into a deep, dreamless, quiet sleep.
Whether he liked it or not, it appeared he would be waiting until morning.