Chapter 1: Prelude
Every season, the circus came to town.
In the summer, they launched fireworks and clowns.
In the fall, they rolled upon pumpkins and spooked audiences.
In the winter, they made it snow inside the Big Top.
In the spring, they bloomed flowers from thin air.
Four times a year, young Kim Ryeowook would fall in love all over again. His parents would silently complain about their child’s abundant adoration for the circus, but would never dare take away the outing.
Nothing had brought him greater joy than seeing the circus.
The twinkle and bop of the music as performers promoted in town always managed to make their child’s ears perk up and his eyes brighten with excitement. Despite struggling to tie his shoes, he never mistook the sound of the circus coming to town. His entire five-year-old being quivered in the stadium seat as he watched acrobats and trapeze artists soar and leap, their colorful clothing dazzling.
He would gasp with delight no matter how often the clowns performed the same gimmicks. He would laugh shrilly at every gag, though his parents were positive he didn’t understand what was happening. His little hands would smack together loudly when a knife thrower successfully pinned the apple atop their assistant’s head. And don’t even get his parents started about how he would fall into a near unbreathing excitement when performers strolled through the audience looking for volunteers.
Kim Ryeowook was never chosen though. His parents would sooner die than have their precious baby on the arena floor.
When the spotlights would once again fall upon the main stage, Ryeowook’s eyes would always follow a single person. His parents had never noticed this habit, and their son only vaguely understood what it meant to be entranced by another person.
It was the Ringleader who captivated him.
He was a tall man with kohl-rimmed eyes and a charming smirk. The whip in his hands always remained coiled, black leather a stark contrast to his snow-white skin. Sometimes, the lip of his top hat would tip up just enough for a clear glimpse of his features, and it was in those moments that Ryeowook would reaffirm his love for the circus.
No one ever remarked on the unearthly beauty of this particular troupe, though. It was easy to dismiss their unwrinkled faces and delightfully mischievous behavior as merely makeup and a youthful spirit. It never struck audience members that the death defying could be nothing more than a parlor trick to these performers who feared nothing. Their confidence was merely a misinterpretation. It was calculated recklessness--a state of being only possible for those who had no fear of meeting death.
And although mistaken about their attitudes and actions, little Ryeowook remained an avid fan. He was a junkie for their arrogance and a sucker for their tricks.
For his seventh birthday, Ryeowook demanded to stay after the show had ended to meet the performers. In particular, he wanted to speak to the Ringleader. That was his one great dream at such a tender age.
And so, his parents did what they could.
Ryeowook was practically vibrating out of his skin as he waited near the performer tents after the show. His parents stood nearby, chatting with some volunteer staff members. Their conversation was only white noise to the young boy though, he anticipated none other than the group of brightly glittering people approaching him.
At the head of them was the familiar silhouette of his favorite performer. That silk top hat shined beneath the moonlight as the tails of his coat whipped around his ankles. The man tilted his head up, dark eyes boring into the child. “Well, what have we here?” he drawled, voice low and smooth like molasses.
“I-I’m Ryeowook,” he stammered, shuffling closer but then freezing in place as he craned his neck to stare at the man.
“What a cutie.” The trapeze artist remarked, reaching down to pinch one of Ryeowook’s soft cheeks.
A volunteer staff member stepped in, rapidly explaining the situation. “They told me that their son is a huge fan of your circus and his birthday wish this year was to meet you all.” The volunteer smiled somewhat apologetically. “I couldn’t say no.”
“It’s fine,” the Ringleader brushed off, bending down and scooping Ryeowook up into his arms. He stroked a gloved thumb over the child’s cheek, cupping his small chin lightly. “I recognize him,” he mused, “he comes to every show in this city. A perfect audience member, really.”
“Y-You remember me?” Ryeowook stuttered, one hand resting on the Ringleader’s shoulder for balance.
The man chuckled. “Of course. I pay close attention to my audience,” he cooed, the curl of his lips distracting the young boy. Those dark eyes flickered over the child’s expression, noting his obvious interest. “Am I your favorite, boy?” he cocked his head, looking like a dozen different kinds of smug.
“You’re inflating his ego,” the clown snorted, ruffling Ryeowook’s hair. “Don’t make him any more arrogant.”
Ryeowook blinked. “He’s my favorite! I like him the most.” His cheeks grew warm, but his eyes were clear and bright. “I want to join the circus, too!”
At that, his parents were intervening with awkward laughter and hasty apologies. Swiftly, they removed Ryeowook from the Ringleader’s arms, scolding him quietly for being so forward and pushy. The child didn’t seem nearly focused enough to understand their words, as his eyes stayed glued on the circus master.
Taking Ryeowook’s one hand lightly, the Ringleader leaned down slightly. “My name is Kyuhyun. When you come of age, I will gladly take you in,” he murmured.
Those words kept young Ryeowook up into the wee hours of the night, envisioning flying acrobats, alluring eyes, and the Big Top. He fantasized about late night performances and whispered secrets in caravans. His lips traced the familiar lines of songs sung under the brightly colored tent, as his feet tapped out the tune.
And then, one short month later, his family moved to the countryside.
The circus soon became a forgotten dream.
Chapter 2: Where it Begins
University entrance exams were the bane of every student’s existence.
Kim Ryeowook often beat himself up when he thought back to the carefree days of childhood. Although his parents meant well, they had hurt more than helped him when they decided to move away from the city. He had struggled to catch up with his Seoul classmates at the start of senior high and hadn’t stopped fighting for every grade he received since then.
The fond memories of running wild and free through fields and forests could not outweigh the stress and burden of passing tests.
In short, he had long since turned his back on the whimsy of days past. It was a tireless endeavor to be better. If someone were to ask him why he was trying so hard, he wouldn’t even have the time to answer them. However, if he did ever breathe long enough to consider the question, perhaps he would realize its validity.
For what reason was he working himself half to death?
What waited on the other side of an entrance exam?
Happiness? Wealth? More stress masked as opportunity?
It was a moot point.
He would never think of it until far beyond the results of his exam. Ryeowook no longer dreamed. He slept and saw darkness. He awoke and saw daylight. The hours that used to be reserved for visiting another realm, another niche of his mind, another wondrous world of imagination was dead and gone.
Ryeowook took the mock exam result from his cram school teacher, nodding once before returning to his seat. He checked the score immediately, breathing an audible sigh of relief before quickly gathering up his textbooks and notes to shove back into his backpack. Average…passing…I’ll be okay during the real test. He repeated the mantra over again as he waited for his friend to get his own score.
They left the building five minutes later, only chattering loudly about their scores once they stepped out onto the sidewalk.
“We’re in, Ryeowook!” Siwon crowed, swinging an arm around the shorter boy’s shoulders. “Finally, after months of studying, both of our scores are high enough to be accepted.” He grinned widely down at his friend.
“I know,” Ryeowook smiled, eyes red rimmed from lack of sleep. He yawned, stumbling a bit as Siwon’s body weight made him sway back and forth. “I’ve been told that university is easier than senior high. Maybe we’ll have time to do fun things.”
“Like date?” his friend raised an eyebrow, teasing.
Ryeowook laughed. “Yeah, actually.” He tucked the mock exam result into his pocket, eyes sweeping around the city streets. The hustle and bustle of everything could feel overwhelming sometimes, but it was a feeling that he embraced. It was a secret of sorts, but Ryeowook had never felt more at home than when he was surrounded by noise and color.
It was a strange thing. He had refrained from ever telling anyone, finding it both foolish and childish to love the glitz and glamour. Most people would’ve complained that it was so artificial that it hurt to look at. Ryeowook didn’t agree, though. He loved the overt designs and ridiculous displays with glitter and rainbows. It made him feel at home.
“Who do you have your eye on, Ryeowook?” Siwon nudged him, playfully. “Someone in class? Maybe at cram school?”
“I…,” he trailed off as dark, dark eyes and devilish smirks invaded his mind. The visions faded as fast as they appeared, leaving Ryeowook breathless. Glancing at Siwon warily, he said, “Maybe cram school. It’s not gonna go anywhere though. I think she’s not interested.” And neither am I.
They parted ways at an intersection—Siwon off to clock in hours at his father’s company, and Ryeowook off to his aunt and uncle’s apartment. Rather than forcing his parents to return to Seoul when he started senior high, he had managed to obtain housing with his extended family. They were nice enough, but more than anything, they only cared about whether or not Ryeowook did well in his studies. That was the information they had to report back to his parents, and feasibly, anyone who asked about their nephew. How embarrassing would it be to have a foolish child in the family?
A single, cold snowflake melted on the tip of his nose. Ryeowook’s head lifted, eyes widening as he watched the gray sky send down millions of snowflakes. The first snowfall already…? He knew Christmas was just around the corner, but this was somewhat unbelievable. A smile crossed Ryeowook’s lips and he walked a bit slower, a bounce in his step.
And then, as if breaking from the surface of water, his ears caught the sound of a tinkling bell. It was slow yet playful, a rapid little winkle. His fingers twitched at the tune, flashes of color and horns and trumpets and brass galore weaving through his mind. It launched him backwards in time to a place that only existed in the vague recesses of his memory—the memories of a child with too much time and too little responsibility.
Ryeowook strained to catch the soft, barely noticeable bell above the roar of cars and voices. But he heard it. It called to him like an old friend vying for attention.
Slowing to a stop, Ryeowook turned his head this way and that, scouring the streets for whoever had called to him. The delicate chime continued, but still, his eyes were unable to pinpoint the origin. He frowned, squinting hard at each person that passed on either side of the street. His gaze swept between the speeding cars, looking for glimpses of this mysterious sound.
For a moment in time—barely long enough to take a breath—Ryeowook’s gaze locked on the cold silver bell. Equally cool eyes were gazing back at him from beneath the lip of a bowler hat. Dark tresses rustled around his pale face as a heart-stopping smirk curled his lips.
Ryeowook blinked and the phantom vanished.
The bell was silent. The streets and cars passed on.
The 18-year-old exam student ducked his head and trudged forward, pretending that his heart wasn’t fluttering, and his palms weren’t sweating. He shoved aside the warm sensation coursing through his blood and swallowed the urge to seek out that man.
When he arrived home, it was to an empty apartment and a hastily scribbled note on the dining table. Money was tucked beneath the white paper that merely said: “Out tonight. Feed yourself.”
Ryeowook shrugged off his jacket and turned on lights in the living room and his own bedroom before dialing out for delivery. He had no intention of stepping outside again, especially when his body felt so uncomfortable.
It happened occasionally. It was also a very normal teenage thing to feel. Usually though, the trigger for such urges took a more naked form. Ryeowook wasn’t controlled by his hormones—far from it. He was level-headed and perhaps a little slow sometimes, but never so out of his mind that he became consumed with desires.
I’ve never seen such a beautiful man…
He flushed to the very tips of his toes, fingers, and ears. Just a glance…just a moment shared on a busy street across several lanes of traffic…Ryeowook couldn’t shake himself of the lunacy gripping his mind and body.
Scrolling through his phone absently, he tried to rid himself of the urges racing through him. It was both pathetic and ridiculous to jerk off to the image of a handsome stranger on the street.
Or was it?
Ryeowook paused at that thought, but then quickly shook himself free of it, ignoring the heat that shifted south. Glancing at the time, he surmised that the delivery person would be arriving in a little under twenty minutes. That would leave him a decent amount of time to take a cold shower. The mere concept of dousing himself in icy water over something as small as this was mortifying, though.
Maybe I do need a lover…
He scoffed miserably to himself, tugging off his shirt and jeans. It wasn’t easy for him to find someone though. There were girls, of course, but what if that flavor of person just wasn’t enough? What if…he licked his lips, mind trailing back to a snowy street, what if I desire someone bigger and stronger than myself? Someone who looks like that man… Can I find a woman who fits that description?
Ryeowook’s mind cleared immediately as the cold water poured over his head. He blinked several times, scrubbing at his face and body vigorously. After a few minutes, he slowly moved the water to a warmer setting, being careful to go in increments. His bones and muscles shook slightly from the shock treatment, but it had done its job.
Just focus, Ryeowook. Don’t lose sight of the goal.
Pass your exam. Pass your exam. Pass your exam.
That night he dreamt of darkness once more.
Chapter 3: Black and White Lies
He twirled the pencil between his fingers.
He filled in another answer.
He picked up the paper.
With heavy steps, Ryeowook walked his exam form to the front of the room where the proctor waited expectantly. He nodded politely, fingers running along the length of his future and wondering what would happen once it was out of his hands.
He left the exam room, dazed and exhausted. The halls of the university were nothing but a backdrop. It felt like he wasn’t living, or rather, like he hadn’t lived in a long time. He blamed it on the soul-sucking nature of exam preparation. However, now, he could live without that fear. This was the last trial and if he failed, then he would gladly return to the countryside and open a shop.
Maybe his parents would be disappointed, but what of it? He had done his best. He had attempted to fulfill a dream--perhaps not his own, but a dream nonetheless. Ryeowook hid a bitter smile in his muffler. What dreams did he carry in his heart?
He couldn’t remember anymore.
A hand clapped him on the shoulder, jolting him out of his thoughts. Ryeowook glanced up, smiling faintly at Siwon. “Wow, you finished at the same time as me?” he teased.
“I was just slower to turn it in,” Siwon replied, chuckling and wrapping his own scarf tighter around his throat. “I had already finished it much earlier than you.”
Ryeowook rolled his eyes. “Of course.”
“We should celebrate tonight!” His friend wrapped an arm around him. “I can call up Donghae and Eunhyuk. They’ve been performing at a new club and said it’s a great time. Do you wanna go?”
In reality, hitting up a club sounded like the last thing Ryeowook wanted to do. However, he sucked it up, straining to smile and saying, “Sure. But not tonight. I have dinner plans with my aunt and uncle.”
It was a white lie. Or a black lie. Or maybe just a lie.
Siwon nodded understandingly. “I got it. Well then, let’s try for this Friday. It should be more exciting anyway since lots of people will be out and about.” He ruffled Ryeowook’s hair, much to the latter’s chagrin, and then turned away, pointing down the street. “I have a coffee date, so I’ll catch you later. Wish me luck!”
“How did you manage to get a date already?” Ryeowook complained, eyes twinkling playfully.
“Who knows?” he laughed, beginning to walk away, a little bounce in his step. “I guess I’m just very handsome?”
Ryeowook snorted. “Unfortunately, that’s not much of a joke at all, considering you are.” He waved over his shoulder, heading down the slightly chilly road.
The holiday season flew by this year. Ryeowook hardly recalled when Christmas had passed and then the New Year as well. The only indication that something was different from his unending days of studying was a phone call from his parents telling him they’d sent him money for the holidays. His aunt and uncle’s frequent absences were also a strong sign that things were not routine. They often had plans, but their extended disappearances could only mean vacation.
Ryeowook had taken longer than he wanted to admit in figuring that out.
He paused in front of a bakery, the sweet smell of bread and cookies and frosting wafting through the door. The window display was still winter-themed, though they had long since taken down the Santa and reindeer cookies. Ryeowook’s eyes traveled all around the gold-plated trinkets glittering through the glass. Figurines and miniatures huddled around loaves of bread and carefully crafted cakes. He watched a little wooden Ferris wheel ticking its turns and a broken carousel careening to one side. On the highest tier of the display, a decadent Big Top sparkled under the glowing lights.
It was only then that Ryeowook made the connection.
It’s a themed bakery?
He stepped inside, intrigued. The doorbell swung loudly, clanging with the force of the outside air. Ryeowook hurried in, not wanting to draw any more attention.
He looked over at an older woman standing behind a dark wood counter. Wrinkles folded the corners of her eyes, and wispy black hair was pulled back from her face. A plain brown apron was tied around her waist, depicting small cartoon clowns, acrobats, and lions.
“Hello,” Ryeowook greeted quietly, taking in the whimsy of the shop. “The carousel in your window display is broken,” he informed as politely as he could. “I just thought you’d want to know.”
She blinked, surprised. “Oh, thank you. I guess I don’t get many chances to check on it, since I don’t leave the bakery,” she chuckled, leaning over the counter top. “So, did you want to buy anything? Or are you just interested in the circus?”
“Circus?” Ryeowook cocked his head, shrugging his backpack up his shoulder.
“Yeah,” she grinned, “they come every year. Four times a year, in fact. I’m one of their partners, so I promote for them.” Rummaging around behind the counter, the baker withdrew a pristine flyer and set it in front of Ryeowook who had wandered closer. Her aged eyes watched him closely for a moment. “Are you from around here? It’s pretty famous in Seoul.”
“I lived here as a child,” he responded, studying the bright colors and dreamy font on the flyer. “But I don’t remember much. I moved away when I was eight.”
Suddenly, the woman’s gaze brightened. “Oh my gosh! I knew you were familiar.” She grasped his arm excitedly, ignoring or not noticing the way he froze up at the touch. “Your parents took you here all the time as a child. You’ve grown so much. I still remember how you would chatter on about the circus performers and you would complain every single time that I never made cookies in the shape of the Ringleader.”
Ryeowook stared at her for a long moment, not comprehending any of this. “I...I’m sorry. I don’t really remember that,” he laughed uncomfortably. “I do know that I’ve been to the circus a few times, but my parents and I stopped attending after we moved.” He couldn’t match the image of himself as an exuberant child rambling about the circus and the present him.
They were too far apart.
The baker shook her head, understanding. “Of course, for me it’s been just a few years, but for someone young like yourself, twelve years is quite a long time.” She smiled. “Well, maybe attending their show will jog your memory. Or perhaps you’ll come to enjoy it as an almost-adult.” She chuckled, walking around to the display case of goodies and picking out a sugar cookie. It was shaped and iced in the image of a top hat. “Although it’s not quite what the child you wanted, I did finally design a Ringmaster cookie. Here, take it.” She placed it in a brown paper bag and tied the top swiftly with pink ribbon.
“Oh, that’s really not…,” Ryeowook trailed off, unable to stop her from packaging the cookie. He smiled helplessly as she gave it to him for free. Peering down at the flyer again, he tucked the cookie into his pocket and picked up the paper. “Can I keep this?”
“Of course,” she nodded firmly, “be sure to order tickets soon if you decide to go. They sell out quite fast and tickets for the final performance of the season have already gone live.”
He thanked her for the information and then headed back out. Walking a little ways down the road, Ryeowook peeked down at the flyer in his hand. Grandiose letters filled the top quarter of the page stating:
COME ONE. COME ALL. THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH IS BACK!
A dark tent with bright light was the only image and it sat front and center on the page. Beneath it in bold print were the dates, times, and prices for the performances. Underneath that, was the location.
What really struck him though, were the cursive words carefully yet carelessly scribed into the bottom right hand corner. It looked handwritten, rather than typeface, with its irregular letters and sizing. It was a sign-off with all the showmanship and allure of a seasoned performer:
With Love, Delirium
Chapter 4: Night Out
Since that day in the bakery, Ryeowook had been hyper aware of even the slightest noise or image resembling a circus act. He chalked it up to being both exhausted and suddenly nostalgic about the past. Oftentimes, little things didn’t catch one’s attention until someone made it explicit. In his case, he hadn’t even been aware of a circus in town, but now he couldn’t stop seeing things everywhere.
He didn’t even buy a ticket to their show.
It was a waste of time and money. He hardly wanted to sit around for a few hours watching gimmicks and party tricks that could only delight a small child. After what the baker had said, he recalled vague memories of sitting with his parents in the Big Top and clapping here and there. The faces of performers and the details of what he had seen were sadly gone though.
Things only took a turn for the weird when the music started following him.
It started with just a tinkle and then a tinkle turned into a beat, and before Ryeowook understood what was happening, he was being lulled through the city streets by the unmistakable, rappa-tap-tap of distinct circus music.
All Ryeowook could discern was the familiar rapid-fire beat of a drum, and the groan of a brass instrument. Sometimes, when he sat at his desk on late evenings, he would swear the calliope itself was somehow transmitting little ditties into his room. It wasn’t impossible, he told himself. After all, the calliope was a circus piano that could produce sounds as far as nine miles.
Perhaps, someone on a higher or lower floor of his apartment building favored the unique instrument.
That was somehow more comforting than imagining a circus was stalking him.
It seemed preposterous, and yet...painfully likely.
Friday morning—five days since the strange sightings and sounds began and five days since his entrance exam—he called his parents.
Their surprise was palpable. Ryeowook’s strained mind was equally so.
“How are you doing?” his mother asked. “It’s not often that you call us.”
“Sorry, yeah, I’m fine,” he assured, rubbing his head. “I just have a small question.”
He licked his lips, feeling utterly stupid. Taking a deep breath, he said, “We used to go to the circus a lot when I was a kid, right?”
His mother was silent for a long time before finally answering, “Yes. But what does that matter? It’s been over a decade since we’ve gone.”
“Did anything weird ever happen?”
She laughed. “What do you mean? It was the circus. Weird things always happen there.”
“No, but I mean, did anything weird happen to me?” Ryeowook frowned, trying to ignore the voice that told him he was being a lunatic. An entire circus wouldn't just be stalking him. Perhaps he needed to get out and breathe like Siwon had pointed out. They had been wound tighter than coiled springs before, during, and after those exams. He silently thanked his friends for convincing him to visit a dance club that evening.
It wouldn’t surprise anyone that Ryeowook was halfway to losing his mind and the circus was just a convenient tool for channeling that madness.
He reached for a bottle of water, sipping it carefully. “I know I must sound...crazy,” he continued when his mother didn’t respond, “but I just...keep hearing their music everywhere. I know they’re promoting their performances, but it’s almost like...yeah.”
“Honey,” she sighed, “I think maybe you need to relax. You’re tired. The circus always brings up good and bad feelings in everyone. Don’t let it bother you.” Her tone was concerned, but Ryeowook wasn’t so dense that he missed the underlying bafflement.
Of course, he was aware that the entire premise of their conversation was preposterous. He himself didn’t want to admit that he felt followed by a troupe of wacky performers.
That was silly.
“You’re right,” he sighed, “sorry for calling about such a small thing. I’m going out with some friends tonight, so maybe that will help.”
“That’s good,” his mother assured, sounding relieved, “make sure not to stay out too late though. I wouldn’t want auntie and uncle to worry about you.”
“I know. I won’t,” Ryeowook affirmed. They chatted for a few more minutes, but then his mother was being called away by his father. Brief goodbyes and love you’s were spoken before the call ended.
His mother was right. There was nothing to be concerned about.
“Aren’t these a little…tight?” Ryeowook cocked a brow, eyeing Eunhyuk through the floor length mirror. He tugged at the skin tight black pants, feeling extremely exposed.
His friend waved a dismissive hand. “What are you talking about? It’s just fashion! This is what you wear to dance clubs. It doesn’t matter if you’re aiming to get with someone tonight. You just don’t wanna stick out,” he nodded his head, grinning widely and tossing a low-cut shirt at the wary young man. “Put that on too. It’ll show off your chest.”
“What’s there to show off?” Ryeowook grumbled under his breath, doing as he was told anyway. At the very least, the shirt was loose, and he wasn’t about to raise complaints. Or rather, maybe his major complaint was that they were even doing something like this. He knew it was a good way to de-stress, but the more he thought about it all day, the more anxious he had become.
Why was he even going out dancing? He didn’t like dancing. He didn’t like sweating. He didn’t particularly like being crowded by strangers.
Eunhyuk hugged him suddenly, a little coo bursting from his mouth. “You’re adorable!”
I’m overreacting. Calm down. Sighing a little, he patted Eunhyuk’s arm and smiled. “Thanks.”
“You guys ready yet?” Siwon appeared in the open doorway, looking model-gorgeous as always. Sometimes, Ryeowook wondered why he bothered going into business when he could probably be an actor or a model for the rest of his life. He had classic features and superior height. It would be so easy to make a living that way. Instead, he was going to be a successful CEO with a perfect face and body.
Ryeowook hated him sometimes.
“Yes! Let’s hit it!”
They piled into a taxi, laughter and jokes keeping the atmosphere light. Ryeowook put his worries out of mind, trying to be present for possibly the first time in his short life. Smiling along with them, he ignored the chill creeping down his spine and the whispers of a distant performance beckoning him.
The moment they stepped onto the hot, sweaty dance floor, Ryeowook was torn between puking and running. Only Siwon’s presence behind him kept his legs from whipping around and carrying him out. He glanced up at his friend, noting the look of excitement in his dark eyes. He’s definitely enjoying this already. Ryeowook stifled a tired sigh and pushed his way further into the crowd.
“Do you want something to drink?” Siwon shouted near his ear.
Ryeowook jumped slightly and then nodded. “Just a soda!” he yelled back.
His friend made a face, but then his following grin was teasing. With a nod, he disappeared into the throngs of people, leaving Ryeowook alone. Alone? Wait. Where were Donghae and Eunhyuk?
Did we already get separated?
Ryeowook spun around in an awkward circle, managing to bump nearly every person in his immediate vicinity. He tried to see over the heads and shoulders of clubbers, but failed to catch sight of anyone he knew. For a second, he thought perhaps that was Donghae’s profile, but then the person turned away. Part of him wanted to chase after that person, but his fear of losing Siwon kept him glued to the spot. If he came back and Ryeowook was gone, what would they do?
We could call each other.
Pulling out his phone, he quickly shot a message to Eunhyuk and Donghae. He stared at the screen with such intensity that he barely noticed the heat leave his backside, only to be replaced by a refreshing coolness.
A shiver wracked his frame, and only then did he realize something had changed. Confused, Ryeowook lowered his phone, looking around to see that people were still dancing. As he turned though, his eyes locked on a familiar-yet-unfamiliar pair of cold, dark eyes. A whimsical little smile played on the stranger’s lips as he tilted his head down. Messy locks curled against his pale features, glowing all the colors of the rainbow under the flashing lights. Shadows hollowed out his throat and streaked across his smooth skin.
He didn’t speak, just smiled a bit wider as he brushed the back of his hand across Ryeowook’s cheek. The latter froze, staring unblinking. The stranger’s fingertips trailed down, tracing the line of Ryeowook’s jaw, and then the pulsing veins in his neck, and finally slowed to a stop at his clavicle. He smoothed his thumb across one pronounced bone, pushing aside the fabric of Ryeowook’s shirt inch by inch.
Something carnal flashed in his dark eyes as a little pink tongue flicked out to wet his lips.
Ryeowook blinked. Jerking back slightly, he yanked his shirt back up, heart pounding. “Who…are you?” he barely spoke above a whisper, but the stranger had somehow heard.
In the span of a breath, Ryeowook was pressed against his body and breathing in an intoxicating scent. He gasped sharply, fingers curling into the man’s shirt sleeves as if trying to ground himself. Whether or not he wanted to push away was debatable.
Cold, cold lips pressed against Ryeowook’s ear and the softest voice murmured, “Kyuhyun.”
It was electric.
Ryeowook nearly jumped out of his own skin, eyes wide and blood abuzz with energy. A fog wrapped around his mind the longer they stood so close—a strange contrast to the excitement coursing through his veins. He repeated Kyuhyun’s name and gripped him harder.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Kyuhyun assured, lips gliding slow and teasing down the column of Ryeowook’s throat. Both hands found their way to his slim hips and then cold fingers were pushing underneath Ryeowook’s loose shirt, icing the heated skin wherever it touched.
Immediately, he was torn between jerking away and drawing closer. Chills clawed down his body when their hips were pressed flush together. “W-Wait,” Ryeowook swallowed thickly, mortified at the immediate reaction in his too tight pants.
Kyuhyun pulled him closer. “How sweet,” he murmured, one hand ghosting lower, lower, lower. He traced a line along the waistband of his dark denim, finger dipping just below the button enclosure.
Something between a moan and shout strangled itself in Ryeowook’s throat. Instinctively, he responded to the teasing promise, head rattling with images of frantic groping, halting gasps, and dark corners. His nails dug into the stranger’s skin (but when did he manage to shove his hands under his sleeves?) and thought blood must have been drawn. A haphazard swear slipped off his tongue.
Languidly, Kyuhyun pressed a kiss to Ryeowook’s exposed shoulder before sinking sharp teeth in and sucking sharply.
All of a sudden, the lust spiked and plummeted in unison. Ryeowook choked on a shout of pain. He tried to shove the man back, but the strength to do so was quickly seeping out of him. His body slumped against the stranger, eyes shutting against the dull pain in his shoulder. Everything was going numb as cold breath rushed across his skin.
In a blur of movement, he felt his feet leave the floor and then the cool night air was swirling around him. Ryeowook blinked, confused, achy, and lightheaded. “Where…?” he trailed off, groaning at the persistent fog clouding his mind. Why couldn’t he think straight? The building’s rough brick facing scratched against the thin fabric of his shirt.
Rolling his eyes around, he saw a light-polluted night sky and could faintly hear passing cars. What really stood out though was Kyuhyun still holding him upright. Effortless. Amused. Cold. So cold. Ryeowook finally settled his gaze on the man.
“You’re more delicate than I assumed,” Kyuhyun remarked idly, stroking a thumb across the younger man’s cheek. His eyes were no longer dark. Rather, they were glowing a warm, deep maroon to match his flushed cheeks. It was possibly more tantalizing than before. “We’ll need to work on your endurance.”
Ryeowook shook his head as if to refuse, but only managed to make himself dizzier. Staggering forward, he bumped into Kyuhyun, once again feeling his muscles turn to putty with one whiff of that alluring scent. Swallowing a small noise, Ryeowook tried desperately to make sense of what was happening.
One second, he had been sure they were…but then it was so hazy he couldn’t actually be sure of anything at all. What did I do? What did he do?
“Relax,” Kyuhyun chuckled, tipping Ryeowook’s chin up. “We’ll meet again soon.” His eyes trailed to the backdoor of the club, and then he reluctantly stepped back, letting Ryeowook slump to the dirty floor.
In the next moment, the backdoor shuddered open. The alleyway was silent save for the echo of the metal and hinges. Eunhyuk came bursting out. His eyes fell on Ryeowook almost immediately and then he was frantically calling Donghae and Siwon. Kneeling, he surveyed his friend for injuries.
“Ryeowook? Hey, buddy? You with us?” Eunhyuk lightly slapped the other boy’s face a few times until he blinked and focused a bit. “It’s me. Eunhyuk. You there? How many fingers am I holding up? What’s your name?”
“Two,” he grumbled, wincing harshly as a sharp pain shot through his head. Ryeowook gripped his skull tightly, fingers curling in his sweat slicked hair. “I’m Ryeowook, and I have a splitting headache.”
“Do you know what happened? And why are you out here?” Eunhyuk wrapped an arm around his shoulders, speaking urgently but carefully. He grimaced at the unfocused gaze that tried to meet his own. It was obvious that someone had drugged Ryeowook, but when and how?
Ryeowook just shook his head very slowly. “I don’t know. The last thing I remember is waiting for Siwon to come back with a drink for me and then…,” he frowned, holding his head tighter. “I don’t feel great.”
Eunhyuk helped his friend up and toward the main road. The sooner he could get Ryeowook into a bed with a cup of water, the better. He wasn’t going to risk having the poor guy stay out and about when they weren’t even sure what sort of drug had gotten him into such a delirious state.
“Donghae and Siwon will meet us back at my place. You’re gonna sleep over, alright?” Eunhyuk rubbed Ryeowook’s back as they trudged away.
He could only nod in response, barely able to keep his head on straight. That was why he failed to notice when the soft tinkling of a pure silver bell bid them farewell.
Chapter 5: The Fog
That night would be recollected with distaste and confusion as the days, weeks, and months passed. But then it would fade from memory bit by bit. There was so little to begin with. He vaguely recalled frosty touches and searing lust—both of which fed his late-night fantasies for some time. Even that faded soon enough though.
Already forgotten coy smiles and blood-soaked embraces would be relegated to the silver screen forevermore. Just like the stalking circus, he did his best to erase it from his memory.
That was all true. And it remained true for the following year when he became a college student.
University was in full swing and he did his best to stay busy. A full course load, a part-time job in the campus library, and a tutoring gig that honestly floated most of his bills. His first year was nearly over and he hadn’t noticed at all. Things were mostly calm—uneventful.
Ryeowook liked it that way.
Wading through life in a bleak fog and haze could be disconcerting for some, but for him, it was a sweet relief from the rush of panic that one night had caused. He vaguely recalled feeling a similar kind of emptiness during exam preparations in high school, but this one was more acute.
Almost as if life was passing him by and he was truly just along for the short ride. When he would drift off into a day dream, he imagined sitting in the flatbed of life’s pick-up truck, taking in the passing people and open skies but never stopping long enough to appreciate the finer details.
His friends never convinced him to go out like that again, for which he was immensely grateful. It was better to not climb off the pick-up truck and engage.
However, sometimes, Ryeowook could still hear the faint ringing of a circus coming around trying to lure him in—make him stop. But he would dispel the fantasy before anything ever came of it. He would rather pretend than ever acknowledge that perhaps a circus really had stalked him at one point in time and had continued to do so.
To what end did he actually want to delve any further into his past? The question would rise to the surface of his thoughts more frequently than he admitted to even himself. A rich voice and cold hands would jolt him awake at night, as if trying to gently drag him out of the dorm and into the streets. Ryeowook would never fall back to sleep after those particularly vivid dreams. Sometimes, he even searched his body for some sign that a stranger had really come in and grabbed him.
There was never anything.
Ryeowook blinked slowly, drawing himself out of a well of thoughts. The fog was heavier on some days. “Uh, yeah,” he answered, nearly slurring. It was the middle of the work week. There was no reason he should be feeling so sluggish.
“Is the weather getting you down? April has been an absolute rainstorm,” Eunhyuk remarked around a sip of iced coffee. “I know I start to feel a little off whenever it’s too humid or gray outside.” His nose scrunched up slightly. “And that smell of just moisture in the air. Ugh. It gives me a headache.”
He smiled at that, leaning back in the creaking wooden café chair. Soft, discrete music waded through the dimly lit coffee shop, just barely muting the constant rainfall. “Really? I feel like the smell just makes me tired.” Adds to the dullness.
Eunhyuk hummed. “Maybe that too.” He drummed his fingers against the table’s rough wood grain. “So? Have you heard back from the study abroad committee? They told me to get my deposit in by the end of next week.”
It was a cornerstone of being a university student. Of course, Ryeowook couldn’t pass it up without looking suspicious to his friends. They were already worried enough by his drab routine. If he hadn’t chosen the abroad program himself, they would’ve signed him up without his permission anyway. “Yeah,” Ryeowook nodded faintly, “they told me the same thing.”
“Really?” his friend lit up. “Then you’re off to London in August?”
“I guess so,” he shrugged, frowning a bit.
Eunhyuk studied his friend for a long moment, curious and simmering with concern. It was wrong to coddle a friend, but Ryeowook was even more listless than in the past. The only times light seemed to enter his eyes was when he asked if anybody else “could hear that?”
Eunhyuk still had no idea what he was referring to because he had never heard it and said as much.
Ryeowook would inevitably brush off the subject when no one else said a thing. It had proven itself fruitless to press him for information. The guy was tight-lipped about whatever was making him edgy. At one time, Eunhyuk had even tried to bait him into talking by saying he “heard” it too.
The lie soon unraveled though when Ryeowook’s eyes filled with fear and confusion as he said, “The bell disrupts the tune. Makes it sound like someone is trying to disturb the circus.”
And if that wasn’t the creepiest fucking sentence to ever grace Eunhyuk’s ears, he didn’t know what was. He never asked again and never questioned it again because the idea of Ryeowook being committed to an insane asylum for hearing circus music where it didn’t exist was terrifying.
He’d rather have his friend around with delirious hallucinations than not at all.
A new start.
That’s what Ryeowook repeated to himself through it all. He reminded himself that it had been over a year since that fateful night in a club far away. A year since the circus came to town. A year since he became an adult.
He couldn’t talk to anyone about any of it, though. The music had never really stopped and that was life now. It faded but lingered.
He was accepting the truth now. It wouldn’t leave, so ignoring it was his next best choice.
With that, he hopped a plane to London at the end of August. Twenty years old. Second year student. A bit quiet but friendly enough. Enjoys singing. Would be up for karaoke. He silently rehearsed the introduction, knowing his turn would be coming up soon.
The cohort was small, so orientation was mostly intimate icebreakers and casual conversation. They were sharing a set of flats on the campus of their host institution as well, meaning all of them would be seeing a lot of one another.
When Ryeowook’s turn came, the introduction rolled off his tongue quickly. The other smiled and nodded encouragingly. All of them were young and nervous—desperate to make sure they had friends in this foreign environment. He understood. Being alone wasn’t fun. Being alone with his lunatic thoughts was even less fun.
“I just thought of something fun!” The resident advisor. A woman in her early twenties. Ryeowook would have to commit her name to memory at some point.
She picked up her purse, rummaging about for a few second before pulling out a glossy black envelope. The silver cursive etched across it made Ryeowook’s blood run cold. “So I actually got free tickets to a popular show around here. They’re famous all over the world, but this is their home base. Just an hour or so outside of London.”
Everyone turned to face Ryeowook. His voice had been irrefutably threatening. There was a darkness seeping into his eyes and it only grew more pronounced the longer he gazed at the tickets.
Schooling her features, the advisor replied carefully, “They’re very community oriented. They often give out free tickets for small programs like this. It’s a goodwill gesture.”
Ryeowook didn’t believe here. But if he said anything else, the only crazy one here would be him. Struggling to shove down the panic, he nodded slowly. “Sorry,” he forced out, smiling, “I’m terrified of clowns. Can’t stand them.”
Relief flooded everyone’s faces, clouds of suspicion lifting in an instant. The advisor waved her hands reassuringly. “Oh don’t be worried at all! Actually, this circus is special.” She opened the envelope, showing them the colorful tickets. Each one had a different monochromatic image, but all of them shared a common attribute. The people pictured were gorgeous. Startlingly so. Draped in fine clothing and makeup, they were far from the grotesque circuses and freak shows that filled nightmares.
“So, you see, their beauty is a big seller,” she laughed lightly. “The troupe has been around since the turn of the twentieth century but they’ve never failed to win people with their faces first and then their incredible performances. It’s not frightening at all.”
A few other students chimed in then that they were also nervous about circus folk. Ryeowook only half listened to them reassure each other. It still didn’t sit right with him. What are the chances? Did they follow me? Maybe I actually am crazy.
“It’ll be fine, Ryeowook!” The friendly hand that clapped him on the shoulder did little to comfort him.
He didn’t respond, eyes going back to the black envelope and silver script.
With Love, Delirium
Maybe this was good. He would finally face his demons. This circus had chased him halfway across the world and there was no escape now.
“The show starts at 8:00 p.m. sharp!”
Chapter 6: A Promise
Ryeowook took a shuddering breath.
Memories washed over him with each step he took toward the black and white striped tent. It glittered and thrummed with energy from a time long since passed. The closer he got, the quieter his companions voices became because all that he could hear were the nostalgic beats of brass. Drums and trills joined the controlled mayhem. And at last, silver bells chimed in mischievously, as if teasing him especially.
They made their way through throngs of people, shouldering and shuffling to their assigned seats. It was a mishmash of technology and antiquity inside. Props and decorations were distressed, but the seats were lush red velvet, and the technical rigging state of the art.
Magical. The thought settled in Ryeowook’s mind. Something stirred in his chest as the lights dimmed.
They had come just as the show was set to begin—partly because of traffic, but also because Ryeowook had stalled quite a bit. He wouldn’t be surprised if his new flatmates already disliked him.
“Their shows usually open with a short message from the Ringleader,” his advisor whispered into his ear.
Nodding slightly, he turned warily back to the circular stage. A spotlight flickered to life, spilling pure white light down. Murky fog filled the floor, swirling around silently. Ryeowook tensed up, fingers curling into fists over his lap.
And then he appeared.
A black silk top hat, a coiled leather whip, and a striking pinstriped suit. His blood red bowtie matched his lips as the only spots of color on his person.
Ryeowook sucked in a harsh breath as their eyes locked.
Kohl-rimmed eyes. Cold, ivory skin. A smile that could kill.
He knew him. He knew him before that awful night a year ago. He knew him from a time forgotten. Ryeowook clenched the arm rest, leaning forward without realizing it. The Ringleader—Kyuhyun—was still watching him.
Endlessly watching him.
“Good evening,” he began, deep voice hushing the excited mutterings all around. He swept his arms out and the tails of his suit twirled. “So glad you all could come. We have a special show tonight.”
And in an instant, they were all under his spell. His red-lipped monologue wrapped around them like blindfolds, promising them it would be much more enjoyable this way. His low, dark chuckle constricted throats and pooled heat in embarrassing places. Not a soul could turn away from him.
His entire body felt flushed, suddenly remembering with incredible clarity the night he let that man touch him. So cold.
Their eyes met once again as Kyuhyun completed his slow turn about the stage. Fire and lust and cruelty reflected in them. Ryeowook wasn’t sure which attracted him the most. Maybe he didn’t want an answer to that.
“Tonight is particularly lovely,” the Ringleader mused, speaking directly to Ryeowook, “My dearest boy has finally come back. Welcome home.”
And then the stage burst with smoke and lights and color. Screams of delight tore Ryeowook out of his trance. The Ringleader was nowhere to be found as trapeze artists flew, silk ribbons descended with confetti, and music deafened the procession of alluring performers.
He tried to focus. Anything. Everything.
It didn’t work.
He stared vacantly at the wondrous feats, unable to mask the disappointment of a vanished Ringleader. A few times, his eyes flitted to the shadows, thinking he had caught sight of the man’s return. Each time, he was left disappointed.
The death-defying performances niggled at his memory, reminding him of so many things. Mostly, he was realizing just how much these trips to see Delirium meant to him. How had he forgotten something so precious at one point in life?
Was this what people meant when they talked about lost childhoods? The world was such a dull place as an adult. When you’re finally old enough to embrace freedom and mobility, the desire has dried up. How ironic.
And this? Was it really my home?
He blinked, glancing up to see one of his classmates smiling at him sheepishly. Confused, he chanced a look at his wristwatch. Only half an hour had passed since the show began. “What’s up?” he asked over the roar of music.
Leaning over, he shouted, “Kind of need to use the bathroom, but I’m afraid I’ll get lost alone. Can you come with me?”
Any excuse to get out was welcome. Ryeowook nodded immediately and maneuvered out of the row. They were up and headed for the staircase leading out of the tent in seconds. Beside him, the man sighed with relief. What was his name again? “I think the bathrooms were this way,” Ryeowook pointed across the darkened lot. A smattering of smaller lit up tents brightened the night.
“Looks like it,” he grinned. “Honestly, I was pretty hesitant too about this show. I really hate circuses and I was a little thankful you spoke up.” The confession was a bit hushed, cheeks tinting pink.
Ah. Hyungsik. That’s his name. Ryeowook smiled slightly. “I think we’re all just trying to be friendly and positive. It’s hard to go against the group sometimes.”
Hyungsik nodded earnestly. “Exactly!” He rubbed his neck, seemingly nervous. “Glad I came though. Uh, not to sound creepy, but that guy who did the introduction was really…hot.”
Heat stirred in his gut. “Yeah,” Ryeowook coughed awkwardly.
“S-Sorry, was that weird? I didn’t mean to imply you swing that way—”
His eyes widened and he quickly shook his head. “No! No. That’s not what I meant. I’m fine with that. Or, I mean,” Ryeowook fumbled over his words, getting increasingly flustered before blurting, “I swing that way. Any way actually. Beautiful things. People. I like them all.”
The ensuing silence made his heart drop.
Hyungsik burst out laughing a second later, patting his back. “Alright. Got it. Beautiful things are your type.” His grin was playful and Ryeowook relaxed. “Well then I feel less anxious about saying that he was seriously gorgeous.” Hyungsik tapped his chin thoughtfully, eyes glazing over.
“Very,” Ryeowook breathed quietly. It sounded reverent to his own ears.
“People like that just have a way of getting you hot and bothered, huh?” Hyungsik chuckled, cheeks pink.
He could only nod, not trusting his voice anymore.
They wandered between the smaller tents, finding the toilets a few minutes later. It was marked for patrons, sticking out as the only concrete structure around. Although efforts had clearly been made to spruce it up, the reality was their audiences were too large and the washrooms were merely a utility.
“I’ll wait out here,” Ryeowook stated, tucking his hands in his light cardigan.
Hyungsik waved, shuffling quickly into the building.
The music was still faintly carrying to him. Ryeowook turned in the direction of the big top, breathing out heavily. That voice was still bouncing off the walls of his mind.
“Not enjoying my show?”
Ryeowook froze, the temperature dropping all around him. His blood boiled in response though, and the contrast made him shudder. Turning slowly, he found the Ringleader slinking toward him. The top hat was tucked under one arm, knocking lazily against the coiled whip clipped to his belt.
“I included some old acts,” Kyuhyun drawled, tousling his dark locks with a white gloved hand. The black makeup around his eyes was smudged to the border of wild. It made his smile look feral in the dim light. “I thought you might enjoy it more. Was I wrong, boy?”
“It’s fine,” Ryeowook muttered, mouth dry. He took a hesitant step back when Kyuhyun inched closer. His heart was thudding hard, practically slamming against his ribcage. “My friend. He’s in the bathroom, so I’m waiting for him.”
The Ringleader seemed amused, tongue flicking out to lick his lips. “So honest.” He reached out, long fingers stroking Ryeowook’s hair delicately.
“Why would I have a reason to lie?” he bit back, deciding to rely on anger to mask his intoxicated thoughts. This man didn’t need to know just how much his mere presence had Ryeowook quaking.
Dark lashes bowed and red lips thinned. “Oh that’s no good,” he murmured, clicking his tongue. The fingers in Ryeowook’s hair slowly curled at the nape of his neck.
His breath hitched.
“Didn’t I praise you for being honest?” Kyuhyun whispered, frosty lips molding against his ear.
When did he get so close?
Ryeowook swallowed hard, placing a hand on the man’s chest to shove him back. When sharp teeth nipped at the shell of his ear, he lost the resolve to get away. A moan lodged itself in his throat and he fisted Kyuhyun’s silk white top.
“That’s better,” he hummed encouragingly, voice taking on a sweet, sultry lilt. The tip of his tongue traced a teasing line down Ryeowook’s jaw as his fingers tightened in his hair. With a firm tug, his neck was bared.
His knees buckled as he was forced to take staggering steps backward. They stumbled into the shadows of a nearby tent, soft grass tickling Ryeowook’s ankles now. He gasped as razor sharp teeth sunk into his throat.
In a flurry, that night came back to him. He hadn’t wanted to admit it. Hadn’t wanted to acknowledge it. I was bit. I was… Ryeowook made to shout, but his voice shriveled up as a hand cupped him through his straining pants. “F-Fuck,” he hissed, eyes darting to the abandoned top hat. It sat innocently at their feet, witness to something dark and wonderful.
Kyuhyun drank gratuitously, moaning over the pulsing veins. His jaw ached with the desire to tear that beautiful throat wide open. But. He ground the heel of his hand against Ryeowook’s growing hardness, relishing in the choked whimpers it elicited.
“Stop,” he panted, “please stop—!” Ryeowook didn’t think he even convinced himself. The words were barely aspirated. His hands had found their way into the Ringleader’s ink black hair as the rushing of his blood numbed everything. The intoxicating scent he barely recalled was back at full force, drowning him.
With a sickening squelch, Kyuhyun retracted his fangs, gasping sharply as the last dregs of blood slid down his throat. He dragged a heavy tongue over the wound, feeling it close beneath his touch as Ryeowook cried out sweetly.
“My boy,” he sighed, pressing his forehead against Ryeowook’s. Flicking his fingers, the button popped free and zipper dragged down. He hushed him softly, searching Ryeowook’s glazed eyes with amusement. “Thank you for the delicious meal,” he cooed breathlessly, sliding a gloved hand inside his tented undergarments. “Let me return the favor.”
The haze of euphoria was rapidly clearing from Ryeowook’s expression. Panicked eyes darted around the tent. Hyungsik had wandered out of the bathroom, turning in a slow, confused circle just a few feet away from them. In a rush, Ryeowook disentangled his fingers from Kyuhyun’s mussed hair.
He opened his mouth to call out but stopped when he felt a hand stroke him long and hard. Biting his lip, Ryeowook threw his head back. Another stroke. And then another. With a shaky hand, he clamped down on Kyuhyun’s wrist, but it did nothing to deter him.
“What are you…,” Ryeowook trailed off as he met fiery red eyes. They were filled with promise.
“Are you lost, friend?” Who’s that?
Hyungsik’s nervous laughter filled the air. “Uh no, not exactly. My friend was waiting for me while I used the bathroom, but he’s gone.”
A warm mouth latched onto Ryeowook’s throat again, but this time, it only nibbled playfully. Hot breath rushed over his chilled skin as the hand in his pants continued their relentless attack.
“Oh, I’m sure he just headed back before you,” the person assured, sugary sweet. “It’s the grand finale already and maybe he heard the music start up and rushed back.”
Ryeowook covered his own mouth as Kyuhyun suddenly dropped to his knees and dragged his underwear down. The cool night air rushed around his throbbing length for only a second before wet heat clamped down around it.
“That makes sense,” Hyungsik agreed, sounding a little confused but also desperate to please. “I’ll go back too, then.”
He fisted Kyuhyun’s hair without thinking, entire body trembling as teeth, tongue, and lips pleasured him thoroughly. Blood welled up in his mouth as he bit down hard to stop from crying out.
“Let me escort you. Wouldn’t want you to get lost.” A giggle.
“Right, yes. Thank you!”
And then their voices began to fade.
Ryeowook gasped harshly as teasing fingers curled around his base, squeezing and stroking roughly. When he chanced a glance down, he found Kyuhyun’s bright gaze focused on him. The tip of his length rested on his tongue, lips parted softly as if in presentation.
He swore loudly, shoving himself deep inside as he came with a full body shudder.
His vision whited out as he took in lungful after lungful of air. Both knees were ready to give out and the only thing keeping him upright were the strong hands gripping his thighs. Ryeowook’s hands slipped down to Kyuhyun’s shoulders, trying to steady himself.
The Ringleader swallowed, letting the softening member slide out of his mouth. His gaze lingered for a moment, but then he turned curiously smug eyes up. Ryeowook’s flushed face hovered above him, looking a dozen kinds of conflicted and satisfied.
“Aren’t you lovely?” Kyuhyun teased, smiling widely. He slowly stood, careful not to jostle his unsteady partner. “Lean on me,” he ordered softly, pleased when Ryeowook did just that, face buried against his shoulder.
Tugging off the stained gloves, he tucked them into a pocket before righting Ryeowook’s clothes. By the time he had clasped the button in place, his boy’s breathing had evened out. Kyuhyun kissed his hair faintly, hand coming up to caress the fine line of his jaw.
“That was…what was that?” Ryeowook managed, coughing slightly. He warily pushed away, noting the warmth of Kyuhyun’s touch. My blood did that, didn’t it? The thought terrified and mesmerized him in equal measure.
“I think young people call it a blowjob,” he offered casually, lips twitching, “They’re fun, aren’t they?”
His face reddened. “You know what I’m talking about,” Ryeowook blustered, putting more distance between them. “You ate…me.”
Kyuhyun seemed to turn the words over in his head, eyes roaming the air thoughtfully. “Such a crass way of putting it,” he remarked, “though I don’t really mind. It certainly sounds risqué.” He smiled.
“That’s not,” he stopped, rubbing his throbbing head, “I’m not doing this.” Ryeowook stepped away, striding out of the shadows. What he really wanted to do was sprint away. And yet, when he attempted to pick up the pace, a wave of nausea overcame him. He staggered, barely managing to catch himself.
A long shadow stretched over him, followed by the faint touch of something cold and smooth. Ryeowook flinched away, jerking around to see a glass egg just inches from his face. Intricate metal was laced up and down the palm sized trinket. A thick band of swirling silver cinched the center of the egg, meeting in a keyhole.
Kyuhyun gazed at him steadily, a ghost of a smile on his lips. “Forgive me,” he murmured, turning the trinket in his hands. Slowly, he began to wind something on the bottom of the egg. With each click, Ryeowook’s curiosity got the better of him. Kyuhyun righted the object in his hand, holding it solemnly. “I was too excited to welcome you home,” he explained lightly, tapping the top of the egg.
It popped apart at the center, revealing a lazily rotating big top. The soft tinkling of silver bells filtered up and out, drawing together into a cryptic lullaby. Ryeowook couldn’t tear his eyes away. Light danced off the big top’s glassy surface and for a moment, he was convinced the music box was alive.
Warm fingertips brushed his cheek. Startled, Ryeowook met his eyes. “Come see me again,” Kyuhyun whispered, low and sweet and sinful. He took Ryeowook’s hand, setting the glass egg on his palm. “For you.”
And for a second, he wanted to ask if it was a bribe. Maybe a gift? But when he clutched it tight to his racing heart, he knew what it was.
Chapter 7: Infuriating Aftermath
Ryeowook stayed far away from Delirium.
Further, he buried the glass egg in the bottom of his suitcase and promptly shoved that into the depths of his closet. Once they had departed from the show, all of his sensibilities came flooding back.
Thankfully no one looked too closely at him on the journey home. He blushed furiously in the back of the van, replaying the events on an infinite loop. Everyone was excitedly discussing the show, talking over one another to praise it. Although Ryeowook wanted to care, that infuriating Ringleader was all he could think about.
Even two days after the show, he was still waking up flushed and aching. It didn’t matter how much he touched himself because nothing really compared to that slick heat in the shadows of a performer’s tent.
He hated everything.
Ryeowook stopped tapping his pen, looking up to see Hyungsik watching him curiously. The lecture hall was filling up quickly around them. Noise filtered back in as well, making him realize just how lost in his own thoughts he had become. Clearing his throat, he said, “Sorry. Just had a lot on my mind.”
“I get it,” he sighed, mindlessly flipping through the empty pages of his notebook. “I don’t think I’ll be able to keep up with the English. I’ve heard they post recordings online though.”
Ryeowook wasn’t really worried about that. When your closest friend was Choi Siwon, English just became a prime subject. It ended up being the only subject he breezed through on his entrance exam.
Hyungsik didn’t need to know though, so Ryeowook just smiled sympathetically. “I’m sure it’ll be fine. They know all of us are international students. No point in trying to fail us by making the content impossible to understand.”
With that, the professor called the class to attention.
And in minutes, Ryeowook was fading away. His fingers absently ran the length of his flawless neck, stuttering over the veins that pulsed hardest.
Assignments stacked up quickly and he relished the distraction. For the first week of class, he hid away in the library, burying himself in readings and notes. It wasn’t really necessary, but it was better than jerking off to memories of a man he’d rather forget.
Each time the thought crossed his mind, Ryeowook slammed his head against the nearest surface and willed away the tides of lust.
When he finished working at the end of the day, he made full use of his flatmates. They were always up for a movie or late-night snack. He joined them on whatever adventures they wanted, making it clear to his subconscious that thoughts of Delirium were strictly prohibited.
There was to be no more foggy recollections of gloved hands and playful smirks.
No more sweet whispers and devilish tongues and my boy—
A week later, he finally cracked.
The clock read 5:53 a.m.
His room was dark save for a bedside lamp. The warm golden glow carved deep shadows across his squirming body. Ryeowook gritted his teeth, trying to stay silent as he brought himself over the edge for the third time.
How was it getting worse?
He felt like pubescent boy again and learning what sexual gratification meant. It wasn’t like he had been repressed growing up. He supposed he wasn’t the most interested either though. Was this what it felt like to be painfully attracted to someone?
Unable to stop thinking about them?
Touching yourself while dreaming that it’s them?
Getting frustrated when your own hands are lacking?
With an annoyed grunt, he cleaned up and got dressed. Tugging his hood up, he left the flat with little more than his wallet and keys. Campus was a twenty-minute walk away and by then, the library would probably be just opening.
The cool September air would do wonders for his frazzled mind as well. He walked briskly, happy to have his health back. After that abominable night, he had been anemic for days. It was easy to pass it off as nerves when people commented on his pallor, but he knew the truth and that made each remark irksome.
It didn’t matter how fast he drank juice or how often he snacked. The weakness took a while to finally fade.
That fucking leech.
Although the internet could probably provide some answers to his questions, it almost seemed like a black hole of intrigue. How far down the rabbit hole of conspiracies, novels, and forums could he go before it drove him further insane? In moments of weakness, he had sneaked peeks on his phone, but focused only on the circus. It made him feel less bad.
The reference materials at the library were manageable in comparison. Besides, they could also give him some information on Delirium.
He can’t be the only monster, right?
It chilled him to think there were more of them lurking among the performers. With Kyuhyun as their ringleader, what could Ryeowook expect? He wouldn’t be surprised if all of them were leeches. The thought of how much danger everyone was in made him grimace. Were there ever times they just went into a frenzy?
He bristled. No matter how much hate he tried to sum up, the worst one was himself.
Ryeowook liked it. Felt addicted to it. His body heated up at the mere idea of Kyuhyun getting his hands back on him.
I’m no better than a monster.
He muttered a hasty greeting to the sleepy librarian and launched into the local archives. The scent of dust and aging leather hit him immediately. Ryeowook scanned the shelves, looking for newspapers from the turn of the twentieth century. In his guilty web searches throughout the week, he had failed to find an exact date for the opening of Delirium. It was notably absent, but these archives must have a local newsprint about it.
That’s what led Ryeowook to heaving the heavy box of archived newspapers down to the work table. He picked up the first one in the intimidating stack, beginning the arduous process of skimming.
It was bad enough that he was becoming increasingly obsessed with a stranger who blew him. To add insult to injury, said stranger was a blood sucking creature whose motives were unclear. Ryeowook hadn’t wanted to open that tangle of feelings. Someone as beautiful as Kyuhyun didn’t randomly choose people. He could have anyone, so settling for a lesser quality partner seemed pointless.
Trying to understand what Ryeowook could possibly possess to make him valuable was scary. Why did he welcome me home? Shaking his head, he continued to trudge through newspaper after newspaper.
Somewhere between silently berating himself again and the fifteenth newspaper, he paused.
Front page. 1910.
Ryeowook froze, not even taking in the other details written. Instead, he was stuck on the image of Delirium and its striped tents. Standing in front of it were at least ten people, No one’s features were clear, but the Ringleader’s costume was unmistakable.
Maybe it was purposeful. They knew what they were. Why would they allow their faces to be captured in striking detail?
He muttered a curse, sliding the newspapers all back into the box. It was certainly tempting to go through all the other boxes. Maybe he could find more article clippings about them. At the same time, how far did he want this to go?
I’m already in deep.
Was there anything else he’d rather do with his weekend?
He cracked open the next box.
It was late afternoon when he crawled out of the archival cave. Sometime around noon, the librarian had invited him up to the tea room and he had been effectively lured. The caffeine and sandwiches were greatly appreciated.
She asked about his research and he answered with half-truths. It didn’t seem like she minded though. Maybe a lot of students were secretive?
Ryeowook stifled a heavy yawn as he shuffled home. Daylight was fading faster these days. He had a stack of notes under one arm, each page filled with musings. Originally, he didn’t think he’d need more than a single sheet of recycled paper. What poor planning on his part.
The walk home was refreshing and when he reached the front door, he was in a moderately better mood.
There was a lot to mine through, but at least he had faced the truth. It wasn’t possible for him to just live life ignoring it. Over a year of this bullshit circus stalking him was more than enough. He didn’t want to feel crazy anymore.
“I’m back,” he called, sliding off his shoes and locking the door.
“Hey! We have a guest!” Hyungsik’s voice had a hint of panic nobody could’ve missed. It was just shy of shrill and coming from the living room.
Ryeowook slowly turned the corner, still standing in the entryway when his eyes landed on their visitor. Even out of costume, they couldn’t blend in well. Or maybe they can blend in better than any of us. He scowled at the thought, tensing up.
A handsome man lounged on their worn-out couch. He looked thoroughly out of place in his pinstriped three-piece-suit and carefully styled hair. Not a single honey blonde strand was out of place. Pitch black eyes took in Ryeowook slowly, and a little smile curved his ashen lips.
Did we meet back then? I can’t remember.
“He’s from the circus,” Hyungsik explained hastily, appearing quite flushed now that Ryeowook got a look at him. His eyes were darting about, hands fidgeting.
“I see,” Ryeowook responded tentatively.
Rising silently, the visitor extended a black gloved hand. “Donghae. I’m a knife thrower. You must be Ryeowook?”
“What do you need?” he asked, deliberately not taking the hand.
A full-fledged smile worked its way onto his face. Clearly unperturbed by the rejection, he lowered his hand and instead reached into his inner breast pocket. “He said you might be a little irritable,” Donghae chuckled, tugging out an envelope.
Ryeowook held up a hand. “Whatever that is, I don’t want it.”
He paused, surprised for a brief moment. It quickly melted into amusement though. “Sorry, I’m under orders and those are law,” Donghae mused, waving the envelope around faintly. “You don’t have to read it of course. I’m just the delivery man.”
A part of him wanted to argue further, but fear stopped him. The ticking vein in his forehead was reflected in the hungry tremble of his lips. Ryeowook had immersed himself in enough lore now to be certifiably paranoid. Reluctantly, he snatched the envelope, tucking it into the sheets of notes.
Donghae gave the papers a careless once over. Ryeowook’s heart skipped a nervous beat and he began to rapidly chant a mantra of he can’t see he can’t see he can’t see.
“Well. That’s all I came here for.” He shrugged, smiling with almost boyish charm. It felt like a mask. Or at least, not very sincere at all. “Oh, well actually, I do wonder if you liked our show? It felt so nostalgic. I think I got a little emotional during it.”
“Donghae was telling me that they hadn’t performed that show in over ten years,” Hyungsik chimed in, expression clouding slightly. “They said it was from their parents’ time.”
“Is that right?” Ryeowook grunted, clenching his notes tighter.
“Apparently the circus is totally family run!” Hyungsik went on, rambling as if it would cut the invisible tension. “A group of friends started it a long time ago and generations have inherited the business. Most of the performers have been together since they were born.”
Ryeowook was no longer looking at his flatmate though. Questions burned on the tip of his tongue as he tried to glare the answers out of Donghae. In return, the man had the arrogance to nod along as if it were all true.
“I’m tired,” he bit out. “I’ll be in my room if you need me.”
Hyungsik called after him, but he didn’t respond, hurrying down the hall and slamming his door shut.
It felt like he was being played and that alone pissed him off. The pointless lies and flamboyant gestures. Dragging his innocent flatmate into everything just for laughs. Ryeowook rubbed his face, exhausted and livid at the same time.
The soft buzzing of his phone caught his attention.
He had left it behind in his furious departure that morning. Wincing, he set aside the notes and letter, retrieving his phone to find a slew of messages and missed calls.
Some were from his parents, another from Siwon, and the latest was from Eunhyuk. Deciding to answer in reverse order, he called up Eunhyuk first.
“Ryeowook?” His familiar voice boomed through the speaker.
Tugging the device away, he laughed a little. “Hey. What’s wrong? You sound worried.”
“Well you’ve haven’t been keeping in touch at all,” he complained. “How are you doing? It’s been about a week, right?”
Sighing, his shoulder relaxed the tiniest bit. “I’m good. A little tired, but good.” The lie tasted bitter on his tongue. In reality, he was a manic mess and chasing after bloody folklore.
“You sound sort of stressed.”
For a moment, he didn’t know how to respond. He couldn’t very well tell him what happened. Actually, yes. The leader of the circus that’s been stalking me for over a year finally caught me and drank my blood for the second time. He also went down on me to return the favor and I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m both enraged and horny. It’s awful.
“I hooked up with a terrible person,” Ryeowook settled on saying. He sank down on his bed, relaying in very normal terms how they met during a social event and by happenstance let things go to far. Now he’s stressed because it was great, but the guy wasn’t and who needed that drama? Ryeowook certainly didn’t.
At the end of his rant, Eunhyuk was laughing.
When the static quieted, Ryeowook demanded to know why.
Eunhyuk’s smile was practically palpable. “Because dummy, you finally sound alive again.”
“Alive?” he repeated.
“Yeah. I thought college entrance exams stole your soul. It was hard to see you like that. And well…even after that, around the time the thing happened at that club,” he trailed off, clearing his throat and surging forward, “you remember. Anyway, I thought you were a little listless. I’m glad you’re sounding livelier. That’s all.”
“But I’m just angry,” Ryeowook argued, annoyance spiking.
“Hey, better than being lifeless,” he chortled, “seriously. You’re not taking whatever this punk did to you lightly. That’s important. Fight for your respect and all that. Don’t be a pushover.”
If only you knew what was really happening. Ryeowook shook his head, unable to help the smile that crossed his lips. “Thanks.”
“Keep me updated, yeah?”
Ryeowook nodded softly. “I will.”
Chapter 8: Midnight Feast
Centuries of wealth. Hoards of gold. And yet the search for meaning continued. They were wandering souls in a world that began and ended too quickly. For them, a Human lifespan felt impossibly short. One second, they could see a baby come into the world and the next, they were laying flowers upon their grave.
Such an existence was tragic.
Donghae loosened the knot of his tie as he strode further into the dimly lit suite. Voices rose up around him, shadows writhing within shadows.
Pitying Humans was common among his kind; however, he actually thought having such a brief stint on the earth was a gift. He had witnessed the rise and fall of societies, the death of beloved people, and so much more for hundreds of years. It was excruciating. Memories slipped through fingers like sand. Emotions dulled. And after a while, the numbness set in and the years started to fly.
And then that awfully handsome man had sauntered into his life with a way to kill the boredom and melancholy.
“Kyuhyun,” Donghae responded lightly, rolling up his sleeves and unbuttoning his stifling shirt.
A noble. A devil. A sinful bloodsucker.
Donghae knew immediately that they weren’t of the same breed.
There were two definitive classes among their kind. Those with poisoned blood and those who did the poisoning. Among the well-versed and well-read, they were best known as Night Children.
“Was the message delivered?” He sounded like he was grinning. Donghae couldn’t see clearly in the dark mass of bodies though.
With a groan of relief, he sank into the mess of limbs as well, immediately feelings fingers and tongues running over his skin. “I didn’t have the option to fail.” Clumsy hands de-vested, tore away, and unbuckled him furiously. It was frightfully efficient and hilariously frantic. Donghae did little to help them along, relishing in their whines.
Kyuhyun’s low chuckle touched his ear, putting him on high alert. Jerking in surprise, Donghae tilted his head around, seeing the other man was leaning over the back of the couch and just inches away. “That’s why I trust you.” His breath was hot, nearly steaming.
In the dim light, Donghae could clearly make out his deep flush and blood-soaked smile.
The euphoric glow in Kyuhyun’s gleaming red eyes made him shiver. He only somewhat recalled his own turning. It was so long ago. Too long ago. Hardly of consequence actually. But Kyuhyun’s presence could always remind him of that day.
“All of you are drunk on power, huh?” Donghae teased, caressing his Ringleader’s thick hair and nuzzling his warm throat. He nipped lightly with the tips of his canines, lingering only for a second.
His Ringleader was the quintessential Night Child. And yet, there was something special beyond that. Oppressive. Dominating. Beloved.
“Maybe it’s just me?” Kyuhyun dug his nails into the other man’s chest as if trying to claw something out. In a way he was doing just that.
Donghae ground his teeth against the pressure, knowing it would fade and that everything would be better once it was out.
The orders. Those were the worst.
A scream died on his lips, body arching up as the bonds on his heart broke. It didn’t beat anymore, but it could still feel the pain of an order inflicted by a Night Child. “Fuck that doesn’t get any more pleasant,” Donghae breathed, loosening his grip on Kyuhyun’s hair.
“Feed to your heart’s content, brother.” His warm arms curled around Donghae’s neck, lips pressing gentle kisses against his cold skin. “I prepared this feast just for you.”
He had made peace long ago with these needs.
Fighting them resulted in a scarlet frenzy. It was better to control each meal. Treasure the lives as they were taken. He couldn’t do that—couldn’t properly gives thanks, when blacked out and rampaging.
So, this was better.
He peered down at the woman doing her utmost between his thighs. She must have been pleasuring him this whole time. It was a shame that he couldn’t feel it. Still trapped in Kyuhyun’s embrace, he could only wave the woman up.
Slightly confused, she stopped her ministrations and answered his call.
“Come closer, doll,” Kyuhyun drawled, voice deep and steady against Donghae’s ear.
The woman tensed up, immediately abiding by the command. She straddled Donghae, leaning in until Kyuhyun could cradle her face. She sighed, supple skin and strong muscles flexing as the he gently pressed a kiss to her forehead.
In the same breath, Donghae sank his aching fangs into her throat until it nearly tore. He dug trembling claws between her shoulder blades and thanked Kyuhyun silently for muting her pain. Their screams always ruined the feeding. It tugged at the dregs of humanity lingering in his soul, reminding him that monsters do exist, and he was one of them.
When the flow of blood trickled to a stop, he opened his eyes. There was only a shriveled corpse left in his arms.
The darkest shadows of the suite wrapped around her, removing the distasteful sight in an instant. Donghae had little time to register the clean up crew before another treat was settling on his lap. This one smelled richer but tasted less sweet when he drank his fill. The ones that came after were unique and fresh. So clean. So pure.
Leave it to his Ringleader to only bring the finest to a feast. Donghae didn’t think he had tasted such delectable flavors in decades. It was a well-known rule in Delirium. They earned their banquets. Meticulously orchestrated rewards that were worth every order.
He couldn’t recall ever feeling so alive. The wait had been worth it. Years of denial made this moment indescribably precious.
And so it went, on and on and on.
“Are they to your liking?” Kyuhyun murmured pointlessly. Aggravatingly smug.
Donghae watched another of his meals get swept into the realms of darkness, only to be replaced again. It seemed there really was no end. It would only stop when he was finally satiated. Would a time like that ever come though? He absently stroked the lithe body squirming on his thighs. In the feeding frenzy, he had ignored his own growing arousal.
Now that his body had the blood to even give a reaction, he wanted to fulfill that need as well. He smiled wryly, wondering how long the high would last. Long enough, I hope. “Are you providing other services tonight as well?” Donghae grinned up at Kyuhyun who was merely watching him, arms propped on the back of the couch.
“Anything you desire,” he chuckled, curling a lock of Donghae’s hair. The doting tone was full of a master’s affection for their pet. “It seems like you’re in a certain mood?”
“You already know who I want.”
Kyuhyun’s expression gave nothing away. Even though it would usually twist with displeasure at this particular request, he hid it well that night. With a gracious nod, he pressed a long, solemn kiss to Donghae’s tense jaw. “As you wish. His rooms are already open.”
It felt like a trick. But when he finished his last meal and the shadows had carefully whisked them away, no one stopped him from leaving.
Halfway across the room, he heard his Ringleader’s soft laugh. Although Kyuhyun didn’t say anything, it was clearly mocking. Donghae ignored it, blood rushing and energy too high to mind the judgment.
Not bothering with clothes, he left the suite and strode quickly down staircase after staircase. The basement was indeed unlocked.
Was it love? No. Not in the way Humans were allowed to love.
But it was something.
Chapter 9: Calling Card
Ryeowook stared at the slightly bent letter lying on his nightstand. The thick cardstock had weakened along the fold from so many reads. Curling into his pillow, he sighed heavily. The notes from the library were scattered about the room, looking as if a gust of wind had blown them about. A few pages crinkled beneath him when he shifted on the bed.
None of it really mattered. Half of it was nonsense from fear-mongering and the other half was mostly annotated retellings of famous 19th and 20th century novels. A very small sliver of information he gathered seemed worthwhile. One wasn’t even within a body of text. It was a small footnote from a conspiracy theorist that hardly counted as information.
The world harbors Night Children. Creatures of a different sort from those in popular media. They are horrifically beautiful, sinister, and better at playing Human than Humans.
How were stakes, silver, and garlic going to protect him? The Holy Word of God? What did any of it have to do with a flesh and bloodless night stalker?
But what bothered him more than the supernatural element was why he was being followed. Targeted. Harassed. What did he possess that a monster wanted?
He reluctantly picked up the letter once more.
It weighed heavily in his hand, seeming to grow more burdensome with each read. Ryeowook lifted it up, skimming the words that were burned into his mind already. It was handwritten of course. Blood red ink in a hauntingly lovely script.
My Dearest Boy,
Won’t you come home soon?
I have so many wonderful things I want to share with you.
Don’t you feel the same?
A whole world of color and beauty is waiting.
Have you listened to my song?
Follow its tender lullaby and it will light your path.
Won’t you make haste?
My arms are always open.
Ryeowook didn’t know what to make of it. It felt like he was being teased—led on a treasure hunt where the prize was a cage.
But wasn’t he already trapped? His mind was a cavern filled with only thoughts of him. His room was littered with scribblings on what could be and what must be. His very body was captivated by scorching touches.
What still belonged to him?
Frustrated, Ryeowook sat up and threw his closet open. In slightly frantic maneuver, he tore into the suitcase, snatching up the devilish little glass egg. It rested innocently in the palm of his hand, glinting in the warm golden lamp light. Hesitantly, he ran unsteady fingers over the surface, tracing each delicate design. It seemed to hum with energy, warming under his touch.
Ryeowook silently tapped the top. It obediently popped open, revealing the familiar model of a big top. This was part of the game, wasn’t it? The hunt? He refused to play the music box, merely satiating his curiosity with examining the trinket.
It terrified him to think what would happen if he did play it. Where would it take him? Where wouldn’t it take him?
“Ryeowook? You still up?” A knock on the door.
He jolted, shutting the egg with a bit too much force before tossing it back in the suitcase. “Yeah, what’s wrong?” he called back. With rather clumsy hands, he swept up all the papers and shoved them into the case as well before shutting and zipping it.
Hyungsik didn’t open the door, voice projecting through the wood. “Uh I have a few English questions, if you’re not too tired?”
Rubbing his head, he considered refusing, but thought better of it. This would be a good chance to ask a few questions. “Sure.” He opened the door, stepping out and shutting it behind him. There was nothing to be proud of in that room.
Hyungsik didn’t seem to mind or notice. Instead, he smiled with relief, heading back into the living room. The lights were still on, life coloring the area. Ryeowook looked around in almost a daze, warmth filling each corner and soft music comforting them.
It didn’t feel right.
They quietly reviewed the pages Hyungsik struggled with. Ryeowook watched him take notes on particularly tricky parts while making suggestions on how to memorize certain grammar structures. The explanations tumbled off his lips in almost rehearsed order.
When the last notes were being jotted down, Ryeowook summoned up his nerve. “Did that guy, Donghae, say anything else to you?”
Hyungsik paused, looked up curiously. “What do you mean?”
“Nothing really,” he mumbled, heart hammering at the thought of coming off creepy. Was there a more tactful way to bring up the topic? “Just…they’re circus people.”
“I’m not really sure what that means,” his flatmate chuckled awkwardly, shuffling papers around. “But I kind of get you being nervous. Donghae made me nervous, too.” Hyungsik chewed on his bottom lip, eyes darting back and forth in thought. “It was a really normal conversation. Like if I enjoyed their show, and if London is treating me well. Nothing too personal. I just don’t know why they paid us a visit and the longer it went on, the less I cared.”
Ryeowook ignored the chill running down his spine.
Hyungsik frowned. “But after he left, my head felt hazy. Maybe I was more wound up during the visit than I thought?” He mindlessly slid the papers back into a folder, tidying up the coffee table. “And now I’m just on edge wondering what happened. We sat together for a while before you even came home, and then for a little longer after he gave you that letter.”
Wanting something to do with his fidgeting hands, Ryeowook picked up their tea mugs and walked over to the adjacent kitchen. It was just a corner of the common area, clearly within view of the small flat. “Did you believe his story about the circus?” Ryeowook asked softly.
“I didn’t know it was up for debate?” Hyungsik returned, confused. He stifled a yawn.
“Sorry, you must be tired.”
His flatmate nodded sheepishly. “Hey if you’re really curious about the circus and stuff, Donghae left a calling card.” Hyungsik rummaged about in his pockets, still dressed in his clothes from earlier that day. After a moment, he tugged out a plain black card. “You can have it.”
Ryeowook didn’t want it. “Thanks.” Though maybe he needed it.
That evening, he resisted the urge to read or do anything else related to the circus. The calling card was tossed into his suitcase along with the Ringleader’s cryptic love note. He just wished he could also toss his feelings in there as well.
He made the call on a Tuesday morning.
It immediately went to an automated message, detailing their operating hours and website URL for purchasing tickets. A further plug about their upcoming tour schedule followed.
Ryeowook hung up after their third date in Berlin, Germany. It seemed that Donghae hadn’t been trying to stir something up by talking to Hyungsik. The card was a standard business card. Nothing out of the ordinary and certainly not shady.
Disappointed, he tossed the card into a nearby trashcan and hurried along to school.
It was already week three in the term and the workload was both heavy and not. With a general history class on Europe, it was hard to delve into complex stories. Ryeowook found the lectures to be mostly recapitulations of the readings, and the exams were few and far between. Out of the increasingly boring classes though, were plentiful field trips around Europe. The excuse of “exploration” was frequently cited.
He had already been informed of two trips coming up in the following weeks. One was to the Royal Opera House, but the other would take them to Romania. Both were considered rich in history and suitable for the course.
Ryeowook wasn’t sure what he thought of them. It was better than sitting in a lecture hall each day.
And then as the days dragged into night, he’d find himself wide awake with hundreds of thoughts and a deep fear of what dreams awaited him. There was a time not long ago that nights were pure darkness. He would awaken and drift off with little more than logic to tell him that he had slept.
This led to Ryeowook sitting awake, tempting himself into turning the crank and bringing the Ringleader’s lullaby into his room. The little glass egg would stare up at him from the palm of his hand, asking silent questions without clear answers. He fell asleep more often than not with the trinket in his grasp and the bedside lamp on.
He didn’t know if it happened because of one of these insomnia-riddled nights, but the inevitable occurred.
How it happened, he still didn’t know exactly.
Ryeowook heard the lullaby but didn’t feel his fingers moving. The music box was wound, and his feet were moving. Cold air rushed around his face and through the thin pajamas he wore. He clutched the egg in both hands, leaning out the bedroom window with little awareness of what was happening.
His heart was beating steadily, but his mind may have been screaming.
The drop was steep. At least three stories. He stared down at the approaching ground.
And then it stopped.
The chill of the night reversed. His body was lifted up and the stifling heat of his bedroom returned. Ryeowook blinked slowly as cool hands plucked the egg from his death grip. Papers rustled, escaping from his open suitcase to fly about the room. He glanced up at the movement, reminded of rippling silk and confetti.
“You’ve come home.”
Chapter 10: A Delightful Invitation
Ryeowook whirled around, only to be crushed against an icy body. He listened to glass egg play its final notes.
“W-What,” he blurted, senses coming back in hazy, disjointed parts. He hissed at the freezing touch working its way underneath his clothes. Almost violently, Ryeowook shoved at the hands stroking his chest and soothing his tense shoulders. His shirt was pushed up to his throat, blocking any view of the wandering fingers. “STOP!”
The order left him breathless.
His visitor had both hands up, looking royally displeased. Ryeowook was heaving, chest pounding rapidly as he quickly tugged his bunched clothing back into place. He barely had the mind to be surprised at the way his words had flung back the leech.
Kyuhyun had begun to smile. His pale features were only faintly tinted with color. The black of his eyes swirled with flecks of maroon and his tongue flicked out like a drop of blood. “Did you call?”
“No,” Ryeowook coughed, startled. “Why would I…” He grimaced, looking back at the egg.
“I believe you sent the invitation this time,” Kyuhyun mused, studying his face thoughtfully. “Perhaps you’re unfulfilled?” He carefully lowered his hands, sliding them into the silk pockets of his trousers. The sleeves of his red shirt were rolled up, outlining the faint cords of muscle in his arms. An unfurled bowtie hung slackly around the long column of his throat, swaying softly as he approached.
The tap of his leather shoes was silent, wind whispering beneath the soles. Ryeowook clumsily stepped back, bare feet scraping along hardwood. “I was just tired,” he swallowed, rubbing at his eyes as if they’d erase the fantasy before him.
“Ryeowook? Are you okay?”
Kyuhyun didn’t react to the voice, but Ryeowook’s head immediately snapped to the locked door for only a second. Slightly shrill, he called back, “Yes! Sorry. A nightmare. I’m okay.”
“Alright.” And then his footsteps faded.
“People usually say I’m like a dream,” Kyuhyun drawled, tilting his head as the space between them diminished. “You used to dream of me, too. Isn’t that right, boy?”
Ryeowook’s foot hooked on the open suitcase. He tripped, falling back on the narrow bed with a groan. A cold hand closed over his own and a familiar scent wafted around him. “I don’t know.”
Frigid lips stole his breath. Cool air filled his mouth with each increasingly powerful kiss. Fingers buried themselves in his hair, leading him through touches and tongues. Ryeowook whined, eyes straining to stay open, only to shy away when Kyuhyun gazed back. It was the coldest kiss that ever made his blood sing.
“This is your domain, my boy,” Kyuhyun murmured, sucking softly on Ryeowook’s lower lip. He dragged knuckles down a pulsing neck, promising and requesting. “I’m at your service.”
“You just took what you wanted before,” he managed to say, but the words wobbled against Kyuhyun’s kiss.
“My urgency scared you?” he teased, lacing their fingers together. He brought them up to his lips, kissing each of Ryeowook’s trembling fingertips. “I can kneel and apologize. Do you desire that?”
Ryeowook tried to disentangle their bodies, needing space and fresh air to think clearly. None of his struggling helped though and he reluctantly shook his head, face turned away now. “No.”
“Then tell me how to best please you,” Kyuhyun smiled indulgently, laying down slow, sweet kisses on his bared throat. He dragged the edge of a canine along the heated skin. “Anything is fine.”
It was such a cruel assurance.
Ryeowook fought the maddening desire building up on the tip of his tongue. He blamed it on the dark of the night and the mangled state of his thoughts. The repressed wants and shattered dreams. The whimsy of a stranger at midnight with too much sin in his voice and too much delight in his touches.
“I want the high.” His words cracked, tears of frustration wetting the corners of his eyes. “Please. Please.” Ryeowook felt choked by the shame, but the rest of him screamed for something. Anything.
“You have to be specific,” Kyuhyun cooed, looking like a cat who finally broke the canary’s cage. “Where should I begin?” he breathed, tickling the sensitive hollow of Ryeowook’s ear. “Here?” He slid a delicate nail along the trembling man’s neck. “Or here?” A clothed knee pressed between his tense thighs. “Maybe here?” Kyuhyun’s voice danced as he slid the pad of his thumb across Ryeowook’s softly parted lips.
“You know where,” he argued almost inaudibly. The flush of anger and embarrassment colored his soft skin. He hesitantly reached up, tugging Kyuhyun’s face to his throat.
He chuckled quietly in response, mouth parting over his lover’s rapid pulse. And then his teeth sank in, ripping the flesh tenderly, and drinking his fill of liquid life. It tasted warm and thick with arousal. Ryeowook’s strangled cry that echoed against his ear stung slightly, but he pressed on.
Blood spilled out almost too quickly, as if rushing to please him. Kyuhyun reluctantly closed the wound after a few seconds, savoring the lingering taste. His body was warm and light, wrapped tightly around the panting man. Kyuhyun turned Ryeowook’s face back toward him, seeing his dilated pupils and ragged breathing. “You are more wonderful than you realize,” he stated.
Ryeowook took a gasping breath, brows furrowing. “Aren’t I just food?” It was half-hearted at best.
“Never,” Kyuhyun quipped, lowering him to the covers. Their lips met, heat circulating between their mouths as the taste of iron stung the tip of Ryeowook’s tongue. He moaned regardless because those long fingers were rubbing him through the thin fabric of his pajama bottoms.
He recklessly arched into the touch, eyes flying open when he was met with equally brutal force. Shuddering, he clumsily clashed with the demanding tongue exploring his mouth and the teasing hand refusing to deepen the contact.
“Your orders, boy?” Kyuhyun mumbled, biting and sucking along his jaw.
“What?” Ryeowook fumbled, all his higher functions stalling out. He took in the relaxed smile and calmly ruthless ministrations to his aching arousal; the fingers curled in his hair and the bright red eyes.
“Walk me through your desires,” he hummed gently, actions a stark contrast to his tone. A line of bruising love bites was forming along Ryeowook’s throat. “And I’ll fulfill them to the best of my abilities.”
The promise made his throat dry.
“Your mouth,” Ryeowook mumbled, feeling lightheaded for so many reasons.
“And where should I put it to use?” he snickered, already stroking him through his pants.
“There…please,” he covered his face, mortified but too far gone to stop himself.
Kyuhyun slid the thin fabric down, kneeling on the floor as he spread Ryeowook’s thighs wide apart. “Of course,” he sighed, teasing the tensely erect arousal with his mouth. It twitched at each touch, seeming to grow harder the longer Kyuhyun stared. “Is just this going to be enough for you?” He stroked once, long and slow.
Ryeowook bit down on his own hand to stifle the grown of relief. After a stilted moment, he responded, “Yes.” No.
“But the treats I could give you,” Kyuhyun clicked his tongue, amused. He teased the sensitive flesh at the base, sliding down until it swirled lightly over a tight entrance. “The wonderful things you’re unaware of.”
“I…,” Ryeowook trailed off, jumping at the near innocent touch. He squirmed away from it, slapping Kyuhyun’s hand off. “No…not now.”
Red eyes sparkled. “But perhaps later?” He laughed softly at the glare haphazardly directed at him. Submitting, Kyuhyun made himself comfortable between spread thighs and devoured the member.
Ryeowook knew his hand would bruise if he bit any harder. Helplessly, he clenched his eyes shut, hips lifting off the bed in jerky movements. Kyuhyun pulled away for a brief moment and as cool air rushed over him, Ryeowook looked up.
“Should I assist you?”
He was staring up at Ryeowook, smiling and absently stroking him. Ryeowook didn’t really know what he could do to assist, but hesitantly nodded nonetheless. The Ringleader reached into the front pocket of his red shirt, tugging at seemingly thin air before a glossy black scarf emerged. It was silken and probably of the finest quality.
Kyuhyun bunched the fabric and then pressed it to Ryeowook’s lips. “Bite down, boy. It’ll hurt much less.”
Taking his advice reluctantly, Ryeowook dug his teeth into the expensive cloth, relaxing when it held up against the pressure. He sat up on his elbows, stomach trembling as he saw that breathtakingly beautiful man between his legs. His pale skin was flushed with Ryeowook’s blood, and the mere notion of that struck disgust and excitement into his heart.
Kyuhyun returned to his job with interest, sucking first at the head and then slowly sliding it deeper down his throat. The length glistened and swelled more with each pass, mesmerizing Ryeowook.
The silk between his teeth grew wet, tasting like sin. He fisted Kyuhyun’s tousled locks, thrusting his hips up experimentally. After only a few moments, bright eyes flitted up to him with amusement.
Sliding off of the member with an audible pop, Kyuhyun chuckled. “Am I going too slow?”
Ryeowook nodded his head, wondering if his thoughts would be understood.
His smile turned feral. “Do you want to use me?” He traced the inside of Ryeowook’s thigh, pressing a slow kiss to the soft skin. “Fuck my face?” he murmured, rubbing the head of the dripping length with his thumb. “Make it hurt?”
Ryeowook vigorously shook his head, cheeks red. He didn’t trust his voice. Didn’t trust the desires bubbling up inside of him.
“Or,” Kyuhyun watched him, expression twisting just a bit as he slowly stood up. “Maybe it’s the opposite?” He tipped Ryeowook’s chin up, tugging the damp cloth out of his mouth. “Maybe being pleasured doesn’t bring you to life,” he whispered steadily, lashes bowing.
His body tensed up as Kyuhyun took his hand, bringing it up to the straining buttons on his trousers. Ryeowook ignored the immediate reaction to pull away. He swallowed hard at the feelings he had awoken in the Ringleader. This was the proof. The mutual lust.
“Because of me?” he asked without thinking, eyes lifting up.
Kyuhyun stroked his hair sweetly. “Yes.” He ground faintly against Ryeowook’s warm, nervous hand. “Does it please you?”
He nodded, desperately stifling the shame. “Yeah,” he breathed, sliding his fingers down the tented material.
“Are you curious?” Kyuhyun tilted his head down. His fingers slid to the base of Ryeowook’s skull, keeping a firm, steadying grip there.
He licked his lips, vision narrowing on the metal buttons. “I…I’ve never done that.”
“Would you like to learn?” he mused, catching Ryeowook’s surprised gaze. “Or maybe you’d like me to guide you?” Kyuhyun smiled widely. “You can experience all the pain you desire.” He slowly led Ryeowook closer until inexperienced lips were pressed against the cloth. “It fills your mouth bit by bit,” he whispered, rolling his hips lightly, “until it begs at the back of your throat.”
Ryeowook’s mouth parted, hot breath and tongue wetting the fabric. His shaking hands hooked into the back of Kyuhyun’s black suspenders. They dug into his shoulders, pulling the trousers tighter against his skin.
“We would start slow,” Kyuhyun assured, grinding against Ryeowook’s willing mouth, “wait until you relaxed, tongue heavy with my scent,” his breath hitched, “and then I would pull your hair taut,” his fingers clenched painfully in his boy’s locks, voice dropping, “and claim your mouth with my cock.”
Ryeowook cried out, body trembling all over.
He slumped forward, chest rising and falling as all his nerves set on fire. The mess between his legs and across his stomach felt cool compared to the heat raging through his mind and body. Fingers released his hair and then Kyuhyun was ducking down, licking up the delectable splatter.
“My boy…,” he groaned with all the reverence of a devotee. He drank up every last drop, ignoring the weak protests when he sucked the dripping head clean as well.
Ryeowook just focused on breathing, adrenaline rushing through his veins and vision filled with colors. He clung to the man tugging his pants back into place, finding solace in the measured movements and murmured praises. The words blurred together, but they sounded sweet and comforting and present.
“Thank you for the delightful invitation.”
The Ringleader kissed him softly upon his forehead and then was gone.
Chapter 11: The Knife-Thrower
Ryeowook hid in his room the entire day, save for a few stops in the kitchen and bathroom. When Hyungsik came around worried in the morning, he feigned illness and thought about how he’d rather be on his deathbed anyway.
Every explicit detail of the previous night haunted him.
He could still taste fine silk on his tongue and smell the alluring aroma of Delirium’s beloved Ringleader.
Climaxing without being touched was now on his very short list of most embarrassing experiences. Ryeowook was not easily shaken. Too much stress and too little time had made sure the world rushed by as he watched on, detached. The only perk of such a dull life was that he felt very few regrets.
Nowadays, it seemed that every week boded a new mortifying experience.
But wasn’t it already too late now for him to take it all back? Ryeowook glanced warily at the glass egg still sitting on his nightstand. It had stayed put after he drifted off, exhausted and satisfied. And when he awoke, the thought of putting it away crossed his mind…but then it never happened.
He watched it. Thought about it more. Then would turn away to distract himself with any number of other things.
And then night fell.
Ryeowook was still slightly lightheaded from blood loss, but nothing like the days of deficiency from the last time Kyuhyun drank. Was it for his benefit?
I’m at your service.
Chills raised the hairs on his skin. It was such a simple statement but carried weight that Ryeowook didn’t know if he could handle. He wanted to suffocate himself at the memory of what he said in response—of the many things he said, in fact.
He dressed and pulled on a warm hooded sweater. Snatching the glass egg off his nightstand, he shoved it into a pocket and trudged out. Hyungsik hadn’t returned yet, leaving the apartment thankfully empty. Ryeowook slipped on sneakers and hurried out, only barely remembering to lock the door behind him.
More and more questions kept piling up while answers diminished.
What had the egg done to him?
Why was Kyuhyun there?
What did he want?
Ryeowook took the train, heart racing madly at his snap decision. The rattling of the rails kept him sufficiently tense—not that he needed any more reasons. It was a long ride and he settled into his own rampant thoughts with dismay.
All day, every day since he attended the circus, he had been unable to let it go.
No one seemed capable to giving him the answers he wanted. Alternatively, he didn’t have the nerve to ask anyone about the things that spooked and lured him.
By the time he arrived at the nearest station and walked along dark narrow streets to the sprawling circus lot, the show was in full swing. He could hear the boisterous music and see the bright lights of the big top. In the chilly September air, wind rippled through black and white striped tents, making their shadows dance across gravel.
Ryeowook stopped at the gated entrance, peering up at the wrought iron and carefully crafted name. Delirium. Its imposing form seemed to loom over him, twisting with mirth. He shook it off, knowing that that feeling was certainly just paranoia.
The ticketing booth was still open. A small golden light dangled over the glass windowed counter. Ryeowook approached it hesitantly, leaning over to see who was inside.
“Show’s already begun, kiddo.”
He swallowed a scream, clamping a hand over his mouth. Whipping around, Ryeowook nearly melted to the floor. His hammering heart didn’t slow as he took in Donghae’s form.
The man wasn’t costumed, but the whimsical twist on his suit was evident. A comedy mask was tied to his head but pushed out of the way. All of the little details of his appearance faded away though when Ryeowook noticed the bandages peeking out from the high neck of his shirt and in the gap between his black gloves and suit sleeves.
“Ryeowook?” Donghae blinked, clearly surprised. It melded into a smirk though as he leaned in. The pallor of his face was no longer sickly pale. His pupils were rimmed deep red and his cheeks and lips spoke of a rather recent feeding.
“I need to talk to him,” he blurted.
Donghae sneered, but it held no bite. “You might regret it.”
He didn’t respond.
Shrugging, Donghae backed up and waved him toward the gates. “You can wait in his tent. I’m sure he’ll be thrilled.” He snickered, leading the way.
Ryeowook scurried after him, staying a safe distance away. The long gravel driveway was lit by strings of light and the twinkling fixtures on a lazily rotating carousel. He vaguely recalled it from their visit a few weeks ago, but now it seemed even brighter. “Why bother?” he asked softly, eyes lingering on the glossy monochrome horses and carriages.
“It lights the way,” Donghae answered easily, throwing it a short look. “It’s only open during the afternoon since our show is in the evening, but it makes this place look more alive if we keep it on all the time.”
“That’s important, isn’t it?” Ryeowook mumbled, clutching the glass egg in his pocket. “To make things look alive?”
The smile Donghae offered was purely amused. “Yes. It is.”
They stared one another down for a long moment. Ryeowook didn’t know if he was being ridiculously brave or stupid, but with all his emotions frayed anyway, what did it matter? Donghae was the one to turn away first, continuing to thread through the grounds.
None of the tents were marked well, but each one was securely built and attached to the earth. Ryeowook couldn’t recall the set-up from his childhood, but it would be ludicrous for them to take this all apart and rebuild it each time they toured, right?
The big top burst with applause and shouts in the distance. Ryeowook jumped a bit, surprised at how far it reached. Ahead of him, Donghae looked back. “We’re possibly the most famous circus in the world.”
“You’ve had centuries to build the reputation.”
Donghae laughed. “You’re definitely his kind of person.” He smiled a little warily and stopped in front of a tent that looked just like the others. “Here we are.”
The only thing that might have tipped off Ryeowook was the small piece of cardboard shaped like a top hat pinned to the closed flaps. Donghae untied the thick black rope in front of the tent and then proceeded to unzip it.
They both entered darkness.
It lasted only a moment and then Donghae flicked on an electric lamp.
Ryeowook turned in a slow circle, taking in the sparse furnishings and racks of costumes. A few rather antique-looking black trunks were stacked in a corner alongside pristinely cared for leather suitcases. Glass baubles spiraled down from the high ceiling, twinkling in the dim light. He thought the interior would be black and white, but instead it was draped in deep red.
The wooden vanity had an assortment of makeup and a large mirror. Ryeowook glanced at it, seeing Donghae looking back at him with an almost taunting smile. Guess that myth was fear-mongering too.
He sank down on the plush velvet couch, feeling determined but wholly out of place. “Hey.”
Donghae grunted softly in response, tidying the vanity.
“Where’s the coffin?”
His laughter shook the tent and Ryeowook hid a smile. Donghae set the makeup products back into their proper holdings as he replied, “Those would be a bit stuffy for any of us.”
“Then what do you prefer?”
“Maybe a cage.”
Ryeowook stiffened, but immediately deflated when he saw a teasing smirk light Donghae’s features. Rolling his eyes, he settled back gingerly on the couch. “You all are…you know?”
He arched a brow. “Do I know what?”
“Never mind,” Ryeowook shook his head, worrying his bottom lip. Changing the subject, he said, “Your bandages can be seen. It seemed like you wanted to hide them though.”
Donghae’s expression clouded. It was a complicated series of emotions. Ryeowook couldn’t pin even one down, but it felt like he had just stepped out onto thin ice. The handsome man stopped fiddling with the vanity, instead leaning back on it. He faced Ryeowook, arms crossing leisurely. “He’s watched you for a long time.”
“Does it scare you?”
Yes. Of course. Ryeowook shook his head slowly once. Twice.
Donghae chuckled. “Liar.”
Neither of them spoke for what could’ve been minutes, or just a few seconds. Ryeowook wasn’t sure how to respond, and it seemed like Donghae was willing to wait it out. Whatever he said would be an admission.
Deciding that he was already neck deep in dangerous territory, he took the plunge. Ryeowook carefully removed the glass egg from his pocket, holding it up to the light. “What is this?”
The confident mask slipped off Donghae’s face.
Is that good? Ryeowook felt dread wash over him. Suddenly the music box felt like a lead weight and he recoiled, placing it on his lap. The movement seemed to spark something in Donghae, and he straightened up.
Still keeping his distance, he asked, “Kyuhyun gave you that after all?”
“Have you used it?” he murmured, wonder and fear mixing on his face.
“Used it?” Ryeowook repeated. The events of the previous night came back to him. It was one of the reasons he had come tonight for answers. In his wildest fantasies, the significance of the egg had never been more than a party trick. Was it really so important?
Donghae waved a vague hand around his own head. “It can do things to you. The music, that is.”
“Not sure,” he admitted, sighing and looking increasingly uncomfortable. “It’s complicated stuff and highly individual. You’re better off waiting to ask Kyuhyun the details. I’m surprised you accepted it without knowing anything.”
Ryeowook grimaced. “I’m returning it.”
He barked a laugh. “Doesn’t work like that, kiddo. It’s yours forever, that much I know.” Noting the disbelief on Ryeowook’s face, he pointed to the concrete flooring. “Break it. You’ll see.”
Clearly unsure, he stood up and walked closer, raising the egg into the air. It felt almost like blasphemy to do it. His heart clenched and his palms began to sweat. Everything seemed wrong. Shaking all of it off, he chucked the music box, flinching as the glass shattered into a thousand pieces.
Ryeowook only had a second to regret what he had done because then the shards were collecting and reforming. In the blink of an eye, the egg was whole and resting in the palm of his hand. It warmed under his touch, almost humming with life.
“What the fuck,” he breathed.
Donghae stifled his laughter this time. “Yeah. It’s the real thing.” He glanced around the tent, seeming to consider his options. “If you’re content to sit here, I’ll leave you be. But if you’re interested, why not watch the rest of the show?” A sly smile worked its way across his lips. “Rumor has it you missed the last half when you came before?”
Ryeowook flushed crimson. Tucking the egg away, he brusquely rubbed at his cheeks. “Where can I sit?”
He didn’t move an inch from the seat, determined to watch the entire performance. Donghae had thoughtfully put him in a blocked off area obscured in shadows.
Each interaction with Kyuhyun taught him things. For example, don’t wander about alone on Delirium’s grounds lest you be seduced by a gorgeous leech. Another one was avoid playing magical music boxes in the dead of night for fear of inviting night stalkers into your home.
Ryeowook felt like he was learning.
The show was annoyingly entertaining. He might even say it was delightful. If he was being perfectly honest, he’d say he loved it.
He’d always loved it.
“I’m a child,” he grumbled, burying his face against the seat’s railing.
His eyes had sought out that one particular silhouette as usual. It was an unbreakable habit, it seemed. Ryeowook miserably watched the performers take their exuberant bows to the cheers of enraptured fans but could only focus on the gorgeous man in a top hat.
Maybe he had fallen for the Ringleader as a child because his role was so small in the actual show? Did he just pine for him? Based on the two performances he’d seen as an adult, the Ringleader only came out twice the entire time. The introduction and closer. He really didn’t have any other roles?
But now, his rose-tinted glasses were fogged by truths, half-truths, and unformed truths.
He left the big top before the mass exodus. He thought his heart might explode from all the recent events, but maybe dying would be better than all of this stress. Shuffling quickly through the grounds, Ryeowook ducked back into the right tent. The little cardboard top hat rustled on the flap as he flung it back.
It was empty.
Ryeowook released the breath he was holding, feeling silly for thinking Kyuhyun could’ve teleported from the stage. He had clearly still been in there when he left.
Instead of making himself comfortable, Ryeowook strolled around the tent, stomach twisted in a tight cord of anxiety. He took in the finer details this time around, having been too on edge from Donghae’s presence the first time.
There were very few personal items around the dressing tent, which made sense since there were no locks either. Each of the costumes felt heavy and high quality when he touched them. The cuts were clearly custom and probably all of the pieces were handmade. His gaze lingered on the assortment of leather whips hanging from a wall. They were different sizes, lengths, and styles, but all of them bore distinct wear on the handles.
Ryeowook reached up, running his fingers along the frayed leather of the most well-used whip. It had a single braided tail and very little decoration. He thought it seemed familiar, but when he eyed the others, it was hard to distinguish.
“It’s a bullwhip.” A gloved hand brushed his cheek.
A scream died on his lips as he jerked around. Kyuhyun was only a breath away, kohl-rimmed eyes making his red irises pop. The smoky effect seemed worse at the end of the night. Maybe better is the right word? Ryeowook shoved those thoughts aside, taking a step away.
Kyuhyun smiled cordially, turning back to the bullwhip. “This one is particularly useful compared to the others,” he explained, tracing the braided leather gently.
“Why?” Ryeowook asked, voice hoarse.
“It’s only used to tame our wild beast.”
His eyes narrowed in confusion. “What are you talking about?” There hadn’t been anything like an animal’s cage on the property. Or at least, Ryeowook had yet to spot one. It would be easy to see something like that, wouldn’t it?
Kyuhyun loosened the knot of his tie and popped the pearl buttons on his collared shirt. “Our pet is only available on full moons. Otherwise, it’s kept safely stored away.” He shrugged off the fitted vest, hanging it on the rack of clothes. Next went the pristine white gloves and tall boots.
Questions emerged one after another, but Ryeowook excused them. He couldn’t get sidetracked. More things kept coming up and he was getting swallowed whole by it all. Despite being very uncomfortably distracted by Kyuhyun’s careful undressing, he asked, “What do you want with me?”
It was the most frustrating question, maybe. Ryeowook’s feelings on that changed by the second though.
Kyuhyun raked fingers through his hair, dark waves fluttering. His smile was genuine as he reached out to take one of Ryeowook’s fisted hands. Lifting it up, he kissed the inside of his wrist. “Would you like to play a game?” he murmured, nibbling lightly at the flesh.
“No.” Ryeowook tried to tug away but couldn’t. Growling indignantly, he yanked hard. Instead of breaking free though, he was whipped forward, only catching himself against a strong chest. “I don’t want to play anything with you,” he repeated in no uncertain terms.
“It’s awfully boring to just answer your questions though,” Kyuhyun insisted, tilting his head down until their foreheads touched. “Why not entertain ourselves at the same time?” He slid an arm around Ryeowook’s waist, touching but not holding him in place. “I’m sure your questions will take us into the darkest hours of night.”
He wasn’t sure if that was really true, but what if it was? Ryeowook warily glanced at his watch, finding that it was half past nine already. The night would definitely be long at this rate.
Chapter 12: A Parlor Game
Of course, he knew they wouldn’t live at the circus.
What he hadn’t expected was a house in a ritzy part of London. Ryeowook still wasn’t familiar with all the neighborhoods, but even he could tell by the layout and design and quiet, just how wealthy an area was.
The entire block of houses, in fact, seemed to be owned by Delirium. Did their neighbors know? Did it matter? Ryeowook needed to make peace with how much status these circus performers had. Or rather, their status beyond being simple performers.
“It’s all yours?” he asked quietly, swallowing as they stepped out of the car.
Kyuhyun pressed a hand to his back, guiding him forward. “It’s available,” he responded casually. “We have accommodations in every place we frequent. Isn’t that only natural?”
Ryeowook doubted it.
They entered an end unit with Kyuhyun leading the way. It was dark inside, but faint lamp light filtered in from various rooms they passed. Ryeowook wanted to explore more but kept reminding himself that this wasn’t a social call. He had a mission.
Kyuhyun pushed open a set of double doors, revealing a cozy living space. A fire crackled away, surrounded by rather antique furniture. A silver tray with a bottle of liquor and crystal tumblers was already prepared on the coffee table. Had he informed someone he would be back?
A billiards table sat just behind the couches, taking up much of the room’s center. On its other side was a bay window, overlooking the intimate interior of their garden. Moonlight trickled through the glass, only to be chased away by the scorching embers. Ryeowook further noted the various games all around. He was both embarrassed and relieved that Kyuhyun had meant actual games when propositioning him.
“What do you prefer?”
Ryeowook glanced up, seeing Kyuhyun leaning against the polished billiards table. Sweeping another look around the room, he spotted darts in a corner and a modest bookshelf of light reading. Without giving it much more thought, he pointed at the darts board. “That. Let’s play Around the Clock.”
Kyuhyun glanced over, hiding a smile. “Alright. But let’s raise the stakes.” He strode over to a wooden box sitting atop the bookshelf. Inside were finely crafted black and red darts.
“How?” Ryeowook asked warily, already getting a terrible feeling. He shifted, waiting several feet back from the darts board.
“Well, you want answers,” he began, setting the box of darts on the fireplace mantle, “so I’ll answer you according to our game score.” Removing the red ones, he offered them to Ryeowook. “Each round gives us three chances to complete a sequence, correct?”
He nodded slowly.
“Then let’s say in the first round, you hit one, two, and three on the board. On the other hand, I hit one, two, and miss the third. That means you win the round and I’ll answer a question.” Kyuhyun twirled a black dart between his fingers, smiling indulgently. “If we draw on a round, then we’ll say it’s your win and you may ask a question.” His gaze flitted back to the board. “We’ll play thusly until one of us hits all twenty numbers and the bullseye.”
Ryeowook’s eyes narrowed. “And what if you win a round?”
“I’ll give you an option. I will be allowed to ask a question or request an action.” His expression didn’t change, but there was a light in his eyes that burned darkly. “Fair, boy?”
He bit back a growl. “Fine. I’ll go first.”
Kyuhyun bowed with a great dose of mockery and stepped back.
There shouldn’t have been so much pressure on a darts game, but Ryeowook couldn’t help but feel on edge. Everything was too straightforward. He didn’t want to believe there was something else at play, and yet.
Thunk! One. Thunk! Two. Thunk! Three.
“Perfect.” Kyuhyun whistled, amused.
Ryeowook shrugged, going to collect his darts. “It’s not a hard game.”
“Games like these can be become difficult,” he argued mildly, weighing a dart in hand as Ryeowook returned to his side. “They test your mental fortitude.” Kyuhyun tossed his first dart, watching it land in the center of the first number. He repeated it twice more.
“A draw.” Ryeowook crossed his arms, feeling a little safer that way. “My win?”
“Of course,” Kyuhyun chuckled, retrieving his darts. “Ask away.”
He wanted to hit hard with the first question, but fear and uncertainty made him pause. What if Kyuhyun didn’t answer him directly? What if he just brushed off each question? Would he have a better shot at getting information if he dipped his toes in slowly? Perhaps the Ringleader would be more amenable the longer they played.
Or maybe, Ryeowook just didn’t want to know the truth now that it was at his fingertips.
“What’s a Night Child?”
Surprise dissolved his usual coy expressions. Kyuhyun blinked owlishly, but then quickly started laughing. It was a deep, almost sweet sound that had Ryeowook hating himself for enjoying. Shadows danced across his lean form playfully as he slowly calmed down. “An interesting question,” he mused. “You’ve really been doing research.”
Kyuhyun stifled a few more chuckles. “Sort of a…cousin to the deeper and darker beings in the world. They live long lives—far longer than any Human, and have peculiar abilities beyond comprehension.” He pursed his lips, eyes glowing. “They’ve been bastardized throughout history. Called different things. Chased and murdered for rather legitimate fears as well. It’s merely a different monster to haunt your dreams.”
The answer didn’t please Ryeowook though. It was just as dodgy as he expected. “You drink Human blood.”
“Among other delicacies,” Kyuhyun replied, “some animals are quite delectable.” His eyes slid down the other man’s body. “But you’re certainly my favorite in that regard. Every Night Child has a favorite, though.”
“Were you Human before?”
Kyuhyun’s lips curled in a sardonic smile. “Ah, that’s a new question.”
Annoyed, Ryeowook turned back to the dart board. “Fine. Then let’s play.”
Thunk! Four. Thunk! Five.
Kyuhyun didn’t say anything, firing off each dart with almost careless ease.
Thunk! Four. Thunk! Five. Thunk! Six.
“My win then?”
Ryeowook grudgingly nodded. “A question.”
Instead of asking immediately, he went to retrieve the darts, taking his time. Ryeowook watched him with rapt attention, entire body coiled tight in anticipation. It couldn’t be that Kyuhyun had difficult questions for him, right? There wasn’t anything interesting for him to ask about, which made the entire prize seem pointless.
What could he want?
“Did you enjoy the pain or pleasure more yesterday?”
Ryeowook’s heart jumped. “That’s what you want to ask?”
Kyuhyun just smiled.
Although the answer immediately presented itself in his mind, putting such feelings into words was mortifying. With a concerted effort, Ryeowook worked his jaw open, throat incrementally relaxing. He looked away, hands clenching and unclenching nervously. “It’s obvious.”
“I need a clear answer, boy,” he drawled, leaning into Ryeowook’s space. He wasn’t touching, but the presence was overwhelming.
Edging away, Ryeowook muttered, “Pleasure.”
“Hmm. Is that so?”
His faced flushed indignantly. The fight drained away though when he locked eyes with the Ringleader. Ryeowook felt the arm of the couch pressing into the backs of his thighs. A strong body closed in around him, Kyuhyun’s knuckled dragging across his bruised throat.
“You don’t believe me?” Ryeowook accused, but his voice was barely above a whisper.
“I think,” Kyuhyun murmured, ghosting his lips over the deep purple marks, “you want that to be the truth.” His knee brushed between Ryeowook’s legs. “But perhaps it’s quite the opposite?”
With the utmost willpower, he shoved Kyuhyun back. Breathing in unsteadily, he moved back into position. “Let’s keep going.”
Ryeowook took a long minute to calm his heart. Thankfully, his opponent said nothing, merely leaning back on the wall and watching. It was slightly unnerving to have eyes on him, but it was also familiar. Fuck that. He shook off the feelings and launched his first dart.
Thunk! Six. Thunk! Seven. Thunk! Eight.
Kyuhyun matched him, finishing slightly ahead in the sequence at nine.
Without preamble, Ryeowook demanded, “What is this?” He tugged out the glass egg, holding it up to the firelight.
“A singing egg, I suppose?” he teased.
“You know what I mean.”
Kyuhyun leaned back against the fireplace. “A courting practice?” he offered, thoughtfully, eyeing the glass egg affectionately. “It has a few functions, all of which benefit you more than me.”
Ryeowook’s disbelief was almost palpable.
“It’s true,” he insisted softly but matter-of-factly. “It invites me to your side and guides you to mine.” Kyuhyun was keeping his distance, but even so, the space between them was suffocating. He may as well have been pressed against Ryeowook. “Though beyond practical uses, it’s quite lovely, isn’t it?”
Ryeowook relented, nodding his head. It was hard to claim otherwise. The egg was clearly handcrafted, and the music box was probably painstakingly designed as well. As much as the circus—Delirium—scared him, it also excited him in equal measure. Just as you do.
“It doesn’t break.”
“No. It doesn’t.” Kyuhyun cocked a brow, curious. “You tried?”
“I was tempted.”
He chuckled, nodding toward the darts board. “Your turn, boy.”
Ryeowook silently cursed the two missed darts, trying not to think about Kyuhyun and his answers. They were providing far less relief than he expected. In fact, it seemed to be making him antsier. What was being said between the lines? What had he signed up for by accepting that egg?
As he settled back, he watched Kyuhyun hit ten and eleven before missing.
Ryeowook grunted, “Question.”
“Have you been thinking about me?”
He opened his mouth to snap back and then hesitated, remembering how his lies had caused greater embarrassment earlier. It had left him open to being teased. If he thought about it carefully, the Ringleader had a particular penchant for taunting him when he lied. So would he be treated with greater dignity if he was honest?
Running tired fingers through his hair, Ryeowook quietly mumbled, “Who else could I be thinking of?” He laughed harshly. “I hate this.”
Although the admission made him feel small and vulnerable, the resulting quiet was a relief. Ryeowook refused to lift his head, not wanting anyone to see the heat blazing red on his face.
Kyuhyun didn’t approach, but when he finally spoke, his tone was full of approval, “Thank you.”
He soundly ignored his body’s reaction to the voice. Clearing his throat, he moved into position, hitting ten, eleven, and twelve.
Kyuhyun missed all three.
Surprised, Ryeowook turned toward his opponent. “What’s wrong?”
A rather shaky smile met him. Kyuhyun tousled his hair, sure to be blushing if he had any blood coursing through his body. “A game of mental stamina,” he replied wryly, “certainly raises the tension, no?”
Not completely sure what to make of that, Ryeowook simply nodded. He couldn’t imagine the Ringleader getting flustered and certainly not from anything they’d discussed that evening, right? “My next question,” Ryeowook stated carefully, “how do you get food?”
“Anonymous donors,” he answered vaguely, “they’re paid quite well for the service.”
“They don’t know, do they?”
Kyuhyun waved his hands lazily. “Some may be aware. Most are probably uninterested.” He chuckled. “It’s not all that exciting.”
That was an understatement to be sure. Ryeowook could name quite a few people who would be extremely interested in the existence of blood sucking monsters. In fact, they might be so interested they’d try to donate blood in hopes of getting closer to the action.
Thunk! Thirteen. Thunk! Fourteen.
Kyuhyun missed his first throw, but expertly followed with twelve and thirteen. Smiling almost happily, he nodded at Ryeowook. “Your move, boy.”
“Were you Human before?”
The smile turned wicked.
Ryeowook involuntarily stepped back, bumping into the couch once more. Straightening up, he held himself stiffly under Kyuhyun’s quiet scrutiny. The moment dragged, thickening the air in the room. He glanced down at the liquor, wondering if it could ease his fraying nerves. In reality, it would probably just lower his already awful guard.
He swallowed the lump in his throat. No?
Thunk! Fourteen. Thunk! Fifteen. Thunk! Sixteen.
“My turn then,” Kyuhyun murmured, waiting expectantly.
Ryeowook was still frazzled, trying to order the pieces in his head. What was a Night Child, if not a former Human? He didn’t even have a clue. Demons? That seemed preposterous. Shaking himself, he peered up at Kyuhyun. “Question.”
“What is your darkest fantasy?”
Maybe choosing Action next time would be better. Ryeowook rubbed his face tiredly. These questions tested his patience. It felt worse than being teased because he knew the way to win was by being honest. But being honest rattled him so badly that the subsequent round of darts would inevitably have at least one miss. On the other hand, lying would put him at the mercy of the Ringleader’s bullying.
It was a lose-lose.
“Is it a fantasy, if it’s already happened?”
Kyuhyun’s eyes warmed, lips parting. “No.”
Irritated, Ryeowook reached for the crystal decanter heavy with an amber liquid. He opened it without asking permission, pouring just a splash of the strong liquor into a tumbler. “Do you want one?” he asked.
“If you’re offering.”
Ryeowook filled the second glass. Sealing the bottle once more, he passed the drink into Kyuhyun’s waiting hand.
The whiskey burned like fire when Ryeowook downed it. Wiping his mouth with the worn edge of his sleeve, he said, “Your mouth. Tearing into my throat.” He gritted his teeth, nails digging into the empty glass. Hoarsely, he rasped, “Kissing you. Tasting my…blood. And then fucking until I can’t think straight.”
Each admission rolled easier off his burning tongue. They didn’t sound like they were coming from himself. He felt detached despite wanting every single thing he whispered. Ryeowook set the glass down a little too hard and focused back on the dart board. As expected, Kyuhyun said nothing, just smiled and sipped his drink.
Thunk! Sixteen. Thunk! Seventeen.
Ryeowook blinked, confused. “What?”
Kyuhyun shrugged, swirling the glass in his hand. “I think I’d miss all of my shots anyway.” He smirked. “Your fantasy is distracting me.”
If his sweater wasn’t acting as something of a safety blanket, he would’ve ripped it off already to ease his heated skin. Ryeowook ripped the darts out of the board with little grace, wondering if another glass of whiskey would calm him down. Thinking better of it, he slowly sank down on the arm of the couch. “Why me?”
“You’re my dearest boy,” Kyuhyun answered easily. He carefully set his drink down, going over to kneel before Ryeowook’s slouched form. Slightly cold hands rested on his thighs, rubbing slow, soothing circles into the tense muscles. “An existence I’ve watched over for a very long time.”
“But why?” he snapped, legs trembling under the familiar touch.
“My kind,” he explained carefully, “are collectors of things. Our lives are long and hobbies fleeting. But the things we cherish, we take with us. Is there a rhyme or reason behind desire?” The Ringleader slid strong fingers up to his hips, skimming the hem of his loose shirt. “You approached me first, boy,” he reminded softly, almost teasingly. “Shouldn’t you ask yourself what reasons you have for desiring me?”
Ryeowook flinched, pushing the exploratory hands away. I’m a sick freak. I’m infatuated. Seduced. Bored. You made me like this. None of the words would come out though.
He wasn’t even sure he believed half of them.
All he really knew was that he felt irrevocably attracted to the world Delirium’s Ringleader had imagined for him as a child. And then as an adult, he had been entranced once more by Kyuhyun, a man that brought color into a dull, foggy life.
“Whatever you wish, I’m at your service,” Kyuhyun’s voice dipped against his ear, a cold kiss resting against his cheek.
Ryeowook brushed him off, feeling nowhere near alert enough to finish the game.
Thunk! Seventeen. Thunk! Eighteen.
Sighing, he peered back at Kyuhyun. “An action.”
“Play the music box.”
Ryeowook frowned, taking the glass egg out of his pocket with trepidation. He had only ever wound it once, and if memory served, he had thrown himself out of a window right afterwards. Would something similarly terrifying happen? Warily, he cranked the metal key and tapped the top of the egg.
It popped open silently and the glass big top began to turn. Ryeowook felt warmth wash over him and then a rush of cool air as Kyuhyun cupped his face. Craning his neck, he saw the man gazing at him reverently. His expression was too serious. Too scrutinizing. Too much.
“Why did you want me to play it?” Ryeowook cleared his throat.
Silver bells pranced through the room, accompanied by the crackling of an increasingly too warm fire. Ryeowook felt his shoulders relax incrementally. It was a song that stoked his annoyance, but also reminded him of…many things now.
“For fun,” Kyuhyun chuckled, hands sliding down to gently caress his throat.
Ryeowook’s breath hitched, pulse jumping.
It wasn’t missed. Smiling, Kyuhyun removed his hands. “Should we continue?”
Shutting the egg, Ryeowook hastily replaced it and picked up his darts. It didn’t really feel like any of them would hit, but better to risk it than to give up immediately. Besides, he hardly wanted to give that smug leech any more fodder to tease him with.
Those were his thoughts, at least, until he missed every shot.
Thunk! Nineteen. Thunk! Twenty. Thunk! Bullseye.
Kyuhyun tilted Ryeowook’s face up. “Which one?”
Pleasure radiated off of him. “My boy,” he whispered, “what action do you desire?”
Ryeowook licked his lips, throat painfully dry. “You pick.”
“Anything?” Kyuhyun tilted his head, eyes lowering.
“Warm me up.”
Ryeowook bit his lip, shame welling up as a thrill coursed through him. He slipped his sweater off slowly, baring his throat.
The pain of teeth breaking his flesh made him shout, but the pleasure that chased it away was worth everything. He clung tightly to the Ringleader’s back, choking on a small sob as the cold hands gliding under his shirt rapidly warmed. A swear burst past his lips as Kyuhyun sank deeper into him.
His knees gave way, falling back to the couch. Above him, Kyuhyun never let go, cradling him close as their bodies tangled together. Ryeowook could distinctly feel every hard line and curve of the man on top of him, shuddering at the delirious, indescribable sensation of being devoured.
With a squelch, Kyuhyun retracted, sealing the wound soundly. He bore a deep flush that ran far past his open collar. Gleaming red eyes took in Ryeowook’s panting form, memorizing each shaky breath and aroused whine.
Ryeowook cried out as Kyuhyun ground down on his erection, their hips locked together. The rough scrape of denim had him seeing stars. He reached up, gripping Kyuhyun’s arms but not sure of what he wanted exactly.
“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of you,” the Ringleader hushed gently, easily tearing open Ryeowook’s shirt. The material split like water, slipping away. “I’ll fulfill every last fantasy.” He leaned down, hot breath washing over Ryeowook’s lips as he kissed him.
It tasted of fire and blood and whiskey.
Chapter 13: The Escape
Delirium's Wild Beast.
There was barely a knock.
In the span of a breath, the parlor doors flew open. Donghae staggered in followed by a taller, much less desperate man.
Kyuhyun’s head snapped up at the intrusion, lips curled back and a snarl clawing its way up his throat. The heady scent of panic rushed at him though, and he slowly reeled in the burning fury. Beneath him, Ryeowook fumbled with his sweater, zipping it shut and clambering away.
“A problem!” Donghae blurted, seeming breathless. “There’s…a problem.” Dark eyes shifted to Ryeowook momentarily. A sea of emotions was reflected in them, flying from distrust to sadness in a matter of milliseconds.
The stranger coming up behind him was dressed in black from head to toe. A silver rosary hung from his neck, twinkling in the firelight. Or at least, Ryeowook thought so from first glance. Given the circumstances, he couldn’t be sure his head was in enough order to verify that.
“What is it?” Kyuhyun asked softly, ice threaded through each syllable. He rose languorously from the couch, expression unreadable.
Both men were silent.
Ryeowook suddenly felt a heavy, acrid tension. The sense of not belonging. Intruding. Turning up the hood of his sweater, he headed for the open doors briskly. “I’m going.” The words were tossed over a shoulder, eyes refusing to meet Kyuhyun’s.
Despite thinking he would be stopped, no one made a move to do so. It was bizarre, but he didn’t give it another thought in the moment. The last thing he wanted was to impede his own escape.
He brushed past the pair on his way out, keeping his head low. Tugging out his phone, he called for a taxi hastily, not wanting to spend another second in the house. He tripped over his own feet slightly, a dizzy spell threatening to knock him over.
Like hell I’m staying here.
Powering through it, Ryeowook blinked away black spots and threw the front door open, disappearing into the night.
Kyuhyun’s jaw clicked at the sound of the door slamming shut. The veins in his arms pulsed, fingers tightening into fists. “Speak.”
“The beast broke free.”
“What direction?” he growled, looking far angrier at them than at the problem.
Donghae backed up, eyes downcast. “He—”
The word felt like a physical strike. Donghae choked on his words, coughing and covering his mouth. Beside him, his companion spoke in his place. “Into the city center. We’re unsure when it escaped from the basement.”
“And who allowed this to happen?” Kyuhyun’s voice remained quiet, deceptively calm. “Zhoumi?” He strode toward them, pausing briefly before the man who refused to meet his eyes. Passing into the hallway, Kyuhyun snatched the dark coat hanging by the door.
Behind him, Donghae and Zhoumi trailed after.
“We’ve imprisoned the suspects for questioning later,” Zhoumi informed as they left the house. “I’ve sent the others out to check various quadrants. It shouldn’t be long before we catch wind of it.”
A dark tinted car was parked by the curb. Donghae hurried ahead, opening the door for Kyuhyun. The gesture was ignored.
The silence was deafening.
Kyuhyun gazed out the window, posture casual despite the clear tension in every line of muscle. There was fire and brimstone in his bright red eyes that didn’t bode well for anyone who dared step in his path.
“Your…boy,” Zhoumi treaded lightly, a much dumber man than many people presumed, “has so much sway over you?”
“Even we can experience dying with enough effort,” Kyuhyun murmured, “is that what you want this evening?”
Donghae curled into himself even further, if possible. A mantra of shut up ran through his mind, fear paralyzing him. If he became a casualty because of the fool beside him, he’d return as a vengeful spirit.
“You seemed to have gotten what you wanted anyway,” Zhoumi replied, meeting his heated eyes.
The warning was clear.
Zhoumi changed the subject. “We’ll explore the surrounding woods. It’s possible it re-routed and escaped there.” He detailed a few other things about the condition of the cage and basement. There had been signs of a struggle, but ultimately the escape was due in large part to expert lockpicking.
The reinforced cage was no longer good enough. They had wrongly assumed lining it with electricity would be a great enough deterrent, but it had been an arrogant thought.
“It said nothing to you?” Kyuhyun addressed Donghae, still frigidly livid.
He shook his head immediately, picking anxiously at the bandages around his neck. “I haven’t been down there since you…allowed me.”
The nod of acknowledgement did little to ease Donghae’s discomfort.
It was going to be a very long night.
Ryeowook arrived in front of his building a little before midnight.
The fare was higher than he would’ve liked, but it hardly mattered. His thoughts were scattered, and his body felt weak. Although he didn’t think Kyuhyun drank very much from him, perhaps it was a mixture of the mental exhaustion and that feeding.
He absently rubbed the spot, conflicted over how smooth the skin felt. It made the encounter surreal. A feasible fantasy. Just another way to convince himself that the entire business with the circus and their Ringleader was little more than an insomniac’s musings. Ryeowook gripped the glass egg tighter in his pocket. It was the only thing grounding these experiences in reality.
When he entered his flat, it was dark.
Silently, he crept to the kitchen, searching for juice and a snack. There was little more than half a carton of milk and a dozen eggs. Sighing quietly, Ryeowook checked his phone.
It was late. Very late.
He reluctantly headed back out, strolling at a slower pace. His lightheadedness wasn’t going away. Perhaps in the future he wouldn’t beg a leech to drink his blood. The excessive encouragement seemed to make even the most collected individuals lose control. Ryeowook frowned to himself.
The Ringleader didn’t have great control around him to begin with.
The convenient store was thankfully just around the corner on a well-lit street. Ryeowook shivered against the cold wind, replaying the events from earlier.
Wasn’t it only natural to be an outsider? He didn’t want to be involved with the circus…right?
Just the Ringleader. Just Kyuhyun.
He had made peace with the aching want, but that didn’t mean he would push any further in that world—especially given the obvious dangers. Who in their right mind would surround themselves with monsters?
You’re dying to fuck one. He buried his face in his sweater. The self-loathing was no match for the sheer desire thrumming through his body though.
The store was mostly empty, save for the bumbling drunkard bringing a can of beer to the counter. Ryeowook slipped down a row, picking out a few bags of cookies and chips. Everything looked good though and that’s what convinced him he was severely lacking nutrients. Pausing at the refrigerators, he picked out a large bottle of apple juice.
Arms full, he shuffled up to pay.
Ryeowook ducked out, bag of purchases swinging from one arm. He immediately dug into it, tearing a bag of cookies open and munching.
Had the man beside Donghae really been one of their kind? Why the silver rosary?
An arrogant man. Ryeowook grimaced, thinking of his own arrogant ploys. What had he wanted from his little stunt tonight? Answers to questions? That had only been the excuse. He had wanted Kyuhyun even with all the questions between them.
The pain and terror in that voice nearly made him break into a cold sweat. Uneasily, Ryeowook glanced in the direction of the whimper, seeing a dark alley. A few trashcans lined the right side, pressed against a brick wall. He backed away from the entrance.
Not interested in playing this game, Ryeowook whirled away, taking off. He didn’t want anything to do—fwump!
He gasped, crashing to the asphalt and skidding. A warm body was clutching him, fingers shaking so violently it rattled Ryeowook’s frame. The plastic bag of goodies tumbled away, glass bottle of apple juice shattered and leaking.
“M-Master! –I didn’t!” a very small voice sobbed, blunt nails digging into the sweatshirt. “Please…I’ll—”
“Get off me,” Ryeowook wheezed, coughing.
The stranger leapt away.
Struggling to sit up, Ryeowook crawled to his knees but then rolled over uselessly. His head was spinning now, blood pressure too low. Black spots swarmed his vision, blurring the figure crouching over him.
Bright eyes—brighter than the full moon—were the last things he saw before everything faded.
Chapter 14: Wild Beast's Den
The air tasted damp.
Ryeowook blinked awake slowly, groaning. His head was pounding, mouth feeling swollen and slimy. Hacking up nothing, he pushed himself up to a sitting position, heart pounding rapidly. Nausea settled in his stomach.
Where am I?
Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he took in the cavern. A soft bed of moss and leaves cushioned him against the hard ground. It didn’t do much though, given how sore his entire body felt. Wincing, Ryeowook rubbed his aching lower back and neck.
A dying fire crackled some feet away from him. Beyond that was a covered entrance. A combination of foliage and broken branches created an emergency camouflage as well as protection against the elements. If he had to estimate through the fog in his mind, it must’ve been daylight already based on the light poking through the cover.
The moment he got to his hands and knees, the sick feeling in his stomach roiled up. Ryeowook turned his head into the bed of shrubbery, vomiting up almost pure acid. His throat burned and his eyes teared up. With a concerted effort, he wiped at his mouth and tried to push down anymore nausea.
“Are you okay?”
He shook his head, disgusted. A makeshift cup of water was pushed under his nose. Not thinking much of it, he drank, feeling some semblance of awareness return as cool liquid washed through him. “Got any more?” Ryeowook rasped.
“Yeah. Hold on.” The stranger took the cup back, refilling it within moments and returning it.
This processed repeated itself a few more times before Ryeowook felt more or less able to speak. He slowly turned to face the person. In the faint light, it was hard to get a clear look, but those golden eyes brought everything back.
Ryeowook jerked away defensively.
“S-Sorry!” the young man called out, sounding painfully sincere and much more scared than Ryeowook. “I’m sorry. Last night, I wasn’t trying to attack you. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” He choked up, clearly on the verge of tears.
He was half naked and covered in scars. A tattered pair of jeans hung loosely around a slim waist, looking very much like they had been taken as a last resort. The longer Ryeowook studied him, the more obvious it became that this was all a very confusing misunderstanding.
Pressing one hand to his pounding head, he noted the sticky salve on his palm. “What’s this?” he muttered, frowning at the strange gel covering a scratch.
“I-I did that!” the stranger piped up, still keeping a distance as if he would be punished for trying to get closer. “You got a few scratches when I tackled you. Sorry. I really thought…” He worried his bottom lip.
Ryeowook grimaced. He had heard about relationships like that before. Sometimes they were discussed on TV or the internet. Human products. Sex slaves. He glanced at the ruined bed of moss. “Sorry for that.” What if this was his hideout? The place he had been trying to make into a home while being homeless?
It would be a smart idea. If this “master” was roaming around looking for him, hiding in a forested area was easier for evasion.
“Oh no! It’s okay. I made that in a hurry. I wish it could’ve been better for you.” His sincerity was startling to say the least.
“Do you…live here?”
Gold eyes widened. “No! No…of course not.” He squirmed uneasily. A few times, he opened his mouth as if to begin an explanation, but then would halt. Confusion clouded his expressive face for quite a while. Ryeowook stayed silent, simply watching him for any sudden movements. Finally, the man said, “I confused you for someone else. I was panicked last night. A lot happened. But…you know Master, don’t you?”
Before Ryeowook could answer, the stranger leaned forward. Both of his wrists were heavily scarred and bruised. His nails were black and dense—more animal than Human. “You smell just like him. Exactly the same,” he explained rapidly, excitement getting the better of whatever reservations he had only moments ago. “So, you know where he is, right?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he shook his head.
Not to be deterred, he sniffed the air around Ryeowook. “I’m sure of it.” Up close, he could make out the distinct softness in his features. Despite the rough condition of his body, his face was gently rounded and surprisingly innocent. “I just…I wasn’t trying to get away. Not at all.”
“Let’s start with your name,” Ryeowook waved his hand, unable to keep up.
“Oh. Right.” He ducked his head sheepishly, eyes shifting back and forth. “I’m Henry. And you?”
The name failed to elicit much of a reaction. There was a more reserved excitement reflected in gold, but no outbursts followed. Ryeowook figured that must mean he really didn’t know this person. He was learning quite regularly these days that even if he couldn’t recall someone, perhaps they knew him.
The circus had a way of burrowing in memories.
Suddenly, pieces began to click into place. This person...
“It’s only used to tame our wild beast.”
Ryeowook scrambled to his feet, catching himself on a wall when blood rushed to his head. What sort of person—creature—had he stumbled upon? If Kyuhyun didn’t view this stranger as a person, then what was he? “You’re with them,” he breathed, just shy of frantic, “the circus. Delirium.”
Henry nodded rapidly. “Yes! Or mostly.” Frowning, he touched his bare throat. “Do you know how to get back there? You must, right? You smell like Master.” He repeated.
Oh. Color flooded his face and the sheer act of blushing made him feel ill. Flashes of crushed snacks and a shattered bottle of juice came back to him. Swearing silently, Ryeowook glanced toward the cave entrance. “Your…master. I guess I do.” He ignored the way Henry perked up in his peripheral vision. “Where did you take me?”
“Some woods. We’re only thirty minutes from the city.”
Ryeowook sat back down, leaning against the cave wall. “If we go out now, it’ll be too hard to hide...ourselves.” His eyes surveying Henry’s body. He glanced down at himself, noting the scuffed sweater covering his torn open shirt. There was no way to get around that either. “We’ll get weird looks.”
“I understand,” he nodded quickly. A strained smile crossed his face. “I don’t like being around people much anyway. The crowds would probably set me off.” He laughed uneasily.
It was a peculiar statement—not only because he claimed to be an associated act in Delirium, but anyway, Ryeowook brushed it off. Madness was underlying any deep inquiry to the strange statements Delirium performers made.
Patting down his pockets, Ryeowook found none of his personal belongings, save for the damned glass egg. Not even his wallet was around. Had it all been left on the street? He panicked, looking around the cave then. Relief washed over him as he spotted the keys and wallet sitting near the fire. It had been emptied, all the contents laid out.
“Sorry,” Henry mumbled, watching as Ryeowook started putting his wallet back together. “It got wet when your stuff broke.” He slumped, brows drawn together. “Uh, you had this too.” He reached into a pile of leaves by his side, pulling out a cracked phone. “This must have fallen out when I tackled you. Was it important?” The guilt gnawed at every word he spoke.
Ryeowook took the crushed device and shook his head vaguely. “I only had a few contacts in there.”
“Contacts? Friends?” he prompted, perking up. There was innocent wonder on his face and Ryeowook suddenly couldn’t understand how he was anything other than a young man. Not even the hint of a beast came through.
“Yeah,” Ryeowook nodded slowly. “Just a friend and my parents.”
Henry listened with rapt attention, though Ryeowook wasn’t sure what he wanted to hear beyond those facts. He was just like every other introvert. A normal upbringing colored by painful shyness. Not many friends to speak of. Not many familial ties either.
“I grew up going to see Delirium shows,” he admitted softly, testing the words out. It felt like a long-kept secret. A memory becoming clearer with each passing day. “But I stopped going when I got older. School was difficult. I had a hard time but my friend Eunhyuk also did badly.” Ryeowook chuckled. “We must’ve gotten close because of that.”
“Wow,” he mumbled with an almost dreamy sigh. He rubbed absently at his scarred wrists, smiling. “That’s amazing. Then you live in London? Or around here?”
Ryeowook wasn’t sure why talking to this creature (beast? Night Child?) was so easy. It felt like he was even more of an open book than Ryeowook. The predatory aura he had grown accustomed to with Kyuhyun was markedly lacking. “No,” he shook his head, “I’m from Seoul.”
“Oh,” Henry’s smile grew. “I’ve always wanted to join the tour. Everyone spends a lot of time away from here. It’s usually just me who stays.”
“Why?” The question slipped out before he could stop himself.
Surprised, Henry stifled an embarrassed laugh. “If Master hasn’t told you anything, maybe he thinks better of me now.” There was clear uncertainty in his voice despite the stiff smile plastered to his lips. “W-Well anyway. You must be tired still. If you wait a bit, I can clean up the bed and make a new one.”
He was already getting up before Ryeowook could protest. Exhaustion had left a lingering ache anyway, and the idea of resting was tempting. Scooting back against the wall, he leaned heavily on it, taking deep breaths.
“Happen to have any food?” he asked.
Henry glanced over, arms full of the stained moss. “I can catch something.” He looked far too happy at the prospect and quickly headed for the cave exit.
The day passed much quicker than Ryeowook expected. He had severely underestimated the state of his own body.
Although Henry had brought back probably several days’ worth of meat and fruits, Ryeowook devoured the majority of it. It was feasibly the most delicious meal he’d ever eaten, followed by the most fitful sleep of his life. There was safety and security in knowing Henry was watching over him.
Why exactly that was, eluded him.
Night was in full swing by the time he opened his bleary eyes. In spite of expectations, his head felt light and clear. None of the usual fogginess clouded his thoughts and the implications of that terrified him.
Eunhyuk had said something about that the last time they spoke, right? He was more alive than ever before.
“I think we’ll be okay traveling now.” Henry prodded at the fire. Only faint traces of their meal remained. The rest had been carefully cleared from the cave already.
Scrubbing sleep from his eyes, Ryeowook nodded. “You know the way back?”
“Yeah. If you’re feeling too tired, I can carry you, too,” Henry offered, preparing to snuff out the fire. “You’re pretty light.”
As much as his pride protested, Ryeowook could already feel a dizzy spell coming on as he stood. Grudgingly, he agreed. “I’d probably slow us down if I walked.”
He grinned. Although they hadn’t spoken much throughout the day, it seemed to be the most interaction Henry had ever experienced. At least, Ryeowook thought so.
“It’s going to get really dark in here once I put out the fire,” Henry warned. “Wait by the entrance and I’ll meet you.” He pursed his lips, and rather apologetically, added, “If that’s okay?”
“Yeah.” Ryeowook nodded slowly, wandering down to the covered entrance. He wasn’t sure what was appropriate to ask and what wasn’t. Now that most of his faculties were back, a whole world of questions bogged him down.
What was Henry to the circus? How did he fit into the scheme? Why was he so hesitant to speak? The Ringleader had whipped him? The thought made Ryeowook grimace. In what context was that right? An actual bullwhip being used on Henry? He couldn’t fathom the purpose. Even with his beastly qualities, he wasn’t an actual one… was he?
The light vanished.
Ryeowook swallowed a shout as a gust of wind whipped around him. A hand closed around his wrist, jerking him in a whirl of light and foliage. Fresh air burst forth and suddenly the starry sky filled his vision. It lasted only a moment before spindly trees warped around him, racing past at unbelievable speeds.
“You’re gonna choke me,” Henry laughed with abandon, arms locked around the backs of Ryeowook’s thighs. His wild shock of hair tickled Ryeowook’s cheek, flicking madly in the wind.
“Why are you running?” he called hysterically over the rushing noises, not daring to loosen his grip. It felt like if he let go, he would just fly away.
Trees blurred and even the sounds of the forest were being overwhelmed.
“If I walked, we’d never get back in a night,” Henry responded, a smile in his voice. For a split second, he tilted his head back, razor toothed grin and glowing gold eyes making Ryeowook’s heart lurch.
Burrowing his face into one strong shoulder, he shut his eyes. “I’m gonna puke if you don’t slow down,” Ryeowook groaned.
Between breaths, they were suddenly at a jog—practically a walk, in comparison to the earlier speed. “You need a second?” Henry asked.
Reluctantly leaning back, Ryeowook took a few deep breaths. A swear tumbled past his lips as a sweat broke out across his forehead. “What…”
Henry adjusted his footing. “Ready?”
“Wait!” he shouted quickly. The body holding him up relaxed. Exhaling with relief, Ryeowook tried to organize his disheveled thoughts. “When you said thirty minutes away from the city, was it going at this speed?”
Ryeowook warily looked around, taking in the dense forestry around them. The only source of light came from above. The stars and moon. Practically untouched by the artificial glare of civilization. Where are we? “You…Are you a Night Child?” he whispered, unsure how exactly that would make him feel.
Was it wrong to assume all of them were dangerous? Henry didn’t seem like them. Not at all. But what else could he be?
The silence that met him felt heavy. Possibly sad. Confused?
Ryeowook took a deep, calming breath. “If you weren’t one, I think it’d be fine.”
That seemed to be the right thing to say because Henry immediately straightened up, head lifting. He didn’t turn back around again, but the atmosphere lightened. Ryeowook waited for him to say something. Anything. Instead, Henry was off again.
They raced through the forest at slightly slower speeds. Ryeowook based that purely off of being able to keep his head up without getting dizzy.
“You okay?” Henry called back. He sounded breathless but enthralled. Free. Alive.
“Yeah!” he shouted back.
In answer, Henry howled. Long, low, and with abandon. It rumbled through Ryeowook’s bones, sending chills straight down his spine. The sound broke the night, dozens of birds launching into the air. When Ryeowook dared to tilt his head back, he saw the stars whirring past, cross-cut by the dark flight of creatures. The sharp tang of dying leaves and earth carried in the wind, filling his lungs and reminding him how to breathe.
This is what it means…right?
A laugh bubbled up.
He lowered his face, more laughter building up and spilling out. Henry joined him, shoulders shaking as he howled once again. Creatures scampered away and trees danced. And then, somewhere between embracing and panicking at the rapid thump-thumping of his heart, Ryeowook felt himself ripped away.
His arms tore free, legs outstretched and vision swarming. A gasp was strangled in his throat as a freezing embrace welcomed him home.
Chapter 15: A Chilly Evening
Ryeowook jolted, white knuckle grip loosening where it held Kyuhyun’s sleeve. His silk shirt was nearly as cold as his pale flesh. Heart pounding painfully, Ryeowook writhed around, trying to break the Ringleader’s hold. “Release me,” he snapped.
In an instant, Kyuhyun let him go.
Legs weak, he slumped to the ground. His head snapped up to see Kyuhyun hovering around, examining him closely. There was something dark burning in the depths of his eyes, calling forth all the bloodlust and fear Ryeowook often associated with his kind.
“Where did you come from?” he breathed.
Kyuhyun crouched down slowly and it was then that Ryeowook got a better look at his state. The white of his clothing was stained and battered. There were clear traces of dirt and tears which could’ve only been caused by running around wildly.
But had he been searching for Ryeowook? Or Delirium’s pet?
“The city, of course,” he responded, smile strained. It was a strange sight. All of it. The panic. The feigned confidence.
When had Ryeowook started paying such close attention to him? “That’s not an answer,” he sighed.
A pitiful cry stole his attention.
Alert, Ryeowook got up and pushed past Kyuhyun. Only a few feet away, the man from the other night had Henry face down in the dirt. The silver rosary glinted in the moonlight as it burned into the nape of Henry’s neck. Smoke filtered up, black and poisonous.
“What are you doing?” Ryeowook shouted, reaching out. However, he found himself held back by steely arms. Whipping around, he glowered at Kyuhyun. “Isn’t he one of yours? Why are you letting this happen?”
The alarm that rushed over Kyuhyun’s frayed features empowered him. Adrenaline was rushing at an all-time high inside of Ryeowook, and it only got worse the longer he listened to the dreadful sobbing of an innocent man.
“Stop hurting him!”
Just like the other times—every time—the order was obeyed immediately.
Kyuhyun murmured, “Halt.”
The torture stopped. With a sigh of relief, Ryeowook broke free of Kyuhyun’s loosened hold and staggered over to Henry’s side. His captor moved away reluctantly, sizzling rosary swinging above them. Ryeowook immediately examined the wound, lips trembling angrily at the blistering flesh.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he hissed at the two wavering men as he gathered Henry into his arms. Golden eyes were glazed over, skin flushed and tense.
“Control your boy,” the stranger muttered, voice clipped.
“It seems the situation is more complicated than expected, Zhoumi,” Kyuhyun replied evenly, black eyes narrowed critically. He surveyed the pair, evidently trying to work out whatever had happened between them.
Ryeowook thought his heart might explode as frantic thoughts raced through his mind.
“What’s complicated?” Zhoumi crossed his arms, still clutching the rosary as if preparing for an order to resume.
“My boy isn’t a fool,” he stated softly, gaze focusing on Ryeowook thoughtfully, “and he’s mostly unharmed. Execution of it on sight now seems rash.”
Something profoundly foul crossed Zhoumi’s face, but he neither said nor did anything. Ryeowook refused to take his eyes off him though, wondering just how long until the situation escalated again. It felt like the thinnest of ice beneath them.
Kyuhyun nodded carefully, seeming to come to terms with his plans. “We will hold a proper trial. If the beast is proven innocent, it will live on. Fair?” His eyes flitted to Zhoumi who gave the smallest of nods.
Ryeowook opened his mouth to demand an explanation but was stopped by Henry shifting in his arms. The young man was swaying, but awareness had returned to his eyes. Worry and confusion clouded his features, yet a very fierce fire blazed in every line of muscle. Ryeowook still didn’t comprehend what was happening, but it was becoming clear that this was much more than a simple misunderstanding.
From thin air, Kyuhyun produced a muzzle and shackles. Any other time, Ryeowook would’ve been astounded by the magic trick, but now it merely filled him with dread.
“Take the beast,” he murmured, handing over the hardware to Zhoumi.
With pleasure, he hauled Henry up, strapping the heavy metal around his face and shackling his throat, wrists, and ankles. Henry didn’t resist in the slightest.
Ryeowook wanted to stop it again, but it felt like his voice wouldn’t reach this time. Golden eyes didn’t even meet his. He watched as Zhoumi threw him unceremoniously over a shoulder and started down the dirt path.
They were nearly out of sight by the time Ryeowook felt chilly hands ghost across his cheek. Eyes widening, he jerked up, seeing Kyuhyun studying him from barely a breath away.
“Ryeowook?” he whispered his name with such unequivocal devotion that Ryeowook immediately flushed all over.
Leaning away from the touch, he glared at the ground. “Why did you call him that?”
Kyuhyun tilted his head, catching Ryeowook’s eye once more. Gently, he tipped his chin up, their noses brushing. “It seems I’ve somehow become the villain,” he mused, rubbing a slow, cold circle into the side of Ryeowook’s neck. “Am I behaving poorly for your tastes?”
“His name is Henry.” He ground his teeth, refusing to be lulled to distraction. “He’s a good person.”
“My boy,” Kyuhyun’s lips brushed the corner of his lips, traveling slowly up the curve of his jaw before stopping at his ear, “Henry is my dearest pet. That will become clear soon.”
Ryeowook’s breath hitched at the icy tongue caressing the shell of his ear. An arm curled around his waist, carefully lifting him up. Effortlessly, Kyuhyun took him fully in his embrace, carrying him down the path.
“You said trial.” Ryeowook squirmed slightly but couldn’t ignore the way that scent relaxed him. It was nearly a drug when mixed with such close proximity. Their bodies were pressed close together, Ryeowook’s shoulder bumping steadily against Kyuhyun’s chest.
“I did,” he confirmed, grip tightening around the underside of Ryeowook’s thighs.
“What did you mean?”
“You’ll see soon enough.”
Kyuhyun’s fingers curled in his hair, tugging him up until their lips were touching. He spoke softly, almost sweetly. “—enough.” It didn’t sound like a command. Not really. The most evident emotion was exhaustion. “I’ve told you once,” he murmured, “I’ve watched you for a very long time. Perhaps I haven’t been clear about what that means.”
Ryeowook trembled as each word was pressed to his lips, sometimes fleeting and other times with meaning. It made his blood simmer and thoughts fly away.
“Can you imagine,” Kyuhyun began, the skin around his eyes and mouth tightening, “how it must feel to believe someone important to you had been harmed by one of your own?”
Ryeowook stared back at him for a long moment, cataloging how dark his eyes had become. Only a night had passed since he fed on him. Didn’t the effects of blood last longer? Couldn’t he have eaten to replenish himself?
Racing against time. Worst case scenario. Dead and gone.
Turning his face away, he tugged his sweater aside. “Eat.”
Kyuhyun chuckled, leaning down and pressing a frigid kiss to his throat. “The offer is good enough, boy,” he sighed, pulling away rather reluctantly.
Ryeowook made to protest, but when he caught the firm refusal in Kyuhyun’s gaze, he quieted. Wrapping his arms around the Ringleader’s neck, he pulled closer, burying his heated face against cold skin. “Sorry,” he mouthed, “and thank you.”
They reached a large clearing some twenty minutes later. A sleek black car was parked by the line of trees, just barely visible in the moonlight. It appeared that Henry was much faster than either of them realized if they had gotten so close to the city already.
Ryeowook nudged away and began to walk on his own. Slightly farther ahead was Zhoumi who opened the trunk of the car and proceeded to toss Henry inside.
Immediately, Ryeowook felt his hackles raise. “Fuck no.” He strode over, glowering up at the impassive man. “He’s not riding in there.”
Zhoumi snapped up, mouth curling with disgust. “It’s too bad, Ringleader. We’re short an appropriate cage owing to your explicit orders to kill on sight. This is the only method of transport we have.”
“He’s not an animal,” Ryeowook spat, fists clenching as he looked down to where Henry laid on his side, back facing them.
“You know nothing,” Zhoumi replied with barely restrained anger, “We’re already endangering ourselves and everyone else by entertaining your ignorance.”
Kyuhyun’s voice rose up, a phone pressed to his ear. “Bring the van. We’ve decided to keep it,” he ordered evenly, eyes sliding slowly back and forth between Ryeowook and Zhoumi. “Make preparations for a trial.” And then he hung up, tucking the phone away.
The Ringleader ran long fingers through his tousled hair. Sighing quietly, he waved toward the trunk. “Take it out. We’ll wait for the others to arrive with a proper vehicle.”
Fury blazed across Zhoumi’s face. In a flash, he was standing before Kyuhyun, muscles coiled tight.
Ryeowook ignored them, hurriedly helping Henry into a sitting position. Gold eyes landed on him for only a brief second before gliding over to where his owner was now engaged in a cold war. Loyalty poured off of him just like a dog despite the crass treatment.
“What will you do?” Kyuhyun asked, looking unperturbed.
Zhoumi’s expression twisted. “You are not untouchable,” he hissed, lips thin. “Protecting that thing any longer will only bring you grief. Bear that in mind.”
Unspoken words flew between them. Ryeowook couldn’t keep up with what they did say. Trying to understand their silent conversation was impossible. When he glanced at Henry, it seemed he fully understand the implications of everything.
“I trust you can wait here with my pet?” Kyuhyun finally spoke. He peered up at Zhoumi, yet somehow it felt like the latter was being looked down upon. “I’ll escort my boy in the car.”
Zhoumi was silent.
Smiling faintly, Kyuhyun knocked his knuckles against the other man’s chest. It was such an innocent, almost friendly, gesture. That is, until Ryeowook saw Zhoumi gasp and recoil. His dark silhouette curled in, visibly shaking even from a distance.
Kyuhyun’s low voice was thick as molasses and smooth as velvet. “Don’t harm the beast. Transport it alive and without fail to the trial.”
It was an order. Even Ryeowook understood the weight of those words. He had no idea why they felt heavy, but they were.
Zhoumi collapsed to his knees, wheezing and gripping his chest.
Without another word, Kyuhyun approached them. Cold distrust remained embedded in his eyes when he locked on Henry, but the killing intent was gone. He waved a hand and Henry obediently hopped out of the trunk, landing in a crouch on the ground.
Kyuhyun knelt down, ruffling his hair absently. “You’ve won the affection of my boy,” he remarked curiously, nails scraping Henry’s scalp lightly, “perhaps I should learn from you.”
Henry vehemently shook his head, round eyes pleading guiltily. It looked like a worshipper who had been praised by their lord. The thrill of kindness competed with feelings of worthlessness.
Ryeowook frowned at the exchange, swatting Kyuhyun’s hand away from Henry. “If we’re going, let’s go.”
He disliked it all. The condescension. The confusing behavior. The aching need for validation.
“Of course.” Kyuhyun stood graciously, wrapping an arm around Ryeowook’s waist and guiding him to the passenger side door. He opened it and smiled.
Ryeowook didn’t return it, awkwardly shuffling into the seat. The door shut and a moment later Kyuhyun was getting into the driver’s seat, starting the car and peeling away.
The clearing disappeared behind them and within minutes they were back on a paved road heading toward city lights. Ryeowook took an unsteady breath, leaning back on the leather cushions. His attention wandered from one thing to another, noting with mild interest how modern the interior was. In fact, it was probably one of the most luxurious cars he had ever ridden in.
As much as he tried to put it out of mind, the events of the past day were slowly bearing down on him. When he tried to make sense of one thing, another thing raised questions and so on it went.
“You must be hungry.”
Ryeowook blinked, focusing on the other man. “I…am.” The admission felt clunky. He peered down at his stomach and swallowed, throat parched. “A snack would be nice.”
“What do you like?”
“You don’t know?”
Kyuhyun actually laughed, though it was still reserved. The past twenty-four hours must have worn him ragged as well. “I didn’t think to remember those things. Would you like me to?” he teased faintly.
“No,” Ryeowook responded instinctively, adding, “Is there ice cream around here?”
“Are you worried about going into a nicer shop?”
Ryeowook gave him an unimpressed look. “We can’t go inside anywhere looking like this.” He felt grimy and drained of any social niceties at the moment. If someone asked him to sit like a civilized person in a restaurant, he would probably run off.
The city lights grew brighter by the second, accompanied by thickening traffic. He still couldn’t wrap his mind around some of the surreal experiences that had shaped his trip to London. It shouldn’t have been this crazy, right? Yet, why did it all feel so purposeful? Each encounter, seed of information, and decision almost seemed to happen without his input.
But how was that possible when he was the instigator of much of the experiences?
Shaking his head, he reached for the radio. The black buttons were backlit with a pure white light. He planned to tune into his favorite channel, but then paused. There were several preset ones already, none of which he recognized. Although he hadn’t been in London very long, he had become accustomed to at least a few of the popular radio channels. They were played on campus rather frequently.
Curiously, he tapped on the first preset.
A rich, deep voice came through the speakers. It was slow. A ballad. Ryeowook leaned back in his seat. “You like this?” he asked softly.
Kyuhyun nodded. “They’re timeless. No matter how music changes, it seems that we can all indulge in nostalgia through a ballad.”
“Do you have a lot of memories worth remembering?” Ryeowook mumbled, resting his head against the cool glass window. He closed his eyes, focusing on the timbre of the soothing singer.
He knew the deflection was coming. It didn’t bother him much though, surprisingly. Laughing humorlessly, he replied, “I don’t think so. My only friend told me that I’d never been more alive than now. After meeting...,” he trailed off, shrugging helplessly. “You didn’t answer though.”
“There are some,” Kyuhyun acquiesced, continuing to drive steadily down the dark road, “My kind has a selective memory.”
“We aren’t so different, after all,” he chuckled.
Ballad after ballad played, slowly blending into one another. Ryeowook drifted off sometime in the middle, dreaming of old memories and happenings that could’ve very well never happened. Sleep dragged him so deeply under that he lost full awareness of himself, getting carried along through the often chaotic path of dreams.
He didn’t even awaken for the ice cream.