In the grand scheme of things, Donghyuck supposes he should be glad that this isn't rock bottom.
That's what this line of work is about after all, counting your blessings, finding the silver lining in every grey cloud, even when the sky above has ripped apart like a gaping exit wound, letting down a hailstorm in the midst of a boiling dry spell.
("You're so full of shit," Jaemin scoffed when Donghyuck laid out his musings, right next to his cards. A droplet of condensation slid down his glass, smashing into the shiny veneer of Renjun's antique coffee table at the same moment Jaemin laid down his own card. "Those are the words of a miser.")
Donghyuck doesn't hoard gold. Sure, he knows assholes who do, but he's not like them. He doesn't hoard, he stocks up, plucking up the small shillings of luck, pocketing the little miracles. Saving up for a rainy day, as his mother would have said. When he was younger and she would sneak a dollar biller between the couch cushion, a finger to her lips as his father snored in the adjacent room, he'd stared at her blankly.
Now, lying on the grimy floor of a beach hut, a cramp seizing his legs as his cheek squishes against Jaemin's thigh, Donghyuck finally gets it. Every four leaf clover he’s tucked into his pocket, every rainbow he’s traced against a skyscraper windowpane, everything that’s been building up to this. This is his rainy day. His time to cash in, to yank that wad of bills out from the piling couch cushions.
“I’m going to kill that motherfucker.” His voice sounds small and disembodied, even to himself. “If we make it out alive, I’m going to torch his little cast and body slam that fucker off his own balcony.”
Beside him, Jaemin shifts, and now Donghyuck’s cheek is situated against his knee. It’s a downgrade from the previous position. “Not if he gets us killed first.”
From outside, the murmur of voices rise. Footsteps follow, pounding up the wooden steps, like a stampede of wild buffalos in the National Geographic documentaries Donghyuck would sometimes watch on Sunday mornings. It’s not Sunday though, and he’s not in his holiest jammies, crunching on cereal as he watches the migration of a school of fish. He’s halfway across the globe, on a vacation that’s gone tits up, like a boat capsized in stormy waters, a giant wave hovering above, waiting to sink them under.
He counts his lucky moments like gold coins: the alley two blocks down from the dusty cement block that was his high school, the barren junkyard on the outskirts of the city, the twenty first story of a high rise, arms spread, plunging through the air--
The voices are so much louder now, and Donghyuck can feel Jaemin tense, muscles stretched taut against bones and joints. Donghyuck keeps his hand on his holster. When the door flies open and sunlight blasts through the room like a gunshot, he mutters the only kind of prayer he knows.
“Huang Renjun, you’re as good as six feet under.”
He met Jaemin like this: hands bound, tumbling in the dark, the heat of Jaemin’s body burning through his suit--
“Really?” Donghyuck growled, shifting his weight against Renjun’s marble counters. The bag of frozen peas crunched against his swollen right eye. “This was your idea of an introduction?”
“Thought you said you wanted a meet cute,” Renjun shrugged. He didn’t look up, eyes glued to the edge of his knife as it slammed against the chopping board, until it reached the end of the green stalk, then scraped back across the board, metal screeching against wood.
There are a million and one profanities that Donghyuck wanted to scream in response, but anyone who’s ever wanted to stay alive in this city knew better than to cross Renjun, kitchen knife wielding or not. Donghyuck held his tongue as Renjun maneuvered past him to the stove top, dumping the green onions into a boiling pot and swishing around the ladle. Steam rose, filling the kitchen with the scent of herbs and spices.
Donghyuck bit at the corner of his cheeks, weighing his words.
“Why do you seem to think that I need a babysitter?” he finally blurted, the words fizzing up like soda from a shaken up can. So much for aloof.
Renjun lifted the ladle to his lips and took a delicate sip. He reached for the salt. “Are you mad?”
Is Donghyuck mad? He held back a snort. Is the sky blue?
“Tough luck. He had you by the throat, Donghyuck. If Jeno hadn’t come in time to pull him off you, we’d be having dinner at the mortuary,” Renjun said, like he’s recounting the weather. Rainy, with a chance of burial by dawn.
Donghyuck scowled, dropping the frozen peas to the counter. He pressed a finger against the bruised skin and winced. "So what? You put us together to keep me on my toes? "
He hated the way Renjun looked at him, vaguely exasperated, like Donghyuck was his pet cat that's dropped off yet another dead bird on his porch.
Renjun turned back to the pot, bringing the ladle to his mouth to blow away the heat. "Learn to play nice."
Nice. Donghyuck stared across the open floor plan of Renjun's not so humble abode, to where Jaemin was peeling his makeshift ice-pack from his face and tentatively running a finger across his swollen nose with a wince. When he caught Donghyuck staring, his lips split into a grin and he tilted his head towards Donghyuck with an unspoken question. What are you looking at?
"I'm not making any promises," Donghyuck said, looking away.
There is no place to run when you've reached the edge of the earth. No place that is, other than down.
"We are not fucking jumping."
Donghyuck whirls around, squinting through the sweeping wind, and catches the sight of Jaemin's disapproving frown, split lip stretching in a grimace. Time in the sun has honeyed his skin and the wind kicks up his hair, bleached blonde locks framing his head like a halo.
"Oh yeah? Name another option."
Crossing his arms, Jaemin leans forward to examine the edge. A rock dislodges under his feet, and he lets out a yelp as he stumbles back. Donghyuck laughs. Jaemin shoots him a scathing glare, but just as he opens his mouth, a shout echoes in the distance.
Shielding his face against the sun, Donghyuck squints in the direction of the hills. The hunt is still on. There’s no time.
Donghyuck extends his hand. "Do you trust me?"
Sighing, Jaemin takes his hand. "Barely."
That's good enough to take the leap.
His mother used to say dreams were predictive. They know what you don't, baby.
Three days before she'd left, Donghyuck had woken in the dead of the night, his shirt glued to his back, and discovered that half of his limbs were floating off the edge of his lumpy mattress. In his dream, there had only been the sound of a slamming door, a squealing wheel. A shout that echoed through the street, yet at the same time, so faint it could have been swallowed by the howling wind.
He'd squeezed his eyes shut to chase the remnants of the dream, but no matter how hard he tried, it was no use. His dreamscape was a broken theater, all sounds, no images, like a film reel dunked in sea water.
Trying to understand Jaemin reminds him of that, like piecing together a puzzle with only the corner edges.
They ran their first hit together in silence, Donghyuck simmering behind the wheel as Jaemin inspected the barrel of his pistol in the passenger seat. The only time they talked was when Jaemin asked to change the radio, his hand already on the dial before Donghyuck could give him the barest of nods.
"Get over it" were Jeno’s words of wisdom when Donghyuck whined to him on their couch, glaring down at his orange chicken. Next to him, Jeno switched the channel, the high pitched infomercial spiel giving away to the laugh track of a sitcom rerun.
"He thinks I'm a joke," Donghyuck said, stabbing his fork through a nugget.
"Renjun. He thinks I need an asshole like that to make sure I don't blow up again."
Frowning, Jeno set down the remote. "I'm sure it's not like that."
“What’s the point of sucking a man’s dick if you can’t read his mind?” Donghyuck grumbled and dodged the cushion Jeno threw his way.
“That’s not what we’re doing,” Jeno hissed, despite the blush growing on his face. Jeno likes to play dumb like that. Likes to pretend that Donghyuck can’t hear the squeak of the hinges when Jeno stumbles back into their apartment at the crack of dawn, a giggle under his breath and Renjun’s cologne on his neck. “Whatever the reason is, you’re not getting rid of Jaemin anytime soon.”
Jeno is wrong, of course. Getting rid of Jaemin would be simple. Donghyuck could think of a hundred and one ways Jaemin could spontaneously walk off the edge of a high rise or take a dip to the bottom of the sea without a single soul raising a brow.
“--someone was bound to find him like that.”
“What?” Donghyuck yanked his eyes off the road, blinking at Jaemin in surprise.
“Knife to the throat, body ditched in the backroom of that bar? Sloppy. I’m surprised you’re not already sitting behind bars.”
Gritting his teeth, Donghyuck slams on the brakes, the engine screeching as the lights on the intersection flashed red.
“Is this really how you want to break the ice?”
Jaemin’s eyebrows flew up, but his voice stayed smooth, saccharine sweet. “Ice? And here I thought we said no hard feelings.”
“You punched my face.”
“You nearly broke my rib.”
The light jumped from red to green, and they lurched forward, the engine roaring under the recycled junkyard mass. Donghyuck held back a laugh when Jaemin tips forward, nearly slamming into the glove compartment before he shoots a hand out to steady himself.
“Renjun said no killing each other,” Jaemin scowls.
A driver behind them honks, a tinny voice shouting through the glass as they edge past. Donghyuck rolls down the window to flip them off. “If he hadn’t, would you have tried?”
Jaemin doesn’t even pause to think. “Probably. I think I could make a car accident look believable, what with the way you drive.”
They turn the block, wheels squealing as they narrowly misses the curb, and Donghyuck scowls.
“Am I wrong?”
Donghyuck turns up the radio, hating the way Jaemin’s smile grows in the edge of his periphery.
Somehow, they make it work. Jaemin, when he’s not smirking or worse, fixing Donghyuck with that stupid, unreadable stare, is good at what he does. Annoyingly good. He picks up Donghyuck’s cues without needing explanation, always two steps ahead, always where he needs to be. He deals well in charming smiles, and even better in knives, clean cut, no tacky embellishments.
“He’s a fucking usurper,” Donghyuck had told Jeno over a call, one hand on the gas pump while the other cradles the phone to his ear. “You sure Renjun ain’t trying to replace me?”
Then, the doorbell rang in the background. Jeno, a horrible liar, cited an excuse about a delivery, and hung up on him before the tank was even full.
Even if no one else believes him, Donghyuck can’t shake the feeling that the only reason Jaemin watches his back is so he can drive his own knife through it when Donghyuck isn’t looking. So Donghyuck makes sure to keep looking. On stakeouts, he sleeps with one eye open, always turned towards Jaemin. Sometimes, he doesn’t sleep at all, stealing glances at Jaemin throughout the night as he stills like a statue, the rise and fall of his chest the only indication that he was still alive.
It would be easy like this, too, but Donghyuck gets distracted. The night stirs something in Jaemin’s face, yellow street lights tracing planes of his forehead, cheeks, the high slope of his nose. He’s something like a sculpture, one of the modern pieces Donghyuck had walked past when he was 10, a rain-soaked museum ticket between his fingers, only to turn back around and stare at in awe, wondering where one wire ended and another began.
Then Jaemin wakes.
What are you staring at?
Donghyuck doesn’t know.
It happened on a sunny day.
Somewhere along the two months into this sick, Renjun-ordained partnership, Donghyuck had become more used to Jaemin than he’d like to admit.
“Pass the aux.”
“I swear to god if you put on One Direction right before we’re about to kill a man--”
“It’s atmospheric ,” Jaemin complained, fingers already tapping through his playlist. A tinny beat filled the car, and Donghyuck groaned as the opening croon of you’re insecure flits out from the speakers.
“Don’t know what for,” Jaemin echoed with a wiggle of his eyebrows. Lately, he’s been doing that a lot. Not the eyebrow wiggling nor the singing along, but the tentative smile that reached his eyes, unlike the sharp canine smile that Donghyuck had grown to associate with him.
“There is a glock in the trunk. I will not hesitate to pop a cap in your ass before the end of this assignment.”
Despite Donghyuck’s grumbling, Jaemin continued to shake his head along to the music. He rocked his shoulders to and fro in the confines of his seat, mouthing along to the words as he stares at Donghyuck with glee. In a moment like that, it was easy to forget where they were, who they were, what they were about to do. The world narrowed to the front seats of his shitty car, to Jaemin attempting a horrible falsetto and Donghyuck laughing along.
Then, like a flicker of a lighter in the big bad dark, so faint Donghyuck could have sworn it was a trick of the light, Donghyuck sees them. It wasn’t real. It couldn’t have been real, his brain insisted. But his body was another story, and before he knew it, his feet were stumbling onto the concrete, the car door slamming in his wake as he threw his body down the street, one foot in front of the other as his breath grew ragged.
“Donghyuck? Where are you going-- Donghyuck!”
Maybe there was honking, curses flung out of car windows at him for running through traffic like a madman. Donghyuck didn’t care. He didn’t even notice. His entire world was reduced to the mass of dark suits turning down the block, those familiar, leather-y faces that he often dreamed of tearing apart.
His father’s men just looked far too alive for his tastes.
Step by step, his feet took him where he wanted to go, trailing after them down an alley. He snuck a hand into his jacket when they finally stopped, finding the trusty switchblade that was always pressed against his heart.
The rest? Well, that’s a blur.
All he knew was that they’d seen him coming. He lunged through the air, digging past flesh, but it wasn’t long before he was the ground, shadows hovering over him like a grisly childhood nightmare, a ripping sensation in his side that made him feel like a leaking balloon. For the first time in a while, fear coursed through his veins. He closed his eyes and prayed for another miracle.
Jaemin came instead.
A series of shots rang through the air, each louder than the last, and when he opened his eyes again, it was Jaemin leaning over him, his mouth moving to a silent soundtrack.
He’s never seen that look on Jaemin’s face before. Something wild, a stroke of fear, slashing across his eyes and blowing them wide, his mouth a grim line as he cradled Donghyuck in his arms like a newborn.
“Donghyuck. Donghyuck? Can you hear me?”
Barely. Everything sounded underwater, like his head was being held under, eyes stinging from the chlorine, ears ringing.
All he remembered before everything faded to black was the warmth of Jaemin pressed against him, shielding him against the howling wind.
Cold. Teeth chattering, goosebumps lining the planes of his unmarred skin, a shiver running down his spine and sinking somewhere bone deep. The world is reduced to a muffled blur, salt water in his eyes, his mouth, bubbles popping as fast as they form when he tries to speak and then it's salt water in his lungs like a paperweight --
The world is bright.
Jaemin stands over him, a hand on his hip, wet hair plastered to his forehead. Donghyuck blinks the water from his eyes, feels the warm sand under his back. He's still alive.
"What happened," he croaks out, pushing up on his elbows. Jaemin shoves him back down with a scowl.
"That's supposed to be my question, idiot. Who's the fucker who said trust me then conked their head on a rock as soon as we hit the waters?"
A distant murmur warbles in the back of his head.
“Where are we?”
Sighing, Jaemin runs a hand through his hair, cringing at the way it sticks. “Some place further down the island than we were before.” A pause. “I thought you were dead. You were like a fucking potato sack.”
Somewhere, deep inside, like in his damn marrows, warmth bleeds. “Aw, you were worried about me?”
All he gets is a yank on the shoulder as Jaemin pulls him up to his feet with a grumble. “We ain’t ever trying that shit again.”
It was the second time he’s ever woken up in a hospital
He didn't like to think about the first. He’d been cocky then, a little younger and a lot more foolish, and the barrel of a gun hadn’t seemed so scary until he was flat on the ground, prayers turning to puffs of air as his vision dissolved into blotches. The first thing he’d seen when he woke up was Jeno’s face mere inches from his, eyes lighting up in delight when he let out a groan.
But this wasn’t Jeno’s face.
It didn’t feel real. The room was dim, lit only a faint panel by his bed, and in the shadows, it could’ve been anyone else. A Jaemin imposter maybe, with the same stupid looking mullet and slit eyebrows, staring back at him in the darkness, eyes wide, startled.
Fentanyl. He’d had it running through his veins back then too. The dreams were vivid, and sometimes, he’d drift between reality and fantasy, seeing people who weren’t really there.
Potential Imposter Jaemin crowded closer. “Donghyuck? Can you hear me?”
“Donghyuck? Donghyuck? Shit, I need the nurse--”
Jaemin’s hand is softer than he’d expected. Still, calluses ran along his palms, and Donghyuck’s fingers drifted down the long scar that split the skin into two.
His throat was scratchy, words screeching out like nails on a chalkboard. He coughed, and Jaemin tensed, as if he was scared Donghyuck would fall apart at the seams.
“You ran after them. I told you not to, but then it was too late, and they had you pinned down. One of those fuckers, he--”
“No,” Donghyuck shook his head. For a second, a needling pain broke through the opioid bubble. He tried again, to get the words right. “This. What happened?”
No matter how hard he squinted, he couldn’t make out Jaemin’s expression. Was he annoyed? Relieved? Confused? A distant hum filled the room, maybe from a humidifier he couldn’t see, or a machine he didn’t know he was hooked up to.
“When I was seventeen, I got into a knife fight with this kid in my neighborhood.” Jaemin’s voice was quiet. Donghyuck closed his eyes, imagining a younger, scrawnier Jaemin wielding a kitchen knife. A laugh bubbled up his chest.
“Hey, don’t laugh,” Jaemin grumbled. His hand was warm in Donghyuck’s. “Anyways, the kid was nasty little thing. Always had this crazed look in his eyes. He was smaller than I was, but he was so much faster. One second, he was swinging, and the next my hand was on the blade, and he was running away.”
“Did you run after him?”
Donghyuck could feel Jaemin shift closer. He opened his eyes. Finally, Donghyuck could see the familiar grin that graced Jaemin’s face. “No. I was scared shitless. I thought I was going to die, so I ran back home.”
Donghyuck laughed, regretting it immediately when a sensation like a live wire shot through his side. Jaemin’s eyebrows furrowed and his grip tensed against Donghyuck. His free hand fumbled for the edges of the comforter, pulling it up against Donghyuck’s chin.
“Get some rest,” Jaemin murmured. In a smaller voice, he said, “You really freaked me out back there.”
Donghyuck’s eyelids were heavy. They fluttered close without his permission. “How’d you get like this?” Donghyuck slurs. How did they get like this?
“Mhm, nevermind. Thanks for saving me.”
A pause. Then, “Don’t make me do it again. Good night, Donghyuck.”
Three and a half nights. That’s how long Donghyuck could stand the sickliness of it all, the constant coddling, checking on his temperature, his pulse. Three and a half nights, before he ripped the IV from his arm, stumbling out of bed with his hoodie and a single shoe. For three and half nights, Jaemin was by his side. And on that particularly windy night, he was still there, propped against the door frame, arms crossed, eyebrows raised.
“Where are you going?”
“Out,” Donghyuck grumbled, zipping up his jacket. The open window by his bed had let in a whisper of the late winter chill. “Can’t stand this fucking place.”
“The doctor said--”
“Fuck that quack,” Donghyuck said, pushing past Jaemin only for him to catch his arm. ”What?”
“I’ll drive,” Jaemin said. “Where do you want to go?”
In the passenger seat, the streets looked different, somehow, like mirror world where up was down and down turned sideways. They passed by the same intersection they must have passed a million times, and Donghyuck rolled down the window, letting the wind have its way with his hair. Just like the first time, they rode in silence, no radio, no audio, only air whooshing past them as they flew down the highway.
When they entered the diner, Donghyuck wasn’t surprised to see they were the only ones there. The young waiter, on the other hand, seemed delighted to have company in the dead of the night. He ushered them into the booths and set menus in their hands, fingers grazing against Jaemin’s wrist.
“He’s cute,” Donghyuck remarked over his sandwich. Jaemin’s fingers slowed their descent on the pile of fries sitting atop Donghyuck’s plate.
Donghyuck jerked his head towards the counter, where the waiter was not so subtly staring at Jaemin. “He’s cute.”
Jaemin followed his gaze. He paused, then picked up a fry. Brought it to his lips. “Yeah. He’s not my type.”
“What is your type?”
He took a bite. Under the table, Jaemin’s Oxfords nudged against Donghyuck’s sneaker clad feet.
In their line of work, nothing stays a secret for long. The moment a word escaped a pair of lips, it was bound to travel, by leaps and bounds, then cities and continents, before it rounded full circle, hitting you smack on the back of your head like a forgotten boomerang.
Some people called it the snowball effect. Renjun called it, “Are you using my assignments to go on dates?”
Donghyuck resisted the urge to flinch, instead crossing his arms. A flimsy barrier, if Renjun’s raised eyebrows were anything to go by. “Who told you that?”
“Stop paying for brunch dates on the company card,” Renjun growled, sliding a receipt across the table. “I’m paying you to kill people, not smooze each other over ten year old wine.”
Across the table, Jaemin cleared his throat.
“You have something to say?” Renjun asked.
“Actually, it was twenty years old wine--”
“Okay. Enough. That’s not why I called you here,” Renjun sighed. He leaned back into his seat, worrying the skin between his brows with his knuckles.
Jaemin and Donghyuck exchanged a curious glance.
“How do you both feel about a vacation?”
“If I die, can you make sure to avenge my death?”
“I can’t kill Renjun, if that’s what you’re asking,” Jaemin grits out, connecting his elbow to flesh. A grunt falls from the mouth of a man, before he fell along with it, toppling a new stack of bodies by the oil drum.
Donghyuck sniffs, snarling when he feels a blade slashing past the air near his throat. “Why are we fucking if you won’t even kill a man for me?”
“I’ll kill a dozen men for you, baby, but even I can’t kill Satan. Also, we’re just fucking? I thought we were--”
“Oh my god.” A bullet whizzed past his ear as he turned to fix Jaemin with an exasperated stare. “How many times do we have to go over this?”
Jaemin shrugged, barely dodging a bat aimed at his head. “I just wanted to make sure--”
“Yes!” There were only a few left standing now, and even they looked like they were considering tossing in the towel, eyes darting nervously to the bodies scattered the new, bloodied flooring. “Yes, we’re dating.”
Jaemin grinned, and even with his split lip and bruised eye, Donghyuck finds him-- well.
“You look like shit,” is what he says instead, after it’s all over, and they’re laying side by side on the sandy shore, staring up at the sunset. The mottling purple surrounding the skin of Jaemin’s eye is the same purple painted across the sky, red bleeding blue in watercolor strokes. Donghyuck takes a deep breath and hums in pleasure when gets a lungful of saltwater air, the aftertaste of summer in the breeze.
“Oh yeah?” Jaemin murmurs. He turns, propping himself on his elbow, and Donghyuck meets him almost halfway. “You should’ve seen the other guy.”
Donghyuck lets Jaemin close the distance before the sky rips open with a roar.