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The Scars of Dreaming

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It started with a single, quiet, message. It appeared at eye level, a system notification made by someone who didn’t need a system. It echoed strangely, like it faded towards him through water and the void of space. 

 

Kim Dokja read it, and thought he could feel waves lapping at his neck. 

 

— I can hear you, I think. Your screams were loud. 

 

Kim Dokja stared at it for longer than the sway of the tides, past when the sun had set, past when the lights of a new city had lit up beyond his window. Seoul was recovering, but it wasn’t the city he’d raised himself in anymore. 

 

That was okay. It didn’t need to be.

 

The message wasn’t something he should be able to see, but that wasn’t a surprise, really. He had seen many things he shouldn’t have in the last few days— the jaws of a leviathan crunching through a building, four phantom ghosts of a protagonist walking through walls while the real Yoo Jonghyuk stood before him and spoke, an older and scarred Lee Jihye commanding battleships across concrete where there should have been ocean.

 

He had seen too much. 

 

Kim Dokja had made it out of the subway, but he’d brought some of the subway with him.  He had seen enough to know it wasn’t real, but he didn’t think it was that bad. These things he saw were the scars of dreaming, and he wore them without complaint. Sure, there was too much ghosting by every breath, but he’d seen too much for twenty thousand years sitting in a subway and watching the world go by like a true constellation. 

 

He could handle a few visions. He could compartmentalize them away, most of the time.

 

And it had been worth it, to keep Kim Dokja’s Company alive. It made sense, after all that, that there were marks left on his eyes. It made sense, that he couldn’t go to sleep without fearing the hunger of the dreams. 

 

He’d been through trauma before, and it all made a pitiable amount of sense. 

 

So he’d seen a lot recently, but the flashing message was new. 

 

— Who are you?

 

That was the first question he asked. It seemed the most important. Don’t answer messages from strangers and all that, though Kim Dokja had only ever read the advice in books and web novels, and never heard it in person. 

 

There was no answer until later, and then it was just quiet and scared. 

 

— I... it’s not, you aren’t him, are you? The monster? 

 

That was all the answer he really needed. He leaned back against the pillows and wondered what he should do. This was the house he’d woken up in, the house that this new family all shared and lived and laughed in. It felt safe in a way he hadn’t know a house could feel. 

 

He was safe, but it was still so painful to talk to himself. Of all the pieces of the dream to linger with him, it had to be this one. 

 

It was just his luck, really. 

 

— You are the Most Ancient Dream.

 

He didn’t know why it felt like a revelation. He didn’t know why he was surprised at all. If there was one being that could escape the whims of the system, it would be the dream. 

 

There was another pause. Two Yoo Jonghyuk’s were fighting on the grass outside the window, both unreal and both beautiful. 

 

He turned his eyes up and watched the darkness of the sky. 

 

— You were going to kill me.

 

Kim Dokja counted the stars, and thought of the many times he’d tried to kill himself over the long years of his lonely life. He hadn’t thought once more would matter. He had weighted the options, and the price seemed right to end the dream. But again, Yoo Jonghyuk stepped in. 

 

How many times had the man saved him?

 

— Yes. 

 

It was true. He had been ready to do anything, to end the dream, to end the scenarios, to keep his promise. 

 

Kim Dokja would have done anything, to kill the monster. 

 

There was no response for a long moment, but he thought he felt fear echo through the ocean between worlds, across the sheen of a dream that only they could see. He thought he felt something stronger too. 

 

It felt like understanding. He hadn’t known that version of him was old enough to understand. 

 

He wished it wasn’t. 

 

There was no response for days, and Kim Dokja spent his time looking out the window and healing. There were many stories to patch back into his skin, and more to piece into his body. The others sat beside him, and told their shared stories for long hours. 

 

It helped. It helped him remember this was real, and not a dream at all. It helped him look away from the flickering screens that appeared behind his eyes.  

 

He’d tried sneaking out on the second morning, but Yoo Jonghyuk was waiting for him, leaning against the door. There was grey in the man’s hair, threading into the black like ink bleeding from a page. Somehow, it only made Yoo Jonghyuk look more handsome. Was it the lighting? Or was the protagonist just always fated to be unfairly attractive?  

 

Kim Dokja had watched him for twenty thousand years, and he didn’t know. He certainly hadn’t grown tired of seeing Yoo Jonghyuk, even if the dreams had hurt. Even if the dreams had lasted too long, and his stories had broken and cracked away. 

 

Even if he had wanted to be Yoo Jonghyuk, by the end, Kim Dokja hadn’t ever wanted to look away. Watching Yoo Jonghyuk’s back made him feel like everything would be alright.   

 

“Rest, Kim Dokja,” the man said, leaning back with closed eyes and a nonchalant grace. He was blocking the door, with an ease that came from absolute confidence. 

 

Nothing would get past him, and certainly not a half-broken constellation. 

 

So Kim Dokja went for the window instead. 

 

He leapt down before Yoo Jonghyuk could stop him, a half smile on his face. There was an aborted curse from behind him, quick steps chasing his heartbeats. Really, Yoo Jonghyuk should have anticipated this after all the time they spent together. Weren’t they companions? Companions knew to lock the window. 

 

The wind caught on his stories and made them flutter as he fell, his wings stretching out to push against the air. He sighed, slowly sinking to the ground under his own weight. It was really, a beautiful day. He hadn’t stopped to take a breath of air in so long, he wasn’t sure what made a day good anymore. 

 

But this felt like a good day. There was sun here. There was a sun Kim Dokja hadn’t felt in years, and the children played out across the field of grass, and Lee Jihye was shouting in a corner. There were still bloody battles fading in and out of view across the skyline, figments of a dream he didn’t want to see, but they weren’t too strong. Kim Dokja could ignore them, and so he did, taking a step forward across the grass. He stood still and breathed deep, watching the world without speaking. 

 

It was a good day.

 

It was a better day when Yoo Jonghyuk’s hand grabbed the back of his neck, far too gentle and far too familiar. 

 

“There are other ways to greet people, you know,” he said, and couldn’t stop the hint of a smile growing up his face. He didn’t want to. Yoo Jonghyuk didn’t reply except to sigh, fingers pressing against his skin but not leaving bruises. 

 

The man was really unfair. 

 

“We can go back now,” Kim Dokja said, after a few moments of quiet watching. He knew the man was just going to jump after him anyway, so there was no point in struggling. He didn’t want to run away— he just wanted to see the rest of the house, wanted to see the thing they’d fought for, even if it was from the cradle of Yoo Jonghyuk’s arms as the man dragged him back. 

 

But really, did the protagonist need to pick him up quite so fast? Fingers dug into his thighs and lifted him up, an iron grip that kept him fixed to Yoo Jonghyuk’s chest like a princess from a movie. If he were in better condition, he was sure the man would have slung him over a shoulder. Kim Dokja felt the heartbeat echo against his ear, and was grateful he wasn’t in good condition. 

 

“I can walk.”

 

“Shut up,” the man replied, and Kim Dokja only had a moment to catch Yoo Jonghyuk’s eyes and linger on the quiet there, before he was walked through the rest of the house. Han Sooyoung slapped the back of his head as they passed her, taking a quick sip of coffee at the same time. 

 

“Tie him up next time, Yoo Jonghyuk.”

 

The protagonist didn’t respond, but Kim Dokja twitched. That seemed a little extreme, all things considered. He wasn’t going to run! Well, not this time. Not when the house was filled with everything he’d ever worked for, even if he didn’t know how to live in it. 

 

Maybe this was because of what he’d done. Kim Dokja had been through a lot, but this company had been through more. He’d put them through more, and even though he’d make the same decisions in a heartbeat, he couldn’t help the regret. 

 

He’d protected them. He’d do it again. But he wished it hadn’t left a haunted look in Han Sooyoung’s sneer, wished it didn’t make Shin Yoosung cling to his pants so tightly and Lee Hyunsung roll an empty cartridge through his fingers like it could wash away the past. 

 

He wished he hadn’t scarred them like this.

 

His eyes lingered on the grey in Yoo Jonghyuk’s hair for a long moment, tracing the lighter streaks among the black. It was a good look, and Kim Dokja hated himself a little for that thought. It’s not like Yoo Jonghyuk ever looked bad anyway, and it certainly didn’t take a century of suffering to make him look good. 

 

Kim Dokja looked away from the grey, and focused on the dreams around them instead. 

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

 

 

— They haven’t hurt me yet.

 

The next message flashed above his fingers, damning and quiet. It was a few hours before dawn, and Kim Dokja was alone in a quiet room. Lee Gilyoung and Shin Yoosung had been shooed out a while ago, Yoo Sangah’s hands gentle but firm. Dokja-ssi needs his sleep, she had said, and the others had agreed. 

 

Kim Dokja had smiled and not opened his lips for a lie. He hadn’t slept since the subway, and he didn’t intend to. 

 

He wasn’t going to risk dreaming. 

 

It wasn’t like he really needed it anyway, not when his stories were slowly healing. Constellations didn’t need sleep, and Kim Dokja had become the oldest constellation of them all. 

 

He wondered if the others knew that. 

 

The message popped up like seafood on the ocean, but it wasn’t calming. It made him stop for a long moment, made him remember. He wished he didn’t, but, well, that was part of life too. Kim Dokja, despite everything, had survived. The Most Ancient Dream had a better chance than he ever did, with a family around him and a new life to face. 

 

The kid would be alright. Maybe he shouldn’t be. Maybe Kim Dokja shouldn’t be either, but it was out of his hands now. 

 

— There isn’t a yet. They won’t.

 

— How do you know?

 

Kim Dokja looked out through the window and down into the shadows below. The house was quiet, and for once, he didn’t see the fragments of any dreams. 

 

There was a family asleep beneath him, and their dreams were not so potent. 

 

This was what he’d lived for, before he’d dreamed to keep them alive, before he left them to walk without him. A house, with a family, with a place that he could call his own and people to stand beside him. 

 

It was a home, at last. 

 

— Because I’ve hurt mine, and they haven’t hurt me. 

 

There was no response to that. That was good— for all that Kim Dokja was a reader, he didn’t want to read about his own suffering. 

 

He’d lived through it for long enough. 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

 

Over the next few days, his eyes kept catching on the grey strands in Yoo Jonghyuk’s hair, on the fine lines of the man’s face. It became an idle habit as he healed, made worse by the fact the man rarely left him alone. 

 

Yoo Jonghyuk was far too easy to stare at, and far to easy to get lost in. Maybe that’s why, on a quiet night, in the corner of a spotless kitchen, under a roof that held a family, Kim Dokja’s eyes lingered on Yoo Jonghyuk’s face for a heartbeat too long. It was remarkable, really, how captivating the man’s face was. Kim Dokja thought that maybe he should complain about it, but then he’d have to admit to looking. 

 

Still, looking at the grey streaks in Yoo Jonghyuk’s hair kept him from watching the dreams. It also kept him from noticing the cat until it let out a tiny meow. 

 

Yoo Jonghyuk, protagonist and savior of the world, was holding a cat. A cat. 

 

It was cradled in a broad palm, held up by scarred fingers.  It was a tiny thing, body the kind of size that said it hadn’t been away from its mother for long. 

 

It was as foreign as the end of a dream, but that wasn’t a surprise. Kim Dokja had never had a pet in his life. They were hard to take care of, and besides, he’d never had much space. And then the scenarios had inked themselves into reality, and he’d known no pet would survive anyway. 

 

This kitten wouldn’t have lived through the disasters. It was too small, and its mewling too loud.  It barely filled up Yoo Jonghyuk’s hand, and—

 

“Are you talking to the cat?” He asked, mouth moving before he could think. 

 

The man glanced up, with the same nonchalant ease. He didn’t look at all upset to be found alone in the kitchen at night with a pet Kim Dokja had never seen before. He looked, well. Frankly he looked good enough to melt anyone’s heart. 

 

With that face and the kitten cradled in his hands? Forget the sword and fury and power, Yoo Jonghyuk could have conquered the world with that look alone. Kim Dokja made a mental note to tell Yoo Sangah to use that on the wikipedia page, instead of any of Yoo Jonghyuk’s more aggressive photos.  

 

“Do not fall,” the man said, speaking to the kitten instead of replying to Kim Dokja. Gently, he placed four small paws on the kitchen counter, and stepped away. The kitten immediately moved to follow him, nearly dropping off the polished surface. But Yoo Jonghyuk caught it without looking back, sliding a dish into place and pulling the kitten up to his chest again. 

 

Kim Dokja blinked, and wondered if he was still dreaming. He wondered if he’d ever dreamed anything quite so beautiful. He wondered how many coins Uriel would have sponsored if she could see Yoo Jonghyuk looking so gentle. 

 

Shifting slowly, he pinched his leg. The pain that shot up was real, as was the house around him that held all the members of the company. 

 

As was the kitten, apparently. It didn’t look like one of his dreams, and the Yoo Jonghyuk that looked at him now had grey hair. 

 

“You should be asleep.”

 

“I heard someone in here,” he said, and didn’t think of how little he wanted to sleep. He’d had enough of dreams to last him a lifetime, and there was something so painfully quiet about his room. 

 

He’d rather be out here, where he could see the scraps of Han Sooyoung’s last draft, and the sword polish Jung Heewon still kept on the kitchen table even if she hadn’t used it in months. 

 

Kim Dokja would much rather know it was real. 

 

Yoo Jonghyuk shot him a hard look, eyes sharp. It was so much softer than it ever had been before, with grey in his hair and a kitten cradled to his chest. 

 

“You didn’t,” the man responded, so confident that Kim Dokja almost wanted to check for a skill. Had Yoo Jonghyuk used Lie Detection, and he had missed the notification? That would have been strange. He’d gotten into the habit of reading everything that ever scrolled past, the years of web novels supplemented by the centuries of living as a constellation. It was unlikely he’d missed anything, but then again, Kim Dokja had been distracted. 

 

He looked at the smile, lingering in the tiniest corners of Yoo Jonghyuk’s lips. It tugged at the scar that cut one side of that perfect mouth, far quieter than Kim Dokja had seen before. The kitten had put a paw against Yoo Jonghyuk’s shirt, like it wanted to climb up soft fabric to ride his shoulders. The man used a single finger to tuck the cat back down, hands gentle and scars glittering in the quiet light of the kitchen.

 

Kim Dokja had been very distracted.

 

“Here,” Yoo Jonghyuk said after a moment, and placed the cat in his hands.

 

Kim Dokja didn’t know what to do. It was purring, loud and pleased. He tried running a hand down its back, and the sound increased. It was soothing in a way that was almost surprising. 

 

“Are you going to start adopting cats?” Kim Dokja asked, tone wry to cover the heat sinking into his skin from soft fur and a tiny body. It was to cover the heat coming from Yoo Jonghyuk too, and how weak those strands of grey hair made him. 

 

Would Kim Dokja have grey hair too, if he had the same body he’d stood inside the subway in? Would he look quite so tired? Kim Dokja thought he’d be lucky to look half as regal, or half as good. Yoo Jonghyuk really took looking beautiful as a challenge, and every scar and mark seemed to only make him more handsome. 

 

Kim Dokja may be twenty thousand years old, but he looked younger now. Strange. 

 

“Cats are less work than children,” Yoo Jonghyuk said, and Kim Dokja only had a moment to breathe before that smile grew a little wider, a little serious, a little deadly. 

 

It was directed at the kitten of course, but the kitten was cradled in Kim Dokja’s hands now. The full force of sharp eyes, of that gentle and patient touch, was directed at him. 

 

Not at him, he repeated, before he did something foolish like lean in and kiss the scar. It wasn’t directed at him. 

 

Yoo Jonghyuk reached forward to pet the kitten, and the marks on his hands caught the light. Kim Dokja thought that this was worth all the nightmares his dreams had become, and every vision he couldn’t tell was fake. 

 

“We’ll have to talk to Sangah-ssi then,” he said, and did it the next day. 

 

The day after that, there were two new kittens in the kitchen. When Lee Gilyoung and Shin Yoosung squabbled over them, two more appeared, a loud tabby and a quieter black cat with big blue eyes. 

 

Kim Dokja looked at the longing in Jung Heewon’s eyes, and thought they’d end up with more than three. 

 

He was right. 

 

Yoo Jonghyuk brought him a cat every night too, placing it in his hands and teaching him to pet it.  Kim Dokja didn’t need to be taught, but, well, he wasn’t going to argue with Yoo Jonghyuk when the man’s hands were so gentle. He sat on beside him too, closer than Kim Dokja thought Yoo Jonghyuk would get to anyone voluntarily. 

 

Sometimes, scarred hands would brush his cheeks like he was precious. Sometimes, they pulled him close enough that Kim Dokja could hear a heartbeat. Sometimes, Kim Dokja didn’t fear the dreams at all. 

 

Kim Dokja might not have slept since he’d left the subway, but he didn’t spend the nights alone anymore. 

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

 

— What if they leave?

 

Kim Dokja looked at the message, watched it fade in and out like a tide had caught it. He looked down, to where Lee Gilyoung and Shin Yoosung had fallen asleep again. They were stretched across his lap, small hands curled into the fabric of his pants. 

 

Their hands were bigger than they’d been when he left. 

 

He had been gone for so long, even for them. They’d still tried to save him, in the subway that he’d left behind. They still tried to save him now, holding his hands when the dreams were too vibrant, running up to him with cats on their shoulders and smiles on their faces. They didn’t know how much that meant, but still, they held him. 

 

Was this what it meant to have a family? Kim Dokja didn’t know. 

 

— They’ll come back for you. 

 

He looked out, past the children sleeping on him and the house that surrounded him. He could see the dreams of the worst endings, lingering and dancing in the shadows. 

 

This round wasn’t a failure. It wasn’t. He had to remember that. He sent another message to write that in the water between them, and for the people who laughed and lived around him. 

 

He had to. 

 

— They are better than we ever were. They are better than the others. 

 

There was a quiet pause, hesitant, small, eerie and old. Kim Dokja wondered if the child he was talking to was a teenager or a god older than he was. Was he a god now too? 

 

He didn’t want to be.

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

 

 

It was on the fifth day after that message, that he gave the game away. The dreams had been brighter, too vibrant to look away from and too big to avoid. They’d been from the 999th life too, and Kim Dokja always had trouble avoiding those. 

 

He stepped towards Yoo Jonghyuk before he could think, nodding at the man. There was no reply. There was no motion at all, because he was a dream that walked past Kim Dokja and did not stop. 

 

All he heard, in the silence of Yoo Jonghyuk’s steps, was a sharp breath behind him. 

 

Han Sooyoung was watching him too closely to miss anything. 

 

“You fool,” she said later, when they’d walked back into the house and Kim Dokja had pulled his eyes away from the ghosts of dreams. “Has this been happening the whole time? Are they—“

 

“It’s no concern, Han Sooyoung.”

 

“Shut up, and tell me everything. Now, Kim Dokja, before I send your precious protagonist in to tie you up again.” She almost hissed in response, and Kim Dokja watched her expression shift from anger to worry and back, sharp in a way he’d learned to read. 

 

It was almost hesitant. 

 

Kim Dokja took a few steps forward, and made them as nonchalant as he could. He had done this to them. He had made them break. He had not helped them grow, not into the people they’d become without him. 

 

Back in the scenarios, he’d always been bad at making them achieve their true potential. Maybe he shouldn’t have been trying at all. 

 

They weren’t just characters anymore, after all. 

 

“Don’t call Yoo Jonghyuk,” he said, thinking of how the strands of grey hair made him weak, and the calm in the man’s eyes made his heart beat faster than it should have. Really, he would have thought twenty thousand years was enough to make him immune to Yoo Jonghyuk’s face. He would have been wrong. “It’s not a torment to see them.”

 

“Fine. See if I care, Kim Dokja,” she said, and it was sharper than anything before. Kim Dokja didn’t know what he’d done to make her angry, but even like this, even angry, she didn’t let him walk back into the house alone. 

 

She guided him like she thought he’d fall. Or leave, maybe, considering what had happened before.

 

 They were all treating him like he was something fragile that could be broken, and Kim Dokja wasn’t sure if he liked that. 

 

He wasn’t sure if he’d earned this kind of care. 

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

 

 

— I keep seeing things, and I can’t stop it. I wonder when it will be too much for them. 

 

He typed the message out without thinking, a lonely confession to the only one he could speak to the only one who would understand what it meant to be a dreamer walking in reality. 

 

They’d survived using dreams, for thousands of years. Kim Dokja had dreamed to keep this life alive too. He didn’t want it to break apart because he couldn’t stop seeing ghosts. There was nothing wrong with a little loss of sleep, but the phantoms that swirled into life were bothersome. 

 

He’d flinched at one the other day. The others would notice soon, even if Han Sooyoung kept his secret. He wasn’t sure she would— he wasn’t sure he wanted her to, even if the others shouldn’t worry about something like this.  

 

They didn’t need this burden. 

 

There was a moment of hesitance, quiet and careful. Kim Dokja could almost see small hands floating above a keyboard only they could see. He wondered if those fingers were still bandaged, or if they had healed. 

 

He wondered if the Most Ancient Dream had any bandages at all.

 

— If they won’t leave me, they won’t leave you. 

 

Kim Dokja read the message and almost laughed. 

 

— We aren’t the same. 

 

— It’s still Yoo Jonghyuk. He wouldn’t leave, and I don’t believe you if you say otherwise. 

 

It was such a change from weeks ago. It was stubborn, the full faith in the protagonist of a novel that the two of them had read a thousand times. The Most Ancient Dream didn’t even know the ending, hadn’t even seen all of the lives of Yoo Jonghyuk. 

 

The Most Ancient Dream didn’t know the man that had carried Kim Dokja to bed and pressed gentle fingers to his face. 

 

But maybe that was why the kid was right. 

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

 

 

He didn’t need to tell Yoo Jonghyuk, in the end. The man knew, and Kim Dokja thought he knew how. He nodded to him, with a smile that was easy to wear, even if there were ghosts fighting behind Yoo Jonghyuk and a city burning in the background. 

 

Even if the man was watching his eyes too closely, Kim Dokja could smile. 

 

“Han Sooyoung told you, didn’t she?” He said, and put down the papers. He hadn’t been reading, even if the story was crafted by a friend and a master writer. Kim Dokja would have read it if it was trash, but it was hard to read anything with the dreams quite so loud. He’d managed before of course, and he would again. 

 

Kim Dokja had the training to ignore dreams. 

 

The man only moved closer, a hand wrapping around the back of his neck, until Kim Dokja couldn’t breathe through the beat of his own heart.

 

“Yoo Jonghyuk, are you moving close to kill me or choke me? You’ve already done both, so I don’t need a repeat. I’m familiar with the process,” he said, and felt a thumb brush across his pulse. 

 

There was no way Yoo Jonghyuk hadn’t felt the way his heart was racing. Hopefully, the man would chalk it up to fear. 

 

It was definitely fear. 

 

“No,” the man said, and leaned in to kiss him. Kim Dokja had almost expected it, but he’d never expected it. He had wanted it, but never thought it could happen. 

 

Yoo Jonghyuk kissed him slowly, sweetly, painfully. There was no hesitance, and nothing like regret or anger. No matter how much Kim Dokja searched, he only tasted love. That was—

 

Well. It was everything, wasn’t it? He thought his hands might be shaking like they had on the subway, when he’d sold his fingers for probability and Yoo Jonghyuk’s happiness. 

 

He thought he might be shaking too. 

 

“The memories don’t go away,” the man said at last, each word brushing over Kim Dokja’s lips. They were nothing like the ocean that carried quiet messages, nothing like the careful boxes in his own mind. They were quiet words, but they were firm too. Trust the protagonist to have no doubt. “Tell me what you are seeing.”

 

Maybe someone else did understand, after all. He didn’t want to lose himself in memories, when he’d finally gotten the chance at life. Kim Dokja wanted to live. He still, after everything, wanted to live. 

 

It’s still Yoo Jonghyuk. He wouldn’t leave. 

 

“The 451st round. You rode a tiger through one of the scenarios,” he said, and watched it shift and prowl through the room. It didn’t look as deadly as the man walking beside it. Nothing was as deadly as Yoo Jonghyuk, in any life. 

 

The real one shifted before him, eyes scanning around the room. “Is it there now?”

 

Kim Dokja nodded. He couldn’t say anything else. What more was there to say? He’d done it for them, but he’d been too selfish to tell them about this. Kim Dokja had always been bad at talking, when it really mattered. 

 

“Can it touch you?”

 

“No.”

 

The hand on his neck went tighter for a quiet moment, holding him still and careful. Kim Dokja didn’t breathe, leaning back into the touch. Yoo Jonghyuk’s hand was so warm. It grounded him in a way he wasn’t sure he had a right to. 

 

It felt safe. 

 

Kim Dokja just wasn’t sure his heart could take much more of Yoo Jonghyuk’s fingers rubbing gentle circles into his skin. 

 

“Then we will never let go, Kim Dokja,” Yoo Jonghyuk said, sliding his other hand down to take Kim Dokja’s fingers in his. “And you will always know what is real.”

 

Kim Dokja blinked. Well. He hadn’t been expecting that. 

 

And so began a lifetime of handholding. Kim Dokja, reader, dreamer, and constellation, had not been prepared for this. He hadn’t been expecting it. As always, the protagonist proved elusive even to the man who knew him best. 

 

With warm fingers pressed against his, Kim Dokja couldn’t mind. 

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

 

Jung Heewon held his hand like she could break it— at once careful and rough, furious and fearful. Her hands weren’t calloused anymore, not when it had been so long since she’d held a sword. But they still had the same strength, pressing into his skin until he could only look down with a quiet laugh. 

 

Really, no one in this family could do anything gently. Even Yoo Sangah was unstoppable, though her smile was kind and no one suspected a thing. 

 

Jung Heewon, his blade and friend, had never been kind to the world that wasn’t kind to her. Kim Dokja squeezed gently, until she relaxed with a sigh. 

 

“Don’t go someplace I can’t follow again, Dokja-ssi,” she said at last. He smiled, and didn’t measure it for how wide it should be. He didn’t need to watch the fragments of the dream when she held his hand so tightly. 

 

“Don’t worry, Heewon-ssi. I’m not going anywhere.”

 

[The character ‘Jung Heewon’ has used the ‘Lie Detection’ skill.]

 

[Lie Detection has confirmed that your words are true.]

 

Kim Dokja wanted to plant his face in his phone and take a deep breath. Would they never believe him again? He had done this, and he knew he deserved it, but really? Really? 

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

 

 

Lee Hyunsung took his hand like it was a mission to complete, and there were lives on the line. It was a firm grip, a good grip, the grip of a soldier at war. There was still a light blush on Lee Hyunsung’s face, but it wasn’t as dark as the one Jang Hayoung wore whenever she held his fingers. 

 

It was a strangely delicate shade of pink for a soldier. 

 

“Dokja-ssi!! Jonghyuk-ssi told us what to do! I will make sure not to lose your hand!”

 

Kim Dokja nodded, and didn’t mention how there was a fine tremor running through the fingers on his. 

 

“Thank you, Hyunsung-ssi. Let’s go pick up the kids.” 

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

 

Persephone took his hand and pressed it to her face, kissing it gently. Her hands were cold as ice, even in the warmest sun. 

 

Kim Dokja didn’t pull away. 

 

“My son,” she said, and her smile was bright. 

 

“Mother,” he replied, polite. The word felt a little strange, but for her, it felt right. Maybe after a while Kim Dokja would get used to it, but it still felt a little foreign. Maybe he’d use it for his other mother too, and not feel like it was an insult. 

 

Maybe after a while he’d get used to the constant affection, the hands and the hugs and the cats. It was hard for him to believe, but well, everyone seemed determined to convince him. 

 

And Kim Dokja didn’t mind being convinced, just this once. 

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

 

The other constellations took turns too, Sun Wukong using his tail to hoist Kim Dokja around and climb trees while Uriel smiled and brushed warm hands through his hair. 

 

Kim Dokja sighed, and let them do as they pleased. 

 

The Abyssal Black Flame Dragon refused to hold his hand at all, but sometimes, when the dreams were a little close and his motions too slow, a tail would wind around his waist and keep him from walking through walls he couldn’t see. 

 

Kim Dokja didn’t say anything, not yet. It wasn’t the time to embarrass the poor chuuni. 

 

He should save that for when he needed a favor.

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

 

Han Sooyoung slapped his back like he was healed, and grabbed his hands. She didn’t treat him like he was fragile at all, but as friend and reader and leader. It was as strange as everything else was, and he treasured it as he treasured all of them. 

 

His hands were more used to it now. He didn’t flinch away from their touch— not that he ever had, really, but that impulse was one he’d fought all his life. 

 

His fingers felt cold when they were alone now. They’d spoiled him, he thought, as Han Sooyoung pulled him forward with a firm grip. 

 

“Don’t be so rough, Han Sooyoung,” he said, and smiled a little wider.

 

“Shut up, you don’t get a say in this Kim Dokja.”

 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

 

 

Of all the company, it was the kids that were the best at keeping him company. Biyoo curled across his shoulders to keep him warm, as the other two clung to his fingers. They held his hands and walked beside him and it felt as natural as breathing.

 

The adults should get better at this, he thought, and pointedly didn’t remember how clammy his hands got in Yoo Jonghyuk’s fingers.  

 

Kim Dokja wondered if anyone was holding the hands of the Most Ancient Dream. He gripped Lee Gilyoung a bit tighter, but the boy only squeezed back and looked up at him. 

 

He was older, but it was still the eyes that Kim Dokja had recognized on the subway so long ago. They had looked like his, with the same haunted corners and quiet resignation. Kim Dokja, for all his apathy, hadn’t been able to walk away from that. 

 

Of course, it had been helpful for the scenario too, but—

 

But Kim Dokja couldn’t pretend he’d done everything for the scenarios and his plan anymore. He’d done everything for them, and they all knew it now. The gentle pressure on his hand said so, just like Shin Yoosung’s smile spelled it out clearer than any novel. Everything had been for them. 

 

Kim Dokja looked down at them and thought that maybe, he wouldn’t see the dreams anymore.

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

 

The next message didn’t come for weeks, long enough that Kim Dokja had gotten used to always having a hand in his and the dreams were easy to ignore. He’d even slept, Yoo Jonghyuk pressing him close enough that he could hear the man’s heartbeat. 

 

A cat had woken him up tonight, gentle paws kneading at his leg, but it the message kept him awake. 

 

— Do you think we can stay like this?

 

Kim Dokja opened his eyes, and couldn’t see anything but fabric stretched across defined muscles. He had run his hands across that chest before, and he’d get to again. 

 

There were perks to sleeping next to Yoo Jonghyuk.

 

— I want to. 

 

He replied, and thought that maybe, for the first time, that would be enough. Kim Dokja didn’t need to plan a way to keep this— it was his. 

 

They were his family. 

 

⊱ ━━━━.⋅❈⋅.━━━━ ⊰

 

 

— You were right. They come to get me after school, and they walk me home, and they haven’t left. Yoo Jonghyuk, he… he tells me stories, sometimes.  

 

Kim Dokja shifted in the sunlight, and felt the void of an ocean catch at his neck to whisper a new message. There was a warm weight in his lap, and the house was filled with laughter and noise. 

 

The messages didn’t feel so painful, when there was soft hair beneath his fingers. 

 

— You were right too, Most Ancient Dream. They haven’t left me either. 

 

— They don’t call me that. I’m not the Most Ancient Dream, I’m not. 

 

— What is your name?

 

— It’s Kim Dokja.

 

He ran a hand through Yoo Jonghyuk’s hair, watched the man shift slightly underneath his touch. He looked so peaceful. Maybe it was time for Kim Dokja to feel that peace too. Maybe it would start with an introduction. 

 

— Nice to meet you, Kim Dokja. I’m Kim Dokja too. 

 

— But we aren’t the same.

 

— No. No, we are very different. 

 

He tried to think about what to say next, how to hold a conversation with the person who knew him best and didn’t understand him at all. Kim Dokja wasn’t very good at idle conversation, and never had been. It wasn’t something he’d learned to do well, not in the lonely years before the beginning, and not in the painful years after. 

 

You had to have people to talk to, to learn to talk at all. 

 

Kim Dokja was sitting on the steps to the house, Yoo Jonghyuk pretending to be asleep in his lap. He could see Lee Gilyoung and Shin Yoosung playing a few feet away, grass stains marking their clothes worn and happy. They’d have to go buy replacements soon, but that was alright. Yoo Sangah loved those trips, and Lee Hyunsung took days off to go on them, and Jung Heewon would hover at Kim Dokja’s side like the clothing could burn her more than her flames could turn everything to ash. 

 

They were good days. 

 

Han Sooyoung called them ‘Family Torture Days,’ but Kim Dokja thought she lingered on the word family more than the word torture. Kim Dokja liked them too, but the part he enjoyed most was at the end, when they all gathered around Yoo Jonghyuk’s cooking and told stories.

 

Life was better with stories, and here, in this place, Kim Dokja was living for the first time.

 

He looked at the message floating next to him, and knew what to ask. 

 

— Do you like reading?