The first to leave is Joonghyuk, which surprises none of them. He's tired, after all, and even Yoo Mia isn't enough to tie him to life longer than his allotted time. Not that he's eager to leave— he isn't. But as Dokja rests his age-worn hand on Joonghyuk's cool forehead and Sooyoung looks away to hide her sadness, they both know he wasn't desperate to stay, either. They can't bring themselves to blame him.
Sooyoung's departure soon after is a little bit more of a surprise.
"I told you to stop smoking," Dokja says.
"You only live once," Sooyoung replies, hoarsely, as irreverent as ever even as cancer eats her from the inside out. They don't know it yet, but years from now they'll remember this and laugh at the irony.
"Just go and find Yoo Joonghyuk already." He's put on a good show of nonchalance but Sooyoung can see his hands trembling. She breathes out and closes her eyes, and when she slips away she's glad she doesn't have to see the expression that goes along with the agonised sound he makes.
In the end, Dokja never tells them what he does after they're both gone, and to be honest he isn't even sure himself. He might have lived another ten years, or just another ten days; they never bring it up, and he tucks the memories of being left behind in the dustiest shelves of his mind's library so that he won't think about it either.
Yoo Joonghyuk comes back to life as a baby in a strange woman's arms, enveloped in the scent of milk and baby powder, and he decides he isn't ready to face whatever's happened to land him in this situation. Joonghyuk is very good at retreating into himself to ignore the outside world.
The next time he drags himself out of the blankness, he considers that if there actually is a reincarnation cycle, he might just be the odd one out. He's been a regressor a thousand times and more; it shouldn't come as a surprise that he's somehow skipped the tea of oblivion too. He could have made another choice, long ago, in a lifetime he doesn't remember. Perhaps there are more dire explanations for why he's in the body of an unknown baby instead of a fully-functioning adult, but— the woman holding him, his mother, the only one he's ever known, strokes his forehead and speaks to him softly and he doesn't want to think about anything other than what it means to be so loved. Joonghyuk's soul is so, so old. Still: playing the part of a beloved son in a world yet untouched by the scenario is so terribly easy.
Joonghyuk has nine years of simple happiness before the novelty of having a real childhood is snatched from him. A new boy moves into the neighbourhood; at the playground Joonghyuk watches him with a peculiar anticipation in his gut until the boy finally looks around to catch his eye.
Then, then it's like the ground falls from beneath their feet, because even though he looks completely different, that is Kim Dokja, and from the way he goes stark white, Dokja knows who he is too.
"Joonghyuk," Dokja chokes on his words and Joonghyuk can't find composure enough to calm himself down, much less Dokja. This doesn't make sense. "Yoo Joonghyuk, why? What is this? I just remembered all our— what's happening?"
"I don't know," he answers, because he doesn't, and then a big man comes over to clamp his meaty fist around Dokja's skinny arm and makes to drag him away, and Joonghyuk remembers what it is to be enraged.
"Sorry, ahjussi." Joonghyuk forces himself to stay his hand that automatically reaches for a sword; he's not the strongest incarnation any more. Right now he's only a fragile, nine-year-old child. He thinks about Mia's sulks and puts his new body's glistening wide eyes to use, gazing at the man pleadingly. "Can we play together? We only just met."
Dokja's lip is oozing blood where he's bitten it from anxiety. The man sneers at him when he sees this, and flings him away as if he's something dirty. "Suit yourself. Get your own dinner if you want it."
The man leaves without looking back.
Joonghyuk takes hold of Dokja, fits his own fingers over the red marks the man left behind. There are a thousand things they should have to say to each other— is this a scenario? Are there others out there like them? Why did Dokja only just remember when Joonghyuk was born already knowing?— a host of problems they have to solve, but Joonghyuk does not care about those things at the moment. "I can take care of him for you," Joonghyuk offers, instead.
There is quiet for a time, wrapping them in their own bubble of solitude while around them other children run and play.
"Don't," Dokja says eventually. "There isn't a convenient adult here to rewrite your story." Like my mother rewrote mine, he leaves unsaid.
Joonghyuk thinks of Sooyoung now, and how she would know just what to say. How she could rewrite their story, if she only felt like it. All he can do is offer action. Dokja is trembling under his hand, this fragile reader, and action is not what he needs.
"Then we'll just have to find her," he decides, easily, as though meeting Dokja didn't take nine whole years.
Later, they have that conversation about what exactly they think is going on. Later, years later when they go to middle school, they finally run into Han Sooyoung and Dokja bursts into shocked tears right in the middle of the entrance ceremony, and they have more than one difficult conversation about what this means.
("Did you remember? Before we found you?"
"No. I'm glad I didn't. You know what happened to me back then, when I had to remember and no one else did. I made it out, but I don't— I don't ever want to do that again."
"I don't think this is a scenario. It won't be like that. There's a reason we all found each other— it's too convenient to be coincidence."
"That might be true, Yoo Joonghyuk, but how do we know? How do we know the three of us aren't just being toyed with because of what we did before? Do you really think we're just here to, what, have a good time?"
Joonghyuk has no answer to that.)
Later, they live out a whole new life as normal students and then normal members of society, and nothing bad at all happens. But they haven't escaped the shadow of their previous life: Joonghyuk tries to play e-sports seriously this time, Dokja works in a marginally better office, Sooyoung writes webnovels with unsurprising success. Every day they distance themselves from other people, too conscious of the world they left behind and the scars it left on them, and they don't live together again but oh, how they want to.
Later, Dokja's father ends up disappearing without a trace, much neater than the first time around.
Later, inevitably, they die again, one by one, but right now—
Joonghyuk grips Dokja's pale wrist in a rundown playground, firm with the strength of his conviction, and at last, Dokja gives him a smile.
When Kim Dokja opens his eyes to find himself a baby again, he can't really say he's surprised, considering Joonghyuk's experience. He doesn't have the muscle development to move on his own yet, nor can he even see all that well, but he can tell that he's in some sort of container instead of someone's arms, and it is bitingly cold. Probably too cold for a newborn to survive for long. Again, Dokja finds himself lacking in surprise. After the absolute catastrophe that was their first life, and the strange peace that was their second (abusive parents notwithstanding), Dokja figures he's about due for some suffering.
Then a door is opened, a lady shouts in surprise, and people start speaking English.
Of course, muses Dokja, of course they aren't even in Korea. Someone up there— he's adamant that all of this has to be the idle amusement of some deity with too much free time, because if their first lives could happen anything could happen— someone really has it in for him. He'll reserve judgement about whether Joonghyuk and Sooyoung are included until he can determine if they've been dumped in a foreign country too. Or if they're here at all, he thinks, with some dread, and resolves never to consider that possibility again.
At four years old, he decides he's had enough of the orphanage and makes his great escape.
To his abject humiliation, the staff catch him almost immediately.
Dokja is getting a stern lecture from the orphanage matron while the other staff giggle at his gigantic pout, which just makes him more and more frustrated. I used to be a Demon King, he thinks, glaring at the matron's neatly starched smock, the things I could do if I still had— and then her smock catches fire, which quite distracts him from thoughts of his erstwhile glory.
When he's left alone in the room he shares with five other boys, Dokja has a quiet meltdown about his newly discovered pyrokinesis. He remembers, of course, what magic feels like (or at least what the scenarios had made it feel like) and even if the staff think it must have been some freak accident, he knows what he did. Some part of him has always been waiting for the other shoe to drop, undeterred by Sooyoung and Joonghyuk having been quite certain in their previous life that whatever this was, it wasn't a scenario. Dokja isn't so sure. Besides, the universe doesn't need scenarios to be cruel. He can still remember the infinite expanse of space, and the sprawling threads of countless worldlines with countless tragedies all their own. And in this one, he doesn't have the benefit of a guide.
A grand total of nothing changes after the fire incident, but all this means is that he's a nervous, paranoid wreck by the time he's seven and receives a sudden visit from a professor and two prefects… from a school of magic. Dokja would have paid rapt attention based on this ridiculous premise alone, but he is much more focused on who exactly these annoyingly good-looking prefects are. He'd just been so sure he'd have to survive alone—
"Crazy as ever," one of them comments after a heavy pause, to the polite confusion of their accompanying professor. Dokja says some unflattering things in Korean about their ancestors, but it's fine because Joonghyuk and Sooyoung just smirk at him and take out honest-to-god wands to turn Dokja's bedsheets the ugliest shade of puke green he's ever seen.
It does take a good few minutes for Dokja to recover. Thankfully, the professor— who introduces himself as Professor Dormer— seems to chalk this up to his shock at the wand-waving sorcery, not anything as absurd as reincarnation. To be honest, Dokja is pretty surprised by the wands, too. It's very Harry Potter.
"Do I have other options for my education?" he asks the professor. Professor Dormer continues blithely ignoring everything strange about this encounter, including the fact that Dokja is clearly too eloquent for a seven-year-old, and explains all the other schools in other parts of the world. There's even one in Busan— "but of course," says the professor, "being a British citizen, one would have a much easier time receiving financial assistance if studying in a British school."
Dokja looks at Joonghyuk's smug face, and Sooyoung's raised eyebrows. He thinks about insisting on a different school, just to see those looks wiped off. In the end, though, there's really no choice at all.
"Where do I sign up?"
Joonghyuk's smirk softens into a genuine smile, and Sooyoung rolls her eyes.
"If I'd known," Dokja reflects, ducking under a swipe of Sooyoung's arm as she calls up a stone wall in front of them, "that being with the two of you again meant this, maybe I would've gone to Busan instead, and fuck the bloody scholarship."
Behind the wall, the manticore screams. The fight has been going on for longer than expected, which is probably why Sooyoung is taking out the vial of what she calls Abyssal Flame and Dokja calls Pyromania.
"You're forgetting exactly which one of us is the trouble magnet, Kim Dokja." Sooyoung throws the vial over the wall, and there's a heartbeat of silence before the white noise of an explosion and the sound of Joonghyuk cursing. "Oops," says Sooyoung, looking not at all repentant.
As if they're not just as prone to landing themselves in danger as he is. Unfortunately, Dokja can't take quite as many hits as he could back in their first life, and as such is relegated to support (like now) while Joonghyuk goes crazy with his ridiculous magic sword. They have actual wands for magic and could take care of everything from a safe distance, but no, Joonghyuk insists his sword is the most efficient tool. Dokja risks a peek over the wall and is disgruntled to find that Joonghyuk's sword is, in fact, proving to be scarily effective. There is something deeply unfair about how Joonghyuk has never lost his protagonist aura even in this world, so far removed from the first one.
"Joonghyuk-ah, stop playing and wrap it up!" Dokja calls, stifling a laugh when Joonghyuk scowls.
"Playing," Sooyoung scoffs, "you shouldn't be talking about playing when it's your damn playing with untested magic that summoned this thing in the first place."
In the next instant Joonghyuk's sword runs through the manticore's chest into its heart, so Dokja feels his comment is vindicated. Still, Sooyoung isn't wrong, and Dokja casually waves his wand to disappear the runic circle that the manticore appeared in. If there's no evidence, they can't pin anything on him. "I had a plan, alright?"
"I don't like your plans," Joonghyuk says. He's sweaty, and his arms are covered in blood from the manticore, and there's pieces of it caught in his hair, but he still looks as disgustingly handsome as he always does. The handsome attribute must be ingrained in his soul. "You always end up dying like an idiot."
"An idiot with tunnel vision," Sooyoung agrees.
"I don't do that anymore— and anyway, we had circumstances during the scenarios, you can't pretend my plans didn't work—"
"Yeah, yeah, we've heard it all before, stop trying to defend your lack of imagination." Sooyoung flicks her wand at Joonghyuk to clean up the worst of the mess. "You're just giving us work cleaning up after you."
Dokja looks away, biting the inside of his cheek to keep from saying something he'll regret. Adjusting to being in life-and-death situations again after their previous entirely mundane reincarnation wasn't something that he'd enjoyed, even if he had felt the need to play his part in the wizarding war (this might not be their home world, but they'd grown fond of it, after all). If he hadn't wanted to do something out of that vague sense of responsibility he'd developed from the time spent dragging the Company all the way to the End, it's probable that Joonghyuk and Sooyoung would have been perfectly happy just… leaving. Odds are they'd still want to fight dangerous creatures, but in another country without having to worry about crazy blood purists having a race war around them. They might be enjoying themselves right now, but who's to say they wouldn't have enjoyed it even more if he hadn't dragged them into this like he always does?
"Hey." Joonghyuk slaps the back of Dokja's head and doesn't take his hand away afterwards. Dokja leans into it, despite himself. "Don't think about stupid things. We're not really angry."
"Speak for yourself," mutters Sooyoung, but she bumps her shoulder against Dokja to take the sting out of it. He stamps down the immediate urge to change the subject.
"Are you sure?" he makes himself ask, vulnerable as he's grown to know how to be, around the two people who probably know him better than he knows himself. Joonghyuk grips his hair for a moment, then lets go, and Sooyoung elbows him in the stomach, and that's as good as an answer for them.
Han Sooyoung is a very quiet baby, more curious than anything about the strangeness of being an adult in such a feeble body. She doesn't like that she'll have to wait for the other two (who will surely come, she tells herself, grinding her fears into nothing) but Sooyoung is good at survival. She hates needing to be, but she is.
Then she rolls over in her crib, meets her twin brother's eyes for the first time, and the horrible light of realisation dawns on both of them.
"Fuck," Dokja says in English, as clearly enunciated as he can with his baby mouth, and their parents are horrified. Fuck, it seems, is a universal swear word even in China where they've been born, which Sooyoung finds immensely funny. She makes embarrassing baby gurgles of amusement and tries not to let on to Dokja that she's just so relieved that she won't have to wait for them.
This time around, the world is once again a peaceful one, and though Sooyoung will never admit it she's a little glad to be back somewhere she can write again. In a civilisation that's already invented the Internet, thank every deity ever. Growing up with Dokja, though, tests her patience like nothing else. He's yet to be rid of his exasperating low self-esteem, but he still has an endless font of baseless confidence when he's criticising her writing. The contradiction drives Sooyoung mad, and often they don't speak for weeks at a time because they've said too much in an argument, one too proud to apologise and one too resigned to suffering. For all that, Dokja remains an annoyingly consistent reader even when they're fighting, and their back-and-forth over the latest chapters of her webnovels fills the void that is Joonghyuk's absence for many years.
And then, because their lives are a cosmic joke, Dokja gets scouted after school by an idol company and is too bewildered to say no, and by the time he realises it's not actually some kind of prank he's been a trainee for an entire month. When he confesses his extracurricular activities to Sooyoung, she laughs herself sick.
"Just go with it," she advises him, while he's dithering about what to do. "Fame isn't a bad thing." He is quiet when she says this. They're both thinking about Joonghyuk, of course. It can't hurt to be visible, although they're both kidding themselves if they think Joonghyuk in any form is going to pay attention to idol groups. Sooyoung hopes he has a little sister who'll do it for him.
Regardless, Dokja takes to the idol life as well as he does anything— which is to say, he works himself to the bone and struggles through to his group's debut on nothing more than single-minded dedication. It's certainly not his talent that gets him there. He moves into the accommodation provided by his company, but more often than not he's sneaking out to collapse from exhaustion at Sooyoung's apartment because he still can't sleep well among people he doesn't trust. Sooyoung doesn't mention how it warms her to know that she's someone he does trust.
Joonghyuk shows up when Dokja's group has just released a breakthrough single, and it pisses both of them off to realise that he's been in the world of e-sports, again, and they just hadn't thought to look there. They'd been pretty sure he wouldn't have wanted to do the same thing again, but then, this Joonghyuk hasn't regained his memories yet. As it is, he and Dokja are lucky enough to meet when Dokja's group performs at the opening ceremony of one of Joonghyuk's tournaments.
"He dropped the microphone," Dokja whispers gleefully, the background of his voice message noisy with some fight going on between his other group members. "You should have seen his face. I just had to do my usual and I swear, I thought he was going to come right up on stage and punch me."
"If you tell me the same thing one more time I hope he does punch your ugly face," Sooyoung grumbles. "I'm not listening to any more of your messages so go flirt with the idiot properly and stop bothering people who're working real jobs."
True to her word, Sooyoung doesn't listen to the multiple voice messages Dokja sends in return, nor does she pay attention to his texts. Because honestly.
In a surprising turn of events, even after remembering their past lives, Joonghyuk wants to keep playing e-sports.
"It's not as boring as before," he explains, a smirk curling his lips. They're gathered in front of Sooyoung's computer in her apartment, listening to Joonghyuk describe the excessively complicated game known as Honour while he plays it. Sooyoung notices right away how much of his explanation revolves around his efforts to keep one particular rival player in check. She looks sidelong at Dokja and sees he's noticed it too. Unlike her own amusement, however, Dokja is frowning.
All of a sudden, a lot of things click in Sooyoung's mind.
She'd been joking about the flirting, but— well. That's going to be interesting.
In time, they all become famous to different degrees. Joonghyuk and Dokja can hardly avoid being mobbed by the adoring public if they're stupid enough to go out undisguised, so most of their downtime is just spent at one of their apartments. Sooyoung's face is of course the least known, but she's always been a homebody. It's not a hardship to stay in with them. She's also definitely the wealthiest, something she enjoys lording over Dokja because she's not over his unfairly rich days as the Demon King of Salvation.
One day, when they're safely away from paparazzi and ensconced in Sooyoung's new too-large apartment (they all know it's a matter of time until they move in together here, but no one's come out and said it yet), Dokja finally says something about his pathetically obvious jealousy.
"What's the story with you and that rival of yours, huh?" Sooyoung looks up from her laptop to eye Dokja narrowly. He's lounging on the sofa looking at his phone as though he doesn't care about the answer, but Sooyoung can read the tension of his shoulders like a book. Joonghyuk doesn't turn from the stove, though he's probably confused by the question, oblivious fool that he is.
"What story?" Joonghyuk asks in return, confirming Sooyoung's guess. "He's a good player."
Oh my god, Sooyoung mouths to herself, watching Dokja shrink back a little and swiftly change the subject. They're idiots. She might have to actually initiate the screenplay plan after all.
The screenplay plan is Sooyoung's homage to Dokja's constant Batman gambits in their first life, and involves her writing a screenplay specifically for Dokja and Joonghyuk to costar in, denying all involvement with the casting choice by publicly complaining about their dreadful acting, while simultaneously providing tabloids with numerous blind items about their supposed budding romance and then just waiting expectantly for them to stop being idiots and actually have a budding romance.
After some months of executing this plan, Sooyoung is very proud to say that it damn well works.
She even manages to die of natural causes in the end, though she doesn't live as long as probably Dokja and Joonghyuk were hoping. She doesn't mind. Sooyoung has never been so incandescently happy in all the lives they've lived as she is in just this moment, watching her boys curl into each other in their sleep. It's sappy. She thinks she'd probably have been disgusted by these feelings if this was their first life. Now, she can let herself appreciate a bit of romance, as long as they never find out.
They think this is their last go-round, anyway, since the memories have gone through each of them so far. With luck, this strange cycle will die with Sooyoung.
Joonghyuk opens his eyes again, again, with all the memories of his past four lives, and he knows in his bones that this is another cycle that will never, ever end. He spends this life in a haze of bitterness, that neither Sooyoung or Dokja can pull him from, painfully reminiscent of when he was a regressor instead of a reincarnator, with not even the scenarios to take his mind off his impotent rage.
Dokja tries to embrace it. They keep coming back to life but at least it's not the same, he tells them. At least it's not on endless repeat.
(He just can't help wishing that it was, even if that would devastate Joonghyuk in a way that their present situation, as similar as it is, does not. If he knew what would happen, he could control it. He can't control anything.)
Sooyoung leaves, in this life. She's trying something different— to break the cycle, she convinces herself, but really it's just so she can have her existential crisis somewhere they can't find her.
But she looks for them, anyway, in the end. She can't help it. Being alone with her memories is too much like Kaizenix, and she still isn't strong enough for that. She's not sure she'll ever be.
Joonghyuk doesn't bother trying any more. He's exhausted all his anger, and he knows something about eternity. More than that, though, is the fact that if he has to bear another curse like this, he's glad. He's glad, that of all people these are the two who will share his burden.
At last, Dokja and Sooyoung find their own roads to acceptance. Joonghyuk is glad they've finally caught up. This life is a good one— Sooyoung gets to live out her secret childhood ambition to be a shady private detective in a noir film, while Dokja attempts to keep her from breaking quite so many laws, with limited success. By mutual agreement, Joonghyuk (who is, once again, unnecessarily good-looking) plays the homme fatale.
They have fun again, finally, for the first time since their fourth life, and Dokja wretchedly wishes it could always be this way.
It is their tenth life: Sooyoung and Joonghyuk are fighting a thankless galactic war they don't even believe in, and they miss Dokja for so long that they begin to fracture.
"Yoo Joonghyuk," she says, she snarls, too angry to censor herself and uncaring of what the irrelevant tech staff think of their brilliant general suddenly speaking another language, "it has been twenty-five years. We might never find him— we don't even know why this happens after all this time! He might even already be—" and she snaps her mouth shut to trap the word so it can't escape to damn them. After a deep breath, she continues speaking, calmer now. "You can't keep being this reckless. I don't have the energy to lead this war and also deal with your regression depression."
Regression depression. After ten lifetimes she has figured out many of his new vulnerable places, but it's always the old hurts that make the sharpest weapons. This one, she knows, gets to Joonghyuk on a visceral level. It's such a twee phrase for something so terrible.
Joonghyuk looks at her a certain way sometimes, as though he's expected something else and is a little sad but not surprised that it isn't there. Sometimes he looks at Dokja that way too, so Sooyoung tries not to take it too personally. It's hard, now, when they're fighting.
"You've waited this long before. Alone, even. How is this different from Kaizenix? Or was it Kaizenix that turned you into a coward?"
Oh, she thinks, blankly.
She'd actually forgotten. Because of course Joonghyuk, too, has learned her. Sooyoung is thus unprepared for the rush of ancient grief that crashes into her, a relic of their first lives so long ago. Every new life she wakes up in— hell, every damn day, she tells herself she's over it. But loathe as she is to admit as much, Joonghyuk isn't entirely wrong. Those fifty years had changed her, tangled a knot of dread somewhere in the core of her that it's far too late to unpick. And after the scenarios, during that unbearable time when Joonghyuk hadn't contacted her and she'd thought he was gone— well. The knot is permanent, now. She looks him in the eye and sees that he's remembering that time too, and he's still not sorry for calling her a coward, the utter bastard.
Sooyoung has the sudden thought that without Dokja to balance them, they could so easily tear each other apart.
"Just go," she says at last, too tired to deal with this conversation any longer.
He uncrosses his arms and pushes off the wall, but he hesitates before walking out the door. "We'll find him. I think those are the rules," he offers, like an apology. "There are always rules. I had them too, back then. Even if I didn't know them."
When she doesn't respond, he leaves without another word. But she's thinking, what rules? She's thinking, you're just desperate. She's thinking, how can you still believe in anything after the lives we've had?
Sooyoung doesn't believe in arbitrary rules. Whatever higher existence is moving them around like pieces on its board could do anything it wanted to them and they couldn't do a thing about it. Rules only matter when you have power to affect the outcome, and Sooyoung is too cynical to think for a second that they have any power at all in this reincarnation game. She isn't the author, Dokja isn't the reader, and no matter what Joonghyuk might think, none of them are significant enough on the playing field to be protagonists.
Han Sooyoung, decorated general at the young age of thirty, meets the eyes of the enemy's own young general in a video parley across the emptiness of space, and watches the blood drain from his face as it does from her own. These are your rules, Yoo Joonghyuk, she thinks.
The old men on the advising council tell her this is Administrator Eduran, leader of the guerilla team who decimated General Khor's forces with nothing more than suicidal tactics two unnaturally quick raid ships. They tell her this is only his attempt to buy time for himself to escape, they tell her he and his people will never keep their word, that he will gladly lie to her face about this truce, that he has sullied the battlefield and deserves no honourable death in combat. Despite this, of course, he represents crucial intelligence that they need for the war.
They tell her she must bring him back alive to their investigators (their torturers) or face a tribunal herself.
"It's nice to put a face to the name," she drawls. With luck no one will have noticed her falter. Next to her, Joonghyuk shifts, doubtless remembering the absolute farce that was General Khor's tribunal. She really doesn't want to hand 'Eduran' over to the Empire, but if she doesn't figure out a sneaky enough solution she'll just be executed anyway. "Unfortunate that I'll have to take you in."
"Unfortunate," he echoes, muscles pulled tense. She wonders if the same horror rests cold in his gut, knowing that before this moment they could have killed each other and never known. Joonghyuk, at least, had met her early. They've had time to adapt to their memories. He only has these few hours before he'll have to lead his people against them. "I suppose that means there will be no truce."
"My council, you see. You've killed too many of our soldiers for them to let me offer you any sort of ceasefire."
She looks him in the eye, enemy leader Administrator Eduran, better known to her as Kim Dokja, and to her frustration recognises that she wouldn't have to do much at all, if she actually wanted to capture him. Dokja would give himself up for the certainty of preserving her life if he knew it was at stake. Even if it meant he could be letting the people he's fought with for decades die, even if it destroyed him, because no one in all the infinite universes has his loyalty like the two of them. Even now, she can see the resignation in his face, how he thinks he can only be the sacrificial lamb so that his people might escape, so that she and Joonghyuk won't have to think of another way.
"Then this meeting seems pointless," Dokja says, giving her a tight smile. "General." The holoscreen disappears.
Sooyoung clenches her fingers on the armrests of her chair for a moment, then stands before Joonghyuk can say anything too revealing. Fuck Dokja's plans, anyway. Hers are always better.
"With me," she orders, and doesn't look to see if he follows.
The strategy Sooyoung comes up with to save them is too risky, because she and Joonghyuk want all of them to survive together, not bend to Dokja's standard self-sacrificial bullshit. It reminds Sooyoung of that fraught time in their first life— when it had been just her and Joonghyuk, and her sending him on another impossible mission, and hoping to any god out there that her boys make it out alive. And she's staying behind again, to wait, to clean up after them so that they even have an after to come back to. She loathes it.
"Don't die," she says, two steps from pleading, her hand fisted in Joonghyuk's collar. Her bedroom is lit by starlight, constellations watching her even now. He reaches for her, slowly, so that she has time to move away. She doesn't. His hand is gentle when it tucks her hair behind her ear.
"You too," he says quietly.
In all their lives, Joonghyuk has never kissed her, but she lets him do it now, as inevitable as gravity, tries to absorb what comfort she can from the heat of his skin and the soft press of his tongue. "I'm so much cleverer than the both of you," she whispers into his mouth. "Of course I'll survive."
Sooyoung stages the battle near an unimportant planet, empty but for mining units, and drives Dokja's ship to crash into its atmosphere before he has the chance to try anything. She watches, heart in her throat, as his ship breaks apart— but there is the tiny white spot of a landing pod, and she breathes again. At her order to flank the enemy, Joonghyuk, piloting the mobile armour that their military gifted to him, breaks from the frontline. He's defecting, because she told him to. Because he's the only one who could keep Dokja alive.
His armour burns brilliantly, falling through the atmosphere, like he's become a star.
Sooyoung wrenches her eyes from the sight of him, turning back to the guerilla troops that are almost laughably easy to rout once Dokja isn't directing them. In the back of her mind she imagines Joonghyuk plucking Dokja from the wreckage of his landing pod, disappearing into the labyrinth of mines below the planet's surface, dodging the drones that must already have been sent out to search for them. Live, she thinks, almost a prayer.
When her lieutenants bring her the captives of Dokja's people, she orders them all killed, down to the last woman and child. Her subordinates need to believe she's furious at Joonghyuk's betrayal, and they do, but the truth is Sooyoung has never felt so cold.
The council lets her off easy despite her failure to secure any information, because they can't afford to lose another general now that they think they've lost their best pilot to the other side, and Sooyoung— Sooyoung takes all of her pain and her desperation and her loneliness and she wins the goddamn war.
"I can't believe I was doing all that work while you two were off in this fucking island paradise."
(They are not, of course, in any kind of island paradise; Dokja doesn't love himself enough to live in comfort after being forced to abandon his people, even if it was for something as vital as the two of them. Joonghyuk is probably feeling guilty about his part in the plan as well, and that's why he hasn't strong-armed Dokja into living somewhere better. Idiots. They're not the ones with oceans of blood on their hands.)
(She's going to have to deal with that at some point.)
Sooyoung ignores the gun that Joonghyuk's reflexively pulled on her and throws herself on the nearest soft surface, which happens to be a mattress that Dokja is already occupying. He chokes, almost shoves her away, then settles at once when she puts her hand on his chest. She's spent four years after the war just looking for them. His heartbeat, a little quick but steady and real against her palm, is worth it.
"Sooyoung," he says, in a voice made fragile by disbelief. "I thought—"
"Shut up. The whole star system would know if I died, I'm a fucking war hero."
Warm arms encircle her from behind, and she sighs, revelling in it. "I told him you'd come," Joonghyuk says. His lips brush her neck, and she shivers.
"Here I am. How are you going to make it up to me?"
Dokja, tears clinging to his stupid long eyelashes, opens his mouth to say something, and Sooyoung decides she doesn't have the patience for it. So she kisses him instead, her hand still pressed to his heart, feeling how it beats faster and faster the more she explores this new territory. Joonghyuk's heart is racing too, as is her own. Like this, so close that they breathe each others' breath, it seems incredible that this should be the first time all three of them fall into bed together. Sooyoung runs her thumbs across the soft skin under Dokja's eyes.
"I'm sorry," he whispers.
"I need you," she tells him, bluntly. Joonghyuk's arms tighten around them both. "We, the three of us, we need each other. I don't care if I have to make the hard decisions every single time now because you're too soft, or just too fucking stupid. Don't be sorry you couldn't give us up."
Dokja's fingers wind in her hair, and in Joonghyuk's hair too. "Only if," he swallows, weathering the glare Joonghyuk must be giving him, "only if you two aren't sorry, either."
They can't promise each other anything, not when they don't know what kind of lives they'll live the next time around. But— Sooyoung tucks her head into the crook of Dokja's neck, and Joonghyuk leans past her to kiss him— but perhaps it's enough just that they want to. That they're together despite all the odds, that they've become so irrevocably tangled they couldn't give each other up even if they wanted to.
Sooyoung can't say if it's love; she's written about love before. This isn't anything so beautiful.
She thinks she's okay with that.