“Aren’t you two a little too old for this now?” Kim Dokja says, doing his best to lie as still as possible.
Lee Gilyoung winces as his spine digs into the unforgiving hospital bed railing. Out of everyone, aside from those who didn’t partake in the group regression, Kim Dokja thinks Lee Gilyoung has changed the most, physically speaking. Much like himself, Lee Gilyoung is more on the lanky side than he is broad, but Kim Dokja’s still dreading standing upright next to him, as he suspects that the boy has just barely surpassed him in height.
“Maybe it would have been better if hyung had stayed little after all,” Lee Gilyoung is muttering, twisting his body this way and that in an effort to get more comfortable, and nearly elbowing Kim Dokja in the ribs for his trouble.
“Isn’t the issue here that you’re too big?” Shin Yoosung throws a glare over at Lee Gilyoung, her chin digging painfully into Kim Dokja’s shoulder, “Ahjussi’s an adult, why would he still want to look fifteen?”
“Shut up,” Lee Gilyoung shoots back, evidently self conscious. “And what’s wrong with it? It doesn’t matter what he looks like.”
“It doesn’t,” Shin Yoosung concedes, wrapping her arms around Kim Dokja’s left forearm, clinging to him. “It would just complicate things, is all.”
Not about to be one-upped, Lee Gilyoung mirrors her action, but squeezes a bit too tight, causing Kim Dokja to let out a sad little wheeze. Lee Gilyoung’s eyes flicker up to his face apologetically for half a second before he resumes glaring at the other teenager. “Complicate? Like what?”
“Like—” Shin Yoosung raises her voice, then blushes faintly, turning her tawny-brown eyes to momentarily peek up at Kim Dokja as well. Kim Dokja’s not sure if he’s following the conversation anymore. Shin Yoosung sinks back into the mattress, closing her eyes with a sigh. “Nevermind, you’re such a kid.”
“You’re such a kid,” Lee Gilyoung parrots, pitching his voice higher into an affected feminine cadence, which launches the pair into another round of petty squabbling that Kim Dokja couldn't possibly hope to keep up with.
Puffball-sized and nestled at the crown of Kim Dokja’s hair, Biyoo sits, perfectly comfortable and unbothered.
Is no one going to help me out here? Kim Dokja thinks, helplessly looking over to where Jung Heewon and Lee Hyunsung are standing together just off to the side.
Jung Heewon is holding up her phone in a way that she probably thinks is inconspicuous, but it’s as clear as day to Kim Dokja that at least ten other people are going to have multiple photos or even a video of his current predicament sent to their inboxes and saved to their own camera rolls by the end of the hour. Lee Hyunsung, on the other hand, looks a bit like he’s trying to decide if he could fit in the bed with Kim Dokja himself, and the thought alone is enough to frighten Kim Dokja half to death.
Salvation, ironically enough, comes in the form of Yoo Sangah breezing in through the doorway in a recently pressed, steel grey pantsuit with two large bags of takeout from a nearby restaurant in her arms. Lee Jihye leisurely trails in after her, holding a drink carrier filled with those expensive, sugary coffee drinks topped with whipped cream that Kim Dokja had never wanted to spend the money to try before the scenarios began. He kind of hopes one is for him.
Lee Jihye comes to an abrupt halt, looking wide-eyed at the two teenagers and miniature dokkaebi king piled half on top of a bedridden Kim Dokja, and starts laughing so hard she nearly spills the drinks. She sounds, Kim Dokja thinks, alarmingly like Han Sooyoung when she laughs like that, which he’s sure her master is just thrilled about.
Taking in the sight, Yoo Sangah gives Kim Dokja one of her small, bewildered smiles. “Dokja-ssi? Are you… comfortable like that?” she asks, her bell-like voice nearly drowned out by Lee Jihye’s howling and the kids’ relentless bickering.
“No,” Kim Dokja smiles back politely. “Please help.”
The kids look thoroughly admonished as they clamber out of the bed at Yoo Sangah’s request so that they can all eat. Biyoo, however, remains in her spot atop Kim Dokja’s head, practically radiating smugness at the fact.
As it turns out, the drink is kind of disgusting, but Kim Dokja continues to sip at it in favor of the actual meal, all the while avoiding Yoo Sangah’s increasingly imploring glances to guilt him into eating more. The amount of chairs that have been dragged into the single hospital room is probably some sort of safety hazard, and somehow Kim Dokja doesn’t think that the staff here at Lee Seolhwa’s hospital encourage the visitors to bring patients takeout and caffeinated beverages with a high enough sugar content to kill a sixteenth century peasant.
Thankfully, Kim Dokja isn’t the average patient — or very much human anymore, for that matter.
After the long period of stasis, his legs have almost completely atrophied, and his arms are weaker and more stick-like than they’ve ever been. What’s more, it’s not exactly standard for a body to age fifteen years in the time that it takes to read a manuscript, his stories having returned to him one by one, and he still cringes at the memory of sitting up and feeling his organs fall into place.
At first, he had been on a constant rotation of story packs, and his story stability levels on the ICU monitor were closely supervised around the clock. Now, Kim Dokja isn’t hooked up to any machines at all, and the nurses come by infrequently, typically just whenever he calls on them to help him walk to and from the bathroom and shower. He’s trying to be diligent as possible with his physical therapy, however, if only because sitting in the same uncomfortable bed all day is like a slow-acting form of torture.
Visiting hours, of course, are unrestricted for the members of his company, and Kim Dokja can admit that being closely acquainted with the hospital ward’s head physician had its perks.
He’s essentially living in a particularly Spartan hotel room that comes with very hands-on room service, and if it wasn’t for his slow-to-redevelop motor skills and… arbitrary mental stability, he’d be free to go on his merry way.
Not that the hospital has much say in what Kim Dokja does and doesn’t do, his extended stay here being completely at the behest of his companions, particularly Lee Seolhwa’s nagging.
Well, at least now I don’t have to worry about rent, Kim Dokja thinks blithely, finally giving in to Yoo Sangah’s puppy dog eyes and taking another bite of chicken.
“Sooyoung has a lecture right now, but she told me to tell you that she’ll be dropping by later this evening with some new reading material for you, Dokja-ssi,” Yoo Sangah tells him later as she gathers the empty takeout bags after the rest have taken their leave. Lee Jihye had brought it upon herself to herd out Biyoo and the reluctant teenagers while Jung Heewon and Lee Hyunsung both went their separate ways after they had accidentally stood up to leave in perfect unison.
Yoo Sangah doing away with the honorifics for Han Sooyoung’s name is new to Kim Dokja — just like how Lee Gilyoung and Shin Yoosung’s heights are new, or how Lee Jihye wears light makeup now, or the fact that Jung Heewon and Lee Hyunsung apparently aren’t a couple anymore, but can’t seem to help themselves from gravitating towards one another in spite of it.
“Really?” Kim Dokja says, visibly perking up at the news. He’s been absolutely bored out of his skull, as no one’s taken pity on him and gotten him a new phone just yet, so physical novels are a decent compromise. He’d only use a phone to read, anyhow. “That’s great.”
Yoo Sangah smiles at him, fond. “I thought you’d like that.”
Having thrown out any trash and pulled back the chairs, Yoo Sangah hums, scanning the area for anything else that she can do, ever the busybody. She suddenly lets out a little Oh, then picks up the styrofoam cup sitting on Kim Dokja’s bedside table, hurrying into the ensuite bathroom with it. Kim Dokja listens to the tap water turn on and off, and then Yoo Sangah is re-emerging seconds later, exclaiming, “Almost forgot to water the flowers!”
Right, the flowers, how could anyone forget. Kim Dokja’s hospital room could probably pass for an offshoot gift shop by now, what with the sheer amount of floral arrangements taking up any and all available flat surfaces. Any more and he’ll have to start worrying about his allergies flaring up.
Looking at them makes Kim Dokja wonder just when was it that he got to know so many people — people who would bring him flowers while he was in the hospital, at that. He remembers thinking something in a similar vein when he had first woken up too, surrounded by familiar faces and watery smiles.
Woke up surrounded by the people that he loved and had missed, when he had spent the first twenty-eight years of his life waking up alone.
He also remembers, Kim Dokja twists the thin bed sheet under his hands, how his eyes had inadvertently sought out one person in particular, and eventually found them hanging back towards the front of the room, leaning against the wall nearest to the door.
Yoo Joonghyuk had looked up at him then, as though sensing Kim Dokja’s eyes on him across the crowded room, and gave him a small, tight nod. Kim Dokja’s view was quickly obscured again, his attention stolen away, and when he had looked back up to the space that Yoo Joonghyuk once occupied, the man was gone.
It was all that Kim Dokja had seen of Yoo Joonghyuk since his return, which had been a little over a week ago.
“Yoo Sangah-ssi,” Kim Dokja abruptly calls out.
“Hm?” Yoo Sangah hums inquisitively, her back towards Kim Dokja and hovering over the flowers like a little honey bee, tending to them.
“Have you, perhaps,” Kim Dokja licks at his lips, feeling that they’ve gone dry suddenly, “seen or heard from Yoo Joonghyuk, at all recently?”
Yoo Sangah goes still, then quietly sets the styrofoam cup down next to a bouquet on the window sill. She goes over to the chair nearest to his bedside and takes a seat, folding her hands in her lap and looking steadily at him. “I haven’t.”
“I see,” Kim Dokja says, a bit lamely. He’s not really sure what he had expected; he probably would have yielded better results asking Lee Jihye, but he wouldn’t have wanted to say anything with so many people in the room.
Yoo Sangah worries her lip between her teeth, thinking over something carefully, then, “Joonghyuk-ssi disappears off on his own occasionally, particularly after the group regression. I don’t think he ever goes very far, or is gone for very long though, not with Yoo Mia here. Are you w—”
“I’m not worried,” Kim Dokja cuts in, too quickly, and barely conceals a wince. “I know that guy can take care of himself.”
Sure, he knows that Yoo Joonghyuk can take care of himself, but something inside of him wilts a bit, hearing that Yoo Joonghyuk has still been spending so much time alone. He remembers how the Fourth Wall had narrated his own thoughts to him back during the Journey to the West remake, how Kim Dokja had wondered what his companions thought of Yoo Joonghyuk when he wasn’t there with him.
Kim Dokja had wanted… Yoo Joonghyuk to stay with the others, even when Kim Dokja wasn’t around anymore, and it sounded like that had even been the case, at least for a little while. Yoo Joonghyuk being the one to propose the group regression was proof of that, but clearly that progress had been slightly offset when they had failed to actually bring Kim Dokja back.
“I’m not asking about that, Dokja-ssi,” Yoo Sangah says quietly, looking down at her folded hands. “I meant, are you worried, that he hasn’t come to see you yet?”
And that was what he had implied, asking her about Yoo Joonghyuk in the first place, wasn’t it?
Kim Dokja doesn’t reply, so Yoo Sangah continues on, “I think we all really missed you, and wanted you back, Sooyoung and Joonghyuk-ssi in particular. I understand that your relationship with Joonghyuk-ssi is a bit different, however—”
“That’s a misunderstanding,” Kim Dokja calmly corrects, for what feels like the hundredth time. “We really aren’t like that.”
“Oh, I know you two aren’t and were never in a relationship,” Yoo Sangah quickly amends, but then looks up at him through her eyelashes with a sense of gentle understanding, “but Dokja-ssi, I know. It’s okay.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” he says.
“I’m a former librarian, remember?” Yoo Sangah smiles, somewhat secretively, her head tilting a bit to one side and her chestnut-tinted hair spilling over her shoulder.
Right, she was that. It occurs to Kim Dokja then that, out of everyone he knows, Yoo Sangah is perhaps the most privy to the structure of his inner thought process and the significance that certain things hold for him. It… doesn’t bother Kim Dokja as much as he thinks it should, he realizes, looking at Yoo Sangah lit up from behind, the sunlight streaming in through the large glass window, beautiful in the way that sort of makes you want to cry.
She’s trustworthy, like that.
“Okay,” he says, a quiet admission. It’s okay.
Despite being clearly pleased with the rare display of candidness, Yoo Sangah returns to the topic at hand, mercifully mindful of not dwelling too long on things that Kim Dokja isn’t entirely comfortable speaking about.
“Your relationship with Joonghyuk-ssi is a bit different,” she reiterates, “so, in retrospect, I understand why he handled things as poorly as he did. At the time, however, I thought he was being a bit of a brat, what with the terrorism and all—”
“Like I said, we all missed you, but he was the only one who seemed to refuse to move on and adapt to the new circumstances. I was kind of hoping that Sooyoung would crush him—”
“But I suppose things worked out in the end, regardless,” Yoo Sangah finishes, leaning back in her seat. She looks over at Kim Dokja, who now feels even more bewildered than before the conversation started, and sighs, “Oh, what I mean to say, Dokja-ssi, is that you’re important to him.”
“But not,” Kim Dokja replies, shifting his gaze to look out the window, “important enough to say a single word to me, apparently.”
Yoo Sangah opens and closes her mouth for a moment, then slowly rises from her chair, moving back over to the flowers. She picks up the styrofoam cup, empty now, and rolls it between her palms as she stares through the glass, so that they’re both looking out at the same sky.
“For some people, I think,” Yoo Sangah deliberates, “the more important something is, the harder it is for them to find the proper words to express it.”
Recovery is a nonlinear process. There are good days, there are worse days, and then there are days in which Kim Dokja still hasn’t gotten off the subway.
Pivoted grip handles form parallel lines and run down the edges of the hospital room ceiling like small, plastic nooses. The whole room jostles from time to time at an imperfect rhythm, and there’s the familiar low hum of the carriage gliding along the rails.
The curtain sways, the flowers wilt.
The television is lit up and airing reruns of a film series he knows all the parts to. There are thousands of channels, and they all play more or less the same story with the same characters and setting.
When Kim Dokja turns his head to look out the window, he looks out into eternity.
Eventually, the subway doors slide open to allow new passengers to board. Kim Dokja knows each and every person who embarks, and he knows he’s supposed to be watching them now, but he keeps his eyes on the television or window instead.
After all these years, it still hurts to see them there without him.
Undeterred, the other passengers still attempt to converse with him to the best of their abilities, though their words often sound tinny and distant to Kim Dokja’s ears, as though they were trying to speak to him from the next carriage over. Sometimes they’ll hold his hand in theirs or lightly cup his cheek, and if his eyes ever start to leak, someone will reach over and dry them for him.
They take turns riding with him, for hours or for minutes, but they each have their own stop in which they must depart, and Kim Dokja is glad for it. He’ll wake up on his own soon enough; the next day will be better. He will be better.
It is on one of these days that a sole passenger steps onto the carriage through the sliding doors. Kim Dokja distantly notes that the stride and footsteps of this occupant are distinct to him, not only in their quality, but rarity. It’s the presence belonging to an individual that Kim Dokja would recognize at the world’s end, whether it be in life or death.
Said individual lightly pulls back the curtain, and stands over Kim Dokja’s bed, sure-footed despite the sudden lurch of the train pulling away from the platform. There’s a long pause, then deft fingers capture his chin, gripping roughly before remembering to be gentle, easing up into a firm hold. Kim Dokja can’t say he really minds either way.
The scarred hand guides Kim Dokja to look up into its owner’s eyes, and Kim Dokja is finally met with a face he irrationally finds himself comparing every other one he sees to.
Yoo Joonghyuk stares back at him for a moment, gaze assessing, before his fingers slide up to the edge of Kim Dokja’s jaw and tilts his head to the opposite side. Kim Dokja’s cheek brushes against the pillow, and then he’s looking out through the window again.
The train picks up speed.
Yoo Joonghyuk walks around the hospital bed and steps into Kim Dokja’s line of sight in front of the window, black coat and hair bleeding into the obscurity of space. He takes a seat beside the bed with the same imposing grace with which he would unsheathe a sword.
Even in his dreaming state, Kim Dokja can’t really imagine this person holding his hand or speaking to him in dulcet tones like the others do. He never asked for these things, especially not from Yoo Joonghyuk, but he feels a helpless sort of frustration rise within him as he lies there, motionless and edging the precipice of oblivion.
Jerk, why did you come? The next breath Kim Dokja takes in burns; his eyes and nose start to sting. I’ve been waiting all this time, so why did you only come now, when I’m like this? More than anyone else, I wanted…
Head tilted to the side, when Kim Dokja’s silent, frustrated tears spill over, they slide from one eye to the other and run down in a single line across his face, seeping into the pillow.
Despite Kim Dokja’s talent for unobtrusive misery, Yoo Joonghyuk notices the tears almost immediately. He startles somewhat, then goes very still, as though he had just been intercepted by some sort of horrible, unknown beast. At any other time, in any other state of mind, Kim Dokja would have found it quite funny.
Yoo Joonghyuk does not reach over to dry his tears, but instead shifts in his seat, then casts a glance over to the chair beside him, where Kim Dokja’s stack of unread books have been left. He presses his lips together in a hard line, considering, before slowly picking up the first novel from the top of the pile.
It’s one of the paperback ones, Kim Dokja notices, as Yoo Joonghyuk quickly flips through the pages. A lighter read from the collection of published webnovels that Han Sooyoung had dropped off for him. Yoo Joonghyuk flips back to the first page, wetting his lips.
Kim Dokja’s eyesight goes blurry, no longer seeing Yoo Joonghyuk’s dark form against the watery streaks of starlight, so it’s a surprise when a low and familiar voice rises above the dull reverberations of the train.
Kim Dokja can barely make out the words being said, and for a moment he thinks Yoo Joonghyuk is actually trying to tell him something. He strains to focus his senses again, and his lips part in muted shock when his clouded mind finally manages a weak hold on his surroundings.
Yoo Joonghyuk is reading aloud to him.
And Kim Dokja almost thinks it would be less shocking if Yoo Joonghyuk really had just held his hand and told him about his day, and he wants to make out the other man’s words with such intensity that he’s nearly frantic with it.
Aside from the Fourth Wall, Kim Dokja never had any reliable way to measure the passage of time on this lonely voyage, but he eventually wills the tears to stop and for his breathing to slow. His eyes grow tired and slip closed, but he steadfastly continues to work on isolating the sound of Yoo Joonghyuk’s voice from the ambient noise, centering his focus solely on parsing out the words and their meaning as one would study a foreign language.
At some point the sound of the train fades away, and not long after that, Yoo Joonghyuk’s voice tapers off as well.
When Kim Dokja opens his eyes again, the glow of twilight paints the hospital room in a dream-like periwinkle, and the only sounds to be heard are the muffled birdsong from outside and the hushed chatter of the hospital staff just beyond the door.
Yoo Joonghyuk still sits in the chair beside Kim Dokja’s bed, arms crossed and head dipped, eyes closed. The paperback novel is laid atop Yoo Joonghyuk’s thigh, closed with the backside facing upwards in display of completion.
Kim Dokja looks over at him, blinking once, then twice.
He got off the subway.
Kim Dokja always finds his way back to this world eventually, but this was the first time that he’s managed to pull himself back while someone was still with him, because someone was still with him, and that’s…
“Yoo Joonghyuk?” Kim Dokja calls out, cautious, bracing a hand against the bed railing to help himself sit upright. He always feels like complete shit after he comes to, and he brings up his wrist to rub off the thin crust of dried tears left on his cheek.
At the sound of his name, Yoo Joonghyuk’s eyes snap open at once. His dark gaze immediately strikes Kim Dokja, pinning him there, an arrow that never misses its target.
“Kim Dokja,” Yoo Joonghyuk’s voice comes out hoarse in a tight rasp. He frowns, and raises a large hand to gingerly massage the skin at his larynx.
Which was all the confirmation that Kim Dokja needed to know that Yoo Joonghyuk had, in fact, just spent what was probably the better part of the day reading a webnovel aloud to a semi-catatonic man whom he hasn’t had a genuine conversation with in an incalculable number of years.
Yoo Joonghyuk’s probably never talked more in one sitting in his entire life, and Kim Dokja can’t even bring himself to care that he’s probably making a face right now.
“Why did you…” Kim Dokja tries, gaze falling back to the novel sitting in the other man’s lap.
Yoo Joonghyuk’s face smooths out, and he drops the hand at his throat to pick up the novel, flipping it over to examine the cover art dispassionately.
“Did you enjoy it?” Yoo Joonghyuk asks measuredly, his voice still somewhat scratchy.
“Come again?” Kim Dokja replies, caught off guard.
“Did you enjoy the story?” repeats Yoo Joonghyuk.
Kim Dokja’s forehead creases in confusion, and he wearily glances around the room like the right thing to say might be written in dry-erase marker on the white board that the nurses use to mark off how many laps he’s completed around the hall that week.
“Sure,” is what Kim Dokja eventually settles on. In the end, he hadn’t retained a word from the novel or had any guess as to what the plot was about, but trying to follow along with the cadence of Yoo Joonghyuk’s voice as he steadily read though written word had evidently been much more effective in bringing him back down to earth than idle chit-chat or physical contact had been.
“Good,” Yoo Joonghyuk says, standing up fluidly from his seat. He tosses the novel down on top of Kim Dokja’s completed stack of books on the floor next to his bed. Kim Dokja looks down at it for a moment, trying to determine if he felt up to actually reading the entire thing in one go tonight. Surely, if Yoo Joonghyuk could read it aloud in a day, then Kim Dokja could have it completed within a night.
When he looks back up, Yoo Joonghyuk is still standing there, but in the time that Kim Dokja had been looking away, Yoo Joonghyuk had pulled something out of his pocket to peer down at. Kim Dokja squints, trying to make out the object in the other man’s hand in the low light, and the metallic glint of a chain has his eyes widening again in surprise.
“You…” Kim Dokja’s voice has a strange quality to his own ears when he asks, “when did you take that back?”
He still remembers how it felt, looking down at the pocket watch occupying the space on the bed where Yoo Joonghyuk had lied. He remembers following the thin secondhand with his eyes, chest physically hurting, and thinking that he had been very silly.
Silly for thinking that Yoo Joonghyuk would want a physical reminder to live in the present, to value the time and life that he had here, in this regression, from Kim Dokja of all people. It felt like Kim Dokja had carved out a small piece of himself to give to Yoo Joonghyuk, only to have that piece eventually thrown back in his face, except now, after having been worn by someone else, it didn’t quite fit right anymore. Kim Dokja had kept the watch after that, but not once had he ever considered it to belong to himself.
It only occurs to Kim Dokja now, that this is the first time either of them has verbally acknowledged the presence of this item between them, Kim Dokja being the first to break the tacit exchange by asking Yoo Joonghyuk that surprised question.
And shit, just why does he feel so embarrassed about that?
Yoo Joonghyuk looks up from the watch to study Kim Dokja with the same scrutiny that he had used to check the time. For a lengthy moment, Kim Dokja thinks that the other man just isn’t going to answer him, but then Yoo Joonghyuk replies, “Your mother returned it to me.”
Kim Dokja… doesn’t think that anything in the world could have prepared him for that answer. In fact, he could have read this exact scene verbatim in prophetic text months beforehand, and he still would have been surprised to hear those words come from Yoo Joonghyuk’s mouth.
“My mother gave you back the pocket watch,” Kim Dokja says slowly, tone dry enough to convey the amount of incredulity that he feels towards the statement.
“She gave it to me before I left to distribute the manuscript across the other world-line,” Yoo Joonghyuk tells him, shifting on his feet to fully face Kim Dokja. The twilight’s fading fast though, and it’s getting harder and harder for Kim Dokja to make out the features of his face. “She told me that she had found it among your things, but thought that it looked like it belonged to me.”
It’s a loaded statement. Perhaps for anyone else it would be an inconsequential thing to do, for Lee Sookyung to give Yoo Joonghyuk back the watch that Kim Dokja had gifted him, but Kim Dokja knows enough about his mother to understand that you often needed to read between the lines with her.
Kim Dokja has never spent a great deal of time thinking about the intricacies of his parents’ relationship, especially not as a child, but years after having been removed from the situation, he has been able to make some vague inferences about it.
Namely, the reason why Kim Dokja had gone his whole childhood never having heard so much as a single ‘I love you,’ from his mother was not just because Lee Sookyung was an extraordinarily reserved woman, but most likely because his father had been an extraordinarily jealous man, even towards his own son.
As a result, Lee Sookyung has always had to find different, indirect ways to show Kim Dokja that she loves him, but Kim Dokja can admit that he’s never exactly been the most perceptive of people, beyond what he can read on a page.
Sometimes not even then, as he’s come to find.
Kim Dokja understands that his mother’s relationship with Yoo Joonghyuk is… strained, having heard from Yoo Joonghyuk himself that Lee Sookyung ‘doesn’t like him.’ It’s impossible for her not to know what Yoo Joonghyuk means to him, however, and even if Kim Dokja has never told her about the watch, it’s entirely possible that she had seen Yoo Joonghyuk with it before.
As for what she was trying to imply by finding that watch within Kim Dokja’s belongings and personally handing it back over to Yoo Joonghyuk before he left on a mission that no one was certain he would return from, Kim Dokja doesn’t…
“What?” Kim Dokja replies distractedly, still in his own head.
“Stop thinking,” Yoo Joonghyuk tells him. “You’re bad at it.”
That— What was that? Humor? Was Yoo Joonghyuk trying to crack jokes now? Maybe Kim Dokja would be feeling a bit proud of the guy if he wasn’t already coming down from an extended lapse of sanity.
Having no response to that, he can only look up at Yoo Joonghyuk somewhat pitifully, feeling lost. Yoo Joonghyuk makes a quiet noise at the back of his throat, entirely vague, then turns away from him, pocketing the watch.
“I’ll return tomorrow afternoon. I need to speak with you,” Yoo Joonghyuk tells him as he moves across the room. Kim Dokja wryly reflects that, at the very least, the bastard’s manner of speech is consistent, even if his behavior only becomes increasingly more erratic. Long fingers wrap around the door handle before pausing, and Yoo Joonghyuk glances back over his shoulder with narrowed eyes. “Stay here.”
And that, Kim Dokja can understand, because he also wants to be as mentally present as he is physically the next time Yoo Joonghyuk sees him, but something about this man always makes Kim Dokja want to push back a little.
“I wonder why it is,” Kim Dokja feels the corners of his lips curl upward, “that you seem to be under the impression that I’m some sort of world renowned escape artist.”
“I wonder,” is Yoo Joonghyuk’s reply, as flat as it is immediate, and Kim Dokja lets out a little huff of what might be laughter as Yoo Joonghyuk steps through the doorway and closes it shut with a click.
Alone again, Kim Dokja sighs, then reaches to turn on a light, wincing at the glare. Doubtful that he’ll be going back to sleep anytime soon, Kim Dokja carefully bends over the side of the bed to retrieve the novel.
“So,” Han Sooyoung says blandly, pulling a lemon lollipop away from her lips, “you relapsed yesterday, but of course this was the day that guy decided that he was finally going to visit you. Which, by the way, he made very clear by issuing a warning for no one else to come up—”
“Wait, what?” Kim Dokja interrupts. “He told you that he was coming? All of you? When?”
“In the group chat,” Han Sooyoung supplies, like it’s obvious, sticking the candy back into her mouth.
“You guys… have a group chat?” He frowns, the information entirely new to him. “Without me?”
“You don’t have a phone.”
“As I’ve been saying—”
“Anyways,” Han Sooyoung waves a dismissive hand as she plows on, unremorseful, “he saw that you were unresponsive, so he started reading to you, except this was actually effective, and you snapped out of it quicker than you usually do.”
Kim Dokja sighs, “Yes, that’s right.”
“Hm,” Han Sooyoung hums, thoughtful. She slumps down further in her seat in an effort to get more comfortable. It’s evidently not enough, however, and she lets out a little growl of frustration, toeing off her shoes and then kicking her feet up onto the bed, her small legs overlapping Kim Dokja’s larger ones. Kim Dokja half-heartedly bumps his feet in an attempt to dislodge her, but she easily overpowers him and presses down harder in retaliation.
“Well, it’s not a bad idea, I’ll give him that. I’ll let the others know so that they can try it out next time too,” she eventually decides. “So he reads to you, you wake up, and then he just… leaves? All he told you was that he needed to talk to you and that he’d be back this afternoon?”
Kim Dokja nods. He had purposely excluded the conversation regarding the pocket watch in his recount of yesterday’s events, as he still felt the inexplicable need to keep the matter under wraps, and the small omission didn’t necessarily take away from the larger picture. He realizes now, however, that this might make it seem like Yoo Joonghyuk had been especially laconic with him during their quasi-reunion, but it’s far from unbelievable.
“Unbelievable,” Han Sooyoung says, rolling her eyes.
“Well,” Kim Dokja finds himself coming to Yoo Joonghyuk’s defense, privately admitting to his own fault, “that’s just his personality, so…”
“Could you be any more whipped?” mutters Han Sooyoung.
Kim Dokja suddenly finds himself taking great interest in the ceiling tiles. He’s already counted them once before, but he supposes it doesn’t hurt to double or triple check.
“Ugh,” Han Sooyoung gives in, running a hand down her face. “I’m just saying, if I didn’t know what he was up to, I’d be way less lenient with him right now than you are, that’s for sure.”
“You sound so certain,” Kim Dokja suddenly says, eyes still on the ceiling, “about what it is that he wants to talk to me about.”
“Do you really not know?” Han Sooyoung asks, her legs shifting on top of his.
“I know what you all seem to think — I’m not completely oblivious,” he ignores Han Sooyoung’s disbelieving snort at that, “it’s just that I know what you think is wrong, so I choose to ignore it.”
“I always figured that’s how your mind worked, but hearing you admit to it out loud really freaking pisses me off,” grouses Han Sooyoung, kicking at him. “Okay, Yoo Joonghyuk whisperer, then what do you think he wants to talk to you about?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Kim Dokja runs his tongue along his teeth, then finally rips his eyes down from the ceiling to look back at Han Sooyoung. “About my identity as the sponsor behind the great tragedy of his life, maybe?”
Han Sooyoung goes very still, then, “You think he blames you?”
“Secretive Plotter did,” Kim Dokja replies.
“And he forgave you,” is Han Sooyoung’s fierce insistence. The words make something inside Kim Dokja’s mind shutter however, and she must see it in his eyes, because her face screws up into something complicated.
They sit there in hard silence for a long while, until Han Sooyoung finally speaks up quietly, “Hey… I’m— Okay, we won't talk about it anymore. You guys will work it out in that weird way of yours, just like you always do.”
Kim Dokja dips his head in a slow nod. Han Sooyoung breathes out, then nudges his foot with hers, goading, “So tell me about the novel that you got that bastard to read aloud to you like some kind of bedtime story. I hope it was a romance. A really cheesy one.”
“You know better than to get me any romance novels, I’d hope,” Kim Dokja huffs out a laugh, accepting the olive branch. “And I could hardly understand a thing when he read it to me, so I spent all of last night reading it myself. It was that short science fiction webnovel; the political fantasy was well done, though I found the protagonist to be rather lacking—”
The conversation eventually dissolves into an exchange of preferences and what they were and were not willing to compromise on when it came to what they wanted to read. Han Sooyoung is far more discerning than him in nearly all aspects, and when she makes the assertion that he’ll put up with ‘just about damn near anything’ as long as he likes the characters enough, he can’t even really refute her. She would know better than anyone else, after all.
She’s telling him now how Yoo Sangah had somehow roped her into trying out Murakami Haruki’s work, and Han Sooyoung’s voice steadily rises an octave or two as she attempts to convey to him the absolute state the sex scenes in these novels are in, on top of what seems to be a general distaste that she holds for the writing in general.
“How can she read that? How can she like that? What is wrong with her? Horrible taste, the both of you,” Han Sooyoung huffs, throwing up her hands.
“Oh,” Kim Dokja says, “you’re doing it again.”
“What?” she groans, leaning back in her chair with her forearm cast over her eyes.
“It’s nothing,” Kim Dokja says with feigned casualness, “just that, lately, you somehow always manage to bring the conversation back to Yoo Sangah-ssi…?”
Han Sooyoung goes still for the second time that afternoon, then slowly lowers her arm, her face unreadable. “I just thought,” she says measuredly, “that you’d like to know what our municipal goddess has been up to, is all.”
“…I see,” Kim Dokja responds, then, “Han Sooyoung.”
“You think Yoo Sangah-ssi is,” and Kim Dokja can’t help the way that his lips tug slightly upwards when he repeats, “a goddess?”
“That’s— I was being— That’s what her fans call—” she flounders, then narrows her eyes dangerously at him, “You.”
“Me,” Kim Dokja agrees.
Han Sooyoung explodes. “You’ve got some nerve. I don’t want to hear it from you of all people. And what is so goddamn funny? You look like a complete clown when you laugh by the way, so stop doing it.”
Kim Dokja presses a hand to his chest that seems to rattle with the effort of keeping his laughter contained. He looks back up at Han Sooyoung, still spitting abuse, and suddenly Kim Dokja can’t imagine loving her any more than he does right then.
“Thank you,” he tells her.
Han Sooyoung cuts off, mouth still open, like someone had pressed the pause button on a remote, caught between frames.
Kim Dokja feels his eyes crinkle when he says, “I think you’re probably my best friend.”
A beat of silence, and then the scrape of chair legs being pushed back on vinyl flooring — a sound preluding the fist that balls up the collar of his hospital gown. Amused despite himself, Kim Dokja wonders if the similarities that he’s always noticed between Han Sooyoung and Yoo Joonghyuk were, in actuality, the byproduct of the relationship between an author and their creation.
“What’s this ‘probably?’” Han Sooyoung snaps. “I better be your best friend, Kim Dokja. I—”
Han Sooyoung suddenly lets go, and Kim Dokja falls back against the elevated hospital bed with the momentum. Fists still clenched, Han Sooyoung looks down at her socked feet, and her long fringe covers her eyes so all that Kim Dokja can make out from her expression is the twist of her mouth.
“I really wanted to see you again, you know that?”
“Yeah,” he responds, voice soft, “me too.”
When Han Sooyoung raises her head, her mask of confident composure is back in place. She lets out a gust of a sigh and falls back into her chair, crossing her arms. “This is your last chance,” she tells him. “I’ll believe you just one last time.”
“I appreciate it,” Kim Dokja smiles at her.
Han Sooyoung mutters something unintelligible under her breath, and they lapse into a companionable silence. That is, until Kim Dokja recalls something else.
“Ah, Han Sooyoung,” he starts. “I was wondering…”
She squints suspiciously at him. “Yeah…?”
He might as well come right out and say it.
“When’s your next novel? I’m willing to be patient, but I did spend roughly thirteen years receiving almost daily updates from you, after all.” Kim Dokja says, feeling that he sounds reasonable enough. “I would at least like a vague time frame of when to expect your new release and its planned update schedule, if possible.”
Han Sooyoung’s mouth falls open, and she looks at Kim Dokja as though she’s seeing him for the first time.
She doesn't reply.
“…Han Sooyoung?” Kim Dokja calls out, suddenly nervous after a full thirty seconds has passed with Han Sooyoung doing nothing but stare at him.
Han Sooyoung exhales, a bit shakily, then turns around as best as she can in her chair, gazing out the window with an expression on her face befitting of someone listening to a funeral dirge.
“Han Sooyoung?” he repeats.
“Shut up,” Han Sooyoung says, voice a low monotone. “If I look at you any longer I might just slap you to death.”
…It seems she hadn’t liked that.
Kim Dokja decides to keep his mouth shut for the remaining duration of Han Sooyoung’s stay, or at least until she initiates conversation with him again. He can only hope that the failed exchange didn’t potentially delay the release of the aforementioned novel.
He’s just closed his eyes to rest them when he hears Han Sooyoung stand up out of her seat again. When he looks up at her, she’s peering down at something below from the window.
“There’s your guy,” she says, and it’s utterly embarrassing the way that Kim Dokja’s stomach flips at the statement, dispelling any feeling of drowsiness. “Honestly never been happier to see him. I’m getting out of here.”
Han Sooyoung slips back on her shoes, then goes over to the corner where she had thrown her satchel when she first arrived, having come directly after one of her classes again. She throws the bag’s strap over her shoulder while walking past the bed, but then comes to a pause, frowning before stalking back to loom over him, hands on her hips.
“You’re an idiot,” she tells him, very helpfully, “but it’s going to be okay.”
“Thanks,” Kim Dokja says, not quite managing to keep the dread out of his voice.
Turning on her heel, Han Sooyoung tosses a small wave goodbye as she exits the room. She’s just stepped out into the hall, door left slightly ajar, when Kim Dokja hears her again.
“Shit, you scared me,” is Han Sooyoung’s somewhat muffled voice. “How’d you even get up here so fast, jump up the stairwell?”
Jumping up the stairwell, Kim Dokja thinks wryly, is probably exactly what he did.
Yoo Joonghyuk says something in response, but his deeper voice is unfortunately impossible for Kim Dokja to parse out over the obstruction.
“What, are you jealous?” he hears Han Sooyoung jeer. “Curious about what I was doing alone in there with him?”
Kim Dokja raises his hand to pinch the bridge of his nose, exasperated.
“Jeez, I was kidding,” Han Sooyoung continues after a turn, and Kim Dokja swears she’s purposely talking loud with clear enunciation just so that he can hear her. “That guy’s high-maintenance enough as it is, you’re the only one here crazy enough to be angling for more responsibility.”
“Han Sooyoung,” Kim Dokja whisper-shouts, and the ridiculousness of the situation makes him feel much younger than his twenty-one-thousand-something years.
“Whatever, good luck,” finally comes Han Sooyoung’s flippant farewell, her voice already further down the hall than it was just moments ago. Kim Dokja sighs wearily, sinking into the sheets.
In the wake of Han Sooyoung’s emotional terrorism, he had almost forgotten just who was beyond the door. There’s the squeak of the door’s hinges being pushed open, followed shortly by the resounding thud and click of it being closed shut. For an inane moment, Kim Dokja hopes that his hair isn’t sticking up strangely in the back or anything.
Then he looks over at Yoo Joonghyuk, and doesn’t think of much else.
There’s your guy, he hears an echo of Han Sooyoung’s voice in his head, a loop recording of something said only minutes before.
And it’s ridiculous, Kim Dokja thinks, that all Yoo Joonghyuk has to do is stand there for Kim Dokja to feel secure in going up against whatever it is that he’s facing. He is an existence that inspires confidence in Kim Dokja, even if the adversary is Yoo Joonghyuk himself — whether it be with his hands wrapped around Kim Dokja’s neck or simply standing at the end of his hospital room.
“Yoo Joonghyuk,” Kim Dokja supplies in calm greeting, and then says nothing else.
Yoo Joonghyuk hangs back for another moment longer, watching Kim Dokja in turn, then finally steps forward, heading over to the space between the bed and the window where he had sat just the day before.
He doesn’t take a seat right away this time, slowing down to observe Kim Dokja’s flowers with an uncharacteristic idleness. Yoo Joonghyuk briefly glances up to look out the window, then moves to unlock it, pushing it open. The distant sounds from outside become more clear to Kim Dokja, and a light breeze combs through his hair. It’s nice.
Yoo Joonghyuk eventually sits down, posture perfect and expression typically blank. With his head clear and the lighting sufficient, Kim Dokja finally has the chance to get a proper look at him, and immediately decides that, if Lee Gilyoung has changed the most in his absence, Yoo Joonghyuk has changed the least.
There’s a couple of new little scars, maybe, on the exposed skin of his hands and face, but his attire is utterly unchanged, down to the black coat and tall, heavy boots. It’s clothing that was designed for combat, but frankly just makes Yoo Joonghyuk look like a bit of a loon in a mundane setting. At the very least, Yoo Joonghyuk seems to have the good sense now to not bring his sword with him inside of a hospital, so Kim Dokja supposes there is some growth to speak of there.
Still, he’s beginning to suspect Yoo Joonghyuk only has the one outfit, perhaps aside from a couple of sets of workout gear. His eyes start to climb back up, but he finds them getting caught on the belts strapped around Yoo Joonghyuk’s thighs, then straying towards the one fastened across his chest, maddeningly tight, and, well—
There were worse things, Kim Dokja privately admits, throat bobbing, than Yoo Joonghyuk only having the one outfit.
Another breeze drifts in through the open window, and Kim Dokja shepherds his wandering gaze just in time to catch the wind picking up the longer strands of Yoo Joonghyuk’s hair.
Within the sea of black, a glimpse of grey.
Eyes widening, Kim Dokja finds himself sitting up from his recline as he takes in the here-and-there, light smatterings of salt and pepper. It’s subtle enough that he hadn’t even noticed it until that exact moment, but now that he has, he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to un-notice it, and for some horrible, awful reason, Kim Dokja’s heart literally throbs.
“Oh,” Kim Dokja says, tone deceitfully even. You’re so handsome. “Your hair.”
Yoo Joonghyuk’s mouth tilts downwards as his brow wrinkles, momentarily confused. He slowly slides a hand into the thick of his hair, then lightly shakes it as though he suspects something to be caught in it. Finding nothing, a spark of realization flits though his dark eyes. Yoo Joonghyuk hums. “Mia said there was some grey.”
“It’s not bad,” Kim Dokja assures him as he leans back against the thin mattress. ‘Not bad,’ of course, being a gross understatement of just how much Kim Dokja likes it. “It reminds me of—” Suddenly realizing what he’d just been about to say, Kim Dokja cuts himself off, lips pressing together in mortification.
“The 0th turn?” Yoo Joonghyuk supplies, having immediately caught on, and drops his hand to resume his careful inspection of Kim Dokja.
And that’s right. Kim Dokja had gotten distracted. Yoo Joonghyuk was here for a reason, and Kim Dokja highly doubts that reason was so that Kim Dokja could ogle him from his hospital bed like some kind of geriatric creep.
“How much do you remember?” Kim Dokja quietly asks, pale fingers worrying at the hem of the off-white hospital blanket.
“At first,” Yoo Joonghyuk begins, “I only knew for certain that you had hit me in the back of my head.”
“After that, I could remember the sound of your voice, but not what we talked about.” Yoo Joonghyuk’s eyes take on a faraway quality to them, but there’s something oddly peaceful about his current countenance as well. It’s not something Kim Dokja is all too used to seeing, that kind of expression on Yoo Joonghyuk. “Now, I think I know enough.”
“Then you remember,” Kim Dokja says, nervously wetting his lips, “what it is that I have done.”
Yoo Joonghyuk’s expression snaps back into place with such a suddenness that Kim Dokja nearly flinches at it. His gaze slides over Kim Dokja, slowly looking him up and down, before making direct eye contact with him. “In that turn, you often asked me if I was happy.”
“…I did,” Kim Dokja slowly confirms. It’s not at all what he had been expecting Yoo Joonghyuk to say, in that moment, but it was true that Kim Dokja indeed had a certain preoccupation with Yoo Joonghyuk’s happiness in that round, falling short only to one other. “And you told me that you were.”
He remembers watching Yoo Joonghyuk grow old with a sense of bittersweet contentment, never once growing tired of watching this person simply exist, day after day, year after year, safe and unburdened. A constellation who took enjoyment in the story long after most had considered it to be over.
He also remembers how the Yoo Joonghyuk of the 0th round’s hair had slowly gone grey as well, Lee Seolhwa’s small hand carding through the strands, and thinking that he should look his fill, because it would probably be the first and last time that he ever got to see Yoo Joonghyuk, any Yoo Joonghyuk, reach that age again.
How fortunate I am to have been wrong, Kim Dokja reflects, looking back at this round’s Yoo Joonghyuk with sad eyes, how fortunate, and how undeserving.
Something curious happens then: Kim Dokja feels a touch against his hand, so light and gentle that, for a moment, he doesn’t recognize the touch to be Yoo Joonghyuk’s. The other man is leaning forward in his seat, and he lifts Kim Dokja’s hand up just enough to take hold of it within his own.
“Then you should know,” Yoo Joonghyuk tells him, and Kim Dokja tears his gaze away from their joined hands to look up into his eyes, “that I want to be by your side far more than I have ever cared about being happy.”
A surprised, stuttered breath falls from Kim Dokja’s lips at that. His eyes dart across Yoo Joonghyuk’s face, looking for some sort of artifice, but he already knows full well that Yoo Joonghyuk isn’t the kind of person to say such things out of deceit or obligation.
1864 lives spent all to meet just one person, and Yoo Joonghyuk still didn’t regret it — an absolute nutcase or completely stupid, Kim Dokja can’t quite decide which.
Kim Dokja suddenly hangs his head, unable to bear looking at Yoo Joonghyuk any longer, but not strong enough to pull his hand away just yet either.
“I’ve done something terrible to you, to all of you,” Kim Dokja attempts to remind him, reason with him. “And I’ve tried, but I can’t make up for it, and I certainly can’t take it back.” Yoo Joonghyuk remains silent, so Kim Dokja continues, “and yet, whether it’s you, or any other version of you, somehow you always—” He loses momentum. “Always…”
Momentarily stunned, Kim Dokja blinks down at his blanket-covered lap, then slowly looks back up to see Yoo Joonghyuk still staring steadily at him, not once having ever looked away.
Yoo Joonghyuk’s head tilts, and he looks at Kim Dokja almost curiously, like a house cat watching a flock of doves beyond a glass window pane.
“I used to think that you made me behave in a way that is unlike myself, but lately I’ve begun to think that what you do to me is exactly how I’m meant to be.”
It’s no use, Kim Dokja realizes then, struck down by Yoo Joonghyuk’s words as though they were his blade. I’m no match against this world’s protagonist after all.
“You really should stop saying things like that to me,” Kim Dokja decides to tell him, his voice stripped of any pretense as he feels whatever’s left of his resolve slip away from him. He’s so tired. “Not when you know how I feel about you.”
Finally, a familiar force is applied to the grip that Yoo Joonghyuk has on Kim Dokja’s hand. The hold becomes more insistent, a touch shy of punishing.
“I don’t,” Yoo Joonghyuk urges, leaning forward again as his eyes bore into Kim Dokja’s. “Kim Dokja, I’m not like you — I need you to tell me.”
It’s strange, Kim Dokja reflects, how two people can understand each other on an almost visceral level, and concurrently not know something as simple as how the other person is feeling. He wonders if, maybe, he and Yoo Joonghyuk had grown so reliant on this instinctual understanding, that this had gone on for as long as it has simply because they had both been operating under the assumption that the other person already knew.
And yet, despite this maybe-epiphany, Kim Dokja looks at Yoo Joonghyuk, his mouth dry, and considers lying. Thinking of a lie, after all, would certainly be much easier than figuring out how to tell the truth. Not once has Kim Dokja ever tried to articulate how he genuinely felt about Yoo Joonghyuk, whether it be privately or to someone else, so the thought of telling Yoo Joonghyuk himself was just too…
For some people, I think, the more important something is, the harder it is for them to find the proper words to express it, the sudden memory of Yoo Sangah’s voice takes residence alongside Han Sooyoung’s within his mind. And it’s not the time for this, but he has the brief mental image of the two women dressed as an angel-devil pair floating above his shoulders, and wants to laugh.
Instead, Kim Dokja looks down at Yoo Joonghyuk’s hand in his, and gives it a tentative squeeze. He slowly opens his palm, stretching out both their fingers upwards, then neatly slides them into place, interlocking them. A perfect fit.
“At first,” Kim Dokja tries, voice a little uneven. He elects to keep his eyes on their hands, a visual reminder that Yoo Joonghyuk hasn’t pulled away yet. “I think I just liked you for everything that you’ve done for me. You— Well, you were my hero. You know how the story goes.”
Yoo Joonghyuk curls his fingertips into the back of Kim Dokja’s hand, and, emboldened, Kim Dokja continues, “I always knew your personality was bad, so my opinion of you didn’t really change even after I met you. Somewhere along the way, though, I found myself liking the parts of you that had absolutely nothing to do with me, or even the parts of you that inconvenienced me.
“You’re dishonest. And it’s obvious when you’re lying, but you do it with complete confidence. It’s so annoying that it’s funny, and I… really like that about you.
“When you’re in a good mood, you’ll drag the tip of your sword over the ground; I can’t figure out where you picked up such a habit, but I like that cute side of you just as well.
“And your eyebrow, just the left one, twitches when you’re trying to make an important decision. I like that about you.
“When you’ve been caught off guard or in a lie, you’ll put on a cool face like you’re deep in thought. It’s a bunch of crap. I like that about you.”
“You—” Yoo Joonghyuk speaks up as if to stop him, clearly not knowing what to make of Kim Dokja’s unconventional confession style that read more like a rant on Yoo Joonghyuk’s idiosyncrasies than ardent words of love. Kim Dokja doesn’t remember when he had looked up, but he still hasn’t quite finished yet.
“Getting you to talk is like pulling teeth. Usually the most you’ll ever say to me is, ‘Kim Dokja, I’ll kill you,’ but once you get going you’re surprisingly eloquent. Somehow, you always know just what to say, when it really matters. I like that about you.
“And, of course, you’re handsome. I think as much whenever I look at you, but I actually really hate that about you.”
“Kim Dokja,” Yoo Joonghyuk warns. Of what though, Kim Dokja isn’t sure.
“I’m serious. You’re a beautiful man. Your hands, your hair, your eyes, your back—”
Before Kim Dokja can even process what’s happening, Yoo Joonghyuk is ripping his hand out of his, and then there is the distressed sound of the metal bed railing bending underneath Yoo Joonghyuk’s hands. Kim Dokja opens his mouth to ask if Yoo Joonghyuk’s gone mad, but all that comes out is a little Oof as a great weight settles on top of his blanketed hips.
Sitting astride him, Kim Dokja likens Yoo Joonghyuk to some kind of dark, carnivorous beast. He’s climbed into Kim Dokja’s too-small hospital bed with both his coat and boots still on, and when he shifts to lean forward, he fills Kim Dokja’s view with the blackened entirety of him, a human solar eclipse.
And Kim Dokja suddenly forgives Yoo Joonghyuk for taking so long to see him, because if Kim Dokja had still been hooked up to any monitors, the sledgehammering of his pulse probably would have alerted every nurse and physician within the ward, code blue.
“Yoo Joonghyuk,” the name comes out as more of a wheeze, “you’re heavy. Have you ever considered going on a di—”
Large, textured hands slide up either side of his jaw and slip into his hair, fingers splayed over Kim Dokja’s exposed ears, curling around them. Yoo Joonghyuk tips Kim Dokja’s face up, then aligns their lips, smothering his words.
The initial press is shocking in its gentleness, and Kim Dokja is so taken aback that he very nearly forgets to reciprocate. After ensuring Kim Dokja’s lack of resistance, Yoo Joonghyuk covers him more completely, pouring himself into the ensuing kiss with a more characteristic, bruising force. It’s not something he’d admit aloud, but Kim Dokja has never been kissed before, and he feels a bit like he might be walking into the right side of a hurricane with just an umbrella.
Yoo Joonghyuk never keeps his lips pressed against Kim Dokja’s for too long, establishing a fast-paced, constant back-and-forth rhythm like Kim Dokja is something that cuts away at the skin but impossible to go even two seconds without.
And Kim Dokja doesn’t really know what to do with his mouth other than push back, but his hands clearly have their own aspirations as he finds them sliding along the inseams of Yoo Joonghyuk’s pants. When he reaches the top of them, he’s delighted to discover that he can just barely worm his fingertips underneath the leather straps, and his thumbs rub tiny circles into the clothed muscle of Yoo Joonghyuk’s inner thighs.
Yoo Joonghyuk makes a low noise in the back of his throat at that, but doesn’t seem to have any actual objections to Kim Dokja feeling him up. Which is fantastic news, really, because now that Kim Dokja knows the feeling of hard muscle shifting underneath the skin of his palms, he doesn’t know how he’s going to keep his hands off of Yoo Joonghyuk ever again.
Evidently having better acclimated to him, Yoo Joonghyuk’s kisses gradually grow longer and more lingering until he’s carefully testing the seam of Kim Dokja’s lips with his tongue. It’s a decidedly strange sensation, but Kim Dokja’s heart is pounding as though it means to leap out of his chest and find a new home within Yoo Joonghyuk, so Kim Dokja gives into it, parting his lips just so.
Yoo Joonghyuk makes another one of those little throaty noises, which Kim Dokja is beginning to suspect actually means that he’s pleased. When Yoo Joonghyuk’s tongue slips into Kim Dokja’s mouth, his upper body lowers with it, shifting to lay on top of him.
Kim Dokja enjoys the deepened kiss and the feeling of Yoo Joonghyuk’s thundering heartbeat bearing down on him for a minute or two before he finds himself genuinely struggling to breathe, and finally manages to pull himself away with a gasp.
“Okay, okay,” Kim Dokja breathes out, patting the side of Yoo Joonghyuk’s hip twice in quick succession. “I mean it, you’re too big for this. Move over before you crush me to death.”
Yoo Joonghyuk breathes out through his nose like he’s annoyed, but acquiesces by rolling over so that he’s laying on his side. Kim Dokja moves over to the best of his ability in order to accommodate him, not wanting Yoo Joonghyuk to accidentally fall off of the bed after having taken out the poor railing.
“What are the others going to think when I tell them that you broke my hospital bed?” is Kim Dokja’s attempt at chastisement, but Yoo Joonghyuk just takes advantage of Kim Dokja giving him more room by sinking further into the mattress, positioning himself so that he’s leaning against Kim Dokja just enough to shove his face into the crook of his neck.
Yoo Sangah was right, what a brat.
Kim Dokja can’t help but shiver when the edge of Yoo Joonghyuk’s nose skims the stretch of his neck. Yoo Joonghyuk hums, then presses his mouth to the skin there instead. It’s more of a dry drag of lips than a kiss, but Yoo Joonghyuk does it over and over again until Kim Dokja can’t stand not touching him anymore. He brings his arm across his chest, then sinks his fingers into the thickest part of Yoo Joonghyuk’s hair, right behind his ear.
He can see the grey better up close like this, and goes still for a moment before experimentally carding his fingers through the strands. His hand is bigger in Yoo Joonghyuk’s hair than Lee Seolhwa’s had been, but he’s surprised to find that it doesn’t look wrong there either.
“By any chance,” Kim Dokja begins to say as he strokes Yoo Joonghyuk’s hair in earnest, “our previous conversation wasn’t what you’ve been wanting to talk to me about, was it?”
“What do you think,” Yoo Joonghyuk replies, his breath coming out in little puffs against Kim Dokja’s collarbone.
Han Sooyoung was going to be insufferable. The only thing worse than her having been right was that he had been utterly wrong. Kim Dokja momentarily considers the likelihood of him being able to keep their relationship a secret from the others, but judging by Han Sooyoung’s attitude when she had left, she’ll probably be asking to see the ring on Kim Dokja’s finger the next time she sees him. In other words, he has until tomorrow.
That particular line of thought brings to mind the evidence that he has pointing towards Yoo Joonghyuk being the marrying type, and if the repossession of the pocket watch is any indication, Yoo Joonghyuk has already earned his mother’s grudging approval. Except that… really isn’t something that Kim Dokja should be thinking about right now, only minutes after their first kiss.
Thoroughly humiliated with himself, Kim Dokja brings his face down into the whorl of Yoo Joonghyuk’s hair. He finds that it doesn’t smell like much of anything, though he supposes that’s to be expected.
Oblivious to Kim Dokja’s inner circus performance, Yoo Joonghyuk resumes his lazy attempt at crawling underneath Kim Dokja’s skin through the slope of his neck. Kim Dokja’s not sure what the fixation there is about, but doesn’t mind as long as Yoo Joonghyuk is comfortable.
It’s easy to lose track of time like that, curled up around Yoo Joonghyuk and more comfortable than he’s been in recent memory. There’s still a gentle breeze that passes through the room every once in a while, stirring up the stale hospital air — and it’s as Kim Dokja listens to the sound of the birds and the wind in the trees, feeling the steady rise and fall of Yoo Joonghyuk’s chest beside his, that it finally, fully sets in that he has returned to life.
“I don’t know how much longer I’ll be in the hospital,” Kim Dokja suddenly finds himself saying. He’s twisted his upper body so that he’s lying more on his side, chin nestled atop Yoo Joonghyuk’s head and hand sliding up and down the dip of Yoo Joonghyuk’s spine underneath his coat. “Walking’s still pretty difficult, and as for the… state you found me in yesterday,” his throat bobs as he nervously swallows, “well, that’s probably not something that’s ever really going to go away.”
Yoo Joonghyuk is quiet underneath him, face still tucked into where Kim Dokja’s neck meets his shoulder, then, “I understand.”
It’s silly, but that’s all Yoo Joonghyuk really has to say in order for Kim Dokja to believe him. Because if there’s anyone in this world who could maybe understand the full scope of what Kim Dokja went through in his time as the Most Ancient Dream, it is Yoo Joonghyuk, former regressor of 1864 turns and single victim of the Hell of Eternity.
And it is a piece of knowledge that evokes a mess of conflicting emotions within him, something in which he can find comfort in one light and misery in another, but in that moment Kim Dokja is reminded that the person in his arms is someone who was created solely for him.
The person whom Kim Dokja loves most.
He starts again. “So I was thinking—”
“What did I say about that.”
“So I was thinking,” Kim Dokja repeats louder, then immediately returns to his previous, hushed volume, “that the kids and your sister will be done with high school soon, and we’ll all have that big house. But I’m currently directionless and unemployed, and I happen to know someone who is in a similar situation…”
Yoo Joonghyuk lightly nips at the skin of Kim Dokja’s neck in a wordless command for him to get to the point.
“So I thought maybe it’d be nice to do some traveling; the world is a pretty different place now, twenty years after the apocalypse, I imagine.” The hand he has on Yoo Joonghyuk’s back stills in the space between his shoulder blades. A back that is wide, but not so lonely anymore. Kim Dokja’s next words come out in a near whisper, like a secret, “and, I think I’d like it if you came along with me, too.”
Pressed up against him as he is, Kim Dokja can feel when Yoo Joonghyuk goes still for half a beat, processing Kim Dokja’s proposal, and then the way his heart picks up again at a quicker tempo; it’s terribly cute.
“I suppose someone does need to babysit you,” Yoo Joonghyuk eventually says, in lieu of agreement.
“Hey, you bastard,” Kim Dokja finds himself taking on the usual tone of voice that he reserves for dealing with this person, easing into it with the same familiarity one would open up an old and dearly beloved novel. “Aren’t we together now? Where are your sweet nothings?”
Yoo Joonghyuk sighs, clearly exasperated, but slides his nose upwards into the space directly below Kim Dokja’s ear. “Tomorrow,” he says quietly, his lips grazing Kim Dokja’s jaw when he speaks into the skin there, “I will buy you a new phone.”
“Joonghyuk-ah,” Kim Dokja says in an exaggerated simper, giving Yoo Joonghyuk’s back a little squeeze — though he actually is quite excited at the prospect.
Yoo Joonghyuk finally lifts his head, and Kim Dokja has just enough time to catch the small, upward quirk of his lips before he employs the most effective method of shutting Kim Dokja up yet.