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It feels like a lifetime of burning pain but as soon as he comes back to consciousness it fades away, only leaving him in dizzy confusion over the missing sensation. San points out a few things: he’s still underwater—the moonlight can be seen through the green of the swamp and the trees above; he’s breathing; the side of his face feels calcified; his neck has some sensitive spots that hurt when the duckweeds brush it—coincidentally mirroring the points where a hand had held him underwater.

Every joint feels foreign when he sits up, crisp night air burns the lungs again for a short moment as he coughs out the water and stands up. He is still in the same swamp where he had been left, but obviously some time has passed—the layout seems different even though he struggles to point out what exactly has changed. It’s a quiet autumn night, not even a whistle or croak from somewhere away, only a rustle of dry leaves and mud slurping under his feet. The moon isn’t new or full, only waning gibbous, and San feels weirdly upset—the moon has always seemed to favor him, she could’ve played along for a show and waited a bit. It could’ve sounded stronger—during a full moon, Choi San came back to avenge himself. Now with waning gibbous it doesn’t sound as impactful.

Yeosang nearly drops a glass sphere in shock and just watches as San limps through the hallway to the fireplace.

“What the… Don’t step on my carpet,” he stutters out as he catches up with him in the main room. San obeys the instruction and stands on the floor as he kicks his boots off and searches for buttons on his shirt—the fingers still barely listen to him so he struggles. Yeosang meanwhile puts away the glass sphere to avoid dropping it (or maybe, throwing it at him), and hurriedly returns to the room again. “What the hell has happened to you?”

“Rough weekend,” San bites out—the voice is hoarse and raspy, which would be understandable if you consider the past events. He finally unbuttons his shirt, shakes it so it stops dripping and hangs on a rope above the fireplace that is here definitely not for this—most likely for drying herbs. Yeosang throws a quick glance over his exposed torso, following snake tattoos, as San sits down on a chair in front of the fire, and he suddenly becomes hyperaware that he just took off his shirt in front of his crush. San though easily pretends he doesn’t care and gets comfy—there is a wolf fur thrown over the seat and it feels soft. Way softer than the muddy bottom of a swamp.

“San, I’m serious,” Yeosang’s voice doesn’t quiver but there’s still a noticeable shatter in there—he was worried. How heartwarming. “Where have you been?”

“Well, after I left you, Hongjoong and his two pet hounds, Wooyoung and Mingi caught me and fucking drowned me,” he combs his still damp hair with his hand and glances at Yeosang. “I suppose it’s been some time since this?”

“Ten years,” he says too confidently for it to be a lie.

San clicks his tongue. Well, it barely changes anything but it would be a little bit harder to catch Hongjoong now, in ten years he could’ve gone anywhere. Since he’s undead now, he has all the time in the world to hunt him down and Hongjoong as well has all his immortality to hide from him. The Earth is round, after all, someday they’ll run into each other. There’s two pressing circumstances—whether Hongjoong wasn’t already killed by someone and what Seonghwa thinks about all of this. Possibility is that Hongjoong has been killed by Seonghwa, or at least San wants to think it’s a possibility—deep inside he knows Seonghwa wouldn’t be able to force himself to kill any of them.

But again, he thought the same about Hongjoong too.

Yeosang hovers over him and looks closely. “Did Hongjoong do this?”

San hums in response and tilts his head to expose his bruised neck. “Both this and this.”

He leaves to the other room but comes back almost immediately with a bottle of purplish liquid and some kind of a cloth, so white it glows in the dim lights of the room. Yeosang sits on the armrest at the right side of San and gestures to him to turn his injured cheek.

San sighs. “I’m dead.”

“You aren’t. Turn around and sit tight,” Yeosang says in a tone that doesn’t allow arguments, so San has to sigh again and close his eyes, tilting his head so Yeosang can reach the wound easier.

If San has been dead for ten years, it means this wound has been here for ten years. He didn’t look at it but he didn’t feel anything besides dry blood on the skin and the pieces of his cheek were still stuck together in the place they were supposed to be, so he assumed it was closed—now Yeosang cleans up the dirt and blood on his face and repeatedly pokes the wound with the cloth, focused. Then he carefully urges San to raise his head to apply the same medicine to the bruises on his neck. Then he closely inspects the scar again, frowning.

“Well? Am I pretty again?” San smirks to the left side so the wound doesn’t open up and looks up at Yeosang.

“No,” he replies flatly. San snorts. “Makes you a scary cute little kikimora.”

Yeosang gets up off the armrest and leaves the bottle and the cloth on the table, then walks to the shirt above the fireplace to fix it—San hung it in a hurry so it obviously would dry off unevenly. San watches in full attention, allowing himself for a second to get distracted from the thoughts of bloody revenge to the thoughts of how beautiful and attractive the witch is. Unbelievable how even death couldn’t make him less yearnful.

“Can I get a little update on what I've missed?”

Yeosang returns to the armrest and sits there again, arms crossed. “Hongjoong ran away with Mingi and Wooyoung, obviously. No updates for these ten years.”

“This bitch knows he’s in the wrong,” San smiles bitterly and clicks his tongue.

“Seonghwa got so mad he went into a slumber. Yunho, Jongho and the nightmares are guarding the church.” Yeosang lists thoughtfully, while undoubtedly looking anywhere but at the bare upper body next to him.

San lets out another raspy laugh, mostly fueled by a previous observation than by a thought he’s about to voice. “Seonghwa decided to take a nap instead of confronting Hongjoong. Motivational.”

Yeosang crosses his arms tighter, as if hugging himself, before saying. “I got an apprenticeship and graduated already. So, um… I’m a real clairvoyant now.”

“That’s cool!” San tries his best to sound as cheerful as he can in his mental and physical state—he raises his arm to high-five him, and Yeosang grabs his hand with a timid smile.

“I mean, I have a gift so I kind of cheated it,” he says as he lets his hand go and hugs himself again. San furrows his eyebrows but doesn’t have time to say anything—Yeosang gets up and stands next to the chair, still holding himself awkwardly and totally avoiding staring at San’s naked chest. “I picked up elemental magic too, so the water in the bath is hot already.”

“I was in the water for ten years,” San laughs but gets up—the muscles actually let him know through the dull ache the movement isn’t appreciated.

“In the musty, smelly, rotten water. I agree it adds you some unique kikimora charm, but still,” Yeosang still looks bashful, contrasting bluntness in his response. “Please don’t say you’re scared of water now because I’m gonna dunk you in there regardless.”

San isn’t scared—after some time he gets so comfortable that he even slides under the water and stays like that for a few minutes. Breathing clean warm water is way more comfortable than breathing cold marsh ponds. In fact, now it even feels sort of soothing—as if the drowning created some new connection to the water. It makes him sound unbelievably lucky, it’s rare when one person gets two divine guardians. So, San stares at his knees underwater, sometimes tiny bubbles of his breath passing by, until a shadow hovers over, and a handful of rock salt with dried flowers and herbs gets dropped into the tub.

“I see you’ve already got used to your new embodiment,” Yeosang says as he sits at the stairs beside the edge of the bathtub. He’s already changed to a nightgown robe, and San only now realizes he has no idea what time it is. Somehow he hasn’t even thought of it. People die once and forget that time still goes by.

San straightens himself so now he’s in the water only on shoulder level. “I’m just testing it.”

“What are the key observations?”

“This water is tastier than the swamp water.”

Yeosang snorts and shakes his head, and San smiles too—it feels like a distant memory from another life now but he always found it hard not to smile at whatever he has done. It’s kind of correct, if you think of it—he has been reborn so it is from another life.

Yeosang’s smile fades quickly and he lowers his head to stare at the floor—he’s obviously bothered by something.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers, and he actually means it—his voice is cracked. “It’s my fault Hongjoong attacked you.”

“Nah,” San winces and waves his hand at him. “We’ve had beef for ages. Male cats don’t live together in the same territory well.”

And because he likes you too, San thinks to himself and feels rage.

“I knew it would happen,” Yeosang says firmly, as if insisting on his guiltiness. “This wouldn’t happen in the first place if he knew I was Gamayun.”

“You can’t share prophecies unless asked, aren’t you?”

Yeosang visibly clenches his jaw, not looking up—he can’t argue with this. Then he sighs deeply and shakes his head again. “I used to ponder whether I should just once live through this ‘intolerable mental pain’ and get rid of the gift. It hasn't once brought anything in my life except heartbreak and uneasiness. Now when I can control it I feel better about it but I still get this urge sometimes. To just blurt out a prophecy uncalled, go through this torture but be free.”

“Knowledge is power but also a responsibility,” San leans to the front, trying to look into Yeosang’s face—he side-eyes him, and San gives him a short encouraging smile. He realizes late that he probably looks tertifying with his scar. “Now when it’s under control, does it serve you well more than bother?”

“I guess…” Yeosang sighs again and then scratches his knees and coughs. “Anyway, forget about it. You know, I wanted to tell you this for ages… I think Hongjoong is weird. He showed up a few times at my house but like… never talked. And he did this after your death too. Did he want to kill me too, do you think?”

San sees the flowers in the bathtub dissipate into dust as the anger bubbles in his chest. “Who knows.”

“Not me, surprisingly,” Yeosang shrugs.

Hongjoong is too stubborn to get anyone he assumes to be a mortal, but prideful enough to claim people of the territory. He would rather die than pursue a witch or even embarrass himself enough to become a familiar, yet he still assumed all of the people in the county his prey and warned demons to stay away, and even though the conversation never happened it had been pretty obvious he liked Yeosang. San stupidly thought he had fooled the older and he would understand it’s all his fault and he should move on. San would wonder sometimes if Yeosang would be the first one to break Hongjoong’s willpower—he possessed enough strength to ruin men and women, all without a single drop of magic. San knew it well—he was one of the direct victims of this witchcraft.

San gets the room in the attic—he’s not sure if he needs to sleep after ten years of being dead, but as he plumps into the bed, he suddenly feels very tired. Maybe he doesn’t but he would anyway. Soft sheets and the mattress feel soothing against his aching limbs and spine, so he closes his eyes and dissolves in this feeling.

The door creaks—it should be Yeosang, quietly sneaking in and sitting on the edge of his bed. “Comfy here?”

San hums, agreeing.

“I missed you,” Yeosang suddenly half-whispers.

San doesn’t open his eyes and tries not to show any reaction—even though his breath hitches. “I didn’t feel these ten years so I’m not sure I did too,” he mutters.

“That’s fine.”

An owl howls through the forest. Just like the night he was killed.

“If I’m a kikimora now, I can’t be your familiar black cat, I guess?”

Yeosang laughs quietly. “I’m not an actual witch anyway.”

“A witch and his familiar black cat that are actually a prophet bird and a kikimora,” San smiles to himself. Maybe it doesn’t sound as stupid as it did before—what are they supposed to do with their immortality now, except for make a miscievous duo of two evil entities?

“Deal,” Yeosang holds out his hand to high-five him. “But get Hongjoong first.”

“Will I?” San asks him not out of insecurity but out of curiosity—he wants a free prophecy.

“I can see you two crossing your paths again,” Yeosang leans a bit to the front so he’s now hovering above San. “I don’t see who wins but I believe in you.”

The soothing feeling of a soft bed becomes slowly plagued by the memories brought up—tight chest full of water, a hand gripping the throat, a knife cutting the flesh. San hopes it wouldn’t follow every moment of his life. Yeosang doesn’t leave soon, apparently waiting for San to fall asleep or hesitating to say something—he keeps silent, and San only pretends to fall asleep, tormented by the flashbacks.

San still doesn’t sleep when he feels the weight by his side. San stares at the ceiling, listening to Yeosang’s breath eventually evening out, and wonders if kissing a prophetic bird feels like cognizing the universe and living a million lifetimes in a minute. San worries if kissing a kikimora feels like licking a rock covered in silt and algae.

 

 

***

 

 

As a fellow black cat, San knows—it’s impossible to leave your territory unnoticed by your pride, and at least one person should know. Hopefully this person wouldn’t be Jongho, though, but the odds seem to be against him—he travels the county from town to town, closer and closer to the capitol, but there's nothing that can give a hint on Hongjoong’s current location. It also might be the fact that San hesitates to openly interact with both mortals—for obvious reasons—and immortals—Hongjoong still could have allies here. Who really could help him are the kids—little humans are always somehow aware of the beasts’ whereabouts, as the magical folk most likely to target them. San likes children, never scared them before and already decided to only target rotten grown people as a kikimora, but the kids in majority still didn’t share that adoration. The problem seemed to be the scar over the whole side of his face—even though Yeosang did something to the edges of the wound so it now was more neat looking, it’s still a line of dried dark blood, which terrified not just children but adults as well. The few who were brave enough—either to show off to their peers or were like that by nature—had nothing to say and never even had heard of anyone who would’ve fit the description of Hongjoong San gave.

Adults for now assumed San was some kind of a beast hunter, and it’s for the best—maybe if they stop feeling scared they’d help him on his search. Though by that time San would probably find Hongjoong himself.

It’s autumn, the exact confusing part of it when the nights are crisp and icy but the days are warm and rainy. San is in Tahyrst, squinting desperately to see something under bright daylight, not even searching for anything in particular, just checking out a point in his list, when Yeosang, mounted, arrives without a single thought that a warlock on a black horse would make people nervous. Guard doesn’t seem to bother him or force to get off the horse, probably assuming he’s some kind of a noble—San thinks to himself that it’s a fair false assumption, it’s impossible for a regular lowborn villager to be this pretty. In reality he’s close—Yeosang is an immortal, all the immortal entities are pretty. Some kind of magic to enchant mortals, he never cared about the scientific side of things.

“How did you find me?” San looks up, hiding his face from the sun.

“Followed the talks of a purple-eyed traveler with a half Glasgow smile,” Yeosang pulls the harness to stop the horse from neighing aggressively—it’s probably still overexcited from the ride. “If you’re interested, people also say you’re shredded and extremely hot.”

“Do you agree?” San giggles, chest warming up.

“With what? That you’re a purple-eyed traveler with a half Glasgow smile?” Yeosang gives him a cheeky grin, obviously aware San meant the second half of the rumor. When his smile fades, he says gloomily, “Seonghwa woke up.”

San instantly becomes serious. Here’s where the real shit starts—lord vampire getting involved in a demon fight on his land is gonna be a lot. Even if you consider his personality. At the very least, the odds aren’t favoring San—Seonghwa never inserted himself in the conflict as San was alive and when it got too serious he just went to hibernate instead of dealing with Hongjoong.

“So, you’re suggesting I walk into the crocodile swamp by myself and ask Seonghwa for help?”

The horse keeps nickering, forcing San to pause so he won’t be talked over—it’s obviously bothered by his presence. Pet animals don’t like demons in general, but have a particular fear and hatred for the undead.

Yeosang nods. “He’s a vampire lord, obviously he’s above a pathetic demon cat.”

San groans out loud in annoyance. Initially, he was kind of glad to hear Seonghwa was in a slumber—this way he had some time to deal with it himself without him interfering—even though a little bit disappointed that he ignored San being targeted. With Seonghwa’s obvious bias towards Hongjoong now the fair judgement was nearly impossible, even though San would admit he has a lot of unnecessary pessimism. San has no claims to the territory now, he’s not a black cat anymore, he’d be happy to stay in his little swamp grave ten minutes away from Yeosang, he just wants Hongjoong to pay for killing him. A little bit of punishment for Mingi and Wooyoung who just stood there and watched—especially the latter who San thinks betrayed him and told Hongjoong where he would be. Especially since he considered him to be his close friend.

“Regardless of your pessimistic thoughts, I would say you should at least try,” Yeosang says, as if guessing his thoughts—he probably could, he’s an all-knowing prophetic bird, after all. “Can’t say it would be hundred percent successful but this story would move forward faster than it would if you just aimlessly wander around the county. And it would move even faster if you accept my proposal to give you a ride.”

San laughs shortly, and the horse nickers again, as if talking back. “I think your steadfast companion is not enthusiastic about having an undead on its back.”

“She’s just a little bitch,” Yeosang says and pats the horse’s neck reassuringly. “This mare’s name is Night. A nightmare.”

Tahyrst and Agasta are connected by a road through the forest and a meadow that would take two hours—it’s late afternoon, so they will arrive exactly for the sunset and just in time for the lord vampire to get up and start his day. San has to desperately cling onto Yeosang and grip the horse with his legs—the saddle is obviously for one person. When the trees start slowly changing into rural landscapes of mills and farms, San is already fully lying against Yeosang’s back with his cheek and chest, soaking in the warm feeling weaving between his ribs like an ivy.

 

 

As the figure becomes more distinct, San fails to suppress an urge to groan—he would rather talk to anyone else, to any of the nightmare girls, to vedogon Yunho, hell, he’d even be happy to see Seonghwa himself. Anyone but this goddamn singing cat.

“What brings you here? What god has been ill-treating you?” Jongho speaks normally, almost naturally, as if this wasn’t a line of some poem or a song.

“A lot of gods, to be honest,” San laughs bitterly. “Can I see Seonghwa?”

Jongho shakes his head, answering negatively. “I need to know where your loyalties lie.” Then he tilts his head to one side, then to another, narrowing his eyes—it makes him really look like a cat. “Tell me, are you gonna bark or bite?”

“I’ll decide this after I find out where Seonghwa’s loyalties lie,” San rolls his eyes and doesn’t even try to fake polite tone—they’re equal with Jongho now and he’s not in the mood to deal with him and his stupid little lyrics. “But probably both, after he starts shit with me.”

Jongho stares back with the same feline smirk, still. “So many years have passed. Who are the noble and the wise? Will all our sins be justified?”

San regrets he couldn’t bring Yeosang here—he is way smarter so he would be able to interpret whatever Jongho is trying to tell him. This game only annoys him even though he understands it’s a curse and Jongho, maybe, also wishes he could speak normally. In his honest opinion, it doesn’t seem like an equal exchange to having a magical singing voice that can heal or hypnotize. Jongho is mostly cursed than blessed.

Yet he still spits out a sour “Wonder if you asked Hongjoong to justify his sin as well.”

Jongho immediately gets gloomier and very obviously boils in frustration, unable to tell San what he actually thinks without finding the fitting lyrics first. He fails to pick out a line, so he just silently turns around and walks into the darkness of the hallway, and San takes it as an invitation.

Despite it being a residence of someone he would like to call a friend, San rarely visited the church in Agasta—even though Seonghwa claimed to corrupt all the crosses and icons and poison the holy water and incense, the whole concept was just associated with danger naturally. San wasn’t that much scared of religious imagery like an average demon would be, he once literally fought a pope who was armed with nothing but a cross, but now he feels uneasy under the stares of Jesus Christ, Virgin Mary and expectedly ten creatures being Seonghwa and his immediate court. A big hall, filled with moonlight falling through a number of huge stained glass windows, seven rows of benches for the parishioners separated by a way with a carpet, and the walls between the windows are adorned by paintings of various saints, big vases with white lilies under. In the very front across the door lord vampire himself is seated on the altar, legs crossed and chin resting on the arm, elbow against the knee. Jongho hurriedly catches up to stand to the left of the altar, and Yunho stands in a careless manner to the right. Next to him San recognizes Diokophobia with the rest of the phobias getting closer to her, yet still staying behind.

“Lock the door,” a female voice commands—San searches for the source and sees Agliophobia staring right at him with a little bit more expectation than the other phobias do. He does as instructed and turns back to face Seonghwa, who’s been attentively looking at him through his long-ish hair this whole time.

Suddenly all the words disappear from his mind. He literally spent the entire ride obsessively thinking about Yeosang instead of planning out what he’s going to say.

“Cool. I’m gonna prompt a conversation myself if you aren’t saying why you're here,” Seonghwa says in a very annoyed tone and straightens his back, now leaning on his arms against the altar. “What was the business with the witch?”

San takes a deep inhale. Here’s the thing—he either exposes Yeosang as a magical creature and puts him in danger or keeps it a secret and surrenders to Hongjoong. There should be a way around, a third option, and San really would’ve thought of it on the way here, but again, he was too focused on Yeosang’s back against his chest.

“Actually, I don’t care,” Seonghwa suddenly says and stretches his neck with disinterest and contempt all over his face. “I’m not helping either of you.”

San actually gets taken aback. “What?”

“You heard me,” Seonghwa cuts him off. “You two settle it down between each other.”

“Seonghwa, he killed me out of jealousy,” San complains without actually thinking before saying, but after yelling it he gives himself a mental pat on the head—this is smart, actually, this way he can get Hongjoong in trouble for breaking rules too.

“Yeah, that’s why I told you to settle it down yourself,” Seonghwa jumps off the altar and does a few steps in San’s direction. “You don’t seem dead dead to me, so go catch him and brawl over the witch's dick as much as you like. I don’t care.”

This wasn’t the worst outcome of events. San expected Seonghwa to pick a side, so him defending Hongjoong would be the worst option. If he stays out of the things, it’s still bad, but San really hoped he’d listen to him and agree to hunt Hongjoong down with him. Lord vampire has to deal with whatever is happening on his territory, especially if it’s lower rank demons fighting each other.

San thought Seonghwa was his friend.

“Seonghwa,” San is very close to begging—his voice sounds pathetic, and it’s probably bad, he shouldn’t show his weakness in such a situation. “Seonghwa, he killed me out of jealousy and to get the promotion. Really speaks a lot about you as a lord that you let me get murdered and let him walk free.”

“I don’t give a shit,” he cuts him off again. “I fucking achieved a state where I feel like I’ve lived a hundred of trillions years on a trillion of the same planets like this one. This world is absolutely simple to me and I only look for one damn thing—peace and rest, and all this harmony from becoming one with infinitely constant, from watching the great fractal alikeness and all this incredible unity of being, infinitely immortal. Your petty problems don’t mean anything to me.”

San completely gives up. First of all, this hag got brain damage from his ten year slumber. Secondly, he shouldn’t have even come—what are the chances that Hongjoong would find out exactly because San has been there?

He turns around and walks back to the door. As he unlocks it, he hears Jongho sing out quietly, yet still echoing in the hall:

“Happy hunting, you double-faced carnivore.”

San unintentionally slams the doors separating the hall and the hallway.

 

 

***

 

 

An owl scream tears through the night, echoing a gasp that escapes San as he hits the ground with his back. He gets up almost immediately even through the pain in bruised ribs and limbs to jump forward into Hongjoong’s face—he misses his eyes but the claws scratch his chest near clavicles.

There was not a single word dropped yet, because there’s nothing to explain or talk about—San knew this would happen, sooner or later. Sooner or later Hongjoong will start craving more power and attempt to defeat all the competition on the territory. Sooner or later Hongjoong will tell San to step away from Yeosang.

San jumps forward again, and Hongjoong acts faster once again and jumps to the side, which results in San nearly losing his balance. He eventually loses it anyway because Hongjoong literally falls on top of him, pressing his shoulders into the ground. San distantly feels the shirt on his back and hair getting wetter than it’s supposed to be from contacting the mud and panics. Quickly thinking of a next strategy, he decides to try and buy some time.

“What the fuck do you need f—”

He can’t finish the sentence, because a hand grasps his neck right below his chin, blocking the air from coming up—San chokes on his own words and continues his attempts to cough as the fingers press deeper into his skin. Hongjoong watches him struggle with the most insane smirk San had ever seen in his life.

He thinks for a second that it’s over, feeling his vision go blurry, but Hongjoong releases his throat for a second—San immediately takes an eager inhale and on higher power knows what strength pushes Hongjoong away to the side, further into the pond and tries to knock him off his feet. Pretty much a minute after he realizes that was a grave mistake; San feels too lightheaded from oxygen deprivation and can’t coordinate his movements correctly to knock Hongjoong over, so he’s the one who ends up underwater.

He didn’t have time to properly inhale, and, despite never complaining about his lung size, he runs out of air fairly quick—and it fucking burns. It’s a subconscious reminder to inhale at first, slowly, with every second becoming more and more agonizing, fire in his chest needing to be put out, be it fresh air or a mouthful of dirty water. San feels like he would pass out any minute when Hongjoong frees one of his hands and puts it on San’s neck again, roughly and deliberately causing pain—San breaks and lets out a scream that gets muffled by water. The last bubbles of air he had leave him, and he involuntarily inhales a bit of water—it burns even more, when he thought it wouldn’t get even more painful—and all the coughs get stopped by a hand firmly clasping around his throat.

He probably passes out for a brief moment, because the next moment he feels himself on the shore, fervorously coughing the water out of his lungs. Hongjoong lightly holds his head by his hair, sitting on top of him, watching with sadistic interest.

San eventually stops coughing, and Hongjoong immediately tightens his grip in his hair. “I need you to be fucking gone from my land,” he hisses out almost in his face, full of inexplainable hatred. “But since you have trouble understanding when you’re asked nicely, I have to force you.”

San wants to do something epic, like spitting on him and saying fuck you, even if it gets him killed for real, but his throat is too dry to let him do that. So he just laughs weakly and rasps it out, sore throat scratched by words. “You’re a fucking loser. Couldn’t ask for an honest duel because you know I’m stronger.”

Hongjoong tugs his hair, making him hiss. “I got you gasping for air like a fish, you bastard.”

San almost stutters out another insult but gets interrupted.

“He talks too much, does he?”

He recognizes the voice and two figures behind Hongjoong’s back, one of them being the owner of the voice. Two werewolves who San previously assumed to be neutral as they never were interested in petty low rank creatures’ fights; tall and usually gloomy Mingi who barely talked to him before, and friendly, energetic, puppy-like, who San actually considered a friend before—

“Wooyoung?” It’s almost a whisper as his vocal chords give up, full of hopelessness and hurt of betrayal.

Wooyoung walks closer to Hongjoong with an unreadable smirk, ignoring San. “Imagine how hard it is to talk so much with a mouth this small. What can we do about it, I wonder?”

Hongjoong stares at San’s mouth, full attention, and another frenzied grin slowly appears on his face. A metal glistens in Wooyoung’s hand as he reaches it out to him—San watches how Hongjoong takes the knife and looks at it closely.

“I have something in mind,” Hongjoong sings out and looks up to San, gripping his hair tighter.

Here is where he gives up on his life.

The knife glitters in moonlight, San involuntarily shuts his eyes tight in expectation, and a second later an owl mimics a scream of pain—mixed with a howl it echoes over the swamp.

 

 

***

 

 

“He called me a double-faced carnivore! How fucked up is that?” San suddenly explodes and hits a bush on his way probably harder than he should—the branch breaks and leaves immediately dry out.

“Sure that should be some lyric. He probably wanted to say something else but he has limitations.” Yeosang shrugs. Night neighs with annoyance, but who knows whether it was because she agrees or disagrees or just because she is, as Yeosang called her previously, a little bitch.

“Whatever,” San sighs. “I’m just searching for someone to be mad at because I can’t be mad at you for telling me to do something so useless.”

“I expected that. I told you to seek closure here because it was slowing you down. Now you know Seonghwa isn’t helping you and you can fully focus on hunting Hongjoong down,” Yeosang replies without any offence in his voice.

San huffs, but he can’t disagree with him—definitely better know now for sure than have a false hope.

At this late hour the main hall of the tavern is relatively quiet and less crowded, and San at least hopes there are free rooms. He doesn’t need sleep even though he still uses it to pass time—when he was traveling alone he would just spend the nights walking between the towns and hunting pet animals in the villages—but today he’s with Yeosang, who, unfortunately, is still plagued by physical needs.

“Any free rooms for the travelers, sir?” Yeosang asks in his politely cocky tone. San skips a heartbeat—this attitude of his is attractive; even though he prefers his normal gentle personality he showed to close people only, this side for outsiders is really, really hot.

The tavern owner nods and gives them two attentive looks—probably judging if they are gonna give him any troubles over the night. His eyes stay on San for a longer time, especially on his face. “A witcher?”

“Yeah,” Yeosang replies with obvious sarcasm before San says anything. “San of Sunnhaf. Ever heard of him?”

“Afraid not.” The tavern owner leans on the counter with curious expression. “Sunnhaf is pretty far from here, what brought you to our lands, witcher?”

“Can I get a fucking room here and reply to your questions in the morning?” San talks over Yeosang, not suppressing the angry growl in his voice.

The tavern owner gets obviously flustered and clears his throat before speaking. “There are unfortunately only rooms for one person and one room for two people with one bed.”

San is a grown up boy so he can handle sleeping alone, he thinks, but then a sudden spark of paranoia lights up. What if Hongjoong or his hounds are on their tail and can do something to Yeosang who barely knows any protective spells, solely depending on the law of clairvoyant immunity. San would be sleeping in his room while Yeosang is getting kidnapped.

He stares at Yeosang’s side profile, trying to convey his worries telepathically. He obviously doesn’t succeed, but at least Yeosang had the same opinion as him.

“Whatever. Get the room for two. We’re leaving at the dawn anyway,” Yeosang says coldly. San for some reason feels slightly self-conscious, searching for any basis to prove it was directed at him too. Yeosang didn’t like how they slept in the same bed back when he just resurrected? Yeosang realized San likes him and now thinks he’s a weirdo?

The worries disappear when Yeosang shoots him a short warm smile behind the tavern owner’s back as the latter leads them to their room.

San immediately crashes on the colorful cover over the bed and only then takes an attentive look around. It’s pretty small but prettily decorated, fancy furniture and fabrics that obviously cost above average. A single wide bed with soft covers, nice flowery smell giving away the sheets were washed just recently—well, that’s pretty great.

“What a place. The kings make bastards in rooms like that,” Yeosang snorts and walks up to the vanity beside the window, next to the wall where all the light from outside is blocked.

San suddenly feels strangely lightheaded and tries to block out any thoughts that involve Yeosang and these sheets or the flower patterns on the ceiling, created by candlelights.

“What are your opinions on turquoise?” Yeosang unties his hair, then picks up something from the beside of the mirror and walks up to the bed. He hovers above, now freed long hair falling on his face, and it really doesn’t help suppress any thoughts San is having at this very moment.

“No opinion. Shallow stuff only mortals care about. We should feed the jewelry to the sea,” San replies, trying his best so his voice doesn’t sound strained.

Yeosang reaches out a fist to him, and opens it up, revealing a long earring decorated with a huge turquoise sphere. “I think some noble lady left it in a hurry.”

San takes the earring in his hand to look closer—the angle is uncomfortable and Yeosang’s hands have constant slight shake—nothing interesting about it, a tacky little thing that humans would appreciate anyway. He returns the earring to him and sighs. “Are you gonna keep it or take it?”

“I’m gonna take it,” Yeosang giggles to himself—San feels a flock of butterflies in his stomach despite knowing well it means he’s up to no good. “I’m gonna open a business in the capitol and I feel like she would show up there for a reading. And I’m like, ‘I see you have lost something and desperately search for it’ and give her the earring.”

“How would you know it’s the right lady though?” San laughs and turns to the side just to see Yeosang taking off his shirt. He immediately looks away and takes a deep inhale as quietly as he could, filled with unexplainable dread.

“I would.” San, now focused against his will, can hear Yeosang folding his clothes. A bit later the bed creaks and he feels weight by his side, so he carefully looks—Yeosang is sitting on the bed and looking at him. “Are you gonna sleep in your clothes?”

San can swear he can feel Yeosang’s stare on himself as he undresses, but he doesn’t look behind to check if it’s true—partially because he’s afraid to find out he’s wrong. He puts out the lamp and lies on the bed facing the ceiling—Yeosang immediately turns to his side and looks attentively at him, obviously about to say something.

“What’s next?” He finally asks him.

San still stares at the ceiling, waiting for the colorful dancing dots to start molding into floral patterns. “You tell me. Can I get a free prophecy because you love me so much?”

“No,” Yeosang replies in his usual straightforward manner. “I can only say Hongjoong is somewhere in the county and he will hear about you pretty soon. Not from Seonghwa or anyone from the church because they will keep the promise of neutrality.”

“That’s a relief. I’m not sure I wanna fight a vampire,” San laughs bitterly.

“If I’m wrong, we can get Lord Bang or Lord Lee. They’re two vampire lords from Whanga.”

“You have connections now?”

Yeosang huffs. “I mean, kinda. Their witch Mina was teaching me clairvoyance.”

“That’s cool,” San says just so it won't be left ignored, but the conversation dies anyway.

The flower patterns become slightly more visible. San tries to avoid thinking about Yeosang beside him and tries to focus on thinking what’s next instead. Hongjoong might be closer than what he thinks and it’s inevitable that he would try to finish what he started. They’re equal now, the fight would go totally different, with San having advantage as Hongjoong doesn’t know what kind of powers he has now. Yet it still makes him extremely anxious. Eventually San realizes he has no mental strength to kill Hongjoong, despite how mad he is at him and despite the fact he deserved it. He’s his old friend after all—he will never forgive him but wouldn’t do him any harm at least directly.

He gets distracted from his thoughts by Yeosang—he gently touches his scarred cheek with the pad of his finger, tracing the cut to its end. The scar has never closed and probably never will—it’s a reminder of the fact he had died but was brought back as his life was taken unfairly.

San suddenly feels weirdly self-conscious and closes his eyes. “Do I look ugly now?”

“What?” Yeosang audibly panics and sits up. San feels hands cupping his face and opens his eyes in shock—he sees Yeosang now sitting up and hovering above him, expression full of worry, and when he starts talking, his voice shakes. “San, don’t say that. Like, you still have these… you have very sparkly eyes. And these cool cheekbones. I’m sorry I said that back then.”

San looks down, avoiding his eyes—the scar might not be as ugly as he thinks of it, but it will never disappear, and he’s going to be always reminded of this humiliation every time he sees himself in the mirror. Hongjoong, this smart son of a bitch, knew what he was doing, he planned to win in every aspect.

Yeosang lowers a bit more and brushes San’s hair off his forehead. “But I meant it when I said you’re a cute little kikimora now. Don’t worry too much about it.”

If San raises his arm, he can put his hand on the back of Yeosang’s neck and drag him down for a kiss. “I guess I just have to live with it.”

Yeosang nods and takes his hands off his face. “I actually have a prophecy for you. But I will reveal it tomorrow. Now sleep with this thought.”

“How am I supposed to sleep after this now?” San laughs quietly.

“Soundly and tightly,” Yeosang giggles as he huddles under his blanket. “Trust me, I have clairvoyance.”

And San falls asleep eventually, not sure if it happens before or after Yeosang; he dreams of something that he feels like it has some meaning—through the haze he gives himself a promise to remember it and ask Yeosang in the morning, but he wakes up with an empty clear head.

 

 

***

 

 

They arrive back to the Marshes only in late evening. The hut meets them with freezing cold—Yeosang runs in first and lights the fireplace with magic. San remembers the previous encounter and takes his boots off before stepping on the carpet—it’s still cold through the socks. He has the misfortune to breathe on his fingers at the very exact moment when Yeosang turns around to face him—he immediately makes a worried face and puts his hands between his, already warmed up with magic.

“I don’t feel cold anyway,” San tries to play it cool but his voice has a slight shake just like his body.

“Yeah, yeah, I totally believe you,” Yeosang laughs and rolls his eyes.

San suppresses a shiver and takes a little pause before talking again. “What was the prophecy you wanted to share?”

Yeosang hesitates to reply and nervously rubs his hands around San’s to warm it. “…It’s not important. I just… Mina once wanted to secretly give me a lesson about clairvoyance and induced an unwanted vision.”

“Why?” It comes off too stern—San even bites the tip of his tongue, annoyed at himself.

Yeosang shrugs. “She didn’t know I already damn well knew the cons of being a clairvoyant. I mean, many people come to learn it just because they think it’s just fun and games.”

“I see.”

“I got a vision of… you know, like ‘you wish you knew this earlier but now it’s too late’, this kind of stuff. Actually, I don’t know why I wanted to say that yesterday, it’s embarrassing now. Later.”

San purses his lips but decides to give him time. The prophecies are never easy to have, so sharing something that came in such circumstances has to be hard to him, whatever meaning it had.

Yeosang lets his hands go and walks to the other room, shrugging his coat on the way and glancing over the shoulder—obviously asking San to follow. He follows to a tiny room, even tinier because of all the furniture—besides bookshelves, there’s a small table in the center closer to the window hidden by blindfolds, three chairs and a couch. It got warmed up quickly already, so San also takes his coat off and leaves it on the couch, and as Yeosang lights a lamp up, San sits in front of him on the table—there’s a card, depicting a person sitting inside of a carriage, apparently dragged by two sphinxes, fallen out of the rest of the deck. Yeosang notices it too and picks the cards up with an amused expression—San wonders what’s the meaning of it.

“Have you heard a myth about a Time God?” Yeosang asks and tilts his head to the side with a small smile. San shakes his head and he continues. “The immortals never truly get over anything.”

“What culture is it from?” He talks over in interest.

“Whanga natives. I went here with Mina a lot of times and met a manaia named Minho,” Yeosang tells him with slight nostalgia in his voice. He rests his chin on his hand and puts the elbow against the table to support it. Now he isn’t looking at San at all. “God fell in love with an angel that commited a sin and fell. When the first world died, God wished for another world to exist, so they can be together again, but in this life they never met. Every time he fails, he starts again.”

“So Whanga natives believe in past lives?” San guesses.

Yeosang nods and straightens his back, then picks the cards and starts shuffling it. “They believe immortals never get over because of this myth. Like… mortals have a short life and they have to move on to have time for everything. We immortals have the whole eternity to dwell on our feelings.”

San listens with a serious expression but inside he gets torn apart by hysterical laughter. Yeah, it’s been ten years and an actual death yet he still is as deep in his feelings for Yeosang as he’s been before. It’s weirdly funny to him that there’s an explanation for his stupidity.

There’s a part of him that has wishful thinking about this—Yeosang tests the waters. He also likes San and is hinting to him he has had feelings for over ten years already. The prophecy was a masked pick-up line, something like ‘I had a vision that you were my betrothed in the future’.

But it’s nothing more than wishful thinking.

“That’s an interesting myth,” he nods.

Yeosang stops shuffling cards and takes the top one with his left hand. He puts a card on the table without looking at it, back with stars up. He throws a quick glance at San before turning it around—a man and a woman both holding cups, lion head above them—to which Yeosang makes a perplexed expression and returns the card back into the deck, putting it aside on the table.

“So?” San puts his crossed elbows on the table and raises his eyebrows in expectation. Yeosang stares at him like a scared deer that noticed a bow with a pulled string aimed at it. “Sorry, I didn’t take tarot classes in demon school.”

“Forget it,” Yeosang bites his lip nervously and leans on a chair with his back, side-eyeing the cards. “I don’t think it matters, I didn’t have any question in my mind so it’s random.”

If San knows anything about tarot, then it’s the fact that random doesn’t apply to it. Any card has a relevant meaning, whether you want it or not.

“Chariot though might mean something,” Yeosang adds and shrugs. “Determination and control. Maybe it wanted to tell you that you should keep going with your plan.”

“Well, if the higher powers say so.”

San once again spent the entire ride thinking about Yeosang, so he thinks about the plan only now. Honestly, he is a bit confused and conflicted—he’s not even sure anymore what exactly he wants. He has no willpower to kill Hongjoong and there’s no point in a different punishment. Yet it’s probably what would happen eventually, because Hongjoong would definitely try to finish what he started. Of course he was hella mad at first, but now—not so much. San would probably be happy to simply guard the lake where he drowned, here, ten minutes away from Yeosang’s witch hut, it’s Hongjoong who wanted violence. San just simply was trying to deal with this as soon as possible but during these days of travelling he realized he doesn’t care about this that much anymore. Well, maybe smacking Wooyoung also will do a trick for his internal peace, but he should learn what Yeosang thinks about it—they’ve been friends before Wooyoung got turned and kept in touch, so Yeosang would probably get worried for him if San goes too hard on him.

“I had a vision,” Yeosang suddenly breaks the silence. He looks down and starts fixing all the bracelets on his wrists as he retells, “you will be wandering around, searching for Hongjoong, and he’ll always be one step ahead. It will take an eternity for you to catch him. He hides from you but he also tries to come to me for an unclear reason. He hesitates because he knows you should be hanging around here. I was thinking maybe you will stay with me for a bit since Hongjoong would show up eventually?”

San snorts firstly, thinking—there’s something in Yeosang’s voice that sounds like worry and it’s silly to San since he knows the truth that Hongjoong also likes Yeosang and will never hurt him. Then a horrifying realization strikes him—Hongjoong is also a crazy demon, so he can pull a good old “if I can’t have you then no one can”. It’s just a guess, but he gets filled with so much fear he can feel himself shaking again.

“Okay,” San replies and curses mentally—the anxiety chokes him and his voice comes out too high. He coughs and adds, “I can do my witch’s silly little black kitty tasks.”

Yeosang laughs. “You’re still obsessed with that familiar thing.”

“C’mon, I have a whole eternity, might as well become a familiar,” San grins and leans on the table with his elbows. “You know, to make our battle against the world more epic.”

There’s a brief pause, and Yeosang is avoiding looking directly at him. He’s still fiddling with his accessories—a ring made of some black gemstone, multiple simple silver rings, a thin chain with blue gems and a green thread with dark beads around his right wrist, and three simple thin chains on left hand. San watches the fire lights dance on metal, absentminded.

“The familiar-witch contract is sealed with a kiss, by the way,” Yeosang says eventually, still not looking.

San feels so shocked he bursts out laughing. This is a fever dream, actually, a near-death hallucination—he’s still being choked by Hongjoong at the bottom of the pond, and he just sees how his life could have turned out if he survived that night.

“I thought this was some ancient stuff? You guys still do it?”

“No, it’s real! You never heard of it?” Yeosang raises his head and obviously fakes shock.

So, this wasn’t wishful thinking.

“Alright, boss,” San laughs and gets off his chair just to get down on one knee in front of Yeosang who suddenly gets flustered with him playing along. “Go ahead.”

San does his best to suppress a happy grin when Yeosang leans down and takes his face in his hands—not missing to instinctively gently rub the scarred cheek to feel up the texture of the scab—slowly closing the distance between their faces and looking more and more stressed. It’s funny, really funny, that he initiated it himself and is now obviously regretting it—not negatively, definitely just panicking, overwhelmed and embarrassed. If San wasn’t so deeply in love with Yeosang, he’d start being annoying and demand the seal being done according to all the rules, one minute three seconds of him trying to shove his tongue up Yeosang’s throat, a bloody handshake and sigils on the floor. But this isn’t funny anymore—San closes the distance first by meeting Yeosang halfway and gives him a kiss, carefully, as if Yeosang is a paper doll and would break from too much pressure.

San himself feels like a paper doll that will break from too much pressure—that’s how overwhelming it is to him. It’s embarrassing, he’s an old demon and had his share of intimacy with mortals, though only for the sake of getting more power, he still expected himself to feel less dazed. Yes, kissing a prophetic bird really does feel like he is able to answer every question anyone would have, and this unwillingly raises another worry—does kissing a kikimora feel like licking a rock covered in silt, after all?

Yeosang doesn’t look like a person who just licked a rock covered in silt, more like a person who wants to run away and lock himself in another room, so San has to lighten up the mood.

“I don’t feel any magical bond created,” he says and licks his lips with a fake thoughtful expression. “Maybe you did something wrong. Let’s try again.”

“San, I made it up,” Yeosang completely misses the joke and lets his face go, “I like you so I just came up with this thing. And the prophecy was that you liked me.”

“The card?” San genuinely gets confused. To be honest, he just wants another kiss because he liked it too much. He doesn’t even like prophecies that much.

“The card too, but I meant the one that I wanted to tell you yesterday,” Yeosang replies and lowers his face even more, now not looking at San. “All in all, I found out you liked me after you died.”

“Oh, that’s what all this Time God talk was about,” he giggles and rests his cheek on his hand as he puts his elbow against his raised knee.

Yeosang takes a deep shaky breath but still doesn’t look up at San when he starts talking. “It was like… You died and the spell was planning to share something about you relevant for me. So it told me that you loved me. Kind of shitty, isn’t it? That’s the biggest con of clairvoyance. Sometimes you will know something you wish you didn’t. I mean, at that time I wish I didn’t. Now I’m glad I’ve known that, because I’m too dense to figure out myself. But at that time I didn’t know what to do with this information.”

“Well, I hope you now have an idea what to do?” San breaks into a big smile and giggles.

Yeosang doesn’t reply out loud but nods. San then gets up from his knees to settle on Yeosang’s lap and kiss him again.

During a waxing crescent, Choi San changes the plan—he has too much important stuff to catch up, so the revenge will wait. After all, it should be served cold, and Hongjoong will eventually come over for dinner himself.