The bear-demon comes out of nowhere, it seems, for something of its size. Sneaks right up next to Jeongguk and roars, foul breath steaming in the cool air of the forest. The demon is nothing but brown fur and froth around its mouth, all fangs, and it catches Jeongguk in the side with one huge paw, slinging him backwards and against the unforgiving trunk of a tree.
It hurts—it hurts so much Jeongguk can't even breathe for a second, his lungs feel like they're collapsing and something bright and ferocious sparks behind his eyes, a whiteness that rims the edges of his vision before receding and giving him voice enough to scream.
"Jeongguk!" Taehyung's voice, high and tense with fear.
They all say you should never shout in the presence of a demon, and Jeongguk remembers that, but he still calls out "Here!" like it's the last word he'll ever speak. Maybe it is. The demon turns on him and snarls, its four eyes blinking in rapid unsynchronicity—its target is down, Jeongguk is on his back on the ground and his legs don't seem to want to work. He can breathe again, but he can't get air enough to stand.
I'm going to die, Jeongguk thinks.
"Leave him alone!" is what Taehyung yells when he catches the bear-demon in the side of its head with the butt of his sword. It's terribly un-dignified and not very charismatic, and bear-demons—or any sort of demon—don't even speak any human language, but it gets the job done. Or, at least, it makes the bear-demon stop advancing on Jeongguk and start advancing on Taehyung instead.
"Oh, shit," Taehyung says. If this were any other situation, Jeongguk would make a joke about Taehyung always running headlong into things without plan enough to hold himself through 'til the end.
But this is not any other situation, and Taehyung trips backwards over a root, lands hard on the forest floor.
Scrambling behind him, Jeongguk's hand closes blindly on the belly of his bow. It's still strung, thank the gods, the sinew tight between the limbs, and even though Jeongguk's quiver is in pieces it doesn't take him long to find an arrow that is whole. The bear-demon is still facing Taehyung down, and Taehyung doesn't even have his sword anymore—he flung it to the side when he fell, probably—and no matter how fast he scrambles backwards, the bear-demon is faster, its limbs longer and steps heavier.
"No," Jeongguk murmurs, nocking his arrow and drawing back.
The bear demon takes a step, its right leg moving forward. It is almost on Taehyung now, its teeth exposed, all four eyes focused on the prey squirming in the dirt below its feet.
Jeongguk takes a deep breath, exhales, and shoots to kill.
When Jeongguk is fifteen years old, he spends Valentine's Day lunchtime on the roof of his middle school, awkward and alone. All the girls have plans and none of them involve Jeongguk—and that's fine, really, because Jeongguk is just as uninterested in the girls as they are in him. But it gets hard, to explain over and over that it isn't a mistake that there is no chocolate in his locker and no girls scuffing their feet, shy-eyed and hopeful, waiting to give him a letter.
There had been a girl, but that was a long time ago and word travels fast in a town of this size.
"So," comes a voice, and then its owner joins Jeongguk leaning against the balcony. Jeongguk looks down and into the grin of a shorter, curly-haired boy, all teeth and wrinkles at the bridge of his nose from smiling too hard. "You're not a big Valentine's Day guy either, huh?"
"Um," Jeongguk says, "I guess you could say that, yeah."
"Cool, me neither," the guy says, leaning his back against the railing and tipping his head back over the edge like he's in some kind of manhwa comic. "I'm Kim Taehyung, by the way. I'm in the class next to yours."
"Jeon Jeongguk," Jeongguk says, and then blinks, and then raises an eyebrow in suspicion. "Why do I feel like you already knew that?"
Taehyung shrugs too casually, then offers Jeongguk the half-eaten box of chocolates in his hands. "I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you," he says. "Here. You gotta eat chocolate on Valentine's Day even if you get it from a stranger on the roof."
"That doesn't sound like a good idea at all," Jeongguk says, but against his better judgment, he smiles anyway. The chocolate he chooses is white, and when he bites into it, the burst of raspberry on his tongue has him making a surprised sound. "Oh, it's good—?"
"Knew it," Taehyung says with a self-assured nod. "Totally pegged you for a white-choco-raspberry kind of guy."
Jeongguk rolls his eyes. "I have you pegged for a guy who's gonna get a chocolate to the face in about thirteen seconds," he says, and Taehyung laughs, and for once, the tension that Jeongguk carries around just below his lungs loosens just a fraction. Old wounds heal slowly, but for a moment, Jeongguk can breathe easily again.
That is how Jeongguk meets Kim Taehyung. How he falls in love with him is another story altogether.
The paper boat comes to Jeongguk in a dream.
In the dream, Jeongguk floats above the surface of a lake, and its waters are a perfect silver mirror. The stars above him are endless, the sky a purple so deep someone could trip up into it, and Jeongguk is not breathing, but he has no need to breathe. Below him is a small paper boat, bobbing calmly on the surface of the lake, propelled by a wind so faint it doesn't even leave a ripple in its wake.
When Jeongguk reaches down, the paper boat slides just out of reach, propelled along the surface by some unseen force.
This is how Jeongguk knows he has to go.
Oh, he'd been expecting it for some time now. His father had been chosen when he was Jeongguk's age, and his grandfather too—that was what Jeongguk's grandmother had told him the first time he'd asked about the dreaming. "And soon, my love, you will be chosen as well," she had said, her wrinkled and arthritic hands cupping Jeongguk's face with unexpected delicacy. "And you will have to go and be brave."
"What if I'm not brave?" Jeongguk had asked, then. He took one of her hands between his and her hand had seemed so small, the bones of a bird, the crackle of a very old leaf. "Then—"
"You will be brave," his grandmother had said. But Jeongguk had understood what she didn't say, anyway, which was that if he was not brave, he would not be back.
When Jeongguk wakes up in the morning, he slips out of bed and pads in bare feet to the kitchen, where his mother is cooking breakfast. His grandmother is sitting at the counter, and when she looks up at him, Jeongguk knows that she knows. He's always had a terrible face for lying.
"Daughter," she says, setting down the newspaper.
Jeongguk's mother looks up, and looks at his face. In an instant Jeongguk can see a thousand emotions there in her eyes—sorrow, worry, fear. A lot of fear, but a lot of pride, too. "You dreamed, then?" she asks, a soft smile on her face and her knuckles white around the spoon in her hand. Jeongguk nods. "Well. Sit down. We'll feed you and get you on your way."
There isn't really that much ceremony to it, at least not as much as Jeongguk had been expecting. He eats the soup and rice his mother gives him and then gets dressed, not in his school uniform today but in the clothes that have waited for him in the spare room closet for the last two years. Sturdy trousers and a shirt meant to keep him warm, which Jeongguk thinks he might not need—it's May now, the weather is balmy and a little damp. "And this," Jeongguk's mother says, handing him his bow and a quiver of arrows.
"Thanks," Jeongguk says. He slips them both across his body, feeling them settle, a comfortable weight against his back.
"You should have practiced more, in winter," his mother chides gently.
"I know," Jeongguk says, and he can't help it, so he makes a face.
It's a conversation they've had a thousand times before, but today it makes his mother cry.
As a child, they always make it seem simpler than it turns out to be. The journey, that is, where you pack what you can into a small rucksack and climb the mountain just outside their village. It's a journey of self-discovery, is how the story goes, and those who make it to the top and return will know their destinies. There are many chosen to do it, they say, and Jeongguk believes them, because this when he is small enough not to realize how few come back.
Later, as a teenager, Jeongguk hears another version of the story.
This version tells of the lush forests and heavy mists along the road to the mountain, and the creatures that live inside it—deer and birds and mice so small and white they could be snowflakes, except for the eyes. It tells of the crisp clear water of the mountain streams and the solemn, statuesque grey of the slate cliffs, and the blue of the sky that stretches above and begs the traveler to fly.
But this version also tells of the demons and tricksters, the demons that live in caves in the rocks, the knife-footed ox-beasts that climb out of the muddy rivers and slice humans into bite-sized pieces. Jeongguk hears of the water girls who tempt travelers off the path with shy smiles and delicate hands, and then drive them slowly insane, until they would rather kill themselves than endure her presence.
To Jeongguk, though, none of those are the most terrifying. They are only obstacles, things he can pass by—things they study, things they learn about and can overcome.
He hears about some travelers who reached the top of the mountain, who stood on the edge of the entire world and saw their destiny and it was nothing. Blankness, empty in all directions, so bleak that rather than turn around and fight their way home, the travelers simply jumped.
It is those things that leave an empty, aching hole in the pit of Jeongguk's stomach.
Jeongguk's mother walks with him to the gates of the village, although she cannot walk him any further. "I'll be fine," he promises, putting his hands on his mother's shoulders. Had she always been so tiny? "I'll be back before you know it."
His mother smiles a quiet, sad smile. "Don't let the mountain make a liar out of you," she says, and kisses him goodbye.
There can't be any more than that. No drama, no tears. Any more and they risk acknowledging the heavy thoughts lingering in the backs of their minds—that the mountain had made a liar out of Jeongguk's father, and it could well do the same to him yet.
His mother can't watch him go. Jeongguk shoulders his backpack and double-checks his bow, his quiver, the fletching of all his arrows. With any luck he won't need them, but luck is a precious and rare commodity and Jeongguk knows he shouldn't put his money on it.
Jeongguk is only two minutes out of the village when he hears the crash of rapid footsteps on the path behind him. He thinks of demons. No one has seen a demon this close to the village walls in a hundred years or more, but that doesn't mean they aren't out there. Jeongguk, on instinct, drops his bag and draws his bow, arrow knocked, bowstring taut.
But it isn't a demon that comes toward him around the bend in the path—it's Kim Taehyung, making way too much damn noise. His cheeks are flushed with the exertion of running, and he has a backpack on his back and a sword in its scabbard in his hand.
"What the hell," Jeongguk snaps, relaxing his bow stance.
Taehyung comes to a halt a couple meters in front of Jeongguk and holds up a hand, panting for breath for a few moments before speaking. "Coming with you," he finally manages, the words forced out between gasps.
"You can't come with me on a dream journey," Jeongguk says, astonished that he even has to explain it. 'The point is that it's mine."
Finally, Taehyung straightens, his free hand gripping tight to the strap of his backpack. "I dreamed, too," he says, a little more quietly. His breathing is more controlled. When Jeongguk meets his eyes, there's something there that Jeongguk has a hard time reading. "The messenger. I dreamed it, too."
It's rare, for two to dream at once, but Jeongguk knows it's not unheard of. He just never expected it to be Taehyung. There's nothing in Taehyung's usually open-book face to suggest that he's lying, but Jeongguk almost wants to tell him not to come, to take a different path. To leave Jeongguk alone. Taehyung would be welcome company, but it's the destination, not the journey, that Jeongguk is afraid of.
"Fine," he says, after a silence that's a little too long. "You're better at starting fires, anyway."
A long time ago, Taehyung had been harder to read. Or maybe Jeongguk just hadn't yet learned how.
Late summer means storms, warm pelting rain and the thick slate underbellies of clouds over the harbor. Waves come in choppy and spray sea salt water all over the pier where Jeongguk sits, just out of the sea's reach. A good day for mourning.
Even then, Jeongguk doesn't need to look behind to know that the footsteps he hears are Taehyung's. They come up behind him, then around the side. A second later, Taehyung settles down on the edge of the pier next to Jeongguk. "Hey," he says, wrapping his arms around his knees. "Your mom said you'd probably be here."
"Looks like she was right," Jeongguk says.
A moment of quiet. The blackness of Jeongguk's mood, perhaps, is bleeding into the space between them. Taehyung clears his throat. "Rough weather," he says, looking out toward the gunmetal waters.
"It always is, this time of year."
Of course, Taehyung knows that. He was born and raised here, the same as Jeongguk. But Jeongguk can't say anything else for fear of letting loose the wild words that are trapped behind his teeth—how rough weather means dangerous seas, dangerous seas mean capsized boats. How the body of a girl he loved once is still out there somewhere in the unfathomable depths of the ocean. How her absence still aches like a bruise if Jeongguk forgets himself.
But Taehyung probably knows that, too. In a town this size, word travels quickly, and for all Taehyung's goofy good humor, he knows how to listen.
Jeongguk exhales roughly. He should say something, maybe. Let Taehyung know that he's okay, just hurting, and that it'll pass when the storm does.
In the end, without any words at all, Taehyung puts a hand on Jeongguk's knee, fingers warm through the denim of Jeongguk's pants. When Jeongguk looks at him, Taehyung's face is an open book, emotions printed like a story on his features. Sympathy, but no pity, for which Jeongguk is thankful. Affection. Sorrow. And underneath it all, an acute, piercing echo of the same weight that bears down on Jeongguk's heart as well.
It's too much. Jeongguk looks away, shy despite himself, and they don't say anything for a long time.
It rains a little as they walk up the path toward the forest at the foot of the mountain. It's just a light shower, enough to cut the heat of physical exertion, but it soaks through the fabric of Jeongguk's t-shirt and makes his backpack chafe uncomfortably where it rubs against his back.
Taehyung, though, is as cheerful as ever, chattering away about whatever crosses his mind—the weather, the scenery, the possibility of meeting anybody else on the path. He laments the homework he's going to miss this week, although their teachers all have policies forgiving dreamchasers for any missed assignments. The Dreaming cares not for the academic calendars of men.
Taehyung is halfway through a story involving his class president, a rubber band ball, and three classroom desks stacked vertically when Jeongguk's neck prickles with something sharp and unfamiliar. He drags Taehyung to a halt and clamps a hand firmly over his mouth, silencing the flow of words.
For a long moment they just stand there, the sensation raising the hair at the back of Jeongguk's neck, raising goosebumps on his forearms.
Taehyung squirms free. "If you wanted me to be quiet," he begins, a wounded expression on his face, but Jeongguk puts a finger to his lips and Taehyung quiets.
"There's a yogoi nearby," he says softly.
Taehyung tenses. "How do you know?" he whispers back.
"I just know," Jeongguk says. "I can feel it."
Maybe there's something in his face, or his voice. Taehyung doesn't press the issue. He just falls silent and turns to scan the area around them.
After a moment—"There," Taehyung says. "In the treeline."
He doesn't point, but Jeongguk follows the line of his gaze until he spots it too—the shape of a woman, half-obscured by the shadows of the forest. Her dress is white, dirty in places, and dripping wet. Even from this distance, Jeongguk can tell. The she-demon is watching them, her hands lifted to her mouth so she can lick the drops of rainwater from her wrists. Her gaze locks briefly with Jeongguk's, and he feels an instinctive tug of fear in the pit of his belly.
But Jeongguk was trained well, so he doesn't run, even though he wants to. Beside him, Taehyung is shaking, and Jeongguk reaches out to take Taehyung's hand in his own.
"Don't look at her," he says, reaching up and turning Taehyung's face so their eyes meet. "Look at me. If we don't care, she won't either."
Taehyung is pale, but he nods with determination. Jeongguk can see a spark of something fierce light up in his eyes. "Okay," he agrees. "We have to keep walking, don't we?"
"Yeah," Jeongguk says. "Just keep looking at me, or ahead. Don't look at her."
They start walking again. Taehyung starts his story again, too, although his voice is shakier than before and his fingers are vicelike around Jeongguk's. Jeongguk keeps half his attention on Taehyung, half on the path ahead of them, and tries to ignore the increasing feeling of discomfort the closer they get to the she-demon.
"Jeongguk," Taehyung mumbles, his eyes closing briefly. "Are we past her yet?"
"Almost," Jeongguk says. "How come you're so bad at this, hyung? Didn't you take the dreamchasing courses too?"
It's a joke, and it works. Taehyung grumbles under his breath, probably something unkind, and says, "Not all of us were born with a sixth sense, you know." He pushes his lip out, pouting. He looks ridiculous, and Jeongguk smiles. "But I've got you, so I don't have to worry."
They pass the treeline, and the prickling starts to fade. Jeongguk breathes a silent sigh of relief. "You've got me," he repeats, nodding. "We're past the treeline, hyung. We're safe."
For now, anyway. Jeongguk knows better than to think that safety will last long in the forest. But they're out of immediate danger, and Taehyung is still holding Jeongguk's hand. When Jeongguk looks down at him, Taehyung is smiling so widely it makes the bottom of Jeongguk's stomach feel weightless.
"You're still holding my hand," Jeongguk points out,
"I know," Taehyung says.