"I would like to learn to fight," Capheus says.
Sun glances over, her expression neutral. Capheus regards her steadily, cheerfully, though she's come to realize that he does everything cheerfully, and a smile doesn't mean he isn't serious.
"I know I'm not you," he says, when she doesn't respond, "with your skills and experience. But I was hoping you could teach me the basics. Things even someone like me could learn." He smiles and turns around to start walking backwards. His arms swing loosely at his sides; dirt kicks up around his feet. The sunlight of his country blazes bright and beautiful in a way that it never does in smoggy Seoul.
"I'm not sure that's a good idea," Sun says, because she isn't.
"I'd be a good student," Capheus promises.
"That isn't what I'm worried about."
She takes her time with her answer, following Capheus down a road packed hard with red earth. They've discussed plenty of topics during their strolls together, some more revealing than she meant them to be, but being with Capheus with easy. Taking a break from her life is easier still. She finds herself admitting things, thousands of miles from home, that she never would otherwise.
"It changes you," she says eventually. "The fight. The pain."
"You're worried about my spirit?" he asks.
"Once you know how it feels to hurt another human being," Sun says, "you can't go back."
Capheus lowers his head. When she follows his gaze to the ground, their feet are on asphalt. It's raining, and horns blare discordantly in the distance as bumper-to-bumper traffic throws headlights over everything. Droplets of water trickle down his forehead and the bridge of his nose. "Yes," he agrees, and nothing else.
He doesn't have to explain what he's thinking. The same images flicker through both their minds: scenes of horror and terror, men with their limbs cut off, the sounds of bullets slamming into flesh. A machete hanging in their shared hand, heavy with their intent to use it.
All of it just proves her point.
"Call to me," she says. "When you need help. I'll do the fighting for you."
"What if you aren't around?" Capheus asks.
"I will be," Sun says.
Capheus looks at her head-on. "And why should you take that burden and not me?"
So you won't have to face that kind of violence again, Sun doesn't say. So the world won't lose any more of your smiles. Sun ran out of them a long time ago. The world won't miss them.
Capheus stops in the middle of the sidewalk, and the world changes as he does so, taking them back to the rich earth and burnt sky of his home. She feels her muscles stiffening instinctively, and her tension shoots through their connection, hard and fast like a jab. Capheus doesn't flinch.
"We live in a dangerous world," he says. "And it grows more dangerous by the day. I would like the means to protect myself, and my friends and family, even if it isn't easy."
She feels his emotions this time, but unlike hers, they don't hurt. Capheus' feelings are gentler, and they spread through her body like something heavy and warm, weighted, love and attention and protectiveness for those he cares about, burdens that he doesn't actually regard as burdens.
Sun can't remember the last time she didn't consider her family a noose around her neck.
"I'm not a patient teacher," she says, the words leaving her mouth before she can stop them.
"I don't care," Capheus says instantly.
"I'll be hard on you."
"Greatness requires suffering."
"You could ask one of the others."
"I would prefer you." He smiles at her, open and guileless. "You have the spirit of Van Damme, after all," and he's teasing now.
Sun doesn't return the gesture. She already knows she's making a mistake, but she can't take it back in the face of his happiness. So she just looks into the sun - its golden glow no match for the warmth that Capheus has put in her heart - and ruthlessly clamps down on any emotion that could destroy her.
Their first lesson is a disaster. Capheus has seen too many movies, and it affects everything from how he holds himself to the way he throws a punch, so she has to help him unlearn a lot of bad habits before she can actually teach him anything. He also has boundless amounts of energy, which is a great thing for a warrior's spirit but less effective when he's spilling water everywhere instead of holding the cups steady on his elbows and knees. Sun eventually settles for running him through basic forms over and over again.
"Move this," she says, sticking a leg between his and nudging his foot until it angles outwards. "There, you feel the balance of the stance? You'll be much harder to knock over this way than if you stand with your feet straight."
"I don't feel a difference," Capheus admits, so she gives him a quick, sharp shove between his shoulder blades. "Oof!"
"See how you kept your feet?" she asks. "Now go back to the way you were standing before. I'll shove you again, and this time you'll fall flat on your belly."
"...Can we just say I believe you?"
Sun gives him an unimpressed look, but he simply tips his head back and looks at her over his shoulder, his expression a mix of amused and despairing. She decides to have mercy on him. "Let's try something else," she says. The temperature is climbing by the hour, and the grass underneath their feet is becoming uncomfortably warm to the touch.
Capheus jumps in place, rubbing his hands together and hunching his shoulders. "All right," he says. "I'm ready. Let's do it."
Sun jumps into his body.
She doesn't give him any warning, which is probably rude, but she's been here so often that it feels like slipping into a second skin. She can feel - and it's still so strange, even after all this time - she can feel him startle, the alarm flowing through him and therefore through her, but then he relaxes and cedes control. He trusts her in his body as much as he trusts the wheels to be underneath his van as he drives.
And just like that, Sun is taller, bulkier, and looking out into the world with eyes that aren't her own.
"All right," she says aloud, for his benefit. "This is how the stance is supposed to feel."
She angles her feet, adjusts her weight, and Capheus' body is an obedient mirror. Overlaid with the familiar sensations of her own self - her own heart beating, her own muscle memory - she can feel the subtle nuances that make up the frame she occupies. Capheus is new to martial arts, so his breaths come quick and fast, his lungs contracting rapidly. His muscles, pushed and held in unusual positions, ache in a way that hers haven't for years.
"That burn in your legs," she says. "That's a good thing." She bends over and runs her hand along his calf through the heavy canvas of his pants. "This one right here," she says, tracing the long line of a muscle, "this one is the most important one. The strain will go away once the stance becomes natural, but in the meantime, you can use it to make sure you're standing correctly."
She straightens a bit, letting her hand continue up his leg. "The thigh muscles are also important," she says, and flexes them so he can feel the burn. "You'll need to be careful not to overtax them, but again, your discomfort can actually be your guide. This one here," she prods two fingers deep into the muscle of his upper thigh, "this one comes with its own kind of strain - "
And then she stops, because she realizes, all at once, that his muscles aren't the only things straining.
She'd felt it, of course. But she hadn't really understood what the thrumming was, the tight, taut feeling that spread through his body like a bowstring the more she touched him. By the time she realizes that Capheus has an erection, it's heavy and full, straining against his boxers and sensitive to the slightest movement.
She jumps out of his body like a one-second KO.
"Ah," Capheus says. He's standing in front of her again, expression sheepish. Sun is back in her own form but she can still feel his arousal, and somehow she seems to have taken some of it with her, her body full of fire and her head swimming with it, making her breathless, dizzy, hot.
Capheus shifts, and her eyes drop to his groin. His pants are tented.
"I'm so terribly sorry," he says. "This is, um, awkward?" He offers her a tentative smile, but when Sun just looks at him, not saying anything, not knowing what to say, it fades a bit. "I'm sorry," he says more sincerely. "I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. It was just - the touching, I think." He lets out an embarrassed kind of breath. "And the sharing." His tone is wry. "You are a very beautiful woman," he adds, casual but completely matter-of-fact.
It's been three years since Sun was with a man. He'd been from a chaebol family, very respectable, and their sex had been very respectable too. If she wanted to come, she had to take matters into her own hands.
All Capheus has to do is call her beautiful for the urge to come right back.
"I'm really sorry," he's saying now, palms up, conciliatory. "Do you want to stop the lesson?"
She shakes her head, a short, quick gesture, hair flying out and settling back down again. "Don't worry about it," she says, and she's relieved to hear that her voice is quite steady. "These things happen. Let's continue."
"Are you sure?" Capheus asks.
She gets into position. "Next form," she says, and squares her feet, and lets the familiar rhythms of violence take over the pounding of her heart.
It would be less of a problem if Capheus wasn't such a good student.
After the awkwardness of their first lesson, he takes all subsequent ones very seriously. He never complains, not even as a joke, absorbing all of her suggestions and corrections like a sponge. He lets her position his limbs and contort his body in all kinds of ways, and he never once brings up what happened before.
And he listens. It's a heady thing, after a lifetime of being underestimated and undervalued, to have the full attention of a man as bright and focused as Capheus.
There's also a certain feeling in the air after a long training session. Sometimes they wrestle in the dirt of Nairobi after driving miles away from civilization, and sometimes she hangs a punching bag in her apartment and they train to the smacks of bare hands and feet, but the end result is always the same: the smell of sweat, the adrenaline of physical exertion, the feel of Capheus' arms sliding slickly between hers as she brings his body close to demonstrate a chokehold.
She doesn't use a lot of them in kickboxing. In fact, she's never used a chokehold in a single competition.
Capheus doesn't know that.
"Good job," she says, releasing him and letting him stumble back a few steps. He looks pained and somewhat rueful.
"Good job getting thoroughly beaten?"
"You're getting beaten less than you were before," Sun points out, meaning it only as a statement of fact, but Capheus throws his head back and laughs. The movement brings attention to his neck, the hollow there shining with sweat. There's a gentle throbbing underneath his skin from her chokehold, residual blossoms of pain, the effects of her hands on his skin, the way she moved the flesh on his body. Her mouth is suddenly very dry.
"Water," she says, and grabs a bottle for herself before throwing another one to him. He catches it easily, then pauses.
"If I drink this," he says, "it means you're really drinking it, yes? I open the bottle and bring it to my lips, but you're the one actually consuming it in your reality?"
"I think so," Sun says, after a moment to puzzle out the logistics.
"What happens if we drink at the same time?"
"It's the same water," Sun replies. "We'll taste the same thing."
"What if we tried tasting different things?" Capheus presses, his eyebrows raised, his expression strangely youthful with curiosity and just a hint of mischief.
Which is how they come to be sitting cross-legged on the floor of the gym holding two different pieces of fruit.
"On the count of three," Capheus says, waiting for her nod. "One, two, three!"
They bite into their fruit at the same time, and the experience is - wild. Sun is eating something she's never seen before, a soft, reddish-yellow fruit that bursts across her tongue and fills her mouth with sweetness, and Capheus has an orange slice, its taste familiar but somehow electric when mixed with hers. Citrus and saccharine blend together in an almost overwhelming way, because her rational mind rejects that she can be tasting two things at the same time, and yet she is.
She looks into Capheus' eyes and sees the same wonder reflected there, the same amazement and delight. Then she swallows.
Capheus stops breathing.
She can't explain how she knows this. She just feels it. She swallows, her mystery fruit gliding smoothly down her throat, and across the room, Capheus responds.
She takes another bite, feeling her heart pound under her ribs, her hair sticking to the sides of her face with sweat.
Capheus pushes a piece of orange into his mouth with his thumb. He's watching her, making no pretense at doing anything but, his lips shining with juice, his thumb shining with it. If he were to swallow, she would taste pulp. If she kissed him, right now, she would taste citrus.
She doesn't kiss him.
She doesn't move any closer.
She just sits there, cross-legged, throbbing from her chest all the way down to her clit, knowing Capheus is equally aroused. Knowing his erection is straining against his sweatpants as he watches her consume the flesh of her fruit and pluck the seeds from her tongue. She eats the entire thing, until her chin is sticky with juice and her nipples are stiff against the fabric of her tank top. Neither of them says a word.
When she's finished, Capheus lets out a breath, a great gushing one like he's just relaxed for the first time since sitting down. Then he nods at her, once, and winks out of existence.
She waits for him to return, maybe with a new pair of pants, but as the minutes pass and he doesn't reappear, she realizes that he isn't coming back. She closes her eyes and reaches out for him, but at the first contact of her mind with his, he jumps back, skittish.
She drops the connection like a dead weight. Then she just sits there for awhile, silent, alone.
When she looks down at the floor in front of her, she finds an orange peel sitting in a mess of shiny black seeds.
The other sensates come to visit her after that.
"I didn't mean to eavesdrop," Riley says awkwardly. Her discomfort in no way detracts from her beauty, sitting on Sun's couch like a visitation from a goddess, pale and ethereal. "I just happened to be in the shower when I felt... well."
"It's understandable," Sun says. "I apologize. It won't happen again."
"No, no," Riley protests, eyes widening a little. "It's your right. And it's, um, it's no less than what I've felt from the others." She offers a smile, hesitant and lovely. "I just felt like you should know. That I felt it too, I mean." She lapses into silence, then, obviously uncomfortable with expressing herself, a woman who prefers to let music do her talking for her. But Sun understands what she's trying to say. Riley has always guarded her privacy, and Sun appreciates that she wants to do the same for her, or at least make amends when she can't.
Lito comes next, and the experience is completely different.
"Congratulations!" he exclaims, grinning and dropping himself onto the stone steps where she's going through her morning endurance exercises. "It's a wonderful thing, isn't it, the act of making love?"
Sun doesn't respond, because we didn't make love would only prompt more questions, and who says it was wonderful would prompt even more.
"I'm happy for you," Lito continues, not seeming to notice her silence. "I don't know if I've ever told you this, but the day we met, when you were crying and everything, it really made an impression on me. In here." He puts a hand over his heart. "So I'm really glad that you've found someone. That you're happy now."
"Anyway, I've gotta run," Lito says. He stands, and Sun sees that he's wired for the set, something complicated made of cords and mics. "Great talk!" he adds, not seeming to realize the irony. "And good luck with future sex!"
He leaves as abruptly as he arrived, but the warmth of his companionship lingers, and Sun goes through her exercises with more contentment than before.
Kala comes next, and Nomi, and they sit at her table and drink tea with her.
"I love this aesthetic," Nomi comments, looking around her apartment with its high walls and gleaming surfaces.
"I love this dog," Kala says, giggling a little as Bom licks her fingers, probably hoping to taste the tea, which he knows full well he isn't allowed to have.
Sitting there, watching her friends play with her dog in the golden light streaming through the windows, Sun feels a kinship with them that she can't explain, something that goes beyond the constant low-level telepathy they all share these days. It is, she thinks, something about love, and finding it, and recognizing it, and - in Kala's case - not knowing what to do about it.
As soon as this realization crosses her mind, both women turn to look at her, and she feels a flush crawl up her neck.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Kala asks, gently.
"Not in the slightest," Sun tells her.
The corner of her mouth pushes in the slightest smile. "It might feel good to get it off your chest."
"I doubt it," Sun replies.
She brings her cup to her lips so she won't have to field any more questions. Kala looks down at Bom, now pushing his nose against her palm. Across the table, Nomi's gaze is frank and assessing through her glasses.
Sun wonders if she's going to say anything. She wonders if she'll have anything to say in reply.
Then Nomi smiles, a sad, understanding look, and changes the subject. This is another woman who understands secrets, Sun knows, and is probably even more unsettled than the rest of them about having her business perpetually and indiscriminately broadcast to seven strangers.
Sun offers her more tea, and asks her about life in San Francisco.
Will gives her the most amusing experience, jumping at first directly into her body while she's in the grocery store. One minute she's comparing prices on canned beondegi, and the next she's blinking in befuddlement at it, thinking am I crazy or does that say silkworm -
It takes her a second to realize what's happened, but before she can nudge Will out, he leaves her consciousness and materializes in front of her.
"Sorry," he says immediately. "Uh, I'm still not great with this yet. You'd think I would be after all this time."
"No harm, no foul," Sun says. She has her suspicions about how easily Will jumps into her body, and they have less to do with any lack of skill and more to do with the fact that their souls have crossed so many times in so many of their friends' bodies. She has multiple memories of moving in time with him, his thoughts turning into her actions, their combined punches connecting solidly with people who would do their cluster harm. She has spoken with his mouth and vice versa. Of all of them, she feels she understands Will the most.
"Well," Will says, shifting from foot to foot. "I just wanted to make sure that you were okay."
"OK?" Sun repeats, and the word comes out in English, the syllables clanking together.
"I know how strange the bond can get during sex." The tips of his ears go red. "It can get really weird. So I just wanted to check in, you know, make sure you're doing all right."
Ah. Sun has heard this story.
"I haven't had any orgies," she assures him.
"God," Will says, and covers his face in anguish.
Sun feels her lips twitching, and it's only with immense self-discipline that she keeps her face blank and unemotional. "If any orgies happen in the future," she says, "I'll be sure to call on you," and Will laughs helplessly, his hand still covering his face. They wind up leaving things like that, Will ending his visit in good spirits, Sun smiling to herself all the way through checkout.
Wolfgang doesn't come to see her, but she never expects him to; almost all of their interaction has been secondhand, a flash of feeling from Kala, a sense of amazed delight from Lito involving some kind of high-powered weapon. He keeps his distance, and she keeps hers, and when they occasionally walk through each other's dreams - when the labyrinth of his mind coincides with her feelings of being lost, when she goes to sleep thinking of her father and wakes up haunted by the face of a blue-eyed man with a violent heart - they simply nod at each other and cross paths without speaking. This, too, is a gift.
Capheus doesn't visit her at all, and she tells herself that she must not care.
Of all the outcomes of growing close to someone, she never thought she'd be lonely.
The other sensates keep visiting her, and sometimes she finds herself called to them; she does stunt work for Lito on one of his film sets and receives a standing ovation, and she's pulled to Kala one night as she hurries through a dark, empty alley, the shadows representing a silent but ever-present threat. But she never sees Capheus, and his absence is conspicuous after spending so many afternoons in his company. Sun hadn't realized how much she took their friendship for granted until she suddenly didn't have it anymore. More than once she finds herself gazing into the Seoul sky and wishing for the brilliance of Nairobi.
A thousand times she's on the verge of reaching out to him, and a thousand times she can swear she feels something - a longing, a wistful hope - from his side, but nothing ever comes of it.
It shouldn't surprise her that violence is what finally breaks the standoff.
One minute she's riding the subway, and the next she's looking up at an angry man with a gun, the pupils of his eyes standing out starkly against the darkness of the night. She's on her knees, and he has the gun pointed at her head.
Things happen quickly after that.
She explodes from the ground, slamming the heel of her hand into his nose, using her other arm to force the gun away. The man roars in pain and stumbles backwards. The gun fires. A bullet slams into the dirt, and a woman screams. Sun checks on her quickly, instinctively - she's fine, she's huddled against the wall watching the fight with wide eyes - and when she looks back, the man is taking a swing at her.
As his fist arcs towards her face, everything goes still and quiet in Sun's mind.
By the time she's finished, the man is groaning, mouth sticky with blood, crawling on his hands and knees to get away from her. Sun's knuckles are scraped to the skin and her blood is singing. She feels like the entire world is in harmony with her fists. She feels magnificent.
This is the other reason she hadn't wanted Capheus to become a fighter.
As she thinks of him, she realizes what's happened - an unintended share - and she drops out of his consciousness, intending to go back to the subway and leave him be. His attacker has regained his feet and is stumbling away, casting fearful glances over his shoulder at where she stands. Capheus will be fine. She can go.
What happens, however, is that she drops the share and then finds herself visiting instead, standing beside Capheus as he consoles the screaming woman, now crying softly into a handkerchief.
"It's okay, mzee," he says gently, helping her off the ground. "Do you have your purse? Where is it? Ah, here it is."
He presses it into the woman's hands, and she takes a shaky breath.
"Bless you," she says, more than once. "Bless you." She pets his cheek with a clumsy hand, and he lets her, keeping an arm curled around her shoulders as he escorts her down the street and around the corner. Sun loses sight of him, but their connection stays steady and true, the thumps of his footsteps landing in time with the adrenaline still pumping through her veins.
Capheus eventually re-emerges from around the corner, except now he isn't on a darkened street; he's pushing through the bodies of a crowded subway car, his eyes on hers. It takes him awhile to reach her, and the wait is excruciating. It takes exactly 40 steps to clear the distance, because Sun counts every one. That's 40 seconds to leave. 40 chances to go.
She stays right where she is.
"Thank you," Capheus says, once he reaches her. He looks dirty and disheveled, sweat shining on his upper lip, drops of blood staining his collar. "I would have died without you."
She doesn't bother saying anything like I know. "What happened?" she asks instead. Someone on the subway gives her a curious look.
Capheus grimaces. "The woman was being mugged. I wanted to help. I thought... with all you taught me, I thought I might be able to handle it... "
Embarrassment flickers through their bond, but Sun has never felt less like laughing. There's a lump in her throat, and she can't seem to take her eyes off the red stain on his collar. He could've died. He could've died, and it would've been on a dark street in the middle of nowhere, and - she looks up, seeing that they've been transported back to the street in question, the darkness now punctuated by the thinnest shades of dawn - she wouldn't even have known it if not for this impossible, inhuman connection they share.
She wouldn't even know Capheus if she hadn't been awakened as a sensate. She wouldn't have met him. She wouldn't have developed these feelings in her heart. She would be free.
She would be alone.
The thought is unbearable.
She opens up the connection to that realization, her heart in her throat.
For a moment, Capheus doesn't seem to understand, his expression going blank. Then his eyes flicker up to hers, and he looks stunned, a tide of emotion rising within him, pressing at the seams of his body and just waiting to burst free.
"These are your feelings," he says.
"Yes," she replies.
He takes a step towards her, almost staggering, like he can't bear the weight of her regard. But he can. She's been training him, and he's much stronger than he looks.
"I didn't - " he says, tone wondering and disbelieving all at once. "I had hoped, of course, but I wasn't sure - "
"You can be sure," Sun says. Capheus looks at her like she's a miracle, awe and wonder and tenderness coming through the bond, and she allows her own feelings to feed back into it, love and gratitude and certainty, and then they're closing the gap between them, moving as one, crashing their mouths together.
It's unlike anything she's ever experienced, something almost completely divorced from physical sensation. She can feel his hand curling around the nape of her neck, her fingers digging into his collar, but even more than the kiss itself she revels in what drives it; there are waves of thoughts, desires, and memories pouring through their bond, hers and Capheus' both, the day they met, the light in his eyes when he successfully pinned her for the first time, the laughs they've shared at silly jokes. The smell of citrus. She's barely aware that she's gasping into it, that she's holding Capheus against her body as tightly as she can, her mouth opening to his hungrily, sucking his tongue with an almost desperate kind of greed. She wants it all, she wants everything he has, and Capheus is the most generous person she knows. He would give her anything she asked for. He would give it to her before she even had to ask. Such is the miracle of their bond.
When they finally break the kiss, they don't go far; separation at this point would be unbearable. He just presses his forehead to hers and breathes. Sun is dimly aware that she's wrung his collar into a mess.
"That was..." Capheus whispers.
"Yes," she agrees. Her heart is pounding a million miles an hour, but it's a frenzy matched by his. Their hearts are beating completely in sync.
Capheus leans back an inch or so, just enough to look into her eyes. The sky is pink and yellow and it brings out the richness of his skin, the beauty of his soul. "We need to do that again," he says.
"You need more lessons first," Sun replies.
"I ruined your shirt," she explains, plucking at his collar. "This is letting your enemy get way too close."
A slow grin spreads across his face, one brighter and more beautiful than she's ever seen before. "The enemy, huh?" he asks. Affection is crashing through her like sunlight, like she's stepping out of prison all over again and blinking at the brilliance of it. She doesn't know which feelings are hers and which are his, but she finds herself smiling, really smiling, her entire body swelling with joy.
"We should also practice your footwork," she says.
"My footwork!" Capheus repeats. He's grinning like a loon, completely idiotic with happiness. "There's nothing wrong with my footwork."
"I'll be the judge of that."
"Hey," he says, laughing, except it comes out as ya, the Korean slipping from his lips just as easily as his skin once slipped across hers, sweaty and thrumming with energy that was shared between them, that fueled them both. They're connected; they're all connected; but somehow this one feels sacred.
Sun reaches down and takes his hand. He doesn't show any surprise, and why should he? He knew her intentions as soon as they formed in her head. She is no longer a single person. She's an eighth of a cluster and one half of a whole.
Sun takes his hand, and Capheus takes hers, and they walk together towards the sunrise. She has a feeling it's going to be a really good day.