“I don’t want to fight,” said Woohyun.
Myungsoo licked his lips, dry skin flaking over his tongue. “Me neither.” The airflow was dense underground, and breathing was an unforgiving exercise. He took a deep one anyways, steeling his nerves.
Fists clenched, hearts pumping terrible blood through their veins, they approached each other and threw their first punches.
Because they were seven lucky ones, they danced. The sun blinded them, but their positions were memorized so precisely that they didn’t need vision to hit their marks anymore, permanent wilts in the grass a testament to their constant effort.
Their shoulders curved over and pulsed, imitating the sound of a heavy breath. Their fists clenched energy inside their palms.
Why do people consider this honorable? Myungsoo crossed his arm over his chest, making a fist before throwing his elbow out, right on the beat. He didn’t mind hard work, and he appreciated the rewards they received: the fame, the accolades. Greater things than he had ever imagined for himself, and yet:
“Ninety-nine percent synchronization.”
It might as well have been one hundred, the way they worked. There was no room for any type of error, much less the human kind.
Fake it. Though they hadn’t spoken about it, Myungsoo only had to look at Woohyun to know that was their agreement. He could forgive him for anything, and this was all Myungsoo’s fault to begin with. They traded punches back and forth, barely landing scratches. Woohyun pulled Myungsoo’s hair, but not hard enough to rip strands from his scalp, and Myungsoo slapped his cheek, taking care not to use his nails.
Woohyun backed away and bent his knees before running towards him. The force of his body threw Myungsoo so the ground, but he knew the attack was coming, could feel Woohyun’s shoulder recoiling even as he hit him. Myungsoo cushioned his fall with his hands and scrambled to get up as if he’d really been hurt, grimacing dramatically. He had an eerie feeling, a constant shiver down his spine as they continued to fight, but he brushed it aside as easily as Woohyun’s punches.
Everything was fine until Myungsoo looked up and saw the masked man in the rafters.
The night blinded them with equal frequency and intensity, but they danced anyways.
Myungsoo made mistakes sometimes. Everyone made a few, and they usually faced a small but swift punishment for it. Sungjong had his forehead flicked by the masked man who watched them and judged their accuracy, and Sungyeol would mess up occasionally, too. His punishment looked more painful, and Myungsoo felt sorry for him. They didn’t have breaks, so he couldn’t tell him so, but he felt it nonetheless.
Eventually, it was his Myungsoo’s turn to mess up, and in the biggest way he possibly could. He missed the scorpion one day. His foot caught somehow, and his knee refused to move on the grass, and he fell too far forward, ruining the perfect seven-point figure they usually formed after Hoya’s part of the dance finished.
The masked man turned to him, and Myungsoo had the feeling that something was about to go horribly wrong.
The masked man gave the impression that he was smiling.
He jumped down from the rafters, walked silently to Myungsoo, and backhanded him across the cheek. This time Myungsoo truly fell from the impact. His arm crunched beneath him, bright stars winked painfully over his vision as he struggled to push himself to his feet.
Woohyun yelled his name, sounding panicked.
I’m fine, Myungsoo tried to say. His head swimming, he got to his feet, only to see the shadowy figure approach once again. He felt another blow to his cheek and staggered backwards again, reeling, barely registering Woohyun’s outraged scream. He blinked and threw his arms in front of his face in case a third shot was coming, but nothing happened, and as he kept blinking he felt his head clear slightly, materializing from fog into full vision.
He saw Woohyun fighting the masked man on the hard, dirty floor, Woohyun’s fists flying into the man’s gut. The masked man threw Woohyun to the ground and straddled him, punching him in the neck and face repeatedly.
Myungsoo’s lips drew back from his gums in a snarl; he hated this man like he hadn’t thought it was possible to hate anyone. Gathering his strength into his arms, he hunched his shoulders and swung wildly upon reaching the pair on the ground.
With an inhuman power, the masked man grabbed Myungsoo’s fist. He felt his shoulder twist out of its socket, cracking as the force flung him several feet away, back to the ground. Woohyun kicked the masked man’s legs out from under him only to be dragged down once again and pummelled into the flooring.
It wasn’t a fair fight from the start. They danced all day and night, and the masked man was only a watcher, conserving his strength only to lash out whenever any of them faltered. Not only watching the two of them below the ground here, but the likely five above ground. Myungsoo wouldn’t be surprised if the masked man could be everywhere at once, monitoring them from every angle, every second of their lives.
Myungsoo spit blood onto the grass after being kicked in the gut by the masked man. It was only one kick, but he doubled over and clutched his stomach, nauseated. He heard murmurs from the other six, but no action, and hoped the punishment was over.
Pain lanced through his back as he was kicked a second time, and a third.
Someone cried out. Myungsoo’s ears ringing, he had to look around the group before he saw it was Woohyun speaking, and the longer he looked the easier it became to make out what he was saying.
“It’s not fair.” Woohyun began to yell. “It’s not fair!” He advanced towards the masked man, who shoved a boot-clad foot into his stomach; Myungsoo froze, his eyes going wide as he watched Woohyun crumple into the grass.
A sudden motion caught his eye. He saw Sungyeol took a small step forward, his long arm reaching forward like he wanted to snatch them both back in line. His forehead creased with pain, but after a second he moved back, his hand falling to his side as if it had never moved in the first place.
As if grinning, the masked man seized Myungsoo’s collar with one hand, taking hold of Woohyun’s hair with the other, and dragged them away from the rest of the dancers.
Myungsoo wasn’t used to thinking of objects as weapons, but it was he who spotted the log first. He yelled for Woohyun to help him lift it, his dry lip splitting with blood. Strangely, the masked man let Woohyun go, and Woohyun scrambled to follow Myungsoo’s lead.
It was heavier to lift than Myungsoo had thought, even with Woohyun holding up his side. They hoisted the log to shoulder-level and screamed with one voice, sprinting forward. Their blockade set the masked man back one, two paces, but they could feel him struggling. Their combined weight was barely enough to break even, and they hit a standstill. Choking on the dark air, Woohyun told Myungsoo to push on his count of three.
Myungsoo did as he was told. Three, Woohyun said, and they surged forward together, powering a straight line forward out of their anger. The masked man stood in view of the exit, as if anticipating their obvious moves. But that didn’t make it any less effective. Between brute strength and desperation, Woohyun and Myungsoo started to force the man backwards more quickly, the log creating a barrier between them. The masked man fell back further, the inches between him and the exit lessening; they pressed their luck until it flowed plentifully. The opening was so close now; they were almost free of the menace, and Myungsoo heard himself roaring with a voice he hadn’t known he had as he barreled on, Woohyun by his side, knees shaking
They sped up, gaining momentum the closer to the exit they got and with a final burst of adrenaline, the log fell out of their grasp as the masked man gave in, pacing backwards through the exit, defeated. Woohyun shouted in triumph, and Myungsoo wanted to wrap his arms around him and squeeze until they both were so numb they could stop hurting again.
The masked man still gave the impression he was smiling as he turned his back on them, and Myungsoo looked to Woohyun, who was staring back at him, and realized they were still the only ones stuck underground.
The masked man had dragged Myungsoo and Woohyun inside a bleak building, far enough that the dancers were just barely visible in the distance through the barred windows. Through a narrow hallway they stumbled, until Myungsoo felt himself pushed down a narrow walkway leading underground.
They heard a door shut somewhere in the distance, the masked man disappearing from sight, but not before leaving a message near the entrance.
Fight, it said. And don’t come back until one of you has won.
Woohyun jumped into the air and his leg kicked violently, throwing Myungsoo into a nearby pillar with a crack. Myungsoo didn’t know if it was the structure below him that broke or one of his bones, but stuck between a choice of fighting each other or a return visit from the masked man, they took the less brutal option.
That didn’t mean it hurt any less. Myungsoo tried to read the expression in Woohyun’s eyes as they circled each other, anger mixed with revulsion. Woohyun lashed out at him again, striking his solar plexus this time, and Myungsoo retaliated with a weak swipe to his face.
Myungsoo thought he hated Woohyun for a second. It was his fault that Woohyun was down here with him at all. But he wouldn’t be fighting Woohyun if Woohyun hadn’t tried to help him, so did that make it all right in the end?
Then Myungsoo’s thoughts stopped, because that was far too much to handle while he was being punched. Woohyun’s knuckles broke blood into his face, Myungsoo could feel the wound dripping slightly, slimy over his cheek, matching the split lip he’d acquired earlier.
Myungsoo looked at Woohyun limping over to punch him, tears making his eyes glow in the dim light, and all his hatred evaporated into the dusty air.
Is it enough yet?
“Punch me,” said Woohyun, in-between heaving breaths. It sounded like he was trying not to vomit. “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Myungsoo wanted it to be over, too. “I’m sorry,” he sobbed. He laid his hands on Woohyun’s shoulders and kicked his ankle as hard as he could, hearing the dull thud of impact on bone. Woohyun fell down, clutching his ankle, and Myungsoo gritted his teeth, trying not to look at him in case he needed to attack again, in order to leave this place.
“Thank you,” Woohyun gasped.
And the air lightened; they both felt it, with a supernatural sense of attunement to the environment. They thought to check whether they were still prisoners underground and carefully walked to the exit. Finding no masked man lying in wait, they stumbled up the ramp and into the hallway. Myungsoo looked bleakly through the broken bars, tears blurring his vision.
Woohyun glanced at his ankle and raised his eyes to the sky. Myungsoo found the air up here to be just as desolate, and he saw the other dancers practicing meticulously in the distance. There was nothing to be thankful for except the sun.