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Living on Borrowed Time

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Death is fast growing into a global epidemic, these days.

It's a recurrent thought as Baekhyun flicks his ash grey hair out of his face, inspecting the colour of his locks one last time before it gets dyed permanently black once again. Just three weeks ago, Baekhyun had been selectively and blissfully ignorant of the warring condition occurring elsewhere. Why bother, when the war is still far away from the land he calls home, where the people are on the edge but never outwardly showing their worry, apart from the closest members of the family of the soldiers who have been deployed onto the battlefield? It's something they don't have control over, anyway, and Baekhyun perceives it as a waste of time, thinking about a situation that doesn't directly affect him. It's all unnecessary stress.

The Fourth World War has been in full swing for months on end now, initiated by the communist nations who decided it's time to join forces and declare war on the rest of the world – their bitter neighbours being part of that power-hungry pact as well. The South Korean military has been doing a stellar job thus far, keeping the North Koreans at bay at the DMZ, but the amount of casualties from the war seems to be climbing day after day, and the dailies are fast becoming booklets filled with obituaries for the fallen.

Baekhyun has long since lost all desires to stay abreast with the latest developments of the war, preferring to instead wile away his time in the local bars, singing to his heart's content and performing with his friends – those who have not been called up to serve the nation, anyway, but Baekhyun would rather not dwell upon it. He knows it's futile to distance himself from reality, but really, what could he do when he's here in the city where everything is in a state of faux peace? It's the only real reason why he had decided to take on a bolder hair colour, but he'd expected it to stay on his head a lot longer than a mere week's time.

A couple of days ago, the Norths have started bringing out the heavier artilleries, something which they have been keeping from view for reasons only they know of, inflicting an impossible amount of damage on his country's troops. Baekhyun has since lost many a friend, many an acquaintance in the massacre, and on the morning when he had received the letter instructing him to sign up with the 92nd Platoon within a week, he's awash with an ominous feeling telling him that his time is up.

Only God knows when the Norths will start nuking, but they're all holding onto that tiny sliver of hope that they'll be able to force a surrender before they could resort to these deadly weapons.

There have been recurrent thoughts invading his mind, of somehow making his way onto an airplane that's bound for another country before he's expected to turn up at the army camp, running away from a war he doesn't even want to fight. It's a cowardly thought, he knows, but Baekhyun also knows of people who have done that over the weeks, and he's sorely tempted to follow in their footsteps. All it takes is for one news report of a civilian plane getting blasted out of the sky by the Communist bloc, though, for Baekhyun to decide against it. At the very least, fighting the war would give him a 50-50 chance at keeping his corpse almost completely intact, rather than letting it sink into a watery grave where no one would probably find him and return him to the place he was born in.

"Shame, this is such a pretty colour," a moderately amused voice speaks up next to him just then, pulling Baekhyun out of his thoughts. The man doesn't sound very sorry at all, and Baekhyun narrows his eyes as he looks up at his hairdresser.

"Stuff it. I want a refund, Heechul." He snaps, but his voice is without heat. He and Heechul have been acquaintances since a long way back, and have even fooled around with each other for a bit, though ultimately the older man is the only confidant Baekhyun has. He can't possibly get angry at the man for long even if he tried.

Heechul childishly sticks his tongue out at Baekhyun through the mirror, something which Baekhyun is still very much amused over, considering how Heechul's almost hitting his mid-thirties now. The hairdresser is one of those lucky ones who'd been exempted from compulsory military service – until South Korea is desperate enough to have every single citizen on the field, anyway – owing to the fact that he'd shattered his thigh bone in an accident years ago, and the metal rod which had been stuck in to keep the fragments together is still embedded within, giving him an immense amount of pain whenever he tries to do anything remotely physical that's more taxing than walking. The military may be desperate for new blood, but not enough to throw easy targets into the fray to contribute to the casualty count.

"No refunds, you know the rules, brat." Heechul snaps at him, snipping his scissors open and shut as an empty threat they both know he'll never carry out. Then the mood between them suddenly changes when Heechul rests his palm on top of Baekhyun's head, and his expressions turn solemn. "I'm going to miss seeing you around, brat."

Baekhyun sniffs a little, but hides the fact that he's about to cry by pretending there's an itch in his nose. "Stop being mushy, hyung. It doesn't suit you." He rolls his eyes at Heechul, who responds with a rude gesture that makes Baekhyun cackle. He's going to miss this the most. Heechul's practically the only person he has left in this world; his father had been sacrificed in the very same war just months prior, his mother having followed him to the grave soon after out of depression, and Baekbeom is still out there, fighting against their common enemy – or so Baekhyun hopes. Letters are difficult to come by.

Heechul is back to his feisty self soon enough. "I would threaten to shave all your hair off, but that's going to happen anyway so count yourself lucky." He says, but then he realises the impact of his words and mellows down again. The war is so fucking emotionally draining, Baekhyun swears. "Are you ready for this?"

There's nothing Baekhyun can possibly do, apart from sighing in resignation. "I will never be ready. Just, go ahead."

And Heechul snips.

The pungent smell of body odour hits him hard in the face when Baekhyun steps into the barracks, hair practically shaved to the skin and dyed back to black, knapsack heavy on his shoulder, and he scrunches his nose distastefully. Years ago, when he had finally graduated from military training and was allowed to return to normal society, this was something he'd been happiest to get himself away from. He didn't think he would be reminded cruelly of the torture, and hopes that his olfactory nerves will be numbed to the smell soon. Summertime is the worst.

Thinking about it, his military training seems like a distant memory, and completing it had been akin to waking up from a lucid dream. He's a little worried that he might have forgotten how to fire a gun, even if he had been crowned as one of the sharpshooters of his platoon in the past. It's been so, so long since he had last held a weapon, seeing that there wasn't a need for him to do so. Then again, their platoon commander had been quick to reassure the new recruits that they'll be getting a crash course in military training over the span of two weeks before being formally deployed onto the field. No point getting them there immediately when they're going to be mere sitting ducks. It's a waste of human resources, the platoon commander tells them, albeit having his statement peppered with a lot more profanities than Baekhyun is really comfortable with.

Baekhyun doesn't know what to feel about that reassurance. At the very least, he will have some time to reminiscent on his past before he gets thrown into the thick of the gunfire. A little longer before he actually dies.

He's distracted from his morbid thoughts when boisterous laughter floods the barrack, making him jump at the sound. A frown finds its way to his face as he turns around, his sights immediately stopping at the group of probably-new recruits who are gathered at the far end of the barracks. There are too many happy smiles – entirely misplaced, when they're practically on a death row – gathered together, making the atmosphere seem more like their compulsory military enlistment back when they'd turned eighteen, rather than an official appointment to serve the country, to face an ongoing war with real weapons, against real humans.

Baekhyun is most annoyed by the tallest of the group, who's now gesturing wildly as he tells of another joke. The man is probably around his age, probably younger; looks far too handsome to actually be of any use when he gets onto the battlefield, with his eyes too wide and his grin with too much teeth. Baekhyun flinches again when the group bursts into another round of raucous laughter, and decides that enough is enough. Immediately he rummages through his bag for his earphones, jamming them into his ears when he finally finds them, and attempts to fall asleep before their official training begins.

It's difficult, to not dream of blood-soaked hands even before he actually experiences it, when his mind keeps on reminding him about the inevitable.

As someone who prides himself in being a social butterfly, Baekhyun makes a dismal number of acquaintances by the third day. What's the point in growing close, he wonders, if they're all going to die anyway? The more bonds he forms, the more attached he will be to all these people, and the harder hit he will be if and when he watches as their lives slip away from their fingers. He's had enough of crying, enough of heartbreaks in the past year to last him a lifetime. He doesn't need more.

The only person he's allowed to stick around with him – only because he's quiet enough but persistent as hell in befriending Baekhyun – is the man with beautiful sun-kissed skin who had just nudged him hard in his side. A half-hearted scowl is on his face when Baekhyun turns around to regard none other than Kim Jongin, who's sporting a pout when he meets Baekhyun's gaze. For someone who's only two years younger than Baekhyun is, standing at the ripe age of twenty six and being a good head taller than Baekhyun, Jongin's a surprisingly huge ball of fluff.

"Jongin, what was that even for?" He asks, and the last of his irritation melts away when Jongin pouts even more. Baekhyun's almost sure the kid is doing this on purpose, having found Baekhyun's weakness about two conversations in. It's a conspiracy, he swears.

"You seem like you needed someone to tear your gaze away from Chanyeol. You're about to set him on fire with the intensity at which you're glaring at him." Jongin comments, almost innocently, but it doesn't stop Baekhyun's scowl from deepening.

Ah yes, Park Chanyeol. The man who'd gotten on Baekhyun's nerves from the very moment he had stepped into the barracks, with his wide smile and even louder laughter that seems to reverberate off the brick walls. It's nearly, nearly enviable, how carefree he can still be in their current warring situation, as though he's completely oblivious about what's to come, and how their fate would be.

Who actually brings their guitar along on an official enlistment into the military, anyway?

"It's all in good entertainment. Takes our minds off the eventual, or something." Jongin speaks up again, and Baekhyun's surprised for a brief moment before he realises he'd voiced out his thoughts. He should really stop doing that, mindlessly running his mouth off, before he gets himself into trouble.

"It's a bit over the top, don't you think?" Baekhyun comments, rolling his eyes at Park Chanyeol and his merry band of friends who are still jamming away to Linkin Park's stuff. "Makes everything seem like a joke when it's not."

Jongin shrugs and bobs his head to the music; Baekhyun's tempted to banish him and label him a traitor. "Can't be all doom and gloom, even if you know we're going to end up dead in one way or another. It's much too depressing." He says, then adds as an afterthought: "And it's a good way to say a grand 'fuck you' to life, enjoying yourself before your death, that is."

Baekhyun doesn't comment on that, knowing he'll be labelled as uptight and pessimistic if he ever speaks his mind. Instead, he stuffs the remainder of the bun in his hand into his mouth and clears up his tray, making sure the metal legs of his chair screeches jarringly against the cemented floor when he stands.

True enough, it creates a nice enough distraction to get Park Chanyeol and his gang to stop playing for a moment, but Baekhyun pretends as though he hadn't noticed what he's done, expressions ironed straight and head held high as he walks past them and out of the door of the dining hall.

He's not oblivious to the stare that's burning into his back, even as Jongin falls in line with him and reprimands him for his brash act, but he doesn't turn around to find out who it is, either.

Baekhyun doesn't know what has possessed Chanyeol, but he doesn't expect for the man to suddenly slide into the bench opposite the one Baekhyun's resting in after their shooting practice one day, grinning from ear to ear as he looks at Baekhyun.

Baekhyun would be lying if he denies being the least bit creeped out by the look on Chanyeol's face, but he's good at playing nonchalant as he holds Chanyeol's gaze steadily. "Is there anything I can help you with?"

"I've heard of some rumours." Chanyeol says, still grinning. "Rumours that you don't exactly like me."

Baekhyun heaves a dramatic sigh and rests his chin on his upturned palm, and blows his non-existent bangs out of his face. "And what exactly are you going to do if I confirmed them?"

"Ask you why, I guess." Chanyeol shrugs. Baekhyun begins to wonder if there's anything that could bring Park Chanyeol down, when there isn't even the slightest of trembles marring his perfect grin. Baekhyun was once like that – carefree, happy – but things have gone downhill real quick since his mother's passing. Whenever Baekhyun tries to smile now, he can only feel the pain pricking insistently at his heart. He can't fathom how someone can still be this happy when their nation is at war, when people are dropping dead like flies, but he doesn't want to find out, either.

If that's the way Chanyeol wants it, though, then Baekhyun is more than glad to give it to him. "Because your actions disgust me." Baekhyun says, almost flippantly. The way Chanyeol's perfect smile chips, even if it's just by a little, makes Baekhyun feel smug.

"You think it's fun, enjoying yourself and entertaining others when there are so many more out there who are scared shitless by the war and dying?" He presses on when Chanyeol stays uncannily silent, the latter's expressions contorted into one that's almost pained from Baekhyun's words, but still he continues to plough through Chanyeol's pride. If there's no one else who goes up against Chanyeol, then he will. "Wake up and smell the stench of reality, Park Chanyeol. This world doesn't revolve around you and your music."

It's only then that Baekhyun becomes acutely aware that he'd been so thoroughly agitated by Chanyeol to the point of raising his voice, and had alerted everyone around them about their argument. The feeling of being watched by a large crowd is one that Baekhyun will never forget, having basked in the attention on stage when he had been actively performing in clubs. It's a feeling that almost borders on unpleasant this time, though, the crawl beneath his skin making him shiver, and it makes Baekhyun want to shy away from the scrutiny.

He does just that seconds later, not even bothering to wait for Chanyeol's retort to his accusation. He doesn't have anything else to say to Chanyeol, anyway.

(Jongin reprimands him in the dark later that night, when he crawls beneath Baekhyun's covers and nearly scares him half to death, telling Baekhyun that he shouldn't have messed with Chanyeol or his gang in such a bold manner, because he's now apparently the talk of the camp.

Baekhyun doesn't give a flying fuck, though. They could assault him to death in the camp if they wanted to; at least it would be a cleaner affair, less gruesome than if he were to be killed on the battlefield.

Jongin merely sighs and says I give up on you when Baekhyun tells him just that.)

Receiving training in the camp is nothing like being thrown into the thick of the battle. In fact, Baekhyun thinks in a state of panic as he ducks beneath the foliage and tries to get as far away from enemy fire as he can, that no amount of military training will ever prepare them for the real goddamned thing even if they invested thousands of hours to sharpen their skills.

For one, they have been shooting at dummies in the camp, targets which can't even move or evade when they open fire. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for their real life enemies, who are very much capable at hiding and jumping into ditches and ambushing them from behind whenever they please. It's absolutely nothing like a game of paintball, either, when your opponents are people you've never seen before, and the bullets are definitely nothing like paint pellets. They hurt. They can pierce through skin. They kill.

Baekhyun feels marginally thankful that he has a background in martial arts to fall back to, when there isn't a way for him to avoid a close-quarters combat, but he decides that stamina and the ability to sprint and hide are better assets to have, when he's in the middle of the gunfire.

In retrospect, Baekhyun and the rest of the recruits who'd joined the army with him are ill-prepared, to say the least. Their training time had been cut short by a week, with so many more things left to learn yet not enough time for their camp commanders to run them through everything. The war had escalated far too quickly for anyone's liking, the casualty count even more so, and their nation is soon submerged in a state of emergency, with not enough troops at hand to fight against the Norths. They can't expect for assistance from other nations, either, not when they're all busy staving off attacks everywhere else. It's every nation for themselves now, and that's when the government makes the decision to shove even the greenest of recruits onto the battlefield.

Right now, when Baekhyun takes everything into consideration, it feels as though they're just buying time and praying hard that a miracle might just happen during the war.

Around him, people from his unit and others alike are fleeing from the onslaught of Norths, a result of failure by the Intelligence Team to warn them of their numbers. Many soldiers from the 92nd Platoon have fallen along the way, being victims of stray bullets and bomb shards. He's sure some of them aren't exactly dead, not yet, but Baekhyun can't afford to turn back to check on them. When their country is at war, the least Baekhyun can do is not to be a part of the statistics of those dead within the first day they've been deployed onto the battlefield.

His train of thought is rudely interrupted, though, when something snares on his knapsack and heaves him backwards, his legs giving way beneath him after all the running Baekhyun has been doing. He doesn't even realise how sore his calves are, the burn radiating all the way upwards to his thighs, until he's lying on damp soil trying to get the air back into his lungs, and his muscles are practically searing in pain.

He wishes he didn't open his eyes, though, when he looks up and finds the menacing, painted face of a soldier from the North staring back down at him, crooked teeth bared in a feral manner. Baekhyun instinctively backs away when the barrel of an AK-47 is aimed at his face, but he soon realises it's a futile effort when the contents of his knapsack digs into his spine. Baekhyun's own rifle is lying several metres away from him, having been thrown away when Baekhyun had fallen earlier. Still, Baekhyun keeps an eye on his weapon, hoping that he'll have an opening to make a grab for it. He's not ready to die yet. Not like this. Not this easily.

"Dogs of the South." The man spits, and Baekhyun tries to keep his breathing even. He knows that the soldier from the North would enjoy the process more if he were to outwardly show his panicked state of mind, and Baekhyun refuses to provide him with that satisfaction. "You're all pretty pathetic, aren't you? What does your government think we are? Amateurs who can't even murder useless crap like you?"

"No," Baekhyun replies as calmly as he can, and tries to reach for the dagger he's kept in his belt. It's not an easy feat, considering the fact that his entire body weight is on top of the hidden weapon. He can't make any sudden movements, either, because the North Korean soldier would definitely pull the trigger before he can even grab hold of his dagger. "But this is a time of war. When you're desperate enough for manpower, you're going to have to use everything you have."

"I have been trained from young to fight a war! Are you, of all people, trying to tell me what's supposed to happen in a war when you're just a greenhorn?!" The man seethes, and Baekhyun chokes when he presses the tip of his gun into the curve of Baekhyun's throat, partially impeding his airway. "There isn't a point in discussing philosophical crap with me."

Despite the danger he's in, Baekhyun can't stop himself from scoffing at the man's words. "That's a sad life you have. Not knowing any joy apart from fighting and weapons. Can you really say you've really lived before?" He asks, deriving a sense of satisfaction at riling the man up.

Baekhyun's still grinning up at the North Korean soldier, even when he activates the charging level of his weapon. If he's going to have to die, then he's going to be rebellious till the very end. He isn't called a masochist for nothing by Heechul, after all. "You're going to pay for running your mouth off like that–" he roars, but right before the man is about to pull the trigger, he leans forward and regards Baekhyun's face with interest. "Well, aren't you a pretty one? Delicate-looking enough, too. My comrades at the camp will surely be excited to... have you to warm up our beds at night. But not after I have you for myself!"

The concealed meaning behind the man's words only sinks in much later, while the man works frantically at stripping Baekhyun of his camouflage suit, and he panics, knowing what exactly awaits him if he allowed himself to be captured by the North Koreans. Getting killed is the least of his concerns now, when there's a more tormenting possibility of being treated as a sex slave before being disposed of when they're finally tired of him. His dignity will be destroyed, turned to ruins, and it's with such thoughts that Baekhyun finally begins to struggle against his captor's hold, trying to kick out at the man who's now straddling Baekhyun's waist.

"Fucking let go of me–" Baekhyun hisses, willing himself not to shed tears in front of his enemy, or it would earn him more ridicule.

"Or what?" His captor laughs, sound harsh against the dead silence of the forest. Baekhyun wonders if there's any other living person around them at all, or if his comrades have all fallen victims to the stray bullets of the Norths. His heart constricts at the thought that Jongin might have suffered from the same tragic fate, but at least he's free from the worries of the world, now. "Do you think your friends are going to help you? It's every man for himself, imbecile–"

The man doesn't get to finish his words. In between Baekhyun's incessant struggling and his yells for help, they hadn't heard someone else running through the forest after them, and Baekhyun's rather stunned when the butt of a rifle is slammed into the back of the North Korean soldier's head. The shock on the other man's part allows Baekhyun the opportunity to wrest himself free from the man's death grip, and he watches wide-eyed as the man is sent sprawling onto the dusty floor.

"Get your disgusting hands off of him." The newcomer seethes, and Baekhyun's surprised when he recognises the owner of the voice. There's only one person who owned such rich timbre on his unit, and it's–

"Park Chanyeol?" Baekhyun blurts incredulously when Chanyeol comes to stand defensively in front of Baekhyun, glaring the North Korean soldier down, because Chanyeol is the last person whom he had expected to come to his aid.

"Stay back." Chanyeol tells him, before he turns back towards the fallen soldier who's still writhing on the ground in pain, his rifle raised at him. "Go to hell."

Baekhyun squeezes his eyes shut, just as Chanyeol pulls the trigger of his gun, sending splatters of crimson spraying across the soil.

"Why did you help me?"

Baekhyun's voice echoes around the cave they're currently seeking refuge in, having tried to outrun the North Korean soldiers who were hot on their trail. He doesn't know exactly how long they've been cooped up in this place that smells strongly of bat waste, doesn't know if it's already late evening or the break of dawn, but it's not like they have the choice but to stay put. The Norths are likely to still be sniffing around the area for survivors, and Baekhyun's sure that neither of them are very keen on running right into the enemy's welcoming arms.

Things have been awkwardly silent between him and Chanyeol for the last couple of hours, though. The argument they had at the training camp a week ago is still fresh on both their minds, evidently, because Chanyeol seems hell-bent on not talking to Baekhyun. Or meeting his gaze, for that matter. Silence is the last thing Baekhyun would have pegged Chanyeol to observe, considering his boisterous nature at the training camp and his penchant for performing.

Baekhyun's heart twitches a little. He used to be like that, too.

Then again, things change.

It takes Chanyeol a moment longer before he turns to look at Baekhyun, though he remains seated at the mouth of the cave, rifle at the ready, one eye on the entrance even as he talks to Baekhyun. They can never be too careful right now. Baekhyun is still huddled in a cleaner corner, seated on a flat piece of rock which isn't actively trying to murder his tailbone, Chanyeol's larger jacket thrown around his shoulders and drowning him in cloth. His own jacket is torn beyond saving. "We're from the same unit." Chanyeol says quietly, but his low timbre still reverberates in the enclosed space regardless. Baekhyun shivers. "Do you think I could have left you there and watched you die when I could do something to save you?"

Baekhyun's nose twitches at his words. So fucking nice. "After what I've said and done to you? I wouldn't be surprised if you did, honestly."

He must have finally, finally struck a raw nerve with his words, because the way Chanyeol's glancing at him now, his gaze dark and almost unreadable and intense, very much unlike the sunny personality Chanyeol had displayed up till the day before their deployment into the battlefield, sends yet another shiver down Baekhyun's spine. "Would you prefer getting raped by at least a dozen other soldiers on a daily basis and getting dicks shoved down your throat even when you're almost dying from gagging? To be stretched so wide apart and ruthlessly until you bleed? Because I could dump you out there right the fuck now and make your wish come true–" Chanyeol barks, the agitation clear in his voice and in the lines of his body, and Baekhyun doesn't understand why he's being angry, above all things, when Baekhyun's giving him the option to ignore him. "This isn't about you, Byun Baekhyun! It's not a fucking game, and you definitely can't do this alone so why don't you pull that stick out of your ass and start playing a role as part of the team already? Or God help me, I will pull the trigger of this rifle and put a bullet through your head right the fuck now. Do you understand me?!"

For someone who seemed so carefree, Chanyeol has a surprisingly good head on his shoulders, and it's definitely a side of Chanyeol which Baekhyun has never seen before. It's one that makes Baekhyun chew on his bottom lip in remorse for ever doubting Chanyeol's intentions in saving him from the Norths, too, and he buries his head between his knees to get a rest like Chanyeol had told him hours ago, when Chanyeol had made the decision to take over the first watching shift. He falls silent, not knowing what he could say to refute Chanyeol's words.

It isn't until several hours into his shift later and thinks that Chanyeol's already fast asleep, that he shamefully takes a glance at Chanyeol's huddled up form and says, "Thank you. For saving me."

Once they're sure that none of the North Koreans are heading in their direction or actively searching for them, Baekhyun and Chanyeol are immediately on the move, holding the hope that they could regroup with their battalion – or any battalion that's closest to them, really. Two days being cut off from the rest of the world meant that their sense of time is thrown completely off balance, but the worst part comes with the realisation that they had no inkling about the fate of the rest of their comrades, or the situation of the war right now. The base camp had been moved when they'd upped and left, and they haven't even decided on a new location to set up camp before they'd been ambushed by the Norths. Where have they retreated to? Were they winning? Were they able to push the Norths back from advancing into their capital? And if not, how badly have they lost?

In contrast to his usual demeanour in the training camp, Chanyeol is surprisingly silent along their journey, shoulders tensed up with caution and eyes darting about to take in their surroundings, rifle at the ready to bring down any enemy which might appear before them. Baekhyun is no different, though he wonders if Chanyeol's heart is thundering as rapidly as his is doing at this very moment. It's nerve-wracking, having to trudge through the jungle as quietly as they can while trying to locate the enemy through the thick foliage, considering the poor visibility from the lack of sunlight seeping through. Still, they both make a pact, for Chanyeol to cover the front, and Baekhyun, the back.

A little more than an hour later, Baekhyun thinks he's about to go insane from the sound of twigs and dried leaves snapping beneath their boots, senses all in an overdrive. And, despite being completely reluctant to converse with Chanyeol, especially when Chanyeol has been snapping at him in almost every conversation they had tried to make in the last two days, Baekhyun heaves a sigh and speaks up instead. "Where do you think our battalion might have gone to?" He asks, quiet enough to only be heard by the both of them, and not loud enough to distract them from any possible signs of the enemy.

"God knows," Chanyeol huffs, and his words come up strained. It rubs Baekhyun the wrong way, because he's trying, damnit, but he swallows the irrational pang of anger and sucks in a deep breath. They're depending on each other to survive right now – perhaps more for Baekhyun than Chanyeol, but still – so it wouldn't do for them to mutilate each other through friendly fire.

"Look, I'm sorry for having been such an ass, okay?" Baekhyun hisses through clenched teeth, forcing himself to not raise his voice in fear that they'd alert any enemy troops lingering close by. "Now will you cut it out when I'm trying to be civil here?"

He's surprised when he bumps into a solid figure, but when he turns around, Baekhyun's met with Chanyeol's unimpressed look. It's only then that he realises he's made Chanyeol stop in his tracks. "Oh so now you're apologising? Because you couldn't withstand the silence?" He sneers, and Baekhyun really, really tries not to shoot him at point blank. The last thing he wants appearing on his eulogy is he died because he'd initiated a friendly fire, because what good would that do to the both of them apart from getting mocked for eternity?

So he picks the easiest way out, by walking away from Chanyeol without saying another word, because God only knows what's going to come out of his mouth when the anger is clouding his head, and two angry soldiers make the worst possible combination for civil talk. Of course, he doesn't hold himself back from shoving at Chanyeol's shoulder as he passes him by.

At the very least, Chanyeol has enough sense to stay silent, too, leaving the forest filled with only the sounds of their footsteps on dried leaves instead of unnecessary yelling and gunshots to end the day. Baekhyun would choose this over the former, any time.

Baekhyun looks up in surprise when someone – Chanyeol, of course; who else would it be if not him? – thrusts an energy pack in his face, and his entire world swims when he's seized by a sudden bout of giddiness from the lack of food. Their supply is running low, owing to the amount of time they've spent being separated from their battalion, and are almost reaching dangerous levels by now. Throughout the course of a couple of days, both Baekhyun and Chanyeol had come to a mutual agreement to conserve on their food, trudging through the open space for hours on end and only stopping to munch on some snacks when the hunger becomes too overpowering.

Even Baekhyun knows it's a poor tactic, when the hunger renders them almost powerless to fight against the enemy should they descend upon them, but the terrain is unfamiliar, the plants around them even more so. Animals have grown scarce in these regions, having been scared off by the incessant exchange of gunfire in the area just outside the forest, and he would rather not risk himself getting poisoned, if they could survive on what little rations of dried food they have left.

"Eat," Chanyeol commands, meeting Baekhyun's eyes for the first time in days and practically pushing the pack into his hands when Baekhyun remains too stunned to respond. "You look like you're going to keel over and die at any given moment."

Baekhyun blinks at him, his words humourless when he speaks up next. "Wouldn't you be rejoicing if I did? Less of an eyesore." He doesn't mean to incite another argument, but he's so incredibly cranky from hunger that he can't stop himself even if he wanted to. Still, Baekhyun takes the energy pack from Chanyeol and tears into it without waiting for an invitation.

"You're right." Chanyeol quips easily, dropping his knapsack on the ground with a loud thud and taking a seat on the rotting branch next to Baekhyun as he works on his own energy pack. The fact that this is the closest proximity they've been with each other in days doesn't escape Baekhyun. "Arguing takes up too much of my energy – energy which I would rather expend on something else more fruitful, like killing those North bastards."

Something about Chanyeol's intonation tickles Baekhyun, and he finds himself laughing even if he's probably not supposed to. Chanyeol had probably banked on that to happen, Baekhyun wouldn't know, but the other man is soon joining him in his laughing spree, both their voices tired and cracking around its edges.

"I still am sorry," Baekhyun manages once his quota of laughter runs out into exhausted chuckles. "For being a terrible person in general."

Chanyeol shrugs nonchalantly, and it's a reminiscent of the carefree man Baekhyun had first met in the training camp before this hellride had begun. "I've had my moments of being a terrible human being too. Sorry. I know how much of a shock you were in after, well, that–" He's talking about the incident where Baekhyun was almost raped by the North Korean soldier; the memory of it sends terrified shudders down Baekhyun's spine. "–and I shouldn't have yelled at you."

"We're cool then, Park?" Baekhyun offers, and Chanyeol flashes a tired smile at him.

They nurse their energy packs in silence for a long while, before the words slip out of Baekhyun's lips once again. "I used to sing in bars for a living, you know. Not unlike the way you and your friends played like a band in the camp." He surprises even himself with the confession, and the astonishment is reflected in the way Chanyeol widens his eyes at Baekhyun. He laughs again. "So yeah, that basically makes me the shittiest person around, I suppose."

"So that was you singing in the showers at night?" Chanyeol asks, and his ears quickly colour when he realises just how wrong his words might have sounded to Baekhyun. "Not that I've been stalking you. Just. You have a habit of taking a shower late in the night."

Speaking of showers, Baekhyun kind of yearns for one right now. His back is itching from the combination of mud and sweat which has caked on his skin, and they haven't seen a fresh water supply in days. The only thing he's glad is the fact that they don't smell as bad as he'd expected them to, though that's probably because his olfactory senses have gone haywire from all that bat dung in the cave they'd holed themselves up in. "Well, yeah I suppose."

"You sound good, though. Why'd you hide something like that?" Chanyeol wonders aloud, and suddenly Baekhyun feels terribly self-conscious. He's used to receiving praises for his voice, sure, but that's only when he's already high from the alcohol and in a large crowd, not in personal like this. Awkward was the last thing Baekhyun thinks himself capable of, but Chanyeol has successfully made him feel that way.

"Many reasons. Mainly because it'd be cruel to entertain myself when we're all about to die. Makes things all the more morbid, if you asked me." Then, as an afterthought, he scrunches his nose and sighs. "And, I feel that it makes a mockery of the soldiers who are already dying on the field, when we're amusing ourselves away from it."

"You're too uptight about things like these." Chanyeol comments, rapping his knuckles against the side of Baekhyun's unprotected head and making him scowl. "Soldiers all sing and be merry when they're not on the battlefield, all the time. Better to enjoy yourself before you die, right?"

"Still–"

Chanyeol cuts him off with narrowed eyes. "Cut it out, Byun. Take a chill pill and live a little."

Baekhyun begrudgingly accepts Chanyeol's advice and finishes up the last of his energy pack, but his heart feels a lot lighter than it has in days.

They learn a lot more about each other in the next couple of days, punctuating the monotony of dead leaves and dried twigs snapping under their feet by shooting short questions and answers back and forth. No matter how bored they are, it's still prudent for them to conserve a part of their energy for when it's absolutely necessary, instead of wasting every last breath of theirs in a conversation they'd like to sustain for long hours.

 

Chanyeol tells him of his family, of his sister who still works as a newscaster who now holds the grim job of announcing the names of dead soldiers on television, day after day. He tells Baekhyun about the tears she'd held back when she spoke of her husband's name on broadcast, only to completely break down before Chanyeol when she had gotten home later that night. Tells him of the fear in her sister's eyes when he'd received the letter to enlist, his promise to Yura that his name will not be on her lips on national television. It's the main reason why he's fighting so fiercely against the Norths – not for himself, but for the sake of protecting his promise to his sister.

Baekhyun finds that admirable, really, to have something apart from your country to fight for. He doesn't, not when both his parents have been buried six feet under and Baekbeom, nowhere to be heard of. He's avoided the news like a plague ever since they'd started broadcasting a long list of names of those who have perished in the war, and would probably never find out if his brother had survived. Baekhyun surprises himself further, though, when he tells all of this to Chanyeol, and Chanyeol's sympathetic smile hurts so fucking badly, because no one has sympathised with him, ever. They had all told him that this was part and parcel of the war, that he'd better not form any attachments to anyone else because they'd all inevitably go to hell – it's only a matter of physicality. And he'd listened to these advices, formed a wall around him so high that everyone else had trouble scaling it to find who Byun Baekhyun truly is.

It's with such small talk that Baekhyun and Chanyeol grow close through the days. There's a silly notion which surfaces within Baekhyun, though, when they've distanced themselves from the actual gunfire for so long, and he wonders if anyone would notice if he and Chanyeol were to disappear from the military altogether, living in seclusion until the war is long over, where no one would have remembered that they were supposed to have been involved in the battle at all. At the very least, they'd survive the war, and perhaps will be able to carve a better life for themselves somewhere else. But then the rational part of Baekhyun takes over, and he realises that it's a cowardly act, one that will effectively brand them as traitors should anyone find out what they've been up to. Chanyeol, for all the patriotism he's displayed over the days Baekhyun has spent being with him, will certainly disagree with his suggestion. Gun him down, even.

So Baekhyun swallows these thoughts and pretends he's never harboured them at all.

It must be close to a week of being lost in the jungle before Baekhyun and Chanyeol actually manage to relocate their troops, when they stumble upon a small clearing towards the outer end of the forest and finds that there's a camp set up in the location, the Southern flag standing proud and tall above the main tent. Chanyeol's overexcited when he spots a familiar face walking around the camp, seemingly harassed but better than anyone would expect a soldier at war to appear, and he dashes forth to make their presence known, as though he hadn't been starved of food for a week.

Baekhyun, who's already exhausted beyond the point of being able to think straight, stumbles groggily after him. Some part of him wishes that this was nothing more than a terrible dream, hoping that he'll find himself awake within seconds and is seated on the soft surface of his bed at home, but he knows it's him deluding himself into believing that they're not at war. Another part of him wishes he'd be able to spend more time alone with Chanyeol, so that he could get to know him better, share a couple more secrets that no one would otherwise have known about themselves. But now that they're back in camp with their battalion, Baekhyun thinks that he would understand it if Chanyeol wanted to keep his distance from Baekhyun, going back to the way it was before when they had first joined the training camp, where they were practically strangers trying to go at each other's throats at the slightest of provocation.

That's when a weight launches itself at him, though, causing Baekhyun to splutter and stumble in confusion, before the voice that fills his senses lifts the invisible boulder off his shoulders. "Hyung! I thought I lost you to those North bastards!" The voice unmistakably belongs to none other than Kim Jongin, and Baekhyun finds himself wrapping his tired arms tightly around Jongin's taller frame. He'd been deathly worried about the boy ever since they had been separated, spending his waking hours and his sleep wondering if Jongin had survived the onslaught of Norths, and, if he hadn't, Baekhyun had hoped that Jongin didn't suffer much.

He now knows that his worrying had been for naught, though, when Jongin's weight feels so real in his arms. "Jongin, you made it."

Jongin pulls back and grins at Baekhyun, though Baekhyun soon finds out that the Norths had managed to get their hands on Jongin's beautiful face, for a large scar runs down the left side of his cheek, skin hastily sewn together to stop the bleeding instead of aiming for a cosmetic effect, and it makes Baekhyun angry. "We have a lot to talk about, hyung."

Baekhyun catches Chanyeol's eyes over Jongin's shoulder just then, feeling his anger dissipate just a little when Chanyeol flashes him the brightest smile and a thumbs up from across the distance. Distractedly, Baekhyun nods and mumbles, "Yeah, we do."

It feels good to be wolfing down proper food instead of miserable energy packs for once, and Baekhyun finds that he can't even begin complaining about the sludge on his plate, savouring only the warmth of the food as it slides down the column of his throat. He half-listens to Jongin as he retells his experience on the battlefield, how he'd managed to bring down a group of Norths on his own before they managed to converge on him and wiped him out, before the last bastard had whipped out a dagger and left a long gash on Jongin's face.

Baekhyun holds his breath when Jongin had told him that the North soldier had meant to drive the sharp point of the dagger into the socket of his eye, and would have succeeded if Jongin hadn't twisted his head just in the nick of time and pushed the man's arm aside. He could agree with Jongin on one thing, though: he'd rather have his face permanently disfigured than to lose his eyesight.

Baekhyun had shoved at Jongin when Jongin had jokingly commented that he'd look cool with an eyepatch.

Dinner proves to be a solemn affair thereafter, when Jongin tells Baekhyun of the comrades they'd lost to the stray bullets, of those who were captured alive and whose fates are as of yet unknown. Baekhyun resists the urge to let Jongin know that he'd been in that position, almost raped on the forest floor by a North and then dragged back to the enemy camp to be their sex slave until Baekhyun could no longer hold on, if Chanyeol hadn't rescued him just in time. He figures Jongin should be spared from the worry, when he's already mourning for so many other lives lost.

(And, Baekhyun guiltily thinks, it's a good thing he had decided not to forge strong emotional bonds with the rest of his battalion, or he'd be the one in tears by now. All he feels is a sense of detachment from reality, and it's probably for the best. He can't even begin to fathom how he'd react if he finds out that Jongin's dead, or worse, captured. It's nauseating, when he can imagine just what the Norths would do to Jongin if they laid their hands on his naked body.)

Later that evening, Baekhyun finds himself sitting at the edge of camp, feet dangling off the tree branch he's made himself comfortable upon as he plays sentry on the first watch. At this height, he has a perfect view of the next mile around the perimeter, and would hopefully be able to detect any of the enemy forces who are stupid enough to come charging head-on at their camp. It's a particularly tranquil night, when the cool breeze is sweeping through the air and caressing his exposed skin, making it feel as though he's not at war at all.

Back in those days when Baekhyun had been younger and the world a lot more peaceful that the shithole it has become these days, he would always love picking his way up onto the trees surrounding his house, glancing at the stars dotting the skies whenever the nights are bare of clouds. It almost, almost feels like that camping trip Baekhyun had gone to with Baekbeom and several of their cousins many years ago, but Baekhyun tries hard to remain grounded to reality. He doesn't think he'll be able to live it down if his comrades suffered at the hands of the enemy from his lapse of attention.

His heart nearly jumps out of his throat when a large hand grabs hold of the branch next to him, before someone's hoisting themselves up to join him, and Baekhyun swears he would have shoved the newcomer down an eight-feet plunge to the ground, if he hadn't recognised Park Chanyeol in time. Regardless, Baekhyun scoots over to make room for Chanyeol, his insides twisting from surprise at his own lack of bite when he speaks up. "I didn't know you were on guard duty tonight."

Chanyeol shrugs as he balances himself on a thicker part of the branch, wide enough to allow him to sit comfortably without risking a fall. "I'm not, but I figured you'd like to have company before I'm due to tuck in." He says, and Baekhyun raises a curious brow at him.

"Why would you do that? I mean, you have your friends back. You're under no obligation to sit here with me." Baekhyun comments, even though deep within, he'd like it very much if Chanyeol could stay for a little while. Baekhyun thinks he has got to start working on his people skills again; it's been eroded far too much over the last couple of months, beginning from the loss of his best friend to the war.

Baekhyun tries not to remember the day he had seen his best friend's name on his television screen, when he'd broken down in hysterics, caved in, and dialled Heechul's number.

Even in the pale moonlight, Baekhyun can see the way Chanyeol's features twist up into a look of frustration, but he smoothens it out internally soon enough. "There you go again, pushing everyone away from you." Chanyeol's voice is quiet, pensive, and it makes Baekhyun's heart stir from guilt. "Does it ever occur to you that someone wants to spend some time with you because they want to?"

Baekhyun glances away at the question, suddenly finding a random spot on the tree bark particularly interesting. His hands remain firm on the rifle, though. "Forming attachments is going to hurt in the long run." He mumbles, because it's true, he's experienced it countless times by now but each death of people he knows only hits him harder and harder. It would be easier for him to detach himself from the others, for when Baekhyun sees death, he could at least pretend that he's not affected.

(It's a lie, though. Baekhyun always, always gets affected by the death of a person, regardless whether he knows them personally or not.)

"Stop being too hard on yourself." Chanyeol replies, surprising him again because Baekhyun hadn't expected Chanyeol to hear him. "Are you planning on keeping yourself isolated and devoid of human contact until you die, then? Don't you find that maddening?"

Baekhyun thinks about the time he and Chanyeol had been lost in the jungle, when they hadn't been on talking terms, and is hit by a pang of loneliness. He had been on the brink of insanity from the silence even when there was another presence beside him, but Baekhyun isn't going to admit to that. Not when he's already divulged enough about his life to Chanyeol than he has to Jongin.

Baekhyun chews on his bottom lip and forces himself to speak the untruth. "If so it shall be."

He can hear Chanyeol scoff from beside him. "You're impossible," he huffs, but the moment Baekhyun picks up on the strain and frustration in his voice and turns to glance at Chanyeol, the taller man is already climbing his way down the tree, before jumping off the rest of the way, landing on packed earth on his feet with a dull thud.

Baekhyun spends the rest of his watch with his knees tucked under his chin, and an inexplicable hollowness in his chest.

He probably shouldn't even have wished for it, considering that it's nothing but a lie he's trying to trick himself into believing, but the lull of peace from war doesn't last long. In fact, in only a mere two days after their reunion with their battalion, another war siren breaks out in the camp and shatters the early morning silence, dragging all of them out of their final night of peaceful sleep.

Baekhyun tries hard not to yawn, and attempts to push the last of the sleep out of his system as they fall in line. There's a brand new set of uniform on his back, but Baekhyun still shifts uncomfortably in them, remembering the way Chanyeol's own jacket had hugged his body, large but comforting. Baekhyun pushes that thought out of his mind, too, albeit being successful only because the Colonel who commands their battalion had announced that they're going to have to break up into smaller squads to face up to the Norths, who are coming at them in several directions. A new tactic to reduce the casualties from stray bullets, the Colonel tells them, and they could possibly have a wider berth to fight against the enemy without their own comrades standing in the way.

Baekhyun would have been agreeable with the order – he's seen some of his comrades hesitate when there isn't enough space for them to shoot without potentially injuring another person through friendly fire, and that split moment of hesitation had spelt both their gruesome downfalls – and thinks it's a pretty good idea, if he wasn't being shoved towards Park Chanyeol's squad, of all things. Their Colonel had handpicked several soldiers whom he deemed as capable enough to lead these smaller squads, and Chanyeol's one of them. Even Baekhyun had to begrudgingly agree with the choice, considering the way Chanyeol had saved him from the North and had put a bullet through the man's skull without hesitation.

To make things worse, Jongin gets separated from him and is ushered into the squad helmed by a certain Choi Minho, and Baekhyun's heart twists when he catches Jongin's gaze and sees the panic in them, a silent, desperate call of hyung! hanging in the air. They'd made a promise on the same night they were reunited, to stay alive together or die trying to watch each other's backs, and yet.

But the cold hard truth remains. This isn't high school, where they get the freedom to pick their project groups and stick with the people they favour. This is the military, where any form of protest from the lesser soldiers will be viewed as an act of insubordination and will be dealt with severely. This is a war, where mercy has no place to exist, and the weak-hearted are better off dead.

There's nothing else Baekhyun could do, apart from mouthing stay alive at Jongin who nods back solemnly as they're ordered to prepare for deployment, even though Baekhyun really wants to say stay safe.

Who is he kidding, though, when there is nowhere safe on the battlefield and even dead bodies get mutilated further, whether by accident or by intention?

Being in the thick of the battle once again is as terrifying as the first time he'd been here in the middle of the gunfire, and his ears are ringing from the sound of machine guns being fired continuously and bombs exploding in the near distance.

 

His boots are slick with blood and God-knows-what-else as Baekhyun sprints across the open ground, avoiding bullets and firing more of his own. People are dropping dead like flies around him, bullets sinking into various parts of their bodies, but Baekhyun thinks it's a twisted consolation that the numbers consists more of the Norths than of his squad. They had started off being outnumbered, the odds stacked against them to get through this alive, but Baekhyun's squad is comprised of a good number of soldiers who could actually shoot and find their targets without their shots being a complete fluke. Baekhyun himself is running high on adrenaline, his fight or flight response almost on an overdrive, and he tries to remember that intense game of paintball he'd had with his friends a long while ago upon being discharged from their basic military training, where they had shot at each other without mercy.

It's muscle memory working when Baekhyun ducks to dodge a bullet before pulling the trigger of his own AK-47, grinning madly when he gets his target right between his eyes. At the very least, he's not smearing his own name of being a sharpshooter, and Baekhyun feels that he might actually be able to survive this skirmish.

Then again, it's probably not a good idea to be overconfident, because Baekhyun forgets to watch his surroundings for a split second, and finds himself brought down to the ground by the butt of a rifle. He chokes and splatters from the pain in his chest, hoping fervently that the particularly hard strike he had gotten to his chest hadn't broken any bones, but the blood drains from his face when he opens his eyes and finds the feral grin of a North soldier aimed at him, along with the barrel of his gun. All this feels horribly like déjà vu.

"Why didn't you kill me when you had the chance?" Baekhyun gasps from pain, though his fingers inch towards the dagger slotted in his belt regardless. He could probably fling the dagger at his enemy the moment he lets his guard down, even if it means Baekhyun would get shot in the process. At least he could take one down with him; one less enemy for his comrades to fight against.

"Your face is too pretty to let up on," the man sneers, and again Baekhyun's insides twist sickeningly at the mere thought of them laying their hands on his body. At this rate, even if he survives the bullets, he might still be captured as a prisoner of war and be turned into a sex slave, judging by their track record of making a pass at his looks.

Baekhyun doesn't get to retort, though, when the sound of a gunshot rings terribly close by. He's taken by surprise again when he feels some warm liquid splattering across his face, and when Baekhyun looks up, the North Korean soldier's jaw is already slack, a gaping bullet hole decorating the centre of his chest and blood gushing out of the wound.

"Get up," the new voice barely registers in his senses before Baekhyun's being hauled bodily up from the ground, the now-lifeless body of the North Korean soldier lying slumped barely centimetres away from Baekhyun, and he staggers a little when the grip on his jacket loosens. "Baekhyun," the voice is exasperated now, and it's a couple more seconds before Baekhyun realises that Chanyeol had saved him yet again. "Get a fucking grip! This is not the time to be spacing out!"

Baekhyun doesn't need to be told twice, though, and he immediately aims a shot at the solider who's charging in Chanyeol's direction. It's Chanyeol's turn to be taken aback, but he recovers quickly enough and exchanges a thin smile of gratitude with Baekhyun, and then they're off again.

It's time to show these North bastards what they're made of, together.

Later that evening, when the sound of gunfire has long since ceased to fill the air, leaving behind only the smell of gunpowder and drying blood on their clothes and skin, Baekhyun finds himself staring blankly at the opposite end of his tent, feeling empty deep within. Taking someone else's life is never easy, even if it is his enemy and he'd die if he doesn't do anything about it, and the horror of it strikes much later, when he's left alone with nothing to occupy his hands and mind.

It's almost laughable, how he's sitting here safely cocooned in a tent after a skirmish, and not lost in the jungle and having to battle the harsh weather outside.

He's much too drained to take a dip in the river and clean himself off, even if he feels utterly disgusting, being coated in layers upon layers of drying blood. His mind has turned numb from a day's worth of killing, especially when he thinks about his close shave with death yet again, and how Chanyeol had risked his neck to save Baekhyun. Again.

While Baekhyun knows that Chanyeol's a responsible person, he also thinks that Chanyeol didn't have the need to help him out on the battlefield, considering the fact that Chanyeol could have dropped underperforming members of his squad. And Baekhyun has gotten himself into way too much trouble due to his inattention. Chanyeol wasn't anywhere close to Baekhyun when he had been brought down to the ground, either, and Baekhyun swallows down his guilt at the thought that Chanyeol had dashed towards Baekhyun from wherever he had been, just to pull him out of the sticky situation Baekhyun had gotten himself into.

When will he ever stop feeling indebted to Chanyeol, Baekhyun wonders.

He stirs a little in his position, dazed, when someone unzips his tent, and shudders when the cool breeze sweeps its way inside, bringing with it a fresh breath of air that feels almost too intrusive after all the humidity Baekhyun has been breathing in for at least the last hour.

Chanyeol has a look of disapproval on his face when he climbs into the cramped space of the tent, limbs much too long to fit comfortably, but Baekhyun realises a little belatedly that he has a basin of water with him, when Chanyeol dips a towel into the water and starts wiping the grime off Baekhyun's chafed skin. And Baekhyun lets him, feeling too boneless and weighed down by guilt to move.

"Aren't you going to scold me? Beat some sense into my head? Anything at all?" Baekhyun croaks when Chanyeol throws the towel into the basin one final time, the clear water having turned into a sickening mixture of blood and mud and Baekhyun feeling a lot cleaner.

For a moment, Chanyeol seems as though he's about to take Baekhyun up on his suggestion, but he sighs and drops himself onto the ground next to Baekhyun, pillowing his head with his own arms. A peek of skin from where Chanyeol's undershirt has rode up on his stomach attracts Baekhyun's attention once again, and his throat suddenly feels too dry. He forces himself to look away before the heat becomes unbearable.

"I wanted to, on the battlefield. To punch you in the face so that you'd stop spacing out when it's so fucking dangerous out there." Chanyeol admits, making Baekhyun hold his breath, but then he sighs again and glances up at Baekhyun. The heat of Chanyeol's gaze on the underside of his jaw burns. "Then I realised I couldn't. Hurt you, I mean."

Confused, Baekhyun snaps around to look at Chanyeol. "I don't understand."

Chanyeol pulls himself up to sit, wrapping his arms around his legs, and the bulge of his biceps is equally as distracting. It takes Baekhyun a longer while before he realises he's attracted to Park Chanyeol, wide smile and noisy laughter and selflessness and everything else in between. "You're not as strong as you portray yourself to others, you know." Chanyeol says, and Baekhyun swallows. "And I get it. I get where you're coming from. Losing so many members of your family to the war is never easy to deal with, and getting into the same battle that has claimed them will screw with your head, whether you realise it or not."

"Don't talk like you know me," Baekhyun tells him, but his words lack heat, and Chanyeol doesn't even seem fazed.

"There's a reason why you told me all these things, isn't there? I spoke with Jongin, while we were back in the camp. He doesn't seem to know half the things I knew about you." Chanyeol points out, and Baekhyun hates that he has a point. Being with Chanyeol makes him feel a lot more comfortable than he usually would around strangers, and Baekhyun was supposed to hate the man for still being able to be so laid back in the midst of a war. In the end, though, he's divulged most things only Heechul was supposed to know to this man who's seated next to him right now, and Baekhyun really doesn't understand himself anymore.

But still Baekhyun tries to keep his crumbling walls up. "What is your point?"

"My point is–" Chanyeol huffs again, his voice suddenly sounding all too close, and Baekhyun makes the mistake of turning his head, because he finds his own face mere inches away from Chanyeol's, their warm breaths mingling in the tiny space in between. Chanyeol's lips are chapped, but they look enticing all the same. "–trust me. Let me share your burden and help you get through this war in one piece. You don't have to suffer through this alone."

And the last of his defences fall, leading its way to tears that spill out of the corners of his eyes. Baekhyun feels so fucking exhausted, he doesn't even realise that he's been waiting all his life for someone to tell him to trust in them, that they'll be by his side no matter what happens, and Chanyeol happens to be that person who will not hesitate in the least to come to Baekhyun's aid, even if Baekhyun has been pushing him away over and over again.

Baekhyun no longer tries to resist when Chanyeol leans in for a kiss, and he sobs into Chanyeol's mouth when their lips finally connect, letting Chanyeol lick his way in. He can taste the sludge from dinner and the sharp metallic taste of blood from where Baekhyun had cut his lip from being punched in the face by a North earlier that afternoon, but he tunes all these intrusive thoughts out and allows himself to live in the moment instead. Chanyeol's large hands on his jaw are surprisingly gentle as he nips at Baekhyun's lower lip, giving as much as Baekhyun is willing to take.

It gets much too warm in the closed space of the tent soon enough, and Baekhyun shrugs out of his camouflage jacket without breaking the kiss, moaning into Chanyeol's mouth when Chanyeol's hands slide up the smooth expanse of Baekhyun's chest, fingers scraping against his nipples. His undershirt comes off right after, and Baekhyun digs his fingers into Chanyeol's scalp when the man laves a wet trail down the side of his jaw and onto his chest, his legs automatically spreading to accommodate Chanyeol who keeps pressing in impossibly closer.

It's been a long while since Baekhyun has been made to feel this way, his nerve endings firing off erratically and his body feeling as though it's burning up in a furnace, but Baekhyun isn't complaining. He has been craving for another person's touch on his bare skin for a while now, and it seems only right for Chanyeol to step into the role, considering the amount of times he's helped Baekhyun out.

Chanyeol seems like an experienced person, too, if the way he's licking and touching and teasing Baekhyun is anything to go by, and Baekhyun helplessly cants his hips into Chanyeol's hand when it wanders off too far down, where Baekhyun needs to be touched the most. Instead of teasing, though, Chanyeol pauses to press a tender kiss to the angle of Baekhyun's jaw, the gesture making his heart constrict. "Is this okay?" He asks, the uncertainty clear in his words, and Baekhyun almost wants to laugh, if he weren't already frustrated to no ends.

"More than okay," Baekhyun breathes, wanting to point out that Chanyeol was the one who'd initiated their makeout without shame, and he tugs impatiently at Chanyeol's shirt to make his point. At least Chanyeol's quick to realise that Baekhyun wants his shirt off and complies almost wordlessly, leaving Baekhyun's mouth to water at the sight of his well-built body when he finally gets topless.

Baekhyun lifts his hips when Chanyeol taps at his thigh, allowing Chanyeol to pull his pants and underwear down to his ankles, and Baekhyun almost comes with a light touch of Chanyeol's on his already hard cock. The callouses on Chanyeol's fingers can be felt against Baekhyun's sensitive skin, and the way Chanyeol tightens his grip around Baekhyun's length has him scrabbling to find purchase on Chanyeol's biceps, his head thrown back in unadulterated pleasure. He finds that he's in for a treat, though, when Chanyeol leans forward to press butterfly kisses to the insides of Baekhyun's shivering thighs, making his way up to his groin before pressing his lips against Baekhyun's leaking slit. His moans are wanton, not caring if the rest of their comrades could hear them, when Chanyeol wraps his lips around Baekhyun's head and takes his entire length into his mouth, and the wet heat makes Baekhyun's head swim from pure ecstasy.

It doesn't take long for the tight coil in the pit of Baekhyun's stomach to snap, though, from the sheer amount of time he's spent without touching himself and being touched in such an intimate manner, and he comes in Chanyeol's mouth with a sharp cry, his body spasming until he rides out his orgasm. Chanyeol keeps his mouth around Baekhyun until the very end, swallowing and sucking continuously until he has milked Baekhyun dry.

"Wow," Baekhyun laughs breathlessly, feeling completely relaxed as he pulls Chanyeol up for a kiss, lapping eagerly into Chanyeol's mouth and humming in satisfaction when he can taste himself. "You're amazing."

"Not as amazing as you are," Chanyeol says, voice hoarse from lust, only to have his words trail into a moan when Baekhyun cups him through his pants.

"You need to get these off," Baekhyun commands, thinking that it's only right to return the favour, and Chanyeol, as always, is only too eager to comply. He doesn't get to see the expression on Chanyeol's face, but he imagines that Chanyeol must be surprised when he forces Chanyeol to sit before climbing into his lap, Baekhyun's back pressed snugly against Chanyeol's chest.

"What– oh, fuck," is what Chanyeol says next, when Baekhyun has made himself comfortable in Chanyeol's lap and traps Chanyeol's cock between his supple thighs. His previous boyfriends and flings loved it when Baekhyun does this to them, and he believes that Chanyeol is no different. Without warning, Baekhyun starts bouncing on Chanyeol's lap, fucking himself down on Chanyeol's cock with his thighs, and he almost wants to die from the way Chanyeol's cock is brushing against his own with every thrust.

To make things even better, Baekhyun wraps his long fingers around both their erections, thrusting eagerly into his hand and slowly builds up the pace. Chanyeol soon moves to cover Baekhyun's fingers with his own larger hand, all while biting marks into the pale expanse of Baekhyun's skin, right at the juncture where his neck meets his shoulders. They're going to leave telltale signs of their deeds tonight, but Baekhyun can't seem to find it in himself to care, and only wants to live in this moment where Chanyeol's hot breaths are searing against his perspiration-coated skin, and all he can think about is Chanyeol, Chanyeol, Chanyeol.

It's amazing, how one person's presence can be so overwhelming, and Baekhyun feels as though Chanyeol's existence could very well drown him if he wanted to. His hands and lips are everywhere; he's mouthing on Baekhyun's shoulder, fingers of his left hand playing with Baekhyun's pert nipples, and his right is fisting both their cocks in tandem with Baekhyun's hand. His voice – God, his voice – so dusky and deep that it resonates through Baekhyun's bones, rains praise after praise down upon Baekhyun, urging him to come for him.

And Baekhyun does, with an expert flick of Chanyeol's wrist that sends a sharp jolt of pleasure down his cock and pushes him over the edge, coming in ribbons of white over both their hands. Chanyeol doesn't last long, either, burying his face in the crook of Baekhyun's neck and leaving more open-mouthed kisses on his heated skin as he comes with a silent grunt, hips thrusting up shallowly into the warmth of Baekhyun's thighs and coating his skin with cum.

"I can't believe we just did that," Chanyeol breathes incredulously later, when they're both cuddling on the floor of the tent in their post-orgasm bliss, too sated to even bother about cleaning up or to grumble about the tree roots digging into their flesh even with the canvas in between. Baekhyun definitely will not settle for that forgotten basin of water which has been pushed to the far corner of the tent, not when it's been sullied by the blood of many. The mere thought of it disgusts him.

Baekhyun, contented for the first time in a long while as he basks in the warmth of Chanyeol's embrace, laughs aloud. Perhaps Chanyeol's right; why should he give up on making himself happy, when they're all probably going to die eventually, anyway? "Are you trying to tell me you're regretting that?" He asks cheekily, turning around in Chanyeol's arms to take a good look at his face. Affection blooms in his chest when he sees how pleased Chanyeol actually is with the turn in events, and he stops himself short of freaking out at his own thoughts.

Of course not is Chanyeol's simple but sincere reply, and Baekhyun loses himself to the moment yet again when Chanyeol surges forth to seal their lips together.

 

 

(It's somewhere close to midnight when the battle siren sounds once more, and the illusion of happiness is promptly shattered.)

Things only get more gruelling as time pass, with the Norths pushing forth more aggressively, desperately. South Korea had received some reinforcements from the US, which lifts a considerable amount of weight off their army to hold the Norths at bay, but smaller squads like the one Baekhyun's battalion has been ordered to break up into still has to fight tooth and nail with the enemy troops. They're much too scattered for the reinforcements to reach them in time, and while Baekhyun can understand their military commander's decision to sacrifice these smaller squads for the sake of the greater good, it doesn't stop him from feeling bitter all the same. They're serving the country all the same; they can find a way to salvage every last soldier out there, if only they tried a little harder.

Unsurprisingly, Chanyeol's existence is the only thing that's stopping Baekhyun from losing all forms of motivation to continue fighting at all. They've made a solemn promise one night, between Chorwon and Tongduchon, between fervent kisses and breathless moans, to stay alive until the end of the war, to create a brand new life for themselves when this is over. Back in the days when Baekhyun had first joined the military, he would've thought that what they're doing – pleasuring themselves and making love whenever they manage to survive yet another skirmish with the Norths – was inappropriate, but several weeks down the line, after spending every moment being afraid for both his own life and for Chanyeol's, Baekhyun finds that he no longer cares. He could see intimate bonds being formed between soldiers all around them, pretends not to hear equally sinful noises coming from other tents in the middle of the night. Everyone's trying to find companionship in what little time they have left in their lives, worried that they might never live to see the next sunrise ever again.

Baekhyun and Chanyeol are the same, marking each other's scarred skin with lips and fingers and teeth, exchanging desperate kisses and even more desperate thrusts into tight fists and warm mouths the moment there is a lull in their fighting. He can't even remember when he had last felt this way, wanting the presence of his lover to surround him every waking moment of his, wanting to hear his name being called out like a punctuation between every pant, every moan. And Chanyeol willingly indulges him, splitting Baekhyun open with his fingers and his thick girth, making Baekhyun feel as though he's floating on cloud nine, his lonely heart plenty fulfilled and much happier than it had ever been since the start of the war.

(He tries not to think about how it feels as though they're living on borrowed time, stealing every opportunity they can, a lie they keep telling themselves that everything will be alright, eventually.

For once, Baekhyun wants to be selfish.)

The greatest battle yet comes on the heels of summer's harsh transition into autumn, with billowing, bitterly frigid winds ripping through the open space and leaving their airways constricting from the cold, their lips almost blue. They'd just reunited with Minho's squad – with Jongin in the fray, much to Baekhyun's relief, battered and bruised but still very much alive – mere hours ago, and the members of both squads are just beginning to assess their supplies, keeping count of the amount of ammunition they still had, and how long it would last them.

The last thing anyone would want to hear is that they've run out of ammunition, which would effectively transform them into easy targets for the North, and they might as well commit suicide on the spot.

Baekhyun had only settled down in a tent with Jongin, catching up on the events which had led up to their meeting, when the battle siren sounds again, jolting them both into attention. The pain that gnaws at his muscles and bones barely even has enough time to dissipate, and Baekhyun's heart pounds nervously against his chest, wondering what on earth the Norths are planning on doing this time. The last time they'd heard of the updates on the war was a couple of days ago, when Chanyeol had managed to establish contact with the headquarters, and they'd been overjoyed to hear that the Norths were getting pushed back and dwindling rapidly in numbers, owing to the reinforcements which kept pouring in, and the US was on the verge of getting them to surrender.

If Baekhyun's guess is right, the Norths will be going all out this time, armed with nothing but determination and the thirst to bring down everyone in sight, for the sake of defending their pride. They will not go down easily, it seems, and Baekhyun is suddenly afraid. If the Norths had been extremely aggressive in their approach before this, what's to say they wouldn't sacrifice themselves to blow up an entire squad of Souths?

Baekhyun's worries are reflected on Chanyeol's expressions when they head out to congregate at the open ground, and he's tempted to walk up to Chanyeol to smooth out the frown lines between his brows with his thumb, but it would not seem professional in the eyes of others, even if they might know that Chanyeol and Baekhyun are sleeping together. Together with Minho, they make a formidable pair of leaders, calmly giving out instructions and briefing them about the current situation. Beside him, Jongin reaches for his hand and squeezes – a sign of fear that resonates within Baekhyun – when they talk about the intelligence that there are land mines planted everywhere in the field where the Norths are planning to attack them from, but they can't possibly change their course of attack, not when they're standing as a line of defence between Tongduchon and Seoul. They have to hold the Norths back at this point, no matter what.

The planned attack comes much earlier than they'd expected, a mere half hour after they've wrapped up their briefing, and Chanyeol pulls Baekhyun in for a quick kiss and a stern warning to stay alive; for the love of God, please, stay alive, and they're off, Baekhyun's head filled with the image of Chanyeol's eyes which are imbued with fear as he opens fire at the Norths. He doesn't pause to gloat when his bullets manage to find their targets, hopping over dead bodies while his eyes scan for signs of recently unturned earth, heart burning with a vengeance to eliminate every North soldier that comes his way.

The terror rips through him yet again when the first land mine goes off, and panic seizes him when he keeps himself guessing about the victim the mine has claimed, but forces himself to believe that Chanyeol will not fall prey to them. Chanyeol may be tall, Chanyeol may be gangly, but he's easily one of the best soldiers Baekhyun's ever seen. He sends a silent prayer to the heavens above, to keep Chanyeol safe no matter what.

Luck isn't on Baekhyun's side, though, when he finds himself getting tackled to the ground by a larger-sized North, the air knocked out of his lungs when his back hits the ground. It's only when Baekhyun manages to pry his eyes open that he realises that the North had lost his own rifle somewhere on the battlefield, and is actively trying to choke Baekhyun to death with his grubby fingers. Fighting against the pain and the gradual asphyxiation, Baekhyun kicks out at the man, only mildly successful in his attempt when his combat boots land on the upper segment of the North Korean soldier's spine. The man reels away in pain for a brief moment, but is quick to grab the rifle which had fallen out of Baekhyun's grip earlier, aiming it at Baekhyun's head. This man is different from the others which had cornered him, though; instead of lust, Baekhyun sees the murderous intent in them instead, and he's suddenly paralysed from fear – fear that this will be his end.

"Go to hell, trash of the South," the man spits, and opens fire without hesitation, but Baekhyun manages to force his frozen muscles to work the moment the man pulls the trigger, and rolls away from imminent danger. The bullet still manages to catch Baekhyun in his left hand, though, and the pain burns white hot at the back of his eyes when the bullet pulverises the muscles and bones of his wrist. His brain is miraculously still functional despite the excruciating pain that rips through his nerve endings in pulsatile waves, and Baekhyun immediately whips his dagger out of his belt with his still functional hand, slicing its edge cleanly across the neck of the North Korean soldier and severing his carotid, leaving him choking from his own blood.

It's only then that Baekhyun slumps to the ground, cradling his left arm in his lap as he actively stops himself from crying in pain, willing for the worst of the agony to go away so that he can continue fighting. Just as he rips the hem of his shirt to form a tourniquet for his bleeding wrist, though, another loud blast erupts in the open space, and Baekhyun makes the grave mistake of turning to look.

Several things happen at once – he sees Chanyeol crumpling to the ground, his right leg ending in a bloodied mess; he sees Jongin lying face down on the ground several metres away from Chanyeol, unmoving; and he hears accented Korean being shouted through a megaphone, telling them to put down your weapons, the war is over, Pyeongyang has surrendered, and even if he knows that the messenger is somewhere close, Baekhyun can't hear anything above the white noise ringing in his ears, the bile rising fast in the column of his throat as he fears for Chanyeol's life, knowing that Chanyeol had stepped on a land mine when he's been fervently asking of them to please, be careful.

In the end, the pain and blood loss from his wrist wins him over, pushing Baekhyun into the murky depths of unconsciousness, with the thoughts of Chanyeol and Jongin filling his mind.

The fact that he'd made it through the war, alive doesn't sink in.

epilogue

 

 

 

 

The tinkling sounds of the piano fills his senses as Baekhyun concentrates on hitting the notes correctly, each note rolling out crisp and clear, the way he likes it. When he lifts his left arm to weave the chords into the song, though, Baekhyun belatedly remembers that he'd lost his left hand to the war, and he swallows thickly at the sight of the stump.

 

It's been ten years since the war had ended, yet Baekhyun's still living with a phantom limb that's causing him more emotional pain than it really should, considering the amount of counselling he's gone through over the years to cure him of his PTSD. The internal structure had been crushed by the force of the bullet, the doctors had told him, and even the best surgeon could not have salvaged it, no means to reconstruct it while preserving its function. Even if they'd managed to sew his torn flesh back together again, Baekhyun would still have lost his hand to gangrene, the blood supply to his hand having been destroyed as well. You should continue doing music, if you think it's therapeutic for you, his psychiatrist had told him. Baekhyun had informed his psychiatrist about his love for music when the doctor had asked, and his psychiatrist had actively sought ways to incorporate it into his treatment from that point onwards. Baekhyun still sings, though only in the confines of his apartment unit and not in public, figuring that he's lost all motivation to entertain the masses.

 

His brief dabble with depression this morning doesn't last long though, when a warm body scoots onto the piano bench to Baekhyun's left, probably having heard Baekhyun stop in the midst of his playing. "Whatever morbid thoughts you're thinking, stop." The warm, deep voice tells him, and Baekhyun blinks his daze away to the sight of Chanyeol's handsome face. His bright smile still never fails to take Baekhyun's breath away, and Baekhyun makes his contentment known by leaning in to kiss Chanyeol on his lips.

 

He remembers the time when he'd just been pushed out of surgery, groggy and disorientated from the anaesthetic agents, and had immediately asked for Chanyeol's wellbeing when he was sober enough. His throat had been on the verge of constricting from hyperventilation when he remembered how Chanyeol had slumped to the ground, unconscious after the land mine had claimed his leg, and he'd feared that Chanyeol was dead. Even a thousand reassurances from the healthcare staff couldn't have convinced Baekhyun that Chanyeol had survived the blast which had claimed several other lives when its shards were sent flying – Jongin included; Baekhyun's chest constricts again at the thought. And when Baekhyun had been ruled fit to finally visit Chanyeol, he'd broken down in tears, sobbing uncontrollably when he had found Chanyeol sitting up on the bed, the end of his right leg wrapped in a similar fashion as Baekhyun's left hand, shorter than Baekhyun had remembered it to be, but very much alive.

Right now, the coolness of Chanyeol's prosthetic limb is pressing against Baekhyun's left leg, and Baekhyun finds himself smiling when Chanyeol manages to play the chords to the song, the way Baekhyun had imagined them. It has always been this way since they'd started receiving treatment together, Chanyeol complementing Baekhyun in the best ways possible, completing the other half of the notes where Baekhyun could not manage to do, pulling him up from the ground when Baekhyun's morale had been at its lowest, encouraging him to never give up on life, when there are many others who could not survive the war would probably have wanted to be in Baekhyun's shoes, having lost a limb or two but still would be very much thankful that they're still breathing.

Baekhyun thinks about Baekbeom, whose body has never been found and was ruled as killed in action by the military, and about Jongin who'd told him that he was going to survive the war, because someone called Sehun is waiting at home for him to beat him up for not saying a word before Jongin had left him for the army, because Jongin knew that it would be hard to say goodbye. Baekhyun and Chanyeol had met Sehun shortly after being discharged from the hospital, because Jongin had given him a necklace to be delivered to Sehun's hands – in case I don't make it, Jongin had eerily told him before they'd left the tent, as though having predicted that he wouldn't live to see another sunrise, but Baekhyun keeps that information to himself. Sehun, who was initially trying hard to keep his tears at bay – he was a clerk with the military, having sustained an injury which prevented him from being formally enlisted to fight the war, and was tasked to type up letters expressing the military's deepest condolences to the families who have lost a loved one to the war; Baekhyun doesn't doubt that he'd seen Jongin's name on the roster – eventually crumbled to the ground, cradling Jongin's necklace to his chest and shouting why didn't you let me say goodbye?

It's then that Baekhyun makes a brand new resolution, to live the rest of his life to the fullest on behest of his loved ones who could not survive long enough to enjoy the peaceful days after the war, and puts on the bravest smile he can muster. It's still a long way before he'll be fully cured of his nightmares and be rid of the ghosts of the days past, but Baekhyun is convinced that he'll be able to get through this just fine, as long as Chanyeol is by his side.