Rated: E – NSFW
Warnings: some violence, internalized homophobia, mentions of past child/domestic abuse.
Kim Dokja does not often reflect on his earlier childhood memories. The past is something better left buried to someone like him, who for all that he has spent years stagnating wants nothing more than to strive forward and forward and never, truly, look back. But the moment his fingers wrap around the piece of jade and he hears it acknowledge him—the moment he stops being an incarnation for good—a memory comes to him from sometime long ago.
He is sitting on the floor of the living-room in his childhood home, a book open over his lap and Kyunguk nestled in his neck. It is that time of dusk when daylight ceases to be sufficient and his tired eyes blink over and over, struggling to make sense of printed words.
His mother comes in and flicks the ceiling light on; she says to him, “You should have him take another shape sometimes.”
Noori flies over her head and right under the glowing lamp. His shadow spreads over the room like an omen, until he deigns to sit closer to Dokja than he usually elects to. The crow’s yellow eyes glisten like gems and bore into Kyunguk’s own unwavering gaze. Kyunguk’s thin fur sticks close to the skin of Dokja’s neck.
“He’s watching me,” Kyunguk says for Dokja’s ears only.
Kim Dokja strokes his back with the tips of his fingers. He tells his mother, “Kyunguk likes it.”
“It’s not a flattering image. To you or him.”
“And Noori’s is?”
Noori is the size of a small dog, with wings so black that no light reflects upon them even when the sun shines bright. Lee Sookyung has received her share of disbelief and distrust for the shape of her dæmon, and Kim Dokja privately thinks that she is not one to interfere or care what his schoolmates say of Kyunguk. Or what his teachers relate to her.
This is an old, old memory. A memory from before. A day with his father outside, a day absent of his dog-dæmon’s snarls and biting, of the sick stench of alcohol. Kim Dokja took the opportunity to read in the wider spaces of his home rather than hole himself in his room, and Lee Sookyung stayed in the kitchen for the better part of it. Occasionally, Noori peaked inside with his beady yellow eyes, just to make sure Dokja hadn’t moved.
Kim Dokja hates crows.
He feels the flesh of his back tear open as wings as black as night grow out of his shoulder blades. He sees through Kyunguk’s eyes the shape and style of them, remembers with a smile the sound of feathers on the wind at night when torn voices and the sound of broken echoed through the house.
He is the seventy-third Demon King. The one his comrades have to vanquish to beat the tenth scenario.
“Are you ready?” he asks Kyunguk, and the dæmon does not answer with words, but with a flick of its long tail over the length of Dokja’s neck.
It takes precious time and effort to convince the party to attack him—and, though Kim Dokja is loath to admit it, Han Sooyoung’s help, bright as her eyes are around the tail of the scorpion perched into her hair. Yoo Jonghyuk and Miteum stay prone against the wall in the corner of Kim Dokja’s eyes. They watch from a distance, bleeding and disoriented while Lee Seolhwa works her magic on them, and it is oddly difficult not to feel the weight of their gaze as he allows his allies to stab and punch and cry at him.
Kyunguk crawls down from Kim Dokja’s neck and under his white coat till he is cradled between the open wings at his back, his sharp claws stuck into the fabric of his shirt. They have never torn into Kim Dokja’s skin and they never will, he knows; Kyunguk is simply more open than him with his fright.
Kim Dokja listens with one ear to the multiple messages he receives from the constellations. He smiles again when he understands the full meaning of the fate bound to him; when he sees Yoo Jonghyuk rise with his black sword in hand and murder in his eyes, Miteum at his feet showing her dripping fangs.
Perhaps this is the day he’ll know how they feel when they bite.
There is no need to come to such measures. The third regression Yoo Jonghyuk is not yet someone who has dealt away with taboos and morality. His sword and will are enough to cut through the defense that Kim Dokja cannot help raising, and steel through the chest and shoulder is no laughing matter of pain. Kyunguk trembles when one of Kim Dokja’s wings is cut a hair’s breath off of his own back. He crawls back atop Dokja’s shoulder right as Dokja falls to his knees, blood in his mouth, Yoo Jonghyuk’s voice in his ears.
Already he can feel this body vaporizing as the scenario ban enacts itself.
[Your fate has been realized.]
Kyunguk shivers and shakes against him. The dæmon who has never changed form stays here as he has since they were children, into the crook of Dokja’s neck and whimpering into his ear. Kim Dokja wants to lift a hand and touch him. He doesn’t have the strength to.
“Kim Dokja,” Yoo Jonghyuk calls into his other ear.
He has dropped the black sword in order to hold him. Kim Dokja meets Miteum’s eyes over the man’s shoulder.
Vomiting blood is surprisingly uncomfortable. The Fourth Wall offsets some of the pain and feeling of it, but Kim Dokja can’t avoid the taste in his mouth, the slickness and heat he has no choice but to let drip over Yoo Jonghyuk’s shoulder. He laughs weakly and says, “It was a great story, wasn’t it?”
Yoo Jonghyuk breathes in something like a gasp.
Kim Dokja has not the strength to stroke Kyunguk’s fear away, but there is one thing he can do. Already his legs and wings have crumbled like dust in the wind, and somehow this lightens the burden of fatigue and pain some more, enough for him to be able to move one arm. He slithers it along Yoo Jonghyuk’s side and in the direction of Miteum until he can rest his hand on her head.
Yoo Jonghyuk tenses against him. It is a movement of the body and soul, his stillness, so deep that not even his chest moves with the air he takes in. Kim Dokja would blush if he still had the blood to, but as it is he simply focuses on the feeling of warm fur under his hand, on the strength of the wolf’s gaze as he speaks to her for the first time.
“Take care of Kyunguk for me.”
No dæmon can survive outside the scenario. It is something Kim Dokja knows from reading Ways of Survival, something he has prepared for the moment he realized that the tenth scenario had been updated through the prophecy’s influence. He ignores Uriel’s cries in his ears and the laughter of nebulæ. He thinks again of the pain Yoo Jonghyuk experienced the first time he separated from Miteum—as he reminds Kyunguk through the voice they both share that this is temporary.
“I don’t want to,” Kyunguk trembles and cries, “I don’t want to, I don’t want to, I don’t want to.”
His claws dig through the white coat until they touch Dokja’s skin. He once more feels as small and cowardly as he was in those days of his youth, when Kim Dokja asked him to change form and he refused, time after time, until it was too late. But he slides down from Dokja’s vanishing arm until he touches ground for the first time in years; he meets Kim Dokja’s eyes with hurt and betrayal, but he doesn’t try to cling again.
He was always the last one to give up between the both of them.
Yoo Jonghyuk has never allowed anyone to touch Miteum before.
A handful of people asked. His mother and father when he was a child, his sister on the day Miteum settled and her fur grew silver and white like a jewel under the light. Lee Seolhwa, the first time they made love.
Kim Dokja does not ask. Kim Dokja has never asked for Yoo Jonghyuk’s input on any of his schemes and actions before, and it should come as no surprise that he should be so shameless, and yet Jonghyuk freezes at the first brush of skin on fur. The ache that grows within his chest is nothing like anything he knows, in and out of physical existence.
Kim Dokja lays a hand on Miteum’s head, and Yoo Jonghyuk feels it between his ribs, around his heart.
There is nothing left of Kim Dokja’s body after the black expense behind him finishes swallowing him up. Only bloodstains on the floor and his rat dæmon, prone and gasping, shuddering with the pain of separation. It is an awful thing to witness and Yoo Jonghyuk can hardly bear to look at it—can feel the others behind him holding their own, cannot stop himself from gripping the fur of Miteum’s back—but he has to.
He has to look.
[The tenth scenario has ended. Rewards will be distributed soon.]
Other such messages follow. Yoo Jonghyuk doesn’t listen to them. He watches Kyunguk shake and listens to the tiny, terrified squeaks he lets out. He remembers the edge of a broken bridge above Han river, a plain-faced man in a cheap suit calling himself his companion, his frightened rat dæmon gripping his shoulder with its claws.
It seems to take an eternity. Lee Seolhwa comes and nudges him, Lee Hyunsung calls his name with tears on his voice, but Yoo Jonghyuk doesn’t move. He cannot move. At last the lone dæmon on the floor stops thrashing and moving and seems to fall asleep.
“Miteum,” he says.
She moves, silent and deadly. His hand follows the curve of her spine until her tail flicks from under his fingers. She bends over the still rat and takes it into her mouth, and Yoo Jonghyuk knows that her hold is gentle, that her fangs will put only the softest of pressure against Kyunguk’s thin bones.
He rises to his feet and declares, “Let’s go.”
It’s not easy. The children are sobbing, Jung Heewon has gone into something like shock, and Han Sooyoung has bitten her lips open. Lee Hyunsung, Yoo Sangah and himself manage to carry everyone out of the Dark Castle and then out of the Seoul Dome. He breaks the wall of it with his fists. It is barely enough to undo his tension.
The hours that follow do not feel real. Living inside the dome has made them all quick to forget that life goes on outside, that aside from the capitals of the world, billions of people remain who have not suffered the Star Stream. They are assaulted by journalists and do-gooders, offered money and employment, recompense, honor.
Han Sooyoung separates from their group almost immediately. Yoo Sangah guides Lee Gilyoung and Shin Yoosung away with both hands on their shoulders, her cat dæmon walking between her legs with its thick fur raised high.
Miteum presses to his side. She still carries Kyunguk in her mouth.
A house is given to them on the outskirts of the city. The transparent dome is now as black as night and, Yoo Jonghyuk knows, just as impenetrable. There is no use in returning there and searching the ruins for a trace of Kim Dokja. He would not survive outside the scenario even if he tried.
And yet, Kyunguk remains. Weak and shivering and alone, but alive. Which means that Kim Dokja lives on in some form or another.
He and Miteum enter the farthest and most secluded bedroom in the house. Jonghyuk locks the door behind them and watches her gently set the rat atop the soft cover of the bed. Kyunguk’s tongue lolls out of his mouth. His breaths are fast and shallow, raising the black fur of his stomach and sides almost too quickly for the naked eye.
“He’s not dead,” Yoo Jonghyuk says.
Miteum rarely speaks. She says nothing now, but he can feel that she agrees with him as she does on so many things. Jonghyuk advances through the room and sits on the bed, leaving enough distance between himself and Kyunguk that the dæmon will not topple in his direction, even with the mattress dipping. Miteum feels no such need for boundaries; she jumps atop the bed and sits, curled around the rat’s trembling form without outright touching him. His fur is wet where her saliva has bathed him.
Yoo Jonghyuk pets her absently, looking at Kim Dokja’s dæmon and wondering. Thoughts of his sword piercing the man’s body fray at the edges of his mind and threaten to make his hands shake; he fists one into the bedspread and the other into Miteum’s back.
“You let him,” he starts.
He can’t finish. The words pulse inside his mouth like a heartbeat.
Miteum shifts her head so she can look at him. He opens his fingers, drags them through her silver fur.
Between her legs, Kyunguk looks like he’s dying.
Yoo Jonghyuk cannot explain the knot in his throat, the impression of a hand through his chest as if something has reached under his skin and pulled open his ribs. “He’s going to die,” he says.
Miteum bends down and licks down the rat’s heaving side. He whimpers, still caught between unconsciousness and obvious suffering. Yoo Jonghyuk pictures himself for a second reaching out as Kim Dokja had earlier and taking Kyunguk in hand. Bringing him the warmth that his human must have. His throat dries.
“The fate,” Miteum murmurs.
Her voice is deep and soul-wide. Yoo Jonghyuk remembers himself as a child leaning with his head against her ribs, listening to the echo of it through her soft and warm body. Even before adulthood she preferred the shape of dogs and wolves, of bigger felines sometimes. No one had been surprised by her settling.
[Kim Dokja’s fate has been realized.]
That is what the dokkaebi’s message said when Yoo Jonghyuk stabbed Kim Dokja through the chest.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he replies.
Miteum gives another lick to Kyunguk’s frail body.
He cannot be the person that Kim Dokja loves most. Kim Dokja has shown no sign of being attracted to anyone but women; he and Yoo Sangah look to be close enough for affection, and if not her then Han Sooyoung, in spite of her own scheming nature—
No, he thinks, looking again at the forlorn dæmon. What does he know, truly, of Kim Dokja? He has seen him from afar with women stuck in the same unfortunate circumstances as he. He has opposed and supported him in battle. He has watched him die and rise again three times, experienced grief and relief three times, refused to examine his own feelings about it.
Kim Dokja called himself his companion the very first time they met. He called himself a prophet. Whatever he saw of Yoo Jonghyuk’s future was enough to make come back again and again—to break Yoo Jonghyuk out of the throws of nightmares or of his own hopelessness and encourage him to live.
Jonghyuk knows what people say of those with dæmons of the same gender. Why did he never think of it regarding Kim Dokja and Kyunguk?
“You’re asking the wrong question,” Miteum growls at him.
She is right.
What he knows is right in front of him, burned into his memory: the prophecy said the incarnation Kim Dokja would be killed by the one he loves most. Yoo Jonghyuk killed Kim Dokja. The prophecy was realized.
“Incarnation Kim Dokja,” he says out loud, realizing.
Of course. He rubs a hand over his bloody face and sighs. Of course, Kim Dokja must have realized this a lot sooner than he did, the bastard.
“What did he tell you?” he asks Miteum. “When he… earlier, what did he say?”
Miteum looks away from him almost haughtily. She noses at Kyunguk again.
Kim Dokja is alive. For now. Whether he can survive separating from his dæmon is another story; whether he can come back one day is too remote to even consider. Looking at Kyunguk on the bed, Yoo Jonghyuk would not bet on Kim Dokja’s survival, but he has made this mistake before, he realizes.
No one would imagine that the man with the small rat dæmon could be so powerful. Powerful enough to surpass Yoo Jonghyuk. Whether this strength comes from Kyunguk or Kim Dokja or the both of them at once, Jonghyuk can only hazard a guess.
Jonghyuk settles for his first night in a proper bed in months. There is a working shower in the bathroom down the hall and he makes full use of it, Miteum beside him shedding the blood and grime off her slick fur. She has carried Kyunguk with them, put him atop a pile of warm towels outside the stall. Her eyes rarely leave him.
He almost walks into Lee Seolhwa when he exits the room.
Miteum remains docile at his side, her jaws delicately holding Kyunguk. Lee Seolhwa and Dal are both looking at her. The python hisses and moves around her shoulders, as disturbed as she is—as they all are—by the idea of a dæmon, alone.
Seolhwa looks up at him quickly. “I wanted to know if you were all right,” she says.
Her lips thin. “Jonghyuk,” she adds, with that same kindness in her voice that made him fall in love all those years ago. “We all saw what happened.”
Yoo Jonghyuk looks down, too. He stares at Kyunguk’s tail falling limply out of Miteum’s mouth. “I have to prepare for what comes next,” he tells her. “You should get some sleep too while you can.”
He walks past her in the narrow corridor, intent on nothing more than to rejoining his room and sleeping for as long as he can.
Anger spikes through him before he can take the third step; it comes from Miteum.
Yoo Jonghyuk turns on his heels just in time to see Lee Seolhwa’s outstretched hand closing where a second ago the wolf stood. Were it not for the rat she is holding so preciously, Miteum would be baring her fangs, and Yoo Jonghyuk feels the need through his own blood and bones. He clenches his teeth in fury.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he snaps.
Lee Seolhwa wears a complicated expression. Dal has circled around her front again as if to make a barrier out of his white body, his red eyes fixed onto him and his tongue scenting the air for violence.
Seolhwa takes her hand back slowly. The smile that stretches her lips is joyless. Resigned. “I was wondering if perhaps things had changed,” she says. “But I see I was mistaken. I’m sorry for not asking.”
Some of Jonghyuk’s anger abates. “Seolhwa,” he murmurs, but she shakes her head at him.
“I am indebted to Kim Dokja-ssi,” she declares, “though I know he didn’t save me for me.”
Her words close around him like the bars of a prison cell. Part of him feels, all of a sudden, like the Yoo Jonghyuk of the first day; standing in a bloodied train with bile and blood in his mouth.
“I know he saved me for you,” she says. Her pale eyes shine with determination. “And I thank him for it. He must know that you and I were together, that we—”
She swallows, grief twisting over her face and inside Yoo Jonghyuk’s entrails. He wishes he didn’t know what she is mourning now.
He wishes he could not remember the weight of a child in his hands.
“But this life,” she says, blinking quickly under the hallway light. “This life isn’t for me, is it.”
She moves before he can answer. This time Miteum makes no attempt to avoid her, and she does not try to touch, either; her hand simply rests for a second on Yoo Jonghyuk’s shoulder. Dal brushes against his hip as his hold around her tightens.
Morning finds them smelling of freedom. They can’t help it despite the paranoia that the scenario cultivates, the knowledge that they are never, really, out of danger. Yoo Jonghyuk wakes to the smell of coffee and the sound of conversation filtering in from under his door. He knows that more press and attention awaits on the threshold of this borrowed house. He knows that whatever smiles the others will have put on will pale as the days go and their time of respite grows smaller. He knows the children will bear red eyes from crying.
Miteum slept next to him with Kyunguk nestled against her warm side. She looks at him as he sits up and takes in the state of the rat dæmon; he is shaking still, through the tremors have lessened, and patches of his once-glistening fur have fallen off of him. He hasn’t regained consciousness.
But he lives. And so does Kim Dokja.
Yoo Jonghyuk does not expect that he would be able to talk to him even if he was awake. He has never seen Kyunguk speak at all, not even to Kim Dokja. The only reason he knows his name is because Kim Dokja introduced the both of them on that day at the bridge.
“Will he need food?” he asks Miteum.
Dæmons do not eat to survive that he knows of. He isn’t sure about a separated dæmon, however. It is hard enough looking at Kyunguk without feeling the need to hurl, Yoo Jonghyuk has no wish to see him vanish under his very nose—to picture Kim Dokja walking alone, wherever he is now, with half of his self missing.
Instead of answering, Miteum leans forward and nuzzles his hand.
Each of his heartbeats is an ache. The pain of it feels warm, feels alive, echoing through his chest and clogging in his throat. Jonghyuk treads his fingers through Miteum’s fur to ignore how they shake, and then he pulls them off of her. He rests them on Kyunguk’s side. He presses the full of his palm against the rat’s soft belly, strokes his throat, runs a thumb over his back.
Miteum’s rough tongue wets his hand and flattens the small dæmon’s twitching ears.
Under their touch, Kyunguk’s breaths ease.