Everyone always said it was something that couldn't be explained.
“Can you see the red thread, then?” Jongin asked, fork drooping from his fingers as he studied his older sister’s expression. She didn’t wrinkle her forehead, but the tiny lines between her eyebrows told their own story. Years later, camera in hand, Jongin would strive to capture it; that moment.
“Yes,” she said, gesturing in mid-air at something Jongin couldn’t see. The afternoon sun slanted, bright even through the window. He squinted anyway, trying to detect the faintest trail of red. . .but there were only dust motes. “And no,” his sister continued, letting her hand fall back to rest, hidden, on her lap.
“It can’t be both yes and no,” Jongin protested, the fork slipping out of his hand altogether and sending a shower of curry over the tablecloth.
“Jongin,” his father sighed, but his smile was amused rather that aggravated as he handed over a napkin. “Some things are just like that.”
“Do I have a red thread then?” Jongin continued, dabbing at the stain and only managing to spread the mess. He hadn’t noticed the sudden stillness spreading across the table until he’d looked up. The smile faded from his face until he realised, in retrospect, that he was completely expressionless.
“You just know,” his mother said, reaching over the edge of the table to ruffle his hair. Jongin ducked, more from the sombreness of her expression than her outstretched hand.
“But I don’t know,” he said. Eight eyes looked down, didn't quite meet his. Jongin swallowed. “But—” he began, distressed that he couldn't find the words to paint the picture in his head, a world of interlocking red that tangled around him but never touched.
“Even if you don't have one right now, that doesn't mean you won't ever have one,” his oldest sister offered. There was the sound of a muffled scuffle beneath the table, a dull thud and glares. Jongin ignored the commotion to consider her words.
“So maybe they’re just not born yet?” he asked. That would be a little annoying, having to wait, but he supposed that once they were grown up it wouldn't matter much anyway.
“Perhaps, dear,” his mother said. “And remember, just because people are connected by a red thread, that doesn’t mean they’ll always meet.”
Jongin shook his head, scooping up some curry and rice. “We have airplanes and things now,” he said. “That won’t happen to me.” The curry was spicy on his tongue and his eyes watered as he reached for his water glass.
The pain in his head is astonishing. Bright flashes fill his head, throbbing in a synchronised harmony that leaves Jongin gasping, mouth open and rusty dry as he realises he’s practically drinking the air in. It’s not enough though. He forces his eyes open, fingernails digging into the palms of his hands with the effort. He’s in a back alley of some kind. The outline of a skip is lit by a single streetlight, but everything is hazy and indistinct. Jongin blinks. His eyelids feel like sandpaper, dragging across his eyes, but it’s nothing compared to the raging in his head. Is his brain trying to beat itself against the inner confines of his skull?
Between the heartbeats, he tries to remember anything about how he got here, but the last thing he can remember is going out this evening—last evening?—to wander around the Friday night crowd. Amidst the celebration and connection is when he’s often managed to capture those hauntingly elusive shots, the ones that people point to in galleries and whisper about “the poor people who don’t have a red thread.”
A red thread—he can remember that now, the colour that had filled everything. It’s the last thing he can recall. Nothing else surfaces, even as he reaches down to feel around the wet ground, puddles splashing in his search for his camera. Jongin realises with a dull awareness that it’s raining. The sound of raindrops hitting the ground pales next to the pounding in his head. Despite the all consuming distraction, a tide of panic starts to rise as he realises that his camera really isn’t there.
“Shit,” he chokes out, blinking water from of his eyes. He doesn’t see the edge of the dumpster until he’s colliding with it, teeth biting into his bottom lip. Water trails down his face, but all Jongin can feel at the moment is the blood trickling into his mouth. He’s pretty sure that blood used to taste kind of metallic, unpleasant on the tongue, but right now all he can taste is a red so sharp that it’s washing over everything else.
He can remember that now too, the last thought before now, whenever now is. Jongin has never had a red thread and even though he’s gotten more quiet about it over the years, letting the camera speak for him, the wanting has never faded.
He licks his lips and swallows. The pain hasn’t dulled but rather receded behind the red upon which he now focuses all his attention, working hand by hand up the dumpster as he stumbles to his feet. Raindrops fall to pool in his hair, trickling cold down the back of his shirt. Jongin hardly feels them at all. Even though his field of vision is washed with red, now that he’s standing, he can feel how it’s pulling him in a certain direction. Absently running the back of a hand over his mouth, Jongin trails his fingers along the crumbling brick and steps out of the alley.
The pavements are almost but not quite empty, despite the rain and the darkness. The occasional shadow huddles beneath a bobbing umbrella or a crinkling raincoat as it rushes by, and Jongin closes his eyes, trying to escape the red for a moment. It doesn’t help though, and he opens his eyes again only to see the same thing. He can’t pick out the faces of the passersby, but the rain and the darkness can’t explain the shadows blossoming out from strangers’ faces before they fade into the distance.
Jongin stumbles on, dodging the pedestrians and shying away from the headlights of passing cars as their wheels throw the water from the gutters up over the pavement. He can feel the pull of the red, clinging to his skin and coalescing. His mouth is dry. The water running down his face doesn’t seem to wet his tongue as it flicks over his lips, which cling together and then part—he takes another breath.
Another person crosses his path, the wet ends of hair hitting his face as Jongin dodges and ends up swaying into the glass. His eyes track the mass of black flowers blossoming out into the rain as the glass in front of him cracks. He straightens. The blood on his forehead washes away with the rain as the red pulls him further along. There’s a sweetness blooming in his mouth, carnations and roses and something else.
Everyone always says that it’s something that can’t be explained. Jongin breathes the wet air through his dry mouth and tries to shape the possibility, but the red is too distracting. Up ahead, an iron gate rattles. The sound is somehow sharp, breaking through the fog in his head. The wet soles of his shoes splash through puddles as he speeds up. His eyes are drawn to the figure sheltering beneath the narrow eaves above the gate, face illuminated by the screen of a phone. Jongin can make out a face—eyes, mouth and lips—before the red blooms bright before his eyes, the man’s face somehow superimposed as buds unfurl into full flowers.
Everything is blindingly sweet, sharply red. Jongin’s eyes open wide as his pupils dilate but he can’t see anything at all. He staggers forward—head throbbing again, beating against his skull—as his arms reach out.
“Hey, what—?” he hears, but the words don’t mean anything right now as his clammy fingertips smooth over warm skin. A pulse counts a different beat as Jongin’s breaths fall into sync, interrupted by the sharp split of something in his mouth. The rusty dullness is washed over by the overwhelming sweet and Jongin leans forward into the crook of a neck—
Sparks scatter over his vision, breaking the red flood apart. Jongin can feel the unmoving rails of an iron gate at his back as he tries to focus.
“What is your problem?” a voice asks, as warm fingers wrap around his neck. The flowers are gone now and Jongin meets the angry gaze of a young man.
“I’m sorry,” he tries to say, but there’s something in his mouth and the words come out muffled, stretched in the wrong direction. “I don’t know what’s happening.”
The man stares at him for a moment. Jongin lets him look; he can feel the strength in the fingers and the breathing that has settled down into barely faster than average. His mouth is dry and the pounding in his head is back, but he still doesn’t know anything about what’s going on. There’s still a red flickering at the edge of his vision though; not a wash like before but just a flash when he looks in the other direction.
“Oh,” the man says, fingers loosening their grip before they fall. Jongin should be glad, but for some reason he misses the contact. “I guess that explains it,” the man continues. Jongin doesn’t understand, and when the man laughs under his breath, the sound rueful, it makes even less sense.
“I don’t understand,” Jongin says, and his mouth feels normal now. He’s distracted, but not enough to miss the man’s next words.
“I guess I’ve met the person on the other end of my red thread after all.”
Jongin just stares at the man. His head is pounding and his mouth is a desert and there’s rain dripping down the back of his shirt. His shoes are soaked, standing here in his puddle, red flickering at the edge of his vision. His mind is completely blank.
A taxi pulls up to the kerb, slowing down enough so that the river of water in the gutter doesn’t splash over them on the pavement. The man turns, taking a step towards the car before he pauses and looks back over his shoulder.
“Well, are you coming then?” he asks before climbing into the back seat. Jongin stands there in the rain for a moment, shivering, before he decides that things can’t get any worse than they already. The man might even know what’s going on. He climbs into the car, and closes the door behind him.
“So what’s your name?” the man asks as he buckles the car seat over his shoulder. Jongin echoes him automatically, settling back gingerly into the softness of the upholstery.
“Jongin,” he says. Even though the car is dry and a lot warmer than outside, now that he’s begun shivering, he can’t seem to stop. His teeth chatter, which only makes him feel colder.
“I’m Kyungsoo,” the man says, and looks over at him for a moment, expression considering. “Here, you’d better have this I guess.” He shrugs out of his jacket and passes it over, revealing a warm sweater. Though the outer leather of the jacket is wet, the lining is soft and dry and Jongin doesn’t feel bad about wrapping it immediately around his shoulders. He glances down at his wet t-shirt and wonders again how he even ended up here anyway.
“So how long since you turned?” Kyungsoo asks. Jongin glances over to meet his eyes; he can understand the words but they’re not making any sense. “You must still be pretty new, I guess. That would explain the red thread appearing all of a sudden.” He taps the seat next to his leg, the sound inexplicably loud.
“Turned?” Jongin says, bewildered. “And I don’t understand about the red thread. I’ve never had one.” He pulls the open edges of the jacket tighter around himself, huddling into the residual warmth.
Kyungsoo waves his arm, a quick flash of a moment that’s almost too quick to track, but Jongin can see the red flash that follows his arm. He remembers what his mother had said, at the dining room table that day. “You just know.”
“Oh,” Jongin says, because there’s not really anything to say when something you’ve wanted so much for so long, but never really expected to happen, finally happens.
“But don’t think this gets you a free home run pass,” Kyungsoo says, narrowing his eyes. If Jongin isn’t so confused, and has more time to actually think, he’s pretty sure that Kyungsoo would be the kind of person he’s always wished he’d find at the other end of his red thread. If he had one.
The taxi stops though, before he can ask any of the many questions swirling around in his head. Kyungsoo pays the driver, and pulls Jongin along after him, out beneath the greying dawn sky.
“Shh,” Kyungsoo says as he keys in the code to unlock the door. “My younger sister is sleeping and she has an exam today.” Jongin nods, vaguely curious, but he really just wants to know what’s going on. Kyungsoo takes the jacket, draping it over the back of a kitchen chair before walking over to open the fridge door. “You’re lucky I happen to have a random pack, but we’ll have to get more later.”
He takes out what looks like one of those kids’ drink bags, unwrapping the plastic straw and stabbing it in the indicated groove to puncture the seal. Jongin staggers back against the table as the scent floods the room, his eyes watering and that sharp pain piercing his gums again.
“What is that?” he asks, completely bewildered, even as his arm is reaching out to take the drink bag. The plastic is completely opaque, and the label just gives what looks like an expiry date.
“You mean you—” Kyungsoo breaks off, gesturing for Jongin to drink. Not that he needs much encouragement. The bag is already halfway to his mouth before he even realises it. Regardless of the strange taste that fills his mouth as he takes the first sip at the straw, Jongin just keeps drinking until the bag is completely empty—the plastic crumpled between his fingers.
He realises his head has cleared, no longer pounding as he sinks into another one of the chairs and tries to think. When he rubs his mouth, the back of his hand is smudged with red.
“What do you remember?” Kyungsoo asks, tipping his head as he leans forward in his own chair. Jongin sets the bag down on the table and tips his head back as he tries to focus.
“I went out to shoot some more photos,” he begins, but there really is nothing else. Nothing stands out, nothing comes to mind. “And then I woke up in an alley,” he says, and shrugs. The shrug turns into a shiver, and Jongin feels colder than ever. “I just don’t know.”
Kyungsoo is frowning when he looks up, but his expression soon clears into something more open. “It’s not your fault,” he says. “But someone else is going to be in a lot of trouble.” He stands up, throwing the empty bag in the recycling bin before nudging Jongin along. “That doesn’t matter though. You’re soaking wet and need a hot shower.”
Kyungsoo deposits Jongin in a bathroom with a towel and spare set of pyjamas. Kyungsoo is right. Even though Jongin is still confused, when he emerges from the bathroom, wrapped warmly in dry pyjamas, everything feels a little more bearable. Kyungsoo takes his wet things and sits him down in an armchair. There’s warm fire flickering in the grate, and a cup of what smells like hot chocolate sitting on the side table at his left arm.
“You need to sleep,” Kyungsoo says, “but I figured I should probably clear this bit up before you go to bed.” Jongin takes a deep breath, the smell of hot chocolate and a crackling fire rich in his nose, and nods.
“This is the part you don’t remember,” he says, “but someone turned you into a vampire. That bag in the kitchen was blood. You’ll need to drink it along with your regular diet. And you only have a red thread now, just like me, because the red thread is between me as me and you as the you now.”
Jongin doesn’t know what to think or how to feel. He’s both shocked and scared about this vampire thing, and confused yet tentatively happy about finally having a red thread and actually meeting the person he’s connected to.
He reaches for the cup and takes a sip of hot chocolate. It’s sweet on his tongue, and warm, and tastes exactly right.
“Thank you,” he says to Kyungsoo, who nods, the hint of a smile on his face.
“It’ll be okay,” Kyungsoo says, and takes a sip of his own hot chocolate. “We’ll figure this out.”