Chapter 1: I
We are all broken,
that's how the light gets in.
Sehun is balls deep in Junmyeon's ass, hand fisting his dick and mere moments away from the finish line, when the message goes off.
this is a requested standard notification that 901106 is experiencing emotional turmoil, thank you
The voice is monotone, inhuman, but that doesn't stop Junmyeon from sighing, his momentary high falling straight through the ground as Sehun picks just that moment to pull out, coming all over the front of his shirt.
"Sorry," he whispers apologetically, still catching his breath. Junmyeon rolls his eyes but whatever, he isn't going to finish now anyway; alerts about his dad are like a bucket of cold water to the libido.
"Toss me the tissues, okay?" He does the best he can, smearing the stuff around on his shirt before giving up and snagging one of Sehun's instead. He owes me one.
"Do you want me to come?" Sehun asks, brow furrowed in concern as he watches Junmyeon from the bed.
"You already did," Junmyeon points out, to which Sehun makes a face and throws a pillow at him. Junmyeon thinks about it, I might need the help, but considering the fact that Sehun is still naked from the waist down, long legs now tangled in the sweaty bedsheets, he decides not to take the time.
"I'll call you if I need you," he says, waving goodbye over one shoulder as the pneumatic door slides shut.
The walk to his house is short but it always feels too long when his dad is having an episode. Five steps, twenty steps, fifty steps . . Junmyeon hates it, hates seeing what the war has done to him.
"What's father's name?" he remembers asking the central console, back when he was a small child and didn't know any better.
Stockholms have no names. The artificial voice was unforgiving, unapologetic. The post-human identified via genetic material to be your father is designated 901106. And that was that.
You don't even have a name. Junmyeon is frowning as he presses his thumb against the pad to open the door, already bracing himself for the sound.
The screams are echoing off the walls.
He pulls earplugs away from the looped headphones around his neck and blessedly obstructs the worst of the agony, but the submental sound can't be blocked by anything except a subconscious block and he wouldn't do that, not to his own father. I hate what happened to you.
Opening the door to his father's bedroom, Junmyeon moves forward to try to wrestle the man who is his father—but only physically a few years older than him—into the washroom. Confined spaces and water help remind him that he is real, that he exists, that he isn't lost in time at the war at the end of the universe. Whatever that's about. His father's eyes are rolling in their sockets, a kind of pale faded blue, and it's so disturbing when he gets detached from this timestream and starts slipping—sometimes Junmyeon isn't sure how much more of this he can bear.
Living here, at the edge of the galaxy, away from the time currents and the greater politics of everything, he helps his father sell small hacks and supermental tweaks. It’s good business but mind-numbing in its repetition, and Junmyeon feels like he's choking in a fate he never chose. But his father will never be able to make it on his own, without someone to take care of him and fight him into the bathroom in the middle of one of his submental nightmares—the kind where the monsters are real.
His father's flailing arm, usually so weak, catches him on the cheek and his neck snaps back against the white tiles of the bathroom wall, vision exploding into white stars as his father falls forward onto the edge of the porcelain bathtub and cracks his head against the surface.
There's red everywhere.
"I need help in here!" he shouts to the standard assist humanoid, impatiently listening to it humming over from whatever it was doing in the kitchen as, ears still ringing, Junmyeon fights to lower his father's limp body gently to the tile floor, examining his head for the wound and he’s thankful that it's only superficial. Head wounds bleed like a stuck dromedary, he remembers Sehun complaining one time when, as kids, they crashed their hover racers over the sand dunes past the border. The assist humanoid finally makes it to the bathroom, and Junmyeon tasks it with mending the loose skin flaps of his father's head wound; he can't bear to look at the titanium skull patches for very long or he'll lose the contents of his roiling stomach.
Fucking hypermentally-bonded titanium messing with my timestream.
He heads to his room to quickly change into a fresh shirt and pants, tossing the shirt in the garbage because he figures Sehun won't want it anymore anyway. I'll just buy you a new one. Junmyeon looks at himself in the mirrored door of his closet. Wide eyes, a bruised cheek, and blood splashes on his arms. Is this going to be the rest of my life? He turns away; the assist humanoid is probably done with the all-too-regularly necessary impromptu surgery.
His father is too light, fragile bones like a bird's and half carbon composite besides—translucent skin and veins hovering beneath the surface. Junmyeon tucks him gently into bed and turns on the music—after an episode, only Brahm's lullaby seems to be able to keep the monsters at bay. Setting the timer on the star lights hovering overhead, echoes of constellations he will never see, Junmyeon shuts the door softly behind him.
How I wish things were different.
A notice beeps across his vision field—Sehun. Are you okay? Do you need me to come over?
Junmyeon is so tired. Not sleepy, but the kind of exhaustion that sinks into his bones and eats away at his marrow.
I'll come over instead, he replies. You owe me the end of that fuck. Buried in his best friend or vice versa is the only way he feels whole anymore. Swiping blindly for his helmet, he slides onto his hover racer and heads for Sehun's place.
Skin on skin, the sticky sensation of sweat standing out on his forehead, Junmyeon ignores everything, fingers clutching the sheets as he drags himself towards orgasm, towards forgetting, just for a moment—
everything white, humming, edges indistinct
—his mouth sucking at empty air, drawing in dust and heat and the faintest fumes from the hover parts dripping oil in the corner but he doesn't care, mind numb as he faintly feels Sehun stiffen over him, spine arching up as Junmyeon is filled with warmth.
A warmth that fades all too quickly, skin cooling and Sehun collapses, clammy against the stickiness of come on his stomach. Junmyeon feels stretched, pulled, out of place.
"Are you okay?" Sehun asks, rolling sideways to curl up beside Junmyeon on the bed. After another episode with his dad, the feeling only growing stronger each time, Junmyeon always feels like his cage is shrinking, bit by bit. Soon I won't be able to breathe at all.
"Why don't you leave?" he asks instead, and he doesn't even try to keep the yearning out of his voice. "You could go anywhere."
"But I like it here." Sehun stretches his arms out, sighing in contentment. "I like living here, and I have everything I want." He turns to Junmyeon again, and tucks his arm over, fingers running up and down Junmyeon's back. "You're the one who has dreams of the stars."
"I wish," Junmyeon says. But I can't, he doesn't add. There's no use saying the same things over and over and over again, not when it won't change anything.
But this time is different.
"Why not?" Sehun asks, furrowing his brow, and when Junmyeon simply turns over to stare at the wall, eyes tracing the tiny cracks, tracks of time that join and split and fragment into peeling paint, Sehun sits up and pulls Junmyeon back to look at him. "I've been thinking," Sehun says, and he looks so worried, so eager, that Junmyeon has to listen, to hope, just for a slip of time before reality will inevitably come pounding in. "Why can't you go?"
Junmyeon thinks about it for a moment, tracing the invisible stars above his head, imagining the smell of a ship, the strange feeling in his chest when they launch into space, the feeling of weightlessness, of letting everything go.
"I can't leave my dad," he says finally, falling back to earth.
"But can't the assists take care of him?" Sehun asks, his voice almost petulant. "You can message and everything, and keep in contact with the house system and surveillance, and I'll check in on him everyday. And the shop robots basically keep it running by itself." Junmyeon just looks at him, his best friend, who always manages to hurt him the most by offering too much. Even though they're the same age, sometimes Junmyeon feels so much older.
"Are you going to run over every time the system messages you that he's having another episode?" Junmyeon asks, and when Sehun opens his mouth to protest, he lays a finger gently over his lips. The skin burns, where it touches. "This is my responsibility."
It's always strange, Junmyeon thinks, that when he's the one breaking, it's always Sehun who's crying.
It's a pretty good day for a change. The sun is shining through the window and his dad is sitting at the table, humming around the cereal he's eating, the assist humanoid only hovering to the side in case it's needed. Junmyeon scrolls through the shop logs but everything is in order, the shop robots run it themselves he remembers telling Sehun, and it's true.
"I'm going to go out for a bit," he tells his dad, managing to catch his eye. He looks pretty good today, better than he has in a while; his fingers aren't shivering around the spoon, pseudo-milk dripping down to splash into the bowl. The strange dragon etched into one wrist and the number marking the other don't stand out sharply on his skin, white like a lost memory, but rather they fade into the surface. Today he's present, and so—painfully, almost—here.
901106 nods, blue eyes clear but blank, and gives a small smile like a conditioned muscle reflex. His body remembers Junmyeon but his mind doesn't.
"I love you," Junmyeon whispers, the words hanging in the empty air as the assist humanoid moves forward to clear away his abandoned dish of half-eaten cereal, soggy in the pseudo-milk mess at the bottom. We're always only half.
There's only silence in response.
Sehun isn't home. Junmyeon stands on the porch, dust between his toes, crawling down the back of his shirt, and the thought creeps into his mind, he won't always be here for you, you know. They're best friends, but best friends only go so far. Peering through the smoky glass panels in the front door, Junmyeon can only see strange silhouettes, pieces of a life he's not part of.
Hey Junmyeon, I hope everything is okay today
I'm going to town for the hover demo
Junmyeon looks at the message and tries not to feel lonely. Sehun has a life after all, things he likes to do to. Junmyeon just has his dad, and a shop run by robots who don't need him.
Fuck this. His dad looks okay today so he's going to do whatever he wants for a change. Live a little. He takes the magtrain to the city, fingers curled in the thin fabric of his t-shirt as he watches the ground zip by. Faster.
There's a comforting presence in being part of a crowd, not me alone but a large, jubilant, chaotic us. Junmyeon enfolds himself in the air exhaled by strangers, listens to their beautiful cacophony of languages he doesn't understand, even when the subsonic thoughts are pitched too clear sometimes—random snatches of I'm hungry and that Wisean is so hot I wish she'd fuck me already. It makes him feel alive.
His favourite place is the planetarium, show after show of different galaxies, so many possibilities. The universe is a huge place. Junmyeon relaxes into the plush velvet of the seat and lets the tense muscles of his neck relax slowly, as the stars swirl through the sky. If he closes his eyes halfway, takes long lingering breaths, he can almost pretend.
this is a requested standard notification that 901106 is experiencing emotional turmoil, thank you
Junmyeon wakes disoriented, skin chilled because his arms are bare and where am I? he looks around, head turning wildly this way and that as stars swirl above his head in the dark and then he realizes, sweat standing out on his forehead as his fingers clutch at the fabric-covered plastic of the armrests. I'm still in the city.
His father is at home.
All of a sudden, everything is moving to quietly and yet far far too slowly, like in a dream where he's being chased by something he's too scared to even turn around and look at, feet dragged down by invisible sand or water or the clutching fingers of skeletons, whispers that he'll never make it.
I'll never make it. He calls Sehun.
"Sehun I need your help."
Sehun's voice is hard to make out, there's muffled shouting in the background and maybe a display buzzing, metal and plastic and glass clinking together as Sehun tries to speak above the noise.
"What's wrong?" His tone is a complete 360 from the light "Hello" he picked up with.
"I'm in the city and my dad's having an episode," Junmyeon says, running up steps because he's too panicked to wait for the elevator, his heart racing in his chest, beating frantically against his ribcage. Your fault your fault your fault his footsteps shout at him as they hit each step, his muscles clenching in the strain.
"Junmyeon, I'm in town!" Sehun's voice is moving, there's the sound of a pneumatic door swishing and then the background noise is suddenly cut off and replaced by rain, the slight sonic static disrupting the connection. Junmyeon swallows, hard, there's a rusty taste at the back of his throat. He'd thought everything would be okay, his dad was fine when he'd left, better than ever but that's always the calm before the storm, isn't it?
"Just, can you go there as fast as you can?" Junmyeon asks, a tremor in his voice that he doesn't even try to hide; his eyes are so dry they're burning and he has no idea how long he was in the planetarium. He's too busy running to check.
"I'm on my way," Sehun says, and ends the call, but not before the sound of the hover engine warming up fills the sonic waves. The noise is sharp, cutting through his mindshields, and time hiccups for a moment. Stop.
He doesn't know what happens at the end of the world, but when he looks at his father, he doesn't think anything can possibly have been worth it.
The magtrain is so slow, going home in the dark, only the small pools of light keeping out the night as they crawl towards home. Junmyeon can't keep his legs from twitching anxiously, knees hopping up and down, teeth worrying at his bottom lip until he can taste dull iron. He wants to call Sehun so badly but it's not going to help anything, only slow Sehun down. Junmyeon looks out the window instead and tries to spot the stars, but the sky is obstructed by clouds as water hits the plascreen of the windows. Please be okay. He's not sure whether he's asking it of his father or of himself.
His feet hit the ground running, sand between his toes as always and he's dragged down by the soft ground; it's like his dreams all over again except it's real. He leans forward and fights against the pull, step step step and he doesn't even notice the water hitting his back, pooling in the collarbones, soaking his hair to drip down into his eyes.
Please be okay.
The light's on but that's all he can tell from a distance as his wet shoes slap against the stone of the front steps and the door knob skips over his mental pattern before letting him in, as the door flies open against the wall with the force of his entrance.
"Sehun?" he calls because his dad doesn't have a name and won't answer anyway. The thought is bitter on his tongue.
There's blood on the ground in the kitchen and Junmyeon can't breathe, the knot of fear is so tightly lodged in his chest by now that it's pressing against his throat and he can't speak, just like in nightmares when he screams and screams and nothing comes out.
There's a rustling sound and then Sehun pokes his head around the doorframe of his father's bedroom, head searching around for Junmyeon, standing in the hallway.
"Oh you made it!" he says, and smiles brightly, as Junmyeon just stands there and tries not to fall apart. "He's fine, he just had a moment and bumped his nose against the assist as it tried to keep him from falling, it's fine!" Junmyeon just stands there, unable to move, and Sehun realizes something is wrong, walking over quietly, feet tapping gently against the floor as he wraps his arms around Junmyeon, who finally lets the tears swim into his eyes and grey out his vision.
The cage is so close now, so tightly wrapped around his chest.
They end up in his room, Sehun with his pants off, legs wrapped around Junmyeon's waist as he thrusts into him frantically, Sehun raising himself to meet the downward strokes as he leans on his elbows, slipping on the sheets, Junmyeon's arm on the headboard trying to keep them steady as he feels Sehun's ass fluttering around his dick, the warm tightness the only thing grounding him right now. He tries to empty his head, push the thoughts out with every thrust, but they just keep spilling back, more and more and more and by the time he's spilling into Sehun whose neck is arching back as he moans his release to the star patterns lighting the ceiling with tiny glitters of light, Junmyeon can't untangle his thoughts at all. He pulls out and knots himself up in the blankets, burying his face in the pillow as his shoulders shake with sobs.
"Junmyeon," Sehun says, rolling over and running warm fingers over his back, their skin separated only by the thin material of the sheet. "Junmyeon." Junmyeon can't answer. Sehun stays, and Junmyeon just wants to leave.
But he can't.
There's a strange inquiry on the shop logs, someone looking for a small glitch hack, standard procedure and they have plenty of those, but the ship is—off. Junmyeon can't quite explain it.
Can I see the ship? he messages, though it hurts every time, helping people who only fly away.
Junmyeon replies with an empty field close to the hover track. He's not sure what the person flies, but this is probably good enough for anything under a battle class and he really doubts that one of those would be in this sector of the galaxy, even if it had been flung out on an errant timestream.
His dad is sitting on the porch, watching the flowers grow, the assist perched on the steps, and Junmyeon's not going far.
"I'll be back soon," he tells his dad, and presses a small kiss to his temple, eyes flickering away from the vacant blue reflecting the white swirls of cloud streaming through the sky. It's windy and the sun is in his eyes.
By the time he gets to the field, a fine sweat already standing out on his forehead because the sun is warm today, the potential customer is already there, and now Junmyeon knows why the specs were so strange. He mentally slaps himself on the forehead, but there's a strange buzzing in his ears and he's not sure whether he's more scared or excited.
It's a cutter. They don't exist yet. Junmyeon doesn't know what to think—it's not like they're illegal and yet—what's a cutter doing here?
He's never scene a cutter before; never even dreamed of seeing one. There's a kind of buzzing whiteness in his head, as he sees a figure approach from the shadows of the ship, because it's black of course, space camouflage. This is someone. Someone from the war.
Someone who didn't come back broken. Someone who has a name. What are they doing here?
And as the figure approaches, the black cloak obscuring their face, he wonders, and how can I leave with them?
Zitao is nice. He smiles, from under the hood, pushing it back a little but apologizing for keeping it up.
"The sun here is really harsh," he explains, smiling, and Junmyeon's stomach flip flops. Zitao has gorgeous golden skin and it looks like the sun has already been trapped in the glow. Junmyeon is staring too much, he knows it, but there's something about the man. . .
You've been to end, Junmyeon thinks. You've seen the stars.
". . .I think that's the issue," Zitao finishes, and looks at Junmyeon expectantly. Junmyeon blinks.
"You have dreams about space?" Zitao says, and then grins to take away the sting. Of course he can read subsonic thought patterns. Junmyeon groans silently, and tries to patch his neglected shields. He's so used to being on his own.
"It's okay," Zitao says, "those won't work anyway." Junmyeon looks at him, puzzled, but Zitao waves the subject away. "It's getting hot, and I'd like to get going," he continues.
Junmyeon doesn't know why the thought hurts more than it should.
It's not difficult to adjust the patch, the problem was that it was for systems currently in existence and the cutter, of course, isn't. But 901106 has the right sonic waste patterns and when Junmyeon uses some of that mopped up leakage the hack works right away, just like it's supposed to.
"I guess I should start doing this myself, " Zitao says, snapping his screen shut. "It's hard to remember, sometimes, all these little things." The sun is falling lower in the sky, dark and deep orange as the bottom grazes the mountains. Light falls almost horizontally, splashing the man's neck and face with carmine light.
"It's not hard," Junmyeon agrees, distracted, "You just need the right sources." Zitao is getting ready to leave and Junmyeon. . .Junmyeon just wants him to stay. There's a shadow pooling behind Zitao's collarbones and there's glimpse of something dark as his neckline scoops down briefly, tucking his screen away. Some kind of shield?
"Why are you in this sector anyway?" Junmyeon finally asks, after rolling his bottom lip around between his teeth and trying to look everywhere else but at Zitao, a completely fruitless endeavor. It's not just because he's new either, though strangers are a novelty out here.
"I sell dreams," Zitao replies, as though he’s saying he sells hover parts or even rare imported fruit. Junmyeon just stands there, thoughts spinning through his head, mirroring the clouds racing by in the wind.
He sells dreams. What is that supposed to mean? And the thought skips through his head before he can stuff it away out of habit, though his shields are useless. Can you set me free? Zitao looks up, and Junmyeon looks away, red dusting his cheeks in silent embarrassment.
"You have a question," Zitao says, and the pause after his words is expectant. The sun is still sinking and the light is shining in Junmyeon's eyes now. He can't see the stranger very well at all against the glare. Somehow that makes it easier to uncage the words he's bottling up in his chest.
"Have you ever sold dreams to a Stockholm," Junmyeon says quietly, not really a question, his words mixing with the dust that hangs in the air because today the poles are shifting. It's autumn—spring won't come for a long time.
Zitao looks at him, and there's a shift in his eyes when Junmyeon peers up through his eyelashes. He looks, older or something, even though he's never looked exactly right somehow. More than being a stranger in this place, here at the edge of the universe, it's more like Zitao doesn't belong in this time, and when Junmyeon lets himself slip inside and tries to peer sideways at the man beneath the black robes and swirling space, a feeling of nausea hits him.
"Don't," Zitao says, lifting a hand that hovers above Junmyeon's arm but doesn't quite touch, as there's a shift in the air, a kind of wind that's not physical but submental, and Junmyeon feels his feet heavy, back on the ground, though they’d never left it. He blinks.
Is that what dad feels like?
"Worse," Zitao says, but when Junmyeon looks up his eyes are shuttered now. "I'll see what I can do," he says instead, and beckons Junmyeon onward.
Zitao won't climb onto the hover racer, only gesturing Junmyeon to get on with it, and as he climbs onto the seat and starts the drag, he tries not to think about why, or look too closely at Zitao who keeps pace with him easily and yet doesn't seem to be running, though the hover is definitely not walking speed.
Are you done with the job? Sehun's message comes up. Junmyeon ignores it.
901106 is sitting on the porch as the hover racer draws up; Junmyeon is sweating slightly, even though the sun has almost set, streaks of green and purple painting the sky. But Zitao isn't even breathing heavily. It doesn't matter.
"Hi dad," Junmyeon says, but his dad doesn't answer, or even look in his direction. He's blinking rapidly, staring out over the mountains, but Junmyeon's pretty sure that his dad is seeing something very different.
"Don't," Zitao says, snapping a finger in front of 901106's gaze, and there's a strange sucking in the air, something not quite visible—
Junmyeon's heart skips. . .a half-step as time shifts, he can feel it beneath his skin like an invisible force in opposition to gravity, and then he blinks and everything is the same.
His father is still looking at nothing, pale blue eyes reflecting the light, but there's nothing there, just mountains.
"I might have a dream," Zitao says. When he says dream, Junmyeon hears the word but his mind interprets it as something else that doesn't have a shape in his language. In any language.
Yes, he hears, feels, and there's no one here who's talking, but the subsonic agreement vibrates in his bones.
"Can you bring him back?" Junmyeon asks, even though he's not sure what he's asking, but Zitao shakes his head.
Where are you?
I'm coming over
Junmyeon looks at the message from Sehun; the words are just letters stuck together to make phrases. Zitao is looking, not at the screen still tucked away, but rather into himself, his pupils flickering from side to side as though he's flipping through something that doesn't exist. Here.
"What are you doing?" Junmyeon asks, but Zitao doesn't answer. Instead, he pulls out a chair, the sound of the legs scraping across the floor somehow too large for the space, and sits down in a kitchen that doesn't feel quite all there, as his dad sits across from him and doesn't see him.
Junmyeon is used to being invisible.
Zitao stands up. There an undercurrent, not of wind but something else; Junmyeon feels his shields slipping as something that's not light leaks around the edges. There's an object shining on Zitao's hand, Junmyeon can't quite see it—the shape is blurred as the flow of time bends.
He lifts his hand to 901106's forehead but doesn't quite touch.
For a moment, it looks like—there's a shadow behind his dad, a current like wings unfurling, a shadow that's not dark cast against the wall—and then the light that isn't light dims, and Junmyeon blinks. It's just his kitchen, just a space with four walls, a ceiling and floor, no bigger or smaller than it ever has been or ever will be.
Junmyeon opens his mouth to ask and then he notices.
His dad is sleeping, shoulders rising and falling gently as his head leans against the back of the chair. Under the thin skin of his eyelids, such fragile paper, a network of gossamer veins in smudged blue, his eyes are still.
He's smiling, just a little.
Junmyeon feels a lump in his throat. His dad is smiling, really smiling, not just muscle memory or a jarred reflex, for the first time that he can remember.
"What did you do?" he whispers, still watching his dad, chest moving steadily as the air slips out of his mouth with a soft sigh, not the kind that scratches on the way out but the kind that speaks of happiness.
Don't wake up.
The thought surprises him, in a way that hurts a little, but it's true.
"He's just dreaming," Zitao explains, his voice also hushed, though Junmyeon gets the feeling that it's more out of respect than fear of actually waking the sleeper. "He's dreaming about childhood." A tear slips out of 901106's eye at the words, and Junmyeon feels wetness pooling in his eyes, as if in response.
Before the war.
There's the muffled sound of drag that shudders to a stop, crunching and the door slides open. Sehun has always been wired for access. Junmyeon looks up, his head swimming for a moment; he's been sitting in one place for too long. Across from him, Zitao is standing, and there's already a sense of departure, as Sehun arrives, slightly out of breath, shoulders heaving a little as he's framed by the doorway.
It looks, for a moment, like there's sun in his hair.
"What's going on?" he asks, too loudly, and Junmyeon slips out of his seat to press a hand to his best friend's mouth, whisper in his ear.
"Zitao sells dreams." It makes sense to him but Sehun looks suspicious, peering over Junmyeon to see the stranger standing by the table.
"Who are you?" His voice is not exactly friendly. Junmyeon blinks, it always surprises him, this side of Sehun. But he feels safe, grounded. This is a body I know.
"I'm Zitao," Zitao says, and Junmyeon gets a close up view of Sehun blinking, feels the shift in the air. Your shields have always been better than mine.
"Hi," Sehun says, still not exactly friendly, but he's no longer frowning as he steps around Junmyeon and walks into the kitchen. "I'm Sehun." Zitao nods, inclining his head politely. Sehun is shorter than the stranger; Junmyeon is used to Sehun being so tall but it's not true.
901106 is taller.
Sehun stops in front of Junmyeon's dad and looks at him for a moment. There's a kind of soft expression on his face, the kind that Junmyeon only sees when Sehun is looking at things like baby animals, or the little pink desert flowers that peer out between the thorns after it rains.
"Is it a good dream?" he asks, after a moment, turning to look at Zitao, but his voice hushed now. Zitao nods. "How long will it last?"
"Forever," Zitao says. "Even after he wakes and sleeps again."
It feels like a weight has been lifted off of Junmyeon's shoulders, hearing the words. Sehun turns to him, a small smile on his face. The last traces of sunlight sink behind the mountains, pale gold fading from the corona around his dad's head.
"Thanks for the glitch hack," Zitao says, footsteps falling softly on the ground, his black cloak already fading into the shadows. His voice is muffled, like he's already saying goodbye, and Junmyeon—
—there's a pull from deep inside his chest, not a fluttering but a deeper kind of ache, his feet moving unconsciously as Sehun looks at him in a puzzlement that quickly turns to alarm as Junmyeon steps faster and faster and then his arm is outstretched, fingers spread as he reaches forward, the current of time or whatever it is around Zitao twisting, buzzing under his skin as Zitao ducks, arm flying up and the ring on his finger that's not shining this time but rather a darker, sharper kind of black connects with the skin of Junmyeon's chest, neckline pulled down by the disruption that's not in the air but rather in the fabric of existence.
There's a sudden crack, not a sound but rather the absence of it in Junmyeon's head, as his chest burns and the air is punched out of his lungs—a vacuum taking its place.
His shields are in complete ruins and as his eyes flicker shut, he sees, not Zitao, but a light that's not a light, taller and brighter than the man-shaped space it's supposed to fit.
Chapter 2: II
"What did you do to him?"
The first thing that Junmyeon hears is Sehun shouting. There's a kind of white fog in his head, it makes the words hard to understand. He's hearing them from far away, but also, as a kind of echo from directly in front of him. There's a shift then, and the echo stops.
What was that?
"I didn't do anything to him," a strange voice says. Zitao, his mind provides him with a name. The voice sounds calm, reasonable, but Junmyeon can feel frustration bubbling under his skin. It's not his frustration though—the feeling extends from his chest and yet it's not his own. Without thinking, Junmyeon lifts a hand to trail fingers over the skin of his chest, beneath the collarbone, where there's a kind of numb burning on the surface, hovering above his ribs.
His fingertips tingle when he touches something that didn't use to be there.
Startled, Junmyeon sits up, head spinning as the blood drains suddenly, spots leaking the colour from his vision as it stretches and blurs, and for a moment he's in the kitchen, looking at Sehun's angry expression, eyes fiery but a terrified concern leaking through—
Looking down, he can see white lines burned into his skin, their surface slightly raised above the thin skin that covers his chest, rising and falling over the rolling landscape of his ribs. He can't tell what it is, just that it doesn't belong.
And yet it feels like it's always been there.
There's still muffled talking in the kitchen but the blood is thrumming through his ears and Junmyeon isn't listening; he tries to get out of bed, legs tangling in the sheets so that he falls to the floor with a dull thump that barely registers as he struggles forward towards the mirror, pulling himself up by the wall.
There's an hourglass on his chest, he can see it clearly now, pulling the neckline of his shirt down with steady hands even though his thoughts are jittery.
NO he hears, feels, echoing through his chest, eyes staring out of his own as the force of the thought throws him forward into the mirror, his forehead colliding with the glass hurts, as the cold surface cracks under his skull, and Junmyeon can feel something wet and sticky drip into his eyes.
There are footsteps, thumping down the hallway, the sound echoing both in his ears and in his legs as he stares into his own eyes in the mirror and sees—
"Are you okay?" Sehun's voice is the first through the door, and Junmyeon turns away from the mirror, legs still tangled in the sheet, blinking as more liquid trickles in his eyes. Sehun rushes forward as soon as they lock gazes. His worried scolding, warm hand wiping away the stickiness on his forehead, is lost in a torrent of static as Junmyeon sees Zitao.
You're still here, he thinks, except the echo in his head sounds wrong. I'm still here, it says. There's a stretching feeling in Junmyeon's chest; it's literally pulling him up and forward as Sehun catches his elbow to keep him from falling but Junmyeon keeps going, fingers tangling in the black tassels from Zitao's clothes—Zitao is frozen, hands lifted away from his sides but he's not moving. Terror fills Junmyeon's chest and he knows it's not his own, before the feeling is suddenly snuffed out, walls slamming down.
Junmyeon stumbles back, fingers slipping on fabric as he lands, sitting on the cold ground.
"What the fuck is your problem?" he can hear Sehun shouting over his head. "What the bloody fuck is going on here?" But Junmyeon just feels cold, so cold, as a fine shivering erupts from his bones, an icy feeling overflowing from his chest and he can almost see his breath crystallizing in front of him as his chest contracts—
he opens his mouth and nothing comes out. Looking up at Zitao, he tries to ask, what's happening?
There's only static in his head.
"I don't know what you did but fix it right now!" Sehun is shouting and it's just giving Junmyeon a headache except it's not just his head, there's an echo of another head and everything hurts as he closes his eyes.
When he wakes up it's warm, and he moves unconsciously towards the feeling of safety, completeness—another heart beating in sync with his. Only a thin layer of fabric separates him and he wants—fingers slipping across the surface, looking for a gap—skin, skin on skin, to feel whole—
Junmyeon opens his eyes. Again.
He's staring into Zitao's eyes, reflecting an inner universe of histories that haven't happened yet. They're so close that if he leaned forward he could reach up with his mouth to touch Zitao's lips—
Junmyeon suddenly finds himself sitting alone in bed, blinking, as Zitao stands on the ground, black hair still rumpled and the fabric of his cloak creased, the tassels entangled.
"What's going on?" Junmyeon asks, his voice tentative, not because he's scared but rather confused.
"I don't know exactly," Zitao says, and Junmyeon can taste the uncertainty on his tongue. "But something happened, and we bonded somehow." Junmyeon knows that Zitao isn't saying everything, he can almost see the tendrils of thoughts being viciously pruned back, and that's how he understands.
"I can feel you," he says, stretching out a hand, and feeling another skeleton beneath his skin—skin stretching over muscles, a racing heartbeat, until there's a kind of mental push, and it's like he's been shoved out of a door except he's still here. But he only has one skeleton now, one heartbeat.
"This isn't the war," Zitao says, but Junmyeon's not sure if he's actually saying it or just thinking it. The words are so much louder in his head, aching in his jaw. He looks up at Zitao, a question in his eyes, and the strange feeling in his mouth fades as a vein in Zitao's temple throbs once.
"What is this about the war?" Sehun asks, standing in the doorway. His voice isn't angry anymore, not the abrasive accusation of earlier, but there's a vibration in the air and Junmyeon can still feel that his best friend is upset. He can feel it so well, taste the submental anguish hiding under the deceptively calm exterior, that he knows it's not just him.
Who are you? he thinks, looking at Zitao, and he knows that Zitao can hear him.
"Speak," he tells Junmyeon, and it feels like a brush-off, another door closing, but at least he hasn't slammed the gates down.
I need to touch you, Junmyeon thinks, there's a strange tingling in his fingers and he feels. . .empty, somehow. Not exactly empty, because he's still all there, he's not like 901106, he still has all of his soul. But as Junmyeon's eyes blurr, for just a moment, he can trace the threads that he's never seen hovering over the visible surface of the air, and he knows that part of his soul is in Zitao now.
"I don't know what you're talking about there," Sehun interrupts, his audible voice loud in the stillness, as the dust swirls suddenly in the room, the magnetic poles are still shifting and even the slightest current can set them off.
Looking at them, galaxies of dust touching and parting and moving in tangent, Junmyeon feels like he's tasting a layer of reality that he's never quite touched before.
"Something happened," Zitao says, answering Sehun's unvoiced question but his eyes are still focused on Junmyeon's face. "It's not supposed to be happening."
"Can you fix it? Reverse it?" Sehun's words are hopeful, standing in the doorway with his boots still on and Junmyeon would be mad at him for tracking more dust into the room except there's no point. The dust is still swirling in the air and he really needs to touch somebody. The skin stretched over his skeleton feels too tight, like it's barely holding him in.
"I'm sorry," Zitao says, a kinder way of saying no. The dust stops swirling, falling in thick piles of red snow on the surfaces of the bed, the bureau, the floor. It's startling, when that happens.
"So what's going to happen then?" Sehun asks, and he's frustrated and Junmyeon would understand why, should understand why, except he's still looking at Zitao, counting the tassels on his cloak as his eyes dart around to avoid his face.
"He'll have to come with me," Zitao says, and he's so shut off that Junmyeon only feels cold.
Sehun isn't happy and he's loud about it, but that's always been Sehun. Junmyeon smiles, and lets himself be hugged, even though it's not quite the same.
"I'll take care of your dad," Sehun whispers into his ear, glaring at Zitao, and Junmyeon leans his head on Sehun's shoulder. There's a strange echo in his head, a kind of mine that at the same time is screaming no and it's hard to think around.
"Thanks," he whispers into the skin of Sehun's neck, where it's nice and warm. Junmyeon is too cold now, ever since. . .ever since whatever happened. And yet he doesn't regret it.
Not even a little bit.
"I get to leave," he mouths into the warmth of Sehun's clavicle, and a tear trickles out of one cheek, though he hopes Sehun can't tell what he's thinking. I get to leave. The cage is opening and maybe he's just trading one for another but Junmyeon thinks it's worth it, even if it's not fair to Sehun and not fair to his dad, even though he probably won't notice; and it's probably not fair to Zitao either.
"Junmyeon can still message and call and video feed," Zitao says, and it's probably meant to be reassuring, but it's another reminder that Zitao is not an ordinary person, restricted to the more affordable means of inter-galactic communication, and Junmyeon can feel Sehun stiffen, arms still wrapped around him.
"What did you do in the war?" Sehun asks, not for the first time, and Zitao shakes his head again.
"You know I can't say," he says, turning away. Sehun scowls, the skin of his face stretching strangely the way it always does, and Junmyeon would laugh but he can see the set of Zitao's shoulders and, even though he's being shut out, he can tell that Zitao would do anything to be able to lift the weight off his shoulders. But he can't.
"We'll leave tomorrow," Zitao says, and it's not Junmyeon's imagination that the fingers of his hand lift, an unconscious motion towards Junmyeon that Zitao hides by slipping his hand between the folds of his clothes.
"I'm worried about you," Sehun says, pressing his lips to the nobs of Junmyeon's spine.
"I know," Junmyeon whispers back, in the dark.
Their bodies fit together as always, but even as Junmyeon lies back on the sheets, fingers slipping on the fabric as Sehun moves in a stuttered rhythm, the wetness in his eyes leaking onto Junmyeon's face, he knows that this is goodbye. There's the echo again, something else in his head or maybe his head is somewhere else, and even as the head of Sehun's dick brushes against his prostate, the air in Junmyeon's throat catching for a moment as he shifts his hips to fix the angle so that Sehun is suddenly driving into the bundle of nerves, stars sparking at the edge of his vision—but the elusive oblivion that he's looking for is evading him, even as he can feel his muscles tensing, a throbbing in his own cock as it rubs, skin against skin, trapped between their bodies and he comes all over his stomach with Sehun pushing in one more time and burying himself deep as he shoots his warmth inside. And for a moment, Junmyeon isn't cold anymore, but it's not Sehun he feels. The golden glow is filling him with someone else.
And then it's gone. Shutters closed, Junmyeon is left out in the cold and his skin prickles with chill even as Sehun wraps himself around him and they drift to sleep, tangled in the sheets.
"Goodbye," Junmyeon whispers to the soft silky hair of his best friend. "I wish I could have loved you."
But Sehun doesn't hear, he's already asleep, and he was never supposed to know anyway.
Somewhere else in the house, Junmyeon can feel the echo of a response, not yes or no but simply there. He tucks himself closer into Sehun, despite the stickiness that's growing cold and tacky on his skin, and falls asleep.
Junmyeon's dad still isn't there, he's come to the realization, finally, that he never will be—but 901106 looks so good today. He looks happy and that, more than anything else, makes Junmyeon realize that he's actually leaving. He's actually doing this. His feet are going to leave the dusty surface of this backwater planet and he's going to see the stars.
Junmyeon isn't sure whether he's scared or excited or even breathing. The thick dust in the air is turning the sky a ruddy tone of orange as they approach equinox, but everything is tinged by a kind of crimson sadness as he sits next to his father on the porch—hears him humming, holds his warm fingers between his hands.
"You had good dreams, didn't you?" Junmyeon asks, even though he knows he's not going to get an answer. His dad is still staring straight ahead, legs swinging gently as they hang from the porch swing, but there's a kind of yes hanging in the air. It's not words but it's more than anything Junmyeon has ever felt and he knows that it's Zitao who's feeling it.
Sehun comes out the door as it swings closed behind him with a muffled bang, and his dad blinks at the sound.
Junmyeon's eyes are wet.
"Goodbye," he whispers as he wraps his arms around his dad and nuzzles into his neck, the comforting scent of his father's skin worth as much as the words his dad could never give him. "I love you." His father hugs back, muscle memory, but that doesn't mean it's not real.
Sehun is next, and Junmyeon is the one without words this time. Sehun has always been his best friend, there to help with his dad, clean red off the floor and off the sharp broken edges of Junmyeon's soul, and even though they'll still be able to talk it won't be the same. Sehun is a friend he's known from the very beginning, a body he knows intimately, inside and out, and Junmyeon will never have another friend like this.
They don't kiss.
Sehun has always been taller than Junmyeon, even though they're the same age, but somehow they always manage to be the right height, Sehun ducking down and Junmyeon reaching up and their noses meet, exactly right, as they stare into each other's eyes and say the things that don't fit into words.
You will always be my best friend.
And then Junmyeon is walking away, arms empty, bag slung on his back, the black cutter hovering in the air above the yard, dust billowing sideways because of the magnetic disturbance, and Junmyeon follows Zitao into the dark.
The cutter isn't anything like what Junmyeon expected. He didn't know what to expect, actually, because cutters don't exist yet and he'd never expected to be in the position to find himself inside one.
After all, the war is over.
"You're lucky," Zitao says, as he walks ahead down the shadowed corridor, boots clanking on the ground that's not metal. The ship is so much larger than he thought it would be, it's like space stretches differently in here, and the inside doesn't match the outside at all.
"The timestreams are different," Zitao says, and Junmyeon frowns.
"Stop answering my thoughts," he says, "or just answer them in your head." He runs his fingers over the smooth black wall; the surface is cold under his fingers and it feels like it's sucking the warmth out of his body.
"No," Zitao says. "You have to work on your shields or this isn't going to work." And Junmyeon feels the first seeds of something settling in his chest—frustration.
"This is your fault too," he says, instead of what he really wants to say, a thought clamped so close to his chest and yet he knows the thought is leaking through in the way Zitao's brow furrows. Please let me touch you.
"It will just be me and you and Kris," Zitao says, instead of answering, and Junmyeon knows they're not going to talk about it, bunching the fabric of his shirt between his fingers so that the fibres are crushed.
Their footsteps keep echoing down the empty hall as Zitao stops at a door, Junmyeon close on his heels, fingers outstretched, not exactly intentionally—but Zitao slips around and through the door sliding open in front of them.
And Junmyeon sees Kris.
Kris is not a homo sapiens sapiens. It's not even a humanoid.
Are you a dragon? Junmyeon wonders, remembering old stories from picture books, fantastical tales imported from the Origin back when they didn't have a whole universe to explore. The lucky ones at least.
I'm a ㅇㅅㅈㅁㅇㅌㅇ and the words in Junmyeon's head break up into something his mind can't decipher, but they're cheerful—there's a kind of effervescent sparkle to the submental sound and Junmyeon has to grin. The being's face doesn't have human expressions and yet Junmyeon knows it's smiling. You can call me a dragon, he feels in his head.
"Kris can't use audible language," Zitao explains, "so he just speaks directly." There's a softening of his face, his shoulders are more relaxed and Junmyeon knows that Zitao feels more at home here, on his ship, with his friend. What is Kris to you? Junmyeon doesn't think, though it's a close thing.
The dragon looks at him though, and he knows there'll be no hiding anything from it.
You can refer to me using masculine pronouns, if that's easier for your thought process, Kris says. His eyes swirl with gold and something else, a colour that Junmyeon doesn't have a name for.
"Is your name really Kris?" Junmyeon asks, out loud this time, though there really isn't a reason, except that Zitao seems to be intent on verbalizing. Or maybe he just doesn't want me to eavesdrop.
It's actually Kxxxchkkkkkkkrrrrrrrrrrrllrllrlrllrlrlrrrssssshshshshhshssssxxxx and the mental sounds break up into a kind of sonic roar that digs at the back of Junmyeon's eyelids. Ouch.
"Just call him Kris," Zitao says from the doorway. Junmyeon realizes that he's advanced several curious steps into the room, towards Kris who really isn't as big as he'd first thought, wings folded up behind his back and arms tapering off into multi-jointed finger limbs that are dancing over keys. Junmyeon bows slightly in apology, and Kris's eyes whirl as the feeling of acknowledgement and acceptance fills the room.
"Kris runs the cutter," Zitao explains, and beckons Junmyeon along.
There's a strange feeling as they keep walking down the corridor. It settles in Junmyeon's stomach and irradiates out his limbs—a kind of heaviness that both pins his feet to the ground but also makes it feel like he's floating.
"We're taking off," Zitao says, and keeps walking. Junmyeon wants, very much, to hold someone's hand, but Kris doesn't have hands and Zitao won't touch him.
It feels like the ground is slipping away beneath his feet and yet when he looks down he's still standing on the ground.
It's strange, being on a ship, hanging between the stars. They're still so far away. Junmyeon soon finds his place, perched on the ledge by the largest window on the ship, looking out into the dark, scattered with stars and even though he's hanging in space he doesn't feel any closer to anywhere else. His hand, resting on the plascreen, is still stuck in the here.
He can feel Zitao, a gentle tugging on his chest that’s a reminder he's there, but Junmyeon knows better than to go looking for him.
"What do you want?" Zitao had said, the first time Junmyeon wandered down the hallway in bare feet, because he felt just that little bit steadier if he could feel the ground beneath his feet, even if it wasn't really ground and they were currently spinning through space at a speed faster than thought.
Why don't we just hyperlink? he'd thought, idly, thinking about the few cryptic histories of the war that hadn't happened yet.
"Where are we rushing to?" Zitao had responded, not even looking up from his screen, lines of text flickering across at a speed too quick for Junmyeon to decipher, not that he could read the characters anyway.
I don't know, Junmyeon had thought, leaving the room, but maybe if we get there I'll stop feeling so lost.
He hadn't known if Zitao had heard him or not, the door swishing shut and leaving Junmyeon on this side of the shadows, but it wouldn't have mattered anyway. He was out of earshot and Zitao only ever replied when Junmyeon was listening.
Walking back down the hallway to the stars outside the window, Junmyeon could feel the ground sucking the warmth out of his feet.
Sitting there, in the shadow of space, Junmyeon draws his knees into his chest instead, and rests his chin on his bones, even if there's a strangeness in them, like their marrow has been sucked away into a different skeleton.
He talks to Sehun instead, though the clock is strange and sometimes his friend is a little too fast and other times far too slow.
"You're moving in slow motion today," Sehun grins on the other side of the screen. Junmyeon can see the parts of another hover racer scattered on the ground, dripping black goo on to the pale surface, and he smiles because his friend is happy, even though it's a smile that's only surface deep because Junmyeon isn't.
I thought I would be happy, he thinks, the muscles of his face aching as he fights to hold his expression in place.
Why aren't you happy? Kris says, and Junmyeon blinks, distracted from the conversation.
"Is something wrong?" Sehun asks, and now there are creases on his face. Junmyeon is quick to shake his head, cover up a reality that Sehun can't fix.
"I'm fine," he says, and plasters the smile back on his face. "How's dad?"
"He dreams a lot," and Sehun smiles again, that smile he keeps for small things he has to protect. Why are you building machines? Junmyeon thinks, not for the first time, when you could be taking care of living things?
"Is he happy?" Junmyeon asks, instead, and the smile on his face reaches tendrils down to his heart.
"I can't say for sure," Sehun says, "but I think so." There's a tiny warmth in Junmyeon's chest; it can't erase the chill but it lets him breathe just a little more easily. The stars might be far but some things are still within reach.
But other days the empty ache in his chest is too much and Junmyeon runs his fingers above the white shape on this chest that didn't use to be there and he can feel the echo somewhere else in the ship; he knows that Zitao can feel it too.
Touch me, he thinks, but there's no answer.
He talks to Kris instead.
Kris is funny, hilarious, sarcastic; he's like Sehun except they aren't alike at all. At first Junmyeon thinks dragon and it's intimidating, after all Kris is so big and he has wings and it's just a little disconcerting, watching his fingers that are too multi-jointed to be fingers dancing over the keys, feeling the buzz of subsonic thought that surrounds him as he manipulates data that Junmyeon can't quite see, only feel tingling at the edges of his thoughts.
Kris is all dragon, all image and Junmyeon doesn't know how to relate at all.
But then he starts hearing Kris talking to him, interrupting his conversations with Sehun, replying to him when Zitao won't.
Kris is ridiculous.
And Junmyeon starts to realize that he likes it.
The more time he spends talking to Kris, resting his chin on his arms draped over the back of a chair as he sits in the control room and watches space outside the tiny windows—"don't you need to see to navigate?” he'd asked Kris finally, after inspecting the small size of the windows over and over again. That assumes that I'm only seeing with my eyes, Kris had retorted, and Junmyeon had had to turn his perception of the universe inside out all over again—the more he forgets that Kris is a dragon or alien or whatever he is and he just sees Kris as. . .well. . .Kris.
And sometimes there's a flicker of something else, something that's not quite familiar and yet—
"What's it like being a dragon?" he asks, because there's absolutely nothing for him to do and the lonely ache in his chest won't go away no matter what he does.
What's it like being a homo sapiens sapiens? Kris replies, as his eyes focus on something past the bank of screens that Junmyeon can't see, and Junmyeon realizes that he's never really thought about it.
Who am I? he wonders, wandering back to his room, so he can crouch on his bed and look out at the starry dark, that holds no answers only questions. His whole life he's only wanted to go away.
But away is a lot like here.
What are you running away from? Kris tosses the question in his direction, as he passes by on his way to the window seat.
Maybe the answer is himself.
Probably the worst is sleeping alone. Junmyeon is used to sleeping alone of course; it's not like he sleeps with his dad, but he's also used to being able to crawl into Sehun's bed whenever he likes, or drag Sehun over into his, and the sheets here are too cold.
Everything is too cold.
And he's having strange dreams for the first time in his life.
The first time Junmyeon wakes up, half a scream lodged in his chest and not sure whether he's here or there, alive or hanging on, his fingers scramble through the sheets to find—and then he remembers that he can call Sehun, but Sehun is out of reach. A voice, a face on a screen that isn't warm, and words don't fill the empty spot inside his chest.
He turns over and tangles himself in his sheets, trying to erase the horrible emptiness from his chest but he can't find a grip, there's nothing warm left. The marrow in his bones is running cold and the seconds are swirling through the air to match the stars redshifting away through the cold space—so huge, so vast, so all-encompassing outside this tiny craft, such a small layer of protection between himself and the night. With a sharp realization, like a light bulb that doesn't go on in his head but rather explodes and shoots jagged shrapnel everywhere, Junmyeon realizes that these aren't his fears.
He's standing before he quite realizes it, the sheets slipping down to the ground with a quiet sigh as his feet are already stealing out through the door as it swishes shut behind him. The hallway is dark, but his feet already know the way, and even if they didn't, there's a kind of pull. If Junmyeon blurs his eyes he can see the trails of not-light that spin out of his chest, to where the other part of his soul is.
It's like sleep walking except he's wide awake.
Zitao's door appears before him, hovering in the shadows, and Junmyeon raises his hand to press the panel—
there's only a muffled skin touch skin touch echoing through his head like the forgotten pieces of a sentence that has yet to be spoken, or has been spoken so many times that the phrases are worn out and only words remain
—when he hears, feels. . .
It's neither a moan nor a scream, but some kind of horrible, wonderful, terrible combination of the two echoing through Junmyeon's chest as fear is replaced by a kind of dark ecstasy and he stumbles back in the corridor, pushed by the force of the subsonic fallout, skin slipping over something that's not quite metal and yet sharp enough to break the surface.
Hush, Junmyeon hears Kris hum, and he's not sure who the word is directed towards but as he stumbles back in the dark to his room, Junmyeon thinks that maybe, his whole life, all he's wanted to be able to do is scream.
There's a dried gash on his forearm the next morning, that Junmyeon hides successfully under the sleeve of his sweater, but it makes eating breakfast hard.
"What did you do to your arm?" Zitao asks, as they sit at the table that seems like it should be so incongruous in the small space but betrays how large the room actually is. He's hunched over his bowl, spoon dipping in and out of the cereal as the pseudo-metal scrapes against the plascarbonite bowl, and there's something bruised about his face today, not the skin but rather something beneath it.
Can a soul be bruised? Junmyeon wonders, rolling the pseudo-milk around in his mouth. It tastes exactly like the pseudo-milk at home. It doesn't taste anything like the pseudo-milk at home.
Zitao finishes eating and takes his dirty dishes with him.
Kris is the one who notices the tightness around Junmyeon's mouth, the sharpness hovering at at the edge of his lips.
Where did you hurt yourself? he asks, and holds out his appendages that aren't exactly hands. You can call them claws, he adds, as he gently holds Junmyeon's arm in one and carefully rolls up the sleeve of his sweater with the other. The wound is gummy, the fabric sticking to the surface and lifting the thin scab away as it's pulled off, fresh blood welling up out of the tear in his skin, but it doesn't even hurt.
The word is singing in his head, his bones, from his heart stretched out to the tips of his fingers as the dragon's warm, dry skin, slightly rough and yet surprisingly soft, touches his own.
Junmyeon can't help moving into the sensation, it's been so long since he's touched anyone, not since he and Sehun said goodbye. He can feel the ache in his bones, and he really wants to be touching Zitao, he craves the contact that he's only had once, and then again but separated by fabric—more, more, more his skin sings, bypassing his brain to lead directly to his heart as he lets himself fall into the feeling of Kris carefully cleaning and bandaging the wound with delicate claws.
When the dragon is finished, white bandage wrapped around the skin, Junmyeon could cry as Kris lifts his claws and steps away.
Does it hurt that much? Kris asks, and Junmyeon knows he's not talking about the gash.
Yes, Junmyeon thinks, because he doesn't feel capable of opening his mouth right now.
He can feel Kris looking at him, golden eyes glowing, and there's a kind of sadness there.
Junmyeon thinks about last night, about Zitao, about the fact that Kris was there, on the other side of the door, and he doesn't know what to think anymore, he knows that Kris can tell what he's thinking but he doesn't even care.
Stop treating me like a problem that doesn't exist.
Junmyeon talks to Sehun again, like he always does, and tries to pretend that he's okay.
"How's dad?" Time is moving too quickly today, and Sehun seems to be in 1.5 time, his breaths fast enough to make Junmyeon feel like he's hyperventilating.
"He's still dreaming happy dreams," Sehun says and smiles again. Junmyeon never noticed how often Sehun smiled until now, seeing his face framed by the four sides of the screen. Sehun is genuinely happy, and Junmyeon doesn't want to take that away from him.
I love you, he thinks, even if it's not like that.
"I'll talk to you later," he says, and turns the screen off before Sehun can ask if he's okay. A message comes up instead, Are you okay? but it's easier to ignore.
Zitao is all over the ship, his shadows tucked in the crevices, disappearing around corners, behind closed doors. He's there at meals and smiles guardedly and asks if Junmyeon is okay, a question that sounds more like it's begging the reverse. Even when Junmyeon can't see him he can feel him, but no matter how much he reaches out, even if it's just a hello at the table, Zitao won't let him in.
"How are you?" he asks Junmyeon, politely over breakfast.
"We're passing Mayall's Object," he remarks, pointing out the window as he pauses by Junmeyon, still sitting on the window ledge, and Junmyeon watches the distant catastrophe of two galaxies colliding in slow motion. He reaches out, fingers hovering in the air, but Zitao turns away.
The only thing he feels is fear, in tiny flashes, before the shutters close.
What are you so afraid of? Junmyeon wants to ask, but he knows that Zitao can tell what he's thinking and there's no answer, only silence as he leaves the room.
Junmyeon's fingers are cold, as he tucks them between his thighs and leans against the glass. The two galaxies are embracing each other, tearing each other apart.
At night, Junmyeon sleeps fitfully, dreaming of things that haven't happened yet and he doesn't understand, and lying awake as he tries not to feel the sonic backlash of Kris comforting Zitao.
That should be me, the thought darts into his head, which he only crushes between his fingers along with the sheets, his pillowcase tacky from the salt water leaking out of his eyes.
Finally, one night, the chill leaching out his chest as he lies in the dark, in the silence, and knows that Zitao is asleep, because there is only muffled darkness echoing, Junmyeon can't take it anymore.
He thinks about feeling warm again.
Kris? he asks the silence, because he knows that the dragon is always listening.
And the dragon anwers, Yes.
They don't really talk. Junmyeon can feel the yearning, the cold emptiness, the yawning void in his heart where half of his soul used to be and where something else should be to fill the gap but isn't.
Kris looks at him with those golden spinning eyes and Junmyeon lets his shields fall.
It's like being completely naked, except he still has his clothes on, a thin layer of fabric that does little to block the cold that's coming from inside—all his thoughts, the fractured half of his soul, threads spinning out into the dark, he can't see it exactly, until he lets his eyelids fall and sees with something else.
I don't just see with my eyes, Kris had said.
Now Junmyeon is standing there, the glowing soul trails stretched out into the ship, the leaking darkness of his chest, all his thoughts and fears and crushing loneliness in full sight, completely laid bare, and Kris just looks at him, lets Junmyeon know that he sees him.
It's somehow, in the same moment, the most intimate and yet the most detached feeling.
Junmyeon doesn't care.
Junmyeon half lies, half sits on the chair, dim shadows surrounding him on all sides and he can barely see Kris, but when he closes his eyes he can feel him everywhere. The dragon's mind fills the room, spills out into the hallway, drips of awareness that leak into the furthest corners of the ship, whispers of thought that spiral out and wrap around Junmyeon, not physically, but on a deeper level than words can explain.
It's not about Junmyeon. It's not about Kris. It's not about Zitao, wherever he is.
It's about letting go.
Junmyeon opens his mouth—nothing comes out but a hovering, lingering breath followed by a sigh, as he sinks down into the chair, his body is still there but his mind is somewhere else, tangling with the threads of the dragon's mind, teased apart, unravelled, the dark things set aside, not hidden but rather left apart as moments swim into view. . .sunlight, warmth, skin—
reaching out, it's a habit now, Junmyeon's hand reaching for black tassels and a body he wants, needs, craves—but his searching fingers touch warm, dry dragon claws instead as he wraps them around and hangs on, eyes open but not seeing the room.
There's a ball of light, floating there, not in the air but in his head, and Junmyeon reaches out for it, borne up on a lattice of thoughts that don't hold anything except themselves, stripped of emotional contamination and it's just the faint, distant beating of his heart that he hears, vaguely echoed by another one somewhere else, the sensation of skin under his fingers, even as his body yearns for a different touch, and there are tears running down his face but he's not sad, all the sad is left behind in his body as what's left of his soul joins the light.
Becomes one, for a brief, heart-shattering moment as Junmyeon who isn't Junmyeon but is the only Junmyeon forgets Junmyeon.
There's a sound echoing back on the plane of existence, a kind of terrible, horrible, glorious sound and as Junmyeon falls back into his body he realizes that it's him.
It's dark, again; his eyes, opening, can only see the faint outline of the dragon, fingers holding onto the smooth dry skin of claws, as he closes his mouth, throat hoarse, and runs a dry tongue over trembling lips, takes a shuddering breath and slowly gathers up the remnants of his mental clothing.
He's cold, and there's a wet stickiness in his pants.
Junmyeon looks at Kris, and thinks about Zitao. The dragon doesn't say anything.
But stumbling back to his room, Junmyeon is already thinking about next time.
Junmyeon visits Kris at night now, sometimes, more and more often as the hours stretch on because there are no days in space. He leaves empty but for a moment he's full, and the dragon doesn't say anything, nothing that Junmyeon doesn't want to hear.
He lies in bed at night by himself anyway, lingers outside Zitao's door, listens to breaths that he can feel echoing in his chest.
Zitao, Junmyeon thinks, fingers trailing over the dark walls of the ship, and imagining that he's feeling skin. Warmth instead of the cold leaking through.
Junmyeon looks at Kris and thinks about what happens behind Zitao's closed door, when he's wrapped up in his sheets, pillow over his head, but he can still hear the subsonic overflow—not with his ears, but with the part of his soul whose tendrils trail out away from his chest. He wonders, when it's his throat making the same sounds, what Zitao thinks.
Do you even care?
Zitao meets his eye over the supper table, as Junmyeon pokes through synthetic food and doesn't even notice that everything tastes like dust. He's used to dust, a part of him misses it. Zitao smiles at him, faint expressions as he sits by the window, watching the galaxies shift into new and stranger horizons.
"That's the Magellanic cloud," Zitao says, and his voice is kind.
Touch me, Junmyeon can't help but think, noticing the tightness in Zitao's face as he turns away.
So Junmyeon sits on the chair and holds Kris' claw in the dark and tries to be only himself. He fails, because he never knew who he was to begin with, and now that a part of him is somewhere else, he's even more lost.
We haven't talked in a while and I'm worried, Sehun messages.
Kris looks up from the screens, claws hovering over keys.
Junmyeon turns on the screen and blinks at the brightness of Sehun's face.
"Are you okay?" Sehun asks, and for once they're moving at the same speed. Junmyeon looks at his best friend and he's filled with a longing so acute that he can't keep it inside and it floods into his eyes, fills his mouth, echoes in his racing heart.
He hands the screen to Kris and leaves the room.
Junmyeon isn't sure what Kris said to Sehun, or even how he said it, but when Sehun calls again—face flickering on the screen as the shadows of distant clouds, half a universe away, fly overhead—he doesn't ask any questions but instead chatters excitedly about how lucky Junmyeon is to be able to meet a dragon.
"Kris is so cool!" Sehun gushes, eyes shining with fascination and Junmyeon remembers again how much Sehun appreciates life. Listening to his best friend speak, even if it's in almost double speed, and the way he blinks blurs his eyes as his mouth moves too quickly. His own breathing probably painfully slow from the other side, Junmyeon feels the ground beneath his feet, rooted through the window ledge and the stars in space and his soul trailing off to a person who's too scared of something that Junmyeon isn't allowed to understand.
He takes a deep breath.
"I'm always here," Sehun says, as time skips just a little and he slows down a fraction of a second.
Junmyeon waves goodbye and promises to talk again soon.
I like your friend, Kris tells Junmyeon, and there's a kind of smile hovering around his head. Junmyeon smiles back.
At least someone on this ship is happy.
Junmyeon is sitting at the window again, the way he always sits at the window when he's not sitting with Kris, or messaging Sehun, though the latter seems more interested in the dragon nowadays and Junmyeon suspects has his own lengthy conversations with the latter when Junmyeon isn't around, but that's okay. Sehun still pops up to say hi and send updates on his dad and sometimes it's okay not to talk too often.
Sometimes Sehun's smile hurts.
Junmyeon has imagined Zitao looking at him like that, waking up from dreams that weren't his and memories that his mind has been ordered to erase, when his shields were down and he wasn't lucid enough to stop.
So when Junmyeon sits at the window and Zitao stops beside him and doesn't leave, at first he thinks he's dreaming. But Zitao is standing just out of reach.
"We're going to stop in Proxima Alcyoneus," he says, his arm gesturing up and around, black tassels swaying. The doors are still shut, but Junmyeon can feel that Zitao is happy. "I need to see someone on Ebleihines; they have a piece I need for a dream."
"That's nice," Junmyeon says, and it hurts to see Zitao smiling at the thought of someone else.
It hurts when the door is shut and Kris is on the other side.
He smiles at Zitao and it's probably just his imagination that Zitao is actually looking at him. After all, the space in his chest is still empty.
"What's Ebleihines like?" he asks Kris, perched on the chair watching the dragon navigate down between solar systems he's not looking at with his eyes. It's like dancing, where mistakes are fatal.
I don't make mistakes, Kris says, and there's a weight to that statement. Sometimes Junmyeon forgets that Kris has a past, that Zitao has a past, that both of their pasts haven't happened yet.
"Sorry," Junmyeon says, instead of joking, and the air hanging around them is tinted somber as he blinks and tries to remember what he wanted to say.
There's a small flicker on a screen by Kris' wrist, and the dragon projects the metal equivalent of laughing.
Your Sehun amuses me greatly, he says, eyes whirring.
"He's not mine," Junmyeon replies without thinking. Zitao is, he manages not to say, even though the response in his head is automatic, and just as untrue.
Kris huffs, maybe it's a laugh or maybe it's a sigh.
I think I'll have him then, he says, and Junmyeon's just glad he didn't reply to the part he didn't verbalize.
"But really, what is it like?" Junmyeon repeats his question. I've never been anywhere.
Good, Kris says, turning back to his screens and Junmyeon can see the smile hovering around his head. It will be a nice surprise.
Junmyeon's confused for a moment, until his brain processes the phrasing. What? You mean I'm going? His thoughts are loud, scattered, and he forgets to verbalize in his confusion.
Wait, what? Now it's Kris' turn to be confused, confusion hovering in unsettled swirls in the space between them.
"I'm going?" Junmyeon asks, because he'd just assumed—I'm just a mistake, tucked under the rug. He looks at his fingers, resting on the back of the chair, his bare feet, toes curling in slightly because he's always cold.
Kris taps his fingers over the keys and it sounds angry, the clicking of claws on plascreen jarring, a physical range of emotion he doesn't usually express. Junmyeon goes back to his room and imagines landscapes from books, translating images on screens to real life. Maybe it's all the uncountable hours in space, but he can't picture it as being real.
He thinks about the tiny desert flowers that Sehun likes so much, peeking out their tiny blossoms from between the thorns after the rain. He's forgotten what colour they are.
They're pink of course, Sehun messages back in answer to Junmyeon's question. Why did you want to know?
Junmyeon doesn't reply.
There's a strange energy buzzing around the ship; even though there are just the three of them it feels like they have a guest. Anticipation. Even Junmyeon catches it, sitting on the window sill and seeing planets sometimes, stars that expand into suns, the emptiness of space filled with something else.
Maybe it will be different, he can't help but think. The grass is always greener on the other side of the universe.
He thought they would land on the surface again, like when he left with Zitao, but Kris brings them up to a slowly rotating disc in the sky and they spin a few times before they line up, the first uncomfortable inertia that Junmyeon's felt since boarding the cutter.
A lifetime ago.
He closes his eyes and feels Zitao somewhere close; it shouldn't be comforting and yet it is.
"Are you ready to go?"
Junmyeon looks up, Zitao is standing just out of reach, as always, but his body language says, come. Junmyeon almost forgets, starting to bring up a hand for the hand hold that his body anticipates and—
has never happened. He tucks his fingers back in the folds of his pants pocket and stares past Zitao, at the hallway leading away, even as his legs drag through the air because they want to stay. Zitao is still standing by the window, and Junmyeon can feel eyes following him as he disappears into the shadows to get the shoes he hasn't needed since he left home.
There’s a faint trickle of something nudging at his chest, but he's used to being shut out and his flimsy walls go up to muffle the inevitable slam which, when it comes, still hurts as much as it used to.
Junmyeon is so used to moving, the strange feeling of suspension that he doesn't feel on the cutter but rather senses, that standing on the ground is disconcerting. And there are people.
The predominant natives on Ebleihines are homo sapiens sapiens too, so they should be familiar but they're not. Maybe it's the planet itself, wet where his home was dry, lush where Junmyeon is used to barrenness. It feels like everything is exploding at him at once, too-bright colours when he's used to the monochrome shades of the cutter, and so much sound—audible and subsonic.
He tries to shield but he's never worked on them properly and everything leaks through the tatters as he trails behind Zitao, black tassels swaying faintly in the damp air, the smell of green life around them crawling down Junmyeon's throat.
Sehun would love this, he thinks, half expecting Kris to jump in with a comment, but the dragon is still on the ship. It's strange not having him lingering nearby, thoughts at such close reach.
"Be careful," Zitao warns, his voice half hushed by the leaves rustling in a canopy above their heads, dapples of sunlight filtering through. He doesn't specify why, and walks further into the forest as Junmyeon trails behind, ducking under branches that reach out arms to brush through the hair on his head.
Junmyeon wants to stop and stare at everything but Zitao has already been here, his tread on the pathway confident as he ducks to miss a branch whose thorns extend over the path, and it's strange, wrapping his head around it.
When were you here? he wonders, watching the leaves draw checked patterns of light on Zitao's jacket. Or will you only be here later?
Junmyeon reminds himself again that Zitao isn't his.
There's a kind of city in the trees—Junmyeon keeps looking up until his neck hurts but he can't see the top, just trees and trees and glinting struts that seem to form buildings, everything half hidden by the green and winding vines and a profusion of tiny starlike flowers that explode from the greenery.
It smells sweet.
There are sounds everywhere, birds singing and voices and thoughts and after the stillness he's used to, everything is a distraction; Junmyeon isn't even sure if he's walking in a straight line as he follows Zitao to a tower, the smooth surface sliding open to reveal an empty space. Junmyeon is confused, but Zitao calmly walks into the shadowed space, beckoning him on with a tiny inclination of the chin that he probably wouldn't have even noticed before.
I notice everything about you.
They're standing on opposite sides of the small space, and if Junmyeon wanted to, he could reach out and touch Zitao and what would Zitao do then?
But he doesn't, hands still wrapped up in his pockets.
"Careful," Zitao says, as though he hasn't heard what Junmyeon is thinking, and maybe he hasn't. The walls are tall, after all. Junmyeon is still looking at him, eyes flickering sideways to peer through his peripheral vision when there's a gust of something that's not really air and they're tossed upwards, nothing beneath their feet.
Junmyeon doesn't scream because he's been falling for so long. He can see Zitao looking at him, and there's something in his eyes but Junmyeon doesn't have time to figure it out as they come to a stop, ground sliding beneath them, and the world twists without moving as their direction reverses and they come down hard—Zitao's knees taking the shock with no sound but Junmyeon is too disoriented and he can taste iron in his mouth as his feet connect with the ground, the impact jarring his bones.
"Are you alright?" Zitao asks, hand shifting behind fabric and black tassels, but he doesn't extend it. Junmyeon only nods his head, turning away, because his mouth is full.
Zitao's friend makes Junmyeon feel—sick. His thoughts are rolling in his head, like the mental equivalent of a queasy stomach, and he can't get a fix on them at all. Broken fragments and pieces flash through his memories, overlaying the cool interior of the house that's open to the outside, a long drop down to the bottom that Junmyeon can't see.
Does it ever end?
He's not sure if it's just him or something else, but Zitao's friend is blurred, stuck between two timestreams, as he flickers back and forth and jars Junmyeon's head worse than the hypermentally-bonded titanium plates in his dad's skull. There's a particularly strong shake as time shifts, for just a moment, and Junmyeon's eyes start to water from the pain in his head.
"I'm sorry," the person says—Jongin was the name he’d use to to introduce himself—and when he speaks, the submental undercurrent of his voice is screaming. For a moment, Junmyeon loses his body, spinning like the threads that stream out of his chest before he snaps back with a shuddering breath.
"It's okay," he manages to gasp out, and he knows Zitao is looking at him but he just needs to get away, streaks of red on his hand as he wipes the corner of his mouth and leaves the room, almost missing the doorway.
Behind him, he can hear Zitao and Jongin murmuring, until the whisper of the leaves rubbing together muffles the sound—passing on secrets from one edge of the forest to the other, just like the dust dancing through the air back home—and Junmyeon can breathe again.
It's quieter now.
Junmyeon blinks and breathes and the dampness of the air feels fresh. He thinks again about Sehun; snaps a picture of a gorgeous blue flower that looks like an orchid, roots clinging to the crook between two branches of a tree next to the walkway. There's a small green bird with a red beak and a red head perched on a railing above.
They look at each other for a while.
"Who are you?" Junmyeon asks, because it looks like the bird is asking a question, as it tips its head to the side. He rests his chin on his hands and lets the hurricane inside his head fade to a calm breeze. The bird seems to be talking—light bubbly sounds, holding a one way conversation with the air, though there are faint flashes of—red green black wings—and Junmyeon isn't surprised when another bird sweeps into view, green wings tinged black as it perches next to the first bird, reaching over to rub its beak through its feathers. Contentment irradiates from the pair.
"Those are lovebirds," a voice says to his right, and Junmyeon glances up to see a man, maybe his age, maybe older. His long hair is pulled up into a knot on the crown of his head, and there are leaves tangled in the strands, green above ears that stand out, almost elfin in appearance. He's smiling, and his smile reminds Junmyeon of his best friend.
"I'm sure you'll see each other again," the stranger says. Junmyeon is too used to listening without his ears, the name Chanyeol resonates in his head without his consciously noticing. "After all, lovebirds always find each other." He inclines his head, indifferent to the fact that Junmyeon has just plucked his name from out of his head—good luck!—and disappears around the corner before Junmyeon can ask all the questions that he hasn't even thought of yet, crushed possibilities piling up on his tongue.
"I want him but he's not the one I want," Junmyeon tells the lovebirds instead, but they're too busy with each other and lift off in a flutter of green and black feathers, soaring down along the walkway.
Junmyeon glances back towards the house that isn't a house but there's no sign of movement, Zitao must still be busy, and the cold starts to creep up his fingers again. Looking down to the lower canopy, he can see what looks like the two birds resting on a lower branch, and his feet carry him along in pursuit of something that looks like happiness, even if it isn't his.
The birds keep fluttering along, he can almost see them and then they're gone. It feels like Junmyeon is always chasing something he can't see.
I wanted to leave home but now what?
There are only questions and no answers.
The sound of his feet stepping on the walkway—a kind of dark wood that feels spongy under his feet, like it wants to suck him in, absorb him into the wild chaos of life surrounding him—is muffled in his ears, the leaves dancing overhead as a breeze picks up, slipping trickles of thought between his fingers.
Alive alive alive alive. . . echoes through the air, and Junmyeon wants so much to be a part of it, but there's still that empty hole in his chest that's stealing his breath and as he keeps on descending the walkway, cold fingers clutching onto the railing for support now, he can't remember when he last felt like he was fully living.
Sehun's flowers, the thought echoes through his head, but his friend is so far away. Kris, he thinks, skin skin skin but the dragon is floating overhead in space and too distant to reach, even by thought.
Zitao, Junmyeon shapes the word, the person in his head, but he can't feel him anymore and the threads pulling out of his chest are stretched so tightly that there's a growing numbness radiating out into his limbs, white static filling his head—green, he thinks, reaching out to see the lovebirds across the water, waves lapping at his toes and soaking through his boots.
There's nothing in his head, nothing in his chest as something snaps and he falls forward, the water swallowing him whole, the faint light from the sun glimmering like a distant star—the stars he always wanted to reach, looking out from the porch, sitting beside his dad, peering from between the bars of his cage.
Is the cage open now?
Junmyeon's eyelids flutter shut as he sinks.
There's no one in his head.
Chapter 3: III
He's so cold.
He's so cold and he can't feel his body—do I have a body?—except someone's holding him so he must have a body but it feels wrong. It feels like ice.
There are voices calling something, thoughts echoing in his head but he doesn't have a head, does he even have a head? Hands on either side, a flicker of warmth—
—is that my name? What's a name?
Eyelids blink water and they might be his.
Or maybe someone else's.
There's something missing. Is it the me? Or is it the you? There's something broken, leaking slowly out but everything is frozen—
quick flashing successive images that can't be traced—
Junmyeon black tassels
Junmyeon golden eyes whirring
"Junmyeon!" a voice crackling, distorted by time space—
who is that?
He doesn't know.
If he had fingers they would be curling into the crumpled fabric of sheets.
There's a dream, or is it a memory? Edges unravel, fading into monochrome and then black and white before the darkness swallows it with the water that's dried up now.
A small boy, sitting in the grass, sitting on the cement, sitting in dust, watching the sky. Which was it? The beginning depends on the outcome.
Ships fall from the sky.
Ships explode, littering the ground with twisted metal and other things that burn your fingers when you touch them, skin fading into the air as time meshes with something else.
The boy is led by the hand, dragged by the hand, sets off running, eyes streaming with wind or tears.
The sky tears him apart. The sky sets him on fire. The sky swallows him up and spits him out.
Darkness. Blood and metal and soul trails twisting through the sky and a terrible weight of joining and severing and overpowering and broken things. So many broken things, piling up to fill timestreams that collapse into infinity points and disappear from existence.
The boy is a man. The man is a boy. Time unravels backwards, time flows forwards. . .there's metal in his head and his fingers and dust on his face.
His home is gone. His home is there but he's gone. His home is a smouldering wreckage of bodies and dreams and a planet that's caught in the crossfire. His planet never existed in the first place.
"Who are you?" they ask.
"I came back," he says.
"We don't know you," they say.
If dreams were real, if he was real, he would be sad, but there's no one to be sad, just a lingering sadness floating where soul trails should be.
He's not really here, not listening because he doesn't have ears to hear with, floating, anchoring ropes torn away and cast aside, tattered edges fluttering in the wind.
"What are you so afraid of?" a voice asks, and it might be female.
"You know what I'm afraid of," a voice echoes back, a voice he knows somehow. It hurts, even though there's nothing to hurt.
"Stop being afraid or you're only going to hurt yourself again, and someone else that you could actually save this time," the female says, and the tone is red, flashes of regret and anger.
"I already broke everything," the familiar voice says, and sounds like pain.
"It's not too late," the female snaps, "don't be a coward. Fix this. It's not the war. You're not a general anymore." The air is sizzling, he can feel it somehow, even though there's nothing to feel with. Echoes of a different body, that doesn't belong to him.
"I can't erase the past," the familiar voice whispers, but the sound is sharp.
"The past hasn't happened yet," the female retorts, "you can do whatever you want, and you know you always did that anyway." There's an exhalation, the sound of something moving, skin hitting skin with a sharp slap.
It's not his face because he doesn't have one, but it still hurts.
There's a knocking in his head, like someone trying to get in, wake him up, as he recoils from the sound, the sensation, trying to draw further back into the quiet dark, but something tugs on his chest, tattered threads growing taut. It hurts, burns, Junmyeon! and his body swims back into focus.
Something is pushing at his chest. It aches, a deep pain greater than words.
Junmyeon? he thinks, and the word feels strange but resonates oddly, like a sound that's imbued into every cell of this body.
Junmyeon, his body echoes back at him. Junmyeon.
Junmyeon opens his eyes, not the physical ones but the ones in his soul.
He can feel his body now, even though it's not really listening to him, and the fact that the only thing keeping it here, lines of warmth radiating from his left arm, is—there are fingers, wrapped around his hand.
He can remember, somehow, bits and pieces of loneliness that break down into isolation. His soul, split in two. Listening to voices from the other side of the door.
Just let me go, he thinks, and he'd take his hand back if he could move his fingers.
No. The thought is loud, clear, resolute. There's no breeze to rustle among the black tassels now.
Water. Not like the end that already happened, sinking down into the dark, the cold. This water is warm, silk on skin that he can feel because of its touch. Touch. Junmyeon is being lowered into water and for a moment—I already sank?—he's confused, but there's still a weight holding him here, warmth from fingers holding his hand, even though his body isn't quite his body, sinking gently through the warm water, not deep, just beneath the surface, resting on warmth.
A chest, rising and falling.
"How do I do this?" Zitao's voice is panicked. Junmyeon wants to say—he doesn't know what to say and he can't, anyway. This body doesn't listen to him.
"You know what to do," the female says, the voice from before, the one he doesn't know, but Zitao knows, because the living, breathing chest beneath him rises abruptly as Zitao takes a deep breath, exhaling slowly.
Nothing happens, but Junmyeon is nothing anyway.
And then there's a soft pulling sensation, at first the faintest pressure, drops of water on the surface of a stream, then slowly, gradually stronger, the rain turning into a light shower growing into a steady rain, downpour, and then the heavens open—Junmyeon's chest gapes and the rest of his soul slips out, not down into the depths but pulled by broken threads that are regenerating, meshing together as something soft slips by in the opposite direction.
The two halves of his soul reunited.
Junmyeon opens his eyes and sees his face.
It's strange, seeing himself, so close, so real. That's my body, he thinks, and peers into his eyes, where he can see someone else.
Images flicker through his head, ships and stars and dark and the feeling of being torn apart, except it's not him but the connections that tie him to—
Do you trust me? Zitao asks, and Junmyeon has no reason to agree. He nods his head anyway, Zitao's head. Yes.
And Zitao leans forward in Junmyeon's body, pressing his lips, Junmyeon's lips, to his head. The touch tingles, burns, explodes, as Junmyeon's soul expands, overflows, swirls out of his chest to entangle with the soul slipping out of the body pressed to him—Zitao's soul, a kind of brilliant light that's not light as they blend together and slip back into the right bodies, taking a half of the other with them. There's a sharp pain, a shadow of an ache as he feels something dig deep into Zitao's body and engrave itself over his heart.
Softly, the air slips out of Junmyeon's chest, as he lies there, skin on skin, Zitao so close, bare arms wrapped around him and he's allowed to touch at last—he sinks into the feeling.
Lets his eyes fall shut.
Junmyeon opens his eyes again.
He feels alive, pressed so tightly into Zitao's chest, it's not sexual, not submental, just skin against skin, heartbeat to heartbeat, complete intimacy, his nose tucked into the nape of Zitao's neck as he smells the faint spice of his skin.
It's such a glorious thing.
"Wake up sleepyheads." Someone is laughing, Junmyeon doesn't want to move because he's too warm, too comfortable, even as, emerging from sleep, he realizes that his foot has gone numb. His fingers tingle as he flexes them slightly, and his left hip is digging into bone and it actually hurts.
"No," Zitao groans under him, the vibrations echoing in his chest, and Junmyeon can't help but smile, even though his thoughts are breaking up, crackling because he can't process that Zitao is letting me touch—
"It's okay," Zitao says, "I'm sorry." The words of the apology are small, but the regret and contrition and fear welling out underneath the spoken words convey more than sound ever could. Zitao's arm shifts, as his fingers slip through the sheets, searching for Junmyeon's hand; when their fingers intertwine, Zitao guides Junmyeon's fingertips to hover over something scoring the skin of his chest, bumpy on the ribs above his heart.
It's a drop of water, holding a world, tiny white lines like the tails of water droplets streaming across the plasglass windows at home. Junmyeon traces it with his fingers, feeling out the slightly raised surface, his other hand creeping up absentmindedly to touch the shape on his own chest, tucked below his collarbone. An hourglass.
"You're whole again," Zitao says, and the words are still an apology.
Junmyeon reaches for the empty spot in his chest and finds it full. But swirling the completeness around, the warm glow so all-encompassing that he just wants to lie in bed and bask in the glory of being fulfilled, he realizes that it's not like it used to be; there's a strange yet familiar taste to some of the threads, lines of a mental colour different from what he's used to.
Zitao? he asks again, the thought slipping out before he can contain it, vocalize instead, but Zitao's fingers over his wrist halt the thought.
Yes, he replies. You have half of my soul now too.
Thinking back to just before this, when Zitao and the woman were talking about something he couldn't process, Junmyeon realizes what Zitao has surrendered to him.
It's too much, it's almost scary.
It's exactly right.
The woman's name is Fan Bingbing, as she introduces herself in golden tones to match the amber of her eyes.
Your eyes look like Kris's, Junmyeon thinks absentmindedly, then darts his glance around in embarrassment.
"That's alright," she smiles, and there's something large about her smile. She's so here, so present that it almost hurts.
"Don't worry about Bingbing," Zitao grins, taking a sip of tea as they sit, cross-legged around a black ebonite table. Outside, hovers dart through the air between skyscrapers, the lights of windows flickering on and off like a strange morse code to the past.
"On the contrary," she says, but winks at Junmyeon with the eye that Zitao can't see. "You should worry about me a lot."
Junmyeon likes her immensely; her vividness and the way she draws Zitao out of his black and tassels and makes him act the age he looks, rather than the age he is.
It's strange, having a part of Zitao in his chest, and he wonders if this was always how Zitao felt—if while Junmyeon was trickling out, searching for something he couldn't quantify, Zitao was trying to stamp down the tendrils of past he wanted to leave behind. He understands the fear, now, backlit by the flickering thoughts—memories that linger from the time when he was drifting loose.
Junmyeon catches Zitao looking at him out of the corner of his eye instead of eating breakfast, and he knows now that this is nothing new.
How did I always miss you? he asks.
I didn't want you to know, Zitao answers.
Fan Bingbing rolls her eyes.
"Come visit me another time," she calls as the doors of the lift swish shut between them. Or else. . . is the unspoken warning, but Junmyeon, even though it's only flickers and scattered pieces, remembers enough of what's happened to feel like he owes her everything anyway.
The cutter feels different, somehow. Junmyeon can't explain it, only feel it in the way his feet step warmly over the floor, the lightness in the air, the comforting dimness of the dark. There are no doors that slide shut in his face anymore, lying in bed with Zitao, tangled together as Junmyeon learns how to touch.
He sleeps with Zitao now.
It's not like he had imagined, before, shivering in the dark, leaking from his chest, thinking about bodies meeting in the dark, a need so sharp that it had sent him to Kris.
The first time he lifts his mouth, expecting Zitao to meet it, like a reflex, because this is always how it's been for Junmyeon, best friends that scuffle between the sheets just as much as out of them, he feels an echo of his old fear, confusion, as Zitao presses a gentle finger to his lips instead.
Let's just be like this for a while. Zitao's thoughts aren't scornful or dismissive, and Junmyeon lets himself sink into the feeling of skin instead. It's strange, different, touching without sex.
It feels like coming home.
You are always running, Kris had told him, a kind of sharp sadness lingering in the air. Junmyeon hadn't been able to answer, throwing the unvoiced question away as he'd tried to bury himself in numbness.
Now, maybe, he's starting to understand. Ghosting his fingers over the shape on Zitao's chest, as he feels a warm echo on his own skin, Junmyeon feels like he finally belongs.
"Can I go back?" Junmyeon asks at breakfast, curled up into Zitao's side as Zitao rests his head on Junmyeon's shoulder. They touch more now, but not all the time. Junmyeon still sits by the window, looking out at the dark, but the stars are brighter now, a universe full of light rather than an endless abyss scattered with pinpricks. Every star is a sun, and there are people there, living. He talks to Sehun, pokes questions at Kris, reads books and more books about the universe, both the history that's passed and the history that has already happened in the future. Zitao still works in his room, doing things with his hands that aren't quite visible, even though Junmyeon can see flashes when he sits and watches sometimes, from a soft chair in the corner.
Zitao raises his head, and there's slight confusion on his face, because the thought about returning home had just popped into Junmyeon's head. He hasn't thought it through yet; there isn't a cloud of explanation swirling through his head.
"Just to say hi," Junmyeon adds, looking down at his hands. He hasn't done this in a while, he realizes. When he feels he needs to, he usually holds Zitao's hand instead, and once in a while, as they're sitting side by side, Zitao sneaks a hand into his, fingers squeezing gently. Thanks.
Zitao slips his hand down to meet Junmyeon's fingers now.
"I ran away," Junmyeon says, "and I think I need to stop doing that." It's hard to admit it, finally, hard to vocalize the admission, but it feels good to get it out. Zitao squeezes his fingers, and the thought flickers into his head, We're all running away from something.
Junmyeon smiles, nods his head. Zitao doesn't have nightmares, not like he used to, the kind where he'd call Kris and Junmyeon would be left alone, always on the outside. Sometimes, Junmyeon wakes, confused in the dark, to find Zitao curled up into a ball so tight that he looks like he's trying to retract back into the past. And that's when Junmyeon runs warm hands up and down his back and pushes gently at the piece of soul in his chest that belongs to Zitao, wrapping himself around the taller man until Zitao's muscles relax and he slips into a better mindspace, the timestreams of the future past letting him go.
"Okay," Zitao says, and then grins. "Remember when you complained about going too slowly?" His eyes are sparkling and Junmyeon has to grin back, even though he's not sure what Zitao is talking about. "Time to bring out the hyperlink."
It's a bit of a let-down, actually.
Zitao tells Junmyeon to go and sit in Kris's room, and Junmyeon can't keep the anticipation bottled inside, he knows he's spewing it submentally to the room and he doesn't even care because hyperlink!
"What's it like?" he pokes Kris with mental fingers, fingers drumming excitedly across the back of the chair. He can see that Kris is messaging Sehun more than ever and he can't wait to see his best friend and tease him about it.
He can't wait to go back and see things differently.
Zitao isn't even in the room, he's busy talking to someone and doing something and usually Junmyeon would be curious but hyperlink! and he can definitely feel Zitao laughing at him from the other end of the ship.
It feels so good, laughing.
Kris pushes more things on the plascreen and looks out at something in space that Junmyeon can't quite follow, even though his thoughts are hovering so closely because he's curious, and then Kris lays his claws over the screen and time—
Space skips and folds over and time leaks out through the cracks and it feels like falling and flying at the same time and also like exploding outwards into a tiny point and—
We're here, Kris announces, and does something with his wings, a kind of full body stretch that turns into a yawn. I'm tired. Why don't you go play with Zitao.
Junmyeon's pretty sure that Kris just wants to talk to Sehun in private but he wants to go poke Zitao anyway, because hyperlinking is a huge letdown.
But lying in bed, Zitao's head resting on his chest, Junmyeon gets second thoughts. What if I go back and everything turns back into what it used to be?
They'll be landing after they wake up and have breakfast, and he's not scared exactly, but at the same time he's terrified. Even Zitao, skin against skin, holding Junmyeon close to his warmth, the soft glow in his chest a reminder that things are okay now, more than okay, is not enough.
He needs to see Sehun, his best friend is his best friend and Junmyeon wants to hug him and tell him everything that's happened and that he's okay and yet there's a tiny piece of him that's so scared he can't even shake, can't express the emotion physically—
he doesn't want to and yet what if he falls into bed with Sehun again?
Junmyeon knows that what he has with Zitao is the best thing that's ever happened to him and he feels so warm and whole and complete and like he belongs, and yet he doesn't know what it is.
Do you love me? he asks, because he knows that Zitao is sleeping.
Do I love you?
There's an echo of a chill in the sheets, as he puts his arms around Zitao and holds on tight.
He doesn't even notice landing; they're at the breakfast table, Junmyeon sitting across from Zitao, kicking his toes against Zitao's kneecaps, when the latter looks up.
"We're here," he says, and sets down his spoon, the fabric of his clothing whispering in the sudden silence as he stands up. Junmyeon watches him, and tries to focus on that.
"Are you okay?" Zitao asks, his thoughts searching, but Junmyeon is embarrassed by his irrational fears and doesn't say anything. He does slip his fingers into Zitao's hand though, as they emerge into the sun, Kris swishing behind because he's curious, I want to see this planet, he says, even though Junmyeon knows the dragon just wants to meet Sehun. The thought distracts him a little, and he's glad.
And then Kris takes off into the air, wings stretching and dust swirling as Junmyeon coughs and remembers the dryness of home. Sehun is running towards the cutter from the shadows of the porch where he can see his dad sitting, and Junmyeon feels like he's come full circle.
Coming out into the sun.
His fingers are still tangled together with Zitao's.
Sehun swallows Junmyeon up in a big hug, his hands rubbing up and down his back, and Junmyeon can feel his best friend's happiness.
"I was worried for a while," Sehun says when he pulls back, they're walking to the shade of the porch now and Zitao still has Junmyeon's hand safely in his, the warmth deeper than the heat of the sun pounding down. "But you look good now." He gestures at Junmyeon, the motion including Zitao who stands quietly at the side, watching. "It suits you."
Junmyeon feels a burst of gladness, and he knows it's not just his.
His dad is the same as he remembers him, but there's a smile hovering above his face, a small recompense, a moment of grace. Junmyeon remembers the dark, and he's glad that 901106's hand isn't cold anymore, just a calm coolness that speaks of rest.
They sit on the porch swing, watching Sehun coax Kris into giving him a ride, and the way they touch and laugh and the flickers of brightness that surround their playful bickering, Junmyeon knows that it's a done deal.
He's happy, but he's sad. Even when something is over, it's hard to move on.
He sleeps in his old bed that night, and remembers the feeling of the cage. It's open now, he's burst out and left it behind but the feeling lingers, the shadow cast by its bars on his heart.
"Do you love me?" he whispers into the dark, because Zitao is sleeping on the bed next to him.
"Do you love me?" Zitao whispers back, and Jumyeon's eyes fly open in surprise. Zitao's eyes are large in the shadows, black and deep and he feels so old and worn, for a moment.
"Can I kiss you?" Junmyeon asks, he's been holding the feeling in for so long that by now it's almost painful. He expects Zitao to say no, rolling over instead to face the wall.
So when he feels something soft on his neck, the whispers of kisses on his skin as Zitao leans over him on the bed, Junmyeon can't stop the mix of emotions from streaming out of his eyes as he turns onto his back and stretches his arms out around Zitao, pulling him close.
Zitao sinking into him, there on the sheets, on his old bed in his old room, is like saying goodbye at the same time it's starting something new.
Junmyeon lets himself surrender to the feeling, Zitao's warm skin so close to his, their chests touching and the threads of their souls stretching across the gap as Junmyeon clings to Zitao's back and Zitao pushes in with a gentle rhythm, in tune with their heartbeats as the pace slowly accelerates until he's spilling, warm, into Junmyeon who's fallen apart on the heat-sticky sheets as Zitao stitches him gently back together with tiny kisses pressed to his skin. With each touch Junmyeon can feel an echoing sigh from Zitao's thoughts, and he knows he's not the only one letting old demons go.
Junmyeon wakes up to the soft sound of rain, pattering against the windows, falling on the dusty ground. Flickers of dreams spark at the edges of his thoughts, not his but Zitao's—flashes of what looks like childhood. Zitao is smiling and Junmyeon slips out of bed, careful not to wake him.
There's an idea, a thought, it's been tangling with his subconscious for a while now, because there's always been something familiar about Kris.
Kris? Junmyeon asks, a quiet call, and finds him on the porch, nestled around Sehun's sleeping form. The dragon opens his heavy eyelids, gold whirring sleepily.
The way the dragon looks at Sehun reminds Junmyeon of the way Sehun looks at things that grow. The thought is warm in his chest.
I've been thinking about souls, Junmyeon thinks—because he doesn't want to wake Sehun, positively beatific as he slumbers curled into Kris' warmth—and also the fact that Zitao and I have marks on each other's skin. He pauses then, trying to gather the scattered threads of the idea together, but the dragon looks interested. My dad has a dragon on his arm, he finally thinks, even though it sounds like a long shot, just the ghost of an idea. I know you were a general in the war. . .
He's not prepared for the sudden crystallizing sharpness that solidifies in the air, so tangible that the rain almost slips off.
Is he sleeping? the dragon asks, and he's very much dragon right now; usually Junmyeon thinks of him as just Kris but right now he feels bigger than life, full of an emotion Junmyeon can't quite make out.
It tastes a little like regret.
His dad is lying in bed with his eyes open, hands waving lightly through the air as he conducts the stars. Junmyeon leads him gently out to the porch, because the house is just a little too narrow for Kris to feel comfortable. He'd fit just right at Sehun's place, the thought slips out and the dragon twitches his wings, but chooses to ignore the comment.
The rain falling softly on the ground outside the porch fences them in, a loose boundary of hushed white noise. 901106 stands, blinking, a half smile on his face, as he faces the dragon. Junmyeon's eyes blur with the rain, and he can see the shredded edges of what's left of his father's soul, drifting in the subsonic wind as they extend towards the dragon. Edges that are blackened, burnt, dead.
There's a kind of keening in the air, not audible but submental, visceral, and Junmyeon realizes that Kris is crying.
"What's happening?" Sehun's voice is muffled by the rain, distorted by sleep and grogginess, but his hands slide up Kris' skin and Junmyeon would have never thought of it, never thought the dragon needed it, wanted it, but his best friend wraps his arms around Kris' front, though they aren't long enough, and just touches. "It's okay," he says, even though he's not exactly sure what it's about—Junmyeon can sense the puzzlement in the air, hemmed in by water drops. "It's okay." Kris opens his mouth and makes a sound, just one, but it tears through the early morning as his heavy eyelids droop over dull bronze eyes.
901106 is still standing, blinking, as a single tear rolls down his cheek. Junmyeon wraps his fingers more tightly around his dad's hand, holding him steady. He can feel his dad's heartbeat accelerating, as he opens his mouth but nothing comes out. The dragon imprint on his dad's wrist, the surface worn under Junmyeon's fingers, stands out on his skin, not bright but a kind of dull memory.
Kris unfurls his wings then, with a soft whisper like living silk as the delicate membrane folds around him, around Sehun—as the dragon holds himself together. A fragile wingtip reaches out, the slender thumb claw extending, tentatively ghosting over the surface of 901106's wrist before it lowers to touch.
There are no explosions in the air. Kris exhales, the sound whistling faintly over the white noise of the rain that continues to fall, soaking the ground, as he pulls his wings in close so that only the faint silhouette of Sehun can be seen. Regret, regret, regret echo out through the layer of sound under the rain, as Sehun hums, like Junmyeon remembers him doing to the injured dromedary they found as children, hover racing too far from home.
He's about to lead his dad to the porch swing to sit down, because the air is damp and his dad is still in his pajamas—there's no point to getting sick, not when 901106 doesn't do well with convalescence as he can't ask for help when something is wrong—when something stirs. Not the air, which hangs heavy with moisture, but the possibility of motion. Junmyeon lets his eyes blur, allows the sound to fade as he focuses underneath.
. . .fan, he hears, not even a thought but the ghost of one, so faint that he has to slip down into himself to even catch it.
Yifan. And his dad closes his eyes with a deep exhalation, as though he's finally letting go of something that no longer belongs to him.
His eyes, when he opens them again, delicate eyelids over pale blue, are no longer washed out, even though they're still empty.
901106 is sitting on the porch swing, wrapped in a blanket, rocking slowly back and forth. He's smiling, humming a little song that Junmyeon almost remembers, as they watch the rain abate and finally cease. A rainbow arches across the air, colours painting over the pale sky, feet in the soaked ground that always turns a deeper shade of rusty brown. For now, the sun is still hiding behind clouds, but it will eventually emerge, peeking a shy head out of the white and drying up the ground until it's dust again—hovering in the wind.
Zitao stands in the doorway, leaning against the frame, watching the sky. Junmyeon stands beside him, head resting on his shoulder.
Are you okay? Zitao asks, inclining his head to press the faintest ghost of a kiss to Junmyeon's hair. His breath stirs the strands, the extension of a caress. Junmyeon nods.
Sometimes things are just broken, he thinks, and that's okay. Looking over at 901106, he sees his dad lifting his hands up to catch a narrow beam of light, the sun peeking from between clouds. Even though there's nothing there, his hands are full.
I love you, Zitao thinks, for the first time, and Junmyeon can feel that it's true.
I love you, he replies.
Up in the sky, a dragon is flying, a small figure clinging to his back.
And sometimes we have to leave the past behind us.
It's not goodbye, this time.
Junmyeon gives Sehun a hug, punches his arm lightly and teases him about loving living things a bit too much, but he's so happy to see Sehun almost glowing with happiness—his friend who never had to leave to find his home.
You're so lucky, he thinks, stepping back from the embrace.
"Don't be a stranger," Sehun retorts, before stepping back until he's leaning gently against Kris' chest. The dragon's eyes whirr brightly, the gold shining as it reflects the sun.
Are you sure you can manage the cutter? he asks, and Junmyeon can feel Zitao's scornful of course bouncing back.
Are you sure you want to stay here? Zitao adds, and it's like old friends talking, the kind who've been together so long that there's no need to explain.
It'll be good to stretch my wings, Kris replies, giving them a small shake. I hadn't realized how much I missed flying. Zitao grins, nodding his head.
"Bye Kris," Junmyeon adds. "I'll see you again soon." Reaching out, he touches the dragon's extended claw. Thanks for everything. He doesn't say anything about his dad, because it's between the Stockholm and the general. 901106 is happy right now, and that's all that really matters. Be happy. Kris' eyes spark, Thank you.
He waves to his dad, still sitting on the porch swing in the shade. The assist android waits to the side, just in case it's necessary, and Junmyeon knows that everything will be okay.
I'll be back.
Hyperlinking may be a big letdown, but it definitely works.
He's not holding Zitao's hand as they walk into the waiting coolness of the cutter, the soft shadows a reprieve from the bright sun. They don't need to touch for Junmyeon to be able to feel the threads holding them together, and he knows, instinctively, that no matter how far apart they might be physically, they'll only ever be a thought away.
They don't need to touch, but their arms, swinging gently as they walk, brush lightly, knuckle to knuckles and skin to skin.