Dokja has dreams, sometimes.
Well. Not that Joonghyuk himself doesn’t dream. But he doesn’t really have Dreams that much. Dokja has Dreams. It’s a weekly occurrence, if not nightly, to wake to find him padding about the corridors of their little home, peeking through all the family’s bedroom doors to do a headcount and make sure everyone’s fine. Joonghyuk has to sit with him for at least half an hour, assuring him everyone’s safe and holding him close, before Dokja will settle enough to at least try for a few more hours of sleep. There are times when even that doesn’t work, when he tugs out his gold-edged wings and flies off to sit in the lost forests until dawn, kept company only by the strange creatures that never speak to anyone but him and the children.
The family worries. Dokja brushes them off, answers none of their questions, smiles wider and stands bright and luminous, King of a realm they know can cage them all too easily. Joonghyuk does what he can to soothe their concerns, but somewhere in the year that they were kept apart he’s lost the trick to reading Dokja like a book. (Sometimes he wonders—surely Dokja could not have changed so much in only a year. But it was a year without them, without his family, and Kim Dokja is not a man who does well without his family, so maybe…)
With the added difficulty of trying to understand him, even Joonghyuk frets. The family needs him to be sturdy and reliable, so he hides his anxieties, but—it doesn’t change the fact that Dokja is different now.
It doesn’t change the fact that he’s hurting.
This becomes horrifically evident one afternoon where Uriel and Abyssal are teaching Jung Heewon and Han Sooyoung how to use their respective kinds of fire. Dokja shows up to watch the lessons, Joonghyuk accompanying him as he generally does nowadays, and then—
Then Han Sooyoung accidentally slings a fireball in their direction, and Joonghyuk instinctively hits the ground, but Dokja doesn’t move.
Sun Wukong saves them with seconds to spare, coming up behind them suddenly, swinging his reclaimed staff, and killing the flames with a surge of magic. Dokja just stands there, eyes suddenly gone abyss-dark and absolutely flat, and when Joonghyuk looks at him he is terrified for him.
Everyone comes running over seconds later, yelling Dokja’s name and grabbing for him, but all his husband does is flinch away and close his eyes, unresponsive and horribly resigned. Joonghyuk shoves them all away at the uncharacteristic display and pulls Dokja all the way to their bedroom, shutting the door and pushing him to lie down on the bed. He settles in beside Dokja, wrapping him in his arms and bringing his head to rest against Joonghyuk’s shoulder, before asking in a low voice, “Are you okay?”
Dokja is silent for a long moment before curling a hand into Joonghyuk's shirt. He presses his nose into his shoulder, his eyelashes a feather-light pressure against Joonghyuk’s skin as he blinks slowly.
“It was easier,” he offers eventually. “To—If I got injured. Then. It would hurt. And it would be more difficult to fight. It was easier to just—let him.”
Joonghyuk feels chilled down to his bones.
“Easier to let him—?” he asks.
Dokja doesn’t answer. Joonghyuk pulls him closer and buries his face in his husband’s hair anyway.
None of the other ex-humans know what Dokja is talking about. It looks at first like none of the other stars do, either, but then Persephone and Hades share a look when he asks, and he knows he’s found the right people.
“We have some amount of—dominion over death,” Persephone offers. “Hades more than me. We can both tell when someone has…” She clears her throat, not looking frustrated (Persephone never looks anything less than perfectly put together); her eyebrows twitch slightly closer together. “People have an aura of sorts, that hangs around them when they are—or have been—close to death. The King is…”
“What?” Joonghyuk demands, tired of not being able to help. “What do you see?”
“When someone dies,” Hades rumbles suddenly, “they are marked. Their body carries the signs of a soul having been torn out. The King—our Dokja—has those signs.”
It feels like someone reached into his chest and crushed his lungs. Joonghyuk can barely breathe. “What do you mean,” he says, and this time his voice is trembling, all his former fury suddenly lost in light of this revelation.
“He’s died, somehow,” Persephone explains. “Kim Dokja has the mark of death, except—it’s not just one set of marks. He’s got so many marks we can’t even look at him without noticing. It’s lucky we’re still able to brush aside our ability to see death, or we wouldn’t even know what his face looks like.”
Joonghyuk wants to be far, far away from this discussion. Persephone reaches out and settles a gentle hand over his own, and normally he would pull away, but she presses some of her power of life into him and the numbness he can barely think through recedes a little.
“How could that possibly,” Joonghyuk tries. “How could he.”
“It should be impossible. And yet, somehow, it’s not.”
“It has to be something he picked up after meeting us,” Hades says. “He had no death marks when he first met us, and when we came to his aid at the battle of Kings, he had more than we could imagine. Besides. If he had the ability to defy death when he met me, I would know.”
“It’s not even an ability to defy death,” Persephone adds thoughtfully. “Otherwise he wouldn’t have the death markings. He’s dying, but somehow, he’s coming back to life.” She tilts her head. “And yet it’s not even resurrection. I am life itself. If anyone could grant him the ability to recreate life, it would be me. So, he’s manipulating affairs somehow, in a way that bypasses coming back to life.”
Joonghyuk’s mouth is dry, suddenly. “If he. If he went back. To a time when he was alive, instead of resurrecting his d—” He has to pause for a second before trying again, barely able to force the words out. “Instead of resurrecting his dead body.”
Persephone and Hades blink at him, startled. “I suppose that’d do it,” Persephone says, a hint of uncertainty in her words. “But I’m not aware of any star that has power over time itself.”
“It’s not a star.” He gets up. Something occurs to him. “Do you know how many times—?”
Persephone hesitates. “More than we can count,” she settles on eventually. “We’ve… tried. Believe me.”
He’s silent for a second. “I do.” His voice is barely higher than a whisper.
He takes his leave and walks out of the house of stars. Yoo Sangah is sitting outside, watching the pale purple evening sky with careful eyes as she makes quick notes in a journal.
“Joonghyuk-ssi,” she says when she notices his presence. She frowns. “You’re shaking.”
“Dokja died,” he tells her, and feels slightly guilty when she lets out a choked noise.
“He—” she gasps, shooting to her feet. The journal falls to the ground, forgotten. Joonghyuk watches it go down with a distant understanding that he should probably explain before she starts thinking Dokja’s actually gone.
“It was in the past,” he says. “He’s alive right now.” This doesn’t seem to help. She seizes his arm, grip tight enough to bruise.
“What the hell are you talking about,” she hisses. He feels the shaking she was talking about now, with his arm held forcibly still in her grasp. His body is trembling outside his control, loosening her grip on him without him even trying to get away.
“He died enough times that Hades can’t count his deaths.” The sky is still bright enough for him to make a quick trip to the lost forests. He wants answers and he knows exactly who to get them from. “Back when he fought the old King.”
Yoo Sangah lets go of him, her face filled with horror. “How could he possibly…”
“I think he travelled back in time each time he died.” Joonghyuk takes a deep breath. “I have to confirm it. Tell the others I’ll be back by tonight.”
Yoo Sangah nods numbly. Joonghyuk walks back inside, fetches the sword he’s been training with from the weapons room, grabs a bag of dried fruit from the kitchen, and leaves for the lost forests.
“How many times?” Joonghyuk asks.
do you really want to know?
His ancestor’s maker tells him.
Dokja is waiting on the doorstep when he gets back. The sky is pitch black overhead. Joonghyuk only knows he’s there because of the light from inside the house silhouetting him in the doorway.
His husband stands up when he sees him. “I didn’t want you to know,” he tells Joonghyuk.
“You would worry.”
“I was worried anyway.”
Dokja is quiet. Joonghyuk crosses the space between them in three quick steps, and they pull each other close, wrapping their arms around each other. Dokja tucks his head under Joonghyuk’s chin.
“How long was it, for you?” Joonghyuk asks.
“In terms of number of deaths, or number of months?”
Months. Not days. Joonghyuk’s arms tightens around Dokja. “Either. Both. Whichever.”
“Around one thousand and eight hundred rounds,” Dokja answers. Joonghyuk can feel him frowning thoughtfully against his shoulder. “I’m not too sure about the exact number though. Eighteen hundred and sixty-three? Or sixty-four.” He shrugs minutely. “Something like that.”
Joonghyuk breaths deeply. “And he—he killed you all those times?”
Dokja pauses. Says nothing. And then, almost unconsciously, he shifts his hands against Joonghyuk’s back and tugs his shirt sleeves a little further down over his wrists.
Joonghyuk thinks about the perfect parallel scars running down his husband’s forearms that were there long before they came to this world, long before they ever thought about stars or regicide. He thinks about it. And then he swallows and does his best to pull Dokja closer than he already is. A near impossible task, given the minuscule amount of space left between them, but he manages it.
“I didn’t know.”
“’S okay,” he says softly. “Already told you. I didn’t want you to.”
“I’m your partner,” Joonghyuk growls. “It’s my job to know things about you. You could have told me.”
“You spent a year imprisoned and separated from the others. I feel like—”
“Separated by choice, provided with good facilities and only being required to serve one bastard, knowing that the rest of my family was safe,” he snaps. “I made a deal for their safety. You had none of that. You didn't make a deal like I did.”
“I made a deal with the existence.”
“Not to die.”
“Yes, to die.” Dokja pulls away slightly to give him a look. “I just didn’t know it then.”
Joonghyuk is tired. “I’m not doing this right now,” he says instead, and pulls Dokja back in against him.
“You told Yoo Sangah, earlier. The others are going to want to know,” Dokja mumbles against his shoulder. “I don’t want to…”
“And, um. About the—dreams. Since you know—”
“I already said. I’ll help.”
A long, long pause. Then, in a fond voice, “Idiot.”
“Bastard. Have you eaten yet?”
“No. I was waiting for you.”
“Tch. I’m going to make dinner.”
“Hey, wait for me—"
Dokja has Dreams, sometimes.
He wakes up, shaking and choking back screams, fire-hot fingers scrabbling against scaled metal skin, convinced that he’s bleeding out or burned or some other variety of fatally injured. Every time, Joonghyuk sits awake next to him, pulling his hands away and reminding him that he’s safe at home, that he’s uninjured and healthy, that the old King is dead, that Joonghyuk is alive, and myriad other assurances of safety and comfort. He walks with Dokja up and down the corridor, checking the little signs they’ve all started hanging on their doorknobs, a small notification that they’re doing alright. He asks if Dokja wants to be held. He asks if Dokja wants to talk about it. Sometimes the answers are yes. Sometimes the answers are no. Joonghyuk adapts. On the nights Dokja doesn’t want to talk about it, Joonghyuk recites recipes and video game plots to him until his eyes start to droop. On the nights that he does, Joonghyuk holds his gaze and listens without judgement as he stutters out his dreams, halting horror story after horror story.
Joonghyuk has Dreams now, too, but with his partner by his side, they don’t last.
He only hopes he can offer the same comfort to Dokja.
(Dokja laughs when he manages to grit this out one evening. He says Joonghyuk definitely offers a good deal of comfort and winks at him.
Joonghyuk kind of wants to punch him. He kisses him instead. They’ve had more than enough violence to last them their whole lives.)