At the end, the Reader goes to the Author and they make a deal with the universe.
Rewrite the world and make it better.
The Reader gives his body as payment, the Author’s screams fall on deaf ears—
And the world is rewritten.
Yoo Joonghyuk stares up at the stars, the chatter from his sister and her friends easily ignored as his eyes catch on one particularly bright star over his head. There are approximately one billion trillion stars in the observable universe, he recalls faintly, and 100 billion stars in the galaxy. Han Sooyoung told him that once—or maybe more than once, considering her odd fascination with stars. Ever since they met, she’s had some fascination with telling him facts about the galaxy and now they stick in his brain against his will. He’s never really gotten the appeal, but somehow, he’s her favorite person to tell them to.
It’s pretty though, he thinks as he continues looking up. It’s not easy to see stars when living in the city, but the sky is clear out in the open like this. He’s already heard Mia shout something about a shooting star, and she and her friends have been ‘ooh’ing and ‘ahh’ing all night. If it weren’t for his sister wanting to go camping, he wouldn’t be here, but it’s nice.
His eyes keep catching onto that one bright star. For some, inexplicable reason, it feels like it’s blinking down at him.
Yoo Joonghyuk shakes his head. Obviously he needs sleep, but he doesn’t want to leave Mia and her friends without supervision. He turns his gaze back on them. The nagging feeling doesn’t go away.
When he goes to sleep that night—in a different tent, to give the kids their privacy—he dreams.
He’s had some weird dreams sometimes. He can never remember them in the morning, but he knows they’re always intense. A lot of them have him waking up thinking he’s just had a nightmare. He’s not interested in trying to remember them.
On this night, he does remember.
He dreams of a white coat, and a smile, and dark wings spreading out against a night sky.
When he wakes up, his chest feels oddly hollow.
There are never any stars in the city, but Yoo Joonghyuk finds himself stepping out onto his balcony anyway and looking up. He can’t sleep but he doesn’t really feel like playing a game to pass the time. He might be noticed too, and then his manager will call and yell at him, and then Mia will yell at him and honestly, it’s just way too much trouble.
So, the balcony.
As expected, he can see nothing but the brightest stars. Most of the sky is black—endless and engulfing black. He thinks of that one star he saw when he was camping with Mia and even though there’s no possible way to find it, or even any reason to try, he still finds his gaze searching. He latches on to one particularly bright star, a single dot amongst a sea of nothing. There’s no way for him to know which star it is, but he kids himself into pretending it’s that star.
Yoo Joonghyuk thinks of his dream. He thinks of a white coat and wings and a smile, and his chest feels empty again.
When he was a child, he wasn’t good at processing and expressing his emotions. His parents told him that he would wake up in the night crying and grasping his chest, saying it hurts, it hurts but he could never explain what hurt. It worried them, but the doctor told them he was just struggling to express his feelings.
“He was probably waking up from a nightmare and he didn’t know how to say he was scared,” the doctor said.
He doesn’t remember those nights, just like he doesn’t remember so many others, but he wonders if it was anything like this.
When he goes to bed, finally feeling sleepy, he dreams again. This time, it’s about a journey, searching for something that can’t be found. Or maybe it doesn’t want to be.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” Yoo Joonghyuk says. Han Sooyoung sits across from him, watching him curiously.
“It was only two dreams,” she says reasonably.
“Yes, but, they’re weird. Them and that damn star—I can’t stop thinking about them.” They’re not haunting things. They don’t follow him all day, but they’re there, in the back of his mind. He sleeps and he doesn’t dream again but he wakes up and he thinks of looking for that white coat and not being able to find it.
Han Sooyoung hums, a contemplative expression on her face. “These dreams you’re having… You said you saw wings, a white coat, and a smile, and then you dreamt about looking for something.” He nods. “That reminds me of a legend.”
Yoo Joonghyuk scowls. “Not another one of your stars.”
“Shut up and hear me out,” she says and kicks his shin. He kicks her back. “There’s this star in the heart of the constellation of the Demon King of Salvation. The legend goes that there was once a reader. He was rude and insufferable, but he had a bleeding heart and friends who loved him. They were at war. One day, he found a way to put a stop to everything. You see, the reader loved to read, and he would often read things over and over again. Because he read so much, he figured out the secrets behind the war and the universe itself—and he figured out a way to put a stop to the war permanently.
“The problem with this was that in order to do so, he would have to leave his friends behind. Idiot that he was, he decided to keep this to himself. He only told one person, the only person who would be able to make sure what he was about to do stuck. That person tried to stop him and failed. In the end, the reader sacrificed himself and stopped the war, at the cost of his body. He turned into a star and found home in his own constellation.”
Han Sooyoung leans back in her seat and takes a sip of her water. Yoo Joonghyuk is left to absorb this story. It’s not the first time she’s told him the legend of a certain star or constellation, but it’s the first one that’s set so heavy on him.
“What does this have to do with my dreams?” he asks. In fact, he’s not sure what this has to do with anything at all.
“The reader was the demon king of salvation,” Han Sooyoung answers. “He was known to have wings and a white coat.”
“Okay,” Yoo Joonghyuk says, “what are you implying?”
“Nothing. I’m just letting you know.”
It’s not nothing, because Han Sooyoung never wants to just let him know.
He keeps dreaming. In them, he keeps searching. Keeps trying to follow after that white coat, fights beside him, looks at the man whose face he can never quite remember and feels so many things he can’t quite name. The world shines around this man like it was made for him, like he is the center of everything. The center of Yoo Joonghyuk’s gaze.
He wakes up crying a lot.
“Have you been getting any sleep, Oppa?” Mia asks worriedly.
“I’m fine,” Yoo Joonghyuk answers. Technically, he has been sleeping. Maybe not always before midnight, but he has. It’s only that his dreams aren’t exactly restful. Even now, hours after he’s woken and spent most of the day working, he can still feel the echoes of everything he felt in… wherever he was, in those dreams. Something like frustration and longing and a million other things in between.
“Are you sure? You look really tired,” Mia says. “Have you been working too hard? Do I have to call your manager?”
“Don’t you dare.”
“I’ll do it! Don’t think I won’t!” She wags her finger at him. “We haven’t gone on a vacation in a while. How about we leave the city?”
“You just want to go camping again.” Yoo Joonghyuk crosses his arms. After her birthday, she wasn’t able to stop gushing about it. He knows her tricks.
Mia grins sheepishly. “Ah, you caught me!” Her expression goes somber again. “Really, though, I think you should take a break. Sooyoung-unni thinks the same.”
“You’ve been talking to Han Sooyoung?” That’s not good. He doesn’t trust Han Sooyoung to not corrupt his little sister.
“Well, you won’t tell me anything!” Mia huffs. “You tell her stuff, and she’s always happy to answer my questions so I have to talk to her.”
“Stop talking to her,” Yoo Joonghyuk orders, but he knows it’s useless.
“I won’t! In fact, I’ll go call her right now!”
Before she can turn and reach for her phone, Yoo Joonghyuk traps her between his arms and falls back onto the couch. Mia shrieks and kicks and flails, but he’s much stronger than her.
“Whoops, my bad,” he drones, keeping his arms locked around her. “Can’t call Han Sooyoung like this.”
“You’re crushing me, Oppa! Let go!” she demands. He doesn’t flinch at her onslaught of attacks.
“How unfortunate; I suddenly can’t move my arms. Looks like we’ll be stuck like this for a while. Tragic.”
Unfortunately, Mia does get a chance to call Han Sooyoung, and a week later, he’s being dragged out of the city with their friends for a night out. The only reason he goes along with it so easily is because it’s only one night and Mia is utterly gleeful at the chance to spend the night at her friend’s house.
“Why do you just so happen to have a cabin outside the city?” Jung Heewon asks as they all get out of their cars, stopped in front of Han Sooyoung’s cabin. None of them knew she even had a cabin.
“It’s really good for inspiration,” Han Sooyoung answers.
“And stargazing,” Yoo Sangah notes. She gestures to the telescope on the porch. “Must be nice.”
“It is,” Han Sooyoung says. Yoo Joonghyuk narrows his eyes at her, which doesn’t go unnoticed. She grins cheekily at him, and he knows she still hasn’t let go of his dreams.
She doesn’t bring it up while they’re setting up in the cabin. Lee Hyunsung compliments the place and that’s all it takes for her to start talking about it. Yoo Joonghyuk heads straight for the kitchen to start cooking dinner, as the only one of them who really can, while Jung Heewon and Yoo Sangah go to check out the bedrooms. Why Han Sooyoung bought a cabin with multiple bedrooms, he doesn’t know.
She continues not to mention it as the sun sets and they all settle into the sitting area, regaling stories of what’s been going on since the last time they all saw each other, months ago. Yoo Joonghyuk hates to admit that his sister was right, but he feels himself unwinding the longer the night goes on. It’s not terrible, seeing everyone again. It’s hard to find time when they all lead busy lives.
When it starts getting really late and Lee Hyunsung has already headed to one of the bedrooms to sleep, Han Sooyoung stands and leaves the room. The conversation tapered off a little while ago, though Yoo Joonghyuk has never been a very talkative person anyway. Jung Heewon and Yoo Sangah are having their own private conversation, but it looks like they’re about to head off soon too.
Yoo Joonghyuk goes out to the porch and isn’t surprised to find Han Sooyoung already there.
“What,” he says, leaning against the wall.
“What star catches your eye?” Han Sooyoung gestures upwards. The night sky is clear and open, just like it was on that night. He glances up, then back down at her judgmentally. She raises an eyebrow and gestures even more pointedly. With a roll of his eyes, he finally deigns to look up at the sky and squints.
“That one,” he says after a moment, pointing at one bright star.
Han Sooyoung only has to look for one second before a smile spreads across her face and she says, “That’s the Reader.”
“Really. And there’s the constellation.” She points, connecting first the star Yoo Joonghyuk pointed out and then a few other stars.
“What’s your point, Han Sooyoung?”
Han Sooyoung leans against the handrail, tilting her head upward. “You know, I knew this guy, once. Way before I came here and met any of you guys.”
Yoo Joonghyuk blinks, surprised. Han Sooyoung doesn’t talk much about her past, if at all. It was like she came out of nowhere, laid eyes on the first person she happened to bump into, and decided Yoo Joonghyuk was the one she wanted to befriend. She met Lee Hyunsung through him, and through her, he met Jung Heewon and Yoo Sangah. She forced them all to stick together and it was weird, but it turned out for the best. Mia was ecstatic that he actually had friends. But even still, years later, he doesn’t know much about her. She doesn’t like talking about her past.
“That guy—he was the biggest asshole I had ever had the displeasure of meeting,” she continues. “Total dick. He didn’t listen to anyone, had absolutely zero self-preservation, and always went off on his own thinking he knew what he was doing. I would never call him a friend, but he was… someone.” She fiddles with the sleeves of her hoodie. “He inspired a lot of loyalty, even though he was like that, and he always did dumb shit for other people. Never shut up about wanting happy endings or whatever and was willing to do whatever he could for it to work out. I fucking hated that fool.”
“So?” Yoo Joonghyuk says.
“The Reader, in that constellation, is a lot like him. Bleeding heart and all.” She looks back at him and her eyes are glinting with something like anticipation. “You would have hated him too, probably. He would drive you absolutely nuts, but he would have adored you. His taste was weird like that. And then you would reluctantly grow to like him even though you hate him because that man grows on you like fungus. It would be terrible, a disaster.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
She spins around and grips the railing, leaning back. “I still hate that guy, the rat bastard. But I wouldn’t hate it if he showed his damn face for once.” She looks to be glaring at the sky. At the stars, at the Demon King of Salvation. “You know, that star you can’t stop thinking about? The Reader? Maybe it’s all a sign.”
“A sign of what? That you want me to meet your friend?”
Han Sooyoung looks at him. He thinks she might say yes, but all that comes out is, “We weren’t friends.”
It’s more vivid this time.
A fight. Yelling. That damn smile.
Yoo Joonghyuk is moving but it doesn’t feel like it’s him in control. He’s shouting at that man, and that man just looks at him. Yoo Joonghyuk can feel this particular emotion so clearly it hurts. Desperation. He’s shouting.
The man says something to him.
“You bastard!” Yoo Joonghyuk roars. “Shut up! Ki—”
He wakes up.
When he gets some free time, following his brief vacation with his friends, he can’t quite stop himself from looking into the Reader that Han Sooyoung is so obsessed with.
There’s not much information. Most of it is in line with what Han Sooyoung told him—a war and a man who becomes a star in order to stop it. One source says that he becomes the constellation. There’s no name to go with the Reader, other than Demon King of Salvation, which is a little weird. The stars Han Sooyoung told him about usually had actual names, but he’s no expert.
The one thing that he didn’t know is the extra note about the Reader’s companion, among all of the people who were apparently loyal to him. Another man, who he was said to have loved the most, and who might have loved him back. It’s a short note, barely anything, but it resonates with him.
He thinks of yelling and desperation.
“I’m home—you’re new,” Yoo Joonghyuk says, staring at the new body on his couch. Mia said she would be having friends over, so he’s not surprised to see Shin Yoosung and Lee Gilyoung, but he’s never seen this other girl before.
“Hello,” the girl says. She looks familiar, but he can’t place it.
“She belongs to me.” Han Sooyoung walks out of his kitchen holding a box of snacks.
“I don’t belong to you.” The girl makes a face at Han Sooyoung, who rolls her eyes in response.
“Fine,” she says. “I’m looking after her for a bit while her living situation gets figured out. Her dad didn’t want her caught up in all of it so he sent her here first. Call her Biyoo.”
“Nice to meet you, Ahjussi,” Biyoo says, perfectly pleasant but somehow, he feels like he’s being mocked.
“Right… Why are you here?”
“How rude,” Biyoo says. “Sooyoung-unni didn’t want me to get lonely, so she brought me over here.”
“She’s really cool, Oppa,” Mia pipes up and narrows her eyes, daring him to say anything.
It really doesn’t matter to him. He shrugs. “Alright. Just never thought you’d be trusted with a kid,” he says to Han Sooyoung.
“Trust me, I’m not thrilled about it either,” Biyoo says.
“You brat.” Han Sooyoung rubs the top of her head roughly and ignores the hiss sent her way in return.
“I’m going to my room,” Yoo Joonghyuk says. “Don’t break anything.”
“Oppa!” Mia says, setting a hand on her chest. “We would never!”
Yoo Joonghyuk has had her friends at their place many times over the past year, and Biyoo is being trusted to Han Sooyoung of all people. They absolutely would.
He dreams of a train and a ball of fluff.
“Sooyoung-unni says you’re interested in the Demon King of Salvation,” Biyoo says. Yoo Joonghyuk jumps, not having realized she was in the room. He didn’t even know she was in the house, in fact.
“Are you… here to see Mia again?” he asks as he turns slowly. She’s looking at him with unnervingly unblinking eyes. Eyes that imply she knows more than he does. He doesn’t like it.
And once again, he thinks that something about her must be familiar.
“Sooyoung-unni wanted to bother you,” Biyoo says. “Mia’s a plus. You like the Demon King?”
“Why would she tell you about that?”
She shrugs. “Maybe ‘cause she thought she had to.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“Nothing does, without context.” She clasps her hands behind her back. “You know, the Demon King had a mutual love.”
Yoo Joonghyuk stares. “I… remember reading that somewhere. Why are you telling me this?”
“It was never realized before the Demon King sacrificed himself, but maybe it still has a chance. I don’t think it’s impossible.”
“It’s a star.”
Biyoo frowns. “He’s a constellation,” she corrects. “And he’s not dead. He lost his body and became a star. One day, he’ll be able to get his body back, come down and take his place with his family again. Everything has almost aligned perfectly.”
“Who are you?” The words spill out before he can stop himself.
He doesn’t understand why she’s saying all these things. It’s just a star, or a constellation, or whatever it is, and maybe all of this is just him being infected with Han Sooyoung’s constellation obsession. He doesn’t even know who this girl is, other than that she’s the daughter of some guy Han Sooyoung knows. And now she’s saying some weird stuff to him, in his kitchen, about something he told Han Sooyoung only because she was the one who always seemed to know weird stuff.
Maybe all of the people who used to know Han Sooyoung are like this. He wouldn’t be surprised.
“I’m Biyoo,” Biyoo says. “I’m someone’s daughter. I know about constellations. Hey, I think you should try talking to the Demon King. He might like that.”
Without waiting for a response, she turns and bounds off into the living room. He doesn’t go after her. A moment later, Han Sooyoung pokes her head in.
“Hey,” she says. “Biyoo talked to you?”
“Please stop showing up announced,” Yoo Joonghyuk says.
He finds himself unable to sleep. He tries, but he only succeeds in tossing and turning in his bed, so he gets out, grabs a jacket, and heads out onto the balcony. As always, the sky is clear, but the city lights keep most of the stars from showing. He still finds that star, and somehow, he’s able to recognize the other stars that make up the constellation Demon King of Salvation.
Inexplicably, he remembers Biyoo telling him to try talking to it. Him.
“This is stupid,” he mutters. He glares up at the constellation. It twinkles down at him and for some reason he wonders if it’s laughing at him. “Why are you invading my life?”
Of course, he doesn’t get an answer.
“Why do I keep dreaming about you? Am I dreaming about you? Am I just going crazy?”
It’s obvious that Han Sooyoung and Biyoo think all this means something. It’s also obvious that they’re not telling him everything, but he can’t imagine what it is they can’t be telling him. It’s just a star. It’s just some dreams. At most, he’s finally remembering those dreams he always wakes up from in terror, and in that case, he should be going to a doctor.
(But at the same time, it all feels like it really does mean something. Like he’s regaining something. Like all of the pain these dreams are giving him are worth whatever it is they’re supposed to mean. Like he doesn’t want to get rid of them. The dreams. The star.)
Yoo Joonghyuk looks up at the Reader, the Demon King of Salvation. “Who are you to me?”
He’s reaching for someone’s back. Before, he hasn’t been able to move at all, but he thinks he might be getting somewhere this time. That back, which seems big and eternal and too far away, looks just a little closer.
That man shifts. Turns. He can’t see his face, but he can see his smile again. Those lips move, and mouth his name. Yoo Joonghyuk.
It’s you, he thinks. It’s you. It’s you. You’re here. It’s you.
He’s in the middle of the city, trying to navigate through the crowded streets. Everyone’s trying to get home at this time, and he’s no exception. He has a text open from Han Sooyoung, reading, Biyoo’s dad is finally here. I’ll introduce you guys. No need to thank me. She won’t answer his demands for an explanation, and when he tries to call, he doesn’t get through.
There are tons of people who might be wearing white coats at this time, but his eyes catch on one man in between the endless stream of people. A white coat. An unassuming face. He has his phone pressed to his ear and his eyes narrowed as he snaps at whoever is on the other end.
Before he realizes that he’s moving, Yoo Joonghyuk has already maneuvered around the few bodies between them and grabbed the man’s wrist.
The man stares at him, mouth slightly agape. His phone is lowered, but the call is still ongoing. He thinks, bizarrely, that he might be hearing Han Sooyoung’s voice on the other end. He doesn’t dwell on it. He can only stare at this man. Take him in. This man, who looks like stars belong in his eyes and under his skin. This man, who he’s never met. This man, who looks so damn familiar.
He thinks of stars. He thinks of constellations.
He knows him. He knew him, once. His name is on the tip of his tongue.
“Kim Dokja,” he breathes. It’s you.
Kim Dokja smiles, and for the first time in a lifetime, they’re facing each other once again.
“Hello again, Yoo Joonghyuk.”