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Winterbliss

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The teleporter hums down to silence, the shock of chilled air sending shivers through all of them before they touch the ground. A new floor, a new view - misted puffs of breath escape them all as they take in their surroundings in stunned admiration. 

Unlike any of the other floors in recent memory, they find themselves surrounded by idyllic nature, standing in an open stone sacellum, nestled in a valley drenched in the violet hues of twilight sky. A cobblestone path laid before them winds through a forest, yellowed grasses and clovers dotting the rocky landscape beneath birch trees equally crowned in gold. Beyond, purple-tinged crystal trees, scattered about, tower high above the land, waving slowly in an invisible breeze, lining a babbling river receding into the distance.

“Whoaaa!” Shibisu exclaims, first to cut through their collective awestruck quiet, already breaking away from the group to explore their environment. 

“It’s colder than I imagined,” Anaak mumbles, summoning her weapons inventory to dig for her coat. Ran stands at her side, hands shoved into the front pocket of his hoodie, unperturbed. “Told you.”

Endorsi, already reaching into her inventory to fish out her own coat, agrees with a hum. “At least it’s pretty. God, not more cold…”

Shibisu turns around, grinning. “The last floor wasn’t too bad!” he says, pulling the zipper on his jacket higher. 

Hatz glowers at him in response. “You come with a jacket by default, tracksuit. You don’t get to comment on the weather.”

“I’m not running around half-exposed like you, Hatz. Do you even have anything for the cold?”

“This is nothing compared to what I used to live in. We had to walk fif-“

“-teen miles both ways, yeah, alright,” Shibisu finishes for him. “Do you have a version of that for everything we go through?”

Hatz adjusts his robe sleeves, pulling them tighter. “I’m not cold.” A small shiver betrays him. 

The tracksuit smiles smugly. “Weeeeell, if you need something -”

“If it’s going to be purple, no.”

Standing behind the group, Bam nudges Khun with his elbow. “This is really nice! What do you think?”

“They’re right. It’s too cold.” One of his blue lighthouses pops into existence next to him. He fishes out his thickest winter jacket and swipes the cube towards Bam. “Need yours?”

Bam hums in amusement. “I meant the scenery. But I do, thanks.” He dives an arm into the glowing cube, tilting his head to address the squat figure behind Khun. “What about you, Rak?”

Rak, his arms crossed in his usual compressed form, shifts his cargo - Laure’s olive lump strapped to his back, dwarfing his shape. He snorts, a dragon’s huff of pride misting out into the air. “My scales are thick. No need, black turtle. Blanket turtle is warm enough.” As if on cue, a snore resounds from behind him.

Endorsi's voice cuts above the others. “Is that where we’re supposed to go?” She points up to the sky up and behind them, Shibisu stuck in an expression of excitement at her side.

The group turns in unison, looking to the ceiling. In the distance, high and above atop a massive rock wrenched from the ground floats the main settlement of the 79th floor, dim shinsu moons illuminating the buildings and spires visible from below.

Khun suddenly claps in rapid succession. “Alright everyone, enough gawking.” Eight other faces turn to him. He cracks a smile at that, enjoying the attention.

“Good job on the floor test. That went a lot smoother than we planned for. No one’s even hurt, but that was one hell of a marathon run.”

A familiar annoyed huff sounds from the group. Anaak crosses her arms, glaring at him.

Khun smirks. He continues sarcastically. “Thank you, Anaak, for being the decoy for the spear drones. None of us were targeted because of your exceptional speed.” A pointed look is shot her way. “There, better?”

She rolls her eyes, looking at Ran. She smirks at him in turn, and he raises an eyebrow at her, eyes narrowing in annoyance.

“Anyway. We’re going to stop for a day to rest up before continuing –”

That pulls a collective groan from the group, protests overlapping each other.

"A day? That's hardly anything!"

“We spent a month training nonstop for the last floor, A.A.”

“What about the floor test? We can’t prepare that fast!”

Khun raises a hand, silencing them. “I have news for you. There is no floor test here.”

The group erupts in a unified “WHAT?” with a bassy snort from Laure.

“Is that true, Khun?” Bam stares at him in surprise.

“Well, in a way.” He buries his hands in his blue coat, looking back up to the settlement in the sky. “Call it a test of resolve, if you will. This floor is like a sluice gate to stem the flow of regulars. Once we collectively decide to go up to the next floor, it’s nearly impossible to come back down.”

Endorsi speaks their collective thought, frowning in suspicion. “What do you mean by that?”

Turning back to them, he sighs. “What I said. Besides, we’re not stopping here for long. FUG is waiting for us.”

Silence overtakes them. 

Bam glances at the team. Uneasiness settles into the air between them, expressed in shifting of feet, eyes cast down, whispers between pairs. The demands of his patron organization, compounded with the floor’s “test”, meant one less escape route in the event of situations going south. 

He turns to Khun. “Because of that… don’t you think we should stop here for a bit longer? Talk about it, figure out what to do?”

The blue-haired man frowns at him in turn. He opens his mouth to ask what there is to figure out, but before he can speak, the others descend upon them like vultures, a chorus of squawking.

“Your leader wants a break, so I say we take one, blue turtle.”

“When was the last time we stopped anywhere, you slave driver?”

“I'd like to sleep in a proper bed and not have to wake up early for once.“

“Uh…” Bam turns to Khun in deference, wide-eyed.

“Please tell me there’s a spa here –“

Khun raises his hands. “EVERYONE! Please.”

The others fall silent, expectant eyes hopeful and searing holes into their tactician.

Ugh. Brows furrow together as he contemplates their options. The Royal Enforcement Division was chasing them two floors ago, fighting tooth and nail to pull Anaak and Endorsi from their clutches. In a moment of desperation, they were forced to strike an open-ended agreement with FUG in exchange for their compliance once they reached the 80th floor. Compliance in what, they had no idea. 

They couldn’t afford to stall on floors for long. Now here they were, between the rock of RED and the hard place of FUG, and frankly, he’s getting tired of all that, all those acronyms of fear and power, and would rather –

“Khun.”

He tears his eyes away from the ground, raising his eyebrows in silent acknowledgment. Bam smiles back, a soft, pleading expression on his face, and in the violet moonlight, he realizes the presence of subtle lines under his gilded eyes.

“Can we?”

Scrutinizing blue eyes sweep across their team. Similar expressions are written across their features, their postures. Anaak is leaning heavily on her inventory for support, her tail still bandaged from the last floor. Rak has sat down, having unceremoniously dumped Laure on the ground. Hatz rolls his shoulders slowly. Shibisu is throwing puppy eyes at him from underneath the fur-lined halo of his tracksuit hood. Wait, where did he even get that?

Guilt resonates within him in a dissonant chord. It’s true. They can’t keep going on at the grueling pace they had kept up for the last four floors. 

A huge, dramatic sigh, resignation visualized in a hot puff of mist, and the decision is made, the sentiment flooding his voice. “We’ll have to establish rotating watch schedules, then.”

“YES!” Shibisu calls out, and their team breaks out into shared smiles, excited chatter filling the air. “Bam with the save!” He strides up and claps an arm around Bam, both of them laughing.

“Okay, now I need my coat –“

“Hmph. There better be bananas here.”

“Come on, move your butts! I’m starving.”

Khun gives Shibisu a half-smile. “Isu. Hwaryun should be waiting for us up there, can you run ahead and meet her? The teleporter that will take us up is at the end of the path.”

“Sure thing, boss!” Grinning widely, he peels away from Bam and Khun, running through the crowd.

 

 

They follow the stone path, their voices and the river alongside them bubbling in the air. Bam doesn’t remember when they’d last been this relaxed. It’s a nice feeling, smiles all around, his friends together in one place, but he’s missing one in particular. 

He turns back to look. Face half-buried under a scarf, Khun walks apart from everyone, hands in his pockets. As usual, lost in thought, as he stares vacantly into the forest. 

Bam slows his pace, falling into stride next to him. They walk in their comfortable silence, a common, but not out of place, feature of their companionship. Bam knows that the light bearer tends to speak up eventually, bouncing thoughts and observations out without any sort of lead up, hypotheticals and otherwise. He has learned to patiently wait him out until he’s ready to speak.

This time though, he speaks first.

“Thank you, Khun.”

Suddenly brought back down to earth, Khun turns to him, confused. “For… what, Bam?”

“The others have been stressed out for a while.” His smile widens, and he turns to watch the group ahead of them. “We’ve been pushing them really hard. Even if it ends up being just for an extra day, I’m grateful.”

“...Sure thing.” It sounded distant, distracted. Bam furrows his brows, inspecting the other’s expression. He murmurs quietly. “Are you worried?” 

A bit of a dumb question - this is Khun, after all, and how would any of them not be worried about what’s waiting for them on the next floor? - but he asks it nonetheless.

Khun’s eyes follow the cobblestone path beneath him, the subtle rustling of the leaves his only response. Bam lets out a breath. “I’d say not to, but you will anyway, won’t you?”

Khun cuts him short. “What did you want time to figure out?”

Now the leaves rustle for Bam. “Well...” His eyes turn to the golden canopies above them, steadily giving way to the increasing number of purple-white crystal trees as they near the end of the path. 

“I don’t think there’s anything to figure out, Bam. We’ve never stopped climbing, and we’re not going to now, regardless of FUG’s involvement. Just like we have before.”

“I have a feeling I know what they’re going to ask for…” He swallows. It’s obvious, but his hopeful side tells him that, for the off chance he’s wrong, he should keep his options open. “I guess we won’t be sure until that meeting tomorrow.” Vocalizing the sentiment should have helped, and - it didn’t.

Blue eyes slide back over to him. “So you’re the one who’s worried.” 

A yell cuts through the air, pulling their attention forward. Shibisu waves at them from the end of the path, Hwaryun at his side, the massive crystal teleporter leading them up to the sky behind them. Bam shrugs at Khun and runs off to meet them, leaving the conversation behind.

 

 

In the village, buildings of white stone stand huddled together against the cold, nearly built on top of each other, shops and restaurants, homes and hotels laid wherever the space allowed. Between them, tall towers and the spires seen below pierce the sky, orange lights shining from stained glass speckled along its smooth surfaces, all capped in rounded hats of violet and gold.

It was small, but it was alive. Colors of all shades melt into a smeared spectrum of rushing people flowing in the streets. Regulars flitting in and out of shops, stopping at streetside booths, voices of all pitches flooding their ears. The group huddles closely in awe, taking in the views, pointing out this and that, taking notes on where and what to see.

Just behind Hwaryun and Khun, Ran prefers to observe rather than participate.

“...There is a winter festival beginning on this floor. The first snow is expected soon,” Hwaryun’s airy voice continues. He perks up at the mention of snow, eyes darting up to his sibling. The waning edge of a flinch on the other’s face fades, and practiced stoicism settles back in place. 

Quietly, he exhales. As if they didn’t have enough to deal with already, there goes circumstance adding more onto an already full, eclectic plate. His eyes flicker to Anaak, busy throwing shade at Endorsi regarding her impulsive shopping habits.

Hwaryun continues unfazed. Had she not noticed? “I secured a place large enough for all of us to stay in before the tourist rush. The others have settled in already.” She turns towards an alley between two restaurants. “Just past there.”

She leads them all to the foot of one of the many residential towers in the village. Their residence was on the top floor, several stories up. Ran can’t help but wonder if FUG was the reason that was possible - then again, of course it was.

A knock on the single door, odd questionable crashing noises, several confused glances, a muffled “ow”, and they are met with Wangnan’s cheery face when it swishes open.

“GUYS!” He calls out, loud as always, gesticulating erratically. “WELCOME to the Castle of Wangnan -”

“Stop calling it that!” calls a voice from inside.

Ran snorts, and several of their teammates’ faces drop at the sight of the blonde mop. Silence is going to be a foreign concept for their entire stay, isn’t it?

 

 

Laughter fills the air of their penthouse, echoing in the vaulted ceilings, the extended group of thirteen chatting and catching up around the clinking plates of dinner, spread across the long dining table in the living area.

“So, you see,” Wangnan goes on, regaling a tale to those unfortunately too close to him, “we were listening to the test administrator on the 71st floor explain the rules, when Ehwa sneezed and set his toupee on fire -”

“It was unintentional -”

“- and the admin ended up doubling the survival time limit because of that -”

“Hey Miseng, pass that bottle please?”

“Of course, depending on how you angle the lens on your observer’s multicam, you’d see farther with a limited aperture, or get all the closeup detail with a wider aperture -”

“Uh, Rak, Shouldn’t you be eating something other than bananas?”

“No.”

Shibisu glances around the table, amused at their little family. 

Countless battles had worn them down, but they are still uniquely themselves. He is grateful for this, that they can still find solace in each others’ presence, still able to laugh and play, yell at each other and cry, support and trust each other unconditionally, to still be able to feel . The tower takes away more than it ever gives, and they have survived its demands to sacrifice themselves to its flames. Not without some burns and sears - but intact. 

Standing, he calls for their attention, silencing the room.

“Hey guys. It’s been forever since we were able to be together like this, huh?” He meets their nodding faces, smiling at them individually. “Wanted to take a moment to say I’m glad we’re still together, this far up. It’s been one hell of a ride, and I’m proud to share it with all of you.” He raises his glass. “To us, and those behind us.”

Quiet affirmations and raised glasses ripple through the table, echoing his last words. 

“Same here.”

“Thanks, Isu.”

“That’s not the soju making you sappy, is it, tracksuit?”

Shibisu playfully shoves Hatz in his seat. “I’m trying to be encouraging, damnit, don’t ruin it!”

The group breaks into another round of laughter. He grins widely. “But enough serious talk. Get the drinks flowing!”

“They were already flowing!”

“Shibisu, you’re first watch tonight, don’t forget!”

“How could I forget when you’re here reminding me, Khun, my love?”

When will you stop calling me that?”

Proudly sitting back down, he hopes it was enough to remind them to keep their focus on each other for a while, rather than what was coming.

 

 

Drinking in excess is fun, but the whole following day gets as wasted as they were.

After a recovery bender dealt in water, coffee, and sleep, Bam comes downstairs to find the others crowded together in their living space, at the long table or staring out the floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors to the rooftop patio. Khun catches his eye, seated and surrounded by abandoned breakfast plates, sipping coffee. He raises a chestnut eyebrow at him, questioning. “Uhh... good morning? What’s going on?”

“Come look! It snowed overnight!” Miseng calls, buried somewhere in the new window treatment of teammates. 

“What?” Bam asks, confused. “Snowed?” 

He pads towards the fogged glass. Wide golden eyes are greeted with the whitewashed vista of a world buried in frost, blinding under the shinsu suns. “What happened out there?”

“‘Ole, have you never seen snow?” Wangnan asks, turning to him incredulously. “Come to think of it, none of the other floors have been cold enough when we passed them…”

“It does get colder the higher you go up the tower,” Ran says. “The 111th floor is pretty much iced over most of the year.”

Ehwa shivers. “Remind me to buy more coats, then.”

“Speaking of!” Endorsi calls over them, standing up from her place at the table. “I’m going to go explore the shops today.”

“Wait! We should all go! Show Bam what snow is all about!”

Excitedly, they start planning the day, shuffling off to get dressed. Bam strides over to Khun, placing his hand on the other’s shoulder. “Want to join us, Khun?”

Khun looks up at the touch, expression perfectly void. “We have to check in today. Go have fun.”

Bam’s smile falters at that. Of course, business comes first, and one of them has to stay grounded. “Alright.” Hand slipping from Khun’s shoulder, his voice takes a somber tone. “Let me know how it goes?”

“Of course, Bam.”

 

 

“Are you not going to join them?” Hwaryun asks as she sits at the table across from him, tea in hand. Her even gaze levels on Khun through the transparent screen of a lighthouse. The others had rushed outside onto the rooftop patio, a flurry of coats and excitement. 

“I’m pretty comfortable right here. Besides, your superiors demand our attention in two hours. I have reports to revise.”

“Hm.” She turns to the window, watching their teammates run about in the snow. Bam looks decidedly confused in his black winter coat, led around by a pink Miseng and purple Shibisu on either side, the latter pressing a snowball into his gloved hands. Shibisu points outward, a sly grin plastered on his face.

Her eye flicks back towards him. “You want to be out there, don’t you?”

Without a beat, “I hate the cold.” Fingers continue tapping on the keyboard, unabated.

Wangnan throws a snowball at Hatz, who dodges it without looking, sending the ball to a splattered end on the wall behind Bam. Bam lights up, sending his flying that way, muffled laughter drifting through the glass. Golden eyes wander to the view indoors for a moment, and look away.

He seems to be enjoying it.” She raises her mug to her lips. Cobalt eyes flick over to the view outdoors for a moment, and look back to her. Hwaryun chases a smile with her tea. “That’s... good?” Khun says.

Click, goes the mug onto the table. “Shame it’s without you there.”

He frowns at her. 

She continues, single eye fixed on him, lips curling upwards in her secret style. “Don’t waste the opportunity, fearless leader, to figure out your place going forward.” Leaning onto her elbow, she rests her chin on her palm. “Unless your fearlessness is just bravado?”

He glares at that, swiping the screen away. “What are you trying to say, Hwaryun?”

“I’m looking out for the future wellbeing of my god.” Her chair slides back as she stands, taking her mug with her to the sink. “What’s important to him, is important to me. So, don’t waste the chance. I’m not sure you’ll have another one.” She turns for the doorway. “I’ll see you in a bit.”

He watches her back recede as she leaves the room.

More figuring out? What do you mean by ‘my place’?

Khun turns back to the window. A snowball fight has broken out, madness in impossible to follow movement and white blurs flying endlessly through the air. Orange, purple, green and more flit about, composed and graceful in footwork, limbs and bodies curving and twisting to an unheard rhythm of battle. Laughter, name-calling, and things Khun would generally call idiotic - and in the midst of it all, Bam, grinning confidently.

As if sensing it, his vibrant gaze meets Khun’s through the glass. He stills, waving at him, motioning him to come outside. Khun smiles and shakes his head. A snowball smacks into Bam’s chest due to his distraction, followed by a cheering Anaak.

It’s always been with them. We’re fine, aren’t we?

 

 

As the conference call ends, Khun slams his fist onto one of his lighthouses, the hollow thunk thunderous in the empty penthouse living room.

Suspicious and hateful, remembering their exchange just hours past, he growls the words out towards the witch. “Did you know about this?” 

Indifferent to his outrage, stoic carmine studies him from her place on the sofa.

“I did not.” She crosses her arms. “However, there is no way around this, Khun, and not because we owe them a ‘favor’. The 80th floor is FUG headquarters, their territory. We’ll have to comply in order to pass and there’s no hiding Bam’s presence.”

“A whole year? A whole fucking year for the rest of us to sit around on our asses while they do whatever the hell they want with Bam? You know damn well they’ve always wanted to separate us from him, make him do what they want. You don’t have to do a thing, since you’re part of them.”

She tilts her head, face blank. Monotonously, “Is that what you think?”

“It’s what I know,” indignance, through gritted teeth.

“What happened to being objective?”

Objectivity?” He scoffs, a harsh, indignant sound loosed from his lips. “So you want me to let it happen? You want me to let FUG take him, alone, and have the rest of us dangled over his head as hostages, again ?”

“Have you considered what he could want, Khun?” 

That gives him pause. 

You don’t own him, light bearer, the FUG executive had dripped over the line. There is nothing keeping us from taking him by force. We’re simply... tolerant , of your little situation. Now adhere to our agreement.

Tolerating their team’s existence, tolerating the slayer candidate’s preference in team members, at their supposed weakness, the shackles on his wrists and ankles weighing him down. Tolerance is a half-step ahead of forced dissolution, heavy hands rested on shoulders in iron command. 

Would we get in the way?
Would it be easier for him without us around?
Or would we be exactly that, what weighs him down and keeps him bound?

He glares at her for a moment, then looks away. 

She lets out an unsatisfactory hum. “There is a path, one only you can walk, one you’ve always known and never acknowledged, to get your outcome.” Hwaryun stands, looking at the front door. “All you have to do is ask for it.”

He follows her line of sight to the door. “Ask? Ask for what?”

In that moment, the front door swishes open, revealing Bam. Blinking in confusion at their expectant gazes, he smiles uncomfortably. “Uh, hi?”

Hwaryun walks around the sofa to gather her red winter coat, resting over the back. 

“You’re back early.”

“I came to get you both, actually.”

Taken aback, Khun stumbles out, “What?”

“The others want to take us to the frozen pond in the forest. Something about... ice skating?” He shrugs. “Ran mentioned you know what that is.”

“...Oh.” Monosyllabic, weak in execution, a sound utterly loaded with dread. 

Bam turns wistful with the sudden reluctance. “You’re not going to send me back by myself, are you?”

An involuntary inhale finds its way into Khun. Hwaryun chuckles softly, and a glare of weaponized ire finds its way towards her.

Cold. He attempts swallowing his hesitation and some unsavory memories. Bam smiles at him through the quiet, eyebrows rising. 

It’s not his fault. It was a long time ago. Remember that.

“...Alright.”

He's always been terrible at telling Bam no. Even when he desperately wants to.

 

 

“A year?”

“Yeah.”

The trio walks through a narrow street side by side, parting the sea of people. Khun watches Bam intently from the edges of his eyes, half minding where he’s walking, guided by the others’ steps. Music and errant bits of conversation flood his ears, but he is all too focused on catching the next words from the brunet's mouth.

Eventually, Bam sighs. “Well, I was right.”

“Covert missions, they said. The vagueness is obnoxious,” Khun grumbles. 

“Can’t say I’m looking forward to it, but... It’ll be alright. We’ll work it out, like we always do.” He nudges Khun, who meets his beaming smile. “Stop worrying about it. We’re on a break!”

The bend in the street mimics the downward tilt of Khun’s lips.

“HEY!”

The three look up. The team stands in front of a shop, turning to face them, as Wangnan waves erratically. “They’re here!”

“Finally,” Endorsi huffs.

Bam smiles at the group. “Sorry. Let’s go in?” 

The team files into the tiny shop. As Bam moves forward to join them, he realizes Khun isn’t moving from his spot. He turns to get his attention and promptly frowns. 

He’s looking into the storefront, expression blank and unfocused, face sunk into his scarf. 

“Khun?” he asks.

Ran, having been watching, splits away from the others, quickly coming to Khun’s side and whispering a question Bam can’t quite hear. He starts pulling him away. “Sorry, Viole. Can you give us a moment?”

Bewildered, he stumbles over his response. “Erm... sure?” Bam watches them move to the side of the shopfront, huddled close. What’s happening?

Ran shoots him a pointed look from under his coat hood, and he reluctantly takes that as his cue to leave.

 

 

Bright and cheery, the older shopkeeper calls out from behind her counter. “Well, hello, all of you! Take a look around, ask if you need anything!”

Rows and rows of shelves greet them, neatly arranged. Boxes and shoes of all colors, whose blades on the ends glitter under the fluorescent light, catching the teams’ eyes as they scan across the stock. Several of them peruse the selection, comparing, picking out things here and there, voices filling the space.

“Endorsi, hold on. That’s the last box in green.”

Letting out a noise of disgust, she hands them to Anaak. “You can have it. It’s not my color.”

"We're going to see Anaak in shoes!?"

"What - I've already been wearing shoes, idiot!"

“I FOUND A PURPLE PAIR!” Shibisu yells, and it’s Hatz’s turn to shove him and tell him to shut up. He trails behind Endorsi, an armful of skate boxes teetering slightly.

“Miseng, here, I found a fit for you...”

“What’s the difference between, uh… toe picks?”

Apart from the rest stands Bam, rotating a pair of black figure skates in his hands. He marvels at them, not having realized there exists something as insane as knives attached to shoes, and it’s considered safe and fun. And he’s about to wear a pair of them to slide around on frozen water ? That’s what ice skating is, right? Not an arena to test these weapons on people? Could they be used as weapons? He wonders why he hasn’t seen them in action yet -

“Hey,” a familiar tenor voice floats from behind him.

His face brightens as he turns. “Khun! Everything okay?”

Bam’s expression slips as he takes a closer look, finding those cobalt eyes a reflected vision of frozen stillwater, far and away. His curiosity intensifies, since it’s clear as day and there, in the way he seems to be looking through him rather than at him, glassed surface belying presence. But he doesn’t dare tread the rushing rapids under that icy placidity, experience dictating Khun would only grind his inquiries to a halt when he was like this.

Curt and quiet, Khun mumbles. “Yeah. You need help with this, don’t you?”

“Ah.” He holds up the skate in his hands. “Y-yeah. I’m not sure what I’m doing.”

Khun takes the skate from him, inspects it, and looks at the shelves. “You’ll want to size down when picking ice skates. They should feel like an extension of your feet. Too loose and you risk your ankles, too tight and you’ll have a bad time the following day.” His eyes flit over the racks, picking out two boxes in differing sizes, both in black. “Try these. You’ll want figure skates to learn in, easier to balance with.”

“Have you skated before, Khun?” Bam asks, taking the boxes from him and fiddling with his shoes.

Khun looks away. “A long time ago.” There seems to be more to that, but he doesn’t elaborate.

Something’s definitely not right, but still, Bam won’t attempt breaking through the ice. Not quite yet. Idle conversation it is, then. Maybe he’ll crack?

“Are you skating with us?” Pointed to the floor as his first shoe comes off.

“Probably.” It’s not a no. Not a yes, either.

A moment passes. Maybe ?

“We’re roughly the same size, I’d guess? Or smaller?”

“I have my own pair.”

“Oh.” That maybe shrinks, as, for the first time in a while, Bam perceives an uncomfortable silence between them. After a little too long, “I’ll try these on, then. And let you know.”

Khun finally looks at him - his shoes. “Alright. Walk with them when you tighten them. See how it feels.” He turns around. “I’ll be up front.”

“...Okay.” 

Uncomfortable silence expands to uncomfortable distance.

 

 

Khun wanders back to the storefront, standing near the counter to wait for the rest. He taps his fingers against the sleeves of his crossed arms, looking out the window, Ran’s words rewinding and replaying.

A door closes behind him. “That’s quite a lively group!” The shopkeeper says, moving from behind the counter.

Khun scoffs. “They drive me insane.” Said flatly, but the shopkeeper only smiles broader.

“Doesn’t sound like it’s in a bad way. It’s rare to see such a big team this high up.”

“Is it?” It goes without saying, really. The tower destroys teams for lunch.

“This floor is special,” she continues happily. “You probably know there’s no floor test here?”

He plays coy, wondering what a local would describe this as. “I heard the rumor.”

“It’s certainly different from other floors. Everyone keeps the peace as best we can. It’s what we’re known for. Many people stop climbing here, and stay, or head back down. It’s not a bad idea.” 

“...Why is that?” Idly, he watches Bam lace up the second pair of skates.

She lowers her voice. “Starting on the next floor, the Great Families and a big crime syndicate control everything, and they’re dangerous. They don’t like to let anyone back down once you go up, even if you are a ranker. You’d have to go through the middle of the tower to get back down, and it’s easy to get lost. People disappear.”

“Any particular reason they keep people from coming back?”

She falls silent a moment, pensive. “Best guess? They’re just a bunch of power-hungry folk. Want everything for themselves, keep the raff out, come here to extort the surplus bounty of people for resources, as they sometimes do.” She huffs, cursing them under her breath. “As a result, this is the last stop to rest safely, if you decide to take the jump.”

Typical. Well, he already knew who and why. 

The 80th floor… They’re waiting for us.

Anxiety multiplies in his chest with renewed vigor, forcing him to take a deep breath. It does nothing, a candle’s flame to a blizzard.

He catches Bam’s eyes as the brunet looks up, testing the skates on his feet. Bam shoots him a thumbs up as Hwaryun, distracts him away.

He has to purposefully surrender Bam to FUG when this pretend vacation is over. He doesn’t know what they’re planning, what they will do to the rest of the team when they peel him away. It tugs at him uncomfortably, catches his breath in a vice grip, keeps him restless and unfocused. That irrational part of his mind breaks through its bindings for a moment -

If we don’t go up, like she says, if we stay here, I don’t have to -

And what an alluring thought, so agonizingly alluring. But, he can’t be greedy. He’s not allowed to be, this is not about what he wants. So if he’s purely objective, if he goes ahead with just letting things happen because he has no other options and this is the quickest way to continue ascending, then will it be alright? Will it be okay for him to accept Bam slowly drifting back out of his grasp, by blaming it on circumstance? 

So where is his place in all this? Yes, it’s with the team, but without Bam, they’re aimless. Who is he to stop it from happening? FUG won’t listen to him. Does Bam have the power to sway the upper echelons of FUG?

He was told before. He can’t be by his side forever. He said he would stay as long as he could. But that time seems to be drawing to a close, and it’s not until now that he finds he doesn’t want it to happen at all.

While the Bam of the future slips away in his mind, the Bam of the present comes closer, followed by their team. 

He offers them a practiced, tired smile. 

“Ready to go?”

“Yup!

 

 

“Hang on.” Khun and Ran step forward, checking the ice on the pond from the banks. Khun rests his bare hand down on the surface, a weak cyanic glow emanating from it as shinsu gathers at the tips of his fingers.

“It’s thin, starting from the center,” the younger one says. “There’s cracks at the edges near the waterfall, and an open patch to your left. It’s not good enough.”

“Yeah.” Khun replies.

Ran squats next to him. “Will you be alright?” he asks A.A., quietly. He’s met with a deep sigh and a hesitant response.

“...Yeah.” 

He closes his eyes, concentrating. Shinsu flows to his hand, the existing glow increasing in intensity, rushing rapids fluttering his hair and clothes. In one burst, threads of ice shinsu spider and thread through the pond’s surface, a strange, otherworldly whistling sound drifting into the air from the water. A piercing, almost metallic twang echoes sharply through the forest, and the previously dark surface immediately turns an opaque frosted white. 

Smooth, flawless, striking.

He exhales a large puff of mist from the exertion, standing upright and blowing hot air onto his numb hand.

On the banks behind the Khuns, their team sits on expanded blue lighthouses and jutted rocks, lacing ice skates and checking winter gear. They gawk at the pond surface in surprise, marveling at A.A.’s handiwork.

“Wooow,” In the still air, their conversations and sounds carry loudly, and Wangnan and Miseng’s unified exclamation is like a trumpet, reverberating from the tree trunks. The others snicker at them, and someone slides Ehwa a tease to stay off the pond for a while before she melts it. Angrily, she stands, shouting about idiots, when Rak cuts over the playful chiding by stomping towards the ice’s edge.

Compressed, wearing his usual getup and quite out of place as a result, he huffs at Khun. “Is it ready, blue turtle?”

Khun, walking back towards the group, stops and gives him a scathing once over. “You’re going out like that, gator?”

“Don’t question your leader, arrogant turtle. Is it ready?”

Derisively, Khun snorts. “It is. But if you fall in, don’t expect me to save you.”

Rak laughs at him. “Underestimating your leader?” A proud claw pointed to the sky, he declares loudly, “Watch, turtles! It’s time to teach you how to properly glide on ice for winter hunting.”

Khun spins around as Rak stomps his stump legs onto the ice. “Wait, gator -”

And then, true to his word, he begins to glide across the pond. Effortlessly, his two clawed feet pushing up his speed, ice not even cracking under his weight. He takes a fast lap around their rink, roaring and exclaiming proudly, before he shows off with a sharp turn and a hard skidding stop, crossing his arms triumphantly.

“Don’t underestimate me, dumb blue turtle!”

Khun, a potent mixture of exasperation and disbelief, decides on a middle ground and rolls his eyes so hard he turns around with it. Peals of laughter crack out from the group, and they take it as their invitation to the pond’s edge, giggling at the ancient on ice, wobbling in their skates. Anaak grins widely at Rak, sliding out onto the ice to meet him in a high five.

“Ugh.” Burying himself deeper into his coat, he makes for the lighthouses, passing the others. Hwaryun watches him go, and steps onto the ice.

Heading towards Bam’s black-coated silhouette against the gold and whitewashed landscape, he relaxes. Sitting on his lighthouse, still lacing his skates, Bam doesn’t look up.

Khun walks around him and sits down on the opposite side, his back to Bam’s own.

Silence settles in the space between them. The sounds of the others talking, and the rasping of skates, echo between the trees. Bam’s coat rustles louder as he moves. A loud “ow” resounds from the pond, followed by more laughter, as Shibisu apparently landed flat on his ass, based on Hatz's teasing. Someone tells Anaak to slow down, Endorsi cheers for Miseng's twirl.

Khun clenches his hands into fists within his pockets. The scraping is loud. Or is that the rustling of the trees? There’s a small breeze, intermittent, but there. At least it’s not howling. Not like back then. Snow crunching, something’s coming. Something’s coming

The crunching stops, and Bam’s gentle, humming laugh carries in the air, snapping him back.

Talk about it, Ran’s voice chides from the front of the shop. Don't pent that shit up.
Ask for it, Hwaryun’s knowing gaze taunts from her place on the sofa. Or are you not so fearless after all?
Wait for it, Bam’s patient silence hopes from behind him. Eventually, he'll tell you everything.

He swallows thickly. “Bam.” 

And damn , that came out weaker than he thought it would.

Rustle. “Khun?” Friendly, amicable, not a hint of annoyance in the single syllable.

What does he say? Where does he start? Does he need to explain?

Somewhere. Something.

“I…” Shakily, he sighs. “It’s true that it gets colder, the higher up the tower you go.”

“Mmm. I think you said your family is on a high floor. Is it cold, like this?”

A cynical half smile finds itself on Khun’s face. “Yeah. But colder.” He stares at his own feet, swinging one of them, compressing the snow beneath. “The Khuns dominate the 111th floor. We would get harsh winters. The season would change, and would freeze everything…” He pauses, remembering. “Everything.”

“Eduan’s wives would herd children out in large groups to take in the view. For fun, they said, in the snow. A massive lake bordered the main estate on three sides, so vast you could barely see the tops of the thick pine forest on the horizon. It was smooth, flawless, striking in its enormity.”

Confusion.

“It wasn’t until we were out there that we found out it wasn’t a simple outing. It was another trial, another funnel to whittle down the number of children, sieve the weak from the strong.”

Despair. Weakness.

“We were piled together into a teleporter. They threw us out there, scattered individually in the depths of the forest on the other side of the lake, with nothing but what we thought of bringing that day, left to fend against flora, fauna, weather - each other. Some of us had the foresight to bring ice skates. Some were dressed properly, others hardly. Some were lucky - or unlucky - and were siblings.”

He grits his teeth, an old, long simmering anger seeping into his tone. 

“The only way back was crossing that... thing, smooth, flawless, deadly with no shelter against the brutally icy winds of the snowstorms.”

Inhale. Exhale. Unclench the frozen fists. Take what you need.

“They planned those trials around snowstorms. Three days is what it took me to get across, alone, frostbite and hunger fast companions, and I had been one of those that didn’t have skates with me. I took a pair from someone who didn’t need them anymore. I didn’t know how to skate at the time, but I did after that. When I got back, I found out there were less than a quarter of us left.”

More rustling sounds from behind him, an exhale accompanied by a tongue click. Soft crunching. Blue eyes look out into the forest beyond.

“That was the first time I was forced into that trial. That’s why I hate the cold, Bam.”

Silence descends between them again. Khun looks back down, all too conscious of the gravity of the subject. He doesn’t want to look at anyone right now. Not like this, holding himself together by sheer will.

“How come you’re not going out there?” He says, the quiet suddenly intolerable.

Rustle. Bam’s voice is closer. “I was worried about you. I’ve been worried about you.”

Crunch. Shifting. Even closer.

“And if all that’s the reason why... I’ll sit here with you.” Rustle. “So you’re not alone.”

This is what he didn’t want, being a burden on someone. “You don’t have to.” 

Bam snorts in amusement. “But I don’t have much of a choice. I don’t know how to skate.”

Right. He’d forgotten about that, and - had Bam been hoping he would teach him? Shit. 

He turns, resting his weight on an arm and he’s met with Bam’s pleasant face much closer to his, having moved to sit next to him rather than across. When did that happen?

“It’s not a problem,” Bam gently asserts, and it’s warm, so warm. “You’re more important, Khun.”

He stares. He stares, and that voice in his head suddenly breaks free again with a cold realization -

Am I holding you back after all?

- and it drives another frozen spike of vicious anxiety straight through his heart.

A refocusing blink, a steadying breath. 

I am. I am, aren’t I?

He shoots up from where he is sitting, still shaky, eyes trained on Bam, who watches him in bewilderment.

At least once.

He holds a hand out to Bam. Widened gold trails up the blue sleeve, and though he knew his tired, practiced mask on his face was riddled with cracks of fear, visible in the infinitesimal ways Bam could see and others couldn’t, he will do this. 

At least once, I won’t be the cause.

A gorgeous smile lights up on Bam's face, the brightness of the midday light serving to magnify the radiance of his emotion, sun-flecked and burning everything around it away.

Focus on him, and him alone, until you think of nothing else. You’re here now, not there.

Bam reaches out for his hand, then; he pulls and stands before him, just as shaky, watching his step, and not letting go. One, two, then three steps, and forward, towards the ice. 

Together, they arrive side by side on the shore. Bam meets his eyes, still smiles, and sees those profound blues carefully locked onto him, depths focused on here and now.

“Heyyyyy, look who finally decided to grace us with their presence!” Wangnan yells, coming to a stop a ways away. “We plebeians are finally worthy!”

The others turn and look, Ran notably skidding to an abrupt stop at the sight, Anaak crashing into him and sending them tumbling onto the ice. Cheers and clapping breaks out, Bam laughing at the attention. “Guys, come on!”

“Don’t fall!”

“Black turtle won’t fall. He’s not as weak as tracksuit turtle.”

“Rak, my heart. I thought you believed in me.”

Khun grabs his attention. “Bam. You ready? Try to step out onto the ice.” He extends their clasped hands out, guiding him forward. 

Bam does - and an immediate disastrous slip takes him. He pulls on Khun’s arm hard to regain balance, and the other moves to grab the brunet, pulling him into a steadying embrace so he doesn’t fall. 

They freeze in a moment of panic and adrenaline, hands on each other’s arms, the closeness of their faces causing their breaths to intermingle in misted puffs.

“You okay?” Khun breathes out, eyes tracking between Bam’s. 

He stares back, fumbling for words. Realizing where he is, he looks down. “I’m - I’m alright.” He focuses on his feet, then snaps back up to Khun, face bright as a lightbulb. “Oh. I get it.”

Khun looks at him questioningly. “What?”

“I - I mean, uh - Khun, you don’t have skates on.”

Their eye contact breaks, and Khun looks down at the pond’s edge, hesitating. 

He takes a deep breath, his grip tightening on Bam’s arms, and then pushes him backwards, stepping onto the ice.

“Kh-” Bam begins to protest as they slowly slide back, and then it hits him, realizing his  boots have blades of ice on them. “Right. That.” 

Khun looks back up at him, a twinge of a smile on his lips. “You forgot.”

“Well…” Bam begins, sheepish. He doesn’t get to finish, Khun tugging on his arms and pushing off, skating them backwards at a pace befitting their nicknames.

He guides Bam on the basics, leading them in languid circles around a lonely bend of the pond, hands and arms tethered to each other for balance. Steadily, Bam quits slipping. He follows the rhythmic paces of Khun’s feet as the other leads him through a waltz on ice, quiet giggles eliciting from Bam and words of reassurance from Khun as confidence builds. 

Hands slip and fingers interlace, and they switch position, Bam skating in front of Khun across their little patch of ice. It transforms into a minuet, hands parting and bodies returning, slow and deliberate, with no intense actions and no resistance, the only focus their movement and each other, their gazes rarely breaking.

They skate into each other once more, and excited gilded eyes refocus on the man in front of him, the feel of his chilly hands in his own. Khun tries not to look away as much as he can, he notices, only occasionally allowing his frigid profile to silhouette against the white, grey and gold of their surroundings to orient himself, silvery hair fluttering and ribbonlike in the wind. 

But still, his brow sat as cold as the hour or so since they left the shore. Still, his cobalt eyes remained still water. And they refused to ripple under the breeze of the moment, the temperature never rising, a sadness that reached deep into the fathomless trenches once more visible in their reflection. 

So he tries something, sending a golden drop into waters too placid for his liking.

He tightens his grip and kicks to one side, beginning to spin them. Khun snaps to clarity in surprise, and Bam laughs, the light bearer sputtering and failing at words as the wave controller whirls them round. Khun tries to balance them - 

Then Bam lets go, pale slender fingers slipping readily from his hands.

Bam let go, and Khun stutters out his name, sent reeling out far and away and too fast, skidding to a hard angle of a stop, his eyes wide, fearful, locked in disbelief.

Bam let go, and slides rapidly in a straight line away from him, further and further - then deftly turns and goes off on his own, speeding into a circular orbit around Khun as though he'd been skating for a lot longer than a measly hour and ten minutes, happy and smiling and staring back at him all the while.

Khun smiles for the first time since reaching this floor. 

A genuine smile, as Bam's gradually narrowing orbit brings him closer, captures his hand in its gravity, and pulls them towards their friends.

Suddenly, everything that came before seemed far smaller in the scale of things, melting in the warmth of his palm against Bam's.

 

For once, just once, I’m not the cause.

 

Having been observing from a distance, Hwaryun smiles, and continues skating. 

 

 

Another rise of the shinsu suns beckons another sojourn into their winter wonderland.

The team spends the day wandering the decorated narrow streets of the white and violet village, the winter festival resounding night and day with music, song and dance both enticing and enthralling. 

A veritable family of comedic disasters they were throughout, Endorsi with her too-many shopping bags, now with an equally overloaded Ehwa; Anaak and Ran challenging each other endlessly to carnival games and causing scenes; the remainder of them busy stuffing themselves on sweet-smelling pastries and pulled about by threads of awe. They watch performers, try delicacies unknown elsewhere in the tower, laugh until tears stream gleefully, ride shoulders and lose Rak in the crowds too many times to count, forcing them to give him a balloon to locate him in the sea of people after he wanders off in pursuit of his newest discovery - banana pudding.

Above all those, what sticks out in memory best that day, was something small.

His one and only purchase from a stall on a whim, Khun gifts a fine, vividly indigo colored scarf to Bam. “You should protect your neck against the cold,” he had said, in the voice of an advisor. The true intention behind the gesture, however, was rendered clear as he laid and adjusted the cloud of cloth around the other’s neck to his stylistic satisfaction. 

Had there been a want for it, he would have sought and gifted him anything that caused those eyes to twinkle in wonder. Provided anything he could find that the other needed, as often as he could. Kept him happy. Kept him safe, hidden away. Kept him here.

Not that he would ever tell him that.

He swears he will never forget the sight, having indulged the sunny radiance of his unfettered joy, citrine eyes made delightfully incandescent against the deep contrast of the newly-settled fabric upon his mantle; such was the intensity of emotion on display. 

Simple pleasures shared in the company of longtime friends and allies - for a day, the tower and its pressures were readily yielded to the void. Caught in the cheery ambience of the revelry in the sky, they were a collective bubble of winter bliss.




It's a grounding one - the realization - that the most exquisite things in life are only defined as such by nature of their transience.




Khun breaks the news to the rest of the team at dinner, and it goes over as well as a bucket of ice. Loud complaints, bombastic anger, pops of incredulity, the bouncing of ideas without enough context to justify them, the tossing of 'solutions' too flawed to consider even in passing.

“We have another day and a half before we report. Don’t stress yourselves.”

The irony. He had vehemently denied there was anything to figure out. Again, the same tired questions, but outside of his head. How are they going to get through another possible team split? What does FUG plan to do in that year of ‘covert missions’, as they had so descriptively put it? What will happen to them?

Out of all the running mouths, one of them is quiet, too quiet. Khun meets his gaze. The look of concern, brows tilted upwards apologetically - 

He hates it.

Why does it always have to be like this?

 

Khun doesn’t realize until hours later that he’d unknowingly allowed himself to forget about their realities for a while, and he misses the distraction, the deviation in the source and complexity of his stressors.

He finds himself staring at the ceiling, another night wasted on internally cursing his mind for being too loud, blankets kicked off and away. Restlessness drives him to movement, giving up on sleep. 

Quietly he pads downstairs, finding a spot on the sofa facing the windows. Delicate flurries of snow cause the lights of the village below to blink and flicker, their distraction allowing him to merely exist for a short while as he curls up into himself, begging his thoughts to silence, willing the ever-present pressure in his chest to go away.

Neither listen, so his mind spirals in rebellion.

It had been fun, pretending to forget about the tower, their obligations, the necessary speed for climbing and the chase of danger on their heels. Seeing smiles, laughter, drinking a little too much, running a little too far, sleeping in late and not having to worry about the consequences the following day. 

Its been three days, and he's grown too fond. Spending time with the team, seeing a side of them he hadn’t seen since the second floor, facets of their personalities he hadn’t seen since, well, he doesn’t remember. Spending time with Bam. 

Bam. 

His face comes to mind, warm and bright. The relief he’d felt at venting that spectre of the past, his patient acceptance, the push to try. How his face had lit up when Khun offered to guide him onto the ice. The closeness of their faces when Bam stumbled into him to avoid falling, the wide gold that overtook his field of vision for a little too long. Contagious laughter and the tug of his hands as he pulled Khun into a whirl on ice and the silly wobbles to regain balance when he realized, nearing their friends on the other side of the pond, that he didn't actually know how to stop. The embarrassing way Khun stuck to his side afterward, Bam's mere presence enough to temporarily dispel the torments of his mind.

That pressure within him magnifies. Had he ever felt that hopeful, that alive since entering the tower?

That’s the trap of this floor, he muses. Experience a semblance of normalcy, away from death and endless struggle, and shake your resolve to climb. What more could you want if you can just forget it all, and simply live?

They leave soon. 

Back to reality, back to being under the thumb of an organization seeking to reconvert his closest friend into a mindless weapon, killing under a name that never defined him.

Hwaryun’s words intrude into his thoughts, a chilling, resonant knell. Figure out your place going forward. Don’t waste the chance. Ask.

His place. Was it away from those he cares about most, preparing them for their futures, then sending them off to where they are best suited? For their sake, their benefit. For our sake. Always. Like her.

It’s never about him. It’s just the way things are, that his place is apart, elsewhere, a secretive plotter plucking strings from underneath the veil of shadows, so that those walking alongside him can shine in the light.

Why bother asking about it? He's figured it out.

“You’re awake, too?”

Khun jolts in his seat at the low murmur, turning to find its source. 

Standing next to him, dressed in the remnant elegance of sleep and dim violet moonlight, the very person dominating his thoughts. 

“Did I scare you?” Bam smiles down at him, apologetic.

Khun sighs, turning back to the window. “It’s fine. I just didn’t hear you.”

The cushion dips as Bam sits next to him. “Thinking about it?”

“Among other things.” Khun watches a snowflake stick to the glass. “How come you’re awake?”

“Couldn’t sleep. Same as you, I guess.”

“Mmm.”

A moment passes, wind tossing the flurries about the air outside with a muted whistle. 

“It was fun,” Bam says. He chuckles, recalling a memory. “Who knew Rak could skate like that on tiny legs?”

Khun smiles. “Who knew he could even skate. I didn’t think turtles existed in arctic climates.”

A laugh. Then, “I wish we could stay longer.”

“Mmm.” The smile fades as quickly as it came. 

Another moment passes, and the next words are unexpected.

“Have you ever… thought about stopping?”

What? Khun tilts his head towards him. “Going up the tower?”

“Yeah.”

“Hmm.” Right now. “It’s not really an option, but…” Khun stops. Should he say it?

But he let something slip, and Bam hangs onto the thread eagerly. “But?” He prompts. Now having had opportunities to hear the inner workings of his light bearer’s mind, he jumps for every possibility.

Khun presses his lips into a thin line. How should he say this? “It might be forced someday. You have so many things at your disposal, FUG's boundless manpower and resources at your fingertips. And now, they’re waiting for you, and only you.”

A chestnut eyebrow rises. “Not just me. You’ll be there, Khun,” he replies. 

“For now. My track record says otherwise.”

“Khun. Do you...  want to stop here?"

Bam hadn't considered that a remote possibility. Acknowledgment was flint and tinder, sparking painfully within him, threatening to burn away the realization that had only just inked itself on his heart a day ago.

Blue eyes drop to the floor. "Of course not. But it’s going to happen, that you will have to leave me - us - behind to continue.”

“What?” Offense flares from the flames, and Bam whirls his body to face Khun’s, driven to correct him. "I won’t leave you behind, as long as you want to be with me." 

Bam presses his lips shut, staring at the other, anxious flames fanning within him. He went ahead and blurted that, the heat visible on his cheeks. But Khun misses the undertone, misses the visible ardor, long-frosted objectivism back in control and separate from himself. 

“The wider the gap between us gets, the more FUG and others pressure us,” Khun says, cynicism turning his gaze back towards Bam, “the harder it is to keep...” He trails off. Bam’s expression is… “Bam?”

His eyes are met with a piercing severity he's only ever seen in the midst of war.

“Is that what this is about?” Bam questions slowly. “You think I’m going to leave you behind because FUG wants me to? That you, or any of the others, are suddenly worthless to me?”

Khun turns away, trying to keep his rationality in check. “It’s what you have to do to get past the 80th floor. We’ll figure out a way to get -”

Bam scrambles forward suddenly, cutting him off. Khun reacts, unsure, and a hand finds itself on his face to turn it. A gentle push, but demanding in command.

“Listen to me,” Bam says, nearly hovering over the light bearer. Angered aureate eyes burn and quench in widened pools of sapphire, his words as intense as his glare.

“I won't leave you behind, replace you, whatever. You or anyone on this team. But you, especially you, I won’t. Get that idea out of your head. As long as you want to be with me, you’ll have a place at my side. I don’t care what FUG wants. You’re coming with me."

He sits closer to Khun, and waits patiently, waits as he usually does.

Responses flit through Khun’s mind, but die on his tongue, too focused on Bam, his words, those gilded eyes, where his hand rests on his face.

Figure it out.

A dazed stammer breaks the silence. "How… do we convince...?"

With a dramatic eye roll, Bam scoffs, adds his other hand to Khun’s face, and presses his lips against his light bearer’s confused own. A simple peck, carried by a complex tidal wave of emotion.

He pulls back, a few precious centimeters of air, eyes lost in a field of blue. “I convince you like this,” whispered against his mouth. “FUG can’t stop me from bringing what I need.”

Khun is a mess. He only feels, flickering heat and melting ice all at once, a slip and a plunge into something he hadn’t even considered possible, forcing his head under.

Bam pulls back farther, gaze sharp and fixed. “Because I need you. I already lived nine years without you, and it was absolute hell. I don’t want to be in a world without you again. Don't you dare believe I would leave you behi -"

Khun lifts his hands to Bam's shoulders, leans forward and captures his lips, needing to surface for the air the wave controller provided, the relief that allows him to breathe, mind silent, body relaxed, spirit alive.

Parting, skin still tingling where they had touched, Bam tugs him into an embrace. Out of embarrassment, Khun buries his face into the other’s shoulder, scoffing. 

"I'm an idiot."

"No, you're not."

"I am. For believing in the possibility."

“A possibility is a possibility, but…” A pause. "Okay, maybe a little."

"What?"

Bam chuckles, disbelief carried in his voice. "You really thought I would…" he stops, shaking his head. It was Khun; he'd consider every scenario, no matter how unlikely. Even in matters like these, which, though annoying in the way it tangles up his brilliant brain, is just who he is. Bam sighs softly. 

Tenderly, he murmurs into Khun’s hair. "Let me see you. Please."

Khun lifts his head, gaze meeting sincere, gold-dipped warmth. 

"I promise you. I'll never leave you, so long as you want to be with me. I'll say it as many times as I need to, remind you until you -” 

An interruption of lips swallows his last thoughts, and any that may have followed them.

Parting once more, Khun murmurs, "I believe you," the words brushing against Bam’s lips. For once, perhaps the first time since entering the tower, his face blooms a smile that reaches those blue ponds, gleaming with stars coruscant.

He presses their foreheads together, a unison of warm, calloused fingers tangling and  exploring a desire previously thought unattainable, contagious laughter and passionate whispers of devotion spoken in motion. Sensations, old and new, now theirs, now... different.

Better.

An amused hum interrupts their newfound peace, powder blue eyebrows shooting up in inquiry.

“What is it?”

Bam, features illuminated in the soft white and violet blades of night, a mischievous lilt to his smile drawn in shades of shadow, looks up to the corner of his eyes, thinking. “You know, maybe taking this break was a bad idea, if it gave you the time to start thinking about depressing, nonsensical stuff like this -" 

Khun playfully shoves Bam's side, eliciting a laugh from the brunet. He pulls them back together and locks his light bearer into an embrace, a fervent blaze in balance with creeping frost, a seawall rising against the turbulent cresting and crashing of their lives.

 

 

 

It’s still cold on the 79th floor, still peacefully pleasant, the bright shinsu suns above gifting the land rays of warmth from their violet perch above, as they always have, and always will.

All thirteen members of the team stand before the enormous crystal teleporter in the center of the village, reverently quiet. They stand united as a cordon, steadfast against the roaring tempest before them beckoning them into the maws of the unknown, storming within their minds. The teleporter’s humming is the only sound that fills the space, ramping up its execution sequence.

Khun shifts his weight between his feet, a mild ripple against the invisible cyclonic turbulence, his attention tethered to the shore of the wave controller standing to his side. Was he at all nervous, concerned? The wonderful reprieve of the past several days had slipped past quickly, too quickly for his taste.

“Bam.” Khun turns to him, hesitant. “Are you ready?”

“Mmm,” His expression turns pensive, his hands habitually burying themselves into his coat pockets. After a moment, “No.”

Khun scowls at him, to which Bam grins. “How can anyone be ready for the crap we have to put up with?”

Ah. That pulls a laugh out of both of them, a cathartic salve for Khun’s raucous mind. “We’ll figure it out.” Bam continues, the curl of his lips confident. “Like we always do. Together.”

Khun grins at him in turn, and Bam silently hopes he can keep bringing out those newfound smiles for as long as he is capable. “Together,” Khun affirms, nodding.

Together, they turn to their team. Bright eyes, fresh faces, watch their leaders approach the teleportation array.

“Be ready, everyone.”

Khun taps on the confirm button on his lighthouse. Waves of luminous shinsu envelop their huddled forms, a brilliant splashing of pointillistic light bright and crashing, spiriting them away to greater heights.