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We Can Touch Utopia

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Yunho was a fuck up. Not in the sense that usually goes with that phrase, though. No, in fact, he was actually pretty intelligent, not to mention that he was the best fighter on the fortress grounds. (Though his father would never let that fact be known outside of the walls of Fort Dumyat). He wasn’t a fuck-up in terms of life choices, either.

No, Yunho was a fuck-up because of something entirely out of his control. He was a bastard.

Bastard (noun): an illegitimate child.

His father was the Duke of Stirling, and his mother? Well, that’s anyone’s guess. She’d either run away from the life of being a mistress, or his father had got rid of her himself. Maybe with a noose. Damn his father for not doing the same to him, honestly.

As a bastard of a Duke, Yunho didn’t have many responsibilities. Other than a few public appearances a year and the occasional completely pointless lesson (in his opinion), he was usually left to roam free around the fortress, which led him to befriend the staff. He knew all the staff, which wasn’t all that impressive; the castle they lived in was quite small, even for Yunho’s father.

His best friend, Yeosang, was a servant in the castle. Well, that’s what Yeosang liked to call himself to ease the burden of what he truly was. Really, he was a poorly hidden slave. He wasn’t paid in the slightest and was only given food once a day.

Yeosang would have been an upstanding member of higher society, had he not been Marked. He liked to hide his gift (known by non-Marked as the Scourged) from everyone, but it was useless when his Mark was on his left cheek, in plain view. He couldn’t cover it, so he simply had to deal with everything that came along with the Mark.

Though he was treated poorly because of it, Yeosang still practiced his gift diligently. Yunho was never allowed to watch, but Yeosang had told him that he had control over the elements, especially water.

It pained Yunho to think about how his father was the one that was perpetuating the discrimination against the Marked, especially when the one being affected was his own best friend.

Of course, Yunho was Marked, too. His Mark was mercifully easier to hide, being on his bicep, and Yunho’s gift was a bit harder to pinpoint, much to the relief of his father. He was able to manipulate energy. Formally, his father had prohibited him from developing his power any further, but he’d figured out that he could use his powers very subtly. The only way he’d figured out how to in his extremely limited practice was as a boost to his fighting ability. He wasn’t sure how it worked, and as a result, he had to be very careful not to lose control.

He’d lost control once, several years ago. He didn’t mean to, of course, but he was hated by a few because of it.

It was supposed to be a routine fight. The parapet for the Duke of Dumyat that was always empty loomed above him. Only today, it wasn’t empty. He met his father’s eyes and an uneasy feeling settled heavily in his stomach, and he glanced away quickly.

His opponent was one he’d faced before, one of the top soldiers in the fort. He was quite a bit older than Yunho, but they were a decent match. They were actually friends, as they were somewhat similar. Yunho didn’t have many friends.

The two took their fights very seriously, but Jackson threw a smile across the ring before they started. Yunho smiled back faintly, his eyes flicking over to his father. Other than him, there were very few others, most of them leaning on the walls of the ring.

The fight began without fanfare, just a simple nod between the two fighters. Yunho was the first to strike; he feinted right, then caught Jackson off-guard with an uppercut from his left. Yunho was right-handed, but he needed to get the advantage in the fight right away, and a surprise was the best strategy to do so. Jackson wasn't able to dodge the punch but managed to pull back, the blow not as devastating as Yunho had hoped.

Jackson retaliated almost immediately, with only a split second for Yunho to react. Jackson was too fast, and he threw a punch to Yunho's left side, which he didn't see coming. Jackson's fist knocked the wind out of him, so he retreated to catch his breath.

Jackson and Yunho were a good match; they'd been fighting for years now. Their wins were about 50/50 and just based on how the first bout went, it looked as if Jackson would win today's match.

Time and time again, Yunho struck first but was bested by Jackson, who had always been faster than him.

Eventually, the blows to his torso wore at his resolve. He began to grow sluggish, and Jackson noticed his labored breathing, switching to a more offensive strategy. It was all Yunho could do to block his attacks.

Finally, a particularly strong punch to his gut threw Yunho to the ground. He rolled to soften the impact, and as the dust clouded around him, he spit out a mouthful of blood. He was about to forfeit. Jackson had lowered his fists and was looking at the downed boy apologetically.

But then he accidentally looked at his father. The disappointed look in his eyes was apparent as he gave Yunho's bloody and exhausted form a once-over. He shook his head and sighed, moving to leave the ring, clearly dissatisfied.

Something broke in Yunho.

Maybe it was a deep-seated desire to impress his father, or maybe just a previously untapped well of anger, but he began to seethe. He felt a tingle building under his skin, becoming an almost unbearable burning. He fixed his eyes on Jackson. He would not lose this fight.

He stood, and suddenly he felt as light as a feather. He couldn't feel the pain of his injuries anymore. He saw his father leaving from the corner of his eye, and a guttural roar bubbled up from somewhere deep inside him.

He smiled when his father stopped and turned. Then he focused on the fight. Jackson had raised his fists again, but his face was twisted in confusion. It was almost as if he didn't recognize the younger boy.

Yunho ran at Jackson without warning, as if a force was pushing him from behind. Jackson had plenty of time to block, but nothing could have protected him from the blows that Yunho threw. The first one broke Jackson's defensive stance, and the second connected to his jaw. It was as if a shockwave echoed through the ring. Yunho's perception of time slowed, and he saw Jackson's jaw breaking in painful slow motion. The crack was deafening. Yunho felt a sick satisfaction but pushed it down, disgusted by himself.

He looked up to his father. Yunho thought that maybe this time he'd be proud, maybe this time he would acknowledge him, but he simply sighed and turned away, leaving Yunho. As always.

He felt the strange energy drain from his limbs as the Duke walked away, and he fell to his knees. He could feel Jackson's blows again and was suddenly exhausted. The last thing he saw before blacking out was Jackson crumpled on the ground, cupping his injured jaw, and a medic rushing up to him.

Yunho would never forget the look of pure terror in Jackson's eyes.

Yunho shot up in bed, panting. A sheen of sweat covered his forehead, and he wiped it off. After he confirmed he was still in his bedroom, he threw the covers off his legs. It was still dark out, but he wasn’t sure exactly what time it was. There was no way he’d be able to get back to sleep with Jackson’s gaze burned into the backs of his eyelids.

Since the day of his fight with Jackson, most of the fighters at Dumyat had avoided him. Only the bravest fought him now, not that Yunho was complaining. He got more consistently challenging fights this way. He hadn’t lost control of his Gift since then, though.

If he couldn’t sleep, then he may as well take a walk. After pulling his boots on, he strolled out of his room. Whatever time it was, there were already a few servants awake. Yunho nodded to each of them. A few nodded back and smiled, but those who had heard of his gift shied away, offering only stiff nods. He may be a bastard, but he was still technically supposed to be respected. If he wasn’t Marked, he’d be practically royalty.

Yunho made his way to the kitchens and shoved a few rolls of bread in his pockets, taking a block of cheese and a knife right from under the head cook’s nose. The cook gave him an exasperated look and shooed him off, but smiled as the boy waved and walked away with the cheese in hand. Yunho thought, not for the first time, how the cook would treat him if he knew that he was Marked. He also sneakily took some clean cloth that was hanging by the doorway.

With his bounty in his pockets, he headed straight to where he knew Yeosang would be. The roof.

Yeosang often didn’t sleep well, and always woke up early. His favorite time of day was sunrise. Usually, Yunho wasn’t up early enough to see the sunrise; he liked his sleep thank you very much. But when he was awake, he’d join Yeosang and they’d sit on the roof and talk while watching the day begin. Yeosang couldn’t talk much during the day because many of the other servants siphoned off their work to him. After all, he couldn’t really complain. Nobody would listen to a Scourged.

So Yunho loved watching the sunrise with him. It was the only time where they were both free from the prejudice of the outside world when they could be just two regular friends.

Climbing out the hatch of the bell tower, he saw that the sun was just below the horizon. He took a moment to appreciate the dark orange that was just barely bleeding into the night sky before walking to their usual spot. Yeosang was there, just as he suspected, his feet dangling off the ledge that seemed as if it were made for this very purpose, fitting the two of them.

“Hey, stranger,” Yunho said, tapping Yeosang on the shoulder.

“Yunho, you’re up early for once,” Yeosang said, not missing a beat.

“You’re really mouthy for how quiet you are,” Yunho responded, sticking his tongue out and sitting down.

“I don’t get to sleep until 10 every day. Gotta stay sharp,” Yeosang retorted, and Yunho smiled. He produced the cheese and bread from his pocket and Yeosang’s eyes lit up.

“You really shouldn’t risk bringing me food,” He said, but Yunho could see that he was practically salivating at the sight of the food.

“You say that every time, and I’m not gonna stop,” Yunho chuckled, handing him the bread and beginning to cut a few slices off the block of cheese. Yeosang took one eagerly and placed it on the roll that he’d ripped in half. Yunho looked at him, a faint smile on his face, as the elder boy took a bite of the makeshift sandwich and sighed contentedly. Then he frowned, as he saw an angry red gash peeking out from under Yeosang’s shirt on the back of his neck.

“What’d you do this time?” He asked, pulling the cloth out of his pocket and soaking it with some water from his canteen. He reached out and began to gently clean Yeosang’s wound, his frown deepening when Yeosang hissed in pain.

“Oh, I brought the Duchess her tea a minute too late,” Yeosang said flippantly. “She had someone give me a few lashes. Only one of them broke the skin, though.”

“That bitch,” Yunho muttered under his breath. The Duchess was his father’s real wife, and because of this, she hated Yunho more than anything. He was the physical embodiment of the fact that her husband had been unfaithful.

Yunho cleaned the wound with the cloth and once he deemed it to be fully clean, he pulled Yeosang’s shirt back over the gash.

“We should just run away,” Yunho mused, turning to face the sun again.

You say that every time,” Yeosang used his earlier words against him and Yunho huffed, but didn’t argue. He didn’t know where they would go, anyway. Everywhere in Eritrea was hostile towards the Gifted, thanks to the words of the king. He called them the Scourged, and it had unfortunately caught on.

“Maybe we could go out of the country,” Yunho sighed, but his words lacked conviction. There was no way they could make it out of the fortress alone, let alone out of the country. Yunho’s father would have him tracked down and killed in a day, probably publicly claiming treason, an excuse to finally get rid of his son.

A comfortable silence settled over them as they watched the sun peek over the horizon. They could see into the castle grounds, and they watched as they slowly came to life. The few stablehands trudged from the barracks to the stables, yawning. A single servant scurried towards the icehouse, likely fetching some ice for the head cook, who must have started to make breakfast for the royals.

Some days were quiet, like these, and other days they’d talk nonstop. Today an unspoken camaraderie hung in the air between the Marked boys of the castle.

Yeosang eventually broke the silence with something Yunho would never have suspected him to say:

“Have you heard of the vigilantes that are fighting for the Gifted?”

“The what?” Yunho creased his eyebrows.

“There’s this group out there, somewhere in Eritrea, that has been fighting and winning battles with high-up officials in the Eritrean army who support the official and legal slavery of the Marked,” Yeosang clarified, but his voice didn’t seem very hopeful.

“Man, if only that were true,” Yunho murmured.

“If only,” Yeosang echoed sadly. “It’s probably just the non-marked spreading rumors because they’re scared of us.” He looked over the courtyard and grimaced slightly.

Yunho saw the despair Yeosang hid behind his eyes. He could see the same emotions and conflicts he felt on a daily basis. Perhaps one day the Gifted could be integrated into society, treated like humans. Even fall in love. “Hey, can you show me that trick you learned last time?” Yunho stuttered, trying to distract the other and lighten the mood.

“Yunho, you know I don’t like to use my Gift unless I’m practicing or really need to,” Said Yeosang.

“C’mon, pleeease? You showed me last time! You know nobody’s ever seen us up here,” Yunho stuck out his bottom lip and pleaded the elder. When he didn’t react, Yunho tugged on his shirt and Yeosang finally gave in.

“Fine, fine, just stop doing that face, please!” Yeosang laughed.

“Yess!” Yunho gushed triumphantly.

Yeosang rolled his eyes but concentrated. He held his hands in the air and began to form a ball of water. He’d told Yunho that he’d finally figured out how to draw water from the air, and Yunho had begged him to see it.

He managed to conjure up about a marble-sized drop of water and then began to manipulate it. Now this, he’d been able to do before. With a lot of concentration, he could make any shape out of the water and then harden it. The extent to which he could do it was limited, however. He couldn’t make anything very precise, as the ability relied on his prowess as an artist, and Yeosang couldn’t draw worth a shit. This time he made the shape into a lightning bolt, and Yunho practically squealed when Yeosang dropped the figure into his hands.

“For me?” His eyes shone, and Yeosang chuckled, his deep voice resonating.

“‘Course,” he answered, and Yunho inspected it closer.

“Wow, you’ve gotten better in just a week!” Yunho said, and Yeosang hid his smile at the praise.

“Ah, it’s really nothing,” He said, though it was a difficult--albeit useless--ability.

“You know, you might be able to do something similar,” Yeosang contemplated, and Yunho sighed, putting the lightning bolt into his pocket. “You know, like pull energy from things around you. Not necessarily people, but maybe plants?”

“I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to try,” Yunho exhaled. “I don’t want to accidentally hurt anyone, let alone you. Plus I have no idea if that would actually work.”

Yeosang hadn’t expected anything different from Yunho. He’d barely used his powers since his fight with Jackson, which just so happened to be the same day they met.

“Where am I?” Yunho groaned, touching his head gingerly. “I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck,”

“You’re in the infirmary,” a deep, soothing voice sounded from somewhere nearby. “The pain is from the wounds from the fight, plus you’re dehydrated. Drink.”

Yunho obeyed the servant quietly and looked him up and down discreetly. He had brown hair, and was somewhat tall, though not as tall as he was. As Yunho studied his face, he noticed that not only was he incredibly handsome, but he was clearly Marked. The mark was on his left cheek, and it was a simple swirl that was just a touch darker than his own skin. The boy noticed Yunho was staring at the mark and lowered his head in shame, turning away to soak a piece of cloth in water.

“Wait,” Yunho said, and the servant reluctantly turned, his face a mask of apprehension and slight terror. It broke Yunho’s heart. Instead of saying anything, Yunho pulled unbuttoned the first two buttons of his shirt, slipping the sleeve down to show his Mark.

Yunho’s Mark coincidentally also had a swirl, but it had two sides. On each side, two little prongs stuck out from the edge of the spirals. The servant’s eyes widened, and Yunho smiled warmly.

“I’m Yunho,” he introduced himself.

“Yeosang,” the boy muttered hesitantly.

Though Yunho had seemed upbeat that day, Yeosang had gradually noticed that he used humor to distract himself from his dark thoughts. Thoughts that maybe, he deserved to be hated. Thankfully, Yeosang had talked him out of it, but every once in a while they’d have a day like this, where Yunho was reminded of the time he lost control and was unusually introspective.

“Hey, someday you’ll be able to control your powers, okay? I promise, with me around, nobody will get hurt,” Yeosang boasted, lightening the mood a little, which was usually the younger’s role.

Yunho shook his head and smiled, relieving the tension. “As if you could stop me,” He joked, and Yeosang smiled. The sun was now fully above the horizon.

“Well, it’s about time for me to get to everyone else’s chores,” He sighed, stretching and letting out a groan. “All in a hard day’s work.”

“Don’t go,” Yunho pouted, but he knew that Yeosang had no choice.

“Sorry, Yunnie, I’ve gotta,” Yeosang reached over and hugged the younger boy, who leaned into the hug. Yeosang didn’t touch people often, but when Yunho needed it, he somehow knew.

When they parted, Yeosang left Yunho with a bright smile that melted his heart. He didn’t know where he would be without Yeosang, but he knew it would have been a bad place. He was so thankful for the other Marked boy, and it frankly pissed him off how he was treated by those around him.

Yunho had promised himself that he would always protect Yeosang, even if the boy himself was adamant that he shouldn’t.

Yunho let the sun warm him for a few minutes before heading back into the castle. As usual, he didn’t have much to do, so he made his way to the training ring. Maybe someone would want to spar with him today.

Once he was on the castle grounds, a servant’s child ran up to him and he stopped abruptly, smiling. The child didn’t smile back.

“Mr. Yunho sir, the Duke sends a message that you should attend the banquet being thrown by the Parks, tomorrow at dawn.” She said, and spun around, scampering off. Yunho sighed. Another public appearance. That meant that his father would parade him around and act like he liked his son. Bastard he may be, but his actual wife had never managed to bear children, so Yunho was his only child. He hated to be reminded of that fact, but he also needed to use Yunho as an example that he was “benevolent”, and “cared even for his bastard child”, so that the other Dukes wouldn’t know his true nature. Of course, nobody outside the castle knew of Yunho’s Mark. Bearing a Scourged child was a shameful event, and was never to be spoken of.

When Yunho got closer to the ring, he winced when he saw Jackson leaving. The older boy hadn’t seen him yet, and Yunho tried to keep his head down, so he wouldn’t be noticed. Jackson happened to look up, though, and a look of fear crossed his eyes before his gaze hardened, and he walked away, moving slightly faster than he was before. Yunho followed his moves with a wistful look in his eyes, thinking of days where the two used to happily banter before their fights.

If only he hadn’t lost control that fateful day.

Chapter Text

Why did his stupid father insist that they leave at dawn? Yunho rolled out of bed, finally managing to pull himself out of his sleep. Someone had been knocking at his door every five minutes and he swore whoever it was would lose a hand if they knocked one more time.

He threw on some clothes, ones that his father would consider acceptable for an event such as today. The event was a luncheon banquet, but they had to leave early because the ride to the Parks’ castle was almost five hours by caravan. Yunho wished his father would just let him ride his own horse there later since it would only take three hours tops. Of course, the Duke didn’t want him to attempt to skip out on the event, which he had tried to do countless times before.

The ensemble for the event was larger than usual; this time his father had decided to bring along a few servants to impress the Parks, who were very influential to the king. If his father could do anything, he could really kiss ass.

Yunho’s eyes lit up when he saw that Yeosang was among the servants who were chosen to accompany them. They were forced to walk, though, and Yunho gave him an apologetic look.

“Ah, Yunho. You’re finally here,” the duke said, venom dripping from his voice. Yunho bit back the sarcastic response he had on the tip of his tongue and simply responded, “Father, I’m sorry I got held up, there were some issues with my wardrobe.”

“Clearly.” His father stuck his nose up and turned around. Yunho rolled his eyes. His father would be so petty as to insult his clothing, which was perfectly fine. If he was going to hate his son, he should at least do it with class.

One of the servants offered to help him into the carriage that his father had entered. Yunho raised his eyebrow. This must be a very important event if he was allowed to ride in the same carriage as the duke. He politely refused the servant’s help and pulled himself inside.

The ride to the Parks’ was insanely awkward. The duchess was there as well, whom Yunho didn’t acknowledge at all, and in turn, she did the same. There was nowhere to look but outside the large window, and Yunho took advantage of that. He watched the rolling hills pass by and looked longingly at the plantations that dotted the countryside between the two castles. As he saw the owners of the plantations working in their own farms, he wished he had been born into a family that wasn’t royal in the slightest. He wanted to have a family that didn’t parade him around in a caravan of lies. He even dared to wish for a family that loved him.

As he was spacing out, a movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. He swore he saw something moving at the edge of the forest they were skirting. When he looked closer, it was gone, as if it had never been there.

While he intently searched the forest, Yeosang appeared and waved at him enthusiastically. Yunho smiled and gestured back into the carriage, rolling his eyes. Yeosang nodded, giving a sympathetic look. Yunho shrugged and sent his best friend a heart, who smiled back and returned his own heart. He watched as the head of the servants noticed their exchange and stormed over to Yeosang. He cringed as the man slapped Yeosang across the face, yelling something. He pressed his hand against the glass and when Yeosang looked back, once the leader of the servants had gone back to the head of the caravan, he winked at Yunho. In response, Yunho grimaced and shrank back into the carriage. He didn’t want to get Yeosang in any more trouble.

He hated this. Hated not being able to speak up and protect his best friend, as he had promised to himself. All he could do was hope that one day they’d have their chance to escape.

-----------------

As soon as the carriage had arrived at the Parks’ estate, Yunho practically sprinted out of the too-tight cabin. His father and the duchess took their sweet time getting out, and he knew they would do the same for the entire trip. As much as Yunho wanted this to be an in-and-out visit, it would likely take hours, and much longer than just the two allotted on the invitation. Not that he had been technically invited. The only reason the duke brought him to the event was to seem more benevolent to the public.

Every single event was a political minefield, and if Yunho slipped up even a little, if he let the guests know that he wasn’t the perfect little bastard child who only spoke when spoken to, he’d be severely punished. Maybe it’d be lashings, or maybe a few days in the cells in the basement.

Yunho glanced over at Yeosang quickly, and they met eyes. Yeosang looked tired already, but he smiled widely at the younger anyway, which made Yunho’s heart twinge. He smiled back but looked away quickly before anybody could notice their exchange.

The procession into the manor started, and Yunho followed the duke. Once they entered, he was immediately bombarded with the thick atmosphere of stiff political exchanges. The lady of the house was there to greet them, and Yunho fought the urge to scowl at her fake happiness. The first words he heard from her mouth were: “Oh, I see you brought the charity case with you. How good of you.” Her voice was dripping in sickly sweet poison.

“Well, of course. I wouldn’t want him to be a total societal reject. You’ve got to socialize them, you know?” the duke responded, and Yunho forced himself to politely nod as a greeting, acting as if he hadn’t heard the exchange at all. He produced a winning smile from somewhere deep inside him, which thankfully fooled her, and she smiled back.

“Well, I know one of the servants here is looking to get married off, you two might be a good match,” the lady said, and Yunho’s smile dropped a minuscule amount.

“You’ll have to talk to my father about that, I’m afraid.” He hoped she would forget. It was likely, too, that she was making an empty gesture. Either way, he didn’t want to put the idea of marriage into his father’s head. He’d try to find some poor peasant girl to marry him off, just to get rid of him.

He prepared himself for the rest of the day to be just as terrible as his first interaction.

-----

Of course, he was right. He’d had to dodge countless questions already, lying about what he did at the fort, lying about little things his father didn’t want to get out. He was just sick of lying. He’d managed to find a corner to hide in for a while before the luncheon started, but now he was forced to sit near the head of the table, just below his father and the duchess, and within earshot of the Parks.

Yunho was eating his food and trying not to listen to anyone, but he was pulled out of his trance by the duchess elbowing him so roughly that he was sure it would bruise. He shot a look of unbridled hatred at the duchess, then smiled at the Parks. He wasn’t sure what had been said, but he smoothly answered, “Yes, well it’s all because of my father.”

The Parks smiled back and Yunho glanced at his father, who nodded almost imperceptibly. He’d said the right thing. He let go of the breath he must have been holding, but the tightness in his chest remained.

“Yes, well he’s working hard on his fighting, but he’s just not getting there. I’m sure he’ll eventually be an acceptable fighter. The lessons, as well, could be going better. Though he is quite skilled at math when he decides to focus. Nevertheless, I’m proud of him.” Yunho had to choke down a bitter laugh. The look of pride emanating from his father’s face was pride, sure, but it was pride in himself. Pride in finding a way to insult his son but still seem like the understanding father-of-a-bastard to the Parks.

Thankfully his best friend happened to be in the exact right place at the exact right time, filling up a stein of beer for the duke at that very moment. Yunho let himself look at Yeosang, and he managed to cheer him up with a simple look of encouragement.

The glances they so often shared were the only way they could help each other during the day. If either of them let on how close they really were, the duke would be furious. So they kept their glances of solidarity quick.

The strength he gained from Yeosang’s glance lasted until dessert. He’d just had a few minutes to dig into what must have been the best cake he’d ever had in his entire life before his father decided to go and fuck it up.

“Isn’t that right, Yunho-ah?” His father asked him something and he couldn’t stop the anger that bubbled up from inside his chest. How dare he call him by a nickname like that?

“No,” Yunho replied coldly. “For once, I think you’re wrong.”

A tense moment of silence fell over all who had heard Yunho’s remark.

“Excuse us, I need to discuss an important matter with the young master Yunho,” the duke said, standing abruptly. If the attendees at the end of the table hadn’t heard them, now they had. Yunho stood up, and his chair made an unbearably loud screeching noise. Nevertheless, he held his head high and walked out of the room before his father. They barely made it to the hallway before his father slapped him in the face. Not hard enough to leave a mark, but it stung nevertheless.

“You despicable child, I should have killed you when I had the chance, sent you with your mother, that whore,” his father hissed, and Yunho narrowed his eyes.

“Well, there goes that lifelong mystery,” Yunho spat, and his father’s eyes darkened.

“One more word out of you and it’s not only you that will get punished. I’ll also find out which servant is your little pet, and I’ll torture him, too.” The words that came from his mouth seemed eerily true, but Yunho couldn’t contain his anger. He took a deep breath and forced himself to keep a level head.

“If I go back into that room, I will not be able to control what is said. I think it’s best for both of us if I leave,” he practically whispered, then turned and stalked away without waiting for his father’s answer.

He stormed out the front of the manor and choked down a yell. The guests might hear him, and he hated it. He felt so stifled, forced to be someone he was not, eating away at his resolve.

How dare he?

How fucking dare he call Yeosang his pet? Yunho could handle punishments against himself, but the minute Yeosang was in danger, that was unacceptable.

Not to mention how dare he dehumanize him by calling him an animal? Hadn’t Yeosang already been through enough as it was?

Yunho strode over to where the duke’s carriage was, where the horses were tied. He began untying one of the horses, his movements rough and jarring. He had to rummage through the tack pile left by the servants to find the right saddle and reins. By the time he’d procured the right ones, someone was behind him.

He turned around, expecting his father to have angrily followed him after making some barely-believable excuse to save face, but instead, there was Yeosang, his steadfast friend. A friend who was in danger for being here.

“Yunho, you have to go back,” Yeosang whined. “You’re not thinking this through. Yunho went to put the saddle on the horse, and Yeosang reached out and grabbed his wrist. “You’re going to get hurt if you leave,” he finished.

“I’ll be fine. You, though, are going to get hurt if you stay out here for too long,” Yunho said, gently removing Yeosang’s hand from his wrist.

“Take me with you, I don’t mind being punished. I’m more worried about you right now,” Yeosang was suddenly determined.

“No,” Yunho said with finality, his heart aching a little at his friend’s comment. He pushed that feeling away. He couldn’t watch Yeosang get punished for something that was entirely his own fault.

“I’m going anyway,” Yeosang stood firm.

Yunho spun around, looking Yeosang in the eyes.

“I can’t. I can’t watch you get hurt anymore. I’m going home to gather supplies and find the best way to get us out of that hellhole,” Yunho gestured vaguely in the direction of the fort. Yeosang was taken aback by the intensity in Yunho’s gaze, and for a moment, was lost for words.

“Why can’t we just go now, then?” He regained his voice. He was already one hundred percent willing to follow Yunho anywhere.

“Yeosang,” Yunho said, fighting his urge to just take Yeosang with him right now and run away from everything. “We can’t just leave empty-handed,” he forced out. “Besides, if we leave now, they’ll notice and send guards after us right away,” he reasoned, his confidence in his decision growing. Yeosang looked upset but nodded.

“Fine,” He sighed, defeated. “I’ll make up something to cover you.”

“Thank you,” Yunho breathed, relieved. “Now get back in there, before someone notices you’re gone.”

Yunho had fully tacked the horse by now. He mounted, watching as Yeosang walked dejectedly back into the Park manor. The elder boy turned back just before entering, and they shared one more look, but this time it was filled not only with apprehension, but for once, hope.

Yunho tapped the horse’s side with his foot and rode off, hoping the ride wouldn’t take long. The sooner he got to the fort, the more time he’d have to prepare.

--------

Yunho felt uneasy.

He wasn’t sure why, but for the last hour or so, he felt like something was about to go wrong. He’d tried to write his uneasiness off as trepidation about his and Yeosang’s upcoming escape, but something told him he was wrong.

So he’d been extra vigilant, but he was still somehow caught off-guard when it happened.

He was in a particularly dense section of woods when the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He put his hand on the longsword he carried with him. It was more difficult to use on horseback than a cavalry sword, but if he had to use it, it’d do.

But even with some warning, he didn’t have time to even draw his sword. It was as if he’d blinked and he was suddenly surrounded.

“Dismount and drop your weapon,” a man who looked as if he was around the same age as Yunho commanded, and he groaned inwardly. He wouldn’t usually be worried, but he could count five others in the shadows surrounding him.

“Who are you?” Yunho asked, not obeying the man, but also not drawing his sword, yet.

“That’s not important. You have information that we need,” the man said again and Yunho started sizing him up. The boy seemed tall, almost as tall as him. Beside him, the only other assailant he could clearly see was almost comically shorter than the first man. Somehow, he still gave off a “don’t fuck with me” vibe. Maybe because of the eyepatch over his right eye.

“Well,” Yunho said, finally dismounting his horse. “I have some very important plans, so you see, I’m not going anywhere with you.”

The taller man tensed, and the shorter's eyes (or rather, one eye) started to dart around, surveying the area.

“I’m afraid this can’t wait,” the tall man said determinedly.

I’m afraid it’ll have to,” Yunho said, drawing his sword.

“Don’t say we didn’t warn you,” the shorter man said, drawing his broadsword as well.

Yunho made the first strike but was blocked almost immediately by tall-guy.

He didn’t let that hold him back, and struck again, but was blocked yet again. He growled and decided to jump back to re-survey the situation, but was accosted by the shorter man, who was lightning fast, despite only being able to see out of one eye at the moment. The man hit him in the ribs with the flat of his blade, and Yunho frowned. If they were bandits, why weren’t they just going to kill him, or at the very least, seriously wound him?

He shook that thought off before he lost his pace. His fighting prowess at the fort didn’t seem to translate in this situation. It was a different style, but so far he’d managed to hold his own.

At least, until now. The shorter fighter seemed to practically dance around him, and Yunho couldn’t believe how fast he was. He got in what must have been seven hits before Yunho could even get his bearings.

Then, suddenly, the taller one was attacking too. They still weren’t injuring him seriously but they were bruising him, and every hit seemed to knock the breath out of him. He couldn’t catch a break, and before he knew it, he was on his knees, two swords pointed directly at his throat. How had he been bested so easily?

Just as he was about to give in and let himself be kidnapped, Yunho heard hooves galloping towards them. Then a moment later, a rumble started to grow beneath their feet. Yunho took advantage of the surprise and ran a few paces away from the first two attackers only to be stopped by two boys with brightly colored hair. They were both crouched in a fighting stance, one holding two daggers and the other wielding an axe.

As he turned to find another way out, he saw something he never thought he’d see:

Yeosang, riding a horse, looking very focused and very angry. Then the earth moved, and there was suddenly a wall between Yunho and his assailants. A huge gust of very hot wind prevented the others from reaching Yunho, and Yeosang rode up beside him, holding out his hand.

“Have you always been able to do that?!” Yunho exclaimed.

“Not important!!” Yeosang yelled, holding his hand out with more urgency this time. Yunho was about to take it before he was tackled.

“Shit,” he heard Yeosang say while he attempted to shake off the person currently trying to pin him. He finally got the upper hand, if only because he was much taller than the boy that was on him, the purple-haired one.

Yeosang had dismounted and was now busy fighting off a few of the other attackers. They didn’t seem to be hurting him, either.

Then, a man that Yunho hadn’t seen yet lunged at him, disarming him while he was distracted by the two boys with colored hair.

Instead of immediately attacking, the man held out his hands.

“Wait, just listen for a second,” he almost pleaded, but Yunho grabbed Yeosang’s wrist and started to run towards their horses, attempting to escape while they still could.

“Ugh, Jongho?” someone yelled.

“On it!” another voice answered.

They would have made it if they were a split second faster.

“Sorry,” was the last thing Yunho heard before something (someone?) hit the back of his head and his vision went dark.

Chapter Text

Yunho’s head hurt. His wrists, too.

He tried to move his hands, but they were tied together, the rope rubbing against his wrists.

What was going on? He remembered leaving the Park’s manor, but after that, everything was fuzzy. He was riding home, and then--

His thoughts were interrupted by two voices whispering, and he started to listen without opening his eyes.

“All I’m saying is that the Marked one is like, really cute,” one voice said dreamily. “I mean, so is the other one.”

“Wooyoung, why would you say that to me of all people?” another voice answered. There was suddenly a soft glow that Yunho could see even with his eyes closed.

Ah, right. He’d been kidnapped. These must be his kidnappers or at least two of them.

“San, stop being jealous, I can appreciate what someone looks like and still be loyal to you,” the other voice, ‘Wooyoung’ apparently, answered lightly. “Plus, I mean look at his jawline! He’s gorgeous.”

Yunho assumed they must have been talking about Yeosang. They’d called him ‘the Marked one’, which demonstrated two things. The first: they didn’t know Yunho was Marked. And the second: they hadn’t called Yeosang Scourged, which meant they were sympathizers or they were trying to convince them that they were.

Yunho also noted that he felt a twinge of protectiveness as Wooyoung fawned over Yeosang.

He finally opened his eyes and took in his surroundings. He was in a room with a large table in the middle. He couldn't see what was on the table, nor could he stand up to check, as he was tied to a chair. There were several maps on the wall, all having red markings all over them.

A few feet away, Yeosang was slumped over in a chair, tied to it just as he was. There was a bruise developing on his jawline, and Yunho sucked in a small breath. He wanted so badly to see if he was okay, but he couldn’t move. Damn rope.

The two voices he’d heard had in fact been coming from two of his attackers. One of the two had red hair, and the other purple.

“Look! That one’s awake!” The purple-haired one suddenly realized, pointing to Yunho, who simply glared at him in response.

“I’ll go get the others,” the red-haired one said, and Yunho watched him jog out of the room. He remained silent, but looked around the room again, looking for the best exit strategy.

A few moments later, the red-haired man came back into the room followed by the rest of the attackers from...was it earlier today? How long had he been passed out?

All but two of the men took a seat at the table facing him and Yeosang. The other two stood in front of him. He recognized them as the first two who had confronted him, the tall one and the short one with an eyepatch.

“Your friend, what’s his name?” the one with the eyepatch asked him, and Yunho had to restrain himself from spitting in his captor’s face.

“Why should I tell you?” he said through gritted teeth instead.

“It looks like we got off on the wrong foot--”

“Yeah no kidding, you fucking kidnapped us,” Yunho laughed bitterly.

“Okay, so, yes. Technically we kidnapped you,” the man responded, and one of the men sitting at the table cleared his throat.

“All we want to know,” the taller man standing next to the one who seemed to be the leader spoke. “Is everything about your companion there.”

“Simple,” Yunho muttered sarcastically. There was no way he was going to tell them anything about Yeosang. “But I’m not telling the likes of you.”

One of the men at the table stood.

“Seonghwa,” the leader warned.

“Just--let me talk for a little?” The man, Seonghwa apparently, asked. The leader hesitated for a moment but conceded.

“We don’t mean you or your friend any harm. We just want to give him a chance. We were going to ask you how to contact him directly and let you go, but then you got all defensive…” Seonghwa said, trailing off.

“Gee, I wonder why?” Yunho asked sarcastically.

“He makes a good point,” the purple-haired man piped up, but quieted unwillingly after the red-haired one elbowed him in the ribs.

“Anyway, we just want to offer him something, but now we need him to make sure you don’t spill anything if he agrees.” Seonghwa said, looking Yunho up and down.

“What exactly is it you’re offering?” Yeosang’s voice surprised Yunho, and he sharply turned to face his friend. He’d just woken up, or revealed that he was awake at the very least.

“Are you okay?” Yunho asked, fire in his eyes.

“Fine. My head hurts a lot, though.” Yeosang relayed after surveying the damage.

“Sorry about that,” a voice called casually from the table. Yunho ignored him.

“I’m listening to your ‘offer’,” Yeosang said cautiously.

“So, we haven’t introduced ourselves. I’m Hongjoong,” the leader introduced himself.

“Mingi,” the tall one who had been silent so far grunted.

“San!” the red-haired one introduced. “And Wooyoung,” he added, wrapping his arm around the man he introduced almost possesively.

“Seonghwa,” Hongjoong gestured to the second man that had spoken. “And Jongho.” A man, or rather a boy, raised his hand.

“So what?” Yunho snapped. He didn’t understand why he needed to know their names.

“So, we’re all Marked,” the man who’d introduced himself as Mingi said impatiently.

“Even if that were true, I’m still trying to figure out what you want with us.” Yeosang seemed to be getting annoyed, too.

“Hongjoong, just tell them,” Seonghwa said softly, and Hongjoong sighed.

“Fine. We’re the vigilante group you may have heard rumours about. We call ourselves The Scourge.”

“The Scourge? Isn’t that like a self-fulfilling prophecy?” Yunho pointed out dryly, raising his eyebrows. He now had even less reason to believe their story.

“Ugh!” San groaned. “It’s dramatic irony, why does nobody get it?”

“I told you we should have gone with, “Gifted” or something, babe.” Wooyoung whispered.

“Not nearly as dramatic,” San sighed, and Wooyoung hit him gently. Yunho frowned. He couldn’t get ahold of the dynamic of the group. Were they lying and just really bad actors? Or were they actually telling the truth? If they really were the vigilante group they’d heard about, what a ragtag team they’d gathered. Then again, they had taken both him and Yeosang down like it was as simple as tea on a Sunday afternoon, so maybe he shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Nor should he be too quick to trust.

“Give me one reason to believe you,” Yunho said, with less venom coating his words this time.

“Okay… The reason we were looking for you is because we were spying on Fort Dumyat. There’s rumored to be an official there who takes part in hunts for the Marked. We saw you and this gentleman--” he inclined his head towards Yeosang.

“Yeosang. My name is Yeosang,” he interrupted.

Yunho looked at his best friend sharply, fear in his eyes.

“Yunho, what Big Bad Thing is going to happen from us telling them our names? I’m just a servant anyway.” Yeosang said, but it didn’t comfort Yunho. Yeosang was starting to believe them, and he wasn’t sure whether they should or not.

“Yes, anyway, we saw you two on the roof yesterday. Specifically, we saw Yeosang using his Gift and decided to tail him. We were hoping to either recruit or relocate him.

We abandoned the mission for now. The well-being of the Marked is our highest priority,” Hongjoong finally finished.

“Prove it,” Yunho voiced, sitting back as far as his restraints would allow him.

Hongjoong nodded curtly and took off his eyepatch, revealing that while one of his eyes was brown, the other was gold. Like, molten jewelry gold.

Yeosang sucked a breath in and Yunho glanced at him, slightly more inclined to believe them now. But it wasn’t enough, so he stayed silent. After a few moments, Seonghwa began to step forward but Mingi grabbed his shoulder, preventing him.

“We don’t know if we can trust them with that information,” he warned.

“Let him,” Hongjoong said, looking intently at Mingi. “Call it a good feeling.” Mingi immediately released Seonghwa’s arm, and a silence fell over the room. Seonghwa stepped towards Yunho.

“I’m going to put my hand on your forehead. It won’t hurt you,” he said gently, and Yunho felt the urge to lean into the man’s touch. He resisted, instead simply nodding. Not as if he had a choice, anyway.

When Seonghwa’s hand touched his forehead, his eyes flashed with white light. He almost panicked, but then images began to float through his mind like memories.

“We could fight them,” a younger-looking Hongjoong said excitedly, even though he looked like he hadn’t eaten or slept in days. Yunho couldn’t tell exactly where they were, but it didn’t look good, and Yunho swore he saw a rat scamper at their feet somewhere.

The next words felt as if they came from Yunho himself, except that it wasn’t his voice.

“Even if we could escape, how would just two of us fight the King and his government?” Seonghwa’s voice asked.

“We gather more people. I know there are other Marked out there, just as mistreated as us. If we can gather enough of them…”

“I still don’t know how you expect us to escape. There are watch towers keeping us here that are manned 24/7. They’re trained to kill us on sight if we’re out of the barracks past curfew. What’s your genius plan?” Seonghwa sounded exasperated.

“Planning is my specialty,” Hongjoong said, a glint of inspiration in his eye.

Yunho’s vision faded back in.

“What was that?” he managed to ask.

“That would be the formation of The Scourge,” Seonghwa answered simply.

“Okay, sure. But how was I seeing it?” Yunho breathed, recalling how clear the image had been.

“That’s my gift,” Seonghwa explained. “Memory transfer. And to a lesser extent, premonitions. But I can actually control this one.”

Yunho didn’t have any words. He remained quiet for a while and watched as Seonghwa approached Yeosang, and presumably showed him the same memory.

When Yeosang came back to the world of the living, (had Yunho looked that shell-shocked, too?) the two shared a look. Yeosang nodded and Yunho eventually nodded back.

“We’re willing to think about joining you,” Yeosang declared.

“Woah there, partner, we never said this Yunho could join,” San butted in.

“If he’s not in, I’m not in.” Yeosang said firmly, and Yunho felt his heart swell with affection for the elder. “Plus, he’s Marked, too, so why shouldn’t he be able to join?” Yeosang smirked as the group’s faces all turned to ones of surprise.

Hongjoong nodded to Mingi and the latter pulled a knife out of one of his boots, advancing towards Yeosang. Yunho felt his heart beat faster for a moment of fear, but then Mingi simply cut the bonds on Yeosang’s wrists and he relaxed.

As Yeosang shook his hands and rubbed his wrists, Yunho’s binds were cut as well, and he immediately went to inspect Yeosang. He pushed back the elder’s hair and saw that the bruise he’d gotten crept from his jawline onto his neck, and Yunho frowned.

“We’ll stay under two conditions,” Yunho announced suddenly.

“I’m listening,” Hongjoong said. Mingi had taken a seat at the table, but perked up at Yunho’s words.

“One. Yeosang will not be put in unnecessary danger,” he listed, and Yeosang rolled his eyes.

“I can protect myself, you know,” he mused, but looked a little content to be doted upon.

“Two,” Yunho continued, ignoring Yeosang. “We can leave at any point.”

Yunho practically held his breath as Hongjoong mulled over the idea.

“Okay,” he finally said, and Yunho let the breath out.

“Whoo!” Wooyoung let out a whoop, and San laughed. “More friends.”

Not everyone was smiling as much as those two, however. Jongho seemed disgruntled, and Mingi had no reaction at all.

“I have questions,” Yeosang said, and Hongjoong nodded.

“Naturally,” Seonghwa seemed relieved, and Yunho was too. They needed as much information as possible, just in case this was somehow a trap. Yunho was beginning to doubt as such, though.

A few chairs seemed to appear out of nowhere.

Yeosang sat first, and Yunho followed close behind.

“I want to know all your gifts,” Yeosang asked first.

“Well, you already know mine,” Seonghwa was the first to speak.

“I can heal!” San interjected, almost happily. “And I glow, sometimes.” Wooyoung giggled and San scowled at him.

“I can convince people to do things,” Wooyoung answered, dodging San’s glare. “Like, I tell them to do something and they just do it.”

“My gift is survival,” Hongjoong started. “It’s kind of a hard to define gift, but essentially, if something or someone is a threat to my life, I can sense it. That way I’m more prepared when it comes. But, I’m also a battlemaster. Like I said, plans are my specialty.” He winked at Seonghwa.

“How did you even know I used that memory?” Seonghwa griped.

“Intuition,” Hongjoong responded playfully.

“I wish you’d stop using that answer,” Seonghwa sighed, but he was smiling.

“I’m the navigator,” Mingi interrupted gruffly. “I know roughly where we are and where we need to be.”

“How does that work?” Yeosang asked, practically in awe.

“I...just have this tug in my gut I guess,” Mingi elaborated awkwardly. Yeosang nodded, and Mingi visibly relaxed, glad to be out of the spotlight.

“That just leaves Jongho,” Seonghwa pointed out, and Yunho frowned. He’d forgotten Jongho was even there.

“Thanks,” Jongho said dryly. “I was trying to use it just then. I can misdirect attention from or towards anything. Seonghwa has been the only person so far who can see through it. It’s really inconvenient.”

Seonghwa raised his eyebrow, which shut Jongho up.

“Okay,tell us about The Scourge,” Yunho asked next.

“Well, it’s a long story, I don’t think we have the time…” Hongjoong trailed off.

“Okay, then just tell me exactly what it is you do.” Yunho was a little exasperated but assumed they felt the same about his question and demands.

“I can do that.” Hongjoong took a deep breath. “Basically, we run missions to undermine the officials who condone poor treatment of the Marked. Our overall goal--and I know this sounds crazy--but we want to overthrow the king.”

Yunho laughed outright.

“Okay, and this is your whole team? What, six people?”

“Well, eight if we can trust you,” San interjected, but he still looked a little embarrassed.

“We’re more effective than you might expect,” Hongjoong sounded confident, and something in Yunho settled and he nodded. He didn’t want to, but he was starting to trust the man.

“What’s your gift, Yunho?” Jongho asked out of the blue.

“Yeosang’s is elemental, right?” Wooyoung added, leaning forward. “So what’s yours?”

“Well,” Yunho hesitated. He wasn’t sure if he should share this information, but they’d all told what their abilities were. He glanced at Yeosang, who gave him an almost imperceptible nod. Yunho inched closer to him to steel himself, and spoke. “I don’t really know how to define it. I guess I can control energy, but I don’t really know how it works, or what I can do.”

Yeosang gently took his hand under the table, and Yunho couldn’t tell if it was comforting or if it made his heart skip a beat.

“Why don’t you know?” Hongjoong asked interestedly.

“I…” Yunho swallowed. They would never trust him if he told them the whole truth now, would they? “I lost control once. I hurt a friend. He never spoke to me again, and I could have killed him…” Yunho left out the fact that he was the son of a Duke with ties to the king, and that he had been forbidden to hone his ability.

He supposed that on some level, the ban on him using his ability had become a crutch. He didn’t want to use it. So when he didn’t, he could always blame his father. This was something he hadn’t even told Yeosang.

“So you don’t want to hurt anyone by accident?” San asked, almost excitedly, making Yunho frown. “That’s easy! I can help you control it!” he offered, and Yunho was taken aback. This stranger would offer to help him, even when neither parties fully trusted one another?

“That’s right, San uses energy to heal. Maybe your gifts work in similar ways,” Seonghwa mused thoughtfully. “It’ll be interesting to explo--”

Suddenly Seonghwa’s fist tightened. His eyes glazed over and he slumped in his chair. Hongjoong stood suddenly, putting his hands on Seonghwa’s arms. The elder started muttering something unintelligible, and he rubbed Seonghwa’s arms comfortingly.

“I’m here, you’re safe.” he whispered, and Yunho could just barely hear it. He glanced at Yeosang, who shrugged.

The episode was over in a moment.

When Seonghwa came to, he took a moment to collect himself before he made a statement.

“We need to leave here tomorrow,” he announced. “Trackers from Dumyat will be sweeping these woods sometime in the evening.”

“That means we need to be up bright and early so we can travel far enough away to not get caught in the sweep.” Hongjoong took the news in stride. It was as if the two had telepathy or something.

“I suggest you two get some rest. Jongho really did a number on you this afternoon,” he continued.

“There’s an extra room here, they can share it. You know I haven’t been using it,” Wooyoung declared, smirking. Mingi rolled his eyes at the last part.

“Okay, follow me.” San said, and Yunho didn’t protest. He stood and Yeosang was pulled with him due to their still-linked hands. He hurriedly let go, following San.

San brought them to a room with two beds. There was no other furniture, and the beds were outfitted with rough-looking rucksacks. San left them alone, and Yunho felt like he could finally relax. He collapsed onto one of the beds, groaning.

Yeosang sat on the other bed, only a few feet away.

“So, what do you think?” Yunho asked cautiously, rubbing his temples.

“I mean, it’s not like we could go back anyway,” Yeosang mumbled, laying back on the bed. “They honestly might be our best chance. We didn’t get supplies like we planned, but maybe we got protection.”

Yunho simply hummed in response.

“Plus, something in me wants to trust them. Wouldn’t it be like a dream to live like a normal person? Maybe it wouldn’t change right away, but we could at least be closer to normal?” Yeosang had let a little hope creep into his voice.

Yunho nodded. “That would be like a dream.”

Maybe it was a pipe dream, but after so long without hope, Yunho felt himself unwillingly clinging to the tiny shred they’d been given.

“You’re not very talkative today,” Yeosang stated simply, sitting up once more.

“Can you blame me? I’m not exactly in a fun mood,” Yunho teased, immediately lightening the heavy atmosphere.

“I guess not,” Yeosang answered, smiling. “You’re not as fun as you used to be.”

Yunho held out his arm, scooting over on his bed. Yeosang immediately obliged, coming to curl into the taller’s side. Yunho sighed. He thought about how angry he’d been today. Usually when he was with Yeosang, he was able to be pretty lighthearted despite their situation.

But today was different.

“I had no idea what was going to happen to us today. I was scared they were going to hurt you, and I wasn’t going to let that happen anymore,” Yunho explained smiling when Yeosang nuzzled his head into his side. “Side note, your gift is that strong and you never told me?”

“I’ve never had to use that much force before. To be honest, I didn’t know I had it in me. But you were surrounded and I--” he stopped as his voice faltered.

Yunho didn’t ask him to continue. He knew exactly what the elder meant.

He hadn’t meant to fall asleep with Yeosang still curled against his side, but he felt himself drifting off.

“I was scared I might lose you,” he heard Yeosang whisper before he slipped into unconsciousness for the second time that day.

Chapter Text

Yunho awoke with a start as he heard the loud clangs of metal from somewhere outside the room. It took him a moment to register where he was, and that he was still entangled with Yeosang. He heard the sound that had awoken him once again, this time louder. He untangled himself from Yeosang’s embrace and the latter groaned and opened one of his eyes. Yunho placed a finger to his lips, and Yeosang caught on, suddenly alert.

Yunho carefully picked up his sword from beside his bed and crept towards the door. The clashing of metal was now constant, and getting closer. He took a deep breath before throwing the door open and drawing his sword.

Only to find himself face to face with a frazzled looking Wooyoung, who was now frozen and holding two pans a few inches apart, Yunho’s blade pointed at his throat.

“What the hell, man?” Yunho whined and sheathed his sword. “Some warning would be appreciated.”

“Sorry!” Wooyoung squeaked, startled. “This is how we always wake each other up, I guess we forgot to tell you.”

A giggle from the doorway behind Yunho startled the two men.

Yeosang covered his mouth, trying to conceal his laughter.

Wooyoung was the next to laugh, and Yunho joined in, though he only let out a chuckle.

“Sorry I reacted so…” Yunho trailed off, looking flustered. “I guess I’m just still on edge from yesterday.”

“No problem, man.” Wooyoung chuckled. “But now I know pranking you would be hilarious, so watch out.” He then seemed to remember something.

“Oh right, we need to get going!” Wooyoung said, then excused himself to bang his pans together further down the hallway. Yunho rolled his eyes playfully, then turned to face Yeosang, who was beaming. He couldn’t stop himself from hugging the elder boy, who was caught off guard, then returned the hug.

“I haven’t seen you smile like that in a long time,” He mumbled.

"Shut up, you're being so sentimental all of the sudden," Yeosang acted like he didn't love it.

Yunho pulled away and looked behind Yeosang into the small room that they'd shared. The only belongings they had were on their backs and the bedrolls that had been there when they arrived, but Yunho assumed they would need them.

"May as well pack up the bedrolls since we don't have anything else," Yeosang said what Yunho was thinking. Once they had packed their 'belongings', they trailed back into the room they'd been interrogated in yesterday. They were whisked away outside where their horses were either already tacked, or had been since the day before.

A long day of riding stood before them.

---

Yunho was tired. Aside from a few five-minute breaks, their little makeshift travel group hadn't rested once. They were long out of the forest by now, but Hongjoong still hadn't given the signal to stop. Yunho was just about to ask if they could stop and eat something when Hongjoong finally slowed down and called out: "Time for lunch!"

Yunho practically melted off his horse and found a nice patch of grass to sit on. They had been following a river for some miles now, and he looked over the valley they'd stopped in. A mountain loomed far in the distance, and he could see the forests dotting the side of it. He didn't know exactly where they were, but as far as he knew that was Mount Skye, and they'd already traveled a full day's worth to the north.

Hongjoong came to sit next to him and beckoned the rest of their party too. They all gathered in a circle, and Seonghwa began distributing apples and some sort of flat, chewy bread that Yunho had never seen before. He took it willingly, though, being unsure when the last time he ate was.

"So, where are we headed now?" Yunho asked, munching on an apple.

Hongjoong smiled slightly.

"Good to know that you're curious," he said, nodding. Yunho suddenly got the feeling that the two of them were being tested more than he'd thought they were.

"We're on our way to Camelon to complete a mission regarding a member of the King's Guard at the stronghold there. He's been kidnapping and torturing Marked people," Hongjoong announced.

"What exactly are we going to do to him?" Yeosang asked, unsure of their goal.

"We have intel that Choi Hyunjae has been committing treason on the side, selling information to Traean merchants," Seonghwa explained. "We're planting evidence in the stronghold so that he gets convicted and jailed."

Yeosang let out a little breath and relaxed. He was glad they wouldn't be asked to hurt or kill anyone.

"Wait," he paused, his eyebrows creased. "We're infiltrating a stronghold? Can we even pull that off?"

"We have a plan," Mingi said without elaborating. Out of all of the other members of their party, he and Jongho didn't seem to be very open to the idea of the two joining them, and were being standoffish.

"Mingi, you could be nicer," Wooyoung shook his head. "Sorry about him, he's not used to having more people here than usual."

Yunho just nodded. He was glad Wooyoung called Mingi out because he had been wondering if Mingi had some sort of problem with the new members.

"But anyway, we've got a contact in the stronghold that will get us in. Jongho will be our main player in this mission since it is stealth-based, but we'll also be disguised as servants," Hongjoong explained in lieu of Mingi.

"All we really have to do is put our 'evidence' in the records room somewhere easy to find," San said confidently.

"What's the evidence?" Yeosang asked.

"A merchant's goods record, with a blatant entry for a purchase of Choi's information," Seonghwa smiled. "Courtesy of our contact."

"Sounds like an airtight plan," Yunho observed.

 

"There's always something that goes wrong," San rolled his eyes.

"But we handle it," Jongho added, sure to defend The Scourge's credibility.

"Normally we'd go in with a small team with a stealth specialty, but we've decided to all come in case you need backup. Camelon's stronghold is heavily guarded, and though we have a way to get in, if we get caught we don't have an exit strategy," Hongjoong seemed like he was in his element when talking about their plan. He wondered where the leader had learned his strategies but deemed it inappropriate to ask right out.

The rest of their little lunch break passed without much of importance being said, though Yunho did spot Seonghwa's Mark: a crescent moon curving around an eye. He'd seen it when the older man had stretched, lifting his shirt up just enough for the Mark to be seen on his hip bone.

Before he knew it, it was already time for their break to be over.

"Alright, guys! It's time to get going. I know this has been a hard day so far, especially for Yunho and Yeosang. We'll get to a campsite in only four more hours, though. So keep it up!" Hongjoong smiled and Yunho felt strangely re-energized.

He pulled himself onto his horse with renewed vigor thanks to Hongjoong's little pep talk.

But the mood didn't last for long. Yeosang noticed when an hour later, Yunho was slumping in his saddle.

"Are you tired?" He asked, concerned.

"Not physically," Yunho answered with a sigh. "It's just such a long ride with not much mental stimulation. In conclusion, I'm bored and it's making me tired."

It just so happened that Wooyoung had overheard them.

"I'll talk to you," he said, slowing his horse slightly so that the three of them were in a line. "It's no good to be tired. In our line of work, you've gotta stay alert."

"Work," San scoffed. "Like it's a job."

"Do you do anything else with your life, San?" Jongho asked from behind them dryly.

"Okay, fine. Work," San conceded easily.

"I mean, it is work," Wooyoung continued, ignoring the exchange between his two friends. "We don't technically get paid, but that's irrelevant."

"Actually, I'm pretty sure getting paid is a requirement for something to be a job," Yunho chuckled.

"Touché," Wooyoung said, narrowing his eyes playfully. "Is it getting paid if we steal from our targets when necessary?"

"Like a steal from the rich, give to the poor kind of situation?" Yunho asked, intrigued.

"More like, steal from the Marked abusers and use that money to further our cause…" Wooyoung mused.

"I think it's justified, then," Yeosang announced, and Yunho nodded slowly. "I mean, really, do those people need the money if they're in jail?"

"It's kind of a moral grey area, but we do what we need to survive," San murmured in a surprisingly wise turn of events.

There was a moment of silence, then Yunho remembered something he'd been wondering for a while now.

"So, I was actually wondering something about you two," Yunho asked. "The hair...is it dyed?"

Yunho had seen tribesmen from Trae who dyed locks of their hair, but he'd never seen someone from Eritrea with their hair dyed.

"Actually, our hair is our mark," San said, perking up.

"Really? I've never seen one like that," Yunho said, smiling. "It looks great, though."

"Yeah, that's kind of how we found each other," Wooyoung interjected, his lips curved up in a small smile.

Yunho was intrigued but didn't want to pry. Instead, he just tilted his head slightly, waiting to see if either of them would elaborate.

"So…" Wooyoung cleared his throat, seeming nervous but determined. "I used to live on the streets in Astoria."

Yunho nodded. He knew many Marked ended up being thrown out of their homes to avoid the shame of having a Marked child. He also knew that Astoria was one of the largest port cities in Eritrea.

"It was hard. I was so easily recognizable as Marked because of my hair, so I had to get most of my food from stealing or fishing," Wooyoung continued. Yunho happened to glance at San, and it seemed as if the red-haired man was holding back tears. "I had been living homeless for years when San finally came to Astoria."

Wooyoung paused, and San picked up the story.

"I was also sort of homeless. I'd been traveling with a group of people who found me useful only for my healing skills."

"Travelling," Wooyoung scoffed. "More like being towed along as a slave."

"Yes, well, I suppose," San swallowed. "Anyway, the group I was with was staying in the city for a few days. I spotted Wooyoungie one day, but I was with the group. The next day I snuck away from them to find him."

"We met several days in a row, and when it was time for him to leave, I begged him to stay," Wooyoung blushed. "He was the only person who had talked to me like a human in years."

"We've been together ever since," San said, looking at Wooyoung fondly.

"Like, together together?" Yunho couldn't stop himself from asking.

"Yes, is that a problem?" San was suddenly defensive.

Yunho burst out laughing, and San just looked at him, affronted and confused. His fingertips began to glow an otherworldly blue.

"No, no that's totally fine," Yunho finally managed to say, still chuckling slightly. He didn't feel the need to explain why he was laughing, but Wooyoung said something next that caught him off guard.

"So then, you and Yeosang are together, too?"

Yunho stopped laughing, shocked. He had no response to that, and instead just looked at Yeosang, who looked just as surprised as him.

"Uhhh, no?" Yeosang said, but he didn't seem too confident.

"Oh. Oh?" Wooyoung said, raising one eyebrow, intrigued by their reaction. Yunho coughed and frantically tried to come up with something to distract from the current topic.

"Uh, so when did you get involved with the Scourge?"

San paused for a beat, then answered.

"They found us, actually. Well, back then it wasn't called the Scourge, it was just Hongjoong and Seonghwa," he explained.

"Stop!"

A command came from the front of their little train, cutting their conversation short.

Yunho looked forward to seeing they were crossing paths with another group of travelers. Hongjoong was already talking with one of the travelers. There were five of them, all men, and all dressed in thick leather armor.

San leaned over to Yunho and whispered: "We have to be wary. Who knows what they want?"

Yunho nodded and took inventory of the weapons he could see. One of the travelers held a full-on flail, and Yunho swallowed. Anyone strong enough to wield a giant spike-laden steel ball on a chain should be feared.

He watched nervously as Hongjoong spoke to the man with the flail. He couldn't hear what was being said, but he could feel the tension in the air even from where he was.

It was only moments before Hongjoong looked up, beckoning Mingi over to the two.

"Something's wrong," Wooyoung suddenly seemed tense.

Yunho was unsure what exactly had clued Wooyoung into something being wrong, but he saw Mingi become tense as well. He sat up in his saddle and tightened his grip on his sword, still safely sheathed.

Before Yunho could even properly prepare himself, the man in the front reached for his sword.

In a flash, Mingi and Hongjoong’s weapons were drawn and pointed at the offending group. The latter wasn’t as quick, but they drew their weapons as well. What was left of the Scourge dismounted beside Yunho and Yeosang, who followed quickly.

“Listen, we don’t want any trouble. We could just say we never saw anyone.” Hongjoong tried to diffuse the situation before it got out of hand, but the man who seemed to be their enemy’s leader did not back down.

“Fine,” Hongjoong sighed. He twitched his blade and suddenly there was a whirlwind of motion. Mingi clashed swords with one of the men, and Yunho watched in awe as Hongjoong and the man wielding a flail circled each other. As the man twirled the flail, Hoongjoong darted behind him somehow and managed to slash the back of the man’s arm. Not a fatal wound, but debilitating nonetheless.

Not wanting to waste another second, Yunho dove into the battle. Jongho was holding his own against one of the larger men, so instead, he moved to help Seonghwa, who only visibly wielded a whip. The man they were against was smaller than the others but was light on his feet. Yunho waited for Seonghwa to attack first, and his whip caught the ankle of the man, who grunted. Yunho took that opportunity to strike with a slash and managed to carve a deep wound into his forearm.

“Wound, don’t kill,” Seonghwa panted once they’d both retreated a few steps. They both lunged at the same time, and Yunho found that they worked together quite well. Seonghwa somehow managed to disarm the man, and Yunho struck the back of his thigh, felling him. Jongho appeared out of nowhere, knocking the man out. Apparently, he’d already taken care of the man he’d been wrestling with. Yunho looked to the last flurries of movements, watching as San managed to knock out one of the men with the hilt of his dagger.

Yeosang had been helping him, and Yunho saw the dust settling around him. The sunlight filtering through the dust and the sweat on his brow made him look ethereal.

He shook his head, looking anywhere but at Yeosang.

The men that had confronted them were all knocked out, some bleeding slightly, but all were breathing.

How they had managed to take out this many men this quickly was a mystery to Yunho, but everyone else looked annoyed.

“They just had to fight us,” Mingi sighed, rolling his eyes.

“That--” Yeosang started, drawing Yunho’s eyes back to him. “That was fast.”

“They were never really a threat,” Jongho just shrugged, slinging his axe back over his shoulder.

Yunho just raised his eyebrow.

“They’re all fine, no big injuries. Just the usual,” San said after inspecting each man.

“We need to hide them so they’re out of sight until they come to,” Seonghwa explained.

They began to carry the men towards the edge of the forest. They all paired up to carry one man besides Jongho, who managed to carry one man over his shoulder without much effort.

Once they were done, Hongjoong beckoned Yunho and Yeosang.

“That should have shown you, but we need to be aware at all times. That was a quick battle, but something could go wrong next time. You need to be able to stand your ground.

The two men just nodded, their faces twisted in determination.

After a few minutes of San checking them over to make sure nobody had injuries, they got back on their horses without a scratch.

Yunho was now determined to find his place in their team.