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Things That Breathe

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               Minho presses his palms hard against the counter to steady himself. He squeezes his eyes shut and grits his teeth. “Do you think this is fucking funny?”

              “A little.” Hyunjin snorts. “The view from up there on your high horse isn’t looking so great, is it?”

              Minho feels more than a little murderous, but the acid dripping down the back of his throat forces him to keep his mouth closed. He focuses on the granite underneath his hands, the sound of the air conditioner clicking on, the endless darkness painted across the backs of his eyelids—

              Then the kitchen door swings open, Felix hurries in, and the sharp scent of blood sends lightning searing down his spine again. He doesn’t recognize the choked gasp that comes out of his own mouth, and white noise rushes to fill the aching void between his temples. He feels Felix’s hand on his shoulder, gentle as ever but firm enough to keep him in place. “I think you should go home,” he says softly.

              Minho digs his fingers into the countertop and flinches as crushed granite collects under his nails. “I’m fine.”

              “For fuck’s sake,” Hyunjin groans. “Being a martyr isn’t going to get you anywhere.”

              “He’s right, you know.” Felix lets his hand slip from Minho’s shoulder. “Why are you torturing yourself?”

              Minho sees Seungmin’s sad eyes and concerned frown; hears the pity seeping into his voice.

              I can control myself. I’m strong enough to do that.  

              He sees Felix on the freezing asphalt in a slick, shiny pool of his own blood; sees Hyunjin standing over him with a predatory glint in his eyes. His stomach twists in on itself. “I just…” It comes out as a strangled whisper. “I want to be better than this.” He opens his eyes, and Felix is staring at him with a concern that makes him want to cry.

              “I’m not asking you to drink from him,” he murmurs. “I’m just asking you to go home.”

              Hyunjin raises a hand. “I’m okay with you drinking, for the record.”

              Felix throws him a withering glare, and Hyunjin only cocks a brow in return.

              Minho shakes his head. He aches down to the marrow of his bones. “What’ll happen to him if I go? You can’t just,” he gestures toward the closed kitchen door, “leave him here.”

              “Why does that matter?” Hyunjin asks. “He’s hardly your concern.”

              “He’s become my concern,” Minho shoots back. “He’s only here because of me.”

              “Okay, Narcissus.”

              Minho’s fingers curl into tight fists, and he hasn’t punched Hyunjin in years but the grating pain in his throat could easily change that—

              “Stop it,Felix says softly. Minho ignores him and takes a step forward. Hyunjin spreads his arms wide, egging him on, but Felix is between them in the time it takes to blink. “I said stop it!” He reaches to push Hyunjin away, but there’s a stunning amount of force behind it, and Hyunjin topples to the floor. “I’m not going to stand here and listen to this!” His eyes are bright with an anger Minho has never seen before. “Make up your goddamn mind and stop arguing!” He turns on his heel and stalks out the door, forcing the scent of blood back into the room. Minho’s insides turn to magma and he shuts his eyes again.

              “Jesus Christ,” Hyunjin hisses. Minho hears him pull himself to his feet. “Now look what you did.”

              A sharp retort slides into Minho’s mouth before he can stop it, and he barely manages to swallow it back. He knows that, as Felix’s Maker, Hyunjin feels fiercely protective of him, so it’s not a surprise when he leaves the kitchen fast enough to make the door swing wildly on its hinges. The room falls quiet, save for the sound of muted EDM. Siyeon always turns it down low when customers start to leave, and Minho wonders how many of them decided to stay. He wonders if Jisung decided to stay. The thought of him stumbling up the stairs, too drunk to stand on his own without grasping at the railing, makes Minho feel a little sick. He’s become my concern. He digs his nails into his palms. I can control myself. I’m strong enough to do that.

              It hits him the instant he pushes the door open. He’s prepared for it this time, but the serrated blade of pain that slices down his throat doesn’t hurt any less. He clenches his teeth and keeps moving.

              Jisung is still there with his arms splayed out in front of him and his cheek pressed against the bar. Minho hears the slow thrumming of his pulse. He’s asleep. Siyeon eyes him with a detached curiosity as she polishes glasses. “So?”

              Minho looks away. “So what?”

              “What’re you gonna do about him?”

              “I…” He swallows. It hurts. “I don’t know.”

              She hums and places a glass back on the shelf. “He can sober up in the lounge, but don’t expect me to take responsibility for him.” Her eyes are icy when Minho looks back at her. “I was generous with Hyunjin, but I expect better from you.”

              Of course she does.

              Minho can only nod.

              He takes a step toward the bar—one, two, then three more—until Jisung is a foot away with his pulse like thunder in Minho’s ears. The sharp tang of alcohol comes to rest on the back of his tongue. Jisung’s breaths are slow and steady and soft. His lashes are long, casting shadows on his face in the dim lighting, and streaks of glittery eyeshadow are smeared along his cheekbones. He’s so, so pretty. Minho reaches forward with the intention of jostling his arm, but he pulls his hand away at the last moment. Maybe he shouldn’t. Maybe he can’t.

              Blood running black on church steps.

              God, Jisung is so tantalizingly breakable.

              The woman’s neck snapping like a matchstick in his hands; her limbs turning into a ragdoll’s and her blood so warm against his teeth—

              He chokes back the century-old guilt that refuses to go away. He’s better than before. Stronger than before. He’ll prove it to Seungmin, and he’ll prove it to Hyunjin, and he’ll prove it to himself. He reaches out again and nudges Jisung’s shoulder as gently as he can manage. He doesn’t move. Minho frowns and jostles him a bit harder, but Jisung only mumbles something under his breath and swats at his hand. “Jisung,” Minho says. “Y-You need to get up.” He digs his fingers into his shoulder—just a little, he tells himself. Soft, gentle, just get him to wake up—but Jisung is drawing in a sharp breath and blinking up at him.

              “Ow,” he mumbles. His eyebrows lower. “You’re hurting me.”

              “I—” Minho yanks his arm back and barely avoids smashing a half-full martini glass. “I’m sorry, I-I didn’t mean to—”

              But Jisung’s eyes are already turning soft again. His smile is slow and lazy. “You want to.” He moves to sit up and wobbles dangerously in his seat. “Y’wanna hurt me so bad, huh?”

              Minho shakes his head and takes a step back. His feet shuffle loudly across the tile. “No.”

              Jisung hums and slides from the barstool. His legs give out instantly, and Minho hates the way he moves on instinct—the way he rushes to Jisung’s side in half a second, the way he catches him with an arm around his waist—because it isn’t done out of concern. It’s done with the lightning-fast speed of a predator securing its prey. It’s biological. The beast claws at its chains. Yes.

              Jisung has grabbed onto a fistful of Minho’s shirt, and his breath is white-hot against his chest when he huffs out a laugh. “I’m not that drunk, I promise.” It’s comical, really, because he’s swaying on his feet and the syllables are jumbled in his mouth. It’d be so easy—

              No.

              The employee lounge is just past the bar and down the hall, and Minho tries to move forward. Jisung melts against him. “No, wanna stay here.”

              “You can’t.” The force in his own voice takes him by surprise, and he grimaces. He’s a monster, he’s deadly, he’s vile. “You can’t,” he repeats, softer this time. Jisung doesn’t protest again, but Minho can hear his breath hitching in his throat. It’s only a short distance—Minho can see the lounge door from here—but he’s sure it’s the longest journey of his life. Each step has Jisung pressing harder against his chest and mumbling into his shirt. Minho’s fingers start to shake where they’re latched onto Jisung’s waist, and dizziness sweeps through him in a potent wave. The light in his periphery morphs into hazy darkness and he’s stumbling over his own feet—

              The lounge door swings inward under their combined weight—how did they get here?—and Minho pulls back from Jisung as quickly as he can. Jisung’s feet falter and he stumbles backward onto the sofa. The room is too small for this because Minho has his back pressed hard against the opposite wall and it isn’t far enough—it isn’t far enough to escape the flames sizzling across his skin; it isn’t far enough to dull the ache flooding his mouth; it isn’t far enough to ease the tension in his muscles.

              Jisung is staring at him with his head tilted to one side. “Come here,” he says softly. He tips forward in his seat, but he manages to catch himself by digging his fingers into the leather couch cushion beneath him. God, he’s so drunk.

              The animal caught between Minho’s ribs tears at his insides and accepts the invitation. His feet move of their own volition, his muscles poise to strike, his fangs extend and he—

              No.

              He coughs and splutters as clarity rushes back into his head. He reaches for his own mouth and flinches at the fangs pressing against his fingertips. Disgusting, vile—

              But Jisung is looking at him with the same dark, half-lidded eyes from before. Alcohol is still running hot in his veins, but Minho can hear his heartbeat pattering faster than it should be. “I asked you to come here,” he whispers.

              “Jisung, d-don’t.” It’s choked and desperate. “Don’t.”

              Jisung rises from his spot on the couch and stumbles forward. Minho tries to move back, but Jisung catches himself with a hand on his shoulder. Their faces are inches apart like this. Minho’s fingers curl into fists at his sides. The pain is all encompassing, shredding through each and every muscle with an unceasing vengeance. Jisung’s breath fans across his mouth. God, how would he taste—

              “Stop pretending,” Jisung murmurs, “that you don’t want me.”

              Static down his spine, white noise in his ears—“I don’t.”

              Jisung hums and brings his free hand to the side of Minho’s neck. Heat sears through his bones and settles in his chest. “You want to hurt me.” He trails a finger down the column of Minho’s throat. The strangled whine that slips past Minho’s teeth is loud in the space between them. Jisung’s fingernails dig white-hot crescents into his shoulder. “You want to bite me,” he whispers. They’re so close, Minho can nearly feel the drunken words against his lips. “Don’t you?”

              The darkness is spreading to the tips of his fingers; the beast is clawing at its restraints; the bloodlust is rising, rising, rising—“Yes,” he breathes. “I do.”

              Jisung shudders all the way down to his toes. “Do it, then.”

              Jesus Christ.

              “I—” His tongue presses against the backs of his fangs. His hands have found their way to Jisung’s waist, though he doesn’t remember putting them there. He’s soft. He’s delicate. He’d crumble so easily under his fingers; he’d snap like a matchstick, his limbs would turn limp as a ragdoll’s—“I’d kill you,” Minho gasps.

              He’d kill him.

              The certainty of it spills through him like ice water. Guilt and disgust slide sticky across his tongue until he chokes. He shoves Jisung away roughly and trips over his own feet as he rushes for the door. It slams closed behind him. He’s down the hall and up the stairs before he’s thought about where to go, and he ends up with his hand over the doorknob and his feet stuck in place. Lightheadedness seeps into his brain with every second that passes until he’s left with a full-body exhaustion he hasn’t felt in decades. He tries to stumble back down the stairs, but the room tilts at an unnatural angle. He slumps onto a step halfway down with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. Everything aches. He wishes he could die.

              He doesn’t know how much time passes, but customers continue to squeeze past him on their way out the door. The club empties eventually. Siyeon turns the music off.

              “Are you going to stay there all day?” She collects empty glasses from a corner table. “The sun will be up soon.”

              Their performance had been just before midnight, and he flinches when he thinks of how long it’s been. Hours upon hours, and he hasn’t even made it down the stairs. But he figures it hardly matters in the grand scheme of things. Hours mean nothing in the face of eternity. “Maybe I should go,” he whispers.

              Siyeon snorts. “It took you this long to figure that out?”

              “I just…” He shakes his head. It hurts to move. “Who’ll stay with him?”

              She pauses. There’s silence for a long while. When she turns to look at him, her expression is unreadable in a way he’s never seen before. “What are you doing, Minho?” It comes out so soft, a human would’ve missed it. He’d mistake it for concern if he didn’t know her so well.

              He wets his lips and looks away. “What do you mean?”

              “You know what I mean.”

              “I…” It sticks behind his teeth. He doesn’t know what he would have said, anyway.

              She doesn’t say anything else. It’s worse this way, though, because Minho can feel the disapproval from across the room, amplified in the pointed quiet. He stands up, but she’s turned her back to him. “I’m trying,” he says. “I swear I am.”

              She pushes a mop across the floor in wide arcs. Her tone is neutral when she asks, “Trying to do what?”

              “To be better?” He’s not sure why it comes out like a question.

              “Torturing yourself is making you better?”

              “I’m not… I’m not torturing myself.” He curls his fingers around the banister. “He knows that I… I mean, he knows… how I feel. He knows, and yet he keeps coming back? He’s not even upset.” The railing threatens to bend under his hands. “He told me I shouldn’t feel bad, Siyeon. He told me I shouldn’t feel bad and I could’ve fucking killed him.”

              Siyeon stops. Water collects in a small pool beneath the mop head. “What a masochistic kid.”

              There’s a tightness in Minho’s chest, but he won’t cry—not here, not in front of her. “Can’t you tell me what to do?” It trembles. He prays she can’t hear the tears in it. “Just this once?”

              She tilts her head back and stares at the ceiling. Dirty water trails from the mop and snakes beneath the barstools. “I’m not your Maker, Minho. I’m not your friend. This has nothing to do with me.” She finally turns to look at him, and her expression is still inscrutable in a way that makes his skin prickle. “Get him to back off, if you can. But if I find a corpse in my club later tonight, you’re fired.” She lets go of the mop handle, and it hits the floor with a clatter that rings in his ears. “I don’t want to deal with the cleanup.”

 

 

              Siyeon leaves the club dark and silent. Minho still hasn’t moved from his place on the stairs. Hyunjin and Felix don’t come back, and he nearly texts them out of habit, but then he thinks of the bite in Hyunjin’s voice and stops himself.

              He watches seconds stack themselves into minutes on the clock behind the bar. It’s so quiet, he can hear Jisung breathing all the way down the hall—gentle, soft, steady. He thinks of the way those breaths felt against his mouth. He thinks of the way Jisung’s hands felt on his skin and the way he had stared with those dark, dark eyes. He tries to swallow back the predatory desire that rises in his throat, but with nothing in the room to distract him, it holds fast and makes his muscles ache. Maybe he should go, maybe he should leave, maybe he should hail a cab and shove Jisung through the door—

              But there’s a sudden hitch in Jisung’s breathing, loud in the crushing quiet, and Minho hears him mutter a soft “Jesus Christ.” His body tries to move back on instinct, one foot poised above the step behind him with his fingers curled tight around the railing, but Jisung is already stumbling through the lounge door. He has one hand pressed against his forehead. “What the fuck?” he mumbles.

              The spark in Minho’s veins ignites instantly.

              You want to hurt me.

              You want to hurt me so bad, huh?

              He bites down hard on the inside of his cheek. No, no, no.

              Jisung turns toward him then, all disheveled hair and wrinkled clothes, and his eyes widen. “Oh.” It’s uttered on half a breath. Minho doesn’t look away. “Are you… Are you leaving?”

              “I…” There’s a physical weight to Jisung’s gaze. Everything hurts. “I wasn’t sure.”

              He pauses. “Is everyone gone?”

              Minho nods.

              Jisung lets his body sag against the wall as he runs his fingers through his hair. “Must’ve been drunk as hell,” he mumbles.

              Minho can still taste the alcohol on his breath. Stop pretending that you don’t want me. “Do you… not remember?”

              He huffs out a sigh. “Not really. I remember the guys leaving me, but…” He trails off and waves his hand in a vague gesture.

              All Minho can do is whisper a soft “oh.” They lapse into a thick, stuffy quiet that only serves to whittle away at his nerves. An acid-tipped dagger sits poised at the back of his mouth.

              Jisung clears his throat. “Thank you.”

              Minho blinks. His foot slips off the step behind him. “For what?”

              “For not leaving.” Jisung shrugs and shoves one hand into his pocket. “Those guys from before were acquaintances from work, but we’re obviously not as close as I thought we were.” He laughs once, but it’s a short and humorless sound.

              Minho feels a dark emotion coil in his stomach like a snake. It doesn’t take long for him to recognize the venom it holds: anger. He’s angry at these faceless, nameless people for leaving Jisung dangerously drunk in the hands of a monster. “Don’t you think—” he starts, but he catches himself before he can finish. He’s hardly your concern.

              Jisung tilts his head to one side. “Don’t I think what?” His hair is mussed from sleeping on the lounge sofa, and his shirt is still hanging open at the collar. Even from this distance, Minho can see the makeup smudged around his eyes. He’s so pretty, so breakable—how could anyone leave him alone in a place like this?

              He wets his lips. “Don’t you think that maybe… maybe you deserve better friends? It isn’t safe,” with me, he nearly says, but he chokes it back, “here. By yourself.”

              Jisung doesn’t look away. “Really? Why’s that?” He takes a step forward, and there’s a pointed intention behind it that Minho tries to ignore.

              “You know why, Jisung,” he whispers.

              “Because you’re unsafe?” He raises a brow and moves another step closer. “If you wanted to kill me, wouldn’t I be dead by now?”

              Minho knows he should shift back, but his feet are nailed to the staircase beneath him. The air stirs between them with each passing second. The beast snarls in anticipation. “I don’t want to kill you. The thought makes me sick.”

              Jisung’s eyes are still trained on his own. “But?”

              “But I have the capacity to kill you,” he says. There’s an undeniable tremor to it. “And that should scare you.”

              Jisung pauses. His gaze trails from Minho’s face all the way down to his feet. “Humans kill each other every day. Am I supposed to be scared of them, too?”

              “You know that’s not what I mean—”

              “No, I know what you mean.” He strides forward until he’s at the bottom of the stairs. “But I can’t spend my life hiding away from every thing that could kill me.” There’s that look in his eyes again—that sadness Minho can’t comprehend. The breath that slips past his teeth is shuddery and small. “I don’t want to.”  

              Minho’s fingers shake where they’re latched onto the banister. He wonders what kind of sick joke the universe is trying to play on him. To have temptation here, feet away and so easily attainable, pushing and shoving and insisting—

              Get him to back off, if you can, Siyeon had said.

              I’ve tried, he thinks. I’ve been trying. I’ve tried so fucking hard—

              But then something slides into place with a sickening clarity. The monster rears its head and digs its claws in deep. Tell him. Nausea pools in his stomach. He’s disgusting. He’s vile. “I’ve…” His legs are suddenly boneless, and he sits down hard on the step behind him. “I’ve killed someone before.”

              Silence. The clock tick-tick-ticks behind the bar. An audible breath catches in the back of Jisung’s throat. His heart stutters a beat or two faster than before. He’s afraid.

              Good.

              “Just go home, Jisung.” The nausea rises, acrid and bitter. “And stop coming back here.”

              Jisung’s eyes don’t leave Minho’s face. “When?” he whispers. The next few seconds drag through a tense, tense quiet. Minho is about to ask what he means, but Jisung continues before he gets the chance. “When did you… When did you kill someone?”

              An incredulous laugh slips from Minho’s mouth before he can stop it. “What?”

              Jisung doesn’t repeat the question.

              “That—That’s completely beside the point.”

              “I want to know.”

              “Why?”

              Jisung hunches his shoulders and lets out a breath all at once. The neckline of his silk shirt tips ever lower, and the exposed skin has Minho curling his fingers into fists. “I’m not the same person I was five, ten, fifteen years ago. I’m sure it’s been even longer for you.” He sits on the bottom step and leans his back against the wall. “Though I understand if you don’t want to tell me.”  

              What a cruel, devastatingly beautiful joke this is. What can he possibly do now, with his lethality laid bare in the space between them? What can he possibly do now after trying and trying and trying—“1919,” he says after a long while. “It was 1919.”

              Sadness seeps back into Jisung’s eyes. “A long time,” he murmurs.

              Minho doesn’t know what to say to that. Jisung pulls his knees up to his chest and wraps his arms around them. The movement sends another blistering shockwave down Minho’s spine.

              “Is that when you…?” Jisung frowns. “Sorry, I mean, it’s probably rude to ask—”

              “When I was turned?” He’s never discussed it with a human before, and something about it feels undeniably wrong. But it’s all wrong, he thinks, sitting here in front of Jisung with thirst like needles down his neck. It’s been wrong from the start.

              Jisung nods.

              “Yes.” Minho swallows back the sudden, poignant sadness that threatens to morph into tears. “I was twenty-two.”

              Jisung opens his mouth, and Minho wonders what he could possibly be about to say, but then he closes it again and looks away. He keeps his eyes locked on his knees. Silence again, heavier than before. “I’m sorry,” Jisung says eventually.

              Minho watches him—the steady rise and fall of his shoulders, the fluttering of his lashes—and tries to push down the ache that climbs into his limbs. It’s different from the thirst, the pain, the want. It’s sad and soft in a way it shouldn’t be. “You had nothing to do with it,” he whispers.

              Jisung glances up then, and the expression on his face hurts to look at. “And you did?”

              Minho shakes his head. “I can’t place blame on any particular person.” He had wanted to, in the beginning. He remembers lashing out at Seungmin, trying to tear him apart with his bare hands, screaming and seething and sobbing for days. He remembers berating himself for going to the plaza in the first place when his family had begged him to stay. He remembers skirting every military base he could find for a month, slinking through barrack after barrack to try and find the one soldier who—“I gave up on that a long time ago,” he chokes out. It’s thick with tears, and he ducks his head in horror. Don’t you dare cry, Lee Minho.

              “I’m sorry,” Jisung repeats. It’s so, so small and soft. “I’m sorry for prying.” He stands then and shuffles up the steps, each footfall louder than the last, until Minho can feel him half a foot away. The thirst increases tenfold, and he flinches as white-hot pain lances through his chest. A sharp ringing ricochets from ear to ear.

              “Please don’t,” he gasps.

              You want to hurt me so bad.

              The tears from before are still rising in his throat, fueled by regret and self-loathing, and he presses his palms hard against his eyes. He won’t break down—not here, not like this. He will not let Jisung see him cry, curled up on the dirty steps of a Gangnam nightclub with his head in his hands. “You should go.” It comes out strangled and thin.

              Jisung doesn’t move. The moment sways back and forth at the end of a rapidly fraying thread. But then he sits down beside him close enough for their shoulders to brush, and the contact sends electricity down to Minho’s toes. “It’d be pretty rude of me to leave, especially after you stayed behind for me.” He pauses, and Minho wishes he knew what was going on in his head. “I hope you know I’m a better friend than that.”

              Minho nearly huffs out a laugh, but it gets stuck like glue behind his teeth. “We aren’t friends.” He looks over to see Jisung lacing his fingers together in his lap, only to pull them apart and then lace them together again.

              “We could be.”

              It’s so ridiculous, so completely absurd, that all Minho can do is stare.

              Jisung nods once before climbing to his feet. He holds out a hand, and Minho moves back until his shoulder digs into the staircase railing. “Come on,” he says. He reaches down until he’s able to grab Minho’s wrist in his fever-hot grip. It burns and aches and forces more tears to Minho’s lashes. “There’s somewhere I want to take you.”