Jinwoon's fingers went to the cards in his pocket the moment he saw the long-limbed man hiding in the snowy alley. He looked hard at the card face where a sullen man stared back at him, on his shoulder the tattoo of an armored knight riding a winged horse in midflight. The knight of swords.
Another one. The knave of wands, a man with a fearsome demonic mask tattooed on his back.
Jinwoon sidestepped rushing pedestrians and entered the alley, making sure his footsteps sounded against the street and catching the knight's attention. He didn't want the knight to think Jinwoon was sneaking up. "Hello? Excuse me?"
The boy turned to look at him, all greasy skin and unkempt hair. Jinwoon bowed politely, trying not to seem like a lumbering giant with his bulky body and even bulkier winter clothing. The man stood up and bowed back, uncertainty etched on every single line of his features, on every movement of his body. Jinwoon saw it because the man was tall, taller even than Jinwoon, and because there was very little clothing in the way. "Hello," the stranger said softly.
The knight of swords? Him? Jinwoon wondered. "I was just passing by and... are you cold? Or hungry? Or hurt?"
The knight, dirt on every inch of his face and shivering, looked lost as he considered the question. "No," he decided after a while. His stomach grumbled. "That wasn't me," he added.
Jinwoon wanted to smile, but he didn't know anything more about the guy... except that he was the knight of swords and that told Jinwoon more than it should. "I have some warm food at home. My brother's an excellent cook and he'd love to have some more people around."
The look in the knight's eyes told Jinwoon yes, but he stepped back and shook his head. "I really shouldn't."
"Some home-cooked food would do you well," Jinwoon pursued. Not to mention clothes and a hot bath.
"I can't leave," the knight insisted.
"We can come back here after a meal," Jinwoon said. "Or if you don't want food, I can bring you clothes."
The knight looked torn. He rubbed his arms and stomped on the ground to warm up. "No," he said, his breath misting visibly. He glanced pointedly behind him and added, "I can't leave him."
Oh, Jinwoon thought to himself. His hands itched for another draw, but now wasn't the time for that. "We should get him out of here. Somewhere warm."
The knight nodded with more energy since they started talking. He gave Jinwoon a smile heartbreakingly full of gratitude and crouched to help his companion up. The other guy was even larger and bulkier than either of them but looked terribly frail in the cold. Jinwoon unzipped his winter jacket and helped the knight put it on the stranger. They each took an arm and heaved the man upright, supporting him with broad shoulders and strength Jinwoon didn't know the knight still had.
"M home isn't very far away," Jinwoon said, ignoring the cold air and failing to ignore the worry that the man's body was the sickly kind of heavy and cold. The worst kind of heavy and cold.
The knight nodded. The man's breathing hitched and the knight's face flushed with worry.
"A short walk and we'll be there in no time," Jinwoon huffed, matching the knight's pace and ignoring the glances sent their way.
"Hear that, Taec?" the knight said, and Jinwoon realized he wasn't being spoken to. "Warm food and clothes. Come on, man."
"You'll love my hyung's cooking," Jinwoon said almost desperately. "He's so good that he can make chicken taste more like pork than real pork. Or the other way around, if that's what you want."
Taec groaned. Jinwoon took that as a good sign.
"I'm Jinwoon," he added. Conversation. Maybe the man was awake enough to hear, and hearing could help him stay awake.
"This is Taec," said the knight. "And I'm Chansung."
"Nice to meet you two," Jinwoon managed between breaths. He was a big believer in politeness.
"I doubt it," Chansung replied with strained humor, but it was better than nothing. "Not like this. But Jinwoon?"
A brief pause. "Thank you."
"Your talent for the cards is unmatched," Changmin said as he pressed a warm towel to Taec's forehead. He'd almost literally dropped everything when Jinwoon came home calling loudly for someone, anyone, and one look at the sorry tableau convinced Changmin that more than a little help was needed.
They hurriedly stripped Taec of his frozen clothes and wrapped him in Jinwoon's thickest blanket near the fireplace while Chansung hovered in the background, his worry emanating palpably in waves. They tried not to stare at the scars and dried blood on Taec's wrists. Changmin heated some water and told Chansung to wipe Taecyeon's skin clean, and in the same breath instructed Jinwoon to start chopping the vegetables. Both of them followed without a question. Emergencies gave Changmin an aura of absolute command.
Hypothermia and thirst. Frostbite and dehydration. Changmin fought back with the miracles of homemade chicken and ginseng soup, plus a lot more of his secret spices.
And when Chansung's stomach started growling once more when the soup started boiling, only then did Jinwoon allow himself to draw another card. The eight of wands. A woman nonchalantly gazing back with the tattoo of an alien face and its vessel face down on her shin. Oh. That explained... a lot. But raised so many more questions.
"He'll be okay," he said, rubbing Chansung's back but the knight stiffened at the contact... then let loose. As if he reminded himself that the contact was welcome.
"Yeah," Chansung said morosely. "Taec's a tough guy. He's been through worse."
Doubt it, Jinwoon almost said, because freezing to death was pretty bad by his book. But who was he to judge?
Jinwoon's thoughts were cut brief by a bowl of soup practically shoved under his nose. "You two should eat," Changmin said in his no-arguments voice. Jinwoon's hand automatically flew to his spoon and he wasn't surprised when Chansung followed suit.
They ate in silence to varying levels of absorption. Between every spoonful of soup, Chansung would touch his wrist to Taec's forehead and nudge him just a tiny bit closer to the fire. And Jinwoon watched each time, noting at the back of his mind that Chansung and Taec looked nothing alike and wondering how the eight of wands came about between these two.
They weren't brothers, that much was obvious. Not just by the differences in how they looked, but also by the way Chansung carried himself like Taec's guardian. It wasn't the usual brotherly dynamics, even if Jinwoon allowed that he didn't know who was older between these two. Perhaps the brotherhood was similar to the one between Jinwoon and Changmin?
The cards said Taec was the freedom-giver, the eye-opener, the locksmith who cast aside many doors. For Chansung, specifically? Or in a metaphoric sense?
Jinwoon realized he'd been staring and now Chansung was staring back. Jinwoon smiled and bowed his head in apology and Chansung took too long to return the gesture. But he did and maybe that was what mattered anyway, not how Chansung's eyes widened with hesitation and uncertainty.
The knight who had no social grace and the freedom-giver who lost his own. Was that how they fit? It made sense. In a dramatic sort of way. It did for Jinwoon, at least, who could think in terms of stories instead of conventional logic.
"Taec can have Jinwoon's bed," Changmin said from the kitchen table where he'd gone back to preparing his herbs and distillations. "So Chansung, I hope you're okay with sleeping on the floor."
Chansung looked at him, then at his empty bowl, then back. Jinwoon laughed and offered to get more soup, and Chansung grinned sheepishly with the promise of conversation in his eyes after the emptiness in his stomach was filled.
Even at the best of times, even when bathed in the crisp sunlight of spring or the warm orange glow of autumn, Jinwoon's village wasn't one to write home about. The walls were drab, the streets were bare cement, the market bustled weakly, and the people were accustomed to a quiet life. They had no special delicacies to tempt tourists from afar, no unique wares to peddle and seek out, no special history for people to remember, no magic and mystery that captured the imagination.
During the winter, covered in a layer of snow and a blanket of silence, the village became little more than a close huddle of lonely houses staving off the worst of the biting wind.
Things could have been different in another time. Maybe if the war decades past had reached this far north, the villagers could have put to good use the network of tunnels they'd dug beneath the village – a tactical advantage that some unsung engineer suggested to pitch in for the war effort. And then the village could have been recognized for its bravery, its place in history, the crucial role it could have played for the nation. But as it was, the village was too small and isolated for anyone to make an effort. Only recently did technology and innovation try to make itself known: Jinwoon was one of the handful of people who owned a computer, clunky and outdated as it may be.
And because it failed to rouse the magnificence of history, the village instead attracted the dregs of humanity, although Jinwoon didn't like to think of them that way.
"You pick up the most interesting strays," Changmin told Jinwoon when their two guests retired to Jinwoon's bedroom for the night. They realized that there was no point in asking Chansung to take a bath, not when he absolutely refused being separated from Taecyeon.
"Seulong-hyung isn't a stray," Jinwoon said, amused. "And Kwon-hyung would throttle you with his bee nets if he ever hears you call him that."
"I didn't say it was a bad thing," Changmin defended, not taking his eyes off his alembic. "Just that... Look at how Seulong and Jokwon turned out."
"All the credit goes to you," Jinwoon said warmly, mixing some of Changmin's honey distillations into his evening chocolate. "I just find them. You're the one who shaped us into being good people."
"Hmm," Changmin hummed dismissively. Jinwoon leaned in and let their shoulders touch, letting the familiarity and affection fill the room. These things were as important as three meals a day and a warm bed for the night.
He knew this, having once been a stray himself.
Jinwoon wasn't surprised when Taec woke up lucid the morning after. He wasn't healthy yet, far from it, but he didn't look deathly pale anymore and he was coherent and the shakes seemed to be over and that was good enough for Jinwoon.
People said chicken soup was miraculous. Jinwoon wondered how they would describe Changmin's special recipe, with its herbs straight from the mountains and spices for which the world had no names.
The five of cups, a shark in mid feast tattooed on the belly of the bereaved.
"It must have arrived this morning after hyung left for the market," Jinwoon said, holding up a thin cardboard envelope for Chansung and Taecyeon to see. "I found it on the porch. I don't think it's mine or Changmin-hyung's. So it's probably yours." He didn't miss the exchange of worried glances, or the way Chansung clenched his fists too tightly to be natural.
"Only one way to find out, is there?" Taecyeon said darkly from the bed.
Chansung opened the package swiftly, decisively. A compact disc fell out, unlabeled but obviously well-used, which he inserted it in Jinwoon's computer with quivering hands. The video that greeted them bewildered Jinwoon. Chansung's reaction bewildered him more.
It was a nature documentary. About ducks. There was no sound.
They watched in silence, Jinwoon in amusement while the other two with unreadable expressions.
The screen flickered just for an instant. Jinwoon paused the video. "Play it frame by frame," Taecyeon suggested. Jinwoon did, searching carefully.
And there it was. Jinwoon reeled back from the image, just in time to avoid the sudden blast of light that blasted his computer to charred pieces, just in time to see Chansung howling and collapsing to a twisted heap on the floor, his hands glowing with captivating light.
And what Jinwoon thought was incoherent babbling turned out to be a single word, a name screamed over and over again twisted by grief and rage and otherworldly pain.
"Wooyoung," Chansung was sobbing, the light in his hands dying out. "Wooyoung."
Jinwoon looked at Taec, who was still staring in shock at the crushed wall where Jinwoon's screen used to show a picture that, if there was any mercy in this world, was taken after the body in it was twisted and mutilated beyond human recognition.
It took a whole spoonful of one of Changmin's triple-distilled draughts to calm Chansung down. The one at the very back of the cabinet kept in an unassuming clear bottle, the thick liquid almost radiant violet. During nights when the cards told Jinwoon too much about the world to leave him restful sleep, Changmin carefully dissolved a single drop of purple in a mixture of warm milk and honey and Jinwoon always found the world peaceful by the end of the glass. The lingering taste of raspberries helped calm his nerves, and it didn't alarm him that raspberries weren't even part of the recipe.
Taecyeon pushed himself off the bed and held Chansung in a protective huddle, keeping him from flailing and (Jinwoon was sure) using more of his unbelievable light in this fit of rage. It was Taecyeon who convinced Chansung to drink to the last mouthful, Taecyeon who practically forced the glass to Chansung's mouth when the fits were getting too violent.
That was how Changmin found them when he got home: Taecyeon stronger than he should have been; Chansung in the last throes of frenzy; and Jinwoon, paler even than usual, his hands itching to reach for his cards but knowing that now was not the time. Changmin said nothing. He went straight to the kitchen and started preparing lunch.
Jinwoon emerged from his room soon after, followed by an unsteady but determined Taecyeon.
"We have to leave," Taecyeon said hoarsely. His body may still have been weak but his gaze was sharp enough to pierce iron.
"Then go," Changmin said, not taking his eyes off the pork spine he was spicing. "But I think you've been running for some time and by tomorrow you'll be dead from the cold."
"It wasn't the cold," Taecyeon whispered. Jinwoon's eyes were drawn to the painful scars around Taecyeon's wrists.
"It would have been the cold in the end." Changmin put the bones to boil and started preparing the mushrooms and spices. "Jinwoon is kind and unassuming by nature. I'm more cynical. You're running from someone-"
"Plural," Taec interrupted, and Changmin continued with the correction.
"-and by the look of things, they still managed to find you. Only now they know Jinwoon and I helped you out so we're involved no matter what." He dropped the garlic and chives into the pot and started grinding the sesame seeds. "Jinwoon?"
Jinwoon nodded. His hands snaked to his holster, from which he drew a single card. He stared at the woman and her jars of water. "Temperance. Of the major arcana." He whistled a low, contemplative note.
Taecyeon growled in frustration, a low, primal sound from deep in his throat. "We don't have time fo-"
"Let him draw a card," Changmin interrupted.
"Hyung, if he doesn't have the talent-"
"But you do," Changmin insisted. "Let him."
Jinwoon held out his deck and Taecyeon humored them, too out of his depth to resist. Changmin, despite his over-all rationality and claims to cynicism, seemed like he had a lot of faith in Jinwoon's talent. Taecyeon reached for the top card and held it out, face up. A woodland nymph crouched on a slab of rock, staring at the distance, tattooed on the wrist of a fallen man.
"The four of swords," Jinwoon said, alarmed. He turned, aghast, to Changmin. "Hyung."
Changmin reached into his back pocket and held out a thin paper envelope that Taec opened with trembling fingers. Then his knees gave in.
Inside was a picture. Of him. Taken for his high school yearbook.
They knew. They knew.
"Someone handed that to me in the market," Changmin said calmly. "Said he saw Jinwoon and Chansung bring you here, and that he recognized you from somewhere. But he left before I could ask anything more."
"They're playing with us," Taec said quietly, the anger in voice impossible to miss.
"Who are?" Changmin asked.
Taecyeon took a deep breath. Then another. And another until he was coherent again to speak. "Chansung and I... we're running from people who want to use us- use what we can do. People who can do terrible things. They took me from my family. Chansung never even had one. You and Jinwoon will be in danger if we stay."
"Jinwoon and I are already involved," Changmin repeated. "Like it or not."
Jinwoon looked away in guilt. He was always getting into things too deep for him to comprehend. Like when Seulong ran away from home and his parents came barging in with the police. Or when Jokwon fled from military service out of sheer principle. It was Jinwoon who found them cowering from their past, and each time he'd involved Changmin. And each time, Changmin-hyung never complained.
"We can drag you in deeper."
"We've been through worse," Changmin answered coolly. Jinwoon knew it was true.
"You don't know the kind of people that are after us," Taecyeon retorted, and Jinwoon knew that was true as well.
Changmin nodded. He added the powdered seeds to the broth. "Maybe. But do you have the strength to run away? Jinwoon found you half dead and Chansung looks like he has no idea about living the world. How far do you think you can get before they find you again?"
"Maybe we can ask Jokwon-hyung to take them in?" Jinwoon asked. "If anyone knows how to handle people, it's him. Right?"
"We can hide you more completely than you could think possible," Changmin said, temptation in every syllable. "We've done it before. With people whom the world thinks are now dead."
Jinwoon remembered the eight of wands and a huge deal of the picture made itself clearer. "You showed Chansung a better life, didn't you?" he said. "Is running away and dying by the cold really the life you wanted to give him?"
"It was our choice," Taecyeon insisted, because for him freedom was everything. "That's what matters."
Changmin snorted. "You want to be another corpse in the snow that much?" he taunted. Taecyeon glared at him.
That was the standstill. The impasse.
The picture in Taecyeon's hands caught fire. It surprised no one. Not after what Jinwoon saw Chansung can do, and Changmin-hyung was impossible to faze.
A katana carving through a watchful eye. The ace of swords.
Jinwoon didn't know what to expect for the rest of the day.
There was no denying the palpable tension that hung in the air. The feeling of doom. The paranoia that they were being watched. The itching in his palms, the conditioned reflex of drawing a card whenever there was tension, the careful reminders that talent shouldn't be overused.
Changmin resumed his near-alchemical projects: distilling draughts and brews almost magically from plants he found during week-long foraging trips every spring and dried every autumn. Jinwoon never learned what most of them were for, save for Changmin's cryptic non-explanations about "Helping things that should be and preventing things that shouldn't." Jinwoon never knew who got them either.
Jinwoon had his cards. Changmin had his knives, his pestle, his burners, his bottles and glass wares.
Taecyeon ate everything given to him. Bowls of rice and soup, strips of meat and vegetables, cups of Changmin's carefully prepared drinks that smelled of brandy despite being fully herbal. Drinks that etched burning lines down Taecyeon's throat, which he endured with Changmin's promises of helping him regain strength sooner than he thought likely.
Jinwoon knew this was true. Changmin's brews had brought many people back from the brink of death. The endless gifts and words of thanks every New Year's Eve was a testament to his knowledge of obscure medicine.
And Chansung... Jinwoon watched him sleep.
There was no peace on his face, but he was resting and that was what mattered. He didn't look like the knight, not then; instead he looked more like a scared little boy despite his height, despite his muscles, despite what Jinwoon knew he could do.
The tension lasted well into the afternoon. The calm before the storm, the silence during the war, masked by civil chatter between Changmin and Taecyeon.
Sounds of various television shows filtered through the walls. Music videos, idol groups winning awards, dramas and their cheesy lines, talk shows and their entertaining questions, evening news and its-
Changmin's and Taecyeon's conversation stopped abruptly. Jinwoon went to them, hesitant, only to be greeted by the report of a violent house fire breaking out in a neighboring city. The real tragedy, the onsite reporter said, was that the family who lived there was trapped inside. Jinwoon heard a complicated name, followed by grievances and assurances that the investigation will be heavily assisted by the embassy of Thailand.
Taecyeon can set things on fire, but they already knew that.
Only Changmin's quick thinking saved the couch. "I think," he said pensively, an empty bucket in his tight grip, "you should stay away from my mixtures."
It started one day, on the way home from school during his childhood in Jeonlado, when Jinwoon came across a man with pale hair and eyes who played his flute on the sidewalk and a cap half-full of coins by his feet. He was foreign, that much Jinwoon knew, because normal men didn't color their hair and eyes back then. Cosmetics were for women and celebrities, not working men who wanted to go places in life, yet here was one man who didn't seem to have a care in the world. Foreigners were very strange in their foreign ways.
That was what caught Jinwoon's attention first.
The second was that the man played for him even though there was no one else to hear and Jinwoon had nothing to give. He was young, they weren't rich and every coin mattered.
The man played his music, a song that brought to mind memories of springtime, and Jinwoon smiled his most brilliant smile and went home with the song in his heart.
The day after, it was a song about the circus, all staccatos and playful triads as the man's fingers flew too fast for Jinwoon to follow. He passed by a cotton candy stall and gave himself a treat as he skipped merrily the rest of the way.
And the day after, the man gave him a haunting tune, heartbreak vibrant in every fermata. Jinwoon rushed home as soon as the last note vanished and told his parents things he'd always wanted to say before everything became too late.
And it went on and on, with Jinwoon falling into the routine. Each time the man played music, and each time Jinwoon went home with a new song drifting from memory to memory. Days passed, weeks blended together with tunes hummed beneath his breath, mixing melodies until they made no sense. Sometimes, he wrote words. Sometimes, he even sang them.
One day, he picked a rose from the school garden with every intention of saying thanks.
But the man was no longer there.
Jinwoon left the rose where he used to sit in rapt attention. It was an offering, his belated thanks. Maybe in another lifetime he would have been guilty for being late, for missing this chance, for not realizing the difference a single day could make... but the man and his music taught him a lesson about beauty and the people who advocated it.
A vision of red and green on dirty gray, the important thing was the rose.
They found a semblance of peace.
"You have to understand that the Facility is not a monster. Not the Facility itself," Chansung told them bitterly despite the beguiling calm on his face.
Taecyeon, red-eyed and breathing heavily, snorted at the words. Changmin for once wasn't busy with his home-made alchemy and Jinwoon contemplated how deep this rabbit hole went.
Chansung shook his head sagely. "Taec, you're mad because they took you in by force. But the worst they did to me was to keep me sheltered. You helped me realize that they went too far with me. But there are worse things than being told how to live your life."
"Name one," Taecyeon challenged.
"Starving," Chansung said quietly. "Or watching the person you care about most freeze to death."
Taecyeon looked away. Chansung soldiered on.
"The Facility is for people like me and Taec. People who can do things other people can't. They train us, teach us to control our powers. Make sure we don't hurt people. I didn't think about it that way at first. I didn't even think about it at all. I just... trained. And studied. And did my best at whatever they set me to."
"They were turning you into a robot," Taecyeon said.
"They were making sure I was under control," Chansung corrected. "That's different. You changed me, Taec, and I'm not saying that's a bad thing. You started me thinking about what else I could have had."
"You wanted a bigger world," Jinwoon said softly.
"Then you realized that what you had wasn't so bad after all," Changmin continued, always able to see further even though he had no cards.
Chansung nodded. "Taec escaped. Then he came back for me and we broke out. Then I learned a lot of other stuff. Worse things that could have happened. Worse things I could have become."
"You got perspective," said Changmin, ignoring Taecyeon's sneer.
"I thought I was going crazy. When the hunger got really bad and the cold wouldn't stop and I didn't know how to keep Taec alive. I was... I was ready to do things. My body was filling up with energy that I can't contain. I could feel my powers eating me up from inside. I was about to explode. It... would have been really bad."
"You wouldn't have turned out that way if they didn't treat you like a lab rat," Taecyeon said, venom dripping from his voice.
"I've never hurt anyone, Taec," Chansung said with sincerity. "Not even by accident."
"So the Facility is after you," Changmin interrupted before banter could break out. Taecyeon was in distress and Chansung was still under herbal calm. Neither one could handle conflict in those states.
"And they did something bad," added Jinwoon. "Nothing can excuse that."
Some of the grief broke through Chansung's numbness then and it showed. "Not the Facility. Not the Facility itself. Minjae wouldn't do anything like that."
"Minjae's a fu-" Taec started, but Changmin overrode him by loudly asking, "Then who would?" Chansung shifted uneasily, and Jinwoon picked up another emotion making a bid behind the scenes. He didn't need his cards to identify this one. Fear. Childhood terror. Like stories of mulgwishin that Jinwoon's mother used to tell whenever he snuck off to bathe in the river. So even the facility had its own fairytales.
"I used to think they were just rumors," Chansung said darkly. "Namyoung and Minjae used to talk about them when they don't think I'm listening. They said there are a couple of people who were driven mad by their powers, people who did terrible things just because they could. The Director chose to keep them for special projects. Minjae and Namyoung were being really careful to make sure I don't turn out that way. I knew someone who did."
Silence greeted him after that. Even Taecyeon bit back his remarks; despite his vitriol, he knew very little about the Facility and its people, having chosen to hate them blindly ever since his first capture. And Chansung never spoke about other people in his past because no one mattered to him before Taec.
"His name was Junho," Chansung whispered, careful of his words in case saying the name loudly invoked the presence. "He could cut anything he touches. Even a slight scratch from his fingertips can be deadly. The trainers found out the hard way. And he was smiling the whole time. He's the reason why the Facility keeps a tight guard on our mental health. Why we started training with machines instead of people." He looked at Taecyeon, pleading for him to understand despite the glint of steel in his eyes. "Imagine what he could have done if the Facility didn't take him."
Taecyeon conceded and looked away.
"I thought they locked him up somewhere," Chansung continued. "But... someone set him on Wooyoung. I recognized his style."
It was Chansung who looked away after that. Taecyeon got to his feet and, with a muttered "I can't deal with this right now", headed for Jinwoon's room. Chansung drew back into himself, hugging his knees and refusing to be roused. Jinwoon threw a worried glance at him, then at Changmin who was staring hard at the blank TV screen.
"Hyung. Maybe we should hide them," Jinwoon said with more than a little urgency in his voice.
"If we can sneak out somehow," Changmin answered coldly. "Didn't your cards tell you we're already being watched?"
There was a knock on the door and Chansung was on his feet even before Jinwoon could draw a card. Changmin waved a hand at both of them to be calm.
There was no one there, but Changmin came back with a parcel in his hands. Inside was a work of art elegantly framed in glass and Jinwoon almost thought it was one of Seulong's latest sketches. Until he realized that the material looked wrong and this wasn't Seulong's style, and Seulong never showed any inclination for drawing stars.
Chansung called for Taecyeon, who narrowed his eyes at the thing in Changmin's hands and cursed. "Fuck. They got Jay."
The stars weren't drawn on parchment. It wasn't a painting. It was a tattoo.
The worst, Jinwoon thought, was when he saw the writing on the back. There was more written down, but he couldn't get past the first line.
It's nice of you to remember me, Chansung.
Jay, as it turned out, was the one other friend Taecyeon managed to make back in the Facility. Just someone who needed a job. Just someone from the security staff who agreed with some of Taec's views. Just someone who pulled a few things and bent a few reports to get management to approve more interaction between Taecyeon and Chansung. Just someone who believed in being his own person. Just someone who passed Taecyeon a proximity badge and helped him walk away.
It didn't take long for Chansung to realize who must have helped Wooyoung sneak his video contraband past security. And, during those last few days, who must have left another badge for Chansung to discover, to clue him in on Taec's return.
Taec knew him. Chansung didn't. Both were wondering the same thing: if Jay had known the consequences, would he still have done those things?
Taec felt he knew the answer. Chansung thought he didn't.
Taecyeon read the rest of the writing. Anything to keep his mind occupied. "The edge of the woods in one hour. That's his ultimatum."
"He wants to meet in the dark?" Jinwoon asked, unsure.
"It makes sense," said Chansung. "Taec's and my powers are visible in the dark. His isn't." He looked straight at Taec, and Jinwoon didn't miss how Chansung studiously avoided his and Changmin's eyes. "I don't like this. We'll be walking right into his plans."
"We don't have a choice," Taecyeon answered with equal caution.
Junho's threat was perfectly clear.
It was the first time Jinwoon felt like tearing his cards to shreds.
"One hour," Changmin said, his eyes narrowed suspiciously. He glanced at the gruesome artwork abandoned on the floor, at the blackened but still serviceable couch, at the television still running on mute, then vaguely at the direction of Jinwoon's room.
"What?" Taecyeon asked.
"Something isn't right," was all Changmin said before he busied himself with his bottles. Jinwoon decided he didn't like the worried determination in the furrow of Changmin's eyebrows. Taecyeon tried to approach, either to help or to bug him about his thoughts, but a pointed glance at the bottles on every available surface and Changmin mouthing the words "heat-sensitive" kept Taecyeon at bay.
Sensitive, with possibly disastrous results. Changmin-hyung was very careful about heat in the kitchen. The main reason my Jinwoon rarely set foot in it was that even added body heat could throw off Changmin-hyung's calculated process. A lot of his concoctions were prone to easily going bad and Changmin had to store them in the proper warmth, under the right light, near the right components, under an intricate matrix of considerations that Jinwoon never learned. Similar mixtures had similar stoppers: blue for drinks with slow, low-temperature maturation; yellow for ointments that needed a lot of light; light red for brew that called for repeated distillations; black for oils that Changmin made Jinwoon swear never to even approach... the list went on and on.
Some, when they went bad, could be replaced without much trouble. Others, when not treated properly, had a tendency to turn volatile.
Jinwoon knew the card before he'd even finished the draw. The tower, wrought fire by lightning on the back of a contemplative woman. Of course.
"What are those?" Chansung asked and Jinwoon stared at him, wondering why Chansung asked just now. He got it after a while.
Chansung, like Jinwoon, was trying hard not to think about things.
Jinwoon met the gypsy when he touched the parade, when the village was filled with colorful scarves and flickering fireworks and the smell of wolves and tigers and elephants and birds. There was singing and dancing and instruments playing. The procession enticed the town from its slumber, bringing color and life that Jinwoon never before imagined. There were jugglers and fire-breathers and singers who sang in birdsong. There were statues covered in gemstones of every color of the rainbow and peddlers of trinkets and sweets that tugged at the hearts of children.
The entrance parade. The carnival had come.
Daybreak showed tents and banners and posters proclaiming unbelievable feats, and everyone from every home had come to see the limits of what was possible.
The memory of that day was seared into Jinwoon's soul, everything a blur of movement in crystalline detail.
But sometime between a trip to the tigers and carefully selecting the perfect candied apple, Jinwoon saw the gypsy smelling a spring rose in her booth.
The gypsy held out her deck of cards, and Jinwoon didn't need to hear her foreign words to understand what was asked of him. He drew a card and handed it back after a glance, a swift glimpse of a man with a flower in his hair and the tattoo of a traveler prominent on his torso. And though the card face was nothing but a picture, Jinwoon saw the tattoo wink at him and the man raised it fingers to its smiling lips in the universal gesture to keep a secret.
The gypsy saw the look in Jinwoon's eyes and offered a smile of her own.
When she spoke, the words were accented but familiar. That surprised Jinwoon less than it should have. "The Fool," she said. "He likes you. You're in for an exciting life."
Jinwoon nodded dumbly and left, feeling like the world was spinning beneath his toes. He filled his bag with candies and toys and a small shimmering bracelet to appease his mother's temper.
And when he emptied it again in his room, he found a stowaway wrapped in a scarf of delicate dark red silk. It was the complete deck, with the familiar fool staring smugly at him, inanimate once more.
He didn't steal it, he was sure. That could only mean it was a present. A strange gift from a strange giver with no obligation to offer anything in return.
His parents wouldn't approve, but for the first time in his life Jinwoon felt he had something he could truly call his own.
"The fool," Jinwoon said, examining the card between Chansung's fingers. He wondered when things had come full circle.
"It means something?" Chansung asked.
"New beginnings, usually." Jinwoon spoke from talent and experience, not from classical training. "A new life. A fresh start." Jinwoon followed Chansung's glance at Taecyeon, and he didn't need his cards to know the feeling behind those eyes.
It wasn't very different from how he felt for Changmin-hyung.
Hiding was not an option. Splitting up was not an option. Junho had maneuvered them into a corner and they had no choice but to stick together and comply. It was all too obvious that Junho wouldn't leave Jinwoon and Changmin alone the moment they were out of Chansung's and Taecyeon's sights.
The bright side, Chansung pointed out, was that Junho seemed intent on taking them alive. The dark side, Taecyeon added, was that Junho didn't extend the courtesy to anyone else.
Changmin gave them a drink that cleared the fog in their heads and raised their minds to startling clarity, a drink that Jinwoon eyed cautiously and drank in short sips instead of great gulps. Sanity, such as it was, relied on murky thoughts and memories remaining clouded. Lifting the veil that blurred the true contents of the mind... that was true insanity.
Drinking Changmin's draught in one shot gave Taecyeon and Chansung a glimpse into the truth, but beyond that it dulled Chansung's apprehension and Taecyeon's climbing terror. The insanity to face what's coming even if every bit of their persons quivered in stress. Jinwoon looked at Changmin in askance, and the older boy shook his head sadly, saying, "They're dealing with a crazy person. They need to go a bit crazy to stand a chance."
Not for the first time, Jinwoon thought he understood why Changmin-hyung got kicked out of med school.
He was waiting for them out in the open, a stocky figure outlined against the trees smiling brightly with too white teeth at their arrival.
Changmin and Taecyeon exchanged dark looks while Chansung clenched his fists to avoid blasting him then and there. Jinwoon looked around them for any bystanders who might get involved – additional victims, not potential witnesses – and saw someone lounging against a not so distant piece of rock.
That wasn't so odd. The village was full of odd people, and that rock was an entrance to the network of tunnels that ran underneath the village, a remnant of wars that could have been fought decades ago and now left unused. Maybe except by the homeless who needed a roof above their heads, even one of stone and beneath the ground instead of wood held up by polished walls.
Junho raised his hands with two glinting armbands in each grip. "Come with me peacefully and no one else has to get hurt. The Facility just wants the two of you back."
Taecyeon drew his hand, tongues of flame playing between his fingers, but Chansung grabbed his wrist before he could throw the challenge.
"Smart move, Chansung," Junho said, his voice pitched tauntingly low.
"I was always the better fighter," Chansung shot back. "Remember when I blasted the floor from right beneath your feet?"
If anything, Junho's grin grew even wider. "I've learned a few more tricks since we last sparred. Last chance, Chansungie. You have one minute to put these on before I make my move." Chansung and Taecyeon ignored the armbands tossed their way, and the metal landed on the frozen ground with surprisingly heavy thuds.
Nobody moved. The silence was deafening.
Jinwoon glanced at Changmin, who was watching Junho with cold, narrowed eyes. Always the hyung, always so calm and composed. Even now when they stood in the face of someone who's done monstrous deeds. And even now, no matter how irrational it was, Jinwoon looked to Changmin for an answer. It didn't matter that Taecyeon could shoot fire or that Chansung could throw energy with his hands.
In the end, it was the memory of Changmin's solid presence that commanded Jinwoon. That told him things might still turn out okay.
"So that's it?" Junho asked, drawing his hands from his pockets. Hands smooth and pale as marble in the overcast night.
"I have my own tricks," Chansung growled.
A lifetime of training didn't vanish in just a matter of days. Junho was fast. Junho was lithe. Junho was lethal. But Junho still needed to see, and Chansung didn't need to hit his eyes for that. He just needed to hit the dark itself.
He had energy. But more importantly, he had light. Brilliant white light that poured out of his hands. No heat, no force. Just a dome of blinding light that engulfed Junho and seared burning patterns into Jinwoon's eyes.
"To the tunnels," Changmin whispered urgently, and Jinwoon ran even if his vision had yet to fully clear. Changmin had a point. The tunnels were too complex to study in a single day, but everyone in the village knew it by heart. Every turn, every corner, every exit. They could hide from Junho there. They'd worry about reuniting with Chansung later on.
Even with his blurry vision Jinwoon saw that the stranger was still lounging by the entrance, unperturbed by the flash. Perhaps he was blind?
They brushed past him and he dropped languidly to the ground.
No living thing would have moved like that. The stranger's hood fell off... and something in Taecyeon broke.
Eyes and lips sown shut like a doll's, a morbid parody of natural childlike innocence.
"We have to go," Changmin said forcefully, interrupting Taecyeon's building moan. Jinwoon saw Changmin raise his fist, but Taecyeon nodded before the blow was needed to bring him to his senses. They fled down the tunnel, Changmin in the lead because he knew it best followed by Taecyeon and his flickering fire.
They didn't get very far before a shadow stepped out of the very first corner, grabbed Changmin by the neck and spun him around. The jars of temperance flashed before Jinwoon's eyes.
There were two of them. Of course. Junho kept an eye on them while this other one burned the house in the city.
Changmin's whole body jerked and his eyes flew wide in Taecyeon's flickering light. A knife handle was poking out of his gut.
Jinwoon couldn't make himself react.
"It's not lethal yet," the new figure, a tall, dark-skinned man, said calmly. He tossed an armband at Taecyeon's feet. "Put that on and I won't turn him into a life-sized puppet like that Thai boy of yours outside."
A blast of white-hot flame filled the tunnel. Jinwoon stumbled back from the heat and brightness and the primal rage in Taecyeon's voice.
The fire in Taecyeon's quivering hands refused to die out, growing brighter and brighter instead and turning his skin black. Taecyeon, in his fury, was numb to the pain and growing too hot to hold himself in.
But Jinwoon was watching Changmin, watching his hyung who was staring intently at Taecyeon while unzipping his jacket to reveal rows of bottles with black corks filling the inner pockets. "Jinwoon," he gurgled, colored spittle dripping from the corner of his mouth. "Run."
That was the leak that Taecyeon's dammed anger needed. His flame coated every inch of his body, burning away layers and layers of clothing, making it near impossible to breath in such a confined space.
The man stepped back, disdain apparent on every inch of his face—but Changmin gripped his arms hard, keeping them close together and using his weight to root him in place.
Jinwoon ran the moment Taecyeon, completely engulfed, lunged at Changmin.
Before then, Jinwoon had no idea exactly how volatile Changmin-hyung's mixtures could be.
The explosion knocked him off his feet, and behind him he heard the unmistakable sound of rocks breaking and collapsing, burying anything and everything beneath their weight. Jinwoon scrambled away, climbing up the tunnel entrance through the dark and following the smell of fresh air until he beheld the stars.
He felt someone's touch run across his back. Then the sudden loss of sensation in his legs. The collapse of his lungs. He caught the hand before Junho could flip away. Held on tight until a blast of bright energy hit Junho right in the chest, tearing half his torso clean away. Only then did Jinwoon let go, let himself fall the last few inches to the ground.
"Jinwoon! Jinwoon!" Chansung yelled, running to him and rolling him onto his back. "Jinwoon, damn it, man, don't-"
Jinwoon drew his cards – not just one, but the whole deck, holster and all – and pressed it tightly into Chansung's hands. "Near the north end of town, you'll find a beekeeper and his wife."
"Show them my cards," he whispered. "Tell them everything that happened. They'll take you in. You can start your new life with them."
Jinwoon saw Chansung's lips move, saw the blood from his split lips fly in drops, saw the trees above and beyond them the night sky. The colors faded and the lines slowly lost focus.
The last sound he heard was a flute playing mournfully in the night.
The last colors Jinwoon saw were red and green against a background of dirty gray.
The last thing he saw was a vision of a rose.