Fandom: Super Junior M / SHiNee / Big Bang / Bleach universe
Featuring: DongHae, Zhou Mi, Henry, Onew, TOP
Pairings: DongHae x Zhou Mi, but that's not the point of the story
Rating: R-18 (Nothing very explicit, but some adult stuff are involved.)
Warnings: Adult themes: sex, death, angst
Genre: Action & Adventure
A/N: Please comment if you like the story! It's nice to be appreciated ;D (more at the end of the fic)
Summary: DongHae, long overdue for a vacation, decided to get away from it all by taking a vacation to the human world. He makes a few new friends, reconnects with some old ones, and learns what being a death god is really about.
Word Count: 12,055 total
"Can I get something... I don't know. Softer?" DongHae asked as he poked the merchandise. "Or maybe something more flexible?" He grabbed the item's wrists and shook them vigorously. "See? The joints are too stiff!"
Zhou Mi rolled his eyes and slapped the back of DongHae's hand. "You break it, you bought it," he cautioned in the same exasperated voice of shop-keepers the world over. "This gigai is one of the best I have. It's supposed to be stiff and awkward when uninhabited."
DongHae raised an eyebrow at him. "Not holding out on me, are you?"
Zhou Mi pouted. "I have half the mind to be offended that you'd even suggest that," he said. He stroked stray strands of hair away from DongHae's face, and the shinigami smiled softly at the contact.
"It doesn't even remotely look anything like me," DongHae added for show, but they both knew he'd give in and take it despite the protests. "It's just... a blank face. And generic hair. Come on, Zhou Mi, I know you're better than that. Give me something lifelike!"
Zhou Mi smirked proudly, like a party magician who was just about to unveil a trick that would blow the audience's minds. They were in his workshop and he'd been developing artifacts that could rival the Research Institute's many inventions. "Oh, DongHae, I am worlds better than that. This little baby-" he hung an arm around the gigai’s shoulders "-will respond to its user's morphic field. It doesn't look like anyone because no one's using it at the moment. But when you enter the body-"
"You're saying it'll look exactly like me when I'm in it?" DongHae cut in before Zhou Mi could build up steam and go on for hours about the many technical and theoretical concerns of constructing artificial bodies for disembodied spirits. Zhou Mi can get pretty passionate about things.
Zhou Mi swelled with pride. "In. Every. Way. Possible. Every strand of hair, every scar, every mole, everything that makes you look like you. It took me months to perfect a working prototype. What you have here is from the second generation."
DongHae surveyed the naked and empty body in front of him. "So how's this any different from the other gigai? And keep it short, you know I get completely lost when you start talking about... stuff. And you've wasted two hours of my vacation already."
Zhou Mi laughed, completely without guilt. "I still can't believe you're spending your vacation here in the human world. Usually I'm the one who has to request entry into Soul Society if we wanted to meet."
"Yeah, well, the spirit world can get boring at times," DongHae answered.
"Okay, wrong word. It can get... crowded. It's a big place, but everyone who's anyone can find you wherever you go." DongHae nodded at the currently lifeless body. "So... do I ask you to wrap this or what? It's not even clothed."
Zhou Mi turned to his creation and waved dismissively. "Oh, you just walk in and wait. The spirit sensors will lock in on your morphic field and-" he saw DongHae's eyebrows raised threateningly "-and the body will accommodate you," he finished lamely. Really, was it too much to ask of a death god to pay attention for more than five minutes?
DongHae sighed uncertainly, but he stepped up on the small dais and stood behind the body anyway. "I just don't want to walk around looking like a mannequin, you know?" He breathed deep, closed his eyes, and entered the shell.
There was a slight tingle at first, like he was suddenly covered in feathers, and the sensation quickly built up to a humongous pins-and-needles experience. He waited it out, and with a sudden jerk like a full-bodied sneeze, DongHae felt... heavy. Warm. Bound to the world.
He fancied he could feel synthetic blood coursing through artificial veins. Everyday ambiance, like gentle breezes caressing his skin, the way the tips of his bangs tickled his closed eyes, the cold floor beneath his feet.
He hadn't been in a human body for more than three hundred years. The last time was when he still had his own. But he'd forgotten all about his first life – three centuries could do that.
He'd forgotten that having a body could feel so... intense. "Wow," he breathed out, awed at the flood of sheer tactile input. Being a mere spirit was nothing like this.
He felt calloused fingers brush away loose strands of hair from his forehead. Puffs of soft breath on his face. The gentle warmth life mere inches away. He opened his eyes and saw Zhou Mi filling his field of vision.
Zhou Mi leaned in. "I know," he whispered softly to DongHae's ear.
DongHae felt Zhou Mi's hand caress the back of his thigh. A sharp tingle rose up DongHae's back followed by warmth pooling in his gut. He swallowed hard. "I thought we ended this two years ago," he said in the low, husky voice of long-unused vocal cords.
Zhou Mi cupped DongHae's bare cheek and planted a long kiss on the base of his neck. "Consider this a test drive for your new body," he purred, breath tickling DongHae almost more than he can take.
DongHae grabbed the back of Zhou Mi's head and let his body react.
He'd forgotten how it felt like to be so warm. He'd forgotten about this kind of pleasure, and what the body felt was in a world of its own. He'd forgotten how unique real skin felt against real skin. How someone else's hair on his chest could be both tickling and arousing. How someone's moist tongue licking deep into his navel could send shocks to the very tips of his fingers. How warm lips on his cock could drive all the words out of his mind.
And, when Zhou Mi pushed him back against an unused workbench and turned him around, he learned he'd forgotten about the kind of pain that disguised unimaginable pleasure underneath. He'd forgotten how so distant from the mundane common wooden surfaces could feel against his body when someone was pushing him against it, again and again, thrusting deeper and deeper.
And he'd forgotten how intensely the pleasure could build, until he felt like he could explode then and there. And soon, with Zhou Mi working him knowingly and thoroughly, they both did.
Sex in spirit form was nothing like this. This was something that only the body had to its own.
"Wow," DongHae exhaled, laying face down on the bench and almost out of breath. He was covered all over with sweat, both his and Zhou Mi's. He felt the body laying atop him break out in soft giggles. "What?" he asked, amused.
"Oh, nothing," Zhou Mi said even though he never left it at that. "It's just... I've always wondered how it would be like to have sex with a gigai."
DongHae closed his eyes and focused on pulling himself together. "Don't tell me you've never experimented with any of your past inventions."
"Not even once." Zhou Mi reached beneath DongHae and pinched a nipple, and he grinned at the short gasp that followed. "But it's nice to know I made everything feel anatomically correct."
"Sex-crazed bastard," DongHae muttered. "Remind me to spend more vacations here."
Zhou Mi's smirk was full of irony. "Didn't you just remind me that we called this off years ago?" he asked as he pushed himself up and grabbed a clean towel off the desk.
DongHae rubbed a hand against his forehead. "Oh. Yeah. Can we forget that I ever said anything like that?"
Zhou Mi laughed and started wiping the sweat off DongHae's back. "I understand your mind is blown right now, but we stopped seeing each other for good reasons. Remember?"
"Always the voice of reason," groaned DongHae. He pushed himself off the bench and spun around to face Zhou Mi. "And the good reason for seducing me the moment I stepped into the body?" he asked with an impish grin. He grimaced mildly when Zhou Mi wiped the drying cum off his crotch.
Zhou Mi kissed him chastely on the lips. "A welcoming present for your vacation. Now go take a bath, you perv, your vacation won't last forever."
DongHae stood up with a theatrical sigh, pinched Zhou Mi on the chest, and walked naked to the bathroom. Zhou Mi dutifully cleaned up the rest of DongHae's mess on the bench.
At times when he was nothing but spirit, DongHae paid close attention to other spirits around him. He noted every change in spiritual pressure and judged if they were friendly or not. Every other sensation was secondary.
But he realized, after five minutes standing beneath a hot shower, surrounded by steam and the suds of washed-off soap, that spirit sensing could never offer this kind of feeling. He never realized how the simple trace of warm water coursing down his body could make him feel like a different person. Bathing wasn't just about being clean. It was time to be intimate with one’s own.
He walked out the shower wearing the clothes Zhou Mi left for him on the counter. He spread his arms and exclaimed, "I look ridiculous."
Zhou Mi glanced at him from behind his latest project (which DongHae recognized as 'big, clunky thing with wires going here and there') and sighed. "Remember two years ago when I said something about the human world having things that Soul Society doesn't even dream of?"
"Vaguely," DongHae answered as he inspected himself in the mirror through layers of grease and grime.
"Yes, well... here in the human world, we have this little thing that you may not have heard of before."
"Common sense?" DongHae hazarded.
"No, fashion." Zhou Mi stepped away from his project and eyed DongHae critically.
DongHae puffed his chest out and self-consciously let Zhou Mi inspect him. He wasn't at all comfortable with clothes that clung to his body and left no place to keep his weapons, even if he didn't actually have any with him right then. Plus the fabric used for his pants were heavy and constricting ('jeans,' Zhou Mi called them), and he couldn't see how useful they were outside of their obvious durability. "So what's the point of this 'fashion'? Survival? Competence? Camouflage?" he asked.
Zhou Mi rolled his eyes and pinned DongHae's arms to his sides. "What's the point of everything? To get laid."
"But we just got laid," DongHae pointed out.
DongHae grinned widely and winked. "So... you wanna get laid again?"
A shy, trembling voice spoke up from the direction of the main door. "I could come back some other time," it squeaked.
DongHae started and reached for a soul cutter than wasn't there, but Zhou Mi suppressed the rest of his reactions by clamping down hard with a hug. A round-faced boy at the door blushed fully red and grinned uncertainly at them.
"No, now's good," Zhou Mi answered as he let go of DongHae.
"No, r-really! I don't want t-to interrupt anything-" the boy stammered.
"Who's the kid?" DongHae asked, amused. Zhou Mi ignored him.
"You weren't interrupting anything," Zhou Mi assured his flustered guest. "And he was just about to leave anyway."
"I was?" DongHae asked, surprised.
He was, and Zhou Mi wasn't particularly gentle as he manhandled a protesting DongHae out of his workshop and shut the door in their indignant faces after a vague reminder to play nice and have fun.
"Well, that wasn't very nice," DongHae said to his new companion as they faced a resolutely shut shop door. He menaced it with narrowed eyes in case it had any lingering sentience, but it turned out Zhou Mi's inventiveness did not extend to creative shop construction.
"I thought that was pretty normal for Zhou Mi," the boy replied, smiling uncertainly at DongHae.
DongHae sighed deeply. "The words 'Zhou Mi' and 'normal' aren't really supposed to be in the same sentence, you know?"
The boy nodded eagerly. "Yeah! I think 'normal' is only associated with him to emphasize how Zhou Mi is not it." He tensed when DongHae paused to appraise him with a long look, and relaxed when DongHae's shoulders began to shake in the beginnings of suppressed laughter.
"You know what, kid?" DongHae said, playfully punching the boy on the arm. "I think we'll get along just fine. I'm DongHae."
The boy bowed. Repeatedly. He only stopped when a palm was pressed forcefully against his forehead. He grinned gummily up at DongHae. "I'm JinKi. I'm Zhou Mi's friend."
DongHae warmed up to JinKi when he remembered another person with a similar smile. He'd learned, long ago, that someone who can smile so un-self-consciously couldn't be all bad. "Well isn't that a coincidence? I'm a friend of Zhou Mi's, too!"
JinKi vibrated in excitement. "Yeah? Then I guess I'm supposed to show you around!"
DongHae raised a finger to his chin and regarded JinKi with inquisitive eyes. "I don't know. Are you?" he asked, thinking that it was exactly like Zhou Mi to set him up with a tour guide without actually introducing them first. Zhou Mi lived in a world of his own.
"Well, he gave me this envelope of cash and told me to take care of a friend of his for three days. Here, see?" JinKi said, drawing his wallet and raising a stack of colorful paper that DongHae wasn't familiar with. "So I guess if you're not from around here and you're on vacation for three days, you're the guy I'm supposed to take care of."
"You're right on both counts." DongHae gave the closed shop door a final cursory glance and started walking down the street. He head JinKi fall into step beside him. "So you'll be my personal assistant for three days?"
"Exactly! If you need anything, I'm your guy."
"Huh, imagine that," DongHae said, looking around him and taking in the vast difference between his and Zhou Mi's worlds. "And what do you get out of this? Zhou Mi paying you or something?"
"Erm. Actually, this is sort of my payment to him." JinKi blushed and silently added, "Y'know. For voice lessons."
That stopped DongHae in mid step. "Wait. Are you saying what I think you're saying?"
"Oh crap." JinKi flailed mentally, grabbed DongHae's arm and began pulling him along. "Please don't tell him I told you!"
"You mean Zhou Mi can sing?!" DongHae wanted to turn and run back to Zhou Mi's shop with every intention of knocking his door down and demanding for a song, but his gigai didn't translate spiritual pressure to physical strength. The best he could do was to firmly plant his feet on the ground and resist JinKi's efforts.
DongHae gave in and let himself be dragged on. "Fancy that, he never told me he could sing. Is he any good?"
JinKi looked torn between relief that DongHae probably wasn't going to say anything, and righteous indignation at the implication that he'd ask for lessons from someone subpar. He settled for, "He's okay, I guess."
DongHae didn't pursue the topic.
Their first stop was at a ramen stall for either a really late breakfast or a really early lunch.
"Brunch," JinKi clarified.
"A what now?"
"It's called 'brunch'. Breakfast and lunch fused into one meal?"
"Oh." DongHae regarded the bowl of noodles in front of him and wondered if his gigai would be able to process it. As much faith as he had in Zhou Mi's genius, he doubted if it stretched to this much sophistication. "We don't have brunch where I came from. Just... breakfast and lunch at their own times."
JinKi stared at him. "Isn't that kind of militaristic?"
"It's a really strict neighborhood," DongHae said evasively.
"Oh." His eyes trailed another customer that sat at the other end of the bar. "Hey, do you know any English?"
DongHae looked blank. "English? What's that?"
The disbelief in JinKi's eyes was the most pronounced DongHae has ever seen. "You don't even know what English is? Wow, have you been living under a rock or something?"
"Let's just say my hometown is pretty cut-off from the rest of the world."
"I'll say. English is the current world language," JinKi explained. "Everyone's forced to study it in school and anyone who doesn't know any English won't get anywhere in the world today. It's even part of the university exams!"
"Imagine that," DongHae said faintly, as he watched the only other customer out of the corner of his eye. Was it just him, or did the kid have the faintest flickers of... something off? Not spiritual pressure, but something.
JinKi rambled on and on. "Yeah, and that guy's really good at it. I see him around the neighborhood and I've heard him speak to himself in English. I think he's foreign, and he doesn't seem to have made any friends yet."
DongHae smiled at him encouragingly. "Then why don't you go talk to him? I'm sure you know some English."
JinKi's round cheeks flushed rosy red. "I'm not very good at it. I don't get to practice a lot," he explained, embarrassed even though he knew he shouldn't be.
"Couldn't hurt to try, right?" He leaned forward and addressed the only other customer, who was still waiting for his noodles. "Hey, can you pass the pepper?"
The stranger turned to him, and DongHae noted that his face was possibly even plumper than JinKi's. The boy blinked at him and spoke an unfamiliar sound. "Pardon?"
DongHae blanked at the response but decided to soldier on. "Pepper. The dark gray powder in the bowl in front of you. Can you pass it along?"
The stranger smiled sheepishly and gently shook his head. "I'm sorry, I don't understand."
JinKi cut in. "He means pepper," he said, his uncertainty with his second language louder than his actual words. "Like salt. Ketchup. Pepper?"
The stranger blinked in comprehension and nodded. "Oh, pepper. Yeah, sure, of course." He reached for the bowl.
DongHae had been in the human world for a few hours, but he had a vague idea of how things worked. He was familiar about stuff that can or can't happen, although in his head he knew that 'can or can't' should to be prefixed with 'normally'.
For instance, someone passing a bowl of pepper with his hands happens normally in the human world. Hearing the same person play a tune on the table by simply sliding his fingers up and down the wood fell under the 'normally can't' category.
"Thank you!" JinKi said brightly as he received the bowl, completely oblivious to the amazing display. DongHae forced on a warm smile and added his own thanks.
"Sure, no problem," the boy said cheerfully and turned to the bowl of noodles the stall owner placed in front of him.
"Ask him for his name," DongHae whispered urgently.
"What? Are you serious?" JinKi whispered back.
"Yes, I'm serious!"
"But I thought you were already seeing Zhou Mi!"
"This has nothing to do with that!" Pause. "And Zhou Mi and I are not seeing each other!"
"Okay, okay! Geez." He cleared his throat and turned back to face the stranger. "Hi!"
The boy looked at him again. "Err. Hi."
"So what's his name?" DongHae asked quickly.
JinKi shushed him. "Will you relax? I haven't asked him yet!" He offered a hand to the boy. "I'm JinKi. My name."
"Oh. I'm Henry," the boy said, shaking JinKi's hand.
JinKi squeezed Henry's hand tighter. "Ah. Hello, Henli!"
"Henry," Henry clarified. "It's nice to meet you, JinKi."
"Nicetomeetyou,too!" JinKi replied with the unnatural quickness of someone who had been practicing the same expression without actually using them in conversations before now. He turned back to face DongHae and said, "He said his name is Henry. Henry."
DongHae extended his own hand like he saw JinKi did earlier. "Henry? DongHae!"
JinKi wondered if he could wheedle a few more hours of voice lessons from Zhou Mi for the added job of being a translator. This wasn't exactly what he signed up for. "His name is DongHae," he said, trying to call to front all the underused English he knew.
"I got that one, thanks," Henry said as he shook DongHae's hand.
DongHae concentrated on the skin beneath his own. He didn't know what he expected but he expected something, not the completely normal feel of skin. There wasn't even the thinnest layer of spirit pressure between their palms. Not a tingle of anything out of place.
Henry glanced at their hands when DongHae wouldn't let go. JinKi coughed pointedly behind his own hand and nudged DongHae with his elbow. DongHae narrowed his eyes, bit his lower lip and finally withdrew his hand.
"That was awkward," Henry said as politely as he could. "Friendly, sure. But awkward."
"He's... not here?" JinKi hazarded. "No... Not here from around?"
"Not from around here," Henry corrected. "Yeah, I'm from far away, too."
"What did he say?" DongHae asked JinKi, wide-eyed and too curious.
"He said he's foreign."
DongHae clapped his hands in excitement. "Good! Then you can tour the two of us!"
DongHae leaned past JinKi. "Hey, Henry, want to go around town with us? I have a tour guide!"
Henry watched uncertainly as the short, whispered conversation between his two new companions grew into the dance of awkward furtive glances towards him and subdued but still pointed gestures employed everywhere by people talking about someone near enough to be part of the conversation but for some arbitrary reason is being excluded. Eventually JinKi wiped his forehead and turned to face him with a smile on his face that was equal parts forced, scared, cheerful, and embarrassed, and maybe a hair's breadth away from insane.
"So, if not busy – wait, wrong." JinKi screwed his eyes shut and formulated the words in his mind. "If you are not busy, you would like come with us? I am giving tour to DongHae."
Henry already had an answer in mind even before JinKi finished speaking, but JinKi's self-conscious grin and DongHae's sheer enthusiasm made him change his mind. "Sure. I guess it won't hurt to have a guided tour of a place I've been living in for a month." He just hoped he wouldn't regret his new answer.
For their sake.
Half a mile away, at the very peak of the local radio tower, a figure that had been waiting patiently the whole day gave a start of recognition, comparable to finding out exactly where a subtle itch it had been feeling for hours was actually concentrated and there's going to be some serious scratching in the immediate future.
There was a new beat in town.
"No way," it said, grinning like a mischievous cat that just found out the milk cupboard hadn't been locked. "Here? What's that idiot doing here?"
JinKi had a three-day tour all planned out for someone who was taking a long-delayed vacation courtesy of Zhou Mi's money, which was also generous enough to include him in experiencing the sights and attractions.
To himself, though, he had to admit that the stuff he had in mind wouldn't work quite as well for someone who was staying in the neighborhood indefinitely. Then Henry admitted that he'd been through most of what the town could offer when he went exploring by himself, but he was nice enough to encourage JinKi with the age old adage of 'It'll be better with friends! Not to mention it's free!' And he bridled that Zhou Mi's money wasn't that generous to include an extra person, but DongHae said he'll take care of it when he has to.
(DongHae didn't mention that his plan involved wheedling more money from Zhou Mi once they ran out. Soul Society was generous with compensation for seated officers, but his carefully shored up savings weren't worth a single cent in the human world.)
So, while JinKi formulated a new plan for the day in his head, he took them to his favorite spa and wellness center for some serious body pampering. (Zhou Mi had been insistent that they focus on relaxation activities and food trips, which made DongHae's abstinence even more mysterious.) He signed DongHae and Henry up for full-body massages and availed for himself the basic sauna and Jacuzzi access.
He figured that without him to translate, DongHae and Henry had no way of communicating anyway. And this was a good thing in case DongHae got any new ideas into his head, and JinKi was already of the opinion that DongHae's head wasn't screwed on sufficiently tight in the first place. Although Henry seemed nice enough.
In the meantime, JinKi indulged himself at the fruit bar while the two foreigners had their massage.
All afternoon, JinKi didn't account for the possibility that Henry may be fluent in their language as well.
"Yeah, I migrated here three years ago," Henry said as the massage therapists began to work on their calves. "But I've been moving around frequently to different cities all over the country. I stay somewhere for a few months at the longest."
"Oh," DongHae said softly. He thought of their tour guide turned translator. "Those are some mean acting skills you pulled off during brunch."
Henry gave a cynical laugh, a sound so completely alien from the general good-natured vide be exuded. "I learned that life's easier when I pretend that I don't understand when people are talking about me." He winked at DongHae. "Don't tell JinKi."
"Isn't that a bit mean?" DongHae asked.
"A bit, yeah," Henry affirmed, unabashed. "But he's kind of cute when he's all flustered and stuff."
DongHae closed his eyes as a different form of sensual pleasure overwhelmed him. The touch of his and Zhou Mi's skin was erotic, arousing. This, with oils and pressure, instrumental music and aromatic steam in the background, was a completely new experience. Only now did he believe Zhou Mi's insistence that spending his vacation in a gigai won't be a bad experience after all. Spa experiences in the spirit world weren't anything like this. He doubted if even RyeoWook's vaunted massage skills, by which HyukJae swore religiously, could translate to anything like this.
Henry's breaths grew steadier and deeper. "I've never been able to afford a full-body massage before. I'll find a way to thank you before you leave."
DongHae tried to wave away Henry's offer, but he discovered that his muscles had turned to putty and the most he could do at the moment was to speak. "Nah, don't mention it. By the way, why do you move around so much?"
"I just get bored easily. I might have to move again in a month or so. I mean, this town is nice and all, but it isn't all that exciting, is it?"
"No, I suppose not," DongHae agreed, gathering all his mental energy to stay awake despite the masterful ministrations being heaped on his artificial body.
"How about your hometown? Do you think a freelance violinist could set up shop there for a few months?" Henry inquired hopefully.
DongHae gave a good-natured bark of laughter. "We're a military neighborhood. I think there are nearby places where musicians are welcome, but... honestly, don't get your hopes up."
Henry's disappointment was opaque in his voice. "Yeah, I'm still too young to be really good. I mean, I'm brilliant for my age and all, but it sounds like I'll be competing with masters where you're from. Maybe I'll move in there in fifty years or so. Just to prove a point."
Everyone moves to the spirit world sooner or later, DongHae thought with uncharacteristic cynicism. Facing bitter truths was part of being a seated officer in the 2nd Division. "You never know, maybe it won't even take you that long."
"Yeah, who knows, huh?" Henry said, agreeably.
DongHae froze. Something was-
And then, all of a sudden, everything made of glass shattered at once. The therapists panicked while their two customers tried to get on their feet, one on higher alert than the other. (Considering the previous state of relaxation, their efforts to stand to attention was met with dubious results.) A calmer member of the staff came in a moment later and took matters into her own hands.
"We apologize for this inconvenience," the senior therapist said to Henry and DongHae in the universal tones of an employee trying to placate the customer's tempers before they had the chance to be offended, "but we must interrupt your session. I will arrange for a transfer of privileges with our manager, if that would be okay?"
"Oh, perfectly okay, don't worry," DongHae assured her.
"And sorry about that. I guess," Henry chimed in.
"It is no one's fault, we assure you," the therapist said, bowing. "Tremors, although unexpected, are a daily possibility in our region." She bowed once more and turned to supervise the cleaning.
"Is it customary for people who didn't do anything to apologize for everything where you came from?" DongHae chided Henry as they both put on the shop's tartan robes.
"It was just a generic apology, nothing big," Henry answered with a smile.
As they stepped out of the massage room and began their search for JinKi, DongHae wondered if he imagined the barest flicker of unidentified energy right before the bottles broke or the way Henry's smile seemed insincere for the first time since they met when he dismissed his own apology.
After half an hour in the sauna, then the Jacuzzi, then a much longer duration at the cool baths where DongHae realized swimming with a heavy body wasn't something to be easily dismissed, and all of which gave him whole new tactile experiences to remember about temperature and humidity, DongHae decided to call it a day.
JinKi was agitated at the sudden end to the first day of tour. He tried to convince them that he'd rehashed their tour itinerary and there are awesome plans ahead, but DongHae was firm that he just wanted to go to a shopping arcade somewhere and maybe buy souvenirs by himself.
"But souvenirs are usually bought at the end of a vacation!" JinKi held rationally as they walked down the street away from the spa.
"And by then, I'd have run out of money so I won't be able to buy anything at all," DongHae alleged with his own brand of rationality. "Why don't you and Henry hang out tonight?"
JinKi translated the latest change in plans to English, and Henry nodded in convincing ignorance of the conversation.
"I'd love to," Henry said while JinKi automatically translate his words for DongHae's sake, "but I have a class at dawn tomorrow, and my teacher isn’t very lenient. After a massage like this afternoon's I don't think my usual sleeping hours will be enough."
"Aww," DongHae pouted. "Want to meet up with us after your lessons? We can go on the rest of this awesome tour JinKi planned out."
"And I assure everyone that it will indeed be awesome!"
"That would be great, thanks," Henry said graciously after JinKi translated DongHae's words. He bowed at the two of them, thanked DongHae once more, and set plans for tomorrow's lunch. He turned at the next corner. JinKi and DongHae watched him until he was out of sight.
"He's a nice kid," DongHae said wistfully.
"Yeah. And I'm finally getting to practice my English," JinKi added. "Maybe I could convince him to teach me more English if I offer to teach him our language."
DongHae kept his face as straight as he could. "Yeah, why don't you ask him that tomorrow?"
JinKi shrugged. "Are you sure you want to do your shopping now? And by yourself?"
"Unless there's something totally wrong with it."
"Well... it's your vacation. Anyway, I booked you a room for two nights at a reputable inn near my place." JinKi handed DongHae a small envelope containing some of Zhou Mi's money, a crudely drawn but still informative map marking shops, restaurants, clinics, and police stations, and – encircled in red ink – Zhou Mi's shop, JinKi's house, and the inn where he could use the key also found in the envelope. He unshouldered his knapsack and passed it on. "Zhou Mi picked out your change of clothes here, along with some basic toiletries. You sure you don't need me to bring you to the inn?"
"I think I can manage. And this map is pretty helpful," DongHae said, truthfully. He was highly trained at reading maps. He could even extract information out the jumbled squiggles that sometimes passed for JunSu's directions.
"Alright, if you're sure," JinKi said hesitantly. "I guess I'll see you tomorrow? At breakfast?"
DongHae groaned, and it was far different from the relaxed ones back at the spa. "Come on, let me sleep in. I can get breakfast at the inn, right? Let's just meet up at lunch with Henry."
JinKi sighed, resigned. "I hope you understand that this means rehashing the itinerary all over again."
"I know. I'm just wondering why Zhou Mi didn't tell you that when I'm around, having no plan at all is a much better option." DongHae winked at waved goodbye.
Of course, DongHae had no intention of calling it an early evening. True, he did head for the inn, and he didn't plan on going anywhere else with his body – but that was just the thing with gigai: he had one, but that didn't mean he was trapped in it.
After locking his door and windows securely and lying down on the bed as comfortably as he could, DongHae focused on his spiritual presence and stood up without moving his body. He felt a soft tickle as he detached from the gigai. Glad as he was about the pleasures of skin, he was still more comfortable in the loose cloths of the death god uniform. He hefted the reassuring weight of the soul blade tied to his belt, looked at the empty, inanimate shell on the bed beneath him, nodded, and jumped up straight through the ceiling.
He was, in the human world, nothing but a spirit. Physical objects did not concern him in any way. If he chose to, he could have jumped up even higher and gathered spirit particles beneath his feet at some random or arbitrary altitude so he'd look like he was floating in mid-air. Not that anyone would see him, anyway.
Instead, he chose to create a platform of spirit energy on the roof's surface so he could pretend that he was standing on it. He found that there was something reassuring about interacting with solid objects, provided that they weren't trying to kill him.
DongHae scratched his forehead and talked to himself thoughtfully. "Now, if I were a death god stationed to guard this district, where would I position myself?" He saw the tallest structure outlined against the steadily darkening late afternoon sky: a spindly construction of steel bars that didn't seem to hold much purpose other than being as high as possible.
"Right." DongHae nodded and flash-stepped his way there. He wasn't as proficient at it as JunSu and HyukJae, both of whom could have covered the entire distance in a couple of steps as opposed to his half-dozen. DongHae was always ready to admit that those two were so much better than him at so many things, but DongHae had his own strengths, his own talents. He'd been biding his abilities quietly. He'd trained in jealous privacy, stretched himself to his limits and beyond until he grew convinced, until he believed with unwavering confidence, that he could beat HyukJae in a straight up fight if he absolutely had to. Because that's just how they roll.
He neared the tower. A glint of light that traced a crescent in the air.
DongHae grinned. In the moment it took for the corners of his lips to rise, he'd drawn his own sword and blocked the blade swung at him. He slid the shock of impact sideways and used his upward momentum to somersault over the assailant. He kept his eyes trained on the attacker's posture and his sword between the two of them. Gravity, to a spirit, was not an inescapable force but a mere suggestion of direction.
The assailant grinned like a wolf and tugged the sheath of his sword free from his belt.
"Yah, SeungHyun," DongHae, still upside down, called quickly when he saw his opponent coiling up like a spring. "Aren't you getting carried away?"
The other death god guffawed and sheathed his soul blade. "It gets boring around here." He raised a fist to DongHae, who bumped it with his own.
DongHae righted his position according to the convention of gravity and leveled with SeungHyun. "How long have you been on duty here? I haven't seen you since we transferred out of the 11th years ago!"
"Got assigned here a couple of months back," SeungHyun told him in his unique husky bass voice. "Seated officers are always eyebrow deep in books in our division."
DongHae groaned. "See, that's why I never aimed to be placed in the 6th. We've had enough bookwork in the Academy!"
"It's not all bad. We get to learn about all the new stuff happening in the human world. There've been some nifty developments the past few years." SeungHyun gestured to his station at the very peak of the radio tower, and both death gods floated up to it. "You can see the entire city from here. Makes my job a lot easier, I can tell you."
"Dude, we can go higher than this."
SeungHyun obliged him a non-committing nod. "Yeah, yeah. But looking like I'm actually standing on something is easier on the nerves, see?"
DongHae had a unique way of appreciating other people's points of view. "Pffft. Scaredycat." It was just one of his many charms.
"What brings you here?" SeungHyun asked. "Casing the region for some Special Ops mission I can't be told about?"
DongHae rolled his eyes at him. "Really? That's the first thing that popped into your head? Damn, the 6th Division really sucked all the fun out of you. You gotta transfer out before you become a humorless, empty husk of the fun guy you once were!"
SeungHyun barked a resonant laugh and punched DongHae on the arm. "I can't help it. Everyone at the Division is a complete geek."
"And yet you stay there."
"What can I say? I'm a geek at heart."
"It takes a real man to admit that," DongHae teased as he punched back. "I, unlike you, still have a sense of fun despite being an officer in my Division. And as a superior officer, I demand you show me respect."
SeungHyun made a show of bridled affront. "Hey, you're just a couple of seats higher than me," he protested.
DongHae winked, clicked his tongue, and raised three fingers. "Third seat, bitch."
"Holy fuck, since when?"
"Since last year. Man, you've really been out of the loop, haven't you?"
"Yeah... studying can do that to people." SeungHyun sighed, pretending regret for the sake of playing with the moment.
DongHae rubbed his shoulders as they both watched the hustle and bustle down below while the city worked on the sharp transition from daytime commerce to nighttime activities. Streetlights flickered into life. Shop signs lit up in all the colors imaginable. Diners and food stalls put out their blinking signs to compete with the few clubs and bars that peppered the vicinity with alluring designs of red or yellow.
"So," SeungHyun said after a comfortable length of silence, "any reason you sought out a fellow death god during your vacation? I don't think that's normal behavior. I know this shrink in the 4th Division who's really good at behavior modif-"
"There's a weird kid in this town," DongHae interrupted, employing a tactic that apparently worked on other people besides Zhou Mi.
"What, you're doing stuff for the 9th Division now?"
"It was just a thing, okay?" DongHae said, though it came out sounding more defensive than he intended.
"I get it, I get it, sorry," SeungHyun said soothingly. "I was just joking – it didn't mean a thing."
There were tales about the 9th Division's operations that gave even the most hardened Special Ops agent shivers. Many thought that being part of the secretive internal police was the greatest proof of ability and loyalty in a military society outside of being promoted to Captainship, and the 2nd Division was the guard that ensured the other guards did their duties rightly.
But there were two kinds of respect. The 2nd Division got the good kind, the kind borne out of prestige. People respected the 9th because people respected what they feared, and people feared what they did not know.
Getting a recommendation to transfer to the 9th Division was a sign of talent and intelligence not unlike being promoted to Captain. And the moment a death god accepts an invitation to the 9th, everything about him is hidden from the world. People cheered about promotions to Captainship; the same couldn't be said of transfers to the shadow division.
The criminal who changed HyukJae's life was from the 9th, the one who orchestrated a scheme that cost four exceptionally trained fighters their lives and one more his sanity. And the man wasn't even an officer.
"There was just this foreign kid that my tour guide and I ran into," DongHae said, shaking off the beginnings of a funk by diving headlong into the conversation. "SeungHyun, if there was a mild tremor that broke some stuff in the shop you were patronizing, would you apologize for it?"
"Of course not; it wasn't my fault," SeungHyun answered like it was the most obvious thing in the world. "I might feel sorry for the owners, sure, but I won't be sorry." People thought of SeungHyun as a simple person, and they were right: SeungHyun was as simple as people can be. What people got wrong was thinking that 'simple' meant 'stupid'.
"See, that's just the thing," DongHae continued, buoyed by the indirect agreement. "The kid apologized to the shop-owners."
SeungHyun gave it due thought. "He could be extra, extra polite? Or maybe that's normal behavior from where he grew up?"
It was possible. DongHae diverted to more confounding evidence. "What if I told you that the kid felt wrong? That he may have spiritual presence, but not like the kind we usually deal with? And the moment right before the tremor happened I felt a spiritual wave like nothing I've felt before?"
SeungHyun snickered."If you'd led with that, I would have showed more agreement to your suspicions."
"Anyway, the kid said he'd been living in this area for a month. Have you noticed a change in... in anything since then?"
SeungHyun frowned in thought. "I can't say I have. But there's a mechanist who owns a shop around here who's got a pretty strong spiritual presence. If you want, I could ask him in the morning if he's come across anything suspicious."
"Don't bother, I know the guy," DongHae said absently. How would JunSu handle a situation like this? HyukJae would just ride the flow and deal with problems when they came... but what would RyeoWook do?
"Is the area known for frequent hollow attacks? Mysterious deaths? Stuff like that?" DongHae asked, deep in cogitation.
"Not that I know of," SeungHyun admitted. He felt wrong-footed. The DongHae he trained with back in the 11th Division didn't worry about these kinds of things. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"What? Yeah, yeah..."
"I never thought I'd ever get to say this to you, but you're over-thinking things."
DongHae chuckled. "Yeah, I'm surprised at myself, too."
"It's gotten dark," SeungHyun observed. "Why don't you get on with your vacation? Leave the weird stuff to me. It's my job to deal with them."
DongHae cracked half a smile. "You trying to get rid of me?"
"For your own sake. Need help finding your lodgings?"
"I'm not a helpless tourist you know," DongHae said with fake affront. "I'll drop by again sometime before I go home."
"Sure. Let's go for a drink, even. I'll ask dispatch to send a substitute."
DongHae leapt off the tower. SeungHyun trailed him with his eyes, and then with his spirit when DongHae was too far to see.
Indeed, even spirits needed to sleep, but death gods were trained in using spiritual energy in waylaying basic needs. DongHae himself could say up for a week without feeling the need to recuperate.
He wasn't a great tracker like lieutenant DaeSung, who could sense specific spiritual signatures miles away on a whim, but Special Ops agents had to be proficient at everything in order to rise up the ranks. In a place like this, where the air wasn't thick with energy and few people were spiritually aware, he was able to concentrate on how Henry's spirit felt back when he had a minor manifestation in the food stall. And with the memory at the forefront of his mind, DongHae searched the city for any similar vibration. He found one.
At the very top of an opera house in one of the posh districts of the city.
DongHae stood on the edge of the roof where, just a few yards away, Henry practiced fiddling.
DongHae wasn't very familiar with music. He grew up with it, sure, and part of his pre-Academy schooling involved the very basics of musicality, but he'd never paid as much attention to it as the development of his spirit abilities.
RyeoWook played for the gang when they visited his home duringthe Dragon Fruit Festival. DongHae knew the music was beautiful, but what convinced him of RyeoWook's talent was his expression and posture when he played, how he looked like there was nothing else in the world except him and the music he poured out. A hollow could have attacked then, but it would have waited to let RyeoWook finish his piece and let the applause die down before it continued with its rampage. RyeoWook holding his training sword looked awkward and out of place; RyeoWook seated at the keys and playing with rapt attention was one of the most compelling sights in the world.
HyukJae said, later on, that he'd never seen RyeoWook look so complete, as if he wasn't whole when he wasn't at the keys. DongHae just dismissed it as HyukJae finally falling in love with his roommate.
But watching Henry fiddle on the dingy roof of an opera house, playing without a care in the world and shutting out the background noises of living in the city, DongHae finally understood what HyukJae had said about great platonic admiration.
He sat there for hours, in plain sight had Henry the ability to see him. Watching, more than listening.
He waited until Henry finished fiddling.
Henry gently unfolded his arms in a single regal motion. He looked down at the bow and violin in his hands, sighed mournfully, and turned to face the stars. He said, in a voice so deep in the bowels of defeat and loneliness that it sounded like cheerfulness approached from the other side, "The price of being able to play anything, eh?"
DongHae didn't understand the words, but he recognized the emotions behind them.
DongHae followed him down a ladder, through dark winding hallways to a room the size of HyukJae's apartment, which he shared with a dozen other musicians chasing the phantom music of dreams.
He woke up to forceful, insistent knocking. DongHae rubbed at his gigai's eyes and, through a complicated system of pushes and pulls, managed to stand up and reach the door.
"See? I told he'd be still sleeping," JinKi told Henry in English.
"I thought I told you to let me sleep in?" DongHae muttered, his mind not even half awake.
"I did!" JinKi said. "It's half past noon already and you're about to miss lunch. Unless you want to explore how lunch and dinner could be merged, but we don't have a word for that yet."
DongHae cursed himself for not realizing that when Zhou Mi said the gigai would make him as human as possible, it also included the inability of the body to use spiritual energy as a replacement for sleep. He dragged himself back to his bed and sat with his head in his hands. Or maybe he’d just gotten too used to not sleeping as a spirit.
His two guests entered his room. Henry said something, which JinKi translated as, "What time did you go to sleep last night?"
"That clock said half past three," DongHae answered blearily.
"Really? What did you do all night?"
"Just... walked around. Got lost a couple of times." JinKi translated and Henry nodded in sympathy.
"Go take a bath already!" JinKi said loudly. "I've got the afternoon all planned out. Two museum tours, a pit stop at the open-air market for some authentic native street food, then a short trip to the historic temples, and dinner at any of three restaurants I've picked out depending on how peckish you're feeling."
"Sure, let's get on that right away," DongHae muttered. He started snoring even before his back hit the bed.
SeungHyun had a knack for hearing patterns wherever they existed, and sometimes even where they didn't. He didn't find them consciously, which was unfortunate, and which also meant he noticed them only when the rhythm he had been subconsciously following skipped a beat or changed tempo. He heard them in the clashing of swords, in the pitter-patter of feet, in the breaths taken in battle.
Lately, his subconscious had ambitiously been working on dissecting the rhythm of a city. It had taken an entire two months to figure it out without his conscious mind noticing anything. But now he could tell when the paperboys were late, when the milk delivery trucks were delayed, when the elderly took a day off from feeding the pigeons in the park, even when the prices of fish were high enough to be prohibitive. He didn't realize what he was doing, but he relied on patterns - they were the staple of behavior, and he didn't even learn that in class.
So when a soft thrumming – too faint to be aware of and too low to register – invaded the rhythm of his city, he didn't even notice it.
But his subconscious did. And it raised one hell of an alarm.
What concerned it most was how abruptly the thrumming started: it didn't gradually build up in intensity, like a train approaching from afar; instead, it just appeared amidst the cacophony of everyday sounds as if it had always been there – even though moments earlier it wasn't. Somehow, following the instincts it learned after thousands of years of evolution and countless years of training in spiritual combat, his subconscious knew this made whatever it was that much worse.
Zhou Mi was arms deep in the third generation prototype of his revolutionary design for gigai – the one he hoped would bridge the gap between invention and mass production – when soft shamisen music played everywhere in the shop. He looked up from his assembly table and tried to associate this alarm with any of the triggers and sensors he had bothered to install all over the city.
His eyes widened. "Oh shit."
Link to part 2