Survivability 04 [Bleach / KPop]
Fandom: Bleach / Super Junior / DBSK / Big Bang / Shinee / Family Outing
Featuring: RyeoWook-centric, EunHyuk, DaeSung, YunHo, MinHo. Cameos by JunSu, DongHae, and Park HaeJin.
Pairings: Friendship and camaraderie all around. Okay, there may be some infatuation involved.
Warnings: None, I think.
Genre: Gen. Alternate Universe [Bleach setting, KPop characters]
A/N: One morning I woke up with a terrible craving for dragon fruits. As luck would have it, I have no idea where to buy them. So! Enjoy the result of my sublimation. Stand-alone, as usual for this series; it can be read without reading the previous installments, but if would help if you read Survivability 03: Stages of Healing first.
Summary: RyeoWook got a weekend off and decides to visit home just in time for the Dragon Fruit Festival. As fate would have it, YunHo and DaeSung were in need of help to recruit MinHo into their ranks. Between them, the Festival worked its magic.
Word Count: 10,198. OMG, I was aiming for around 5K only.
Four months have passed since RyeoWook and EunHyuk returned from their first mission together. Granted, it wasn't supposed to be a mission, just a minor diplomatic visit to a now deserted district in northern Rukongai. A hollow attack can change many things.
A lot happened during those four months. RyeoWook just isn't sure what most of those things were. He and EunHyuk were debriefed so many times that he lost count, and each one was more intensive than the one before. He heard from EunHyuk, who heard from his friend DongHae, who must have heard from someone else somewhere, that more and more high-ranking shinigami were becoming involved. According to some speculations at least two entire divisions have by now been commandeered to address related missions.
RyeoWook and EunHyuk didn't receive any official disclosure, but Lieutenant JunSu helped them extrapolate developments without actually revealing classified information. After all, as JunSu told them, "being at the scene of the battle gave one certain unspoken rights."
RyeoWook was just a 4th Division trainee, but he was among the sharpest ones. Although the debriefings (he refused to think of them as 'interrogations') involved a one-way flow of information – in that they asked questions and he answered, and it was never the other way around – he had shrewd guesses about what was happening based on what they wanted to know. He shared his ideas with EunHyuk and JunSu, and sometimes even DaeSung when he could spare the time; EunHyuk would agree with him, and the Lieutenants would be give him informative silence from which RyeoWook was sure he got things reasonably right.
First, the evacuees weren't so much housed in a newly developed temporary village as detained in a special spiritually quarantined base constructed by the Kido Corps. They received medical treatment not from the 4th Division but from the 12th, which was more concerned with detecting parasitic hollows than the welfare of the evacuees. RyeoWook protested internally, but he couldn't do anything about it and he could understand why it was needed. It was a good thing the 12th Division wasn't run by a soulless mad scientist.
Since the district was now abandoned, the hollow repelling wards were distributed among the other districts. There weren't enough to protect all of Rukongai entirely, but they had enough to provide shelters in the event of a hollow attack. RyeoWook confirmed this with a carefully worded letter to his parents, who replied that the entire village was indeed drilled in emergency evacuation plans without being told why. 'Just in case,' the evacuation trainers said.
RyeoWook assumed squadrons were stationed at the original attack site. The Gotei 13 needed to know what the most important variable was: the villagers, or the location. With the protective wards gone, hollows were free to roam the area once more; they were free to dig up whatever was there under the invisible scrutiny of Soul Society's military forces. But if the hollows were after the villagers... RyeoWook didn't know what to think, except 'Why?'
He thought about these things as much as he studied his healing lessons, and it showed. He wouldn't talk about anything else during dinner, and most nights he stared at the ceiling as possible scenarios ran through his head. He lay perfectly still during those nights but EunHyuk could always tell that RyeoWook wasn't asleep. The older boy would constantly turn towards him and drape an arm around his chest. Sometimes RyeoWook accepted the hug and he'd fall asleep to EunHyuk's breathing rhythm. But when he doesn’t accept, when he just lay there stiff trying to ignore the contact as he chased a particular thought, EunHyuk would hug him even tighter and mutter in his ear, "Don't think about it too much. JunSu and DaeSung are working on it."
He and EunHyuk lived together now and they found that their lives harmonized perfectly. RyeoWook was a notable cook and EunHyuk liked to keep things orderly. RyeoWook, when he could spare the thought, gave EunHyuk healing lessons while the latter honed his skills in shunpo. They respected each other's silences and privacy even in a one-room apartment. They slept on separate futons, but they were close enough that they could just reach out and be assured of company. He wasn't staying over at EunHyuk's house now - he was living at their home.
DongHae gave them a small housewarming gift of a poem he personally composed on an ornamental scroll. It was lurid and suggestive enough to make a rabbit blush, but they took it in good nature – DongHae wasn't DongHae if he didn't tease – and hung it on the wall on the far side of EunHyuk's dresser. That way they wouldn't see it much.
EunHyuk was a touchy person and RyeoWook put up with it. Hugs were exchanged plenty of times, and EunHyuk always kept some form of skin contact if he could get away with it. He had... a certain smell, RyeoWook determined. It wasn't particularly strong or bad; just something RyeoWook got used to after a while. It came with living with EunHyuk, after all.
But outside of these pleasant distractions, RyeoWook thought of only two things: his healing, and what was happening outside.
It didn't cross his mind that he may have become obsessed.
Not his mind, but he realized it must have crossed EunHyuk's. And JunSu's. And possibly even DaeSung's. He realized this when he received a summons from the 4th Division Lieutenant in the middle of class.
He'd never seen his officers up close before; they were always too busy to spend much time with the low-rank trainees. But he'd heard stories. How the Lieutenant was so level-headed and quick with healing spells that he made RyeoWook's Mix-and-Match healing style seem like child's play while in the middle of a fight. How the Captain was supposedly so skilled at healing that his very presence at a battle already prevented wounds. How they were both such rare talents that the Gotei 13 absolutely refused to send either to the field without heavy escort.
RyeoWook's relaxation breathing exercises took longer as he stood in front of the office door. After a few minutes, he decided he was ready enough.
"Please sit," Lieutenant HaeJin said as soon as RyeoWook entered the office. He offered the trainine a faint smile that showed more in his eyes than his lips. RyeoWook was momentarily rendered speechless by how... effortlessly attractive the Lieutenant was. How, if he turned at the right angle, or if his hair fell the right way, or if he wore the right colors, or even if he just removed his glasses, he looked like a girl. A pretty girl. Ridiculously so.
"Sir." RyeoWook bowed and sat on the other side of his Lieutenant's desk. He was sure the Lieutenant would look stunning in an evening gown, and he was already debating on colors before he managed to chase the thoughts away. He took every opportunity to not look at the Lieutenant and the only available method was by Looking Anywhere Else.
RyeoWook had never been here before. The contents and layout were somewhat similar to Lieutenant JunSu's office, though with several differences regarding personal tastes here and there. Books and scrolls on the shelves, a collection of board games that seemed untouched for the longest time, a traditional tea set with very intricate designs, and an aromatic box on the desk from which Lieutenant HaeJin drew a smaller ceramic box and set it in front of RyeoWook.
"Have a snack," Lieutenant HaeJin said. "I remember classes being hellishly difficult." He reached over and removed the lid, revealing four perfectly circular azalea rice cakes.
RyeoWook nodded politely and took a bite. Things weren't going well. Or were going too well. It was a rather confusing moment.
HaeJin interpreted his silence reasonably. "There's no need to be nervous for being summoned. This is a very friendly meeting. Congratulatory, even."
"Sir?" RyeoWook asked, confused in more ways than one.
"Lieutenants JunSu and DaeSung discussed with me your exemplary performance during your trip to Rukongai. They commended your actions and clear thinking, and that you held our Division's duties proudly despite the chaos that ensued. We usually expect such behavior from graduates, and it makes me proud to see a trainee do so." Lieutenant HaeJin retrieved an official-looking document from one of his drawers and laid it face down on the desk. "The Captain and I are very pleased."
RyeoWook blushed modestly. "I just did what was expected of me, Lieutenant."
"That's good. It's not really so much that you knew what was expected of you – we drill that early in your training – but that you had the courage to do it. And for that, the Captain and I decided you deserve a reward." HaeJin flipped the document over and handed it to RyeoWook. "A commendation, endorsed by the Captain and three Lieutenants."
RyeoWook studied it closely.
Wow. EunHyuk would be so proud. They could frame this and hang it beside RyeoWook's bookcase, and they could go out for dinner to thank JunSu and DaeSung, and maybe DongHae could come along if he wasn't busy.
Lieutenant HaeJin continued. "Of course, a commendation doesn't really feel like much of a reward apart from being something weighty on your profile. Your teachers told me you're among the top students in your class. A bit more concentration and you have a chance at being the very top student in your batch."
RyeoWook remained silent. What possible response was there?
"But we did notice a slight decrease in your performance lately." Lieutenant HaeJin pulled out a grading sheet and showed its contents to RyeoWook. "It's not apparent, but lately there's been a decrease in your average test results. I talked with your teachers and they agreed that you deserve to have a few days off. And perfect timing, too, since I hear your village will be holding its annual Dragon Fruit Festival this weekend. You can set off tomorrow. Just be back after two days."
After the initial disbelief wore off, RyeoWook's smile grew so bright that it threatened to split his face. This was, of course, great news. His parents had been asking him about when he could get some time off, and he was getting tired of telling them that trainees don't really have much hold over their own schedules. The Dragon Fruit Festival was the most important feast in their village, and he did miss his family and friends. And it would be nice if...
RyeoWook bowed repeatedly. "Lieutenant, I am very grateful. I haven't been home to see my family in years! I've been writing to them about my experiences here in the division, and I've told them about EunHyuk and that they really should meet him."
From the way Lieutenant HaeJin's face remained carefully controlled, RyeoWook got his answer even before he voiced his request.
"EunHyuk... he's a very promising student. And no doubt he, like you, also deserves a break from his studies. But his academic performance isn't quite as exceptional as yours. It wouldn't be good for him to be away from his studies at the moment." Lieutenant HaeJin looked at him straight in the eyes and RyeoWook knew that was all he'll get.
RyeoWook's face fell, but he rallied quickly. "Oh. I understand. It's just... he's been homesick lately as well. But there'll be other breaks, won't there?"
RyeoWook took a deep breath. His excitement returned. "I'll just bring him gifts, then. Thank you greatly for this, Lieutenant!" He held the commendation to his chest and bowed, deeply this time.
HaeJin nodded. "That's good, then. You'd better go back to class now, or else the teachers might think I'm trying to steal their prized pupil." He put the lid back on the snack box and offered it for RyeoWook to have. "Take these. I have plenty more."
RyeoWook took it graciously and bowed out of the office.
It was only when he turned the corner back to his classroom did he realize that something seemed suspect about the whole meeting.
He controlled his buoyant excitement as he walked home with EunHyuk, who was already reasonably put out by the results of their latest examination. Somehow, no matter how many times RyeoWook drilled him about theories and techniques, and no matter how well EunHyuk absorbed them the night before, everything seemed to drain out of his head the moment he saw the test questions. Even if EunHyuk perfected the dummy tests RyeoWook put before him, his actual test performances were frustratingly disappointing.
It happened so many times that EunHyuk learned to control the funk that followed. "Should I just resign myself to being a trainee forever?" he asked as a matter of fact.
"That would be counterproductive and I will kill you with kindness and starvation if you even consider it," RyeoWook answered immediately. "Maybe we just need a different approach to studying."
"We've already done everything you can think of," EunHyuk said somewhat flatly, but the dejection was slowly seeping out.
"I can think of more things. I'm not like you that way." RyeoWook grinned at him and winked. EunHyuk mimed being speared through the chest and walked faster. RyeoWook caught up with him and slapped him on the back with good humor. "Come on, let's by dinner tonight. My treat!"
"Whoa, really? I must be really putting you down for you offer to buy dinner instead of cooking," EunHyuk said, more to tease RyeoWook than to put himself down. They've learned to accept that self-depreciative humor was just EunHyuk's way of coping.
"Oh, it's not that," RyeoWook said. "Tonight's a special occasion."
EunHyuk looked blankly at him. "I didn't forget your birthday, did I?"
"No," RyeoWook answered simply.
EunHyuk began to look worried. "Are you being advanced? Am I going to lose my one and only friend in class who teaches me better than the lecturers do? Oh no, I'm so going to fail everything from now on and JunSu will laugh at me and the teachers will hate me even more and the Lieutenant will kick me out of the division-"
"It's nothing like any of that," RyeoWook interrupted. "And the Lieutenant's really kind of a nice guy." A loaded statement if RyeoWook ever heard one, but he supposed now was not the time to reveal specific developments, especially since he didn't really want to confront them himself.
EunHyuk paused in midstride. His eyes were large circles of disbelief. "You met the Lieutenant? Really? When? Where? Is he taking you to be his apprentice? Oh no, I'm so going to fail everything from now on and JunSu will laugh at me and the teachers will-"
"No, no, nothing like that," RyeoWook repeated, laughing. "I'll tell you after you let me buy dinner."
They came to their favorite stall. The one where, as RyeoWook thought, everything started. Where he first met Lieutenant JunSu and he was dragged into a mission that connected him with EunHyuk deeper than he could have anticipated.
It was also conveniently the food stall closest to their home, and that was the real reason why it was their favorite.
They don't actually resume the conversation until they've set the table at home. EunHyuk's rustic wooden bowls contrasted with RyeoWook's finely decorated chopsticks but they weren't picky. DaeSung once left an expensive serving platter the last time they held a party and EunHyuk kept conveniently forgetting to remind him to take it home. They saw it as DaeSung's housewarming present and they didn't really intend to change their minds.
RyeoWook placed Lieutenant HaeJin's ceramic box of perfect azalea rice cakes between the stir-fried vegetables and marinated pork cutlets. EunHyuk took a tentative bite (he'd never eaten flowers before) and gave an emphatic nod of approval.
"So can you tell me now? Or do I have to wait until after dessert to hear that I forgot something important and you're actually being passive-aggressive?" EunHyuk asked through a mouthful of pork.
RyeoWook held his laughter to avoid spitting rice all over the table. "No, you didn't forget anything. I –" RyeoWook reached for his knapsack and pulled out his commendation "– got this from the Lieutenant today!" He passed it over to EunHyuk, who took it delicately and read with impressed eyes.
"Whoa. A commendation. A real commendation. I never got one of these back in the 2nd!"
"It's nothing, nothing," RyeoWook said humbly. "I think the Lieutenant was overreacting, actually. I just did something that any 4th Division member would have done."
EunHyuk's face fell. He turned away from RyeoWook, too exaggerated to be anything but insincere, and sulked at this side of the table.
"But you were different!" RyeoWook called after him. "You're sort of... complicated, right? And I'm sure the Lieutenant won't see it against you." He crawled over to EunHyuk's side and gave him a one-armed hug. EunHyuk laughed and returned the gesture. "Lieutenants JunSu and DaeSung must have told him about your contribution to the fight, and that things would have been much worse if you didn't join in."
"I know, I know," EunHyuk assured him. "I was just joking. And it's kind of easy to be brave if you know you can fight. Much harder for a real trainee, like you." EunHyuk winked at him.
Somehow, the similarity of EunHyuk's statement with that of Lieutenant HaeJin's set alarm bells off in RyeoWook's head. But it could have been a coincidence. RyeoWook beamed brightly at him. "Now you're going over the top. You're coddling me!"
"Nothing wrong with coddling my brother, is there?" EunHyuk asked, smiling yet uncertain.
RyeoWook flushed bright red. "So we're brothers now?"
EunHyuk thumped his chest proudly. "I've been told I make an excellent older brother."
"I think you're too cheap to be a good one," RyeoWook joked, but he squeezed EunHyuk tightly and leaned his head against a shoulder.
"I can change! Really!" EunHyuk faced RyeoWook so close to maximize the effect of his pleading eyes. "Please don't tell me you don't want to be brothers."
RyeoWook pinched him on the waist and EunHyuk yelped and jerked away involuntarily. "You worry over the smallest things."
"Yeah. It's a chronic problem." EunHyuk ruffled his hair and sighed deeply. "Too bad I can't go with you and meet your family tomorrow. You'll just have to tell them that you met this really cool guy who offered to be your brother in the academy and he's taking care of you so they don't have to worry and..." EunHyuk paused when he felt RyeoWook stiffen against him. "Wookie? Did I say anything wrong? I mean, you don't have to tell them about me if you don't want to-"
RyeoWook sat up straight and looked at the floor. "I don't think I already mentioned being given a break this weekend. Much less about going home."
EunHyuk froze. "Erm. I... guessed?"
"Yeah, lucky." EunHyuk reached for RyeoWook's arm, but the boy jerked it away. EunHyuk restrained himself. "Don't be mad."
"I'm not mad," came the answer in as flat a tone as possible.
"No, you're not," EunHyuk realized, beginning to feel scared. "You're seething."
RyeoWook considered that. "Yes, maybe I am."
EunHyuk went on his knees, as pitiful a sight as he felt. "RyeoWook..." he began, but he didn't know where he wanted to go.
RyeoWook stood up and began to clean his side of the table. Silently, with movements too controlled. "You had a hand in this?"
EunHyuk had been in deep shit before, and he learned that in times like these remorsefully blurting out the truth... didn't exactly fix things, but it certainly stopped them from getting any worse. Even if it didn't feel that way. "A bit."
"A bit." He put his dishes on the sink and began to wash them furiously
EunHyuk tried to stop him, and RyeoWook stopped just to restore distance between the two of them. EunHyuk didn't feel particularly pleased. "I... I just thought you needed a break. I mean, you're still affected by what happened months ago and you're obsessing about it. So I thought-"
RyeoWook went to the bathroom and closed the door too harshly for his composure. "You thought?" he said softly through the door. He washed his face, more to cool down than to clean up.
EunHyuk sighed. He cursed being slow. "JunSu and I thought you needed a break. To come to terms with it. Lieutenant HaeJin agreed. DaeSung had nothing to do with it, I swear!"
"I suppose you thought he's too slow to keep up an act."
"No! He just... he... DaeSung thought differently." EunHyuk slumped down beside the door.
"So Lieutenant DaeSung thought I could deal with it, and you ignored him?" The door opened and RyeoWook walked out with too much self-controlled to stomp. He turned sharply to the sleeping area and unrolled his futon. He entertained the thought of just storming out... but he felt, deep inside, that he didn't want to hurt EunHyuk that badly. Even if he felt like he was going to blow up at him.
EunHyuk didn't answer.
RyeoWook lay down and covered himself with his blanket. He heard EunHyuk stand and slowly clean up dinner. Heard him fold up the table and lean it against the wall. Heard him wash the dishes and fumble, followed by the soft crash of breaking ceramic.
RyeoWook ignored it.
EunHyuk cleaned the broken pieces and finished washing up dejectedly, and then shuffled to their sleeping area. RyeoWook turned away and faced the wall. He felt EunHyuk pause, felt him get futon and unroll it. Felt EunHyuk lie down beside him.
There was a knock on the door. EunHyuk got up with sigh to answer it.
"Yah, EunHyuk! Did I leave my serving platter here? I've been look-"
"Now is... kind of a bad time, Lieutenant."
"Oh. I'll come back some other time, then?"
"That'd be great. Goodnight, Lieutenant."
RyeoWook heard the door close again. Footsteps walked back to EunHyuk's futon and the taller man lay down. Without much humor RyeoWook heard him mutter, "At least we still have his gift." RyeoWook didn't laugh. EunHyuk didn't really expect him to.
RyeoWook doesn't know how much time passed before he fell asleep. Just that EunHyuk lay awake as he did.
It was the first night they spent as brothers. It was also the first night they spent facing away from each other.
RyeoWook had always been at peace with his dreams.
Sometimes there were dreams about being fast-tracked through his training, dreams about being appointed captain of the 4th Division and entering battles to heal the wounded. He didn't dream about how he dealt with the enemy, just that somehow the enemy was dealt with.
Sometimes he dreamed about meeting the Captains from the 3rd and 8th Divisions to swap tips about cooking. He'd heard that Captain JaeJoong was an absolute beast when it came to spiced food, and that Captain HanKyung could do wonderful things with rice. There were also rumors about someone from the 6th Division who liked to bake cakes (YooKhun? YiChun?) and a chicken fanatic in the 13th. Sometime, somewhere during the dreams, they'd all end up in some sort of arena surrounded by raw ingredients and just showing off with a cook fest. RyeoWook would do wonders with tofu and his division would be cheering for him, and EunHyuk would be among the crowd leading the chorus of chanting.
But recently there began dreams of being stuck underground with crowds of strangers with no familiar face around. Dreams of crumbling shelters and being trapped forever as their only exit caved in because of an explosion. He'd dream of lying awake and just waiting for the air to run out, and he'd freak and break out in cold sweat and inconveniently forget that he was asleep, and terror would swallow him whole.
But tonight's dream felt different, RyeoWook thought. Different enough for him to realize that he was only half-asleep. Which meant he was half-awake.
This meant that the arm around him wasn't a dream, and the rhythmic breathing against his back was too regular for someone sleeping. The words he heard whispered softly probably weren't dreamed up, either. "I'm sorry. Please forgive me."
He could feel that EunHyuk wanted to say more, much more... but all that came out was, "Take care of yourself, okay? Because I won't be there. I love you."
RyeoWook didn't respond. He didn't notice drifting asleep again.
As it always happened every morning since he moved in, RyeoWook woke up first.
Usually he'd wake EunHyuk up before doing anything else. Then RyeoWook would cook breakfast while EunHyuk hogged the bathroom, then they'd eat, and finally he'd take a bath while EunHyuk washed the dishes. They would leave for school and the day would run its course. Those were normal days.
RyeoWook decided to cook breakfast for two and packed a lunch on the side. He ate his share of breakfast, washed his dishes, bathed with as little noise as possible, and stuffed some clothes in his knapsack. He wrote a note and left it on the table.
He left without waking EunHyuk. He just didn't want to deal with him at the moment.
The wonderful thing about being an introvert was that functioning on autopilot became second nature. RyeoWook, dressed as a civilian, found a group who wished to travel to his village and he attached himself to them without much effort. There were intrinsic advantages to looking like a child.
The journey didn't take long. Unlike his recent excursion to northern Rukongai, the path to his village was straightforward and well guarded. There were no forests to cross, no winding roads to lengthen the way, no mysterious artifacts that inspired curiosity, and thus no reason whatsoever to stop walking. RyeoWook just lagged along at the back of the group and kept to himself.
Some of the travelers tried to start a conversation with him, and he recognized them as kin based on their dialect. The topics were always the same: the upcoming festival and the many creative ways the mothers in the village could serve the iconic fruit. The gustatory adventure by itself could already inspire tourism.
The group kept at its steady pace throughout and by noonday sun they reached the outskirts. The district was silent but the air thrummed with excitement. That was how they geared up: save all your energy for the festival tomorrow. Anticipate calmly but partake in the preparations. RyeoWook knew how it worked; he had always been part of the celebrations before he entered the Academy. Inside the many houses they passed, the mothers and sisters were preparing for the district-wide cooking party that would be called the Dragon Fruit Festival, while the men saved their strength for the many traditional competitions to be held in the morning.
The dragon fruit had a subtle, waxy aroma. Only during the Festival can it fill the air, when thousands upon thousands of them were stored in every cranny in the district. Tomorrow the fruits and the festival will become fully ripe.
RyeoWook's traveling group gradually disbanded when they reached the district's central square. It happened naturally: people, one by one, peeled away to inspect stalls and to sample goods, to watch street shows or participate in warm-up games, to join in the dancing or learn the folksongs. It was easy to lose yourself in the pre-festivities, and the crowds were friendly.
His home lay a few blocks to the east of the district square, an inset village within which were the traditional homes of artists where RyeoWook grew with families of musicians, sculptors, landscape painters, dancers, poets, calligraphers, chefs, architects, and the occasional acrobats. These families for generations past bestowed the district with overwhelming beauty. Their influence stretched beyond politics and design. They were not rich, but they were powerful; in a world where everyone lived in beauty, artists were treated higher than royalty.
RyeoWook could have been one of those artists. One day, four years ago, he said no. He always looked back with fondness and gratitude at his family's support for his chosen career, but there were always moments when he wondered about what could have been.
He was a talented musician even by elite standards. Yet he chose to be a healer.
He walked among intricate sculptures, interpretations of the dragon fruit that ranged from larger than life to heartbreakingly abstract. Verses of wispy harmony that told stories of flowers under the moon drifted from some residences – RyeoWook was astonished at the march of artistry since he was last part of the world.
But all in all, he walked alone. The families here kept to themselves to hone their craft right before the festival. Tomorrow, the district would be breathtaking.
He wondered if hollows would dare attack such beauty.
Yes, they would, he decided. Hollows destroy everything. There would be some new nightmares tonight.
His trip home was given as a reward for good performance, and then he discovered that EunHyuk and his best friend contrived it out of pity. Either way, it was an excuse to have nothing to do with Soul Society for a few days.
The gods of irony and fate were just different faces of the same deity. And wherever he was, whichever face he chose to show, he had different plans for RyeoWook.
It's funny how the only home he knew for decades could feel so completely unfamiliar after a mere few years. When he lived there, music played at every second of the day. Silence was used only to accentuate the negative aspect of sound, and even then the silences here were illusory and haunted by the ghosts of chords and melodies, of songs that floated at the back of the mind, of instruments that never truly stopped playing their last notes.
But today, as he entered the eternally open gates, the silence was real. And alarming.
RyeoWook rushed his steps and slid the door aside to reveal a small gathering of familiar and unfamiliar people seated on the floor, and two among them discomfortingly both at the same time.
"My son!" a middle-aged man exclaimed as the lady beside him lost her composure and lunged at RyeoWook to suffocate him in a hug that only a mother can give. RyeoWook's father joined a second later.
RyeoWook admitted that this was somewhat like the homecoming he envisioned. The strangers in the living room weren't quite part of the picture. Neither were the Captain and the Lieutenant dressed in civilian clothes.
"Yah! Fancy seeing you here, eh?!" DaeSung said, with his eyes once again nothing more than slits. Beside him, Captain YunHo smiled fondly at the reunion.
The impeccably dressed strangers were introduced as the ornamental tailors Mr. Choi and his wife Mrs. Lee, with their son MinHo sitting meekly between them. RyeoWook wondered how someone so tall and stunningly handsome could be anything less than imposing.
Captain YunHo was doing most of the talking. He explained about life in the primary academy, most of which could be skipped if one was pre-recruited by a certain division for further training. He spoke of security measures, the competence of the teachers, strict training regimens, possible career tracks within Soul Society, and the frequency of advancement within the ranks. He seemed to speak mostly to MinHo's parents while RyeoWook's parents offered assurances here and there.
MinHo, who was the center of the conversation, was trying to make himself as small as possible. He did not succeed in any sense.
Lieutenant DaeSung regarded everyone with narrowed eyes. He caught RyeoWook's and he jerked his head subtly towards MinHo, then in the direction of the kitchen. RyeoWook nodded. DaeSung leaned sideward and spoke softly to the Captain, who regarded RyeoWook and smiled faintly.
RyeoWook cleared his throat. His parents and their guests looked at him. "Mother, Father, Mr. Choi, Mrs. Lee, perhaps MinHo and I can prepare rice cakes? The hour is almost perfect for some afternoon tea."
"Yes, that would be wonderful," RyeoWook's mother said proudly. She turned to the Choi family. "Our son makes excellent rice cakes, you simply must try them." Her husband nodded emphatically beside her.
Mrs. Lee smiled gracefully and patted MinHo's lap. "Yes, I've heard that great taste runs in your family. I'm sure MinHo can learn a thing or two." MinHo kept his face carefully blank.
The two sons stood up. Or at least RyeoWook stood up while MinHo unfolded his long limbs and shifted his weight from his knees to his hands then his feet, and it was too regal to be simply labeled as 'he stood up'. He glided over to RyeoWook's side and strode royally to the kitchen. The difference in their height caught everyone's attention, but it was tactfully ignored.
Captain YunHo pitched in. "My Lieutenant also has a certain influence in the kitchen. He would be very helpful."
"An excellent idea!" DaeSung said loudly and beamed at everyone. He didn't so much stand as jump upwards and land in a standing position, and he briskly followed the two down the corridor and into the kitchen. He slid the door shut behind him. "Are the parents in this village always so uptight?" he asked RyeoWook incredulously.
RyeoWook turned a long-suffering gaze at him. "Lieutenant. Try living here two decades before you start complaining."
"At least your parents are musicians," MinHo contributed in a husky baritone voice. "Try being the son of tailors. I can't even breathe too deeply in case I wrinkle my clothes."
DaeSung and RyeoWook looked at him with deep surprise and broke into laughter. MinHo cracked a grin and his stance changed from princely to casual in the blink of an eye.
"You know, you're an alright guy after all!" DaeSung said. He raised a hand as if to pat MinHo on the back, considered the clothes, and awkwardly put his hand on his mouth to cover a yawn as fake as any RyeoWook ever heard.
"You're not half-bad yourself, Lieutenant." MinHo wasn't quite as restricted as DaeSung; he punched the officer lightly on the arm. He unbuttoned his dress clothes and hung them limply on the table to reveal plain white and infinitely more comfortable underclothes.
"Won't they get wrinkled like that?" RyeoWook asked.
MinHo shrugged. "Honestly? I don't care. They'll just make new ones anyway."
"We can always say no clothes are safe in a kitchen," DaeSung offered. He rummaged around in the bins and found the rice jar.
RyeoWook bowed to MinHo and extended a hand. "We haven't been fully introduced. I'm RyeoWook. I'm a trainee in Soul Society."
MinHo bowed as well and shook RyeoWook's hand. "Yes, I gathered. I'm MinHo. Those are my parents out there taking up your afternoon." He smiled apologetically and RyeoWook felt uneasy at how perfectly white and straight his teeth were.
DaeSung clapped his hands loudly. "Good! Now that's all settled, why don't we get started on those rice cakes?"
"What time did you get here, anyway?" RyeoWook asked.
DaeSung started picking out various seasonings and sweeteners from the cupboard, most of which RyeoWook could see they wouldn't end up using anyway. "Captain and I have been here since dawn. We left Soul Society a few hours before sunrise."
"That's so they could wake us up at dawn," MinHo added as an aside. He turned to RyeoWook. "They've been talking to me and my parents since then. When your parents heard that I was being recruited directly, they invited us over in case they could be of any assistance."
"Just trying to be helpful," RyeoWook chimed cheerfully.
"Must run in the family," DaeSung observed.
RyeoWook scooped some rice to wash while MinHo filled a large pot with water. The Lieutenant stepped outside to set up the grinding stones.
"So they're trying to convince your parents, huh?" RyeoWook asked MinHo neutrally. He swirled the rice grains through cold water and picked out the husks that floated up.
"My mother's all for it, actually, and Father's leaning towards giving his permission," MinHo corrected. "I'm somewhat undecided."
"Oh." RyeoWook recalled his earlier assumptions about getting MinHo out of the discussion so the Captain can speak freely and persuade MinHo's parents, then realized that the actual job of persuasion fell largely on his and DaeSung's shoulders. Oh, RyeoWook repeated to himself.
"I mean, it's going to be a really dangerous career," MinHo added.
"Yes, there's that," RyeoWook agreed.
"What's it like? Being a trainee in Soul Society, I mean," MinHo inquired in an offhand tone, but RyeoWook knew he'd been itching to ask this question since he started talking.
"It's a lot of hard work, but each Division is different," RyeoWook answered truthfully. "Everyone goes through initial training at the Student Academy, though, so there's no need to worry about being undertrained. Then when you're transferred to a Division, you get specialized training according to their duties. There are thirteen military Divisions, but realistically you can only get accepted in twelve of them immediately after graduation, since the 1st Division is made of Captains only."
"Oh." A sliver of excitement flashed in MinHo's eyes, but it faded quickly. "What's Captain YunHo's Division for?"
"The 7th?" RyeoWook recalled the recruitment and orientation seminars he attended years past, back when he was a fresh graduate before entering the 4th. "They're the Rukongai Patrol Division, so they have jurisdiction over anything to do with safety outside of Soul Society's walls. Their members travel to various districts regularly, so if you become part of the 7th there's a chance that you can get assigned a station here."
MinHo plowed on. "The Captain and Lieutenant said there's no way to control what will happen on a mission. Like you could set off for a routine patrol and get ambushed by hollows."
RyeoWook's mind flashed back to crushed houses and bodies huddled together in concentrated terror. For a moment his imagination mounted his parents' faces on some of the figures. He controlled his shiver, but goose bumps broke freely all over his arms. "Anything's possible when you enter Soul Society."
They carried the washed rice to the backyard. RyeoWook began adding sweeteners and several dried herbs according to the family recipe. He tried a rice grain and pronounced his satisfaction. "Let's let this soak for a while. The grains need to absorb the flavor." He felt MinHo looking at him uncertainly. "Yes?"
"I... What convinced you to go?"
DaeSung laughed as he tried to figure out how the grinding stones fitted. "He was recruited by the 4th Division. That's completely different from being recruited by ours."
RyeoWook scowled at him. "It's not like we're completely removed from trouble," he sniped. DaeSung raised his eyebrows at him, employing his innate ability to tease without saying a word. RyeoWook conceded DaeSung's unspoken point. "Okay, yes, we don't usually get sent to fight, but we still have our share of battles, DaeSung."
MinHo gasped. Disbelief tinged his large eyes. "You can call Lieutenants by name?!"
"We... have a common past," RyeoWook answered evasively.
MinHo's eyes darted to DaeSung, who was biting his lip as stared at the stones, then back to RyeoWook. "There isn't any stigma for that in the Divisions?"
RyeoWook wasn't commonly exposed to innuendo and thus completely missed this one. "Inter-Division alliances form easily. Although I think DaeSung's and mine are a bit stranger than most." After all, it wasn't everyday that a trainee gets sent on a mission with a ranking officer.
There was an audible click, followed by a high-pitched crow of triumph. "Finally!" DaeSung crowed. He fitted the handle on the top stone and gave it a test spin. "Where's the rice? Let's get this started!"
"It needs to soak longer," RyeoWook answered.
DaeSung froze in mid-celebration and sagged. "Man. You should've told me not to rush."
MinHo turned to RyeoWook and mouthed, That was rushing?
In the end, YunHo suggested to both sets of parents to let their children spend the night with him and DaeSung. With all the cheerful smiles RyeoWook saw from their parents, he felt sure the Captain successfully convinced MinHo's father. The only thing missing was approval from MinHo himself, who was suspiciously neutral about YunHo's suggestion.
"Why don't we check on the preparations?" Captain YunHo proposed as the four of them loitered indecisively in front of the gates to MinHo's home. "I've never attended the Dragon Fruit Festival before."
"Right! To the festivities we go!" DaeSung exclaimed, striding down the street.
MinHo and RyeoWook raised their hands, one higher (much higher) than the other. "DaeSung, it's this way," RyeoWook called after him, heading down the opposite path.
"And the festivities aren't actually until tomorrow," MinHo added.
DaeSung turned sharply on his heel and strode after them like nothing happened. YunHo snickered and followed suit.
"Why does the district celebrate the Dragon Fruit Festival?" Captain YunHo inquired. RyeoWook and MinHo glanced at each other and shrugged at the same time.
"It's tradition, Captain," MinHo answered as if it was the only answer that mattered.
"Ah," YunHo nodded sagely.
They left the inlet village and entered the heart of the district. Banners and streamers were hung so thickly that the night sky was barely visible. Lanterns in the shape and colors of dragon fruits adorned every house and pole. Food stalls offered bite-sized morsels of fruits cooked and baked into a thousand different delicacies that always left the appetite wanting more, all to tease it for the feast tomorrow. Shops sold special curios that appeared only once a year, only this time of year: intricately carved chopsticks, delicately colored combs, ornamental scrolls for astounding displays of calligraphy, perfumes and ointments with understated yet complex aromas, even sets of dinner plates emblazoned with scenes of harvest. One particular item caught DaeSung's eyes before RyeoWook could distract him.
"Hey," DaeSung asked, nudging RyeoWook hard on the shoulder. "Is my serving platter at your place? I've been looking for it all over."
RyeoWook feigned great interest in soaps and bath oils made from the thematic fruit.
The Lieutenant persisted. "It's purple and white and has 'Talent' painted at the center beneath the glazing." He started poking RyeoWook's waist and became generally impossible to ignore.
"I think it may be at home. But I'm not really sure, Lieutenant," RyeoWook answered without much commitment.
DaeSung sagged with relief. "That's good. Captain gave it to me during my promotion party," he explained and RyeoWook felt guilty. They glanced at Captain YunHo and MinHo, who were wheedling more samples from a stall that offered slices of dragon fruit covered with various types of glazing. MinHo's pleading eyes seemed to be doing the trick, and the rest of him certainly helped.
For a moment, the entire scenery was replaced with carnage and corpses, with a hollow roaring triumphantly in the background. The stalls were crushed and houses burned. Husks from thousands of dragon fruits were rotting all over the streets, covering crushed bodies among the wreckage. RyeoWook chased the vision away.
He wondered if the refugees could still celebrate anything. Did they bring their festivals with them? Could they return to their normal lives living in such abnormal conditions?
"About last night," DaeSung said softly. "Is there any trouble between you and EunHyuk?"
"A bit," RyeoWook answered after a pause. He wondered how open he should be and decided that they were friends outside of their ranks. "It's about this trip, actually. You know, right?" They came to a stall that offered personalized emblazing services on any ceramic surface. RyeoWook put in an order for five plates and gave the stall owner five names.
DaeSung nodded sadly. "Yeah. I told them not to. I didn't think they pushed through with it until you arrived here."
"Thanks for standing up for me, by the way. You're a good friend," RyeoWook said. He finished an internal struggle and submitted a sixth order for a personalized ceramic snack box, then a seventh for another plate. He thought some more, asked for two of the earlier slips, made some changes, and gave them back.
"Is that what I did?" DaeSung asked innocently. "Or was I a bad friend who turned a blind eye to my friend's welfare? Sometimes friends do that. I don't think EunHyuk ever does."
RyeoWook counted his claim slips and hid them securely in an inside pocket. He turned to DaeSung with eyes seeing into his memories. His shoulders began to tremble.
DaeSung steered him into a dark ally and hugged him tight. RyeoWook pressed his eyes to DaeSung's shoulders so his tears wouldn't run down his face. Minho and Captain YunHo peeked around the corner and responded tactfully to DaeSung's unspoken signal. MinHo, with the enthusiasm of someone who was saving someone else from embarrassment, energetically dragged Captain YunHo around to see the many sights the village had to offer. YunHo agreed with equal excitement.
The crowd grew thicker as the night grew deeper. By now, each house's preparations were done and the families free to partake in the pre-festivities. By and large, there was singing and dancing everywhere.
DaeSung located MinHo's and Captain YunHo's spiritual energies at a nearby tea shop and they followed after RyeoWook dried his eyes. It wasn't a large tea shop by any measure and it was packed with patrons. YunHo and MinHo were enjoying themselves despite being squeezed into a corner. They shifted awkwardly to make space for DaeSung and RyeoWook.
"This is delicious tea!" YunHo crowed a little too loudly.
"Yeah, I've been telling him how only our village can ferment it properly," MinHo added.
DaeSung rolled his eyes and RyeoWook covered his grin. YunHo poured their tea and they drank graciously. RyeoWook waited silently for visions of death and destruction that came with every new scenario, but this time his mind was thankfully proper. He felt, with hopeful certainty, that there would be fewer of them from now on.
"There's nothing more to see tonight," MinHo told the officers. "Although the singing and dancing will go on, people are saving their best stuff for the full celebration tomorrow."
The smiled that crossed YunHo's face was brighter than any RyeoWook ever saw before. "You mean the food today... it's nothing compared to tomorrow's?" the Captain asked softly. DaeSung covered his eyes with his hands.
"Yes...?" MinHo answered uncertainly.
Hearing this, DaeSung emerged from his introspection and offered praise to the gods of harvest. YunHo folded his arms and stared thoughtfully into his tea.
MinHo turned to RyeoWook. "I think I just broke them."
"I'm pretty sure DaeSung was already broken before," RyeoWook responded. He poured the last of the tea into MinHo's cup. "I'll just go get more, shall I?"
MinHo glanced at the officers and decided they'd be safe enough. "I'll come with you."
Navigating the packed teahouse was a challenge, but there were advantages to being so tall and intimidating or short and dismissible. MinHo and RyeoWook reached the counter and returned the teapot to a harried waitress who put it in a line of pots waiting to be filled.
RyeoWook, son of highly skilled musicians and himself an artisan of sound, knew that silence had a magic of its own. He felt MinHo aiming it at him.
"Becoming a shinigami... it's not a job for just anyone," RyeoWook said so softly that MinHo had to lean down to hear. "There's more to it than just discipline and courage and skills and everything else. It does things to you. Funny things. Not always good things, too. I haven't had the chance indulge my music in years, and the only thing that kept me going is the conviction that if I don't help keep the world safe, there won't be any music to play."
MinHo nodded and looked down at his very creased clothing. RyeoWook's truth applied to all the arts.
"It's a sacrifice as much as a profession," RyeoWook went on. "Bad things can happen. Sometimes it can happen to you; sometimes it can happen to everyone but you. But it's a shinigami's job to stop it from happening. And the bad things never stop coming. You think it's over one day, after the battle and the chaos and all the wounds have healed, but you learn that there are so many side effects and they don't teach you how to deal with them in class."
"But you're okay now," MinHo said.
"I thought I was okay before, but trauma has a funny way of sneaking up on you." RyeoWook glanced back at DaeSung and YunHo, who had reanimated and were now discussing something with knowing gleams in their eyes. "The best way to deal with it is to find someone you can trust to take care of you. That's why even the Captains are never alone. They find friends among themselves or among their members. If you find the right people, you can have someone closer than family." He watched DaeSung stand up, struggle his way across the crowd, and leave.
The waitress placed their refilled pot at the counter. RyeoWook took the tray carefully and MinHo gave their payment. RyeoWook realized why YunHo aimed his reassurances at Mr. Choi and Mrs. Lee even if it was MinHo who needed to give an answer. He tugged on MinHo's sleeve and had one last thing to say. "Don't think about making your parents worry about you. That's why you have to be good at what you do, so they don't have to worry. If it comes to it, that's why you have to be strong."
MinHo's silence changed tone. He regarded RyeoWook longer than ever and ruffled his hair. "You're right. I guess I have to learn quickly."
RyeoWook refilled YunHo's cup as soon as they reached the table. The Captain took the pot from him and poured theirs. "DaeSung had to fetch some stuff back at headquarters. He'll be back before sunrise."
"Just in time to start the festival, then," RyeoWook said cheerfully.
"He'd still miss out on a lot, though," MinHo uttered. "So what do you want to do next, Captain?"
YunHo caught the new tone in MinHo's voice and couldn't speak for the surprise. Deep beneath his masculine image, he was dying to express his elation via a high-pitched squeal. Being made Captain forced one to grow out of some habits, but some things remained the same.
The celebrations were slowly gearing up among locals and tourists alike. They unknowingly welcomed three additional shinigami among their ranks, two of whom danced with awkward jerks and thrusts while the third had surprising flexibility for his build.
"Just a few minutes more," RyeoWook announced, gazing at the rapidly brightening sky.
They were part of the crowd that filled the village square. The air was thick with sweat and excitement. Everyone gazed intently at the chief, who stood on a raised platform holding a mallet. A gigantic golden gong carved like a dragon fruit was suspended behind him.
"Yah, I hope Lieutenant DaeSung can find us in this crowd," MinHo fretted.
"DaeSung can find anyone anywhere," YunHo said calmly. "Don't worry about him."
"But if he does find us, how exactly is he going to reach us?" RyeoWook pointed out. YunHo and MinHo stared at him.
"You have a point," YunHo said. He placed a hand on each of their shoulders and suddenly their feet no longer stood on solid earth but instead on a fine layer of spirit particles. They didn't move, but there was a feeling of being tugged through the air and suddenly RyeoWook and MinHo were looking at the proceedings from a nearby rooftop. There were a few other people on their level so they weren't completely out of place.
"Whoa," was all MinHo could say.
YunHo grinned at him. "Flash Steps. Very handy."
"I have got to learn that," MinHo went on, amazement filing his voice.
"All in due time, MinHo," RyeoWook said before a pair of hands were clamped firmly over his eyes. There was a familiar odor in the air.
"Guess who," someone said in DongHae's voice and was trying to sound as low and gruff and not himself as possible.
"Nice try, DongHae," RyeoWook chided, "but I'd know this smell anywhere."
EunHyuk laughed loudly and lowered his arms to hug RyeoWook from behind. "I missed you," he said softly.
"Missed you, too," RyeoWook replied.
"Awww," DongHae and DaeSung added and was cut off by a sharp, "Shut up!" from JunSu. "The chief is about to speak." As one, the shinigami turned to the center of the square.
The chief cleared his throat and held his mallet high. "Every year, we are blessed with a great harvest. Every year, without fail, we have enough to live and eat comfortably. Let us thank the gods in our prayers tonight. But now, we thank them with celebration!" He drew the mallet back and hit the gong with all his strength. The blast of sound and the cheer that followed spared no eardrums.
"Yah! The feast has begun!" YunHo yelled vibrating excitedly in place. "MinHo, where do we go first? Where's the best food? I'm in the mood for fruity pancakes!"
MinHo laughed in good nature at the man who would be his leader for a long time to come. "I know this one place that serves a great variety of them. Come on, Captain YunHo, Lieutenant DaeSung." He jumped nimbly from the roof and YunHo followed.
DaeSung turned to his friends. "Let's meet up for lunch, alright? RyeoWook, just choose a place by noon and we'll go to you." He saluted the four of them and jumped down to rejoin his Captain and their newest recruit. The crowd swept them away.
"Where to now?" EunHyuk asked out loud.
"I want to play that game!" DongHae yelled, pointing excitedly at a dozen bamboo poles being erected at the park. "Assface! Let's play that game!"
"That's a game?" JunSu asked, squinting behind his glasses.
"It's a simple game," RyeoWook explained. "You just have to be the first to reach the top of your pole. See the pouches tied at the highest notches?"
"Oh. That doesn't sound so hard," JunSu observed.
"The poles are greased, and you're allowed to use only your bare hands and feet."
"Now that sounds like fun," DongHae said, grinning. "JunSu, come on!"
JunSu's flustered protestations were drowned out by DongHae yelling his battle cry at the top of his lungs, "Okay we can!" DongHae dragged JunSu off the roof, and that was that.
"So. What game do we play?" EunHyuk asked RyeoWook. "Or if you want, we could watch JunSu and DongHae get all greasy?"
RyeoWook considered it. "Hmm. Tempting, but how about a food fest instead?"
EunHyuk smiled brightly. "That's a better idea."
"Then I hope you haven't had breakfast yet. We just have to pick some things up, first," RyeoWook said. He jumped off the rood and EunHyuk followed.
It was a good idea to place his orders the night before, RyeoWook realized: plenty of tourists were flooding the stall with orders, and if RyeoWook joined them only now there was no way he could be at the front by noon. But thankfully the artisans had finished his orders during the night. He handed the payment over and received his seven packages. EunHyuk lifted him delicately and Flash Stepped back to the rooftops where the crowd was noticeably absent.
"What is it?" EunHyuk inquired as RyeoWook handed him one with his name on it.
"I figured it was more my fault that you were distracted when you did the dishes the other night. So..." RyeoWook trailed off as EunHyuk opened the box and pulled out a ceramic plate intricately decorated with flowers and fruits. At the very center were their names and the character for 'Brotherhood' between them, elegantly inked beneath the glaze.
EunHyuk found no words to say.
"I have one, too. See?" RyeoWook opened the package marked with his name and showed the identical plate. "Only it doesn't really matter if it's mine or yours since we'll probably mix them up and eat out of each other's plates, anyway."
There were times, RyeoWook thought, when he fully understood EunHyuk's need for contact. This was a perfect example.
Festivals are a manifestation of the magic that flows in the collective human spirit. Many things happened during festivals, all of them memorable, all of them profound. That was the truth of every gathering for which people traveled far and wide.
That day, the Dragon Fruit Festival touched the lives of seven people.
There were the 2nd Division Lieutenant and his 3rd Officer, who learned through games that ambition and competitiveness did not always breed aggression. By lunchtime, both were sweaty, greasy, grimy, and generally as unclean as possible after having participated in all the games they could find. It didn't matter who won between them, although they pretended it did. That was part of the fun, and that was part of the memory.
There was the 7th Division Captain and his Lieutenant, who learned from each other the values of responsibility and enjoyment. One cannot always be a leader to everyone, and one cannot always goof off and thrust all responsibilities to the responsible. There should be balance, and they were lucky that they could balance each other.
Then there was their latest recruit, whom they escorted home that night so he could formally announce to his family his decision to enter the Soul Society Academy and train to rise among the ranks of the 7th Division. There were tears, as there always will be at such times, but more importantly there were promises of taking care and keeping in touch, and these were manifestations of love.
And finally there were the two trainee healers, who drew strength from each other and healed one another even at the worst of times. Between them the festival forged a bond stronger than steel and hotter than flame. These two carried in their hearts the magic of the Dragon Fruit Festival more deeply than anyone else.
And perhaps there was one more person whom the festival touched even though he wasn't there.
"So. How were the celebrations?" HaeJin asked. He pushed aside his mountain of paperwork and gave RyeoWook his full attention.
"It's... really too much for words, Lieutenant," RyeoWook thought.
"Then I guess you enjoyed yourself?" HaeJin pursued.
RyeoWook smiled brilliantly at him. "Immensely. It was such a pity that you weren't there. And as a bonus, there were no hollow attacks whatsoever."
HaeJin nodded slowly. He was one of those people who could communicate a smile without actually smiling: it shone all over his face. "Good, good. I'm glad to hear it." He gestured towards his reports and muttered, "Being a Lieutenant can get in the way of one's life."
RyeoWook brought out the real reason for his visit and put the boxes on the desk. "The flat one is for the Captain," he explained. "But the other one's yours."
HaeJin gave him a politely puzzled yet still grateful look and opened the gift. Inside was a finely decorated ceramic snack box. With his name emblazoned on the cover. "Thank you, RyeoWook. This is very beautiful." He tilted it to examine the decoration on the side and felt something shift within. He removed the cover and discovered several slices of candied dragon fruits.
"You're welcome, Lieutenant!" beamed RyeoWook warmly. He bowed deep and practically skipped out of the office.
HaeJin watched him leave with an amused curve gracing his lips. He tried one of the slices and immediately regretted, for the first time ever he was promoted, being a responsible Lieutenant. He resolved to hang around DaeSung more.
RyeoWook lived more peacefully since then. There were fewer nightmares and visions of catastrophe; what replaced them was a general sense of certainty that he felt better than he had ever been. He longer filled his hours with speculations of tragedy, but instead with food and music and the merriment he could bring his friends. Sometimes, there was even music.
Two new things decorated his and EunHyuk's home. First and most obvious was a portrait RyeoWook commissioned from a skilled painter he grew up with. The portrait hung behind the door, and from it they would always see DaeSung, YunHo, and MinHo bloated after so much food, JunSu and DongHae covered head to toe with dirt but smiling brightly with everyone all the same, and EunHyuk and RyeoWook holding up their newly acquired plates. Those plates took the place of DaeSung's serving platter, which the owner one day retrieved forcefully.
The other decoration was a simple affair of two sheets of paper sharing the same frame. The larger of the two was RyeoWook's commendation letter, but on top of it was a note written hurriedly the morning before the Dragon Fruit Festival.
I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be mad, the note read. I love you, too. Brothers forever, okay?
[Continue to Chapter 5]
A/N #2: For those waiting for the last chapter of Those Meddling Kids!, I promise I'll get to work on it right away. The past month has been pretty hectic and drove all thoughts of romance right out of my head.
Thanks for reading, and peace out :D