Summary: It makes sense then, that Changmin would want to seek something that couldn’t possibly exist, for he had already found for the City everything he deemed worth discovering. And maybe the Old Stories were right; maybe you shouldn’t mingle with a demon, even when you think you know all the risks.
“You’re not the same anymore, Changmin-ah,” Yunho said as they prepared to leave the Hall, as the deep black of nightfall invaded the dark crimson cloud-sky.
“What do you mean?” Changmin replied, lazy tone hiding the sudden apprehension Yunho’s words had instilled in him, just as the long bangs falling before his eyes hid an ugly frown from his flat mate.
Yunho gave him an intent stare. He was no fool, and Changmin knew it. Yet he kept his mouth shut, because there was nothing he could say that would put an end to the man’s worry. In fact, saying anything came down to saying farewell to his right to claim the status of Evergreener, and that was something he could not have.
“We live together, Changmin-ah. Don’t think I haven’t noticed how restless you’ve become. You’ve spent the last few months reading Old Books.” Changmin looked around, checking for latecomers that might have overheard their conversation. “What’s the point in doing that? Your Contribution has never been as low as this month’s, and—”
“Ok, ok, I got it,” Changmin snapped, glaring at his Navigator. “I’ll be more cautious from now on, and come home before dinner is served, and go to bed early, and make sure I do not disturb the Elders during the lectures, yes, yes. Will that do?”
Yunho’s pressed his lips together in a thin line, and replied nothing. Changmin sighed. He hated arguing with anyone over trivial, daily life matters. Especially so with Yunho, because the latter was a Wildling as well, and Wildlings were not supposed to get emotionally attached to one another, only ‘compete and always try to outmatch your closest rival’.
That Changmin found the System ridiculously outdated was not the point. The point was that everyone under twenty (and he was only sixteen) was submitting to the rule; grumbling about it but never questioning it.
And then Yunho had come, refusing flat-out to challenge the Honorary Student title together with Changmin, and offered that they become friends instead. Changmin had searched the meaning of it, read hundreds of descriptions in every Book he could find, but still could not pinpoint what the concept consisted in.
He slammed the door shut behind him, which earned him surprised stares as the noise echoed through the studious quietness of the corridor.
Changmin got his head down, Yunho’s concerns forgotten the moment he felt, through his bag, the rough cover of the Old Book he had borrowed a little while earlier. Impatience took over, compelling, powerful.
If his intense research should ever attain its peak, it was tonight, for he was about to make a major discovery that would surely change all the things he — and the Elders, and the Authorities, and everyone; had always believed in.
For months, years, nearly a decade, truthfully, Changmin searched. It had been frantic at first, almost sickly. Then dejection had kicked in, and every time he went out, it was wrapped in subdued expectation -because not getting his hopes high up had become the mot d’ordre.
He didn’t like the third district at all. It felt like oily ink on his skin, felt like the slippery ointment with which the whores coated their body; attracting and repelling at the same time, leaving an aftertaste that made him want to puke his guts down gutter.
There was a pub on his left. He knew it was the one without having to look at it. His eyes were on the circular Belt stabilized in the air, girding the city, cutting it in two. Something brushed against his ankles, and he wanted nothing but to run back to the safety of his apartment, the safety of the Balcony.
Changmin had not come for the sex or the alcohol, had not come to remember that he had had to take both in order to obtain the information he had wanted. The coat slipped off his shoulders as impatience won over once again.
He waited, ordered something. The beverage the stringy waitress put before him vaguely reminded him of some potion the ‘savant” Ancients had fancied to take when their poor Knowledge hadn’t been enough to cure their own kind.
The pub got noisier as night — or what the Authorities decided to call ‘night’, for lack of a better word — settled outside. It made Changmin sleepier. He had exams on the next day, even though his Contribution for this month was important enough that he didn’t have to take them.
He guessed he must have fallen asleep, because when he opened his eyes the place was nearly empty. There was also a man sitting in front of him — his man, the one he had waited to meet for exactly one third of his life.
The man didn’t speak. He kept his arms crossed on his chest, kept his face expressionless. The only thing indicating he had noticed Changmin was the way his eyes glinted — they were glowing really, tainted red by the diffuse light the cheap candlesticks spread around the otherwise dark room.
“You’ve been asking for me,” he said at least. His voice had no intonation. It didn’t sound like a statement, or a question. It sounded like —like nothing. Words shelled one after the other. Changmin blinked and tried to focus, afraid that his eyes would close, afraid that what he thought was a ghostly apparition would disappear if he let his attention wander but one second. “Or rather,” he continued, “You’ve been chasing my tail.”
“I think the word you’re searching for is stalking,” Changmin replied. It hadn’t been his intention to sound cocky, and even if he did the other showed no indication of having taken offense. “And as it appears, that’s not quite the case.”
The man raised an eyebrow, and it was like all the muscles of his face had started moving at once, bringing it to life. The corners of his lips stretched in a semblance of a smile. Not enough, Changmin wanted to say.
There was a stinging, childish regret on the tip of his tongue as he held the words trapped safely inside his mouth.
“You want something from me.”
He gathered all the information he’d discovered over the past years, from basic facts like the man’s name, his appearance, who he went around with —no one; who had heard of him before. Who he was exactly.
When Changmin went down to what, he almost wanted to stop there. He knew what the man was, knew it too well. Had spent most of his time fearing the implications, the remaining part at being thrilled by it.
He breathed in, quietly. The man’s skin twitched at the cheekbone, and he knew he had heard him.
“Yes.” Changmin ignored the way fingernails dug into his biceps. He’d learned that Knowledge was methodical and emotionless. And he was as excited as he was ashamed by his reckless behaviour. “Yes I do.”
It was twirling in his mind, the endless amount of perspectives meeting Jaejoong had set free. He tried not to show it, but it made his every cell vibrate with thirst.
They were walking too slowly for his liking, but he dared not quicken the pace.
He reminded himself that he was twenty-four, far from being an inexperienced Ditherer, that losing control over his own mind meant he would also lose the path to the door of Knowledge.
Jaejoong talked about himself. Changmin tried not to roll his eyes, though he didn’t hold back when the pathetic notes lying under the epic stories —stories so numerous that only half of them would already be enough to fill up a thousand lifetimes; allowed a snarky comment in between. They were stories of wars in which the winning had depended on Jaejoong’s sole intervention, stories of taken lives and spared futures, of inhuman coldness, and desires coming from the darkest corners of a soul that was supposed to have disappeared ages ago.
He stopped, then, and Changmin found it worse than before because he had nowhere to hide.
“You know it, right? That there is always a condition.”
Changmin nodded, and Jaejoong’s chest heaved just slightly, from a silent chuckle. “Of course,” he said.
“Also know that you’re probably not going to like it? Not after a few years, anyway.”
“Are you trying to scare me off?”
The wind, coming from underground, hit them like a breath of burning air. Changmin snorted as Jaejoong put a hand under his elbow to keep him from losing balance.
Fingers caressed his cheek. The other raised his arm too fast for him to catch the move. He contained a shiver, his body screaming at him to run away, but there was something keeping his feet cramped to the ground.
His brain was working hotfoot, and then stopped when Jaejoong stepped forward, nose nuzzling against his neck. “Why is it that your entire kind only smells of despair and emptiness, nowadays,” he grumbled.
Changmin rolled his eyes. He’d have found the situation amusing, if only it hadn’t been a being coming straight from the underworld that was sniffing him while pinning his arms to the concrete wall. “I guess it’s better than the stench of ignorance? We use to wash at least once a day.”
“What is the point, if all you are doing is getting ready to become a shell, a receptacle for that thing you call Knowledge?” Jaejoong asked. His eyelashes batted slowly, ghost-like butterflies against Changmin’s jaw, and he could hear him inhale his scent, deep and content.
“And what rules do you abide to?” Changmin retorted, biting his lips in for a second as Jaejoong’s hand slipped under his t-shirt reproducing the feel of cotton. “Except lazing around to escape from your inability to feed.”
A flash of annoyance crossed Jaejoong’s eyes. “I do not ‘laze around,’ Shim Changmin,” he said, his movements not quite swift enough yet. “And you should not underestimate one of the Lord’s pawns; even he is but a bit rusty.”
Changmin’s breathing became shallower as he noticed that the wall had since long left his back, the distant music having been replaced with the soft, artificial rustling of the fake trees bordering his flat’s street.
Jaejoong’s eyes were dark, his pupils and irises melting into a deep, rich black. They were not red as he’d read in Old Books — more legends and fairy tales than theses. Changmin did not need to remember any of them to know that Jaejoong was hungry.
“Is that the condition you’ve been blabbering about?” he said, breath catching in his throat as Jaejoong’s hands slid around his waist and pulled him flush against his hard, cold body. “Seems surprisingly sweet and easy to me.”
Nose tickling his neck, Jaejoong’s lips ghosted over his ear. He shuddered; a hot, heavy breath was sweeping over his skin. He dug his teeth into his tongue when the man caught his earlobe between his teeth. “You are such a poor, poor liar, Shim Changmin,” Jaejoong said, hands stroking over sharp hipbones. “You’ve known what it was all about all along.”
“Must’ve,” Changmin gasped, his fingers clenching on Jaejoong’s hair as the door disappeared behind his back. He was pushed inside his flat, his feet tripping and landing on Jaejoong’s more than once the entire time it took them to reach his bedroom. “Must’ve escaped me.”
“Escaped you,” Jaejoong chuckled. “I’m sure it must have.”
He kissed him then, slow and demanding and insistent. Changmin relaxed into the touch. He could sense Jaejoong’s body heat up gradually against his, becoming more pliant and soft. All the Logic he still had in his possession screamed at him to put as much distance between the otherworldly being and himself as he could, but then the rest of him wanted, needed to stay, until the other had taken from him all there was to take, until he’d become part of Jaejoong.
“Mephistopheles,” he breathed. He didn’t know why he was saying it now, if he wanted the word to trigger a reaction from Jaejoong, or if he had hoped it would wake him up from his trance, his lunacy.
Jaejoong smirked. He cocked his head to one side, pressed Changmin against the mattress, and sucked on the soft skin at his neck, nibbling and biting. “I haven’t heard that name in ages,” he said at last. “I’m Jaejoong in this time and place, Shim Changmin. You ought to remember that.”
Changmin looked into his eyes, and nodded slowly. Something broke in him after Jaejoong put his lips against his, and then it felt like the envelope keeping his bones and flesh attached together was being sucked up, like the millions of tiny threads keeping it into place were being yanked on one after the other.
It felt tremendous. When air filled his lungs again, Shim Changmin let his eyes flutter shut, and darkness took him in.
Sometimes he wondered if it was possible to miss what you’ve never known. He thought he missed the feeling of moonlight on his skin. Missed the way it had used to contrast with the darkness, the way it had used to paint everything in a hollow white making all it touched look like it was about to disappear. Making all it brushed against more precious.
Changmin felt precious in Jaejoong’s arms. Filthily precious, because he knew that none of what they had, none of what they had had was anything more than a means for Jaejoong to get what he wanted.
He had learned, through his research, that the man fed on people’s happiness. He should’ve noticed that the present society offered nothing of that sort.
Changmin discovered what it truly meant, bit by bit, through what Jaejoong gave him. He wanted moremoremore, because Jaejoong took and took and took. Gave him happiness and lust and need, and then snatched it all away, and feasted on it. Jaejoong even fed on emotions he didn’t know were there in the first place.
He woke up one morning, sitting on his bed so fast that the room started spinning before his eyes. He’d thought he had seen Daylight outside the window, true Daylight. Then his vision went black, and the cloud-sky was there again, its grey as heavy, its crimson as repelling as the day before.
He remembered what Jaejoong had showed him just before they drifted into unconsciousness: great green meadows and farms, and men riding horses in martial fashion, all pressed together with victorious grins on their faces as the women cheered and rhapsodized about their return.
And the Sun! The proud bright Sun settled high in the sky, spreading its perennial light over every living and non-living being.
It didn’t matter that the dried blood on their shields, or at the edge of their sheaths meant that these men were murderers. What Changmin had focused on was a world free of Pollution, and the scenery Jaejoong had poured inside his mind had pursued him in his sleep.
“Hello, Changmin-ah,” he said as he walked in. Changmin stretched all the muscles in his body at once, stirring in their wake the stinging ache of bruises on his inner thighs, in the dip of his hipbones. He did not dislike the feeling at all.
“Do I need to call in sick today as well?” he asked, shivering at the teeth grazing the skin at his nape.
“I’m afraid so,” Jaejoong murmured. His voice was flowing down Changmin’s bare back, the slow rhythm and hoarse tone tearing a flush from his ears and neck. “I was thinking of riding around, today.”
Thrill spread through his veins. “Can’t wait,” he said as he jumped on his feet.
Jaejoong led the way out. A cab was waiting for them. Changmin’s impatience dropped, and he frowned. “Not what you were expecting, is it?” Jaejoong laughed. He went inside, telling him to come over with a sharp move of the head. “The best part has yet to come.”
They drove across the City, through the first and second district. They had to ride the subway afterwards, because no sane Evergreener ever wandered in the third district. At the bust station, Jaejoong pushed him up against the wall, and started kissing him.
“Stop,” Changmin gasped as he felt Jaejoong, hard against his body. “I haven’t recovered from last night yet.”
Groaning, Jaejoong stepped back. There were lights dancing in his eyes, and Changmin felt the familiar pulls of tiredness. His smile faltered, and grumpiness crept back up.
“Sorry,” Jaejoong apologized.
The bus took the road to the countryside, driving through the deserted, burned soils of the Wastelands. From there they walked, climbed up a hill and arrived at a hangar that had somehow survived the Pollution.
“I’d like you to meet my one and only source of joy in this decaying world of yours,” Jaejoong said, pushing the heavy door open with only a light shove. “It’s not as fast as it used to be, but it should make for an interesting ride.”
Changmin squinted a bit before he got accustomed to the darkness. In the back, a motorbike was waiting. He’d seen one or two in old reviews. This one was a Harley, and from the look of it, a fine one. He stepped forward, following Jaejoong inside.
“Where did you get it?” he asked.
“Bought it long ago,” Jaejoong said with a shrug. “Hid it from the vultures you humans call the Authorities, kept it safe.
“Is that the way you’re planning to give me Knowledge?” Changmin retorted, arms crossed on his chest. His feet were repeatedly hitting the ground in poorly-hidden eagerness.
Jaejoong smirked. “I’m giving you freedom. I’m teaching you how it feels to be alive, to be someone, and not one among so many others. What I’m giving you, no living man, no Evergreener, no Elder will ever have it. Only you, Shim Changmin.”
Changmin kept his eyes riveted on his Navigator. Jaejoong put a hand on his shoulder, gave it a light squeeze. He evaded the touch, just about managing to hold inside the annoyed sigh that wanted out.
“What’s wrong?” Jaejoong asked.
“You know what,” he replied, stored-up anger shaping his words in a sharper tone than he’d have liked. “You’ve known for years, and not once have you done anything about it.
Changmin lowered his eyes once again, checking the weather.
It’d been twenty-four years. Twenty-four long, exhausting years of being drained dry by Jaejoong, twenty-four years of an existence that had lost all meaning, all purpose.
There had been no pleasure in becoming an Evergreener. He’d seen Yunho at the ceremony, though he doubted the man who had called himself his friend back then had even recognized him.
Changmin had become a shadow. A Knowledgeable shadow, yes, but what was the use of Knowledge if it wasn’t of any use to him? What was the use if no one would acknowledge it as such?
“Changmin,” Jaejoong whispered. He was resplendent, his hair shiny, his skin pale and flawless, the muscles playing underneath it strong and developed. Unbearably beautiful. “I told you there was not long to wait.”
He’d searched for Mephistopheles, the Right Hand, the Lord’s sworn envoy. He’d searched for Knowledge, more than any Evergreener, any Elder would ever get hold of. He’d wanted to reach Awareness, the state every citizen strived to discover.
And Jaejoong had given him just that: Knowledge, but not in the form he had thought of. Jaejoong had given him his past, his experiences; he’d given him understanding about Mankind.
But now... now he was just tired.
“I want you to do something now,” Changmin groaned, tightening his arms around his legs. The unoccupied house they had been forced to hide in was cold, far away from everything, and huge. “I want it to be over, I can’t keep living like this anymore, Jaejoong,” he continued, and his voice had never sounded so edgy, desperate, broken.
“I know.” Jaejoong’s tone was steady, and Changmin hated him for it. Hated himself for ever wishing there was but a little bit of emotion left in that soulless mind. He looked up then, and caught something in the other’s eyes, something too fleeting for him to decrypt. “I cannot bear to see you like this either, Changmin-ah.”
“I know you don’t believe me when I say that,” Jaejoong replied. “But it’s true. I did warn you about what you were getting into.”
It then occurred to Changmin that demons and humans definitely did not share the same conception of warning someone of something. Or of being reasonable when food was involved.
He didn’t try to flee from the kiss Jaejoong pressed on his forehead. He welcomed the man’s touch, despite everything, despite knowing that every caress took something from him, be it hope, or lust, or even the feeling of owning his own body.
“Please,” Changmin said, so low he was afraid he might not be able to carry on talking.
Jaejoong got up, toured the room. A frown had settled on his face, and his forehead was deformed by wrinkles of worry. It was the first time Changmin was seeing him in such a state, but he did not begin to hope. It was too late to expect something from the one who had once gone by the name of Mephistopheles.
He stopped. “Come with me. Become mine.”
“Follow me, I said,” Jaejoong explained. He went back to sit next to Changmin, untangled his fingers, stroked the inside of his hand with his thumb. “I am a king in the place I come from. I can offer you protection; I can give you back everything I took from you. I can give you more, more than what you could possibly imagine.”
Changmin shook his head. “You know that’s not what I want.”
Outside, there was no place for dark colours in the sky-cloud anymore. It was of a deep crimson now, tending towards scarlet. Jaejoong cupped his chin with his hand, and he was forced to face him. “There’s no other way out,” he said. “That’s the only thing I can do, Shim Changmin.”
“Take it all.” Changmin let his head fall against his chest, a sob building up at the back of his throat. “Take it all and let’s be done with it.”
Jaejoong kissed him then, and the tears he felt rolling on his cheeks weren’t his own. He returned the embrace just as hard, let the years catch up to him, let abandon invade their last moment. “No,” Jaejoong said, shaking his head sharply. “No. I’m taking you with me.”
“Why? Why must you always do it the more difficult way?”
“I told you already,” Jaejoong whispered. Changmin did not want to see humanity in those black eyes, did not want to see the strikes of dried tears on that unnaturally pale skin. “I cannot bear you to see you like this, and I cannot bear to be the one killing you little by little. I would rather you live on, even forever if need be.”
“Because I’m selfish.”
Changmin closed his eyes. There was no light outside. No fake wind to maintain the illusion that the world wasn’t already long gone. No inner Logic left to tell him the path he was taking was the wrong one. Knowledge could never be wrong, anyway, and this was just another way of taking a step closer to what the Elders were desperately trying to understand.
He’d cheated death by becoming an Evergreener. He’d cheated the laws of Nature by trying to find a being born from legends; a being no sane citizen would ever believe was real. Shim Changmin had spent the last thirty years of his life cheating and lying to the people around him, before cheating and lying to himself when there was no one left by his side.
He opened his eyes, fixed the sky. But then there was no artificial moon here in the Wastelands. If the Old Stories were true, he might be able to recreate daylight down there. Jaejoong might agree to do that for him.
“I’ll go,” he breathed. “I’ll go.” Jaejoong smiled. Not a smirk, not a tug of his lips designed to recreate a human behaviour. Changmin wondered if demons could truly, sincerely smile. “Make me yours.”