Note: This story assumes and refers to events from "Not All Chains are Forged of Iron," but they're a minor element; it's not required reading.
Thanks to beta readers 1010nabulation, lucathia, and RandomTiger.
In the first lull after the news came of Yona's mission to bring Soo-won into negotiations with Xing, Jae-ha foolishly let himself think that surely this was the limit. Now, surely, everything that could go wrong had.
Or rather, he let himself think that there would be no more surprises. No end of things could still go wrong, but at this point, surely they were all obvious. Yona and Hak might be too late to stop the war. Meeting with Soo-won might be more than they could do, one way or another. Even if they did their part perfectly, Kouren might still break her word; if she would try something as unsightly as having her own sister killed in a burning mansion, what wouldn't she do? If she knew anything about Kouka's mythology, she might be signing the death warrants even now for the symbolic blow: 'I will crush even your legendary dragon warriors'…
If it came to that, this time they would see what the 'Beautiful Monsters of Kouka' could do — but even with Shin-ah volunteering as their secret weapon, Jae-ha's mind could spin endless ways for it all to go wrong…
Which was his first hint that this situation was shaking one more unexpected coin for him out of its purse of disasters.
It was bad enough to have taken such a beating and been unable to fight back. Everything but his dragon leg ached or burned or throbbed.
It was certainly bad enough being locked up behind stone walls again. At least they'd had the decency not to chain him; if they tried it, he vowed to himself that he would smash the chains and make them settle for bars and promises. Not that it would help much — bonds stronger than metal held him securely where he was — but he had enough self-respect to draw the line somewhere.
Unlike someone he could think of.
Yoon was arguing with Zeno again. "Don't say things like that so easily! 'Show your regeneration' — what are you planning on letting him do to you!?"
"It's okay, really," Zeno insisted. "I appreciate you worrying about me, but… They can cut off my hand or even my head, and I can put it back like before, but if one of you gets cut off, I can't put you back. So if my power can protect you all, that's the best thing for me, too. Don't worry about Zeno, okay?"
Yoon grumbled, "Yeah, right," but he turned his attention to his patients.
"Please, Jae-ha first," Kija said.
"Yeah, he got the worst of it…"
Jae-ha felt an unreasonable jolt of surprise at hearing his own name and finding himself looked at and handled.
Yoon traced the blood still running down Jae-ha's face to its source. As his fingers found the gash behind the hairline, his touch drove a gratifyingly sharp pain through the constant ache.
"How did you get that?" Yoon asked.
"The fellow with the dashing hair…"
"With one of those clubs!? Did you black out when he hit you?"
"Since it happened, have you felt dizzy? Sick to your stomach?"
The instant Yoon asked it, Jae-ha did feel a wave of seasickness wash over him, because he knew what the questions really meant: Is this the kind of head-wound that could slowly kill you?
"Dizzy from blood loss, that's all," he said, but his voice wobbled a little.
"Are you sure?"
Nothing gets past our 'genius pretty-boy,' does it? "I'm sure."
He hadn't felt anything suspicious until Yoon mentioned it — and if he suddenly found himself second-guessing, it was only his mind playing an annoying old trick. For the feeling to arrive on cue like that didn't mean a concussion; it meant sheer nerves. No longer satisfied with looking for trouble in the future, they were setting out to look for trouble now. When it reached this point, they could seize on any list of worrisome sensations and conjure them up.
Jae-ha could also feel the anxiety starting to seal him off. Kija speaking for him and Yoon turning to him should have been perfectly natural, and yet he'd been surprised. Even sitting surrounded by the others, even feeling the other dragons' presence beside him, he felt as if he and they weren't really in the same place together, as if he were locked up alone — again. A familiar, cloying sense of heat and weight descended around him, like an enclosing blanket of lead.
Wonderful, he thought. Now I have everything I could ask for. It had been so long since it happened, but at a time like this, he should have seen it coming. One more coin from the purse of disasters…
Yoon kept prodding and asking him questions, put an ear to his chest and thumped on it to check the sound, but the pressure and pain were coming from another place. When they spoke, they were calling to each other across a barrier. Jae-ha winced as Yoon probed at the cracks in his ribs. It made him squeeze his eyes shut, and he found that he didn't want to open them again.
At the sound of the outer door, he forced himself to look. Mizari was back with Yoon's bag, this time looking crestfallen like a child with no time to play and a parent looking over their shoulder. Someone must have called him away to his actual duties. He just made the delivery and asked what else they might need, obviously fishing for excuses to come and bother them again, but the solicitous tone was oddly sincere. The wide-eyed sweetness seasoning his ghoulish leer might be genuine — which would only make it worse. What kind of dangerous eccentric had Kouren promoted? Well, one who would burn down her sister's mansion for her, obviously.
Mizari left again, and Jae-ha had no more time to think. The pain was a welcome distraction as Yoon cleaned his wounds, sewed up the worst of them including the gash on his head, applied healing herbs and bandaged everything.
"We're lucky; those ribs are just cracked," Yoon said. "I know it hurts, but try to take a deep breath now and then. You've lost more blood than I'd like, but as long as you aren't still bleeding on the inside, you should be okay."
You just had to say something like that, Jae-ha thought.
"And what if he is? 'Still bleeding on the inside'?" Kija asked.
"Then we ask these guys for a surgeon and we pray," Yoon answered testily.
Jae-ha had intentionally refrained from asking any further himself, but leave it to Kija to be helpful. Already he felt a little plunge in his chest as his nerves set out to look for trouble.
"I…" Shin-ah let it trail off but then started again. "I might be able to see something like that, but…"
"Yeah, let's save that for a last resort, okay?" Yoon suggested.
Jae-ha was tempted to say 'No, try it.' If the blue dragon's gaze stopped his heart, at least he'd know he was really feeling it. But it wasn't worth frightening Shin-ah or running the risk over some ill-behaved nerves, so he stayed silent.
Again he didn't want to open his eyes, and this time he didn't, just settled back against the wall in his private, lead-lined darkness.
He clung to the sounds of the world outside to hear how Kija was faring. As Yoon went to work, Kija tried much too hard to be brave but couldn't keep himself from whimpering.
"Does it hurt there?" Yoon asked.
"N-no. It's fine."
"Look, I really do need to know if it hurts!"
As it turned out, Yotaka's club had torn a gash down Kija's chest but had otherwise only knocked the breath out of him and stunned him — "You don't need to be embarrassed about it," Yoon told him; "staying down was the best thing you could have done in that situation anyway," — and once his body recovered from the shock, he should be fine. The gash did need to be sewn up, though, and Jae-ha heard the whisper of thread sliding off the spool, a snip of shears — and then Kija taking a sharp breath, just as Yoon must be threading the needle.
"I can give you something to calm you down and help with pain," Yoon offered.
"No! No, you don't have to do that."
"Ahh, White Dragon is so brave!" Zeno declared. He and Shin-ah shuffled over to Kija and took hold of him; Jae-ha could 'see' it without looking by the rustle of their clothes and the sense of their dragon blood. But whether they were cuddling Kija, holding him down for Yoon, or both, Jae-ha couldn't tell, and he didn't look to find out. In any case, his own chuckles of perverse amusement were probably less helpful.
But he had heard what he needed to know and could let go of their voices. None of them were safe — no end of things could still go wrong — but no one was going to die of their wounds.
Except maybe you, the voice of nerves told him.
If he really were 'still bleeding on the inside,' what would it feel like? Vague, sickening pains washed through him, reflecting vague, still-unformed answers to the question. If it was happening, it would probably be under the cracked ribs. He would probably be bleeding into or around his lung.
Instantly he was fixated on the taste of blood — from a cut in his mouth, where his now-swollen cheek had been knocked against his teeth, but was that really all?
Instantly his nerves seized on his breath; it stopped flowing. He had to intentionally pull it in, push it out, or he would sit there with bated breath until it hurt, and then the pain would be seized on as proof of disaster. It took all his attention to try to keep the balance between too much and too little, all the while staying vigilant for any real sign of trouble amid the constant stream of false alarm, and all the while trying not to let it show — the others had enough to worry about.
It was a long, boring fight. As it went on and on, he had no way of knowing how much time had crawled by that way and vanished. Eventually a soft, watery tingling sensation entangled his fingers; he didn't have the breathing rhythm quite right — it was a little too much…
He was too preoccupied to notice that the others had fallen silent until the silence broke.
Shin-ah spoke first, very softly. "Um… He looks… different…"
"Yeah," Zeno whispered uneasily, "I don't want to wake him up, but…"
"He's gotten paler, and there's something off about how he's breathing," Yoon agreed. "I really don't like it."
Jae-ha belatedly realized that they were talking about him; again, he was surprised by the attention. He took a painfully deep breath and roused himself to break the impasse between gratitude and annoyance. "I'm probably fine," he said, without opening his eyes.
"Huh? What do you mean 'probably'?" Yoon questioned.
"Well, I was sitting here thinking that I might die, but that happens sometimes. So far, it's always been just my imagi—
"—nation." Before he could even finish the word, Yoon snatched his wrist and began checking his pulse. Shin-ah seized him in a desperate hug, and Kija's dragon claw clamped down around his arm; they clung to him jealously, as if they meant to hold his soul in his body and not let it escape.
"Don't say things like that!" Yoon snapped.
"That's right — don't give up! You have to hold on!" Kija cried, gripping even tighter; clearly he was already getting his strength back.
"Breaking my arm won't help," Jae-ha pointed out.
"Green Dragon did say he was probably fine," Zeno pointed out. "He's been through things before, so —"
"If you're rubbing off on him, that's all we need!" Yoon shot back. He pried Shin-ah loose enough to put an ear to Jae-ha's chest again. "Breathe in deep."
Doing it sent stabbing pains in through his cracked ribs and forced a half-hearted cough out of him. Again Yoon listened, thumped on his chest, kept listening… "Your pulse is fast, but it's strong. The way you're breathing… If it was shallow I'd worry, but it's more like it's more than normal? If something's going wrong, I don't know what it is."
Yoon's list of symptoms sounded an old echo.
"Is it hard to breathe?" he asked.
"You're not helping!"
Jae-ha's face stretched itself into a smile. "You may not know this about me, but I can be a bit hysterical."
"Don't disparage yourself!" Kija insisted. "I admire how well you keep your head in difficult situations."
"Thank you; a lot of work has gone into it."
"If anybody's hysterical here, it's me!" Yoon cried, exasperated.
"Every time I've seen you panic, it's been very sensible," Jae-ha argued. "Trust me. I'm probably fine."
He still felt as if he were speaking to them from a separated place, as if they were all on a ship and he was drifting alongside, lying in his own little boat and wrapped in that darkening blanket of lead. Words had come more easily than he expected and had drawn him closer to them, but now on both sides, words ran dry, and he began to drift again. Shin-ah and Kija eased their grip and settled but didn't let go; he felt them still holding him one on each arm, and he felt Zeno reach up to rub his hair between his bandages, but it wasn't enough to tether him as the hot, shifting waters of his own thoughts carried him out to sea.
He probably wasn't dying.
It was just that the persistent thought of bleeding on the inside was there in his little vessel with him, along with the thought of the bars and stone walls, the thought that shackles or nooses waited only on their captors' whim, the thought of Yona and Hak so heavily burdened and far away, notions of doom that could keep swirling wider until they swallowed whole kingdoms…
Jae-ha knew from long experience that fighting such thoughts head-on was more likely to upset his boat than do any good. The best tactic he knew was to keep ahead of them — but in an imaginary one-person boat or an all-too-real prison cell, there was nowhere ahead to go.
He couldn't stay ahead; his little boat was full of holes. Things were slipping out and slipping in.
'I was sitting here thinking that I might die, but that happens sometimes.' It was true. For years it had been mercifully rare, but now and then his mind did keep him awake at night telling him — to pick out one of its favorite pretexts — that at any moment the next green dragon might be born. Until very recently, that could have ended him in any case; he had privately but solemnly vowed not to be like Garou, complicit in his successor's suffering, even if the alternative was an arrow through the heart in a kidnapping attempt. But then, his mind would tell him, perhaps he wouldn't even have that chance. Perhaps his successor would receive the power all at once; even before morning he might wilt like a frost-bitten flower.
Occasionally his mind played such cruel games with him, but he didn't like people to know it. And now it had slipped out.
He liked that word even less. After the incident with the angry ghosts he'd counted himself lucky to have escaped Green Dragon Village without anyone hearing it as far as he knew, but now Yoon and the other dragons had heard it. Now they had that embarrassing hint about their 'big brother' who was supposed to be so debonair and keep his head so admirably — because he himself had let it slip out.
Slip out and slip in. Memories of times it had happened and words that had followed rose and closed around him like his imaginary boat taking on water.
Fighting would only make it worse. Better just to let himself sink. At least memories were some kind of distraction.
He probably wouldn't die.
If his friends had taken the chance to ask around the village of his birth as to what the people there thought their latest green dragon was like — which they may have done, he hadn't asked too closely — if the villagers had answered, he supposed that two major themes would likely have emerged:
Sullen and hysterical.
Sullen he would own to. In fact he was proud to have been cross and sulky in that place.
But there was no pride to be found in being hysterical.
Once, in Awa when he'd been a little past twenty, he'd told a bit of the secret to a beautiful woman whose name he couldn't now recall. He'd been lying beside her, lulled with pleasure after a particularly successful evening, and he'd let it slip far too easily — that even on a night like that, sometimes he couldn't fall asleep because he didn't feel certain that he would ever see the dawn.
He spared her the details. She could have slipped a drug into his wine without him realizing, his mind was telling him; she might at that very moment be planning to go to the town officers — 'here I have the flying pirate' — and by morning things could be terribly unsightly. But he had no real reason to mistrust her. Even telling her that he was imagining such a thing would be both unpleasant and ungracious, and so he said it as though it were a wistful platitude:
"I never quite know if morning will come…"
And she ran her finger along his jaw and said, "Isn't that a gift? That way every morning feels like a blessing. It reminds you to live each day to the fullest."
He took a long, slow breath, carefully polishing any edge out of his voice, and replied, "Well, now that you know my secret, you'll be living every day to the fullest, too."
She favored him with an affirmative-sounding moan.
The truth was that her words had landed with a mood-shattering thud. She might as well have said, 'Lead in your shoes? Such a blessing! That must make you so light on your feet.'
But it would not have been beautiful or even just to hold it against her. She meant well. He was the one who'd begun passing it off as a platitude, and in the realm of platitudes, her reasoning would seem flawless. For all he knew, she'd spoken from her own experience and would keep her word.
The next morning did in fact come.
He made no attempt to see her again.
Years before that, far more reluctantly and far less foolishly, he had told Captain Gi-gan. It didn't explain all the eccentricities she had to deal with in him, but it was the reason he was so tempted by some of the drugs she hated so much — the misplaced medicines that gave blissful ease and calm.
(Nadai came years later. No misplaced medicine there; that awful stuff could only have been invented as a weapon.)
He was lucky — far luckier than others he knew, who lost homes and health and honor over it. He managed to avoid anything more shameful than going back to the stuff every time he told himself he wouldn't — although when his greatest pride was having stayed fiercely loyal to his own will and won his freedom, that was shameful enough.
And he was lucky — only slowly did he realize how lucky — to have fallen in with a patient and practical woman. Before Gi-gan was a pirate, she was a merchant who traded in medicine, so she knew what he was toying with. She also knew that imposing a restriction would only drive him away, so she never tried. She let him deal with his own problem without coddling or punishment, made sure he knew 'never more than this unless you want to die,' and made sure he knew how deeply she disliked it.
He didn't want her to like it. He only felt sure that she deserved an explanation, and — why not admit it? — he did have a craving to be understood. And so, grudgingly, he offered the truth:
He didn't like it, either. By that time, he saw those poppy concoctions for the chains that they were and wanted to be free of them. By that time, the pain of stumbling and learning even felt better, but still he kept being tempted back. Still there was that sense at every turn that the world could come crashing down around him; like lead in his shoes, it dragged at him with every step forward. He was determined — even joyfully determined — but he was only strong enough to drag that weight so far before falling to the temptation of feeling safe, however falsely and fleetingly.
That was when he told her how his power was a short-term loan and a death sentence, how it gave his mind the perfect pretext to pounce without warning and whisper:
Do you think you can escape and not be punished? Any day now, any night, any moment…
You're going to die.
Naturally, the captain gave him the best response he'd ever heard. Even now, in the cell in Xing, his eyes burned a little at how clearly he could hear her salt-rough voice in his mind:
"If you need to hear it, you're not going to die," she said. "And if you are, you might as well die working."
To this day, he kept that tucked away for when he needed a splash of perspective. That or his own somewhat tailored version: Better to die living.
Easier said than done when it came on like a blanket of lead, but as the years passed in Awa, that happened less and less often. Little by little he outpaced it, practicing music and knife-throwing and charm, soaring above the city until he knew every inch of it, following the captain in heroic outlaw adventures… Eventually he didn't need anything else for relief; he slipped those chains hardly realizing it and simply realized one day that spending money on drugs wasn't worth delaying the purchase of his erhu. When it struck him, it got him some odd looks as he burst out laughing at nothing that anyone else could see, but he knew then that he was safely ahead.
And since then he had stayed safely ahead. Now and then there had been those sleepless nights, now and then strange qualms in his chest or sounds that felt too loud. Now and then on a soaring leap he couldn't help over-thinking the landing, and in general he'd had his share of close calls in developing his judgment about danger (since his innate sense for it was an unusable wreck and spiting its alarms was a rewarding but perilous hobby). But never since then had he drifted away sealed in lead and barraged with reasons why the world was crashing down around him and he was going to die.
Never until he landed here, trapped behind stone walls and bound with invisible but unbreakable chains. Never until he found himself a prisoner unable to escape — that old feeling, hateful as only familiarity could make it.
Yes, this was an inheritance from Green Dragon Village.
Jae-ha couldn't say when it had first happened, no more than he could pin down when they'd put the chains on him for the first time, and indeed the two might have been one and the same. The memory was a general one, an unmoored span of time, but nonetheless it was painfully vivid.
When he was very young, when he was chained up alone in the cottage with its stone walls, his mind would begin to play tricks on him. Occasionally he would see strange things, and nearly as bad as seeing them was staring into the shadows at night wondering if he was seeing them or not. Every sound coming from the dark outside took on some apocalyptic meaning. If he heard another house's door open and shut, or if he heard an animal howling, it might mean that they were coming to kill him. The roar of wind and rain could bring the walls and roof-timbers down on him at any moment. Unexplained noises might mean murderous invaders sneaking into the village. Even in broad daylight, a long, deep silence might mean that the village had moved again, all but him, and everyone else had left him chained up there alone to starve. If he pulled against his shackles until his wrists bled, he still couldn't reach the door or a window or any way to see whether it was all true, and so the notions of doom would build and build until he was half-convinced that everything beyond those walls lay in flaming ruins.
Sometimes he would scream.
And then Garou would come or be sent to stay in the cottage with him and would sit talking with him or berating him. Or, if they had nothing to say to each other, Garou would just sit there for hours at a time, no doubt bored and frustrated, all so that Jae-ha would stay quiet and not annoy the rest of the village with his 'fits.'
Not that having Garou there felt safe. It was unusual for Jae-ha's predecessor to strike him — weeks or months would pass between instances — but he never knew when it was coming or what might trigger it and so was always wary. Even so, Garou offered a comforting anchor in reality, and in a certain way Jae-ha trusted him. If a sound or a silence really did mean approaching doom, surely Garou would do something about it or give some sign. As long as he was just sitting there looking annoyed or telling that awful story he seemed to like so much about the Red Dragon King coming back someday to collect his destined slaves, the world probably hadn't burned down yet.
But every time they unfastened Jae-ha's chains and let him go outside, he was half-surprised that the world was still there.
The fancier, more disdainful word for 'fits' had come much later, in the year before he finally escaped. By then he had outgrown screaming; Garou no longer had to babysit him to keep him quiet, but to keep him from flying away.
That summer, the village was moving. They'd scouted out a new site, and people went party by party; they did their best not to be seen on the road, but in case they were, they went in small enough numbers not to raise suspicion.
About halfway through, a party took Jae-ha with them. He had nothing to pack except the flute that he'd been given in a failed ploy to keep him sedentary and distracted. They dressed him in gaiters that fit over his shoes and hid his scales more reliably than wrappings alone and more cheaply than boots; doubtless they'd been chosen as economical, but Jae-ha had been fond of how they looked.
Even now, years later, he still remembered them fondly. If I live long enough to update my look, maybe I'll buy a pair, he thought, sitting in the cell. He was traveling so much these days, they wouldn't even look out of place.
Back in that summer, the gaiters hadn't looked out of place, but shackles on an eleven-year-old would have to anyone but a Green Dragon Villager, and so in an abundance of caution, they took the chains off him while they were on the move. It was a welcome respite, and he enjoyed the rare indulgence of sun and breeze on his face and scenery unfolding before his eyes for days on end.
But they gave him no opportunity to escape his chains for good. He was watching for a chance — as by then he always was — but Garou walked with him, literally with a hand on him almost every moment. Jae-ha remembered twitching his shoulder under the unwelcome hold, but at least nothing worse than that was coming for a while; there was no privacy on the road, and Garou never hit him in front of anyone else. There was no secret to keep; other villagers had seen the bruises, knew perfectly well where they came from, and didn't care as far as Jae-ha could tell. Even so, anyone else's line-of-sight was enough to give Garou's sense of shame the edge over his temper.
That protection felt more tenuous at night, when anything that happened would be hidden in the dark, but then Garou had to sleep. Nearly everyone had to sleep, and the party couldn't afford such a constant watch on their would-be runaway — so at night the chains came back out. When there was nothing solid enough to fasten them to, they would chain Jae-ha and Garou together, which made it that much more awkward putting up with each other.
And so on that certain night it had been a relief at first to be camping by a huge, gnarled old tree. No doubt it was solid enough to hold; the chains weren't long enough to reach around the trunk and had to be fastened around a root, but that one root was thicker than many whole trees. Even Jae-ha admitted that there was no getting free of it overnight, certainly not without enough noise to give him away, but if he couldn't escape, then at least he could have a night to himself. He curled up sitting in a hollow between the spreading giant's-fingers of the old tree's roots, and without a real blanket to wrap himself in, he wrapped himself up and closed himself off in a blanket of his own thoughts.
Strange in hindsight, how that had felt so different from the closed-off, 'blanketed' feeling enveloping him now…
But as he thought about it, suddenly it didn't seem different at all.
The moon had been bright that night under the tree, which would not have disturbed him much if it had shone on him steadily, but at some point he was niggled awake by the moonlight tickling and flickering over his face, as if he were lying in the shadow of some moving object. After some time half-asleep and trying in vain to ignore it — not wanting to open his eyes — he finally gave in and looked up.
Something was drooping and swaying from the boughs of the tree, half-hidden by the shade of the thick leaves. Jae-ha wasn't awake enough to recall that nothing like that had been there when he had curled up to sleep, that the tree hadn't been a willow with sagging branches — but the dark shapes were too broad and unbroken to be willow branches. Whatever they were, they blocked the moonlight without reflecting it; he saw shadow but no sheen, so any image was hard to make out. He leaned over to frame one of the shapes against the moon, bent low to follow the length of it…
And found the silhouette of a human foot dangling in midair.
Terror washed over him, gripped his chest, and he sprang to his feet utterly awake. His eyes widened, taking in the flood of moonlight, and the shadows stood out clear against it: people — hanged corpses — too many to count. The party had been attacked while he slept and everyone killed but him — chained up there alone to starve — but no; in an instant he knew that wasn't what had happened. These weren't solid bodies with the moon shining on them but vague forms that erased the light, like human-shaped holes torn out of the world. They floated in the air, feet stretching toward the earth, heads wrenched off-center as if by ropes — but there were no ropes there anymore.
Jae-ha found himself surrounded by ghosts. Too many people to count had died hanging from that tree — no telling when or why — and now their shadows twisted toward him and looked down on him with burning eyes. The ones that could move their ragged hands reached toward him.
He tried to back away from them, around the trunk of the tree, but his chains rattled taut; the shackles yanked and bit at his wrists. Everywhere he turned, under every bough, there were more shadows twisting in the air, more ghostly eyes turning to stare at him. The chains were too short to get past them.
He began to scream.
When Garou arrived, whatever either of them said or did at first was now a blur lost beyond memory. One moment he was kicking at his chains, at the tree root, then somehow he and Garou were crouched there together. Garou understood that Jae-ha had seen something but didn't believe it was real. He never believed in the strange things Jae-ha saw.
When Jae-ha looked again, the shadows were gone — which made them even more terrifying. He'd seen them long enough to know they were there, but suddenly he had no way of knowing where they were. They could be right on top of him; their hands could be on him at that very moment —
"All right, where is this thing you see?" Garou demanded.
"I don't know — I can't see them —!"
Garou struck a hard, open-handed blow on the side of his head before he could explain. "You can't see it because it's not there, now shut up!" he hissed. "Wake everybody up one more time and I'll take those chains and strangle you!"
That shut him up — a cruel threat, set against the spectre of the ghosts with their twisted necks. More cruel yet because once before, Garou really had flown into such a rage that he seized Jae-ha by the throat and choked him — only once and never again, but it had left a deep impression.
Under the tree in the moonlight, Jae-ha couldn't read Garou's face but heard him let out his breath with a sound half-sigh, half-growl, as if the very silence he'd demanded was an accusing reminder.
And if it was, so much the better. Even in his terror Jae-ha couldn't bear to collapse into servility. Even amid hysteria, sullenness had its share. If he had spoken, he would have said something like: I knew you were useless. Just go away and leave me alone. You'll be sorry in the morning.
He should have known — he had known. It was no use screaming or telling anyone what he saw. He was no longer a child craving what trust and comfort he could get out of some cruel, stupid adult. Now, dealing with the ghosts on his own was better than dealing with them and Garou or the villagers too.
Still grumbling, Garou slunk away and gave him his wish.
Not that Jae-ha had any idea what to do on his own. He still had no way of knowing where the ghosts were. He could still imagine them right on top of him, their shadowy hands touching him. His skin prickled, crawled, burned. Strange sensations gripped and spread inside him, as if he could feel them reaching right through his skin and into his body.
What could he do? Attention from Garou or the others would only make it worse, so he couldn't make noise to scare them off. If he said it in his mind — go away go away go away — he felt himself talking to nothing; nothing responded. All he could do was try to survive until morning. The fear drove his breath deep and fast, and he clung to that as proof that he was still alive.
He felt ghostly fingers curl around his pounding heart, but as long as he was breathing, he knew that he was still alive.
He knew it even as a watery tingling sensation entangled his hands and bound them into immovable claws. His head ached as darkness closed in around it. Mysterious weight pressed in on his chest and resisted each breath, but he knew he had to keep breathing until morning. He poured all his strength into it, more and more desperate, one breath after another —
Until the darkness took him.
Looking back from fourteen years later, of course, Jae-ha had a much clearer understanding of what had happened. Everything he had felt then, he had felt sheer nerves conjure up since. In his desperation to keep breathing, he had hyperventilated until he blacked out. Ironically, he might have been safely out of reach all along; with a wry twist of horror, he supposed that if those ghosts had known how to get down from where they were hanging, they probably would have done it sooner.
But back in that summer under that haunted tree, he'd had no way of knowing what was happening. He'd never felt those sensations before, at least not with anything like that intensity. Of course he had thought he was dying. What else was he supposed to think?
Even when he came to himself under that tree with the light of dawn glowing red through his eyelids, he still thought he'd been dying. Why not? He didn't know what being dead felt like. And what he felt that morning didn't feel like being alive.
That time the feeling of lead didn't come as an enclosing blanket — more as if he were embalmed and entombed with it. His body burned and sank to the earth with an impossible weight, as if he had been hollowed out and poured full of molten metal. Huge, invisible slabs of lead seemed to weigh on him and wall him off. He lay under the tree unmoving, not as if he were paralyzed but as if moving his body were a task beyond human strength. He didn't even open his eyes.
Was that what it felt like to be dead? Even his breath, what he had thought would save him, was no longer sufficient proof. It felt somehow strange. It might not be real.
He waited for someone to find him and tell him whether he was actually dead.
Garou eventually came over, called him, shook him. He felt Garou's hand on his face, felt his own breath baffle against it and turn back onto his skin, but he still didn't move. He heard Garou set something down in the grass, heard liquid moving, and then all at once came the sound and sensation as Garou spit a spray of water in his face.
Jae-ha jumped and cried out at the shock.
"There. You're awake," Garou announced.
But the surprise only sent another wave of fire through his lead-weighted body. He managed to curl up tighter, but he didn't move again.
Garou said he was alive, but could he even trust that? Maybe he was in some deviously designed chamber of hell — but then, the idea that this could be purifying him or preparing him for another life was a sick joke.
Garou kept trying to goad him into motion. "If you don't want your breakfast, I'll eat it."
He didn't object.
Garou shook him again. The touch took him by surprise and he twitched, trying to shrug it off, but that was all.
Finally: "Everybody's leaving; get up or I'll drag you."
Lifting his own body still felt impossible — and pointless.
Garou really did take him by the chains at his feet and start to walk off.
After several steps of proof that he really would lie there and let himself be dragged, Garou gave in, took the shackles off, and slung Jae-ha across his shoulders to carry him.
"You know who they're going to blame if your clothes get ruined," he grumbled, then gave an irritated sniff. "You do know, don't you? If you have something to say to me, just say it." Apparently he still took it all as calculated revenge for the previous night.
But Jae-ha had nothing to say. His tomb of lead was a daunting barrier, and just as he didn't move, he didn't speak.
For the entire day he was like that. When Garou put him down he just settled there and lay still. When Garou picked him up however roughly, he didn't complain. He would recoil from pain or shock, or tense and curl up at loud noises, but he never so much as spoke a word or reached out a hand. Food placed in front of him was a sickening prospect, if he managed to acknowledge it at all. Garou had to pour water into his mouth to get him to drink. At one point Garou pried his eyes open; his gaze at least would move, but he only stared at the people or scenes around him in burning, passive silence.
By evening, Garou was sounding deeply irritated — but also subtly desperate.
The village doctor and the village priest were also in the party with them.
"He claimed to see ghosts? Perhaps he's possessed," the priest said — and Jae-ha thought that if he wasn't dead, possessed would be his own next guess. But when the priest attempted an exorcism, shook harsh bells over him and mimed stabbing him dozens of times with a knife and spit wine in his face, it only made him worse — more fire, more lead. The only spirit he could feel trying to escape that ordeal was his own.
It was the doctor who had the final word — that word. "Fast, strong pulse; labored breathing; can't find another thing wrong," he declared. "I'll say it's hysterics."
"So… it's all in his head?" Garou asked, his tone a strained simper.
"That's what I'll guess."
"You're probably right. I'm… terribly sorry for the trouble…"
Jae-ha understood at once. Not completely — only later did he learn how men used the insult 'hysterical' to put themselves above women — but he already felt the disdain, the 'less than a man' implication of it. As a diagnosis, it was both less than real and more than damning. To be crippled by something 'all in your head' was to be worthless, weak — and wicked. He already felt what a small step it was in their minds from 'it's all in his head' to 'he's doing it on purpose.'
However they despised it, they gave in and worked around it. When Jae-ha still wouldn't move or speak the next morning, someone grudgingly cleared enough space to load him onto an ox-cart. They chained his hands to the side-rail — his feet were still shackled from the night, but he seemed so passive that they didn't bother fastening them down — and then they covered everything over with a cloth to hide their sin. Garou kept up his grovelling apologies the whole time.
"Well, if he's like this, at least he's easier to handle," Jae-ha heard someone say.
The day passed in noisy, painful jostling under the filtered light and dusty scent of the concealing cloth. That evening they chocked the cart's two wheels and propped it front and back, level enough to simply leave Jae-ha where he was.
When Garou put a ration of food on the cart-bed beside him, he still didn't move.
"Do you think I'm going to put it in your mouth for you?" Garou asked caustically. A few minutes of silence passed as he ate his own meal, then he glared down at Jae-ha again. "What are you going to do? Are you going to sulk until you starve to death?"
In fact, Jae-ha felt as if he could eat, just a little, but lifting the still-hot, still-leaden weight of his body was a pathetically major undertaking — and now even if he managed it, he could easily guess what his reward would be. Garou would surely say something like 'Oh, I see. If it's food, you can manage.'
Jae-ha felt as if he could eat a little, but he also felt as if he really could starve himself to death out of sheer spite, and in that moment the spite was more palatable.
That night, however, in the darkness as he lay not fully there in the cart but not sleeping, sealed off in his tomb of lead, Garou's words returned to haunt him.
What was he going to do?
What if he was like this forever?
Would he really starve to death? The thought raised a fresh wave of dizzy sickness. He didn't want to die — not here, not without ever getting free — but dying would be better than spending his whole life trapped in a body too miserably heavy to lift and burning inside like a coal.
Like a coal, would he burn away to ash?
That thought captured him and wouldn't let him go — that when the burning stopped there would be nothing left in him that could nurture a flame. With no fire inside, he wouldn't fight anymore, wouldn't fly anymore. He imagined lying there no longer heavy and burning but cold and light as ash and still not moving. He imagined lying there as they took the chains off and put them away and still not moving.
'He's so much easier to handle now,' someone would say.
Dying really would be better than ending up like that.
He thought that if he didn't do anything, if he let the hysterical heat burn down, he would end up like that. There would be a point of no return and he would be ruined. Maybe that point had passed and he was ruined already.
The thought made lying still even more unbearable than moving. He had to fight. He had to get away that night, or he never would. But even as it drove him to move, his body was still full of molten lead. He could barely lift his hands and grasp the cart-rail. It was hopeless. Even if he could bear that weight, how could he get the chains loose? He could kick the rail apart — the dragon leg at least he could lift — but the noise would get him caught in an instant.
He had to get away, then or never, and he couldn't get away. All he could do was gnash his teeth and clutch at the joint in the wooden rail with desperate, helpless rage…
The joint in the wood — by some miracle, he noticed it.
The cart-rail he was chained to was simply mortised, with chiseled holes fitted onto the whittled ends of the uprights. It was made to take force from above or from the side, but if he braced his foot on it from below, he could work it loose and lift it off.
He had a chance. If he didn't take it then, he was sure he never would.
He braced the dragon leg under the wooden rail and slowly worked it this way and that until he felt it loosen. Fighting the weight of his body, he raised his other foot and hooked it over the rail so that it would only lift where he wanted it to. He kept his hands on the joint to control it, and with his right leg, he slowly, slowly pushed upward. At last the joint came free. Quietly, carefully, he slid the chains off of it, then fitted the joint back into place.
He was loose.
His heart pounded. His fingers and toes tingled. It felt unreal, like he was moving through a dream, but there was no stopping or turning back.
He waited almost until dawn; moonlight was too tricky to jump safely, so he waited for just enough blue-hinted sun. He peeked out from his cover until the man who'd been put on guard duty was looking away, then slunk out from under the cloth. The rustling of his chains was too ordinary a sound for those people to alert them. He hid behind the cart's wheel until the guard was looking away again, then took his chance. His body still felt heavy as lead, but he braced to leap with all his strength.
Somehow, even with that impossible weight, he flew off into the cool, dew-fragrant morning sky.
He didn't get far.
He had an unusually good head start, but he was still dragging hot lead, still dizzy as if half-dreaming, and beginning to feel two days' worth of hunger. Garou faced no such handicaps. The race was already all but lost when Jae-ha tripped over his chains.
Garou alighted from a jump right on top of him, seized him by his jacket and hauled him up. "Damn you! You brat! You were faking!"
It took a moment for the words to sink in — and then Jae-ha burst into helpless, maniacal laughter. He had already known that he was going to be caught; somehow that time it hardly felt like a blow, and then came the revelation that seized him with defiant delight:
"Of course I was faking!" he exulted. "What, did you think I was going to give up!?"
Even as Garou threw him to the ground, pinned him down with a boot between his shoulders and took hold of his chains, Jae-ha was still laughing and grinning with perverse satisfaction. He hadn't escaped, but he'd done what he most needed to do; he had proven that he wasn't defeated yet.
Of course I was faking!
He had long since known that he was worthless to Garou and the villagers, but if he could choose between 'weak' and 'wicked,' he chose 'wicked' wholeheartedly. He wasn't some pathetic burden; he was a wily opponent, and he would win yet.
He had long since known — and this burned the lesson in that much deeper with a bracing and gratifying pain: it was no use screaming; it was no use telling the truth. No one he knew then would give him anything for his truth. Better to keep it for himself and snatch the sense of power in the lie.
Looking back, he supposed that some habits died hard.
Garou took him back, and the trek to the new village continued. His 'ploy' revealed, no one was going to carry him or haul him, and he wasn't going to let them. He walked, with Garou's fingers digging angrily into his shoulder. He stubbornly dragged his hysterical weight until he panted and stumbled and blindly clung to Garou for support.
"I thought you were faking," Garou remarked.
At the time it had annoyed him, but now Jae-ha could recall that not-quite-disdainful sniff with fourteen years of 'comfortable' distance. After all, he supposed that the man who had beaten him in secret and left bruises for all to see had known a little something about transparent-yet-face-saving lies.
I suppose I know a little something about them, myself. Wasn't he telling one right now? Rather more subtly, perhaps only by half, but 'Trust me; I'm probably fine' was not the whole truth, and Yoon and the other dragons surely suspected. He had even let bits of whole truth slip out, if only to pass them off as jokes and cover his tracks. 'I was sitting here thinking that I might die' — if they knew just how honest that had been, they probably wouldn't say 'Oh, he's fine.' Maybe Hak would if he were here, but even from him it wouldn't be callous, just part of a man's game that they both understood.
He wasn't in Green Dragon Village anymore. He knew that here with these people — like in Awa with the captain — if he gave them the truth they would give him something for it that was worth having. But the habit died hard. Guarding his truth closely still offered a sense of power that he couldn't quite let go of.
A bemused smile tugged at his throbbing cheek. What a muddle, this lying by halves.
He remembered Yoon's advice and took a deep breath — could he breathe in as deeply as before? Deep enough to make his ribs twinge and force another cough. The cough again fixated him on the taste of blood and gave him irrational suspicions about where it was coming from. The cough made his head pound, highlighting a growing ache — could that mean a deadly concussion after all?
Clearly, drifting off to reminisce had done nothing to put him at ease. Now that he returned, his nerves were right here waiting with all their plausible proofs of mortal wounds, waiting to remind him that he was locked up again behind stone walls with no way of knowing what was happening on the other side. The world could be burning down for all he knew. At the very least, Kouren's people could be tying the noose…
How ironic. Now, he really might end up like the ghosts under that haunted tree, and as 'hysterical fits' went, this was far milder.
Partly that was due to clearer understanding, but he had also known for a long time that actual prospects only had so much to do with it. If the question was put to him directly — 'Are you afraid to die?' — he could face it more bravely than most, but at a time like this, somehow that didn't help much. In Awa, the crippling sense of doom had eased its grip even as his life became more and more dangerous, the threatened consequences more and more unbearable.
The consequences now would be unbearable. What an insult against beauty it would be if they didn't come through this — if Yoon and Shin-ah never grew any further, if Kija never realized what all his blushing over Yona was about, if Zeno survived alone to be put through gods-knew-what…
Even if Jae-ha himself were the only one in danger — if the purse of disasters was finally empty but he really was dying of his wounds. How unsightly it would be to leave Yoon and the others locked in a cell with a corpse. How terribly ugly to let Yona Dear arrive to save the day, only to find such a tragedy.
He took another of those painful-yet-salutary deep breaths. "Listen," he said — and again he couldn't resist the half-lie of threadbare humor. "I hope you all can find it in your hearts to forgive me…"
"Please, don't," Kija argued, "I was the one who used my power in front of people carelessly…" He was suffering in his own way, but right now Jae-ha was too weighted down with his own problem to help.
"Is something wrong?" Yoon asked, still anxious.
"No change," Jae-ha assured him. "Just… In case I'm wrong and I really do die, I'm terribly sorry."
There was a moment of silence. Jae-ha still didn't open his eyes, but he heard the others shift and felt the other dragons' presences move a little. He had a sense that they were all looking at each other.
Is he still on that? they might be thinking. That must have been an hour ago.
He heard more shifting cloth as Zeno came closer, wrapped an arm around him and whispered, "Come here." Shin-ah lent a hand, and they gently eased him over and down until he rested with his head on Zeno's shoulder, taller though he was.
Zeno stroked his hair and spoke to him softly, soothing and lightly musical: "It's okay. It's going to be all right. Green Dragon's not going to die. The dragon god won't let you die just from something like this. Everything will be fine. When the time comes we'll all be together again. You just need to rest and get better so that when we return to the Miss's side, she can see Green Dragon looking all handsome. That's all you need to do right now. Big Brother is always looking out for us, we can look out for him for a while. Green Dragon doesn't have to worry about a thing…"
As Jae-ha listened to Zeno chanting this impromptu lullaby, he felt Shin-ah gently rubbing his good shoulder. Kija took his hand and held it; this time he used not the dragon claw but his left hand, the annoyingly soft one, and he gently stroked with his thumb.
Jae-ha squeezed Kija's fingers in return. That at least he could do.
All the softness — the gentle touches, the groundless reassurances — should have been annoying and embarrassing, but right now he felt a watery burning in his eyes, and one breath leapt in raggedly of its own accord. Well, if the others were trying to soothe him, then at least they were taking him at his word, and he could hardly complain about that. As Zeno cooed to him, he also found it pleasing that someone else in this pure-hearted family knew when to lie through their teeth.
After some shuffling in his bag, Yoon braced a hand on Jae-ha's cheek. "Here, take this."
Yoon fed him some powder and water to swallow it with, and Jae-ha lifted his brows at the familiar, bitter taste of poppy. It was a conservative dose, but Yoon hadn't been playing around when he stocked that bag, apparently.
He'd also apparently seen the tell. "It's medicine, okay?"
"From your hands, what else would it be?" Luckily, Jae-ha was the type who could withstand an occasional brush with his old weakness. Even if he did have to deal with those chains again later, it was worth it — because this time, the medicine wasn't misplaced.
Zeno was half-right about one thing, at least. For now, part of the work Jae-ha had in front of him really was to rest and recover, and he could use the nudge toward rest. He wouldn't so easily relinquish the big brother's job of looking out for them all, but he'd be more prepared even for that if his mind weren't trying to wrap him in lead and carry him away.
His ill-behaved nerves accomplished nothing, and he didn't have time to stand on the pride of dealing with them on his own. Accepting the soft hands and soft words and taking his medicine was the best thing for the work in front of him.
After all, it was still his favorite advice he'd ever gotten:
Might as well die working.
Perhaps hours later, Jae-ha was still resting on Zeno's shoulder when the sound of the outer door woke him from genuine sleep. He started to move, but Zeno raised a hand to his head to hold him still and softly shushed him.
Mizari's voice called from the other side of the bars. "I brought more banda—"
"Shhh!" It was a chorus all around, even a soft, belated "sh" from Shin-ah.
"He really needs to rest, and we had a lot of trouble getting him to fall asleep," Yoon whispered. "Don't wake him up!"
"Yeah, can I show you later?" Zeno breathed. "Right now I'm… stuck."
"Oh, okay," Mizari whispered, again oddly sweet and obliging.
In that moment, the hardest part of Jae-ha's 'work' was keeping himself from laughing. Thankfully Zeno's sleeve was hiding his face, and he affected a light snore.
He waited to hear the outer door open and shut again and hear Yoon sigh in relief before he let go and let the laughter come. It came out as nothing but breath, just a shudder of a chuckle that made his cracked ribs ache.
"He… he's not crying, is he?" Kija asked softly.
Jae-ha was too close to sleep to think of a witty rejoinder.
Zeno replied for him with a chuckle of his own. "No, Green Dragon's not crying."
Medicine and Poison - END