Hyun pushed through the last of the overgrown vegetation and scanned the river area.
The unnamed river was composed of: considerable depth and speed, deemed too cold to bathe in even by the toughest of men; dozens of rocks that dotted the bank and the water; and, currently, a single person beating an undecipherable piece of clothing with a wooden club created for laundry. Hyun had known this river for ages, but in his mind it was never truly complete without the rhythmic thuds of that particular club.
Hyun dropped his scrolls, toed his shoes and socks off, and ran.
Yu Sun's Usual Rock (it had his name on it and all; Hyun had been the one to carve it in) was about as high as the average dog house, high enough to not feel ridiculous and just low enough to be able to dip clothing in and out of the frigid water with ease. Hyun used to momentum from his sprint to scramble up the rock smoothly. Yu Sun didn't even turn as Hyun sat cross legged besides him; said, "Tell me, how dead am I?"
"Very dead," Hyun reported. He swiped at the sweat forming on his face. "Teacher's put a price on your head."
"I'm honored. Don't tell me how much, though." Yu Sun looked at him with the corner of his eyes. He then examined the rest of the laundry load. Massive.
"Want any help with that?" Hyun's sleeves were already rolled up, and body mimicking Yu Sun's position: crouched, what they had called "frog legs" in younger years.
"No." Yu Sun pushed the laundry basket closer to Hyun slyly.
Hyun kissed him.
When they pulled away, Yu Sun said, "Usually you don't kiss me until the basket's half full."
"I'm flattered, you keep tra – ow, fuck, what was that for?"
Yu Sun still held the club in a menacing manner, grinning. Hyun rubbed at his calf. Pounced. After a struggle, he managed to pin Yu Sun down onto the rock, knees on either side of him and wrists pinned down.
"If you want to bruise me," he said, "I can think of more fun methods."
Yu Sun's eyes narrowed in concentration – and then widened. "You pervert."
"Only for you."
Yu Sun rolled his eyes and nudged Hyun off, and settled himself comfortably into Hyun's lap. "What'd I miss today?"
"This health lesson."
"Health? What'd you learn?"
"That you shouldn't be doing laundry at one in the afternoon, let alone dunking your hands in frigid water, ever. Especially not when you've had a fever the night before." He kissed the side of Yu Sun's neck. "And that the way your spine is digging into my breastbone is painful."
"You came all the way here to nag?"
"To nag, and maybe get laid."
"You're impossible." Yu Sun took one of Hyun's hands and brought it to his face. He slipped off Hyun's lap. "Laundry."
"Just – hold on a second."
Hyun shrugged off his regulation "jeogori" jacket – ramie, for summer – and, using the tie, made a knot under Yu Sun's chin with the torso part creating shade. Yu Sun stared at him.
"You might get heatstroke," Hyun babbled, barely thinking, because oh god Yu Sun had just nuzzled his hand and it was going deliciously numb. "People die of that, you know."
"You're worse than my sister." But Yu Sun was still, and he had his eyes closed, and dutifully tapped the makeshift shade when it was done.
"I take that as a compliment. You look ridiculous."
"Just – shut up," Yu Sun laughed, bumping his shoulder into Hyun's. "Come on; use some of that manly, manly strength to clean my mother's under things."
Hyun yelped and threw the garment in his hands at Yu Sun.
Predictably, it was a while before they completed anything. But Hyun had managed to go home and get changed quick enough that Yu Sun let him walk him home. As the time for the festival came closer and closer, the streets slowly flooded with people. It was as if the home were veins, slowly pumping out a thick and heavy stream of human beings all freshly washed and wearing their more decent clothes.
Countless stalls and stands were up, merchants shouting for the attention of the human mass. Food, knickknacks, cheap clothing, more food – in the light of the lanterns hung between trees, the gentle way they swayed, the glinting off of toy swords and silver jewelry alike disoriented Hyun in the best way possible. If he zoned out a little, just a little, everything felt like a dream. Except for –
"The center of Gaegyeong gets more complicated every day," Hyun murmured. He bumped into an overweight man who almost ran Yu Sun over. They walked closely, arms pressed against each other. "Where's your dad?"
Kim Yu Sun, he was always completely aware of.
"Somewhere around here," Yu Sun said, voice almost lost in the cacophony. "He won't need me for a while, though. I'm afraid that one day you'll finally lose it and drop to your knees before begging for my hand in marriage."
Hyun opened his mouth to retort – but snorted instead, and tugged Yu Sun. "You win this round. Entertainment square's this way."
The tightrope walkers with their paper fans were already fully prepared, and they managed to squeeze to the front of the crowd to watch. Yu Sun took a quick scan around and entwined his fingers with Hyun's, keeping his eyes fixed on the performers. Hyun looked at him steadily, but he ignored it; gave a squeeze instead.
The drums began.
The first few tightrope walkers were always the least trained, and therefore the most boring to watch, but Yu Sun never looked away even if all the performer did was walk to and fro. The unsteadiness always made him nervous, he said, and it wouldn't be long. The next few did basic acrobatics, the common sit-and-bounce. Yu Sun chewed on his lip as the performer seemed to slip off the rope only to land on it on his bottom, and the elasticity of the rope propelled him back up so that he was on his feet. So on and so forth, with a gradual increase in both skill and experience.
The last performer came up. Hyun tapped his shoulder, and Yu Sun nodded.
The best tightrope walker in Gaegyeong, and no one knew his face or name or age. He always wore a mask, a boar, creating a sort of anonymity that would be annoying for an average person. As soon as he walked off of the two thick, crossed wooden rods that supported the rope, however, he fell.
The crowd screamed; Hyun covered Yu Sun's ears, wincing. The tightrope walker hooked the crook of his elbow (that probably hurt) stiffly onto the rope and rocketed skyward, landed on the rope and slid down on the slope of it before jumping high, high, fan flapping and body spinning and he was clearly absolutely insane. When he was done with his routine, he came to a brief pause at the crossed wood, and gave a polite bow before disappearing off into the troupe's tent.
Yu Sun tended to be easily excitable when it came to that particular man.
"That was amazing!" They were in a noodle place visibly having reached its maximum capacity in an outdoors table. Yu Sun still hadn't touched his food, busy illustrating his awe. Hyun motioned at it, and Yu Sun took a chopstickful before immediately talking again. "Completely new, the spins and the elbow thing and all."
"He's probably killed his elbow," Hyun said. He placed the water jug down perhaps a little too roughly. "Should I be jealous?"
"Shut up, you. You're my favorite even if you're useless."
Hyun coughed and ducked his head.
"My dad has all these cookies he's been meaning to give you," Yu Sun said. Spread his arms. "Shit ton."
"Let's eat them all tomorrow and spend the whole day throwing up."
"But for now?" Hyun gestured at the bowl Yu Sun had in front of him. "Real food, boy."
"Yes, sir." Yu Sun stuck out his tongue and devoured the contents.
Yu Sun's brother was where he had said he'd be, right outside the noodle store under the third tree. even if Hyun had given up memorizing the names of Yu Sun's countless siblings, he remembered that this one wasn't a douche. Yu Sun, of course, launched into repeating the tale of the tightrope walker. Yu Sun waved at his parents as they were within seeing range of the stall.
"Thank you so much for offering to help." Yu Sun's mother was tearful as usual, pregnant belly huge. She sniffed as Hyun bowed low.
"Any time, ma'am," he said. He went behind the stall and entered the back, shoving aside heavy drapery. Hanji and brush ready. The record of the items already traded was sloppy; he immediately began to re-copy the information own on a new scroll, Yu Sun busy next to him. "How's the baby?"
She rubbed her stomach. "I think she recognizes your voice."
"I'm honored. Is she a girl?"
"That's what the doctor's said."
"You're naming her," Yu Sun said lightly. He subsequently turned to his father. "When do the fireworks begin, dad?"
"I'm what?" Hyun asked – but he was unheard.
"Not for hours, boy, best to focus on getting a fair trade." Yu Sun's father gave his son a hearty smack. "I'll be going out for some tobacco. I can never remember – Hyun, do you smoke?"
"Alright, well, then." He pulled his wife slyly out from behind the counter. "Have nice night."
Yu Sun's parents disappeared into the crowd.
"I'll whine until their ears bleed later," Yu Sun swore.
"I think it's sweet, if not slightly nauseating," Hyun said. His parents didn't even sleep in the same room, let alone address the other. "Besides, you and your siblings are probably going to take turns."
"Yup." Hyun plucked a fan from the display and threw it open. Yu Sun batted away the cheap decorative plumes that tickled his face while Hyun fanned him. "My King."
"You'll be arrested for treason if you keep talking like that."
Hyun raised his eyebrows. "And what would my punishment consist of?"
A beat. Yu Sun threw a cake at him. "Pervert!"
"I repeat: only for you."
Yu Sun slapped him on the head, hard.
There was a small cough. A tall girl dressed in deep red and green stood waiting. Her eyes were narrowed. Hyun put on his best smile.
She had a nice face, even if it was somewhat plain – her eyes were too large and her face was too pointed, lips faded. Unlike most of her sort, she was without an escort and appeared to be without a chaperone. Upon closer study, Hyun realized she was younger than she appeared.
"Hello, miss," Hyun said easily. "Can I help you with anything?"
She adjusted her sleeve. "I would hate to interrupt."
"There was nothing," Yu Sun said – Hyun lightly shoved him behind the necklace display.
"How can I help you?"
"Just looking." She perused the multitudes of carved wooden figures. Hyun decided he didn't like her arrogance, but he liked the honest way she spoke. She wasn't faking anything. "Were these carved by hand?"
"My brother made them, miss," Yu Sun said; his brother's carvings, their family's pride and joy.
"Impressive." She picked an intricate tiger up and examined it.
"Thank you, miss. He'd be honored."
"I'll be taking a few. I only have paper bills and a ring. You don't accept bills, do you?"
"Sorry, miss." Yu Sun fiddled with an incomplete wooden statue. "We don't."
She took her time in selecting, long enough for Yu Sun and Hyun to help at least a dozen more people before she waved her hand over her choices. Hyun handed the ring she held out – a silver band, rather thick – to Yu Sun, who nodded after looking at it closely.
"Thanks for visiting, miss," he chirped. Yu Sun was scouring the collection of items in the back for a handkerchief to wrap the ring in. "Please come back next year."
Hyun would have missed it if he had looked elsewhere; the girl pulled a drawstring pouch out to place the carved statues in – and a masked man appeared behind her and swiped at it.
Her sleeve ripped instead, the thief's dirty fingers tangled in it. There was a flash of movement, and a thud as the thief fell heavily on the ground; the girl held an arrow right at his throat. Her hands were absolutely steady. Her sleeve was on the ground. Hyun had the man at arrowpoint, as well. Yu Sun was blinking rapidly, having missed the flurry of action.
"Someone get security," Hyun said to a man besides him. "Anyone. We can't have this man going around leeching off of more people." He glanced at the girl. "Miss, are you alri – "
She had an enormous bruise on the inside of her elbow.
The girl took a look at him, followed his gaze to her bruise, to the sleeve. Grabbed the sleeve, tossed the arrow to a bystander, and fled.
Yu Sun was shouting something after him, but his own voice drowned him out. He screamed, darting through, "Hey, miss, wait!"
It was like something out of those low quality novels Yu Sun hated to admit having read. Full of romance and action and criminals who had purer hearts than the government, they always had a chase scene like the one Hyun understood he was in now. She had her skirt in both hands, bruise exposed but moving so fast no one could see. She jumped over a cart and skittered up the side of an alley and ran down the narrow top of it with the agility of a cat.
Hyun sped up, managing to catch up just long enough to see her feet inevitably catch in her skirt. She fell off the alley onto the side he was in. He slid on his back. Caught her.
She aimed a mighty blow on his stomach, enough to knock his breath out. But he grabbed her ankle as she stood and she tripped forward. A huge paper fan and a mask tumbled out.
Hyun snatched both and distanced himself from her. She had stopped, hands and knees on the ground, coughing. She pulled a handkerchief out and covered her nose and mouth with it, eyes watering. Hyun waved off the dust cloud their little chase had created. They stared at each other.
She was quickly gone, disappearing off around corner.
Hyun swore and turned the same corner – and quickly found himself face to face with a bow and arrow. The girl – covered in dirt, sneezing, sweating – had the bowstring taut and ready. Hyun relaxed every muscle and willed himself to not move.
"Take three steps back," she ordered. Her throat was slightly blocked, or something. "Come on, I'm close enough to poke you in the eye if I tripped again. Fuck, my ankle hurts."
Hyun complied slowly.
"Name," she said.
"You, first." Sometimes, Hyun didn't know where his idiocy came from. The girl, however, seemed unfazed. It was pitch dark and silent. Far off, the buzz of the festival developed.
"Baek Min," she said. "What do you want?"
"You ran," Hyun explained, "so I followed."
"You expect me to believe that?"
"I already found out who you are."
There was a pause. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"That excuse might have worked if you hadn't, you know, ran."
She blinked once, twice. Hyun watched the bow and arrow get tossed aside. "Name."
"Choi Hyun." Hyun rubbed at his wrist; she had stomped on it. "Truce? Even if it's just temporary."
He held his hand out, expecting it to get slapped away. But he was surprised by a slim hand shaking it.
"It'd be stupid of me to keep denying," she said as she pulled back. "Because I trust you won't tell anyone."
"I probably won't," Hyun said.
"It could become a 'definitely' if you do me a favor."
She gawked; and burst into laughter. Head thrown back, eyes crinkled, teeth bared. The whole deal.
"I like you," she decided out loud. "You don't give a shit about social graces. I like that."
Hyun grinned. "It's really cool, what you do. On the tightrope and all." He shook the fan and mask he had in his hands. "And the thing is, I'm not the person who cares."
Min remained precariously balanced on the support beams. Fan firmly in hand and mask on the ground, she began walking down the rope when one of the two silhouettes she saw waved at her. One silhouette remained fixed in place until the other jerked it forward.
The lamps were off. Min couldn't see anything other than the rope under her feet, but she decided to trust Hyun's lunacy and began her routine.
She spun a handful of times and landed on the rope. Warm up. A flurry of colors in all the same tone, what with the lack of light. The press of the heavy rope under her feet. Her fan, keeping her in balance. So on and so forth, easy.
After, on the ground, they sat in a circle.
"It's even cooler because you're a woman. Not that women are weak or anything," Yu Sun added hastily. "Just – you know."
"Yeah, I know what you mean." Min picked at her pants. "It just hasn't stopped me."
Hyun was on his stomach, arms folded on top of the other and head heavy on it. "I can't imagine your parents being too happy if they found out."
"Hence the mask." She hooked her fingers on it and flicked it up. "Is this manlike enough?"
"Oh, definitely." Hyun grinned. "What are you going to say about the bruise?"
"Nothing, because they won't see."
"Are you sure you didn't bust a vein?" Yu Sun asked nervously. "Because I can help, if you have."
"She'd be dead by now," Hyun said. His eyes slipped closed as Yu Sun began to pet his head.
"If you don't mind, can I ask how he convinced you to tell me?" Yu Sun asked. "No offense, but you don't come across as the type to just tell anyone."
She motioned at his hand, still playing with Hyun's hair. Before he removed it, she said, "Secret for a secret." Yu Sun's expression was adorable, if not worrying. "I think it's odd, even disturbing, but there isn't anything logically wrong with it. The social pressures have gotten to me. It's not my place to judge, though."
"This," Hyun announced, "is why I decided I trust her."
"So...you won't tell?"
"Nope." Hyun sat up, brushing himself off. "Partly because Yu Sun and I are literally dead if you told. I think my secret is worth more than yours, though."
As they parted ways, Hyun added, "And partly because you aren't so bad, after all."