Yunho was the one who found the ship.
Jaejoong wasn’t sure how long they had been travelling. Just like in the sewers underneath the city, it was hard to tell the time while hiding inside a thick pile of canvases. The constant tremble of the cart had lulled him into a long sleep, and he didn’t wake up even when the caravan settled for the night.
He only woke up to a quiet nudging on his side. When he finally managed to open his eyes from all the bogey gluing them shut, he saw something unexpected. Yunho was pointing at it with his amazed eyes turned up to Jaejoong. He had wiggled his small body forwards and bunched the canvases up to peer out from underneath.
“Let’s switch vehicles, my Yun,” Jaejoong smiled, suddenly wide awake. He settled the boy against his back, and after peeking out and making sure there were no guards riding right next to them, he hopped off the cart, stumbling a little during the fall. As soon as he was steady on his legs, he started rushing towards the wondrous thing: a shipwreck, half buried under the grey sand of the desert.
They neared the wreck with decreasing speed. Jaejoong kept turning his head around, inspecting the surroundings for any sign of people already occupying the ship. Carefully stepping closer to knock on the ship’s walls, Jaejoong pressed his ear against the warmed wood and listened. Deeming it safe, he reached up and placed his hands carefully on the railing, straining his biceps and lifting them to the deck. It was full of sand too; the ship almost blended into the steppe. Stealing closer, he knocked on the door of the ship’s wheelhouse, again receiving no answer.
Yunho was squirming on his back, trying to release himself, making nonsensical exclamations and pushing his hands against Jaejoong’s shoulders. Distracted, the older boy let him down, and Yunho immediately charged forward, trying to push the door open. Jaejoong chuckled; no matter what the situation, Yunho’s enthusiasm never failed to amuse him. Reaching above Yunho’s head to push on the door, Jaejoong managed to open it. Yunho stuck his nose and fingers into the gap instantly, wiggling inside as soon as the gap was wide enough to allow his small frame to enter. Jaejoong followed after him, scrutinising the room cautiously. It looked as though the door hadn’t even been closed: the room was just as full of sand as the deck had been. Yunho’s small feet left footprints on it as he wobbled towards the wheel of the ship. Jaejoong sighed; cleaning would take days, if not longer. Sand was a tricky thing; it invaded every surface and hole.
Jaejoong explored the whole ship with Yunho in tow, finding rooms filled with aged, abandoned goods. It was quite peculiar; the caravan had passed right by the ship, but no one had bothered to come close. Jaejoong could only guess the nomads of the area were familiar with the wreck and had deemed the items inside worthless; he couldn’t decipher any other reason. Most probably, it had already been robbed of all valuables long ago. For Yunho and Jaejoong those would have been unnecessary anyway. The remaining tattered blankets and broken jars were far more precious to the little boys.
Rummaging through the belongings of the ancient crew, they found some gems too. To Jaejoong’s great delight, there was a full bookshelf in a room that looked something akin to a captain’s cabin. Jaejoong had never forgotten his affinity towards literacy, and for once he had to thank the illiterate nomads who only cared for money and trade. They had no idea what a treasure they had left behind in the ship. Jaejoong tiptoed, reaching up to take out a book he was most familiar with: a dictionary. Yunho dashed towards him, interested in the strange item in Jaejoong’s hands. Latching onto the older boy’s tunic, the toddler started requiring to be picked up. Jaejoong stepped closer to the captain’s bed, sitting on it and lifting Yunho to his lap.
“My Yun,” he said smiling, “this is our new home now. After I swipe off some sand it should suffice…“ However, Jaejoong knew there was something even more urgent than ridding their new home of sand. If they couldn’t find water, they couldn’t stay either. Sighing, he stood up and lifted Yunho to his back. He found his way back to the deck and clambered down the railing.
He could only walk for a few moments until Yunho started writhing against his back once again. Jaejoong tried to calm him down, explaining to him that it was crucial they found water and thus Yunho should behave nicely, but the child wouldn’t quit. Finally Jaejoong had to let him down, and Yunho started immediately wobbling on the sand, scampering towards a seemingly random direction. The toddler fell down on his face a few times, but unfazed he picked himself up and continued. Jaejoong just followed him wordlessly, amused by the toddler’s determined advancement.
And then, suddenly Yunho was kneeling on the side of a small pond of water, dipping his small arms into it. Jaejoong looked at him, mouth open from astonishment.
“Now aren’t you some desert rat!” he huffed incredulously. “Finding water so easily!” Yunho turned his head and gave Jaejoong a toothy smile, and then stumbled over, ending up sprawled on his stomach in the water. Jaejoong laughed breathily, rushing to fish the boy out.
“Now that you are wet already, might as well give you a bath,” he chuckled. “Let’s go get some jars.”
After a few hours, they had filled every jar in the ship they could find. Jaejoong had even dragged outside a rusty bathtub, determined to give Yunho the promised bath. They hadn’t washed after getting out of the sewers and Jaejoong could still smell the tainting filth on his skin.
“Yunho, come here you little rat,” he grabbed Yunho after having stripped himself from all his clothes. Obediently, Yunho let the older boy drag him to the bathtub, but when Jaejoong lifted him up to push him into the water, he started struggling wholeheartedly. Letting out annoyed noises, Jaejoong did his best to keep the child, who seemed to have suddenly gained the strength of a grown man, in the tub. Yunho shrieked and fought, but in the end the nine-year-old’s scrawny arms won over the toddler’s stubbornness.
Finding food proved to be even harder than finding water. When they found a spring, even if they usually dried out after a while, they could fill up a few jars that would last them long enough. However, the steppe had been scarce of food even further in the north; this far in the south there were neither grazing animals nor much edible plantation. Wondering far enough, Jaejoong could sometimes find an odd nut tree where he could gather a few edible things. However, most of the time he was forced to just keep an eye on the surroundings. As soon as he heard or saw a caravan passing by in the horizon, he wrapped himself in a nomad style gown and left to beg.
He would never take Yunho with him, telling him that finding water was his job and gathering food was Jaejoong’s job, and the toddler was left weeping on the wheelhouse floor every time. At first Jaejoong had to close the door to prevent Yunho from running after him, but after a few times he deferred, sitting by the wheelhouse window to follow Jaejoong’s retreating figure with his eyes. He wouldn’t budge from his spot, studying the landscape until he spotted he older boy again, usually equipped with some sack, bigger or smaller, full of food. Yunho would then stand up and rush to the door, waiting for Jaejoong to come and open it so that he wouldn’t be alone anymore. Jaejoong’s foraging trips became a routine, a familiar occurrence Yunho hated from the bottom of his heart. Even if he grew less scared of being alone, the older he got, the more he loathed the occasions.
Jaejoong was sitting in front of the steering wheel with the family rug spread on his lap as usual. He often spent hours like that, murmuring everyone’s names aloud again and again, starting from the most ancient forefathers and not pausing until he reached his own name on the very top of the family tree. Yunho couldn’t be bothered with the old rug; and he would have never admitted that at night, if Jaejoong tucked him under any other blanket he couldn’t sleep from his fear of dark. But this time when he entered the wheelhouse with determination to play pirate and have Jaejoong act as his first mate, he stopped on his tracks at the door. Jaejoong had his tongue out of his mouth and a needle in his hand.
“What’cha doing, Jaejae? Did it break?” the small boy asked, climbing clumsily to sit next to Jaejoong, resolutely shaking off a hand the older boy reached out in order to help him steady his step.
“No, I am stitching your name here, my Yun,” Jaejoong answered after making sure the boy wouldn’t fall over and tumble down to the floor. Yunho gripped the older boy’s arm excitedly with his small fingers, peering over Jaejoong’s shoulder onto the cloth already full of names and figures of Jaejoong’s forefathers and relatives.
“Where is your name?” Yunho asked giddily, watching Jaejoong’s fingers work the needle to and fro on the fabric, a thick red thread forming shapes alien to him on the faded surface. He knew what the rug was about; Jaejoong had taught about it to Yunho as his own birthmother had taught about it to Jaejoong.
“I am right here, my Yun,” Jaejoong answered, brushing his fingers over the name next Yunho’s newly added one. Yunho beamed; there he was, placed next to Jaejoong for good.
“You are part of our family and our people now, my Yun,” Jaejoong exclaimed after biting the thread and smoothing down the fabric on his lap, admiring the fruits of his labour. Yunho’s name was a bit crooked and the bright red colour stood out in the middle of the other, faded forms, but in Jaejoong’s eyes it fitted in perfectly.
“I have told you about the customs of our people haven’t I?” Jaejoong turned his head to face Yunho. “You should start calling me brother now.”
“Why should I call you my brother? You are not my brother, you told me so yourself. You don’t call me brother either,” Yunho argued. Jaejoong released a helpless sigh. “If you get to call me by my name, I am calling you by your name too!”
“I don’t call you by your name! I call you my Yun!” Jaejoong retorted hastily.
“What does Yun mean then?” Yunho asked.
Jaejoong blushed. Yunho watched with fascination as a pink hue crawled its way up on Jaejoong’s neck, spreading upwards to his chin, and tinting towards a more awkward shade of tomatoes when it reached his cheeks.
“Uhm, yes, well, you see…” the older boy spluttered. “Yun, hmm, didn’t your mother ever tell you the meaning of your name?” Jaejoong tried to save what was left of his dignity with a quick retort.
Yunho gave him a weird look. It wasn’t as if he could remember anything else but living with Jaejoong. The earliest he could recall was being lulled to sleep by Jaejoong’s rocking step, bound tight against the older boy’s warm back with the family rug.
“…I am sorry, my Yun,” Jaejoong sighed. “Well, you see, the first character of your name, it means one’s firstborn son…”
Yunho was taken aback.
“You are not my father! Nor my mother, for that matter!”
Jaejoong just smiled awkwardly, reaching out to ruffle Yunho’s hair.
“I am still not calling you my brother,” Yunho muttered stubbornly as his unruly hair fell over his eyes, making him huff and puff in order to try to blow it out of his face. Jaejoong’s face twisted into a defeated smile at the child’s adorable antics, and he decided to let Yunho have his way on this one matter.
The year Yunho turned six Jaejoong didn’t have to bathe him forcefully anymore. Instead Yunho climbed into the rusty tub happily by himself, playing around in the water, pretending to be a pirate whose ship was sinking. Jaejoong knew he was supposed to scold the little boy for wasting water as he watched him splash it around, make gurgling noises and yell for help. Instead, he climbed inside himself, warning Yunho to beware of the sea monster.
Yunho was bored. He was bored often, since all they had in the steppe to entertain themselves with was the ship, and he had ransacked each room countless times already. In addition, with every passing month Jaejoong played with him less and less whereas his foraging trips seemed to last longer and longer. When he was at the ship, most of the time he was either cleaning up, fighting an endless battle against the invading sand, or reading one of the books they had found in the captain’s cabin.
That is how Yunho found him that day, lying on his stomach next to their makeshift bed on the floor of the captain’s cabin. He looked so peaceful and content drowning himself in his books that it made Yunho feel irate. What right did Jaejoong have to enjoy his time while Yunho was dying of boredom?
Yunho sneaked inside and stole closer to Jaejoong, careful not to alert him of his presence. He took a running start and with a swift jump, he landed precisely in the middle of Jaejoong’s back. Jaejoong let out a loud “umpf” as all the air he had inside left his lungs. Cursing the nasty bruises he could already feel forming on his hipbones and ribs, he hid his pain from the clueless child sitting on his back and quickly turned around, determined to get his revenge. Yunho couldn’t contain his giggles as Jaejoong attacked his sides, adamant on not releasing the small boy until he was too tired to even laugh. The tickling war went on and on for quite a while until both were too exhausted to do anything but lay on the floor next to each other.
“Who told you you could knock the wind out of me, you little desert rat,” Jaejoong huffed, trying to steady his breaths. Yunho grinned mischievously, his small ribcage heaving up and down as he tightened his chubby fingers in the hem of Jaejoong’s gown.
“But Jaejae, I was so bored,” he whined, “you never play with me anymore!”
“Ah you insolent child, and ungrateful too to top it all off! Did I or did I not just yesterday run around this very ship for hours, pretending to be an enormous anteater! I am quite sure you don’t even have a clue what that is!”
Yunho blinked his innocent eyes at Jaejoong, completely missing out on the sardonic tone in his voice. Jaejoong let out a breathless laugh and pulled them both to sit up.
“Let me teach you something, my Yun. After knowing this, you will never face another boring moment again.”
First straightening out his crumpled gown and Yunho’s wrinkled tunic, then licking his fingers in order to pat down Yunho’s stubborn hair that was sticking up in the weirdest angles, Jaejoong finally reached for the book he had been reading and opened it, spreading the pages open in Yunho’s direction.
“I’ll teach you how to read. Let’s go get the dictionary from the wheelhouse.”
Yunho felt a familiar giddiness spread in his tummy. This definitely meant that Jaejoong would be spending a lot of time with all his attention on Yunho! Extremely delighted, he ran after Jaejoong, jumping up to wrap his arms around Jaejoong’s neck. The older boy stumbled forward, almost dropping the heavy book he was carrying.
“Didn’t you jump on me enough for today?” Jaejoong said as he tried to detach Yunho’s unrelenting hands from his throat. The child answered by wrapping his legs around Jaejoong’s waist, his heels digging into the hipbones already bruised from his previous attack. Jaejoong groaned.
“Carry me!” Yunho demanded. It had been quite a while since he had last been carried around in the family rug against Jaejoong’s back.
“You are too big for that now and you know it,” Jaejoong tried to reason, shaking the little boy off his back. “You’re too heavy, I don’t have enough strength to carry such a fat desert rat as you!”
Yunho complied, but only with a magnificent pout that with no doubt would have had anyone kneeling at his feet—Jaejoong, however, was long immune.
Teaching Yunho to write had turned out to be one of the smartest ideas he had ever had; Jaejoong had to give himself that.
As he watched Yunho’s chubby child hands hold the brush elegantly and copy the simplest characters with extraordinary patience, he could catch a small glimpse of the man this small boy would grow up to be. Jaejoong was sure he would be a great scholar, or at the very least, a very clever and competent man. He had never seen the child concentrate so intensively, putting all he had into learning a new character.
“Jaejoong, teach me how to write my name,” Yunho requested off-handed, his eyes glued to the paper before him as he wrote on it with his slightly shaky fingers.
“Your name has very complex characters, but seeing as your hand-writing is already even prettier than mine,” Jaejoong ruffled Yunho’s hair appreciatively, “I think we’ll give it a shot.”
Sitting down next to the younger boy, he took the brush from Yunho’s hand and spread another sheet of blank paper in front of himself. Dipping the brush into the ink, he started sliding the tip across the paper with a steady hand. Yunho watched as two characters he didn’t know yet appeared on the parchment, recognising them to be the same as the ones Jaejoong had embroidered on the family rug.
“The first character means a firstborn son, my Yun. But it also means ‘truth’ and ‘faith’, ‘sincerity’ or ‘honesty’. The second character,” he paused to blow on the ink to make it dry faster, “means ‘big’ or ‘wide’.”
Yunho nodded, eager to have the brush in his hand again so that he could practice writing his own name.
“Do you know what this means, my Yun?” Jaejoong turned to Yunho to poke him on the nose. Yunho huffed, swatting the offensive hand off his face, leaving a black smear of ink on his cheek. Jaejoong couldn’t resist pinching it.
“It means you should never lie, you little desert rat,” he teased. “Otherwise you are dishonouring even your own name!”
Yunho paused to think about it, and after mulling over the idea for a moment he gave Jaejoong an approving nod.
“What about your name, Jaejae?”
Jaejoong fiddled with the brush for a while. Yunho tugged at his sleeve tentatively and pushed the paper a little closer to Jaejoong.
“Explaining one’s own name is kind of embarrassing,” the older boy drawled, “since the people who give you your name are the people who love you the most.”
He placed his brush on the paper again, writing another name below Yunho’s with care.
“Well, the first character of my name means ‘to exist’,” Jaejoong explained. “The second one means ‘inside’…‘in one’s heart’.”
Yunho thought Jaejoong’s parents couldn’t have given him a more appropriate name.
The year Yunho turned eight he whined that Jaejoong was getting too big and that he didn’t want to take a bath together because Jaejoong took up all the space in the bathtub. Jaejoong tried to calmly explain him that they couldn’t afford to waste so much water as taking baths separately would, but when he turned his back on Yunho to dip his head underwater, Yunho kicked him on his lower back to make more space for himself.
Then Yunho’s mood suddenly changed to a complete opposite as he offered to scrub Jaejoong’s back for him. Taking hold of the washing cloth, he started swabbing it against Jaejoong’s skin sloppily. Jaejoong relaxed, content that Yunho had dropped his troublesome attitude as the boy made his way down on his back. When the washing cloth started tickling the spot on his tailbone that Yunho had kicked earlier, he turned around.
“Umm, Yunho… You can stop now,” he said, taking the cloth out of the smaller boy’s hand. “Thank you for washing my back, now it’s your turn!”
Jaejoong grinned and pushed Yunho’s head under the water playfully.
“What’s that, Jaejae?
Jaejoong turned from the mirror to face Yunho.
“This? This is kohl,” he answered lowering his hand for Yunho to see, a small mother-of-pearl box with coal-black powder inside it resting on his palm.
“What’s it for?”
Jaejoong grinned. “It’s for making your face more beautiful. Do you want to try it too?”
Yunho nodded eagerly. Jaejoong kneeled down and steadied Yunho’s chin between the thumb and index finger of his left hand. He put the box down on the floor, dipping his already blackened right index finger into the powder and after telling Yunho to close his eyes, he started to carefully pat it around them.
“Stop squirming Yun! It will smudge.”
Jaejoong flicked Yunho’s forehead with his clean middle finger, making him groan. Jaejoong’s flicks were the worst. Indifferent to the pain the younger boy was experiencing, Jaejoong continued to smear the black powder to his eyelids.
“There you go!” Yunho felt Jaejoong release the grip on his chin and quickly he brought his small fists to rub on his itching eyelids before opening them. Jaejoong let out a stifled chortle.
“Panda!” he exclaimed, smacking Yunho gently on the head. Yunho reached up to rub on the spot as he glared at the chuckling Jaejoong.
“I don’t like kohl,” Yunho stated, tears gathering in his eyes as he clenched his teeth. He hated it when Jaejoong laughed at him. It made him feel so small and useless, demonstrated how Jaejoong would always have the last word in their squabbles. It reminded him of Jaejoong’s foraging trips, and how he wasn’t allowed to come along.
Jaejoong stood up wrinkling his face and reached out his arms to rub his thumbs along Yunho’s high cheekbones.
“You know what my Yun, let me tell you something about kohl. It’s not just about making yourself pretty.”
Jaejoong lowered his hands, placing them on Yunho’s shoulders.
“You and I, we live here alone… Not one soul is here to help us with our struggle. But neither is there a soul to wish bad things on us…“ He paused, hesitating for a moment before trying another kind of approach. “You know what an evil eye is, don’t you, my Yun? I know there’s a story of a witch in one of the books in the captain’s cabin.”
Jaejoong retracted one of his hands, scratching the side of his head. Yunho watched him tuck away a stray lock of hair behind his ear and wondered once again if Jaejoong would let him grow his hair long too. Until now, he would grab Yunho every half a year with a blade in his other hand and no matter how much the other pleaded, he’d ruthlessly shear his unruly hair until it was only a few centimetres long.
“This black powder called kohl, it wards off the evil eye. You wouldn’t want me to march into the camps of those nomad people unprotected, would you now, my Yun?”
“But I could come with you and—”
Jaejoong released a dismissing sound and pushed at Yunho’s narrow shoulders, taking a good look at his face while keeping him at arm’s length. He smiled sweetly at the younger boy, “Just, please go wipe that smudge off your face. I don’t care if you have to use the rest of our water to get it off, but you’re washing it.”
He halted, giving Yunho a contemplating glance and added after a moment’s hesitation, “I am going now. I will not be back home before tomorrow evening.”
Yunho opened his mouth with a familiar objection and plea on his lips, but Jaejoong pressed his palm quickly on Yunho’s mouth, silencing him effortlessly. Yunho felt heat invading his cheeks as Jaejoong bent down to kiss his own knuckles. He felt Jaejoong’s fingertips graze the corners of his mouth as the older boy drew his hand back.
“No,” he said smiling, “you just go look for the water, desert rat. We are running out of it even if you didn’t need to get that mess off your face.”
Jaejoong gave Yunho one last teasing kiss on the black smear between his eyes before wrapping the cloth that was covering his hair over his nose and mouth and around his neck. Yunho could only watch in awe as Jaejoong’s kohl-painted black eyes turned dull for second before a familiar determination filled them, making the burn of his stare almost unbearable. Usually, Yunho would run outside and sit on the bow of the ship, watching Jaejoong walk away and disappear into the steppe. This time, he remained jammed into his spot as he watched Jaejoong’s graceful figure, wrapped in a glimmering burgundy gown, walk out of the door of their makeshift home.
The year Yunho turned ten he sat in the tub patiently, waiting for Jaejoong in the cooling water. When he finally stepped in through the door, Yunho stared. Jaejoong was a lot taller than him, and regardless of their haphazard diet and occasional involuntary fasting, his body had grown not only in height but also in width; his chest had expanded while his hips remained narrow. Jaejoong’s shoulders had gotten broader too, and he was strong enough to carry Yunho on his back once again. Yunho followed every movement of his sinewy muscles relentlessly as Jaejoong slipped his white limbs into the water.
Jaejoong met his gaze and shifted, uncomfortable. “Yunho, you’re staring,” Jaejoong pointed out and stood up, stepping out of the tub and draping a mint green gown over his torso.
“Come on, my Yun, the water is chilly already. Get up, I’ll dry your hair for you.”
“What about your bath?” Yunho asked, standing up as well. Jaejoong smiled and threw a towel over Yunho’s head, rubbing the naked boy’s coarse hair in a rather violent manner. Yunho swayed in his spot until Jaejoong hooked his hands under Yunho’s armpits and hoisted him up, out of the bathtub.
“I’ll just take one later. I don’t feel like one right now.”