The next morning Yunho took with him a small cart from the hold of the ship and all the empty jars from the deck, heading out to the spring he had found two days earlier. Their terms somewhat normalised, Jaejoong had stuffed his cart with food and made him promise not to approach any more snakes. Yunho was soon back to his normal, easily annoyed self as he tried to explain to the older boy that the snake was friendly and had helped him, but Jaejoong wouldn’t have any of that. So Yunho left, having promised Jaejoong every single thing the older boy had required, still as unable as ever to win an argument over Jaejoong.
Yunho was anxious. He knew trekking meant more thinking, and there were thoughts lurking within his head he certainly didn’t want to have come forth. He hung onto every single thing he saw, trying to keep his mind busy with the environment.
It took him half a day to reach the cliff again, but this time he continued directly to the spring. In no time, he had all the jars filled, brimming with clear, sky-blue water. As eager as he usually was to get back home to Jaejoong as soon as he was done with his task, this time he just sat down next to the spring, taking off his sandals and immersing his feet in the water. He sat there, staring at the rippling surface of the liquid, wondering if the snake would come back and bite his toes for interrupting the peace of his home.
He lay back, placing both of his arms under his neck and gazing at the vast sky opening above him. The day was clear and hot, similar to the sky of two days earlier when he had come to the spring for the first time. In no time, he fell asleep, just like that day.
What he saw was also similar: naked skin and loose hair, but this time the person was lying down on his stomach, trembling. His features were covered with long locks of his black hair but he was letting out a string of breathy moans that made a smothered fire start anew and spread inside Yunho. Yunho was crawling closer to the naked person, his hands reaching out to touch the delicate, white skin of the person who jerked in response, releasing a whimper. He managed to climb over the person, his bony fingers tucking away hair from his face as he felt the warmth of a body pressed against his own burning skin. The person craned his neck, a familiar face twisted in a frown turning to look at Yunho with fiery eyes.
“You disgusting, insecure little boy.”
Yunho woke up to his own muffled cry. He sprang up from the ground, wide eyes staring at nothingness in front of him. Bile rose up his throat but he willed it back down, trying to get rid of the feeling of nausea he had gotten too familiar with to his taste during the last few days. But besides nausea, there was another sensation; the familiar, pleasurable tingle making his muscles tense with anticipation.
Yunho glanced down, repulsed by himself. The tent was there again, mocking him from between his legs. Feeling an inexplicably strong burst of fury wash through him, he raised his fist, slamming it down on his own erection and immediately doubling over in intense pain. He yelped and spun to his side, whimpering in agony as the pulsating pain made him strain his limbs and writhe on the ground. As he waited for the hurt to wane with unshed tears in his eyes, a new determination filled his mind. He was not going back to the shipwreck with only a couple of jars filled with water. He could do better.
Yunho wandered forwards aimlessly, keeping just enough track of his steps to make sure he wasn’t walking in a circle. Dragging the water cart around with him was tiring, but as he had no idea where he would end up at, he couldn’t leave it behind either.
Yunho was now far enough he couldn’t see the shipwreck anymore; he had been travelling west as east seemed an impossible direction for him at the moment. In addition to having no destination, he wasn’t even sure what he was looking for. All he knew was that he wouldn’t go back yet.
A distant sound made Yunho turn his head to his right, and as he watched a cloud of whirling sand approach him, the alarms inside his head started going off with full power. This was the part where he was supposed to hide: to disappear behind a low mound or crawl under a sparse shrub. He was already eyeing his surroundings for a suitable place, when his rash movements slowed down, a plan forming inside his stubborn head. So, he stopped, standing unmoving right in the way of a nearing caravan.
Yunho’s arms felt heavy with impatience when the caravan finally reached him, few of the first riders giving him confused looks but not stopping as they passed right by him, guiding the packhorses. Yunho stood there, admiring the fine animals at a close distance and gathering his courage before he finally picked up a jar and took a few steps forwards.
“Water for sale!” he shouted raising the jar in his arms, trying to display it alluringly to catch the attention of the nomads, who he was sure were always short of water. A lone rider pulled at his reins, stopping his horse right next to Yunho, who looked up a little frightened but stepped closer nonetheless. The nomad stared at him appraisingly, petting the neck of his horse gently.
“And what might this young man be doing here all alone in the middle of the steppe?” he asked with an emotionless voice. Yunho met his eyes, gripping the water jar against his chest.
“I have water…” he managed to get out in a small voice.
“Is that so?” the man smirked, hopping down from the back his horse, offering the reins to a fellow nomad who had stopped beside him to inspect what was going on.
“Let me evaluate your goods,” the man said, stretching out his hand towards the jar. When Yunho just stared at him, unmoving, he impatiently nudged his hand closer. Yunho opened his mouth to say something, but before he could utter a word the jar was torn out of his arms.
“Yes, yes,” the man answered his unasked question with a bored voice, raising the jar to his lips and hastily gulping down clear spring water. Some of it dripped out from the corners of his mouth and rolled down his throat, glistening teasingly in the sun. Yunho could only stare at him as he finished the jar with a satisfied grunt, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He then proceeded to toss the jar back at Yunho, who clambered forward to catch it in order to save the ceramic vessel from breaking.
“What about my payment? I want food!” Yunho asked, his eyes wide as the man turned around to walk back to his horse. He snorted disbelievingly, turning to face Yunho with mirth twinkling in his grey eyes. Yunho felt his temper flare and he placed the jar on the ground, charging at the nomad who easily caught him, throwing him on the ground and pressing a sandal to his back. There were many others who had stopped to spectate the show, guffawing at the boy entertaining them with his unbelievable gullibility.
“Consider it enough a payment that I don’t take your life—or better yet, take you with me and sell to a slaver in the next village!” the nomad mocked, mounting his horse and leaving Yunho gape after him on the ground. Sitting up, he crawled to the jar, frustration overflowing as he banged his forehead against its cracked rim. An involuntary groan left his throat as he flopped down on the sand, placing both of his hands over the wound.
He watched the caravan travel past him and only bothered to sit up when suddenly a man rode back from the front of the caravan.
“So you’re trying to sell water, huh,” he mused, restraining his horse that was stepping back and forth in front of Yunho, not wanting to still. “The only place you would be able to do that is the town we are coming from; follow our trail and you will find it.”
With that, the nomad urged his horse to a canter, returning to his place in the front.
Yunho wasn’t about to give up, so he followed the trail of the caravan as the nomad had instructed. The caravans needed new water and food supplies every now and then, so he guessed there had to be a common waypoint for the nomads travelling to north, west and east from the southern capital, concluding it could not be too far away.
It had already been dark for many hours when he finally arrived, but he felt surprised to have reached the town so soon nonetheless. He would have never guessed they were actually living so close to a settlement. It was a small town with burnt clay houses and a real, paved main street. Too tired to feel amazed by the amount of people or buildings, Yunho was still bothered by the smell: a strong stench emitting from every corner, a quality their own little home in the steppe lacked completely. Yunho pulled his cart along a dusty alleyway, desperate to just find an inconspicuous nook to spend the night in. The beggars along the road made him feel restless: there was always an eye on him and even with all the hustle and bustle, it was harder to stay unnoticed than in the wide steppe. Finally he found a rather quiet corner that he only shared with a battered cat of unrecognisable colour. Settling between the jars in his cart, he curled up, dreaming of home.
The next morning Yunho was forcefully pulled out of his slumber as loud clang and rattle accompanied by out of tune singing exploded at a few metres’ distance of him. He startled awake, jumping off his cart immediately to prepare for a fight. What he saw instead was a band of strange-looking women, many of them wearing robes that bared their bellies, tinkling jewellery tied around their ankles. The fattest and oldest-looking one was bashing against each other what looked like two kettle lids, a dreamy smile on her face. The others banged other kinds of instruments, engaged in a strange circular dance while they hollered on the top of their lungs, singing in a language Yunho couldn’t understand.
“Damned eunuchs,” a haggard man cursed as he passed Yunho, heading for the odd bouncing group of people.
“Shut your mouths you scum! Your singing would make even the angels in the heavens cry,” he shouted, pulling his purse out and tossing some money at their feet. The ruckus piped down for a moment as the fat one bent down to collect the money from the ground, squeezing it inside her breast through the neckline of her dirty-yellow robe decorated with a floral pattern. The band moved a little closer to Yunho, who could only gawk at the strange performance happening right next to him. Soon they started making a racket again and in no time people were opening the windows over their heads, throwing down money followed with strings of swearing and insults as the noise forced the whole length of the street awake.
Yunho followed the exchange flabbergasted. Was making money that easy in the town? Why were they even living in the steppe in the first place?
The group was now making its way past Yunho when the fat one turned her face towards his small cart. She studied Yunho’s dirty, torn tunic for a second with her small squinty eyes. Slowly, a gentle smile spread on her face, baring a wide row of yellow teeth.
“Lovely boy, take a coin,” she crooned as she reached out her hand with a copper in it. Yunho remained unmoving, looking first at her hand and then at her swollen face scattered with freckles and birthmarks. The woman smiled understandingly, stepping closer and grabbing Yunho’s hand, placing the coin in his fist and pressing his fingers tightly around it.
“Don’t be shy now, pretty boy,” she smiled teasingly and winked at him. Yunho flinched but she just chuckled, stepping back and followed her comrades. Yunho opened his fingers and looked at the money in his hand, frowning. It was the first coin he had ever held—given to him by a band of beggars, out of pity. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Hastily grabbing the handle of his cart, he rushed after the bizarre group that had started their loud performance once again. He crept closer, tugging the fat one’s cloths when she passed him during the dance. She turned to face Yunho, eyes questioning. Yunho cleared his throat.
“Take a gulp of water for your money,” he said with what he hoped was the voice of a seasoned vendor. The woman grinned, accepting the jar Yunho was offering him. Taking a long swig, she gave the jar back to Yunho smiling.
“Thank you, pretty boy,” she said. “This town has been suffering from a shortage of water for a whole year. Long since I tasted such pure water.”
The news were elating, promising Yunho’s business plans favourable conditions. As the day passed by, he came to notice the remark had been even more spot-on than he could have ever hoped for. He started walking the alleys of the town and there were plenty of eager buyers, people hoping to fill their own storage vessels with Yunho’s water. He could take a good price and soon the pockets of his tunic started to feel heavy, making Yunho’s greed grow larger at the same pace. He traded, dreaming of the delicacies he would buy Jaejoong from the town.
A ragged old man limped to him, offering his palms. Yunho regarded his flea-infested appearance with pity and thanked Jaejoong for always forcing him to bathe inside his mind.
“Give a poor man a sip of water, Sir,” the man pleaded, nodding his head slightly in a respectful bow. Yunho glanced back at his mostly emptied jars hesitantly.
“I am sorry Sir, but this is only for sale,” Yunho tried to explain to him politely. The man’s eyes widened as he gave Yunho a disbelieving stare.
“Selling God’s water in this desert? You cannot sell water, it’s not…it’s not a vendible thing.”
Yunho didn’t really know how to respond, so he settled with shrugging and turning his back at the beggar. The man mumbled something inaudible and left, but there was a shallow feeling of guilt that settled in the pit of Yunho’s stomach, joining its brothers: the revolting nausea and the burning want.
By the end of the day Yunho had managed to collect so many coins he was fairly sure he could buy so much food with it he wouldn’t have the strength to drag it back to the shipwreck. He was still feeling somewhat unsettled about the incident with the beggar earlier, and after filling his cart with food, he gave all his spare coins to the beggars along the main street: one to each. Peace didn’t come to him, but the thanks he received made him twist and turn with uneasiness.
He travelled through the steppe for the whole night, pausing only to fill his jars for a second time as he passed the snake spring. When he finally saw the ship, the first rays of light were already breaking through the flocks of white clouding the morning sky. Yunho’s heart soared, and he sped up despite his exhaustion, not caring if the jars spilled.
“Yunho!” he heard a breathless cry.
Like a déjà vu, Jaejoong jumped down from the ship’s deck, his speed so magnificent that when he reached Yunho he couldn’t slow down anymore, colliding with the younger boy and toppling them both over. Yunho smiled despite the painful fall. Jaejoong’s hands were all over him, touching every part of his body to make sure he was really there.
“Damned be this spawn of the devil! This is the second instance you leave me in a week’s time! Are you okay? You little scamp! Do you really hate living with me so much? I thought you were kidnapped! Oh my, what happened to your forehead?!”
Jaejoong’s words were a senseless blur as he first hugged Yunho to his chest, then pushed him farther to inspect him, and then hugged him again, draping his arms around the smaller boy’s shoulders in a painful grip. Yunho didn’t struggle; he had been expecting an intense reunion. Lying there on the grey steppe sand, he let Jaejoong stroke the bruising scratch on his forehead with his worried doe eyes fixed on the minor wound.
“Where did you go?” Jaejoong’s demanding voice left no room for rebuttal. “I knew the spring was far away this time, but you took two days and two nights, my Yun, two days and two nights!”
“I went to a town,” Yunho revealed, sensing Jaejoong’s tensing form next to him on the sand. Expecting a slap or a flick, Yunho closed his eyes; he was pretty sure a town was on the same list of forbidden things as caravans. Instead, Jaejoong drew his hand away from the small boy’s head and sat up. Yunho glanced at him, surprised to see his crestfallen expression. Jaejoong didn’t say anything but only stared at his hands that were resting on his lap. Yunho decided to take matters in his own hands as he sprang up, speedily dragging the cart next to Jaejoong.
“I went to a town and I brought us food!” he exclaimed triumphantly, placing his sack on the ground next to Jaejoong and opening its mouth, lifting out the things he had selected especially with Jaejoong in mind.
“I traded water with food! You always tell me I can find water easily… I used my own abilities! Look Jaejae! Look what I have… I brought dried dates for you and I brought you this comb too…” Yunho’s words quieted down when Jaejoong raised his eyes and pulled gently at Yunho’s wrist, making his weary knees buckle under him.
“I didn’t think I would need to explain this to you anymore, why I don’t want you there,” Jaejoong whispered. Tugging Yunho closer, he rested his arm around his shoulder, squeezing him closer onto his side. Yunho hummed, satisfied.
“I have been perfectly capable of providing us with food until now… You are taking too many liberties.”
Yunho burrowed his face onto Jaejoong’s armpit, listening to the words he guessed he had known were coming the whole time.
“You say you went to a town… A town,” Jaejoong mused, turning his face up to feel the warmth of the morning sun on it.
“Don’t you understand that they can turn us back to slaves with less than one snap of fingers,” Jaejoong’s voice rose a little in apprehension. Yunho nodded his head that was still tucked under the older boy’s arm, making Jaejoong feel his response more than see it.
“I know that it’s been ten years now, and that you cannot even remember it… But we will always be slaves in their eyes. In a second we are back there, ready to be sold to some bastard…” Jaejoong’s muscles tensed, the arm around Yunho’s shoulder shaking with restrain; and there it was, the expected slap. Yunho yelped, clutching his head as Jaejoong stood up, glaring at the obstinate boy.
“The next time you try to go, you little desert rat… Actually, never mind that, there will be no next time. You are never going back there.”
Jaejoong bent down and Yunho braced himself for another slap, but instead, he got a soft kiss on the wound on his forehead. Jaejoong straightened his back but refused to smile at Yunho, glaring down at him with much frustration.
“I will go fetch the ointment.”
Yunho stared after his retreating back, unable to stop the burn in his loins he hated so much. Angry and ashamed, with no other quick solution, he punched his own erection again; and confirmed it to be just as painful as it had been the first time.
The year turned out harsh and they starved; gathering from the barren steppe bushes brought them barely enough food to fill their stomachs for a few hours. Despite Jaejoong’s threats, it was not the last time Yunho trailed a caravan’s path to the town. At the first sign of dust in the horizon, he started getting ready to sneak away. He knew that if he managed to leave first, Jaejoong wouldn’t go to meet the caravan but instead wait for him at the ship, anxious to have him know his place. Many a time he was caught before he even made it out of the vicinity of their home, overtaken by a cursing Jaejoong whose longer legs made him fly above the ground as he sped after Yunho. Sometimes, he managed to leave in the evening, making it impossible for Jaejoong to track his path in the dark after he had noticed Yunho was gone.
People started recognising him as the boy who sold clear water; and as the dry season stretched, the price of his good rose. Money grew worthless and he started accepting only food as payment, selling the gift of the spring for sacks of flour and heaps of persimmons. When he brought them home, Jaejoong was always there, ready to give him a whipping of his life, but that suited Yunho well. To be quite honest, he preferred an angry Jaejoong to a gentle Jaejoong lately. The burn in his loins was never too far away, and at night, he often woke up choking to the images of Jaejoong under a robust, light-haired man whose features slowly transformed into Yunho’s smaller and darker ones. Sometimes he dreamed of Jaejoong bathing; but the scary, repulsive feeling was always looming somewhere near, ready to attack him at most unexpected times.
Later the same year, Yunho and Jaejoong were separated. It was rather undramatic, as one time when Yunho returned from his trip to the town, Jaejoong wasn’t there anymore. Yunho had snuck away again, making business out of water in the thirst-stricken settlement. The price of his good was high but customers were decreasing; he and Jaejoong seemed to be not the only ones who were suffering from the worsened weather conditions. Every time he returned, there were more beggars, even children, and he was forced to ignore them in order to provide for himself and Jaejoong. Even the band of the strange-looking, noisy women, who in addition to the amount of insults had also received plenty of money the first time Yunho had encountered them, were being ignored and hardly given a coin.
As Yunho pulled his cart back to the ship, feeling empty and satisfied at the same time, he only noticed something was wrong when he reached the ship. Strangely enough, there was no furious Jaejoong with a potty-mouth comparable to one of the pirates Yunho had admired as a child; there was no whirlwind flying down from the deck to wrest him and swirl him around, only to end the rebuke with a gentle embrace.
Yunho abandoned his cart on the sand, scrambling up the side of the ship and rushed inside, calling out Jaejoong’s name continuously. He tore open the doors of every cabin and closet, rampaging to and fro in the corridors and scouring the hold, finding nothing but empty sacks and sand. Finally, he returned to the captain’s cabin, throwing himself on the bed and wrapping Jaejoong’s family rug around him. He stayed unmoving inside the cocoon, pretending that the familiar smell was coming from Jaejoong’s body wrapped around him and not from an old piece of fabric. The illusion could only last so long; soon, Yunho was forced back onto his restless feet, clutching the old cloth in his arms.
Yunho sat by the window of the wheelhouse for days, staring into the horizon with unyielding eyes. Day after day, he woke up and fell asleep in the same spot, understanding now the older boy’s anguish every time he had disappeared himself. A familiar anxiousness from his childhood returned to gnaw at his insides as waited for Jaejoong. He ate everything he had brought back from the town and drank every drop of water there was left in the ship, refusing to fetch more in case Jaejoong returned while he was away.
Day after day, his bones grew more jutting as the once healthy flesh and muscle covering them withered away, leaving behind a young, dry skeleton. He rarely moved from his spot anymore, staring at the grey steppe, his knees covered with Jaejoong’s family rug as he prayed for all the forefathers in every manner Jaejoong had taught him, and in a few additional manners of his own.
In the end of the month he got up, his cracking joints barely holding up his non-existent weight. He staggered to the table, reaching for a piece of crinkled paper and an inkstone. There was a short stub of an inkstick on the table, and Yunho even managed to find a drop of water on the bottom of a glass. He made some ink with the last drop, and then, dipping his index finger in the black liquid, he wrote with the most elegant strokes he could with only his finger as a brush, knowing that Jaejoong would have appreciated it.
I cannot survive here alone. I left to look for you in the town. Your Yun
So, he left the deserted ship, with him only the family rug, the clothes on his back and the sandals on his feet.