Tired, Yunho wobbled on the sand, tripping over every root and rock. Sometimes he would crawl a few metres before he managed to stand up again, continuing his staggering until he fell over the next obstacle. The only goal in his mind at the moment was to find water; he had gone without drinking for far too long. Yunho might have been dispirited but he had no reason to die. He still had to find Jaejoong.
Wrenching his mind off the seemingly impossible job, Yunho focused on the task at hand. He searched the ground more closely than ever, looking for any signal that might have given out a spring anywhere near.
“Snake!” he croaked out, eyeing his vicinity in defeat. “Where are you when I need you?”
The more he walked, the more desperate he got; finally deciding to just head for the town. However, he didn’t know what to do there: without water he had nothing to offer, nothing to make money out of.
Just when he had deferred, a glint caught his eye. Turning his head to its direction, he noticed a familiar slithering form, escaping the sun into cooler shadows under a pile of rocks.
“Snake!” It was all Yunho managed to get out. He sped up the best he could, blundering after the reptile in a haze, keeping its speedy tail inside his sphere of vision. He was sure that if he could only keep up with it, it would surely lead him to water.
And so it did; after a few, tedious moments, Yunho spotted ahead of him something that was truly a sight to behold. Running the last few steps, he dropped down on his knees on the bank of what was the largest amount of water Yunho had ever seen at once during his whole life. Behind it was situated a tall, constructed wall with holes at its bottom, water flowing through them with intensive force, spattering around and glimmering joyfully in the sun.
As soon as he was able to take off his eyes from the wondrous sight, Yunho dipped his face down into the water, burying in even the last strands of his hair. Not bothering to use his hands, he started to drink, directly from the small lake.
A hand on his shoulder forced him to look up from his feast.
“And what might you think you are doing, young man,” an emotionless, trained voice asked him. Yunho squinted his eyes, unable to see from the sun blinding him right from behind the head of the man holding his shoulder.
“I am…drinking?” he tried, carefully steadying his stance on the bank. He had been too thirsty to get startled when the man had appeared unannounced, but he was starting to get scared now. The strange man tightened the grasp he had on Yunho’s dirty tunic and wrenched him up. Yunho would’ve fallen right back down had the man not kept his gloved hand firmly on his clothes, supporting the scrawny boy’s weight with only one arm.
Yunho could now see him properly for the first time and immediately recognised him as a member of the royal guard, some of whom he had previously seen in the town. With a flowing white cloth, embroidered with the words of the pledge of the royal guard, wrapped around his head and face to protect him from the sand and heat, and a sand grey uniform with blood red stitching, the man was an intimidating sight. Had Yunho not been driven to near madness by his thirst, he would’ve thrown himself on the ground in hopes of being spared from whatever terrifying fate was waiting for him. However, far too gone, he only stared back into the man’s hostile green eyes.
“And what makes you think you have the right to carry out such an action? This water happens to be property of the state and a direct supply to the court of the High King of the southern capital.”
“Property of the state?” Yunho repeated incredulously, about to argue back despite the hand tightening its hold on his shoulder when a memory of his own water-selling business flashed in his mind. Had he not once been told himself that water couldn’t be owned or sold for personal profit?
“Got any objections, boy?” the man asked, drawing his sabre out of its sheath just enough for Yunho to see the dangerous glimmer. The curved blade eagerly reflected the light of the sun, as if wanting to be released of its confines.
“No Sir,” Yunho answered hastily, bowing his head and casting his eyes down as a sign of respect. The man released his clothes abruptly and shoved him a bit, causing him to struggle for his balance.
“Scram,” he ordered and Yunho was quick to obey.
When Yunho finally reached the town, its streets were as busy as ever; no one really paid attention to the thin figure sauntering across the streets, eyeing all edible things with a haunting craving in his eyes. Choosing the kindest looking one, Yunho approached a hawker, his hands humbly stretched forward and head slightly bowed.
“I am sorry Sir, but this is only for sale,” the woman deplored, eyeing Yunho’s starved form with pity. Numbly, he guessed he’d deserved that one; he had once been in the same situation himself after all. He couldn’t very well blame the woman; for all he knew, she could have had a large extended family with dozens of hungry children to keep fed. Defeated, he staggered along the main street until he found a clean enough corner to sleep in. He curled into himself exhausted, untying the family rug from around his chest and clutching it against his face. He fell asleep, the familiar smell of Jaejoong and home invading his senses, and for the first time in ages he dreamed about Jaejoong peacefully.
Yunho woke up in the morning abruptly with a bucket of water splashed on him. He spun up, gasping for breath and searching for the cause of his sudden discomfort with wide eyes. There was a skinny old man at a few metres’ distance from him, staring openly.
“Sorry lad, didn’t notice you there. Quite the camouflage you have there with that rag of yours,” announced the short man with a smirk. Yunho couldn’t interpret whether it was meant to be friendly or sardonic. He nodded curtly, too exhausted to care about manners or first impressions.
“Hmmm, seems like you are in need of a hearty meal,” the man mused, stepping closer and lifting Yunho’s arm up. He wrapped his fingers around it, sliding them down towards his elbow were his thumb and middle finger reached each other easily. He frowned, contemplating, but seemed to reach a decision on something and let Yunho’s arm go. It fell down with a thump against Yunho’s side. The boy stared at the man, wondering what was going on but he felt too weak to engage in a conversation, so he just shrugged and turned to pick up Jaejoong’s family rug that had fell down on the ground at his surprise awakening.
“How about a deal, young man,” the man started, and Yunho turned around again. In his position, he was open to pretty much any suggestion: anything that would bring him something to put into his mouth.
“I feed you for today, and you clean my backyard,” the man said, and then added laughing, “Since you are already covered in filth, you may as well do some dirty work.”
Yunho looked down at himself, and noticed that his clothes were not only drenched but also smelly: a mixture of weeks without bath, sleeping on the street and the final polish from the man’s waste bucket.
He raised his eyes back up, meeting the short man’s laughing ones squinted into two half moons. So similar to Jaejoong’s laugh, but so different.
“I will throw in a bath too, just for you,” the man said, “in the evening after you are done with the day’s work.”
“Alright,” Yunho said. “But I get to eat first, right? And I get to drink too?” he confirmed quickly.
“Yes, yes, dear boy, now let’s go so we get this done before the year changes. My backyard’s no cinch.”
The man gestured for Yunho to follow him and started marching along the alley, leading Yunho further into the heart of the city.
In just the few minutes, they reached the man’s house; it was rather large, built with fired clay bricks. The man took Yunho inside not through the main door but a smaller opening on the side of the house, leading a few steps down to a cellar. Before the man tugged him inside, Yunho managed to catch a glimpse of the backyard: the space seemed more like an inner court with stables along the walls. Yunho guessed the man was some kind of innkeeper who housed travellers and their horses—he could smell the horse dung from the open door.
“Come on, I’ll show you around later,” the man urged, closing the door after Yunho. “Now let us get something to fill that stomach of yours with… I should have something simple here.”
Only then Yunho noticed where they had entered: the cellar was a storage room filled with food and beverages. Large lidded jars lined the walls, above them wide, barred windows opening to the street level. While the man searched for his meal, Yunho tried to distract himself from the delicious scents with the view of the lower bodies of people walking past the building.
He heard a familiar noise, the rattling of cymbals and screeching singing voices. Curiously tiptoeing to better see outside, he spotted hems of the gowns of the bizarre-looking band of women nearing, surrounded by the tumultuous cloud of sound as per usual. One of them, the fat one Yunho remembered had given him a coin, separated from the group and walked closer, bunching her gown up.
“Those women are really strange,” Yunho commented, continuing to follow her with his eyes. He heard a noise from behind him as the small man stepped closer to see what he was talking about. He let out a contemptuous sigh, patting Yunho’s bony shoulder.
“Those god-forsaken creatures… They are not really women”, he sneered, watching the fat one come closer, her gown halfway up her legs, revealing her swollen ankles. Yunho turned to him, surprised. The man only gave him a crooked smile in answer and stepped back, continuing to rummage through the foodstuff filling the cellar.
The woman stopped by the window, starting to lift up her gown in order to relieve herself.
“You shouldn’t watch that, it’ll bring you bad luck,” the man remarked from behind Yunho. For some reason, he was unable to draw his eyes away; frozen on his spot, he watched the person piss on the street before dropping her gown down again and walking back to her companions. Dumbfounded, Yunho turned around, searching for some answers from the old man. He had a pitying look on his face as he watched Yunho sober up from his shock.
“That, uh, th-those scars… Doesn’t it hurt? Why would… Why would anyone do that?”
The man snorted. “Don’t ask me,” he answered, placing his hand down to cup his crotch. “I sure as hell still have both my family jewels safe and sound.”
Beckoning for Yunho, he tossed a few pieces of hard, flat bread onto his arms, accompanied by a chunk of crumbling, dry cheese.
“Come on up, I’ll give you some water and then you can get started on my backyard.”
The backyard turned out to be no cinch indeed. After two days, Yunho was still shovelling horse excrement and hay-mixed mud onto a cart. He didn’t mind; smelly as it was, at least the job kept him fed, and the old man let him bathe in a small basin of lukewarm water that after all the man’s family had used it first. He was yet to find a roof to sleep under, but with the warm nights of late dry season, he didn’t care. Usually he just curled up in the first dry corner he could find, his food-deprived body shutting down from sheer exhaustion, making him fall asleep in mere seconds. In the morning he got up feeling even more tired than the night before if possible and roamed about the streets until he found his way to the man’s house again. He sat next to its high stairs, legs folded against his chest, head nodding and eyes slipping shut until the man came out to drag him in for an early lunch followed with hours of arduous labour.
The third morning, a familiar form stopped beside him as he fought the heaviness in his limbs that was trying to force him lie down on the street.
“Lovely boy, now don’t you look like you are in need of a good rest,” a vaguely familiar voice purred as a big foot gently nudged his side. Yunho startled awake and turned his face upwards, only to meet the gaze of an ugly woman smiling kindly down to him.
“Pervert!” he hissed, scrambling to get up and further away from the woman he wasn’t so sure was a woman anymore. She looked slightly put off, remaining silent for a moment before she sighed and stepped back, allowing Yunho to keep his distance.
“I was only offering help, no need to act so defensive,” she conciliated, offering her open palms as a sign of peace. Yunho didn’t move from where he stood, back and arms flat against the wall, following her every movement with suspicious eyes.
“I’ve seen you coming here for the past days. Must be hard, working for that miser of an innkeeper,” she tried again with a tentative tone in her low voice. When Yunho didn’t answer, she took a careful step forward, causing Yunho to flinch back.
“You need food desperately, lovely boy… Otherwise your pretty face is not going to grace this earth for long. If you come with me, I will—”
“I am not going anywhere with you, pervert!” Yunho hissed, his fingers gripping the wall behind him so harshly the surface of the clay bricks crumbled under his grasp. Not a second too early, Yunho’s employer popped out of the front door, raising his brow in surprise as he spotted an eunuch standing in front of his house.
“You creeper, leave your harassment at least until the boy has finished his job here,” he laughed, descending a step and bending down to grasp Yunho’s wrist. Stiffly, the young boy followed the old man as he dragged him up to the door, craning his neck around in order not to let the woman slip out of his sphere of vision. She held his gaze steadily until he disappeared inside.
It was not the last time Yunho met the strange woman that day. When he was resting for a short moment in the afternoon, his limbs weary with exertion, she came to talk to him again. She rested her chubby arms on a fence relaxedly and watched Yunho’s small ribcage heave up and down as he slowly calmed his breath. When he finally noticed her standing there, he jumped up, granting her only a dubious glare.
“You don’t seem to be made for this kind of work, lovely boy,” she remarked. Yunho’s answer was similar to the same morning.
The woman rolled her eyes. “Why do you insist on calling me a pervert? When did I ever do anything perverted? Cutting off my balls, that’s what makes me a pervert in your opinion?”
Yunho didn’t know what to answer. He lowered his eyes, grabbed the shovel and started packing horse dung onto a cart. His job was almost done; the man had said he’d expect the yard to be clean the same evening, otherwise Yunho could finish his job with no pay.
The woman inched closer on the other side of the fence, explaining herself to Yunho with grave seriousness in her voice. “I am an honest devotee of God. I was castrated in order to be relieved from carnal desires, not in order to act them out.”
Yunho kept his eyes down and continued working but listened, the woman’s words swimming around his brain, his eyes wide with wonder and incredulity. The woman watched him labour for a while and then pushed herself away from the fence, handing out one last sentence as a goodbye.
“I will see you tomorrow,” she said and excused herself from Yunho presence. When he was sure she wasn’t there anymore, he stopped his movement, letting the shovel drop on the paved surface of the yard. He peered after the strange woman, following her fat figure disappear into the streets.
The following day Yunho was left with nothing again. He searched the streets for something to do, a new job that would feed him until he arrived in a poorer neighbourhood. The place smelled even more disgusting than other parts of the city had, an oily reek of rotting meat and dead animals. He walked past a few small tanneries and slaughterhouses, their outsides lined with salted hides tautened to dry in the sun.
The smell would have made Yunho vomit had he had anything inside him to spare, but his insides were as empty as a parched riverbed during dry season. Not giving in to the inane instinct to hold his breath and run, he continued lurking on the alleys, observing skinny errand boys running around and frightened animals being dragged around on the street. The place seemed like a perfect place for Yunho: an easy place to find a job, as only desperate people would engage in such disdained work.
Soon, he was tugged inside a small hut, possibly the dirtiest one he had ever seen, and before the day was over, he was covered in liquids and secretions indescribable in their colour and stench, but also had a copper coin inside his tightly squeezed fist.
On the following days Yunho ate less than on the preceding ones, but his job was also less physically exhausting, if no less disgusting. He was given a small spot underneath an old table inside the hut, in the cleaner one of the rooms where he could rest during the nights; however, the smell was so horrible he usually escaped to sleep outside voluntarily.
Everyday, he would meet the fat eunuch in a street corner at random. The first day she had seemed surprised until she released a powerful chuckle and told Yunho he might have met his fate, as their residence lay very near by. Yunho had not bothered to answer—although, he wasn’t sure if it was more a question of daring. He saw the band of women leaving for their noisy performances every morning and in the afternoon he could count on the fat one to come find him, wherever he was that day. Some days she still tried to convince him to accept her help; others, she would just wordlessly watch him work. Yunho became so used to her presence that at a certain point he noticed he was expecting her arrival, every day at the same time.
As Yunho regained some of his strength, his dreams of Jaejoong came back to haunt him again. Some nights, he dreamed peacefully of their life at the shipwreck, but other nights his dreams rolled down a familiar route: Jaejoong naked, with his milky skin glowing in the sun, Jaejoong lying down on the grey sand, his eyes closed but his mouth opened in a silent plea. For what he was pleading, Yunho wasn’t sure; but a sure thing was he woke up with a scorching heat burning in his loins nearly every morning.
Once he woke up in the middle of the night, his ears humming with the sound of his own blood rushing south. He stayed completely still, trying to detect any noise coming from the hut, but he was alone. No one in their right mind would ever sleep in the tannery if they had anywhere else to retire at night.
He squirmed in his place, kicking his legs up against the underside of the table, too afraid to close his eyes in case he’d see a blonde man, forcing himself upon a struggling Jaejoong before slowly turning into someone smaller and darker-skinned. Lying on his back, his legs resting upwards against the underside of the table, he placed his hands on top his quickly beating heart. He tried focusing his thoughts, but they kept slipping out of his control, sailing into directions he had been trying to close off inside his brain for almost a year already.
In a discordant haze, his hands slid down on his body, feeling each crease of his coarse tunic until he reached the tent between his legs. Carefully, he let his fingers caress Jaejoong’s family rug that was spread over him, covering his lower body. He tugged it upwards, letting the familiar smell invade his senses. Even with his filthy job, he made sure he had the rug somewhere safe from all dirt, and surprisingly enough, it still seemed to hold some of Jaejoong’s warmness in it. Pressing it against his nose with open palms, he inhaled the scent with sharp, rapidly increasing breaths.
When he slid his palms down again, he could almost feel Jaejoong sleeping beside him, arms softly draped around his middle. He imagined his own hands to be those familiar, comforting ones, stroking his sides with care and concern. Inside his mind, the Jaejoong lying beside him propped himself up on one of his elbows before carefully sliding on top of him.
The mental image was beautiful: Jaejoong straddling him with his lean thighs on both sides of Yunho’s waist, looking down at him with a slightly mysterious smile on his lips. Yunho’s hands slid even more down, hitching up the hem of his tunic, fingers pressing against the waistband of his ankle-length white pants. In his mind, those fingers were pale and stubbier than his own and belonged to white, slender hands. They slipped inside his pants, and at the same time Jaejoong bent down, his face nearing Yunho’s as his long hair fell down to frame it, tickling Yunho’s ears and chin with silky ends. A few puffs of warm breath hit his nose before Jaejoong closed the distance, his lips fitting comfortably against Yunho’s.
Yunho clung onto the feel of the imaginary kiss as his hands finally found their way to his erection, ghosting over it before feeling their way around with a few tentative caresses. His breath hitched; it felt even better than he had imagined. The tingles inside his stomach erupted into a speedy play, dancing their way up and down his insides and to his spine until they reached his feet that were propped against the underside of the table, making his legs shake. He let them fall down, spreading them a little in order to make more space for his hands stroking his penis. The skin over it was taut and stretched as he pulled the foreskin back, touching the tip with awkwardly shaky thumbs.
Yunho’s imagination ran fast, changing its direction completely as the smiley, gentle Jaejoong suddenly flung himself on his back, his legs bent at knees and his mouth once again open in a silent plea, his lips glistening with saliva where his pink tongue had surfaced. Yunho was climbing a rock with Jaejoong’s knees as its twin peaks, his hands cupping them as he crawled through the pass, on top of the male a lot taller than himself.
His imaginary self settled between Jaejoong’s legs, hugging his waist, the top of his head barely reaching up to Jaejoong’s chin, rutting desperately against the panting young man. The rhythm of the movement of his hands increased as he imagined the extremely compromising position turning into an even more intimate one as they joined, Jaejoong’s low whines filling his ears.
In a matter of minutes, he reached his climax, inexperienced and hasty; his toes curled and he rolled onto his side, his body curling into a foetal position. Not really knowing what to do, he kept holding his penis, cupping it with both of his hands, trying to prevent his semen from fouling his pants but it kept leaking through his fingers. The muscles of his thighs contracted, shuddering violently at the unravelling tension.
He lay still for a minute, evening out his breath until the stickiness forced him to grovel out from underneath the table. He stumbled to a barrel standing in a corner, shimmied out of his pants and underwear, pulling the pants back on immediately and throwing the dirty piece of inner wear on the floor. Picking up a small washing bowl, he scooped up some water and started washing his underpants, scrubbing the stains until the evidence of his impure act finally vanished. He went back to his corner and after hanging his underwear over a chair, he crawled back under the old table.
Even the smell of tanning leathers had never made him feel so nauseous. Lying there absolutely miserable, his chest still rising and falling in rhythm to his heavy panting, he threw both of his arms over his face and closed his eyes. Willing away the shameful tears and the leaden feeling of guilt eating away his insides, he lay there awake for the rest of the night, mourning Jaejoong’s absence and his own ineptitude and defilement. He felt as if he had wronged Jaejoong, a person who had taken care of him for the whole length of his short life—a person who wasn’t even there with him anymore.
Yunho was sitting on the edge of the pavement, his feet steady on the ground but his upper body bent over them, his other arm around his thighs and the other clutching at his stomach. The nausea he had been feeling since the wee hours was yet to pass, and his head felt heavy enough to be ready to fall off his shoulders at any given moment. Too concentrated on his own degradation, he only noticed her when a gentle hand was placed on the small of his back, and the vulgar but clean and welcome smell of coarse soup invaded his nose. Too tired to fight anymore, he leant to his right, burying his face into the folds of fabric at the woman’s hip. The friendly hand started rubbing his back in a comforting manner, easing the stress and tension sewed into his muscles.
“If only you weren’t so stubborn in the first place…” a familiar voice lamented as the hand smoothed up his spine and neck to stroke his hair. Yunho just shrugged in response, sliding his head onto the woman’s lap, his nose buried onto the fleshy thigh. He felt like a little child again and all he wanted was to be comforted and taken care of, spoon-fed and carried against a warm back.
“Tell me what’s wrong, lovely boy,” the woman coaxed as he pulled Yunho closer, petting his hair as if he was a scared small animal in need of shelter.
“No matter how hard I try,” Yunho cried, “no matter how much effort I put into it he just won’t leave me alone! It’s not my fault, is it? It’s not my fault… I want to go back home… I just want him here…”
“Of course it’s not your fault, nothing is your fault, dear,” the woman assured him. “Will you come with me now? He won’t be there…but you can find a new home.”
Yunho looked up. He met the woman’s squinty eyes smiling down at him, one of her chubby hands coming up to caress his cheek.
“The one inside your heart will always remain there,” she said lightly. “Come on now, lovely boy. Let’s get moving before you cease to exist. You look like you might vanish into thin air right in front of my eyes.”