Grey buildings. Blue, red, black cars swishing by. A couple holding hands. A girl eating a hamburger. The greasy smell invaded Changmin’s nostrils even though she had already disappeared into the crowd.
Changmin closed the window and sat down again on the hospital bed. His stomach grumbled. The sky was as grey as the buildings that surrounded the hospital.
“Hey,” Changmin replied without turning to look at Yunho. He could hear the soft noise of Yunho’s shoes hitting the floor as he walked to his side.
Changmin’s fingers pressed into his arm, into where the needle had been. The pain wasn’t much but it was sharp enough. Changmin finally met Yunho’s eyes and nodded.
Surprisingly Yunho looked away first and Changmin noticed the way Yunho’s lips were slightly pinched, the way his eyebrows were slightly furrowed.
Changmin felt his chest tighten. Yunho was probably disappointed and disgusted by him, with how weak he was behaving. But he didn’t know. He had no right to judge.
Changmin’s head felt light as anger coursed through his veins. He quickly stood up, grabbed his bag and the car keys out of Yunho’s hand as he brushed past him.
Changmin didn’t stop until he had reached their car and locked himself in it; the journalists blurred in the background as his mind repeatedly showed Yunho –not Yunho!– dying, his blood on Changmin’s hands.
A knock on the window snapped his mind back to the present. Yunho was standing outside, motioning for him to unlock the door. He did. Yunho sat down next to him, on the driver’s seat.
Surprisingly, Yunho just requested the keys, turned the motor and didn’t ask anything. The ride home was spent in silence. Changmin let the unfolding landscape lull him into sleep.
His voice wouldn’t come out but Yunho (Yunho? really?) was taking his clothes off. Even though he didn’t want to. If only he could shout, then maybe… The knife was digging into his neck but he felt no pain. Yunho’s mouth was moving.
“Changmin! Why did you kill me?”
He had not!
Blood was flowing down Yunho’s face.
He could feel the weight of a knife in his hands.
“Changmin! Wake up!”
Pain erupted from his head as Changmin woke up and his head collided with the car’s roof.
“Are you ok?”
Yunho stood outside the car, holding the door on Changmin’s side open. Changmin massaged his head, trying to lock eyes with Yunho. Yunho seemed to look at everything but him. He hadn’t said anything while sleeping, had he?
Changmin stepped out of the car, his hands tightening their hold on his bag, and brushed past Yunho.
He heard Yunho lock the car and follow him a few steps behind. He didn’t seem to make any effort to catch up so Changmin decided to take the stairs. He had climbed the first step when he heard Yunho speak from behind him.
“Changmin! You need to rest.”
Changmin stilled before replying: “It’s only two floors. You take the lift if you want.”
He put more strength into climbing the next step but his legs felt like cotton and when he arrived at the doorstep, his thighs were burning in a way that made it difficult to stand. He leaned on the wall just as Yunho –he had also taken the stairs after all– arrived.
Yunho threw him a worried look, his lips pursed, but he simply unlocked the door and held it open. Changmin strode in and, without removing his shoes, directly locked himself in his room.
He let his bag fall on the floor and kicked his shoes off, not caring where they fell, before letting himself slump onto the bed.
A few minutes later, there was a knock on the door.
“Changmin. Do you…” Changmin heard Yunho’s voice waver into nothingness. “Do you want to eat something?” Yunho continued with a firm voice.
Changmin stood upright, staring at the closed door.
“Changmin?” said Yunho. “I guess you’re sleeping,” he added before Changmin could make up a lie.
Changmin threw his pillow to the floor.
Changmin was pushing his cereals around as they swam in the skimmed milk, glancing at Yunho now and then. Yunho saw him and raised an eyebrow. Changmin’s throat suddenly felt dry.
“What did they tell you?”
Yunho placed his cup of coffee down onto the table. “They?”
Changmin took a gulp of fresh water. “At the hospital.”
Yunho looked at him with concerned eyes, clearly knowing too much. Changmin looked away.
“You’re not eating properly,” Yunho said.
Changmin looked at his soaked cereals.
“Is that so?” Changmin replied.
He lifted the spoon to his mouth. The cereals were too soaked to be tasty but he forced himself to chew. It was no big deal. He swallowed and looked at Yunho.
“I must have been stressed and skipped a few meals.”
“Changmin, that’s…” Yunho started, but interrupted himself with a sigh. “Anyway, I have a few activities planned today but you are to stay here and rest for a few days.”
“A few days… what does that mean? How long exactly?”
“I don’t know exactly.” Yunho took another sip from his cup, avoiding his eyes.
Changmin stared at him, daring him to lie again. Yunho sighed.
Changmin let his spoon fall in his bowl with a splatter. “Two weeks! That’s way too long!”
“That’s what the hospital recommended. They also said that you should…”
“That I should…?” Realisation dawned on Changmin’s face. “That I should go see a shrink.”
At Yunho’s wince, Changmin knew he was right. He could feel his cheeks heat and stood up abruptly. He made the mistake of looking at Yunho’s face again. His pleading face made his stomach turn and he felt bile rise to his throat.
An “I don’t fucking need to” tore away from him as he left the room. He pretended not to hear Yunho’s request to at least finish his meal.
It wasn’t until he heard the front door close behind Yunho that Changmin left his bed to go crash on the couch in the living room. He turned on the TV, surfing for a while, unable to settle on any channel.
Yunho was away. A meeting or whatever. He hadn’t told him any details. Anyway, he wasn’t really talkative these days. He kept avoiding him or, when he couldn’t, avoided looking at him.
Well, Changmin also avoided looking at himself in the mirror.
He had finally settled on a silly variety show when he heard the doorbell ring. He sighed, his body heavy. He flexed his feet but couldn’t find the strength to get up. He figured whoever was outside would grow tired of waiting and leave.
But they didn’t seem to give up if the banging on the door was any indication. Changmin grumbled but finally got up and slowly made his way to the door. He stopped in front of the door and leaned to peer through the peephole.
He jerked away.
Jaejoong was at the door.
Changmin took a deep breath. Why?
He looked again at the peephole. Jaejoong was looking at his watch. Changmin was startled when he suddenly looked up. It felt as if he was staring right at him.
Jaejoong lifted his hand to knock on the door once again. Changmin impulsively opened the door, leaving Jaejoong blinking back at him, one hand in the air.
“What the fuck are you doing here?”
“I…” Jaejoong lowered his hand. “I came to see how you were doing.”
“Well, you’ve seen me. I’m great. Goodbye.”
Changmin tried to close the door but Jaejoong was quicker this time and managed to block it with his right foot.
“I can clearly see you’re not well.”
Changmin scoffed but didn’t open the door. “It’s none of your business anyway.”
“Let’s not start with that, Changmin,” Jaejoong whispered, leaning towards the small opening. “You know I care.”
Changmin looked away.
“Let me in, will you?”
“I’d prefer not to. Anyway this is more comfortable, isn’t it?”
Changmin let his gaze fall back on Jaejoong and smirked while he leant on the door, applying more pressure onto Jaejoong’s foot.
Jaejoong’s face that had been pleading until then became blank. “If you weren’t skin and bones, this would probably hurt but…” He let his voice trail as he grabbed one of Changmin’s wrists.
Changmin jerked away, finally letting the door open, but Jaejoong’s grip on his wrist remained tight.
“See. You can’t even shake me off.”
Changmin pushed him away with all his strength, his face white as a ghost. Seeing Changmin’s overreaction, Jaejoong let go.
Changmin quickly pulled away, his back hitting the wall behind him. He was breathing heavily. One of his hands was gripping the front of his own shirt while the other rested on the wall, keeping him steady.
“Changmin, you’ve got to eat.” Changmin didn’t seem to be listening but Jaejoong went on, “I’m really sorry if this is about our… separation,” Jaejoong said, a pleading look directed at him. “You have to move on. Seek help.”
Changmin let a nervous laugh escape. “You think this is about the group? About you?”
Changmin’s eyebrows furrowed, his lips tensed. “You! You! You! Not everything is about you three! It hasn’t been for a long time so you can go and die for all I care.”
Jaejoong stood frozen, his mouth agape. Changmin looked away and his gaze fell on his keys.
“Die?” Jaejoong’s voice wavered. “Do you hear yourself when you talk? Who is the one who is behaving like a brat? Don’t you see you’re hurting the people around you?”
“That’s rich coming from you. As if you ever cared about hurting others.” Changmin grabbed his keys.
“If you are finished - which you are, I assure you - leave.” He could feel the sharp end of a key digging into the palm of his hand.
“If it’s not us…” Changmin scowled further at the word, “then what’s wrong? What can we do? What can I do?”
“You can leave me alone.”
“Changmin…” Jaejoong took a few steps towards him.
“Leave.” Changmin’s arm came up to point at the door.
Jaejoong grabbed Changmin’s wrist again to lower his arm.
“Let me go!” Changmin shouted.
Without thinking, he brought his other hand up towards Jaejoong. Jaejoong let him go and his hand flew to his cheek. When it came down, he saw red. A cut ran down Jaejoong’s face.
Changmin stumbled back and looked at the bloody keys he was now holding. He looked back at Jaejoong’s bloody cheek.
Jaejoong looked at Changmin with wide eyes. “I think… I think I’ll just go.”
Changmin nodded. Jaejoong walked past him, making a point to preserve their personal space. He stopped on the door’s threshold. “Take care,” he added before leaving.
The key was digging into Changmin’s palm again but this time it bit into the skin and Changmin could feel blood warming his palm. He looked at it. Blood. Jaejoong had bled.
Someone with a fake face wouldn’t bleed, would they? But it didn’t work like that, he knew. Her face hadn’t been a fake one. It had been real in a way. Warm to the touch.
How could he ever trust his own eyes again? If she had been able to change form, others could too. He could trust no one. Not even himself. He had hurt Jaejoong. He had killed her.
The realisation of all of that settled heavily on his stomach. He fled.
At the store he grabbed all the junk food he could: instant noodles, chocolate, crisps, jam doughnuts…
The cashier kept stealing glances at him. Changmin readjusted his cap and put money on the till.
“You can keep the change.”
He forced himself not to run as he climbed the stairs to their flat. Yunho wasn’t home. It made things easier but right now he didn’t care much if Yunho discovered his new habit, did he?
While he boiled water, he opened a bag of crisps and shoved some of them into his mouth. The saltiness and greasiness made him feel guilty. He poured the water onto the noodles. He ate the whole bag of crisps while waiting for the noodles to be done.
They were ready. Still standing at the kitchen counter, he stirred them and started eating. The noodles were burning his tongue but that didn’t prevent him from finishing them quickly. Next were doughnuts.
His stomach felt painfully full. He had to finish everything right now though so the chocolate was also eaten.
He slid to the floor until he was lying down, the tiles cool against his face. He pressed a hand to his stomach. It hurt. He stayed a few seconds like that before standing up again.
The sight of the empty packages made his skin crawl. With one movement everything was on the floor. All of this was a mess.
He quickly walked to the bathroom and locked himself in.
He went straight to the toilet bowl and lifted its seat. He stared at the clear water. If there was one thing Yunho hated, it was having their bathroom dirty. Changmin wished it was dirty. It made it easier.
His hand hovered towards his face for a few seconds but his hesitation didn’t last long.
He bowed down, two fingers deep in his throat. Each time he had to plunge them deeper, pressing them to the back of his tongue and making them slide further into his throat. It was easier when everything came up with force, burning his chest and throat.
His left hand pressed on his left ear because of the multiple ear infections he had had this year.
It felt as if the half-digested food would come up into it instead of falling into the water. Some of it splashed his face.
He looked at the gruesome mix of food he had frantically eaten not that long ago. He was as disgusting as those lumps of half-chewed noodles.
His fingers went further and he retched again and again until there was nothing left and he dry heaved.
He flushed the toilet. Twice. It shined cleanly again. He sighed. The emptiness of his stomach made him feel peaceful.
He looked at himself in the mirror. His eyes were red and wet, tears rolling down from the strain. A red angry mark had appeared down from the left corner of his lips. He didn’t know from where it came –only two fingers went down his throat, his index and middle finger, maybe the others pushed against his skin near his mouth, he wasn’t sure– anyway he felt lighter.
He washed his hands carefully. It seemed like his fingers would always smell of vomit nowadays, despite the flower-scented soap. He washed his hands again but still. He splashed water on his face and dried the drops and tears on a towel.
He swallowed, trying to make the lump at the back of his throat disappear. He took a sip of water and made it go around his mouth before spitting it out. He drank the second sip while he took out his toothbrush and laid a generous portion of toothpaste on it. That would get rid of the taste.
He brushed –scrubbed– his teeth. The only thing white about him. He spat the toothpaste. It hit the sink and he saw tiny bits of food mixed with the red that always clung to his mouth.
He passed his tongue on his upper teeth and was rewarded by a metallic taste. He looked at the mirror and smiled. His gum was bleeding a bit.
A knock on the bathroom door started him, making him drop his toothbrush into the sink.
“Changmin, are you there?”… Why is the kitchen in such a mess? Changmin, answer me. Are you alright? Changmin dumbly looked on as the door handle shook. “Changmin answer me!”
Changmin abruptly opened the door, nearly colliding into Yunho. Yunho quickly took a few steps back.
“I’m fine, gosh.” At Yunho’s skeptical face, Changmin added, “what? Did you think I would do something stupid while you weren’t there?”
Yunho shifted back, looking away.
Changmin inhaled sharply. “You did?!”
Anger stirred in his chest when he saw Yunho’s guilty look. Never mind that he had actually been doing some pretty stupid stuff.
He wanted to hurt Yunho for doubting him, for treating him like a broken soul but Jaejoong’s hurt face flashed in his mind. He relaxed the hand that had been tensed into a tight fist –he hadn’t realised he had been raising it– and took a deep breath.
It was hidden in the kitchen, since Changmin figured that Yunho thought that was the last place Changmin would find something. He wasn’t wrong in a way.
The truth, it had said. It could be anything, Changmin reminded himself as he inserted the CD into his laptop. A video file was on it. Or it could be exactly what he thought it could be. Changmin clicked on it and pressed play.
He only needed to see a few seconds of that storage room, even though it was grainy and in black and white, to recognise it.
He shakily pressed stop. Yunho knew. Worse. Yunho had seen.
But he had no time to process this new piece of information as the door of his room was yanked open. He met Yunho’s panicked eyes. He saw how Yunho’s gaze fell on the screen, a look of recognition crossing his face, to flicker uncertainly back to Changmin.
Changmin looked at him, waiting. He felt confused. He felt exposed. He had no idea how he was supposed to feel or to react. Be angry? Ashamed? Afraid? He could feel tears gathering in his eyes.
“Changmin… It’s ok,” said Yunho while taking a few steps forward.
Changmin got up, his chair falling onto the floor with a loud thump.
“How can it be ok?” Changmin looked away before muttering: “How can it be ever ok again?”
“I can… I can leave you alone if I remind you… if it’s too painful for you.”
Changmin felt dizzy. “What are you saying?! Don’t you dare run away!”
“I’m not. But I understand how difficult it must be to see me without being reminded.”
Yunho was going to leave him too.
“Don’t tell me you understand! Have you ever had sex with a guy?”
“But that wasn’t sex, Changmin.”
Changmin laughed dryly.
“Then what was it? Cooking?”
He heard Yunho sigh. “It was rape.”
Changmin blinked quickly as he felt tears threaten to spill. Yunho’s face fell.
“Ah! I didn’t mean to be so blunt but…”
“But I didn’t give you a choice.” Changmin’s tears were now flowing freely on his cheeks.
Suddenly he was engulfed into a warm hug. He could feel himself relax slowly into the embrace, his tears soaking Yunho’s shirt.
Among all the emotions that were overwhelming him, the strongest one was relief.
They stayed like that for a while until Yunho made them sit on Changmin’s bed. Yunho waited for Changmin to speak.
“It’s not that bad,” Changmin said.
“And yet you…” Yunho bit his lower lip, “This shouldn’t have been covered up… Something that can change its shape, it’s…”
“You can’t do anything about it. They threatened me.”
“You don’t need to know. I’m fine. I don’t need you to go and play the hero. I need you here.” Changmin gripped his arm.
Yunho looked at him in surprise.
“Don’t you dare leave me.”
Yunho smiled before ruffling Changmin’s hair.
Yunho had been waiting at this café for more than twenty minutes. He was starting to feel impatient.
After the CD, he had received a card naming a time and meeting place with the accompanying sentence if you want the truth.
It had been suspicious but seeing Changmin’s devastated expression had fuelled his motivation. He had to get to the bottom of this. Which is why he was sitting at a table in a corner of a coffee shop, wearing a cap and sunglasses, waiting for answers.
His answers sat down heavily on the opposite seat, breaking his train of thought. She smiled at him and slid a business card on the table. It took him a moment to detach his gaze from the young and pretty face to take the card.
Kim Yoon Hee, it said. Reporter. This was definitely not what he had expected.
She pushed her long black hair behind her ear before she started speaking. Yunho couldn’t help but notice the bruises on her thin wrist.
“Let’s not dance around the matter at hand, Yunho,” she paused. “Can I call Yunho? You can call me Yoon Hee.”
Yunho nodded. Yoon Hee took out a folder out her brown leather bag and let it fall on the table.
“This is all the information I’ve gathered about them.”
“The spec users.” At Yunho’s blank look, she went on, “Changmin’s attacker was a spec user, that is, someone who has a special ability.”
“You used the plural. There are more of them?”
Yoon Hee scoffed. “You thought it was a unique freak accident? There are many of them with very different abilities. Changmin’s attack was a shape-shifter. She could change her body shape to become whoever she wanted but some other spec users can stop time or,” she looked away, “read your thoughts.”
Yunho looked down his cup of coffee. Somehow this was difficult to process for him, even though he had seen the footage with his very own eyes.
Yoon Hee shifted nervously in her seat. “I don’t have time for this. They nearly found me out…” She caught Yunho’s gaze on her right wrist and hid it underneath the table. “I’ve got to act soon or this could go very wrong.”
“But what’s your motivation? Why are you doing all of this?”
“It’s a reporter’s duty to find—“
“Cut the crap.” Yoon Hee’s smile tensed. “I need a real reason if I’m to be in this.”
Yoon Hee leaned forward, resting her elbow on the table, and propped her head on her left hand. “Let’s say I lost something—”
She smiled tiredly at him. “Someone. I lost someone precious and I want revenge.” Her smile turned dangerous.
Yunho leaned away from the table, his back resting on the back of his seat. “Even then, why are you involving me?”
“Haven’t you lost something precious too? Furthermore, you’re famous and Changmin’s case was heavily covered by the media. This makes things easier.”
“In what way?”
“If we get caught.”
Yunho stayed silent.
“In the worst case scenario, people would start making the connection or, at the very least, they would start paying attention.” She straightened and lifted the folder.
“My plan is all laid out in this folder,” she shook it, “but to sum it up, the main point is that we infiltrate their main lab, collect evidence and reveal everything to the public.”
She let it sink before adding: “If you want in, I have to know now.”
“Lab? Infiltrate? Isn’t that a job for the police?”
“It is. Except the police is in on it, as is the government. We’re all alone.” She slid the folder close to Yunho and crossed her arms on her chest. “In or not?”
“I…” Yunho’s gaze fell on her wrist again and it reminded him of Changmin’s bruised neck and his now incredibly thin limbs. He sighed. “In.”
end of the first part. On to part 3.2.