Warning: character death
World War I gives Yunho a whole new perspective about life.
Can You Hear MeAutumn 1907
It’s getting cold.
Everything usually starts to wilt at the beginning of October. Trees and flowers; it’s a battle of who can survive the longest. Leaves cling on until the last moment, even with the last bit of strength they hang, refusing to fall.
But they do, anyway.
Everything falls, eventually.
Yunho hates school.
There aren’t many things that appeal to him, actually. He despises the cement floors, the hard stiff chairs, the desks covered with indecipherable carvings from the previous students who had been just as bored as him.
But there’s one thing that bothers him the most.
Not a thing, a boy.
Goodness, he is revolting.
First of all, he is too pretty. Too pretty to be a boy, much less a man when he grows up.
Second, he is too dainty. He is quiet, reserved. You can call him shy. Easily scared. Jumps and screeches whenever someone taps him on the shoulder.
And third, he is gay.
It’s not exactly a secret. The whole class knows by the way Jaejoong follows him around like a puppy. As much as Yunho tries to avoid him, the kid clings on like a piece of frayed linen on clothes.
The world’s dark, and all seems to be Jaejoong’s fault.
Yunho then thinks it’s his responsibility to make the world a better place. Humiliating Kim Jaejoong became a sport. He and some other boys would surround him, the way lions do during a hunt, and Jaejoong’s the little deer, their prey.
The highlights of Yunho’s day has always been recess and lunch time, because then he can pick on the reason why the world is such a miserable place. They make him wear skirts and dance. Tie his should-length black hair into pigtails. Hide his pants during gym class.
Kim Jaejoong doesn’t mutter a word. He seems apathetic, or tries to appear to be. His lips tremble slightly and his hands clench into fists. He sinks back against the wall they force him up against, trying to be a part of the grey background.
But he doesn’t protest. He does everything they want in silence so that their laughter can be heard. But as he does it he stares at Yunho, his eyes seems like the color of ebony. Jet black because it’s filled words he swallows back. All the things he wants to say, but can’t.
Yunho doesn’t meet his eyes. It reminds him of dried wells. Dark, deep, endless. He can’t risk looking. He might topple over the edge, and fall.
All of them are twelve years old.
It’s getting cold.
There are too many women on the streets, lifting their skirts and crowding over one another to wave get a better look. Some wave, some blow kisses. Some stand, silent, on the side, their eyes solemn.
Yunho’s father gives him a gun. All soldiers are required to carry their own weapons.
His mother is one of those who are silent. She stares at him, lifts a hand and caresses his face. She squeezes his arms, as if trying to take off a piece of him so she can put it in a jar for safekeeping.
“Fight well,” she finally says.
Yunho leaves without a word. He doesn’t say goodbye because it isn’t goodbye. He’ll be back in a few months, victorious and a hero. It’s the war to end all wars. They’re going to make history.
He follows the lines of soldiers marching out. Somewhere in the crowd, he spots a familiar dark head. The hair’s short just like his, but somehow Yunho just recognizes it. The head turns, it’s Kim Jaejoong. Yunho ducks and makes conversation with a stranger beside him. When he looks up again, he hopes Jaejoong will be gone. But instead he meets his eyes. It’s still deep and dark. Yunho can feel himself losing grip on the edge of the well. He looks away before he plunges.
They are placed into different divisions. Yunho can’t be more thankful.
It’s getting cold.
The war still hasn’t ended. They’re losing too many soldiers. Yunho’s been hearing horror stories. He hasn’t even been to the front yet. He writes many letters to his family. He doesn’t bother telling them about the conditions, about the rain and mud and his feet which are rotting inside his boots.
He hasn’t even been to the front yet.
Their captain bursts in that night.
“We’re needed at the front,” he says. The last team had been wiped out clean.
It’s chlorine gas, their captain adds. His pupils are blown. Yunho tastes his fear.
That night he writes one more letter. At the end, he doesn’t sign his name. Instead, he puts: Long Live.
He can’t see. There is mud on the top of his eyelid from his fall earlier. It’s dry now and caked across his eyelashes. He had tripped over someone, planting his hands square on his face.
“Sorry,” he mutters. The soldier beneath him doesn’t say anything. He is dead.
His boots sink knee high into the mud. One wrong step, he’ll drown.
After a few hours of walking—swimming, actually—Yunho’s captain tell them to stop.
“We’ll stay here for the night,” he orders.
Here? Yunho looks around. There are rats crawling over their dead comrades, some flesh has been chewed out. The smell of rotting corpses is everywhere.
“Hey,” says a breathless voice next to him.
Yunho turns, startled, and nearly trips over another dead body in shock.
It’s Kim Jaejoong.
“What—“ Yunho struggles for word. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Jaejoong looks horrible. His clothes are hanging off his figure like rags. His white skin is now grey because of the dirt and mud. His lips are blood red. Yunho avoid his eyes.
“I got transferred,” he breathes. They’re pressed together too close.
Just my luck.
“Don’t talk to me,” Yunho snarls, and curls up on his side, searching for sleep.
But it doesn’t come. Instead, Kim Jaejoong sits next to him and happily tells him about stars. They’re bright. Yunho doesn’t respond, but he sees them. They shine with so much effort, he thinks. Yet despite that, the battlefield remains dark.
He falls asleep to Jaejoong’s voice. It’s surprisingly soothing.
The chlorine gas sneaks upon them silently like snakes, slithering through the trenches.
Yunho wakes to someone shaking him violently.
“Yunho, Yunho, Yunho.”
“WHAT,” he shouts, and immediately chokes.
“Chlorine gas,” Jaejoong sounds panicked. His eyes were wider than usually, taking up almost half of his face.
Fear sets in, they have seconds to live. He can’t see any other comrades, most are still sleeping.
A gas mask is set over his face. Yunho turns to see Jaejoong putting on his own.
“Where did you get this?” He demands. They aren’t distributed gas masks.
But Jaejoong just shakes his head, “Lie down!” He shouts, his breath fogs up the mask.
“What about the others,” Yunho says. “We need to warn them.”
“I’ll do it,” Jaejoong says, getting up.
“You’ll be shot!” Yunho yells after him. Jaejoong lowers himself onto the ground and starts to crawl.
Yunho lies on his back and closes his eyes. He doesn’t let himself think. Thinking is dangerous in this case. He merely prays. His heart is thumping in his chest, beating a grave rhythm.
The call of battle.
He lies there for hours in rain. There are no sounds. Carefully, he opens his eyes, he doesn’t dare to sit up.
“Yunho,” someone hissed. He lifts his head up the tiniest bit. It is Jaejoong. His gas mask is off. Jaejoong grins at him, his white teeth flashing between his blood red lips. He can see most of their comrades sprawled on their back, their faces covered with ripped clothes covered with urine. Half are alive.
Unable to help himself, Yunho smiles back.
Two nights later he and Jaejoong are sitting side by side.
“How did you know there was going to be a gas attack?” Yunho asks him.
“I wasn’t asleep,” Jaejoong says curtly. “That’s Cassiopeia,” Jaejoong points. Yunho sees a sideways W.
“You like stars,” he says.
Jaejoong nods, “Back in the old times, the Greeks believed all heroes became stars in the sky. All those who died for bravery and battle, they can shine forever.”
Yunho purses his lips, “Do you believe that?”
Jaejoong nods, “Why not.”
“But it’s a myth.”
He turns to Yunho and smiles, “But it’s good to believe something, isn’t it? Without believing you’d be floating around like a spirit in this world. It’s better to believe so you can have something to hold onto.”
Yunho still can’t meet his eyes, “Is that what you do?”
“Yes,” Jaejoong’s voice is barely audible. “Not something, someone.”
Jaejoong sighs, dropping the subject. He pats Yunho on the shoulder, and turn away onto his side.
“Just promise me one thing,” he whispers.
Yunho lowers his head, “What.”
“Don’t die alone. It’s sad to die alone. You need find someone to preserve you, even after your body rots.”
Yunho stares at his back, thin and frail in all the drenched army green.
“DON’T RUN. I SAID DON’T RUN. ARE YOU A MORON?!”
Yunho screams curses as his comrade is shot. The man yells and falls, twitching in the mud. Without thinking Yunho hosts himself up onto no man’s land and starts crawling.
“Yunho!” He hears Jaejoong shout. “Come back, don’t be stupid!”
But he doesn’t listen. Halfway toward the soldier, guns start to fire. He presses himself flat onto the ground and squeezes his eyes shut. He can’t move.
Something grabs his ankle; he is dragged backwards by a strong grip. He doesn’t dare to look. Bullets fly past him, on top of him. He is so sure he is dead.
But he is pulled to the edge of the trench and lowered down. Yunho turns and see Jaejoong, somehow unscathed but breathing hard.
“Don’t do that,” Jaejoong growls. It’s the first time he has ever spoken to Yunho that way. “That was the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Yunho gasps for breath. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knows that comrade is dead.
“You can’t save people like that, Yunho,” Jaejoong grabs his shoulders. “You don’t risk your life for someone like that!”
Yunho’s temper flares, “You did that! For me! Twice!”
“THAT’S BECAUSE I LOVE YOU.”
Yunho’s heart stops. He hasn’t even been shot.
Jaejoong releases him, “Can you hear me? I love you, since we were in first grade. I never got to talk to you because when I speak my words are invisible. And now we’re at war and I finally get to talk to you, and we can actually have a conversation and talk about stars and life and stuff,” he draws in a breath. “You can’t die. You can finally hear me, so you can’t die now.”
Yunho is silent. He is too stunned to speak. Out of panic he lifts his gaze, and meets Jaejoong’s eyes. They’re dark and deep. The dried well.
Yunho topples over the edge and falls.
That night, they sit side by side, looking up at the stars.
“Isn’t Hercules a constellation,” Yunho says. Their elbows are touching at the tips, the connection feels more intimate than an embrace.
“Yeah, he was a hero, too.”
“I think I see him,” Yunho points up and for some ridiculous reason, he waves.
Jaejoong follows his hand and smiles.
The battlefield seemed less dark.
It’s getting cold.
They have only a few soldiers left standing. Most are dead, a few are injured and waiting for death.
Miraculously, Yunho is still on his feet. It’s because of Jaejoong, who also is uninjured by some miracle.
Some days before, the station they stayed at collapsed because of shelling. It was the first shelter they’ve had for months, so everyone slept like the dead.
Until the ceiling shook and came down upon them.
Yunho found himself trapped under the roof. He looked to his left and saw a soldier.
“Hey,” he said. “Help me lift this thing.”
The soldier didn’t answer. Yunho opened his mouth to yell, but he saw that the man was dead. His skull had been crushed.
He shouted for help, no one answered.
The weight on his chest was starting to get painful. Yunho took deep breathes. If he died like this, he would never been able to forgive himself. Yunho tried to push, but nothing budged. He shouted again for survivors, and was met with silence.
Suddenly, he hears sounds of digging, someone was calling for him.
“Yunho,” it was Jaejoong. “Yunho!”
“Here,” he croaked. His lungs could barely get enough air, “Here.”
“Just stay put, I’m going to get you out, okay?”
Yunho didn’t reply, it took too much effort. Stars were dancing before his eyes.
“I’m going to get you out Yunho!” He heard Jaejoong yell, his voice desperate. “Can you hear me? I’m going to save you.”
“Yes,” Yunho whispered, he had no strength to shout back. “Yes, I hear you.”
Just as black lined his vision, hands grasped his and pulled. The weight was lifted off his chest and he could breathe again. The air was filled with dust and made his throat scratch, but it was unbelievably sweet.
Jaejoong was gasping; there were tears on his cheeks. Yunho couldn’t believe he was crying.
“Jaejoong,” he didn’t know whether to smile or cry with him.
He had before thought it was awkward for men to embrace, but when Jaejoong threw himself into his arms, Yunho held on tightly.
Their captain shoots himself on an early winter morning.
The night before, he had been catching rats and gutting them before the soldiers.
“Look at its tiny claws move,” he had said calmly. He had the rate by its hind feet. “It’s so desperate to live, just like the rest of us.”
Yunho didn’t dare to say a word. He didn’t think it’d be safe.
“But too bad,” he cooed to the rodent. “You don’t get to. You die with all of us.”
With that, he crushed its skull under his foot.
Beside him, Jaejoong threw up. Soldiers backed away. Their captain looked pleased with himself.
Yunho took Jaejoong’s hand and walked out further in the trench, until they were far from the rest. He sat down and shut his eyes.
“Jaejoong,” he said. “I can’t do this.”
Beside him, Jaejoong’s breath smelled of vomit, “You have to, Yunho.”
They stayed silent. Words were a luxury at this point.
“You have to live,” Jaejoong suddenly piped up.
“You too,” Yunho replied.
“No, Yunho,” Jaejoong grabbed his hand. Their palms met, and fingers intertwined. “You will live. Do you hear me?”
Yunho stared at their clasped hands, then at Jaejoong. He met his eyes.
“Yeah, I do.”
Victory is announced.
Yunho can’t believe his ears. What is said to be a war that will last a few months ended up dragging on for four years. Now that it is over, Yunho finds it a little surreal.
Because of Jaejoong.
He has saved him too many times.
The boy whom he made fun of, the life he brought misery to, has saved his countlessly.
Yunho doesn’t know what to say.
They are in the infirmary. Jaejoong is still uninjured. Yunho has a broken ankle. There are chatter, groans, and doctors shouting instructions at each other. There’s talk of the victory.
Jaejoong sits by his side, he isn’t talking. He’s simply staring at Yunho, like how he did when he was surrounded by Yunho’s gang as a twelve year old. His eyes are still ebony black, but Yunho isn’t scared to look into them anymore. Instead, in there is his comfort.
“Jaejoong,” Yunho wants to say something. But after all they have been through, all words seem like understatements.
“It’s over,” he settles for the obvious.
Jaejoong smiles. His smile is beautiful. How have Yunho not noticed before?
“Yes, you get to go home.”
Yunho smiles back, “You too.”
Jaejoong lifts a hand, and hesitates. There are too many people. Yunho reaches out and tuck’s both their hands under his blanket. Beneath the sheet, their fingers lock together. Jaejoong eyes gaze at him. Yunho continues to fall. He hasn’t hit the bottom yet.
Yunho wakes up. Jaejoong isn’t by his side.
He sits up, looks around. Everyone is there, the nurses, the patients. No Jaejoong.
He waits for a bit, then gestures for a young nurse.
“Kim Jaejoong, he was with me in the last returning division, the soldier who was sitting beside me everyday.”
She shakes her head and walks away.
Yunho bites his lip. He gets out of bed on his crutches and wanders around the infirmary. He asks for Jaejoong, but they look at him as if he is mad.
He comes to a stop at a lieutenant’s bed. The man has lost an arm. He stares up at Yunho, his expression inscrutable.
“Kim Jaejoong? I know him, that pretty young lad,” the lieutenant tells him. “He was with one of the first divisions to head to the front lines. All of them were killed. No survivors.”
It’s getting warm.
Everything usually starts to grow at the beginning of March. Trees and flowers; it’s a competition to see who can sprout the fastest. Petals and leaflets bloom wild and beautiful. On the battlefield, there are poppies flooding the ground, as if wanting to drown the earth with their startling red peddles. It grows beside the dead bodies and graves.
It’s new life.
Jaejoong wasn’t given a burial place. No one in his division did. Death snuck upon them too quick for time to grasp.
Yunho makes a cross himself. He walks back out amidst the blooming flowers. But that’s not where he sets it. Instead, he finds a clear patch of mud, where a few poppies are just start to sprout.
There, he plants the cross down nice and deep. Like a flag. Onto it he carves
In memory of Kim Jaejoong
Then, Yunho sits down. He tells Jaejoong about the stars, about life, and stuff. Sometimes, Jaejoong talks back. Really.
Yunho can hear him.