glitterburn: (TVXQ: Changmin creeping on Yunho)
[personal profile] glitterburn
Title: Naufragis
Fandom: Paradise Ranch/Poseidon crossover
Pairing: Han Dongjoo/Kang Eunchul
Rating: R
Summary: All his life, Dongjoo has thought of himself as a failure. Until he meets Eunchul, who teaches him there's no worth in regrets.
Notes: For the prompt 'two worlds collide' in [livejournal.com profile] diagon's Twelve Months of HoMin challenge. naufragis is Latin; it literally means ‘shipwrecks’ and thence poetically ‘men who've suffered ruin’.


Naufragis

Dongjoo joins the army to forget.

It’s his duty, too; the duty of every reasonably healthy, reasonably sane man between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. He feels neither sane nor healthy when he presents his papers. It’s duty that’ll get him through the next two years. He hopes that duty will subsume the losses he carries with him.

An NCO directs him to a hut on the other side of the parade ground. He queues with a few dozen other recruits and receives his fatigues in exchange for his street clothes. He goes into the changing rooms and takes off each garment, stripping away the layers of his old life. No more designer jeans. No more cashmere jumpers. No more luxurious cotton shirts. No more lie-ins and expensive meals, no more comfortable bedding, of being able to loaf around all day watching television. No more privacy.

No more Daji.

This thought still hurts the most, even though Daji hasn’t been part of his life for five months.

He folds his clothes into a neat pile, ready to package them up to send home. Mothers are supposed to weep over their son’s clothes when they receive them, but for all her sentimentality and affection, Dongjoo knows his mother won’t cry for him.

He puts on his army fatigues. The cloth is olive drab, stiff and cool. The fabric chafes between his legs. Maybe if he washes it, the cloth will soften. He doesn’t know how to use a washing machine. He supposes he’ll just have to learn.

The changing room is silent except for the sound of zippers and fasteners and the curdled breathing of men. Everyone avoids looking at their neighbour, as if overtures of friendship aren’t allowed. Everyone is trapped inside their own skin, even as their outward shell becomes the same.

Dongjoo finds this comforting. This place will serve him as well as he serves it. He thinks he’s the only man here to have joined the army because of a broken heart.

He’s wrong.

* * *

He’d announced his decision ten days ago. He’d sat on the sitting room couch in meditative pose, his back straight, his chin slightly dipped so he was aware of his breathing, and he’d closed his eyes and mapped out his future. Bravely, as befitting a soldier; cleverly, as befitting the heir to a business empire. In those twenty-six minutes of meditation, Dongjoo put aside his childish dreams of Daji and his silly belief in romance and happily ever after, and decided to be a man.

When his parents and grandfather came in, he’d opened his eyes and told them he was ready to do his army service.

None of them reacted the way he’d expected. His father’s response was perhaps only two shades away from normal. Instead of blustering and waving his arms and turning red in the face, his father blinked, silent for a moment, then said, “I have contacts. Favours I can call in. We’ll get you a level four position in the city. A nice desk job. Your mother will appreciate that.”

His mother had shot her husband a look of scorn. “I do not appreciate your inference that our son is a coward.”

But I am a coward, Dongjoo wanted to tell her, but his tongue felt stuck to the roof of his mouth, and his throat was dry and his palms damp as they discussed him as if he weren’t there.

“You want him to go to the front line? Is that how you show your anger towards me now?” His father turned, cutting Dongjoo out of the discussion they hadn’t been having. He faced his wife, gestures tight even as words spun out of him. “You want my son to come back maimed, with a leg blown off from a landmine’s blast like the Song’s boy? Do you hate me that much that you’ll do this to my only child?”

“Dongjoo is my only child,” his mother said with quiet dignity. “But perhaps you have another elsewhere.”

Dongjoo uncrossed his legs, pins and needles white-hot in his feet when he set them on the floor. A small pain that would swiftly be gone, unlike this long, endless attrition of a sniper’s war between his parents.

“I have made my decision,” he said, rising to his full height, trying to look calm despite the stabbing discomfort of the cramp.

His grandfather stood gazing at the bonsai, an elegant Japanese pine, displayed on the table at the head of the room. It was his habit to talk to the tree each day, to check its sprouting growths and to test the moisture in the moss that covered its twisted roots. He allowed no one—not even Dongjoo—to touch the tree, lest clumsy prodding result in fallen needles and bare branches.

Now he stared at the bonsai, seemingly lost in contemplation while his son and daughter-in-law trod the well-worn paths of argument and while Dongjoo looked at him for guidance.

“In ancient times,” his grandfather said at last, talking over the bickering, “a man would join the army for one of two reasons.”

“Patriotism,” Dongjoo said.

His grandfather smiled, but kept his gaze on the pine tree. “No. That was always given as a spurious reason. It was an excuse, but it was not the cause.”

“Money,” his father said.

Again his grandfather smiled. “Only a man of infinite foolishness would join the army in search of wealth.”

Dongjoo lowered his head to hide his expression. He shouldn’t be amused by his grandfather’s continual digs at his father. Daji had once said his family was toxic: his grandfather belittling his father, his father belittling his son, his father betraying his mother; but he hadn’t agreed.

“They all love me,” he’d said, because they did. His mother doted on him, his grandfather spoilt him, and if his father put him down, why, that didn’t matter because his father was a fool, and fools showed affection in peculiar ways—like coming to his room drunk late at night and patting his head, clumsily, and whispering, “My son, my precious son.”

Daji had wrinkled her nose. “I wish your father was more like mine.”

“Constantly worried?” Dongjoo had asked, raising his eyebrows. “Leaving his daughters to fend for themselves while he scrapes at others’ feet to support you?”

“At least he understands the importance of family,” she’d argued, and then, because he hadn’t known how to respond, he’d huffed and looked angry, and she’d backed off and giggled, and nothing had been resolved.

The same way nothing was resolved now, even though his decision had already been taken.

His mother crossed the sunken floor space and stepped up beside the bonsai. Her gaze was calm and peaceful, resting first on Dongjoo, then on her father-in-law. “Men joined the army to escape from a situation.”

His grandfather nodded, pleased with her answer. “Exactly.”

“You said there were two reasons,” Dongjoo said. “What’s the other?”

“They are one and the same,” his grandfather said. “Two sides of the same coin. A man voluntarily joins the army because he has nothing left. He’s driven to it by an absence of emotion. Another man joins the army because he has an excess of emotion. Both of them are running away, although they’ll be lauded for their courage. Both of them expect to find something, even if it’s nothing.”

He fixes Dongjoo with his gaze, old and weary and sad but also full of hope. “Know which one you are, Dongjoo, and this will be the most valuable experience of your life.”

“What if I don’t know?” Dongjoo asked, although he thought he did.

His grandfather smiled. “Don’t shut yourself off from possibility. You have not yet learned everything.”

* * *

Basic training is well named. They’re taught to march, to climb ropes and drag a pack twice their weight; they’re expected to run five miles in full kit without collapsing. They learn how to phrase their complaints and miseries in gruff remarks and crude jokes, and they learn that the old-timers are telling the truth when they advise the raw recruits to piss in their boots and let it stand overnight to soften the leather. They’re taught to handle a firearm, and gimlet-eyed instructors grade their every movement and scream at them rather than offering words of praise.

Dongjoo expected it to be tough, but it’s not. Even though he’s never lifted anything heavier than his suitcase, he finds himself falling into the rhythm of the physical exercise. He doesn’t have to think when he’s running, when he’s climbing, when he’s crawling through the mud, and though he needs to think when he goes for firearms training, it’s a mechanical process, not creative.

He’d come into the army believing he had an excess of emotion. Now he reconsiders.

The social aspect of his new life troubles him. He’s a model soldier on the field, but in the billets he’s quiet and reserved. He tells himself there’s no point in making friends here. Basic training lasts a matter of weeks before the recruits are shipped out to complete the rest of their service in specialist units or on bases elsewhere. It’s common sense that stops him from forming friendly attachments now.

Except Dongjoo knows it has nothing to do with that. It’s shyness, and perhaps it’s pride, but most of all it’s self-consciousness.

He’s not the richest of the recruits. Amongst their number is the son of a billionaire, who hides behind his father’s wealth and influence and refuses to do any of the tasks assigned to him. The instructors take a dim view of this. They don’t seem intimidated when the boy shouts that his father will have them all sent to the front line, dismissed without their pensions, or sued through every court in Korea. They simply laugh and carry him out of the hut after lights out. The next thing Dongjoo and his hut-mates know, the boy has been downgraded to a level three due to health reasons.

There’s also an idol actor living amongst them. Dongjoo recognises him from the dramas Daeun watched. Back then, Daji had said the actor was too pretty—“How can a flower boy survive growing up? Better for a man to be handsome,” and he’d said, “But you call me your flower boy,” and she’d laughed—but to everyone’s surprise, the actor proves himself more than competent.

“They all think I’m weak, so I have to be strong,” the actor tells Dongjoo after they’ve completed a training exercise, the only two in their squad to have beaten the record set by a previous batch of recruits. “It’s all fake, though. I just want to go home.”

Dongjoo ponders on this. Like the actor, he’s hiding his weakness, but he doesn’t want to go home. He’s failed as a husband and he’s failed as a son. He can’t go back until he can regain the face he’s lost, but he doesn’t know what he wants and he doesn’t know how to get it.

* * *

He’s sent to Busan. Only three others from his squad go with him, and he loses sight of them as they’re packed onto the military transports that’ll drive them the length and breadth of the country. It feels like they’re going to the ends of the earth. Dongjoo has been away from Seoul before. He’s been to Australia and Fiji and Japan and America on holiday, but none of those places seemed as far away as Busan.

He relaxes a little when one of the other soldiers, Hyuksu, tells him that Busan is considered an easy posting. “Sun, sea, and sex,” Hyuksu says with a laugh. “Better than freezing your bollocks off up a mountain in the north or fiddling with missile systems in the east. Biggest challenge in Busan is finding a way off the base so you can go on the pull. Place is crawling with pussy and cheap bars. Russian girls everywhere looking for a good time.”

His words are greeted with ragged cheers from the rest of the men clustered inside the truck. Dongjoo forces a smile. Maybe a Russian girl will help him get over Daji.

Turns out that most of the Russian girls are prostitutes. Busan is the entry point for many of the country’s most lucrative trade deals—drugs, guns, and human trafficking. The army base is there as a symbol of force and power, a deterrent against the smugglers and drug dealers.

It seems a rather emasculated symbol, in Dongjoo’s opinion. There’s not much opportunity for the recruits to go off-base and sample the cheap moonshine and expensive white flesh of Busan’s most notorious hotspots. Their COs keep them confined to barracks and endless rounds of PT combined with drill and firearms practice.

It’s a boring existence made worse by the knowledge that, beyond the gates, real excitement awaits. Hyuksu now rages against the system that sent him here. “Better to be up a bloody mountain in the fucking snow than suffer this torment,” he complains to Dongjoo as they run their twenty-sixth lap of the parade ground under the midday sun. “No leave for another eight weeks, and even then we’re fucking chaperoned! Christ, it’s enough to make a man rethink his decisions.”

Dongjoo sympathises, but secretly he’s pleased that he doesn’t have to go out and embarrass himself on dance floors and at bars in the name of chasing tail.

He’s got a reputation, one that’s spread to other billets. He’s the second youngest in the hut, which would usually mean that he’s invisible. Instead, the others come to him for advice, romantic and sexual, because of his six-month marriage.

“I’m divorced,” he tells the men when they sit on the edge of his bed before lights out and ask all manner of questions in halting, embarrassed tones, but this doesn’t stop them. In fact, it seems to elevate him even higher in their collective opinion. A married man knows things about women, the assumption goes; therefore a divorced man must have needs and expectations that his ex-wife couldn’t fulfil. What for Dongjoo is a source of shame to his hut-mates is a source of pride, and he finds himself in great demand as advice-giver and sage.

Most of the guys who come to him with their questions are country boys or sheltered young men from good families, like him. Dongjoo doesn’t want to disappoint them, so he pretends a greater knowledge than he possesses and relies on information gleaned from the Western magazines his mother reads, from books and foreign films and most of all, from porn.

It’s fine when he’s advising men of his own age, but when older men, experienced men, start seeking his help, Dongjoo feels like a fraud. He has no idea how to counsel a soldier eight years older than him who suspects his fiancée of cheating on him. He’s tongue-tied when a simple-minded but much-feared sergeant from another hut corners him in the showers and asks, voice breaking with fear, if the red weals on his genitals are something serious or completely normal.

Dongjoo does his best to advise and assist where he can, and his reputation spreads. When his words of wisdom bear fruit, his grateful ‘clients’ reward him. This makes Dongjoo feel even worse, so he accepts the gifts only for the sake of his hut-mates. The first time he’s offered a twenty-four hour pass out of the base, he gives it to Hyuksu, who goes out excited and returns deflated and in need of advice on how best to woo a Russian girl.

Dongjoo tells Hyuksu to be himself. He wishes he could do the same.

* * *

Five weeks into his service at Busan, Dongjoo and a couple of other soldiers from neighbouring huts are called in front of a CO. In that uniquely military manner that divulges information without giving anything away, the Major tells them that they’ve been selected on the basis of their expertise during basic training and that they’ll be assisting the coast guard with an important duty. The Major then exits the room, leaving them none the wiser.

Despite the fact that he’s the youngest, the other two soldiers turn to Dongjoo and ask him what the hell is going on. He wants to say that his perceived expertise as a relationships counsellor doesn’t extend to mindreading or prophecy, but instead he uses logic and asks, “What were you good at in basic training?”

Their skills are disparate. They can find no common thread, and so they spend the next fifteen minutes concocting wild scenarios that would show off the best of their abilities. Mainly this involves sprinting along the beach resuscitating pretty girls before abseiling down a cliff under cover of darkness.

“That can’t be it,” Dongjoo says over the laughter of the other two men. “The coast guard probably has specialists who do that sort of thing all the time.”

“We do,” says a voice from the open door. “We have very intensive training. Especially in resuscitating pretty girls. Or pretty boys. These days we have to be aware of equal opportunities.”

They fumble to their feet, uncertain of protocol. Should they salute? Dongjoo skims a glance over the coast guard standing tall and still against the doorframe, gaze going to the flashes worn on his shoulders. A sergeant by anyone’s reckoning. Dongjoo salutes; the other two copy him. “Sir!”

“At ease.” The sergeant strolls into the room and takes up position at the window, looking out onto the parade ground. He seems to be in no rush to explain what he’s doing here or what he wants with them.

Dongjoo studies him. The coast guard’s uniform is a source of envy to all soldiers, especially the SSAT uniform. It’s black, worn either smart and flattering or padded and armoured. It seems to be the only uniform that’s designed to be worn with cool sunglasses. The sergeant’s boots lace above his ankles and have straps and buckles that wouldn’t be permitted on a soldier’s boots. The leather looks soft yet sturdy. Dongjoo bets the sergeant didn’t have to piss in those boots to make them wearable.

The sergeant continues to stare out of the window as if oblivious to the attention directed his way. His hair is short, black and glossy like a raven’s wing, but longer on the front, flicked forwards like a spiked wave. The style balances the shape of his face—slashing brows, a sharp chin and fine jaw, a full lower lip, and dark, assessing eyes now turned on Dongjoo.

“Like what you see?” the sergeant asks, unsmiling.

Dongjoo is too surprised to be flustered. “Sir?”

“Never mind.” The sergeant leaves the window and takes up position at the head of the room, demanding their attention. “I am Sergeant Kang Eunchul, liaison officer between the coast guard and the army. Largely this is a thankless task, so if you’re still labouring under the belief that your CO selected you for this duty as a reward for good behaviour, think again.”

Eunchul looks at each man in turn. “What the powers that be define as ‘liaison’ is open to a certain degree of interpretation. This is how I see it: the army lends its assistance to the coast guard as and when we deem necessary. The coast guard knows itself to be more than capable of handling whatever situation arises, but acknowledges that sometimes it’s practical to employ cannon-fodder. The army gets to feel righteous and thinks the coast guard should be grateful. Meanwhile, the navy looks down on us both, and so the army and the coast guard are united against a bunch of web-footed wankers.”

The other two soldiers laugh. Dongjoo keeps his gaze fixed on Eunchul.

“I need an assistant,” Eunchul continues. “I don’t need three. Just one.” He pauses; even smiles after a fashion. “Let me state again—this is a thankless task. It does not involve abseiling off cliffs and resuscitating babes in bikinis, although if the opportunity presents itself, you have my blessing to do both of these things, and at the same time if necessary.

“You will report to me. You will work off-base for as long as I require your assistance. Mostly you will be engaged in clerking, filing, or follow-up work. Essentially this is a desk job, so I assume the Major chose you because you all display some sort of competence with the written word.”

Dongjoo blinks. He doesn’t want a desk job. He doesn’t want anything that’ll take him from the familiarity of the army base. He certainly doesn’t want to be forced into close proximity with this hard man and his sharp edges and his clear eyes that seem to see right through everything.

“You will not be paid for this duty,” Eunchul says, sounding as bored as if reciting from the dictionary. “You will receive no other form of compensation. In fact, you will lose most of your free time and a good eighty percent of your leave will be curtailed. You will still be required to take part in your squad’s proscribed activities, though you will be excused general fatigues if and when the situation requires it.”

Into the ensuing silence, one of the other men says in horrified tones, “It’s a punishment.”

Eunchul smiles, and for the first time he looks genuinely amused. “It’s your duty. You should embrace it.”

“It’s voluntary, right, sir?” the second man asks.

“You’ve already been volunteered.” Eunchul takes a step back and perches on the edge of a desk. “All that remains is for me to select one of you.” His smile fades, expression turning businesslike once more. “I left you alone for fifteen minutes for a reason. Now you all know one another at least on a superficial level, perhaps you’d tell me why your colleagues—not yourselves—should be given this duty.”

There’s a moment of silence. Dongjoo narrows his eyes and presses his lips into a line, aware of the ramifications of what Eunchul is asking.

Eunchul looks at him. The smile is back, just the hint of it, a tease, a challenge. Dongjoo refuses to drop his gaze. He already knows what his answer will be, but the sergeant doesn’t call on him first. Instead Eunchul gestures to the soldier at the end of the row. “You. Begin.”

The soldier shoots them an apologetic glance and mumbles his way through mostly invented reasons as to why Dongjoo and the other man should be picked as Eunchul’s assistant.

The second soldier repeats him almost word for word.

“Now you,” Eunchul says, turning to Dongjoo.

Dongjoo remains silent. The other two soldiers look at him in confusion.

Eunchul smiles, his eyes gleaming. “I know you’re capable of speech. I’ve heard at least one word from you.”

“Sir,” Dongjoo says, stiffly.

“That’s the word I heard.” Eunchul slides off the desk and takes a step towards Dongjoo, still smiling. There’s something dangerous about him, something that makes Dongjoo want to run away and go closer at the same time. “Tell me why your colleagues should be given this duty.”

Dongjoo takes a deep breath; lets it out slowly and carefully. “Sir, I choose not to speak, sir.”

Eunchul stops right in front of him. “And why is that?”

“Sir.” Dongjoo flashes a glance that’s pure insubordination, though he keeps his voice polite and respectful. “We are the army, sir. We are all equal.”

The other two soldiers shift in their seats and murmur belated agreement.

Eunchul’s smile is perfect and deadly. “Well said. What’s your name, soldier?”

Dongjoo lifts his chin and meets Eunchul’s hard gaze. “Han Dongjoo, sir.”

“Han Dongjoo.” Eunchul says his name slowly, thoughtfully, as if savouring it, and then gives him a mocking bow. “I look forwards to working with you.”

* * *

The Busan coast guard headquarters is a large, modern building, all glass and steel, filled with the kind of high-tech equipment Dongjoo has only seen on television. Banks of computers, screens that can be scrolled and dropped and retrieved with the wave of a hand, radar and satellite images, things that churn out coordinates, infra-red and GPS and cameras on tiny armoured submersibles with grabby mechanical hands.

The coast guard clearly has more money than the army. More resources, a better uniform, and it employs women. Some of them are pretty, and Dongjoo is embarrassed to be seen wearing his ill-fitting army fatigues.

“Chin up,” Eunchul murmurs. “You’re here to do an important job.”

Bolstered by this statement, Dongjoo draws back his shoulders and imitates the cool, confident way Eunchul moves. He catches sight of his reflection in the smoked glass windows of a conference room and realises he looks like an idiot. He feels stupid, too tall, too skinny, not yet in complete control of his limbs. His eyes look huge in his pale face, the effect exaggerated because of the short crop of his hair.

He puts his head down and shuffles after Eunchul.

After the tour, which both cows Dongjoo and also fills him with a kind of misplaced pride, Eunchul drives him across town to an older concrete building with a corrugated roof and a triple-locked door and bars on the windows. A faint smell of damp permeates the air.

“This is your office,” Eunchul says, pointing to a battered desk in one corner of a large, mostly empty room. An old computer terminal stands on the desk beside a pile of files easily two feet high. There’s six filing cabinets against the back wall. Two of them bear the imprint of booted feet. The walls are covered with maps showing the Korean peninsula and the surrounding waters. There’s also a blackboard with a long list of operation names and personal names painted on it. Some are crossed through.

“Your caseload.” Eunchul gestures at the names on the board. “If you manage to clear even one of those, we’ll be grateful. Your predecessor managed to file about a third of the paperwork for Operation Hippocamp before he finished his term of service.”

“Hippocamp?” Dongjoo stares at the list, not relishing the enormity of the task ahead of him.

“My CO has the habit of naming operations after ancient shit.” Eunchul sits in a swivel chair behind a similarly battered desk with a slightly more modern computer.

“A hippocamp is a seahorse.” Dongjoo takes a seat. The back of his chair creaks alarmingly and almost tips him onto the floor.

“I’ll requisition you a new chair.” Eunchul boots up his computer. “And yes, a hippocamp is a seahorse. A made-up one.”

“They’re in Roman mosaics. I saw some at the Getty in Los Angeles.” Dongjoo doesn’t know why he’s still talking. He copies Eunchul and turns on his computer, too. It’s so crappy it doesn’t even prompt him for a password.

“Rich kid, huh.” Eunchul doesn’t sound as if he’s judging him.

“Yes.” Dongjoo opens the first file on the teetering pile. It’s a report on the theft of a fishing boat.

“Me too,” Eunchul says, almost as an afterthought.

Dongjoo glances up, startled. He hadn’t pegged Kang Eunchul as someone who came from money. Men raised in privilege have an air about them, a gloss that renders them sleek and smug. Dongjoo recognises it in himself occasionally. He thinks his gloss is more transparent because he lives with his father’s example, and he knows he can’t feel self-satisfied when his marriage failed after only half a year.

But he hasn’t seen any of that gloss in Eunchul. Quite the opposite, in fact. Dongjoo waits, hoping for more, but Eunchul taps at the keyboard and reads something on his computer screen.

“I’ll make a start with this,” Dongjoo says. “Sir.”

It’s only then that he realises it’s the first time he’s called Eunchul sir all day.

* * *

Though the army permits him to leave the base every morning, they don’t give him a mode of transport. His first proper day of liaison work sees him walk-running, army-style, for almost seven miles. He has no phone and no money, and by the time he reaches the office, he’s forty-five minutes late and his fatigues are wet with sweat.

Eunchul looks up from his paperwork, then checks the time.

“I’m sorry,” Dongjoo pants, bending double and resting his hands on his knees in an attempt to catch his breath. “Sir, I’m sorry I’m late. It won’t happen again.”

“No, it won’t.”

Dongjoo straightens and goes over to his desk. His legs feel rubbery with adrenalin and his hands shake when he boots up the computer.

A moment later, Eunchul brings him a cup of coffee. “Seven miles in forty-five minutes.”

“I got lost. Took the wrong turning and found myself at the port. Had to backtrack.” Dongjoo pulls the coffee towards him, inhales the heady scent, and takes a grateful sip. It’s exactly how he prefers it. Right now, he thinks he loves Sergeant Kang Eunchul.

“Seven miles in forty-five minutes when you got lost and when you didn’t expect it,” Eunchul says. He smiles and ruffles the soft re-growth of Dongjoo’s hair. “You’re tougher than you think.”

Dongjoo blinks, lips wet with coffee. “I didn’t want to let you down, sir.”

Eunchul smiles again. “Tomorrow, I’ll pick you up.”

* * *

They fall into a rhythm. Eunchul meets him every morning at the gates of the base and drops him off in the evening. During the day, Dongjoo works his way through the files. He tells his hut-mates that the job is so tedious and boring he often falls asleep at his desk. He tells them the most classified thing he’s ever handled was a dispute over where to drop crab pots. His hut-mates make sympathetic noises of the ‘rather you than me’ variety and eventually stop asking if he met any hot girls at the coast guard HQ or in a coffee shop or the post office or just walking around the town.

Dongjoo enjoys his work. He doesn’t want to tell anyone in case it’s taken away from him. Given a clear directive and left alone to do things in his own way and at his own speed, he’s surprised to find himself more than capable. Most of the files relate to minor disturbances and petty theft as well as to applications for extending marine berths, reports of accidents, and investigations into cargo manifestos. He’s never been academically gifted, but he remembers things and he makes connections, and by the end of his third week with the coast guard liaison, he’s drawn a line through both Operation Hippocamp and the next name on the list.

Dongjoo enjoys working for Eunchul. He’s never going to tell anyone that, either, because they might get the wrong idea. Even though Eunchul is only a few years older, Dongjoo looks up to him, perhaps even hero-worships him a little, because not only has he done his military service and holds rank and wears a hot uniform, he’s also confident and seems so certain of his place in the world.

In that respect, Eunchul is a lot like Dongjoo’s grandfather. Unlike his grandfather, Eunchul doesn’t play games. He’s straightforward, tells Dongjoo what he wants, compromises when necessary without making a fuss, and when Dongjoo produces results, Eunchul offers uncomplicated praise. He smiles and says, “Good job,” and puts a hand on Dongjoo’s shoulder, ruffles his hair and brings him coffee the way he likes it.

Even though Dongjoo feels as if he could burst with pride on those occasions, he tells no one. Not even his mother or his grandfather, in his occasional letters and phone calls home. He wants to keep this sense of achievement to himself.

As the weeks wear on, Eunchul is in the office less and less as he attends to his coast guard duties. He doesn’t talk about these operations and call-outs directly, but instead takes to dictating his reports to Dongjoo. Most of what is reported is classified. Dongjoo knows that probably he shouldn’t be hearing these things. He also knows that, as a soldier, he’s automatically bound by oath and duty to remain silent in a way that the stenographers employed by the coast guard aren’t.

In a straightforward, roundabout way, Eunchul is showing Dongjoo how much he trusts him. How much he values him. Dongjoo thrives on this unspoken regard and works harder, setting aside his allotted tasks to transcribe Eunchul’s reports and then printing them out for him to check over.

“Your spelling,” Eunchul chides him gently, making corrections with a green pen.

“Daji scolded me for the same thing,” Dongjoo says one time. “I would never have passed my exams without her help.”

Eunchul looks at him. “Your girlfriend?”

A blush creeps across Dongjoo’s face. “My wife. Ex-wife.”

Incredulity lights Eunchul’s expression. “You were married?”

“Six months.” Dongjoo drops his gaze and fiddles with the selection of coloured pens he uses to annotate the files. “We were very young. We made a mistake.”

“In getting married or in getting divorced?”

Dongjoo glances up. Eunchul is looking at him. He doesn’t know how to reply.

“You’re so full of regrets,” Eunchul says after a moment. “That’s not the way to live. Not for someone like you.”

“What about you?” The words blurt out. Dongjoo adds “Sir”, as if that’s going to make the question more palatable.

Eunchul continues to look at him, gaze gone dark and thoughtful. “Tonight,” he says, returning the corrected report to Dongjoo, “we’re going out drinking, you and me.”

“But sir, I need to be back at the base for dinner at nineteen-hundred hours,” Dongjoo says.

“Not tonight. I’ll get you the necessary permissions. We’re going out.”

That becomes a habit, too. Once a week, at first, and then twice a week, and though they spend part of the evening talking about work, the rest of the time is their own. Despite the difference in rank and service, Eunchul is easy to talk to. He’s a good listener and he always knows the right thing to say, whether to draw out a confidence or to turn awkwardness into humour. Dongjoo is grateful to find someone who won’t judge him and who seems to respect him.

For the first time in his life, Dongjoo feels like a man.

One evening, as they sit in what’s become their favourite bar, Eunchul says, “Your army buddies say you’re the font of all knowledge in dealing with women.”

“They think that because I was married.” Dongjoo slides his beer bottle across the gleaming surface of the bar. “In actual fact, I know nothing.”

Eunchul lifts his drink to his lips. “Oh?”

The truth has been a burden for so long. Dongjoo needs to shed its load. He trusts Eunchul. Clutching his beer, he says in a rush, “We never slept together. Daji and I, we didn’t... I mean, I wanted to. And we were married. It’s not like it’s wrong for a husband and wife to... But we were so young. And I was afraid of making her pregnant. I didn’t—I didn’t want to hurt her.”

Eunchul puts down his drink. “You thought you might hurt her?”

“Yes.” Dongjoo isn’t thirsty any more. He hangs his head. “I know it’s stupid.”

“Fear isn’t stupid.” Eunchul covers Dongjoo’s hand with his own. “It can be irrational, but it’s never stupid.”

Dongjoo stares at him. “I bet you’re not afraid of anything. Sir.”

Eunchul laughs. He doesn’t take his hand away. It feels nice there. “I’m afraid of everything,” he says, smiling. “That’s the only way I can keep ahead.”

“Ahead of what?” Dongjoo asks, thinking that, because of the smile, Eunchul is joking.

“The regrets.” Eunchul stops smiling. He lifts his hand and signals for another drink.

* * *

Occasionally Eunchul’s friends and colleagues from the SSAT join them on their nights out. Dongjoo feels like an outsider then, especially when a guy called Kim Sunwoo tries to monopolise Eunchul with conversations that invariably begin with ‘Do you remember when...’, but Eunchul balances his attentions with careful skill and never, ever makes Dongjoo feel like an unwanted guest.

Sunwoo remarks upon it one time, smile broad and easy, his eyes hard and sharp. “You hoping this kid will switch allegiance at the end of his term of service and join the coast guard?”

“No.” Eunchul leans back in his chair. “Dongjoo will follow his father and grandfather into business.”

Sunwoo frowns. “Then why are you...” He pauses briefly, long enough for Dongjoo to insert the words wasting your time before Sunwoo continues, “mentoring him?”

Eunchul raises his eyebrows. “Am I mentoring him?”

“Bro.” Sunwoo laughs. “You guys are in here twice a week. Are you telling me this is a social thing? A date?”

Dongjoo frowns. “What’s wrong with a guy going out with a friend?”

Sunwoo gives him a withering stare. “Eunchul doesn’t have friends. He’s a career man. He has five-year plans, ten-year plans, twenty-year plans. He’s going to run the coast guard by the time he’s forty. All those plans don’t leave a lot of room for friendships unless they’re politically useful.”

“You’re my friend,” Eunchul says, mildly.

“We trained together!” Sunwoo lifts his hands in an exasperated gesture. “We’ve known each other six years and I still don’t know you. Not properly. It’s like we’re friends because we’re colleagues when it should be the other way around.”

Eunchul half smiles. “Are you jealous, Sunwoo?”

“Of that child?” Sunwoo jerks his chin at Dongjoo. “Hell, no. I just don’t get why you’re hanging out with him if he can’t do anything for your career.”

“I like him,” Eunchul says. “Dongjoo is interesting and funny and kind.”

Sunwoo’s mouth drops open. “Kind? What—”

“It’s important.” Eunchul slides his gaze towards Dongjoo, his smile warming. “Kindness is important.”

* * *

“Do you really like me because I’m kind?”

The question has been pushing at him all night, but Dongjoo only feels safe enough to ask it now, well away from the bar and even further away from Kim Sunwoo.

They’re in Eunchul’s car, parked a short distance from the gates of the army base. He can see the glow of illumination from the sentry hut and the arc-lights cutting across the parade ground further ahead, but the sanctuary of the base seems miles away, a fantasy, and this moment, here within the front seats of the car, is the only reality.

He turns his head to look at Eunchul, waiting for an answer.

“Yes,” Eunchul says at last. He’s gazing through the windscreen at the army base, but then he turns his head, too. He meets Dongjoo’s gaze. Holds it. “And,” he adds, very softly, “because of this.” He leans across the gap separating them and kisses Dongjoo.

Eunchul’s lips are firm. His mouth is warm.

Dongjoo freezes for a heartbeat. It’s the first time he’s kissed a man. It’s only the second time he’s been kissed by someone who wasn’t a member of his family. Strangely, it feels right. Daji took his first kiss, awkward and hesitant, the fumbling of a boy with his first girl. Eunchul is giving him the chance to learn how to be a man with another man.

Dongjoo kisses him back. He does it on instinct, parting his lips and allowing more heat into the embrace. Eunchul tastes of beer and confidence. Dongjoo hopes he tastes just as certain.

They’re both wearing seatbelts, so they can’t get too close. Probably that’s a good thing, considering where they are. Eunchul makes a soft, hungry noise and mouths at Dongjoo, giving him gentle love-bites that rouse a fierce throb of desire, more urgent and primal than anything he’s experienced before.

Lust, Dongjoo realises. This is lust.

He likes it. He wants more of it. Most of all, he’s glad it’s Eunchul awakening it in him and not a Russian prostitute.

When it comes to an end quite naturally, there’s no embarrassment, even though Dongjoo thinks perhaps there should be. He looks for it, but it’s not there, and so he forgets about it and focuses instead on how much he’d enjoyed the sensation of Eunchul’s mouth on his, the warmth and taste of him.

“I’m not gay,” he says into the darkened silence.

Eunchul smiles. “I don’t want you to be.”

“Then what do you want?”

After a moment of silence, Eunchul reaches out and strokes a thumb over Dongjoo’s cheek. He looks thoughtful and slightly lost. “I want you to be kind.”

* * *

They become lovers slowly, in increments. Kisses at first, more and more kisses, snatched and stolen whenever work allows. Dongjoo looks forward to them, goes to the office every morning with the hope that he’ll see Eunchul. If he’s not there, it’s okay. Dongjoo does his work and strikes through another name on the list. His day is absorbing enough without the need for Eunchul’s kisses. Those are just a bonus.

But when Eunchul is in the office...

They ration out their kisses. One when Eunchul brings Dongjoo a coffee. Another when Dongjoo types out a report without any spelling mistakes. A third, hot and hungry and desperate, before they leave the office in the evening.

In back alleys and the back seat of Eunchul’s car, they touch one another and explore their bodies and their limits. Dongjoo realises there’s more than one way to masturbate. The first time he and Eunchul press together, grinding and rubbing, all sweat and deliciously hard pressure, Dongjoo comes just from the pleasure of Eunchul’s tongue-tip tracing the shell of his ear. He knows logically it was all that shoving and thrusting that got him there, but what pushed him over was the delicate lick and the hot breath and Eunchul’s soft moan of need.

The first time Eunchul goes down on him, Dongjoo comes way too fast. He’s advised his fellow soldiers about blowjobs based on porn he’d seen and things he’d read, but the reality is quite different. It’s the first sexual act he can’t imagine Daji performing on him. It seems too wicked, too much to do with lust rather than love. He thinks he wants to save this as something he only does with Eunchul.

“I want to do it to you, too,” he announces when he’s caught his breath and the swim of sensation has quieted. Partly it’s to cover his embarrassment at shooting so soon, but mostly it’s because he’s curious. He’s never seen another man’s dick before. In public toilets and shared showers it’s impossible to miss the flash of cock, but he’s never seen one like this, so up close and personal, and Dongjoo takes his time examining Eunchul’s dick, touching and stroking and tasting every inch.

There’s a lot of him to study. Dongjoo finds it thrilling, the knowledge that he’s the one to arouse Eunchul so much, and when he finally parts his lips around the head and takes Eunchul’s big, thick cock into his mouth, Dongjoo is more excited than he’s ever been in his life.

“I’m not gay,” he says again afterwards, the taste of Eunchul’s seed both sweet and bitter on his tongue.

Eunchul murmurs a laugh against his throat. “No, you’re not.”

Dongjoo strokes through Eunchul’s hair. It feels like silk, shorter and softer than Daji’s windswept, slightly frizzy locks. “Are you gay?” he asks, because he honestly doesn’t know.

“I’m...” Eunchul pauses, “complicated.”

Dongjoo smiles and hugs him. “That’s what my grandfather and parents say when they don’t want to talk about something. They say it’s complicated.”

Eunchul lifts his head. His eyes are very dark, glinting in the shadows of night. “One day I’ll tell you everything. But not now.”

* * *

One evening on the base, Dongjoo is approached for advice by a soldier who seems nervous and afraid. Conscious of listening ears from the surrounding beds, Dongjoo suggests that they go out and do a lap of the parade ground. Almost three-quarters of the way around their second lap, the soldier admits that he has feelings for one of his hut-mates.

Dongjoo thinks before he speaks. “Have you felt like this before? Because it’s perfectly normal to have a crush on someone of the same gender, especially if you admire them in some way—if they’re strong or athletic or clever or...”

The soldier keeps his eyes fixed ahead. “It’s not a crush. I think I love him. I’ve felt something similar before. I mean, I’m gay, I know that. But I don’t know if he is, and... It hurts.”

Dongjoo stops jogging. The soldier turns back. “Shit, I’m sorry. You must be disgusted. I’m sorry.”

“No.” Dongjoo waves away the apologies. “I’m not disgusted or shocked. I just... I don’t know how best to advise you.”

The soldier exhales. “Yeah. Shouldn’t have asked a straight guy. Sorry.”

Dongjoo shakes his head. “No, no, it’s not that. People are people and relationships are relationships, no matter what goes where.”

He thinks some more, and they resume their jog and their discussion. By the end of the fifth lap, they’re walking, and Dongjoo has offered the soldier and his friend twenty-four hour off-base passes and has given him the name of a gay bar that they could ‘accidentally’ stumble into on their night out, just as a way of testing the other guy’s reactions.

“How do you know about gay bars in Busan?” the soldier asks, puzzled.

Dongjoo gives him a mysterious smile. “I know everything.”

* * *

The incident makes him think about his relationship with Eunchul, especially when the soldier and his friend return from their twenty-four hour leave looking smug and telling everyone they scored big time. The soldier gives Dongjoo the thumbs up and then rough-houses with his friend, touching and laughing as their mates gather round, eager to hear about their adventures with the Russian girls.

Dongjoo goes to the office next day and works hard, his thoughts not quite confused but not altogether steady. When Eunchul arrives mid-afternoon with a cup of coffee, Dongjoo delays the accompanying kiss, turning his head from the sweet temptation of Eunchul’s lips.

“What is it?” Eunchul asks, straightening but not sliding away from his perch on Dongjoo’s battered old desk.

“I like you.” Dongjoo looks up at him, serious and wide-eyed, not wanting any of this to be misunderstood. “Eunchul, I like you very much. I admire you. You’re handsome and smart and you’re confident and you know how to talk to people and you’re cool and interesting and you wear a hot uniform and... I really like you—”

Eunchul smiles. “But.”

Dongjoo closes his eyes. Opens them again and meets Eunchul’s gaze. “I don’t love you. Is that okay?”

“Oh, Dongjoo. Of course it’s okay.” The smile broadens. “Really, truly, it’s okay. You’re straight. I know that. And you’re still in love with Daji.”

“I am?” Dongjoo stares at him, at first doubting and then accepting the truth. “I am.”

Eunchul strokes the back of a finger down his cheek, still smiling. “Yes, you are. And that’s okay, too.”

“But...” There’s something more, something Dongjoo has to ask. “Do you love me? Because it doesn’t seem fair if you do. Because unreciprocated love hurts, and I don’t want to hurt you.”

“The same way you didn’t want to hurt Daji?” Eunchul’s eyes are very bright.

Dongjoo swallows. “It’s different. Everything’s different with you. And not just because you’re a man.”

“Because you don’t love me,” Eunchul says, and leans forward.

Dongjoo kisses him, long and lingering. “Maybe,” he says when they part, “maybe I love you a little.”

Eunchul nuzzles at him, words soft and careful. “You can love me a little. As long as you don’t try to tell yourself that you’re in love with me. Because that would hurt us both, and that really wouldn’t be fair.”

“How do you know so much?” Dongjoo asks, yearning.

Eunchul’s smile is worn through with an odd sort of sadness. “I told you—I’m complicated.”

* * *

Dongjoo loses his virginity on a boat.

It’s his first weekend of leave, and though his hut-mates have invited him to spend forty-eight hours on a mammoth pub-crawl through the city, he pretends he has to work for part of the time and says he’ll catch up with them on Sunday afternoon. While they all rush for the bars and clubs and girls on Friday evening, Dongjoo heads for the marina.

Eunchul is waiting for him. The pretence is that they’re going fishing, but they both know what’s going to happen. Dongjoo is nervous and excited. He’s been in a permanent state of semi-arousal since Eunchul extended the invitation, and he can hardly wait till they’re alone together.

The yacht is a surprise. Dongjoo has been on cruisers and catamarans, but never a smaller class of boat. It’s a racing yacht, its hull low and sleek, the cabin for’ard beneath the lateen rigged mast—or at least that’s how Eunchul introduces it.

“This is yours?” Dongjoo asks, staring at the wheel and the furled sails. On the stern is the name, spangled with the stars of two constellations: Sky Painter.

“Yes.” Eunchul carries Dongjoo’s bag aboard and then holds out his hand.

Dongjoo takes it and steps from dry land into Eunchul’s arms.

They look at one another. “My father wanted to buy me a yacht as a graduation gift,” Eunchul says, tightening his hold on Dongjoo as a swell rocks the boat. “But I didn’t want that. I wanted to buy it myself. The advantage of working in the coast guard is that you know what’s going up for auction before most other people do, and there’s always a favour that can be called in if you want something in particular. Even so, I got Sky Painter above board and legally.”

It’s strange, the way he says it. Dongjoo laughs. “And your father’s gift would have been illegal?”

Eunchul slides his hands free and moves away. “Come and look at the cabin.”

While Dongjoo unpacks and familiarises himself with the low but surprisingly spacious dimensions of the cabin, Eunchul gets them underway. They leave the marina and set a course north, following the coastline. Dongjoo studies their route on the chart as Eunchul powers down the outboard and sets the mainsail to catch the late evening breeze.

It’s peaceful on the water. Eunchul keeps them clear of the main shipping lanes, and although as night falls they see lights from the occasional fishing boat, mostly they’re on their own. It’s the same on land, too—once the sprawl of Busan and its environs is behind them, the lights from houses become few and far between.

Dongjoo lies on the bench at the stern and listens to the sound of the waves, the splash and slap of water against the hull, the creak of the sail and the metallic jingle of the wind in the ratlines. The scent of salt and ozone surrounds him until Eunchul drags out a hamper of food and unpacks it, revealing tubs of cooked meat and kimchi and cold soba noodles and sweet, tangy sauces. There’s wine, too, an excellent vintage Eunchul says he liberated from his father’s cellar, and Dongjoo says his grandfather would have approved.

They eat and drink, and before it gets too dark to navigate, Eunchul casts the anchor and moors the yacht within the sheltering arms of a small bay. They drink another bottle, and Dongjoo feels giddy with wine and happiness and anticipation.

Eunchul moves closer. “I love you,” he says, holding Dongjoo’s gaze. “Let me say it. I love you because you don’t love me, because you love Daji. I love you because you’re kind, and that’s all I need right now.”

Dongjoo stares at him, then swigs down the last of the wine and kisses Eunchul, lips wet and sweet. “Take me to bed,” he says when they break free. “Love me.”

The first time is a surprise. They tangle together on the bed, the quilt rucked up to one side and the yacht listing with the swell, and they kiss and kiss and touch one another until they’re both comfortable with the movement of the waves, and they’re both ready and hungry for one another.

Eunchul rolls a condom over Dongjoo’s cock and slicks lube all over him. Dongjoo is so lost in pleasure that he doesn’t entirely realise what’s happening until Eunchul arranges himself on the bed, a pillow beneath his hips, and he holds out his arms for Dongjoo to come to him.

“You want me to...?” Dongjoo crawls over Eunchul, tense and shivering with excitement. “Oh God, you want me to fuck you?”

“First time for me, too.” Eunchul hooks one leg around Dongjoo’s waist, opening himself up. “I’ve never done it like this before.”

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Dongjoo says, guiding the head of his dick to Eunchul’s lubed hole.

“You won’t. You’ll see. It’ll be good. So good.” Eunchul arches up, pushes down, and Dongjoo is inside him, gripped by tight heat. They both gasp and hold still, and then the boat rocks and they go with it. The swell makes it easier, makes it natural, and Dongjoo forgets to be nervous and instead loses himself in the sounds Eunchul makes, in the taste of his skin and the smell of his sweat, in the heave of their bodies and the glorious crashing pleasure of their release.

The second time, Dongjoo turns onto his front and presses his knees into the mattress and takes Eunchul’s weight over him, and he moans into the quilt as Eunchul licks him out and then fucks him, sensation bright and wonderful as it spikes through him over and over again.

Afterwards, Eunchul fetches another bottle of wine and they toast one another, wrapped in the quilt with the pillows shoved against the bulkhead as they sit up and cuddle together.

“I’m North Korean,” Eunchul says, his hands steady as he pours more wine into Dongjoo’s glass.

Dongjoo stares at him. “What did you say?”

Eunchul puts down the bottle without pouring another glass for himself. He looks at Dongjoo. “I’m North Korean. I’m a political orphan. I was smuggled into Busan in a shipping container when I was seven years old.”

“Oh,” Dongjoo says, aware of how grossly inadequate his response is but not knowing how else to react.

Eunchul smiles. “Drink.”

Dongjoo takes a sip of the wine, then offers out the glass. “You, too.” He watches Eunchul drink, remembers those lips on him, over him, and says, “It doesn’t matter. Why should it matter? You’re still you. Even if you came from Saturn.”

“It does matter.” Eunchul curls a hand around Dongjoo’s arm and slides a caress all the way up to his shoulder. “I’ve grown up here, been educated here, and I work here, but inside...” He hesitates; slips into silence.

“Your father,” Dongjoo says, retrieving the glass. “Is he...?”

Eunchul shakes his head. “He’s not my real father. I was placed into care, a shelter for North Korean kids, and he adopted me. He’s a philanthropist. No children of his own, so he adopted me and a couple of other kids. He says I’m his brightest hope for the future.”

Dongjoo smiles. “That’s nice. He sounds like a good guy. Supportive. He must be proud of you being in the coast guard.”

“Yeah.” Eunchul takes the wineglass again and drains it. “Yeah, he is. But...” He stops, sets aside the glass and puts an arm around Dongjoo. “Sometimes it’s hard to do what a parent wants you to do.”

“Yes.” Dongjoo tilts his head and leans into Eunchul’s embrace, enjoying the feeling of warm, naked skin against him. “Sometimes parental expectation is too much. But in those circumstances, you have to do what your heart tells you.”

Eunchul studies him. “That’s what you did when you married Daji.”

Dongjoo nods. “I don’t regret it,” he says. “Not now. Not now I’ve met you. Now I’ve known you. Does that sound weird? It’s like knowing you made me realise things. Made me put things into order.” He’s quiet for a moment, listening to the sound of Eunchul’s heartbeat. “I won’t have regrets from now on. Even if I never meet her again, even if I never tell her all the things I want to say. Even if I never fall in love again. I won’t regret it, not any of it, and that’s because of you.”

He shifts around in Eunchul’s arms and looks at him. “Thank you.”

Eunchul is wearing the same lost expression as the first time they’d kissed. “Dongjoo,” he says. “I love you.”

They kiss, the boat rising and falling, the swell nudging them together, and Dongjoo thinks I love you too, I love you, I love you, and in that moment it’s true, and it’s forever, and he won’t regret it, not even when they part.



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