Log in

17 March 2016 @ 12:58 am
When u accidentally forget to crosspost...  
Title: No Place Like The Yellow Brick Road
Fandom(s): Winner
Pairing(s): none, Jinwoo & Seunghoon friendship
Rating: PG13
Warnings: Mentions of war, injury and fire
Word count: 3,943
Summary: Jinwoo and Seunghoon grow up dreaming of a wide open universe (Told backwards, Firefly AU)

Also on AO3

- This was originally written for the 2016 run of the ChocolateWinBox Valentine's event
- Written for the prompt 'matchstick'
- I'm a lil late cross posting...whoops
- Ahh yes it's one of those 'not romantic at all' Valentine's fics nice one
- You don't need to have seen Firefly or Serenity for this to make sense, though it might help to know that the planet Sihnon is considered the seat of Eastern civilisation in this universe and Mandarin is the main language spoken there

The heavens explode across the skies of Ariel, and for a moment Jinwoo thinks it’s all over. The impatient dark of the ward is thrown into sharp relief by the red light burning outside the windows, flickering, persisting. For all he knows the entire planet is aflame around him as he struggles to disentangle his limbs from the network of wires and tubes he’s been cocooned in.

Then a rumbling starts, mighty and ominous. A manifestation of tension sweeping through the building and the surrounding city as the levee breaks and engulfs this world in relief or fire. Jinwoo doesn’t listen for individual voices but he recognises the roar of human clamour, surely loud enough to be heard at the Rim. On Osiris. On Persephone.

The doors at the end of the ward fly open and someone must flick a switch because the lights stutter on just as easily as ever. Whatever has happened, the generator is still operational, the hospital is safe.

A tidal wave of people swell beyond the doors but all Jinwoo sees is the single nurse who sticks her head around the door, tears streaking her face and shoulders shaking with the force of her sobs. He doesn’t recognise her features, but he recognises the collapse of her posture, indicative of the relief of status. More often than not, it accompanies a fall from grace, and his heart flies to his mouth in trepidation of the news this broken looking woman might be carrying.

“Th-they’ve fallen,” she stutters, before she is overtaken by the gasps ripping themselves from her chest as she cries. She looks so fragile, and Jinwoo is overtaken by a pang of sympathy that for a moment, overrides his need to fear the present as much as the future. All is lost, surely, and in their darkest hour this woman need be the bearer of bad news.

Her hand crosses over her face, wipes feebly at the stream of tears; when it pulls away she’s smiling, “the rebels have fallen. On Hera. The war’s over.”

Jinwoo hears, but does not process, not at first. The idea breaks over him in slow motion, still struggling to gain traction in the frozen outpost of his mind when the nurse sweeps back the blinds to show the skies dancing with a myriad of fireworks. First he can hear the rapture rising up from the masses as they scream and cheer in jubilation, then he feels his breath catch in cautious joy.

He looks out of the window, really looks, and he doesn’t see hellfire. He sees celebration. It’s like a great weight has been lifted off the Verse, no more will this civil war drive dissent across what small section of the galaxy mankind can hold onto while it survives. The scraping of flint on tinder, matches across sandpaper, a myriad smaller fires that bring light into the dark Ariel skies as opposed to bombs into its cities.

The comm link at his bedside buzzes, and the nurse moves on. Jinwoo ducks the wires between his head and the table and grabs the decade old screen with his one good arm. Seunghoon’s face appears before him, haggard but smiling.

“They did it,” Seunghoon breathes, like he can’t quite believe it, “our boys out there. I wish I could have been with them, Jinwoo.”

Jinwoo shakes his head, “no you don’t.”

All around them the sparks of revolution burn low, within them the fiery rage at the dissident factions stirring in the Verse recede to embers. Peace happens in a stuttering of choked flame and wasted gunpowder, and settles the stage for the next great catalyst of war.

Over the door way of the run down town hall, commandeered for an Alliance sponsored recruitment drive, hangs the banner of the Union of Allied Planets Navy. In the early afternoon sun hanging over Guohan, it looks faded and undignified, the writing beginning to peel from where busy hands must have painted it on so long ago.

Seunghoon blinks up at it, and tries not to let his stomach drop in disappointment. “Here we go,” he beams wide at Jinwoo, stepping up to the door with his back straight.

Jinwoo doesn’t step forward with him, “this just…it doesn’t feel right.”

Of course, in the moment, Seunghoon can’t see what Jinwoo’s talking about. He has no eye for the bigger picture, no sense of perspective. All he sees is a rundown town filled with small town minds and the Alliance extending the arm of their military with the offer of a route out of here. He tips back his head and laughs good naturedly, but the hand he wraps around Jinwoo’s wrist, dragging him forward, is anything but.

“You can’t stay here forever,” Seunghoon says, pushing open the door and pulling them both inside.

A single Alliance officer sits at the back of the hall, on one of the same chairs that have been stacked and unstacked for town meetings and local bands for as long as Seunghoon can remember. She barely looks up as they enter, just reaches for a pair of enlistment forms and slides them across the table before they can get a word in edgeways.

Seunghoon grabs a form, pulls a pen from his back pocket, and starts scribbling. Name, age, place of birth, parentage. It’s all so simple, so very very easy to sign himself into a new life that he’s sure will lead him far away from Guohan, perhaps off Sihnon completely. He thinks of the wild wastes of Haven, the opalescent oceans of Boros, the overcrowded mining towns of Aberdeen – he can have it all, in exchange for a few short years of his life.

At Seunghoon’s elbow, Jinwoo remains unmoved. He stares down at the form, eyes filled with a watery sort of prescience that doesn’t flatter his sweet features.

“Will we be sent to fight the Independents?” Jinwoo asks in a small voice.

The officer’s lips curl into a gloating grin, “Kid, we’ll have those upstarts dealt with before you’ve finished basic training. Don’t sweat it.”

In principle, Seunghoon understands Jinwoo’s concerns. Neither of them wants to wind up fighting a civil war, neither of them really wants to wind up fighting, and as the rumblings of an Independent rebellion reach fever pitch it’s hard for the Galaxy to reassure itself that the war isn’t going to happen.

The war can’t happen. The Alliance won’t let it. Seunghoon gives in to the wave of irritation that washes over him and jabs Jinwoo in the side, reminds him with a glare that there’s no way that the carefully organised peace resting over the Verse can be shattered – there are failsafes for that.

Jinwoo signs his name on the dotted line cautiously, and has to have the form pried out of his fingers. Soon enough, Seunghoon will look back on the memory with barely tempered guilt, as the two of them are shipped out to the front lines, weapons in hand, cannon fodder. When Jinwoo takes a bullet to the gut and spends the rest of the war convalescing, he will be both relieved to see his friend out of the line of fire and mortified that he put him there in the first place.

But today, as they step out of the town hall and set off back down the road they came, not looking back at the faded banner, Seunghoon is so very sure he has done the right thing. “We’ll be leaving soon,” he grins at the barman when they settle into their favourite drinking hole to toast their own good fortune in getting out of this backwater town. Jinwoo’s eyes are still filled with nervous tears but after a skin-full or two of some classic Guohan moonshine he manages a smile despite himself.

The news plays on a battered old screen tucked almost out of sight at the far end of the bar. Sometime after nightfall, images of warships and burning fields wash over it, almost unnoticed by the bustling clientele.

Seunghoon finds his eyes drawn to the footage of scorched earth and falling bombs despite himself, keeps his gaze so firmly locked that Jinwoo notices.

“That doesn’t look like any planet I’ve ever seen,” Jinwoo says, breath catching as he tries to make sense of the pictures without the context of the newscasters voice.

“It’s Shadow,” Seunghoon tells him. Something like ice clinches in his gut. Shadow with its rolling fields of corn, its bountiful livestock. Never a major business hub but such a wonderful, picturesque planet.

And they bombed it. The Alliance reduced Shadow to dust. Seunghoon’s never heard of anything like it.

The bar man brings them over another round, sets the drinks on the table, and walks off. He doesn’t ask for payment, but he doesn’t need to – these are not drinks for his patrons, these are a parting gift for those who are headed off to war.

Jinwoo’s father waxes lyrical about the great and the good of the Union of Allied Planets Navy. Not so much because he believes in the inherent glory of Imperial power enforced through military posturing, but because he loves the ships. In another lifetime, he says, the whole family would be living on Persephone, and he’d be down at the docks, building and repairing the great fleet as was necessary.

It sounds like hideous work to Jinwoo, though he can’t deny that the idea of growing up in one of Persephone’s buzzing metropolises sounds more enticing than wasting the rest of his life stuck in Guohan.

“I want to go to Xingxing Jing,” Jinwoo announces over dinner one evening.

His mother rolls her eyes, his father laughs, “Whatever do you need to go to the capital for? We have everything we need right here.”

“But I don’t want to stay right here forever.”

Without a word, his mother clears away the plates. Jinwoo’s eyes settle, disgruntled, on the hologram his father pushes in front of him – in it he sees row upon row of soldiers, maintaining a perfect grid. They look like little matchsticks, to be moved around the board at will, to be exchanged and gambled for in the great game of cat and mouse that the Verse subsumes itself with.

“You don’t have to stay forever, one day you fly off in one of those big Alliance ships! See the whole damn planet if you want to,” his father beams, “who knows, you might even make it to Persephone.”

Jinwoo doesn’t want that, he hates the idea of only seeing the extent of the great night skies from between the crosshairs of a gun. He doesn’t argue though, he’s never heard of anyone who got out of Guohan any other way.

The scrape of wood on paper echoes loud around the barn, then a fire flares between Seunghoon’s fingers. For a moment, the smell of burning sulphur hangs in the air between them, and all they can see is caught in the light spilling from the tip of the match. The shadows catch Jinwoo’s features at odd angles, his overlarge eyes and plush lips leave caricatured shadows across his cheeks, and when he smiles the effect is almost eerie.

Then the fire reaches Seunghoon’s finger tips, and he drops the match with a yelp. Jinwoo titters, and in the half light of Airen and Xiaojie, poking their faces through an open window high above their heads, he pulls out the box.

“You got the stuff, right?” Jinwoo asks, voice giddy with excitement as his fingers fumble around to light another match.

Seunghoon nods and fishes the handful of cigarettes he’d stolen from his mother’s back pocket. It’s not much, but aged fifteen and reaching desperately for that most glorious of adolescent thrills – rebellion – it feels like the secret the two of them have cooked up between them is the greatest adventure they’ll ever have.

The second match sparks. Jinwoo touches the flame to one end of a cigarette, then sticks it in his mouth and breathes deep. He shakes out the match, and the dull red glow of the smoldering tip burns bright.

“How is it?” Seunghoon asks. He’s never done this before, he assumed Jinwoo hadn’t either, but the older boy doesn’t cough or splutter or stall.

He lets out a long stream of smoke and pushes a cigarette into Seunghoon’s hands, “it’s fine.”

Matches aren’t exactly hard to come by, but they’re not the easiest thing to justify buying on the regular when they know that Mr Yang at the town supplies shop will report anything abnormal straight back to their parents. As such, Seunghoon doesn’t light his cigarette from a match, he presses it against the fiery tip of Jinwoo’s and waits for it to catch.

Two little red spots on a backdrop of sheltered black, while the twin moons watch on. Seunghoon thinks there’s something poetic about it, though he doesn’t know how to word the thought. He draws deep when he brings the cigarette to his mouth, feels the smoke curling down into his lungs in long, lazy tendrils.

But he can’t help it, he coughs. And splutters and stalls and gags around the acrid smoke. Jinwoo smacks him on the back sympathetically, laughing all the way.

There are fires in the town on feast nights. Not the fire of looters or destruction, but fires of joy – pyres of the great wealth of rubbish that has nowhere else to go. People gather round them to sing and drink and make merry, pretending that the smoke doesn’t stink just as bad as the refuse. Sometimes there are tourists, from Xiaojing, or on occasion even Xingxing Jing – they hang on the edges of the festivities like dancers with no clue where to place their feet.

Jinwoo hears them talking in hushed voices, they say Guohan is primitive, but that that’s what makes it so charming. But he’s ten years old, with little conception of how big the universe is, and he has yet to understand that there is more to life than this patch of arid land, so carefully ignored by the sprawling mega cities that occupy most of the planet. His attention is more firmly grasped by the pans of corn set popping at the edges of the fire, and the meat slowly charring in the embers that have been dragged from the heart.

Seunghoon finds him easily amongst the crowd of children – a year younger than Jinwoo but already so much taller. He snatches him from the queue waiting to be fed and drags him to his own little corner of the festivities.

“But I want corn!” Jinwoo whines.

Seunghoon flashes him his best grin “I’ve got something better than corn.”

Jinwoo doesn’t know what to call them, but the squishy, sweet things that Seunghoon produces are delicious. Soft and light to the touch, though so sticky it’s a job to chew them. He wants handfuls of them, as many as can be spared.

But Seunghoon doesn’t let him, instead he spears one on a stick, walks over to the fire and holds in there.

Jinwoo watches in anguish as the glorious pocket of sugar catches fire, skin crisping in the flames as the mass begins to melt.

Seunghoon pulls the stick out, blows on the sweet squishy thing to cool it, then shoves it in his mouth. He grins around the burned sugar dribbling from the corners of his lips, and passes the stick to Jinwoo, “your turn!”

Carefully, Jinwoo takes one of the sweets and presses the stick through its centre. He reaches out towards the fire and watches it be consumed, waits till he can see the blackened bubbles forming on its service. When he puts it into his mouth it tastes like smoked caramel, gooey and gorgeous and exactly what was needed to make this night feel perfect. He and Seunghoon grin at each other, and this right here is the moment they become best friends.

A couple of tourists, braver than most, emerge out of the dark beyond the light from the fire, smiling like they expect Jinwoo and Seunghoon to sprout fangs and bite their hands off at any second. They edge forward, eyeing these children with more distrust than can be rightly attributed to a pair of kids covering themselves in sugar.

“Wh-what’s this celebration for?” the first one asks – a woman who wears entirely too much product in her hair to have been born in a place like Guohan. She speaks the neat, unruffled Mandarin of the capital, though her accent sounds like it’s straining around the clipped Xingxing Jing speech.

The boys look at each other, unsure which of them should speak. A silent agreement passes between them that, as the eldest, its Jinwoo’s duty to handle the situation.

“Don’t know, Miss”

“Is it not a feast day? Are you praying to a god?” the man at her shoulder asks.

Seunghoon shakes his head, Jinwoo shrugs his shoulders. The slick city couple look around them, bewildered. It always surprises people that such whimsical displays of human frailty can exist on the central planets as much as on the border. But the night encases them in this inner sanctum of human activity, and that’s so much more familiar to them than the dark. They sit on the ground, a short way off, and fail to mingle.

Jinwoo takes them every second sweet that they roast on the fire. They look at him like they don’t know how to thank him, but are thankful nonetheless.

By the time Jinwoo’s well enough to walk, the skies have cleared of fireworks and the news has cleared of last ditch attempts by the Independents to reclaim their lost ground. He steps out into the city and sees that Ariel is content to go about its business much the same as ever, with its sprawling hospitals and slick chrome streets.

Jinwoo only ever knew this planet in war, but he’s heard tell of it since he was young, growing up a million miles away. He’s used to the air traffic being insurmountable on a good day, as military craft bring in and retrieve patients with alarming speed. But this afternoon the blue of the sky is clearly visible and he is left feeling oddly that, save for his custom as a ward of the Alliance Navy, this place never cared for him at all.

Not that it matters. Jinwoo still has three months of service left, war or no war. He is ushered from the hospital lobby to a Navy shuttle without so much as a by-your-leave, and he doesn’t have time to decide if he will miss Ariel before he’s watching it grow smaller behind him.

It’s astonishingly beautiful at a distance, a twisting mass of deep blue and turquoise. Jinwoo has seen pictures, of course, everyone always says that Ariel is the most beautiful of the Core planets, but nothing prepares him for just how tranquil it looks when he’s seeing it with his own two eyes.

Up ahead, Sihnon looms large and very, very red. The continents were always a struggle to pick out on this hulking giant of terraformed rock, but he panics when he can’t clearly see the mass of land on which Guohan is situated. So small, so insignificant, his hometown barely compares to the shining whir of neon and technology that swells around them as they pull into Xingxing Jing space port.

Jinwoo steps off the shuttle, falls into rank, salutes at all the right words, accepts his captain’s apologies and congratulations for his efforts in the war. He marches back to the barracks with the other handful of personnel picked up on Ariel, turning through corridors of familiar grey till his feet find their way back to his old halls.

He’s not sure what he finds more surprising, that his bunk is still exactly as he left it, right down to the pair of socks tucked guiltily just under the lip of the covers, or that Seunghoon is waiting for him.

“I got the afternoon off as soon as I heard you were coming back,” Seunghoon grins down at him, dragging Jinwoo into a bone crushing embrace, “I’ve missed you, buddy.”

There is a lot Seunghoon doesn’t tell him, of that much Jinwoo is sure. He makes so little mention of the thrill of battle, or the sight of blood, though he has words enough to describe the jubilation that swept through the ranks when the news broke that the Independents had fallen.

“It was like coming up for air when you’re on the edge of drowning,” he breathes. Jinwoo thinks back to his hospital bed, where the nurse had burst through his door in tears, only to give him the good news. He thinks Seunghoon sums up the feeling fairly succinctly.

Jinwoo doesn’t need to know what else Seunghoon saw after the bullet that separated them tore through his gut. He saw enough action to know that nothing pretty lay at the end of the war, for anyone involved. But there are lingering details, barely noticeable brush strokes on the canvas of victory, which demand to be identified.

He lets Seunghoon laugh at his own jokes, lets him feel a spark of something like normality, before he asks, “What did they do with the bodies?”

“What bodies?” Seunghoon feigns ignorance, his smile slipping just a fraction.

Jinwoo shrugs, “all of them.”

Seunghoon’s eyes glaze over, and for a moment he is lost, no longer in the room, no longer even on Sihnon. His expression goes blank and his shoulders sag and Jinwoo can already taste the words on his tongue, ready to be sorry he even asked.

“We burned them,” Seunghoon says, so soft it’s hard to hear, “we made a pile, Alliance and Independents together. Someone spilled some fuel, someone lit a match and-“ he makes a gesture with his hand, a fist exploding all in a rush. It says it all.

Jinwoo wonders if Seunghoon stayed close to the fire, if he let himself smile when they built the pyre. He wonders if it seemed safer in the dark that night. He wonders, but he doesn’t ask, he fears he may have asked too much.

“I was hoping we could stop off in Guohan before we have to head back out. Just to let everyone know we’re ok,” Seunghoon starts. Jinwoo’s never heard him so excited about the prospect of home.

But the war is over, the Verse is out there. The worst it can throw at either of them is another war, the same as the first, for them to survive through, and everything beyond that is beautiful. The great plains of existence, so wide and spanning so many planets as humans populate this otherwise empty corner of this great wide thing they call a Galaxy, and stare at the skies.

Jinwoo shakes his head, “I don’t want to go home.”

He doesn’t miss the skepticism in Seunghoon’s expression, or the pleading in his eyes asking for Jinwoo to come with him, to walk back into town with their heads held high, but he doesn’t rise. He knows what lies beyond his doorstep, and he is ready.

“Home is home. But this is life, Seunghoon. This, right here, and out there. It’s not waiting behind us, it’s ahead. The war, the fighting, all that death; that was just the spark.”

Seunghoon’s eyes crinkle slowly into smiles as he comes to understand. Carefully, he reaches up to his breast pocket, and with the utmost reverence, pulls out a match.