Early the next morning, Kyungsoo's father begins his journey to the capital. Kyungsoo is woken up early by his mother and the two of them help stow the beautiful vases safely in the ox cart Kyungsoo's father is going to take with him to transport his wares on the long way. Another villager who has some business in the capital accompanies him because it is safer to travel in a group than alone. The two men meet at the well in the center of the village and kiss their families goodbye. Meanwhile, the rumbling of the ox cart has awoken a few other villagers who come out of their houses to see what the commotion is all about. They give Kyungsoo's father their best wishes, praying for a safe journey and success in the competition. Kyungsoo receives a long hug from his father and a ruffle to his hair.
"I leave the house and the family in your care while I'm gone."
Kyungsoo feels his chest swell and he bows his father goodbye. As soon as he and his mother are back home, though, he runs off to the workshop, wanting to try his hands at making a figure that looks as true to life as he can now that he has the kiln all to himself. In his father's clay storage, he finds many different batches and as he feels the texture and density, it all comes together in his mind like a puzzle. He'll use the most durable types for the feet and legs to support the weight, lighter but dense ones for the torso and arms – it just wouldn't do if Kyungsoo made a human-looking figure and an arm fell off or shards broke out of the chest – and finally, the smoothest ceramics for the head because they can be shaped into delicate forms to make even things like teeth and the curved auricles of the ears. And they are Kyungsoo's favourite to glaze, so he's confident that he can give the cheeks a natural rosy colour and the eyes a lively glow.
Over the course of the next few days, Kyungsoo works almost obsessively, even brushing off his friends' attempts at dragging him outside. Jongdae's pumpkins and Baekhyun's gossip are the least of his concerns right now, even though Jongdae and Chanyeol keep wanting to show him something they're very excited about. But except for running errands for his mother and sleeping in his room in the main house at night, Kyungsoo doesn't leave the workshop, a very bored Tonggu at his feet who yawns and occasionally yips in a fruitless attempt to get his attention. Kyungsoo shapes feet and legs and fingers and shoulders and all the other many body parts that make a human. Not yet at an age where he cares much about girls, he is unfamiliar with their bodies and decides to make a boy. Jongdae was probably only joking anyway. Tirelessly, Kyungsoo's hands knead and form the clay from sunrise to sunset and so his creation comes together. His great strength comes in handy again when he has to lift the finished creature up and carry it into the kiln to bake it.
Putting a few logs of fire wood into the furnace, Kyungsoo can't shake the feeling that something is missing. And then right when he lights a small fire for the purpose of speeding up the drying process, he remembers that his clay boy needs a heart. Because a heart would set him apart from a simple porcelain doll. Kyungsoo still has plenty enough time until he has to increase the heat and bake the clay to step into the belly of the kiln where pottery usually waits on shelves for their firing. Now, right in the middle of it stands Kyungsoo's impressive creation and he takes a bit of soft, still moist clay out of the chest part and places the glowing Heart of Eternal Fire in it before closing it meticulously again. The rest requires patience and good timing, plus some fine work with a brush when the right time for applying the glazes comes.
One morning, it is done. Kyungsoo puts out the fire, and with his heart beating in his throat, he opens the kiln door. A great wave of heat comes out and blows over Kyungsoo so that he has to close his eyes. When he opens them again and squints into the kiln, he can see the outlines of the beautiful boy he made swimming in the sizzling air.
Cautiously, he calls out. "Are you alive?" When he receives no answer, he coaxes. "Come out of there. Open your eyes. My name is Kyungsoo." Introducing himself like this, he suddenly realizes the boy has no name, but he recalls an old word for 'open' and says. "Kai."
Maybe it's just the air still sizzling with heat but Kyungsoo thinks he can see a shudder running through the figure. With bated breath, he waits. And then finally, Kai lifts his foot and takes a step forward. He moves jerkily like a wind-up doll at first but then his movements gets smoother as he advances towards Kyungsoo. The boy watches his creation step out of the kiln with wide eyes, still unable to believe that he made it, but then the unthinkable happens. There is a clanging sound like a tiny hammer on a nail at the rhythm of a heartbeat and Kai's chest starts glowing, getting brighter and brighter, and then a crack opens in his chest, fiery light shining through, and he bursts into a million little pieces, falling at Kyungsoo's feet and scattering throughout the whole workshop. Everything is covered with a fine, creme-coloured porcelain dust and in the middle of it, like the pulsing orange light of a dying star, the Heart of Eternal Fire lies. Kyungsoo sinks to the floor, feeling hot tears of frustration running down his cheeks. All of his hard work, for nothing.
"I gave you a heart. Why didn't it work?" Kyungsoo whispers. He picks up the glowing gem and squeezes it in his fist.
Something wet and soft touches the back of his hand. When Kyungsoo looks, he finds Tonggu licking his hand. Despite everything, it brings a smile to his face. It's as if his little pet dog has sensed that he needs the comfort. He takes him into his arms and cradles him.
"Oh, Tonggu. What does it take to make him come alive for real?" The little dog just barks, wags his tail happily, and licks Kyungsoo's arm. Kyungsoo chuckles and ruffles the curly fur on top of his head. "If that was an answer, I couldn't understand it. I'll go ask around."
In that moment, his mother calls him for dinner, and his first instinct is to ask her the question what a living being needs to live. But she is a very practical woman whose answer would probably be "a roof over their head and food on their table". As Kyungsoo stares into the flickering flame of the candle in the middle of the table, Chanyeol's words pop up in his head again and he knows that this is the question he has to ask Suho. He leaves right after finishing his meal and thanking his mother, excitement speeding up his steps as he makes his way towards the beach.
Just as he reaches the sand dunes, he feels a prickling sensation in the back of his neck as if he's being watched. He turns around and peers into the darkness but can't find anyone. But when he walks on, he thinks he can hear steps behind him. Someone is there. Kyungsoo is not a frightful person, so he prepares to shout for the other person to show themselves but just as he turns around, a floating orange head pops up in front of him. Fire glows out of the eyes and the large, gaping mouth and for one heart-stopping moment, Kyungsoo believes that it is Kai's vengeful spirit that came back to haunt him as a furious demon and he leaps back with a shout, falling on his butt. The next thing he hears is the very human laughter which he recognizes as his friends'. There is no way to mistake Chanyeol's booming voice and Jongdae's bright laugh. Kyungsoo glares into the night and calls for them to come out.
The glowing head floats to the ground before a light suddenly lights the scene up enough for Kyungsoo to be able to make out his friends pulling a dark cloth from a lampshade, bent laughing over what appears to be one of Jongdae's pumpkins. Into it a terrifying grimace of a face has been carved. Chanyeol taps the pumpkin and the fire inside goes out, while the two of them are still busy catching their breaths from their laughter, holding their stomachs. Kyungsoo is not quite as amused. "You just took ten years out of my life with that shock!"
"They got you good," another voice says and Kyungsoo notices Baekhyun a bit further in the back, almost out of reach of the lamp light. He sends Kyungsoo a broad, cheeky grin and swings one clasped hand with the girl beside him who stifles her giggles with her free hand pressed to her mouth. Her eyes are upturned in half-moons of mirth.
"That's what you get for disappearing on us like that," Jongdae whines and gives Kyungsoo a nudge on the head before helping him up and hugging him. "We haven't see you in days. I need someone to share to pain of having to suffer through Baekhyun's gossip daily."
"Daily?" Kyungsoo asks. Drawing up his eyebrows, he addresses Baekhyun. "I thought you were too enamoured to remember your friends."
"We reminded him the same way we reminded you!" Chanyeol pats the scary-looking pumpkin with a huge grin.
"Yeah, and you better not forget us again, either." Jongdae pouts and jabs a finger into Kyungsoo's chest. "What have you been up to all this time?"
Kyungsoo looks at them one after the other and takes a deep breath before beginning his story. Their eyes grow wider and wider and after he has finished, a silence filled with awe hangs in the balmy night air between them. "So now I'm on my way to Suho to ask him what a creature needs to come alive," he concludes.
Baekhyun chimes in. "You need love~."
His girlfriend taps him on the arm and shakes her head. "But that's not what makes you come alive, it's what you receive when you are already alive."
Baekhyun puts a finger on his mouth and thinks about it. "Right. Then love is what you need to stay alive."
"Well, my plants need water." Jongdae grins. "But let's go ask Suho. He'll know best."
And so they all go down to the beach and call Suho's name. As it turns out, Kyungsoo had been only one tiny step from success. The fiery Heart had given Kai life but it couldn't be sustained in a dry, dead clay body. It is indeed water without which nothing can live.
"This," Suho says and stretches out his hand, palm up. "I will give you, Kyungsoo. It will never evaporate. Use it wisely and you will succeed. But know that no ordinary soil can hold this water."
At first, Suho's palm is empty. But soon it fills with a liquid that Kyungsoo can see dripping skywards from the ocean lapping at the shore. It flows up between Suho's small, pale fingers and forms a swirling puddle that grows into a perfectly round marble of water. Suho takes it between thumb and forefinger and places it into Kyungsoo's palm. It is cool and wet to the touch and makes a splashing sound unexpected of an object of such a small size. In it, Kyungsoo can feel an inkling of the power of the ocean and it fills him with deep respect. Holding this and the Heart of Eternal Fire, he knows he can make it. And suddenly it becomes clear to him what the sand in the mysterious black cube in his father's workshop is destined for.
It takes Kyungsoo several days of hard work in the pottery to make an exact copy of his prototype but all the while, his heart is beating a strong, steady rhythm, filled with the confidence that it will work this time. The dried clay from the black box mixed with the marble of water Suho gave him turns into the smoothest clay Kyungsoo has ever felt. He adds some of it to all the other batches of clay he uses and with the rest of it, he makes the shape of a heart in the hollow middle of which he places the glowing gem Chanyeol gave him. It shines faintly through the thin layer of clay surrounding it. There is an energy that radiates from it that makes Kyungsoo wonder what powers it could unleash, combining in it the gifts of a sea god, a fire god, and an earth god (because that is what Kyungsoo recognizes the sand from the black box as now). When the shaping of the clay figure is finished and only the heart has yet to be placed in it, Kyungsoo weighs it in his hand and hesitates. He is almost tempted to try these powers. It's right there in his grasp, he could-
But then he shakes his head and gives it to Kai, sealing it safely in his chest. Kyungsoo is a potter, not a sorcerer.
And on one morning, the firing is done and the moment of truth has come. Kyungsoo puts out the fire and opens the kiln door, letting the hot air out. Once the hot wind blowing out of it has calmed down, he can see Kai standing there, tall and beautiful, eyes still closed in his gentle, boyish face, just as Kyungsoo made him. The tinkling and crackling of ashes cooling down in the fireplace still fill the air but Kyungsoo thinks he can sense Kai's heartbeat. It just has to have worked. Kyungsoo believes in it. He just has to call Kai's name and the boy will open his eyes and live.
In the very moment Kyungsoo opens his mouth to call him, the boy's eyelashes flutter. "It was just another gust of hot air," Kyungsoo whispers to his jumping heart, a hand pressed to his chest. He looks at the boy and calls.
Later, Kyungsoo will realize that deep inside of his heart he wanted Kai to lead a normal life and thus gave him a normal, human name, not one that stems from a cryptic, ancient language. But in the moment he says it, he does not yet know why, just that it feels right. He watches dark eyelashes part and reveal clear brown eyes. Kai, no, Jongin steps out of the kiln and Kyungsoo can't breathe for a moment, the image of how Kai burst into a million pieces still too fresh in his memory and he does not want to have to see his creation break again, but Jongin… Jongin lives, taking slow steps and spinning around himself once to take in all of his surroundings with the deep wonder that comes from seeing something for the first time.
Something soft bumps against Jongin's leg and he looks down, a surprised as well as delighted laugh tumbling out of his mouth, and Kyungsoo's heart beats at hearing his voice for the first time. "Who are you?" he says and bends down to Tonggu who wags his tail excitedly. Kyungsoo likes the melodic tone of his deep voice, even though it is still a bit hoarse and he speaks as if he is not quite sure of his tongue yet. "You're soft. And you have wings on your head. Are you an angel?" Jongin plays with Tonggu's ears before lifting the puppy up in his hands and, holding him carefully, raises him in the air to his eye level so that he can take a closer look at him. Tonggu pedals his little feet in an attempt to get closer, finally settling on just craning his neck and giving Jongin a quick lick on the nose. Jongin licks back and they become almost inseparable from that moment on.
Kyungsoo takes Jongin by the hand, surprised by how warm and soft the surface of his skin feels, so different from cool porcelain products, and leads him to the village to introduce him to his friends. On the way, they have to stop several times because Jongin keeps marvelling at things, pointing and asking Kyungsoo for explanations. They find Jongdae chatting with Baekhyun while selling vegetables in the market square where Baekhyun is helping his father repair the wooden beam of the well. For both, Kyungsoo's arrival is a welcome distraction.
"He looks about our age but he's just like a little kid," Baekhyun whispers to Kyungsoo after observing Jongin for a while. Jongdae has offered him some vegetables because Jongin asked him what he is selling and revealed that he has never eaten anything. The various faces he makes at the tastes when Jongdae cuts some pieces of cucumber, spring onion and pumpkin and lets him try them entertain Jongdae greatly. Kyungsoo just smiles at Jongin fondly instead of replying to Baekhyun.
Baekhyun's girlfriend also comes by and chats with them. Jongdae looks a bit envious when she kisses Baekhyun hello but Jongin runs to them and pushes his hands between them. "Please don't eat each other!" he calls, voice chocked as he struggles to part them. Kyungsoo rushes in and pulls Jongin away from the couple, locking his arms around Jongin's chest and arms, swaying him soothingly.
"Calm down, it's okay. They weren't eating each other the way you ate Jongdae's vegetables. What they were doing is called kissing."
"Yes, you just press your lips on the other person's. It's something you do with the one you love." While he explains, he can hear his friends bursting into laughter in the background. Kyungsoo would throw them dirty glares if it weren't for the way he can feel the tension running out of Jongin's muscles as the boy makes a contemplative humming sound. Then he turns around to Kyungsoo with eyes lighting up and asks. "So can I kiss you? Because I love you."
"No, you can't!" Kyungsoo says, angry at his friends laughing even harder now but Jongin looks hurt by his harsh voice, so he continues in a softer tone, blocking out the booming voices of his friends. "Look, I love you, too, but we are friends. Or maybe something like brothers. But there is a difference between the way friends and family members love each other and the way lovers love each other."
"I don't understand." Jongin pouts.
"W- well…" Kyungsoo stutters, hyperaware of the curious gazes with which his friends follow their conversation. Suddenly he can't find a way to explain the difference in simple terms. In the end, he just settles on a quick "for one thing, friends and family members don't kiss!"
"But I want to try," murmurs Jongin under his breath.
"Maybe you should go see Suho. I have a hunch he would be up for it!" Chanyeol's deep voice, laden with mirth, rings out as he suddenly pops up out of nowhere and makes Jongin and Kyungsoo jump.
"Where did you suddenly come from?" Kyungsoo asks.
"Oh, I've been around!" Chanyeol grins widely and winks, sauntering off again, leaving his slightly bewildered group of friends behind to throw each other confused glances. Kyungsoo snaps his mouth close, thinking it quite rude of Chanyeol to leave without even explaining the purpose and meaning of his random statement.
Somehow, word gets around that Kyungsoo made a living, breathing boy out of clay and in the following days many people come to the Do's workshop under the pretense of browsing for new bowls or pitchers or other stoneware but they rarely buy anything, they just try to sneak peaks at Jongin which makes the boy progressively shy.
"Kyungsoo?" he whispers from behind a cupboard when the sixth customer of that day has left. "Can't we go somewhere quieter?"
Kyungsoo heartily agrees. He closes the shop for the day and takes Jongin and Tonggu down to the beach. The first thing Jongin does is throw off his sandals and run through the sand with a yell of joy, running all the way to the shoreline and splashing into the waves. His pant legs get wet up to the knees but he just throws his arms up and enjoys the warm summer afternoon. Tonggu frolics around his legs and plays catch with the lapping waves. Kyungsoo just sits down in the shade of one of the big rocks on the beach and leans his back against it, closing his eyes to rest.
His breath is cut off as a hand closes over his nose and mouth without warning. Kyungsoo jerks and tries to rip the hand off his face but even with his great strength, he is no match against the other. He wants to shout at Jongin to stop doing such stupid things but then to his horror he sees the boy still playing in the waves and a cold shudder of fear runs down his spine. If his attacker is not Jongin, he's in deep trouble. All his struggles to free himself from the grip are in vain and he gets dragged off, his lungs burning from the need for oxygen. He is lugged to one end of the beach which is marked by a steep cliff that reaches from the inland all the way to the shoreline and looms high above the sand. The jagged walls of the cliff are a home to many sea birds who nest there, filling the air with their shrieks. Unnoticed by Kyungsoo before, a little boat is tied in the shadow of the cliff which seems to be where he is brought. His kidnapper does not seem to have any plans of killing him – at least not any time soon – as he loosens his grip a little to let Kyungsoo breathe in through his nose just when Kyungsoo feels like he's going to black out from suffocation. Kyungsoo takes that tiny window of opportunity and bites the kidnapper's fingers with the strength of desperation and when he is let go with a pained cry, Kyungsoo fills his lungs with air and shouts at the top of his voice. "Jongin! Call Suho!" The next second, a strong blow to the head beats him unconscious.
Jongin stops playing and lifts his head, thinking he heard someone call his name. Kyungsoo! He realizes instantly that his friend is in danger and he makes to run towards him, but then he sees the big man who is with Kyungsoo hitting him over the head and dragging him into a little boat which he unties and rows out into the surf and further into the ocean. Jongin can't follow them, he can't swim. Something hot wells up in his eyes and makes his vision blurry. It drops down onto the backs of his hands which are clenched into fists and he realizes he's crying. He feels so powerless, being unable to reach his friend who is in need of help.
"Help," he whispers desperately, then shouts it again loudly, praying that someone will hear him. And Kyungsoo said to call someone, what was his name again? Suho? Jongin wonders if it is the same person Chanyeol mentioned and if he can help. Squeezing his eyes shut tightly and swallowing the desperation that is clogging up his throat, he calls. "Suho!"
The sound of the waves gets louder, drawing Jongin's gaze out to the sea. Tonggu, who has been sniffing around on the sand and whining forlornly since Kyungsoo disappeared, perks up and starts wagging his tail again. He almost flies at Suho when he appears out of the water and the sea god bends down with bright laughter and pets the little dog in greeting. But when he looks up and sees Jongin instead of Kyungsoo, he tilts his head as a look of confusion crosses his usually serene features. "And who might you be," he addresses the boy he has never met before.
But Jongin doesn't have time for introductions, he just gives his name briefly and then grabs Suho's hand, imploring him to save Kyungsoo. "He was taken away in a boat and I can't swim!"
"Was it a small wooden rowing boat?" Suho asks and Jongin confirms this. "I can sense it; they're steering towards a ship that lies at anchor just off the shore out where the water is deep. If we can find a boat for you, I will send blessed currents in hopes of carrying you there fast enough to save our friend. That is all I can do for you. I apologize deeply."
"But there are no boats here!" Jongin calls and stomps his feet helplessly, tears running down his cheeks again. With every second they waste, Kyungsoo is brought further out of his reach. By the time he runs back to the village and unties one of the fisher boats at the quay, it will be too late.
Suho lifts his pale hand and touches the wetness on Jongin's cheek with the knuckle of his forefinger. Softly he says. "Look again."
Jongin lifts his gaze and there in the water behind Suho, a little dinghy that wasn't there before is swaying in the waves. Jongin's eyes grow wide as he sees it, hope welling up in his chest, and he runs towards it, pushing it out into the open water as far as he can wade without drowning. Suho holds the rim of the boat to keep it steady as Jongin climbs in and grips the oars, and then sends him off with an encouraging smile and a nod.
"Mind if we join you?" A deep voice comes from behind Jongin and startles him so that he almost drops the oars. In the back of the boat behind him sits Chanyeol with Tonggu in his arms. "I still have a bone to pick with a certain someone out there! How about we speed this up a bit? Hold the little fluffy guy, he's not gonna like this!" There is a grim smile on his face as he hands Jongin the puppy and then stands up in the back of the boat. He positions his legs for balance and lifts one arm with the palm stretched outward, propped up in the other hand. "You ready? Better hold on tight!"
Fire shoots out of his palm and lights up the evening air, brilliantly reflected in the water around them. The blast propels the boat forward with a jerk and Jongin has to bend low and grip onto the edge of the boat, cradling Tonggu safely in his lap. They gain speed and are soon ploughing through the waves at a speed that makes the air whip around their ears in a strong breeze. Jongin peeks over the edge of the boat, keeping his eyes open despite the air stream making them water on the lookout for the other boat. He can see the big ship coming closer. The rowing boat on which Kyungsoo was taken away has to be somewhere close by. And then he sees it hidden in the shadow of the ship's belly. So they have already reached the ship. Jongin squints his eyes and can make out a tall man climbing a rope ladder with a heavy bag slung over his shoulder. No, it's not a bag, it is Kyungsoo's unconscious form.
"Faster, Chanyeol, we have to save him!"
In a desperate effort to rescue their friend, Chanyeol steers their boat head on towards the ship at breakneck speed. Jongin tucks Tonggu into his shirt and crouches down, jumping up onto the rope ladder as high as he can right before Chanyeol crashes their dinghy into the ship, exploding in a fire ball. The man on the ladder above Jongin looks down as he feels the tug of added weight on the rope and starts scrambling upwards faster as soon as he sees Jongin. Jongin chases after him, disregarding the burn in his fingers from gripping the rope so tightly and the worry about Chanyeol that has an iron grip on his chest. Only the thought of saving Kyungsoo fills his mind. With a mighty shout, he throws his arms up and his fingers catch onto the seam of the kidnapper's pants. Jongin grips as hard as he can and tugs. The man doesn't fall off the ladder but he is hindered from going up. He kicks out but Jongin ducks, managing to hold onto the pants and climb up higher to try and wrestle Kyungsoo from the man's grip.
"Let him go!" he shouts angrily but the man pushes his large hand into Jongin's face so that he loses his balance for a moment. He climbs up higher but Jongin recovers and grips him again, yanking on his arm while evading the punches the man throws. "Never," the man sneers even though he is out of breath from fighting. "He stole something that's mine and I'm getting it back."
"Kyungsoo would never steal anything!" Jongin argues back and slings an arm around Kyungsoo's waist, trying to pull him out of the man's arms.
"If you think you know him so well, you probably saw him carrying around a little glowing gem. It's mine!" The man's eyes flash with greed.
Jongin halts for a stunned moment, looking down at his chest covered by the warm ball of fur that is Tonggu where he can feel the beating of his heart. The movement of his head does not escape the kidnapper and when he follows Jongin's line of vision, his eyes turn into thin, cunning slits. "Oho. So you are the clay thing this boy made?"
"I'm not a thing!" Jongin says impulsively to defend himself against the stinging pain the man's words cause him even though he doesn't know why.
The man throws his head back and lets out a loud, ugly laugh. "So it's true. Well then, come with me, be a guest on my humble ship."
Jongin feels hot but he doesn't know if it's from anger or from something else. All he knows is that he doesn't like this man. "I don't want to be your guest," he says with furrowed brows. "I just want Kyungsoo and to go home."
In that moment, Tonggu stretches his head out of Jongin's shirt and bites the kidnapper in the wrist. With a pained cry, he drops Kyungsoo. "No," shouts Jongin as he reaches out but can't grab Kyungsoo quickly enough and, horrified, has to watch him fall down into the ocean with a splash. The man spits out a string of curses but then he grips Jongin by the hairs on the back of his neck, pulls Tonggu out of his shirt and flings the little dog into the water as well. Jongin cries and throws punches but suddenly the man pulls a big knife out of his belt and sets the tip on Jongin's chest. Jongin freezes in fear. If he makes just the tiniest move, the blade will slice his chest open. His whole body feels too hot and he sweats in fear.
"So you want to go home, huh?" The man sneers coldly. "It's not very nice to refuse an invitation. But don't worry, I will let you join your little friends soon." He laughs darkly again. "But first, I will take back what's mine!" He lifts his arm and Jongin realizes that he is about to ram the knife straight into his chest to carve out his heart when suddenly the wall of the ship behind the man bursts into flame and sets the rope ladder and the man's clothes on fire. He sheaths the knife and tries to hit the burning patches on his clothes to put out the fire and Jongin struggles free from his grip. But the smouldering ropes can't support their weight any longer and rip beneath Jongin's feet. He tries to grip a rope further up but his hands slip and then he's falling. He can see Chanyeol's head of wild, orange hair poking out of the hole he burned into the side of the ship and his hand shooting out to grip the man's arm, but then Jongin's back collides with the water and the waves close over his head. He sinks like a stone.
When Kyungsoo opens his eyes, he realizes he is heavy and wet, and with panic he notes that he is in the water out in the ocean. Something is keeping him afloat but it is too dark to see. Only a flickering light like a fire can be seen some way away. Something close to him makes splashing sounds. "Tonggu!" The little dog is paddling in the water beside him. When Kyungsoo reaches out to him, he scrambles up his arm and drapes himself dripping wet over Kyungsoo's shoulder.
"Can you reach the boat?" A gentle voice says. It is Suho's. Kyungsoo realizes that it must have been the water god who kept him floating with his head safely above the water while he was unconscious. He can make out the rowing boat not too far away and swims towards it, pulling himself up into it.
"Suho, what happened? Where is Jongin?"
Suho points to the fire. "Chanyeol is fighting your enemy. Jongin… sank to the bottom of the ocean."
"No!" Kyungsoo cries.
Suho lowers his eyes sadly. "He does not die but he cannot move on his own down there." The waves around them are still and reflect the stars in the night sky like a mirror. Kyungsoo remembers how he sat on his parents' porch and looked up, feeling as if the stars where just within his reach. He squares his jaw, determination hardening his eyes and he says to Suho.
"I will carry him up. Dive with me, Suho. Make an air bubble around my head!" He slips back into the water.
"It is deep. And dark," Suho warns him even as he lifts his arms and draws a circle in the air around Kyungsoo's head. Kyungsoo nods but nothing will keep him from saving Jongin. He just knows he will find him. So Suho nods at him, too, and then they dive headfirst into the water. Kyungsoo parts the water with his hands and pushes himself forward with his legs, keeping his eyes wide open even though there is only blackness around him. He doesn't know for how long he dives deeper and deeper down into the ocean but at one point his hand touches a rock and he knows he has reached the bottom. His breaths sound loud in the air bubble around his head. Everything else is of a silence as pressuring as the water on his skin at this depth. His chest feels constricted but he feels his way along the bottom of the ocean, weaving between rocks for what feels like endless hours in the dark. Sometimes he can feel Suho's presence near him and it is the only thing reassuring him that he isn't walking in the land of the dead. And then, as he steps around another rock, he thinks he sees something glimmering in the distance. Praying it is not a trick of the mind, he moves towards it, breaths coming shorter as the air slowly starts to run out. The glowing becomes a little stronger and suddenly, unexpectedly, Kyungsoo bumps into something soft. Feeling with his fingertips, he touches a familiar chest and almost shouts in the heart-shaking relief he feels.
He found Jongin. He's right here. The glowing comes from his chest, the Heart of Eternal Fire beating steadily. The faint glow that can be seen through his chest in absolute darkness made it look like he was farther away than he actually was. Kyungsoo wraps his arms around Jongin's waist and pushes his legs off the floor of the ocean as hard as he can, swimming with all his strength upwards. The air is running out and he can feel himself becoming dizzy. White spots dance in front of his eyes but still he swims on and on and carries Jongin's leaden weight with him, even despite the burn in his muscles and the screaming need for air in his lungs. He feels water pushing into his nostrils and an ache pounding in his head but then, finally, his arm breaks through the water surface and then his head comes up and he draws air into his lungs. It feels like his first and his last breath at the same time. Somehow he makes it back to the boat and with the last bit of strength, he pushes Jongin in it and heaves his own body in before he falls asleep.
Suho quietly pops his head out of the water next to the little boat and squints into the distance just in time to see the ship go up in flames, lighting the night as bright as day for a moment and in the light, he can make out the dark shadow of the wings of a black dragon rising into the air. So the evil sorcerer managed to escape after all. The interesting days are not over yet. He gives the little rowing boat a gentle push and sends it on its softly swaying way back towards the shore.
About a week later, Kyungsoo's father returns from the capital and the king's contest in high spirits. He made the first price and brings great honour back home to the Do's pottery. He is surprised to find the black box gone and a guest in his house instead, a boy of about Kyungsoo's age, he'd say. They both bow deeply before him and ask if the boy can become an apprentice in the potter's workshop. Seeing as the fame that comes with winning the competition will bring him many customers, the man doesn't have to think about it very long. And so it comes that Jongin starts his apprenticeship as a potter. The boys keep the secret of his origin hidden for now, even though they know that Kyungsoo's father will eventually hear about it from the rumours going around in the village's gossip.
"Why did you save me that day?" Jongin asks quietly one day, on one of the last warm evenings in autumn that the boys spend sitting on the porch. "You got hurt really badly and you almost drowned."
Kyungsoo is looking up at the sky, watching the fading sunlight pouring purples and violets between the clouds and a single star lights up in fiery orange near the horizon. It reminds him of the glow of Jongin's heart that lead Kyungsoo to him in the darkness of the deep sea. Now, he's sitting beside Kyungsoo, more precious to him than any of the stars in the sky. He hums as he thinks of a way to answer Jongin's question, feeling a deep warmth in his chest. "It's friendship, Jongin,” he says eventually, “you save the people you love even if it means getting hurt in the process."
Jongin leans his head on Kyungsoo's shoulder and hugs him close, his quiet breaths trembling almost imperceptibly.
"Besides, I healed, didn't I?" Kyungsoo says softly, lightly, and smiles. "That's just how life goes."
Jongin tilts his head so he can look at Kyungsoo's face which is turned up as if he is bathing in the moonlight, his lips forming a heart-shaped smile. It's the most wonderful thing to be alive, Jongin thinks.