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Title: In The Land Between
Rating: PG
Pairing: Seulgi/Irene
Summary: Hearts know nothing of man-made walls.



In The Land Between | Part II

The bloc was chaotic. People worked to clean up the destruction from the air raid. Men and women dug, salvaging what they could. Anyone whose homes were completely destroyed would be assigned a shelter to stay in until clean up was complete and building could start. The others would have to make due with what was left or find other places to go.

Seulgi came up on her house. Jongin and his father were there along with a few builders. Seulgi recognized the wood they were using was from the lumbar yard her father worked for. It was strong wood. Sturdy. Helping the builders were some of the choppers Seulgi worked beside in the past.

Catching sight of her, Jongin climbed off his ladder. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take. We have to rebuild almost the entire bloc.”

Seulgi knew it would take more than weeks. There were other towns like theirs, other blocs that had faced the same ruin, that had yet to come back from what was wrought upon them. People had grown so used to it that they just salvage what they could and move on to what they had. Patched up houses, lodging with others, building temporary dwellings just to stay out of the rain. Seulgi was grateful for the tavern.

“I’m going to the woods,” she told him.

Jongin’s face darkened. “It’s not safe. I heard there were prisoners from Farside who escaped during the raid in there.”

Seulgi’s shoulders tightened when she thought about Joohyun. “I have to fetch blocks for bartering. We need it.”

“If you’re not back in two hours time…”

Seulgi nodded and hurried off. Her satchel bounced off her hip, thick with a roll of clothes and what little food she could take without the others realizing. Switching course from the yards, she headed into the woods, stopping every so often to listen for any followers. When she heard none, she kept on, making a weaving path through the thicket into the grove. She approached the den slowly, surveying her surroundings before ducking at the entrance.

“Joohyun?”

“Seulgi?” She crawled from the den, fist rubbing at her eyes that squinted in the sunlight. “I didn’t think you’d come back.”

Taking the roll from her pack, she handed it over. “These should fit.”

Joohyun looked embarrassedly down at her dress. The skirt was frayed and the white held a hint of dirt. “I don't know what to say…”

“There’s a creek nearby where you can wash. I’ll show you.”

Joohyun hesitated. “What about…”

“Put on those clothes. They’ll disguise you better.”

Taking the roll, Joohyun slipped back into the den. Seulgi waited, eyes scanning the area. They'd be covered better when they went in deeper. Once Joohyun was finished, Seulgi started off.

The walk to the creek led through overgrown brush and along a splintering path of sticks and twigs. The smell of dampness gave to the view of water. The creek was shallow. A result of a dryer rainy season. The surface rippled as a turtle came up for a gulp of air and waved with the gentle current of a runoff coming from a stream deeper in the woods close to the western strip of the Wall.

Seulgi crouched at the edge. Dipping her hands in, she scooped water into her palms and took a sip. The earthy flavors reminded her of fishing with her father. When they finished up their canteens of well water and scooped it straight out of the creek to go with the buttered bread and sliced meat her mother packed for them.

Looking over her shoulder, Seulgi found Joohyun watching her a few paces away. The sunlight made her skin glow the way snowflakes did when light caught them just right. She was beautiful. Not even being someone from Farside could diminish that. She wondered if all of the rich from Farside held such an ethereal glow.

“It’s okay. Look.” Seulgi took another sip and licked her lips.

Joohyun soon joined, crouching ungracefully at the edge. She shuddered when her hands touched the chilly water and grimaced when the taste hit her tongue. “It doesn’t taste very good.”

“It’s better if you boil it. That's what you're supposed to do. If you don’t, you’ll get sick, but it's okay if you drink a little like this.” She smiled at Joohyun’s scrunched nose. Things like the woods and streams and fishing must’ve been foreign to her. She wouldn't make it very long in the woods at that rate. “My father and I had a special wood yard.” Reaching into her satchel, Seulgi pulled out a metal, tin case. Inside was a flint rock and a chunk of steel. “Use this. I’ll leave blocks at the edges for you to collect when there are no patrols.”

Joohyun eyes widened. “You shouldn't.”

“Keep it," She urged. “Until we can find a way for you to get back over the wall.”

Joohyun closed her fingers around the case, a frown crossing her face. Seulgi thought sadness didn't belong on a face like that. From the faint smile lines etched into her skin, Seulgi knew she must've known a better time, an abundance of happiness, before all of this. She wondered what her story was.

“Why are you being so nice to me?”

Seulgi was struck speechless. She didn't really know. There was something about Joohyun that hit her in the woods the day of the raid. Something stirred up in her, bypassing all fear and apprehension. Something that pushed her toward Joohyun that she couldn't ignore.

“I’m waiting for someone to come home,” said Seulgi. “I think someone’s waiting for you, too.”

Joohyun’s smile was sad as she pocketed the tin case. “Thank you.”

-/-/-/-

She’d gotten a fair pile of blocks when Jongin showed carrying an ax over his shoulder.

“Can I help?”

On her nod, he picked up a log and set it up. They chopped until sweat glistened on their brows and slid down the line of their backs. Seulgi’s arms burned from fatigue and she placed her ax down to grab her canteen.

“I think that’s enough,” said Jongin.

Seulgi agreed. The pile was enough to split amongst them both and barter. She’d be able to get a few more supplies from the market and some ingredients she heard her mother and Yerim’s whispering about while they prepared dinner.

They took a break in the shade of an old tree, sharing a canteen of warm water and a chunk of bread and cheese. The air was muggy with the hint of rain soon to come. Seulgi thought about Joohyun in the den. A light shower would be fine, but the den wasn't the best shelter for a storm.

“I heard they’re drafting again,” said Jongin. He took a long sip and handed it to Seulgi. “They think we’re close to the end. With the allies we formed with Eastward and Oceanshore, we’re sure to win.”

Seulgi had stopped keeping up with news on the war. It was too much to stomach. Death tolls, bombed towns, worsening conditions. She couldn’t bear to take that all in every day. Five years of destruction was a lot to handle.

“Do you remember why the war started?”

They were both young at the time. Too young to wonder or understand what was really going on. Seulgi knew her mother kept a lot of things from her until she started asking a few years later after her father left and she'd find her mother crying about it on some nights. Even with what she learned in classes or she heard in passing conversations told at the Woodshop in the past, she still wasn't compeltely sure why. She didn't think the people of Otherside reallt knew why.

Jongin sat back on his hands, head tilted up to the sky. “No, not really.”

“Then what would you be fighting for?”

“For you,” he said, no conviction. His eyes caught hers, deep and focused. Seulgi blinked away. “For everyone and everything they took from us. I could be out there, fighting them directly. I could do something.”

Seulgi frowned. Did Jongin know? Surely he knew of how many families were incomplete with the absence of fathers, and brothers, and sons, and sisters, and daughters that the war had stolen and eaten leaving only their memories and heartaches.

“You’re just as useful here.”

Jongin shook his head. “I could be more useful out there.”

Seulgi wasn’t sure about that. She looked over at him. The way the sun touched his face made Seulgi’s chest twinge at the thought of it scared up with eyes darkened by the scenes of war.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she muttered. “I don’t want you to go.” No matter how selfish it sounded. Jongin had become a trusted friend and a hope for better times. She didn't want that to disappear. Losing another good part in her life would be too much.

Jongin smiled down at her. “We should get back."

"Okay."

Seulgi made sure to leave a few smaller blocks for Joohyun find.

-/-/-/-

The sky was so clear, it was hard to believe just days ago it had been blotched out by smoke. Seulgi squinted up into the pale, blue expanse, watching a flock of birds fly by through the trees. She waited until they settled again and let the woods go silent before she moved on again. Days after the raid, the patrols had settled down making the woods safer to travel, but she still kept her guard. She made her rounds through the thicket before, during, and after she met with Joohyun just to make sure.

Returning to the grove on her second round, she found Joohyun sitting amongst the flowers, nibbling on a lunch she had brought. She smiled when she saw Seulgi break through the trees.

“It’s been quiet.”

“Too quiet,” said Seulgi sitting down with her. It should set her at ease finding little to no traces of patrollers in the area. Instead, it unsettled her.

“Should I be worried?”

“No. We’ve been careful and this isn’t an easy area to find.” Not even her mother could or Yerim even though she knew about it. She and her father made sure of it. It was their own little hideaway just between them. Anyone who stumbled on it would just see another, ever day, piece of the woods.

“Thank you, again." Joohyun handed her a slice of apple. "For all of this.”

Seulgi smiled as she chewed. “How did you end up here?”

Joohyun’s smile faded. “My father was the Chief Secretary, right hand to Chancellor Son. A week before the air raid, he was executed on the gallows with others suspected of being spies. Our name was tarnished. My mother knew they’d come for us next and they did. A councilman came to our house and asked her to come down for questioning. She told me to run and not to come back. So, I did.”

“Maybe she’s looking for you?”

Joohyun shook her head. “Even if she was alive, she'd never find me. Not here."

“My father left to fight in the war. I don’t know if he's coming back, either.”

“Maybe it's better not knowing for sure?”

“Maybe.” But it still ate at her at the worst of times.

Joohyun gave her a pained smile and Seulgi knew. The pain was shared on both sides of the wall and it haunted them all. “What’s it like outside of the woods?”

“It's nothing now,” Seulgi answered, sadly. “It's hard to remember how things were before the war.”

Back when things were sound. When her family was whole. When war was just a scary story in a book and scrounging for resources was never a thought. She tried hard to remember a time when she was happy - truly happy - and life was carefree and simple and easy. She tried but she hardly could. She'd resigned herself to accept the state of things as her life now. Cleaving to the past, reminiscing on days that were no longer obtainable, was unnecessary torture.

“Everyone is so tired of fighting and nothing seems to get better. Sometimes I think the Governor has given up.”

Joohyun’s brow wrinkled. “Your Governor, he’s the head power here?”

“Yes, Governor Park.” Seulgi remembered seeing his daughter at the schoolhouse before she left to help in the yards. She didn’t see very many others from the schoolhouse nowadays.

“Is he...can you trust him?”

“I think so.”

Joohyun nodded, eyes casting out across the colorful grove that surrounded them. “What are these?”

“Moss rose. My mother uses them to make medicines and oils for her patients.” Seulgi plucked one from the ground. Its golden petals were warm beneath the setting sunlight. “Before my father left, he gave me a bouquet of these. He told me to count the petals until he returned. When I get scared, or during a raid, I pull off the petals and count them until it's over.”

“I’ll do the same,” said Joohyun, taking up a pink one that matched the warm blush in her cheeks. She twirled it in her fingers. “Every morning until you come back to see me.”

Seulgi ducked her head, burning face hidden behind the veil of her hair. “It's getting late. You should hide now.”

The corners of Joohyun's mouth tugged downward. Seeing it pained Seulgi. She didn't want to go as much as Joohyun wanted her to stay. “Will you tell me more about Otherside tomorrow?”

Seulgi nodded. “Tomorrow.”

Grabbing her satchel, she waited until Joohyun was safely in the den before heading back. Yerim was at the tavern when she returned, scrubbing the last of the washing in a large basin on the porch. It must’ve been her afternoon off from the sick house.

“Where were you?” she asked.

“In the woods.”

“Why?”

“At the secret spot.”

Yerim crossed her arms. “Why did you pack extra clothes this morning?”

Seulgi stilled. If there was anyone she could trust with this, it was Yerim. Taking her by the wrist, she led Yerim to the back of the tavern between drapes of sheets and blouses that blew in the wind where they hung out to dry. Seulgi checked around the corner once more.

“Seulgi, what is going on?”

“I’m helping someone. A girl.” She lowered her voice. “She’s from Farside.”

“Farside?” Yerim blanched. “You're joking."

“She’s not what we think.”

Yerim blinked. “You're serious.”

“Why would I lie about this?”

“I wish you were,“ she bit. “Where did you even meet?”

“In the woods after the air raid.” Seulgi hurried to continue before Yerim could talk against her again, “she was scared and lost. Her family is gone.”

Yerim scoffed. “Most of our families are gone, too, and by the hands of her kind.”

“I had to help her.”

“You didn’t have to do anything for her. You should’ve left her there.”

“And let the patrollers get a hold of her?”

“Yes! That’s what you’re supposed to do.”

“I couldn't.” She knew she should've done it. She knew the law. But how could she have carried it out? If Yerim was there, if she saw how terrified and broken Joohyun was, she would've helped her, too, wouldn't she?

Yerim let out frustrated breath. “What’s going to happen when someone finds out?”

“They won’t.” Seulgi would do everything in her power to keep anyone from finding Joohyun - from hurting her.

“Where is she now?” Yerim asked. When Seulgi didn’t answer she snapped. “Are you hiding her in the den?”

“It’s the safest place!”

“For who? She’s not the only one in danger anymore. You’ll be tried for treason, and now that you’ve told me, they’ll question me, too. How can I lie to them?”

Seulgi panicked. “You have to.”

“I can’t believe you!”

“I’m sorry.” She truly was. Her act of kindness was a death sentence. She hadn’t thought it out completely until now - until Yerim reminded her of what helping Joohyun would cost them all. But that didn’t change anything. If she could go back to that day, to that moment she saw Joohyun’s tear-streaked face, she would’ve done just the same.

“You can’t go back.”

“You don’t understand.”

“No, you don’t understand!”

Seulgi knew she only spoke out of fear. The things they were told about Farside were dastardly. They painted Farsiders to be nothing but filthy people full of greed and pride and no compassion. In the midst of war, that was easy to believe. It appeared that they showed no mercy for those suffering on this side of the wall. It was easy to hate them. Hate all of them. And Seulgi had...until she started to see behind the veil of hatred. Until she saw the worn out faces of those taken down to Row in the past. Until she met Joohyun in the woods.

“Yerim, please. If you only-”

“If only I what? Knew her? She’s no one to me. You are. Think about your mother. Think about Youngsoo. He needs you.”

Seulgi’s mouth clicked shut The thought of losing what was left of her family pained her. The thought of leaving them behind for such a selfless, yet careless act, broke her. But this was what she chose and there was no going back on it now.

“I can’t promise you I won’t go back.”

“I know.”

Seulgi blinked back up to her. “Please, don’t tell.”

“I won’t.” Yerim softened. “Because I need you, too.”

-/-/-/-

The market was busy once again. It always took a while after a raid before people felt safe to go out and return to their normal lives. Seulgi weaved through people, wagon of goods to trade rolling behind her. She didn’t have much this time around. She hoped Yerim was doing better in the blocs trading check up services for simple necessities.

The bell on the Mercantile door jingled as Seulgi walked in. The smell of fresh honey bread was warm and delicious. Seulgi eyed the basket of paper wrapped loaves on the counter. They were the shopkeeper’s specialty. A little treat she made to keep spirits up in dark times. Seulgi’s mouth watered. She knew Youngsoo would love one but she hardly had enough to barter for the things they needed.

“Ah, Seulgi,” Sunny, the shopkeeper, greeted as she came up from the back. Her cheeks were rosy red from the oven. “Your mother was in here just the other day. Tell her that red moss rose soup did the trick. Cough is all gone.”

“I’ll let her know.” She dropped a sack of onions on the counter. “What can I get for these and a parcel of firewood blocks?”

Sunny took out one of the onions and examined it in her fingers. “What do you need?”

“Grain and flour. Maybe tomatoes.”

“Tomatoes I can’t. How about beets?”

“Beets are okay.”

“Can you bring me a few more of these?” she asked, shaking the onions before packing them away. “I’ll throw in a half case of eggs. I have a few extra.”

“You don’t have to.”

Sunny dismissed her with a wave of the hand. “It’s done. You can leave the wood in the trough by the hay. I’ll be right back.” Taking the onions, she stalked off.

Wheeling the wagon across the store, Seulgi lugged the bundle into the trough. They dropped heavily to the bottom and that’s when she realized. Everything else was quiet. Seulgi looked around. Through the storefront windows, she could see everyone at a standstill, heads turned down the main road. Walking over, her stomach dropped at the sight coming up the path.

There had to be twenty of them. Prisoners from Farside, draped in rugged clothing with dirty faces. Some were bruised, some were beaten. They trudged along with chains strapped to their wrists and ankles lead by Otherside soldiers with their heads high and deep, forest green uniforms crisp. The sight was chilling, but even more so was the familiar face amongst them. There was a proud glint in Jongin’s eyes as he marched with the soldiers in his newly issued uniform, fist clenched tightly around a chain connected to an elderly man who walked with a strong stride and a steel face unwilling to look weak in front of the enemies who had condemned him.

“I wish they’d take a different route,” Sunny grumbled coming back up to the front. “We have enough despair as it is, no one need to see it paraded right in front of them.”

Seulgi’s eyes jumped from one prisoner to the next. Each looked so worn, so broken, so wrecked. Her heart didn’t stop racing until she was sure Joohyun wasn’t amongst them. But the knots in her stomach didn't ease. What if some of those prisoners were ones like Joohyun? Ones who’d snuck over the wall trying to escape persecution from their own kind? What about those who were innocent? What about those mothers and those children? Did no one care to find out? Or maybe they just didn’t care at all.

“I’d stay in tonight,” said Sunny, handing Seulgi a burlap sack. Her normal smile was gone, replaced by a tight jaw and a hardness around her eyes. “You know what’s going to happen.”

She did. And she already had no appetite. “Thank you, Sunny.”

“Hey.” She tossed Seulgi two loaves. “Chin up, girly.”

-/-/-/-

Smoke filled up the night sky like clouds.

“Seul, what’s that?” asked Youngsoo.

Seulgi followed his pointing finger out the window to the wisps of fire that flickered like lightning bugs in the distance. It made her sick to her stomach. How did you explain to a child the lives that were being taken away?

“Away from the window. It’s time for supper.” She swept him up onto her hip where he started pulling at one of her braids. Seulgi playfully bit at his little arm, growling like a monster making him giggle. Hearing him laugh eased a portion of the heaviness. It was a reminder that even in the dark times, the littlest things could bring the greatest bursts of joy. Seulgi's chest fizzled. Seeing Joohyun's face had become one of those little things.

She placed Youngsoo into a seat beside Yerim’s mother who gave him a spoon for his bowl of mash she prepared after coming home from work in the daycare. Yerim came from the back, dressed down and washed from spending the day at one of the sick houses.

“Where’s my mother?”

Yerim sat down next to Youngsoo. “Still working.”

Seulgi glanced at the plate waiting for her. “I’m going there.”

“Take a lantern,” said Yerim’s mother.

Seulgi grabbed one on her way out after stepping into her boots. Night was calm. Eerily so. Burning nights were always that way. No matter how much others wanted the war to be done, how much they despised those from Farside for their state of living, how good it felt to get back at them, knowing that smoke carried away souls always brought a sort of uneasiness that drew doors closed and windows shut tight.

Seulgi passed few on her way. Since the raid, her mother had been putting in more time at the sick house. The sick houses were small things, built up quickly to house the injured. Her mother worked at one of the ones further off on the other side of the Central Council Building. She waited outside on the porch until her mother came out, medic bag hanging off her shoulder. She looked troubled and her shoulders were weighted with fatigue.

“Mama.”

Her mother brightened when she caught Seulgi’s face in the lantern light. “What’re you doing out here?”

“I wanted to walk you home.” Taking the bag from her mother’s shoulder, she slung it over her own. Looping her arm around her’s, Seulgi kept close, lantern lighting up the path as it swung in her other hand. They walked quietly, gravel crunching beneath shoes a haunting chorus to the orange and yellow swirling in the night. “I don’t like the burnings.”

“Me neither.”

“Why do we stay? Why don’t we leave like others have? We could go to Oceanshore. I heard the planes don’t fly that far.”

“Not yet they don't.”

“It could be safer than this.”

“But this is our home.”

“Where do those who have no home go?”

Her mother looked over at her, brow creasing in sadness and uncertainty. Seulgi couldn't help but think of Joohyun. Of those in the fire. What if their homes were destroyed, too, and the only way to stay alive was to cross into enemy territory? What if Seulgi had been in Joohyun’s shoes? Would someone from Farside show them the same kindness or would they strap chains onto their wrists and toss their lifeless bodies into trenches?

It didn’t seem right. It didn’t seem fair. Seulgi had never felt such contention before.

“Sometimes death is the only way for some to find home again.”

“I wouldn’t want to die.” And she knew Joohyun didn’t want to either. “You wouldn’t let me die.”

“Where is this coming from?”

“Them.” Seulgi pointed toward the smoke. “I saw them in the market. You’ve seen them, too. They aren’t all Farside soldiers. What if they’re innocent? Why do they have to die, too?”

“That’s how things are.”

“They don’t have to be. Do they?”

“No.” Her mother stopped just outside the tavern. Her eyes swept the yard. “Let’s sit down.”

Seulgi sank onto one of the log stools on the porch. Her mother eased down beside her, sigh leaving her lips as she relaxed back against the wood. Soft light from the window touched her face showing the lines of age and stress painted there. The war was kind to no one.

“When I first began working with the sick,” started her mother, voice hushed. “There was a man who was brought into the sick house. He was severely beaten up, had burns on the soles of his feet and scars all over his back. Days went by and no one came to claim him or identify who he was. It wasn’t until he woke up that I learned he wasn’t from here. He was so scared. He kept saying they’d hang him, that they wouldn’t show any mercy, and begged me to spare him.”

“What did you do?”

“I don’t know why, but I believed what he said about what Farside would do to him if he returned. So I treated his wounds like he was one of our own. He came to trust me and I told him of the neighboring towns where I knew he’d be safer than here. When he was well enough, he left.”

Seulgi warmed. “You saved him.”

Her mother shook her head. Sorrow washed across her face. “A week later, he was paraded through the market. He saw me there, fell to his knees asking me for his life. I pretended that I didn’t know who he was.”

“But why…”

“I couldn’t leave you and Youngsoo behind.”

Seulgi understood. To admit she knew the man from Farside, that she helped him get well and escape instead of turning him in, she would’ve been imprisoned. Their family would be shamed much like Joohyun’s was. Would she have had to run, too? Would she have been so lucky to find a kind soul in another place that would show her compassion and mercy? Seulgi wanted to believe so, but she knew souls like her own and her mothers were not easy to come by.

A thumb brushed at her cheek, clearing away a tear that had slipped there. “We can only do so much, Seul.”

She knew that.

But she had to do more.

Part III


AN: Hello everyone, from returning readers to those just tuned in. Hope you're enjoying yourself so far. Very few little nuggets of hints hidden in here but many more huge pieces of the puzzle to be added in the next chapter. Let me know what you think and all that jazz. I'll see you on the next update :D

 
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