pairing: kangin x leeteuk
summary: all kangin wants is to be real.
notes: just as plagiarized as the title suggests. I regret nothing.
The block is set down on a wooden floor.
It’s traveled a long and bumpy road from the quarry where it was first cut, full of unpleasant sounds and dark places and grumpy voices. It has been run into walls and doors and other things that it can’t identify, each time accompanied by an angry burst of swearing. But the floor feels stable, not like a cart or the back of a truck.
There’s a scratching sound of pen on paper and a “thank you, that’s all” from a man with a voice the block hasn’t heard before today. It’s different than the other voices, higher, happier. The block likes this voice. A door closes as someone leaves; the block hopes the voice is still here.
It’s the good voice. The block realizes it is being addressed, but can say nothing in response.
“I have big plans for you,” the voice continues. “Marble isn’t really in my budget right now, but sometimes you get an idea and plain old paint just won’t do, you know how it is. I wanted to make strength, so nothing but stone would work, and there’s no stone that can seem quite so human—so alive—as marble. So here we are. I’m calling you Kangin, kang for strength, in for benevolence. I wanted to try to portray both together.”
The white sheen of Kangin’s exterior brightens a bit. A name. Kangin had never imagined being given a name, nor the infectious sound the voice would give to that word—alive. Kangin wants it without really understanding what it means, just so the voice will say it like that again.
The floor creaks in a circle of footsteps around Kangin, then away and back, accompanied by a clinking of metal tools. Kangin feels a crack, crack, crack—then a piece of marble breaks clean off.
“I like to imagine when I’m sculpting that there’s a person in here who I’m freeing from a stone prison,” the voice says. And that’s just how Kangin feels. The world becomes clearer as piece after piece breaks away, a blunt awareness of light and dark giving way to colors and shapes, a dull sensation of touch becoming sharp and specific. It doesn’t hurt, really, but is more like you might feel getting a cast removed. The newly revealed rock feels raw and vulnerable touching air for the first time.
Kangin is anxious to be rid of all the excess stone, but the process isn’t finished at the end of that day, nor the next, nor the next. Over the course of the first week, Kangin learns several things. The voice is a young man. Kangin can’t see well enough yet to make out his features, but he seems to be on the smaller, slighter side. Other people who come into the room call him Leeteuk, except for his mother and sister, who answer “Jungsoo-yah” every day when he calls them. Jungsoo sounds more like him.
Every once in a while Kangin hears people coming and going in other adjacent rooms, always announced by a bell that tells Jungsoo he has a visitor. They never walk through the door to Kangin’s room, save one, a middle-aged woman who pokes her head in.
“What have we got here?” she asks.
“He’s a work in progress,” Jungsoo says with a proud smile at Kangin. So Kangin is a he. He thinks that sounds just right.
Jungsoo doesn’t work on him every day. Sometimes Jungsoo will get a phone call from some loud, annoyed sounding person and Kangin will hardly see him for days on end, though he’ll always come in while he’s brushing his teeth or combing his hair or sweeping the floors and give Kangin a long, hard look, as if he’s trying to make out the shape of the human in the rough marble. Maybe he’ll even walk over and make a chip here or there—then he’ll turn around and walk right back out. Other times, he’ll carry a half-finished piece in with him and sit down with it, a frustrated look on his face, pointing out all its flaws and asking Kangin what he should do about it. Even though Kangin doesn’t know anything about art, somehow Jungsoo always manages to find a solution to his problem after talking to him.
Kangin realizes that these breaks are how Jungsoo makes money. Jungsoo will bring in a painting or a sculpture and hold it up to Kangin, asking, “Do you think this looks ready?” Kangin can’t answer, of course, or even really see whatever Jungsoo is holding, but nonetheless Jungsoo will give a satisfied nod and say, “Well, if you think it is, then it is.” Not long after, some stranger will come in with money, and that will be the last Kangin ever hears of that piece. Sometimes Kangin wonders if this is what will happen to him someday, but he tries not to think about it.
Once a month an angry man who Jungsoo calls the landlord comes in looking for rent. Kangin’s not sure what rent is, but it must be very difficult to find, because sometimes Jungsoo doesn’t have it. He always spends a little more time with Kangin right after he has rent. Sometimes he says wild things like “this time I’m locking myself in this room and not answering to anybody until I’m finished with you.” Kangin learns not to expect too much from these declarations after the first few times.
Still, it’s not as though Jungsoo has abandoned him. Far from it. Month by month, piece by piece, the excess stone is chipped away, so that Kangin can finally begin to feel the shape of what Jungsoo wants him to become. The tools become smaller and more focused, each adjustment tinier and tinier. As his body becomes more defined, Kangin’s senses are fine-tuned as well. He knows the light scratch of the charcoal Jungsoo uses to trace areas to be cut away, the tickle of bristles brushing off chipped rock and dust, the fine roughness of the hem of Jungsoo’s old, stained work jeans as it accidentally rubs against Kangin’s foot. His hearing improves, and now he can discern sounds outside his own room, and eavesdrops on the conversations of the paintings in the other workshop. They’re mostly inane and all annoying, and Kangin isn’t sad to be separated from them.
The only feeling he still knows nothing about is Jungsoo’s skin. Jungsoo is always very careful not to touch him, for some reason about staining and skin oils that he’s only half explained, like most of the things he says. Kangin supposes he’ll never find out.
Besides the increasing clarity of his senses, Kangin also notices an increasing clarity in his mind. He can’t explain it, but the more Jungsoo talks to him, the easier it feels to think, and when Jungsoo leaves him alone for a few days, he starts to feel dull and confused and blockish again.
It’s not until month ten, though, that Kangin can finally see clearly. Jungsoo walks in carrying a new tool, a flat piece of rough, toothed metal that he calls a rasp.
“You’re getting a proper face today,” he says. If Kangin could talk, he would point out that his toes haven’t even been marked out of the undefined blocks that make up his feet, but Jungsoo looks determined. He scrapes at a few spots on Kangin’s forehead, cheekbones, and jaw, but quickly moves onto his eyes, defining eyelids out of the roughly formed sockets. Every so often he walks out of Kangin’s view and comes back holding a piece of clay, a model that is the only way Kangin has of knowing what he looks like. Jungsoo will stare at the model for a moment, then at Kangin, then back, and make a tiny scrape before repeating the process. He mutters to himself, but it’s all “that needs to be softer,” “the angle there is wrong,” none of the cheerful, idle chatter Kangin is used to hearing when Jungsoo works. He’s concentrating. Kangin knows this part is important. For the first time, he feels the closest to what he could call pain, not an unpleasant feeling, but an urgency to each grain of dust as Jungsoo shaves away the last of the barrier between vision and reality. It almost seems like, with one wrong move, Kangin would start bleeding out of the mistake like an open wound—but Jungsoo’s hand is steady and sure and Kangin knows he won’t lose a single speck of what is truly him.
Finally, the job is done. Jungsoo gently brushes away the last of the dust, and when he pulls his hand back, the world, once blurry colors and obscured lines, is completely clear.
“Can you see me?” Jungsoo asks, leaning in close to inspect his work. “Hello!” He waves, then breaks into giggles, his cheeks creasing with dimples on either side of his lips. A layer of white dust lays on his hair and is kicked up every time he moves. Kangin can see a similarity between Jungsoo and himself in the way his eyes turn up when he smiles, but also differences: Jungsoo’s face is slimmer and more elflike, giving him a delicate appearance. It’s not just his face that looks delicate, either. Despite the lines of lean muscle Kangin can now make out on his upper body, Jungsoo’s frame reminds Kangin of the wine glass that Jungsoo brought in once and accidentally tipped over, that fell five inches to the table’s surface and shattered. He is fragile. And while Jungsoo is always telling Kangin that he has to be careful because marble is so easy to break, Kangin can’t help but think that people are more breakable by far.
“Hold on a second,” Jungsoo says, then runs out of the room. He comes back carrying his laptop with one hand, punching its keys with the other. The laptop emits a low, rhythmic beeping for a few seconds, followed by a crackle. “Inyoung?” Jungsoo asks.
“Is there something wrong?” Kangin hears her reply. He’s used to the sound of her voice by now. Occasionally Jungsoo will bring in his computer to show her how his work is coming along, but he always stands far enough back that Kangin has never been able to see her face clearly. Kangin imagines her as Jungsoo with longer hair. “You don’t usually call this early…” She sounds like she’s suppressing a yawn; Kangin remembers that she’s out of the country studying, and it’s always earlier there than it is here, so Jungsoo usually doesn’t call her until late at night.
“Come look at what I did today,” Jungsoo says. He bounds over to Kangin and holds the computer up close. “He’s really coming together now.”
“Can he see me?” Inyoung asks. Kangin finally can. Her appearance isn’t entirely similar to Jungsoo’s, but the fact that the first question out of her mouth is the same as his makes it obvious that they’re related.
“Of course he can. He’s not blind.”
“Oh, obviously. Why did I even ask?” She chuckles. “You know, Jungsoo, your customers might start to think you’re crazy if you start introducing them to all your art.”
He turns the computer back around toward himself with a surprised and slightly embarrassed laugh. “Noona!”
“If I get a call from the local psychiatric ward next week…”
“Kangin, you don’t think I’m crazy, do you?” He looks up at Kangin for a few moments, then back at Inyoung, raising his eyebrows in vindication. “See, I’m fine.”
“I don’t think you’re crazy. I’m just worrying because I love you. You know that, right?”
“Yes.” He blows a kiss to the screen. “I love you too, noona. You can go back to sleep now.”
Jungsoo finishes work on Kangin’s nose and mouth over the next few days before he returns to the rest of Kangin’s body, even his neglected toes. Kangin can tell that the tone of Jungsoo’s work has changed. Words like “almost done” and “just right” start to appear in his sentences, replacing “enough for now” and “take care of that later.” Kangin knows he’s close to being finished.
But with that comes a prickle of nervousness. He knows from listening to the paintings that “finished” means Jungsoo will start looking for a buyer, and if one is interested, Kangin could never see Jungsoo again. And who knows what the buyer could be like? Some of the ones he’s heard seem nice enough, but others sound downright unbearable. Certainly none of them seem like the type to talk to him the way Jungsoo does. Even a few weeks like that, and he would go right back to being an ordinary block of stone—that would be the end of him, at least of any version of him that would actually matter. Kangin has never considered the possibility of his own death before, but suddenly it’s breathing down his neck. He begins to dread the sound of the doorbell.
It’s another two months of tweaking, a little scratch here, a little touch there, before Jungsoo seems to think that the major part of the sculpting is done. He still comes in to talk to Kangin, but rarely works on him anymore. Even the paintings he can hear talking through the wall, who generally don’t care about the old thing in the other room, start to make bets on how long he has left.
Then, fourteen months and eight days after Kangin first arrived in Jungsoo’s house, the first buyer appears.
Kangin knows the man’s voice from earlier visits: it has a posh, haute tone, like his very vocal chords are made of solid gold. Jungsoo always worries to Kangin after the man leaves that he might leave a bad review in the art criticism journal he writes for because he misunderstands one of Jungsoo’s works. “He has no appreciation for the soul of art, Kangin, the way a piece can really come alive in the eyes of the right viewer.” (There’s that word again, the one Kangin wants desperately, but whose meaning always slips out of his grasp.) That doesn’t stop the whole art world from eating out of his hand, though, and a declaration from him that an artist’s work is “conventional” or “uninspired” can send even a flourishing career to an early grave.
“Don’t try to distract me, Leeteuk. I’ve heard a rumor that you’re keeping a secret project ferreted away in that back room of yours and I simply cannot leave until I’ve set eyes on it.”
Jungsoo laughs, but Kangin can tell it’s unnatural, not like the laughs that escape his lips in lieu of a response after he tells Kangin a particularly cringe-worthy joke. “You’re going to miss all of my new work! See, look at this watercolor—“
“Damn watercolors. The age of watercolor is past. I want something revolutionary, and I know that secret project of yours is it.” The man makes quick, long strides across the room, accompanied by running steps that Kangin recognizes by their weight and rhythm as Jungsoo’s.
“Really, sir!” But Jungsoo’s complaint goes unrecognized and the man flings the door to Kangin’s room open. He looks exactly like his voice: tall, with an obviously expensive outfit (despite the fact that the entirety of Kangin’s experience with clothing comes from Jungsoo and his paintings, he can tell this much), greased back hair, and an elitist expression etched into the wrinkles of his face.
His eyes widen as he looks Kangin up and down. “Exquisite,” he breathes. “It seems almost as if it could come alive at any moment…”
At being called an “it” after months of knowing he’s a “he”, Kangin feels something that he can only describe as anger. If Kangin could run, he’d be halfway down the block by now. He’s sure just a couple hours around this guy would finish him off.
Jungsoo stomps through the door and stands between the man and Kangin. “This work is not available for public viewing at the moment, sir.”
“Leeteuk, you must sell this to me.” He grabs Jungsoo by the arms. “Name your price.”
“No.” Jungsoo shakes him off, but the man is persistent and steps closer. Kangin bristles.
“I don’t think you appreciate just how valuable my offer is. When I purchase a piece, I don’t just pay money—I have greater influence than you might realize in the high circles of the art world, and I can give a no-name like you recognition and status that you would never earn otherwise.”
“He is not for sale.” Jungsoo stands on his toes and glares daggers right into the man’s eyes. Something in his look mixed with the questionable psychological stability of someone who refers to a statue as “he” makes the man back off. “Now, I have plenty of other works in this gallery that are, so feel free to consider them.”
The man puts on a face that expresses the exact depth of the indignity with which he feels he’s been treated. “I’ll have to think about it,” he says. “Good day to you, Leeteuk.” And with that, he walks out.
Jungsoo lets out a sigh of relief and closes the door after him. Grabbing a piece of sandpaper off the workbench, he walks over to polish a dull spot on Kangin’s cheek. “I think I just lost my richest customer,” he says, a hint of displeasure behind his smile. “And all of his followers. But I don’t mind!” The displeasure disappears. “I’d rather lose them than you.”
Kangin wishes he could hug Jungsoo or thank him or at least smile, but he can’t.
“Besides,” Jungsoo says, with one of the laughs that warns Kangin a bad joke is coming, “everyone likes artists better if they’re a little crazy. I mean, look at Van Gogh. Maybe if I lop off my ear and stick it on you…”
Now Kangin just wants to hit him—not to hurt him, of course, just a playful punch that says “that was terrible” and “I love you anyways” at the same time.
Jungsoo finishes polishing the offending spot, blows the dust off, and walks out, still cracking himself up. It’s the greasy rich man who has the last laugh, though. Jungsoo can count his customers for the rest of the month on his fingers, and when the day the landlord always comes to collect the rent rolls around, Jungsoo’s face has a noticeably paler cast than usual.
“I can’t be late on my rent again or the landlord will kill me,” he says, plopping down on a chair. “If I skip breakfast and lunch today, I’ll have just enough to pay. But I’m hungry…” He pouts. Kangin marvels at the frailty of this little human, who looks this weak after going just half a day without eating. Kangin doesn’t need to eat. He’s strong, just like Jungsoo named him. He wonders if this weakness is what it means to be alive, and suddenly it doesn’t sound so appealing.
There’s a loud pounding on the door that continues until Jungsoo runs over to answer it.
“Rent,” the landlord’s voice says.
“It’s in here.” Jungsoo scampers back into Kangin’s room and picks up the rectangle of paper for the rent from the workbench. The landlord follows him in and enters Kangin’s line of sight for the first time. He’s larger than Jungsoo, but mostly in width, a sweat-stained wifebeater stretching over his beer gut and a faint scent of alcohol hanging in the air around him. He eyes Jungsoo’s paper rectangle, carefully examining it for any potential flaw, but grunts, apparently seeing nothing, and stuffs it into his back pocket.
“Some lady at the door for you,” he says. “Says it’s important.” He looks over in Kangin’s direction and frowns. “How long are you going to hang onto that thing? You wouldn’t be late on your rent every fucking month if you just hocked it.” Kangin sees Jungsoo bite back an angry retort as the landlord walks out.
“Sorry,” Jungsoo says. Kangin wants to say the same thing. Jungsoo walks over and brushes off a stray bit of dust on his nose, a sympathetic frown on his face, then remembers his visitor and runs out to answer the door.
“Umma?” Jungsoo asks, surprise evident in his voice. Kangin knows Jungsoo’s mother isn’t in good health and rarely leaves the house.
“Jungsoo,” her familiar voice says from outside. “Come here, you’re going to want to sit down.”
The door creaks shut behind them, and Kangin has to strain to hear them. He only catches a few words:
“It was so sudden”
“called just this afternoon”
“the police say”
Inyoung. Jungsoo’s sister. The one he calls every day even if she’s out of the country, the only person besides his mother who Kangin hears him talk about consistently. Dead.
There is a long silence, broken only by a long, helpless wail, and the sound of the landlord turning on his television downstairs.
“The funeral’s in two days,” Jungsoo’s mother says, her voice cracking. “We can go home now. Get your things.”
Jungsoo’s footsteps drift over the floor. There’s a soft sound of clothes being thrown together haphazardly, a clatter of used brushes being dropped into boxes. He comes to Kangin’s room last. His eyes are lined with red, and his face is shattered in a way that Kangin’s could never be, a human way that sends fractures through his whole being. It looks just as irreparable as taking a sledgehammer to Kangin’s chest. Jungsoo’s eyes linger on Kangin for a long moment, as if he has something to say—but then he breaks away abruptly, throws a sheet over Kangin’s body, and runs out, turning the light off as he goes.