Actions

Work Header

Hard Bright Light Mechanical

Work Text:

The interior of the stadium was brimming — the rink, demarcated by its steel barrier, ice sending cold mist shimmering upwards through the glacial air; the stands, stretching out upwards twenty floors in every direction; and the holding area, an assembly of worn-out-looking hopefuls and the copper gleam of their bots, lined up like a militia, waiting for their chance on the floor.

Above the droves of people and machinery, written across the ceiling in large projected letters, were the words: 

THE LUDI PLEBEII 2017
ICE RACE
ASIA-PACIFIC: QUALIFIERS

The year marked Chanyeol’s fourth time at the qualifiers, and it was the same chaotic scene every time. The Ice Race was infamously expensive to enter, given the equipment required, but it was the only category in which the final televised rounds were held annually in New Seoul; the Asia-Pacific region, and the Korean Union in particular, always pulled the largest crop of hopefuls in the category.

He stood by the entrance to the massive stadium, shuffling along in the queue for the registration booths, pushing his equipment along on its trolley. It was early autumn, and the temperature in the Hippodrome was artificially lowered, cold air blowing through a thousand vents. Heads spun as he moved past, and he could feel the weight of their eyes on him.

The man at the registration gate barely looked up from behind the glass window as he approached. “Park Chanyeol, you again.”

Chanyeol said nothing, pushing his trolley around the side of the barrier so his bot could be checked. The officer ran a couple of commands on his computer, and the contents of Chanyeol’s trolley were scanned for dimensions, materials, construction. Seconds later, there was a beeping sound, and the officer seemed sufficiently pleased.

“Identification,” he said, and Chanyeol leaned forwards to press his palm against the scanner. As he neared the officer, the man leaned forward and spoke under his breath, tone low and mocking. “You’d better toe the line, Park Chanyeol. You know we won’t be as lenient with you a second time.”

His words triggered a small spark of irritation. “My droid is fully regulation,” Chanyeol said, controlling his tone carefully.

“And The Phoenix had better stay that way.” The officer’s eyes were boring into him, his smile threatening as he slid a slip of paper across the window in the booth.

Chanyeol held his gaze for a prolonged moment as he snatched it up, before turning to move away towards the stands.

 

 

 

 

“Challengers 5678 through 5685, to starting positions.” A sterile, androgynous voice blared through the speakers, consuming the stadium. “Challengers 5686 through 5693, to the assembly zone.”

From his position up in the stands, Chanyeol watched the next group of droids assemble on the starting line, without much interest. Most of the contestants were crammed into the lower ring, nervously waiting for their numbers to be called — but Chanyeol elected for a seat far back, where he could stretch his legs and watch everything unfold. Next to him, Oh Sehun was sprawled out across three seats, looking decidedly out of place in his heavy, dark military coat and lace-trimmed shirt. He claimed he was here to offer Chanyeol moral support, but inwardly, Chanyeol couldn’t think of anyone less suited to such a task.

Not that he needed the moral support. He was fine on his own, had always been.

Chanyeol watched as the seven men and women in the challengers’ booth finished docking their equipment and stepped into position, behind their customised arrangements of gearshifts, steering wheels and levers. Seven. So one of the challengers was a human entry. Chanyeol’s eyes flickered back to the starting zone, where seven humanoid droids of iron and steel were crouched at different points along the curve of the rink, exhaust rising from their vents, ready for liftoff. The last spot on the outermost lane, for Challenger 5685, was instead occupied by a living, breathing man, strapped into a suit of copper and brass.

Human entries in the Ice Race weren’t entirely unheard of. Chanyeol had seen a fair number over the years, usually people who didn’t possess the resources to construct specialised droids, entering in a desperate effort to end their cycle of poverty. It was cheaper, of course, but most people these days couldn’t even run a mile without their lungs giving way, let alone skate through a demanding obstacle course and complete a race spanning sixty kilometres and several hours. On top of that, it was near impossible — not to mention life-threatening — to complete the stunts required, to clear the challenges buried within the deceptively smooth, clear surface of the ice rink. Most human entries were eliminated at qualifiers, and none had ever made it past the quarter-finals.

But something about this challenger looked slightly different. Chanyeol scrutinised the man. He looked to be of an average frame, and he was wearing a regulation skate suit with the usual gas mask obscuring his head and face from view. His gas mask didn’t have an attached Breather, Chanyeol realised with mild surprise. So he was either completely broke and suicidal, or one of the privileged — someone who’d grown up on filtered air, and had no need for the life-sustaining breathing devices the rest of the population relied on. Chanyeol’s least favourite group of people.

The air-horn went off, and the droids — and human — began speeding down the track.

“Another human challenger,” Sehun commented. “Quite a lot of them this year.”

“I guess people are getting more desperate,” Chanyeol answered, his eyes glued to the Breather-less man flying around the track. He was making good time — extremely good, Chanyeol realised, as he gracefully overtook the bot in Lane 7 while rounding the bend in the track, and started rapidly gaining on Lane 6. He glanced briefly at the operators in the challengers’ booth. They looked about as surprised as he felt.

“Are you seeing this?” Sehun said unnecessarily. “I think this guy might actually make it.”

“I have eyes, Sehun.” Chanyeol watched as the man skidded along the side of the straight, launched smoothly into another overtake, and completed his first lap at a comfortable coast.

“The guy is crazy. Absolutely fucking mad,” Sehun continued, sounding impressed. Much of the stadium seemed to share his sentiment, Chanyeol noted, seeing how at least a handful of the nervously pacing challengers had stopped to gape at the trial currently taking place on the ice. The man curved past another three bots on his next bend, and quickly bore down on the leader, sailing easily past to take the lead. And then he actually accelerated, widening his lead to a sizeable gap before sliding across the finish line.

The challenger timings started flashing on the giant screen as the last of the bots crossed the line, stacking up towards the first-placed Challenger 5685. One minute, twenty seconds, and eleven milli-seconds. It was a fast pace for a droid, let alone a human challenger, and Chanyeol had the distinct feeling that the challenger hadn’t quite given his best. The acceleration along the last stretch was a dead giveaway — Challenger 5685 had more to offer, yet.

“Challengers 5686 through 5693, to starting positions,” the voice announced. “Challengers 5694 through 5701, to the assembly zone.”

Sehun leaned over to inspect Chanyeol’s challenger slip. “5700. You’re up.”

“Wish me luck.” Chanyeol stood and stretched.

“Like you need it.”

“You staying after?”

Sehun shook his head. “You go on ahead. I’ll see you at Sanctum.”

“See you.” Chanyeol lowered his trolley onto the cargo lift alongside another few workmen and laden pushcarts, and descended to the ground floor, making his way towards the rink and competitors’ zone.

The officer manning the gate to the arena checked his slip, recognition flashing in his eyes as he waved Chanyeol in. “Droids in Area B, other belongings in Area C. Move on to setup in the booth first. You’ll be in Lane 7.”

“Thanks.” The officer held the gate open for Chanyeol as he wheeled his equipment through, and followed the circumference of the rink towards Area B. There were already five other bots lined up along the sides of the hallway, and through the windows he could see the current group of bots crouching in set position, one after another, awaiting the starting horn.

Chanyeol stepped into the locker room in Area C. In his peripheral vision, he could sense people turning to look at him, and consciously ignored them, pulling open a locker on the top shelf and haphazardly wedging his bag in.

Next to him, somebody was stuffing a gas mask into a battered-looking rucksack, a pair of slim, elegant hands fumbling with the clasps. It took a moment for Chanyeol to realise who it had to be, and he glanced up, curious in spite of himself. The man next to him was short, almost a head shorter than he was, and leanly-built, all broad bony shoulders and wiry muscle. He was not bulky or buff; nothing about him screamed “star athlete”. His hair was damp with sweat from the mask, but his face wasn’t even flushed, as though he’d barely exerted himself.

“Can I help you?” someone said suddenly, and Chanyeol realised that the man was talking to him.

Slowly, Chanyeol met the man’s eyes. He looked hostile, eyes cold, mouth set in a hard line — a harsh contrast against his soft-looking features, Chanyeol thought.

“I wanted to congratulate you on your skating earlier,” Chanyeol said, his tone light, slightly mocking. “It was an outstanding performance.”

“Thanks,” the man said brusquely, and turned to leave.

“I don’t believe we’re acquainted, Mr–?”

The man paused in his tracks, and for a second Chanyeol thought he would just ignore him and continue on. Then he turned around, smiling in a decidedly baleful way. “I’m sure we’ll make our acquaintanceship soon enough, Mr. Park Chanyeol. Good luck with your race.”

Chanyeol watched as the man turned around, slung the backpack over one shoulder and stalked out of the locker room, walking too fast as though he had someplace better to be. The hilarity of the idea, Chanyeol thought. As though any challenger of the Ludi Plebeii would have anywhere else to be.

It didn’t escape Chanyeol’s notice that the man’s belt loop was conspicuously empty, without a Breather in sight.

 

 

 

 

Several hours later, Chanyeol emerged from his workshop, fingers brushing against the qualification slip folded into his pocket, Breather dangling from his belt loop. A black challengers’ identity band was fastened tightly around his left wrist.

New Seoul was windy in autumn, smog from the factory district forming visible currents as they blowed eastward. There weren’t any trees left in the city, but Chanyeol still had memories of them from his childhood, leaves turning red and gold, falling to the floor in a thin carpet. The city had once been beautiful, his parents had told him, propelled to the peak of affluence by the power of Diesel. But like the rest of the world, they hadn’t controlled their advancement, and the city developed so blindingly fast that there was no time to react to the damage it was inflicting. That was when everything had started collapsing from the inside out.

It was late, and the dying streaks of red sun, colouring patches of cloud between looming skyscrapers, were quickly retreating over the horizon. Chanyeol quickened his pace as he headed towards the bus station, unclipping his Breather and sliding it on over his mask. He couldn’t afford to take any risks during championship season.

The Sanctum bar was located in one of the larger converted factories in the central area, occupying a second-floor mezzanine unit that looked down onto a large arcade. Chanyeol disliked hanging out at gambling dens, but Sanctum was one of the few bars near the Challengers’ Village that offered filtered air, decent security and cheap alcohol. It was always rowdy at the beginning of championship season, when the Village was still fully inhabited; challengers and citizens alike would flock to the place, hoping to socialise or get tip-offs from people “in the scene”. It would inevitably quieten down by the start of winter, when the Village would slowly empty out, and the latest crop of gamblers would be off somewhere, desperately trying to recoup their losses.

The place was crawling by the time Chanyeol arrived, the arcade consumed in sweet smoke, the bar a chaotic blur of faces and masks. Sehun waved to him from across the floor, at a table by the large windows. Chanyeol slid into his saved seat and pulled off his gas mask, taking a relieved inhale of the clean filtered air.

“Mr Park Chanyeol!” Immediately, the man seated opposite them slid an untouched bottle of soju across towards Chanyeol. “Please take this, if you haven’t had anything to drink yet.”

“Get him a glass.” Behind him, Sehun was motioning to the bartender. Almost instantaneously, a tray bearing chilled shot glasses was placed on the table before him, and the waiter started filling a glass. The entire process happened almost comically fast.

“If you need anything else, just raise a hand. I’ll be here right away.” Chanyeol nodded to dismiss the waiter, and picked up the glass, throwing it back in one gulp. The smooth, cold liquid soothed his throat. He picked up the bottle and began pouring himself another shot.

Everyone within a ten-metre radius was watching him. Chanyeol downed his second drink, then took a pointed look around. Most returned to their own conversations, but some gazes stayed unabashedly trained on him.

“So,” Sehun said expectantly. Chanyeol nodded slightly in response, fingers once again closing around the paper in his pocket. Of course he’d made the quarter-finals. How could he not?

Sehun clapped him on the back, then leaned over to speak quietly. “Remember what you’re here for. I know you hate it, but these people are your livelihood.”

Across the table, the man who’d given Chanyeol his drink was waving, trying to get his attention. “Mr Park!” Chanyeol glanced up to see that he was now surrounded by at least ten other people, all studying him like he was an exhibit in a museum. “I saw you at the qualifiers today, would you say you’re confident for the new season?”

“I feel like the time I set should answer your question,” Chanyeol answered. It wasn’t in the least funny, but a few people burst into uproarious laughter, and several others clapped him heartily on the back.

“He hasn’t gone all out yet,” Sehun supplemented. “He’s been racing so long, you guys know what he’s like. He’ll be back with a vengeance by the time finals roll around.”

“His timing wasn’t that bad,” someone said, sounding way too defensive. The speaker was a girl Chanyeol vaguely recognised as a Sanctum regular. “He came in fourth or fifth.”

“I’m not here for fourth or fifth.” Another voice cut in, this time a middle-aged man who looked visibly angry. And it escalates, Chanyeol thought to himself. “Do you know how much I have on him to win?”

His statement was met with a dozen heated retorts. “And who, exactly, asked you to stake everything on him?”

“Oh my god, stop giving him pressure.”

“Back the fuck away, we’ve got a lunatic.”

“It’s the fucking qualifiers—”

“Why don’t you go hit up the arcade downstairs instead? Seems more your scene.”

The man was red-faced. “I’m not saying anything,” he muttered, embarrassment still clouded by anger. “Just this isn’t the standard I expect from The Phoenix, is all.”

“And? He doesn’t owe you anything,” the girl from earlier said. “Show some gratefulness, will you?”

“People like him don’t appreciate what they’re given. They just demand more and more,” another girl added, her tone scornful. Several other people interjected their agreement, their voices overlapping into one another.

Chanyeol calmly poured himself another drink. When situations like these arose, he preferred to stay quiet and let his “fans”, as Sehun called them, defend on his behalf. He would need much more alcohol if he wanted to get through the night without losing his goddamn mind. But as he raised the glass to his lips, someone abruptly seized his wrist, and half his drink went splattering onto his lap.

He looked up in shock, instinctively leaning away from his assailant. The man was skeletal, with sunken cheeks and a haunted look in his eyes, yet his grip was freakishly strong. His skin was papery and brittle-looking, but he could have been fifty, or twenty. “Mr Park Chanyeol,” he said, his face close enough that Chanyeol could feel his breath against his ear. “Please… please… my family, everything I have—”

The man was roughly shoved away, and Chanyeol looked around to see Sehun standing protectively over him. “Step away from him,” he ordered. “Or I’m calling security.”

“How did someone like him even get in here?” One of the girls asked, disgruntled. “Just throw him over the railing already.”

The man looked up in desperation. “This is my last shot,” he said, his voice trembling. “My last chance at winning with the Games.”

“That’s what they all say. Then they go back and bet on the next year again.”

Most of the onlookers had formed a protective barrier around the table where Chanyeol and Sehun sat, and the man was completely blocked from view. He was still speaking to Chanyeol, from somewhere behind the ring, but Chanyeol tuned him out and turned to Sehun instead. “It’s unfair that you don’t have to deal with any of this.”

“You participate in the only event based in Seoul,” Sehun pointed out. “You’re welcome to come to Tokyo and join the Drift.”

“And it’s calmer, the scene in Tokyo?” Chanyeol had never been, but Sehun had lived there for the entirety of the previous summer, when the Air Drift had its championship season, when he’d taken home the championship trophy as a first-time competitor. He had not competed a second time.

“I’ll let you know when I become a three-time world champion.”

The man earlier was far from the worst he’d encountered. The worst were the people who’d supported other contestants, and lost their bets because of Chanyeol. He’d encountered a fair number of aggressive, violent sore losers, but now that he was into his fourth year of defending his title, they were dwindling in number. It was one of the few things that had gotten better for Chanyeol over his years of participating in the Ludi.

“Mr Park Chanyeol, what do you think of the competition this year?” A girl slid into the seat adjacent to Chanyeol’s, successfully wrestling away its previous occupant. She was young and quite pretty, with wide eyes and a round face, even dressed in the unflattering, utilitarian attire of a junior technician.

“You’re implying that I have competition to begin with.” Chanyeol answered her in his usual callous way, even as his thoughts flashed instantly to Challenger 5685, the Breather-less man in the gas mask.

“That’s what I like best about you. Straight to the point, as always.”

Chanyeol glanced at her. There was something familiar in her voice, and manner. “Have we met before?”

“I’ve been following you since your first championship,” the girl said with a smile. “You saved my family from ruin. I’m eternally thankful.”

He nodded. “You’re very welcome.”

“So, what about Kang Seulgi? She almost beat you, last year.”

“She’s not a concern.” Though someone else might be.

“The list is out! The finalists are out!”

Suddenly, half of the bar was running towards the windows and out to the balcony. From his seat, Chanyeol had a good view of the arcade downstairs, the large screen occupying most of the far wall, the flashing neon lights of the slot machines positioned all around the area. The walls of the arcade were hung heavily with posters of popular contestants in the Ludi Plebeii — himself included. Park Chanyeol, the Phoenix. Three-time World Champion of the Ice Race, on the way to claim his fourth consecutive victory.

The people in the arcade, usually a disorderly mess of smoking and brawling, were now standing unnaturally still, almost as though they were standing at attention. The bands around their wrists glowed a bright white. Their eyes were fixed on the large screen as words started appearing, line by line.

THE LUDI PLEBEII 2017
ARENA GAMES
FINALISTS

The Arena Games. Chanyeol had always thought of it as the cruellest event in the Ludi. They pulled the most desperate challengers, as basically no startup capital was required. They had the highest death tolls, as the tasks involved various dangerous and unusual twists on classic arena games. They were the most vicious, as no bots were allowed, and most of the tasks involved various forms of violent hand-to-hand combat.

Names started appearing on the screen, geometric capitals against a flickering background, listing the eight finalists who would be challenging the 2017 title. As they surfaced, white wristbands started glowing green. Their wearers started breaking down, crying out in relief, screaming in happiness. They clutched at each other, hugged the people next to them, leapt for joy.

Along the perimeter of the room, policemen were marching forwards to form a tight ring around the assembly of gamblers, tranquillisers in hand.

When the eighth name finally appeared on the screen, the last of the white wristbands shifted to green, and far in the corner, one turned a brilliant shade of red. The gamblers dispersed, and people started flooding back into the bar. The man with the red wristband was looking around panickedly, left alone in the crowd.

“I really think the Games are the Governors’ masterstroke,” someone was saying. She was one of the few people who had remained seated, completely uninterested in the results. “For too many people, it’s the only thing that brings hope, and excitement. But in the end, the Board still wins. The Board always wins.”

“Like that guy downstairs. His wristband was red, and it isn’t even the finals yet.” The man who was speaking didn’t even spare a glance for the scene on the other side of the glass wall, where the red-banded gambler was making a mad dash around the arcade, trying to avoid the men closing in on him with targeted accuracy.

“Not always,” Sehun interrupted, and everyone turned to look at him in confusion. “Not when we have people like Park Chanyeol. Let me ask you, has anyone here lost with him?”

At the sound of his name, Chanyeol tried to re-focus. The bar was deathly silent.

“Exactly. And we’ll continue to win because of him. Sure, there are some people who might bet against him — but let’s face it, they’re all crazy.” He was lying. Chanyeol knew that Sehun never bet on the Games, but the other man had a talent for being very convincing when he wanted.

“Just about this, you might be right,” the woman admitted.

“Of course I’m right.”

As though sobered by the revelation, and the scene they’d just witnessed outside, people started nodding in agreement. “We owe him so much.”

“We’re so grateful.”

“You brought life from within ashes.”

“You’re our last hope, Mr Park.”

“Today marks the start of another successful bid to beat the Games,” Sehun said. “With the qualifiers this morning. Let’s raise a toast. To winning our bets, and to the Phoenix.” He nudged Chanyeol’s shoulder.

Numbly, Chanyeol raised his glass. Downstairs, the man sprinted desperately towards the exit, stopping short when a line of policemen sidestepped to form a blockade. He turned around and started making for the staircase, heading upstairs to the bar. Heading straight for Chanyeol.

“To the Phoenix,” The bar-goers echoed, a roomful of glasses raised high in the air.

Through the window, Chanyeol locked eyes with the screaming man as four men restrained him. One of them fired a shot into his arm, and his form grew limp, hanging loosely from their iron fists as they dragged him bodily down the stairs.

His cries of pain continued to echo in Chanyeol’s head, like ghosts, as he was dragged out of the building and disappeared into the night.

 

 

  

 

◊ ◈ ◊

 

 

 

 

In the week that followed, the Challengers’ Village rapidly filled as competitors from across the world arrived for the televised rounds. The quarter-finals came and went, and thirty-two challengers were whittled down to sixteen. Sixteen semi-finalists, who were immediately ushered to the studio for the post-race press conference.

Chanyeol had been to several broadcasting studios during his stint in the Ludi. The one they were using for the conference was attached to the Challengers’ Village, within the Main Seoul Office of the Ludi Plebeii, overlooking the Han River that cut through the city. The building towered over most of the structures in its direct vicinity, a giant monolith of stone dotted with a million windows like spots of light. Chanyeol had always thought it looked disturbingly severe, a panopticon of a prison.

In a studio on the topmost floor, the semi-finalists were seated before the cameras, at the intersection of a dozen spotlights and reflectors. Eight in the front row and eight at the back. Chanyeol found his seat — front and centre, and the Breather-less man in the gas mask was next to him.

His name was Byun Baekhyun. It was written on the name plaque in front of him. Like most of the other challengers, he spoke to nobody as he filed in and found his place, silently scanning the script on the table. The glare of the spotlights made it impossible to see beyond the front of the table, enveloping the filming crew, officers and journalists in a cloak of darkness.

Chanyeol had read the script too many times before. There was some fumbling and a few quickly muttered conversations, and then a red recording light came on, directly overhead. “Challengers, be ready,” someone commanded. Chanyeol shifted slightly in his seat, sitting up straighter. “Rolling in three… two… one.”

“Welcome to the first press conference of the twenty-fifth Ludi Plebeii Ice Race in New Seoul, the Republic of Korea.” The voice was sonorous and amplified, its speaker invisible behind the dark reflective circle of the camera lens. “The Governors proudly present… your semi-finalists.”

Scattered applause rang out throughout the back of the room. The announcer proceeded to list each challenger by name, starting with the first-placed semi-finalist. Kang Seulgi had come in first in the quarter-finals, setting a brand-new, scorching record time. The second was a contestant from Greenland, who’d been the third-place finisher in the previous year.

Chanyeol placed third, and Byun Baekhyun was fourth. They were only three home challengers moving on to the semis.

The announcer began with interviewing Seulgi, her unnaturally echoey voice making Seulgi’s sound thin and fragile in comparison. Trying to avoid the glare of the lights, Chanyeol’s gaze drifted instead to the pair of hands on the table next to him, loosely holding onto a copy of the script. They were curiously elegant, refined-looking hands — the hands of someone who hadn’t ever done a day of rough work. An strange sight among the roughened, oil-stained hands of the Ice Race mechanics.

As the interviews moved on to the second-placed challenger, Chanyeol found himself zoning out. He usually paid little to no heed to his competitors — it made it conveniently easier to ignore the fact that most of them would disappear once the season was over. But he’d been competing alongside Seulgi for several years, and they’d established a kind of superficial friendship. They’d been the only Korean participants to consistently qualify for the finals.

Now they were joined by Byun Baekhyun. Chanyeol disliked the look of him. He disliked everything — the overbearing messiness of his dark, tufty hair. The tattoos inked into his skin, bold curly symbols covering his neck and arms. The flashy studs he wore in his multiple ear piercings. The way he wore his too-loose black worksuit with half the buttons undone, hanging off his shoulders in a wholly indecent way. The unscarred and unstained skin of his collarbones.

A rich kid, Chanyeol thought. Diesel spawn, some young punk who’d grown up breathing filtered air, who thought it’d be fun to come and race with the plebs for some thrill. To undermine the work everyone else was putting in, the struggle everyone else was going through.

What the Board did best.

“In third place we have Mr Park Chanyeol, twenty-five, home challenger from the Republic of Korea, and three-time world champion.” Another light clicked on to the left of the main lens, illuminating a smaller camera beneath it, angled towards Chanyeol. “We would like to congratulate you on going through to the semi-finals.” He nodded slightly in acknowledgement, lifting his gaze to look into the camera. “First, we would like to ask what you thought of your performance today.”

“I think my performance was in line with expectations.”

“Your placing today was a step up from the qualifiers. Would you say you’re better with navigating obstacles than you are with speed?”

“Could you discuss some of the improvements you have made to The Phoenix, from last year’s model?” It was another standard question they asked year after year. Chanyeol laid out the modifications he’d made in the simplest terms he could think of.

“Some viewers say that you seem to lack fire and passion in the Race. We’re interested to know how much you have staked on the Race this year.” On the surface, the voice seemed impersonal as ever. Chanyeol wasn’t sure if he was imagining the taunting note within.

“It’s messed up that people feel that way,” he said. “As everyone knows, the Hippodrome is where I built up my name from scratch. Passion is the last thing I would say I lack. I have consistently re-invested my winnings from previous championships into entering subsequent rounds, but I would like to keep enough that I can continue to improve if I should come in second. Not that, I feel, it’s likely.”

“That’s a fair explanation,” the voice said. “Lastly, what is your outlook like for the season ahead?”

“I expect to win,” Chanyeol said.

“Thank you very much, Mr Park Chanyeol. We look forward to your performance in the upcoming rounds.”

“Placing fourth we have Mr Byun Baekhyun, twenty-five, home challenger from the Republic of Korea. Congratulations on getting through to the semi-finals.”

Next to Chanyeol, Byun Baekhyun straightened up in his seat.

“Mr Byun Baekhyun, you are the first human competitor in the history of the Ice Race to become a semi-finalist. How did you feel about your performance in the quarter-finals, and what is your outlook for the season ahead?”

“Oh, I’m optimistic, of course,” Baekhyun said with a smile. “I think I’m doing better than anyone expected.”

“Do you consider yourself disadvantaged in comparison to the other challengers, given that you do not compete with a droid?”

“Probably,” Baekhyun admitted. “I don't have regenerative ability, I don't have special engineering tricks. I can hurt and bleed. But the droids are all constructed based on a human set of limits, aren't they?”

“Many have noticed that you don’t use a Breather on your mask,” the interviewer said. “Is there a reason you choose not to?”

Choose not to, Chanyeol thought. Like Breathers were something the rest of the population chose to use.

“It’s a hindrance. It slows me. Being without it makes me feel liberated,” Baekhyun said, and Chanyeol fought not to roll his eyes. “I run my race on will.” His tone was light, almost joking.

The interviewer continued to ask Baekhyun questions on his feelings about being a part of the Ludi, his training regimen, and his unexpectedly high placing in the quarter-finals. He was getting many more questions than the standard amount, Chanyeol thought, but Baekhyun seemed to field them with ease, his guise of cheer never faltering.

Once the cameras stopped rolling and the director announced the shoot finished, challengers began to rise, getting ready to leave. The studio lights were slowly slid back to regular brightness, and the officers walked out through a concealed door at the far end of the room. Someone made to follow, but a member of the crew quickly redirected the challengers to the side door.

“So, Park Chanyeol, I guess we’re acquainted now,” Baekhyun’s sardonic voice drifted from his left. The straight-laced sunshine from the interview was completely gone. Chanyeol spared him a brief glance.

“A tad late, I think. Doubt we’ll have the pleasure of each others’ company for much longer.”

“Oh, I plan on sticking around for a while.” Baekhyun stood and stretched, turning to face Chanyeol head-on. His smile had no right to look so devilish. “I daresay you’ll be seeing a lot more of me yet.”

 

 

 

 

He was right. Chanyeol continued to see Baekhyun with increasing frequency over the next few weeks, in the Hippodrome, around the Challengers’ Village, at various competition-centred social events. They never spoke for more than a few minutes, but as he began to see more of the other man, they established a strange kind of tense, belligerent not-quite-friendship.

“Good luck,” Baekhyun said to him as he passed by in the hall, grinning widely. It was the morning of the semi-finals, and the first eight challengers were just filing into their starting positions. Their shoulders knocked as Baekhyun shoved his way past, and Chanyeol was certain that he’d put some extra force into that push.

“Watch out for yourself, Byun, I’d hate to see you getting scraped off the rink later. It’d be a tragic waste of that pretty face.”

Internally, Chanyeol couldn’t imagine how Baekhyun could qualify. They were doing real obstacles today, over forty laps — each lap a kilometre in length. If the man didn’t perish from the tricks the race threw up at them, he’d perish of pure exhaustion.

And yet, at the end of the first run, Baekhyun’s name was blinking at the top of the leaderboard, ahead of the seven other semi-finalists. Gritting his teeth, Chanyeol headed for the control booth, ready to throttle full-speed across the track.

An hour later, the second group of challengers’ timings were released, and Chanyeol’s name jumped to the top spot, beating Byun Baekhyun by a good few seconds.

“I guess I’ll be seeing you around, then.” The man sent him a wink as he left the stadium, leaving Chanyeol to stare after his retreating back, wondering if the guy was actually flirting with him.

Later on, when Chanyeol had collected his qualification slip for the Grand Finals, he collected his stuff from the locker room and took Phoenix back to his warehouse, on the outskirts of the city. He sat down on a long iron bench, tugged off his goggles and changed out of his black mechanic’s uniform. Then he reached under the bench and pulled out the chest he kept stashed under all his toolboxes.

In the chest, Chanyeol kept his three most treasured possessions — battered, thoroughly worn out copies of the Iliad, Odyssey and Cypria. He ran a hand down the spine, thumbing the well-worn pages, his mind in a million places. He thought of the Games, the Ludi Plebeii. They’d had Games even back then — many types. There were the Panhellenic Games — the Olympics, the Pythian Games, Nemean, and Isthmian, where winning athletes received great honour for their skill in sport. There were the Panathenaic Games, which were more like the Ludi Plebeii that Chanyeol was now a part of, where large numbers of people would attend for entertainment, and winners would be showered in gifts and prizes. The munera of Ancient Rome, gladiator fights that were death sentences disguised as festivity. And up to recently, there had been other types of competitions, academic ones, singing ones, where contestants would compete on their wits and skill, and become celebrities in their own right. The Ludi Plebeii, Chanyeol thought, was like a combination of everything. A circus of entertainment combined with the audience and glory of the Panhellenics, the prizes of the Panathenaics, the death of the munera.

They were on to their twenty-fifth year, in 2017. Twenty-five years since The End, when the last of the governments finally surrendered, bowing out of a long and painful struggle. When the Board finally obtained complete and absolute power. Twenty-five years since the Ludi Plebeii lit its first torch.

Chanyeol thought of heroes. He thought of Hercules, of Odysseus, the people who sacrificed themselves to save others, or even the gladiators who died bravely in the ring in the name of their honour.

And as always, he thought of Kim Jongdae. He thought of his face, young and hopeful, his voice, bold and bright. He thought of his love for singing, his blinding smile that lit up a whole room, his small soft hands, holding out the three books to Chanyeol as a gift. His thinning face, cheeks hollowing out, those pale lips, the darkening shadow over his eyes—

Chanyeol closed the books and dropped them in the chest, letting the lid snap shut over them. Then he turned away and dropped his head into his hands, fighting the thoughts that threatened to swallow him whole.

 

  

  

 

◊ ◈ ◊

 

 

 

 

Another truck, the last in a succession of twenty, pulled to a stop outside the Hippodrome, and Chanyeol watched as a group of workers jumped out of the front seat to unload another shipment of machinery, a mix of race setup and filming equipment. The truck puffed out clouds of black smoke as the engine stalled. As training for the finals began to step up, filming crew took up a permanent residence within the Hippodrome and Challenger’s Village. There were cameras locked on every angle of the stadium and every public area, their sensors spinning to track the challengers as they walked past. It was an uncomfortable state of surveillance Chanyeol had experienced several times, but could never get used to.

Along the perimeter of the central green, the billboards were covered with images of the finalists, with Chanyeol’s hanging directly opposite the window of his apartment. It was a photograph from a photoshoot he’d done after the previous years’ Ludi. Hanging next to him was a poster of Byun Baekhyun, gas mask on, strapped into his copper skate suit. Over the past few weeks, Baekhyun’s face had started appearing all over the city — on posters, on billboards, on screens. Chanyeol hated it, hated seeing the man being put on a pedestal, like some kind of fucking national hero. He was no saviour — quite the opposite, a rich kid turning the Games into a joke, using it for selfish gain he didn’t need, making light of the competition.

But the man was definitely playing it up for the cameras, which Chanyeol found strange. He was all smiles and sunshine, almost disrespectful in the way he shamelessly courted admiration and hero-worship. The on-screen persona he cultivated couldn’t have been more disparate from the “behind the scenes” version, though — in person, he was an enigma, friendly on the surface yet distant and reserved. There was something sarcastic in his smile, something mocking in his tone. He was superior, arrogant almost, but seemed reluctant to commit to stepping on anyone’s toes. He tiptoed around people, kept everyone at an arm’s length. Kept everyone guessing.

And he trained continuously, relentlessly. Each morning, when Chanyeol arrived in the Hippodrome to test and improve on Phoenix, Baekhyun would already be there, moving across the ice, practicing twists and jumps and stunts with all the equipment he could get his hands on, and he continued at it till after Chanyeol left the stadium each night. Chanyeol couldn’t imagine how the other man hadn’t collapsed yet, with the way he worked himself to exhaustion. He had to have some kind of superhuman stamina.

And some pretty intense motivation for winning the Games. As the days went by, he found himself doubting his initial assessment of the man.

One evening, Seulgi came up to Chanyeol and asked him if he wanted to hang out with a few of the Chinese challengers, maybe grab a drink at Charybdis. “You can ask Baekhyun along too, if you’d like,” she said. “We’re all home challengers, after all.”

As Seulgi left to pack up her equipment, Chanyeol took the lift up to the second floor and hefted Phoenix into a storage unit, making sure the lock was tightly secured. He wouldn’t be working on it that night, since they were going out. His gaze drifted back to Baekhyun’s figure, sailing across the ice, and he was curious in spite of himself. What made the guy tick? He clearly wasn’t the stereotypical south-city punk Chanyeol had first assumed him to be, but he wasn’t like the rest of them either.

Chanyeol headed back down to the floor, and he waited at the entrance to the rink. Baekhyun came to a stop a few metres away and took a seat on the bench, removing his gas mask. He was breathing heavily, his chest heaving with effort. It was the first time Chanyeol had seen him looking even a little worn-out.

“Hey,” Chanyeol called. Like lightning, Baekhyun spun around. “Don’t trip over yourself,” Chanyeol said, but Baekhyun just looked away, still panting.

Chanyeol waited for Baekhyun to catch his breath and walk heavily over to the gate, his skates dragging against the ice. “You wanted something from me, Park?” His gas mask dangled from his fingers as he leaned against the railing for support. Sweat glistened on his neck.

Chanyeol dragged his eyes up to Baekhyun’s face. “We’re going for a drink,” he said. “You should come.”

He could see the hesitation in Baekhyun’s eyes, and for a second Chanyeol almost felt bad for him.

“We’re meeting at the entrance in ten,” he said shortly. “Meet there, if you want to join us.”

Chanyeol headed back down to the locker room, pulling out his valuables and a fresh shirt. He stripped off and pulled on the new shirt and an aviator jacket, grabbed his gas mask and clipped a Breather to his belt. From his bag, he pulled out a gun and slipped it into a holster on his belt, then headed upstairs to wait for the others.

To his surprise, Baekhyun was already at the entrance with Seulgi and the others. Chanyeol recognised one of them as Zhang Yixing, one of the more promising new challengers. Baekhyun had towelled off his sweat, but was still wearing the black long-sleeved shirt and pants he’d had on under his skate suit earlier.

“Didn’t you bring a gun, Baekhyun?” Seulgi asked. “We’re heading downtown, to the canal.”

“I don’t have one,” Baekhyun answered, which struck Chanyeol as strange. Almost every resident of the city kept some kind of arms for self-defence. Walking around downtown unarmed, especially through some of the districts surrounding the central canal, was asking for trouble. “It’s alright, don’t worry about me.”

“I’ll walk with him,” Chanyeol said. Everyone turned to look at him, most eyes wary, Baekhyun’s amused. “They won’t be able to shoot him if he’s blocked from view.”

One of the Chinese challengers laughed nervously. Baekhyun shrugged, as though saying “whatever makes you guys comfortable”.

“Alright, then,” Seulgi said, still sounding uncertain. “Shall we go?”

 

 

 

 

Thankfully, they weren’t attacked as they walked through the city. People skulking on street corners turned to face them as they passed, sizing them up through their gas masks, but their group was large and well-armed enough that most decided to stay back. They made it to the pier ten minutes before the barge was scheduled to leave its dock.

As it was a Saturday, Charybdis was almost full, but Seulgi spoke to the manager and their party was quickly admitted. The pub was the sole occupier of a small floating barge with three storeys, and the manager pulled back a rope, admitting them to a private space on the upper deck where they wouldn’t be mobbed by desperate gamblers. The group headed up a narrow flight of steps to their table, and queued up at the bar to order drinks. Ten minutes later, a horn went off, and the engines groaned to life.

Chanyeol surveyed the eastern bank as they started to move south, the rudders shuddering underfoot as the barge pummelled through the black water of the Victory canal. Baekhyun claimed a spot next to the window, and Chanyeol moved to take the seat opposite. Baekhyun looked up as Chanyeol sat down, a smile forming on his lips.

“I’m surprised you decided to come,” Chanyeol said. “You didn’t strike me as the socialising type.”

Baekhyun smirked, but for once, his expression didn’t look hostile. “Could’ve said the same about you.”

“I’ve never seen you speaking to other challengers, or bring friends to the Hippodrome.”

“Maybe I’m not from around here.” Baekhyun seemed reluctant to meet his eyes. “You’re not really one to interact with the challengers much, either.”

“When you’ve been here as long as I have, you don’t feel like getting close to many of the challengers.”

“Yeah, I guess that would be depressing.” Baekhyun looked up as the waitress served their drinks, but Chanyeol kept gazing at Baekhyun, his eyes never leaving the other man’s face, carefully gauging his expression.

“But I kind of wanted to make an exception tonight. Because I’m curious about you.”

Baekhyun lifted his drink to his lips. Chanyeol waited patiently as he took a cautious sip, and set the glass down on the table.

“Why would you be curious about me?” he asked evenly. His lips were stained red from his drink.

Chanyeol raised an eyebrow in disbelief. “Is that a serious question? You’re the only human challenger to make it this far. It should be… well, it should be humanly impossible. You don’t wear a Breather. You just said you weren’t from around here.”

Baekhyun pressed his lips together and hesitated. The next second, he seemed to make his mind up about something. “Ask away, then.” He leaned back. “What would you like to know?”

“What are you doing here?” Chanyeol asked bluntly.

Baekhyun’s eyes glinted in the light. “Same reason as anyone else,” he said, his laugh carrying a note of bitterness. “Fame and fortune, right?”

The answer surprised Chanyeol — at least the fortune part. Nothing about Baekhyun screamed worse for the wear. Evidently, his health couldn’t be more robust. His hair was always perfectly groomed, even when he was sweaty after a full days’ worth of training. His skin was pale, like he’d never worked a day under the sun. His smooth, elegant hands had never seen hard labour. Even his tattoos looked expensively done.

“You said you weren’t from around here,” Chanyeol continued. “Where are you from, then?”

“Jeju. Well, somewhere around there.”

“You grew up on the island?”

Baekhyun shook his head. “Nah, I grew up on a submarine. My parents were involved in underwater excavation.”

“I see.” It made sense, and explained a lot — why he wasn’t affected by sub-aeration. If he’d spent his life on a submarine, he would have had filtered air and oxygen. He’d probably learned to swim long distances, which explained his superhuman stamina. “But why did you decide to leave? If your parents worked in underwater excavation, they must’ve worked for the Board. They must’ve had a good living.”

“They passed away.” Baekhyun looked down, staring at his hands. “Underwater accident. They both drowned. I didn’t get to finish school. I lost everything.”

Chanyeol felt a twinge of regret. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m over it. Mostly.” Baekhyun still wasn’t meeting his eyes. “And then I got the idea, to join in the Games. I figured, I’ve got nothing to lose, so why not?”

Outside the window, to Baekhyun's back, the barge was moving past the skyscraper district. The buildings seemed to pierce the night sky, dwarfing the people walking along the banks in their dark, functional clothing, shades of grey and olive green. Many of the shorter buildings by the canal were covered in posters. Chanyeol recognised some of the Board’s latest celebrities, while several others advertised the Ludi. As Chanyeol gazed out of the window, they moved past a building plastered with a giant image of Baekhyun’s face, staring straight into the camera with eyes narrowed in concentration. The caption read, in slanting block capitals, “A SUPERHUMAN WILL.”

But we’ve all got something to lose, Chanyeol thought. Money, or freedom, or a sense of identity. Unless none of that mattered to Baekhyun; unless cynicism had already consumed his spirit, to the point he no longer valued any of it.

He didn’t voice any of his thoughts. Across the table, Baekhyun glanced up through his eyelashes. “And you? Got any special stories to tell, of how this three-time world champion came to be?”

They never asked, on shows, how the challengers came to join the Ludi. It was a dangerous and sensitive question, never publicly acknowledged, in a world where transparency meant trouble, limiting of opportunity, or straight-up persecution. Chanyeol glanced to the table next to them, where Seulgi was seated with two of the Chinese challengers.

“Same as you, I think,” Chanyeol said, lowering his voice. “A lot of dumb recklessness, everything to gain.”

“And your family was on board with this?”

“I don’t have family either. They passed, years ago.”

Baekhyun grimaced. “Sorry I asked, didn’t mean to.”

“It’s alright. Sub-aeration, just like most of the population.” Chanyeol stopped short, halting his train of thought before it veered into dangerous territory. “You’re lucky you don’t have to deal with it.”

Baekhyun fell silent, and he picked up his glass. Chanyeol wondered if he’d said the wrong thing. But Baekhyun just drank steadily, till he’d finished about half the glass, and set it down on the table, his fingers shaking slightly. His cheeks were starting to colour. “Yeah. Very lucky.”

“You wouldn’t be able to skate as hard, and as much as you did otherwise.” Chanyeol plowed on. “Why don’t you use a Breather? The real reason.”

Baekhyun shrugged. “Because I don’t need one.”

“If you keep on going out in the open without one, your lungs will start to fail, same as the rest of us.”

“I guess I just can’t be bothered to think that far.” He took another long gulp of his drink, and hiccupped. “For now I just want to train. Practice as hard as I can for the Race. I don’t want to think about anything beyond that.”

Chanyeol fell silent. Music drifted up the stairs, a fast swing number with lots of brass and a percussive string bass, accompanied by the excited voices of the bar-goers getting up to dance. Chanyeol picked up his glass, but Baekhyun tapped him on the forearm.

“Let’s dance for a bit.” His face was definitely flushed now.

“You’ll be recognised. People will swarm you.”

“We can dance right here.” Baekhyun stood, and he walked over to the narrow space of floor in their private room, already swaying to the beat — or maybe swaying because he couldn’t walk in a straight line. When the other table saw him, Yixing got up to join him, followed by Seulgi and the other challenger. The barman took one look at them and turned on the sound system, letting jazzy music fill their enclosed space.

Chanyeol downed his drink in a single gulp, and head swimming, staggered over to join the others.

 

 

 

 

Charybdis was pulling back into the dock, up along the northern stretch of the canal where they’d first boarded. Everybody finished up the last of their drinks, and the staff at the bar rose from their seats, emerging to wipe down the tables. Once this group of guests disembarked the barge, Charybdis would be closing for the night.

“You haven’t asked me one question,” Baekhyun said absently, twirling the stem of his glass around his fingers and sending droplets flying across the surface of the table. He seemed oblivious to the dirty looks the waitress was sending him.

“Which is?” Chanyeol asked, half-amused, half-exhausted from the dancing. It had been three hours since they’d boarded the barge, and Baekhyun had had another two drinks since they’d gotten up to dance.

“Why I decided to come out tonight.”

“I’ll oblige,” Chanyeol said. “Why?”

Baekhyun smiled — a spaced-out, relaxed smile.

“Because you asked me,” he said. Chanyeol gave him a look, but he didn’t follow up with a teasing comment or that sharp, mocking grin. He leaned forward slowly, like the world was spinning, and placed a hand on Chanyeol’s forearm.

“Tired,” he said. “Let’s go back to the Village. Walk with me, Chanyeol. I’m unarmed.”

Chanyeol had to hold back a laugh. The request sounded so foreign, coming from Baekhyun’s mouth, but he kind of liked it. “Thought you’d never ask.”

 

 

 

  

◊ ◈ ◊

 

 

 

 

“Park Chanyeol rubs me the wrong way sometimes,” the challenger said to the camera, her tone conspiratorial. She was standing in front of several piles of scrap metal, drills and a welding machine, a thin arm slung around the shoulders of a fellow competitor. They looked to be in one of the Village warehouses, custom-built for the challengers to use during the Ludi. “He’s kind of arrogant, doesn’t really, y’know… get socialised.”

“What, is he a loner or something?” the interviewer asked, sounding unnecessarily scandalised.

“Not really,” she said. “He does talk to guests, and other Ludi winners? At parties, I mean. But fellow challengers…”

“I’ve seen him speaking to Byun Baekhyun,” her friend piped up. “They’re both Korean, so I guess it makes sense.”

“Hmm, yeah.” The interviewer nodded seriously. “But do you guys feel like he’s too full of himself? Like he holds himself on a higher level because he’s the favourite to win?”

“Well, he is the most experienced challenger we’ve got,” the second girl continued hurriedly, looking slightly uncomfortable now. “And he’s leading. So… even if he did kind of think that way, we can’t fault him for it?”

“He kind of does, I think,” the first girl said stubbornly. “He could be a little more friendly.”

“Are you hearing this, Park Chanyeol?” The interviewer turned towards the camera, raising her eyebrows suggestively. “Your competitors think—”

Chanyeol turned off the television and rose from the edge of his bed.

There were more and more of these televised events, as the finals drew near. The parties were decadent and lavish, spilling with celebrities and officers and Board affiliates, the filming crew always on hand and ready to capture every interaction. Other challengers were always as personable as they could be, playing it up for the cameras. Chanyeol liked the parties, but he hated the close examination of the camera. He hated the restraint, but more importantly he was afraid — that if he let himself relax, he would let shades of his true self slip out, and the Board or the public would notice his disharmony.

Chanyeol opened his closet and slid hangers across the metal rail, leafing through a stack of sponsored clothing. He was required to wear specific brands of clothing — Board-owned labels, naturally — to a minimum number of events. While stylists were available for the challengers to consult, Chanyeol preferred to curate his own looks. In the same vein, he never went along with the image consultants and their suggestions for his on-screen appearance. Deciding for himself helped him feel more like a person and less like a product, wrapped up fancily in Board-regulated packaging. It helped a little with his self-deception that he was doing this on his own terms, that he still retained some kind of control or personal autonomy.

In the evening, the eight finalists were chauffeured from the main lobby of their apartment complex to the Southern Districts, where that night’s party would be taking place in a large converted loft. Ahead of them, luxury automobiles were pulling up in the circular driveway, unloading passengers by the dozen. Officers, celebrities, the rich and famous and their partners and offspring, a grid of black and white — men with their all-black suits, women with black dresses and pantsuits, platinum blonde hair and scarlet slicks of lipstick. They disappeared into the entryway in a flurry of greetings, expensive perfume, and camera flashes.

As he alighted, Chanyeol’s hand shot instinctively to his belt loop, forgetting that his Breather wasn’t there. He wouldn’t be needing it that evening. In the Southern Districts, a force field filtered the air before it was released into the streets. The young adults at the party had grown up on this clean air — none of them had Breathers with them. Most of the guests lived in the area, and wouldn’t have needed to bring theirs on the commute to the loft.

Indoors, music thudded through the venue, shaking the building at its foundations. The challengers passed through a hallway, dimly illuminated by lights fixed in copper sconces, and into the main atrium, where much of the party was already assembled. There was live entertainment at the event, troupes of acrobats and dancers and singers, all coalescing on a central columnar stage. Chanyeol kept in full view of the performances, pausing in between acts to talk to guests and officers he recognised from previous events. The acts were captivating and the food great, and Chanyeol quickly found himself enjoying the event as much as any other.

It was around an hour later when Chanyeol heard someone calling a familiar name. “If it isn’t Byun Baekhyun, our man of the hour.”

He glanced around. Over by the cocktail tables, an officer was approaching Baekhyun and a few other challengers — Chanyeol recognised him as one of the higher-ups in the Ludi office.

Chanyeol made his way over to the tables, arriving just in time to see the officer stretching out his hand, offering Baekhyun a glass of clear liquid. A small crowd had gathered around them, watching the exchange. “Have a drink. Absinthe on the rocks.”

Baekhyun shook his head. “Thanks, but I’ll pass.”

“Try it, you’ll like it.” The officer said, and this time his voice took on a hard edge. Chanyeol knew this routine. The senior officers took every chance they could to assert their superiority over the challengers, and their tactics usually involved alcohol. Sometimes they were creeps who wanted to take advantage of the young competitors, but more often than not, they just wanted humiliation — a laugh at some unfortunate guy’s expense.

Also, it made for good television.

Chanyeol hadn’t been a target for a while, but he definitely remembered how much the embarrassment could burn. “I don’t hold alcohol well,” Baekhyun said, the polite smile melting off his face. “I’d rather not.”

“A challenger backing away from a challenge?” The man laughed without humour. “I thought you ran races on pure willpower. A superhuman will, they say about you. Show us some of that backbone.”

Baekhyun raised an eyebrow and his tone shifted, taking on a subtly menacing note. “A challenge? Is that what this is, sir?”

“I’ll drink it, if he doesn’t want it.”

Several faces spun around to look at the source of the interruption, as Chanyeol stepped up and took the glass from the officer’s hands. He hated being pressured to drink, but from their experience at Charybdis, he figured he could hold alcohol a little better than Baekhyun.

The officer paused. When he spoke again, his voice was condescending. “Interesting display of comradeship. I didn’t think you made friends at these games, Park Chanyeol.”

“Always a first time.” Chanyeol threw back the drink. It burned his throat and sent a rush of dizziness straight to his brain, but he managed to keep it under control. “It’s been a while, Mr Lee. How about catching up over more drinks?”

Mr Lee regarded him with a measured gaze. For a moment, Chanyeol thought he’d overstepped, but then a man standing next to the officer tapped him on the shoulder and quickly muttered something in his ear.

The officer nodded. “Tell Junmyeon to talk to me.” He turned to Chanyeol and Baekhyun, gaze amused. “I have something to attend to. I will see both of you at the Games.”

“See you,” Baekhyun said. Chanyeol raised his hand in a mock salute.

The officer walked away, and Chanyeol stared after his retreating back until he was safely swallowed by the crowd.

 

 

 

 

Fifteen minutes later they were on the roof.

After the officer had left them downstairs, their audience quickly dispersed and the cameras turned elsewhere. Immediately, Baekhyun had turned to Chanyeol, opening his mouth like he was ready to deliver a spiel. “In what—”

“Meet me on the roof,” Chanyeol had said, cutting him short. “Ten minutes.” His mood was ruined after meeting the officer and he wanted to leave, but realistically their limousine wouldn’t return for another two hours at the least. Finding somewhere isolated to talk to Baekhyun seemed like a good way to pass the remaining time.

So they found a secluded balcony at the back of the loft, and Baekhyun stood there waiting while Chanyeol grabbed food and drink. As Chanyeol pushed open the door to join him, Baekhyun spoke without turning around. "Thanks for swooping in to save the day," he said dryly. His breath misted in the night air. “Unnecessary, but I guess I appreciate the thought.”

Chanyeol set down a plate of food on the small coffee table. “I wasn’t thinking about you,” he said. “I was thinking about your carefully cultivated on-screen persona. What would happen to that, if you went all out on the man?”

The corner of Baekhyun’s lip quirked in a half-smile, and he turned away. His elegant features were dimly illuminated by decorative copper lights winding around the balcony railing. “I hate being forced to drink.”

“You don’t seem big on alcohol,” Chanyeol agreed. ”I got you one of these instead." He handed Baekhyun a flute of milky liquid.

“This is… Mirage?” Chanyeol nodded. “Figures you’d be into this,” Baekhyun said, lifting the glass to study the liquid swirling within.

“Ever tried it?” Baekhyun shook his head, and Chanyeol gestured towards the table. “Have some food, too. Best not to take it on an empty stomach.”

The loft was at the perimeter of the south district, and their balcony looked north over the river. At the edge of the force field, Chanyeol could see a thin fog curling against the boundary. The river was a mess of white lights from the boats and barges covering its surface. Somewhere beyond, the blurry silhouette of the Challenger’s Village shimmered in a haze of smog and light pollution.

They sat at the edges of matching deckchairs, taking turns to fork appetisers from the plate. Judging from the sudden burst of post-rock music from the speakers, performances had resumed downstairs.

When they’d finished every morsel, Chanyeol broke the silence. “So, how’d you find the party?”

Baekhyun hummed. “It’s good, when I’m not having to deal with officers forcing drinks down my throat.”

“You chose the wrong image for your on-screen appearances. You should’ve really gone for something closer to your actual personality.”

“Are you saying I’m not upbeat and confident?”

“You definitely aren’t as nice as you pretend.”

Baekhyun studied him with those sharp, penetrating eyes. “You aren’t exactly forthcoming with your personality either, Park Chanyeol. I’m willing to bet you’re nicer than you act.”

“I’m nice on-camera and off.” Was he? Chanyeol wasn’t sure. “Like you know, I’ve got reasons for not wanting to make friends with other challengers. And reasons for wanting to appear on camera as little as possible.”
“Reasons you won’t share.” It wasn’t a question. Chanyeol didn’t respond, but Baekhyun just laughed. “Relax, I’m not forcing you to admit anything you don’t want to. I’m just saying, you really take the distant, mysterious thing to the next level.”

“Trust me, it’s unintentional.”

“It works with your looks and voice,” Baekhyun said. “Makes you look like an asshole, but works.”

Chanyeol couldn’t hold in his smirk. “Oh you like my voice, do you?”

“I’d tell you the effect it has on me, but that wouldn’t be appropriate.” Baekhyun’s grin should have been illegal.

“You’re so into me.” Chanyeol laughed. His straightforwardness was oddly refreshing.

“Like I haven’t made it clear by now. I was into you from the moment we first met, even if I tried to resist it.”

“I’d tell you not to bother trying, but it seems you got there on your own.” Chanyeol raised a glass of Mirage. “Ready for a ride?”

There was a sparkle in Baekhyun’s eyes. “Ready as I’ll ever be.”

They clinked glasses. Chanyeol tilted back his head and swallowed the glass in one. Mirage had a sweet, caramelly taste which masked a note of bitterness. Instantly, the world seemed to sharpen, and spectral lights danced at the edge of his vision. Time slowed. A galaxy of colour seemed to leak into the air, colouring the river and Baekhyun’s face in moving shadows.

Baekhyun finished off his glass and set it down. His pupils dilated as the effects of the drink set in.

Chanyeol felt the liftoff, like he was floating comfortably in a space somewhere above his body. Baekhyun turned to him, eyes wide. “I never realised how beautiful the city is,” he said in amazement.
Chanyeol had to stifle a laugh. Over the years, he’d built up a level of tolerance to the drug, but Baekhyun was clearly feeling the hit pretty hard.

“The first hit will fade away pretty fast, in a minute or so,” Chanyeol told him. “But the feeling will last for a good hour.”

“Been taking this for a while, then?” Baekhyun stood and leaned over the railing, his movements slightly exaggerated. Chanyeol quickly rose to join him, placing a restraining hand on his shoulder in case he tried anything. Out on the river, boats were drifting through the water, only visible from the twinkling lights that moved slowly in either direction.

“Be careful,” he warned. Already, the effects of the drink were starting to wear off, and he felt more settled in his own skin. “No guarantees I’ll be able to pull you up if you decide to jump over.”

“It’s a strange feeling,” Baekhyun said, and Chanyeol wasn’t sure if he was talking to himself. “Almost like I’m back underwater.”

“Do you miss it?” The words came out without thinking.

“No,” Baekhyun said immediately. “I couldn’t ever… go back under, without thinking of them.”

He must have meant his parents, Chanyeol thought. He was feeling emboldened, so he continued to ask. “You mentioned that they met with an accident. How did you escape that?”

“I’ve always been a good swimmer.” Baekhyun said, looking far away. There was suppressed pain in his voice. “I was only ever at home in the water.”

“It’s okay to say you miss it. Sometimes the things you miss hurt you the most, especially if it’s something you regarded as your home.”

“I don’t want to miss it. Because I’ll never be able to go home.”

His words hit home. Chanyeol wanted badly to reassure him, to tell him that he’d be able to conquer the memories someday. But he couldn’t, not when he, himself, was a prime culprit of being intimidated by past demons. And how could he promise Baekhyun that he’d find a new place to call home, when the future was so painfully uncertain?

Abruptly, Baekhyun spun around to face him, and the proximity had Chanyeol’s breath suddenly catching in his throat.

“Stop doing that,” Baekhyun said, and he’d reverted back to his usual tone.

“Doing what?” For some reason, Chanyeol’s eyes drifted down to his exposed neck, but with difficulty he forced himself to look the other man in the eyes. It filled him with an oddly scorching sensation, as though he was burning Chanyeol up from the inside.

“Looking so predatory.” Baekhyun smirked, and he took a step closer. “Are you into me?”

Baekhyun was the one looking like a predator, he thought, but nodded. “I am,” he admitted, and he finally let a hand drift up to caress the side of Baekhyun’s flawless face, cup the corner of his jaw, sweep a thumb across the smooth expanse of his cheek. His face was so deceptively innocent, almost doll-like in the perfect evenness of his delicate features. A complete contrast from the look he had in his eyes.

“Go on then, kiss me,” Baekhyun said, and Chanyeol did, leaning down to meet his lips — hot and open-mouthed and heady, spinning him up above the city. He was so high, miles up. Cold wind was rushing through his hair. Downstairs, a singer had taken the stage, his husky voice fading out into the night air.

Oh angel sent from up above,
You know you make my world light up

Baekhyun was anything but an angel, Chanyeol thought, but watching him sparkle under the lights, he could almost pretend. Pretend he was putting gilded wings on Chanyeol, so they could fly up and touch the sky. Like Icarus and the Sun. Baekhyun’s arms reached out to wrap around his shoulders, light springing from his hands wherever they touched. A potent mix of adrenaline and Mirage coursed through his veins, like liquid gold, distorting reality, and Chanyeol’s metaphorical stars were coming out, blooming across the night sky.

 

 

 

 

When Chanyeol stayed in his workshop late after training, burning through piles of bronze and copper and lead-specked circuitry, he would look out of the window at the foggy never-ending wasteland that stretched outwards from the city, and the ruined billboards that still stood crookedly by the side of the eroded road. The one that faced his window had been an early advertisement for state-made cars. A giant face looked out at Chanyeol from the background of the image — the face of Rudolf Diesel, his eyes narrowed and watchful from behind those brass goggles. Those omniscient eyes paid Chanyeol company, many a quiet night.

Rudolf Diesel. The inventor of the Diesel engine, back in 1893. His technology had been an impossibility, a work of pure genius. It went against all the laws of physics previously believed to be sacrosanct. People said he had struck a deal with the devil, in exchange for the knowledge that solidified his empire. Nobody knew how he’d died — he’d simply disappeared from the face of the earth, at the age of fifty-five. Some said he was still alive, that he’d been condemned to serve the devil eternally on earth, never allowed to pass into the afterlife. Some said the Board was still hiding him somewhere in their palace, where he commandeered its activities from a throne.

His legacy was stamped all over the city, carved into every corner of the world. The foundation he laid out was impossible to erase. The world ran on it. He was omnipotent.

Unless…

Underneath the surface of the city ran deep currents of uncertainty. For as long as Chanyeol could remember, rumours had floated around, passed from ear to ear in hushed whispers. They said the apocalypse was near. They said the Board knew. They said the Board was powerless to escape it.

Everyone talked, and everyone believed.

Once upon a time, Chanyeol had known a boy named Kim Jongdae. They’d gone to high school together in the heart of New Seoul. While Chanyeol’s parents had been technicians and able to put him through school without much trouble, Jongdae’s parents had struggled as lower-sector workers. Eventually they’d started betting on the Ludi, and ended up working in a generator far from the city, passing away when Jongdae was sixteen. Jongdae had moved onto school premises, worked damaging shifts out in the open air to keep himself alive. Chanyeol had been all he had in the world.

Like many other children, they’d grown up with dreams of toppling the Board someday. Jongdae hated the Board for taking away his parents, for putting him in such a hopeless situation. They’d promised each other never to bet on the Games.

Jongdae never had to honour that promise, for he passed two years later, only eighteen, of an uncontrolled case of sub-aeration, collateral damage from all those hours worked out in the open. He wasn’t a casualty in a war — more like an insect crushed underfoot.

Chanyeol never got over him. Not even when he was twenty, and his parents passed away, suffocated to death after a prolonged period of sub-aeration. That same year, Chanyeol decided to join the Ludi. He wasn’t betting on the Games, not really. He was refusing to be crushed like a bug — instead, he’d face up to the Board and confront them head-on. He would use their tools and come out on top, take the chance to escape the gutters of the filthy city where he’d been thrown out to rot.

And so he worked in the open for a year, breathing polluted air, accumulating the funds he needed to rent his space in the warehouse and start designing his droid. Along the way, the police tried to recruit him as an enforcer, and several others tried to scout him for the Board’s entertainment division. Chanyeol rejected all offers, poured his soul into preparing for the Games.

Sometimes when he thought back on his actions, he felt a sense of assurance, like he was doing the right thing. He was keeping his promise to Jongdae, refusing to let the same happen to him. Other times, he realised that he wasn’t facing up to anything. He wasn’t confronting anyone, by joining the Games and having millions of people bet on him the same way Jongdae’s parents had. He was making a pawn of himself, in the hopes of personal gain. There was absolutely nothing noble about his story.

He wanted to think of himself as inherently good, but sometimes those nagging thoughts would speak into his ears like phantom voices. Telling him that deep inside, he was rotten to the core — nothing but a hollow shell.

 

 

 

   

◊ ◈ ◊

 

 

 

 

Outside the window, a massive storm was brewing, gathering speed as it buffeted in a vortex of wind and water, sending the windows rattling within their frames. Chanyeol ducked into the building before the first droplets fell, rain hitting glass from every angle.

In the Challenger’s Village, Baekhyun’s room was in the building adjacent to Chanyeol’s. Chanyeol had spent a good amount of time there in the last two weeks. On nights when he didn’t have to take Phoenix back to the workshop for improvements, he’d take a shower in the changing rooms, pull on a spare set of clothes and leave the Hippodrome with Baekhyun. Sometimes they’d buy dinner at the cafeteria and eat together in the building’s lounge. Sometimes they’d get drinks — tea, or alcohol-free punch — and hang out, talking till the early hours of the morning. Sometimes they’d do more, huddled together on Baekhyun’s bed. It was a common practice for challengers to hook up with each other while they were all holed up in the village, so nobody questioned them when they’d disappear off together at night, or when Chanyeol emerged from Baekhyun’s room in the mornings, bleary-eyed and dressed in borrowed, too-small clothing.

Despite the rain and fast approaching winter, it was warm in the thickly-insulated room. As Chanyeol shrugged off his jacket, Baekhyun eyed him appreciatively. “What a hotshot,” he said lazily, not getting up from where he was sprawled on the bed. “You could probably coast by on looks alone, you know that? Ditch the Race. Join the Board as a model.”

Chanyeol laughed as he fell onto the bed, his head hitting the pillows. “Like they haven’t tried to recruit me, several times over.”

“Or an actor. You’ve got the charisma of a leading man.”

“Acting seems more like your style.”

“Right, but who would buy me as a hero?”

“Who wouldn’t?” Chanyeol said. Baekhyun just laughed, rolling over to come closer. His smile was even more gorgeous up close. Chanyeol wanted to kiss him, so badly.

“It’s okay, I’ve never wanted to be a hero.”

“I dreamed of being a hero, once,” Chanyeol said. “I wanted to make things right. I guess it’s something like delivering justice, in whatever way I could.”

“You’re just a man. Your job isn’t to save the world, it’s to live in it.” Baekhyun propped himself up on his arms, elbows sinking into the mattress. “And save yourself. That’s what matters most.”

“We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t trying,” Chanyeol said. “To save ourselves, I mean.”

“Yeah, cause that’s what these Games are for, isn’t it? To profit off people trying to save themselves. People like me the most of all — broke, desperate, willing to risk anything.”

How much do you have staked on the competition, Chanyeol wanted to ask. Over the past weeks, he’d gotten to know Baekhyun much better, but he still felt there was a line he couldn’t cross. Instead, he just shrugged. “People in the bars, too. The gamblers. I hate talking to them.”

“They can come off desperate,” Baekhyun agreed. “But we’re worse, aren’t we?”

“It’s not that. I hate having to see what they’ve put on me, how much responsibility I’m inadvertently shouldering.”

Baekhyun shrugged. “It doesn’t bother me.” Because Baekhyun was different from him. Baekhyun focused on personal goals. Baekhyun longed for security, and nothing more — and it didn’t make him any less of a man than Chanyeol was. “They take their own risks. It’s not your responsibility to save them.”

Chanyeol wanted to believe him, but the words grated at his conscience. Simply not caring wasn’t something he could choose to do.

“So, the finals are almost here,” Baekhyun said. “The real thing. You’ve been through this many times, tell me — what comes next?”

Chanyeol straightened and sat up, leaning against the wall. “The Ice Race is the last event of the year, after that the winners go to the Closing Ceremony and afterparty. Those are usually held regionally, each celebrating the victories of winners from a few categories. But since it’s the twenty-fifth Ludi this year —”

“They’re doing a combined event,” Baekhyun finished his sentence. “At the Pinnacle. Halfway across the world.”

Chanyeol nodded. He waited for Baekhyun to ask about the losers, but the question didn’t come. Instead, Baekhyun pushed himself up and sat against the wall, next to Chanyeol. “This has been a really wild ride.”

“I know what you mean. There’s a real sense of disconnect you get once you’re in the thick of the competition, the cameras, the luxury.”

“I love the disconnect,” Baekhyun admitted. “I don’t ever want to go back down.”

“You’ll sink, once this over. It can be hard to deal with.”

“I’ll drag myself back up again.”

Chanyeol believed him. “I’ll be waiting,” he said, reaching out, gently turning Baekhyun to face him. “For now let’s stay riding this wave.” He brushed his fingers against the smooth angle of Baekhyun’s jaw, guiding his chin upwards, and moved in to meet his lips, their fingers interlocking in his lap.

When he pulled away, Baekhyun’s eyes were dark with desire. “Let’s go higher, Chanyeol. Please.”

His hips canted forwards to meet Chanyeol’s thigh, sliding slowly, agonisingly along the length of his body. It had to be freezing cold outside, but all Chanyeol could feel was warmth, blanketing his body, clouding his mind, burning slow and steady inside. He took Baekhyun’s lips again, tugging slightly on his bottom lip with his teeth, wanting to hear more of the low whines he was pulling from the other man. He slid his hands up under Baekhyun’s shirt, arms flexing as Baekhyun’s fingers traced the contours of his muscle.

Chanyeol couldn’t deny that he’d been dreaming of seeing Baekhyun like this, face flushed and lips reddened, dishevelled and wanting. Now as he watched him, trying to commit the vision to memory, he didn’t think he’d ever seen anything more breathtaking. Baekhyun was impatient; he forcefully pulled Chanyeol in to grind against him, and Chanyeol could already feel the heat radiating from him, burning up the surface of his skin.

“Hurry,” Baekhyun urged, his voice cracking. “Pants. Off.”

Chanyeol wasn’t in his right mind. But the need in Baekhyun’s voice pulled at something deep inside him, coercing and coaxing, and he nodded. “Take them off for me.”

Baekhyun glared, and Chanyeol would have grinned if he hadn’t been so on edge, but he reached down to unzip his pants, palming his growing erection. Chanyeol fought to keep his hips still as he watched Baekhyun’s slim fingers dancing across his heated skin, and then taking off his own clothes, tugging his shirt off over his head.

For a moment, he stood in front of Chanyeol, completely naked and covered in a thin sheen of sweat, flushed erection curving up against his pelvis. Chanyeol sat leaning back on the edge of the bed, and his eyes raked across his body, drinking in the toned muscles of his arms and torso, his narrow waist and sinful hips.

“On my lap,” he said heavily, and was almost disappointed at how readily Baekhyun complied, straddling him in a swift motion. Baekhyun’s hands reached between them to undo the buttons on Chanyeol’s white linen shirt, as Chanyeol pressed scorching kisses into his neck. He’d found himself staring at Baekhyun’s neck on more than one occasion, and now that he finally had access he was overcome with the urge to mark.

Baekhyun’s skin was warm silk beneath his fingers. His lips were as delicate as roses, his body as strong and unyielding as steel, skin covered in scars and bruises from his insane training regime on the ice. Chanyeol pressed against the scars buried in the slope of his waist. They resisted, catching the light, glowing faintly in the dim room. Baekhyun’s length pressed against the thin material of his boxers, and Chanyeol could feel himself hardening against him. The sensation had Chanyeol thrusting forwards involuntarily, grinding into the other man’s crotch.

At the sudden contact, Baekhyun twisted away with a low groan. Chanyeol took one look at his face and realised why he’d been so strangely quiet — he was already far gone. His fingers trailed from Baekhyun’s shoulders down to his straining cock, tugging at it with a loosely clenched fist. Baekhyun keened and arched into his touch, breath starting to speed up.

“I can’t, Chanyeol,” he panted. “I’m going to come if you keep this up.”

“Come for me, then.” Chanyeol quickened his ministrations, and soon Baekhyun was falling apart, body wracked with waves of pleasure. Chanyeol kept his eyes on his face, watching him come undone. His moans were addictive, like music to Chanyeol’s ears.

This was bad, whispered a voice at the back of his mind. The thoughts had been hovering under the surface for weeks — that he shouldn’t be entrusting so much of himself to a fellow challenger, especially not someone like Byun Baekhyun, who was beautiful and alluring but still secretive, always distant. Someone who was completely and utterly different from him. There was no way this could possibly end well for either of them, but especially not for Chanyeol himself. Already he was so attracted, so captivated by this man and his terrible ways. He was beyond repentance; all he wanted was to lose himself in the high, give in to blissful intoxication.

Granted, Baekhyun trusted him too — at least that’s what he said, as he let Chanyeol prepare him, slowly taking him apart with his fingers, reducing him to a panting mess. And he said he needed him, when he asked, no, begged Chanyeol to hurry up and fuck him already. It was a tight fit even with the preparation, and Chanyeol forced himself in slowly, exhaling as he pushed in inch by inch. Outside the window, the force of the thunder sent the ground groaning beneath them, lightning ripping apart the sky.

Chanyeol usually preferred to fuck fast, wanting to bring his partners to finish quickly and repeatedly, but with Baekhyun he deliberated. He wanted to take Baekhyun slowly, since he seemed so desperate — to pull every sound from those gorgeous lips, every expression from his features. He wanted to see that armour completely fall apart.

“Spread for me,” he said, gripping Baekhyun’s pale thighs and pulling them apart. He started slow, ignoring Baekhyun’s pleas for him to speed up, and the glorious friction on each thrust had his breath catching in his throat. At his continued refusal, Baekhyun clenched around him, hips jerking to meet his thrusts, and Chanyeol’s eyelids fluttered weakly.

“Too much for you?” Baekhyun managed, fucking himself backwards onto Chanyeol’s length.

In response, Chanyeol gave a good, long thrust, burying himself completely and grinding deep circles into Baekhyun’s ass. Baekhyun’s teasing words turned into strangled moans.

In the full-length mirror on the wall, Chanyeol could watch himself fucking into Baekhyun, watch the other man’s taut muscles rippling under his skin as he writhed, the spill of black hair across his pale, sweaty forehead like ink on canvas. He could watch the shift of Baekhyun’s facial expressions — free from inhibition or self-consciousness, wild and raw and beautiful, his eyes constantly ablaze with the heat of a furnace. Without even trying, he pulled at Chanyeol’s heart, and the thought filled him with frustration. Frustration that this man made him weak, frustration at being rendered helpless again, like he had been all those years ago. Frustration that unlike him, Baekhyun wasn’t even trying to maintain control, that Chanyeol had no one to fight but himself.

Pressure began to build at the base of his spine, and he set a brutal pace. As Chanyeol drilled repeatedly into him, finally giving him the meditative high he was chasing, the aggressive fire in Baekhyun’s eyes started to dim, his lights fucked out at long last. The sight sent him on an instant power trip. With the hand that wasn’t gripping onto Baekhyun for leverage, he reached around Baekhyun’s shaking body and wrapped his fingers around his cock.

Moments later Baekhyun came a second time, back arching and thick ropes of white painting across the surface of the mirror as his cock twitched uncontrollably. He unloaded long and hard, mouth falling open and body shuddering with pleasure. Chanyeol held gently onto his arms as he fell over the edge, continuing to thrust as he felt the aftershocks wrack through Baekhyun’s form.

Chanyeol relinquished control after that, thrusting erratically till he was seeing stars, jackhammering into Baekhyun’s spent body until he followed with a low groan, vision going white at the edges.

They took turns cleaning up after, Baekhyun taking the first shower while Chanyeol wiped down the mirror they’d christened. When Chanyeol emerged from the bathroom freshly showered and dressed in his shirt and jeans, Baekhyun was already curled up in bed.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Baekhyun asked, as Chanyeol moved towards the door. He sat up remarkably fast, reaching out to grab hold of Chanyeol’s arm. “Stay here. Don’t leave.”

Chanyeol was incredibly tired, physically and emotionally, but he surrendered, letting Baekhyun pull him into the fall, sinking back onto the mattress next to him.

Later that night, as Chanyeol lay next to Baekhyun, he was consumed with the desire to protect. Baekhyun was a brilliant spark, but like a flame flickering in the breeze, he was on the verge of extinguishing. There was something too desperate about the way he moved, like every moment was his last. Still, what protection could Chanyeol give him? He was just another challenger, trapped in the arms race. And he had no right to — they were direct competitors, each with individual goals, individual responsibilities weighing on their shoulders.

Outside the window, the storm raged on, so violent and electric that Chanyeol imagined it could pull trees from the earth, hammer concrete into rubble in its wrath. He pulled the blankets up a little higher and let his eyelids flutter shut, trying to hold onto the memory of Baekhyun’s warmth in his arms.

 

  

 

 

◊ ◈ ◊

 

 

 

 

The coming of the Grand Finals usually filled Chanyeol with adrenaline and competitive fire, but this time there was nothing but crushing dread as the day of reckoning finally dawned on New Seoul — unusually clear, dry with a sharp wintriness. Inside the Hippodrome, every seat in the stands was filled — with supporters, press, Ludi officers. The air crackled with static, choked with nervous tension. On the ceiling, familiar flickering capitals spelled out the day’s agenda:

THE LUDI PLEBEII 2017
ICE RACE
THE GRAND FINALS

Across the planet, licensed arcades and underground speakeasies would be crammed with gamblers and dealers, watching their screens with bated breath. Today was the day they would strike gold or lose everything.

The roar of the crowd was ringing in Chanyeol’s ears as he filed into the challengers’ area alongside six other finalists. They were using the tower for the finals, a large circular room descending from the centre of the roof, fitted with rotating control booths that allowed the challengers to keep their eyes on their bots as they moved. Frosty air surged through the vents, forcing down the temperature in the room, and still sweat trickled down his temples and soaked through the back of his shirt. His vision tunnelled as he found his station, equipment untouched and exactly as he’d arranged it the day prior. Down on the rink, in Lane 4, The Phoenix was crouched, a hulking mass of metal plating and wire, its bronze rings for eyes fixed straight ahead. Byun Baekhyun was waiting adjacent in the fifth lane, lethal and leonine in a suit of copper and brass, black mask bare, ready to spring.

A member of staff tapped Chanyeol on the shoulder, offering him a canteen of water. He accepted it, taking several gulps, and shook his head to clear the numbness that had seized hold of his face. It was as though a toxic fog had seeped into his head, blanking out his thoughts. He gripped the wheel in front of him so tight his knuckles whitened, forcing himself to focus on the controls. Gearshift, crank shafts, balancers, extenders. Isolators, directional control, landing control. At the far end of the stadium on the giant screen, large projected numbers were counting down to the starting horn. Fifty seconds to go.

Forty seconds. Confidence had always been one of Chanyeol’s greatest assets, but he’d never been more unsure of himself.

Thirty. A faint whirring started to reverberate through the stadium, growing steadily in volume and intensity till the ground shook. In the challengers’ booth, the metal of Chanyeol’s equipment rattled within their cages.

Twenty seconds. All the challengers — except for one in the rink — were in their control seats, feet hovering above the pedals. Chanyeol kept one hand on the wheel, using the other to yank the gearshift backwards. His eyes watered from pressure, and he blinked furiously, watching the screen. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.

Zero. The air horn went off, a single sharp blast.

Chanyeol slammed his foot down on the pedal and Phoenix took off. He was known for an unsurpassed acceleration, and Phoenix immediately sliced through the thick of the bots towards a clear path. Keeping his gaze fixed on his bot, Chanyeol pushed it dangerously close to the ground, streamlining its form, driving forwards with a vengeance. Phoenix pulled cleanly ahead of the pack as the first lap drew to its close.

The rink was activated as Chanyeol rounded on the backstretch and started switching lanes, negotiating the crossover. The whirring escalated to a peak as a series of suspended elements descended from the ceiling. With a horrible shudder, the ice cracked apart, sliding over itself to bring up the first series of obstacles. His eyes shifted rapidly from the approaching chasm to his bot, gauging distances and speed, and he braked sharply, winding up for a spring. Phoenix transitioned smoothly from a crouch into a jump, crossing the gap and skidding to a landing, before launching into another leap. With one hand straining on the balancer to maintain his trajectory, Chanyeol grabbed hold of the action levers, getting Phoenix to extend an arm and grab onto the hanging elements. His bot completed the task with apparent ease, though Chanyeol was exerting utmost concentration, switching controls as fast as lightning to keep Phoenix moving.

The Hippodrome was deathly silent, save the grinding of machinery, the screech of metal on ice, metal on metal. Televised versions of the race would doubtlessly have commentators narrating the challengers’ progress navigating the course, but every living being in the stadium was rooted to the spot, eyes glued to the rink with complete and utter attention. Behind his control panel, Chanyeol could barely feel the strain in his arms, barely notice the seven other challengers hot on his heels. He was back in the zone, that happy place of detachment where nothing existed but the ice, and Phoenix, and blinding speed.

He lost track of the laps as he powered on, dodging swinging maces, vaulting over hurdles. The ground beneath the bots was constantly morphing, forcing the challengers to react instantaneously. Years of experience helped him, taught him the most advantageous positions to assume to achieve the fastest adjustment times. Thirty laps blurred into forty, forty into fifty. Chanyeol only realised how long he’d been piloting when his left arm on the balancer began to tremble from exertion. They must be coming up to sixty laps soon, and he would be crowned champion once again. And then it would be all be over.

As Chanyeol rounded the bend to bring up the third quarter of the lap, he saw it rising out of the ground — the tower of ice, which showed up on the final stretch, every year without exception. It was the most treacherous obstacle of all, a loose spiral that climbed up towards the roof of the Hippodrome, with gaping chasms in between the sheets of ice. Navigating it involved maintaining a delicate balance on the thin circular path, with the option of jumping across the gaps and climbing the tower to cut across transversely. But the ice was notoriously slippery, and Chanyeol always chose the former route. It was an impossibly difficult feat of balance which had caused many a challenger to fail to finish the race.

Which was terrible, because the consequences of not finishing would be terrifying for the challengers who’d invested everything they had in the Games, poured all their resources into constructing their bots. And the consequences of falling off the tower of ice would be so, so much worse if one was a human challenger

For a split second, Chanyeol forgot where he was. He could see everything from where he sat in the control tower, and his vision almost seemed to zoom out, to take in the vicinity of where Phoenix was rapidly bearing down on the tower. Finishing the third quarter, coming up the end of the bend was Baekhyun. Right behind him were two more challengers, neck in neck for third, maybe in the middle of an overtake. An overtake. Chanyeol’s senses snapped back into focus, and he seized hold of the balancer to steady his bot just as it began to mount the path.

The climb was excruciating. His muscles were screaming as he wrestled the handles and pedals with the most painfully precise control he could manage. Phoenix ascended the path with perfectly calibrated control, almost shaving off the topmost layer of ice with how hard it was clinging to the surface. Chanyeol made it to the top, and then quickly slammed on the brakes to begin an equally torturous descent.

Beneath the Phoenix, the ice was shuddering. With shock, Chanyeol realised that Baekhyun was behind him, having jumped and climbed and traversed the tower across its radius. He forced himself to concentrate, levers groaning beneath clenched fists as he manipulated them. Somewhere in his subconscious, he was vaguely aware that Baekhyun was following him down the spiral path, apparently having decided not to repeat his earlier method. Phoenix was almost out of the tower. He was almost out of the gate. Once he hit smooth ice, nobody would be able to challenge his acceleration. He could already hear the cheers, could already see his name painted across the screen in giant golden letters.

The image hit him with abrupt, crippling dread.

On the controls, Chanyeol’s right hand trembled, and his grip fell slack, loosening around the balancer. The landing control drifted for the briefest of milliseconds, and Phoenix crashed hard on its landing, skidding across flat ice with a painful screech, sending a trail of sparks flying. In that single second, two figures shot right past him, and Chanyeol seized hold of his wheel with renewed desperation, using all his force to spin it and wrestle his bot back into stance. The finishing line was twenty metres away. Too close. Too late.

Not letting go of the wildly spinning controls, Chanyeol slammed his elbow down on the energy recovery system lever, and Phoenix shot forwards with a final burst of power. He floored the accelerator, forcing it into the ground so hard he thought it might break.

Phoenix hurtled across the finish line alongside two other challengers, their positions virtually indistinguishable.

A green light flashed on from beneath Lane 4, along with a glowing number “2”. At the same time, his black wristband lit up green.

Slowly, sensation returned to Chanyeol’s body. His heart thudded in his throat. He wanted to throw up.

He couldn’t even look at the rest of the results, consumed as he was by intense nausea. Sweating, Chanyeol slumped in his seat, muscles aching. His palms were red and blistered. His eyes stung from exertion. Beside his seat, the camera that had been trained on him slowly moved, following tracks in the ceiling to record him head-on. He could not have cared less.

And then a voice was echoing through the stadium, drowning out the crowd. “This brings us to the end of the Grand Finals of the Ice Race, and the end of the twenty-fifth Ludi Plebeii.”

“In third place, we have Mr Zhang Yixing, challenger of the People’s Republic of China.”

Chanyeol sat up. From somewhere behind him, he could hear the familiar footsteps of the armed police, coming in to seize the fallen challengers. There was screaming, and crying, and pleading, but it was quickly silenced by the sound of tranquillisers being ejected from their guns. Chanyeol tuned it all out, not sparing a backward glance.

“In second place, we have Mr Park Chanyeol, home challenger of the Republic of Korea.”

A curious silence followed this pronouncement, as though the crowd could barely bring themselves to clap. In Seat Number Three, Kang Seulgi was forced to her feet, and she didn’t put up a fight. Chanyeol turned to look at her as she went, their eyes meeting momentarily before she quickly looked away. She was the closest thing he had to a friend within the Games. He should have been at least a little sad, but as she walked out of the room a hostage to the Board, he felt nothing but emptiness.

“And in first place, World Champion of the Ice Race, home challenger of the Republic of Korea and first ever human champion, we have Mr Byun Baekhyun.”

Baekhyun’s name filled the screen in golden lettering. Chanyeol looked down towards the rink, but the man was nowhere to be seen.

“Excuse me, sir, you’ll have to come with me.” Someone was speaking to him, and for a second Chanyeol was paralysed with terror. Where were they taking him? Then he realised that the tone of the voice was friendly, and the speaker was decidedly human — an usher assigned to bring him to the post-race conference. “You too, sir,” the man said to the occupant of Seat Number Five, a pale and shaken-looking Zhang Yixing. “We need to get you to the airfield as soon as possible, your belongings have already been sent ahead. Please follow me.”

Still dazed, Chanyeol rose to follow the man out of the booth and through the Hippodrome. A camera followed them as they threaded through corridors and exited via a back door, where a limousine was waiting, sleek bullet-like body and tinted windows gleaming, exhaust rising from menacing chrome grilles. The escort opened the door for them, revealing a spacious interior of plush black leather, and Baekhyun. He was settled onto the far end of the seat, his face angled towards the window, and he didn’t turn around as Chanyeol entered.

The door closed behind them and the limousine drove north, heading for the city limits.

 

 

 

 

Some minutes later, they pulled up at an airfield just outside the border, where their zeppelin was waiting. It was a mammoth, occupying half the field just by itself, and its moniker The Juggernaut was printed across the side of its rust red body in yellow cursive. Chanyeol, Baekhyun and Yixing were the last passengers on board, following behind their filming crew. The craft began to take off the moment the doors sealed shut behind them.

An escort led the trio straight into a reception lounge, adjacent to the function room in which the press conference would be taking place. They were at the bow of the ship, in a large crescent-shaped room with a wall of windows looking out onto the city.

“We’ll be calling you in for the conference once setup is complete,” she said. “For now, please rest and enjoy some refreshments.” Then she withdrew from sight with a polite bow.

Everything about the ship’s interior was unparalleled luxury, from the thick patterned carpet that ran over the floor, to the refreshments table stacked high with delicacies, to the pristine filtered air. Chanyeol walked towards the windows, where the last of the skyscrapers were disappearing below as the Juggernaut rose above the city.

After the brief clarity of the morning, a familiar cloud of smog and cloud was moving in on New Seoul, shrouding the city in its usual cloak of grey. The Hippodrome was a landmark within the sprawl of narrow streets and warehouses — a wheel with jagged edges, a giant cog in the system. The Juggernaut began crossing the city obliquely, passing above the downtown area and city centre, where neon lights were slowly flickering on, outlining the shapes of shophouses and arcades in glowing greens and blues. Even from such a height, the skyscrapers were towering and ominous as ever, a thicket of dark spires rising from the Underworld. Crumbling pedestrian bridges and inter-city train tracks criss-crossed at the middle levels of the tallest buildings, the trains releasing plumes of smoke as they hurtled by. As Chanyeol watched, the silhouette of the defunct Town Hall, a giant deco-era building shaped like a bauhaus archway, faded into a cloud of exhaust, buried in cloud and garish light.

The on-board press conference was a new experience. The usual mob of press was absent, and instead there was a single reporter asking questions on their behalf. Chanyeol sat to the left of the champion instead of in the central spot, and fielded questions addressing his “failure” instead of the usual nodding along to congratulatory praise.

“Mr Park Chanyeol, you failed to defend your title this year,” the reporter said. “We take it that this was a surprising event to you?”

“Not entirely.” Chanyeol paused. “It was a close fight between Baekhyun and I, I knew it would be since the semi-finals. It could have gone either way, easily.”

“Mr Byun Baekhyun passed you on the final stretch of the race,” the reporter continued. “Any comments on how that happened?”

“I was overpowered,” he said. “It was frustrating to have victory stolen from me at the very last moment, but I acknowledge my competitor’s skill.”

“Phoenix appeared to falter on the ice after fielding the spiral obstacle, would you say it was a technical fault, or a mistake on your part?”

Chanyeol’s mind raced. He knew what the question was for, and his explanation had to be simple yet convincing. “It was a fault, but not with Phoenix,” he said. “The control panel was imperfectly balanced. There was a slight drift which caused the falter when my hands were otherwise occupied by the challenging manoeuvre.”

“Thank you, Mr Park Chanyeol. We congratulate you on your continued good performance in the Ice Race and wish you the best going forward.”

He nodded, and the camera tilted, its light and lens moving to focus on Baekhyun.

“Mr Byun Baekhyun. Congratulations on an amazing race.”

“Thank you so much,” Baekhyun said, and Chanyeol could hear the brilliant smile in his voice. He had wondered if Baekhyun would continue to channel the same light blitheness that he’d taken on every appearance before cameras.

Throughout his interview, Baekhyun fielded questions like a master, his talent with words more evident than ever. Chanyeol envied the way he could turn on charm like a tap, switching between personas faster than the camera could catch.

When the interrogation was over, Baekhyun was ushered out first, and taken down a separate corridor towards the winner’s suite. The cameras followed Chanyeol closely as he was guided from the conference right up to his room door, where finally, thankfully, they retreated to allow him some privacy.

“Your case is inside,” the usher said. “We should arrive in the Mediterranean tomorrow morning. Please rest well.”

“What’s on the agenda for tomorrow?” Chanyeol asked.

“Once we arrive, you’ll take a train to Oasis. A copy of the programme is on the desk within your room,” the usher said. “Hit the call button if you have any questions, and I’ll find someone to answer them.”

“Alright. Thanks.”

Inside the room, Chanyeol found the programme and looked it over. They would take a high-speed train from the port to Oasis City, location of the Pinnacle, the centre of the Board’s global operations. The morning would be spent touring the city, before they would adjourn to the Pinnacle for the Closing Ceremony of the twenty-fifth Ludi Plebeii. After dinner, they would move to the Hanging Gardens for an afterparty.

Any other year, Chanyeol would have been curiously anticipating the post-Games party. It was always an obscenely extravagant affair, the perfect place to indulge and chase more of that disconnect he secretly craved. But this year, the thought only triggered frustration. He wanted to speak to Baekhyun in private. He needed a moment alone with him to gather his thoughts.

But he wouldn’t get the chance, not on The Juggernaut, not in Oasis, with all the cameras and the staff and the officers watching his every move.

Chanyeol knelt on the floor, unpacked his case and took quick inventory of the room. It was a wide and imposing space, floored in polished oak and upholstered in cognac leather. Two sets of clothes were hanging in the wardrobe, a cotton lounge suit and a set of light, silvery clothing complete with a pair of shoes, presumably for him to wear the next morning. He pulled the lounge suit off the rail and headed to shower. The hot water unknotted the muscles in his aching arms and back, but his mind remained as stubbornly impenetrable as night. There was just one, unanswerable question blocking out the static: what happens next?

Afterwards, consumed with exhaustion, Chanyeol collapsed onto the bed and instantly drifted off into a dreamless sleep.

 

 

 

 

The Juggernaut arrived at its destination after sunrise, landing in a seaside airfield by the Mediterranean coast.

An sizeable entourage emerged from the zeppelin — the winners, their filming crew, a delegation of senior Ludi officers, the Governor of Seoul and her family, a collection of staff. Chanyeol walked slightly behind the group as they crossed the field to the station.

A porter carried Chanyeol’s bag for him, hurrying ahead as he stepped off the gangway and onto solid ground. Chanyeol slipped his mask on, ready to be hit by a wave of pollution, only to realise, with a jolt of shock, that he didn’t need it. They weren’t within a force field, yet the air was miraculously clear, and he could clearly see the undulating dunes of the desert stretching out for miles all around. And the colours — the sky seemed endless, cloudless and so vividly blue, the sand a rich, warm gold.

It was another world. On the platform, a sleek white bullet of a train was waiting for them, its construction like nothing Chanyeol had ever seen. There were no vents, no continuous trail of smoke escaping from the engine, not the slightest trace of soot or machine oil near the underside. He scanned the side of its body and wheels in amazement. How had they managed to conceal everything so perfectly? What was this thing running on?

The train shot smoothly and soundlessly through the vast desert, the image outside the windows blurring into a haze of copper and beige. It barrelled through several layers of force fields, and before ten minutes had passed it started to slow, approaching a soaring mountain range of sandstone. Its cliffs, coloured in hues of bright cinnabar red, leaned inwards to form a valley that contained the sandy buildings of Oasis City. And directly ahead in the centre, the Pinnacle rose from the earth, a gleaming golden palace soaring a hundred storeys up into the cloudless sky.

Walking in the streets of Oasis was like walking through a dream. The colours alone were brighter and more alive than anything he’d seen. Everything was immaculately clean, intricate paintings and carvings etched onto clay walls and squinches and spandrels, varnished till they gleamed. Palm trees and cacti grew on every street corner; they might have been in the middle of the Sahara, but it was more greenery than the entire city of New Seoul had in total. There wasn’t a generator in sight, not a trace of smoke nor fire. He had never seen so much open space, never seen such pure, untainted sunlight. It was a garden of eden, a paradise on earth.

When Chanyeol managed to tear his eyes away for long enough to glance at the people around him, he could see that Baekhyun and Yixing were equally shell-shocked. It was still early in the day, and the streets were quiet, but the few people he did see moving around were wearing similar clothes in light metallic colours, their faces free of masks, fully exposed to the elements.

Before Chanyeol could pause to think about the implications — of the impossible technology he was witnessing, of the very existence of this idyllic place — he was accosted by their tour guide for the day. As most of the passengers were familiar with Oasis, just one member of staff was assigned to take Chanyeol, Baekhyun and Yixing around the city. He was a neat, good-looking man with an air of quiet command. Typical, really, of the Board’s senior officers.

“Hi, I’m Kim Junmyeon,” he said to them as he shook each of their hands in turn, and strangely enough, making eye contact with Chanyeol only. He was vaguely familiar, Chanyeol thought — they’d probably met at a party during one of the previous Ludi. “I’m an officer of trade and industry in Seoul, so I work under the Governor. It’s a pleasure to meet all of you. Congratulations on winning the race.”

Chanyeol nodded, accepting his handshake. “Thanks.” Why would they send a senior Board officer to give three Ludi winners a city tour?

As they walked around the outer streets, Chanyeol wanted to fall behind and get Baekhyun’s attention, but Kim Junmyeon stuck stubbornly to his side, keeping up a steady stream of narration and pleasantry. “I actually grew up here in Oasis,” he said conversationally. “It used to be much more populated, but many of the officers have moved out to regional outposts.”

“And the workers, the ones who aren’t officers, did they grow up here too?” Chanyeol asked, gesturing at two people maintaining a mural on the exterior of a convention hall.

“Yes,” Junmyeon said. “They come from the working households here. They run the stores, the restaurants, maintenance, entertainment. They run the city, essentially.” He had an odd way of making the atrocities he was reporting sound acceptable, almost fair. The way he phrased things made them sound pleasant. Chanyeol thought that if one spoke to Junmyeon long enough, he’d probably be able to persuade anyone that the state of the world was a favourable one.

They moved through the centre of the city, surrounded by intimidating structures and forums, all vaulted ceilings held up with towering columns, capped with gonbads, crowned with cupolas. The Pinnacle was undoubtedly the centrepiece, a titanic, geometric building standing on an island surrounded by a perfectly calm orange-gold lake. A citadel of Oasis, of the desert and the world.

Oasis had been home to the Board for many years, since the early twentieth century, Junmyeon said, but the Pinnacle had only been completed twenty-five years ago. As the sun reached its highest, he took the trio for a meal at a lakeside eatery, an open-roofed patio with feldspar walls. It was only then, sitting around their table in silence, that Chanyeol noticed an odd tension in the air. He threw repeated glances at Baekhyun, but the other man looked pointedly elsewhere as he ate, speaking to Yixing but keeping his gaze well away from Chanyeol and Junmyeon both.

“I’m going to take you guys to the Pinnacle now,” Junmyeon said, once they were done. “There I’ll be handing you over to the stylists, who’ll get you ready for the Closing Ceremony.”

They crossed the lake, Junmyeon driving them across the bridge in a small open-air cart. The Pinnacle shone before them, a glimmering edifice that blocked out the sky as they approached.

When Chanyeol stepped through the giant glass doors into the lobby, he actually forgot to breathe. Junmyeon walked ahead of them, his leather shoes tapping on the white marble floor as he climbed the main steps towards the atrium. Chanyeol just watched, awestruck, his head tilted backwards as he looked up the central column of the building — a void of sky windows, bleeding golden light, stretching up a hundred floors into infinity, where blinding brightness burst forth from an oculus. Lifts moved up and down at the perimeter of the atrium, suspended on scintillating golden chains, like glass cocoons held together by threads of antique gold. He wondered what kind of mechanism it ran on. From where he stood, he could see people walking around the corridors of the buildings, entering offices through revolving doors, moving up and down in the lifts, the gold bases of their heeled shoes catching the light as they walked.

The stylists were waiting for them by the lifts. Chanyeol reached out to shake the man’s hand, not quite hearing his name, and the blinding brilliance of the Pinnacle continued to slowly burn itself into his mind as they went up in the cocoons and to individual studios to get ready for the afternoon.

 

 

 

 

Red. It wasn’t a popular colour, back in New Seoul, where everything was black and grey and ash. But everything about the Closing Ceremony was red — the curtains, the announcer’s gown, the holographic symbol of the Ludi Plebeii superimposed against the stage, the flames that erupted from the ceremonial cauldron before being finally extinguished. Chanyeol had met the Governor of Seoul on many occasions, but it was his first time meeting The Governor — Chairman of the Board. The officers were friendlier than Chanyeol had expected, given that he wasn’t even the champion. Everyone was surprisingly humble, greeting warmly and asking after him with apparent sincerity.

In the midst of the continuous socialising, the challengers were given a brief period to change and rest up before the party began. Chanyeol wanted to seek Baekhyun out, but his stylists took him to a room on a different level, and he could only watch his retreating back as the other man walked down the long corridor towards the lift lobby. Anxiety began to mount as he sat alone in his room, waiting for the party to start.

Half an hour later, his stylist knocked on the door, ready to take him to the venue — The Gardens of Oasis. They were located behind the Pinnacle, linked to the main building by a series of gilded bridges and walkways. Lush evergreens and blooming bouquets were planted on multiple tiers, each gallery projecting beyond the other, fronted by a colonnade in which vines curled and climbed around sand-coloured columns. Marble fountains gurgled in the courtyards, paved in checkered slabs of agate and onyx. The staff was in full force, outfitted in pale gold and silver, blending into the architecture as they served trays of canapés and cocktails.

Chanyeol moved around the floor, mingling with guests. Some he knew, but many others were new faces — high-ups of the Ludi Plebeii office, Governors and top-ranking officers of the Board in Oasis and other regional bases across the world. There were celebrities, some performing at the party, others just guests. He was introduced to Lu Han, whose face had stared at him from across the field of the Challengers’ Village for years. He met Kim Jongin, the winner of the Arena Games. Shim Changmin, a model. He spoke to Krystal Jung, daughter of the Governor of Korea, whom he knew and was fairly familiar with. And there were the Governors themselves, recognisable from the Closing Ceremony earlier.

The sun was setting by the time Chanyeol caught a first glimpse of Baekhyun. He was climbing the spiral stairs to the upper terrace, when he saw him, through the crowd, between the fronds of palm trees, talking to one of the Governors. He was at ease, very much in his element, looking like one of the celebrities with his dramatically gelled hair, sharply-cut black tie suit and tattoos peeking out from beneath his collar. As Chanyeol watched him, Baekhyun’s gaze flickered upwards and met his, boring into him with that familiar insolent stare.

As though pulled by a magnet, Chanyeol set his unfinished drink down on a server’s tray and headed for Baekhyun, crossing the floor in quick strides. Seeing his approach, Baekhyun quickly excused himself and turned around just as Chanyeol reached him. He caught hold of Chanyeol’s arm, stopping him in his tracks and nudging him in the direction of the artificial waterfall. They crossed the floor together, avoiding the gazes of guests who might stop them for a conversation. Droplets splattered against Chanyeol’s suit as he leaned over the edge, but they were partially concealed here, and the noise from the waterfall would make it harder for anyone to eavesdrop.

Baekhyun was uncharacteristically silent as they stood shoulder-to-shoulder before the waterfall, looking out at the sunset. The tension mounted, reaching an unbearable degree, and Chanyeol was the first to snap.

“Overwhelming, isn’t it?” he said, gesturing vaguely at the scene that surrounded them. He was almost afraid to turn to look at Baekhyun, to get a read on what he was thinking.

But Baekhyun’s features were set in a neutral cast as he nodded. “I have to say, this isn’t what I expected,” he said abruptly, seriously. “Back in my apartment, when I asked you what came next.”

“What did you expect, then?”

“I expected to lose.” Baekhyun looked up at Chanyeol, then, meeting his eyes. They were closed off. “To lose the race, and everything else.”

In that moment, Chanyeol felt like his worst fears were confirmed. “You were a life bet,” he said, and a surge of relief chased the horror, strong and unexpected. “First place or nothing.”

“You guessed.” Baekhyun’s voice grew quiet, and as Chanyeol watched, the arrogance and energy seemed to peel away from his facade, leaving behind only a shaken twenty-five year-old man. “Is that why you did it?”

Even against the backdrop of chatter, laughter and bubbling water, his words hung in the air. Chanyeol wanted to pretend to not know what he was talking about, but he did. What he didn’t know was the answer to his question.

At his silence, Baekhyun continued talking. “I’m guessing you think you did me a service.” There was an undercurrent of something accusatory in his tone that grated at Chanyeol’s patience.

“I did what I wanted to do,” he said finally. “Are you upset?”

“Did you really think that was what I wanted?” Baekhyun looked up, and to Chanyeol’s disbelief, he looked annoyed.

“Byun Baekhyun, are you trying to give me a lesson on morality right now?”

“I chose to compete. I chose to gamble, save myself or die trying. It’s not up to you to just let me win.”

“I did what I wanted to do, and you have no right to stop me.”

“I can’t believe you. Who gave you the right? What gives you the fucking right?” His voice was quiet but seething, and he spoke through gritted teeth, like he was struggling not to raise his voice.

His words rendered Chanyeol speechless.

The truth, the reason, was staring him right in the eye, loud and unapologetic.

But where’d you wanna go?
How much you wanna risk?
I’m not looking for somebody with some superhuman gifts.

He didn’t have the right. But he’d done it anyway. Because…

“Maybe it wasn't fair. But I did it for you, because I love you. For fuck’s sake, Baekhyun, look at me.” Chanyeol’s breath was quickening, and the effects of sub-aeration pressed on his chest, trapping his heart in a cage. He fought to calm himself down, to slow his breathing. He didn’t want to have an attack right there, in front of all the guests. “I did it because I didn’t want you to lose. I didn’t want to lose you.”

He didn’t know what kind of response he expected, but it wasn’t the next words out of Baekhyun’s mouth, swift and pointed. “What about all those other people, Chanyeol? The ones who rely on you to stay alive. There are thousands of them. Millions.”

His words were like knives. His eyes were cold and unforgiving, not moved in the slightest by Chanyeol’s confession. He’d known, Chanyeol realised. Baekhyun had known he was in love with him, even if he didn’t know it himself. “I don’t care about them. And I thought you didn’t, either.”

Baekhyun just shook his head. “And what you said to me, just a few nights ago? Was that more bullshit?”

“What do you want from me, a confession? I’m a hypocrite, Baekhyun? I’m not as noble as I pretend to be?” The words should have hurt to speak, but he was numb. It was like acknowledging a long-existing truth. He didn’t have the space to care. Not when Baekhyun was about to be exiled and subject to a slow and painful death.

“And you thought yourself fit to make decisions on my behalf, even though we barely know each other.”

Barely know each other?” Chanyeol was lost for words. “That’s pushing it, Byun Baekhyun. I saved your life, you just admitted it, and you’re still trying to sit on a moral high horse? Pretty rich, coming from a shameless sycophant.”

“I thought we knew each other, but now it doesn’t quite seem like it. You’re just one more person who thinks they have the right to control other people’s lives. One more person who thinks they know best, thinks they can make decisions for other people.”

“Wow, I didn’t see this coming. I thought I was a hypocrite, but here you are, beating me at even this.”

Baekhyun stood his ground. “I’ve always admitted my selfishness. I’ve never pretended to be anything other than what I am. But you are a hypocrite of the worst kind. How are you any better than the Board you claim to hate?”

Chanyeol stared at him, incredulous, for a long moment. “And?” he said finally. “Say I am a hypocrite. I lied. I made a decision on your behalf, that’s well in line with your policy of self-gain, every man for himself, and now what? I’m a hypocrite, so I’m no longer fit to associate with the likes of you?”

“What kind of person do you think I am, Chanyeol? Someone to whom selfish gain is the only thing in the world that matters?” Baekhyun looked away, and Chanyeol suppressed the urge to grab his shoulders and force him to look him in the eye. “I don’t think I can do it anymore. Face you, I mean.”

Chanyeol stopped short. “You’re really doing this, are you.”

Irritation flashed across his features. “What did you think I’d say? Thank you, Park Chanyeol, I’m so grateful? I’m forever indebted to you? Fall at your feet like one of the fans you let down?”

“You aren’t indebted. You didn’t ask anything of me.” But as he spoke, he knew with despair that he wouldn’t listen. Not Byun Baekhyun, independent, fierce, proud. He would never take this lying down.

“We were competitors. Equals. You ruined that.” You took control away from me, Chanyeol thought. Not the other way around.

He didn’t voice those thoughts. “Try to understand why I did it.”

“I can’t, Chanyeol.” Baekhyun took a deep breath. His eyes were hard as steel. “And I can’t see you again. This is the last time we’ll meet.”

“As long as I accomplished what I wanted,” Chanyeol said. If this was what it came down to, he didn’t care. “I made sure you’ll live happily.”

Baekhyun continued like he hadn’t even heard. “And leave me alone from now on.”

“I hope you enjoy your wealth,” he said, as Baekhyun turned and walked away from the waterfall, back towards the floor of guests. He didn’t look back.

 

 

 

 

Chanyeol’s mind was still frozen with shock as he stood there at the edge of the waterfall, when somebody tapped him on the shoulder and he turned around. Kim Junmyeon was standing behind him, smiling in a very strange way. His handsome features, which Chanyeol had found so unassuming and friendly, now seemed disturbing, almost inhuman, like he’d been constructed in a laboratory. There was something sinister about the look in his eyes, like he was about to sentence Chanyeol to a painful, drawn-out death.

“Enjoying the party, Chanyeol?”

Chanyeol shrugged, finding his voice. “It’s nice.”

“I must say, Chanyeol, we’re very thankful. The Board was getting upset with your consistent performance, but they’ve made a lot from you this year. More than enough to recoup their losses.” The words were surreal coming from his mouth, too loud, too harsh, a jarring contrast with the peaceful, mild demeanour he’d exhibited earlier.

He couldn’t have come over just to make passive-aggressive passes at him. “Why are you telling me this?” Chanyeol asked, only half listening.

Junmyeon placed a hand on his shoulder, steered him towards a chair, and forced him to sit down. He waved over a server to hand Chanyeol a drink, which he accepted, mindlessly watching bubbles rise to the surface of the lavender liquid, studying the decorative curlicues embossed into the base of the goblet. They provided a little distraction from the numbness still settling in his chest as Junmyeon continued to invade his personal space, leaning in to speak quietly to him.

“We know you aren’t the happiest with the way the Board runs things,” he said, his voice full of sympathy. “I’ve had my eye on you for a while, Chanyeol. Many people in the Board weren’t too happy with the way you were dominating the Race. They wanted me to take action sooner, but I knew you weren’t our biggest fan. So I waited.”

“Spare me the long story,” Chanyeol said. He was tired, and he’d had enough dramatics for a lifetime. “Are you going to throw me in jail?”

“Fine.” Junmyeon’s jaw tightened. “I’ll make myself clear. I know you don’t like the Board. But we’re just a vanguard of the chosen. You’ve seen all of this,” — he gestured to the splendour that surrounded them — “you’ve seen Oasis, even the train that brought you in. We have accomplished incredible feats of technology—”

“At the expense of billions,” Chanyeol cut him short. He could no longer care for tact.

“I would hope you’ve lost all delusions of being a hero, of handing out justice, after what happened yesterday,” Junmyeon said. “We don’t force anyone to gamble on the Ludi, they do it of their own accord. The generators need people to keep them running. We weed out the weak, the irresponsible.” He was at it again, with that peculiar way of making terrible acts sound justified. “Once we finalise our technology, we’ll be able to start implementing it in the best districts.”

He’d heard enough. “Why are you telling me this?” Chanyeol repeated, impatience shifting to anger.

“We want to invite you to join the Board.”

At Junmyeon’s words, Chanyeol felt like a massive stone was dropped on his chest, crushing him under its weight. “What?”

“You’re a talented man, and we could use your skill with engineering. We want you to become an officer in Seoul. We’d set you up with a nice house in the Southern Districts, and you could work in a state-of-the-art laboratory instead of that old warehouse you’ve got now. You could help us implement our new technology into mechanisation, build droids to perform tasks and maybe extend that to maintenance and generator work. You’d be working for a good cause. We’d be able to slowly phase out manually operated generators.”

Chanyeol’s head was a confused blur. He thought of how Kim Junmyeon always managed to make his words sound pretty, make the wrong sound right. He was deceiving him, as the Board had been doing all along.

But what reason could Kim Junmyeon have to deceive him? To take him out of the Ludi? To make sure the people would not win their bets with him? His words grated at Chanyeol’s conscience: I would hope you’ve lost all delusions of being a hero, after what happened yesterday. They were right, Junmyeon and Baekhyun both. He was pathetic, and definitely no hero.

But he’d had a reason for acting as he’d done, and unlike Baekhyun, it wasn’t for himself. Or was it?

“We will have utopia,” Kim Junmyeon continued. “Just like it is here in Oasis. You can help us make it happen.”

Utopia. But the apocalypse, the end of the world. Would utopia arrive before the damage was irreversible? Could the Board really prevent the end of the world?

The people didn’t think so. The people thought the Board was powerless to stop the death of the world. He wasn’t thinking straight. They’d already destroyed the world once, and would do it again. He refused to believe it was possible.

Joining them was one thing he could never do. “No,” he heard himself say. “I won’t join you.”

“I see. That's very disappointing, but I can't say it was unexpected.” Kim Junmyeon smiled humourlessly. “Our induction ceremony is tomorrow morning. Come if you change your mind.”

“If not, then, well, I expect we’ll see you next year in the Games.” He raised his eyebrows, and this time his tone was decidedly unpleasant. “Enjoy the rest of the evening, Mr Park Chanyeol.”

Chanyeol ignored him as he walked off, disappearing into the crowd. There was only one person he wanted to see at that moment, but he didn’t catch him until several hours later, when the party was almost at its end. He glimpsed him from between the columns of the second-level colonnade, as he stood there looking down at the main Garden floor.

The last Chanyeol saw of Baekhyun, he was standing in the central pavilion, a champagne flute in his hand, surrounded by admirers and officers, smiling and laughing. He was radiant in his suit, he was a champion, and he was happy.

He had to be.

 

  

 

 

◊ ◈ ◊

 

 

 

 

After that night in the Pinnacle, Chanyeol took the high-speed train to the airfield and boarded the next zeppelin home. Many of the other Seoul-bound guests were on that same flight off the continent, but Baekhyun was nowhere to be seen.

Life returned to normal after that. How easy it was, to fall from favour. He didn’t have the usual horde of admirers coming after him, nor the companies lining up for him to endorse their products. When he walked on the streets, people no longer came up to him to stammer out their congratulation or hysterically thank him for saving their families. Sometimes, people would even cast dirty looks in his direction, like they wanted to pick a fight. He was still invited to the parties in the Southern District, and he sometimes went with Sehun, if only in the hopes of seeking distraction.

Baekhyun never showed up. Though his photos were still plastered all over the city, a constant reminder of heartbreak, his apartment was empty. It was as though he’d disappeared into thin air. Occasionally, Chanyeol would think of all that he’d given up in his own life for the man, and wonder: what for?

Several months later, Sehun fell back into the game. He headed back to Tokyo for the next round of the Ludi, and this time he didn’t win. He was arrested by the authorities to work the energy plants for a year, and he was lucky that he hadn’t gambled enough for it to be a longer sentence.

Everything was the same, but for some reason, he’d lost the ability to cope. On the exterior he was the same — collected, secretive, sharp as a knife. On the inside he was a mess. Summer was the worst. People drifted in and out of the Village, challengers in other categories training for their qualifiers. Thoughts of Jongdae haunted him into the night, his voice blaming Chanyeol for letting everyone down, his face melting into Baekhyun’s and back again. Chanyeol roamed around the deserted village, the stadiums and complexes, and every empty seat was a reminder of the people he’d stepped on to keep himself afloat.

But fall arrived, as it always did. The next season of the Games was approaching, and one windy afternoon Chanyeol found himself in the queue for registration, lining up to collect a slip of paper that would contract his entry in another Race.

He was lonelier than ever without Sehun around, but he would survive. He poured himself into his work, spending increasingly long hours in his warehouse with Phoenix. It was the only remaining place he felt safe, lost in the smell of fire and soothing whir of machinery. Thoughts of the impending apocalypse began to consume him, and the notion filled him with hope, grim anticipation. For the day hell would come raining down and everything, even the Board, would be powerless to stop it. Everyone would fall, and there would be no exceptions. There would be no disadvantaged. No privileged.

Just oblivion, and blissful release.

 

 

 

 

The twenty-sixth Ice Race of the Ludi Plebeii came and went in the short space of two months, just like all of the previous rounds. All the hours spent improving his machine paid off, and Chanyeol emerged as the reinstated World Champion, ahead of two rookie racers from China.

The entire routine was more of the same, but so different from the events of the twenty-fifth Games, which still felt like a kind of fevered dream. Chanyeol gave his press conference in the studios in the Challenger’s Village, was given a makeover by a team of stylists, and chauffeured to the afterparty, which was taking place in the newly-refurbished Town Hall. The Board had taken office there, and the area had been recently purified. A force field now wrapped around the outer streets, filtering the air that could enter. The entire district had been rejuvenated, with fancy new apartment blocks sprouting up around the redecorated plaza, stores and restaurants opening day by day in the nearby streets.

The Town Hall itself was a sight to behold. Stepping across the threshold was like stepping into another era. Chanyeol stared up at the barrelled ceiling of the edifice’s arched roof as he walked into the atrium, wondering what kind of world its hallowed halls had seen. The building was perfectly preserved, the only change being the carvings above the main doors. The old carving had read “Devotion to the Welfare of Humanity”, the motto of the old republic. It had been completely levelled out and re-engraved in the image of the Board.

The party was well into its third hour of revelry when Chanyeol spotted a familiar face — symmetrical, handsome features, an air of quiet authority. Kim Junmyeon was directly across the floor, speaking to a man with bright flame-coloured hair, most likely a celebrity. Chanyeol averted his eyes, not wanting to speak to him if possible. He turned to walk across the room, to put some distance between them before he was spotted.

Staying low-key proved a difficult task. He was the protagonist of the party, after all, and before he had taken two steps he was stopped in his tracks by Krystal Jung. “Park Chanyeol!” she greeted loudly, pulling him into a one-armed hug. “It’s been a while, congratulations on your title.”

“Thanks Krystal, it’s great to see you again.” As he spoke, Chanyeol took a sidelong glance at Kim Junmyeon, to see if he’d been noticed. Fortunately, he was still deep in conversation with the red-haired man, and several others had joined their group. They’d shifted their positions somewhat to accommodate the newcomers, and Junmyeon was no longer facing in his direction.

It was then that Chanyeol realised there was something oddly familiar about the red-haired man, his posture, the way the champagne glass slotted between slim fingers, the fit of the crushed velvet suit on his frame, the tattoos peeking out from beneath his collar…

Like lightning, Chanyeol tore his eyes away. Krystal was still speaking to him, and with a sinking feeling, he realised he hadn’t heard anything she’d said. “I’m so sorry, I spaced out,” he said, laughing apologetically.“Could you repeat that?”

Fortunately, he’d always thought she might’ve had something of a soft spot for him. “Oh, it’s alright,” she said with a slight frown. “Nothing important. You must be really tired, after this afternoon.”

“Did you watch?”

“Had to root for my favourite contestant.”

Chanyeol laughed, resting a hand on her shoulder. “You’re too nice to me, Krystal.”

“Don’t get used to it,” she joked, but she was smiling now. “Incidentally, we should meet up sometime. Outside of the parties.”

“We should. We see each other so often, I feel like we’re already friends.”

“Park Chanyeol.” A voice spoke from behind his shoulder, and with a sense of dread, Chanyeol turned around. The red-haired man was standing right before him, and Chanyeol felt almost like he was being cornered by a demon from the past. His instincts were screaming at him to fight, or to walk far, far away.

But they were in the middle of a party, surrounded by people, and he had to be careful what he said. Chanyeol looked down, staring right through him. Waiting for him to speak.

“You’re looking good,” Baekhyun said finally.

“Is that what you came over to tell me?” Chanyeol asked, unimpressed.

“I’m sorry, could you excuse us for a moment?” Baekhyun said to Krystal.

“Talk to you later, Park.” She patted Chanyeol on the shoulder and moved away. Finally, Chanyeol turned to look at Baekhyun, meeting his eyes. He must have looked more aggressive than he’d intended, because Baekhyun’s polite smile wavered.

“Maybe we should step out for a bit,” he stalled. “There’s a porch, by the stairs.”

“Fine.” Chanyeol turned and headed straight for the patio doors, sliding through crowds of people without a glance. Baekhyun trailed after him, stepping out into the evening air and shutting the doors before anyone could follow them.

Outside the building, Baekhyun’s face was brightly illuminated by towering streetlights lining the new plaza. Chanyeol could see every feature on his face thrown into sharp relief, and it hurt to look at him.

Baekhyun looked up. “I’m sorry,” he said decisively. “About a year ago. I was hurt, and I lashed out. I let my ego get in the way. Whatever I said, it was unfair. It was dramatic. I see that now.”

“And this makes what you did fine?” Chanyeol felt an irrational surge of fury, his voice quiet but seething. Baekhyun blanched, and Chanyeol relished the hurt on his face. It wasn’t fear, not quite — but something cowering, ashamed almost — an expression Baekhyun never wore. An expression that betrayed he might actually care about what Chanyeol thought. That he might actually be affected by what Chanyeol said.

“I thought you might’ve softened up, after a year,” Baekhyun said quietly. “It seems only the opposite has happened.”

In a strange way, he was right. Chanyeol felt different these days, like he’d seen the world and no longer cared what happened to it. He was no longer scared of the Board. He knew they regarded him as a danger, a threat, and he wore that knowledge like a weapon, wielded intimidation like a sword.

But he had no right to be mad at Baekhyun, other than for hurting him. Baekhyun was extending an offer of peace — he needed to be rational. He fought to calm himself down. “You know why this happened. You know I did it for you.”

“I know,” Baekhyun said. “And I know that if not for what you did for me, I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you now. I thank you for that.”

“I don’t want your thanks. Just your acceptance.” Baekhyun must have known, that he was utterly, absolutely sincere.

“I accept what you did for me,” Baekhyun said. Lowered, his voice was so warm and melodious, like a comforting song. “And you must already know, that I return your feelings.”

Under the bright lights, his eyes still sparkled like a million stars. Chanyeol longed for another time, when they’d danced on the balcony of a loft in the Southern District, high on spirits and substance, and he’d kissed Baekhyun for the first time.

“Then why did you disappear?” Chanyeol asked, hating how broken his voice sounded. Hating how he was still in love with the man, hopelessly so. “Why did you leave me alone here, for an entire year?”

“I’m sorry,” Baekhyun said, again. “I wanted to look for you, Chanyeol. But I had to return home first, to the south. I packed up, settled my parents’ affairs once and for all, and I moved to Seoul three days ago.”

“And you’re here to stay.” The words came out more like an accusation than a question.

Baekhyun shook his head. He was planning a long trip, he explained, with the money he’d won. He’d been stuck on one small ship for most of his life, and he was ready to see the rest of the world.

“But I had to take you with me,” he said. “Otherwise, what was the point of winning?”

The point? “Fame and fortune, right?” Chanyeol said, unable to keep the bitterness from slipping through his voice. Baekhyun’s gaze faltered. “Same as everyone else.”

There was a pause, and Chanyeol regretted everything. “You’re right,” Baekhyun conceded finally. “That was true, at the time I said it. I was a real one-of-a-kind narcissist. I still am.”

“I missed you,” Chanyeol said. He couldn’t help it.

“Me too. So much.” Baekhyun lifted his eyes, and Chanyeol wanted, more than anything, to reach out and cradle his face within his hands. “Will you come with me, then?”

 

 

 

 

Baekhyun lived directly opposite the Town Hall, on the corner of the revived plaza. Chanyeol followed, half a step behind, through the understated, expensive lobby and up the lift to the penthouse on the fiftieth floor.

His apartment was much like the lobby; minimal, classy, furnished in dark colours. He’d chosen mostly navies and blues, Chanyeol noticed, like a subtle callback to the depths of the ocean. “Nice place. You had pretty decent compensation for that life bet.”

Baekhyun shrugged. “You’ll pick up a good sum for your win this year, I’ve heard. You can finally move out of the Village.” He walked over to the cooler, and took out a bottle Chanyeol recognised— Mirage.

“You’ve developed a taste for this?”

“I’ve got a soft spot for it. Brings back good memories.” He poured out two glasses and offered Chanyeol one. He took it, settling on the sofa.

“Junmyeon saw you earlier,” Baekhyun said, sitting down in the armchair opposite. “He wanted to talk to you.”

“I know.”

“Call me dense, but I don’t get it.” Baekhyun set his own glass down on the table and folded his arms. “Why won’t you join? Is this still about your personal beliefs?”

He didn’t say it in a mean or condescending way, but Chanyeol tensed. “No,” he said automatically, and knew it was a lie. “Not entirely.”

Baekhyun was silent, waiting for him to explain. It wasn’t all about his aversion to the Board, which Chanyeol had to admit had faded somewhat in the wake of his mounting cynicism. There was another reason, which Chanyeol felt foolish for having — that he still believed in the impending apocalypse, still hoped it would come to finally take the pain away. He didn’t want to tell the truth, to confess his hope. He felt like if he spoke it out loud, putting his weakness up for show, even that small hope would vanish.

But he did. He told Baekhyun about the rumours that had made their way through the city for years, and how the Board was powerless to stop it. The end of the world would come to take them all, and everyone would be equal again. Nobody would be able to escape retribution for the damage they’d done.

When he finished talking, Baekhyun reached out to rest a hand on Chanyeol’s arm. “The rumours are false. The apocalypse was invented.” His voice was uncharacteristically gentle, and Chanyeol could tell that he was really worried. Baekhyun was trying not to break him. “It was invented to create panic and desperation. Because it’s so much easier to trample, to control a population that’s already crippled.”

Deep inside, Chanyeol had known. But it didn’t make the disappointment any easier to manage as he watched the last of his hopes, something he’d clung to so fiercely for years, finally dissolve into thin air.

“It’s hard to swallow, Chanyeol,” Baekhyun said. He was looking at him with those concerned eyes, and Chanyeol hated it. He refused to admit he was broken. He didn’t need pity. “But we’ll be okay. Things will get better from now on.”

“I guess I knew, deep down. It was too much to ask for. I guess a part of me didn’t want to abandon that naive hope.”

“And the end of the world aside, Chanyeol, I know you love building. You’re brilliant at it, one of the best engineers Seoul has. The Board wants you for that reason. You could do what you love, without the constant risk of losing everything.”

His words gave Chanyeol a strange sense of deja-vu. He remembered a time when it had been he who was begging Baekhyun to stop, to choose safety over… whatever participating in the suicidal gamble that was the Ludi, could be called.

Where’d you wanna go? How much you wanna risk? I’m not looking for somebody with some superhuman gifts.

His chest felt like there was a thunderstorm raging within it. He could see the future, as though it was right before him. He would settle down with the wealth he’d accumulated instead of re-investing it in another round. He would travel the world with Baekhyun, tourists to poverty and destruction. Then he would return to Seoul and take up office with the Board, experimenting with ways to apply their new technology to build a more advanced world. Maybe a world that would be cleaner and more pleasant, that would ultimately benefit the people, but would benefit the Board most of all.

Baekhyun could probably see the hesitation in his eyes, and he jumped on the chance. “You’ve a good heart, Chanyeol. It’s what I admire most about you. But how long can you keep doing this? Close the workshop, Chanyeol. Please. What you are, what you need, they’re different. Leave this behind, with me.”

Baekhyun always had that effect on him: the effect of stripping away his years of defences, making him feel like he was sixteen again, rendered dumb and speechless by Jongdae’s smile. Making him want to let go and just fall headfirst into that sweet embrace, those beautiful eyes.

“Okay,” Chanyeol said, and as the word slipped out, he could feel the very last shred of the empty ideal he’d clung to so desperately — being ripped from its roots. If Baekhyun was where the edge began, he was finally slipping over. “I’ll come.” It was a white flag, but it was blissful, sweet surrender. He was so, so tired. He just wanted the struggle to stop.

“Don’t feel bad, Chanyeol. You deserve happiness.”

Did he, though? He wasn’t a good person. He hadn’t done anything to save his parents, he’d consciously allowed millions of people who depended on him to lose everything, just to save Baekhyun from a similar fate. He hadn’t done anything for Jongdae—

Get over him, he told himself.

“It’s a way out, at the very least. It’s… it’s been five years. It’s time I stopped playing their game.”

“The world could become a better place yet, Chanyeol. Don’t lose hope. It might not happen in our lifetime, but it’ll come.”

“Don’t lose hope,” he echoed. The embodiment of lost hope was sitting opposite him, telling him not to lose hope.

He watched as Baekhyun picked up his glass and raised it. “Let’s have a toast.”

They’d done it. They’d won. They’d independently built an empire of riches on the backs of countless others’ suffering.

Chanyeol thought back to another time, when someone else had raised a toast to him, in the Sanctum. It was a time spent glorifying his own actions, talking of saving and confronting, even as he’d held on to the belief that it would soon come to an end. It seemed an eternity past.

The Town Hall faced them from across the plaza, a monument to the fallen world. Beyond it lay the brutal, black buildings of Seoul City, dwarfed by skyscrapers on the horizon, organised by a gridded pattern of crumbling skywalks and canals and train tracks, and the River that flowed through the centre. It was the image of his hometown, where he’d toiled and suffered and struggled to hold together a living. Where he’d loved — once in the form of a bright-eyed boy who shone with positivity even in darkness, and now again in the form of a fearless man who, despite his tragic past, had enough steel to crawl back onto his feet, enough strength to take on the world singlehandedly and win.

Maybe it was an unfair assessment to call Baekhyun the embodiment of lost hope. He did have hope — a different kind from Chanyeol’s crushed ones, but optimism for the future and a belief in humanity. And in a way, he was Chanyeol’s hope — someone who could inspire him to pick himself up and step into a new era, even when he was at his lowest. He could leave with Baekhyun, stop mourning some long-broken ideal. Because fair trials, they don’t exist. It’s only a circus in my mind.

Stop dwelling on the past, Chanyeol thought to himself. Move on. Bounce back. Rise from the ashes — it’s what phoenixes did.

Long Live the New Order. That was what the new carving read, displayed proudly above the doors of the Town Hall.

Don’t lose hope.

Chanyeol raised his glass. He looked past Baekhyun’s shadowed face, down to the destroyed city, and for the first time, was wholeheartedly glad that he was no longer there.