“What is a ghost?
that seems to be alive.
that doesn't know it's dead.”
― richard siken
The ice cream parlor is always quiet on Mondays. Baekhyun is bored behind the counter, watching Jongdae stuff his face with an ice cream sandwich.
“You know you could help me around here sometimes to earn your food?”
Jongdae’s glare would be more intimidating if it weren’t for the chocolate sticking to his chin. “What kind of best friend are you?”
“The kind that is considering to stop feeding you for free,” Baekhyun says. He grabs a plastic spoon from the container on the counter and steals a scoop of ice cream from Jongdae’s cup. “Heechul is going to be pissed off if he catches you eating here again.”
It’s a lie. Heechul makes enough money with the chain of Nuts! Creamery parlors he owns across the country to turn a blind eye to all the ice cream Baekhyun gives to people for free on a daily basis, whenever he feels like it. It’s never bad to remind Jongdae, though. It’s worth the look of abject horror on his face.
“I’ll start paying from now on,” Jongdae grumbles. “But I won’t let you eat my snacks anymore.”
“I can buy them myself.” Baekhyun shrugs, smiling with an air of satisfaction that deepens the scowl on Jongdae’s face. “And anyways, it’s not like you also don’t eat all my snacks at home. You left me without rations last movie night.”
Jongdae has been Baekhyun’s roommate for over a year now. Jongdae takes classes in the local community college while Baekhyun works part-time jobs to pay rent, even though Heechul, his foster carer, had offered to buy him an apartment on more than one occasion. Baekhyun knows the offer came from a good place, but he’s never been the type to take help from people easily, no matter who handed it.
(Jongdae calls him a stubborn idiot, but Baekhyun likes to argue it’s because he’s a taurusean through and through, and virgos like Jongdae wouldn’t understand.)
It was bad enough that after getting fired from his last job at a supermarket, Baekhyun didn’t have much of a choice but to take on Heechul’s offer to man the counter at the ice cream parlor. His reputation of attracting weird, unexplainable things wherever he went made his job offers kind of limited. That is one of the curses of living in a small town like Yogoe; everyone knows everyone and their business.
It’s not like Baekhyun hates his new job. It pays well, the staff is nice—even if the manager, Minseok, can be terrifying sometimes—and the uniform, a pink and white striped button down, pink pants and visor with the shop’s logo, suits his fading pink hair like it was tailored for him. The work isn’t too hectic in the early stages of summer and Baekhyun can get away with flirting with every customer because they always make sure to come back for his smoothies and some chit-chat. The ahjummas, in particular, adore him.
“I’ll pay you back,” Jongdae whines and Baekhyun cackles. “But you’re going to have to pay for all the Snickers bars you stole from me, Byun Baekhyun.”
Minseok, the manager, comes out of the back, wearing his casual clothes. Minseok may be a small man, but he’s intimidating enough for Baekhyun to grab a rag and pretend he’s doing his job. The thin, judgmental eyebrow Minseok raises says he isn’t fooled.
Minseok is wary on everyone, especially Baekhyun and Jongin—also Jongdae, because he spends as much time in the parlor since Baekhyun started working there—except for Nayeon who comes in the mornings, but everyone likes Nayeon.
“Don’t burn down the place, please,” Minseok says, rolling up the sleeves of his shirt. “I have to run an errand so I’ll be right back. Jongin’s in the storage room right now, probably taking a nap by how long he’s taking.”
“Don’t worry, boss!” Baekhyun stands up straight and salutes. “I won’t make any messes, if Jongdae cooperates.”
Minseok narrows his eyes. “I’ll make you pay if you do,” Minseok warns, wagging a menacing finger. “I’ll be right back.”
The bell above the door jingles in Minseok’s wake.
They stay in silence for a moment until Jongdae asks, “Can I eat the M&M’s?”
“Go ahead,” Baekhyun says, with a weary sigh.
There is a month left before school ends for the year, and for the students to fill the ice cream parlor like every summer. Baekhyun doesn’t know whether he’s looking forward to the busier days, or just wants to be rid of his boredom.
After wiping every surface available and putting the chairs over the tables, Baekhyun’s shift is over. Jongin walks him to his bus stop, leaning on Baekhyun because he’s still a little sleepy from his nap earlier.
A breeze hisses through the trees along the pavement. Nights in Yogoe are crisp, even with summer right around the corner—which is why the girl sitting alone on the bench, watching the road idly in her school uniform without a sweater or jacket, sticks out like a sore thumb. When she looks up, the scar running across her neck is a pinkish ribbon under the white glow of the makeup ad plastered on the bus stop.
Baekhyun stops a few paces in front of her, and the breath he releases turns into a silver puff.
“What’s wrong, hyung?”
Jongin is staring at him inquisitively. Though the girl’s eyes are sad, a kind smile unfurls on her lips, like Baekhyun is a long-time friend of hers.
“I forgot I have something to do,” Baekhyun tells Jongin, smiling so Jongin’s frown fades. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Jonginnie!”
Jongin flashes him a grin, waves goodbye and goes ahead without Baekhyun.
Baekhyun watches his friend’s retreating back for a moment, then turns back to the girl. “Is there something I can help you with?”
The girl looks like a high school student, long black hair over a white school shirt and pleated skirt. She isn’t wearing a backpack, though, and her hands are folded into fists over her lap.
“Sit with me for a bit,” she asks with a pout. “All the other ghosts have been a little mean lately and I could use someone nice to talk to.”
People passing by only glance at Baekhyun, and not the girl sitting by his side, wearing a uniform despite the late hour.
“Is that why you came to talk to me?” Baekhyun asks. “Because you’re lonely?”
The girl shrugs, braiding her hair to avoid his gaze. Baekhyun tries to appear vexed, but he isn’t, really. Baekhyun can understand loneliness.
In the magical society, kept secret from normal people—non-magi as magi dubbed them—people are separated by their inborn abilities or their lack thereof. Seers, shapeshifters, healers, warlocks, the list goes on. Necromancy is Baekhyun’s specialty: the ability to see the dead. Or, as Baekhyun likes to call them, the non-departed.
Though he’s been able to see ghosts since he was a kid, it never gets any easier to act normal around other people when he’s speaking to someone who isn’t there.
It had been particularly hard for Baekhyun during elementary school. At the start, Baekhyun didn’t have the guts to ignore ghosts, for fear of what they could do to him. And a kid speaking alone in recess, a kid who attracted unexplainable events, like toys flying in the classroom during playtime, was unlikely to be popular among his classmates. Even the teachers seemed to be afraid of him. Nobody cared when Baekhyun was isolated and called awful nicknames up until high school, except for Heechul who did his best to cheer Baekhyun up after a school day.
Baekhyun can understand loneliness quite well.
“The weather is nice today,” the ghost chirps. “I used to go to the beach with my friends a lot. We used to look forward to the ghost festival every summer, but now I can’t go. Being a ghost sucks most of the time, but it has some advantages. I snuck into the house of my former crush and—”
“Okay, I don’t want to know!” Baekhyun stands up, and the ghost follows. “This was a nice chat, but I’m leaving. Goodnight!”
“Wait!” The ghost stands in front of him, blocking his path. Baekhyun could walk right through her, but he doesn’t, because he considers himself a gentleman. “The reason why I came is because I want to say goodbye to someone, but I can’t.”
The ghost’s eyes are pleading. Baekhyun has never been able to ignore their pleads. Since he was a kid, Baekhyun has let ghosts tell him about their heartbreak, the sadness that followed them from their lives, and sometimes their loneliness while they lingered after death was even greater than a living person’s loneliness.
“I will tell them,” Baekhyun offers, “if you want.”
Her smile is grateful, eyes sparkling. “Thank you.”
She reaches out and takes his hand. In the past years, Baekhyun has made a huge improvement on his reaction at touching a ghost—ever cold and evanescent, equivalent to the sensation of inserting one’s hand into a bowl of cold water or passing through mist, without it ever sticking to the skin. For a split second, he can see the pavement through the girl’s hand as it pries his fist open, and then, as fast as it had happened, she is solid once again.
Ghosts maintain a corporeal form when they’re in front of him, but sometimes, the energy glitches, like a bulb flickering. It freaked him out greatly when he was a kid, but he’s eerily familiar with spectral idiosyncrasies at this point. Had necromancy not been encoded in his blood the opposite might’ve occurred; he could’ve been afraid, or understandably creeped out, but Baekhyun merely lends it a detached sort of attention. It may also be considered a bit rude to point out when someone’s energy suffers a hiccup.
“This is for my little sister,” the ghost says, dropping something on his palm and closing his fingers over it. “She plays at the park in front of the museum in the afternoons because her nanny takes her there. She really liked unicorns.”
There is wistfulness swimming in her gaze, unfocused, as though she’s reminiscing about a time long gone. Then, like a candle being blown, it passes, and it’s replaced by sudden alarm. She looks about the street, fear painting her features, and steps backwards, away from Baekhyun.
“What’s wrong?” Baekhyun frowns. “Did you forget something?”
When she looks back at him, her eyes are wild, lips trembling. “I can’t stay here,” she says. “It’s not safe. You should leave too.”
The traffic light turns to green across the street and the ghost is gone. Baekhyun stands alone in the sidewalk, confused by the ghost’s sudden panicking. It’s never happened before.
Baekhyun doesn’t have to wonder for long before he feels it: the cold trickling down the back of his neck, a freezing exhale brushing his exposed skin. It’s the sign a ghost is nearby, which grows stronger the closer Baekhyun is to the source. Right now, it’s strong, nearly palpable as Baekhyun turns on the corner and walks briskly down the sidewalk past the shops about to close for the night.
Baekhyun’s pace is hurried. This ghost is different, but he can’t pinpoint the reason.
The energy emanating from the ghost takes him to the back alley of a video game store. Baekhyun takes hesitant steps into the darkness, so black and thick it resembles a wolf’s snout. But he could feel the presence right there, there is no mistaking it.
“Come out,” Baekhyun sing-songs under his breath. “I know you’re in there, somewhere… Please show up soon so I can go home… There’s a nice pot of ramen and a warm bed waiting for me...”
Baekhyun slips his hand under the back of his shirt and slides the blade out of its holster, attached with a band around his waist. It isn’t the best place to keep an ancient weapon passed down generation to generation in Baekhyun’s family, but he couldn’t be seen walking around with a blade. Closing his eyes, he takes a deep breath and tries to focus on locating the spirit’s presence.
His eyes snap open, and, brandishing the blade with a swift movement, he hits the ghost that was trying to attack him from his right side.
The ghost’s arm disintegrates into a dozen lights that shimmer in the darkness of the alley, illuminating its face briefly. The creature must have been a man once, but now its face is long and thin, skin greyish and rotten, its body wispy and shapeless, two gaping holes where its eyes should be. Its mouth stretches inhumanly in a wail as it watches its arm evaporate, before flinging its other arm and lurching towards Baekhyun. Baekhyun dodges the creature by a hair’s breadth, crashing against the bricked wall. The creature senses him even without eyes, because it turns in his direction.
“I don’t like to be mean,” Baekhyun pants. “But you’re one ugly motherfucker.”
Baekhyun sends a wordless command to the blade, and it extends, growing as long as his forearm and arching at the tip. The blade sings in his hand, and its chant thrums through his veins. Baekhyun charges forward and buries the blade in the ghost’s torso, ripping a deafening wail out of it, one that makes him flinch.
The ghost crumbles into a hundred lights, sized like fireflies, so bright Baekhyun has to squint. There are whispers mingling with the lights as they fade, swirling in the air like ambers, floating into the night air and disappearing like mist. Ghosts turned rogue and vengeful like this one appear sometimes, on rare occasions, when their death has been too violent and the seed of bitter vengeance roots in their thoughts and sours their souls.
At first, he thinks the whispers are incoherent, a bunch of echoes from the soul of a parting spirit. Then he makes out something. A sentence. She will come with the monsoon. Over and over.
“What was that?” Baekhyun wonders. “A song?”
There isn’t an answer, and Baekhyun isn’t expecting one. Baekhyun takes a moment to give a thought out for the spirit he’s just sent to the other side, but he’s interrupted by his stomach growling. The last thing he ate was a burger during his break, but it has been hours since then, and his stomach is about to eat itself.
His phone beeps in his pocket and Baekhyun jolts. It’s a text message from Jongdae.
we’re out of toilet paper so u get some otw home n u better hurry tf up!!!!!!!
With a sigh, Baekhyun puts the blade back in its holster and leaves the alley, thinking about that pot of ramen and his warm, cozy bed.
Baekhyun feels like a proper weirdo as he stands in the park waiting for the girl with the pigtails playing on the swings. When he beckons her with a sweet smile, the girl hops off the swing and runs towards him.
“What do you want?” the girl asks, eyeing him suspiciously. “I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”
“I have something for you,” Baekhyun says. “It’s from your sister.”
The girl frowns, little mouth puckering. “My sister is in heaven! You’re lying!”
“No, no, really!” Baekhyun starts to panic, because the girl looks seconds from shouting or kicking him in a compromising body part. “Here, give me your hand!”
The girl hesitates, eyes squinted, but in the end, extends her hand up for him. Baekhyun places the hair tie with the unicorn in her palm, and the girl blinks at it dazedly.
“Let your stepmother do your hair from now on,” Baekhyun says. “She’s nice and it’s what your sister wants.”
The girl nods, stunned by the gift the stranger just handed her, and runs back to the swing. Baekhyun stares after her for a long moment before he walks to the nearest bus stop.
The student ghost waits for him at the bus stop, her smile grateful but sad. By the time the bus arrives, the girl has vanished like she was never there in the first place.
“Where were you?”
Minseok has his hands on his hips and that sharp look that makes Baekhyun want to hide in the storage room for the entirety of his shift when he arrives at the shop that afternoon. The bright pink of the apron and hat doesn’t make him any less intimidating, like it would with any other person that wasn’t Minseok.
“You were supposed to be here ten minutes ago.”
“I was busy with something,” Baekhyun mumbles. “I won’t be late ever again, I promise, but please, don’t make me clean the bathrooms again…”
Minseok’s eyes narrow into slits. “If you keep being late I’ll assign you to bathroom cleaning duties for the entire week. Now, go and change. Jongin was two seconds from calling the cops because you weren’t here yet.”
When Baekhyun comes back to the front after changing into his uniform, Minseok is in the same position, but with his arms on his chest instead of his hips, and talking to Heechul, who is sitting on a stool at the bar. If Nuts! Creamery is famous for their ice creams, Heechul is equally famous—or infamous, depends on who you ask—for his extravagant attires. Today he’s wearing a yellow silk suit, patterned in tiny banana leaves of bright pink and blue, attracting the attention of patrons sitting nearby.
“Where were you, Baekhyunnie?” Heechul queries, failing to conceal a smile. “Minseok was worried.”
“I wasn’t worried!” Minseok counters. “Jongin alone can’t man the front, that’s all. And you shouldn’t be walking around alone with what’s been happening in town lately.”
“There was a murder last night,” Heechul says. “Well, they don’t know if it was a murder, because they only found a bloody footprint and no body. It was in the alley right next to Ms. Kim’s restaurant.”
Baekhyun gasps. “That’s a block away from the parlor.”
“I know,” Minseok says. “That’s why we were talking about hiring someone else so you or Jongin don’t have to close on your own anymore.”
There are a few more people in the parlor compared to yesterday, mainly high school students celebrating the end of a school week. Jongin is taking a couple’s order, sending Baekhyun pleading looks because he’s alone behind the counter, oblivious to the group of high school girls who are gushing over him at the end of the bar.
“Maybe we should hire Jongdae,” Heechul suggests. “He spends enough time here already.”
“Great!” Baekhyun chirps.
“No,” Minseok says, “it would be my worst nightmare.”
“Then, it’s set!” Heechul slams his palm on the bar, startling a girl at the end of the bar. “Tell Jongdae to be here tomorrow at four sharp.”
Baekhyun beams as Minseok sighs wearily. “You’re both going to make me grow grey hairs before I’m thirty.”
“Hyung, you’d still be so handsome with grey hair,” Baekhyun teases, and Minseok tugs on his ear. Baekhyun squirms, shrieking like Minseok’s torturing him, just because it makes the high school girls laugh.
“Don’t try me, kid,” Minseok says. “I can still change my mind about bathroom cleaning duties.”
With a last warning look, Minseok goes to help Jongin, and Heechul turns to Baekhyun.
“So, what were you doing?” asks Heechul.
In spite of Baekhyun’s ability, he’s always tried to live a normal life. Normal within the ranges of a necromancer’s life. Even within the magical community, among people who can do the extraordinary, Baekhyun’s ability isn’t ordinary. The general belief is that the dead are sacred and should be left to travel to the underworld in peace, but necromancers can, and often do, meddle in that process, so their practice isn’t well-received. After all, necromancers represent the fine line between life and death, and even magi are terrified of the unknown.
Baekhyun can’t ignore ghosts’ pleads to help them pass onto the other side. And Heechul doesn’t approve of this exactly, but he’s also aware that Baekhyun is a necromancer, and ghosts are going to follow him everywhere he goes anyhow. As Heechul had put it many a time, with a fond glint in his eyes, Baekhyun was a strange child, who was bound to attract strange events.
Since high school, Baekhyun had learned to be more inconspicuous whenever ghosts visit him, whether it was to talk or ask for help, though some of them won’t leave him alone even if he asks. There are ghosts who, despite how friendly they might be, are also mischievous, especially when they want to get Baekhyun’s attention after he’s blown them off.
A teenage ghost, who still wasn’t used to its new life—or lack of it—had come to bother Baekhyun at his job at the supermarket while he was restocking the shelves. When Baekhyun ignored him, the ghost knocked over a wine display in a tantrum, costing Baekhyun his job and the supermarket a considerable amount of money.
And so Baekhyun ended up working in Heechul’s ice cream shop.
“I was delivering something a ghost asked me to,” Baekhyun explains. “And she departed.”
“Ah, that’s good.” Heechul’s stare becomes stern. “But you still need to make it in time or else Minseok is going to pop a vessel.”
“I know,” Baekhyun laughs. “That’s why we need to hire someone else. It’s summer and it’s soon going to get hectic when all the kids are out of school.”
Heechul laughs, tucking his long hair behind his ear. The gesture subtracts decades off his face until he looks not a day older than in the pictures hanging in his home. Heechul’s exact age is one of the world’s greatest mysteries to Baekhyun. He had only asked once, and Heechul hadn’t given him a number. To some, he’s a legendary magical creature. Sometimes worshipped, sometimes feared. To Baekhyun, he’s only the person who took care of him when he had no one.
When Baekhyun was five, his mother died in a hit-and-run and Heechul, a close friend of his mother, took him in. Baekhyun’s dad was never in the picture, but Baekhyun’s thoughts about his father were scarce while Heechul raised him like his own child. Baekhyun was grateful to Heechul for an infinite number of things, chief of which was being his friend while kids his age acted like Baekhyun carried the plague.
It wasn’t until Baekhyun started high school that he made friends. He wanted a fresh start, so he learned to handle his ghostly visitors better until eventually his classmates dropped the offensive nicknames. When he and Jongdae became fast friends in freshman year, he was the first real friend Baekhyun had made in years.
“Since when are you old enough to be calling people younger than you ‘kids’?” Heechul reaches up to ruffle Baekhyun’s hair, laughing at the pout that forms on Baekhyun’s lips. “You’re twenty years old so you’re still a kid to me, Byun Baekhyun.”
“I’m twenty, hyung, of course I’m old, you just don’t want to accept it!” Baekhyun huffs, and Heechul laughs goodnaturedly. “Anyways, we’ll be okay with Jongdae! I don’t think you need to hire more people. I can manage the front by myself and Jongin has his guns so he’s in charge of the heavy lifting.”
“It’s good to accept help sometimes, Baekhyunnie,” Heechul says, tapping his arm. “It will do you well sometimes.”
“Thanks for the advice, old man,” Baekhyun teases, “but I’m good.”
Baekhyun slips behind the counter to get to work and laughs when he finds Jongin brooding like a discontented puppy. Jongin is in second year of university in a town nearby, but he acts like a toddler sometimes, and Baekhyun is weak to his cuteness. Jongin is tall and sunkissed, with plump lips in a permanent pout and expression set in perpetual sleepiness, and one of the reasons why a good portion of the high-school aged clientele comes in every week—besides the milkshakes.
“Hyung, please never be late again,” Jongin whines. “Minseok hyung is going to kill me and hide my body in the freezer one of these days.”
“You’re too cute for that, Jonginnie!” Baekhyun laughs, pinching Jongin’s cheek.
“And to make sure he isn’t late again,” Minseok chimes in behind them, “he’s going to close up alone tonight.”
Minseok’s grin is smug when Baekhyun gapes. Heechul cackles as he takes his leave, waving Baekhyun goodbye. The rag that Baekhyun has aimed at him stops mid-air and flies back at his head as if wired by magic.
In the evening, after Baekhyun and Jongin are done wiping the floors and tables, Baekhyun lets Jongin leave first. Jongin says it’s a family thing, but Baekhyun knows he’s probably meeting a girl.
“I’ll make it up to you, hyung.” Jongin zips up his jacket. “I promise!”
“Just go, Jonginnie,” Baekhyun says, placing a chair over the table. “Before I change my mind and make you stay.”
“I know you love me too much for that, hyung,” Jongin returns, flashing Baekhyun a cheeky smile before he hurries out of the door.
Baekhyun returns to his task, but not five minutes have passed when the odd sensation of being watched unsettles him. Ignoring it doesn’t make it disappear, but when he looks to the door, expecting Jongin or anyone to be standing there, nothing can be seen but the street outside.
After he locks the doors, cold tickles his neck, like stepping under a spray of ice cold water. It’s so tangible, it’s impossible to ignore. Something moves out of the corner of his eye, and there, beside him, where there had been no one on the pavement, stands a small boy looking up at him with innocent, doe eyes.
“Is it… is it you?” Baekhyun asks, tentative. The presence is too strong, though. It must be the boy. “What do you want?”
Silently, the boy turns and points to the park across the street. Baekhyun dry swallows. The sun is setting and the lamps are coming alive across the street. The crowd isn’t thick this late, and Baekhyun is alone with the little boy after a couple saunters by them.
“Do you want me to go with you?” Baekhyun queries, and the boy nods. Baekhyun has encountered his fair share of ghost children, sometimes cute and sometimes malicious. He thinks he’s good at handling children, dead or alive. But this one, for some reason, is starting to give him the creeps. Baekhyun imagines his life would be much better if he didn’t have to put up with creepy, silent little boys after a long shift.
“Why don’t you just tell me what you need so I can help you?”
The boy shakes his head, his hair fluttering with the gesture. He points again, insistent, pinning Baekhyun with a hard stare. Then, he’s leaping over the pavement and running across the road, disappearing and reappearing within the speeding cars. Baekhyun stares at the ghost, debating if he’s crazy enough to chase it. He can’t let it go like this; his energy is too strong, and if his temperament is volatile, it could be dangerous if he wasn’t restrained. But Baekhyun left his blade at home, and if shit hits the fan, he’ll have nothing to defend himself with except a fallen branch.
“Shit,” Baekhyun curses under his breath, and sets off after the ghost.
Drivers shout insults in his wake as he runs across the road, barely avoiding getting hit by a taxi. Baekhyun takes off down a trail in the park, mostly deserted save for a couple of joggers and a middle-aged man walking his dog. The place where the presence is stronger, however, is deep within the park, and Baekhyun sprints towards the thickening grove of trees. The temperature is abnormally low, the cold nipping at his face as if it were an autumn night instead of early summer. The spirit can sense him as well, because Baekhyun can feel it move as he turns on a bend in the trail.
He leaves the trail and chases the ghost off a grassy slope, skidding to a stop when he notices the ghost has disappeared. This area of the park is empty and a waning moon peeks among the canopy above. Suddenly, the presence arises again and it gives him no time to react when a blow to his head from behind knocks him to the ground.
Baekhyun tumbles along the slope until he reaches the bottom, his face planted on the grass and dirt sticking to his mouth when he groans in pain. There is a throbbing ache in his head, like he’s been hit by a baseball bat, light scratches stinging on his face and hands. After the disorientation passes, Baekhyun registers the ghost is close, and all the nerves in his body go haywire with approaching danger.
The one day he forgets his blade at home, he encounters an especially violent ghost. Great job, Byun Baekhyun. Top-notch necromancer aptitude.
“Fucking fantastic,” Baekhyun mutters, spitting dirt and grass. “I’m going to get killed with ants in my mouth.”
He stands on wobbly legs and faces the creature. The ghost grew a head taller than Baekhyun in the interim, its large, black eyes running down its face like spilled ink, its mouth open and gaping, emitting a strange, sucking sound. Long, stick-like arms lurch at him, and he ducks just in time, one of its dirt-green claws scraping his left cheek.
“Joohyuk…” The creature wails. “You’re… Joohyuk…”
Baekhyun is paralyzed for a moment. A violent ghost had never spoken a word before. Its voice is distorted, gnarled, unhuman. Baekhyun shudders.
Baekhyun grabs a dry branch and brandishes it at the ghost. “I’m no Joohyuk,” he pants. “I’m Byun Baekhyun.”
Baekhyun jerks the branch over the creature, but it snatches the branch and snaps it in two effortlessly. Baekhyun stares at the sticks that had been part of the branch, befuddled, because he doesn’t know what he had expected. The creature strikes him again, sending him to the ground. Through his brief daze, he can feel the ghost creeping closer, the sucking sound growing louder. Baekhyun tries to crawl away, but the creature closes its claw-like fingers around his throat, lifting him off the ground. Baekhyun tries to pry its claws open, scratching helplessly at the putrid skin, but his nails keep sinking into the skin, like it was made of tar.
In a matter of minutes, his lungs begin to burn, his vision turns black at the edges, and he shuts his eyes, giving up the fight against the tide dragging him down.
The panic gives way to a calming rush, a fleeting moment of frightening clarity that this may be the end. Is this it? Baekhyun thinks, is this how I’m going to die?
Suddenly, he drops to the ground like a rag doll cut from the strings. He lies face down over the damp grass, taking in big gulps of breaths. It takes him a couple of beats before he realizes that the clean air filling his lungs right now means he is very much alive. That his heartbeat drumming against his ribcage and the blood rushing through his ears are real.
Baekhyun heaves, shaky hands hovering over his throat as he sits up on the grass—just in time to see a tall, dark figure cutting through the creature and slicing it in two, moving fast and nimble like a shadow. A flash, and then thousands of shimmering lights disperse into the night.
Baekhyun squints through the fading lights, trying to make out the figure standing a few feet away. The figure steps closer, towering over him.
The shimmers light up a young man’s face, round dark eyes that stare down at him with a mix of curiosity and amusement.
“Looked like you needed help,” the man says, and Baekhyun is momentarily surprised at the depth of his voice. “Are you alright?”
This close up, Baekhyun can take a better look at the man. There is no wonder to how Baekhyun mistook him for a shadow; he is dressed in black from head to toe, a large black hoodie covering the upper part of his body, the rest of it clad in black sweatpants. Half of his face is covered by a black cap, the lid drawn low, but Baekhyun can make out a sharp jawline and a plush mouth, one end pulled in a smile. Like Baekhyun nearly dying is a joke to this guy.
Baekhyun croaks, “Who are you?”
“Park Chanyeol,” the guy answers with a nod. “A necromancer.”
“I’m a necromancer,” Baekhyun counters, voice rough. “I’m the only one in Yogoe as far as I know.”
“Are you, though?” Chanyeol tilts his head. “It looked like you were having trouble back there.”
The relief that flooded Baekhyun after being saved is quickly replaced by annoyance. Chanyeol’s arrogant tone has Baekhyun seething.
“It caught me off guard.” Baekhyun starts to raise his voice, but he chokes and coughs again. “No one asked you for help anyway.”
Chanyeol raises an eyebrow, lips pursed. “A ‘thank you’ would’ve been better, you know.” He steps back. “Anyways, it seems the old necromancer wasn’t too good, but I’m here now. Things are getting weird around here and this town needs a competent person to handle these violent spirits.”
“Asshole,” Baekhyun grunts. “I am good enough.”
Chanyeol shrugs. “We’ll see about that.” A set of white teeth appears with a grin. “Take care, dude.”
He runs up the slope of grass and disappears down the trail. Baekhyun is left there to regain his breathing and wonder why his life has to be a sequence of bizarre things one after the other.
Jongdae’s grin fades when he sees Baekhyun walk through the door that evening. In three strides, he’s in front of Baekhyun, veering him towards the better lighting in the living room.
“Jesus, what happened?” Jongdae inspects Baekhyun’s face with worry. “You look like you got your ass beaten.”
“Well, I kind of did.” Baekhyun winces when he lowers himself into the couch. His ass and legs hurt like hell, and his head is fuzzy from the hit he got earlier. “There was this ghost at a park, a malicious one, and he handed my ass back to me.”
“They’ve never been this violent before.” Jongdae frowns at the bruises and scratches on Baekhyun’s neck. He has scratches on his back and arms too, and he winces again as he removes his jacket. “This looks pretty fucking bad, Baekhyun.”
Baekhyun grunts as he shifts on the couch. The small of his back is killing him, where he had hit when he tumbled down the slope. And Jongdae is right; ghosts can be malicious and difficult to eliminate sometimes, but it’s never gotten to the point where one could have killed him. The spirit’s presence had been odd too, with the way it kept flickering in and out of Baekhyun’s radar, and how it transformed from a child to that thing. Baekhyun had yet to encounter a ghost that could shapeshift like that. As far as he knew, all ghosts maintained the form they had in their previous lives, and even if that child was affected by something evil, it doesn’t explain why his body mutated like that.
“I know, and it could’ve been worse if…” If that guy hadn’t shown up. Baekhyun bristles at the mere memory of the guy. Chanyeol. “This guy arrived just in time to save me before the ghost could kill me.”
“A guy?” Jongdae blinks. “Who?”
“I don’t know, this guy who showed up out of nowhere,” Baekhyun grunts. “He said he was a necromancer, too. Like me.”
The space between Jongdae’s brows wrinkles. “A necromancer? But you’re the only one here?”
During his childhood, Heechul had told Baekhyun he was the only person in Yogoe who could see the things he did. There are secret schools for kids with magical abilities, but Heechul had chosen to put Baekhyun in a non-magi school so they could stay in town and Heechul could keep a close eye on him. Baekhyun had felt lonely and isolated, and all he had wanted was someone who could understand him without giving him those pitiful or odd looks that sometimes even Heechul, a magi like Baekhyun, couldn’t avoid.
It just has to be Baekhyun’s terrible luck that the only necromancer he’s met in his life turns out to be a dickhead like the Chanyeol guy. To say he is disappointed would be an understatement.
“I was the only one that we knew of, I guess.” Baekhyun gets up to grab the emergency kit under the bathroom sink. “Dude was really annoying so I’m not going to act like I’m happy to know him anyway.”
“Annoying?” Jongdae echoes, pouring antiseptic into a cotton ball. “How can anyone be more annoying than you?”
“More annoying than you, you mean.” Baekhyun scowls, and Jongdae’s chuckle soothes his nerves. “I hope I don’t have to see him again. It was embarrassing enough that he had to save me.”
“You should be happy he did, idiot,” Jongdae mutters, tapping his arm with the cotton. Baekhyun hisses, and Jongdae smirks. “You would be dead if he hadn’t gotten there in time.”
“I just wanna know who he is,” Baekhyun says. “Why he is here.”
Something Chanyeol had said keeps replaying in Baekhyun’s mind: Things are getting weird around here and this town needs a competent person to handle these violent spirits. What did he mean by weird? And it can’t be a coincidence that this guy shows up in Yogoe at the same time these violent spirits start popping up. But Baekhyun is lost on how both things can be related.
“What was his name?”
“Chanyeol.” Baekhyun searches Jongdae’s face for any sign of recognition. “Have you heard of him?”
Jongdae’s nose scrunches. “It doesn’t ring a bell,” he says. “It’ll be easier if you knew his last name.”
“I’ll ask Heechul.” Baekhyun sighs. “But I don’t wanna tell him about what happened. He’s so dramatic about this kind of stuff. He threw a fit when I scratched my arm last time, when he sees the bruises he’s going to faint.”
“He just cares about you,” Jongdae murmurs. He lets go of Baekhyun’s arm and starts dabbing the cotton on his neck and arm. Baekhyun winces. “And maybe it’s a good thing that guy showed up, if all these mean ghosts are appearing right now, don’t you think?”
“I can handle them myself,” Baekhyun says, firmly, standing up and grabbing the kit. “I don’t need anyone.”
“Don’t be a stubborn dickhead, Baekhyun!” Jongdae calls out from the living room.
Baekhyun slams the door shut behind him and slumps on his bed, ready to forget about everything for the night. Though no matter how tired he is, he can’t stop thinking about Chanyeol and the mystery of his arrival in Yogoe.
“Why are you wearing a turtleneck, hyung? It’s so hot today.”
Baekhyun wipes the sweat on his temple with a wince. Jongin’s voice is too loud in the parlour, and the girls at the table nearest to the main counter look up curiously. He knows that it is hotter than satan’s asshole outside, but Baekhyun needed to hide the bruises on his neck, and Jongdae couldn’t think of anything better than a turtleneck. And if that means roasting in this heat, then so be it. It’s better than having Heechul on his back for the bruises.
“I like it, Jonginnie,” Baekhyun replies. “It makes me look older, don’t you think?” Jongin laughs at his greasy wink. “Maybe I’ll catch the eye of one of the older clients and she’ll be willing to be my sugar mommy.”
“Are you looking for a sugar mommy, Baekhyun?” Jongdae sneers, carrying a tray with dirty glasses and cups. “Didn’t know you got bored of the ahjummas at the market who give you veggies for free.”
“Shut up, Jongdae.” Baekhyun sticks his tongue out at Jongdae. “You should be thankful you eat healthy because of me!”
“I eat healthy because I can cook,” Jongdae throws back, “unlike you.”
“Go and wash those dishes!” Baekhyun hollers. “Don’t come out of the back!”
Jongdae leaves with a winning grin, Jongin and the girls laughing after him. The bell above the door jingles as a new customer comes in. Baekhyun rushes to grab a menu, but stops in his tracks when he realizes it’s Heechul. The high-necked yellow blouse he’s wearing is brighter than the summer sun and equally hurtful to Baekhyun’s eyes.
“Ah, Heechul,” Baekhyun says. “I thought it was someone important.”
“And here I thought I was your favorite person in the world,” Heechul ripostes. “Since I raised you and everything? But that’s no big deal, I guess.”
“Why do you always pull that on me,” Baekhyun laughs. “It’s not fair.”
Heechul snickers as he ruffles Baekhyun’s hair. Baekhyun huffs, trying to comb his hair back to the casual mess he likes to style it. Heechul has always had the habit of messing with his hair, even when Baekhyun was a kid and used to wear his hair longer than he does now. Baekhyun liked it when Heechul cut it for him every few months since he started living with him. It always reminded him of his mother cutting his hair in their backyard.
“I like to remind you.” Heechul shrugs, sliding into a stool at the bar. A girl at the end of the bar raises her eyes from her book to give him a furtive glance, then returns to it. “Why are you wearing a turtleneck? It’s almost summer, Baekhyunnie.”
“I think it suits me, hyung.” Baekhyun’s smirk is smug and convincing. “It gives me a more mature vibe.”
Heechul’s eyes narrow, in that way Baekhyun has learned to be afraid of. “Did something happen to you? Is there something you’re not telling me?”
“What are you talking about, hyung?” Baekhyun mumbles, trying to look as innocent as he can. “Nothing’s happened. Why do you always suspect bad things from me?”
“Because you’re always getting into trouble for some reason,” Heechul says, matter-of-factly. “Ever since you were little. I’ve developed some kind of sixth sense with you.”
“Well, your sixth sense is wrong, hyung, because nothing’s wrong with me.” Baekhyun bounces back on the balls of his feet, a coy smile balanced perfectly on his lips. It begins to shatter under Heechul’s scrutinizing gaze so he diverts his attention. “Actually, I wanted to ask you… if you know someone by the name Chanyeol.”
“Chanyeol?” Heechul runs the name on his tongue with a frown. “Chanyeol what?”
Baekhyun shrugs his shoulders. “Just Chanyeol. I don’t know his last name.”
Baekhyun purses his lips, masks his expression into neutrality as he waits for a sign of recognition on Heechul’s face.
Heechul gives a succinct shake of his head. “It doesn’t sound familiar,” he says, and slips Baekhyun a devilish smile. “Why? Is he a regular? Do you like him?”
“No,” Baekhyun sputters, surprised, and then he laughs. In the rare times Heechul has probed Baekhyun about his love life since he was old enough to get acne, it has never been about a boy. It catches Baekhyun off guard. “Why would I… I mean...”
“I’m just kidding, Baekhyunnie.” Heechul’s grin is triumphant after seeing Baekhyun flustered, and Baekhyun pokes his stomach in a childish reprimand, where he knows Heechul is ticklish. Heechul laughs, slides off the stool and stumbles backwards on his feet. It never stops amazing Baekhyun that Heechul is a centuries old magical creature who can act like a ten year old sometimes. “I have work to do, Baekhyunnie, so I better get going. Tell Minseok I’ll come by later.”
Baekhyun watches Heechul exit the parlor, racking his brain for someone, anyone he can ask about Chanyeol without having to disclose what happened. Though, Baekhyun has a hunch he will be giving himself away anyway; the guy looked arrogant enough to announce his name and title every time he entered a room like the freaking Khaleesi. It wouldn’t be a shocker if Chanyeol had told half of Yogoe how inept Baekhyun was as a necromancer by now.
Jongdae finds Baekhyun with his head on the counter when he returns to the front. Baekhyun is having a life crisis and can’t bring himself to prepare milkshakes for toddlers.
“Hey, Baekhyunnie.” Jongdae pats his back comfortingly. “Did Heechul tell you who the guy was?”
“No, he didn’t know him.” Baekhyun’s lips drag over the counter, so he lifts his head to pin Jongdae with a helpless look. “This is driving me crazy, Jongdae, and I’m running out of options.”
“I think I know who can help us,” Jongdae says, hesitant. “Don’t ask questions, though. Just follow me after we get off our shift tonight.”
Patience has never been one of Baekhyun’s virtues. Throughout their shift, Baekhyun tugs and pouts at Jongdae for some hint to where he’s taking him, but Jongdae remains tight-lipped and resolute. When Baekhyun gives up, he catches Jongdae’s satisfied smirk right before he turns on his heels. Of course his dickhead of a friend would enjoy making Baekhyun suffer, and he doesn’t let up until the end of their shift, not giving in once to a sulky Baekhyun tailing him like a puppy.
They wind up in a quiet street in the dead of dusk, when the lamps are turning on along the pavement.
In the center of a row of nondescript buildings is a little shop that can easily go unnoticed. Kim Bros’ Libros! reads a tagline over the awning and Baekhyun snorts at the witty name. The space inside is small and crammed, packed to the brim with books on shelves and tables. As Baekhyun ventures into the store, he catches a whiff of incense, gentle like vanilla. There is not a soul inside except for the bespectacled man behind the counter, who is startled out of the book he had been reading by their approach.
“Hello,” the man greets, smiling jauntily, “how can I help you?” He pauses when he spots Jongdae, then his smile widens with pleasant surprise. “Jongdae? I didn’t expect to see you today! Oh and I see you brought a friend with you!”
“Long time no see, hyung!” Jongdae hollers, sauntering to the front, Baekhyun tagging along with a sheepish smile. The man rounds the counter so they can hug, and the familiar pats on the backs tell Baekhyun they’ve known each other for some time. “I’m here with Baekhyunnie. My roommate I’ve told you about before.”
Junmyeon is a couple of inches smaller than Jongdae, Baekhyun can tell when they separate from their hug. He’s slight in an athletic way, and his smile could rival Jongdae’s in brightness. There are tea stains on his sweater, which is inappropriate for the humid weather, and his glasses are scratched on the lenses—maybe after dropping them repeatedly—but it all suits his bookish demeanor.
Junmyeon is cute, Baekhyun decides. A little smile stretches Baekhyun’s lips when Junmyeon turns to him, a jovial smile at the ready.
“Kim Junmyeon.” The man’s firm handshake is a stark contrast to his gentle voice. “It’s nice to meet you. I was a TA in one of Jongdae’s courses last year.”
Despite the magical community’s preference for remaining anonymous from the non-magi world, there are several universities that impart courses about their culture and history in secret. Said classes don’t appear in non-magi programs, and the non-magi board is none the wiser about these phantom courses and the professors who lurk their corridors in extravagant capes and owls perched on their shoulders.
“Don’t believe anything Jongdae tells you about me, Junmyeon-ssi,” Baekhyun jokes. “It must be all terrible lies.”
Junmyeon’s laugh is sing-songy. “I won’t say,” he quips. “I don’t wanna be the cause of a fight.”
“I’ve only told him about the snacks,” Jongdae butts in. “And how annoying you are sometimes.”
Baekhyun glowers at his friend. “Jongdae refused to tell me anything before we got here.”
“Ah, that’s necessary,” Junmyeon explains, smile apologetic. “We can’t be telling this kind of stuff to people, you see. But if he brought you here, then…”
“He’s a necromancer, hyung,” Jongdae says. “He’s that Baekhyun.”
“Oh.” Junmyeon’s gaze turns inquisitive on Baekhyun, as if he’s seeing him for the first time. “You can see gwisin?”
Gwisin is the appropriate name for ghosts, but Baekhyun finds it outdated. It doesn’t surprise him that Junmyeon uses the term, though, and Baekhyun giggles, wired by nerves due to the sudden attention.
“Yes,” Baekhyun answers. “I’ve seen them all my life. Had no choice in the matter.”
Junmyeon chuckles. “That’s really impressive,” he says. “I’m a sorcerer myself, but I can’t say that’s anything impressive.”
“You’re great, hyung,” Jongdae tells him. Then, to Baekhyun, “he’s the one who taught me everything I know about history of magic.”
Jongdae doesn’t talk about his lack of magic often, and when he does, it’s always with the quiet tone of a deeply buried fault. Baekhyun steps closer to his friend on automatic and Jongdae welcomes his arm around his waist with a shy smile.
Junmyeon must notice this as well, because he touches Jongdae’s shoulder. “That’s flattering, Jongdae.” The blush on Junmyeon’s cheeks shows he’s more than pleased. “It’s not like your visit is unwanted, but I gotta ask—what brings you here exactly?”
“We wanted to know about someone,” Baekhyun says. “A necromancer with the name Chanyeol.”
Junmyeon’s chin wrinkles as he purses his lips. “Chanyeol? If it’s the Chanyeol I think it is…” He grabs a ring of keys from the counter. “We should make sure first. Follow me.”
“Where?” There’s a door that Baekhyun figures leads to the kitchen or the bathroom and nothing else. Baekhyun’s eyes flicker from Jongdae to Junmyeon. “The back?”
A mysterious smile is perched on Junmyeon’s lips. “You’ll see.”
Junmyeon picks one key from the ring to fit it into the lock, turns it twice, and then puts his hand on the knob. When the door opens, Junmyeon turns back to Baekhyun with a serious gaze.
“You can’t tell anyone what you’re about to see. Not a soul.”
“I won’t.” Baekhyun snickers with a skeptical frown. “Who would I tell? The ghosts that come to visit me?”
Jongdae pinches his arm. “This is serious, Baekhyunnie.”
“I know,” Baekhyun hisses, jolting away from Jongdae. Another giggle escapes him. Baekhyun has never been good at handling these kind of weighty atmospheres, even more so when he’s told to be serious. He used to have a hard time staying still and quiet during high school because his demeanor shifts to the opposite direction on automatic. “I’m sorry.”
Junmyeon pushes the door open, revealing a different room from what Baekhyun expected. Baekhyun isn’t sure it can even fit inside the building. It’s a maze of bookshelves, filled to the brim with books, rows upon rows of them, as far as Baekhyun can see. There are spiral staircases leading into above stories littered with more bookshelves, crystal dripping from chandeliers and candles hanging in the air, bathing the space in a warm glow. Baekhyun spots people moving among the shelves, in pairs or alone, but their chatter doesn’t carry over to the platform they’re standing on.
“This is the library,” Junmyeon says, “where all the knowledge about the magic world, old and new, resides.”
Baekhyun gapes at the magnitude of such a place, the ancient and impossible knowledge hidden within the pages of these books. Some of it most likely written in languages that became extinct centuries ago.
“Is there porn here?”
Jongdae bursts out laughing, and Junmyeon chuckles, flustered. “I don’t think so, Baekhyunnie.”
They follow Junmyeon to the staircase at the edge of the platform, a winding spiral that gives Baekhyun slight vertigo when he looks down to the bottom.
“What? There are millions of books here! There must be at least one!”
“Don’t pay attention to him, hyung,” Jongdae advises. “He’s a dummy.”
Baekhyun pinches Jongdae’s back, and the whine that Jongdae lets out echoes in the immensity of the maze. Baekhyun snickers as Jongdae glares at him over his shoulder.
Junmyeon leads them through bookshelves and down a sinuous path of floating candles. They stop in front of a bookshelf where Junmyeon grabs a large tome and carries it to the nearest table. A cloud of dust rises when Junmyeon cracks the book open, its yellowed pages looking fragile in the dim glow of the overhang candles.
“This book contains the family trees of the magical world,” Junmyeon mumbles, flipping through the pages. “Mostly the ancient, powerful ones.”
Baekhyun sucks his bottom lip into his mouth, suddenly hit with a familiar feeling of discomfort. The magical world was built on families. They own the council working behind the scenes to keep their structure in peace and hidden from the non-magi world; they built the education system for their different kinds; their knowledge and expertise was passed down from parent to child since people could figure out how to make magic. Baekhyun has had no one but Heechul since his mother died. Even his old necromentor left him a year into their lessons.
It’s not something that bothers him often, the fact that he’s an orphan in a world run by families, but it had been a thorn in his side for years when he was growing up. Heechul told Baekhyun his mother didn’t come from a famous family so he would hardly find anything on her. It didn’t stop Baekhyun from searching and scouring the only magical library Baekhyun could find in Yogoe, and then, when he got older, the Internet. The disappointment of finding nothing was a devastating blow, leaving Baekhyun winded and bleeding, though he couldn’t see the bruises.
A long time passed before Baekhyun could accept he had no heritage or history like his peers. That Baekhyun isn’t like Jongdae, whose family spans centuries of lineage scattered all over Korea.
Baekhyun is alone and that’s how he’s ever been.
Junmyeon hums, and it brings Baekhyun back to the present. On the page Junmyeon is inspecting is a drawing of a tree with writings in faded ink on its infinite branches. They are names, Baekhyun realizes, of a family that dates back centuries ago. Park Family of Bucheon sits at the very top of the page in an elegant scrawl.
“Here it is.” Junmyeon taps his finger over a name at the bottom. “Park Chanyeol. Necromancer. The youngest in the family.” Junmyeon hums again. “No wonder it sounded familiar.”
“It doesn’t mean anything to me,” Baekhyun says. “Other than a guy who’s trying to steal my spot.”
He’d calibrated his voice to sound light, joking, but an edge of bitterness seeps into his tone nonetheless. Junmyeon raises his head and laughs softly at whatever he catches in his expression.
Junmyeon flips a couple of pages and reads from a section. “It says his necromentor was Do Kyungsoo. Does he sound familiar to you? I believe Kyungsoo is the best necromancer in Korea.”
“He was...” Baekhyun mumbles. “Kyungsoo gave me lessons when I was a kid, but he never…” He doesn’t know what to think. In the years after his brief acquaintance with Kyungsoo, Baekhyun never considered Kyungsoo could be to someone else, what he was to him. Then again, it might not be the exact same thing that Kyungsoo meant to Baekhyun…
“You guys might get along after all,” Jongdae jokes. “You have one thing in common.”
“Shut up, Jongdae,” Baekhyun mutters. Desperate to change the subject, he remembers another thing that has been bugging him. “Also, I was wondering about something. There was this ghost who told me something a few nights ago and it sounded like a poem. ‘She will come with the monsoon.’ What does that mean?”
Junmyeon frowns. “It does sound like a poem.” He purses his lips. “Do you mind if I ask around and get back to you later?”
“Of course not. Thanks, Junmyeon-ssi.”
“You’re welcome, Baekhyunnie.” Junmyeon’s voice is kind. “You can come by anytime you want.”
Junmyeon picks up a few books before they go back the same way through a maze of shelves and up the spiraling staircase. When they stand in the bookshop again, Junmyeon locks the door twice, like he had done before.
“Wait a minute!”
Baekhyun opens the door, and just as he suspected, it leads to a small kitchen with a table to the wall. Heechul can enchant doors to make them open to different places, even cities in foreign countries, but he’s never made an entire building exist within another.
“This is incredible!” Baekhyun exclaims. “It’s like freaking Narnia! You’re a great sorcerer, Junmyeon-ssi.”
“It’s just a trick, Baekhyunnie,” Junmyeon says. “These keys have been in my family for centuries, just like this bookstore. And please,” Junmyeon’s smile turns coy, “call me hyung.”
“Hyung,” Baekhyun rolls the name on his tongue. He likes it. “I’ll be visiting you very soon. Without Jongdae next time.”
Junmyeon laughs as Jongdae whines about what an ungrateful asshole Baekhyun is. “I’d really like that Baekhyunnie.”
The second week of May ushers in humidity that sticks to Baekhyun like a second skin. Nuts! Creamery has had an increase in clientele with the end of the school year nearing, and Baekhyun’s been having barely any time to breathe in the afternoons. Also less time to be frustrated about the mysterious necromancer who saved his life, and the meager efforts he’s made to uncover the reason for his being in Yogoe.
“You’ve been glued to your phone your entire lunch break.”
Baekhyun looks up to find Jongdae standing by his table. For his breaks, Baekhyun usually heads to the kitchenette in the back, but sometimes he likes to eat in the front to watch his coworkers suffer while he enjoys his sandwich. Today said sandwich lies uneaten in its wrapper and his apple juice remains sealed.
“I’m reading this forum,” Baekhyun says, “about paranormal activity in Yogoe.”
Baekhyun’s biggest clues about the hotspots of ghost activity in Yogoe come from the paranormal community in a forum for the creepy and unexplained. The members are talking about the activity growing as of late, and this detail alone might be a clue to solve the mystery behind Chanyeol.
“Are those your freak friends?”
“They’re not freaks, you ass,” Baekhyun counters. “They’re nice. Nicer than you.”
“So what do your little friends say?”
“They’re reporting some activity in the amusement park near the river.” Baekhyun puts his phone down and uncaps his juice to take a sip. “I should go there and investigate.”
“Let’s go tonight after our shift,” Jongdae says. “Just in case another big bad ghost attacks you.”
“Very funny, dumbass,” Baekhyun retorts as Jongdae smirks. “You’re gonna have to take out the trash today!”
“I took out the trash yesterday, it’s your turn today.” Jongdae cocks an eyebrow. “By the way, why are you going to this place? What are you hoping to find exactly?”
Jongdae has that look on his face that says he sees right through Baekhyun. Not like Baekhyun isn’t an open book already, but Jongdae has a way to unmask Baekhyun’s real intentions without any actual effort. Sometimes Baekhyun wonders why he bothers trying to hide things from Jongdae, at this point.
“If there’s a malicious ghost like the one I found last time,” Baekhyun mumbles, gaze riveted on the table, “maybe Chanyeol will show up and I’ll find out what he’s after.”
“You’re still thinking about that guy?” Jongdae’s eyes narrow on Baekhyun, though his smile sharpens. “What if he was just passing by when he saw you in trouble like a damsel in distress and went to your rescue?”
There’s a little too much understanding in Jongdae’s smile for Baekhyun’s liking. So Baekhyun grabs his sandwich and apple juice and heads to the back, away from best friends who can’t let him live in peace.
“That’s not what he said,” Baekhyun says, frustrated. “He said things are getting weird here and I want to know how he knows that.”
Jongdae, to Baekhyun’s misfortune, follows suit. “Isn’t it because you’re pissed that he saved your ass?”
“If you keep it up I’m going to tell Minseok you keep eating the whipped cream behind his back,” Baekhyun taunts, bursting into a laugh when Jongdae blanches. “And anyways, it doesn’t hurt to try and find out more about that Chanyeol guy, right? He may not even be in Yogoe anymore… god, I hope I’ve spoken that into existence.”
The way Jongdae’s eyebrows slant speaks of worry. “Just be careful, okay?” His hand is light on Baekhyun’s shoulder. “Don’t put yourself in danger just to prove something. Don’t be dumb.”
It’s an indisputable fact that Jongdae knows Baekhyun better than anyone. Baekhyun rolls his eyes, but pokes Jongdae’s side until a smile resurfaces on his friend’s face. If there’s something Baekhyun is bad at, it’s talking about his own feelings; he can playfully whine and pout and scowl, but it’s all a show to entertain.
Jongdae and Heechul are the only people who can see right through his act.
Baekhyun pats Jongdae’s shoulder with more force than required. Jongdae scowls but doesn’t move. “I’ll be fine, dad!” With a flourish, Baekhyun wipes invisible tears from his eyes. “I am moved that you care so much, though.”
“Shut up,” Jongdae mutters, surrendering at last. Baekhyun grins, silently glad that he’s won this round. “I’ll still go with you tonight. Someone needs to keep you in check.”
The basis of their friendship is their stubbornness, the knowledge that they can’t, no matter how hard they try, convince each other against doing something once one of them has put their minds to it. In the never-ending list of unbreakable codes in friendship is that one can never leave their best friend alone in this kind of situation, as dangerous or stupid as it may be—which, in their case, quite often involves both. This pact of sorts is what would land them in the principal’s office regularly in high school after a prank gone wrong or reprimanded by Jongdae’s mom after being caught skipping class to drink by his older brother.
“Right on! You should take pants you don’t wear often in case you pee yourself!”
“Why am I friends with a dickhead,” Jongdae says flatly, but his gaze is bemused. Baekhyun laughs, lively and noisy, slinging an arm over Jongdae. Jongdae falls into the embrace easily. “Let’s get back to work or Minseok will make us stay behind tonight.”
The amusement park is scarier in the dying light of the afternoon. Baekhyun begins to question his decision, and every decision he’s ever made, once they set foot in the park after jumping over a tilted fence. The attractions still standing are dilapidated and battered, like the serpentine track of a rollercoaster looming ahead, casting tall, distorted shadows over the overgrown grass. The park is located in the outskirts of town so the silence is dense, nearly eerie, interrupted only by cars speeding on the highway in the distance. It seems not even birds dare to make a sound in this place, lest they bother something that’s best left alone.
They had first made a stop at home for supplies: flashlights, backpacks, and most importantly, Baekhyun’s blade. Baekhyun had pretended not to notice the way Jongdae eyed the blade warily and his adam’s apple bobbing.
“I’m kind of starting to regret this.” Jongdae’s gaze flits about the place with nervousness. “Why didn’t I let you go by yourself…”
“Because you love me.” Baekhyun reaches into his backpack for the flashlights and hands one to Jongdae. “And you never wanna leave me alone.”
Trudging into the park, their footsteps are quiet, as if their feet barely grazed the ground. The flashlights lit cheerful animal faces on carts corroded by rain and time, lending a macabre air to their features. There is a carousel with most of its horses overturned on the platform. A pirate ship angled like it had been stopped mid-motion. The bodiless head of a clown lies next to a stall, its perpetual devilish grin giving Baekhyun a shudder. He shifts his flashlight away so the head is swallowed by the creeping darkness of dusk, but Baekhyun can sense its gaze long after they move past, as if they were being followed.
“What happened to this place?” Jongdae queries in a too-deep voice. Baekhyun curbs a giggle. This is exactly how Jongdae sounds when he pretends he isn’t scared by the slasher movie Baekhyun picked for their movie night. “Do you even remember? We were still kids then, but I remember coming here a few times. I really liked the pirate ship.”
“A kid died when his train derailed and fell from the rollercoaster,” Baekhyun says. For emphasis, he points his flashlight to the rollercoaster platform a few paces ahead. “I think you can still see the train over there…”
The park had been closed down when Baekhyun was in middle school; he remembers it clearly because he had ridden the duck train that newspapers said had killed the boy. The kid was close to Baekhyun’s age then, and the thought that Baekhyun could have been in his place had stuck with him for weeks after the accident.
“Shut up, no, you can’t.” Jongdae’s voice trembles slightly. This time Baekhyun doesn’t have it in him to tease him, because the park is getting to him a little. Despite his long exposure to the creepiest of creatures, there is something in this place, its chilling atmosphere and perennial decay, that drives the hairs on his neck to stand on end.
Jongdae’s sharp inhale is loud in the stillness. “Did you hear that?”
“What?” Baekhyun’s feet scrub on the dirt when he halts and waits. Then he hears it. Footsteps on the ground. Growing louder as the person—or thing comes closer. Baekhyun’s pulse piques with the palpable drop in temperature and Jongdae’s next exhale is a shivery silver puff in front of his mouth.
“There’s something here,” Baekhyun whispers, pointing his flashlight everywhere. He can’t locate the exact source of the ghost’s presence and it’s alarming him. Outwardly, he keeps his breathing steady, preserves a sense of calm for Jongdae’s sake. Raising his voice, he directs a question to the ghost, “Are you here with us?”
The silence seems to turn as thick and encompassing as the darkness. Baekhyun realizes that even the faraway noises from cars are gone. There is the sound of a metal bar falling and rolling on the ground and another set of footsteps. Loud and quickening. As if whoever was coming was careening right towards them.
“Baekhyun…” Jongdae whispers feebly. Baekhyun doesn’t have to look to know the same fright he feels is painted on Jongdae’s face. “Would you hate me too much if I ditched you here and ran back to our apartment?”
Baekhyun shushes him, but pulls him closer by his arm. Jongdae is trembling and Baekhyun is struck with guilt. Jongdae should be at home, safe and sound, not here in a haunted amusement park. Possibly in danger.
So Baekhyun tries again, “Are you here?” If Baekhyun brought his best friend here, he’s going to take him home quickly, where he belongs. “If you are here make your presence known!”
The footsteps come to a halt. Baekhyun can now hear his own labored breaths, in the same irregular patterns as Jongdae’s.
If Jongdae has any strength left, it would have come out in a shout. Instead, the word skips over a broken inhale that shakes Baekhyun. In front of the carousel, caught in the circle of his flashlight is a kid: middle-school aged, pale as death and dark eyes accusing, boring holes into Baekhyun and Jongdae.
“How did you know I was here?” The kid’s voice is shrill and demanding. “How can you see me?”
“I have the ability to see you, but he doesn’t,” Baekhyun supplies, pointing to Jongdae, “unless you show yourself to him—and right now you’re very much visible to both of us.”
“I don’t know how to control it yet,” the boy answers, voice distraught. “She said she would teach me, but… she’s not here yet.”
“Who?” Baekhyun takes a step forward, but the boy takes a step back. “Don’t be afraid. We’re not here to harm you.”
“We’re trying to help you, buddy,” Jongdae butts in weakly. “There’s no need to be scared.”
The boy whimpers, shuffling backwards. The horses on the carousel start shaking, the metal creaking with the force.
“She’s coming,” the boy chants, frantic. “She’s coming.”
“Calm down,” Baekhyun says, waving his hands. “There’s no need—”
In that moment, before Baekhyun has time to react, Jongdae is lifted off the ground and hurled against the hull of the pirate ship. He falls to the ground like a ragdoll, seemingly unconscious. Panic floods Baekhyun’s chest. He’s torn, his instinct to make sure Jongdae is okay, to protect him, warring with the anger rising along the fear. A murderous urge to destroy the ghost.
The ghost hurls a horse at Baekhyun, which he avoids by launching himself to the ground. Baekhyun unsheathes his blade from the holder on his hip and crouches behind the horse, waiting until the ghost is close to attack. Its presence has flickered off, like the ghost at the park. Baekhyun can’t locate it. Frustration bleeds through him.
Surveying the darkness, Baekhyun stands slowly. His inability to locate the ghost and the thickening darkness are unnerving, to the point where he’s afraid to take a step in any direction, in case the ghost could interpret it as an attack and he wouldn’t be able to foresee it. Then, the presence reappears, but it’s too late—an invisible force snatches Baekhyun off his feet and throws him against the metal fence protecting the carousel. The fence topples over as he hits the railings, cushioning his landing, though his head bangs against a bar.
A ringing in his head disorients him until the sound of footsteps breaks through the noise. Sluggishly, Baekhyun lifts his head to see the ghost’s dirty sneakers coming closer, shuffling like a predator taking its time with a prey. Dread closes around his throat with the realization that his blade has landed several feet away and he won’t be able to reach for it in time before the ghost strikes.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
Baekhyun looks up at the new voice, deep and grownup, unlike the ghost’s shrills. The ghost’s face is stricken with horror, his wide eyes staring at the tip of a sword peeking from the center of his chest. Baekhyun gasps, propping himself with his palms flat on the ground. Behind the ghost stands Park Chanyeol, with the same kind of fierce expression Baekhyun recalls from the park as he slides the blade out of the ghost with a swift movement.
The boy howls, wavers, watching his hands slowly disintegrating into ambers with the rest of his body. Thousands of lights disperse into the dead of night with a gust of wind that sweeps the abandoned amusement park.
Chanyeol turns to Baekhyun, and through the darkness, Baekhyun can tell he’s tall. Freakishly so. Tall and lithe like a soggy noodle. And he’s amused for a reason Baekhyun can’t explain until he notices he’s still on the ground, seething and bristling like an annoyed cat. Though it’s with good reason; Chanyeol’s lopsided smile is more appropriate for running into an old friend at Lotte Mart than having saved Baekhyun from nearly getting killed. Again. Even in these circumstances, this guy exudes arrogance and it grates on Baekhyun’s nerves.
“Why do I always find you in trouble?” Chanyeol asks, sauntering to Baekhyun. He’s once again surprised at the depth of his voice. A contrast to the dorky ears sticking out beneath his hair. “How did you get out of trouble before I got here?”
With a start, Baekhyun remembers Jongdae. Concern has him scrambling off the ground, ignoring the pain in his head and Chanyeol’s question to run towards Jongdae instead.
Jongdae is lying on the spot he had landed over the platform pirate ship. Baekhyun sighs in relief when he checks that Jongdae’s breathing is normal and his pulse thuds steadily. The wood creaks with a new weight, and Baekhyun looks over to find Chanyeol standing atop the steps.
His plan to lure Chanyeol out so he could question him seems like a vague memory now. All he cares about is Jongdae’s safety and wellbeing. And with the guilt of being responsible for his friend’s state, Baekhyun finds it impossible to care about someone else.
“He’s going to be fine,” Chanyeol says. “He just lost consciousness.”
“I don’t know how things were back where you come from, but this isn’t normal.” Baekhyun doesn’t mask the annoyance in his tone. He sits back and hefts Jongdae carefully with arms around his torso. “Thank you again, but I didn’t need your help.”
“Looked like you did.” The teasing lilt is tangible and Baekhyun is so not in the mood for this. Chanyeol’s grin is close-lipped but smug, like he just couldn’t help himself. It only serves to rile Baekhyun up more.
“Can you shut up, please,” Baekhyun snaps and Chanyeol’s smile drops. “You already did your good deed of the day to inflate your ego. Go home now.”
It wasn’t what Chanyeol expected apparently, because his face pinges, an exasperated huff parting his lips. “That wasn’t very nice of you.” He shrugs, throwing his sword over his shoulder, where it disappears into bright blue smoke. “Anyways, this just proves my point.”
Curiosity wins over Baekhyun’s frustration. “Which is…?”
The wooden steps creak with the heavy footsteps. Then, the stomping stops. There’s another creak when Chanyeol turns back to Baekhyun, a triumphant grin visible in the darkness.
“I’m better than you,” Chanyeol sing-songs before he walks off.
Irritation has turned into a knee-jerk reaction to Chanyeol at this point. A good dose of it has Baekhyun clenching his fists with the need to punch something. Preferably Chanyeol’s stupid face. “Why is he such an asshole,” he grumbles into the night. The night doesn’t respond. There’s likely no answer.
Jongdae stirs on the platform, grunting as he tries to sit up. Baekhyun holds him down, shushing him kindly.
“What happened?” Jongdae groans, blinking. “Baekhyun?”
“It’s okay,” Baekhyun reassures him, “don’t move too much. That ghost threw you against the pirate ship. Are you hurt anywhere? Can you move?”
“That explains why my entire body hurts,” Jongdae murmurs. “I’m okay. My back is killing me, but it’s nothing a good balm won’t cure.” His eyes widen suddenly, like he’s just remembered something. “Baekhyun, where’s the ghost boy? Did you kill it?”
“Yeah, don’t worry,” Baekhyun says, and aids Jongdae to sit up. A wince contorts Jongdae’s kitten mouth, and Baekhyun feels awful. “We should get you home. Do you know any healers who can drop by the apartment?”
Jongdae nods, pursing his lips as he stands, leaning heavily on Baekhyun. “I’ll text him on the way home.”
A young man is waiting outside their apartment complex when they stumble out of a taxi an hour later. Yixing is a Chinese medical witch—or, as magi call them, healer. He’s a friend of Jongdae’s, who Baekhyun has spotted at the parlor a couple of times with a large group of people, but has never talked to him. It’s never escaped Baekhyun how handsome Yixing is: a little taller than Baekhyun, with a slim figure and ever styled hair and fitted jeans on long legs.
And to top it all, he has a cute dimpled smile. The same smile greeting Baekhyun on Jongdae’s other side as Yixing helps carry him to their apartment on the third floor.
“Where should I put him?” Baekhyun queries once they’ve stepped through the door. “The couch or the bed?”
“The bed is more comfortable,” Yixing answers.
“So I’ve heard,” Baekhyun says. Yixing chuckles, eyes crinkled with mirth. He has a gorgeous smile that illuminates his entire face. Then, his expression sobers and something unexpected happens. Yixing appraises Baekhyun. Head to toe. It’s too brief, too inconsequential for Baekhyun to be this awestruck, but the fire that had flickered in Yixing’s dark eyes for a short second was real and novel.
Yixing smiles like nothing is amiss. Sickly sweet, like he hadn’t just checked out Baekhyun.
“Baekhyun, the bedroom?” Yixing prompts.
“Right, right.” Baekhyun steers them in the direction of Jongdae’s bedroom before he can let his mouth run.
Jongdae grunts as Baekhyun puts a pillow under his leg for support. While Yixing rummages through his backpack for his supplies, Baekhyun sits next to Jongdae on the bed. Another rush of guilt hits him at seeing Jongdae flinching when Yixing eventually probes his left leg.
“Baekhyun, please tell me how you sent that fucking ghost to hell after kicking his ass,” Jongdae mutters. He grips the sheets in a white-knuckled fist. “Because my leg fucking hurts and that would give me a little satisfaction.”
“Actually…” Baekhyun fiddles with a loose thread in the bedding. “Park Chanyeol showed up and killed the ghost.”
“Chanyeol?” Jongdae’s eyebrows are drawn together as he stares up at Baekhyun. “The other necromancer? I could have thanked him for saving us.”
“Thank him? The guy’s an asshole, Jongdae. You don’t need to stroke his ego.”
“The guy has saved your life twice, Baekhyun.” Jongdae pokes Baekhyun on his stomach. “I know you won’t agree, but that doesn’t sound like something an asshole would do.”
A voice within Baekhyun agrees with Jongdae. Another voice tells the first voice to shut the fuck up. It’s been enough talk about dickheads with large ears and stupid swords, which, Baekhyun’s convinced, is clearly related to some dick-size complex.
“He’s a narcissistic asshole,” Baekhyun concludes, and ignores Jongdae’s eye-roll. “And that’s it about Chanyeol for the day. I don’t wanna hear anything more about Park Chanyeol.”
“Park Chanyeol?” Yixing repeats, coming over to the bed. “Park Yoora’s little brother?”
Baekhyun shrugs a shoulder. “Do you know him?”
“I know his sister.” Yixing snaps latex gloves on his hands. “She was a couple years ahead of me in college. She’s like a famous magizoologist now. Chanyeol used to visit her at college sometimes. He was a scrawny kid with these huge glasses. Kinda cute how he followed his sister around, you could tell they were close. Must be hard living under her shadow now.”
Baekhyun hums, tries to sound disinterested through the urge to ask for more details. But the curl on Jongdae’s lips is knowing and Baekhyun doesn’t feel like indulging him.
Thankfully, Yixing cuts the chance for more talk. “So, I’m gonna have to pinch you, but it’s not going to hurt, I promise!”
Jongdae pales, gripping Baekhyun’s hand tightly. “I fucking hate ghosts from now on.”
Early summer sweeps in Yogoe, bringing along stuffy and humid days. The back of Baekhyun’s uniform shirt is soaked through with sweat at the end of every shift, due to the new influx of customers that herald the start of summer vacations.
In the past few days, though, not everything has been sunshine in Yogoe. The town is buzzing with the news of another disappearance: a man in his late thirties who had left a local bar without his coworkers and never made it home. The only things found at the scene, two blocks from the bar, were handprints over a brick wall with the victim’s blood and a discarded shoe. There aren’t yet any news on the whereabouts of his body.
Baekhyun had read the article on his phone that morning. It took him some time to get out of bed, so strangely caught up in the case—what the local police are calling the work of a serial killer—until Jongdae slammed the bathroom door shut and reminded him that it was his turn to shower.
The parlor is full that Tuesday afternoon. Baekhyun hasn’t had a moment to breathe, or even to empty his bladder, for the entirety of his eight-hour shift. When he gets off at seven, there is a new message from Junmyeon waiting in his phone.
Baekhyunnie, are you free tonight?
Junmyeon had promised to call if he made a discovery on Baekhyun’s poem. The excitement thrums through Baekhyun despite his aching bones and tired brain after a long day at work.
Instead of replying with another text, Baekhyun pulls up Junmyeon’s contact name and presses dial. The man answers on the second ring, and his voice comes as gentle and soothing as a summer breeze through the receiver.
“Hyung,” Baekhyun chirps, the drowsiness ebbing away by the second. “I can come by tonight!”
“Good, good.” Junmyeon’s smile is evident in his voice. “I have something to show you concerning the poem you told me about the other day.”
“Let’s order food, hyung,” Baekhyun says, shoving his foot into a sneaker. “I just finished my shift and I’m starving.”
He uses his cute voice, the one that earns him a glare from Jongdae, who ultimately submits to Baekhyun’s whims. Baekhyun can picture Junmyeon’s crinkled eyes and the blush on his cheeks on the other end of the line.
“Okay, okay,” Junmyeon says through another peal of giggles. Baekhyun smiles wider. “It’s my treat then. I’ll meet you in half an hour.”
Baekhyun arrives at Kim Bros’ Libros! at a quarter to eight. The bookshop is bathed in a warm glow, and unlike the last time Baekhyun visited, there are customers among the aisles: a couple discussing a book and a trio of teenage girls clustered around a manhwa. Junmyeon is at the counter reading a book, raising his eyes when the bell above the door announces a new customer.
“Baekhyunnie!” Junmyeon rounds the corner to greet him. “Was it hard to get here on your own?”
Junmyeon’s enthusiasm endears Baekhyun. He beams, donning his charming smile. “I couldn’t get lost when I was going to see my favorite hyung, could I?”
Junmyeon laughs, flustered, and Baekhyun barely holds back from cooing. “Jongdae mentioned you were a terrible flirt,” he admonishes teasingly. He leans in closer with a conspiratorial air. “But I am, too. My girlfriend tells me I’m incorrigible.”
That takes Baekhyun off guard. “Girlfriend?” The word slips past his lips with surprise. He recovers fast, plastering a grin on his face. “Where is the lucky girl?”
“Yoona’s her name,” Junmyeon tells him, and the eye-roll that follows is self-mocking. “She works at a vintage shop downtown. Hyoyeon—my sister—says we’re a couple of nerds.”
There’s something in his tone that drains some of Baekhyun’s liveliness. It’s saccharine and secretive, and it tastes bittersweet in the back of Baekhyun’s mouth.
Of course Junmyeon would have a girlfriend. He’s old enough to be thinking of marriage even. Baekhyun is just being possessive with his friends like a child. Or it could be that Junmyeon’s smile and lithe figure had stirred something warm and protective in Baekhyun he didn’t quite know how to name. Whatever it was it dies in a flash of fire in his chest.
Junmyeon giggles to himself as he sidesteps Baekhyun. He realizes then that the customers had left and the bookshop is quiet once again. Junmyeon flips the ‘CLOSED’ sign over the door so it reads ‘OPEN’.
“Now,” Junmyeon says, when he’s locked the door, “let’s eat before I show you what I found.”
Fifteen minutes later finds them sitting over the counter eating curry and spicy noodles. Baekhyun swings his legs in the air, laughing at Junmyeon’s stories about meeting Heechul when Junmyeon was in high school.
“I can’t believe Heechul had a mullet and wore hiking pants,” Baekhyun says through his laughter. “That’s so rich. Thanks, hyung. I’ll use that information wisely.”
“Please do.” Junmyeon laughs, scratching the bottom of his box with his chopsticks. “And take a picture for me when you do.” He puts his carton on the counter. “Okay, if you’re done, I’m going to show you what I found before we keep talking and I forget about it completely.”
“Is your memory failing you already, hyung?” Baekhyun teases, breaking into a laugh when Junmyeon pinches his thigh.
Junmyeon jumps from the counter and rounds it, then disappears behind it to ruffle through—what sounds like to Baekhyun—a dozen piles of books and other papers. Baekhyun has a hunch that Junmyeon, despite his bookish mien, is terribly disorganized. He watches with barely concealed curiosity the crown of Junmyeon’s head moving behind the counter, and after a moment, the rest of Junmyeon emerges with an enigmatic smile and a book in his hands.
Baekhyun puts his carton down to point a greased-stained finger at the book. “What’s that, hyung?”
“This is an anthology of poems, fables, and epics about ancient gods and goddesses of our magical world.” Junmyeon flips through the book until he finds a marked page and leaves it open over the wooden surface. “Turns out what you told me the other day is part of a poem.”
Baekhyun leans over so he can read. “‘On the seventh day of the seventh month, when the monsoon comes, it carries the flood.’” He looks up to Junmyeon with confusion. “Is that…?”
“The rest of the nursery rhyme you heard,” Junmyeon finishes. “It was originally a poem in the sixteenth century, and somehow it turned into a song decades ago, because of the summer festival.”
“The summer festival?” Baekhyun quirks an eyebrow. “The festival for the gwisin?”
“More than half a century ago, it was also a festival for a goddess,” Junmyeon relates. “They called her the first goddess, because of a myth that she created this town. The festival served to give her offerings so she wouldn’t bring floods but only rain for the farmers.” Junmyeon pushes his glasses up his nose. “And also so she wouldn’t eat men and their children.”
“Woah,” Baekhyun says, “she sounds like a nurturing deity.”
Junmyeon laughs softly. Baekhyun gives him a furtive glance, smiling to himself. It’s such a minor thing, but it tastes like victory.
“Apparently, she was so beautiful, men couldn’t resist going with her, and well…” Junmyeon purses his lips. “She ate them.” A small hand lands on Baekhyun’s shoulder. “This is why you need to be careful with women, Baekhyunnie.”
“Ah, hyung, I’m careful already,” Baekhyun drawls, lips quirked in a smirk. “You don’t need to worry about me.”
He winks at Junmyeon, who shakes his head amusedly. The grin on Baekhyun’s face is a tad forced, so he lets it drop when Junmyeon turns his back to him to drink his tea.
“I still can’t figure out why the ghost’s ambers were repeating this line,” Baekhyun wonders. “Is it because it has something to do with the ghost festival?”
“Probably,” Junmyeon affirms, slowly putting his cup down. “Now that you mention it... the goddess does have a link to ghosts.” Junmyeon holds up the book again and reads from a page. “Apparently, she was in charge of leading stray souls to the underground at some point, but…” Junmyeon frowns. “It says information is missing about this because the poems have been lost.”
“But that’s enough, hyung!” Baekhyun beams so the crinkle between Junmyeon’s brows fades. “I’ve found out more than I expected thanks to your help!”
“It’s no problem, Baekhyunnie, I’m happy to be of help,” Junmyeon says. “By the way, did you have a chance to talk to Chanyeol?”
Baekhyun grimaces like he’s sipped one of Jongdae’s super sweet milkshakes. Park Chanyeol is Baekhyun’s least favorite topic. Up until now, he’s avoided any talk centered on him, despite Jongdae’s repeated attempts just to rile Baekhyun up. Ever since that time at the amusement park, Baekhyun has heard nothing of Chanyeol. Not a single peep. Baekhyun prefers it like this. Secretly, he hopes that Chanyeol’s gotten bored of the idle life in Yogoe and gone back to Seoul, where ghosts are plentiful and less problematic.
Junmyeon cocks an eyebrow, waiting, so Baekhyun lets go of his lower lip. “I haven’t,” he admits. “Whenever he shows up, having a civil conversation isn’t the first thing in my mind, to be honest.” Chanyeol’s smug face flashes in his mind, and exasperation prickles his neck. “God, he’s just so—” He mimics strangling with his hands. “I swear, hyung, if you knew him—”
“I do know him.”
Baekhyun abandons his mimicking act to gape at Junmyeon. “What? How do you know him, hyung?”
“He came here the other day,” Junmyeon elaborates. His smile is a blend 0f apologetic and bemused, so Baekhyun schools his expression into something less murderous. “He paced around the shop first, and then he came to the counter to ask me some questions.”
“What kind of questions?”
“Well, he didn’t act like he didn’t know who I was.” Junmyeon’s mouth is a flat line as he ponders. “He knew about the shop and the library… I guess he took it as a given that I’d know his family.”
Baekhyun groans, eyes rolling to the ceiling. “Of course he would.”
“He asked me about the town, if I’d noticed unusual stuff lately,” he continues. “And… he asked me about you.”
“About me?” Baekhyun frowns. “Why me?”
“How long have I known you, and what kind of person you are…” Junmyeon angles his head, eyes twinkling. “When I told him you were nice he made the same expression you have on your face right now.”
“Asshole,” Baekhyun scoffs. “It’s none of his business, anyway.”
“He also scoffed when I told him you were the only necromancer I knew,” Junmyeon remarks. “You have more in common than you think.”
“Please tell me you’re joking, hyung,” Baekhyun mutters, slipping off the counter. “He’s a dickhead, and I’m very charming.”
Junmyeon’s laugh is lovely, Baekhyun thinks. When he ruffles his hair, though, Baekhyun feels like a little kid with his older brother. Much like he does with Heechul. And like he did with Kyungsoo.
“I should get going,” Baekhyun says. “Thanks for all the help and the food, hyung. It’ll be my treat next time.”
He pairs the promise with a charming grin, and Junmyeon squeezes his shoulder. “I’ll be looking forward to it and I’ll let you know if I find anything more.”
When he leaves the shop there’s a drizzle falling, so light it’s almost mist. He ruminates on what Junmyeon said: Chanyeol asking about something unusual in the town. He must know about the malicious ghosts, Baekhyun muses. Is that why he’s here? Because he thought I couldn’t handle it?
“‘When the monsoon comes,” Baekhyun recites, chin tilted skyward. Droplets sprinkle his face and catch on his lashes. “‘It carries the flood.’”
It starts raining harder. Baekhyun pulls up his hood and makes his way to the bus stop.
Baekhyun scoops up chocolate ice cream into a cup, tops it with mint ice cream, and sprinkles chocolate chips over all. The group of girls at table three are bursting with glee.
“Three cups of ice cream for these beautiful ladies!” Baekhyun announces, placing the identical glasses on the table. “Enjoy!”
Baekhyun returns to the main counter with the tray under his arm. Jongdae is organizing the straws and cups by colors, while Jongin is making another order for a couple at table seven. They’ve been talking about baseball for the past hour—or more like, Jongdae has been speaking loudly over Jongin’s total lack of interest about sports.
“Honestly, Jonginnie,” Jongdae says, “you need to watch a game with us sometime. We’re going to convert you.”
“That’s the worst thing you could do to Jonginnie,” Baekhyun chimes in. Jongin turns to him with a grin. “You’re going to make him root for all of your loser teams.”
The first thing Baekhyun discovered about Jongdae was his love for baseball. He was wearing a KIA Tigers cap when he opened the door to his home the first time Baekhyun visited in high school. Baekhyun had never been a big fan of sports, even less baseball. But moving in with Jongdae meant living with his interests by extension; Jongdae had talked so much about baseball, and the tv was set on a sports channel so often, that it was a matter of time for Baekhyun to become a fan. In retrospect, it looked like Jongdae had been on a mission to convert Baekhyun from the beginning.
“They’re going to win this season!” Jongdae exclaims indignantly. “And you’re going to have to eat your words, Baekhyun!”
“Whatever you say, Jongdae,” Baekhyun retorts, waving him off. “Just don’t drop the bag of skittles again.”
“That was one time!”
“The other day you toppled over the M&M’s container,” Baekhyun says. “Same thing.”
That earns him a cleaning cloth to the head. The couple at the front laughs as a small battle of sorts ensues, with M&M’s and sample cups used as ammunition, that ends with Minseok tugging at Jongdae and Baekhyun’s ears. Baekhyun is sent to dispose of the empty boxes at the back, shuffling his feet all the way to the door.
Twenty minutes later, Baekhyun returns to the front to find Jongin laughing with Nayeon while she’s taking an order at the cashier, and Jongdae is talking to a tall guy near the door. Baekhyun would recognize those big ears protruding from dark curls with eyes closed.
“What are you doing here?”
Jongdae stops mid-sentence and wheels around, a perfect picture of a deer caught in headlights. In contrast, Chanyeol sports an infuriating grin, lopsided and confident. It’s the first time Baekhyun has seen Chanyeol under decent lighting, and he’s mildly surprised at his youthful face, how objectively handsome it is. Baekhyun is miffed that Chanyeol isn’t some ugly, creepy dude so he could have a valid reason to keep him at an arm’s distance.
“Aren’t you happy to see me?”
The teasing lilt in Chanyeol’s voice incenses Baekhyun further. Baekhyun puts a hand on his hips, cocking them to the side. “You’re not welcome here, Chanyeol-ssi.”
“Why not?” Chanyeol puckers his lips in a pout, and god, Baekhyun hates this guy. “I’m gonna pay for my ice cream, even though Jongdae here wanted to give me a free one.”
“What?” Baekhyun directs an accusing frown to Jongdae, whose mouth is set in a square grimace. “Why were you offering him free ice cream?”
“Because he saved us from that ghost, Baekhyun,” replies Jongdae, his tone firm but cajoling. Jongdae has always had a soft spot for everyone, and Baekhyun, unfortunately, has a soft spot for Jongdae. “I just wanted to thank him in some way.”
“I can pay for it,” Chanyeol chimes in cheerfully. “But I’m not gonna say no to free ice cream.”
Chanyeol’s grin is wide and eager. It shows a perfect row of teeth, thousands of them. Baekhyun curses them and his dumbo ears and strangely bowed legs. Chanyeol’s wearing a black long-sleeved shirt and black shorts, the only type of outfit Baekhyun has seen him in since that first time at the park. Chanyeol has to be mad to wear that much black outside on a steaming hot day like this. Baekhyun is about to make a comment, then decides against it, because he doesn’t want to sound like he cares.
In the end, Baekhyun settles on a scowl, arms crossed over his chest. “Whatever.” He spins on his heels to go back to the counter, not without giving Chanyeol a withering look first. “Don’t bother me, though.”
“Noted!” comes Chanyeol’s chirpy reply. Baekhyun chews on his lip so as to not tell Chanyeol to fuck off.
Baekhyun was determined to ignore Chanyeol, but he can’t help sneaking glances in his direction while he prepares orders. In one instance, Jongdae takes Chanyeol’s order over to his table and chats with him for a while. Their laughter is loud in the quiet parlor, and Baekhyun sulks, feeling utterly betrayed by his best friend. He attends to two other orders and leaves the counter to clean up a recently emptied table, because Jongin and Nayeon are busy with their own tasks.
It’s just Baekhyun’s luck that said table happens to be near Chanyeol.
“You know, I’ve never seen someone look so mad while preparing a smoothie.”
There is something to be said about Chanyeol’s ability to irritate Baekhyun with the mere use of his voice. Baekhyun twits to face Chanyeol, cocking his hips to one side instantly. Chanyeol also has a way of bringing out the sassiness in Baekhyun, which is a feat in itself. Baekhyun hates this guy. “What was that?”
“I thought you were going to crush that cup in your hand,” Chanyeol goes on, smile taunting. “Not good for the clientele, in my opinion. I don’t want my ice cream to be served by someone who looks two seconds from shoving it into my face.”
“Would you shut up and eat your ice cream?” Baekhyun shoves the cloth into his pocket with more force than necessary. “No one asked for your opinion.”
“I was just saying.” Chanyeol throws his palms up in defense. “You look like an angry puppy. Maybe a chihuahua?”
Baekhyun plasters on a fake grin. “You’re done, right?” He grabs the half-eaten ice cream without waiting for an answer. Chanyeol gawks at him with his spoon in mid-air about to dig in. “Thanks for eating at Nuts! Creamery! Please don’t come back ever again!”
“I’m not done eating,” Chanyeol protests, reaching for the cup. Baekhyun keeps it out of his reach, prompting Chanyeol to get up from the chair to chase him. Baekhyun snatches the cup away when Chanyeol stretches his arm towards it, and the ice cream drops to the floor. Baekhyun stares at the sad, colorful blob gloomily while Chanyeol squeals. “Look at what you did!”
“Can you children stop fighting?” Jongdae’s carrying the mop to hand it to Baekhyun. He looks right about done with both of them. “Clean that up before Minseok comes back.”
Baekhyun mops the floor, fuming, and glaring at Chanyeol snickering from his table. When he’s done, he’s about to return to the counter, but Chanyeol tugging on his shirt halts his steps.
“Can you sit with me for a bit?”
His tone is polite but adamant, devoid of its earlier mirth. There is a slight crease between his brows over the expectation flashing in those dark brown eyes. They’re so round and expressive. Baekhyun can see Chanyeol’s waiting for him to make a choice. Baekhyun could turn around and leave him there… but he can’t. The questions that have been gnawing at him ever since Chanyeol showed up are at the forefront of his mind now and he can’t let this chance slide. Though his pride isn’t about to go down that easily.
“Why should I?” Baekhyun responds curtly. “You just made me mop the floor and I hate it.”
“Because I know there are things you want to know,” Chanyeol points out, leaning forward on the table, “and there are things I want to know in return.”
Baekhyun bites his lower lip, rubbing the mop’s handle idly in a fist. Nayeon is taking an order while Jongin is finishing up a chocolate milkshake, and Jongdae is flirting with a girl sitting at the counter. Baekhyun figures they can manage without him for a few minutes.
The grin that Chanyeol had been restraining comes loose now, cocky and triumphant, as Baekhyun pulls a chair back to sit down. Baekhyun casts him a glare, but Chanyeol is undeterred. Baekhyun mimics his stance, propping his elbows on the table and staring straight at him.
“Okay, let me go first,” Baekhyun asks. Before Chanyeol can retort, he launches into his question, “Why are you here?”
“I think I answered that the first time we met.” Chanyeol’s expression is casual, grin tugged at one end. “I’m very competent, and this town needs help.”
“I’m already here,” Baekhyun affirms sternly. “I don’t need your help.”
Anger is an uncharacteristic trait for Baekhyun. It tastes wrong in his mouth. Only Chanyeol rouses those ugly emotions within him, and Baekhyun dislikes him for it.
“Maybe you don’t, but this city will.” Chanyeol’s voice carries meaning, his gaze withholding. Baekhyun falls silent under its weight. “Okay, my turn.” He licks his lips. “Since when have the malicious ghosts been appearing?”
“Uh, since… since the summer vacation started, I think?” Baekhyun scratches his chin as he ponders. “Maybe last month? I didn’t notice it until…” Until you came. He trails off and clears his throat before he speaks again. “But no non-magi have been hurt yet.”
“Yet,” Chanyeol remarks, raising one eyebrow. “I remember that ghost throwing your friend against a pirate ship. That wasn’t okay.”
“I know it’s not okay,” Baekhyun agrees. Irritation scrapes the back of his throat, so his voice comes out rough. “But I didn’t know that would happen. If I did, I wouldn’t have taken him with me.”
“It’s dangerous, Baekhyun,” Chanyeol reproaches. It’s the first time Chanyeol has called him by his name. Baekhyun’s neck warms up. “And I have a feeling it’s only going to get more dangerous from now on.”
“Why do you say that?” Baekhyun asks. Perhaps it is a draft that steals in with the door opening, but Baekhyun feels a little chill at Chanyeol’s portentous tone.
“I’ve been to a seer.” Chanyeol levels him with a querying look. “Haven’t you seen one recently?”
“No, I haven’t.” Baekhyun shifts in his seat, suddenly feeling cagey. “I haven’t been to one since I was a kid.”
Heechul used to take him to a seer he knew for his birthdays when he was younger. It was the same person each time: a lovely woman named Taeyeon, a long-time friend of Heechul’s. Her charm and humor were the only things that made the visits bearable, and Baekhyun’s crush on her lasted well into his teenage years. Baekhyun never liked clairvoyance, mostly because it made him uncomfortable. The belief that his future was written and laid out in front of him, and nothing he did would change a thing, never sat quite right with him. He didn’t like the thought that he didn’t have control over his life. Once he was old enough, he asked Heechul not to take him anymore, and the visits stopped altogether.
Chanyeol has been watching him during his reverie. His eyes are so big and revealing, taking in every aspect of Baekhyun. The appraisal isn’t uncomfortable, strange as it is. Baekhyun has the brief impulse to ask if there’s something on his face, but he bites it back. He decides to be civil and mature around Chanyeol for once since he asked so politely to have a chat with him.
Chanyeol seems to have come to the same decision, because his voice is a touch softer. “You should go to one,” he suggests. “Just so you can have an idea of what’s going on. You can’t expect to protect this town if you’re in the dark about everything.”
Something in Baekhyun snaps at those words and his conviction to be cordial evaporates. “What is going on exactly?” Baekhyun inquires, leaning across the table. “Is there even anything going on? Or are you just trying to sound like a mysterious dickhead to make my life difficult? Because you’re currently excelling at that.”
In a split second, Chanyeol’s expression shifts to a deadpan, lips dragged down at the corners. “You’re the dickhead,” Chanyeol throws back. His deep voice is harsh, and Baekhyun winces. “Anyways, I’m done. I’ll see you around.”
Without another word, Chanyeol stands up, and Baekhyun follows. He tries to convince himself the insult was well-deserved, but the guilt rushing through him tells him otherwise.
“Wait,” Baekhyun says, grabbing Chanyeol’s arm. Chanyeol glances from his arm to Baekhyun. The surprise in the height of his brow has heat prickling the base of Baekhyun’s neck, so he releases him. “Why can’t you tell me what’s going on?”
“That’s something you need to figure out yourself,” Chanyeol says, not unkindly. “I might be here for the same cause as you are, but I’m not going to help you. I like working alone.”
It feels too much like his own words being thrown back at him. Baekhyun’s mouth opens and closes, speechless for once. He stays rooted to his spot while Chanyeol waves goodbye to Jongdae, Jongin, and Nayeon, making a point to ignore Baekhyun, before he leaves.
“Are you going to visit a seer?”
Baekhyun huffs as he hefts a chair over a table. That had been a difficult one. Or maybe he’s just out of shape. Either way, he pulls out his phone, sucks on his bottom lip as he scrolls through his Instagram feed. Takes his time to answer Jongdae’s question, because he doesn’t really have an answer.
It’s been a couple of days since Chanyeol’s visit to the ice cream parlor. In the beginning, Baekhyun decided to ignore Chanyeol’s suggestion and forget about the whole business, but that had been easier said than done. In the following days he’d turned the suggestion over and over in his head, weighed the pros and cons, without reaching a clear conclusion.
(He’s also been thinking about Chanyeol, about his bothersome attitude and the slight shame that glazes over Baekhyun’s examination of his own attitude that day—not that he’d ever admit to any of this.)
Jongdae’s stare is insistent, so Baekhyun replies, “I’ve been thinking about it… I’d need to find a legit one and I don’t know where to start looking.”
The seers Baekhyun has found in his short internet search were the typical clairvoyants with a dubious reputation. He doesn’t know where to find a real one, if there is even a real one to begin with, and he for sure doesn’t want to ask Heechul. He hasn’t told him yet about Chanyeol, and he isn’t certain of what his reaction will be once he finds out the things he’s kept to himself for so long—the violent ghosts, their ominous messages, Park Chanyeol, and what all of it could mean.
Jongdae has oddly taken to Chanyeol. After Baekhyun told him about their conversation, Jongdae had gotten on Chanyeol’s side, the traitor. There’s no hurt in trying to find out, Baekhyunnie, he had said. Baekhyun had rolled his eyes and said nothing.
“You can ask Junmyeon-hyung,” Jongdae suggests, leaning his weight into a mop. “He must know about that stuff.”
“I’ll go see him later,” is Baekhyun’s vague promise. He doesn’t intend to follow up on it, but it’s enough to get Jongdae off his back. For now.
There’s a knock on the door that startles them. Two girls are smiling and waving at them beyond the shop window. A short girl in a beige summer dress, her brown long hair reaching her waist, and a taller girl wearing black shorts and a tank top, her blond hair cropped short. Baekhyun heaves a sigh of relief as he and Jongdae burst into a laugh.
“You guys look like you’ve seen a ghost,” the short girl teases once Jongdae has opened the door. “Is it that scary to close up on your own?”
The contrast between Sunyoung and Amber is so stark, they’re a funny but adorable pair. It was the first thing Baekhyun noticed when he met them in high school, where Amber and Sunyoung were captain and vice-captain of the rugby team respectively. Because Sunyoung was lean and petite, people tended to underestimate her; too late they would discover Sunyoung had no mercy in the field. For this very same reason, Amber had appointed her vice-captain and best friend.
“Not really,” Baekhyun says. “But there are ghosts in the back sometimes.”
“Oh, really?” Amber laughs. “I’ve always wanted to see a ghost, but I’ve had no luck so far.” She leans against the counter. “Me and Jackson went to the cemetery last year during the ghost festival—you know, trying to see spooky stuff—but it didn’t work.”
“Ghosts are scary,” Jongdae whines, feigning a whole-body shiver. “You don’t wanna see them, trust me.”
“They’re not so bad.” Baekhyun smiles, patting Jongdae’s back. “Jongdae’s just a chicken.”
“Do you all really believe in that stuff?” Sunyoung’s smile is mocking when she pokes Amber’s belly. “You guys are so lame.”
“I’m not lame,” Baekhyun says, playfully. He pokes Sunyoung, and she slaps his arm, laughing. “You look so pretty today, Sunyoung-ah.”
Sunyoung giggles, tucking a brown strand behind her ear. “Thanks, Baekhyunnie.”
“Stop flirting with her,” Amber chides, shoving Baekhyun teasingly. “Sunyoung is out of your league.”
Baekhyun catches Jongdae’s eyes narrowed into slits over Amber’s shoulder. “I’m just telling the truth!”
“Let’s hurry up so we can leave,” Jongdae says, handing the mop to Baekhyun. “The girls are going to get bored waiting for you to clean up.”
“Why do I have to mop up today?” Baekhyun thrusts the mop back to Jongdae. “You’re closer to the floor!”
“Jokes about my height aren’t going to help you, Baekhyun.” Jongdae shoves the mop into Baekhyun’s hand. “So, mop the floor while I clean behind the counter.”
“Baekhyun always avoids cleaning up,” Amber jokes. “That time when I threw a party at my house he left before everyone so he didn’t have to clean up in the morning.”
“I do not!” Baekhyun exclaims, mopping the floor fiercely. “I’m gonna show you all!”
The girls laugh at his antics, and a grin spreads across Baekhyun’s face. A choir of girls’ laughter is like bells ringing, and Baekhyun loves it, loud or gentle, with its tinkling, chiming notes.
The streets are bursting with life when they make their way to the pub. It’s Baekhyun’s first night out this month, after the first ghost at the park. He’d missed the neon signs, the celebrity cardboard cutouts, the ahjussis smoking in corners. Yogoe can’t compare to the Seoul nightlife Baekhyun has seen in dramas, but he has never longed for something bigger. Walking through these streets at night feels like magic, and Baekhyun bets that no other place in the world can replicate that.
The Peak is a popular club in Yogoe, famous for its open-air live shows. They climb the stairs straight to the terrace and choose a table near the veranda. The crowd is majorly young, students from the university in the neighboring city. Baekhyun likes the fresh air and the beer and the night view of his little town sleeping in the distance.
Jongdae and Amber bring beers for the four of them, just as the band playing that night is setting their equipment on stage.
“Who did you come to see again?” Amber asks loudly over the ambient chatter.
“Yixing,” Jongdae answers loudly. People begin cheering as the band sets up on the stage. “He’s a friend.”
Yixing had mentioned their band was playing today after he had finished patching up Jongdae at their apartment. It had been such an odd suggestion, but the healer likely wanted to cheer Jongdae up somehow. At first, Baekhyun can’t match up the Yixing of shy smiles and quiet laughter, to the man standing on stage, clad in a low tank top and ripped jeans, playing a guitar with skilled fingers. But Baekhyun recognizes the electric glance Yixing had given him in his face now, bright like a match struck behind his eyes. It’s strangely hot.
When it’s over, they bow to the audience, and Baekhyun can see from where he’s sitting that Yixing has his cute smile on, the dimpled one that Baekhyun likes.
“Ask him to join us,” Baekhyun tells Jongdae, nudging him. “Yixing.”
Five minutes after Jongdae sends a text, Yixing walks to their table. He grins wide when Jongdae waves, and from this close, Baekhyun can appreciate how good-looking he is tonight.
“I’m Yixing,” he introduces himself to Sunyoung and Amber, bowing as he takes the seat next to Baekhyun. “Nice to meet you all!”
Baekhyun leans over to speak into Yixing’s ear. “I really liked your set!”
“Thank you, Baekhyun,” Yixing says, solemn, holding Baekhyun’s hand in both of his. It makes Baekhyun giggle. “I really like your hair.”
“It looks good on me, doesn’t it?” Baekhyun runs a hand through it. The pink is starting to fade. Any other time, a praise from a relative stranger would turn him into a shy, blushing mess, but he preens under Yixing’s attention and his sweet smiles.
They talk and drink and talk some more about everything: music, games, work, books, movies, and whatever comes to mind in their inebriation. Baekhyun easily learns what triggers Yixing’s laughter, sweet and musical as the rest of him, and that those dimples might as well be ingrained into his cheeks by how often they appear.
It’s late when they stumble out to the street, laughing and chattering away. Amber has an arm draped over a tipsy Sunyoung, and Jongdae looks over at her with such a soppy smile that Baekhyun wonders about that friend title Jongdae keeps giving to Sunyoung.
“Are you going home already?” Yixing asks, winding an arm around Baekhyun’s waist.
His breath is warm on Baekhyun’s ear, and for a moment, Baekhyun loses his train of thought.
A wicked smile twitches his lips. “Uh, yeah,” he says, “unless you have other plans?”
“We can walk for a while,” Yixing suggests with a sloppy smile. “Summer nights are the best for wandering.”
Yixing’s smile is effervescent, the glint in his eyes promising adventure, and Baekhyun is drunk enough to follow gladly wherever Yixing takes him. They walk down the hill, weaving through couples making out and groups talking loudly outside clubs. Baekhyun stands on a bench and climbs the tree behind it, yelling that he’s a monkey, while Yixing takes pictures of him with his phone. The tree is not even that high, but Baekhyun feels dizzy as he looks down. The climb down seems perilous and daunting, and the mere thought of it makes his stomach lurch. Yixing must have taken notice of his distress, because he helps him come down and sit down on the bench.
“Are you okay?” Yixing’s hand is warm on Baekhyun’s shoulder. “Are you feeling sick?”
“Kinda,” Baekhyun mumbles. He presses a palm to his forehead to wait for the nausea to pass.“I think I just need to sit down for a bit.”
“I’ll go get you some water from that food truck,” Yixing tells him. “I’ll be right back, okay? Stay right here.”
Baekhyun holds his head in his hands, closing his eyes until the world stops spinning. When he opens them again, after a long moment, there’s a woman sitting on the bench with him. Baekhyun didn’t hear her approach. A cold waft nips at his exposed arms, and he vaguely regrets forgoing a jacket.
“Your friend is really handsome,” the woman says, light and melodious. She has a bob cut, dyed light brown. It gives her a cute, innocent air with her round face. The kind of girl that makes Jongdae’s eyes mellow. “I’ve never seen anyone with a smile that could kill someone on the spot.” She presents Baekhyun a teasing smile. “Get it? Because I’m dead?”
“What do you want?” Baekhyun groans. Another bout of nausea hits the back of his throat. He covers his mouth until it passes. “I’m really not in the mood right now.”
“I’m just here to chat,” the woman assures him. “I saw you here alone and I wanted to keep you company. And well… I’m very alone myself, you see. I’m still getting used to this ghost lifestyle, if you could call it that, and the other ghosts aren’t much help.”
“Why?” Baekhyun asks drily. “Are they giving you the cold shoulder or something?”
“I see you do have a sense of humor,” the woman replies with a giggle. “No, it’s just that their business is more about scaring people and meddling with their lives, and I’m just here waiting to get to the other side.”
Baekhyun has a moment of clarity in his drunken daze where his life feels so surreal. Here he is, after drinking and having a good time with his friends like any other twenty-something, talking to a ghost in the middle of the street. He’s never going to have a normal life, no matter how hard he tries, because the weird aspects of it are never going to leave him alone. A hollowness gnaws at Baekhyun, as unrelenting as the crisp air. Baekhyun doesn’t know whether he’s sad or hungry. Maybe both.
“You don’t have to hang out with them,” he says. “But not all of them are bad, I guess you just ran into the ones who are still bound to the negativity they suffered while they were still alive.”
“Oh,” she says softly, then gives him an assessing look. “You seem to know a lot about us for someone who’s very much alive.”
“That’s because I’ve seen ghosts since I was a kid,” Baekhyun answers with a sigh. “Probably all my life. My mom used to joke that the first thing I saw when I came out of her was a ghost, and that’s why I cried so hard.”
The memory prompts a laugh out of him. He’s not even certain if it’s a memory, or if he made it up himself, but he remembers his mother’s face smiling, the playful lilt in her voice while she told him that joke whenever he cried because he saw a ghost. She used to sit him on her lap and sing to him until he stopped crying and fell asleep. It’s at random times like these, when he thinks of his mother, that the faint ache of yearning springs up in the center of his chest. It lingers for a while after the memory leaves.
“Baekhyun, who were you talking to?”
Yixing is standing in front of him, holding a bottle of water in one hand and two fishcake sticks in the other.
“No one,” Baekhyun laughs, bubbly enough that Yixing smiles at him. “I start muttering to myself when I’m drunk. Jongdae says it doesn’t stop when I’m asleep.”
Yixing laughs, taking a seat next to him, and hands him the bottle. The ghost woman stands a distance away from them now, and waves Baekhyun a cheerful goodbye before she fades into nothingness.
“I saw you talking to the air,” Yixing tells him. “I got worried you fell and hurt your head. Jongdae would kill me.”
A laugh bubbles out of Baekhyun. Yixing doesn’t need to know about his ability. Baekhyun doesn’t want to get the odd look people give him when they find out he’s a necromancer. Not tonight, not from Yixing. So, he leans into him, enjoying his warmth—with the ghost vanished, the temperature is refreshing once again, and not cool enough to require this closeness. But Yixing’s skin is soft where Baekhyun’s arm is pressed, and he’s struck with the desire to touch more, run his fingers over Yixing’s arm to feel its creamy texture.
Baekhyun contemplates Jongdae’s gaze lingering on Sunyoung earlier, and the way he had looked at Baekhyun when he complimented her, and how deeply wrong Jongdae would be if he misunderstood that. In his sophomore year of high school, Baekhyun realized that his feelings for Kim Taeyeon weren’t serious, thinning in parallel with his growth. Perhaps Baekhyun believed he had a crush because she had the kind of beauty that demanded a second glance, but the trouble was that Kyungsoo, his necromentor, arose in his heart the same kind of tumult that Taeyeon did when she smiled.
These were things that Baekhyun kept safely to himself, locking them in his chest, because these secrets belonged to no one but himself.
Strangely, he thinks about Chanyeol’s hands, when they were splayed on the table that time in the parlor, and he wonders, absently, if they’re just as soft as Yixing’s skin, or maybe a little rough, tempered by years of training and sword-wielding. He kills that thought stone dead before it can grow. It’s not a good time to be thinking about Park Chanyeol. Or to be thinking at all.
“What are you thinking about?” Yixing asks, voice low. “You look so serious all of a sudden. Are you feeling better now?”
Baekhyun nods, then hooks his chin on Yixing’s shoulder. “It’s all thanks to you, hyung.”
Yixing laughs, and Baekhyun really likes that sound. “Anything for my dongsaeng.”
In the morning, Baekhyun finds Jongdae in his boxers watching a rerun of Dragon Ball Z and eating a bowl of cereal.
“Where were you last night?” Jongdae asks, mouth full. “You didn’t answer your phone the seven times I called you.”
“A bit clingy, don’t you think?” Baekhyun raises an eyebrow, and Jongdae swats at his arm until Baekhyun drops the facade. “I stayed over at Yixing’s. Wasn’t feeling like making the trip home on my own.”
Yixing insisted that Baekhyun took the bed, but Baekhyun put up a good fight to take the couch instead. In the end, Baekhyun won and Yixing relented with a smile.
“You guys hit it off right away yesterday.” Jongdae’s slurping the milk and Baekhyun wrinkles his nose. “I’m not taking you anywhere with me again if you’re just going to steal my friends.”
“He’s just really nice,” Baekhyun says, slouching on the couch. Yixing also has a very nice face, and a pretty mouth, Baekhyun wants to add, but isn’t sure how Jongdae would react to that. “And so funny and talented. I’m so happy we went there last night.”
Yixing didn’t try any moves on Baekhyun before or after their night out, and Baekhyun wasn’t about to push either. Baekhyun is torn by the embarrassment of Yixing sensing Baekhyun’s inexperience and his uncertainty about experimenting with Yixing, considering he’s still coming to terms with his revelation. Though he is a tad disappointed that Yixing hadn’t asked for his number.
“Did you forget about Chanyeol already?” Jongdae asks absently, shoveling a spoonful of cereal into his mouth.
“Why did you have to remind me about him,” Baekhyun mutters. “I don’t know if I’m glad that I haven’t seen his annoying face in days, or if I should be suspicious because he could be up to something.”
“Don’t be so paranoid,” Jongdae says. “He’s actually a nice guy.”
“Let’s not talk about Park Chanyeol this early in the morning,” Baekhyun says, standing and walking to the fridge. “I can barely keep my food down.” He uncaps a bottle of orange juice, stops midway from drinking it, and then pours it into a glass. Jongdae’s smile is approving from the couch. “Did you go home with Sunyoung last night?”
“No,” Jongdae sputters. “Sunyoung and I… we dated once and broke up. It was in high school, before you and I got close, and we both moved on and now we’re friends.”
“I feel like there’s a ‘but’ there,” Baekhyun says, taking a sip from his glass. “You still like her?”
“No.” Jongdae pouts, then adds, in a quieter voice, “Maybe.” Baekhyun laughs, and Jongdae points a threatening finger at him. “If you tell anyone, you’re dead.”
“She might already know with the sappy looks you give her,” Baekhyun jokes, watching as Jongdae’s face crumbles with horror. “I’m just kidding, you idiot. She probably has no idea, but you should tell her.”
“I think she has a thing with some guy in her classes.” Jongdae sighs. “It’s fine, I don’t need to tell her. We can just be friends.”
“You’re such a loser,” Baekhyun quips. He leans down to kiss Jongdae’s head, then runs down the hallway when Jongdae shrieks and chases after him. “I still love you!”
In the afternoon, he goes with Jongdae to the parlour. It’s his day off, but he wants to hang out with Jongdae during his shift and making Minseok’s life insufferable is undoubtedly tempting. Jongdae makes faces at Minseok while his back is to him, and Minseok whips around when he catches Baekhyun laughing only to find Jongdae overly interested in preparing a milkshake. He narrows his eyes at them menacingly, and leaves to do the inventory in the bar along the wall away from them.
The bell above the door dings with a new customer and Jongdae’s grin turns hesitant when he sees who it is.
“Hey, Jongdae,” a deep voice greets. Baekhyun goes rigid in his seat. “Can I have a chocolate milkshake?”
“No, you cannot,” Baekhyun pipes up. Chanyeol’s face falls into an unimpressed expression. “The blender is broken, sorry.”
Jongdae snickers, pouring the ingredients into the blender, and presses the button. “He’s an idiot,” he tells Chanyeol over the noise. “Don’t mind him.”
“I don’t,” Chanyeol says, sitting down on a stool next to Baekhyun. “Whenever he speaks I just mute his voice in my head.”
“How curious!” Baekhyun gasps, feigning surprise. “I do the same thing with you!”
Jongin’s high-pitched laugh precedes him as he approaches the counter. He’s clearly entertained by their bickering, even though Baekhyun means it. A little.
“Why would you do that,” Chanyeol says, puffing up his chest. “My voice is sexy.”
“I’m gonna pretend I didn’t hear that,” Baekhyun groans. Jongdae places Chanyeol’s cup on the counter, and Baekhyun slides it towards himself before Chanyeol can grab it to drink from the straw. Chanyeol’s gasp is loud, and so is the resulting whine, “Don’t drink my milkshake, you bastard!”
“Now you can’t drink it,” Baekhyun says smugly, “because it has my germs.”
Chanyeol looks down forlornly at his drink. His mouth is ever set in a pout, but right now, it’s pronounced and... the milkshake must have had some kind of chemical, because Baekhyun thinks Chanyeol pouting is adorable. He shakes his head to clear his mind of such thoughts.
“Buy me another one,” Chanyeol demands. “You owe me another milkshake!”
“Baekhyun, buy him another milkshake,” Minseok orders, speaking from behind him.
Baekhyun turns to him with shock. “B—But why?! I just drank—”
“He’s a customer,” Minseok chirps. “And the customer is always right.”
“But I’m not even working today!” Baekhyun argues, but his protest is dismissed with a wave of Minseok’s hand.
“That’s why you have to buy it and not make it,” he says, opening the door to the back. He has his sharp look on, the one that makes Baekhyun relent to whatever he says. “And please stop fighting. You sound like children.”
Baekhyun stares at him, gaping in indignation. Jongdae and Jongin burst out laughing as soon as the door closes behind Minseok. Chanyeol’s grin is winning, stretched from ear to ear, and Baekhyun’s smoldering glare doesn’t deter it.
Baekhyun fights the urge to pout and mutters to Jongdae, “Just make the goddamn milkshake,” when his friend gives him a consoling pat on the shoulder.
Jongdae hands Chanyeol his new and germ-free milkshake, and Chanyeol’s grin stretches across his face, wrinkling the corner of his eyes. He makes a show of taking a sip, emitting a loud, satisfied sound and smacking his lips together with gusto.
“It’s so good,” Chanyeol says. “Best milkshake I’ve ever had.”
“Shut up and drink your milkshake.”
“Are you sulking?” Chanyeol asks, then sips from his straw, eyes crinkled with mirth. “You can have my other milkshake, if you want.”
With his arms crossed and lips pursed, Baekhyun considers Chanyeol. He’s wearing a cap today, so his ears stick out more than usual, and it adds a whimsical air to his good looks. His smile is amiable, his gaze sincere, and Baekhyun can’t find a trace of deceit in those big, round eyes. He regards the glass for a long moment before he complies, and pretends he doesn’t catch the way Chanyeol’s lips quirk with pleasure.
“Jongdae makes the best milkshakes,” Baekhyun comments. Jongdae is out of earshot, preparing an Oreo milkshake, so he isn’t paying them attention. Chanyeol nods, and Baekhyun can’t believe this; he and Chanyeol are agreeing on something. Even more, he can’t believe he’s sitting here, having a civil conversation with Chanyeol, when they’ve been at each other’s throats since the first time they met.
“Did you go to a seer?” Chanyeol wipes cream off his bottom lip with his thumb. Baekhyun follows the movement, then forces himself to look away.
“I haven’t found a real one yet,” Baekhyun says. “I don’t even know where to start looking, except for google.”
Chanyeol opens his mouth to reply, maybe suggest something, but he stops before any words can come out. The bell has announced a new customer and they both turn to look. Two police officers stand in front of the door, and their grim faces don’t foretell good news.
Minseok approaches the men with his confident gait, and after bowing their greetings, they speak in hushed voices. A few customers are glancing their way curiously while eating their desserts, but their stares don’t linger. They’re not like Baekhyun, who can’t tear his eyes away, a tightening in his gut that he can’t ignore. Minseok nods at the men, and the conversation is over; the police officers exit the shop without another look around. Minseok’s expression when he turns is bleak, devoid of color, like Baekhyun hasn’t seen it before.
“You come with me right now,” Minseok orders Baekhyun as he walks to the back. Baekhyun doesn’t have to be told twice. He’s out of his stool and following Minseok in a second.
Minseok’s office is a small room that could have been a broom closet once upon a time. Minseok keeps it clean and organized, with the papers on the desk that spans almost the entire room stacked in a neat pile. There’s the faint buzz of the AC and the computer on sleep mode, one that seems older than the shop itself.
“What’s the problem, boss?” Baekhyun asks. “What did the officers want? Are you in trouble? Are you going to ask me for help to make you go undercover?”
“It’s none of that.” Minseok rolls his eyes, then leans forward on his desk. “They were looking for Heechul. Someone close to him disappeared and Heechul wasn’t at home.”
“Someone disappeared?” Baekhyun’s voice has a slight tremor. “Who?”
“Kim Junmyeon,” Minseok says and Baekhyun’s stomach drops to the floor. “A bookstore owner. They only found his glasses and left shoe, the same way they’ve found all the other men who have gone missing this past month. According to Mrs. Lee, a laundromat owner, he had been trying to get in touch with someone the night he disappeared. He locked the shop alone, but never made it to his apartment. His sister filed the missing person report the next day.”
For the first time in his life, Baekhyun is speechless. Dread has closed around his heart like ice cold fingers, squeezing it until it’s nearly painful. “I know Junmyeon-hyung,” he mumbles.
Minseok arches a thin eyebrow, opening his mouth to speak, but a commotion outside steals his attention. Heechul comes barreling through the door, red faced with concern. He takes in Baekhyun, who fumbles with the hem of his shirt, hopeless and lost. As if on instinct, Heechul rushes to wrap an arm over his shoulders to comfort him.
“I heard about Junmyeon,” Heechul tells Minseok. “They only found his shoe and glasses.”
Baekhyun’s fingers curl over Heechul’s neon pink button-down. “He must be alright. He has to be… He was so nice to me.” He swallows. “He is nice.”
Heechul pulls back to assess Baekhyun. Sympathy has given way to a sternness that throws Baekhyun off. It’s the kind of look Heechul got whenever Baekhyun was sent to the principal’s office for a prank. “We need to talk about Junmyeon.”
“Am I in trouble?” Baekhyun asks. His playful lilt fails to get a smile out of Heechul. It’s all the confirmation he needs that he is indeed in trouble.
A quiet rasp makes them turn to the door. Chanyeol stands in the doorway, grinning hesitantly at having interrupted. Baekhyun gets another bout of dread, because Heechul is standing right there and staring at Chanyeol like he’s seen an apparition.
“Hi, I’m Chanyeol.” Chanyeol bows, and his grin is so wide his right eye twitches. “I’m so excited to meet you, Heechul-ssi.”
“Chanyeol?” Heechul takes in Chanyeol’s face with incredulous eyes. “Park Chanyeol?”
“Yes, that’s me!” Chanyeol inclines his head to the side. “How do you know my last name?”
Baekhyun shoves Chanyeol back out towards the hallway. “Chanyeol just wanted to say hi! He’s leaving now!”
“Stop pushing me,” Chanyeol says, brushing Baekhyun off. “I want to talk to Heechul-ssi…”
“No, you don’t,” Baekhyun hisses. “Go away. It’s not a good time right now.”
“Baekhyun.” Heechul steps into the hallway, and he doesn’t look pleased. “Why didn’t you tell me Park Chanyeol was here?” He gives Chanyeol a polite smile, which is far from genuine. “I know your mother—I wish we could have been properly introduced in a more agreeable situation.”
“Uh, I did tell you about a Chanyeol, remember?” Baekhyun lets out a nervous laugh. “And why is it important? Chanyeol isn’t relevant to be honest…”
“What do you mean I’m not relevant?” Chanyeol snaps, turning to Baekhyun. “If there is anyone who isn’t relevant here it’s you. If I recall correctly I’ve had to save your ass a total of—”
“Why do you have to talk about that? Are you ever going to let it go?”
“Can you two shut up and get in the office?!” Heechul shouts.
It’s such a disquieting thing to hear Heechul shout in any occasion that Baekhyun and Chanyeol halt their bickering to throw themselves into the folding chairs in front of Minseok’s desk.
Minseok looks miffed as he relents his seat to Heechul. He shoots Baekhyun and Chanyeol one last disgruntled look before he exits the office.
Baekhyun gulps. He’s going to pay for this later.
Baekhyun has been scolded many times in his life. There was that one time when he shaved his eyebrows when he was six, and when he painted the neighbor’s dog’s fur blue when he was nine. He’s always had a hard time staying out of trouble, to the point where a chair in their kitchen was designated as the Punishment Chair for this very same purpose.
“I can’t believe you would be so reckless and immature as to argue in such a way that it would probably lead to drawing your weapons,” Heechul goes on, “while a non-magi was right here.”
“We’re so sorry,” Chanyeol says, “but we weren’t thinking—”
“Damn right you weren’t thinking,” Heechul cuts him off. Chanyeol purses his lips at the clipped tone. Baekhyun has learned that he doesn’t get to edge a word in when Heechul gets going. It’s a soliloquy from start to end. “You could’ve gotten killed because you were childish and foolish!” He places his hands on his hips. Baekhyun tries not to snicker as Chanyeol shrinks in his seat. “From now on, I don’t wanna see you fight anymore. You’re gonna get along and work together to fight these creatures.”
Baekhyun and Chanyeol gape at Heechul. It must be an amusing sight, because Heechul indulges in a little satisfied smirk.
“B-But I can’t!” Baekhyun protests. “I won’t cooperate with him!”
“He’s below my level!” Chanyeol says, and Baekhyun nudges him in the ribs. “I can’t be fighting with someone who will hold me back!”
“I’ll hold you back—”
“Please shut up, both of you.” Heechul pinches the bridge of his nose, heaving a weary sigh. Baekhyun knows this part; Heechul is done lecturing, and since the sentence has been passed, there’s nothing more to do about it. “I already said what you’re going to do, and that’s final.” He lowers his hand, and the stern look on his face has them reeling in whatever complaint they had at the ready. “Now, Chanyeol can you excuse us, please? I need to have a word with Baekhyun.”
Chanyeol hesitates, then stands and leaves without a glance back. Baekhyun stays there, simmering, feeling like a toddler as he slouches in the seat with his arms crossed over his chest. He gives Heechul a smoldering look, but Heechul doesn’t seem fazed.
“What are you up to, Baekhyun?” Heechul asks.
No beating around the bush. Baekhyun likes that, but not when it puts him in a difficult place.
“I’m not up to anything,” Baekhyun says. “There have been malicious ghosts appearing more often than usual, and Chanyeol showed up here for some reason. It’s just a coincidence. That’s all.”
“Junmyeon told me what you’ve been investigating,” Heechul says. “I wanna know why.”
“I already told you,” Baekhyun insists, leaning forward. “I’m not hiding anything. I was just curious because I heard a ghost recite a nursery rhyme. It’s dumb, and you shouldn’t care so much.”
They hold each other’s gazes for a long while. Baekhyun doesn’t show any emotion that would give him away. He doesn’t want Heechul to know what he’s up to, because he knows Heechul would try to put a stop to it.
It’s not like Heechul ever needed to set strict rules for Baekhyun. Baekhyun was a good kid by nature, if not a little mischievous, and Heechul knew that trouble would follow Baekhyun wherever he went, no matter what rules he laid. But rules were made nonetheless and for the most essential parts of him; Baekhyun was never allowed to follow his necromancer instinct if it indicated that a ghost could be dangerous. And to make sure that this rule was obeyed, Heechul only gave Baekhyun his blade at his eighteenth birthday.
In one of Heechul’s books about necromancy, Baekhyun had read that necromancers fought their first troubling ghosts in their preteens with the purpose of learning how to effectively defeat them. Baekhyun was nineteen and perhaps a decade late when he fought his first malicious ghost. Not even his training with Kyungsoo had been the full scope of what it meant to be a ghost hunter.
Heechul’s expression is chilly, his tone just as cold when he persists, “Stop with whatever you’re doing, Baekhyun. There’s nothing to investigate. You’ll only run into walls if you keep it up.”
Is it really a wall I’ll run into or something else entirely?
“Okay,” Baekhyun agrees, leaning back. “I’ll stop looking into it. I promise.”
He does the sign he has with Heechul—a peace sign with the little finger up. It melts the anger off Heechul’s face, and Baekhyun can almost swear there’s a hint of a smile on his lips.
“Go home, Baekhyun,” Heechul orders, voice softer, without the previous edge. “Take Chanyeol with you. Let this be the start of your partnership. I’ll be going on a business trip abroad soon, so you need to promise me you won’t do anything reckless.”
Baekhyun opens his mouth to argue but stops himself at the last second. He clams up, flattening his mouth to a line, and shuffles to the door. He stops with his hand over the doorknob.
“You don’t need to worry so much about me,” Baekhyun says, voice low. Heechul hears him, though, judging by the stillness in the room. “I can take care of myself.”
“That’s not enough, Baekhyun,” Heechul counters. His voice is adamant but not unkind. “You should understand by now. I’m not only taking care of you because I have to, but because I…” He stops and shifts. “Because I promised your mom I would.”
Baekhyun nods and leaves without another word. Chanyeol is waiting by the door, only illuminated by the light of his phone. When he looks up, his face shows mild concern before returning to a neutral expression.
“You’re still alive,” Chanyeol says, “so I’m guessing it didn’t go too bad.”
“Heechul said you should go home,” Baekhyun tells him, walking to the door to the back alley. He’d rather avoid seeing Minseok right now if he’s still furious, which Baekhyun suspects he is. Chanyeol falls in step with him easily. “After he basically gave me another earful.”
Chanyeol giggles, but he has the presence of mind to press his lips together when Baekhyun looks. “He gave us a well-deserved earful, though. We shouldn’t have been fighting in front of him.”
Baekhyun’s first instinct is to throw back a childish remark, but he keeps it at bay. “You might be right about that,” he mumbles. He opens the door to the alley and heaves a contented sigh at the crisp, summertime breeze that hits him.
They walk in silence. It’s not awkward. Chanyeol saunters with the ease of someone who fits effortlessly into any situation, and it dispersers the lingering tension in the air. Baekhyun envies some of that confidence, though for the most part, Baekhyun feels comfortable.
At the mouth of the alley, they come to a stop. Chanyeol visibly hesitates, shifting from one foot to the other, gaze riveted on Baekhyun.
“Do you want me to give you a ride? My scooter is over there.”
There is a white and expensive-looking scooter parked along the curb, standing tall and imperious between the SUV and Chevy on either side of it. Chanyeol’s invitation is a lopsided grin that leans more towards uncertain than easygoing.
“Can you even fit on that thing?” Baekhyun accommodates him with a small, teasing smile. “With your long-ass limbs?”
Chanyeol’s amused exhale is choppy at the unexpected response. “I have to shrink and roll back my arms and legs for me to be able to fit,” he jokes without missing a beat. “Besides that, there’s no problem.”
Baekhyun laughs, spurred on by Chanyeol’s long-winded wheeze. His mirth peters out when the pith of the current situation falls on his head. He’s never laughed around Chanyeol, let alone at one of his jokes. Chanyeol seems to have realized this as well, because his eyes are no longer crinkled, but large and quizzical, another laugh creeping at the corners of his lips. Baekhyun quells an anxious giggle with his teeth before it gets awkward.
Then he remembers the news about Junmyeon, and his smile fades like footprints on the sand.
“Are we going to stand here all night?” Baekhyun ambles over to the scooter. “Because I’m dead tired and a warm shower sounds ideal right now.”
Chanyeol throws one leg over the seat to settle on it, and the scooter sinks with his weight. Fitting the keys in the engine, the scooter rumbles to life. Chanyeol puts on a white helmet, then hands an identical helmet to Baekhyun.
“Here,” Chanyeol says. “Safety first.”
Baekhyun grabs the helmet to contemplate it. “It’s gonna make my head look huge.”
“You’re gonna have to walk home if you don’t,” Chanyeol warns, cheeky smile flashing through the glass of his visor. “No one’s driving with me without wearing a helmet.”
Baekhyun pouts, dons the helmet, and feels incredibly dumb. Chanyeol doesn’t poke fun at him; he beckons Baekhyun to sit on the back with a nod of his head. Baekhyun complies, leaning back to hold onto the sides gingerly so as to avoid touching Chanyeol. His intention must be obvious, because Baekhyun swears he hears a snort coming from Chanyeol. He doesn’t get to raise the question before Chanyeol is pulling away from the curb and into the road.
Chanyeol drives moderately, cruising on the road with the same recklessness of an octogenarian on her way to bingo night. He follows Baekhyun’s directions with an enthusiastic “Right on!” that makes Baekhyun thankful Chanyeol is facing ahead so he can’t see him smiling.
As soon as they alight outside Baekhyun’s apartment complex, Baekhyun takes off his helmet to hand it back to Chanyeol. A hint of a smile quirks Chanyeol’s mouth, as though he’s waiting for Baekhyun to say something. Chanyeol hadn’t blamed Baekhyun for Heechul scolding them after an argument that Baekhyun started. And to top it off, he’d offered Baekhyun a ride home like nothing happened.
Baekhyun doesn’t know where to look, because he suddenly can’t meet Chanyeol’s eyes. He’s ashamed of his behavior towards Chanyeol up until this point, considering that Chanyeol has saved his life twice. Another part of Baekhyun, small but loud, feels unfairly persecuted; the insults and stingy attitude were partly a reaction to Chanyeol’s narcissism and insufferable character, so it can’t be all Baekhyun’s fault.
“Thanks for the ride,” Baekhyun says, “even though you drive like a granny.”
It breaks the strain like a spell. Chanyeol guffaws, rocking back and forth, and Baekhyun indulges a small smile at the raucous sound of his laughter.
“Like I said,” Chanyeol replies around a laugh, “safety first! I like driving carefully, and there’s no hurry anyway.”
Their smiles are subdued and their gazes locked in the lull that ensues. Baekhyun comes to with a start. His cheeks warm up as they glance away in unison.
“Uh, anyways,” Baekhyun mumbles. “Why did you follow me to Minseok’s office today? Was it just to meet Heechul?”
“Well yeah, partly because I heard from my mom about the dokkaebi who owned an ice cream chain,” Chanyeol explains, “and I knew it was Heechul, but also because I wanted to know more about what happened to the bookshop owner.”
Baekhyun’s inhale is audible. “How did you know…”
“There was a big commotion where they found his bloody prints a few blocks away from his bookstore,” Chanyeol says. “It’s on my way home so I stopped to look. The police officers already had a hunch it was him because of the glasses. Junmyeon was popular in town apparently.”
Baekhyun lapses into a sad rumination. Of course Junmyeon would be popular in town, he was friendly and bright and handsome. A spike of helplessness flares inside Baekhyun at the fact that he couldn’t protect Junmyeon, even though he wouldn’t have been able to foresee his disappearance.
“Why did Heechul tell you to stop investigating?” A guilty smile unfurls on Chanyeol’s face under the puzzled stare Baekhyun gives him. “Sorry, I was eavesdropping—but I just wanted to make sure—Uh, I wanted to know more. About Junmyeon.”
“Did you listen to…” Baekhyun’s ears are burning. He remembers the last thing Heechul told him, and Baekhyun’s own vulnerability. “I will kill you if you—”
“No, no, I only heard that because Heechul’s voice was loud,” Chanyeol assures him. “You don’t have to worry.”
Baekhyun nods, but the wrinkle on his forehead remains. “It was about this thing I asked Junmyeon,” Baekhyun says. “I doubt Heechul knows exactly what it is, but I have a feeling Junmyeon must’ve mentioned something for him to react that way. I don’t get why it’s bad anyway. It was just a line from a stupid old poem I heard from a ghost.”
“A ghost told you a poem?” Chanyeol frowns. “That’s the first time I’ve heard about that. What was it about?”
“It was about the goddess that created Yogoe,” Baekhyun says. “The festival used to be for offerings in her honor once upon a time, because she ate children and… men.”
Chanyeol’s eyes are moving like he’s trying to suss out a secret. “Don’t you think it’s weird that the ghost told you that when all these men are disappearing? And the ghosts have been turning violent, one by one, for seemingly no explainable reason?”
Baekhyun considers it for a moment, then shakes his head. “No, it’s just… Junmyeon said she used to guide the dead to the underworld or something, and that’s why the ghost was chanting that poem… It’s nothing, Chanyeol.”
“Then why did Heechul tell you to stop looking into it, if it isn’t important?” Chanyeol barrels on, determined. “Can it really be such a big coincidence?”
Baekhyun’s breath has stilled in his throat. Chanyeol is making more and more sense, and yet… Baekhyun refuses to take him seriously because that would mean Heechul might have lied to Baekhyun earlier.
“Don’t you want to find out what’s behind all the weird things happening right now?” Chanyeol prods, voice gentle but steadfast. “Because I do, Baekhyun. That’s why I’m here.”
“And what?” Baekhyun puts one hand on his hip. “Do you want my help? After you said I would only hold you back?”
“I may have said that in the spur of the moment…” Chanyeol apologizes with a jittery chuckle, rubbing the back of his neck. Baekhyun’s focused on Chanyeol’s shirt which has ridden up and revealed a slice of his abdomen. Baekhyun snaps his eyes back up when Chanyeol adds, “Sometimes I get carried away and I act like a douchebag... I’m sorry.”
It would have shocked Baekhyun less if Chanyeol had told him he was secretly the Pope. Baekhyun had never expected an apology from Chanyeol. “It’s alright,” he murmurs, fumbling with the neck of his shirt. “I also called you a lot of things. Sorry for that, I guess.”
Chanyeol snorts at the reluctance in Baekhyun’s tone, and Baekhyun lets out a chuckle. “So, are we going to look into this or not?” Chanyeol cracks a grin. “Heechul did say we have to work together from now on.”
In spite of his hesitancy to work with Chanyeol, Baekhyun can’t ignore the pressing nagging in his gut that there is something going on. And Heechul demanding Baekhyun to stay out of it only ignites his need to know more. After all, Baekhyun had never been good at following Heechul’s orders. It wouldn’t do to start now.
“I’ll see you tomorrow at five after my shift,” is all Baekhyun says, right before he spins and heads to his apartment complex. “Thanks for the ride, Granny Park!”
As Baekhyun enters the building, he doesn’t look back, but he can feel Chanyeol’s eyes on him the whole time.
“What’s that on your arm?”
Baekhyun’s upper arm still hurts when he raises it, a lingering result from when the ghost boy had thrown him against the fence. It had left a large bruise on his bicep that is mostly fading, and he’s been trying to cover it up as much as he can. Now, though, as he’s hefting a pack of paper towels atop the last shelf on the counter, his sleeves ride up until it’s out and visible.
Nayeon notices, as she always does.
“It’s nothing,” Baekhyun assures her. A faint pang stabs his muscles as he’s lowering his arm and Baekhyun winces. “I must’ve slept on it last night.”
“It looks like it hurts,” Nayeon says, frowning. Baekhyun beams to appease her. “You’ve had quite a few bruises lately. Like the bruises on your neck the other day. Don’t think I didn’t see them! Did you get into a fight or…” Her smile becomes impish. “Do you have a girlfriend?”
“What are you saying, Nayeonnie!” Baekhyun ruffles her hair and Nayeon squeaks. “You know I’m still one of the most desirable bachelors in town!”
“Most desirable bachelor?” Her laugh is high-pitched and scornful, but Baekhyun knows it’s not ill-intentioned. “You’re a bachelor, that’s for sure.”
“I am also desirable!” Baekhyun preens, puffing up his chest. Jongdae pulls a face at him as he carries an order to a table.
“You’re not desirable at all!”
“You have no room to talk, Jongdae!”
“Well, my shift is over,” Nayeon announces, untying her apron. She puts a small hand over Baekhyun’s forearm. “Take care, oppa. Don’t strain your arm too much.”
“I have Jongin,” Baekhyun sing-songs, and Jongin, who was having a quiet nap by the cashier, starts at the mention of his name. “Go on sleeping, Jonginnie, I’ll let you know when someone comes!”
“I’m sorry, hyung,” Jongin says, rubbing his eyes. “I stayed up too late last night reading creepy articles on my phone.”
Jongdae has returned behind the counter to wash his hands in the small sink. “Sounds like Baekhyun.”
“Get back to work, Jongdae! Stop lazing at work!”
“Alright, boss.” Jongdae grabs a menu and saunters over to the couple who has just entered the shop.
A baby spills some of the milkshake her mom had been drinking at table four, and Baekhyun rushes to wipe it up, laughing off the mother’s profuse apologies. Baekhyun makes funny faces at the baby, cooing at her until she is giggling with glee. A family of three leaves, and Baekhyun says goodbye to the mother and baby to clean up the table.
“You’re very sweet,” a voice says. “Very cute and playful.”
Baekhyun turns to the source of the voice. It’s a girl around Nayeon’s age; her face is slightly round, her eyes small and watchful, her thin, cherry red lips pulled into a timid smile. Baekhyun has seen her a few times before, sitting at the end of the counter by herself, immersed in a book. She stands out in Baekhyun’s memory because she’s always wearing a black lace dress, or another type of black attire, and Baekhyun thought it was outrageous with the sweltering heat outside.
Without missing a beat, Baekhyun teases, “You think I’m cute?”
There’s something about her that’s stopping him from employing his usual flirting, so he keeps his smile and tone at a polite but playful degree. Baekhyun isn’t sure if she’s ever spoken to any of them except to ask for a smoothie, despite being a regular, but her current tone is friendly and amiable.
She tilts her head, regarding him. “Yes,” she answers. “I really like your hair. Bubblegum pink. It suits you.”
Baekhyun tugs a strand of his hair down, going cross-eyed as he inspects it. His roots were growing back, so he’d colored it the night before. The fresh dye leaves a dusty shade of pink on the pads of his fingers.
The girl’s shoulders shake with her quiet chuckle.
“You could tell my boss you like it,” Baekhyun says. “He hates it, but I keep telling him it matches with the uniform. Doesn’t it?”
“It does match.” She rests her chin on the back of her hand. “Your boss is an interesting man.”
“He is.” Baekhyun smiles impishly. She probably finds Minseok handsome, like all the aunties who come often for the sole purpose of ogling him. Baekhyun doesn’t blame them. “Do you want his number?”
She giggles again, a slender hand covering her mouth. “No thanks,” she says. “I actually wanted to give you a number. I heard what you were talking about the other day with that friend of yours.”
“Who?” Baekhyun asks. “Jongdae?”
“No, the tall one,” she mimics pulling on her ears, “with big ears.”
Baekhyun snickers at the description. Of course, it’s Chanyeol. Baekhyun is about to correct, He’s not my friend, but doesn’t feel the need to. “What were we talk...” He trails off when he remembers exactly what they had been talking about, a couple stools down from where she is sitting right now. It was about a seer.
“Don’t look so scared.” The girl’s voice is a gentle persuasion, and her gaze is unwavering. “I’m just here to give you a hand.”
She slides a white rectangular card out of her book resting on the counter and gives it to Baekhyun without taking her eyes off his face. It’s a business card. Golden letters are embossed on the front side, reading PARK SOOYOUNG, underlined by PSYCHIC READINGS, and an address underneath. Baekhyun turns it over, perplexed, then returns to the girl. The stool where she had been just seconds ago is empty, but the cup from which she had been drinking is still there. Baekhyun looks side to side, but there is no sign of her.
“Jongin,” Baekhyun calls. Jongin lifts his head slowly. “Did you see the girl who was sitting here just now?”
“I was sleeping.” Jongin stifles a yawn. “Sorry, hyung.”
Jongin has never been this sleepy at work, to the point of falling asleep in the middle of a conversation. As the seconds drag on, though, Jongin starts to look more awake, as if a veil had been lifted off his eyes.
“Feeling better?” Baekhyun asks.
Jongin nods, brushing his fringe with his fingers. “It must’ve been that quick nap I just took.” He smiles at Baekhyun, fuzzy as ever. “Do you need help with anything, hyung?”
“No, Jonginnie.” Baekhyun smiles, even though he feels shaky. “Maybe Jongdae needs help.”
When Jongin leaves the register to find Jongdae, Baekhyun looks at the door again, wondering about that girl. He checks the card, golden letters flashing up at him, a tiny proof that he didn’t imagine their encounter.
When Baekhyun steps outside after his shift is over, he isn’t only greeted by the night air. Chanyeol is waiting for him at the curb.
“Hey,” Chanyeol says. “Took you long enough.”
Baekhyun huffs, fluttering a few strands over his forehead. “Chill, it’s not like we’re on a date,” he throws back, though the smile on his lips belies his tone. For some weird reason, he’s pleased to see Chanyeol. It serves to distract him from the uncomfortable feeling that has been creeping on him since he talked to the mysterious girl that afternoon.
Chanyeol returns his smile, leveled up to a hundred watts. “I could take you out for dinner after whatever we’re going to do now, if you want.”
The offer makes one of Baekhyun’s eyebrows twitch. Chanyeol’s tone emanates humor rather than genuine interest. Flirtatious is Baekhyun’s default demeanor but hearing Chanyeol mess with him like this throws him off-kilter. Eating with Chanyeol is something he never imagined would happen in a million years, not after their inauspicious encounters, but it appears that Chanyeol also wants to make amends.
And Baekhyun can’t fall a step behind. “Ooh, nice! You’re paying!”
Chanyeol laughs, that wheezing laugh of his that bares all his teeth and curves his eyes into crescent moons. He climbs onto the scooter and straps on his helmet. “Hop on,” Chanyeol invites, patting the back of his scooter.
Baekhyun hops on, gingerly like the first time, and grasps the sides to evade contact with Chanyeol. Chanyeol passes Baekhyun the extra helmet before he can come up with a remark to wipe off the all-knowing smirk on his face.
“So, where are we going now?”
“Kim Bros’ Libros,” Baekhyun answers, fastening the helmet’s strap under his chin. “We’re going to talk to Junmyeon-hyung’s sister.”
Against Baekhyun’s expectations, they find Kim Bros’ Libros! up and running when they park outside the bookstore. It’s likely Hyoyeon doesn’t want to leave the shop aside because her brother went missing, or perhaps they can’t afford to close down for long periods of time.
Inside the bookstore, there is a middle-aged couple sifting through the classics and a woman sitting behind the counter, writing in a notebook. She looks up as they approach through the aisles, offering a feeble but kind smile. The blond wisps flopping over her face tremble when she stands to greet them.
“You’re Baekhyun, right?” she says. “I remember you from the last time you came by.”
Baekhyun and Chanyeol bow in unison. “This is Park Chanyeol,” Baekhyun says, and Chanyeol presents her a charming grin.
“Nice to meet you, Chanyeol-ssi.” Hyoyeon dips her chin. “I’m so sorry you have to see me this way, but I’ve been taking inventory all day and I had no time to look at the mirror.”
“You look lovely, Hyoyeon-ssi,” Baekhyun says, and revels in the chuckle he earns. It’s rough but bashful, her gaze sparkling with gratefulness, like it was the first reason she’d had to laugh in days. Baekhyun feels a twinge of sympathy, and a stronger ache to erase the sadness coloring her features.
“We heard about your brother, Hyoyeon-ssi,” Chanyeol says, low and careful. “We’re very sorry.”
“Thank you.” Hyoyeon’s smile is strained at the corners and her eyes keep darting to the side. Baekhyun follows her line of sight to the middle-aged couple drifting towards the door. “Your words mean a lot to me.”
The bell dings as the couple exits the bookstore. Hyoyeon’s shoulders deflate and the trepidation that had swam in and out of view in her countenance surfaces.
“I have something to show you,” Hyoyeon stage-whispers. They’re alone in the bookstore now, but for some reason Hyoyeon still finds it necessary to scan the place before she bends to slip a paper out from under the register.
With another glance at the aisles, Hyoyeon grabs Baekhyun’s arm and shoves the folded paper into his hand. Her arms drop to her sides, fingers curled into fists, fixing them with a rigorous stare. Baekhyun can tell she’s shaking.
“What’s this?” Baekhyun asks. The paper is a torn page from a book, titled PORTALS TO THE NETHER DIMENSIONS. Hyoyeon is biting her lip so hard it’s become white.
“I found it in Junmyeon’s journal.” Hyoyeon’s voice trembles slightly. “There was a note too—” She pulls a folded square of paper out of her back pocket. “It had your name on it, Baekhyun. That’s why I’m giving it to you. I didn’t mention it to the police.”
Baekhyun exchanges a furtive glance with Chanyeol before he takes the slip of paper. Unfolding it, he finds two sentences in a crisp handwriting:
The J is underlined twice, like Junmyeon had put special emphasis on that single letter. Baekhyun reads and re-reads the paper until the words are ingrained in his brain, then passes it over to Chanyeol, who looks no less puzzled than he is.
“What does this mean?” Chanyeol asks Hyoyeon. “Is it some kind of a riddle?”
“I have no idea.” Hyoyeon shakes her head and sniffs. “They were folded together in his journal and I found them by accident. I—I thought they had to mean something if—if they mentioned you and a portal or whatever. Junmyeon never treated his books like they were less than children to him, so it was weird that he would rip out an entire page for you.”
Baekhyun can hear the undercurrent of hope in Hyoyeon’s voice, and it wounds snugly around his throat. He can’t begin to comprehend the reason behind the cryptic message—whether it was a message or a simple reminder—but it’s a start. It’s more than he or Chanyeol had expected to find.
“I don’t know what it means, to be honest, but—” he adds before Hyoyeon’s expression collapses, “—I’m pretty certain it must mean something.”
“It does,” Chanyeol puts in. “It’s a lead.”
The luster is back in Hyoyeon’s gaze. “That’s good,” she murmurs, then looks down at the floor. “I know it sounds crazy but I know Junmyeon’s disappearance has nothing to do with that serial killer. Weird things have been happening here even before he went missing. Books falling off the shelves, lights flickering, and all that stuff. And since he disappeared… I’ve been having this strange feeling like… I’m being watched.”
“Watched?” Baekhyun parrots. “How?”
Hyoyeon licks her lips, searching for the correct words. “I don’t know,” she says. “It’s like I can feel someone watching from within the aisles, or looking in from out on the street, but when I look up there’s no one there.”
Baekhyun remembers having the same sensation when he was closing the shop alone a week ago. His breath comes in a pant. “That’s strange.”
“We’ll look into this,” Chanyeol assures Hyoyeon. “We’ll keep you posted.”
Chanyeol slots his arm under Baekhyun’s, and Baekhyun barely has a moment to say goodbye to Hyoyeon before Chanyeol is dragging him out of the bookstore.
Once they are outside, Baekhyun questions, “Hey, what was what?!” He snatches his arm from Chanyeol’s hold with no ceremony.
“You looked so pale there,” Chanyeol says with a slight frown. “And I didn’t want to give Hyoyeon more hope than we should. She’s in a fragile state even if she’s trying to be strong… She’ll probably believe anything we tell her right now.”
“You’re right.” Baekhyun exhales weightily. “We should go talk to the last person who saw Junmyeon-hyung.”
The laundromat is a block away from Kim Bros’ Libros!’s bookstore. Mrs. Lee is a tiny, old woman, with a mop of silver hair and huge specs, from behind which she’s watching them warily.
“We wanted to ask you about Junmyeon,” Baekhyun prompts. “The bookstore owner who disappeared?”
“What about it?” Mrs. Lee croaks, her voice a dry timbre. “I told the police everything I saw.”
“We wanted to know about what you saw,” Chanyeol says, a careful smile on his face. The laundromat owner does not return it. “Out of curiosity.”
Out of curiosity puts them in the same credibility as lunatics, and it shows when Mrs. Lee peers at them with suspicion. To their luck, though, the old woman nods and begins speaking.
“He was running down the street like he was on drugs,” she says, waving at the door. “Those crazy kids these days are on anything, always causing a riot like other people didn’t live here.” She makes a phlegmy rasp, and Baekhyun grimaces, steps out of spitting range. “He came in here asking for a phone but my cat had chewed on the cords that day so it was out of service. He said the town was in danger and he really needed to get in touch with someone. I don’t know who it was. He sounded like a loon so I told him to get out and off he went running down the street like he was being chased.”
Chanyeol and Baekhyun exchange a meaningful look. Like he was being chased.
“Did he say anything else before he left?” Baekhyun queries, with a pinch of resentment. He had to refrain from saying, before you kicked him out?
“No,” the old woman replies. The thick lens enlarges her eyes, so when they narrow into slits they look like two hyphens. “You’re that crazy kid from the supermarket, aren’t you? I saw you speaking alone in the cereal aisle last month.”
Chanyeol looks to Baekhyun with incredulity, then bursts into a giggle muffled sloppily with a large palm. Baekhyun glowers at him, but it doesn’t faze him.
“Probably,” Baekhyun mutters. “Anyways, we gotta go. Thanks for your help.”
“Thank you for talking to us,” Chanyeol says with a grin and a bow. “We really appreciate it.”
Baekhyun leaves without so much as a half-assed bow and Chanyeol doesn’t care to conceal his mocking grin. Outside the laundromat, they scuttle to Chanyeol’s scooter, parked before the bookstore in the next block.
“I think we have a clue,” Baekhyun remarks. “She said Junmyeon looked like he was being chased by something and since she mentioned he could be on drugs, she meant that she didn’t see anyone going after him.”
“And he was trying to get in touch with someone,” Chanyeol murmurs pensively. “It must’ve been urgent if he was running down the street. Maybe he needed to warn someone?”
“Maybe,” Baekhyun agrees. “The note he left hints that he’d discovered something.”
When they reach the scooter, Chanyeol hands the extra helmet to Baekhyun. He hadn’t expected to get a ride again, so he examines the helmet for a moment, taking his time putting it on.
“We do have a clue.” Chanyeol tightens the strap under his chin. “Now, let’s go get something to eat. You need some food in you.”
Baekhyun is about to comment that Chanyeol looks more like a noodle but keeps it in. Chanyeol can just ditch him here for his trouble.
He climbs onto the scooter and holds onto the sides as Chanyeol drives away.
Chanyeol takes Baekhyun to a bunsik that he’s been to in the past with Jongdae. The ahjumma at the counter greets Baekhyun warmly, from the times he’s talked to her before, and looks mildly surprised at seeing them together. They sit at the back, where there’s only a couple and a trio of middle-aged men, and order two bowls of jjajangmyeon.
“I’ve made a point to come here three times a week since I moved here,” Chanyeol says. “The food is amazing, and the owner loves me.”
Baekhyun stirs his bowl with the chopsticks and slurps on his noodles. “Why doesn’t it surprise me that you can make the ahjummas fall for you?” It’s not shocking to Baekhyun that Chanyeol has every ahjumma he meets wrapped around his finger; he’s polite and flirty, and with that sharp jaw and those pouty lips, Chanyeol would make any woman swoon. It’s a startling realization that Chanyeol is, indeed, a guy and a good-looking one at that.
“She was all over you, too,” Chanyeol points out. He has paste on his lips, and Baekhyun chuckles. “Are ahjummas the only women who pay attention to you?”
“You sound like Jongdae.” Baekhyun flings a napkin at Chanyeol and it lands on his face. Chanyeol sputters, then glowers at Baekhyun. “There’s sauce on your mouth. I can’t be seen here with you if you eat like a toddler.”
Chanyeol scrunches his nose. “You’ve had a noodle stuck to your chin since we started eating, but I didn’t want to be rude and point it out.”
Baekhyun squeals, wiping his chin with a napkin. Chanyeol cackles, sprinkling bits of food everywhere, and belatedly tries to cover his mouth with a hand. Baekhyun likes this, this rivalry between them that has turned a bit friendly, and the barbed wired remarks that don’t sting. It’s fun and comfortable, in a way Baekhyun never imagined spending time with Chanyeol would be. Baekhyun thinks he could get used to it.
When their bowls are clean, Chanyeol puts down his chopsticks and dabs his chin with a napkin. “So, let’s get down to business,” he says. “What do you think the paper means?”
Baekhyun takes the paper out of his pocket and smoothes it over the table. “I have no idea.” Reading the words again, Baekhyun can’t think of a good solution to the riddle. “Elementary school… There’s only one elementary school in Yogoe.”
“We could check it out to see why he was trying to lead us there,” Chanyeol says. “But what gets my attention is your name and J… what did he meant by that?”
“His own signature?” Baekhyun offers, but Chanyeol dismisses it with a gesture.
“It’s underlined twice,” Chanyeol says, “like it was really important to him.”
The exhaustion from an eight-hour shift, the sadness of seeing Hyoyeon, and the delicious food are all starting to take a toll on Baekhyun. “I don’t know, Chanyeol.” He yawns, blinking away the drowsiness. “I don’t think we’re gonna get the answer tonight in this bunsik.”
“There’s also the torn page.” Chanyeol takes out the page from under the table. “I’m guessing Junmyeon thought there could be a portal in Yogoe. It would explain why there are so many ghosts going rogue lately.”
“A portal to where?” Baekhyun rests his cheek on a fist. “And where is this portal? How did it open here in Yogoe? I’ve never heard of portals opening up anywhere.”
“I had a History of Magic course in college and there have been portals in the past,” Chanyeol explains. “They haven’t been exactly proven, but…” Chanyeol trails off. Baekhyun frowns inquisitively. “If Junmyeon thought it was important enough to show it to you,” Chanyeol goes on, “then we should at least look into it.”
The couple at the table next to theirs are immersed in conversation, while the men are loudly discussing the baseball game playing on the tv mounted on the wall. No one is paying attention to them. Baekhyun doesn’t tend to talk about the magical world in public; he talks about certain subjects with Jongdae or Heechul, ever so careful not to be overheard. But the fact is he hasn’t met another magi in years and he’s acutely aware of this otherness here with Chanyeol.
Chanyeol doesn’t seem aware of Baekhyun’s unease. He talks with the spontaneity and carelessness of someone who is comfortable around his own kind.
With this truce, Baekhyun deliberates if Chanyeol would tell him why he came to Yogoe if he asked. But before he can push the question out of his mouth, Chanyeol clears his throat.
“I’m sorry for pushing you about seeing a seer the other day,” he says, scratching his neck. “Sometimes I forget seers aren’t everyone’s cup of tea… especially if you don’t believe in them as much as I do. You don’t have to go to one now, because we’ve already got a good clue.”
Baekhyun fiddles with a napkin, thinking back to the girl he saw earlier in the parlor and the business card in the back pocket of his jeans. He’s at a crossroads between visiting the seer just to find out the girl’s identity and his reluctance to sit in front of a stranger while they list off all the mundane things about his future. In the end, Baekhyun decides not to tell Chanyeol about it in case he doesn’t take up on the girl’s offer.
“You really believe in all that stuff?” Baekhyun trains his eyes on the table. “That seers can truly see people’s futures?”
“Yeah? That’s what they’re for?” Chanyeol shrugs, takes a sip of his drink. “Besides, it’s not like it’s the most outlandish stuff I’ve been faced with. I’m used to believing in whatever is impossible for people who aren’t like us.”
Baekhyun hums a vague sound. Seers have always been a tricky subject for him so he chooses not to say more. It’s not like Baekhyun hates them or discounts their profession; they’re capable of powerful magic like any other magi, and such negative emotions are a rarity for Baekhyun. No, he has reasons to avoid them.
Reason, Baekhyun corrects. Singular. Only one reason for Baekhyun to harbor a distrust of seers that has never waned or wavered through the years.
Chanyeol takes a draught of his beer and gasps with delight. “Have you ever tried Dragon’s Tail?”
“I’ve never been to a magi bar,” Baekhyun replies, thumbing the condensation on his bottle. “I’ve never been out of Yogoe except for when I lived with my mom when I was little.”
Chanyeol’s eyes are wide as plates. “You’ve never been around other magi?”
“Nope.” Baekhyun takes a sip of his beer. “Only Jongdae and Heechul.”
“My entire family is magi and my friends were too,” Chanyeol says. “I went to a magi school until I left for college to study literature. I can’t imagine what it must be like only being around non-magi all your life.”
“It’s not hard.” Baekhyun shrugs a shoulder. “Eventually you get used to it.”
Baekhyun wanted a magi friend when he was a kid. Mostly, he wanted to know another necromancer, someone who could understand that the dead people who came to visit him weren’t a product of his imagination. Someone who could tell him that what he saw didn’t mean he was crazy or odd. But Baekhyun learned to accept that by himself and, in the end, his desire for a friend like that evaporated when he met Jongdae.
Chanyeol inclines his head ever so slightly, eyes round and seeking. There’s not an ounce of judgment in that gaze, only inquisitiveness. That urge for comprehension and rapport from someone like him, a kin, an alley, surges within Baekhyun again, as though it had only been dormant all these years and Baekhyun had convinced himself he didn’t need it.
Baekhyun pushes it down with another swig of his drink. “I had enough friends with my ghosts, anyway.”
Chanyeol snorts into his drink and squeezes his nose with two fingers when the drink goes up his nasal cavity. Baekhyun laughs, slapping the table and attracting the attention of the couple nearby.
“I used to talk to ghosts until I was like seven,” Chanyeol says, voice choked. “I thought they were my imaginary friends until my mom told me they were ghosts.”
“I had this ghost friend in elementary school who used to steal my classmates’ stuff,” Baekhyun says, “and put them in my locker. So everyone blamed me for it.” Baekhyun laughs, shaking his head. “I can’t imagine not being a necromancer while growing up. Like, it’s such a big part of me? But at the same time, it would’ve been nice to be normal.”
“You think?” Chanyeol puckers his lips in rumination. “I’ve never felt that way. I’ve always liked being me. I can’t imagine my life being any other way.”
Baekhyun chuckles. “’Course you do,” he jokes. “Your head can’t grow any bigger with your ego.”
Chanyeol levels him with a deadpan look, coupled with a wry half-smile, that makes Baekhyun burst into full laughter. “I’m not as arrogant as you think I am, Baekhyun.”
“Oh, aren’t you?” Baekhyun expels a dubious peal of laughter. “I’ve been mistaken all this time then.”
The lopsided shape of Chanyeol’s pink mouth is bold and full of promises. “I’m not as bad as you believe I am, and I’m going to prove it to you.”
It must be an effect from the fatigue and the beer fizzing in his system—but Chanyeol, with that sloppy smile and the determination in those lidded eyes, looks… hot.
It’s such a strange, sideways thought. Baekhyun rubs his eyes harshly to erase it.
“Okay, I can’t wait for that,” Baekhyun drawls. “But how are you going to do it?”
“I’ve been thinking about this since that ghost in the amusement park the other day,” Chanyeol tells him. His tone is a notch more serious, and Baekhyun has a hard time trying not to giggle. “What if… what if we train together? Since you seem to be a little rusty in your movements? I could help you, you know, improve.”
“Train together?” Baekhyun mulls over it. He sits back, raking a hand through his hair. “Knowing us, I think it could be the worst idea ever.”
It’s partly a joke. Partly, for he knows they’re both competitive and can get riled up easily. But he knows he would behave, if Chanyeol is willing to teach him new things. Chanyeol doesn’t seem to catch his joke. He looks insecure, shoulders hunched, as if considering retracting his offering or pretend he never offered at all. Baekhyun curbs another laugh.
“Well, I was just saying, you don’t have to—”
“I’m in!” Baekhyun exclaims, slamming his palm over the table. “When do we start?!”
“—and I was just offering my expertise, so you shouldn’t…” Chanyeol stops, and blinks at Baekhyun confusedly. Baekhyun does laugh this time. He doesn’t know how they’re not going to kill each other during this training, but he’s willing to try if Chanyeol is. “Okay, then. Okay.”
“You look a little surprised,” Baekhyun remarks. He places both elbows on the table, leaning forward once again. “Did you think I would say no?”
“Yes,” Chanyeol admits. “I thought you’d be too proud to accept.”
“You were almost right in that,” Baekhyun says with a simper. “But Heechul is probably going to kill me if I don’t do what he tells me to, and what a better place to start than this? I am a little rusty in my training, and you’re offering for free.”
It’s not the entire truth. Heechul would kill him if Baekhyun didn’t do what he was ordered to, yes, but he also would let it go soon enough. Baekhyun has a long list of reason. Firstly, Baekhyun wants to get better, for whatever is coming. Secondly, each time Heechul has forbidden Baekhyun from doing things in the past, it’s only propelled Baekhyun to do said things in secret, with a sizeable slice of guilt on the side.
Thirdly, and most importantly, all these disappearances shouldn’t be swept under the rug. Junmyeon is missing and Baekhyun must find him.
Chanyeol seems like the unrelenting type, and if Baekhyun has to swallow his pride while Chanyeol’s ego inflates a little more with these trainings, in favor of finding out more about what’s going on, then Baekhyun thinks he can do it.
“Okay, then,” Chanyeol says at last. “I usually train at the tracks near the abandoned train station every morning and afternoon. You can come by whenever you want.”
Baekhyun nods. “And we’ll go to the elementary school first thing on Tuesday. I have things to do tomorrow.”
“Okey dokey,” Chanyeol pops his mouth.
Across the table, Chanyeol regards him for a long moment, and Baekhyun, never one to shy away from anything, holds his stare. Baekhyun can’t pinpoint this intense yet hazy gaze Chanyeol inspects him with, and the strange interest running through it. It doesn’t intimidate him. Baekhyun likes it, revels in the attention. His eyes fall to the sharp line of his jaw, the rough padding of his lips, and his nose, slightly crooked, which doesn’t take away from his features—it adds a charming note to a peculiar sort of handsomeness that affects even Baekhyun. He isn’t accustomed to checking other men out this way yet, but he’s emboldened by the beer and the good humor that had accompanied their meal.
It must also be the alcohol that induces them in that staring match. And when Chanyeol grins generously, Baekhyun returns it in kind.
“We’ve got ourselves a plan, Park Chanyeol.”