“Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me
The Carriage held but just Ourselves
― emily dickinson
The town is bursting with color at the start of spring. The trees are freshly covered in leaves after being stripped naked in autumn. The grass bends under the breeze perfumed by blossoming flowers.
It’s been seven months since the portal was closed and the missing men—Jongdae and Junmyeon among them—returned home. Seven months since Heechul’s death and life returning to normal—as normal as it can be, when life has been forever altered. During his stay at the hospital, Baekhyun had been told he inherited some of Heechul’s fortune, a sum he didn’t disclose even to Jongdae who insisted endlessly, but it’s enough to last him a lifetime without working.
After being discharged, Baekhyun took to travelling all over the world. Sometimes places he’d always wanted to visit and sometimes places Heechul took him as a child. It was the first time Baekhyun travelled alone, and it was both terrifying and comforting at times. He learned to spend time by himself, had time to ponder so many things, some things he’d rather forget, but in the end, he’d found peace. And when he felt lonely, which was often, he’d call Jongdae and chat for hours. No matter the time zone, Jongdae picked up the phone and complained only in joking.
Jongdae had never left his bedside at the hospital, and he was there when Baekhyun would wake up crying, calling for Heechul or Chanyeol or his parents. And Jongdae had been there when, on a short walk around the hospital, Baekhyun had stumbled upon a shocking revelation: he could no longer see ghosts.
“It must have something to do with your dying for a little while,” Junmyeon had theorized. “Maybe your genes were rewritten?”
“Genes?” Jongdae had looked frightened. “Are there blood tests for this?”
Baekhyun had tuned out their conversation. His entire life was defined by necromancy and ghosts had molded most of his experiences. Being stripped off his ability was disorienting at best and debilitating at worst—he’d begun to grow into his strangeness and now he was back to square one. In time, Baekhyun had accepted that, no matter what he could see, he was still Baekhyun and magic couldn’t change that.
It’s the second week of March when he returns to Yogoe. Nuts! Creamery is just as Baekhyun had left it—the tables are still round, the counter is still red, and the staff still flit around in a flurry of pastel pink. The only differences are that Minseok is the new boss while Nayeon has been promoted to manager.
Jongin was close to dozing off behind the cash register, but he sits up straight, waves excitedly when Baekhyun walks in.
“Hyung, you’re back!”
“I couldn’t stay gone for long,” Baekhyun says with a playful lilt. “What would you all do without me?”
“We managed pretty fine,” Nayeon teases. At this, Jongin pinches her cheek and Nayeon laughs, batting his hand away. “Stop that!”
“You’re so cute when you’re mean,” Jongin jokes, wrapping an arm around her middle. Nayeon stands on her tiptoes and kisses his chin.
Baekhyun’s endeared because of his friends, but he averts his eyes at the display of affection. Fortunately, Minseok and Jongdae stride into the front, each carrying heavy boxes. Jongdae drops his boxes abruptly, a grin spreading across his face when he spots Baekhyun.
“You’re back!” Jongdae shouts, running to Baekhyun for a hug. “Why didn’t you call me? Sunyoung wanted to pick you up from the station…”
“I called an Uber and you can’t skip work,” Baekhyun retorts against Jongdae’s neck. When he pulls back, he looks to Minseok with a mischievous smile. “Right, boss?”
To Baekhyun’s surprise, Minseok smiles fondly. “I’m glad you’re back,” Minseok says, patting Baekhyun’s upper arm. “I hope you stay longer this time.”
“Maybe,” Baekhyun says, and his smile slips slightly. “I want to stay here, but…”
There are too many memories everywhere in Yogoe. Baekhyun used to be haunted by ghosts, now he’s haunted by memories. During his time away, he’s been making amends with his past and his regrets, and he believes he’s on his way to healing. But the ice cream shop brings painful memories of Heechul, sitting in a stool and teasing Baekhyun while he worked. Of Chanyeol sending him furtive smiles across the shop. Time heals everything and this isn’t the exception; after losing his mother, it had taken years for the flashbacks to stop hurting.
“You’re always welcome here,” Minseok assures him with another pat. “Don’t ever hesitate to come by.”
“You’re so nice to me, hyung,” Baekhyun jokes, fluttering his lashes. “What happened to the mean hyung who threatened to put me in the cold storage every other day?”
“Don’t push it,” Minseok warns. A chorus of laughter erupts behind the counter. “I’m still able to do that even though you don’t work for me anymore.”
“Are you coming by the apartment later?” Jongdae asks.
“I was thinking of stopping by Junmyeon’s bookstore now,” Baekhyun replies. “I can come pick you up when your shift is over.”
Jongdae’s cat-grin stretches with intention. “Nah, take your time. I’ll see you later.”
Over the time Baekhyun’s been friends with Jongdae, he has become acquainted with that kind of smile. It usually signifies nothing good. “What are you hiding, Jongdae?”
“Nothing, nothing!” Jongdae exclaims, rushing to tend to a new costumer. “And I have work to do, so you better get going!”
“Tell me what you’re scheming, Kim Jongdae!”
His question is promptly ignored by Jongdae, who’s talking to a middle-aged couple and their child. Baekhyun leaves with a huff, not without pinching Jongdae’s ass when he passes by him. The yelp it elicits makes Baekhyun grin as he scurries to the door.
A girl in black catches his eye. Baekhyun stops dead in his tracks. Seulgi’s sitting in the far corner alone, drinking a strawberry milkshake. She lifts a hand in greeting, and Baekhyun returns the gesture, smiling like two old friends who haven’t seen each other in a while.
In the next blink, the table she’d been sitting in is unoccupied. Baekhyun makes a mental note to visit the witches soon, then he casts one last look around and leaves.
Kim Bros’ Libros! reopened a month after Junmyeon’s return. The store is in its old cluttered state, with the low warm light and overpowering smell of incense, except now Junmyeon is the only Kim sibling managing it, since Hyoyeon had decided to stay with their parents.
Junmyeon stands by the counter talking to a couple of college-aged girls, who regard him like a piece of candy. After his reappearance people wanted to try to understand what happened or why the men didn’t remember a thing, so they became some sort of local attraction. People would come up to Junmyeon in the street or the supermarket, and Junmyeon would have to find ways to get out of their interrogations as politely as possible.
A smile snaps across Junmyeon’s face when he spots Baekhyun. He tells girls something that makes them disperse to the aisles and scan the romance novels. Baekhyun’s beam grows as he walks to Junmyeon, whose arms are opened for him.
“Baekhyunnie!” Junmyeon exclaims with glee. “It’s so good to see you!”
“It’s so good to see you too, hyung,” Baekhyun says against Junmyeon’s shoulder. Baekhyun means it in more than a physical sense; he’s relieved to see him well, to see him there at all. It’s a miracle that he and Jongdae returned safe and whole.
“Jongdae said you were in Tokyo?” Junmyeon’s eyebrows raise. “Those must’ve been some nice vacations.”
“It was pretty nice,” Baekhyun says, rubbing his neck. “Kinda lonely, though. I wanted to take Jongdae but he told his mom about everything that happened and she didn’t let him out of her sight until recently.”
Junmyeon chuckles. “That’s understandable, Baekhyunnie. I don’t want to leave the bookstore sometimes either. I’m constantly looking over my shoulder now.”
The tone he employs, light and good-humored, tells Baekhyun he’s trying to pass it off as banter, but the tension in his smile is evident. Jongdae had also mentioned the nightmares. Even though neither of them remembered a thing that happened while they were in Sunmi’s grasp, the terror came at night, intruding in their dreams.
Baekhyun hopes it’s a temporary issue. Night terrors visit him as well, of a different kind but no less visceral. Sometimes it’s Heechul, speaking to him as if he was alive and well, paying Baekhyun a visit during his shift at the ice cream shop. He’s laughing and talking to Baekhyun, but oftentimes Baekhyun can’t make out what he’s saying.
Baekhyun doesn’t tell Junmyeon any of this.
“It will pass,” Baekhyun assures him in a gentle tone. “I guess after the literal hell we went through it’s taking everyone some time getting used to things being okay.”
“That’s right,” Junmyeon agrees quietly. Then, his gaze turns cautious, almost pitiful. “So, have you been able to…”
“See ghosts?” Baekhyun prompts. Junmyeon nods. “Nope. Nada.”
It’s still hard for Baekhyun to wrap his head around the notion of not seeing ghosts. The normal would be the opposite, but Baekhyun spent his entire life as a fixture between the dead and the living, so it’s quite perplexing wondering whether the person sitting next to him at the bus stop is dead or alive, then realizing the air lacks the chill that signaled a ghost was close. Baekhyun is as normal as the next folk now, despite being different his whole life. It’s both relieving and discomforting at once, but it’s another thing that will take Baekhyun some time to get accustomed to.
“Well, it’s not so bad,” Junmyeon reassures him, his grin encouraging and genuine. “There’s Yeri to take over your job.”
Turns out that Yeri, the witches’ protegee, is a necromancer. That time at the church when the witches mentioned Yeri honing her skills through various lessons, they’d meant ghost hunting. Yeri visited Baekhyun at the hospital along with the coven and delivered the news in sign language, with Sooyoung translating for her. It had been quite the surprise at first, but as time went on it gave Baekhyun comfort that someone was looking over Yogoe now that he couldn’t do it himself.
The witches had visited Baekhyun nearly every day at the hospital, bringing him balloons—Seungwan’s idea—or potent incense with healing purposes—Joohyun’s idea—and they had sat with Baekhyun for hours while they chatted about their more eccentric clients or watched tv with him. Baekhyun had visited occult shops wherever he went to buy presents for the witches: ingredients for potions, a beautiful scrying bowl and a vintage set of tarot cards, among other stuff, as a thank-you for taking care of him.
But Tokyo wasn’t the last stop in Baekhyun’s tour. He’d paid Kyungsoo and Taeyeon a visit in Gimhae before he headed to Bucheon to see his father’s grave. His parents hadn’t been buried together, of course; his mother was buried in Yogoe while his father was buried there to keep his secret, Baekhyun supposes.
With the wind rustling the bouquet he’d bought, Baekhyun had sat there alone for a long time, thinking of his parents’ promise to look over him. In a way, his parents had returned to him, because now he could feel them closer than ever.
“You can get a hobby to fill up all that time you spent talking to ghosts,” Junmyeon goes on, a cheeky smile in place. “Or maybe get a dog so you can talk to it.”
“You sound like Jongdae, hyung,” Baekhyun says flatly, and Junmyeon laughs. “You’ve been spending too much time together and his assholeness has been rubbing off on you. I don’t like it. I miss my sweet Junmyeon-hyung.”
“I haven’t been spending that much time with Jongdae,” Junmyeon corrects jauntily. “I also have a girlfriend, may I remind you, who really wants to see you one of these days.”
“Oh, Yoona-noona!” Baekhyun beams at the color on Junmyeon’s cheeks. “I’ll visit her as soon as I can!”
“She’s been asking me about which type of girls you like,” Junmyeon confesses, leaning forward. “But I told her she was a little off the mark.”
“Very off the mark,” Baekhyun laughs. “I’m not interested in seeing anyone to be honest.”
“No?” Junmyeon blinks wide eyes. “Did no one catch your eye while you were away? You didn’t—what people call it nowadays—hook up? Get a fuck buddy?”
The last term is said so quietly, bashfully, Baekhyun can’t help a laugh. “Nah, hyung,” Baekhyun retorts, shaking his head. “I’m not into that kind of thing.”
Baekhyun’s aware that he should move on, but it’s not easy for him, not with everything that happened. During his hospital stay, he would think about Chanyeol constantly, missing him to death and wishing he would wake up to his face the next time he went to sleep. Eventually, he was happy that Chanyeol was back home, safe and sound, surrounded by his loved ones despite forgetting Baekhyun. He was happy that they’d met, that they’d shared their love—and if he was to be the only one to keep his memories intact, he wanted to cherish their love as real and true, however short it had been.
That was until the dreams came. In his dreams, Chanyeol is lying next to him in bed, soft-faced and velvet-tongued, whispering to Baekhyun things he can never remember when he’s awake. Sometimes he wakes up with tears rolling down his face, the pillow stained with dampness, and the yearning runs so deep it lingers long after the dream is over.
More than anyone, Baekhyun knows some people aren’t meant to stay and he’d assumed he was prepared for Chanyeol leaving. But he’s learned that one can’t ever be prepared to lose a loved one; he can only watch them go and hope they return someday, in one way or another. Baekhyun had to let go of Chanyeol with the knowledge that he wouldn’t come back, because he didn’t remember Baekhyun at all, and tore his own soul in two in the process.
So, getting it on with strangers hasn’t been an option for Baekhyun in more than half a year. It wouldn’t be fair for the other person when his mind and heart are in Seoul, with the person he fell in love with months ago. It’s one of the reasons he can’t stand being in Yogoe for long. It’d been easier to get Chanyeol off his mind when he was abroad, but here, memories jump at him around every corner: Chanyeol waiting for him next to his scooter, Chanyeol kissing him in back alleys, Chanyeol gazing at Baekhyun under the sunset, loving and beautiful and technicolor.
Again, Baekhyun doesn’t tell Junmyeon any of this.
“Oh, in that case, you have more time to help me around here,” Junmyeon suggests, pulling his ring with a dozen keys out of his pocket. He checks the store; the girls and another costumer who had been milling around are gone. “The library is so big, we always need extra hands. Take it as a hobby where you can learn something, since you don’t actually need a job anymore.”
“Sounds tempting,” Baekhyun says. Junmyeon moves to the back door, dangling the keys, and Baekhyun follows, shoving shoves his hands into his pockets.
The door opens to a ginormous library, a maze of bookshelves and spiral staircases leading to stories far beyond Baekhyun can see. Baekhyun has missed this place. He’d often questioned if he’d imagined it, because it’s so grand it could only exist within someone’s dreams. They tread down the spiral staircase leading off the platform, and wind down a serpentine aisle of bookshelves, floating lamps all around them.
“So, what kind of job is it?” Baekhyun asks.
“Uh, organizing,” Junmyeon says over his shoulder. “Looking for stuff. Finding stuff.”
“Finding stuff?” Baekhyun looks to the tall shelves overflowing with books. “That’s gonna be a little hard in this place.”
“I think it’ll be easy for you.” Junmyeon tosses him a smirk, which Baekhyun can’t begin to interpret.
“What are you—” Baekhyun starts, but he doesn’t get to finish.
They turn down a corner, and Baekhyun stops. The breath in his lungs extinguishes like a candle being blown.
Standing in the aisle is a tall figure, head a wild nest of curls, large eyes focused on a book. His lips are pursed with concentration, stamping a dimple on each cheek. The boy is clad in an enormous black hoodie, his feet pointing at opposite angles. It’s such a familiar sight, Baekhyun’s drowning in yearning.
Then, the man looks up, and Baekhyun’s heart, which had stopped dead, begins pumping anew with vigor. Those almond eyes are round with wonder, like Baekhyun’s seen them many a time before. He does have the most beautiful eyes. He’s less boy and more man now, less dream and more truth. But Chanyeol isn’t supposed to be here. He isn’t supposed to—
“Baekhyun,” Chanyeol says, smiling ever so slightly. His voice is soft and rough and wonderful, and Baekhyun’s dreams could’ve never done it justice. Chanyeol takes a couple of tentative steps in that waddling gait of his until he stands in front of Baekhyun, drinking in his face eagerly. Baekhyun isn’t sure if this is all a dream, if he’ll wake up in his bed with dried tears in a second. “Can you say something? You’ve been standing there with your mouth open for nearly a minute.”
Baekhyun shuts his mouth promptly. Chanyeol’s small laugh is fond, if a little mocking. Baekhyun’s dying to reach out, confirm if this is a hyper-realistic hallucination. He recalls that night in Jongdae’s bed, when his desire to touch Chanyeol spread all over his body like a forest fire and everything had had the vibrancy of a fever dream.
“What are you doing here?” Baekhyun asks at last, breathier than he calibrated. Chanyeol makes no mention of this.
“I’m organizing and finding stuff,” Chanyeol replies casually, then looks to the left. “Junmyeon-hyung’s letting me do my internship here.”
Baekhyun’s head snaps to where Junmyeon stands with shoulders hunched, a smile like ‘you got me’ bunching up his cheeks. “He’s gotten himself lost twice so far and we’ve had to find him, but I have faith he’ll make progress soon.”
“Thanks, hyung,” Chanyeol deadpans, though he’s blushing. “Thank you for having faith in me.”
Baekhyun whirls back to Chanyeol. Suddenly, Baekhyun finds it hard to breathe. Words climb on top of each other in a quest to spill out of him, but in the end, he can only manage, “Chanyeol, you’re here.”
“Yeah? It’s me?” Chanyeol scratches the back of his head. “I wanted to talk to you about everything so just—just listen now."
This is impossible. It can’t be real. “B-But you’re not supposed to remember me.”
“I do remember you,” Chanyeol clarifies, adamant. “I do remember everything. I don’t know how it happened. After the Dragon King dragged Sunmi back to the underworld during the ritual, she was probably killed for trying to escape into our world. Because of her death, all the curses attached to her stopped being effective. By the time I arrived in Seoul back in July I remembered everything vaguely: the demon, the portal, the ritual—everything except for you. But some time ago, I woke up and all my memories were there—you and—and my feelings for you.”
“Is that why you came back? Because of me?”
Chanyeol’s arms flop at his sides. “Why else do you think?” he retorts, both exasperated and adoring. “Because of you. I came back for you.” Another nervous chuckle. “That’s why I’m here. I couldn’t stay away after I recovered my memories, but Jongdae told me you were still abroad… I came as soon as I could and waited until you showed up.”
“You want me to take you back?” Baekhyun’s heart begins a brisk percussion. “But what about your life in Seoul?”
“Well I wouldn’t be gone permanently,” Chanyeol says. “My mom lives in Busan, so I still have to make the trip there.” Chanyeol swallows, expression shifting to anxious. “But if you don’t want me, I can just—”
“What? Leave?” Baekhyun interjects, firmer this time. “So soon after you’ve returned?” He breaches the distance between them in one stride and pushes Chanyeol against the nearest shelf. Chanyeol gasps, eyes wide, then a smile snaps across his face, relieved and blissful and beautiful. Baekhyun’s chest sings with happiness. “You’re not going anywhere, ghost hunter.”
Standing on his tip toes, Baekhyun wastes no time to kiss Chanyeol, sliding fingers into his hair. Chanyeol spreads his legs to accommodate Baekhyun and his lips to welcome his tongue, sighing into the kiss contentedly. He’d missed this so much, the taste of Chanyeol, his scent, his hands around Baekhyun’s hips, fitting perfectly as if they belonged there.
“How could I ever forget you?” Chanyeol whispers, pressing their foreheads together. “How could I ever forget such a pretty face?”
“Shut up,” Baekhyun giggles breathlessly, then kisses Chanyeol’s jaw. “I see you haven’t changed, Mr. Cheese.”
“I’m always cheesy for you, babe,” Chanyeol teases, and Baekhyun draws him in for another kiss, muffling a laugh against his lips. Chanyeol breaks the kiss abruptly, looking behind Baekhyun with alarm. “Wait—Junmyeon-hyung¬—”
Baekhyun remembers Junmyeon then. The bookstore owner is nowhere to be seen; he’d probably taken his leave without them noticing. Baekhyun stifles a giggle imagining the scandalized look on Junmyeon’s face when Baekhyun pushed Chanyeol against the shelf.
“He’s gone,” Baekhyun says, returning to Chanyeol. “Thank god, I didn’t wanna scar him forever.”
“Why?” Chanyeol’s smirk is lopsided, voice lowered to a silky pitch. “What are you planning to do with me?”
“Plenty of things,” Baekhyun teases in equal tone. “Not here.” He stamps a soft kiss on Chanyeol. “Later.” Another kiss. “Though I really don’t want to let you go even for a second—”
“You don’t have to,” Chanyeol murmurs against his lips, cupping his jaw. “I’m here to stay.”
All his life Baekhyun had to live with the pain of losing people, with the heartbreak of letting his loved ones go. But life has taught him that some things are not always lost, that some things find their way back home in the end. As his father had said, eventually everyone comes back, perhaps in different forms, but no one is gone forever.
And Chanyeol defied fate to return to him. There is no ticking clock or countdown to an ending now, no deities or demons dictating their fate. There is only a path waiting to be written, unfurling before them far beyond limits.
There is only their love and their future awaiting.
“I know,” Baekhyun says before he kisses Chanyeol once more. “I’m not ever letting you go again.”