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on melancholy hill

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“What is a ghost?

 

Something dead

that seems to be alive.

 

Something dead

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.

 

There.

 

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.”

 

“What happened?”

 

“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.

 

“Look!”

 

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 with a wink. 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’s ass.

 

“Baekhyun, the bedroom?” Yixing prompts, bemused.

 

“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. Yixing rummages through his backpack for his supplies, so Baekhyun sits next to Jongdae on the bed.

 

“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.

 

“Hello? Baekhyunnie?”

 

“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 staggering 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.

 

“What?”

 

“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:

 

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

Baekhyun

J ?

 

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.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

As May melts into June, the heat becomes unbearable. The bus is stuffy, with all the people crammed inside in the lunch hour rush, and the leather of the seat sticks to the exposed skin of his legs. Baekhyun’s relieved when his stop comes, though he has to squeeze through people to get off.

 

After walking two blocks uphill under the blistering sun, Baekhyun leaves behind the bustling streets and enters a residential area. The houses along the tree-lined pavement are painted in the same shades of white, brown, and maroon—and at the end of this dreary palette is a house painted a bright red with a tree bursting out of a trellis. A rose among a withering bouquet. Baekhyun looks at the card then back at the door to check the number on the plaque before he presses the doorbell. He taps his foot against the doorstep and waits.

 

Two minutes crawl by without an answer. Baekhyun is about to give up when he hears a thud on the other side, and a yelp belonging to a dog. There’s a reproachful female voice, then the door opens to reveal a tall girl with long, strawberry red hair tied in a ponytail. She eyes Baekhyun from head to toe, an amiable smile quirking her lips.

 

“Hello, is there anything I can do for you?”

 

“I’m here for the seer,” Baekhyun says, and immediately feels dumb. “Is she available? I can come by later if—”

 

“No, no, they are—I mean, she is,” the girl says. “It’s just that I wasn’t expecting any clients today.” She opens the door wider, beckoning him inside. “Come in, come in.”

 

Baekhyun steps onto the mat right in front of the door. The floors are old wooden boards, and Baekhyun slips out of his shoes and into guest slippers awkwardly under the gaze of the girl. She’s very, very pretty, denim shorts giving way to long, long legs, and her midriff uncovered by a small yellow top.

 

“Follow me, please…”

 

“Baekhyun,” he supplies, and smiles at her polite nod.

 

“I’m Sooyoung.” The girl places a palm over her breast. There are fruits drawn on her nails, painted over a white canvas, and Baekhyun finds it adorable. She turns and opens a sliding door towards the living room. “You can wait here.”

 

Baekhyun sits on an armchair, looking around the small living room with paintings on its walls, knick-knacks and books over different tables, and big and small potted plants in corners of the room. It’s cozy and lived-in, and for a moment Baekhyun forgets what he came here for in the first place, until a voice speaks to his left.

 

“Baekhyun-ssi?”

 

Baekhyun twists, startled, to find a girl standing behind him. He hadn’t heard the door opening, and it’s closed when he looks over.

 

“Are you here to see me?”

 

The girl’s hair falls in locks of honey brown, her eyes big and expressive, and her mouth is crooked and curved in a suggestive way. Baekhyun is trying to muster a response, heart in his throat, when the sliding door opens once again to reveal Sooyoung, carrying a glass of iced tea on a tray. She frowns reproachfully at the new girl.

 

“What are you doing here, Seungwan?” Sooyoung asks, leaving the tray on the coffee table in front of Baekhyun.

 

“Oh, nothing,” Seungwan says, peering intently at Baekhyun. “I just had a feeling Baekhyun-ssi needed to ask us something.”

 

Baekhyun opens his mouth in puzzlement. How had they known? “Yeah, actually I do.” He slips the business card out of his pocket and shows it to the witches. “A girl gave me this at my job. She was wearing a black dress, and she was gone before I could thank her.”

 

Seungwan and Sooyoung exchange frowns. “Doesn’t ring a bell,” Seungwan says. “But we have a lot of female clients, a good bunch of them have become regulars. There are ones who come to us because they like the occult. Dressing in all black and such.”

 

If the witches are prevaricating, Baekhyun can’t tell. Their expressions are genuine, but he isn’t very convinced. “So, it was probably just a client of yours…”

 

“Certainly,” Sooyoung says, plainly. “We always have new clients who are led here by older clients.”

 

“Right.” Baekhyun figures he shouldn’t annoy the witches by probing, or he’ll be kicked out before he can get his reading. He settles on their explanation that it was an old client, possibly a magi, and leaves it at that. “I’m going to confess this is my first reading, so I don’t know what to do.”

 

“You’re going with me,” Sooyoung says. Seungwan gasps, miffed at her colleague’s straightforwardness. “I saw him first, so he’s going in with me.”

 

“But you’re not even letting him choose first!” the other girl—Seungwan—protests. She turns back to Baekhyun, sporting an expectant grin that bunches up her cheeks. “So, which one of us do you choose, Baekhyun-ssi?”

 

Baekhyun looks from one to the other, mumbling a quiet, “I don’t know… I…”

 

“See, you scared him out his wits!” Sooyoung slaps Seungwan’s butt and she yells a sound of delight rather than pain. “I’m so sorry, we’ve told her a million times not to do that.”

 

“It’s fine, I—I don’t know which one should I pick?” Baekhyun falters. He contemplates if what he’s going to say is offensive but says it anyway. “Don’t you all do the same thing?”

 

He’s proven right given by the contempt that falls across their expressions. The old clock ticking away is the only sound in the room.

 

“‘The same thing’?” Sooyoung repeats. The last word sounds almost dirty in the way she enunciates it. Baekhyun winces, shrinking in his seat. “What do you mean by ‘the same thing’, Baekhyun-ssi?”

 

Now Baekhyun’s done it. He has had his fair share of blunders along his twenty years of life, but offending witches who could potentially turn him into a hairy spider has to be at the top of the list.

 

“I mean, seeing the future and stuff,” Baekhyun backtracks. He cracks a smile, cute and square, which prompts a raised eyebrow on Seungwan’s face. “Isn’t that one of your specialties?”

 

“You’re right,” Seungwan concedes, matter-of-factly. “Seeing the future is one of our many specialties.”

 

“And we’re very good at it, if I say so myself,” Sooyoung adds. There’s a smirk on her pretty mouth, and the menace in her dark eyes seems to be receding. Baekhyun breathes a sigh of relief. “I should have explained our differences first. I can see the future while Seungwan can see the past. We use different instruments, but my favorite are tarot cards.”

 

Baekhyun nods, still lost as to what to say in this situation. All types of scrying are the same to him. They’re going to give him the same results no matter which instrument is used.

 

“I pick Sooyoung,” Baekhyun says. He gives Seungwan a smile to erase the pout that has formed on her lips. “I’m so sorry! I’ll pick you next time, Seungwan-ssi, I promise!”

 

Sooyoung preens as Seungwan glowers daggers at her. She pats Seungwan’s back comfortingly, then nods towards the door while looking at Baekhyun.

 

“We’ll do the session in another room,” she says. “Please, follow me.”

 

Sooyoung leads them towards a room two doors down from the living room in the hallway. It’s a small room, illuminated by a large window that floods sunlight into the wooden boards. A round table covered in white lace sits in the middle of the room, a chair on either side. The only object on the table is a black velvet satchel, stretched into a rectangular shape with an inscription sewn in golden embroidery on the front.

 

Baekhyun settles on the chair at the same time Sooyoung takes the one opposite him. She pulls the deck of cards from the satchel, shuffles it with deft fingers, then places it back on the table. She splits the deck in three equal parts and looks at Baekhyun with a stony expression.

 

“Pick a card from each stack,” Sooyoung instructs. “You can pick one at a time so the reading is more comprehensive. Keep in mind that your choices are important.”

 

Baekhyun is about to make a joke, but he holds it in. He rubs his chin, contemplative, waggling the fingers of his other hand over the cards like a mystic. Sooyoung curves a perfectly trimmed eyebrow. To not aggravate her, Baekhyun selects the first card and flips it over to show the witch.

 

Sooyoung hums, somewhat amused.

 

“What is it?”

 

“This is… interesting,” she says.

 

“What is it?” he repeats, impatient. The first card depicts a naked man and a woman with what looks like an angel above them.

 

“It means that you have support behind you and that, well, there’s going to be love coming your way.”

 

“Really?” Baekhyun asks warily. “Love… doesn’t seem very plausible right now.” He smiles generously. “I’m not looking for a relationship.”

 

Sooyoung smiles ever-so-slightly. “You’re only at the shore of this emotion, but it’s very… intense.” She grazes the card with the tips of her fingers. “There’s going to be loss, too. A great loss. Unlike the ones you’ve suffered in the past, this one is going to cut deep, because you will be at the center of it.”

 

“At the center?” Baekhyun’s forehead crinkles. “Is it going to be my fault?”

 

“I can’t quite say,” Sooyoung says. “The cards aren’t precise in that way… but it says that you’ll be happy eventually.”

 

Baekhyun hums in contemplation. Even though he’s never put much faith in the cards, this is more specific than he’d expected.

 

Moving on, he picks another card from the second stack. With a flourish, he slaps it on the table. It shows a woman clad in blue robes sitting on a chair and wearing a crown of horns with an oval in the center. A crescent moon lies half-concealed at her feet.

 

Sooyoung taps a painted nail on the woman’s face. “This is the High Priestess, meaning there’s mystery and great powers at play coming towards you. I cannot say in which form,” Sooyoung says, and Baekhyun has to school his face into attentiveness, “but it means something is coming in the near future and you should be prepared.”

 

“Something is coming?” Baekhyun echoes to himself. The something could be the rogue ghosts, Junmyeon’s disappearance, the portals… Baekhyun shutters off any expression when Sooyoung looks at him.

 

Baekhyun snags another card. Sooyoung’s inhale is as light as the breeze outside. In contrast, Baekhyun’s exhale is audible. This card he knows. A knight astride a white horse backdropped by the sunset. The knight is covered in a black robe, except for a helmet lifted over his bare skull with eyeless sockets.

 

Outside the window, the trees drift in the breeze. A car honks and another responds.

 

“Death,” Baekhyun blankly reads the card’s name at the bottom. He doesn’t know what to feel, but Sooyoung’s expression has become unreadable, her jaw set and locked. “It’s obviously symbolic, right? If you tell me I’m going to die tomorrow, I’m asking for a refund.”

 

There’s the barest hint of a smile on her lips. Then, she makes a vague noise. “It can be symbolic, yes, but it can also be explicit.” She meets his eyes straight on. “Do you want me to interpret it for you?”

 

Suddenly, Baekhyun has a flashback of his mother at readings, of her face when the same card would greet her from the table. The memory almost makes him sick, and he shifts in his seat until the nausea passes.

 

“No,” he says in a faint voice. “I don’t care to know.”

 

Sooyoung’s nod is somber. “I’m sorry.”

 

“It’s okay,” Baekhyun says, smiling encouragingly. “You’ve done great so far.”

 

It dissipates the bleakness in a second; Sooyoung smiles, beautiful and bright like the sun after a rainy day. “Thank you, Baekhyun-ssi. It’s my pleasure. Now,” she reaches down out of sight and puts a jar full of coins on the table. “If you don’t mind, a generous tip is always welcome.”

 

She winks, and really, Baekhyun can’t be mad.

 

After he’s paid for his reading, Sooyoung walks him to the door. Faint music wafts to him from the second floor, harmonious and light, like a harp. Baekhyun looks up towards the mouth of the staircase, before he’s pulled back from the reverie by Sooyoung’s hand on his arm.

 

“That’s Joohyun,” Sooyoung tells him. “She’s another seer. Better than I am, because she’s been in the business way longer than any of us here, but she doesn’t do readings for money that often anymore.”

 

“Oh,” Baekhyun says. He can feel a powerful presence from upstairs, but he bites down his curiosity with a smile. “Maybe I’ll come by to visit another time.”

 

“Are you leaving without saying goodbye to me?!”

 

Seungwan appears out of thin air, barreling into Baekhyun. Baekhyun trips over the welcoming mat, barely catching himself in time by grabbing Seungwan’s arm. The witch stiffens under his touch, like she’s been electrified.

 

Baekhyun straightens, ready to apologize, but the look of pure consternation on Seungwan’s face silences him. Seungwan snatches his hand away, blinking rapidly as if to clear a mist from her eyes.

 

“Are you okay?” Baekhyun asks, looking to Sooyoung for help. Sooyoung is impassive.

 

“She can see someone’s past,” Sooyoung explains in a clinical voice, “by touching them.”

 

“Oh,” says Baekhyun. He doesn’t know what else to add. “Is she okay, though?”

 

Seungwan laughs. A feeble, dissonant sound that Baekhyun wouldn’t associate with Seungwan. Her smile is vacant, but her eyes are brimming with things unknown to Baekhyun.

 

“I’m fine, it just surprised me,” Seungwan says in a small voice. “I rarely read people by accident.”

 

Baekhyun’s both chilled and curious in equal measures. What could have shocked her about his past? His life hasn’t been that interesting. Besides the dangerous ghosts, his dead mother, and his questioning sexuality, there isn’t much to see. But Baekhyun can sense his time is up and the witches aren’t eager to answer more questions.

 

Turning back to say goodbye again and thank the witches for their services, he discovers there’s no one else in the foyer.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Chanyeol comes to the parlor to see him the next day. Baekhyun had been reading the news on his phone at the counter. There have been no developments in Junmyeon’s case almost a week after his disappearance, and the police don’t know where to start amidst pressure from townspeople.

 

Chanyeol walks—or more like waddles, with his legs bowed and feet apart—to the counter with an ear-splitting grin. Baekhyun sighs, out of habit, because he smiles in the next second. The sight of Chanyeol’s smile must be contagious.

 

“Why did you decide to bless me with your presence today?” Baekhyun asks drily.

 

“I just wanted to have one of Jongdae’s milkshakes,” Chanyeol says. “I didn’t come here to see your ugly mug.”

 

“Are you guys done fighting and actually acting like grown-ups?”

 

“Shut up, Jongdae,” Baekhyun says, not missing a beat. “We’ve just given it a rest for the meantime. Right, Chanyeol?”

 

“Right.” Chanyeol’s smile grows impossibly large. “And we’re going to train together, because that’s what Heechul told us to do.”

 

Baekhyun wasn’t planning on telling Jongdae about the training. What Baekhyun had feared materializes: the permanent curl of Jongdae’s lips is now malicious, his eyes flicking from Baekhyun to Chanyeol.

 

“Training? Can you really spend all that time together without killing each other? Now that seems like something else.”

 

“Jongdae, go and take some orders!” Baekhyun veers Jongdae towards the counter. “We have customers, so let’s get back to work!”

 

At Jongdae’s ongoing teasing, Baekhyun sprays whipped cream down the back of Jongdae’s shirt and his squeal has every patron’s head swerving in his direction. Chanyeol claps like a seal at his table. Baekhyun will have to sleep with one eye open for the rest of his life.

 

Chanyeol stays until Baekhyun’s shift is over at five. It’s Minseok and Jongin’s turn to close the shop today, and Baekhyun takes a little longer than usual in changing his clothes and inspecting his face in the mirror of the tiny bathroom, cringing at all the blemishes on his skin that bloom under the harsh, unforgiving light. Then he feels dumb for even caring, because this is Chanyeol. Narcissistic dickhead Park Chanyeol. Though the motive for his visit is unknown to Baekhyun, it’s unreasonable for him to be this anxious about his appearance. It’s almost dumb. He laughs at himself, allowing another look at the mirror before he leaves the bathroom.

 

Chanyeol is waiting for him outside, arms locked behind his back. A smile unfurls on his face, swift and amicable, when Baekhyun emerges from the shop. In the back of his mind, Baekhyun wishes he could decipher that smile.

 

“Why are you still here?” Baekhyun asks. “Is there something you need to tell me?”

 

Chanyeol frowns, but it’s more amused than irate. “We were going to investigate the elementary school, remember?”

 

“Right,” Baekhyun says absently. “I forgot.”

 

Since yesterday, his mind was occupied by the reading, and as a result Baekhyun barely had a moment to think about the plans he had made with Chanyeol.

 

“I read a bit about this place on the internet,” Chanyeol says, smile enigmatic, “and I reckon it will be interesting to you.”

 

Nothing on Chanyeol’s face bespeaks the meaning behind his words, so Baekhyun shrugs and says, “Sure, as long as it doesn’t get us in trouble.”

 

Chanyeol doesn’t say more as they ride on his scooter, Baekhyun at the back holding to the sides. Cars on the road are scarce at this hour, but Chanyeol keeps his pace like he’s driving his grandkids to Sunday school.

 

“Would you step on the gas, granny?!” Baekhyun yells over the wind. “I’m gonna be seventy when we get there!”

 

Chanyeol’s laughter carries over the honk of a car as it speeds by. “Patience! What matters is that we’ll get there safely!”

 

They park outside the elementary school half an hour later. Baekhyun takes off his helmet to look at the building. The last time Baekhyun had been here was for Jongin’s niece’s graduation. Other than that, he’s unfamiliar with the white building and its endless grid of windows, currently reflecting the golden glow of late afternoon.

 

“Did you ever hear the rumors about this school?” Chanyeol slips off his own helmet. “It’s pretty famous among students because they say it’s haunted.”

 

“I didn’t go to elementary school in this town,” Baekhyun says. “I moved here at the start of middle school.”

 

Chanyeol’s brows shoot up to his hairline. Baekhyun chuckles at his reaction. They’re rounding the school building, where children’s voices drift over from the sports fields behind the building.

 

“Did you? I thought you’ve lived all your life here,” Chanyeol says. “You and Jongdae seem so close, I thought you’ve known each other all your lives.”

 

Baekhyun shakes his head. “We met when in our first year of high school,” he says. “I couldn’t make a lot of friends when I was kid because of the whole seeing dead people problem, so Jongdae was the first real friend I made in school.” He laughs, suddenly self-conscious. “Sorry, didn’t mean to drop all that on you.”

 

Chanyeol smiles kindly. “It’s fine,” Chanyeol reassures. “I asked.”

 

“So, what’s the plan?” Baekhyun asks. “We just barged in here, but how do we find this ghost? Do you know where it is?”

 

“Not really,” Chanyeol replies. “I’ve researched all the rumors about paranormal activity here, and they all point to different parts of the school, which is huge, so it’ll be kind of useless in practice. We can ask the kids around back. You know kids run wild with these sorts of stories.”

 

A girl with pigtails stops and stares at them when they approach. The rest of the kids follow, like a domino effect. Baekhyun beams at the dozen pair of eyes that regard them curiously.

 

“Hey, little friends!” Chanyeol says. “We want to ask you some questions.”

 

A chorus of “what is it?” and “are you going to buy us ice cream?” ensues, but Chanyeol quiets them with a finger to his mouth.

 

“We wanted to ask you about the ghost in your school,” Chanyeol says.

 

“What kind of questions?” a girl asks. Her pigtails swing when she points a finger to the boy on the far end of the group. “Jongsuk saw it once!”

 

The boy in question looks up at them with big brown eyes, shy and skittish, probably because Chanyeol gives him a huge grin with his hundred teeth on display. Baekhyun thinks that might be scary to any child. He nudges Chanyeol with his elbow, and Chanyeol’s expression falls into a pained one as he whips around to look at Baekhyun.

 

“Hey, little buddy,” Baekhyun says, crouching so he’s at eye level with the kid. “Can you tell us what you saw?”

 

Jongsuk sends a panicked glance at his friends, as though looking for support, then gives Baekhyun a timid look. “I just… I just saw a girl.”

 

“A girl?” Chanyeol asks. “Where?”

 

“In the auditorium,” he answers. “She was wearing our uniform, but with different colors…”

 

“It was old!” the first girl supplies. “My sister used to wear it when she went to this school!”

 

“How old did she look to you?”

 

“Maybe fifteen?” the boy muses. “She looked like my noona.”

 

“Has anyone else seen her? Or anything weird?”

 

“We haven’t seen her,” another boy pipes up. “But sometimes the lights flicker in classrooms and stuff moves in the auditorium, like the balls falling from the shelves in the storage room.”

 

“Mom says it’s because she wants to play with us,” another girl says. “She probably feels lonely.”

 

They exchange a glance at the information they’ve gathered. Then, Baekhyun claps his hands and grins at the kids.

 

“Thank you so much for all your help!”

 

“Are you going to buy us ice cream now?”

 

A girl tugs on Chanyeol’s shirt, and Baekhyun laughs at the helpless look on Chanyeol’s face, obviously not wanting to disappoint the kids. Baekhyun promises the kids they’ll treat them all to ice cream next time, before Chanyeol can bust out his wallet and invite them to the nearest ice cream shop.

 

They enter the school building, its long, white hallways seemingly deserted. “I think we should look in the auditorium first,” Baekhyun suggests. “Also given by what the kids told us, the activity is stronger there.”

 

“Alright, boss,” Chanyeol jokes.

 

Chanyeol grins amusedly, and Baekhyun indulges a smile of his own.

 

The door to the auditorium is locked, and even though Chanyeol tries to wriggle it open carefully at first, then more forcefully in frustration, it doesn’t budge. Baekhyun attempts to open it with a clip that he finds on the floor, sliding it into the lock, but it doesn’t give in.

 

“Why do they even lock it?” Baekhyun asks, rattling the door again. “It’s not like someone is going to steal old stage equipment.”

 

“If a ghost is throwing things everywhere,” Chanyeol says. “I’d want to keep her locked in, too.”

 

“Let’s come back later,” Baekhyun says. “Maybe we can get in through a window or something when the school closes.”

 

As they turn to leave, the lock clicks, and the rattle as it falls to the floor is loud in the quiet corridor. They whip around in time to see the door opening a crack, as if a gust of wind had pushed it open. The door remains still, waiting for them to come in.

 

“Did it just… open by itself?” Chanyeol asks. “The lock…”

 

“Do you think she wants us to go in?” Baekhyun cranes his neck to peek inside the room. It’s pitch black, a faint cold breeze brushing his left arm like an exhale. “Did you feel that?”

 

Chanyeol nods, expression serious. “It’s like she’s telling us to come in,” he says. He takes a step towards the door and turns to Baekhyun. “Let’s go, then. I don’t like making ladies wait.”

 

Baekhyun smiles, despite himself. He slugs Chanyeol on the arm and opens the door wider. The creaking of the wood is loud in the relative stillness, and they exchange a look before they step into the darkness. He hears Chanyeol fumble with something, then the beam of a flashlight illuminates the aisle to the stage.

 

“Tell me about the girl,” Baekhyun demands. “What’s her name?”

 

“Her name was Jieun,” Chanyeol says. “She went to this school years ago when it was an all-girls school. She was a prodigy in violin and was set to audition for K-Arts, but she died when a piece of stage lighting equipment fell on her.”

 

Chanyeol points the flashlight to the fixtures above the stage. The lenses are pretty huge, Baekhyun surmises, and high enough to fracture a person’s skull or cause any fatal wound if they fell.

 

“Was it accidental?” Baekhyun asks. “Or intentional?”

 

“Someone was tried for third-degree murder, I believe, but there wasn’t enough evidence to convict someone, so it was deemed an accident.”

 

“So, why is she still lingering?” Baekhyun goes up the steps to the stage carefully. “What’s her unfinished business?”

 

“That’s what we need to find out,” Chanyeol says. “And why Junmyeon thought it related to our search. On the internet, people speculate she was working on her own composition but she never got to finish it. Police searched her house and her school locker but never found it.”

 

“Do you think it has something to do with her still being around?” Baekhyun fishes his phone out of his pocket and turns on the flashlight app. “Maybe she’s been here long enough to know a thing or two about portals.”

 

“I guess so.” Chanyeol moves the flashlight around, focusing on the curtain, the proscenium, and the seats. “We can find out if she decides to show herself to us.”

 

As if prompted, the temperature drops drastically, so much so that it feels like Baekhyun is breathing on ice when he inhales. He swings his flashlight around him, but there’s no one at either end of the stage besides Chanyeol.

 

“Jieun?” Baekhyun calls. “We just want to talk.”

 

“Go away,” a girl’s voice says.

 

Baekhyun jumps, and Chanyeol squeaks, nearly dropping his light. Whipping around, they point their flashlights towards the source of the voice. It came from somewhere near, as if she was standing between them instead of right behind them. The proximity is likely a trick of the mind, but the chill nipping at his skin isn’t.

 

“We just want to talk to you,” Chanyeol persuades. There’s a slight quiver in his voice, and Baekhyun doesn’t have it in him to laugh at this moment. “Ask you some questions about why you’re still here.”

 

“We want to help you,” Baekhyun chimes in.

 

“No one can help me,” the girl says right into Baekhyun’s ear.

 

This time it’s Baekhyun who squeals, dropping his phone in the aftermath. Chanyeol snorts at his fright, but his mirth is short-lived, since the ghost grabs his flashlight and flings it at him. Baekhyun does laugh at him now and gets a dirty look in return. Chanyeol’s expression soon turns perplexed as the lights of the auditorium begin an intermittent display above them.

 

“We might be able to help you,” Baekhyun insists, “if you talk to us about what happened to you!”

 

“I said leave me alone!” bellows the ghost.

 

A powerful gust of wind carries the angry howl, so strong it makes their eyes sting. Chanyeol grabs his ears with a wounded expression, looking in every direction for the ghost, which is still hiding from sight.

 

“We’re not leaving until you answer our questions,” Baekhyun shouts. “So, you better stop this game now and talk to us!”

 

“You’re not scaring us,” Chanyeol supplies. By the tremor in his voice and the fright in his large eyes, it’s anything but the truth. “You’re just wasting your time and energy.”

 

“I’ve got plenty of time to waste,” the ghost replies. “I’ve been here for decades now.”

 

“Do you want to be trapped in this place for another decade?” Baekhyun queries. “Three more decades? A century? What will happen when this school closes and it has to be demolished? What do you think will happen to your spirit?”

 

Suddenly, the wind cuts off, and the dance of lights becomes static, then dims to a few lights circling their spot on the stage. Baekhyun grabs his phone from the floor and sighs at the crack running across the screen. He stretches out a hand for Chanyeol and struggles to get him to stand on his bowed, wobbly legs.

 

“You’re so heavy,” Baekhyun mutters.

 

“Hey,” Chanyeol cries, “I’m a growing boy!”

 

Baekhyun chuckles, then realizes he’s still holding onto Chanyeol. They break apart at the same time another gust of wind, less powerful, sweeps by the stages.

 

“I don’t want to be trapped here forever,” the girl says. Her voice is a sorrowful whisper now, running by them as if carried by a gentle breeze. “I want to find peace.”

 

“Will you let us help you, then?” Chanyeol asks. “Will you trust us?”

 

“Yes,” comes the reply.

 

Baekhyun and Chanyeol start again, whipping around to the voice. The girl stands at the opposite side of the stage, a teenager in an old school uniform—likely the clothes she was wearing when she died. Her eyes shift unsurely between both of them, but her posture is defiant, like she’s ready to pull another stunt on them in case they don’t behave.

 

“We’re here to ask you a few questions,” Baekhyun says. “See if maybe you can help us.”

 

“Questions about what?” The ghost frowns. “What do you want?”

 

“We want to know if you know anything about portals,” Chanyeol says. “Has there ever been a portal in Yogoe in all the years you’ve been here?”

 

“Why would I want to help you?” Jieun spits. “You’re mere humans.”

 

“Because we can help you too,” Baekhyun retorts. “And I believe you said you don’t want to spend any more time trapped in this place.”

 

The ghost girl opens and closes her mouth. They’ve managed to crack through her shell.

 

“Can you tell us about the day you died?” Chanyeol presses, before they lose her. “Do you remember how it happened?”

 

“I just remember the music,” the girl says. “It all happened so fast. I was standing right where you are now,” she points at Baekhyun, “and there was a noise—like something was breaking. I remember someone screamed, or maybe I was the one who screamed, but then everything turned to black.” She takes a deep breath. “And next thing I knew I woke up here again, when it was dark, and I was a ghost.”

 

The girl sighs, a single tear rolling down her pale cheek. She catches it with a finger and examines it with slight wonder.

 

“I can’t remember the last time I cried,” she comments. “Not since I died, at least.”

 

“We can help you get out here,” Chanyeol says, “but you need to help us too.”

 

The ghost stares right at him, blinking her big, brown eyes. They’re not as big and round as Chanyeol’s, and certainly not as expressive, because right now, Baekhyun can read the earnestness and compassion in Chanyeol’s gaze like an open book.

 

“I had so much to do.” Her fingers fold into fists by her sides. “I had to finish my last piece. It was supposed to be my most important creation, and it was meant to go to the right person, but instead…”

 

As she trails off, the ground begins to tremble with the rage simmering inside her. Baekhyun shoots Chanyeol a glance, who returns it in kind with the same concern. It wouldn’t do for the ghost to lose control again. And if she turned out to be violent, a closed space like this would be at their disadvantage.

 

“Instead?” Baekhyun prompts softly. “What is it, Jieun?”

 

“I had to give it to my boyfriend,” Jieun says. “He was also a violinist, and he was going to Seoul with me, and... I wanted him to hear it before everyone else at our graduation, but I never got the chance to give it to him.”

 

“He never found about it?” Baekhyun inquires. “Where is it now?”

 

The girl shakes her head, her curtain of black hair flapping on each side of her face. “I have it with me.”

 

“We can help you get it back,” Chanyeol offers. “Or at least, get you some sort of closure.”

 

“But first, we need you to answer a few questions for us,” Baekhyun pipes in.

 

“How do I know you’re actually going to help me?” the girl questions. “How do I know you’re not going to disappear with the information I give you?”

 

“So you do have information,” Baekhyun remarks.

 

The girl appears unimpressed by Baekhyun’s shit-eating grin. “I may have some information about portals in Yogoe.” She crosses her arms. “But you have to help me first, so I know you’re serious about this.”

 

“Okay, but how do we know you are going to help us after we help you?” Baekhyun counters. “This can go both ways.”

 

“The man who came here last week trying to get me to appear before him wasn’t this rude.”

 

Baekhyun’s inhale is sharp. “What did he look like?”

 

“He had glasses, looked very handsome,” the ghost girl says. “But I didn’t know him, so I didn’t come out. It did make me very curious, though. I was sort of expecting him to come back to try again, but you two showed up instead.”

 

“What did he ask you?” Baekhyun prods, ignoring her last words. A sort of excitement tingles within him at this discovery. “What did he say?”

 

“Something about portals.” The ghost seems pleased at Baekhyun’s inquisitiveness. “I could give you those answers if you tell me how you’re going to help me.”

 

Her hopeful gaze squashes Baekhyun’s excitement in a second. Before Baekhyun can squash her hopes in return, Chanyeol speaks, “Uh, we can take something of yours with us to your boyfriend, so you can talk to him. Like a picture or something.”

 

Jieun’s face lights up. “That’s a good idea.” Her voice takes on a dreamy tone. “I’ve wanted to talk to him for so long, but he never came back here.”

 

Baekhyun frowns at Chanyeol with disapproval, but the taller man is pointedly avoiding his stare. “Do you have anything that belonged to you when you were alive right now?” Chanyeol asks.

 

“No, but I know where you can find something,” Jieun assures them. “My mother runs an antique shop downtown. There must be something there that you can take with you.”

 

“Wait,” Baekhyun intercepts, “where is your boyfriend right now?”

 

“Seoul.” The ghost girl shrugs. “Told you he was supposed to be going away with me. In the end he went on his own.”

 

Baekhyun’s jaw drops. “Uh, I don’t know if we can—”

 

“Sure we can!” Chanyeol exclaims. “We’ll make sure it works and we can talk when we meet your boyfriend.”

 

“His name is Kim Soohyun,” Jieun says. “He’s a famous pianist now.”

 

Chanyeol’s eyes triple in size. “Shut up! Your boyfriend was Kim Soohyun?!”

 

Jieun nods, a little smile sneaking on her lips. “My mom’s shop is on Daehak street, in front of the cinema. You can’t miss it.”

 

Chanyeol claps and gives Jieun a thumbs-up. “We’ll go there as soon as we can!” Baekhyun yanks at his shirt and Chanyeol casts him an apprehensive look.

 

They smile with enough conviction so the ghost girl remains hopeful. Baekhyun makes sure they’re a good distance away from the auditorium before he starts his rant.

 

Why did you promise the girl we would do all that for her?” Baekhyun explodes in the hallway. “We’re gonna have to steal from her mom, an object that belonged to her dead daughter, and then take it to freaking Seoul on a day-trip.” Baekhyun throws his hands up in the air. “Are you crazy?! I have a job, Chanyeol, in case you didn’t notice, since you’re on your summer vacation and you probably don’t do anything all day—”

 

“Hey, I train. A lot,” Chanyeol interjects. “I’m not on Twitter if that’s what you think I do when I don’t see you. And your uncle owns the ice cream shop, I’m sure he can give you a day off to go to Seoul.”

 

“He’s been on my back since he caught us fighting,” Baekhyun says. “He’ll know I’m up to something if I just up and go to Seoul with you of all people.”

 

“What does that mean?” Chanyeol removes his snapback to run a hand through his hair, then puts it on backwards. “I’ll have you know I’m wonderful company—I’m interesting and funny and I have a great taste in music. You’d be honored to be my shotgun.”

 

Baekhyun stares a couple of seconds too long at Chanyeol. He looks boyish wearing his cap like that, with his fringe plastered over his forehead and his ears protruding, and it accentuates his cheekbones and the strong line of his jaw nicely. Baekhyun has to pry his eyes away from his lips as Chanyeol begins speaking anew.

 

“So, whose car are we taking?”

 

“Car?” Baekhyun echoes, still dazed. “We’re not taking anyone’s car, because we’re not going.”

 

“You’re such a grouchy old man,” Chanyeol says, a smile curling up his mouth. “In the body of a tiny young man.”

 

“I’m not grouchy.” Baekhyun digs his elbow into Chanyeol’s side. Chanyeol doubles over with a wheeze, and Baekhyun grins triumphantly. “I’m just not going to be on board with your plans just because you think we’re getting something good out of this.”

 

“Don’t you want to help her pass on?” Chanyeol asks. “She said she wanted to find peace. She might even reincarnate and see her family again. And,” Chanyeol emphasizes with an index finger, “we’re going to get information about the portal.”

 

They reach the doors of the school then, still unlocked, as there are still people in the offices. They hadn’t bothered to stay quiet, as opposed to when they entered—at least, not Baekhyun—but nobody seemed to care about two college-aged boys walking down the hallways of an elementary school after classes have ended. Perhaps they thought they were here to pick up a straggling little brother or sister still playing on the school grounds.

 

“I don’t know about all that,” Baekhyun mumbles. Chanyeol looks at him quizzically, so he adds, “About reincarnating and stuff.”

 

The sky is streaked in orange and pink hues as the sun meanders westward. He can hear the faint voices of children playing in the field behind the school. There are fewer voices now, as some of them may have parted home, but the group is just as lively.

 

“You don’t think there’s anything on the other side?” Chanyeol surveys his face. It’s not a judgmental look, but assessing, as if he’s gauging something in Baekhyun he missed before. “I wouldn’t have pegged you for a pessimist.”

 

“I’m not a pessimist,” Baekhyun counters, not unkindly. “It’s just not what I believe in. I haven’t given too much thought to it, either, I just know that ghosts are here for a while, waiting to pass onto the other side, but whatever’s on the other side, if there’s anything—I’ll probably never know, and I’m okay with that.”

 

When Baekhyun started seeing ghosts as a kid, he often wondered if his mother would come to him again. As Baekhyun grew older, and the ghosts that visited him talked about passing, he gave up on the idea of seeing his mother again. So, there came a time when Baekhyun believed his father was a spy, involved in dangerous missions around the world, which is what kept him away from Baekhyun. But, as time went by, Baekhyun realized his father was never coming home. And again, Baekhyun was alone with Heechul and his ghosts.

 

Baekhyun’s thoughts didn’t center much on where his parents were, if they were anywhere at all, but on the aftermath of their absence: the longing for their love, the all-encompassing silence in the house, the semi-darkness of his room as he hugged his favorite teddy bear through the night. Heechul did his best to break that silence, with trips and toys and music, but it was always there at night, when Baekhyun usually thought about his parents.

 

The years wore on the memory of his mother’s face, and the guilt had been overwhelming at first. The thing that is more vivid to him is the gap that they left behind, the hole in his life shaped by two people. It doesn’t mean he had a miserable life with Heechul—if anything he could pass as his mother and father at the same time—but there was always something a little off, as if the colors weren’t quite as bright and vibrant as they were meant to be, and Baekhyun didn’t know how to turn them up.

 

The ache for his parents came and went like the tide, and by now Baekhyun is accustomed to its flow. He’s also perfected the art of locking it up, and being self-sufficient, as he’s always been. Figuring out life one step at a time on his own.

 

“We will all know someday,” Chanyeol puts in. “We’re all meant to die at some point or another, right? Memento mori.

 

Memento mori. Baekhyun flashes back to the tarot card he saw at Sooyoung’s reading the previous day. Death riding a white horse in a sunset identical to the one painting the sky above.

 

“Now you sound like a serial killer,” Baekhyun teases. “Is there something I should know? Any weird hobbies that you have, like collecting stamps or killing animals in your spare time? You already have the serial killer grin, that’s for sure.”

 

“My smile is handsome.” Chanyeol smiles broadly to prove his point. Baekhyun laughs, says nothing about how he may be right. “And you’d be the last person to know if I were a serial killer.”

 

“Why? Because I’d be the first on your list?”

 

“Maybe,” Chanyeol quips.

 

Chanyeol’s smile stamps a dimple in his right cheek. His face is softer under the sunset glow, and Baekhyun has the sudden desire to fit his finger into the dip, check if his skin is as smooth as it looks. He frowns at the strange urge and waits for Chanyeol to put on his helmet so he can climb on the back of the scooter.

 

“Talking about death made me hungry,” Chanyeol says, fasting the strap of his helmet. “Wanna enjoy our time alive and grab some bulgogi?”

 

“Sounds nice,” Baekhyun says. “If you’re paying.”

 

Chanyeol’s reply is a roll of his eyes, and the roar of the engine.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Baekhyun’s phone buzzes as the meat sizzles on the grill. It’s a text from Jongdae. Why do you want to borrow my car?

 

It’s a secret mission, Baekhyun replies. It involves a ghost and I know you’re afraid of them.

 

The reply comes a second later in all caps: I AM NOT AFRAID OF GHOSTS!!!!!!!!!!11

 

Baekhyun laughs into his Hite and raises his eyes from his phone when a pair of chopsticks steal a slice of radish from his plate.

 

“So, how’s the persuasion going?” Chanyeol asks as he chews. “Has Jongdae given in yet?”

 

“Nope,” replies Baekhyun, sipping from his can. The beer slides down his throat silky and cold. “It’s gonna take a little more convincing. Jongdae doesn’t let anyone drive his car, not even his girlfriends.”

 

I’ll buy you all the snacks you want and do the dishes for the next two weeks, Baekhyun wagers. The reply is succinct: no, thanks.

 

Baekhyun is about to give up for the time being and continue eating his meal, when a second text message comes.

 

Wait are you going with CHANYEOL?!?!?

 

That’s none of your business, Baekhyun is quick to respond. The deflection doesn’t work, for Jongdae’s next message reads: HAHAHAHAAHAHAH, in what Baekhyun can clearly hear as Jongdae’s distinctive cackle.

 

“Why do you look so irritated now?” Chanyeol queries, trying to peer at the screen. “What did he say?”

 

You could’ve said so, Jongdae goes on. Don’t have sex in my car or I’ll kill you ;)

 

Baekhyun groans, stopping short of throwing his phone onto the burning coals. And maybe himself, right after. “I hate that asshole!”

 

“Did he say no?”

 

Chanyeol asks the question in the same tone someone would use to chat about the weather. Baekhyun, in turn, is hot from head to toe with embarrassment.

 

“He said yes,” Baekhyun mutters. “So, we’re set and you owe me one. I had to lower myself to unthinkable levels to get that damn car and it’s all your fault.”

 

Chanyeol’s grin shows all eight hundred of his teeth. “I’ll buy you ice cream! Or I’ll let you drive my scooter!”

 

The eagerness with which the offers are presented is so honest, Baekhyun doesn’t question for a minute that Chanyeol is being anything but genuine. It endears Baekhyun for a moment, before he remembers he’s supposed to be mad at Chanyeol.

 

“I can eat ice cream all the time at work,” Baekhyun argues. “And I can’t drive, so that’s out of the window.”

 

“You can’t drive?” Chanyeol blinks like an owl. “I’ll teach you!”

 

“So we both die in the attempt? No, thanks.”

 

“We won’t die,” Chanyeol refutes with a laugh. “You have to trust me a little.”

 

“That’s easier said than done,” Baekhyun retorts.

 

They exchange playful smiles, ones that are barely quirks of their mouths, and return to their meal.

 

When dinner is done, Baekhyun scurries to the counter, pulling out his wallet as he goes. Chanyeol places a hand on his shoulder to stop him.

 

“I already paid when you were in the bathroom,” Chanyeol admits. “Didn’t you tell me to pay for dinner before we came?”

 

Baekhyun frowns, but the slight frustration he feels isn’t exactly directed at Chanyeol. He doesn’t have a problem with letting people pay for him on occasion, but for some reason, it’s not the same with Chanyeol. It’s not like he wants to prove himself to him, but he also doesn’t want to rely on him, and even less, take advantage of him in any way. One of his most shocking discoveries so far is that Chanyeol is a kind, selfless person, and Baekhyun wouldn’t like to feel like he’s exploiting his generosity.

 

“I was joking,” Baekhyun says. “You don’t have to take my word literally all the time.”

 

Chanyeol grins, broad and unabashed. “I like doing nice things for people.” He wrinkles his nose like he’s smelled something foul. “Even for you.”

 

Baekhyun jabs his elbow into Chanyeol’s side, but Chanyeol doesn’t have the time to react to the jest. A group of college boys enters the restaurant, chattering and joking loudly, bumping against them and pushing them together. Chanyeol clamps his arm around Baekhyun’s waist so he doesn’t stumble or end up crushed against the wooden panels leading to the counter, and in the process, he’s squeezed between Chanyeol and the glass doors. Baekhyun can feel the heat of Chanyeol’s torso against his back, and without reason, his heart does an impressive series of flips that stun him.

 

“Excuse me,” Chanyeol is saying, bending his head in an awkward bow.

 

Chanyeol’s cheek brushes Baekhyun’s as he glances up, but then—then Chanyeol wrestles himself free of the bustling pack, and manages to sidestep Baekhyun, past the doors and out onto the pavement. Baekhyun stands there, with the cold nipping at his skin, missing Chanyeol’s touch which seared through his clothes like a brand.

 

“Baekhyun?”

 

It’s not Chanyeol’s deep voice calling him. It’s a gentler voice, minced with a pinch of surprise. Yixing tails the group, looking as handsome in a white shirt and washed-out jeans as the night Baekhyun had slept over at his apartment. With everything that had happened as of late, Baekhyun had forgotten all about Yixing ever since that night and he feels slightly guilty now as Yixing peers at him with such soft eyes, like he’s genuinely happy to see him.

 

Baekhyun deliberately avoids glancing at Chanyeol, whom Baekhyun can sense is attentive to the scene.

 

“Yixing,” Baekhyun mumbles. The haze lingers, such as the leftover heat of Chanyeol’s body. “What are you doing here?”

 

“I’m here with my friends,” Yixing says. “Did you eat already? You wouldn’t want to join us for a bit, so we can catch up?”

 

The offer does sound tempting. Baekhyun would be lying if he said he hadn’t harbored the hope of running into Yixing after that first night out. The guy is devastatingly gorgeous and self-assured, a combination that Baekhyun, a hormonal young man, can’t resist.

 

That was it, Baekhyun muses. When Chanyeol touched me. It was just my stupid hormones.

 

Sensing something in the air, Chanyeol’s eyes flit from Baekhyun to Yixing. “I’m gonna head to the scooter,” Chanyeol says, pointing vaguely to his left.

 

Yixing doesn’t spare Chanyeol more than a brief glance before he’s back on Baekhyun. “So what do you say?”

 

“Sorry, hyung, I just ate and I’m full,” says Baekhyun, offering a sheepish smile. “But we can do it another time?”

 

Instead of disappointment, Yixing’s face lights up with a smile. “I’ll take you up on that. I wanna have a meal with my favorite hoobae.”

 

They exchange numbers and catch up for a few minutes, but Baekhyun is acutely aware the whole time of Chanyeol waiting for him, sitting on his scooter a few shops down the road, wedged between a white Mercedes and a pick-up truck.

 

When he finally says goodbye to Yixing with the promise to text him, Chanyeol is too immersed in his phone to hear him approach. Baekhyun clutches his shoulders and Chanyeol jolts with a yelp that sends Baekhyun into a laughing fit.

 

“Don’t do that!”

 

“How do you deal with ghosts every day if you get scared so easily?” Baekhyun asks, grabbing his assigned helmet and putting it on. “How have you survived all this time without dying of a heart attack?”

 

“I don’t know and I don’t want you to try and find out.” Chanyeol pockets his phone and nods his chin at Baekhyun. “C’mon, hop on. I’m tired and I have to get up early for training tomorrow.”

 

“We’re going to Jieun’s mom’s shop tomorrow,” Baekhyun reminds him. “And to Seoul the next day. Aren’t you going to be too tired to drive four hours back and forth?”

 

Chanyeol leers at him, and instantly, Baekhyun wishes he could eat his words. “Aww, are you worried about me?” Chanyeol puts his shovel-sized hand along Baekhyun’s neck. It’s gone in half a second, but it’s enough for Baekhyun to feel its coarse texture, for its weight to set his skin ablaze. With a scowl, he takes a step back, away from Chanyeol’s dangerous touch. Chanyeol doesn’t perceive anything is amiss. If he does, he doesn’t mention it. “Don’t worry, it’ll be fine. You can join me tomorrow, if you want. I won’t be so tired if we just have to do basic moves.”

 

Chanyeol appears so earnest about his offer, like he truly wants Baekhyun to train with him. Baekhyun stalls his answers, scrapes his sneaker against the asphalt, takes an undue amount of time fixing his hair. He’s waging the pros and cons of training with Chanyeol, now that he’s made this discovery about what his proximity can do to him. But Baekhyun is a man of his word, and he’s already promised that he would train with Chanyeol.

 

“Alright,” Baekhyun concedes. “Text me the details later.”

 

Chanyeol’s grin is effusive and blinding, contrasting the dim lighting in the street. Baekhyun’s heart begins a strange thrumming again. Baekhyun presses a palm against his sternum to quiet it down and hops on the back of the scooter.

 

“You know, you don’t have to hold onto the scooter,” Chanyeol says. “You’re more likely to fall off that way. You can hold onto me, I don’t bite.”

 

Baekhyun’s heart picks up its pace. The weather is fresh against his burning cheeks. Baekhyun nods and gingerly curls his fingers into Chanyeol's hoodie on either side of his waist.

 

“I’m just doing this so I don’t fall off and get killed,” Baekhyun mutters. “You can wipe that infuriating grin off your face now.”

 

Chanyeol’s laughter is as loud as the cars roaring down the road next to them.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

A text comes when Baekhyun is drying his hair after a shower. His phone dings on the sink, interrupting the Ariana Grande song that had been blasting through its speakers.

 

Baekhyun came home to Jongdae leering from the couch, eating dinner from a takeout container in his boxers as usual. Jongdae took jabs at Baekhyun’s texts from earlier, and Baekhyun dodged answering more questions by locking himself in the bathroom to take a shower.

 

It’s a text from Chanyeol. Meet me at the train tracks at the abandoned station at 10 tomorrow.

 

Before Baekhyun can think of a comeback, another text follows the first.

 

Don’t oversleep or I’ll tell Jongdae you got scared of the ghost school girl

 

Baekhyun has to crane his neck to get a good picture of the dip of his ass. It’s worth it for the dozens of horrified emojis he gets in return.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

The old train station is located at the outskirts of Yogoe. It takes Baekhyun forty minutes to get there by bus—two bus rides, one he had nearly missed because the first bus had been a few minutes late.

 

Baekhyun enters through a park northeast of the station. It reminds Baekhyun why he loves mornings in Yogoe; it’s quiet and warm, the morning sunlight filtering through the canopy above. The park is empty except for a couple of joggers, and an old lady walking her pet corgi—which Baekhyun stops to pet and play with for a moment on his way to meet Chanyeol.

 

Chanyeol is waiting for him at the crossroads near the station, wearing shades and a tank top too loose even for the sultry weather.

 

“What’s with the shades?” Baekhyun asks. “Makes you look like a douche.”

 

“They make me look mysterious.” Chanyeol lowers the shades, giving Baekhyun a lopsided grin. “That couple over there has been eyeing me ever since I arrived. They’re probably on their tenth lap around the park.”

 

Baekhyun looks to the park, and just like Chanyeol had mentioned, the joggers trot along the path nearest to the road—and there it is, both the man and the woman give Chanyeol furtive glances as they pass.

 

“You’re so full of yourself.” Baekhyun shakes his head, unable to hold back a laugh. “Let’s get going, I’m still considering going back to bed.”

 

They amble along the railroads, treading on the overgrown grass that almost reaches up to their knees. It’s quiet here, with barely any sound coming from the highway a couple of miles away, as if the trees lining the tracks walled the space from all the noise of the outside world. The only sounds that slip past this invisible barrier are of birds chirping and their shoes crushing the dirt underfoot.

 

After walking for twenty minutes, they reach an abandoned freight train, sitting on the tracks under a bridge. The green paint on the train is corroded and peeled, brown stains of rain trickling down the glassless windows. There are puddles leftover from the overnight rain, the aroma of damp grass filling Baekhyun’s nose. The bridge overhead looks like it hasn’t been walked on in over a decade.

 

Baekhyun’s group of friends used to drink in the woods nearby, where the music from the car wouldn’t bother anyone and they wouldn’t be reprimanded for underage drinking. They had never ventured here in fear that the bridge would collapse and that the rumors about homeless people squatting in the train cars were true.

 

“I like this place,” Baekhyun murmurs, looking around. “I could hang out here all day.”

 

“It’s very peaceful,” Chanyeol agrees. “And surprisingly, there’s been no paranormal activity reported here since it closed down. Not any real ones, at least.”

 

“Oh, thank god,” Baekhyun moans. “I don’t wanna do any extra work today.”

 

“Okay, are you ready?” Chanyeol claps, then stands with his feet apart, clearly in a fighting stance. “We’re going to do taekwondo.”

 

“I did hapkido when I was a kid.” Baekhyun stands mirroring Chanyeol’s stance. “Like every other kid after school, but I did get a black belt.”

 

“Good,” Chanyeol says, “so this isn’t going to be so hard for you.”

 

Chanyeol’s tone of voice, and the impish smile on his face, belies the intention behind his words. If a challenge is what Chanyeol is after, then Baekhyun won’t disappoint him.

 

Chanyeol changes his stance to set his feet close so his ankles are parallel. He places his fists over his stomach, pointy elbows in a straight line.

 

“This is the beginning pose,” Chanyeol says. He puts his fist in front of him, lined perfectly with his chin, and bends his right leg in front of him, while the left one stands back. “And this is the standard punch.”

 

Chanyeol waits for Baekhyun to copy his posture, and Baekhyun does, slowly and awkwardly, feeling like he’s a little kid learning self-defense from Do Kyungsoo again.

 

Baekhyun met Kyungsoo a couple of weeks short of his twelfth birthday. Heechul had mentioned that a man would come to teach him how to fight, and that he was better than Baekhyun’s tutor at the hagwon where Baekhyun had been learning hapkido since he was nine.

 

It was raining the day Kyungsoo arrived at the house they rented in Suwon. Kyungsoo had struck him as tall, probably because Baekhyun was a midget then, and his features seemed too smooth and delicate to be intimidating. Baekhyun learned how wrong he had been to underestimate Kyungsoo after his first lesson, but Kyungsoo remained too polite and considerate outside of lessons to be frightening. Baekhyun spent more time drawing the shape of Kyungsoo’s smile instead of doing his math homework.

 

Shortly before his fourteenth birthday, on a fateful morning at the beginning of May, Kyungsoo didn’t show up for their monthly lesson. Heechul informed him later that week that Kyungsoo had to travel overseas and wouldn’t be coming back anytime soon. And that was the last time Baekhyun had allowed himself to talk about Kyungsoo with anyone. Heechul, as always, seemed to understand Baekhyun’s sulking mood because he never mentioned Kyungsoo again after that.

 

“Try that move with me,” Chanyeol orders him.

 

Baekhyun moves his left foot in front of him, switching his right one to the back, and charges forward with his fist. Chanyeol blocks the punch with his forearm, in the same stance as Baekhyun—then, as fast as a whip, he lands a kick right next to Baekhyun’s ear, as Baekhyun watches in astonishment.

 

Chanyeol retreats to his previous stance, a wicked grin bunching up his cheeks. “You need to think fast. You don’t want Kyungsoo-hyung to be ashamed of you, do you?”

 

“Don’t talk about him,” Baekhyun grunts, and lands a kick just like Chanyeol’s. Only, he loses his balance, and Chanyeol grabs him before Baekhyun can end up with his ass on the ground.

 

“You need to practice your balance,” says Chanyeol, voice lowered. “Do it again.”

 

Baekhyun brings his right leg up, standing on his left foot. Chanyeol grabs his ankle, holding his foot up even after Baekhyun’s left leg has started to tremble and his right thigh to ache.

 

“You have to twist your feet.” Chanyeol lowers Baekhyun’s foot until his heel is facing the imaginary opponent. “That’s it. You’re doing great.”

 

As soon as Chanyeol lets go of his ankle, Baekhyun stumbles back, putting both feet back on the ground. His right leg burns with the exertion and sweat already pools on his temples even though he hasn’t done so much as a single exercise.

 

“Let’s take a break,” Chanyeol suggests. He grabs his backpack, abandoned by the tracks, and carries it to where Baekhyun is. “I brought water and some snacks.”

 

Baekhyun sits down on the railroad and takes the water bottle Chanyeol hands him. “Thanks,” he murmurs, before taking a long sip. “That was harder than I thought. I must really be out of shape.”

 

“You’re gonna get in shape quicker than you think with me,” Chanyeol says.

 

Drinking from his bottle, Chanyeol winks, and Baekhyun frowns at him. “I’m gonna leave if you do that again.”

 

Chanyeol laughs, capping his bottle, and Baekhyun transfixes on the way his arm muscles shift, glistening with sweat under the sunlight. Baekhyun’s mouth goes dry, so he takes another gulp of water, averting his eyes to the abandoned train.

 

“You’re not as bad of an instructor as I thought you’d be,” Baekhyun mumbles, smiling as Chanyeol glares at him. “Certainly, not as good as Kyungsoo, but…”

 

“I’m a terrific instructor,” Chanyeol retorts solemnly. “I taught my best friend and my girlfriend how to fight and they’re pretty good now.”

 

Girlfriend. Baekhyun chokes on water, spraying the liquid on the grass with a cough. Baekhyun hadn't known—hadn’t considered that Chanyeol could have a girlfriend. It makes sense that he does. Chanyeol is tall and handsome and confident, which are traits Baekhyun himself likes in people. And those types of guys—the Chanyeol types—usually have girlfriends.

 

“You have a girlfriend?” Baekhyun croaks, unable to stop himself. “Where is she? Back in Seoul?”

 

“Soojung had a summer program,” Chanyeol explains, unwrapping a sandwich he procured from his backpack. “So she couldn’t come with. I’m going back in September, anyway, when the new semester starts.”

 

Chanyeol is withdrawn now, as if he’s been reminded of something he had preferred to keep in a dark corner of his mind. Baekhyun figures, by his sullen silence, that his girlfriend hadn’t liked him coming all the way here alone to spend the summer while she stayed back in Seoul.

 

And it brings back to the question that had bothered Baekhyun like an itch since Chanyeol arrived. He had put it on the back burner since they had struck up a truce to their quarreling, but it springs forth with all the buzzing urgency of a bee trapped inside a bottle. Now that there's an opportunity for it, and that he’s made some progress trying to crack other mysteries surrounding Chanyeol, no matter how small, he goes for it.

 

“Chanyeol,” Baekhyun starts, “why are you here? Why did you come here, to this isolated little town, from Seoul?”

 

Chanyeol chews for a long while, so long Baekhyun begins to tap his nails on the bottle. Then, Chanyeol takes a special interest in the ants scurrying along the rail he’s sitting on.

 

“A seer told me to come,” is Chanyeol’s reply. It’s said in a simple tone, but Baekhyun can tell the nonchalance is practiced. “Remember how I told you to see one? The one I saw in Seoul told me big things were happening here that would involve me. So I decided I should take a look.”

 

A seer. Baekhyun thinks back to his reading and the grim expression on Sooyoung’s face as he drew the last card. Baekhyun didn’t tell Chanyeol about his visit, and he has doubts on whether he should share what he had been told. What if Chanyeol makes a big deal out of something that was probably nothing? Baekhyun didn’t want to worry anyone, especially someone as guileless as Chanyeol.

 

Chanyeol’s still averting his eyes, and Baekhyun gets the small hunch that there is something Chanyeol isn’t saying. But Baekhyun also has his secrets, so he lets Chanyeol keep whatever it is he’s hiding.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

The antique shop stands proudly in all its old, vintage glory within a gentrified part of town. A café with large windows sits to the right, minimalistic and chic, and a business office, spilling suits and suitcases like rotten teeth to the left. The antique shop is nondescript, with only the writing in italic font on the front window and the sign above the door advertising its nature, reluctant to catch up with the modern age as most of the area has done.

 

An old-fashioned door chime announces their arrival. A tall, wispy girl steps out of the backroom, tying a powder blue apron behind herself. Her glossy black hair is tied back in a simple, low ponytail, but she’s beautiful in a sweet, natural way. Her smile is tender when her dark eyes fall on them.

 

“Hello,” she greets. “How can I help you?”

 

The plan is that Chanyeol does the speaking while Baekhyun is in charge of stealing the object—whatever object seems remotely related to Jieun. On cue, Chanyeol steps forward, donning a friendly smile—Baekhyun is glad to see it’s not his maniac smile—and approaches the counter, standing in front of the girl in a way that blocks her view of the rest of the shop. Chanyeol’s ginormous frame had to come in handy at some point.

 

“Hi, uh,” Chanyeol pauses, like he’s reading something, “Yoona-ssi, I was looking for information about these figurines for my Korean folk class, and…”

 

Baekhyun freezes at the name. Turning, he takes a good look at Yoona’s face again. The name falling from Chanyeol again tugs at his gut, because he’s heard it before, in Junmyeon’s sing-songy voice. Yoona’s her name, Junmyeon had said. She works at a vintage shop downtown.

 

It had to be a coincidence. Jieun said her mother owned the shop, and Yoona must be helping her with extra work. With a gulp, Baekhyun begins to peruse the shop. There aren’t any noticeable personal articles on the counter or the wall shelf behind Yoona, so Baekhyun focuses on the items crowding the small shop. There are mirrors with gilded frames, vases with drawings and scriptures from times immemorial, chairs that looked like they belonged to a long-ago dynasty, large clay and wooden masks on the walls, and candles in all colors and sizes, among other bric-a-bracs that litter the space.

 

In a corner of the shop, over a wooden table, is a small shrine with framed pictures of a woman in her forties and Jieun, surrounded by incense and candles. Baekhyun looks over his shoulder, but the foreigners that had just come in hide him from the front, where Chanyeol’s booming voice can still be heard. He feels terrible when he grabs one of the pictures and slides it out of its frame, then folds it to tuck it into his pocket without making noise. Quickly, he sidles up to the nearest shelf, full of ancient books, much like the ones in Junmyeon’s magical library.

 

One book catches Baekhyun’s eye. It’s leather-bound and worn out, the golden letters on the spine glinting under the sunlight streaming from the street windows. Baekhyun is spellbound, unable to tear his attention away from the book, as if the book itself were calling to him. His fingers tingle as he reaches up to touch the book, sliding it off the shelf, a series of faint whispers brushing his ear which he reasons is a current from the street as the foreigners leave the shop. The book is heavier in his hold than Baekhyun had anticipated.

 

Gods and Goddesses of the Underworld, the title reads in imposing letters, inscribed on the black leather. Baekhyun flips through a few pages and reads the author’s name in the introductory page.

 

N. J. H.

 

There aren’t any details about the author. Baekhyun thumbs through the contents, when Chanyeol appears beside him.

 

“Are you ready to go?”

 

Chanyeol seems nervous, apprehensive, and Baekhyun remembers suddenly that they were there on a mission.

 

“Do you have it?” Chanyeol stage-whispers. His eyes are bulging out of his face, and Baekhyun has a hard time trying to hold in a laugh. Baekhyun nods, and Chanyeol grabs his arm to guide him out of the store, but Baekhyun remains glue to his spot.

 

“I’m gonna buy this,” Baekhyun tells him, holding up the book.

 

He places it on the counter and Yoona inspects the cover with a curious smile. “Interested in the occult?”

 

“Sort of,” Baekhyun says. “You could say I have a thing for paranormal stuff.”

 

Yoona raises her eyebrows amusedly and puts the book in a bag. “Your friend knows a lot about it, too. You two remind me a lot of…” Yoona heaves a hefty sigh, the mirth drained out of her features. “Nevermind.”

 

Baekhyun’s dying to ask about Junmyeon, but his courage dies too when Yoona hands him the bag she put his book in with a rueful smile.

 

“Thank you, Yoona-ssi,” Baekhyun says. “I hope your day is as pretty as you are.”

 

Yoona laughs heartily, and Baekhyun is happy to see the sadness has receded in her eyes.

 

They bow and say goodbye to Yoona, and Chanyeol jumps at a tabby cat sauntering into the shop past their feet while they’re leaving.

 

“Would you relax?” Baekhyun says, chuckling. “She didn’t notice anything was off.”

 

“She probably thinks I’m nuts,” Chanyeol says. “I kept talking about myths and folklore, and then I started talking about damn ghosts, because you wouldn’t hurry up.”

 

“She probably believes in them,” Baekhyun says. “There were some books on the occult and the supernatural, and she was...” Baekhyun shuts his mouth. Chanyeol doesn’t know who Yoona is, and Baekhyun doesn’t want to be the cause of Chanyeol’s mood sinking. But he also can’t lie to him.

 

“She was what?”

 

Baekhyun sighs, averting his gaze to the asphalt. “She was Junmyeon’s girlfriend.”

 

“Oh,” Chanyeol’s exhale is brief and quiet. Baekhyun sees his expression fall like a stop-motion film: his eyes droop, his eyebrows tilt with pity, and his mouth turns upside-down. He looks back to the store. “That’s why she looked so sad.”

 

“I didn’t know it was her until I saw her here,” Baekhyun explains, vehement. “I didn’t tell you in case you gave us away or something. It was better if we didn’t bring Junmyeon-hyung up to her.”

 

“I know, but…” Chanyeol swallows. “But isn’t that like lying?”

 

“We didn’t lie to her, Chanyeol.” Baekhyun’s guilt now is directed at the evident remorse in Chanyeol. “We were doing something good for Jieun, remember?” Chanyeol nods, not so convinced. It’s good enough for Baekhyun. “And this way, we’ll be closer to finding out what happened to hyung.”

 

The words are a reassurance much for himself as it is for Chanyeol. They do the trick; Baekhyun’s heart is lighter and Chanyeol’s expression hardens. His second nod is firmer, resolute. “You’re right.”

 

“Now, we should get going,” Baekhyun says, “or I’ll be late for my shift.”

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

The trip starts after swinging by a convenience store and buying rations of snacks that could feed an entire army. Ten minutes into the trip, they have an argument about what to listen to on the radio, which ultimately ends with Baekhyun giving in to Chanyeol. Chanyeol’s playlist is an eclectic mix of Oasis, Radiohead, and The Cranberries, with a few hip hop songs sprinkled here and there.

 

Baekhyun tries to stay awake, but falls asleep an hour into the trip. He awakens as they’re entering Seoul in the afternoon, and Chanyeol is quietly rapping along to the song playing.

 

“You owe me dinner for making me listen to you rap,” Baekhyun mumbles, rubbing sleep off his eyes. Chanyeol starts, then sends him a grin before returning to the road. “How long until the concert hall?”

 

“Half an hour at most,” Chanyeol replies. “Could you give me a Banana Kick?”

 

Baekhyun pulls one cheesy stick out of the bag, and frowns as Chanyeol opens his mouth, head angled in his direction.

 

“Are you expecting me to feed you?”

 

“Yes,” says Chanyeol, like it’s obvious.

 

With a comical sound of disgust, Baekhyun pops the snack into Chanyeol’s mouth, who looks pleased as punch as he chews. Surprisingly, Chanyeol’s lips had been soft when Baekhyun’s fingers had brushed them—softer than he imagined given Chanyeol’s habit of biting his bottom lip. He cuts that thought off its roots before it can grow, instead focusing on the sprawling city past his window.

 

Baekhyun has never been in Seoul and the differences are enormous. Starting from the steep hills compared to the subtle inclines of Yogoe, the high-rises that reflect the sunlight, and the crowds pulsing through the streets. Baekhyun takes note of all the landmarks while he listens to Chanyeol rattle off an endless list of his favorite spots. He doesn’t promise to take Baekhyun, but he can hear it implicated in the excitement laced in his voice.

 

They reach the concert hall forty-five minutes later, instead of the thirty Chanyeol had estimated, thanks to his slow driving. The Seoul Arts Center is an impressive, modern building. There are people outside conversing and smoking, and Chanyeol and Baekhyun slip inside unnoticed. The program leaflet they picked up at the entrance says Kim Soohyun is set to play at eight on the dot in the IBK Chamber Hall. They have enough time to talk to him before then, so they make their way through the small crowds congregating in the hall and stride to the doors leading backstage.

 

There’s an assistant checking pages on a flipboard when they reach the backstage entrance. He’s short, wearing thick-framed glasses, behind which he blinks at Baekhyun and Chanyeol rapidly.

 

“Who are you?” he asks.

 

“We’re acquaintances of Kim Soohyun,” Chanyeol says. “He was my piano tutor when I was a kid and I’d like to cheer him on before his recital.”

 

“I can’t let anyone in who isn’t a relative,” the guy says, going back to his board. It feels like they’re being dismissed, so Baekhyun resorts to a drastic plan.

 

“I didn’t want to say this,” Baekhyun says. “But I’m his son. I wanted to give him a surprise.”

 

The guy frowns. “Mr. Soohyun doesn’t have any children. Now, get out of here before I call security.”

 

“That you know of,” Baekhyun ripostes with a wink.

 

“Could you please do this for us?” Chanyeol pleads. “It’s important. I think Mr. Soohyun would want to hear from his son before his concert.”

 

The guy squints and Baekhyun can see, with glee, that he’s cracking.

 

“You can go in,” he says. “You have ten minutes.”

 

Baekhyun shoots Chanyeol a bewildered look, but Chanyeol leads him backstage with a hand on his arm, bowing and thanking the assistant, who is muttering something about not being paid enough under his breath.

 

They trek down a long hallway full of doors, lit up by LED lights on the pristine white walls. A sign on a door reading SOOHYUN makes them stop and hesitate before Baekhyun knocks on the door.

 

“Come in,” a man calls from inside.

 

When they step inside, they’re immediately assaulted by a strong waft of perfume, thick as fog. Kim Soohyun sits on a chair in front of the vanity and turns to them with an imperious look as they step inside.

 

“Who are you?”

 

It’s more a demand than a question. The man is in his early forties, faint wrinkles around his mouth and eyes, yet retaining the stunning looks of his youth.

 

“My name is Park Chanyeol and this is Byun Baekhyun,” Chanyeol says, and bows deeply. “Uh, we wanted to talk to you.”

 

“Well, Chanyeol and Baekhyun,” Soohyun says calmly, crossing one leg over the other. “You can start by telling me why you’re here before my concert and how you got past my assistant. Do I need to get a new one?”

 

“No, no, no.” Baekhyun waves his hand. “This has nothing to do with him, so please don’t take it out on him. We wanted to talk to you about Lee Jieun.”

 

A myriad of wrinkles appears on Soohyun’s forehead, his mouth moving with unformed words. Then, it settles on a quiet, “How do you know about her?”

 

“We have a way to communicate with her,” Baekhyun explains. He’s conscious of how crazy it sounds, and it shows when Soohyun frowns deeply. “And she told us she had a message for you.”

 

Baekhyun pulls the picture out of his jeans pocket and shows it to Soohyun. In an instant, his face crumbles. All of the bemusement he had shown so far dissipates as his gaze fastens on the picture. He stands and strides to Baekhyun, arm outstretched to grab the picture, but Baekhyun yanks it out of his reach.

 

“I’m sorry,” Baekhyun says. “I need to hold onto it for this.”

 

“For what?” Soohyun asks.

 

As if on cue, the overhead lights flicker and the temperature in the room drops. Like a shadow forming out of smoke, Jieun appears next to Chanyeol, looking exactly like she did in the picture Baekhyun has in his hold. It appears Jieun has made herself visible to Soohyun, because her former boyfriend jolts in fright at the sight of her, tripping backwards and grabbing onto the dresser.

 

“Soohyun,” Jieun says. “Long time no see.”

 

Jieun looks a mix of satisfied and tearful at seeing Soohyun. It must’ve been a primary reaction, because her countenance changes quickly to cold ruthlessness, shifting the atmosphere in the room, as if a looming darkness has settled over them.

 

“Why did you never visit me?”

 

“I was afraid,” Soohyun says, his voice wavering. “I’ve regretted every day not seeing you, I swear! But I just couldn’t bear it after… after…”

 

“After you told everyone you wouldn’t go to K-Arts with me,” Jieun finishes for him. Her round eyes are wide, like the memory has just dawned on her. “Because you wanted to audition for SNU instead. Because you felt threatened...”

 

“I’m so sorry.” Soohyun sniffles, tears streaking his perfect makeup. Even with his bloodshot eyes and red nose, he looks handsome. “I was so desperate to get into a good university, but I didn’t want to keep living under your shadow. I regret being so distant with you right before you died. You don’t know how many nights I lay awake thinking about how much hurt I put you through...”

 

The tearful confession seems to thaw Jieun’s rage. She steps closer to Soohyun, and even though non-magi like Soohyun can’t feel her touch, she reaches out to hold his face, stroking his cheek with her thumb. Baekhyun feels oddly out of place, like he shouldn’t be watching such an intimate scene. He looks at Chanyeol, who seems torn between feeling emotional and awkward.

 

As Soohyun’s sobs rake his body and Jieun wraps her arms over his shoulders, Baekhyun tugs at Chanyeol’s sleeve to get them out of the room so they can give the couple some privacy.

 

The lights dim in the recital hall at eight o'clock sharp, leaving a single spotlight in the middle of the stage where Soohyun, dressed in a slick tuxedo, bows to the audience. After the applause has died down, he takes his seat at the piano. The first note is jarring and frightening, then softens into a sweeter, melancholy melody as it progresses. This performance in particular is yearning and frantic at the same time, because it’s the last time Soohyun will perform a piece with Jieun’s name attached to it.

 

“I gave him my last piece,” Jieun tells them, next to Chanyeol.

 

They’re in an empty box seat above the main audience. Baekhyun sits next to Chanyeol, who looks enthralled at the performance, with his eyes wide and parted lips, just like a kid watching his favorite movie for the umpteenth time.

 

“Why?” Baekhyun asks, leaning sideways to look at Jieun.

 

“The song is about a girl who promises to be with her loved one for all of eternity,” Jieun says. “I wrote it with him in mind, so it’s fitting he gets to play it.”

 

Chanyeol had stopped watching Soohyun to stare at Jieun, enraptured by her words and the sadness in her gaze. Baekhyun doesn’t know what to say, so he chooses to say nothing at all. Chanyeol, on the other hand, clears his throat, and Baekhyun winces, prepares for the disaster it might entail.

 

“I think that’s a beautiful sentiment, and I’m sure Soohyun knew. It’s why he was so remorseful about having distanced himself from you before you died.”

 

On the stage, the music reaches its crescendo, descending into maddening spirals. It ends with one haunting note, which hangs in the air as Soohyun lowers his head over the keys.

 

“You’re right.” Jieun smiles, and Baekhyun notes that her smile is as rueful as it is peaceful. “I think I should answer your questions now.”

 

“Right,” Baekhyun says, having forgotten about their original mission, “so what do you know about portals?”

 

“There was a portal in Yogoe about twenty years ago,” Jieun says. “The ghosts weren’t very impressed so much as they were frightened, so I thought it’d happened before.”

 

“Twenty years ago?” Chanyeol repeats. “What happened twenty years ago?”

 

“Ghosts became more violent, ruthless,” Jieun replies. “Used to attack people for no reason. I’ve sensed vengeful ghosts before, but these were evil for a completely different reason… They weren’t created this way, they were converted into that form. By someone.”

 

“Someone?” Baekhyun presses. “Who?”

 

“I don’t know,” Jieun says. “I just know they were very powerful. I could feel their presence everywhere, spreading like a disease. It lasted a very short time, but the effects were huge. People died just like they’re dying now.”

 

“How did they open this portal?”

 

“Your guess is as good as mine.” Jieun shrugs a shoulder. “I have no idea whether it was opened from this side or their side, but it must’ve been someone very powerful to be able to make a crack between dimensions.”

 

Baekhyun recalls Mrs. Lee’s recount of Junmyeon’s last moments, his frantic claims that Yogoe was in danger right before his disappearance. It’s highly possible Junmyeon visited Jieun because of his suspicion of a portal opening again. “A crack between dimensions…” Baekhyun echoes. “That’s what it seems to be.”

 

“I hope that’s enough,” Jieun says, “because I think my time is up. They’re here for me already.”

 

Baekhyun frowns, but before he can ask about who she is referring to, Chanyeol speaks first.

 

“Goodbye, Jieun,” Chanyeol says. “It was nice meeting you.”

 

“Goodbye.” Jieun’s body glows, disintegrating into dozens of tiny ambers. “Thank you for all your help.”

 

Baekhyun has seen ghosts depart from the living world and cross to the other side countless times, but he still can’t help this feeling, wistful and morose, like he’s just watched a friend he hasn’t seen in a long time leave far away again.

 

Chanyeol’s sigh is as deep as a chasm. Baekhyun wonders if Chanyeol feels the same way each time, but he does not ask.

 

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

They have dinner at a restaurant that Chanyeol knows. He typed up the address into the GPS without Baekhyun even prompting him about where they were going to eat. Baekhyun feels somehow pleased about that, the fact that Chanyeol knew Baekhyun needed someone to take control and lead him and give him what he needed.

 

The walls are decorated with pictures in all sizes, and soon Baekhyun realizes the chubby kid with big ears in most of the pictures is Chanyeol. Chanyeol as a toddler, Chanyeol as a middle schooler, Chanyeol as a teenager. In most of the pictures, he’s with his parents—a tall man with dark hair and large eyes, a perfect mirror of Chanyeol’s, and a petite woman with Chanyeol’s smile.

 

“My family owns a chain of restaurants,” Chanyeol explains, once they’ve sat down and ordered. “They’re talking about opening one in Singapore. It’d be our fifteenth opening.”

 

“So, you’re loaded,” Baekhyun remarks.

 

Chanyeol chokes on his noodles. “Kinda,” he croaks, bashful. “I don’t like to flaunt it.”

 

“I’d tell everyone if I were rich.” Baekhyun shoves radish kimchi into his mouth. “Well, I’m pretty sure Heechul is rich, but we’ve always lived modestly, so it never felt real. The only big expense I’ve seen him make was when we used to fly to Disney World Tokyo every year until my twelfth birthday, and when he offered to buy me an apartment when I graduated high school. And even that felt weird.”

 

“I’ve got a question.” Chanyeol’s timbre is low and mystified. “How old is Heechul?”

 

“I have no idea.” Baekhyun shrugs, then takes a swig of his Hite. “I asked him once and he just said he’s lived for a long, long time.”

 

There are paintings and pictures in Heechul’s house that Baekhyun is sure date back a couple of centuries. A painting of Heechul in hanbok in a hanok in the Joseon dynasty. A black-and-white picture of Heechul in military gear. A grainy picture of Heechul in a suit in the 20s in Paris. Baekhyun has heard a thousand stories about his travels and the people he met, famous and ordinary, and he has never doubted for a second of their authenticity.

 

“What, is he really a dokkaebi?” Chanyeol asks, eyes turned into slits. “Has he ever told you?”

 

“Nope.” Baekhyun shakes his head. “But I think he’s a dokkaebi, probably.”

 

“That’s cool,” Chanyeol breathes, with so much wonder it makes Baekhyun laugh. “I wish I had a relative like that. A crazy, cool-looking uncle who’s lived for hundreds of years and sells ice cream for a living.”

 

No one knows the secret behind the ice cream Heechul makes, but it’s undeniable that it is addictive. It must be something other than sugar and flavorings. Something that doesn’t show up on the label and keeps people returning to buy more.

 

Baekhyun remembers then he hasn’t spoken to Heechul since he left for his trip. Not after he’d forbidden Baekhyun from looking to whatever was going on in Yogoe. It unsettles him a little, the possibility that Heechul has a clue of the terrible things happening in Yogoe and he’s doing nothing to stop them. For this reason, Baekhyun finds it hard to give him a call, like he would every time Heechul travelled in the past, because this time Baekhyun would have to pretend nothing’s wrong and Baekhyun has never been good at pretending.

 

“Yeah, he is a pretty cool dude,” Baekhyun says. “He’s never made me call him dad or anything, but he’s the closest thing I’ve ever had to a dad, you know.” He stops and laughs self-consciously, thinking he’s overshared again. “I’m sorry, Jongdae says I’m like a water faucet. When I start speaking I just can’t stop.”

 

“It’s alright,” Chanyeol assures with a grin. “I’m getting used to you talking my ear off.”

 

“I’ll let you off the hook tonight because you bought dinner,” Baekhyun says, “although I guess you don’t have to pay for it, do you.”

 

Chanyeol shakes his head. “I never have to pay at any of our restaurants.”

 

“I hate you,” Baekhyun tells him, without any heat. “I hate you and your Pororo blanket.”

 

Baekhyun points to a picture, in which a tiny Chanyeol is clutching a Pororo blanket in one chubby fist and a puppy plushie in the other. The big Chanyeol bursts into a laugh, sprinkling his drink. “I hate you too, asshole.”

 

As they eat, Baekhyun observes the pictures on the walls along the periphery. He notices a girl surprisingly similar to Chanyeol, albeit not in height, with the same eyes and smile. There’s a picture of the Park siblings in formal attire and the girl is in the center, wearing a cap and gown, holding up her diploma with a beaming smile.

 

“Is that your sister?” Baekhyun points at the picture with his fork.

 

“That’s Yoora,” Chanyeol tells him. “She’s seven years older than me, and currently riding dragons and hippogriffs in Egypt.”

 

Baekhyun whistles. “That’s impressive,” he says. “She’s a magizoologist, right?”

 

“Exactly.” Chanyeol bobs his head. “She’s one of the best in her field, so she travels all over the world, wherever she’s needed. She gives classes sometimes, and they’re always full. Everyone wants to hear her lectures and listen to all her amazing adventures.”

 

It must be the alcohol, or the weariness of the day starting to settle in on Chanyeol, but Baekhyun can smell a pinch of resentment bleeding into his voice when he talks about his sister’s achievements. Chanyeol takes a long draught of his beer, as if trying to wash a bad taste from his mouth.

 

“She sounds great,” Baekhyun comments cheerfully. “I’d like to meet her someday. Maybe she could take me dragon riding.”

 

“No,” Chanyeol says, squinting at Baekhyun. “I wouldn’t let you near my sister. Ever. You’re a terrible flirt. I’ve seen you.” Then, he seems to change his mind, because he smirks. “Or maybe I would, just to see you making a fool of yourself in front of her.”

 

“I’m not a flirt,” Baekhyun counters, knowing fully well it’s the truth. Chanyeol cackles with laughter. “I’m just naturally charming.”

 

Perching his chin on his palms, he flutters his eyelashes, smiling coquettishly at Chanyeol, who leaves his fork and knife on his plate to look back at Baekhyun with disgust.

 

“Congrats, I just lost my appetite.”

 

It’s Baekhyun’s turn to guffaw, that ugly, jarring sound that he only allows to come out around Jongdae, mostly because it annoys him to no end. It’s like a snort that rises into a hiccup, a splattering sound of a laugh—and Chanyeol must realize its rarity, because he stops and smiles a little, pleased with himself.

 

Baekhyun tries to ignore the warmth pooling in his cheeks, or the fact that he and Chanyeol had been fighting like cats and dogs just a couple of weeks ago. And here they are laughing like two old friends.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

They rent a room in a motel outside Seoul because Chanyeol doesn’t want to drive at night. It’s fair, Baekhyun knows, and probably reasonable, guaranteed to bring them back alive and in one piece. But all he cares about is that he will have to share a room with Chanyeol, and that’s the last thing on earth he wants to do.

 

It’s even worse when the clerk at the desk tells them that there’s only a single-bed available, with all the chirpiness of someone who is aware of the plight he brings upon someone else.

 

No,” Baekhyun says vehemently. “We’re not sleeping in a single bed.”

 

“Too bad.” Chanyeol dangles the keys over his shoulder as they climb up the stairs. “I’ve already paid.”

 

“We could drive up a little more, maybe we’ll find something else—”

 

“Baekhyun,” Chanyeol cuts off, voice laden with finality. “I’m tired, and I’m sure you’re tired, too. I just wanna crash on the nearest available surface and sleep until noon.” He turns to Baekhyun, standing at the top of the staircase. “So, if you want, you can sleep in the hallway or the bathroom, that’s fine by me, but keep it quiet. Please.”

 

Baekhyun clamps up at that, scowling at Chanyeol like a child about to throw a tantrum. Chanyeol’s smile is triumphant when he enters the room, Baekhyun following with stomping steps close behind.

 

The bed is big enough for two people to sleep comfortably on—but it’s also, to Baekhyun’s horror, unmistakingly shaped like a heart, draped with pink, silk bedsheets, and topped with fluffy, heart-shaped cushions.

 

“This is a honeymoon suite,” Baekhyun mutters. “What the fuck.”

 

“It’s cute!” Chanyeol laughs like a madman, plunging into the bed. He bounces a little on the mattress, clutching one of the cushions. “Take a picture of me!”

 

Sighing, Baekhyun whips out his phone and points the camera at Chanyeol, who poses on his side with a bent leg and a v sign close to his eyes. After the initial shock passes, Baekhyun laughs loudly as he takes the picture. The whole situation is so ridiculous he needs to tell Jongdae, even though his friend is never going to let him live this down.

 

While Baekhyun is changing into his pajamas in the bathroom, he finds the book he had bought in the antique shop in his backpack. He holds it in his hands, amazed again at how heavy it feels despite its size—it hadn’t felt heavy at all in his backpack, to the point Baekhyun had nearly forgotten it was there at all. The golden letters glint in the crude bathroom light, and Baekhyun touches them with his fingers, whispering the author’s name to himself.

 

Inside, there are hand-drawn images of gods and goddesses, some that Baekhyun knows and others that he’s never heard of in his life. He skims through paragraph upon paragraph of spells for evoking, as well as sealing demons, all of them seemingly crafted by the author himself. It hadn’t given him the impression that it belonged to a witch at first, but that’s what Baekhyun assumes now, the more he glides over the cream pages. He still can’t explain why he had been so drawn to this particular book, out of all the bunch in the shop, when there’s nothing in the book that interests him at all.

 

Yoona’s face when she nearly mentioned Junmyeon returns to his mind, as well as Hyoyeon’s exhausted eyes after her brother’s disappearance. Baekhyun sighs, slumps against the tiled wall next to the sink. They’d gotten some information that can be valuable, but it’s not a step forward by any means… Baekhyun feels as lost and useless as he did back when Junmyeon disappeared and left them with the original note about the portals. And despite his skepticism, he keeps going back to the death tarot card on Sooyoung’s table over and over.

 

Baekhyun doesn’t know to describe the feeling that’s crept over him after the reading. An uncertainty slithering underneath his skin, mounting with each passing hour. Perhaps it’s due to the image he’d that afternoon of his mother in his place, reading the same tarot card with the black-robed skeleton—an image that’s been intruding in his thoughts and leaving an unpleasant aftertaste of despair behind ever since that day.

 

A knock on the door startles him, and he nearly drops the book.

 

“Are you rubbing one off in there?” comes Chanyeol’s voice from the bedroom. “I need to pee!”

 

“No, you dickhead—” Baekhyun shoves the book in his backpack and takes a deep breath, trying to calm down his racing heartbeat. “I’ll be right out!”

 

Chanyeol is grinning laciously when Baekhyun opens the door, and Baekhyun responds to it with a middle finger.

 

The bed is buried beneath an array of papers and books. Baekhyun’s miffed, about to shout at Chanyeol to clean up the mess, before a drawing of what seems to be a black hole in a pedestrian street catches his attention. When Chanyeol exits the bathroom, Baekhyun is kneeling on the bed, sifting through the papers Chanyeol had collected.

 

“What is this?” Baekhyun asks, showing Chanyeol the drawing.

 

“It’s all the information I’ve gathered about portals,” Chanyeol says. “It’s not much, but… there’s something here I found.”

 

He grabs one of the books scattered on the bed, and skims through the pages until it opens on a folded sheet of paper. He hands it to Baekhyun to read.

 

“Those are notes I’ve written down from this book about portals in the magical world,” Chanyeol says. “The aspects researched by people are still seen as pseudoscience, but they have been reported, sort of, since centuries ago. Just accounts here and there without a very reliable source, since the effects they have are felt on ghosts and non-magi more than anyone. Much like it’s happening now, so there’s no way to tell there’s anything weird going on. Ghosts can be violent and people kill each other all the time, right? They were only reported when a massive energy could be felt across a land only by necromancers.”

 

“An energy,” Baekhyun murmurs. “Like the negative energy affecting ghosts?”

 

“Yes, but it’s something else,” Chanyeol says. “Remember when Hyoyeon said she felt like she was being watched? Have you gotten that same feeling before?”

 

Baekhyun thinks back to those times in the ice cream shop where he felt like someone was watching him from the shadows. It wasn’t a ghost, but something was there for sure.

 

“Yeah, I’ve felt it before, but I… I thought it was just my imagination.”

 

“I’ve had that creepy feeling too,” Chanyeol says, “once or twice when I’m alone. It can’t be a coincidence. There’s also this,” Chanyeol points to a section of the paper, “why and how portals are opened. Sometimes they appear in the same place more than once, but it’s always every few years. According to this book, the only way to open a portal is through a blood sacrifice, and it’s usually done by a magi who can communicate with a demon.”

 

“A witch or a necromancer,” Baekhyun supplies.

 

“Exactly.” Chanyeol points a finger at him. “But for this portal to be effective, it needs powerful blood, the blood of a magi and a—”

 

“Demon,” Baekhyun finishes, and he takes a second to bask in the gratification radiating off Chanyeol. “So, you’re telling me that these portals don’t appear randomly by themselves. Someone spills magical blood over a certain place to open them?” At Chanyeol’s nod, Baekhyun frowns. “But why would someone do that? It’s dangerous.”

 

“Because a portal would allow demons to pass through and do whatever they want to humans,” Chanyeol replies. “If the human is seeking to make a deal of some kind with a demon, the demon could manipulate them to make a portal. And this way the demon would have a portal to pass through every few years without any interference.”

 

“This is… this is wild,” Baekhyun mumbles. “How are we going to deal with a demon when we can barely survive the ghosts?”

 

“Have some faith in yourself,” Chanyeol says, rubbing Baekhyun’s shoulder. The touch causes another one of those misguided skips in his heartrate. “And I may have some clues on how to close them… but it’s not the entire thing. You’re supposed to perform a ritual over the portal, but it says… Another sacrifice needs to be done, which goes against natural laws and it’s not advisable.”

 

“So it’s a dead end?” Baekhyun exhales through his nose, shoulders slumping with defeat. “Awesome.”

 

“Don’t be so negative,” Chanyeol chastises him, tapping his head with a piece of paper. “We will find another way.”

 

“We need to find another way,” Baekhyun emphasizes, fisting the front of his shirt. “Junmyeon-hyung… I keep thinking he’s gone because of me. Because of what I asked him to research.”

 

“Baekhyun.” Chanyeol’s voice matches his stern frown. “You don’t know if Junmyeon is dead. It’s better if we don’t let that hold us back but push us forward instead.”

 

“I know,” Baekhyun agrees quietly. “We… we need to solve this so whatever happened to him wasn’t in vain.”

 

Chanyeol sets his hand on Baekhyun’s shoulder again, but this time he lingers, stroking circles over Baekhyun’s collarbones with his thumb. Baekhyun’s stomach churns, so he dips three fingers into Chanyeol’s side. Chanyeol jolts with a yelp, then doubles over with a laugh.

 

“How did you know I’m ticklish?”

 

“I didn’t,” Baekhyun responds. I just wanted you to stop touching me, is the real response—if it weren’t for the implications of catastrophic proportions that would result in telling Chanyeol what exactly he’s doing to Baekhyun.

 

Chanyeol isn’t done with Baekhyun. He digs three fingers into Baekhyun’s ribs, just like Baekhyun had done, and Baekhyun squirms away with a shout. Chanyeol uses all his fingers, tapping along Baekhyun’s sides until he’s writhing in a laughing fit, lying sideways on the bed. Chanyeol follows, on his knees, hovering over Baekhyun, peals of laughter dwindling into quiet chuckles.

 

Chanyeol leans forward until his breath fans across Baekhyun’s face. He’s so close, Baekhyun can see the pimples along the crest of his right cheek, the blemishes on his chin, his five o’clock shadow. Everything is fixed in time. The room held in a breath at the same time Baekhyun did.

 

Chanyeol’s adam’s apple bobs, his tongue darting out to moisten his bottom lip. Baekhyun’s eyes are glued to the motion, his palms clammy and tingly. Unlike Chanyeol, he does not dare to move. Doesn’t trust himself to do so.

 

Baekhyun does manages out an unsteady breath. “Chanyeol, what—”

 

As Chanyeol rolls over, there’s a squeak similar to a balloon deflating—the unmistakable sound of a fart. With the motion, he drags his mouth across Baekhyun’s cheek, before exploding into raucous laughter on the bed.

 

It kills the moment stone dead.

 

Chanyeol had barely grazed him, but his touch is imprinted on his skin. Baekhyun splays his fingers over his chest, and his heart lurches forward to meet him. Look at what the boy you hated did to you, it seems to be sneering. Then, he sniffs the air and slaps Chanyeol’s thigh in retaliation. Chanyeol’s squeal is satisfying. “I can’t believe you just farted on me,” Baekhyun mutters. “You’re disgusting.”

 

Chanyeol convulses with laugher once again. “Better out than in, I always say!”

 

“And now you’re quoting Shrek,” Baekhyun groans, a smile belying his annoyance. “There’s no end to your charms.”

 

A couple of seconds pass with the music of Chanyeol’s laugh. Then, Chanyeol gets up to gather the papers, and puts them in his backpack. He avoids Baekhyun’s eyes the entire time, and his smile is rather muted compared to his previous bubbliness. Baekhyun can’t understand the sudden shift in Chanyeol’s demeanor—then he berates himself for overthinking.

 

Silence is dense, but neither of them are in a hurry to break it. Slipping under the covers, Baekhyun puts enough distance from Chanyeol’s side that he’s nearly hanging over the edge of the bed. Once he hears Chanyeol padding over, followed by the bed dipping, Baekhyun turns off the bedside lamp without a word. If Chanyeol is aware of the dilemma Baekhyun is in, he doesn’t mention it. But he also says nothing at all. Chanyeol slumps into the pillows, turns on his side so his back is facing Baekhyun, and throws the covers over his head.

 

In the dark, Baekhyun watches the back of Chanyeol’s head, his poodle black hair spread on the pillow, and listens to his breathing slow down until it evens. Inevitably, the image of Chanyeol’s face only inches away from his haunts Baekhyun, his pink, chapped lips so close Baekhyun could tilt his chin up the slightest bit and…

 

With a sigh, Baekhyun lies on his back to stare at the ceiling. The branches outside the window draw creeping shadows above, a faint tapping on the window overridden by Chanyeol’s soft snoring.

 

After a while, Baekhyun decides that whatever happened in that tickle fight was just his imagination and his own tangled feelings messing with his reasoning. It was nothing, and Baekhyun is drowning in a glass of water. There are more important things to think about anyhow, like the portal in Yogoe, the list of missing people that keeps piling up, and… the fake smile on Chanyeol’s face at the restaurant earlier that night.

 

It must’ve been a trick of the light. Chanyeol’s family smiled fully and happily in the pictures, and Chanyeol shouldn’t have a reason to be discontented with his life… or is that Baekhyun projecting his own longing for a family onto Chanyeol?

 

“Chanyeol?” Baekhyun prompts quietly. He isn’t expecting a response, but it comes a moment later in the form of a grunt. “Where is your mom? Is she here in Seoul?”

 

“She’s in Busan,” Chanyeol answers drowsily. “We moved there after my dad died when I was thirteen.”

 

It catches Baekhyun off guard. But it’s said with the level of sincerity of a person who’s in the verge of sleep at two a.m., and who will probably regret it in the morning. Or not remember a word of it at all.

 

Spurred on by the blanket of darkness, Baekhyun queries, “Were you living there before you came to Yogoe?”

 

“I was living in Seoul.” Chanyeol’s words blend into a yawn, which he doesn’t bother to muffle. “I’m in my second year of literature in Yonsei. I’m in Yogoe just for the summer.”

 

Chanyeol trails off and the room is shrouded in silence again, interrupted only by the soft breathing coming from Chanyeol’s side of the bed. Baekhyun feels a kind of thrill, for this is the most he’s gotten from Chanyeol since he met him weeks ago, and he can’t shake the feeling of edging towards a great truth he’s been seeking for ages. At the same time, he feels slightly guilty that Chanyeol’s half-asleep and unaware, while Baekhyun is fully conscious.

 

So, Baekhyun resolves to exchanging truth for truth, a deal that Chanyeol would probably agree to any other time.

 

“I never met my dad,” Baekhyun confesses into the space between them. “Heechul says he left when my mom was pregnant, so I guess it’s understandable that I shouldn’t feel guilty about not missing him, because I’ve never felt that way about him, you know? I do sometimes wonder what it would be like to have my own family, whenever I see people with their families. Like when I met Jongdae’s family. But I only ever miss my mom. I do remember her, or bits of her, like her smile and her voice, but only faintly, because I’m starting to forget her—and that’s what I feel guilty about. Isn’t that terrible? Shouldn’t I miss both my parents? I don’t know.”

 

Baekhyun sometimes wonders if the bits he remembers about his mom—the faint memories, sometimes grainy and shrouded in white light, like she was standing against the sun—aren't memories at all. Perhaps they're fabricated, stolen from the few pictures he has of her. Moments Baekhyun only imagines he can remember.

 

During his teenage years, Baekhyun thought it was useless to imagine how different his life would be if his mother were there. But it’s all he seems to do as of late, especially with how confusing his life has gotten. If she were alive, would she approve of his life right now? Would she want him to be running around chasing ghosts instead of focusing on school, or would she tell him to stop like Heechul does? Would she hate it that he throws himself into danger for the sake of people who are not even alive?

 

His musings seem to have woken up Chanyeol at last, because he stirs, sighs, then blinks his large eyes at Baekhyun. There’s no irritation in them, only the deepest of understandings, as if Chanyeol knew exactly what Baekhyun was thinking.

 

In a husky voice, Chanyeol states, “I think it’s understandable. Human memory is tricky. How can we know whether all of our memories are real or fabricated? What we made of them? It’s understandable that you would forget details about her as time goes on, so you shouldn’t feel guilty about that. You should feel guilty only if you ever stop missing or loving her, and you forget what she meant to you. As a real memory or not.”

 

Chanyeol sounds sage, like he’s lived years beyond his age. Baekhyun is surprised, because he’d never expected this kind of wisdom from Chanyeol of all people. It’s not exactly sugarcoated nor blunt, but it comforts Baekhyun, albeit reluctantly, because this is exactly what he needed to hear.

 

But if they’re trading secret for secret, then it is Chanyeol’s turn.

 

In the gentlest tone he can manage, Baekhyun prompts, “Chanyeol, can you tell me about your family?”

 

A long pause. Chanyeol is quiet for so long, Baekhyun thinks he’s fallen back asleep. Then, he hears an exhale, light and measured. The kind from someone who is tasked to pet a dangerous animal against his will.

 

“I come from a powerful family that dates back centuries,” Chanyeol says in an even voice. “Some of my ancestors served kings or were kings at one point—the former sometimes in the literal or figurative sense. From early age, this pressure to be great was thrust upon me and my sister. We needed to be the best and everyone else would bow down to us. I spent more time studying and striving for accomplishments than playing like a normal kid. Or even seeing my parents.”

 

Chanyeol’s tone lacks the vanity from their first meetings. Baekhyun suspects that was another version of Chanyeol, a fictitious Chanyeol who wanted to uphold his family name, who is now buried beneath a dozen layers. It occurs to Baekhyun that getting to know Chanyeol has been a lot like peeling an onion—difficult at first, but easier the deeper he digs.

 

The next time Chanyeol speaks, it is an infinitely sad whisper. “My dad kept his sickness from us until it was too late. I spent every minute with him, even skipping class, because I didn’t care anymore. School and stupid honors had kept me away from him and now he was leaving. It took me a long time to forgive myself for that.” Chanyeol swallows thickly. Baekhyun wants to tell him to stop if it brings painful memories but he doesn’t dare to interrupt. Chanyeol releases a doleful sigh before continuing, “But my competitiveness came back stronger than ever. I just became even more motivated to excel in his memory. If I had sacrificed our time together to be the best, I needed to make that time worth it.”

 

Is that why he’s jealous of his sister, because he’s an overachiever? But it would be unfair to label Chanyeol that way because his reasons are far more noble than someone who merely works hard for achievements. Baekhyun had misjudged him terribly, and though he’d have never imagined Chanyeol’s backstory to be like this, it doesn’t reduce his shame.

 

“It’s one of the reasons I came here,” Chanyeol reveals quietly. “If I could solve whatever was happening here, imagine what that could do for my reputation as a necromancer.”

 

A pause stretches longer than Baekhyun would have liked. Baekhyun’s lost for words. What can he say when Chanyeol bared his heart like this? It certainly puts him at odds with the previous image he had of Chanyeol, but with every day they spend together, Baekhyun realizes that Chanyeol’s flaws are far outweighed by his virtues.

 

In the end, Baekhyun settles for a murmured, “Thanks for telling me that, Chanyeol.”

 

“Uh, you’re welcome,” Chanyeol says, lighter than a moment ago. “But can we go back to hating each other? This sharing-feelings thing is getting awkward.”

 

“Aaaand he’s back!” Baekhyun chirps. “You almost made me like you there for a second, but you had to open your mouth and remind me you’re dumb.”

 

“I’m one of the smartest people in my major,” Chanyeol retorts without any heat, flicking Baekhyun on the forehead. “So, fuck you.”

 

Baekhyun kicks Chanyeol lightly on the shin, just to ease the lingering strain in the room. He smiles at the huff it evokes. Chanyeol’s voice is coarse, deeper than it is when he’s wide awake, and it’s doing funny little things to Baekhyun’s stomach. He chalks it up to the spicy pork cutlets and the beer he had for dinner and leaves it at that.

 

Rubbing his forehead, Baekhyun scoffs. “Well, you’re not so bad. That’s all.”

 

“You’re not so bad, either,” Chanyeol responds. “Though you can be a little annoying sometimes, and I hate you for keeping me up right now.”

 

Despite the darkness, Baekhyun can see Chanyeol’s teeth displayed in a huge grin. In the little time he’s spent with Chanyeol, he’s gotten to know him better and faster than he’s done with any other person in his life. And he knows with certainty that someone like Chanyeol is incapable of harboring ill feelings towards another person.

 

Then, Baekhyun’s hand is moving like it has a mind of its own, sneaking from beneath the covers to card through Chanyeol’s hair. It’s not like Baekhyun has wondered about it, but Chanyeol’s hair is as soft as it looks, until he runs into a knot. For a second, it’s dangerous and thrilling—not unlike riding a roller coaster, up and up, and the tug in his stomach precedes the drop.

 

Chanyeol’s sharp inhale puts an abrupt end to the ride.

 

All the courage, as faint as it was, disappears in an instant. Baekhyun retrieves his hand, his inhibitions blinking back to full color.

 

Chanyeol blinks large eyes at him, searching, like he’s trying to suss out a secret. Baekhyun isn’t always willing to be an open book.

 

“I hate you, too,” Baekhyun mutters, yanking the bedding over his head. “Now, let’s sleep. I have work in the afternoon, and I’m gonna be in a pissy mood if I don’t get enough sleep tonight.”

 

A beat passes until Chanyeol chuckles, leaving his perplexity aside. To Baekhyun’s surprise, Chanyeol breaches no-man’s-land, scooting ever so close. Baekhyun doesn’t attempt to recover that lost space. In this proximity, he can hear Chanyeol’s breathing, slow and even, as clear as it were his own.

“You’re the one who can’t keep quiet,” Chanyeol exhales, burrowing into his pillow. “Goodnight, asshole.”

 

“Sleep tight, douchebag.”

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

They arrive in Yogoe a little after two the following afternoon.

 

The drive back to the town had been uneventful, with Baekhyun buying breakfast at a gas station before their departure, and again, fighting for who gets to pick the song playing on the radio. The rest of the trip

was spent with Baekhyun skipping songs as soon as Chanyeol got really into his rapping, and Baekhyun flinging M&M’s at Chanyeol’s head whenever he asked for one.

 

Chanyeol drops him off outside his apartment an hour before his shift. Baekhyun feels like death warmed over. He’s too young for his back to be hurting this bad.

 

“Goodbye,” Baekhyun says, shutting the passenger’s door. “I hope we never do that again. I hate sleeping in cars and it smelled like Jongdae hasn’t given the seats a good wash in years.”

 

Chanyeol hands Baekhyun the keys and they walk together to the scooter parked a few feet away, where Chanyeol had left it the previous day.

 

“It was fun to me.” Chanyeol shrugs. “Mostly I just liked poking fun at you and we helped someone out!”

 

“Yes, that really revs my engines,” Baekhyun mutters. He rakes a hand through his hair and winces at how oily it is. Chanyeol, in turn, looks like he could model for Tommy Hilfiger at any moment. “Where are you going now, by the way?”

 

“I’m going to train.” Chanyeol raises his eyebrows inquisitively, holding his helmet. “Why? Wanna come with?”

 

“No, I was just curious,” Baekhyun says, a tad defensive. He didn’t know where that came from, either. “I have work now, remember? I just wanna lie down for the rest of the day, though.”

 

“You could come and train with me tomorrow,” Chanyeol suggests. “As long as you want to, of course.”

 

Baekhyun studies Chanyeol’s face. There’s no hidden meaning in his voice, only plain and genuine earnestness. The kind he’s been getting accustomed to receiving from Chanyeol. Baekhyun can spy a hint of expectation, holding-one’s-breath sort of tension in his smile… which still manages to look so assured and handsome.

 

Chanyeol is considerate, Baekhyun reminds himself. He wants Baekhyun to improve, to be able to fight at the best of his abilities. Chanyeol is generous and soft-hearted and diligent. And despite what Chanyeol made him believe when they met, that he’d rather work alone and Baekhyun would only hold him back, Baekhyun is starting to believe the opposite. Chanyeol wants to include him in his life.

 

“Alright,” agrees Baekhyun in the end. “I’ll be there tomorrow morning.”

 

A grin snaps across Chanyeol’s face. “Alright,” he echoes. He puts on his helmet and fastens the latch. “Make sure to bring me ice cream, or I’ll have to charge you for entry.”

 

Throwing a peace sign over his shoulder, he drives off into the traffic, turning left when the light changes to green. As Baekhyun watches the scooter disappear around the corner, his own words from last night ricochet back to him. You’re not so bad. Baekhyun knows that their first impressions of each other were misguided, and it appears Chanyeol is bent on trying to prove it. Though no matter how outgoing Baekhyun tends to be, he’s never been the kind of person to trust or rely on people he’s recently met. All the bad experiences he’s had with his little ghost problem has made Baekhyun reluctant to let people into his life easily, lest they find out there is something abnormal about him and pull away in the end.

 

Chanyeol understands all of that. Perhaps he’s seen through Baekhyun’s tireless claim of independence and realized they’re not so different after all. Perhaps Baekhyun is sadly attracted to every man who is nice to him. In any case, Baekhyun can’t fathom everything that is Chanyeol’s entire being, much like the weird creatures lurking in Yogoe.

 

Baekhyun is a man of optimism. He takes pride in being a source of positivity for others, and he’s rarely seen without a smile. Today his mood is as muddy as the sky above. For many reasons. Chief of which that something strange is hunting down the people of this town, and Baekhyun doesn’t have a clue how to stop it. Lastly, that he’s developing a crush on the worst possible candidate, and Baekhyun doesn’t have a clue how to stop it. The prospect of work in an hour isn’t uplifting either.

 

“Everything’s so terrible,” Baekhyun exhales.

 

An old lady is giving him a funny look. Without paying her attention, he goes inside his building to take a shower and hopefully catch a few minutes of sleep while standing under the water spray.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Baekhyun gets to work fifteen minutes late, after falling asleep on the couch for a quick catnap that turned into a half-hour doze.

 

Minseok is waiting for him behind the counter, arms crossed and eyebrows knitted, looking like he’s five seconds from committing murder. As punishment for clocking in late, Baekhyun is sent to organize the products the truck had delivered that morning in the back room. Baekhyun complains loudly, but Minseok ushers him to the back by the collar of his work shirt, to the laughter of Jongdae, Nayeon, and all the patrons.

 

An hour into his task, Jongdae visits him in the storage, looking for a bag of chocolate sauce to resupply the container at the front.

 

“How was the trip, lovebird?”

 

“It was fine,” Baekhyun answers, ignoring Jongdae’s taunting smile. “You should wash your car sometime soon, though. It stank. I don’t know how you give girls rides in that thing.”

 

“I lend you my car and you complain?” Jongdae asks with feigned dismay. “This is so typical of you. I bet Chanyeol wouldn’t treat me like this.”

 

“Chanyeol is too nice to say it,” Baekhyun murmurs absently. He’s thinking of Chanyeol, and the kindness in his voice when he spoke to Jieun at the recital hall before she departed.

 

“What’s that?” Jongdae gasps. “A lovesick puppy look on your face? Wow, it’s only been a day, Byun Baekhyun. I didn’t know you were that easy.”

 

“I’m not easy!” Baekhyun rebukes, ready to slug Jongdae in the stomach. Jongdae jumps out of his reach, though, laughing. “Chanyeol is just… nice. Too nice, I’d say. Nicer than I thought he was originally.”

 

“Told you he was.” Jongdae pairs this with a whack on Baekhyun’s arm. “He’s got everyone wrapped around his finger, so you should be careful before he gets to you and you start liking men.”

 

Baekhyun flinches, passes it over a cough. What if I do like men is at the tip of his tongue. Jongdae is probably joking, but it does nothing to dissipate Baekhyun’s fear of his reaction. He’s never told Jongdae anything that would imply he isn’t straight, and he feels slightly guilty that he hasn’t shared this monumental discovery with his best friend. But Baekhyun wants to keep this secret for a little longer, dwell on its frightening complexity, at least until a better chance presents itself. If such a chance ever comes.

 

Their friendship is based on confessing things in a burp while sharing pizza and beer on the couch. Never giving each other so much as a second glance, no judgment passed between them. There isn’t a legitimate reason for Baekhyun to be wary, because this is Jongdae, his best friend since high school, who’s accepted Baekhyun and his weirdness, and yet—

 

Jongdae turns back to Baekhyun at the doorway, his face devoid of all mirth. For a second, Baekhyun fears he’s been found out, and Jongdae will demand to know why he didn’t bother telling his best friend about his slight but bothersome attraction to Chanyeol. But then Jongdae says, in a grave voice, “By the way, another person went missing.”

 

Trepidation creeps up the back of Baekhyun’s neck. “What?”

 

“It was one of Nayeon’s friends this time,” Jongdae tells him. “She’s pretending to be okay, but I know she’s sad. It’s just one of those disappearances going on lately that has people spooked. The papers say it might be a serial killer from out of town.”

 

It was easy to forget about the disappearances in those times he let his guard down and allowed Chanyeol to govern his thoughts. Reality hits Baekhyun with the force of a full bucket being dumped over his head.

 

“Jesus,” Baekhyun hisses. “I hope all the missing men show up soon. Alive.”

 

“How many are they now? Five?” Jongdae’s agitation is at odds with his ever-present cheerfulness. Baekhyun nods meekly, dropping his gaze. If Jongdae knew that more men will keep vanishing as long as Baekhyun doesn’t stop whatever is taking them…

 

“You should get back to work,” Baekhyun advises, trying on a smile to lighten the mood. It works like a trick, because Jongdae returns it in kind. “You don’t want Minseok to get angrier.”

 

Baekhyun wants to ask Nayeon about her friend, whether there is any connection to the other men who have gone missing so far, but he doesn’t want to put her under more distress. So he spends the rest of his shift trying to cheer Nayeon up, either by making her laugh or doing her work for her. Nayeon realizes early on of his ploy, but lets him continue, laughs at his jokes until she’s no longer faking it. A black cat that frequents the shop appears by the doors, and Nayeon pets it until the cat is nearly climbing into her lap.

 

During the bus ride back to his apartment, when Baekhyun is about to doze off against the window, he’s roused by his phone buzzing in his pocket.

 

It’s a text from Chanyeol. Are we still on for training tomorrow?

 

Can’t wait to kick your ass, Baekhyun types back.

 

 

 

****

 

 

 

Chanyeol is standing in front of his scooter holding two cups of coffee when Baekhyun leaves his apartment the next morning.

 

“Jongdae said you don’t like coffee,” Chanyeol says, presenting Baekhyun with one of the cups, “so I got a decaf mocha for you.”

 

“I don’t know what that means.” Baekhyun uncaps his cup and takes a sip. “But if it tastes like chocolate I’ll take it.” He peers at Chanyeol over the rim of his coffee. “To what do I owe the honor of seeing you outside my apartment this early, by the way? I thought we were meeting at the train station.”

 

Chanyeol shrugs a shoulder, his bottom lip jutting out as he studies his cup. “I just wanted to pick you up… it’s kind of a long way to the train tracks and I didn’t want you to pay for the bus ride. I invited you after all, didn’t I?”

 

“Such a gentleman,” Baekhyun jabs, taking a long gulp of his coffee to hide his bashful smile. Sadly, he can’t do much for the burning in his ears. The coffee scalds his tongue, so he yelps, sticking it out to let it cool down.

 

“Take it easy,” Chanyeol laughs, ruffles Baekhyun’s hair. “You’re so impatient.” Baekhyun scowls, scrunches his nose at Chanyeol, and Chanyeol visibly softens, almond eyes mellowed. Baekhyun is melting, like sugar cubes dropped into a cup of coffee. A couple of black strands have fallen across Chanyeol’s forehead, and Baekhyun is dying to remove them, brush his fingers over his cheekbones, his jaw, his neck...

 

Chanyeol has a girlfriend, a little voice inside him says. He crumbles the wayward thoughts of touching Chanyeol like a piece of paper and tosses it to the back of his mind.

 

Chanyeol clears his throat of cobwebs, perching on a smile that is tighter than his regular one. “I brought pastries, too! We can eat them when we’re at the station.”

 

Baekhyun finishes his coffee and hops on the back of the scooter.

 

The abandoned train tracks are quiet and beautiful like last time, shot through with sunlight. The scent of dewy grass fills Baekhyun’s senses, and a fainter smell of urine, which Baekhyun tries to overlook.

 

They train under the shadow of the abandoned train again. Chanyeol teaches Baekhyun a couple of new moves, and Baekhyun learns fast without much difficulty. He can tell Chanyeol is going easy on him, but he’s thankful Chanyeol is teaching him at all, so he pretends not to notice.

 

“You were better than last time,” Chanyeol says, in a kind voice. “And you’re going to keep getting better.”

 

“Thanks,” Baekhyun murmurs absently, though he’s blushing under the praise.

 

Chanyeol throws his head back, relishing in the sun. Don’t stare. But his gaze does not obey him. It travels the path of sunlight, tracing Chanyeol’s adam’s apple, his collarbones peeking from the neck of his tank top, his toned arms…

 

Stop staring. Too late. Chanyeol lifts his head and catches Baekhyun in the act. Baekhyun averts his eyes and busies himself with picking pebbles from the dirt.

 

In a desperate need to break the silence before it gets weirder, Baekhyun asks, nonchalant, “So, what do you think of our little town, city boy?”

 

“I love Yogoe,” Chanyeol says easily. “I thought I would go nuts during the first week after living all my life in big cities, but I really like it here. It’s small and quaint, I can see myself spending a lot of time in a place like this.”

 

“What do you mean,” Baekhyun starts, rubbing his knees with the heel of his palm, “like, moving here?”

 

“No,” Chanyeol corrects without a second thought. “I mean visiting the country in the summer or something. And you should totally visit Seoul again in the future.”

 

Chanyeol’s gaze is unwavering, and Baekhyun can’t hold it for long. “Why, so you can show me around and get us lost again?” Imagining the future after Chanyeol isn’t exactly Baekhyun’s favorite activity. “Anyways, aren’t you thankful that seer told you to come here?”

 

“I am,” Chanyeol agrees with a grin. “She was right in the end. I don’t see why you would be so reticent to see one if this is proof that their predictions can be accurate.”

 

Irritation prickles at Baekhyun like an itch. “Why do you believe in seers so much? Is that why you were so insistent on me seeing one? Well, I did visit a seer and she told me nothing useful.” Baekhyun quirks an eyebrow at Chanyeol haughtily, paired with a smirk. “So there you have it.”

 

“Why is it so hard for you to believe in them?” Chanyeol snaps back. “You see dead people, Bruce Willis. Why is it so hard for you believe there are things that can be predicted? You’re being irrational.”

 

“Bruce Willis isn’t the one who sees ghos—Ugh, forget it!” Baekhyun throws his arms up in frustration. “You’re telling me it’s irrational to not believe in people who can read tea leaves and tell you you’re going to die in a week? That’s goddamn rich.”

 

Chanyeol stands up abruptly, snatching his backpack. “You’re infuriating. “Why did you never tell me about this? And here I thought I could…” He shakes his head. “Nevermind.

 

“What’s the real reason you came here?” Baekhyun demands, getting to his feet. “I know you didn’t tell me the whole truth!”

 

“Are you mad because I keep secrets from you?” Chanyeol looks bewildered. “Now that’s rich. You keep more secrets than anyone I know. You still haven’t told me why you never talk about Kyungsoo.” His eyes disappear into slits. “Or what the seer told you. That sounds like something you should’ve shared with me because we’re chasing the thing terrorizing this town together. Or so I thought.”

 

Chanyeol slings his backpack over his shoulder rather forcefully, and its contents thud against his back. But he doesn’t seem to care, because the crossness on his face doesn’t fade.

 

“Maybe it was a mistake to come here after all,” Chanyeol says, then he storms off without another word, leaving Baekhyun to stare at his retreating back along the railroads.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

There is a pile of red flyers next to the cash register on the counter. FAMOUS YOGOE GHOST FESTIVAL reads in bold white letters at the top, a picture of a cartoonish ghost with the blanket and holes for eyes in the middle of the paper. The date is for July the seventh—two weeks from now, but the organizers usually start giving them away early so tourists passing through town can stay back and attend.

 

Baekhyun had seen the posters pasted on shop windows on his way to work that day, and the air was charged with that electric sort of anticipation before an event, like Chuseok or Seollal. This festival is the most exciting thing that happens all year round in Yogoe. Mugs, sweets, masks, shirts and all types of merchandise are designed around this festival, making it the main tourist attraction of the town.

 

“You’ve been staring at that flyer for an hour,” Jongdae says, coming up beside him. “What did it ever do to you?”

 

“Nothing,” Baekhyun answers distractedly, tearing his eyes away from the cartoon ghost. “I’m just bored.”

 

It’s not entirely a lie. Today, the parlor is rather empty, with just a few patrons littering the shop. Not a single costumer has come in half an hour, and Baekhyun is starting to consider if he should give the counter another scrub, despite having done so an hour ago.

 

“So, are you going out with us on Friday?”

 

“Where?” Baekhyun asks before his brain catches up with his mouth. Jongdae raises a thin eyebrow at him.

 

“I told you earlier we were going to The Peak.” Jongdae cocks his hip. “Is there seriously nothing wrong with you?”

 

“No, really.” Baekhyun gives a smile for good measure, but it feels strained even to him. “Maybe I’m just tired. I stayed up late last night playing Overwatch.”

 

Baekhyun fumbles under Jongdae’s piercing stare because he can’t be fooled. Lately, Baekhyun has been spending his nights tossing and turning in his bed for many reasons. Some of them are about the portal, the ghosts that haunt Yogoe, and everything Baekhyun isn’t doing to stop it. Another reason is Chanyeol, whom he hasn’t seen in days, but that’s neither here nor there.

 

“But if there’s something bothering you,” Jongdae presses, soft and inviting, “you can talk to me, Baekhyun.”

 

Jongdae doesn’t know what’s going on either. Baekhyun hasn’t told him so as to not worry him, and because Jongdae, being his noble and loyal self, would want to help Baekhyun without considering the risks. And the look he’s giving Baekhyun right now, like he knows there are things Baekhyun isn’t telling him, is too much for Baekhyun to bear. Baekhyun is going to tell him, but not now, when there’s so much in his head.

 

“I’ll tell you everything that’s going on,” Baekhyun reassures, looking straight at Jongdae, “but not now, okay? I need to sort out everything in my head first.”

 

Jongdae’s face is etched with concern, and something akin to disappointment flashes across his expression—a disappointment that burns a cigarette-sized hole on Baekhyun’s soul. There are few things Baekhyun dislikes, and even fewer that he hates. At the top of the latter list are cucumbers and letting down his best friend.

 

“Baekhyun…”

 

Before his determination can waver, Baekhyun grabs the nearest bag of straws and walks away with it to refill the container at the far end of the counter. He notices the M&M’s container is empty, so he heads to the back for a couple of bags to leave behind the counter.

 

The light in the storage room takes a handful of seconds to turn on, flickering a few times before it works, and Baekhyun wouldn’t give it much thought any other day, if it weren’t for the cold hanging in the air like fog. He looks around but sees nothing beyond the shelves covered with rows upon rows of boxes. Nothing that seems out of the ordinary.

 

He saunters over to the shelf where the M&M’s should be and, ripping open the box, he takes out the bags. He’s about to return to the front when a shadow in his periphery catches his attention.

 

It was too fast to be human and too tall to be a stray animal. Baekhyun stands there, looking around, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever it was that moved—but there’s nothing in sight.

 

Then, the lights flicker off and on again. The hairs on the back of his neck stand on end with the feeling that he’s being watched. An invisible presence looming over him and watching him from the shadows.

 

He’s heading towards the door when the lights switch off completely. With the darkness comes the feeling of something standing right behind him, stepping on his heels, breathing on his neck.

 

A suffocating sensation closes around his throat, as if all of the air was sucked from his lungs and a stone, heavy as a mountain, sat in his chest. Baekhyun drops the bags and runs towards the back, where a door leads to the back alley.

 

Baekhyun exhales deeply, as if he had been submerged in the ocean for too long. A black smudge moves out of the corner of his eye, and he jumps as an empty bottle rolls over the cement.

 

It’s a cat.

 

A black cat, staring up at him with big, green eyes, meowing for his attention.

 

Baekhyun sighs, slumping against the brick wall. A laugh bubbles out of him, breathless with relief. He puts a hand over his heart, beating a mile a minute, and crouches down in front of the cat with the intention of petting him.

 

“I can’t believe I was scared of you.”

 

The cat meows again, a monotone sound, like the animal was bored. Its green eyes rove over Baekhyun’s face, and it gives him the odd sensation of being inspected. But the cat bumps its head against Baekhyun’s hand, which had been hanging limply over his knee, prompting Baekhyun to pet it.

 

The door barges open next to him, startling him once again.

 

“What are you doing out here?” Jongdae looks from Baekhyun to the cat. “Weren’t you going to get some M&M’s?”

 

“I felt kind of weird,” Baekhyun tells him. “So I came out to get some fresh air.”

 

“Are you alright?” Jongdae sits on the steps leading to the door. “You look pale, like you’ve just seen—”

 

“A ghost?” Baekhyun laughs mirthlessly. “I probably just got dizzy. The lights went off so I got disoriented.”

 

Baekhyun doesn’t know why he’s lying like this. It’s probably because he’s aware it wasn’t anything he could explain, anything he had encountered before. The pressure on his chest was real and the tingling around his neck lingered, like invisible hands were trying to crush his windpipe.

 

The mere thought that this could’ve been a real thing terrifies him. It’s easier to pretend it was his imagination.

 

“I’m sorry for nagging you,” Jongdae mutters, scrubbing the heel of his sneaker on the ground. “It wasn’t my intention to put pressure on you. It’s okay if you have stuff you can’t tell me just yet, and it’s okay too if you don’t wanna go to The Peak with us.”

 

All of this is said through gritted teeth, while Jongdae pouts at the asphalt below. Jongdae is terrible at expressing his feelings out loud, and Baekhyun can barely hold back a laugh at his struggle.

 

“It’s fine—”

 

“And I’m sorry for constantly teasing you about Chanyeol—”

 

“Jongdae, it’s—”

 

“And I’m sorry for inviting him to go out with us on Friday.”

 

“What?” Baekhyun’s voice is squeaky, so he clears his throat and tries again. “You invited Chanyeol to hang out with us?”

 

“Yeah.” Jongdae’s smile is comically awkward, a square-shaped grimace. “He came by the shop the other day when you weren’t here, and Nayeon mentioned we were going out right in front of him. It would’ve been rude not to invite him.”

 

Jongdae knowing about their argument was accidental rather than intentional. Jongdae had been in the immediate path of Baekhyun’s storm, sitting on the couch when a raging Baekhyun got home, and he hadn’t had a chance to escape before his friend exploded into a lengthy rant. It involved less specifics about the argument and more scathing descriptions about Chanyeol: Chanyeol’s dumbo ears, his dumb, bowed legs and his dumb, infuriating personality and how he didn’t want to see him ever again.

 

Baekhyun’s shock isn’t due to Chanyeol going to The Peak, but because he had expected Chanyeol to be back in Seoul by now, since he hadn’t texted nor visited the parlor in the past week. At least, not during Baekhyun’s shifts.

 

It’s a strange cocktail of exasperation and relief and elation, simmering right under his skin. Baekhyun doesn’t know what to make of these feelings, whether they mean anything at all—but he decides to put this issue on the back burner for now.

 

He’s certain if he told Chanyeol about the scare he just had he would laugh at first, but consider it seriously a moment later, with that little frown he gets when he’s focused on something.

 

Not for the first time, Baekhyun ponders if Chanyeol’s been doing alright during the days they’ve not spoken to each other. Those thoughts are usually reserved for the sleepless nights, but the yearning infused in them is clearer against the broad daylight.

 

And that’s it, Baekhyun firmly resolves. No more thinking about Chanyeol for today.

 

“It’s fine with me.” Baekhyun shrugs with feigned disinterest. “He can do whatever he wants.”

 

Jongdae’s gaze is knowing. “Right.”

 

“Did you know he has a girlfriend?” Baekhyun asks. “He only told me recently. We’ve known him for almost a month, and he didn’t mention her even once.”

 

“He did tell me,” Jongdae says. “He even showed me a picture of her, because I joked that he was lying, and—” He whistles, shaking his head. “She’s hot, Baekhyun. I don’t know what she sees in Chanyeol, but we all have our charms, I guess.”

 

“Chanyeol isn’t that bad,” Baekhyun retorts, and immediately regrets it when Jongdae’s eyebrows shoot up to his hairline. “Forget I said that.”

 

“I’m never forgetting that,” Jongdae says. “Anyways, you have to come out with us on Friday so I can introduce you to Sunyoung’s friend. She’s pretty and nice and smart.”

 

“Are you trying to set me up with someone?”

 

“You need to get laid, Baekhyun.” Jongdae smacks his knee. “It can’t be good for you to be so focused on ghosts and dead people all the time. You need to go out and hang out with living people.” His lips curl into a satisfied smirk. “And I know Mina is the perfect match for you. She’s got legs like a model and laughs at anything, so you can be as lame as you want around her.”

 

Baekhyun isn’t so sure about the last part. Baekhyun has seen the way Jongdae looks at Sunyoung, the giddiness in his eyes, and he’s sure he hasn’t felt that for a girl in a long time. He isn’t sure if he ever felt it in the first place. Certainly none of the girls he kissed at parties or under bleachers after class ever made a lasting impression. He contemplates telling Jongdae that lately his wet dreams involve a little less curves and more hard sides, that his type isn’t cute, short girls, and more like... well, tall, handsome guys.

 

That lately, the only time his stomach fills with butterflies is when he’s with Chanyeol. That ever since Chanyeol stormed off on him at the train tracks, there has been little else in Baekhyun’s mind besides Chanyeol. But delving into that entire ordeal, Baekhyun senses, would be like probing a beehive with a stick and waiting for the swarm of bees to attack.

 

So, Baekhyun stares down at the dirty gravel and doesn’t tell Jongdae any of this.

 

“We’ll see about that,” Baekhyun says instead, and stands up. “Let’s go back now, Nayeon can’t man the shop alone or we’re gonna get yelled at.”

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

When Baekhyun’s shift is over, he takes the bus to the business part of Yogoe, where local shops thrive in the gentrified area.

 

The antique shop looks as quaint and anachronic as the first time Baekhyun stepped foot in it. There is an elderly woman perusing the shop who throws Baekhyun nervous glances when he enters, and Baekhyun eyes the white cat she has on a leash with a slight frown.

 

“Hello,” Yoona greets cheerfully, “how can I help you?”

 

“Noona, you don’t remember me?” Baekhyun cracks a grin. “I bought a book the other day.”

 

“Oh, right!” Yoona’s smile is blinding. “You were with that tall guy who studied Korean folklore, right?”

 

Baekhyun’s heart falters at the mention of Chanyeol, but the smile on his face remains intact. The elderly lady and the cat leave then, and Yoona only spares her a “Come back soon!” before she’s gone.

 

“Right,” Baekhyun mutters. “I’m all alone now and I have the book I bought with me. I was wondering if you could help me with something.”

 

“Sure,” Yoona says. “What is it?”

 

Baekhyun slings his backpack to his front, unzips it, and pulls out the book. Yoona takes it with reverent hands, the same way Junmyeon used to treat books. There’s a lingering pause while Baekhyun is distracted with this thought, and he doesn’t notice Yoona staring quizzically at him.

 

“Ah, it’s just… I wanted to know about the author,” Baekhyun says, tapping the cover. “I haven’t been able to find anything about them.”

 

Baekhyun has been slowly reading the book about the underworld gods and goddesses from cultures around the world, but the author is what draws his attention the most. All the search results in the internet come up with nothing, and it’s piqued Baekhyun’s curiosity even more.

 

“I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about them either,” Yoona says. “But I think I can tell you where we got this book from, because most of the books we have are donated to us by collectors, or my boss finds them in her travels.”

 

Yoona types on the computer at the counter while humming under her breath. The humming turns into a single, puzzled sound that makes Baekhyun look to the screen.

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

“The donor’s name is anonymous,” Yoona says. “But it was a donation made to this shop on May 6th, 1992.”

 

“That’s... that’s the day I was born,” Baekhyun says with incredulity. “But it must be a coincidence.”

 

Baekhyun ponders on a list of things that seemed to be more than they were at first glance. Chanyeol is starting to rub off on him, because Baekhyun doesn’t want to brush this off as merely coincidental.

 

“Or maybe you were meant to find it.” Yoona winks, smiling. “Stuff like that happens all the time.”

 

“That’s true,” Baekhyun agrees, though he’s not sure he quite believes it. “Oh, and there’s something else!”

 

Yoona chuckles as Baekhyun flips through the pages until he finds the one he’d dog-eared.

 

“It’s an origin story for a goddess who was stripped away of her divinity after being filled with greed and ambition,” Baekhyun says. “I’m not sure I’m reading the old hangul right… so I thought you could help me with it? I got zero results with the name I read.”

 

Yoona smiles kindly and reads from the page. “It’s Sunmi, the goddess of the underworld. The ghost festival was made to give her offerings around the Goryeo era.”

 

“Is it… the same goddess who ate men?” Baekhyun frowns. “But wasn’t she a good goddess?”

 

“Well, as the story says, she was condemned to guide the dead after she became too ambitious,” Yoona says, giving an eye roll. “Women can’t have too much power, you see. Not even the fictional ones. Men will get pissed eventually.”

 

Baekhyun laughs. “But you are a real goddess, noona!”

 

“Baekhyunnie, don’t say things like that!” Yoona laughs, flushed to her ears. “I was having such a dreary day until you showed up… Thank you.”

 

“I wanted to come see you, noona,” Baekhyun says. Then, he adds, in a faltering voice, “You looked a bit sad the other day, I thought you could use some cheering up.”

 

Yoona smiles gratefully as she tucks her hair behind her ear. Baekhyun doesn’t want to mention Junmyeon, not only because it’ll make her distraught, but because he doesn’t want her to think it’s the one of the reasons behind his visit. If Baekhyun misses him, he can’t imagine how much Yoona or Hyoyeon must feel.

 

Baekhyun should visit Hyoyeon to check up on her, but as the days bore on, his resolve fades. He can’t stand the thought of looking into Hyoyeon’s haunted eyes, seeing the sadness painted in stark colors on her face, while he hasn’t made any real progress in finding who took her brother from her. Even looking at Yoona like this, grateful for some kind of joy, puts another concrete block over the mounting stack of guilt.

 

“Thank you, Baekhyunnie,” Yoona says. “I really appreciate it.” She sniffs, wiping her nose with the back of her hand. “I’m going to make some tea. Do you want some?”

 

Yoona walks to the door leading to the back of the shop. Baekhyun can’t see it clearly, because her face is covered by a curtain of black hair, but her eyes seem to be sparkling. Baekhyun is torn between keeping Yoona company, and walking out the door, leaving all his guilt here.

 

“Sure,” Baekhyun answers in a choked voice. “I’d like some tea.”

 

Baekhyun drums his fingers over the book, humming as he waits for Yoona—then, the sound of china breaking, and a muted shout, jolts him out of his stupor. Baekhyun careens into the door Yoona had gone through and stops in a narrow room. Yoona is standing in the center with her elbows raised, facing something that raises the hair on the back of Baekhyun’s neck.

 

There is a creature crawling on the floor, its skin liquid, dripping like mud. Its face is elongated, eyeless sockets occupying most of it, a gaping hole where a mouth should be. Baekhyun realizes that the creature is missing the lower part of its body, so its ribs are exposed, making a jarring scraping sound on the wooden board as its upper body drags itself with skeletal arms.

 

“What is that?!” Yoona screams. “Baekhyun?!”

 

Baekhyun snakes his hand under the back of his shirt and pulls out his blade from the holster tied around his waist. With a silent command, the blade enlarges, loops around the tip, and thrums like the blood running to his heart, as though it was happy to serve Baekhyun. It’s been weeks since he’s had a reason to use it and Baekhyun had missed it as well.

 

“Noona, stay back,” he commands, stepping forward. “Stand behind me.”

 

“What’s th—” Yoona’s expression is stricken with fright. “Is that a blade?!”

 

“I’m a necromancer,” Baekhyun throws over his shoulder. “I can see ghosts.”

 

“That’s what that thing is?” Yoona asks. “A ghost?”

 

“I have no idea,” Baekhyun replies. “But it looks like it.”

 

The creature jerks a claw-like hand towards Baekhyun’s foot, which he dodges by a hair’s breadth. Without wasting a second, Baekhyun lurches forward and plunges the blade into the creature, slicing its neck neatly. The creature begins to disintegrate into hundreds of firefly lights, fading into thin air as they float to the ceiling. There is a dark stain where it was lying, leaving behind a putrid smell that is going to be hard to get rid of even with the best chemicals on the market.

 

“What the fuck was that?” Yoona wonders. Her eyes widen as she flattens her palm over her chest. “Excuse me for cursing, Baekhyunnie… I’m so glad you were here!”

 

“I wanted to tell you before,” Baekhyun apologizes in a wheeze. “But I never found the right time…”

 

“It’s fine.” Yoona shakes her head. “It’s not something you just pop up in a conversation, I guess. I’ve never seen something like that before. I’m just… I’m a simple wizard and I don’t even do magic anymore… What could I have done to defend myself against that thing?”

 

Baekhyun shudders at thought of Yoona finding it on her own… He can’t begin to fathom why that creature was in her shop’s kitchen for starters. And why was only its upper body formed? Baekhyun had never seen a mutated ghost before, but it’s the best description he has for what he saw.

 

“Good thing you had me here, huh,” Baekhyun quips. He commands the blade to shrink and slips it back into its holster. “You should call me if anything comes up again.”

 

“Thank you, Baekhyunnie,” Yoona says, grabbing his arm. “Ever since Junmyeon… Kim Junmyeon, the bookshop owner, went missing, things have been so… weird. I don’t know to explain it, but I have this constant feeling that something is going to happen.”

 

“I have that feeling too sometimes,” Baekhyun says, voice lowered. “I’m so sorry about Junmyeon, by the way…”

 

“It’s fine.” Yoona nods, smiling weakly. “I still have the hope he’s going to show up one of these days… I can’t lose that hope.”

 

Something inside Baekhyun shatters. He needs to get out of there before Yoona notices.

 

“I gotta go now.” Baekhyun bows briskly, his smile wavering like his voice. “Please take care of yourself.”

 

“Baekhyunnie!”

 

Baekhyun ignores her calls of his name. Striding out of the shop, Baekhyun waits until he’s in the street to take a huge gulp of breath.

 

“Are you okay?”

 

A girl stands next to him, leaning over with worry. It’s the ghost Baekhyun met in the street that night after The Peak, while he waited for Yixing to grab a bottle of water for Baekhyun.

 

“What are you doing here?”

 

“I died two blocks from here,” she informs him. It’s said in a cheerful voice, like he just asked her about her favorite bakery. “What are you doing here? You look a little faint…”

 

“I’m fine, I was just…” Suddenly, an idea crosses Baekhyun’s mind. “Do you know anything about what’s affecting the ghosts?”

 

“Affecting?” The ghost blinks twice. “You mean the ones who have been more violent than usual?” She shakes her head. “I don’t know… but I can ask around? Someone must have an idea of what’s going on. I’ve noticed it too.”

 

“There is a portal that is open or about to open here in Yogoe,” Baekhyun tells her, “and it’s affecting the ghosts in some way. But I don’t know where it is or who’s doing it or how they’re doing it. And why would a demon want to break loose from the underworld?”

 

“Well, that’s a no brainer,” the ghost girl says. “All demons want is to feast on human souls.”

 

“But they can do that in the underworld! There are hundreds of souls there!”

 

“If a demon were to break out for real, then they wouldn’t only feast on souls, would they?” The ghost raises her eyebrows meaningfully. “They’d be able to feast on real flesh because they would be part of this dimension. I’ve heard tales of a demon who tried to break free once because she tricked a necromancer… and the necromancer tricked her as well, it seems, because she was sent back to her dimension before she could wreak havoc in this world.”

 

“And when did that happen?”

 

“I don't know.” The ghost shrugs both shoulders. “Maybe twenty years ago or so. Your memory starts to get kinda wonky after so many years…”

 

“Could you ask around for me?”

 

“Sure!” The ghost claps her hands. “By the way, where’s your good-looking friend?”

 

“Who?” Baekhyun asks. “Yixing?”

 

“No, the other one,” the ghost girl says. “The tall one with the large ears! He’s so cute. All the ghosts have been gushing about him lately.”

 

“Oh, Chanyeol.” Baekhyun exhales in tandem with the flip of his heart. “We’re not speaking right now. It’s complicated.”

 

“Is it really complicated?” The ghost girl smiles. “Or is it just that men are too stubborn to talk things out?”

 

Baekhyun throws her an impassive look. The ghost snickers like she knows she’s hit the nail on the head.

 

“Anyways, that would be all,” Baekhyun says. “I’d really appreciate it if you could do this for me.”

 

“Alright! I’ll come find you in the next few days.” The girl gives him a thumbs-up. “Goodbye!”

 

The ghost steps into the wall and fades into the bricks. Baekhyun realizes then that he’d been speaking to a ghost in plain daylight, in a remotely busy street, so he scurries towards the bus stop and ignores the strange looks from two teenagers on a bench nearby.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Baekhyun and Jongdae meet Nayeon and Jongin outside The Peak on Friday night, where there is already a sizeable crowd waiting to be let in under the red neon sign. The air is fresher here than when they’d left home, so Baekhyun is thankful for the denim jacket he’d decided on. Baekhyun had spent a good thirty minutes in front of the mirror doing a last-minute skin care routine and fixing his hair, which he’d dyed a pale blond in the afternoon. Jongdae had to drag him out of the bathroom so he could take a shower.

 

Jongin and Nayeon didn’t notice their arrival, because they’re grouped around a girl—Mina, Baekhyun guesses—and laughing at whatever she’s saying. Jongdae was right, Mina is pretty. She has a round face and lips that could make someone like Jongdae swoon. But Jongdae is too caught up on Sunyoung, who is expected to arrive later with Amber in tow.

 

“I don’t think we’ve met,” Baekhyun says, snapping a charming smile for her. “I’m Baekhyun.”

 

“Mina,” she answers sweetly. “Nice to meet you.”

 

“Jongdae didn’t say you were so lovely,” Baekhyun says, laying the flirting on thick, because that’s how he is. Mina laughs, tucks her hair behind her ear, visibly bashful but charmed. She has a cute laugh, the kind Baekhyun would like to hear again.

 

“There’s Chanyeol!” Jongdae announces.

 

Chanyeol ambles down the sidewalk with that awkward gait, waddling along like a newborn duckling tailing its mother. It’s not particularly attractive, but his legs are in those tight black jeans, ripped on his thighs and knees, so it shows the wiry muscle underneath. Chanyeol’s wearing a leather jacket over a plain white shirt, the first time Baekhyun has seen him without a sweatshirt, and he looks incredibly attractive. Baekhyun gets the impulse to smile, because he’d truly missed Chanyeol, but he remembers he’s supposed to be mad. His face remains impenetrable as Chanyeol’s gaze lands on him, then shifts to the rest of the group without a flicker of emotion.

 

“Hey, you made it!” Jongdae and Chanyeol do a handshake, which makes Baekhyun raise a brow. He had no idea they were so close.

 

“Great, now Chanyeol-hyung is here,” Jongin chirps, “he can pay for our drinks.”

 

“I’m not spending a single won on you, Jonginnie,” Chanyeol retorts. He puts Jongin in a headlock and lets him go only when Jongin starts to wheeze with laughter. “You’re such a brat.”

 

When Chanyeol is introduced to Mina, he’s as flirtatious and delightful as Baekhyun had been. Even under the dim lighting, Baekhyun can tell Mina is blushing. Baekhyun tells himself that the sting near his solar plexus is acid reflux and not a certain little green monster peeking its head.

 

A wave of heat and smoke hits Baekhyun as they enter the club. They slide into a booth, pressing together to fit in the tight space. Chanyeol gets himself a stand-alone chair and sits next to Mina, who’s now wedged between Chanyeol and Baekhyun. Right off the bat, Chanyeol engages Mina in conversation; apparently, they’re both literature majors in different universities, and most of the books and authors mentioned fly right over Baekhyun’s head.

 

Chanyeol hasn’t glanced in his direction since they sat down, too immersed in his discussion of Korean poetry with Mina to acknowledge him. Sunyoung had arrived without Amber, so now she sits close to Jongdae, whispering into each other’s ears, not unlike how Jongin and Nayeon are speaking right now. Baekhyun takes a long sip of his beer, annoyance rising inside him like the bubbles in his drink at being the odd one out in a table full of couples. He feels ambushed. If he’d known it would turn out to be a couples night, perhaps he wouldn’t have come out.

 

The music is nice, but the place is stuffy, so he decides to go to the roof terrace to breathe. Jongdae sends him a questioning look, which Baekhyun answers by pointing upwards and flapping his jacket. With a parting nod, Jongdae returns to looking at Sunyoung like she hung the moon as if there hadn’t been any interruption.

 

The terrace is packed with people as a band performs on the mini stage at the front. Baekhyun squeezes himself through the crowd to get to the bar, craving hard liquor instead of beer. Then, his eye catches something that makes him stop in his tracks. Among the sea of bodies is that woman Baekhyun saw at the parlour weeks ago, the one who had recommended him to see Sooyoung. She’s wearing a black suit, staring straight at him with those small, dark eyes that hold a thousand secrets. In the next second, she slips behind a man, and disappears.

 

Baekhyun darts toward the woman, unmindful of the indignant protests as he shoves past people. When he reaches the spot where she had been seconds ago, she’s gone, lost within the throng as if she had vanished into thin air.

 

“Are you looking for someone?”

 

Mina is standing right behind him, looking up at him with a simper. Baekhyun hadn’t even noticed her following him to the terrace.

 

“No, I was…” Baekhyun murmurs, distracted by the moving crowd. The woman is nowhere to be found. “I thought I saw someone I know, but I lost them.” The beer isn’t enough to cloud his judgment, so he doubts his mind is playing tricks on him.

 

“Wanna talk for a bit?” Mina offers, cocking her head. She looks adorable. “We couldn’t chat downstairs with everyone else in the way.”

 

Baekhyun is about to turn her down and head towards the bar when something in her gaze makes him change his mind. His head is hazy all of a sudden, like he’s had a bottle of whiskey instead of a single cheap beer. Blindly, he lets Mina guide him towards a secluded section of the veranda, breathing through his mouth as the floor moves unsteadily beneath his feet. The sight of the town is breathtaking, beautiful with its own smallness, the lights swaying in and out of focus.

 

“Is there something wrong?” Mina’s voice warps and curls into his ears like an insect. “Are you sick?”

 

Gripping the railings, Baekhyun closes his eyes as a wave of nausea hits the back of his throat. When he opens his eyes again, the street below is gone. In its place is a sparkling ocean, the sound of the waves drifting peacefully, and the sunlight on his face so real, it’s like he’s been transported to a cruise in the Caribbean.

 

A woman’s voice calls out to him from the waves. Baekhyun bends over the railings to take a closer look. His heart jumps at the realization that it’s his mother, swimming leisurely in his direction, beckoning him with a beaming smile.

 

Mom, Baekhyun thinks, I gotta get to mom.

 

Baekhyun!

 

“Mom,” Baekhyun mumbles. “I’ve missed you so much…”

 

Baekhyun stretches his arm outward, leaning further down, trying desperately to reach his mother. Then, like a light being switched off, the scenery changes. The azure sea darkens to black, murky water, and the face of the woman below pales until she resembles a decomposing corpse, her mouth a lipless gash that wails and screeches, the veins winding across her body and face black as night. It’s too late for Baekhyun to pull away, as he’s dangling precariously from the railing and the woman is climbing up the wall rapidly in his direction.

 

“Baekhyun!”

 

The mirage ends abruptly as Baekhyun is snatched from the edge and pulled against a solid form. It’s like someone has amped up all the volume in the world, because now he can hear the cries and distressed voices of people around him, and the frantic rhythm of his own breathing, the blood rushing in his ears and the pounding of his heart that tells him he’s alive.

 

Belatedly, he takes notes that his face is shoved against someone’s chest, arms wound around him strong as vines. Glancing up, he sees Chanyeol’s face, streaked with worry.

 

“What were you doing?” Chanyeol’s voice is frantic. “Are you okay?”

 

With his hand on Chanyeol’s bicep, Baekhyun makes to pull away, but his legs are wobbly—so he stays in the embrace, trying to catch his bearings.

 

“I’m fine.” He gulps. “There was someone here… Mina…”

 

“Mina?” Chanyeol blinks, befuddled. “She’s been with us the whole time on the first floor.”

 

“There was someone with me who looked like Mina, Chanyeol,” Baekhyun insists breathlessly. “She brought me here and then I… I saw my mom…”

 

Chanyeol’s frown deepens. Then, as if realizing where they are, he glances around and pries one of his arms away, keeping the other one around Baekhyun to lead him away from the veranda.

 

“Let’s get going,” Chanyeol mutters. “We can’t bring attention to ourselves.”

 

The crowd parts like the red sea when they make their way to the staircase, whispering and sending them odd looks. Perhaps fearing that whatever drug Baekhyun took to have him hanging from the terrace of a club might also be in their drinks.

 

To Baekhyun’s relief, Chanyeol doesn’t lead them back to the group. Instead, they head straight to the street, Baekhyun gulping in the brisk summer breeze, and leaning heavily on Chanyeol as he hails a cab for both of them.

 

The cab driver doesn’t look back as they pile into the backseat and hits the gas even before they could give him an address. Baekhyun slumps into the leather seat, leaning against Chanyeol, dizziness fogging his mind like he’s just woken up from a long dream. Chanyeol rattles off directions to the driver, and Baekhyun notices, when Chanyeol shifts, that he has yet to remove his arm from Baekhyun’s waist.

 

“Now, tell me what happened,” Chanyeol demands. His voice dips lower, soft as velvet, and it soothes Baekhyun’s nerves. “If you’re not too tired, of course. We could wait until tomorrow.”

 

Baekhyun shakes his head resolutely. “I need to talk about it now.” He sends one careful look at the driver, who seems too preoccupied with the road to pay attention to them. Must be a learned practice in the trade. “I saw a woman first, who showed up at the parlor a few weeks ago. I didn’t tell you this, but she recommended me the seer I visited, but they didn’t know who I was talking about when I asked. She vanished right there in the shop and no one else saw me talking to her, like she made us invisible or something. Even Jongin, who was right in front of her at the register, didn’t see her. And tonight, she was on the rooftop.”

 

“Was she the one who did that to you?”

 

“No, it was Mina,” Baekhyun says, frowning. “Someone who looked like Mina. It must’ve been a spirit who took her form, because she took me to the veranda, and I saw… I saw my mom. She was calling out for me and that’s why I was trying to reach her. They must’ve gotten into my head somehow, but I don’t understand why.”

 

“Why would they want you to fall to your death?” Chanyeol’s gaze is apprehensive. “It could be a ghost who died in that club, but I’ve never known spirits to act like this without being provoked. The wilis lure men to their death, but only if they defy the spirits.”

 

Baekhyun licks his lips. “I don’t know.” Now that the adrenaline rush is fading, Baekhyun feels exhausted. “I just wanna get home and eat a cup of ramen and hopefully not think about anything for the rest of the night.” He remembers something and lifts his head from the seat to look at Chanyeol. “How did you know where to find me?”

 

Chanyeol’s lips purse as he considers it. “I kind of had a feeling,” he says slowly. “It was a terrible feeling, like something bad was going to happen. There was a draft that made the whole place cold, but no one else seemed to find anything was out of place. I just knew there was a spirit there, and I had a hunch you had found it… I didn’t imagine it had found you.”

 

“Thank you for saving me,” Baekhyun murmurs. “You got to me at the right time.” An amused huff. “This is like the third time, isn’t it?”

 

It’s in Baekhyun’s instincts to joke to diffuse the awkwardness and lighten the mood right after saying something uncharacteristically serious. But all he can do now is watch as Chanyeol’s lips quirk almost sheepishly, because he had probably not been expecting this kind of candor from Baekhyun. And Chanyeol, slightly abashed, with a darkening color on his cheeks, is, well, cute.

 

“You’re already making a habit of it,” Chanyeol quips, voice scratchy. His breath is hot on Baekhyun’s cheek, smelling of beer and peppermint. Baekhyun likes the combination.

 

They stare at each other for a moment in silence. Lights strobe by Chanyeol’s face as the cab speeds on the road, strands of curly hair catching on his eyes. Stubble shadows the strong line of his jaw, darkening the space over his mouth, and Baekhyun lingers a couple of seconds too long on the natural pucker of his lips. The want, the need to touch is strong, Baekhyun has to curl his fingers over his shirt to stop himself.

 

He’d missed Chanyeol so much these past few days. The space he’d come to fill in Baekhyun’s life in such a short time echoed inside of him like an abandoned house. Though he would never admit any of this aloud, he’s dying to ask if Chanyeol had missed him as well.

 

The car is chock-full with unspoken things. Baekhyun thinks Chanyeol will speak first, but then, Chanyeol leans back in his seat with a sigh, removing his arm from around Baekhyun and turning his face to the window. It’s suddenly cold in the car, with the wind coming from the driver’s window. Baekhyun feels the space between them like an ocean. Chanyeol’s face was wrecked with worry and concern when he pulled Baekhyun from the veranda, like Baekhyun had never seen him before. It causes a strange lurch in his stomach.

 

“Where are we going?” Baekhyun asks, once he realizes this isn’t his area.

 

“My apartment,” Chanyeol says, nonchalant. “I think it’s better you stay somewhere you don’t frequent, at least for tonight. And my place has protective spells, in case anything comes for you.”

 

Baekhyun’s eyes widen with alarm. “Jongdae—”

 

“He’s staying over at Sunyoung’s.” Chanyeol winks with an impish smile. “He let me know right before they left for somewhere quieter to be alone.”

 

The cab halts outside an apartment complex located in a more affluent neighborhood than Baekhyun and Jongdae’s. The driver watches them curiously as they climb out of the car—he’d probably eavesdropped on their conversation after all, and now thought they were nutjobs. Chanyeol guides Baekhyun to the elevator and up to the fourth floor, then down a hallway to the far left, the entire trek in silence. Chanyeol keys in the code, and Baekhyun follows him into the apartment.

 

It’s more spacious than his own place, but sparsely furnished. There is a sweatshirt and damp towel strewn over the back of the couch, dirty cups and plates on the coffee table, empty snack wrappers on the floor around it. It’s the kind of mess that would drive someone like Minseok up the wall. It also manages to make one of Baekhyun’s eyes twitch.

 

“You live like this?”

 

Chanyeol chuckles, running to pick up the houseware and trash and taking it to the kitchen adjoining the living room.

 

“I’ve been busy, alright! I haven’t had time to clean up!”

 

“Sure,” teases Baekhyun, tailing Chanyeol to the kitchen. Chanyeol takes a bag of ramen from a cupboard then fills a pan with water, dropping in the block of noodles. “What are you doing?”

 

“I’m making ramen for you,” Chanyeol says. He switches the fire on and opens the fridge to take out green onions and cheese. “Didn’t you say you wanted ramen before bed?”

 

“Yeah,” Baekhyun mumbles, “but you didn’t have to cook for me…”

 

Chanyeol shrugs, flashing Baekhyun a smile before returning to cutting vegetables on a board. “I’m just a very nice guy.” Then, in a lower voice, “And you’ve had a rough night. It’s the least I can do for you.”

 

A warmth stirs within Baekhyun, which he doesn't want to name. Once again, Baekhyun is reminded that Chanyeol is one of the kindest people he’s ever come across, and he’s having a hard time trying to reconcile this version of him with the Chanyeol from the park that first night they met.

 

The sounds of cooking are soothing in a way, so Baekhyun sits on a stool at the counter and watches Chanyeol’s broad back moving around the kitchen. Baekhyun would have never imagined cooking was one of Chanyeol’s skills, but he should have figured with his mother owning a restaurant chain.

 

“Thank you for the food,” Baekhyun says, when Chanyeol places the bowl of steaming ramen in front of him. Chanyeol takes the stool across from him and dives into his own bowl without a word. “This is better than I thought.”

 

“Ye of little faith,” Chanyeol teases. “I learned how to cook from watching mom at the restaurant. She’s the best cook I know.”

 

“It shows.”

 

Chanyeol receives the praise with a grin, eyes crinkled with pleasure. And that, paired with his mussed curls, makes him look like a puppy being pet by his owner.

 

They eat in silence, interrupted only by their slurping on noodles, until they’re finished. Baekhyun leans back, sighing with contentment. Chanyeol stretches, arching his back like a cat, and groaning at the pop in his bones.

 

“I’m sorry,” Chanyeol starts, lowering his arms and rubbing his jaw, “for snapping at you back at the train tracks.”

 

Chanyeol smiles shyly, like a chastised child. Baekhyun wants to groan, scream, hide under the counter, because, god, he’s so infatuated.

 

“I’m sorry for snapping at you too,” Baekhyun retorts with the same degree of shyness. He folds his arms in front of his bowl and sets his chin there. “I got carried away.”

 

“So, are we good now?” Chanyeol’s grin is buoyant. “I’ve missed making fun of you every day.”

 

Baekhyun’s heart leaps with hopefulness before he can help it. It’s sad how he latches onto the slightest show of affection from Chanyeol, but his little gay heart won’t stop at anything.

 

“I’ve missed your stupid face,” Baekhyun teases, “I’ll admit to that.”

 

Chanyeol copies Baekhyun’s position, plastering his right cheek on an outstretched arm over the island. A spark of amusement flickers in his almond eyes. “Are you saying you missed me? Because I missed you, too.”

 

The admission is almost whispered, carried over by the silence in the kitchen. It feels too intimate all of a sudden, too dangerous, Chanyeol’s earnest gaze and his plush mouth, so pink and inviting. He’s torn by the desire to hold Chanyeol’s hand and the fear of whatever reaction it would trigger.

 

Baekhyun leans back in his seat, stealing out of the danger zone. “Maybe.”

 

One end of Chanyeol’s lips twitches. “I knew it,” he says. Then, as if correcting himself, he sits upright, expression sobering. “You said you’d gone to visit a seer…”

 

The change of subject is noticeably abrupt, but Baekhyun takes it in stride. It’s about time he’s honest with Chanyeol. “When I went to the seer,” Baekhyun begins, “I didn’t think much of the things she told me, because I’ve always been so reluctant to believe in things like fate... but things are starting to make sense now.”

 

Baekhyun traps his bottom lip with his teeth, fizzling with anxiousness once again. Sooyoung’s predictions are taking on a sharper form, like a picture coming into focus, and the dread that comes with it leaves goosebumps on Baekhyun’s arm. There have now been three attempts on Baekhyun’s life, so he can’t keep ignoring that perhaps the death tarot held more meaning than Baekhyun initially wanted to believe.

 

“What else did she tell you?”

 

“I can’t remember all of it.” Baekhyun scratches the counter with a nail. “But she did say I was going to experience a great loss, and I was going to be the central cause of it.” Now that Baekhyun brings it back to light, the premonition sends shivers down his spine. “I didn’t know what she meant, but now it sounds terrifying.”

 

Chanyeol hums, lost in thought. “What else did she say?”

 

Baekhyun racks his brain, and when it comes back to him, he laughs. “She said love would appear in my future, blah blah blah. You know the drill. It’s the usual stuff they tell you to make up for the fact they just told you your life was going to be shitty.”

 

Chanyeol doesn’t join in the joke. Baekhyun’s chuckle peters out when he spots a distinctive flush sitting on Chanyeol’s cheekbones. Chanyeol averts Baekhyun’s gaze, who stares at him in mild bewilderment.

 

“I got that, too.” Chanyeol clears his throat. “But I have a girlfriend, so.”

 

“Right.” Baekhyun nods stiffly. “The rest of us single losers need a little bit of uplifting.”

 

The mention of Chanyeol’s girlfriend makes Baekhyun feel a little queasy again. He fiddles with a napkin, unable to meet Chanyeol’s eyes fully.

 

“She said that something was coming, and then… I pulled out the death card.” Baekhyun pauses to unleash a breath. Its thick but unsteady shape carries something that was lodged inside of him for eons. “I thought it couldn’t mean anything. If someone is going to die a card isn’t going to dictate that, because everyone dies at some point, but… this is the third time a ghost has tried to kill me. Maybe it means something after all.” Chanyeol opens his mouth, but Baekhyun goes on before he can speak. “Don’t say it’s a coincidence because I know you don’t believe in that.”

 

Chanyeol clams up instantly. Baekhyun realizes only after the fact that he might have been blunt.

 

In a softer voice, but no less determined, Baekhyun perseveres, “Just… listen to me, okay? I don’t think it’s a coincidence. There was a thing, a half-formed creature in Yoona’s shop today when I went to visit her. It’s like they’re following me.”

 

“A half-formed creature?” Chanyeol’s forehead wrinkles. “Like a mutation?”

 

“Exactly,” Baekhyun says. “At this point, I don’t know if they want something from me or if they want me. It’s too much of a coincidence, Chanyeol.”

 

“Well, if I hadn’t saved you thrice you’d probably be dead already,” Chanyeol concedes. Baekhyun swallows his pride and nods reluctantly. “So, what does this mean? How is it related to the portal?”

 

“I have no idea.” Baekhyun shrugs, then holds his forehead in his palm. “How could I be such a threat to them? Or whoever is trying to come through the portal?”

 

“You think the demon is sending ghosts to kill you?” Chanyeol drums his fingers on the counter. “That… sounds far-fetched. Why you of all people?”

 

“You’re asking the wrong person,” Baekhyun says. “I just know that I’m right.”

 

Baekhyun tilts his chin up, holding his ground. Chanyeol appears about to protest, gaining time by exhaling while carding fingers through his hair.

 

“Why are you so sure the card isn’t symbolic?” Chanyeol asks. “Because that’s the general interpretation, you know.”

 

“When I was a kid, my mom saw a seer once a year,” Baekhyun says. “It was always a different person, but mom always got the same premonition: she was going to die before she turned thirty.”

 

Chanyeol’s eyes are large, mouth poised like he’s about to interrupt Baekhyun, so he pushes on.

 

“I guess it’s not the seers’ fault,” Baekhyun says quietly, “but my mom’s. Because she knew she was going to die, and she didn’t do anything to prevent it.” A shaky breath rattles his bones. “I’m not sure if seers told her the specifics of how she was going to die, but I’ve always had a feeling that she knew. And she let it happen. So maybe if she hadn’t chosen that day to go grocery shopping in that area, that driver wouldn’t have hit her with his car. Who knows.”

 

“Baekhyun…” Chanyeol’s gaze is attentive and caring, nearly compassionate, so much so, Baekhyun can barely hold it. Though he does not show it, his name spoken in that tone, profound and solicitous, causes an all-too-familiar twinge.

 

“So, maybe my anger isn’t aimed at seers,” Baekhyun goes on, voice raising fraction with pent-up frustration. “But at the memory of her passing. The fact that they were a part of it. I’ve pretended for so long that their predictions weren’t certain as a way of convincing myself my mother didn’t choose to die and abandon me. If it all happened at random, then it wasn’t her fault and it didn’t hurt as much.” A tear rolls down his cheek, and Baekhyun barely catches it. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to cry. I’ve never talked about this with anyone.”

 

The chair screeching across the tiles is loud when Chanyeol stands and rounds the island. Baekhyun watches him in silence, a little apprehensive, until Chanyeol stands towering over him. Baekhyun flinches when Chanyeol bends, too stunned to react to what happens next—Chanyeol wraps his arms around him and rest his cheek on Baekhyun’s head. A beat passes before Baekhyun snaps out of his shock so he can pat Chanyeol’s back gingerly, because he has a hunch, from the slight tremors running down Chanyeol’s body, that Chanyeol wanted to hide his own tears from Baekhyun.

 

“I’m sorry for asking,” Chanyeol says, sniffing.

 

Baekhyun smiles, his cheeks burning with the warmth of Chanyeol’s body, the scent from his hair, his clothes, his skin. It’s a typical aftershave, but the smell is mixed with another smell, more uniquely Chanyeol.

 

“It’s okay, Chanyeol.”

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Chanyeol presses the doorbell twice on the bright red house up the hill, then again when no one answers.

 

“Stop,” Baekhyun says, tugging on his sleeve. “They’re gonna get annoyed and turns us into toads or something.”

 

“They can’t do that.” Chanyeol frowns, like he’s seriously considering whether it’s possible or not. “Anyways, why aren’t they coming to the door? It’s two in the afternoon.”

 

Chanyeol presses the doorbell again. With a sigh, Baekhyun removes his cap to push back his hair, then puts it on backwards. He looks up at the sun beaming down on them and wishes for a breeze to battle the humidity crushing against his skin.

 

“Maybe they’re taking a nap or having lunch,” Baekhyun suggests. “Not everyone wakes up at the asscrack of dawn like you.”

 

The previous night, after washing their empty bowls, they’d had a little argument over who would take the bed or the couch. Baekhyun refused the bed until Chanyeol said he would sleep on the balcony if Baekhyun didn’t take it, so reluctantly, Baekhyun slept on the bed and Chanyeol on the couch. In the morning, Baekhyun woke up to the sound of a pan clanging to the floor, and padded to the kitchen to find Chanyeol making breakfast. The fact that he was shirtless shook out of Baekhyun the last tendrils of sleep in an instant.

 

Thanks to Chanyeol’s nudity, Baekhyun had made an interesting discovery: the tattoo of a rune above Chanyeol’s shoulder blades. Baekhyun hadn’t probed—though he was dying to—and he had stared at the tattoo, and Chanyeol’s back, while Chanyeol prepared breakfast. The shape was vaguely familiar—a ‘s’ drawn like a lightning bolt, shot through diagonally by a single line in its center—though Baekhyun couldn’t recall from where. He’d been caught staring, and Chanyeol’s grin had been infuriating, extinguishing any lingering curiosity about the tattoo. Though Baekhyun won’t forget how hot the tattoo looked on Chanyeol any time soon.

 

“They should,” Chanyeol ripostes, hands on his hips. “Early morning is the best time of the day. You can get a lot done before noon. And we got breakfast and training in before lunch, didn’t we?”

 

The soreness in his muscles is enough reminder about their morning training. It’s alarming how out of shape he was before he met Chanyeol that a single training session can leave him so tired, he could go right back to sleep if he lied down on the nearest surface.

 

Before either of them can say anything else, the door opens. Sooyoung appears in the doorway in denim shorts and a black crop top, her long, red hair tied in a bun atop her head. She looks between them with curiosity, a smile appearing on her face when she recognizes Baekhyun.

 

“Hey!” she exclaims. “Are you here for another reading?”

 

“Not exactly,” Baekhyun replies. “We want to talk to you about something.” He cocks his head in Chanyeol’s direction. “This is Chanyeol. A friend of mine.”

 

“Nice to meet you,” Chanyeol says, dipping his head in a bow.

 

Baekhyun notices he’s using his handsome smile, the one that’s a little smirk and a little soft. Sooyoung falls for it. A thin eyebrow raises and her smile turns seductive.

 

“Sooyoung.” She bows, then stands straight, puffing up her chest. “We can talk inside.”

 

Chanyeol gives Baekhyun a grin before they follow Sooyoung into the house. They walk down the long hallway and take the turn into the living room. Seungwan is there, reading a book with her feet up on the armchair. She peers at Baekhyun over the pages, then does a little sound of glee when she spots Chanyeol.

 

“Hello!” Seungwan closes the book and leaves it on the coffee table. “Who do we have here?”

 

She says it like a bird prowling on a mouse and jumps out of the armchair to stand in front of Chanyeol.

 

“I’m Seungwan!”

 

“Park Chanyeol.” He lowers his head and torso, fluttering his hand in a dramatic fashion. Next to him, Baekhyun rolls his eyes and Sooyoung snickers. Seungwan is delighted. “Is the house full of pretty ladies? I should come by more often.”

 

Seungwan laughs, throwing her hair over her shoulder. “Yes,” she says. “The other two are at work right now.”

 

“I can’t wait to meet them someday,” Chanyeol says with a smile.

 

“So, you aren’t boyfriends?” Seungwan asks, her smile growing as Baekhyun and Chanyeol redden with embarrassment.

 

No, of course no—”

 

“We’re just—uh—”

 

Sooyoung giggles, exchanging a mischievous glance with Seungwan. “I see,” Seungwan whispers. “Not yet.”

 

“You should take a seat.” Sooyoung gestures towards the sofas and armchair. “I’ll bring you some iced tea.”

 

Seungwan hurries out after Sooyoung to help with the drinks. Chanyeol sits down in the armchair Seungwan had vacated, and Baekhyun takes the seat right across from him. It deflates with the sound of a whoopee cushion. Chanyeol snorts and Baekhyun glares at him.

 

“Why are you flirting with them?” Baekhyun questions, slightly irritated. “If we want them to take us seriously—”

 

“I’m just trying to win them over,” Chanyeol says. “Are you jealous or something?”

 

No.” Baekhyun scoffs, crossing his arms. It’s exasperating that his cheeks warm up at Chanyeol’s smirk. “You’re being ridiculous.”

 

Chanyeol opens his mouth to say something, but the door slides open and Sooyoung walks in with a tray of tall glasses of iced tea and Seungwan in toe.

 

“So,” Sooyoung starts, once she places the empty tray on the coffee table. She sits on the loveseat, crossing one leg over the other. “What did you want to talk about?”

 

Baekhyun shares a glance with Chanyeol. “Well, it’s about the ghosts,” he says, lacing his fingers around his glass. “They’ve gone batshit crazy.”

 

Seungwan laughs, and Sooyoung’s eyebrows raise. “How so?”

 

“They’ve been acting violently,” Baekhyun says. “First, it was just before we got rid of them, which can happen sometimes, but now they’re actively seeking us out to harm us without being provoked. One tried to kill me the other night at a club.”

 

“Okay, that’s weird,” Sooyoung says, shifting in the loveseat. “When did this start?”

 

“At the start of this summer, I think.” Baekhyun frowns. “Why?”

 

Baekhyun doesn’t miss the exchange of glances between Seungwan and Sooyoung.

 

“No reason,” Sooyoung chirps, sipping from her iced tea. “So, any theories as to why this is happening?”

 

“Well, we thought it was because of the serial killer at first,” Chanyeol chimes in. “We thought that the missing people and murders were affecting other spirits in the area with the negative energy. But then we found out about a portal that could be releasing energy that’s affecting the ghosts. Baekhyun saw a ghost that was half formed.”

 

“It seems someone is trying to open the portal from the other side,” Baekhyun says. “But we’re not sure how to find it or how to stop it.”

 

Sooyoung purses her lips in rumination. “I don’t really know how to help you,” she says, smiling apologetically. “But I have two suggestions. I don’t know if they’ll work, though.”

 

“Please tell us,” Chanyeol says. “We don’t even know where to start.”

 

“First, you need a protection spell,” Sooyoung says. “Everywhere. Your homes, workplaces, schools, whatever.”

 

“I have one in my apartment,” Chanyeol says. “But Baekhyun doesn’t have one, and he lives with a roommate.”

 

“I can help you with that,” Seungwan offers. “I’m good at protection spells.”

 

“Second, you should talk to Joohyun,” Sooyoung says. “She’ll be able to help you more than I can.”

 

“We’ll give it a try,” Baekhyun says, winking at Sooyoung. “We’re very charming people. At least, I am.”

 

Chanyeol quirks a brow. “Why are you lying?”

 

“Joohyun owns a store downtown,” Sooyoung says. “It’s an occult shop. Yeri is there, too. You can ask for Joohyun, and well, if she’s in the mood, she’ll talk to you.”

 

Joohyun sounds like a difficult person, and if she’s the head of the coven as she appears to be, she must be even more terrifying than Sooyoung and Seungwan combined. Baekhyun can sense a dangerous energy right under the surface, and he wouldn’t want to face them in a fight.

 

The phone rings in another room and Sooyoung starts.

 

“That must be for me,” she says. “I do readings by phone, but it’s mostly giving people advice on their love lives and such.”

 

“I’ll make you a list of the stuff we’ll need for the protection spell,” Seungwan says, standing from the loveseat. “And the shop’s address. You’ll find most of the things there. Tell Mark you know us so he’ll give you a discount.”

 

“It was a pleasure meeting you, ladies,” Chanyeol says, standing from his seat. “Thank you so much for all your help.”

 

“Thank you very much.” Baekhyun stands and bows to the girls. “We really appreciate your help.”

 

Seungwan gives them a business card, the same one Baekhyun had gotten back in the ice cream shop weeks ago with the name emblazoned on cream-colored paper. Judging by the looks they had shared, Baekhyun has a nagging feeling that the witches know more than they’re letting on. It reminds him of the first time he’d come to the bright red house; Seungwan paralyzed by Baekhyun touching her wrist.

 

“By the way,” Baekhyun says, turning back to face the witches. They’d been on their way to the door, so Chanyeol also stops to Baekhyun. “What did you see when you touched that time?”

 

For a second, Seungwan looks confused, then she frowns with realization. “What did I see in your past?” Baekhyun nods. “A jumble of things. It rarely shows me specifics and with you… the images were very vague.”

 

Baekhyun queries. “Vague? How?”

 

“Like I couldn’t pinpoint which part of your life I was seeing,” Seungwan says. “It was a place with a bunch of faces, and none of them belonged to you. All I know,” Seungwan adds, before Baekhyun can question, “is that it was a sacred place and the people were doing something they shouldn’t in it.”

 

Seungwan looks slightly troubled. It’s likely due to her failure to see Baekhyun’s past accurately. Again, Baekhyun has the feeling he’s pushing an unspoken boundary, so he bows to the witches once more.

 

“I’m sorry for troubling you,” Baekhyun says, smiling. With a degree of politeness, the witches return the smiles. “We should get going now.”

 

Outside, the sky is a clear azure, a gentle breeze caressing Baekhyun’s skin. Baekhyun is still thinking about Seungwan’s vague vision as he looks up at the white sun.

 

“What are you thinking?” Chanyeol’s peering at Baekhyun intently. “Is it what Seungwan said? Because they can’t always see stuff in full HD, ya know.”

 

“I know,” Baekhyun says. “It was just weird because I don’t think that memory belonged to me.” He rubs his arms when a gust of wind picks up. “Maybe she got it mixed up with someone else’s. I don’t know.”

 

Baekhyun’s tone doesn’t invite further probing. Chanyeol hears it clearly, because they walk in comfortable silence along the street.

 

“The witches are cute,” Chanyeol fills in the quiet. “But kind of frightening.”

 

“So you know you should never mess with them.” Baekhyun fixes Chanyeol with a heavy stare. “Or lead them on.”

 

“I’m a good guy.” Chanyeol simpers, fluttering his eyelids coquettishly. Baekhyun hates that he achieves his desired effect. Baekhyun’s charmed. “Are you jealous again?”

 

Baekhyun slugs him on the arm. “Why would I be jealous of a guy who walks like a drunk giraffe.”

 

Chanyeol slings an arm over Baekhyun’s shoulders. Baekhyun catches a whiff of Chanyeol’s aftershave—fresh and mossy—and the spike in his pulse comes right on schedule. They’re pressed so close, Baekhyun’s clothes feel oppressive in the sultry weather.

 

“Don’t worry, I wouldn’t abandon my ghost hunter buddy for anyone.” He winks, then stops to consider something. “Or are we more like Sherlock and Watson? Because we’re trying to solve mysteries?” Chanyeol snaps his fingers. “Nick and Judy! I’ve watched Zootopia about a hundred times!”

 

“I’m supposed to be Nick? This is ridiculous, but I refuse to be Judy.”

 

Chanyeol’s lowers his head to Baekhyun’s ear, his voice dropped to a greasy, seductive pitch. “You can be anything you want, babe.”

 

An elbow to the stomach has Chanyeol wheezing. “I swear I’ll leave you here if you keep it up.”

 

“Alright, alright,” Chanyeol concedes. “I’ll behave.”

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

The Witching Hour reads the name in baroque typography on the shop window, underlined by the sentence: Yogoe’s Oldest and Largest Witchcraft Supply Store.

 

Baekhyun climbs off of Chanyeol’s scooter and together they walk into the store. There’s an overpowering smell of incense inside, and a fainter hint of old wood. A couple and a group of teenagers are milling about, murmuring and giggling to one another as they pick up and fiddle with the various trinkets and knickknacks crammed on the shelves lining the walls.

 

Two kids behind the cash register raise their heads from where they had been absorbed in a manga propped up on a cauldron at the counter. The first one, a tall, purple-haired kid, greets them with a “Hi, how can I help you?”, and a girl, short hair dyed a sandy blonde with purple streaks like her coworker, stares at them silently, her small mouth pursed in a pout because of their apparent interruption of her reading.

 

“We’re looking for these ingredients.”

 

Chanyeol hands the boy—Mark, Baekhyun assumes, remembering Seungwan’s advice—the list of things needed for the protection spell. Mark looks over it, mouthing the words as he reads the list.

 

“Yeah, we have all of these here,” Mark says. “Did Seungwan or Sooyoung send you? They have very specific ways of doing their spells and this looks like their work.”

 

“They told us to come here.” Chanyeol nods eagerly. “This shop is bigger than the one I saw in Seoul. You’re probably better equipped.”

 

Mark smiles softly, and even Baekhyun directs a small smile at Chanyeol. He’s always so eager to please people and be nice to them—it’s impossible not to fall for his charms.

 

“And we’re also looking for Joohyun,” Baekhyun says tentatively.

 

“Joohyun?” Mark asks, mildly surprised. “I’ll ask if she can see you.”

 

Mark turns to the girl, who had been watching their exchange in silence, and signals with his hands. Baekhyun realizes, with slight embarrassment, that it’s sign language. The girl replies with a short gesture and goes to the back, which is separated from the front of the store by a long velvet curtain. She reemerges after a short moment and jerks her head at them to follow her to the back.

 

They step into a room bathed in a gloomy red light with a round table in the middle, shelves crammed with books pushed back to the walls. A woman sits at the table, staring into the contents of a cup, which she’s swaying in her hand.

 

What first strikes Baekhyun about Joohyun is her beauty; her face fits a painting rather than a dingy room in the back of an enchantments store. She’s clad in a strappy white crop top, a flowing gauze wine red skirt, and her glossy, black hair falls in cascades over her shoulders. She has her chin propped on a fist and looks up at them with icy indifference, as if she has been waiting for a long time, way past an arranged appointment.

 

Chanyeol bows deeply, pushing Baekhyun to do the same with a hand on his nape. Grumpily, Baekhyun complies, feeling like a dumbass.

 

“We are Chanyeol and Baekhyun,” Chanyeol says. “We were told you could help us with our problem. It’s very important and I’m afraid it concerns this town and all of its people.”

 

Joohyun stares at them blankly. “Is it really as dramatic as it sounds?”

 

“A lot of people are in danger,” Baekhyun persists.

 

She studies them in silence, and her stare is so piercing it feels like she’s staring straight into their souls. Maybe she is, Baekhyun thinks with alarm, maybe she can read our minds. A minute smile twitches her lips her gaze falls upon Baekhyun, and whatever she finds there has her leaving her seat, so she can grab something from a shelf.

 

“I’m already aware of the state of this town,” Joohyun admits, returning to her seat. “My coven has been following the murders and disappearances. We’ve known something was up for a while, even before it started happening.”

 

Baekhyun frowns. “Why didn’t you do something to stop it?”

 

“It’s not our place to intervene directly,” Joohyun says. “We can only help, because it’s someone else’s fate. It has been all along. If we’d tried to stop it ourselves, the outcome wouldn’t have made much difference.”

 

Baekhyun chances a glance at Chanyeol, who returns it with the same kind of perplexity. Joohyun talks in riddles that they can’t begin to figure out. She’s like Yoda and Buddha’s punk lovechild.

 

“I’m not certain of the complete details, though.” Joohyun flips a hand, and the chairs are pulled back by magic. “So, if you’d be so kind to join me and explain to me what’s happening, or what you’ve gathered so far at least, I’d be very happy to hear you.”

 

It’s as good a cue as any to take a seat in the remaining folding chairs. They’re careful not to make much noise, as if any inappropriate movement could make Joohyun change her mind and send them on their merry way. The table is covered in a white lace cloth, and Baekhyun folds his hands over it, glancing at Chanyeol out of the corner of his eye. He looks as stiff and apprehensive as Baekhyun feels.

 

“So,” Joohyun says, regarding Chanyeol and Baekhyun, “fill me in.”

 

Chanyeol draws in a breath and starts at the beginning. The disappearances. The murders. The malicious ghosts and their growing violence. The night at the club. Joohyun listens attentively, her dark eyes pinning Chanyeol to his chair. Baekhyun wonders how he doesn’t stumble over his words under the intense scrutiny.

 

When Chanyeol is done, Baekhyun chimes in, “Ghosts are emotional, but they’ve never been this unpredictable.”

 

“Ghosts are an emotion,” Joohyun says sagely. “An emotion suspended in time.”

 

Baekhyun remembers something Chanyeol had left out: the poem Junmyeon found in his library.

 

“One of the ghosts said a rhyme to me a while ago,” he says. “I didn’t think much of it back then, but I was curious enough to look it up.”

 

“What was it?” Joohyun asks.

 

“‘She will come with the monsoon,’” Baekhyun says. “I don’t know what it means other than that there’s a similar poem about a centuries-old goddess, who the villages used to make sacrifices for. The festival was created to honor her.”

 

Suddenly, Joohyun’s face falls. Her lashes quiver, like she’s just stumbled upon a terrifying realization.

 

“So we were right...” she murmurs. “She’s the one behind this.”

 

She looks to Baekhyun, gaze searching, and Baekhyun doesn’t know what to do—he stares back, until her attention recedes to the table.

 

“A long time ago, there were two witches who were powerful and greedy,” Joohyun says in a quiet, somber voice. “And that isn’t the best combination. They could call demons from the underworld—hell, naraka, diyu—whatever you want to call it—and use them for their own benefit. They had mastered magic in such a way that it bended to their will without rules. No demon or creature could find a way to get out of their deals—it’s like the small print in the contract wasn’t there at all. There came a day when the witches had everything they could wish for, and so, they wanted what no other magi had been able to attain—a demon to conquer. But the demon they chose to trick was too powerful and wayward.”

 

Joohyun stands from the chair and moves over to the bookshelf along the back. She peruses through the titles—old, worn-out tomes, with spines beaten by age—and settles on a thick, wine leather-bound volume, which she brings to the table as she skims through the brown-colored pages. It’s placed on the table, opened on a Doré-like illustration of a woman, naked and beautiful, twisting her body to reach out towards two women standing on a cliff—their laughing faces as grotesque and insidious as any other portrait of witches in old age.

 

“As you may already know, Saint John’s Eve is the night when witches and evil forces are at their most powerful. It is the single night demons can break loose in the world. On this night, it is more prosperous for a witch to call upon a demon, since there is a better chance of striking a deal with them after they’re done feasting on human souls.” She trails a black-painted fingernail over the page of the book, her expression pensive and drab. “The witches did everything according to plan in the woods, but something went wrong: the demon, despite their repetitive summoning, didn’t appear. After a while, they noticed a strong smell of sulfur, and a sense of terrible dread befall them for no reason.” She pauses to take a breath, glimpsing at their faces with inscrutable eyes. “Then, unexplainably, one witch attacked the other and almost killed her. Only then did the demon show herself to them, explaining that she knew of their intentions and wasn’t willing to submit to the whims of lowly humans. The witches begged and begged in a last plight to trick her. So, when the demon’s patience had grown thin, instead of killing them, she kissed them both on the mouth.”

 

Chanyeol gasps, befuddled. “The demon was into women?”

 

“They’re demons.” Joohyun arches a thin eyebrow. “It doesn’t matter to them.”

 

Baekhyun nudges Chanyeol on the ribs, biting down a smile, and Chanyeol flashes him a grin. He leans into Baekhyun, his hand swallowing Baekhyun’s knee, and it’s suddenly impossible to focus on Joohyun’s story when she continues.

 

“Anyway, as I was saying, the demon granted them longevity and undying beauty,” Joohyun says, in a slightly annoyed tone, “at the cost of hearing the cries and screams of the souls trapped in the underworld every time they closed their eyes for the rest of their lives. It was the same treaty they had given the other demons—trapping them in gritty deals in exchange for more than they were giving. And so, after the demon vanished, the witches went on living, pleased at the outcome—they thought they had gotten the better end of the deal.”

 

She’d been peering at the book during this last part, sitting stiffly in her seat, but now her shoulders slack, and she looks straight at Baekhyun and Chanyeol. Her mysterious dark eyes make Baekhyun’s hairs stand on end.

 

“But after only a few days, the voices of the tormented souls started to drive them crazy,” Joohyun goes on, bemusement laced in her words. “Then, after a couple of years, the witches took their own lives. The demon came for their souls, laughing all the way at the pitiful humans who tried to tame her.”

 

A smile sneaks onto Joohyun’s red-tinted lips, and a shiver runs down Baekhyun’s spine. He makes a mental note not to ever mess with a witch.

 

“Witches worship and revere all kinds of goddesses, but Sunmi—the first goddess—is the most popular one among us, for her wit and fierceness are seen as a protection for us. No one has ever tried to subdue her successfully and live to tell the tale.”

 

“So, what are you saying?” Baekhyun asks. “That we can’t control her?”

 

“I’m very sorry, I cannot help you,” Joohyun says. “I can only lead you in what I believe is the right direction.”

 

Baekhyun knows there’s more to all of this—there’s more Joohyun knows that she isn’t saying, or maybe can’t say, and he wishes there was an easy way to get to the bottom of this.

 

“Any help is welcome,” Chanyeol pipes in.

 

Baekhyun can feel Chanyeol watching him from the corner of his eye, but he doesn’t dare to look away from Joohyun. As of late, Chanyeol has taken to knowing exactly what Baekhyun is thinking. It’s a problematic skill, in Baekhyun’s humble opinion.

 

“You could try to locate where the malignant force is coming from,” Joohyun says. “Evil is like a plague, it will affect other spirits nearby and infect them like a virus. The force must be at a specific point, and you need to know where it is in order to eliminate or trap it.”

 

“We think it may be coming from a portal—a crack in our world leading to another,” Baekhyun says, “but we don’t know where the exact location is or how to find it at all.”

 

“Saint John’s Eve is the only time a demon can freely feed on human souls, since the boundaries between our world and theirs are blurry at best,” Joohyun explains. “In the past, several demons have attempted to pass onto our side permanently by creating a portal between both dimensions. And though the ways in which they have been reported are vague and shadowy at best, these are my suggestions. The first step would be to perform a ritual to communicate with her. Lure her out of her hiding and then capture her with another ritual.”

 

“And what do these rituals involve?” Chanyeol asks.

 

“The first one is a séance,” Joohyun replies. “It’s the best way to communicate with an evil spirit.”

 

“And the second one?”

 

“Like I said,” Joohyun sighs, “the records are vague on how other magi have been able to seal a demon back to their dimension, but I’m guessing it might involve a sacrifice. Which kind, I’m not sure, so I think that is up to you to investigate.”

 

They nod simultaneously, knowing that it’s highly dangerous and deadly, but it’s worth a shot to stop the demon.

 

“I’ll remind you that it’s not going to be an easy fix, because if the ghosts she has infected are this violent and powerful, then she might be ten times worse.” Joohyun shoots them both a poignant stare. “She might use them against you. After all, she was tasked with herding ghosts to the underworld. Now,” Joohyun rises from her seat, “I have other things to tend to. It was a pleasure to meet you.”

 

Their time is up, so they stand in unison. Chanyeol bows to Joohyun. “Thank you so much for your help!”

 

“Thank you,” Baekhyun says, bowing. Joohyun’s eyes linger on his face, inspecting him. Baekhyun has the odd feeling that she knows something about him that he doesn’t.

 

Chanyeol pulls back the velvet curtain so Baekhyun can step through first, but Baekhyun stops and turns back to Joohyun, suddenly remembering something.

 

“There’s one more thing.”

 

“Yes?” Joohyun’s voice has a touch of impatience, so Baekhyun says it all in one breath.

 

“There’s this woman I have met twice. First, at the ice cream shop I work at—she recommended me your coven for a reading, but neither Sooyoung or Seungwan knew who I was talking about. The second time was at the club where that spirit attacked me, but I only got a glimpse of her before she disappeared.”

 

Joohyun frowns, but then her face slackens. A realization dawning upon her. “Was the woman wearing black?”

 

Baekhyun nods twice. “Yeah! All the times I’ve seen her she was wearing a black outfit, even in the middle of summer…”

 

To Baekhyun’s amazement, Joohyun’s eyes droop, overflowing with sadness. She looks at them in the same way someone who has been told a loved one has a terminal illness looks—how Baekhyun imagines she sees every other person who is close to death come to her shop looking fruitlessly for salvation.

 

“You know who she is,” Baekhyun says, more of a statement than a question.

 

Joohyun nods feebly, then takes in a quivering breath.

 

“She’s a grim reaper.”

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

“So, a grim reaper is following me.”

 

“Did you hear how Joohyun spoke?” Chanyeol rebukes. “She talked in riddles and I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of stuff she chose not to tell us. I wouldn’t exactly trust her with this kind of omen. What if the girl is just some errant spirit? She just jumped to the conclusion she’s a grim reaper even though she had no idea who we were talking about before she asked if she wore black. So what if she wore black? I wear black all the damn time!”

 

Ever since they left The Witching Hour, Chanyeol has been bent on refuting Joohyun’s last words. By all means, during the hour they spent in the back of the shop, Chanyeol had been enraptured by everything Joohyun uttered, up until the end—when Joohyun told Baekhyun he had seen an omen of death twice.

 

Now they wander the streets of Yogoe because Baekhyun feels like eating tteokbokki. He thought he would be panicked by the discovery that he’s being followed by a grim reaper, but he’s oddly calm, almost numb. In retrospect, it does make sense. He’s cheated death three times so far. It couldn’t be a coincidence that these creatures were so intent on killing him. The uncertainty of how long he will be able to escape death unsettles him a little, but he doesn’t allow himself to dwell on these thoughts a minute longer. He can’t let the panic kick in while he’s in a crowded street.

 

Of what he is certain is that he’s hungry and Chanyeol has been rambling non-stop for an hour.

 

“Everything she told us seemed pretty credible to me,” Baekhyun says. “You looked like you were hanging on her every word and now you act like she was some senile old lady.”

 

“Well, maybe she is,” Chanyeol counters. “Who’s to say she hasn’t used a spell on herself and she’s actually a wrinkly, old hag?”

 

“You didn’t believe in what Joohyun told us? Not one bit?”

 

“Yes, the whole thing about the demon,” Chanyeol says, “that I did know. My grandma used to tell me a lot of imuldam when I was a kid, and I’m sure you’ve also heard about how demons or other monsters make a deal with humans and it doesn’t go well. It doesn’t mean it’s true.”

 

“But it’s a start,” Baekhyun persists. “Now we know that the demon might be behind all this.”

 

“How?” Chanyeol asks. “Who summoned her in the first place?”

 

“I don’t know,” Baekhyun says. “That’s what we have to find out.”

 

“Did you see her face when you described the grim reaper, though?” Chanyeol frowns. “It was weird. It was like she recognized her. It seems fishy. Maybe she was just trying to scare us.”

 

It’s almost endearing, the obvious way Chanyeol doesn’t want Baekhyun to worry too much about this.

 

“I don’t know how I feel about being followed by a grim reaper to be honest, but I know I’m not afraid.” Baekhyun licks his lips. “Didn’t you say everyone has to die at some point? What did you call it?” He lowers his voice in a poor imitation of Chanyeol’s deep timbre. “Memento mori.

 

Chanyeol stops suddenly and so does Baekhyun by inertia. With a trip of his heart, Chanyeol grabs his hand, and all Baekhyun can do is stare up at Chanyeol. A fierceness burns in his gaze, extremely out of place among his soft features and his ears sticking out of his curls.

 

“No, not you.” Chanyeol squeezes Baekhyun’s hand. “You’re not dying on me, Byun Baekhyun.”

 

It’s a busy time at seven in the evening, when most people have gotten out of work and are heading to the nearest pubs and bars for drinks. People sidestep them, either ignoring or reproaching them for stopping in the middle of the street, but Baekhyun’s attention is fixed on Chanyeol’s face, and the burn in the center of his chest that urges him to stand on his tiptoes and kiss him.

 

“Is that a promise or a threat?” Baekhyun tries to joke. His voice is feeble, but Chanyeol catches it, by the twitch in his right eye.

 

“It’s an order.” Chanyeol smiles, smug but fond. “It’s about time I get to boss you around for a good cause.”

 

It would be easier for Baekhyun if Chanyeol didn’t do things like this. It would be easier handling this stupid unrequited crush if Chanyeol wasn’t so confident and kind and himself. It would be easier if every little thing he did didn’t pluck at Baekhyun’s heartstrings, if he didn’t rouse an overpowering wish to yank him close and kiss him senseless without so much as a smile. But each time Baekhyun dares to wander down the path of daydreaming, reality intrudes in his fantasies rather unceremoniously: Chanyeol is likely straight and with a girlfriend to boot, one who is waiting for Chanyeol to return to Seoul, whereas Baekhyun had been given the dubious title of friend only recently.

 

“I don’t like being bossed around,” Baekhyun retorts. He lets go of Chanyeol’s hand and resumes walking, Chanyeol tripping as he follows. “Even less by people who look like drunk giraffes.”

 

A wicked grin stretches Chanyeol’s mouth. “Giraffes can be cute, too. I won’t accept this slander against us.”

 

Despite himself, Baekhyun smiles, slaps him on the arm for his silliness. “Let’s get sundae, you idiot.”

 

“Wait, necromancer!”

 

Baekhyun’s yanked by the sleeve of his hoodie. Beside him stands the ghost girl he had last seen outside Yoona’s antique shop.

 

“I have your information,” the ghost says, and gives Chanyeol a simper. “Hey, you’re cute.”

 

“Okay,” Chanyeol chuckles, visibly flattered. Baekhyun sighs wearily.

 

“I asked her to research about where the portal could be,” Baekhyun tells Chanyeol. Then, to the ghost girl. “Please, tell me you found something substantial because I’m very hungry right now.”

 

The ghost girl seems nervous now, pressed by Baekhyun’s grumpiness. Chanyeol smiles gently at her.

 

“Well, I think I have a clue as to where this portal is.” She rocks back on her feet, grinning widely. “It’s in the center of Yogoe, judging by this ghost who became erratic just days ago. I knew him, and he wasn’t like this before… something changed him.”

 

“In the center of Yogoe?” Baekhyun muses. “That’s not a wide area, but it’s also… not specific.”

 

“It’s a start,” Chanyeol says, encouraging. Baekhyun feels bad, so he smiles at the ghost. “We’ll have to search the area.”

 

“Thank you,” Baekhyun says, and the ghost girl grins again.

 

“I’ll be watching if anything else comes up,” the ghost girl promises them. “I’ll come back and tell you right away.”

 

The ghost waves at them enthusiastically, then fades into thin air. Chanyeol tugs at Baekhyun’s hoodie so they can keep walking.

 

“She’s cute,” Chanyeol remarks. “And a good detective.”

 

“I thought I was your detective partner,” Baekhyun jokes. He regrets it in the next second, because Chanyeol throws his arm over his shoulders and drags him closer to himself.

 

“’Course you are,” Chanyeol says, grin brighter than the neon signs on shops along the streets. “You’re the Sherlock to my Watson. The Nick to my Judy.”

 

“You’re ridiculous,” Baekhyun laughs, and elbows his way out of Chanyeol’s hold before the fire in his face consumes him.

 

They get sundae at a food truck off the side of the road. A chilly breeze sweeps through the streets, so Baekhyun has an excuse to lean closer to Chanyeol as they chew on their fishcakes. There’s grease and sauce on his chin and fingers, but it’s worth it, because Baekhyun was starving. The man who served them is talking to a customer about the recent murders, a small LED tv playing the evening news in the background.

 

Baekhyun thinks about Joohyun’s words. Evil is like a plague, it will affect other spirits nearby and infect them like a virus. All the places where malignant spirits had shown up were relatively close to one another, but Baekhyun can’t pinpoint the exact source of it.

 

“Did you hear the latest news?” a balding man asks the food truck owner. “A man disappeared near the church down Goryum street. Right on the corner of where the festival is taking place.”

 

Aigoo.” The man clicks his tongue. “When will they catch this son of a bitch? The police aren’t doing anything, as always.”

 

Goryum street. It’s located a few of blocks away from the ice cream shop. Baekhyun’s hand holding the fishcake stick lowers, the mouth of his stomach closed off in a tight knot.

 

“There was another one about two weeks ago near the park in front of the railroads,” the balding man says. “That motherfucker won’t stop until he kills us all.”

 

Two weeks ago. That must’ve been Nayeon’s friend, Baekhyun thinks. Panic mounts in the back of his throat like bile. Unconsciously, he drops his stick, and picks it back up shakily, fumbling with a napkin to clean up the counter.

 

“Hey, don’t make a mess,” the owner reprimands.

 

“Baekhyun, are you okay?” Chanyeol watches him closely. “You look a little pale.”

 

It was right there in front of Baekhyun all along. It seems nearly laughable now, how obvious it was. Now it’s clear as day why he’s being followed by the grim reaper. The ghost girl had said the portal could be right in the center of Yogoe.

 

“Chanyeol,” Baekhyun says, voice wavering. “Do you have a map at home?”

 

Chanyeol shakes his head, eyebrows knitted in confusion. “Why? Are you okay?”

 

“Let’s go home.” Baekhyun slides off the stool and tugs at Chanyeol’s shirt to get him to follow. “Maybe Jongdae has a map at my place.”

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Baekhyun barges in, leaving the keys in the lock. Chanyeol pulls them out and closes the door behind himself.

 

“Baekhyun, can you tell me what the fuck is going on?”

 

Ignoring him, Baekhyun bursts into Jongdae’s room, where he finds him sprawled across his bed with his laptop on his stomach.

 

“Hey, knock before you come in!” Jongdae yells. “I could’ve been jerking off!”

 

“Jongdae,” Baekhyun says, “do you have a map?”

 

It’s only then Baekhyun realizes he must have a crazed look, because Jongdae gawks at him with his eyebrows raised. Baekhyun pushes his hair back with some frustration.

 

“What do you need it for?” Jongdae moves from his bed to his desk. “I gotta say, that Charles Mason look on your face right now doesn’t make me feel too safe.”

 

“It’s important,” Baekhyun replies.

 

Chanyeol hovers in the doorway, flashing Jongdae a nervous grin. “Hey, Dae,” he says, waving. “Sorry to burst in like this, but Baekhyun needed a map.”

 

“Is it for one of your Buzzfeed Unsolved antics?” Jongdae rummages through a pile of books and reams of study guides, finally slipping a folded sheet out from under a textbook. “Found it!”

 

“Thanks!”

 

Baekhyun snatches it from Jongdae and runs out of the room and back into the kitchen. Removing a dirty cardboard pizza box, he spreads the map over the wooden table, and pins the edges with a glass and an ashtray decorated with a miniature butt in the center—a prank gift Amber got Jongdae for his birthday.

 

“Okay,” Jongdae says, walking into the kitchen, “anyone care to fill me in on what’s going on?”

 

“I don’t know either.” Chanyeol shrugs. “Baekhyun hasn’t said a word.”

 

“We need pens,” Baekhyun mumbles, darting into his room to get some. When he comes back, he hands one to Chanyeol and one to Jongdae, who stare at him like Baekhyun is a pet with rabies. “Mark the places where we’ve found violent ghosts since the beginning of summer.”

 

Without another word, they get to work until all the spots are marked and circled on the map.

 

“What’s with this?” Jongdae surveys the map, then looks to Baekhyun. “What were you hoping to find?”

 

The places marked on the map are close to each other, but they also confirm something Baekhyun had suspected since he overheard the men talking at the food truck.

 

“These are all places I frequent,” Baekhyun says. “Or near those places. Like here.” He points to the abandoned amusement park. “That’s two blocks away from the ice cream shop. And this one here—” He taps a finger over the park. “That’s right in front of the railroads where Chanyeol and I train. But also—” He draws a circle over the seven spots. “Do you notice something?”

 

“The street where the festival is taking place,” Jongdae says. “The church is at the center.”

 

“Isn’t that where the last man disappeared?” Chanyeol asks.

 

“It is.” Baekhyun circles the church. “Joohyun said we had to find the source of the energy affecting the spirits, and I think we just found it.”

 

It was a sacred place, Seungwan had said. And the people were doing things they shouldn’t in it. Had Seungwan seen Baekhyun’s future instead of his past? Did she see Baekhyun doing the ritual to seal the portal and mistook it as a past event?

 

“The church?” Chanyeol’s eyes flicker from Baekhyun to the map. “But how does that explain that ghost attacking you at The Peak? Why would they do that?”

 

“Wait.” Jongdae trains a hard stare on Baekhyun. “Is that why you left the club last night? A ghost attacked you?”

 

“A ghost tried to kill me,” Baekhyun replies calmly. “I was going to explain it to you, but—”

 

“We had to investigate stuff today,” Chanyeol butts in. He cowers when Jongdae redirects his glare to him. “It was important and we found a lot out.”

 

“And I thought I texted you last night not to come here,” Baekhyun tells Jongdae. His voice has an accusing edge that doesn’t escape Jongdae, whose nostrils are flaring. “Didn’t I?”

 

“You never told me why I shouldn’t come home,” Jongdae snaps back. “Because you were busy all day with Chanyeol.”

 

Baekhyun can’t believe Jongdae is jealous of Chanyeol, but he’s too angry right now to dwell on how ludicrous that is. But Jongdae’s stare is a blend of fright and betrayal, and Baekhyun is too exhausted to clear up this mess at the moment.

 

“Nevermind.” Jongdae spits out the word like dirt. “I’ll leave you two alone so you can discuss your problems. They’re more important anyway.”

 

Jongdae leaves the kitchen and heads to the foyer to put on his shoes. The slam of the door is loud in the silent apartment, Chanyeol flinching at the sound.

 

“Aren’t you going after him?”

 

Baekhyun shakes his head. “He’s probably staying over at Sunyoung’s,” he says. “It’s better if he stays out of this place.”

 

If he stays away from me. He replays Jongdae’s expression in his mind. He had the feeling that Jongdae had more to say and had been bottling it up, ever since he and Chanyeol got close probably.

 

“Do you want me to stay?”

 

Chanyeol’s gaze is searching, unsure, like he doesn’t wish to trouble Baekhyun but he’s also unwilling to leave him alone. In the short time they’ve been friends, Baekhyun has become artfully adept on reading Chanyeol and it seems Chanyeol has also learned his language. When Baekhyun is angry or afraid, he tends to close off to the rest of the world, but Chanyeol seems determined to breach that wall. And Baekhyun doesn’t mind leaving a window open for him.

 

“You can stay,” Baekhyun says, opening the fridge for a beer. “But you’re sleeping on the couch.”

 

Glass shattering against the floor startles them. A black cat stands at the open window of the kitchen, its green eyes watching Chanyeol. The animal had broken one of Jongdae’s plants he kept in a used bottle, and now it jumps and lands gracefully on the kitchen floor.

 

“Hey, it’s the same cat that’s been showing up at the ice cream shop,” Baekhyun says, stepping closer to the animal. “Maybe Jongdae fed it and the cat followed him home.”

 

In a strange voice, Chanyeol replies, “Baekhyun, that’s not a cat.”

 

“What?” Baekhyun makes to crouch and pick up the glass from the floor, but Chanyeol’s hold on his arm stops him. “What are you doing? I need to clean the glass before the cat gets hurt.”

 

Chanyeol is staring directly at the cat like it’s grown three heads in the span of a second. When Baekhyun turns to look back at the cat, something strange happens; the cat’s body twists and warps, like heat waves off a pavement in the summer, and enlarges, until a black form emerges from the tiny body of the animal.

 

Where the cat had been a moment ago stands a young man, tall and lanky and gorgeous, a moss green shirt stretched snugly over a broad chest and shoulders, long legs clad in skinny jeans. Through his bewilderment, Baekhyun doesn’t notice right away that the guy’s lips are quirked in an amused smile, like he had just jumped out of a birthday cake instead of morphing out of a small cat.

 

“What the fuck just happened,” Baekhyun breathes out. “Who are you and what are you doing in my kitchen.”

 

“Sehun!” Chanyeol lurches forward to wrap his hands around the guy’s left arm. “He’s a friend!”

 

“Who is also a cat?” Baekhyun frowns. “Are you shapeshifter or something?”

 

“I am,” Sehun says. “My specialty is animals.”

 

“Okay, but what are you doing in my kitchen,” Baekhyun repeats. Chanyeol steps away from Sehun suddenly, the previous astonishment forgotten—now he looks at his friend like he’s seeing him in a new light.

 

“She sent you, didn’t she?”

 

“Who?” Baekhyun looks between the two men. “Who sent you?”

 

“I am Soojung’s—Chanyeol’s girlfriend—familiar,” Sehun tells Baekhyun. “She asked me to check up on Chanyeol while he was away.” He directs Chanyeol a deadpan look. “She did not send me anywhere. I can do whatever I want and I wanted to know how you were doing since you moved to the middle of nowhere instead of spending your summer holidays with us.”

 

Chanyeol’s girlfriend. The reminder makes Baekhyun’s stomach churn uncomfortably.

 

“Normal people call, Skype or Facetime.” Chanyeol crosses his arms. “Didn’t you tell her that before she asked you to come all the way to Yogoe to spy on me?”

 

“I wasn’t spying on you.” Sehun’s lips are pursed, almost like a child who has been chided. “We just wanted to make sure you were alive because you rarely call home anymore.”

 

“I’ve been busy,” Chanyeol retorts defensively. “Weird things are happening here and I got caught up.”

 

“Busy enough not to even contact your best friend?” Sehun’s gaze sharpens. “Soojung even jokes you’re gonna leave her for this guy at any moment.”

 

“Hey, this guy has a name,” Baekhyun chimes in. “I’m Baekhyun and this is my apartment you’re standing in right now.”

 

Sehun peers at Baekhyun now, like it’s the first time he’s noticed him since he showed up. To Baekhyun’s total shock, Sehun bows, eyes disappearing into crescents with a gentle smile.

 

“I’m very sorry to intrude in your home like this,” Sehun says politely. “I’ll make it up to you.”

 

Baekhyun’s pulse raised at an alarming rate after Sehun’s comment about Chanyeol’s girlfriend. Sehun must’ve interpreted the flush on his cheeks as irritation.

 

“It’s alright,” Baekhyun reassures Sehun. “If you’re Chanyeol’s friend, then you’re also welcome here… though I wouldn’t say no to a nice breakfast tomorrow.”

 

“Are you letting him stay here?” Chanyeol asks, eyes wide. “What about me? Where am I going to sleep?”

 

“We can share the bed.” Baekhyun can’t hold Chanyeol’s gaze when he says it. “If we get attacked by anything tonight it’s better if there are more people here to fight it.”

 

“I can leave,” Sehun offers. “I’ve been sleeping in my car to save money for food.”

 

“You’re sleeping in your car?” Chanyeol looks like he’s about to cry. “Sehun, why didn’t you tell me you were here? You could’ve stayed with me.”

 

“It’s fine, hyung,” Sehun says. “I usually turn into a cat when I sleep. It’s comfy like that.” He smiles sheepishly. “I wasn’t planning on telling you I was in town until Soojung told me she’s coming by soon to see you. So, there. She’s coming to see you.”

 

Baekhyun’s stomach sinks. Chanyeol looks like someone just struck him over the head with a bat.

 

“She’s coming? When?”

 

“Most likely tomorrow,” Sehun says, voice apologetic. “She’s just very worried about you.”

 

Baekhyun starts cleaning up the table, folding Jongdae’s map into neat squares, just to keep himself busy. In order to give the other two some space to talk, he puts the map back on Jongdae’s desk, then tidies up his bed so he and Chanyeol can use it later. Anxiousness makes his hands clammy, flaring in his gut like a firecracker at the thought of sharing a bed with Chanyeol again. It’s different than it was in Seoul because now Baekhyun is acutely aware of how attracted he is to the other.

 

He takes a deep breath and rejoins Chanyeol and Sehun in the kitchen, catching a snippet of the conversation.

 

“I can’t tell her, Sehun,” Chanyeol is saying in an urgent whisper. “It’ll upset her so much…”

 

Baekhyun clears his throat and the conversation ceases. Chanyeol turns to him with an uneasy expression, like he’s been caught red-handed.

 

“You can take my bed,” Baekhyun tells Sehun, pointing with his thumb to his bedroom. “Me and Chanyeol will sleep in Jongdae’s room.”

 

Chanyeol opens his mouth, like he’s about to protest, but then seems to think better of it. “Sounds good to me.”

 

Sehun conks out on Baekhyun’s bed not long after he’s slipped under the covers. Baekhyun desperately hopes Jongdae doesn’t return home until the afternoon as he puts on his pajamas in the bathroom. When he gets out, Chanyeol is throwing the covers aside, only clad in his shirt and boxers. Baekhyun sneaks a furtive look at his thighs, marveling at the wiry muscle and the soft skin. His shins are nearly hairless and Baekhyun’s fingers tingle at the image of travelling that path, down from the smooth, hard muscle and up to the fuzzy patches of his thighs. Balling his hands into fists, he erases thoughts before they give him away; the last thing he needs is for this sleepover to turn painfully awkward.

 

“I can’t sleep if I’m not close to the wall,” Chanyeol says, climbing into the bed. With his back to the wall, he props himself up on an elbow and pats the leftover space, an impish grin treading at the corners of his lips. It’s such an absurd but alluring view, Baekhyun is severely conflicted. “There’s plenty of space for you right here.”

 

“Stop flirting,” Baekhyun chastises, though his ears are on fire. “You’re making it weird.”

 

The bed shakes with Chanyeol’s laugh, that flailing, wheezing laugh that makes his eyes disappear. Turning off the light, Baekhyun lies next to Chanyeol, and in a second, Chanyeol’s scooting closer, leaving minimal space between them. There’s half a moment where Baekhyun considers kicking Chanyeol and moving over to his designated sliver of the bed, but he’s too comfortable, and a weaker, selfish part of himself wants whatever he can get of Chanyeol.

 

The window is open, a cool breeze slipping past the curtains. Baekhyun is hot, from Chanyeol’s warmth, and the proximity of their bodies. A sheen of sweat is spread over his neck, and he imagines, if he were to reach out and touch, he would find the same kind of feverish heat on Chanyeol’s skin.

 

Despite the heat, Baekhyun presses closer, tangling his legs with Chanyeol’s longer ones. The fuzz of Chanyeol’s leg hair is soft, almost faint, but it’s nice as Baekhyun rubs his shin up against Chanyeol’s sinewy leg. Fingers have started a dance on Baekhyun’s arm, dropping to the crook of his elbow to begin a slow trail upwards the inside of his bicep.

 

It may only be Baekhyun’s imagination, but the silence feels loaded. He doesn’t dare to break it. Instead, he thinks back to Joohyun in the back of her shop, and her face when Baekhyun described the girl. She’s a grim reaper, she’d said, with so much ruefulness. It hadn’t been shocking to Baekhyun then and it’s not shocking now. But in the quiet darkness, the fear finally sinks with the weight of a stone in his stomach. Is that how his mother had felt when she saw the card at each of her readings? Had she felt the same panic? Had she found acceptance in the end? She must have. Baekhyun doesn’t recall ever seeing her cry or mourn for her impending death. Baekhyun only remembers her bright, sunny smile, even if the rest of the memory is blurry, like her happiness was the focal point.

 

Hours, days, and years dragged on without end before he stepped into Joohyun’s store. Now, it’s like an invisible clock has begun a countdown to his death. Death is a vague concept, a one-way trip to a faraway place everyone must take at some point. But for Baekhyun, it will be waiting at every corner, tailing him like a shadow for however long he lives.

 

Baekhyun will surely not go down without a fight. It’s not in his nature. And yet, he can’t stop the tremors rattling his body like a little kid who fears the monsters in his closet.

 

“I lied earlier,” Baekhyun admits in a whisper. “I am afraid of dying.”

 

Chanyeol shifts on the bed. “I already told you.” An exhale brushes hotly across Baekhyun’s cheek. “That’s not happening on my watch.”

 

Baekhyun has the brief impulse to argue. To say, with slight resentment, but my mother died anyway. But he doesn’t. He’s too tired to argue. Even if bickering with Chanyeol is more of a habit than a means to an end, it will probably get him nowhere. Baekhyun’s getting wiser like that.

 

Suddenly, Chanyeol throws an arm over Baekhyun to drag him even closer, Baekhyun’s gasp muffled by Chanyeol's skin when he presses his nose against his collarbones. Baekhyun has half a mind to pull back, return to his side of the bed, but he doesn’t want to. For once, Baekhyun wants to cave in. Let his emotions overrule his reasoning. It’s so tempting, for Chanyeol is doing exactly what Baekhyun needs, and what Baekhyun needs is to be hugged more than any other time in his life.

 

“Isn’t it too hot to be cuddling?” Baekhyun murmurs. His lips drag over Chanyeol’s collarbones, and he can feel Chanyeol shivering with a weird sense of satisfaction. I’m doing this to him.

 

Chanyeol’s chuckle rumbles in his chest, like thunder in the horizon. “I don’t mind it,” he says. “I like cuddling.”

 

It’s unnerving, how intimate this is, because this side of Chanyeol isn’t meant for Baekhyun. Perhaps Chanyeol cuddles with all of his friends—even Sehun—just like Jongdae likes to cuddle when he’s drank a little too much, and Baekhyun is ever prone to overthinking. A fire sizzles right under his skin, electricity running through his veins, and Baekhyun wonders if Chanyeol can hear his heartbeat resonating as loudly as Baekhyun does. Baekhyun tilts his face upwards until he rests his nose on the dip of Chanyeol’s neck, and there, he can feel his pulse on his neck, its brisk cadence right under the skin. Without a moment’s hesitation, Baekhyun presses his lips over the junction. It’s a mere graze, but Chanyeol’s breath hitching resonates through Baekhyun’s bones.

 

“You don’t need to take care of me,” Baekhyun says into Chanyeol’s skin. An afterthought of their previous conversation. Chanyeol shudders. “I can take care of myself.”

 

Baekhyun makes to put some semblance of distance between them, but he’s too caught up in Chanyeol’s cobweb, with their legs twined and arms tightening around him. Baekhyun rests an open palm on the small of Chanyeol’s back. Chanyeol is so hot against him, under him, all around him.

 

“I want to take care of you,” Chanyeol insists, voice velvet-rough. “I know you can look after yourself, but help isn’t always bad.”

 

“But why?” Baekhyun dares himself ask. He swallows, waits a beat. “Why do you want to take care of me?”

 

“Because you are…” Chanyeol takes a breath. “You’re Baekhyun and I…”

 

The rest of his response comes as a kiss on the crown of Baekhyun’s head. It effectively extinguishes his train of thought. Before Baekhyun can formulate a question—release his held in breath—a second kiss is dropped on his temple and a third one on his ear. Baekhyun’s heart rams itself against his ribcage, so loud in his ears, he barely catches the moan skating over his exhale. But Chanyeol does not stop there. He shifts so he can burrow onto Baekhyun’s neck, peppering it with kisses, as faint as the touch of a butterfly’s wings. Then, more daringly, Chanyeol draws a circle with his tongue on Baekhyun’s clavicle, a second swipe of his tongue along his adam’s apple.

 

One time when Baekhyun was eight he’d come down with a fever. He slept through most of his sickness, and what little he remembered after he recovered were his dreams, vivid and vibrant, more realistic than life itself. He’d dreamed of impossible things that seemed solid to the touch, yet he’d been aware it was a dream the entire time.

 

It’s exactly how he feels right now.

 

His head is spinning, his entire body burning and shuddering at once, tiny whimpers tumbling out of him unwillingly. Chanyeol’s soft lips, his breath tickling his skin, his arm tucked under him. It’s all too good to be real, Baekhyun fears it’s nothing but a dream.

 

Chanyeol places one last kiss on Baekhyun’s jawline, then rolls them over so Baekhyun is tucked under his chin again. It’s embarrassing that he’s already half hard in his shorts, but it’s more frustrating that he can’t see Chanyeol’s face, so he can’t have an inkling of what’s on his mind. What possessed him to cross this line, stretch over the boundaries of their friendship.

 

Fearful of shattering the moment, Baekhyun whispers, tentatively, “Chanyeol?”

 

“Let’s sleep.” Chanyeol’s deep timbre has an edge, an undercurrent of something, as if the kisses affected him as well. Baekhyun’s intoxicated with Chanyeol’s scent, the sensation of saliva drying on his neck, the hard lines that make up Chanyeol’s structure. Despite their proximity, Chanyeol snuggles closer and releases a contented sigh that resonates inside Baekhyun, like waves in a seashell pressed against an ear.

 

The sweltering heat is uncomfortable, but Chanyeol’s heartbeat thudding steadily against his ear finally lulls him to sleep.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Baekhyun awakens to the sound of voices and metal clanking in the kitchen. The space beside Baekhyun is empty, his fingers closing over cool sheets. The previous night was too fantastic and unbelievable, and he lies there for a moment wondering if it had only been a product of one of his wet dreams.

 

When he pads to the kitchen, Baekhyun discovers Sehun had made good on his promise as he stands in front of the stove in yesterday’s clothes and with a spatula in hand. Chanyeol sits at the table, full attention on his phone, looking up only when he hears Baekhyun. The surprise fades quickly, replaced by a smile that digs two dimples on his cheeks.

 

“Good morning,” Chanyeol chirps. “Sehunnie made us breakfast.”

 

Taking a seat next to Chanyeol, Baekhyun chews on his bottom lip, debating whether to probe about what happened last night—if it happened at all, because judging by Chanyeol’s ease, nothing seems to be out of place. Like they didn’t violate a dozen unspoken rules of their friendship. As Sehun sets down the plates with fried eggs and bowls of rice, he decides against it if Chanyeol has brushed it under the rug. But then, when he’s digging into the rice with his chopsticks, Chanyeol sends him a glance, fleeting but charged with something, and Baekhyun knows that Chanyeol’s also thinking about last night. About whatever it means.

 

So Baekhyun sits there, listening and laughing at Chanyeol and Sehun’s banter, and allows himself to bask in their little shared secret.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

In the afternoon, Jongdae announces his return to the apartment by slamming the door. Baekhyun jumps where he is lying on the couch, his book falling open on his face. After breakfast, he and Chanyeol trained in a parking lot nearby, because Chanyeol insisted Baekhyun couldn’t slack off on his training. Sehun decided to partake as an observer, occasionally changing into a cat to chase doves away and playing with Baekhyun when he got bored. They left in a hurry after Chanyeol got a phone call, his demeanor changed to taciturn in the same way a drifting cloud covers the sunlight. Baekhyun suspected it was about his girlfriend so he didn’t probe, and never allowed for the now-familiar twinge to show while he and Chanyeol said goodbye at the door.

 

“Jongdae,” Baekhyun calls, walking out of the living room. “We need to talk.”

 

Jongdae pokes his head out of his bedroom door. “Why do my sheets smell like Calvin Klein?”

 

“What do I know.” Baekhyun shrugs his shoulders. “You’ve been spending too much time with Amber.”

 

Jongdae’s eyes squint with suspicion, but he retreats into his bedroom without another word.

 

“Where did you go last night?” Baekhyun asks, standing in the doorway. “I was worried about you.”

 

Jongdae is rummaging through the mess on his desk, without putting anything away. Baekhyun can tell he’s still angry by the downturned corners of his mouth and the reddened tips of his ears.

 

“So worried you didn’t even call,” Jongdae mutters. “I stayed over at Sunyoung’s, even though you probably already knew that.”

 

“Are you still mad because I’ve been spending so much time with Chanyeol?” Baekhyun places his hands on his hips. “Because that's dumb, Jongdae. You’ve been my best friend ever since I moved to this place. I’ve only known Chanyeol for a little more than a month.”

 

“You’ve been out there with him doing all these things,” Jongdae spits, turning fully to Baekhyun. “You haven’t even bothered to tell me about half of it. You were in danger while I was right there, and you didn’t even bother to tell your best friend about it.”

 

“You were with Sunyoung,” Baekhyun retorts. “I couldn’t just pull you aside and say, ‘hey, by the way, a ghost almost made me jump off this building, how are the drinks?’ I didn’t want to make you worry about me.”

 

“I worry about you anyway, you idiot,” Jongdae says in an even voice. “You’re my best friend, even though you’ve replaced me with Chanyeol.”

 

“I haven’t replaced you, Chanyeol is…” It’s at the tip of his tongue. Chanyeol is very much to Baekhyun what Sunyoung is to Jongdae, but Baekhyun can’t bring himself to say those exact words, or something equal to a confession. The sole realization of that has his stomach laden with stones.

 

“Do you like him more than me?” Jongdae’s gaze drops to his socked feet. “Since you’re both so similar and I can’t begin to imagine what you both see and get to experience together. And it’s fine. I get it. I can’t compete with that.”

 

“It’s just different with Chanyeol,” Baekhyun says. “No one can ever replace you, Jongdae. He’s not you. You’re my best friend.”

 

There’s the smallest of smiles on Jongdae’s lips, bashful and sad and sweet. “Even if I can’t see weird stuff like Chanyeol does?”

 

“You’re weird enough.” Baekhyun slugs Jongdae in the arm, because his eyes are wet. “Don’t ever doubt that again.”

 

“It’s just that you’ve never clicked with someone as fast as you did with Chanyeol,” Jongdae says. “You became fast friends with everyone here because that’s how you are, but with Chanyeol… I thought you would dislike him forever, but you’re so taken with him now, it’s like he’s your only friend.”

 

“It’s not that.” Baekhyun rolls his lower lip between his teeth. “It’s just that there’s a lot of stuff going on and…” Baekhyun falters, considering whether he should tell Jongdae the truth, and the genuine concern in Jongdae’s eyes has him pressing forward. “I… I like him.”

 

“As much as you like me?”

 

Jongdae’s catlike grin is familiar and comforting, like Chanyeol’s own smile, voice, entire presence, has become to Baekhyun. Dread closes around his heart with icy fingers when he draws in a breath.

 

“I like him,” Baekhyun repeats emphatically. “In a different way than I like you.”

 

Jongdae’s eyes narrow, jaw slacking as he processes the information. Baekhyun can see comprehension connecting dots slowly across his face, like those old Windows computers Baekhyun had at his elementary school. Baekhyun holds in his breath until Jongdae nods sagely, lashes drawing shadows over his cheeks.

 

“Okay, I wasn’t expecting that,” he says, a slight crease on his forehead. “But it kinda makes sense now, especially with how clingy you were with Yixing when you met him. And those looks you give Chanyeol sometimes…” The corners of his lips curl up like the cat who caught the mouse. “It makes a lot of sense now.”

 

“It took me a while to figure it out,” Baekhyun says faintly. “And I’m still not sure what it means.”

 

“It doesn’t have to mean anything.” Jongdae rubs comforting circles on his arm. “Or it can mean anything you want. It doesn’t matter. You’re still Baekhyun to me.”

 

Baekhyun smiles, rolls his eyes against the prickling tears. “I knew you loved me too much.”

 

Jongdae wraps his arms around Baekhyun. Baekhyun nuzzles Jongdae’s neck and breathes in deeply, so as to not shed any tears.

 

“Are you going to tell Chanyeol?” Jongdae asks over Baekhyun’s neck. “Even though he has a girlfriend?”

 

“No, it doesn’t matter because Chanyeol is leaving when classes start in Seoul.” He swallows around the lump in his throat. “It’s better if I let him go without telling him.”

 

“If you think that’s the right thing to do…”

 

“It is,” Baekhyun says. “Chanyeol isn’t mine to keep.”

 

When Jongdae pulls back, he has that look on his face like he doesn’t agree with whatever nonsense Baekhyun is up to, but he knows better than to try to change his mind. So, he nods, then pats Baekhyun’s head. “Let’s order take out and watch movies, alright?”

 

Baekhyun sucks on his lower lip for a moment. It hurts when he releases it. “There’s so much I need to tell you, Jongdae. I don’t think you’re gonna like all of it.”

 

Concern draws wrinkles on Jongdae’s forehead. “Tell me about it over food and beer.”

 

The pizza arrives an hour later, and Baekhyun spends another hour explaining everything that has happened so far to Jongdae. Baekhyun leaves the grim reaper out because he doesn’t want to give Jongdae another reason to worry, but he feels that his friend has gotten the gist of it by the way his face is drained of all color as he stares off into space.

 

“Baekhyun, this is…” Jongdae stammers. “Holy shit.”

 

Baekhyun nods, unsticking a pepperoni from his pizza slice. He’s not so hungry anymore. “We’re in deep shit, you see. Everyone in this town. I don’t know if it’s selfish to advise you to move back to your parent’s place but you should start packing your bags right about now.”

 

“What? No,” Jongdae says, coming to. He seems offended that Baekhyun would even propose this. “I’m not leaving you alone with this mess.” He inclines his head thoughtfully. “By the way, what did you say was the author’s name in that book?”

 

“N. J. H.,” Baekhyun says. “Why?”

 

“Because it sounds familiar,” he says. “It’s not an unusual combination of letters, but somehow it feels like I’ve heard it before. Maybe in one of my history lectures.”

 

“Well, the book is pretty insightful, maybe it was mentioned in passing?”

 

Jongdae shakes his head absently, then gets up from the couch and goes to his bedroom. Baekhyun listens to his friend moving around in his room, the sounds of books and notebooks falling to the floor—he’s probably scouring through the mess on his tiny bookshelf. Jongdae is flipping through a notebook with a deep frown of concentration when he returns.

 

“Here it is! He was mentioned in my History of Magic class,” Jongdae explains with a triumphant grin. “Nam Joohyuk was a great necromancer a couple of decades ago until he died at the hands of a demon he was trying to capture. Legend says he’s the first person to open a portal to the other world successfully, though this was never proven, only speculated by the form in which he died.”

 

Baekhyun takes the notebook from Jongdae. “How did he die?”

 

“I don’t think my professor told us,” Jongdae says. “But I’m pretty sure it was bad. Demons aren’t the nicest creatures in our world exactly.”

 

“So this dude must know how to put the demon back in the portal.” Baekhyun reads Nam Joohyuk’s name on Jongdae’s notebook. Excitement trickles through him, though he doesn’t know why at first. Then, he stands abruptly and goes to his room. On his desk is Junmyeon’s note, and Baekhyun reads it again.

 

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

Baekhyun

J ?

 

The elementary school was the place where Jieun died and she had told them about the portals. The J must refer to Joohyuk. Junmyeon must’ve known about Nam Joohyuk and his studies on portals. And he wanted to tell Baekhyun about him before the demon got to him.

 

“Baekhyun, what’s wrong?” Jongdae calls from the living room.

 

Baekhyun grabs his phone from his pocket to text Chanyeol. He’s typing into the chatbox when he remembers Chanyeol’s girlfriend is visiting. Baekhyun feels so foolish, he stops typing altogether and pockets his phone. He’ll tell Chanyeol when he sees him. Then, he joins Jongdae in the living room to tell him about his discovery.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Baekhyun expects to hear from Chanyeol the next day for training, but there’s only silence on his part. Then another day goes by and Chanyeol still hasn’t contacted him. Baekhyun’s texts and calls go unanswered, and Chanyeol doesn’t visit the ice cream shop either.

 

On the fourth day without any sign of Chanyeol, Baekhyun begins to fear something might’ve happened to him. There hadn’t been another disappearance as far as Baekhyun was aware, but they’re constantly in risk of getting hurt. If that mutated ghost showed up in Yoona’s shop, when she’s only connected to the case for being Junmyeon’s girlfriend, who knows what could be after Chanyeol when he spends so much time with Baekhyun?

 

And there’s also the pressure to find whatever is going on with the portal, with the investigation about the missing men still ongoing. Baekhyun hasn’t gotten a wink of sleep lately, thinking of the possibility of the cops arresting a suspect, because if he doesn’t hurry, an innocent person could be charged soon.

 

“Is this your daily staring match with the counter?”

 

Baekhyun snaps his head up from the counter. Jongdae stands in front of him with a commiserating smile that Baekhyun doesn’t like one bit.

 

“I was just thinking,” Baekhyun mutters.

 

“Were you thinking about Chanyeol?” Jongdae asks with fake nonchalance. “I haven’t seen him in days. What is he up to?”

 

“I don’t know.” Baekhyun doesn’t bother pretending with Jongdae; he releases a long, weighty sigh. “He’s not answering his phone. It’s like the earth swallowed him.”

 

“He must be busy with something,” Jongdae tries to comfort him, patting his shoulder. “Maybe summer homework? Or maybe he had to take an emergency trip to Seoul. The giraffe must be okay.”

 

The possibilities of what could have happened to Chanyeol are endless in Baekhyun’s imagination. These worries have been gnawing at Baekhyun for days now, to the point that he’s considered more than once going straight to Chanyeol’s apartment and kicking the door down. But even if Baekhyun isn’t the most patient person around, he would give Chanyeol time to deal with whatever it is that’s keeping him distant.

 

Baekhyun decides to take his break in the back alley, and his luck has it that a black cat appears from behind the trash cans, slinking over to him leisurely. Baekhyun recognizes the animal with a surge of joy.

 

“Sehun!”

 

The cat meows at him, then transforms into a tall, young man, clad in shirt and sweatpants, sitting on the asphalt with his legs crossed. He looks attentively at Baekhyun, his eyes narrowed into crescents with a smile.

 

“Hi, hyung,” Sehun says. “I wanted to come see you.”

 

“Where’s Chanyeol?” Baekhyun rushes to ask. “Is he okay?”

 

“He’s… well, he’s been better.” Sehun’s eyebrows are pushed together. “He’s not harmed, but he isn’t sunshine and flowers either. He broke up with Soojung and he’s in a terrible mood.”

 

“Why?” Baekhyun’s heart is lodged in his throat. “Why did they break up?”

 

Sehun shrugs, lips pursed. “We all had dinner together on the first day, and everything seemed to be going fine, but then they argued the entire next day. When things calmed down a little, they talked again, but I think that was it. Soojung is heartbroken. Their families wanted them to get married after they graduated, and I think she believed that would happen too.”

 

Baekhyun’s thoughts are racing. As selfish as it is, the news fills him with a hopefulness he hasn’t felt in a long time. It doesn’t last long because he remembers the other thing Sehun told him: Chanyeol is depressed over the break-up.

 

“Can I go see him tonight?” Baekhyun asks. “After I get off work?”

 

“Sure, you can,” Sehun says, though his tone is doubtful. “But Chanyeol usually doesn’t like seeing people when he’s in these kinds of moods. He closes off everyone, even me and I’m his best friend. He’s been training all day, and when he gets home he locks himself in his room and only leaves to get food.”

 

“That’s so dramatic,” Baekhyun laughs. “But so very Chanyeol.”

 

Sehun’s shoulders quiver with a laugh. “True,” he says. “So, there you have it. You can try your luck. Chanyeol seems very smitten with you.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“He talks about you all the time.” Sehun’s smile is devilish, much like Baekhyun’s own sometimes. “I don’t know how many times I’ve heard him mention how cute and amazing you are.”

 

Baekhyun chuckles, rubs his cheeks to get rid of the tingling. He focuses on the weed growing out of the cracks in the asphalt, so as to avoid Sehun noticing how affected he is from hearing that Chanyeol talks about him. Bliss thrums in his chest like a hummingbird at the notion of inhabiting Chanyeol’s mind, perhaps as frequently as he tiptoes into Baekhyun’s thoughts when he’s not around.

 

“I bet he talks like that about everyone,” Baekhyun deflects. “Chanyeol only has nice things to say about people. He’s positivity and sunshine personified.”

 

“Maybe,” Sehun agrees vaguely. “But something tells me it’s more than that.”

 

Baekhyun isn’t ready to have this talk here, in a dirty back alley, and with someone who had been a cat moments ago. He gets to his feet and dusts off his butt, determined to talk to Chanyeol soon.

 

“Do you want some ice cream?”

 

Sehun’s face lights up, and it reminds Baekhyun once again of a kid. “Sure!”

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

“Heechul is back from his trip,” Minseok tells Baekhyun later in the afternoon. “He’s waiting for you at the front.”

 

Baekhyun drops the box he had been carrying in the storage and careens out of the door back to the front. Heechul is sitting away from the other patrons, legs crossed and elbow on the table, wearing a fluorescent pink suit that makes him look like a walking highlighter, and out of place among the soft pastels of Nuts! Creamery. He seems lost in thought, but he smiles when he sees Baekhyun walking towards him.

 

“Hey,” Baekhyun says, taking a seat next to him. “When did you get back?”

 

“In the morning,” Heechul answers. “I wanted to have a word with you.”

 

“About what?” Baekhyun leans forward. Immediately, he thinks of the worst. “Did something happen to Hyoyeon?”

 

“Nothing happened to her,” Heechul replies calmly. “In fact, she moved back to her parent’s home in Busan, so she’s safe for now.”

 

“Oh, that’s good,” Baekhyun says before he smiles with relief. Hyoyeon is safe with her parents. She won’t have to keep looking over her shoulder for stalking spirits and she will get all the support she needs from her family.

 

Heechul regards him coolly across the table. Baekhyun’s smile turns insolent. “So, what is it? What did I do now?”

 

Heechul does not return his playfulness. It’s so uncharacteristic of him, Baekhyun drops any further attempt at teasing, sitting back in his chair again.

 

“Baekhyun, remember the conversation we had here weeks ago? When I asked you not to look into what was going on with the murders?”

 

Baekhyun nods curtly. “I remember something along those lines, yeah.”

 

“And why didn’t you listen to me?” Heechul interlaces his fingers. “I know you’ve been probing about with that Chanyeol kid.”

 

“How did you know that?” Baekhyun blurts out, flushing with the shame of being caught red-handed. “We’ve only been asking around… We haven’t done anything substantial or harmful.”

 

Heechul pins him with a stern look and Baekhyun begins to fiddle under its intensity. Ever since he was a kid, Baekhyun’s had the strange sensation that Heechul could read his thoughts when he had that kind of expression on.

 

“I know you haven’t done anything to harm anyone,” Heechul says, “but you’ve still disobeyed me, Baekhyun.”

 

Baekhyun twists his mouth down, knowing he can’t refute that. “What is it you don’t want me to find out? Why are you so afraid of me looking into what’s happening?”

 

“Because it’s dangerous and it’s none of your business!”

 

“It is my business!” Baekhyun snaps back, getting to his feet. “It became my business when that thing—whatever it is—began attacking people I care about! You can’t stop us from finding out whatever you want to hide!”

 

Fuming with rage, Baekhyun spins on his heels and strides back to the storage room, ignoring his coworkers’ astonishment on his way. He takes longer than necessary carrying products to the storage room, folding the empty boxes so they can fit in the bins. The anger begins to cool down some time later, when he’s returned to the front and gets to talk to a group of children on a field trip with their mother.

 

A text makes his phone buzz in his pocket. Baekhyun nearly drops the device in his haste to unlock the screen after he reads Chanyeol’s contact name.

 

Sorry for being MIA, the message says. I’ll see you soon.

 

Baekhyun’s heart beats a sprightly tempo with revived joyfulness. I miss you, he types at first, but deletes it. Take ur time, Chanyeollie, he writes, but deems it overly fond. Can’t wait to see you makes Baekhyun cringe, because it’s simultaneously too cheesy and revealing.

 

A high school soccer team comes in in bright green uniforms, their cleated shoes as noisy against the shop’s tiled floor as the rowdy group wearing them. Baekhyun types a quick OK into the chatbox before he’s shoving his phone into his back pocket to help Jongdae and Nayeon with the dozens of orders from the students. Since a soccer competition is happening in town, another team wanders in and Baekhyun isn’t given a chance to think about Chanyeol or his argument with Heechul for the rest of his shift.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

“Alright, I have to head out,” Jongdae says at the door. “Are you sure you’re going to be fine?”

 

Baekhyun stands by the counter with his hands full of colorful straws he’s placing in the container. It’s his turn to close up the shop and, to everyone’s surprise, even Minseok had left early to catch a movie with a date at the local drive-in. Nayeon and Jongin had left a couple of hours before Minseok, cozy and giggly, blushing when Baekhyun had teased them about where they were headed.

 

“We’re just going to eat pizza, hyung,” Jongin had said, red as a tomato. “We’ve eaten pizza with you and Jongdae-hyung before.”

 

Nayeon looks happier than she has in weeks, and that’s all Baekhyun needed to know, really.

 

“Just go, you traitor,” Baekhyun tells Jongdae, pretending to be annoyed. “Sunyoung will be pissed if you’re late.”

 

“I’ll make it up to you!” Jongdae promises. “I’ll wash the dishes for two weeks! I’ll do your laundry!”

 

“Go, before I change my mind!” Baekhyun yells, flinging a cloth at Jongdae. His friend runs out of the shop, his laughter echoing in the empty space.

 

Baekhyun scoffs, then shakes his head amusedly. He’s happy for his friends. All of them have found a significant other, while he’s stuck in the uncharted territories of his crush on Chanyeol.

 

A loud thud in the storage room gets his attention. When he checks, he finds a bag of flour on the floor next to the shelf. After he puts it back where it belongs, he notices the temperature in the room has dropped. The hairs on his arms and neck stand on end, and he gets that same strange feeling he did weeks ago, that someone, or something, is watching him from the shadows.

 

The darkness seems thicker all of a sudden, despite the fluorescent light above him. It feels like it’s tailing him when he strides to the door, his breathing coming up short. He slams the door shut behind him, slumping against it to take in a deep breath, hoping that whatever is in there remains locked up in the storage.

 

The knock on the door startles him. Chanyeol stands behind the glass door, waving hesitantly. Baekhyun hurries to unlock the door and let him in. At once, elation and alleviation glaze over him at seeing Chanyeol, unwind the knots that had twined Baekhyun all over for days.

 

“What are you doing here?” Baekhyun queries, a little breathless. “I told Sehun I was dropping by your apartment tonight.”

 

“He let me know.” Chanyeol smiles apologetically. “But I did tell you I’d see you soon. I wanted to apologize.”

 

“What for?” Baekhyun puts hands on his hips, an exact reproduction of Jongdae’s snarky pose. “For being a douche and disappearing when all this shit is happening?”

 

Chanyeol’s nod is stiff with shame. “Basically.”

 

Baekhyun observes the nervous tug of Chanyeol’s lower lip, his tremulous gaze riveted on Baekhyun. If someone had told him he would be this happy to see Park Chanyeol weeks ago, he would have laughed on their face.

 

“You don’t have to apologize.” Baekhyun goes for a smile to alleviate Chanyeol’s mood. Chanyeol remains somber. “Sehun told me what happened.”

 

“Sehun has had a big mouth since we were little.” Chanyeol allows a grin, at last, more timid than Baekhyun’s ever seen it. It looks odd. “I don’t know why I tell him things anymore. I wanted to tell you first.”

 

Baekhyun struggles to keep his tone casual, when he finally asks, “Why did your girlfriend break up with you? You can still fix things, if you call her—”

 

“I broke up with her,” Chanyeol interrupts him. “And she called me pretty awful things, so I think getting back together is off the table.” Chanyeol’s chuckle is mirthless, hollow. So unlike Chanyeol. “It’s fine, though. I love Soojung as a friend, but I don’t love her like a girlfriend anymore.” He unleashes a quivery breath. “I love someone else.”

 

Every word materializes like a loaded weight in Baekhyun’s stomach. It’s like he’s back in the storage room with the cold chafing his lungs. “Is that what you wanted to tell me?” He laughs, high-pitched and jarring. “Because you didn’t have to come here to tell me that, Chanyeol.”

 

Baekhyun’s pining for Chanyeol was a lost cause since the beginning, and Baekhyun should’ve put an end to it instead of letting it run free. He grabs the mop standing against the wall and sidesteps Chanyeol to walk to the tables before Chanyeol can see the hopelessness hooking its claws on him.

 

“Anyways, I have to mop the floors, and there’s other important stuff we need to discuss.” Baekhyun fails to guard his voice from the heartache. It wavers, to his embarrassment, so he clears his throat. “Jongdae discovered that N. J. H. was actually a guy named Nam Joohyuk. Does that name ring a bell?”

 

Turning back, there isn’t a trace of the surprise Baekhyun expected in Chanyeol at the revelation. His expression is serious, tension in the set of his jaw. “Baekhyun,” Chanyeol says, uncharacteristically firm. “That’s not all I wanted to say.”

 

Two lines spoil the smooth surface of Chanyeol’s forehead, a depth to his gaze that Baekhyun has a hard time believing belongs to the same Chanyeol who produces his own sunshine. Baekhyun has yet to see a real smile from Chanyeol since he arrived.

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

“Did you miss me?” Chanyeol steps toward him until Baekhyun is backed against a table.

 

“What kind of question is that?” Baekhyun laughs nervously, eyes locked on Chanyeol’s red and black plaid flannel shirt. “Why would I miss your dumb face and ostrich legs?”

 

“I missed you.”

 

Baekhyun’s head snaps back up. It’s not only the confession that takes him aback, but the ruefulness woven through the words, similarly reflected all over his face. Baekhyun’s never witnessed a desolate Chanyeol before and he’s at a loss on how to proceed.

 

With this closeness, Baekhyun can feel the warmth radiating from Chanyeol’s body, the firmness of his chest, and his scent—a sweet, flowery smell that Baekhyun wouldn’t associate with big guys like Chanyeol. But this is Chanyeol, soft, curious, gentle Chanyeol, who looks so hurt for reasons Baekhyun can’t explain.

 

“I missed you, too.” Baekhyun slugs Chanyeol weakly on his right bicep to temper his own frantic pulse. “Is that what this is all about?”

 

It occurs to Baekhyun that Chanyeol may be lonely and miserable, going through a break up while caught up in an unfamiliar town. A desire to wind his arms around Chanyeol, to comfort him until there isn’t a trace of melancholy left in his body, burns Baekhyun right down to his core. His skin longs for the boy who held Baekhyun in Jongdae’s bed nights before. It longs to comfort Chanyeol.

 

“I’ve been thinking about you,” Chanyeol says, then laughs. His left eye twitches. Baekhyun aches at the familiarity of that grin, though this version of it is somewhat lackluster. “A lot.”

 

“I hope you’ve been thinking only good things.” Baekhyun’s mouth is cottony. Chanyeol hasn’t moved an inch.

 

“I’ve been thinking about how much I want to protect you,” Chanyeol presses on. “About the people you’ve lost in your life and how you’re still so cheerful and kind and brave. How you don’t let people into your life easily, but you let me get to know you anyway. How I want to spend an eternity getting to know you.”

 

The sound of the mop handle hitting the tiles is loud in the silence following Chanyeol’s words. If his breaths hadn’t been as loud, Baekhyun would have thought his lungs had stopped working; he couldn’t get enough air.

 

“Chanyeol…”

 

Chanyeol’s sigh is heavy, ruffling Baekhyun’s bangs. “I’ve been thinking about how much I want to kiss you and how I’ve never felt like this about anyone else in my life. And I’m sorry I’m telling you all this even though you may think it’s weird because I’m a man but—but I had to do it.”

 

Every vigorous beat of his heart is chant. Chanyeol wants to kiss me. Chanyeol feels the same way I do. Chanyeol, Chanyeol, Chanyeol. It’s so surreal and ridiculous, Baekhyun wants to laugh. Only Chanyeol would believe Baekhyun didn’t like men when he’s believed the same about Chanyeol all along. If Jongdae were here, he would call them stupid.

 

The first time they shared a bed, they’d traded secret for secret. Chanyeol has already told him his secret. Now, it’s Baekhyun’s turn.

 

“Remember when you asked me why I never talked about Kyungsoo?” Baekhyun’s gripping the edges of the table so hard his knuckles are white. Chanyeol stares back. He looks so much like a child, with his mouth slack, eyes watchful and twinkling. “He was my first real crush and I was so hurt when he left I decided I would never talk about him again.”

 

Chanyeol blinks fast while processing the admission. “Oh… You…”

 

“That night in Jongdae’s bed, I wanted to kiss you so bad,” Baekhyun whispers, averting his gaze. “I’ve wanted to kiss you long before that, but you had a girlfriend and I thought—”

 

The wind is knocked out of him when Chanyeol tilts his jaw up and kisses him. Chanyeol’s lips are as soft as Baekhyun had imagined countless times, lower lip plush enough so it’s perfect to suck on and even better when it elicits these sounds from Chanyeol. Baekhyun clings to the sides of Chanyeol’s shirt to balance himself because his legs might give out at any moment. It feels dangerous, yet thrilling, to indulge in the happiness that seizes him. But he can’t help it.

 

Chanyeol kisses as eagerly as he does everything else, always trying to please. Now he’s doing everything he can to find out what makes Baekhyun sigh and shiver, although Baekhyun is already turning to putty in his hands. A tongue maps the shape of Baekhyun’s lips insistently, so Baekhyun parts them, moaning when Chanyeol tilts his head so he can slant their mouths perfectly together.

 

As first kisses go, it’s not perfect—their teeth clash until they find a rhythm, giggling breathlessly against each other. Throwing his arms over Chanyeol’s shoulders, Baekhyun lets Chanyeol explore, take and conquer, reacting to his touches with hums of pleasure. Baekhyun is dizzy on Chanyeol’s chapped lips, his scent, his stubble tickling his upper lip, his large hands clutching his hips. Touching Chanyeol like this is as exhilarating and thrilling as Baekhyun thought it would be, and yet infinitely better than his measly imagination.

 

They only break away to take a breath after an indefinite amount of time. Chanyeol’s eyes are sparkling with wonder, cheeks dusted a pretty pink, kiss-stung lips a tantalizing red. Baekhyun can’t help stealing another peck with a breathy giggle. He’s bursting at the seams with happiness.

 

“You’re way better than my dreams,” Chanyeol murmurs, rubbing their noses together. “I couldn’t believe you were real when I met you.”

 

“You’re so cheesy,” Baekhyun laughs, wonderfully light and blissful. Chanyeol kisses above his lip, where Baekhyun knows he has a mole. Baekhyun’s feeling generous—and stupidly giddy—so he stands on his toes, digs his fingers into Chanyeol’s hair like he’s wanted to do for too long, and swoops in for another kiss before Chanyeol can ruin the mood.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The dredges of June leave Baekhyun sticky and warm with its humidity. Yogoe in summer proper is a stunning affair; its streets are lively and shimmery, a breath of magic swishing through blooming flowers and lush-green trees thudding against windowpanes. Even the banners for the ghost festival don’t quite feel like a portent, glowing red under the incandescent sun.

 

When Baekhyun comes to work to replace Jongin one day, he finds the boy behind the register with his head close to Nayeon’s, whispering and laughing like they are the only two people in the shop.

 

Baekhyun clears his throat loudly. It works. His friends scramble to put distance between each other, both of them sporting a bright shade of red on their faces.

 

“Shouldn’t you be working?” Baekhyun demands, imitating Minseok’s high-pitched timbre. “I’m not paying you to be all lovey-dovey in front of the customers who are eating.”

 

Nayeon giggles, twirling her hair with her fingers. “Oppa, even if you make that voice you can’t be as scary as Minseok oppa.”

 

“Why not?” Baekhyun asks. “I’m taller and my shoulders are broader.”

 

“Minseok-hyung could knock you out with a finger,” Jongin says, zipping up his jacket. “No offense, hyung.”

 

“You owe me a sundae for hurting my feelings, Jonginnie.”

 

Jongin laughs, and then, subtly, leans down to peck Nayeon’s cheek. Nayeon snickers, batting him weakly on the arm before fixing his hair. The look of pure affection on their faces is unmistakable, and Baekhyun can’t hide his own smile at the scene.

 

Once Jongin has left, Nayeon takes his place at the register. She’s done taking the order of a mother and her three-year-old daughter, when her phone beeps on the counter.

 

“Oooh,” Baekhyun sing-songs, sidling up to her. “I bet that's Jongin.”

 

“No, it’s not, oppa,” Nayeon retorts, but by her smile, Baekhyun knows she’s lying on purpose.

 

“So, since when has this been going on?” Baekhyun asks, pouring the ingredients into the mixer. “How did I miss it?”

 

“There’s nothing really going on,” Nayeon answers. “We’re going on dates and just getting to know each other.”

 

They’re getting to know each other. If it’s anything like he and Chanyeol are getting to know each other, with what he gets up to with Chanyeol when they’re alone, Baekhyun knows it’s likely nothing good. 

 

It’s puzzling still that now Baekhyun can kiss Chanyeol to his heart’s content. The novelty never wears off, even though a good portion of their time together is spent on kissing. But kissing Chanyeol is like discovering something new about his favorite song; he has yet to give Baekhyun the same kiss twice and he could spend hours studying that technique.

 

Chanyeol is glad to indulge him, pushing him up against the wall of the back alley or the bridge at the abandoned railroads, kissing him until Baekhyun is breathless and wanting under his hands. Training and researching are thoroughly left aside in favor of learning what makes Chanyeol’s breath hitch and moan in the back of his throat, and it doesn’t help that Chanyeol chooses to wear a tank top that reveals the tan lines of his muscles, leaving little to the imagination.

 

“Why are you smiling like that, oppa?” Nayeon’s voice tears him away from his reverie. “It’s kinda creepy.”

 

“Nothing, nothing.” Baekhyun shakes his head, dragging another stool to sit next to Nayeon. “I was thinking of a meme I saw this morning. Anyways, don’t change the subject. I can’t tell you to treat him nicely, because I know you will, but I’ll make sure to tell him exactly that.”

 

“Why are you so corny, oppa,” Nayeon says quietly. “Jonginnie has always been sweet, despite everything that he’s been through.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“You didn’t know?” A crease forms between Nayeon’s eyebrows. “Jongin’s girlfriend died two years ago in a car accident.”

 

Baekhyun’s mirth is drained out of him in an instant. “No, I didn’t know,” Baekhyun mumbles. “No one ever told me.”

 

“She was driving in the snow when a truck crashed into her car,” Nayeon tells him. “The guy was drunk, I think, and was given twenty or thirty years. She died on impact.” She looks down at her lap, gloomy eyes shadowed by her fringe. “I know Jongin had big plans with her. Moving in together, getting married after college, adopting a dog and all that. It’s so sad that Jongin got left behind with all those dreams.”

 

An echo of that news springs up in Baekhyun’s mind. It had been a big deal then because the girl was popular in her high school and had gotten accepted to a good college. The loss of such a young, bright life, as people usually lament.

 

Death is all around us even when we can’t see it. Baekhyun had seen sadness in Jongin’s eyes before, when Jongin thought no one was paying attention.

 

“That’s so sad,” Baekhyun murmurs. “Jonginnie always looks so happy, I would’ve never suspected something like that happened to him.”

 

Then again, that’s along the same vein of how Chanyeol had described Baekhyun a few feet from where he and Nayeon are sitting right now. I’ve been thinking about the people you’ve lost in your life and how you’re still so cheerful and kind and brave.

 

Grief and loss can shape or destroy a person, and it takes an immense amount of love and bravery not to give in to it. Baekhyun has seen it happen in different people, but most notably in himself. A belated thought reminds him of Chanyeol talking about his dead father.

 

“Well, you never know what’s going on in someone’s life, right?” Nayeon’s lips twitch in a subdued smile. “I didn’t know him when it happened, but it must’ve taken a lot of strength to go on with his life until he could smile and laugh like he does now.”

 

Excuse me.” The woman with the three-year-old kid stares down sternly at them. “Where’s my milkshake?”

 

Shit.” Baekhyun rushes out of his chair towards the mixer. “It’ll be ready in a second!”

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Chanyeol has made a habit of picking Baekhyun up after his shifts every day.

 

If Baekhyun were in his right mind he would tell Chanyeol he didn’t need a driver, but Baekhyun finds that he loves the sight of Chanyeol waiting for him outside the shop after a long day. There are times when Chanyeol comes in early and waits for Baekhyun at a table, sending Baekhyun secret looks and smiles that only the two of them can decode. Baekhyun thought the giddiness and exhilaration would fade after a day or two, but the feelings light up like a flare in his chest whenever he so much as spots Chanyeol across the shop.

 

No one knows about this new development in their relationship besides Jongdae—Baekhyun hadn’t been able to contain himself when Jongdae probed him the morning after their first kiss—and he’s been surprisingly tight-lipped about the situation. It doesn’t spare them of his usual teasing, though, and a wiggle of his eyebrows when Chanyeol arrives.

 

Tonight finds Baekhyun checking the wall clock repeatedly until Minseok’s patience finally grows thin and he ushers him out. Chanyeol is waiting against the wall next to the door, looking like a model off of a runway with black ripped jeans and a black shirt—that, for once, isn’t ten sizes too large for him—under a black, silk jacket. He’s so irresistibly handsome that Baekhyun has to shove his hands into his pockets to hold himself back from throwing his arms around Chanyeol and kissing him senseless right there in the middle of the street, with all the passerby walking to and fro after work and heading to the pubs.

 

“Hey, handsome,” Baekhyun greets, lowering his voice an octave. “Waiting for someone?”

 

Startled, Chanyeol lifts his eyes from his phone. Instantly, like magic, a grin stretches across his face when he sees Baekhyun. Baekhyun will never get tired of the elation he feels at that reaction each time it happens.

 

“I’m waiting for a hottie who works here,” Chanyeol teases, pushing off the wall. “Have you seen him? He has the best ass in all of Yogoe.”

 

Baekhyun whacks him on the shoulder but Chanyeol doesn’t seem remorseful in the least. In fact, he smirks at the bashfulness blending into a faint blush in Baekhyun’s face.

 

“Is that all you’re after? My ass?” Baekhyun asks. “Glad to know your true colors now.”

 

It’s not like it’s a shocker. Baekhyun had guessed from the way Chanyeol’s hands linger on Baekhyun’s buttocks while they’re making out that his ass is one of Chanyeol’s favorite things. And Baekhyun can’t say he hates it.

 

“That and your cute face,” Chanyeol says.

 

Chanyeol’s standing in front of Baekhyun now, and Baekhyun can tell he’s dying, as much as Baekhyun is, to lean down and kiss him. He doesn’t, though. Instead, he tugs on Baekhyun’s earlobe, rubbing it gently between his fingers.

 

“You’re not so bad yourself,” Baekhyun says, squeezing his hand briefly. It wouldn’t do to get carried away now, so he changes the subject. “Where are we going tonight? You look so fancy while I’m still wearing my work clothes.”

 

“It’s okay,” Chanyeol assures him. “You don’t need fancy clothes where I’m taking you.”

 

“Oooh.” Baekhyun follows Chanyeol to his scooter parked along the curb. “And where’s that?”

 

“You’ll see.” Chanyeol’s grin is wide and promising as he passes Baekhyun his designated helmet. “Tonight we’ll forget about demons and ghosts and evil spirits for a while and just be ourselves.”

 

Baekhyun stares down at the helmet. It doesn’t make sense why that bothers him a little. Perhaps it’s because Baekhyun has been doing his homework. He went back to The Witching Hour and borrowed all the books about ancient goddesses and demons that he could find and spent the entire week reading. Perhaps it’s because Junmyeon and the other men are still missing, and oftentimes Baekhyun can’t shake the pressure to keep investigating. And at the same time, he wants to be a normal guy in his twenties, going on late night dates with his… whatever Chanyeol is to him.

 

They are allowed to have this one night just being Baekhyun and Chanyeol.

 

Now, when Baekhyun rides on Chanyeol’s scooter, he doesn’t keep his distance. He wraps his arms around Chanyeol’s middle and sometimes Chanyeol will rest his hand over Baekhyun’s for a short while before grabbing both handles again.

 

Forty minutes later, Chanyeol parks outside a crumbling building on the outskirts of Yogoe. There are other buildings of various sizes along the block, all of them in the same state of disuse and dilapidation. By the location Baekhyun reasons they must have been factories or warehouses of some kind that were abandoned a long time ago. A strong smell of piss and garbage hits Baekhyun and he quickly covers his nose so as to not gag.

 

“When you said I didn’t need fancy clothes,” Baekhyun says, once he’s hopped off Chanyeol’s scooter, “I didn’t exactly have this in mind.”

 

“What’s inside is what matters,” Chanyeol ripostes. “You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.”

 

With a wink, Chanyeol turns and starts the walk up to the building in front of them. The ground surrounding the property is littered with dirt and grass growing past his knees, but unlike the abandoned railroads, there isn’t a single touch of whimsicality to the place.

 

The paint on the doors to the building is peeling off, a thick layer of dust covering the wood. Above the doors is a plaque darkened with rust, which reads 304 in numbers that Baekhyun figures must’ve been golden once upon a time. The cobwebs nested in the corners of the frame sway when Chanyeol opens the doors, the hinges creaking like the howls of a banshee in the stillness of night.

 

Chanyeol fishes his phone out of his pocket and turns on the flashlight, and Baekhyun copies him. There’s a film of dust on the floor, their footsteps leaving prints on the dirty tiles and echoing in the empty space. They’re in a foyer, judging by the overturned desk by the far wall and the folding chair on the ground next to it. The windows are shattered, shadows of peaks sprawling on the floor against the orange lights from the street. A pattering of tiny feet can be heard in the corner and Baekhyun suspects the creature isn’t an adult cat despite its size.

 

“This is possibly the worst first date in history,” Baekhyun mutters against his hand. “You’re lucky I have nothing to compare it to, but I’m pretty sure a trip to a McDonald’s drive-thru wouldn’t be this bad.”

 

Chanyeol glances back at him, wide-eyed with confusion. “You think this is a date?”

 

Baekhyun had assumed this was a date without Chanyeol even mentioning it. Perhaps Chanyeol just wanted to hang out, and Baekhyun had gone and made things awkward. Suddenly the prospect of burying himself in the dirt outside sounds very tempting, or maybe the dust here would be enough to swallow his body.

 

“No,” Baekhyun backtracks, “I was just kidding.”

 

“Oh,” Chanyeol says, then clears his throat. “This isn’t the place I wanted to show you anyway. We’re almost there.”

 

Chanyeol flashes him a reassuring smile before facing the front again. It might be his imagination, but Baekhyun swears there was a tinge of disappointment in Chanyeol’s voice.

 

A door stands at the end of the foyer. To Baekhyun’s surprise, the red paint on the door looks fresh, like it had been replaced recently. The doorknob is shaped like the head of a dragon, its jaws unhinged and ready for attack, its hollowed eyes slanted in a fiery fury. Chanyeol fits his fingers between the dragon’s pointy ears and twists the doorknob, the door emitting a quiet, creaking sound when it opens. Soft golden light spills into the foyer, revealing a long hallway with multiple doors on both sides, painted the same shade of red as the one they just opened.

 

“What is this place?” Baekhyun wonders.

 

“It’s called the Hall of a Thousand Truths,” Chanyeol says, grinning. “Told you there was more to this ugly building.”

 

The carpet underfoot is a velvet crimson, lavish and immaculate, it feels almost wrong to tread on it. This new space has such a warm, clean glow, a contrast to the gritty darkness they leave behind when they step into the hallway. At the same time, there’s a crooked aesthetic to it, like only a watchful eye could notice the room is slightly angled a couple degrees to the side, without disorienting its occupants.

 

A short distance below the pristine ceiling float multiple street signs, pointing in various directions and swirling delicately in a nonexistent draft. It doesn’t take long for Baekhyun to realize the signs show the numbers on the doors in bold black numbers, strange names written beside in italic fonts. Baekhyun cranes his head to read them: Room of Mirrors. Room of Little Forests. Room of Faraway Galaxies. Room of Pillow Clouds. Room of Cherry Blossom Showers. Room of Infinite Shooting Stars.

 

And many others Baekhyun can’t make sense of.

 

“So, this is like… illusionism?”

 

“Ding ding ding!” Chanyeol’s tongue peeks between white teeth. “Ah, you’re so smart. No wonder I like you so much.”

 

A hand cups Baekhyun’s nape, and Baekhyun instinctively leans into the touch.

 

“This place was used by illusionists decades ago, when circuses and travelling troupes were still a big deal in South Korea,” Chanyeol says. “There are many places like this all over the world, where illusionists would convert abandoned buildings like this one and use them as hotels, or for leisure and entertainment while they were passing through town. It was like magicians investing in a laser tag business.”

 

“How did you find it?”

 

“I read about them in middle school,” Chanyeol says. “I was obsessed with them until I found one with Yoora in Seoul once. The magic was chipping away by then because it was very old, but we had so much fun until it became too dangerous to keep visiting. And well, this one was a no-brainer. Seven is the most powerful magical number so I just had to find an abandoned building big enough to contain all the magic and this one fit the description to a tee.”

 

Baekhyun remembers the number inscribed in the plaque above the door: 304. It sounds simple now that Chanyeol explained it like that, and the arrogance radiating off him reminds Baekhyun of the Chanyeol he met the first time. That kind of proud confidence turns him on now, even if he would never admit it.

 

A slug to the arm has Chanyeol huffing exaggeratedly. “Stop preening,” Baekhyun says. “I can’t believe you were out here looking for this place alone when you could’ve gotten mugged or worse.

 

“It’s fine, mom,” Chanyeol teases. “I didn’t get eaten by a huge rat.” He pulls Baekhyun closer by an arm around his waist. “So, which room will you pick tonight? Keep in mind you can only pick one or two today, and a different one after the sun rises the next day because the magic is starting to wear off and using more than one room in a day would be too much for this old building.”

 

Baekhyun purses his lips as he considers it, staring up at the signs floating above.

 

“What about the Room of Pillow Clouds?” Baekhyun rolls his shoulders. “I could use something soft to lie on right now. I had a long shift today.”

 

“Aww, are you tired?” Chanyeol wraps his arms around Baekhyun and draws him close. “We could’ve gone home instead.”

 

Baekhyun shakes his head and stands on his toes to peck Chanyeol. Chanyeol’s smile grows tenfold.

 

“I’d rather be here with you,” Baekhyun confesses, then feels immediately silly for his candor. Chanyeol doesn’t let him dwell on it, though; he leans down to give Baekhyun a series of those sweet, chaste kisses he likes the most and makes him melt like ice cream under the summer sun. Baekhyun briefly considers forgetting about the rooms and staying a little longer here, kissing and savoring Chanyeol, but all too soon, Chanyeol pulls away from their little bubble.

 

“Let’s get going then,” Chanyeol says, grabbing Baekhyun’s hand to lead him down the hallway.

 

Room of Pillow Clouds reads a silver plaque on the red door in the middle of the hallway. Another inscription reads below the title in smaller letters: Beware those who enter the land of dreams that everything and nothing you see is real.

 

“What does that mean?” Baekhyun asks, pointing to the plaque.

 

“I don’t know.” Chanyeol shrugs. “But I guess it’s because you can sort of get lost in this place and forget about reality. If you spend too much time here you start to go mad because nothing outside seems real anymore. Like when you spend an entire weekend playing a video game without a break.”

 

Baekhyun nods, then Chanyeol twists the knob. White light envelopes them, but when it passes, all Baekhyun can see is a room of white. At first, he thinks the room is covered in snow, but he realizes it’s full of clouds, floating low or high, big or small, all over the room, as far as he can see. He doesn’t have much time to stand and revel in the magic of it all, because Chanyeol tugs on his hand insistently and leads him to the nearest cloud floating just above the floor.

 

Chanyeol hops on the cloud, and Baekhyun, for a moment, expects him to slip through the cottony fluff and land on the hard, white floor below—but Chanyeol stands on it like the cloud is as solid as the ground beneath Baekhyun’s feet. Climbing on it, Baekhyun marvels at the tendrils of soft white swallowing his feet without ever quite touching him.

 

“This is…” Baekhyun murmurs. “This is awesome.”

 

“C’mon!”

 

Chanyeol grabs his arm, and together, they jump onto another cloud, higher from the one they leave behind. It’s like gravity doesn’t exist in this room; they jump and climb onto cloud after cloud, farther away from the ground, but strangely, Baekhyun isn’t afraid of falling. The red door from which they entered is a dot far below them, disappearing and reappearing behind slowly drifting clouds.

 

Baekhyun doesn’t give himself enough time to consider it before he’s jumping off the cloud and falling onto another one several feet below. His back hits the cloud with the comfort of landing on a mattress, and he looks up at Chanyeol’s scared face watching him from above.

 

“Baekhyun!”

 

Chanyeol takes the dive and lands crouched next to Baekhyun with a huff.

 

“Why did you do that?!” Chanyeol mimics hitting his shoulder and Baekhyun rolls away from him, laughing. “You almost made me shit myself!”

 

“It was so fun!” Baekhyun exclaims, making a snow angel on the cloud. “I want to stay here forever.”

 

“You can’t,” Chanyeol says. He sits on the cloud at a safe distance from Baekhyun’s flailing arms. “We need to go back to reality at some point.”

 

Baekhyun hums, remaining still as he watches the drifting clouds overhead. “Let’s not think about that for now.”

 

Chanyeol chuckles, grin showing all thousands of his teeth. Baekhyun sits up and crawls towards him, and Chanyeol, already sensing where this is headed—or maybe, wishing it would head that way—stretches his legs so Baekhyun can straddle his lap. It’s the first time they’ve been in this position, and Baekhyun is slightly self-conscious at his boldness, but then Chanyeol fits his hands over his hips, which Baekhyun is starting to suspect is one of Chanyeol’s favorite places to put his hands. He leans forward to drop a kiss on Baekhyun’s chin, and the awkwardness passes as quickly as it came.

 

“I like this,” Chanyeol says, low and honeyed. “You look so good in my lap.”

 

Baekhyun snorts, whacks his arm in response as Chanyeol giggles. “Shut up or I’m not going to kiss you.”

 

Chanyeol mimics zipping his mouth and puckers his lips as he waits for a kiss. With an eye-roll, Baekhyun cradles Chanyeol’s face, and places a kiss on each of his cheeks. Chanyeol’s eyes flutter, but he puts on his sad puppy eyes when he looks back up at Baekhyun, lower lip jutted out in a pout. Baekhyun chuckles—building the anticipation has become a favorite game of his while making out with Chanyeol, because of how antsy he gets when Baekhyun delays giving him what he wants. And to prolong his suffering a little, Baekhyun kisses his nose and cupid’s bow next.

 

“Don’t be so mean,” Chanyeol pleads.

 

Baekhyun sighs with mock exasperation, but really, he’s enjoying this far too much. He’s also dying to kiss Chanyeol, and he finally gives in by burying his fingers in Chanyeol’s locks and planting a kiss on his mouth, which elicits a pleased sound. In order not to let him escape, Chanyeol traps Baekhyun’s bottom lip between both of his, then moves onto his upper lip to give it the same attention until it’s Baekhyun’s turn to moan.

 

A hand sneaks beneath Baekhyun’s shirt, Chanyeol’s fingers dancing along the depression on his spine. Baekhyun shudders, biting down on Chanyeol’s lip and causing him to moan into the kiss. When Baekhyun sweeps his tongue across his lips, Chanyeol lets him steal his way inside. They swirl tongues until Chanyeol’s making delightful little sounds that are as sweet as the sighs brushing Baekhyun’s face.

 

Chanyeol groans when Baekhyun drags his lips down his cheek and along his jaw, moving down to lick and nip at his neck. Baekhyun never thought he would get to hear these kind of sounds coming from Chanyeol, but he’s quickly becoming addicted to them. The fun in learning what makes Chanyeol unravel beneath his mouth and fingers is greater when Chanyeol lets him take control.

 

It feels like they’re on the brink of something—something Baekhyun doesn’t know he’s ready for, and that he definitely doesn’t want to happen at this place. The tell-tale sign of nerves coiling in his gut makes Baekhyun push himself away by gripping Chanyeol’s arms. Chanyeol’s clearly confused when he opens his eyes, his mouth open and red and glossy. It makes Baekhyun feel a little regretful for a second.

 

“We should stop,” Baekhyun pants. “I don’t think this is the place…”

 

Suddenly, Baekhyun remembers Chanyeol mentioning this place was a magical hotel, and leaves the sentence unfinished. Chanyeol seems to know what he’s thinking, though, because he runs a hand through his hair in an effort to gather his bearings. Baekhyun decides this is one his favorite sights; Chanyeol, swollen, red lips, flushed cheeks, chest heaving with labored breaths as he tries and fails to form a coherent thought.

 

“You’re right,” Chanyeol agrees in a rush of breath. Then, his eyes dart to Baekhyun’s, colored with alarm. “This isn’t why I brought you here, by the w—”

 

“No, no, I didn’t assume that,” Baekhyun assures him. Any other time, Baekhyun would tease Chanyeol about it, but he looks so eager to reaffirm his good intentions, it makes warmth pool in Baekhyun’s chest. To get his point across, Baekhyun pecks Chanyeol’s lips, and a small smile curls up in Chanyeol’s lips.

 

Baekhyun removes himself from Chanyeol’s lap, pulling down his shirt and smoothing down his hair. Chanyeol isn’t in a better state; his hair stands in all directions and Baekhyun feel satisfaction at knowing that it was his doing. 

 

 

***

 

 

 

In the walk up to Baekhyun’s place, they hold pinkies, sharing giddy glances and smiles like school children. As soon as Baekhyun enters his code and gets the door opened, Chanyeol pushes him against the wall and captures his mouth, Baekhyun throwing his arms over his shoulders for balance.

 

“Wow,” Baekhyun hears Jongdae say. “Okay.”

 

Dread sloshes in Baekhyun’s stomach in the second it takes for him to break the kiss and look in the direction of the kitchen. Jongdae sits at the table with Sunyoung on his lap, staring back at them with eyes the size of the ceramic bowls in front of them. The handful of seconds that follow are torturously slow as they snap out of their mutual shock. Baekhyun had already told Jongdae about the recent progress in his relationship with Chanyeol, but it’s Sunyoung’s reaction that worries him.

 

“So,” Sunyoung says, “are you guys a thing now?”

 

Chanyeol doesn’t pull away. Instead he draws Baekhyun closer, and Baekhyun tightens his hold around Chanyeol’s neck.

 

“I think so?” Baekhyun replies, then laughs at the absurdity of the situation.

 

It slices the tension like a knife through butter. Chanyeol bursts into a laugh, hiding his face in Baekhyun’s shoulder. Jongdae’s cackle reverberates against the walls of the kitchen, accompanied by Sunyoung’s deeper laugh. Baekhyun can only focus on the tickling of Chanyeol’s breath as he hiccups into his neck, and the warmth of his ears brushing his face.

 

Sunyoung beams at them when Baekhyun steers Chanyeol towards his bedroom, laughing and bowing at the same time. With his back against the closed door, Baekhyun closes his eyes and allows himself to laugh, ecstatic and amazed at the fact that his friends had been so unexpectedly accepting.

 

“Are you okay?” Chanyeol’s voice is amused. “You look two seconds from passing out.”

 

“I wasn’t expecting that,” Baekhyun says, running a hand through his hair. “But it’s nice that they don’t have a problem with us. That we won’t have to hide around them.”

 

Chanyeol’s smile is kind as he holds out a hand. Baekhyun takes it and lets Chanyeol guide him to the bed. They won’t do more than kissing this evening, Baekhyun knows. For a moment, however, when Chanyeol has stripped down to a loose tank top and boxers, Baekhyun’s resolve is dangerously close to crumbling.

 

They sit side by side in Baekhyun’s king bed, pouring over the notes Baekhyun has written down of their discoveries so far. Baekhyun tears his eyes away from a sketch of the grim reaper and focuses on Chanyeol, whose concentrated face, with his brows furrowed and tongue peeking between his lips, is enough to distract him.

 

“Sooyoung texted me today,” Chanyeol tells Baekhyun. “She wants us to set a date for the protection spell.”

 

“How much is she charging us?”

 

“It’s free.” Chanyeol smiles jauntily. “I guess she has a soft spot for cute ghost hunters.”

 

“Wow, she’s surely getting a tip from me at least,” Baekhyun says, rubbing a palm down his thigh. “She’s my favorite witch ever.”

 

Chanyeol’s grin is impish, frown deepened. “You’re so flirty,” he points out in a lighthearted tone. “I don’t know if I like that, to be honest.”

 

“Oh, is that so?” Baekhyun teases back. “It’s in my DNA, sorry to tell you. It comes with this sexy package.”

 

“I only want you to flirt with me.” Chanyeol drops the paper he was holding in favor of taking Baekhyun’s hands. “But in all seriousness I must admit I kinda like it when you flirt with other people. You make the cutest expressions for them and it works. They all fall like flies to your feet. Or when you act smug and confident sometimes… I really like it.”

 

Baekhyun’s cheeks warm up at the way Chanyeol’s voice drops an octave. It must be evident, because Chanyeol’s smile turns cheeky when he meets Baekhyun’s gaze.

 

“I like your voice,” Baekhyun confesses with a smirk. “And your eyes…” And everything about you, Baekhyun is about to say, but feels like it would be exposing too much. Chanyeol seems to understand the implication, because his gaze softens a significant degree.

 

“I meant what I said earlier.” Chanyeol’s eyes close as he lifts Baekhyun’s hands to his lips and kisses his knuckles. When Chanyeol opens his eyes, gone is the softness, replaced by determination. “I want to protect you against anything that comes our way.”

 

Baekhyun wets his lips. “I’ll protect you, too. This isn’t a one-sided deal, Chanyeol.”

 

“Right now you seem to be in more danger than I am,” Chanyeol counters. “And it would help me feel better to know that I can protect you.”

 

Baekhyun recalls the conversation they had deep into the night in a motel room in Seoul. Chanyeol confessing into the dark about living in his sister’s shadow and how striving to be better at everything had kept him away from his late father. The idea of Chanyeol risking his life to protect other people to compensate for not being there for his dying father tears Baekhyun’s soul apart.

 

It’s a type of remorse that Baekhyun can comprehend well.

 

“Chanyeol, you can’t be risking your life for other people all the time,” Baekhyun tells him softly. “Sometimes you also have to protect yourself.”

 

Initially, Chanyeol looks stricken, and Baekhyun fears that he offended him. But then, Chanyeol’s shaking his head, brows pinched with stubborn conviction.

 

“It’s not about that,” Chanyeol denies. After a moment, he reconsiders his words. “Well, it may be about that a bit… because I do want to be a better person in my dad’s memory. He was a healer and he cared so much about people. He wanted to save everyone that came to him, no matter what. I want to be the sort of person he would want me to be.”

 

Baekhyun wishes he could be the kind who cries easily, so he could release the heaviness lodged inside him at Chanyeol’s words. “That’s a beautiful sentiment,” whispers Baekhyun, touching Chanyeol’s face with his fingertips. Chanyeol leans into the touch and Baekhyun’s chest sings.

 

“Thank you,” Chanyeol murmurs, and kisses Baekhyun’s forehead. “And I wish you would let me help you without complaining. Accepting help isn’t admitting weakness, Baekhyun. Everyone needs help sometimes.”

 

Baekhyun sighs, a long, resigned stream of air. It’s a truth he’s learned to accept after all the help he got from Chanyeol and everyone else in this case. The fact that his pride is only bruised means that he’s growing, if somewhat reluctantly. “I know that,” he mutters, though he allows a wry smile. Chanyeol’s own smile is impossibly tender and proud. “No need to dig the knife deeper.”

 

“I’m glad I could help,” Chanyeol jokes in a patronizing tone, patting Baekhyun’s knee. Baekhyun rolls his eyes, and Chanyeol chuckles before his expression sobers somewhat. “But I also want to protect you because…” He pauses to look straight at Baekhyun. “Uh, because I... I care about you.”

 

Chanyeol tugs at his bottom lip, holding Baekhyun’s gaze. His eyes are wide and expectant. This is the perfect opportunity to tell Chanyeol how he feels. Baekhyun is talkative, a master of words, except this time words evade his grasp like sand. If only he could find the words to string a useful sentence for this situation, the words that would effectively express his feelings, the words that would make Chanyeol stay in Yogoe—if such words exist in the first place.

 

And there is also the fear.

 

Throughout his life, Baekhyun has learned that everyone leaves at some point, that nothing is eternal, but the fear of baring his heart out and Chanyeol still leaving as he’d planned in the beginning grips his heart in a vicious hold.

 

Red catches his eye. It’s the flyer from the festival, the date marked in bold white letters at the bottom. July 7th. He grabs it and holds it in front of Chanyeol.

 

“Didn’t Joohyun say that Saint John’s Eve is prosperous for summoning demons?” Baekhyun blurts out, breathy and hasty. “What if the festival is the same thing for this specific demon?”

 

It’s a weak tactic for distraction, but Chanyeol takes the bait. There is only a momentary flicker of disappointment across his face, gone as quickly as it appeared. At the twist in his heart, Baekhyun tells himself it’s for the best.

 

“The demon?” Chanyeol blinks at the flyer. “Isn’t the festival meant for the first goddess?”

 

“I think they’re the same thing,” Baekhyun says. “Wait, I have something to show you.”

 

Baekhyun climbs out of bed and saunters over to his desk chair, where he keeps his backpack. The book is still where he had left it last night after speaking to Jongdae. He opens it to the page he had been reading and shows it to Chanyeol when he returns to the bed.

 

“It’s an origin story for a goddess who was stripped away of her divinity after being filled with greed and ambition,” Baekhyun tells him. “She was bequeathed to the underworld and fell in love with the king of the dead, Jiyong, only to end up dethroning him when he refused to give her a position of power equal to his own.”

 

“Equality!” Chanyeol whoops flatly, lifting a fist. “So that could be the same Sunmi.”

 

Baekhyun gathers the notes. “I’m not sure, but it sounds like it. And it could be the same demon who killed Nam Joohyuk. Must be why Junmyeon-hyung wanted us to know about him.”

 

The second time Baekhyun had told Chanyeol about Nam Joohyun—since the first time Chanyeol had been a man on a mission, singularly focus on confessing to Baekhyun—he’d been rightfully shocked. And Baekhyun had gotten an apology for Chanyeol scaring him with his attitude that night at the ice cream shop and Chanyeol had bribed a kiss from Baekhyun with a tender pout. 

 

“We can do a séance to talk to the demon,” Chanyeol suggests. “Ask her what she wants or what’s bothering her. There must be a reason why she’s manifesting in the living world. We could give her whatever it is she’s looking for and send her off on her merry way.”

 

“That’s an option,” Baekhyun agrees, nodding. Then, he smiles mischievously. “You’re so hot when you come up with good ideas.”

 

Chanyeol’s grin is exaggeratedly arrogant—a self-mocking portrait of his initial self. “What can I say, being a genius has its advantages sometimes.”

 

“Shut up.” Baekhyun shoves him playfully, and Chanyeol convulses with laughter. Baekhyun loves how Chanyeol laughs with his entire body, like his enormous frame isn’t enough to contain his mirth.

 

Moving aside the notes, Baekhyun straddles Chanyeol’s lap, and Chanyeol’s laughter peters out into a chuckle he muffles against Baekhyun’s cheek. It’s been days, but Baekhyun suspects the feeling of wondrous disbelief that this is real, that he has Chanyeol right here in his arms, won’t fade away any time soon.

 

Chanyeol winds his arm around Baekhyun’s waist, one hand slipping under his shirt. It sends pleasant shivers through him as Chanyeol runs his hand up his spine, looking up at Baekhyun with the same kind of joyous awe. Baekhyun kisses him, sliding his tongue along the seam of his lips, and Chanyeol parts them with a contented exhale.

 

During Baekhyun’s first kiss with a girl in high school, he had been thinking too much the whole time, about where to put his hands or whether he was using too much tongue. But it’s nice to let go with Chanyeol, it’s nice to go with what feels right, with that he thinks Chanyeol likes.

 

“We should sleep,” Baekhyun breathes against Chanyeol’s cheek. Chanyeol’s mouth is kiss-stung, red and inviting, and Baekhyun has a hard time pulling away. Chanyeol groans, his arms trapping Baekhyun like vines so he can’t escape. Laughing, he pushes at Chanyeol’s shoulder, but Chanyeol doesn’t budge. “Let go, you giant, we have to sleep.”

 

“Don’t wanna.” Chanyeol shakes his head, grinning wide.

 

Chanyeol’s fingers dance along Baekhyun’s sides, and Baekhyun squirms, trying to break free, laughing like a maniac. Chanyeol lifts him and tosses him on his back to the bed, falling on top of him and settling between his legs. It takes a moment for Baekhyun to orient himself, but when he does, Chanyeol is laughing into his neck, his body shaking above Baekhyun.

 

“Get off, you big doofus,” Baekhyun says. “You’re heavy.”

 

Chanyeol rolls over to the side, keeping his arms wound around Baekhyun. “I forgot you were so ticklish.”

 

“It’s one of my weaknesses.” Baekhyun shifts to lay on his side so he can face Chanyeol. “Now that you know it I’ll have to get rid of you.”

 

“Why, are you scared I’ll snitch on you?” Chanyeol boops Baekhyun’s nose with a fingertip, which moves down to trace the seam of his lips. “I’ll tell the demon it’s your one weakness so she’ll tickle you for hours on end.”

 

“That was used as an actual torture device,” Baekhyun whispers. He scoots closer until his face is inches away from Chanyeol’s, his breath fanning over Chanyeol’s chin when he speaks. “I’ll tell her you hate doing laundry but you’re a great cook, so she can make you her slave or something.”

 

“You’re going to sell me to a demon?” Chanyeol smirks, drawing one of Baekhyun’s hands to his lips. “That’s mean.”

 

“I would have given you to Beelzebub myself without a second thought when I met you,” Baekhyun says with a little amused exhale. “Now I’m on the fence about it.”

 

“On the fence, huh.” Chanyeol kisses him on the chin, peppering kisses down to his neck. Baekhyun giggles, writhing under his touch. “How about I make you change your mind?”

 

Chanyeol mouths at Baekhyun’s neck, riding up his shirt with a hand on his abdomen, when a repetitive hammering against the wall interrupts them. It’s followed by the distinctive sound of moaning, loud and unrestrained, from the next room. Baekhyun groans, covering his face with his palms, too mortified to look at Chanyeol, who is guffawing against the pillow.

 

“I’m going to kill Jongdae in the morning,” Baekhyun warns, dropping his hands.

 

Chanyeol plants a wet kiss on Baekhyun’s cheek and gathers him in his arms. “I think it’s a good cue for us to go to sleep.”

 

Baekhyun rests his head on Chanyeol’s chest, throwing his arms over Chanyeol’s torso and entwining their legs together, like the last time Chanyeol had slept over. This time, when Chanyeol kisses the crown of his head, Baekhyun can tilt his head up and kiss him goodnight.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

“Where are they?” Baekhyun asks for the tenth time, tapping his foot against the floor. “They should’ve been here like ten minutes ago.”

 

“Chill,” Chanyeol says. “They probably got stuck in traffic or something.”

 

“This is Yogoe, not Seoul, Chanyeol,” Baekhyun refutes. “There isn’t that much traffic.”

 

Chanyeol drapes his hand over Baekhyun’s nape, and Baekhyun forgets what he was annoyed about for a second as Chanyeol strokes his neck with his thumb.

 

“They’re going to be here soon,” Chanyeol says lowly. “Stop fretting.”

 

Baekhyun slumps against Chanyeol, and Chanyeol kisses his hair. It’s moments like this that Baekhyun likes best, when things slow down and Chanyeol just wants him close. Baekhyun tilts his head so he can kiss Chanyeol chastely on the mouth, feeling his lips stretch into a smile.

 

“If you guys are going to start making out,” Jongdae pipes in from the kitchen, “I’m going to leave.”

 

Baekhyun rolls his eyes and Chanyeol chuckles as he leans away. “You can leave anyway,” Baekhyun retorts.

 

“It’s my apartment too,” Jongdae says, cocking his hips to one side. He has that sharp look when one of his eyebrows is quirked. “I’m staying here for this protection spell.”

 

“Suit yourself,” Baekhyun says, “but don’t flirt with any of the witches. They’re scary as hell.”

 

“But they’re very pretty,” Chanyeol says, and snickers when Baekhyun gives him a mock glare. Chanyeol draws him close until Baekhyun is nearly sitting on his lap. “I prefer the non-scary ones.”

 

Baekhyun raises a single eyebrow. “I can be scary.”

 

“Stop being gross,” Jongdae says.

 

Three successive knocks bring everyone’s attention to the door. Baekhyun untangles himself from Chanyeol, muttering “Finally!” as he walks to the door. On the other side, Sooyoung, Seungwan and Joohyun are respectively clad in wine, purple and black velvet cloaks, looking at Baekhyun with small, enigmatic smiles which seem almost eerie. The three witches bob their heads in a perfectly timed bow. Baekhyun forgets of his annoyance about their tardiness.

 

“Hi, we’re very sorry for being late,” Sooyoung says. “Lilith ran away and we couldn’t find her.”

 

“Who’s Lilith?” 

 

“Our cat,” replies Seungwan. “Can we come in?”

 

The trio doesn’t wait for an answer before they’re sidestepping Baekhyun and walking into the living room. Baekhyun stares after them as he follows, Chanyeol and Jongdae gawking at them, frozen in place.

 

“I believe we haven’t met,” Joohyun tells Jongdae. “My name is Joohyun.”

 

“I’m Seungwan!” she chirps, hurrying to shake Jongdae’s hand. Jongdae receives the handshake listlessly, still spell-bound. “And this is Sooyoung.”

 

Sooyoung dips her head again. “Nice to meet you,” she says politely. “Forgive us for intruding in your home.”

 

“No, no, no, it’s okay!” Jongdae gives a vehement shake of his head. “You’re all welcome!”

 

“Thank you!” Seungwan claps, grin wide as the Han river. “Shall we start?”

 

“Of course.” Baekhyun nods. “Do whatever you have to do.”

 

From somewhere beneath her cloak, Seungwan pulls out a satchel, stars embroidered on a navy velvet, and Joohyun does the same with a white colored satchel. Sooyoung, transfixed by something, walks to the hallway and puts her hand flat against the wall.

 

“Are you sure you’ve never done a spell on this place before?” she asks.

 

“No,” Baekhyun replies. “Why?”

 

“Because there is one already,” Sooyoung says. “Placed, I’d gather, about a year ago.”

 

Seungwan frowns. “You’re right,” she says. “I can feel it now. It’s subtle, but very powerful.”

 

“How can you not know?” Joohyun pins Baekhyun with a piercing gaze. “Only people you’re familiar with can place a charm on a place you frequent.”

 

“But I don’t know…” Baekhyun trails off, suddenly remembering Heechul. His eyes flit from Jongdae to Chanyeol. “Do you think Heechul could’ve done it? But why? And why did he never tell me?”

 

“Maybe he didn’t want to worry you,” Jongdae tries to pacify Baekhyun. “He obviously did it to take care of you.”

 

“But he should have told me!”

 

Baekhyun’s growing annoyed. Not only wouldn’t Heechul let him probe further into what was going on in the town, but he also did something behind Baekhyun’s back to protect him. Did he know all along what was going on and wanted to be a step ahead of Baekhyun? Baekhyun was too old for Heechul to keep him in the dark about things that affected him directly. He wasn’t a child who needed to be protected and sheltered anymore.

 

Without waiting for a response, Baekhyun storms out of the apartment, ignoring Chanyeol’s shouts of his name.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Baekhyun is surprised to find Heechul home, but he’s far from relieved. He had hoped Heechul was out so they wouldn’t have to have this conversation.

 

“Why did you put a charm on my apartment?”

 

Heechul sighs, resigned. “I knew you were going to find out somehow, but I did it because I wanted to protect you,” he says vehemently.

 

“But why did you do it without telling me first?” Baekhyun snaps. “I’m not a kid anymore. I want to know what’s going on.”

 

“Nothing is going on, Baekhyun,” Heechul replies, tone as firm as his gaze. “I already told you.”

 

“Then what are you trying to protect me from? There must’ve been a reason for you to put that charm on my apartment.”

 

They stare at each other in silence, Baekhyun’s words lingering. The clocks tick ominously on Heechul’s walls.

 

At length, Heechul’s expression softens a degree—a chink in the armor. “Because I promised your parents I would take care of you,” he reiterates. “I’ve told you that.”

 

“That’s not all of it, is it,” Baekhyun presses, not missing a beat. “It doesn’t explain why you’re so insistent with keeping me in the dark about what’s going on.”

 

“Because there are things you’re not supposed to know, Baekhyun.” Heechul sidesteps Baekhyun to take his coat off the hanger by the door with an air of finality. “I’m going on a trip overseas now and I don’t want you to be probing further into this business, do you hear me?”

 

A second ticks by. Then, Baekhyun speaks, unnervingly even, “You knew my dad.” It’s not an accusation so much as a belated observation, but it has the effect of a bullet, because Heechul freezes on the spot. “You said you promised to my parents, so you knew my dad. You told me before that you never met him.”

 

Heechul turns back slowly. “Baekhyun…”

 

The quiet tension in the room snaps like a rubber band. The icy fury that had been cooking inside Baekhyun is piping hot. “Tell me the truth!” Baekhyun snarls, stepping forward. “Who am I? Who were my parents?”

 

“I’ve never lied about who you are,” Heechul says in a calm tone, though the fear is building in his eyes. “But I can’t say anything else—not because I don’t want you to know.”

 

“Why not?” Baekhyun pleads, voice raising. “Please tell me!”

 

Heechul looks sad as he drags the sleeve on his left arm down to reveal a scar around his wrist, as if a bracelet had burned his skin. Baekhyun recognizes it immediately as a spell binding someone to a promise made to someone else, effective even beyond death.

 

“I promised your parents I would never let you know what happened,” Heechul whispers. “You need to trust me when I tell you that it’s in order to protect you.”

 

“Protect me from what, Heechul? There are bad things happening and I’m in danger!” Baekhyun strides forward until he’s close enough to tug at the lapels of Heechul’s coat. Heechul looks afraid and Baekhyun wishes he wasn’t the reason, but he doesn’t back down. “You need to tell me so we can stop it.”

 

“I can’t do it, Baekhyun,” Heechul retorts, gaze imploring. “You’re going to need to ask someone else. I’m bound forever to your mother’s promise. If I say anything, I will die.”

 

Rage is a sharp knife, slicing through Baekhyun’s reasoning, hot as blood. “Well, that would be better if you’ve lied to me for so long about who my parents are.”

 

The words feel like another person has uttered them, like Baekhyun’s watching another mouth spit that poison—and yet the remorse overcomes him in less than a second. Baekhyun has never seen this kind of look on Heechul, as though he’s been struck and then spit on. It’s a look of pure pain, and Baekhyun flinches instantly when Heechul recovers, schooling his face into neutrality a moment later.

 

“Okay, then,” Heechul murmurs. “I’ll be going. See you later, Baekhyun.”

 

“Wait, Heechul!”

 

It’s too late. Heechul vanishes with a quiet pop, and where the man had stood there’s only an empty foyer. Baekhyun is left with the sound of half a dozen clocks ticking and his gnawing remorse.

 

 

 

 

A knock comes an hour later. Baekhyun had curled up on the couch, and he only gets up when the person outside doesn’t seem to give up.

 

Chanyeol’s eyes are wild and concerned, but when they land on Baekhyun, his shoulders slack, his face wrecked with relief.

 

“What are you doing here?” Baekhyun manages to ask before Chanyeol pulls him into a bone-crushing embrace.

 

“Heechul texted Jongdae about you being here,” Chanyeol tells him. “He told him to come pick you up because you shouldn’t be left alone right now. We were so worried.”

 

Baekhyun notes the ‘we’ Chanyeol used instead of speaking for himself, but he can’t tell if it was done on purpose. The softness of Chanyeol’s hoodie against his skin and his scent makes him feel a little better, even though he’s still smarting from his argument with Heechul.

 

“Are you okay?” Chanyeol asks, pulling away to inspect Baekhyun. “Did you argue with Heechul?”

 

“Yes,” Baekhyun mutters. “About my parents. He knows what’s going on, but he can’t tell me anything. They made an Unbreakable spell with him before they died so he wouldn’t reveal anything to me.”

 

“Why would they do that?” Chanyeol’s mouth drags down into a frown. “Unless there was something they were hiding…”

 

“Exactly,” Baekhyun says, biting on his lower lip. “I said something terrible to Heechul. He’s probably never going to forgive me.”

 

“I’m sure he will,” Chanyeol assures him, stroking his arm. “He knows you were angry, but he really cares about you.”

 

“I’m angry because he hid this from me for so long,” Baekhyun says. He breaks free from the hug, Chanyeol’s arms dropping to his sides. “And I still don’t know what he’s hiding. What if my parents aren’t actually the people I thought they were for so long? I thought my dad was never in the picture, but Heechul knew him. Why did he never tell me about him?”

 

Chanyeol stares back at him with the same kind of confusion that must be written on Baekhyun’s face, but there’s also an edge of concern on Chanyeol’s features that makes Baekhyun draw in a breath to calm himself down.

 

“I don’t know, Baekhyun,” Chanyeol says. “I wish I could give you all the answers, but I don’t have them.” He steps closer to Baekhyun and takes his hand. “I can only offer to help you look for them.”

 

There is that thud in Baekhyun’s chest, like he can’t properly breathe. There’s so much softness in Chanyeol’s gaze, Baekhyun feels like he’s drowning in it. It comes as an ache, the reminder that Chanyeol isn’t his to keep, that he’s leaving as soon as he finds those answers for Baekhyun, or even before then. This isn’t Chanyeol’s place after all.

 

Deciding that he’s going to take as much as he can get in the time they have left, Baekhyun stands on his toes, threads his fingers on Chanyeol’s hair and kisses him firmly on the mouth. When they separate, Chanyeol is breathing hard, lips red and cheeks flushed, eyes bright as the noon sun.

 

“What was that for?”

 

“Thanks,” Baekhyun murmurs, “for everything.”

 

“You don’t have to thank me,” Chanyeol says, nuzzling the side of Baekhyun’s face. “I do it because I want to—and because you’d be helpless without me.”

 

 Baekhyun laughs, pinching Chanyeol hard enough on the side so he jumps away from Baekhyun.

 

“Will you ever let me live down the fact you’ve saved my life thrice?”

 

Chanyeol grins as wide as an ocean. “Never.” He looks around at the clocks hanging on the walls. “So, are we going home? Or do you want to hang around here a little longer?”

 

“I’m going to grab something,” Baekhyun tells him. “You can wait for me outside if you want.”

 

Chanyeol nods and does as told. Baekhyun runs upstairs, to the spare room Heechul has been using as an office since he bought the house. The space is lined with bookshelves on opposite sides, but what Baekhyun wants isn’t on the shelves. Next to the bookshelf to Baekhyun’s right is a painting of a pincoya carrying a drowned sailor across a stormy sea to the Caleuche, a ghostly ship, floating paces above the water shrouded in green light.

 

The painting has fascinated Baekhyun since childhood. He wondered for a long time where Heechul had gotten it, and why he kept it in this hidden corner of the house. It was only when he was a teenager that he discovered its secret. Baekhyun caresses the female spirit on the canvas, then takes a step back and waits. The painting trembles ever-so-slightly, and swivels ninety degrees to the right to reveal a square hole in the wall. A photo album is the sole occupant of the secret safe, looking simple and nondescript in its confines. But Baekhyun knows it holds more meaning than it appears.

 

Baekhyun slides the album out of the safe and tucks it under his arm. Without ceremony, he returns the painting to its original position and runs back downstairs where Chanyeol waits for him.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Baekhyun slips out of his sneakers in the foyer as soon as they enter Chanyeol’s apartment. Chanyeol drops his own in the living room and smiles impishly at Baekhyun’s eye roll because of his mess.

 

“You want something specific for dinner?”

 

I want to have you is at the tip of Baekhyun’s tongue, but he swallows down the cringy remark.

 

“Whatever you want,” he says instead.

 

In the kitchen, Chanyeol simpers at Baekhyun, as though he read his original thought, before he dips his head to inspect the contents of his fridge. Baekhyun sits at the kitchen island, watching as Chanyeol prepares dinner for them both. He refuses any help from Baekhyun, since he knows he isn’t the best in the cooking department and leaves him to observe from his stool. 

 

When he’s done, Chanyeol places two bowls of jjigae on the table along with smaller ones of rice and complementary slices of radish. Baekhyun beams as Chanyeol proudly smirks at the food.

 

“Thank you for the food,” Baekhyun says, picking up his chopsticks. “This looks so good and I’m starving.”

 

“Cooking is one of my many talents,” Chanyeol says. “I can’t say I’ve ever made a bad dish.”

 

“Here.” Baekhyun shoves radish into Chanyeol’s face until he opens his mouth. “You look better with your face stuffed.”

 

Chanyeol laughs, sprinkling pieces of vegetable everywhere. Baekhyun is a weird mix of endeared and grossed out. Chanyeol’s eyes crinkle when he laughs, tears beading at the corners, and Baekhyun is so, so… he doesn’t want to put a name to it yet, especially when Chanyeol’s departure is hovering over his head like a dark cloud. He just wants to focus on the now and enjoy Chanyeol for as long as he can.

 

 When dinner is done, Chanyeol boils water in an electric kettle and puts tea bags in two mugs.

 

“My mom used to make tea for me whenever I was upset.” Chanyeol fetches a jar of honey from the fridge. “It didn’t make me less mad, but I was more content, and it helped me sleep better.”

 

Baekhyun isn’t that upset anymore. The flames of anger have subsided, replaced by immense regret at what he had told Heechul before he left. The image of his face crumbling, painted with hurt and sadness, keeps replying in his head on loop. Baekhyun wishes he could make it better but knows that Heechul won’t make himself available to him for now.

 

Chanyeol’s mention of his mother only reminds Baekhyun of the reason behind the fight. Before Baekhyun can begin to dwell on the memory of his mother, he remembers that everything he knew—thought he knew—about his parents is uncertain. As uncertain as his past and his own self. Was everything about his mother a lie? Baekhyun’s memories may be fuzzy, but love can’t be forged. If there’s one thing Baekhyun is certain about is that the woman who took care of him before her death loved him. And Baekhyun loved her back.

 

Does it really matter if she wasn’t Baekhyun’s real mother? Questions saturate Baekhyun’s head and fatigue sits heavy on his shoulders.

 

“I’m not angry anymore, just tired,” Baekhyun tells him. “I could use a warm cup of tea right now.”

 

Chanyeol tosses him a gentle smile over his shoulder. “Do you like honey? I like mine very sweet.”

 

The buzz of the electric kettle is a background sound to Baekhyun’s thoughts. Baekhyun watches Chanyeol pull out a canister with sugar from the cabinet and place it beside the mugs. There is a strange surge of affection within him at this man he’s only known for such a short while, but who has come to be a significant part of his life. And how he wants to seize every moment he has with him and make the most of it.

 

Sliding off his stool, Baekhyun rounds the island to stand in front of Chanyeol. Chanyeol’s elbow bumps into Baekhyun’s belly from where he’s retrieving a couple of teaspoons, and he jerks around to face him, eyes wide and smile faltering for a second before it lands on Baekhyun. 

 

“You scared me,” Chanyeol reprimands with a laugh. “Don’t do that again.”

 

Baekhyun’s hands settle themselves on Chanyeol’s hips. They aren’t round and fleshy like Baekhyun’s—but bony and square, and Baekhyun loves how perfectly his hands fit around them. Chanyeol seems to understand Baekhyun’s intentions in an instant, judging by the expectation in his gaze, long lashes flapping over his proud cheekbones. He’s so incredibly handsome, and Baekhyun is overwhelmed with the emotions that hit him like a wave, wantonness and yearning and fondness, all pooled in a weird blend, because he suddenly wants to cling to Chanyeol and never let go of him—and wow if that isn’t a feeling he should have when he knows that Chanyeol is going to leave once summer ends.

 

“Baekhyun?”

 

The kettle clicks on the countertop, water bubbling and steam swirling to the cabinet above. Chanyeol’s pouty lips are parted, eyes round and curious. His hair is ruffled and fluffed from where he’d pulled up his hood earlier, and Baekhyun wants to mess it up some more.

 

“Kiss me,” Baekhyun demands, and without wasting another second, Chanyeol complies.

 

Soon enough, Baekhyun opens his mouth and sighs when Chanyeol’s tongue slides past his lips, starting a dance that they have come to find a set rhythm. Baekhyun’s hands sneak under Chanyeol’s shirt, creeping upwards and marveling at the toned lines of his abdomen, skipping over the ridges of his ribs. Chanyeol’s hands trail down his arms to his waist, and even lower, moving slowly down the curve of his ass, cupping one cheek and squeezing gently, Baekhyun gasping and moaning into the kiss. He can feel Chanyeol’s lips stretching into a smile, so Baekhyun bites on his lower lip, making Chanyeol gasp this time. Baekhyun fits one leg between Chanyeol’s—and he doesn’t expect Chanyeol rubbing against it, panting into his mouth as Baekhyun nibbles on his neck.

 

“Want you…”

 

The words skip past a breath, but they resonate in Baekhyun’s head. Baekhyun’s half hard already, and his arousal is mounting now that he looks at the evident strain in Chanyeol’s crotch, and then up, the want glazing his eyes. Chanyeol seems to snap out of his haze, because he moistens his lips, eyes searching Baekhyun’s face.

 

“Forget what I said,” Chanyeol backtracks. “It’s okay if you don’t want to. I mean it. I don’t want you to feel pressured to do anything you don’t want to d—”

 

“I want to.” Baekhyun’s voice cracks, so he presses a firm kiss to Chanyeol’s chin. “I’ve wanted you for a while now.”

 

To further prove his point, Baekhyun yanks Chanyeol closer by the front of his hoodie, sinking his fingers into his hair to bring him down in a searing kiss. Chanyeol’s hands flutter down over Baekhyun’s chest, finally clutching to his hips as if for dear life.

 

“I’ve wanted you for a while, too,” Chanyeol pants against Baekhyun’s mouth. “But I didn’t know if you wanted me back that way. I was just waiting for you to come to me… but you were taking so long I had to take matters into my own hands.”

 

Baekhyun laughs breathlessly, cradling Chanyeol’s face. “I’m so glad you did because I wanted you so much, I felt so miserable knowing that you belonged to someone who wasn’t me.”

 

“Not to be corny but,” Chanyeol says between kisses, “I’m all yours now, baby. You can do whatever you want with me.”

 

“Don’t call me baby,” Baekhyun giggles as Chanyeol’s lips drag over his cheek. “It’s cheesy even for you.”

 

Baekhyun chews on his lower lip as Chanyeol peppers kisses over his jaw and down the column of his neck. It’s tempting, to do as he likes with Chanyeol, and he’s surely had enough fantasies to keep them busy for days on end—but he wants to be taken care of. He wants Chanyeol to take care of him, and in Chanyeol’s own words, the thought of Chanyeol having his way with him sends a shudder down his spine that escapes past him in a soft gasp.

 

Overcome by anticipation, Baekhyun pushes away and leads Chanyeol to the bedroom, as if this wasn’t Chanyeol’s apartment. Gaining his bearings, Chanyeol spins Baekhyun around and takes his face to capture his mouth, soft but fervent, then pushes him gently onto the bed, without ever breaking the kiss. Chanyeol gives the best kisses, Baekhyun has decided in the short time he’s been kissing him. His kisses are a wide range that never stops surprising, as familiar as they’ve become, always tender and soft, eager and wanton, open-mouthed and wet, ever so eager to the point he’s a little sloppy. But it endears Baekhyun all the more, because he’s never been kissed like this, as if Chanyeol would die if he didn’t get to taste Baekhyun.

 

Chanyeol pulls away to crouch on the bed, tugging Baekhyun’s sweatshirt up insistently. Baekhyun obeys, prying his hands from Chanyeol to lift his arms so Chanyeol can slide the clothing off and toss it to the side. The rest of their clothes follow soon after, and Baekhyun sits up to admire Chanyeol’s abdominal muscles, the defined lines of his pecs, the tan lines of his arms. In the dim glow of the bedside lamp, Baekhyun can tell the darker shade of Chanyeol’s arms in contrast with his chest, and he would make a joke about wearing tank tops too often, but his eyes fall on the obvious tent on Chanyeol’s pants, and his mouth goes dry as a desert.

 

Chanyeol fumbles with Baekhyun’s zipper, and a jittery chuckle rumbles out of Chanyeol when he gets it right. It’s comforting to Baekhyun to see that Chanyeol is nervous as well, that he isn’t the only one in this.

 

“Sorry,” Chanyeol says, undoing his own pants now. “It’s just that I… I’ve never done this with another guy.”

 

“We’re in the same boat then.” Baekhyun exhales an amused breath. “I’ve never been this naked with another guy besides Jongdae, and he’s as straight as an arrow.”

 

“Lucky for you,” Chanyeol dips to kiss along Baekhyun’s neck, “I’m not straight, but I’ll get more naked if you play your cards well.”

 

“Is that so?” Baekhyun sighs as Chanyeol mouths along his collarbones, fingers playing with the waistband of his jeans. “If you don’t stop being a tease, then you might not even get me to try my luck.”

 

Baekhyun traces the outline of Chanyeol’s abdomen with unsure fingers, gaining confidence with each shiver that his touch elicits. Chanyeol moves away when Baekhyun seeks a kiss, lips straining over a suppressed grin.

 

“C’mon, I’m dying here,” Baekhyun whines, and Chanyeol chuckles again.

 

“You really can’t resist me, can you,” Chanyeol teases, leaning forward so their lips are mere inches away. Baekhyun is too far gone with the desire to kiss Chanyeol to even think of a witty remark—but then, Chanyeol pulls away, naked shoulders shaking with a silent chuckle as Baekhyun groans.

 

As if unable to resist, Chanyeol kisses his neck instead, leaving blooming rosy marks along the crook of his shoulder. Baekhyun hums, tilting his head to give him better access while he rubs up and down Chanyeol’s arm. Chanyeol lifts his head and, with a hand on Baekhyun’s chest, pushes him down back onto the mattress, following close to mouth along his sternum, diverging to tongue his nipple. Baekhyun gasps, fisting the sheets as Chanyeol takes his nipple into his mouth until it’s wet and perky, then moves to trail his tongue along his navel. Chanyeol slips his tongue into Baekhyun’s belly button, and Baekhyun squirms with a sound between a moan and a chuckle.

 

“I really like your tummy,” Chanyeol says, nuzzling Baekhyun’s stomach with his face. “It’s one of my favorite parts of your body.”

 

Baekhyun has always been a little self-conscious of his weight, with his belly being one of the major causes why he’s cut off snacks. But seeing Chanyeol appreciate it, lovingly kissing it, makes delight curl inside him more than any other compliment by another person.

 

“Thanks,” Baekhyun murmurs, “I really like your abs. You should ditch the tank tops and just go around shirtless for the rest of your life. I’d really appreciate the view.”

 

Chanyeol chuckles, snapping the waistband of Baekhyun’s boxers against his hip. Baekhyun squeaks, then laughs out loud, but it’s short-lived when Chanyeol starts tugging down his pants along with his underwear, Baekhyun squirming to help him pull them down the rest of the way. There is the brief need to cover himself as the air hits his naked body, his right hand hovering above his stomach, but in the end it drops to the sheets. Baekhyun watches Chanyeol taking in his body with bated breath. He’s self-conscious still, but the little appreciative curl on Chanyeol’s lips and the desire burning in his gaze create the same kind of fire in his gut, until Baekhyun’s spreading his legs a little wider to bare more of him.

 

He’s unable to help an impish remark. “Like what you see?”

 

Chanyeol releases his bottom lip, now a shade of rosy pink. “I really, really, really like what I see. So much so,” he hovers over Baekhyun to plant a kiss on the corner of his mouth, “I’m gonna start taking my clothes off if you don’t mind.”

 

Baekhyun dampens his lips. “Be my guest,” he says, raspy. “I don’t mind at all.”

 

With a simper, Chanyeol starts undressing, unclasping his belt, then unzipping his pants, sitting in the bed to slide them off. The belt’s buckle clanks against the hardwood floor, and Baekhyun shifts on the bed as he assesses Chanyeol’s body. Chanyeol’s slender legs are wiry and long, his thighs toned and hairless, and his eyes drop to his crotch, swallowing at the sight of Chanyeol’s hard dick resting against his thigh. He’s better endowed than Baekhyun had imagined, with an interesting curve at the tip that makes his stomach coil into a thousand knots with exhilaration. Chanyeol moves over Baekhyun for a kiss, and Baekhyun spreads his legs to welcome him between them, shuddering when he feels Chanyeol’s erection rubbing against his inner thigh.

 

The kiss doesn’t last long as Chanyeol moves to lick his collarbones, then suck on his nipple to drag his tongue across his navel, and further down until he’s wrapping his lips around Baekhyun’s dick. Baekhyun’s head rolls back, whimpering with the pleasure that courses through him, back arching off the bed and fingers clawing at the sheets. It goes on for so long Baekhyun gets lost in the sensations: Chanyeol’s tongue licking at the tip, the warm wetness of his mouth, his breath tickling his navel. But it’s the wanton sounds­, like Chanyeol can’t get enough of Baekhyun, of his taste, that turns Baekhyun’s blood into liquid fire.

 

When he opens his eyes to focus on the sight, he finds Chanyeol’s arm moving, hidden from view, and it sends a shock of pleasure down his body at knowing that Chanyeol is taking pleasure from pleasuring Baekhyun.

 

“Chanyeol, I-I’m close,” Baekhyun pants, “I don’t wanna… I don’t…”

 

Chanyeol releases his dick with a pop, wiping the saliva running down his chin with the back of his hand. Baekhyun doesn’t flinch when Chanyeol laps into his mouth, open and filthy, moaning when Baekhyun pulls on his lower lip with his teeth. Then, Chanyeol is moving out of the bed, leaving Baekhyun disoriented for a moment, until the sound of a condom being ripped open has nervousness sinking its hook into him.

 

There is a mellow smile on Chanyeol’s face when he comes back to the bed, leaning over Baekhyun to sweep his bangs off his forehead and look at him with the softest gaze Baekhyun has ever seen on him.

 

“Please, tell me if I do anything that hurts,” Chanyeol says gently. “The last thing I want to do is hurt you or do anything that would make you regret this moment… I only want to make you feel good.”

 

Baekhyun nods in reply, lacking the confidence to string a coherent sentence. Chanyeol dives to kiss him then, chaste and tender, and Baekhyun wraps his arms around his neck to prolong it, arching off the bed until they’re flushed together. All he needs is Chanyeol close, even closer than their skin touching on every inch of their bodies allows.

 

And it doesn’t take Chanyeol long to indulge him.

 

It’s not as quick and frantic as Baekhyun had first expected. The first time he had sex with a girl was at a party during his senior year of high school, and it ended so fast they hadn’t even taken all their clothes off. It was messy and cold—Baekhyun’s ass had been pressed against the tiles—and it dampened any youthful curiosity to venture more into that territory. It made him slightly guilty when he didn’t feel the excitement that Jongdae often spoke of, and Baekhyun had assumed sex wasn’t the same for everyone.

 

Now, though, as Chanyeol drives into him, slow and careful, kissing him with the same kind of unhurried ardor that guides his caresses over Baekhyun’s body, Baekhyun is beginning to reconsider everything he believed about sex. Chanyeol keeps kissing Baekhyun after the initial burn fades, then he moves back to trace his thumb over the seam of his lips, remaining still to stare at him. Devotion is plain in Chanyeol’s gaze, devotion mixed with the deepest of adorations. Baekhyun aches inside, with want and love and need. He’s struck then by a profound knowledge, a certainty, that everything that had led them to this moment was meant to happen. Baekhyun was meant to be attacked by that ghost in the park, and Chanyeol was meant to come to Yogoe and save Baekhyun.

 

Delicately, Chanyeol hefts one of Baekhyun’s legs under his elbow, leading the other one around his waist, and the new angle rips a moan deep within Baekhyun’s throat. Chanyeol begins thrusting again, harder this time, and Baekhyun cries out, loud and unabashed, dragging his nails across Chanyeol’s back. At all times Chanyeol keeps them close, chest to chest, skin to skin, sharing the same breath as though they shared one set of lungs.

 

“Forgive me if I’m being corny, but…” Chanyeol murmurs against Baekhyun’s neck, “you’re so beautiful. I can’t believe my fucking luck at being right here with you… All those dreams about you… I can’t believe you’re real...”

 

Any other time, Baekhyun would tell him to shut up, press his mouth to Chanyeol’s to quiet him so he doesn’t ruin the moment. This time he lets him ramble, lets him drop whispers of how beautiful Baekhyun is as he kisses every sliver of skin he can reach. Chanyeol takes his time to consider every one of his actions, concentration furrowing his brows, even though anything he does feels incredible to Baekhyun. The slow pace is exasperating him, he needs to be touched, to be brought to the edge. Baekhyun digs his nails into Chanyeol’s buttcheeks, rocking his hips down insistently until Chanyeol picks up the pace.

 

The bed begins to creak with the movement, underlined by Baekhyun’s moans tumbling out of him unbidden. They’ve given up on kissing, so they pant into each other’s mouths, Chanyeol releasing Baekhyun’s leg so he can tangle their fingers together. With eyes half-closed, Baekhyun stares into Chanyeol’s eyes, devoid of their previous focus and now glazed over with pure lust, affection swirling right underneath.

 

It’s all coasting and cresting, the wound-up arousal in Baekhyun’s belly loosening, Chanyeol’s thrusts turning erratic. Chanyeol slips a hand between their bodies to fist Baekhyun’s dick, giving it a couple of strokes before Baekhyun is spilling over his abdomen, head thrown back on the pillow with a shout. Chanyeol muffles a groan against Baekhyun’s throat, his hips coming to a halt soon after; he curls up over Baekhyun and rests his head on his chest, body shaking with a breathless chuckle. Baekhyun is still riding through the dregs of his orgasm, but his mind clears enough for him to slide his fingers through Chanyeol’s matted hair, brushing it away from where it’s stuck to his temple. 

 

“Holy shit,” Chanyeol whispers, low, raspy, awed. “That was amazing.”

 

On the bed, their hands are linked, their bodies sticky with sweat and come. But Baekhyun doesn’t make any move to untangle himself, and neither does Chanyeol, so he stays there under Chanyeol’s heat, the pitter-patter of his heart against his own, the sound of his breathing evening out, chests rising and falling in tandem as if they were one person.

 

“It was,” Baekhyun agrees quietly. A beat passes. “Can we do it again?”

 

Chanyeol’s laugh rumbles out of his chest. “Give me a second or I’m going to pass out.”

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Sunlight filters through a crevice in the curtains, falling unmerciful on Baekhyun’s closed eyes. Baekhyun cracks one eye open, nose wrinkling at the early morning light assaulting his bleary eyes. The first thing he registers is an arm tethering him to the bed, wrapped tightly around his waist, and the second is an open mouth fogging his nape with steady, hot breaths. And the third thing he registers is Chanyeol’s morning wood against his tailbone.

 

Baekhyun rolls over in Chanyeol’s arms to stamp a kiss on Chanyeol’s chin, the stubble scratching his face lightly. Chanyeol isn’t as handsome as when he’s awake, with his eyes puffy and saliva crusted around his mouth, but Baekhyun loves waking next to him all the same. With a groan, Chanyeol’s lids begin to flutter open, eyebrows pushed together in annoyance for being woken. Then, Chanyeol’s eyes focus on Baekhyun and his lips instantly quirk at the corners, pulling him closer so he can kiss Baekhyun’s forehead.

 

“Good morning,” Chanyeol says, voice rusty from sleep. “You look even more beautiful than yesterday here in my arms.”

 

“How can you be so gross this early in the morning,” Baekhyun jokes, pushing Chanyeol’s face with a hand. Chanyeol licks his palm and Baekhyun retracts it with a squeal. “You’re disgusting!”

 

“You didn’t think that when you were screaming my name last night,” Chanyeol quips into his ear. It’s so cheesy and so Chanyeol, Baekhyun bursts into an incredulous laugh.

 

“You’re ridiculous.” Baekhyun slaps Chanyeol’s arm for his trouble. Chanyeol flinches, but his smile never loses its impish shine. He pecks Chanyeol’s chin. “I really like this,” he murmurs, tracing Chanyeol’s five o’clock shadow with a finger. “And your tattoo, too. I forgot you had it.”

 

“I should be shirtless more often,” Chanyeol says, kissing Baekhyun chastely, “so you can appreciate the view.”

 

“Shut up,” Baekhyun chuckles. Then, he runs his fingers along Chanyeol’s left bicep. “Does it have a meaning?”

 

“It’s a rune my dead really liked,” Chanyeol says. “He had a tattoo of it on his right forearm. It means immortality. Runes had a divine origin and were used for charms to bring people from the dead. And my dad really liked the idea of people living forever after death, in our memories and in spirit.”

 

“Your dad was a really cool person,” Baekhyun says with a smile. “I would have really liked to meet him.”

 

Emotion brightens Chanyeol’s almond eyes. “I bet he would’ve really liked you,” Chanyeol says in a thick voice. He scoops Baekhyun in his arms, littering kisses along his neck that make Baekhyun squirm. “And I would’ve really like to meet your mom. I bet she was a great lady.”

 

Baekhyun’s heart is heavy as a stone. Closing his eyes, he curls his fingers over Chanyeol’s shoulder. Overnight, Baekhyun’s doubts about his mother’s identity have dimmed. Even if Heechul lied about her, it doesn’t erase the fact that his mother was kind and loving. She loved laughing and twirling and singing. She was joy and color and warmth. She’d have taken into Chanyeol easily, what with his polite mannerisms, his huge smiles, and his even bigger heart. She would tug at Chanyeol’s ears the same way she used to tug at Baekhyun’s playfully and laugh at their reactions.

 

Words are difficult to manage with the lump in his throat. Baekhyun sits there, enjoying the butterfly kisses Chanyeol is printing into his skin. Chanyeol must’ve guessed the reason for his silence, because he strokes the small of his back soothingly.

 

After a while, the magic of Chanyeol’s kisses drains Baekhyun of his melancholy. He sighs as Chanyeol licks into the dip of his collarbones. In an affected voice, Baekhyun says, “I’ll make you breakfast if you don’t shave today.”

 

“That’s tempting,” Chanyeol hums. He drops one last kiss before rising. “But I hate not shaving even for a day and I forgot to do it yesterday… It makes me feel like a bum.”

 

Baekhyun pouts until an idea strikes him like a match. “What if I do this?”

 

Crawling back beneath the covers, Baekhyun takes Chanyeol’s hard dick in his hand, giving it a few tentative strokes. There is a momentary panic at the realization that this is someone else’s dick in Baekhyun’s hand, but it passes as soon as he hears Chanyeol’s gasp, a soft Baekhyun skidding over a breathy moan, and Baekhyun ducks his head to take him into his mouth.

 

 

 

 

 

In the end, Baekhyun wins and Chanyeol doesn’t shave, and to Baekhyun’s secret relief, he makes breakfast without mentioning Baekhyun’s earlier offer.

 

Over the steam from the mugs abandoned the previous night, Chanyeol stares, cotton-soft yet unrelenting. Baekhyun is blushing—the sweetness in Chanyeol’s gaze renders him into a bashful school girl, a fit no one has accomplished before in his life.

 

“Stop, I look terrible in the morning,” Baekhyun groans, pushing his hair off his forehead. “Even worse than I do any other moment in the day…”

 

Chanyeol looks scandalized as he gathers Baekhyun’s hand to stroke the back. “Do you know what’s ugly? Lying. And I won’t allow these hideous lies in my household on this fine morning.”

 

Stop it.” Baekhyun covers his face while Chanyeol laughs. Chanyeol kisses his nose and cheeks, coercing his hands away. “I hate you and your stupid stubble and your tattoo and…”

 

Baekhyun stops mid-sentence. A furor flashes through him. The tattoo! He finally remembers where he’s seen that rune.

 

Pushing back his chair with a screech, Baekhyun stands with a jump and dashes to Chanyeol’s bedroom, leaving a befuddled Chanyeol at the table. With pleasure, he discovers that Chanyeol had put Nam Joohyuk’s book in his backpack before he picked Baekhyun up from Heechul’s house.

 

Flipping through the pages, he returns to the kitchen and puts the book in front of a dumbfounded Chanyeol. “It’s the same rune!”

 

The book is open to its last page, showing a hand-drawn lightning bolt crossed diagonally by a line on its center. The rune is identical to Chanyeol’s tattoo. Chanyeol blinks at the page, confounded. “It is the same rune, but… runes are pretty normal for magi, Baekhyun. I know many people whose favorite charm is composed by runes. And a couple of my classmates also have tattoos of runes.”

 

“So it’s just a coincidence?” Baekhyun is astonished. “Mr. ‘I believe in seers and fate’?”

 

Chanyeol shrugs. “Maybe Nam Joohyuk liked the meaning, too.”

 

A phone thrums on the table. Baekhyun emits a frustrated sound. Chanyeol shoots him an apologetic grin before he answers. “Hello? Yeah… whichever time you think it’s better…” He keeps his tone polite, which doesn’t tell Baekhyun who the caller is. “Yeah… I think that’s a good location, too. You could come over so we can discuss the details better. Okay, bye.”

 

“Who was that?”

 

“Joohyun,” Chanyeol says. “I told her about my idea to do a séance to talk to the demon and she agreed to help us. I mean, she’s still charging us, but it’s a step forward.”

 

“That is a step forward,” Baekhyun reiterates. “We’ll find out who’s behind the killings, whether it’s the demon or not, and get rid of her. Find out why she’s also trying to kill me. We’re so close to finally being over with this whole business.”

 

It dawns on him then that when this is over, Chanyeol will also be gone from the town. Chanyeol’s life isn’t here in Yogoe with Baekhyun, but in Seoul, with its mountains and buildings that rise into the sky. Solving the mystery won’t erase what he said to Heechul last night either, and the reminder sinks into Baekhyun’s stomach like a stone in a pond. But if anything, Baekhyun is optimistic; he’s already promised himself he will make the most of what little time he has with Chanyeol, and he will make things right with Heechul as soon as he returns from his overseas trip.

 

Chanyeol seems lost in thought, lower lip puckered. There’s something uncertain about his gaze, and Baekhyun ponders whether he’s having the same kind of doubts.

 

The chair skids over the tiles as Baekhyun stands and plops himself down on Chanyeol’s lap. It snatches Chanyeol out of his reverie, and he looks at Baekhyun a little wide-eyed before recovering and wrapping his arms around his waist like he’s familiar with now.

 

Everything is going to be okay, Baekhyun thinks before he kisses Chanyeol.

 

If he says it enough times, maybe he will start to believe it.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

It didn’t cross Baekhyun’s mind that the meeting place Chanyeol meant in his phone call with Joohyun was the ice cream shop until he sees the three witches file in through the door that afternoon.

 

The patrons watch in awe as the witches weave through the round tables and continue long after they’ve settled in a spot at the far corner. Baekhyun scurries towards them, handing them the laminated menu with a beaming smile.

 

“Welcome!” he chirps. “Can I take your order?”

 

Sooyoung and Seungwan giggle, and Baekhyun considers it an accomplishment that he even gets a smile out of Joohyun, as minute as it is. Chanyeol barges through the door then, immediately heading to where Baekhyun stands as soon as he spots him. The smile he has on his face has Baekhyun’s heart racing, and it doesn’t slow down when Chanyeol slides an arm around his waist to squeeze his hip in greeting.

 

“Hey,” he says, prying his eyes away from Baekhyun to acknowledge the witches who, Baekhyun now realizes, watch them with peculiar interest. Baekhyun’s ears burn with the attention. “I’m sorry for being late.”

 

Chanyeol plops down on an empty chair, putting his elbows on the table and looking up at Baekhyun expectantly.

 

“Aren’t you joining us?”

 

Baekhyun bites his lip for a second, and then, chancing a glance at the counter, decides to join them.

 

“Only for a few minutes,” he warns. “Or Minseok-hyung is going to make me scrape food from the cooler again. And then kill me and hack me into little pieces and throw them in the same cooler after I’m done.”

 

“You can sit here!” Seungwan stands from her chair to bequeath it to Baekhyun. “I like sitting next to Joohyun-noona anyway.”

 

Sooyoung snickers as Baekhyun scowls, dragging his feet around the table to the chair. Chanyeol grins sheepishly at Baekhyun from across the table, and Baekhyun’s annoyance fades as quickly as it had come.

 

“So, you guys are planning to do a séance?” Sooyoung asks. “But you’re not sure how to do it?”

 

“We know the basics,” Baekhyun says. “But I think it will be more effective with your help.”

 

“You’re right about that,” Joohyun chimes in. “Witches are better conductors for spirit energy. Say, a spirit shows up here right now while we’re present. They’re likely to be seen clearer by non-magi and their strength will increase.”

 

“So, you’re a stronger battery,” Baekhyun jokes. “Me and Chanyeol are Android phones while you are iPhones. Got it.”

 

Chanyeol laughs, clapping his hands, so loud other patrons stare in their direction. The witches look weirdly amused at Chanyeol’s habit of laughing with his entire body.

 

“That’s a great way to explain it, Baekhyun,” Chanyeol says, a little breathless, wiping a tear from his eye. “Also, we all agree that the place is the church where the festival is taking place.”

 

“Wouldn’t it be too crowded?” Baekhyun asks. “What if something goes wrong?”

 

“We’ll do it inside,” Seungwan says. “It’s supposed to be closed for remodelling, but no one has set foot in it in years. No one will bother us there because people think it’s a crumbling, haunted building and this town is terrified of spirits.”

 

“They should be,” Baekhyun murmurs. Memories of the ghosts who have tried to harm him and Chanyeol, and even Jongdae, haunt him still. “They’re getting fucking terrifying lately and we need to do this to find a way to stop them before they turn on the non-magi.”

 

“The best day to do it is on the night of the festival,” Chanyeol proposes. “It’s the night spirit currents are stronger, and people will be more focused on the rituals and the music than the old church on the same street. No one will notice us going in and out, and in case anything happens… I have a secret weapon.”

 

From his pocket, Chanyeol pulls out a red orb that barely covers the width of his forefinger and thumb. When Baekhyun looks closely, he finds a miniature dragon suspended in swirling mist inside, its jaw opened and its tiny forearms extended while its long tail is curled around his body. Baekhyun recognizes it as a Yeouiju, an orb dropped from heaven that only water dragons with four claws are worthy enough of bearing.

 

“Is that real?”

 

“It’s a replica,” Chanyeol explains. “My sister gave it to me on my eighteenth birthday. But its purposes are almost the same as a water dragon. It can control rain and fires, so if we accidentally bring attention to ourselves, we can use this to distract people.”

 

“We have a few cards under our sleeves too.” Seungwan winks. “So you shouldn’t worry about diverting people’s attention. We’re pretty good at that.”

 

“By the way, the more people, the better,” Joohyun says. “Demons are drawn to human souls, so if they notice there’s a cluster of them in a room, it’s more likely they will want to speak to us.”

 

“We’re taking Yeri with us,” Sooyoung says. “She works at Joohyun’s store and she’s sort of… our apprentice.”

 

The name brings a petite girl with purple-streaked hair to Baekhyun’s mind, the one behind the register at the occult shop, but the witches don’t elaborate on what they mean by apprentice.

 

“I’m taking Jongdae,” Baekhyun says, shooting Chanyeol a quick glance for approval. “He already knows you guys and he’ll be happy to help us with everything.”

 

“I could’ve taken Sehun if he hadn’t gone back to Seoul already,” Chanyeol says with a pout. Baekhyun coos, squeezing his cheek and Chanyeol’s scowl melts into a grin.

 

“I may be taking Jongdae but you’re my Ouija date, babe,” Baekhyun jokes and Chanyeol guffaws. Sooyoung and Seungwan giggle and even Joohyun allows a smile at their silliness.

 

“So, we’re set.” Sooyoung claps once, her smile exuberant. “I can’t wait to summon demons with you, guys.”

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

The festival’s red banners swing in the breeze of the incoming evening. The streets of Yogoe are mantled in that semi-darkness of twilight, the air fizzling with anticipation of the events taking place that night.

 

Two boys on a scooter wind through the cars with ease, the roar of the motor a background sound to the music booming a street away. They park in a sidestreet and make their way to the old church, the back of their hands brushing as they walk.

 

“Are you nervous?”

 

Chanyeol’s eyes are round with expectation. Baekhyun feels a different kind of butterflies in his stomach right now.

 

“Kinda,” Baekhyun says, his hand flat on his abdomen. “Are you?”

 

“Nope.” Chanyeol’s grin is wide. “I believe things will go as planned.”

 

Baekhyun wants to believe so, but there is a tightening in his gut that is trying to convince him otherwise.

 

Jongdae is waiting for them by the curb, his hands shoved into his pockets. A smirk pulls at his lips when he spots them across the street.

 

“They’re selling sausages on sticks over there,” Jongdae says. “The least you could do for making me cancel a date with Sunyoung is to buy me food.”

 

Baekhyun rolls his eyes, but Chanyeol is already leading them towards the street vendors. They buy sausages on sticks, and Jongdae is delighted when he takes the first bite of his sausage until Baekhyun compares their sizes slyly just to annoy him. They round the building so they’re not seen by the crowd wandering around the stalls in green masks of ghostly screaming faces.

 

They sneak around the back of the church, where a gate of rusty wrought-iron stands within the brick wall fencing the building from the street. The gate isn’t locked and it only takes a slight push for it to open with a shrieking creak swallowed by the street music. The witches must be waiting inside and left the gate open for them.

 

The place is shrouded in darkness, a sliver of light from a streetlamp landing on the cobblestones and dry leaves underfoot. A figure slips out of the shadows, and the trio gasps and squeals in fright.

 

Sooyoung stands near the back entrance to the church, grinning at their reactions. She’s wearing the same cape she had that night at Baekhyun’s apartment, and a black, silk dress underneath.

 

“Got you!” she laughs as she saunters to them. “This place is enchanting! I love it so much already, even though I could only wander so much before you arrived.”

 

Enchanting isn’t exactly the word Baekhyun would use to describe the place. They’re in a courtyard, a defunct fountain standing in the center, surrounded by a couple of stone benches and trees with a handful of leaves dotting their branches. The old door to the church is guarded by an archway, all crumbling brick walls and peeling paint, the weeds growing within the cobblestones reaching past their ankles. In the fountain, a dilapidated statue of an angel lies on its side, its white form glowing in the darkness like a lighthouse, and its blackened eyes eerie enough to make Baekhyun suppress a shiver.

 

“It smells like poop in here,” Chanyeol says, voice muffled. He’s pinching his nose to block the stench, and honestly, Baekhyun is close to doing the same. “Or like someone died and they just decided to dump the corpse here.”

 

“It certainly has its charm,” Jongdae says through his fingers. “Shouldn’t we get inside? It’s getting a little creepier the more we stand here looking around and doing nothing.”

 

“What, are you scared already?” Baekhyun teases, nudging Jongdae.

 

“Shut up.” Jongdae’s bony elbow digs into Baekhyun’s side. “Like you aren’t about two seconds from peeing yourself.”

 

“Maybe,” Baekhyun jokes. “But at least I’m wearing dark pants so I can hide it better.”

 

“So, shall we enter?” Sooyoung suggests, waving towards the church's door. “The rest is waiting inside.”

 

Without another word, Sooyoung turns and heads to the door. The wood of the door has long since started to rot, Baekhyun notices, and he’s careful not to touch it as they shuffle inside. Baekhyun had pulled out his phone to use the flashlight, but he soon realizes that it’s not necessary. On each side of the corridor is a line of candles, the flames flickering with their careful steps and sending long, creeping shadows up the walls. The witches must have put a spell on the windows, because the place had looked pitch-black from outside.

 

“We decided to do the séance in a nearby room,” Sooyoung tells them. “It seems to have been a classroom once, so it’s big enough for all of us and perfect for the occasion.”

 

Baekhyun has begun to question Sooyoung’s interpretation of such words, so he makes no comment on it. She leads them towards a room at the end of the corridor. The room is spacious and spare, the walls decaying and battered, and a strong smell of moist and dirt hits Baekhyun like a club to the head. It’s lit by candles grouped in a large circle in the center, where Joohyun, Seungwan, and Yeri are discussing something, legs folded on a blanket on the floor.

 

The women stop their conversation to stare at the group ambling into the room, careful not to knock over a candle. Baekhyun realizes the sounds from the ongoing festival outside have been blocked by magic, probably for practical use, but the stifling silence is unsettling inside such a ghastly ruin.

 

“I believe you have all met Yeri.” Joohyun extends an open palm towards the girl. “She lives with us and works with me at my shop.”

 

Yeri does a series of gestures with her hands and fingers, which Baekhyun assumes signify a greeting until he sees the older witches smile bemusedly at the younger.

 

“She says she’s not a witch like us,” Sooyoung explains with a hint of sarcasm. “But she’s glad to meet you all.”

 

“If she’s not a witch,” Chanyeol says, “then what is she?”

 

“She’s… a trainee,” Joohyun settles on. “She’s still honing her skills, and we’re teaching her what she must learn in order to grow adequately into her talent.”

 

The elaboration is as vague as everything else Baekhyun has heard from Joohyun in the past. Chanyeol and Jongdae seem to sense that is all they’re going to get so they leave it at that. Baekhyun spots the Ouija board, which the girls had been talking over in a semi-circle when they arrived, and a can of salt by Joohyun’s hand.

 

“Let’s sit so we can get started,” Joohyun commands.

 

The girls scoot closer to make space for the newcomers. They sit in a circle around the Ouija board, Jongdae deliberately sitting next to Yeri so Baekhyun can sit next to Chanyeol. Jongdae flashes him a smirk, undeterred by Baekhyun’s glare, and it doesn’t help when Chanyeol leans into him, fiddling with Baekhyun’s fingers over the blanket.

 

Joohyun stands with the can of salt to draw a circle around the group, briefly explaining that it’s for protection in case an evil spirit tries to leave the board. Then, she takes a small bottle and pours it over the board before she returns to her previous spot. The smell of roses drifts over to Baekhyun, a stark contrast to the stench in the room.

 

“I clear the space of negative energy,” Joohyun says, eyes closed. “I ask of gentle and callous spirits alike to heed my voice and be not led astray by any other than positive energy.” She opens her eyes and places her fingers on the planchette. “You can now touch it.”

 

Baekhyun, Chanyeol, and Jongdae lean forward to place fingers on the planchette. Seungwan and Sooyoung are observing, while Yeri seems ready to start taking notes in a notebook.

 

“Is the spirit who inhabits the old church here right now?”

 

They watch the board in silence, but the planchette remains motionless under their fingertips. Chanyeol and Baekhyun exchange another glance, this time a little more uncertain. If this doesn’t work, they would be running out of options to deal with the demon.

 

The planchette moves a notch. A gasp rises through the boys like a ripple. 

 

With a stop-like motion, the planchette leads them to the letters. It spells ‘yes’.

 

“What is your name?”

 

It takes another moment for the planchette to slide across the board. In a slow, methodical way, the planchette covers five letters. S-U-N-M-I.

 

Baekhyun’s gut tightens. Sunmi, the goddess of the underworld. A cruel goddess of creation.

 

“Can you tell us why you’re here?”

 

The answer is spelled out deliberately this time. E-A-T M-E-N.

 

“Well, that’s a relief,” Chanyeol jokes under his breath. “And here I thought she was up to something evil.”

 

Joohyun casts him a stony look to shush him. Chanyeol’s lips purse, pulled at the corners by a grin, and Baekhyun’s free hand closes over Chanyeol’s bigger one in the minimal space between them.

 

“Is there something specific that you’re looking for?”

 

The planchette connects three letters quicker this time. B-O-Y.

 

“Boy?” Jongdae voices. “She wants a boy for sacrifice or something?”

 

“Quiet,” Joohyun hushes, her stare deadly. Her shoulders stiffen again, posture straight. “Who is this boy?”

 

At first, Baekhyun believes it’s a trick of the flickering light from the candles, but he realizes soon that the board is shaking under his hand. The planchette flies across the board, straining their arms, in a quest to cover another set of letters.

 

H-I-M.

 

The candles go out suddenly and the room is swallowed by darkness. Baekhyun can’t hear much besides his own pounding heart against his ears, Chanyeol breathing hard next to him, and Jongdae shifting on his other side.

 

“What just happened?” Jongdae asks.

 

“Did a draft put out the candles?” Chanyeol inquires.

 

As if on an afterthought, the three men retreat their hands from the board. Baekhyun’s left hand is still tangled with Chanyeol’s right hand. In the impenetrable darkness, it feels like the only thing keeping him grounded.

 

A match is struck across the circle, and Seungwan’s face appears in the quivering glow. She lights a candle closest to her, and the room is illuminated by amber.

 

“Where is Yeri?” Sooyoung’s voice is distraught, and it fogs up Baekhyun’s lungs when he looks.

 

The spot where Yeri had been wedged between Seungwan and Sooyoung is empty, the notebook and pen lying neatly on the blanket as if waiting for someone to take them.

 

“Did anyone see her leave?” Joohyun’s eyes search the room. Baekhyun has never seen her so distressed. “I didn’t feel anyone move after—”

 

“Hey,” Chanyeol says, and suddenly, Baekhyun’s hand feels cold when Chanyeol lets go. “We should close the session in case something comes out.” 

 

The room begins to feel stuffy, but unbearably cold at once. It’s a cold that seeps into Baekhyun when he takes a breath, powdering his lungs with snow, and it becomes harder to breathe by the second. Dread clutches his heart like the icy fingers of Death. A cackle echoes through the place, growing louder and faint, and louder again, rattling their bones with its cruel, mocking tone. Baekhyun can see the same thing mirrored on his friends’ faces: the fear of realization.

 

“Something has already come out,” Baekhyun whispers.

 

“We need to get Yeri!” Sooyoung shouts. The witches scramble to their feet and run out of the room. Baekhyun, Chanyeol, and Jongdae follow suit into the hallway, where the laughter has retreated to the depths of the church.

 

“We’ll look for her over there.” Chanyeol points over his shoulder. “Someone should try to contain the demon.”

 

“I’ll stay with them,” Baekhyun says. “You look for Yeri with Jongdae.”

 

Chanyeol looks uncertain for a moment, hesitation in the set of his mouth. Then, he squeezes Baekhyun’s hand, and releases it before Baekhyun can yank it to do something crazy—like kissing him right in front of everyone. It wouldn’t do to do something inappropriate right now, when he can feel the increasing anguish among the witches.

 

“Don’t let that demon get you,” Jongdae tells him, patting his shoulder.

 

“I’ll see you later,” Chanyeol promises, giving Baekhyun a long look, before he’s bounding down on the opposite direction with Jongdae.

 

Baekhyun bends to roll up his jeans on his left leg, where his blade is wrapped around his shin with a garter. With a shake of his hand, the blade stretches in a mantle of bright blue smoke until it’s as long as his forearm, curved at the end in a sharp point.

 

“That is a beautiful weapon,” Seungwan says. The compliment is monotonous, her face is pale as moonlight. “It will help us when the demon finds us.”

 

When the demon finds us. Icy water sloshes in Baekhyun’s insides.

 

The walls along the hallway they’re standing in begin to shake, a noise akin to a dozen fists pounding on doors at once grows until it becomes deafening. And just as fast as it had come the pounding goes away, replaced by the cackle, fainter than before, as if it were coming from a distant room.

 

Sooyoung grabs Joohyun, her beautiful face contorted with affliction.

 

“We need to do something quick,” she says. “I’ve never met a demon this powerful before.”

 

“Let’s do a mantra,” Joohyun orders, reaching out towards Seungwan. “It could contain her for a while.”

 

“But there’s only three of us,” Seungwan says. “We’re not as powerful as we were when we had a fourth one.”

 

“Was there a fourth witch in your coven?” Baekhyun asks. “Where is she?”

 

“She isn’t with us anymore,” Joohyun answers quietly. The sadness in her voice is palpable, so Baekhyun zips his mouth away from more questions. “You can help us with your energy.”

 

“What do I do? I don’t know anything about spells and stuff.”

 

“You can just help us with your energy,” Seungwan repeats. “The presence of another magi is enough to make a spell more potent.”

 

Their reassurance, despite Baekhyun’s feelings of helplessness, warms him. It’s evident they’re worried about Yeri but putting that aside to contain the demon to avoid it hurting more people shows how generous the witches are.

 

The witches hold each other’s hands in a circle, breathing in and out as their eyes close. Baekhyun watches them, a disturbing feeling settling in when he notices there aren’t any other sounds—no footsteps or voices to tell him if Chanyeol and Jongdae are close or within the church.

 

“Forces of the earth, water and fire,” the witches chant in unison, “Goddesses of the higher and lower planes. We beg thee to aid us in our plight.”

 

Their voices fade and silence falls over the hallway. Then, a blood-curdling scream slices the air from somewhere in the vicinity—the bellows of someone in unfathomable pain. Baekhyun’s heart halts in chest in the seconds it takes for the scream to end.

 

“Yeri!” Joohyun shouts.

 

Another shout rattles Baekhyun’s bones. “HELP!”

 

Baekhyun nearly drops his weapon as he follows when the witches set off in the direction of the screams. It takes another turn down a short hallway until they hear whimpers and sobbing coming from a corner. Seungwan points a flashlight and Yeri is standing there, curled over herself, petite body convulsing with sobs.

 

“Yeri, are you okay?” Sooyoung asks, taking a tentative step in her direction.

 

Yeri’s body freezes at the sound of Sooyoung’s voice. Slowly, the girl straightens, but her eyes are black as tar, dark tendrils crisscrossing her neck and face.

 

“The demon possessed her,” Baekhyun says, breathlessly.

 

Yeri turns to him, staring so intently with her pitch-black eyes that Baekhyun takes a step back on instinct. Suddenly, she screams, the same ear-splitting bellow as before, her mouth stretching inhumanly wide.

 

“Baekhyun,” Joohyun calls. “Stab her.”

 

What?” Baekhyun pants. “You want me to stab her with my blade?”

 

“It’s going to take the demon out of her,” Sooyoung tells him. “It might not work, but it’s our best chance.”

 

Yeri digs her nails into her face, dragging them down and leaving bloody lines across the flesh.

 

“Please do it quick!” Seungwan tugs at his arm.  “Before she hurts herself more!”

 

Baekhyun’s heart is racing. Taking in a deep breath, he wields his weapon and sprints towards Yeri, digging the blade into her shoulder. There’s another scream, this time louder and more piercing than the previous ones, dark mist exploding out of the girl’s mouth like a swarm of insects. When it’s done, Yeri collapses like a rag doll, and the witches rush to her side to hold her up from the ground, whimpering with relief.

 

The sensation of hurting someone alive is different than sinking the blade into a ghost. It leaves Baekhyun with a crawling feeling of discomfort, his pulse racing with adrenaline. He can’t stop thinking about how he could have missed and dug the blade into a spot that could have been fatal for Yeri.

 

“We need to get out of here,” Baekhyun says faintly. The witches hear him nonetheless, because they pick up Yeri and turn to him.

 

“We can’t stay here with her,” Joohyun agrees. “We need to take care of her wound before she bleeds to death.”

 

“Get her out of here before the demon finds us again,” Baekhyun tells them.

 

“Have this.” Sooyoung grabs Baekhyun’s hand and puts the flashlight in his palm and what looks like a charm—a pink ribbon wound around a sweet-smelling clove. “It’s for protection.”

 

The witches hold Yeri up between them and hurry down the hallway towards the back door. Joohyun sends him a long look before they take another turn, and Baekhyun doesn’t waste time heading in the direction Chanyeol and Jongdae had gone.

 

In the dense darkness, it starts to feel like he’s been treading through this hallway for hours instead of minutes. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to end soon.

 

Suddenly, someone wraps themselves around him, a head resting on his shoulder. Baekhyun’s first instinctive answer is Chanyeol—the weight of his head is the same, the breadth of his hands unmistakable—so Baekhyun lets himself be held for a moment, before reality crushes against him.

 

“Chanyeol, where were you?” he murmurs. He tries to turn around, but he’s pinned in place by the embrace. “It feels like I’ve been walking in this fucking hallway for a week…”

 

Baekhyun’s eyes close instantly when Chanyeol nuzzles his neck, then his cheek, because it’s always been so calming to him.

 

“Chanyeol, this isn’t the time—”

 

“Baekhyun?”

 

Chanyeol’s voice is coming from the end of the hallway, several feet away from Baekhyun. When Baekhyun wheels around, heart lodged in his throat, whoever was hugging him is gone, encountering thick darkness where an entire body had been pressed against him.

 

Chanyeol’s footsteps echo in the quiet hallway. “Are you okay?”

 

A sphere of warm glow lights up Chanyeol all of a sudden. Chanyeol holds the Yeouiju orb like a candle, and the rest of him strides into view.

 

“Someone was here with me.” Baekhyun shudders uncontrollably, his voice barely above a whisper. “Chanyeol, I thought it was you because it was… they were hugging me… It was so real, Chanyeol!”

 

“It’s the demon trying to fuck with our minds.” Chanyeol grabs him by the shoulders. “Don’t let it get to you.”

 

“How do I know this is you?!” Baekhyun shoves Chanyeol away before he can hold him. “How do I know this is not another one of the demon’s tricks?”

 

“What did I tell you that night after I kissed you for the first time?”

 

“That you wanted to protect me,” Baekhyun says.

 

“Exactly,” Chanyeol says. “It’s me. I’m real.”

 

“How touching.”

 

Baekhyun isn’t sure what he hears at first. The voice comes as if a dozen of voices, of various tones, spoke all at once. A woman, pale as moonlight, stands behind them, thin and gorgeous, dark hair reaching her hips, clad in a gauzy red dress that shows off long, slender legs and bare feet. She’s partially hidden in the shadows moving and twisting around her like mist, her sclerae yellow and irises red as blood, pinned on them.

 

“Didn’t know love could be this cute,” she says, her voice like a continuous chorus of chants. She holds up her palm, cracking her fingers in a way that makes Baekhyun wince. “But love has always been the one human emotion I could never understand.”

 

“Why are you here?” Chanyeol asks, wielding his sword. “What are you looking for?”

 

“Well, it’s curious that you ask that,” Sunmi says, a sneer stretching her mouth.

 

Dark vines stretch towards Baekhyun, but Chanyeol’s sword slashes through them effortlessly before they can reach him. The vines retreat to the shadows, and Sunmi chuckles with mischief.

 

“I knew you would be a nuisance,” she says, eyes trained on Chanyeol. “But I don’t want to get rid of you this early in the game. Would kill all the fun, wouldn’t it?”

 

Jongdae suddenly shouts with terror, and Baekhyun turns in time to see him being pulled down the hallway by something unseen. Baekhyun and Chanyeol run after him, but the thing is faster—all that can be heard is Jongdae’s shouts growing weaker and weaker.

 

Turning a corner, Baekhyun can see a pool of darkness at the end of a long corridor swallowing Jongdae, his face frozen in indescribable fear. Baekhyun runs towards him, brandishing his sword, but by the time he gets to the end, most of Jongdae has disappeared into the black except for his hand extended for help. Baekhyun manages to touch the tips of his fingers before they sink completely into the murky darkness, an echo of his screams still ricocheting off the walls and resonating in Baekhyun’s head.

 

“GIVE ME BACK JONGDAE!”

 

Baekhyun thrusts the blade into what is now a simple wall, and the blade clunks loudly when it bounces off the cement. Again, and again, Baekhyun thrusts the blade until the cement starts to chip off.

 

“Baekhyun, stop.” Chanyeol’s palm is on his shoulder, trying to pry him away from the wall. “Baekhyun, Sunmi has—”

 

“No, he went through this wall,” Baekhyun insists, “if I dig through it I’ll be able to find him.”

 

“Baekhyun…” Chanyeol’s voice is so quiet.

 

The pain in Baekhyun’s arms and shoulders is better than the one eating away his insides right now. If he stops he will have to acknowledge that Jongdae…

 

“He’s gone,” Chanyeol says. “You need to stop before you hurt yourself.”

 

“He can’t be gone!” Baekhyun says. “I need to rescue him!”

 

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” Sunmi says. “Your friend is unavailable for the time being.”

 

Baekhyun plunges at her, brandishing his blade above his head. Sunmi foresees his attack—the dark vines wrap around him like vice and throw him against the wall, knocking the breath out of him.

 

“I could kill you right now if I wanted to,” Sunmi says. Faintly, Baekhyun hears her steps edging closer. “I could rip out your insides and feed on them like a feast—hell knows I’ve been waiting too long to do just that.”

 

“Not on my watch, bitch.”

 

Chanyeol slices through the vines with his sword and Baekhyun slides to the ground, falling on his butt. There’s a deep grunt and a sound like clanging metal when Chanyeol forestalls Sunmi’s attack by holding the sword against her arm. By the way Chanyeol’s veins pop on his neck and the strain on his features, Sunmi’s strength must be far beyond human capabilities.

 

Baekhyun scrambles to his feet, grabbing the blade and throwing his arm back to slice through Sunmi’s middle—except Sunmi jumps back, the motion too fast for a human eye to catch, and hurls them in the air with a slash of one of her vines.

 

“I won’t kill you until you give me the book,” Sunmi tells them. “You will have your little friend back, but you won’t get to keep your life, little necromancer. And if you don’t give it up soon, the whole town—and later the whole world—will perish. You’ve already seen what I’ve done to the other men, haven’t you?”

 

She winks, her blood-red lips quirked in a half-smile—then she vanishes, leaving behind a slow, twisting dark fog where she stood a second ago. 

 

“Baekhyun!”

 

Chanyeol drops his sword, the clinking of the blade echoing in the silent hallway. Without a word, Chanyeol draws Baekhyun into his arms, embracing him like two lovers who haven’t seen each other in a century. Chanyeol’s large hand cups his head, his nose digging into his skin where Chanyeol is breathing him in. Baekhyun’s heart clenches in his chest. It’s only then that the extent of his exhaustion hits him—his head lulls to Chanyeol’s shoulder, fingers clutching at Chanyeol’s clothes for support—but most of all, to make sure he’s here, he’s Chanyeol. His Chanyeol.  

 

Baekhyun’s nerves are haywire, the fading adrenaline weighing on his body—but the sound of Chanyeol’s breathing, his heartbeat thudding through his clothes, is comforting, reassuring to Baekhyun. That he and Chanyeol made it despite coming a hair’s breadth away from being killed.

 

Then, the reminder of Jongdae’s face contorted with fright springs up in his mind, and the little comfort he had gathered crashes in a catastrophic instant. It feels like someone smashed a thousand mirrors and Baekhyun’s stepping through the shattered glass with his bare feet when he remembers that he’s here and Jongdae isn’t. The relief he had felt moments before leaves him flushed with shame and guilt.

 

With the demon gone, the sound of pouring rain pattering on the old stone outside takes over, loud and relentless. Baekhyun has the vague reminder that Chanyeol must’ve caused the rain with the Yeouiju orb at some point, so as to evacuate the people gathered for the festival.

 

Before he can stop it, tears start rolling down his face, and one turns into a dozen—until it’s like a dam has been broken and Baekhyun can’t control himself. Chanyeol peels himself away when Baekhyun’s trembling becomes too obvious and a pitiful sniff escapes him as he lowers his head so Chanyeol can’t see him.

 

“Baekhyun,” Chanyeol says gently, “we’ll get Jongdae back.”

 

“He felt excluded,” Baekhyun says, voice wet and gabbled. “He was jealous of how much time we spent together and that we were on this stupid mission—if it hadn’t been for that he would have probably never agreed to come. He should’ve been out with Sunyoung, but I asked him to come because I knew he would say yes—I did this to him, Chanyeol! It’s my fault Sunmi’s got him! And she might even be hurting him right now—” 

 

“Baekhyun, stop.” Chanyeol cradles his face, tilting it up so Baekhyun can look up at him. “Jongdae loves you. He would have come whether he was jealous of us or not. He likes being helpful, even if it was dangerous… Why do you think he was mad when you didn’t tell him about that ghost attacking you at the club? He wanted to protect you. He would have been here to help you get to the bottom of this no matter what. That’s what best friends do.”

 

“He couldn’t protect me anyway.” Baekhyun wipes his face with his sleeve. “Sunmi said I wouldn’t get out of this alive… She’s going to kill me even if we give her the book.”

 

“We’ll find a way around it,” Chanyeol says. “I told you I wouldn’t let anything happen to you.”

 

Baekhyun nods, because he doesn’t want to argue with Chanyeol, and because he’s too tired to even form a few words. So, he lets his head rest on Chanyeol’s shoulder for a while longer.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Baekhyun awakes to the room feeling colder than usual. It’s strange, because he doesn’t remember leaving the AC on the previous night, and it’s unusual for a summer morning to be so cold. The sheets are cool where his fingers curl over them, and he realizes a moment later that he’s alone in the bed.

 

The grey light of dawn breaks through the curtains, the sound of early buses driving by outside. He fell asleep late last night—his head on Chanyeol’s chest and his arms wound tight around him—and he figures he must have slept no more than a few hours. Chanyeol’s warmth had kept the sadness and the nightmares at bay—but now the hole inside him returns, or perhaps it had never left. Concern for Jongdae had kept him up for hours; Baekhyun couldn’t stay put when it was his fault that his best friend was kidnapped by a demon, but Chanyeol had eventually convinced him that he would only worsen the situation by throwing himself into danger to get back Jongdae.

 

It’s pointless to try to get some more sleep at this point with how anxious he is. So, he kicks the sheets aside and throws a blanket over his shoulders to wander over to the living room.

 

Chanyeol sits on the couch, watching the news with glazed-over eyes, like he isn’t seeing anything at all. By the dark circles under his eyes, Baekhyun guesses he didn’t get a blink of sleep either. Chanyeol drops the remote with a thud when he hears Baekhyun’s footsteps, and he turns to him with a wild look.

 

“It’s just me,” Baekhyun says, raising one palm while he holds the blanket with the other. “Sorry for scaring you.”

 

Chanyeol draws in a breath. “It’s okay, I’m just a little jumpy,” he smiles awkwardly, settling back into the couch. “I didn’t sleep well last night so I came to the living room to avoid bothering you.”

 

“You could have woken me so I could keep you company,” Baekhyun admonishes gently, and goes to sit beside him. It satisfies him that Chanyeol’s immediate reaction is to wrap an arm around his middle. “I don’t like the idea of you being here alone all night just watching tv.”

 

“You looked so peaceful in your sleep.” Chanyeol smiles, a little rough but sweet. “I wanted to keep sleeping just to be with you, but I couldn’t, and lying there staring at the ceiling was getting boring.”

 

“You could have stared at me,” Baekhyun teases with a slight smile. “I’m a sight for sore eyes after all.”

 

He’s jittery and brittle and vulnerable, but the weak attempt at a joke is worth the dopey smile it puts on Chanyeol.

 

“That you are,” Chanyeol agrees softly, kissing the tip of Baekhyun’s nose. “Somehow you still manage to look stunning in the morning.”

 

Slowly, Chanyeol’s presence begins to appease Baekhyun’s uneasiness. He turns sheepish, nuzzling Chanyeol’s cheek to hide the blush creeping his neck. “Even when I have crust in my eyes and mouth?”

 

“Even then,” Chanyeol assures him, kissing his hair.

 

After getting home the previous night, they silently agreed on trying to sleep and focus on what was going on in the morning. Now, as they enjoy each other’s presence, the reminder seems more tangible than ever, like a clock ticking over their heads.

 

Baekhyun watches the tv idly for a few moments, until he notices what’s strange—or more like, what the news broadcaster had been talking about for as long as he had been sitting there: the weird weather change in Yogoe; the pouring rain in the middle of summer and the strong winds more appropriate for autumn. It had changed overnight and weather forecasters didn’t have a single clue as to what caused these anomalies.

 

“They’re blaming it on global warming,” Chanyeol says. “But we know what the real cause is.”

 

“Is she causing all this?” Baekhyun asks. “But why? And how?”

 

“She’s probably destabilizing mother nature just by existing in this plane,” Chanyeol says, uncertainty knitting his eyebrows. “She’s not supposed to be here.”

 

Baekhyun lets go of Chanyeol to wander into his bedroom, crouching beside his bed to stare under it. Among discarded shirts and socks there is a box of old notebooks and knickknacks, and at the bottom of it, an old leather-bound book, its pages worn out by age. Baekhyun drops the book on his bed, as if he can’t hold it for too long lest it infect him with a dangerous disease.

 

The book on his bed looks so normal, so ordinary, Baekhyun feels almost angry. This book is what’s causing the destruction of his town, and yet it doesn’t look more special than any other book—it’s the contents that separate it from every other book in Baekhyun’s apartment—perhaps the entire building.  

 

“Have you read what’s inside?”

 

Chanyeol stands at the doorway, leaning against the frame.

 

“Only snippets of it,” Baekhyun answers. “Mostly about Sunmi.”

 

“Why do you think she wants it?” Chanyeol goes to stand next to Baekhyun. “There must be something here that is making her angry—maybe how to stop her.”

 

“Probably,” Baekhyun acquiesces. “That’s why we can’t give it to her. Not yet, at least.”

 

“She’s not getting her hands on it until we find out,” Chanyeol says, picking it up. “Do you think if we find Nam Joohyuk he could tell us more? Surely a guy like this must still be off living somewhere.”

 

“Is it odd that the initials sound familiar to me?” Baekhyun wonders absently. “Ever since I found this book I’ve felt like… I was always supposed to find it. Like it has been waiting for me all this time. Like I was supposed to have it and read what was inside.” He chuckles self-consciously when he realizes he’s been rambling. “But that’s crazy, right? It’s just a book.”

 

“A man-eating demon is after us,” Chanyeol retorts with a mirthless smile. “Something like this is not really that crazy to me, Baekhyun.”

 

Baekhyun smiles indulgently, then looks at the book again. It hits him then why the initials sound so familiar.

 

“Wait,” Baekhyun gasps.

 

The book drops to the bed as Baekhyun hurries to his desk. He grabs Heechul’s photo album and flips through the pages, until he gets to the picture he is looking for. It’s a picture of his mother, Heechul, a young Kim Taeyeon, and—Baekhyun’s heart flips—a teenage Do Kyungsoo, accompanied by a few other people Baekhyun can’t place. Baekhyun had probably seen the picture as a kid, when he was scouring through Heechul’s things without his knowledge, just because he was obsessed with knowing about where he came from—and hadn’t thought twice about the group or anything peculiar about the picture itself.

 

Now, however, the picture meant everything.

 

“Is that Kyungsoo?” Chanyeol asks, perplexed. “He looks so… young.”

 

In the picture, the group is smiling close together, posing with their arms around one another’s waists, or, in Heechul’s case, with his arm over Taeyeon’s shoulders. Kyungsoo is at the side, grin broad and boyish, like he can’t believe he’s there at all. It’s not the picture that caught Baekhyun’s attention, though, so he slips it out of the plastic sleeve and turns it over—and there, on the back, it’s what really makes Baekhyun’s pulse speed up, a simple caption written in black ink:

 

By Joohyuk

Bucheon, 1989

 

 “It’s the same person,” Chanyeol murmurs. “Do you think…”

 

“I don’t know,” Baekhyun says, his voice strangely calm to his own ears. “But he knew my mom and Heechul and…”

 

“Kyungsoo,” Chanyeol finishes. “He must remember the person behind the camera, he was there when the picture was taken! It’s worth the chance to ask him about it.”

 

“How will we contact Kyungsoo?” Baekhyun inquires. “I haven’t heard from him since he dropped my lessons. He probably doesn’t even live in Korea anymore; he travelled overseas a lot.”

 

“Last I heard he got married and moved to Gimhae,” Chanyeol says, and Baekhyun tries to ignore the spark of curiosity at Kyungsoo now being a married man. “We could drive up there today and ask around for him…”

 

“That’s good and all but everything is tits up, Chanyeol,” Baekhyun counters. “A demon kidnapped my best friend and she might be killing innocent people as we speak—these aren’t the perfect circumstances to be taking road trips. We can’t just up and leave everyone to their own devices, however good the reason may be!”

 

“Okay, okay, I’m aware of that.” Chanyeol waves his hands mollifyingly. “But we need to do something about this, it’s too much of a coincidence for us to ignore it! We need to get to the bottom of it!”

 

“And what if we drive all the way there and Kyungsoo doesn’t know anything?” Baekhyun questions. “What if it turns out to be nothing—if it isn’t even the same person—and we’re right back where we started. What then, huh?”

 

“Then we’ll just keep going.” Chanyeol shrugs. “There aren’t that many options, are there? We need to take this chance, Baekhyun, or we’ll be stuck forever in this limbo of not knowing what’s really going on. Didn’t you want to know more about your parents?”

 

Baekhyun closes his mouth, because he doesn’t have anything to argue against that. Chanyeol had hit the nail on the head. Despite his anger at being left in the dark, now that the answers are closer than ever, Baekhyun is suddenly scared about what he could find out about his parents if he probes further.

 

“I do,” Baekhyun replies. “But what if I don’t like what I find? Or I end up regretting knowing the truth completely? And at the same time… It’s killing me not knowing whether the woman in the picture is my biological mother or not.”

 

Chanyeol’s expression melts with pity. Baekhyun has to look away to blink back the tears stinging his eyes.

 

“That’s why we need to look into it,” Chanyeol says gently. “Wouldn’t you prefer knowing over wondering for the rest of your life? I’ll be with you no matter what we find out. I promise.”

 

“Okay,” Baekhyun agrees in the end. “But I’ll go alone, and you’ll stay here,” he presses on before Chanyeol can protest, “Someone needs to stay here and protect the town while I’m gone. It has to be you.”

 

“I don’t want to leave you alone,” Chanyeol says, pouting. There is an adorable expression on his face, like a puppy refusing to part from his owner. “Wha-what if something happens to you and I’m not there to protect you?”

 

“Chanyeol, I’m a big boy,” Baekhyun says, meaning to sound firm, but it comes out tender instead. “I don’t need a bodyguard. I’ve been taking care of myself way before you showed up in my life.”

 

“I know.” Chanyeol pulls him into a hug, resting his head on top of Baekhyun’s. “But you’re so tiny. Someone could step on you and they wouldn’t even know because you’re so small.”

 

“Chanyeol, you forget you taught me taekwondo,” Baekhyun threatens. “And this proximity isn’t helping you right now.”

 

“You’re so cute when you’re angry,” Chanyeol teases, breaking away to kiss Baekhyun’s forehead. “So, when are you planning to go?”

 

“I don’t know,” Baekhyun answers. “We don’t even know where Kyungsoo lives in Gimhae. I could ask Heechul for his number, but… I haven’t heard from him since our fight.” Chanyeol’s smile is understanding so Baekhyun racks his brain for an alternative. “I don’t even know where Taeyeon currently lives.”

 

Chanyeol frowns. “That’s… that’s Kyungsoo’s wife’s name.”

 

“What? Taeyeon?” Baekhyun’s stomach churns. “That’s impossible.”

 

“The girl in the picture?” Chanyeol grabs the album and taps a finger over Taeyeon on the picture. “That’s her. I know because mom showed me pictures of their wedding years ago.”

 

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Baekhyun whispers, voice fading by the second. His head is spinning at this revelation—two of his childhood crushes are now married. “How did this happen? And why am I only finding out now?”

 

“Maybe Heechul knew it was a sore spot for you,” Chanyeol suggests with half a smile. “He probably thought you still had a crush on Kyungsoo.”

 

“No, it must be something else,” Baekhyun says. “It must be because of my parents. Those are two people who knew my parents, and Heechul didn’t want me to meet them again when I was old enough to know the truth.”

 

Chanyeol’s breath hitches. He’d been flipping through the album, and now, his large eyes are stationed on a picture over the glossy page.

 

“What is it?” Baekhyun peers at the picture. A young Kyungsoo stands next to a man, older and taller, his handsome face a mirror of Chanyeol’s. They’re both laughing, like they’d been caught in the middle of a joke.

 

Trepidation has shrunk Chanyeol’s rumble to a thin thread. It’s unsettling. “That’s my dad,” Chanyeol tells Baekhyun. “Why is he in Heechul’s album? I was aware he knew my mom, but… I never thought he was close to my dad. And does this mean he also knew—”

 

“Nam Joohyuk? Probably.” Baekhyun’s nod is calm, unlike his nerves at this new twist. “Look—Kyungsoo is wearing the same clothes from the other picture.”

 

Chanyeol skims back a couple of pages to confirm Baekhyun’s observation. “Oh my god, you’re right. The pictures were taken the same day.”

 

Before he utters the words, Baekhyun’s pulse is already wild. “If they knew each other… it explains why your dad liked the symbol on Joohyuk’s book. The tattoo on your back.”

 

Chanyeol resembles a frightened animal. “God, what the fuck is happening—how is my dad involve in all of this?” With shaky hands, he fishes his phone out of his pocket. “I’m going to text mom. I need to know if she also knew Nam Joohyuk.”

 

Baekhyun is a whirl of thoughts and guesses about their recent discoveries. It’s hard to focus on a specific thing; everything is tied and tangled together in a hodgepodge of mystery. With the adrenaline trickling inside, Baekhyun can’t sit still. He needs to be out there, seeking and fighting. He can’t sit still while Jongdae’s in the demon’s clutch.

 

Heading to the door, Baekhyun says, “Let’s go check up on Yeri.” He grabs his shoes from the rack. Chanyeol looks a little at first, but he follows quickly. “And then we’ll need to find a place where we can hide the book. I’m not letting Sunmi anywhere near it.”

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Sooyoung opens the door of the bright red house without her usual bright grin. Her skin is pale and sallow, and there are dark circles bruising the smooth skin under her eyes.

 

“We wanted to see how Yeri was doing,” Chanyeol says as a greeting. “And talk to you about something important. I hope we’re not bothering you.”

 

“Not at all,” Sooyoung says, a ghost of a smile on her plump lips. “Come in, I’ll tell Joohyun you’re here.”

 

As they follow Sooyoung down the hallway, footsteps can be heard coming down the stairs. When the person steps into view, Baekhyun’s breath stills in his throat. Yixing stands there, moss green shirt and light blue jeans, as handsome as the first time Baekhyun had seen him. There’s surprise in his eyes when they land on Baekhyun, and a smile that digs a dimple into his cheek, like he’s also pleased to see him.

 

“What are you doing here?” Baekhyun asks.

 

“I’m a healer, remember?” Yixing says with a chuckle. “Anyways, it’s nice to see you. You look good.”

 

Chanyeol clears his throat, stepping forward to shake Yixing’s hand. “I’m Chanyeol.”

 

“He’s Baekhyun’s boyfriend,” Sooyoung adds, grinning when Baekhyun sputters. Baekhyun would be happy to see her smiling for the first time since he walked in, but not at his expense—especially not like this, when he and Chanyeol have never put a label on what they are. And Chanyeol looks as taken aback as he is.

 

Yixing takes it in stride. “Boyfriend?” His eyes are adorably wide, his smile widening. “You’re a very lucky guy. I hope you know that.”

 

“I’m aware,” Chanyeol stammers, managing a sheepish smile. “He-He’s very special.”

 

“You forgot good-looking,” Baekhyun tries to tease. Chanyeol’s ears are a bright red, and he would love to taunt him, but he’s just as bashful.

 

“That you are,” Yixing says jauntily, oblivious of Chanyeol gawking at him. “Well, are you here to see Yeri? I just saw her and she’s doing well. She’s lucky that she wasn’t stabbed in a vital organ so she’s going to recover soon.”

 

To Baekhyun’s relief no one mentions it was him who stabbed Yeri and put her in that condition, and by the way Yixing’s eyes don’t change from his open kindness, Baekhyun figures Joohyun hadn’t told him either.

 

“Are you going up to see Yeri?”

 

Baekhyun and Chanyeol start at the new voice. Seungwan stands next to Sooyoung now, where there had been no one a moment ago. She doesn’t look much better than Sooyoung, looking like she hasn’t slept more than two hours since last night, her demeanor a pale shadow of the cheerfulness Baekhyun has become accustomed to.

 

“She’s sleeping right now,” Seungwan goes on, without waiting for a response. “And Joohyun doesn’t want anyone to bother her.”

 

“It’s okay, we can come by to visit her later,” Chanyeol says. “We also wanted to tell you about this thing we just—”

 

By the look on his face, Chanyeol is bursting at the seams to talk about their discovery, so Baekhyun tugs on the back of his shirt to warn him. The last thing they need is to upset the witches more by coming across as uncaring of Yeri’s situation.

 

It’s Baekhyun who breaks the news to them. “Jongdae disappeared last night,” he says. “Sunmi took him in exchange of the book.”

 

The witches don’t appear as shocked as Baekhyun had anticipated. “We already knew,” Sooyoung says kindly. “But there is nothing you or we can’t do about that right now except to hide the book. We’ll be truly lost if it falls in her hands.”

 

Sooyoung’s response is sensible and rational, a confirmation for Baekhyun’s plans, but he can’t shake a slight aggravation—because this is Jongdae and his disappearance is eating him alive and he shouldn’t be left aside for a book. But he swallows it down, in favor of heeding her advice.  “That’s what we’ll do.”

 

Not wanting to intrude any longer, they part with stiff bows, which the witches return politely. Outside, Baekhyun feels bad at his first reaction because the witches must be on edge after nearly losing another person in their coven, it’s understandable that they would have a hard time caring much about everything else going on. Even though they’d mentioned Yeri wasn’t a witch, they care immensely for her.

 

“Where are we going to hide the book?” Baekhyun asks as they make their way out of the house. At the timid smile perched on Chanyeol’s lips Baekhyun remembers Sooyoung introducing them as boyfriends. A dimple pops up on each of his cheeks and Baekhyun forgets about the misgiving as quickly as it came.

 

“I thought you were the guy with the big plans,” Chanyeol teases. Then, he stretches out a hand for Baekhyun to hold. “I think I have the perfect place where we can hide it.”

 

Baekhyun grabs his hand and links their fingers together. He relishes in the roughness of Chanyeol’s palm, in contrast to the smoothness of the back of his hand, its warmth soothing Baekhyun’s frayed nerves. They’ve never shown affection in public, but who cares about that when the world is possibly ending? This time Baekhyun doesn’t let go and neither does Chanyeol.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Baekhyun wraps his arms around Chanyeol, presses close, as they drive on his scooter. Chanyeol’s back is broad and Baekhyun wishes he could rest his head on it during the trip, if it weren’t for the helmet he’s wearing. And for the uncomfortable sensation that haunts him more and more the deeper they tread into Yogoe.

 

The dark clouds that had settled over the town haven’t disappeared, creating a virtual twilight, and the wind that beats his clothes threatens a hailstorm, but the air lacks the warmness preceding rain. It’s cold, unusually cold for a summer day, and Baekhyun can feel the chilling temperature through his denim jacket, his hands going stiff and frigid where they’re fisting Chanyeol’s hoodie.

 

In spite of the bleak weather, the streets are crowded, but it’s not until they stop at a red light that Baekhyun notes most of these people are dead by their visible scars and sunken faces. The ghosts don’t pay them attention while they’re stationed, merely focused on wandering and conversing with each other. Baekhyun has never seen so many ghosts out and about before, and he doesn’t need to inform Chanyeol of this, because he’s watching the ghosts closely as well. Chanyeol envelops one of his hands with his, squeezing it briefly, before the light changes to green and he’s driving off again.

 

As they near the outskirts of town, Baekhyun realizes they’re headed to the magicians’ hotel hidden within the warehouse. It is a perfect place to hide the book, and Baekhyun wants to kiss Chanyeol for his ingenuity. Or just kiss Chanyeol. Perhaps they can get some time alone while they’re inside. The way this place makes people feel like they’re closed off from the rest of the world is more than welcome at this moment in time.

 

“I think this is a good place to hide anything,” Chanyeol says, when he clambers off the scooter and takes off his helmet. “No one knows about this place besides us.”

 

“You deserve a big smooch for that big brilliant head of yours,” Baekhyun says. “But let’s wait until we’re inside.”

 

Chanyeol’s face splits in an impish grin, and Baekhyun wants to forget about everything—the impending disaster hanging over their heads—and be with Chanyeol when he interlaces their fingers together to walk into the warehouse. He wants to pretend they’re normal guys, even just for a moment. They haven’t talked about Sooyoung calling them boyfriends, but Baekhyun has a feeling he’s the only one conflicted about this.

 

Chanyeol is Baekhyun’s something, that’s for sure, but he isn’t Baekhyun’s to keep. Chanyeol will leave when the demon is gone, and Baekhyun will stay behind. And Baekhyun shouldn’t be concerned about this, when there are bigger evils at play, but he can’t help it—not when Chanyeol has his heart in the palm of his hand despite the little time they’ve spent together.

 

The memory of Jongdae’s fear-stricken face replaces his anguish for another, a fresher, denser ache that steals his breath like a punch to the gut. Chanyeol seems to notice this change across his face, because he gives his hand a reassuring squeeze. Baekhyun doesn’t dare look up at Chanyeol.

 

The lobby looks less creepy with the weak sunlight filtering through the glassless windows, though Baekhyun wishes he didn’t have to see the piles of turds on the dirty floors. The red door at the back of the foyer looks new, like the first time Baekhyun saw it. The dragon-shaped door knob glints as Chanyeol twists it, and the golden, pristine glow from the crooked room envelops them.

 

“After you,” Chanyeol says with a charming grin, gesturing for Baekhyun to go in first.

 

“What a gentleman,” Baekhyun teases, and gasps when Chanyeol slaps his butt in retaliation. Then, he grabs a handful of it, squeezing it tightly once. “You like my ass, huh?”

 

Chanyeol wraps his arms around Baekhyun and nuzzles his neck, moving together inside the hallway with shuffling steps. “I am a big fan of your ass,” he whispers into Baekhyun’s ear. He presses a kiss to the junction between Baekhyun’s neck and shoulder, making Baekhyun shudder, before he’s sidling to Baekhyun to grab his hand. Arousal tickles Baekhyun’s belly, but he wills it away as Chanyeol leads them in the direction of a door with Room of Infinite Shooting Stars inscribed on a silver plaque.

 

“Infinite shooting stars,” Baekhyun reads under his breath. Chanyeol gives him a smile before he turns the knob and pushes the door open.

 

Beyond the door is a grassy field below a clear black sky, as far as Baekhyun’s eyes can see. A pear tree sits in the middle of the field, its leaves lit up by the meteor shower gliding across the sky.

 

“This is beautiful,” Baekhyun exhales. When he looks up, Chanyeol is focused on Baekhyun, an enamored little smile on his face that Baekhyun can’t help but reciprocate. “What? Do I have something on my face?”

 

“You’re gorgeous, Byun Baekhyun,” Chanyeol says, tucking Baekhyun’s hair behind his ear. “I don’t think I’ve told you that enough times.”

 

If it weren’t for the blanket of darkness, Baekhyun is sure his face would be as bright as the shooting stars at Chanyeol’s comment. His skin is hot where Chanyeol traces his cheekbones with his index finger. Baekhyun chuckles, bashful, shoving Chanyeol, whose smitten expression doesn’t budge.

 

“Stop being cheesy and focus,” he says, another laugh threading in his voice. “We need to find a place to hide the book.”

 

Chanyeol turns to the field and points to the pear tree in the distance. “Under the tree. No one will find it there.”

 

“Good call,” Baekhyun says, slipping a hand around Chanyeol’s waist. Chanyeol looks proud, a grin bunching up his cheeks.

 

“So, where’s the smooch I was promised?”

 

Baekhyun rolls his eyes but doesn’t curb a smile. Chanyeol juts out his lips in a pout, and Baekhyun laughs before he goes off running towards the tree. His laughter teeters when he remembers what happened to Jongdae, and the guilt of experiencing joy when his best friend is captured by a demon turns his mirth into ashes in his mouth. He runs faster, more than his tired legs can handle. He’s out of breath by the time he reaches the tree, and he grabs his knees to catch his breath, Chanyeol skidding to a halt in front of him.

 

“You run so fast,” Chanyeol says breathlessly. His chest rises and falls with his breaths. “Like a little hamster on steroids.”

 

“I just felt like running.” Baekhyun turns his back to Chanyeol so he can study the tree. Up close, Baekhyun can see some of its leaves are dyed a snow-white hue, making it so the tree seems to glow when another shooting star passes overhead. The trunk is dark and old, and Baekhyun places his palm over the smooth bark, feeling a pulse within as if the tree itself were alive. “I think this is my favorite place on earth.”

 

“You like trees?”

 

“My mom really liked them,” Baekhyun says, trailing his fingers over the grooves in the bark. “I have some faint memories of paintings of trees around the house. I remember she had one of a tree with white leaves over her bed when I was little.”

 

As Baekhyun tells Chanyeol this, he racks his brain to remember the fate of that particular painting. He doesn’t remember seeing it in Heechul’s house; it probably got lost or donated, like everything that belonged to his mother after she died.

 

“Do you want me to take a picture of it?” Chanyeol says. When Baekhyun glances over his shoulder, Chanyeol already has his phone out. “As a keepsake or something.”

 

“Thanks,” Baekhyun murmurs, smiling as he faces the tree again. He waits for the telltale click of a snapshot before he’s stepping away from the tree. “We can dig a hole in the roots to hide the book.”

 

Chanyeol hunkers down before the tree and digs into the dirt with his hands. The hole is not deep, but it’s enough to cover the book. Baekhyun slings his backpack off his shoulder and unzips it to take the book out and hand it to Chanyeol, who places it in the ground and covers it completely. He taps the dirt to flatten it, and claps to dust off his hands.

 

“I hope that's enough,” Chanyeol says. “No one but us will know it’s here.”

 

Baekhyun likes the idea of this secret place that now belongs only to the two of them. A special place where they can exist away from the world. It’s a giddy, juvenile feeling that he doesn’t want to voice out, in case Chanyeol doesn’t see it this way.

 

Some of Chanyeol’s hair had fallen across his eyes while he buried the book, so Baekhyun walks up to him to brush it off his forehead, Chanyeol’s hands sliding around his middle on automatic. His hair is longer than it was when he arrived in Yogoe, the perfect length to tie it in a tiny ponytail. An image that appeals to Baekhyun very, very much. Baekhyun cards his fingers through Chanyeol’s hair, faint wrinkles appearing around Chanyeol’s eyes when he grins at Baekhyun with the contentment of a puppy being petted. He’s wearing the dopey smile he reserves for Baekhyun, the one that makes his heart swell against his ribs.

 

“Hello,” Chanyeol whispers, honeyed voice, soft as his gaze. “I know it’s not appropriate with everything that’s going on,” he dips until he’s nuzzling Baekhyun’s nose with his own, “but I can’t stop thinking about kissing you.”

 

Baekhyun manages a meager smile, because his chest is heavy with the reminder of Jongdae, that he isn’t being fast enough in his attempt to save him, and the danger looming over their heads and the rest of the town like storm clouds. But the fear and remorse lessen around Chanyeol, the pain becomes easier to carry when he sees the way Chanyeol looks at him, and his arms make Baekhyun feel safer than any other place. Baekhyun holds onto all of this, locks it inside his heart, because he doesn’t have the courage to say it aloud. Instead, he stands on his tiptoes and kisses Chanyeol softly, cupping his jaw as he alternates in capturing both of his lips, molding their bodies, until it feels like there’s not an inch of separation. The kiss is a balm to a burn, alleviation dissolving Baekhyun’s bones until he’s featherlight.

 

By kissing Chanyeol, it becomes obvious to Baekhyun that his feelings for him have grown, the butterflies morphed into zombie-like creatures revolting in his stomach. It’s in the way Chanyeol kisses him, sighs into the kiss, like he’s needed this as much as Baekhyun has, that makes Baekhyun want to say it, slip it in a whisper, keeping his eyes shut to shield himself from the possible rejection. Because if Chanyeol is sailing away with a piece of his heart, Baekhyun wants to let him know how much of it he’s taking. But what little nerve he’s gathered is gone in the next breath.

 

Then, a pounding sound, faint but insistent, interrupts his thoughts. Chanyeol loses his rhythm, like he’s also noticed it, and the distant sound has stolen his focus. As they break away, Baekhyun realizes the pounding comes from beyond the room, the repeated force of it similar to a battering ram slamming onto a building.

 

“What’s that?” Baekhyun asks, clinging to Chanyeol’s arms. “It sounds like it’s coming from outside.”

 

Chanyeol frowns, swollen lips tugged downwards. “It’s like someone is pounding on the walls…”

 

“But what…” Once the words are out of his mouth, Baekhyun has a sinking sensation in his gut. “Could it be… she’s found us?”

 

Chanyeol’s expression is unreadable, but Baekhyun spies his adam’s apple bobbing. Chanyeol pulls back, grabs Baekhyun’s backpack from the ground to sling it over his shoulder, and clutches Baekhyun’s hand tightly.

 

“We should go and see what it is.”

 

It’s the last thing Baekhyun wants to do. He wants to stay here, in the safety of this place, even if it seems to be breaking down in front of his eyes. But he has a duty to obey, pushing him forward against his will, so he holds onto Chanyeol as they run back towards the red door standing alone in the field.

 

A shooting star lights the field when Chanyeol grabs the door knob, and Baekhyun turns to watch it streak through the sky before it disappears. By the door, the pounding is louder, frighteningly close. And when Chanyeol leads him out with a hand on the small of his back, Baekhyun can tell it’s someone trying to break down the main door at the entrance of the hallway.

 

“She’s trying to come in,” Baekhyun mutters. “How did she find this place?”

 

“She probably followed us,” Chanyeol says through gritted teeth. A flush paints his neck with the anger rising inside him. “Fucking demon…”

 

“What are we going to do?” Baekhyun asks. Fortunately, Chanyeol doesn’t see him trembling while reaching down to roll up his jeans and get ahold of the blade strapped to his shin. “Wait until she breaks in to fight her?”

 

Chanyeol throws an arm over his shoulder, pulling his sword out among blue smoke. “We can’t let her take the book,” he says, marching to the main door. “So we’re going to have to contain her the best we can.”

 

The door creaks with another pound. It seems like the demon isn’t able to come in with her own powers, so she’s resorting to force to crack the spells protecting the place. With another thrust, the wood breaks in half, sending chips and dust flying in the air and the entire place shaking. Baekhyun commands his blade to enlarge itself, the tip looping, and stands in a fighting stance at the same time as Chanyeol does. A final thrust makes the remaining wood dart everywhere, fragments hitting Baekhyun without a chance for cover.

 

Black vines weave and slither all over the place like tentacles, absorbing the golden light from the hallway with their impervious dark. Sunmi slinks in slowly and stops in front of them with a sneer, cocking her hips to the side like she’s posing for a picture.

 

“Is this your little love motel?” She looks around the place with an arched eyebrow. “Very elegant, I’d say. Way above the ones along the highway humans use to fuck like rabbits.”

 

“What the fuck do you want?” Baekhyun spits, brandishing his blade. “Why are you here?”

 

“To get the book,” Sunmi says, like Baekhyun is stupid. “I already told you, little necromancers. I want the book.”

 

“We don’t have it anymore,” Chanyeol mutters. “So you better fuck off because you’re wasting your time.”

 

Sunmi’s mouth twists in disapproval. “That wasn’t very nice,” she murmurs. The black vines dart towards Chanyeol, and he yelps when they wrap around his middle and slam him against the wall. Chanyeol grunts through gritted teeth, trying to break free by pushing at the vines, veins popping on his neck from the strain.

 

Baekhyun shouts, “Let him go!” and slashes his blade through the vines to no avail—more vines dash to wrap around Chanyeol in an endless loop.

 

Desperation seizes Baekhyun in a chokehold. In a frenzied attempt, he turns to Sunmi, wielding his blade to strike her—but Sunmi foresees his attack, flinging him to the other wall with vines wound around his neck and legs, knocking the wind right out of him with the force.

 

“Baekhyun!” Chanyeol hollers. “Baekhyun, are you okay?!”

 

But Baekhyun can’t speak; the vines strangling him move up to cover half of his face. He flails, trying to break free of Sunmi’s grip, but the vines are too thick and strong.

 

“Let him go,” Chanyeol roars, his face red with rage. “You can kill me instead.”

 

No, Baekhyun wants to scream at the top of his lungs. But he only manages to flail, whine into the vine enclosed around his mouth. Chanyeol looks determined, averting his gaze from Baekhyun.

 

“Kill you?” Sunmi considers it, yellow eyes roaming over Chanyeol. “I’m not very interested. If I kill you, what could I get in return? Your life isn’t that valuable, little necromancer.”

 

“Okay, not my life then…” Chanyeol’s given up his attempt to break free, breathing harshly in Sunmi’s vines. His face is distraught, and Baekhyun can feel that distress when their gazes meet briefly. Then, Chanyeol is speaking to Sunmi again. “I’ll give you something more important—my memories of Baekhyun.”

 

Chanyeol! Baekhyun freezes. It takes a moment for the full meaning of Chanyeol’s proposition to dawn on him. Baekhyun’s heart drops to his knees.

 

“Love? No one’s ever traded that before…” Sunmi’s tongue traces her blood-tinted lips. “Sounds delicious.” Her smile is knife-sharp. “I’ll accept your deal.”

 

Sunmi walks towards Chanyeol and Baekhyun thrashes, makes frantic noises, tries desperately to stop what’s going to happen next, even though he’s powerless in Sunmi’s capture. Outstretching an arm, Sunmi wraps claw-like fingers around Chanyeol’s neck, releasing him from the trap of her vines so Chanyeol’s legs dangle in the air. She’s choking him, Baekhyun can tell, by the way Chanyeol’s face is turning red, his gritted teeth, the veins protruding on his neck.

 

Despair and panic and anguish flood Baekhyun, sinking their fangs into his nape, twisting his lungs so he can’t breathe—if his mouth were uncovered, he would likely not scream, but beg on his knees like a dying man. Like Chanyeol. Sunmi brings her other hand to Chanyeol’s right cheek, the tip of her fingers pressing to his temple until they’re digging into the flesh. It rips a blood-curdling scream out of Chanyeol, the sound of it tearing Baekhyun’s soul apart. He can’t bare to look but he also can’t bring himself to close his eyes.

 

When Sunmi pulls away, she has a thin silver thread in her fingers, curling and glistening, and she opens her mouth to swallow it. She gulps loudly, her mouth twitched in a pleased smile.

 

“An added spice of desperation,” Sunmi says. “Delicious.”

 

Letting Chanyeol go, his body crumples over the velvet carpet in a heap. Chanyeol curls into himself, wheezing and panting, racked by tremors from head to toe.

 

“You’re not going to forget him right away,” Sunmi says. “It will be gradual but steady, so he can see the love slowly fade in your eyes.” She chuckles, spinning on her heels. “It’s much more fun that way.”

 

The black vines retreat, and Baekhyun is dropped to the ground. He lands on his knees first, hurting his right arm and chin when his upper body hits the floor. But Baekhyun doesn’t stay put; he scurries to Chanyeol on his knees, placing a hand on his back, trying to peer at his face. Chanyeol is heaving, spitting into the carpet.

 

Sunmi turns back to them by the doorway. “Now that I’ve spared your life,” she says, “I guess I’ll have to kill the rest of the town. Your friends included.” She smiles. “Or maybe I’ll change my mind and kill you after all.”

 

With a wink, she exits, the dark vines evaporating in her wake. Chanyeol sits back, breathing heavily, and Baekhyun keeps a hand over the small of his back.

 

“Chanyeol,” Baekhyun whispers, voice trembling, “are you okay?”

 

Chanyeol nods, coughs roughly. “My throat hurts,” he croaks, “but I’m alive.”

 

He’s alive. Baekhyun nearly forgets the affliction under the relief that overtakes him. But when he remembers the deal Chanyeol’s made with Sunmi, the horror crashes against him in waves.

 

“Chanyeol, you shouldn’t have made that deal with the demon,” Baekhyun says, voice broken. “You’re going to…” He can’t form the words. If he utters it then it’s going to be true.

 

“I had to do it!” Chanyeol directs him a pleading gaze. “If I hadn’t, you’d be dead!”

 

“But she can kill you anyway!” Baekhyun retorts. “She’s a demon, Chanyeol! Demons rarely keep their word! And now you’re going to…” He swallows around the sudden knot in his throat. The thought of Chanyeol not looking at him with the same adoration he’s become accustomed to is unfathomable.

 

Chanyeol looks lost, his eyes flitting over Baekhyun’s face. “I-I said I would protect you.” His voice catches, and he gulps. “If I kill her, the deal… the deal might be broken!”

 

Baekhyun isn’t listening. He feels hollow, the echo of it resonating through his bones. He’s going to lose Chanyeol. Chanyeol was going to leave, yes. But the prospect of Chanyeol losing his memories of him, of what they have, is killing him. It makes his absence so permanent and irreversible, like every other loss he’s experienced in the past. He will lose Chanyeol, just like he has lost his parents and Jongdae. But this is different, because memories are what keep people alive after they’re gone, and Baekhyun will cease to exist within Chanyeol’s mind before he even gets to leave.

 

“You’re so thoughtless,” Baekhyun snaps, driven by rage and heartache. Chanyeol gapes, like he’s been slapped.

 

“I was thinking of you!” He shuffles closer, gathering Baekhyun in his arms. Despite himself, Baekhyun lets himself be held. He’s too weak to put up a fight. His limbs are made of lead, and the pain spreads like acid throughout his body, eating away at his insides. “I didn’t do that out of recklessness! I was thinking of—”

 

Chanyeol doesn’t finish his sentence. Suddenly, the room creaks and moans, like a monster bellowing with aching. The walls and ground shake with the magnitude of an earthquake. The hotel, or the warehouse containing it, is collapsing. Apprehension cuts into his chest; they need to get out of there fast, before the building crumbles over their heads.

 

“Fuck,” Chanyeol exhales, helping Baekhyun to his feet. “This place won’t hold up any longer with the way Sunmi destroyed its protection charms.”

 

As they run out of the warehouse, Baekhyun doesn’t want to look back. Not when he’s leaving forever another thing he thought belonged to him.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

The trip to Chanyeol’s apartment is made in silence. When they arrive home, the silence stretches thin, quivering with tension, like the surface of a soap bubble. Baekhyun slips off his shoes and shrugs off his jacket, ignoring Chanyeol who lingers by the door, fiddling with his sneakers.

 

It’s Chanyeol who speaks first. “Baekhyun, I’m so sorry.”

 

Baekhyun says nothing, because he doesn’t know what to say. What can he say that would express his emotions? That Chanyeol shouldn’t have made a deal on his life when Baekhyun’s certain he’s going to die? That the futility of Chanyeol erasing his memories in exchange for Baekhyun’s life, already marked by death, hurts worse than a knife buried in the center of his chest?

 

Again, Baekhyun doesn’t utter his thoughts. Instead, he pulls his shirt over his head and tosses it on the floor. Chanyeol is staring at him like he’s grown another head. Wordlessly, Baekhyun guides him to the bedroom by the hand and Chanyeol follows obligingly.

 

Closing the door, Baekhyun starts on his pants. Chanyeol stands by the bed motionless, watching Baekhyun squirm out of his pants and underwear, and kick them aside with a foot. Once he’s naked, Baekhyun steps to Chanyeol, taking his hand to bring it to his lips. The base of Chanyeol’s throat hollows with a held-in breath. His eyes roam over Baekhyun, dark with hunger but soft with adoration, the fingers of his other hand twitching unsurely by his side.

 

At last, Chanyeol exhales, hot and wistful. “Baekhyun… you’re so beautiful.”

 

“I know,” Baekhyun whispers. He kisses Chanyeol’s knuckles, one by one. “You’ve told me before.”

 

“I wanna tell you all the time, but I have to hold myself back in case I sound like a pervert.” Chanyeol gulps when Baekhyun sucks on his index finger until the second knuckle. He groans, his voice coming out in a strained murmur. “I thought you were angry at me for being thoughtless.”

 

Baekhyun shakes his head, averting his gaze. “I’m just sad,” he confesses. Chanyeol finally places his hands on Baekhyun’s hips, and Baekhyun leans into him in an instant. “I want you to hold me.”

 

“I can do that,” Chanyeol says. He takes a minute to step back and get rid of his shirt before he’s drawing Baekhyun in with arms around his middle. Baekhyun seals his lips over the jut of Chanyeol’s collarbones, then rests his head on the crook of his shoulder, splaying his palms over his shoulder blades. Chanyeol kisses the crown of his head, then plants his left cheek on it. His entire body slackens with a sigh like it’s drained him of something. Baekhyun slackens too. The noose that had wound itself around Baekhyun’s neck loosens in Chanyeol’s embrace so he can breathe again.

 

In the quiet, he listens to the thud of Chanyeol’s heartbeat, the even tune of his breathing. A tender lullaby. He revels in his smooth skin, the wiry muscles, the natural warmth of his body, his everything that Baekhyun wants to sear to his memory.

 

I want you to stay.

 

But Chanyeol was never his to own and that choice was never Chanyeol’s, or Baekhyun’s, to make. Baekhyun believed in making his own destiny before he realized there are greater forces at play. Because, if it were on him, he would twist fate each time it tried to separate them. He would make Chanyeol stay a hundred times. If it were on him, none of this would have happened. Baekhyun would get to kiss Chanyeol every day, wake up to Jongdae in the living room, and his parents texting him to check up on him. Live a normal life like a normal guy.

 

Baekhyun doesn’t have that kind of power. Chanyeol will leave and lose his memories of Baekhyun.

 

Before, Chanyeol’s imminent return to Seoul hadn’t felt as definite. In his heart of hearts, Baekhyun had harbored hope that Chanyeol would treasure his moments with Baekhyun in the same way Baekhyun would after he was gone. That Chanyeol would look back on his time with Baekhyun and that mysterious, flourishing summer in Yogoe with a smile in the future.

 

Now it felt like Chanyeol was going on a long trip with no return. Without his memories to tie him to Baekhyun, there is no reason for Chanyeol to come back.

 

Even if Baekhyun can’t change his fate, he will put up a good fight. He will get Jongdae and Junmyeon back. He will ensure Chanyeol returns to Seoul safely. He will save the people of Yogoe. But his determination doesn’t extinguish the possibility of failure, which is frighteningly real, looming right out of sight and chilling Baekhyun to the bone. The weight on his shoulders is only a reminder that he isn’t equipped to battle a thousand-years-old demon. He’s a twenty-year-old boy who can’t even drive.

 

If he fails to save the town and everyone’s lives—if Chanyeol forgets him, he wants this to be their goodbye.

 

Baekhyun pulls back, tilts his chin up, at the same time Chanyeol looks down. They meet halfway for a kiss, soft and leisured, taking their time to taste each other, slotting their mouths together in a gentle but feverish dance. Baekhyun traces Chanyeol’s hard sides, the dip of muscle on his abdomen, the swell of his pecs. He pinches Chanyeol’s nipple, and Chanyeol gasps, falters, then bites down on Baekhyun’s lower lip. Baekhyun groans, digging his fingers into Chanyeol’s hair and opening his mouth, lets Chanyeol trail his tongue over the roof. Baekhyun’s erection drags over the denim of Chanyeol’s jeans, and he rubs himself further, enticed by Chanyeol squeezing his ass in a handful.

 

Chanyeol directs them to the bed, twisting them so Baekhyun falls on his back over the mattress. Baekhyun props his elbows on the bed to watch as Chanyeol pulls down his pants along with his underwear, licking his lips hungrily when Chanyeol’s erection springs up to curl over his abdomen. The bleak light from the window falls over the bruises darkening Chanyeol’s neck, where Sunmi had strangled him. A possessive sort of rage flares in Baekhyun’s chest, but it simmers down when Chanyeol crawls over to him and kisses him so eagerly, Baekhyun forgets how to breathe for a moment.

 

Baekhyun drags his hands down Chanyeol’s back, relishing the curl of his spine while Chanyeol laps at his collarbones, sucking marks into the skin. Moving down, he maps with his tongue places he’s visited before, like he wants to become reacquainted with them. Baekhyun gasps a giggle when Chanyeol digs his tongue into his belly button, then licks over his navel and the jut of his hip bone. His tongue travels the path of his abdominal hair, until he’s licking Baekhyun’s shaft with the broad of his tongue, before taking him into his mouth, and Baekhyun arches off the bed with a moan.

 

Chanyeol puts special care in his touches, every move and caress deliberate and measured, to a degree that makes Baekhyun ache inside. Baekhyun bites his lip and wills himself not to cry.

 

When Chanyeol straddles Baekhyun, with lube in hand, Baekhyun is surprised to see him reaching behind himself.

 

“Chanyeol…” Baekhyun’s gasp is stilted when Chanyeol’s arm begins moving.

 

“I want you inside me,” Chanyeol admits in a broken exhale. “I’ve wanted you inside me for a while, and this is...”

 

This is our last time, Baekhyun ends the sentence. This is the last time they will make love and every touch and caress has inevitably the scent of a goodbye. They don’t exchange any more words. There aren’t appropriate words to describe how he feels, how they both feel. Words aren’t capable to replicate the enormity of this heartache.

 

Baekhyun sits back against the pillows and lets Chanyeol rest his head on his shoulder, moans dampening his skin and shuddering as hard as Chanyeol. He keeps Chanyeol close when he rides him, kissing every bit of skin he can reach—his face, his parted mouth, his ears, his neck, never straying away, tracing his body like he wants to commit it to memory. He wants to leave a tattoo of his love on Chanyeol, though he’ll be the only one who remembers it.

 

Chanyeol’s thighs quake as he lifts himself up, his rhythm growing erratic, inconsistent. Baekhyun doesn’t want this to be over so soon—he’s afraid he’ll lose Chanyeol forever after this moment is over. He rolls them over, sinking back into Chanyeol with one swift motion, swallowing his moan with a kiss. He doesn’t allow for their lips to part, not even Chanyeol is trembling from his impending orgasm and he demands to be touched.

 

Tears stream down his cheeks, though he finds Chanyeol’s face is wet as well. They’re impossibly close, so much so, he doesn’t know where one ends and the other begins. His orgasm hits him like this, crashing over him in waves. Chanyeol digs his nails into his back as Baekhyun’s thrusts speed up through his climax, biting Baekhyun’s shoulder when he follows suit a beat later.

 

Chanyeol’s mouth rounds, poised to speak, though the look on his face is already revealing. Baekhyun swoops in for a kiss, stealing Chanyeol’s breath, and hopefully the words on the tip of his tongue. It’ll be worse, way worse, if Baekhyun hears those words aloud. He isn’t sure he’ll be able let Chanyeol go if he does.

 

When they fall back on the sheets, trying to catch their breath, Baekhyun clings to Chanyeol like it’s his last night on earth. Like this, Baekhyun can pretend their allotted time together extends beyond tonight.

 

Like this, they can just be.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

In the morning, he wakes up to Chanyeol speaking to someone somewhere in the apartment. Baekhyun sits up, and after listening for a few seconds, he realizes Chanyeol is talking on the phone. His voice sounds frustrated, words coming faster than Baekhyun’s used to hearing. Chanyeol is obviously trying to keep his tone down, but his inside voice already isn’t on the general level of quiet.

 

“Mom, I—” Chanyeol stops to listen to the other end. “No, I just told you!”

 

A long pause stretches before Chanyeol exchanges goodbyes and I love you’s with his mother, his tone resigned but warm. He’s clearly been chided for something. Baekhyun smiles at the image of Chanyeol using that same tone as a kid while he was being chastised by his mother.

 

The door to the bedroom opens and Chanyeol appears, befuddled to see Baekhyun awake. For a split second, Baekhyun panics, thinking that Chanyeol has forgotten who he is—but then Chanyeol smiles, blinding and loving, climbing onto the bed in a heap of long limbs. When he’s close to Baekhyun, he pauses, searching Baekhyun’s expression before he leans, tentatively, to drop a kiss on Baekhyun’s cheek.

 

Baekhyun aches with the need to drag Chanyeol closer and kiss him senseless. Though the shy smile he presents Chanyeol bespeaks nothing of it.

 

“Good morning,” Chanyeol says, sitting back. “Did I wake you?”

 

“Yeah, but don’t worry about it,” Baekhyun chuckles. He holds Chanyeol’s face to peck his smile. “I’m sorry for listening, but… were you arguing with your mom?”

 

“Yeah, kind of.” Chanyeol rubs his neck, averting his eyes. “She wants me to get back to Seoul as soon as possible. She… heard about what’s happening from Heechul.”

 

A pang pierces his chest at the prospect of Chanyeol leaving sooner than expected. Baekhyun puts his focus on the second part. “How?”

 

“When I asked her if she knew Nam Joohyuk, she got in touch immediately with Heechul,” Chanyeol says, shrugging. “From that name she knew something was up. So, she calls Kyungsoo and his wife, and they get in touch with Heechul, and it doesn’t take them more than a day to get the gist of what’s happening. Or maybe Heechul already had his suspicions. Dude seems to know everything going on around here.”

 

Fisting the sheets, Baekhyun asks, “So, what are you saying? Did she tell you if she knew Nam Joohyuk?”

 

“No, but she told me something better,” Chanyeol says, conciliatory. “She made Kyungsoo come out of whatever cave he was hiding in and travel to Yogoe just to talk to us. Apparently, he’s waiting for us at Heechul’s house.”

 

“Kyungsoo?” Baekhyun’s pulse quickens. “I haven’t seen him since…”

 

“I haven’t seen him in forever either.” Chanyeol’s smile is small and tentative as he regards Baekhyun. “We might finally get some answers.”

 

A dull sort of excitement courses through Baekhyun. So much has happened in such a short time, he can’t begin to organize his emotions. It feels like it’s been so long since he was upset about the identity of his mother and the scathing words he’d thrown at Heechul.

 

To brighten the atmosphere, Baekhyun remarks offhandedly, “I can’t picture your mom angry—she looked really sweet in the pictures. You got your smile from her.”

 

Chanyeol appears about to reply, but then he stops to consider something. His smile falls in tandem with Baekhyun’s heart. “How do you know that? Where did you see a picture of my mom?”

 

“At your mom’s restaurant,” Baekhyun replies, searching Chanyeol’s face. The confused furrow on Chanyeol’s forehead doesn’t fade. “During our trip to Seoul, remember?”

 

Baekhyun’s throat seizes up. Chanyeol is beginning to forget. He was aware it was coming, and yet it hadn’t prepared him for how much it would hurt. Chanyeol must’ve caught on by his silence. Guilt swims in his gaze, and Baekhyun can’t bare it because it’s not Chanyeol’s fault; the exchange had been done with the intention to protect Baekhyun.

 

Bypassing his own heartache, he squeezes his hand and pats his knee comfortingly. Sunshine breaks through the storm in Chanyeol’s countenance, as weak and pale as the light outside. Baekhyun’s mood is dark as the skies of Yogoe. But there is nothing left to do, except to carry on.

 

“Let’s get ready,” Baekhyun says, jumping out of bed. “We can’t make Kyungsoo wait.”

 

 

 

***

 

 

 



The drive to Heechul’s house had never been so torturously long in the past. Baekhyun’s nerves have been haywire since they left Chanyeol’s apartment. A cocktail of anticipation, nervousness, and apprehension sloshes in his stomach as he clambers off the scooter and runs up the driveway to the door.

 

The door opens before Baekhyun can pound his fist on it, a shroud of darkness on the other side. Baekhyun considers for the first time if Kyungsoo’s visit was a trap, and if he fell right into the demon’s claws due to his own blind desire to know the truth.

 

Then, the stairs in the foyer creak with footsteps, a young man’s legs lit by the pale sunlight from the open door. Baekhyun’s stomach lurches as the rest of Kyungsoo comes into view; a thirty-year-old Kyungsoo, buzzcut shaved and tanned, his frame a lot bulkier than Baekhyun remembered—yet, he’s just as handsome, perhaps even more so, age refining his features with grace. Kyungsoo’s round eyes take in Baekhyun, a little smile curving his plush lips, the same subtle smile that used to make Baekhyun’s insides turn to lava when he was young and inexperienced.

 

“Hey, Baekhyun,” Kyungsoo says, and the gravel of his voice sears down Baekhyun’s spine. “You’ve gotten so big, I almost didn’t recognize you.”

 

Baekhyun has a brief moment to consider how he should act—he’d been angry for so long at Kyungsoo for abandoning him overnight, he wanted to be cold and proud, show Kyungsoo he hadn’t thought about him since then—but it’s so hard to keep his determination, especially with how fond Kyungsoo looks when he’s appraising him.

 

“Hyung,” Baekhyun breathes, bashful and amazed at once. “It’s been years, of course I’ve gotten taller. I’m twenty now.”

 

“Don’t say that,” Kyungsoo reprimands with a playful lilt. “It makes me feel so old.”

 

Chanyeol appears in the doorway, panting and flustered. A broad grin snaps across his face when he spots Kyungsoo, running towards him for a bone-crushing hug, much like the ones Baekhyun has become familiar with.

 

“Hyung! I’ve missed you so much!”

 

“Chanyeol,” Kyungsoo wheezes, “when will you stop growing? You make the rest of us look like midgets!”

 

“You’ve always been small, hyung!” Chanyeol exclaims, laughing breezily. Kyungsoo’s elbow moves back and forth, and Chanyeol bends with a huff.

 

“Don’t call me small,” Kyungsoo says with a smirk. “I can still throw you over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes just like I did when you were twelve.”

 

“Stop bullying the kids,” a female voice says, and Baekhyun’s pulse spikes.

 

Taeyeon appears down the hall, dressed in a light blue dress under a cream cardigan. She looks young and beautiful, the same way she’s been living in Baekhyun’s memories since the last time he saw her in high school. She’s smiling at the three of them, and Baekhyun catches the minute switch in her gaze when it meets Kyungsoo’s. He recognizes that look, because he’s seen it in Chanyeol sometimes, that look of pure, unadulterated affection.

 

“How are you still so rowdy,” Taeyeon wonders, shaking her head. Her hand looks so small on Kyungsoo’s shoulder. “You’re not kids anymore, you know... even though Baekhyunnie here looks like he hasn’t aged a day.”

 

“I could say the same thing for you, noona.” Baekhyun’s smile is cheeky and boyish, and Taeyeon reaching up to tug on his earlobe makes him feel like he’s a teenager again.

 

“I thought you had grown out of your habit of flirting with every noona you came across.”

 

Heechul’s standing behind Taeyeon, where he hadn’t been a second ago. His dark gaze is unreadable, solely focused on Baekhyun. Baekhyun has the urge to hide, to shrink into himself, because the frustration and shame Baekhyun felt during their last argument floods back into him with a fierceness. His nails dig into his palm as he looks back at Heechul with a polite smile.

 

“It’s the one habit I’ve never tried to shake off,” Baekhyun replies, and Taeyeon slaps his arm. “Especially around the pretty ones like Taeyeon-noona.”

 

“Don’t flirt with my wife, you punk.” Kyungsoo pinches his cheek, making Chanyeol and Taeyeon laugh. He must’ve sensed the tension, because his heart-shaped smile is strained. “We should discuss what’s going on. What do you say we move to the kitchen?”

 

Baekhyun sends Heechul another glance as he scurries to Chanyeol’s side. Chanyeol gives him a reassuring smile, which Baekhyun attempts to return, interlacing their fingers together before sauntering to the kitchen. Baekhyun feels infinitely better with Chanyeol beside him, despite the lingering ache of Chanyeol starting to forget pieces of their relationship.

 

The kitchen table is long and rectangular. Kyungsoo sits next to Taeyeon and Chanyeol sits next to Baekhyun across from them. Heechul sits at the head of the table, and instantly the air shifts in the room; there nothing left of the friendly and nostalgic atmosphere of their arrival, but the pending feeling of something on the horizon.

 

“I want to know about my parents,” Baekhyun says, without waiting for a cue. “And I know you know them because you’re in this picture with my mom. And here’s another one with Chanyeol’s dad.”

 

Baekhyun slams the pictures on the table. Taeyeon gasps, sliding them towards herself. There’s a look of wistfulness on her face as she inspects each picture, her hand resting on her chest.

 

“We were so young then,” she says, turning to Kyungsoo. “You were around seventeen, weren’t you? You looked like a wimp.”

 

“I was not a wimp,” Kyungsoo retorts with a scowl. “I had just finished training with…” He trails off then, eyes widening as they fall on Baekhyun across the table.

 

“Training with whom?” Baekhyun inquires. “Who is N. J. H.? The person who took the picture?”

 

“He was an… extraordinary man,” Kyungsoo says. “He taught me a lot and I was very lucky to be under his tutelage.”

 

Kyungsoo drifts into silence again. Taeyeon stares down into her lap and Heechul stares straight ahead, as if he wasn’t even present in the conversation. Frustration builds up in Baekhyun at their complicit silence, and their stubborn reluctance to give him answers despite it being the purpose of this meeting.

 

“But I want to know who he is!” Baekhyun insists, raising his voice. “Everyone keeps beating around the bush and speaking in riddles so I want straight answers! I want the truth!”

 

“Baekhyun,” Chanyeol whispers, his hand resting on Baekhyun’s thigh. “Take it easy.”

 

Baekhyun breathes in, the knot in his back loosening with the warmth of Chanyeol’s hand on his thigh.

 

“I just want to know who my parents were,” Baekhyun says in an even voice. “If the woman in the picture even is my mother… I want to know who I am. Where I come from. If anything I’ve believed about my life up to this point is actually real.”

 

Taeyeon and Kyungsoo exchange a furtive glance, then Kyungsoo looks to Heechul, who gives a subtle nod.

“Your father’s full name was Nam Joohyuk,” Kyungsoo says, and his voice sounds far, as if coming from the end of a long tunnel. “He was a necromancer.”


The room spins on its axis. Baekhyun grips the edge of the table for dear life as he tries to get oxygen back in. At first, he thinks he’s heard wrong, but Kyungsoo’s revelation bounces off the walls and he can’t find a single trace of deceit on any of the faces staring back at him.

 

Nam Joohyuk is his father? The person who opened the portal? But how? His father is supposed to be an awful man who abandoned him and his mother… The idea of his father he’d dared to construct in stolen moments feels out of place. He can’t place this mystical man he’d been learning about for the past two months within that picture.

 

A voice breaks through the daze. “Baekhyun, are you okay?”

 

Nam Joohyuk is my father. For the first time in his life, Baekhyun is at a loss for words. Nothing makes sense, but everything does at the same time. The book, the ghosts mentioning Joohyuk, the demon’s obsession to find Baekhyun. It had all been right in front of him.

 

“Baekhyun?” Kyungsoo prompts gently.

 

With unsteady hands, Baekhyun pulls out his phone and finds his gallery to show it to the rest of the table. “Is it the same person who wrote this book?”


Taeyeon draws in a sharp breath and Kyungsoo frowns. Even Heechul, who had seemed as still as a statue, leans forward to take a look at the book on Baekhyun’s phone.

 

“Where did you get this book, Baekhyun?” Heechul demands.

 

“I won’t say until you give me my answers,” Baekhyun retorts, defiant. “It’s clearly important because the demon wants it and she won’t give Jongdae back until we give it to her. But I need to know why it’s so important first.”

 

The gloomy expression Kyungsoo’s wearing is amiss with his round eyes. “It is the same person,” Kyungsoo confirms. “He was a very talented necromancer. It was a joy watching him fight any type of creature. It was like fighting was in his nature, in his blood. He knew instinctively how to win a fight without a scratch and could sense spirits from far away. It was a gift not many people had. And his compassion… it exceeded from those necromancers that only cared about sending ghosts to the other side if it gave them trouble. Very few of them actually care about the ghost themselves and the people they were before they died.”

 

“At some point, Joohyuk became fascinated with demons,” Kyungsoo goes on in a grave tone. “Nobody knows when or how it started… but one day he started getting more and more into demonology, and it bothered him how little accuracy there was in the books of our world. And so he began researching on his own, to the point of risking his life to summon demons and speak with them for information about their nature and world and simply… the way they exist. Nobody quite understood why he was so obsessed with demons, until, well, it was too late.”

 

Baekhyun is torn between wanting to keep hearing more about Nam Joohyuk—his father—and running away, shutting the door to every bit of information on him. This is not what he’d expected to hear at all and he still doesn’t know what to think of it.

 

“How did he know my father?” Chanyeol asks in a whisper. “Was he involved in his research as well?”

 

Kyungsoo shakes his head. “They were very good friends, but your father knew how dangerous Joohyuk’s obsession was. So he stayed back, but they remained friends.”

 

Chanyeol and Baekhyun trade a long look. There’s that awe and incredulity on Chanyeol’s face, which Baekhyun has seen before. It means he also can’t believe what he’s hearing. Our fathers were best friends before we were even born. Their lives were connected years and years before their first encounter. It sounds straight out of a fairytale.

 

“Dad must’ve gotten that tattoo in his memory,” Chanyeol says lowly. He’s turned back to the table so he directs this to no one in particular.

 

Baekhyun snaps back to Kyungsoo. “But what happened to…” He can’t bring himself to utter the word ‘father’. “What happened to Joohyuk exactly?”

 

“He tried to make a deal with a demon,” Kyungsoo says plaintively. “To save someone’s life. Someone he cared very deeply about, and it didn’t turn out well. It got him killed.”

 

“Was that demon… Sunmi?” The hairs on the back of Baekhyun’s neck rise. “Who was the person he was trying to save?”

 

“The demon was Sunmi,” Kyungsoo replies with a curt nod. “Joohyuk knew that Sunmi had a way to cheat people out of deals, to trap them and turn the entire situation in her favor. But he didn’t listen and blindly took the chance to summon her into our plane to seal the deal… That’s what the fear and devastation of the prospect of losing a loved one does to people.”

 

Baekhyun remembers his mother in those final years, the sadness in the lines around her eyes and mouth, the way she used to look at him with a melancholy Baekhyun was too young to understand. And how, even years after he lost her, the helplessness for not being able to save her flares within him fresh as the day of her death.

 

“Was the person he was trying to save…” Baekhyun hears himself ask, barely above a whisper. “Was that person he loved… my mother?”

 

A beat passes in silence. Baekhyun’s blood in his ears is all he can hear, his grip on the edge of the table turning his knuckles white. Suddenly, Heechul’s chair screeches against the tiles, and he leaves the table without a word. When he comes back, he has a framed picture, and he places it in front of Baekhyun on the table before returning to his seat.

 

Baekhyun’s intake of breath is loud as he grabs the framed picture. A couple stands against a garden, clad in wedding attire; a brown-haired woman in a long, lace dress, and a man in a black suit. Their beaming faces speak of pure joy and happiness, holding onto each other like two people who don’t ever want to let go. Baekhyun’s fingers trace his mother’s face, then the man’s, hungry eyes seeking the similarities: the droopy eyes, the sharp jaw, the broad shoulders, and even his posture, with his back straight and feet pointed in opposite directions. Tears well in Baekhyun’s eyes before he realizes, and one rolls down his cheek when he blinks.

 

Anger swells inside Baekhyun. “Why did you hide this from me? These are my parents… and…”

 

“Your father made me promise,” Heechul says, “that you would never know of him and what he did. I am only allowed to show you a picture.”


“Why? He’s my dad! He sacrificed his life for my mom!”

 

“Because he did an unspeakable thing in our world,” Kyungsoo answers firmly. “He gave up his life in exchange for a non-magi’s life.”

 

“My mom wasn’t a non-magi,” Baekhyun starts to argue, but stops when he sees the look on Heechul’s face. “She wasn’t! She said she had stopped doing practical magic because she didn’t like it anymore and… and…”

 

Baekhyun can’t remember a time where his mother actually performed any type of magic at all. A mild sort of panic surges within him, sweat pooling on his cupid’s bow.

 

“That’s what we told everyone,” Taeyeon says quietly. Baekhyun hasn’t torn his eyes away from Heechul’s sorrowful expression. “Because we didn’t want people to know she was a non-magi. Marriages between magi and non-magi are very unusual in our world, as you know, and she didn’t want to attract unnecessary attention. Mostly, she did it to protect you.”

 

“Why me?” Baekhyun’s voice wavers, but he doesn’t make to clear it. “Her life was in more danger than mine.”

 

“Because, when your father made a deal with the demon,” Kyungsoo says, “his part of the deal was to open a portal for her in our world.”

 

“My dad opened the portal for Sunmi? He was…” Even if his father couldn’t predict the future, he’s indirectly responsible for the horror about to unfold in Yogoe. A chill like the one sweeping the streets of Yogoe sticks to Baekhyun’s bones.

 

Nothing he’s learned feels real, as much as Baekhyun turns it over in his head. The only thing that’s real is the weight of Chanyeol’s hand on his thigh, the circles he’s smoothing out onto the fabric of his pants, anchoring him amidst the chaos.

 

“You need to understand he was desperate,” Taeyeon chimes in, like she knows what Baekhyun is thinking. “People do dangerous things when they’re desperate enough. And all he wanted was to save your mother—and you inside of her.”

 

“But it backfired on him,” Kyungsoo says, lowering his head slightly. “None of us foresaw it, that the demon wouldn’t do her part of the deal and instead get rid of him… He had talked to the demon through a session before the summoning to explain the deal and she made him do the ritual, but as soon as she appeared… She killed him.”

 

The entire room is silent as Kyungsoo closes his eyes momentarily, triggered by a terrible memory. “After Sunmi broke loose, Joohyuk ordered us to leave and protect your mother. She was pregnant with you but she insisted to be present for the ritual. We don’t know what Joohyuk did exactly, but I think he smeared his own blood on the crack so Sunmi wouldn’t escape into the human world.” Kyungsoo is transfixed on the table, gone far away in his memories. “Demons have never been known to stay true to their word. He must’ve known, or had an inkling at least, about this possible outcome, because he made sure to hide the book containing how to seal her back to the underworld and we only found it after you were born. When all of it was over.” Kyungsoo raises his eyebrows. “Or so we thought.”

 

The images of the demon torturing a man like the one in the pictures pop up in his mind. It makes him queasy. He bites down on his lip so hard it starts to sting until the images are gone.

 

Baekhyun thinks back to Seungwan reading his past by accident. It was a sacred place and the people were doing something they shouldn’t in it. Baekhyun had wrongly believed it was the future, but Seungwan’s vision was right. It was Baekhyun’s past.

 

“It’s far from over,” Baekhyun murmurs. “She’s back and she wants the book and… me.”

 

“She wants to finish what she started,” Taeyeon agrees. “She believes Nam Joohyuk’s son is her only threat, but she doesn’t know that the only way she can fully pass onto our side is by killing those who summoned her in the first place. And that’s all of you.”

 

“That’s why she hasn’t killed people yet,” Chanyeol puts in.

 

“She is going to put two and two together soon enough,” Kyungsoo says. “That’s why she wanted the book. Everything Joohyuk knew was in there.”

 

Baekhyun sits back in his chair, all the things he’s found out so far weighing on him like rocks on his shoulders. He’s so, so tired. He wants to sleep for a decade or more. To know nothing of demons and parents who made wrong choices out of love. Choices that are haunting Baekhyun in the present.

 

Every person at the table is looking at Baekhyun, anticipating a reaction, a movement—because of this, Baekhyun remains motionless. Just stares back. He has no tears to shed. He has no way to relieve the grief sitting heavy in his chest—the grief for something lost that will never return. Perhaps now that Baekhyun knows the truth, he’s finally come to terms with the deaths of their parents—he knows now that his father didn’t abandon him; he died trying to save his mother, and his mother, in the end, had only wanted the best for Baekhyun.

 

And the rage, the anger, an all-consuming fire. To destroy Sunmi with his own hands for taking the life of his parents. For causing all this misery on his life and the people of Yogoe.

 

She needs to be stopped. Baekhyun will the one to end her.

 

“So, what are we going to do?” Baekhyun stares straight into the eyes of Heechul, Kyungsoo, and Taeyeon. One by one. “How are we going to take Sunmi down?”

 

Heechul sighs, eyes closing for a second. Kyungsoo appears conflicted, when he says, “We can try to take her down by fighting, but she’s immensely strong. We could lose. The safest way would be to seal her back into her world while doing a ritual, like your father did…”

 

“But rituals need a sacrifice,” Baekhyun remarks. The table falls into silence. Chanyeol’s motions on his thigh halt completely.

 

“Yes,” Taeyeon replies quietly, giving Heechul a furtive glance. “If we’re going by what Joohyuk did the first time, then someone’s blood needs to fall on both the demon and the crack to seal them permanently.”

 

“But j-just a bit of blood will do, right?” Chanyeol stammers, and when Baekhyun turns to him, he’s pale as chalk. “Baekhyun doesn’t have to… kill anyone, right?”

 

“It is possible,” Kyungsoo says, though his voice is too measured, lacking any conviction. “We will have to try.”

 

“I’m willing to do it,” Baekhyun states, voice steady. Every head swings to him. “Anything to send her back to where she belongs.”

 

“Baekhyun,” Heechul puts in, pinning him with a stern look, but his tone is almost pleading. “Don’t do anything stupid. We will try our best to—”

 

“How do you think I feel knowing that my parents gave their lives to protect each other and to protect me?” Baekhyun holds his gaze, even when he can’t stand the defeat in Heechul’s eyes. “That the demon is running free killing more people as we’re sitting on our asses here?”

 

Baekhyun isn’t sure what he wants to do exactly, but he’s sure that he can’t stay still when the demon is out there wreaking havoc and other people will be risking their lives for him, when it’s clear what his role is in this situation. Sunmi has been on his heels for too long. It has all been leading up to this moment. Baekhyun is determined to risk his life if it means he can send the demon back to where she belongs.

 

“We will make sure to kill her,” Taeyeon says, “so you don’t have to risk your life, Baekhyunnie.”

 

“The blood sacrifice doesn’t have to be the main alternative to getting rid of Sunmi,” Heechul tells him. “It doesn’t even have to be an alternative. Your parents sacrificed too much for you to be so lenient about giving up your life like this.”

 

“Joohyuk may have made a mistake by putting his life on the line like this,” Kyungsoo says, “but you don’t have to do that, Baekhyunnie. He would have wanted you to live a good life.”

 

Without acknowledging the group, Baekhyun drags his chair back and gets to his feet. He turns to Chanyeol, who is frozen, glassy eyes staring into nothingness. Baekhyun shakes his shoulder and Chanyeol jolts out of his trance, looking up at Baekhyun with apprehension. Chanyeol look so much like a child, Baekhyun wants to gather him in his arms. But he’s struck by the reminder that he can’t no longer comfort Chanyeol, and Chanyeol can’t comfort him like they used to.

 

“Are you alright?” he whispers to Chanyeol. Chanyeol nods absently. To the rest, he adds in a louder voice, “I’ll talk to the coven so they can help us. In the meantime, we should all prepare to fight.”

 

When Baekhyun exits the room, Chanyeol follows him into the hallway. “Where are you going?” he demands. “You should stay here.”

 

“I’m coming with you whether you want to or not,” Chanyeol says, holding his gaze. “Who’s gonna drive you there anyway?”


Baekhyun presses his lips together to conceal how moved he is. Chanyeol isn’t obligated to do this for him, not like he was before when they were together. Baekhyun intended to keep his distance, but he should’ve predicted Chanyeol to be this stubborn. And his gaze is chockful of things they have yet to talk about; starting from Baekhyun’s parents and their fathers’ friendship, though Baekhyun isn’t sure this is the right time to unpack the recent discoveries. He’s still a little dazed from what he’s learned, and more than ever overcome by the pressure to finish what Nam Joohyuk, his father, started.

 

In a perfect world, he would be able to talk all this out—his doubts, his fears, the enormous weight of this responsibility—with Chanyeol. Even now, while Chanyeol waits for a response, Baekhyun is dying to be in his arms. To be comforted by him. But this world is far from perfect and it’s counting on Baekhyun to save its people.

 

Time is ticking like a bomb.

 

“Okay,” Baekhyun says. “Let’s get going.”

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

The door to the bright red house is open when Baekhyun attempts to knock. Taking a peek inside, he’s met with an empty hallway.

 

“Maybe they’re waiting for us,” Chanyeol says, next to Baekhyun. “Maybe they knew we were coming.”

 

“Come in!” Sooyoung calls from within the house.

 

Chanyeol sends Baekhyun a smug grin before entering the house, Baekhyun smiling bemusedly to himself as he follows. They walk down the hallway, following faint noises to the living room. There, Sooyoung is sitting in the armchair, wiping a haunting knife with a cloth. On the coffee table are a set of hunting knives, their shafts a beautiful emerald adorned with gems.

 

“You’re a little late,” Sooyoung says, her tone slightly accusing. “Were you with the dokkaebi?”

 

“Heechul?” Baekhyun has to tear his eyes away from the knives. “Yeah, we just left his house.”

 

“You have a message for us.” Sooyoung puts down her blade to stare at Baekhyun. “We’ve been expecting for a long time.”

 

“Uh, me or the message?” Baekhyun asks.

 

“Both.” Sooyoung smiles, a playful curl in her voice. “So, I think you could sit down and we can pretend we don’t already know what you’re going to tell us.”

 

“We?” Chanyeol wonders.

 

“She’s talking about me,” Seungwan says. Baekhyun and Chanyeol startle. She’s standing right behind them, wielding a crossbow and waving the fingers of her other hand. “Hello, my lovely necromancers! Joohyun will be with us in a minute.”

 

Baekhyun murmurs, “Alright,” while Chanyeol is rubbing his chest, like he had been on the verge of a heart attack.

 

“You should take a seat,” Sooyoung suggests, gesturing with her knife to the sofa.

 

They exchange a fearful glance before complying, sitting with their knees flushed together and mumbling a ‘thank you’. Sooyoung looks pleased as she runs her fingertip over the blade.

 

“So, this is about the demon, right?” Seungwan asks, crossing the living room to stand next to Sooyoung. “It was about time, really.”

 

“About time for what?” asks Chanyeol.

 

“You came to us for help,” Seungwan says. “If we helped you summon her, the least we can do is help you put her back where she belongs.”

 

“If you knew the demon was going to break loose,” Chanyeol says, “why didn’t you try and stop her? So we wouldn’t have to be sending her back to the underworld?”

 

“Because that’s not for us to do.” Sooyoung shrugs like she’s been asked why she prefers apples over bananas. “We’re aware of what’s going on, but we can’t interfere in the order of things. It goes against many laws, and we don’t have much time to be dwelling on that stuff.”

 

Had the witches known about Nam Joohyuk being Baekhyun’s father all along? It is possible, but Baekhyun has preferred not to dwell on that right now. His heart when he recalls Joohyuk’s sacrifice to save Baekhyun’s mother.

 

Baekhyun’s reminded of the tale of the triple Samsin, the deities who overlook the fates of each person. It would certainly explain why the witches are aware of things that have yet to happen, but then again, foreseeing the future is to a witch what predicting the weather is to a forecaster. In some ways, the trade is one and the same. And Baekhyun doesn’t consider it a wise move to call them grandmothers, lest he gets turned into a mouse for his trouble.

 

“You’re right, we don’t have much time,” Chanyeol agrees. “Sunmi will realize what she needs to do in order to pass entirely to our side and she’ll start killing people in no time.”

 

“And you want us to help you fight her,” Sooyoung says, swaying her knife with each word. “I would say no, because we’re ladies who frown upon violence, and Chopped is on tonight, but—”

 

“You helped us with Yeri,” Seungwan interjects, “and we’re eternally grateful to you for saving her from that nasty demon.”

 

Baekhyun smiles ruefully, rubbing his neck. “Uh, I still feel bad for stabbing her… but I’m glad Yeri is doing alright. You don’t have to thank us.”

 

“Yes, we do… we lost one of our own some time ago,” Sooyoung says. “We don’t want to go through that again.”

 

“How did she die?” Chanyeol asks, then looks uncertain. “I mean… if it’s okay to talk about it.”

 

Seungwan and Sooyoung share a look that Baekhyun can’t read. “She died in a car accident a couple of years ago. A drunk driver hit her during a snowstorm.”

 

The situation sounds familiar to Baekhyun, but it’s a common occurrence, he doesn’t think much of it.

 

“Joohyun will come down in thirty seconds,” Seungwan says, eyes skyward. “She’ll tell you she’s with you and then she’ll pick up her gun with silver bullets.”

 

“That’s awfully specific,” Chanyeol murmurs, and Baekhyun snorts. “But I gotta admit seeing you with your weapons, I’m both terrified and charmed at the same time.”

 

“I told you not to flirt with them, even less now when they have weapons.” Baekhyun nudges his elbow into Chanyeol’s side. Chanyeol huffs and returns Baekhyun’s jab with a confused stare.

 

“You did?” Chanyeol blinks a dozen times. “I-I can’t remember…”

 

Baekhyun flinches at Chanyeol’s stupefied gaze. It’s easy to forget that with every second that passes, another piece of Baekhyun is erased from Chanyeol’s memories.

 

When Baekhyun returns to the witches, Sooyoung is studying them with concern. She doesn’t have the chance to question, because Joohyun can be heard coming down the stairs, and a moment later, the witch appears at the entrance to the living room.

 

“Hello,” Joohyun greets Baekhyun and Chanyeol. She doesn’t seem surprised by their visit. “You’re here to ask us for something.”

 

It lacks the inflection of a proper question. Baekhyun wonders if it’s actually necessary to voice out what he came to say. He does so anyway, with a sigh, since every pair of eyes is trained on him.

 

“Would you help us fight the demon?” Baekhyun opens his hands without enthusiasm. “We appreciate all the help we can get.”

 

“Of course we’ll fight with you,” Joohyun says. “I’ll look for my gun. It uses silver bullets, especially effective against demons.”

 

“Thank you,” Baekhyun says, and it feels like one weight has been lifted off his shoulders. “You should come with us to Heechul’s house so you can plan properly with us.”

 

“A plan isn’t the smartest idea,” Seungwan warns. “Demons can usually sniff traps from miles away. We should attack her head on. She will do the same with us if we don’t hurry.”

 

Baekhyun fiddles with the strings of his hoodie. “Have you ever done a sacrifice to seal a portal?”

 

“Baekhyun.”

 

Chanyeol sounds admonishing yet frightened. Baekhyun doesn’t dare to check if those emotions are mirrored on his face.

 

The witches trade looks, the meaning of which Baekhyun can’t decipher. “No,” Joohyun replies, “but we will try. We have the materials for a ritual of this kind.”

 

“Good,” Baekhyun says, nodding once again. “Can you take these materials with you tonight? I know it’s asking too much, but I believe this is the best chance we have to get rid of Sunmi.”

 

Sooyoung smiles entreatingly. “Of course. We said we would help you.”

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Joohyun drives the group to Heechul’s house in a Range Rover. It was a gift from a male client, Seungwan informs them with a cheeky grin.

 

Chanyeol and Baekhyun are shoved in the back with Seungwan, who is humming a gleeful tune with her crossbow on her lap. Chanyeol has been quiet since their talk with the witches, and they haven’t discussed the ritual in private since it was brought up in the first place. It’s like a presence sitting in the space between their bodies, giving them barely enough room to breathe.

 

The Range Rover pulls over outside Heechul’s house, where Kyungsoo is sitting on the doorstep. Baekhyun feels like a child coming home from an awkward field trip when he gets out after Chanyeol without either of them saying a word to each other.

 

The witches march up to Kyungsoo, carrying their weapons with smiles ready for war. Kyungsoo doesn’t look discomfited in the slightest. He smiles, sunny and welcoming, unlike the fog that has risen in town in the past hours.

 

“Hello, necromancer,” Joohyun says. “Baekhyun asked us for help so we’ve brought our weapons.”

 

“I see that,” Kyungsoo says. “Well, the more the merrier as they say. I take it Baekhyunnie told you about our plan?”

 

“We aren’t used to following strategies since we don’t work with other magi,” Joohyun says. “But I’ll be glad to hear your suggestions.”

 

Kyungsoo gestures for the witches to step into the house while Baekhyun and Chanyeol stay behind. Chanyeol is tugging at his lower lip, a sign of his nervous state, and Baekhyun wants to yank him closer and kiss him, but he worries about Chanyeol’s reaction.

 

“So,” Chanyeol starts, rocking on his heels, “our fathers were best friends, huh.”

 

“Yup.” Baekhyun smiles with incredulity, which is reflected on Chanyeol’s grin. “This is all so crazy, Chanyeol. I still can’t wrap my head around Joohyuk being my—my dad.”

 

The hours haven’t eased the revelation to sink in yet. Baekhyun can’t separate the Nam Joohyuk he’s met recently—the powerful, deranged necromancer who dared to do what no one else did, not out of greed like Baekhyun had assumed for so long, but out of love. A sacrifice for love. To save Baekhyun’s mother.

It certainly isn’t the best time to be ruminating on deadbeat fathers who turned out to be noble.

 

“It is really crazy,” Chanyeol chuckles, humorless. “And this is going to sound crazy, too but—let me say it, okay? If I ask you not to risk your life tonight,” Chanyeol rushes out, determined, before Baekhyun can interrupt, “would you promise me that you’ll be careful?”

 

Chanyeol looks both resigned and the tiniest bit hopeful that Baekhyun will say ‘yes’. It wrenches Baekhyun’s soul. “I can’t promise you that,” Baekhyun replies in a quiet voice.

 

Chanyeol winces. A confirmation of a suspicion he did not wish to hear. Baekhyun wants to explain everything to him, that this is what he’s supposed to do, that his father died in order to protect his mother, and Baekhyun must finish what he started and protect the town and the rest of the world. That if death has put a mark on his life, then it will be up to Baekhyun to decide how it ends.

 

But when Chanyeol takes his hand in his, with the utmost care, Baekhyun senses that Chanyeol’s already aware all of this. With that same conviction, Baekhyun senses again that he and Chanyeol, and all of this, was meant to happen. There isn’t any other explanation as to why their lives have been entwined since before birth.

 

“I can’t change your mind.” Chanyeol’s smile is soft and rueful. “Not with that stubborn ass of yours. But I’ll promise I’ll do my best to protect you.”

 

Baekhyun is dying to ask, how much of me do you remember? but he bites his tongue. It’s impossible to measure how much Chanyeol has forgotten so far. Perhaps that was the demon’s intention; for Baekhyun to drive himself mad as he tried to figure out which memories Chanyeol has lost.

 

“I’ll do my best too,” is Baekhyun’s unsteady response. If yesterday had been their goodbye, there is no reason to extend the inevitable any longer. It hurts too much. And by the look on Chanyeol’s face, he also understands this. “Just don’t get killed, you big dork.”

 

The fear within Chanyeol is evident, painstakingly so. It loosens the fear Baekhyun had so fiercely pushed back even when he talked about his own death. Before, even after drawing the card, his death had felt unreal, possible yet distant, like rainfall during summer. Now it seems so close and immediate, breathing down his neck like a specter.

 

Chanyeol looks like he wants to say more, so Baekhyun waits. “You know, there’s a thing in Celtic spirituality called ‘thin places’,” Chanyeol says, soft-spoken and earnest. “A saying goes something like, ‘heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.’ It means that you can feel God closer in these places, but also other spiritual things, like love, enlightenment, and such. It’s where you can feel the presence of dead people stronger.”

 

“That’s nice.” Baekhyun’s smiling at the tenderness in Chanyeol’s own smile. It’s the kind of sight he wants to burn into his memory. “A place where you can be with people who are no longer in your life.”

 

“Exactly.” Chanyeol’s gaze is overflowing with fondness, tears threatening to spill over his bunched cheeks. “See, that’s one of the reasons I like you so much. I never have to speak too much because you already know what I’m thinking. Even when we hated each other’s guts, we still understood each other. It’s never been like that with other people.”

 

“Shut the fuck up, Chanyeol.” Baekhyun slugs Chanyeol weakly, his chuckle a wet, garbled sound. “You’re so cheesy.”

 

Baekhyun recalls that night in the ice cream shop, when Chanyeol, grave and resolute, was in a mission to confess to Baekhyun, and the bliss that came when he pressed Baekhyun against a table and kissed him. It feels like a faded scene from a movie he watched forever ago.

 

Does Chanyeol remember their first kiss? Or that night in Jongdae’s bed, when they were teetering over the edge of their mutual attraction? That night they shared a bed in Seoul? The first time he gave Baekhyun a ride in his scooter?

 

Baekhyun is aching to find out, but he does not dare to ask. It seems inconsequential in the big scheme of things, especially with the apocalypse unravelling in Yogoe, but Baekhyun has never been in love before. It feels like the biggest thing on the planet. And of all the things he’s lost in life, he’d have wanted to keep this one. Just this one slice of happiness. It’s tearing his heart into a thousand pieces having to let Chanyeol go, but Baekhyun, more than anyone, knows that life isn’t fair.

 

For some reason, Baekhyun thinks of his father’s sacrifice. Had Joohyuk felt this powerless when he discovered Baekhyun’s mother would die soon? That she wouldn’t live to see Baekhyun become an adult? Baekhyun understands now what could drive someone to throw away everything to keep the person he loves in his life.

 

Chanyeol takes a step forward, and Baekhyun doesn’t move. “You know why a rich guy moves to a town in the summer?” Chanyeol’s gaze is steady, enrapturing. “I’ve never told you why.”

 

Baekhyun frowns. “You said it was because a seer told you to come.”

 

“The guy has dreams about a boy he doesn’t know,” Chanyeol reveals. Baekhyun’s heartbeat rockets. “The dreams are so real and consistent, the guy visits a seer about it. The seer tells him his fate awaits in this little town, so he packs his bags and leaves the big city.” Chanyeol smiles wider. “You’re gonna tell me I’m being cheesy again.”

 

Adoration blossoms in Baekhyun’s chest like spring flowers and a lump has lodged in his throat. Baekhyun’s both embarrassed and exasperated at being so easily charmed.  “You said it yourself,” he retorts quietly, followed by a frayed chuckle. Chanyeol is closer now, Baekhyun can hear his breathing. He doesn’t have it in him to step back, put some distance between them. Not even when Chanyeol breaches their minimal space to place a tentative hand on Baekhyun’s hip, and Baekhyun, longing, aching, scared, rest his palm against Chanyeol’s chest where his heart thuds steadily.

 

Last night may have been their goodbye, but Baekhyun’s caving more with each second that ticks by. But tonight, they’re going to send back a demon to the underworld in a fairly disadvantageous fight—who knows if they’ll make it alive. This moment is all they’ll have to treasure before they must risk their lives.

 

In the next breath, Baekhyun tips his head up and brings Chanyeol down by the neck of his hoodie. Chanyeol muffles a quiet sound of surprise against Baekhyun’s mouth. Quickly, Chanyeol winds his arms around Baekhyun, nearly lifting him off the ground with the force of his embrace. Baekhyun throws his arms over Chanyeol’s shoulders, molding his body onto Chanyeol’s until their chests are flushed together. Baekhyun parts his mouth, and Chanyeol does the same, in order to taste their mutual longing and all the unspoken words. This kiss is salve to a wound, a little desperate but unbearably tender, Baekhyun wishes it would last forever—and he works to prolong it as much as he can until they must separate to catch their breath.

 

“I’m gonna miss kissing you.”

 

Baekhyun can feel rather than see the smug curve of Chanyeol’s mouth. “I’m a pretty good kisser, if I say so myself.”

 

Chanyeol’s cheeky response tears a chuckle out of him. He’s going to miss their banter as much as the kisses. He’s going to miss everything about Chanyeol, but he can’t form this onto words. He can’t push out what he’s wanted to say for a while, the three words that would accurately describe his feelings for Chanyeol. But Baekhyun is a coward, and he fears that saying it aloud would render him uncapable of letting Chanyeol go. And neither he or Chanyeol were ever the type to act like ordinary people, so obviously confessing their feelings wouldn’t be the exception.

 

So, he goes for the best option. Something close to their hearts.

 

In a soft, charged whisper, Baekhyun confesses, “I hate you.”

 

A light flickers in Chanyeol as he catches on the meaning and Baekhyun holds his breath. Then, Chanyeol smiles, slow and golden and beautiful, like a sunset. Baekhyun wishes he could save this moment like a picture in a locket.

 

“I hate you, too.”

 

Despite all the despair, happiness at Chanyeol’s response bursts into his chest with the force of a dam breaking. Baekhyun doesn’t trust words right now, so he garners Chanyeol’s mouth, and they lock lips again and again in a sweet, wanton dance that they both fight to prolong, aware of the countdown ticking over their heads.

 

They’re nearing towards an ending no one can escape. Baekhyun wishes he could encapsulate this kiss, Chanyeol’s rough lips moving over his own, while Chanyeol still remembers how he can make Baekhyun melt, how he can pluck the sweetest sighs out of him. While Chanyeol still remembers Baekhyun.

 

Chanyeol pulls back slightly, breathing hard over Baekhyun’s slick mouth. By the hollow at the base of his throat, Chanyeol is about to say something, perhaps add to their confession, but he stops, releases his sucked-in breath.

 

It’s a wake-up call for Baekhyun. They’re supposed to be done, not making out in Heechul’s driveway.

 

The heartbreak comes back with a vengeance.

 

Gently, Baekhyun places one last kiss on Chanyeol before he slips out of his embrace. Chanyeol stretches out his arms to bring him close again, but Baekhyun takes a step back and away.

 

Chanyeol’s gaze is beseeching, so Baekhyun focuses on his sneakers. “Baekhyun...”

 

“Sorry to interrupt,” a woman’s voice says. Chanyeol freezes. “But we wanted to know where the party was.”

 

Slowly, Chanyeol turns to the source of the voice. Baekhyun’s peering at Chanyeol, who has gone stiff and pale, like he’s stared straight at a basilisk’s eyes, before he’s looking to the side. Sehun and a tall girl stand in the driveway, the girl’s confident smile a contrast to Sehun’s sympathetic grimace, like he’d been dragged there against his will. She’s wearing a simple white blouse with black shorts and combat boots, despite the chill, her long, platinum blonde hair drifting in the breeze. When her attention falls on Baekhyun, she inspects him from head to toe, a little derisively, but she offers him a little twitch of a smile nonetheless.

 

“Soojung, what are you doing here?” Chanyeol asks, and Baekhyun’s stomach drops. Is that Chanyeol’s ex-girlfriend?

 

“We wanted to come and help you,” Soojung replies with a shrug. “We didn’t wanna leave a friend alone in a situation like this.”

 

Sehun’s eyebrows are slanted, his mouth breaking to an apologetic smile. “I tried to convince her to stay in Seoul, but your mom got in contact with us and she told us what’s going on.”

 

The rustling of trees along the street breaks the uncomfortable silence. It might as well have been only Chanyeol and Soojung in that driveway by the way everyone is holding their breath.

 

At last, Chanyeol smiles. It’s his trademark one, easy and friendly, and the tension bleeds out into the air. “So, you’re playing chaperone again?”

 

“I don’t need a chaperone,” Soojung protests, her pretty mouth pursed in a scowl. It appears to be an inside joke, because Sehun and Chanyeol burst into laughter.

 

“Alright,” Chanyeol says, stepping away from Baekhyun and up to his friends. His arms are spread, encompassing both easily. “I’m so happy to see you here.”

 

Baekhyun is unsure of what to make of Soojung. She’s lovely and beautiful and self-assured. Her almond eyes are arresting, and for the brief moment they latch onto Baekhyun, the mirth is quickly replaced with poisonous disdain. Baekhyun hadn’t expected much else. He stole her boyfriend. And despite breaking up, they’d been kissing seconds before.

 

Baekhyun’s nearly a head taller than her, but he feels smaller, like a mouse caught under the paws of a lioness.

 

“We already told you,” Sehun says, hooking an arm around Chanyeol. “We wouldn’t leave you stranded in a shirtstorm like this one.”

 

“And you don’t get to have all the fun,” Soojung says, and Chanyeol laughs, ruffling her hair. Childishly, she huffs, batting his hand away. A boyfriend-girlfriend kind of teasing. Baekhyun’s stomach churns like he’s drank a gallon of expired milk.

 

A sensation of being amiss invades Baekhyun, like he isn’t allowed a seat in this reunion. So, with a wave at Sehun, and a nod to Soojung, for which he earns a cold look in return, he steps inside the house.

 

Jealousy peeks its little green head in the safety of the house, but before the ugly emotion can gain traction, Baekhyun reminds himself there are far greater things to care about right now. He gets another strong reminder when he walks down the hallway to the living room, listening to a myriad of voices talking. Heechul’s living room has never housed a crowd of this size or color.

 

Joohyun, Heechul, and Kyungsoo are poring over a map of the area around the old church, while Sooyoung and Seungwan are engaged in animated conversation with Taeyeon about their preferred weapons. It looks like a tea party for a short while, until Baekhyun remembers the reason why everyone is gathered in the room. His stomach churn with the possibility of not hearing one of those voices again after tonight.

 

Baekhyun leaves the group discussing on the first floor to sneak upstairs to his old room. The Naruto and Captain America posters are still up, random pictures and cutouts decorating the walls. The mess on the desk is like Baekhyun had left it, the bed like Baekhyun had only slept on it last night. At the same time, he has a strange feeling, like he doesn’t belong in this innocence, like he doesn’t know the boy who used to live and sleep in this same room ages ago.

 

Despite his earlier bravery, Baekhyun doesn’t want to die. He wants to live, laugh with Jongdae at the ice cream shop, tease Jongin and Nayeon, and annoy Minseok to no end. He wants to meet up with Heechul and be treated like a kid. He wants to kiss Chanyeol, go to sleep with him every night, and wake up to his face in the morning.

 

But those are things that normal people are meant to have. Not Baekhyun. A normal life, with normal grievances, was never meant to be the path he walked. He can’t help the anger that rushes through him because he’d been put in this position through his father, although he was trying to save his mother, and in the end, got Baekhyun to finish the deal he had started… By trying to save his loved ones, Nam Joohyuk had only sentenced those he loved to death. An irony of fate.

 

His heart pumps with vigor, as if it knows its beats are counted. He looks at his hands, their lean, delicate structure. Baekhyun hadn’t liked his hands as a kid, because they looked like a woman’s, but he had never considered they must’ve come from his mother. In what might be his last hours, every part of his body feels important, every limb, every organ, every hair on his head. It’s sad how he’s never realized what a miracle of moving parts he is, a wonder of muscles and nerves. And it could all be gone tonight.

 

Tonight his fate, whatever it is, will serve its purpose. Everyone’s fates will be determined.

 

Baekhyun will make sure to tie all the loose ends and complete his father’s unfinished business.

 

 Tonight everything ends.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

The fog enveloping the town has become so dense, Baekhyun finds it hard to see past his nose. His face is half hidden by a black handkerchief, head covered by his hoodie, and his hands clad in fingerless gloves. And yet the cold seeps into his bones all the same. Chanyeol, Soojung, and Sehun, dressed in similar clothing, are speaking next to him in hushed voices, looking around with watchful eyes.

 

Occasionally, Chanyeol would cast a careful glance at Baekhyun, which Baekhyun pretends not to notice. Since his friends’ arrival, they haven’t spoken or had a moment to themselves. Baekhyun attempts to convince himself that it’s for the best because soon Chanyeol won’t know him anymore, but he can’t escape the longing that floods him every time he so much as looks at Chanyeol.

 

The streets are deserted and the air is charged with the energy of the dead. They are gathered on the road outside the old church, where they assumed Sunmi was residing, but she’s nowhere to be seen. Baekhyun grips the base of his blade, fingers shifting on the leather-bound shaft.

 

“Where is she?”

 

“The hell do I know,” Kyungsoo says, shrugging. He looks small wrapped up in a hoodie. “She’s probably terrorizing someplace else in town.”

 

“Or she’s in the underworld,” Taeyeon pipes in, “collecting spirits for her army.”

 

“Either way, we should split up like we planned,” Heechul says. “Let’s stick to the plan, okay?”

 

Baekhyun rolls his eyes and hears a sigh from Joohyun beside him.

 

“Men and their plans,” Joohyun mutters, swinging her hair over her shoulder. “Can’t think with their heads so they gotta follow instructions like dogs.”

 

Chanyeol and Sehun try and fail to suppress a giggle. Sooyoung and Seungwan snicker while Taeyeon and Kyungsoo direct taunting grins at Heechul. And the tropical dress shirt Heechul’s wearing doesn’t discount the smoldering gaze he throws at Joohyun while the group coughs out a laugh.

 

“Anyways, we should summon the demon,” Kyungsoo suggests, a chuckle threading through his voice. “Isn’t that what we came here to do?”

 

“No need to summon anyone, little humans.”

 

The voice, deeper than Sunmi’s, has the similar whistling timbre of a dozen entwined voices. A lithe man stands in the road, clad in black leather pants and vest. He’s not taller than Baekhyun, but he looks menacing, watching them under the frame of his black hair.

 

“Who are you?” Kyungsoo asks.

 

“Taemin,” the demon replies. He bares his fangs in a wicked grin that chills Baekhyun. “A friend of Sunmi’s. If you have any messages for her, you could give them to me until she returns.”

 

“Our message is kinda long,” Baekhyun says. “We would like to tell her in person, if that’s possible.”

 

“She’s unavailable right now,” Taemin says, “but I’m here. Maybe we can have some fun.”

 

Taemin swings his neck, his bones cracking with an unpleasant sound. Without warning, he lurches at Kyungsoo, baring claws and fangs, but Kyungsoo intercepts his attack by slashing his right arm. Blood spurts from the gash running from his upper arm to his forearm, but Taemin doesn’t stop to check the wound; he seems unfazed as he lashes at Kyungsoo again and again. The necromancer dodges his attacks each time, then crouches and manages to cut along his abdomen while Taemin goes for his head.

 

Taeyeon throws a knife that lands bullseye between Taemin’s shoulder blades. The demon bares his fangs at her over his shoulder, and Joohyun takes advantage of that moment of distraction to shoot a silver bullet right in the center of his chest. The demon shrieks, eyeing the smoke emanating from the hole in his clothes, where blood has started to spill, black as tar. The demon snarls, reaches out to grip Taeyeon’s neck, but another bullet pierces him through the left breast.

 

“We got him!” Chanyeol shouts, victorious.

 

“Not so fast, necromancer,” a new voice says.

 

Taemin is standing right behind them, and where the other Taemin had been is a new creature, its features deforming and its skin melting, his mouth elongating and its eyes sinking until they’re dark sockets over a bare skull. Baekhyun’s pulse speeds up, his nerves going haywire. It was a ploy. They were tricked.

 

The demon grabs Sooyoung and flings her across the street to the nearest building. Then he makes a grab for Seungwan, but she’s quicker, setting her crossbow to shoot an arrow at his sternum. Taemin merely jolts back, glancing at the arrow like it belongs there.

 

“Come out now!” hollers Taemin. “It’s showtime!”

 

Baekhyun looks around, waiting for more demons, but instead ghosts emerge in hordes, sliding from within buildings, rising from the ground or appearing out of thin air. These are not the type of ghosts Baekhyun’s familiar with; some of them are pale and barely corporeal, like an image stuck between channels. Others are a ghastly gray, eyes black and mouths gaping, much like the possessed spirits Baekhyun had encountered when it all began.

 

“This brings back some memories!” Chanyeol shouts over the mayhem. Baekhyun cracks a grin similar to the one Chanyeol’s wearing. Thrill and relief and fondness course through him, because Chanyeol remembers, remembers a scene from where their lives were entwined. And adding the adrenaline flaring in his veins, it’s a jägerbomb of emotions. The ecstasy of a miracle.

 

“Are you still better than me, Nick Wilde?” Baekhyun gives a poor rendition of Chanyeol’s arrogant voice, which makes Chanyeol laugh, clear and rambunctious over the sounds of fighting. Baekhyun has never felt so alive among the dead.

 

“Look out!”

It was Sehun who shouted. Baekhyun turns to him instinctively, and out of the corner of his eye, he spots the gleam of sharp claws, coming right at him. It happens too fast for Baekhyun’s brain to process; first, there is the dread of imminent danger, and then, there is nothing.

 

When he dares to open his eyes, Chanyeol is standing in front of him, his sword held inches away from the imputed neck of a demon. A head rolls near Baekhyun’s feet—whose it belongs, Baekhyun doesn’t know. The demon’s yellow eyes are fixed on a faraway point, permanently washed by the sudden strike of a realization.

 

“Are you okay?” Chanyeol asks, breathless. Baekhyun only has the willpower to nod, his entire body seized by tremors.

 

“Don’t get distracted right now!” Soojung yells. She’s alternating her telekinetic skills to twist and bend the ghosts’ bodies into painful contortions and making them combust where they stand. “We should focus on the fight!”

 

A roar from a large puma rumbles over the chaos, plunging into a group of ghosts creeping towards Chanyeol and Baekhyun. “Get ‘em, Sehunnie!” Chanyeol hollers. Next, he picks up Baekhyun’s blade from the ground; he hadn’t noticed he dropped it. “Be careful.”

 

“Guys, this is not the time to flirt!” Kyungsoo cuts ghost after ghost. Beside him, Taeyeon slashes creatures with knives on each hand, her chest heaving. It looks like Sunmi has gathered all the souls from the underworld to join her army because the creatures attack relentlessly, more sprouting after another was killed in an infinite loop.

 

“Shit!” Seungwan curses. “You should go right now!” she tells Baekhyun. “Get in the church and prepare the ritual! We’ll follow you after we’re done here!”

 

Heechul beheads a ghost with his sword as if it was made of paper. Baekhyun fights his way out, slashing and piercing through them, the ambers of the fallen ghosts lighting up the dense mist. Chanyeol watches his back, grunting as he takes down a couple of ghosts, and Baekhyun worries that he won’t be able to protect him too if Chanyeol stays out here.

 

Joohyun shoots a ghost in the face, then dashes to Baekhyun and Chanyeol, forcing Baekhyun in the direction of the church. “We need to go now!”

 

“Go!” Heechul shouts. “I’ll watch your back!”

 

“Oh no, you’re not going anywhere.”

 

A female demon lurches at Heechul, and Joohyun barely stops it with a bullet that pierces her left shoulder. Smoke comes out of the gash, and the demon shrieks with terror as the rest of her arm disintegrates to ashes. Heechul uses this opportunity to usher Baekhyun, Chanyeol, and Joohyun through the church’s gates, stopping to kill a ghost that had followed them. They push open the doors to the church, the heavy wooden doors creaking in the otherwise silent building. Moonlight sneaks through the collapsed roof, pooling on the dirty stone below where there had been pews once upon a time.

 

“Go ahead to set up the ritual,” Heechul orders them. “I’ll stay here to watch the doors.”

 

“But—”

 

“Baekhyun, go now,” Heechul orders, not unkindly. “I’ll see you later.”

 

He says it with emphasis, and Baekhyun stands there a storm raging inside him. He wants to tell Heechul how sorry he is, wants to ask if they’re okay, but the way Heechul is looking back at him, like he knows why Baekhyun is stalling, gives him some reassurance.

 

“Heechul, I—”

 

The doors burst open, and claws close around Heechul’s neck. It all happens in slow motion in Baekhyun’s head, the way the claws press onto Heechul, the terrible sound of his bones being crushed. Heechul’s face is frozen in pain, his eyes bulging with horror, and Baekhyun can’t stop staring. In the next second, the demon flings Heechul’s listless body against the stone wall like he weighs nothing, and he lands in a heap on the dirty floor.

 

Fright seizes Baekhyun with the strength of a fist, rooting him to his spot. There are screams and cries around him, muffled by the blood rushing through his ears, his pounding heart reverberating throughout his body. Heechul lies still in the corner, his face curtained by his black hair, and Baekhyun wants to go to him, wants to move his hair from his face so he can smile at Baekhyun, laugh with him, because everything was a joke—it had to be a joke, because Heechul can’t be dead.

 

“Baekhyun, we have to go!”

 

Chanyeol is yanking at him, urging him to move, but Baekhyun can’t go with him. Not when Heechul is lying there on the cold floor, not when he needs Baekhyun. But it’s been an eternity— or mere seconds? —and he hasn’t moved at all.

 

Something in Baekhyun collapses then, the agony eating him away escaping in a heaving sob. Baekhyun makes to go to Heechul, to aid him, because he needs Baekhyun, but strong hands are pulling him back, restraining him, then steering him in another direction. Baekhyun fights to break free, and he realizes only when his throat begins to hurt that he’d been screaming. Screaming for Heechul, screaming at the ones keeping him away from him, screaming at the demon, who is lurching towards them.

 

Baekhyun makes to cut her head off with his blade, cut her into pieces, because of what’s she’s done. Rage and hatred close around his throat like a noose, choking him. He needs to kill her with his own hands. He has to, for what she did to Heechul.

 

Before Baekhyun can reach her, a bullet hits the demon on the forehead. Bullseye. Smoke and blood spill from the hole, and the demon falls to her knees, then topples over herself on the floor. Joohyun steps to the demon and shoots her point-black in the head.

 

“Just to make sure,” she says. She pockets the gun in the holster by her hip and turns to Baekhyun. Her expression melts with pity in an instant. “Baekhyun…”

 

“I wanted to kill her,” Baekhyun snarls, shoving her. “Why couldn’t you let me do that?!”

 

“She was going to kill you!”

 

“I don’t care!” Baekhyun yells. “I wanted her to kill me! She killed Heechul!” At saying this, Baekhyun’s chest caves in, tears spilling from his eyes unbidden. “She killed Heechul… He… He is…”

 

“Baekhyun,” Chanyeol murmurs. Carefully, he wraps his arms around Baekhyun’s shoulders and draws him into an embrace. Baekhyun wants to resist, wants to pull free, but he doesn’t, too tired to keep fighting. An inscrutable pain floods every inch of him, corroding his organs like acid. Baekhyun gives in to it, lets it take charge. He’s too tired to keep fighting.

 

Baekhyun fists Chanyeol’s hoodie, his entire body racked by sobs. Chanyeol holds him close, stroking his hair with the tenderness of a mother comforting her child.

 

“It’s okay,” Chanyeol whispers. “It’s going to be okay.”

 

Baekhyun shakes his head. No, it’s not, he wants to say, but he can’t find his voice. How can anything be okay when Heechul is dead? How can the world go on when Heechul is no longer in it? There’s a gaping hole in the center of his chest where his heart had been, where Heechul had been nested once. Baekhyun has a certainty, as stark as daylight, that the hole would remain in there for the rest of his life, as if his organs had rearranged themselves around the insurmountable sadness of his loss.

 

Banging can be heard in the distance, so Joohyun taps her foot against the floor. “We need to hurry,” she says in an urgent whisper. “More people will perish if we don’t do this right now.”

 

Baekhyun swallows around the lump in his throat. Joohyun is right. He needs to do this. This is why he came here in the first place. All the fighting had led to this. This is why Heechul died to protect him.

 

“I’ll help you set up the pentagram,” Baekhyun says, voice scratchy. Chanyeol is peering at him with concern, the corners of his mouth tugged downwards. Baekhyun touches his face gently. “I’m fine. Don’t worry.”

 

“I’m so, so sorry, Baekhyun,” Chanyeol mutters, eyes sparkling with tears. “You were so close… I can’t imagine how you must be feeling.”

 

The unfamiliarity in Chanyeol’s tone takes him off guard. Suddenly, Baekhyun recalls the deal Chanyeol had made with the demon and his heart falls at Chanyeol’s worry. How much of Baekhyun does he remember at this point? Does he need to know? Baekhyun is so hollow, from grief and loss and exhaustion. A strong need to burrow deeper into Chanyeol’s warmth, his comfort, makes him hesitate, but he reminds himself Chanyeol doesn’t belong to him anymore. Chanyeol’s heart has been stripped off the love Baekhyun had imprinted there. Pain hits him in waves, a mounting tide of sorrow and grief.

 

“I said I’m fine, Chanyeol,” Baekhyun says. He goes for emphasis, but it comes out unsteady. “Let’s help Joohyun set this thing up.”

 

Chanyeol nods, thoughtful, and Baekhyun wipes his face with his sleeve. No time for more heartache. They’ve already said their goodbyes.

 

Slinging off his backpack, Chanyeol pulls out two ceramic bowls which he passes to Joohyun. Next, he pulls out two candles, one white and one black, which he passes to Baekhyun. Joohyun places the bowls on opposite points, then takes a chalk stick from her pocket and hunkers down to draw a large circle on the floor, connecting the bowls and candles Baekhyun has placed parallelly. Joohyun pulls more candles out of her own bag and places them on the floor, lighting them all at once with a snap of her fingers.

 

The doors burst open with the force of a hurricane. Sunmi saunters in, baring her fangs, but stops in her tracks when she spots the demon’s corpse on the aisle. She falters, looking like she wants to scoop the demon in her arms, but she doesn’t. Instead, she fixes a glower at the three of them, fury burning in her yellow eyes.

 

Anger and adrenaline course through Baekhyun’s veins. This is it. This is what he’s been waiting for. He’s going to face Sunmi and take her down with his own weapon. Fuck the plan and the entire world. He wants to do this himself.

 

“What are you playing at, you little parasites?” Sunmi drawls. “Didn’t you learn anything from your friend over there?”

 

“We’re going to take you down,” Baekhyun snarls.

 

Sunmi leers. It’s an ugly grimace but she still looks deadly gorgeous. “Oh, are you?”

 

Sunmi jerks forward as an arrow pierces through her head, the pointy end peeking out of her forehead. Her expression is of mild surprise, when her eyes drift upwards to the arrow, like a fly has just landed on her.

 

Seungwan is sprinting to the altar, followed by Sooyoung, who has an obvious limp and dried blood spattered around her nose. She flings a knife at Sunmi, and by the way Sunmi jolts forward again, Baekhyun figures it must’ve sheathed itself in her spine.

 

“Is everyone okay?” Seungwan asks. Spotting Baekhyun, she balks. “I saw…”

 

“We’re all fine,” Joohyun puts in firmly. “Now, get this ritual started while I take care of Sunmi.”

 

Sunmi pulls the arrow out of her by the tip without so much as a flinch and tosses it aside. She smirks at the group, the sharpness of her fangs glinting in the glow of the candles. “The whole gang's here,” she drawls. “Good, I’ll be able to kill you all more easily if you’re in one place. I’ll take care of the others outside later.”

 

“You won’t be getting rid of anyone,” Baekhyun grunts, brandishing his sword. But before he can make another move, Chanyeol pushes him aside, stepping in front of him. “What are you doing?”

 

“I’ll take care of her,” Chanyeol says. “You go and start the ritual with Joohyun.”

 

“No, I’ll fight her with you!”

 

“Baekhyun, don’t be stubborn now!” Chanyeol snaps, and Baekhyun shuts up instantly. “Other people need you!”

 

“Other people need you too!” Baekhyun retorts. “I-I need—” Baekhyun can’t finish the sentence as he stares back at Chanyeol. This isn’t the Chanyeol he loves. This is the Chanyeol from the beginning, the one who hadn’t yet fallen in love with Baekhyun. He sees it now, as Chanyeol is trying to make sense of what Baekhyun has said, or hadn’t said, and Baekhyun’s chest constricts at the puzzled look on his face.

 

But he stands his ground. It doesn’t matter if this Chanyeol doesn’t know Baekhyun the way the old Chanyeol had gotten to know him, every inch of him, with secrets shared in the dark and under sheets. He’s still a version of the Chanyeol Baekhyun loves. Even if his memories are gone, he had loved Baekhyun back once.

 

And Baekhyun’s done losing people he loves.

 

“I’m going to fight too,” Baekhyun says. “And you can’t fucking stop me.”

 

He doesn’t wait to hear Chanyeol’s reply. He leaps towards Sunmi, wielding his blade over his head and bringing it down over Sunmi’s. Sunmi predicts his attack, moving backwards so Baekhyun slashes the air instead. In a split second, too fast for the human eye to catch, she moves forward, attempting to claw Baekhyun’s face, but Baekhyun dodges her arm by crouching down, then slides his right leg under Sunmi so she stumbles forward. It was an attack Chanyeol had taught him, and sure enough, Chanyeol impales his sword on her back.

 

Sunmi makes a sound between a moan and a gasp, her face struck by shock as she hangs a foot above the floor with her arms spread to break her fall. She remains suspended there while Chanyeol grunts with the effort to hold her up by the shaft of his sword. It would be so easy, to kill her this way by Baekhyun’s blade. Just cut off her head...

 

“We need to kill her now!” Chanyeol hollers. “Get Joohyun’s bullets!”

 

Infernal yellowed-eyes slide to Baekhyun, like she read what he had been thinking by his slight hesitation. Baekhyun is sure she’s going to attack him, but instead, she stretches her arm to Chanyeol. Clutching his head, she hurls him across the church to the altar, knocking over a ruined podium and landing on his back behind it.

 

“Chanyeol!” Baekhyun bellows. Seungwan rushes to Chanyeol to check if he’s hurt. Rage stews inside Baekhyun again, pouring out of him in a shout as he cuts off Sunmi’s left arm a little below the shoulder with his blade. Black blood spills from the stump, and Sunmi gasps when she looks at the injury. She straightens, touching the gash gingerly, where smoke has started to come out.

 

Baekhyun doesn’t wait before he’s brandishing his blade at Sunmi again, but she uses her other arm to stop it, and the blade barely makes a scratch this time. It must’ve been Baekhyun’s rage that had made his blade cut through her flesh, because she dodges his next attacks with a single arm effortlessly. Baekhyun jumps backwards, dodging her claws by an inch. But Sunmi has played right into his trap: in two strides he’s at the altar, where the pentagram is already laid out and prepared. Joohyun and Sooyoung are waiting by the sidelines, their weapons at the ready.

 

“So, you’re going to kill me,” Sunmi says, taunting. “Is that how it’s going to work?”

 

Baekhyun rolls up his sleeve, placing his blade right above his pulse. “I’m going to send you back to where you belong, and I’ll make sure you never come back.”

 

“With your blood?” Sunmi laughs—first, a quiet a chuckle, which turns to a full-bodied laugh, scornful and despicable, echoing in the walls of the old church. “You dumb little human. You still haven’t a clue.”

 

“About what?”

 

“About the sacrifice,” Sunmi says, contemptuous. “It’s up to you, little necromancer. An innocent life needs to be taken in order to seal the portal for good.”

 

“But… but my father’s blood…”

 

“Yes, I’ll admit I hurt your dad kinda badly. Sorry about that.” Sunmi makes a sardonically apologetic face. “But he killed himself after he realized what needed to be done to seal the portal. I should’ve foreseen that.”

 

“You’re lying,” Baekhyun whispers, breathless, “You killed him!”

 

“I’m afraid you were told wrong.” Sunmi shrugs a shoulder. “Nobody was in that room but us in the end. The others had stayed behind with your mother—your father ordered them to protect her. They were only there for the beginning stage. To lend their energy. The rest was up to your dad, and dare I say, few times have I seen a lowly human like him do what he did.”

 

Baekhyun’s head is spinning. “The life he took…” 

 

“Was his own,” Sunmi fills in. “Wouldn’t have expected more from a fool like him. So,” her voice changes into conniving, “it’s up to you, like I said. Whose innocent life are you going to take?”

 

“You’re lying,” Baekhyun says, shaking his head. Then, louder. “You’re trying to mess with me!”

 

“She’s not lying,” Joohyun supplies from the side. “It makes sense. I’ve seen those kind of rituals before, but­—”

 

“But you can’t kill these witches,” Sunmi says, her grin wicked. “They’re dirty. They’ve killed before. So they can’t offer their lives.”

 

Baekhyun looks at Joohyun, and the desperation on her face must be a mirror of the franticness rushing through Baekhyun.

 

“Those two outside won’t get to you in time,” Sunmi says. “At least not before I kill you.”

 

Sunmi grabs Baekhyun by the neck, lifting him off the ground. It’s not tight enough for him to not be able to breathe, but he knows it won’t stay that way for long. Baekhyun makes no resistance, in case he makes a wrong move.

 

“What about my blood?” Baekhyun manages out in a choked voice.

 

“What about it?” Sunmi asks. “It only works if it’s drawn out by someone whose soul isn’t tainted. I don’t have a soul, little necromancer. It won’t matter if I kill you. In fact, I’ll win. There’s only one other person who hasn’t taken a life before in this room.”

 

“I won’t kill Chanyeol,” Baekhyun spits. “Or anyone. Not ever.”

 

“I knew you couldn’t do it,” Sunmi laughs. She presses hard on his trachea, and her laughter rises over Baekhyun’s sounds of pain. “But it was fun to see you panicking!”

 

The demon said he could take another life to seal the portal, but the mere thought of it makes his stomach churn. If it is up to him, he won’t let another life end because of him. Baekhyun must finish his father’s job, the one he’d started twenty years ago, the reason he gave up his life for, the reason why his mother died despite his father’s attempts. It must be him and no one else.

 

Terror washes over Baekhyun as the realization falls upon him. At last, Baekhyun understands why death has been following him for so long. It wasn’t because of the spirits Sunmi had sent after him or the portal wanting to claim the life of its opener. It was because of this moment, where Baekhyun would have to decide whether he lives or dies. All this time Baekhyun was to be the sacrifice. In a way, he’d always known.

 

His heart rams against his ribs as if trying to cling desperately onto a thread of life. It says, you’re alive, alive, alive. If given the choice, Baekhyun will do things on his terms. On his terms or not at all.

 

With fingers trembling around the blade’s shaft, Baekhyun outstretches his arm. He shuts his eyes, thinking of Jongdae’s laughter in his ears. Heechul ruffling his hair with a fond smile. All his friends, beautiful and bright and eternal. His parents on their wedding day, their faces glowing with the happiness of an entire life unfurling before them.

 

And finally, Chanyeol. Chanyeol laughing, doubling over himself. Chanyeol looking at Baekhyun like he’s most precious thing in the entire world. Chanyeol mouthing the words I hate you against Baekhyun’s lips when he had meant to say something else. Chanyeol. Chanyeol. Chanyeol.

 

On his terms or not at all.

 

In a swift movement, Baekhyun draws the blade to his body, burying it with as much force as he can muster. Neither the sound or pain of his flesh being split and sliced isn’t as terrible as the growl that comes from within his throat. But Baekhyun refuses to show pain, even in his last moments.

 

Blood spills onto the stone beneath, and the pentagram lights up in a celestial glow. Sunmi lets go of him as she looks at the circle, which has begun trembling, and Baekhyun collapses at her feet, unable to move a finger. Whatever spells or curses bound in his blade work quick as poison; his entire body is paralyzed within seconds, then burns like it’s on fire, every inch of him disintegrating under the imperceptible heat.

 

With half-closed eyes, Baekhyun watches the floor open with a crack running across the pentagram diagonally, the light intermittent like a blinking eye. Blue and purple flames rise from the crack, along with black tentacles, that Sunmi shrieks at when they twine around her legs and arms. The upper body of a man with short dark hair rises within the fire, and a tail, red and flaked like a dragon’s, coils around Sunmi’s torso, dragging her down through her wails and pleas. Sunmi’s flailing body is snatched from the surface by the tail, and the man and Sunmi disappear within the crack, swallowed by the flames.

 

The glow from the crack blinks a couple more times and remains closed after a final flash. The ground hums, and the stone is warm, comfortable, calling to Baekhyun to close his eyes. To rest his tired bones. To dive into that inviting darkness free of pain. Footsteps echo as they rush to the circle, so Baekhyun blinks his eyes open, and through the haze, tries to make sense of the people kneeling around him. The only face he can make out is Chanyeol’s, looking down at him with that concerned frown, and Baekhyun wants to laugh, tell him he’s dumb, that he’s okay, but he can’t move a single muscle.

 

With that glimpse of Chanyeol, Baekhyun closes his eyes at last, and gives in to the dark oblivion.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

When Baekhyun opens his eyes again, he’s lying on his side, and there’s something tickling his face.

 

Baekhyun lies there for a prolonged time, or perhaps no time at all, until he realizes he must exist, or the thing that he’s lying on must exist, because he can feel its solid form. And because of this, he must be more than thought.

 

Pushing himself upright with his hand on the solid form, he notes that the tickling sensation came from grass blades, and he was lying on the ground. A field of grass extends far beyond what his eyes can see, shining under a bright sun. It’s warm on his face, which, he notes after he touches it, remains the face it has always been. A nose. A mouth. Two small eyes and big ears. He’s dressed in plain white clothes, like a nurse’s uniform, and the cotton is soft under his palms.

 

They’re all proof that he, indeed, exists.

 

“Where am I?”

 

“You’re wherever you wanted to be,” replies a female voice.

 

After she speaks, Baekhyun feels like he’d known she was there. But at the same, the reality of her presence is a jolt. It was a girl who had spoken, and Baekhyun recognizes her as the grim reaper that followed him for months while he was alive. Or is he still alive? Being dead is quite complicated. So was living.

 

“And where is that?” Baekhyun says, standing up. His legs feel like legs. “Are you here to escort me to the afterlife?”

 

“Not exactly,” she says, smiling. Only after Baekhyun sees her black skirt drifting does he feel the breeze. “But I am here to guide you to someone.”

 

“Who?” Baekhyun asks.

 

The grim reaper turns and begins walking. Her black skirt billows behind her as she ambles down the hill, which Baekhyun hadn’t noticed until then. He darts to catch up with her, and they climb down in silence for a while. Baekhyun looks around the place. Colorful flowers grow on trees and bushes, blossoms carpeting the incline of the hill and the air is permeated by a sweet scent. Everything is fuzzy and gauzy and pleasant, like being inside a watercolor painting.

 

“Were you Jongin’s girlfriend?”

 

The grim reaper gives him an extensive look. It’s not intimidating. It’s kind of careful assessing from someone who has been waiting to know a person. The pause extends for a long time or perhaps it’s not longer than a minute. Baekhyun isn’t certain about how time works in this place.

 

“Yes, I was,” she answers. “Once upon a time.”

 

“Is that why you went to the ice cream shop almost every day?” Baekhyun nearly trips over a rock. He’s going to be a clumsy ghost. “To check up on him?”

 

“That was one of the reasons,” the grim reaper says. “But I also wanted to see if you were going to be able to deal with everything that was about to happen. And I concluded that you could.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Your mother asked me to look after you,” the grim reaper confesses. “But I would’ve done so all the same if she hadn’t. First, because you’re a little like me, standing at the crossroads of life and death so I felt sympathetic. And second, because I saw the way you took care of Jongin, even if you hadn’t known yet why he looked so sad sometimes. You have a pure soul, so you wanted to make him happy. That’s why I decided to help you that time.”

 

“By leading me to the witches?” Baekhyun asks. The grim reaper nods. “They miss you. As much as Jongin misses you.”

 

“I miss them too,” the grim reaper says, and the longing is palpable in her tone. Her smile doesn’t fade. “But I visit them often. I try to look after them in the only ways I can.”

 

“They must feel your presence,” Baekhyun says. In his mind, he sees Chanyeol outside Heechul’s house telling him about the thin places, where one can feel a loved one closely, even after death. “I wonder if they’ll be able to feel mine.”

 

“Oh, but you’re not dead,” the grim reaper sing-songs. “At least not yet.”

 

Baekhyun frowns but doesn’t prod. They’ve stopped in the middle of the field. To their backs is the hill, and ahead is a pear tree, its leaves blossomed in white and green. Under the tree is a white table with two people sitting close in front of it.

 

In spite of the distance, Baekhyun recognizes them with an excited leap of his heart. “Are those… my parents?”

 

“They are.” The grim reaper’s hand is warm and small on his shoulder. “And they’re waiting for you.”

 

Baekhyun stares at her, perplexed. A combination of words had never sounded so unbelievable and perfect at once. As he makes to jog to his parents, the grim reaper says, like a farewell, “Baekhyun, my name was Seulgi. Once.”

 

“Seulgi, thank you for bringing me here!”

 

Baekhyun sprints to his parents, beaming, with the sweet summer breeze caressing his hair. Briefly, he wonders if he created the breeze as well, since summer is his favorite time of year. But he doesn’t have time to dwell on that. Not when he sees his mother’s smile and his father’s gentle look as he approaches. Not when his heart is in his throat as he skids to a halt in front of them, and he falters, drinking in their faces, their joyful grins.

 

“Hello, Baekhyun,” her mother says. “You’re finally here.”

 

His mother looks older than she did in her wedding picture, likely the way she looked before she died. Her honey brown hair is tied back in a low ponytail, just like Baekhyun remembers she used to wear it when she was alive. Her face looks soft, and her hands are a mirror of Baekhyun’s, like he had suspected. And his father looks strong, with his sharp jaw and broad shoulders, so alike Baekhyun’s own frame. His small, droopy eyes are a replica of Baekhyun’s, taking in Baekhyun hungrily, much like Baekhyun himself is doing with them.

 

Then, he leaps forward to hug them, wrapping his arms over their shoulders. His parents gasp in unison, then they embrace him in turn, his mother chuckling as she hugs him back just as hard, like she never wants to let go of him. They hug for so long, Baekhyun forgets about the concept of time, but when he lets go, he wishes he could hug them forever.

 

“We need to talk about some things,” his father says, gesturing for Baekhyun to take the seat across the table. As the rest of the place, the chair appears when Baekhyun realizes it’s there. “But first of all, we want to tell you we’re so, so proud of you.”

 

“You were so brave,” his mother says, holding his hand across the table. “My brave little boy.”

 

“I’m not little,” Baekhyun says, shyly, and his parents laugh. “Did you see it all?”

 

“Yes,” his father says, and his voice drops. “I’m so sorry for what I put you through. I never thought it would follow you as well. When I sealed the portal, I thought it would be over for good. If I had known—”

 

“It’s alright,” Baekhyun reassures him. Putting enough emphasis on his words to ensure some of the tension leaves his father’s expression. “It’s okay, you didn’t mean for all of this to happen. You were trying to protect mom, and I…” Baekhyun now knows a thing or two about sacrifices: the desperation in Chanyeol when he sold his memories in exchange of Baekhyun’s life and his own fear of hurting people before he stabbed himself. “I understand why you did what you did.”

 

Baekhyun runs his hand up his arm to distract himself, and marvels at the smoothness of his palm, devoid of calluses. There is a tangible purity to this place that seems to take every ragged thing in its reach and reconstruct it. Baekhyun feels cleansed of pain and tiredness—when he left the living world, he left every negativity behind.

 

Suddenly, he remembers Heechul, and his head snaps back up to his parents. “Is Heechul here? Is he with you?”

 

“He must be on his way here,” his mother says softly. “But we have not seen him. Sorry, love.”

 

A thickness clogs his throat at the thought that he won’t ever see Heechul again. The same kind of heartbreak is on his parent’s faces, and Baekhyun remembers, with slight embarrassment, that his parents knew Heechul for years, enough to assign him as Baekhyun’s guardian.

 

“I’ll miss him so much,” Baekhyun says sorrowfully. “I was so horrible to him.”

 

Shame and self-hatred stand at the edge of his thoughts, staying barely out of range, as if they could not touch him in this place. Though it doesn’t minimize the sadness overflowing in his chest as he recalls the last argument he’d had with Heechul and how he hadn’t gotten the chance to apologize and make amends.

 

“He knows you’re a good person, Baekhyun,” his father assures him. “You both cared about each other deeply. A moment of rage doesn’t immediately erase someone’s love.”

 

“Heechul and us—we’ll be with you every day, Baekhyun,” his mother tells him. “Whenever you think of us, whenever you need us, we’re always there with you.”

 

“People aren’t truly gone after they die,” his father says. “Death is only a part of life. Eventually everyone comes back, in different forms, but no one is gone for too long. In the sunlight or rain or cherry blossoms or autumn leaves. In the music you love or the small things that remind you of them. Everyone you miss will return in some way or another.”

 

Baekhyun wipes the tears at the corners of his eyes, and chuckles at himself. “I’ll be sure to remember that whenever I miss you too much,” he says, voice wavering. “I just wish I could see Heechul one last time, but I guess it doesn’t work that way.”

 

“It never does,” his father laments. “But make sure to remember him. As long as you keep him in your memories, he’ll be close to you.”

 

“Thank you,” Baekhyun says, and his parents smile.

 

A long time passes while they stare at each other in silence. There is so much Baekhyun wants to tell them that he doesn’t know where to start, so he says nothing at all. Baekhyun has always been full of words, but he’s content to sit with his parents like this, knowing that despite everything, they’ll be with him after he’s gone.

 

“By the way,” Baekhyun breaks the silence, “Seulgi said I’m not dead, so, where are we? Is this not the afterlife?”

 

“Not really,” his father says, looking around. He seems to be examining the place like he’s seeing it for the first time. “I think this place is your doing.”

 

“Oh,” Baekhyun murmurs. “It does look like your painting, right?” His mother nods, her smile growing. “It also looks like a place I visited with someone once.” Baekhyun’s chest twists. “So, this is all in my head?”

 

“Not really,” his mother says. “It is real, as far as we know.”

 

Baekhyun nods, content with this response. “So, if I’m not dead—what happens now? Am I supposed to stay here until I pass onto your side or go back to the living world?”

 

“That is up to you, Baekhyunnie,” his mother says. “Since your death was a sacrifice, defying the way you were supposed to die, it may not count as a death. This is just my guess,” his mother laughs, “but I think because you chose to take your own life over taking another’s, and your sacrifice saved so many people, you might have broken the curse that was put on you through your father’s doing. So you’re free to go back or stay with us.”

 

Ruminating, Baekhyun looks over his shoulder to the place where he had come from. Colorful flowers are sprinkled over the slanted hill, the green grass undulating with the wind. Should he return, Baekhyun will have to leave the safety and calmness of this limbo, the loving arms of his parents, and the thought of not seeing them again tears his soul apart.

 

But if he goes back to the living world, he’ll be with Jongdae, and the rest of his friends, and there will be something new every day. Each day is Baekhyun’s to construct, and take advantage of, and Baekhyun gets the sensation that he isn’t quite done with his life. There may be sorrow and grief, yes, but there will be an equal amount of love and laughter and joy, perhaps much more. Baekhyun belongs to that little, enchanted town, and it also belongs to him. They’ve bonded over their mutual strangeness.

 

When Baekhyun returns, he’ll be returning home, a place he’s nested for himself in the people he loves. Even if he leaves his parents and Heechul here, they’ll be with him constantly, in his thoughts. Death is only a part of life, his father had said.

 

“I’ll go back,” Baekhyun says, getting to his feet. He rounds the table to hug his parents again, and this time they open their arms for him. “I’ll miss you so much.”

 

“You’ll never be alone, sweetheart.” His mother gives him a reassuring squeeze. “We will always be there for you.”

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Baekhyun died during the early hours of July 10th on the way to the hospital.

 

He was dead for a full minute and twelve seconds before his heart began pumping again, to the bewilderment of the paramedics tending to his lifeless body.

 

The paramedics had been called after Baekhyun was mugged by a robber who fled the scene. Riding in the ambulance with him had been three women who never left his side until Baekhyun went in for an emergency surgery and they were told by the nurses to wait for any news.

 

After the surgery, Baekhyun slips in and out of consciousness for days. In the haze of the drugs, Baekhyun sees many faces, hears disembodied voices, some of which he can’t pinpoint.

 

During one of these lucid dreams, he sees Chanyeol sitting next to his bed. Baekhyun is sure it is a dream, because Chanyeol isn’t supposed to be there, isn’t supposed to be holding his hand with such tenderness. And like in a dream, his attempts to speak to Chanyeol are unheeded. He calls Chanyeol at the top of his lungs, but his voice is too quiet, coming from a place too far way to hear.

 

Sleep’s treacherous arms drag him back down, and Baekhyun closes his eyes again.

 

The next time he opens his eyes, he’s met with Jongdae’s face at his bedside. Now, Baekhyun is sure it is a dream, because Jongdae, of all people, can’t be in his hospital room. But his smile is sweet, curled up at the corners, and so, so Jongdae, Baekhyun’s afraid to do anything in case he shatters the dream.

 

It’s Jongdae who speaks first. “Glad to finally have you back.”

 

His voice is low and soothing, much too real to be a dream. And the longing that hits Baekhyun, fills his eyes with tears, is too realistic to be a product of his subconscious. There’s also the pain on his left side, near his bladder, and the way his entire body feels like it’s made of lead.

 

“Jongdae?” Baekhyun croaks. His mouth is parched. “Is this real?”

 

Jongdae rolls his eyes, chuckling. “‘Course it is,” he says. “Why wouldn’t it be?” He grabs Baekhyun’s hand on the bed. “Everything’s okay now.”

 

“Are you here?” Baekhyun coughs, and Jongdae helps him take a sip from a glass of water. “Is everyone okay? Is everything over?”

 

“Hey, hey, slow down,” Jongdae laughs, patting Baekhyun’s hand. “Yes, everything’s over. Or, well, that depends on how you see it, because it feels like a beginning.”

 

“What do you mean? Stop speaking in code!”

 

“You managed to seal the portal and sent the demon back to the underworld,” Jongdae explains. “All the men who had been missing are back and no one remembers a thing that happened while they were gone—the police have been questioning them on and off for a couple of days, because they don’t know what to do with them. The news is saying it was a case of collective hallucination or whatever, and that the weird weather was because of a lost tropical storm or something. I haven’t paid much attention. But it’s all good now. That’s what matters.”

 

“What about you?” Baekhyun questions. His voice is so hoarse. “Are you okay?”

 

“I’m okay.” Jongdae smiles wider, as if to reassure Baekhyun. “I don’t remember a thing that happened while I was gone, but that’s probably for the best. It makes me feel safer. Like she’s gone for good with all the nasty shit she did. And,” Jongdae adds, with an excited gleam, “Junmyeon is okay, too. He’s come by to see you a couple times.”

 

“I can’t wait to see him,” Baekhyun says. In this exhausted state, even strong emotions are a struggle. “I hope he visits again when I’m awake.”

 

“Other people have visited you too,” Jongdae says. “You’re like a celebrity in the magical world right now, so everybody wants to meet you.”

 

Baekhyun’s gaze drifts away from Jongdae. Only then does he notice all the gifts, banners and bouquets decorating the tiny room. Baekhyun breathes in the sweet smell of flowers, underscored by a sterilized smell, so unique to hospitals, and it is also this that assures him he isn’t dreaming.

 

“And Heechul?” Baekhyun asks quietly.

 

Jongdae shifts in his seat, his gaze dropping to the floor. “His funeral took place while you were sleeping,” he replies, his tone unbearably apologetic. “We wanted to wait until you woke up, but it’s been days. Turns out magic doesn’t follow folks to death.” His eyes widen. “Sorry about that.”

 

“It’s okay.” Baekhyun’s vision is blurry with tears, so he fixes his attention to a point across the room. “I’ll visit Heechul once I’m out of here.”

 

His voice cracks on the last word. A single tear rolls down his cheek before the dam breaks. He doesn’t bother to catch any of his tears, and Jongdae allows him to cry in silence, squeezing his hand through it all.

 

“Where is Chanyeol?” Baekhyun demands. “You said everyone was okay…”

 

“He looked fine,” Jongdae says, smiling. “He’s back in Seoul. His mom picked him up the day after you were brought in. She was furious, so he didn’t put up much of a fight.”

 

Baekhyun sniffles and smiles a little, imagining a sulky Chanyeol following a small angry woman whose eyes are similar to Chanyeol’s.

 

“So, he’s gone,” Baekhyun remarks, and Jongdae’s smile fades. It’s all the answer Baekhyun needs. “He was supposed to leave all along.”

 

“I’m sorry, Baekhyunnie,” Jongdae murmurs, and he leans down to rest his head on Baekhyun’s shoulder. Baekhyun pats his head gingerly. “I wish I could hug you right now but I’m afraid I could do more harm than good.”

 

“I’ll be okay,” Baekhyun says, wrapping an arm around Jongdae’s shoulders. It’s a weird angle, but he needs this right now. “Everything’s going to be okay. You’re alive and well.”

 

“You big softie,” Jongdae says, voice slightly wobbly. “I’ll be eternally grateful to you and Chanyeol for bringing me back, you know. I don’t know how I could ever repay you.”

 

“We’ve never gone to a baseball game before,” Baekhyun suggests with a small smile. Jongdae pulls back to return it, his eyes glistening with tears. “Who’s the big softie now?”

 

“Oh, shut up,” Jongdae retorts. His chuckle is wet and warbled, but Baekhyun keeps the teasing at bay. He’s too tired and broken and Jongdae understands this. “You should rest some more so you can regain your energy and go back to being a pain the ass.”

 

“Thanks for all your concern,” Baekhyun quips. Jongdae chuckles lightly, patting the pillows. “Will you stay with me until I fall asleep?”

 

“You don’t have to ask,” Jongdae murmurs. With a smile, he grasps Baekhyun’s hand again. “I’ll be here when you wake up. You’ll probably get visitors in the morning.”

 

Jongdae had answered Baekhyun’s doubts without having to voice them. He will be here when he wakes up. Even if Chanyeol has returned to Seoul, taking with him the rippling summer, and Heechul is gone forever, taking with him a fraction of Baekhyun’s heart, Jongdae will be there, and so will the rest of his friends.

 

Nothing will replace the gap left by the loss of his loved ones, and Baekhyun won’t attempt to fill it. If there is anything Baekhyun has learned during this ordeal is that life goes on, relentless and unforgiving. And because life goes on, the raging storm won’t last forever. There’ll be radiant, kinder days in the horizon. There’ll be time to heal.

 

“Everything’s going to be okay,” Baekhyun repeats in a whisper, before he surrenders to the cruel sweetness of dreams.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Because I could not stop for Death

He kindly stopped for me

The Carriage held but just Ourselves

And Immortality.”

 

― 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.”