“It’s going to be expensive, you know,” the guard says, sitting up straight in his desk chair. His nametag glints under the dim light of the gates, the black and gold lettering spelling out Sungwoon in a sophisticated manner.
“I’ll pay for it.”
“It’s non-refundable if you don’t manage to get him.“
Seongwoo slams the table with his credit card under his palm—his personal unlimited card, not the capped company-issued one.
“I said,” he says through gritted teeth. “I’ll pay for it.”
“Woah, calm down, soldier. Just wanted to double check.” When the guard laughs, the noise is like light tinkling of wind chimes in the wind, so incongruent to their dingy surroundings. He glances down and raises an eyebrow at the card. “Also, we don’t accept the living's money. Your currency is awful—no one uses it around here, and the exchange rates are in neither of our favour, trust me.”
Seongwoo suddenly feels ready to cry. “Then what do I pay with?"
Sungwoon leans forward and clasps his hands together, looking like he’s about to deliver the biggest secret of the universe. “We accept payments in memory, and there are two options. First, you can give us one of your trivial memories of the involved individual for a ’normal’ journey. Remember, it has to be of the person you’re trying to save, otherwise the path will redirect you to an entirely different person. As for this ‘normal’ journey… think of it as the equivalent of an economy class cabin—except with, like. A lot more monsters, and about a hundred ways that you can die a painful death. But some have come out of it just fine!” Sungwoon ends cheerily.
“Come out… just fine. Because if I die here,” Seongwoo says carefully. “Then I’ll be reincarnated on Earth again, right? Like a game?”
Sungwoon doubles up in laughter. “Oh—no, no, that’s not how it works! You really don’t know our terms and conditions.” He wipes a tear from the corner of his eye and continues, “If you die here, that’s it. You stay here forever. And because you died as a living person in the underworld, even the deceased wouldn’t be able to see you.”
His chest nearly gives out. “Right… so basically it’s game over… forever.”
Seongwoo sighs, feeling the tell-tale of a headache coming on. “What’s the other option, then?”
“Well, the other option is our special ‘First Class’ experience. Fifty to seventy-five-percent guaranteed to be a safe journey—“
“— Seventy five?! —”
“—and can be paid with the most precious memory of your desired person,” ends Sungwoon calmly.
“Most precious memory?” grumbles Seongwoo. “For that, I’d expect a one-hundred-percent guarantee for a safe journey.”
“Oh, no, no,” sighs the guard. “Nothing in life is ever absolute.”
It’s almost like Sungwoon can see past him, already knows which memory he’s thinking of to sacrifice for his journey. On his end, at least, there are no two ways about it—he has to get that easy journey option. The thought of ever dying here and never seeing Minhyun again, ever, is enough to make him desperate.
“I’ll take the second option."
“Excellent! And you know the most important rule of all, don’t you?” Sungwoon eyes him steadily. “While you are leading your companion on your journey back, under no circumstances will you be able to turn around. Understand?”
“You turn around, and you will never see them again. Ever. Not even after you die,” Sungwoon leans forward. “Are you prepared for this?”
Seongwoo looks him in the eye. “Yes.”
Sungwoon opens the desk’s top drawer to retrieve an item that looks suspiciously like a heat patch—and works like one too, apparently, because he proceeds to slap it right across Seongwoo’s forehead.
“Yes, this is how we’re going to extract your payment. Now close your eyes, and try your hardest to bring the memory you’re giving up to the forefront of your mind.”
Seongwoo resists the urge to bite on the skin of his thumb. “So I just have to remember as much of it as I can, right?”
“That works, too.”
It doesn’t take much effort. The memory is so vivid in Seongwoo’s mind, it may as well have happened yesterday.
The sheets are warm despite the cold January morning air seeping in through the window. A head of jet black hair emerges from the covers tucked under Seongwoo’s chin, accompanied by staccato laughter and crinkling eyes. He lifts a hand to run through the unruly mess and decides that the morning sun’s got nothing on Minhyun’s radiance.
The expanse of his bare chest is peppered by kisses in retaliation, and when Seongwoo tries to squirm away Minhyun’s limbs are fluid and graceful; strong and persistent. They’ve been dating for almost two months, but this is the first time they’ve spent a night together and Seongwoo wonders why they haven’t done this earlier—but perhaps the wait was what made everything more satisfying. He tickles Minhyun from under the blankets and they tussle around together—until he ends up pinned to the bed with Minhyun straddling his hips, a smile that can only be described as content gracing his lips.
“I love you,” Minhyun whispers into the space between their mouths, which he closes with a soft, lingering kiss.
The patch is unceremoniously ripped off Seongwoo's forehead.
“Ouch, that hurts,” he grumbles, massaging the tender spot of skin that’s surely turning an angry red. The patch, now in Sungwoon’s hands, casts a pale blue glow around the room.
“A very, very precious memory.” says Sungwoon quietly. “Wise choice."
“Yeah, because this’ll probably keep you guys afloat for months, huh?”
Sungwoon doesn’t reply for a long time as he stows the patch away, and when he does his voice is sombre, absent of its previous cheekiness. “We put such high stakes on this particular task because the last thing we want is for humans to take matters of life and death lightly,” he says. “I hope you know that despite my position, I would still think it not worth to risk your entire life on a single journey to the underworld. You might think we get off on seeing people fail,” Sungwoon smiles demurely. “But it hurts us almost as much as it hurts the loved one you’re trying to save."
Seongwoo looks at the floor, toes at the tiles. “To be honest, I don’t even know if he wants to see me again,” he says, smile lopsided on his face. “But he’s worth it. He’s worth risking my life for.”
Sungwoon’s mouth twists in a wry smile—out of pity or concern, Seongwoo can’t tell. Maybe neither. “Well, then soldier,” he heaves a sigh, stamping the receipt he’s printed out and handing it to Seongwoo with a flourish. “Then there is nothing else I can do but wish you good luck and a safe journey ahead."
The trip is easy, at least relative to the tales of past heroes Seongwoo is familiar with. When he walks past Sungwoon’s gates there’s a path lit by fireflies. He follows it to a dark river bank, where he comes across a young man dressed in an army green cloak and a hat sitting still on the ground next to the river. He is clearly asleep, even though he’s not leaning against anything.
“Excuse me,” Seongwoo says, but there’s only a resounding snore as a reply. Seongwoo sighs. So much for a first-class service.
He nudges the man slightly with his foot. “Hi? Hello? Are you alive?” which is probably an insensitive question to ask in the underworld, but Seongwoo is just a little jittery after having a memory literally ripped off of him and his impatience is at an all-time high.
It seems to do the trick—the young man blinks awake in surprise. He gives Seongwoo a once-over and, as if he wasn’t asleep just two seconds ago, smiles brightly.
“Seongwoo. Ong Seongwoo.”
“Nice. Mine's Park Woojin.”
Seongwoo blinks. “Nice to meet you?”
Woojin holds out a hand. “Ticket, please.”
Warily, Seongwoo reaches into his coat pocket and retrieves his receipt. “I was promised smooth sailing.”
“Mmmm, that’s subject to conditions,” hums Woojin as he holds the piece of paper up towards a non-existent light source. “Who you here for?”
“Oh, yeah, he passed by here a couple of days ago." Apparently finding what he’s looking for, Woojin's eyes grow wide as he gives a low whistle. “ Hooo , boy. Type 143. That’s one expensive journey you paid for.”
“So it’s a one-hundred-percent guarantee?”
Woojin stands up and gives him a look that seems to say don’t be stupid .
“Don’t be stupid,” he says. “That gives you seventy-one, tops. Nothing in life is absolute.”
“That’s what the guard said, too,” he mutters unhappily, crossing his arms.
“He’s not lying, but you can get close. Close to the one-hundred, I mean. Well—“ he taps on the air twice, and behind him a long, slim rowboat appears. “Hop on board!”
Seongwoo blinks at the boat that has, quite literally, materialised out of nowhere and decides it’s time to stop being wary of the things that go on here. Maybe part of having an uncomplicated journey is not to think about anything too much. So he steps in, trying his best to be cavalier in the face of all the magic surrounding him.
“So what’s the story witchu?”
Seongwoo frowns, shifting only slightly in his seat. The boat sails extremely low on the river’s surface so he’s slightly wary that the slightest tipping motion would capsize their entire vehicle.
“Why does there have to be a story?”
“You’re kidding, right? People don’t just wake up one morning and say: ‘Hey! It’s a great day for a trip down to the underworld!’ They just don’t. So there’s gotta be a story behind it.”
Fragments of that night flit through Seongwoo’s mind—an argument, storming out of a restaurant by a busy street angrily, shaking off Minhyun’s hand that’s trying to hold his shoulder. Crossing the street still in heated argument. A drunk driver.
“Car accident,” says Seongwoo simply.
Woojin sighs, clicks his tongue like Seongwoo had given him more than a two-word reason. “Really sorry to hear that, man.”
“I know it wasn’t my fault directly, but… it was still my fault, in a way.” He draws a deep breath. “I want to make it right."
Up ahead, the never-ending darkness above splits open to let in a sliver of light. Here, Seongwoo can make out the dark brown and grey foliage of the river banks that hang over the navy blue surface of the water, as well as the straw-coloured plains beyond it. Several shapes that resemble animals mill about aimlessly, and the scene isn’t very different from an idyllic, agricultural village in the countryside. The sight is almost peaceful if Seongwoo can forget it’s really the land of the dead that he’s currently passing through.
“Oh, look.” Woojin breaks the silence and points to his left, where Seongwoo can make out two illuminated figures slowly scaling up a hill, one leading the other behind him by their clasped hands. “I know him, that’s… uh… Daniel! Yeah, Daniel. Nice guy. Drove him along this river too—he paid almost as much as you did.”
“Is he here to…?”
“Yeah, to bring someone back to Earth like you. A Jihoon, I think. Park?” If they weren’t on a magical river, Seongwoo would be concerned about Woojin’s negligent rowing, being so fixated on the couple; but he finds it impossible to look away, too, so he says nothing. “They’re almost there.”
The top of the hill leads up to a patch of light that Seongwoo can only assume is the living realm. There’s only less than half of the hill to go, but the pair is visibly slowing down as they approach one of the steepest parts of the hill. Daniel’s steps turn sluggish, and when Seongwoo squints he can make out his companion’s—Jihoon’s—mouth moving quickly, face twisted in an unreadable expression.
No, not unreadable—the expression is clearly one of pain.
“It hurts for the souls to pass through realms,” explains Woojin. “Jihoon might be feeling it right about now.”
Daniel slips and scrambles for purchase, but the smooth, sandy surface doesn't give him much to grab onto. He slips further down the hill and Jihoon slips with him. When Daniel stands up, Jihoon’s hand in his is limp, and even Seongwoo can taste the pain this stranger is feeling from the silent cry he lets out, mouth hung open and desperate for air.
“He’s going to die,” Seongwoo gasps, horrified.
“He’s already dead,” Woojin points out. “But things will be much, much worse if they give up now.”
Daniel stands shakily on his legs, but doesn't move. Woojin slows his rowing down. “Oh, no.”
“He’s saying…he’s saying he needs to check.”
Seongwoo’s eyes widen. “You mean he—? No, he can’t do that. We need to help him.”
Ignoring the way the boat wobbles precariously from his sudden movements, Seongwoo scrambles to his feet and waves his arms around as much as he can while maintaining his balance.
“Hey! Daniel! Hey—can’t they see us?”
“No,” Woojin says in a clipped manner. “This part of the journey, they have to face alone.”
“We can’t—there must be something we can do—hey! Hey, Daniel! Don’t! Look! Back!”
“I’m sorry,” Woojin whispers when it is clear all of Seongwoo's shouting falls on deaf ears, and Seongwoo feels boneless all of a sudden. Even he knows that it’s a lost cause.
And the dreaded does happen—Daniel lets go of Jihoon’s hand.
He looks over his shoulder.
The air stills around them.
One of them—or maybe both—scramble forward, desperately trying to cling to each other one last time. But they can’t cheat destiny, and before their fingertips can touch they crumble into dust, blown away by the wind from an unknown source.
There’s an echo resounding endlessly in the cavern: Daniel!
Seongwoo sinks back into his seat with shaky legs.
“What—what happened to them?”
“They both returned to where they belong. Daniel on Earth, with the living, and Jihoon in the afterlife.”
Wrecked with grief, Seongwoo buries his face in his hands. There’s a light tap on his shoulder, then a small, but reassuring squeeze.
“I’d do a survey and show you proper stats if I could, but just take my word for it,” Woojin says. “The number one lesson people take away from here is to just… make every single day count while you still can.” The hand withdraws, and the oars speed up a little. “You’ll get him, your Minhyun. I know you will. Then up there, in your little apartment or house or hotel—you’ll make every damn hour count, won’t ya?”
Seongwoo nods absently, staring at the wooden panels of the boat. He knows from the start that there’ll be no backing out, but it’s made all the more clear after his encounter with the strangers, whose stories he knew nothing of but whose pain he felt all the same.
He needs to bring Minhyun back, whatever it takes.
Seongwoo doesn’t get the grand entrance he expected.
“What the hell are you doing here? Oh my god,” Minhyun clutches at his hair and his eyes are wide as saucers. He looks distressed. “You’re not here to get me, are you?”
“What? Are you crazy? Nah, I’m just here for a stroll,” says Seongwoo, before rolling his eyes and throwing his hands up in the air. “Why else would I be here standing in front of you at the edge of the universe, Minhyun? Of course I’m here to get you.”
“What did you do to get here?”
“Why does that matter? The point is I’m here— “
“When you’re not supposed to be!” Minhyun groans and paces around his room that resembles one of the display bedrooms they’ve always envied when they browsed furniture shops together. Seongwoo’s dreamt of them sharing a place like this one day—now, seeing Minhyun live alone makes him feel a mix of regret and frustration.
Seongwoo pouts and kicks at the pristine white carpet around his feet that is, unfortunately, dustless, making his attempt to mess it up unsatisfying to say the least. “I thought you’d be happier to see me.”
“You don’t belong here, Seongwoo. You’re not dead.” Minhyun’s eyes flash with anger. “You’re a… a ghost, a hallucination of the underworld, aren’t you? They’re trying to test me again."
“Again?” Seongwoo frowns and tries to calm Minhyun with a hand on his shoulder, but Minhyun staggers backwards when Seongwoo approaches him. He tries not to let the hurt show on his face. “Minhyun, snap out of it. What did they do to you? What happened?”
He turns to Seongwoo with guarded eyes, voice quiet but stern as if he’s speaking to a particularly dangerous child.
“There was a path leading to hell, to eternal damnation. I was still on my way here—the limbo, to await judgement, and I was confident that I haven’t… there wasn’t anything I needed to be ashamed of. And then—“ his voice breaks. “And then I saw you, walking on that path.”
Seongwoo closes his eyes and curses. “Ba—Minhyun. That couldn’t possibly have been me.”
“How was I supposed to know that? You didn’t answer when I called your name. I could only think of our stupid, stupid argument and how when I died, all I wanted was to see you again when the time was right in Paradise. But there you were, getting damned eternally to hell where I would never see you again—and I ran there. Seongwoo, I ran to hell,” he whispers, voice shaky. “For you.”
“Good thing there were some lost souls on the way who knew I wasn’t supposed to be there. They dragged me out before I got trapped inside with every other damned soul, but for a long time I tried to go back in. I didn't care about the heat, the burns, the torture." Minhyun closes his eyes, but doesn't continue. All I cared about was you , are the unspoken words ringing heavily in the silence that follows.
"I'm sorry," Seongwoo says instead, out of a lack of anything else to say. Minhyun shakes his head.
“That's not what I need. You said you... you want to take me back?"
Seongwoo nods fervently. "Yes. That's what I want to do, so much. Minhyun you—" his voice catches, and he clears his throat. "You have no idea how fucking miserable I've been without you."
Minhyun has always been intelligent in a quiet manner—but this time, Seongwoo can almost hear the cogs whirring in his head, the calculations his mind running through as he tries to solve a problem the way he hasn't been asked to do here in the underworld.
After several moments, he smiles resignedly and murmurs, "They get even more realistic as time passes, don't they?"
It takes Seongwoo a while to understand what he means, but when it clicks he feels a surge of something course through him. "What? No, Minhyun." Grabbing hold of the pale, slender wrists he has missed so much, Seongwoo pulls him in slowly by the hands. "I'm not an illusion. You have to believe me."
"I want to believe you, Seongwoo."
He realises this something that's pumping through every vein in his body is none other than desperation. "What do you need to believe me? Hm? I’ll—let me prove it to you."
Minhyun's presses his lips tightly together. "So I know you're here —kiss me."
So Seongwoo does; a quick, fleeting kiss that conveys enough without taking anything too far. His self control in this agitated state isn't something Seongwoo wants to test, especially while he's in the underworld.
"Better?" he peers into Minhyun's face, trying not to look frantic.
Even when his boyfriend is dead, he is still not someone who easily acquiesces. "Now I need to know you're real."
"Anything." Seongwoo squeezes the hands in his. "Anything."
“What did I say to you after our first night together?”
Seongwoo opens his mouth to scoff, chide Minhyun for asking such an obvious question when his brain screeches to a halt.
“Our first night,” he repeats, mind still drawing a blank now matter how hard he tries to jog something in it. "Like... the first night we spent together."
“Yes.” Minhyun's face is shuttered off. Seongwoo can't help but feel like he's being locked out, made to stare inside but not touch.
"We had sex, right?"
Minhyun's cheeks colour, but he stays firmly poker-faced. "I want to know what I said, not what I did."
Seongwoo thinks really hard, almost curling in on himself with the effort—but there is only silence in his head when he asks it to retrieve the files from that sacred day. So he decides to make an educated guess—he thinks of Minhyun in the morning, what he'd say when he rolls over to find Seongwoo just crawling out his sleepy haze—
“Ah!" he clicks his fingers. "Did you tell me to get a towel and clean up?”
If Minhyun's face was shuttered off before, now it's bolted and locked with all its expressions shoved away in the farthest corner possible. It's a scary look on him, and Seongwoo feels his heart drop.
“Forget it,” he snaps, pushing past Seongwoo.
“Let go of me—“
“Wait, please wait,” Seongwoo pleads. “I can explain.”
"You may be here, but you're definitely not real." His voice is raspy, like he's trying to hold back tears. "My Seongwoo would never forget."
My Seongwoo; the words cut through him like a sword to the heart, but Seongwoo would happily drive the blade in further—why must he be so unreliable during the time when Minhyun needs him most?
“The thing is—I had to pay to get in here with my most precious memory. I could give up an unimportant one for a rough journey, but I didn't. I chose the safer option.” When Minhyun’s eyes stay dark, Seongwoo starts to panic. "Maybe I was being spoilt and I didn't want to have to struggle for it and that I wanted to get to you back quickly but I… I also didn’t want to risk dying before I could see you one last time. The memories of that day; I’ve forgotten it,” he swallows the lump in his throat. “And now you're asking for it back, so even though I don't remember anything, I know it must have been the best memory I had. Maybe the best we had."
“Then you shouldn’t have given it up,” Minhyun replies, voice hard.
Seongwoo lets out a laugh. “And never see you again? Come on, babe, you and I both know I’m a terrible fighter. I would have become a monster's favourite rag doll in a heartbeat if I had to do things the hard way.”
Minhyun’s back is still turned, but Seongwoo sees his shoulders sag, tension dissipating a little.
“I may not remember what happened that night,” he continues, afraid that if he stops Minhyun will slip away from him again. “But I do remember everything else about you. I remember that you can't hold your drink well, and that you'd rather have grapefruit juice than coffee in the morning. I remember when you tried to get me to read your Japanese detective novels and I ended up falling asleep." He'd fallen asleep on Minhyun's lap, though, which isn't really a case to complain about. "I remember the way you'd laugh when you find something really funny, when you get tickled, and when you're trying to dodge someone's questions. I remember when you cried but wouldn't make a single noise. I remember the first time we kissed. I remember that it was you who leaned in first."
Minhyun scoffs. “As if. You were practically throwing yourself at me."
"It’s a sin to lie, you know." As he continues, he reels Minhyun in slowly by the hand, tugging lightly until he’s pressed up all along Seongwoo’s front, back rising and falling with each breath. He takes one of his own. “And I remember that I would fight the underworld to have you back with me without a second thought, even for just a little while longer.”
“Please,” he whispers. “Come back with me?”
He feels the ground shift beneath him when Minhyun finally turns to face him; the haze of distrust has disappeared from his eyes, leaving only trust and affection.
When Minhyun finally, finally lets himself be enveloped in warm, steady arms, Seongwoo can close his eyes and pretend that this is the end of time, and that they are now standing together in the middle of heaven's gardens.
The landscape has changed by the time they reach the edge of the river, where Woojin is docked by the bank and across from which the flat plains from before have been replaced by towering, menacing hills. They look similar to the ones Seongwoo had seen from a distance, where he witnessed the couple's unfortunate demise. He tries not to shiver.
Apparently the ‘easy’ part of the journey only applies to the departure trip.
“You’ll be okay, right?" he asks Minhyun beside him, trying to sound reassuring. But Minhyun's always been the calm breeze to Seongwoo's tempests, and it's with an unruffled smile that he answers Seongwoo's silent worries.
"We'll be okay," he says, patting the back of Seongwoo's palm. "We've been through worse."
They reach the bank and Woojin tips his hat, looking far too delighted considering the circumstance. "Mr. Hwang! Fancy seeing you again so soon." He turns to Seongwoo with a more muted smile. "You know the rules, don't you?"
"Yes," he says.
"Yes," Minhyun says, much to Seongwoo's surprise. At his raised eyebrows, Minhyun just shrugs. "We've all heard the myth, haven't we?"
"Shouldn't have expected anything less from a bookworm," mutters Seongwoo, but he takes the opportunity to drop a kiss on the corner of his mouth. "I'll lead us carefully, don't worry."
Minhyun pulls him back in to kiss him properly right on the mouth, and it's warm and soft and he knows, even without words, that Minhyun trusts him and wants this just as badly. It's everything Seongwoo could have asked for to remind him of why he's fought long and hard to have Minhyun back with him, and why he's ready to go through yet another one.
"I know," whispers Minhyun when they part. Seongwoo’s mouth goes dry.
“This is also the last time I’ll be able to see you until we get up there.”
Minhyun’s lips twitch in amusement. “Then you better take a good, long look, babe.”
Seongwoo laughs, scrunching his nose in a poor imitation of a disgusted expression. “Ugh, nevermind. On second thought, I think I’ll just leave you behind in the underworld.” But he kisses Minhyun again, so his threats are only empty ones.
(Woojin is doing a great job of pretending not to see, and doesn’t comment on the way Seongwoo is kissing Minhyun like he is truly afraid this will be the last time.)
“Off we go then,” Woojin says once they both have settled into the narrow rowboat, Minhyun sitting behind Seongwoo with their hands interlocked.
When they reach the other side, Seongwoo bows to Woojin as low as he can in silent thanks. Woojin bows back. There is caution there—maybe he's seen too much—but mostly there is respect.
The hill is made of coarse, black sand, similar to that of an active volcano. When Seongwoo takes a step onto its inclined side, his foot gives way to soft, fine granules of sand, making it slippery to walk on. He looks around; there are certainly no footholds. Seongwoo takes a breath.
There’s an answering squeeze. “Ready."
He squeezes Minhyun’s hand back, and starts walking.
Seongwoo slips once, then twice.
There shouldn’t be any vegetation growing in the sparse sand, but he finds himself getting stuck in vines that wrap stubbornly around his ankle.
There are screams coming out of a pile of ashes to his right and he stops so abruptly Minhyun crashes onto his back.
He hunches in an attempt to block out the noise, but then there’s a calming hand on his shoulder. “Keep your eyes on the path, babe.”
“Okay,” he takes a breath, but the screams still echo loudly around them. “Hey, can you say something? Anything. Just… I don’t want to have to listen to this.”
He can hear the smile in Minhyun’s reply. “Okay. Hmm, did you finish reading the Tolstoy book I got you?"
“Haven’t even started,” replies Seongwoo cheerily. Minhyun laughs, dripping with exasperated fondness.
“How’s Zorro? She’s not scratching up the furniture too much without me there, right?”
“Nah, she’s been great, made your side of the bed her home so I can pet her to sleep, too.”
“Already replacing me, huh?”
Seongwoo smiles. Wants so badly to smile at Minhyun. “You wish. You’ll always be it for me."
There’s a small poke at his side that makes him curl up, and the pair’s laughter peters off in laboured heaving after a while. The hill is starting to get steeper.
“Did you cry at my funeral?”
There is now thick fog in front of Seongwoo and he squints to try and make out the stretch of land in front of them,
“No,” Seongwoo says almost immediately. “Because I knew I’d get you back again.”
“Our friends must have given you so much shit for that.”
“Oh, yeah. Said I let my pride get in the way too much to even feel sympathy for my own boyfriend and that I needed to talk to someone before it got too bad. That you didn’t deserve all this—this indifference. That I was a bad boyfriend. That last one was Jaehwan, by the way.”
Expecting a retort from Minhyun, as is per usual whenever Jaehwan’s name is even remotely brought up, being met with silence instead unnerves Seongwoo to the point of him slowing down.
“Minhyun?” There is no reply, but the hand in his stays warm. “Minhyun? Are you there? Please talk to me, I,” he feels his heart beating painfully in his chest, panic seizing him suddenly. “Please. I can’t lose you again.”
“I know,” a voice wheezes behind him—and it’s so alien to Seongwoo, sounds so different to Minhyun's baritone that it takes all his willpower not to whirl around and just check. “So just keep going and—“ A cry, “—don’t worry about me.”
“Fuck, are you hurt?” asks Seongwoo as he climbs a mountain, what should be the last mountain, and tries his hardest not to slip.
He hears a curse behind him—and Minhyun never, ever curses. “What did I do? Am I tugging too hard?”
“No, you’re—“ He cries out again and this time it’s clearly in pain. “You’re doing okay.”
“What’s going on, you sound like—“
“Just shut up and continue.” Another cry.
“What’s going on? Who’s trying to—“ He stops abruptly, gulping down heavy breaths. “Minhyun, I can’t do this, I’m going to turn around—“
“No! You idiot, we’re almost there.”
“But you’re hurt!”
“Only for this stretch—and it’s just a scratch, don’t worry about me.” Seongwoo makes a sound of protest, “I swear to God, Ong Seongwoo, if you turn around, I will kill you."
The threat eases the tension somewhat. Seongwoo huffs out a laugh despite the tears welling up behind his eyes and tightens his grip on Minhyun’s hand, ignoring the way Minhyun’s returning hold is limp in comparison.
Then he hears it—quiet, at first, then louder as Seongwoo stops to pull him closer.
“Never gonna give you up...”
Laughing through his pants, Seongwoo closes his eyes and tries to imagine that Minhyun’s singing in their living room and not scaling up the hill in the underworld. On the couch, in front of their TV, blankets pooled around their hips and coffees cooling on the table.
“Grease ball,” he pants out.
“Keep walking, little pack mule. Never gonna let you down —”
He wills his legs to stop shaking and takes another step.
“Never gonna run around and, de-sert yooouuu —”
Sand fills his shoes, makes them heavier than lead, but he keeps on going. Because although the journey back is rough, Seongwoo knows nothing good ever comes easy—and this could possibly the best turning moment of his life.
“Inside we both know what's been going on, We know the game and we're gonna play it —"
The lights up ahead grow very, very bright, and Seongwoo is conscious of raising his hand before everything turns dark again.
Someone slaps him on the forehead, hard enough that Seongwoo jolts awake in surprise.
“I keep telling you to turn the TV off before you fall asleep.”
He blinks awake—he’s in his living room again, blinds shut with the yellow-ish corner lamp near the couch as the only light source. It is clearly nighttime.
Towering over him is someone wearing an incredibly familiar grey hoodie with hands to his hips. The hoodie is Seongwoo’s. He looks up.
The ‘someone’ is Minhyun.
“You were talking in your sleep,” he continues, clearly ignoring the way Seongwoo is currently mouthing unintelligible words at him in silent shock. “Something about the underworld and me disappearing... Were you watching an apocalyptic movie?”
“Oh, I should probably call for our pizza, otherwise it’ll be too late and you’ll fall asleep again before we get any decent dinner—"
He stops Minhyun from walking away with a grip around his wrist. The action feels so, so familiar, and his throat is sticking from all the nerves bundled up in his being. Their joined hands are shaking slightly, and Seongwoo is pretty sure it’s his. His most recent memory, after all, is one of thick fog and sinking ground on hills. Lately, Minhyun only ever appears in his wildest dreams.
“You’re here,” he says, voice so raspy he thinks Minhyun doesn’t hear him.
But he does. Minhyun’s face clears and his expression softens, smiling like they’re sharing a secret unheard of by the universe. When he leans down for a kiss, his lips are so warm against Seongwoo’s that he lets out a whimper.
“Yes, I am.” There’s something wet on both their cheeks—Seongwoo doesn’t know whose tears they are. “I’m here, I’m safe. With you. Thank you. I love you.”
Seongwoo clutches at Minhyun’s hair and closes his eyes for the kiss, in the hopes that he can make every second count and will remember this day until the end of time.