It trickles back through dreams. They're not particularly intense dreams, at first. Baekho wouldn't even call them nightmares. It's just - a bit unsettling, the constant going back to the same place. He's never experienced recurring patterns like this before.
The world in his dreams is stark light and shadows; light so bright you can't look at it for long, and shadows so thick you could probably sink your teeth into them. The floor under him is old planks of wood, and he can make out four walls and a few pieces of furniture. There's one large window with drawn back curtains and open shutters. Outside, it's always cold, always snow. It reminds him of the kind of small cabin they sometimes end up at during missions, although trying to look at anything with more detail never gets him anywhere - the room seems to expand as he walks through it.
He knows he's not alone there. At first it's just a feeling, an indefinite buzzing under the surface of his skin. Then, as his dreams keep bringing him back to this room, it's too-heavy shapes in the folds of the black velvet curtains. And then it's soft, discreet footsteps in the shadows, and the whisper of fabric gliding on the floor. These days, when Baekho stays unmoving, a hand will come out of the darkness sometimes, with a timecompass tattooed on it. An agent like them, then? Or someone working for the Academy in other capacities?
He couldn't tell why, but he's certain the hand belongs to a boy. He feels like he knows him somehow, like he has met this boy in real life, although that makes no sense. He's only ever known three more agents, and can't picture himself ever going against protocol. Quality Testing teams are never meant to interact, and he would never lose his job over something as trivial as wanting to find out who else is part of the Profession.
He always tries reaching for the hand, but the shadows swallow him whole when he does. These days, Baekho has been starting his mornings with a jolt, suddenly sat up in his bed without even remembering falling asleep. Maybe 'nightmares' is the correct term after all.
Baekho doesn't exactly mean to be obsessionally circling the white statue in the living room with his sword dragging behind him, but that's what he ends up doing upon getting up. It helps him think, or so he tells himself. That's what his sword has been relegated to these days - a meditation tool. They've not been sent on the kind of mission where they'd have to fight yet, so he's only ever used it to intimidate people anyway. (Not that he'd ever say it out loud, but he prides himself on being the best swordfighter in his team). Their latest mission (for the Countess herself) had been a success, so they'd been hoping for a promotion, but now - well, now noone knows what to think.
Baekho only stops his circling and sword-dragging when Minki amiably offers to strangle him.
"So this is what not having a mission for an eternity feels like," Jonghyun says later over breakfast with a sad smile.
Baekho shrugs over his cereal. They've all been restless. Aron spends most of his time on the terrace, as though he could summon a missive from the skies. Minki has been pacing the apartment so much over the last couple of weeks Baekho is sincerely surprised none of the dubious art installations have been hurt in the process. (Not that any of them would mind if that happened. They've never much liked this place anyway. Baekho doesn't hate it with a passion like Aron does, but he can't say he would have picked this kind of decoration for himself. He's extremely conscious of their luck, though - most people would kill for this kind of high standard living).
Their place, like most things provided by the Profession, is clean, opulent and - if Baekho is totally honest - kind of empty-looking despite the overwhelming amount of golden fixtures and Art (or, as Aron would put it: "it's fake as hell is what it is"). Maybe it's overcompensation for the amount of time spent in shoddy retreats and cabins during their missions? They're not often on breaks, anyways. At least, they didn't use to be. Their typical amount of rest time between missions is four to five days, a week at the most. This, right here - these dragging, neverending weeks - that's completely new. They've never had to wait for so long, and Baekho is starting to get seriously worried (what has it been, now? A month, almost?).
They're not allowed to leave the apartment, of course. An urgent missive might come anytime. Plus, they so rarely mingle with the rest of the population that they're happy to avoid any kind of unnecessary social interaction. Confinement comes with the job, they all know and accept that. He wouldn't mind the waiting if only he knew when their next mission would start - but they've had zero news from above, to the point they've started to wonder if there's any use to keeping their timecompasses on their wrists anymore. Minki is certain there's trouble in the upper echelons and that's why no one has contacted them so far, but Minki loves drama. Maybe the explanation is much simpler. Baekho sometimes exchanges nervous looks with Jonghyun, and he knows they've had the same thought: maybe their work has been deemed subpar, and they've been put on the backburner while more skilled teams have taken over. Maybe this is the beginning of the end.
Today, however, is the first day Jonghyun has voiced his boredom out loud. He's not even trying to feign optimism right now, not having taken a bite yet out of the breakfast he's just set for all of them. He's been trying daily to find them occupations, to distract them from the sinuous, velvety gloominess lurking in the backs of their minds. It hasn't worked - they all feel numb, and vaguely anxious. Baekho is grateful he tried, though. Baekho is always grateful for Jonghyun's efforts.
"For some reason, I keep dreaming of that clockforsaken farm," Minki says, reaching over Aron for the milk.
"Dude, that goat," Aron says, which at least gets a strangled laugh out of Jonghyun.
Baekho just grunts. It was the first time they'd worked directly for the newly-elected Countess, and despite the prestige that came with this, he can safely say this had turned out to be one of their most boring, annoying missions to date. All they had to do was to show up on the farm she had grown up in - someplace horribly lost in the mountains, so deeply buried in the woods that it took them three days to find it - and retrieve chronographs from her childhood there. Although they'd been told very little about the specifics of their mission, they knew that these memories they had secured were of the utmost importance to her and her administrative team. She'd made it very clear that she was aiming to become Queen, and if anything she had claimed about her childhood farm-life and her rags-to-riches story that had endeared her to her county could be proven to be false, it could create a huge corruption scandal and would invalidate her legitimacy to the throne. All printed out memories from her 'parents' had thus to be secured. Of course, Baekho and his teammates were not allowed to watch the content on those chronographs. "This is not suspicious at all," Minki had kept deadpanning, but Baekho had decided not to think too hard about it. He never does. They're paid to do what's on their mission sheets - everything else that's out of their control is never worth losing sleep over.
He really likes his job, overall. They're good at what they do; and he takes pride in that, and in their bond. He remembers his fascination as a four year-old kid, how amazed he was that one could stock little slices of memories on black, square-shaped cards, and how long it had taken him to be able to call them 'chronographs' without messing up the pronunciation. Later, as a teenager, he had spent hours at the chronoshop, looking at all the tiny, blank, waiting-to-be-filled cards, and all the different kinds of chronoscreens you could use to read them and access memories. Once he learned that there was a job that entailed looking after the legal use of chronographs (memories, like everything else, could be doctored), his path was all set. He met the other three at the Academy, and they never spent a day without each other ever since. (He thinks at some point, he should use a few of the blank chronographs they have in the study for himself, to secure some of the memories from that era. It's weird. He's not one to get nostalgic, and he doesn't know if it's just an erroneous perception or not, but these days it feels like he can remember less and less of their time at the Academy, like a puzzle missing key pieces).
This last mission - when it was over, they'd received no negative feedback at all. It was given to them precisely because they'd been doing so well on their previous assignments, and had been handed more and more responsibilities over the past few months (now they could even certify the Reality of chronographs for level 2 cases, which had made Jonghyun extremely happy). They would have been informed if their performance was lacking. (Wouldn't they?)
"What if something went wrong?" Baekho finds himself blurting out halfway through his second cereal bowl. When they all look at him nonplussed, he stutters on: "I mean, what if we screwed up somehow? Maybe we did something we weren't meant to do."
Aron and Minki look scandalized at the suggestion, and look ready to go into tirades about how they know perfectly well what the clock they're doing, and they would have noticed if they'd made a mistake in such a simple, straightforward mission, thank you very much, but Jonghyun interrupts them.
"I checked," he says softly, looking down at his still-full plate.
"What?" Aron says.
"I've been going through all our chronographs since the start of our team. I went over those for our last mission as well. There's nothing unusual there. We did exactly what we were asked to, and we did it well. I even thought at one point there was something wrong with the chronographs themselves, because they looked almost - too shiny, if that makes sense," Jonghyun goes on with an embarrassed smile. "I know they've already been certified as Real, but it doesn't hurt to double check, right? So I ran them through all the usual tests, but no, nothing."
So that's what he'd been doing, all locked up in the study room. He was so quiet in there, Baekho had thought that he was working on his upcoming tests (team leaders had to renew their certifications every five years. Although Baekho was pretty sure this was just a formality, Jonghyun, like the perfectionist that he was, had made it a point to start studying months in advance). Baekho's not exactly shocked, though. Jonghyun has always loved this part of their job - the one where they go over the little, black-squared cards, a pipette and test liquid in hand, and check that they haven't been doctored in any way. Baekho much prefers the part where you play the chronographs into the chronoscreens, and witness the memories captured there.
The chronographs they keep in this apartment are not the fun, interesting ones, though. They're records of their job on the field. It's standard procedure anyway to have at least one chronocamera follow them around on their missions and taking snapshots of their memories (they have to wear a special helmet for this, which Minki keeps complaining is an affront to fashion and makes them look like a swarm of dumbfounded beetles). There are stacks of binders in the study, filled to the brim with random memories of their missions, that their supervisors can review at will (they never do) and that Baekho and the others can mobilize if they ever need to prove they did their job correctly. He's impressed at Jonghyun's patience for reviewing all of that - it must have been such tedious work.
"Well, if that's the case, then it's settled - as expected, we can do no wrong ever, and we should stop blaming ourselves for our current missionlessness," Minki declares, punctuating the air with his spoon.
"Either that, or the 'graphs are lying," Aron says.
"Yes, I heavily tempered with them," Jonghyun is quick to add, flicking a bread crumb Aron's way.
"Or," Aron says pointedly, "we're currently in a dream."
Baekho can't really explain what happens next. Everyone's laughing, like they're all taking this opportunity to temporarily let go of their stress, but he can't participate. It's so silly - he knows what Aron said is just a joke. He feels like he's just been punched in the gut, though, and he's having trouble finding his breath. Light seems a little to bright all of a sudden, and a familiar buzzing sensation starts irrigating his skin. The world spins dark and dizzy. Baekho reaches for the water jug in front of him, except the hand that's reflected in the glossy surface is not his own - it has a timecompass tattoo on it. He drops the jug and dashes for his room, ignoring his teammates' alarmed questions and pretexting a violent headache. They make no effort trying to look like they believe him, but they at least respect his need for privacy.
Baekho spends the rest of the day trying to sleep. He can't do it, which to be fair could be attributed to stress, but the thing is - he now realizes he can't remember ever falling asleep for the past month. He has memories of his 'dreams,' of the cabin, of the tattooed boy, but no memories of ever lying down in bed and progressively falling asleep. Now that he thinks about it, he's been having strange experiences around the apartment, all that he's chalked up to stress and tiredness. There's this thing that keeps happening to him, where one of the art pieces around the living room leaves its painting and comes to occupy one part of the room (last time, the painting of the mountain half-spilled its vegetation on the floor; other times, the naked guy with a sheet over his head would leave his frame and stand in a corner). These visions would quickly disappear before Baekho's eyes, but what if they were not hallucinations? Or rather, what if all of this, their life in this apartment ever since their last mission, was one giant sleep-induced hallucination?
There had always been rumors going around at the Academy that the Profession had its own special capital punishment (i.e, permanent, artificially-induced coma) for Time agents (Quality Testers included) that had gone rogue. These rumors were of course even more fueled by the fact that the Academy had always refused to explicitly state what the consequences would be for going against orders in a mission, and that noone knew of an agent who had disobeyed and lived to tell the tale. Effective tactics to scare everyone into falling in line, Baekho had thought at the time, but could those rumors turn out to be true? And if so, what have they done, he and his team? He can't even think of the kind of crime they would have had to commit if this is indeed the sentence they're undergoing now.
You can't fall asleep in dreams. Nor can you verify the Reality of chronographs - the test liquid to detect falsification always comes up negative. Yes, Baekho's sure of it now, he feels it deep in his gut, right where things never lie - this, right here, is not Real. He doesn't know why he's so certain, but he can prove it.
There is a specific binder in the study full of doctored chronographs - not ones linked to heavy crime (those are of course kept elsewhere), but Level 1 ones they'd confiscated on earlier missions, of people tampering with specific moments of their lives in mostly harmless ways, to make themselves look better or to gain some kind of profit. lf this world Beakho's in at the moment is indeed Reality, then all these fake chronographs should not be able to pass the tests, and the test liquid should turn red. But if it doesn't -
He'll sneak into the study early tomorrow morning, when all the others are still in their rooms, and he'll get the answer. He doesn't want to worry everyone else if it turns out he's just been paranoid; and if he's right, he'll have the proof to back it up. Jonghyun knocks twice on his door at dinner time, and leaves a plate of samgyeopsal on his doorstep when Baekho doesn't come out.
Finally nighttime engulfs the street outside his window, and his room; and the shadows bring with them the cabin, and the boy. Baekho gets up - he's back on the old planks of wood. The snow has been falling so hard outside it has almost entirely coated the window panes. The boy starts as a rustling sound behind a chair, then turns into the faint outline of a hooded figure near the doorsill. This time when Baekho reaches out for him, he is able to grasp his hand. Fleetingly, he thinks he can make out the outline of his face, but the next second the boy disappears completely. Baekho's suddenly struck with a memory of Jonghyun, Minki, Aron and himself hanging out behind the porch of their dorm. These were the first winter holidays he'd ever spent at the Academy, and on that day they were all adding details to the snowman they'd just made. While the three others are busy rummaging the garden for things to add, Baekho sees himself inserting a small twig for an arm, and realizes there's someone else crouching behind the snowman. That someone - his voice sounds warm and friendly, like soft, night-coated blankets - is asking him to take out the twig and hand it to him instead (he'll use it for the nose). Baekho can't see his face behind the snowman, but he immediately recognizes the hand that surges up when he gives out the twig. The whole world becomes suddenly engulfed with snow, and Baekho has to shield his eyes away from the brightness.
He spends the rest of the night hearing whispers - he's not sure whether he's in the cabin or in his bedroom, but he can't seem to find the way back to his bed. He thinks he sits down at some point, but he can't feel the ground underneath him. His body feels cold, maybe, so he focuses on the whispers. The whispers are soft, and warm, and coated with deep black molasses. He puts all his energy in trying to listen, but he can't make out what they're saying. At times it sounds like they're repeating a name, which sometimes sounds like "Minki" and other times sounds like "Jonghyun." Baekho gives up after a while.
Baekho's entire body shakes the next morning as he pours a little bit of liquid over one of the doctored chronographs. It stays crystal clear. He knew it already - he just needed the others to see. He hadn't even done the experiment by himself first, like he'd planned to. He'd dragged them all out of their beds as soon as the dawn came seeping into his room, and now they're all gathered around him in the study room. There's a long, horrified silence as Minki, Aron and Jonghyun take in the measure of what they've just witnessed. Baekho hates seeing this kind of fear in Jonghyun's eyes, he starts feeling it rise in his stomach as well. The plan was to show them - he had no more plan after that, no idea of how they could ever wake up from this place. Before they can surrender to panic, however, Baekho's gaze is drawn to a piece of paper falling from one of the shelves seemingly out of its own volition. It's their status report after the last mission, the large W for 'Waiting for next missive' stamped on top of it. The sheet has fallen upside down from where they're standing, though, and the W now reads M.
"Minhyun," Baekho hears someone whispering, then realizes the whisper came from him. It coats his mouth with the faint taste of molasses.
His members stand unmoving, like they're scared of breathing. Baekho catches Jonghyun's eyes, and smiles.
"I know who we need to follow to get us out of here."