"Isn’t it beautiful?" Jihoon says, at the same time that Seokmin says, "Oh hell no."
Jihoon glances at him over the top of the car, eyebrow raised, and then looks back to the house, and yeah, okay, maybe Seokmin’s got a point. Maybe he has admiring this vista through rose-tinted glasses; seeing the potential the house holds as opposed to the decaying structure that stands before him.
The property needs a hell of a lot of work—that much is evident even without stepping inside. But Jihoon was never looking for a pristine, cookie-cutter apartment smack bang in the middle of town. If he was opting for normalcy, he would have bought a tidy little house a stone’s throw away from his new job. Instead he wanted peace and quiet; he yearned to be someplace with character, somewhere lived in.
And he found it: Choi Manor.
This is the home calling to him, and he loves every bit of it. The imposing gothic architecture, with its vaulted ceilings and spider-leg like flying buttresses, the tall arched windows, still with the original glasswork in them. The roof alone is an architectural marvel; despite its many absent and warped shingles, it’s still sharp and jagged and immense, in a way that makes it look not so much like a roof as a decorative shroud that blankets the house. He even loves the original burnt red brickwork; dirty and faded as it is, it still seems to shine out at him from certain angles. So much so, he can almost see the house in all its former glory, feel the intrinsic beauty of the structure. It must have shone like a beacon at the turn of the century, and he can’t believe it’s been left neglected for so long.
And of course, he can’t forget the piece de resistance waiting inside: a magnificent grand staircase in the center of it all; so large and vast it takes up a fifth of the floor plan.
Jihoon knows, he's seen the blueprints—and until now, that’s all he’s seen actually.
Admittedly, that was a bit of a risk.
One wouldn’t usually buy a house before seeing the inside, having a thorough walk around. But seeing as the estate agent refused to hold an open house and nobody, oddly enough, was available to show Jihoon around, it was a risk he was forced to take.
It hardly mattered when he saw the asking price. Sure, the house has been unoccupied for decades, perhaps even longer, it’s going to need a lot of work before it’s rendered completely habitable, but the auction price was so shockingly low, Jihoon didn’t hesitate to place an offer there and then.
Who in their right mind would miss out on a chance to live here?
“I know you have your reservations, but I think it’s beautiful. I’ve always wanted to live in a house like this.” Jihoon repeats, ignoring the dubious look Seokmin tosses his way.
“Right,” Seokmin drawls, stepping around the car, shaking his head, “Sorry, I forgot, you have some special dictionary where beautiful is interchangeable with creepy as fuck.”
“Hey, no! It’s—” Jihoon waves a hand, “Yeah, okay, I’ll give you that. At first glance it kind of sets you on edge. But look at the size of it, the potential. For what I paid for it, this is a total steal.”
There’s a peal of laughter from the trunk, where’s Seokmin’s already started unloading the bags, “Jihoon, haven’t you ever wondered why this place was so cheap? It’s not a steal when absolutely nobody else wants to live here.”
Jihoon makes a motion that isn’t so much a shrug as the suggestion of one. “Whatever, just…..finish unloading my stuff would you. I’m going to go check out the back, see if I can find the generator.”
Taking the crumbling stone path that circles the Manor, Jihoon makes his way towards the back of the house, pausing just past the archway that leads into the garden.
It too has seen better days.
Mist swirls in lethargic clouds along the ground, as far as the furthest treeline, and the omnipresent hum of crickets drowns out almost all other ambient noise. Jihoon stops to inspect a decaying tree, which must have once flowered beautifully, but now twists into the sky like a great, gnarled hand. The shrubbery is unkept too, in serious need of a weed whacker, but he can just make out a for-sale sign abandoned in the uncut grass, a little rusty around the edges, as if it has been there for some time.
According to the blueprints, the generator is housed in the old servant’s quarters—which turns out to be a completely separate structure to the rest of the house. A clunky grey lockbox hangs from the front rail, but Jihoon finds the spare key, still resting atop the doorframe and makes his way inside, aided by the light from his cell phone.
The generator he finds is a seriously old one—a vintage model from the 20’s. This is unexpected, and frustration hits him. It's not going to fucking work, and he’s screwed until the electrician arrives on Monday morning to sort the main circuits inside. He flips it on without much hope, and jerks back in shock when it immediately powers to life.
This thing is so rusted and ancient, it really shouldn't work. But not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Jihoon is just glad that it does.
When he gets back to the front of the house, it's almost fully dark save for the vague, flickering light from the porch lamp hanging outside. They have power, but it’s clearly unsteady; he'll have to use as little of it as he can until he sorts out an electrician.
Seokmin, who is moving the smaller boxes to the front porch, does a double take when Jihoon joins him. “Wha—how’d you get down here so fast?”
“What are you talking about?” Jihoon says, quirking a brow. “I was just around back—starting the generator, remember?”
Seokmin eyes widen with obvious surprise, and maybe a hint of confusion. “But I—” He pauses to glance up at the house, looking like he’s searching for something to say that might make sense. “I could’ve sworn I saw you in the window. I thought you’d gone inside.”
“Ha—ha, you’re hilarious," Jihoon snorts, grabbing one of the suitcases and dragging it towards the porch.
Turning the key in the lock, it takes him a few tries before he can nudge open the heavy front door with his shoulder. It clearly hasn’t been a serviceable entrance in some time, and when he finally pushes it all the way open, the air that gusts out of the house feels like an exhale.
When he turns to determine Seokmin’s whereabouts, he’s startled to find his friend standing motionless next to the car, gaze still fixed on the top window of the house.
"Oh, c’mon, are you just taking the piss, or are you genuinely scared?" Jihoon asks.
He can feel the grin start to pull up the corners of his mouth and wonders why he's holding it back. Maybe it’s the blank look on his usually cheery friend’s face, the way his eyes remain drawn to that same window with an unsettling intensity.
A moment later, Seokmin seems to shake himself out of it, tearing his gaze away from the house and back to the piles of luggage pooled at his feet.
“Sorry, I just—I’m probably just tired from the long drive. It’s making me see things.” He murmurs, vaguely flustered.
“Yeah, probably.” Jihoon smiles tiredly, holding the door open.
It had been depressing to think that the entirety of Jihoon’s 25-year existence could be condensed into two suitcases and a handful of storage boxes, but when it comes to uprooting and dragging your ass half-way across the country, the convenience certainly makes up for it.
Sure, he had to leave behind a few bulkier items; a settee set and his bedframe to speak of a few, but nothing valuable enough to warrant the hassle of a moving truck. And besides, it’s not like any of that IKEA flat-packed shit would have looked right against the gothic backdrop of his new home. Which, astonishingly, appears to have come full furnished anyway.
Jihoon can’t quite believe his eyes when he drags his first suitcase inside, because he’d envisioned vast, empty rooms that would take a lifetime and a half to fill with his possessions, expected anything of value to have long been stripped away and auctioned off. But poking his head into one room, he’s pleasantly surprised to find everything has been carefully preserved.
Granted, some of the floor boards are uneven and creaky, and the doors no longer fit in their bent frames, but all the original fixtures and fittings, all the furniture and portraits that once lined the walls, even the massive ornate chandeliers have been left untouched.
It’s like nobody has bothered with this place in years, not even teenagers or vagrants or urban explorers—which strikes him as a little odd, really. A house this large and old, so far off the edge of the map should have been ransacked ages ago. But there's no graffiti on the walls, and no evidence anywhere of drunken frat parties or legions of stoners using it as a party house.
It's caked in dust, but otherwise pristine.
Abandoning his suitcase near the entrance, he leaves Seokmin to unpack the rest of the car so he can have his first proper look around, navigating blindly from one room to the next, through endless halls of brittle carpets and high ceilings.
Almost immediately his nose tickles from the musty air and dust that coats everything. Months, perhaps even years of the stuff.
The foyer he finds himself walking through is huge, with multiple archways leading off to various wings of the house. At random, he heads right, into what he assumes must have been the library, even though there isn’t a single book to be found inside. Except for a few torn pages littering the moth-eaten floor, the bookcases lie bare, contents secreted away somewhere for safekeeping.
It’s just a dusty room now, full of ticking clocks and threadbare carpets.
The kitchen, at least, appears to have been left untouched—with a wood stove in the corner, an oversized China hutch brimming with collectibles and an array of copper pots and pans lining one side of the wall. The cabinets and countertops might have been revamped sometime in the mid-century, but not too noticeably. Aesthetically, it still retains its original charm; functional, but largely faithful to the 1930’s décor he’s been feeling throughout.
Continuing his exploration, Jihoon moves through the rooms of the ground floor, turning on a few lights, and only long enough for a cursory glance. When he reaches the main hall with its massive staircase, he slows his pace.
There's hardly any working lighting here—except for the single flickering chandelier at the top of the staircase.
Nevertheless, the staircase is a masterpiece, even grander than what he’d imagined, and he spends a few moments admiring it from all angles. Considering how old it is, it is remarkably preserved, though it looks like at some point some idiot made the regrettable decision to put the ugliest patterned carpet over it.
Moving swiftly on, Jihoon doubles back, through a set of heavy double doors at the base of the steps and into a room so large he has to squint to see the far wall.
All the furniture has been pushed into the center of the room and covered in a huge white sheet—but a square shape looms in the corner, all on its own. Curiosity draws him over to it before anything else, and he whips the sheet aside to reveal a vintage turntable, straight out of the 20s.
Jihoon isn’t a connoisseur of music by any means. Sure, he learned to play the piano as a child, though only because his mother insisted he be well-rounded. So he has no idea how much something like this is worth, or even if it still works—but when it comes to a find like this, it hardly matters.
It’s just so damn cool.
There’s a stack of records under it, and one actually on it, and just as Jihoon reaches out to position the needle, somewhere, in the rooms above his head, something gives a low, decisive thump.
“Seokmin?” Jihoon calls out instinctively, edging towards the door.
As if in response, the sound comes again. Louder this time, and when he thinks about it, it sounds less like a heavy footstep than something falling; something with great weight and substance, but also a softness.
Something made of flesh.
Stepping out of the Grand room, Jihoon lingers at the staircase, staring up at the second-floor landing.
As he starts up the stairs, a door opens behind him.
“That’s the last of the boxes.” Seokmin grunts, struggling with two overflowing cartons of kitchen stuff. He barely manages to plunk them down at his feet before every dish Jihoon owns goes crashing to the floor. “Oh, and thanks for helping by the way. I couldn’t have managed on my own.”
Shifting uneasily, Jihoon makes himself look away, back up the sloping staircase.
“Were you…were you upstairs just now?”
“Uh….no.” Seokmin draws the word out, in a voice that perfectly mingles surprise and unease. “I was unpacking your stuff. W-why do you ask?”
Jihoon swallows nervously, wondering whether it’s wise to admit to what he heard and risk putting his friend even more on edge. It’s probably nothing, probably just a large mouse scuttling across the floorboards, or a stray bird flying around in one of the rooms, knocking things over.
"Jihoon..." Seokmin begins hesitantly, when Jihoon is silent for too long, and Jihoon quickly levels a teasing grin at him, thumping him playfully in the shoulder.
“It’s nothing, I’m just messing with you.”
Seokmin lets out his breath in exasperation. “Dude, don’t. This place is creepy enough without you adding that kind of shit to the mix.”
“So, uhm, I’m going to head back into town, find a motel for the night or something.”
“What?” Jihoon startles, pulling his head out of a box he was rooting through and straightening up. Seokmin’s standing by the kitchen door, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He’s already got his jacket and car keys in hand. “No, don’t be stupid, you can stay here. There’s more than enough rooms.” He argues,
Seokmin cringes—actually cringes. He looks strained and a little put-upon, but he answers sincerely. “You know I’d do anything for you Hoonie, but please don’t make me stay here tonight. This is place is….it’s really freaking me out.”
Jihoon blinks disbelievingly, dusting off the Styrofoam peanuts clinging to his T-shirt. “It’s just an old house dude. It just needs some love and attention.”
Seokmin’s grin is hesitant but genuine when he adds, “And a few dozen human sacrifices to appease the demon in the attic I spotted earlier.”
“Would you shut up.” Jihoon huffs, levelling him with a look of disdain. “You didn’t see anything okay, it’s just your eyes playing tricks on you. There’s nothing here but us.”
“Nevertheless, I’m not going to hang around to prove you wrong. Don’t worry through, I’ll be back first thing in the morning.” Seokmin says, offering a more rueful smile as he heads to the front door.
For his first night in his new home, Jihoon picks a bedroom at random to sleep, which just so happens to be the Master bedroom.
When he hits the switch on the wall, nothing happens for a second, and then one bulb in the glass chandelier flickers to life. It doesn’t help in lighting the massive room one bit, but it’s enough to let Jihoon explore without the risk of knocking into things.
A ridiculously classic bed dominates the centre of the room: Four posts, masterfully carved from black mahogany and polished to a high sheen rise at each corner. The wooden posts and headboard match the other pieces of furniture in the room, all of them just as opulent and intimidating as the bed Jihoon is inching toward the edge of.
He’s almost certain the sheets he bought won’t fit this giant mattress. In fact, he doubts he’ll be able to get his hands on sheets that will fit that aren’t custom made, but he’ll make do for now, and his attention is quickly drawn elsewhere because across from the bed is the largest mirror he’s ever seen.
It spans the entire height of the room, from the dusty floorboards to the vaulted ceiling, and right down the centre is a large hairline crack.
It’s a crying shame, because it’s a beautiful mirror and, remarkably, completely dust free.
Jihoon doesn’t particularly enjoy the idea of waking up to his reflection every morning, but the mirror is clearly too huge to move and seems to be built into the wall anyway. A permanent fixture whether he likes it or not.
Admittedly, there’s an eerie quality about the house; all this extravagance, faded and fractured and rusted over. But there’s something about this room in particular that’s giving Jihoon the wigs.
He can’t put his finger on it, but Jihoon sure will be glad to start sprucing up the place, adding his own homely touches.
When he checks his watch, it’s almost 10pm already and so he pulls the white sheets off the furniture and unpacks a few things before calling it a night. He has a few days before he starts his new job, so has plenty of time to clean and unpack when he’s not exhausted.
He brushes his teeth and changes into his sleep clothes in the large en-suite, before padding back into the room, towards the bed and—
Something in Jihoon's chest constricts.
He stops mid-stride, turning slowly to look back over his shoulder, and for a moment, he feels guilty for making light of Seokmin chickening out on him earlier, because he just had a shit-your-pants moment of his own.
It had only been a second, just one quick glance into the mirror out of the corner of his eye, but he could have sworn he saw something in the corner of the room.
The shape of a man—sitting in the armchair.
There’s nothing there now, obviously, and nothing reflected in the mirror either. Which, yeah, probably the curtains shifting a little and messing with his head.
The house is just really drafty.
Things are probably always moving around here.
Seokmin does return early the next morning, armed with fresh coffee and groceries and a sheepish look on his face that says he’s probably feeling guilty for chickening out last night. For leaving Jihoon alone in the house while he slept nice and snug in a motel somewhere, but Jihoon’s too happy to see him to point that out though, and busies himself preparing breakfast.
“How was your first night?” Seokmin asks, opening the bag of bagels he'd picked up on the way.
“It was—" Jihoon pauses midway through ripping the newspaper off a mug, “Fine.”
Seokmin glances at him, serious, and Jihoon just can't manage to pull on a cheeky grin in enough time, though he tries.
"No, it wasn’t.” Seokmin breathes, pointing a finger at him; vaguely accusing, “You saw something, didn’t you?"
"Honestly," Jihoon scoffs. But for some stupid reason he just can’t bring himself to say, 'No I didn't.'
When Seokmin leaves to begin his lengthy journey back home, Jihoon forgets all about the figure he saw in the mirror and goes about his business: unpacking his belongings, removing all the white sheets off the furnishings and dusting down the surfaces. Returning things to their rightful place.
After a few hours, all the heavy lifting is threatening to put out his back, and he decides to take a break and go through the stuff in the attic. Spiders or not, he'll be damned if he’s going to let a thousand, million, bijillion even—huge, hairy spiders scare him out of an entire space in his own home. So that afternoon, after a light lunch, he slips a dust mask over his face and heads to the top of the house.
Annoyingly, his plans are quickly derailed when he finds the entrance to the attic completely sealed off.
Not only is the door locked tight, but it’s been covered in old wallpaper, and the keyhole he finds also seems to have been filled over with some kind of crude yellow plaster, so he can’t even peek inside. He spends a while scraping it out, then even longer trying to unlock the damn thing, but inexplicably, none of the keys the estate agent had given him seem to work.
He’s not one for giving up so easily, and finally, after a quick study of the blueprints, he discovers another way inside: an attic ladder concealed in one of the closets. A hidden entrance of sorts.
The dust falls into his eyes immediately when he pulls the ladder down, and he briefly considers returning downstairs to fetch his goggles; this is going to be murder on his allergies. He soldiers on anyway, ducking his head and covering his eyes, waiting for it to settle before reaching up and pulling the hanging light-chain that drops down.
It still looks pretty dark up there, with nothing but a bare, swinging bulb illuminating the musty space.
Jihoon begins to climb anyway, taking careful note of the mouse droppings on the dusty floor, the giant spiderwebs clinging to the corners….and in the center of the attic, front lit, the man in a suit and hat. A man who advances on him, making not a sound.
Jihoon starts back so suddenly, he loses his footing on the ladder. But he doesn’t fall—he doesn’t break his neck. He manages, somehow, to catch a grip of the dusty, split wood of the ladder with one hand, to hold on while he scrubs at his eyes furiously with the other.
There’s nothing there when he looks up, nothing but a hat stand with an old coat hanging from it and a bowler hat perched on top. The shadows made by the swinging light stretch and arch, then fall back.
"Oh fuck," Jihoon breathes, laughing a little helplessly as he hauls himself the rest of the way up into the attic.
As expected, there's a shit ton of stuff to sort through: books and paintings, toys and furniture; crates upon crates of old antiques and dulled silverware. Melancholy remnants of another life lived in this home. Some of it could even be something of real value, some of it too decayed to even hold.
And some of it just plain creepy.
The collection of porcelain dolls for one—the cracked and chipped faces, the glass eyes that stare endlessly on. Jihoon stares back at one of them, a small blonde one with its silk hair cut pageboy style. It’s got one eye open and one shut, like he's winking at him. He shudders and turns away. His grandmother used to collect dolls but, personally, he’s never been a big fan.
Aside from that, it's pretty damn spectacular up here, but that's to be expected. The whole house is pretty damn spectacular, with lots of vintage finds that appeals to Jihoon's thrifty tastes.
Like the antique grandfather clock standing against the wall for instance. Jihoon walks over to it, on creaking floorboards, brushing aside a few cobwebs.
"Wow," he breathes, running a finger down the dusty face of the clock, leaving a clean streak. It’s overcast now, but he imagines what it would look like in the grand room, how the sun would illuminate its bronzed façade through the dust motes in late afternoon.
Taking a cloth from his pocket, he brushes it down.
It still looks to be in good condition, though the hands are stuck at ten O’clock, and he can’t help but wonder—what happened the day it stopped and never started again, when whoever had owned it last had just stopped winding it?
Jihoon stares at it, imagining it ticking away some other person's life, chiming out someone else's existence—sunrise, lunchtime, supper, bedtime. Until it had stopped one day, for whatever reason, and whoever had owned it had just brought it up here.
Or maybe it had been brought up after the death of the previous owner. He's never researched any of the other families that had owned this house. It might be cool to look into that, if he has time.
Carefully he opens the casing, blows into it to clear out the dust. There’s not much light up here to allow him to tinker at it right now, but he thinks he’ll ask Seokmin to come over one weekend and help him move it downstairs. A beautiful piece like this should be on display, not rotting up here.
“What’s a beauty like you doing up here? You should be on display downstairs.” Jihoon tells the clock.
Behind him, someone sighs, and Jihoon spins around, breath catching in his throat.
There’s nothing but the coat rack and the bare hanging bulb.
It flickers briefly.
Jihoon shakes his head, shutting the casing again.
You're being ridiculous—he tells himself.
Obviously that sound is just another draft in an old house. Something he’ll eventually get used to, he’s sure.
Working quickly, he does his best to clean the attic without disrupting too many things. The floorboards aren’t exactly stable, and he can’t risk moving something too heavy that sends him crashing into the floor below. So he focuses on polishing the surfaces, wiping away the cobwebs and stacking the books strewn over the floor into a small chest he finds.
It looks so much better when he finishes, and it feels—warmer?
Moving to the old wardrobe in the corner, he pries the door open, begins sorting through the old clothes he finds there; a little worse for wear, moth-eaten and torn. There is an ornate music box inside though, pushed to the very back. A single string of music plays when he opens it, but the mechanism jams not a second later, grinding the tiny spinning dancer in the center to a halt.
A shame it’s broken really, it’s a beautiful box. Though on closer inspection, it’s not just the mechanism that is damaged. There’s a small hand on the tiny figurines shoulder, where another tiny figurine should stand, poised to dance. And on the back, the inscription has been scratched through, scored through with such force Jihoon can barely make out what it once said.
To my l..oving….
“To my loving wife?”
The second the words leave Jihoon’s mouth, the hat stand comes tumbling down, crashing against the floor to his left.
Jihoon jumps, spine tingling.
He swallows hard; his throat feels tight. The mask over his face becomes stifling; he yanks it off.
Anxiously, he returns the music box where he found it, folds the old clothes away and back into the wardrobe. He hasn’t really sorted through anything here, and most of it should be thrown out, but he’ll leave them for now. He doesn’t want to spend more time here than strictly necessary, and honestly….
He can’t shake this feeling that he’s outstayed his welcome.
Even though he can't see or hear anything, the attic feels uncomfortably full.
Like something’s looming over him, breathing down his neck.
He moves back over to stairs and turns around to descend, grabbing the hanging light-chain on his way. Before he pulls it and kills the light, he catches sight of the attic door at the far side, the one he couldn’t enter through earlier.
It’s standing wide open now, a rusted key in the lock—the darkness beyond like a great mouth, or the cave of an unseen beast.
Jihoon feels a single, brief chill of fear as he reaches up and grabs hold of the cold door latch in his hand; but nothing reaches for him, nothing comes to drag him back into that empty attic, nothing leans in close to breathe against his sweat-damp face.
The electrician arrives on Monday and restores full power to house, and Jihoon busies himself setting up a Wi-Fi connection so he can skype chat with Jeonghan.
He attempts to give him a tour of the house but the screen freezes on and off the deeper he ventures, and soon the enthusiasm drains out of him when Jeonghan says, “I’m sitting here in the comfort of my own home and I’m getting chills.”
Jeonghan’s sitting on the couch in his living room from what Jihoon can discern of his background on the webcam.
“The place looks creepy. Why did you have to move all the way out there?”
Jihoon recognizes the faint frown of worry marring his forehead, and looks away, feeling like he's swallowed something sharp.
Instead, he focuses on the small thumbnail in the corner of his screen, looking at his own image as Jeonghan sees it. The high contrast of his webcam defining the tired lines around his eyes.
“Because I needed to get away, Hannie. I needed a fresh start.”
Jeonghan sighs and shakes his head. “Sehun’s gone Jihoon. He isn’t going to bother you again. We won’t let him hurt you.”
Out of sight of his webcam, Jihoon rubs at his ring-finger. He never wore the ring long enough to leave an indentation or tan around it.
“You don’t know him like I do. He always finds a way to get to me. He’s cruel and domineering and sick in the head.”
That’s a sanitized description of Sehun, anyway.
Jihoon had ended their engagement after things had taken an ugly turn; there had been accusations and shouting, and even after giving Jihoon a black eye, a broken wrist and bruised ribs by throwing him down the stairs, Sehun had descended those stairs intent on doing more damage. That fucker.
Jihoon scrubs a hand over his face, and forces himself to take a deep, even breath. “Can we please talk about something else? How’s Jisoo?”
“That’s my phone, hang on a sec. ” Jeonghan says, looking away from the webcam, down at something in his hand – probably his phone.
Jihoon nods, allowing his gaze to drift back to the image capture in the corner.
There’s someone standing right behind him, a figure on the screen.
There’s a pressure on his shoulder, a brush of breath against the shell of his ear.
Jihoon’s voice gets stuck in the walls of his throat, caught by the fresh pulse of panic that erupts in his chest. Heart pounding, he turns his head, holding his breath.
There’s nothing but the open doorway leading to the kitchen, a flickering light beyond that.
There’s nothing there now. There probably never was.
He’s just tired.
“It's Jisoo,” Jeonghan says, looking back up. “He’s asking if.... Jihoon? You all right?”
Jeonghan’s voice, however, full of gentle concern, clears some of the panic from his head.
Jihoon fixes his gaze back to the screen, and for a few horrible moments he can’t speak at all.
Then, hoarsely, he chokes out, “Yes, fine.”
Jihoon ends the call sooner than he expected, feeling a little shaky.
It starts insidiously, the way all worrisome situations tend to start: with small signs that only vaguely hint of what’s lying in wait.
The floors creak like footsteps when there’s nobody else home. The lights flicker like candles. The wind whistles through tiny cracks in the walls and the ceiling drips when it storms. The house phone works well enough, with only the occasional, faint burst of static to disrupt communication.
All the things you would expect from an old house.
His keys, his phone, his shoes—he can never find them where he left them last. His mail seems to make it the study without him ever moving it, and most of the letters are torn open before he’s even read them. The music box he found in the attic appears on his bedside table one morning, and the tiny figurine of the female dancer he finds under his pillow. He keeps catching half-glimpses of figures in the hallway too; shadows and shapes that aren’t ever there when he turns to look at them fully. A few times, as he’s passing the large mirror in the room, he thinks he sees a man staring back at him.
Sometimes it's a man with brown eyes and a laughing smile. Other times, the same man, but bloodied and beaten.
There’s never anything there when he looks a second time.
It happens too often to be mere stress, but that’s what he puts it down to anyway and resorts to taking a few sleeping pills at night to knock him right out. Then he trips going up the stairs, landing really hard on his outstretched hand, dropping his pile of laundry and spraining his wrist.
A stupid little accident that people make every day. Nothing to really worry about.
Except that in the back of his mind, Jihoon knows that he didn’t just trip.
He'd actually seen something that had gotten his attention, and for a fraction of a second he'd felt a sharp, pulling vertigo.
Maybe I'm working too hard it. Wouldn't be the first time I've run myself into the ground. I’m just tired, there’s nothing to worry about...
Except he'd seen a a man through the staircase spindles, looming in the kitchen doorway.
Just for a second.
Just standing there watching Jihoon ascend, and then he'd seen him actually turn and walk away. That’s when the vertigo had hit and bam, he'd almost faceplanted on the stairs. Laundry everywhere.
If that isn’t a hallucination, he doesn't know what is.
Just to be safe, he checks the front door and makes sure it’s locked, then moves from room to room to check all the windows. He searches every room for the man he’s seen, with no results. So far, each room has been empty.
Making his way to the back of the house, he passes a bank of windows stretching the full length of the wall beside him. There’s grey, subdued light leaking in from outside. It’s an odd contrast to the way this place looks from the outside in. On the drive back to the house earlier, the grounds and trees were scattered noisily with reds, oranges, bright yellows—all glowing beneath the unapologetic glint of sunlight.
Jihoon stops to look more closely now, and as he sets a hand on the glass he realizes he can barely make out the contours of his car parked outside, or the tree line beyond. There’s no hint of the red-rainbowed colours of autumn—nothing but foggy grey, a stubborn swirl of mist softening the edges of the world and leaving it muted and dull and colourless. The sun must be out there somewhere, because light drifts coolly through the windows. But it’s the kind of bland, overcast light that leaves a soul feeling restless and smothered.
Suddenly, there’s movement, soft and subtle against the pale tones of the outside world. Two figures walking away from the house, a man and woman, hand in hand.
Jihoon presses his face to the glass to see them, but then he realizes that it’s just the smudge of his breath on the glass.
There are no more incidents during the rest of the week, and the week after that.
He starts his new job and forgets about the incident in the way that Jihoon forgets everything he deems mostly unimportant, which is that he doesn't entirely forget it. He just files it away for later perusal, should the need arise.
Two weeks later, the need does arise.
As he parks his car and walks towards the house, he looks up to find a figure standing by the window on the top floor. Just for a second, but enough to make him start sweating under his winter coat.
It’s useless by then to pretend not to worry, and so he decides to call the estate agent that sold him the house.
“Global Real estate, Baekhyun speaking.” A man answers the number Jihoon dials.
“Hey Baekhyun! It’s Lee Jihoon, you sold me Choi Manor.”
The line goes quiet.
Jihoon pulls his cell away from his ear to check it the call has dropped, but the screen is still lit—he’s still connected. He puts the phone back to his ear, listens intently to the sound of quiet breathing on the other side.
There is no answer, and a second later the call drops.
Jihoon rings again, but the phone just rings and rings with no answer.
Undeterred, Jihoon sends an email off requesting a quick meeting with the agency sometime this week. But when he checks his Gmail inbox a few hours later, his email has been re-routed back with a notification that the receiver has blocked his email address.
What the fuck is going on?
Choi Manor has been sitting empty for almost seventy-six years.
That’s what all of Jihoon’s painstaking research says.
It’s becoming crystal clear to him that most of the files Baekhyun sent over about the house purchase were bullshit, no matter how perfectly they checked out at the time. Records can be forged, deeds faked, a fictional owner dreamed up out of the ether. Jihoon could kick himself for being so blind, but really—who questions the small discrepancies in paperwork when you’re offered a house at a tenth of its value?
You just sign your name, hand over your life savings and hope for the best.
That’s what Jihoon did, and that’s why he’s stuck here.
Music wakes him a few hours later.
He can't make out what it is, because it's somewhere in the distance, but it sends alarms ringing all over his body. His immediate reaction is his most rational; I’ve left my phone downstairs—a new ringtone.
But when he twists to look at the bedside table, his phone is there, glowing softly in its charger.
That doesn't mean there isn’t a rational explanation—He assures himself.
Maybe it’s his laptop. Maybe he left just left it sitting open without remembering it. It's possible. And then maybe a pop-up loaded on the webpage, playing some kind of music. Or equally, he could have left his Skype account logged in, and somebody is calling him at….2:45am.
It wouldn't be the first time—Jihoon thinks.
In the meantime, the muffled music continues to play.
Slowly, quietly, Jihoon eases himself out of the bed.
He grabs the slippers next to the bed and shakes them out, making sure nothing has crawled into them before sliding them on. Tugging on his hoodie, he leaves the door open as he goes down the hall, slowly, carefully.
He searches for the light-switch and presses it on. The lights lining the ceiling flicker to dim life.
The music floats up from downstairs and Jihoon follows it. From the top of the stairs, it sounds less like a skype notification, less like a pop-up ad on a left-open laptop. It's scratchy, warbly.
Jihoon moves down the stairs quickly, wishing he’d grabbed his cell phone because now he's convinced that somebody has broken into his house.
Maybe it’s that man he’d seen before, or maybe even Sehun.
Oh, fuck—it’s probably fucking Sehun.
Sehun has made good on his threat to find him after all. He’s traced him here, and now Jihoon’s going to have to face the man down in his pyjamas and ask him to leave. And if he doesn’t—he’ll have to make him leave because there’s nobody around to help him for miles.
Jihoon reaches the bottom of the stairs and swivels around so he's pressed behind the banister. He's in a cold sweat now, just like the last time he had to face his abusive ex. It’s clear now that the music he’s hearing is coming from the turntable in the Great room.
He needs to turn it off if he's going to be able to hear anything, so he edges out from behind the banister, keeping his back to the wall until he slips through the doorway.
Glancing around the room, he takes everything in at once: the black velvet curtains, the sofa that he can't see behind, the doorway into the kitchen. The many places someone could be hiding behind.
“Just—come out. Okay. I don’t want to fight.” He calls out.
The only sound he hears is the music from the turntable; the record keeps warbling.
On shaky legs, Jihoon makes his way towards it slowly, and reaches for the arm of the turntable. The second he stops the music the chandelier overhead sparks once and then dies. Jihoon's laptop, charging on the table, provides illumination for a heartbeat longer, distant and pearly, and then it powers down.
It's as if someone has cut the power.
Jihoon glances wildly around his darkened room, too quickly for his eyes to adjust. The darkness is so sudden and intense that it plays tricks on his eyes—makes the walls in front of him seem to bustle with movement. A new sound reaches his ears, and he feels like his skin is going to come crawling off his bones as he recognizes it as wet, laboured breathing.
No matter how desperately his eyes scan the shadows along the periphery of the room, looking for source, he can’t pretend he doesn’t know the sound is coming from right behind him.
Even as he spins in circles—it’s behind him.
It’s always behind him.
There’s no point lying to himself, he’s not alone in this house anymore.
He’s never been alone in here.
Something chuckles in the darkness and it feels like it’s coming from every corner.
All of the hair on Jihoon’s body stands up.
Suddenly, there is a hand at his waist, fingertips digging into the thin skin above his hipbone, beneath his t-shirt. He gasps, and the fingers press harder. Another set of fingers close around his throat, tilting his head back, making him vulnerable to a threat he can’t even see.
He feels a heavy pressure at his back, like there’s a body attached to the hands pressing up against him. Jihoon can feel the intruder's every exhale in shorts gusts against his cheek.
“I don’t want to fight.”
It’s an eerie echo of what he said just minutes before, but the voice—amused and rich—is what really sets his pulse racing. He's never felt so thoroughly chilled before, so weirdly afraid, so helplessly thrilled.
That isn’t Sehun’s voice.
Jihoon doesn’t actually know who the fuck that sultry voice belongs to, but he doesn’t wait to find out who it is. He finds it in him to struggle then, twisting out of reach and running.
It isn’t a conscious decision, just pure, animal panic that wraps itself around his heart like a cold fist. He bolts out of the room, as fast as his legs can take him, up the stairwell in the dark and towards the light from the landing. The slippers on his feet hinder his speed, so he kicks them off as he turns left, bounding down the corridor to his bedroom.
Once inside, he shuts the door behind him, twisting the lock shut and backing up towards the bed. The second he feels the bed against his knees he scrambles onto it and under the covers, pulling them up and over himself.
“There’s no such thing as ghosts. There’s no such thing as ghosts. There’s no such thing as ghosts.”
A noise breaks him out of his frantic whisper: the twist of the lock.
The sound of the bedroom door opening pebbles his skin with goose-bumps, but doesn’t in any way entice him to lift his face from the pillow.
“It’s just your imagination. It’s not real.” He murmurs to himself.
A cold wind envelopes him first, pressing him against the mattress. Something burns, like icy fingers closing around his shoulders, and Jihoon breathes, just breathes, or tries to. He hears the air whistling between his teeth but never seeming to reach his lungs.
“There’s no such thing as ghosts.” He whimpers, eyes squeezed shut.
“Keep telling yourself that.” Comes a deep voice, unexpectedly close.
Jihoon covers his ears to keep out the voice, but he hears it echo inside his head. Slow and mocking, a whisper in the darkness.
The rest is blackness.
The next morning, it all seemed like a bad dream, but that didn’t stop Jihoon from wasting hours wandering around the property, looking for some sign of…it? Him?
It doesn’t help that he has no idea what he’s looking for: monstrous lair of some kind, or a nest of bones? The only thing he finds that convinces him he hasn’t slipped into some kind of latent madness are the slippers he kicked off at the top of the staircase.
“You don’t look like you’ve been sleeping well.” Jeonghan asks, peering intently at him through the screen.
“I haven’t.” Jihoon admits. There’s no point denying it; his voice sounds sleep-rough and tired and he knows it.
The ‘dreams’ he’s been having, coupled with his uneasiness in the house leaves him in this in-between, exhausted haze, drained down to nothing like a dead mobile phone that never gets a chance to charge.
“Why?” Jeonghan asks. “What’s bothering you?”
Jihoon looks straight at the webcam, trying to convey, 'You know why,' but Jeonghan really doesn't. At least not all of it. The only thing he’s gotten from Jihoon in the past is, 'I saw some shit, okay? But it’s no big deal.'
“Nothing. Just—I guess I just need to get used to living by myself again.” Jihoon says, giving his friend a strained smile.
“Maybe I’ll come over one day.” Jeonghan murmurs, regarding him warily. “I’ve got a free weekend coming up soon, maybe I could corral the guys to visit and stay the night or something.”
Jihoon is so infinitely relieved that he feels his shoulders drop and his breath escape him.
“Would you? I’d love that.”
One weekend, the water in the Master bathroom stops working.
Jihoon calls a local plumber who turns down the job immediately, without waiting to hear what the issue is. The minute Jihoon rattles off the address, the man interrupts him with a ‘Hell no!’ and declines his services, but not before hissing out, ‘I can’t believe you’re living there.’
Jihoon manages to locate a plumber from the next town over who’s willing to travel the distance, but he can’t fit him in till next week, so Jihoon has no choice but to use the guest bathroom down the hall to shower.
Shutting off the water, he steps out of the shower and reaches for a towel, but his hand meets cold marble instead. He pats along the counter, blinking water out of his eyes in an effort to find a little more clarity, only to discover the towel he brought in with him is not there. And now with the mist clearing from the room, he can see that not only is his towel missing, but so are the clothes he slipped off when he came in.
Disconcerting though it is, he isn’t going to get anywhere just standing here. So after only a few minutes of indecision, he pads out of the bathroom stark naked and dripping wet.
He catches a hint of movement out of the corner of his eye—almost like a shadow creeping across the wall—but when he jerks his head to the side, there’s nothing there. The hallway is freezing though, colder than usual, and he shivers as he walks briskly towards his bedroom. Even the smell of the air is off—nothing he can point his finger at specifically, but it’s instinct to cover his mouth and nose with one hand and inhale shallowly, capturing the scent of his shower gel to cover the wrongness of the hallway.
He’s halfway towards his room, when he jumps at the sound of the bathroom door slamming shut further behind him, the noise seeming to echo out through the air into the empty space.
Every nerve tingles.
He freezes where he stands, already fighting off the apprehensive chill settling beneath his skin. He turns to glance behind him, but the hallway is empty. There’s nothing but the empty corridor stretching behind him and the matching branch to his right. Nothing but that steadily increasing sense of wrongness.
He starts moving forward again, though his pace is hesitant, his gaze darting cautiously around him.
His breath still comes calmly and evenly, but that’s just force of will, practice and technique. Inside, where he can’t control it, his pulse is ragged in his chest. Discomfort and apprehension are gradually giving way to panic, spiking sharper as his ears catch the sharp creaking of floor boards and a repeating voice from the different doors that line the hall.
It’s a deep voice, dark with something he can't place.
At first, the shift in lighting is so minute that Jihoon doesn’t even notice it. There’s no flickering of the lights above his head. Just a gradual encroaching dimness, shadows growing heavier until the hallway feels like it’s falling to dusk.
There should be no dusk indoors, but Jihoon is unable to ignore now the way the light is fading, growing fainter with every step. The walls feel like they’re closing in and the shadows reach out from the corners to touch him and the house seems to whisper in his ears.
At one point, he thinks someone is breathing down his neck. It sends chills all over him.
Then, all at once, another presence fills the hall.
He feels it everywhere.
Some kind of power, something that hijacks reality and splits it down the middle.
The speaking voice he’d heard fades, and in place of it—a dark shape standing in the shadowed half of the corridor.
Its head moves jerkily back and forth. The twitching speed of the figure blurs its features, but Jihoon finds the hazy, there-not-there quality of its body even more disturbing. It’s shaped like a man, he thinks, larger than himself.
Jihoon makes some lost, choked noise at the sight of it, feeling iced to the bones. His response is so instant—so visceral—that he nearly wets himself.
The man—thing moves forward in a jerky motion, distorting the air and space around him. The very real danger that Jihoon senses kicks him into action, and he spins on his heels and breaks into a sprint.
His bedroom door stands open in front of him, but slams shut in his face as he reaches it.
Frantically Jihoon scrambles with the doorknob.
His hands are damp, shaking, and his grip is slipping on each twist. But it’s not why he can’t open it. The door is very clearly locked.
The realization hits Jihoon hard, and he feels tears leak out of his eyes as he pounds against the door in futile frustration. He slams his shoulder against the wood, but all he gets is an ache of the joint. The door is being held shut by some stubborn, immovable force. Possibly by the same force that is suddenly pressed up against him.
Jihoon covers his mouth with his free hand to stifle an instinctive cry of terror. He gasps, and sucks air into desperate lungs, but his head won’t stop spinning, and for a moment all he can do is clench his eyes shut against the vertigo.
He tries to think, forces himself to think, because this can’t be happening. The chill along his back, creeping into his bones is insanity.
Fear brings him to his knees, and he crumples down to the scuffed wooden floor with tears in his eyes. He curls into himself and allows one throaty sob to escape his lungs.
“Please—stop. I’m scared.”
And then, miraculously, it does.
One moment, Jihoon is sobbing through shallow breaths, curled up naked in a hallway with fear closing in around him. The next, he’s lying naked and unharmed on the mattress in his bedroom, covers drawn over him.
He blinks, struggling to comprehend what just happened, and only slowly recalls a hand settling on his shoulder, a voice speaking in soothing, apologetic tones in his ear and something, someone picking him up.
He sleeps fitfully that night.
The record player is playing that song again.
Jihoon comes awake with a jolt, fast enough that his back gives a painful twinge, and for a moment he has no idea where he is. He sits up, registering the plush cushion beneath him and the soft velvet that slide against his palms—crimson-hued, bright and startling to his eyes.
He tenses but makes no move other than to shift his gaze around the room, breathing deeply in through his nose as he considers his surroundings.
This place is just familiar enough to leave him completely disoriented.
He’s almost sure he fell asleep in his own bed, but he now finds himself sitting on the couch in the Grand room. Except it’s not the same—it’s newer somehow.
The walls have shifted from being the cold, old ones he knows, to a warmer hue. The paint isn’t peeling and the furnishings are bright with colour. The Antique grandfather clock is standing to the left of the room, the clock face reads 9.50pm.
When he swings his legs over the side, his feet find the thickly carpeted floor of what turns out to be an oriental rug. He’s pretty sure it’s the same Oriental rug he declared a loss when he moved in, all moth eaten and worn from decay, except now it looks almost brand new. Even the fireplace looks better, all gold gilt, beneath a mirror reflecting the room and making what is already spacious seem palatial. The same twisted chandelier hangs overhead, tiny blazes of light looking like stars caught in the branches of a winter tree.
Where the hell is he?
Or perhaps more accurately, when the hell is he?
When he deems himself mostly collected, he tests his body by standing and taking a few steps across the room. Moving actually helps with the disorientation, as though the more he interacts with his surroundings, the more firmly his mind believes he’s here instead of stretched out on his bed, sleeping.
A thought strikes him then: this is a dream.
A dream, yes, but even as he moves over to a cabinet and handles the items there—an ornate lamp, a vase, an old-fashioned, gold clock—he can’t deny how real it all is either.
He turns, stepping out of the room, walks to the foot of the grand staircase and begins to ascend. He’s been moving softly, keeping his feet silent on each step, so it takes him a moment to realize that even the surface he’s walking on has changed. As he looks down, he sees that his feet are walking along polished wooden floors now, no ugly patterned stair carpet in sight.
Jihoon hasn’t gone more than a couple of steps before there’s a shout of pain from upstairs, and then a second, echoing throughout the house.
Swallowing, he curls his outstretched hand into a fist and strides up the stairs.
When he gets to the top and leans over the railing, everything stretching out behind him looks kind of muddy and slow, like he’s looking through textured glass. Even the left bannister a few steps down is warped strangely, and Jihoon gets the impression that if he wanted—he can’t go back the way he came.
It gives him a headache, staring at the distorted mess of space behind him for too long, so he turns away and begins walking the length of the upstairs hall.
All the doors he passes along the corridor refuse to open under his hand, and with each step forward he takes, the warped glass effect to the air follows a few feet behind; it seems turning back is strictly not an option.
The end of the hallway still looks unchanged, though, boasting a wide door, made from heavy wood that leads to the Master Bedroom.
There’s nothing outwardly strange about it, but Jihoon knows this is where he needs to go.
This entire time he felt the certainty of advancement like a lead weight in his stomach, knew he was being pushed gently forward, encouraged along a pre-determined path—by the house.
Before he can question it further, he hears the low rumble of a man’s voice coming from behind the door, over the music.
“W-why?” The man asks. “I didn’t w-want thiss either.” His words come out slow and sluggish.
Following it comes a hollow laugh, then a woman’s clipped reply. “You really think I was going to waste my life with you, you sick freak? The least you could have done was give me this much, but you can’t even die with dignity.”
Jihoon tiptoes the rest of the distance on silent feet because he knows which floorboards are the most warped and make the most noise. He moves closer until he’s standing outside the Master bedroom door, which is slightly ajar.
For a moment, the room is silent aside from a subtle, coughing noise and Jihoon finds some semblance of courage to push the door open. When he finally catches sight of what’s inside, all of the breath rushes out from his lungs on a harsh, shocked exhale. “Oh god.”
Inside there’s a woman with blonde, cascading curls. She’s staggeringly beautiful, under a face-full of makeup, but her eyes are cold and dark as she stands over a dark-haired man kneeling on the floor.
She drops a vial on the floor and crushes it under her stiletto heel as the man claws at his throat, choking on his own blood; huge, hacking coughs as he tries to breathe.
She looks on disinterestedly, even when the man reaches out to grab her dress, she coolly steps out of reach.
Jihoon thinks he should try to help. The thought is persistent in the back of his mind, but his body won’t move, won’t obey what his brain is screaming. “What are you doing? Help him!”
The woman turns quick, like a lizard, looking over at him standing in the doorway. Or, at least appears to be looking straight through him at something else.
Jihoon spins to find a second man standing behind him, a tall man, dressed in black, gaze fixed on the scene unfolding in the room.
“Well don’t just stand there.” The woman’s eyes turn hooded, defiant. There is an unpleasant, sneery smirk on her face. “I played my part—now finish it.” She snaps.
The tall man looks at her, his eyes suddenly hard and closed off. Then he walks in, stepping around the figure on the floor that is now attempting, struggling to stand. The dark haired man’s eyes are wide and frightened as they focus on the two people towering over him—then they focus on Jihoon—looking straight at him.
Those are a rabbit’s eyes; the eyes of someone who is certain he’s going to die.
The tall man reaches for a candlestick on the nightstand, clasps it tight and raises it above his head.
“NO!” Jihoon screams, just as the dark-haired man holds a hand out, choking a pitiful, “P-please.”
The tall man swings, bringing the heavy silver down on the dark-haired man’s head, spraying blood across the wall, the carpet, the mirror.
Jihoon’s breath catches in his throat as shock worms its way into his chest.
There’s so much blood.
He’s never seen so much of it in the real world, never like this, and the terrible clarity of the moment has him so entranced that he doesn’t even realize the rest of the world hasn’t frozen as well until the tall man raises the candlestick again.
“STOP!” Jihoon scream futilely, unable to move.
The second impact sends the dark-haired man stumbling backwards into the mirror. There's a sharp, clean noise, like breaking ice as the mirror cracks down the middle.
The dark-haired man’s eyes slide shut as he slumps to the floor, rivers of crimson dripping over his face. He is in no position to defend himself when the candlestick comes down once more.
Jihoon watches everything in slow motion, overcome with a feeling of weakness and despair. Tears blur his vision and he covers his mouth with one hand as though he can cram the helplessness and horror back down that way.
He hears the Grandfather clock tolling in the distance, and then all around the room the paint starts to flake off the walls. Overhead the lights flicker and dim and there’s a rustling beneath his feet as the rug decays and curls up with mould.
The clock strikes ten.
Jihoon wakes up with a choked off sound, sitting up in a hurry.
He remembers his surroundings at once, like he hadn't the last time.
He’s sweating, bathed in it; it cools and makes him shiver. He gasps, trying to catch his breath as the dream still claws at his consciousness.
Although—was it a dream?
It had been real once. To someone it was a horrifying reality, and it all happened at the foot of his bed.
He pushes the covers off and shuffles to the bottom of the bed on his hands and knees to examine the area in front of the mirror. There’s nothing there to indicate what happened, except the hairline crack down the centre of the glass.
He follows the crack from the base of the frame up the reflective surface—and halts.
There’s a man seated in the armchair to the right of the bed, with a stillness so complete it can belong only with the dead. Jihoon can see his reflection in the not quite dark of the room. His eyes are huge, wrathful, unsettling as he stares back.
"G-od," Jihoon says, voice, coming out as small and as frightened as he feels inside. He immediately wishes he hadn’t said anything, because his words seem to wake the man from the tense, still posture he was holding in the chair and his head turns sharply in Jihoon’s direction.
He recognizes the man as the one he just dreamt of—the one that was beaten to death at the foot of his bed.
He wants to turn away from the man’s empty eyes, too wide to look anything but predatory. But he refuses to look away from the reflection, in case it moves. Slowly, the man unfolds his leg and stands in an easy, fluid motion.
Panic tugs at Jihoon’s heart; he resists it, even as the man takes a step forward.
Even after all he’s gone through—even in the face of the twisted wrongness he tastes in the air and feels with every beat of his heart—Jihoon doesn’t quite believe that this man deliberately intends to hurt him.
Looking into the man’s wide, empty eyes now, Jihoon doesn’t dare doubt it.
The apparition raises a hand towards him, and Jihoon squeezes his eyes shut, clenching his jaw to keep from screaming at how damned helpless he feels.
“Don’t,” he pleads, all thoughts of escape crushed beneath the enormity of his realization. There isn’t really a point to begging, Jihoon knows that, but he can’t help himself. “Please don’t hurt me.”
He hears the floor creak to his right as the figure steps closer, then fingers brush over the back of his head.
The touch is gentle, cool and brief.
And when he opens his eyes, the man is gone.
Jihoon goes to the library and sets up camp in front of their one, ancient microfiche reader, flicks back through 70 years of history, wars and politics and personal tragedies blaring out from the pages of the local paper. He searches for hours, finds deed after deed of sale for the house. No one stays there long, though it seems somebody had attempted to turn the house into a hotel in the 60’s, but the project fell through shortly after, following a series of unexplained incidents.
He searches further back, clicking through the reels until he finds an article about a wedding reception held at the Manor in 1941.
The newspaper article hailed it the event of the season—an arranged marriage for the heir of Choi Manor, Choi Seungcheol, and the daughter of a wealthy socialite Mr Kim.
There’s a picture of the wedding party, yellow and blurred at the edges, standing in the gardens at the back of the house. Alongside what he assumes are the joyous parents, is a young bride with light hair, pinned up with flowers, and a rather handsome man in a dark suit. Though Jihoon can’t make out many details from a sepia stained photograph, it’s quite clear neither of them are smiling on their wedding day.
Then Jihoon finds an article dated not a year later, Murder at Choi Manor, detailing how the heir of the estate had been brutally murdered by his wife and her lover, who then upped and vanished in the night. The woman’s last name was Kim, Jihoon reads, but the first name has been blurred by time or water before it was scanned, and he can’t make it out.
The newspaper says Choi Seungcheol was found dead in the master bedroom, bludgeoned to death with a candlestick. Poisoned first. Beneath the picture of the front of Jihoon’s house, marred by the sight of the coroner standing over a body covered by a white sheet, is a grainy black and white photo of the victim, taken at some charity event before his death.
Jihoon studies it for an age, captivated.
Choi Seungcheol was….is… a ridiculously handsome man; tall and broad, clean shaven with a strong jaw, slicked black hair and doe eyes. In the picture, his full lips are pulled taut into a warm smile and his eyes are laughing at a joke only he knows. The photo is only black and white, but Jihoon knows he’s seen those eyes before, in the mirror in his bedroom.
The air around him chills and Jihoon automatically looks around for signs of a presence behind him. But then he remembers he’s in the library, not at home, and the cold, he realizes, is all his own.
On his return from the library, Jihoon prepares a quick dinner, eats, washes up and retires to the grand room. It’s late. The sun has set hours ago, leaving the house dark and quiet, save for the crackle of the fireplace and the slight creak of worn leather as Jihoon leans back on the couch.
He flicks on the television, and—he waits.
He knows he won't be waiting for long.
Less than ten minutes later, there’s that heavy, coiled feeling surround him again. When he draws in his next breath, the air tastes chilled, and when he exhales, it leaves his mouth in a visible cloud.
He knows he’s not alone now—feels it with some weird, keyed-up sixth sense—and very deliberately doesn’t look over when footsteps echo behind him; he has no doubts as to whom they belong.
He closes his eyes briefly, seeking his centre to steel himself, before he lifts the remote, kills the television and rests his hands loosely in his lap.
“H-hello?” He calls out quietly, then cursing himself for being so clichéd he adds, “My name is Jihoon. But you probably already knew that, since you’ve been following me around from the moment I arrived.”
No answer comes. Not that he truly expected one.
He doesn't say anything else for a long count of ten: choosing to let the silence speak his annoyance for him.
“I—I know who you are.” He says as the air temperature plummets further and the hair prickles up the back of his neck. When he turns his head, his vision washes into an over-exposed, brilliant image for a few seconds as his head spins and then steadies again. Then, stupidly, bravely, he adds, “It’s Seungcheol, isn’t it?”
A loud creak of floorboards to the left, as if somebody has swiveled to face him. The chandelier sways gently above, flickering a little.
Jihoon swallows heavily, making a dry click. “I read about you in the library, about your death. That must have been an awful thing to go through, what happened to you. I—I can’t do anything to change it, but—I’m sorry anyway.” He says keeping the words warm and deliberate and, he hopes, impossible to ignore.
He more than half expects to hear something sharp and biting in response, but the room is silent, apart for the flickering of the lighting that hasn’t abated through his speech. The creaking of the Chandelier overhead is unnervingly loud in the silence, and grating. Still, the lack of interjection gives Jihoon hope.
“I can understand why you hate people coming in here, in your space. Wrecking it, changing things from how you had them. I know why you make them leave by scaring them off. Because you’re angry. Angry that they hurt you. But I also know you’ve never hurt anyone who’s tried to live here, even though you easily could.”
The lights crackles all around the room, rough with the threatening edges of static. Jihoon worries his lower lip between his teeth, anxiety and anticipation at war in his chest.
“I know you want me to leave,” He continues, “That’s why you’ve been pulling all those stunts—trying to scare me away too. But—I bought this house and I can’t afford to leave it. All my money is tied up here now and so….. I’m not going anywhere.”
As soon as he says it, the double doors behind him slam shut and a loud thud can be heard from upstairs. The impact shakes the walls and dust trickles down from the ceiling.
Jihoon tucks his knees against his chest, clutches at a cushion and shuts his eyes. “You can have as many ghostly hissy fits as you like, but I’m not leaving.” He says, swallowing back a whimper.
All the lights are flickering in the room now as a heavy static descends the air. The chandelier rattles and groans as it sways, bulbs pulsing and dimming in quick succession.
“I know you’re just trying to scare me. But if you were going to hurt me, you would have done it by now Seungcheol.”
The television flicks itself on, but all that appears is pure static.
The turntable starts up in the corner, Jihoon can hear the record skipping backwards.
The doors are swinging open and slamming shut again. All over the house—Jihoon can hear the deafening sound of chaos.
Panicking won’t help, but it still takes every ounce of determination he can muster to get him breathing back under control, and his sense of balance back from the terrified brink. He stands up slowly, opening his eyes with reluctance.
With clenched fists Jihoon yells over the noise. “You’ll just have to get used to me being here Seungcheol! Whether you like it or not, this is my house too. So, we’re just going to have to learn how to get along and share because--”
Jihoon cuts himself off because, suddenly, everything stops.
The quiet is jarring after the clattering chaos only moments behind them.
Jihoon can hear is the blood pumping in his ears, the soft rasping of his breath, the metal whine of the chandelier as it sways gently to a stop.
“We will share.” He says, feeling braver in the silence.
The next morning, Jihoon wakes up to the sound of birds chirping outside his window: a pleasant contrast to the stifling silence that usually greets him. Grey, mid-morning light filters in through the gap in the curtains, but for once the view of the gardens is unmarred by heavy fog.
It’s nice. Pleasant even, but he tries not to feel too hopeful about the change.
He dresses for work and makes his way to the top of the staircase, where he promptly catches his shoe on a frayed patch of carpet and loses his balance. He feels himself freefalling and shuts his eyes, hands coming up automatically, futilely to brace himself.
He’s sure he’s going to break his arm, maybe even his neck—tumbling down this staircase, but the impact never comes. Instead, there’s a cool rush of air and a strong grip on his shoulders and when Jihoon cracks open his eyes again—he finds himself at the bottom of the staircase, entirely uninjured.
Blinking, Jihoon exhales in surprise. He attempts to turn, to look at the staircase behind him, but finds himself unable to move—held in place by a grounding force. It holds for a few seconds, then the pressure lifts—like hands releasing him.
Jihoon breathes in sharply when it dawns on him; Seungcheol saved him.
Seungcheol had stopped him from falling.
“Thanks.” Jihoon offers in a stunned whisper.
The hallway light flickers in answer.
He's already halfway to the kitchen when he gets an idea. On spur of the moment, Jihoon makes enough coffee for two people instead of one and sets a second cup on the kitchen table.
Leaning back against the counter he holds his own cup in his hands, warming his fingers as he watches the steam drift off the second cup of coffee.
He doesn’t know what to expect, but it’s not a quiet, breathless chuckle in his ear.
“I was just being polite.” He huffs, embarrassed that he’s actually made a cup of coffee for a fucking ghost.
What the hell was he thinking?
He leans over the table to grab the second cup, intent on dumping it down the sink, but it moves across the table and out of his reach.
Okay—maybe Seungcheol wants his coffee after all.
Frowning, Jihoon pulls his hands back, then checking his wrist watch, he decants his coffee in a travel mug and heads out to work.
The following morning, when he nips into the kitchen to brew some coffee, he’s surprised to find a cup already sitting out on the table.
It isn’t the cup from yesterday, because that cup has been rinsed and is sitting on the drainer. It’s not the same china pattern anyway, and this cup is freshly brewed and still steaming, its pleasant aroma an unmistakable invitation.
Jihoon picks it up and gingerly takes a sip. It’s exactly how he likes it.
The power outages stop. The water runs smoothly. The house feels warmer. The doors—still open by themselves, but Jihoon suspects that’s just Seungcheol being polite? He doesn’t quite know.
He thinks Seungcheol could probably drift around without opening and closing doors but does it to indicate his presence in a way. They don’t slam shut anymore at least, and Jihoon isn’t terrified that he’ll be locked in or out of a room against his will.
It seems Seungcheol has accepted that Jihoon’s here to stay and has given up on aggressively warning him away anymore.
There's no protocol for what they are to each other. There's just a tenuous connection, growing stronger by the day and soon Jihoon feels brave enough to start making changes to the house, clearing and redecorating the rooms.
He’s careful to do it tastefully, in keeping with the character of the house and Seungcheol has yet to show signs of protest.
In fact, the resident poltergeist contributes.
Quietly, Seungcheol puts his fingerprint on what rooms Jihoon is still renovating.
After Jihoon makes a trip to the hardware store for paint, he leaves the tins sitting out in the north facing room.
“I was thinking of painting this room a duck-egg blue. I know it’s not the colour you had it before, but I thought it would look nice.” He talks out loud.
He doesn’t get an immediate reply. In fact—he doesn’t get a reply until the next day when he returns from the grocery store to find the paint cans empty and the entire room painted.
Jihoon stands slack jawed in the centre for a long while, taking it all in. He can’t quite believe Seungcheol did this. He’s even repainted the mouldings on the ceiling, reattached the wall lights and fixed the door.
As Jihoon reaches out to touch the wall, to test it’s not just some illusion, a hand gently closes over his outstretched arm and another cups his cheek. Frozen in place, Jihoon allows Seungcheol to tilt his head to face the far side of the room—where scribbled on a piece of paper is a sign reading: ‘WET PAINT’
“Oh—of course. Sorry.” He giggles sheepishly.
Seungcheol’s grip on his chin loosens, and the hand on his arm slides up towards his shoulder, giving him a companionable pat in answer.
Then things just start appearing; a matching table set in the anteroom, a chase lounge chair in the study that Jihoon recalls last seeing upended in the cellar, a beautiful glass vase that catches the light coming through the kitchen window.
Jihoon quickly comes to love returning home at the end of the day to see what else Seungcheol unearths and shares.
The most exciting discovery by far is the antique grandfather clock. The same one he’d admired in the attic is now standing against a wall in the great room. It was far too heavy for Jihoon to move himself, and he’d never managed to persuade Seokmin to come help, so this is a pleasant surprise to say the least.
“Oh wow. It looks amazing here.” Jihoon smiles, dropping his bag and rushing over to it. “Does it work?” he asks, just as the clock strikes six and…
*BONG* it begins to chime, *BONG*
Jihoon jumps at least three feet to the left, completely startled.
“Holy shit,” He gasps, clutching a hand to his chest but the damned thing goes on.
“How many more times is it going to do that?”
Jihoon dramatically throws his arm over his eyes and sighs. “Does it do that every hour on the hour? I’m going to shit my pants every time it does that.”
A dry laugh filters from across the room.
Jihoon turns to locate the source, but of course there’s nobody to scowl at. “Not funny dude. Not funny.”
Seungcheol’s twisted sense of humour notwithstanding, Jihoon thinks this is definite progress in their relationship.
One evening, Jihoon is in the kitchen prepping his Sunday roast, when there is another knock at the door. He laughs a little, wondering who was ‘brave’ enough to wonder up to the house on the hill today.
When Jihoon opens the door, a fist connects with the side of his head. It’s a sucker punch, a solid one, and he’s not expecting it. It lands him flat on his back.
Before he can react, the hard sole of a shoe connects with his nose. Once, then twice.
He tastes blood on the back of his tongue. Everything goes black.
When he blinks into wakefullness, his eyelids feel heavy, hard to move. He can’t make out any shapes, can’t tell where he is yet, but the light resolves slowly around him. It’s low, strangely dim.
He blinks again. It’s an effort.
He realizes the light is strange because he’s on the floor, his face pressed into the carpet. He tries to lift his head, but he can’t. He’s not sure if it’s just because he’s dizzy or if someone is holding him down. His left cheek is buried in the grains of the rug. He blinks again, and the room becomes clearer. He takes in the hazy sight of a couch next to him. The couch is from—the grand room. He’s in the grand room.
That’s when Jihoon remembers it. The door, the punch, the shoe slamming his face. The memory hits him like hot adrenaline; his entire body draws taut with awareness.
“Oh good, you’re awake,” says Sehun, a saccharine drag to his voice. Jihoon feels a clammy hand pet his hair. “I need you alert for this.”
Jihoon thrashes hard, trying to flip Sehun off him, but he can’t.
He can’t move at all, and his hands are tied behind his back. He tries to break the hold, but he it’s something strong, cable wiring probably. Jihoon can—he thinks he can maybe get himself part-way out of the bindings, could get some leverage, if it weren’t for the heavy weight low on his back, pinning him to the floor.
Jihoon feels a raw red panic burn through him. Sehun is sitting on top of him.
“You can keep trying, but it’s going to be pointless.” Sehun yanks the bindings on Jihoon’s wrists tighter, cutting into his skin.
Jihoon grunts, aware of pain everywhere.
“I lost my job because of the police report you filed against me? Did you know that? Had to move out of our old neighbourhood I had gotten such an unfair rep. After all we meant to each other—you turned away from me. That’s unforgivable.” Sehun’s voice is low, dangerous, almost a purr.
Jihoon tries to yell, tries to spit a blue streak at Sehun, but there is something lodged in his mouth that keeps him from crying out.
Sehun gagged him.
“Your old boss told me you moved back to your home town,” Sehun says. He grabs a fistful of Jihoon’s hair and yanks, wrenching his neck back. “But I knew better. Knew you wouldn’t make this easy. And all I wanted to do was talk.”
Sehun grabs Jihoon’s shirt, rucking it up his back, exposing him. Jihoon struggles, tries to throw him off, but it’s useless. He screams against the rag in his mouth, more out of frustration than anything. He knows no one is going to hear him.
There’s nobody for miles except…..
The lights in the chandelier above them flicker, two bursts and then an over-bright swell, before they settle again.
Sehun tenses, his head ticks sideways. “What the hell is—”
Jihoon feels the jolt before he sees it happen, knows what it is before it appears.
The chandelier sways and Jihoon catches a glimpse of the ceiling before darkness eats the edges of it.
The weight on his back lifts, and in the next second Sehun is flung across the room and slammed into the wall.The impact rocks the picture frames; a few tilt, a few fall to the floor, but Seungcheol clearly isn’t done yet.
Sehun is dragged up the wall choking, legs flailing in the air as he grasps with an invisible pressure on his neck. His head hits the high ceiling, before he’s pulled away from the wall, and promptly slammed back into it again. And again. And again.
Oh—god. He’s going to kill him.
Jihoon makes a strangled noise in the back of his throat, watching the scene unfold from the corner of his eye. This isn't Seungcheol as he knows him; quiet, helpful, gentle—this is ice and speed and ferocity and, most of all, it’s protectiveness.
“Cheol—stop.” Jihoon screams through the gag.
Whether his words get through or Seungcheol works out the inadvisability of his actions for himself, Seungcheol finally goes still and as quickly as it began, it ends.
Sehun is released, falling back to the ground with a hard smack, and a moment later the bindings on Jihoon’s arms loosen and the gag is pulled from his mouth by an invisible force.
Jihoon finds himself on his feet, pulled and help up by strong arms encircling his waist. The unexpected force of the hug shocks through him—compressing his lungs and making it difficult to breathe, but Jihoon doesn’t mind. Oxygen isn’t his main concern right now. Unprotesting, he slumps back into the embrace, rests his hands over the ones holding him tight as Seungcheol buries his face against his throat and huffs out angry breaths.
“It’s okay,” Jihoon whispers, which is somehow so much bullshit and yet also perfectly true at the same time. “You did good. Thank you.”
As he watches, Sehun regains his bearings from across the room, rasping for air and gripping the wall as he staggers upright. When he finally turns to look at Jihoon, it’s with a horrified sort of panic. His eyes don't focus on Jihoon but on something behind him, and they widen the longer he stares.
Jihoon says nothing while the clock in the room ticks every second out. He watches as all the colour drains from Sehun’s face, leaving it pale and sweaty.
“You should go.” Jihoon says, voice stripped of emotion.
There's a dazed, sickly sort of focus to Sehun now as he scrambles for the door; frightened, terrified by whatever he sees over Jihoon’s shoulder.
Jihoon watches Sehun’s car speed down the drive through the window, blood dripping down on his T-shirt, and for the span of one drop, two drops, Jihoon just stares at the blossoming dark stains.
He catches the third drop on his hand, cursing, and pinches his nose shut, trying to stem the flow.
"Fuck," he says, tilting his head back. "Fuck, fuck, fuck."
Sensing movement, he turns his head to find a box of tissues has appeared on the window sill, and he takes one with a red-stained hand, murmuring his thanks.
Outside the porch light flickers, and the front door left wide open with Sehun’s hasty departure, shuts gently on its own.
Something tells him Sehun won’t be showing his face again.
The week after Sehun’s visit is pretty dreadful for Jihoon. Understandably, he’s shaken by the experience and brushing the whole thing under the carpet is a lot harder to do when you have nobody to talk to about it.
He has to make excuses at work for his bruised face and wrists, and after dealing with a particularly difficult client on the phone he’s mortified to discover tears starting to prick behind his eyes. By Thursday, he’s a mess, and his kindly manager calls him into her office to talk about. When he finally opens up to her about his experiences with Sehun, she’s more than understanding and sends him home early, telling him to have a long weekend off to recover.
Watching the house appear through his windscreen as he drives up, he notices that the lights in the great room are on.
The house feels so welcoming when he steps inside; the air is calm; the fireplace is lit, and music is playing in the great hall. He can’t sense Seungcheol’s presence when he stands at the doorway to the main room, but the record player abruptly cuts off when he steps inside and sets his bag down.
“Hey—don’t. It’s just me, you can keep it on.” Jihoon protests.
There’s only seconds of hesitation before the needle drops on the record again and the air fills with melody. It’s a comforting accompaniment as he heads to the kitchen to prepare dinner; dicing vegetables, butterflying chicken and boiling water.
He’s just sliding the tray into the oven when the gentle flickers of the overhead light alert him to Seungcheol’s approach.
A soft tapping draws Jihoon’s gaze to the left of the counter, where a pen floats in mid-air and a message has appeared on the mini white-board stuck to the fridge.
Jihoon huffs a soft laugh in surprise, “Uhm, Hi?”
An invisible hand smudges to the ink, and the floating pen writes out another message.
“What? No,” Jihoon answers immediately, swallowing past a lump in his throat. He must look even more pathetic than he feels if the ghost haunting his house has stopped by to say ‘You ok fam?’.
He takes a fortifying breath and tries for a smile. “It’s just been a long week.”
When he looks back over to the fridge, Seungcheol has erased his last message and written something else.
Jihoon smiles and shakes his head.
“No, I’m okay, thank you. I’m—I’m feeling better everyday. I’m—okay.” Jihoon repeats, as though saying it aloud again will help him to internalize the concept, but in the next second he has to look away as his vision blurs and tears collect in the corner of his eyes.
He’s crying. It’s so stupid. It isn’t as though he’s upset right now, but he can’t help himself.
He thinks Seungcheol will leave then, might actually let Jihoon work this out of his system without an audience. Then he hears slow footsteps on the tile behind him, feels Seungcheol drawing up close and resting a chin on his shoulder. He’s making shushing noises in Jihoon’s ear, running hands up and down his arms.
“This is so dumb,” Jihoon sobs, shaking his head in embarrassment. “I don’t even know why I’m getting upset for.”
Seungcheol doesn’t say anything, only offering his comfort silently by curling an arm around Jihoon’s middle. It’s a light touch, not restrictive but warm and solid and strangely alive. Enough to push back the hurt and loneliness plaguing him.
Jihoon calms after a few minutes and begins putting himself back together, wiping the tears off his cheeks and trying to control his breathing. Seungcheol still hasn’t released him though, still pressed up against him, a reassuring presence.
Jihoon may feel silly for the way he relishes Seungcheol’s arm around his waist—he may even feel uncomfortable with the immediate way this simple touch settled him in his own skin—but for once he’s not going to over-think it. These are unusual circumstances, after all, and in the face of what he just went through, Jihoon will take every ounce of reassurance he’s offered.
Even if that reassurance comes from the misplaced sensation of Seungcheol’s presence bleeding into his space, Seungcheol’s chest against his back, Seungcheol’s fingers carding through his hair.
“I was thinking of actually setting the table in the dining room.” Jihoon murmurs after a quiet moment. He tilts head and leans into the weight he feels against his back. “I’ve never used it and I thought it would be pretty cool to have dinner in there. Would—would you like that?”
A gentle squeeze around his waist and a pleased hum is the only response he gets.
Jihoon answers a knock on the door to find a group of his friends waiting outside. Seungkwan, Jeonghan, Jisoo and Seokmin have made a special trip over to spend the weekend with him.
It’s completely unexpected and if Jihoon’s honest—a total pain in the ass.
Don’t get him wrong, he’s really touched that his friends drove all the way out here to see him, but he’s not sure how Seungcheol’s going to react to the arrival of four strangers.
Four loud, messy guests—staying in their house and touching everything.
He doesn’t know whether he needs to ask Seungcheol’s permission, like one would usually when sharing a house.
But remarkably, Seungcheol doesn’t interfere. If he’s aware of their presence—and he must be, he’s aware of everything that happens inside the house—he seems untroubled by it. He doesn’t appear—or at least, Jihoon can’t sense him and for the entire weekend there is a complete absence of unexplained activity; no strange manifestations, no disturbances, no flickering lights that herald his approach.
Jihoon is unbelievably grateful for it.
He spends a lovely weekend with his friends without having to explain anything out of the ordinary.
It’s only when he’s standing at the front door, watching them pack their belongs into their rental car on Sunday evening, that Seungcheol returns.
There’s a creak of floorboards to Jihoon’s right, and then Seungcheol’s there at Jihoon’s elbow, standing close enough for their elbows to brush. Jihoon’s heart flutters at the contact.
He turns his attention away from the door, listening to his own heartbeat in his ears instead. He imagines he could probably hear Seungcheol’s heart if he strained just a little, considering how close he’s still standing.
Jihoon swallows, forcing his body to remain relaxed. “Thank you.” He says softly, pitching his voice for Seungcheol’s ears alone.
A reassuring hand rests on his shoulder, before Seungcheol presence drifts away.
~~~May I ask you a question?~~~
--is what’s written on the piece of paper that floats down onto Jihoon’s lap, makes him sit up from where he's been curled in an armchair in the library.
Catching the slip of paper, Jihoon sets aside his book and turns to find a notepad and pen hovering in the air behind him. It doesn’t surprise him as much as it should, the novelty of floating objects wore away quite a while back, around the same time Seungcheol took an interest in helping out with the chores. That being said, he’d still prefer it if Seungcheol told him when he’s planning to experiment in the kitchen, because walking in on a floating knife dicing floating vegetables is still a heart stopping experience. No matter how friendly your poltergeist is.
The floating notepad twists in the air, revealing a question that Seungcheol’s written out beforehand.
~~~I couldn’t help but notice that two of your friends shared a bed when they visited.~~~
Jihoon tilts his head thoughtfully, smiling to himself as he stares at the writing. It’s not so much a question as a statement of fact, but he’s guessing Seungcheol’s too shy to just come out and ask what he really wants to know. He has to ease himself into it.
“Oh, you mean Jisoo and Jeonghan.” He grins, “Yeah, well, they’re married. And couples tend to do that these days even if they aren’t.”
Almost immediately, there’s a sharp intake of breath from where Seungcheol’s shadow darkens the rug. The pen scratches across the paper quickly, manically, and when Jihoon cranes his neck to read the ‘:O BUT THEY’RE BOTH MEN!’ Seungcheol’s frantically writing, he can’t help but burst out laughing.
He quiets himself after a moment, when he remembers that Seungcheol is not actually of this era. His clothing and speech may be indistinct, but his understanding of the world is dated. For more than 70 years he’s lived in this house, existing in near solitude, and though they never discuss it, Jihoon’s often suspected that even if he wanted to, there’s no way for Seungcheol to leave.
He can’t exist beyond the walls of this house anymore, so he doesn’t know what’s out there, what’s happening, what’s changed.
Of course, this would come as a surprise.
“Oh, wow, okay.” Jihoon coughs, wiping a tear from his eye, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have laughed at that, you just caught me by surprise, and I guess sometimes I forget that you’ve missed out on a lot of things. But, uhm, well—it might shock you to know, but a lot of opinions on sexuality have changed since you…were around. Don’t get me wrong, I mean, there’s still a lot of small minded, intolerant assholes out there, and it’s still a struggle for many to be openly gay— prejudices don’t just vanish overnight. But yeah…things have improved a lot, compared to your time.”
The pen doesn’t move for a long time, long enough that Jihoon starts to wonder if it’s capable for a ghost to die all over again. But just as he opens his mouth to speak, the pen begins to move, scratching across the paper almost hesitantly.
~~~So it’s okay to have those thoughts? It’s not a bad thing anymore?~~~
Ah, so it’s like that, then — Jihoon should have guessed.
Suddenly everything makes much more sense; the arranged marriage, the bitter unloving wife, this oddly specific line of curiosity….Seungcheol’s been trapped inside this life in more ways than one, and Jihoon is surprised by the fierce protectiveness that surges inside him at the thought.
He tries to stem it by reaching across and laying his hand over where he thinks Seungcheol’s is, feels the man tense under his touch.
“It was never a bad thing Seungcheol. Never. Some people just think they’re allowed to control how other people choose to live their lives, when they have no right.”
There’s a moment of silence before Seungcheol breathes a noncommittal sound—a low hum of acknowledgment. The pen begins to move across the paper again, before it stops suddenly, and Seungcheol finally speaks out loud, in a self-conscious stammer, “T-thank you… f-for explaining.”
“Anytime sweetie,” Jihoon smiles warmly. He curls back up into his chair, returns to his book, watching the notepad and pen float away from the corner of his eye, before he hears himself saying, “Can I ask you a question?”
Seungcheol's answering, “Of course,” is immediate and emphatic, like he’d welcome anything, but Jihoon finds himself hesitating anyway, shifting awkwardly in his seat. He’s got a million and one questions he’s been meaning to ask, but this one in particular has been gnawing at him the longest, and it’s also the most difficult to word.
“You…you don’t have to answer this if it makes you uncomfortable, I’m just…I’m just a little curious.”
“You can ask me anything you want Jihoon. I have nothing to hide anymore.” Seungcheol says. His tone carries the strangest balance of urgency and kindness. Serious, but... It's almost like he's trying to reassure without words that he won't hold a grudge.
It makes Jihoon feel bolder, and all the lost confidence returns to his voice.
“Okay, so I’ve always wanted to know—do you wear clothes when you’re walking around? Like Ghost clothes, or do you strut about naked?”
By the bark of startled laughter Seungcheol emits, Jihoon’s guessing that isn’t the question he was expecting.
A chess board appears in the study one evening, in front of an empty armchair, all the pieces neatly lined up.
Admiring it’s craftsmanship, Jihoon picks up one the white pawns and moves it forward one step. He does it unthinkingly, curious, but a black pawn on the opposing side moves forward in response.
“Oh.” He startles, flushing. “I’m sorry sweety, I don’t actually know how to play chess.”
A soft sigh from the chair, and then the chess pieces slide back to their starting point.
Jihoon's lips twitch, despite himself. He feels as if he just burst the balloon of a small child.
The poor guy must be bored, Jihoon thinks.
“But you could always teach me how to play though. If you have the patience for it.” He says, wanting to draw out the unexpected camaraderie a little longer.
The desk lamp flickers excitedly. Seungcheol isn't quite as unreadable as he likes to think, as long as you're not actually expecting to see things on his invisible face.
Jihoon drags an antique ottoman next to the chess board and sits down facing the empty armchair. He replays his first move and Seungcheol follows suit, pawn sliding across the board all on its own.
It’s slow going, but with a quick Google search, they develop a system: each time Jihoon makes an incorrect move, Seungcheol resets the chess piece and lets him try again till he gets a hang of it.
Jihoon turns out to be excellent at chess, if not quite as excellent as Seungcheol. They play a two-hour game, in which Jihoon accuses Seungcheol of cheating five times and considers tipping the board over only once. When Seungcheol slides his remaining bishop across three diagonal squares and whispers, "Checkmate," Jihoon inhales sharply.
Seungcheol doesn’t speak often, but when he does, it always sends a tingling shiver through him. Something sharp, immediate and electric; it feels delicious, warms his blood.
Jihoon's eyes drop belatedly to the board, and yes. That's checkmate. He topples his king with a nudge, then gasps again at the sensation of knuckles trailing over his cheek.
The reverence of the touch lodges Jihoon's heart firmly in his throat.
His skin feels suddenly too tight with the shift in the air between them. He’s aware of a heavy tension; thick and hot, and for once having nothing to do with the spiritual presence in the room.
Jihoon shakes his head, leaning back to put more comfortable distance between them. He abruptly feels warm all over and the urge to lean forward, to reach out and touch Seungcheol back is surprisingly strong. Jihoon forces it back, his expression a neutral blank as he resets the board.
“Wanna play again?”
Jihoon's birthday falls just shy of a year of living in Choi Manor, and there is only one person he really wants to spend it with. Not that he’s ever done much for his Birthday, but he thinks it would be nice to just spend the weekend with Seungcheol, kick back in front of the TV, play a few board games, finally learn how to kick Seungcheol’s ass at Snooker. Maybe they could even whip up a batch of cupcakes together or something—just casual housemate shit, you know.
He doesn’t share any of this with Seungcheol though, doesn’t even get around to sharing the fact that it’s his Birthday this Friday, but somehow the guy finds out anyway, and when Jihoon rolls into the kitchen after work he finds a three tier chocolate cake waiting for him on the table, a brown paper package next to it.
Jihoon spends a moment just staring at it in disbelief, thinking—so that’s why Seungcheol kept adding flour and eggs to the grocery list. He was practicing! Then it occurs to him to wonder what Seungcheol could have possibly gifted him, and he reaches for the carefully wrapped parcel, pulls away the red string and promptly gasps at the small canvas he pulls out.
It’s an oil painting—of him, sitting at the window seat in the library, leafing through a book, with the sun setting in an array of gradient hues behind him. It’s a really beautiful piece. Easily the best gift he’s ever gotten and Jihoon’s heart does something in his chest that he’s pretty sure isn’t natural.
“Oh my god, this is so sweet of you Seungcheol, thank—”
Jihoon cuts himself short when he realises that Seungcheol’s not actually in the kitchen at the moment. In fact, there’s been a strange absence of flickering lights since Jihoon’s returned home, when usually it’s the first thing that greets him when he walks through the front door. Stranger still, when Jihoon sets out to search for his poltergeist, he can’t seem to feel his presence anywhere. All his usually haunts are empty, and every other place he thinks to check is eerily quiet and still.
Even Seungcheol’s favourite armchair, the one in Jihoon’s room, sits lifeless— smaller somehow, without his presence filling it. Jihoon finds himself meandering through the empty corridors, counting his footfalls, dragging his fingertips along the freshly painted walls, searching for something—for any trace of Seungcheol: a flicker of light, a quiet inhalation, or even just the ghost of his scent.
But it’s just one empty room after another, until finally he finds himself standing at the bottom of a staircase and yelling out in frustration, “Where the hell are you?”
A door at the top of the staircase creaks open, followed by the sound of footsteps descending and Jihoon is so relieved by the sight of nearby flickering lampshade that it takes him a moment to realise that he’s staring up at the staircase leading to the attic.
“What—what are you doing up there?”
Seungcheol’s shadow comes to a stop near the bottom most step, wavering almost hesitantly along the landing.
“I was waiting.”
“F-for what?” Jihoon whispers, moving closer.
Seungcheol lets out a big, put-upon sigh. “It’s your birthday. I thought perhaps you might want to have guests over to celebrate, and I was going to wait in the attic space, until they left. I….I didn’t want to be in the way.”
Jihoon exhales, hard, and forces himself not to look away. He can feel his heart breaking for Seungcheol and it doesn’t feel like he’d thought, like a crack or a snap, it’s more unpleasant and organic — like something bruising, shredding, pulling apart in ragged chunks.
“That—that’s ridiculous Seungcheol,” He manages around the lump forming in his throat, “You’re never in the way. This is your house too, and you don’t have to ever hide anywhere just because I invite someone over. Besides, if I am going to celebrate my birthday with anyone, I’d like to celebrate with the person I’m closest to.”
The silence on Seungcheol’s part seems to want a conclusion to that sentence, and Jihoon rolls his eyes fondly as he huffs, “That’s you, dummy.”
“Oh.” Seungcheol murmurs.
Jihoon can’t see him, but he can hear the smile in his voice, and with more a flicker of light than a forward step he can abruptly feel him standing directly in front of him.
“How would you like to celebrate?”
Jihoon blushes a little, but grins anyway.
“Well, now that you mention it….”
They order an enormous quantity of Thai takeout for the occasion, easily three times as much food as Jihoon can eat. They sprawl on the living room floor in front of the fireplace instead of the stiff dining room, leaning against cushions and couches, spreading the cups and cartons and extra chopsticks across the coffee table. There’s a movie Jihoon’s been meaning to watch showing on the TV, and the record player is playing quietly in the background, and Seungcheol is laughing as Jihoon reads their fortune cookies aloud, and it’s perfect.
It’s the simplest birthday Jihoon has celebrated in years, and he hopes it’s a tradition in the making.
Seungcheol’s still making some noise about how he honestly wouldn’t mind if Jihoon wanted to invite people over, he doesn’t mind making himself scarce, he wants him to have fun, which just prompts Jihoon to lob a cushion in his general direction and huff, “This is fun for me Cheol, this is how I like to celebrate. I like to chill out with my friends and laugh about shit. How would you usually celebrate your birthday?”
“I’d go out on the town, go dancing.” Seungcheol says in a soft, musing tone.
“Dancing, really?” Jihoon blinks at the shadow he castes in genuine surprise. “Are you any good?”
There’s a wry snort.
“Isn’t everyone? What kind of gentleman would I be if I didn’t know how to dance?”
Jihoon raises an eyebrow at Seungcheol’s lofty tone. “Okay then, prove it.”
“How?” Seungcheol says quietly.
There’s amusement in his voice, Jihoon can hear it, but it doesn't soften the sharp stab of guilt he feels at being so thoughtless. How indeed.
Jihoon takes a long sip of his wine, when suddenly an idea springs to mind. “You need a partner, right?” He says, setting his wine glass down and shifting to his knees, “I mean, I’m not much of a dancer myself, but you can guide me through the steps. Show me your moves.”
A small, excited part of him is holding out hope, while a bigger, self-conscious part is mentally preparing him to be gracious when Seungcheol turns down his offer. But no sooner have the words left his mouth, that the track on the turntable switches to a livelier beat, and Seungcheol is hoisting him up on his feet, practically carrying him to the centre of the room.
The first time Seungcheol's hand settles at the small of his back, Jihoon nearly jumps out of his skin.
Seungcheol immediately moves as though to take the hand away, murmuring a soft, "I'm sorry, I thought—"
"No, it’s fine," Jihoon says just as quietly, grasping blindly for Seungcheol’s shoulder, stepping closer, "I’m just a little ticklish there is all. Keep going."
Whether it's the words or the physical proximity that reassures him, Seungcheol leaves his hand right where it is. The cool press of his palm tingles at the base of Jihoon's spine, soothing and electrifying to equal degrees.
Jihoon lets Seungcheol lead him through the steps of their first dance—the Foxtrot—smiling, laughing, moving along with his touch. And Seungcheol wasn’t lying—he is good at this. He's casual and easy, confident in every step, every touch. He occupies Jihoon's space like he belongs in it, and that...
That feels really damn nice, honestly.
They're barely through the first song and Jihoon is already giggling with an attack of acute onset twelve-year-old girly-ness.
He finally manages to reign in his composure when the dance comes to an end and Seungcheol kisses his hand—Christ, what kind of sap even does that, and why does it make his heart beat so fast?—and disappears from Jihoon's side. He doesn't even hear the explanation for where Seungcheol is going. He's too busy trying to keep his face from lighting up red as a Christmas ornament.
Then the lights dim, and the music cuts from a boisterous number to an easier jazz tune, and Jihoon’s breath catches in his throat all over again as Seungcheol pulls him into his arms.
It’s just a nice, easy slow dance this time—nothing too complicated or technical at all. Except Jihoon finds it surreal to be moving so slowly when his heart is doing honest to god somersaults in his chest.
It’s not that he’s scared—not at all—It’s that Seungcheol's hands are huge and his arms are muscular, and they feel so utterly, distractingly good holding him that Jihoon's lungs keep forgetting they have a job to do.
God—it’s like his body is intent on embarrassing him tonight or something. He can barely hear the music over his own heartbeat at anymore, he's too warm in his clothes, hates the flush he can feel creeping up the sides of his neck, spreading across his cheeks. He's trembling so hard, surely Seungcheol has noticed.
But Seungcheol must be looking elsewhere, or maybe he’s shut his eyes because his movements never falter or hesitate. If anything, he grows bolder, smoothing a palm over Jihoon’s back, using the leverage to tuck Jihoon tighter in his arms.
The gentle brush of lips against his ear sends an entirely different sort of shiver along Jihoon's spine, and after a quiet, internal battle, Jihoon submits to his instincts, to what feels good, and lets his head rest against Seungcheol’s shoulder with a pleased sigh.
“Thank you Seungcheol…for tonight. This was wonderful.” He whispers.
There's a shake of head, Seungcheol's cheek brushing against his. “Thank you.”
Jihoon’s always been more of a five-minute shower kind of guy; quick, efficient, environmentally friendly. But he’s more than ready to indulge in a long soak in the bath when the occasion calls for it. Especially when the end of a hectic work week leaves him stiff and achy and eyeing the antique, claw footed soaker with longing.
He really should make use of it, he thinks.
So one Friday evening, he pours himself a glass of wine and heads into the bathroom to unwind a little. Setting his glass down on the counter, he stoops down to move the stopper into place, turns the faucet and watches the scalding hot water thunder down onto porcelain.
Stripping out of his clothes, he pads over dips an experimental toe in the water and winces, then sets his foot down anyway. He watches as his pale skin blooms pink, as the flush rises up his ankle and shin just a little ahead of the rising water level.
Slowly, he lowers himself down into the tub with a stifled groan of appreciation. The water barely laps up over his shins, as yet. It is a very large tub. He waits until he’s soaking waist-deep, adds a quarter-turn of the cold faucet to make the heat just this side of bearable then twists the tap shut. Dropping a flannel in the swirling water, he begins to wash himself, humming a tune under his breath.
Naturally, his thoughts drift to Seungcheol.
Jihoon hadn’t bothered mentioning his evening plans to the man, because—well—he has no idea where Seungcheol is.
He’s still getting used to sharing his space, sharing his space with someone who can’t be seen unless they want to. If Jihoon’s being honest, it’s the only frustrating this about this whole arrangement.
His housemate has been present during dinner, listening intently as Jihoon whined about work and making the appropriate light flickering answers in response. But then he’d drifted off some time after that, and Jihoon really wishes he knew where.
Seungcheol’s not much of a talker, but Jihoon would worry about him a lot less if he just left a note saying, ‘Hey—I’m gonna go take a nap’, or ‘I’m levitating oranges in the kitchen’ or ‘I’m just going to stare moodily out of this window for a bit and scare the shit out of the mailman’.
It might seem ridiculous to concern himself with his poltergeists’ well-being, but Seungcheol keeps tabs on him all the time, making sure Jihoon’s safe and comfortable. In the last few months, he’s become less of a ghostly apparition and more of a guardian angel, and Jihoon wishes he could offer the same comfort back.
He knows he can never undo the pain of Seungcheol’s past, but he likes to think he’s making his second life, so to speak, somewhat enjoyable. He can only hope, because God knows Seungcheol deserves nice things.
Perhaps it’s the heat of the water distracting his senses, leaving him loose limbed and oblivious, but Jihoon belatedly becomes aware of a cooler patch of air near the foot of the tub.
“Seungcheol?” Jihoon realizes, speaking aloud in his surprise.
No way! Is he…
The bathroom light flicks gently in answer.
Oh my god, he is!
Jihoon makes a big show of sighing in exasperation. “Dude—you know it’s not cool to watch people when they’re in the bathroom, right?”
"I was in here first," Seungcheol offers. But his voice sounds strange and forced.
Jihoon darts his gaze around the steamy bathroom, looking for a sign that might indicate where Seungcheol actually is. The air still feels cooler at the foot of the tub, so he’s guessing the man has seated himself on the edge of it.
"Well you didn't feel the need to say anything, clearly. Do you watch me pee earlier as well?"
Seungcheol scoffs, half offended and half embarrassed. "It's not like that."
"Oh my god, you did.” Jihoon gasps sitting upright in the tub, then realises he's somewhat exposed and hurriedly covers himself with the flannel. Seungcheol has probably seen him naked a hundred times before, but this is different. There’s intent here.
The excitable lightbulb stops flickering abruptly. And a moment later, there’s a soft sigh of disappointment before the bathroom door creaks open and then shuts quietly.
Jihoon shakes his head and rinses out the flannel, lifts a leg out of the tub and starts scrubbing himself down. After he’s done, he lazes against the enamel, gone glassy-eyed and flushed. He’s about to lever himself forward to turn the faucet on again, when a delicious shiver spreads across the leg he has hooked over the edge of the tub.
“Are you still here!” he gasps.
No answer for a moment—then the bathroom light flickers, timidly.
“Oh, my god.” He squeaks, pulling his leg back under the water with a splash. “I can’t believe you would take advantage of your skills like that. You sneaky, giant—pervert. What do you have to say for yourself?”
Jihoon can’t help but laugh at the sad face that Seungcheol draws on the steamy mirror.
When Jihoon emerges from the bathroom the house has gone dark except for a fine line of yellow light spilling from under his bedroom door. Low music drifts up the stairs from the record player in the grand room. "The Ink Spots," Jihoon thinks it is. He supposes Seungcheol has found other ways to entertain himself other than watching him bathe.
He clicks off the bathroom light and half-feels his way to his own bedroom, familiar terrain. He reaches for the doorknob and finds hinges; slides his fingers over and finds the knob, rattles the door open and doesn't bother looking for the light switch. He dresses quickly and flings himself onto his bed before he wrestles the duvet out from under his own body weight. He feels heavy, dropping with abrupt fatigue, and the pillow under his head is cool and perfect — but it's a matter of seconds before he's forced to realize that sleep won't come so easily after all.
He's too aware of the little sounds around him, the shushing of the down feathers under his ear, the patter of a soft rain starting outside, the soft sounds of music from downstairs, the thump-thump-bump of his own pulse.
He should probably look for the lube in his bedside cabinet, finger himself fast while Seungcheol is safely occupied; an orgasm would put him under, most likely. Instead, Jihoon rolls over onto his back and splays a palm flat over his belly.
His skin is warm to the touch, soft barring the sprinkling of hair that trails in an arrow down from his navel. His hipbones, when Jihoon shifts his fingers over a little, are reassuring, solid, stable. His ribs, less so, the way they move with his breath, the way they slip away secretively towards his middle.
Jihoon breathes in and out, drifting his fingertips over his skin, unsure if he's trying to soothe or stimulate, mostly trying to distract his mind from the pull of thoughts that want to surface: his job, filing his tax returns, the repair work the roof needs, the huge spider he saw in the kitchen, shit —it was massive, he should have smushed it when he had the chance.
Would it be rude to ask Seungcheol to take care of it?
Can ghosts fear spiders too?
Speaking of Seungcheol—how long has that guy been watching him shower? Does he watch him dress too? Does he enjoy —
Jihoon shakes his head briefly to clear it, pinches a nipple, listens to the snap of raindrops from one end of the room and the soothing shush of music coming from the other. No overthinking, not now.
He'll call a repair man tomorrow. He’ll vacuum up the spider. He’ll talk to his boss about a promotion, and Seungcheol will….Seungcheol….
Jihoon reaches beneath his boxers and curls his fingers loosely around his cock, and that first touch of his own hand sends pleasant chills along his spine. He's not hard yet, but he'll get there fast—seems like he's always just an inappropriate thought away from a raging hard-on these days—and for once he's got no reason to keep those inappropriate thoughts at bay. If anything the opposite is true. The privacy won't last, and Jihoon's got to work this tension out of his system somehow.
He keeps his eyes closed as he tightens his grip and gives a slow, lazy stroke along his own stiffening length. There's no conscious direction to his thoughts, but he naturally summons up a fantasy he’s used once or twice to get off; being licked open and fucked by some handsome stranger.
He doesn’t usually put too much detail into his fantasies, just pictures his ideal type. Someone broad shouldered and well-muscled, with dark hair and even darker eyes. Yeah.
The man in his unlikely imaginings moves towards him, looming tall, stalking nearer and nearer with predatory grace. He’s not faceless, no. Jihoon is suddenly aware that he’s not picturing just anybody, he’s imagining….Seungcheol.
Seungcheol's face, all fierce focus and generous mouth. Seungcheol's fingers carding through his hair. He appreciates that he’s masturbating to the thought of a dead man. But fuck it, this is a fantasy—it's his goddamn fantasy—and Jihoon can think of what he wants.
His hand is picking up the pace, as he slips deeper into his own head. He catches his lower lip between his teeth and groans as the fantasy surrounds him.
He imagines himself on his back now. On the bed or the floor, he doesn't fucking care, because he's on his back and Seungcheol is holding him down. Seungcheol's hands, Seungcheol's bulk, the firm weight of Seungcheol's body, and there's an expression like fire on Seungcheol's face as he forces Jihoon's legs apart and slips smoothly into the space between.
A corner of his mind wishes fleetingly that this weren't just fantasy—that he could offer this to Seungcheol without fucking things up between them forever—but Jihoon shuts that voice down fast, and around him the fantasy upends and changes, jarred forward by his momentary distraction.
They're both naked now. And Seungcheol is talking. Seungcheol is murmuring filthy things as his cock nudges between Jihoon's splayed thighs.
In that instant Jihoon gives no fucks at all about how weird it would be. If Seungcheol were really here, if he were naked and offering, Jihoon would spread his legs in an instant and damn the weirdness anyway.
He settles for quickening the pace of his own hand on his dick, and burying himself all the deeper in imagined sensation: the head of Seungcheol's cock nudging, pressing, finally fucking into him with a single thrust, deep and sudden. Jihoon cries aloud, not just in his head, and he's close now.
He's so fucking close.
"Seungcheol," he breathes, and strokes faster, pictures Seungcheol above him. Pinning him. Thrusting in earnest without giving Jihoon's body a chance to adjust.
"Fuck, Seungcheol." Jihoon's voice is hoarse, his chest tight, his whole body right on the edge—
His movements falter and slow then, because he’s aware of change in the air. It’s colder than it was before. Quickly, he opens his eyes, and freezes to mortified stone when he finds the bedroom door wide open, Seungcheol’s silhouette clear as day in the doorway.
Jihoon yanks his hand out of his boxers and sits up on his elbows, hoping Seungcheol hasn’t noticed what his hand was doing under the covers in the darkness.
Oh—god. How long has been standing there?
The silence that stretches between them is agony. Jihoon's heartbeat raises a panicked racket in his ears, in his suddenly ice-cold chest, and he sits up in an awkward scramble, bracing both hands on the bedspread behind him.
It's almost impossible, but Jihoon manages to scrounge up enough of his voice to ask, "What are you doing here?"
He hears Seungcheol’s breath now that his own pulse has stopped leaping so fast. He’s is audibly worked up, panicked or scared or worried. Jihoon can hear the adrenaline in the rush of his panting. "You—you called for me," Seungcheol’s voice comes from the doorway.
Did he? He doesn’t remember doing that. He was just….
Oh, God—he did. He was moaning out loud for him.
“No—I was just,” Jihoon begins to say, made stupid by shock and by guilt, but then Seungcheol seems to shake himself out of his own paralysis and steps back, tugging the door closed as he exits. "I’m sorry. I’ll go." Seungcheol murmurs.
"No, wait," Jihoon says helplessly.
There’s a pause, then the door creaks open again slightly.
A beat of uncomfortable silence passes as Jihoon impatiently gathers his thoughts—or maybe just pauses to breathe—and then he continues, “You can stay if you want.” Jihoon chases the offer with a awkward laugh because it's such a ridiculous thing to say.
Seungcheol doesn't answer. Of course, he doesn’t. Not for the first time, Jihoon wishes he could see him, wishes he could catch a flicker of expression on his face that tells him what Seungcheol is thinking because his silence tells him nothing. Any second Seungcheol will beat a hasty retreat, and probably never come back. Go haunt some other house because Jihoon is too freaky for him.
Suddenly Jihoon can't breathe.
But the door is still open. Seungcheol isn’t leaving. The seconds stretch into agonized minutes, but Seungcheol doesn't leave, and Jihoon stares at the shadow in the doorway in mounting apprehension.
Then the door shuts and the shadow fades from view, but there’s a creak of floorboards and a delicious tingle in the air tells him Seungcheol has stayed.
A moment later the bed dips under Seungcheol’s weight and Jihoon heaves a sigh of relief. He’s seated himself somewhere on the edge of the bed, right there in Jihoon's space. Jihoon slants a look in that direction, but apart from the shift of the bedsheets, there’s nothing to see, just the faint static charge Seungcheol gives off when he's nervous, when he fidgets restlessly.
Jihoon stretches a hand into the space between them, moves his fingers a little, testing to see how close or how far Seungcheol is to him. He feels a sharp jolt of gratitude when Seungcheol’s hand closes around his, the ghostly pressure of a thumb rubbing over his knuckles.
Emboldened, Jihoon takes the hand that is resting over his and places it against his chest, hears a little hitch of breath when he does that. It’s cold, the contact, but it makes the blood inside of him burn with life and Jihoon hisses his breath in through his teeth. Seungcheol tries to pull his hand away, but Jihoon presses it down harder.
“It’s okay.” Jihoon murmurs, not quite knowing if it’s Seungcheol or himself that needs assurance here. “I—I need…”
"What do you need?" Seungcheol’s voice is a rumble in the dark.
And then, because impulse has gotten him this far, Jihoon whispers, "You."
There’s a shift in the air around them, a change in energy as the tension in his own body switches to something more pleasant—anticipation and heat.
Seungcheol drags his hand down Jihoon’s front, over his stomach, creating goose bumps in its wake. The hand slips under Jihoon’s T-shirt and slowly begins to slide over his stomach, bunching the fabric at it goes. Seungcheol’s touch, at once both reverent and commanding is ice cold against his skin, but Jihoon’s body feels feverish, and the icy hand is like a balm, cooling him down.
The hand migrates up to his chest and Seungcheol closes two of his fingertips hard over a nipple.
Jihoon gasps and goes pliant, his head swimming.
He should be terrified, but his body wants this. He can admit it, now, how much he's been thinking about this in the little absent minutes during the day.
It still doesn’t feel like something he can have. So it doesn't make any sense to his brain when abruptly Seungcheol’s weight is pinning him to the mattress and pressing their lips together.
Seungcheol kisses generous and slow and like it's the most important thing in the world. It's nothing at all like the forceful disaster from Jihoon's fantasy. This is a softer heat, tentative and cautious, as Seungcheol's tongue teases at the seam of Jihoon's lips. Seungcheol's hand is gentle when he cups Jihoon's jaw to coax him into a better angle, and Jihoon opens for the hopeful thrust of Seungcheol's tongue, gentle and greedy.
That first permission seems to be all Seungcheol needs, because a moment later the gentleness is gone and Seungcheol is shoving Jihoon down onto the bed, onto his back. Jihoon's pulse kicks up hot and fast, because there's that forceful strength he's been imagining. Seungcheol follows him down and claims his mouth in a harder kiss.
Jihoon is embarrassed, almost, by how much he likes it, surging ungracefully into the kiss and then subsiding, surrendering, nearly as gracelessly, when the iron grip on the nape of his neck softens into a happy caress.
There’s a satisfied sigh as Seungcheol breaks the kiss, then the bed creaks as Seungcheol kneels over him, his knees making heavy indentations in the mattress on either side of Jihoon’s thighs. The hem of Jihoon’s shirt suddenly lifts over Jihoon’s head, exposing his chest where the skin immediately begins to ripple with gooseflesh. His nipples are pebbled and hard already, because Seungcheol’s touch is like a winter wind cutting through the heat.
Seungcheol divests Jihoon of his underwear without ceremony, ghosts his fingers along Jihoon’s stomach and thighs. Jihoon’s hips stutter forward, inadvertent at first, then in deliberate search of friction, and he gasps as Seungcheol’s hand strokes over his cock.
The fingers at his jaw inch upward until they can wrap around his chin. Then one of the fingertips is probing at his mouth, pushing its way between his lips. Despite the way his rational brain is trying to comprehend, Jihoon’s body reacts of its own volition, his tongue darting out to meet the digit.
Seungcheol chuckles somewhere above him, then reaches a cold hand down to cup his balls. Jihoon gasps out a moan and arches his back, clawing at the bedding and at Seungcheol who he can’t see but feels solid enough beneath Jihoon’s fingernails.
Seungcheol ignores Jihoon’s straining cock and slides a finger past his sac, first just petting the tight ring of muscle between Jihoon’s cheeks until it flutters open. There is no lubricant but the man’s finger slides into Jihoon easily.
There is no pain, only the pressure of a foreign object inside of him and the pleasure he feels at being stretched open.
“Seungcheol.” He says, aware of how shaken he sounds.
“Jihoonie.” Comes a velvet-soft voice from above him.
Jihoon moans and lets his legs fall open as far as he can with Seungcheol’s thighs still bracketing him. He feels slutty and shameful, but he can’t stop himself. His body doesn’t care what his over analytical mind thinks.
Seungcheol slides his finger free for only a second, and then it’s back with a second digit, probing and curling and pressing against him from the inside.
Jihoon’s making a lot of noise and he doesn't care. He feels safe, hot, wanted. Seungcheol makes some half-formed noise of encouragement in his ear, his breath cool, and it makes Jihoon shiver. He grasps for the back of Seungcheol's neck and pulls him into a kiss, hot and charged and hungry.
"Seungcheol," Jihoon gasps, all teeth and lips against Seungcheol's mouth. “Oh—fuck. I wish—I want to see you.” He says, senselessly, not sure exactly what he means by it.
"Really?" Seungcheol says. Then leans in close, close enough that his lips brush against Jihoon's ear when he whispers, "I can do that."
Suddenly, Seungcheol takes his hand away entirely, and backs off, weight disappearing, and Jihoon feels unpleasantly empty and adrift. But then there’s hands on Jihoon’s hips, strong and insistent, leaving burning cold imprints there as Seungcheol urges him over, onto his knees. Jihoon obeys the wordless command in Seungcheol's touch, settling forward on his arms and wondering where this is going.
In one quick blur, Jihoon finds himself pulled over to the bottom of the bed, so he’s grasping the wooden railing and facing his reflection in the mirror. He hears the jingle of a belt buckle being undone, the rustle of clothing that doesn’t exist hitting the floor, then there’s a larger pressure at his back and strong hands settling on his hips.
Then, just as Jihoon is considering opening his mouth and asking what Seungcheol plans to do, he feels the hot press of lips at the base of his spine, and oh.
When Jihoon glances up at the mirror, what he sees reflected there almost makes him stop breathing.
Seungcheol’s shadow has materialized behind him. The features are not solid, still shifting just slightly, but the longer Jihoon stares, the heavier the presence at his back gets. Seungcheol becomes more solid, more real, until Jihoon is sure if he turned around he’d be able to see Seungcheol behind him, sucking fevered kisses down his spine.
He doesn’t turn, he stares at the shadowed contours of Seungcheol's face in the mirror instead, and the second they make eye contact, the image behind him completes itself. Now Seungcheol stares back at him with brown eyes, and Jihoon doesn't think he's imagining any of the complicated emotions lighting Seungcheol's face.
How is this even possible? How can he see him now so clearly when he couldn’t before?
"Eye contact?" Jihoon asks, his voice comes out choked and breathless with startled understanding.
Seungcheol only nods, pressing flush up against Jihoon’s back, peppering kisses over the curve of his shoulder. The hand on his shoulder slides away, Seungcheol’s hold shifts on him—and then there’s a thick hardness sliding between his ass cheeks. And fuck. Fuck. The weight of the cock now pressing insistently at his hole feels real enough, if larger than he's accustomed to, and Jihoon swallows past the tightness in his throat.
“Jihoon?” Seungcheol murmurs, a request.
Seungcheol is holding his position, cock at the ready, waiting as though he wants Jihoon paying attention before he makes his next move.
Jihoon doesn't make any overt movement or gesture. But something in his face must look like a green light to Seungcheol, because Jihoon feels a cool thumb part his cheeks and a pressure at his hole. He has just enough time to spread his knees wide, before he’s being split open and Seungcheol is inside of him.
Light flares behind Jihoon's eyes, and his jaw drops on a silent, startled breath. He cries out, but not with pain. It hurts but not as much as he knows it should, and more than that, it feels so fucking good.
An electric tingle races up Jihoon’s spine when Seungcheol slides an arm around his waist and hikes his hips up. Seungcheol's other hand curls through Jihoon's hair, commanding attention on his reflection to maintain his presence—as if Jihoon were physically capable of looking anywhere else right now.
Then Seungcheol's hips rock back, almost gentle, before snapping forward so deep Jihoon cries out, surprise and a jolt of pleasure knocking the sound from his chest.
“Oh fuck—Seungcheol.” Is all he can say, the last syllable choked off in a moan.
Seungcheol pounds into him and Jihoon can only hump the air in vain, his cock hard and slapping against his abdomen with each of Seungcheol’s thrusts. He can’t stop the broken sobs that escape his throat, echoing the rhythmic claps of Seungcheol’s pelvis against his thighs.
Jihoon’s ever been fucked like this before. He feels full and empty at the same time, the cold reaches all the way through him, filling him and leaving him bereft all at once.
When he comes, it’s without warning, soiling his bedding and splashing his chest and forearms with warmth. He sobs and his arms give out, dropping him face first into the mattress, but Seungcheol still has an arm wrapped around his waist, hoisting his hips high, and he keeps fucking in hard until Jihoon’s cock actually begins to stir again.
Every thrust drags the tip of Seungcheol’s cock against a spot inside of Jihoon that makes him want to scream. He knows it’s his prostate, but he doesn’t know how Seungcheol is managing to tag it every time, bringing Jihoon back to life after only a few minutes of almost unbearable sensation.
“You’re so beautiful, feel so good,” Seungcheol murmurs above him as his cock rapidly fills for a second time. Jihoon moans his name, giving himself over to the sensations, the feeling of the cock inside him, of the solid arm wrapped tight around his body, of his own cock hanging heavy and throbbing between his legs.
One of Seungcheol’s hands has been curled over Jihoon’s shoulder this whole time, pulling him back onto his cock, but now he strokes it down Jihoon’s arm and then over his chest, pausing to pinch his nipples and make Jihoon moan.
“Oh—fuck. Seungcheol—yes.” Jihoon whispers. He's embarrassed at how needy he sounds, how breathy and fucked-out.
Grunting something pleased, Seungcheol pats lightly over Jihoon’s stomach, making the muscles clench involuntarily and then he presses in on Jihoon’s abdomen and hums to himself, stroking over the skin, like he can feel himself inside of Jihoon.
The thought makes Jihoon’s cock twitch and Seungcheol must notice, because he breathes laughter against the back of Jihoon’s neck and wraps cold fingers around Jihoon’s throbbing cock.
One firm stroke later and Jihoon comes a second time, choking on a sob as unexpected heat floods his body and the world goes dark around him.
Jihoon wakes by slow degrees, stretching out small aches and happily recalling how they originated. He feels dazed, flushed and warm. Languid.
It’s Saturday morning, and he’d planned to do some work from home today, but he doesn't want to leave the bed. He'd rather bask for a while, because he feels fucking awesome. He can still feel Seungcheol's hands all over him, the perfect ache where Seungcheol's fingers and cock opened him up, and right now finishing some stupid report is the farthest thing from his mind.
There’s a head shaped dent in the pillow next to his that makes him smiles, makes him reach out to search for a body he can’t see. But his roaming hand comes into contact with nothing but air and silk sheets.
It’s stupid to feel disappointed, but he was hoping Seungcheol would be there.
Alone on the bed now, Jihoon rolls onto his side and startles.
On the bedside table, there’s a tray with a single red rose, a caramel muffin and a steaming cup of coffee.
Breakfast in bed?
Jihoon smiles in spite of himself; Seungcheol is such a sap.
There’s a letter too, folded neatly in half and written in fastidiously tidy handwriting is a note.
Jihoon picks it up, slumping back into the pillows as he unfolds it.
In the warm glow of morning, he allows himself to wash away, allows himself a private smile at the scrawled, looping words that serve as a beautiful reminder that he’s never alone.