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PRESENT-DAY: SM ACADEMY, CLASSROOM 310

The news breaks at exactly 2:32 P.M. on a sunny Wednesday. Jongdae vividly remembers this, because he’s halfway through a spiel about proper gadget maintenance - cleanup procedures are important, no matter what Sehun likes to say - when the first phone goes off.

It sets off a chain reaction. Behind Jongdae’s back, two more chime at the exact same time. The shuffling starts in the classroom as his students try to look at their screens discreetly without tipping him off. Someone’s ringtone pierces the air, a bubblegum girl group hit that’s on the radio way too often these days, and it plays for six whole seconds before the owner manages to silence it.

Because Jongdae likes to think of himself as a benevolent, understanding teacher, he gives his class the benefit of the doubt. “Now,” he says a bit louder, drawing a line of chalk across the board to finish his chart, “always remember to classify the type of superpower that damages your equipment, since its properties are crucial for restoring it to its regular—”

But then there’s a loud, dramatic gasp from the first row, and Jongdae sighs and gives up.

Kids will be kids. Even ones that are being professionally trained to become superheroes, he supposes.

“Okay,” he finally says, turning around and raising an eyebrow at the half-guilty, half-excited eyes of his students. “What is it?”

Silence. Everyone shifts in their seats. Jongdae’s own phone goes off on his desk, the low, muted whoosh sound reserved for breaking news alerts, and he frowns. Whatever this is, it must be big.

His guess is proven right only a moment later when Yerim clears her throat and decides to speak up. “Sorry, Mr. Kim,” she says, voice sounding a lot more enthusiastic than what an afternoon general studies class at SM calls for. Her blonde hair slips over her shoulder as she straightens, and Jongdae only gets a second to feel the apprehensiveness hit him before she continues, radiant:

“But it’s Firestorm. He’s back.”

“Oh,” Jongdae replies, very lamely.

And, in retrospect, that scene - Yerim’s bright eyes and the spike in the volume of the class immediately after her words - is what Jongdae’s inner drama queen will always think of as The Beginning of the End.

 

☆☆☆

 

PAST: SIHEUNG-SI, THE KIMS’ HOME

Back when Jongdae was still a scraggly, equally bright-eyed kid, pros were already a big deal. You saw them everywhere in the city: on news screens, plastered over life-sized billboards, in giant subway advertisements with slogans like Stone Edge’s favourite protein powder! Rock-solid results! In a metropolis as sprawling and media-focused as Seoul, everywhere meant everywhere. Even if you were a powerful executive who thought everything in normal society was beneath you, they were hard to ignore.

As a regular citizen, it was nearly impossible. Pro heroes were a part of society as much as idols or teachers or the nice doctor Jongdae went to who always gave him lollipops. They were icons. Made to protect, made to inspire, and made to be celebrated. Made to impress.

And Jongdae, ever the impressionable child, had never been an exception.

“You want to be a what?” his mother asked him on that one fateful summer day.

“A superhero,” Jongdae said, and gave her his best grin. “A professional one.”

His mom stopped slicing cucumbers long enough to look at him. It was hot enough that her dark hair was pulled up into a neat bun. The low drone of the television in the kitchen hummed in the background, a perfect accompaniment to the cicadas already buzzing outside.

She turned, wiping her hands on her shirt, and Jongdae’s eyes fell to the apron she had on. It was the one he’d saved up to buy her for her last birthday - cheap thin fabric with a colourful montage of hero logos printed all across the front. From the pocket, a metallic silver eye winked at Jongdae. Cartoonish bolts of purple energy ran over the straps.

Maybe Jongdae was just imagining it, but he thought he could feel the gentle pulse of his own power under his skin, as insistent as a warning call.

His mom looked at him a little longer. “What brought this on?”

“We watched a video in class for hero studies,” Jongdae said. “And the people at school say I’m strong. Strong enough to get into SM.”

“SM,” his mom repeated, the same way someone would say Death Valley.

“Baekhyun wants to go with me too. He said we’ll take the entrance exam together when we’re sixteen.”

The mention of Jongdae’s best friend made his mom pause. She gazed down at him. For a moment, it felt like she was frozen, like she’d been hit by the paralyzing static of her own superpower.

But Jongdae knew that couldn’t happen. His mom’s power wasn’t strong enough for that. At least, not in the same way his was.

His mom bent down to kneel on the ground and put her hands on his shoulders. “Training to be a pro is hard, Jongdae. Even if it’s not at an academy like SM.”

“I know,” Jongdae said.

“And it’s dangerous. A lot of people get hurt.”

“I know. It’s okay, Mom. I’ll promise I’ll be careful.”

His mom hesitated. Then she asked, “Are you sure? One hundred percent?”

Jongdae thought about it. He remembered the videos he’d watched in class, the leap of a golden-bright figure across the screen, the excited, breathless hush of his classmates. He remembered the easy strength of the hero who’d been brought in to speak to them. He remembered the light in his teacher’s eyes, and the way everyone in the room had been drawn to the pro’s undeniable aura like moths to a flame.

But most of all, he remembered how the hero pronounced justice. Not like it was any other word in the dictionary, but like it was a duty, like something he knew and believed in as simply as breathing.

“Two hundred percent,” Jongdae said.

A tiny smile curled over his mom’s face. She nodded.

Even twelve years later, Jongdae would still be able to recall the exact look in his mother’s eyes: concern, and pride, and something faint and soft like nostalgia when she told him, “Then I wish you good luck.”

 

☆☆☆

 

PRESENT-DAY: SM ACADEMY, KIM JONGDAE’S OFFICE

“You mean you didn’t know?”

“You mean you knew?” Jongdae counters, incredulous. He pushes into his office and drops his bag on the desk, fumbling with his phone on his shoulder as he slams the door shut behind him. “And you didn’t tell me?”

There’s an awkward silence. For several long seconds, all Jongdae hears over the line is breathing and the far-off sounds of some yelling in the background. No doubt a rookie training session his friend was forced to look over - because apparently, even high-ranked pros tend to be screwed over like that once in a while.

Not that Jongdae would know. Go figure.

“Well,” Baekhyun finally says, voice slow and very much hesitant. “I, uh. Kind of thought you already knew.”

Jongdae collapses into his armchair. “I didn’t.”

“Well, you do now?”

The words don’t comfort Jongdae as much as Baekhyun evidently thought they would. “When did you find out?” he demands, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Did he tell you?”

Baekhyun makes a vague noise. “Sort of?”

“What do you mean, sort of?”

“I mean I found out through the pro grapevine first. He only texted me after.” There’s the sound of some shuffling on the other end before Baekhyun adds, tentatively, “He said he was going to tell everyone soon.”

Jongdae shuts his eyes. As much as he wishes it didn’t, that stings a little.

“Well, he didn’t,” he says. “At least, not me.”

Because, while it may have been years since he last needed to, Jongdae still knows exactly what everyone implies in this context, right down to the very last name. The hero agency. The family back in Seoul. Old partners and co-workers, ones who have been friendly enough to keep in touch. SM’s board of directors, maybe. Then, going up the ladder of importance, Do Kyungsoo. Baekhyun.

And… Jongdae. Once upon a time. But apparently not anymore.

Which can probably be blamed on the unread message still sitting in his phone, but still.

“Look, you don’t know for sure,” Baekhyun tells him now, and bless him for trying, even though Jongdae’s gut is now doing some sort of weird tightening-and-loosening routine as his brain struggles to decide between dread or relief. “He’s pretty busy right now with everything going on, right? I bet the media’s been crazy to deal with. It could’ve just slipped his mind.”

“Sure,” Jongdae says dubiously. “Okay.”

Baekhyun ignores the scepticism in his voice with grace. “And anyways, telling people doesn’t mean anything. Maybe he wanted to surprise you.”

“For some reason, I really, really doubt that.”

“Maybe he wanted to burst into SM and sweep you off your feet so he could solve whatever weird thing’s been going on between—”

Baekhyun!” Jongdae squawks, horrified, and Baekhyun lets out a good-natured laugh, quieter in a way that tells Jongdae he’s only ninety percent kidding. Not that Jongdae blames him. The best thing about Byun Baekhyun is that he takes whatever life throws at him in stride: like light superpowers, or the burden of fame, or, say, two of his best friends having an awkward falling-out-of-sorts that they still won’t give him details about.

The thought makes Jongdae clear his throat. “Anyway, the kids were pretty excited about it earlier,” he mumbles, in an attempt to change the subject. “I had to dismiss them ten minutes early because they couldn’t calm down.”

“Tell me about it.” Baekhyun sighs dramatically. “The rookies here at the agency wouldn’t shut up either. I totally see my true place in their heart now.”

“Hey, come on. You know they love you.”

“Sure they do. I’m just second place in comparison to the literal stuff of legends.”

Anyone would be, Jongdae thinks, but it sounds a little less joking and a lot more personal even in his head, so he just says, “Do you know his plans from now on?”

Baekhyun pauses. “And what if I did?”

That must be a yes, then. “Baekhyun,” Jongdae wheedles. “I’m just curious, okay? It’s been decades.”

“It’s been, like, two years.”

“Still ages to me. And you know we haven’t spoken for a while.”

“Well, I mean,” his best friend starts, in a tone that lets Jongdae know whatever he says next is going to be an absolutely terrible suggestion, “you could just ask him yourself.”

Bingo. Jongdae blows out a breath and resists the urge to slump over his desk. “I can’t,” he says, voice weak. He worries his lip between his teeth as he switches his phone to the other ear. “It’d be out of nowhere. Besides, I don’t even know if he still has the same number.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean over the phone. I meant in person at the meet-up I already scheduled for us. Which is in three days, by the way.”

Jongdae’s heart freezes like ice. “What are you—”

“Wow, would you look at the time! These rookies won’t supervise themselves,” Baekhyun interrupts, as if he has ever given a shit about proper supervision in his six-year career. “I’ll text you the details later, bye! Make sure to get a nice outfit ready!”

Byun Baekhyun—”

And of course, his friend hangs up just as Jongdae’s about to offer him some very choice words, leaving Jongdae to listen to the dial tone in speechless silence by himself.

A message pings his phone right away. saturday 6 pm @ EXORDIUM, smart casual, Baekhyun’s texted him. and no, u can’t back out ^o^

Well. Great.

Jongdae actually does slump over the desk this time.

Baekhyun means well, he knows he does, but this is a situation where brute force is about as likely to work as a straight-up battle to the death. The fact that the three of them haven’t been all together in two years is only part of the problem. Heck, Jongdae’s feelings are only part of the problem. The majority of the problem lies in the phone Jongdae’s holding, right here, right now, with the Pikachu case that a student gifted him as a joke on his twenty-sixth birthday.

Because he’s a total masochist, Jongdae swipes open his Katalk app and scrolls right to the very bottom. July 27th, two years ago. The date of the flight Jongdae took back from New York.

We’re still OK, right?

It’s still bolded - meaning it’s unread. And that it’s stayed unread, throughout all of the seven-hundred-or-so days since, because Jongdae is… kind of the biggest coward on the planet.

And because that fact has unfortunately not seemed to change much through those seven hundred days, Jongdae presses the home button with a bit more force than necessary and very determinedly Does Not Think about Baekhyun’s suggestion.

True to his masochistic nature, though, he still ends up on his news app, scrolling with a sort of doomed curiosity through the article that his phone was so insistent on notifying him about. It’s a short piece with not a lot of detail, obviously written in a rush to get the scoop into the open. There’s a blurb about the much-anticipated return of one of Korea’s best pros. A hasty list of accomplishments and broken records. An even hastier jumble of links to Naver posts and Wiki pages, and then…

…There’s a freshly-taken airport photo, because of course there is. Jongdae stares at it for so long that he’d probably crucify himself if Baekhyun ever found out.

His first thought is that Park Chanyeol, for all his fame and charm and blazing, sparkling power, doesn’t look very different from the handsome young man Jongdae last met two years ago. To be honest, he doesn’t even look that different from the earnest high school version of him, the starry-eyed idealist that Jongdae remembers all too well. Chanyeol still has the same messy dark hair. And the same face, albeit half-covered with a black mask. And - at risk of Jongdae sounding like some forlorn middle-aged lady in a bad rom-com - the exact same eyes, chocolate brown and wide and way too unfairly pretty—

Shut the fuck up, Jongdae tells his brain, which has apparently reverted back to lovesick teenager with a puppy crush mode while he wasn’t paying attention.

But, when it does come down to it, that’s what Chanyeol is. Sort of. Some things change and some don’t, and unfortunately it looks like the ever-inconvenient flutter in Jongdae’s chest is one of the latter. It’s like some kind of well-worn conditioned response by now, the dog to Pavlov’s bell, stimulus plus reaction, and… and now he has to deal with facing the subject of that not-quite-experiment all over again. In a private restaurant. With his asshole of a best friend as his only company.

“Man,” Jongdae mutters to himself now, scrolling back up to the top of his messages and starting to type out a new one. “I don’t get paid enough to be okay with this.”

[to: baekhyun] [from: jongdae]

u are srsly the worst

 

☆☆☆

 

PAST: SM ACADEMY, ARENA ZERO

SM’s oh-so-infamous entrance exam had been called many things. Harsh, by anyone who knew of it. Needlessly dangerous, by concerned parents and hero critics alike. A confidence-crushing death sentence, by a prominent media outlet that had probably coined the dramatic term just to get clicks. (Not that it didn’t work. The reported turnout for new SM hopefuls had been unusually low that year.)

And, last but not least, glorified laser tag by sixteen-year-old Byun Baekhyun as soon as he’d heard the rules, which made Jongdae snort loudly enough that the nearest examiner aimed a disapproving glare at him.

Oops. Definitely not the best way to secure his admission. Jongdae gave her his best innocent smile, then turned to swiftly jab his best friend in the ribs. “You need to, like, shut up for at least two minutes,” he hissed, over the sound of Baekhyun’s overdramatic wheezing. “Or we won’t hear the rest of the rules at all.”

“I don’t even think we need to,” Baekhyun whispered back, recovering remarkably quickly. He made a finger gun and cocked it in a bang! motion towards Jongdae’s chest. “It’s basically laser tag. Didn’t you hear me?”

“Yeah, laser tag with the minor addition of a death risk.”

Baekhyun dismissed this with a wave of his hand. “Oh, come on. No one’s gonna die. SM probably has enough healers to open their own hospital at this point.”

“Even healing powers won’t help when you fall off a building and turn into a meat pancake,” Jongdae pointed out.

“You’re so negative,” Baekhyun said cheerfully, which told Jongdae that, for the most part, he was now alone in his sanity. “I’m telling you, don’t worry about it! We’ll both pass. No biggie, right?”

Except, well, it was kind of biggie. For lack of a better way to phrase it. SM’s main training arena was huge, far larger than any school facility had the right to be, and the gates barring them from the dummy cityscape hadn’t even opened yet. All around Jongdae, prospective hero trainees loomed - there was a guy blowing out frost two rows in front of him, two siblings playing rock-paper-scissors by shifting their hands into actual scissors, and a girl who was absentmindedly petting the snakes in her hair. Compared to all the unique, interesting powers around him, Jongdae kind of felt exceedingly ordinary. Like an idealized plug socket in a sea of full-blown tanks.

Unluckily enough for him, Baekhyun caught onto it. “Hey,” he said, and snapped his fingers right before Jongdae’s eyes. A flash of white light seared Jongdae’s vision bright enough to make him yelp. “You’re not going to short-circuit on me now, are you?”

“Ha, ha. Very funny,” Jongdae replied, voice dry. “And no. I’m just nervous.”

“What for? It’s not like we’re going to fail.”

Baekhyun’s confidence, at the very least, was up to pro hero levels already. Jongdae resisted the urge to roll his eyes as he swatted his friend’s hand away. “Not everyone can be narcissistic enough to have zero doubts about their abilities, you know,” he said jokingly.

“Ouch.” Baekhyun pouted at him. “For your information, I just know what I’m worth.”

“And what is that?”

That made Baekhyun puff out his chest and say, with all the self-assuredness in the world, “A spot at the top of the exam scoreboard and an entrance ticket into SM Academy.”

Jongdae laughed. He couldn’t help it. “Confident, aren’t we?”

“Hey, we’re supposed to be! Superheroes are supposed to be, so listen, you’ve gotta stop being Captain Negativity or whatever. It’s not a good look.” Baekhyun paused and his eyes lit up. “Wait, maybe that can be your future pro name: Captain Negativity. It even kind of rhymes with electricity—”

“Dude, that is actually terrible—”

RRRRRIIIIIINNNNNNGGGG.

Jongdae almost jumped two meters into the air. Up ahead, some girl actually did, obviously blessed with some kind of rabbit-like hopping power. He clasped a hand over his pounding heart and winced as the crackle of the intercom came on over the chatter, loud and jarring in the huge space of the arena.

“Welcome to the official heroics entrance examination for SM Academy. Please proceed now to your assigned gate number in an orderly fashion. The physical simulation will begin in two minutes.”

What the fuck.

“What the fuck,” Jongdae whisper-yelled to Baekhyun. “Did you get to hear the rest of the rules?”

Baekhyun’s assured expression wavered a little, which was answer enough. “Uh, no. But it’s okay. I think. They probably use the same ones every year anyway—”

“Well, now we won’t know!”

“It’s fine,” Baekhyun insisted. “Glorified laser tag, remember?” He reached out to yank Jongdae’s hand over and give him a clumsy, one-sided high-five, then thumped him on the back while Jongdae tried his best not to freak out. “I’m over at gate #1. Meet you at the top of the scoreboard. Don’t die!”

Easier said than done, Jongdae wanted to say, but Baekhyun was already gone, slipping through the crowd and vanishing as quickly as the flashes of light he was so good at conjuring. Which would honestly be pretty helpful as a power right now, in this kind of examination. More helpful than Jongdae’s weird, reckless thunder zaps, anyway—

Stop. Jongdae pinched himself in the arm. Maybe Baekhyun had a point - Captain Negativity seemed like a pretty fitting name to wear for the rest of his life right now.

He sucked in a deep breath, trying to calm his jumpy nerves, and blew it back out again. Okay. He could do this. He might be nervous as all hell and about to take the most important test of his life, but he could do this. Jongdae puffed out his cheeks, felt the familiar tingle of his electricity in his gut, and marched up to gate #6.

Chatterbox best friends aside, he did at least manage to catch most of the exam’s basic rules. SM was a top-notch superhero academy above all else; they wanted speed, wanted power, wanted the fierce desire to protect citizens and the willingness to act on it without a second thought. The best way to prove all of those was through a simulation in the field. Hence Jongdae standing here right now in a bulky vest, feeling more than a little ridiculous as he gripped his examiner-issued blaster in his hand.

In other words, Baekhyun was completely right about the laser tag part.

Jongdae tried his best to run over the rules in his head. The blaster was designed to shoot a visible burst of light that wouldn’t hurt anyone. The fancy vest was designed to register the shots. The aim was as simple as an 8-bit video game, really - get the most shots in, with the other exam-takers as targets, while also protecting yourself to get the least hits. There was some complicated point system at the end that would determine their final acceptance, but those two goals basically summed up the gist of it. It was easy and understandable and not particularly life-threatening at all.

What really made SM’s entrance exam so infamous was their no-holds-barred stance on the use of superpowers. Jongdae bit his lip and summoned his electricity. It crackled to life, silver-bright and quietly anticipating, in the half-closed palm of his fist.

When the starting alarm blared and the gates opened, he was already running.

Let it be known that, reckless energy and fearmongering rumours aside, SM hopefuls did not fuck around. Jongdae made a wholly unmanly noise as a weird ball of some sticky pink goo almost caught him in the shoulder. He ducked his head down, narrowly dodging another onslaught in the form of three razor-sharp feathers, and just barely managed to roll over before a blast of light hit his vest.

If he was being honest, the shots from the exam blasters kind of reminded him of Baekhyun’s power. Not that Jongdae had any clue where his friend was. The infamous Arena Zero was somehow even bigger on the inside, full of empty buildings and streets built for the sole purpose of these practical simulations, and any plans of finding Baekhyun and maybe teaming up to face the other examinees together had evaporated the moment Jongdae’d entered the gate.

Because yeah, okay, he was lost. At least he was humble enough to admit it.

Jongdae ducked into an alleyway and pressed himself against the wall, trying to catch his breath. He did a quick mental calculation in his head as he leaned his head back. Six light blasts. Six times his vest had gotten hit. And he wasn’t completely sure how many of his own shots had landed, but it couldn’t have been more than fourteen or fifteen, which meant that he might already be screwed in terms of passing points—

Wham.

Well, seven now. Jongdae grimaced as he jerked back on instinct. The blast struck him in the abdomen, giving way to that icy, numbing sensation that he was already getting used to, and he looked up straight into the eyes of a dark-haired girl perched on top of a windowsill.

“Hello,” she said pleasantly, and stretched her hand out again.

Jongdae didn’t have the courtesy to greet her back. He just chucked over a bolt of lightning and ran.

Okay, so seven. That wasn’t totally terrible. Jongdae rounded the corner of a concrete house and aimed his own blaster at the first target he saw, pressing the trigger and unleashing the shot, and the element of surprise was enough to catch a boy with a scorpion tail right in the chest. Sixteen for himself, then. He got another girl just as she was shifting back from something vaguely feline, and that was seventeen. One more gigantified boy as Jongdae ran through the street, which was dumb because why would you make the target on your back even bigger, but it made eighteen, so Jongdae wasn’t complaining—

—Until the ground beneath him rumbled like a warning and he had to freeze. Some sort of earthquake-inducing superpower made its dreadful presence known. Vibrations raced up into Jongdae’s bones, and he yelped as he tipped over, barely managing to catch his balance before he crashed to the ground.

“Watch out!” someone yelled.

Jongdae snapped his head up and stared right at a falling streetlight and wow, okay, it looked like his superhero trainee career was about to be over before it even began.

In the middle of his frozen panic - why did SM even put those lights in the arena, honestly, what was the point - Jongdae didn’t notice the shadow coming at him from the side. Nor the leap the person made as they tackled him. He did notice the way both of them fell over, crashing right into a tiny pocket of space between two buildings, but that was a given; Jongdae knocked his head straight against a wall of bricks and saw stars, and his vision went blurry black for a few seconds as the streetlight collapsed to the ground before them, pain shooting through his skull like an energy blast.

Ow. He was definitely going to feel that tomorrow. And probably well into next week, too. Jongdae groaned and opened his eyes with great difficulty. His head was still all woozy, and he could barely tell up from down as his brain struggled to reboot itself.

If this was how he was going to go, so be it. It probably could’ve been a lot worse anyway, because here, lying on the ground like this with his vision all fuzzy, Jongdae could at least still see the sun high up in the sky. And the silhouette looming over him. And the… fire… billowing in front of the person’s face?

Well then, Jongdae’s half-conscious mind thought. Burning alive was a decidedly less pleasant way to go.

Only the fire never touched him, because the person crouched down and put a hand to the side of Jongdae’s face, and their flames dissolved into air. “Hey, are you okay?” a male voice asked.

It was deep and soft and sounded concerned. Jongdae blinked. “Are you going to shoot me?” he croaked out, because even after what could’ve very well been a close scrape with death, passing his exam was still his number one concern.

The boy let out a surprised laugh. Jongdae’s vision was getting clearer - he could make out floppy dark hair and brown eyes, bright with humour as they looked down at him.

“No, dude. I think I’ll spare you this time. You did almost get crushed flat, you know.”

“Oh,” Jongdae mumbled.

“Yeah. You might have a concussion. You’ll have to get that checked out by the healers.”

That didn’t sound good. “Oh,” Jongdae said again, and frowned a little. He struggled to push himself up on his elbows. Set against the backdrop of the sky and with the sun behind his shoulders, the boy in front of him looked like some sort of god, so brilliant it was almost blinding. So Jongdae couldn’t really be blamed when all he could think to do was blurt out: “Who are you?”

Maybe it sounded more than a little wonderstruck. The boy just grinned at Jongdae, sweat-tinged and radiant.

“I’m Park Chanyeol,” he said, and offered his hand. “And I think you just became my very first civilian rescue.”

 

☆☆☆

 

PRESENT-DAY: SM ACADEMY, STAFF LOUNGE

Contrary to popular belief, pros - even the ones consistently in Seoul’s top 10 ranking - don’t exactly get treated like celebrities. At least, not in the same way idols and actors and reality TV show hosts do. It comes with the career, a by-product of rescuing countless citizens and all that, and it’s generally an unspoken rule to respect pros’ privacy and keep them out of the gossip tabloids if it isn’t anything too juicy. Not even hungry paparazzi would risk pissing off someone who might save their life someday, after all.

So superheroes have always been a special case. Which means that, of course, it was still acceptably easy for Baekhyun to book a hush-hush room at one of the most exclusive restaurants in the city. One phone call to EXORDIUM and a reservation under Black Light’s name, and the deed was done.

The hard part is convincing Jongdae to come.

“I’ll buy you morning coffee for a week,” Baekhyun wheedles through the phone.

Despite everything, Jongdae still manages to cough out a laugh. “You and I both know you’d never have enough time to come all the way to SM in the morning,” he mumbles back, voice garbled as he uncaps his trusty red pen with his teeth. He’s on his lunch break, technically, but pop quizzes are still an ever-persistent necessary evil for him to grade. “And that’s if you even have time to go to a cafe first.”

“I’ll pay for your morning coffee… in spirit.”

“Do you even know my usual coffee order?”

There’s a long pause. “Something way too sweet and way too creamy for an adult man?” Baekhyun finally guesses.

And, well, there’s no way Jongdae’s going to confess his weakness to vanilla mocha lattes after that. “No,” he lies, scrawling a Good job! on top of Kim Doyoung’s essay answer about evacuation procedures. “And anyways, you’re one to talk, Mr. I Frequently Steal Chocolates From The Reception Desk That Are Meant For Crying Children.”

“Hey,” Baekhyun defends. “Those aren’t just for children, they’re for anyone who walks into the agency. Besides, they’ve got more than enough there already—”

“Yeah, yeah. Don’t worry, I won’t sell you out to the papers.” Jongdae checks off another answer. “My answer is still no, though.”

Jongdae.”

Baekhyun. You can’t expect me to just accept your whims no questions asked, you know. And I have work to attend to—”

Baekhyun makes an affronted noise. “The reservation is for Saturday. You’re going to work on a Saturday evening?”

“I might,” Jongdae hedges. At Baekhyun’s sceptical silence, he admits, “Okay, I probably won’t, but it’s the principle of the thing. And either way, it’d be hard to talk me into going, because…”

“Because?”

Jongdae sighs. “Because it’s awkward. It’s been two years since we last talked. In case you forgot, we didn’t leave off on the best note, either.”

He kind of regrets saying the words the second they come out his mouth, because Baekhyun’s telling pause makes his curiosity all too clear. “Right,” his friend eventually says, voice thoughtful. “One day you’re going to have to tell me what exactly went down between you two. Until then, though, I’ll let it pass in the interest of the bro code. In favour of this.” Baekhyun takes a breath. “Come to the dinner? Pretty please?”

Baekhyun,” Jongdae complains, half-concentrated on adding up the multiple choice scores on the quiz in front of him. “I already said I’d rather not, okay?”

“Why, though? You’re probably going to end up seeing him anyway sooner or later, with your type of job.”

That makes Jongdae cringe. Unfortunately, his stubborn best friend is right. SM’s teachers are well-versed in training the cream of the crop in the heroics program, and that means that pros, whether as guest speakers or professional consultants, are often a part of the work they do. With someone like Chanyeol - who’s still holding on to the #1 ranking despite his years in America - a run-in is only a matter of time. And that’s not even considering all the history between them.

Jongdae gives up on getting any more marking done and puts his pen down, leaning back in his seat and exhaling. “I know,” he mutters. “But that doesn’t mean I want to deal with the whole thing one-on-one.”

“You won’t be doing it one-on-one. I’m gonna be there too, remember?”

“Yeah, but that’s different.”

Baekhyun huffs into the phone. “How? I’m friends with you both. I can totally be the mediator or whatever, in case any awkward shit happens.”

“That’s not the problem here,” Jongdae protests, face already heating up a little at the sheer bluntness of Baekhyun’s words. “It’s just - I don’t know, okay?” He slumps further down into his seat and rubs at his forehead. “I feel like I’d mess everything up and it’d be better for you two to just meet without me.”

“You wouldn’t mess anything up,” Baekhyun says, suddenly sounding very determined. “You belong with us too. That’s why I asked you to come in the first place.”

Jongdae wishes he wasn’t such a sucker for cheesy lines like that. “I guess. But…”

“Come on, Jongdae. I’ve made the reservation already. And listen, for what it’s worth, I really, really miss the three of us being together.”

His best friend’s voice is a little pleading and a lot sincere, and Jongdae is far weaker to that combination than he’ll ever admit. For a moment, just a few seconds, he tries to see things from Baekhyun’s perspective. Watching his two best friends suddenly build up a wall of awkward silence between each other. Having to only ever talk to them separately when the trio was inseparable before. It sends a pang through Jongdae’s chest, and all of a sudden, he can understand it a bit better - why the quiet urgency in Baekhyun’s words is so audible even through the phone.

“Are you sure it’s a good idea?” Jongdae asks weakly, a last attempt.

“No, I think it’s an absolutely horrible idea, that’s why I’ve been trying to convince you for the past fifteen minutes,” Baekhyun deadpans, and that makes Jongdae let out a laugh as the charged atmosphere breaks. “Seriously, Jongdae, you’ll be fine. You can even bring along someone for moral support if you want, okay? The private room is good for four people.”

Jongdae chews at his lip. “Okay,” he says, very slowly. “I guess. If you say so.”

“Great!” The relieved happiness in Baekhyun’s voice is almost worth what Jongdae just agreed to. Almost. “I already texted you the location and time. It’s at EXORDIUM, you know, that really fancy place in Daechi-dong—”

“I know where it is,” Jongdae interrupts, amusement taking over his nerves. “We’ve been there together at least three times, remember?”

“Right, right. Just making sure. I’ll see you there, then.” There’s a brief beat of silence, then Baekhyun says, softly, “Jongdae?”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks for doing this.”

Jongdae swallows. “It’s no problem,” he starts to say, but Baekhyun hangs up before he can get the words out, so he’s left to listen to the dial tone by himself all over again.

It strikes up a weird sense of deja vu. Only this time, Jongdae has the certainty to go right along with the rapidly rising feeling of trepidation. No backing out this time, then. Not that Baekhyun would blame him if he really, truly didn’t want to go, but Jongdae’s made a promise-of-sorts, and he’d rather not have to deal with his best friend’s disappointed puppy face if he changes his mind again.

So it looks like he’s going through with the plan.

At the very least, the silence doesn’t stretch long enough for Jongdae to fall into a dread-induced crisis. The door to the empty staff room slams open with a bang that makes him jump and almost short-circuit the electricity. “Hey, teach,” Sehun calls out as he walks in, two stacks of paper floating behind him, his dark hair ruffled from the wind he still has a hold on. He flicks his fingers and the papers drift towards Jongdae before plopping down on his table. “I got the documents on power compatibility that you asked for.”

“Oh. Thank you.” Jongdae picks up one of the pages. It’s a welcome distraction, and it’s nice to see that his teaching assistant is always reliable, except… “I thought I only asked for these to be ready by next week?”

Sehun shrugs, dropping into one of the chairs across from Jongdae and sending over another gust of wind to shut the door. “You did. I just got them early.”

“Oh.” Jongdae looks up. “You didn’t have to.”

“It’s no big deal. It’s not like I have that much to do when I’m not actually shadowing you in class, anyway.”

And, for some reason, that offhand comment is what makes something click in Jongdae’s head. Baekhyun did say something about an extra spot being available. And Jongdae would consider his board-assigned assistant a friend, even if Sehun teases Jongdae despite him technically being his boss and tends to act a bit too casual with his students. He’s been a supportive breath of fresh air in Jongdae’s tireless routine, windy powers notwithstanding, and most of all—

Well. Jongdae has a hunch that he won’t say no to an opportunity to meet two of Seoul’s top-ranking pro heroes.

“Hey, Sehun,” he says, decision made, and Sehun makes a questioning hmm noise from across the room. “You’re into, like… studying heroics, right?”

Sehun looks at Jongdae like he’s gone crazy. “I wouldn’t be interning here if I wasn’t, hyung.”

Right. “Right.” Jongdae clears his throat. “So, um, how would you feel about maybe, hypothetically, going to dinner with me on Saturday? Just as a thank-you for all the work you’ve been doing.”

“Is this you asking me out, hyung? Because if it is, I’m flattered, but I’m under duty to remind you about the board’s policy against dating—”

“What? No!” Jongdae splutters, and Sehun just snickers, eyes turning up into crescents as he watches Jongdae fluster. “Okay, no. It’s an honest invitation, you brat. I’m going to see two of my friends and we have an extra spot at the restaurant table.”

At that, Sehun cocks his head. “You want me to go meet your friends?”

“Sure.”

“Why me, though? Specifically, I mean.”

Jongdae smiles. “What if I told you… that both of those friends are pro heroes who rank in the country’s top 10, and that it would be a great connection-making opportunity?”

That makes Sehun perk up right away. There’s an undeniable glint of interest in his dark eyes, and Jongdae’s smile goes wider. “Really? Who?”

This is it. The climax. The breaking point.

Jongdae ahems for dramatic effect, then says, “Black Light and Firestorm.”

In retrospect, he probably shouldn’t have dealt that big of a blow while Sehun’s wind was still swirling around him.

The stack of papers by Jongdae’s elbow slips right off the table and falls with a thump to the floor, pages scattering under the gust that came with Sehun’s shock. “For real?” Sehun says, voice going high-pitched at the end. Jongdae winces and bends down to gather the documents, and by the time he comes up Sehun’s jaw is still slack. “I mean, I knew you knew Black Light since he came in for a demonstration that one time, but Firestorm?”

“He was one of my best friends in high school,” Jongdae offers, and Sehun stares at him like Jongdae’s just turned into solid gold. “Jeez, stop looking at me like that. Is it really that big of a deal?”

“That big of a - hyung, it’s Firestorm. He’s only one of the most powerful pros in history. Are you serious?” A thought seems to strike Sehun then, and he suddenly looks betrayed. “You’ve been friends with him all this time and you never told me?”

Jongdae coughs. “It’s complicated.”

“Didn’t he just come back from America too? Is this dinner a reunion or something?”

“More or less,” Jongdae says, because, well, that’s definitely what Baekhyun intended, and Sehun lets out a low whistle. “Anyway, that’s not the important thing here. Are you going to come or not?”

“Are you kidding?” Sehun still looks mostly awestruck. “Of course I am.”

It’s not like Jongdae was expecting any other answer, but he still sighs a little in vague relief. That’s his moral support secured, then. Even if Sehun’s unaware of the role he’ll be playing. At the very least, Jongdae won’t be left alone with Chanyeol while Baekhyun makes an excuse to go for an hour-long bathroom break or something - which is, unfortunately, a thing he can see his best friend doing - and his protégé will get a once-in-a-lifetime experience and maybe some autographs out of the whole thing. As far as last-ditch plans go, it’s not Jongdae’s worst.

“Awesome,” he says to seal the deal, aiming a smile at Sehun. “I can pick you up on Saturday evening and we can head there together.”

Sehun nods, bobbing his head in his excitement. Then he pauses. “Are you sure it’s okay, though? I wouldn’t want to intrude.”

Jongdae waves a hand. “I wouldn’t have asked you if it wasn’t. Don’t worry.” He reaches out to shuffle the papers on the table back into their neat stack, then adds, “And besides, I might need you there to create a small tornado as an escape if things get awkward.”

Sehun’s face breaks open in laughter, nose scrunching in that way that makes all the older female teachers coo - and Jongdae, ever-so-weak to cute things, doesn’t really have the heart to tell him he’s only half joking.

Maybe it’s the way the night is five times colder than it should be for late spring. Maybe it’s the fact that they got here twenty minutes early, courtesy of Jongdae direly overestimating the distance between his apartment and Sehun’s. Or maybe it’s just how Jongdae can feel his electricity buzzing up under his skin right from the car ride, restless and nervous, fizzling through his blood like soda and clearly more than responsive to Jongdae’s anxious jumble of emotions.

Either way, he’s more than ready to call the whole thing off when Baekhyun finally strolls into their private room at EXORDIUM at 5:58 P.M. And that’s before he watches his best friend pause to give Sehun a not-so-subtle once-over.

Oh, God. “Baekhyun,” Jongdae says, hoping that fifteen years of friendship will be able to make the Please Do Not Hit On My Intern in his voice clear. “Hi. This is Sehun, my teaching assistant.”

The quirk to Baekhyun’s mouth says that he’s received the message but has chosen to ignore it. “Hello!” he says cheerily, pulling off his sunglasses and offering Sehun a pretty hand. “Byun Baekhyun. But you know me as Black Light, right?”

Jongdae watches Sehun nod in a daze as he shakes Baekhyun’s hand, already transfixed, and tries to resist the urge to facepalm.

At least the private room they’re sitting in is as nice as always. EXORDIUM is a favourite of celebrities, so much so that its reputation is already set in gilded stone, proven by the way Sehun’s eyes widened when Jongdae finally pulled up to their destination. The table in front of them is glossy and dark, and the artsy modern lights are turned low enough for the ambience to be romantic. There’s a reason Baekhyun - hero alias Black Light - favours this restaurant so much. It’s quiet and peaceful and private, and privacy is the goal that every high-ranked pro chases.

The high-ranked pros who are Jongdae’s friends are no exception. Speaking of which, though - “Did you come alone?” Jongdae questions, turning to Baekhyun and pulling him out of the conversation he’s been having with Sehun.

Baekhyun shoots him a reassuring grin. “Yup. But don’t worry, Chanyeol will be here in a minute. He just got caught up in traffic.”

“Chanyeol,” Sehun repeats, still looking very much starstruck. “Is that Firestorm?”

“The one and only.”

For the sake of his intern’s twenty-two-year-old heart, Jongdae reaches over and pats him on the shoulder. “You don’t have to be nervous, okay? Just treat him like a regular sunbae. A really friendly one.”

“You won’t even have to use your imagination,” Baekhyun says. “I can tell you right now that he hasn’t changed a bit from high school even with all those years in the land of hamburgers and freedom.”

Sehun laughs like that’s the funniest joke in the world, which it really isn’t, especially not after the approximately thirty-six times Jongdae’s heard it already, and Baekhyun cracks a pleased smile. Jongdae leaves his friends to their weird not-quite-flirting in favour of perusing the menu. He already knows what he’s going to order, but he needs something to focus on anyway. Otherwise he’s going to be too caught up on what Baekhyun meant by hasn’t changed a bit.

Luckily, the three of them end up chatting as they go through their menus together, Baekhyun dragging Jongdae into his and Sehun’s conversation about the classes at SM. The pair of them make fast friends despite the wide-eyed awe still present on Sehun’s face; Baekhyun’s down to earth even with his superstar status, and Jongdae’s glad to watch Sehun relax little by little as time goes on. It’s a reminder of the person behind the persona. Black Light may be a hero who fights villains and illuminates entire cities, but Byun Baekhyun is just a twenty-seven-year-old man with a ten-year-old’s sense of humour, using his powers to snap the room into darkness for a cheap scare and laughing at the yelp Sehun lets out.

It’s a surprisingly smooth turn of events. Jongdae was expecting a little more nervousness (Sehun) and a lot more teasing (Baekhyun). So it’s nice to fall into familiar banter, jokingly arguing with Baekhyun over who gets the honour of recommending menu items to Sehun. They get drinks and flip through EXORDIUM’s wide range of dishes and meats and soups through their chatter, and Jongdae’s so caught up in it all that he almost forgets about the reason he’s here in the first place.

Keyword almost. Because halfway through Jongdae’s retelling of his latest student disaster story, the door slides open and an all-too-familiar voice breaks the illusion.

“Sorry, am I late?”

Three things happen at the same time. Baekhyun leaps up from the table and whoops. Next to Jongdae, Sehun straightens so abruptly that his spine must hurt. And Jongdae… looks across the room and sees Park Chanyeol for the first time in two years.

It’s a bit anticlimactic, because Chanyeol in the flesh isn’t all that different from news-article-Chanyeol. He still has the same dark hair, the same big eyes. Only, Jongdae’s not looking at him in pixel form anymore, which is made very clear when that gaze locks onto him and his heart does a stupid thump-thump in his chest.

Jongdae’s electricity fizzles at his fingertips. Embarrassing.

“You made it, hotshot,” Baekhyun teases, which gets Chanyeol to look away from Jongdae and towards him instead. “For a second there, I thought you might’ve ditched because you decided you were too good to grace our presence.”

Another bullet point to add to the list of things that haven’t changed about Chanyeol: he still laughs the same way, freely and with his whole body, dimple all too obvious in his cheek. “Baekhyunnie, I’d never.”

“I know, I know. It was a funny theory.” Baekhyun waves him in. “Come on, don’t just stand there. You’ve got two other people waiting to meet you right here.”

For a second, Jongdae briefly considers strangling his best friend, if only because the words make Chanyeol’s gaze settle on him again. But all Chanyeol does is blink and offer him a tentative smile. He takes Baekhyun’s advice and comes into the room, shedding his jacket and dropping into the only empty seat at the table - which just happens to be across from Jongdae.

“Jongdae,” he says softly. “It’s good to see you again.”

Something feels like it’s lodged in Jongdae’s windpipe. “You too,” he manages, then reaches out and unceremoniously grabs Sehun. “Have you met Sehun here?”

It’s possibly the most inelegant transition Jongdae’s ever made in his life - and also the stupidest question he’s asked, because obviously he hasn’t met Sehun - but Chanyeol takes it all in stride. He looks curiously at Sehun and gives him a more confident smile. “Hi. Nice to meet you.”

“Hel-lo,” Sehun says. He’s so stiff that he might as well be a cardboard cutout, which would make Jongdae want to tease him if it wasn’t actually kind of endearing.

Baekhyun, on the other hand, has no such qualms. “Don’t mind Sehun,” he tells Chanyeol, sliding the door shut and aiming a wicked grin over at them. “He’s probably straining all his muscles to stop himself from asking for an autograph.”

Sehun makes an indignant noise of protest, but it’s cut off by Chanyeol’s laugh again, clear in the stillness of the room.

“If that’s true, you don’t have to. I don’t mind.”

“Humble as ever,” Baekhyun says dramatically, and Chanyeol gives him a playful swat on the shoulder.

It’s like no time has passed at all. Jongdae feels a bit like he’s getting whiplash. He knows he’s sitting in EXORDIUM at the ripe old age of twenty-six, but it feels more like he’s eighteen and rummaging through his locker in SM’s changing room, half-listening to the banter of his two best friends beside him. He clears his throat. “Sehun’s my teaching assistant at the academy,” he announces, just so he has something to add to the conversation. “He’s interning for heroic studies, so he’s really well-versed in the technical side of pro work.”

Jongdae pats himself on the back for the natural change of topic as Chanyeol turns his gaze towards Sehun. “Oh, really? What do you do at SM?”

“Um.” For a moment, Jongdae thinks Sehun isn’t going to reply - he’s still rigid as a board and looking very much overwhelmed. But then he coughs. “I do some administrative work at the office. And I help out with Jongdae hyung’s classes.”

“You can tell us if he’s an evil dictator of a teacher,” Baekhyun volunteers. “There should be some sort of freedom of speech clause in your contract—”

“Shut up, Baekhyun,” Jongdae says automatically, more out of instinct than anything, and Chanyeol’s eyes slide back to Jongdae again.

“Are you still teaching the second-years?”

The question is genuinely curious but quiet, just about audible over the sound of Baekhyun’s cackling and Sehun’s wide-eyed denials in the background. “Third-years now, actually,” Jongdae replies, trying to sound casual. “They bumped me up at the beginning of last year.”

“Oh.” Chanyeol nods. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks.”

Baekhyun’s magical sixth sense makes him butt in before the atmosphere can sink into awkwardness again. “Enough about us, though. What about you? How’s New York been treating you all this time?”

The way Sehun perks up next to Jongdae is comical, but all Chanyeol does is screw his face into something that’s half-grimace and half-smile. “Harshly,” he admits, raking a hand through his hair. “But I’m not complaining. The hero industry over there was a whole different ball game, and I learned a lot more than I could’ve if I’d stayed here.”

“Ouch.” Baekhyun pretends to press a hand to his heart. “You leaving us behind to go all nuclear in America is still a sore spot, you know.”

Jongdae snorts. “Like you’re one to talk, Mr. Consistent Top Ten.”

Hey! I’m not the one at this table who’s practically reached legendary status.”

“Legendary status,” Chanyeol echoes, amusement in his voice. “Isn’t that a bit much?”

“It’s not, though,” Sehun blurts out, then immediately goes a little pink when all three of them swivel their heads around to look at him. He clears his throat and straightens again, looking determined. “I mean - I don’t think it’s too much. You’ve done so much for civilians, sunbaenim. And you’ve held the number one ranking for ages even though you haven’t even been in Korea the last few years.”

Chanyeol looks sort of caught off guard. “Ah, well—”

“Everyone at the academy admires you too. We study a lot of your rescue footage,” Sehun goes on, starting to get excited. “Especially that famous video of the Empire State villain where you climbed up to fight after evacuating all the tourists, that was one of the most—”

“Whoa,” Jongdae says without really meaning to, and Sehun stops and flushes. Baekhyun kicks Jongdae under the table, but Jongdae can’t help it - it’s so unexpected to see his stoic, occasionally sassy assistant switch into fanboy-mode that he has to resist the urge to pinch his cheek.

Except maybe anyone would be that affected in Chanyeol’s presence. So Jongdae can’t really blame him. The hero in question just smiles now, pleased but as warm as candlelight. “Just hyung is fine,” Chanyeol says. “But thanks. I’m honoured you think so highly of me.”

“You better get used to it,” Baekhyun jokes. “You’ve been on the other side of the world this whole time so you aren’t that aware of it, but you’re kind of an icon over here.”

“Is it that much of an upgrade?”

“Are you kidding? There’s probably paparazzi camping outside this restaurant this very second. You aren’t carrying the burden of any earth-shattering secrets that you wouldn’t want to get out, right?”

And then, for some horrible, inexplicable, completely nerve-wracking reason, Chanyeol’s gaze flicks over to Jongdae. Their eyes meet. Jongdae freezes up like a wind-up toy at the end of its life cycle, and Chanyeol jerks his head away, but the damage is done. Those six milliseconds of awkward eye contact are enough to throw Jongdae off the track he’s been so careful to stay on the whole evening.

Crap. And he was doing so well, too.

At least Baekhyun doesn’t seem to notice, turning over to Sehun to quiz him about how much he appears in SM’s study materials. Jongdae just buries his face in EXORDIUM’s menu and hopes the tips of his ears aren’t burning.

Thankfully, the rest of the dinner goes fairly regularly after that - they place their orders and chat about Baekhyun’s newly-hired teleporting sidekick, and all the reports he’s been forced to write to justify his random travelling whims. Chanyeol gets to share stories of his time in America to a rapt Sehun, and Sehun asks him questions in return, trying not to look too eager but failing in the face of Chanyeol’s attention. He’s so good with the young intern, Jongdae thinks. Attentive and patient and thoughtful in every single answer he gives and every piece of advice he offers. It’s probably what made him come so far in the first place, because while the high school Chanyeol in Jongdae’s memory was proud and just the slightest bit cocky, adult Chanyeol is confident but modest, too, a perfect balance that would be the textbook definition of a good pro.

So maybe what Baekhyun said - that Chanyeol hasn’t changed a bit since his SM days - wasn’t quite true, after all. Or maybe Jongdae just doesn’t know him as well anymore. He’s not sure which option is the better one.

In any case, he’s feeling a strange mix of contentment and nostalgia by the end of the meal. They ordered soju on Baekhyun’s authority about halfway through, and Jongdae’s head is pleasantly buzzed in a way that has nothing to do with his electricity. The bill is split three ways (because there’s no way Jongdae was going to let Sehun pay, even if he did enjoy being dragged here), the table is cleared, and Jongdae thinks that’s going to be the end of it. That the meet-up is going to end on this vague note; a relieving sort of cliffhanger.

That is, until Chanyeol catches him by the shoulder just as Jongdae’s stuffing his arm into his jacket. “Jongdae.”

Jongdae looks up. Then he looks forward. Baekhyun and Sehun have already gone ahead through the door, still conversing about something-or-other, and Baekhyun’s hand is gripped around Sehun’s arm. No help there, then.

He closes his eyes briefly. “Yeah?”

“I just wanted to ask…” This is it, Jongdae thinks, resigning himself. “If you still have the same phone number?”

That - wasn’t what he was expecting. Jongdae blinks and looks up again, meeting Chanyeol’s eyes. He looks hesitant but determined at the same time, which is a look that isn’t common on Chanyeol, who’s usually all determination.

“I do. Why?”

Chanyeol’s hand falls from Jongdae’s shoulder. He shrugs. “I’d like to catch up, if you’re up for it. It’s been a while since we’ve talked.”

Like friends, is the unspoken part of the sentence, and Jongdae holds back a wince. “Yeah, of course,” he says, giving Chanyeol his best attempt at a smile. “I’d like that too.”

Chanyeol smiles back, relieved. “Okay. Great.”

“Great,” Jongdae echoes.

They stand in awkward silence for a few moments longer before Jongdae decides to man up and clears his throat. “Well, I’d better get going,” he mumbles, jerking his head towards the restaurant entrance. “I promised Sehun I’d give him a ride home, so…”

“Yeah. Yeah, sure.” Chanyeol takes a step back. “It was nice to see you again.”

Jongdae nods, jerkily. “Same goes to you,” he says. Then, before he can think better of it or talk himself out of saying anything more: “I missed you.”

Chanyeol goes a little wide-eyed. His mouth parts, and Jongdae’s suddenly seized with nerves about what he could say in response. The regret comes in the form of a hot flush over Jongdae’s face, and he ducks his head before Chanyeol can see it, high-tailing it out of the restaurant with nothing but a hasty wave thrown over his shoulder.

It’s definitely not the smoothest escape he’s ever made, but Jongdae’s hard-pressed to care that much when he just said possibly the second most embarrassing three-word phrase he could ever say. He slaps his hands to his cheeks as he walks over to where Sehun’s waiting next to his car. The cold night air cuts over his skin, a jarring sensation that brings him back to reality, and Jongdae blows out a breath.

It could’ve gone worse, he thinks. At least he didn’t accidentally short-circuit the whole block’s power.

The next morning, Jongdae wakes up to the first text from Chanyeol in seven-hundred-odd days. It’s a screenshot of a trending headline on Naver’s webpage. There’s a picture of Chanyeol that was obviously taken from when he left the restaurant last night, half-hidden in shadow but still recognizable, and the speculative caption: Is recently-returned Firestorm already heading out on romantic late night dates?

Underneath it, Chanyeol’s written, I didn’t know you three were trying to pull me into a polyamory scheme.

Jongdae’s surprised into wheezing out a laugh. It shakes through his shoulders and loosens him up in a good way. There’s no talk of the last message Chanyeol sent, still visible above the new one like a glaring sign, and Jongdae only hesitates for a second before hitting the text box to type up a response. Maybe this will be okay.

 

☆☆☆

 

PAST: SM ACADEMY, CLASSROOM 104

Park Chanyeol was reckless, bold, and had fire running through his veins. For better or for worse, the billowing flames Jongdae had seen in his half-alive state back at the exam hadn’t been any kind of hallucination. He got to confirm it the second he walked into his first-year class at SM Academy and saw Chanyeol desperately trying to smother the smoke rising from his fist with a napkin.

“It’s not really the most convenient power, to be honest,” he’d said to Jongdae sheepishly, after Jongdae had offered his handkerchief and took the desk next to him. “I still have trouble controlling it sometimes. Or, uh, most of the time. But hey, that’s what I’m here for, right?”

It was an admirably positive outlook. Jongdae told Baekhyun about it the moment he went to visit his friend, who was confined to bed with a cold in a bout of bad luck that’d made him miss his first week at SM. Baekhyun listened to him describe the classrooms and the training arenas with a forlorn sort of acceptance, but his eyes lit up the second Jongdae mentioned his new classmate and his unruly fire.

“Dude,” he said, and sneezed. “A fire guy? We have to make friends with him! We could be, like, the bright hero trio or something. ’Cause we all have powers that glow, you know.”

“That’s a terrible name,” Jongdae said, half-impressed at his best friend’s tireless enthusiasm even while sick.

Baekhyun just grinned at him, all red cheeks and watery eyes. “We can come up with a better one if everything works out.”

And so Jongdae mentally pencilled in friend on the list of things that Park Chanyeol was. As soon as Baekhyun healed up enough to come to school, Chanyeol fit into his and Jongdae’s easy friendship like a glove. The three of them sat next to each other in class, grouped up together for missions and mock rescues, and made a name for themselves in SM’s spacious halls. Baekhyun-and-Jongdae became Baekhyun-and-Jongdae-and-Chanyeol. Not quite yet the “bright hero trio” that Baekhyun had coined, but perhaps something close.

Maybe Jongdae should’ve been jealous or something, that a new guy got along with his childhood best friend almost as well as he did himself, but it was sort of exciting instead; Jongdae’d had other friends in his sixteen years of existence, but Baekhyun had always been the best friend. The other pea in the pod. The platonic soul mate. So to have a second one that measured up to the first was an experience, to say the least.

The addition of an extra study buddy was just a bonus. SM was ruthless right from the start. It wasn’t like Jongdae had ever been bad in the academic area, per se, but regular lessons plus hero training plus ever-present field work and simulations and practice were a world of difference. SM Academy was like night school and boot camp combined - prospective trainees went through four years of intensive education from ages sixteen to twenty before graduating, at which point they were free to join agencies and pursue a pro career. Jongdae knew this. He’d done enough research during his teenhood to write his own thesis study, probably.

And yet his first year still slapped him in the face with his own overconfidence.

“Hey,” he said to Chanyeol, one night just days before their end-of-term exams. Baekhyun had already clocked out and was now snoring into his History of Heroism textbook. Jongdae carefully moved his best friend’s head out of the way to locate his pen cap, then asked his other best friend, “Do you ever wonder if this is all worth it in the end?”

Chanyeol peeked up from his calculator and blinked, bleary and disoriented. “Huh?”

“All this, I mean. The studying. The killer training.” Jongdae gestured to the luxurious dorm room around them, graciously lent to them by Baekhyun, who’d been the only one lucky enough to get a single. “Like, sure, SM is famous and prestigious and all, but will the hardships be worth it?

“What do you mean? Of course they will. We’re going to become pros.”

Jongdae stared down at his notebook. “Are we?”

There was a beat of silence. It was probably only because Chanyeol’s half-awake brain was trying to process Jongdae’s words, but Jongdae still bit his lip, more than a little nervous.

“Hey,” Chanyeol finally said. He straightened and scooted closer to Jongdae, forehead creased in a concerned wrinkle. “Are you doing alright? Have your parents been saying things to you, or - or something?”

Any other time, Jongdae would’ve laughed at Chanyeol’s clumsy question, but this time he just managed a weary smile. “No,” he said. It was the truth - his family was more supportive than he’d hoped for. It was just… “I’ve just been… you know, thinking. About things.”

“What kind of things?”

“The future. The three years we still have here. Stuff like that.” Jongdae took a breath, and then it was all spilling out of him in a rush. “I thought the hardest part would be getting in, but I was totally wrong. SM is even more brutal than the stories made it out to be, and we won’t even be guaranteed a spot at an agency when graduation comes, and—”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Chanyeol reached over and poked Jongdae in the shoulder. “I think you’re getting way ahead of yourself there, dude. We haven’t even finished our first year yet.”

“Well, yeah, but—”

“And so what if it’s brutal? That’s how we learn. It’s not like the best academy in Korea is going to be easy, after all.”

Jongdae’s breath whooshed out of him in a laugh. “You’re such an optimist.”

“Hey!” Chanyeol protested, but Jongdae hadn’t even meant it in a bad way. Before he could say so, though, Chanyeol cleared his throat and went on. “You know what? I’m scared too.” He shrugged. “We’re supposed to start work placements halfway through next year, and sometimes I still wake up with my underwear singed.”

“TMI, man.”

“Just trying to give you the whole story.” Chanyeol grinned. “But seriously, you shouldn’t be worrying about that stuff yet. Live in the present and all that jazz, right?”

“Easier said than done,” Jongdae mumbled, but he was already feeling better. Chanyeol’s endless positivity was contagious. Even now, a year into their friendship, Jongdae still found himself wondering, sometimes, if the fire was just a bonus power, second to his ability to spread good cheer and shine like a beacon in the murky uncertainty that was Jongdae’s sea.

Except that was getting a bit too cheesy even for a late-night cramming session. Jongdae shook his head to get rid of the thoughts.

“And anyways,” Chanyeol continued, still looking at Jongdae. “You can’t start doubting yourself already. We’re still going to be the all-powerful pro hero trio, right?”

His hand came up to rest on Jongdae’s shoulder. Chanyeol’s touch was always sunlight-warm at the best of times, and now it was nearly feverish, searing through the soft fabric of Jongdae’s pullover like a branding iron. “I don’t know,” Jongdae said, beginning to smile. “You might want to learn how to stop torching your briefs first if we’re going to go into this together.”

Chanyeol squawked in indignation, then lunged forward to grab a handful of Jongdae’s hair. Jongdae shrieked and fell over, shouting “No burning, no burning!” In their struggle, Chanyeol knocked over the low table they were studying on, which made Baekhyun jolt awake with a yelp, which then resulted in every single light in their room shorting out at the same time.

In the pitch-dark confusion that followed, Jongdae laughed so hard he ended up sprawled out on the floor while Chanyeol frantically yelled at a spooked Baekhyun to fix the lights. He pressed his face into his elbow and wheezed. This was the part of SM he’d never let go. The familiar chaos, and the hilarity, and the delight that came with having two of the most ridiculous academy trainees in history as his best friends.

So maybe it’ll all be okay, he thought, rolling over to watch Chanyeol and Baekhyun bicker over whose fault the power outage was. He could get used to this. He could grow.

And if he couldn’t, well - at least he’d still have them by his side.

 

☆☆☆

 

PRESENT-DAY: SM ACADEMY, P.E. TRAINING GROUNDS

“What’s got you thinking so hard?”

Jongdae startles. He nearly drops the clipboard he’s been writing on, covered in red scribbles and hasty green highlights like a disaster of modern art. “Huh?”

By his side, Junmyeon tilts his head and raises an eyebrow, curious but polite. “Jongdae,” he says, a smile playing at his lips. “You’ve been staring down at your paper for ages. I know it’s not your students that have you looking so stressed.”

In his sharp suit and tinted glasses, Junmyeon looks for all the world like a movie star and nothing like a principal - even if he is the youngest one SM’s had in years. Under the afternoon sun, his hair is perfect and glossy and his pale skin seems to glow. Jongdae has absolutely no idea how he does it. They’re only halfway through an outdoor training session, and he himself already feels like melting into a sweaty puddle.

Not like he can be blamed, because for all the academy’s advanced, top-of-the-line facilities, apparently no one ever thought to build a dome over the P.E. grounds or something. Jongdae sighs and pushes his hair off his forehead.

“How do you know? I could be stressing over, well—” he takes a look around, then makes a vague gesture towards where Donghyuck and Renjun seem to be trying to convince Mark to punch a tree down with his bare fists. “That.”

“No, the face you’re making is different,” Junmyeon says, thoughtful. “More conflicted, I guess. Like it’s a personal thing?”

Jongdae squints at him. “You’re not doing a very good job at supervising my teaching techniques,” he eventually says, because technically that’s what Junmyeon is supposed to be doing here as the principal.

Junmyeon just laughs. “Well, you’re not doing a very good job at showing them off, either.”

Touche. Jongdae half-winces and turns back to his messy clipboard. It’s not like he’s worried about losing his job, or anything crazy like that - he’s known Junmyeon since long before he got promoted to principal, as the heroics teacher Jongdae shadowed during his own mandatory internship, and their relationship is more friend to friend than boss to employee. But still. Jongdae takes his duties seriously, and nine times out of ten he wouldn’t be caught dead spacing out even during a student-led training session.

This is just… the rare one time out of ten. And it’s all Park Chanyeol’s fault. Chanyeol, who’s been texting him every day since the reunion dinner a week ago, sending Jongdae cat pictures and funny tweets and everything in between. Chanyeol who talks like the last two years of awkward silence didn’t happen at all. Chanyeol who still treats him like his best friend, and even though Jongdae would never even consider dropping that title himself, it doesn’t mean he can’t be a little disoriented at how easily the other man does it, because—

A crackling tendril of electricity races up the metal edge of Jongdae’s clipboard.

“Whoa,” Junmyeon says, actually sounding sort of alarmed now. “Are you sure you’re alright?”

Jongdae’s ears heat up. He clears his throat. “I’m fine,” he mumbles, glaring half-heartedly at his traitorous fingers. “I was… thinking about batteries and… stuff.”

It’s a bald-faced lie, but at least Junmyeon’s nice enough to not call him out on it. “If you’re not feeling well because of the heat, you should pay Yixing a visit. I can take over here if you need me to.”

“No, no,” Jongdae says hastily, waving a hand. Static snaps between his fingers, and he cringes before shoving them into his pocket. The last thing he wants to do is look frazzled enough for Junmyeon to push him towards the academy healer meant for trainees. “It’s okay. Really. I’m just—”

CRASH.

“Oh,” Junmyeon notes, voice a lot more neutral than it should be. “Looks like that student of yours has some promising power.”

Jongdae whips around and almost groans. There, just at the corner of the training field, the bulky tree that was perfectly standing two minutes ago is now smashed into the ground. Clouds of dust are still rising from its fall, and Mark blanches as soon as he catches a glimpse of Jongdae looking towards him. Then he shoves his hands behind his back like that’ll do anything to hide the golden glow coming off his skin.

Over the sound of Donghyuck’s unabashed whooping, Jongdae cups his hands around his mouth and yells, “Boys! I don’t remember putting fighting vegetation down on your training regime!”

“Sorry, Mr. Kim!” Renjun shouts back, thumping Donghyuck on the back as he wheezes. “We just wanted to see if he could do it!”

“You do know the principal is supervising this class, right?”

“Isn’t it okay since you’re friends with Mr. Kim?” Jeno pipes up from where he’s summoning stone slabs out of the ground. Then he pauses. “Wait, I mean the other Mr. Kim. Wait—”

Jongdae snorts, half-exasperated and half-amused. “Never mind. Just make sure to move that tree to the side so it doesn’t bother the next class, alright?”

“I’ll help!” Yerim calls. She hops down from her ledge and skips over, then sweeps a hand upwards towards the sky. In her enthusiasm, some of the sand from the earth pillars she raises hits Renjun and Donghyuck in the face, and the three of them dissolve into bickering as the tree rolls away at a snail’s pace thanks to Yerim’s power.

Junmyeon smiles. “They’re really comfortable with you,” he says, while Jongdae tries to decide if the argument is serious enough for him to go break it up or not. “It’s nice to see.”

“A little too comfortable,” Jongdae grumbles, but he’s not really complaining.

“I think it’s great. A good teacher should know how to have fun while teaching their lessons.”

“I guess.”

“But you know what else a good teacher should do?” Junmyeon doesn’t even wait for Jongdae’s answer before giving him a meaningful look and going on. “They should know to take a rest when necessary, so that they don’t push themselves too hard and end up burning out when their students need them the most.”

So that’s how Jongdae ends up sitting grumpily in the infirmary after all, watching Yixing bustle around and check for symptoms of the heatstroke he doesn’t have. Because, apparently, he still can’t quite find it in himself to disobey Junmyeon after all these years. Call it ingrained instinct.

Yixing hums as he presses a hand to Jongdae’s forehead. “I don’t think you’re showing any signs of heat exhaustion,” he says, moving down and checking Jongdae’s pulse at his neck.

“That’s because I actually feel fine and shouldn’t be here,” Jongdae mutters.

Yixing ignores him. He steps back a little and picks up Jongdae’s hand, curling his graceful fingers around his wrist. “I’ll still give you a small boost, though. You do look kind of worn out.”

“No, hyung, really, it’s fine—”

Whoosh. Even after four years of Yixing being the head nurse, Jongdae still can’t quite get used to the sensation that comes with the other man’s superpower. Every healer’s energy feels a bit different, and Yixing’s is the warmest Jongdae’s ever experienced, shooting into his veins in a steady, lava-hot rush that makes him think of gulping down a mouthful of steaming soup. He squirms in a weird mix of discomfort and relief as it runs up his arm.

By the time the heat passes, though, Jongdae’s already feeling a lot more energized. It must show on his face, because Yixing makes a noise of satisfaction as he stands up. “Good,” he says cheerfully, clapping his hands together. “That should do it. Wait here, okay? I’ll go and get you some cold water to go.”

“Seriously,” Jongdae starts, voice weak, “you don’t have—”

But Yixing’s already gone, white coat whipping around the doorjamb as he steps out the room. Jongdae drops his head back against the wall and sighs.

And then, because obviously life is trying its best to screw him over today, his phone buzzes in his pocket.

Jongdae pulls it out and freezes. It’s a message from Chanyeol. Of course it is. He takes a furtive look around the empty infirmary, then immediately feels a bit ridiculous, because it’s not like he has any reason to be so nervous. He’s not a sixteen-year-old trainee trying to skip out on lessons. He’s a twenty-six-year-old teacher, and he is absolutely within his rights to check his phone if he wants to.

The thought doesn’t make opening the notification any easier, but maybe that’s just because of the sender’s identity.

[to: jongdae] [from: chanyeol]

(image.jpeg)

mandatory paperwork never gets easier through the years, did you know?

The attachment is a half-selfie - the top part of Chanyeol’s face can be seen, dark bangs falling into large brown eyes. In the background behind him, there’s a blurry view of an office desk, filled to the edge with colourful stacks of papers and folders. What he can see of Chanyeol’s eyebrows are furrowed in a mournful swoop.

For some reason, Jongdae finds himself smiling as he types out his reply.

[to: chanyeol] [from: jongdae]

ouch >_< my condolences!!!

is all that for ur return to the agency?

[to: jongdae] [from: chanyeol]

only about 89% of it

your sentiments are appreciated, genius-educator-nim

[to: chanyeol] [from: jongdae]

shush

r u going back to ur old place?

Chanyeol’s response takes a while to come this time. Jongdae puts down his phone and hums a tune to himself as he stares at the ceiling. Yixing still isn’t back, and for a brief moment he wonders which far corner of the academy the healer could’ve possibly gone to get water, but then his phone buzzes with a notification again.

[to: jongdae] [from: chanyeol]

yup! I’m still at nanugi

The familiar name of Chanyeol’s former hero agency - the one he worked at before he went off to the States - rings a faint bell in Jongdae’s mind. He purses his lips a little, mind working. The mention of Chanyeol’s borderline ancient career in Korea only makes Jongdae more curious. There’s a question burning in his head, one that’s been there ever since Yerim’s excited declaration of Chanyeol’s return, and, well…

Now is as good of a time to get his answer as any, he supposes.

[to: chanyeol] [from: jongdae]

cool cool

hey, can i ask u sth?

[to: jongdae] [from: chanyeol]

shoot

[to: chanyeol] [from: jongdae]

why’d u leave nyc and come back to seoul?

Silence for a long while. The three dots indicating that Chanyeol’s typing appear, then disappear, then appear again. This repeats for no less than four full minutes, until Jongdae’s left staring down at his phone screen in uneasy confusion and wondering if he’s accidentally hit on something too close to home for Chanyeol to share.

And then his phone lights up with an incoming call.

Jongdae yelps and almost drops the device into Yixing’s bunny-eared trash can. He blinks rapidly at the screen, just to check if he’s seeing things, but no, it is Chanyeol’s name displayed as the contact. It’s even Chanyeol’s old designated ringtone blaring through the speakers - Fire by 2NE1, because apparently sixteen-year-old Jongdae thought he was fucking hilarious or something - and his heartbeat speeds up along with the rhythm of the song.

Jeez, he doesn’t even remember the last time he talked to Chanyeol over the phone. Two and a half years? Three years? Either way, it’s been too long. He doesn’t even know if he knows how to do it properly anymore; if anything, the dinner last week sure proved Jongdae’s lackluster social skills when it comes to Chanyeol. He isn’t confident he won’t embarrass himself half to death if he picks up now.

But if Chanyeol’s suddenly calling him after Jongdae’s question, then it must be at least kind of important, and that’s what finally pushes him to press accept and bring the phone to his ear.

“Hey,” Chanyeol says in a rush, before Jongdae’s even gotten a single word out. “Hi. Um, sorry for calling all of a sudden, but I couldn’t figure out a good answer over text. You’re not busy, are you?”

Jongdae gulps. He glances over the infirmary around him. Still empty. “No.”

“Okay, good.” There’s a slight pause. “You were wondering why I came back to Korea, right?”

“Yeah…”

“How come?”

“Uh—” Jongdae fumbles. It’s not like Chanyeol’s voice is accusatory or anything, just faintly curious, but he still feels a bit like he’s on the wrong end of an interrogation. “It’s just - sudden?” he ends up blurting out. “Like, you were doing incredible in America, and everyone knew it. Not that you wouldn’t do just as well here, but…”

“But there was no glaring reason for me to leave behind my career there and come back?” Chanyeol offers.

That’s a lot more eloquent than Jongdae could’ve ever put it. “Yeah.”

Chanyeol makes an understanding noise. Then there’s more thoughtful silence for a while, all the way up until he clears his throat again and starts, “Well, here’s the thing. There’s kind of a short answer and a long answer.” Chanyeol’s deep voice is dipping into playful territory now, light and with an undercurrent of humour. “Which one would you rather hear?”

“Both?” Jongdae tries.

“Should’ve known.” Chanyeol laughs. “Short answer is that I missed home. Don’t get me wrong, New York was exciting and all, but there’s nothing quite like good old Seoul. I got homesick and couldn’t really see myself spending the rest of my career there, so I came back.”

“Oh.” That makes sense, Jongdae thinks. “And the long answer?”

Chanyeol is quiet for a very long time. “The long answer,” he finally says, “is that I still had a lot of stuff I wanted to do here, a lot of people I wanted to see, and a whole bunch of things I realized I didn’t want to let go of.”

His voice sounds meaningful, somehow, and there’s a hint of purpose contained in his careful choice of words. Jongdae isn’t quite sure what to make of it. He has the distinct feeling that he’s been handed something important - something that makes the flutter in his stomach return again, half-nervous and half-anticipatory, maybe a tiny bit expectant.

What Jongdae ends up saying is, “That’s not actually that long.”

Chanyeol lets out another laugh and the moment’s broken. “Hey, I just poured my soul out here. You could at least be a little appreciative.”

“I am!” Jongdae protests, then clears his throat. “I really am. Sorry. Thank you for telling me.”

“It’s no big deal. My answers are kind of lame, really.”

“Well, for what it’s worth,” Jongdae begins, sort of awkward but still very much determined, “I’m glad you’re back.”

Chanyeol’s smile is almost audible even through the phone. The stupid flutter in Jongdae’s stomach goes hummingbird-quick, dialled up to ten for no reason at all. “Thanks, Jongdae,” Chanyeol says softly. There’s the sound of some rustling at the other end before he gives a sheepish cough. “But I think I should go now. It was nice talking to you, but I’ve been slacking off enough and this paperwork won’t do itself.”

“Oh.” Jongdae hopes his voice sounds casual. “Yeah, no problem. Good luck with your work.”

“Bye, Jongdae.”

“Bye,” Jongdae echoes, and then Chanyeol’s hanging up and marking the anticlimactic end of the first phone call they’ve had in years.

He shouldn’t be feeling so disappointed, Jongdae thinks, staring down at his phone in his hand. He did get his answer, after all. Two, even, although they weren’t very clear ones. Chanyeol’s back on his own terms and Jongdae has little to nothing to do with them. Except maybe he actually might, just because of the weird vagueness of Chanyeol’s second answer, and that’s…

Yixing pops back into the infirmary just as Jongdae’s trying to talk himself out of thinking too hard about it and failing. “Hey!” he calls, walking into the room. He passes Jongdae a bottle of chilled spring water and offers him an apologetic smile. “Sorry about that, I got pulled into a conversation with another teacher and couldn’t break away. Here’s your water. Just rest here for a few minutes more, and you’ll be good to—”

Something in Jongdae’s face must look off, because Yixing cuts himself short and furrows his brow. “Are you still feeling tired?”

“No!” Jongdae says hastily. It comes out more defensive than anything, and he can already see the way Yixing looks tempted to check his temperature all over again. “No, it’s okay, I’m feeling great. Thanks for the water.”

Yixing steps over to his desk and regards Jongdae with pensive eyes. It makes Jongdae squirm, feeling sort of like a lab rat under a doctor’s gaze. He uncaps his water bottle and takes a swig, hoping that it’ll be enough to convince Yixing that he doesn’t need any more medical help, no matter how well-intentioned it is.

“Hmm,” the healer eventually says, before reaching over to the glass jar of colourful treats at the corner of his desk. He pulls one out and offers it to Jongdae. “Do you need a lollipop?”

Jongdae stares down at Yixing’s hand. The candy is bright orange and shaped like a cat’s head. It’s also random enough to baffle him.

“Hyung,” Jongdae says slowly. “I’m twenty-six years old.”

Yixing gives him the lollipop.

 

☆☆☆

 

PAST: SM ACADEMY, ROOFTOP

The thing about life-ruining realizations was that they crept up on you like a master thief. Jongdae had never really considered himself to be an oblivious person - he could read social cues as well as the next teenager, could tell when his mom was tired or when Baekhyun needed a good video game session to liven up again. He was a superhero in training, after all, and trainees didn’t earn their pro licenses by being ignorant. They observed and learned and acted. They achieved.

“Yeah, but they don’t earn them by spouting motivational Pinterest quotes, either,” was what Chanyeol said when Jongdae shared his profound ideas. “Which is what it sounds like you’re doing. No offence.”

Jongdae, mortified, moved to swipe at Chanyeol’s solar plexus and succeeded.

Observation equaled knowledge equaled action. Well into third year, and Jongdae thought he was building up a pretty good routine. SM was familiar by now, a well-worn second home in its own right, and the lessons were getting more exciting by the day. Before, Jongdae could barely muster up enough electricity for a ceiling fan; now, he could conjure small-scale thunderstorms and power entire appliances, and cloak himself in lightning while doing it just for the sake of dramatic effect.

(He was also an expert at charging phone batteries, a fact that Baekhyun and Chanyeol took every opportunity to take advantage of, but that didn’t sound nearly as badass.)

Everything else aside, third year meant opportunities. Third year meant more work placements, more intense competition, and more everything. Third year meant the specialized classes that put Chanyeol in combat and Baekhyun in rescue, and Jongdae - for some weird, unexplainable reason - in communication. Geared towards your strengths, the teachers would say, which was all fine and well for his friends, but ended up making Jongdae feel more like he was training to be a customer service rep than a superhero.

Above all, though, third year meant the second-last year before Jongdae’s generation of trainees would be released into the proverbial wild. And with that came a boatload of stress.

Baekhyun had been the one who found out about the roof. Up on the highest floor of SM Academy, there was a half-hidden staff door that opened out onto the top of the building. It was locked with an electronic keypad, but with a little coaxing from his best friend, Jongdae discovered that a strong enough zap could short-circuit it long enough for them to sneak through. Which is how the roof became their spot, after Baekhyun told Chanyeol too - a little pocket of rebellion, made for eating convenience store snacks and feeling the evening breeze and, obviously, not thinking about the future in the least.

It was a good outlet for all the stress, and Jongdae was smart enough to make the observation that the pros outweighed the cons. He’d be a perfect model student during the day, but in after-hours he was the master of the roof. The three of them would hide extra notebooks behind the door and quiz each other under the dusky sky. Chanyeol was in charge of heating, and Baekhyun was in charge of lighting, and Jongdae was in charge of powering up devices. Except halfway through, Baekhyun got caught up in a late-term work placement and then there were two. Just Chanyeol and Jongdae.

And that was where it all started to go downhill. Because no, Jongdae wasn’t an oblivious person. Just a little obtuse at times, maybe, which came through in the worst ways, like when he felt something funny in his stomach while trading truths and dares with Chanyeol on the roof, and chalked it up to the nausea of having to share his most embarrassing secrets. Or when Chanyeol fell asleep on his shoulder and Jongdae’s chest went liquid-warm like honey. Or when he let Chanyeol steal all his dried seaweed without saying a thing, or the time literal sparks skittered across Jongdae’s skin when Chanyeol helped him with a band-aid, or—

Or the night Baekhyun’s work placement finally finished up, and they celebrated with a small campfire courtesy of Chanyeol, roasting marshmallows over wood the American way and singing silly songs to make each other laugh. Baekhyun wasn’t even there, but they treated it like a party all the same. Jongdae belted out a dramatic falsetto and glanced up to meet Chanyeol’s eyes, which sort of looked like glowing, bright flames in the darkness, and that was when the realization squeezed him right around the gut.

He thought, Maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to burn.

And then, much, much less eloquently: Fuck my life.

 

☆☆☆

 

PRESENT-DAY: SM ACADEMY, THIRD-YEAR GYMNASIUM

The first tip-off that makes Jongdae think something is wrong is the silence. In all the four years he’s been teaching, his class has never been this quiet. Peaceful, sure, and self-sufficient, maybe, but quiet? Jongdae’s long since resigned himself to never knowing the feeling. It’s easier if he just accepts it.

The second tip-off is the fact that, when Jongdae peers through the gym’s glass doors, no one is actually doing the drills they’re supposed to be doing. In fact, there’s no one on the floor at all, because all his students seem to be huddled up in one corner like a coop of chickens.

The third tip-off is Oh Sehun, who’s sitting at the center of the group like the mother hen he very much is not.

Jongdae pushes open the door. “Okay, what exactly is going on here?”

Sixteen heads snap up at the sound of his voice. His teaching assistant’s is not one of them. “Welcome back, hyung,” Sehun says absentmindedly, eyes still glued to the iPad in his lap. He raises his hand in a half-hearted wave, then sends over a gust of wind to shut the door without even looking. “Did you have a good meeting?”

Jongdae did not have a good meeting, courtesy of the stress of planning next month’s speaker assembly, but that’s besides the point right now. “What are you all doing?” he asks, narrowing his eyes. “Last time I checked, you were supposed to be leading the class on stamina drills, not—”

Not, well, whatever Sehun’s currently doing on that iPad of his. Jongdae steps a little closer and squints at the blur of colours on the screen. Before he can tell Sehun to put the device away and start reorganizing his class to actually train them, though, he’s stopped by a call from one of his students.

“Mr. Kim,” Sooyoung begins, a betrayed edge to her voice. “Why didn’t you ever tell us you were friends with Firestorm?”

Jongdae freezes. Then he snaps his head towards Sehun accusingly.

“I didn’t say anything!” Sehun defends right away. He leaves his iPad in his lap in favour of putting his hands up, like he’s already read Jongdae’s mind. “I swear. I may have felt sort of miffed when I found out too, but I wouldn’t just give away personal information like that.”

From where he’s sitting near Sehun’s elbow, Jisung lets out an affronted yelp. “Sehun hyung, you knew?”

“And here I thought you were one of us,” Yerim sniffles, always one for theatrics. She flips her hair over her shoulder and heaves a dramatic sigh. “I guess I was wrong after all.”

“Hey, don’t go removing my coolness privileges just because of this,” Sehun protests. “I was practically sworn to secrecy, okay?”

Jongdae definitely does not get paid enough to deal with this. He tugs his tie looser and comes further into the gym, feeling more than a little lost. His students are still crowded in a pile in the corner, half of them looking at Sehun and half of them looking at him, and the only thing Jongdae can think to do is weakly ask: “But how do you guys know?”

He’s probably past the point of hiding it, anyway. Sehun stops bargaining with Yerim and gives Jongdae a shrewd grin. “Have you checked the news lately, hyung?”

That’s - very ominous. “No?” Jongdae hedges, feeling vaguely terrified.

“Figures. Well, it’s not front-page stuff or anything like that, but it did gather a bit of interest.” Sehun beckons him over. “Here, you’ll probably want to see this.”

So Jongdae steps around the cluster of his students to come up behind Sehun, a strong sense of foreboding creeping down his spine. Sehun’s iPad is still in his lap. His assistant turns it back on and helpfully props it up on his knees, holding up the device so Jongdae can peer at it over Sehun’s broad shoulders.

It’s playing a recording of an interview on KBS, and the foreboding increases tenfold as soon as Jongdae recognizes his best friend. “Well, he’s always been a bit unpredictable, hasn’t he?” Baekhyun is saying to the reporter onscreen, letting out that charming laugh he pulls out for all his media appearances. “Even back at the academy, it wasn’t easy to keep track of all his impulsive decisions. And trust me, there were a lot.”

“But you’ve been very close with Firestorm since your trainee days, right, Black Light-ssi?” the reporter presses, eager for some scoop to spin into a headline.

Baekhyun just offers her an enigmatic smile. He’s still in his metallic black super suit; he was probably pulled aside after a mission for a few quick questions. “Sure, and he’s a treasured friend of mine. It’s always been us along with Jongdae - my other best friend who teaches at SM Academy, by the way - but even we’re not too sure why he suddenly—”

Sehun hits pause on the video then, turning back to look at Jongdae with that infuriating grin still on his face. “Do you get it now?”

All Jongdae gets is that he has more than a few questions to ask Baekhyun about why he felt the need to mention him so casually on live television. But he guesses that’s not what Sehun is referring to. “Well, okay,” he starts, trying to sound nonchalant. “He’s not wrong, but… it doesn’t have to be such a big—”

“Hyung, it’s Firestorm.”

Sehun’s tone makes it sound like it should be obvious, like Chanyeol’s hero name is on equal grounds with the President or Beyonce or something. Which, to a group of superhero hopefuls, Jongdae supposes it might as well be. He winces. “I mean, I know—”

“Are you really as close with him as you are with Black Light, Mr. Kim?” Renjun interrupts excitedly. “Do you think you could get Firestorm to come in just like he did last year?”

An enthusiastic ripple goes through the group of Jongdae’s students. “That would be so cool,” Seulgi says in a hushed whisper.

Mark nods so vigorously his hair fluffs up. “We’d be able to learn a lot! Would you be able to convince him?”

And all of a sudden, surrounded by the beseeching eyes of his class, Jongdae feels a bit like a cat in a den of particularly eager puppies. He casts a desperate glance towards Sehun, but all his friend does is sip on his mug of coffee and offer no help at all. Some kind of assistant. “I don’t know,” Jongdae says, voice hesitant. “He’s very busy, you know? Black Light was a special case.”

Sehun makes a thoughtful noise. “Didn’t you mention that most pros are obliged to come help out at SM as part of their public service last time?”

Traitor. Jongdae barely stops himself from glaring at Sehun. “Well, yes, but none of them are as highly ranked as Firestorm is. He’d be a whole other situation.”

“But you’re friends with him, right?” Yerim says hopefully. She clasps her hands together and gives Jongdae her best pleading look. “Do you think you could ask him to consider it? Pretty please?”

“Mr. Kim, I’ve always thought you were the best teacher in the whole world,” Donghyuck announces, very solemnly.

Sooyoung giggles next to him but raises her hand. “Me too, me too!”

And then all of Jongdae’s students are chiming in with compliments, trying their best to sway him into accepting. Jongdae loves his class with all his heart, he really does, but this is part of the reason why he’s never mentioned his familiarity with the pro hero they all idolize so much. The kids would get way too excited and never stop bugging him about it - not that he’d blame them. Sehun can say what he will, but Baekhyun really was a special case. Jongdae got him to come as a reward for his students’ excellent scores on their mid-term evaluations, and his friend was more than happy to help, especially if he could preen over their fawning a little.

Chanyeol… is a whole other situation. But it’s not like Jongdae can say, Well, haha, funny story, but Firestorm is actually sort of my first love and maybe my ex-something, so I’d rather not put myself through the awkward tension of having to talk to him if I can help it.

He’s also - unfortunately - too soft and weak in the face of his students’ energy. So he just sighs and caves in. “Okay, I’ll ask him,” he says, and the class explodes in cheers. “But—” Jongdae puts up a finger. “You’ll have to make sure to be on your best behaviour. And you better practice those stamina drills like you’re supposed to, got it?”

In the ensuing scramble of everyone rushing to obey, Sehun leans his chin in his hand and laughs. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen them so pumped up,” he observes, watching Donghyuck and Jisung race each other to the wall. “Are you really going to do it?”

“Well, yeah.” Because now that he’s already agreed, there’s no way Jongdae would want to disappoint his students. “It won’t be too big of a deal, right?”

“Hyung, it’s—”

“—Firestorm. Yeah, yeah, I know.” Jongdae rolls his eyes. “It’ll be fine. I’m sure everything will go smoothly.”

He ignores the fact that he kind of sounds like he’s trying to convince himself. Famous last words, something in his head whispers, but all Jongdae does is pick up his clipboard and try his best to push the voice out of his head. Worst case scenario, Chanyeol refuses and he’ll have to be the one to break the news to his class, right?

Chanyeol does not refuse. Chanyeol accepts. Chanyeol is also, as Jongdae finds out, very, very good at handling sixteen overexcited teenagers on his own. He takes the time to greet every single student, goes through his short speech-slash-demonstration with just the right amount of charm and humour, and by the time Jongdae calls for the class to split up for their individual training, everyone is ten times as taken with him as they were before.

“He’s so good at this,” Sehun says in awe beside him, echoing Jongdae’s thoughts. “Are you sure he won’t consider coming to teach at SM full-time?”

The idea makes Jongdae laugh. “I doubt it. He has his whole brilliant pro career to go back to.”

“I’m sure Junmyeon hyung could strike him a deal with a higher salary if we begged,” Sehun says, sounding half-serious.

“But you’ve watched the videos of him in action, right?”

“Yeah, what about them?”

“Well…” Jongdae trails off and frowns. He doesn’t quite know how to explain what he sees when Chanyeol’s in the field, wielding his fire like a natural weapon. It’s obvious to him that Chanyeol belongs in the heart of the action as a superhero, not anything else - but maybe that’s just Jongdae’s rose-tinted glasses talking. “Nothing.” He waves a hand. “Do you think you could go around and start helping out the kids? I’ll go explain to him what we’re doing next.”

Sehun shrugs in assent and walks off, and Jongdae steels himself a little before going up to Chanyeol, who’s watching the students use their powers with genuine interest shining in his eyes.

“These trainees are really great,” is the first thing he says to Jongdae when he sees him. Chanyeol gestures towards Jeno and Jisung to their left, who are sparring in a clash of stone and wood. “Like, wow. I don’t even think I remember having so much control and freedom when I was their age.”

“You might want to be careful if you’re planning on telling them that,” Jongdae jokes. “I think they’d pass out from happiness.”

Chanyeol laughs and rubs at his neck. “They’d deserve it, though. You’ve taught them well.”

For some reason, the praise makes Jongdae’s cheeks flush, even though it’s not really anything he hasn’t heard before. It just feels different coming from Chanyeol, somehow. Like most things tend to do. Jongdae coughs. “It’s all them,” he mumbles, then barrels on when Chanyeol looks like he might protest. “Anyway, we’re doing independent training now. That means the students are free to practice what they want to practice on their own. Usually, Sehun and I just go around and try to offer advice if they need it, so if you’re up for that…?”

“Got it,” Chanyeol says, nodding seriously. “I just watch them and give pointers and stuff, right?”

“Yeah.” Jongdae mentally hopes his students are strong-willed enough to not dissolve into nerves under their idol’s eyes. “That sounds good.”

He watches Chanyeol wander off, then come to a stop beside Soojung, who immediately flusters and drops all the weights she’s been making float precariously in the air. Jongdae stifles a smile at the way Chanyeol reassures her and tells her to try again. He really is good at this, he thinks, studying the earnest warmth in Chanyeol’s face as he praises Soojung’s power. Chanyeol has always been a people person, and it shows the most in times like these.

Then Jongdae shakes the thought off and turns towards the students on the other side of the gym. He has his own job to do.

He cycles through the members of his class, observing the way they handle their power and guiding them in the areas they can improve. There’s Mark, who still has trouble turning down his super strength to anything below bulldozer-level, and Yerim, whose tireless enthusiasm for bending earth sometimes makes her sacrifice her finer control. There’s Donghyuck who converts sunlight into raw energy, Sooyoung who does the same with her happiness, and Chenle who can blend into his surroundings with a snap of his fingers like a chameleon. There’s Seulgi shifting into her fox form and leaping over the obstacles Joohyun sets up for her, Renjun summoning thick vines from the ground everywhere he moves.

Korea’s superpowered generations are only getting more powerful through the years. Jongdae finds himself becoming more impressed every day, and the pride he feels watching his class ensures he wouldn’t trade his job for anything.

He eventually stops in front of Seungwan, who’s practicing in front of a rubber target. She has a frown on her face as she struggles to direct her sparks in a single path. Out of every trainee he teaches, Seungwan’s power is the closest to Jongdae’s own - her energy comes bursting out of her fingertips in the form of fireworks, colourful and lovely but more than strong enough to burn.

“Here, try this,” Jongdae offers, and stretches his own hand out. He steadies his arm as much as possible and sends a single zap of electricity towards the target. It hits the bull’s eye head on. “The trick is to focus and keep still before shooting.”

Seungwan furrows her eyebrows and tries it, but her sparks explode in a messy shower mid-air. “I don’t think it’s working,” she mumbles dejectedly.

Jongdae reaches over and adjusts her posture, then steps back to give her an encouraging smile. “Don’t worry. Let’s try it again, okay?”

So Seungwan tries again. And again. And again. Somewhere around the fifth time, it becomes clear that it isn’t just about her focus. Jongdae bites his lip as he watches her aim for the target with a frustrated pout, trying to figure out just what’s stopping her from fine-tuning her control. Sometimes things like this happen. Powers are inconsistent and unpredictable at the best of times, and careful analyses can only do so much, but that’s what Jongdae’s here for: to peruse the endless list of variables and factors and determine the combination that makes up his answer.

“Seungwan,” he calls, holding out his own arm again and summoning his electricity with a flex of his fingers. “Why don’t you do it—”

“Like this?”

Chanyeol’s voice brushes his ear. Jongdae short-circuits. His shoulders tense up as Chanyeol’s arm comes to circle around them, guiding Jongdae’s hand to point towards the target dead-on. Chanyeol is all warmth and heat behind him, and Jongdae’s mind fizzles out like static, lightning zipping up his spine in staccato bursts that set his blood alight.

His electricity comes hurtling out in a crackling mess. Oops.

“Uh, sorry,” Seungwan pipes up, sounding very confused. “Like what?”

Jongdae clears his throat. “Not like that,” he says, turning and hoping his cheeks haven’t gone pink. Chanyeol is standing just centimetres away, close enough to touch, and Jongdae takes a step back on wobbly jell-o legs.

So. His body still reacts to Chanyeol like he’s nineteen and being scorched alive by his own infatuation. Good to know.

Chanyeol, for his part, just looks apologetic. “Sorry, Jongdae. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“No problem.” Not your fault I can’t get over a stupid teenage crush. Jongdae resists the urge to hit himself and makes a vague gesture towards Chanyeol. “Um, what did you want to show?”

“Oh, it’s just a suggestion. I was watching you guys, and it sort of reminded me of something I used to have trouble with.” Chanyeol nods hesitantly at Seungwan. “May I?”

Seungwan flushes but gives him her hand. Chanyeol takes it. “See, I think our powers have the same basic principle. It’s all raw force and very little delicacy,” he explains, guiding her fingers so that they point towards the target again. “That makes it different from Jongdae’s, since his relies on control and detail. So maybe you shouldn’t try so hard to pinpoint your aim, and instead trust in your power and go by instinct, like—” Chanyeol shoots out his other hand and a jet of fire licks straight over the bull’s eye. “That.”

Seungwan goes wide-eyed. Jongdae doesn’t blame her. It’s been ages since he’s seen Chanyeol’s flames in person instead of through a screen, and it still leaves Jongdae a little breathless, caught up in the sheer strength of that power. But, more importantly…

“Chan - Firestorm is right,” Jongdae agrees. He tilts his head and considers the sparks popping in Seungwan’s fist. “I think instinct is definitely worth a shot.”

Seungwan purses her lips. She stretches out her fingers and concentrates, closing her eyes instead of narrowing them at the target. When her next firework comes, it goes ramrod-straight, hitting the centre of the circle with a precise bang like a gunshot.

Chanyeol whoops and Seungwan’s eyes fly open. “Hey, you did it!”

Jongdae watches him reach down for an enthusiastic high five, then urge a flustered Seungwan to do it again, smiling so widely that Jongdae’s own lips tug up at the corners.

“You’re so good at this,” he remarks out loud later, after the training session’s ended. They’re sitting on the sidelines and watching Sehun help the students clear up the equipment, floating the heavier things straight into the storage room. “If I didn’t know better, I would’ve thought you were a trained teacher.”

Chanyeol looks over at him and blinks. “Good at what?”

“At helping the trainees. I may be the licensed educator here, but I would’ve never thought to try that different approach with Seungwan, you know.”

“Oh.” Chanyeol’s lips quirk up in a sheepish grin. “That was kind of cheating. She reminded me of myself when I was struggling with the same thing.”

“Still, though!” Jongdae protests. “That was so well done that I’m almost jealous.”

That makes Chanyeol laugh. “Of what? It was a one-time thing.”

Except, if Jongdae really thinks about it now, it’s not a one-time thing. It’s more like an all-time thing for Chanyeol. There are people who have natural talent, and then there’s Chanyeol, who takes the very definition of prodigy and blows it up to skyscraper heights. Even back during their SM days, it was hard not to be drawn in by his easy, fearless power; power like the first heat wave rolling in after a July storm, power like wonderstruck magic.

“I think you’re really incredible.” The sentence slips out of Jongdae’s mouth, and once it does he can’t seem to shut up even as his cheeks burn. “It’s like… you’re good at everything, whether it involves your fire or not, and you barely even have to try. Not that you don’t,” he adds hastily. “But it’s amazing. You work hard too, and you’re so strong, and I’m—”

Always left in awe, Jongdae thinks, in the wake of you.

But that’s crossing a line of embarrassment that even he knows is too much. He snaps his mouth closed.

Chanyeol looks speechless for a moment, jaw slack and eyes wide. Then the tips of his ears redden. “Well,” he starts, coughing a little. “Since we’re doing this, I think you’re amazing too.” He meets Jongdae’s gaze. “You’re really great with your students, and it’s crystal clear how much they trust and respect you. You’re open to trying anything. And… I’ve always admired how you weren’t afraid to take a different path to chase your dream. I…” Chanyeol hesitates a little, then quietly finishes, “I think you’re a role model.”

Absolutely none of it is what Jongdae was expecting. He stares at Chanyeol, feeling something hot and emotional rise up in his chest, and swallows.

“Really?” he says, going for teasing to try and dissolve all the charged tension in the air. “You, Mr. Number One Superhero, think I’m the role model now?”

It backfires. Chanyeol’s eyes go contemplative. He nudges Jongdae’s arm, and their fingers brush, warm heat meeting effervescent static. “Honestly?” he says, and hums. “I think you always have been.”

 

☆☆☆

 

PAST: VARIOUS LOCATIONS

Here’s the thing: Jongdae was a K-drama addict and proud. He liked watching cheesy rom-coms and rooting for the star-crossed couple, liked getting way too invested in fluffy love stories and sniffling at a main character’s first kiss. So maybe he was a romantic. Sue him. But indulging in these guilty pleasures also meant that he, at the very least, knew what a crush was supposed to look like, and how the nervous thrills of attraction were supposed to feel.

So yeah, Jongdae should know exactly how to deal with crushes. He just didn’t quite know how to deal with one on Chanyeol.

It was terrible. He’d come down from the roof after the campfire that night, and something just… changed. Suddenly, it was ten times harder to look Chanyeol in the eye. Jongdae started feeling his electricity rear up inside him at the slightest touch. Chanyeol would grin that stupid grin of his, and boom, Jongdae’s insides were giving out. He would’ve thought he was just losing it or something, as a side effect of all the stress that came with third year, but Baekhyun was joining them in their hang-outs again and he sure didn’t make Jongdae feel like crawling out of his skin with a single glance.

(A good thing, too, because just thinking about his childhood friend in that way made Jongdae slightly nauseous. Chanyeol - unfortunately and inexplicably - was different.)

Whatever this was, it was a lot worse than a crush. It was a ball of livewire at the pit of Jongdae’s stomach. It was his own electricity turning against him. It was the exact same adrenaline that would zip up his spine during a mission simulation, but about a hundred times worse because this - staring at Chanyeol, following his movements, wanting him - was something no textbook could ever teach Jongdae how to get used to.

It was life-ruining, that was what it was, and for all of Jongdae’s usual easygoing positivity, he had no idea how he was supposed to deal with this. Or maintain any pretense of normalcy. Or even save their friendship, because…

Because he couldn’t even look at Chanyeol without wishing he’d kiss him these days, and that was making their study sessions and impromptu meet-ups a hell of a lot harder.

In the middle of their fourth and final year at SM, Chanyeol and Jongdae had their first serious fight. Only it wasn’t even that much of a fight, which probably told you a lot about their personalities.

“I got seven,” Baekhyun said to them during lunch break in the classroom, brandishing his document triumphantly. “That’s pretty good, right?”

Chanyeol grinned the same way he did when he knew he was about to win a match of Street Fighter. He cleared his throat and patted his desk, where his own document was lying in front of him, and said, “Try fifteen.”

What? You’re lying.” Baekhyun pushed over to look at the paper and, upon finding out that Chanyeol was not, in fact, lying, let out a half-impressed and half-indignant noise. “Park Chanyeol, no way! You’re always one-upping the rest of us, what’s up with that?”

There was pride in Chanyeol’s voice even as he laughed and swatted at Baekhyun’s shoulder. “It’s just the SM effect. Honestly, I think they’re all overestimating the versatility of fire way too much.”

“Maybe, but still. Fifteen offers from pro agencies already when we haven’t even graduated yet? That’s insane.”

Jongdae watched them squabble over how impressive the number was in vague amusement. His own document was face-down on his desk, ignored in favour of his kimbap and banana milk, so he didn’t really have any motivation to join in. Jongdae tuned his best friends out to flip open his English textbook - which was probably why he missed the subsequent call of his name.

A tap on his wrist was what made him look up. “Huh?”

It had been Chanyeol. Jongdae’s skin went embarrassingly hot at the realization, nervous and tingly, before he forced himself to ignore the touch.

“I said, do you know how many you got?”

“Oh.” Jongdae blinked. He hesitated for only a second before flipping over his document. “I got seven too.”

Chanyeol whooped, and Baekhyun reached out for an excited high five. “This is awesome,” Baekhyun enthused, gripping Jongdae’s hand and shaking it. “We’re all set already! Wait, do you think we got any overlapping offers? We could totally compare and pick one together—”

“I got it,” Chanyeol volunteered, snatching Baekhyun’s document over. “Whoa, check this out, I got one from SuJu too—”

Hey, don’t start looking at them yet, I was still researching!”

And Jongdae thought, ah. This was the difficult part. The messy, complicated, actually-sort-of-scary part. But he’d been thinking about it for too long now to chicken out, so he just cleared his throat and mumbled, “Actually, I don’t know if I will.”

Baekhyun stopped trying to grab his paper back and tilted his head at Jongdae. “Don’t know if you’ll take the SuJu offer? That’s fine, we have lots of—”

“No, I mean.” Jongdae coughed. “I don’t know if I’ll… take any of them at all.”

Silence. Chanyeol and Baekhyun both stared at him for what felt like a minute straight. Jongdae’s skin crawled with nerves, and he dropped his eyes to focus on a scratch in his desk, if only to avoid their twin gazes of disbelief.

“I don’t think I get what you mean,” Chanyeol finally said, eyebrows furrowed. “You don’t want to take the pro offers?”

Jongdae nodded, not trusting his ability to explain.

Chanyeol frowned harder. “Why? Is it because you don’t like any of the agencies? Because you know, you can still apply for other—”

“No, no. That’s not it.” Jongdae bit his lip and weighed the pros and cons of breaking the news before speaking. “I’ve just been - thinking. About different paths, and stuff like that.”

“Different paths? What other path is there after SM except a pro hero career?”

Chanyeol’s voice was clear with incredulity, and Jongdae almost flinched. Baekhyun must’ve noticed, because he put a hand on Chanyeol’s shoulder and said, “Hey, hey. Let’s just give Jongdae some space to think about it first, okay?”

Except Jongdae didn’t really need to think about it. Truthfully, he hadn’t even thought about the offers printed on his paper for more than a heartbeat. What he had been thinking about was the career counselling session he’d been pulled into last week, and how Dr. “Call Me Heechul” Kim had flipped through all of Jongdae’s exemplary scores on communication and conflict management, and the quiet, careful way he’d asked Jongdae, Have you ever considered going into education?

Chanyeol never got it. He tried to bring up the subject well into the next week. “I just don’t get it,” he protested, after Jongdae told him for what must’ve been the hundredth time that he was still thinking. “Weren’t we always supposed to join the same agency together? Become the all-powerful hero trio, and all that?”

He probably hadn’t meant to sound so hurt, but guilt raced up Jongdae’s spine all the same. “I know. I’m sorry. It’s complicated, but I’ve been thinking, and—”

“You keep saying that,” Chanyeol said. “If you’ve already made a decision, just tell us straight out that you want to give up.”

That made Jongdae’s skin prickle. “I’m not giving up. I’m considering becoming a teacher.”

“A teacher? You want to turn down all your agency offers to be a teacher? What does that even have to do with being a hero?”

Maybe it was the sheer bewilderment in Chanyeol’s voice, or maybe it was the fact that Jongdae’s frustration still didn’t do anything to dull the way his heart sped up at their proximity, but that last sentence managed to sting like nothing else. “Well, you wouldn’t really know, would you?” Jongdae snapped, acid-harsh. He watched the way Chanyeol’s eyes widened as he jerked back and couldn’t resist adding, “I wouldn’t expect you to understand. Just leave me alone.”

He hadn’t meant that last bit, not at all, but Chanyeol listened to him anyway. Baekhyun spent the next few days awkwardly juggling time between them both. Part of Jongdae felt bad for making his friend choose sides, but the other part of him was still upset at Park Chanyeol and his stupid kicked-puppy look that he wasn’t even bothering to hide, so it kind of balanced out.

“I just think you guys should talk it out and make up,” Baekhyun told him during lunch break every other day.

Jongdae just shoved a spoonful of rice in his mouth and refused to answer.

(Evidently, Baekhyun’s pleads must’ve gotten through to one of them more than the other, because Chanyeol found Jongdae on his rooftop spot during another lunch break to apologize. “I’m sorry for questioning you,” he said, fidgeting even as he determinedly met Jongdae’s eyes. “And for being really insensitive about it. I guess I was just bummed at the possibility of us breaking apart, but… I think I get it now.”

“You get what?” Jongdae asked him.

Chanyeol shrugged. He sat down at Jongdae’s side, an ever-present source of heat. “There’s more than one way to be a hero. I think you’ll be a great teacher, help a lot of people.”

Jongdae’s breath got a little stuck in his throat. “So you’re not upset? Even if it means we won’t all be together?”

“I’m not,” Chanyeol promised. Then he smiled, half-sheepish and half-nervous. “Besides, I wouldn’t have any right to be, anyway. I got a new offer. I’m heading to New York.”)

Once, when Jongdae had been seven years old and reckless, he’d ignored his mom’s warnings to play out on the sidewalk during the rain. The sky had been grey and barely drizzling, and he’d thought that the most it would do to him would be to dampen his hair and force him to take an extra shower. Only he hadn’t yet learned the brutal swiftness of a storm. It’d come slowly and then all at once, soaking Jongdae in the blink of an eye with a downpour so powerful that he’d been left almost breathless, gulping down air in the wake of the torrent.

That was sort of what helping Chanyeol pack felt like. Jongdae threw in the last of Chanyeol’s five-hundred-or-so hoodies, and the rainstorm hit him in the face.

Chanyeol peeked over the back of the couch from where he was double-checking his carry-on. “Is that all of it?”

“Yeah.” Jongdae stared at the garishly bright luggage case. “I think so.”

“Great, just in time! I think the bus to the airport leaves in about twenty minutes.”

So they gathered everything up, shuffled out of Chanyeol’s room, and went straight to the door. Jongdae stood awkwardly with his bags while Chanyeol hugged his parents and said goodbye. They weren’t going to drop him off at the airport at Chanyeol’s insistence, something about how I need to learn to become an adult if I’m going to survive in America anyways, and Baekhyun was stuck at his brother’s wedding in Bucheon. So that left Jongdae as the person to walk Chanyeol to the bus stop and into his future.

Not that it was a hundred percent anticlimactic. They’d already thrown a small farewell party for Chanyeol last week, anyway. Baekhyun had snuck a bottle of cheap soju from his dad’s pantry, and they’d gotten tipsy because of some stupid made-up drinking game using the news channel. There’d been a lot of sniffling (Baekhyun) and a lot of emotional rambling (Chanyeol), and Jongdae… had found himself staring at Chanyeol’s alcohol-flushed cheeks and wondering if maybe, just maybe, he should confess, for the sake of it.

He hadn’t, obviously. Or else he wouldn’t be here right now, watching Chanyeol kiss his mother’s cheek and bound over to the door.

“Come on,” Chanyeol stage-whispered, pulling on his shoes and throwing a grin over his shoulder. “Let’s get out of here before they change their mind about letting me cross the ocean alone.”

Jongdae attempted a teasing tone. “I wouldn’t blame them. I saw how many DS games you packed into your luggage, you geek.”

Chanyeol laughed, and then they were out the door and in the street, following the path to the bus stop.

Ironically enough, it was raining too. The drizzle came down in light dashes as they dragged Chanyeol’s luggage down the sidewalk. Jongdae took the time to quiz Chanyeol on his flight time and gate number, squinting at the water-blurred screen of his phone, and Chanyeol rattled off random English phrases like he was getting paid to memorize them. They made an impromptu ranking of the best tourist attractions in NYC, playfully bickering over whether the airport counted as one or not, and by the time they reached the bus stop, Jongdae had almost forgotten that, well - that Chanyeol was leaving. For a long time. For good, maybe.

Chanyeol swept a hand through his damp hair and winced. “I knew I forgot something,” he said mournfully, pulling at the strings of his backpack. “An umbrella.”

“Yeah, only one of the most important things we use every day.” Jongdae snorted and snapped Chanyeol’s bag strap. “Nice start to your independent adult life.”

“I’ll just buy one at the airport! Maybe I can find one with the Statue of Liberty on it or something and it’ll be my first souvenir.”

“You’re impossible,” Jongdae said, but he was smiling. Chanyeol looked at him and grinned, and Jongdae’s gaze caught on a drop of rain trailing down his cheek, then fell to the water gathering at Chanyeol’s collarbone.

He flushed and looked away. It was plain embarrassing that this was still a problem. Jongdae had known for ages that this thing for Chanyeol was a bad idea, not only because it wouldn’t go anywhere but also because he was Jongdae’s best friend, yet his heart still reacted like it did when he was sixteen and starstruck and just learning what falling felt like. And now he was almost twenty, freshly graduated, watching the man he was sort of stupid in love with wait for a ride that would take him ten thousand kilometres away.

It wasn’t the most pleasant realization Jongdae had ever had. He swallowed and tried to tamp down the uneasy electricity rising under his skin. Water was a terrifying conductor, and accidentally zapping a friend the day he was supposed to go off to his fancy American internship was not something Jongdae wanted to do.

“I wish Baekhyun was here too,” Chanyeol said. Jongdae glanced over and found him staring wistfully at his phone. “He’s probably still busy at the reception. I don’t think he’ll get to check his messages before I get on the flight.”

Jongdae made a glum noise of agreement. Then he suggested, “Let’s send him some pictures.”

So they leaned up against the metal pole of the bus stop together, pulling ridiculous faces and snapping photos by the second as Chanyeol scrolled through SNOW and pressed the stupidest filters he could find. By the time he got to the banana-head one, Jongdae was already wheezing. Chanyeol selected every new selfie from his gallery and sent them all to Baekhyun in a messy jumble, which prompted Jongdae to do an impression of the face Baekhyun would probably make upon opening them, and they collapsed in loud, gasping laughter on the sidewalk.

The rain was coming down harder when Jongdae came up for air. It ran down his face in icy rivulets, and he couldn’t quite stop a sneeze.

“It’s getting way too cold and wet,” he complained, pushing his tangled hair out of his face and grimacing at the droplets that slid down his neck. “How long is it gonna take the bus to come anyway?”

“Dunno.” Chanyeol shrugged. “Maybe the weather is making it slower.”

“I hate the weather.”

Chanyeol leaned over and waggled his eyebrows. “Well, if you need it, I could always try warming you up.”

Jongdae’s feelings-addled brain went, huh, but before he could even find the time to panic Chanyeol reached out a hand. A ball of flame puffed into existence in the center of his palm. It was bright red and glowed in the bleak greyness of the rain, and Jongdae could feel its heat on his face like a physical touch.

That is, until the rain made it puff back out two seconds later.

“Aw, shit,” Chanyeol said, frowning down at his hand.

Jongdae tried not to laugh too hard and failed miserably. “Are you for real? Dude, what were you even expecting to happen?”

“Hey!” Chanyeol swatted half-heartedly at Jongdae’s shoulder. “It’s the thought that counts, right?”

“I don’t even think there was enough mental activity behind that for it to be called a thought. You know, maybe I should call that famous foreign agency of yours and tell them they should reconsider taking you on.”

Chanyeol squawked in offence. “Kim Jongdae, don’t you dare—”

He reached out to grab at Jongdae’s head, and Jongdae cackled and ducked back, nearly slamming his head against the metal pole. He only managed to narrowly jerk aside with four years of superhero trainee instinct. The movement made Chanyeol’s hand meet Jongdae’s ear, a light, barely-there touch that was nowhere near strong enough to hurt, and Chanyeol - didn’t pull away and instead just left it there.

Even in the cold rain, his skin was all searing warmth. Jongdae pressed his back to the metal pole and caught his breath.

“What—”

“Jongdae,” Chanyeol said. He sounded surprised and sort of strange. His hand twitched, then settled at the slope of Jongdae’s cheekbone.

Jongdae’s nerves went haywire, static fizzling in his blood with the fierce force that only pure, untamed energy could bring, and he stared up at Chanyeol’s face above him with alarm bells ringing in his mind.

Because he was a complete idiot who probably deserved to drown in the rain, his eyes dropped to Chanyeol’s mouth. He immediately jerked his gaze away, but the damage was done. There was no way Chanyeol could’ve missed that. Not when they were this close, centimeters apart with Chanyeol’s fingers still brushing Jongdae’s cheek, Chanyeol’s breath hitting his face, Chanyeol’s wide eyes concentrated on his—

“Jongdae,” Chanyeol said again, helplessly. He bent down, just a little, and Jongdae’s suddenly very faraway mind thought, No way.

But Chanyeol did it. He kissed him.

Jongdae’s head washed out into blankness.

The metal pole of the bus stop was cold, but Chanyeol more than made up for it with his natural, powerful body heat. He gripped an arm over Jongdae’s shoulder and Jongdae melted like wax over a flame. Chanyeol’s lips were soft, and he kissed deep and slow, so tentative but so sure. His mouth stole Jongdae’s oxygen. Overhead, the rain poured, now brutal enough to soak them to the bone, but Jongdae was drowning and breathless and hard-pressed to even care.

Because he was being kissed. He was being kissed by Park Chanyeol, devoured like his life depended on it - like the lives of all of Seoul’s citizens depended on how badly he could ruin Jongdae with his mouth.

(And if that was the case, Jongdae thought, then Chanyeol had better get a goddamn medal from the government for how well he was succeeding.)

Chanyeol pressed him up against the pole again and Jongdae made a noise in his throat. His hands came up to grip Chanyeol’s wet shirt, pulse thrumming through his veins. Now that he thought about it, this might be how Jongdae would die, honestly: kissing his best friend like this in the rain without a care in the world, electricity shuddering through his system, lighting up his insides—

HONK.

They jumped apart. Sparks crackled around Jongdae’s fingers. Chanyeol’s shoulder actually caught on fire before he hastily willed it out, and then their gazes met in the most awkward eye contact Jongdae had ever experienced in his life.

The bus in the street to their side honked again, loud and obnoxious, and whatever strange atmosphere had been building between them shattered into pieces.

“Um,” Chanyeol said intelligently.

His lips were so much pinker than usual, and Jongdae kind of hated himself for noticing. He stared at Chanyeol and Chanyeol stared back. The silence around them was deafening, so thick it was nearly unbearable, nerve-wracking enough to make Jongdae seriously contemplate turning tail and running away.

But there was no way he could do that. Not only because Chanyeol had just kissed him out of nowhere, but also because Chanyeol was leaving, and he couldn’t just…

The bus honked for the third time, and Jongdae echoed, “Um.”

“Maybe I should go,” Chanyeol blurted as he grabbed his luggage case. “I mean, before I miss my flight.”

Jongdae wasn’t selfish enough to argue with that. “Yeah, maybe you should,” he said, feeling very much lost. He watched Chanyeol gather his bags like a stiff robot and wondered, weakly, if this was how it was supposed to go. He’d thought about kissing Chanyeol so many times it was mortifying, but now it’d actually happened and Jongdae wasn’t even processing it, like a detached dream of his that he was already losing the memory of.

Chanyeol hesitated before he moved towards the bus door. The driver was definitely getting impatient by now, but he still looked back at Jongdae and murmured, “Bye.”

Maybe Jongdae should’ve said something. Maybe he should’ve hauled Chanyeol back and demanded an explanation. Maybe he should’ve grabbed his collar and asked, Why would you fulfill my most shameful desire ten minutes before you left for the other side of the world?

But - for better or for worse - Jongdae was fifty percent overwhelmed and fifty percent dazed and one hundred percent a coward, so all he did was raise a hand in a pathetic wave.

“Bye,” he said back, and Chanyeol gave him a half-smile and stepped onto the bus.

 

☆☆☆

 

PRESENT-DAY: DIAMOND CRYSTAL HERO AGENCY, TOP FLOOR

Jongdae’s half-heartedly scrolling through the SM teachers group chat when a cup of coffee is placed down in front of him. He looks up, and Baekhyun plops into the seat across the table, gesturing towards the drink with a grand flourish.

“What’s this?” Jongdae asks, raising an eyebrow. He pulls the cup towards him and squints at the label.

“Oh, you know. Just a present for my best friend in the whole world.”

It’s a vanilla mocha latte. Jongdae narrows his eyes in suspicion. “How did you know?”

“Know what?” Baekhyun says innocently.

“My guilty pleasure coffee order.”

“I used my foolproof best friend sense, duh.” When Jongdae shoots him a sceptical look, Baekhyun lets out a laugh and raises his hands in surrender. “Okay, okay, you got me. I texted Sehun and asked him what he usually sees you drinking at the academy. But hey, at least now I know I was right about your tastes being way too sweet.”

Traitor, Jongdae thinks sullenly. He chooses not to focus on the fact that Baekhyun has his assistant’s number and instead takes a sip, humming at the sugary flavour. It’s surprisingly tasty, for something that Jongdae knows was purchased from the built-in agency shop instead of a more authentic cafe, and he finds his lips curling in delight as he keeps drinking.

Baekhyun’s voice is smug when he says, “It’s good, right?”

“Really good,” Jongdae agrees. “But what’s the occasion?”

“Well, I figured the least I could do is get you something to drink as a thank-you for coming to visit,” Baekhyun says. Then he gives Jongdae a sheepish smile, lifting a hand to scratch the back of his neck. “And, uh. As an apology about the interview thing.”

Jongdae snorts a little at the reminder. After Baekhyun’s blunt declaration of friendship on national television, he’s been fielding phone calls and random conversations all week, swarmed by people who are curious about his closeness with the oh-so-famed Firestorm. Not like he didn’t expect it - he’s been dealing with stuff like that for a while now because of his relationship with Baekhyun, anyhow - but the sheer height of Chanyeol’s stardom still left him a bit dumbfounded. Even Junmyeon asked Jongdae if he could perhaps ask Chanyeol to consider coming by SM again. Extremely politely, but still.

Maybe that’s the reason why Jongdae’s always tended to be more of a private person; it comes with knowing two of the most highly-ranked pros in Korea, he supposes. As it stands, he just shrugs, returning Baekhyun’s smile over the edge of his cup. “It’s no big deal,” he says, waving a hand. “I only had to deal with, like, five death threats through my work email.”

Baekhyun stares at him in shock. “Please tell me you’re joking.”

“I’m not. Does Chanyeol know he’s in the same boat as idols in terms of rabid fans? It’s actually kind of impressive.”

“You mean scary,” Baekhyun mumbles. He leans back in his seat and sighs in mock bitterness. “That guy’s success is really nothing to scoff at, huh?”

“We are literally sitting on the top floor of the hero agency you own right now,” Jongdae deadpans.

That makes Baekhyun grin, easy and broad and more than a little proud. “Don’t erase Minseok hyung’s identity like that,” he chides, pushing his chair back to stand up and offering Jongdae a hand. “We’re co-owners. But that reminds me. Since you were gracious enough to pay your dear friend a visit, why don’t I show you around again so we can say hi to the team?”

“I thought I’d already met everyone,” Jongdae says, but he takes Baekhyun’s hand and pulls himself up anyway.

Baekhyun’s grin stretches wider. It’s only vaguely shit-eating. “Not my brand new sidekick, you haven’t.”

The top floor of Diamond Crystal Heroics - co-run by pro heroes Black Light and Mad Ice, current national ranks 4 and 5 respectively - only permits entry to three categories of people: official employees, academy trainees who are here for field trips or exhibitions, and visitors who have been personally cleared by one of the big bosses.

As it is, Jongdae falls into the third category, which is why no one even bats an eye as Baekhyun leads his ID-less self through the offices. His best friend’s flair for the dramatic shows more than ever in the state-of-the-art design of his agency. Jongdae’s pretty sure Kim Minseok was responsible for the clean layout and modern decor of the private top floor facilities, but the towering fountains and the built-in retro cafe they just left? Those are all Baekhyun.

To be honest, Jongdae’s been here so many times that practically everyone knows him by now; Nayeon and Sana shout cheerful hellos at him from where they’re running on treadmills, Jaehyun gives an upside-down wave while hanging off a monkey bar, and even hardworking Seohyun looks up from her documents to offer him a smile. They pass the pool, where Taeyong’s solidifying water into steps and bridges, and Baekhyun pokes his head into the yoga room just to check on Hyoyeon’s session. Jongdae’s always thought that Baekhyun’s team was more of a tight-knit family than a network of pros. He’s as bright as his superpower when he talks to his staff, and it shows in the way everyone looks at him with stars in their eyes.

Whoever Baekhyun’s brand new sidekick is, though, they must be remarkably stealthy, because Jongdae doesn’t catch a glimpse of a single unfamiliar face during their walk around the floor.

“Well, I mean,” Baekhyun says thoughtfully when Jongdae tells him as much. “That is the main reason we took him on in the first place.”

Jongdae gives him a blank look. Before he can say huh and ask him to elaborate, though, Baekhyun’s turning and cupping his hands around his mouth. “Hey!” he yells across the space. “Has anyone here seen Jongin?”

“Last time I checked, he was with the other two rookies!” Taeil shouts back from the training bench.

Sunyoung stops organizing her file cabinet and raises a hand. “I think they mentioned they needed to check the schedule in your office.”

For some reason, that makes Baekhyun slap a hand to his forehead. “Oh, man,” he mumbles, turning to stalk down the hall at the other end of the room right away. Jongdae has no choice but to follow.

As a side effect of his frequent visits, he also knows exactly where Baekhyun’s office is, which is why it takes him by surprise when Baekhyun stops abruptly at the entryway. Jongdae very nearly slams his chest into his best friend’s broad back. “Hey,” he grumbles, straining his neck to peek over Baekhyun’s shoulder, “what’s…”

He trails off and blinks. There, just near the wide window behind Baekhyun’s desk, stand three young heroes: Jongdae recognizes two of them as Yukhei and Tzuyu, new hires to the agency who he met just last month, but the last one is unfamiliar. He’s tall and strong-looking with healthy golden-bronze skin. This must be Jongin, the elusive sidekick Jongdae has yet to be introduced to.

But then maybe-Jongin moves aside and Jongdae’s train of thought evaporates, because Chanyeol is standing in the middle of the three rookies, looking vaguely overwhelmed even as he nods along to Yukhei’s excited rambling.

“Whoops,” Baekhyun says sheepishly. “Looks like they caught him.”

An amused voice speaks up behind them. “I’m not sure what you were expecting.”

Jongdae and Baekhyun both jump. When Jongdae turns around, Kim Minseok - otherwise known as Baekhyun’s partner Mad Ice - is arching an eyebrow as he peels off his face mask. “You know the newbies always forget the schedule during the first month,” he points out, shaking his head at Baekhyun. “To be honest, I think you would’ve had a better chance if you asked him to hide behind the receptionist’s desk in the lobby.”

Baekhyun makes a noise of protest. “Hyung, you want me to shove Korea’s number one pro hero under a desk?”

“It was just an example,” Minseok mutters. He folds his mask into the pocket of his sports jacket and gives Jongdae a friendly nod. “Nice to see you again, Jongdae. I hope this one hasn’t been causing you too much trouble.”

“He’s been okay,” Jongdae admits over the sound of Baekhyun’s indignant squawk. And then, because he can’t stand it anymore: “What’s Chanyeol doing here?”

At least he sounds curious instead of flat-out panicky this time around. Character development.

Baekhyun suddenly looks shifty. “I invited him. Because, you know, he’s never actually seen the agency in person.”

Jongdae cocks his head at him. “Right.”

“And because I think you guys should talk,” Baekhyun adds quickly. “I don’t want you two to tiptoe around each other forever.”

What?” Jongdae almost chokes. “We do talk! We talked when he came to SM just last week. We text, like, every day—”

“You know what I mean! There’s been some weird stuff going on between you two ever since whatever happened in New York, and you still—”

Jongdae unceremoniously slaps his hand over Baekhyun’s big mouth before his best friend can air his and Chanyeol’s entire history out in the open. Beside them, Minseok’s eyebrows have crawled to his hairline. “Okay,” the hero says slowly, glancing between the two of them. “Um, I’ll be heading to my own office then. When the rookies are done here, can you tell them to drop by so I can photocopy their schedules for them?”

Baekhyun pushes Jongdae’s hand away. “Will do, hyung! You’re the best,” he chirps, and Minseok aims an exasperated smile at him before turning and walking down the hall.

As soon as he disappears, Jongdae swats Baekhyun in the arm. “Explain. Or don’t. What are you even on about?”

“Hey,” Baekhyun sulks. He rubs at his elbow and frowns. “I was being serious. I don’t want to butt into your business or anything, but… you guys still haven’t talked things through, right?”

For a brief second, Jongdae considers pretending not to know what Baekhyun’s talking about, but the look in his friend’s eyes tells him that wouldn’t really work. So he just sighs. “There hasn’t been a good time to,” he tries, slumping against the door frame.

“Well, there might be one soon.”

Baekhyun sounds very cryptic. Jongdae straightens. “What do you mean?”

“Nothing,” Baekhyun says unconvincingly. Before Jongdae can narrow his eyes at him, though, his friend clears his throat and speaks up again. “You know, Chanyeollie didn’t decide to come back to Seoul out of nowhere. He’s always been impulsive, sure, but not to that degree.”

“Well, yeah,” Jongdae says. He has zero idea where this conversation is going.

“Did you ask him? About the reason behind it?”

Jongdae blinks and thinks back to the phone call he took in SM’s infirmary. “I did. He gave a really long and mysterious answer.”

Baekhyun studies him, then leans back against the door and suggests, “Maybe you should ask him again.”

Something strange tingles under Jongdae’s skin. He’s too confused to figure out if it’s his electricity acting up again or something else, though, because— “What,” he says weakly. If Baekhyun’s trying to imply that Chanyeol came back for Jongdae, or something ridiculous like that, then he has no clue what to say. There’s no way that’s a possibility. Jongdae’s not self-centered enough to think that it is, and Chanyeol’s not dumb enough to cast aside a perfect career in America for an imperfect relationship. “Baekhyun…”

His tone must make Baekhyun realize what his words sounded like, because Baekhyun shoots up. “That’s not what I meant,” he says hastily, waving a hand. “I didn’t mean that it was just about you two. There’s a lot more than that. It’s just…” He shrugs, helpless, and offers Jongdae a hesitant smile. “Maybe you should hear him out? That might be a good start.”

Jongdae stares into his best friend’s earnest eyes, feeling more than a little lost. “Okay,” he finally says. Then he gestures towards the inside of the office. “But, you know, maybe you should rescue him from your rookies first?”

“Oh. Right.” Baekhyun looks over at the group, where Chanyeol is now carefully listening to a shy Tzuyu’s questions. “He’s good with them, though.”

“He was really good with the trainees at SM, too.”

Baekhyun hums in contemplation. “Of course he was. Honestly, sometimes I still wonder where we would be if we took different paths, but we’re doing pretty good now anyway, right? Like, you’re one of SM’s best teachers, and Chanyeol has his whole career, and even Kyungsoo is doing his own thing with his construction company and all—”

“Rescue, Baekhyun,” Jongdae reminds him, trying not to laugh.

Baekhyun coughs. “Right,” he says again, and snaps his fingers.

The office blinks out into darkness. There’s half a second of confusion before Baekhyun snaps once more and the lights come back on, enough to bring the group’s attention to them standing at the door. “Baekhyunnie,” Chanyeol says, surprised but relieved, then: “Oh, hey, Jongdae.”

“Hello,” Jongdae says back. Then he hisses to Baekhyun, “Do you have to use that trick for everything?”

“Dramatic effect, okay?” Baekhyun defends, before clapping his hands together. “Okay, you three, I think you’ve taken up enough of Firestorm’s time now. Can you come get your schedules with me? Minseok hyung’s orders.”

Yukhei looks like he wants to protest, and Tzuyu ducks her head in embarrassment, but the three of them do walk up to Baekhyun at the door. Jongin’s the one that pauses before he files out, eyes falling on Jongdae with an innocent sort of curiosity. “Hi,” he says cautiously, reaching out a hand. “It’s nice to—”

“Jongin, Jongdae. Jongdae, this is Jongin. He teleports.” Baekhyun grabs Jongin’s shoulders and Jongin yelps. “Sorry, I really wanted to give you guys a better introduction, but I think we have to go now. Some other time, okay?”

And then he’s waving and pulling the office door shut behind them, though not before he flashes Jongdae a not-so-discreet thumbs up.

In the abrupt silence that follows, Chanyeol clears his throat. “As smooth as ever, our Baekhyun.”

Jongdae snorts. “He really hasn’t changed a bit through the years.”

“Nope,” Chanyeol agrees. He turns towards Jongdae and quirks an eyebrow, nodding at the well-furnished office around them. “This place is really nice, though. Baekhyun gave me a quick tour, and I have to say, it’s even better than the agencies I saw in America.”

“Wow, really?” Jongdae tilts his head. “I mean, I only ever saw your agency once, in New York, but it was pretty… cool…”

He trails off. Dumbass, Jongdae thinks to himself. Because it might just be his imagination, but even the mention of New York seems to make the air grow more awkward, filling the space between them with invisible tension. It could be Baekhyun’s blunt reminder of it earlier that’s making Jongdae feel like this, or—

Or it could be the way Chanyeol’s looking at him right now, wide-eyed and pink-cheeked and a little strangely nervous.

Either way, Chanyeol breaks the silence before it gets too thick. “Listen,” he starts, shifting on his feet. “It’s Monday tomorrow. You have classes, right?”

Jongdae opens his mouth then closes it. “Yeah,” he ends up saying. “Until four thirty.”

“Would you be… okay with meeting me afterwards? Just to talk?”

Jongdae stares at him. Chanyeol has the same expression on his face as when he asked Jongdae if his phone number was still the same, all those days ago at EXORDIUM. There’s something different this time, though; his eyes are a bit clearer, the set to his mouth more determined, and man, Jongdae’s never considered himself a master of body language, so he must still know Chanyeol much better than he thought he did.

It’s that thought that makes him brave enough to blurt out, “Is this a date?”

Chanyeol freezes. “No,” he says quickly. Then he corrects himself. “I mean, not yet.”

The bold note beneath all his resolve makes Jongdae smile. He straightens and tilts his chin up, summoning more confidence than he knows what to do with. Chanyeol’s hair is framed in evening dusk coming through the ridiculously wide office window, orange and auburn over violet, and it makes Jongdae think of campfires and rooftops and burnt marshmallows.

It might be a good start, Baekhyun’s voice says in his head. But does he really need the reminder?

He laughs. “Sure, Park Chanyeol. I’ll go on a not-yet-date with you.”

 

☆☆☆

 

PAST: NEW YORK CITY, JFK AIRPORT

Twelve minutes in America, and Baekhyun had already managed to piss off a pigeon, a white man, and a white man feeding a pigeon.

Kyungsoo was the one who pulled him away from that last fiasco. “I am very sorry,” he said in English to the guy, who was alternating between glaring at them and glaring at where Baekhyun’s excited shout had made him drop his whole tray of fries on the ground. “My friend is not nice. Sorry.”

“I’m perfectly nice,” Baekhyun said in petulant Korean.

“When you’re not a walking, breathing hazard, maybe.”

And honestly, Kyungsoo was more Chanyeol’s friend than anything else - they’d met thanks to the work placement Chanyeol had done through third and fourth year - but Baekhyun pouted at him all the same. Jongdae watched them bicker like a middle-aged lady would watch a soap opera. He leaned against the handle of their shared suitcase, breathed in the scent of smoke and summer, and had to hide a smile behind his elbow.

From behind him, Chanyeol made an affronted noise. “You guys know you’re in one of the biggest cities in the world, right?” he said, half-heartedly smacking Baekhyun’s arm with a rolled-up map. “The least you could do is appreciate it a little.”

Baekhyun smirked. “It kind of feels a lot like Seoul, actually. Except, you know, with more gasoline and chaos. And weird-looking superheroes who still use maps even though they’ve lived here for years.”

“Oh, fuck you,” Chanyeol grumbled, but one corner of his mouth was tugging up, and then both of them burst into laughter while Kyungsoo cracked a small smile in the background.

For all of Baekhyun’s teasing, though, Jongdae knew he was more than grateful. They all were. Getting gifted three fully-paid plane tickets to the Big Apple sounded like something pulled straight from a cliche chick flick, but it had happened anyway - Chanyeol had been the one to call them, on behalf of his nice American boss, a man who was rich enough to do things like offer free vacations to his best employee’s friends. That - and the fact that none of them were the type to look a gift horse in the mouth - was the reason the three of them were standing here now, at the gate of JFK airport while they waited for their taxi.

It was somehow familiar and disorienting at the same time. Once upon a time, Chanyeol and Baekhyun and Jongdae would wait for the bus together on weekends when they could leave the SM dorms for cheap chicken and noraebang. Sometimes Kyungsoo would join them. Now felt a little like those times, even though they weren’t eighteen and nineteen anymore. They were twenty-three and twenty-four and well into their own careers, and everything was different, except…

Well. Except for the part where Jongdae was still hyper-aware of Chanyeol’s presence like a supernova in his orbit.

Because, yeah, three years of nothing but slightly awkward phone calls and video chats, yet Jongdae’s heart was every bit as stupid for his friend as it had been during his academy days. Sue him.

“But it’s good that you guys can finally visit,” Chanyeol said now, making a futile attempt to tame his hair where Baekhyun had ruffled his hand through it. “It’s been way too long.”

Baekhyun made a noise of agreement. “I was starting to think I’d only ever see you through Skype and the usual Naver articles. Speaking of which, they’re starting to call you the pride of Seoul, did you know?”

“You’re joking, right?” Chanyeol asked, equal parts awed and mortified.

“Not even a little. Don’t forget me when you’re famous, Firestorm-nim.”

“Sorry, who are you again? You kind of look like this dude I used to beat in combat training all the time—”

“I think our ride is here,” Kyungsoo interrupted flatly, before Baekhyun’s indignant fingers could complete their trajectory towards Chanyeol’s cheek. He picked up his bag from the bench and stepped over to the taxi pulling up on the side of the street. Baekhyun whooped and followed, grabbing his own backpack on the way, and Jongdae was left to handle their biggest piece of luggage by himself.

He clicked his tongue and leaned down to pull out the suitcase’s handle, but before he could, a shadow fell over his hunched form. “Let me help you with that,” Chanyeol offered.

Jongdae tried to wave him off. “It’s okay. I’m on designated luggage duty, didn’t you gather?”

“But you’re the guest,” Chanyeol argued, and reached out for the case before Jongdae could protest. He pulled it towards himself, only Jongdae’s hand was still on the strap, which resulted in Jongdae also being hauled into his space with a squeak. Chanyeol steadied him last-minute with a grip on his shoulder. “Shit, sorry.”

Any other time, Jongdae would’ve stopped to consider the many ironic metaphors he could make out of the situation. As it was, he just shrugged and smiled. New York’s sun was hot above them, almost as powerful as the fire that made its home in Chanyeol’s blood, but Jongdae liked it enough to not really mind the sweat.

They didn’t talk about the kiss. They’d never talked about the kiss. One-third of his life spent pining over his best friend, and Jongdae had still been foolish enough to think he could forget that he knew the taste of Chanyeol’s mouth.

“It’s no big deal,” Jongdae said, when Chanyeol looked at him like he might apologize again. “I’ll live.”

On the second-last day of their five-day trip in New York, Jongdae woke up to Baekhyun sitting at the foot of his bed like a guard dog. He perked up and waved as soon as Jongdae’s bleary eyes met his. “Morning, sunshine. So hey, I was thinking, we should do something fun.”

Jongdae sat up in a groggy daze. The hotel room’s air conditioning was turned up too high again. “Huh?” he said, feeling like his mouth was stuffed full of cotton.

“I said we should do something—”

“Yeah, no, I got that part. But what do you mean by fun? We went to a waterpark just yesterday, you know.”

Baekhyun wagged a finger at him. “You’ll see,” he said, pushing his shower-damp hair out of his face. “I came up with something we could try that’s a bit more… exciting.”

So that was how Jongdae found himself standing in the lobby after they’d met up with Chanyeol and Kyungsoo, trying and failing to stifle a yawn into his fist as Baekhyun explained the concept of his strange little game.

“It’s called a scavenger hunt,” Baekhyun said excitedly, showing them the two maps that he’d marked up with colourful stickers. “I saw it on this game show once, and I thought it could be really cool if we did it here. Basically, there’s a list of things we have to do, and we split up into pairs and see who can get the most done.”

Kyungsoo squinted down at the pages in Baekhyun’s hands. “A list of things?”

“Yeah. Like, pet a puppy in Central Park, and stuff like that. NYC edition. They’re simple enough tasks, but there are a lot.”

“How do we know if we actually did them, though?” Jongdae interjected, rubbing his eyes and blinking.

Baekhyun pulled his phone out of his pocket and brandished it at him. “Ta-da. Mandatory photos or they won’t count.”

“What about all the travel costs?”

“Oh, that’s easy.” Baekhyun grinned. “Losing pair pays back all the money that the winning pair spent.”

There was a brief moment of silence as they considered this. Jongdae caught a glimmer of interest in Kyungsoo’s eyes, then met Chanyeol’s gaze and saw the spark of competitiveness there - exactly like the kind he’d used to see in mission simulations and combat matches - and knew with a resigned certainty that they were doomed.

“Did you come up with all of this over the last couple of days?” Chanyeol asked.

Baekhyun dipped his head and took an exaggerated bow, all grace and drama. “Sure did. So who’s in?”

As it turned out, deciding the pairs was the very first challenge of the game. Chanyeol wanted to go with Baekhyun, who wanted to go with Jongdae, who wanted to go with Kyungsoo, who frankly didn’t care about who he ended up with. They wasted a good ten minutes of their time just arguing with each other to try and ensure their victory. Eventually, an exasperated Kyungsoo put a stop to it by clapping his hands together. “Okay, let’s try this,” he suggested, nodding at each of them. “For the sake of fairness, who would have an unfair advantage as partners?”

There was a pause. “Baekhyun and Jongdae,” Chanyeol volunteered. “They probably have some weird childhood friend mind link.”

“Alright.” Kyungsoo slid his eyes to Jongdae and offered him a subtle smile. “And I can’t go with Jongdae, either, because you two would be a mess together and we have to actually give you a chance.”

Chanyeol and Baekhyun made twin noises of offence, but Jongdae saw the decision in Kyungsoo’s eyes and knew the deed was done. So the final verdict would be Baekhyun and Kyungsoo, plus himself and Chanyeol. Jongdae didn’t even get enough time to wonder if some god out there really hated him, or something, because they split up right at the edge of the street, and then the game was on.

“So,” Chanyeol said, pulling the map that Baekhyun had assigned them out of his pocket. “I’ve decided that we’re going to check off every single thing on this list.”

“You are completely insane,” Jongdae replied.

New York was ten times busier than Seoul and twice as crowded. Jongdae followed Chanyeol through its streets like his shadow, gaze jumping from the grey-blue sky to the neon billboards to the towering skyscrapers, trying (and failing) to take in everything at once.

For the record, Chanyeol’s sheer force of will was what made his brave claim at least sort of doable. Their very first task was to take a selfie with the Statue of Liberty in the background, which was easy enough - Chanyeol pushed Jongdae right up against the rail of the famous Brooklyn Bridge, smushing his cheek against his ear just to aim a lopsided grin at Jongdae’s phone camera. The shutter went snap in time with Jongdae’s heartbeat. Just because he was doomed.

Chanyeol checked the picture afterwards and frowned, always the competitive perfectionist. “The shot’s a little blurry. Do you think it’ll count?”

“Gee, I don’t know,” Jongdae said. “There might be another hundred-meter statue of a giant green woman somewhere around here.”

Chanyeol reached out to deliver a half-hearted swat at Jongdae’s shoulder. “Point taken,” he mumbled, and unfolded their map again. “Let’s move on.”

Unfortunately enough for them, Baekhyun was the type to like a challenge, and so the next few tasks were considerably higher on the scale of difficulty. They headed to Times Square to snap another selfie with a make-up ad in the background, then bargained with a street vendor for a hot dog that had way too much mustard. Chanyeol drew a ketchup dick on the bun for the photo like he was twelve years old. After that, they took a double decker bus to the Empire State Building to snap a third picture in their lobby, which was all metallic gold and milling with tourists. (The exact words Baekhyun had written were take a photo of yourselves in the Empire State Building - but, as Chanyeol had pointed out, he’d never specified which floor, so the lobby should still be able to check out. Jongdae had just pressed the shutter and hoped the loophole would hold.)

On the way to the fifth task, the two of them played rock-paper-scissors to decide who would be the one to drop a Korean won bill into a busker’s violin case. Jongdae ended up losing, flushing as he threw in ten American dollars too out of some ingrained sense of guilt. When he ran back to Chanyeol’s side, who was cackling as he recorded their proof on his phone, he chucked his mustard-stained napkin at Chanyeol’s head in embarrassment.

“Just for that, you’re doing the next one,” Jongdae threatened.

Chanyeol shrugged and acquiesced before looking down to spread out their map. “Sure. What’s—” He blanched.

At the very least, Chanyeol was a brilliant actor. He pulled off the whole Confused Tourist Who Didn’t Know Better Than To Not Use Flash In A Museum look very well.

By the time they looped back and made it to Rockefeller Center, Jongdae was ready to dissolve into the floor, ankles aching from a whole day of running around the city to fulfill Chanyeol’s childish need to win. He followed Chanyeol to a quieter spot near a fountain and slumped into a bench. Their map was crumpled by now, worn with the creases they’d folded into the paper in their rush, but Chanyeol smoothed it out on the baked concrete and squinted down at it all the same.

“This last one is easy,” he remarked in glee, pointing a finger to the final line of Baekhyun’s pen-inked handwriting. “We’re definitely going to win this.”

“Great,” Jongdae said without much enthusiasm. “What is it?”

“Take a picture of yourselves using your powers in Rockefeller Center’s plaza. Bonus points if nobody calls the police for public disturbance.”

Jongdae let out a half-incredulous laugh. New York’s laws on unlicensed superpower usage were looser than Seoul’s, sure, but they were still laws. “Baekhyunnie is terrible,” he muttered, getting up to dust off his shorts and squat beside Chanyeol. “Let’s get this over with.”

They stretched out their hands, and Chanyeol angled the phone until the enormous complex was obvious on the screen. He tapped Jongdae’s shoulder and Jongdae summoned his electricity. It came out crackling in a ball of blue energy over his palm. Chanyeol quietly cheered and flexed his own fingers, and his fire came to life, a blazing, incandescent red that reflected off the pearly water of the fountain pool in hazy bits of light.

The shutter went off three times. “Just in case,” Chanyeol said, and closed his fist.

His fire snuffed out. Jongdae’s electricity hastily followed. Then Chanyeol was collapsing to the ground and raising his arms in exhilarated victory, and Jongdae, for all his exhaustion, found himself smiling too.

Back at the hotel, they celebrated their surefire victory by cracking open the cans of beer in the mini bar. Baekhyun and Kyungsoo were nowhere to be found despite the rapid approach of night, and it put a satisfied curve to Chanyeol’s mouth as he scrolled through the day’s photos on his phone.

“To our win,” Jongdae said to him, offering his can.

Chanyeol looked up and clinked his own against Jongdae’s. “Amen.”

They drank in silence. It had been a while since Jongdae last drank - the weariness running through his head made his memory foggy, but it’d probably been back when his internship ended, and Baekhyun took him out to a barbecue restaurant to celebrate the start of his official career. Either way, Jongdae wasn’t too used to alcohol. Tipsiness clung to him like a sticky blanket in the silence of the evening.

Outside, though, dusk was already colouring the sky in oranges and golds, the exact shade of Chanyeol’s fire.

“All that running around made me almost forget,” Chanyeol said. He flopped backwards on Baekhyun’s hotel bed and blinked at Jongdae with solemn eyes. “You guys are gonna have to start packing soon. Your flight is tomorrow morning, right?”

Jongdae drained the last of his beer, then put the can down on the floor. “Yeah.”

“Man, I’ll be lonely here again. You’ll all be heading home.”

There was something about that sentence that felt a little strange. It took him a while to realize it was because Chanyeol had called Korea home. Jongdae squinted up at Chanyeol, who had an uncharacteristically complicated expression on his face, and decided not to ask.

Chanyeol had no such qualms about talking, though. “Listen, this might be weird, but do you…” he cleared his throat and shifted so he was sitting up on the bed. “Do you remember the day I left?”

Jongdae froze. “What?”

“The day I flew here. Do you remember it?”

“Which part?” Jongdae asked, just to make absolutely sure.

Chanyeol hesitated, then looked down at his hands and admitted, “The bus stop.”

And - well. What a weird question. What a stupid, useless, completely inane thing to ask. Did he remember the bus stop? In the silly part of Jongdae’s brain that was sectioned off for Chanyeol and Chanyeol only, he practically remembered nothing else. “What about it,” Jongdae said, only it came out sounding more like a plead then an inquiry.

Chanyeol licked his lips and met Jongdae’s eyes. “I - nothing. Forget it.”

“No, you can’t just say that and leave it,” Jongdae protested. In a moment of strength - or maybe weakness - he pushed himself up to stare right into Chanyeol’s face. “What about the bus stop?”

“It’s just… we haven’t talked about it, so…”

An astute observation, Jongdae thought. “Do you want to talk about it?”

That made Chanyeol’s gaze flicker, more nervous than surprised. Barely surprised at all, actually. His eyes slid down from Jongdae’s own and came to a stop somewhere lower. Night was dripping over the clouds outside, and the bare few centimeters between them should’ve made things tense, but Chanyeol…

Chanyeol looked like he wanted to close the gap.

The sudden certainty of it made Jongdae’s head spin. It was enough to convince him to shift up, nearer. “Because,” he continued, not even intending the way his voice went low and soft, “I don’t know if I want to.”

“Okay,” Chanyeol said, and then he kissed him.

The heat rose. Tension built, thick and heavy. It strung along Jongdae’s limbs and snapped in the air like lightning.

Chanyeol’s mouth was soft and warm and everything, everything Jongdae had tried so hard not to think about for the past three years, except it was all for naught because his mind was clouding with it now, stupid with helpless, nostalgic want. He pushed himself closer and Chanyeol pulled him in by the shoulder. His lips moved against Jongdae’s, more sure by the millisecond. Fingers came up to brush Jongdae’s cheek.

And really, Jongdae should’ve been smart enough to realize how much of an idiotic move this was - reckless, like hurling himself off a cliff and hoping he’d land on his feet. Except he’d never even been the type to take calculated risks. He’d never been the type to risk things at all. Yet here he was now, making noises in his throat as Chanyeol hauled him in like he was dying for it, until Jongdae somehow ended up on the bed and Chanyeol rolled him over and stared.

His eyes were smouldering. Every single fire-related cliche in the world ran through Jongdae’s head before he settled on this: maybe he was the flame, this time around, and Chanyeol the matchstick.

“You’re okay with this,” Chanyeol said, soft.

It was half question and half observation. Jongdae caught his breath. “Yeah,” he said back.

“So this is alright?” Chanyeol leaned down and trailed that infuriating mouth along Jongdae’s neck, and Jongdae’s blood turned to lava. His fingers seared into Jongdae’s waist. He pressed his thigh between Jongdae’s legs, and Jongdae almost choked on a moan, mind fizzling into static. “I can do this?”

There was still so much uncertainty in Chanyeol’s voice, blanketed beneath all the desire. Jongdae gripped his hands around the back of Chanyeol’s neck and pulled him in.

“Do your worst,” he whispered, then kissed him again.

Whatever followed after this would be a problem for morning-Jongdae. Right then, evening-Jongdae didn’t want to resist. Evening-Jongdae liked the way Chanyeol looked above him, flushed with intensity, eyes liquid-dark but so, so soft. This version of Chanyeol was a dangerous thing SM had never taught him how to save himself from, and at the end of the day Jongdae was only human, after all; too vulnerable to the spark.

Chanyeol tasted like heat and touched like wildfire. Evening-Jongdae was wood and paper and coal, and he didn’t want to think.

Morning-Jongdae was just an idiot.

He got the message just as the plane was preparing to take off. It’d come after a whole morning of enduring Baekhyun’s confused glances and Kyungsoo’s furrowed brows, a breakfast where he and Chanyeol had done their best to avoid each other’s gazes, and a twenty-minute taxi ride that might have been filled with the most loaded silence of Jongdae’s life.

[to: jongdae] [from: chanyeol]

we’re still OK, right?

Jongdae stared at the screen until a flight attendant leaned over to remind him to power off his devices. Then he slipped his phone into his pocket, resolved to think about a reply later, and tried to fall asleep.

(Two years later, he was still thinking - all the way up until the next message had come.)

 

☆☆☆

 

PRESENT-DAY: SM ACADEMY, FOURTH FLOOR HALLS

[to: jongdae] [from: chanyeol]

we’re still on for today?

[to: chanyeol] [from: jongdae]

yeah ofc

Chanyeol’s standing right outside his office when Jongdae pushes the door open. It startles him into an extremely unmanly yelp, nearly dropping the stack of textbooks in his arms before Chanyeol steadies him by the shoulders.

“Sorry,” Chanyeol says sheepishly. “Are you okay?”

There’s a strange sense of deja vu running through Jongdae’s mind when he looks up, but he brushes it off. “Yeah. No biggie. My reflexes have just gotten a bit rusty, is all.”

“Must be a side effect of the old age,” Chanyeol teases, reaching out to help take half of the textbooks.

Jongdae aims a kick at Chanyeol’s ankle even as he smiles in thanks. “You’re only two months younger than me, jerk.”

He still isn’t sure what Chanyeol wants to talk about, or where he’s going to take Jongdae at all, but for now Chanyeol seems content to follow Jongdae to SM’s main office and nod along as he hastily points out new classrooms. It’s a good thing Jongdae leaves his own office so late. The halls are completely empty as he walks through them, no straggling students or over-enthusiastic trainees to freak out at the sight of Korea’s number one hero helping a teacher carry textbooks. That, at least, is something Jongdae can count on.

The one exception is Yuri, who looks up as Jongdae hip-checks the office door open and almost chokes on her tea. “Hello,” she says weakly, eyes darting between Jongdae and Chanyeol.

Jongdae gives his fellow teacher a sheepish grin. “Hi. I’m just here to drop off the extra third-year textbooks.”

“Of course.” Yuri’s polite enough to just cough. “There should be some space in the cabinet over there.”

So Jongdae makes his way through the maze of empty cubicles, feeling Yuri’s gaze on his back as he and Chanyeol load the textbooks on the shelves. Chanyeol dips his head in a respectful bow when they walk back to the entrance, and Yuri nods back in a flustered daze, eyes not leaving them even as Jongdae offers her a wave and shuts the door again.

“You know, you’ve really got to stop stealing the hearts of everyone around me,” he jokes, and Chanyeol lets out an embarrassed laugh. “Come on, dude. Weren’t my students enough already?”

Chanyeol shakes his head, bangs flopping over his forehead. “I plead not guilty. Your students love you.”

“You should’ve seen the way they talked about you after you left.”

“You should’ve seen how they looked at you. I know admiration when I see it, okay? They might like me because of my fame or power or whatever, but I’d never take your spot in their hearts.”

It’s unexpectedly heartfelt, and Jongdae has no idea what to say to that. He just looks up at Chanyeol, so earnest and genuine, and feels something in his chest fill up against his will. It’s the whole “person behind the persona” deal again; Firestorm is kind and determined and as warm as sun, but Park Chanyeol is infinitely softer in his ways and it catches in Jongdae’s too-mushy heart. This can’t be good for his health.

“I’m glad to hear it,” he manages to say, then clears his throat. “Anyways, weren’t you supposed to sweep me away on a not-date?”

Chanyeol huffs out a laugh again. “Only if you’re ready.”

“Of course I’m ready. You are too, right? Don’t tell me you don’t even have a spot planned out for us yet.”

That makes Chanyeol hum in thought, and he tilts his head at Jongdae, one corner of his mouth curving up in a small, private smile just for him. “I actually do have a place in mind,” he says, all cryptic. “For old times’ sake.”

Somehow, the same electronic keypad keeping guard to SM’s roof is still perfectly intact even after all these years. It doesn’t even look that worse for wear despite all the hands that must’ve touched it since. The halls are dead silent up here, almost cut off from the rest of the academy, and despite himself, a rush of sentiment goes through Jongdae’s system like water.

Jongdae reaches into his pocket to pull his staff card out, but he’s stopped with a hand on his shoulder. “Hey,” Chanyeol says, frowning in mock disapproval. “I was hoping you’d do it the usual way. You know, like the good old days.”

Jongdae bites down on a smile. He stows the card away again and places his hand on the device. “For the record, if I somehow get marked down for this, you’ll have to bail me out.”

“Obviously.”

The electricity comes as easily as ever, zipping through Jongdae’s fingers at the slightest will. Energy feeds into the keypad. There’s an almost inaudible crackle, then the system clicks and the door unlocks. Jongdae pushes it open and gestures to the roof with a grand flourish.

Chanyeol gives him a round of applause. “After you,” he says, and nudges Jongdae’s arm.

It’s late, late afternoon, maybe just minutes away from a famous June sunset. Fingers of warm light dapple the clouds as Jongdae comes out onto the place he practically worshipped as a teenager. The roof hasn’t changed much, not that he’d expect roofs to change - it’s still surrounded by a thin metal-link fence, concrete ground spotless thanks to SM’s hardworking staff members. Jongdae walks over to the nearest corner and breathes in the cool air.

The nostalgic rush in his veins comes back full-force. “I wouldn’t have pinned you as the type to be so sentimental,” he says to Chanyeol, voice a little too quiet.

“Well, now you know.” Chanyeol steps up beside him and shrugs. “I missed this place. Even with all the stress it caused teenager me back then, it’s nice to stand here again.”

Jongdae makes a noise of agreement. They stand there for a while, letting the wind tousle their hair. Seoul sprawls out beneath their eyes in a cement-and-brick jungle, but from here the streets are peaceful and soundless.

“So,” Jongdae eventually says, breaking the silence. He turns towards Chanyeol. “You… wanted to come up here to talk?”

Chanyeol hesitates. “I just wanted to talk, period. Anywhere would’ve been okay with me.”

“I’m listening.”

“Okay. Firstly… thanks for still being my friend.”

Jongdae jerks in surprise. Whatever he was expecting, that was definitely somewhere near the bottom of the list. “What are you talking about?”

“I didn’t mean it in a bad way! Just… it was nice to come back after so long and still feel just as welcome as always.” Chanyeol shrugs, looking a bit meek. “Baekhyun, too. I guess I was just worried things had changed too much, but you guys didn’t falter at all.”

“Of course we didn’t,” Jongdae protests, feeling more than a little affronted. “We’re your best friends! Don’t thank us for something like that.”

“Still, though—”

Jongdae barrels on. “Besides, I don’t think I handled it anywhere as well as Baekhyunnie. I was so awkward. You deserve better.”

That makes Chanyeol’s lips turn up in a wry grin. “I wasn’t much better myself, you know,” he says. “But it’s okay. I guess it couldn’t be helped for us.”

The unspoken meaning behind the us is so clear. Jongdae ducks his head and tries not to flush. Sure, he’s come to terms with the bumps in their friendship - namely, New York and the bus stop - but that doesn’t mean it can’t still catch him off guard when Chanyeol acknowledges it so simply. “Yeah,” he mumbles. “That’s true.”

“So thanks for that. And, um. I’m sorry.”

Jongdae sort of feels like he’s getting whiplash. “You’re sorry?”

“Yeah. For making things that way, because of what I did when I left and when you came to visit.”

“You can say you kissed me,” Jongdae says abruptly. Chanyeol blinks at him, and he gives a stiff shrug. “I mean, it’s not like it’s a taboo subject.” Only it kind of is, the way they’ve skirted around it.

Chanyeol takes in a breath. “But I’m not sorry for kissing you. I don’t regret it. I regret the way I went about it.”

Jongdae stares at him, suddenly speechless. Under the dusky sky, Chanyeol’s hair is disheveled from the wind, and the way he’s looking at Jongdae brings him right back to two years ago in that cursed hotel room. He thinks he knows what Chanyeol means - he knows he knows what Chanyeol means. But this is unexpected and confusing, and Jongdae—

Doesn’t want to risk messing anything up again. It’s the last thing he wants to do.

“I wasn’t careful enough,” Chanyeol says mournfully, frowning at himself a little. “I think I had this grand vision in my head, but all I ended up doing was being impulsive again and it ruined things. And then in New York I made it worse.”

“I think we both had an equal part in that,” Jongdae points out, voice weak.

“Well, maybe. But I was a dumb kid. We were both dumb kids, no offence, but I was a dumb kid who liked one of my best friends and didn’t know how to deal with it.”

All the air in Jongdae’s lungs whooshes out of him in a laugh. Chanyeol stares at him, pink-cheeked and a little put out, but Jongdae just raises a hand to his mouth in a vain attempt to stifle it. “Sorry,” he says, when he’s done and can smile more steadily. “It’s just… it’s not like you were alone in that either.”

Chanyeol’s mouth quirks up. “I wasn’t?”

“Definitely not.”

“Good, then. Because otherwise it would’ve been embarrassing if I dragged you all the way up here for a failed confession like some movie scene.”

Jongdae can’t help it: he laughs again, light and way too free. Chanyeol’s looking at him again in that pleased way of his, the expression he used to wear whenever he made a good joke or answered a question in class. Jongdae finds himself feeling lucky that he still remembers it. “You’re nothing but a walking cliche, Park Chanyeol,” he tells him, pretending to sigh and put a hand to his forehead. “It’s gross.” It isn’t at all.

Chanyeol grins. “Hey, you win some, you lose some. I’ll take it if I can be a superhero.”

“Humble as ever,” Jongdae teases. Then he cocks his head. “You know, Baekhyun told me to ask you why you came back.”

That makes Chanyeol pause. He leans against the metal fence and gazes out at Seoul’s horizon. “Of course he did,” he says, sounding fond even as he gives an exasperated shake of his head. “It’s not anything too special, even if Baekhyunnie thinks otherwise. I didn’t have any grand, life-changing reasons behind my return, you know.”

“So what’s your not-so-grand reason?”

“Honestly?” Chanyeol shrugs. “I was telling the truth during our phone call. I missed it here. I liked New York, but one day I woke up and realized I couldn’t really see myself living there for the rest of my life, even though it was the biggest part of my pro work. That city has more than enough heroes as is, so I figured I wouldn’t be the greatest loss my agency’s ever had.” Here, he smiles, every bit the proud trainee Jongdae remembers from years ago. “I might be able to help even more people here, anyways. America was great, but…”

Jongdae pokes him in the shoulder. “But?”

“But it wasn’t home,” Chanyeol says. “Korea is. Nanugi is. You and Baekhyun are, and Kyungsoo, and even SM in some weird way since I owe my youth to it. I wasn’t ready to let any of that go, so—” He rubs at his neck and meets Jongdae’s gaze again, all determination. “Well, you know what they say about home being where the heart is.”

“So your heart was in Seoul,” Jongdae says thoughtfully. “Not New York.”

It sounds so cheesy as soon as the words leave his mouth, but to his credit, Chanyeol doesn’t laugh - his smile just goes softer, more of a secret. “And you call me a cliche. But yeah, that’s it.”

“And your plans from now on? You’ll keep being a superhero?”

“As long as my city needs me,” Chanyeol answers, without missing a beat. Then he reaches out to pinch Jongdae’s cheek. “Same as you, right? I’m not unique just because I’m a pro hero. You’ll keep teaching for as long as your students need you too.”

The pinch is probably meant to be teasing, but Chanyeol ruins it by not pulling away and just letting his hand linger there, a gentle warmth. Jongdae’s heart does a very teenage thump-thump in his chest. He stares into Chanyeol’s face and makes a split-second decision; he leans up and presses their mouths together, just a soft kiss. Not quite enough to sink into yet.

When he pulls away, Chanyeol’s expression is flustered and charmed in the best way. He doesn’t say anything and just looks at Jongdae, helpless.

Jongdae can’t quite manage to stop a giddy laugh from bubbling up in his chest. “What, cat got your tongue?”

“No,” Chanyeol protests. Then he straightens. “But that means we’re good, right?”

“No, Chanyeol, I kissed you because I was planning on rejecting you.”

Chanyeol huffs. “Oh, ha ha. Well, if you’re done fulfilling your daily quota of sarcasm, I think we can move on now.” He hesitates for the slightest second before offering Jongdae his hand, opening it palm-up before Jongdae’s heart. “Let’s start over. I’m Firestorm, but you know me as Park Chanyeol.”

Under the warm sky, surrounded by even warmer wind, Chanyeol is something pulled straight out of a romantic drama. His hair ruffles around his forehead in soft waves. The sunset is closer, now, a little more gold, a little more brilliant, and Jongdae lets himself fall into it with a daredevil’s kind of trust.

He feels like a thunderstorm. He feels like a stupid young boy with lightning in his veins, lying down at the most important exam of his life and staring into the sun.

“I’m Jongdae,” he says, and takes Chanyeol’s hand. “Just Jongdae.”

 

☆☆☆

 

BONUS: SM ACADEMY, ROOFTOP

For someone who gets along with teenagers so well, Sehun sure doesn’t have the same type of mindset. “I feel like this is a bad idea,” he says for what must be the third time already, squinting down at the cloth that was serving as a makeshift picnic blanket. “Are you sure we’re allowed to be up here?”

Jongdae dumps the snacks in his arms down on the ground. “Why not? We used to come here all the time when we were students.”

“Yeah, hyung, but that was like, during the stone age. The rules might’ve changed since then.”

Baekhyun tsks. “Kids these days have no spirit at all,” he says, putting down his cans of beer alongside Jongdae’s contributions. “Don’t you have any dangerous, rebellious urges? What a bore.”

“I’m not a kid,” Sehun protests.

“Well, I’m not an ancient caveman, either, so I guess we’re even.”

They’re on SM’s rooftop again, because for some reason Jongdae always finds himself back here during the important events of his life. This time, it’s a mini celebration for Sehun - the young assistant’s internship period is up, which means that he’s on track to become a full-fledged teacher when the next school year comes. Jongdae’s already been in talks with Junmyeon to have Sehun take over a couple of his classes. His students get attached easily, after all, and he’s not the type to take their designated Cool Sunbae™ away from them.

The picnic was Baekhyun’s idea. He got torn between excitement and indignance the moment he heard from Jongdae about his and Chanyeol’s talk on the roof. “That’s our place!” he said, lips tugging into a pout. “I can’t believe you guys revisited it without me. Even if it was for your grand romantic reunion, or whatever.”

“We did that, like, all throughout third year while you were busy with your work placement,” Jongdae pointed out.

Baekhyun waved a hand and sighed. “Doesn’t matter. The point still stands. I don’t suppose you have any new excuses for us to go up there, do you?”

“Well,” Jongdae began. “I was thinking of treating Sehun to something once his internship ends.”

And apparently that was all Baekhyun needed to hear, because his eyes lit up and he grinned. “Gotcha,” he said, and pulled out his phone.

Which is the whole reason they’re here now, watching Chanyeol and Sehun carefully split up a pack of wasabi peas as the sun dips below the horizon. It’s a little cliche, only going onto the roof for a sunset, but Baekhyun had an agency-wide meeting and Chanyeol had his usual pro duties to tend to, so Jongdae guesses it couldn’t be helped. The weather is nice today, though. The beginnings of summer make their presence known in the form of cicada chirps and beads of sweat on Jongdae’s brow.

Baekhyun bumps him in the shoulder. “For your sweet tooth,” he says, offering Jongdae a square of chocolate.

Jongdae takes it with a half-hearted huff. “Thanks.”

“Man, being here really takes me back.” Baekhyun shields a hand over his eyes and squints at the skyline. “You know, I still miss SM sometimes, even if it was probably the hardest few years of my life so far. It sounds weird, but I do.”

“I get it,” Jongdae says. “It’s nice to look back at how far we’ve come, though.”

“Wow, you can really tell you’re a teacher when you say things like that.”

It’s a shame that so many years of being Jongdae’s friend has trained Baekhyun to avoid any swipes of his hand. His best friend just laughs, not intimidated in the least. “Violent,” he teases, pushing his dark bangs out of his eyes, then pauses. “But you’re not wrong. I’ve said this before, but I think all of us are in a good place now.”

“Yeah, definitely,” Jongdae agrees. He looks across the mountain of snacks between them and catches Chanyeol’s gaze. “Better than good, I think.”

“How sappy,” Baekhyun says, but he’s smiling.

They end up dividing the rest of the snacks to calculated perfection, trading and bargaining between the four of them for their favourites. Baekhyun jumps into a story about Jongin’s latest teleporting mishap at his agency, and it ends with Chanyeol wheezing in laughter, leaning over to balance himself on Jongdae’s arm while he recovers. Sehun joins in with his own internship tales, as easy and familiar as if he’s been friends with them for ages, and Baekhyun playfully argues with him over who has the more entertaining job, and it’s… nice, Jongdae thinks. It’s really nice.

This - sitting on SM’s roof even ten years later, as an academy teacher instead of a superhero - might not be what he envisioned when he was younger, but he doesn’t feel like he’s lost at all. Fourteen-year-old-him will just have to deal.

Halfway through his can of beer, Sehun looks up at them again. “Are you one hundred percent sure we can stay here for this long?” he asks. His cheeks are already ruddy. “I don’t want to get chewed out before I even become a teacher.”

“It’s fine,” Chanyeol says. “We never got caught the first few hundred times.”

“And even if we’re caught, what are they going to do, anyway?” Jongdae waves a hand. The evening is cooler now, and it puts a pleasant lull in his mind, enough for him to stifle a yawn. “I’m a teacher here. I’m a figure of authority.” His mouth quirks, and he looks at Chanyeol and can’t resist adding, “Plus, I’m Firestorm’s boyfriend.”

Baekhyun shakes his head good-naturedly. Sehun snorts out a laugh.

Chanyeol, on the other hand, brushes his fingers over Jongdae’s wrist. “True. But you’re more Park Chanyeol’s boyfriend.”

Same thing, Jongdae almost says. Except then he realizes that it isn’t, not really. Firestorm is Firestorm, the hero with a silhouette bright enough to burn up Seoul’s entire skyline, and Chanyeol is just Chanyeol - stupid, reckless, ridiculously endearing Chanyeol, the Chanyeol who confessed to him on a roof and still kisses like he’s trying to set Jongdae aflame. The Chanyeol smiling at him now, soft and happy and maybe a little nervous.

Jongdae isn’t as nervous. He slips his hand into Chanyeol’s and squeezes. “I like the sound of that.”

“Hey,” Baekhyun interjects, trying his best to sound affronted even though he’s grinning. “You’re Black Light’s best friend too. That has to count for something, right?”

“Sure. It counts for free merch and weekly chances to meet Mad Ice right in his own agency.”

Baekhyun squawks and throws his chocolate wrapper at Jongdae’s head. “I always knew you liked Minseok hyung better than me, Kim Jongdae!” he accuses, all fake-betrayed, and Jongdae bursts into laughter, ducking back as Baekhyun leans over and tries to mess up his hair. The sheer ridiculousness of the scene gets Chanyeol laughing, too, and then Sehun joins in, all worries about their compromising location forgotten.

Overhead, Seoul’s sky has darkened into night - the peace is only broken up by the shenanigans of the four superpowered adults on the roof. Jongdae buries his face into Chanyeol’s shoulder and keeps laughing. He feels warm, and content, and a little like he’s coming home.

So maybe he is a hopeless cliche, after all. Maybe they both are. Jongdae breathes in the scent of summer and thinks he doesn’t really mind.