The autumn air is cool and crisp, and Taehyung jumps excitedly in his new ninja costume. His mother laughs, trying to still her son as she finishes the last touches of the costume.
After tying a white cloth belt around Taehyung's waist, she stands up, adjusting her own red belt around her waist. "You ready?"
Taehyung nods enthusiastically, a bag clutched tightly in his fist. His mother's eyes flick behind him for a moment before going back to Taehyung, her smile wide. Jolting when hands lift him into the air, Taehyung gasps loudly, his heart calming when he turns to see his father's grinning face. His small fists hit his father's shoulder, who in turn exaggerates his pain, but he's giggling when apologies are given.
"Okay kiddo, let's go and get some candy!" Taehyung grins excitedly, grabbing his mother's and his father's hands in each of his.
They make their way around the neighborhood and Taehyung's old pillowcase is filled with a good layer of sweets. His parents make a stop at a friend's house, chatting at the doorstep, and Taehyung sighs, wiggling his hand out of his father's grasp. He sits on the front lawn, palms pressed against cheeks, blowing raspberries at the green grass.
A butterfly catches his eye, a stray monarch left behind from the giant migration clouds. Its tawny colors almost reflect the slowly sinking sun and Taehyung stands, fixated at the beat of the wings. He follows the butterfly, an almost giddy feeling spreading over his chest as his hand reaches out to grab the insect and his finger grazes a wing.
After several minutes, Taehyung stops, huffing out an indignant breath, glaring at the butterfly. As if in apology, the butterfly rests gently on Taehyung's right arm crossed over his chest. Taehyung marvels at the creature, his pout forming into an awed expression as he brings his arm closer to his face. He slowly brings his pointer finger up, carefully inching it closer and closer to the butterfly. It crawls over to the tip of Taehyung's finger and he coos, his eyes widening. He breathes out a bit too harshly and the butterfly startles, wings beating, picking up speed. Taehyung whines, reaching out, but the butterfly is gone, lost in the tangle of trees on the lawn ahead.
Trees? Taehyung looks around, finally aware of his surroundings, and realizes he has no idea where he is.
"Mommy!" he shouts. "Daddy!" No one answers. The Halloween decorations on the nearby houses that he used to play with in the shops now seem to mock and stare at him, and tears well up in his eyes.
He sits on the grass under him, his head in his hands as hot tears slip down his cheeks. Taehyung shakes his head, burrowing further into his hands. A tap on his shoulder makes him yelp in surprise, his body jerking forward. A squeaky laugh his heard above him and Taehyung looks up, a halo of sunlight outlining the other. The boy steps to the side, and Taehyung can see the faded white angel costume the other is wearing. Brown, shaggy hair falls into the boy's eyes as he gives a large, toothy grin.
"What's your name?" the boy asks, and Taehyung stands, pouting when he sees he's shorter than the other.
"I'm Taehyung. Who are you?"
"Seokjin." Seokjin grins even wider, eyes curving up into small crescents. Taehyung huffs, tiptoeing on his light-up sneakers to be taller. "How old are you?"
"Eight," Taehyung answers, almost proudly. "How old are you?"
Seokjin shrugs, looking at Taehyung curiously. "Were you crying?"
Taehyung rubs at the dried tear tracks on his cheeks. "Maybe."
Seokjin looks around then turns back to Taehyung. "I've never seen you before. Are you lost?"
Taehyung tries really hard to keep his voice from wobbling and tears from falling, but he fails. "I can't find my mommy and daddy."
Seokjin gasps softly, reaching out to pet Taehyung's head, smoothing his hand over the latter's silky, brown hair. Taehyung's crying turns vocal and Seokjin steps forward to pull him into a hug, letting salty tears soak into his white linen costume.
"Please don't cry, Taehyung! Your parents will find you, I'm one hundred percent sure. Let's just stay here, okay?" Seokjin shifts both of them, guiding Taehyung to take a seat on the overgrown lawn next to him.
Seokjin puts Taehyung's head on his shoulder. "Please don't cry, he's not going to like that," Seokjin murmurs quietly. Taehyung raises his head in confusion but Seokjin pulls him down again. "What are things that make you happy?"
"I- um, I like puppies and ice cream and big, fluffy clouds and- and," Taehyung sits up, his hands clasping together, tears still fresh on his cheeks, "popping bubbles! What do you like, Seokjin?"
"Me?" The other jerks back in surprise. "Well, I like all the things you like, Taehyung!"
"Really?" Taehyung's eyes widen in excitement. "Maybe one day we can go to the park and play pirates!"
Seokjin nods, smiling widely. Faint shouting can be heard down the street and he turns towards the noise, head twisting away from Taehyung. Taehyung's eyes focus on the thick, black satin ribbon neatly tied in a small bow around Seokjin's neck and his eyebrows furrow; he doesn't remember seeing it before. He's just about to ask about it when Seokjin points towards the noise at two frantic, shouting adults.
"Are those your parents?"
Taehyung's eyes widen as he quickly nods, standing up and running towards them. His mother spots him and loudly gasps, opening her arms wide to pull Taehyung in close.
"I'm so sorry, mommy," Taehyung cries, hugging her tight as his father hugs both of them from behind.
"Oh sweetie, never do that again, okay?" Taehyung nods into her shoulder and she sighs. "We're so glad you're okay."
Taehyung pulls away to glance at the house behind them as they start walking in the opposite direction, his brows furrowing when he doesn't catch a glimpse of the boy in the angel costume.
Back in his neighborhood Taehyung swears he catches sight of Seokjin again but when he hurries to tap the shoulder of the angel, he already knows it isn't him. His hand brushes against long, brown hair and the other is shorter than him. Instead, his next door neighbor and friend, Seunghee, turns around, a smile blooming on her face when she sees him.
"Where did you go? Just ‘cause you're dressed as a ninja doesn't mean you can actually disappear." Taehyung sticks out his tongue and she shoves him lightly. Seunghee tugs him by the wrist towards a small group of his classmates and he follows easily.
Days, months, years pass until it's twenty years later and Taehyung forgets all about the boy in the angel costume.
Taehyung sits at the kitchen island, sighing at the neatly stapled stack of papers in front of him, thumbing through the first few pages. He hadn't realized divorce would be this complicated, and he can tell Seunghee hadn't either as she sends the packet a poorly hidden glare, setting down a steaming mug of tea next to Taehyung. Her thermos is already full of coffee, a grey pantsuit her choice of clothing today. As she reaches behind her to tie her hair up, clip held between her lips, Taehyung says wistfully, "You're so beautiful."
Her face scrunches up and she grabs the clip from her mouth, thumping him lightly on the head. "We aren't dating anymore, stop trying to flatter me."
"I can't compliment my best friend?" She rolls her eyes and pats the papers in front of him.
"Read these, okay? And don't forget that today you're bringing Baek-"
A little boy, only six years old, comes running down the hallway, barreling straight into Seunghee's legs. "Mommy, do you really have to go? Why can't we all go trick-or-treating together like last time?"
She laughs, pinning the clip in place before bending down to her son's height. "Sorry sweetie, mommy's boss is a big meanie who wants me to work on Halloween night. But daddy's going to bring you, okay?"
Taehyung steps over to pick up Baekhyun, grinning when his son squeals in delight. "We're going to grandparents' today! Aren't you excited?"
Baekhyun nods enthusiastically but he sends a pout in Seunghee's direction. She responds with a quick peck on his pouty lips and reaches up to kiss Taehyung on the cheek. "Mommy's got to go or else she'll be late. Have fun and listen to your father, okay?"
Baekhyun hums in affirmation as she leaves, the door clicking shut behind her. He wiggles in Taehyung's grip, finding a comfortable spot. "Can I wear my costume right now?"
Taehyung shakes his head, carrying Baekhyun into his room to change him out of his pyjamas. "It's so early! You don't want to dirty your Captain America costume by accident. Come on, grandpa's making chicken and mushroom soup for us today."
After Baekhyun is dressed and cleaned up, their matching Captain America and Iron Man costumes folded neatly in a bag, they head off to Taehyung's parents' house. His parents greet them with wide hugs and their usual teasing comments, touching on Baekhyun's growth and Taehyung's new hair color, a soft copper this time.
Baekhyun runs off into the playroom, his grandfather in tow, and Taehyung's mother sits down next to him, taking his hand.
"How's it going?" Taehyung stares down at his fingernails, thinking over his answer.
"I'm a bit scared. Not about the actual split, because both Seunghee and I knew we would be better off as friends, but the aftermath. There's so much paperwork and money and troubles involved. She's brought up just staying together because it's easier that way, but," Taehyung shakes his head, "she deserves to find someone that loves her."
His mother nods. "You know your father and I will help in any way we can. We can even watch over Baekhyun for a couple of days while you two work this out together."
Taehyung can hear his son's loud laughter ring from the room over. "I'm scared the most about what will happen to Baekhyun."
His mother stays silent and Taehyung sits, his thoughts swirling, spiraling down his mind. Before he knows it, Baekhyun is pulling at his sleeve, asking if they can go visit Seunghee's mom. Taehyung waves a quick goodbye to his parents before grabbing Baekhyun's hand and walking over to the house to the left of his parents'. Baekhyun excitedly knocks on the door and Seunghee's mother greets them warmly. Guilt settles in the pit of Taehyung's stomach but he smiles anyway, helping his son up the stairs into the house.
Baekhyun's grandma sneaks him some homemade treats she made for Halloween and he snacks happily, ignoring Taehyung's empty protests. "Where's mommy?"
Baekhyun's smile drops into a cute pout and his grandma coos, patting his hair. "Mommy has to go to work." He perks up when he glances over at Taehyung, though. "But I'm going to dress up as Captain America with daddy!"
"Oh! Superheroes, how cute." Baekhyun grins, wiggling in his seat.
"It was my idea! Daddy wanted to be boring old ninjas but mommy said ninjas are lame and superheroes are cool."
"Ah," Seunghee's mother nods, sending Taehyung a smile. "Well, I can't keep you waiting, now can I? Take lots of pictures for your old grandma here, okay?"
Baekhyun squirms in his seat. He turns to Taehyung, a pout in his lips. "Daddy, can I change into my costume now?"
Taehyung checks the time and sighs, but the smile blooming on his face has Baekhyun excitedly running up to his father. Taehyung's son waves goodbye and his grandmother ushers money and snacks into Baekhyun's hands despite Taehyung's fruitless protests.
"We'll visit again soon," Taehyung promises as she walks them over to the front door. "And Seunghee will come along, too."
She just smiles, patting Taehyung on the cheek before hugging him.
Back at his old home, Baekhyun jumps excitedly around the bag Taehyung had brought with him. Taehyung bribes his son to have a quick dinner with his grandparents before they change into their costumes. Taehyung's parents are the first to give them candy, dropping small pieces of chocolate into their bags.
They make their way around the neighborhood, and Taehyung is disappointed to see that he doesn't recognize the neighbors. Still, they go on, and many of the new neighbors are friendly, complimenting their costumes and passing more sweets to Baekhyun with a smile.
When they reach the second to last house on the street, Taehyung is surprised to see one of his elementary school friends open the door.
"Namjoon?" The said man looks up and his eyes light up in recognition.
"Tae! I haven't seen you in years!"
"Oh, wow. Still living with your parents, huh?" Taehyung teases. Namjoon scoffs.
"I'm being a dutiful son and taking care of both my parents and my family."
"Family, eh? Thanks for the wedding invitation."
Namjoon scratches the back of his neck and the conversation drifts into an uncomfortable silence, Taehyung regretting his attempt to joke around. The other mutters, "I haven't spoken to you since high school, though," and the silence slinks back into place.
Taehyung clears his throat. "Well congratulations. It's good-"
He's cut off by a little boy running up to Namjoon, tugging on the sleeve of his shirt.
"Papa," he says, and Namjoon looks down, smiling. "Where did you put my costume? It's not in my room."
"Ah, I think your mom went out to clean it. Try asking her."
He nods, glancing over at Taehyung. He waves and the boy steps behind Namjoon's leg. Namjoon laughs, coaxing him to the front.
"Tae, this is my son, Yoongi. He's six years old."
"Oh, Baekhyun here is six too!" Taehyung turns to his right, and his heart stops when he doesn't see his son. He glances behind him in panic, his eyes scanning the surrounding area and not finding his son. "Oh my god."
"Baekhyun!" shouts Taehyung, panic swelling within, turning back to Namjoon. "Did you see him wander off?"
Namjoon shakes his head but Taehyung is already looking in the opposite direction, stepping off of the other's porch and onto the sidewalk.
"Baekhyun!" he calls out again, and the lack of response sends another gunshot straight through his heart.
"I'm such an idiot, a failure," Taehyung mutters to himself. He hurries his steps, eyes constantly searching for a bright blue and red Captain America costume. He's near tears, horrible and morbid thoughts invading his mind, voice slightly hoarse from shouting.
Turning a bend, he's about to pull out his phone, 24-hour missing persons rule be damned, when his eyes catch Captain America's plastic shield on the lawn of the house at the end of the dead end street.
His pace quickens until he's basically sprinting, eyes locked on the costume's prop. Once Taehyung reaches the overgrown lawn, his breathing is labored, his heart rate kicked up two notches. He picks up the shield, hugging it to his chest.
"Baekhyun!" Taehyung shouts, eyes flicking for any movement.
A head pops out from behind a giant, ancient oak tree on his right and Taehyung lets out a relieved breath.
"Baek, come here." His son bounds over into Taehyung's outstretched arms. "Please, don't ever scare me again like that."
Baekhyun gasps. "Are you crying?" He puts his tiny hands on Taehyung's cheeks, rubbing and squishing his face.
"Don't walk off like that, okay Baek? I thought I always told you to never do that."
"But," Baekhyun squirms in Taehyung's embrace, picking at the paint on the shield. "You were talking to your friend and I saw a really pretty dragonfly."
Taehyung sighs, standing up while still holding his son, the Captain America shield stuck between them. "Come on, let’s go back to grandparents' house. Wasn't it scary to be all alone when it's so late?"
"Ah, I wasn't alone! I was playing hide and seek with Seokjinnie." Baekhyun pauses and the name prods at Taehyung's memory but he shakes off the feeling. "Daddy, do you know any angels that have a ribbon around their neck?"
Taehyung stops cold in his tracks. Memories flood his mind, of twenty years prior when he got lost. Looking around, he starts to faintly remember the houses in this neighborhood. His heart thuds nervously against his chest as he turns around, back to the house Baekhyun was at. Taehyung takes in a surprised gasp when he sees another boy's head appear from behind a dark oak tree.
Seokjin look exactly the same as when Taehyung met him twenty years ago. Same shaggy, brown hair, same faded white angel costume, same thick satin ribbon tied in a neat bow around Seokjin's neck.
Baekhyun doesn't sense Taehyung's unease and enthusiastically waves at Seokjin. The latter gives a small wave in response, but his eyes lock with Taehyung's and he smiles, almost apologetically.
Taehyung tightens his hold on Baekhyun, stating shakily, "We have to go, Baek." The smile drops from Seokjin's face when Taehyung abruptly turns back and hurries home.
At his parents' house, Taehyung has his mother help with Baekhyun's bath. He changes out of his costume and steps into the night, stray amounts of sunlight and giant street lamps illuminating his way. Calling up Namjoon, Taehyung reassures him that Baekhyun is okay and even manages to set up a day to get coffee with Namjoon. Pocketing his phone, he retraces his steps until he's back at the faintly familiar oak tree. He takes in a deep breath, walking up to the house and onto the porch. He raises his first to the wooden door, hesitating before knocking.
The door creaks open but Taehyung doesn't step inside. Instead, Seokjin peeks his head out, his face lighting up when he sees Taehyung.
"I knew it was you at the door!" Seokjin says excitedly. "Sit, sit." He motions towards the old bench on the porch.
Seokjin sits down first and his feet don't reach the ground, his muddy, bare feet swinging gently. He pats his thighs, grinning when Taehyung sits beside him.
"What- what are you?" Taehyung questions, heart racing from how impossible all of this feels.
"I'm an angel, silly!" Seokjin giggles, turning to face Taehyung. "You're the first to remember me!" He looks down, stretching out his toes. "No one ever remembers me but I remember everyone."
"You remember me?"
"Of course, Taehyungie! I've saved lots of boys and girls but I will always remember each and every one."
Taehyung pauses. "Are you really an angel?"
Seokjin shrugs. "I look like an angel, don't I? I don't want to call myself a ghost."
Taehyung sighs, looking out into the dark night. "Thank you. You've saved me and my son, Baekhyun."
"It's my job to save people. You don't have to say thank you," He dismisses, but Seokjin's smile widens, eyes turning into tiny crescents.
They sit in silence, the crisp autumn air running through Taehyung's hair. He closes his eyes, taking in a breath, the slight scuffing of Seokjin's feet on the wooden porch the only noise.
"I have to go back," Taehyung announces, breaking the silence. He looks over to Seokjin who looks back, smile small and eyes wide. "I promise I'll come back."
Seokjin grins, teeth showing. "I'll be here."
After driving back to his house, Baekhyun sleeping soundly in his room, Taehyung pulls open his laptop. His fingers hover over the keys, not sure what to search first. After a moment, he slowly types Seokjin into the search bar. He adds his hometown after the name, pausing before he hits the enter key.
His heart freezes at the first article his eyes fall on.
Tragic Death of Seokjin Kim: Serial Child Murderer Case of 1987
Taehyung clicks the link, bringing him to a case study of the murderer. He barely gets through the first paragraph explaining how the killer was first suspected when the door opens. Taehyung's head whips toward the noise and he lets out a relieved sigh when he sees it's only Seunghee.
She laughs when her eyes lock with Taehyung's. "You look like you've seen a ghost. Were the costumes this year really convincing?"
Taehyung just shakes his head, turning back to the article.
"You okay, Tae?" Seunghee walks over to where he is sitting, standing behind him and reading over his shoulder. "Why do you have this article pulled up?"
"It's nothing." He closes the lid on his laptop, turning his head to look at her. "Do you remember when I got lost on Halloween?"
"Oh, when we were little kids? That was such a long time ago, why do you ask?"
"Just revisiting old memories, I guess. Forget I asked."
"If you say so," she replies, but Taehyung can tell she knows something is bugging him. He's thankful she isn't pushing for more information. Seunghee wraps her arms around his shoulders, resting her chin on his head. "Don't stay up too late, okay? I'm going to bed early." She gives him one final look before pulling away and going down the hallway.
The next day, Taehyung doesn't have much time to think of Seokjin or his death. Instead, he has to focus on the paperwork stacked on his desk, reminding him of the real, tangible work he has to do and not waste his time on ghost tales and thirty year old murders.
Yet, he can't help but load the article onto his phone, reading more during his lunch break.
Seokjin Kim, only ten years old at the time, was regretfully killed during the police encounter with the suspect, Changsun Lee. The boy was held captive for two weeks before the police found them, and was held hostage after he had helped two other victims escape the killer's house. Jimin Park and Jungkook Jung were eight years old and six years old respectively, and were able to successfully escape the house.
When the police arrived-
Taehyung is jolted into reality when someone grabs his shoulder. One of his coworkers, Minho, grins at Taehyung's surprised expression and leans his hip on the desk.
"What are you reading so intently?"
Taehyung shrugs, pocketing his phone. "An old murder case."
Minho looks at him curiously. "Why? Have you been watching too much Criminal Minds?"
Taehyung laughs, but his mind stays on the ten year old boy. "Yeah, let's say that."
When Taehyung arrives home, it's past evening, the last rays of sunlight slowly dimming. He can hear Baekhyun and Seunghee's laughter from the bathroom, and loud splashing when he steps closer. He pops his head inside, grinning when Baekhyun accidentally splashes water outside the tub.
"Daddy, don't forget, you have to send grandma the Halloween pictures!"
"Of course, I'll do it right now." Taehyung steps into his room, changing into more comfortable clothing. After sending Seunghee's mother the photos he had taken, he turns back to the article.
When the police arrived, Changsun was near the main entrance of his house, holding Seokjin tight against him with a knife to his neck.
Taehyung flicks past the brief transcript of the actual encounter, stopping and slowly reading when the author begins to describe the events.
The police ordered Changsun to let Seokjin go and turn himself in, but he didn't. Even with all of the officers' guns cocked at him, he pressed the knife closer to Seokjin's neck, cutting deeply. The police shot the killer in the head, but it was too late. Seokjin bled out before the ambulance could arrive.
Taehyung sits back, heart thudding wildly in his chest. His mind keeps flashing to the Seokjin he met, the young, bright boy that kept him company during one of his most terrifying childhood moments.
He makes plans to visit Seokjin again the next day.
It's late, after he's gotten off from work and Baekhyun's tucked into bed, when he's able to go back to that house. Seunghee is curious but Taehyung won't answer directly and she lets the subject go.
When he reaches the house, Seokjin is already outside on the bench, waving happily when he catches sight of Taehyung.
"Do people ever wonder who you are when they see you?" Taehyung takes a seat next to the little boy.
"Nope! I can make myself seen to only the people I want to see me. Like right now, you're the only one that can see me."
There's a pause and Seokjin's feet kick against the underside of the bench, a quiet thudding.
Taehyung speaks up. "I- I know what happened to you."
The smile on Seokjin's face doesn't falter, but he does face away to look at his swinging legs. "Ah, so you know about Minnie and Kookie? I promised I would protect them," he looks up, and it suddenly hits Taehyung how long Seokjin must have spent here, stuck in the house where he died, "and I did."
"I'm sorry for what happened to you."
"Why?" Seokjin tilts his head, the satin ribbon around his neck glinting in the moonlight. "You had nothing to do with it. And anyway, now I get to protect all the lost boys and girls here, ones like you, Taehyungie."
"But I-" Taehyung stops, shakes his head, "where- where are you buried?"
"Oh." Seokjin picks at a thread on his costume. "I don't really remember. I haven't been able to go anywhere but around this house."
"I'll visit you," Taehyung promises. "I'll visit the physical you, to pay my respects."
Seokjin perks up at that. "Really? Oh, do you know Mario? Can you put a Mario toy where I am? It'll make me really happy if you do."
Taehyung smiles. "Of course." He pauses, looking over Seokjin. "Is there any way I can help you move onto... wherever?"
Seokjin shakes his head. "I promised to protect any kids who come around here, and I won't rest until there are no more boys and girls that come here."
"What a noble promise," Taehyung muses, and Seokjin smiles in response, cheeks pushed up and eyes forming crescents.
Several days later, on Taehyung's day off, he pulls up to a graveyard, a bag in hand. He searches around, having to look at each grave, as he could only find the address of Seokjin's gravesite and not the specific location. He spots it on the left side of the graveyard, the only rounded stone jutting from the ground compared to the flat, marble slates surrounding it.
Taehyung walks up to the gravestone, frowning when he reads the years engraved on it: 1977-1987. He reaches into his bag, pulling out the stuffed Mario plushie and leaning it on the stone.
"Thank you for protecting us."
Taehyung reaches into the bag again, pulling out a small bundle of hydrangeas and lilies, resting it against the gravestone.