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Fic Playlist (special faves marked with *)

 

 

 

Of all things, Baekhyun hadn’t expected to spend New Year’s Eve staring down at a grimy toilet in a convenience store bathroom. He’d expected to end up on his knees in front of one, perhaps – that was always a possibility on the booziest night of the year — but he wasn’t quite that drunk, at least not yet, and the toilet in front of him right now, well… it sounded like it was singing. There was no other way to put it, no way to convince himself that he wasn’t going completely nuts…. there was music coming out of the toilet, and that was that.

Baekhyun tapped his chin thoughtfully and began to mentally retrace his steps. His mind felt mostly clear, perhaps a little fuzzy still from the two-and-a-half beers and three cups of fruit punch he’d consumed at Mr. Kim’s New Year’s Eve party earlier, soaked up only by a single anaemic-looking cocktail wiener that looked more like a severed human thumb, half of which he’d discreetly spat out into a napkin when no one was watching. Still, even though he felt normal enough, there was always the possibility that someone might have slipped him something at some point during the night – maybe some jerk had spiked the punch, how was he to know? Perhaps he was passed out somewhere right now, and this was all a product of his imagination, and he’d soon wake up as a fully sentient but disembodied brain suspended in a pink fluid inside a jar, held captive on a shelf in some weirdo’s secret laboratory — sort of like that Steve Martin movie he’d watched once while he was bored and stoned. His imagination often ran away with him whenever he was a little drunk, which Baekhyun had always considered both a blessing and a curse. Right now, it was definitely a curse.

But even after wracking his brain, he couldn’t recall anything untoward occurring at the party. As usual, it had been an extravagant affair. Mr. Kim Minseok was the founder and editor-in-chief of Manga Maniac, the weekly manga magazine that employed Baekhyun as an assistant artist, and every year he hosted a New Year’s Eve ‘do at his swanky, enormous penthouse apartment – all 500 square metres of it throbbing with writers, artists, editors and assistants, all of them tipsy and happy, all letting their hair down at the end of another long year of drafts and deadlines and doing it all for love (and also for the money). Baekhyun had ended up dogging the party early, because he wasn’t in a particularly celebratory mood at the time. The not-particularly-celebratory mood could be attributed to a very popular manga artist named Wu Yifan, who had several big titles under his belt (as well as one very big something else), and whose number was saved into Baekhyun’s phone — at Yifan’s behest — under the terribly obscure alias ‘Big Daddy’

Baekhyun had first met Big Daddy at last year’s New Year’s Eve party, where they’d become very familiar up against the cold marble tiles of the shower cubicle inside one of Mr. Kim’s guest bathrooms — a decision fuelled by the misguided assumption that the walls would absorb at least some of their noises. But Baekhyun could be a screamer when someone was pounding him at the right angle, there was no point trying to hide the fact; if anything, the excellent acoustics in the bathroom only made him louder, and the two times he accidentally banged his hipbone on the soap holder made it even worse. Then, to top it all off, Baekhyun’s best friend and workmate Kyungsoo had accidentally walked in on them, promptly screaming the whole place down. Baekhyun didn’t expect he’d ever hear the end of the incident, at least not until one of them died. Tonight alone, it had come up at least five times in conversation.

After this first impassioned rendezvous, Baekhyun and Yifan had started meeting regularly a few times a month… sometimes at Baekhyun’s place, sometimes at Yifan’s. It was strictly about the sex — they had very little else to offer each other, least of all good conversation. Tonight, however, Baekhyun had seen Yifan with his hand resting on the lower back of someone else altogether  — another popular manga artist named Huang Zitao, to whom Baekhyun had been assigned as an assistant several months prior — and then he was pushing Zitao into the nearest bathroom and closing the door behind them. Some interesting noises had begun to seep through the crack beneath the door a few minutes later: the giggles (Zitao’s), groans (Yifan’s) and squeals (undetermined, probably also Zitao’s) had bled noticeably into the pop music blaring from Mr. Kim’s state-of-the-art sound system, making it sound like the soundtrack to a low-budget adult film, and Baekhyun knew they weren’t exclusive, knew he had no right to be pissed off, but he was inexplicably pissed off anyway. So he’d told his friends that he suddenly wasn’t feeling so great, and to excuse his early departure. 

Ignoring Kyungsoo’s protests that it was only nine o’clock, Baekhyun had then grabbed his coat and strutted right out the front door with his head held high (he imagined he was strutting, but it was more of a drunken stagger to those watching), his fingers still stinging from having just crushed his half-empty beer can with his bare hand, causing the displaced liquid to slosh down the front of his expensive wool trousers and leaving him stinking like a combination of Heineken and wet dog. He’d walked out into the street in the biting mid-winter cold, the wind stabbing at his cheeks like invisible knives, his damp crotch instantly freezing over — neither of which he noticed because he was sufficiently drunk and irate. On his way down the street looking for a cab to flag down, he’d wandered into the first dodgy little convenience store he happened upon, intent on buying some cigarettes with which to console himself, even though he’d ‘quit’ for the hundredth time only a few days before. It was a promise to himself that he kept making and breaking, not so much because he cared about his health, but more because he wanted to feel like he had some small say over something in his life, which these days he felt he had increasingly little control over. Baekhyun fully intended to finally carry this plan out at some point before his looming thirtieth birthday… but fuck it. He had the shits, and he needed the solace. It would be a brand new year in less than three hours, and that would bring with it the promise of all sorts of new beginnings, new successes, new failures. He could force himself to quit properly then.

 

But then there was something not quite right about the convenience store itself; Baekhyun had known as soon as he walked through the sun-yellowed plastic strips hanging in the entrance to ‘GoGo Mart’, as it was called, that something was a little off about the place. Maybe it was the hardcore porn magazine the cashier was poring through, spread open in full view on the counter, that should have tipped him off – and if not that, then it was surely the purple dildo that said cashier had handed to him when he’d asked to use the facilities. Baekhyun had stared at it in mild horror at first, only belatedly noticing the small silver key dangling from a keychain attached to the base.

“I’ll have to give you the key for the staff cubicle, since the one for patrons is currently out of order… this here keeps people from running off without returning it,” the cashier told him, scratching the back of his neck with nicotine-stained fingernails. “So far it’s been very effective… no one in their right mind would forget to return a key with a big purple donger attached to it. Don’t worry though, it’s never been used. At least, I assume it’s never been used.”

Baekhyun laughed nervously and accepted the object with a hesitant hand. “Aha… well, thanks. I’ll be back in two shakes..”

“Any more than that’s playing with yourself,” the cashier muttered under his breath, and then he went back to his porn. “Bathroom’s out the back and down that little alleyway, first door to your right. Staff cubicle is the one that’s locked. Be wary of junkies while you’re in there… I need to get those vein-erasing lights fixed, they don’t seem to be working properly anymore.”

Baekhyun simply nodded and made his way towards the exit at the back of the store, holding the dildo by the keychain at some distance from himself, as though it might explode at any moment, taking him to hell with it. On his way through the dank, dripping alleyway that the cashier had told him would lead to the bathroom, something — or someone — ran right into him, knocking him flat onto the gravel. Baekhyun groaned and sat up, rubbing his lower back with one hand.

“God, I’m sorry… I’m so sorry,” a man’s voice had said, sounding flustered, his voice breathy and urgent. Baekhyun hadn’t been able to see his face very well in the dark. It was just a big black shadow hovering over him. 

“It’s okay, I’m fine…” he said weakly, despite the pain radiating through his back and limbs, but before he could say anything more, the figure had hurried off in a flurry of footsteps, leaving him still sat on his arse on the ground. Baekhyun slowly got to his feet, muttering irritably to himself about inconsiderate strangers, and his foot rolled on something loose, making him fall over a second time; he grazed his knuckles on the gravel, wincing at the sting. He swore under his breath and got to his feet again, shining the light from his mobile phone at the ground to see what he’d tripped on. He bent over to pick it up. It was a small, metallic, spherical object, and very light – almost too light to be made of metal, Baekhyun thought, as he turned it around in his fingers. It felt like it was hollow, and there was the trace of a seam running around it that appeared to have been soldered shut. He lifted it to his ear and shook it, but nothing rattled inside. It appeared to him the stranger had dropped it, whatever the hell it was, and perhaps it was important. He’d slipped it into his pocket then, planning to hand it in to the cashier, in case the man came back looking for it. He walked over to the door marked ‘male toilet’ and stood in front of it; apparently it had once been lockable, but someone had since ripped out the lock and drawn an eyeball in black Sharpie around the hole it left behind. Hesitantly, Baekhyun pushed the door open. The thing in his pocket was warm now, and when he put his hand in there, he could feel it buzzing very faintly. He had a very vivid flashback of Yifan fucking him in Mr. Kim’s bathroom, and hoped to God that no one was currently doing the same thing inside. 

 

And that brought Baekhyun to where he was now, in that hellhole of a bathroom with its flickering blue fluorescent light, the effectiveness of which was demonstrated by several used syringes scattered on the tiled floor. He’d noticed the music playing in the background as soon as he entered the bathroom — from where, he didn’t know, since he couldn’t see a speaker anywhere — and the closer he came to the cubicle marked ‘Staff Only’, the louder it seemed to get. The door for the staff cubicle was thankfully still attached, if only by a single hinge; this was more than could be said for the other stall, where vandals hadn’t even spared the toilet let alone the door. There were tracks of something unknown that had dried up and become crusted over with dust, running down the cubicle walls that Baekhyun really didn’t want to know the provenance of; at any rate, he had to go, and a toilet was a toilet, and he didn’t have much choice anyway, unless he wanted to piss on the floor. 

He slowly approached the toilet and, reluctant to touch it,  lifted the lid with the toe of his shoe, frowning at what he saw: inside the bowl there was nothing but pitch-blackness, and no water. It was strange to see a pit toilet in the middle of town… he’d only come across one once before, during a high-school camping trip to the mountains. If his ears weren’t tricking him, the music was much louder now, although slightly muffled and echoic, as though the source was some distance away. Baekhyun leaned forward a little, trying to make out the words; he couldn’t, but the tune was vaguely familiar. He unzipped his fly and prepared to aim, but somehow, despite how desperate he was, he couldn’t do it.

“Can you please stop? This is very off-putting,” he said in a harsh whisper – and immediately felt stupid for scolding a toilet. But then the music became strangely mesmerising, and he was suddenly overwhelmed by the urge to put his foot into the bowl, just to see what might happen. His bladder momentarily forgotten, Baekhyun tucked himself back into his pants, zipped up and dangled one foot over the seat, then hesitantly lowered it inside. The foot disappeared into the blackness, his leg seeming to end just above the ankle. He quickly pulled it back out again.

“What the fuck…” Baekhyun muttered to himself. The thing nestled inside his trousers was buzzing like mad now; worried that it might be a bomb of some sort, he shoved his hand into his pocket to retrieve it, intent on throwing it away, but before he could do this he was suddenly overwhelmed by the strange sensation of his body being broken up into parts, his legs all but turning into liquid. It was indescribable — like his existence was slowly being unknitted, unraveled, one thread at a time. He saw colours he never knew existed, colours that spun around and around until he became so dizzy he couldn’t stand straight, and he somehow fell without ever hitting the floor.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

When Baekhyun came to, he was lying on the cold tiles of a bathroom floor that was not his own. It looked familiar – he'd definitely been in this bathroom before. Then he looked up and saw the marble-tiled shower with the same soap holder he’d banged his pelvis on, during that time with Yifan at last year’s New Year’s Eve party, and it finally dawned on him that he was in Mr. Kim’s guest bathroom. Perhaps he’d ended up passing out in there, and had never even left the party at all. He groaned as he slowly got to his feet and stood in front of the toilet; when he peered inside it, he saw water, as expected. It occurred to him that he didn’t even have the urge to go anymore.

As soon as Baekhyun emerged from the bathroom, someone shouldered past him and slammed the door shut, leaving him stranded out in the corridor. There was loud music playing from one of the rooms nearby: it was the same song Baekhyun had heard coming out of the GoGo Mart toilet earlier, peppered here and there with laughter, and the sound of adults talking. A man and a woman walked past him down the corridor, holding each other's hands, but Baekhyun didn't catch their faces in time before they disappeared.

 

A moment later, a tall figure approached from the other end of the corridor and stopped next to him.

 

“Hey,” the man said in a soft, slightly slurred voice. Baekhyun could smell the alcohol on his breath. “Are you in line for the can..?”

 

Baekhyun shook his head. Then he got a better look at the man talking to him, and his eyes widened. “Uh… hey, Yifan..”

 

Yifan didn’t respond; he merely peered down at Baekhyun with that same blank expression he usually wore. “Do I know you..?” he asked, breaking the silence at last.

 

“Yes,” Baekhyun replied, and then paused for a moment. “I mean… don’t you..?”

 

Yifan shook his head. “Not that I recall,” he said, and then he laughed a little. “Although I am pretty wasted right now..” 

 

For some reason, Baekhyun noticed, Yifan was no longer wearing the black slim-fitting suit he’d seen him wearing earlier, but a charcoal-coloured one – very much like the one he’d been wearing when they first met. Baekhyun remembered all too well how those skintight grey trousers had looked on Yifan’s long legs that night. He also remembered what they looked like when they were down around Yifan’s ankles. While he was having this thought, he jumped at the unexpected sensation of something buzzing inside his pocket, and plunged his hand inside it to retrieve what he assumed was his phone, vibrating with an incoming call. Instead his hand closed around something small and warm, almost too hot to touch, and most definitely spherical.

“This might be a weird question to ask,” Baekhyun began hesitantly, still looking at Yifan’s pants and absently stroking the thing in his pocket — which must have looked very odd to anyone watching. “But, uh… what year is it right now..?”

Yifan looked at Baekhyun oddly for a moment, and then he pushed up the sleeve of his jacket to check his watch. “You must be even more wasted than I am,” he said. “But, well, it’ll be 2014 in… a little over an hour..”

Baekhyun nodded. “Right. Excuse me,” he muttered, and then he turned around and hurried away down the hall, only narrowly dodging all the inebriated, well-dressed people and articles of designer furniture on his way towards the front door of Mr. Kim’s penthouse.

“Hey – what's your name..?” Yifan called after him, but Baekhyun was too preoccupied to reply. His mind was reeling at what Yifan had said; he’d met the guy exactly a year ago, but Yifan apparently didn’t remember him at all. And he’d said it would be 2014 in a little over an hour. 2014 — not 2015.

Of course, it was possible that Yifan was so drunk he didn’t know right from left either, but then there were too many other things Baekhyun couldn’t explain. He was now convinced that he’d somehow gone back in time a whole year — and, if he hadn’t completely lost it, it seemed like he’d somehow managed to do this by travelling through the sewer, with the aid of that weird… Thingamabob, for the lack of a proper term, that he’d found on the ground earlier. Or perhaps travelling through the sewer was just an illusion — but the strange device definitely wasn’t. He could still feel it inside his pocket, buzzing faintly at regular intervals.

Baekhyun slammed Mr. Kim’s front door behind him and sank down to his haunches out in the lobby with his back against the wall, hanging his head in his hands and groaning quietly. There was no point lying to himself anymore — he’d definitely lost it. Perhaps he never had it in the first place.

While he was struggling with these thoughts, the thing in his pocket began to heat up, and he suddenly felt faint again; everything around him was wobbling, like a reflection from that freaky hall of mirrors he’d got trapped in at the school fair when he was a kid. He got that same strange unraveling feeling he’d experienced earlier, and then he blacked out once more.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

When Baekhyun opened his eyes, he was on the floor of that revolting GoGo Mart bathroom again. Groaning, he stood up and dusted himself off, stretching his aching body. He had no clue how long he’d been ‘gone’, but when he checked his phone it was only a little after 9.30pm — on December 31st, 2014. He stared at the date for a long time, until the numbers stopped making sense to him, the white looping shapes burning into his retinas like he’d been staring at the sun for too long. He swiped the dildo from where he’d left it on the bench, next to the row of grotty-looking steel basins, and then he hurried out the door and back into the alley.

 

“You were gone a while,” the cashier said, when Baekhyun arrived back at the store. “Everything okay..?”

“Yeah… all good. Thanks,” Baekhyun replied quickly, tossing the dildo back to him. The cashier only just barely managed to catch it, his eyes widening in surprise. “Uh, I don’t need to disinfect this, do I..?” he asked, eyeing the object warily, but Baekhyun turned on his heel and was out the door before he could reply; he walked briskly to beat the cold, his hands shoved so deep into his coat pockets that he felt the threads snapping in the seams. Inside his trousers, he could feel the Thingamabob buzzing faintly against his thigh, once every few seconds, as though its little heart were beating.

 

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

Baekhyun awoke to a loud knocking on his door. Groaning, he slammed his hand on the snooze button of his alarm and rolled out of bed.

“Just a minute,” he called out, and hurried around his room, throwing on some clothes that he found on the floor: wrinkled skinny jeans and a red cabled sweater. He answered the door with his duffle coat thrown over one shoulder and his toothbrush still hanging out of his mouth, foamy strands of toothpaste and saliva dripping down his chin. He found Kyungsoo standing in the corridor, his eyebrow raised in faint annoyance, tapping his boot impatiently against the floor. Kyungsoo lived a few floors up from Baekhyun in the same apartment block, and came past his front door every weekday to collect him; it was customary for them to pick up their morning caffeine fix from The Grind, the café on the ground floor of their building, before heading to Zitao’s studio together. 

 

“Seven minutes and thirty nine seconds,” Kyungsoo said drily. “Congratulations… you beat your own record.”

Baekhyun tried his hardest to look apologetic, which was hard to do with a mouthful of foam and nylon bristles; dumping his coat on the hall table next to the door, he hurried over to the kitchen and spat in the sink, then rinsed his mouth out, leaving his toothbrush in a puddle of water on the counter.

 

“Sorry, Soo… must’ve slept through my alarm again.”

 

Kyungsoo waved the apology away. “It’s alright. Up all night working on something, I presume..?”

 

Baekhyun sighed and kneeled down to lace up his boots. “Nah… my last work-in-progress has officially died in the arse. I guess I was just really tired..”

 

“Mmm… well, that’s a bummer. No pun intended,” Kyungsoo replied. He pulled his phone from his pocket and looked at it. “Anyway, we’d better get down to the studio pretty quick. Chaerin just texted me asking where the hell everyone is… apparently she was meant to check in on us today. Jongdae’s running late too. Ten bucks says Zitao doesn’t even show up, the little shit..”

 

Baekhyun yanked the front door shut behind him and they made their way to the elevator. “Should we skip coffee today, then..?”

 

“Hell no,” Kyungsoo said, snorting at the suggestion. “‘Should we skip coffee’, he says… what blasphemy.”

 

Baekhyun rolled his eyes at that, but he cracked a smile anyway.

 

 

 

“So how was your very first day of the year?” Kyungsoo asked when they were at the café, waiting for the barista, a pleasant young man named Yixing, to make their takeaway lattes. “Get up to anything exciting..?”

Baekhyun pursed his lips, lost in thought for a moment. “Not really,” he said, and gave a little shrug of his shoulders, then tried to deflect by asking Kyungsoo about his own day off. He couldn’t exactly explain to his friend that he’d spent the first day of a brand new year cooped up inside his apartment, all alone, downing nearly a full case of beer and smoking every last one of his cigarettes right down to the butt; while doing this he’d stared blankly at the moving pictures on his TV for hours without really seeing or hearing anything, still bewildered by what had happened to him the night before. The line between dream and reality was still somewhat blurred, he thought, but then he’d woken up on the morning of New Year’s Day to find the spherical buzzing Whatchamacallit right where he’d left it, on the kitchen bench next to the fruit bowl. Not knowing what to do with it, he’d just left it there, where it quickly became a niggling reminder that things had happened the night before, things that he had no hope in hell of explaining.

 

But then, perhaps even more troubling than the presence of the buzzing Thingamabob was the fact that Baekhyun had grown restless (and horny) last night and had tried to text Yifan to organise a late-night booty call (apparently he’d forgotten his irritation about seeing him with Zitao) — only to discover that Yifan’s number was no longer saved in his phone. He’d checked through it multiple times to make sure he wasn’t imagining things, but the number simply wasn’t there. He couldn’t recall ever deleting it himself.

 

“You missed out on a great party the other night,” Kyungsoo told him while they were walking to the subway together. “Poor Jongdae, though… he accidentally walked in on Wu Yifan banging the living crap out of Zitao in the bathroom. I think he’s been scarred for life.”

 

“Well, at least one of you didn’t walk in on him with me, this time,” Baekhyun muttered, half under his breath. Kyungsoo made a choking sound and nearly spat out a mouthful of coffee.

 

“Excuse me, but when did you ever fuck Yifan..?” he asked, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

 

“At last year’s party,” Baekhyun replied. “Don’t pretend you don’t remember. He was literally balls deep when you suddenly waltzed in and screamed bloody murder. I didn’t hear the end of it for months… in fact, I still haven’t.”

 

Kyungsoo shook his head. “I’m pretty sure I would remember something that traumatic, Baek. Are you sure you’re not making that up..?”

 

“Never mind,” Baekhyun sighed, “it’s not important.” His memory wasn’t exactly the most trustworthy thing right now.

 

“Why would Yifan want to have sex with you, anyway?” Kyungsoo asked, and let out a dry chuckle at the thought. “You have delusions of grandeur, my friend..”

 

“Just drop it, would you..?” Baekhyun said, groaning, and he let Kyungsoo get a few steps ahead of him on the stairs leading down into the subway, before lobbing his empty takeaway coffee cup at the back of his head.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

“We really need to have all the pages for chapter twenty finished by the end of today,” Chaerin said; she was walking back and forth, up and down the studio, wringing her hands in dismay. The sound of her heels click-clacking against the floor began to get on Baekhyun’s nerves a little. “You have deadlines to meet, you know… this shouldn’t be news to you. I know it’s the holiday season and all, but really — I expected better. Especially with Zitao not here… where the hell is he..?”

Relax, Chaerin… we’ll definitely be done by the end of today,” Baekhyun droned boredly. He stared down at the sketch in front of him, at the veiny cock-and-balls and the squiggly little turds with flies buzzing around them that he’d been absently doodling in the blank spaces with his pencil, figuring he’d better erase them before Chaerin came over and saw them during her frantic pacing up and down the studio. Baekhyun often did this when he was in a shitty mood — which he usually was whenever Zitao was around, and also when Zitao wasn’t around… and also whenever he was reminded of the fact that Zitao was still out there in the world, walking around and breathing, and doing nothing of importance while his assistants did all his work for him — and also casually fucking the same people that Baekhyun himself was meant to be casually fucking, without said people ever informing Baekhyun of the fact. Baekhyun would later erase these little expressions of discontent and cover up their ghosts with a solid layer of black ink, even though it was very tempting sometimes to leave them visible.

 

“If we want the series to maintain a decent ranking, I can’t afford for you guys to slack off,” Chaerin muttered, still pacing up and down the room, even though no one seemed to be paying any attention to her. As a boss, Baekhyun liked her well enough, but she was often insufferable before a looming deadline. “It’s bad enough that Zitao hasn’t bloody shown up — again..”

 

“I’m starting to forget what the fucker looks like,” Jongdae cut in, and Baekhyun looked up just in time to see Kyungsoo briefly cracking a smile in silence.

 

“You’re going to have to give him another lecture, Chaerin. It honestly feels like we’re the ones doing all the work lately,” Baekhyun said. “Isn’t this supposed to be his bloody manga..?”

 

“Well, he’s done all the outlines for the next chapter ahead of time, I suppose..” Kyungsoo pointed out, and Baekhyun snorted loudly. 

 

“And probably thinks he deserves a medal for it, I’ll bet. Most of these roughs are too rough — I can barely even work with them. He should be here giving us direction when we need it, not fart-arsing around somewhere else.” In Yifan’s pants, probably, he was tempted to add, but managed to hold it in at the last second.

 

“Ooh, someone’s jelly,” Jongdae teased. “Just because the kid’s seven years younger than you and already has a high-ranking series to his name..”

 

Baekhyun pouted at Jongdae’s accusation. “I’m not jelly… I’ve worked alongside countless talented manga artists throughout my career, and I’ve never once begrudged any of them their success. Especially the ones who actually worked for that success themselves, instead of relying on their team of assistants to do it all. But you know what? Zitao will be a one-hit wonder for sure. He just doesn’t have the work ethic to stick it out in the long run… sheer luck and a half-decent storyline will only get you so far.”

 

“Hey… wasn’t that new guy supposed to start today..?” Kyungsoo asked, interrupting their conversation.

 

“Uh-huh,” Chaerin called out from the studio kitchen, where she was making what was probably her fourth or fifth coffee for the morning. “He was supposed to be here by now, actually. Not a very promising start, is it..?”

 

Baekhyun looked up from the sketch in front of him, frowning in confusion. “What new guy…?” he asked — and then he remembered. At some point before he’d stormed out of Mr. Kim’s New Year’s Eve party, Chaerin had introduced the three of them to a new guy that Zitao had selected especially, who would soon be joining the team as a background artist so that they would each have more time to focus on the characters, lettering and other components. Apparently the guy’s special talent was designing futuristic architecture and transportation, which made him a good fit for Zitao’s Mind Games, a crime thriller set a few hundred years in the future. Baekhyun couldn’t remember exactly what the man had looked like… but he vaguely recalled that he’d been handsome in a gangly sort of way that was equal parts infuriating and endearing, with ears that stuck out from beneath a mass of wavy flame-red hair. Baekhyun had gone on to drunkenly christen him ‘Flameboy’ at the time, but he couldn’t recall the guy’s actual name; he was just about to ask what it was when he was interrupted by the sound of three loud knocks at the studio door. 

 

“Speak of the devil -- here's Chanyeol now,” Chaerin singsonged, and she walked over to answer it. As soon as she pulled the door open, Baekhyun saw a tall, slender figure standing in the doorway. Hesitantly, he walked inside the studio, revealing himself to be Flameboy, as expected.

 

“Hi there,” Flameboy said, in a soft, deep voice (Baekhyun had forgotten how nice his voice was — very nice, so nice in fact that it made him unreasonably angry) and offered them all a friendly smile. “Apologies for my tardiness… the trains were a nightmare today. Someone fell on the tracks, apparently.”

 

“It’s fine… shit happens,” Chaerin said, in an uncharacteristically cheery tone, and Baekhyun caught the little grimace she made when it occurred to her that she’d just said ‘shit’ without meaning to. She closed the studio door and held out her hand for Chanyeol to shake. “I know we’ve already met you briefly, but in case you forgot, I’m Chaerin, your assigned editor. Baekhyun here is the head of our team of assistant artists, backed up by Kyungsoo and Jongdae. And Zitao is, well, M.I.A, unfortunately. But if we’re lucky, he might decide to show his pretty face later on in the day..”

 

“Yeah, right… the lazy little turd,” Jongdae said under his breath. Baekhyun and Kyungsoo both snorted loudly and gave each other a high five, shrinking in their seats when they saw the icy stare Chaerin threw in their direction.

 

“Cut it out,” she warned, glaring at them, but her expression softened again when her eyes met Chanyeol’s, and she laughed nervously. Chanyeol simply looked from Chaerin to the rest of them with an amused look on his face, and said nothing.

 

“Come on, Chaerin… you have to admit the guy’s an odd nut, at least,” Jongdae said. “He only eats yellow food, for fuck’s sake… surely that’s not good for the bowels.”

 

Ignoring Jongdae, Chaerin turned to Chanyeol again. “Jongdae is already working on the backgrounds for the next chapter, so you needn’t worry about that, but Zitao has left you a bunch of line drawings and some directions regarding background art for upcoming chapters. Really, though, they’re just guidelines… he’s willing to allow a considerable amount of artistic license.”

 

“No problem, I can work with that,” Chanyeol said, still smiling that unnerving smile. If Baekhyun wasn’t mistaken, he seemed to be flirting with Chaerin – which was irritating in itself, given that Chaerin was very happily married, and was never seen without a rock the size of a human eyeball on her ring finger – but the fact that she seemed to be eating Chanyeol’s attention right up only annoyed Baekhyun even more.

 

“Okay, well, there’s a free desk right next to Baekhyun, if you’d like to set yourself up,” Chaerin said, giggling – something Baekhyun had never, ever heard her do while she was sober… Lee Chaerin with her arched brows and her long red nails and her spindly stilettos, which she probably used to shank the poor unfortunate souls who didn’t keep to deadlines. “Kitchen’s over there in the corner… bathrooms are outside the studio, down the end of the corridor and to the left. Please make yourself at home. I trust the boys will make you feel welcome…” – and she eyed the others threateningly as she said this. Chanyeol thanked her and took his place at the unoccupied desk next to Baekhyun, hanging his backpack over the back of the chair. He leaned over to peek at the sketch Baekhyun was working on, and a smile slowly spread across his face.

 

“Nice,” he said, with an infuriating smirk, clearly referring to the erect penis spurting an exaggerated fountain of jizz that Baekhyun had drawn growing out of a character’s head — which he fully intended to erase at some point, but hadn’t got around to doing yet. “Veins and all… you've certainly got an eye for detail.”

 

Baekhyun looked up at Chanyeol and raised an eyebrow. “Uh... thanks..?”

 

“You're welcome,” Chanyeol replied casually; he shrugged off his jacket and dumped it over the chair as well. “You missed a spot, by the way,” he added, jabbing at a blank section in the foreground that Baekhyun had yet to ink in, leaving a faint but visible fingerprint on the white paper.

 

“Maybe because I haven't filled it in yet,” Baekhyun muttered. It was difficult to keep the irritation from seeping into his tone.

 

Chanyeol laughed softly as he lowered himself onto the chair at last. “Alright, alright… settle down.”

 

Baekhyun merely grunted in response. He had a feeling he was not going to like this Chanyeol guy; maybe it was the cocky attitude, the way he’d sauntered into the place with his hands in his pockets, like he was King Shit and the world owed him its attention… but the blindingly bright smile that seemed more mocking than friendly definitely had something to do with it too. He began to tap his pen repeatedly against the desk, a habit that flared up whenever he was anxious or irritated — the man that was now seated next to him made him feel both of these things. Baekhyun briefly wondered how talented he was; if he was a better drawer than Baekhyun himself, it would be an even bigger slap in the face.

Wanting to find out, he cast a sideways glance at Chanyeol and watched as he flicked through the roughs Zitao had left for him, finally settling on one and beginning to work on it. His hands were large, with thick, strong-looking fingers, and he’d rolled his grey sweatshirt up to the elbows, revealing an intricate network of prominent veins protruding from the pale skin of his forearms. The fingers of his right hand had sizeable calluses – an affliction that Baekhyun shared – from constantly gripping a pen or some other drawing implement. There was a little black star tattooed just above the knuckle of his right index finger, and another tattoo of something Baekhyun didn’t understand, but which he figured was probably some sort of Latin motto, running from the inside of his wrist and ending just before his elbow. Baekhyun swallowed noisily, and hoped no one had heard it, least of all Chanyeol. He wasn’t usually one to be turned on by a person’s hands, or even their arms, but Chanyeol’s were the sexiest he’d ever seen.

 

Without thinking, Baekhyun reached across his desk to grab an eraser for his pencil lines, and when his hand accidentally brushed against Chanyeol’s arm, he quickly jerked it away. He sneaked a look at Chanyeol’s face and immediately regretted it when he noticed the other man briefly smiling at him before going back to his sketch.

 

“So… what is it you like so much about drawing the future..?” Chaerin asked politely, in a bid to make conversation; she was perched on the end of the desk Zitao normally sat at whenever he bothered to turn up, sipping her coffee and watching Chanyeol work from afar. Jongdae and Kyungsoo were both talking quietly amongst themselves, as though Chanyeol was already just a part of the furniture, and Baekhyun felt slightly betrayed that they weren’t saving him from the awkwardness of being stuck alone with the new guy.

 

“It just fascinates me, I guess,” Chanyeol replied. “I like to think about what our world might look like many years from now, and drawing out my ideas brings them to life. Well, it does for me, anyway.”

 

Chaerin walked over and stood behind Chanyeol with her mug cradled in her hands, watching over his shoulder as he worked. Every now and then she whistled in admiration, and Baekhyun would sneak another glance, his stomach dropping when he saw how perfect Chanyeol’s pencil linework was. The frame he was working on was already filled in with the skeleton of a fantastic futuristic cityscape, with rows of soaring towers piercing the star-studded sky. Baekhyun watched Chanyeol’s pen glide over the page, mesmerised by the fluidity of each stroke as he began to ink everything in, breathing life into the scene with lines of solid black.

 

“If the world’s going to look like that someday, then I really hope it happens within our lifetime,” Chaerin said, and Baekhyun caught the wistful little smile on Chanyeol’s face as he gazed down at the drawing in front of him. 

 

“Probably not,” he replied. “But we can dream.”

 

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

When all their work was successfully completed that evening, the Mind Games team went to their favourite fried chicken joint and had dinner together to celebrate the end of another gruelling week, as they occasionally did, and since Chaerin had popped back in again that afternoon to check up on things, she opted to join them. Chanyeol was the guest of honour, being the newest one to the team; far from being a shrinking violet, he seemed to enjoy all the attention. Kyungsoo, Chaerin and Jongdae wasted no time in firing rounds of questions at him, and he answered every single one of them with relative ease. Hot topics included where he was from (he’d been a small-town boy originally, but moved to the city a while ago), how old he was (he'd just turned 30), his favourite manga (too many to name, but he was currently re-reading both NANA and Beck for the hundredth time), did he have a girlfriend or a boyfriend (neither), did he have any siblings (one sister), and so on. They went at him like rabid dogs, frothing at the mouth for information. Baekhyun didn’t share in his colleagues’ nosiness, choosing instead to divide his attentions evenly between his chicken and his beer; for some reason, he felt slightly put out about Chanyeol getting so much attention, even though he hated being at the centre of it himself. Being bombarded with probing questions was akin to poking himself in the eye with a blunt stick in terms of enjoyment, but somehow he didn’t want Chanyeol to be the man of the hour either.

At one point Baekhyun looked up and caught Chanyeol watching him intently, but he averted his eyes when he noticed Baekhyun looking back at him. “I’ll be back in five,” he suddenly announced, getting up from his seat; “all this beer’s going right through me.” Having said this, Chanyeol left the table and made his way over to the bathroom.

 

“He’s cute, huh..?” Chaerin whispered to the others, as soon as Chanyeol was out of earshot. “If I wasn’t married, I’d probably be all over that like a rash.” Chaerin always seemed to relax significantly whenever she joined them for one of these team dinners, which Baekhyun liked about her. She knew how and when to switch herself out of Scary Boss Mode. 

 

“Nah, I’m totally getting gay vibes from this one… possibly bi. Maybe you should go for it, Baek,” Jongdae said, playfully digging Baekhyun in the ribs with his elbow. Baekhyun flinched and scooted over on the bench seat to get away from him.

 

“We literally just met the guy, Jongdae,” he pointed out. “He could be a complete shithead for all we know.”

 

Jongdae took a bite of a fried chicken leg and absently chewed with his mouth hanging wide open, until Kyungsoo reached across the table to shut it for him. “But you haven’t had a proper boyfriend since you-know-who..”

 

“‘Jongin’ isn’t a dirty word, Jongdae,” Baekhyun said irritably.

 

“I know,” Jongdae replied. “I’d just forgotten his name.”

 

“Jongdae’s probably right, you know… about Chanyeol being gay, I mean,” Kyungsoo said. “I’ve never met a straight man with such an infallible Gaydar.”

 

“I’m never wrong,” Jongdae added with his mouth full. “I was right about Zitao, wasn’t I..?”

 

“Please,” Baekhyun scoffed. “And anyway, just because another possibly gay man starts working with us, that doesn't automatically mean I have to date him. I mean, do you need to date every woman you work with..? By that logic, you'd have dated Chaerin by now — if Jiyong hadn't put a ring on her first..”

 

"Oh, god.." Chaerin muttered, covering her eyes with an impeccably manicured hand. She looked a little sick at the thought.

 

“Come on, Chaerin... I'm not the worst you've seen, surely,” Jongdae said.

 

Chaerin sighed and looked at him pityingly with her red lips pressed into a thin line. “Jongdae,” she began, “you’re a funny, talented guy.."

 

"Right, right," Jongdae said, nodding. “Why do I smell a 'but' coming..?”

 

“What our lovely Chaerin is too proper to say is that she'd rather lick Zitao's left nut,” Kyungsoo cut in, and Chaerin wrinkled her nose.

 

"Kyungsoo, you animal..” she said, glaring at him before turning back to Jongdae. "No offense, J.D.."

 

Jongdae just shrugged and went back to his food. "None taken."

 

Baekhyun shook his head at his friends and dropped a clean chicken bone onto his plate, sucking the grease off his fingers. “Anyway, newbie’s heading back to the table right now, so let’s change the subject, yeah..?”

 

Jongdae waved his own greasy hands about carelessly. “Alright, alright,” he said, but when Chanyeol resumed his place at the table, Jongdae immediately adopted that sly expression that Baekhyun knew meant he was probably hatching some kind of harebrained plot. He narrowed his eyes, silently daring Jongdae to even try.

 

“Hey Chanyeol,” Jongdae piped up cheerily, “you know how you said you didn’t have a girlfriend or boyfriend earlier..?”

 

Chanyeol shrugged and picked up his beer, taking a sip. “Yeah… what of it..?”

 

Jongdae bit his lip to keep himself from smiling too much. His eyebrows wiggled suggestively. “Would you like one..?” he asked, and Chanyeol shot him an odd look. 

 

“You mean… you..?” he asked, looking confused.

 

“Not quite…” Jongdae replied, still grinning, and Baekhyun aimed a swift kick at his shin under the table in an attempt to shut him up. Jongdae yelped in pain, but managed to turn it into a semi-convincing coughing fit at the last second. Chanyeol shrugged and went back to his chicken, sucking the meat from a drumstick, and laughing at something that Chaerin had leaned over to whisper in his ear. Baekhyun didn’t know why he found the sight of those lips wrapped around a chicken leg mildly arousing, but he did. He hoped it was only because he hadn't gotten off in a while.

 

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

“So. How about the new guy, huh..?” Kyungsoo piped up when they were in a cab on their way home together at the end of the night, and Baekhyun turned to look at him with eyes like daggers.

 

“Oh, don’t you start that shit again...”

 

Kyungsoo just stared back at him innocently. “Whatever do you mean..?”

 

“It’s taken me a long time to feel okay about being on my own,” Baekhyun said, his voice expressionless. “So thank you, really, but I neither seek nor invite your assistance.”

 

“Alright, I’m sorry,” Kyungsoo said. “But you know, we’re not trying to be insensitive… we have your best interests at heart, despite how it may seem at times. It would be good to see you properly move on, you know..?”

 

Baekhyun sighed. “Yeah... I know,” he said, turning to look at Kyungsoo. Whenever they passed a streetlamp and a bit of light filtered through the windows of the darkened taxi, he could see Kyungsoo looking back at him, with a rare softness in his expression. As soon as they stopped at the next red light, the driver coughed up a wad of phlegm and spat it outside his half-open window. “Fucking gross,” Kyungsoo mouthed silently, and Baekhyun leaned his head back against the seat, smiling to himself.

 

 

 “You coming up..?” Kyungsoo asked him, as soon as the cab had dropped them off in front of their apartment building, but Baekhyun shook his head.

 

“You go ahead… I think I’ll take a walk. I need to get more smokes, anyway.”

 

Kyungsoo looked at Baekhyun with one eyebrow raised. “You said you were trying to quit.”

 

“I still am,” Baekhyun said. “It’s… an ongoing process, that’s all.”

 

“You told me you were quitting, like, six months ago..”

 

Goodnight, Kyungsoo..” Baekhyun replied through gritted teeth, and he grabbed Kyungsoo by the shoulders, steering him in the direction of the front door. As soon as Kyungsoo had disappeared inside the building, loudly muttering something about people having zero willpower these days, Baekhyun made his way down the street to the nearest convenience store (In N’ Out, this one was called, which always made him snort a little) and bought himself a new packet of cigarettes. Afterwards he returned to his apartment, where he sat himself down on the couch, lit up a fresh one and turned the Thingamabob around repeatedly in his fingers. He suddenly caught himself thinking about that moment when Chanyeol had looked at him while they were at dinner… and then without warning the thing started heating up in his hands, its little light blinking like an angry red eye. Then it started buzzing with renewed urgency, and before Baekhyun had a chance to wonder what the hell was happening, everything went black once again.

 

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

When Baekhyun opened his eyes, he realised he was back at the restaurant; he looked up in front of him and saw Chanyeol sitting in the seat directly opposite, as he had been a few hours earlier. His eyes met Baekhyun’s for a long moment, and then he looked away and excused himself to go to the bathroom.

 

“He’s cute, huh,” Chaerin said, again, when Chanyeol had left the table. “If I wasn’t married, I’d probably be all over that like a rash.” Baekhyun’s jaw went slack as he stared at her dumbly; surely this wasn’t happening, not all over again… except it was happening, clearly. And, if he wasn’t mistaken, Jongdae was about to say something perfectly idiotic, something along the lines of—

 

“—Nah, I’m totally getting gay vibes from this one… possibly bi. Maybe you should go for it, Baek,” he said, just as before, and this time Baekhyun moved away, narrowly avoiding an elbow to the ribs altogether. He sighed deeply and stared down at the chicken skin and bones on his plate.

 

“We literally just met the guy, Jongdae,” he mumbled, with somewhat less feeling than the first time he’d said it, “he could be a complete shithead for all we know.” The rest of their conversation continued more or less exactly as it had earlier, and then when Chanyeol resumed his place at the table, Jongdae got that annoying look on his face again.

 

“Hey Chanyeol… you know how you said—“ he began, and this time Baekhyun kicked him in the shin before he could even finish his sentence.

 

Ow,” Jongdae yelled, “what was that for..?!”

 

Baekhyun merely shrugged and smiled at him sweetly. “That, J.D., was for the simple pleasure of your existence.”

 

 

 

For the rest of the night, while the others chatted animatedly with each other, Baekhyun sat there in silence in his own little universe, without absorbing a single word. He was reeling, almost breathless with exhilaration. So he really could go back in time. It was certain… there was no way he’d dreamed it all up yet again. There were so many things he could do with this… skill (was it a skill? He didn’t know what else to call it) — things he could go back and change, things he could do differently, do better. His friends carried on talking in the background, their voices slurring into nonsense as Baekhyun continued to pay them no attention — he was too consumed by thoughts of his newfound ability, and what it all meant.

 

 

 

 

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

 

 

 

Despite originally forming all sorts of grand plans for his new ability after he’d first learned of its existence, Baekhyun spent the first week or so using it for mostly frivolous purposes. If, say, he was running late for an important appointment, he would rewind the day just far enough to ensure he was early the second time around. If he had a meal at a restaurant that he really enjoyed, he would go back and enjoy it several more times, until he was sick to death of it, and decided he never wanted to eat that particular meal again. If he spent several hours hunched over his desk at home, trying to come up with a good concept for his next personal manga project and not really making any progress, then he would go back in time and get all those hours back again — if only to waste them a second, third and fourth time doing exactly the same thing. But he wasn’t worried about that: so far, the Thingamabob, as it was now officially known, gave no indication that its powers could ever be exhausted… and so Baekhyun freely made use of them whenever, and for whatever, he wanted.

It had quickly become apparent to Baekhyun that, with the Thingamabob’s help, he was able to revisit any past event that he could picture clearly in his mind’s eye. If he was able to picture a certain moment for just long enough, the device would warm up in his hands, the red light would blink furiously, and then the mad buzzing would begin — soon afterwards, he would black out wherever he was standing (as a result, he made sure to always be alone and preferably sitting down beforehand), and then he’d wind up whenever it was he’d been thinking of. The more he did this, the better he became at controlling how long he stayed in a particular moment, until finally it seemed as though he could stay as long as he wished, after which he was free to return at will to the present time he’d just left. There was one occasion when he’d got the idea in his head to see if he could travel into the future — of course, with no actual experiences of the future to draw from, he’d conjured up an image inside his head of a futuristic setting, partly inspired by some of the hyper-realistic drawings he’d seen Chanyeol working on for the upcoming chapter of Mind Games. But when he’d tried this, the Thingamabob hadn’t responded at all: it merely sat cold and lifeless in his palm, like a worthless old tin toy.

 

Before long, even bigger questions began to weigh on Baekhyun’s mind — it was one thing to conclude definitively that he couldn’t travel to the future, but just how far back into the past could he go, exactly? Until then, the furthest he had been was New Year’s Eve the year before. There were only a handful of important moments in the more distant past that he’d been considering going back to… but the thought of each of them made him so nervous that he always quickly pushed them into the far corners of his consciousness, in case he accidentally found himself somewhere he didn’t want to be. But Baekhyun knew he couldn’t go on like that forever, saddled with the increasingly backbreaking burden of not knowing: sooner or later he would have to just do it — just to see what might happen. He had to at least try. The beauty of it all was that he knew everything he did could supposedly be undone again.

 

 

And so, with this in mind, Baekhyun walked into The Grind early one Friday morning (without Kyungsoo, for once) and sat down at a little table in the corner next to the specials board. The date was October 28th 2011, and he was waiting for Jongin to meet him as planned; Jongin would still be in their apartment right now, probably hastily stuffing a few essentials into his tan leather overnight bag. Just as he had the first time around, Baekhyun had chosen the table directly underneath the mounted stuffed zebra head on the wall, which he and Jongin always quarrelled over — Jongin had always been convinced that it was real, while Baekhyun had always argued that it was not. This was the day he’d had breakfast with Jongin, before the latter had left to go on that weekend road trip, the one he never returned from — it was in this very café, at this very table, more or less at this very time, a little after 11 o’clock… he remembered ordering French toast that day, and Jongin had had the same, although he’d had his with maple syrup and bacon on top, which Baekhyun thought was gross. Everything around him was just as Baekhyun had remembered it being back then; when he looked down at himself, he was even wearing the same outfit. He’d forgotten all about these clothes… these navy trousers, this cornflower blue shirt, the silk tie that had been a birthday gift from Jongin — the only thing he still had in the present day was the tie. Everything else he’d either worn out or gotten rid of long ago. 

He looked down at his phone – an older model, just like the one he remembered having at the time. He opened his text messages and read through them. ‘I’ll be down at The Grind waiting — meet me under the zebra’ – that was the last thing he’d texted to Jongin. It was now 11.15. Baekhyun took a deep, shuddering breath and kept his eyes trained on the door. He couldn’t recall Jongin being late that day; Jongin was a painfully punctual person, always professional and no-nonsense, even about seemingly unimportant things like meeting his boyfriend for breakfast. Only when he was alone with Baekhyun had he ever let his guard down, and even then Baekhyun suspected he was never getting the real Jongin, not 100%… it always seemed like there had been a part of himself that he’d held back somehow. Maybe that was why it had been so hard – why it was still hard – to get over him. 

 

Baekhyun stirred another sugar into the mocha he’d ordered and took a sip, cringing when he realised he’d accidentally made it too sweet. He drank it anyway, then licked his finger and picked up the stray sugar grains that had collected on the saucer beneath his cup. He absent-mindedly stuck the finger in his mouth to suck them away. Another casual glance at his phone told him it was now 11.25. 

 

Still no sign of Jongin. Where the hell was he..?

 

Baekhyun texted “where are you??” to Jongin’s number. He had to be careful about doing things differently to how he remembered doing them the first time; he’d seen enough sci-fi movies to know that even small, seemingly insignificant changes to his past could potentially alter the future he came back to drastically. But all time did was fly by, and still he received no reply — maybe it wasn’t even Jongin’s number at all. He was starting to doubt himself and where he was, right down to the floor beneath his feet; nothing felt real, and all of a sudden he was light-headed, which quickly gave way to full-blown nausea. He could feel himself starting to lose control again, which hadn’t happened to him for some time. He put his head down on the table for a moment to steady himself. Just for a moment.

 

Just for a moment…

 

And then, when Baekhyun woke up again on a cold January Sunday in 2015, sprawled out on his couch and wearing his own present-day clothes, he felt even more tormented and confused than he ever had before.

 

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

Baekhyun barely slept a wink that night; he had far too many things on his mind. As a result he was a complete wreck on Monday morning, and woke up at 9.30 to five missed calls from Kyungsoo on his phone — as well as an indignant text that read ‘fine, I won’t wait for u… smell u later shitface’. 

Groaning, Baekhyun rolled out of bed and threw on whatever clothes he could find before staggering out the door and making his own merry way to work. He knew he could have always used the Thingamabob if he really wanted to be on time, but for some reason he baulked at the thought — he was still too troubled by what had happened the day before. He hoped Chaerin wouldn’t be checking up on them today; no one else would give a rat’s arse if he was late. After braving the subway alone, he headed into the building where Zitao’s studio was located and made his way to the elevators. He stood in the lobby, listlessly staring up at the numbers on the wall above his head that told him what floor the elevator was currently at, and then he sensed the arrival of someone taller standing next to him.

 

“Morning, Byun,” Zitao said, in his usual monotonous drawl; as always, he was wearing a pair of oversized aviator sunglasses, despite the fact that they were indoors. He rarely took the aviators off at all unless he was drawing, which often made Baekhyun wonder if he was perpetually hungover, or perhaps just a complete dickhead.

 

“Hi,” Baekhyun replied, just as flatly. “Where have you been over the past week..?”

 

Zitao shrugged and peered down at Baekhyun through his sunglasses; the lenses were too reflective for Baekhyun to see his eyes. “Where haven’t I been would perhaps be a better question,” he said, and then his upper lip curled a little in defiance. “Anyway, what’s it to you..?”

 

Baekhyun clenched his fists into tight little balls inside the pockets of his jacket. Not a moment too soon, there was an electronic chiming sound signalling the elevator’s arrival, and he watched the steel doors slide open. Zitao stepped in first and Baekhyun followed after him, jabbing the button for the fifth floor with his thumb. Just as the doors were about to close, the same chiming sound played again and they re-opened, revealing a harassed-looking Chanyeol standing behind them.

 

“Hey. Sorry…” he said, sounding breathless as he stepped inside the elevator; like Baekhyun, he looked as though he’d just woken up. His outfit of the day was wrinkled and mismatched, and had clearly been handpicked from the floor of his bedroom, while his bright red hair was sticking up in all directions. When he got a glimpse of himself in the elevator’s mirrored interior he quickly smoothed his hair down with his hand, with little success. 

 

Zitao looked Chanyeol up and down over the lenses of his aviators, but said nothing. Baekhyun acknowledged him with a quick “hi”, and then turned back to Zitao again.

 

“The four of us have been working our arses off on your comic,” he said in an irritated whisper. “The least you can do is show up regularly and give us a bit of direction.” It was impossible to keep their conversation private within such a confined space, but Chanyeol looked half-asleep anyway, so Baekhyun figured it would all go over his head.

 

Zitao let out a dry laugh and shook his head, pausing to check himself out in the mirror for a moment before he responded. “Hey… I know you still resent me because my series is doing well and yours was cancelled after a measly few chapters and all, but don’t take it out on me,” he said. He tapped his chin, as though pretending to be lost in thought. “Hmm. What a riveting read it must have been..”

 

Baekhyun opened his mouth to retaliate, but found himself with nothing worthwhile to say, and so he quickly closed it again. He could sense Chanyeol looking between the two of them with a mixture of confusion and interest. Then the elevator arrived at the fifth floor and the doors slid open; Zitao stepped through them first and headed to the right, in the direction of the bathroom — probably to preen himself for half an hour before finally rocking up at the studio, Baekhyun thought irritably, even though a grand total of four people would have the dubious pleasure of laying eyes on him.

 

“Build a bridge and get over it, Byun... or better yet, jump off it. You’ve had your shot… now it’s my turn,” Zitao said as he strolled down the corridor; he pushed open the door of the bathroom and held it ajar, looking back at Baekhyun over his shoulder. “And you work for me – not the other way around,” he added coldly. “I wouldn’t be so quick to forget that.” Having said this, he let the bathroom door swing shut with a loud thunk.

 

 

Baekhyun stood there in the corridor, staring after Zitao blankly for a moment, and then belatedly realised Chanyeol was standing a step or two behind him. He turned around to face him.

 

“Well..” Chanyeol said, still peering over Baekhyun’s shoulder. “He’s in a good mood today..”

 

Baekhyun rubbed his temple with one hand and let out a heavy sigh. “A true delight, as always.”

 

“I, uh… kinda couldn’t help overhearing,” Chanyeol began hesitantly, and then paused for a moment. “I didn’t realise you’d had a series published before. Was yours in the Maniac as well..?”

 

“Yeah, it was,” Baekhyun replied; he stared down the corridor for a moment in the direction Zitao had gone, and then turned his head to look at Chanyeol again. “But it didn’t rank so well in the end, and they pulled it after the sixth installment,” he said, lowering his voice. “Six chapters in print… that was all it got. Like Mind Games, it was a crime thriller too, except with a detective who was a former psychologist as the main character. At the time it was reviewed and cancelled, the editorial department told me it was a good storyline, but too hard-hitting, too psychological, and that it didn’t really suit the readership; I’d be better off trying something ‘a little more lighthearted’, they said. I was disheartened and pissed off by this, so I gave up on submitting my own stuff since then, and stuck to working for other artists instead. Then, a few years later, Huang Zitao comes along with a crime thriller too, only he slaps a future timeline on it — all of a sudden everyone’s saying how fucking great the story is, how fresh and original, and for some reason, call it sheer luck or whatever, his version has performed miles better than mine did. As you can probably imagine, I didn’t particularly want to be assigned the head artist of his team, but I knew it would look good to work on such a popular series, especially in regards to my own career… and so I’ve been swallowing my pride all this time, keeping my head down and working my arse off. But there’s only so much a guy can take, you know? Sometimes I wonder why I’m still even here..”

 

Chanyeol’s brow furrowed a little in an expression of sympathy. “Damn… I had no idea, Baekhyun. That’s gotta hurt..”

 

“It was my baby for a long time, that story,” Baekhyun said quietly, and then he sighed. “I tried so hard, for so long, to get it serialised. But there’s no use dwelling on it now.”

 

“Well, are you working on anything else?” Chanyeol asked him — it was obvious he was grasping at straws to make Baekhyun feel better about himself, but if anything it only made Baekhyun feel worse. “Because, you know, it would be really sad if you just gave up completely on your own ideas… I doubt you’d have ever been serialised in the first place if your work wasn’t promising.”

 

“I just gave up on yet another work-in-progress that was going nowhere, actually… but very recently I’ve had a bit of an idea for a gag manga that I think has some potential,” Baekhyun told him. “But it’s still early days... I want to submit it for consideration when I have a proper draft drawn up, but I’m not sure I’ll even have the guts after what happened last time. I’ll need that draft to be perfect before I even think about trying.”

 

“What’s it about..?” Chanyeol asked, but Baekhyun was reluctant to answer; in places like this, the walls always had ears.

 

“It’s… time-travel based, I guess,” he said. “But kind of a send-up of the genre… a complete contrast to anything I’ve done before. I’m giving something more humorous a try, just like they wanted. But anyway, I feel like it’s too early to discuss it in depth just yet.”

 

Chanyeol shrugged. “Well, if you ever feel like showing it to someone, I’d be more than happy to give you my highly unqualified opinion..”

 

Baekhyun laughed a little and nodded. “Sure, I guess… anyway, we’d better get inside, just in case Chaerin decides to turn up. We’re late enough as it, and I’ve got a stack of pages to ink in before the day’s end,” he said, turning towards the direction of the studio.

 

“Great,” Chanyeol called after him. “How about tomorrow, after work..?”

 

Baekhyun paused in the middle of the corridor and turned around to look at Chanyeol again. “Um, tomorrow..?”

 

“Yeah,” Chanyeol said, nodding. “We could get together, grab a bite, and you could show me what you’ve got so far. No pressure, just… if you want to.”

 

“It’s… well, it’s kind of a weird premise,” Baekhyun said, sounding more than a little hesitant. “The story I’m working on, I mean. And I’ve only got a few pages sketched up. You’ll probably laugh at me when you read it. That is, if I ever let you read it to begin with..”

 

“I won’t laugh,” Chanyeol promised him. “Seriously… go home tonight and add a bit more to it, if you feel like it, and then let’s hang out tomorrow after work so you can show it to me. I promise I won’t laugh. Unless it’s meant to be funny, of course… then I’ll laugh all you like.”

 

Baekhyun looked at him for a moment, searching his expression for the first sign of anything sketchy, but Chanyeol seemed genuine. “Okay, fine,” he said, nodding. “Tomorrow after work it is.”

 

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

Later that day, when Baekhyun was sitting in the park across the street with Kyungsoo and Jongdae during their lunch break, Kyungsoo said out of the blue, “Chanyeol seems pretty keen on you, you know.”

 

Baekhyun nearly choked on the next bite of his sandwich, wondering if Kyungsoo had somehow overheard his conversation with Chanyeol in the corridor that morning. Chanyeol thankfully wasn’t at the park with them; instead he was still back at the studio working through his break, which he seemed to do quite often.

“What makes you say that..?” he asked, trying to sound as casual as possible, but Kyungsoo only shrugged. 

 

“I dunno… I’ve just noticed that he keeps looking at you when he thinks nobody's watching. It’s sweet, really. You’ve noticed too, haven’t you J.D..?”

 

Jongdae nodded. “Oh, yeah… homeboy’s got it bad, for sure.”

 

“God,” Baekhyun groaned, “just what I need..”

 

“I realise that was probably meant sarcastically, but maybe a good bit of horizontal rugby is just what you need,” Kyungsoo said, and Baekhyun let out an incredulous snort at the idea.

 

“Seriously? With Chanyeol..?”

 

Kyungsoo began picking absently at the stray grains of rice on the bottom of his lunchbox, moving them into little piles in each corner. “Well, I mean… in the sack, he seems like he could be either really good, or completely terrible, you know. Like he'd be super into it, but at the same time those gigantor limbs would probably fly all over the place, and he'd end up giving you a black eye or something.”

 

Jongdae rolled over backwards onto the grass, laughing his head off. “I guess if Baek ever comes to work with visible injuries, then we’ll know why..”

 

“I don’t know… he just seems like a bit of a dickhead to me,” Baekhyun said, ignoring Jongdae. He didn’t actually believe that this was true, at least not anymore… but insulting Chanyeol was the best idea he could think of to get his friends off his case. In reality, it only made him feel like a bit of a dickhead himself.

 

"Nah... I know my dickheads," Kyungsoo replied, shaking his head. "Jongdae here is your classic dickhead -- (Jongdae simply nodded at this, as though it were a universal truth) -- but Chanyeol isn't what I'd call a dickhead… he’s just confident. There's a difference."

 

“Well, why don’t you go after him, Soo, since you seem to love his ass so much..” Baekhyun muttered, and Kyungsoo let out a weary sigh.

 

“Because I don’t swing that way, obviously… although I must admit I did think about it very briefly, the first time I saw him roll up his sleeves.”

“Me too, man… me too,” Jongdae said quietly, and Kyungsoo leaned forward so they could bump their fists together in an expression of solemn agreement. Baekhyun had had enough by then, and he got to his feet and brushed the crumbs off his trousers with both hands. 

 

“Alright… well, if you two want to waste your afternoon fantasising about my non-existent sex-life with Chanyeol, then that is your choice… but I’ll have to leave you to it. I’ve got another eight pages to finish before tomorrow, and you should both be doing the same.” Having said this, he picked up his lunch things and stormed off across the grass, without looking back at either of them.

 

 

 

 

As soon as he got home that night, Baekhyun sat down on the edge of his bed with the Thingamabob in his hands and closed his eyes, trying his hardest to remember a specific moment from a few years ago. He felt the device begin to warm up and buzz inside his fist, and then he blacked out.

When he opened his eyes again, he was standing in the corridor of what he recognised to be the company head office, right outside the wooden panelled door with the gold plaque that had the name Kim Minseok engraved into it. In his hands he was holding the completed draft manuscript for what would end up being his first and only published series, In Your Head.He was scheduled to meet with Mr. Kim in a few minutes, so that he could look over it and give Baekhyun his opinion.

 

Instead of lifting a hand to knock on the door, Baekhyun turned around and headed down the corridor towards the elevator, which he took down to the ground floor of the building, and then he strode through the foyer, stepping out into the street. He dumped the manuscript into the first garbage bin he saw and walked away.

 

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

Baekhyun was starting to wonder if showing his new work-in-progress to Chanyeol was such a good idea; this was not only because Chanyeol had already managed to splash ramyeon juice on it, but also because he seemed to be making out like it was far more entertaining than it really was. As much as Baekhyun appreciated Chanyeol’s efforts to spare his feelings, if he couldn’t handle giving or receiving honest feedback, then it was probably time he considered a different career path... one that was a little kinder to starry-eyed idealists.

His colleague was currently leaning against the table they were seated at, flicking through the draft of Baekhyun’s first chapter with one hand. The other hand was pressed to his mouth, which Baekhyun assumed was to cover up the fact that he was laughing. 

 

Baekhyun let out a heavy sigh. “Alright, I get it… you think it’s complete and utter crap. You wouldn’t even wipe your arse with the paper it’s drawn on. That’s why you’re laughing, right?”

 

“If you must know, I’m actually laughing because I think it’s hilarious… admittedly bizarre, but hilarious,” Chanyeol said. He turned the page and read in silence for a moment, then stifled another chuckle with the palm of his hand. “I mean, the fact that he time-travels with the aid of a toilet, of all things… who would even think that up? And the way each scene unfolds with such realism…” — here Chanyeol paused and looked up at Baekhyun with renewed interest. “It’s almost like you’ve experienced some of these things yourself..”

 

Baekhyun laughed nervously and scratched the back of his neck. “Aha… don’t be an idiot..”

 

Chanyeol went back to flicking through the draft, apparently forgetting Baekhyun was even there for a moment. “If I told you that I thought this story was brilliant and that I wanted to help you get a proper draft together, would you believe me, or would you think I was bullshitting you..?” he said at last, looking up from the page in front of him; to Baekhyun he seemed unmistakably sincere, if perhaps a little overexcited. “I mean, it really is great… and I feel like the target audience of the Maniac would find it very entertaining. The editorial department would be stupid not to at least consider it. What have you got to lose..?”

 

Baekhyun frowned. “I don’t know…” he said hesitantly. “The more I think about it, the more the concept seems, well… a bit daft.”

 

Chanyeol put the draft down on the table, sliding it back towards Baekhyun, and shook his head so forcefully that for a moment Baekhyun worried he might snap his neck. “Not at all. At any rate, at least it’s funny, and original… what other weirdo out there would ever think of something like this..?”

 

“Shut up,” Baekhyun groaned, rolling his eyes, but Chanyeol only laughed at him.

 

“I say that with the utmost sincerity and tenderness,” he said, grinning. “All in good fun, Byun… all in good fun.” He slapped his hands down on the table, making Baekhyun jump. “So, are you going to do it?” he asked. “I mean, at least show it to Chaerin first… she’s a good editor and she’ll know a decent story when she sees it. I’m sure she can advise you much better than I can.”

 

Baekhyun looked at the draft on the table for a long time in silence. Eventually he lifted his gaze to meet Chanyeol’s and gave a curt nod. “Okay,” he said quietly. “I might get her to look at it, then. But only when it’s done.”

 

“Excellent. I’m really glad you’re taking the plunge,” Chanyeol said. “In the meantime, if you need any assistance, especially with your backgrounds, I’d be more than happy to help.”

 

“I must say I’m a little curious about your abundant, uh, enthusiasm for this project,” Baekhyun said, and Chanyeol looked him right in the eye for a moment before he responded. 

 

“To be frank, I don’t have a motive for wanting to help you,” he replied. “I don’t really know you that well, and whether you get serialised or not is not really any of my concern. It’s just that… well, what Zitao said to you the other day… that really pissed me off. That comment made it personal..” 

 

Chanyeol paused for a moment and poked idly at a piece of pork floating over the top of his noodles, breaking it into pieces with his chopsticks. “Nothing makes me madder than seeing someone take a shit all over someone else’s dream, Baekhyun,” he said quietly. “No one has the right to do that… especially not some dickweed kid who doesn’t seem to deserve what he’s got. I have no time for such people. And I feel bad for not tearing him a new one when he was so rude you, but I was kind of just stunned into silence by what a douchebag he was. I mean, that’s the person we’re working for… how are we meant to keep our drive and our love for what we do, when we’re exposed to people like that..?”

 

Baekhyun looked down at his own half-empty bowl of ramyeon in silence for a moment. “Probably a good thing he hardly ever shows up then, hey..?” he said at last, smiling a little with one side of his mouth, and Chanyeol laughed heartily; he seemed to laugh with his whole body, and Baekhyun found it rather cute in spite of himself.

 

“Yeah, I can’t argue with that,” Chanyeol replied, when he’d calmed down a little. “But, like I said, if you need any help getting your draft together before you show it to Chaerin or someone else, I’ll assist in any way I can.”

 

“What do you want from me, exactly..?” Baekhyun asked, narrowing his eyes at Chanyeol. “Like, in return. Not to sound ungrateful for the offer, or anything… I’d just like to know upfront.”

 

“I don’t expect anything in return,” Chanyeol replied. “If I can help someone else get to where they want to be in this crazy industry, then that’s just a bonus.”

 

Baekhyun sighed and considered Chanyeol’s offer for a moment. “Okay,” he said, although he was still a little skeptical. “I guess I could use some help..”

 

“If you really insist on paying me back, you can buy me dinner sometime,” Chanyeol said, winking at him, and then he smiled.

 

Baekhyun nodded and offered him a weak smile in return. “Sure,” he said. “Of course.”

 

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

It was so sneaky, now that Baekhyun thought about it in hindsight — over the weeks that followed, he somehow ended up willingly going on all these dinner ‘dates’ with Chanyeol, without even realising they were dates at all… not until well after the fact. It was true that their evenings together always revolved around working on concepts for his new manga, but still, Baekhyun had to wonder why Chanyeol was really so keen on assisting him, and every so often, he would see the tiniest hint of a reason why. Maybe it was the lingering touch of Chanyeol’s fingers against his when he reached for something across the table… or the way Chanyeol looked into his eyes whenever he spoke, as though every single word that came out of Baekhyun’s mouth was the most interesting and important thing to ever grace his ears. 

But still, despite knowing deep down that he shouldn’t be encouraging the potential growth of any feelings, Baekhyun found he was starting to enjoy, even look forward to, their regular ‘catch-ups’, as he referred to them — he was still adamant that they were not dates… even though Chanyeol would pay for them both more often than not, except for those few occasions when Baekhyun outsmarted him and managed to get to the counter first; and even though Chanyeol would spend a good couple of seconds looking pointedly (and shamelessly) at Baekhyun’s lips before they said their goodbyes and parted ways for the night. But still, even if Baekhyun had wanted to kiss Chanyeol too (which he didn’t… not really), there was no kissing happening, and no holding hands, or any affectionate exchanges of any kind. In his eyes, this was more than enough proof that they most certainly were not dating.

 

Kyungsoo would have called this sort of thing ‘denial’, if he were any the wiser, but thankfully Kyungsoo hadn’t twigged yet — which was precisely how Baekhyun wanted to keep it, for as long as humanly possible. This naturally meant that every catch-up had to be treated as top-secret, and was only organised when no one else was within earshot.

 

“Hey,” Baekhyun said, leaning over to whisper in Chanyeol’s ear. “Can I have a quick word outside for a second..?”

 

Chanyeol looked up from the sketch he was inking in and capped his pen, putting it down on the desk. “Sure,” he said, getting up out of his seat.

 

When they were out in the corridor, Baekhyun looked back at the studio door to see if anyone was hanging around watching them, and then he turned to Chanyeol again.

 

“I’ve started roughly inking in a few pages for the next chapter, but I was wondering if I could show you some of my background concepts before I continue,” he said. “And, uh, maybe get some help with them… if that’s okay.”

 

Chanyeol shrugged. “Sure, that’s cool. How about we get together over dinner again tonight? I know this great chicken place I’ve been wanting to take you to… the garlic sauce will knock your socks right off, guaranteed.”

 

Baekhyun laughed and nodded his head. “Sounds good. We can head straight there after we’re done for the day.”

 

“Great. I have to warn you though… it’s some seriously strong shit. Like you'll be tasting garlic for a week afterwards,” Chanyeol said, and Baekhyun rolled his eyes.

 

“What do I care? It’s not like I’m gonna make out with anyone in that time..”

 

Chanyeol pouted cutely at that. “Dang… way to shatter my dreams,” he said, wearing that lopsided little smile of his, his voice lowered to almost a whisper. He was leaning quite close to Baekhyun at that point, but then Kyungsoo came charging down the corridor towards them, and they quickly pulled apart again.

 

“Coming through, lovers..” Kyungsoo muttered, and he disappeared into the bathroom before either of them had a chance to respond.

 

 

Baekhyun shook his head and sighed. So much for secrecy.

 

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

Baekhyun wasn’t able to hide behind his denial of Chanyeol’s growing feelings for much longer. In fact, those feelings became quite clear to him that very same evening.

 

“So,” Chanyeol had said, when they were in the middle of dinner. “What have you got for me, then..?”

 

Baekhyun reached behind him to where his satchel was hanging off his chair, and pulled out a plastic sleeve with several loose sheets inside it. “Well, I went and did some further concept sketches and then inked them in, if you’d like to see.” He handed the sleeve to Chanyeol, who took the sketches from inside it very carefully, as though they were the most precious things he’d ever held, and then began to look through them one by one.

 

“Baek, these are great,” he said, his brown eyes lighting up as he flicked through the pages. “Everything looks excellent…”

 

Baekhyun glowed inside at the compliment. “You think so..?”

 

“Definitely,” Chanyeol replied, with an emphatic nod of his head, which made his wavy red hair flop about comically. He looked up for a moment and gave Baekhyun a knowing little smile. “And I don’t know if you’ve realised this, but the main character kinda looks more like you every time I see him.”

 

Baekhyun held out a hand to take back the sketch Chanyeol had been looking at, and frowned a little as he squinted down at it. “He does..?”

 

Chanyeol downed nearly half of his beer in one long swallow and set the glass down next to him on the table, wiping his hands on his jeans to make sure they were dry before picking up the pages again. “Sure… he’s got that whole floppy boy-band hairdo thing going on. And those are definitely your pretty eyes..”

 

Baekhyun couldn’t hold back the nervous chuckle that escaped his lips, even though a big part of him wanted to crawl under the table after Chanyeol’s reference to his so-called ‘pretty eyes’. “I feel like we're talking about a child..” he said.

 

“I suppose we are, in a way,” Chanyeol replied; he looked up at Baekhyun from the page he was holding and smiled.

 

 

 

When they were standing outside the restaurant later, about to part ways for the evening, Chanyeol grabbed Baekhyun’s elbow, pulling him back before he could get very far.

 

“Hey,” he said, his eyes searching Baekhyun’s earnestly. “I was wondering… do you wanna go out sometime, maybe..?”

 

Baekhyun looked up at him blankly. “Like what we just did, you mean..?” he asked, and Chanyeol let out a nervous chuckle. 

 

“Well, that’s not quite what I meant..” he said, scratching the back of his neck, “but kind of, yeah.”

 

Baekhyun continued to stare at Chanyeol, and then his eyes widened; the true meaning of Chanyeol’s words finally hit him so hard that he felt winded for a moment. “Wait – you don’t mean ‘out-for-chicken-and-beer’ out… you mean… out out. Like… a date.”

 

“Well, yeah..” Chanyeol replied, laughing. “I’m glad you finally figured it out..”

 

Baekhyun stood there nodding for God knows how long before he finally snapped out of it. “Um, this might be bad timing, but I just realised I really need to go to the toilet,” he said, and then he let out a stupid, nervous giggle. “Must be all that beer…” As soon as he said this he remembered he’d only consumed one beer to Chanyeol’s three, and mentally cursed himself, hoping Chanyeol wouldn’t pick up on it. But Chanyeol only shrugged and nodded his head in agreement.

 

“No problem,” he said, and he folded his arms, leaning casually against the outside wall of the restaurant. “I’ll wait for you right here. And then when you get out, I’ll take you home. To your place. I mean… just to make sure you get home safe, that’s all..”

Chanyeol’s normally steady voice wavered a little as he said this, and Baekhyun looked up at him in barely-concealed horror. If anything, his apartment was in the complete opposite direction to where Chanyeol apparently lived, at least from where they were now. It wasn’t even within walking distance. There was no reason whatsoever for Chanyeol to accompany him home. 

 

Unless, of course, he wanted to come inside.

 

 

“Uh, thanks — won’t be long,” Baekhyun said quickly, and he turned around on his heel and ran back inside the restaurant, nearly knocking over a waitress carrying a tray of fancy-looking cocktails with umbrellas in them during his mad dash to the bathroom. Once he got inside he locked himself in one of the stalls and pulled the Thingamabob from where it nestled safely inside his satchel, holding it in his hands and thinking really hard, trying to find a particular moment to return to. For some reason the first thing that came to mind was the moment when Chanyeol had gotten a blob of garlic sauce on his lip without knowing, and had only realised it was there because Baekhyun had been trying unsuccessfully not to laugh at him for a good few minutes. Feeling the Thingamabob warm up in his hands, Baekhyun began to feel woozy, and then he blacked out.

 

When he opened his eyes again, he was back at the table, and Chanyeol was sitting in front of him, wiping his lips with a slow, sensual swipe of his thumb. He then licked the sauce away from it with his tongue, just as he had earlier. Baekhyun swallowed thickly; somehow the gesture seemed even more erotic the second time around than it did the first time. It was almost as though Chanyeol knew on some level that he was living through that very moment all over again, and was ramping up the sauciness just to torture him.

 

This time, as soon as they’d finished their dinner and left the restaurant, Baekhyun quickly hurried off before Chanyeol had a chance to either ask him out or offer to take him home, holding up his hand in a quick gesture of farewell and yelling out “thanks for tonight — see you tomorrow..!” without even bothering to turn his head. It wasn’t until he’d power-walked an entire block that he finally turned around to look, and of course by then Chanyeol was gone.

 

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

The next day in the studio, Chanyeol seemed a little cold towards Baekhyun, giving him a quick smile in place of a proper greeting, and plopping himself down on the chair next to him in silence. Baekhyun was itching to ask what was wrong, but he couldn’t do it in front of the others — especially Zitao, who had actually decided to show up that day. For some reason, Baekhyun was convinced that if Zitao got so much as a whiff of their friendship, Chanyeol would be next on the list of things he tried to take away from him. He didn’t know why this thought bothered him so much, given that Chanyeol was just a friend, and had never shown any interest or liking for Zitao whatsoever… but still, Zitao was just one of those people: whenever he got it into his head that he wanted something, he always seemed to get it.

 

While Baekhyun was having these thoughts, Chanyeol must have decided he was over what had happened between them the night before, because he suddenly nudged Baekhyun’s shoulder. “Check this out," he whispered, flicking the sketch he'd been busy working on across to Baekhyun’s desk. Baekhyun looked down at it: Chanyeol had sketched a very detailed city skyline in pencil, with a rather prominent tower sticking right up out of it that, to Baekhyun at least, was very obviously phallic. Baekhyun looked at Chanyeol again with his eyes wide and his brows raised to his hairline, silently mouthing 'what are you doing..?’ at him, but Chanyeol only gave him a little wink before swivelling around in his chair to face the desk where Zitao was seated at the front of the room.

"What do you think of this background I’ve come up with, Zitao?” he called out loudly, so that everyone else would look up, and he held up the sketch for Zitao to see. Baekhyun's eyes flickered over to Kyungsoo, and then to Jongdae, both of whom had just seen the sketch, and who looked as though they were trying very hard not to laugh. Zitao didn't seem to pick up on this; he quickly glanced at the paper Chanyeol was holding, barely long enough to see what was on it, and then he waved his hand dismissively. "Looks great," he droned, “perfect… beautiful… go ahead and ink it in. Chop chop, we haven’t got all day..”

 

Chanyeol shrugged and turned around in his chair again, flashing Baekhyun a winning smile. "Excellent," he said, "I'll get right on it."

 

He leaned over then until his lips were close to Baekhyun’s ear. “I might add an enormous, gushing fountain to the top of this tower... what do you think..?”

 

 

Baekhyun immediately clamped a hand over his mouth, got up from his chair and walked out of the room.

 

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

“You and Chanyeol seem to have taken a real shine to each other of late..” Kyungsoo said casually one morning, while they were standing inside The Grind waiting for Yixing to make their coffees. Baekhyun pursed his lips; he had been anticipating such a remark for a while now. If anything, he was surprised it hadn’t come a lot sooner.

 

“It's not what you think,” he said. “He’s just been helping me out with a new manga idea I’ve been working on, that’s all..”

 

“Oh, is that what you call it?” Kyungsoo replied, shooting Baekhyun a knowing look. “What else is he ‘helping you out’ with..?”

 

Baekhyun exhaled through gritted teeth and lifted a slightly shaky hand to rub his temple. It was too early in the morning for this conversation — he wasn’t even pumped full of caffeine yet. “Well, we’re certainly not fucking each other, if that's what you're implying,” he said wearily.

 

“Dammit,” Kyungsoo muttered, mostly to himself. “I owe Jongdae ten bucks now..”

 

Baekhyun, who had been daydreaming at that particular moment, turned his head to look at Kyungsoo with his brow furrowed in confusion. “You owe who what now..?”

 

“Never mind,” Kyungsoo said, shaking his head; he accepted the cardboard tray with their coffees in it from Yixing’s hands, thanking him with a smile.  “Really, though, if you enjoy Chanyeol’s company so much, why don’t you ask him out? He’s a genuinely nice guy, and he does seem to like you a lot. Especially if he’s spending all his free time ‘helping you out’, as you say..”

 

Baekhyun sighed quietly. It wasn’t like he hadn’t thought about asking Chanyeol out; lately, the more time he spent hanging around Chanyeol, the more he did think about it. And that of course only led to more thoughts of Chanyeol’s smile, and Chanyeol’s nice-looking hands, and Chanyeol’s deep voice… and Chanyeol’s sexy, veiny arms that made a welcome appearance whenever he rolled up his sleeves at work — and, well, it seemed like it would be a lot easier to just not think about dating Chanyeol at all, ever. 

 

 

Easier, but at the same time impossible.

 

“I’ll think about it,” Baekhyun said.

 

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

It took Baekhyun another few weeks of ‘thinking about it’ (and, in doing so, making life very hard for himself) before he worked up the guts to properly ask Chanyeol out on a date. He’d been half hoping during that time that Chanyeol would do it, mostly so he wouldn’t have to do it himself… but he never did. At one point, Baekhyun had resorted to revisiting the night when Chanyeol had first asked him out, just to see if it would happen again — and he spent a good deal of time coaching himself on how to respond if it did happen — but for reasons beyond his comprehension, Chanyeol didn’t do it. At the end of the night he simply bid Baekhyun a friendly farewell and went home, prompting Baekhyun to think he had perhaps imagined the whole incident to begin with. 

On the other hand, Chanyeol was still very keen on meeting up regularly after work and helping Baekhyun out with his manuscript. He’d even come up with a working title for it: Jump!, which, although it was simple, had really begun to grow on Baekhyun for some reason. At any rate, he didn’t have any better ideas… up until then he’d been referring to his work-in-progress as The Boy Who Leapt Through Toilets, which was too wordy, too obvious, and completely embarrassing.Coming up with decent titles had never been his forte.

 

It soon began to dawn on Baekhyun that he would have to do all the dirty work on his own. Unfortunately, he always seemed to chicken out at the last second, and then he’d have to run off somewhere private to leap back a few hours and undo the whole experience again… until, finally, the words came tumbling out one Friday night, when he was alone in the studio with Chanyeol. Both of them had stayed back late to work on some concept art for Jump! together, and Jongdae and Kyungsoo had long since gone home, leaving the two of them by themselves. Kyungsoo had suggestively wiggled his eyebrows in Baekhyun’s direction before walking out the door, which had earned him a death-glare and a stealthy flip of the bird in return.

“So, I was wondering… do you want to go out..?” Baekhyun blurted out, completely out of nowhere, after they’d been working in silence for a while, and Chanyeol stopped humming along to whatever song he was listening to on his iPod. He popped the earbud out of his ear and turned his head to look at Baekhyun blankly for a moment, blinking a few times like he’d just woken up.

 

“Now..? Well, sure, I guess…” he said hesitantly, looking down at his watch — a huge, chunky monstrosity with more dials on it than Baekhyun had ever seen on a timepiece — but Baekhyun shook his head. 

 

“No,” he said, “I mean, do you want to go out. Like, on a date.”

 

Chanyeol stared at Baekhyun without replying for a moment. His mouth was open slightly, as though he wanted to say something but couldn’t find the right words.

 

“Look, I know I'm probably not your type, or whatever..” Baekhyun sighed, breaking the excruciating silence at last, but Chanyeol cut him short by laughing softly.

 

“I don't really have a type, Baek,” he said, with a gentle smile gracing his features… and then the smile began to gradually grow wider, which only made Baekhyun feel smaller and smaller, until finally he couldn’t take it anymore.

 

“Okay, I get it, it was a fucking dumb idea… just forget I ever asked,” he muttered, and he quickly got up from his seat and began making his way towards the studio door. He was planning on taking refuge in the bathroom for a while, and then he’d probably undo the whole thing later when he got home… but he didn’t get very far before hearing footsteps coming quickly behind him.

 

“Wait..” Chanyeol said, reaching out a hand to hold him back, and Baekhyun flinched as it fell warm and heavy on his shoulder. He stopped in his tracks, but he couldn’t bring himself to turn around for fear of what expression Chanyeol might be wearing.

 

“Yeah,” Chanyeol said quietly, his hand still on Baekhyun’s shoulder. After a moment he seemed to remember it was there, and he moved it away. “Of course I'll go out with you… I mean, I really want to.”

 

When Baekhyun finally turned around to look at Chanyeol, he saw that he was smiling. “Seriously..?” he asked, and Chanyeol laughed.

 

“God, you’re even cuter when you're all flustered,” he said. He was grinning even wider now, and Baekhyun reached over to give him an indignant shove.

 

“Shut your hole,” he muttered. “This is really hard for me, you know.”

 

“It's not a big deal, Baekhyun… you’re allowed to be attracted to me,” Chanyeol said matter-of-factly, and then he smirked a little. “I mean, who wouldn't be..?”

 

Baekhyun exhaled loudly in exasperation and turned away from him again. “Bye, Chanyeol..”

 

“Tomorrow night,” Chanyeol said, reaching out to hold him back again. “You free..?”

 

Baekhyun hesitantly turned his head to look at Chanyeol and nodded slowly. “Uh… Yeah. I am..”

 

“Cool,” Chanyeol replied, and then he let go of Baekhyun’s arm. “You can come over to my place if you want. We can get shit-faced and explore each other's bodies or something.”

 

Baekhyun just gawked at him, mildly horrified at the suggestion, until Chanyeol sighed loudly and rolled his eyes.

 

“It was a joke, Baekhyun... a joke. Look, I’ll meet you outside your place at seven, and we’ll go somewhere nice for dinner — you can pick the venue. There’ll be no talk of drafts or concepts this time, nothing whatsoever work-related… just the two of us having a good time, and getting to know each other better. Does that sound okay..?”

 

Baekhyun looked up at Chanyeol warily through the strands of his fringe. He exhaled forcefully, blowing his hair away from his eyes, and said, “yeah, alright. That sounds fine.”

 

“Don't look so nervous,” Chanyeol said, smiling crookedly at him. “Nothing unseemly will happen. I promise.”

 

Baekhyun nodded and was about to walk away again when Chanyeol reached out to touch him once more. His fingers skimmed over where Baekhyun’s shoulder peeked out of his sweater, raising goosebumps over his bare skin, and then his hand trailed slowly down Baekhyun’s arm. When his hand finally reached Baekhyun’s, he took it in his own and gave it a reassuring squeeze.

 

“I like you a lot, Baek,” he said, looking into Baekhyun’s eyes; his expression was much more solemn now. “And sure, I want to give dating a shot, but only if you do too. If it doesn’t work out, or you think it’ll jeopardise our professional relationship, then we can put a stop to it and just go back to being friends. Either way, I’m happy.”

 

Baekhyun looked at Chanyeol for a long time; somehow he knew it wouldn’t be that simple, but he nodded anyway. “Alright,” he said. “So… I’ll see you tomorrow night, then..?”

 

“Okay,” Chanyeol said quietly, and he leaned forward, giving Baekhyun a little kiss on the side of his face, just in front of his ear. “Goodnight, cutie,” he whispered, and then he quickly packed up his things, grabbed his backpack from the back of his chair and walked right out the studio door, still wearing that infuriatingly smug little smile. He left Baekhyun standing in the middle of the room, listlessly rubbing his cheek for a minute or two before he finally snapped out of it and locked up for the night.

 

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

The next evening, at precisely 7 o’clock, Baekhyun received a text on his phone telling him that Chanyeol was waiting out the front of his building. When he got outside he saw Chanyeol standing out on the pavement, looking smart in tight black jeans and a vintage-looking leather jacket, his red hair swept up off his face. 

“Hey,” he said, when he saw Baekhyun walking towards him. “You look great..”

 

Baekhyun looked down at the black leather wingtips he was wearing and shoved his hands deeper into the pockets of his trousers. He’d left the Thingamabob at home this time; he’d been relying on it too much lately, and he was determined to at least try to get through a night without it. “Uh, thanks… you too,” he said. “So… shall we?”

 

Chanyeol nodded and held out his hand in Baekhyun’s direction. “Sure. Where are we going..?” he asked. He left his hand hanging stupidly in mid-air for what felt like ages before Baekhyun realised what he was doing and reached out to hold it.

 

“Fucking finally…” Chanyeol blurted out, shaking his head and laughing. “I was starting to think you’d never seen a hand before..”

 

“Shut up,” Baekhyun said flatly. “Anyway, there’s a good little Italian place called Pulcinella’s only a few blocks from here, if you like Italian. I was thinking maybe we could go there.”

 

“I love Italian,” Chanyeol replied, still smiling. Although it was cool outside, his hand in Baekhyun’s was warm. “Lead the way, good sir.”

 

 

 

When they arrived at the restaurant and were waiting in line to be seated, Baekhyun turned to Chanyeol and said, “do you mind if we sit outside? I know it’s still a little chilly out, but I always feel the need to smoke when I’m nervous. And this place has a nice little courtyard out back.”

 

Chanyeol laughed at the request, but it was a good-natured laugh, and not at all mocking. “Sure, I’m cool with that. Why are you nervous, though? It’s only me.”

 

Baekhyun shook his head. “I’m not sure,” he said quietly; without the Thingamabob on him, he felt vulnerable, perhaps even a bit naked. He was itching to smoke right then and there, but figured he should at least wait until they were seated. 

 

 

After a minute or two, a young waiter led them both through the restaurant and out the back door, leading to a cozy private courtyard, where several two-seater tables were arranged, one in each corner and two in the middle. There was only one other couple seated out there, a young man and woman leaning close to each other, speaking in hushed voices. The courtyard walls were trellised, covered with ivy and flowering vines, and there were strands of red-and-green coloured fairy lights strung across it, dipping lower in the centre; Baekhyun avoided them by a comfortable distance, but Chanyeol, gargantuan as he was, only narrowly missed taking the whole thing down with his head on his way through. Flickering candles in red glass jars and some old guy crooning softly in Italian in the background added to the romantic atmosphere of the place; Chanyeol was wearing an expression of slight amusement as the waiter seated them at one of the corner tables, setting an ashtray in the middle of it per Baekhyun’s request, but he said nothing.

 

“A beer, please,” Baekhyun said to the waiter, and then turned to Chanyeol. “What'll you have..?”

 

“Make that two,” Chanyeol replied, holding up two fingers, and the waiter nodded politely, handing them their dinner menus before hurrying back inside.

 

“God, I’ve always hated talking about myself… I don’t have to do that, do I…?” Baekhyun said, reaching into his pocket for his cigarettes. “Do you want one?” he asked, putting one into his mouth and lighting it up; he knew Chanyeol smoked too, by his own admission, but had never seen him indulge.

 

Chanyeol shook his head and patted the pockets of his jacket. “I’m all set… I prefer not to smoke until after dinner, anyway. I find it spoils the palate.”

 

“Only if you prefer the taste of food to a cigarette..” Baekhyun said quietly; suddenly feeling a little more confident, he blew a few smoke rings into the air above their table, watching them break up and disperse, and then he threw a little wink in Chanyeol’s direction. Chanyeol laughed and bit his lip, leaning forward a little across the table.

 

“I’d like to see what else those lips can do,” he said, almost whispering — which was just as well, given that the waiter had picked that precise moment to bring their drinks over to the table. Baekhyun could feel his face warming up a little, and was glad for the sudden break in their conversation; they both ordered their food, and Baekhyun followed the waiter with his eyes as he walked away, briefly attending to the other couple and picking up a few empty dishes before disappearing inside the restaurant again.

 

 

Their meal, when it arrived, was eaten in relative silence. It wasn’t an uncomfortable silence, really, but since they weren’t supposed to talk about work for once, Baekhyun didn’t know what else there was to talk about, other than himself — there were only so many ways he could compliment his delicious mushroom risotto before he sounded like a broken record. He already knew a handful of things about Chanyeol… just a few of his hobbies and preferences, and other little bits of trivia he’d picked up along the way, but the things he really was curious about were things he didn’t yet feel comfortable enough to ask. Eventually they ended up talking about work anyway, which Baekhyun supposed wasn’t such a bad thing; it was only a first date, after all, so there was plenty of time to get to the other stuff.

 

When they’d finished eating and their dishes had been cleared away, Baekhyun took out his wallet and put it on the table in front of him, and Chanyeol shook his head. “Um, no you don’t, Byun. Do not even try..”

 

“Uh, yeah I am,” Baekhyun replied, puffing his chest out slightly. “I’m the one that asked you out, therefore I’m paying..” While he was busy fishing around for his lighter, Chanyeol reached over and grabbed the wallet, before Baekhyun had time to stop him.

 

“Hey..!” Baekhyun cried out, trying in vain to snatch it back, but Chanyeol only held it up out of his reach. “Say arrivederci to your wallet, Byun, ‘cause I’m only giving it back to you after the bill’s been paid — by moi,” he said, smirking a little. “Ce soir is entirely on me, mi amigo..”

 

“You’re getting your Romance languages mixed up,” Baekhyun said, and then he sighed. “Fine… alright. Given that I’m agreeing to let you pay, can I at least have my wallet back now..?”

 

Chanyeol looked at Baekhyun for a moment, chewing his lip, and then his eyes flickered back to the black leather wallet in his hands. He flipped it open and spread the note compartment apart with his thumbs, peering inside.

 

“Do you mind..?” Baekhyun said irritably; he leaned over and tried once more to snatch the wallet out of Chanyeol’s hands, but Chanyeol only moved it away again.

 

“Sorry,” he said absently, still looking through the wallet’s contents. “I’m just trying to learn a little more about you, seeing as you seem so reluctant to tell me anything worthwhile about yourself. Now, I do realise that snooping around in someone’s wallet as a way of finding out more about them is, well, perhaps a little unorthodox—”

 

“D’you think..?” Baekhyun muttered sarcastically, but Chanyeol paid him no mind.

 

“…but you haven’t really given me much of a choice, now, have you..?” he continued, and he flashed a smile at Baekhyun as he dug out a condom in a bright pink foil wrapper, holding it between thumb and forefinger. He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.

 

“I like to be prepared, that’s all,” Baekhyun muttered; this remark was directed more towards the table than to Chanyeol. “Anyway, I didn’t know they’d be pink until I opened the fucking box, did I..?”

 

Chanyeol didn’t say anything for a moment; instead he dug around in his jeans pocket and pulled out a strip of several condom packets all joined together, all in different colours, which he threw onto the table in front of Baekhyun. Baekhyun stared down at the little prophylactic rainbow before him, his face burning with mortification.

 

“Well, consider me eight times more prepared than you,” Chanyeol said, once again smiling that infuriating lopsided smile of his, and then he reached over and took the condoms back, stuffing them into his pocket. He then put a small black-and-white photograph face-up onto the table, sliding it closer to Baekhyun. “So who’s this handsome fellow, then..?”

 

Baekhyun looked down at the photo and fell silent; he could sense Chanyeol staring at his face, trying to gauge his reaction to seeing the picture that was laid out in front of him, but he was too lost for words to reply. After a long moment in which neither of them said anything, Chanyeol gently slipped the photo off the table and put it back inside Baekhyun’s wallet. He snapped the wallet closed and handed it back to him.

 

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I didn’t mean to pry into your personal life, and I can see I’ve probably upset you. If it’s something you’d rather not talk about, then you don’t have to tell me anything.”

 

Baekhyun nodded quietly and accepted the wallet, returning it to the back pocket of his trousers. He pulled out his cigarettes and extracted one from the packet before attempting to light it; his fingers trembled slightly as he did so, and he had difficulty working the lighter, his thumb repeatedly slipping against the wheel. He swore under his breath, and then he saw Chanyeol’s hand cautiously moving towards him.

 

“Here,” Chanyeol said gently, taking the lighter from him. “Mind if I try..?”

 

“Okay,” Baekhyun said, a little hesitantly. He held the cigarette between his lips and Chanyeol leaned closer to light it for him, cupping his hand around the flame to protect it from the slight breeze that was blowing through the trellises. He then took a nice-looking red-and-gold enamelled case from his pocket and lit up one of his own cigarettes, exhaling a cloud of smoke before passing the lighter back to Baekhyun. Baekhyun nodded his head in silent thanks and dropped it back into his pocket.

 

“I like your lighter,” Chanyeol said, taking another leisurely drag on his cigarette. “Very snazzy..”

 

Baekhyun took the lighter back out of his pocket again and looked at it. “This old thing?” he said, and he frowned a little as he inspected it closely. “I guess it is pretty cool. It was a birthday gift from… well, an old flame.”

 

Chanyeol laughed and rolled his eyes skywards. “Aha… an ‘old flame’… I see what you did there.”

 

Baekhyun smiled a little, but it quickly faded away. He held his cigarette between his lips and turned the lighter around in his hands, tracing the engraved letters spelling out Happy Birthday Baekhyun in the polished silver surface with the tip of a finger. It was interesting that Jongin had bought him a fancy lighter in the first place, because he’d never really approved of Baekhyun’s smoking habit while they were together, always shooing him out onto the balcony whenever he felt like a cigarette, and ambushing him with a cloud of body spray when he tried to come back in. The combination of smoke and deodorant always made their apartment smell like the bedroom of a wayward schoolboy afterwards. Even years later, Baekhyun couldn’t get a whiff of cheap cologne mixed with cigarette smoke without thoughts of Jongin drifting to the surface: the soft laugh and plump lips; the hooded brown eyes that seemed somehow distant, always looking somewhere beyond him.

 

Chanyeol looked at Baekhyun intently for a long time before he spoke again. “It was the guy in the photo, wasn’t it..?” he said at last, lowering his voice a little. “Who gave you the lighter, I mean.”

 

Baekhyun continued to fiddle with the lighter for a little while, too distracted to reply. “I’m not sure why he gave it to me, to tell you the truth,” he said thoughtfully. “He never liked the fact that I smoked. Sometimes I think the reason I find it so hard to quit is because I like having an excuse to keep using it.”

 

“What happened..?” Chanyeol asked. “If you don’t mind me asking, that is.”

 

Baekhyun was silent for a while before he responded; he took a long drag on his cigarette and flicked the accumulating ash into the ashtray in front of him.

 

“It’s a very long story,” he said. “But it’s certainly not boring… I can promise you that.”

 

“I’d like to hear it,” Chanyeol replied. “But only if you feel like you can tell me. I won’t try to bully it out of you.”

 

Baekhyun frowned a little, staring absently at the wisps of smoke curling up into the air in front of his eyes.  “I haven’t really spoken about him much since our relationship ended, so the mere thought makes me nervous,” he said. “I used to find it hard to even think his name inside my head, let alone talk about him to someone else. And it’s just… it’s such a bizarre story… I’ve always felt like people would judge me, or talk badly about him, if they knew what really went down. I could never bear the thought of that happening. That’s why I never really talk about it.”

 

Chanyeol reached across the table and put his hand on top of Baekhyun’s; it was a little rough, but warm. “It’s okay,” he said. “It’s only me. I won’t say anything at all about it, not unless you ask me to.”

 

Baekhyun took a deep breath and nodded. “Alright. I know how weird this will sound, but… a few years ago, I was in a relationship with this guy called Jongin… we were quite serious, and living together, and I was pretty sure that we were happy. We met at a convention, of all places, so for a while it seemed very serendipitous, very fitting… like a match made in Heaven, if you believe in shit like that. Jongin was really into science fiction, and he’d read a lot of manga himself, so he thought it was great that I wanted to be a manga artist; he always supported me in my attempts to further my career, especially because, by his own admission, he didn’t have an artistic bone in his body – although I always disagreed with this, because he had a job as a feature writer for a sci-fi magazine… but anyway, I’m getting off track, I’m sorry..”

 

“It’s fine,” Chanyeol said gently, and smiled. “You haven’t lost me yet. I’m still very much awake.”

 

Baekhyun chuckled nervously, and then paused for a moment before continuing. “Well, one day, when trying to come up with an interesting new piece to write for the magazine he worked for, he uh… he stumbled across this ad in the classifieds section of the Telegraph, requesting ‘a companion for a time-travel quest’ – in those exact words. There was no phone number, or any other contact details – just a residential address, in a small town a few hours south of here.”

 

Chanyeol nodded, frowning a little. “Hmm… bizarre,” he said quietly, and Baekhyun sighed.

 

“I know,” he said. “Well, anyway, Jongin was really excited about it – he was all like, “I need to find whoever wrote this ad and see if they’re serious. I could get a really good story out of it,” and so on and so forth. And I was like, okay, yeah, you should do it then, because I could see how keen he was about it, and I wanted to be supportive of him too… even though admittedly, at the time, I just thought he was nuts. And then he announced that he was going to drive down south for the weekend, and see if he could find the person who wrote the ad and meet up with him or her, just to see what came of it. I offered to accompany him, of course, but he said he would prefer to go alone. I was a little hurt by that, but I could see that it was important to him, so I agreed. And I let him go.”

 

Chanyeol was looking at Baekhyun intently now, his cigarette resting forgotten between the fingers of his other hand, a column of ashes sprouting up out of the tip. Baekhyun looked down at it just in time to see a bit of hot ash fall onto Chanyeol’s knuckles, and he yelped in surprise and flicked it away.

 

“Sorry,” he said, shaking his hand a little before putting it back on the table, and then he laughed. “You really had me reeled in for a moment there. Please, continue.”

 

“Okay,” Baekhyun said quietly, nodding his head. “So, we had breakfast together on the Friday morning before he left, and he set off that night after he finished work. He was supposed to get back home two days later, on the Sunday, and so I tried calling him on Sunday morning to see when he was expecting to be back, but I couldn’t get through. I knew he was somewhere fairly remote and figured maybe he had a weak signal, so at the time, I didn’t really think too much of it. At midnight on Sunday, he still wasn’t home. When I woke up on Monday morning, after barely sleeping a wink all night, there was still no sign of him… no missed calls or voicemail, no texts, nothing — which I thought was very suspicious, because it wasn’t like him at all not to keep in contact. I tried calling numerous times and got nowhere, and I became concerned enough that I called the police and reported him missing that same day.”

 

Chanyeol’s brow furrowed. He had his hand resting on his chin, apparently deeply absorbed in Baekhyun’s story. “God..” he whispered. “Did they find him..?”

 

Baekhyun stared down at Chanyeol’s thumb, which was gently rubbing his hand, an apparent gesture of comfort and encouragement. It made him feel better about telling the next part of the story, the part he dreaded the most; the thought of having to recount it still made him feel sick, as though the entire ordeal were unfolding all over again. 

 

“They scoured the bushland in the town where he was staying, searched the motel he’d stayed at, knocked on every door… but they came up with nothing,” he said quietly, still looking down at their joined hands. “Eventually they found his car parked by a lake in the middle of a forest reserve, next to a rotting old pier, but there was no sign of him. The car itself was fine, the key was left in the ignition and his belongings were still in the boot… there was no evidence that anyone other than Jongin or myself had either been inside it or used it, and because I was able to prove I’d never left town that weekend, I wasn’t listed as a suspect. The police retained certain items for evidence and returned the rest to me, and eventually I went and gave everything else Jongin had left to his family — excluding the car, that is, since I’d helped pay it off at the time. I later traded it in for my current one, because the thought of driving it around, knowing something sinister might have happened in it… well, it kinda creeped me out. His family weren’t too pleased to hear from me… I wasn’t sure if they didn’t like him being involved with another man, or if they thought I was somehow responsible for his disappearance. I guess I don’t blame them, in a way. I mean, I was probably one of the last people to ever see him.”

 

Baekhyun took a deep breath and licked his dry lips to moisten them a little. It had been a long time since he’d said so many words at one time to someone else, but instead of making him miserable, it felt unexpectedly good, perhaps even cathartic. He paused for a moment before looking into Chanyeol’s eyes and continuing.

 

“Anyway, I suppose you’ve figured this out already, but Jongin was never found. He never called, never wrote, never came home… I haven’t seen or heard from him since the day he left. It took a long time to come to terms with it… to accept my grief, and go back to living some semblance of a normal life. I tried so hard to convince myself I wasn’t going mad, but all I could think was, well… either he met the person who wrote the ad, and they turned out to be some crazed lunatic who buried him in a shallow grave in the middle of nowhere, or perhaps there was a chance he’d met someone who really did have the ability to travel through time, and he’d gone off with them somewhere on some crazy journey, and just never found his way back. And I felt like I really was going mad for a while, because it sounded so stupid and impossible… but I still couldn’t help wondering if it was possible. Of course, when all the questions and the grief began to drive me to near insanity, I turned to other things to help me through it, alcohol and sex and whatever… a bit of dope when I was having a really bad day, but nothing hard. I did what I could just to keep myself from feeling anything, but of course these things only made me feel worse. Eventually I was able to compartmentalise and file away my pain, just long enough to convince myself that I was over it all. But when I really think about it, I don’t think I ever really got over it. I sort of have a feeling I never will.”

 

When he’d said this, Baekhyun let go of Chanyeol’s hand and patted it a few times, then put his cigarettes and his lighter back into his pocket.

“Well, that’s my sad little story,” he said with a sigh. “But still, you know, it isn’t over. I still wonder about him all the time: where he is, if he's okay… if he’s different now, even though I've stayed the same.”

 

Chanyeol shook his head. “I’m sure that’s not true, Baek,” he said. “People change all the time.”

 

“I know,” Baekhyun whispered. “I hate that.” He got up from his seat to pay the bill without saying another word, and this time Chanyeol didn’t try to stop him.

 

 

 

 

“So. What now..?” Baekhyun asked, when they’d finally left the restaurant and were standing out in the street, and Chanyeol gave a little shrug of his shoulders.

 

“Dunno,” he said, kicking at the ground with the toe of his boot. “You wanna make out?”

 

Baekhyun stared at him incredulously. “Are you always this direct..?” he asked, and Chanyeol looked down at him with something in his eyes that Baekhyun couldn’t read.

 

“It’s a yes-or-no question,” he said quietly.

 

Baekhyun thought about it for a moment, and then nodded. “Fine,” he said. He’d meant to sound decisive, unaffected, but his voice sounded embarrassingly wobbly. It was surprisingly easy to fuck up a single-word response when Chanyeol was looking at him like that, with the coloured lights from the night markets across the street shining in his eyes. His cheeks were pink from the cold wind that had picked up, or perhaps from the beer he’d drunk earlier… or maybe it was shyness. Maybe it was all three.

 

“Come a little closer,” Chanyeol whispered, and he reached over to grab the sleeve of Baekhyun’s sweater. He pulled him forward until they were standing close together and opened up his jacket, wrapping it around Baekhyun’s body. It wasn’t until he was standing so close to him that Baekhyun realised Chanyeol had a scent, unlike anything he’d ever smelled before: a combination of things, familiar and nostalgic and pleasant, each of them plucked from somewhere in his olfactory memory — tobacco and well-worn leather, and the very faint mustiness of clothing that had been stowed away a little too long. It was a nice, comforting smell, he decided.

 

Chanyeol looked down at him and began to lower his head ever so slightly, but then he paused at the last second.

 

“Close your eyes,” he said, his voice laced with amusement, and, Baekhyun noticed, the faintest trace of irritation. “Bloody hell, don’t look so worried. I’m not going to swallow you whole.”

 

“Sorry,” Baekhyun muttered, taking a sudden interest in Chanyeol’s collar to avoid looking directly at him. “It’s… kinda been a while since I’ve done this.”

 

Chanyeol laughed softly; with his hand under Baekhyun’s chin, he gently tilted his head upwards, until he was forced to look him in the eye. “Don’t apologise,” he said. “God, you’re cute..”

 

“How am I cute..?” Baekhyun protested, scrunching up his face at the compliment, and Chanyeol let out a long sigh of exasperation.

 

“I don’t bloody know,” he said. “Don’t get defensive… it’s not a bad thing, at all.”

 

Before Baekhyun had a chance to respond, Chanyeol leaned down to kiss him at last, effectively shutting him up for a while. There had been a lot of things piled up on the tip of Baekhyun’s tongue, ready and waiting to roll off it, but with the advent of the kiss they seemed to all melt away, leaving his mind completely blank. Chanyeol’s lips were dry but soft, and he still tasted like cigarettes, but Baekhyun figured he did too, and he quite liked the taste anyway. 

 

 

“Would you like to hang out at my place for a bit..? It’s not too far from here if we hop in a cab,” Chanyeol said, when they’d pulled apart; one of his hands was still resting beneath Baekhyun’s chin. He gently traced Baekhyun’s jaw with his thumb for a moment before moving his hand away.

 

Baekhyun hesitated and averted his eyes. “Uh… thanks, but maybe not. I mean… well…”

 

“You can say no,” Chanyeol cut in gently. “Really. It’s okay.”

 

Baekhyun took a deep breath to calm himself and fidgeted with his hands. “I like you… don’t get me wrong,” he said. “But I’m not really looking for anything super serious just yet. I’m just not sure I’m in the right place emotionally. And if we’re going to be working together for the foreseeable future, I think it’s better if we take it really slow. Don’t you think..?”

 

Chanyeol nodded. “Of course… I totally understand,” he said, and to Baekhyun’s relief he didn’t seem at all offended about being turned down. He kissed Baekhyun again, on the cheek this time, before turning around and heading across the road in the direction of the markets. He smiled back at Baekhyun over his shoulder, giving him a little two-fingered wave as he walked away.

 

 

“Hey, Chanyeol,” Baekhyun called out, when Chanyeol was across the street, and the other man turned around to look at him.

 

“If you’re free next Saturday as well, there’s somewhere I want to take you,” Baekhyun said, and Chanyeol nodded and smiled at him again. 

 

“I’m free then,” he called back, “I’ll see you Monday,” — and then he turned around once more, moving into the crowds of people bustling around the market stalls, as though he were fading into them. Baekhyun stood on the curb with his hands in his pockets, and watched him until he disappeared completely.

 

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

The following Saturday, Baekhyun pulled up out the front of Chanyeol’s apartment block with his car, called his mobile and waited for him to come down.

“Nice ride,” Chanyeol said when he finally showed up, closing the passenger door behind him; he kissed Baekhyun quickly on the cheek and reached over his shoulder to do up his seatbelt. “So where are we going, anyway..?”

 

“If I tell you, it won’t be as good,” Baekhyun singsonged, and then he patted a plastic bag sitting in the centre console compartment next to him. “But just in case you think tonight’s mystery destination is a complete hole, I’ve brought some junk food along. Just to make it a bit funner..”

 

“‘Funner’ isn’t even a word, you dork,” Chanyeol informed him, and Baekhyun laughed wickedly.

 

“It is a word, actually… at least, it is if you want me to make out with you at some point during the next few hours..”

 

“‘Funner’ is a word,’ Chanyeol said quickly. “I retract my earlier assertion that ‘funner’ is not a word… it’s definitely a word. A real word. I can even use it right now in a sentence if you like — ‘tonight will be a whole lot funner if Baekhyun makes out with me’.”

 

“Alright, alright… save your breath for all that kissing we’ll be doing later,” Baekhyun replied, turning his head to wink at Chanyeol. “We wouldn’t want you to pass out in the middle of it..”

 

 

 

As they sped down the motorway towards the bridge leading out of town, Baekhyun turned down an exit ramp off to the side that spiralled under it, and he pulled up next to one of the concrete columns beneath, putting the car in park and switching off the engine. When he turned to look at Chanyeol, he saw the other man looking back at him with a quizzical expression, but he didn’t say anything.

 

“We’re here,” Baekhyun said to him. “Come on… grab that bag and let’s go.” When they were outside the car, he took Chanyeol’s hand and pulled him along, until they were standing in front of a steep metal staircase leading up to the pedestrian walkway on top of the bridge. 

 

“Well, this is it,” Baekhyun said, and Chanyeol craned his neck to look up at the staircase. His face seemed to fall a little.

 

“Oh… okay,” he said, frowning. He sounded more than a little reluctant, and Baekhyun’s heart sank like a stone. 

 

“What’s wrong..?” he asked, but Chanyeol only shook his head. 

 

“Nothing,” he said. “Just… me and high-up places..? Not friends. At all.”

 

“But the view’s really good up there,” Baekhyun told him. “Trust me..”

 

“It’s alright, I believe you. You don’t need to make me go up there to prove it.”

 

“Oh, come on,” Baekhyun whined, grabbing the sleeve of Chanyeol’s jacket and pulling on it insistently. “Come up with me. It’ll be fine. I’ll hold your hand.”

 

Chanyeol gave a helpless shrug and nodded, holding out his hand for Baekhyun to take. He said nothing more about it, but even under the cover of darkness, with only a few streetlamps around them to see by, it looked to Baekhyun like his face had gone a few shades paler.

 

 

“Please, don’t get too close to the railing,” Chanyeol said, when they’d reached the top of the bridge. “You’re making me nervous..”

 

“Okay, okay… I’ll stay back. Just relax,” Baekhyun replied, and he sat down on the concrete at the edge of the walkway, leaning his back against a steel pylon. He patted the ground next to him, motioning for Chanyeol to sit down too, which he did, albeit hesitantly.

 

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly, chewing his lip, but Baekhyun waved away the apology.

 

“It’s alright,” he replied. “We all have our own odd little thingies that scare us.”

 

Chanyeol laughed through his nose. “Oh yeah..? What’s yours, then..?”

 

Baekhyun looked out through the railings to the city lights in front of them for a moment, pondering his response. “I would have to say my greatest fear in life is… Lee Chaerin before a deadline,” he said after a dramatic pause, and Chanyeol let out a loud guffaw of appreciation; he linked their arms together and leaned a little closer, pressing his lips to Baekhyun’s neck. Baekhyun turned his head until Chanyeol moved away and they looked each other in the eye; he saw Chanyeol’s gaze drop to his lips, and then he closed his eyes, and soon Baekhyun felt his eyes closing too. They kissed for a moment — soft, slow kisses, with their hands gently touching each other’s faces; the hint of stubble on Chanyeol’s jaw was scratchy against Baekhyun’s lips and fingers, but he liked the way it felt. After a while he pulled away and reached into the bag next to him for a packet of gummi bears, ripping it open and popping one into his mouth. He kissed Chanyeol again, passing the candy over to him, and he felt Chanyeol’s tongue curl around it to steal it away, leaving only a trace of sweetness where it once had been.

 

“Like your kisses weren’t sweet enough already,” Chanyeol whispered, and Baekhyun felt the smile on his lips when he kissed him one more time.

 

“I used to do that back when I was at school,” he said, smiling a little himself at the recollection; he took the bag of gummi bears and handed it to Chanyeol, who grabbed a handful before passing it back. “I had this secret boyfriend called Joonmyun in the grade above me, who I’d take behind the sports equipment shed and fool around with. He’d make me guess what flavour was in his mouth.”

 

“Ooh, behind the sports equipment shed,” Chanyeol teased, digging Baekhyun in the ribs with his elbow. “What a rebel you were..”

 

Baekhyun scoffed at the idea. “Hardly… that was about as rebellious as I got in my youth, I’m afraid. Well, apart from dropping out halfway through a commerce degree to go to art college, I guess.”

 

Chanyeol stopped chewing for a moment, his expression suddenly growing serious. “Wow. What did your parents have to say about that..?”

 

Baekhyun shrugged. “They were kinda shitty about it, at first… but mainly because I didn’t admit it to them until six months after the fact. And with me being openly gay, it was like taking yet another sledgehammer to their dreams for my future, I suppose. But they got over it pretty quickly, and although I wouldn’t say we’re especially chummy these days, at the very least, we’re okay. Life’s too short to hold on to heavy shit like that.”

 

Chanyeol nodded. “True,” he said quietly. He popped another handful of sweets into his mouth, then dug around in his pocket for his cigarette case and a green plastic lighter. “You want a smoke?” he asked; it came out slightly muffled because his mouth was full of gummi bears.

 

“No thanks. I finally quit.” 

 

“Oh really..?” Chanyeol said, raising his eyebrows. “I’m sorry… I should probably put these away then.”

 

Baekhyun shook his head. “It’s cool, you can smoke. It’s been surprisingly easy for me, actually… for some reason I thought I wouldn’t even last two days without wanting to jump off this bridge, but it’s already been five, and I haven’t really felt like smoking much at all. It only hits me when I’m having my morning coffee, and sometimes when I’m stressed out at work, but that’s about it.”

 

“You shouldn’t joke about that… jumping off bridges, I mean,” Chanyeol said, frowning; he put a cigarette between his lips and lit it up. “Good on you, though… I've been meaning to quit myself, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. It’s definitely on the to-do list.”

 

 

Baekhyun watched Chanyeol smoke in silence for a while. “I envy you, you know,” he said at last.



Chanyeol turned his head to the side to blow smoke away from Baekhyun’s face, and then turned to look at him again. “Oh yeah? What for..?”

 

Baekhyun shrugged. “I envy your lack of inhibition. And you seem to just, I don’t know… float wherever the bloody wind takes you, and that suits you fine. You don't have to be so in control all the time.”



Chanyeol leaned his head back against the steel pylon behind them and laughed. “The only way to be in control is to fully embrace the fact that you have no control whatsoever. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that.”



“Mmm,” Baekhyun hummed in agreement, and then let out a heavy sigh. “I guess I'm still having trouble coming to terms with that notion..”

 

Chanyeol flicked the butt of his cigarette away, and then put his arm around Baekhyun’s shoulders, rubbing them gently. “It’s okay, you’ll get there. Anyway, a little chaos is a good thing… makes us more resilient and all that.”

 

“Do you want to know why I really brought you here..?” Baekhyun asked, and he turned his head to look into Chanyeol’s eyes. Chanyeol searched his expression for a moment in silence and nodded slowly.

 

“I’ve always loved this spot… I love that you can see the whole town from up here. I actually used to come here with Jongin a lot, back when we first started dating,” Baekhyun said quietly. “We didn’t have much money, so instead of going on proper dates we’d do exactly what you and I are doing right now: sit up here and talk for hours, eat junk food, and make out. And, well, we might’ve had very shameless drunken sex behind one of these pylons once… but that’s another story,” he added, and then he let out an embarrassed laugh, but he soon stopped when he realised Chanyeol was still staring at him in silence. 

Hesitantly, Baekhyun turned his head to meet Chanyeol’s gaze. “I haven’t been up here since he left,” he said, looking right into Chanyeol’s eyes. “I’ve only driven across. And you have no idea how many times in the past I’ve wanted to drive over this bridge and just never come back… but then I’d think about how Jongin did that exact same thing, and I'm determined not to do it myself — at least not until I'm sure there's something better for me on the other side. Anyway, I suppose thanks to you, I felt like I finally had the guts – and a reason – to come back here… so yeah. I guess that’s why we’re here.”

 

 

Chanyeol looked back at Baekhyun for a while before he replied. “I’m not trying to replace him, Baek,” he said quietly. “I would never presume to do that. But I like you a lot, and I’ve been thinking...” he paused for a moment, searching for the right words. “Well, maybe I can help you forget for a little while..”

 

Baekhyun shook his head, and then he leaned over and pressed a soft kiss to the side of Chanyeol’s face. “I’ve been trying to forget for long enough,” he whispered. “Forgetting is overrated.”

 

 

 

Chanyeol didn’t reply; he simply took Baekhyun’s hand in his own and squeezed it gently. Baekhyun lost track of how long they sat there like that, holding hands and sharing the occasional passionate kiss, and silently drinking in the glittering beauty of the city spread out before them. Neither of them felt the need to say anything much at all.

 

 

 

 

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

 

 

 

“Baekhyun, can I have a word for a moment..?”

 

Baekhyun’s reverie was shattered at the sound of Chaerin’s voice coming from somewhere over his shoulder, and he looked up from the sketch he was working on — which was one of his own, and not Zitao’s — to see her peering down at him with a stern expression. Shooting Chanyeol a worried glance, he nodded in silence and got up from his desk, following her outside the studio door and into the hallway.

As soon as they were outside, Chaerin sighed and clasped her hands together in front of her before meeting Baekhyun’s eye again. “Look, Baekhyun… I know you’re trying to get your own story serialised, and I admire your ambition, but lately the work you’ve been turning in for Mind Games has been a little sloppy, and you’ve really been pushing it with the time management over the past couple of weeks. I’m all for you getting your own work out there, but I really do not want to see you working on it during studio hours. You’re vitally important to this team, which means you’re responsible for getting your work done professionally, and on time. You’re a very talented artist and I have the utmost respect for you, but that does not mean I'm going to risk my butt for you.”

 

Baekhyun swallowed thickly, unsure of what to say. “Okay,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry. It won’t happen again..”

 

Chaerin let out another heavy sigh and nodded. “Be honest with me, Baekhyun,” she said. “If you can’t cope with the workload, that’s fine... I can dish out a few extra duties to Jongdae, perhaps promote him to head assistant instead. We all know what a speed demon he is—”

 

“--No,” Baekhyun said, cutting her off. “No... I can cope.”

 

“Fine… I’ll take your word for it, for now,” Chaerin replied, although she sounded doubtful. “On another note, I’ve spoken with Mr. Kim regarding the draft you showed me recently, and I let him know that I thought it was promising… he said he’ll happily meet with you to discuss it. He wants to see you tomorrow afternoon, in fact..”

 

Baekhyun’s eyes widened. “Tomorrow afternoon..?”

 

“Yes,” Chaerin replied, “he requested for you to meet with him at 4 o’clock. He said to bring a copy of what you’ve done so far, and he’ll go through it with you.”

 

“Okay,” Baekhyun said, nodding. He couldn’t believe his ears. “Thanks, Chaerin… I really appreciate you doing this for me.”

 

“If you really want to thank me, then make sure you keep on top of things here,” Chaerin said, pursing her lips. “I’m trying to keep you all in a job, you know. Now, I have no problem with you finishing up here early tomorrow, seeing as you’ll be meeting with Mr. Kim… and as a result, I’m also willing to grant you an extension of one day. That means I really need all outstanding work for the next chapter completed by Friday morning, at the latest.” She pointed a shiny red fingernail at Baekhyun’s chest as she said this; each following word was punctuated by a jab in the sternum. “I don’t give a damn how late into the night you have to work on Thursday, you can sleep in the studio for all I care… just get it done. Anyway, I’m running late for a meeting at head office, so I’ll see you when I drop in tomorrow.”

 

“Alright,” Baekhyun said quietly, and Chaerin threw him another stern look over the frames of her Gucci glasses, but Baekhyun thought he saw her expression soften a little as she turned away from him and headed towards the elevator, pressing the button and disappearing inside it. 

 

“Thank you,” Baekhyun whispered to the empty corridor, and then he returned to the studio.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

The next day, Baekhyun showed up at head office just before 4 o’clock to meet with Mr. Kim; Chanyeol had insisted on leaving the studio early for the day, just so he could escort him there, and although he wouldn’t be accompanying Baekhyun to the meeting itself, knowing that he would be waiting outside seemed to ease Baekhyun’s nerves a little. Chanyeol held his hand while they sat on one of the leather lounges beside the reception desk together, stroking it gently to calm him down, which Baekhyun was somewhat embarrassed about, because his palms were sweating like mad. Eventually he was told by the receptionist that Mr. Kim was ready to receive him, and Chanyeol gave him a soft kiss on the lips and whispered “good luck” into his ear. 

When Baekhyun began to make his way down the hall and turned to look back, Chanyeol blew him a kiss and gave him a little wave; Baekhyun smiled back at him, and taking a deep breath, he walked up to Mr. Kim’s door and knocked on it twice.

 

“Come in,” Mr. Kim called out from behind the door, and Baekhyun slowly pushed it open. Inside he found Mr. Kim sitting at his desk, poring over a stack of documents, and he looked up and smiled when he noticed Baekhyun standing there, shuffling the papers and putting them to one side.

 

“Hi, Baekhyun. Chaerin told me you had something for me to look at..?”

 

“Uh... yeah,” Baekhyun said, nodding. “I have a draft for a new manga idea I’ve been working on recently, and I was hoping you could run your eye over it, and let me know what you think of it so far.” He pulled a copy of the draft from inside his satchel and placed it on Mr. Kim’s desk, sliding it towards him. 

Mr. Kim picked up the draft and removed it carefully from its protective sleeve. “Please, have a seat,” he said, gesturing towards the empty chair in front of his desk, and when Baekhyun was seated he began flicking through the pages, fairly quickly at first, but then he would stop and study certain frames for a bit longer, his brow furrowed in concentration. Baekhyun sat there sweating bullets in silence, and watched Mr. Kim’s face for any signs of a reaction, but his expression was unreadable; every so often he’d raise his eyebrows a little, or purse his lips, or exhale loudly, but none of these things gave Baekhyun any indication of his opinion.

 

After what seemed like an eternity to Baekhyun but couldn’t have been longer than about fifteen minutes, Mr. Kim put the pages of the draft down in front of him and rested his hands on his desk.

“The premise,” he said, “is, well… it’s certainly unlike anything I’ve ever seen, I’ll put it that way. I’m not really sure what to say at this point in time. It could be risky… but at the same time, it’s so unconventional that it might actually work.”

 

Baekhyun swallowed to ease the dryness of his throat a little, but it didn’t help much. “So what does that mean for me..?”

 

“I want you to keep working on it,” Mr. Kim said; he clasped his hands together and leaned forward on the desk, looking at Baekhyun intently through his square-framed glasses. “I quite like what I see so far… the humour might not be everyone’s cup of tea, so I can’t predict how it would rank, but there is definitely a market out there for gag manga like this. Still, I can’t make an uneducated gamble, as you know… I’ll need to see a full manuscript, with finalised text and layouts, for at least several chapters before I can make a proper decision. If it’s as promising as I think it’ll be based on this first draft, then perhaps we’ll run it as a new weekly serial and see how it performs, but you’ll have to make sure the art is really up to standard, because what I’m seeing in this draft is still quite rough. I’m well aware of your capabilities as an artist, so I don’t think that will be a problem for you.”

 

Baekhyun held his breath for a moment. A good few seconds passed before he remembered to exhale again. “Are you serious..?” he said at last, and Mr. Kim let out a good-natured chuckle.

“Yes, Baekhyun… I’m serious,” he said, nodding. “I can’t make any promises, of course, but I really want to see what you can come up with.”

 

Unsure of how else to react, Baekhyun got up from his seat and bowed so deeply that he ended up staring at his own knees. “Thank you, Mr. Kim,” he said, upon straightening up again. “I’ll make sure you won’t regret putting your faith in me.”

 

“Alright,” Mr. Kim replied, smiling warmly at him, and he picked up the draft from the desk again. “Do you mind leaving this copy with me in the meantime? I’d like to have a more thorough look at it when I have a spare moment, and I’m sure some of the other editorial staff would like to see it too.”

 

“Yes, of course… thanks again,” Baekhyun said, and Mr. Kim leaned forward across the desk to shake his hand.

 

“My pleasure, Baekhyun,” he replied, still smiling. “Thank you for coming to see me.”

 

 

 

As soon as Baekhyun left Mr. Kim’s office, he headed over to the reception area where Chanyeol was waiting; Chanyeol returned the copy of Manga Maniac he’d been reading to the table in front of him, and slowly stood up from his seat, raising his eyebrows at Baekhyun in expectation.

“So… how’d it go..?” he asked, while they were walking outside the office and into the lobby, and Baekhyun had to make a solid effort to keep the excitement out of his voice. He didn’t want to work himself up over what could easily turn out to be nothing at all, but it was hard not to be happy about simply getting as far as he had.

 

“Mr. Kim said he was intrigued enough to want to see a proper manuscript for several chapters,” he said. “If it’s as promising as the rough draft was, he said he’ll seriously consider releasing it as a new series.”

 

“That’s great news, Baek… well done,” Chanyeol said, grinning at him, and then he pulled Baekhyun into his arms right in the middle of the lobby, holding him tight. “I knew you were onto something good as soon as I read those first few pages,” he whispered into Baekhyun’s hair. “And as always, I’ll be happy to help you in any way I can.”

 

“Okay. Well, I mean, only if you really want to…” Baekhyun said, and he pulled away from Chanyeol for a moment, looking up at him earnestly. “But you don’t have to do that, you know. You’ve helped me out enough as it is.”

 

“Of course I want to,” Chanyeol replied, taking Baekhyun's hands into his own and squeezing them gently. “Whatever you need, just ask.”

 

“Alright,” Baekhyun said quietly. When they got inside the elevator they kissed for a little while until it reached the ground floor, and then they stepped out into the foyer together. 

 

“Anyway, I know there’s not really anything for us to celebrate yet, but maybe I could take you out for dinner again on Saturday night, if you’re not busy,” Baekhyun said. “I figured I owe you about a billion dinners by now.”

 

Chanyeol reached for his hand, and they walked through the sliding glass doors and out into the street. “I’d love to have dinner with you on Saturday,” he replied, and he stood in front of Baekhyun in the middle of the pavement, grabbing both his hands and holding onto them tightly. “Lately I’ve been saving all my Saturdays for you, anyway. Anywhere in particular you wanted to go..?”

 

Baekhyun shook his head. “I don’t know. You can pick,” he said, and Chanyeol bit his lip, looking thoughtful for a moment before he replied.

 

“I really liked that little Italian place we went to a while ago. I wouldn’t mind going back there, if that’s alright with you. Anyway, we can discuss it further at work tomorrow.”

 

“Okay… Pulcinella’s it is,” Baekhyun agreed, and Chanyeol leaned down to give him a quick little peck on the lips. “See you in the morning,” he whispered; he held onto Baekhyun’s hands for a little longer before letting go of them and heading off in the opposite direction, and he looked back at Baekhyun one last time with a faint smile on his face before he walked away.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

Baekhyun wasn’t sure when he figured it out, exactly… but he definitely knew it was coming. He knew it was going to happen before they left Pulcinella’s, before the bill was paid — he knew before they even sat down to dinner, and he had a feeling Chanyeol knew too, without either of them needing to exchange any words about it. It seemed like an agreement they both made silently, sealing the deal with shared looks over the rims of their wine glasses, the fairy lights dancing in Chanyeol's bright brown eyes that crinkled in the corners from his smiles. All Baekhyun could think about during dinner was how much he wanted to kiss those soft, full lips, faintly stained pink with wine, and run his fingers through that messy red hair. A little later, Chanyeol’s warm hand seemed to burn red hot into the small of his back, even through the layers of his clothing, when he guided Baekhyun gently through the door of the restaurant on their way out.

 

 

“Listen... do you wanna come back to my place tonight..?” Chanyeol asked when they were outside, and he stood opposite Baekhyun and grabbed both of his hands, rubbing them gently to warm them up.

 

“What for..?” Baekhyun asked — although he of course knew perfectly well what for, he was only being coy — and Chanyeol gave a casual shrug in response.

 

“Well, for coffee and conversation, to start with,” he said. “And then I guess maybe we’ll follow it up with a few hours of hot passionate sex. You know, nothing too strenuous.”

 

Baekhyun's mouth went completely dry at the suggestion, but he shook his head and smiled. “Well, coffee does sound good.”

 

“Just the coffee, then..?” Chanyeol asked; he was biting his lip in that infuriating way again, and Baekhyun didn’t want to find it as sexy as he did, but he couldn’t help himself.

 

“Just the coffee will do me,” he said, and Chanyeol sighed. 

 

“Okay, suit yourself… but the other offer still stands. Just thought I’d throw that out there. Into the void.”

 

“And in the void is where it will stay,” Baekhyun said flatly. “Probably forever.”

 

“Aww, why you gotta hurt me like that..?” Chanyeol whined, but he was smiling a little as he said it, just enough for Baekhyun to tell that he was joking. He walked out into the street and held out an arm, flagging down the first cab he saw.

 

 

When they finally arrived at Chanyeol’s apartment — after a short, awkward cab ride where they both sat in silence with their hands in their laps, listening to the driver struggling to rap along to an outrageously fast Outsider tune  — Chanyeol headed straight to his pokey old kitchen and pulled open one of the cupboards above the stove, taking down a jar from the top shelf. “Uh… I probably should have mentioned that I only have instant,” he said, biting his lip when he turned around to face Baekhyun again.

 

Baekhyun looked at him for a long time. “You’re a terrible person…” he said at last.

 

“That’s a fair assertion,” Chanyeol replied, nodding. “Although I have to say, this brand actually isn’t half bad… like if you honestly had to drink something that looked a lot like liquid manure passed through a sieve, then this is the stuff you’d want to go with.”

 

Baekhyun sighed and shook his head. “It’s okay, I’ll pass,” he said, but then he smiled. “Thanks anyway.”

 

Chanyeol gestured towards a faded red two-seater couch off to one side of the room, in front of a little TV that stood upon an old wooden crate. “Please, make yourself comfortable,” he said. “Would you like some tea instead?”

 

“Uh, yeah, actually,” Baekhyun said, nodding. “Thanks, that’d be good.”

 

“Excellent — I have Earl Grey, jasmine, peppermint, Sencha, English Breakfast and Sleepy-time. I’m afraid I can’t offer you the Sleepy-time, though, because it does exactly what it says on the tin… and I’m gonna need you to be wide awake for at least the next six or seven hours.”

 

“English Breakfast sounds fine,” Baekhyun said in a small voice; he quickly turned the other way so that Chanyeol wouldn’t see him simultaneously smiling like an idiot and having a silent nervous breakdown.

 

“Alright, one English Breakfast coming right up.”

 

Baekhyun sat himself down on the couch and looked around Chanyeol's apartment while he waited for him to make their drinks. From the generally worn state of its contents, he got the impression that Chanyeol didn't have a lot of money to spare; still, there was a comfortable shabby-chic vibe about the place, which was very welcoming. There was a small single bed, unmade, right in the middle of the room, with more painted wooden crates stacked up on either side of it to act as makeshift bedside tables. The kitchen, which sat in the far corner, had unwashed dishes piled up in the sink. There was also a door left ajar, leading off to the side, which Baekhyun figured was the bathroom. Chanyeol’s little desk, situated in front of the lone window, was so crowded with art paraphernalia that it was a wonder he was able to do any work there at all: bottles of coloured ink, markers, pens, pads of drawing paper, erasers and rulers and a rubber cutting mat with a scalpel sticking right up out of it, all competed with each other for every last inch of space. In the corner of the room next to the desk stood a stack of yellowing newspapers, so tall it would have been nearly half Baekhyun's height, at least. 

 

“You alright?” Chanyeol enquired from the kitchen, where he was pouring hot water from the kettle into two mugs. “You’re a bit quiet over there…”

 

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Baekhyun replied. “You, uh, you have a lot of newspapers..”

 

Chanyeol turned his head and glanced over at the pile of papers. “Oh, right. I sort of collect them, I suppose… it’s silly, really. Milk and sugar..?”

 

“Just a drop of milk, please,” Baekhyun told him. “Jongin did that too — kept newspapers, I mean. And magazines as well… I guess because of his job. Sometimes I had to secretly cull them when he wasn’t home.” 

 

“Hoarders of the world unite,” Chanyeol said with a dry laugh; he walked over to the couch with the two mugs and handed one of them to Baekhyun. “I dunno,” he sighed, collapsing onto the couch next to him. “I guess I grew up kinda poor… and when you're used to not having much, you sometimes want to hold on to things a little longer than you should. Even useless things.”

 

The couch was small, and they were sitting quite close together, which wasn’t helped by the fact that Chanyeol seemed to naturally sit with his knees really far apart. Baekhyun shifted a little in his seat and busied himself with blowing on his tea to cool it down. He could sense Chanyeol looking at him, and he hesitantly turned his head, only to find out that he was right.

 

“Hey,” he said, laughing nervously. “Do I have something on my face..?”

 

Chanyeol shook his head. “Nope. You’re just really hot, and I like looking at you.”

 

Baekhyun laughed again and rolled his eyes. “Smooth..”

 

“That’s the wine talking,” Chanyeol said, leaning over and whispering into his ear. It made the hairs on the back of Baekhyun’s neck stand on end. “Normally I’d be a stuttering mess in the presence of such beauty..”

 

Baekhyun sighed and leaned forward, putting his mug of tea down on the floor, and then he took Chanyeol’s mug away from him and did the same. “I’m going to kiss you now,” he said, “but mostly so you’ll stop talking.”

 

Chanyeol let out an appreciative laugh and bit his lip. “Alright…do it, then,” he whispered, and Baekhyun leaned forward until their lips touched, pushing Chanyeol down flat against the couch cushions and settling on top of him. Chanyeol groaned softly into the kiss, and he began moving his hand down one side of Baekhyun’s body, stopping at his waist for a moment, and when Baekhyun made no objection he slowly moved it down over the curve of his ass, cupping one cheek and squeezing it gently. Baekhyun sighed when he felt Chanyeol’s tongue sliding into his mouth, and when Chanyeol started rubbing against him he lifted his hips away from his body, trying to keep him from feeling the partial erection already straining against the front of his pants. But apparently it was too late for that.

 

“You don’t need to hide that from me,” Chanyeol whispered. “I’m no better off right now... trust me.”

 

Baekhyun tried to keep himself from sneaking a glance down at Chanyeol’s crotch, which was hard – and so was Chanyeol, he soon noticed, so he quickly looked away again. “Uh… so what do we do now..?” he asked, his voice cracking a little.

 

“We can stop, if you want,” Chanyeol said. “I don’t want you to do anything you’re not completely comfortable with.”

 

Baekhyun thought about it for a moment, but then he shook his head and grabbed the front of Chanyeol’s sweater, pulling him closer. “No… I don’t want to,” he whispered. “I mean, I want to keep going.”

 

Chanyeol smiled at him tenderly. “Well, I’m glad you said that… I’ve wanted you for a while now, but I never thought you’d ever want me back. And you know that feeling you get when you’ve really wanted something, but then when you finally get it you just don’t know what to do with yourself? Well, that’s how I’m feeling right now.”

 

“We’ve gone on several dates now, you know,” Baekhyun said. “Do you really think I’d waste that much time on someone I didn’t like..?”

 

Chanyeol laughed; he started fiddling with the button on Baekhyun’s collar, doing it up and popping it open again, and he seemed shy all of a sudden. “I don’t know… I try not to read into it too much. At first I thought maybe you just pitied me or something..”

 

Baekhyun took Chanyeol’s face in his hands gently, and looked into his eyes for a moment before he kissed him again.

“I don’t pity you at all,” he whispered against Chanyeol’s lips. “I’m very attracted to you, and I like you. A lot, in fact.”

 

Without another word, Chanyeol rolled away from beneath Baekhyun and got up from the couch, leading him by the hand over to the bed, and he gently pushed him down onto the scratchy old woollen blanket, still kissing him. Chanyeol seemed to really like kissing: his kisses were eager, soft and wet and open-mouthed, his lips and tongue still faintly bittersweet from the coffee he had earlier. Baekhyun found he really enjoyed Chanyeol’s kisses too, even the sloppy ones. He couldn't compare them to anyone else's, which was a good thing.

 

After a few minutes, Chanyeol stopped kissing Baekhyun and sat up on the bed; he began undressing himself in silence, pulling his sweater over his head and unbuttoning the shirt he wore underneath it. Baekhyun turned the other way and began to undress as well, and when all their clothes were in a pile at the foot of the bed, they rolled over to face each other again. Baekhyun watched Chanyeol’s eyes as they roamed over his body, and noticed the tiny smile that pulled at the corners of his lips, how he wet them slowly and deliberately with his tongue, and the sound he made when he swallowed. He moved closer until he was hovering over Baekhyun on the tiny bed, propped up on his elbows. The mattress seemed like it could barely comfortably hold Chanyeol by himself, let alone the pair of them, and it sagged and creaked with the slightest shifting of weight.

 

Chanyeol was skinny with his clothes off, Baekhyun noticed; although he had lean, muscular arms, he otherwise seemed a little underweight. Where Baekhyun’s belly had a slight curve, a soft roundness to it that he’d long lamented, Chanyeol’s stomach was so flat it was almost concave. His ribs poked out a little, but Baekhyun found them beautiful; he ran his fingers along the valleys between the ridges of bone, and Chanyeol flinched at his touch at first, but as Baekhyun’s hands began to warm up he relaxed and leaned in a little closer, half-closing his eyes cutely, like a puppy being petted. His legs were long and smooth, almost hairless, and (Baekhyun couldn’t help sneaking a look) he was better endowed than Baekhyun had thought he would be, although not in an intimidating way.

 

Baekhyun absently traced the outlines of Chanyeol’s abdominal muscles, enjoying each little shiver that resulted, and then tried to sit up so they could kiss some more. Chanyeol let him do it for a couple of seconds before pulling away, biting his lip to hide a smile.

 

“Don’t tease me,” Baekhyun whined in protest, and Chanyeol laughed softly. 

 

“Mmm... you must want to kiss me pretty badly, huh..?” he teased, and he leaned forward until their lips were just barely touching, breathing into Baekhyun’s mouth for a moment before pulling away again and kissing his neck and shoulders instead.

 

“The last guy I used to fuck around with wasn't really into the whole foreplay thing,” Baekhyun told him; he tilted his head back a little to give Chanyeol better access and let out a contented little hum. “He was inside me almost as soon as I walked through his front door, and ten minutes later I was limping back out of it again.”

 

“But foreplay's, like, the best part… after the sex, and the cuddling,” Chanyeol said, pulling away; he pretended to look scandalised. “You’re not going to tell me there was no cuddling, are you..?”

 

Baekhyun let out a dry, bitter laugh at the thought. “Um, there was definitely no cuddling..”

 

Chanyeol sighed dramatically and collapsed onto the bed next to him, as though fainting from despair at such terrible news. “No foreplay and no cuddling… where’s the romance in that..?” 

 

“I wasn't really looking for someone to treat me special at the time,” Baekhyun said quietly. “I had a void that I needed to fill. I guess he did too.”

 

“Well, I assure you that you have stumbled into the bed of a gentleman tonight, Baekhyun,” Chanyeol whispered, and he leaned over to press a sweet kiss to the corner of Baekhyun’s mouth. “I may not be the world's best lover, but I make up for it with care and kindness,” he continued, rolling away for a moment, and Baekhyun heard the sound of a condom packet being torn open; he got a whiff of latex and wrinkled his nose. “And, provided you don’t immediately run out the door crying over how much you regret tonight’s encounter, I’ll even make you breakfast tomorrow morning..”

 

“How reassuring,” Baekhyun said drily, but Chanyeol quickly rolled on top of him again and shut him up with another kiss.

“If I do something you don't like, or if I hurt you in any way, then please tell me,” he said, whispering in Baekhyun’s ear; his hot breath and the evident desire in his voice made Baekhyun shiver with longing. He felt Chanyeol’s arousal rubbing briefly against his thigh. “I only want to make you feel good… I’d never want to hurt you.”

 

“I need you to kiss me, right now,” Baekhyun whispered back, and Chanyeol sat up and looked down at him, his eyes wandering hungrily over Baekhyun’s body. He licked his lips again and swallowed.

 

“There are so many parts of you I'd love to kiss,” he said. “I wouldn’t even know where to start..”

 

Baekhyun took Chanyeol’s hand and pressed it to his lips, kissing it repeatedly. “How about you start right here, then, and we can see where we end up.”

 

“Okay,” Chanyeol said, and he smiled shyly, which only made Baekhyun want to kiss him even more. Chanyeol leaned over then, and kissed him softly on the mouth, then slowly moved downwards over his body; he paid a brief visit to each little hot-spot on his way, kissing Baekhyun’s neck, and then his nipples, and then moving down to his navel and beyond. Baekhyun rolled his head back onto the pillow, arching himself against the mattress and sighing with pleasure. He let things run their course without further comment.

 

 

What followed was far from being the quick fuck Baekhyun had expected when he first arrived at Chanyeol’s apartment. He’d sort of assumed he’d end up bent over a piece of furniture, or on all fours on the floor, or something similarly degrading – that was how things usually went when he’d had casual relations in the past. Those nights at Yifan’s place seemed like a lifetime ago, when the sweat (his or Yifan’s, who even knew?) would make Baekhyun stick to the cold leather of the designer couch, the pebbled surface leaving indentations in his bare skin. It was always rough, the friction producing embarrassing farty sounds that were only partly drowned out by the loud grunts of the thrusting mountain of a man pressed up against his back, muttering filthy things into his ear – things that, now that he thought about it, had never really turned him on in the first place. 

 

“Put your legs around me, babe… hold on to me nice and tight. I really like that..” Chanyeol whispered, and Baekhyun did as he was told. It was nice to be so close to someone again, to be able to touch and kiss each other freely. Hell, it was nice to be able to see a lover’s face at all — Yifan, for whatever reason, had never allowed this. Sleeping with Chanyeol was altogether incomparable; apart from a few soft groans he was almost silent, although at one point there was a softly whispered ‘beautiful’, while he had his open mouth pressed against the side of Baekhyun’s neck. He was slow and gentle, carefully considering each action as though trying to make up his mind about something, but whatever he was doing felt really good, so good that Baekhyun couldn’t control himself any longer; he let his head roll back and his mouth fall open, and after that he had no say over what sounds came tumbling out of him. He wasn’t sure why he’d had his doubts about Chanyeol in the bedroom department, but he was glad to be proven wrong.

 

“I really like you, Baek,” Chanyeol whispered, his lips now pressed to Baekhyun’s ear. “God, I like you so much..”

 

“I really like you too,” Baekhyun whispered back, and he was surprised at how much he meant it. He was unsure where to direct his gaze; the look in Chanyeol's eyes as it shifted from concentration to pure glassy-eyed pleasure was so real, so close, that it made Baekhyun’s face feel like it was burning just to look at him. He’d forgotten what it was like to see someone like this, how arousing and yet strangely beautiful it was to witness such raw desire, such incredible vulnerability — to know that they were both feeling these things together, at the very same time. The little bed was creaking like mad by then, but Baekhyun was too caught up in the moment to really notice; at that point they were both so close to the edge that they no longer had the presence of mind to even kiss properly, their open mouths just barely grazing each other, quickened breaths intermingling. 

 

Chanyeol insisted on holding on until Baekhyun was taken care of, and then he surrendered himself to his own climax at last; his eyes fluttered closed and he let out a soft gasp before opening them again, looking around wide-eyed, as though he were seeing the world and everything in it for the first time. Then his eyes finally settled on Baekhyun with something resembling tenderness burning within them, and he smiled and rested his head on Baekhyun’s chest for a little while, uttering a breathless chuckle that rumbled right through his ribcage.

 

 

Baekhyun didn't bother telling Chanyeol about all these things, or how they made him feel. He was too comfortable, lying there all warm in his own post-orgasmic glow, and anyway, it was something he didn’t know how to express with words alone. It seemed better if he didn't mention his feelings at all; if he just pretended he hadn't noticed the way Chanyeol held him afterwards, when it was clear he thought Baekhyun was no longer awake – so gentle and reverent, with his lips brushing lightly against Baekhyun’s forehead, the same way someone might cradle a sleeping child in their arms. 

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

When Baekhyun woke up the next morning to the sound of a pencil scratching on paper, it was still dim inside Chanyeol’s apartment, with only a sliver of light shining through the curtains. He blinked a few times and turned his head to find Chanyeol sitting naked on a wooden chair next to him, with only a sketchpad precariously balanced on his knees to preserve his modesty. He seemed to be drawing something, but had the pad angled just so, and Baekhyun was unable to see what it was from where he lay on the bed.

 

“You're up early..” Baekhyun murmured, slowly sitting up; he stretched his arms over his head and yawned.

 

“I'm up at the arse-crack of dawn every day, and have been since forever,” Chanyeol replied. He didn’t look up from the sketchpad. “My body's so used to it now. I couldn't sleep late even if I tried.”

 

“What are you drawing..?” Baekhyun craned his neck, trying to steal a glance, but Chanyeol moved the pad away from him.

 

“What am I drawing..” he repeated absently. He said it with no rising inflection at the end. “Why, you, of course… but you’re not allowed to see it ‘til I’m done.”

 

Baekhyun raised both eyebrows. “Me..?”

 

“Go back to the way you were before,” Chanyeol said gruffly. “That was a good position..”

 

So was the one you had me in last night, Baekhyun was tempted to say, but it sounded stupid and cheesy, and so he caught himself at the last second. It was too early in the morning to try to be sexy. He lay back on the bed in more or less the same position he’d woken up in, and said nothing more.

 

Chanyeol grunted his approval. “Yes, that's better. Stay like that for a while.”

 

“Do I have to look at you..?”

 

“Up to you. I think it'd be better if you didn't, though. It'll make you seem more mysterious.”

 

Baekhyun laughed drily. “I'm not mysterious enough for you already..?”

 

He wasn’t expecting a serious answer, but Chanyeol was quiet for a moment while he considered his response. “You seem kinda transparent to me, actually… I really like that about you, though, to tell you the truth. I like looking at you when you’re lost in thought, and sort of knowing what you’re feeling, but at the same time not knowing. It’s clear that you have a very active mind… I think it’s really sexy.”

 

Baekhyun’s mouth twitched a little at the beginning of a sentence, but he stopped himself.

 

“What..?” Chanyeol asked, looking over at him with one eyebrow raised. “If you have something to say, you can say it.”

 

“So… you’re drawing me naked, then,” Baekhyun said flatly, and Chanyeol threw his head back and laughed.

 

“You’re not embarrassed, are you..? I assure you it’s nothing I haven’t seen before.”

 

Baekhyun chewed his lip. “I’m guessing you’ve probably drawn my dick then, you bloody pervert.”

 

Chanyeol laughed again at that. “Ah,” he said, playfully poking his tongue out a little at the side; it made Baekhyun want to lean over and bite it. “Well, if you must know, I’m actually drawing it right now..”

 

Baekhyun squeezed his legs together to cover himself, and then he quickly rolled over to face the other way. “You’re terrible,” he muttered. “I’m sorry I ever asked..”

 

“I was joking, relax… I’ve only done your top half, so far.” Chanyeol reached over and covered Baekhyun up from the waist down with the blanket. “Better now..?”

 

Baekhyun sighed and rolled over onto his back again. “I feel dumb. I don’t know where to look..”

 

“You don’t need to look anywhere in particular… just lose yourself in thought for a while. Think about anything. Think about last night, if you want.”

 

Baekhyun felt his face warming up a little at the mention of last night, but he said nothing. He let Chanyeol draw for a while in silence.

 

 

“There,” Chanyeol said at last, “are you ready to behold my masterpiece..?”

 

Baekhyun took the sketchpad from him and looked at it, reluctant to breathe at first, lest the portrait should mysteriously fall apart in his hands. It was beautiful — there was no other way to describe it. He was looking away in it, which really did lend him an air of mystery as Chanyeol had said. He had been drawn as though the artist were truly in awe of his subject, recreating each little detail with incredible care and attention; there were things in Baekhyun’s expression he’d never noticed before, little subtleties that he felt no mirror could ever show him, and which Chanyeol had somehow captured perfectly with only a few pencil lines on paper.

 

“Well, don’t leave me hanging,” Chanyeol said, breaking the silence at last. He joined Baekhyun in bed again, sliding beneath the covers and lying on his side next to him.

 

“It’s… great, actually,” Baekhyun whispered. “Far better than I was expecting..”

 

Chanyeol laughed. “Oh ye of little faith,” he said, and Baekhyun shook his head. 

 

“That’s not what I meant… I knew it would be good. I just didn’t expect it to be this good.”

 

“Well, I had a good subject,” Chanyeol said, leaning over and giving Baekhyun a playful slap on the knee. “So I guess I can’t take all the credit. And, I don’t know… you just looked beautiful, and so peaceful, and I couldn't help myself… I wanted a souvenir of the moment. Plus I didn't think taking a stealthy photo was very appropriate.”

 

“I only have one criticism, and it’s that you made me look even more beautiful than I already am,” Baekhyun said, and he’d meant it as a joke, but Chanyeol’s expression grew serious for a moment.

 

“I made you look exactly as you are,” he said quietly. 

 

Baekhyun opened his mouth to reply, but he had no clue what to say. He simply looked at the drawing in silence for a while, and Chanyeol began playing with the fingers of his other hand.

 

“You have beautiful hands,” he said at last, and he lifted Baekhyun’s hand to his lips and kissed it.

 

Baekhyun put the drawing down on the crate next to the bed and rolled over to face Chanyeol. “I thought the same thing about you, the first time I ever watched you draw.”

 

“Oh really..? Mmm… but yours are much prettier.”

 

Baekhyun grimaced. “My drawing hand’s covered in calluses now..”

 

“That makes it even better,” Chanyeol said. “I’ll never understand why people are so afraid of their bodies showing any sign of wear and tear… all it means is that a person has lived. That they’ve experienced things.”

 

Having said this, he turned Baekhyun’s hand over until the palm was facing upwards, circling his thumb around a small blue-grey dot under the skin. “What’s this here..?”

 

“Ah. That was from when my hand slipped while I was drawing, and I accidentally stabbed myself with my pencil. The graphite got under the skin and made a permanent mark. It’s been there for years,” Baekhyun told him. He turned his hand to the side, tracing one finger along the pearly seam of an old scar about two inches long. “And that’s where I sliced my hand open with a lino cutter, back when I used to make my own prints at college. Had to get stitches for that one.”

 

Chanyeol laughed softly. “Hmm. I really like them,” he said, touching both scars with his fingers, and then he kissed them both. “I like them even more than your freckles… although they’re lovely too, of course. Do you mind if I smoke?”

 

Baekhyun shook his head. “Go for gold,” he replied absently.

 

Chanyeol rolled away for a moment to reach for a cigarette and his lighter; he lit up and then leaned back against the headboard again, holding the cigarette between his lips, a cloud of smoke quickly settling above him. Baekhyun watched the end of the cigarette glow brighter as Chanyeol took a long drag on it, breathing out another leisurely lungful of smoke and sighing deeply in contentment.

 

“Hey – what about me?” Baekhyun said with playful indignation, shoving Chanyeol lightly on the shoulder. Chanyeol turned to look at him and frowned, bringing the cigarette back to his lips.

 

 “I thought you quit,” he said.

 

“I did. But I’d still like to be asked.”

 

“Well, in that case, how rude of me,” Chanyeol replied, rolling over to grab his cigarette case from the stack of crates next to the bed. He flipped it open and held it towards Baekhyun, shaking it a little. “Can I offer you eleven minutes off your life expectancy?”

 

Baekhyun shook his head and grinned at him. “Nah, I’m good… but thanks for offering anyway. And you shouldn’t smoke in bed, either.”

 

Chanyeol sighed, turning around to put the cigarette case back where he found it. “So people shouldn’t smoke anywhere… how does doing it horizontally make it any worse?”

 

“Because you might set your bed on fire,” Baekhyun deadpanned. “Obviously..”

 

“Mmm,” Chanyeol replied, chuckling softly. He flicked the ash from his cigarette into the ashtray next to him. “I think we already did that last night, with all our hot lovin’ and stuff… wouldn’t you say so..?”

 

Baekhyun rolled his eyes. “So gross,” he whispered.

 

“I didn’t hear you complaining about it at the time,” Chanyeol said in a low voice, and then he threw his head back with a loud, breathy moan of his own name, apparently re-enacting Baekhyun’s orgasm from the night before. Baekhyun pushed him so hard he nearly rolled onto the floor, and Chanyeol collapsed against the bed again, crippled with laughter; his cigarette fell from his hand onto the bed, promptly burning a small hole in the blanket. “Look what you made me do..!” Chanyeol shrieked, but he wasn’t angry; he picked the cigarette up, stubbing it out in the ashtray, and then he rolled Baekhyun over and gave him a playful slap on the rear, making him laugh and yell at the same time. 

 

 

When they finally calmed down, they lay side by side in silence for a moment, holding each other’s hands. After a while Baekhyun picked up Chanyeol’s portrait again and looked at it, tracing the soft pencil lines with his fingers.

 

“Hey… would you mind signing this for me?” he said at last. “You know, just in case you get famous, or die prematurely. Then I can sell it off for an obscene amount of money, and spend the rest of my days lounging around on a private beach somewhere in the Caribbean.”

 

Chanyeol laughed. “You’ll definitely make a great manga artist, with a healthy imagination like that,” he said. He took the piece of paper from Baekhyun, signed it with an unintelligible scribble and handed it back to him again.

 

“There you go. It’s my gift to you, so you’d better cherish it forever. Frame it and hang it above your mantelpiece or something.”

 

“I don’t have a mantelpiece,” Baekhyun said.

 

“Well, just bung it up on your fridge with a magnet then… I don’t mind what you do with it. Anyway, I’m starving… you want something to eat..?”

 

Baekhyun shrugged. He hadn’t really noticed the hunger gnawing at his stomach until Chanyeol mentioned it. “Dunno. What’ve you got?”

 

Chanyeol yawned without covering his mouth and scratched the back of his neck. "Fuck all with a side of jack, probably… I haven't gone grocery shopping in days. Still, if there's one thing I'm good at, it's making something out of nothing," he said, and then he rolled out of bed; Baekhyun watched him walk over to the fridge and open the door, peering inside it. He proceeded to pull out a bunch of ingredients — a carton of eggs, various vegetables, milk, butter and other odds and ends, and then he set about cooking something, humming to himself while he chopped and mixed and juggled pans and utensils. He remained stark naked the whole time, his cock just hanging there obscenely while he bustled around the kitchen, and it left Baekhyun torn between wanting to stare and feeling like he should perhaps look away. He could have pointed out a-million-and-one hazards that surrounded the act of cooking in the nude, but he hadn’t seen so much of someone all at once in a long time — and Chanyeol did have a nice body, even if it was a little on the lanky side — so he simply enjoyed the view without comment.

 

A little later, Chanyeol came back to the bed with two steaming vegetable omelettes on a tray, and two mugs of what smelled like hot chocolate. He’d drawn wonky smiley faces on the top of each omelette with ketchup.

 

“My dad used to make this for my sister and me when we were kids,” he said, handing one of the plates to Baekhyun, along with a knife and fork. “It’s become my go-to for when I’m too tired to cook and living between paychecks… cheap and filling and hard to screw up. And it makes me think of him.”

 

“Where is he..?” Baekhyun asked, before he had a chance to think about it, but when Chanyeol failed to respond for a while he wondered if it was perhaps a mistake to do so.

 

Chanyeol stared ahead of him at nothing in particular and smiled for a second or two; it quickly faded, as though he hadn’t realised he was still smiling and had then caught himself doing it. “I often wonder the same thing myself,” was all he said.

 

Baekhyun wanted to know more, but the wistfulness in Chanyeol's expression made him think better of pressing the topic. “This is really good,” he said. “I should let you cook for me more often.”

 

Chanyeol laughed, and then he leaned over and gave Baekhyun a big wet kiss on the side of his face. “I’ll cook for you whenever you want, you sexy thing.”

 

 

They ate in silence, with only the sounds of chewing and cutlery scraping on ceramic filling the room. Every now and then Baekhyun looked up to see Chanyeol looking at him; he'd smile softly, but then his gaze would flicker away and he'd go back to his food. The omelette really was delicious, and if it hadn’t been such a big serving Baekhyun would have eaten every mouthful. Chanyeol took the plate from him when he was done and finished what he didn't eat.

 

After they'd eaten, Chanyeol carried the tray of dishes away in silence and left it beside the overflowing sink, waving off any offers to help with cleaning up. 

 

“I guess I should probably get going soon..” Baekhyun said, looking at his phone to check the time. It was already nearly 8.30. 

 

Chanyeol didn’t reply; instead he came back to the bed and sat on the edge of it, looking down at the floor for a moment and then turning his head to look at Baekhyun intently. Baekhyun looked back at him in silence, unsure of what to say. They carried on that way for some time, and then Chanyeol rolled over on the tiny, creaky mattress, taking Baekhyun into his arms; he started kissing him, softly and passionately, curling the fingers of one hand up in his hair. His other hand came to rest on the side of Baekhyun’s face, the pad of his thumb gently tracing the outline of Baekhyun’s jaw. He murmured a string of sweet nothings between kisses, words that were at first lost in his ragged breathing, but they finally rearranged themselves into a whispered plea to stay, please… just a little longer. He kissed Baekhyun like it was the last time he’d ever kiss him, and Baekhyun let him, because he knew all too well how it felt to let someone walk out the door, without really knowing if they would ever walk back into it again.

 

“You really are beautiful,” Chanyeol whispered, and then he dipped his tongue into the hollow at the base of Baekhyun’s neck. Baekhyun couldn’t help uttering a soft gasp when he did this; as though having the power plugged back into him, it made him come alive, his body once again trembling with the same unquenchable desire he’d felt the night before. With nothing left to hide behind, the longing in Chanyeol’s eyes was clear; until that moment, it had never crossed Baekhyun’s mind that the Chanyeol he’d come to know, as sure and self-sufficient as he was, could ever be lonely like him. 

 

And it felt so good, after so long, to be held like that again; to lose himself completely in someone who wasn’t Jongin... who he didn’t have to close his eyes and pretend was Jongin. When they were done, Baekhyun pressed a soft kiss to Chanyeol’s breastbone and held his head there for a moment. It was hard, but warm.

 

 

Chanyeol promptly fell asleep afterwards, his face half-buried in his pillow. It made Baekhyun smile – so much for never sleeping late, he thought. Unable to help himself, he ran his fingers through the messy red strands of Chanyeol’s hair while he slept, wondering where he got the desire to touch him so tenderly; where had such fondness come from, sneaking up on him out of nowhere? After a while Chanyeol’s eyelids fluttered open halfway, and he looked up at Baekhyun through his eyelashes. 

 

“So… am I significant enough to make it onto your list of life’s regrets, then..?” he asked with a soft smile, and Baekhyun shook his head.

 

“Not at all,” he said.

 

Chanyeol let out a dry laugh at that. “Harsh..”

 

“No, I don’t mean you’re not significant… what I mean is that I don’t regret it,” Baekhyun said quietly. “It’s been fun, and you’re an excellent lay, and… I really don’t regret it at all. I was worried I might, but I don’t.”

 

“Well… that makes me very happy, then,” Chanyeol said drowsily, with a contented smile on his face. He soon fell back asleep, and when he was out like a light, Baekhyun gently removed himself from the bed, got dressed and quietly left the apartment. As soon as he got back home, he dug out the Thingamabob from where it was buried inside the drawer of his bedside table, and then he leapt right back to the night before, just to relive the whole thing all over again.

 

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

Over the next few weeks, it became apparent to Baekhyun just how different things had become between him and Chanyeol, particularly while they were at work. For one thing, they had to be mindful of keeping the new dynamic in their relationship hidden, at least until they were both ready to make it known to the rest of the team. Covering up the love-bites on his neck and collarbones with concealer (he occasionally even found a few on his legs and arms — Chanyeol was not discriminating about where he chose to leave hickeys) had now become a regular part of Baekhyun’s daily beauty regimen. Previously, it had consisted solely of brushing his teeth and, if he had a few spare seconds, dragging his fingers through his bed-messy hair to restore it to some semblance of order. 

Although they’d agreed to keep their status on the down-low for the time being, Baekhyun couldn’t help noticing that Chanyeol often stole glances in his direction while they were supposed to be working; whenever Baekhyun’s eye met his, he would do cute but infuriating things, like wink or blow little kisses at him, and he held Baekhyun's hand under the desk when he thought no one was looking. Baekhyun would hold onto it for a while without realising he was doing it, before dropping the hand like a hot potato whenever someone else spoke to him. If Chanyeol was feeling especially brave he would let his fingers do a little dance along Baekhyun’s inner thigh, and whenever he was standing behind him to admire something he was drawing, he’d put both his hands on Baekhyun’s shoulders and rub them gently, letting them linger there just the tiniest bit too long to be a mere gesture of comfort between friends.

 

 

“Are you and Chanyeol getting off with each other..?” Kyungsoo asked Baekhyun while they were sitting in the park one day, having their lunch-break in the same spot they usually did, and of course Baekhyun was completely unprepared for the sudden interrogation. He’d lifted a forkful of fried rice up to his mouth, and he paused with his jaw hanging open for a moment before lowering the fork again.

 

“Um… what..?” he asked.

 

“Well..? Are you..?” Kyungsoo was unrelenting as usual, and Baekhyun felt those large, penetrating eyes boring into his skull, probing his brain for juicy details. He paused for a moment, contemplating the best response – or any response that would give Kyungsoo the least amount of ammunition to torture him with later. Thankfully Jongdae had decided to work through his lunch-break that day, as had Chanyeol, so there was no one else around to witness his swiftly-approaching downfall. 

 

“Well, the thing is,” he began, scrambling around for a reply. “Um, no. We’re not..”

 

“Um, bullshit,” Kyungsoo blurted out, and then he started laughing. Baekhyun rolled his eyes. 

 

“Well, why even ask then..?” he muttered, and he shovelled some fried rice into his mouth, forgetting to close it as he chewed.

 

“Because I want to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth,” Kyungsoo replied matter-of-factly. “Although it would be good if the horse swallowed first.”

 

“Sorry,” Baekhyun said, and he swallowed and opened his mouth to show Kyungsoo that it was empty.

 

Kyungsoo nodded solemnly in approval. “That’s better. And I’m still waiting for a response, by the way. Don’t even bother giving me anything other than the truth, Byun, because I can always tell when you’re fibbing.”

 

Baekhyun picked up another forkful of rice and held it in front of his lips while he pondered what to say next. “Um… no comment,” he said at last, putting the rice in his mouth, and Kyungsoo raised both eyebrows at him in surprise.

 

“So that’s a yes, then. God, you little rascal… how many times..?”

 

The rice in Baekhyun’s mouth suddenly felt unusually dry, and he swallowed it with some difficulty before responding. “Well… would you believe fewer than five..?” he said — which was of course a dirty lie. After the first few occasions, he’d naturally stopped counting.

 

“I see,” Kyungsoo said, nodding. “Fewer than five… but the important thing is, it was more than once..”

 

“Well, yeah…” Baekhyun replied, nervously scratching the back of his neck. The container of fried rice now sat forgotten on his lap.

 

“Excellent — that’s all I need to know,” Kyungsoo said quickly, and then he started getting to his feet.

 

“Where are you going..?” Baekhyun asked, frowning up at him. “You haven’t even finished your food.”

 

“I’m off to tell Jongdae he owes me ten bucks for every fuck,” Kyungsoo said as he began walking away. “That’s where I’m going..”

 

Baekhyun narrowed his eyes, glaring daggers at his friend’s retreating figure. “Wait… you guys were betting on this..? I thought you wanted to know because you were happy for me, you prick.”

 

Kyungsoo turned around to look at him again. “Don’t get me wrong — I am happy for you. This is a very good thing, Baek… a positive development for all involved. You get laid, I get paid — everybody wins. Well, everybody except Jongdae, that is..”

 

Having said this, Kyungsoo charged away across the grass, and Baekhyun briefly considered throwing the rest of his lunch at the back of his head, but then he thought better of it and carried on eating. Dickhead friends weren’t worth wasting food on.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

That same evening, while he and Chanyeol ‘made love’ another two times (a term which usually made Baekhyun gag, but which seemed applicable in this case, since it definitely wasn’t just ‘fucking’), Baekhyun began to think about where their relationship was heading, and what they were supposed to call it. But if Chanyeol even noticed that he was off with the fairies a little while they were doing the deed, then he didn’t call it to attention. “I was dying to kiss you all day, you know,” he whispered, kissing Baekhyun’s lips again after they were done; it could sometimes get a little drafty inside his apartment, given how old the building was, but under the covers with their limbs all tangled together it was sufficiently cozy, and Baekhyun snuggled up against him with a happy sigh.

 

“I know,” he whispered back. “I saw the way you were staring at my mouth all day. And Kyungsoo must have noticed too, because he asked me during lunch if I've been ‘getting off’ with you, as he put it..”

 

Chanyeol lifted his head and looked down at Baekhyun’s face for a moment. He bit his lip, apparently trying not to laugh. “And what did you say to that..?” he asked.

 

“I said 'no comment’,” Baekhyun told him.

 

“So… ‘yes’, in other words..”

 

Baekhyun sighed. “Well, I suppose it doesn't hurt for him to know. Although you can bet your sweet ass that Jongdae knows now too.”

 

“Well, why worry about it, then?” Chanyeol asked; he busied himself with tracing circles over Baekhyun’s bare skin with his fingers.

 

“Because it’s a bit too soon,” Baekhyun said. “We’ve only slept with each other a few times — well, more than a few times — but still, we don’t even know what this is yet.”

 

“We don’t?” Chanyeol asked, raising his eyebrows. “That’s news to me.”

 

“Well, do you know something I don’t know..?”

 

Chanyeol frowned a little. “I don’t know… but I was under the impression that you really liked me, and maybe… wanted to make a proper go of this… whatever it is that we’re doing.”

 

Baekhyun laughed and rolled his eyes. “Wow. What a salesman you are.”

 

“So you don’t, then..?”

 

“I don’t know yet. Like I said, it’s a little soon to tell.”

 

Chanyeol was silent for a while before he finally responded. “But you do really like me, right..?”

 

“Sure,” Baekhyun said. “I like you very much.”

 

“And you like spending time with me. And having sex with me.”

 

“Well, obviously.”

 

“And you don’t want to have sex with anyone else..?”

 

“Not really, no..”

 

Chanyeol shrugged. “Then it seems like we’ve already got something going on, at least to me.”

 

“I suppose you’re right,” Baekhyun sighed, and Chanyeol chuckled softly, resting his head on his shoulder. His hair was sticking up a little, and it tickled the end of Baekhyun’s nose, making him want to sneeze.

 

“Does this mean I get to call you gross pet-names like sugar-pie and honey-babe..?” Chanyeol asked, reaching for Baekhyun’s hand and linking their fingers together, and Baekhyun let out a little snort of derision.

 

“Don’t push your luck, buddy,” he warned.

 

“Okay. It was worth asking once,” Chanyeol whispered, his voice suddenly growing quiet. He stopped talking then in favour of kissing Baekhyun’s neck, which Baekhyun had come to recognise as a sign that he wanted things to move in a more physical direction again… and if it meant they could put off any further talk about their true relationship status for at least the next ten minutes, then he was only too happy to go along with it.

 

“I was thinking about this all day,” Chanyeol whispered. “Kissing your lips... feeling your beautiful body beneath mine. What kind of sounds I can get you to make..”

 

“For someone I haven't dated that long, you’re already driving me fucking crazy,” Baekhyun whispered back, and he gasped when he felt Chanyeol’s teeth grazing the place where his neck met his shoulder.

 

“Now you know how I feel,” Chanyeol said; he lifted his head to look down at Baekhyun for a moment, and began tracing around the outside of his lips with a finger. Baekhyun kissed the tip of the finger and then closed his lips around it, sucking on it and looking up into Chanyeol's eyes brazenly, without blinking. Chanyeol uttered a soft groan when he did this, and he let Baekhyun continue to suck on his finger for a while before moving his hand away and leaning down to kiss him on the lips.

 

“Please, tell me how to resist you,” he whispered, and Baekhyun laughed softly into his mouth.

 

“Why would you want to..?”

 

“Because you're so sexy that I can’t get you off my mind, and it’s incredibly distracting,” Chanyeol replied, whispering between kisses; he skimmed one hand upwards over Baekhyun’s thigh, excruciatingly slowly, making him shiver at the cool touch of his fingers. “I’ll sit myself down to start a sketch, and without warning I'll find myself thinking about you, every sharp angle and dangerous curve of your body… and then all of a sudden my hand has a mind of its own, and it'll be a part of you I see on the page in front of me instead -- an elegant hand, for instance, or two very bewitching eyes, or a pair of luscious lips. Do you see my problem..?”

 

“Mmm. I suppose so..”

 

Chanyeol lifted his head again, and Baekhyun almost wanted to reach up and yank it back down so they could keep kissing, but he could tell by the look in Chanyeol’s eyes that he was about to say something important.

 

“Baek,” Chanyeol said, “can I say something that may or may not freak you out..?”

 

“Well… sure, I guess.”

 

“I want to be with you,” Chanyeol said quietly. “I mean, properly. I want you to be my boyfriend.”

 

Baekhyun thought about this for all of two seconds before he replied. “Alright.”

 

“That was a very decisive response from someone who doesn’t seem to know what he wants,” Chanyeol said, sounding amused, and Baekhyun let out a heavy sigh.

 

“I don’t feel like I need to fill a void in my life anymore. But that doesn’t mean I don’t get lonely.”

 

“So… do you actually like me at all?” Chanyeol asked. “Or do you just not want to be alone?”

 

“If I’m honest?” Baekhyun said, and then he exhaled loudly through his nose. “Well… a bit of both. A lot of both, actually.”

 

“Me too,” Chanyeol said, and then he smiled — just a little smile at first, but then it gradually grew wider into a cute, goofy-looking grin.

 

“What are you smiling about..?” Baekhyun asked, whacking him lightly on the arm, but Chanyeol only shook his head.

 

“Nothing… I’m just happy, that’s all. For a while you had me convinced you only liked me because I’m good in bed.”

 

“Oh, fuck off..” Baekhyun scoffed, but then he thought about it for a moment. “Well… that is partly true,” he said, and Chanyeol laughed and pulled him closer, resting his head on his shoulder.

 

“It’s not just about sex for me, you know,” he said quietly, after a moment of silence. “I want you, Baekhyun. I want to know every part of you... all there is to know.”

 

“I already feel like you know a lot about me,” Baekhyun replied. “If anything, I know very little about you.”

 

“Oh, you don’t want to know about me. I’m incredibly boring.”

 

“Ha! Boring my arse..”

 

Chanyeol laughed again. “Yeah, I wouldn't buy that either,” he said, and Baekhyun rolled over, leaning on top of Chanyeol’s stomach with his arms crossed.

 

“So tell me, then,” he said.

 

“About what..?”

 

Baekhyun exhaled noisily with impatience. “I don't know... anything. What you were like when you were younger. Who you wanted to be.”

 

Chanyeol trailed his fingers up and down Baekhyun’s arm for a while in silence, apparently lost in thought; the way he did it, just barely making contact, made Baekhyun’s skin break out in goosebumps. He loved it when Chanyeol touched him, in any way at all… even when the touching was seemingly innocent in its intent, like the way it was now.

 

“Well, I drew a lot,” Chanyeol said at last.  “And I read comics a lot. I used to work in a library while I was studying art at university… I’d hide out between the shelves, and I’d read and doodle when I was supposed to be putting books away. I took a sketchpad with me pretty much everywhere, same as I do now.”

 

“What sort of things did you draw?” Baekhyun asked, suddenly interested; Chanyeol had never really volunteered any information about his past, and he wanted to know more.

 

“Anything, really,” Chanyeol said. “I drew the things I desperately wanted, the things I found beautiful… things I was afraid of, but wanted to understand. For some reason I was convinced as a boy that, if I drew the things I really wanted over and over, maybe one day they’d suddenly materialise in front of me. I remember going through a phase where I drew pictures of cats obsessively, until my parents finally got the hint and let me have one for a pet. Poor old Mr. Whiskers… he ended up being flattened by a delivery van when I was eleven. I cried for days.”

 

Baekhyun made a sympathetic little sound in the back of his throat, and he picked up Chanyeol’s hand from where it had migrated to his stomach, kissing each of his fingers in turn. “When I was little and couldn’t read or write very well, I drew my letters to Santa instead of writing them,” he said. “Probably explains why I always got such crap presents.”

 

Chanyeol laughed heartily at this, and Baekhyun slowly raised himself up until he was resting on his elbows. “So which of those things am I, then?” he asked, giving Chanyeol a playful poke in the ribs, and making him gasp a little. “Do you want me? Do you find me beautiful? Surely you’re not afraid of me..”

 

Chanyeol stared up at the ceiling for a moment in silence before looking at Baekhyun again. "All of the above,” he said quietly, and then he smiled.

 

“Why would you be afraid of me, though?” Baekhyun asked.

 

“It’s not so much you that I’m afraid of, just what I feel when I’m around you… I feel so out of control all the time, like I’m not completely myself anymore. But I like having you with me much more than I value my peace of mind, so… I’ll deal with it,” Chanyeol said, reaching up to touch Baekhyun’s face, and then he smiled. “I’m really happy you’re in my life, Baekhyun. I want it to always be like this. Just you and me.”

 

 

 

As soon as Chanyeol had drifted off to sleep, rolled onto his side and snoring quietly, Baekhyun turned on the lamp next to him, and then he picked up the sketchpad and pencil Chanyeol always left on the floor near the bed. He gently swept Chanyeol’s hair away from his face to see it better, then flipped the pad to a new page and began to draw.

 

 

 

 

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

 

 

 

 

Baekhyun hadn’t really been looking forward to his 30th birthday at all; if anything, he’d been dreading it ever since the end of his mid-twenties. As for the person who decided ‘30 was the new 20’, well… that was just something old people said, as far as Baekhyun was concerned — and very soon, he would be one of them.

 

“Turning 30’s no big deal,” Chanyeol told him; it was the day before Baekhyun’s birthday, and he was clearly trying to make him feel better about it. “I turned 30 myself back in November, and I honestly didn’t feel any different. I know it sounds like a cliche, but it really is just a number..”

Baekhyun stopped inking in the sketch on the desk in front of him and sighed. “Yeah, I guess so,” he said quietly. “I’ve just never liked birthdays in general… nothing good ever really happens on my birthday.”

 

Chanyeol leaned over then, putting his lips right against Baekhyun’s ear. “Not true… birthday sex happens on your birthday,” he whispered, giving Baekhyun’s earlobe a little kiss, and then he traced the edge of it with his tongue. Baekhyun pushed him away, trying to hide the grin on his face; he looked up then and saw Kyungsoo winking at him, and then his eyes flickered over to Jongdae, who was shaking his head in disgust, and he felt his cheeks warming up in embarrassment. He cleared his throat a little and went back to work, although when Chanyeol’s foot started rubbing against his bare ankle under the desk, he returned the gesture a few seconds later. When he cast a sideways glance at his boyfriend, he caught him smiling to himself, but neither of them said anything more about it.

 

When Chaerin received a call on her mobile later that morning, Baekhyun didn't think anything of it at first; she often answered business calls when she was at the studio. But when she went into the kitchen to answer it, Baekhyun felt a faint prickling in his stomach; he didn't know why he felt that way, but it seemed to him to be almost a premonition of some sort. Chaerin was talking too quietly for him to hear her, but the tone of her voice was hushed and serious, and it made Baekhyun a little worried. At that point the team was already aware that Mind Games had been slipping quite a bit in the weekly rankings lately, and with all the popular new series the magazine was releasing, it had long since lost its steady spot in the Top Ten. As usual, Zitao’s scant attendance at the studio wasn’t helping the issue at all, and although he claimed to be re-working the storyline in his own time, to Baekhyun, at least, the plot in the upcoming chapters seemed to be growing increasingly stale.

 

While he was lost in thought, Baekhyun heard the sound of Chaerin’s high heels clicking over towards their side of the room, and then she tapped him gently on the shoulder, making him jump a little in surprise.

“I’ve got Mr. Kim on the phone,” she said quietly, handing her mobile to Baekhyun. “He’d like to speak with you for a moment.”

 

Baekhyun nodded and accepted the phone from Chaerin, worried that he might drop it on the floor because his hands were shaking. He’d submitted his final manuscript for Jump! almost two weeks ago now, after slaving away on it (with more than a little help from Chanyeol, of course) in every spare moment he had. He’d been both anticipating and dreading Mr. Kim’s response to it ever since, and now it seemed his reluctant ears would finally be blessed (or cursed) with that response. He hadn’t even had a chance to really prepare himself for this moment, but there was no time for that now.

 

Baekhyun’s eyes quickly met Chanyeol’s, and then he got up out of his seat and lifted the phone to his ear, walking outside the studio and into the hall before shutting the door behind him.

 

“Um, hello..?” he said hesitantly.

 

“Hello, Baekhyun,” said Mr. Kim. “I originally planned to schedule a meeting with you this week so I could deliver this news in person, but I know how swamped you all are at the moment… you’ll have to forgive me for doing so over the phone..”

 

“Not at all, that’s perfectly fine,” Baekhyun said; the inside of his throat felt like sandpaper already, and he was suddenly hyper-aware of his own pulse. “What did you want to tell me..?”

 

Mr. Kim cleared his throat for a moment before speaking. “Well, we’ve all read your manuscript for Jump! here in the editorial department, Baekhyun… and the verdict is more or less unanimous,” he said at last. “We think it’s a very interesting premise — a good, entertaining storyline, and, as such, a good fit for the magazine. With that in mind, we’d like to run your story as a series, hopefully sometime in the near future, if you’re still interested in having it published.”

 

Baekhyun stood there holding the phone to his ear for a moment in silence. “Wait… really..?” he asked, and then he heard Mr. Kim laughing softly on the other end of the line.

 

“Yes, Baekhyun… really. If you’d be able to meet with me, say… this Friday afternoon, May the 8th, at around four o’clock, we can talk about it in more detail. There are a lot of things to consider… when we’ll potentially release it, who we’ll assign as your editor… and, of course, you’ll need your own team of assistants now. That is, unless you’re another Wu Yifan in the making, and you’d prefer to do everything yourself..?”

 

“Yeah… no, I’d love to have some assistants,” Baekhyun said quickly, and Mr. Kim laughed again.

 

“Very well… I’ll see you here in my office on Friday, and we’ll discuss it all then. Enjoy the rest of your week, Baekhyun.”

 

“Thanks, Mr. Kim… you too,” Baekhyun said quickly, and then he hung up Chaerin’s phone and stared down at it blankly for a moment, with its pink teddy-bear-shaped Moschino phone cover. When he looked up again he saw three faces peering out at him from a crack in the studio door: Kyungsoo, Jongdae, and Chanyeol hovering a foot or so above them.

 

“Well..?” Kyungsoo asked, his one visible eye staring at Baekhyun from behind the doorframe. “How’d it go..?”

 

Baekhyun looked at the three of them for a moment, affecting a sorrowful expression. But then he slowly cracked a smile and said, in a soft voice, “I’m in.”

 

 

As soon as Baekhyun said this, the others rushed out the door and gathered around to hug him, patting his back and rubbing his head and hollering like kids in a schoolyard. Chaerin walked out into the hall and stood there at a safe distance from the action with her arms crossed and an amused expression on her face, waiting for them all to settle down. Baekhyun handed the phone back to her, and she accepted it with a nod and a smile.

“Congratulations, Baekhyun,” she said. “I know you’ve worked really hard for this, and no one deserves it more than you. It will be a shame for the Mind Games team to lose you and your talents when your new series takes off, but I sincerely hope it all goes well, and I know we’ll have a very hard time replacing you.”

 

“Thanks, Chaerin,” Baekhyun replied; he was unable to keep the smile off his face. “But I really couldn’t have done it without a certain someone’s help.” When he turned to look up at Chanyeol, Baekhyun saw that he was grinning too. Then Chanyeol grabbed his face in both hands and kissed him hard on the lips, to the jeers and wolf-whistles of Kyungsoo and Jongdae, before he had a chance to protest.

 

 

When they were leaving the studio together later that afternoon, walking down the hall towards the elevators, Chanyeol suddenly scooped Baekhyun up in his arms and spun him around until he was dizzy, making him laugh and yell out a string of obscenities all in the same breath.

 

“I'm just so fucking happy for you, babe… and right on time for your birthday, too,” Chanyeol whispered; he lowered Baekhyun to his feet again, wrapping both arms around him tightly. “That’s it — tonight we are celebrating twice as hard. I’ll come over and be your personal chef-slash-lover for the evening. It’ll be just you and me, and a delicious feast. And no clothes, of course… definitely no clothes. So — a delicious naked feast, followed by lots of delicious naked sex — how does that sound..?”

 

Baekhyun laughed and stood on his toes to kiss Chanyeol on the lips; he was too elated to worry about who might walk past and see them anymore. “I couldn't have said it better myself,” he said.

 

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

That night, Chanyeol insisted on coming to Baekhyun's place and cooking him a three-course celebratory dinner, which took four hours in total to prepare — and significantly less time to consume. This all took place, as stipulated by Chanyeol, with neither of them wearing any clothes at all — not counting the apron Chanyeol wore while he was cooking (the one that said ‘kiss the chef but hands off the buns!’ on the front), because it did absolutely nothing to conceal his bare butt — or indeed the partial boner he sported at various random points of the evening, which poked a little tent through the thin plastic-coated fabric. Chanyeol had joked that he could hang his cooking tools on it while he worked, which made them both laugh. Baekhyun decided he quite enjoyed lounging around in his birthday suit for once; there was something very sexy and liberating about it, and the way Chanyeol's gaze would linger over his naked body made it very clear to Baekhyun that he was hungry for more than just dinner, which was a very arousing thought in itself. It almost made him sprout a semi or two of his own.

 

When they finally sat down (still naked, of course) to enjoy the fruits of Chanyeol's labour, Baekhyun found himself shovelling his food down instead of really taking the time to savour everything properly, simply because it was all so delicious — from starter to dessert, he loved every mouthful. He had a feeling he was going to get a bit soft around the middle from having Chanyeol as a boyfriend, but Chanyeol seemed to have a thing for the slight pudginess of his belly anyway, so maybe that wasn’t a problem. Lately he’d developed the annoying habit of waking Baekhyun up in the morning by blowing a gigantic raspberry right in the middle of his stomach, which always drove Baekhyun nuts, but because he was very fond of Chanyeol he usually let it slide — or otherwise paid him back by giving his backside a really hard slap when he wasn't expecting it.

 

 

“I know you’re digging that chocolate pudding, Baek, but you really need to breathe between bites,” Chanyeol said, chuckling softly as he watched Baekhyun enjoying his dessert. “No one’s going to take it away from you..”

 

“I know that,” Baekhyun said impatiently, scooping up the last sweet spoonfuls of fudge sauce and chocolate sponge from his bowl. “It’s just that I have a special surprise for you, and I’ve had to keep it a secret for a while now… and now that everything’s going ahead with Jump!, it seems like I can finally tell you what that surprise is. But I wanted to wait until later, when we go to bed..”

 

Chanyeol lowered his pudding-covered spoon onto the table and looked at Baekhyun with his eyebrows raised. “You’ve got a surprise for me..? On your own birthday..?”

 

“Yeah,” Baekhyun replied, laughing shyly; he licked the rest of the fudge sauce from his lips and wiped his mouth with his napkin. “Well, I mean, it’s not technically my birthday yet, anyway… not for another couple of hours, so… don’t worry. You won’t be stealing my thunder..”

 

 

Baekhyun was too impatient to let Chanyeol worry about the tower of dishes in the kitchen sink; instead he practically dragged him over to his bedroom as soon as they were done eating, and made him sit down on the edge of the bed with his hands over his eyes.

 

“Can I at least have a small hint..?” Chanyeol asked, and Baekhyun laughed, leaning over to kiss him softly on the lips.

“Hang on,” he whispered between kisses. “Just stay right here… I’ll be back in a second.” He left the room for a moment, and when he returned again he was holding a copy of his Jump! manuscript, which he carefully extracted from its envelope, and then he placed it in Chanyeol’s lap. Chanyeol slowly uncovered his eyes and looked down at the thick bundle of paper, smoothing his hands over it in silent wonder.

 

“That’s your own personal signed copy of my final draft, which you haven’t seen yet. Before I submitted it to the editorial department, I actually made some last minute changes… and I feel bad about keeping that from you, but I really wanted it to be a surprise,” Baekhyun said, smiling when Chanyeol looked up at him with widened eyes. “I haven’t changed the storyline or anything… just the appearance of a few things, including my main character,” he continued, and he had to bite down on his lip to keep himself from smiling even more. “So tell me, then. Does he look like anyone you know..?”

 

Chanyeol flicked through the manuscript for a moment, looking intently at each frame, and then his brow furrowed. He looked up at Baekhyun again, frowning a little. “It’s… it’s not me, is it..?”

Baekhyun was unable to keep himself from grinning now. “Yeah, you got it… I re-designed him to look like you. Well… I tried to get him as close as I could, anyway, but we all know there’s nothing quite like the real Park Chanyeol. I’ve dedicated it to you as well, which you’ll find on the second page after the cover..”

 

Chanyeol nodded in silence as he flicked through the manuscript for a while longer, and then he slipped it gently back into its envelope without a word, and put it down on the nightstand closest to him. Before Baekhyun could say anything else, he was promptly tackled onto his bed, and Chanyeol buried his face against his neck, holding him so tight he found it difficult to breathe. Baekhyun quickly noticed that his shoulders were shaking a little.

 

“Chanyeol,” Baekhyun said, patting his back gently, but Chanyeol refused to budge. “Chanyeol, are you crying..?”

“I'm not crying,” Chanyeol replied, without lifting his head from Baekhyun’s neck. His voice sounded snuffly and wet, which of course gave him away. “You’re crying..”

 

Baekhyun laughed at that. “It’s okay,” he whispered, stroking the back of Chanyeol’s head. “Don’t be embarrassed. We should be able to cry in front of each other, right..?”

 

Chanyeol lifted his head at last and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “Sorry… I’m just really touched, that’s all,” he said, and then he rested his head on Baekhyun’s shoulder again. “This is by far the coolest, sweetest thing anyone’s ever done for me..”

 

“Well, I didn’t know how else to thank you for all your help,” Baekhyun replied; he kissed Chanyeol’s forehead and continued stroking his hair. “I couldn’t have done any of this without you, you know.”

 

Chanyeol wiped his eyes again, and then was quiet for a moment. “Yes, you could have… please don’t doubt yourself. If I could even find the words to express what this means to me, then believe me, I’d tell you,” he said after a while, and when he looked up again there was something in his eyes that Baekhyun couldn’t read, but there were still little hints of emotions he recognised within them: sadness and gratitude, and, if it wasn’t too much to hope for, love.

 

“What's wrong..?” Baekhyun asked, his heart already pounding a little, but Chanyeol only shook his head.

 

“Nothing’s wrong,” he whispered. “I just really need to get something off my chest right now..”

 

Baekhyun waited for him to finish; his heart was now beating hard and fast in anticipation. He had a feeling he knew what Chanyeol might say, but he wasn’t sure, and the suspense was eating him alive.

 

“I love you,” Chanyeol said quietly, and although he had a hunch those exact words were coming, Baekhyun still felt like he’d taken a punch right to the solar plexus when he heard them.

 

“You don't have to say anything back, if you’re not ready to say it,” Chanyeol whispered; he gently touched Baekhyun’s face with his fingers and leaned over, pressing a tender kiss to his forehead. “I just thought it was about time you knew how I really feel about you.”

 

“I love you too,” Baekhyun said a moment later, just barely audibly, while Chanyeol was kissing his neck, and Chanyeol immediately paused and lifted his head. The expression he wore was adorably hopeful, but Baekhyun could still see the uncertainty in his eyes. “Really..?” he asked, and Baekhyun bit his lip to keep from smiling too much; he reached up with one hand to ruffle Chanyeol’s hair.

 

“Uh-huh,” he whispered, “I really do. Actually, I think I’ve loved you for a while now..”

 

“Well, then… that makes me so fucking happy..” Chanyeol said, laughing with a mixture of joy and relief, and Baekhyun pulled his head down and kissed him – softly at first, and then with increased passion, sighing his name between each kiss. Chanyeol pulled away after a while and began mouthing soft kisses over Baekhyun’s neck, and then along his collarbone.

 

"It was a good idea, foregoing clothes for the evening,” he whispered, chuckling softly against Baekhyun's skin. "Now we don’t have to waste any precious foreplay time on taking our clothes off. Although the undressing part can be very fun in itself... don’t get me wrong..”

 

“Chanyeol,” Baekhyun whispered, “hold on… I need you to look at me for a moment.”

 

Chanyeol paused and lifted his head again. “What’s up..?” he asked.

 

“I need to know that you really want this, just as much as I do,” Baekhyun said quietly. “You know… before I go giving my heart to you, and all that.”

 

Chanyeol’s brow furrowed a little in concern. “Of course I want you, Baekhyun… I want you more than anything. Did you think I wasn’t serious about you by now..?”

 

“No,” Baekhyun whispered, averting his eyes, “but I guess I know how quickly things can change, that’s all. You know, sometimes, shit just happens. And, well… I’m just trying to protect myself, in case it does.”

 

Chanyeol leaned down and kissed Baekhyun once more, softly and slowly, and then moved his lips to his ear. “I’m all yours, for as long as you’ll have me… for as long as I’m still here walking on this earth,” he said. He lowered his head again, kissing his way down Baekhyun’s neck to his chest, and he began teasing a nipple with his tongue, circling it with the tip until Baekhyun felt the first hot prickles of pleasure all through his body. He murmured his approval, tangling his fingers up in Chanyeol’s messy hair.

 

“So beautiful,” Chanyeol whispered; his mouth was hot and wet against Baekhyun’s bare skin, and Baekhyun sighed happily, writhing against the bed when he felt Chanyeol's lips move down to his belly, every nerve in his entire being now tingling with excitement.

 

“Please, Chanyeol…” he sighed; he was aching to be touched, and he'd have done it himself right then and there, but he didn't want to deprive Chanyeol of the opportunity.

 

“I love seeing you so turned on like this, and knowing it’s because of me,” Chanyeol said, still kissing Baekhyun’s stomach. “And I promise you… you’re the only one I want. The only one I’ll ever want.”

 

"I think I'm still too full to have sex right now," Baekhyun replied, laughing breathlessly; he lifted his head to look down at Chanyeol, biting his lip. “If I puke on you, I'm so sorry..”

 

Chanyeol laughed softly in reply, and Baekhyun felt the vibration of it across his skin. "It's okay, babe,” he whispered. “I’ll go really, really slow. I'll savour you as the final course of the evening… and the most delectable one, by far.” 

 

 

As soon as they were both ready, Chanyeol covered Baekhyun’s body completely with his own, and Baekhyun parted his thighs to accommodate him, wrapping both legs tightly around Chanyeol’s waist. While they were making love, as slowly and tenderly as Chanyeol had promised, Baekhyun found his thoughts were consumed entirely by Chanyeol, and Chanyeol alone; there was no room at all for thoughts of anyone or anything else. It was so easy to lose himself in Chanyeol’s beautiful brown eyes… to surrender to those rough, warm hands that caressed him so adoringly, those lips that covered his body with kisses. He loved the scent of Chanyeol’s skin, and how smooth it felt beneath his fingertips, and the shivers and goosebumps that his own hands inspired when he trailed them over his lover’s back and along his arms. Finally he moved them down to hold on to Chanyeol’s hips, guiding him through each gentle thrust, until they fell into an unhurried rhythm that they both enjoyed.

 

Baekhyun loved hearing Chanyeol whispering his love into every kiss, and how his breath would catch on each syllable as he got closer, and closer… and then there came that final shuddering groan of pleasure that coursed right through his body, the warm pulsing deep inside him. “I love you,” Chanyeol whispered again, breathing the words into Baekhyun’s mouth, and Baekhyun whispered them back, signing them off with a sweet little kiss to Chanyeol’s chin, just beneath his lips.

 

 

Afterwards, he lay on the bed catching his breath, blissfully spent with his head tilted back against the pillow. “Fucking hell…” he whispered – there seemed to be no better reaction for how he was feeling. Chanyeol pressed a soft kiss to his chest, right over his pounding heart, and rested his head there for a while; Baekhyun wrapped his arms around him and held him close, gently stroking his hair, until he could feel his own heartbeat slowing down again. The room was quiet once more, and all he could hear was the sound of Chanyeol’s breathing, soft and slow and regular.

 

“Mmm. You’d better not be tired, because I plan to do that at least another nine times tonight… make it a nice even ten,” Chanyeol mused; he rolled away for a moment and peeled the condom off himself, tying a knot in it, then chucked it in the direction of the bin next to Baekhyun’s desk. It splatted onto the floor next to the bin instead. “Ew, go pick it up..!” Baekhyun whined, shoving him roughly in playful protest, but deep down he didn’t really care. Chanyeol rolled back on top of him and covered him with kisses, making him squirm with terror and delight.

 

“Is it bad that I already want you all over again..?” Chanyeol said, and then he slowly moved downwards, sucking a love-bite into Baekhyun’s tummy, just above his hipbone.

 

“So soon..?” Baekhyun asked, already breathless with renewed anticipation; what Chanyeol was doing felt torturously good, and he could feel himself becoming aroused again.

 

“I want to, so much,” Chanyeol whispered, “but I don’t think I can manage just yet.” He lifted his head to look up at Baekhyun, and he seemed shy all of a sudden. “But, well… if you want to..?”

Baekhyun knew what he meant immediately, and gently rolled away from beneath him until they were both facing each other on the bed. “I really want to,” he said, returning Chanyeol’s shy little smile, and Chanyeol reached across to the nightstand for another condom and the lube.

 

“Be gentle with me, babe,” he whispered, still smiling, and he pushed them both into Baekhyun’s hands.

 

Baekhyun really enjoyed taking charge of their lovemaking, which didn't happen often; he knew Chanyeol preferred to be the dominant one, and he preferred it too, but there were times when Chanyeol wanted to be taken care of, and Baekhyun was only too happy to rise to each occasion. Tonight was another one of those occasions, and he realised how much he'd missed it already. Chanyeol looked so beautiful, so painfully sexy, that it made Baekhyun's chest ache with longing... the way he lay there on the bed with his head rolled back, his soft lips open and begging to be kissed. Baekhyun drank in the sight of his lover with hungry eyes: the muscles flexing and shifting beneath his skin; the milky expanse of his chest rising and falling with every laboured breath; his erection nestled against the soft part of his belly, the head flushed and swollen, already wet with arousal. His entire body seemed to glow with warmth in the golden halo of the lamplight, and Baekhyun loved running his hands over it, wanting to touch and taste every little bit of him… but he knew there would be more time for that later. There would always be plenty of time to explore their love and desire for each other, to find new ways to express it. Right now, Baekhyun wanted nothing more than to worship the body beneath him; to shower it with his love, and relish its every response to the pleasurable stimulation he offered with his own mouth and hands.

 

Baekhyun took the time to get to know Chanyeol's body intimately, preparing him gently and soothing him with kisses, as Chanyeol had always done for him. When he filled Chanyeol with himself at last, he met with no resistance at all; Chanyeol's long legs tangled up with his, and he took in every inch of Baekhyun smoothly and easily, whimpering only from the frustrations of denial, and not from discomfort or pain. They began rocking slowly together, and Chanyeol tilted his head back again with a deep sigh, offering up the slender column of his neck to Baekhyun's mouth.

 

“Mmm... you’re really good at this, huh..” Chanyeol said with a breathless chuckle, his voice low and quiet. He ran his tongue over his lower lip before catching it between his teeth, and the desire and helpless adoration in his half-closed eyes only made Baekhyun want to kiss him even more. He leaned forward, kissing Chanyeol’s forehead, the tip of his nose and then finally his lips, capturing every soft moan and shuddering breath with his kisses; there was nothing sexier than hearing whispers of his own name coming from those very same lips, dripping from them like honey, and he lapped them up like he would never again taste anything so sweet in his life.

 

“If only you could see how incredibly sexy you are to me..” Baekhyun whispered, pressing his lips to Chanyeol’s ear; Chanyeol was already breathing too heavily to respond, too lost in himself and what Baekhyun was doing to him, grinding slowly against his body to coincide with every movement. Every so often Baekhyun would change his pace, slowing right down and then speeding up again, just a little, which seemed to drive Chanyeol crazy.

 

“Please, Baek... touch me,” Chanyeol whispered, and he took Baekhyun’s hand in his own, showing him where and how he wanted to be touched. Tiny, glistening beads of perspiration began to form on his forehead and chest, rolling down over his body, and Baekhyun tasted the salt of it when they kissed again, sliding his tongue between Chanyeol’s lips to open them up a little wider. Chanyeol groaned into Baekhyun’s mouth, spilling over his own stomach at last; he buried his head against Baekhyun’s shoulder, breathless and shivering with pleasure.

 

 

Baekhyun quickly cleaned up with the sheets and pushed them aside carelessly before taking Chanyeol into his arms again, softly kissing him all over his face. “You okay..?” he asked, and Chanyeol cuddled up closer to him, pressing his lips against Baekhyun’s neck.

 

“You’ve done me a world of good, young man… I feel like I could float away right now,” he whispered; he sounded tired but satisfied, and Baekhyun smiled and kissed his forehead, whispering ‘I love you’ and breathing in the scent of his hair. They lay on the bed for a while after that, caressing each other in silence, and listening to each other’s breathing… and then without warning they both smiled, which led to them both dissolving into laughter for no apparent reason at all. Baekhyun thought perhaps it was simply because they were so happy, but whatever the reason, he hadn’t laughed like that, so hard that his sides were aching, in a long time. For a while there were no words – only laughter and smiles, and then more touching and kissing.

 

 

After they'd held each other for a while, Chanyeol rolled over onto his back and let out a long sigh of contentment. Baekhyun noticed that he wasn’t getting up to have a cigarette, as he usually did whenever they slept together.

 

“No durry this time, huh? That’s not like you..”

 

Chanyeol gave a cheerful little hum in reply. "That’s because I quit," he said proudly.

 

“Since when..? Why wasn’t I informed of this development?” Baekhyun aimed a playful whack at Chanyeol’s shoulder upon hearing the news.

 

“Since yesterday. I was trying to do it in time for your birthday, actually. Now we can be ‘healthy’ together… although I have a feeling tonight’s dinner may have cancelled that out a little.”

 

Baekhyun pulled Chanyeol into his arms and held him tight around the waist. “I'm very proud of you,” he whispered, pressing his lips against the back of Chanyeol’s neck.

 

Chanyeol laughed softly. “Don't be proud of me until I've lasted longer than two days..”

 

“You will… you'll last at least three. I have complete faith in you.”

 

Chanyeol turned his head back to look at Baekhyun’s face. “Well, thank you, my love, for your complete faith in me,” he whispered, and Baekhyun leaned forward to kiss the tender little smile upon his lips.

“You’re welcome,” he whispered back. Chanyeol turned around until they were facing each other properly and cradled Baekhyun’s head in his hands, kissing him over and over; they kissed until Baekhyun’s lips felt sore, but he wouldn’t have stopped for anything. Chanyeol paused for a moment and leaned back a little to look at him, gently pushing Baekhyun’s hair away from his eyes with one hand.

 

“God, you’re incredible,” he whispered. “I kind of have the urge to draw you again, you beautiful creature..”

 

Baekhyun leaned forward and planted a little kiss on the tip of Chanyeol’s nose. “Well, I won’t say no to another birthday gift… there’s a sketchpad in the top drawer of my desk, if you want to go get it.”

 

Chanyeol rolled away from the bed, and Baekhyun watched him walk over to the other side of the room, wolf-whistling at the sight of his cute naked butt; Chanyeol turned around to look back at him briefly, flashing him a sexy little smile, and then he began searching Baekhyun’s desk for some drawing paper and a pencil. While Chanyeol was facing away from him, Baekhyun rolled over onto his back and kicked all the covers off himself, pushing them onto the floor with his feet.

 

When Chanyeol returned to the bed at last, he looked down at Baekhyun with one eyebrow raised. “You don't want to cover yourself up this time..?”

 

Baekhyun shook his head; he yawned and stretched in an exaggerated fashion, arching his back against the bed. "Like you said last time, it’s really nothing you haven’t seen before. Now… I want you to draw me like one of your French girls," he said, putting on a sultry voice, and Chanyeol suddenly looked like he was trying very hard not to laugh. He leaned over to give Baekhyun a kiss, then sat down on the edge of the bed next to him and began to draw.

 

“You’re going red, you know,” Baekhyun said, watching him. He couldn’t help smiling at the very healthy-looking flush that was spreading across Chanyeol’s cheeks and down to his neck.

 

“During my life-drawing classes at university, I'd often blush when we had to draw the male models,” Chanyeol mused. “But the women didn’t affect me as much..”

 

"Were they sexy..?” Baekhyun asked; he spread his legs a little wider to see if Chanyeol would notice, but he kept his eyes glued to the paper in front of him, perhaps intentionally.

 

“Some of them were,” Chanyeol replied. His eyes strayed away from the pad and met Baekhyun’s, but only for a moment. "But you, sir, would have left every single one of them for dead..”

 

"Well, I’ll bet they never did this..” Baekhyun said, his voice coming out deeper than he'd ever heard it. By now he was shamelessly sliding his hands all over himself, and he rolled his head back, a deep sigh of pleasure escaping his lips. He caught a glimpse of the look on Chanyeol's face, saw him swallow thickly at the erotic display unfolding on the bed right next to him, and he laughed softly. It was just the response he was hoping for.

 

"Does... does that feel good..?” Chanyeol asked, stumbling over his words a little. He dropped his pencil onto the floor with a clatter, but made no move to pick it up again.

 

“It feels great,” Baekhyun whispered, biting down hard on his lower lip. “But I won’t lie… it feels so much better when you touch me, Chanyeol..”

 

Chanyeol nodded his head mindlessly, the sketchpad now sitting neglected in his lap. He nodded for so long that he seemed to forget he was still doing it.

 

"Put that down and come here," Baekhyun whispered, and he took one of Chanyeol’s hands and held it against his bare chest. He slowly moved it all over his body, teasing himself with it. "Don't keep the birthday boy waiting… we have another eight rounds of birthday sex to get through..”

 

 

Chanyeol promptly dumped the sketchpad on the floor, rolled over onto the bed and did what he was told. They made it through another three rounds before they both fell asleep.

 

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

The next morning, after sleeping like a baby in Chanyeol’s arms, Baekhyun woke up early for once — much earlier than his alarm — and ventured out onto the balcony in his dressing gown. He walked over to the railing and rested his hands upon it, breathing in the cold, sweet early-morning air, and sighing deeply in contentment. He was now 30 years old, and he’d never imagined he’d be so welcoming of the fact; the sun was just beginning to rise in the pastel sky, soft pinks and purples bleeding into sherbet orange on the horizon. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so happy — especially on a work day.

He turned to look over his shoulder; through the glass doors behind him he could see Chanyeol still lying in his bed, sleeping soundly. Baekhyun smiled and watched him for a moment; he looked so peaceful, and after a minute or two he stirred, rolling over until he was facing the other way.

 

Baekhyun thought about the Thingamabob then, for some reason… he couldn’t even remember the last time he’d even thought about using it. Then he remembered he’d left it in the drawer of the bedside table on his side of the bed, and he quietly slipped back inside his bedroom with the intent of retrieving it. He would move it somewhere else, he thought, as he slid the drawer open and fumbled around for it — somewhere safer. He didn’t want to risk the possibility of Chanyeol finding it while looking around for more condoms or something like that… he wouldn’t have a clue how to explain what the hell it was. Chanyeol groaned and rolled over again on the bed next to him, and Baekhyun paused for a moment with his breath caught in his throat, waiting for him to show signs of being sound asleep before he continued his rummaging. Eventually his fingers closed around the object’s smooth, cold metal surface and he picked it up, slipping it into the pocket of his dressing gown and taking it outside with him.

 

As he resumed his place against the railing of the balcony, Baekhyun took the thing out of his pocket and looked at it, turning it around in his fingers. It was still cold, and had stopped buzzing completely — perhaps it was dead. It was possible it had fallen into some sort of dormant state after not being used for some time, and he’d never figured out how to charge it, or indeed if it even could be charged. He held it up to his ear and shook it, trying to recall the last time he’d used it, but it made no sound. It would have been a while ago, around the time when he and Chanyeol had started to become serious… he hadn’t really felt the need to use it since then. He was perfectly content with the way things were going; there was no longer any need to go back and change things, or revisit them, or redo them over and over. It was true that this ability had been useful at first, but ultimately all it could do for Baekhyun now would be to keep him from moving on, moving forward. If anything, he was suddenly tempted to throw the thing away, just to see what would happen when it hit the ground several storeys below… perhaps it would explode and leave a colossal sinkhole in the street, sucking all the surrounding buildings into the core of the earth. Baekhyun’s fingers closed tightly around it again; better not to throw it, just to be safe.

 

And then, without warning, it began to heat up; Baekhyun almost dropped it off the balcony in surprise. He heard the door opening behind him.

 

“Baekhyun..?”

 

Before Baekhyun could turn around to look for the source of the deep, sleepy voice that was calling his name, he felt himself turning to jelly. His body went limp, slumping forward over the railing.

 

“Baekhyun, no..! No!” the voice behind him was yelling, but Baekhyun couldn’t respond; his lips and tongue felt like they were made of rubber. By then his vision had gone completely black, and then he was falling…

 

 

He never stopped falling.

 

 

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

 

When Baekhyun opened his eyes, he felt a warm weight on his belly, and the ground was hard beneath him. He could see that he was outside somewhere, and it was dark… but he didn’t know where he was. His body felt numb, and he didn’t recognise the clothes he was wearing; when he was standing on the balcony earlier, he’d been wearing only his dressing gown, and nothing else. Eventually he registered someone huddled on top of him, and he realised it was Chanyeol; his head was buried against Baekhyun's stomach.

 

“Baekhyun…” Chanyeol said, although it was more like a groan, low and deep, like something a wounded animal might make. To Baekhyun’s surprise, he sounded like he was crying again, but this was a different kind of crying; he had no idea why Chanyeol was so distraught, but the sight and sound of it was devastating. He seemed to just be whispering Baekhyun's name over and over, his face pressed against his body, his hands tightly gripping Baekhyun’s clothes.

 

Baekhyun tried to sit up, tried to reach out and stroke Chanyeol’s hair in a bid to comfort him, but he couldn’t; the best he could do was lift his head a little. “Chanyeol,” he said, but even speaking felt like it was too hard for him. “Why are you crying? Where are we..?”

 

“I thought… I thought you were trying to kill yourself,” Chanyeol said; his voice was so faint that Baekhyun could barely hear him. “And now… now I’ve fucked everything up..”

 

“Why… would… you think that..?” Baekhyun asked, his chest heaving with the sheer effort of speaking, and Chanyeol finally lifted his head. Baekhyun’s eyes widened at the sight of his face, all tear-stained and puffy, even in the limited light the street-lamps provided.

 

“Because,” Chanyeol said quietly. “You’ve done it before.”

 

Baekhyun stared at him for a moment, lost for words, and then he turned his head a little — which was all he could manage — and surveyed their surroundings. He saw the bridge looming above them, drenching them both in its shadow. The bridge… he didn’t know why they were there, or how they got there. But if they were lying underneath it, then…

 

“Chanyeol…” Baekhyun said. He was finding it increasingly difficult to breathe. He tried to lift an arm to shake Chanyeol, to make him move, but all he could do was clench and unclench his hands a little. “Chanyeol, please. Get up..”

 

Chanyeol didn’t respond. He was still sobbing into Baekhyun’s stomach.

 

“Chanyeol… I think… Chanyeol, we’re on the road. Chanyeol… you need to get up..”

 

Baekhyun heard it, then. He heard it before he saw it coming.

 

“Chanyeol… please…”

 

The truck was almost upon them then, sounding its horn in deafening blasts, its brakes screeching until Baekhyun couldn't hear his own thoughts above the racket anymore, let alone his desperate croaking of Chanyeol's name. He felt something within him just give up, and he shut his eyes tight in a last pitiful attempt — to do what, exactly? To shield himself from what was coming by choosing not to see it, pretending it didn’t exist? He almost wanted to laugh at how absurd it was… at how slow-moving everything around him seemed to become. He should have had plenty of time to roll away by now, but he couldn’t move. It was like someone had nailed every limb to the ground.

 

And then, without warning, Chanyeol finally lifted his head from Baekhyun’s stomach and pushed him down flat against the tarred surface of the road, covering him completely with his body. Baekhyun felt something small and round and warm being pushed against his palm. The last thing he remembered before blacking out was the feeling of the object buzzing, thrumming at the speed of light like a hummingbird’s heartbeat, somewhere in between his hand and Chanyeol’s.

 

 

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

 

When Baekhyun opened his eyes again, he was lying down as before, only this time he was indoors, and he saw blurred shapes towering above him. He could feel carpet beneath his fingertips… the wiry synthetic kind. As his eyes gradually focused, the shapes revealed themselves to be shelves, all of them filled to bursting with books. There were rows and rows of them, in all colours and shapes and sizes, the lettering of all the hundreds of different titles swimming before his tired eyes.

 

Baekhyun heard a soft groan beside him, and then the source of the sound slowly sat up, rubbing his eyes and blinking repeatedly; Baekhyun turned his head to the side and saw that it was Chanyeol — or at least, he’d thought it was Chanyeol, but now he couldn’t be sure. For some reason Chanyeol’s hair was no longer red, but shoulder length and as black as jet, and when he uncovered his face to peer down at Baekhyun, he looked young… so young that Baekhyun couldn't help gasping audibly, like he’d just been punched in the stomach.

 

“Chanyeol,” he whispered. “Chanyeol, what the fuck happened to you..?”

 

“Oh, god,” Chanyeol muttered to himself as he looked around, taking in their surroundings. It was strange, hearing that same deep voice coming out of such an angelic-looking baby-face of a man. “This is really not good, at all..”

 

“Where the hell are we now?” Baekhyun asked, and he began to sit up himself, instantly flooded with relief at the realisation that he was able to move his body again. “What is this place..?”

 

“We’re at the library… the one I used to work at when I was a university student,” Chanyeol said gravely, and then he chewed his lip. “I was trying to get us away from that truck, and for some reason this was the first moment that popped into my head. That’s why I look like this..” He looked down at himself, then turned his right arm over, apparently to check his wrist. Baekhyun noticed that his tattoo, the one with the Latin inscription, was no longer there.

 

“Who are you really..?” Baekhyun asked. “And where have you taken me? Please, I just want to know the truth… this whole thing is just getting too fucking weird for me..”

 

Chanyeol sighed and buried his face in his hands for a moment. “I panicked when I saw you falling over the railing of the balcony, and I ran over to stop you,” he mumbled from behind his hands, and then he moved them away again. “And then you went over, and I went over with you. I thought you were trying to jump off it... I didn't realise you'd accidentally initiated a time-leap. And then because the two of us leapt together, I must have overtaken your leap, only I accidentally took us forwards instead of backwards..”

 

“Wait,” Baekhyun said, his stomach clenching in horror. “You knew I could leap..?”

 

Chanyeol nodded. “Yes, I knew. You see, the reason you’ve acquired the ability to leap is because of me. The Chronosphere you’ve been using to do so is actually mine.”

 

“The what..?” Baekhyun asked, his brow furrowing in confusion, and then Chanyeol held out his hand. Upon it sat the Thingamabob, rolling around, looking even smaller against the giant surface of Chanyeol’s open palm than it usually did.

 

“This thing here,” he said, and then he closed his hand again. “It belongs to me. You see, I don’t have the time to explain it all right now, but I knew who you were before we started working together. I'd met you before that.”

 

“You mean, at Mr. Kim’s party..?” Baekhyun asked, and Chanyeol shook his head.

 

“No… even before that. Or, well... technically after that, but you won’t recall the incident because it occurred on a timeline after your present one, and so it hasn’t happened to you yet… I actually transported you back a few years to keep it from happening at all. Anyway, I can’t go into all that right now, but I accidentally dropped this at the time, and you must have picked it up and kept it, effectively leaving me stranded on a timeline that isn't my own.”

 

Baekhyun stared at Chanyeol blankly for a long time, trying to understand what he was being told, but no luck — he had no clue what the hell Chanyeol was on about. “What time are you actually from, then..?” he asked quietly. “Tell me the truth.”

 

Chanyeol sighed and nodded his head. “I was born in 2192. The year we’ve just arrived in now is 2213, if I remember correctly… so you’re seeing me as I appeared at the age of 21.”

 

“Oh my god..” Baekhyun whispered. He said the same thing again another three times, only because his mind was swept blank of anything else to say.

 

“Look… I know there are probably a trillion questions you’re going to want to ask me right now, and I would readily answer them all if we had the time,” Chanyeol said, still rolling the Thingamabob around in his hands. “But we really don’t have the time right now. This thing usually needs a few minutes to recharge itself between leaps, and as soon as it’s ready we’ll need to get out of here and back to the correct timeline as soon as possible — hopefully before someone from this timeline sees us here. Thankfully, the natural sciences section isn’t very popular… but anyway, if we can both do that successfully, then I’ll answer whatever questions you throw at me, every single one. Now that you know who I am and where I’m from, I suppose it makes no difference what I tell you. Either way, I’m in a lot of trouble right now.”

 

“Okay…” Baekhyun said timidly; he was confused and scared, and his throat was so dry it felt as though it had been packed with cotton wool.

 

“Good,” Chanyeol said, apparently satisfied with this response. He took Baekhyun’s hand in his own and rubbed it gently. “Now… when we’re ready to leap, I need you to think very hard about the last night we spent together — the night before your birthday — and I’ll do the same. As long as you’re holding on to me, and don’t ever let go, we’ll hopefully make it back there together. But even if I can’t get there with you, it’s more important that you make it home yourself… therefore I need you to be the one who holds this, so that you’ll have a better chance of doing so. Do you think you can manage..?”

 

Baekhyun hesitated for a moment. "Yeah, I guess…” he said. He took the Thingamabob – or the Chronosphere, as it was apparently called – from Chanyeol’s hands and held it in his own, cupping it gently like a baby bird. It was warm, and buzzing faintly.

 

"Alright," Chanyeol replied, and he settled himself on top of Baekhyun again, covering his body completely with his own, his arms around both of his shoulders. He held on so tight that Baekhyun almost found it difficult to breathe; he felt the soft tendrils of Chanyeol’s long, black hair falling into his face, tickling his nose. “Now… as soon as it’s buzzing strongly again, it should be charged enough to get us back,” he said.

 

“It’s buzzing a lot now,” Baekhyun said quietly, and he opened up his hands so that Chanyeol could touch the object too. “Do you feel it..?”

 

“Yeah,” Chanyeol whispered, and he closed Baekhyun’s fingers around the Chronosphere again, then raised his body until his palms were both resting on Baekhyun’s chest. “Okay… I need you to think of the night before your birthday now. Think really hard about that night, and nothing else. I won’t let go of you, I promise.”

 

Having said this, Chanyeol grabbed Baekhyun’s face and kissed him hard on the mouth, pressing their foreheads together for a moment.

 

“In case this doesn’t work, I just want you to know that it was a privilege to love you, Baekhyun,” he said quietly. “And to be loved by you. Even for a short time.”

 

“I love you too,” Baekhyun whispered into the space between their lips, and Chanyeol kissed him again, more tenderly this time. “Think,” he whispered between each kiss. “Think of that night… think of me.” And Baekhyun saw it all unfold within his mind once more, as fresh as though it were happening all over again, right there in the middle of that strange library. On his tongue he could taste the rich sweetness of the chocolate pudding Chanyeol had made for him, and the salt of the sweat from Chanyeol’s skin. He saw the love and gratitude in Chanyeol’s eyes when he’d given him his gift, heard Chanyeol telling him he loved him for the first time. He heard himself whispering his own adoration into Chanyeol’s ears, heard the sweet sound of their pleasured moans mixing together… he made love with Chanyeol over and over, and then fell asleep in his arms — all those precious moments gathered into one, this one, and now the floor was falling beneath him.

 

 

“Chanyeol..” Baekhyun whispered, his voice cracking; he was too scared to open his eyes. “Now!” Chanyeol said in a harsh whisper, and he pushed Baekhyun down into the floor with one hand pressed against his chest; his other hand wrapped around Baekhyun’s, pushing the Chronosphere against his palm, which by now was so hot it was almost scalding his flesh. The floor really did seem like it was falling now; the earth was opening its jaws beneath them both, but with his eyes shut tight Baekhyun could only feel it, not see it. In his mind’s eye he briefly pictured the floor and their bodies dripping and swirling into the blackness, mixing together and melting like ice-cream. Before he had time to think anything more, he blacked out.

 

 

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

Baekhyun’s surroundings slowly came into focus, and he opened his eyes to find himself in his own bed again, warm and naked under the covers. It was dim inside his bedroom, with only the light from his lamp to see by, and the balcony door was ajar; a fresh evening breeze blew into the room, billowing through the white gauze curtains. Chanyeol was lying next to him, seemingly also naked, and stroking his hair gently; to Baekhyun’s immense relief, he looked like his 30-year-old redheaded self again.

 

“Hey, love,” Chanyeol whispered; his voice was hushed and tender, but full of concern. “Are you alright..?”

 

Baekhyun groaned and tried to sit up a little. “Yeah, I think so,” he said, and lifted a hand up to his forehead. His ears were ringing faintly. “What happened..?”

 

A big part of Baekhyun was hoping that Chanyeol would tell him it had all been a crazy dream, and now he was awake and everything was normal and okay — he hadn’t been nearly hit by a truck, or met Chanyeol’s 21-year-old twin from the future, at all. But this was wishful thinking, because instead Chanyeol said, “it worked, Baekhyun. We made it back.” And then he pressed his lips to the side of Baekhyun’s neck, covering it with soft kisses. Baekhyun sighed deeply and collapsed back onto the mattress, draping one arm over his eyes.

 

“Well… I guess you’d better start explaining yourself, then,” he whispered, and Chanyeol stopped kissing his neck, letting out a heavy sigh of his own. Baekhyun felt the rush of warm air against his skin and uncovered his eyes again, looking up at Chanyeol expectantly, waiting for him to begin.

 

“Okay,” Chanyeol said quietly; he looked sad and defeated. “I’ll tell you everything. I suppose you’ll have to know sooner or later, anyway, seeing as we don’t have much time left together.”

 

“But I don’t understand,” Baekhyun said, and he suddenly felt as though he might vomit, but he swallowed hard until the feeling subsided. “What’s going to happen to us? Are you going to leave me..?”

 

"Soon I’ll have to go back to the present – my present – and it’s very likely I won’t be able to see you again,” Chanyeol said quietly; he rolled away for a moment and reached for that watch he always wore, the one with all the weird knobs sticking out of it, which he’d left on the nightstand on his side of the bed. “This isn’t actually just a watch, by the way… it’s a communication and tracking device of sorts. You see this red light flashing here..? That means I’m being summoned back to my own time, as a matter of urgency, by the organisation I work for. If I don’t report back within twelve hours, I'll be teleported there automatically.”

 

“I don’t understand,” Baekhyun said. “What organisation..? Please, I just need to know the truth.”

 

Chanyeol sighed heavily and returned the watch to the nightstand before rolling over to face Baekhyun again. “Okay. How to put this… the thing is, I’ve always known who you are, Baekhyun; long before we first met in person,” he said quietly. “As a boy, I was — and still am, of course — a diehard fan of you and your comics. Although you aren’t aware of this yet, you turned out to be quite a well-known and prolific artist, churning out a good twenty-odd titles over your lifetime… and I read all of them many times, from cover to cover. But Jump! was, and always will be, my absolute favourite… which is why I was so overwhelmed to find out you’d dedicated it to me. In fact, my own keen interest in time-travel began to sprout from the very first time I read it.”

 

Chanyeol paused for a moment, and lay back flat against the bed, holding his arms out towards Baekhyun. “Do you mind if I hold you while we talk..? I’m not going to have much more of an opportunity to do so, and I’d like to make the most of having you here while I can.”

 

Baekhyun nodded in silence, and moved over until he was resting against Chanyeol’s chest; Chanyeol wrapped his arms tightly around him, holding him close, and then he continued his story.

 

“Anyway,” he said, “I know I mentioned that I studied art at university, and that’s true… but when I’d completed my degree, rather than pursuing some sort of career in the arts, I applied for a position as a time-travel research tester instead. Despite all the meticulous and gruelling examinations, background checks and physical aptitude tests, I was approved for selection, and then I was given my official time-travel license. You see, even in my era, travelling through time is still a relatively recent technological advancement, and testers like me are responsible for trying out all these new technologies, and reporting on their effectiveness, the range and accuracy and so on. The Chronosphere you’ve been using is just one of the many technologies I’ve tested during my career… and I have to say, this little baby has been the most accurate one, by far. It was the one that finally allowed me to travel back to your era, an era I had no experience of, and see things through your eyes… as I’d wanted to do ever since I was a boy. Of course, it took a lot of trial and error for me to pull this off — and a lot of risk-taking too, since we are strongly discouraged from exploiting the use of time-travel technologies for our own personal agendas..”

 

“Tell me, then,” Baekhyun asked quietly; he’d begun trailing his hands up and down Chanyeol’s arm, tracing the curve of his bicep with his fingers. “When did we really first meet? And how..?”

 

“You won’t recall it, of course, because like I said, it hasn’t happened to you yet,” Chanyeol told him. “It was several years from now, actually… and we met on the bridge, the one you took me to for our second date. The same bridge features in the background art of many of your comics, so I knew it must have held some sort of personal significance for you… I know it sounds stupid, but when I first started visiting this era and spending more time here, I used to walk over that bridge all the time, especially late at night. I don't know what I was hoping for, exactly; maybe I just wanted to experience a part of your world exactly as you'd experienced it. I never actually expected to meet you there… even if I hoped to do so, on some subconscious level. But then late one night, call it a miracle or whatever you like, but I did meet you there. In fact, I found you there at the edge of the walkway, with one leg swung over the railing. Apparently you were planning to kill yourself.”

 

Upon hearing this piece of information, Baekhyun covered his mouth with his hands. “God…” he whispered. “But why..?”

 

Chanyeol shook his head. “I don’t fully understand all your reasons for wanting to end your life in such a way. I had no idea who you even were, at first… I didn’t actually know what you looked like. I only figured it out when I asked you for your name. I was trying to stall you, to keep you talking so that I could think of a way to get help somehow. And so I asked you why you would want to do something like that, when I was sure you had a lot to live for… and you said to me that you’d reached a point in your life where you were just no good at living anymore. Your once-promising career as a manga artist had since gone way downhill, and you’d realised you were never going to be successful at what it was you wanted to do the most. Then you also told me that the only person you had ever truly loved had walked out on you several years before, never to be seen again, and it still tormented you deeply… you’d wake up every morning searching for that someone desperately, a man who could never be found. “Who is going to love me, if he didn't love me enough to stay..?” you asked me at the time, and I wanted to tell you I would — I can. But I was just a stranger, back then. Why should you have believed a single word I said..?”

 

Chanyeol paused for a moment and swallowed, licking his dry lips before he continued. “And then, before I could say anything to stop you, well... over you went,” he said quietly. “Without thinking, I reached out and grabbed your arm, and of course you pulled me right over with you..”

 

“Fucking hell,” Baekhyun whispered. “Did we die..?”

 

“Not quite,” Chanyeol said. “To be honest, I had my doubts that you truly intended to die, because I don’t think that bridge is really high enough for anyone jumping off it to be killed instantly… although at the time I could tell we were both severely injured. You hit the road first, and broke my fall somewhat. I thought perhaps you were dying then, or at least paralysed, but I couldn’t be sure. I remember you were moving in and out of consciousness; it was the middle of the night, and there were few vehicles about. But then that truck came hurtling along the same lane we were lying in… and I couldn’t move my legs, and you couldn’t move anything at all. Even so, I managed at the last second to engage the Chronosphere, which I’d had in my pocket at the time, and with it I transported you back to the present, more or less — back to the night of the party. Then, when we arrived here, I accidentally dropped the damn thing without realising. I guess that was when you picked it up, and apparently took quite a liking to it.”

 

“So you’re the prick who knocked me down in that alleyway..” Baekhyun said, and for some reason he couldn’t help laughing bitterly at the thought. “Bloody hell… I should have known..”

 

“Yeah,” Chanyeol replied, laughing a little himself. “That was me. I’m sorry I didn’t hang around to check if you were okay… but I couldn’t let you see who I was. Us testers are strictly forbidden from disclosing anything about our job or the technology we use to anyone outside of the organisation, especially people from past eras; I suppose because of the potential effects it can have on history if such technology gets into the wrong hands by accident, as it did with you. And I wasn’t sure if perhaps you might have retained some sort of memory of me saving your life, so I thought it’d be best if I made a quick getaway. Then, when I realised I’d dropped my Chronosphere, I went back to search for it, but it was gone; that’s when I figured out you must have had it, and I knew I had to get close to you somehow to try and get it back again, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to go home. At the same time, I had to do so without you ever knowing it was mine in the first place, which was quite the quandary to find myself in. So I went and applied for a job at the same manga publisher I knew you worked for, and when they saw how well I could draw, I was offered a position instantly. When I found out I’d be working in the same team as you, I was overjoyed. I wasn't planning to stay in this era for very long... just until I could get the Chronosphere, and then I’d return home. But the longer I lived here, the more I preferred it to my own time. Life seems… I don’t know, so much simpler here. And since I still had yet to be summoned, I thought maybe I could stay here for a while, perhaps indefinitely, and when I got the Chronosphere back I could move back and forth between the two eras, claiming it was for research purposes to cover my tracks. But of course, I had to go and fall in love with you, which only made things a thousand times more complicated. And your reluctance to let me get close to you for a while didn’t really help my situation either.”

 

“So, the whole time you were trying to get the thing back without me knowing,” Baekhyun said quietly. “Does that mean you lied to me? Did you never have any real feelings for me at all..?”

 

Chanyeol shook his head. “No… God, no. I mean, yes, it’s true that I did try to get close to you with the intent of stealing it back — I can’t deny that. But I never lied about loving you… maybe my love for you wasn’t originally intended, but it was definitely real. I risked a lot to stay with you, you know. I'm not saying that to make you feel guilty, or to make you feel bad for me... but it’s true. I am bound by so many things… there are all these people I have to answer to, people who can erase me just like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. “But the power you have over me far surpasses them all. I need you to trust me when I say that every decision I’ve made since we became friends, since we fell in love, has been for you, with your safety and happiness in mind.”

 

Baekhyun let out a heavy sigh and nodded; he was still confused, but at least things made a fraction more sense now. “Okay,” he whispered. “I’m sorry for taking your Chrono-thingy, and causing you all this trouble… I really didn’t know it was yours. If I did, I’d have given it back straight away.”

 

“It’s alright, you weren’t to know,” Chanyeol replied softly, and he leaned forward a little, pressing a tender kiss to the side of Baekhyun’s head. “Like I said, I couldn’t exactly tell you it was mine anyway. I’m surprised you’re not freaking out right now, after hearing all this, well… this stuff..”

 

Baekhyun sighed again and looked up at the ceiling for a moment, lost in thought. “I believe every word you’re saying, oddly enough,” he said. “I suppose given what’s happened to me over the past five months, there isn’t really anything that surprises me anymore..”

 

Chanyeol kissed Baekhyun softly again, pressing his lips to the corner of his mouth. “There’s another thing I want to get off my chest, now that everything else is out in the open,” he said quietly, leaning back again to look into Baekhyun’s eyes. His expression was solemn now, almost despairing. “That time when you asked where my father was, and I said I didn’t know… well, that’s not quite true. I do know. I just didn’t want to tell you, because it’s not something I like to remember, at all… but now I think it’s important that you know too. And since you’ve always shared everything with me, especially your struggles regarding Jongin’s disappearance, I feel like I owe you my complete honesty as well.”

 

“Okay,” Baekhyun whispered, and he gently rubbed Chanyeol’s back and shoulders with one hand for encouragement. “Take all the time you need.”

 

Chanyeol nodded and took a deep breath before he began to speak once more. “When I was fifteen, my parents split up,” he said, “and they began living in separate apartments. They shared custody of my older sister and I, and so we were constantly bandied between them, which was hard… but by then I suppose we were old enough to deal with it. Even my mother was able to cope, it seemed, but my father… well, he never got over it. We were such good friends when I was growing up — he was a newspaper columnist by profession, but he was also an editorial cartoonist for the paper he worked for, and whenever he came upon a political cartoon that he found particularly amusing, he would collect it and put it aside for me. To this day, I still keep newspapers for the political cartoons, which is why I have so many of them in my apartment… but anyway, dad had always encouraged me to become an artist myself, and because we had this interest in common, we were always very close. But after his relationship with my mother deteriorated, it was like the light in his eyes just went out permanently. I’d see a flicker of it whenever my sister and I went to stay with him, but it wouldn’t last very long…”

 

Here Chanyeol’s voice began to crack a little, and he paused for a moment, wiping a couple of tears away with his fingers. Baekhyun kept his eyes trained on Chanyeol’s face, trying to meet his gaze, but Chanyeol was looking past him now, his own eyes damp and expressionless.

 

“Around a year later, when I was staying at dad’s place, I came home from school one day and found him sitting on the floor in the bathroom, absolutely soaked in blood,” he said quietly. “His head had fallen forward, and I reached over to lift it up, to see if he was alive… I didn’t notice the handgun in his lap until it was too late. I never even knew he had a gun in the first place, and I still don’t know where he got it. Anyway, apparently he’d tried to shoot himself, but instead of doing it clean through the temple he must have misfired, and so he blew half his face off, leaving this gaping bloody hole in his head… and so when I pushed him back against the wall, I saw what was left of his brain just… fall right through that hole, still hanging from the spinal cord. So I screamed and I dropped him again like he was a piece of trash, and I ran, down three flights of stairs, out into the street; I ran and ran, my hands still sticky with his blood, and I didn’t stop — except, you know, to throw up a couple of times. Then, when I had run for long enough that my lungs were on fire and I no longer even recognised where I was, I called the police, and I told them what I’d found.”

 

“Oh, Chanyeol..” Baekhyun whispered, and he didn’t really know what else to say, so he began gently rubbing Chanyeol’s back again. It seemed like such a paltry attempt to comfort someone after they’d been through something so terrible, but he could tell by the way Chanyeol’s expression softened that he appreciated the gesture.

 

“I know,” he whispered back, and he offered Baekhyun a little smile, but it quickly faded away. “Anyway, when I was older and had first started leaping, I tried to go back to the days before my dad died, just to see him — before all of it happened, when he was still okay, still my dad… because I’d missed him terribly for so long, as you can imagine, and I guess I thought maybe I could change things… maybe I could go back and stop him from doing it, stop that whole nightmare from occurring. But I was never able to envision a happy memory inside my head for long enough before I would have another flashback of what happened in the bathroom that day. Ultimately, that was always what I would end up picturing, and without wanting to, I’d find myself leaping to that very moment every single time, finding him that way again and again. Eventually I gave up on trying to find him, and even now that I can control my leaping better than I used to, I’m still too afraid to try. I’m just not able to think about him anymore, without seeing him like that inside my head.”

 

“I don’t blame you,” Baekhyun said quietly. “I can’t even imagine finding something so horrible. Just hearing about it makes me feel physically sick.”

 

“It was the most horrible fucking thing that could ever have happened to me,” Chanyeol replied. “And it fucked me up for the longest time. In fact, I’m fairly sure I’m still a little fucked up now. But that’s why, of all the comics you wrote, Jump! was my favourite… because it still made me laugh so much, even when I was so depressed. When I was working at the library, I’d sit in the comic section when it was quiet and just read all of your manga for hours. I don't know how to thank you for reminding me that it was still possible to feel joy, especially at a time when I thought I might never laugh again. And I’m not telling you all this to scare you. I just want you to imagine what it was like to find someone that way… to have such a terrible image as your final memory of a person you love so dearly. And when I saw you about to do the same thing, I didn’t even hesitate — I acted on impulse, because I knew I had to stop you; that was the only thought running through my head at the time. I didn’t know or love you then, but I knew there were people out there who did… and I couldn’t let them feel the way I felt. The way I still feel, and will always feel..”

 

Chanyeol paused for a moment and took both of Baekhyun's hands in his own, rubbing them gently before bringing them both to his lips and kissing them.

 

“Now that I’ve become one of those people who love you, the thought of something like that happening to you… I couldn’t even bear to think of it," he whispered; he drew a shuddering breath, and Baekhyun could see tears forming in his eyes again. "I’m so sorry that I’ve gone and screwed everything up for us… I suppose at least now you know why I felt like I had to do it. And I need you to promise me now, because I’m not always going to be here to save you. Promise me you’ll never try to do anything like that, ever again.”

 

“I really don’t know what to say," Baekhyun said quietly. "I guess I’m a little overwhelmed right now..”

 

Chanyeol nodded. “Perfectly understandable," he whispered. “I would be too. You’ve taken it much better than I ever expected you to.”

 

“I’m so sorry that such a terrible thing happened to you,” Baekhyun whispered back. “I really am. You have the most beautiful heart, Chanyeol, and you’re the last person on this earth who deserves to go through such unimaginable suffering.”

 

“It’s nothing you need to be sorry for,” Chanyeol said, shaking his head, and then he smiled.

 

“Well, I'm sorry anyway,” Baekhyun said quietly. “I’m sorry because you’ve made the biggest sacrifice for me… and needlessly, because I wasn’t even trying to kill myself, at least not this time around. I’m so sorry I made you panic like that. This is all my fault..”

 

“Baekhyun, calling it a sacrifice implies that I lost something in trying to save you. But that’s not true, at all,” Chanyeol said, and he threaded his fingers through Baekhyun’s hair, stroking it gently. “And would I do it again, given half a chance? Yes, fuck yes, I would. So I'll take whatever's coming to me. Perhaps not with a smile on my face… but as long as I know you’re safe, I’ll take it.”

 

They lay in silence for a while, holding each other's hands, and then Baekhyun opened his mouth and said, “maybe this isn’t the right time to ask, but does the future really look the way it does in your drawings..? Like, do you have flying cars where you’re from..?”

 

Chanyeol laughed heartily at the question, shaking his head in amusement. “It does sort of look like that, but the buildings aren’t so tall… and none of them look like dicks either, I’m happy to report. As for the flying cars, no… not quite. Small personal aircraft exist, but they’re not accessible to anyone but the wealthiest of the wealthy. It’s funny, because we’ve figured out ways to travel through time, but yet we still haven’t figured out how to make an affordable flying vehicle for the average citizen. The world I'm from, it’s, well… it's changed a hell of a lot from the way things are now, Baekhyun. In fact, I would dare to say that in some ways, it's even gone backwards.”

 

Baekhyun pondered this for a moment and nodded in silence. “I know you weren’t able to tell me all of this at the time," he said quietly. "I just really wish I’d known, so that I could have prevented it from happening. Now that I know you’ll have to leave me, I regret it all so much..”

 

“I wanted so badly to tell you,” Chanyeol whispered. “Especially at times when I saw you really doubting yourself and your talents, I wanted you to know how great you’d be some day. But I’m glad I can at least leave you with that information. I hope it helps you to keep up your confidence.”

 

Baekhyun leaned forward and buried his face in Chanyeol’s chest. “Is there really no way you can stay..?” he whispered, and Chanyeol wrapped his arms tightly around him again, pressing his lips to the crown of his head.

 

“No, my love,” he whispered back. “I’m afraid not.”

 

Baekhyun lifted his head away from Chanyeol’s chest again and looked up into his eyes. “Then take me with you…” he whispered back. “Please… I don’t care what happens, Chanyeol. I just want to be with you.”

 

“I really can’t,” Chanyeol said. “It’s not safe. And I wouldn’t let you come with me even if it was.”

 

“Why not..?” Baekhyun asked, feeling his already sunken heart deflating even further, and Chanyeol let out a quiet little sigh.

 

“Because you should stay in your own time and work on achieving your dreams, like you were always meant to do,” he said. “Just say you change the whole course of your future by choosing to live in a completely different era, and you never end up becoming a successful manga artist at all— what then..?”

 

“Who cares..?” Baekhyun mumbled. “At least I’d still have you..”

 

“Don’t say ‘who cares’ like it’s nothing,” Chanyeol said harshly. “This is important — at least, it is to me, and it should be important to you too. What you do is valuable, it has great worth – it will bring happiness to many people, least of all myself. It’s what led me to you in the first place, and I can’t let you throw it away—”

 

“Then I’ll go back,” Baekhyun said, cutting Chanyeol off. “I’ll make this all go away. I’ll undo the whole fucking thing..”

 

Chanyeol only shook his head. "It's too late for that… they know now. I have to go. Even if I don’t, I’ll be removed forcibly, just as I said. It’s only a matter of time.”

 

"I'll come looking for you then,” Baekhyun replied, and he could hear the desperation in his own voice now; internally he was begging himself to stop, because he could see that Chanyeol was becoming upset, but he didn’t know how. “Now that I've been transported to the future once, surely I’ll be able to go back there..”

 

“No, you wont,” Chanyeol said quietly, but with a trace of impatience now. “Because I’m not going to wait for them to take me. I’ll be leaving in a few hours, and I’ll be taking the Chronosphere with me, and that’s that. I’m going to try and salvage the situation while there’s still hope, and see if I can get these people off my trail. So get the idea of following me out of your head. It’s not going to happen.”

 

Baekhyun blinked at Chanyeol for a moment, and then collapsed against the mattress again with both hands covering his face. "I don't understand," he whispered. "Why would you do that..? Don't you even want to be with me anymore..?”

 

"Yes," Chanyeol sighed, “of course I want to be with you… but I know what you'll do, Baekhyun, if I leave this thing in your possession. You'll keep going back over and over again to the time before all of this shit happened, just to see me. You'll put a hold on your own life, and that’s the last thing I want. Also, the people I work for know how to track the Chronosphere’s use… if they ever find out you’ve been using it instead of me, for all I know they might come after you. I really can’t risk that.”

 

Baekhyun didn’t reply; he kept both his hands over his face until Chanyeol grabbed them and pulled them away.

 

“Baekhyun, please… look at me,” he said. “If I truly loved you, I wouldn’t take you with me. I wouldn’t put you in danger. I could never live with myself if something happened to you… that isn’t how things are meant to be. If I had let you give up and die that night, you would never have written that one brilliant comic that finally launched your career. I would never have known who you were, never have been inspired by you… I would never have had the occasion to meet you. And this is the same thing — I don’t want you to give up your future to follow me into the unknown. This was what you were meant to do. It's how I found you in the first place."

 

“Please,” Baekhyun whispered, avoiding Chanyeol’s eyes. “Spare me all the ‘meant to be’ bullshit. Do I not have a say in how I want my own life to turn out..?”

 

“I want you to have the bright future you deserve, Baekhyun,” Chanyeol said quietly. “Even if I can't be a part of it.”

 

Baekhyun just sighed and once again chose not to respond. His eyes were lowered to the bedroom floor; he was afraid to look at Chanyeol directly in case he started crying, or something similarly embarrassing. Chanyeol rubbed his hands for a moment and lifted them to his lips again, kissing them softly.

After a minute or two, Baekhyun took a deep, shuddering breath and nodded, but he still refused to look into Chanyeol's eyes. “Okay,” he whispered. “Fine... I get it.”

 

“Good,” Chanyeol replied, pulling Baekhyun into his arms and kissing the back of his neck. “I’m glad you understand. I love you so deeply, and I want desperately to stay with you... but this is more important to me.”

 

“So,” Baekhyun said quietly, “in a few hours then, huh..?”

 

Chanyeol made a sad little sound somewhere in the back of his throat. “Yes, I’m afraid so,” he whispered. “And there’s one more important thing I need to tell you… but I’m afraid you’re not going to take it very well.”

 

Baekhyun’s stomach lurched once more at this unwelcome piece of news. “God,” he groaned, turning his head to shoot Chanyeol an incredulous look, and then he rolled over properly to face him again. “What else could there possibly be..?”

 

Chanyeol sighed heavily and chewed his lip for a moment before replying. For some reason, he began to look vaguely guilty. “If I return home and agree to surrender my license, and have myself erased permanently from this timeline, then there’s a chance I might be able to avoid possible imprisonment,” he said quietly. “But that means everyone I ever encountered here will no longer have any memory of me. Including you.”

 

Baekhyun looked at Chanyeol blankly for a moment, at first in disbelief, which slowly gave way to complete horror.

 

“No,” he whispered. “No, you can’t..”

 

“Baekhyun, it would probably be for the best,” Chanyeol said. “I can’t stay here anyway, and I don’t want you to live with the same pain Jongin left you in. It’s bad enough that one of us will be feeling it..”

 

“Don’t take my memories away,” Baekhyun cried, burying his face against Chanyeol’s chest and beating his balled-up fists against his shoulders, much like a child throwing a tantrum. “You can’t… you can’t. I won’t fucking let you..”

 

“Please, Baekhyun,” Chanyeol whispered, and he began to stroke Baekhyun’s hair gently in an effort to soothe him. “You already know I can't refuse you anything… I need you to think about what you're asking me to do.”

 

Baekhyun did think about it for a while, and then he sighed and moved his head away from Chanyeol’s body. “Okay,” he muttered, wiping his eyes. “Fine… do it then. If that’s what you want, then… whatever. I fucking give up.”

 

“I guess I must really be on your list of life’s regrets now, huh..” Chanyeol whispered, and Baekhyun rolled away from him, lying on his side and staring at the wall.

 

“I don’t know yet,” he replied bitterly. “I guess I’ll keep you posted when all of this shit fully sinks in.”

 

 

 

After he said this, they lay there in silence for a while, without Chanyeol daring to touch him. Baekhyun didn’t know what to say, and was still afraid he’d cry, so for a while he said nothing at all, until the anger and disbelief began to stab and twist his insides so terribly that he couldn’t keep silent anymore.

 

“You know… lately you had me thinking that I could quite easily spend forever with you,” he said quietly, still staring at the wall. “And now you’re telling me all of a sudden that I have to fit forever into a few fucking hours, which is so… I cannot even begin to tell you how unfair that is. It is so completely unfair.”

 

Chanyeol made a sound as though he was about to speak, but Baekhyun promptly cut him off.

“…and if you’re thinking about telling me that life just isn’t fair in general, then please, for the love of God, just spare me,” he added, finally turning his head to look at Chanyeol’s face. “Because I already want to vomit right now as it is, and I really will be sick then.”

 

Chanyeol nodded in silence, and then his gaze flickered away; he seemed genuinely upset now, his eyes shining with tears again. Baekhyun immediately felt a pang of guilt when he saw them, but somehow he still couldn’t bring himself to apologise.

 

“Well, we should at least spend these precious few hours making the most of each other, don’t you think..?” Chanyeol said at last, looking into Baekhyun’s eyes again. “Instead of wasting them on being miserable about something neither of us can help..”

 

Baekhyun sighed heavily, but he nodded anyway. “I guess so. What do you propose, then..?”

 

“Hmmm. Well… I know it’s silly, really, but we’ve never danced together before,” Chanyeol said, and he seemed unnaturally timid now, which made Baekhyun feel uneasy. “And since a hasty wedding is probably completely out of the question, I think having the honour of slow-dancing with you might be the next best thing..”

 

Baekhyun nodded again. "Alright," he said wearily. “I mean, I don’t even know how to dance with a partner, but..”

 

“That’s okay,” Chanyeol replied, “neither do I. We can stumble around like idiots together.” He rolled off of Baekhyun’s bed and held out his hand to help him up, gently leading him over to the living room; when they got there, he opened Baekhyun’s laptop where it was sitting on the coffee table, and fiddled around with it for a moment, searching his music selection for an appropriate song to dance to. Baekhyun sat on the armrest of the couch and waited in silence while Chanyeol did this. The idea of slow-dancing, especially while they were both still naked, made him feel stupid already… but he didn’t have the heart to turn Chanyeol down.

 

“This is a nice one,” Chanyeol said at last. “And appropriate too, I think.” Baekhyun heard the twanging of guitars as Chanyeol’s chosen tune began to fill the room. It was a song he knew all too well, one that went by the name of Last Goodbye.

 

“Oh, come on,” he groaned, covering his eyes with one hand. “Seriously..?”

 

“What..?” Chanyeol said; he sounded vaguely hurt. “It’s a beautiful song..”

 

Baekhyun exhaled loudly through his nose, but he nodded anyway and got up from the armrest. He stood there in the middle of the living room floor, stiff as a board, waiting for Chanyeol to come over to him. Only when Chanyeol put his arms around him did he soften a little, and then he leaned his head against his lover’s shoulder, perhaps in spite of himself.

 

"You're such a dick," he mumbled, pressing his face against Chanyeol's skin, until his nose was squashed and he couldn’t breathe properly. "I really hate you, you know..”

 

Chanyeol laughed at that. "No, you don't," he said. He had one hand on the back of Baekhyun's head now, and the other on his waist. "But I'll bet you wish you did."

 

Baekhyun tried unsuccessfully to swallow the lump in his throat and kept his head firmly planted against Chanyeol’s shoulder.

 

“Just… move with me,” Chanyeol whispered. He nudged Baekhyun’s chin with his hands until he lifted his head, and then he lowered his own until their foreheads were touching. They swayed gently from side to side; it couldn’t really be called dancing, Baekhyun thought, given that they weren’t even moving their feet properly. Chanyeol silently mouthed the words to the song, and when the singer sang the line ‘kiss me, please kiss me,’ he held Baekhyun’s face in his hands and kissed him, softly and slowly. Baekhyun let him do it for a moment, and then he pulled away.

 

"Please, turn it off," he said quietly, shaking his head. "I can't handle it anymore. It's too sad.”

 

Chanyeol looked devastated all over again, but he nodded in silence and did as Baekhyun asked. Once he’d turned the music off, he collapsed onto Baekhyun’s couch, and Baekhyun slowly lowered himself down next to him, leaving a distance of about two feet between them.

 

"What should we do now..?” Chanyeol asked quietly, and Baekhyun merely shrugged and stared straight ahead of him at the blank screen of the television. 

 

"I don't know,” he said; his voice sounded flat and lifeless, even to his own ears. “I suppose we should probably have sex one last time..”

 

Chanyeol turned his head to look at Baekhyun then. "Well, alright, if you want to..." he said, and then he trailed off into silence. He seemed so nervous, so unsure; when Baekhyun finally looked at him, he looked as though he'd physically shrunk somehow. Baekhyun hated himself for making Chanyeol feel that way, but a part of him secretly enjoyed it as well. He hated himself for that too.

 

Chanyeol stood up from the couch then, and pulled Baekhyun up with him; he took him gently by the hand and began leading him in the direction of the bedroom again, but Baekhyun stopped him. "Not in my bed," he said quietly, "I don't want to mess it up." He wondered if Chanyeol would be hurt by that, but if he was, he didn’t show it. He simply nodded and turned around to face Baekhyun again, looking into his eyes as he slowly lowered himself to the floor, lying on his back beside the coffee table. 

 

“Go get what you need to,” he whispered. “I’ll wait here.”

 

Baekhyun thought about telling Chanyeol not to be silly – to get up and lie on the couch instead of the floor – but the words died in his throat before he could so much as utter them. Chanyeol looked uncomfortable, lying there on his back on the hard wooden floor with nothing on, and he crossed his legs to cover himself up a little, which he’d never done before. Baekhyun had no idea why Chanyeol was hiding away from him now, when they already knew every inch of each other so intimately, but he preoccupied himself with going to his room to fetch the necessary supplies, and tried to push the thought out of his mind.

 

 

As soon as Baekhyun returned to the living room again, he got on top of Chanyeol and kneeled with his legs on either side of him, squeezing a dollop of lube onto his hands and warming it up between his fingers. He noticed Chanyeol’s gaze wandering up and down over his body while he did this, and then he reached over and trailed his hands along the sides of Baekhyun's thighs and up to his hips, caressing his hipbones with his thumbs. "God, you're beautiful,” he whispered, and he worried his lower lip between his teeth, looking as though he wanted desperately to say something else, but he didn't. Baekhyun pretended not to notice the way Chanyeol was looking at him, but after a while those sad brown eyes became impossible to ignore.

 

"Please,” he muttered, reluctantly meeting Chanyeol’s gaze for a moment. “Don’t look at me like that..”

 

Chanyeol's expression darkened, and his hands jerked away from Baekhyun's body as though he'd been burned. "I love you, Baekhyun… am I not allowed to even look at you now..?”

 

Baekhyun groaned in exasperation. "Fine. Go on, then. Take one last look at everything you're about to give up, if that makes it easier for you. Why not draw another fucking picture, since we have all the time in the world..?”

 

"Baek, that's not fair," Chanyeol replied quietly. "I don't want things to end this way any more than you do..”

 

"Oh, shut it," Baekhyun snapped, in a voice he didn’t recognise as his own, and he leaned forward and gave Chanyeol a hard, bruising kiss on the mouth to silence him. He knew he was being unnecessarily cruel now, but he couldn't help it; the knowledge that this was happening to him all over again was too much… far too much for him to bear. He could feel the grief slowly consuming him, turning his heart to glass, turning him into a monster. “Please… just shut up so we can fuck,” he whispered, mouthing the words against Chanyeol's lips, and then he pulled away, adding, "while you're still around for us to do it."

 

"Okay," Chanyeol murmured in reply; he licked his lips and kept those sad eyes fixed to the ceiling, focused on nothing in particular. "If that's what you want, then... fine.”

 

"Good," Baekhyun said flatly, and he leaned over and kissed Chanyeol hard once more, biting down on his lower lip until he gasped. None of their activities had succeeded so far in making him hard, and Baekhyun had to use his hands on him for a good while to get him aroused; Chanyeol refused to look at Baekhyun while he did this, choosing instead to keep his eyes squeezed shut, as though he wished he were somewhere else – or worse, with someone else. Deep down, Baekhyun didn’t blame him – he couldn’t think of worse circumstances under which to have sex with someone – but Chanyeol’s unresponsiveness only made him angrier. There were thoughts screaming through his head that he couldn’t silence: that Chanyeol didn’t even want him anymore, that this was just one last pity-fuck before he pissed off to wherever he was going… that the love they’d made not so long ago, in another time – all those sweet kisses and honeyed words, the fiery trails Chanyeol’s hands and mouth had scorched into his skin, the ones he could still feel burning on him now – had all meant nothing. None of it meant anything at all.

 

 

Baekhyun sat up again and leaned back a little, supporting himself on the coffee table next to him, giving Chanyeol the best possible view of his body – let him see what he’ll be missing, he thought bitterly. Slowly, he took Chanyeol in as far as he could, savouring the tiny gasp that escaped his lips, the way his head rolled back against the floor.

 

"Shouldn't I… you know... stretch you a bit..?” Chanyeol began, already breathless, but Baekhyun cut him off. "No time," he said; he knew he would probably regret it when he was sore later, but he would deal with that when he came to it. He moved slowly at first, but quickly built up to a frenzied pace, until it began to sting a little, and then until it burned — until he was a panting, moaning mess, and his ability to feel any emotion was completely overridden by the onslaught of physical sensation.

 

"Hey, hey... slower, babe. Take it nice and slow," Chanyeol said, breathing heavily through gritted teeth, as though he could feel every ounce of Baekhyun’s pain. He grabbed Baekhyun's hips and held on to them tightly in a bid to slow him down, his blunt nails digging into the soft flesh. "There's no need to hurry. I'm not... I'm not going anywhere just yet," he said hoarsely. "Please, don't hurt yourself..”

 

"I'm sorry, but I want you,” Baekhyun said, his voice cracking; the pressure was slowly building to bursting point behind his eyes, and he let out a low groan. His vision began to blur. “I want you… so much..”

 

Chanyeol looked distraught at the desperation in Baekhyun's voice, and he opened his mouth to respond, but then he thought better of it; he didn't say anything more after that, just rolled his head back and let Baekhyun have his way with him. And then, in the middle of it all, when Baekhyun knew he wouldn't last much longer – when his insides were searing with something traipsing the line between pleasure and pain, and his legs were about to give way beneath him, and Chanyeol's eyes were starting to roll back inside his head – he suddenly stopped and fell forward, until his forehead nearly hit Chanyeol's chest. Neither of them could move much while he was like that, but Baekhyun had neither the will nor the energy to keep going; instead he stayed slumped over, just barely rocking his hips back and forth, but not enough for either of them to derive any real enjoyment from it. He could feel Chanyeol starting to lose his erection, but he couldn't bring himself to care.

 

They carried on that way for a minute or two, when Chanyeol suddenly pulled Baekhyun forward until he was lying flat against him, sliding out of him completely, and then he wrapped his arms around him so tightly that he couldn’t move. "We don't have to, Baek... not like this. Not while you're upset," he said quietly, and he held Baekhyun close and stroked his hair, letting him cry and whisper 'I'm sorry' and ‘I don’t want to forget’, over and over against the warm skin of his chest. Chanyeol didn't breathe a word of protest about the interruption; he just pressed his lips against the top of Baekhyun's head and repeatedly whispered 'it's okay’ – although what 'it' was and how it could possibly be okay were both questions that Baekhyun couldn't answer.

 

“I’m sorry I’m such a mess right now,” he whispered after a while, drying his eyes with the back of his hand; he could see he’d left a slimy trail of tears and snot on Chanyeol’s chest, but if Chanyeol had even noticed it was there then he didn’t seem at all bothered by it, and made no move to wipe it away. “I guess I haven't really cried properly in a while… maybe I'm just making up for lost time..”

 

Truthfully, he couldn't remember the last time he'd cried; he couldn't even bring himself to cry after Jongin disappeared. The last time he'd cried like that – the hiccupping, snotty kind of crying – it had probably been over a skinned knee when he was a kid or something. But this was no skinned knee.

 

“Been saving for a rainy day, huh..?” Chanyeol asked, still stroking Baekhyun’s hair. “Is it making you feel a little better, at least..?”

 

"Mmm," Baekhyun said, and then he laughed. "Not really, to tell you the truth..” He rolled off of Chanyeol's body and onto the floor, where he curled up next to him and buried his face in his armpit. It reeked a little, but he didn’t care.

 

Chanyeol turned onto his side and began tracing circles over Baekhyun’s stomach, and then he rubbed it gently with his hand, as though he were Buddha or something. “I'm going to miss this soft belly so much,” he whispered; he leaned forward and buried his face in it, blowing a raspberry that made Baekhyun flail about embarrassingly. “Oh, belly… how can I leave you..?” Chanyeol said, pretending to be mournful, and Baekhyun had to crack a smile at his antics, in spite of how utterly wretched he was feeling. He felt the warmth of Chanyeol’s breath over his skin as he moved his lips down lower, and then he gave the tip of Baekhyun’s penis a little kiss and told it that it was beautiful, as if it could hear him. “I’m going to miss you too,” he whispered to it, and Baekhyun collapsed against the floor in a fit of mortified laughter.

 

“Well, I’m going to miss your face,” he said quietly, when he’d calmed down again. “And I’ll miss your voice, as well. And your body. And your kisses. And the sex, of course… definitely can’t leave that out..”

 

Chanyeol laughed and pulled Baekhyun into his arms, holding him tight. “I’ll miss those things too,” he whispered, burying his face against Baekhyun’s neck. “I’ll miss it all. I miss everything about you already.”

 

Baekhyun picked up Chanyeol’s right arm and traced the words tattooed on the inside of his wrist with his fingers. “You know, I never got around to asking what this tattoo says..”

 

Orta recens quam pura nites… it means something along the lines of ‘newly risen, how brightly you shine’,” Chanyeol said quietly. “I had it done for my father.”

 

Baekhyun didn't say anything for a moment. Instead he moved his hand between their bodies, pressing his palm flat against Chanyeol's chest.

 

“What are you doing..?” Chanyeol whispered; he began nuzzling Baekhyun’s neck again, kissing it softly.

 

“I’m trying to feel your heart,” Baekhyun whispered back. “Because I think I’ll miss it most of all.”

 

Chanyeol took Baekhyun’s hand in his own, moving it slowly over his chest. "Hold your hand here, then," he whispered, guiding Baekhyun’s hand to his heart, and then he held it in place with his own hand resting on top of it. "Right here. Can you feel me..?”

 

Baekhyun nodded. “Yeah,” he whispered back; he felt Chanyeol’s heart in quick little beats against his palm, and he moved his hand away for a moment, pressing his lips to the place where it had been. “I can feel you.”

 

 

“I can almost hear your mind ticking away from here,” Chanyeol said, chuckling softly, after Baekhyun had been silent for a few minutes. “Tell me what you’re thinking, love. Tell me everything. Let’s leave nothing unsaid.”

 

Baekhyun was silent for a moment, and then he pressed his face against Chanyeol’s chest again, breathing him in deeply.

 

“Years from now, when I look back and wonder if you were ever even real, I'll remember this moment,” he replied quietly. “How I felt your heart beating against my hand… maybe then I'll be able to convince myself that I wasn't going crazy this whole time."

 

Chanyeol kissed him then, pinning him down against the floor and lacing their fingers together. Baekhyun sighed into his mouth, his resistance quickly melting away, and as they began to make love again, he finally felt himself surrendering completely – to Chanyeol and his kisses, to life itself… to everything. There was no point in fighting anymore. Whatever was to happen to him could go ahead and happen.

 

 

 

“You know, I’ve never told you this,” Baekhyun said, after they’d lain in each other’s arms for a while. “But that story you told me about your dad made me think. Soon after I first started leaping, I went back to see if I could find Jongin, because like you, I thought maybe I could stop him from ever going on that road trip in the first place. So I went back to the café where we had breakfast together just before he left, but he never showed up. He just… wasn’t there. And it disturbed me so much that I never went back and tried to see him again, even though I really wanted to. I just didn’t have the guts to do it.”

 

Chanyeol stroked Baekhyun’s hair for a moment in silence before he ventured to reply.

“If you went back to see him and he wasn’t there, then I hate to say it, but… I suppose perhaps there’s a chance he no longer exists..”

 

Baekhyun lifted his head up from Chanyeol’s chest. “So you’re saying I wasn’t able to see him because he’s dead..?”

 

“I don’t know,” Chanyeol said. “I don’t know what happens when people die. I was never able to make it back to a time when my father was alive, and so I’ve never been able to find out. For all we know, Jongin could still be out there somewhere. He could be lost, and unable to get back to his own time… it’s quite easy to do. I’ve been lost before myself, more than once, but I know by now how to navigate my way across timelines to some degree. Time can be a very treacherous, unforgiving landscape… even more so for the inexperienced.”

 

Baekhyun rested his head upon Chanyeol’s chest again and sighed. “Whatever it was he was looking for, I just hope he found it,” he said quietly, and then he felt Chanyeol wrap his arms around him tightly, pressing his lips to the top of his head.

 

“If I were Jongin, and I were lost somewhere in time, I’d spend every second trying to find my way back to you again,” he whispered.

 

 

 

Baekhyun didn’t reply. Instead he traced patterns over Chanyeol’s arm in silence, trying to commit the feeling of his skin to memory, and breathed him in once more, as deeply as he could, until his lungs felt like they’d collapse. Chanyeol whispered 'I love you' into his hair until his breathing evened out, and the desire to sleep finally overwhelmed him. He held Baekhyun like that for the rest of the night, until the morning came.

 

 

 

 

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

 

 

 

When Baekhyun woke up the next day — on his birthday, again — he was in his bed under the covers, the echoes of Chanyeol’s whispers still replaying themselves in his ears... and it quickly occurred to him that he still remembered. But now he was starting to see what Chanyeol meant; now that he was alone, those memories were only a burden on his heart and mind. He couldn’t recall how he got back in his bed, but he was still naked… and the ache in his thighs and backside were more of a reminder than he needed of what had happened the night before. He groaned and rolled over onto his side, lying there with one eye open, and stared at his alarm clock until, finally, it went off.

Eventually Baekhyun crawled out of bed with great difficulty, as though he’d been lying in it for a hundred years, and searched the entire apartment, which didn’t take long – it was small, after all. As expected, Chanyeol was nowhere to be found.

 

So he’d really gone, then..

 

Baekhyun walked back to his bedroom and collapsed onto the bed again, lying on his back and staring up at the ceiling, dry-eyed and exhausted. He tried to picture their last kiss, but he couldn’t – it was the one thing missing from his memory. He briefly recalled reading somewhere once that another person’s DNA would remain in one’s mouth for a few days after a kiss, but he wasn’t sure if that was really true or not. What he did know was that several hours had already passed since that last kiss would have occurred, and that the time before the next one – if there was to be a next one – was not measurable, not in units he knew the name of. These thoughts were depressing enough to keep him bedridden for an entire week, if not longer… but there were things to be done, and he had a life to get on with, as Chanyeol had wanted for him. It was this last thought alone that finally got Baekhyun out of bed.

 

When he made his way into the kitchen to get a glass of water, Baekhyun stumbled upon the Chronosphere sitting there on the bench, on top of a folded piece of paper. He stood there looking at the device for a long time, his eyes wide with surprise... but then he snatched it up and dropped it into the bin under the counter, along with the piece of paper, which he didn’t bother to unfold. He didn’t want to know why it was there… it must have been some kind of mistake. He got dressed quickly and headed out to work without bothering to wait for Kyungsoo, slamming the front door behind him, taking the elevator down to the ground floor and walking out into the street. Just before he arrived at the steps leading down to the subway, he suddenly felt nauseated and stopped to lean against a wall, retching, but nothing much came up. He stayed there for a few minutes, breathing heavily with his eyes squeezed shut until the pounding in his head had subsided a little, and then continued on his way.

 

 

When Baekhyun arrived at the studio, looking somewhat the worse for wear, Kyungsoo was already there before him. He and Jongdae promptly yelled a very loud “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!’ right in Baekhyun’s face as soon as he opened the door, but he only thanked them quietly, without much enthusiasm. He closed the door and sat down at his desk, dumping his satchel on the floor beside him.

 

“Well… someone’s grumpy on their birthday,” Jongdae said, laughing a little. “Hey, where’s Chanyeol..?”

“Yeah,” Kyungsoo joined in. “I figured you two lovebirds probably went home together last night, so I didn’t pick you up this morning. Is he sick?”

“He’s… he’s gone,” Baekhyun said absently, looking down at the desk in front of him, and then he lifted his head again, slowly turning to face the other two once more. “Wait,” he said, “you both remember him too..?”

 

Jongdae and Kyungsoo both glanced at each other with raised eyebrows before looking at Baekhyun again. “Uh, yeah…” Kyungsoo said slowly. “He was here just yesterday, wasn’t he..?”

“What did you mean when you said he was gone, exactly..?” Jongdae added, his brow furrowed in confusion. “Where the hell did he go..?”

Baekhyun only shook his head, and pulled out a sketch from the day before that he hadn’t finished inking. “Forget it… it’s nothing,” he muttered. “He just… he had to leave, that’s all. He had to go back to, uh… his hometown… indefinitely. Something happened last night. I don’t know the full details.”

 

Jongdae and Kyungsoo both stared at Baekhyun in shock for a moment, apparently lost for words — which was a very rare event indeed. Finally Kyungsoo said, “fucking hell. You poor, poor bastard… and on your birthday, of all days…”

“Smells like a big ol' pile of bullplop to me,” Jongdae added, narrowing his eyes. “Do you want me to send someone out to the sticks with a can of whoop-ass..? Because I will. I have connections.”

 

Baekhyun sighed heavily and leaned forward on the desk, burying his head in his hands. “No,” he muttered, “please… just drop it.” He heard the other two whispering among themselves for a moment before Kyungsoo mumbled, “okay… sorry, man,” and then he heard the sound of their chairs scraping across the floor as they resumed their places at their own desks. They carried on working in silence, and didn’t say anything more.

 

Baekhyun sighed again and lifted his head, blinking at the pile of sketches on the desk in front of him, which he still needed to ink in. They would still all need to be completed before Friday morning — his deadlines wouldn’t suddenly disintegrate just because he was having a personal crisis. Baekhyun knew then that the earth would not implode on itself just because Chanyeol was gone. The sun would still rise and fall, as it had always done; he would still have to get up in the morning, show up at this godforsaken place, go home, rinse and repeat. In many ways, perhaps that was the hardest part… knowing the world would not stop to give the love they shared a second thought. What had felt like his entire universe over the past several months had been nothing but a tiny ripple in that endless, treacherous landscape of time that Chanyeol had described.

 

Baekhyun suddenly got up from his desk and picked up his satchel from the floor, pushing his chair in and turning to face the others.

“I’m sorry, guys, but I have to go,” he said quietly. “I’m really not in a good way right now. Tell Chaerin I'm really sorry if she comes in, and that I’ll stay back late tomorrow to make up for it, if necessary. Anyway, I’ll see you in the morning.”

 

Kyungsoo and Jongdae didn’t respond; they simply nodded and gave Baekhyun genuinely sympathetic looks, and then they went back to work in silence. Baekhyun walked out of the studio and closed the door behind him, grateful that he’d been spared any words of comfort.

 

 

As soon as he arrived home, Baekhyun crawled back into bed and stayed there for several hours. Wrapping his arms around the spare pillow Chanyeol used, he closed his eyes and tried to fall asleep. Sleep was good… it would allow him to forget for a while. It was the one thing left on earth that was still kind to him.

At least, it would be, if it bothered to fucking show up when he needed it the most…

 

Baekhyun sighed and rolled over onto his back, staring up at the ceiling again. Chanyeol had been gone less than a day, and already he had no idea how he was going to cope with the loss, or fill his free time now that his manuscript was finished and submitted. He'd become so used to spending time with Chanyeol… to all the affection and the conversation, and all the little shared jokes, and the intimacy that had developed so easily and naturally within their relationship. He’d also grown used to the luxury of very good (and very frequent) sex — and now he had an appetite for it again, one he could no longer satisfy. All he could do for the rest of the day was roll around in restless agony, already craving the sensation of their hands on each other's bodies, Chanyeol's soft lips on his own, Chanyeol filling him to the hilt... Baekhyun felt selfish to even think it at a time like this, but one of the worst parts of a newly broken relationship was having no one around to help in that department. The thought of going to the bathroom and jerking himself off seemed too adolescent and pointless, especially when he had the exquisite pleasure of Chanyeol's loving touch to compare it to. The emotional element, the most important ingredient of all, was now glaringly absent.

 

Baekhyun picked up his mobile phone from the nightstand beside him and scrolled listlessly through his contacts, not sure what he was looking for. Chanyeol's number flew by and his heart lurched inside his chest; he was tempted to call it to see what might happen, but he didn't, and kept scrolling instead. He knew he could call up a string of old lovers in a bid to relieve the itch if he really wanted to. One of them would probably come around gladly, and his brains would be fucked right out of him within the space of an hour… but of course, it could never be the same. Just thinking about touching someone else, or someone else touching him, made Baekhyun feel sick, and profoundly sad.

 

He sighed and let the phone slip from his grasp, falling to the floor with a thud, and he rubbed his eyes, pressing hard into the eye sockets with his fingers. It was a terrible thing to be in love... Baekhyun could see why he'd been so adamant not to fall back into it again in the first place. But did he regret it..? That was the question weighing on his mind. It didn’t take him very long to conclude that no, he didn't. He didn't regret anything at all. 

 

And he would inflict that same wound upon himself over and over, if it meant he could see Chanyeol smiling back at him again, just one more time.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

On Saturday night, Baekhyun went over to Kyungsoo’s apartment, and knocked on the door to see if he was home. Sure enough, his friend answered it, narrowing his eyes at Baekhyun for a moment.

 

“Yikes…” he said, “you look terrible. You're not drunk, are you..?”

 

Baekhyun shook his head. “No. Well... maybe a little. Why..?”

 

Kyungsoo shrugged. “Just asking. Because if you think I’ve forgotten that time you came over while you were plastered, and then puked all over my living room floor, then you’re dead wrong.”

 

“Come on, Kyungsoo,” Baekhyun whined. “I thought it was a burp. I said I was sorry like a billion times.”

 

Kyungsoo laughed drily. “Aha! Boy, was that not a burp… and then of course you fell over in the hallway en-route to my bathroom and not-burped there, too. Good times..”

 

Baekhyun sighed. Kyungsoo had a knack for making people feel guilty forever about things that had happened eons ago. “Well, I at least cleaned it up, didn't I..?”

 

“Sure you cleaned it up. With my hand. Because I cleaned it.”

 

“Look,” Baekhyun said, rubbing his forehead, “I’m having a really hard time here, Soo… a crisis, if you will… and I could really use someone to talk to. A friend. Now, can I come in or what..?”

 

Kyungsoo’s expression softened a little, and he stepped aside and motioned for Baekhyun to enter. “Of course,” he said, “I was just being a shithead, as usual. Now get your arse inside already.”

 

Once Baekhyun was inside Kyungsoo’s apartment, his friend told him to sit down on the couch while he disappeared for a moment. He came back with a glass of iced tea, which he put on the coffee table in front of Baekhyun, and a red plastic bucket. He put the bucket on the floor next to Baekhyun’s feet.

 

“There. Should you feel another ‘burp’ coming on, kindly direct it into that.”

 

Baekhyun rolled his eyes, but he smiled anyway. “Noted..”

 

“So,” Kyungsoo said, sitting down in the armchair across from Baekhyun and crossing his legs. “What’s the deal? How are you holding up..?”

 

“Not so good,” Baekhyun said quietly. “And I'm sorry to bother you on a Saturday night... I guess I just wanted to see a friendly face for a bit. Well, maybe 'friendly' isn't the right word to use in your case, but... you know what I mean.”

 

Kyungsoo shook his head. “You poor son of a gun… he really did do a runner on you, didn't he? It’s okay, you can tell me... I won’t tell Jongdae. Chanyeol won't be wearing concrete shoes anytime soon.”

 

“No,” Baekhyun said quietly, leaning forward in his seat a little. “It’s not what you think, Soo… trust me. I'm not at a liberty to give you the full story — mainly because you would probably have me committed if you heard it — but let’s just say extraordinary circumstances were involved, and he had a genuine reason to leave. It’s probably better if we just leave it at that.”

 

Kyungsoo pondered this for a moment, and then he nodded slowly. “I feel like this is the same sort of thing you told me back when Jongin took off… but alright,” he said, “I won’t ask. And I guess I see no reason to hate him on your behalf, then. Anyway, I don’t like to be the bearer of more bad news, but Chaerin came to tell us something the other day, after you left. Something that isn’t good. And I’ve sort of been waiting for the right time to tell you, but I wasn’t sure when you’d be emotionally stable enough.”

 

“Oh god… what now..?” Baekhyun groaned. There was only so much bad news a man could take within the space of a few days.

 

Kyungsoo sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Well, I suppose it won’t affect you so much anymore, now that you’re going your own way… but Mind Games is in dire straits, apparently. What with some of the newer series getting such good rankings, it’s slipped even further down the charts, and is showing no signs of stopping. Anyway, according to the top dogs, if Zitao doesn’t get it back up to speed soon — that is, back into the Top Ten before the end of the month — it might be axed completely.”

 

Baekhyun’s eyes widened when he heard this. “Well, shit… what’s the current ranking..?”

 

“We’re currently at 18,” Kyungsoo told him. “So Zitao needs a miracle, basically. Maybe I’ll give mother dearest a call, and get her to say a few rosaries for the cause.”

 

“Fucking hell,” Baekhyun said quietly. “I’m really sorry to hear that.”

 

“I thought you'd secretly be having a good old gloat, given your opinion of our favourite person in the entire world,” Kyungsoo said flatly, raising an eyebrow at him, but Baekhyun shook his head.

 

“I would never be happy about something like that, Kyungsoo… no matter how douchey he was. Anyway, he's not the only one it affects.”

 

Kyungsoo thought about this for a moment and nodded. “True, I suppose.”

 

“And besides," Baekhyun added, "it's awful for something you worked long and hard on to then get dropped. Not that he ever really worked all that hard on it, but still… I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Not even Zitao.”

 

Kyungsoo shrugged. “Well, don't worry too much about Jongdae and me… we'll probably just be assigned to someone else if Zitao’s series gets the chop. Who knows, maybe we could come work for you instead. Have you thought about who you’ll take on as your assistants yet..?”

 

Baekhyun shook his head. “No, I haven’t. And I'd love to have you guys on board... you know I would. But I went to speak with Mr. Kim yesterday, and I told him I’ve changed my mind… I no longer wish for Jump! to be serialised. He was disappointed because the editorial department really liked the story... so I’m allowing them to release what I’ve already written, under an alternative name, and as a one-shot only. It will be published separately as a standalone comic, instead of in the magazine.”

 

Kyungsoo looked at Baekhyun for a long time, his wide eyes gradually narrowing. “You’re not going to throw this opportunity away because of Chanyeol, are you? Baekhyun, this is your dream… you’ve worked towards getting serialised for ages..”

 

Baekhyun sighed and buried his head in his hands. “I know, but... I've already been through this once, and I'm not sure I’m strong enough to cope with it again. It should be easier the second time, you'd think, but no — it’s not. If anything, it is so much worse. And I just… I need some time. I really need time..”

 

Kyungsoo got to his feet and padded over to the couch, sitting himself down again, and he patted Baekhyun’s back a few times in what was probably meant to be a gesture of comfort. Since it was coming from Kyungsoo, it only felt awkward and slightly patronising, but Baekhyun appreciated the effort anyway.

“Well, Baek, what choice do you have..?” Kyungsoo said gently, and Baekhyun lifted his head to look at him again.

 

“I never had one," he said quietly. "He never asked me what I really thought, how I really felt… that's the part I could never accept. Not the fact that he left.”

 

“Are we talking about Chanyeol or Jongin now..?” Kyungsoo asked, looking at him blankly, and Baekhyun sighed.

 

“You know what... I don't even know anymore,” he muttered. “So let's just not talk about either of them.”

 

“You really loved him though, didn't you..?” Kyungsoo asked, his voice quiet. “And I’m talking about Chanyeol, this time.”

 

“Yeah,” Baekhyun whispered. “I did — I do. I’m not sure I know how to stop..”

 

“Why didn't you tell me..?”

 

“Because for the first time in ages, I was so happy,” Baekhyun said quietly. “And I know this probably sounds utterly inane to a rational mind like yours, but I was afraid if I spoke the words out loud, everything would fall apart again. And it fell apart anyway.”

 

“I see,” Kyungsoo said. “Well, do you know where he went?”

 

Baekhyun tried to answer, but the words got caught in his throat. He shook his head. “I don't have a clue where he went,” he said quietly, and then he paused. “I only know where he might be..”

 

Kyungsoo nodded in silence for a moment, and then he patted Baekhyun’s back again, rubbing it gently.

“Look… Baek, I’ve always envied your ability to just go after whatever it was you wanted,” he said eventually. “I wish I could do that myself, but something always holds me back… maybe that’s why I’ve never gone further than being an assistant. I don’t know… maybe it’s because my mother always used to tell me that the one thing I wanted to do most wasn’t real, wasn’t worthy. I guess what I’m trying to say is, if going after Chanyeol is what you want most of all, more than being serialised, more than hanging around here for the rest of your life… then please, just do it. I really want you to do it. Be brave — if not for Chanyeol, or for you, then do it for me. Maybe someday I’ll have the testicular fortitude to do the same.”

 

Baekhyun opened his mouth to say something, but then he merely nodded in silence, and without warning Kyungsoo pulled him into a suffocating hug.

 

“Hey, now... what's all this about..?” Baekhyun asked, uttering a nervous chuckle, but he put his arms around Kyungsoo all the same.

 

“I just felt like hugging you,” Kyungsoo said, and then he pulled away, his hands still resting on Baekhyun’s shoulders. He looked at him and smiled.

 

“We've been friends for years, and you've never once felt the need to hug me in that time,” Baekhyun pointed out, and Kyungsoo laughed.

“Well, it's never too late to start,” he said, smiling, and he jerked his head in the direction of the front door. “Now scram-bam-thank you-ma’am outta here... Uncle Soo needs his beauty sleep.”

 

Baekhyun nodded in silence, and slowly got up from his seat. Kyungsoo accompanied him to the front door and opened it for him, and when Baekhyun began making his way towards the elevator, the other man called his name before he could get very far. Baekhyun turned around to look at Kyungsoo again, with one eyebrow raised in expectation.

 

“A very wise fortune cookie once told me that ‘time waits for no one’, Baekhyun. Keep that in mind,” Kyungsoo told him. He smiled and closed his front door behind him, without waiting for Baekhyun to reply.

 

 

 

When Baekhyun got back to his own apartment, he wandered over to the kitchen and, with some hesitation, flipped open the lid of the garbage bin under the counter. He dug around inside it for a bit, looking for the Chronosphere, and eventually he found it inside an old half-eaten tub of peach-vanilla yoghurt, cringing with revulsion as he rescued it. He wasn’t sure if submerging the bloody thing in water was a good idea, so he wiped the rancid yoghurt off it with a piece of paper towel instead. Then he plumbed the depths of the bin again, this time searching for the piece of paper, which was now stained and crumpled nearly to a pulp. He unfolded it and smoothed it out to the best of his ability, trying to make out what was written inside:

 

Forgetting is overrated. Make me remember. - C

 

Baekhyun folded the piece of paper up again and left it on the counter. He took the Chronosphere with him into the living room, holding it between two fingers like a live bomb in case he accidentally engaged it, and then he put it down on the coffee table. He sank down on the couch in front of it with a fresh packet of cigarettes (he’d started smoking again) and the case of beer he’d bought earlier in the day (apparently he was back to binge-drinking now too), and he cracked one of the beers open, taking a long swallow. While he alternately smoked and drank, he stared at the device on the table in front of him, as though it might do something interesting if he watched it for long enough.

 

By 11.30, Baekhyun was down another four beers, and had smoked every last cigarette left in the pack. He even smoked a half-finished one he found in the ashtray, and laughed to himself about it — how rock-bottom could one person get? — but instead of calming him down, the itch had spread so deep into the marrow of his bones by then that he couldn’t sit still for another minute, even with the nicotine and alcohol now flooding his system. If anything, these things only made it worse.

He stared at the Chronosphere for a moment longer and reached out towards it with his hand… and then he retracted the hand again. He did this reach-out-and-retract routine several more times before he finally grabbed the damn thing and held it tightly in his palm, rubbing it gently to see if it might wake up again. Before too long, it began to buzz.

 

Baekhyun closed his eyes, thinking really hard about a specific moment, and then he felt himself unravel one last time.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

When Baekhyun opened his eyes again, there was someone lying on top of him. He groaned and blinked repeatedly until everything came into focus. He was surrounded by shelves again… and he was also buried under a pile of books. The person on top of him groaned as well, and then he lifted his head, looking down at Baekhyun with bleary eyes.

 

“Oh, God,” he said, suddenly looking horrified. “I’m am so sorry, sir… I wasn’t looking where I was going, and I tripped right over you. Here, let me help you up… are you feeling okay..?”

 

Baekhyun’s heart fluttered like a bird inside his ribcage as the young man stood up and held out a large, warm hand to assist him. It was him… it was definitely him. Baekhyun looked up at him and felt his chest grow tight with emotion, but he tried not to let it show on his face. For some reason, he looked even younger now, if it were possible, and he seemed a little unsure of himself… again his hair was black, and he wore it straight and a little longer, so that it fell just above his shoulders. He was still very tall, but perhaps hadn’t quite reached his full height yet… the Chanyeol he remembered, the one who was 30 years old, seemed as though he’d been slightly taller.

 

…The Chanyeol he remembered also knew who Baekhyun was, for that matter. It soon became quite clear that this one didn’t.

 

“Have we… have we met somewhere before..?” Baekhyun ventured, and he knelt down on the floor to help Chanyeol pick up the pile of books he’d dropped. “You seem vaguely familiar to me..”

 

Chanyeol looked up at him and chewed his lip, lost in thought for a moment, but then he shook his head. “No, I don’t think so… I’m sorry,” he said, sounding apologetic. He began to put the books back on the shelf one by one, in their respective areas. “But then I see a lot of people coming in and out of this place. All the different faces tend to run into each other, after a while..”

 

Baekhyun’s heart sank at Chanyeol’s response… it hadn’t occurred to him until now that 21-year-old Chanyeol wouldn’t recognise him, and he felt stupid for not figuring it out. Of course he wouldn’t know who Baekhyun was… they hadn’t even met until Chanyeol was another 9 years older. But he swallowed his disappointment anyway and gave Chanyeol a friendly smile. “Never mind,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m just feeling a little confused. I think maybe I blacked out or something..”

 

“Oh..? Well, maybe you just got a bit light-headed,” Chanyeol said, and he looked concerned. “Have you eaten anything recently..? I’ve got some snacks in the staff room, I can bring those out for you..? Or maybe I can take you out to lunch later… I’m going to go on my break in twenty minutes or so, and the library has a really decent cafe, if you’ve never been there. I think I owe you for almost killing you in the aisle back there… my name's Chanyeol, by the way.”

 

Baekhyun laughed and shook his head. “Please don’t feel bad… but yes, actually, I’d love to join you for lunch, Chanyeol. In the meantime, though, I was wondering if you could perhaps direct me to the comic section… there’s something in particular that I’m looking for.”

 

“Ah… well, you’re standing right in it,” Chanyeol said, grinning widely, and then he asked, “what are you looking for, sir..? Maybe I can help.”

 

“Please,” Baekhyun replied, smiling back at him. “Call me Baekhyun… there’s no need for formalities. And I was looking for something by the name of Jump!… I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it. I think it’s quite old, now..”

 

“Oh! Do you mean Jump! by B. Park..? That comic is my absolute favourite,” Chanyeol exclaimed, practcally fizzing with excitement, but then he checked himself and cleared his throat nervously. “Sorry,” he said with a shy little laugh. “It’s just that B. Park is probably my favourite artist ever… even though Jump! Is the only thing he or she ever wrote. It’s not the most popular title we have… but I really think it should be. It’s fantastic. You’re probably the only person I’ve met here who’s ever asked for it.”

 

“I see,” Baekhyun said, trying to hide the smile on his face as he followed Chanyeol along the aisle. “I’m quite fond of it myself. What did you like about it..?”

 

“Oh, well, I just love the story,” Chanyeol told him, and he stepped up onto a plastic footstool for a moment, reaching up to grab a small book from the very top shelf. “It’s just so different from anything else I’ve ever read, and believe me, I’ve read a crapload of comics in my time. The artist had a wacky sense of humour, and the art itself is just incredible — maybe it’s not for lovers of mainstream comics, but I personally love really unique stuff like that. It was written like 200 years ago, and yet it seems so ahead of its time. It’s just such a shame it’s the only thing the artist ever released… if they’d written anything else, I’d have read it a million times over by now. But I guess it’s better to have written one really great, memorable story than a bunch of mediocre ones, you know..?”

 

“Hmm,” Baekhyun said, still smiling as Chanyeol handed the book to him. He smoothed his hands over the cover. It was a recent edition, clearly, but when he opened it up the drawings were all exactly as he remembered them, and he felt a pang of nostalgia inside his chest. “I see what you mean…”

 

“And, well, I know it’s kinda dumb, really,” Chanyeol continued, laughing a little, “but whoever the comic was dedicated to had the same initials as me… so I used to fantasise that it was actually written for me. But of course, that’s just pure coincidence. Anyway, I’ll stop blabbering on now and leave you to it. But I guess… I’ll see you soon..?”

 

Baekhyun looked up at Chanyeol, who was smiling at him shyly with a faint blush in his cheeks, and he smiled back, nodding in silence. It was hard to look at the boy, even at the tender age of 21, without picturing him naked out of habit. The young man that stood before Baekhyun now didn’t know about any of that. He didn't know that Baekhyun loved him; that he would have gone to the ends of the earth for him… or to another time, leaving the familiarity of his own ordinary world behind. This Chanyeol didn't know that he had saved Baekhyun’s life, not once, but twice — and those were just the occasions that Baekhyun was aware of. Perhaps there was still another version of him out there somewhere, who did know all of these things, who was still waiting for Baekhyun to find him again… but for now, Baekhyun was ecstatic just to see Chanyeol as he was at that moment, standing there in the flesh right in front of him. He looked at Chanyeol with an indescribable joy blossoming inside his chest. The feeling was almost suffocating.

 

“Yeah,” he said, almost whispering. “I’ll see you soon. I’ll just be waiting over in the reading area.”

 

“Okay, Baekhyun… until then, enjoy your reading,” Chanyeol replied, and he gave Baekhyun a little wave before he walked away.

 

 

As soon as Chanyeol was gone, Baekhyun headed over to the nearest reading area, decked out with rows of strange-looking, fluorescent-yellow perspex seats that seemed to go against all the rules of ergonomics, but which actually turned out to be strangely comfortable. He sat down and watched all the other people reading for a while; he looked at their strange clothes, and their odd hairstyles, and the very familiar expressions of peace and contentment on their faces as they lost themselves in their favourite books. He opened the book in his lap and flipped through the first few pages, until he found the dedication within:

 

For P.C.Y. — with love and thanks.

 

Baekhyun put the book down on his lap for a moment and closed his eyes, smiling a little to himself. He picked it up again and began to read.

 

 

 

 

[EPILOGUE]

 

 

 

Kyungsoo hurried along the corridor towards Baekhyun’s apartment, calling his number for the fifth time. “Pick up, pick up, damn you..” he muttered to the sound of Baekhyun’s voicemail greeting, and then he sighed and hung up before the beep. He stopped dead in his tracks when he saw a stranger standing in front of Baekhyun’s door, staring intently at it, as though willing it to open with the intensity of his gaze.

 

“Well, you’re not Baekhyun…” he said dumbly, and the stranger turned to look at him in surprise. He was tall and handsome, perhaps in his late thirties, and a little scruffy-looking. There was something oddly familiar about him, too, but Kyungsoo couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was.

 

“No… I was looking for him, actually,” the man said. “Does he still live here? You’re Kyungsoo, right..?”

 

“Yeah, he does still live here.” Kyungsoo stood next to the man and pressed his ear against the front door of Baekhyun’s apartment, listening for any sounds within. “I can hear his alarm going off in there… he’s probably sleeping through it as usual, the asshole. Who are you, anyway? How do you know my name..?”

 

“We’ve met a few times before… I’m Jongin,” the man replied. “I used to live here, with Baekhyun. We, uh… we were together, once upon a time. ‘Back in the day’, as you might say.”

 

Kyungsoo slowly moved his head away from the door and turned to look at the man again. He blinked up at him, his eyes wide and incredulous. “Jongin..? Oh my god, it is you. Wow… you’ve really changed. I mean… you look good and all, but like… and I’m saying this in the nicest way possible… you look like you’ve aged twenty years. I almost didn’t recognise you.”

 

Jongin smiled with one side of his mouth. “It’s been a while, I guess. A lot has happened. Well, ‘a lot’ is one heck of an understatement, actually.”

 

Kyunsoo sighed and shook his head. “God… I hate to break it to you, but your timing isn’t the greatest, Jongin my boy,” he said. “Our beloved Baekhyun finally bit the bullet after all these years, and he’s gone and fallen in love with someone else, God help him, the poor bastard… but you know, I’m sure he’d still be thrilled to see you after however long it’s been. He really did love you, after all.”

 

Jongin frowned at this, but then he smiled again. “I’m happy he’s found someone new… I would never have expected him to wait around for me. You must think I’m the biggest jerk for what I did to him, huh..”

 

Kyungsoo shrugged. “Yeah, kinda… but hey, if you have time for a coffee, I’d love to hear your long, sorry story. Who knows when Lazyboy’s gonna be with us, anyway? Could be five minutes, could be an eternity. I’ll leave him a voice message though, and if he joins us, he joins us. If not… well, maybe next time.”

 

“Well, alright,” Jongin said, looking down at his watch. “How long have you got, though? Because my long, sorry story really is quite long, as it happens.”

 

“Long enough… the boss won’t be checking up on us today, so I can afford to be late for once,” Kyungsoo replied casually, and Jongin laughed. He draped one arm around Kyungsoo’s shoulders, and they headed towards the elevator together.

 

“Hmm. Well, I hope you have time, Kyungsoo,” he said. “Time, and an open mind. For what I’m about to tell you, you’re sure as hell gonna need both.”

 

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

[‘Hi, you’ve reached Byun Baekhyun. I can’t come to the phone right now… leave a message and I’ll get back to you when I can.’]

 

[‘Hey Baek, it’s Kyungsoo… I just came past your place, but you didn’t answer the door, you lazy sack of crap. Why do you never pick up your damn phone? Anyway, I’m downstairs at The Grind right now, and you’ll never guess who I’m with. It’s someone who’d really like to see you again… someone you haven’t seen in a really long time. Come join us for coffee when you get up, okay? See you soon.’]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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