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Breakfast With The Fuzz

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‘You've built your wall so high that no one could climb it,

But I'm gonna try.’

 

 

 

 

Chanyeol squinted at the map the chief inspector had spread out on the desk in front of him, at the tiny dot circled in red pen.

 

"'Maplehedge'… isn't that kinda far from here?" he asked, frowning. "I mean, that's pretty much in the country…"

 

The chief inspector got up from his seat and began to stroll around the room with his hands behind his back. It was that same slow, slightly hunched walk Chanyeol sometimes saw old men doing, when they had nothing better to do and nowhere important to be. "Well, sort of,” he admitted. “But it'll be a good place for a young officer like yourself to grow into his career, instead of being thrown into the deep end so quickly. And your service has improved quite a bit since you first started with us, Chanyeol, but I’m not sure our Department is really tailored to someone like you. Now, Maplehedge is a different story; it’s a lovely little town, but the rising levels of unemployment mean there are a few rough areas on the outskirts… problems with bored, wayward youth and such. And I suppose they could use a few more hands on deck down at the station ― some new blood, just bubbling over with energy and enthusiasm." He clapped his hands together loudly, with an expression of forced excitement – similar to the face Chanyeol’s mother used to put on when she tried to convince him that going to church was fun. "So how about it, eh? Doesn't that sound just like you..?"

 

Chanyeol already knew what this was really about. Lately, he'd been having anxiety attacks on the job -- bad ones, at that. They'd been a childhood affliction that he mercifully grew out of by the end of his teens, but then all it took was one pistol pushed into his temple by a panicky, inexperienced bank robber to set them off again. Of course it turned out that the bloody thing wasn't even loaded, but Chanyeol hadn't known that at the time -- neither, for that matter, had his bladder. Having an anxiety attack on the job was one thing, but pissing yourself on the job, that was real hall-of-shame material... Chanyeol still cringed at the memory months later. Maybe it was a good thing he was being reassigned.

 

It just seemed a bit misguided, that was all: the idea of sending him away from the city and all of its scary guns by shipping him off to some sleepy shit-hole out in the sticks, inhabited mostly by farmers and other countryfolk. Who, Chanyeol was willing to bet, probably all carried scary guns.

 

"Uh, I guess so," Chanyeol said, because what else was he supposed to say, really.

 

What sort of situations would he be dealing with in a small country town, anyway? He'd probably end up running after lost cows all day, or saving old ladies from savage geese on the rampage. Maybe the odd chicken thief would show up from time to time. And were there ever any murders, he wondered… people mowing each other down with tractors, and poisoning each other with sheep dip, or hacking each other to bloody pieces with the same axes they used to split their logs and behead their fowl, before throwing the parts into an industrial wood-chipper, and that clinched it, Chanyeol had definitely seen Fargo way too many times over the past month.

 

The chief resumed his aimless old-man pacing. "I dare say that most of what you'll be dealing with is theft, traffic incidents, domestic disputes… that sort of thing. I'm sure there'll always be enough going on to keep you from getting bored, but not so much that you'll have a nervous breakdown on your first shift ― I'd give it at least two or three for that," he said, and then he exploded into a fit of phlegmy cackling, like this was the funniest thing in the world. It wasn't the funniest thing in the world at all, but Chanyeol managed a short burst of mirthless laughter anyway, and then his lips remained firmly pressed together until the chief was done.

 

"How long am I being reassigned for, exactly?" he asked, when the chief had finally calmed down. "And do I get any say in this at all?"

 

"You'll be posted in Maplehedge for an indefinite amount of time, until we feel you are mentally prepared enough to move on to a precinct as, well… as ‘fast-paced’ as this one," the chief inspector said. "This is for your own good, Chanyeol –- we do care about your mental wellbeing, you know. Otherwise, if you'd prefer to remain local, we could always find you a nice desk job right here—"

 

"Alright, alright," Chanyeol sighed, cutting the chief off. It hardly seemed fair, but his options were minimal. "I'll go – I'll do it. Bring it on."

 

"Excellent. I knew you'd come around," the chief said, beaming at Chanyeol through his bristly walrus moustache. "I'll get onto the Maplehedge Police Department right away, and have them make the necessary arrangements for your transfer. So! Any further queries? Are we all excited for new beginnings..?"

 

"Yep," Chanyeol said, although in the shelter of his lap, his fingers were clenched around the stiff twill fabric of his uniform trousers, so hard that it actually hurt. "Can't wait."

 

 

 

* * * * *

Chanyeol sat at his parents’ dining table with the gold damask tablecloth draped over it, his mother’s best china all laid out ― the stuff she never would have bothered using for him on a normal day, but this was a 'special occasion', apparently ― and looked on in nervous silence while she hacked the limbs off a roast chicken with thinly-veiled aggression, as though she wanted to kill it all over again.

 

"I just don't see why you have to move away so far," Mrs. Park said. The steam from the chicken fogged up her spectacles a little, obscuring her eyes ― probably a good thing, Chanyeol thought, since he was sure that they were angry. He never liked going over to his parents' place for dinner; the food was always served with an over-generous helping of guilt, which would inevitably lead to resentment on their side and indigestion on his.

 

"I'm sorry, Mum, but I couldn't exactly refuse. I'm being reassigned," Chanyeol said, but Mrs. Park didn't respond. She sat down at the table and Mr. Park, who was seated next to her, finally put down the newspaper he'd had his nose buried in only seconds before. They both clasped their hands together at exactly the same time, and Mrs. Park glared down her nose at Chanyeol until he did the same. Then she bowed her head, closed her eyes and muttered a few holy words over their dinner.

 

"Amen," Chanyeol and Mr. Park murmured in unison when she had finished speaking, and Mrs. Park reached over for Chanyeol's plate and dumped a piece of breast meat onto it, then handed it back to him. Chanyeol looked down at the stringy white lump on his plate; whenever his mother roasted a chicken, the breast always came out too dry, without fail; to her credit, at least she was consistent. Chanyeol's favourite part of the bird was the leg, and Mrs. Park was well aware of this – perhaps giving him the breast was her way of expressing her disapproval. If it was, he wouldn't give her the satisfaction of acknowledging it.

 

"Thanks. Looks lovely," he said quietly. For a while there was only the sound of chewing and steel scraping on ceramic, and as usual Mr. Park was the sloppiest of the lot. It made Chanyeol want to throw a seeded dinner roll at his head.

 

"Whatever happened to that nice girl you were seeing..?" Mrs. Park asked, suddenly breaking the silence. "You know… the smart one. Wasn't she studying to be a criminal psychologist, or something like that?"

 

Chanyeol nearly choked on a piece of bone-dry chicken. He swallowed and cleared his throat before speaking. "Dara, you mean? Well, we stopped seeing each other a long time ago, Mum – you know that. It's been well over a year."

 

Mrs. Park glanced up at him over the rim of her gold-framed spectacles. "But why? That's the thing I'll never understand. What was wrong with her..?"

 

The lack of a penis was the main thing that was wrong with her; Chanyeol was tempted to point this out, but he didn't. "Nothing was wrong with her… it just didn't work out, that's all."

 

"Must be something wrong with you, then," Mr. Park chimed in; he laughed with his mouth open, giving all present an unwelcome view of its contents. "No man with a normal brain and functioning eyes would turn down a woman like that. And I know you say you're gay and all, but you just haven't met the right bird yet, son. Not to worry, there's still time to straighten you out – so to speak."

 

"That's enough ― and no talking with your mouth full," Mrs. Park snapped, effectively killing the topic stone dead. Maybe it was because she could see the shape of Chanyeol's mouth –- his lips protruding, already poised to remind his parents for the billionth time that he really, truly was a 100%-certified homosexual, and that his brief stint of dating the opposite sex had been merely a phase, instead of the other way around. Each time he went to visit them, this fact seemed to have been conveniently forgotten.

 

"Go sit down on the lounge," Mrs. Park said, when Chanyeol had finished helping her clear the table after dinner. "Let's watch some television together for a little while, as a family, before you go and skip town on us forever."

 

Chanyeol swallowed the sigh threatening to escape his mouth, and gave one silent nod to signal his agreement. Half an hour, that was all he'd give them. Any longer than that and he would never get out of there.

 

So he probably should have known that he'd end up spending the next three hours wedged between his two parents on the floral three-seater with the clear plastic cover on it, trying to ignore them both as they leaned across him, bickering over the film on the television ― which happened to be The Sound of Music, of all bloody things. Chanyeol was good at tuning his parents out by now; most of the time he did it by playing elevator music in an endless loop inside his own head, but this was hard to do over the strains of Sixteen Going on Seventeen. On the outdated TV set stood a miserable-looking plaster statue of Christ with both his arms outstretched, gazing sadly over at Chanyeol above the scene of Liesel and Rolf dancing around the gazebo; it had always been there, ever since Chanyeol could remember, and as a child he'd been forbidden from watching anything on TV that the statue might find offensive ― which, according to Mrs. Park, was more or less everything. That was his childhood in a nutshell, until Chanyeol and his elder sister were finally able, of their own free will (the concept of free will was a relatively late discovery for the Park children) to escape the ivory tower that was their family home. Chanyeol's sister Yoora had since made a name for herself as an anchorwoman, her benevolent smile now gracing television screens across the nation every evening for the six o'clock news. Like Chanyeol, she too had whittled her visits home down to the bare minimum of one awkward dinner a fortnight. The two siblings still spoke to each other often, but never talked about their parents.

 

So sheltered was Chanyeol while he was growing up that the decision to become a police officer had been less about his interest in law enforcement and more about wanting to finally experience the world properly – this meant all sides of it, the good and the bad, and not just the very little he'd been allowed to see with his pudgy little hands pressed up against the breath-fogged glass of his bedroom window, beating a fist against it every so often in the hope that the other kids running freely in the street would hear him ― hell, maybe even ask him and his pet ferret to come out and play. But they never did, and so Chanyeol had been forced to make do with living in a world of his own invention, at least until he was old enough to venture out into the real thing. His parents hadn't approved of his decision to join the police force, but then that was nothing new. They never approved of anything he did anyway.

 

"Goodbye, then," Mrs. Park said ― somewhat stiffly, Chanyeol thought ― when the film was blessedly over, and Chanyeol was standing on the front doorstep, ready to leave. "I'll keep you in my prayers, as always. Be sure to call up regularly, so we know you're still alive."

 

"Will do," Chanyeol replied, only he said this mostly to the door, since by that time his mother had already closed it in his face.

 

 

 

* * * * *

Chanyeol didn't know what to expect from his new, hopefully temporary hometown –- or, for that matter, his new, hopefully temporary job. During the very long drive to Maplehedge, with his entire life rolling around in boxes in the back seat of his car, he saw nothing spectacular in the way of scenery… just a few hills speckled with black-and-white blobs (cows), and what appeared to be small white grains of rice (probably sheep), and dotted with the occasional tiny, red-roofed, toy-like farmhouse. He'd thought those long, winding drives outside the city when he was a kid had shown him what the countryside looked like, but he'd been wrong. This was real country. When he drove through it at last, he discovered that the town of Maplehedge itself was thankfully not as small as he'd imagined; it was nothing like where he'd come from, but the main street was quite pretty, with a string of nice-looking little cafes and hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and rows of small market stalls set up along the pavement, selling all manner of things from bouquets of flowers to fruit and vegetables. He drove past a pleasant, tree-lined park, a lovely little sandstone church, and a beautiful old building, which, at first glance, looked like a tiny castle. The street was hardly what you'd call bustling, but it was still lively, with a fair few people out and about, enjoying the Sunday sunshine.

 

That night, Chanyeol celebrated this new, challenging phase of his life by sitting on the floor in the middle of his empty living room, alone, slurping up ramen from a plastic cup ('prawn' flavour because he was feeling a bit fancy), and watching 21 Jump Street on his laptop for the millionth time. Whenever something funny happened, he’d laugh for a second or two, and then stop – it didn't feel right, laughing aloud when there was no one else around. When the movie was over, that thick blanket of silence quickly re-settled around the room, and Chanyeol toyed with the idea of calling his sister to tell her he'd arrived okay, purely for the purpose of hearing another person's voice – and having an excuse to hear his own. He'd had a roommate back in the city, and it was completely alien being all alone like this, having no one to talk to but himself. He looked at his mobile phone sitting on the floor next to him, chewing his lip, and then he put it down again almost as soon as he picked it up. Better not to disturb her… she had her own life, her own problems. He looked around the room and sighed. It wasn't home, but he'd get used to it, eventually… one of the things he was good at was getting used to stuff. With only this thought for comfort, Chanyeol crawled into his bed and tried to go to sleep.

 

But he couldn't. At night the street outside his new home was quiet ― too quiet. It was deafeningly, disturbingly silent. There were no sounds of the city to fall asleep to; no sounds of people laughing and yelling in the street, hardly any traffic at all. No sirens. Back home, whenever Chanyeol had heard a siren ― which was often ― he'd say a quick prayer for whoever was in trouble; it was something his mother had taught him to do when he was little. But here, a good several minutes elapsed between the sound of each passing vehicle. The two-storey terrace he was renting was ancient and creaky, and the old guy who lived on the floor above him snored so loudly that Chanyeol could just barely make out the sound through the ceiling. Somewhere around the side of the house, just outside his bedroom window, a lone tomcat yowled forlornly.

 

 

After a mostly sleepless night, Chanyeol's eyes the next morning were nearly crusted over with exhaustion, but still he peeled himself away from his bed with watered-down determination for 'new beginnings', and shuffled off to the kitchen to make himself a cup of instant coffee. He stood in front of the kitchen window, looking outside it as he drank. The coffee itself was terrible, and he abandoned it after drinking only half, then inhaled a bowl of cereal and went to his bedroom to get dressed.

 

He would walk to work that day, he decided ― hell, it was close enough, and it was the best way to familiarise himself with the layout of the town. On his way, he saw people stopping and saying hello to each other en route to wherever they were going; some of them even said hello to him, a complete stranger they'd never seen before in their lives. It made Chanyeol think of The Beatles' Penny Lane. Everyone seemed to know each other. There was no anonymity here; people were in each other's pockets, aware of each other's business. Where he was from, where people avoided each other's eyes in the street, this sort of friendliness and familiarity would have been an anomaly – a cause for contempt and suspicion. He found it all a little unsettling, but he reminded himself that it wasn’t a bad thing. It was just different.

 

The welcome Chanyeol received when he arrived at the Maplehedge police station was a lot warmer than he'd anticipated; everyone dropped what they were doing and came over to say hello, even those who were seated at their desks. Only one of the officers – a tall, handsome young man with a sullen expression – seemed to keep his distance. The place had a vastly different air to Chanyeol's home station, and they seemed a lot more relaxed about regulations, and about the job in general. All it took was a minute of standing in the office for Chanyeol to notice at least five occupational health and safety violations; he also noticed that hardly anyone in the Maplehedge Police Department wore a stab vest over their uniform. Back at home, everyone wore their stab vests, even inside the station; some of his former colleagues had worn their vests so religiously, in fact, that Chanyeol had a hunch they probably slept in them when they got home. There had always been a nervous energy about the place, as though something dire was about to happen at any moment – and more often than not, something did. But here everyone seemed so much more relaxed, walking around with cups of coffee in their hands, yawning and stretching their limbs, stopping to chat with each other about anything and everything. It was hard to picture it as a place where potentially serious crimes were reported and dealt with. During the morning briefing, there was a lot of friendly banter and camaraderie; people knew each other well, joked with each other, and put their arms around each other's shoulders like it was a schoolyard instead of a meeting room in a police station. This was the sort of place where, if Chanyeol were to pee his pants on the job again (God forbid), they would probably have the decency not to remind him of it on a daily basis. Perhaps he could grow to like it here after all.

 

At the end of the briefing, the chief inspector – a jolly, fatherly sort of fellow by the name of Kim Joonmyun – made Chanyeol stand at the front of the room, where he introduced him formally to all his new workmates. Chanyeol stared at the sea of faces in front of him and offered them all an awkward smile while Joonmyun provided them with a bit of backstory; thankfully, the true reason why he had been reassigned to Maplehedge in the first place was not mentioned. Then, as soon as the introduction was out of the way, Joonmyun called a pretty, petite woman with short blonde hair up to stand next to him.

 

"Chanyeol, this is your new partner, Officer Amber Liu," Joonmyun said, beaming from one officer to the other. "Amber's former partner Sulli recently decided to take a break from policing, and so you will be her replacement. Amber is a senior officer who has been with us for a number of years; she enjoys taking newer officers under her wing, and I have no doubt that you will learn a great deal from working with her. "

 

"Hey," Amber said with a smile, and held out a hand for Chanyeol to shake. "Nice to meet you, Chanyeol… looking forward to working with you."

 

"Likewise," Chanyeol said. Amber had a solid handshake, so firm it almost hurt, but he was grateful to be paired up with someone who at least seemed friendly. Joonmyun then introduced him personally to all the other members of the department, and Chanyeol smiled at them all nervously, already aware that he was going to have a hard time remembering all these new names. He tried to remember people by their job descriptions instead, and that seemed to help – apart from Amber, there was Sergeant Kim Minseok, detectives Kim Jongin and Do Kyungsoo, the custody sergeant Wu Yifan, Officer Oh Sehun (the one who looked moody) and his partner Kim Jongdae, K-9 Officer Lee Chaerin and her German Shepherd partner Ishtar, Park Bom and Gong Minji and the rest of the dispatch team – and those were just the people who were on duty that day. Chanyeol was overwhelmed by all the faces, but was impressed by how well Joonmyun seemed to know his staff; he'd been surprised that his chief inspector back home had even known his name.

 

As soon as the meeting was over, everyone went out on their respective assignments, and Amber escorted Chanyeol around to the locker room so he could change into his uniform. The locker room was dark and smelled damp, with the faintest whiff of sweaty feet; all of the lockers were already padlocked except for two at the end of the row, neither of which had doors. Chanyeol sighed and dumped his backpack in the very last one, then dressed as quickly as he could so as not to keep Amber waiting – first stumbling into his trousers, then pulling on his shirt, and then his duty belt, and lastly the jacket and boots. He emerged at last, all dressed and ready, and Amber began to show him around the rest of the station, giving him an exhaustive run-through of all the different sections and facilities ― the booking and identification areas, the control room, the interview rooms, the bathrooms, the staff lounge and kitchen, the evidence room, the archives, the garage and so on. Chanyeol shuffled along after her and remained quiet, showing interest by nodding profusely at everything his new partner said. He could already tell he would like working with Amber; there was a confident, no-nonsense air about her that he found very refreshing.

 

While they were moving along to their next destination, Chanyeol saw the officer named Jongdae hurrying over towards them. "Chief wants to see you in his office for a moment," he said to Amber. "Just you, alone."

 

"Alright," Amber replied, and then to Chanyeol she said, "sorry, but I'll have to put our little tour on hold for the time being. Actually Jongdae, if you have a spare minute, you wouldn't mind taking over, would you..?"

 

"Not at all,” Jongdae said, and when Amber had walked off, he motioned for Chanyeol to follow him. "Have you been taken down to custody yet?"

 

Chanyeol replied that he hadn't, and Jongdae nodded and walked off ahead of him down the bare corridor with its too-bright fluorescent lighting, whistling an unrecognisable tune to himself. Chanyeol followed him, feeling a little out of place; Jongdae seemed friendly enough, but he wasn't inclined to make small talk, and wasn't as good at filling the awkward silences as Amber was. Chanyeol felt a little too shy to initiate any conversation himself, and so until they got to custody there were no further words exchanged between them. The only sound apart from their rubber soles squeaking on the lino floor was that of Jongdae occasionally slurping noisily from the cup of coffee in his hand.

 

When they arrived, Yifan the custody sergeant acknowledged them both with a polite nod of his head, and then went back to whatever he'd been looking at on his computer screen. Chanyeol’s first impression of the Maplehedge P.D. custody suite was that it seemed depressingly empty – although this could be considered a good thing, now that he thought about it. There was only one detainee in the very last cell, all alone, sitting on the floor with his knees drawn up to his chest, his arms wrapped tightly around them. He had his head down so that his face was hidden from view, but from the outfit he wore ― tight black jeans with rips here and there, dirty white sneakers and a faded charcoal-grey hoodie ― Chanyeol figured he was probably quite young. Then he looked up, and the hood fell away from his face, his eyes meeting Chanyeol's for the first time. Chanyeol's first thought was to wonder what the heck an elf was doing in custody: he'd never seen such an unusual, mesmerising beauty before – 'ethereal' was the only proper word for it. It almost robbed him of breath completely.

 

The boy blinked back at Chanyeol with big, wary-looking brown eyes for a moment (caged-animal eyes, Chanyeol thought), and then returned his head to his knees.

 

"Who's this..?" Chanyeol asked. Jongdae walked over to stand next to him, peering down at Baekhyun through the bars of the cell.

 

"That, my rookie friend, is one Byun Baekhyun," he replied. He drank from his mug of coffee with another loud slurp and let out a satisfied ahh. "We see him around here quite often, actually – he's a bit of a local treasure. Or a local nuisance. I suppose it depends on how you look at it."

 

"Oh," Chanyeol said, and his heart deflated a little; of course the most attractive guy he'd ever laid eyes on in his entire 23 years on earth would turn out to be a troublemaker. "Well, what's he in for..?"

 

"The kid's into something that's kind of like free-running, but I forget the name of it," Jongdae told him. "Means he goes around leaping over fences and running up walls and stuff, for no discernible reason."

 

"Ah," Chanyeol said. "Parkour, you mean." He'd seen a few youtube clips on the subject before ― talented, brave and often self-taught athletes jumping over fences, flipping backwards off high walls, leaping huge gaps between buildings with seemingly little effort. It was impressive, what some people could train their bodies and minds to achieve.

 

Jongdae nodded and waved a careless hand. "Whatever you wanna call it. Anyway, the sitch is this – earlier this morning, our mate here decides to use the empty liquor store parking lot as a place to practice his little flippy-doo's, and so the manager, quite understandably irate, gives us a call to report it. I pop over to question him, and of course he starts mouthing off rather colourfully and being generally uncooperative, so I bring him in. I reckon a day in a holding cell should do him some good."

 

"I see," Chanyeol said. He felt uncomfortable with the two of them just standing there gawking at the poor boy like something in a zoo, but if Baekhyun was even aware of the fact that they were still watching him, then he paid no mind to it. He kept his head down, showing no sign of movement at all for quite a while.

 

"Are you sure he's alright..?" Chanyeol took a step forward, until he stood right in front of the bars of the cell. "Hey – are you okay in there?"

 

The boy didn't reply. His head remained buried against his knees.

 

"I wouldn't get too close, if I were you," Jongdae said. "He's a grumpy one, he is… I arrested him for trespassing on private property not too long ago, and when I got the cuffs on him – after a fair bit of struggling, mind you – he turned around and spat right in my face. Unfortunately for me, my mouth was open at the time."

 

Chanyeol couldn't help smiling at this, but quickly wiped it away before Jongdae could see it.

 

"Come on," Jongdae said, putting a hand on Chanyeol's shoulder. "Let's leave him alone. He doesn't need babysitting… he sure as hell won't be going anywhere until we let him out."

 

As they walked away, Chanyeol sneaked a glance back at the cell and saw that Baekhyun's head was now tilted against the wall behind him, his eyes shut tight. Then his eyes opened and they met Chanyeol's again, burning right through him until he had no choice but to look away.

 

"He's a real millstone around our necks, that one," Jongdae told Chanyeol, when they'd left custody and were on their way back up to the office. "Always being found in places he shouldn't be, but he rarely does anything worth charging for, so we usually just hold him for a while and then let him off with a slap on the wrist and a warning, or at worst, a fine. We get a few complaints about him, but there's really not a lot we can do except move him along. We have bigger fish to fry, as I'm sure you can appreciate."

 

"Alright, you two," Minseok said, looking up at them from his desk. "Jongdae, don't you have some reports you should be getting back to? Get your paperwork done while it's quiet… we all know when it rains around here, it pours."

 

"Yes, Sarge… I'll get right on it. You owe me, by the way, Sehun," Jongdae said to Sehun, who was leaning his lithe frame against the kitchen counter, stirring his coffee with a plastic spoon. He scowled and took his wallet out of his pocket, extracting a single note. This he held out towards Jongdae, who snatched it away and held it up between thumb and forefinger in front of Sehun's narrowed eyes; he then began to do a little fist-pumping, hip-swivelling victory dance around the kitchen area.

 

"Well, fuck you very much," Sehun said flatly. "I hope you walk outside and the wind blows it right out of your hand."

 

Jongdae grinned at him. "Now, now… no one likes a sore loser."

 

"Another bet, huh? What's it for this time?" Amber strolled over to the kitchen with her hands in her trouser pockets, standing next to Chanyeol.

 

"This particular bet was based on what Byun Baekhyun would next be brought in for," Jongdae told her. "Sehun said 'trespassing’. I said 'verbally abusing a police officer'. Well, well." He pulled the note out and held it up once more in Sehun's face, waving it around in front of his nose. "Looks like someone was right – and it wasn't you."

 

Chanyeol frowned. "Don't you think that's a bit of a tasteless thing to bet on..?"

 

"Who gives a shit?" Sehun muttered, still glaring at Jongdae. "The way he's going, he'll end up in prison one day for sure. I'll laugh if I ever see the day."

 

"Wouldn't it be better to rehabilitate him somehow, before that has a chance to eventuate?" Chanyeol said. "Community service, counseling… that sort of thing. You know how it is… when kids turn to risky shit to get their kicks, it's probably because they have no direction, and too much time on their hands."

 

Sehun laughed. "Come on, we all know stuff like that never works… at least not on wasters like him," he said. "Rehabilitation's a complete waste of taxpayer money. Instead, it should be a condition of welfare programs that the recipients be sterilised beforehand – now there's an idea I'd get behind. At least then they'd all stop fucking breeding."

 

Chanyeol narrowed his eyes. "There are a lot of people out there on benefits for legitimate reasons, you know. Anyway, how do you even know he's on them in the first place? You can't just make assumptions about someone purely based on external factors."

 

"The kid's a waiter at The Lucky Cat," Amber said, to no one in particular. "I see him sometimes when I order in."

 

"Alright, Chanyeol, don't get wound up," Jongdae said. "Sehun, watch yourself… you're switching over to Arsehole Mode again. It isn't cute."

 

"It's all good, Park," Sehun said, ignoring Jongdae. "You're still all fresh and idealistic now, but you'll grow out of it soon enough. When that time comes, you'll see people like Baekhyun the same way the rest of us do ― as a complete waste of time, air and space."

 

"Yeah, right.." Chanyeol muttered. His narrowed eyes followed Sehun as he walked away.

 

"Don't pay any mind to Sehun," Amber said, making Chanyeol jump ― he'd completely forgotten she was still standing there beside him. "I guess he doesn't take too kindly to the type of people we often deal with around here. But he's a decent cop, when it comes to keeping our humble little town safe and in good order. The job is very important to him."

 

"I just don't think it's fair to paint all people from disadvantaged areas with the same brush," Chanyeol said. "That's all I was trying to say."

 

"I know," Amber said in a lowered voice, "and I agree with you. But, well… if I tell you something about Sehun, will you keep it to yourself?"

 

Chanyeol nodded. "Yeah, of course."

 

"Alright," Amber said. "A couple of years ago, Sehun and Jongdae were sent out to a council housing estate not far from here, to answer a call made by an elderly woman whose neighbour was completely off his nut ― he'd gone on a drug-fuelled rampage and was terrorising the building they lived in, yelling things and breaking stuff and so on. Anyway, while the boys were trying to subdue him, he stabbed Sehun in the shoulder with a used syringe and said something along the lines of 'now you've got AIDS too, you fucker'."

 

Chanyeol, who had been frowning until then, felt his hardened expression begin to soften. "I see," he said quietly. "That's awful.."

 

Amber nodded. "Well, Sehun was pretty shaken up by it, as you can probably imagine. Fortunately he tested negative for HIV, so maybe the guy was just bluffing… but I suppose, considering what happened, you can kind of see why he might say some of the things he does."

 

"Yeah," Chanyeol said, nodding. "I guess so."

 

Amber smiled and gave him a playful shove. "Alright, that's enough serious talk for one day," she said. "Time to get out there, noobie... I'll show you how we get things done around here."

 

Driving around in a patrol car with Amber was an interesting experience, to say the least; she had the stereo blasting upbeat retro pop tunes the whole time, and it was so loud that Chanyeol could barely hear the siren – not that there was really a need to put it on, since they were on their way to check out a suspected deceased. The dead wouldn’t get any deader if they got there a couple of minutes later.

 

"I'm just sticking this on so I can drive faster than the speed limit," Amber said, raising her voice above the racket. "I'm sure you're judging me right now because you're fairly fresh out of the academy and probably still follow the rules like an animal, but when you've been on the job as long as I have, you learn to take whatever liberties you can."

 

Chanyeol found it amusing, the way Amber made herself sound like a real veteran; at a glance, she couldn't have been much older than thirty. "I'm not judging," he said, although he was, sort of.

 

Amber grunted in reply. She looked over at him quickly, and then turned her eyes back to the road ahead. "So how many bodies have you seen, then?"

 

"Um… a few," Chanyeol said.

 

"Right. A few." Amber nodded. "How far gone were they..?"

 

"How long had they been dead, you mean?" Chanyeol thought about it for a moment. "The worst was dead a couple of days, maybe… that was pretty gross. There were a few others who had been dead so long they were mostly bones, not much tissue left. That wasn’t so bad."

 

Amber laughed. "I see. Well, you’re in for a treat, then."

 

Chanyeol frowned. "Why?"

 

"The dude we're checking up on apparently hasn't been seen either going in or out of his apartment in over a week," Amber told him. "That, and several people living on the same floor have reported a bad smell when walking past his front door. So, in short, we should probably be prepared for the worst."

 

Chanyeol's stomach began to churn a little in apprehension. "Do you reckon it's suspicious..?"

 

"Well, it's always a possibility, of course… although murders are, thankfully, relatively infrequent around here," Amber told him. "But death is still everywhere you look – traffic collisions, house fires, OD's, suicides, people getting hit by cars... the complete randomness of it really gets to you after a while. Still makes me shudder sometimes, wondering when it'll be my turn."

 

The streets immediately surrounding the town centre of Maplehedge were pleasant – some would say quaint – and the houses were all well-kept. But as they drove further and further into the outskirts, it was striking how quickly it all seemed to change… perhaps 'devolve' was a better word. The cute cottages with neat gardens were replaced by weathered apartment blocks, and neglected, sad-looking houses with old broken swing-sets, collapsed prams and rusty car bodies on their front lawns – none of which had been tended to for what looked like months on end, if not years. On some properties, the grass was waist-high – ‘Snake traps’, Chanyeol’s father would have called them, who probably paid more attention to his own lawn than he ever had to his two children. When they pulled up outside the address they'd been sent to, Chanyeol saw a small, miserable-looking boy in grubby shorts and a red t-shirt so faded it was now pink, walking along a low, cracked wall out the front of the building. He did this over and over, back and forth. Every so often he stopped and stood at one end of the wall, biting his lip and looking down at the ground as though he wanted to jump off, but couldn't. Then he'd turn around and walk along the length of it again.

 

"Hey, little fella," Chanyeol called out to the kid as they approached. "You alright? You look a bit lost.."

 

The child blinked at him for a moment with frightened eyes before scrambling away. Chanyeol shrugged and followed Amber up the path towards the small, run-down block of apartments, the paint peeling off all over the place like bark from a tree. It was 34 degrees Celsius that day, according to the patrol car's thermometer, and now that they were outside it certainly felt like it. The complex had no security door, and so they just walked straight in; the smell was there as soon as they reached the first floor. It was faint at first, but when they approached the apartment it was definitely more noticeable. Amber knocked on the door a few times, calling out the guy's name – Jinwoo, he was called -- and then she waited for a while, listening closely for movement within the apartment. When there was still no response she looked at Chanyeol with her eyebrows raised. "Forgot to bring the ram up with us… silly me," she said with a little shrug, and Chanyeol was about to offer to go down to the car and bring it up when she took a step back and began to kick the door in, making him jump in surprise. After only a few kicks the frame had splintered enough that she could push the door forward with her foot (clearly she had done this quite a few times, Chanyeol thought), and when it opened the force of the stench that was released nearly sent Chanyeol head-over-arse back down the stairs again. The air was heavy with it, so putrid and thick that he almost threw up right there on the novelty doormat – which amusingly read come back with a warrant. Perhaps, under better circumstances, Chanyeol might have seen the humour in this, but now wasn't the time for laughing.

 

"You okay there..?" Amber asked; she looked faintly amused at Chanyeol's reaction, and if she wasn't so nice then he would have resented her for it. "I hate to say it, my rookie friend, but I think we do indeed have a body."

 

Chanyeol followed her through the front door and into the corridor, covering his nose and mouth with one hand. It wasn't just a dead body he could smell, although that was the overriding odour. There were other things too – rotting garbage, cigarette smoke, urine, even shit. The place was filthy: there was rubbish and unwashed clothes strewn everywhere, and the occasional neat pile of dried-looking excrement that one could only hope was of animal origin. They quickly found the deceased in the living room, lying on the sofa, with the television still on at low volume. He'd been lying there for… well, it was hard to say just from looking at him. From the stink alone, it seemed like it had been a bloody long time – Chanyeol guessed at least a week, perhaps longer.

 

"Nothing makes me sadder than a wasted life," Amber said quietly. She stood there shaking her head at the tragedy of it all, looking down at the bloated corpse lying on the sagging old couch, the fabric of it stained with whatever fluids had been seeping out of his body over the past several days. He wore track pants and no shirt, had a needle still stuck in his arm, and a dirty old pair of stockings tied around it, perhaps as a makeshift tourniquet. On the coffee table next to the couch, there was a mess of stuff – used coffee cups, various partly-filled plastic bottles, citric acid, a roll of aluminium foil, two metal spoons, a green Bic lighter, an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts, and right in in the middle of it all, another mystery turd. This one looked recent... there must have been an animal lurking around somewhere. Whatever it was, there was no sign of it.

 

"Jinwoo here was a known heroin addict, someone we'd had a few run-ins with over the years," Amber explained. "Looks like he overdid it this time."

 

Chanyeol stood next to her, with a hand still covering his mouth and nose, and said nothing. It was such a profoundly miserable scene that he almost wanted to laugh for some reason, but that would have required moving his hand away from his mouth, and keeping his stomach contents right where they belonged was more of a priority.

 

"I suppose at least he died with a smile on his face… kind of," Amber said. She had stopped taking photos for a moment to study the corpse with her head tilted to one side, and she hummed a little, seemingly lost in thought. "Never a frown with golden brown, eh..?"

 

It was less of a smile, Chanyeol thought, and much more of a grimace; the guy had maggots crawling out of one eye, for crying out loud. Chanyeol wondered what the last thing to go through Jinwoo's head had been. If his expression was anything to go by, then 'oh, fuck' seemed about right.

 

"Don't worry, you'll get used to that," Amber said. "The smell, I mean."

 

"You reckon..?" Chanyeol muttered. His voice came out muffled from behind his hand.

 

Amber nodded. "Sure. We all have to find ways to deal with it at first... I used to soak a few cotton balls with cologne and stuff them up my nostrils if I knew I had to go and look at a body. But after a while, it doesn't turn your stomach so much anymore. Sad that you can even get used to such a thing."

 

"Yeah," Chanyeol mumbled, "I guess."

 

A little later, the coroner's team arrived to view the body and then take it away. When they first tried to move him, his skin seemed to have grown attached to the putrefied couch, stretching away from his back like gum stuck to the bottom of a shoe. Chanyeol retched a little and covered his mouth again, tasting the morning's hastily-eaten bowl of Coco Pops for the second time.

 

"Yikes… that's some major skin slippage right there," Amber said. Her expression was a mixture of disgust and fascination. "Sick, huh?"

 

By that time, Chanyeol was too busy trying desperately not to gag to reply.

 

"Alright, we'll let these guys get on with it, then," Amber said, much to Chanyeol's relief. "The balcony's open, so you can step out for some fresh air if you like. I'll just take care of a few things here, and then we'll go and speak to some of the neighbours."

 

Grateful for this piece of news, Chanyeol walked over to the balcony to step outside. As soon as he did so, a small feline cannonball shot out from nowhere and zipped right through the gap between his legs; it ran out the open door and went flying over the balcony railing onto the concrete courtyard below. Chanyeol watched the cat run off until it disappeared from view, and then he turned around and went back inside the apartment.

 

 

 

* * * * *

By that evening, Chanyeol was already up to his elbows in paper, on his first day on the job. It was ridiculous how much paperwork being a police officer involved – no one had ever told him this when he signed up. He was on the verge of praying for something critical to happen just so he could push the reports aside for a little while, and as soon as he had this thought, a teenage boy walked into the room, cautiously, like the floor was made of paper-thin ice and he was in danger of falling through it. Then he cleared his throat and said in a timid voice, "um… excuse me, I'm here to deliver one order of chicken lo mein..?"

 

Everyone lifted their heads up from their desks one by one. Amber looked around the room with raised eyebrows and said, "anyone here order Chinese...?"

 

"It's for Baekhyun, actually," the boy said.

 

Jongdae let out a long sigh of exasperation. "Happens every time ― we allow the guy one phone call, and he bloody orders in. Last time it was pizza." Getting up from his desk, he said to the delivery boy, "alright, kiddo, come with me… I'll let you deliver it to him personally. We're done with him, so he should be alright to go home soon, anyway."

 

"Mind if I come too?" Chanyeol asked. "I really need to stretch the old legs." This wasn't a lie, by any means, although secretly he just wanted to get another look at the pretty boy in custody before he was let off.

 

"No problem," Jongdae droned, “the more the merrier."

 

When they got down to custody, Baekhyun was lying on the floor of his cell this time, on his back with his knees up, one arm covering his eyes. He was still the only one there. Jongdae sauntered over to Yifan's desk, with Chanyeol following close behind. "So… has he been behaving himself then?"

 

Yifan shrugged. "I guess. Hardly a peep out of him the whole day."

 

"Hmm," Jongdae said. "Well, he's gone and used his phone call to order take-out again... we'll have to start monitoring use of the phones more closely, I think."

 

Baekhyun had uncovered his eyes and sat up upon hearing their voices. He smiled at the sight of the delivery boy standing beside Chanyeol.

 

"Ah, thanks, Jimin," he said. "I owe you one."

 

The two officers glanced at each other with raised eyebrows before looking at Baekhyun again.

 

"What's with that look?" Baekhyun said. He looked from one officer to the other. "I was allowed one phone call, wasn't I?"

 

"Well, usually people use their phone privileges to call family members, or friends…" Jongdae replied.

 

"I'm sure they do," Baekhyun said. "But to be fair, you've kept me here all day, and a man's gotta eat. Now, perhaps if you'd let me have my stuff back, I'd be able to pay young Jimin here. Unless one of you would like to do the honours instead…?"

 

"I'll do it," Chanyeol said, possibly a little too eagerly, although he doubted Jongdae would argue. Fishing his wallet out from his pocket, he paid the harassed-looking delivery boy for the food, relieving him of the goods.

 

"Alright, you can go now," he said to Jimin. "Keep the change."

 

"I'll see you at work tomorrow," Baekhyun called out after him. The boy muttered a quick "see ya" and then legged it out of the holding area without looking back. Chanyeol took a cardboard take-out box and bamboo chopsticks out of the plastic bag Jimin had given to him, passing them to Baekhyun through the bars of the cell. As he did so, he got a whiff of the contents of the box, and the smell immediately made his mouth water. Baekhyun sat himself back down on the cell floor with his legs crossed, split the chopsticks apart, and began hoeing into his delicious-smelling noodles; he seemed entirely comfortable doing this, like eating Chinese food in a holding cell was something he did all the time, and for a while the two officers were quiet, watching him eat with something akin to fascination. Baekhyun said nothing, just kept eating until he was done, and then he shoved the chopsticks inside the empty box and put it down on the floor beside him.

 

"Thanks for treating me, officers," he said, giving them a thumbs-up and a big smile. "Dinner was excellent." He was about a thousand times better-looking when he smiled, Chanyeol thought. It seemed unfair, given how attractive he was to begin with.

 

"The nerve of that guy," Jongdae muttered, although he said it with a sort of affectionate half-smile on his face. It was clear to Chanyeol that Baekhyun was a novelty here ― that his colleagues were amused by the boy's antics, but otherwise probably couldn't care less about what became of him. Chanyeol didn't know why this made him feel so uneasy.

 

"Alright, buddy," Jongdae said, "time to go home. You've been here long enough."

 

Yifan got up from his desk and unlocked the cell, sliding the door open, and Baekhyun got up from his seat on the floor. He didn't look too excited about his newly-restored freedom, Chanyeol thought, but maybe that was just his face. Jongdae leaned against the open door of the cell, waiting for the boy to come out.

 

"Congrats… you're a free man again," he said, sounding not particularly congratulatory. "There'll be no charge upon your head this time, so consider yourself lucky… next time we might not be so forgiving. And for god's sake, take your rubbish with you, this is not your house – although at the frequency we see you around here, I'm thinking we might have to start making you pay rent."

 

The two officers escorted Baekhyun all the way to the station entrance, and before Baekhyun walked through the sliding glass doors he turned around to look at them and said, in a rather cavalier tone, "alright, officers… see you next Tuesday, then."

 

"Don't think I don't know what that means!" Jongdae yelled after him, and then he turned to Chanyeol and said, "well, next Tuesday or not, he'll be back here for sure. We should just build him his own cage in the corner already, I reckon he's earned it."

 

After Jongdae had wandered off elsewhere, Chanyeol waited until his colleague was out of sight (and hearing range), and then he ran out the front door of the station, hurrying down the street in a bid to catch up with Baekhyun. God only knew what had possessed him, but then there was no time to think about it now ― this was do or die.

 

"Hey," he called out when he'd almost caught up, and Baekhyun stopped walking and turned around to look at him. He certainly wasn't as tall as Chanyeol, who easily had at least several inches on him, but now that they were alone together there was something about his demeanour that was strangely imposing, almost to the point of intimidation. The unimpressed look on his face made Chanyeol gulp down all the words he was about to say next; he paused for a moment to catch his breath and rustle up some much-needed courage. But now that he had Baekhyun’s attention, what the hell was he supposed to say?

 

Say ‘you have beautiful eyes’, Chanyeol’s brain said. He ignored it.

 

"This is probably a bit out of nowhere," he said instead, "but I was wondering… would you like to have breakfast with me some time…?"

 

Baekhyun just stared at him for a moment, without blinking. "Sure," he said at last, in a voice that was completely deadpan. "How about I meet you at Cafe 'No Way' at get-fucked o'clock?"

 

There followed a long stretch of almost-silence. "Um… is that a real place..?" Chanyeol asked timidly, but Baekhyun just rolled his (beautiful) eyes and kept on walking ― although Chanyeol did manage to catch a hint of a smirk just before he turned around. As he walked off, he held up one hand, waving two (long, slender, lovely) fingers dismissively in Chanyeol's direction.

 

"Alright, thanks anyway ― and stay out of trouble," Chanyeol yelled after him, admittedly staring at Baekhyun's (very well-shaped, it had to be said) rear-end rather shamelessly as he walked away. He couldn't feel too bad about the rejection, really – at least he'd given it a red-hot go. And anyway, all was not lost: if Baekhyun was in a friendlier mood the next time they crossed paths, then he could always go ahead and try again.

 

 

 

* * * * *

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Lee, but I don't think 'Doogie Schnauzer M.D.' really counts as a seeing-eye dog," Chanyeol said doubtfully, leaning down to read the name engraved on the dog's collar tag. "I'm not sure he should be in the supermarket with you. Also, he should be on a lead."

 

To be fair, Doogie Schnauzer M.D. hardly posed a threat to the other supermarket patrons, being ancient, nearly blind, and having only three legs left in his possession. He also appeared to have a problem with bladder control, which he was now demonstrating on the supermarket floor in a long yellow puddle running down the middle of the dairy aisle. He stank like death, and Chanyeol noticed several other customers wrinkling their noses on their way past. He hoped they didn't think the smell was coming from him.

 

"But I need Doogie to get around, Officer," Mrs. Lee said. Chanyeol doubted her eyesight was really that poor, because she then pointed up above his head and said, "would you be so kind as to get that Greek yoghurt off the top shelf for me? The one in the blue pot that says ‘unsweetened’, thanks dear."

 

Chanyeol obliged, and then watched her and the dog both hobble away, with the latter bumping into the shelves every now and then. He'd come into the supermarket during a lull in afternoon activity with the intention of quickly picking up something sugary to sustain himself for the rest of his shift, and a few bits and pieces for tonight's dinner; already he'd been held up several times by people bombarding him with irrelevant questions, or asking to see his pistol – the latter request mostly being made by school-aged children. His raspberry popsicle would soon be a slushie with a stick in it, if he didn't get out of there fast enough.

 

Several minutes of polite nodding and nervous laughter later, Chanyeol managed to escape. He made his way over to the self-service checkout area, wanting to avoid more potential questions from over-friendly cashiers, and then he saw him again – Baekhyun. Like Chanyeol, he too was in line for the self-service registers, and he had a jar of multivitamins in one hand, a 12-pack of cinnamon doughnuts in the other.

 

Chanyeol glanced at the items in Baekhyun's hands. "Doughnuts and vitamins, huh. Seems a bit contradictory, doesn't it..?"

 

Baekhyun looked down at the doughnuts and vitamins, and then up at Chanyeol again, a blank look on his face. "They’re on special," he said, referring to the doughnuts. "They're always cheaper later in the day."

 

Chanyeol nodded. "Fair enough. Staying out of trouble, then?"

 

Baekhyun's lips thinned out a little. "What's it to you?"

 

"Oh, just making a polite enquiry, that's all.”

 

Baekhyun merely grunted in reply and started scanning his items. Chanyeol made his way over to the machine next to him as soon as it was free, and began to do the same.

 

"So," he said, looking over when Baekhyun was in the middle of inserting cash into his machine. "How about that breakfast offer, then…?"

 

"What about it?" Baekhyun said flatly. He was staring fixedly at the change slot, waiting for it to spit out his change.

 

"Given it any further thought since I saw you last?"

 

"Yep," Baekhyun replied.

 

That was all he got –- a one-word answer. Chanyeol had to keep himself from sighing aloud. Talking to the guy was like pulling teeth.

 

"And the verdict is..?" he said.

 

Baekhyun's response was barely a grunt this time. "No thanks."

 

"Alright," Chanyeol sighed. "Well, just thought I'd ask… don't worry, I won't bother you about it anymore. See you, then."

 

Baekhyun grabbed his carry-bag and hurried out of the supermarket as soon as his items were paid for. He didn't really reply, except to say a quick "see ya" on his way out. But he didn't swear at Chanyeol either, which was a step forward, if only a small one. Perhaps he was beginning to defrost a little, like the melting popsicle in Chanyeol's hand.

 

 

 

* * * * *

Chanyeol often wondered what it was that Byun Baekhyun did with himself – he certainly seemed to be out and about a lot during the day. The problem was that he was seeing the guy everywhere: walking down the main street, or waiting at the bus stop out the front of the newsagent; other times he’d be in line at the bakery, or exercising on the playground equipment at the park, where Chanyeol sometimes sat to have his midday sandwich. Of course, seeing Baekhyun everywhere meant that, subconsciously, at least, Chanyeol was looking for him everywhere – seeking him out without realising it. There was always a way to see what you really wanted to see, if you only looked hard enough.

 

He was sitting on one of the park benches opposite the playground equipment one afternoon, in the middle of lunch, when Baekhyun showed up as he sometimes did. He didn't seem to notice Chanyeol at first, and Chanyeol wasn't sure if he should get up and move away, given Baekhyun's firm rejection of him that time at the supermarket. But then Baekhyun stood under the monkey bars and jumped up until he caught the highest bar, from which he proceeded to do a series of chin-ups, and Chanyeol quickly found himself nailed to the bench he was sitting on; he leaned forward a little to get a better look. Baekhyun did so many repetitions that Chanyeol soon gave up on counting them, and with each repetition his t-shirt rode up a little, exposing the briefest glimpse of pale, toned stomach. Apart from being mesmerised by all the flexing, glistening muscle, Chanyeol was impressed by the boy's stamina; he was no stranger to chin-ups himself, but there was no way he could ever pull off that many in one sitting.

 

As though finally aware that someone was watching him, Baekhyun lifted himself up into a handstand, which he held for quite a long time, and then he swung around on the bar, landing softly on the bark chips covering the floor of the playground, almost without a sound. He turned his head just in time to catch Chanyeol staring in his direction. Chanyeol was mortified that he'd been caught watching, but it was too late to avert his gaze and pretend otherwise. Baekhyun began striding over towards him; he stopped only a handful of feet away from where Chanyeol was sitting, and stood there with his arms crossed, staring him down.

 

"Hey," he said, narrowing his eyes a little. "What are you doing here? Are you following me around?"

 

Chanyeol nearly choked on a mouthful of chicken club on rye, and he swallowed with some difficulty. "No, of course not… I just like sitting in this park during my lunch break, that's all. It's better than being stuck in the staff lounge all the time, anyway… the lighting in there hurts my eyes."

 

Baekhyun's expression relaxed a little when he heard this. "Alright," he said, apparently satisfied with the response, and then he turned back towards the playground again.

 

"That was quite impressive," Chanyeol called out, before he could get away. "What you were just doing, I mean."

 

Baekhyun turned around again to look at him, searching Chanyeol's expression for a moment. "Thanks," he said quietly. "But if you're impressed by that, then you must be easily impressed. I was only warming up."

 

"Are you training for something?" Chanyeol asked. The fact that Baekhyun was willingly making conversation with him was surprising, and promising. He wanted to see how far he could take it.

 

"I'm a traceur," Baekhyun replied – Chanyeol had no idea what that was. Something parkour-related, he assumed, and he made a mental note to google it later. "I come here to practise sometimes. Unfortunately, it seems that there aren't many places I can do so anymore… at least not without getting myself in trouble."

 

"I noticed," Chanyeol said, smiling at him. He took another bite of his sandwich and chewed it thoughtfully. "But, well, as long as you're not trespassing on private property, you shouldn't have any problems, right…?"

 

"Well, you'd think so… but you'd be wrong," Baekhyun said with a sigh, and he walked over again, slowly lowering himself down on the bench next to Chanyeol. In the two feet of space between them, Chanyeol saw that someone had written BALLS on one of the wooden slats in thick black marker. "I can be in a public place training, minding my own business, and then out of nowhere one of you guys will come up and question me for no reason at all. And then you all wonder why I'm always giving you attitude… I'm not trying to hurt anyone, I just need a place to practise – preferably a place where I won't be cramping the style of a bunch of toddlers. But I suppose this playground will have to do for now, until I find somewhere a little more suitable."

 

"Ah. Well, I'm sorry you feel that way," Chanyeol said. "I wish I had a suggestion for you, but I'm fairly new to the area."

 

Baekhyun looked at him with one eyebrow raised. "You just move here or something…?"

 

"I was transferred," Chanyeol replied. "From another department."

 

"I see. I figured I hadn't really seen you around… when you live in a small town like this, you notice the new faces more," Baekhyun said casually. He stood up from the bench and stretched, raising his arms high above his head. When he looked at Chanyeol again, he smiled – he even flirted a bit with his eyes, if Chanyeol wasn’t mistaken.

 

He was probably mistaken.

 

"Well, I'll leave you to your lunch then, Officer,” Baekhyun said. “See you.."

 

"Wait a sec—" Chanyeol began, but Baekhyun was already hurrying off across the grass, and didn't look back. Chanyeol sighed and picked at the remaining bit of his sandwich with zero interest. He threw the rest of it to the pigeons crowding around in front of his feet and headed back towards the station.

 

 

 

* * * * *

During the morning briefing a few days later, Joonmyun walked up to the front of the meeting room and turned to face everyone, looking concerned.

 

"We've just had a call about a man climbing up on the roof of the post office… could be a potential suicide risk," he said gravely. "Amber, Chanyeol, Jongdae and Sehun ― I want you all to make your way there as soon as possible. Minseok, you go with them; we've got to get him down before he hurts himself. You'll have to block off entry to the building, in the meantime… it's not safe to allow access when there's the threat of him jumping or throwing objects from the roof."

 

"No problem, Chief," Minseok said, "we've got it covered." To the others, he said, "you four can go ahead of me. I'll bring a car around and meet you there.”

 

The Maplehedge post office was only a short walk from the police station, and Chanyeol would often admire the building whenever he had occasion to walk past it; with its grey sandstone walls and even its own small turret, it looked more like a miniature castle than a post office. As far as buildings went, it wasn’t especially tall; still, it was probably just high enough for someone to jump off and severely injure themselves, especially if they climbed up to the turret, and so they couldn't take the risk of not intervening. Chanyeol hurried after his three fellow officers down the main street, his feet thudding against the pavement; he would no doubt end up being a mostly useless bystander while the others did all the negotiating, but that was okay… even if he only got to stand back and watch, at least it was a bit of action for what had so far been a fairly uneventful morning. It was at times like this that all the obstacle course training at the police academy would actually be put into practice: dodging and weaving around pop-up fruit stalls bulging with apples and oranges, a queue of people waiting for a bus, and a group of little old ladies walking three abreast was no easy task, even less so for the unaccustomed. After narrowly avoiding all of these things, Chanyeol then managed to nearly trip over Mrs. Lee's three-legged dog, who was just standing there alone – unleashed, as usual –- in the middle of the footpath.

 

"Where is he..?" Amber said breathlessly to the others, when they'd reached the post office. They all stood around and craned their necks to the sky, searching the roof for any signs of movement. "Can you guys see him..?"

 

"There he is," Jongdae said, pointing up at the turret. Chanyeol recognised him almost instantly; he was just sitting up there on the turret roof with his legs dangling off it, swinging them back and forth, seemingly oblivious to all the people gathering down below. At a glance, he didn't seem like someone who was in any hurry to jump off a building, but then Chanyeol was hardly an expert on the subject.

 

"Hey," he said, nudging Amber with his elbow. "Isn't that Baekhyun..?"

 

Amber's lips were pressed into a thin line as she stared up at the boy on the roof. "That's him, alright."

 

Minseok immediately switched into delegation mode. To Sehun and Jongdae, he said, "you two go inside the post office and see if there's anyone still in there. If so, get them out. Amber and Chanyeol, you can start herding people away from this area while I tape it off. No one's going inside the building until this is resolved."

 

While Sehun and Jongdae hurried inside the post office, Amber walked through the crowd of people standing in the middle of the footpath with their heads tilted upwards, and began rounding them up, sending them all away from the building. Chanyeol headed in the opposite direction and began to do the same. When the area surrounding the post office was successfully closed off, Amber stood out the front of it with her hands in her pockets, her face pointed up at the sky. She glanced at Minseok and said, in a weary voice, "should I try and talk him down, then..?" Minseok gave her a curt nod in reply.

 

"So are you planning on coming down anytime soon?" Amber called out to the boy on the roof. "Or do we need to send someone up there?"

 

"I'm just sitting here minding my own business, Officer," Baekhyun said cheerfully. "What's the worry? I'm not doing anyone any harm."

 

"Look... we can't let anyone pass through this area until you're back down here in one piece," Amber said. "So will you please have some consideration for your fellow townsfolk and come down?"

 

"Aren't you being a bit harsh..?" Chanyeol asked her in a hushed voice, and Amber shot him a withering glance.

 

"Come on, Chanyeol," she sighed. "Firstly, this isn't the first time he's pulled a stunt like this... far from it. Secondly, does he really look like someone who actually wants to kill himself..?"

 

"I don't know," Chanyeol replied. "I can't say I've dealt with too many people who were planning to kill themselves before."

 

"Well, I've come across a few in my time," Amber said. "The ones who really want to do it have usually already done it by the time you get there, and the ones who really aren't sure about it often appear to be in some form of distress. And then you have this guy, just sitting up there grinning his head off. He gets a kick out of doing shit like this… he can't help himself."

 

Chanyeol bit his lip; it seemed risky to just jump to conclusions like that. "How can you be sure…?"

 

Amber looked up at the boy sitting on the turret and said, "Mr. Byun, do you have any immediate plans to end your life..?"

 

Baekhyun shook his head. "Not at all," he replied. "Why the hell would I want to do that?"

 

Amber looked at Chanyeol with one eyebrow raised. "Well, that settles that, then… now we just have to work out how the hell to get him down."

 

"I'm sorry, but did you say that you wanted me to get down from here?" Baekhyun said, interrupting their conversation. Before anyone had a chance to reply to him, he stood up and jumped off the roof of the turret, turning a perfect somersault, and landed on his feet on the edge of the parapet below. Chanyeol's heart nearly leapt into his mouth, and there was a collective gasp from the small crowd of people gathered behind the police tape.

 

At that point, Baekhyun was standing on the parapet with one hand shielding his eyes from the sun, looking out at his audience. Then for a moment he seemed to lose his balance, swaying wildly on his feet before steadying himself again. "Whoops!" he said - Chanyeol heard more gasps from the people around him, and the sound of a woman screaming, shrill but brief, coming from somewhere at the back. Baekhyun stood there with his hands on his hips and grinned down at them, shaking his head. "Come on, I was only kidding," he said. "Got you good, though, didn't I? My, my… just look at all your faces. Hands up if you shat yourself."

 

Chanyeol kept his eyes glued to the roof, his stomach turning with a combination of nerves and awe as Baekhyun turned a no-handed cartwheel along a narrow ledge that, at a guess, couldn't have been more than two feet wide. The kid was in his element – he loved having an audience, clearly, the little show-off. It took Chanyeol a while to realise that he was smiling.

 

"Please don't do that," Amber said to Baekhyun. "You're going to hurt yourself."

 

"I know what I'm doing, Officer," Baekhyun replied; he bent over forwards into a handstand, walking along on his hands for a few metres before flipping onto his feet again. "I've been doing shit like this for years."

 

"Yes, well, it's dangerous – for you, as well as for all of us below should you end up falling from that roof," Minseok said, taking over now that the crowd was under control. "And surely you're aware that, for safety reasons, we can't let anyone into the post office until you get down from there. You're holding a lot of people up."

 

Baekhyun shrugged. "Not my problem."

 

Chanyeol glanced over at Amber, who looked like she wanted to kill someone. "Don't we have a trained negotiator?" he said in a lowered voice, turning to the others. "Someone who can really talk him down..?"

 

Jongdae just laughed at him. "What would we need a negotiator for? There's no negotiating with the people around here… stubborn, rough-as-guts, small-town folk that they are. Unless, of course, you count shooting them in the leg with a rubber bullet as negotiating."

 

"Or whipping your taser out," Sehun added.

 

Jongdae nodded sagely. "Ah, yes... another fine tactic, that one."

 

Chanyeol shrugged. "I'm willing to try talking him down, if none of you will."

 

"What makes you think you can get him to come down?" Sehun said, scoffing at the idea. "You've been on the job for, what, two minutes..?"

 

"A year, actually… and I did a crash-course on police negotiation techniques as part of my training," Chanyeol said. "It may have only scratched the surface, but it's better than nothing."

 

"Nothing you can learn during a one-day seminar is going to adequately prepare you to deal with that nut up there," Jongdae said, gesturing up at the roof.

 

"It was a weekend seminar. And we can't leave him up there forever," Chanyeol pointed out. "So what are you going to do?"

 

"I think we're forgetting one very important detail," Amber said. "Which is, how the hell did he get up there in the first place?" She turned to Minseok, who was standing by the police tape barrier on one side, talking to a group of civilians. "What's the plan, Sarge..?"

 

Minseok looked back at her glumly and said in a lowered voice, "I've already radioed dispatch to notify the fire department – all units are out on calls, but they'll send one around as soon as they can. They'll be able to get him down. But we have to be mindful of how we approach him… one wrong move and we might make him do something that we'll all regret."

 

Amber groaned quietly at this, but said nothing.

 

"Can't you tell him to just jump already..?" said a man standing behind the barrier with a package under his arm, looking irritated. "Some of us have important errands to run, you know."

 

Chanyeol could almost hear Amber's teeth grinding against each other in annoyance. She turned around to eyeball the man. "Sir, have you ever seen a person jump off a building before?" she asked in a calm voice.

 

The man mumbled sheepishly that no, he hadn't.

 

"Well, I have… and believe me, it's really not something you'd want to see," Amber said. "Picture a watermelon splattering onto the pavement from a great height, and you're not far off – except that this particular watermelon has a face, and feelings, and ― God forbid ― maybe even people waiting for him at home that actually love him. Now, I'm going to ask you nicely to please shut your hole, and wait patiently like everyone else until this is resolved. The post office will still be here tomorrow… you can come back and send your bloody parcel then."

 

Having said this, Amber turned back to Minseok and said, "what do you think we should do in the meantime?”

 

"Surely we can come to some sort of agreement with him," Minseok said, and Amber looked at Chanyeol, studying him intently for a moment. Chanyeol blinked back at her nervously.

 

"Alright, Mr. Negotiator," Amber said at last. "Since you volunteered your services, ask him what he wants, if anything, and we'll see what we can do. Within reason."

 

"Um, okay… sure," Chanyeol said. "Is there anything we can do to make the process of you coming down a little more speedy..?" he yelled up at the roof, and Baekhyun looked down at him with one eyebrow raised. He was swinging his legs against the side of the building again.

 

"I'm not sure," he said. "I haven't really thought that far ahead. What will you do for me if I agree to come down?"

 

"—Not arrest you..?" Jongdae butted in, and Amber quickly elbowed him in the ribs, making him squeal.

 

Baekhyun shook his head. "Not good enough… I already know you're going to arrest me. You'll have to do better than that, I'm afraid."

 

Chanyeol's shoulders dropped helplessly. "Well, do you at least mind giving us a few ideas…?" he said, and Baekhyun sat there rubbing his chin for a moment, looking down at Chanyeol with a thoughtful expression.

 

"The problem with you cops is that you always take yourselves too damn seriously," he said at last. "You all need to loosen up a little. Maybe if you can demonstrate this in a way that I deem satisfactory, I'll come down."

 

"Well, how do you propose we do that?" Amber asked.

 

"I'll need a volunteer... just one of you, it doesn't matter who it is," Baekhyun said. He looked at each of the officers one by one, and then pointed right at Chanyeol. "How about you – lanky cutie with the bad perm."

 

"Hey! These waves are natural," Chanyeol muttered, but then he nearly fell over at the realisation that Baekhyun had called him cute. "Uh, okay then," he said, hesitating a little. "What do I have to do..?"

 

"It's quite simple, really," Baekhyun said. He was smiling again, a devious little smile, and he licked his lips slowly, still looking right into Chanyeol's eyes. Chanyeol swallowed hard; it sounded so loud inside his ears that he was sure anyone standing close to him would hear it.

 

"Do a funny dance for me," Baekhyun continued. "Right here in front of all these people. And if I think it's good enough, I'll get down off this roof and let you take me. To the station, that is."

 

Chanyeol turned to look at Amber, confused. "Should I do what he says…?" he whispered.

 

"Whatever," Amber muttered, "I've seen and heard it all in this bloody town.."

 

Chanyeol looked at Minseok, who looked back at him with a helpless shrug and said, "well, if it's something we can comply with, I guess it couldn't hurt to try…?"

 

"Alright. I'll do it," Chanyeol sighed, and then he turned back around to look up at Baekhyun. "What kind of funny dance do you want me to do?"

 

Baekhyun got up and stood there for a moment on the ledge with both hands on his hips. "I want you to do the chicken dance… a good old party classic that everyone knows," he said. "And while you're doing that, I want you to sing me my rights. You can sing to any tune you want; I don't mind."

 

"Are you serious..?" Chanyeol asked, letting out a loud guffaw of disbelief, but Baekhyun only stared at him, his expression growing unexpectedly solemn.

 

"Do I look like I'm kidding?" he said, pointing at his own face. And then he smiled again – a tiny smile, just one curled-up corner of his mouth. "Off you go. You've only got one chance to shine, Officer, so make it good."

 

"And if Officer Park agrees to do this, you'll definitely come down?" Amber said, cutting in before Chanyeol could do anything.

 

Baekhyun held one hand over his heart. "I promise I'll come right down, ma'am… no dramas. I'll even let you cuff me without kicking up a stink." To Chanyeol, he said, "you can do the honours, string bean, since you're taking one for the team."

 

"This is fucking ridiculous… can I please just go up there and forcibly remove his annoying ass from that roof?" Sehun muttered, but no one paid any attention to him.

 

"Alright," Chanyeol said, and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "Here I go, then." He tucked both hands under his armpits and flapped his arms around like wings. While doing this, he moved from one foot to the other, back and forth, over and over. "How am I doing?"

 

"Great," Baekhyun called out. "You're doing a stellar job, Officer. Keep doing it just like that, until I tell you to stop."

 

Chanyeol swallowed nervously, but did as he was told. He could feel fifty or so eyes trained on him… maybe even more. Still, this scenario, however ridiculous, was marginally better than pissing his pants in a bank full of hostages while some nutjob held a possibly-loaded gun to his head. He figured he would count his blessings.

 

"Now sing me my rights," Baekhyun said. "I'll need to know them later, when you arrest me and chuck me into a holding cell for another ten hours."

 

"Do you mind if I rap them instead?" Dancing like a chicken continuously was more tiring than it looked, and Chanyeol was starting to get a little out of breath. "It's just that I'm not much of a singer… I wouldn't want to cause any of these people around me any further distress."

 

"You know what? I think I'd like that even more," Baekhyun replied. "Go on, then."

 

"You have the right to remain silent," Chanyeol said, in his best rapper voice. "Oh man… um… anything you say can and will be held against you in a motherfucking court of law, motherfucker..?"

 

"Stop… please. I'm about to fall off the fucking roof," Baekhyun said; by now he was holding his sides from laughing so hard, and Chanyeol was worried he really would fall this time. "By the way, Officer, just FYI – sticking 'motherfucker' on the end of a sentence does not mean that you are rapping. But that was a good effort… well done. You've given me the biggest belly-laugh I've had in a long time."

 

"Can I stop, then…?" Chanyeol said wearily.

 

"Sure," Baekhyun replied, nodding. "Now all you have to do is say "fuck the police" in a very loud voice, so all these good people gathered 'round can hear, and I'll come right down."

 

Chanyeol stopped dancing for a moment. "Wait… what?"

 

"You heard me," Baekhyun said, in a voice like knives. In a split second, his stare went cold and black. "Say 'fuck the police', and I'll come down."

 

Chanyeol stared back at him for a long time without blinking, and then he said, "no."

 

Baekhyun narrowed his eyes. He had his hands firmly planted on both hips again, like a teacher about to give a classroom full of students a good telling-off. "What do you mean, 'no'…?"

 

"I'm not saying that," Chanyeol replied. "'Fuck Tha Police’ was written as a protest against police brutality, racism and abuse of authority. I am the police – well, one of them, anyway. It's not for me to – I just said it, didn't I?"

 

"Yes," Baekhyun said, and his face split into another blinding grin.

 

Chanyeol sighed and rubbed his temple with one hand. He glanced over at Amber, giving her a look that he hoped was pleading enough for her to step in, but she only looked back at him helplessly.

 

"You know what, though, Officer?" Baekhyun said, "you stood up for yourself and your fellow pigs, and I respect that. I really do. So I'll do whatever you want now… you've earned it."

 

"You mean you'll come down?" Chanyeol asked cautiously. He felt a couple of hands patting him on the back, heard a whispered "good job, rookie," from Jongdae.

 

"Of course," Baekhyun said, nodding. Then he stopped nodding and said, "how should I do that, then?"

 

Chanyeol shot a quick glance at Minseok, who looked back at him just as blankly. "Well, how did you get up?" he said to Baekhyun.

 

"I shimmied right up that drainpipe over there," Baekhyun said, pointing to a long metal drainpipe attached to the side of the building. "It was easy enough. Don't know if it'll be quite as easy getting down, though. I can try, if you like?"

 

Minseok sighed and shook his head. He turned around to the others and said, "we'll wait for the fire department, then. I'll check on progress. He might injure himself coming down that way."

 

Chanyeol watched as his co-workers all stood around in a huddled circle, discussing what to do next. Barely a minute later, there was a loud "Hey!" coming from behind them, making them all jump in surprise.

 

"Well, here I am," Baekhyun said. They all turned around, slowly, to stare at him.

 

"How the hell did you get down so fast…?" Chanyeol asked.

 

Baekhyun shrugged. "Same way I got up." He looked at Chanyeol, smiled and held out his hands. "Be gentle with me, Officer," he said, in a hushed voice that could only be described as provocative, but before Chanyeol could act on this, Sehun had already shoved past him, grabbing Baekhyun by the wrists. He spun the boy around, forcing him face-first up against the post office wall while he put the cuffs on him, telling him he was under arrest for disorderly conduct. Baekhyun looked surprised at being handled so roughly, but only for a moment; he turned his head to stare at Chanyeol while he was being cuffed – a long, steady, blinkless stare – and then he winked.

 

Minseok sighed and shook his head. "God, what a morning," he said, under his breath. To the rest of them, he said, "Amber and I will stay behind and sort things out around here… you three can escort the kid back to the station. Book him in with Yifan and we'll sort him out when I get back."

 

"Yes, Sarge," Jongdae said.

 

They began the two-block walk back to the station, Sehun marching Baekhyun along with the solemn air of an executioner and his next victim, Jongdae and Chanyeol following close behind. Baekhyun seemed unusually chipper for someone who'd just been arrested; he turned his head around to look at Chanyeol and said, "I'm surprised at you, Officer. After all that effort, are you really going to just let this shithead here steal your prize..?"

 

"Shut your mouth," Sehun hissed. "Or I'll shut it for you."

 

"Alright, alright… keep your pants on," Baekhyun replied. To Chanyeol he smiled and said, "it's a shame, you know… I don't think I'd have really minded getting a good, slow frisking from you, sir."

 

Chanyeol could have fried an egg on his face, it was so warm. He cleared his throat and said nothing the rest of the way.

 

When they arrived at the station, Sehun had an expression that could only be described as murderous. He dragged Baekhyun right through the reception area and out the back without a word. After he'd gone, Jongdae pulled Chanyeol aside and said, "look, I think we should follow him down to custody – just to make sure he doesn't go overboard. You get what I'm saying?"

 

Chanyeol looked at Jongdae and nodded in silence, and the two of them hurried off down the corridor to catch up with Sehun. When they got down to custody, they found him standing beside Yifan's desk with Baekhyun in tow, in the middle of checking him in. He looked up when he saw the two officers arrive, glaring at them both.

 

"What are you two doing down here? I've got this covered."

 

"We know, we know," Jongdae replied, holding up his hands in a gesture of placation – Chanyeol felt sorry for him, being assigned such a foul-tempered partner. "We just came down to make sure everything's okay, that's all.."

 

Sehun didn't say anything. He watched Yifan write something down, and then he stood up from his desk and walked over to the cells. This time there was one other person in holding – a scruffy-looking man with a long, scraggy beard and no shoes, who sat there muttering to himself, stinking of beer and piss. Yifan unlocked an empty cell on the other end of the row and nodded his head at Sehun, signalling for him to escort Baekhyun into it.

 

"Hey… ease off a bit, would you?" Chanyeol said, as Sehun began dragging the boy towards the cell. "Don't just yank him about by the cuffs like that… you're hurting him."

 

"Whatever are you talking about, Park?" Sehun muttered. "How am I hurting him?"

 

"Just look at his face," Chanyeol said. "He's clearly in pain."

 

"Yeah? Well, he's a man… he can handle it," Sehun said gruffly. He herded Baekhyun into the cell and pulled his wrists forward to take the cuffs off him, so roughly that there was no way it wasn't intentional. Baekhyun had a filthy expression on his face at this point, but he kept quiet.

 

"Get down," Sehun said. "Get on the floor. Now."

 

Slowly, Baekhyun lowered himself onto the floor. He sat there with his legs drawn up to his chest, just as he had the first time Chanyeol saw him.

 

"Now stay there, and keep your mouth shut until someone comes to speak to you," Sehun said. He had barely one foot out of the cell when Baekhyun said, in an airy tone, "don't you fuckers have any real criminals to catch..?"

 

Before Chanyeol had time to take his next breath, Sehun was back inside the cell, holding Baekhyun down against the floor with one boot pressed firmly into his back. Baekhyun made an awful gasping sound in surprise.

 

"What did you just say?" Sehun hissed. "Go on… say it again. Not so ballsy now, are we...?"

 

"This is police brutality, surely," Baekhyun wheezed, still breathless from being squashed against the floor.

 

"Get off him, Sehun," Chanyeol said. He could sense Jongdae still standing next to him, barely even breathing. Maybe he was too stunned by what was going on to react.

 

"Just shut up," Sehun snapped – to whom this was directed, Chanyeol didn't know. He pressed his boot even harder into Baekhyun's back. "Shut your mouth, you little shit."

 

By now Baekhyun's eyes were squeezed shut, his breath coming in quick gasps. His face was slowly turning bright red.

 

"I said, get off him," Chanyeol said again. The anger coiling in his guts already had his heart pounding hard, and it was starting to make him feel lightheaded. "I'm warning you, Sehun. Don't make me say it a third time."

 

"Seriously, Sehun," Jongdae said quietly. "Just leave the kid alone.."

 

If Sehun even heard them, he paid no attention. Chanyeol began to feel breathless himself; his heart was beating so fast that he felt dizzy. He needed to sit down. Baekhyun's quick, rasping breaths filled the silence, until the terrible sound was all Chanyeol could hear. Was no one else seeing this? He looked first at Yifan, and then at Jongdae. Both of them looked back at him with helpless expressions.

 

Why weren't they saying anything?

 

Chanyeol bent forward a little, resting both of his hands upon his knees, and then he closed his eyes. There was a strange echo in the room; it reminded him of being a kid, pressing his ear to the wooden floor, how distorted the footsteps sounded. One thing brought him up to the surface in a second, which he only just managed to catch in the brief silence between his own gasps for air – Baekhyun choking out a desperate, half-whispered "please."

 

Chanyeol opened his eyes again. His surroundings slowly came back into focus.

 

"Chanyeol…" Jongdae's voice sounded worried, coming from somewhere behind him. "Are you alright..?"

 

Chanyeol didn't reply. What came next seemed to happen as though he were observing from above, somewhere outside of his own body. He stalked into the cell, and before he had time to think about it, he grabbed Sehun by the shoulders, hauling him up and away from Baekhyun's prone figure. He shoved the other officer away with such force that he fell against the bars, collapsing in a crumpled heap on the concrete floor.

 

Sehun groaned, rubbing his elbow where it had connected with the iron bars of the cell. "What the fuck, Park…?"

 

"He's freaking out, you piece of shit!" Chanyeol snapped; he wanted to yell, but his voice came out weak and croaky. He felt nearly choked with rage. "Clearly you don't know what a panic attack looks like… never had one, then, huh? Well, that's great. Lucky you."

 

Chanyeol knew what a panic attack looked like, all too well – mostly because he knew what they felt like. He likened his own experiences to a tree growing inside his chest, thick roots snaking around each rib bone, squeezing them all until they snapped… each tiny air sac in his lungs being popped with a thousand burning hot needles.

 

"Probably faking it," Sehun muttered; he got to his feet, staggering around a bit while he regained his balance, but he thankfully kept his distance. He seemed a little shaken, but uninjured, and so Chanyeol paid him no more attention. He kneeled down next to Baekhyun on the floor of the cell, helping the boy sit up. "Hey," he said in a soft voice. "It's okay. You'll be alright."

 

Baekhyun was still hyperventilating, but eventually his breathing began to even out, if only a little. There were tears in his eyes, trailing down along the sides of his face, falling in darkened spots on his grey t-shirt.

 

"That's it," Chanyeol whispered. "Nice and steady." He rubbed Baekhyun's back in slow circles, until he was breathing normally again. Although he barely registered it, from the corner of his eye he could see Sehun stalking off out of the holding area, muttering something under his breath. Jongdae quickly hurried off after him.

 

Chanyeol looked up at Yifan, who was still standing there outside the cell, watching them both. "I'll stay here with him for a moment, if that's okay," he said, "just to make sure he's alright." Yifan nodded in silence, and then went over to his desk to give them a bit of space. Chanyeol resumed his gentle rubbing of Baekhyun's back; the boy flinched every now and then, as though he expected Chanyeol to hit him, but he made no move to shrug him off.

 

"Nearly there, hey? You're doing great.."

 

Baekhyun wheezed a few more times, but said nothing.

 

"You okay now?" Chanyeol asked. He moved his hand away from Baekhyun's back at last, and Baekhyun collapsed against the wall of the cell, exhaling loudly, as though he'd been underwater all this time. "I'm fine," he replied; his voice was cracked and hoarse, but the ability to speak again was a good sign.

 

"Good," Chanyeol said. "You can stay here until you feel okay. As soon as you're up to it, I'll take you back up to the office, and then we'll chat to you for a little while, maybe ask a few questions. The better you co-operate, the quicker we'll be able to process you, and the sooner you can get out of here. Do you think you can manage that?"

 

Baekhyun nodded in silence. He sat there for a moment, breathing deeply, in and out, and eventually he said, "okay, I'm ready." Chanyeol took him upstairs and led him to where Minseok was waiting in one of the interview rooms with Amber. He sat quietly and watched while they asked Baekhyun a series of questions, gave him all the necessary forms to fill out; to his credit, Baekhyun answered every question clearly, and complied with each request without any form of resistance. After issuing Baekhyun with an infringement notice, Minseok said he was free to go, and asked Chanyeol to escort him out of the station. Chanyeol saw Baekhyun look at the fine amount he would be required to pay, and his eyes widened, but he said nothing. "Come on," Chanyeol said quietly, and he held the door open, letting Baekhyun walk through it first before shutting it behind him.

 

"Do you need to call anyone to come and collect you – a family member or something?" he asked, when they'd left the room. "Your parents, maybe…?"

 

Baekhyun shook his head. "No point," he said quietly. "They won't come."

 

Chanyeol frowned upon hearing this, but the look on Baekhyun's face told him it was better not to ask. "I see," he said. "Well, in that case, I'll go and see if it's alright to drop you home myself."

 

"No, I—" Baekhyun began, his eyes widening, but Chanyeol cut him off.

 

"Please," he said, "I insist. I can tell you're still not feeling well, and I can't just put you out on the street like that. It wouldn't be right."

 

Baekhyun sighed and stood next to the wall, leaning his head against it. He seemed too exhausted to argue.

 

So as not to add to Baekhyun's quota of traumatic experiences for that day, Chanyeol took the boy home in his own car, which he thought would be more agreeable than being driven home in a police vehicle. Apart from giving directions occasionally, Baekhyun didn't say a word during the drive to his place; he exhibited next to no signs of life, barely even moving a muscle except to yawn a couple of times. He stared out the window at whatever was outside, quietly sipping from the plastic bottle of water Chanyeol had given him from the vending machine in the waiting room. If it weren't for the small, hunched shadow of his figure in Chanyeol's peripheral vision, he might have forgotten that he was driving anyone home at all.

 

It was sad seeing the boy completely drained like this, Chanyeol thought, when he seemed so full of life normally… spark, that was what people called it. Effervescence, even. They were qualities that Chanyeol had often wished he had himself, but he didn't – plainly speaking, he was a fairly ordinary, uninteresting sort of person. There was no reason for Baekhyun to be attracted to him too, and therefore no point in him getting his hopes up. They were two very different people from two very different worlds, and by now it was clear to Chanyeol that it was never going to happen.

 

After several minutes of dead quiet, Chanyeol turned on the radio to break the silence; Stars by Simply Red was playing, and he began drumming the rhythm on the steering wheel with the fingers of one hand, without really thinking. A little while later, he thought he could hear quiet humming. He smiled to himself.

 

"You like this song, huh..?" he said, turning to look at Baekhyun.

 

Baekhyun didn't reply. The humming abruptly stopped.

 

Chanyeol let out a quiet sigh and stared at the road ahead of him. It was going to be a lonely ride – by now, that much was obvious.

 

"Just here will be fine," Baekhyun said softly, after they'd been driving in awkward silence for a further five minutes, which to Chanyeol felt about ten times longer.

 

"Alright," Chanyeol said. He pulled up out the front of a block of apartments and waited for Baekhyun to let himself out. "Take care of yourself, okay?" he said, when Baekhyun was halfway out the door. "And, as always, stay out of trouble."

 

Baekhyun nodded in silence and shut the car door behind him; Chanyeol remained parked out the front for a moment, watching him walk up the path towards the apartment block. Before the boy reached the building he turned around and looked at Chanyeol, standing there with a nervous expression, his hands balling themselves into fists inside the hem of his t-shirt. Sensing that Baekhyun probably wanted him to leave, Chanyeol gave him a small nod through the open window and drove off back to the station.

 

 

 

* * * * *

Chanyeol was so out of his mind with boredom that he nearly leapt through the patrol car's windshield at the sound of someone knocking on the window, an urgent tap-tap-tap right next to his head. When he turned to see who it was, Baekhyun's face was behind the glass, peering in at him with one hand shielding his eyes.

 

After taking a moment to swallow his heart back down into his chest, Chanyeol put the window down. "Hey," he said, trying to sound casual, but his voice betrayed him by coming out a little croaky, as it usually did whenever he needed it to sound normal. "Can I help you…?"

 

"Hey," Baekhyun replied. "What are you doing right now?"

 

Chanyeol had to think about it for a moment. "Uh… policing, I believe.."

 

"Cool," Baekhyun said. "Are you really busy? Because you don't look it."

 

"Well, not really…" Chanyeol admitted. "I'm just here to watch the doors of Good Buy and the supermarket for a little while. They've both reported problems with increased theft recently, and they're hoping that having us sit in the car outside for a few hours here and there might discourage shoplifters." He paused and took a sip of his coffee, then wedged the cardboard cup back into the cup holder. "The perks of being a small-town cop, hey."

 

Baekhyun smirked. "Sounds like a riot."

 

"I know, right?" Chanyeol sighed. "My partner got so sick of sitting here on her bum that she's actually in the supermarket right now, picking up a few groceries to kill time. Hopefully we'll be dispatched somewhere else soon."

 

Baekhyun narrowed his eyes for a moment as though considering something, and then he sniffed the air. A smile slowly spread across his face. "Do I actually smell doughnuts…?"

 

Chanyeol suddenly remembered the large box of doughnut holes nestled in his lap –- a gift from Good Buy's manager-on-duty as a token of thanks for watching the store. "It's not what it looks like," he said. "These are just the holes – it's completely different. I promise I'm not really a bad cop stereotype."

 

"Don't worry, I have no problems with you being a bad cop stereotype," Baekhyun said, still smiling at him. "Actually, I find it oddly comforting. Anyway, can I sit down for a bit? I want to talk to you about something."

 

Chanyeol considered this for a moment. "Okay. You're not going to ask to see my gun, though, are you…?"

 

"No," Baekhyun said, frowning at him. "Why?"

 

"I get asked that a lot, for some reason," Chanyeol said, rolling his eyes. "It's like no one believes I'm really a cop until they see a weapon as proof. Alright then… come on in." He waited for Baekhyun to walk around to the other side of the car, and then he unlocked the door for him. Baekhyun climbed in, settling down in the seat beside Chanyeol.

 

"It feels weird being in one of these without being arrested beforehand," he said, looking around at all the dashboard controls.

 

Chanyeol laughed. "I'll bet it does. You've been pulling some interesting stunts lately, haven't you?"

 

Baekhyun shrugged. "No more than usual. Life's too short to have both feet on the ground all the time."

 

"Yeah? Well, your life probably will be short, if you keep going the way you are."

 

"I like high places, that's all," Baekhyun explained. "I feel safe up there."

 

"Right,” Chanyeol said, raising both eyebrows at him. “So no fear of heights for you, then."

 

"Nope… quite the opposite, actually. When I was a kid, I learned to climb up trees and on top of cupboards and all sorts of things, so that my physically abusive father couldn't lay into me," Baekhyun said; he glanced over at Chanyeol for a moment, and then looked away again. "A regular little monkey, I was. I guess that's why being somewhere up high makes me feel safer. Whenever I get anxious, I feel like I need to climb up on top of something… it just makes it easier to breathe."

 

"I see," Chanyeol said. "I'm sorry to hear that about your father. Just try to be careful, that's all… I really wouldn't want to see you get hurt."

 

"Alright, dad," Baekhyun said drily. "Thanks for your concern, but I can take care of myself, you know. And I've done a much better job of it than anyone else ever has."

 

"I don't doubt it," Chanyeol replied. "So… what brings you to my little corner of the universe on such a fine afternoon, then?"

 

Baekhyun shifted a little in his seat for a moment. He looked vaguely uncomfortable now. "Well, I just wanted to thank you," he said in a quiet voice. "For helping me out the other night, and taking me home, and all. Also, I'm sorry I made an ass of you in front of all those people. That really wasn't cool. But I was impressed by how much of a good sport you were about it." The boy's head was bowed as he said this, and he was playing with his fingers. Now that he was sitting so close, Chanyeol noticed a small, jagged scar on his eyebrow, over which the hair no longer grew.

 

"Oh. Well, don't worry about it," Chanyeol said, waving him off. "I've done worse things in public, believe it or not. And there's no need to thank me, I was just doing my job."

 

"So… we're okay then?" Baekhyun asked. He looked at Chanyeol earnestly, with his bottom lip sucked into his mouth. His expression reminded Chanyeol of a naughty child being told off.

 

Chanyeol held out the box of doughnut holes and shook it. "Yep. Peace offering?"

 

Baekhyun shook his head. "No thank you, I'm good."

 

Chanyeol shrugged and stuffed another doughnut hole into his mouth. "Alright… more for me, then," he said with his mouth full. "Man… these are so fucking good when they're still warm, though." He swallowed and washed the treat down with another mouthful of hot coffee, and in the silence that followed he heard the sound of what was sure to be Baekhyun's stomach growling. Smiling to himself, he pushed the box of doughnut holes in the boy's direction a second time.

 

"Go on," he said softly, "just have one. I know you like them. And I might be a Pig and all, but I'm hardly going to eat the whole box by myself, am I? My partner won't help me, either – she's on a low-carb diet."

 

Baekhyun looked reluctant, but he took a doughnut hole anyway and bit into it. "Thanks," he said, around a bite of sugary fried dough.

 

"No problem," Chanyeol replied. He leaned his head back against the headrest. "Anyway, to tell you the truth, I'm no stranger to panic attacks either," he said. "So helping you get through yours wasn't a completely alien experience for me. I know how it feels when your chest gets all tight, and your throat goes all small, until it's like you're breathing through a straw." He lowered the window on the driver's side and stuck his hands out, dusting cinnamon sugar off them. "I used to get them too… relatively often, and quite severe, when I was younger. I was even taken to emergency a few times, because my parents had no idea what to do about it. They don't have a clue about most things, it seems, when it comes to me."

 

"Oh," Baekhyun said. His brow was furrowed, making him look vaguely sympathetic. "That sucks.."

 

"Mmm. Well, I grew out of the panic attacks, for the most part. I didn't have a single one for years," Chanyeol said. "But lately I've been having them again, and I have a feeling that's why I was transferred here from my last department. It was a lot more hectic there… shit going down all the damn time. Maybe they thought I couldn't handle it.”

 

Baekhyun peered at Chanyeol intently for a moment, and then he frowned a little. "Are you sleeping enough?” he asked. “I know I'm sometimes more prone to anxiety when I haven't slept well for a while."

 

"Well, I suppose I haven't been sleeping the best, especially lately," Chanyeol said. "My body-clock's a bit out because of all the changes in my shift schedule… and Maplehedge is such a quiet place at night that I actually find it hard to fall asleep. I used to find all the city noises comforting at my old place, but the dead silence around here is unnerving by comparison. And I'm having more nightmares, too, for some reason."

 

Baekhyun sighed and stared out of the passenger window. "I get nightmares too," he said. "Nightmares all the time… really disturbing stuff that, for some reason, I can never remember the next morning. All I can remember is how I felt during the nightmare itself."

 

Chanyeol looked over at Baekhyun for a moment, watching him in silence. If the boy noticed he was being observed, he didn't mention it. He was especially beautiful, Chanyeol thought, when he was lost in thought like that.

 

"You know, you really ought to be more careful," Chanyeol said. "I can tell you're an intelligent guy. You don't need to go around looking for trouble."

 

Baekhyun sighed. "I don't have to… it finds me on its own. I guess I just have a talent for being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

 

"Right… I've heard that one before," Chanyeol said, laughing a little. "But we're all accountable for our own actions, at the end of the day. Can't blame it all on bad luck."

 

"Well, the cops in this shitty town always treat me like I'm some hardened criminal," Baekhyun told him. "And after a while, it does things to your head – starts to make you think, well, hey, maybe I am one. Maybe this is all I'm good for, being good-for-nothing. And then it all goes downhill from there, doesn't it..?"

 

Chanyeol nodded to show that he understood. "I know what you mean. But we're not all like that, I promise. Anyway, if you really want to thank me, how about letting me take you out for that breakfast I offered earlier? A friendly breakfast, mind you. I promise I'm not trying to hit on you, or anything.."

 

Baekhyun looked at Chanyeol with one eyebrow raised, and said nothing.

 

"…You just look a little hungry, that's all," Chanyeol said at last, hoping to God that he wasn't blushing. And it was true – Baekhyun did look a bit lean, perhaps a tad underfed. The kid could use a stack of maple-soaked pancakes, in Chanyeol's humble opinion.

 

Baekhyun looked thoughtful for a moment, and then finally he smiled and said, "alright… but only if you let me pay. Because, you know, if I'm the one who's doing the thanking, I should be the one who does the paying, right..?"

 

"Well, fine, if you insist." Chanyeol was too happy about finally getting a yes to argue. "There's this great little place down the road called Bean Me Up. It’s all space-themed and shit, which is weird, but the food’s great. You ever been?"

 

Baekhyun shook his head. "Nope. I've walked past and laughed at it a few times, admittedly.”

 

"Well, we can go there if you like," Chanyeol said. "Their Nutella-stuffed French toast is unbelievable… so out-of-this-world it's orbiting the planet, basically. You have to try it. In fact, you have to try the whole damn breakfast menu. It's really something else."

 

"I've never known anyone to get such a boner over breakfast.." Baekhyun said, rolling his eyes, but he laughed anyway.

 

"Of course – breakfast is the best and most important meal of the day," Chanyeol replied.

 

"I always skip it," Baekhyun told him.

 

Chanyeol turned his head to stare at him in horror. "You skip breakfast..?"

 

"Yeah… I dunno. I guess I just hate cereal and shit like that," Baekhyun said, with an unapologetic little shrug of his shoulders. "Especially oatmeal," he added. He shuddered at the mere mention of it. "Truly diabolical stuff. 'Satan's jizz', I like to call it."

 

Chanyeol found it very hard to keep himself from laughing. "You do realise there are other options, right..?"

 

"Like what – toast?" Baekhyun made a sour face. "Eh… I can take it or leave it."

 

"Poor uneducated fool," Chanyeol said, shaking his head in mock disappointment. "Please, allow me to broaden your breakfast horizons. Consider it the first step in your rehabilitation as a decent law-abiding citizen, with the basis that people who eat breakfast are happier, calmer individuals, and therefore less prone to antisocial behaviour."

 

"Alright, alright," Baekhyun said, with a dismissive wave of his hand. "We'll go to this place you love so much, then. When do you want to do it?"

 

Chanyeol thought about it for a moment. "How about Thursday at, say, eight o'clock, if that's not too early? I've got a night shift on Wednesday, so I'll be finishing up around then. Might as well have a good breakfast before I go to sleep. I'll need the energy to fight off all those dream demons."

 

"Eight's fine," Baekhyun said, and then he looked a bit shy. "Should I, uh, get your number, then…?"

 

"Sure," Chanyeol replied; he pulled out his ticket book and jotted his mobile number on a fresh page, then tore it out and gave it to Baekhyun. "Excuse the ticket… I don't have any other paper on me right now."

 

"It's fine," Baekhyun said. He smiled as he slipped the folded ticket into the pocket of his jeans, and then he let himself out of the car. After stepping outside he turned around to look at Chanyeol through the open door. "I guess I'll see you Thursday, then."

 

"Alright," Chanyeol replied, giving him a friendly wave. "Bye, now."

 

Barely a minute after Baekhyun had walked away, Chanyeol's phone buzzed inside his pocket. He pulled it out to find a message from an unknown number, which said 'enjoy your holes', and was followed by a tiny emoji of a pig.

 

 

 

* * * * *

"Check that shit out," Chanyeol said; he pushed Bean Me Up's UFO-shaped menu across the table towards Baekhyun, with the breakfast section facing upwards. "What's not to love? You can have something savoury. You can have something sweet. You can even have both, if you're feeling especially daring. And this wonderful, wonderful place has an all-day breakfast menu, God bless them – so you can have breakfast for dinner if you bloody well want to. This, my friend, is what real freedom is – our ancestors fought and fell for us to have this many choices in life."

 

Baekhyun didn't seem quite so enthusiastic, Chanyeol noticed – maybe he wasn't a morning person. "There are too many choices, if you ask me," he replied, frowning at the menu in front of him; he held it far away from himself with two hands, as though offended by its contents. "Too much freedom is, in a way, the opposite of freedom… it almost becomes oppressive."

 

"Well, you seem like a decisive kind of guy," Chanyeol said, "I'm sure you'll figure it out." When a waiter came over to their table, he ordered the Nutella French toast and an iced mocha, and then looked at Baekhyun expectantly. "What about you?"

 

"I'll have the same, thanks," Baekhyun said quietly. He closed his menu and handed it to the waiter.

 

"Breakfast twins," Chanyeol said, when the waiter had left the table. "Good choice, there… I like your style."

 

Baekhyun shrugged. "It was easier than making up my own mind." He looked around the busy cafe for a moment, his eyes skimming over the Star Trek memorabilia on the walls, and the tables full of people chatting over their breakfasts, and then he drummed his fingers on the wooden tabletop. He was clearly racking his brain for something to talk about. "So… how's being a cop treating you, then?"

 

"It's alright, I guess," Chanyeol said. "How's… doing whatever it is that you do..?"

 

Baekhyun laughed at this. "Oh, it's great," he said. Chanyeol noticed that he managed to answer the question without actually revealing anything about himself, which was clever – and sneaky. He found himself laughing too, if somewhat nervously.

 

"I'm sorry… this is slightly more awkward in real life than it was when I did the whole run-through inside my head," he said. "I'm crap at conversation at the best at times, let alone after a nine-hour night shift.."

 

If the boy sitting across from him wasn't so blindingly attractive, Chanyeol thought, he would have been propping his eyes open with matchsticks right now. He wanted to say this, but didn't... it was too early yet to overdo it with the compliments. But he'd gone right from walking out of the station like a zombie after clocking off from his shift, to secretly jiggling one leg under the table, unable to contain the sudden burst of excited energy that was bubbling inside him. How he was going to make himself go to sleep when he got home, he didn't know.

 

Baekhyun smiled and shook his head. "It's fine, really. Should we engage in some more excruciatingly terrible small talk while we wait for our twin breakfasts to arrive?"

 

"Sure," Chanyeol said. "Whose do you think will be born first?”

 

Baekhyun laughed. He rubbed his chin for a moment, thinking of what to say. "I'm going to ask you a couple of inane questions about yourself now," he said. "That's what most normal people do when they're being social, isn't it?"

 

"I think most 'normal' people don't generally announce their intention to ask inane questions before they actually ask them," Chanyeol replied.

 

Baekhyun made a point of ignoring him. "I've got one," he said, snapping his fingers. "Who's your favourite film or TV cop?"

 

"Too easy – Marge Gunderson from Fargo."

 

Baekyun narrowed his eyes, as though judging Chanyeol for his choice. "I see."

 

"She was seven months pregnant and she still took that fucker down on her own, without any back-up whatsoever," Chanyeol said. "If that's not bad-ass, then I don't know what is."

 

"Alright," Baekhyun nodded. He took a sip of his iced mocha and put it back on the table. "I'm not arguing with you."

 

"So who's yours, then?” Chanyeol asked, throwing the question back at him.

 

"I don't have one," Baekhyun said, and then he cracked a smile, but his gaze remained cool, almost steely. "I hate you all, even in fictitious form. And yet here I am, having breakfast with The Fuzz… dining with the enemy. Life's funny sometimes, isn't it?"

 

"Well, I must say I'm a tiny bit hurt by that," Chanyeol said, pouting at him, although he wasn't really offended. "We're not all bad, you know."

 

"Not to worry, Sarge… my contempt for your kind is universal," Baekhyun said airily. "It's really nothing to take personally."

 

"I'm not a sergeant," Chanyeol pointed out, "I'm just an officer."

 

Baekhyun looked at him for a long, thoughtful moment. "I'm going to call you Sarge anyway," he replied. He said it so decisively that Chanyeol knew better than to argue.

 

"I've never understood that," he said, moving the conversation along – now that they'd gained a bit of momentum, he was feeling a little more confident, and was actually enjoying himself quite a bit. "Being called 'The Fuzz', I mean. It doesn't even make any sense… why are we fuzzy? Most of the male police officers I know are clean-shaven."

 

"Maybe it's one of those opposite-type things," Baekhyun said thoughtfully. "Like calling a tall person 'shorty'."

 

Chanyeol frowned. "I'm not sure I see the connection."

 

"Well, let's just say, hypothetically of course, that the average civilian doesn't trust the police, or is scared of them. So maybe calling them 'fuzzy' makes them seem less threatening, somehow," Baekhyun said. "It sort of makes you think of big fluffy teddy-bears in silly uniforms, doesn't it?"

 

"Hey. I happen to like my silly uniform, thank you very much."

 

"Alright, don't get touchy," Baekhyun said, rolling his eyes, "I'm just speculating, that's all. I don't think it necessarily even refers to hair. Anyway, what do you prefer – that, or being called 'The Pigs'? Or 'The Popo'."

 

"I don't know," Chanyeol said. "I don't see why we need to be called anything at all." Just as he said this, the waiter that took their order returned with two plates, placing one down in front of each of them. Baekhyun looked down at the generous serving of French toast in front of him with raised eyebrows.

 

"Right," Chanyeol said, arming himself with his knife and fork. "Are you ready to have your mind blown all over the shop?”

 

Baekhyun lifted a forkful of toast oozing with Nutella up to his lips, and looked at Chanyeol pointedly before putting it into his mouth. He chewed slowly for a moment in silence, and Chanyeol suddenly felt anxious to please, like a contestant on a cooking show presenting a dish to a panel of judges, even though he hadn't actually prepared the French toast himself. His eyes remained glued to Baekhyun's lips while he chewed, which wasn't hard to do – they were lovely, a naturally rosy pink colour, and looked very soft and kissable. Did he want to kiss them? Chanyeol couldn't think of anything in the world he wanted more.

 

After what seemed like an eternity, Baekhyun swallowed, nodded his head and said, "it's good."

 

"Just good…?" Chanyeol asked, frowning – he'd been so busy staring at Baekhyun's mouth that he forgot to respond for a second or two.

 

Baekhyun sighed. "Fine… it's pretty good. Happy?"

 

Satisfied with this response, Chanyeol grinned and said that he was indeed happy, and then he left Baekhyun in peace so he could eat. Baekhyun said nothing more about the food, but he seemed to enjoy it – if the empty plate he left behind was any indication – and that was more than good enough for Chanyeol.

 

"You look very contemplative all of a sudden," Baekhyun observed, after their dishes had been cleared away. He leaned forward across the table, resting his chin in his hands. "What's on your mind, Sarge..?"

 

"I was just thinking…" Chanyeol said, and then he paused – should he or shouldn't he? “I was just thinking that we should do this again, sometime soon.."

 

Baekhyun studied him for a long moment in silence. To Chanyeol's surprise and relief, he smiled. "Not a completely terrible idea," he said, and then he gave Chanyeol a little wink. "Maybe you can treat me next time."

 

Chanyeol laughed and said, "deal."

 

 

 

* * * * *

Amber knocked hard on the front door three times, said “police – open up!” in a loud voice, and then she stood there waiting, rocking on her feet a little and staring down at her boots.

 

"It's possible we'll encounter an idiot or two during this visit," she said to Chanyeol. "So if that does happen, grit your teeth and think of retirement."

 

Eventually the door opened. The man that stood on the threshold was unshaven, corpulent and wore a stained pale blue wife-beater, with a cigarette dangling from one food-crusted corner of his mouth. "Whatever it is, I haven't done it," he said.

 

"You don't even know why we're here yet," Amber said patiently, although Chanyeol could detect the slightest edge in her voice. "Mrs. Kang next door says she always hears screaming and shouting coming from this residence, and she's having trouble watching her stories of an evening because it's so loud. Any reason for the continuous disturbances, sir?"

 

"Ah, what would she know? Old hag's deaf as a post," the man said. He scratched his belly through the wife-beater with yellowed fingernails.

 

"Her hearing seemed good enough when I spoke with her earlier," Amber replied tersely. "Anyway, we've had complaints about the noise from other neighbouring residences as well. We'd like to come in and have a look around, just to make sure everything's alright."

 

The man stiffened upon hearing this. "That so? I'd like to see a warrant, then."

 

"Of course," Amber said; she produced the warrant from her pocket and showed it to him.

 

The man looked at it for a long time. "Well, you can't come in right now," he said. "I'm busy at the moment."

 

"Sir," Amber said through gritted teeth, "if you continue to resist entry when we have a warrant to do so, then I'll just have to arrest you right here on your doorstep, and then you can take it up with the Chief. And he's not the friendliest man, either... take it from me. Now, what would you prefer?"

 

Chanyeol almost wanted to laugh at Amber's subtle threat, since Chief Inspector Kim Joonmyun was probably the nicest human being anyone could ever hope to meet in their entire life. But this guy didn't need to know that. Muttering savagely to himself, the man stood aside in the narrow doorway so Amber and Chanyeol could pass, but remained standing so that the entrance was partly obstructed, forcing them both to awkwardly squeeze past him on their way through. As they headed down the corridor, Chanyeol wrinkled his nose at the reek of cigarette smoke and stale beer. He followed Amber into the living room, where they found a woman sitting on the sagging couch with her arms wrapped around herself, looking tired and withdrawn.

 

With her hands resting on her knees, Amber leaned down to speak to the woman. "Are you alright?" she asked.

 

"Yes, fine…" the woman said, her voice trailing off into nothing. She seemed vague, like she was on something; maybe that was the long-term effect of living with someone like the man in the doorway, Chanyeol thought. Or maybe she really was on something… that was always possible as well.

 

Amber paused for a moment, choosing her words carefully. She lowered her voice when she spoke. "He's not laying any hands on you, is he…?"

 

Apparently caught off guard by the question, the woman turned her head to look in Amber’s general direction, but not directly at her. Her voice faltered a little. "N-no… nothing like that.."

 

Amber's eyes flicked over to Chanyeol for a second, her brow lifting the tiniest fraction. "Well, if there's ever anything you're concerned about – anything at all – then please give us a call, or come and speak to us at any time," she said, and then Chanyeol followed her out of the room, where she proceeded to take a quick turn around the house. But there was nothing out of order that they could see, nothing to report. Amber gave Chanyeol a brief nod, and then they left.

 

"She was lying – I'm sure of it," she said to Chanyeol, after they’d left the house. "When she moved, her sleeve rode up a little and I saw bruises on her wrists... God only knows where else she’s got them. But if she doesn't want to report it then there's not a lot we can do, except let karma take care of it for us."

 

Once on the street, she stood there in front of the house, looking back at it with a conflicted expression. Chanyeol could tell she was reluctant to leave. Then she kicked a flattened beer can from the curb onto the road with her boot, sending it flying, and muttered "dammit" under her breath.

 

"You alright…?" Chanyeol asked.

 

"Yeah… I'm fine," Amber replied. She sniffed, rubbed the end of her nose with one hand and waved in the general direction of where they were parked. "Let's go."

 

When they were back in the car, Amber turned her head towards Chanyeol while they were stopped at a red light and said, "so how was driving Baekhyun home the other night?"

 

"Alright, I guess,” Chanyeol said, and shrugged. “Nothing to report, really, except that he might be a closeted Simply Red fan."

 

Amber laughed. "Ah. You've been getting pretty friendly with him, huh."

 

Chanyeol looked at her blankly, but inside he was a little alarmed that she knew. "Whatever gave you that idea?"

 

"I walked past Bean Me Up and saw you sitting in there with him.”

 

Chanyeol sighed; somehow he always forgot that everyone knew everybody else's business around here. "Okay, yes – I let him buy me breakfast as a gesture of thanks for helping him out. You know… when he had that panic attack in custody I told you about..-?"

 

Chanyeol had mentioned the custody incident to Amber, but had left out the part about Sehun roughing Baekhyun up in the cell beforehand – probably better not to rock the boat, he thought. If Yifan and Jongdae wanted to say anything about it, then that was their business, but so far it appeared that they hadn't mentioned it either. As for Sehun, he had taken to avoiding any interaction with Chanyeol altogether, unless it was absolutely necessary, and Chanyeol was happy enough with this arrangement. They hadn't been particularly friendly with each other before, so nobody else seemed to notice.

 

"Ah," Amber said. She kept her eyes on the road as she drove. "I see."

 

"There's nothing else going on there," Chanyeol said. "Seriously. I hardly even know him."

 

"Don't get worked up about it, Yeol… it's none of my business who you choose to spend your time with," Amber said. "But just be careful, okay? I know Baekhyun's not a full-on criminal or anything, but he's a bit of a troublemaker – prone to mischief. And if he ever chooses to go down any dark roads, as a law enforcement officer it would be better for you not to get mixed up with any of that… especially in your rookie days, when you’re still somewhat impressionable. You know what I mean?"

 

Chanyeol nodded. "I understand. But really, there's nothing going on."

 

"Alright. Well, I've said my piece," Amber said. "What you choose to do with it is up to you."

 

As soon as Amber had finished speaking, dispatch radioed their car to send them around to another call. "Got a call to attend a domestic incident," Minji said over the radio. "Man says angry wife has stabbed him in the groin area with a fork.”

 

Amber sighed and waited for Minji to give them the address. "On our way, please send ambulance," she said in a bored voice.

 

Chanyeol looked at her, biting his lip to keep from smiling. "You're thinking about retirement right now, aren't you..?"

 

Amber kept her eyes fixed on the road ahead, but Chanyeol saw that she was fighting back a smile too. "Buddy, I sure am."

 

 

 

* * * * *

Despite what Chanyeol would have Amber believe, he didn’t want to be just friends with Baekhyun – he wanted more than that. But after that first-and-only breakfast date (which probably wasn’t actually a date), he hadn’t heard from the boy at all. He didn't want to be the one to text first; surely coming across as being too eager would scare the poor guy away. But then, he didn’t want to make Baekhyun think he wasn’t interested, either.

 

He’d almost given up all hope when he didn't see or hear from Baekhyun for a few weeks, but the thing about living in a small town was that you were bound to bump into someone eventually, whether you wanted to or not. And so immediately after picking up a mid-morning coffee and croissant from the bakery one day, Chanyeol stepped out and saw Baekhyun standing on the pavement out the front, with something that looked a lot like a picture frame tucked under his arm.

 

"Hey," Baekhyun said, when he saw Chanyeol walk out of the shop. "How's it going, Sarge?"

 

"Not too bad, thanks," Chanyeol replied. He nodded at the picture frame. "What’ve you got there, then?"

 

"This old thing?" Baekhyun turned the frame around so Chanyeol could see what was in it. The subject of the painting was completely mystifying – it was vaguely feline, but somehow also snake-like, with a whiskered face, pointed ears, and a long, serpentine body. It didn't appear to have any limbs. This was all executed in clashing neon colours on a black background, surrounded by a gaudy gilt frame.

 

"I found it abandoned on the side of the road near my bus stop, and I decided there and then that I needed to have it in my life," Baekhyun explained. "So I rescued it. I'm sure you can imagine the looks I got on the bus, but it was worth it."

 

Chanyeol frowned at the picture and turned his head to the side a little, as though doing this would make it easier to determine what the hell it was. "Um. What is it, exactly..?"

 

"No effing idea… but it's great," Baekhyun said. "Kudos to the ‘artiste’, whoever they are."

 

"Do you often rescue other people's crap from the side of the road?" Chanyeol asked, smiling with one side of his mouth, and Baekhyun shrugged.

 

"I dunno… sometimes," he replied. "For some reason, I hate seeing stuff just left there like that; it makes me feel sorry for it, like I have to take it home with me and give it another chance. That probably sounds really weird, I know… but I don't know how else to explain it."

 

"It's not that weird, actually." Chanyeol meant it, too, but Baekhyun scoffed at him anyway.

 

"No need to protect me from the truth, Sarge," he said. "I already know I'm an oddity.."

 

Chanyeol looked at Baekhyun for a long time. Should he ask, or shouldn't he…?

 

"Alright. Well, I'd better get back to work," he said, after a lengthy moment of silence. "Coffee break's nearly over, and I haven’t even had it yet. I'll see you around, then." He began to make his way back towards the police station, but Baekhyun called out to him before he could get very far.

 

"Hey, Sarge!"

 

Chanyeol turned around to look at him. "Yeah?"

 

"What time do you finish work later?" Baekhyun asked.

 

"I'm on earlies today, so I should be off before five," Chanyeol said. "Unless someone dies or something, I guess… you just don’t know with this job."

 

Baekhyun nodded. "Okay. Well, the restaurant's closed on Wednesdays, so I'm not working at all today. If you want to, come meet me at the library after you're done, and we can go grab something to eat. I'll probably be there all day, anyhow."

 

"Oh, you like reading..?" Chanyeol asked, and then cringed inwardly at himself for coming out with such a stupid question.

 

"Well, yeah – not much else you can get up to at the library," Baekhyun said, grinning at him. "Nah, but I'll be studying, mostly."

 

"Ah." Chanyeol raised both eyebrows. "I didn't realise you were a student.."

 

"I'm not," Baekhyun replied. "Not officially, anyhow. I guess I just like to educate myself in my spare time. It's something to do, and costs me nothing."

 

"I see. Well, good for you," Chanyeol said. Once again, he regretted his choice of words; there was really no way to say 'good for you' without sounding sarcastic, even if you were being genuine. But Baekhyun didn't seem to mind.

 

"Alright, see you later, then," he said. He smiled at Chanyeol over his shoulder before he walked away.

 

 

 

* * * * *

When Chanyeol returned to work, he couldn't concentrate for the life of him; all he could think about during an entire day of finishing overdue reports was getting to see Baekhyun in the afternoon, and when his shift ended – thankfully on time – he practically ran the four blocks to the library.

 

As soon as he entered the building, Chanyeol thought he could hear the sound of Baekhyun's voice. It was faint, as though coming from the farthest corner of the library, and as he walked towards the source of the sound he came upon a reading area with beanbags arranged around a chair, on which Baekhyun sat with one knee crossed over the other, a picture book spread open in his lap. There were several primary school-aged children sprawled over the beanbags, listening to him as he read. Chanyeol stood at a safe distance so as not to disturb them and listened in silence, a smile slowly growing on his face without him realising. He watched Baekhyun read, admiring the animation in his expression – how his eyes lit up and crinkled when he laughed at the children's reactions; the shape of his mouth as he formed the words; the way he caught his tongue between his teeth when he smiled. Whenever he finished reading a page, he would hold up the book so the kids could see the pictures. He was reading One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss, a book Chanyeol was very familiar with; he'd almost known it by heart as a child, but now the words took some time to come back to him.

 

"Hello there Ned, how do you do?" Baekhyun was reading now. "Tell me, tell me, what is new? How are things in your little bed? What is new? Please tell me, Ned."

 

Chanyeol stood where he was for the rest of the story, watching mesmerised as Baekhyun read, all the memories swirling around inside him. It was amazing, the wealth of imagery a few words could conjure up. One Fish had been one of the books his beloved grandmother used to read to him; with little Chanyeol perched upon her knee, she'd turn the page and point out each word with her index finger as she read it, and thanks to her dedication he had started kindergarten already knowing how to read. Her house had a view of the sea, and after making him breakfast (soft-boiled eggs with a sprinkle of salt in the yolk, toast soldiers for dipping) she'd take him down to the beach for long walks along the shore, where they’d collect shells together. Every time Chanyeol pointed out a blue-bottle that had washed up on the beach, she would take off one of her sandals, squashing it with a loud slap, and then Chanyeol would bury it under a pile of sand, covering up the trailing blue ink-lines of its tentacles to protect the next unwary beachcomber.

 

But she was long gone, and these things were all he had left of those days now – the echo of a sandal-slap in the whistling air, the briny smell of the ocean… the soft paper-thinness of the skin on her wrinkled hand. The sound of her voice, enunciating each word slowly and clearly: my shoe is off. My foot is cold. I have a bird I like to hold.

 

Here, Chanyeol was miles from the sea. The thought made his throat feel small.

 

My hat is old. My teeth are gold. And now my story is all told.

 

And if she were still around, would she be ashamed of who he was now, of what he had become?

 

Maybe it was better that she'd died before she could find out.

 

When Baekhyun had finished reading, he closed the book and said, "and now my story really is all told. Off you all go, then… I'll be back next Wednesday, same time, same place."

 

The children milled around him for a moment, saying their goodbyes, and then, one by one, they all left. Chanyeol waited until they were gone before he walked over.

 

"Hey," he said to Baekhyun, "I got here a bit early, so I listened in for a little while. You were really good.."

 

Baekhyun shrugged, and slung the handles of his backpack onto his shoulders. "Thanks, I guess."

 

"So you read to kids, huh," Chanyeol said. He stood there for a moment, thinking of what to say. "Is it some kind of community service thing?"

 

"No, actually... it's not," Baekhyun replied. "Because I happen to spend a lot of time here, they asked if I'd like to volunteer as a reader for story-time on the occasional Wednesday afternoon, and I said yes. And ta-dah – that's how I landed this sweet gig."

 

"Ah," Chanyeol said, nodding. "Well, that's very nice of you."

 

Baekhyun’s eyes began to narrow. "Why would you just assume that I was here on a court order..?" he asked.

 

"I'm not sure," Chanyeol replied. The more he thought about it, the more he wondered why he'd automatically jumped to that conclusion. "I'm sorry... I didn't mean to offend you."

 

"Sometimes bad people like to do good things too, you know," Baekhyun muttered, somewhat irritably, and then he walked past Chanyeol towards the exit.

 

"I don't think you're a bad person at all.." Chanyeol said, hurrying to catch up with him.

 

"Oh, save it," Baekhyun said, rolling his eyes. But then he smiled, and Chanyeol was able to relax a little when he saw it.

 

"Well, can I make it up to you by buying you dinner…?" he asked. He held the door of the library open, waiting for Baekhyun to go first, and then followed him through it. Baekhyun turned around to face him when they got outside, walking backwards for several steps.

 

"Alright," he said, in an airy tone. "But let's just keep it casual, and call it an extremely late lunch, okay..?"

 

"Fine," Chanyeol said, even though it was past five o'clock by then. He held out his hand until Baekhyun got the hint and, hesitantly, held on to it. "Let's go."

 

When they arrived at Bean Me Up and were seated, Chanyeol pushed one of the UFO menus towards Baekhyun and said, "would you like a drink?"

 

Baekhyun shrugged. "Sure. A Coke'll do."

 

Chanyeol smiled and shook his head. "I was referring to something a bit harder… this place is licensed, you know. Or is it a bit too early to get on the piss for you..?"

 

"I never touch the nasty stuff,” Baekhyun replied.

 

"Alcohol?"

 

"Yep -- never have, never will. I'm a total teetotaller," Baekhyun said, and then he smirked. "Now try saying that ten times fast.."

 

"Really?" Chanyeol said. "I had no idea."

 

Baekhyun looked at him with one eyebrow raised. "Is it that surprising?"

 

Chanyeol thought about it for a moment. "I guess not,” he said. “It's just a bit unusual, that's all… I don't think I've ever met someone who's never drunk before. Well, if you’re not drinking, I won’t either.”

 

A waitress came over to take their order, and as usual Chanyeol ordered French toast and an iced coffee from the all-day breakfast menu. When the girl turned to Baekhyun, he asked for the soup of the day – homemade chicken-noodle, according to the specials board.

 

"French toast again..?" Baekhyun said when they were alone, looking at Chanyeol with an expression of exaggerated disbelief. "Bo-ring..!"

 

"Yeah," Chanyeol said, laughing a little, "I know."

 

"Don't you get sick of having the same thing all the time?" Baekhyun asked.

 

"When you have a job as unpredictable as mine, you can start to develop a fondness for routine, in any way you can maintain it. There's comfort in small things like that, I suppose," Chanyeol said. "But I've been here so many times that I've tried most of the breakfast menu by now, anyway."

 

Baekhyun thought about this and nodded. "Fair enough, I guess."

 

"I can't believe you ordered chicken-noodle soup and you're calling me boring," Chanyeol said flatly.

 

"Chicken soup was actually believed to be an aphrodisiac during the Middle Ages," Baekhyun said casually – so casually that Chanyeol's ice water nearly went down the wrong way. He coughed and put his glass back down on the table.

 

"How would you even know that..?" he asked, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand.

 

"I read a lot. Don't worry, it’s not for your benefit," Baekhyun said, winking at Chanyeol. He was wearing that same wicked little smile, and it made Chanyeol's mouth go dry. Then Baekhyun sighed and said, "I just happen to really like chicken noodle soup, that's all... my mother made it for me quite often as a kid, not just when I was sick. It was one of the few things she could make really well."

 

"Ah. I see," Chanyeol said. "That's kinda cute, actually."

 

Baekhyun's eyes narrowed a little, but the smile didn't fade. "Don't make me kick you under the table for calling me stuff like 'cute', Sarge.."

 

"That'd probably get you an 'assault police' charge," Chanyeol told him.

 

Baekhyun's wicked little smile widened into a wicked grin instead. "Not if you're not on duty," he said in singsong.

 

"Dammit," Chanyeol said, banging his fist lightly on the table. "You really know your stuff."

 

Baekhyun shrugged. "I know enough."

 

"You're very knowledgeable. So what do you read about at the library, then?"

 

"Oh, you know... all sorts of things," Baekhyun said, waving a hand in the air. "Law, science, history... just subjects that interest me generally. I also use the computers there to research things and read up on current affairs; I never got to finish high school, so I consider this a continuation of my education, I guess. I'm just taking it into my own hands instead of paying someone else to do it.”

 

"You could always go back and get your high school diploma, you know," Chanyeol said. "I mean, if you really wanted to."

 

"Maybe," Baekhyun replied. "But I don't really know what purpose it would serve. I don't have any plans to go to university, or anything like that."

 

Chanyeol put down his iced coffee and licked a blob of whipped cream from his lips. "Why not..?"

 

"I don't know," Baekhyun said. "I'm just not really interested in going, and couldn't afford it even if I was. Everything in life that I want to learn about could probably be done on my own, in my own time, for hardly any money at all... I don't really see any need for a formal qualification. A lot of the time they seem like they don't have a whole lot of practical use in the real world, unless you want to be a doctor or a lawyer or something. What I can't learn from books, life experience will teach me."

 

Chanyeol sucked on his straw absently for a moment, pondering Baekhyun's response. "I know what you mean," he said. "I suppose for certain professions a university education is necessary, but it's not the only way up in life."

 

Baekhyun just frowned and played around with the salt mill instead of replying.

 

"Do you like kids?" Chanyeol asked. "You seemed to get along well with the ones at the library."

 

Baekhyun put the salt mill down and clasped his hands together on the table in front of him. "They’re alright, apart from when they muck around while I'm reading," he said. "I've never really wanted any of my own, though... I don't think I'd make a very good father. My own father was hardly ever around, and when he was around, he was generally a terrible human being, so I never had a good model of what a decent father should be like. But I don't know if it's possible to be a truly good parent, anyway… you're going to end up screwing your kids over in some small way, whether you like it or not, and in their own ways they'll screw you right back."

 

"I'm sure most people know intuitively how a good parent should behave," Chanyeol said. "It's just that some choose to ignore it."

 

Baekhyun shook his head. "No," he said, "there really are people who genuinely have no clue – my father had no clue. His only real contribution to the operation was ejaculating in my mother… and considering he probably meant to pull out, he even fucked that up.”

 

“Wow. Harsh,” Chanyeol said.

 

“It isn’t,” Baekhyun replied, somewhat bitterly. “He didn't even know how to take care of himself, let alone a child ― he'd be shooting up on the couch while I was right next to him watching Pokemon. I had no idea at the time that this wasn't what all fathers did, at least until I began to ask some of the other kids at school about their parents, and realised I was the only one with a dad like that. Then, a few years later, when I was a virtual orphan and went to my first group home, I met other kids with parents just like mine. For some reason, it made me feel a lot better. Isn't it terrible that we find comfort in shared misery?"

 

"I doubt that you really enjoyed knowing those kids were unhappy too," Chanyeol said. "Maybe you just wanted to know that you weren't alone in your experiences."

 

"Maybe," Baekhyun said quietly. "My father would sometimes tell me when I was growing up that he wished my mother had aborted me, as he'd originally told her to. And I often thought that perhaps it would have been better if she had."

 

Chanyeol frowned upon hearing this. "Well, that's not true... you have a right to be alive, just like everyone else."

 

Baekhyun let out a bitter little laugh, but the smile that accompanied it faded quickly. "Please... that's so easy for you to say, because you weren't born and raised in hell like I was. And I would claw my way out of one version of it only to be dragged into the next. But I don't expect you to understand what that's like."

 

"I've had my fair share of heartaches," Chanyeol said. "Just because they're different to yours doesn't mean that they didn't hurt."

 

Baekhyun pointed to his left eyebrow with his index finger. "See this scar here, Sarge? I've had more than just the book thrown at me," he said. "Did your dad ever hold you down and put out cigarettes on your chest and stomach, when your only crime was that you didn't want to go to sleep? Oh, but never on the arms or legs... nowhere anyone might see. He wasn't entirely stupid, my old man."

 

Chanyeol sighed and fiddled awkwardly with his napkin, folding dog-ears into the corners. "No," he said quietly, "I can't say that's ever happened to me."

 

"I was a state ward by the age of ten," Baekhyun said. "My mother had died by then, and my father was in and out of jail like the place had a revolving door. I don't even know if he's still alive now. As for my poor old mum, it was her own fault, really."

 

"How did she die?" Chanyeol asked. "If that's not too invasive a question."

 

"Drink-driving accident," Baekhyun said. "Got behind the wheel plastered, and wrapped herself around a telegraph pole."

 

"Really? Fucking hell," Chanyeol said. "I'm so sorry."

 

"Don't be," Baekhyun replied, shaking his head. "To be brutally honest, she's better off. Anyway, obviously my father was in no position to take care of me, even if he'd wanted to... and when he was around, he was negligent and abusive, both physically and mentally. So basically from the age of ten onwards, I had no one at all to depend on. And, well, it's just not a very nice thing to grow up with, you know – the knowledge that your own dad, the only person you have left in the world, thinks you're nothing but a failed abortion.."

 

This was a big flashing sign to change the topic if ever Chanyeol had seen one. "Well, what was your mother like..?"

 

"Oh, she was something special," Baekhyun said, with a humourless laugh. "A raging alcoholic, but with a really nice singing voice. She was actually quite pleasant when she wasn't drunk; the only problem was, towards the end of her life, she was hardly ever not."

 

"Ah," Chanyeol said, his voice trailing off at the end. He wasn't really sure what else to say; their conversation had taken a perilous turn, and it seemed too late to go back. He almost yelled out "thank God!" when their food finally arrived, just to have a reason not to fill every second of silence. But Baekhyun didn't seem very interested in eating.

 

"I'm making this dinner really uncomfortable, aren't I?" he said quietly, to his bowl of soup more than to Chanyeol. "I seem to be quite good at that.."

 

"I thought you said it wasn't a dinner," Chanyeol said, through a mouthful of French toast.

 

"Well, given that it's nearly six o'clock, I guess there isn't really anything else to call it."

 

"Just because it's a dinner doesn't mean it has to be a date, if you're not comfortable with the idea," Chanyeol pointed out.

 

"I'm not uncomfortable with the idea at all," Baekhyun replied. "I think you're the one who's uncomfortable with it."

 

Chanyeol frowned at him. "What do you mean?"

 

"I can just tell you don't do this very much, that's all," Baekhyun said, in a casual way that came off as condescending, and Chanyeol began to feel a little annoyed.

 

"Oh really? And how can you tell?" he asked, trying to swallow his irritation along with the toast.

 

"Because I can see you're trying to romance me and shit, and it's awkward," Baekhyun said, and then he sighed. "I'm not a woman, Sarge... surely you know that with men it works a little differently. I mean, you don't have to fucking woo me to get what you want, so don’t worry about the hand-holding and opening doors for me and all that. Just ask."

 

"What do you think I want, exactly..?" Chanyeol asked, narrowing his eyes slightly.

 

"Look," Baekhyun said, and then he lowered his voice. "I can tell that you want something from me – something more than just being friendly over French toast and coffee – but I don't want to get into anything serious with you. Still, you're actually quite likable, as far as cops go... so if all you want is to fuck me, then I'm up for it. I could use a good lay, anyhow.."

 

Chanyeol nearly choked on his food. "No way," he said, and then thought about it for a moment. "Well, not just yet. I'd like to get to know you a bit better, at least."

 

"Come on, Sarge," Baekhyun replied with a dry little laugh. "If you want to step outside and bend me over in a dark alley somewhere, then all you have to do is say so, but at least have the sack to put it on the table." Lowering his voice to a whisper, he added, "or you can put me on the table, if that's what you're into. Should probably wait until they clear it first."

 

Chanyeol sighed and sectioned off another piece of toast with his fork. "That's not what I'm after, Baekhyun," he said quietly. "In fact, when I’m with you, sex is one of the last things on my mind. Sorry to disappoint you, but I guess I'm not that kind of guy."

 

"So I'm not doing it for you, then,” Baekhyun said. "Well, that's a shame. I should've worn tighter pants."

 

"Actually, I think you're a fifty out of ten," Chanyeol replied. "But that doesn't mean I want to dive into bed with you, necessarily."

 

"Aww, now why not?" Baekhyun leaned across the table, his eyes as sharp as arrows. The drawstrings on his hoodie almost dipped into his bowl of chicken noodle soup, which sat there on the table growing cold and forgotten. He flicked the drawstrings over his shoulders. "Not comfortable with your sexuality..?"

 

"I'm perfectly fine with my sexuality," Chanyeol said, and Baekhyun let out a noise that was sort of a half-laugh, half-scoff.

 

"Sure you are," he said. "How many men have you been with?"

 

Chanyeol swallowed the lump of French toast lodged in his throat. "Two," he said. His voice came out thick and croaky, and he coughed in an attempt to alleviate it.

 

Baekhyun nodded. "I see. Serious?"

 

"Um." Chanyeol paused for a moment, with his fork raised to his mouth. "Well, not really.."

 

"Ever take them home to meet your family?"

 

This was shaping out to be the most uncomfortable interrogation Chanyeol had ever witnessed, and he was its unfortunate subject. "No. I, uh... I never quite got around to it."

 

"So your parents don't appreciate the fact that you like men, huh," Baekhyun said.

 

"They'll get used to it," Chanyeol replied quietly. He looked down at his plate to avoid meeting Baekhyun's eye. "They're just a bit traditional, that's all."

 

"Traditional… right," Baekhyun said, nodding. "So maybe I'm making assumptions, but I'm guessing they're probably religious, then. And that's why you're uncomfortable: because you were raised to think that the way you feel – who you like, what turns you on – is all wrong. Because you know they probably still go to bed every night praying you'll magically grow out of your ‘little gay phase’, and that hurts you deeply.."

 

"That's enough," Chanyeol muttered; he reached for his water glass to wash down that damned lump of toast, but found that it was empty. He looked around for a waiter to ask for a refill.

 

When their eyes met again, Baekhyun's gaze was still unflinching, but his expression seemed to soften a little. "It does hurt you, though, doesn't it?"

 

"Please… stop," Chanyeol said. Now his voice had been reduced to a mere whisper, and the rest of the cafe seemed to grow quiet along with him; there was a momentary lull in the overlapping conversations, and even the clinking of cutlery on ceramic seemed to cease. Maybe he was imagining the whole thing, and twenty tables full of people weren't watching him be humiliated right now… but whether they were looking or not, Chanyeol had never wanted to disappear into the floor so badly. Or be beamed up by Scotty – whichever came first.

 

Baekhyun nodded in thoughtful silence for a moment. "Alright," he said quietly, and then he pushed his chair backwards and stood up. "I didn't mean to upset you, but I can see that I have. I should probably go.."

 

Chanyeol looked up at him, confused. "You haven't even finished your food."

 

"I'm not hungry anymore," Baekhyun said. "Never really was, to be honest." He fished around in his pockets and pushed a wad of crumpled notes over to Chanyeol across the table. "And I'm sorry if I hit a raw nerve just now. I just don't think people should lie to themselves, that's all… it helps no one. It won't help your parents, and it certainly won't help you."

 

Chanyeol followed Baekhyun with his eyes as he walked out the door of the cafe. He let out a heavy sigh and finished his French toast in silence, then raised a hand to signal for the bill.

 

When he went home that evening, he went straight to bed, but couldn't get to sleep for what felt like hours ― he tossed and turned for most of the night, counted the places where the paint was peeling off on the walls and ceiling, and listened to his neighbour snoring like a plane taking off, as per usual. When he eventually did fall asleep, he was plagued by nightmares of knocking on every single door in an entire street full of houses, telling the occupants that their wife or husband or child or sister or brother or mother or father was dead ― car crashes, and fatal workplace accidents, and sudden heart attacks in the middle of a busy street, no one stopping to help. The people who opened the doors never had any faces, at least not until they heard the awful truth; only then did their faces began to gradually appear, their features carved out by their grief, the wrinkles and furrows overflowing with the rivers of their tears.

 

 

 

* * * * *

Chanyeol was surprised to walk out of the station a little after 8 o'clock the next morning, only to find Baekhyun leaning against the wall right next to the entrance.

 

"Hey," he said, hesitating a little. "Uh, what are you doing here?"

 

"I'm here to turn myself in," Baekhyun said, in a grave whisper.

 

Chanyeol's eyes widened. "For what…?"

 

Baekhyun laughed and shook his head. "Just kidding, Sarge," he said. "Actually, I came because I wanted to say sorry for how I treated you last night." He didn't avoid Chanyeol's gaze as he said this, but instead looked right at him with earnest eyes, a sober expression. "I really didn't mean to be such a dick… if I had a heart in me, I’d be crossing it right now.”

 

"Oh. Well, it's okay," Chanyeol said, waving him off. "I'm not upset." Truthfully, he had been a little upset, until about five seconds ago, but Baekhyun had one of those faces it was really hard to stay mad at.

 

"Well, would you let me buy you breakfast again?" Baekhyun asked, his face lighting up a little. "As an apology, this time."

 

"First a ‘thank-you’ breakfast, and now a ‘sorry’ breakfast… if I didn't know any better, I'd think you were starting to like me…" Chanyeol said, smiling at him, and Baekhyun let out a quick burst of laughter.

 

"You wish, Sarge," he said flatly. "Really though, I just want to make sure there's no hard feelings. It’s in my best interests to have my own fuzzy little friend; who else is gonna keep me on the straight and narrow?”

 

Chanyeol shrugged. "There aren't any hard feelings,” he said, “but I’ll accept your apology breakfast anyhow. We could go now, if you want, since I was heading out to grab something to eat anyway. My shift doesn't actually start until 9, I'm just here early."

 

"How come?" Baekhyun asked. They began walking in the direction of Bean Me Up, side by side, so close that their hands occasionally brushed against each other.

 

"Dunno," Chanyeol said. "I woke up extra early and couldn't sleep, so got up and came to work. Thought I'd squeeze some overdue paperwork in before I get sent out somewhere… better than lying there at home doing nothing. For some reason, being idle always makes my anxiety flare up.”

 

They were both silent for a while, and then Baekhyun said, "you know, you were right. I had no right to make you feel like your problems are nothing, just because my own childhood was terrible. I mean, yours might have been terrible too, for all I know."

 

"It wasn't terrible, actually," Chanyeol said, and then he was quiet again for a moment. "It's just that, well… nothing really happened."

 

Baekhyun looked over at him with a blank expression. "What do you mean, nothing happened..?"

 

"I just wasn't allowed to do anything," Chanyeol explained. "So when I eventually got out on my own, I wasn't properly equipped to deal with things – I didn't really know how to cope. And sometimes the stuff I have to do and see as a police officer can be profoundly disturbing, and affect me for a long time afterwards… but at least it's forcing me to face all my fears and insecurities on my own." He paused for a moment and sighed. "Until I finally have a proper nervous breakdown and get ejected from the force, anyway. If I knew back then what I know now, I'm not sure I ever would have joined in the first place."

 

"I'm sure you'll be fine," Baekhyun said. "You're a good police officer. I can tell."

 

Chanyeol turned to look at him with a lopsided smile. "You really think so..?"

 

Baekhyun gave an emphatic nod, and Chanyeol could see that he meant what he said; they weren't just empty words to make him feel better. "Sure. I mean, what you might lack in guts, you more than make up for with empathy ― that's important too, you know. Maybe even more important, since guts can be earned over time."

 

"I suppose," Chanyeol said. "I never thought about it that way."

 

"What the world needs isn't love... it's nicer police officers," Baekhyun said. "Take it from someone who's been arrested a fair few times – most of the cops I've had run-ins with seem to forget that underneath the uniform they're just soft-bodied, powerless civilians like the rest of us. And I can't help getting myself into trouble, clearly... so you lot could at least make the whole process a bit more pleasant for me."

 

Chanyeol laughed, unable to believe what he was hearing. "You want us to make arresting you more pleasant – hmm. Interesting."

 

"Well, why not?" Baekhyun said, with a shrug of his shoulders. "You know, just like what you did that time when I was on the roof – why not put that into regular practice? Do a little dance before you put the cuffs on, sing me my rights... who knows, I might even learn to enjoy paying a visit to the old cop shop." He babbled on like this for the entirety of the walk to the cafe, which Chanyeol didn't mind at all, since he enjoyed listening to the sound of Baekhyun's voice regardless of what he was saying. When they arrived and were standing inside the door waiting to be seated, Baekhyun turned to Chanyeol and said, "how about we get breakfast to go this time? The weather's nice today. We can go sit in the park and eat there."

 

"Sure," Chanyeol said. "Sounds fine to me."

 

After Baekhyun had bought them two huge cinnamon rolls glazed with frosting and hot coffees in take-away cups, they walked down to the park and sat next to each other on the bench facing the play equipment. "Have you ever noticed that this bench says BALLS on it?" Chanyeol said, while they were eating. He snorted with laughter. “Hah. Kids and their Sharpies.."

 

"Hey Officer Babyface, weren't you a kid too until, like, yesterday..?" Baekhyun replied. He pulled the plastic lid off his coffee and blew on it to cool it down.

 

"I'm 23, smart-arse.."

 

"Alright, then – the day before yesterday," Baekhyun said, smiling with one side of his mouth. Through a bite of cinnamon roll he added, "anyway, nothing beats what they did to the Country Taste bakery that time… the sign in the front window said 'Cunty Taste' for like a week until they replaced the stolen letters."

 

Chanyeol shook his head. "I’d hate to laugh, but it's hard not to."

 

"I don't know why you’re finding this stuff amusing, Sarge,” Baekhyun said. “Vandalism is an offence."

 

"I know," Chanyeol said. He playfully waggled a finger in Baekhyun’s face. "So don't ever let me catch you doing it, young man.."

 

Baekhyun shrugged. "Been there, done that. I even went to juvey for it."

 

Chanyeol put his cinnamon roll down on his lap and looked at Baekhyun with raised eyebrows. "Why..?"

 

“Well, once upon a time when I was fifteen, I broke into a pub at four in the morning, and then I smashed up the bar and several poker machines with a baseball bat,” Baekhyun said. “As you do.”

 

"Why on earth would you do that..?" Chanyeol asked, staring at him in disbelief; he was beginning to realise just how much about Baekhyun he didn’t know.

 

"Because I had a dead alcoholic mother, and a living alcoholic-addict-gambler father," Baekhyun said. "And I guess I was angry – at them, mostly, but also at all those things they'd loved more than me, and how little they left me with as a result of them. So I went to a place where I knew I would be able to find all those things, and I beat the ever-living crap out of them. And then I went to kiddie prison. But fuck, it was almost worth it. Almost.”

 

"Fair enough," Chanyeol said. "How long did you get?"

 

"Six months," Baekhyun replied quietly.

 

Chanyeol whistled. "Hoo boy… that's a long time. For a fifteen-year old, anyway."

 

"Yeah, I guess… to be fair, though, I did do a fuckload of damage.” Baekhyun unwound his cinnamon roll and broke off a chunk of it, then put it in his mouth, chewing in silence. "But it wasn't as bad as I thought it'd be, you know… they looked after me better in there than most people did. And so that was the beginning and end of my career as a teen vandal. Cool story, huh?"

 

Chanyeol was too lost in thought to reply. Baekhyun put his half-eaten cinnamon roll back in its paper bag and left it on the bench, then stood up and walked over to the play equipment. Chanyeol stayed where he was, watching the boy climb up on top of the monkey bars, perching himself on the highest bar. Slowly, carefully, he let himself fall backwards, until he was hanging upside down by his knees.

 

"Careful…" Chanyeol warned him.

 

"Don't worry," Baekhyun said, "I know what I'm doing." He hung there for so long that his face slowly began to redden. His grey jumper had fallen up a little, revealing part of his stomach, and Chanyeol could see several small pink marks on the otherwise smooth white skin – from a distance, they looked like old chicken pox scars, or tiny hickies, or something. He opened his mouth to ask what they were, but then he remembered what Baekhyun had said about the cigarette burns. For a moment he had visions of a young Baekhyun being held down by his father, a lit cigarette pressed into his flesh, the sounds of a little boy screaming in pain. He felt sick, like he was about to have another anxiety attack, and said nothing until the feeling passed.

 

"You're going red now," he said at last, when he felt a bit better.

 

"I know," Baekhyun replied. He was smiling, which made the corners of Chanyeol’s mouth twitch. "I can feel the pressure building in my head, but I kinda like it. I wonder how long I can hang here before I explode.."

 

Chanyeol watched Baekhyun hang from the bar in silence for a while. "Can I ask you something..?" he said at last.

 

"Uh-huh."

 

Chanyeol walked over until he was standing next to the monkey bars, and stopped there, scratching the back of his neck; he felt very shy all of a sudden. "When you were up on the roof of the post office, and you called me cute… did you mean that..?"

 

"I might have done." Now Baekhyun's face was redder than a tomato; it looked as though he was blushing like mad, but it would have been impossible to tell either way. "I also called you lanky and said you had a bad perm, if I remember correctly. Why do you ask?"

 

Chanyeol felt the need to bow his head a little so that he wouldn't be seen smiling. He was probably just as red as Baekhyun by now. He kicked at the bark chips on the ground, pushing them into a little pile at his feet. "No reason… just curious, that's all."

 

Baekhyun let himself down from the bar, landing in the bark chips with a soft thud. "Let's go on the swings," he said; he ran off towards the swing-set, and Chanyeol followed after him with his hands in his pockets. Baekhyun waited for him to take the other swing before kicking off, and there followed an unspoken competition to see who could get higher the quickest. What a spectacle they were making of themselves, Chanyeol thought, smiling in secret – a police officer and a young delinquent, swinging together in a children’s playground. For a while Baekhyun was in the lead, but then Chanyeol gained enough momentum that he was soon swinging even higher and faster; for a moment he was worried he'd fly right off, and began to slow down again.

 

"Okay," Baekhyun said, "now on the count of three, we both jump off."

 

Chanyeol looked over at him like he was nuts. "What? No way."

 

"Oh, come on, Sarge… if you can't even trust yourself to land on your own two feet, what else have you got?"

 

"Alright," Chanyeol sighed, "fine." As soon as Baekhyun had counted to three, they let go of the chains together at the same time, and Baekhyun of course landed on his feet. Chanyeol ended up on his bum, the bark chips thankfully cushioning his fall, but then that was to be expected.

 

"Whoopsy." Baekhyun laughed and held out a hand to help him up; when Chanyeol grabbed on to it, it was warm. "Well, you tried."

 

"I really hope the way I just landed isn't some sort of metaphor for where I'm headed in life," Chanyeol muttered, brushing the bark chips off himself.

 

"Now you're reading into things too much," Baekhyun said, smiling at him. "Hey, you wanna see something cool?"

 

"Sure," Chanyeol said, "why not?"

 

Baekhyun motioned for Chanyeol to follow him across the park, over to the public toilet block. He told Chanyeol to stand to the side, out of the way, and he stood there for a moment looking at the brick wall, considering it for a moment, psyching himself up. Then he ran right up the wall and flipped backwards, landing on his feet on the grass.

 

Chanyeol whistled. "Nice… very nice," he said. He gave Baekhyun an enthusiastic round of applause, and Baekhyun laughed, bowing graciously towards him.

 

"I once brought a crumbling old wall down doing that, on an abandoned factory site," he said, while they were walking back to the play equipment. "I managed to roll away just in time before the whole thing tumbled down in a pile of rubble. It would have killed me, for sure. Now I always avoid practising near any really decrepit-looking structures… it's not worth the risk."

 

"How did you get into all this stuff, anyway?" Chanyeol asked him. They both sat down on the bench again, picking up their neglected cinnamon rolls. "I mean, what started it all?"

 

"Well, since my father was in no condition to take care of me after my mum died, I ended up being tossed back and forth between a number of different foster homes," Baekhyun replied, biting into his pastry. "A few of them were okay… most were awful. If my upbringing wasn’t already enough to make me lose all faith in humanity, then being a foster kid was the last nail in the coffin, for sure."

 

Chanyeol found the next bite of cinnamon roll hard to swallow. "Did they hurt you..?" he asked, in a quiet voice.

 

"A few of them gave me the odd belting, but to be honest, most of them didn't even care enough to do that,” Baekhyun said. “I was always pretty cluey as a kid – I needed to be, in the sort of environment I grew up in – and it was clear to me even then that some of the families I stayed with had only joined a foster program to take advantage of the caregiver's allowance. The money's nothing to sniff at, especially if you're fostering more than one child. I remember at one place I stayed at, they used to give me nothing but a small bowl of cereal twice a day – as much as I hated it, I was too hungry to care, so I ate it and I shut up. Praise the lord for school lunches, that’s all I’ll say.”

 

"God," Chanyeol whispered. “What did you do..?”

 

"I just learned to do what I was told, and keep quiet and unseen,” Baekhyun told him. “Then it got to the point where I knew I couldn't handle it anymore, and so I ran. I just kept running away. Then social services would find me, usually hanging around on the street somewhere, and they’d stick me in another home, and then I'd run away again – and the cycle just repeated itself, over and over. But it's such a pointless thing to do, running when you've got nowhere to run to. It only stopped when I was legally old enough to fend for myself. But by then, of course, I'd already been doing that for years."

 

Chanyeol nodded in silence, picking at his cinnamon roll with his fingers. By now he’d mostly lost interest in eating. "I'm sorry,” he said. “I don't really know what to say.."

 

"It's okay," Baekhyun replied. "Anyway, I didn't tell you all that to make you feel bad for me… it's just what happened. It is what it is. And there’s so much more I haven't told you, but I don't think it needs to be told. None of these things necessarily define who I am now. At least, I try not to let them.”

 

"I'm glad," Chanyeol said. "Well, not glad that those things happened to you. I’m just glad that you’ve moved past it, and that you trusted me enough to tell me about it."

 

Baekhyun nodded. "I knew what you meant. Anyway, the whole point of me telling you all this is that in between foster homes, I would sometimes stay in a group home for young people with circumstances similar to mine, and I met this kid there called Jackson who was really into parkour. And so he introduced me to it. The guy was completely reckless, but phenomenal… he used to run around in parking lots, just flipping over people's cars, which got him in trouble with the police quite a few times. So we'd practise together by vaulting over old bits of furniture and crap that people dumped on the nature strip out the front of their houses ― we'd drag all this shit away to an abandoned lot nearby, and in doing so we built our own DIY obstacle course. And we became really close… mainly because we were from the same stock, I suppose. We understood each other's pain.”

 

Chanyeol nodded. “I see. Where's Jackson now?"

 

"Dunno,” Baekhyun said.

 

"You don't talk anymore…?”

 

"Well… how should I put this," Baekhyun said, scratching the back of his neck, and then he sighed. "I looked up to him a lot, and I guess I got a bit of a crush on him. And then I kind of blurted out my feelings while we were alone one night, practising together – he didn’t return them, but he seemed flattered. But then, for reasons that will always be beyond me, I tried to kiss him… and the thing is, for a minute or two, he let me. And then things got weird between us, and we sort of just drifted apart. I haven't seen him since I was 17.”

 

"Ah," Chanyeol said. "That's kinda sad.."

 

"Mmm. I do still miss him, sometimes," Baekhyun said thoughtfully. "But even though he got me into the sport, I kept at it purely for myself – I was hooked. I can't really explain how it makes me feel, but not even sex can compare… it makes you feel like you're the king of everything. It's not like other sports where the objective is to win, or to prove something to people: it's all about me, and my own personal connection to my surroundings – using the obstacles I face in everyday life to push myself, and make my body do things that I never dreamed it could do. And I can honestly say that I didn't know what it felt like to really be free, until I started doing it. There's really nothing like it in the whole world.”

 

"You’re very good at it," Chanyeol said. "Not that I know much about it, but the stuff you can do looks really impressive to me."

 

"I wasn't always like this," Baekhyun said, looking at him. "Like many things, parkour is a whole lot of trial and error… mostly error, in the beginning. You spend a hell of a lot of time crawling before you can walk, and inevitably you will hurt yourself, that’s just a part of the process. But trust is a huge part of it too – there's no room at all for doubt. Doubt is the thing that fucks you up. You want to backflip off a three-metre wall and land on your feet, and so you do. You just have to really believe that there's no other outcome – that it's a matter of life or death, because a lot of the time, it is. I know it's not always the safest pastime around, but I don't think I could ever give it up."

 

"Well, you're far braver than I am, I’ll say that much." Chanyeol took a casual sip of his lukewarm coffee, putting the cup back down on the bench next to him. "So. When are you going to try to plant one on me, then?"

 

Baekhyun let out a little snort of derision. "What, a kiss? You're not exactly my type, Sarge.."

 

"Aw, come on… everyone loves a man in uniform," Chanyeol tried to joke, but his smile faded when he saw the look of quiet contemplation on Baekhyun's face. He was looking right into Chanyeol's eyes, searching them for something ― but what, exactly, Chanyeol didn't know.

 

Say ‘you have beautiful eyes’, Chanyeol’s brain said. Again, he ignored it.

 

"It's alright," he said, "I was only kid―"

 

He didn't get to finish his sentence, because Baekhyun immediately yanked him closer by the front of his uniform, pressing a soft kiss to his lips. He tasted sweet, mostly like coffee and faintly of cinnamon, and the kiss was over much more quickly than Chanyeol would have liked. Afterwards, Baekhyun released him again and went back to his breakfast.

 

"Okay," Chanyeol said, mostly to himself. "I guess that's out of the way, then.."

 

Baekhyun just nodded absently, chewing on a mouthful of cinnamon roll. Chanyeol sat there in dumbfounded silence, unsure if he should perhaps address what had just happened in some way. In the end, he didn't mention it; the timing didn't feel quite right.

 

"Can I ask you something else?" he said, turning to Baekhyun again. "About parkour."

 

"Sure," Baekhyun replied with his mouth full. He swallowed and looked at Chanyeol expectantly.

 

"When you're doing all this stuff, what do you think about? Like, what goes through your head?" Chanyeol asked, and Baekhyun looked at him for a long time with those beautiful, watchful eyes, sucking his lower lip into his mouth the way he sometimes did when he was pondering the response to a question. The remains of his cinnamon roll sat forgotten in his lap.

 

"I don't really think at all while I do it," he said in a quiet voice, and then he looked away again. "That's kind of the point."

 

 

 

* * * * *

That night, after Chanyeol had staggered out of the shower and fallen exhausted into his bed, he found a text from Baekhyun on his phone:

 

“Today is gone. Today was fun. Tomorrow is another one. Every day, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.” :)

 

A quote from One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish… how fitting. Chanyeol lay there grinning at his phone like an idiot. It was only after he'd read the text about fifty times that he finally went to sleep.

 

 

 

* * * * *

After they'd been on quite a few breakfast dates, Chanyeol thought it acceptable to finally ask Baekhyun out on a Proper Serious Date – so Proper and Serious that it warranted the use of Capitals. That meant dinner, in the true sense of the word – not breakfast, not lunch, not breakfast-for-dinner, but just plain dinner. He would take Baekhyun out to a nice restaurant in town, a place with a pleasant atmosphere and good food… not one so stuffy that it had fifty different types of fork and an unpronounceable menu, but just a tiny bit classy, enough to make the guy feel special.

 

"So now that we've already had our first kiss, when do you think we'll start officially dating...?" Chanyeol said over pancakes one morning, and he was sort of half-joking at the time, but then Baekhyun replied, "I thought we already were officially dating. Isn't this dating?"

 

Chanyeol just stared at Baekhyun blankly with his lips tightly pursed. "And why was I not informed about this..?"

 

Baekhyun shrugged and popped a piece of banana choc-chip pancake into his mouth. "Well, it was better to let things happen on their own than try and force it, I thought. But I guess we can go on a proper serious date if you really want to… you know, to make it 'official' official," he said, making quotation marks with his fingers.

 

"Right – a Proper Serious Date," Chanyeol said, with a determined nod. "I’m gonna take you out for dinner, then. A really nice dinner.”

 

"Alright. Well, no need to overdo it, Sarge," Baekhyun replied. Then, still looking into Chanyeol's eyes, he licked a drop of maple syrup from his finger in a way that gave Chanyeol what he liked to call 'burning butterflies', a strange mixture of lovesickness and heartburn.

 

But how could he not overdo it? Chanyeol wanted their first Proper Serious Date to be perfect, or at least memorable. Memorable in a good way, and not in a that-night-was-so-excruciating-we’ll-both-cringe-about-it-until-we-die kind of way. So he booked a table for two at a place called Solstice (a wanky name that Baekhyun would probably laugh at, but the menu looked good), which was meant to be one of the nicest restaurants in Maplehedge. Then, instead of spending the next few days looking forward to the date, he spent them hyperventilating over it instead. And why? Chanyeol didn't know why. It wasn't like they hadn't gone out to eat together before – they did that all the time now. Why did this particular event feel more crucial than all the ones that had come before it?

 

Chanyeol wondered if Baekhyun was as anxious about the whole thing as he was. Somehow, he doubted it. Baekhyun wasn’t the sort of person whose feathers were ruffled easily; he seemed to take everything in his stride. When Chanyeol met him outside the restaurant on the night of their date, he looked beautiful as always, but casual, dressed in dark blue jeans and a simple black jumper. Chanyeol felt overdressed in his button-up shirt and blazer, but Baekhyun didn't seem to notice or care how either of them were dressed. He looked at Chanyeol for a long time, and then he said, rather decisively, "you look nice tonight, Sarge." Then he punctuated the sentence with a curt little nod.

 

Chanyeol had to fight to hold in a nervous giggle. "You look nice too... really nice," he said. He jerked his head back in the direction of the restaurant behind them. "So... shall we?"

 

It was a fancy little place after all, fancier than he’d expected – lots of cozy, intimate tables set for two, candles, mood lighting… the works. If his intent in asking Baekhyun out for dinner wasn't clear before, then surely it was now. But Baekhyun looked past Chanyeol at the restaurant with a pinched expression, as though he'd just smelt something revolting above all the pleasant cooking smells wafting through the open door.

 

"What's wrong..?" Chanyeol asked, his heart sinking fast at the look on Baekhyun's face – maybe he was in the middle of realising he didn't want to go on a Proper Serious Date after all. Maybe they had moved away from their cute, casual little breakfast routine too quickly, and this was all a big mistake.

 

Baekhyun looked slightly guilty. "Well, it looks really nice and all, but..."

 

"But what…?"

 

Baekhyun glanced up at Chanyeol with his bottom lip worried between his teeth. Then he sighed and said, "do you think that maybe we could just go to Bean Me Up and have breakfast-for-dinner instead? I think I'd feel a lot more comfortable there."

 

Chanyeol stood there dumbfounded for a moment, letting the request sink in. But then he laughed and said, "yes, Baekhyun... of course we can." Feeling the relief flood through him, he grabbed Baekhyun's arm and began to lead him towards their favourite café instead.

 

"So you're a true breakfast convert now, I take it," he said while they were walking, and Baekhyun rolled his eyes.

 

"I am a lukewarm believer, yes," he said wearily. Chanyeol couldn't help cracking a smile.

 

"Well, you're welcome anyway," he said.

 

"You don't need to grab onto my arm so tightly, you know." Baekhyun sounded irritated and amused at the same time. "I feel like I'm being arrested.."

 

"Sorry - habit," Chanyeol replied, and he loosened his grip on Baekhyun's wrist before letting it drop completely. But he was secretly glad when, just before they arrived at Bean Me Up, Baekhyun grabbed his hand back again, linking their fingers together. His hand felt rough but warm against Chanyeol's, and he didn't pull away until a waitress led them over to a vacant table. When they sat down together, Baekhyun looked happier, and seemed more at ease, and Chanyeol realised that this was the right thing to do. Proper Serious Dates weren't for everyone, after all. Maybe they just weren't that kind of couple.

 

"So. How was your day..?" Baekhyun asked, when they had menus and glasses of iced water on the table in front of them, and Chanyeol frowned while he recalled the day's events.

 

"Mmm... not that great,” he said. “We were sent out to settle a neighbours dispute, where the inciting event was one of them throwing a lawn chair at the other house. Anyway, there were kids running around everywhere who should have been in school, and both houses were an absolute mess, and the adults were already off their heads on something at barely ten in the morning. All the while there are probably people making genuine emergency calls who aren't getting the help they need, because most of us are out there dealing with shitty people like this every day. It can be incredibly frustrating."

 

"Sounds like a familiar scene," Baekhyun said flatly. Chanyeol stared at him, his heart sinking into his stomach.

 

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean―"

 

"It's okay," Baekhyun said, shaking his head. "Don't worry about it.”

 

Chanyeol nodded and swirled the water around in his glass, listening to the ice cubes tinkling against the sides. He lifted it to his lips and took a sip. It was easy for him to be judgemental about how other people lived, of course – too easy. He felt stupid for even mentioning it in the first place.

 

Poor, sheltered middle-class me.

 

"Well, that was my day," he said, after a long moment of what seemed like loaded silence. Maybe it was all in his head, but the way Baekhyun was staring at him made him shift uncomfortably in his seat. "That, and a bunch of paperwork. Pretty standard."

 

"How fun," Baekhyun said, with a more-than-generous dose of sarcasm, but the hint of a smile on his face was encouraging, at least.

 

Chanyeol laughed through his nose. "'Fun' isn't exactly the word I'd use.."

 

"Well, why'd you become a cop if you don't enjoy it? I couldn't do something I hated, no matter how much I was getting paid to do it."

 

"It’s not that I don't enjoy it," Chanyeol said, and then he thought about it for a moment; perhaps he needed to think long and hard about his reasons for still showing up to work each day. "I'm just not sure I'm in the right place, that's all. And you come out of the academy thinking you're gonna be roaring down the highway chasing bad guys all day long, or leading bank robbers away in handcuffs and stuff... but then you get sworn in and you start working in the real world, and you find out that it's not really like that at all. I mean, stuff like that does happen sometimes… but a lot of the time, it's just making house calls to people who don't really want to see you, and breaking up fist-fights between drunks, or checking on old people who haven’t been seen for a while, who usually turn out to have died alone in their homes. And then there’s the worst of the lot – telling a person their loved one is critically injured or dead. Then, after all the fun's over, it's back to the station to fill out forms and write reports for hours on end. There's a lot of peace-making and paper-pushing." He paused for a moment, letting out a heavy sigh. "I dunno. All I know is that I haven't even been in the game long enough to already be so over it. And I don’t think being assigned to a small town is helping much."

 

"Where were you hoping to be?" Baekhyun asked; he was looking at Chanyeol intently, like he genuinely wanted to know. It was good that they'd moved past small talk by now, Chanyeol thought. He'd forgotten what it was like to have someone he could really talk to again. It was nice.

 

"I would at least have liked to be transferred to another city department," he said, and then he shrugged. "I guess they thought I would struggle, with the anxiety and all. But I'm alright here for now, don't get me wrong. I know I could have ended up somewhere much worse."

 

"I'm not sure about that," Baekhyun said. He turned his head, looking around at the other people seated inside the cafe. "I'd have gotten out of here years ago, if I could afford to move. One day, though... that's the plan."

 

Well, it's good that you have goals, at least," Chanyeol said. "I'm starting to wonder if anyone else around here has any. A lot of them just seem to lie around, making kid after kid that they can't properly take care of, who they then leave alone all day while they go to the pub and drink away all their money. It doesn't sit right with me at all."

 

"It probably seems like that for you because those are the kinds of people you deal with more often," Baekhyun said. "But speaking as someone who’s lived here for a while, not everyone in Maplehedge is like that… there are plenty of good, honest, hardworking people who really care about their families, who do the best they can in spite of their circumstances. But who are we to comment on how other people live, anyway? It’s their own choice.”

 

"I suppose so," Chanyeol said. "Anyway, to answer your question, the main reason I became a cop was because I wanted to see the world outside my house, and see it properly... not some sugar-coated storybook version of it, where nothing bad or dangerous ever happens.”

 

Baekhyun smiled. "Over-protective parents, huh..?"

 

"You could say that,” Chanyeol said.

 

Baekhyun nodded in silence, his eyes cast downwards towards the table. “I can’t say I can relate to that,” he replied. He generally seemed uncomfortable with the topic of his family, and so Chanyeol didn't dare to probe. Instead he asked, "so how's all your parkour stuff coming along..?"

 

Baekhyun looked up at Chanyeol again, his eyes lighting up at the new direction their conversation had taken, and then he proceeded to outline his current training regimen step-by-step. Chanyeol had no idea what the hell he was talking about, but couldn't help being riveted to his seat anyway; it was lovely, he thought, how Baekhyun's beautiful face seemed to brighten up in its entirety, all because of a chance to talk about something he clearly loved very much. Chanyeol knew he would gladly listen to the boy talk for hours on end if it meant he could just sit there all day and watch him smile like that. He must have looked lovestruck or something, because in the middle of his animated chattering, Baekhyun suddenly paused and said, "why are you looking at me funny..?"

 

Chanyeol shook his head. "No reason," he said. "I just enjoy watching your whole mood change when you talk about stuff you like. It’s really cute."

 

"Oh," Baekhyun said, and his cheeks turned faintly pink. He laughed a little and said, "I see.."

 

It seemed they were both bitten by the shyness bug then, and the menus in their hands proved a welcome distraction. Chanyeol already knew what he was going to order before he even walked through the door, so it seemed pointless perusing, but he did anyway, just to keep himself occupied. When he finally looked up, he caught Baekhyun watching him, but the boy's gaze flickered away almost as soon as their eyes met.

 

Baekhyun cleared his throat. He seemed a little embarrassed at being caught staring. "What are you getting..?" he asked.

 

Chanyeol looked up at him from the menu and smiled. He snapped it shut and put it back on the table in front of him. "You should know me well enough by now,” he teased. “Do you even need to ask?"

 

Baekhyun laughed. "I guess I forgot how predictable you are,” he said. Chanyeol signaled for a waiter to come over and take their order, and in true gentlemanly form he waited for Baekhyun to go first.

 

"I'll have the chocolate waffles, thanks… and an iced mocha," Baekhyun said, and then he looked over at Chanyeol expectantly, waiting for him to have his turn. Chanyeol handed his menu to the waiter with a smile and said, "I’d like the blueberry pancakes and a caramel latte, please. Put the syrup on the side, if you'd be so kind."

 

When the waiter had left their table, Baekhyun looked at Chanyeol with both eyebrows raised to his hairline. "No Nutella French toast? Why do I feel like I’ve been cheated..?”

 

Chanyeol shrugged. "I just felt like something a bit different this time... no big deal," he said, and he tried his hardest to keep a straight face, but he couldn't help himself. Baekhyun just shook his head and looked away, but the little smile he was wearing didn't escape Chanyeol's attention.

 

"So how's work for you, then?" Chanyeol asked, and Baekhyun shrugged.

 

"It was okay, I guess," he said. "Lunch shifts are always more cruisy than dinner. Not that the place ever really gets packed… I don't think business is very good.”

 

"You could always join the police..?" Chanyeol joked, and Baekhyun let out a snort of laughter.

 

"Yeah, right… could you imagine me as a police officer..?"

 

"Well, not really. But I'll bet all your parkour skills would come in handy. For catching criminals and all that."

 

"Tell me honestly," Baekhyun said, raising a skeptical eyebrow. "Have you ever had to actually pursue someone on foot?”

 

"A couple of times," Chanyeol told him. "It's pretty rare, though… most perps aren’t dumb enough to try and run. They know we’ll get them eventually."

 

"The job's nothing like what it is in the movies, then, huh?" Baekhyun said, smiling at him.

 

Chanyeol smiled back. "Not quite."

 

"Nothing ever is, is it?"

 

"Well, maybe that's a good thing... can you imagine if life was really that dramatic all the time? I know I'd hate it."

 

"What's the most dramatic thing that's ever happened to you?" Baekhyun asked, and Chanyeol didn't have to think very hard about his response. Even the mere thought of it made his mouth go dry, and he almost didn’t notice the plate that suddenly appeared in front of him on the table. "I had a gun held to my head once, but it thankfully wasn't loaded. Although I didn't actually find that out until later."

 

"Wow," Baekhyun said, with widened eyes. "That's heavy."

 

"It was the single most frightening experience of my life," Chanyeol said, and he cringed at the memory – of his heart pounding so fast and his chest hurting so much that he’d thought he’d have a heart attack before the guy even had a chance to pull the trigger. The cold barrel against his temple, the warm liquid in his pants. "But the important thing is, I'm still alive. And I'm extra glad of that in retrospect, because I didn't have time for breakfast on that particular morning. I mean, what if I’d died on an empty stomach..? What a tragedy that would have been.”

 

Baekhyun laughed. "You know, it's morbid, but I like reading about what famous people last ate before they died," he said. "If you were on death row or something, what would your last meal be? Mine would probably be pizza. I've never met a pizza I didn't like."

 

Chanyeol thought about the question for a moment. "Mine would be a full, unlimited breakfast buffet," he said. "And I would go back for more helpings. In fact, I’d go back so many times that I would eventually eat myself to death, which I imagine would probably be a better way to die than by lethal injection or the electric chair."

 

"Interesting," Baekhyun said, laughing again. "But a very good answer – full marks for creativity. By the way, how are your pancakes?"

 

"Excellent," Chanyeol replied. "How are your waffles?"

 

Baekhyun loaded a fork with a piece of chocolate waffle and waved it in front of Chanyeol's nose. "How about you come a little closer and find out for yourself..?" he said, in a voice that was far more sexual than it needed to be. Chanyeol looked at the fork for a moment, and then at Baekhyun, trying to gauge if he was serious or just teasing. Hesitating at first, he leaned forward across the table and took the piece of waffle into his mouth. "It's good," he said. "Really good, actually." He cut a large piece of blueberry pancake, dipped it in maple syrup and held it out for Baekhyun to try. “A bite for a bite?”

 

Baekhyun looked into Chanyeol's eyes for a long time. Still looking at him, he moved forward to accept the offering, and Chanyeol almost groaned aloud at the way he licked his beautiful lips after swallowing, so slow and sexy. He thought he would have given up breakfast forever for another taste of them.

 

"The pancakes are really good too," Baekhyun said. "Maybe I'll order them next time we come here."

 

Next time!! Chanyeol's brain screamed at him, and he tried his best to ignore it; he didn’t know if he would ever get used to the idea that Baekhyun actually wanted to continue dating him. "This is only our first ‘official’ not-so-serious date, and we're already feeding each other," he said, laughing softly. He popped another piece of blueberry pancake into his mouth. "A very fitting start to our relationship, I think. I can tell we're going to get along just fine."

 

Baekhyun smiled at Chanyeol, his eyes crinkling at the corners. "Actually, it was just a sneaky way of getting an indirect kiss from you," he said. "But if you play your cards right, well, maybe you'll get a real one later. Who knows… maybe you’ll get even more."

 

Chanyeol almost wished that Baekhyun had never told him this; while driving him home after the date was over, he was so nervous and distracted that he very nearly took a couple of wrong turns. Baekhyun never let Chanyeol take him home, usually – maybe he wanted him to stay over this time. His shirt collar felt tight, and he wedged a finger in between the fabric and his neck to loosen it a little. Baekhyun didn't say much while they were in the car, except to give the occasional direction, but when Chanyeol glanced aside at him he noticed a faint smile on the boy's face.

 

"Well, I guess this is goodnight, then," Chanyeol said, when they finally pulled up outside the apartment building he’d dropped Baekhyun off at last time. He put the car into park and turned to look at the boy beside him, searching his expression for any clues as to what he was thinking. He bit his lip, chewing on it nervously – would it be too much to just lean over and kiss him now, or should he wait for Baekhyun to make the first move again? But then Baekhyun turned his head away, his eyes fixed on whatever was outside the car, and it seemed like that tiny window of opportunity had been shut in Chanyeol's face.

 

"I need to tell you something," Baekhyun said, finally turning his head to look at Chanyeol again, and then he sighed. "This building here... it isn't where I live."

 

Chanyeol's brow furrowed in confusion. "It isn't?"

 

Baekhyun took another deep breath and then exhaled. He shook his head. "Nah," he said. "It's not. Where I live is just a bit further down, actually.”

 

"Oh. Okay," Chanyeol said. He didn't quite know what to say after that.

 

"Do you want to get out for a bit?" Baekhyun said quietly.

 

"Out where?"

 

Baekhyun shrugged. "Just out. We can take a walk… I'll show you my place. It's still kinda early, anyway."

 

"Okay, I guess," Chanyeol said. They both got out of the car, and Baekhyun gently took him by the hand. "It's not far from here," he whispered. He led Chanyeol all the way down to the end of the street; the road itself was a dead-end, but there was a narrow walkway leading off the end of it that meandered alongside a stormwater ditch. Chanyeol let Baekhyun lead him down along this walkway, which appeared to cut across to the next street over; this street was considerably more industrial than residential, with a number of factories and warehouses looming large above them, their shadows saturating the dimly lit footpath. They kept walking in silence, and Chanyeol was about to ask where the hell Baekhyun was taking him (and if he had any plans for murder) when the boy suddenly stopped in front of a large warehouse with a corrugated iron roof and breezeblock walls. There was a sign attached to the wall that read 'Storage World'.

 

"Um..." Chanyeol began, but Baekhyun shushed him and motioned with a hand for him to follow. He led Chanyeol across a concrete yard, empty but for a forklift, a few flattened cardboard boxes and a small truck. The yard was cloistered on three sides by rows of storage lockers with shutter doors, the kind that could be rolled up by hand. Walking over to one of the lockers – its number was 56, Chanyeol noticed – Baekhyun pulled a keychain from his jeans pocket with two small silver keys on it, and using one of the keys he unlocked the shutter in front of him, bending down to roll it up halfway with a clatter that made Chanyeol jump a little in fright. Behind the shutter were two walls of cardboard boxes stacked on top of each other, with only a narrow gap in between, just wide enough for an average-sized person to squeeze through.

 

"Baek… what is this..?" Chanyeol asked. He felt the need to keep his voice down – like what they were doing was illegal – even though Baekhyun hadn't asked him to.

 

"It's okay," Baekhyun said quietly. "Just go on through."

 

Chanyeol lowered his head and walked beneath the shutter while Baekhyun held it up, making his way through the gap between the boxes. He stood there in the dark waiting while Baekhyun gently pulled the shutter closed behind them, and then he followed Chanyeol into the locker, flicking a switch on the wall at the side, which instantly flooded the place with light. When Chanyeol's eyes adjusted, he saw that the entire room was filled with – for lack of a better word – stuff. The place had a cold, slightly musty smell, and was furnished in an arrangement that seemed to suggest someone was living there. There was a blow-up mattress with a blanket and pillow on the polished concrete floor, a faded old couch and a small table with two mismatched chairs. Arranged here and there were cardboard boxes crammed full of books and miscellaneous objects, and against the wall there was an old shelf that held a collection of picture frames, some tarnished with age, others shiny and new, all with photos in them. Next to the shelf sat a little bar fridge plugged into the wall, and a kettle and microwave on top of it. Chanyeol walked over to look at the photos, and saw that they were all of different groups of people, mothers and fathers and kids – the kind of trite, heavily-staged family photograph that actually comes with the frame when you buy it. There were hand-crocheted cushions on the couch, some with silly cross-stitched slogans like 'there's no place like home' and 'live laugh love'. Propped up against the table was that weird painting Baekhyun had found that day by the side of the road – the cat-snake.

 

The detritus of other people's lives, that was all it was. You could tell by the way nothing matched; how it all looked thrown together, but none of it quite belonged. Chanyeol looked at Baekhyun for a long time, as though seeing him through completely new eyes. There were a million-and-one memories contained in this little makeshift home that Baekhyun had constructed ― family memories, all of them happy ― and not a single one of them were his.

 

"So this is where you live, huh," Chanyeol said, breaking the silence at last. He took another look around. "Interesting." As far as storage lockers went, it was a fairly large space, but the very nature of it – cold, sterile, with concrete walls and floor, a popcorn ceiling – made the place feel somewhat oppressive. Even Baekhyun's attempts at making the locker feel more homely seemed to fall flat, although Chanyeol had to commend his efforts. He was good at making the most of the little he had; that much was obvious.

 

"Yeah, this is where I live," Baekhyun said. He looked at Chanyeol with one eyebrow raised. "You got something to say..?"

 

Chanyeol shook his head. "Nope. It's just… unexpected, that's all."

 

"I know this isn't the most legal living arrangement, but I can't really afford much else at the moment," Baekhyun said. "The guy who runs the place knows I stay here, but I guess he just turns a blind eye to it all because he feels sorry for me. I offered to pay him a bit extra, but he wouldn't take it… he just said to be discreet, and he wouldn’t kick me out. He even gave me a spare key to use the office bathroom at night."

 

"That's nice of him," Chanyeol said. "And risky."

 

Baekhyun gave him a pleading look. "You won't tell anyone, right..?"

 

Chanyeol sighed. "No, I won't tell… but I don’t like this, I hope you realise.”

 

"I know," Baekhyun said. "And I really appreciate it. Anyway, it's just temporary. Just until I get on my feet."

 

"You know, you could move in with me, if you want," Chanyeol said quietly. "I know we haven't been dating long, and it's a little soon, maybe… but I really wouldn't mind at all. In fact, I'd love to have you around. Surely it'd be better – and more comfortable – than you living here."

 

Baekhyun shook his head. "No… I couldn't. This place isn't much, I know. But for now, it's my home… it's the first place I've stayed in that actually feels like it's mine, and I'm not ready to give that up just yet."

 

Chanyeol knew better than to press the topic. "Alright," he sighed. "Well, if you ever change your mind, the offer's always there."

 

"Would you really want a criminal for a roommate, though..?" Baekhyun asked, raising an eyebrow at him. He was smiling that little smile again.

 

"I know I haven't been on the force for very long, but I do know a little bit about what makes someone a real criminal," Chanyeol said. "And I really don't think you are one."

 

Baekhyun let out a dry laugh. "You sure about that..?"

 

Chanyeol nodded. "I suppose you have a few unorthodox ways of expressing yourself... but for most criminals, the crime is a means to an end. They're not necessarily out there to make a statement. It's more about serving themselves, or hurting other people."

 

"Nicely worded," Baekhyun said, and then he laughed again. "Next time I end up in court, I'll be sure to use that as my defence. 'I know I damaged public property, Your Honour, but I was just expressing myself..' "

 

"Well, hopefully it won't ever come to that," Chanyeol said.

 

Baekhyun studied him for a moment, with his head tilted to one side. "Could you ever commit a crime, do you think..?"

 

Chanyeol shook his head. "No… not intentionally. If God didn't get me first, the guilt would."

 

Baekhyun smiled. "Aren't they the same thing..?"

 

"I sometimes wonder that myself," Chanyeol said quietly. "Where did all this stuff come from, anyway…?"

 

"What do you mean?" Baekhyun asked. He raised an eyebrow at Chanyeol, but his lips curled up at the corners. "What are you trying to say, Sarge... that I stole all this stuff? Most of it probably isn't even worth stealing."

 

"No, not at all," Chanyeol replied. "It just seems like a very eclectic mix of objects.”

 

Baekhyun nodded, but he didn't seem offended, which was a relief. Chanyeol took another turn around the room, looking at its contents – at all the odds and ends, the framed pictures and porcelain figurines and little vases… the kind of stuff his mother loved, which his father referred to as her 'dust collectors'.

 

"To tell you the truth, I find a lot of this stuff left behind in the lockers around here," Baekhyun said, watching Chanyeol as he looked around. "Whenever someone moves out of a locker and leaves their shit behind, the proprietor lets me go in and have a poke around… to see if there's anything I like, or think I can use. Saves him having to take it out and dump it all himself." He wandered around for a moment, picking up little trinkets and looking at them, then putting them back again. He picked up a lovely green-glazed Japanese teapot, cradling it gently in his hands, stroking the delicate spout with his fingers.

 

"I like to think about them," he said, in a quiet voice. "The people who used to own this stuff, I mean. I always find myself wondering who they are, what they do. How they came to own these objects, and why they just left them here. And then, sometimes, I like to reimagine happier endings for certain things, where they get adopted by someone new who can love them again. And then everyone is happy.”

 

Chanyeol looked at Baekhyun while he stood there, still holding the teapot in his hand, caressing it gently like something alive that thrived on being touched, not a mere lifeless object. If the time ever came that they were intimate with each other, would Baekhyun touch him like that, with that same careful reverence? Would he let Chanyeol do the same to him? Chanyeol couldn't help wondering.

 

Baekhyun put the teapot down at last, and then his eyes met Chanyeol’s again. "Come over here," he said quietly. "I want to show you something." Chanyeol followed him over to the far corner of the room, where there was a beaten-up leather briefcase on the floor that looked about a hundred years old. Baekhyun kneeled down in front of it to flip the latches open, slowly lifting the lid of it with his fingers. Inside, Chanyeol saw a curious collection of religious statues, all arranged in rows, in various sizes. Many of the religious figures he recognised, helped by the fact that at least a third of them were Jesus. As for the others, he had no clue who they were.

 

"I found this in the locker two doors down after it was vacated," Baekhyun said. "I had no plans to take them initially, but then for some reason I couldn't bear to leave them behind. So now I have this… well, I suppose you could call it a shrine of sorts."

 

"Wow." Chanyeol wasn't really sure what else to say.

 

"The person who owned these is the one I wonder about the most," Baekhyun whispered. "I mean, they must have been someone good and holy if they used to keep all these saints in their house.."

 

Chanyeol had a passing thought about this mother and father, and the miserable Christ statue on top of the old TV. "Well, not necessarily," he said. "Do you pray to them and stuff?"

 

Baekhyun shook his head. "Nah, nothing like that… I just like looking at them. Makes me feel safe knowing they're here, for some reason. Like they're all watching over me while I sleep."

 

"Oddly enough, I understand perfectly."

 

Baekhyun picked up one of the statues and held it out towards Chanyeol. “Here,” he said. “A little souvenir from me.”

 

Chanyeol shook his head. “Oh, no, I couldn’t..” he began, but Baekhyun grabbed his hand and pushed the little statue into it.

 

“It’s fine, I have a whole case of them,” he said. “I want you to have it.”

 

Chanyeol looked at the statue Baekhyun had given him – a bearded man in green with a flame on his head. “I recognise this one, actually,” he said, smiling to himself. “It’s Saint Jude. My mother once gave me a prayer card with a picture of him on it… he’s the patron saint of hopeless cases.” He slipped the saint into his pocket. “Well, thanks, anyway. I’ll take good care of him.”

 

Baekhyun laughed when he heard this. “Hopeless cases, huh… clearly the two of you were meant to be.” He picked up another saint from the suitcase, a tiny figurine of the Virgin Mary, dressed in a white robe and sky-blue mantle. "I've never really cared much for religious stuff... I wasn't raised with it, you know," he said. "But I've always really liked Mary, for some reason. When I think of the perfect mother, this is what I envision: a woman with gentle eyes and a soft smile, holding her open arms out towards me. The way my mother used to be before…" – Baekhyun paused for a moment, and then let out a quiet sigh. "Well, just before."

 

He fiddled with the figurine for a moment, rolling it around in his hands. To Chanyeol's surprise, he pressed the top of its head to his lips, and then put it back down with the others. He lifted his head at last, and his cheeks seemed to colour at the way Chanyeol was looking at him.

 

"What?" he whispered. "Why are you looking at me like that..?"

 

"It's nothing," Chanyeol said quietly.

 

Baekhyun slowly lifted himself up. "Seriously, just tell me.."

 

Chanyeol sighed and let his hands fall helplessly by his sides. "I just... I think you're beautiful, and I want to kiss you so badly right now. I've been dying to for the past few hours, actually. That's all."

 

The corners of Baekhyun's lips twitched upwards a little. "Oh really..?"

 

"Uh-huh," Chanyeol whispered. He began to move slowly, cautiously, in Baekhyun's direction, and only stopped when he was standing right in front of him. They were close enough to touch now, but he was hesitant. "But my problem is, I can't work out if you actually want me to kiss you. So I'm performing a quick risk assessment inside my head… do I put the moves on you, and risk getting my teeth bashed in? Or do I let it go, and risk going home disappointed because I didn't try?"

 

"Oh, I reckon it's a pretty safe bet, Sarge," Baekhyun said quietly. He was smiling again.

 

Chanyeol nodded. "Alright," he said, and took another step closer. "Well, here goes."

 

Say ‘you have beautiful eyes’, his brain said. Chanyeol agreed this time, but figured he’d step it up a little.

 

“You have the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen,” he whispered, and then he took Baekhyun into his arms and kissed him. He felt the boy's body go slightly limp for a moment, and then Baekhyun's arms were around his neck, pulling him closer, kissing him back even harder. When Chanyeol finally pulled away, he saw something impish in Baekhyun's expression, which made him smile.

 

"You're about to say something off-colour, aren't you?" he said. "I can tell from that look you’re giving me.”

 

Baekhyun only grinned even wider. "So are you going to cuff me to that bed over there, Sarge, or do I have to do it myself..?"

 

Chanyeol couldn't tell if Baekhyun was joking ― about the handcuffs, or the not-so-subtle proposition of going to bed. "It's just a mattress," he said, “there's no frame."

 

"It was a joke," Baekhyun sighed, and then added, “you know, it actually hurts more than you think it would, being handcuffed… I was really surprised the first time."

 

"I know," Chanyeol said, smiling at him. "And I'm not opposed to whipping them out on special occasions, but I don't have them on me right now, unfortunately."

 

"It's okay," Baekhyun said. He smiled again, one of those sexy little smiles where he bit the corner of his lip. "Another time."

 

Chanyeol's eyes widened. Another time…?

 

Before he had a chance to think too much about this, Baekhyun had his arms back around his neck, kissing him again. Chanyeol was only too happy to go along with it; Baekhyun's kisses felt really nice – a little messy, but passionate – and their teeth knocked together a few times until they got a rhythm going, but this only made them both laugh, and didn't ruin the mood at all.

 

"I think you're great," Chanyeol whispered between kisses; his hands were all over Baekhyun's face, all through his hair, but Baekhyun didn't seem to mind. "And I like you, a hell of a lot..."

 

"Even though I'm a criminal mastermind in the making..?" Baekhyun whispered back – being the dreadful tease he was, he poked out his tongue and traced around the edges of Chanyeol's lips with it. Chanyeol let him do this for a moment, and then he sucked Baekhyun's tongue into his mouth, drawing out a highly satisfying, electrified gasp of surprise; he kissed Baekhyun once more, softer and slower this time, caressing the boy's jawline with his thumbs. Baekhyun pressed himself firmly against Chanyeol's body, his breathing growing heavier until he was almost panting into Chanyeol's mouth, and then he said, "I think we should go over there now." Chanyeol looked up with his eyes half closed and saw that Baekhyun was pointing in the vague direction of the mattress on the floor.

 

"To your bed, you mean?" he asked. Baekhyun nodded, grabbing him by the hand and pulling him over towards the bed; he let go of Chanyeol's hand and stood in front of the mattress, letting himself fall backwards onto it, and he laughed a little when he bounced for a moment upon its springy surface. Then he held out his hands, opening and closing them in a gesture of playful invitation, followed by a whispered "come here."

 

Chanyeol cautiously lowered himself down next to Baekhyun on the bed, and Baekhyun rolled over to face him, scooting over a little until there was no space left between them. He threw his arms around Chanyeol's shoulders to pull him closer, yanking him down until Chanyeol had all but collapsed right on top of him. "Mmm... that's better," he purred, and then they were kissing again.

 

"I'm so into you… like really, really into you," Chanyeol whispered, and Baekhyun chuckled softly in response.

 

"I know," he whispered back. Chanyeol lifted his head to look down at him, poking out his bottom lip in a way that he hoped was endearing; it was a tactic that had only really worked for him back when he was still a cute, bespectacled little kid, but it was worth a shot anyway.

 

"Come on... throw me a bone here," he said, pouting. "Aren't you into me too..?"

 

"Another bone is the last thing you need right now, Sarge," Baekhyun said knowingly, and to make a point he rubbed Chanyeol's erection with his knee. The resulting jolt of pleasure made Chanyeol gasp, his entire body shuddering violently; he buried his face in Baekhyun's neck to hide the blush. It was true ― he was so turned on that it was ridiculous – but he could tell he wasn't alone, and that made him feel a little less embarrassed.

 

"And yes, I am into you. Just a little," Baekhyun said in a quiet voice, and then he smiled. He was caressing the back of Chanyeol's neck in much the same way his grandmother used to do in the morning, when she wanted him to wake up. It sent shivers down Chanyeol's spine. "Now are you satisfied..?"

 

"Uh-huh. I am now," Chanyeol said; he looked down at Baekhyun for a moment with his lower lip caught between his teeth, trying to decipher the boy's feelings, but Baekhyun pulled his head back down before he could decide for sure. They ended up making out for so long that Chanyeol's lips began to tingle, and then they began to feel numb… and so it went until he gradually lost all concept of time. All he could think about was Baekhyun's lips against his, and the sweet warmth of his mouth, and all the places his hands were travelling to (as far as his arms would allow).

 

"Stay with me tonight..." Baekhyun whispered, when they finally paused for breath again. Chanyeol hovered above him, still breathless, his hair falling over his eyes.

 

"You really want me to stay..?" he asked.

 

"Well, obviously I want you to stay… that's why I'm asking." Baekhyun was toying with the hem of his jumper now, lifting it up just enough for Chanyeol to get a tantalising glimpse of what was beneath ― just a tiny strip of bare skin and not much else, but still it took every ounce of Chanyeol's remaining self-control to keep from running his fingers over it, pushing it up little by little to see more. "Okay," he said, but no sooner was the affirmation out of his mouth than Baekhyun had already pulled the jumper right over his head. He tossed it somewhere on the floor, and then he sat up and started on his jeans... and so it seemed like the immediate future had already been mapped out for the two of them, without much deliberation on either side. In any case, Chanyeol didn't need to be told, and in the end he was almost out of his clothes faster than Baekhyun was.

 

"What's with that face..?" Baekhyun said, when they were both undressed. Chanyeol just looked at him, shaking his head in disbelief; it was the first time he'd seen Baekhyun without a shirt, let alone with no clothes at all, and he was covered with scars. Up close, the cigarette burns on his chest and stomach were darker and shiny with scar tissue, and Chanyeol’s heart squeezed painfully inside his ribcage at the sight of them. But Baekhyun was beautiful, especially naked, and the scars did nothing to detract from that.

 

"You're really sexy," Chanyeol whispered. His mouth felt dry, and he swallowed, but it didn't help. Nothing helped. "Just so unbelievably sexy and hot and wow that it's not even funny and I feel like I might die."

 

Baekhyun grinned at him. "There's no need for flattery if you want to get in my pants, Sarge… I'm not even wearing any right now."

 

"But it's true," Chanyeol said, and he took Baekhyun into his arms and kissed him again. "I could easily spend a whole day like this,” he whispered, “just kissing you.."

 

Baekhyun let Chanyeol continue to kiss him instead of replying. With every kiss he seemed to melt in Chanyeol's arms; he whimpered softly into Chanyeol's mouth, wordlessly begging for more. The scent of him alone, warm and bare-skinned and lying close, so close, was enough to drive Chanyeol crazy. He trailed his lips down over Baekhyun's neck, and then he paused and lifted his head, whispering, "has anyone ever called you beautiful before…?"

 

Baekhyun looked thoughtful for a moment, scrunching up his nose until several cute little wrinkles began to form around the bridge of it. "No… at least not to my face," he said. He smiled at Chanyeol again. "But I think I'm alright with you being the first."

 

"The whole fucking world must be blind," Chanyeol muttered, mostly to himself; it seemed to him a terrible waste that no one had ever called Baekhyun beautiful, like a world-class orchestra playing to no applause at the end. No one had ever called Chanyeol beautiful either, but he didn't think he was, so it hardly mattered. He looked down at the boy lying beside him and silently marvelled at the way he was made: at the shape of his eyes and nose, and the perfect Cupid's bow of his lips, and the halo of fine black hair fanning out against the pillow beneath his head. Chanyeol trailed the fingers of one hand up along the smooth skin of Baekhyun's bicep, across his shoulder and over the hard curve of his collarbone, then up his neck and along the shell of one ear. His fingers followed his gaze as it travelled downwards again, over the front of Baekhyun's throat to his well-defined chest, his eyes devouring everything in their path. He was extra careful to avoid touching any of the burns; the more Chanyeol looked at them, the more he felt the first sting of tears pricking at the corners of his eyes. After whatever unmentionable things Baekhyun had been through, surely he deserved nothing less than to be touched with only the gentlest, most loving of hands.

 

"Why do you look so sad..?" Baekhyun asked. A sweet, playful little smile tugged at the corners of his lips. "Does my current state not appeal to you? Should I go put my clothes back on so we can sit at the table and have a nice, civilised, completely un-sexual game of chess?"

 

"Sorry," Chanyeol whispered. "It's just…" he paused for a moment and swallowed. "The burns.."

 

Baekhyun's eyes widened, and he let out a nervous laugh. "Oh, right… they're hideous, I know."

 

Chanyeol shook his head. "They're not. But I'm just surprised you're letting me put my hands on you at all, after going through something like that."

 

"Well, it was a long time ago, and I happen to trust you," Baekhyun said quietly. "Anyway, I know what happened to me was bad, but it doesn't mean I'm going to cower away in a corner for the rest of my life."

 

Chanyeol smiled. "Then I guess you're even braver than I thought," he said. Baekhyun took one of his hands and held it against his chest, his own hand resting on top of it, rough but warm.

 

"Don't be afraid… you can touch me wherever you want to," he whispered, looking into Chanyeol's eyes. "The scars are old. They don't hurt me anymore."

 

Chanyeol nodded in silence, swallowing hard, and Baekhyun moved his hand away. He lifted his arms above his head, resting them against the pillow, a subtle sign of encouragement and submission. Chanyeol watched his own fingers – gently, gingerly – skate down over Baekhyun's chest, around the rosy bud of a nipple; the little sigh of pleasure Baekhyun made when he did this, so soft it could barely be heard, made his lungs feel tight, but only for a moment. He did it again, just so he could hear Baekhyun make that sound one more time. His fingers danced down further, tracing the firm, taut ridges of each abdominal muscle, circling the rim of Baekhyun's navel, landing upon the downhill plain beneath it. He never allowed his fingers to stray too far, for teasing was half the fun, and it was clearly working in his favour – Baekhyun looked up at Chanyeol with his eyes half-closed while he did all this, and Chanyeol could tell from his breathing, and the slight arch of his back against the bed, that he was enjoying it.

 

If there was one thing about being raised in a God-fearing household, Chanyeol thought, it was that it made you truly appreciate the wonders of creation, right down to the smallest freckle. Baekhyun had all these tiny moles in the loveliest places, some in plain view and others hidden away, like little treasures for Chanyeol to seek out with his lips and mark with kisses. There was one on Baekhyun's ear, one on his temple, and another above his mouth… more still on his neck and chest, and a couple sprinkled on his belly, arranged as though in orbit around his bellybutton. Of course there were more scars, too, and Chanyeol was too afraid to ask about their origins. But even Baekhyun's scars themselves were beautiful, an enduring reminder of all those things he had already survived.

 

"Come on, Sarge… this feels nice and all, but you’ve really got me in the mood now." Baekhyun began to trace encouraging circles over Chanyeol's back with his fingers, and Chanyeol was still too fascinated by how beautiful he was to notice it at first.

 

"Sorry. I was just exploring for a bit… admiring the view," he said. He smiled, and his heart nearly burst out of his chest when Baekhyun smiled back at him.

 

"Come here," Baekhyun whispered, and he pulled Chanyeol's head down for another kiss, and then yet another after that… and so it continued, with one thing leading to the next. It was a wonderful experience, this first foray into physical intimacy, and Chanyeol loved everything about it: how receptive Baekhyun was to every touch and kiss, and the sounds he made, and all those little things he did to let Chanyeol know he was enjoying himself ― rolling his head back against the bed, biting down hard on his lower lip, his soft whispers of encouragement and appreciation. The warm blush of arousal spreading over his heated skin seemed, if only for a moment, to make the scars on his body less visible. His breath fell heavy and hot against Chanyeol's lips, and his kisses were shy and gentle at times, bold and demanding at others. There was no feeling of urgency, no rush for completion. Baekhyun never once tried to hurry Chanyeol along; he seemed perfectly content to let him take his time, knowing that the pay-off at the end would only be sweeter.

 

"Where'd you learn all these moves, huh..?" Baekhyun said, and the little catch in his breath at the end of the sentence was delicious. Chanyeol laughed and kissed him again, feeling Baekhyun's fingers working their way through his hair, and then down over his back, digging into his flesh a little whenever he did something that felt really good. This seemed to happen quite often, much to Chanyeol's delight.

 

"Oh, I know a thing or two…" Chanyeol nuzzled the side of Baekhyun's neck, and began to kiss him there instead. "You feeling okay, babe..?"

 

"Uh-huh," Baekhyun whispered. "I feel great… if I’d known you were this good in bed, I’d have jumped you months ago.."

 

Chanyeol laughed softly. "Good to know," he whispered back. There was a flicker of something in Baekhyun's eyes that he couldn't recall ever seeing before – not just desire, but something, and it felt good to be able to see it. It was a small triumph for Chanyeol, especially when it seemed that Baekhyun could always read his thoughts and feelings so easily, as though he were nothing more than a children's picture book… but it wasn't quite so easy the other way around. He could already see himself trying to read Baekhyun again and again, finding something new every time, wondering how the hell he had missed it.

 

"What's wrong..?" Baekhyun asked, when they'd been lying in silence for a while afterwards. "When you look at me like that without saying anything, it makes me nervous."

 

Chanyeol had been stroking his hair and gazing down at him intently, still unable to tear his eyes away from the boy's beauty. "Nothing's wrong," he whispered. "I just love seeing you like this, that's all… it's so new to me."

 

"Seeing me like what..?" Baekhyun stifled a yawn with his hand, and the words came out all muffled. It was so cute that Chanyeol had to fight the urge to lean forward and kiss the tip of his nose; he figured Baekhyun probably wouldn't like it if he did that. He considered the question for a moment in silence.

 

"I don't know," he said at last. "'Unguarded', I suppose, is the word I was looking for."

 

Baekhyun seemed satisfied with this response. He yawned again, and then was quiet. After he had dozed off, Chanyeol lay awake for a while longer with one arm draped around Baekhyun's shoulder, holding him close with his face buried against the back of the boy's neck, listening to the sound of his breathing. With one hand flat on his chest, he could feel Baekhyun's heart beating steadily against his palm. When he was sure Baekhyun was truly asleep, he got up to leave, trying to free himself from the tangle of limbs and put his clothes back on as gently and soundlessly as possible – this was enough of a mission in itself, but then he discovered there was really no such thing as a quiet way to roll up a shutter door. Baekhyun awoke at the racket and sat up on the bed, still naked but for the blanket draped over his body; he rubbed his eyes, smoothed down his sleep-tousled hair and blinked a few times in Chanyeol's direction. "Where are you going..?" he asked.

 

Chanyeol stood under the shutter with one hand holding it up above his head, peering back at Baekhyun through the gap in the wall of boxes. "It's alright," he said in a loud whisper, "just go back to sleep. I have to be up early in the morning, and I didn't want to disturb you. I'll call you tomorrow."

 

He began to roll the shutter down behind him, but paused at the sound of Baekhyun calling out, "wait."

 

Chanyeol rolled up the shutter again and saw Baekhyun still sitting there on the bed, with his arms wrapped tightly around his knees. The wall of boxes closing in on him made him look so small. "Chanyeol," he said, and he looked at Chanyeol with those eyes, so endlessly dark but impossibly bright, now wide open and awake. "I really want you to stay."

 

Something about the way his voice sounded made Chanyeol's heart feel like it was being squeezed inside someone's fist again. It wasn't a request, or even a demand ― just the pure, unembellished truth, and how could he ever say no? Closing the shutter, he walked back over to the bed and lay himself down, not bothering to remove his clothes this time; he pulled Baekhyun's head against his chest, pressing a soft kiss to his crown, and soon enough, he fell asleep. There were no nightmares at all that night, not a single one.

 

 

 

* * * * *

When Chanyeol woke up a little after 6 o'clock the next day, Baekhyun wasn't in bed with him. Rubbing his eyes, he sat up slowly and looked around. The room was dark, with a narrow gap under the shutter allowing a tiny rectangle of light to shine through. Chanyeol looked at the gap. He couldn't remember leaving the shutter slightly open the night before. Perhaps Baekhyun had left already.

 

Chanyeol rolled out of the bed and smoothed his crumpled shirt and trousers, ran his hands through his untidy hair and stepped into his shoes one by one, then threw on his blazer. When he opened the shutter, he blinked furiously to adjust to the early-morning sunlight, and then he saw Baekhyun outside in the yard, practising flips off a brick wall on one side of the warehouse. Baekhyun didn't seem to notice that he was being watched, and so Chanyeol stood there and observed in silence, impressed by the boy's powers of concentration, his determination to land perfectly on his feet each time, without even the tiniest wobble.

 

"Morning," Chanyeol called out at last, and Baekhyun stopped what he was doing, turning around to look at him. He smiled.

 

"You're up early," Chanyeol said, returning the smile. He walked over towards Baekhyun with his hands in his pockets.

 

"I get up before sunrise to train sometimes, before this place opens," Baekhyun told him. He leaned forward, resting his hands on his knees for a moment. "You off, then..?"

 

"Yeah. I've got to go home and get ready... my shift starts at 7."

 

Baekhyun nodded. "Okay," he said. "Well, thanks for staying over and all that."

 

"No problem. See you soon, then," Chanyeol replied, and he began to make his way across the yard. He hoped he would remember the way back, but it didn't seem all that difficult. From memory, all he had to do was follow the stormwater drain over to the next street where he'd left his car.

 

"Hey... where do you think you're going, Sarge..?"

 

Chanyeol stopped in his tracks and turned around to face Baekhyun again. "Why..?"

 

Baekhyun didn't reply. He walked over to where Chanyeol was standing, grabbed the back of his head and pulled it downwards, kissing him hard on the lips. Chanyeol was left breathless by the time they separated.

 

"Alright - now you may go," Baekhyun said, grinning at him; he turned and ran towards the wall again, turning another perfect flip off it, leaving Chanyeol to walk back to his car with a very big smile of his own.

 

 

 

* * * * *

"I’ve been meaning to ask – how's Baekhyun doing these days..?" Amber said one afternoon, out of nowhere, while they were both driving around on patrol with nothing much going on. "I haven't seen him around lately… you must be doing a good job of keeping him in line."

 

Chanyeol laughed, fiddling nervously with the ring pull on his empty Red Bull can; he flicked it back and forth a number of times, until it fell off. "Oh, well, you know... we just hang out sometimes,” he said. “But he seems alright. Probably just a bit misunderstood, that's all."

 

Amber cleared her throat, then picked up her cup of coffee from the cup holder and took a sip before putting it back. "So are you guys seeing each other now, or what..?"

 

Chanyeol froze in his seat. He dared not look Amber in the eye – she would see right through him for sure.

 

"It's alright, you can tell me," Amber said. "I won't blab."

 

"Um, not really," Chanyeol said hesitantly, and then he sighed. "Well, okay... sort of…"

 

As soon as he said this, Amber took one hand off the wheel and slapped him on the shoulder with it, making him flinch.

 

"Good for you," she said. "Hey, if you're keeping the eternal troublemaker out of trouble then he must really like you. I think it's cute.."

 

Just then, dispatch radioed their car. "Collision on Brightmeadow road, near Sage Street," said Bom's voice over the radio. "Unit MH11 please report to scene immediately."

 

"Roger," Amber said, and then muttered under her breath, "who the hell even is Roger..?"

 

Chanyeol smiled and shook his head, but the smile quickly faded as they approached the scene of the collision. "There it is," Amber said, craning her neck to see over the wheel. "Looks pretty bad…" There was a fruit van on its side on the edge of the road, and a little further down, a red hatchback had spun around so that it was facing the wrong way. The front of the hatchback was completely smashed in, and there were glass particles and bits of debris everywhere. Chanyeol could see a man he assumed was the van driver sitting on the road next to his vehicle, his face and t-shirt covered in blood. The hatchback’s windows were tinted and it was difficult to see inside, but he guessed the driver was probably still in there.

 

"Both vehicles badly damaged," Amber said, speaking into the radio. "One driver's out and sitting by the side of the road, can't see anyone else. Other driver possibly trapped inside vehicle. Please send ambulance and fire."

 

As soon as they pulled up at the side of the road, Amber parked the car and quickly jumped out. "I'll check if the van driver's alright,” she said. “Do you mind checking on the other driver? Give me a yell if it's really bad."

 

"Okay," Chanyeol said, and jogged over to the wreckage of the little red car. As he got closer, he could see a woman in the front seat, sitting upright, her head tilted slightly forward. Her eyes were closed, but she opened them as he approached, blinking at him dazedly.

 

"Hey," Chanyeol said, peering in through the driver’s side window. "Are you alright..?"

 

The woman groaned softly. "My stomach hurts," she said. "Other than that, I can't really tell."

 

"I see. Are you in a lot of pain?”

 

"Not that much." She seemed fairly alert now, which was an encouraging sign. "I feel a bit sick, but that's all."

 

Chanyeol nodded. "Alright. Well, hang in there. I'll see if I can get you out."

 

The car only had two doors; Chanyeol tried the driver's side first, but it wouldn't budge. He hurried around to the passenger side and tried that too, but no luck. He swore to himself under his breath so that the woman wouldn't hear him.

 

"Both doors are jammed shut, unfortunately," he told her. "Not to worry… we've already radioed the fire department, they'll be able to get you out." He looked up and saw Amber hurrying over towards the car.

 

"The van driver's fine… just a busted nose, so he lost quite a bit of blood from that, but it looks worse than it really is," she said to Chanyeol. "He said he's okay for the moment, so I thought I'd come and see what's happening over here." She glanced at the woman still sitting inside the wrecked car, her eyes widening. "Fucking hell… is she alright?"

 

"The impact's pushed the dashboard forward, so she's trapped – pinned to her seat by the wheel," Chanyeol replied. "She said she doesn't feel too bad, just a bit sick. I can't get either door open, so we'll probably have to wait for the fire brigade to free her."

 

"No problem... Bom says they're on their way," Amber said. "Ambulance, too." She stooped down to look in at the woman through the window. "Hang in there, love... fire brigade and ambulance should be here soon. They'll have you out and on your way to hospital in no time."

 

"I've got to pick up my kids," the woman sighed; she seemed defeated more than anything else. "Would you mind calling the school up and letting them know I won't be there...?"

 

"I can do that," Chanyeol said, pulling out his phone. "Which school?"

 

"Riverview."

 

"And your children's names?"

 

"Yoongi and Seulgi."

 

Chanyeol spoke to the school's administrator and told them the children's mother had been in an accident, and that she would be unable to pick them up; then he called the woman’s husband and told him the same thing. The man sounded dazed on the phone, but he told Chanyeol he would leave work early to pick up the children right away, and that he would wait for his wife to arrive at the hospital afterwards. Chanyeol promised to keep the man updated, and after he ended the call, he went back to the car and saw Amber bent over by the driver's side, taking down the woman's details.

 

"After I finish here, we might want to go talk to the van driver," she said to Chanyeol. "We'll need to get a statement from him as well."

 

The woman groaned, interrupting their conversation. "I really don't feel very well," she said. Chanyeol saw her face had suddenly gone very white, her eyes dull and glazed over. Then they fluttered closed.

 

"Just hold on a minute, ma'am," Amber said, "the ambulance should be here soon.” She looked at the woman’s face and started to go white herself. “Shit, she's losing consciousness… I'll go get an update from Bom. You stay with her.”

 

Chanyeol couldn't even get through to the woman to attempt to revive her, so he reached through the window and grabbed her hand, holding it gently. The woman looked at him for a moment like someone who’d just woken up, and then she leaned her head back against the headrest, her eyes closing once more. Chanyeol knew from the way her whole body relaxed that she was gone. He didn't have to check her wrist for a pulse to be sure, even though he did this anyway; it was easy enough to tell. Amber returned a little later to find him slumped against the wreckage of the car, still holding the dead woman's hand through the window. "Ambulance'll be here in three minutes," she said, and then she fell silent for a moment. "Hey," she said quietly, "are you alright..?"

 

Chanyeol turned to look at her, his eyes blurry with tears. "She died," he said in a hoarse whisper. "She's dead, and her kids and her husband have no idea..”

 

Amber's expression softened, and she put a warm hand on Chanyeol's back, rubbing it gently. "Come on," she said quietly. "There's nothing more we can do for her now, except wait for the fire brigade to get her out. Let's go talk to the other driver."

 

Chanyeol nodded and let go of the woman's still-warm hand, wiping his eyes on his sleeve. As he followed Amber over to where the other driver was sitting on the roadside, he saw the ambulance turn up, shortly followed by the fire brigade. He didn't turn back to look at the wreckage of the little red car.

 

 

 

* * * * *

After they'd finished up at the scene of the collision, Amber drove them both back to the station.

 

"Hey," she said, turning to look at Chanyeol when they were stopped at a red light. Her expression was one of obvious concern. "You alright?"

 

"Yeah," Chanyeol said quietly.

 

Amber shot him another dubious glance, and said, "no, you're not... I can tell. But that's okay. It's completely normal to be upset – hell, I feel like crying myself. It's just the nature of the job, I suppose, to deal with these things.”

 

"I don't know if I could ever get used to something like that," Chanyeol whispered. "Watching someone die right in front of me, and being completely unable to help them. Maybe I’m not cut out for this job."

 

Amber sighed, and then for some reason she pulled over on the side of the road next to a forest reserve. She parked the car, switched the engine off, and then she turned to Chanyeol and said, "I'm just stopping here for a moment because I'm going to tell you a story. It's not one I particularly enjoy telling, but I think it's important that you hear it."

 

"Okay," Chanyeol said quietly.

 

Amber looked at him in silence for a while before she spoke. "A couple of years ago, I was alone on patrol when I was sent around to an accident nearby, where two vehicles had collided head-on,” she said. “When I got there, the driver and passenger of one car only had minor injuries, and had managed to escape their vehicle, but the driver of the other car was still trapped in the wreckage and couldn’t get out. I knew the fire department and ambulance were on their way, but I went to see what I could do to help. I told the man, who was shaken up but otherwise okay, that emergency services were on their way, just to reassure him, and that in the meantime I was going to try and get him out myself. I smelled smoke and I remember thinking nothing of it at first... that it was from the airbag, or the smell of hot rubber from skidding tyres, or something. Then it grew stronger, and I saw it coming out of the bonnet on the driver's side of the car. I told him not to worry, that it was probably just steam from the radiator, and then I went and got the extinguisher from my car just in case. When I returned, I saw that the smoke was thicker, so I grabbed a crowbar from my kit as well and used it to try and force the door open. I realised pretty quickly that it wasn't going to work. I heard the driver swear, and noticed a small fire burning inside the bonnet – he'd seen it and was freaking out. I let off the extinguisher, but when the powder cleared I could see the fire was still there. I kept trying until it was empty, but nothing helped… I remember the paint on the car was starting to bubble and turn black from the heat. I radioed dispatch to find out how far away the fire brigade was, and just as I ended the call I could hear sirens in the distance, and I saw that the driver looked slightly relieved, but I thought I had better still try to get him out of the car anyway, if I could manage it. I tried everything I could think of at the time - cutting his seatbelt… reclining the seat so that he could maybe have more room to wriggle out… forcing the back doors open. I had no luck with any of them. Then the source of the siren showed up, and of course it was a fucking ambulance, not a fire engine. So I ran to the ambulance and got their extinguisher, and used up all of that as well. It did absolutely nothing; the fire was still there.”

 

Amber paused for a moment, rubbing her temple with one hand. Chanyeol could see it was distressing for her to recount this particular memory, and he was about to tell her that she didn’t need to continue, but then she began to speak again. "At that point the driver said he could feel the heat from the fire on his feet, and was starting to panic again, so there I was with two paramedics trying to pull the door right off in one last attempt to get him out,” she said. “It still wouldn't budge, and all the while the fire under the bonnet was growing. The driver started yelling and flailing about, and we soon realised that the fire had made it through to where his feet were, and was burning him. We tried everything from all sides, using every ounce of combined strength we had, but the car was now so hot that it burned our hands to touch it. The driver just screamed and screamed… up until then I'd never heard a sound like it in my life, those terrible screams of fear and agony. I kept yelling at him that I was sorry, because I had no idea what else to say. I knew what was going to happen, and he knew it too; I could see it in his eyes. And then the flames began to spread inside the car, and he was looking right at me through the smoke, saying something that I couldn't make out. I yelled out again that I was sorry. And that was when the fire brigade arrived. They rushed over to the wreckage, even though there was nothing that could be done by then. I left them to it, and I walked away so I wouldn't see him burn.”

 

After she’d finished telling her story, Amber was quiet for a long time. She cleared her throat and turned her head away from Chanyeol, looking out her window at the forest outside the car. “I'll tell you what, it's enough to put you off eating barbecue for the rest of your life, the smell,” she said, and followed it with an uncomfortable little laugh. “I know it’s awful, but it’s true. I remember my husband was shitty with me because I wouldn’t allow either of us to cook any meat at home for a good few months… I couldn’t get even a whiff of it without gagging. Nothing's more upsetting than the death of a child, but fire deaths are pretty high on the list of most terrible things to deal with, in my opinion. So I never quite recovered from that incident; some things you just can't get past, no matter how hard you try. And there's no telling how you will react in such a crucial moment until it happens, whether it will bring out the best or the worst in you. I don't know about you, but when I first became a police officer, I wanted to be a real heroine, someone who could protect every decent law-abiding citizen, someone too good to be true. I think we all want that in the beginning. Then it all goes to shit, as it inevitably will, and that's when you realise just how helpless you really are… how most of the time, it's completely beyond your control."

 

When Amber turned to look at Chanyeol again, she smiled at him, but her eyes were sad. “You can't save every single person you come across, Chanyeol,” she said quietly. “There are times when the best you can do is offer someone your hand to hold for a minute or two, and then you just have to move on to the next wreck. And it can be completely soul-destroying, knowing that this is the kind of world we live in… where good people die horrible, painful deaths, and some shit-stain of a human decides he'll just throw a cup of acid in his neighbour's face because hey, his lawnmower is making too much noise on a Saturday morning. But in spite of all the terrible things I've seen, I know I couldn't picture myself doing anything else. And if you ever decide you don't feel the same way, then it's okay – no one's making you be here. It's not a shameful thing to walk away, if you feel like you have to. I just want you to make sure that you're sitting where you are now for the right reasons – because you want to help. To protect and serve. It shouldn’t be about proving how hard you are… if you’re doing the job how it’s meant to be done, it’ll beat that idea right out of you very quickly, I can guarantee it."

 

"What if I don't know what my reasons are anymore..?" Chanyeol asked in a quiet voice.

 

"I'm sure you'll work it out soon enough," Amber said. "Anyway, I’ll take it upon myself to personally notify the deceased’s family; I can see this has hit you pretty hard, so I won't have you accompany me this time if you don't want to. Just keep in mind that there will be times where you'll have to do it. We all hate it, but it's a part of the job."

 

Chanyeol nodded and wiped his eyes. "Okay. Thank you," he said.

 

"No problem," Amber replied. She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel and reached over with one hand to turn on the stereo. "Now, I don’t know about you, but I think we need something to lighten the atmosphere a little. Today’s shaping up to be a tough one, for sure.”

 

"What the hell is this..?" Chanyeol asked, making a face at the song blaring out of the speakers.

 

"It's Shiny Happy People by R.E.M – this is my 90's playlist," Amber said. "Don't tell me you've never heard this song before… where the hell were you in 1991?"

 

"Not born yet," Chanyeol said flatly, and Amber laughed and shook her head.

 

"Oh dear," she said. "My age is showing right now, isn't it?"

 

Chanyeol didn’t dare agree.

 

They drove for a while in silence, and then Amber said, "so are you shiny and happy yet..?"

 

One corner of Chanyeol's mouth began to curl up, if only a tiny bit. "I'll get there," he said.

 

"It's hard to be down while this song's on," Amber replied. She took one hand off the wheel and ruffled Chanyeol's hair with it. "Now give us a smile... just a little one; otherwise, I've also got MmmBop and the Macarena on this playlist, and I’m not afraid to use them.”

 

 

 

* * * * *

By the time Chanyeol got away from the station that evening, it was already nearly 9 pm. Still numb from the day's events, he went and sat in his car, ready to drive home, but the more he thought about it, the more he wanted desperately not to go. He'd be alone there, and for some reason he dreaded the thought of being by himself – not tonight. Without some form of distraction, he was in danger of thinking too much, and there were already too many things to avoid thinking about.

 

Instead of starting the car and driving off, Chanyeol pulled out his mobile and stared at it for a moment. He dialled Baekhyun's number to see if he'd answer – he was probably at work, but it was worth a shot. To Chanyeol's surprise, he picked up after only two rings.

 

"Evening, Sarge," he said in a cheery voice. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

 

"Hey," Chanyeol said. He knew he didn't have it in him to sound cheerful in return, so he didn't bother trying. "Where are you right now?"

 

"Right now? I'm at work."

 

"Cool. What time do you get off?"

 

"Whatever time you want me to," Baekhyun said, and Chanyeol could almost hear him winking through the phone, but he wasn't really in the mood for flirting or joking around.

 

"Ha ha… I mean what time do you finish?"

 

Baekhyun seemed to pick up on Chanyeol's mood from his tone, because he sounded more serious when he spoke again.

 

"I knew what you meant," he said. "And my shift ends at 10. Why do you ask?"

 

Chanyeol sighed and rubbed his forehead. A dull ache throbbed behind his eyes. "I've just had a really rough day at work, that's all. If you're not busy later tonight, I'd love to see you… your pretty face might cheer me up a bit."

 

"Sure," Baekhyun said. "I had nothing planned, really. Probably would have ended up dusting my saint collection in my underwear or something."

 

Chanyeol did manage a smile at that, if only a small one. "What a sexy image. I'll come and pick you up a little after 10, then."

 

"Alright, sounds good. I'll wait for you out the front."

 

"Okay. See you soon," Chanyeol said, and hung up. He could feel his heart skipping beats already, and the memory of that day's events began to very slowly melt away at the mere thought of holding Baekhyun in his arms again.

 

But he still didn't want to go home; not just yet. Instead, Chanyeol drove around to the Lucky Cat and parked his car out the front, where he waited for Baekhyun to come out. A bit less than an hour later, there he was, strolling through the door of the restaurant in his waiter's uniform. He had his backpack slung over his shoulder and both hands shoved in his pockets. Somehow he had a habit of looking forever out of place, Chanyeol noticed – slightly guilty, even, as though he was always somewhere he shouldn't be. But when he saw Chanyeol parked out the front, he donned a big smile and gave him a little wave before running over to the car.

 

"Hey," he said, opening the door and peering inside; his expression quickly changed to one of concern when he saw Chanyeol's face. "You okay? You sounded a bit funny on the phone earlier."

 

"Well, I've been better, I suppose," Chanyeol said. He didn't want Baekhyun to look so worried, so he forced a smile and patted the seat next to him. "Hop in."

 

Baekhyun settled himself on the front passenger seat and looked over at Chanyeol again, carefully studying his expression. "What's wrong?" he asked. "Did something happen today?"

 

Chanyeol swallowed. "Yeah. I, uh… I got called out to a car accident earlier this afternoon," he said quietly. "Not good. It was a fatal."

 

"Oh," Baekhyun said. He was silent for a long time, and then he said, "do you want to talk about it..?" As soon as he said this, Chanyeol leaned over and pulled him into a tight hug, making him gasp in surprise.

 

"Hey, now... what's all this about?" Baekhyun said, chuckling softly. He began rubbing Chanyeol's back in an attempt to comfort him. "Are you alright..?"

 

"I watched someone die," Chanyeol whispered; he buried his face against Baekhyun's neck, breathing him in. He smelled faintly of oranges... perhaps he'd just been cutting some. "I stood there helplessly while it happened, just holding her hand, because there was nothing else I could do for her. And I guess I just really needed to see you. Just to make sure you're okay."

 

"Well, I'm sorry to hear that; it must have been very hard. But I'm perfectly fine," Baekhyun said. He pulled free from the hug and smiled at Chanyeol. "Still alive and running up walls and stuff."

 

Chanyeol smiled back. "I'm glad to hear it," he whispered. He leaned forward again, kissing Baekhyun softly on the mouth this time, and then pulled him into another smothering hug. "God, I'm so happy to see you right now."

 

"It's alright, Sarge," Baekhyun said quietly. "I'm here. I'm okay."

 

Chanyeol kissed him once more before he felt ready to let go. "Shall we go back to my house? I'll make you a very late dinner if you haven't eaten. Or I can make you a really early breakfast, if that's what you'd prefer. Or you could stay over tonight, and I could make you both..?"

 

Baekhyun laughed at the suggestion. "Smooth, Sarge," he said, winking at Chanyeol. "Real smooth. But sure, dinner followed by breakfast sounds excellent."

 

Chanyeol nodded. "Okay… great," he said, and took a deep breath. He started the car up again and slowly pulled away from the curb.

 

"Anyway, I'm sorry for mentioning what happened today," he said, while they were driving back to his house. "I know you lost your mum in a car accident, and stuff like that is probably the last thing you'd want to hear about.."

 

Baekhyun shook his head and smiled. "It's okay,” he said quietly. “It was a long time ago."

 

"I actually cried in the car on the way back to the station," Chanyeol said. "My partner was cool about it, but she probably thought I was being a baby."

 

"Oh, I'm sure she understood… I doubt she's made of stone," Baekhyun said. He reached over and gave Chanyeol's thigh a gentle squeeze, and then left his hand there for a moment. Chanyeol felt the warmth of it through the fabric of his trousers.

 

"Yeah, I guess so," he replied. "She's a hard-arse most of the time, but she does have a few soft spots. She loves old ladies… like absolutely loves them, it's the funniest thing. She calls them 'love', makes them cups of tea whenever they come to the station – stuff like that."

 

"She sounds cool," Baekhyun said, and then under his breath he added, "unlike some of the people you work with."

 

Chanyeol laughed. "Yeah, she's a top lady, that Amber. Don't know what I'd do without her, most days."

 

When they arrived at the terrace, Baekhyun walked through the front door carefully after Chanyeol, tiptoeing as though afraid of disturbing someone.

 

"Please make yourself at home," Chanyeol said; he kicked his work boots off next to the door. "You can take your shoes off if you like. No need to be shy."

 

Baekhyun stood there in front of the door for a moment, watching Chanyeol hang his jacket up on the coat rack. "Your place is nice," he said, looking around.

 

Chanyeol laughed. "You've hardly even seen it yet," he said. After Baekhyun had taken off his shoes, he motioned for the boy to follow him down the hallway towards the kitchen. "Anyway, it's alright, I suppose, and the rent’s decent. The walls and ceiling are all too thin, though. I can actually hear the guy living on the floor above me snoring every single night… it drives me fucking nuts.”

 

When they got to the kitchen, Chanyeol opened the door of the fridge and peered inside. "Right. So what do you feel like?"

 

Baekhyun shrugged. The shyness was back again; he stood there fiddling with the hem of his shirt, rocking back and forth on his feet. "Dunno, really. I'm easy."

 

"Is spaghetti bolognese up your alley?" Chanyeol said, poking his head out from behind the fridge door. "If not, I can make something else."

 

"Whatever you feel like, Sarge. I'm in your house, so I'll eat whatever you put in front of me."

 

"Alright. I can't promise you that my cooking's the best, though. I don't have a lot of free time to hone my culinary skills," Chanyeol said. He put a pot of salted water on the stove to boil, then set about gathering ingredients for the sauce.

 

"I barely cook at all," Baekhyun told him. "Don't worry about it."

 

"You don't even have a kitchen," Chanyeol pointed out. "How do you actually eat? You should probably come over for dinner-plus-breakfast more often."

 

"Hmm. I might." Baekhyun draped himself over the counter, his hair falling into his eyes, and flashed a flirty little smile in Chanyeol's direction. Even dressed in his plain, ill-fitting Lucky Cat uniform (accessorised with the odd soy sauce stain), he was staggeringly beautiful. He leaned on the countertop with his arms casually crossed, watching Chanyeol peel and chop an onion. Chanyeol quite liked cooking on a normal day, but having someone as attractive as Baekhyun stare at him while he did it was somewhat unnerving, and at one point he got so distracted that he nicked the top of his thumb while chopping. He swore under his breath, sticking the injured thumb in his mouth. "Shit.."

 

"Am I putting you off there, Sarge?" Baekhyun asked. He was smiling still.

 

Chanyeol laughed nervously. "Not at all," he said, although he was sure Baekhyun could see right through him, as usual.

 

Baekhyun helped set the table when the food was done, and then they sat down to eat. It was a relatively simple meal – just pasta, salad and bread –- but he seemed impressed by Chanyeol's hospitality. "This is great," he said, and Chanyeol was happy to see he had a good appetite. "I don't think I've ever had bolognese this good."

 

"Well, there's plenty left in the pot, if you want more," Chanyeol replied. He paused for a moment and watched Baekhyun slurp up a noodle, smiling to himself over how cute it was.

 

"Mmm. Maybe I will."

 

"You really think it's that good?" Chanyeol swirled some pasta around his fork, eyeing it critically before he lifted it to his mouth. "I was worried I might've overcooked it slightly."

 

"No," Baekhyun said, "it's perfect. Not mushy at all."

 

Chanyeol looked over at Baekhyun with his eyebrows raised. "Perfect! That's very high praise.."

 

Baekhyun grinned back at him; there was a bit of sauce on the corners of his lips, and if it weren't for the table between them, Chanyeol would have been very tempted to lean over and kiss it away. "Credit where credit is due," he said. "I don't know… this is just really nice."

 

"The food..?"

 

"Yeah, the food, but... just... this," Baekhyun gestured towards the spread on the table between them. "I haven't had this in so long. I can't even remember the last time."

 

Chanyeol knew what Baekhyun meant. It was something more than just the food that he was referring to... it was the whole experience, the simple joy of sharing a home-cooked meal with someone you loved – a meal that was not accompanied by interrogations hurled across the table, no snide remarks served on the side. Chanyeol knew he couldn't have felt more at home if he was eating with his own family, which was a sad thought, but it warmed his heart to know that he and Baekhyun could both find that comfort with each other.

 

"Well, I'm glad you're enjoying it," he said, and he meant every word.

 

"I am. Actually, I haven't been this happy in a long time," Baekhyun replied. He smiled again, and Chanyeol smiled back; he could feel his face warming up a little, and he returned his gaze to the half-eaten plate of spaghetti in front of him, picking at it shyly with his fork.

 

"Me neither," he said quietly.

 

After dinner, they migrated to the living room and sat down together on the sofa. Again, Baekhyun seemed to revert back to his earlier shyness; he sat with his hands in his lap, playing with them, unsure of himself. Chanyeol moved over a bit closer, putting an arm around his shoulders.

 

"Are you okay?" he asked. "You've gone all quiet... that's not like you."

 

"I'm fine," Baekhyun said. "How about you? Still upset?"

 

"Actually, I feel much better," Chanyeol said. By now he had his lips pressed against the side of Baekhyun's neck. "Might have something to do with the person I'm sitting next to right now.."

 

Baekhyun shifted his position a little, leaning into Chanyeol's body. He tilted his head to the side, exposing more of his neck, a silent invitation for Chanyeol to keep kissing him there. "Don't you want to talk about it at all..?"

 

"Nope. I'd rather talk about you," Chanyeol murmured. He kissed Baekhyun’s ear. "Did you read to your kids this week..?"

 

"I sure did. I read them Wacky Wednesday. Which was very fitting because it was actually Wednesday.."

 

Chanyeol laughed softly. "I liked that one too, when I was little. But One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish is still my favourite. I could never get enough of it. My grandmother used to roll her eyes at me because I'd make her read it several times in a row."

 

"I've read One Fish so many times that I think I've actually memorised it," Baekhyun said, chuckling to himself. "It's always been a crowd-pleaser.."

 

"This might be a random request," Chanyeol said, "but do you think you could recite some of it for me now?"

 

Baekhyun shot him a blank look. "What, the entire thing..?"

 

Chanyeol laughed and shook his head. "No, just whatever you can remember… for the sake of nostalgia. When I was listening to you read it to the kids that time, it stirred up so many old feelings that I never thought I'd ever feel again. And I love the sound of your voice, as well; I find it really soothing. I could have stood there and listened to you all day."

 

Baekhyun smiled with one side of his mouth. "Alright, Sarge… I'll give it a go. But only because I like you so much." He made Chanyeol rest his head in his lap, and then he stroked his hair while he recited whatever he could recall of the book. Chanyeol couldn't tell if any of it was in the right order, but he was impressed by how much Baekhyun seemed to remember.

 

"Who am I? My name is Ned," Baekhyun said, still softly stroking Chanyeol's hair. The gentleness of his voice made Chanyeol want to fall asleep. "I do not like my little bed. This is no good. This is not right. My feet stick out of bed all night."

 

"I love that part," Chanyeol whispered. “That’s one of my favouritest parts..”

 

"Shh," Baekhyun replied, hushing him; he pressed a finger firmly to Chanyeol's lips. "Don't interrupt my storytelling..."

 

Chanyeol felt like a scolded child; but then Baekhyun leaned down and kissed him, tracing his lips with his tongue to coax them open. Before too long, Chanyeol forgot about the story altogether, and Baekhyun pulled away for a moment, looking down at his face. With one hand, he swept the hair away from Chanyeol's eyes and whispered, "you have really pretty eyes, Sarge.."

 

Chanyeol looked up at him for a moment in silence, and then lifted his head up from Baekhyun's lap until he was sitting upright on the sofa next to him. He gently pushed Baekhyun down until he was the one lying flat instead, pinning him down against the sofa cushions. He kissed him again, pushing his shirt up, feeling Baekhyun's abdominal muscles tense beneath his fingers. Baekhyun let out a soft whimper of pleasure, and Chanyeol moved his head down and kissed him there instead, licking a slow stripe across the boy's stomach.

 

"That tickles, you ass..!" Baekhyun whined, but he didn't push Chanyeol away.

 

"Mmm. Does it..?" Chanyeol laughed softly, nuzzling against the warm skin of Baekhyun's belly; he kissed a circle around his bellybutton, then swirled his tongue over it, prompting a soft gasp of surprise from above.

 

"What do you think is more delicious, Sarge… French toast or my bloody bellybutton?" Baekhyun said wryly; he shifted a little until he was partly sitting upright, holding himself up on his elbows.

 

"Definitely your bellybutton. Why are you so beautiful..?" Chanyeol whispered, directing the question mostly to the toned stomach beneath him. He kissed it one last time and lifted his head, looking up into Baekhyun's eyes. "Huh? Can you even tell me why, or is it one of the universe's great unsolvable mysteries?"

 

Baekhyun smiled down at him, but his brow was furrowed – was it really a smile, or a grimace? Chanyeol briefly thought of Jinwoo's corpse, that nightmarish expression on his bloated face, and quickly ejected the grisly image from his head. Better not to think about all that.

 

"I'm not beautiful," Baekhyun said quietly.

 

"Oh, but you are," Chanyeol whispered, and he went back to kissing Baekhyun's stomach. "You're gorgeous… I mean it. Sometimes I look at you and actually forget how to breathe.."

 

"Chanyeol…"

 

"Mm-hmm..?" Chanyeol was too preoccupied to speak properly.

 

"Chanyeol," Baekhyun whispered again, only it came out more breathy this time, halfway between a sigh and a moan. He had the fingers of one hand tangled up in Chanyeol's hair, and Chanyeol was pleased with himself at the reaction. "You like that, huh? I'll be sure to remember for future reference."

 

"Remember what?"

 

"That kissing your tummy makes you melt into a puddle of goo.."

 

"It does not," Baekhyun huffed, but the breathlessness in his voice suggested otherwise.

 

"Why so shy, hmm? There's no shame in telling me what you like," Chanyeol said. "I want to make you feel good. How will I be able to please you otherwise?"

 

"I'm sure my mother would have warned me about smooth-talking guys like you, if she'd had the chance," Baekhyun replied, laughing softly. "Pretty sure my deadbeat dad was one of them.."

 

"Amber warned me about you, too." Chanyeol rested his folded arms on Baekhyun's stomach and bit his lip to hide another smile, but ended up grinning anyway at the noticeable blush in Baekhyun's cheeks. "She said it was because she didn't want me to get hurt, but I reckon she probably thinks you'll turn me into a hooligan."

 

Baekhyun laughed; he reached over and ran his fingers through Chanyeol's hair again. "What, is she your mother now..?"

 

"She might as well be. My real mother seems to have washed her hands of me."

 

"Why?"

 

"Because she's very religious, and I'm... well, very gay." Chanyeol sighed, resting his head against Baekhyun's tummy. He pressed his ear up against it, listening to the little gurgles within, the soft sound of his breathing. "And I suppose my preferences kind of got in the way of her beliefs."

 

"Oh... I see. That's a shame," Baekhyun said, and then he drifted into silence for a while. He continued to run his fingers through Chanyeol's hair; this, and the gentle rise and fall of his stomach as he breathed, both made Chanyeol's eyelids feel heavy again.

 

"When I first came out to her, she told me not to say another word," Chanyeol said softly. "She said she would pray for me, but she wouldn't let me talk about it. Now when I bring it up, she steers the conversation away from the topic, like it doesn't matter, or doesn't exist to begin with. I try to limit visiting my parents these days, because it just seems more comfortable for everyone if I stay away... I can never tell if they actually want to see me, or if it's just a token gesture for them to say they want me to visit. They can be very hard to read."

 

"Did you ever think that perhaps your mother wasn't praying to change you, but to spare you?" Baekhyun said, and Chanyeol lifted his head up to look at him.

 

"To spare me from what?"

 

Baekhyun stared up at the ceiling for a moment before his eyes met Chanyeol's again. "I don't know... eternal hellfire? Only she would know."

 

"I suppose," Chanyeol, sighed and returned his head to Baekhyun's stomach. "I've never really thought about it.."

 

"Anyway, it's not the words she used that matter so much, but her intent," Baekhyun said quietly. He resumed stroking Chanyeol's hair. "Intent is everything.."

 

Chanyeol turned his head to the side, pressing another soft kiss to Baekhyun's belly, and then kept silent for a while.

 

"Maybe you should talk to her about it, Sarge," Baekhyun said. He put one hand on Chanyeol's shoulder and shook him gently, trying to get a response out of him. "Take it from me – you should make the most of that, while she's still around."

 

"I was afraid you'd say that," Chanyeol whispered.

 

"She's your mother, not the devil incarnate," Baekhyun said. “She gave birth to you. You’re forever in her debt for those labour pains, boy.”

 

"Yes, but... even before I came out, I never felt as though she liked me," Chanyeol said. "There was always this feeling of her keeping me and my sister at arm's length... like my parents only had us out of some Christian duty, or something."

 

"I'm sure that's not true. Anyway, if it makes you feel any better, I was an accident," Baekhyun pointed out, and Chanyeol laughed in spite of himself.

 

"Always have to one-up me, don't you..?"

 

Baekhyun chuckled softly. "Someone needs to put you in your place..”

 

"You know, now that I think about it, she did address the issue once, actually… she told me what I was doing ‘wasn't right’," Chanyeol said. " ‘God didn't make you that way’, she said, and I believed her – well, of course I believed her, what else did I know? But when you get a taste of that one thing in the world you want so badly, it’s surprisingly easy to forget about the guilt, at least for a little while. And all I could think at the time was, well, what if it's not really something I'm doing? What if it's just something I am..?"

 

"You've taken everything she's believed in her whole life, and turned it right on its head," Baekhyun said. "You can't expect her to come around overnight. But at least if you try to talk to her, you'll feel better because you gave it a shot. Even if it doesn't work out."

 

"Mmm. You know, I did try to make her happy… even had a couple of girlfriends for a while, to see if I could put up with it," Chanyeol replied, and then he laughed softly at the memory. He trailed his fingers up and down the inside of Baekhyun's arm, drawing invisible patterns in his skin, lost in thought. "Did it make me happy, though..? Well, not really. I was dating all these pretty girls, thinking about dick the whole time. There was one girl I did really like actually… and I tried to want her, too. I tried really hard. But it never felt like this." He lifted his head, looking into Baekhyun's eyes again, and swallowed hard. "Like it does when I'm with you."

 

"How does it feel when you're with me..?" Baekhyun asked, his voice now a sleepy, contented drawl.

 

"I wouldn't have the words to tell you," Chanyeol said. "But it's more than simple pleasure… I know that much. Even when I was with that girl I liked, I felt pleasure purely as a physical response, and I enjoyed her company a lot. But that deep mental connection was missing; I don't think I fully realised how much I needed that, until I met you. Being with other people was fun, but with you I want more. And I can already tell that my life will probably never be easy, as long as I'm with you. But I'm okay with that."

 

Baekhyun didn't say anything for a while. He just lay there, and the only sound he made was the sound of his breathing, slow and regular.

 

"How about you?" Chanyeol asked, breaking the silence. He moved upwards a little and nudged Baekhyun's shoulder with his nose, rousing him from his mini-nap. "Are you happy being with me too..?"

 

"Of course," Baekhyun said sleepily. "I would have fucked off long ago, otherwise.."

 

Chanyeol laughed. "Straight to the point, as usual."

 

"I'm all for honesty." Baekhyun took one of Chanyeol’s hands and held it to his lips. He kissed the knuckles one by one, then rolled his tongue across them, and then he put the whole of Chanyeol’s index finger into his mouth. Something stirred deep down in Chanyeol’s stomach, and he groaned softly. “Baby, please,” he whispered. Baekhyun took the finger out of his mouth and looked at him with half-closed eyes. He was wearing that sweet, sexy little smile again, and Chanyeol leaned forward to kiss him deeply, unable to keep himself away any longer.

 

"I think we should take this to my bed," he whispered. "Don't you..?"

 

Baekhyun lifted his head up from the cushion, trying to get at Chanyeol's lips for another kiss. "I do," he whispered back, and Chanyeol sat up and took him by the hand, gently pulling him up from the sofa. He led Baekhyun over to his bedroom without another word, and when they were standing at the foot of his bed he kissed him again, wrapping the boy up in his arms. Baekhyun sighed into the kiss, and then he pulled away for a moment to undo his shirt buttons. His eyes, dark and half-lidded, remained locked on Chanyeol's.

 

"Let me do it," Chanyeol whispered. They kissed some more while he popped the rest of the buttons, sliding the crisp cotton garment over Baekhyun's shoulders and down over his arms; he felt Baekhyun trembling with anticipation while he did this, the slightest shiver beneath his fingertips. "My turn," Baekhyun whispered back, and he unbuttoned Chanyeol's uniform shirt, tossing it carelessly aside. He stood on his toes to pull the black t-shirt Chanyeol wore underneath it up over his head, then reached up with one hand to smooth his messy hair, smiling as he did so. He pressed his lips against the side of Chanyeol's neck, throwing both arms around his bare shoulders, and Chanyeol shivered at his touch; Baekhyun's fingers were cold on his skin, in contrast to the warmth of his lips, but he enjoyed the differing sensations.

 

Baekhyun let go of Chanyeol then, and he unzipped the black jeans he was wearing, still looking into Chanyeol's eyes; his gaze shyly flickered away as he bent down to take them off. Chanyeol watched him in silence. It was so quiet in the room he could almost hear his own heart pounding. Now naked, with his jeans and underwear pooled at his feet, Baekhyun kicked them away and pulled Chanyeol closer by the waistband of his trousers; with downcast eyes, he unbuttoned and unzipped the trousers for him, sliding them down over Chanyeol's hips with both hands. He kneeled down on the floor in front of Chanyeol, pulling the trousers down all the way to his ankles, and then he kissed Chanyeol's bare stomach before pressing his face against it, wrapping both arms around his waist. Chanyeol had no idea what to say while this was happening, but he was deeply touched by it, and he gently stroked Baekhyun's hair with one hand, waiting for him to finish. Baekhyun held him for a long, silent moment with his head turned to one side, both of his eyes closed. After a minute or two of them standing there like that, neither of them exchanging a single word, Baekhyun finally opened his eyes, and he slowly got to his feet again, walking over to the bed and laying himself down upon it, the springs creaking slightly beneath his weight. Chanyeol took this as his cue to finish undressing himself, turning away to face the wall while he did it; something about the burning intensity in Baekhyun's eyes was too much for him to handle in that moment. Even before he took off his underwear, he had never felt so bare in his life.

 

"You okay..?" he asked quietly, turning around to face Baekhyun again.

 

Baekhyun nodded. "Yeah," he whispered. He leaned back on the bed, resting on his elbows, his gaze slowly drifting over Chanyeol's body. He licked his lips, making no effort to hide the fact that he was staring. Chanyeol sat down next to him on the mattress at last, and then he leaned forward and kissed Baekhyun on the mouth, gently cradling the boy's face in his hands. He loved the way Baekhyun kissed him back, with such eager tenderness, one of his hands coming to rest at the back of Chanyeol's neck. Then he wrapped both arms around Chanyeol's shoulders and pulled him down upon the bed, spreading his legs a little for Chanyeol to settle between them. He groaned softly when their bodies met at last, flesh rubbing against flesh, their legs tangling together.

 

"You're incredible," Chanyeol whispered; he nuzzled into the softness of Baekhyun's hair, tenderly kissing the side of his head. "So beautiful. So very, very smart. Maybe a little bit mean, sometimes... but we can work on that.."

 

Baekhyun laughed at this, but it quickly turned into a soft moan when Chanyeol kissed him on the lips again. He moved downwards over Baekhyun’s body, leaving a trail of wet, open-mouthed kisses as he went. Baekhyun was as easily excited as he remembered… a little bit of teasing, a touch here and a kiss there, that was all it took to get him going, and Chanyeol could almost smell the excitement on him now, could hear it in his breathing. His scent was sweet and intoxicating; no woman (and indeed no other man, in Chanyeol's experience) had ever smelled so good, and Chanyeol paused for a moment with his face pressed against Baekhyun's stomach, breathing him in with relish.

 

"Fuck," he whispered. "You have no idea what you're doing to me, do you..?"

 

"I'm not doing anything," Baekhyun said. He wriggled a little beneath Chanyeol's weight. "Do you really need to sniff me like some dopey old dog..?"

 

Chanyeol laughed softly into Baekhyun's tummy. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "You just smell really good, that's all. You always do."

 

"I probably smell like Chinese food," Baekhyun said.

 

"You smell great," Chanyeol reassured him. “I don’t know what it is, but it turns me on like crazy..”

 

"Mm-hmm, if you say so. My heart's beating really fast already… I think it likes you, Sarge." Baekhyun’s laughter was soft and breathless, and Chanyeol's own heart fluttered at the sound of it.

 

"I think mine likes you even more," he said. "It's having a rave right now. Wanna feel it..?"

 

Baekhyun pressed his palm flat against Chanyeol's bare chest. "It is too," he said, laughing again, and Chanyeol picked up his hand and kissed it, holding it to his mouth for a moment before letting go.

 

"I want you all to myself," he whispered. "And it almost scares me to say that… but it's the truth."

 

"That's a lot to ask from someone who's never really belonged to anyone else," Baekhyun said quietly.

 

"I know." Chanyeol buried his face against the side of Baekhyun's neck, kissing him there. "But you'll get all of me in return. So how about it..?"

 

He lifted his head and looked into Baekhyun's eyes. Baekhyun looked back at him through half-closed eyelids in silence, his eyelashes casting shadows over his lovely face; his gaze eventually drifted down to Chanyeol's lips, and Chanyeol answered this silent request by kissing him again, gentle and slow, whispering promises in between that he wasn't even sure he could keep… but he couldn't help himself. Baekhyun's tongue slipped into his mouth, warm and soft like velvet; it lured more words out of hiding, drawing them out from Chanyeol's lips, stealing the breath away from his lungs. But Chanyeol didn't mind this at all… it was by far the best way to be left breathless, he thought. And if Baekhyun – that sweet, broken boy, the worst of all criminals with none of a criminal's intent – hadn't already robbed him of his heart long ago, then Chanyeol would have cut it out and handed it over, without even being asked.

 

Baekhyun hooked one leg around Chanyeol's body, drawing him closer. "I want you too," he whispered, and he immediately followed it with a soft gasp, his eyes fluttering shut for a moment before opening again. Chanyeol could taste the longing on his lips; his fingers grazed the bare leg wrapped around his waist, and he moved his hand slowly upwards, into the warm space between Baekhyun’s thighs. He felt the resulting shudder of tortured delight rippling through the body beneath him, the sharpness of Baekhyun’s breath when his head rolled back against the pillow. Was there any sight in the world more gorgeous and sexy than seeing Baekhyun like this, knowing that it was all for him? It seemed there was no longer enough blood left in Chanyeol's brain, because he couldn't think of a single thing.

 

"You can have me," he said, moving his lips to Baekhyun's ear. He kissed softly along the edge of his jaw, trailing more kisses down his throat, over his shoulders. Baekhyun's hand moved to the back of Chanyeol's head, gently threading his fingers through his hair; he whispered Chanyeol's name, and when Chanyeol looked into his eyes, the desire in them seemed to mirror his own. He'd never felt like this before, he realised – short of breath, but without the panic. Lightheaded, but not faint. These were feelings that had only ever joined hands with crippling anxiety and fear, but not love… not until now. Now, everything was different.

 

Now, everything was real... nothing had ever felt as real as this. It was so real it almost felt like a dream, vivid and all-consuming, where nothing existed but the rhythm of their bodies, their hearts beating hard against each other. Baekhyun's hands were all over Chanyeol now, his lips open and willing, his sighs soft and sweet in between their kisses. If this was what it felt like to make love, Chanyeol thought, then to hell with screwing, fucking and all the rest of it... he would only ever make love from now on, for the remainder of his days. Everything else seemed to pale in comparison.

 

"I love you," he murmured into the side of Baekhyun's neck, so quietly he wasn't sure if Baekhyun would even hear him, but he was too caught up in the moment to worry about it. If Baekhyun did hear him, then he didn't say. But he did say one last thing a little later, while Chanyeol was kissing him, and then he seemed to lose the ability to speak.

 

"I'm yours," he said, whispering the words against Chanyeol's lips, breathing them into his mouth. "I'm all yours."

 

 

 

* * * * *

Chanyeol woke up early the next morning to a delicious smell – something fried and buttery – and the feeling of something warm brushing against his forehead. He turned his head to the side and opened his eyes, only to find himself staring right at Baekhyun's crotch. The boy was standing next to the bed in his underwear, peering down at Chanyeol through his fringe.

 

"Morning, babe," Chanyeol murmured. His voice came out thick and husky, as it usually did when he first woke up. He smiled at Baekhyun and rubbed his eyes. "What's happening..?"

 

"Nothing much," Baekhyun replied. He turned around to the bedside table behind him, and presented Chanyeol with a plate piled high with hot French toast. "I was already awake, so I got up and made breakfast... I hope you don't mind. It's your favourite, but I couldn't find any Nutella, so I just left it plain.”

 

Chanyeol sat up in bed, surprised at the thoughtful gesture. "Of course I don't mind… it smells great." He scooted over a little so that Baekhyun could get back into bed next to him, and thanked him with a kiss on the cheek. "You adorable little liar… I thought you said you didn't cook."

 

Baekhyun rested the plate on his lap and began cutting the toast into small pieces with a knife and fork. "Just because I don't, it doesn't mean I don't know how to,” he said. “Anyway, it's just French toast… hardly rocket science, is it?" He lifted the fork to Chanyeol's mouth and smiled. "You first. I hope it tastes better than it looks.."

 

"It looks fine," Chanyeol reassured him. He leaned forward to take the piece of toast off the fork with his lips. "Mmm," he said with his mouth full, "so good."

 

"You like it, huh?" Baekhyun ate a piece himself, and then fed Chanyeol another one, holding one hand under his chin to catch any crumbs. Chanyeol felt like a kid again, and half expected Baekhyun to pull out a tissue and wipe his mouth for him, but he didn’t. “It's delicious," he said. With his mouth full of toast, it sounded more like itsh delishush, which made Baekhyun utter a quick little burst of laughter, but then he eyed Chanyeol in mock suspicion, holding the fork with the next piece of toast just out of his reach.

 

"Is my version better than the Bean Me Up version..?" he asked. "Be aware that your answer to this question will determine whether you get any more toast – and also when, or if, you will get laid again."

 

"I love them both equally," Chanyeol said, barely missing a beat with his reply. He batted his eyelashes at Baekhyun and opened his mouth for more.

 

"I suppose that's a satisfactory response," Baekhyun said with a thoughtful nod. "Okay – you may have more toast." He fed Chanyeol the rest of the toast until it was finished, only occasionally having a piece himself, and then put the empty plate back on the bedside table.

 

"That was great," Chanyeol said. He lay down flat on his back and let out a deep sigh of satisfaction. "I've never had anyone make me breakfast in bed before… you should just move in with me already."

 

"All in good time," Baekhyun replied, in his usual noncommittal way. "When does your shift start?"

 

Chanyeol reached for his phone to check the time – a little after seven. "Not until nine," he replied. "Still a bit of time for a lie-in."

 

Baekhyun nodded. "Alright. I should probably get out of your hair, so you can get ready and all that."

 

Chanyeol pouted up at him. He reached over and stroked the back of Baekhyun's neck. "Don't you want to cuddle for a bit first..?"

 

"Well… maybe just for a little while," Baekhyun said, chewing his lip. He looked conflicted, like he wanted to stay, but perhaps thought he should go. Chanyeol moved over on the bed to make more room, patting the empty space beside him with his hand, and Baekhyun settled down next to him, resting his head on Chanyeol's shoulder. For a while they just lay there in comfortable silence, without moving.

 

"You know… I've been wondering about your mother," Chanyeol said.

 

Baekhyun snuggled up closer to him, wrapping an arm around his waist. "Mmm. What about her..?"

 

Chanyeol turned his head to the side, kissing Baekhyun's forehead. "Tell me about her," he whispered. Baekhyun's hair, still bed-messy, tickled his nose and lips. "Raging alcoholism aside, what was she like..?"

 

Baekhyun was silent for a long time. "I don't want to talk about my mother," he said.

 

"Why not?"

 

"Because all I have left of her are my memories... not many of them good ones. Can you blame me for wanting to keep what little I have to myself?"

 

Chanyeol's expression softened. "No," he whispered. "Of course not."

 

"I'm sorry… it's not that I don't trust you. It's just very hard for me to talk about, and I've been holding it all in for so long," Baekhyun said quietly. "I don't know how to be any other way."

 

"It's fine. You don't have to tell me anything."

 

"But you've told me so much already…"

 

"I know, and that was my own choice," Chanyeol said. "I was happy to do it. I think I'd be comfortable talking to you about anything, but I don't expect you to feel the same way."

 

"Does it make you sad?" Baekhyun asked. "Your relationship with your mother, I mean."

 

Chanyeol shrugged. "I don't know… sometimes. It doesn't upset me as much as it used to."

 

"What about your father?"

 

"He doesn't seem to care that much about what I do or don't do," Chanyeol said. He wriggled around a little on the bed, making himself more comfortable. "He doesn't approve of my 'lifestyle', as he calls it, and he'll give his opinion when it suits him, but he'll mostly keep his distance from it all. My mother is definitely the meddler, my harshest critic. I don't know which end of the spectrum is worse, actually, now that I think about it."

 

Baekhyun looked at Chanyeol for a moment in silence, chewing his lip in contemplation. "I'm going to do something now," he said. "I think it might help you." He rolled off the bed for a moment, and Chanyeol sat up a little to rest on his elbows, watching Baekhyun root around for something on the bedroom floor.

 

"What is it..?" he asked. "What are you looking for?"

 

When Baekhyun finally stood up again, he had Chanyeol's discarded black t-shirt in his hands, and he draped it over his head, wearing it like a wig. "Now, you might need to use your imagination a bit, but I want you to pretend for the next few minutes that I am your mother," he said sombrely, but there was a hint of a smile turning up the corners of his lips, and Chanyeol couldn't help bursting into laughter.

 

Baekhyun sat down on the edge of the bed next to Chanyeol and picked up one of his hands. He held the hand in his lap, stroking it gently.

 

"Hello, Chanyeol darling," he said. He made no effort to change his voice into something more womanly, which only added to the comedic effect. "It is I, your mother.."

 

Chanyeol laughed again, unable to help himself. "Oh god… this is so weird."

 

Baekhyun didn't reply. He continued to stroke Chanyeol's hand for a while, and then he said, "Chanyeol, my son, I love you, and I am very proud of you. You have grown into a fine man, and an excellent police officer, and there is nothing I would change about you at all. Not a single thing."

 

Chanyeol didn't know what to say. He could feel his throat beginning to tighten. "Baekhyun.."

 

"Also," Baekhyun said, and then his face split into a cheeky grin; he let out a little snort of laughter before he continued. "That handsome, intelligent Baekhyun guy you're currently dating is clearly the best man you will ever have the privilege of meeting, and so you both have my blessing to live happily ever after, and have piles of babies. Although you will probably need to adopt your piles of babies, since neither of you is in possession of a functioning uterus."

 

For some reason, Chanyeol's laughter had already inexplicably turned into crying by the time Baekhyun had arrived at the words 'functioning uterus' - and it was the embarrassing, convulsive-but-silent kind that made it difficult to breathe. Baekhyun looked surprised at his reaction at first, but he didn't question it. He took Chanyeol into his arms and held him until he calmed down, rubbing his back gently without saying a word.

 

"Sorry," Chanyeol said, burying his face against Baekhyun's chest. "I don't know what came over me."

 

"It's okay," Baekhyun whispered. "Let it all out. I can tell that you need to."

 

After another minute or two, Chanyeol cleared his throat and wiped his eyes. He pulled away from Baekhyun's chest, exhaled deeply and said, "I'm okay. I think."

 

"I'm sorry if I upset you," Baekhyun said. He reached out to wipe a stray tear away from Chanyeol's face with his thumb. "I just thought it would be nice for you to hear the words you should have heard a long time ago. Even if they came from the wrong mouth."

 

Chanyeol shook his head. "I'm not upset… I just seem to cry at the drop of a hat these days. But really, I think you're great. I was crying because I'm really happy."

 

"Well, it's a good thing that you can cry so freely, I think... there's a good heart in there somewhere, Sarge," Baekhyun said quietly. "A pure heart." He put his hand on Chanyeol's chest and patted him where his heart would be, smiling when Chanyeol placed his own hand on top of it, holding it in place. "So sweet and sensitive… I can just tell you're the type of guy who saves all the spiders living in the shower before he turns the water on."

 

Chanyeol laughed softly, wiping his eyes on the back of his free hand. "Yeah," he said, "I do that all the time, actually.."

 

Baekhyun grinned at him. "I thought as much."

 

"There was one time when I'd had a horrible day at work, and I was exhausted and in a bad mood… so I let a daddy longlegs get washed down the drain," Chanyeol said quietly. "And I felt so bad about it afterwards that I never did it again."

 

"Mmm. Well, I can't say I'm that noble, myself. But then I'm not the nicest person to begin with," Baekhyun replied. He lay down on his back next to Chanyeol, staring up at the ceiling, and sighed quietly. "I'm not a good egg like you, Sarge."

 

"You are," Chanyeol whispered. He rolled over on his side and pressed his lips against Baekhyun's shoulder, dotting little kisses down his arm. "A tiny bit cracked here and there, maybe. But still good."

 

"Well, you're the best egg I know," Baekhyun said. He turned his head to smile at Chanyeol, reaching up to touch his hair, his fingers trailing down over his cheek, and then his chin, which he gave an affectionate little pinch. "Hard on the outside but soft in the middle, just like a good egg should be. And I never thought I'd ever say that about a cop, but here we are."

 

“You must really like me, huh,” Chanyeol said, smiling back at him.

 

“Uh-huh. Anyway, I'm going to go now… you have a good day," Baekhyun whispered; he leaned forward and kissed Chanyeol softly on the mouth. "Until I see you next, stay safe and sexy.."

 

"Will you stay over again soon?" Chanyeol asked. He grabbed Baekhyun's hand – anything to keep him for a few minutes longer, even a few seconds. "Tonight, maybe..?"

 

Baekhyun looked at him with a soft smile. "If you want me to."

 

"I do," Chanyeol said. He pulled Baekhyun back down on the bed, the two of them collapsing in a giggling heap. He captured Baekhyun's lips in a searing, hungry kiss, leaving the boy visibly breathless, lying on his back with his chest rapidly rising and falling.

 

"We'll continue this tonight, then," Baekhyun whispered; he rolled over and kissed Chanyeol again, hovering over his mouth for a moment before getting off the bed. Throwing the occasional flirty glance over his shoulder, he began to get dressed; he put each article of clothing on as though he had all the time in the world, drawing the show out on purpose. He never did anything that wasn't on purpose… there was a purpose even in the small things – the way he pulled his jeans up slowly over his hips, how he left his shirt unbuttoned until after his shoes were on, leaving Chanyeol to admire his body up until the last second. Chanyeol watched the whole thing in silence, licking his lips without thinking, trying to unfeel and untaste all the places his hands and mouth had been, but it was impossible.

 

When he'd finished dressing himself, Baekhyun walked back over to the bed, leaned down and kissed Chanyeol one more time – a soft, lingering kiss – and then with his mouth next to Chanyeol's ear he whispered, "before I go, I have a little confession to make.."

 

"What is it..?" Chanyeol asked. His heart was doing that crazy rave thing from last night all over again.

 

Baekhyun walked over to the bedroom door with one strap of his backpack over his shoulder, and when he was halfway through it he turned to look at Chanyeol with a mischievous little grin.

 

"When I woke up this morning, I caught you smiling in your sleep," he said in a soft voice. "And you had that cute dimple showing on the left side of your face. So I leaned over and poked it with my tongue."

 

Absently rubbing his cheek with his fingers, Chanyeol listened to the sound of the boy's footsteps and then the front door closing as he left the house. He lay in bed for another half hour until his alarm went off, breathing in Baekhyun's scent from the pillow and waiting for his heart to slow down.

 

 

 

* * * * *

The pleasant, earthy smell of petrichor was almost overwhelming when Chanyeol wandered outside his house later that morning; it was going to be a sodden mid-Autumn day, he could already tell. But nothing could dampen the mood he was in, not even the weather – he was so happy he nearly skipped over to his car. He was in love, he was sure of it; painfully, gloriously, torturously in love, and it seemed that overnight the burning butterflies in his tummy had evolved into fire-breathing pterodactyls. Did pterodactyls even breathe fire? Chanyeol had no idea. His brain wasn't working properly, anyway. He drove through Maplehedge with a deep yet unexpected appreciation for the little town; how was it that being in love could alter his outlook on so many things, make them seem so much brighter and more beautiful?

 

Joonmyun cornered Chanyeol as soon as he arrived at the station – or floated into it, since this was what it felt like. "Morning, Chanyeol. May I have a word with you in my office..?"

 

"Is something wrong, Chief?" Chanyeol asked, but Joonmyun smiled and shook his head.

 

"No, not at all," he said. He motioned for Chanyeol to follow him. "Come with me."

 

When Chanyeol was sitting down in front of Joonmyun's desk, the chief looked thoughtful for a moment, and began leafing through a pile of papers, shuffling them and putting them aside. He looked up at Chanyeol at last and smiled. "How do you feel about your time in Maplehedge so far, Chanyeol?" he asked, leaning forward in his seat. "I can see you've really settled in over the past few months. How do you think you've performed?"

 

Chanyeol groaned internally – it seemed he'd been called into Joonmyun's office for some kind of performance appraisal. How the hell was he supposed to know how he'd performed? He was just grateful that he hadn't had a panic attack (or pissed himself) on the job again. Yet.

 

"Uh... I think I've adapted to the change quite well, considering the circumstances," he said, and prayed to every saintly figure he could name that this was the right thing to say. Joonmyun nodded, and considered the response for a moment before he spoke.

 

"I happen to think you've adapted very well," he said, clasping his hands together in front of him. "Of course, I haven't been there the whole time; but I've spoken to Amber about it at length, and she says your service has improved considerably since you first started with us. In fact, she speaks very highly of you.."

 

Chanyeol laughed nervously; he'd never been good at taking compliments. "Well, that's great to know. Thanks, Chief." What was the catch, though? There had to be one... there always was. The last time Chanyeol had been told his service was improving, he'd been shipped off to the country forever before the month ended.

 

"That said, the reason I bring all this up is that your former Chief Inspector asked me to provide him with a performance review after you had been with us for six months, just to see what sort of progress you were making," Joonmyun said. "And in light of all the good things he’s heard, he'd like to welcome you back to your old department. That is, if you wish to make the transfer. He will be contacting you himself, but I thought I'd run the idea by you first."

 

Chanyeol looked at Joonmyun for a long time. Surely the Chief was just fucking with him, but he didn't seem the type. "Really? When..?"

 

Joonmyun nodded and smiled at him. "Yes, really. From what I understand, he'd like you to start back there as soon as you’re ready to make the move.”

 

"But... I feel like I just got here," Chanyeol said. "I mean, I've only just settled in, and now he wants to uproot me again..?"

 

"I know it might be a bit sudden, Chanyeol, but I'd like you to give it some serious consideration," Joonmyun replied. "You've more than proved yourself working here in our little town, and it might be good for you to tackle something bigger. It would be an ideal opportunity for personal growth in your policing career. On the other hand, if you wish to stay here with us, we'd be more than happy to have you. It's your choice to make."

 

"Yes, I suppose so," Chanyeol said, and paused for a moment. "Can I give it some thought and get back to you..?"

 

Joonmyun nodded. "Of course.”

 

Chanyeol got up and walked out of Joonmyun's office, reeling from their conversation, and stood out in the corridor with his back against the wall, running both hands through his hair. What was he supposed to do now? How could he say no? He couldn't stay in Maplehedge for the rest of his career... he hadn't even wanted to come here in the first place.

 

But that was before he'd met Baekhyun. And what would Baekhyun say if Chanyeol did accept the transfer? Wouldn't he be upset? Chanyeol didn't want to leave him behind either; the mere thought made him feel like he might have a panic attack after all, right outside Joonmyun's office.

 

Unless, of course, he asked Baekhyun to come with him.

 

The more Chanyeol thought about this, the better an idea it seemed. And why not? Baekhyun wanted to get out of town anyway; he’d said it himself. He would probably jump at the chance to move somewhere else. Without their respective jobs, there was nothing keeping either of them tethered to this place, except each other. They could move to the city, rent a little flat and live there, just the two of them; Baekhyun could get a job in another restaurant nearby, and he could forget about this sad little town where he slept in a cold, cramped storage unit, and he could be happy. They could both be happy, together. Wasn't that something they both deserved?

 

After his shift ended that evening, Chanyeol went straight home, where he spent nearly forty minutes after dinner practicing what he was going to say in front of the bathroom mirror – he felt like an idiot doing it, but it seemed necessary. If he wanted Baekhyun to say yes, he had to get the wording right. After that, he sat around on the sofa, anxiously waiting for a call from Baekhyun to say that he'd finished work; every so often he'd get up and pace around the living room, and then he'd sit down again. He jumped up out of his seat when, at around ten o’clock, there was a loud knocking on the front door.

 

Chanyeol went to open the door, and found Baekhyun standing outside. "Oh... there you are. Why didn't you call me? I would have picked you up."

 

Baekhyun shook his head and walked straight past Chanyeol into the hallway. "I needed the walk," he said. "I needed to cool down a bit.."

 

Chanyeol frowned at him. "You needed to cool down in the middle of Autumn...?"

 

There was a dangerous glimmer in Baekhyun's dark eyes. "You know what I've been thinking about all day, Sarge?" he said, in a quiet voice.

 

Chanyeol was almost afraid to ask; from the look Baekhyun was giving him, he was either very angry or very horny. God help him if it was both. "What have you been thinking about all day..?"

 

"I was thinking about your body, and how much I'd like to put my hands all over it… and how I want you to do the same to me," Baekhyun said, this time so quietly it was virtually a whisper, and Chanyeol laughed softly in reply.

 

"Did you come here to seduce me..?" he asked.

 

"I came to get this out of my system," Baekhyun said. "Do you have any idea how awkward it is to work in a busy restaurant with a hard-on?"

 

"No," Chanyeol replied. "And I sincerely hope I never find out."

 

"I couldn't take my apron off the whole. Fucking. Time," Baekhyun whispered. He walked over until he was standing in front of Chanyeol, and then he grabbed his face in both hands; he pushed Chanyeol up against the wall with one knee between his legs, pinning him there, and then he pressed their lips together.

 

"This is great, Baek... really great," Chanyeol said, his words half-smothered by Baekhyun's tongue in his mouth. "We can get right on to that… but first I want to talk to you. About something important." It was pointless even trying to talk; he could hardly make himself heard in between the enthusiasm of Baekhyun's kisses.

 

Baekhyun pulled away for a moment, his breathing already ragged and heavy. "Can't it wait until after... well, you know.."

 

Chanyeol sighed. "I guess so..." It wasn't really the best time, to be fair; but if finding his own boyfriend irresistibly sexy was a crime, then Chanyeol knew he was guilty for life, and so he let Baekhyun drag him to his bed and push him down onto it. Soon enough, Baekhyun's hands were everywhere, roaming freely all over Chanyeol's body – at first over the top of his clothes, and then venturing underneath them. And then, before long, all of their clothes were off altogether.

 

"Someone's keen," Chanyeol said; he watched, mesmerised, while Baekhyun hopped on top of him, leaning him back against the headboard. He picked up both of Chanyeol's hands, moving them to his waist, and then wrapped both arms around his neck.

 

"Oh, you have no idea," he whispered; he leaned forward to kiss Chanyeol again, his tongue swiping across his bottom lip. "You have no fucking idea.."

 

"Mmm. Have I ever told you how great you look when you're naked? Because I don't think I have.." Chanyeol trailed his hands up along the sides of Baekhyun's body while they kissed, up over his chest, rubbing circles over both nipples until they hardened beneath his thumbs. It made Baekhyun's breath die in this throat in the most satisfying way; he moved his hands down again, over Baekhyun's hips, his fingers softly brushing against his stomach. The way Baekhyun sighed into their kisses when he did this almost made Chanyeol groan out loud, but he managed to hold it in.

 

"I really like it like this," Baekhyun whispered into Chanyeol's mouth, leaning in so close that their foreheads touched. He pulled away for a moment with his hands on either side of Chanyeol's face, gazing at him with half-closed eyes, a soft smile. "I love the way you look at me.."

 

"I can't help it… you're beautiful,” Chanyeol whispered back, and Baekhyun kissed him again before he had a chance to say anything else. Chanyeol loved it this way too, having that incredible body pressed up against him, so close he could put his hands all over it and feel every shudder, every shaking breath. He loved the firmness of Baekhyun's thighs on either side of him, holding him so tightly he could barely move – but Baekhyun could have all the control if that was what he wanted, Chanyeol was happy to give it all away. He loved looking into Baekhyun's eyes, and the taste of his kisses; the ripple of muscle beneath his skin with every slow roll of his body, the delicate arch of his back. He loved feeling Baekhyun's warm lips and tongue on his neck, all the whispered words in his ear – about how good he felt, how he had been waiting for this moment all day. Chanyeol loved it all so much that, for a few minutes at least, he completely forgot about that important talk they were supposed to be having. Baekhyun was good at that: good at making Chanyeol forget things, burning all his thoughts and words into ashes with one touch, one kiss, one lovely little smile, and then letting them all blow away in the wind, lost forever. But there was no room left for thought, anyway; Chanyeol was too overcome by feeling, too alive and aware – aware of his own beating heart, of Baekhyun's hands on his skin, of every single little thing that this one boy could make him feel.

 

Baekhyun lifted one hand to touch Chanyeol's face again, with such a tender expression that, for a moment, Chanyeol was convinced he was about to say something life-changing. But then he moved the hand away; he let his head tilt back again, his breathing growing heavier, his nails biting into Chanyeol's shoulders. Chanyeol's name spilled from his open mouth one last time, and then it seemed that the moment –- whatever it was, or might have been – was gone.

 

"Mmm... I really needed that," Baekhyun said when it was over, and he flopped down onto the bed, pulling Chanyeol's arms around his waist. Chanyeol leaned forward, kissing the nape of his neck and then his ear in an attempt to rouse him.

 

"Baek," he said softly, "I still need to talk to you about that important thing, remember…?"

 

"What important thing…?" Baekhyun seemed relaxed, almost boneless with satisfaction. The lovemaking had clearly put him in a good mood, which meant this was an ideal time to make his proposal, Chanyeol thought. As good as it would ever get, anyway. But before he could get a word in, Baekhyun suddenly turned over to face him and said, "actually, there's something I wanted to tell you too. Something serious."

 

Chanyeol's eyes widened. "There is..?"

 

"Uh-huh." Baekhyun rolled on top of Chanyeol's body again and started kissing his neck, his lips gradually moving down over his chest, all the way down to his stomach. "You know, it's really hard for me to say stuff like this," he whispered, his breath hot on Chanyeol's skin. "But I can't hold it in any longer.."

 

Chanyeol didn't know why he suddenly felt sick. He was breathless, too, but not in a good way. Baekhyun raised his head and looked up at him, his warm brown eyes burning with something unspoken. "I've been thinking a lot lately about how close we've become... how happy I am when I'm with you," he said quietly. "And I want you to know that―"

 

"—I'm leaving," Chanyeol blurted out, interrupting him, and then covered his face with his hands. Wrong words, wrong order: he was supposed to say 'I love you' first, and then ask Baekhyun to move away with him, because that was the fucking plan – he'd rehearsed it a thousand times in front of the bathroom mirror, for Pete's sake. Through the gaps between his fingers he could see Baekhyun sitting up on the bed and looking down at him, his eyes narrowing in confusion.

 

"What do you mean, you're leaving...?" he asked; he was clearly trying to keep his voice calm and level, but a few cracks crept into it. "Where are you going..?"

 

"My old department wants me to transfer back there –- back to the city," Chanyeol said quietly. "And I want to go."

 

Baekhyun's expression darkened. "Since when..?"

 

"I want to go home, Baek." Chanyeol reached over and grabbed Baekhyun's hand, rubbing it gently. "I'm going to accept the transfer. But I want you to come too – we can move there, together.."

 

"No," Baekhyun said quietly, and Chanyeol's heart sank inside his chest.

 

"Why not..?" he asked.

 

Baekhyun snapped, his mood changing so quickly that Chanyeol couldn't help flinching. "Well, did you assume I would just tag along after you? I'm not a fucking pet, Chanyeol. I have a life of my own, you know.."

 

"I didn't assume anything… I just wanted to be honest with you, because it's the right thing to do. I was never meant to be here permanently; all they told me initially was that it was indefinite."

 

Baekhyun was breathing hard again, but this time not from arousal – Chanyeol could tell that he was livid. "And you never thought to tell me that before you dragged me into a relationship, of course."

 

"Well, how was I to know they'd want me back after only six months?” Chanyeol said, shrinking back a little at the look on Baekhyun’s face. “I thought I'd be stuck here for years.."

 

Baekhyun just grunted in reply, and then rolled away from Chanyeol on the bed without speaking.

 

"I was hoping that you would actually want to come with me," Chanyeol continued. "Didn't you used to say how much you wanted to get out of this place..?"

 

"Yes, but on my own terms," Baekhyun mumbled, his head half buried in Chanyeol’s pillow. "Not yours. I have feelings for you, sure, but I'm not ready to move in with you... I wanted to take it slow. I didn't want to mess this up. I thought you wanted the same thing, but I guess I was mistaken."

 

Chanyeol heaved out a loud, exasperated sigh. "Fine. I get it," he said. "You don't have to come if you hate the idea so much. I'll admit that I'm upset, but I'm not holding a gun to your head… I honestly thought you'd be happy. I'm sorry if that's not the case."

 

"So that's it, then..?" Baekhyun whispered, finally turning around to look at him. "We're done, huh?"

 

Chanyeol didn’t want to roll his eyes, but it was hard not to. "I didn't say that... don't put words in my mouth."

 

"Well, what else is going to happen?" Baekhyun said angrily. "You're leaving, aren't you? Why tell me all that bullshit about wanting to be with me at all, if you never planned to stay? I was more than happy for us to fuck once or twice and leave it at that, but no – you wanted 'more'. Like hell, you wanted more... why is it too much to ask for, having someone who actually wants me – someone who won't walk away when something better comes along?"

 

"Of course I want you – that's why I'm asking you to come with me!” On the inside, Chanyeol was distraught at Baekhyun's reaction, but he tried to keep as calm as possible. "Clearly you don't want to, and that's okay... I'm not going to make you. I'm not the arsehole you seem to think I am. But I don't know when I'll get another chance like this, Baek. Please… don't make me say no."

 

Baekhyun opened his mouth to fire back at Chanyeol, but then he stopped. His expression softened into one that was more sad and resigned than angry. "I want to know the truth,” he whispered. “If I choose not to go with you, will you still leave..?"

 

Chanyeol nodded. "Yeah, probably," he said, in a quiet voice.

 

"When…?" Baekhyun asked. Chanyeol thought he saw the boy’s lips tremble, if only slightly.

 

"I don't know yet. Pretty soon, most likely."

 

Baekhyun was looking at Chanyeol like he'd grown an extra head now. He was quiet ― furious quiet, and he was taking deep breaths. This was not a good sign. His nostrils were flaring – also not a good sign. Chanyeol suddenly felt unsafe in his own home.

 

So this is it, he thought. This is how a 'domestic incident' is born. Soon Baekhyun would be yelling and grabbing whatever was within arm's reach and throwing it at him, and the whole house would come down around them. Maybe he would stab Chanyeol in the crotch with a fork – not that there were any forks within reach right now… but Chanyeol knew better than most that absolutely anything was possible during a heated argument. And then the neighbours would hear the screaming and carrying on and they would report them and then they would both be arrested and dragged down to the station in their undies by one of Chanyeol's colleagues – oh-please-God-not-Sehun.

 

But Baekhyun did nothing of the sort. What he did do instead was curl up in the foetal position and refuse to talk, and Chanyeol hardly felt brave enough to put a hand on his shoulder, but he did it anyway. He shook Baekhyun gently to see if he'd respond. "Baek... babe, please. Please talk to me.."

 

Baekhyun immediately rolled off the bed and began to throw his clothes on haphazardly, in a furious whirlwind of arms and legs. When he was dressed ― his sweatshirt was on back-to-front, but Chanyeol dared not point this out ― he turned to look at Chanyeol from the bedroom door. The expression on his face was one Chanyeol knew all too well, for he had seen it a number of times before, on the faces of all the people to whom he'd ever delivered bad news: 'your wife's been in a serious accident', and 'I'm so sorry, but your husband didn't make it,' and 'we still haven't found your daughter, but rest assured that we're looking.' The look in those eyes made him feel sick, almost on the verge of panic. It was a look of complete and utter devastation.

 

And what kind of person did that make him? Who could break such a beautiful, fragile heart, one already broken so many times, weakened in so many places…?

 

Chanyeol had never felt like a monster before, but he sure as hell felt like one now.

 

"Please... anyone but you," Baekhyun whispered, and then he turned away so that Chanyeol couldn't see his face. Before Chanyeol could find the words to respond, he was gone.

 

Baekhyun ran out the door of the terrace and out onto the street; after quickly throwing on whatever clothing and shoes he could find on his bedroom floor, Chanyeol took off after him, but he couldn't keep up. Baekhyun soon moved away from the convenience of the road, and began leaping up onto walls and vaulting over fences instead. He did this with all the ease and agility of a creature more feline than human, and Chanyeol had never seen anything like it; he was generally well aware of his own physical limitations, but not once had he ever felt so clumsy and useless in all his life. All the gruelling physical training he'd been forced to endure during his years at the academy had clearly come to nothing.

 

Chanyeol quickly gave up on the foot chase and ran back to his car – he'd search every street in town over the entire night looking for Baekhyun, if he had to. The boy may well have been quick and nimble, but he was no match for a car, surely.

 

However, it soon turned out that Chanyeol was wrong in this assumption; Baekhyun was not quite as fast as the average car, granted, but he could take plenty of detours that a car couldn't. Like through people's backyards, for instance. Which was precisely what he was doing now.

 

Chanyeol pulled up on the side of the road out the front of someone's house and sighed, hurling his head back against the headrest, banging it several times. For a moment he felt breathless, and was worried another attack might be coming, but the feeling thankfully subsided after a minute or two. Still, what the hell was he going to do? It was one of those weird-as-fuck scenarios that he was certain even years of being in the force couldn't prepare you for. And for all he knew, this would all turn out to be something they could both laugh about by tomorrow morning… but right now, there wasn't anything amusing whatsoever that Chanyeol could see in the situation. Not even half an hour ago, he'd been lying in bed with his beautiful, smart, wonderful boyfriend. Now, he wasn't entirely sure he still had a boyfriend.

 

Driving around, he saw nothing; as usual, the streets of Maplehedge were quiet, but not the peaceful kind of quiet ― it was more the eerie, unsettling kind, and it made Chanyeol's stomach feel funny, even within the relative safety of his vehicle. And Baekhyun was out there in the thick of it, coming face-to-face with God only knew what ― savage dogs, possibly. Or angry farmers with scary guns. He circled the same block of houses several times, knowing that Baekhyun would eventually have to emerge from somewhere, unless he was planning to camp out in someone's backyard for the rest of his life. But in the end it was hopeless – Chanyeol saw nothing. Not a single thing caught his eye: no moving shadows, no rustling of bushes. No one was around at all.

 

Chanyeol parked the car again and sat inside it for a while, trying not to panic. But it came anyway – of course it came. In desperation, he grabbed an old brown paper bag that he found scrunched in a ball next to his feet, tipped out the stale muffin crumbs inside and flattened it out. He used the paper bag to help himself breathe until he felt slightly more alive, and then he drove off again. He had to keep looking; he just had to. Not getting Baekhyun back was absolutely not a fucking option.

 

 

 

* * * * *

Chanyeol was eternally grateful to have an evening shift the next day, having spent the entire night not sleeping; an early-morning start would have been the end of him. As soon as he trudged (no floating today) into the station – still looking like death, for all he knew, since he was worried sick over Baekhyun’s disappearance – Amber beckoned him over to her desk and asked to speak with him.

 

"Hey," she said in a quiet voice. Her expression was worryingly sombre. "I need to talk to you.."

 

"About what?" More drama was the last thing Chanyeol needed right now; he still hadn’t heard a single peep from Baekhyun since he ran off the night before, and he was a mess.

 

"Just come with me," Amber said. She took Chanyeol round to one of the interview rooms and told him to sit down while she shut the door behind them. Chanyeol took a seat and waited for her to do the same. After a minute or so of quiet consideration, Amber took a deep breath, signalling that she was about to speak at last. "Chanyeol..." she began, and then paused for a moment before she continued. She seemed to be choosing her words wisely. "Baekhyun's gotten himself into quite a bit of trouble… and I know you two are pretty close, so I thought you should know."

 

Chanyeol's heart immediately sank into his stomach. He’d assumed that whatever Amber was going to discuss with him would somehow be related to the whole transfer situation; the possibility that Baekhyun was involved hadn’t even entered his thoughts. "What do you mean..?"

 

Amber sighed, rubbing her forehead with one hand. "Sehun found him sitting alone next to Good Buy’s entrance last night, when he was on his way home after his shift,” she said. “Apparently Baekhyun seemed distressed and visibly intoxicated, so Sehun stopped to see if he was alright, and then he tried to move him along. Baekhyun mustn’t have taken too kindly to this, because he flew into a rage and attacked Sehun, shoving him to the ground and punching him repeatedly in the face. Among other more minor injuries, he ended up breaking the poor guy’s jaw. Sehun's at the hospital now, having it wired shut… we had to get a written statement from him, because he can’t really speak at the moment.."

 

Chanyeol was lost for words. "Fucking hell,” he whispered. “Please tell me you're joking…"

 

"I'm dead serious, I'm afraid," Amber said, in a quiet voice.

 

“But… he doesn’t even drink. Are you sure it was him…?”

 

“Positive,” Amber replied. “I’ve checked the security tapes from the cameras out the front of the store myself, and it was him, alright – or someone who looks a hell of a lot like him. If it was him, though, then he’ll probably be wearing a few battle scars himself right now. I guess we won’t know until we bring him in.”

 

"Oh, God... it's my fault he was upset." Chanyeol leaned forward over the table and buried his head in his hands. "I had an argument with him last night, at my house... and then he got really angry and took off. I drove around town the whole night trying to find him, but I had no luck, so I went home and hoped he'd eventually turn up. But he never did.”

 

"He was at your house..?" There was a note of surprise in Amber’s voice. Chanyeol couldn't tell if it was genuine or forced.

 

"Yeah," he replied, but he didn't lift his head. He didn't want to know what expression she was wearing right now.

 

"I see," Amber said quietly. "Still, you didn't tell him to go and put someone in the hospital, Chanyeol, so there's no need to feel responsible for his actions. He made that decision on his own. Whether under the influence or not, there’s no excuse."

 

"I wouldn’t even have imagined he’d have it in him, to be honest,” Chanyeol said quietly. He let out a loud groan of despair. "Fuck... I just can't believe it. Where is he now…?"

 

"Funny – I was just about to ask you the same thing,” Amber said.

 

Chanyeol finally lifted his head, looking at her blankly. "What do you mean..?" he asked. Amber looked right back at him with one brow arched, her eyes narrowing slightly.

 

"Sehun wasn't able to subdue Baekhyun, being injured and on his own, so he let him get away after the incident," she said. "This morning, Minseok and Jongdae went around to the address they had on file, to see if they could nab Baekhyun there, only to discover that it’s not actually a residential address. In fact, his given details led them to what appears to be a storage facility. They returned without making an arrest."

 

Chanyeol was starting to get short of breath again. Please, he thought, not now…

 

"Chanyeol," Amber said in a calm voice, "if you know where Baekhyun might be living currently, then you have to tell me."

 

"But... even if Baekhyun did do it, how do you know Sehun didn’t provoke him in some way?” Chanyeol said. “You know what the guy’s like, he's always had a thing against Baekhyun.."

 

"Well, we don’t know Baekhyun’s side of things yet… that’s why we need to speak to him," Amber said, and then she sighed. "Anyway, I’ve spoken to the Good Buy employee who made the call to us at the time of the incident, and the attack seems to have been unwarranted. The security footage clearly shows that all Sehun did before Baekhyun lunged at him was lean over in front of him and say something. Unfortunately, we will never know for certain what was said. But even if there was some sort of verbal provocation beforehand, it doesn't give Baekhyun license to commit assault. If you still have any doubts, you're more than welcome to view the tapes for yourself."

 

Chanyeol shook his head. "It’s fine… I believe you,” he said quietly, and swallowed hard. “What will he get for this, do you think? Time…?”

 

"I don't know, but Sehun’s frothing at the mouth to press charges," Amber replied. "In the condition he's in – unable to speak or even eat solids – he's going to be off work for quite a while. But he wasn't technically on the job at the time, so Baekhyun won't be charged with assaulting an officer on duty… that's one thing he's got in his favour. Assuming he pleads guilty, he might even get off a bit lighter. I guess we'll just have to wait and see. Now, are you going to tell me where he is, or not?"

 

Chanyeol buried his head in his hands again. "Oh, God," he said, for the second time – it was funny how he only ever got all religious when the shit hit the fan, oh how his mother would be laughing at him now.

 

"I'm sorry, Chanyeol," Amber said. "I know this must be very hard for you, given that Baekhyun's a good friend of yours…"

 

"I love him, Amber," Chanyeol mumbled into his hands, cutting her sentence short. "He's not just a friend."

 

He heard Amber fall silent for a while, and when he lifted his head to look at her, he saw her face begin to crumple at what he'd said, at the realisation that this was something she couldn't fix ― one of those hopeless scenarios she'd mentioned where all you could do was offer the person your hand. So offering Chanyeol her hand was exactly what she did, and Chanyeol reached out and held onto it, because comfort was comfort after all, and right now he needed it more than ever. It was obvious Amber had no idea what to say to make him feel better, and that was okay; not knowing what to say or do was a genuine human response to something like this, Chanyeol thought. He wouldn't have had a clue what to say to someone in his situation either.

 

Amber smiled at him ― a warm, sincere smile, and as usual her concern only made Chanyeol want to cry. He knew his eyes were already wet, but he was past caring.

 

"I see," she said. "I had a feeling that may have been the case. Are you and Baekhyun an item..?"

 

"Yeah… I guess so," Chanyeol said quietly. "At least, we were. Now I'm not so sure."

 

Amber shook her head. "Fucking hell,” she said. “What a mess.."

 

"Will I have to stop seeing him now…?"

 

Amber let out a long exhale through her nostrils and was silent for a moment. "I won't say anything about this to anyone, of course, since it's not my business," she said. "But I think it's probably something you'll need to think long and hard about."

 

"I don't know if I can leave him," Chanyeol whispered. "If he even still wants to be with me in the first place.."

 

"Well, at the end of the day, that call is up to you to make," Amber said. "I suppose it depends on how much you're willing to risk to stay with him. Maybe this was just a one-off, and he'll learn his lesson from it… but you really never know. I used to have a close friend who got on the wrong side of the law, Chanyeol, and all I can say is, once you choose to go into law enforcement, relationships like that almost never work out… it'll always be them against us. For your own sake, you might be better off keeping your distance.”

 

Chanyeol nodded. "I know," he whispered. He put his head down on the table, too exhausted to hold himself up. "I know I should end it, but it's not that simple… I've never loved anyone the way I love him."

 

"Chanyeol, I need you to tell me the truth," Amber said gently. Chanyeol could hear her leaning forward slightly, but he didn't look at her. "Do you know where Baekhyun is right now? Where he might be staying..?"

 

Chanyeol swallowed thickly and said nothing.

 

"Because if you don't tell me, then I'll just have to pop 'round to the Lucky Cat one night and arrest him while he's at work, and I wouldn't want to make a scene," Amber said. "He can't lie low forever."

 

"Alright, fine… I know where he lives," Chanyeol said quietly, lifting his head again. "But please, don't make me accompany you during the arrest. It's bad enough that he'll know I told you where he is… that’ll be enough of a betrayal, in his eyes."

 

"You won't have to accompany me,” Amber said. “Given your emotional involvement with Baekhyun, you won't have anything to do with his case. If it makes you feel better, I'll go and bring him in myself. I’ll probably need to take someone else for back-up, though… if Baekhyun could take someone as tall as Sehun down, then I don’t really like my chances.”

 

"Okay," Chanyeol said. He took another deep, shuddering breath and said, "Baekhyun didn't give us a false address. That storage facility the boys went to is his address… he rents out a locker there that he's been living in for a while now. It's unit number 56."

 

Amber frowned at him. "He lives in a storage locker…?"

 

“Yeah,” Chanyeol replied, nodding. "Technically, I guess you could say he's homeless. I've been trying to get him to move in with me, but he always refuses… I think he doesn't want to depend on me, or something. Anyway, I guess it hardly matters now."

 

"Okay," Amber said quietly. "Thank you for telling me all this, Chanyeol… I know how hard it must have been."

 

"Don't bother thanking me," Chanyeol replied, his voice barely above a whisper. "I didn't do it because I wanted to."

 

"I know. And it might not feel like it right now, but you're doing the right thing, you know. For him and for you."

 

Chanyeol wiped his eyes on the back of his hand, but he didn’t reply. He got up out of his seat, and Amber put a hand on his shoulder as she followed him out of the room.

 

 

 

* * * * *

Chanyeol didn’t see Baekhyun again until the next day, after he’d been brought in to the station and questioned. When he noticed Minseok had finally left the interview room, he hurried over to speak to him.

 

"Hey,” he said in a hushed voice, “how is he?" Through the door, he could see Baekhyun still sitting alone inside the room, staring down at the table in front of him. He looked about as exhausted as Chanyeol felt.

 

"He seems okay, considering,” Minseok replied. “At his request, we left him to speak with a legal advisor for a while, and then he answered all our questions without a fuss; he freely admitted to the assault, so my understanding is that he’ll probably enter a guilty plea. We're releasing him on bail for the time being, but he’ll have to appear at the local court on Monday… I guess his fate’s in the hands of The Maj now."

 

Chanyeol sighed and rubbed his eyes. "I thought as much,” he said. “Would I be able to attend the hearing, do you think..?"

 

Minseok nodded. "Should be okay… clear it up with the chief first, but I doubt he'd have any problems with you starting later that day. Family and friends are allowed to come along for support, anyhow."

 

Chanyeol said nothing in response to this, for he knew that Baekhyun had neither. Minseok gave him a sympathetic look, and then he said, “you know, if you want to go in there and speak to him, you can.”

 

“I don’t know...” Chanyeol glanced over at Baekhyun nervously. “You think he’d even want to talk to me? I mean, I sort of did turn him in..”

 

“Well, there’s only one way to find out,” Minseok replied; he gave Chanyeol a pat on the shoulder and strolled off down the corridor towards the office. Chanyeol watched him walk away for a moment; then, taking a deep breath to calm himself, he made his way over to the interview room. When he walked inside and sat down opposite Baekhyun, the boy didn't greet him – he didn't even spare Chanyeol a glance. He was looking down at his hands on the table; there was some light bruising on his knuckles, Chanyeol noticed, and a few scratches on his face and neck from where Sehun must have tried to fight him off. Chanyeol just sat there and stared at him without speaking, feeling simultaneous surges of love and concern and anger.

 

"Well, I don't even know where to start…" he said, after a lengthy silence.

 

Baekhyun’s head remained bowed, but his eyes flickered up to meet Chanyeol’s. "I'm sorry," he said, sounding anything but. His tone was completely flat. "That's what you want to hear, isn't it..?"

 

"Why did you do it?" Chanyeol asked quietly.

 

"Because I was angry. And drunk, I suppose… but that’s neither here nor there."

 

"You don't even drink! Where did you get the booze?”

 

“I didn’t steal it, if that’s what you’re implying,” Baekhyun replied coldly. “I bought it, obviously; I had some sorrows to drown, and I thought that night would be a good time to start.” He let out a heavy sigh, and his entire body seemed like it was deflating. "Not one of the better ideas I've had, I'll admit… but what's done is done."

 

"Being drunk isn't an excuse for smashing someone’s face in," Chanyeol said – he grabbed a fistful of his own hair in frustration, pulling on it until it hurt. "I mean, what if you killed him? What if he passed out and hit his head on the pavement, and never revived? Do you see how serious this could have been – how serious it is? I know you were angry, and that it was probably my fault, but what were you fucking thinking…?”

 

"I wasn’t thinking – it just happened," Baekhyun said quietly. He wiped his nose on his sleeve and muttered, "what difference does it make, anyway? Either way, I'm fucked."

 

Chanyeol sighed and rubbed his forehead with one hand. "I'm just trying to understand…" he said quietly, but Baekhyun immediately cut him off.

 

"Oh, don't even try that analysis bullshit on me,” he said, in an irritated tone. “You don't know the first thing about some of the shit I've seen.."

 

Chanyeol could feel himself bristling. "Well, what about me? You said you were happy with me… that you hadn't been this happy in a long time. Before you went and did something as stupid as putting someone in the fucking hospital, could you not have stopped and thought about me – about us – just for one second..?"

 

"Not everything is about you," Baekhyun muttered. “Sorry to break it to you, but someone has to.”

 

"Well, you ran off in the middle of me trying to be honest with you, so of course I'm going to think this is about me…"

 

"And how did you expect me to react?" Baekhyun snapped; his eyes flashed with angry tears. "I was this close to telling you I was in love with you – that I've never felt this way about anyone before, ever. So fucking close. And I'm thanking all the gods in the sky that I didn't say anything at all, now that I know better.."

 

Chanyeol stared at him in disbelief. "Wait. What…?"

 

"Please," Baekhyun said quietly, "go away. Anyway, I know you were the one who told your mates where they could find me… don't think I'll be forgetting about that in a hurry."

 

"Baekhyun, I had no choice," Chanyeol said. "They would have gotten you eventually… I mean, what were you going to do – run away? Jump over some more fences? How far did you think you’d get on nothing but your own two feet..?" He hated himself for sounding so desperate – for needing to justify doing the right thing, even though it felt so wrong. He wasn't the one who had assaulted someone, so there was no reason for him to be feeling so awful; Amber had reassured him that he was doing the best thing for them both.

 

But it didn't matter. It still felt wrong.

 

"Just go away, already… I don't want to talk to you anymore," Baekhyun said, putting his head down on the table. "I've been questioned for long enough – I’ve said my part. You already know I did it. I don’t know what more you people want from me.”

 

Chanyeol sighed. "Baekhyun, look at me…”

 

“No. Piss off,” came the mumbled reply.

 

“I'm here right now because I care deeply about you, not because I’m trying to probe you," Chanyeol said. "I couldn't question you even if I wanted to… not if we're in a relationship. It wouldn't be allowed.."

 

"Yeah? Well, you're still a fucking cop," Baekhyun muttered savagely. "And I'm not so sure that there still is a relationship, right now – so please, I’m begging you… just leave me alone. Otherwise, if you'd prefer it, I can put you in the hospital as well."

 

"Wow – threatening a police officer now, huh? Someone's on a roll today," Chanyeol said sarcastically, but this time Baekhyun didn't respond. He kept his head down on the table in front of him. Chanyeol sat there and looked at him for a while, waiting for him to say something, but Baekhyun seemed intent on pretending he wasn't there.

 

Chanyeol sighed and got up from his seat, making his way towards the door. Before reaching out to open it, he turned back to look at Baekhyun and said, "I know you're upset with me, Baekhyun, but you can't pull shit like this every time you get angry about something. This is not normal, well-adjusted behaviour."

 

Baekhyun lifted his head, looking up at Chanyeol with sad eyes. "I'm not either of those things," he said quietly. "I thought you'd have realised that by now."

 

"Well, you had me fooled. For a while, at least."

 

Baekhyun nodded in silence. He had tears in his eyes again, and he turned his head away, furiously rubbing at his face so that Chanyeol wouldn't see them fall. "I'm sorry," he whispered, and he meant it, this time – Chanyeol could tell. He shook his head.

 

"No, I'm sorry," he said. "I'm sorry no one was around to teach you that your actions all have consequences. But if you end up learning nothing at all from this experience, then I can't help you, Baek. I just can't." He left the interview room then, closing the door gently behind him. When he turned to look back through the glass pane in the door, he saw that Baekhyun's head was back on the table.

 

 

 

* * * * *

Chanyeol barely heard the knock on the door above the sound of the rain, hurling itself in torrents against the windows. He knew who it was before he even answered it, since no one else ever came to his house at night. When he opened the door, Baekhyun was standing on the doorstep, soaked to the bone, and Chanyeol wanted to look at him coldly – Baekhyun hadn't spoken to him for days, after all – but he couldn't bring himself to do it. His expression softened of its own accord when he saw the boy standing there, both arms wrapped around himself to keep warm, his hair wet and plastered to his forehead.

 

"Hey," Chanyeol said. "How'd you get here?"

 

"Walked," Baekhyun replied. His teeth were chattering.

 

"In the rain..?"

 

Baekhyun clearly thought the question too obvious to bother answering, because he ignored it. "Can I come in?"

 

Chanyeol nodded without a word, and moved to one side to let him pass; he shut the door behind him and followed Baekhyun down the hallway. Baekhyun stopped for a moment to pull off his wet sneakers, leaving them in a small puddle of water on the wooden floor, along with his bag, but he didn't bother taking off his jacket. Chanyeol stood behind him with his hands in his pockets, watching in silence.

 

"You gonna talk to me now, or what?" he asked.

 

Baekhyun nodded. "Sorry I haven't been around," he said quietly. "My hearing's tomorrow morning… my mind’s been all over the place."

 

"I know," Chanyeol said. "I was planning to go, actually. I made sure I got the morning off."

 

"I see." Baekhyun looked uncomfortable now. He was going to ask something, Chanyeol could tell... he probably came to ask for help, and Chanyeol knew there was nothing in the world he hated more. Whatever it was that Baekhyun needed to say, he could see in the boy's eyes that it was killing him.

 

"Do you mind if I stay here tonight..?" Baekhyun said at last, in a voice so small and quiet that Chanyeol almost missed it. "I don't want to be alone."

 

"Of course you can stay," Chanyeol replied, his brow furrowed with concern. "Did you really think I would just throw you out in the rain..?"

 

Baekhyun sighed and shook his head. "No, I guess not. And thank you."

 

"It’s alright. Are you hungry?" Chanyeol jerked a thumb towards the kitchen. "I can go make you something... it won't take long."

 

"Actually, I think I'll just go to bed, if that's okay," Baekhyun said quietly, and Chanyeol nodded. He wasn’t going to make the boy eat if he didn’t want to.

 

"Okay. Well, come on… I'll take your jacket,” he said. “And you might want to get out of those wet clothes… you'll only make yourself sick."

 

Baekhyun froze for a moment, but he took his jacket off and handed it to Chanyeol. Chanyeol hung it up next to the front door, and then he took Baekhyun gently by the hand. "Come with me. I'll put you to bed." He took Baekhyun to his bedroom, and told him to wait a moment while he turned down the covers on one side of the bed. "There you go. If you need a toothbrush, I have a few spares in the bathroom cabinet. There are extra blankets in the closet and PJ's in the top drawer of the dresser if you get cold. Get some rest, okay? I'll see you in the morning.."

 

"Where are you going..?" Baekhyun asked. Chanyeol paused halfway through the bedroom door, and turned around to look at him again. He saw Baekhyun standing next to the bed, fiddling with his clothing, as he often did when he was uncomfortable. For some reason, he looked so young and small that it made Chanyeol want to gather him up in his arms and never let him out into the cruel world again; but then, he knew firsthand that this was no way to live.

 

"I don't want to disturb you," he said to Baekhyun. "You need a good sleep so you’ll be fresh and ready for tomorrow. I'll be on the sofa if you need me."

 

"I’ll never be ready for tomorrow," Baekhyun said quietly. “So you may as well come back here.”

 

Chanyeol bit his lip. "I don't know, Baek.."

 

"Please," Baekhyun whispered. "Don't leave me alone."

 

Chanyeol sighed and nodded his head; Baekhyun had walked all the way here in the rain to see him, after all, and so he couldn't very well refuse. Baekhyun quickly undressed down to his briefs, leaving his damp jeans and jumper in a pile on the floor; then, realising the briefs were wet too, he peeled them off, and Chanyeol tried his hardest not to stare, but it was difficult. Baekhyun got into the bed first, pulling the covers around himself, and Chanyeol followed him, keeping his t-shirt and track-pants on. He cuddled up close to Baekhyun's back and put an arm around his bare shoulders. Baekhyun shivered – whether from his touch or because it was cold, Chanyeol didn't know. But then, after a little while, he exhaled slowly and his whole body seemed to relax.

 

"Why do you do this to me..?" Chanyeol whispered. He pressed his lips against the back of Baekhyun's neck. "You know I can't say no to you. It isn't fair."

 

"Didn't anyone ever tell you?" Baekhyun whispered back. "Life's not fair.."

 

"I know. But it gave me you."

 

Baekhyun turned around until they were facing each other and looked at Chanyeol for a long time, his face shadowed and beautiful in the half-dark. After a while he leaned forward a little until their foreheads touched, and he kissed Chanyeol softly on one corner of his mouth, and then the other. Then he rolled over until he was right on top of Chanyeol with his knees on either side of his body, and he bent down and kissed him again; in response to this, Chanyeol's hands moved up along Baekhyun's bare thighs to his hips, and then he kept them there. It seemed that the kissing was all Baekhyun wanted, because his own hands didn't wander, as they often did; they remained attached to the sides of Chanyeol's face, caressing his cheeks, his jaw, along the edges of his ears, and around the back of his neck. Chanyeol hated himself for feeling the first stirrings of excitement at having this beautiful person completely naked on top of him, even from being touched with such gentleness, such tender innocence. He couldn’t help it; he wanted more – with Baekhyun due to be sentenced the next day, who even knew when they would be able to touch each other again? But it was clear to him that Baekhyun desired only closeness, and the comfort that came with it – not sex. Chanyeol wondered if Baekhyun could tell that he was aroused, or if he would be put off by it, but he didn’t seem to notice. If he did notice, then maybe he didn’t care.

 

After a while, Baekhyun pulled away and looked into Chanyeol's eyes, both hands still gently touching his face. "Do you still like me the same as before..?" he asked. The uncertainty in his voice made Chanyeol’s heart hurt, a dull ache inside his chest.

 

"Of course I do," he whispered.

 

Baekhyun nodded in silence and lay down on the bed with his body close to Chanyeol's, resting his head on his chest. He had an erection now too, and Chanyeol heard him let out a quiet, jerking breath when it accidentally rubbed against his leg, but neither of them did anything about it.

 

"I really fell for the way you looked at me, you know... no one's ever looked at me that way before," Baekhyun whispered. "And now I'm really scared that I'll never see you looking at me like that again."

 

Chanyeol wrapped both arms tightly around him, holding him close. "This won't change the way I feel about you," he said, whispering into Baekhyun's hair. He pressed a soft kiss to the boy’s forehead. "It won't… I promise."

 

Baekhyun was silent for a long time. "I don't believe you," he said quietly. "But it's okay."

 

 

 

* * * * *

The next morning, Chanyeol awoke to Baekhyun's bare back turned towards him, the morning sun shining on his shoulders through the curtains. He leaned forward and kissed the nape of Baekhyun's neck, leaving a trail of soft kisses along one shoulder and down over his arm. Apparently Baekhyun had been awake already, because he rolled over until he was facing Chanyeol and looked at him, blinking his reddened eyes, saying nothing. It was clear that he hadn't slept properly; Chanyeol had woken up briefly during the night and noticed him lying there awake, the light from the street-lamp outside the window glinting off his eyes as he stared up at the ceiling. A little later, he’d woken up again to Baekhyun tossing so violently in his sleep that he'd had to hold him tight to keep him still.

 

After both of these episodes, Chanyeol remembered falling asleep again so quickly that it made him feel guilty to think about it. He didn’t mention any of these things now; there didn't seem to be any point. Instead he opened his arms without a word and let Baekhyun slide in between them, cuddling him for a little while, his lips at first pressed upon the boy’s forehead, but eventually finding his mouth. Baekhyun’s hands moved up to touch Chanyeol’s face lovingly while they kissed, and then they ran down along his arms, over his back. They ended up venturing beneath the elastic of Chanyeol’s boxers, and he shivered at the feeling of cool fingers on hot skin, rubbing and stroking in a sleepy, lazy sort of way. “Want you,” Baekhyun whispered, tugging the boxers down over Chanyeol’s hips; he pulled Chanyeol roughly on top of him, begging for his love in a soft murmur against his lips that, as always, Chanyeol couldn’t refuse.

 

For some reason, Baekhyun was unusually quiet while they made love, making nearly no sounds at all. “Come on, baby…” Chanyeol whispered into his hair, tenderly kissing his forehead; he would have given anything for one little sigh, one whisper, just something to tell him that Baekhyun felt even a tenth of what he was feeling right now. They moved so slowly that it seemed to take forever for them to finish, but Chanyeol was so thankful for this last little moment of precious intimacy that he didn’t care how long it took. He almost wanted to cry when it was over, only holding it in for Baekhyun’s sake, kissing him softly and holding him close until the morning alarm on his phone went off. When they finally rolled out of bed, Chanyeol went to the kitchen to make breakfast, and they ate together at the kitchen table, without speaking. Baekhyun hardly ate anything at all, and Chanyeol didn't feel like eating much either; he felt bad that his pancakes weren’t as good as Baekhyun's French toast, but Baekhyun seemed too distracted to care either way, picking at the food with little interest. Chanyeol watched him push the same piece of pancake around on his plate for several minutes, soaking up a puddle of maple syrup with it, but he made no move to eat it. Eventually he stood up from the table and put his plate with his unfinished breakfast on it next to the sink, and then he disappeared into the bathroom for a while, leaving Chanyeol to finish up on his own.

 

Since Baekhyun didn't have anything appropriate to wear to the hearing, Chanyeol gave him an old suit that had since become a bit tight for him; it was still a little too big for Baekhyun and needed to be cuffed at the ankles, but otherwise he looked acceptable. He looked handsome, Chanyeol thought, as he stood behind Baekhyun in his bedroom, watching him study his own appearance in the wardrobe mirror – handsome, but worn out. “You look great,” he said.

 

"I feel sick," Baekhyun whispered, staring glumly at his reflection.

 

“I know.” Chanyeol rubbed Baekhyun’s back with a gentle hand to comfort him. He felt much the same way – his stomach was a tumble dryer. “So do you know what you’re going to say..?”

 

Baekhyun sighed and nodded his head. “More or less. I spoke with a legal advisor at the station, and since I’m pleading guilty I figured I would just represent myself... I can’t afford a lawyer right now, anyway. But I’m terrified it won’t come out right… what if I fuck the whole thing up? What if I just open my mouth, and nothing comes out..?”

 

Chanyeol’s expression softened; this was the most Baekhyun had said all at once ever since he arrived. “You’ll be okay,” he said. He stood close to Baekhyun and wrapped his arms around him from behind, kissing the side of his face. “I know you’ll be okay. I’ll be sitting right behind you, silently cheering you on. Unless you decide you don’t want me there… then I won’t go in.”

 

“I want you there,” Baekhyun whispered. He looked at them both in the mirror, at Chanyeol’s arms around him, and then he turned his head to the side so they could kiss. Chanyeol tried to focus on the physical pleasures of the kiss itself – that wonderful feeling of Baekhyun’s lips meeting his own, the warm caress of his tongue, the taste of him – instead of wondering how many more they might have left. Thoughts like that wouldn’t help either of them right now.

 

“Okay. Well, we should get going soon, then,” Chanyeol said, when they eventually parted. “We’ll probably spend half the day waiting around, but it’s better to be early, just in case.”

 

When Baekhyun was ready, Chanyeol drove him down to the local court; he said nothing the whole way, and Chanyeol didn't want to push him to make conversation against his will, so he said nothing either. When they arrived, he parked out the front of the courthouse, which was small and so nondescript that it looked just like a normal house; the only thing lending the building any air of importance was the fact that it had been plopped at the very top of a needlessly tall set of stone stairs. Before Baekhyun got out of the car, he leaned over in his seat and rested a hand on one side of Chanyeol's face, looking deep into his eyes. He kissed Chanyeol on the lips – a long, slow kiss – and when he pulled away Chanyeol saw that his eyes were filling with tears, which Baekhyun tried to hide by quickly turning his head in the direction of the open door. Chanyeol grabbed his hand, trying to get him to stay – “Baek, wait...” he whispered, but Baekhyun pulled away from his grasp and jumped out of the car. He began to make his way up the steps towards the courthouse, alone. Chanyeol slammed his own door shut and hurried after Baekhyun, only slowing down when he fell into step beside him.

 

While Baekhyun presented himself at the registration desk inside, Chanyeol stood a little way off in the foyer with his hands shoved deep in his trouser pockets, close enough to be there if Baekhyun needed him, but far away enough to give him some space. While waiting, he saw Sehun enter the court, shortly followed by Amber and Jongdae; Chanyeol gave them a nod of acknowledgment as they passed. When Baekhyun was done, he walked away from the desk and grabbed Chanyeol’s hand, leading him over to the waiting room, where they both sat down to wait until Baekhyun’s case was ready to be heard. After several minutes, Sehun and the others came to join them in the room, which cooled the atmosphere down by a number of degrees. Sehun – whose face, it had to be said, was still a mess – didn’t bother looking at Chanyeol. Jongdae looked like he really wanted to be somewhere else. Amber offered Chanyeol a sympathetic smile, and Chanyeol smiled back at her, very briefly. He spent the next hour or so (it felt much longer) staring at the clock on the wall, trying to ignore how much Baekhyun was fidgeting beside him, until at last they were called up by the court officer.

 

In the courtroom, Sehun had several people seated on his side - whether they were family, friends or both, Chanyeol didn't know. On his own side, Baekhyun had no one but Chanyeol, who took a seat at one of the benches at the back of the room, where Baekhyun wouldn’t be distracted by his presence. He sat there chewing a thumbnail down to the skin, not even stopping when he tasted the metallic tang of his own blood, his eyes trained on the back of Baekhyun's head for the entirety of the proceedings. Baekhyun seemed calm and resigned throughout the hearing, answering all questions asked of him slowly and clearly – Chanyeol almost felt proud of him, until he remembered why the boy was standing in a courtroom in the first place. Still, he thought Baekhyun handled himself very well, and the character references he’d collected for the case had all seemed promising. When Sehun gave his own version of events – read out by his lawyer, since he was unable to speak – Baekhyun sat quietly in his seat and didn’t react. Chanyeol studied the magistrate’s expression as he listened, but his face gave nothing away.

 

The whole process took even longer than Chanyeol thought it would, and after a lengthy deliberation, the magistrate announced that he considered there to be no appropriate alternative in Baekhyun’s case, and so he sentenced him to four months in a correctional facility. When the sentence was delivered, Chanyeol saw Baekhyun's shoulders slump, if only a little, but he accepted the sentence without protest. To anyone else it would probably have been unnoticeable, but Chanyeol could read Baekhyun's body well enough by now to know he was devastated. When it was over, Sehun walked out first, followed by his group of supporters, and then Jongdae led Baekhyun out of the room. Neither of them looked at Chanyeol.

 

It was an unusually beautiful day outside, given how dismal the weather had been lately, and the sun shone down on Chanyeol as he exited the court. It seemed cruel that that was so. He stood at the top of the courthouse steps with his hands in his pockets and watched Baekhyun being led towards the police car waiting at the bottom; he saw how Jongdae put a hand on the top of his head, guiding him inside, and then shut the door behind him before hopping into the front. Chanyeol stood there watching until the car was gone, and then he sensed someone coming to stand beside him.

 

"Hey... are you okay?" When Chanyeol turned to look at Amber, her expression was solemn. She offered him a consolatory smile.

 

"I'm one of the only people that boy has ever trusted in his entire life," Chanyeol said quietly, and then he sighed and looked away again. "How could I do this to him..?"

 

"Do what?" Amber asked softly.

 

"Everything,” Chanyeol whispered.

 

Amber didn't reply, but Chanyeol could tell from the shifting of her stance that she felt uncomfortable. He shook his head. "You were right... I should have stayed away,” he said. “I feel like the worst person in the world." In response to this, Amber began to rub his back in an attempt to console him, and Chanyeol appreciated it, even though it offered little comfort. She didn't say anything to convince him otherwise, but then he wouldn't have expected her to.

 

 

 

* * * * *

Chanyeol regretted agreeing to come in to work after the hearing was over – the rest of the day was torture, emotionally and physically. All he could think about was the back of Baekhyun's head – in bed that morning; in the courtroom; when he bent down to get into the police car… always the back of him. What if he started to forget what Baekhyun looked like while he was in prison? He had a few photos of Baekhyun in his phone, but was that enough? Then he told himself to stop overreacting – Baekhyun would only be in there for four months. Still, Chanyeol wound himself up so much with all these conflicting thoughts that he brought on an anxiety attack right there in the office, while he was still seated at his desk. It got so bad that he had to run to the toilets, locking himself in one of the stalls to ride it out in peace, away from the watchful eyes of his workmates. When he emerged from the bathroom a little while later, Minseok was waiting for him in the hall outside.

 

“I think you should call it a day,” he said, looking concerned. “Things are quiet around here, anyway, and I can tell you’re in no shape to be here right now. The paperwork can wait until tomorrow.”

 

“Okay,” Chanyeol replied quietly. “I’m sorry, Sarge..”

 

Minseok shook his head. “It’s fine. Go get some rest, I’ll see you in the morning.”

 

As soon as he got back to his house, Chanyeol went straight to bed after a quick shower, too churned up to eat anything. This time, no spiders were saved. When he settled under the covers, he found something balled up beneath his pillow, and saw that it was the jumper Baekhyun had worn to his place the night before.

 

Chanyeol pressed his face against the soft, grey knitted fabric, breathing in so deeply his lungs felt like they'd burst. He did this over and over until he fell asleep, his face still wet with tears, the jumper tucked up warm inside his arms.

 

 

 

* * * * *

Baekhyun had told Chanyeol before he went in to prison that he would contact him when he was ready for him to visit. Chanyeol respected his need to settle in first before they saw each other, but when nearly a whole month went by with no word from him, he was on the verge of driving down there anyway, just to check if Baekhyun was actually still alive. But then, at last, he called. The call of course came while Chanyeol was at work, and he was gutted to find he’d missed it; Baekhyun had left a voice message for him, saying he could call up the prison to schedule a visit on the coming weekend, if he was available then, and then he rattled off a brief set of instructions for doing so. His voice sounded flat and lifeless on the phone, but Chanyeol still lost count of how many times he listened to the message, desperate to hear Baekhyun speak for the first time since he’d left. Eventually he had to force himself to delete it, just to keep from listening to it for the thousandth time.

 

The next few days passed by agonisingly slowly, with much apprehension. Chanyeol didn't know what to expect from the impending visit – he hadn't seen or spoken to Baekhyun in four weeks, and whatever little routines they'd fallen into had all been destroyed by his absence. When the morning of the visit arrived, on a cold, windy Saturday, Chanyeol went to Bean Me Up and had breakfast alone beforehand, as a sort of nod to his and Baekhyun's tradition. The wait-staff had by now given up on their friendly enquiries about where Baekhyun had been lately; all Chanyeol could ever find to tell them was that he had gone away for a while, which was neither the truth nor a lie. Either way, it was more than they needed to know.

 

As soon as he'd finished his breakfast – which he was too nervous to enjoy anyway – Chanyeol got into his car and began the lonely journey to the prison where Baekhyun was serving out his sentence, about an hour's drive south of Maplehedge. He put on a playlist that Amber had made for him while he drove, drumming his fingers anxiously on the steering wheel. He didn't know if Baekhyun even wanted to see him, given that he’d waited so long to call; Chanyeol knew he hated talking at length on the phone, but still – even a short call now and then would have been nice. It wasn't like they had any other way to keep in touch.

 

By the time Chanyeol arrived at the prison, his nerves were already shot and he felt a bit like he might throw up. The look of the place did nothing to help his situation – an ugly, grey monolith of a building it was, vastly unwelcoming, surrounded by rows of chain-link fencing topped off with coils of razor wire that gleamed in the sun, bitingly sharp. Chanyeol walked towards the building on unsteady legs, partly from nerves and partly from sitting down for too long. Once inside, he signed in, had the required several forms of identification checked, was patted down by a prison guard, and then, at last, he was handed a visitor's pass and directed to a sterile-looking room, with grey walls and only one window. The room was filled with rows of plastic tables and chairs, and Chanyeol's eyes scanned over all the people seated at them, looking for Baekhyun. Then he saw him sitting alone at one of the tables, and he made his way over; Baekhyun looked up at Chanyeol when he noticed him approaching, but his expression remained blank. He wore the same grey-beige (‘greige’, Chanyeol decided it was called) prison jumpsuit that everyone else wore, and his eyes looked bloodshot, but somehow Chanyeol still thought he was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

 

"Hey," he said, and he leaned over to kiss Baekhyun hello out of habit, but Baekhyun quickly turned his head to the side.

 

"Please," he whispered, "I don't want anyone to know.."

 

"Oh, right… I'm sorry," Chanyeol said quietly. The rejection stung a little, but he told himself it wasn’t personal; public displays of affection were frowned upon in the visiting area anyway. He cleared his throat and pulled out the chair opposite Baekhyun, sitting himself down. "I got you some snacks from the vending machine outside," he said, pushing a couple of chocolate bars onto the table, and Baekhyun glanced at them quickly, but didn't seem very interested. Chanyeol could see that he was in a foul mood; he knew Baekhyun well enough by now to tell.

 

“Why did you wait so long to call me, anyway?” he asked. “You know I have no way of contacting you… I was starting to get really worried.”

 

“I wasn’t ready to see you,” Baekhyun said, in a voice so hushed Chanyeol could barely hear him.

 

Chanyeol sighed and leaned back in his seat. "Fair enough, I guess. So how are you holding up..?"

 

Baekhyun gave him a look that was so blank it was almost hostile. "About as well as you'd expect, given that I'm in prison,” he said. “I've gotten into the habit of eating breakfast daily now… I thought you'd enjoy that little piece of information."

 

"I'm glad to hear it," Chanyeol said. "What do they feed you in here, anyway?"

 

"Shit, mostly," Baekhyun replied. "On good days, they give us crap. But I can actually keep it down now, so that's a plus." Although he remained expressionless, it sounded like he was making a joke... that was encouraging, Chanyeol thought. At least a sliver of his sense of humour was clearly still intact.

 

"Oh. I guess that's good..?" he said, trying to smile, but the smile was not returned.

 

"So I've had my outdoor privileges taken from me until further notice, because the guards caught me trying to go for a run out in the yard," Baekhyun said. "It turns out you're not supposed to run here, unless it's during a supervised exercise session," he added, and then he laughed bitterly. "Who knew..?"

 

Chanyeol sighed and shook his head. "Oh, Baek. What am I going to do with you..?"

 

"Take me outside, shoot me between the eyes and put me out of my misery," Baekhyun said flatly. "You have a gun, right?"

 

"Well, yeah," Chanyeol said, frowning, "but I obviously don't have it on me right now. Anyway, I'm sure you hate being here, but that's a terrible thing to say.."

 

Baekhyun sighed heavily and shook his head. "It was a joke, Sarge… you're allowed to make jokes in prison, you know."

 

"Doesn't seem to be much to laugh about in here," Chanyeol said, looking around him; on at least half of the occupied tables in the visiting room, one or more of the occupants was in tears, or otherwise just looked plain miserable. It was hardly the most uplifting atmosphere, but Chanyeol didn't care; he was just happy to see Baekhyun again, in any capacity – even if it meant sitting in this grey, depressing room with its ugly plastic furniture and glary, unflattering lighting, and the ridiculous no-hugging-or-kissing-for-longer-than-two-seconds policy.

 

"Believe me, my ability to laugh is the only coping mechanism I have left that can't be taken away from me," Baekhyun said. "Since I'm not allowed to go outside at the moment, I've been keeping my head down, and spending most of my free time in the library instead. At least I have books to distract me."

 

"That's good," Chanyeol said. "Staying out of trouble sounds like a good plan. So are they treating you okay in here? No one’s giving you any trouble..?”

 

“Not so far,” Baekhyun said, in a dry voice. “Still plenty of time for some big hairy oaf to make me his sex-slave, though. I’ll keep you posted.”

 

Chanyeol sighed and rubbed his forehead. "You're really not making this any easier on me, you know.."

 

"Did you expect me to?" Baekhyun replied coldly. "Because I can make this much more unpleasant than it already is."

 

Seeing that the people at the neighbouring table were now glancing over at them, Chanyeol lowered his voice a little. "I'm just trying to stay positive for you," he said in a harsh whisper. "Why do you insist on shooting me down..?"

 

"Because look at where I am right now," Baekhyun snapped – he seemed not to pick up on Chanyeol's hint to keep quiet, or otherwise was choosing to ignore it. "Forgive me if your peace of mind is not so high on my list of priorities… it's not my responsibility to make you feel comfortable. At least you'll get to sleep somewhere other than here tonight."

 

Chanyeol leaned forward across the table. "Look… there's something I have to talk to you about while I'm here.”

 

Baekhyun's expression softened a little, and then he sighed. "Is it something bad? My ability to digest bad news is somewhat compromised, these days."

 

"Depends on how you look at it, I suppose," Chanyeol said quietly.

 

Baekhyun sighed again and closed his eyes for a moment, rubbing the lids with his thumb and index finger. Eventually he opened them and said, "well, spit it out then."

 

Chanyeol looked into Baekhyun's eyes for a moment. He chewed his lip. "I officially accepted the transfer," he said. "They wanted it to be effective immediately, but I managed to wrangle more time out of them so I could help cover for Sehun's absence, while he's recovering from his injuries. It looks like I'll probably be moving in around five or six week’s time.”

 

"Great," Baekhyun said flatly. "Well, that's good for you, Sarge… congrats. Meanwhile, I'll still be stuck in here after you've gone your merry way—"

 

"Baekhyun, I couldn't say no," Chanyeol said, cutting him off. "How could I? I can't stay in Maplehedge forever… you even said it yourself, there's not exactly a whole lot going on there.."

 

"Oh, don't pretend that this was such a hard decision for you, when getting out of there was what you wanted all along," Baekhyun said angrily. "Admit it... I was just a distraction in the interim, a way to fill in time while you were stuck there. But you know what? That in itself doesn’t offend me… what I’m angry about is that you made me believe I meant more to you than that, when I didn’t."

 

Chanyeol let out a loud groan. "That's not true, at all," he said, exasperated. "I wanted you – I still want you. I gave you the choice of coming with me, and you rejected it – that was your decision. You can't guilt-trip me for something I can't help… I've had enough of that from my mother, I don't need it from you too."

 

Baekhyun opened his mouth to say something, but then he sighed and closed it again. He was quiet for a long time after that.

 

"Giving me the silent treatment now, huh," Chanyeol said, and rolled his eyes. "That’s one way to resolve things, isn't it..?"

 

"Do you love your mother, Chanyeol?" Baekhyun asked in a quiet voice; he looked defeated now instead of angry.

 

Chanyeol sighed. "Yes, of course I love my mother… what the hell kind of question is that?"

 

"I nearly killed my mother," Baekhyun said, almost conversationally, like he was talking about something as innocuous as the weather. He was staring behind Chanyeol's head at nothing in particular. "Also, I know I said she died in a drink-driving accident, but I lied."

 

Chanyeol had no idea why Baekhyun was telling him this. "Oh," he said. "Okay, then.."

 

"I used to idolise her when I was little, because she wasn't like my father," Baekhyun said. Now he was looking out towards the one depressingly tiny window in the room. "But then as her alcoholism worsened over time, I saw more and more of him in her –- not him literally, but his behaviours, the addict – and it made me begin to hate her for being so weak. So I remember she was lying on the couch at the time, passed out, a nearly-empty bottle of gin cradled in the crook of her elbow, like a baby… I remember it so clearly. There she was, that wretched woman, completely dead to the world... and I looked over to the kitchen and saw a frying pan left on the stove, caked with greasy bits of God-knows-what from who-the-fuck-knows-when, and my first thought was, I can do this. That's what I remember thinking – that I could do it right then and there, how easy it would be. One good blow to the head and it'd all be over, her misery and mine. So I picked the pan up, and I tiptoed over to where she was sleeping, and I lifted it high above my head until my arms were shaking, it was so heavy. But I couldn't do it. I couldn't do it because she was so wasted ― so out of her fucking mind ― and it was the most angelic I'd seen her in the longest time. She had never looked more peaceful than she did then... it was the last occasion I can think of when I actually looked upon her with love, or at least something close to it. So I put the pan back down on the stove and crept off to my room. The next morning, she was still lying there, right where I'd left her. She never woke up."

 

Baekhyun paused for a moment, and took a deep, shuddering breath before he continued. "I was ten years old when that happened -- what kind of ten-year-old plans to kill his own mother..? For years afterwards, I thought my wanting her to die had killed her, even though I'd only meant it for a few minutes. But she drank herself to death... and I know it sounds crazy, but I suppose something in me preferred to believe that I'd willed her to die on my own, with my thoughts, my intent, rather than face that reality. The thing is, before she started drinking, she was a good mother. At least, that's what I remember -- but I can't tell if it's what I really remember, or if it's something I talked myself into believing. Maybe it's something I took from a dream, because in my head she always looks so real, so happy, but the colours are all wrong. Still, I have this image of her sitting in front of her dresser mirror every night before bed, brushing her hair and humming to herself, and I'd come up behind her and she'd pull me onto her lap, kiss the side of my head and tell me she loved me – that I was the only good thing left in her life. Until the booze came along, and she decided she loved it more."

 

Unsure of what to say, Chanyeol reached across the table and held Baekhyun's hand. Baekhyun let him do it, looking down at their hands for a while in silence.

 

"I was angry about that for so long... her betrayal," he whispered. “I didn't care so much about my father... but her, I couldn't handle it. It ate me up from the inside out, and it only got progressively worse after she died – that's why I went and smashed up that pub. And I remember after I was released from detention, going back to the group home afterwards and looking in the bathroom mirror, seeing my mother and father staring back at me through my own eyes. And that was when I said to them, Mum, Dad, I forgive you. But I am never, ever going to be like you."

 

A tear collected in the corner of one of Baekhyun's eyes, and he quickly rubbed it away before it fell. "But now I'm in here," he said quietly. "And I've been thinking a lot about what you said to me that time, about realising you were gay… when you said you realised it wasn't something you were doing, it was just something you were. And I can't help thinking that this is what I am... that I was going to end up in here all along. Maybe this is what I was made for."

 

"You're not like your parents at all," Chanyeol said quietly. "You couldn't be like them even if you tried."

 

Baekhyun shook his head. He kept his eyes on the window. "What would you know? You didn't even know them.."

 

"No," Chanyeol sighed, "perhaps not. But I know you, well enough to know that you shouldn't be in here. You're here because of one brief moment of poor judgement… it doesn't have to say anything about your heart, who you are as a person. At least, to me it doesn't. I know I can't speak for anyone else. But since when do you care what anyone else thinks..?"

 

"Since I got put in here," Baekhyun said, and he laughed bitterly. It wasn't the lovely, musical laughter Chanyeol was used to; instead the sound was somehow hollow and disturbing. Maybe that was what the walls of this place did – distorted sounds, turned them into sad echoes of the real thing.

 

"What did I do?" Baekhyun whispered; he had his head in his hands, his elbows leaning on the table. "I will never understand what I did. I was always just in the wrong place at the wrong time… an accident. I was not meant to happen. All of this - me, my whole fucking life - was not meant to happen.."

 

"You didn't deserve any of the shit that happened to you, you know," Chanyeol said quietly. "You didn't deserve it at all."

 

"I know," Baekhyun replied; his voice sounded wet now, like he was crying. "I know that now... but I didn't know it then, when I was young. When it was important."

 

"You're still young," Chanyeol pointed out. "You're only 21.."

 

When Baekhyun lifted his head again, his face was streaked with tears. "I feel like I've aged a thousand years in the past month alone," he said. He sniffled a bit, and then laughed. "I even found a few greys when I was combing my hair the other day."

 

"I don't think you deserve to be in here, even if what you did was stupid," Chanyeol said. "But if being here traumatises you enough to keep you from ever coming back, then I'll have to admit that it might turn out to be a good thing.."

 

Baekhyun shook his head. "Please, don't humour me, Chanyeol," he whispered.

 

Chanyeol frowned. "What do you mean..?"

 

"I'm in here because I'm a fuck-up… a horrible person," Baekhyun said, wiping his eyes on the sleeve of his uniform. "That's the truth. Sehun tried to see if I was okay, and I repaid him by smashing his face in… not only that, but hitting him felt good. It felt really good. I wanted to kill my mother… the intent was there. The only difference between me and the rest of the monsters in this fucking place is that I put the frying pan down. So don't hang around here trying to make me feel better, just because you feel bad for me -- I don't need your pity. I don't deserve it."

 

"Baek.." Chanyeol sighed, but Baekhyun cut him off.

 

"No," he said – now he looked angry again, and it made Chanyeol shrink back a little in his seat. "If you're going to get up and piss off now that you know what I am, fine – tell it to me straight. But don't leave me here like this, blindly hoping that you'll be waiting for me when I get out. It's already obvious that you're not going to be." Having said this, he put his head down again, his forehead resting against the table. "I can't say I would blame you."

 

Chanyeol tried to touch Baekhyun's hair to comfort him, but the boy shook him off. He sighed and looked around the room, and thought that perhaps he should go.

 

"I can see you're upset, so I'm gonna go now," he said quietly. "I'll come back and see you next weekend.."

 

"I don't want you to come back," Baekhyun replied.

 

"Baekhyun, please…"

 

"I mean it," Baekhyun said, his voice muffled against the table. "Don't come back. I don't want to see you anymore."

 

Chanyeol just sat there for a while, winded from the blow that Baekhyun had just dealt him. He wondered if this was how Sehun had felt when he took that punch to the jaw, but Chanyeol's injury was lower down, somewhere in the space between his chest and his stomach. He remained there nodding repeatedly for no apparent reason, and then he stopped.

 

"Okay. Goodbye, Baekhyun," he said quietly, and without another word, he got up from the table and left the visiting room. Baekhyun didn't reply. Before Chanyeol left, he looked back to where Baekhyun was sitting one last time, but his head was still down on the table.

 

Chanyeol hotfooted it out of that awful place and almost broke into a run to get back to his car. When he was approaching the front gates of the visitors parking lot, he went over a large pothole, rocking the entire vehicle, and the busted latch on the glovebox popped open, spitting something out onto the front passenger seat. With a sideways glance, Chanyeol saw it was the little Saint Jude figurine that Baekhyun had given him, which he'd put in there and forgotten about altogether. Pulling over to one side of the gravel road, he picked it up and looked at it, turning it around in his hands. Suddenly he felt sick, and after returning the little saint to the glovebox, he opened the car door, stuck his head out of it and puked onto the dirt, wiping strands of saliva from his chin with the back of his hand; he closed the door and, with his forehead pressed against the steering wheel, sobbed until his guts ached, until he felt completely empty. Then, when each choked breath began to come easier -- when he could inhale all the way again, and keep his hands on the wheel without them shaking -- he pulled away from the side of the road and drove himself home.

 

 

 

* * * * *

Contrary to his expectations, the days since Chanyeol visited the prison flew by in a blur. In order to get his mind off things, he threw himself into his job without stopping to think about anything else, and before he knew it, he realised it had been nearly three weeks since he'd last seen or spoken to Baekhyun. He felt guilty for not noticing it had been that long; still, he couldn't bring himself to do anything about it, and Baekhyun hadn't bothered to call him since. If he wanted to see Chanyeol again, surely he would have said something by now.

 

With things really ramping up at work, it was easier for Baekhyun to slip completely from Chanyeol’s mind, at least while he was on duty. Every day, more and more things seemed to go awry: a group of underage kids drove stolen cars without licenses, drag-racing each other down the main street, and drunks got themselves into messy brawls outside the local pub. Chanyeol and Amber pulled over a man for driving under the influence, only to search his vehicle and discover a bag of cocaine and a wad of cash as thick as somebody’s arm, stuffed inside the headrest of the driver’s seat. To Amber’s delight, the man in the dirty wifebeater ended up being arrested at last, when his wife finally came forward to report his violent tendencies. Then, on one particularly rainy, slippery morning, an elderly woman lost control of her vehicle and ploughed it right into a bus shelter, injuring herself and killing the young schoolgirl sitting there. Chanyeol finally felt like he was really doing the job he'd signed up to do; but that also meant having to do things he could never fully prepare himself for, no matter how hard he tried.

 

The home they were waiting in front of now was neat and pleasant-looking – a nice, tidy lawn, surrounded by a wooden picket fence painted white, no slats missing. No empty bottles, broken prams or other shit in the front yard. It was nice to see… a breath of fresh air. But they weren't standing on this woman's front doorstep to say they liked what she’d done with the place.

 

"Right," Amber said, nudging Chanyeol out of his daydreams. "Are you sure you're ready..?"

 

Chanyeol exhaled deeply. "Yeah. Well – not really. But it's alright… it's not the first time I've had to do this.”

 

"And it won't be the last," Amber said. "But it's okay... I've got your back. If you look like you’re struggling, I'll take over."

 

Chanyeol turned his head to look at her, and she cracked an encouraging smile. He gave her a nod and then turned away again, knocking sharply on the door three times.

 

"This is the moment that'll tear this woman's life in two," Amber said quietly, while they were waiting for the door to open. "Every memory from now on will be filed away in terms of Before and After. Keep in mind that nothing you can say or do will help, so don't try to offer any words of comfort; just deliver the news as gently as you can, and if she wants it, we’ll be her shoulder. If not, we'll do what we need to do as quickly as we can, and then leave her in peace.”

 

There was the sound of approaching footsteps on a wooden floor coming from within. A few seconds later, a middle-aged woman opened the door. She peered out at them with wary eyes.

 

"Can I help you..?" she asked.

 

Chanyeol's voice got caught in his throat at the worried look on her face. She already knew – even though she didn't yet know that she knew. The mothers, especially, always did… you could see it in their eyes.

 

He felt Amber's hand on his shoulder, warm and gentle.

 

"Ma'am, we're here from the Maplehedge Police Department," he said softly, finally finding his voice again. "Can we come in? It’s about your daughter."

 

 

 

* * * * *

When they got back to the station later that day, already exhausted after a physically and emotionally draining morning, Chanyeol found a voice message on his mobile phone that he hadn’t noticed before. Listening to it, he was surprised to hear Baekhyun speaking:

 

'Chanyeol, it's me.’ A deep breath, and then – ‘I'm sorry for what I said when you came to see me… I really am. I'm going crazy in here, and I know that's not an excuse. I know I've fucked up. But I need you... I can't do this on my own. I've lost the only thing that makes me feel human, and it's killing me. If you can, please come and visit this Saturday, and I'll explain everything. Well, hopefully see you then.'

 

There was a clicking sound as Baekhyun hung up the phone, ending the message. Chanyeol put his mobile down on his desk and stared at it numbly for a few minutes, as though this would make it ring.

 

"Expecting a call?" Amber asked. She walked up behind him, putting a hand on his shoulder, and Chanyeol’s thoughts drifted away like soap bubbles.

 

He shrugged. "Not really.”

 

"You alright?" Chanyeol couldn’t see her face, but she sounded worried.

 

"I guess,” he said.

 

"Okay. Well, a woman’s just called up asking for someone to go round and check on her elderly mother,” Amber told him. “You coming..?"

 

Chanyeol sighed – he already had a feeling he knew how this one would turn out. "Yeah," he said quietly, getting up from his seat. "Let's go."

 

 

 

* * * * *

For the rest of the week, that voice message from Baekhyun was all Chanyeol could think about. He made it as far as Friday before he caved in, and gave the prison’s visiting centre a call, scheduling a visit with Baekhyun at twelve the next day.

 

When Chanyeol arrived at the visiting room shortly after midday on the Saturday, Baekhyun was sitting at the same table as last time. He had his head turned in the other direction, looking up at the clock on the grey-painted wall, watching the rotations of the second hand. There was something in his hands that he was playing with, something blue and white – he squeezed the object inside his fist, and then his hands relaxed, and Chanyeol saw it laying there across his fingers. Even from where he stood, he could see that it was the tiny Virgin Mary figurine from Baekhyun’s saint collection. How he’d managed to bring it into prison with him, Chanyeol had no idea, but for some reason seeing Baekhyun holding it gave him a moment's comfort.

 

He wanted desperately to go in and tell Baekhyun that he wasn’t angry, but he couldn’t. Why? He didn't know. His feet wouldn't move; they were nailed to the floor. For the next few minutes, he stood just behind the drink machine so he wouldn't be seen and watched Baekhyun from afar. Baekhyun's eyes remained on the clock; he kept squeezing the Mary figurine in his hands, and then he'd release her. He did this over and over – squeeze, release, squeeze, release. He never once looked away from the clock.

 

Chanyeol watched him for a minute longer, and then, with a sigh so long and heavy it seemed to empty his entire body of oxygen, he turned around and walked away from the visiting room, all the way to the front desk, where he handed his visitor's pass back to the confused attendant on his way out. While he was driving away from the prison, St. Jude popped out of the broken glovebox again, flinging himself into the passenger seat, landing face down. Chanyeol glanced at him and reached across to roll him over, whispering a few words of prayer to the patron saint of the hopeless.

 

“Sorry, Jude,” he muttered under his breath – some day, just to be fair, he promised he'd say a little prayer to the guy at a time when he wasn't desperate. But for now, he thought, as he pulled his phone from his pocket and searched for a number he hadn’t dialed in a while, there was someone else he really needed to talk to.

 

 

 

* * * * *

Chanyeol knocked on the door three times and then stood in front of it, waiting for it to open. He heard the faint sounds of someone moving around inside the apartment, the footsteps approaching; then the door opened, revealing a pretty dimpled face, a softer version of his own. His sister stood before him in the doorway, looking flustered; she shook her chestnut-dyed hair out of her eyes and blinked at him, then smiled.

 

"Hey," she said. "Sorry, I put my glasses down somewhere, and now I'm half blind... come on in. Long drive..?"

 

"The longest," Chanyeol sighed. Yoora stepped aside to let him in, and he walked past her into the hallway. "Thanks for letting me stop by..."

 

"Not at all. It's nice to see you, after however long it's been," she said, waiting while he kicked his shoes off. "Would be even nicer if you weren't all blurry."

 

"It's nice to see you too. I know it's been a while," Chanyeol said. His gaze fell upon the small wooden hall table next to the wall, where a pair of square-framed tortoiseshell spectacles was wedged between a leatherbound address book and the telephone. Smiling, he picked them up and held them out, waving them around in front of his sister.

 

"Ah, there they are... thanks. I really should just staple them to my face," she said wryly, putting the glasses on. "I hate wearing my contacts around the house; they get so uncomfortable after a while." Chanyeol laughed softly and followed her down the hall into the kitchen.

 

"How's the job going?" Yoora asked. She pulled out a chair at the kitchen table and gestured for Chanyeol to take a seat. "Sit down... I'll make coffee."

 

"Thanks. There are good days and bad days," Chanyeol said. "You know how it is."

 

"I sure do."

 

Chanyeol sat down with his hands clasped politely together on the clean white tablecloth. "So what's new..?"

 

"Oh, nothing really," Yoora said. She was standing in front of the counter with her back to him, setting up the coffee machine. "Just work, work, work... that's my life, these days. I'm boring, I know."

 

"I saw you on the news last night," Chanyeol said, following her with his eyes as she moved around the kitchen.

 

"Did you? That's nice." She sounded distracted while she wrestled with the tin of coffee grounds, like she was only half-listening.

 

"Uh-huh. I always try to watch it when I can."

 

Yoora was quiet for a moment while she waited for the machine to do its thing, and before long the pleasant smell of fresh coffee began to fill the tiny but immaculate kitchen. "Mmm. Anything new with you, then?" she asked, and Chanyeol paused for a moment.

 

"Actually... I've met someone," he said.

 

Yoora immediately turned her head around to look at him, and he caught a hint of a secretive smile. He had her full attention now. "A boy...?"

 

Chanyeol nodded. "Yeah," he said quietly. "A boy."

 

"Well, that's great." Yoora set down two cups and a plate of homemade almond cookies in front of them on the table, and then sat down opposite Chanyeol. "So what's his name, then?" she asked, pouring fresh coffee into both cups.

 

"His name's Baekhyun."

 

"Hmm. A nice name," Yoora said, nodding her approval. "Well, fill me in. How old is he? What's he like? What does he do?"

 

"He's 21, and works in a Chinese restaurant," Chanyeol said. "And he's into parkour. He's really good at it, actually... very talented. Very smart, too – like, super smart. And funny. And beautiful. He's the whole package, pretty much."

 

"Wow... he sounds great." Yoora seemed genuinely impressed. She took an almond cookie and broke it in half, popping one piece into her mouth. "When do I get to meet him?" She winked and added, "if he has any older brothers, maybe you can hook a sister up."

 

Chanyeol scratched the back of his neck and sighed. "Well, the thing is... he's sort of in prison right now," he said, in a quiet voice. "That's the thing I'm really struggling with at the moment."

 

Yoora's smile slowly faded. "Oh," she said. She was quiet for what seemed like a really long time, and then she added, "I didn't see that one coming.."

 

Her response said it all, really; Chanyeol leaned forward over the table, burying his head in his hands. "I know," he groaned.

 

"What did he do to end up in there, if you don't mind me asking...?"

 

"He assaulted a colleague of mine... ended up breaking his jaw and putting him in the hospital," Chanyeol said quietly. He moved his hands away from his face and sighed. "The colleague wasn't on duty at the time, but they still gave him four months inside for it."

 

Yoora studied him for a moment, her lips pulled downwards in a contemplative frown. "You don't seem like you'd really go for the violent type..." she said.

 

"That's the thing: he's not the violent type, usually," Chanyeol said. He took a sip of his coffee and put the cup back down on its saucer. "At least, I've never seen it myself. But he was drunk, and also really upset... I guess he just happened to be drunk and upset in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Which is not an excuse, I know, but it's kind of a reason. Anyway, he was upset because of me… because I hurt him. Completely unintentionally, but still... I was at fault."

 

"Why?" Yoora asked. "What did you do?"

 

"I told him I was being offered a transfer back to my old department, and that I wanted to accept it," Chanyeol said quietly, looking down at the table. "He took it to mean that I intended to walk out on him."

 

"...Did you?"

 

"No! I even asked him to come with me... but only if he really wanted to." Chanyeol paused and rubbed his forehead with one hand. "But maybe he thought I was just saying that to make him feel better, and not because I actually wanted him to come... I don't know.."

 

"Do Mum and Dad know about all this?" Yoora asked.

 

Chanyeol shook his head. "I haven't told them about Baekhyun at all."

 

Yoora pursed her lips. "Hmm," she said. "Probably a good thing, for now.."

 

"But I know he's not really like that," Chanyeol said quietly. "I can't say for sure that it was a one-off, but it's too late. I love him. What do you think I should do..?"

 

Yoora looked at Chanyeol for a long time, chewing her lip while she contemplated her response.

 

"I don't know," she said, after a long moment of silence, and offered him an apologetic smile. "I can't advise you on something like this, Chanyeol... It depends on how much you're willing to overlook. You know the real Baekhyun much better than I do."

 

"Yeah," Chanyeol sighed, "I guess so.."

 

"Have you been to see him?" Yoora asked gently. "In prison, I mean."

 

Chanyeol nodded. "I went a couple of weeks ago, for the first time. It didn't go well... he was really in an awful mood. Well, I guess he had every reason to be, because who in their right mind would be happy to be in prison? But he didn't even seem glad that I was there."

 

"I'm sure he was happy to see you," Yoora said. She took another cookie and offered the plate to Chanyeol, but he shook his head.

 

"If he was, it was very hard to tell," he said. "I think he was in especially poor spirits because they'd taken away his exercise privileges for breaking some bullshit rule about running outside unsupervised. He's super fit, usually... he trains every day, and I guess not being able to keep active was really having an effect on him. He ended up telling me to leave and to never come back. Then I didn't hear from him at all until earlier this week, when he left a voice message on my phone, saying he'd made a big mistake and really wanted to see me again. And so I went there this morning to visit him... but I couldn't. I couldn't go in the room. I drove all that way, and when I got there, I just stood next to the door and chickened out. He didn't see me standing there, so I left. And then I called you, and I came here instead."

 

Yoora's brow furrowed. "But why...?" she said softly. "He obviously wanted to see you again, if he asked you to come.."

 

"I don't know why," Chanyeol sighed. "I think it was because seeing him in that place really scared me... it was like I didn't know him at all. When he's in there, he's not the Baekhyun I love; he's this defensive, paranoid thing, and it really hurts to see him like that. I just wish I understood him better, that's all. I don't know how to help him, or what to say to make him feel better... I've never been in his situation before, and he has trouble telling me how he feels. I feel like I'm always waiting for him to dish out bits of himself, and he either gives me too little or way too much – more than I can handle. It’s never just enough."

 

Yoora looked at Chanyeol for a long time, studying him so intensely that he almost felt uncomfortable. "Funny," she said thoughtfully. "What you just said reminds me of something Mum said to me about you, the last time I saw her.."

 

Chanyeol's eyes widened. "Really? What did she say..?"

 

"Uh-huh. She came over for lunch, and we ended up talking about you," Yoora said, and then she laughed. "I mean, of course we did... what else would we have to talk about? Anyway, I know it looks like she doesn't accept some of your choices in life, Chanyeol, but it doesn't mean that she doesn't want to... I think she just doesn't know where to start. She worries about you a lot, thinks you're only making life harder for yourself. Maybe she just needs to see that you're okay where you are."

 

Chanyeol leaned over on the table, rubbing his tired eyes. "Maybe I should talk to her," he whispered.

 

"I think so," Yoora said. "Mum and Dad do love you, you know, in their own odd little way. They just don't really get you, because you fall outside the boundaries of everything they've been brought up to understand. But I suppose if they still want you in their lives, then they'll just have to learn."

 

"Okay," Chanyeol said quietly.

 

"As for Baekhyun, I know you said you haven't been in his situation before, but just try for a moment to put yourself in his shoes," Yoora said. "He could be the smartest boy in the world, but at 21, he's exactly that - pretty much still a boy. He's all by himself in a terrible, lonely place, and the only thing he had as a means of coping and self-expression has been wrenched right out of his hands. So how do you think he feels right now, knowing that the one person he loves wouldn't come to see him when he needed it the most?"

 

Chanyeol looked at his sister for a moment, and then he moved his coffee cup out of the way and let his head fall down upon the table. "I hate myself," he mumbled into the tablecloth; he could feel a cookie crumb embedding itself quite painfully into his forehead, but that was the least he deserved, as far as he was concerned. Then he felt Yoora's hand landing on the back of his head, gently messing up his hair.

 

"Don't hate yourself," she said. "That won't help either of you. Just tell him how you feel; if you really want to stay together, then you'll both find a way to work it out. It really is that simple."

 

Was it, though? Perhaps it sounded simple, Chanyeol thought, during the long drive back to Maplehedge, but that didn't mean that it was. As for putting himself in Baekhyun's shoes, well, how the hell was he meant to do that? He really had no idea.

 

When he pulled up in front of his house at last, it was already early evening. Chanyeol sighed and got out of the car, slamming the door shut behind him. He shivered a little, and pulled his jacket tighter around himself; it was quite cool out, but not unpleasantly so. He would take a walk down to the park to clear his head... maybe stay for a while and watch the sun set. Even though Baekhyun wouldn't be there, it was still a good, peaceful place to sit and think.

 

As always, he ended up sitting on the bench that said BALLS on it, looking out at what lay before him: the play equipment, and the trees slowly shedding what was left of their foliage, the crisp brown leaves floating down onto the grass… the circle of bottle-green painted bollards surrounding the parking lot like figures huddled around a campfire, separating it from the rest of the park. He could hear passing cars and birds calling and the wind whispering to him, in words he didn’t understand.

 

Chanyeol had a brief recollection of how Baekhyun used to leapfrog over those bollards, like it was the easiest thing in the world; he made everything he did look so easy. But then, why was Chanyeol thinking in past tense? It wasn't like Baekhyun was dead; he was still very much alive, and would be out of that hellhole in a couple of months. His absence was hard to cope with, for sure, but Yoora had been right, as always ― it would be much harder for Baekhyun than it was for him. He was the one in prison, after all; the guy couldn't even go for a run, or do any of those things that kept him happy and sane on a normal day. He couldn't do any of that parkour stuff he loved so much.

 

Chanyeol looked over at the playground, where a young mother was now pushing her daughter on the swings, and listened to the soft murmurs, the squeals of laughter. He remembered swinging with Baekhyun on those same swings, fighting to see who could go the highest. Then he remembered another time they'd come here together, when Baekhyun tried teaching him to do a handstand up against the wall of the toilet block – how he had to hold Chanyeol up with strong but gentle hands to keep him from falling down again, and the sweetness of his laughter when he pointed out that Chanyeol's ears turned bright red first from being upside down, before the rest of his head did. But Baekhyun could stand up on his own, on both his hands and his feet; he didn't need Chanyeol to hold him up, even if he thought he did. Chanyeol knew he would probably always need Baekhyun more than Baekhyun needed him. Still, Baekhyun openly acknowledging his own vulnerability was a big deal –- Chanyeol knew that. I need you, he'd said, in that message he'd left on Chanyeol's phone; Chanyeol thought about how hard that must have been for him to say… how those words would have burned him, how bitter they must have tasted. I need you, coming from a boy who hadn't allowed himself to need anyone since he was ten years old, a time when all the people he'd once needed had started to disappear.

 

What Baekhyun felt for him wasn't need, Chanyeol thought, with his heart swelling inside his chest. It was a feeling he didn't know what to do with, perhaps, something he didn't recognise… something he confused for need, but sounded a lot like love. And he would give Baekhyun the chance he deserved to say what he actually meant, how he really felt, if he ever decided to call Chanyeol again.

 

Then, as though this realisation unlocked something inside him, a light went on inside Chanyeol's head ― parkour. Parkour was the answer. That was the best way to get in Baekhyun's shoes, to see the world exactly as he saw it... or at least the closest thing to it; Baekhyun could see things from so many angles, but Chanyeol had only two points of view – behind him, and straight ahead. He was overcome by the urge to try a few things himself: maybe just one move, something simple. He just wanted to see how it made Baekhyun feel, if only for a moment.

 

Chanyeol waited until the mother at the playground took her daughter home; then, alone at last, he walked over to the circle of bollards near the parking lot. He tried to remember watching Baekhyun vault over them - how he would run up to a bollard with his hands landing on the top, his legs swinging out on either side to clear it. Chanyeol was nearly a head taller than Baekhyun was ― hopefully he would have no issues getting over the damn thing. He wouldn't look as graceful doing it as Baekhyun did, but that hardly mattered; it was purely the feeling he was after. So he walked backwards a good way, took a deep breath to prepare himself, and then he took off. He ran like a man being let out after years of confinement, the wind rushing in his ears. He'd forgotten how good it felt to run like this -- just to run, at nothing and to nowhere. Of course, as he approached his obstacle, the doubt got him at the last second -- just as, deep down, he knew it would. But with time and practice, there would be a day when that didn't happen anymore.

 

And there was something to be said for this parkour stuff, Chanyeol thought; for the entirety of the run-up, and the one second he was airborne -- until the moment he fell and landed rather badly, tearing his trousers open and ripping half the skin off one knee -- he felt very free indeed.

 

 

 

* * * * *

As though his acceptance of his feelings had released a silent prayer that somehow reached Baekhyun all those miles away, Chanyeol received another call from the boy a few days later. He had the good fortune to be at home this time, and so he picked up on the second ring.

 

“Hi,” Baekhyun said, in a quiet voice. “It’s me.”

 

“Hey…” Chanyeol replied, but he only just managed to get the one word out before Baekhyun began bombarding him with apologies. "I know I don’t deserve to be calling you, after what I said last time… I was a complete arsehole to you that day. And I don't blame you for not coming to see me – I really don’t. But I've been thinking a lot – I have a lot of time for that, these days – and I really want to see you again. Please… even if it's just one more time before you move away. I'm not angry anymore, Sarge… you did the right thing, accepting that transfer, and I have no right to be mad; if I was in your shoes, I’d probably do the same. And I miss you so terribly, and—"

 

"Of course I'll come and see you," Chanyeol said, interrupting him gently. "To be honest, I did come to visit you on Saturday… but then I saw you sitting there, and for some reason I chickened out. I don't know why. I'm really sorry."

 

There was silence, and then a loud sigh through the receiver. "No, Chanyeol… I'm the one who should be sorry… and I am, believe me. I can’t begin to tell you how sorry I am."

 

"It's okay – really," Chanyeol replied. "I'm 100% ready to move on if you are. So… do you think I can drive down and see you this weekend, then?"

 

"Of course. Just call up and make an appointment when you can, and I'll be there," Baekhyun said. “It doesn’t matter what time, as long as it’s within visiting hours. As I’m sure you can imagine, I have nowhere else to be.”

 

Chanyeol sank down onto the sofa, putting his legs up on the armrest with his ankles crossed over each other. "Okay. Will do."

 

"Good," Baekhyun said. Then there was a long pause, and he added, "great." Even through the phone, he sounded happy.

 

"You're smiling right now, aren't you..?" Before Chanyeol knew it, he was smiling too. It almost felt foreign, this stretching of his lips, the baring of teeth… especially with no one around to witness it. It occurred to him that he probably felt so strange doing it because he hadn’t really smiled much over the past several weeks.

 

"I might be,” Baekhyun replied. “Why..?"

 

"I can hear it in your voice.” Chanyeol leaned his head against the sofa cushion with his mobile pressed right up against his ear, and sighed quietly. "I really wish I could see it."

 

"You will,” Baekhyun said. “Anyway, I’ve got to go. See you soon, Sarge."

 

"See you," Chanyeol whispered, then ended the call. "Soon," he repeated to himself, and he let his head fall back against the sofa again, knowing it could never be soon enough.

 

 

 

* * * * *

Chanyeol felt much more positive about going to visit Baekhyun, this time – he even played Shiny Happy People a billion times in the car on the way there. This time, Baekhyun stood up to greet him when he saw Chanyeol walk into the room; in the two seconds they were allowed to hold each other before a surly, pig-faced supervisor told them to stop, Chanyeol buried his face against Baekhyun's neck, breathing him in as deeply as he could. "I've missed holding you so much," he whispered, and Baekhyun replied with a hushed “me too.” He smelled different in prison than he did on the outside: like laundry powder, mostly… whatever it was they used to wash his prison uniform. His skin looked pale and sallow; his eyes, without their usual spark, were ringed with dark circles. He was still beautiful – Baekhyun would always be beautiful – but now it was a harrowing kind of beauty, underscored by suffering. It wasn't the spirited, carefree kind of beauty that had once lifted a sizeable weight off Chanyeol's shoulders every time he saw it. Still, the boy standing in front of him was the most wonderful sight he’d beheld in ages, and Chanyeol could barely contain his joy as they both sat down opposite each other, smiling as shyly as they had back when they’d first started dating.

 

"I'm really glad you came here today, because I wanted to tell you..." Baekhyun said, and then he paused, swallowing nervously. "I wanted to tell you that I love you. And that I'm really sorry."

 

Chanyeol smiled again, but this time it turned into a grin. "You already told me you were sorry on the phone, Baek. But funnily enough, I came here to tell you the exact same thing."

 

Baekhyun's eyes widened. "Oh… I see."

 

"Yeah," Chanyeol said. "It's not a new thing, though… I've known about loving you for a while, and I wish I'd told you a lot sooner. Maybe none of this would have happened in the first place, if you'd never doubted my feelings for you."

 

Baekhyun shook his head. "It's not your fault… I should have heard you out, instead of assuming you just wanted to walk out on me,” he said, and then he sighed. “Sometimes I think my life has gotten to a point where I could probably withstand literally anything, except for people leaving me. Especially people I love... I'm not so good at coping with that. It's one thing I'll never get used to."

 

Chanyeol sighed and leaned forward a little across the table, taking both of Baekhyun's hands in his own. "I'm leaving, yes... but I'm not leaving you, Baekhyun. I never wanted to leave you."

 

"I know," Baekhyun whispered. He lowered his gaze to their joined hands. "I'm sorry… I should have believed you."

 

"It’s alright. I know that you reacted the way you did because you were angry and scared… and probably smashed out of your skull," Chanyeol said. "And yes, I felt really let down, at first. But now I’m ashamed that I felt that way, when you've been let down your whole life, by all these people who were supposed to take care of you. And I want you to know that I understand now why you keep all those things you find, why you play house with other people's cast-offs… I know you've been left with all these holes to fill, and it's always going to hurt. But I don't know if I could ever love you enough to make up for that."

 

Baekhyun shook his head. "Of course you can," he whispered, and then he smiled – just a little smile, a very slight quirk of the lips, but it was a smile nonetheless. "You already have.”

 

Chanyeol was about to respond when Baekhyun leaned forward across the table, took his face in both hands and kissed him. He was surprised at first, but then he closed his eyes and his lips parted willingly, his tongue venturing forth to meet Baekhyun's. God, he tasted so good… Chanyeol leaned in a little closer and sighed into Baekhyun's mouth, deepening the kiss, wanting more. As with all great kisses, he almost completely forgot where he was, until―

 

"Hey! Break it up, lovebirds, or visiting time will be over!" the supervisor yelled at them, and then they quickly separated. When Chanyeol leaned back in his seat again, he saw that Baekhyun's eyes were shining. There was another hint of a smile playing upon his lips.

 

"So I've been taking woodwork classes lately, just for something else to do," he said to Chanyeol. "It's been helping me a lot, actually; I just take out all my anger on a block of timber instead of myself, or a policeman's face. I even made a wooden dildo-type thing once, just for a laugh… but then they took it off me, in case I killed someone with it. Still, the damage is done: now everyone in the class calls me Peg."

 

Chanyeol laughed and shook his head. Still wearing that little smile, Baekhyun reached down under his chair and picked something up, placing it down on the table in front of Chanyeol – a small wooden heart with 'SARGE' clumsily carved into it. Chanyeol picked it up and looked at it, running his hands over the smooth polished wood, tracing the indented letters with his fingers. “Wow,” he whispered, “did you make this..?”

 

Baekhyun nodded. "Yep… for you. You see, it's symbolic," he said. "Many of the things I've endured in my life have hardened my heart, Sarge. But you are still carved into the dead centre of it, and you always will be."

 

"It's lovely, Baek," Chanyeol said. He couldn't help cracking a smile himself. "I actually don't know whether to cry or puke.."

 

Baekhyun laughed softly. "Either reaction would be appropriate," he said. "It's crap as far as presents go, I know… it has no practical use whatsoever. But I worked hard on it, and I hope you like it."

 

Chanyeol shook his head. "It's not crap at all," he said. "It's great. Really great. I love it."

 

"Well, maybe you can put it on your desk, so you’ll think about me while you’re doing your mountains of paperwork,” Baekhyun said; he smiled again, so widely that all his teeth were showing, and it was the first real, big, joy-filled smile Chanyeol had seen him wear in a long time.

 

And so there it was – that was the turning point, Chanyeol thought. That smile was where they could start again.

 

"I really liked the fact that you called me the other day, you know," he said; he turned the heart around one more time in his hands, and returned it to the table in front of him. "I know you don't like talking on the phone, and it had been so long that I wasn’t expecting it at all. But even if you only did it because you were desperate and felt like you had no other choice, well, that's okay. It was a really nice surprise anyway."

 

"I just wanted to see you again," Baekhyun said quietly. "Really badly…"

 

“I know,” Chanyeol said. “And I’m sorry, I really am. I didn't mean to stand you up that day. I don't have a reasonable excuse for being such a chickenshit. I guess I just hate seeing you like this."

 

"Like what?" Baekhyun asked.

 

Chanyeol tried to speak, but his voice got caught in his throat. He swallowed and said, in a quiet voice, "I hate seeing you in here.”

 

"Because it's changing the way you look at me..?" Baekhyun asked, and Chanyeol shook his head.

 

"No, Baek… because it's sad,” he said. “Because this isn't where you belong. You belong with me."

 

Baekhyun looked at Chanyeol for a long time, but he said nothing.

 

"You shouldn’t be in here,” Chanyeol said. “You should be getting on with your life… going to work, and studying in your spare time, and reading to kids at the library. You should be practicing parkour every day, and going for long runs – as long as you want. You should be having breakfast with me every morning, and sharing a bed with me every night. Maybe then we'd both stop having all these bloody nightmares."

 

Baekhyun chuckled softly. "You make me sound like someone with zero ambition..”

 

Chanyeol grabbed one of his hands and rubbed it gently. "Who gives a shit about ambition… you do plenty of good, worthwhile things. Making me really happy was the very least of them. And if you need someone to cheer you on, and a new place to start, well, that's something I can offer you… but only if you want it. I know what it's like to be pressured into being or doing something you don't want, and I meant it when I said I would never do that to you. It's entirely up to you.”

 

"So you really do want me to move in with you, then.." Baekhyun said quietly.

 

"Yes… of course," Chanyeol replied. "Asking you to come and live with me was never meant to be an empty, consolatory gesture. I mean it – the very second you walk out of this place, I want you with me."

 

Baekhyun sighed and turned his head towards the window. "You're saying that now… but will it be different when I'm out, when you start to realise that the consequences of all this won't just end upon my release? I mean, what if it's hard for me to get another job…? What if I'm forced to depend on you for a while, and you start to resent me for it?"

 

Chanyeol put his hand under Baekhyun’s chin, gently turning his head until Baekhyun was forced to look at him again. "I know you can look after yourself, Baek,” he said. “I don’t think you need me at all; you might love me, but you don’t need me. I'm the one who needs you… I need your love. I need to give you mine. And with some of the things I'll be seeing out there, I'm only going to need you even more."

 

Baekhyun nodded, but didn’t reply. He bowed his head and made a funny little sound in the back of his throat. Chanyeol sighed and reached over to rub the back of his neck, attempting to comfort him. “Those had better be happiness tears.."

 

"You should be with someone you can be proud of," Baekhyun whispered, not looking up.

 

"I am proud of you,” Chanyeol said. “I'm not proud of what you did to get in here. Do you understand the difference? There are things I've done that you might not be proud of; I just didn't end up in prison because of them."

 

"Yeah, right – letting a couple of spiders drown," Baekhyun said. "Your godawful rapping skills…" He wiped his eyes and laughed, then added, "why do you always make me cry whenever you come here, you piece of shit.."

 

"It's payback for that time you pretended to be my mother," Chanyeol said, smiling at him, and Baekhyun laughed again. "Anyway, I sneaked something in for you too – even though I'm not supposed to. I'd better pass it to you under the table, just in case."

 

Baekhyun looked at Chanyeol with one eyebrow raised, but he nodded in silent understanding. Chanyeol reached into his trouser pocket, and then leaned forward a little across the table and took one of Baekhyun's hands in his own, pretending he was holding it. While doing this he discreetly placed into it a tiny plastic figurine of a monk in a white robe and black sash, carrying a book in one hand and a staff in the other. Baekhyun moved his hands into his lap, and Chanyeol saw him look down at the figurine in his palm. For a while he said nothing, just studied it in silence.

 

"It's Saint Leonard," Chanyeol said quietly. "The patron saint of prisoners."

 

Baekhyun looked at the tiny statue for a moment longer, and then he looked up at Chanyeol with his eyes narrowed. "Is this supposed to be a joke...?" he asked.

 

Chanyeol smiled with one side of his mouth. "Well, yeah. Kind of.."

 

Baekhyun laughed and nodded his head. "Good one," he said, and then he tucked the little saint inside his pocket. "I'll have to hide him, though; some dickhead's already gone and stolen my Virgin Mary," he said, and sighed. "Probably made a shiv out of her or something, for all I know… I swear they'll make weapons out of anything in this fucking place."

 

"Well, I suppose you have to admire their resourcefulness,” Chanyeol said, smiling at him.

 

Baekhyun nodded. "Incarceration is the evil stepmother of invention," he said. He was quiet for a moment, looking around the room at all the other inmates visiting with their loved ones. "Do you reckon all of these people really belong in here, Sarge?"

 

Chanyeol's eyes wandered around the room, looking at all the faces – some happy, some miserable. Some completely unreadable, like Baekhyun used to be, before Chanyeol really knew him. "Most of them, I'd say," he replied.

 

"Well, so do I," Baekhyun said quietly. "I know what I did to Sehun was wrong… he could have treated me even worse than he did, but I'd still feel like a complete shithead for breaking his face. And you know, it makes me feel so much better to acknowledge that. This was my mistake, and mine alone… I can’t blame my parents, or my upbringing, or anything else for the fact that I did this. It was all me. I can’t even begin to explain how weirdly liberating that realisation is.”

 

Chanyeol laughed. "Seems like you're a good egg after all,” he said; he reached over to pinch Baekhyun’s cheek, making him wrinkle his nose. “There’s no use fighting it, my love… it’s in your nature.”

 

"I’m a slightly rotten but mostly good egg, that still deserves to be stuck in this shitty carton,” Baekhyun said, and then he sighed. “But it's not such a long time, I guess. That's what I keep telling myself, anyhow."

 

"Yeah… me too. It doesn't stop me missing you like crazy, though," Chanyeol said quietly. "So you'll definitely come and live with me, then? Or do I need to get you to sign your life away in blood..?"

 

Baekhyun nodded. "It's a deal,” he said, holding out his hand for Chanyeol to shake. “You'll open the door one day and there I'll be – me and all the contents of my locker."

 

Chanyeol’s eyes widened when he heard this. He laughed nervously, thinking of the city apartments he’d been checking out recently, and how little storage space each of them possessed. "You're joking, right..?" he said, but Baekhyun only winked at him.

 

"I’m just kidding, Sarge," he said, grinning at Chanyeol. "I'll pack light – I promise."

 

 

 

* * * * *

The next time Baekhyun called Chanyeol from prison, he was sitting on the floor of his living room taping cardboard boxes together, ready to pack all his stuff before the move. Chanyeol's first reaction when he realised it was Baekhyun calling him was to worry that something was wrong; Baekhyun only ever called him to organise visits, and they’d already scheduled one for the coming Saturday. There must have been another reason for him to be making a call.

 

“What's up?” Chanyeol asked; he held the phone between his ear and his shoulder, and broke off a long piece of tape with his teeth.

 

“I just wanna talk, that’s all,” Baekhyun said. He sounded excited, for some reason, which Chanyeol guessed was a good thing. He felt the tightness of worry in his guts unclench a little.

 

“You never call me just to talk,” he pointed out.

 

"Well, actually, I have some news for you, Sarge,” Baekhyun said in a singsong voice.

 

"What kind of news? Good news..?"

 

"I wouldn’t be calling you up if I had bad news, would I?”

 

"Alright, alright,” Chanyeol sighed. “Well, come on, then… don't leave a man hanging."

 

“Are you sitting down?” Baekhyun asked.

 

“Yep. I’m on the floor in my living room,” Chanyeol replied. “Don’t ask me what I’m wearing, though… all I can tell you is that it isn’t sexy.”

 

Baekhyun laughed. “You weirdo… anyway, the good news is, they’re cutting the last month off my sentence. Go tell all your friends."

 

Chanyeol was sure he would have fallen over if he wasn’t already on the floor. "What…?! Why?”

 

"Well, the prison apparently has a serious problem with overcrowding at the moment, and has done for some time now,” Baekhyun told him. “So they’re allowing a certain number of early releases for people serving time for less serious offences. Due to my model behaviour as a prisoner, I'm one of the inmates being approved for an early release – only a few more weeks to go, and then I'm busting out of this joint.”

 

Chanyeol eventually realised he still had one hand clamped over his gaping mouth, and moved it away. For a moment he was worried he might cry, but then he remembered he was sitting in his living room, hopefully alone, and that no one was there to witness such an embarrassing spectacle anyway. "God, that's amazing, Baek… I'm so happy for you."

 

"I know," Baekhyun said, sounding pleased with himself, "but enough about me and my spectacular unbeatable news… are you all packed yet?"

 

Chanyeol looked around the room at the rows of empty boxes - and the stack of flattened ones he still had yet to assemble. "Not quite... but I’ve started, at least. After that's all done, I've just got to tie a few loose ends, and then I'll drive back home next weekend. I’m still coming to see you this Saturday morning though, like we planned—”

 

"Yeah… don't do that," Baekhyun said, interrupting him.

 

Chanyeol frowned. "Why not..?"

 

"Because I've been thinking… the next time you see me, I want to be a free man again," Baekhyun said quietly. "I don't want to still be in prison. You were right… you shouldn't have to see me like this. And I know I’ve been in better spirits lately, but I’m still not the ‘me’ you fell in love with. Not while I’m in here."

 

"But... another few weeks is a long time to wait…” Chanyeol could feel his gut twisting itself in knots again, this time with disappointment. "Surely seeing you in prison is better than us not seeing each other at all in that time..?"

 

Baekhyun seemed adamant, however. "Pfft… it’s not even a month,” he said. “If you can wait for me that long, it'll only be even better when I finally see you again."

 

"Fine, I guess. If that's what you really want. Can you at least call me once in a while, then, so I know you haven't been killed, or turned into someone’s prison sex-slave..?"

 

There was a dry laugh down the line. "Do you still think I can't take care of myself, Sarge..?" Baekhyun asked wryly, and Chanyeol winced at the memory of Sehun's busted jaw.

 

"Touche," he said.

 

"Alright, I'll call you when I can," Baekhyun replied. "But no more visits. It'll be too long a drive after you move, anyway."

 

"Aww, it'll only be about…" Chanyeol paused for a moment, doing the calculations in his head. "Three-and-a-half hours each way…?"

 

"No, Chanyeol," Baekhyun deadpanned, cutting him off – Chanyeol knew his boyfriend meant business when he called him by his real name. "And don't even bother trying to schedule a visit behind my back – I won't come to the visiting room even if you do. I mean it. This is important to me.”

 

"Okay, okay," Chanyeol sighed. "I'll wait. Even though it'll drive me bloody crazy.."

 

"You're happy for me, right?" Baekhyun asked. "Because you don't sound all that happy."

 

"I am happy," Chanyeol insisted, "of course I'm happy… I’m over the moon for you. I'm just going to miss you a lot over the next few weeks, that's all… I'm missing you like hell already. I miss touching you so bad, and…" – he paused for a moment, sighing, and then he fell backwards until he lay flat on the living room floor. "I know there are worse things in the world, Baek, because I see them all the time,” he said quietly. “I do realise that my hardships are nothing compared to yours, or those of some of the people I try to help every day…. but I never imagined being without you for even a couple of months would be this hard."

 

"You'll have me for life after I get out of here, I promise – you can touch me all you want then," Baekhyun pointed out. His voice was gentler now, but Chanyeol could still hear the smile in it. "So can you wait for me?"

 

Chanyeol sighed again and rolled over onto his side with his head against the floor; he had his mobile phone pressed hard against his ear, as though this would somehow bring Baekhyun closer to him. But a voice down the line, no matter how sweet it sounded, could never be a substitute for holding the real thing in his arms. "Yeah… I can wait," he mumbled. "For you, I can wait."

 

"I’m glad. Anyway, I love you, but I've got to go," Baekhyun said, and then he lowered his voice. "There's a guy in line for the phones who's giving me the dirtiest look right now, and he's about seven feet tall and almost as wide. I know I'm hot-headed sometimes, but even I wouldn't take that on."

 

Chanyeol laughed at that. "Alright, I'll let you go… and I love you too. Take care, Baek.” As soon as he hung up, his phone rang again; thinking it might be Baekhyun calling a second time, he quickly answered.

 

“Hello?”

 

"Chanyeol!" It was his mother. Chanyeol rolled his eyes skyward – what luck.

 

“Why haven’t you called lately?” she barked down the phone. “How are we meant to know you’re still alive..?”

 

“Sorry, Mum… I’ve just been really busy with work and all that.”

 

"Alright. Well, I just wanted to see how you are,” Mrs. Park said, but something else was coming – Chanyeol could feel it. A loaded pause, and then she said, “by the way, I met a very nice girl on the weekend… she's the daughter of an acquaintance from church, I think you two would really click—"

 

"Mum,” Chanyeol sighed, “I really appreciate the thought, don’t get me wrong. But I've kind of already met someone."

 

There was another long silence on the other end of the line, and then a long, loud exhale. "What's his name, then?"

 

Chanyeol swallowed. "His name's Baekhyun,” he said.

 

"Alright, Chanyeol... well, I'll be praying for you, as always.” Then she said, in a softer voice than Chanyeol was expecting, "for both of you."

 

Chanyeol felt his furrowed brows begin to unknit themselves. "Thanks, Mum," he said quietly, and added, "I'll pray for you too."

 

“Well, I’ll let you go then,” she sighed, “I’m sure you’re very busy...”

 

“Hey, wait a second.”

 

He could hear her breathing, waiting for him to speak, but she said nothing.

 

"I'm being transferred back home,” Chanyeol told her, breaking the silence. “Pretty soon, actually. I'd like to come and see you, if that’s okay."

 

When his mother spoke again, her voice was even softer. "Alright, Chanyeol. Give me a call any time."

 

"I will," Chanyeol replied, and then he hung up.

 

 

 

* * * * *

It wasn't until Chanyeol was on his final patrol with Amber that he realised how much he was going to miss Maplehedge and all its quirks – it was unexpected, how much the place had grown on him since he’d first arrived. While they went around the town, Chanyeol said a silent goodbye to all of his favourite little spots, the places he’d grown to love during his time there.

 

Goodbye, park. And goodbye to you too, post office-slash-castle.

 

“I know this is our last day as partners and I don’t want to upstage you or anything, but I have something exciting to announce,” Amber said, while they were in the car together. It seemed nothing much was going on today, and so for the most part they were just driving around aimlessly, pretending to be busy until someone sent them out on a call.

 

“I feel like everyone has something exciting to tell me these days.." Chanyeol took a doughnut hole out of the box in his lap and popped it into his mouth. “I’m not sure how much more excitement I can handle.”

 

Goodbye, Good Buy. I’ll miss your delicious doughnut holes…

 

Amber looked over at him briefly, and Chanyeol caught her smiling. “It’s something really good, though.”

 

“You’re getting married..?”

 

Amber imitated that sound game shows always played whenever a contestant was wrong. "I’m already married, you dope... guess again.”

 

“Yeah, I know... I was just being an idiot,” Chanyeol said. “Um, let’s see… you’re preggers?”

 

“Nope,” Amber said, shaking her head. “There will be no mini Ambers arriving in the near future..”

 

Chanyeol racked his brain for something else Amber might consider to be exciting news. “You’ve usurped the Chief’s throne..?”

 

Amber snorted in response. “Mmm, not quite. Still a way to go before I can put that dirty little plan into action... I am being promoted to sergeant, though. Not bad, huh?”

 

Chanyeol turned to stare at her, his jaw dropping in surprise. “Wow, that’s great! Congratulations..”

 

Goodbye, Country Taste Bakery.

 

“Sergeant Amber Liu… hah! Can you believe it?” Amber laughed and shook her head. “I’m still pinching myself, to be honest.”

 

“Of course I can believe it. No one deserves it more than you do,” Chanyeol said, and then he smiled and added, “Sarge,” giving her a little salute.

 

Amber smiled back at him, nodding in acknowledgment. “So what about you?" she asked. "Excited for the move back home, then?”

 

“Yeah, I guess so,” Chanyeol said. “Excited and nervous. Baekhyun will be moving in with me after he gets out, which will be great. I’m just hoping it all goes well.”

 

Goodbye, Bean Me Up. -- Chanyeol very nearly shed a tear when they drove past that one.

 

"So you’re going to stay together, then,” Amber said. “That’s good.”

 

"Yeah. I guess he needs me, by his own admission," Chanyeol replied. "We need each other. And we’re stupidly in love, which always helps."

 

Amber nodded, and took a sharp turn into the next street (Chanyeol probably wouldn’t miss her reckless driving, he thought). "Okay,” she said. “Well, I'm bummed you're leaving… but I'm really happy for you. If it means anything, you’re definitely in the top five of all the partners I’ve had.”

 

Chanyeol was about to thank Amber for the compliment, but then he paused and eyed her suspiciously. "Out of curiosity, how many partners have you had...?"

 

Amber grinned at him, and then she looked back at the road ahead. "Exactly five.”

 

Chanyeol was silent for a moment. “You know, I would tell you to get out of the car right now,” he said, “but unfortunately you’re the one driving it.”

 

Amber laughed. She took one hand off the wheel and patted Chanyeol on the back with it. "I’ll miss you too, rookie."

 

 

 

* * * * *

Baekhyun was released from prison on a sunny Sunday – surprisingly sunny for the time of year, which was a good omen, Chanyeol thought. When he met his boyfriend outside the train station closest to their apartment, he was carrying only a few things: a brown-paper-wrapped parcel in one hand, and the ancient leather suitcase with his saint collection inside it in the other. He had his usual backpack on his back, stuffed full to bursting, and when he saw Chanyeol approaching he put it all down on the ground and opened up his arms. Chanyeol almost flew right into them, holding on to Baekhyun so tight that it made the boy gasp in surprise at first, but then he laughed quietly, resting his head against Chanyeol’s chest.

 

"You're free," Chanyeol whispered; with one hand under Baekhyun’s chin, he tilted his head upwards and kissed him softly on the lips, then buried his nose in his hair and breathed in deeply. He lost count of how many minutes they stood there holding each other like that, with all the people in a hurry rushing past them, splitting like a river flowing around two stones. It felt like a very long time.

 

"So," Chanyeol said, when they eventually separated. "I see you really did pack light."

 

"Yeah... I didn't need all that stuff anymore," Baekhyun replied. He nodded at the wrapped package on the ground next to him. "I did bring the cat-snake with me, though, I'm sorry to say."

 

"Um, I hope you don't think you'll be putting that up where anyone can see it," Chanyeol said with a nervous laugh.

 

"I'm not getting rid of it – it has sentimental value," Baekhyun said, pouting, but the pout quickly turned into a smile. "We'll come to an agreement later."

 

Chanyeol nodded, even though he knew the only place he’d be willing to hang that monstrosity would be inside the linen closet. "Anyway," he said, "I've got something for you." He handed Baekhyun a small parcel wrapped in newspaper. Baekhyun shot him a curious glance, and then he unwrapped the newspaper and looked at the figurine inside it. He smiled, which made Chanyeol smile too.

 

"It's a replacement Virgin Mary," Chanyeol said, still smiling. "Since some shithead stole your other one."

 

Baekhyun laughed softly and turned the figurine around in his hands, admiring it. "Thank you… it’s great," he said, putting it into the pocket of his coat. "I have a little something for you, too."

 

Chanyeol raised both eyebrows. "You do..?"

 

Baekhyun nodded. "Yeah," he said, and he held out his hand. Chanyeol looked at it for a moment and then took it in his own, holding onto it gently, rubbing Baekhyun's palm with his thumb.

 

"I'm sorry... I know it's not as good as yours," Baekhyun said, chuckling softly, but Chanyeol shook his head.

 

"No, it's perfect... I can't think of a single thing I'd rather be holding right now," he said quietly. Baekhyun looked thoughtful for a moment and then smiled at him.

 

"Me neither," he said. Chanyeol pulled him into another hug, once again burying his nose in Baekhyun's hair.

 

"You wanna go home?” he whispered. “It's only a short walk from here..”

 

Baekhyun pulled away from Chanyeol's arms and looked up at him for a long time. "Home..." he repeated, in a voice that was small and quiet, and Chanyeol nodded.

 

"Uh-huh. Our new home," he said. He smiled and gave Baekhyun's cheek a little pinch, laughing when the boy poked out his tongue, trying to lick his hand in retaliation. "We have one bedroom, and it's pretty damn small. I hope you're okay with sharing."

 

Baekhyun nodded; he was smiling again too -- it was his usual beautiful smile, the one where his eyes went all crinkly and you could see all his teeth. "I'm perfectly okay with that," he said. He held out his hand again so that Chanyeol could grab on to it. "Lead the way, Sarge.."

 

When they arrived at the apartment, Chanyeol unlocked the front door and held it open for Baekhyun to enter first. Baekhyun walked in cautiously, looking around the living room. His eyes immediately fell on a large statue of Jesus standing on a little table in one corner of the room. "Woah," he said. "That's a big Jesus…"

 

Chanyeol laughed. "Funny story, that," he said. "I went to see Mum the other day, and she and I had a good old talk… and then she bequeathed to me this Jesus statue that she used to keep in her house – 'It'll bless the new apartment', she said, and I didn't dare argue. I always used to think he looked miserable, but he seems a bit happier here, somehow. Anyway, I thought you might like him... you can even add him to your shrine."

 

"Oh... well, that's very kind of her," Baekhyun said, laughing. "He can preside over all the saints. So how'd the talking part go..?"

 

"Better than I expected," Chanyeol replied. "We got it all out on the table, and there's still a way to go… but by the end of it, she even said she'd like to meet you sometime soon. That's progress, I think."

 

Baekhyun stood closer to Chanyeol and wrapped both arms around his waist, pressing his face against his chest. "I'm proud of you, Sarge," he whispered. "You did good."

 

Chanyeol ruffled Baekhyun's hair, and held him tight for a long time. When Baekhyun pulled away from the embrace, he looked up at Chanyeol with wet eyes.

 

"Hey," Chanyeol said quietly, his face falling at Baekhyun's expression. He wiped a tear away from Baekhyun's cheek with his thumb. "You okay..?"

 

Baekhyun nodded in silence, lifting one hand to touch Chanyeol's face. For a moment there was only the sound of his fingers scratching against the stubble on Chanyeol's jaw. "Beautiful..." he said in a shaking whisper, and he could have been talking about the cat's mother for all Chanyeol knew, without a 'you're' at the beginning of that sentence. But the love in his eyes said everything, was everything. He held out both hands and Chanyeol grabbed them, squeezed them gently to stop them trembling, then brought them up to his lips to tenderly kiss them both. He held Baekhyun's face and kissed him too, kissed him so hard it almost hurt; he kept his eyes shut tight, almost afraid to open them again, in case he found out that this was all happening inside his head. But when he did open them, Baekhyun was still there, standing in front of him, and his face was still cradled between both of Chanyeol's hands, beautiful and so real.

 

"You're really here," Chanyeol whispered.

 

Baekhyun smiled up at him. "I am."

 

Without another word, Chanyeol took Baekhyun’s hand and led him over to their bedroom. "And this is where we'll sleep," he said. “And do the dirty, of course… there’ll be lots of that going on.”

 

Baekhyun laughed. He walked into the room, looked at the bed and said, "so that's our bed, huh."

 

"Uh-huh," Chanyeol said, smiling at him. He reached over and rubbed the back of Baekhyun's neck, loving the way it made him weaken at the knees. "It's new. It’s big, and soft, and very comfortable. And I've also jumped on it a few times... those springs can really take a beating."

 

Baekhyun laughed. He turned around until they were facing each other and pulled Chanyeol closer, throwing both arms around his neck. "Let's test them then, shall we..?" he said, and he pushed Chanyeol over towards the bed. Their kisses were hungry, almost desperate, and Chanyeol was torn between needing to come up for air and not wanting to part from Baekhyun's lips for even another second. They refused to separate even while they were undressing, which proved to be challenging, and Chanyeol was sure he heard the sound of someone's clothes being ripped… but fuck, it was worth it.

 

When Chanyeol lay him down upon their bed, all gorgeous and naked, Baekhyun gazed up at him with half-closed eyes and lifted a hand to touch his face once more, his fingers tracing the curves of Chanyeol's smile; he said nothing, but Chanyeol knew exactly how he felt. He kissed Baekhyun again, soft and gentle, making love to him with the afternoon sun shining in on them from their bedroom window. It warmed their bodies, making Baekhyun’s skin look like it was glowing, and Chanyeol loved it all, as always… he loved how the sunlight lit up Baekhyun's love-filled eyes, making them burn even brighter, and the sweet sound of pleasure in his voice. He loved how Baekhyun returned all his I love you's, softly whispering them into Chanyeol's ears, his mouth, his hair, the sides of his neck, everywhere and anywhere his lips could touch.

 

But what Chanyeol loved most of all was knowing that Baekhyun loved him too.

 

When they were done, Baekhyun lay with his head on Chanyeol's chest, his hand warm against Chanyeol's stomach, lazily tracing patterns on his bare skin. "Thank you," he said quietly, and he pressed his lips to the spot right over Chanyeol's heart.

 

"I've never been thanked after sex before," Chanyeol replied, laughing softly. He combed his fingers through Baekhyun's hair and let out a happy little hum. "It was good, huh..?"

 

"Uh-huh… it’s always really good with you." Baekhyun nuzzled Chanyeol's chest again, kissing him there a few more times. "They certainly don't do it that good in prison."

 

Chanyeol's jaw clenched, and Baekhyun must have noticed, because he laughed softly and gave him a playful little dig in the ribs. "I'm kidding, Sarge… anyway, I meant thank you for waiting."

 

"Oh." Chanyeol smiled at that, and he held Baekhyun close, kissing the top of his head. "Well, I already waited 23 years for you. What's another few months..?"

 

"Mmm. I suppose."

 

"What should we do now?" Chanyeol asked quietly. "Apart from doing a bit more 'catching up', of course... I'm always up for that."

 

Baekhyun was silent for a moment. "Let's just lie here and hold each other," he whispered. "I have no plans to let you out of this bed for the rest of today, Sarge. Where do we have to be, anyway..?"

 

"Good point," Chanyeol said, and soon enough, he fell asleep with Baekhyun cuddled up warm and naked beside him.

 

He woke up a little later to the sound of someone moving around the room. When Chanyeol opened his eyes, he saw that Baekhyun was in the middle of getting dressed again.

 

"Hey... did I say you could put your clothes back on..?" he said playfully, and Baekhyun smiled and walked back over to the bed, sitting down on the edge of it. He kissed Chanyeol softly, grabbing one of his hands and lacing their fingers together, lifting it above Chanyeol's head. Chanyeol let out a low whimper at the feather-light touch of Baekhyun’s tongue on his own; he felt Baekhyun holding his hand up against the bed, and then before he knew what was going on, there was cold metal circling his wrist, a sharp clicking sound.

 

Chanyeol's eyes snapped open. He saw the wicked smile on Baekhyun's face, hovering above him, and he tilted his head back to see his hand cuffed to one of the iron poles of the bed frame. He sighed.

 

"So it's come to this, has it..?"

 

Baekhyun was sitting on top of his body, straddling him, still wearing that evil little grin. "Uh-huh," he replied, laughing softly. "Oh, how the tables have turned.."

 

"Using my own cuffs on me, huh... you've got guts, I'll say that much," Chanyeol said wryly. "So when are you planning on letting me go?"

 

"Never," Baekhyun said. "Oh, you mean from the bed... of course. How silly of me. I'm just going to pop out for a little while. And I did say I wouldn’t let you out of this bed for the rest of the day, so now you know my word is good."

 

Chanyeol frowned at him. "Where are you going..?"

 

"Well, I thought I’d take a little stroll around the new neighbourhood and get my bearings, maybe pick us up some dinner,” Baekhyun said, winking at him. “Does pizza sound good? I noticed a pizza place up the road from here… might as well try it out. A new home calls for new traditions, I think.”

 

"Do I have a say either way?" Chanyeol asked.

 

Baekhyun smiled. "Not really."

 

Chanyeol could deal with this; he considered himself an adaptable person, after all. "Then pizza sounds great," he said. "Can I at least have another kiss before you leave me here?"

 

"Of course... I'm not so evil that I would deny you that." Baekhyun leaned down and kissed him on the lips again, soft and passionate, licking into Chanyeol's mouth with his tongue. "My sexy little prisoner,” he whispered, caressing Chanyeol's face softly with both hands. "Now you're stuck with me forever, you poor bastard."

 

"That fact is beginning to dawn on me, yes," Chanyeol said, smiling up at him. Perhaps he'd made a terrible mistake. But if he had, then it was sure to be the best terrible mistake of his life.

 

"I'd better be off," Baekhyun whispered in his ear. He gave Chanyeol a sweet little kiss on the side of his neck. "That pizza won't order itself..”

 

Chanyeol shook his wrist, rattling the metal cuffs against the bed frame. "Alright. Guess I'll wait right here, then."

 

Baekhyun chuckled softly; before he left, he stuck his head back inside the room, just for a second. "Yes, you will," he said, with a cheeky smile. He blew Chanyeol a kiss and gently closed the door.

 

 

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