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Artificial Lover

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When he first met Kyungsoo, they were dumb, overexcited teens with a lust for life and all things different. Kyungsoo had his quirks and so did Chanyeol; it was easy to fall in love with him. And they began to grow together, year following year until he was dependent on Kyungsoo in every way: emotionally, physically, domestically.

The novelty fades. Life sucks life out of everything until it’s all blank. Chanyeol remembers when they used to go on weekly dates and surprise each other with gifts and kisses. None of that happens anymore. He remembers when they first moved in together, remembers when they started wearing promise rings. Now, being in the apartment with Kyungsoo makes him uneasy, and Kyungsoo stopped wearing his ring months ago.

They sleep in separate beds. Or, Chanyeol sleeps in the bed—Kyungsoo takes the couch most nights. Somewhere between work and every change that comes with time, they stopped feeling like lovers and started feeling like roommates.

Right now, Chanyeol is staring into his coffee cup, chords and melodies cycling through his mind. Producing is how he makes money, and it’s hard when his boss considers all his work ‘uninspired.’ Across the room, Kyungsoo sits in his usual chair, dark eyes skimming over a book. Every swish of a turned page makes Chanyeol feel less sane. The apartment is so silent that even the softest noise is too much. The hum of the refrigerator, the buzzing overhead light, Kyungsoo’s paper-on-paper—all of it interferes with the music in Chanyeol’s brain. “Can you read quieter?”

“What?”

“You’re flipping the pages so loud.”

He can picture Kyungsoo’s exact expression without looking at him: slightly downturned lips, one eyebrow raised— “You’re one to talk; I can hear you thinking from all the way over here.”

When did this become every conversation between them? No love, just picking everything apart. “Sorry,” Chanyeol sighs, “Keep reading.”

But Kyungsoo has already been set off—he stands up like it takes a lot out of him. “No, no. You’re stressed, I get it. I can read in the bedroom.”

That’s the only time Kyungsoo goes into to the bedroom anymore: when he’s either getting dressed, or reading.

And Chanyeol is left alone in the tiny living room, which feels empty without Kyungsoo’s presence. The problem, Chanyeol realized a long time ago, is that he loves Kyungsoo and that’s boring. Their lives are starting to separate, a pull that Chanyeol worries will break every day.

It’s already evening. Still no musical insight; not even the city lights out the window can do anything.

Looks like Chanyeol is the one sleeping on the couch tonight.

 


 

“Morning.”

Chanyeol wakes up to the smell of coffee brewing, the bitter kind Kyungsoo likes to drink. “Morning,” he says. The couch is too small to house Chanyeol’s tall figure, and when he stands up every muscle groans.

He joins Kyungsoo in the kitchen area, which Kyungsoo still refuses to call a proper kitchen. “Sorry if I was crabby last night,” he leans against the counter where Kyungsoo waits for coffee, “You know I don’t mean things like that, babe.”

“I know,” Kyungsoo says, “I just worry about you working too hard. Don’t you have a big project coming up? What if you can’t produce something your asshole boss approves of?”

That’s all Chanyeol has thought about for weeks. His recent performance at the studio already has him hanging by a thread; one more tanked project could cost him a job. There are computer programs that could do his work for much cheaper, and the only thing keeping his position locked is that certain artists insist on a live producer. “Don’t worry,” Chanyeol smiles, even though he’s more worried than Kyungsoo, “I’ll figure something out.”

Their morning routine is nothing short of bland. They used to stay in bed for hours before work, wrapped up in each other, and now they sit in a silent kitchen. Chanyeol hates when he starts thinking like this, stuck in the past like things can go back to how they were.

He leaves for work after giving Kyungsoo a kiss that tastes like nothing.

 


 

Chanyeol loves his job, no matter how lacking the inspiration has been lately. His occasional strokes of genius are what got him into this company, and Chanyeol is sure they’ll carry him through this current project as well. He just has to wait.

Junmyeon finds Chanyeol in his studio, announcing his presence with two quick knocks on the door. “Hey,” he smiles, “How’s the project coming?”

“It’s coming,” Chanyeol shrugs, “I have a beat set for the title. A four-on-the-floor type of thing.”

“I hope that’s not all you have in mind,” a worried look crosses Junmyeon’s face; as production manager, Chanyeol’s output affects Junmyeon’s work evaluations as well.

“I know the style I’m going for.” As Chanyeol usually sticks to producing similar genres, Junmyeon looks less than reassured. “It’ll sound great, don’t worry.”

The manager takes a deep breath. “I’ve never doubted you before. Chen’s in the studio this Friday, so at least have the title done by then, okay? Thanks, Chanyeol.”

It’s overwhelming, how everything feels like it’s riding on Chanyeol’s shoulders. He isn’t producing the entire album, just four songs, and even that feels like too much. At his best, Chanyeol can crank out four songs in two days. He just needs the right muse, and Chanyeol is starting to think the right muse doesn’t exist.

In the break room a few hours later (hours spent staring at the screen, matching drum loops to random synth progressions, and deleting it all), someone joins Chanyeol at his lonely table. “You okay?”

Chanyeol looks up, and Yixing is sitting across from him with an expectant look. “Yeah, man, I’m good. Didn’t know you were recording today.”

“Just a single,” Yixing tells him, “It would be better if I had one of your songs along with it,” he chuckles a bit.

Chanyeol hasn’t produced anything for Yixing in a while. The last track he’d done for Yixing had been good, really good. It sold well in both China and Korea; everyone had been talking about ‘Lay’s hot comeback’ after that. “Not with how I’ve been doing lately,” Chanyeol frowns, “I can’t even produce a chorus without scrapping it.”

“Uh-oh,” Yixing leans forward, lowers his voice— “Trouble in paradise?”

He really shouldn’t say—Yixing is just his co-worker, after all—but there are things Chanyeol needs to get off his chest. After a moment of hesitation, he nods.

“That’s too bad. But you two have been together for a long time, right? You can make it through anything at this point.”

Yixing makes it sound easy. When little problems have been piling up for over five years (has it really been that long?) Chanyeol isn’t sure how much longer he can stay with Kyungsoo. He changes the subject: “What about you? Has China’s most eligible bachelor found The One yet?”

Yixing laughs, “Let’s just say I’ve been doing some more… online searching, you know?”

Chanyeol blinks.

“The app?” Yixing’s voice grows soft again.

“What app?”

The man rolls his eyes, “The Artificial Love app? The one everyone’s talking about right now?”

Oh. Chanyeol has heard of that—it’s been publicized on the sidebar of nearly every website for weeks now, with flashy colors and cute-looking animated characters. But he’s never looked into what the app actually does. “That’s just a game, right? Don’t tell me world superstar Lay has a thing for video game characters. Wait until the fans hear.”

“Wow, you really don’t know about this, then,” Yixing fiddles around in his pocket and pulls out his phone. “It’s like real-life dating. You pick your ideal woman—or man, I guess—and then she becomes real. Well, kind of.” He opens the app on-screen, showing Chanyeol an adorable female avatar. But as far as he can tell, it’s still just a character. “That’s why it’s nice for me, because the fans would hate if I were really dating anyone, but I have my Artificial Love to keep me company. It’s pretty cheap, too.”

Sounds like a scam. Chanyeol tries not to buy into crazes, especially ones this over-advertised. But if it makes Yixing happy…

“So you use this app as a loophole?”

“Basically, yeah,” Yixing stands up, claps Chanyeol on the back. “I’m due back in the studio, but it was nice seeing you, man. Hope everything works out with the Mister.”

Chanyeol offers a weak smile, bids Yixing good-bye. I hope so, too.

 


 

“How was your day?” he asks Kyungsoo that evening.

Kyungsoo flips a page and without looking up from his book, says, “It was good.”

He never gives Chanyeol much to work with. “That’s good.” They sit in silence for a minute before Chanyeol continues, “Mine was alright. Still have lots of work to do for the Chen album.”

It’s easy to tell when Kyungsoo is paying zero attention to him: “Hm.”

So Chanyeol doesn’t say anything more.

There’s a beautiful tiredness kissing every part of Kyungsoo’s face, like he didn’t get enough sleep last night. He must not be used to sleeping on a bed, which Chanyeol finds a bit sad. He’s still beautiful, though; Chanyeol will always find Kyungsoo beautiful in that simple way of his.

“Did you do the dishes?” Kyungsoo's deep voice wakes Chanyeol up from his thoughts.

“It’s your day, isn’t it?”

The man sighs, “Tuesday, Chanyeol.”

“It’s not Wednesday?”

Finally, he puts the book down. “Chan, it’s Tuesday.”

Chanyeol gets up. “I’ll do that now, then. I’m sorry, baby, I thought it was Wednesday.”

As he stands in front of the sink, Kyungsoo calls out to him, “Did you forget about this Friday, too?”

This Friday. Chanyeol wracks his brain for what could possibly be happening this Friday, other than his session at work. Guilt sinking into his gut, Chanyeol braces himself and asks, “What’s this Friday?”

“Chanyeol, seriously?” There’s a slight strain to Kyungsoo’s voice, one that usually isn’t there. “We’re going out this Friday. It’s on the calendar.”

Oh. Yes, Chanyeol vaguely remembers discussing this with Kyungsoo, and how his boyfriend’s eyes had lit up as they made the plans. He feels like shit. “That’s this Friday? Baby, I’m so sorry—I might have to work overtime on Friday. Chen’s recording then, and if it takes more than a few tries—”

“Don’t ‘Baby’ me, Chanyeol. I already made reservations, okay?” Kyungsoo has every right to be upset. “I’m sick of you always putting work first. It’s important to you, I get that, but I’m your partner. We planned this date weeks ago.”

Slowly, Chanyeol sets down the dish he’s scrubbing and moves so he can see Kyungsoo’s face. “I know, and I’m sorry. Maybe recording won't take long. I can ask Junmyeon to re-book Chen, alright? We’ll go out on Friday, I’ll make sure.”

“Do whatever you have to do,” Kyungsoo snaps his book shut and walks into the bedroom, coming out a minute later with a bag slung over his shoulder. “I’m heading out.”

They both know what this means. Sometimes Kyungsoo just leaves for days at a time, and they both know he stays at his brother’s place even if the boy denies it when Chanyeol calls. Being away helps to cool his head, Kyungsoo once told him. So Chanyeol lets him go, even if everything is much more quiet and empty while he’s gone.

The next morning, Chanyeol wakes up and there's no Kyungsoo on the couch. He almost cries.

 


 

Again?” That’s the first thing he says, and Kyungsoo knew it would be because this happens every time. He drops himself off at his brother’s doorstep like it’s a safe haven, far away from romantic turmoil. The trip is never long, only twenty minutes by bus, but every painful minute seems to stretch out.

Kyungsoo doesn’t like his brother’s place very much. A simple two-bedroom apartment, perfect for Kyungjun and his wife, but Kyungsoo finds the atmosphere too… lived-in.

And yet, here Kyungsoo stands, a lost puppy with a suitcase at his brother’s door. “Just a few nights.”

“A few nights!” Kyungjun snaps, but he steps aside to let Kyungsoo through, “Imagine if I came to your place every time I fought with Yeonji? Oh wait, it would just be me and Chanyeol there, because you’re always here!”

Kyungsoo gets it. He hates intruding on his brother’s life—if anything, it’s embarrassing, running away to his little brother’s house when things go wrong. But about a year ago, the first time this happened, Kyungsoo felt an indescribable freedom in being away from Chanyeol. He felt less guarded, less responsible over someone else. And only once his worry and guilt ate away at every bit of his heart did Kyungsoo board the bus back to Chanyeol’s arms again.

It’s odd, how each time he leaves home, it takes Kyungsoo longer to want to return.

This is routine by now: Kyungsoo dragging his suitcase into the tiny spare room, then returning to Kyungjun with a box of snacks. These are all Kyungjun’s favorites; it’s like an offering, or a bribe to let Kyungsoo stay.

His brother sighs, accepts the box with a smile. “You’re a good person, Kyungsoo,” he says, “I don’t like seeing you lonely. Maybe try online dating? That’s how I met Yeonji—”

“For the last time, I’m not signing up for one of those sites. That kind of technology is too unreliable anyway,” Kyungsoo gives his least amused look, “Chanyeol and I didn’t break up. So I’d never cheat, and I know the same goes for him.”

Kyungjun drops it, but as Kyungsoo heads back to the spare room, the man asks, “Really? You leave him alone this much and Chanyeol would never cheat on you?”

“One hundred percent positive.” Kyungsoo’s answer is immediate. Loyalty is a trait that everyone likes about Chanyeol. But as soon as the words leave his mouth, Kyungsoo lets his mind fall into that dark place of worry and doubt.

 


 

Junmyeon has absolutely had enough of Chanyeol, which is understandable. They sit next to each other in front of the monitor and Chanyeol walks him through the title track’s progress.

“That’s it? Just synth and a sample beat?”

Chanyeol is happy he’s even this far along. “I’ll have it by the deadline.”

Junmyeon sighs. “Chanyeol, this is a love song. Sure, it’s upbeat, but there still has to be emotion, and I’m getting nothing from this.” Chanyeol stays quiet; he has a million excuses for why the track is lacking, but it all amounts to his own love life lying on its deathbed. “If you’re going through something right now, I understand, but you have to separate work from your home life, okay?” Junmyeon gets up and heads toward the door. “I’m calling in Sehun.”

Oh Sehun is the most promising paid intern at the label, floating around from project to project and offering input where it’s needed. Chanyeol is always thankful for a second opinion, but the bare-bones nature of what he has so far leaves Sehun stumped. “It sounds like you had trouble playing with the beat and stuff.”

“Honestly, I’m just not feeling this one,” Chanyeol admits.

A frown crosses Sehun’s mouth. “I looked at the lyrics. They’re kind of, you know, sexy. Is that why you’re having trouble—you can’t make it sound sexy?”

Maybe it’s because Chanyeol has been blue-balled for over three months. “I don’t know; I haven’t been this out of it before.”

Then Sehun perks up like a great idea has just struck him, “Hey, are you single? You could get inspired pretty easily if you had someone,” he nudges Chanyeol’s arm.

“That’s the issue—I have a partner, but things have been… rough, lately.” Just thinking about Kyungsoo makes Chanyeol’s heart sick.

“Then go to a strip club or something,” Sehun suggests.

Chanyeol cracks a smile. “Nothing romantic about a strip club. But I’ll think about it. Keep up the good work, Sehun.”

Instead of producing for the next few hours, Chanyeol surfs the Internet. Inspiration must be out there somewhere. Chanyeol’s Google searches lead him from exotic song playlists to borderline softcore porn, none of which offer any motivation.

The next link he clicks on is littered with pop-ups and gimmicky text. Chanyeol instinctively moves to close the window, but his eye catches on one of the sidebar ads: Artificial Love—Find your ideal type! Virtual love in the real world. Download the mobile app today!

Oddly, Chanyeol is tempted. He hasn’t heard from Kyungsoo in over twelve hours, leaving Chanyeol lonely and curious. It sounds like harmless fun, a little game for the romantically challenged. Chanyeol tells himself to stop thinking about it—he has work to do—but his mind keeps floating back to the app. A fake character wouldn’t make him sad or leave him, right? And Kyungsoo shouldn’t care because it’s just a game.

Instead of revisiting his work, Chanyeol swipes through reviews of the Artificial Love app. To his surprise, the response is overwhelmingly positive: “5/5—Just what I need!” says one, “My wife could never satisfy me like my Love can. A match made in heaven.” Another claims, “This app saved my life, period. Now when my mom bugs me about settling down, I tell her I have a perfect boyfriend.” “Puts regular dating to shame. Soon, everyone will want a Love instead of a real s/o. Romance is dead, Artificial Love is very alive.” “No awkwardness, no confusing emotions—just a flawless relationship.” The more Chanyeol reads, the more this sounds like a must-have.

After experimenting with distortion effects for a few more hours, the first thing Chanyeol does once he’s home is download the Artificial Love app. To him, it’s a no-brainer; Chanyeol needs comfort, and can delete the app if he really needs to. The purchase was a little pricey, but that’s what old gift cards are for. And once the app loads up, Chanyeol is brought into exactly what he expected: a bright menu, bubbly text, and cute noises whenever he taps something.

“Welcome to Artificial Love!” a tutorial starts up, “Here, you can have a hassle-free, fun relationship with your ideal man or woman—guaranteed! To start, let’s hear a little bit about yourself.” It’s just as kitschy as he imagined. Chanyeol fills in all his information on-screen, from his e-mail to his occupation. When he finishes, the tutorial resumes: “Perfect! Next item: Park Chanyeol, are you interested in a male or female Love?” Chanyeol makes his selection and then dozens of cartoon avatar men are popping up on the screen. “Now it’s time to meet your potential Love! Scroll through the profiles and select ‘Fall in Love’ when you’ve found your dream man. Note, this cannot be changed later, so choose wisely. Enjoy!”

Overwhelmed by information, Chanyeol taps on avatar profiles in random order. He wouldn’t ever consider himself attracted to a cartoon image, so instead Chanyeol goes by the attributes listed in each profile. Hobbies, personality, height… He has at least one trait in common with each avatar; the app did a decent job of personalizing results. As Chanyeol taps on more profiles, he sees there truly is a match for everyone. Bodybuilders, animal lovers, men who are good cooks. Musicians.

Chanyeol lingers on one profile in particular—he’s marketed as a ‘Musical Love’ who ‘Will place your heart over his passion for song!’ Probably exaggerated, but a concept Chanyeol can get behind. He reads on; the man is around the same height as Kyungsoo, just how he prefers. He has ‘a strong, yet mature personality.’

Baekhyun. It’s hard to put a name to the face when all Chanyeol has to look at is an over-stylized animated icon. From what he can tell, ‘Baekhyun’ has a soft appearance and chic style.

For a moment, Chanyeol considers flipping through more profiles, seeing if another avatar could be closer to his type. But that thought comes and goes; he’s already taking this too seriously as it is. On impulse, he taps the button— ‘Fall in Love,’ bolded toward the bottom of the screen.

“Great selection!” the screen reads, “Initializing. Your Love will be with you shortly.”

Chanyeol snorts as a loading bar begins to fill up. What could possibly be taking so long to load? He wishes he had Yixing’s number now—does everyone have to go through such a lengthy process?

Half an hour later, with Chanyeol’s phone nearly out of battery, the process finally finishes. Nothing could have prepared Chanyeol for what follows: he expects a game to start on-screen, but instead, a bright light leaps from where his phone camera is. The light spans from the floor to Chanyeol’s chin, glimmering like something big is about to happen. And Chanyeol just stands there, gripping his phone despite how hot it becomes, waiting for the light to disappear. He doesn’t notice it at first, but slowly, color fades into the brightness and a dense area begins to form—a luminous mass taking the undeniable shape of a man. Chanyeol watches with wide eyes as color fills in the space before him, etching clothing and warm skin until an entire person is standing in Chanyeol’s apartment.

“Hello, Park Chanyeol,” the man speaks in a smooth voice and a smirk rests on his pouty lips, “My name’s Baekhyun. Thank you for choosing me as your Love.”

This man has an otherworldly appearance to him; Chanyeol is taken aback by his presence alone. Silky silver hair, a boyish face, pigment around his eyes like he’s an idol. Baekhyun is too perfect to be real, and then Chanyeol remembers he isn’t real. There should be no consequences, then, if Chanyeol were to reach out and touch his face… sure enough, his hand passes right through the projection of Baekhyun. “Stop that, it feels weird,” Baekhyun swipes at Chanyeol’s hand, only to pass through it again. ‘Strong personality,’ indeed.

“What the hell…” Chanyeol walks around Baekhyun’s form; there are no strings, no gimmicks. And remarkably, when he looks at the man he can’t see through Baekhyun, just like a real person. “How are you here?”

“You chose me to be here,” Baekhyun answers simply, “I live inside your phone, in the app data, and can come out whenever you need me. It works with the projection technology of your smartphone.” Chanyeol doesn't use that feature often; his work doesn’t require projections. Sometimes he projects a film onto his wall, but Chanyeol had no idea his phone was capable of this. “Oh,” Chanyeol says, and then a million questions pop into his mind. “What do I have to do with you? Are you, like, a real guy?”

“No,” Baekhyun smiles again; his teeth are stunning, “We’re all randomly generated. But I have thoughts, and emotions, so in that way I’m real. Since this is Stage One, I’m just not an actual being. Well, I could be—” Baekhyun turns around and tugs the back of his collar down to reveal a glowing bar set into his skin, the number ‘0%’ beside it. “This is my Love Meter. The more affection you show me, the higher the number gets. And when you really have feelings for me, and the bar reaches ‘100%,’ then I’ll become a living, breathing person. That’s Stage Two.”

Chanyeol doubts that will ever happen; how could he love two people at once? This is just a distraction, just something to keep him occupied while he’s missing Kyungsoo.

This is weird. Chanyeol has an uneasy feeling about the entire situation, and he’s never shied away from technology before. Baekhyun just seems eerily real.

“Well where do I… keep you?” he asks, “You can stay on the couch if you want, at least until…”

Baekhyun looks at him long and hard, then with a knowing smirk, says, “You’re in a relationship.” It isn’t a question.

“I am. Yeah.”

Baekhyun moves to the nearest chair, and when he sits down, Chanyeol is surprised he doesn’t pass through it. “Then why am I here?”

Chanyeol sighs and takes a seat as well. “Because I want to feel like I’m in a relationship again. Right now it’s just…”

“Wow, the sex is that bad?” Baekhyun interrupts.

“It’s not that,” But when Chanyeol thinks about it, he hasn’t had sex with Kyungsoo in over a month. “We haven’t been on good terms these past few days and I hate being lonely.” When he admits that, a hollowness fills his stomach.

Baekhyun nods like he understands. “Sounds like a job for me. We’ll have lots of fun together, Park Chanyeol.”

The way he says it—Chanyeol has no idea what that means. “Well just, uh, let me know if you need anything, okay?” He gets up, fully prepared to get ready for bed and forget about Baekhyun until morning.

“Hold on, why did you even activate me if you don’t want to spend time together?” Baekhyun looks offended, but Chanyeol can’t tell if he really is, “If you want me to leave, there’s an ‘inactive mode’ in the app. But let’s hang out tonight.”

“Hang out?”

“Yeah,” Baekhyun shrugs, “You have a nice TV, and I want to get to know you.”

Chanyeol is a bit uncertain about the whole situation, but he can’t find it in him to turn Baekhyun down. “Alright,” he says, “let’s watch TV, then.”

Although he just met Baekhyun (does ‘met’ work for fake people, too?), hanging out with him is easy. They have similar taste in shows, and the conversation never stalls. Chanyeol can’t help but think, far back in his mind, that he made a good selection in Baekhyun.

At 1:30 A.M., when Chanyeol can’t keep the yawns inside his mouth anymore and Baekhyun is laughing because of it, he says, “This has been nice, but I really should get some sleep.”

“Suit yourself,” Baekhyun smiles at him, “but I’m gonna keep watching for a bit. Don’t shut your phone down completely or let it die, okay? That really messes with me.”

“Will do. Goodnight, Baekhyun.”

And as he glances back at the man’s form, sprawled out on the sofa, Chanyeol can’t help the warm feeling inside him. “Goodnight, Park Chanyeol. See you in the morning.”

 


 

When Chanyeol wakes up, there’s no sight of Baekhyun. For a moment, he thinks he dreamed everything that happened last night. It’s impossible, anyway, for someone to exist that’s chosen just for him. Baekhyun may have been a dream, but just to be safe, Chanyeol ventures into the kitchen to check for him there. No Baekhyun. He tries the bathroom next, and as Chanyeol cracks the door open—

“Boo!”

He’s never turned around so fast before, and the sharp spike in heart rate can’t be good for Chanyeol’s health. “Geez, you scared me!”

Meanwhile, Baekhyun is laughing so hard, Chanyeol is worried he’ll start crying. “You should’ve seen the way you jumped!” Baekhyun taunts him, but Chanyeol focuses instead on his white teeth. He has a perfect smile.

“Don’t do it again,” Chanyeol warns, but it’s playful.

He heads back into the kitchen with Baekhyun not far behind, but Chanyeol feels like something is missing, the same thing that was missing yesterday. It’s the smell of bitter coffee, he remembers—Kyungsoo always wakes up before him, and has the coffee machine running all morning. But Kyungsoo isn’t here.

“Are you a good cook?” Baekhyun distracts him from his own thoughts. Chanyeol opens the fridge to get some juice, and when he looks back, Baekhyun is sat at the counter like he’s watching a show.

Chanyeol shrugs, “I’m passable.” He used to be a better cook back in college, but since then Kyungsoo has taken over the cooking responsibility. Today, he pops some bread in the toaster. Easy. “Why, do you want something to eat?”

“I can’t eat yet, Chanyeol.” Baekhyun deadpans.

“Oh.” As he waits for his toast, Chanyeol goes to sit beside Baekhyun.

“I just want to know what I’m getting into.” Baekhyun has this attitude to him that Chanyeol finds oddly amusing. He hasn’t yet decided what he thinks about keeping Baekhyun around, but the man’s personality is interesting, to say the least.

He isn’t introverted, either—as Chanyeol eats his toast, Baekhyun seems fascinated with asking questions and making jokes. It’s the least quiet breakfast Chanyeol has had in a while.

He can’t feel the minutes passing, and when Chanyeol next checks his phone, he’s shocked at how late it is. Usually by this time, Chanyeol is already dressed and out the door. “Baekhyun, I have to get to work now,” Chanyeol says, rushing the final bites of toast.

“That’s fine,” Baekhyun looks indifferent, “I’ll be in your phone if you need me.” And within a second, Baekhyun has completely disappeared. Chanyeol blinks a few times as if that would do something, but there’s no evidence that Baekhyun was sitting next to him moments ago.

After taking a deep breath, Chanyeol resumes his morning routine.

 


 

The company building is especially hectic today, with everyone rushing to prepare for all the recording sessions at week’s end. When a particularly large artist is set to record, the studio atmosphere is far more tense. In this case, Chen’s arrival in two days definitely fits the bill.

Chanyeol slips headphones over his ears and loads up the bare-bones file for the title track, familiar patterns and audio waves filling the screen. It’s not as far along as Chanyeol would like. He should have multiple backtracks produced by now, but this time Chanyeol has fragments of a song here and there.

Before touching anything, Chanyeol listens to the song so far. And it’s fine. But ‘fine’ isn’t good enough for one of Korea’s best vocalists.

The transitions are what he has trouble with. Chanyeol could go with a completely generic transition bar, but where’s the fun in that? He needs something unexpected, something—

“You could syncopate it there.”

For the second time that day, Chanyeol’s life nearly flashes before his eyes. Baekhyun is right behind him, voice loud in his ear, but Chanyeol can’t feel his breath or anything human about Baekhyun. “You have to stop doing that!” Chanyeol spins his chair around to face the offender, “People don’t usually manifest out of thin air.”

“Let me have a little fun,” A smirk paints Baekhyun’s face, and he sits down (or appears to—Chanyeol doesn’t know if he actually can) in an empty chair. “But I’m serious, you should syncopate it.”

That’s right—one of the main factors in picking Baekhyun had been his musical quality. Ironically, he’d forgotten about that. Chanyeol unplugs his headphones and plays a section so Baekhyun can here. “You mean this part?”

“Yeah, that’s the pre-chorus, right? It would sound cool.”

Chanyeol sits, dumbly, for a full two minutes, running drum lines in his head. Maybe syncopation wouldn’t sound so bad, especially as a transition… “Baekhyun, I think you’re onto something.”

And in the next thirty minutes, Chanyeol has a song.

Some may consider Chanyeol a cop-out for taking Baekhyun’s advice, but what had Yixing called it? A loophole? That sounds much better, he thinks.

“And then when you have the vocals recorded, you could add like an echo effect,” Baekhyun chatters on, suggesting elements Chanyeol had never considered before. A few of his ideas are far off in left field, but others are exactly what Chanyeol has been looking for.

“I like that. And I won’t center-pan it, either—”

Three knocks hit the door, followed by Junmyeon’s voice: “Chanyeol, can I come in?”

“Don’t worry, he can’t see me,” Baekhyun says, “Not unless he touches your phone.”

Huh. All the intricacies of this Artificial Love thing keep getting more complex. “Sure, come right in.”

Junmyeon enters, and Chanyeol holds his breath even though Baekhyun should be invisible. “Were you talking to someone in here?” he asks, “Thought I heard your voice.”

Chanyeol shoots a glance at Baekhyun, who simply shrugs as if You’re on your own. “Just talking to myself,” Chanyeol says, “Helps the process.”

“I hope that means the title track is done,” Junmyeon pulls out a chair—the one Baekhyun is sitting on—and just as he sits down, Baekhyun vanishes with one last smile at Chanyeol.

“Uh, yeah, mostly,” He might never get used to the sight of Baekhyun disappearing, “I guess inspiration really struck me today.”

Although it isn’t entirely true, that seems to please Junmyeon, and as Chanyeol plays the song his manager brightens up. Even Chanyeol has to admit the song sounds good—by the final mix, it could be one of his best credits yet.

“You weren’t kidding,” Junmyeon grins, “What kind of muse appeared out of nowhere?”

You’d be surprised, Chanyeol thinks, but all he says is, “Today is just a better day.”

“Well, I’m glad things are working out,” Junmyeon pats him on the shoulder, and stands up to leave. Chanyeol knows what he’s referring to, but Kyungsoo has nothing to do with it. He often gets lonely at work, with long hours in a small, dark studio; Baekhyun’s presence has been a welcome addition to his day.

There he is now—immediately when Junmyeon stands, Baekhyun pops back into existence, relaxed in the chair. “Keep up the good work. I’ll check on your progress tomorrow,” Junmyeon wears this hopeful expression, one that Chanyeol rarely sees anymore.

“That wasn’t your boyfriend, right?” Baekhyun brings Chanyeol out of his thoughts.

“He’s my manager,” Chanyeol answers, “but that would be very scandalous.”

Baekhyun hums in agreement, and then perks up to tell Chanyeol, “Oh, right! Look at this!”

He turns his body so Chanyeol can see the back of his head, then pulls down his shirt collar to reveal the glowing number bar he’d shown the day before. But this time, the bar is more vibrant and full, the number indicating 18%. “You must really like me,” Baekhyun’s eyes light up, “Or, at least eighteen percent of you.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Chanyeol says, but a cloudiness fills his mind. After years and years of concentrating on only one person, is it even possible for him to think about anyone else? As soon as the thought comes, it passes for Chanyeol to focus once again on the music in front of him. “How does this sound?” He asks after fiddling some more with the ending.

And when Baekhyun nods, happy with his contribution, Chanyeol feels something like motivation for the first time in too long.

 


 

Something has to give. Kyungsoo is too tired to do this every day for the rest of his life. He loves being a teacher, loves his kids, but there’s already a stigma against him in the faculty. Parents don’t want gay men teaching their children. It’s a sad, pathetic reality Kyungsoo has settled on over the years.

But then again, gay or not, is he even in a relationship anymore? He hasn’t seen Chanyeol for a few days now, and recently they haven’t been intimate anyway. Teaching has made Kyungsoo realize how much he wants kids of his own someday, but Chanyeol seems almost against the idea. He never makes time for their romance; how could he make time to raise a family?

Some of the female teachers try to flirt with him. One even asked him out for coffee. But Kyungsoo always responds with a polite, firm “My other half wouldn’t like that.” He’s tempted to start wearing his ring again so the comments will stop, but he knows it’s safer this way. Without the ring, Kyungsoo attracts less attention about his relationship, which means a more stable job.

He misses Chanyeol. Kyungsoo constantly wants to break the key out of his bag and go rushing back to Chanyeol’s arms, but he needs this time. Living together all the time isn’t good for either of them, even if Chanyeol can’t see that.

His brother asks him, every time he crashes at his place for days at a time, why he’s still with Chanyeol after years of monotony. The answer is simple: he loves Chanyeol. And if Kyungsoo isn’t there to take care of that man, who will?

After the kids are let out, a teacher pops into Kyungsoo’s room, one of the older teachers who thinks all the young staff is less qualified. “Do Kyungsoo,” she speaks slowly, almost patronizingly, “Emergency staff meeting scheduled this Friday at five to discuss new technology integration. I expect to see you there.”

This Friday. Kyungsoo can’t possibly think of anything he has going on this Friday evening; if he has something, it slips his mind. He smiles, “Of course.”

Chapter Text

The moment Chen arrives at the studio, everyone knows. Bodyguards stand at every main entrance, if only to intimidate the swarms of paparazzi and fans surrounding the building.

Chanyeol has only met Chen a few times, and never outside of recording sessions. Besides having an incredible voice, he’s extremely funny and down-to-earth. Today is no exception; even though he looks shaken from the crowd outside, Chen greets Chanyeol with a bright smile. “Made it just in time!” he says, “The song sounds great, by the way. Awesome job.”

“Thanks, man. It’ll sound better when you sing it, though.”

At that, Chen laughs. “Oh, you flatter me. By the way, I hear we have to cut it a bit short tonight?”

Chanyeol had nearly forgotten about that. When Kyungsoo got upset with him, Chanyeol had asked Junmyeon for a compromise the very next day. Somehow Junmyeon had re-arranged the schedule so he could still meet Kyungsoo for dinner, but he hasn’t heard from Kyungsoo in three days. “Yeah, something came up. Hope it’s okay with you,” Chanyeol says, but he isn’t sure the date is on anymore.

“It’s fine—I’ll just have to sing it perfectly the first time!” Chen laughs, but abruptly stops, looking over Chanyeol’s shoulder. When Chanyeol glances behind him, everything seems to be normal. “Oh, sorry, it’s nothing,” Chen reassures him, “Now let’s start recording before you have to go.”

A lot of people are involved in the recording process, all lined up at the mixing board as Chen stays in the booth. Chanyeol is more of a supervisor than anything, just to keep track of the mix and make sure everything is recorded in the right tracks. Since Chanyeol doesn’t know much about vocal technique, coaches from Chen’s company are here telling the artist how to sing his lines.

Usually when Chen records, he’s known for being professional and hardworking, only stopping when the vocals are perfect. But today, from the very start of the session, Chanyeol can tell something is off. The singer seems distracted, flustered. It gets to a point where Chen’s manager takes the mic and harshly tells him to take five, to ‘clear his head.’

On the break, Chanyeol barely manages to hide his shock when Baekhyun pops out of nowhere. “How’s it going?”

“Pretty well, I think,” he keeps his voice low so other people don’t think Chanyeol talks to himself, “But seriously, stop scaring me like that.”

Baekhyun laughs, as if surprising Chanyeol is his highest source of amusement. “You big baby. I thought you said he’s a solo artist, though?”

“Chen? Yeah, he is.”

“Then who’s—Oh!” The man’s confusion is replaced by one of realization, and maybe smugness. Chanyeol isn’t good at reading him yet. “Never mind.”

And after the break, Chen gets into it. Emotion pours into his voice, until even his managers are pleased with the result. Chanyeol is always impressed with Chen’s vocals, but today he sounds more heartfelt than usual. Whatever it is that makes the difference, Chen wraps everything up with plenty of time to spare.

He approaches Chanyeol afterward, shakes his hand and says, “Great job, man. See you soon when I record the other songs, right?”

“Yeah,” Chanyeol smiles. He doesn’t listen to Chen’s music a lot (it’s hard playing back something he produced without picking it apart), but even so, it’s hard not to get starstruck around the singer. “You sounded really good, so the other songs won’t be a problem.”

“Oh, don’t make me blush!” Chen laughs, and Chanyeol can see Baekhyun’s eyes burning in his periphery. A manager comes over to escort Chen outside, the artist sending one last wave in Chanyeol’s direction: “Keep producing!”

A few days ago, those words would have sent him into a nervous fit. But stealing a secret glance at Baekhyun, Chanyeol doesn’t think producing will be such a challenge anymore.

 


 

Even with ending the recording session half an hour early, Chanyeol still arrives at the restaurant twenty minutes late. It’s a fancy place—probably fancier than they can afford right now—with a name in French that Chanyeol won’t even attempt to pronounce.

From a quick scan, Kyungsoo doesn’t seem to be here. He asks the hostess anyway: “Hello, has anyone come about the reservation for two, under Park Chanyeol?”

The young lady checks her tablet, then gives Chanyeol a disapproving look. “The 6:45 reservation? No one has. Five more minutes, and we would have given the table away. Will you be dining with us tonight?”

So Kyungsoo isn’t here. He’d been so upset with Chanyeol for forgetting their date, and he isn’t even here. Chanyeol had texted him an hour ago, saying he’s on his way, and Kyungsoo isn’t here. Has he really given up on Chanyeol? Is Chanyeol that shitty of a boyfriend that Kyungsoo has had enough this time?

“What’s up?” This time when Baekhyun appears, Chanyeol doesn’t jump as much.

“One moment please,” Chanyeol tells the hostess, and steps aside to weigh his options. Finding a corner space where other diners won’t pay attention to him, Chanyeol speaks to Baekhyun in a low voice. “My partner stood me up.”

Baekhyun knits his eyebrows together. “What an asshole move.”

Chanyeol’s first instinct is to defend Kyungsoo; surely he has a good reason for not being here. And Kyungsoo would never do something this petty, would he? But then a small part of Chanyeol’s mind agrees with Baekhyun. Maybe he’s right, and Kyungsoo is acting like a jerk on purpose.

Before Chanyeol can reach a kind of conclusion, Baekhyun says, “You could still eat here. I’m here—I’ll sit with you.”

“Really? You don’t mind if it’s boring?”

“What else would I do?” Baekhyun is already heading back toward the entrance, Chanyeol following him blindly, “Be all lonely in your phone?”

He can’t tell if Baekhyun is pitying him or not. Either way, Chanyeol returns to the hostess: “Sorry about that. I’m Park Chanyeol. Is my reservation still available?”

The hostess is smiling, but it’s a forced expression and she looks annoyed more than anything. Still, she asks Chanyeol to confirm his phone number and within minutes, he’s being seated at a nice table with Baekhyun not far behind him.

It’s a shame, Chanyeol thinks, that Kyungsoo isn’t here to enjoy this experience with him. They don’t often go to places this fancy, even if they can afford it with Chanyeol’s paycheck for larger production jobs. He needs to stop thinking about Kyungsoo.

“Would you like to start off with a drink, sir?” Distracted again, Chanyeol hadn’t noticed the young waitress in front of him, “Some wine, perhaps?”

“Riesling would be great, thank you.” She leaves, and Chanyeol turns his attention to Baekhyun, sitting across from Chanyeol as if he can physically sit. “Sorry about this,” he says, “It’s been a crazy week.”

In the dim overhead lighting, he can hardly remember that Baekhyun isn’t a real man; the warm shadows fall on his face like they would to anyone. “Think about it this way: If your boyfriend did show up, how shitty would that be for me? Doing nothing while you’re on a date with someone else? Not fun.”

He speaks like they’re a couple. But then again, the whole purpose of Baekhyun existing is to help him romantically. Chanyeol can’t get too wrapped up in thoughts like this, especially when the waitress arrives with his wine. “Thank you.”

“I’ll be back shortly to take your order,” she smiles politely and walks away.

If she could see Baekhyun, she may have been offended at how he rolled his eyes after her. “She thinks you’re hot. Can’t she see you’re out of her league?”

Chanyeol scoffs. He hasn’t paid attention to how people look at him in years. “Too bad I like men and not women who are too young for me.”

“Let’s not talk about girls, then,” Baekhyun leans into the table, “I’ll change the subject: how long have you been together?”

“Me and Kyungsoo? Five years.”

He looks impressed. “So the seven year itch came early? Why’s that?”

“I mean, that’s how things work, right?” Chanyeol starts speaking without knowing where he’ll end up, “Anyone dating anyone is going to get sick of it eventually. Nothing against Kyungsoo—I really love him, but that’s it, you know? What else is supposed to happen?”

“So you think love is boring?”

Chanyeol has thought exactly that before, but always decides he must be wrong. “It’s... hard. I was barely an adult when we started dating, so I didn’t know what I was getting into.”

“Have you ever separated before?”

This is starting to feel like a counseling session. Chanyeol nods, “We fought once, junior year of college, and Kyungsoo broke up with me. He said I cared more about studying than him. But we made up a month later.” Chanyeol thinks back to that time, where he’d never felt such loneliness before. He was so used to being with Kyungsoo that being without him felt empty. “I don’t know why he wanted to be with me again. But I didn’t want to live my boring life beside anyone else.”

Chanyeol doesn’t want to talk about Kyungsoo anymore. It’s almost painful, reliving their happiest times without knowing why those times stopped happening. Baekhyun seems to pick up on this, because his next question is: “What about you, then? You produce music, but what else?”

He thinks briefly, sips his wine. “Other than that, nothing much. After college, I settled down and haven’t done much for years, besides work.” Everything comes back to work.

“Were you wild in college?” Baekhyun grins, “I could see you as the bad-boy type at some point.”

That almost makes Chanyeol laugh. “No way. I studied abroad in Europe for a semester. That was probably the most interesting part of college. But I was never a crazy partier or anything.” At that point, Chanyeol had already been dating Kyungsoo. Experiencing the dumb-hookups kind of fun never happened. “But as a kid, I was a little rebellious. Skipped school a few times.”

Baekhyun sighs in mock-disappointment. “You’re no fun.”

“I know.” He isn’t the first person to tell Chanyeol that. “What about you?”

He stares Chanyeol down across the table with something complicated in his gaze. “What about me?”

Chanyeol can feel his heart skip a beat. He keeps forgetting, in moments of awe at how perfect this man is, that Baekhyun isn’t a human. The air turns stiff between them, and Chanyeol stays quiet until the waitress comes to take his order. “I’ll have the poulet basquaise, please,” he tries not to butcher the name too much.

“I don’t want anything, thanks for asking,” Baekhyun grins, and before Chanyeol can remember the waitress can’t see Baekhyun, he says, “Oh, shut up.”

“Excuse me?” the waitress blinks.

Chanyeol’s face falls. “Sorry. I wasn’t talking to you.”

The waitress gives him a wary look. “I’ll have your meal out shortly.” But as she leaves, Chanyeol hears her mutter, “Poor man.”

It makes Baekhyun laugh hysterically, all his pretty teeth showing. “That’s one way to get her off your dick! She thinks you’re insane.”

“You don’t have to get jealous,” Chanyeol teases him, and decides he’ll do so more often with how bright Baekhyun’s cheeks shine, “She was never on my dick.”

“Sure. Just like Kyungsoo isn’t an asshole.”

“He isn’t.” Kyungsoo can hurt Chanyeol and make him insane and Chanyeol will still stand up for him. A long silence comes over the table. It reminds Chanyeol of when he first met Kyungsoo; too shy to flirt with each other, too nervous to say anything, so their encounters always included quiet breaks. Chanyeol changes that this time: “Thank you, by the way. For helping me with my project.”

“That’s what I’m here for.” Beneath the table, Chanyeol can feel a hollow coolness brush his leg, and he knows it’s Baekhyun. Even through such an eerie sensation, Chanyeol catches some reassurance.

It’s fun. That’s all Chanyeol thinks of throughout dinner, because he hasn’t enjoyed a meal with someone like this in so long. Baekhyun doesn’t even eat, but Chanyeol still thinks “dinner date” is an accurate description. Baekhyun’s personality is refreshing, making Chanyeol laugh and ignore the diners around him.

When they arrive back at Chanyeol’s apartment, he finds that he isn't tired, and doesn’t mind Baekhyun’s company. Both of these are new revelations. “That was fun,” he says.

“I had fun, too,” Baekhyun smiles. “If your boyfriend ever ditches you again, you know who to call.”

“Sure,” It’s said in disappointment; Chanyeol has had such a good time all night, but one thought of Kyungsoo can ruin his mood. He decides he won’t let that happen: “I’m up for a movie, you wanna watch?” Chanyeol is hesitant to ask, but the wine in his system helps.

Baekhyun nods with enthusiasm, heading over to the sofa with no prompting. Chanyeol lets him pick the movie (Baekhyun has never seen movies before, of course, but he tells Chanyeol that pop culture knowledge is programmed in his code).

After that is when the nighttime mood sets in, the surreal visual of the TV with ambient city noise outside. And Baekhyun looks so happy, and Chanyeol wants Baekhyun to be happy. He feels an odd responsibility for Baekhyun, because there’s only one Baekhyun in the world and he’s just for Chanyeol.

Part of him wants to wrap his arm over Baekhyun’s shoulders and tug him close, but that thought is quickly driven away when he remembers he can’t touch Baekhyun. The guilt comes after that: He wants to touch Baekhyun, and be close to Baekhyun. Never in his five-year relationship with Kyungsoo has Chanyeol ever thought about another man, and he feels terrible. He knows he shouldn’t be thinking about anyone else like this, but Chanyeol can’t stop himself from staring at Baekhyun. The bluish light from the TV never reaches his face. So many environmental nuances tell Chanyeol that Baekhyun shouldn’t be here, but it’s hard to pay attention to the environment anyway when Baekhyun laughs like he does.

As Baekhyun becomes absorbed completely in the onscreen action, Chanyeol dares to stretch back and steal a glance at Baekhyun’s neck. The bar still glows on his fair skin, this time reading a definitive ‘43%’.

Could he really be opening his heart to Baekhyun? The thought seems impossible, but here he is, single-handedly making Baekhyun more ‘human’ with every moment they spend together. Baekhyun is so different from Kyungsoo; he’s fun, and straightforward, and bubbly. He isn’t better than Kyungsoo, or worse—just different.

“What’s up?” Baekhyun glances up at Chanyeol. When they’re so close like this, Chanyeol can see he doesn’t look like a real person at all. His skin is too smooth, and not one hair is out of place.

Chanyeol almost tries to run his hand along Baekhyun’s back in reassurance, before remembering he can’t.

But Chanyeol wasn’t lying when he said he had fun today. It was nice, just talking with someone. Having someone pay attention to him. And when he’s with Baekhyun, Chanyeol doesn’t think about work all the time. The feeling is one Chanyeol loves, but is unfortunately rare for him.

So Chanyeol is stuck in limbo. He knows this is wrong (Baekhyun’s entire existence makes guilt sink into Chanyeol’s stomach) but he likes it. Chanyeol is oddly calm and content, sitting next to Baekhyun in silence. And then Chanyeol comes up with a wonderful idea, the same solution he has to every tough project at work: he’ll wait it out. He’ll wait for some grand life revelation to arrive on what to do about Baekhyun, and until then, Chanyeol will enjoy what he has.

 


 

“Have you heard about this?”

Kyungjun sets his phone on the table and pushes it toward Kyungsoo. The screen displays the download page for a bubbly, bright app. “Artificial Love? Yes, everyone has heard of it.” For the past few days, Kyungsoo has been avoiding technology altogether. Turning his phone off, reading instead of watching television—all of this has helped organize his thoughts. So being forced to examine a phone screen makes Kyungsoo uneasy, especially when it’s about something that’s the epitome of cutting-edge.

“So have you downloaded it?” His brother asks expectantly.

Kyungsoo rolls his eyes. “No, and I don’t plan to.”

“Why?”

The answer should be obvious, but Kyungsoo tells him anyway: “Because I’m in a relationship. And call me old-fashioned, but I’m not a huge fan of AI.” To Kyungsoo, everything seems to become more artificial by the day; just last week, one of his co-workers in the science department lost her job to a robotic teacher equipped with AI. He’s in a dying field, but everyone else is, too.

“It’s just human simulation,” Kyungjun says that like it’s normal, “This program is more than AI; it’s basically a whole person created from digital memory. Amazing stuff.” Kyungsoo sees more danger in this kind of program than he does amazement, but Kyungjun has always been the more tech-savvy between them. “I want you to have some company while you’re working through your premature midlife crisis.”

Kyungsoo rolls his eyes, “I’ll be fine, Kyungjun. I’ve been with Chanyeol for so long that I know we’ll get through this rough patch.”

“Then talk to him,” Kyungjun rarely gets this frustrated, “Talk to him or he won’t wait up for you.”

“I already told you, Chanyeol won’t cheat on me. He isn’t stupid.” In fact, Kyungsoo knows Chanyeol wouldn’t stoop this low because they’ve talked about it before. Late last year, he believed Chanyeol was cheating on him with someone named Sehun, who Chanyeol still insists is just a company underling. If anything, that time made Kyungsoo realize he should have more trust in Chanyeol.

But Kyungsoo could say this a million times and his brother would never believe it. “Kyungsoo,” he stands up, presumably to go find his wife. The last thing he says before leaving is, “Talk to him.”

 


 

The phone rings at 7:55 P.M., when Chanyeol is cleaning up from dinner and Baekhyun is watching with snarky commentary. “How about you do the dishes, if I’m that bad at it?” Chanyeol half-heartedly flicks some water at him, which passes through Baekhyun and lands on the carpet. “Oh wait, you can’t touch the dishes.”

“For now,” Baekhyun insists, pouting, “You bully. Just wait until I get some flesh and bones, then I’ll really—”

That’s when Chanyeol’s ringtone hits, and he reaches for his phone while flashing a smile at Baekhyun. That smile drops with a glance at the caller ID: Kyungsoo.

Kyungsoo never calls him. Not even in their happiest years has he ever called Chanyeol except to give him errands on the way home from work. “Sales call?” Baekhyun asks around a grin.

“No.” Chanyeol’s brain becomes fuzzy and he drowns out Baekhyun’s presence. With a shaky hand, he accepts the call.

There’s no noise from the other end, just a light static. Chanyeol takes a breath. “Hello?”

A long, painful pause stretches across the phone line. And then he hears it: Kyungsoo’s unmistakable soft breathing.

“Kyungsoo?”

Baekhyun stiffens at the name. Chanyeol tries not to look at him. When Kyungsoo doesn’t reply, Chanyeol begins to worry. Is something wrong? Is he in danger? “Kyungsoo? Are you alright?”

Then comes Kyungsoo’s voice, soft and deliberate like everything is with Kyungsoo: “Chanyeol.”

He swallows. “Yes? How are you?”

“I’m fine,” It’s like Kyungsoo answers automatically, then clears his throat. “Have you done the dishes?”

“Yes, I just was when you called.” Chanyeol doesn’t wonder why Kyungsoo asks; he only cares about hearing Kyungsoo’s voice again. “Will you come home soon?”

There’s the silence again. And during the silence, Chanyeol dares to glance at Baekhyun. He’s surprised to find Baekhyun already looking at him, and when their eyes lock, Baekhyun turns his head away. On the other line, Kyungsoo speaks: “I don’t know.” What does that mean? Chanyeol tries to think of every translation, but he’s always been better at loving Kyungsoo’s complicated mind than understanding it. “I got your last text.”

Chanyeol’s mind is moving in slow motion. It’s like the words are impossible to process. Did Kyungsoo get his other texts, too? His pathetic 3 A.M. voicemails? He wants to say something to Kyungsoo but has no idea what to say.

Kyungsoo continues: “I just read it. Before I called.” There’s a break, then, “I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry.” While Kyungsoo was only apologizing for skipping out on their date, Chanyeol’s ‘I’m sorry’ is for everything. For making Kyungsoo want to leave, for not trying hard enough to make him stay. For thinking about someone else. “Please come home, baby.”

The way Baekhyun looks at him is as if he has a heart, and it’s broken.

“I will,” Kyungsoo’s voice is hesitant, “Just give me a bit more time, and I will.”

“Thank you.”

He doesn’t know what Kyungsoo is waiting for. Does he really believe that being alone will miraculously sort everything out? But because Kyungsoo is so different from him, Chanyeol puts his trust in Kyungsoo before his understanding. Hearing Kyungsoo’s next words is almost exhausting: “Bye, Chanyeol.”

He sighs. “Goodbye.”

When Chanyeol looks up again, Baekhyun is gone.

 


 

The stacked schedule for all activity at EXO Records is available via a password-protected file online, but Chanyeol has never needed to access the schedule until today. Once he opens the file, it’s easy to see when Yixing is in the building—and amazingly, their hours match up.

Chanyeol waits outside Yixing’s usual studio and opens his Artificial Love app, quick enough so Baekhyun can’t pop out of his phone before Chanyeol’s next action: he navigates the settings menu, and switches Baekhyun’s activity to ‘Away Mode.’ There’s a guilty twinge in his stomach as soon as he presses the button, and winces at the confirmation screen of "Your Love is now away!".

Yixing’s break is running late. The artists usually break at 4, but Yixing doesn’t step out until 4:17. “Oh, Chanyeol!” he greets the producer, “What’s up?”

“Hey.” All Chanyeol does is give him a conflicted look and say, “I need your help.” And Yixing understands.

They meet for coffee after Yixing’s recording session, where the singer is the first to bring it up. “So you downloaded the app, I’m guessing? How do you like it?”

The way he’s leaning against the table in full interest doesn’t match Chanyeol’s own feeling of dread. “It’s...not what I expected.”

“How so? Did you pick a bad match?”

Chanyeol shakes his head. The opposite—he likes Baekhyun more than he should. “I just feel like I’m cheating.”

“But it hasn’t been long, right?” Yixing looks confused, as if he can’t grasp the concept of not liking Artificial Love. “You haven’t done anything yet?”

“He’s still a projection, if that’s what you mean,” Chanyeol glances down into his cappuccino, “We went to dinner together. Watched some movies. And he helps me at work. He’s a musician.”

Yixing perks up in interest, “A musician? What’s he like?”

“A handful,” Chanyeol can’t help the small smile, “He gives me crap about everything I do. But he seems kind of shy? Like he doesn’t want to show interest in me unless I do it first. He’s a great listener, though. And of course, he’s just my type.”

“I bet he’s cute.”

“Yeah,” Chanyeol answers without a second thought, only catching himself when it’s too late.

Across the table, Yixing is laughing. “You look like you could talk about him for hours. I don’t see what the problem is with a little bit of puppy love.”

Frustration wells up inside Chanyeol; he’s mad at himself, mad at everything about that dumb app. “That is the problem! What if I end up really liking him? He’s perfect. I already know I’m going to fall for him if nothing changes. What will Kyungsoo think?”

“Chanyeol,” Yixing makes it seem like this is so simple, like this isn’t worth an identity crisis, “I’m not saying to cheat on your boyfriend. That would be unfair to him. But think about what you have here: this technology can make a whole person who’s perfect for you, and you don’t want that? Your DNA is even compatible.”

“What DNA?” Yixing’s personality perfectly teeters on the edge of joking all the time; Chanyeol can never tell when the man is messing with him.

“That’s how you interact with your phone screen, right? By touching it. So the app already has your DNA in its system. That’s why only people who touch your phone screen can see your Artificial Lover.”

What? This is starting to sound crazier by the minute. Things like this make Chanyeol more conscious of the way he handles technology. And he knows Yixing isn’t a software designer or anything close to a technological field, but if he’s correct, then Chanyeol’s phone has just become more precious to him.

Yixing continues: “Some people think it’s ridiculous, but this is the future of dating. And if you like this guy, then be honest with everyone and do what makes you happy.”

Chanyeol shakes his head, “It can’t be that easy. I’m in completely new territory.”

“Alright,” Yixing goes back to sipping his drink and trying to lighten the mood, “But before you make any decisions, just know that Artificial Loves are crazy good in bed.”

Chanyeol can pretend all he wants that Yixing is gross and insane, but a thought gets planted in his mind anyway.

 


 

Facing his fears is not a strong suit of Chanyeol’s, but he at least owes it to Baekhyun. After pacing the black-carpet floor of his small studio and with his thumb hovering over the ‘Active Mode’ button, Chanyeol finally sucks up his reservations and reactivates Baekhyun.

He’d expected Baekhyun to be sad, from the disappointment he’d last seen in those eyes, but the outcome is worse: As soon as Baekhyun manifests in front of him for the first time in twenty hours, Chanyeol is met with a loud voice and angry hands that pass right through him. “Park Chanyeol, you dickhead! I was so bored in there. You think it’s okay to shut me off after trying to win your boyfriend back right before my eyes? It’s not fucking okay! If you every shut me off again, I’ll probably cry from boredom.”

Each sentence is punctuated by a slap that would probably hurt if Baekhyun had physical presence. And sometime during Baekhyun’s small rant, it hits Chanyeol that he really missed this man. He gets distracted for half a second, glancing back down at his phone screen and subconsciously tapping on the “STATUS” tab. The boldface “61%” flashing onscreen does nothing to calm Chanyeol’s mind. With a heavy heart, he turns his attention back to Baekhyun: “Won’t happen again,” That isn’t something Chanyeol should promise, but he’s oddly intimidated by angry Baekhyun, “I’m a mess lately, if you couldn’t tell.”

“I could tell from a mile away.” At least they’re on the same page. “So I’ll forgive you. You’re lucky you’re my only source of socialization.”

The words shouldn’t make Chanyeol feel so relieved, but they do.

“Thanks, Baekhyun. Now I hate to force you into boredom again,” Chanyeol sits back down and pulls out the other chair so Baekhyun can join him, “but I have a song to finish.”

A grin spreads across Baekhyun’s face, on that has become surprisingly familiar over the past week with him, “Then let’s get to it.”

At the end of a long day of adjusting and mixing and adjusting again, Junmyeon knocks on Chanyeol’s studio door.

“Come in.”

Chanyeol says this with a tight throat, eyes flitting over to the door. He has no idea why Junmyeon would visit him, but that’s definitely his knock. Is it bad news? Next to him, Baekhyun looks like he doesn’t want Junmyeon to enter at all.

When Junmyeon comes in, he doesn’t sound upset. It’s the opposite—there’s a smile on his face, and no sternness in his voice. “Hey, Chanyeol. Just wanted to check in.”

Something about the way he says it makes Chanyeol nervous. But Chanyeol has all his files open anyway, arranged in plain view on one monitor. “Hey. I think I’m getting back into the swing of things,” he answers honestly.

For the next twenty minutes, he and Junmyeon (and Baekhyun, the silent party) go over every audio file, and Chanyeol shows him the finished title track. They haven’t done this since Chanyeol’s last big project with Yixing, but Junmyeon seems to enjoy what he’s done for Chen so far.

“I was worried about you,” Junmyeon tells him, it doesn’t surprise Chanyeol, “I thought you’d lost your touch. And I don’t usually like being wrong, but I’m glad this time. Everything sounds brilliant.”

Chanyeol feels his breathing come a bit easier. Even when Baekhyun wasn’t active on his phone earlier, Chanyeol still felt inspired to work on music. It’s like Baekhyun’s creation alone has sparked something inside him. “Thanks, man.”

“I’m serious,” He doesn’t usually get praise from Junmyeon (mostly nagging reminders to finish things on time), so Chanyeol eats it up while he can, “I don’t know what happened, but you did a complete turn-around. I’m your manager, but you know I care about your life, too. You seem happier.”

The first thought that pops into Chanyeol’s mind is, I am. But he feels sick right after his brain wraps around the concept; is he happier? Is this road better for him? And if so, would he rather be happy and guilty than loyal and miserable?

Like everything else, Chanyeol pushes it away and gets back to work.