Zheng Yunlong works in a clock shop. Which is ironic, because there is a metaphorical clock in his chest, that counts down seconds, minutes, hours, and he can almost physically feel it.
Every moment he spends in this god-forsaken century.
He has adjusted well enough. The day starts with him turning on his iPod, which is considered new these days, and enjoying music for the rest of it. Swift, stark classics are mixed up with rock, and it wastes another day, another week, another year.
He has been stuck in the twenty-first for eight years now. One day he left Tsinghua campus in the fifty-second century and never came back. Fell through a space-time rift, as far as he was concerned.
At least, he thinks, this is better than being stuck even further back, say, in the Cultural Revolution years with no Internet and plastic cards. At least, the twenty-first century was covered during his university years as part of their history course.
Not that thinking about university brings him any peace.
Yunlong keeps busy fixing watches and not thinking about the past. Or the future. Or anyone he has left there.
It hurts significantly less that way.
He does keep a sketch in the lower drawer of his desk. He is the furthest thing from an artist, but he spent days perfecting the drawing, three months in, when he realised he might not get rescued any time soon and first faced the horror of it.
The downside of travelling through time abruptly is not being able to take any belongings with you.
The sketch is rough, but as clear as he could get it.
Yunlong thinks he got his eyes right. His eyebrows. His lips.
Maybe not, years after the fact, he can’t be sure.
Sometimes he gets the sketch out and stares at it for hours, wondering if Ayunga has ever made peace with his disappearance. If Ayunga ever missed him with the same excruciating need. If Ayunga has ever figured out what happened to him.
He thinks about him a lot.
The man who flipped a glass of cold water over his head one morning, because Yunlong refused to get up. The man who dragged him to classes, bony hand surprisingly strong. The man who didn’t smile at anything in the world ever, but laughed at his jokes until tears would gather at the corners of his eyes. The man who kissed him for the first time and smacked him in the span of one evening, because Yunlong kept making ridiculous puns to hide his nervousness.
The man who was waiting for him just outside campus the day Yunlong went missing.
Ayunga, Ayunga, Ayunga.
At some point, Yunlong realises, it’s a fixation. The one thing tying him to his past, giving him hope.
How strong is first love? Would he have stayed, enamoured, taken, smitten, with that man, were they to have remained in the same timeline? Or would they have drifted apart eventually, growing out of it?
Sometimes he wants to burn the sketch and scatter the ashes, because even thinking about it seems unbearable.
Yunlong knows the rules. Wait to be rescued, don’t create a paradox.
He also knows the statistics. The chance to be successfully located and brought back is basically non-existent. Especially, if you follow the guidelines and sit tight, not leaving any imprint behind.
But he doesn’t give up.
He figures out some basic coding and starts keeping tabs on the organisation that, centuries down the line, will become the Time Bureau, and it’s as entertaining as watching paint dry. And also, years slower.
He knows, they’re already testing for jumps, but they’re so far away from a successful one, it only leaves him feeling bad for himself. He hopes for a miracle, even though he remembers clearly that the first actual time-jump will be registered in the beginning of the twenty-second century.
Hope gets old pretty quickly, when you’re stuck in the past all by yourself with next to zero chance to get rescued or rescue yourself.
So, Yunlong keeps busy, taking apart watches and clocks in a feat of masochism.
Time waits for no one, cares for no one, but, boy, does Yunlong hate it. He turns into the weird clock guy easily enough, keeps up conversations on time travel with weirdos online to entertain himself, and tries not to go cuckoo.
The sketch in his drawer grows paler with time.
One day, the bell at the door chimes, and Yunlong barely looks up from the watch he is taking apart.
The woman that walks in is all sharp lines and edges, tall, postured, mouth pressed into a tight line.
Yunlong shudders internally, but keeps his expression neutral, bored almost.
“Wrong door,” he says. “I’m Xiao Jie. The name is on the front of the shop.”
The woman squints at him, her gaze full of consideration. Then she pulls a card out of the pocket of her jacket.
“My name is Zhu--”
“You still have the wrong door,” Yunlong says matter-of-factly.
“You’ve been noticed by some very important people,” Zhu says. “We know you’ve hacked into the Time Bureau’s database.”
“I don’t know how to hack into anything, only do watches,” Yunlong says dumbly. “Leave me be.”
That seems to aggravate her even further.
“You have to come with me.”
“Funny you should say that,” Yunlong gives her a serene look, “I suddenly can’t walk.”
A loud, jarring sound pierces the air outside the shop.
Yunlong makes it a point to glance past Zhu curiously. Must be the kids setting off firecrackers.
“Cheeky,” Zhu says.
“Yours truly,” is the dry reply.
“Aren’t you at all curious?” Zhu asks. There is a quality to her voice. An audible change from fed-up to malicious. “We know who you are. You don’t belong in this timeline.”
That makes Yunlong pause and actually look at her again. “Excuse me?”
He notes finally, that she doesn’t look quite right. He can’t pinpoint it right away, but she looks like she doesn’t belong - neither in the clock shop, nor in the twenty-first.
“Got your attention, didn’t I?” Zhu looks pleased. “You’re from the fifty-second century. Tsinghua student that went missing one day, never to be found. Your family missed you.”
Something cracks, and Yunlong looks down to realise he drove the screwdriver across one of the delicate pieces in the mechanism and broke it.
“…Never to be found?” he repeats weakly.
“Oh, yeah,” Zhu says. “That classmate of yours, looked for you all over. Raised to the highest rank in the Bureau, combed through years and years. Sadly, he didn’t think to look here.”
“Classmate… You…” Yunlong feels dread settle over him with a new kind of quality to it.
His heart goes cold and his eyes sting, but he isn’t sure he is ready to comprehend any of it yet.
He looked for me, Yunlong thinks.
He never found me, he realises.
Zhu gives him an unkind sort of smile that must leave people unsettled. “I represent a corporation that can use someone of your… predisposition.”
He doesn’t answer, staring at her still, but not seeing her at all.
He blinks rapidly and doesn’t hear whatever she is pitching his way either.
His ears ring.
“You can either come with me and get a chance to get back to your timeline,” he registers at last, “or stay here and live out the rest of your life as a clock master.”
He rubs at his eyes viciously and gets up so quickly, his chair screeches against the floor. He’d do anything.
But before he can voice any of it, Zhu suddenly jerks rather unnaturally and falls down like a sack of bricks.
The man that steps into the shop over her unconscious body looks like he’s been through a local war conflict. His hair is all messed up, clothes tattered, and the phaser he has in one hand smokes lightly.
Yunlong moves towards him, before he can even process what’s happening.
The phaser falls to the floor with a metallic clunk, and arms that wind up around Yunlong are as strong as he remembers. Though, maybe not as bony. He can’t be sure. He grips the man’s clothes so hard, his fingers ache, and he is decidedly not strong enough to pull himself away to look at his face properly.
“I found you,” Ayunga says. “I found you. I finally—”
Yunlong can barely hear him. He was close to crying at any rate, what, with Zhu’s words, so now it’s open season. He buries his nose somewhere close to Ayunga’s ear and basically rests his whole weight against him.
“F—Do you know how heavy you are,” Ayunga croaks.
“Eight years. Eight fucking years!”
“I know! I was there!” Ayunga tries to pull away, possibly, to get a look at his face, but Yunlong only grips him tighter. “God, you got skinnier…”
Yunlong chuckles, a wet, helpless sound. “I can’t—I can’t believe you’re actually here. She—That woman? She said…”
“She lied,” Ayunga says firmly.
He tugs him away again, and Yunlong finally lets him.
They spend a long moment staring at each other. Yunlong blinks away tears, and Ayunga’s eyes shine.
“Damn, you got older,” Yunlong mutters.
He gets smacked and then kissed in the span of several moments, but he hardly cares.
The clock in his chest stops with a click.
The wait is over.