Busan, South Korea
“You’re doing the refitting yourself?” Kyungsoo asks, running his hand along Lightrunner’s new paint job, lingering over they tiny Korean flag. “You’re sure you’re competent enough?”
“It’s costing less than it would cost for me to hire someone else to do it for me,” replies Baekhyun, setting down the power-scrubber in his hands to look down at Kyungsoo. “Let’s just hope I can rely on my own skills at this point, since any repairs that need to be made between legs of the race are going to be up to me.”
“That’s not troubling at all.” Kyungsoo looks dubious, sliding his hands back into his pockets. He’s out of place on the dock, in his expensive navy suit and leather dress shoes. “Your family sent me out here to see if I could change your mind.”
“And what? Go back to college to get a degree in something practical?” Baekhyun laughs. “I’m not you.”
Kyungsoo’d started working for a consulting firm in February, right out of college. The work suits him, Baekhyun thinks. Kyungsoo has always been happier with two feet on solid ground. In air-conditioning. With people to order around, and coffee delivered at regular two hour intervals. Baekhyun, on the other hand, had dropped out in his first year, and taken up bartending to pay his rent. School had never suited him much at all.
“No,” Kyungsoo agrees. “You most certainly are not.” He tests the rope ladder, and then, with a sigh, starts to climb up. Once he’s up on the deck, he surveys the carnage of Baekhyun’s gutting efforts. “I hope you didn’t pay too much for this thing.”
“She ran me about three and a half million won,” Baekhyun informs him. “Less than I’d expected to pay for a racing sailboat, but she needs a bit more work than I’d wanted to put in, too. It’s a good thing I spent so much time working on my uncle’s boats as a kid, or I’d have had to hire someone else to do this stuff for me. Even with the money from sponsors, I’d be pushing it, budget-wise.”
“At least all that skipping in high school paid off for something,” Kyungsoo mutters, toeing the sail Baekhyun’s taken down. Baekhyun needs to get a new one, but he can’t find the right kind of design. It’s got to be something he and his sponsors can both agree on. He wants it to be bright, like the sun. He’ll have to order it soon. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Yeah,” Baekhyun says, tugging at the neck of his sweatshirt. “Kyungsoo, I’ve wanted to compete in the AA since I was ten. You know I’ve been saving up for this since…”
“Since forever,” finishes Kyungsoo. “Yes, Baekhyun, I do know. How could I not?”
“I don’t have a career. Or kids. I don’t own any property. I’m a good sailor, and I’ve been going out on open water trips in good and bad weather since I was old enough to tether myself to the safety rails.” Baekhyun crosses the aft, toward the tangled rope he’d forgotten to wind up earlier. “And I’m… I’m ready to do this? I tried it, you know? The traditional thing. It’s not for me.”
“It never has been,” says Kyungsoo. “You could barely stay in your seat through a high school class, always looking out the window. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that you’re not really destined for a desk job.”
“Someone please inform my mother of this inevitability.” The rope leaves behind a waxy residue on his hands, so he wipes them on his jeans. Kyungsoo cringes, his thoughts undoubtedly turning to his own designer slacks. Baekhyun grins at him unrepentantly. “Sure you don’t want to come with me, darling? Plenty of nature, the smell of salt in the air…”
“Irregular bathing? I’ll pass.”
“I’m going to see the whole world! You sure you wanna pass on that?” Baekhyun waggles his eyebrows. “Just think about all the fun we’d have before you eventually strangled me.”
“It’s call the Around Alone for a reason,” is Kyungsoo’s dry reply. “Also, after a week trapped on a single person sailing yacht with you, I’d probably want to jump off and get taken by the sea. That would be a waste of someone completely destined for a desk job.”
“It’s called the 5 Oceans race, now. And don’t lie to yourself, Kyungsoo.” Baekhyun runs a hand through his sweaty hair. “You’d love to spend half a year on open water with me.”
“Things like that only happen in my nightmares,” he replies immediately. “I still can’t believe I’ve tolerated you the past fifteen years with the ability to come and go at will.” He buffs his nails on his suit. “Are we getting dinner this century, or not? The sun’s setting.”
“I really wasn't expecting you to come this early,” complains Baekhyun. “I could have worked through twilight.”
“Do you have work at Sharky’s tonight?”
“Two more weeks,” confirms Baekhyun. “Race starts at the end of October in Rhode Island, in the United States, so I’ll have to send Lightrunner off on a Sevenstar shipment by the tenth. I won’t leave until the sixteenth, though.”
“That’s… soon.” He looks around the chaos of Baekhyun’s deck. “Everything’s going to be done on time?”
“Once I get the Argos system and navigation installed, everything else that’s left is cosmetic. You know that always comes last for me.”
“Yes,” Kyungsoo drawls, giving Baekhyun’s jeans another dirty look. “Obviously.” Then he offers Baekhyun one of his genuine, heart-shaped grins. “But hey, dinner’s on me, since I’m the successful friend.”
“Hey!” Baekhyun shoves him lightly. “When I win this thing, I’m going to be successful too!” He scratches his cheek. “At least successful enough not to get the college talk again. There’s even a guy from the Chosun Ilbo who wants to write a weekly column about the race.”
“Really?” Kyungsoo hums. “I guess you’re pretty well-known among sailing types, though.”
“Honestly, I was surprised, too,” Baekhyun admits. “But he says they’re trying to beef up their sports section.”
“Interesting, but, for now at least, I’m making triple what you make, Byun. So call me hyung.”
“I’m older than you,” Baekhyun replies, laughing. “And bigger.”
“Not where it counts,” Kyungsoo retorts smoothly, with a superior arch to his eyebrow, and Baekhyun laughs again.
A few minutes later, they leave the single passenger sailing yacht behind them. Baekhyun casts one last look over his shoulder, taking in the white and silver-gray of Lightrunner on the choppy autumn Busan ocean. Even with no sails, she's magnificent. Maybe that's just because she's Baekhyun's, the manifestation of a dream he's harbored since the first time his uncle took him out on a boat, and showed him the magic of cutting through the waves, sailing right toward the sun.
Lightrunner is everything Baekhyun's ever wanted, in a world that's dealt him some pretty shitty cards.
"Then, how about lobster?" Baekhyun teases, and Kyungsoo elbows him in the gut. "And a sponsorship from KPMG?"
"I told a couple guys at work about you," Kyungsoo says. "They think you're ridiculous."
"What do you think?" Baekhyun asks.
"I know you're ridiculous." Kyungsoo grabs Baekhyun's wrist and pulls him along toward the parking lot. “But you’re brave, too. Especially after…”
“Well,” Baekhyun says, lowering his eyes. “I think I have too, Kyungsoo. Or I’ll never really be able to move forward.” Then, hating the tense mood, he grins. “Besides I love sailing. I always will. What could be better than doing it around the world?”
“I think even a stranger could figure that out, Byun.” Kyungsoo unlocks his fancy car from a distance. “You know what I like?”
“I hope it’s lobster.” Kyungsoo elbows him. “Okay, fine, what?”
“Being the successful friend,” he says, and then laughs as Baekhyun chases him the rest of the way to the car.
The to-do list on the yacht gets shorter and shorter as Baekhyun ends the last week of September.
He’s got an official license from the Korea Sailing Federation, and all his paperwork filled in, and all that’s left is to finish up the wiring and electronics to make her ready for long periods of travel.
Lightrunner is twelve meters long, small but thick for a racing boat. She’s got a big cabin, which Baekhyun knows will slow him down, but Chanyeol, the guy Baekhyun brings in to help with his electronics, says the wind-correcting sensors have more spots to pick up changes in pressure.
“She’ll go really fast, anyway, even with the big cabin,” says Chanyeol. “It’s not like she’s made like a regular sailboat.”
It’s true. Lightrunner is narrow, with a sharp router and a sleek non-displacement hull, ready to cut across the top of the water at 23 knots. Racing yachts are not the sort of sailboat that Baekhyun grew up with, mostly, because they usually took out his uncle’s cruiser, but Baekhyun remembers Waverunner looking a little like this.
Not when it came home without a skipper, in pieces, but before that, when Baekhyun was small, already unable to pay attention in class or sit still longer than ten minutes, hoisted up on his uncle’s shoulders as he was taught how to choose sails for sped over stability.
“She’s a real beauty,” says Chanyeol, and he tweaks the installation ports for the navigation system. “Wish I could install a few more hydraulics…”
“Not for this race,” says Baekhyun. “Maybe after.”
“You going to do motorized races?” Chanyeol turns his baseball cap sideways. “You could, you know.”
“No idea what I’m going to do. I guess I’ve got until February to figure it out.”
This is real, Baekhyun thinks, walking home from the docks, grimy and sweaty and covered in grease. I’m finally doing this.
“Have a good day out there?” asks his father, and Baekhyun grins.
“Everything’s shaping up to be finished on time,” replies Baekhyun.
His father nods, peeking at him over the edge of his book. “You sure you want to do this?” His gaze drifts over to the closed door at the end of the hall. His aunt’s room.
Growing up, Baekhyun had spent more time with his uncle out on the water than he had anywhere else. It’s impossible for him to let go of this race.
“Yeah,” says Baekhyun, rubbing his hands on his ratty jeans. “More than anything.”
“Someone’s here to see you, hyung,” says Sehun, throwing an arm around Baekhyun’s shoulders. He’s been doing it constantly since the summer, when he’d shot up a good ten centimeters to tower over everyone else at Sparky’s.
“Cut it out with the arm thing, show-off,” Jongin mutters, tugging a sweatshirt over his black t-shirt.
“Don’t be jealous, Jonginnie,” replies Sehun, his breath ruffling Baekhyun’s hair, and Baekhyun chuckles.
“I’m not.” Jongin pouts at them both.
Jongin hasn’t taken the whole growth spurt thing well, but Baekhyun’s been taking advantage, conning Sehun into getting the glasses kept on the highest shelf that he used to have to drag out the stool for. “So what kind of someone is it, Sehunnie?”
“A rich looking someone.” Sehun rests his cheek on Baekhyun’s head. “He’s wearing a suit, and he’s got a Seoul accent.”
“I don’t know anyone in Seoul.” Baekhyun drops the towel in his hand into the hamper under the sink. “Where is he?”
“Out at the end of the bar,” Sehun replies. “He’s drinking a tequila sunrise.”
“Is he really?” Baekhyun rolls his eyes. “I definitely don’t know him.”
“Whatever, you love fruit juice drinks, poser.” Sehun shoves him lightly out of the break room. “Go, before he falls asleep, and you have to dig through his pockets to find his information.”
“That would be a hell of a way to spend my last night on the job, huh?” He ruffles his hair and then ruffles Sehun’s for good measure. “I’m going, I’m going.”
The man waiting for him is young, maybe Baekhyun’s age or a little older, with grown-out hair pushed back with gel and the top two buttons of his white dress shirt undone. He’s out of place here, the same way Kyungsoo is, too expensive looking to be sidled up to the bar at Sparky’s, where the floor is beer-sticky even on a good day.
“Heard you were looking for me,” Baekhyun says, leaning across the bar to stare at the man directly. He has a perfectly symmetrical face, but his smile, bashful and gentle, makes the whole picture a bit crooked. “I’m Byun Baekhyun.”
“Ah, yes, hello.” His laugh is nervous, but his smile gets a little bigger, and his eyes curve adorably. “I’m Kim Joonmyun, from Chosun Ilbo? We spoke on the phone about a month ago?”
“Oh!” Baekhyun taps his fingers on the bar along with the beat of the music playing from the speakers. “I remember that!” Baekhyun had gotten a call from this newspaper guy a couple of months ago, actually. “You really lucked out. Today’s my last day.”
“I knew I was pushing it,” he says. “But I wanted to meet you before you left, and I didn’t want to show up at your apartment or something.” He fidgets, and then takes a sip of his drink. “You’re kind of popular up at the Seoul office.”
“Me?” Baekhyun raises one eyebrow. “Why?”
“You won a bunch of local open water races, and you’re the first person to race in the AA with a Korean flag painted on your yacht in a long time. It’s a big deal, apparently. A lot of my co-workers were jealous.”
“Now, now, Reporter-ssi,” Baekhyun grins, looking at Kim Joonmyun through his lashes. “It’s the Velux 5 Oceans now. It won’t do for you to forget sponsorships in print.”
Joonmyun flushes, and it extends all the way down his chest, stark against the white of his shirt. He has nice collarbones, Baekhyun thinks absently, before returning his gaze to Joonmyun’s face. “You’re right,” he says. “I’m sort of new to sailing. My boss thought it might be interesting to have me introduce the sport in the weekly column as I learn about it.”
“So you’re just going… to call me once a week?” Baekhyun sucks his lip into his mouth. He can’t say he minds—he’s always been social. Besides, Joonmyun has a pleasant voice, and Baekhyun can already tell he’ll be easy to tease. “That’s a long commitment for you. The race lasts six months, you know.”
“I’m aware of at least that much.” Joonmyun chuckles, and shakes the glass in his hand. The ice rattles, catching Baekhyun’s attention. “I also know that sailing around the world alone is pretty dangerous.”
“Lots of things are dangerous.” Baekhyun pulls a clean glass out from under the bar, and fills it with ice chips, immediately pinching one between two fingers and pushing it between his lips to wet his mouth. “Doesn’t mean they aren’t worth doing,” he says, around the sudden cold behind his teeth.
Something in Joonmyun’s expression changes. Baekhyun hadn’t realized Joonmyun’s eyes had been distant before until he sees them now, fixed on Baekhyun with an interest that has Baekhyun reaching for another ice chip. “You sound like my friend Jongdae,” he says. He takes a long sip of his drink, never breaking their shared gaze. “I’ll stick to the shore, thanks, Byun-ssi.”
“If we’re going to be phone buddies for sixth months, you might as well get used to calling me Baekhyun, Reporter-ssi.” He licks his lips, and Joonmyun tugs at his collar, revealing more of the smooth, pale skin underneath. “I’m not too good with formalities.”
“I’m not too good with dropping them,” replies Joonmyun. “Part of the job. But I’ll do my best for you, Baekhyun.” He tilts his head. “I’m older than you, by the way, so you can just stick with hyung.”
“Hyung,” Baekhyun repeats, letting the word roll off his tongue the way that always has Minseok slapping the back of his head for the obvious lack of respect.
“Am I going to regret that?” Joonmyun doesn’t sound too upset, though, lips twisting. “You’re not what I was expecting.”
“What were you expecting?” Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Sehun mixing a drink and adding way too much vodka. Baekhyun would stop him, but the customer’s a regular, and probably won’t mind that his rum and coke tastes more like a shot. “More sunburn?”
“Not really,” Joonmyun says. “You’re freckled enough to indicate a life in the sun. I was just a bit taken aback by the purple hair and the video game shirt. Not exactly a stereotype, are you?”
“What’s the stereotype of someone who competes in singlehanded yacht-boat racing?” He rubs his neck. “Were you thinking pirate or yuppie?" At Joonmyun’s chagrin, Baekhyun offers him a forgiving grin. "I’ve been in love with boats for a long time.”
“Have you always dreamed about sailing around the world?” Joonmyun drains the last of his drink, and then licks the last dredges of orange and cranberry juice from the corners of his mouth.
“Starting my interview already? I’m still on the clock here at my…” Baekhyun scratches his cheek. “Well, I guess you can’t call this my day job.”
“This is off-the-record,” answers Joonmyun, pushing his empty glass toward Baekhyun. “From bartender to paying customer. I’m just curious.” He lowers his eyelids to half-mast. “And can you mix me a gin and tonic?”
“Mixing gin and tequila’s pretty dangerous, too, hyung.”
“Maybe.” Joonmyun laughs. “I’m a metropolitan city boy, though, and mixing liquors seems a lot less scary than the boat. Besides, I have a lot more practice at it.”
“I think I prefer open water to hangovers.” He takes out a bottle of Hendrick’s, and eyeballs a third. “The Around Alone, or something like it, has been my dream since I was about ten.” Baekhyun remembers the moment he’d thought it through for the first time; that moment he’d seen a charting map and realized he could drag his finger from one end to the other across ocean and never have to stop. “I figured it might be amazing, to see the world like that.”
“So what are you going to do afterwards?” Joonmyun watches him pour tonic into the glass, filling it until it’s about a finger to the top, tossing the bottle aside and then stirring carefully, not agitating the tonic. “Once you’ve fulfilled your dream?”
“I don’t know,” Baekhyun says, pushing Joonmyun’s gin and tonic toward him. Then, with a glance at the clock, starts mixing himself one too. “Find another one, I guess.”
“Is it that easy?” Joonmyun asks, before tasting the drink. He makes a low sigh of pleasure, closing his eyes. He doesn’t have long eyelashes, but they’re dark, and spread out across his cheeks in the shape of a Mermaid’s Fan.
“I’ll let you know,” says Baekhyun, “once I’ve figured it out.”
Joonmyun smiles, something soft and syrupy and altogether unexpected. “I’ll be waiting.”
That night, after he’s gone home and rinsed the smell of cigarette smoke and beer from his body for the last time, Baekhyun gets his first text from Joonmyun.
I’m looking forward to speaking with you again soon, Baekhyun, it says, and Baekhyun thinks about Joonmyun’s voice saying those words, and types back me too.
“If the weather gets really bad,” Kyungsoo tells him, sprawled out on Baekhyun’s bed, “you’d better quit, Byun Baekhyun.”
“I’m not going to quit unless Lightrunner breaks or loses a seal somewhere,” Baekhyun replies, shoving another sweatshirt into his camping backpack. “I’m going to complete the race.”
“I know you’ll give it your all, but I’d rather you be around to teach my kids how to sail someday.”
Baekhyun looks up from his packing with a feigned expression of shock on his face. “You’d let me teach your future kids?”
“On second thought,” says Kyungsoo, after a long pause, “maybe you’d better sail off into the sunset so you never, ever meet them.”
“Ass,” laughs Baekhyun, throwing a pair of socks at his best friend’s head. “Nothing’s going to happen to me, you know that, right?”
“Everyone is scared,” Kyungsoo says. “I want to support you, because I know you don’t care about anything else but getting back out on the ocean, and you never have, and because…” Kyungsoo hesitates. “Well, you know. But you’ve never done a race this long, and it’s only been a few years since the accident—it’s not just strangers in the news that die running single-handed yacht races, Baek, it’s people we know. It’s people—“
“You think I’m gonna forget?” Baekhyun runs a hand through his messy hair. It’s not Baekhyun that avoids the topic like the plague. It’s everyone else that walks around on eggshells. “I still have nightmares about it. But you know what I’m like, when I’m not out there sailing. I was never meant for… for this.” He gestures around, to the small room he and Baekbeom used to share as kids, squashed together in a space barely large enough for one teenage boy, and he and Kyungsoo both know Baekhyun doesn’t mean just these four walls. He means the walls of classrooms, and floors beneath him, and being here, in general, where, even though Baekhyun is gregarious and popular and charming, it stands out the most that he doesn’t fit in.
“Then don’t be careless,” Kyungsoo says, kicking Baekhyun in the thigh with his creepy hobbit toes.
“I won’t.” Baekhyun grins, thinking of the open sky. "I promise."
His mother cries at the airport. “Baekhyunnie, make sure you call home as often as possible,” she says, clutching his dad’s arm. “Why couldn’t you have gone into business like your brother? It’s not too late! Baekbeom, surely you could help him--”
Baekbeom waves his hands. “Hey, mom, don’t drag me into this. Baekhyun’s always been way into sailing. He’s been doing really well with it, too.”
Baekhyun laughs. “Almost enough to live on, right?” The share a conspiratorial grin.
“I never should have let my brother drag you out on the water every weekend as a kid,” she fusses, as Baekhyun’s dad pats her back. “Now you’re just going to end up—“
“No I’m not.” Baekhyun interrupts, sharply. “Don’t say anything like that.”
“You’re right,” his mother says. “I’m sorry, Baekhyunnie. I just worry.” Usually when she gets like this, his aunt is around to rein her in, but she hadn’t come to the airport today. Baekhyun’s not surprised, considering what he’s at the airport for. She had, though, given him his uncle’s logbook from his own attempt at the AA. He’s stowed it in his backpack, nestled among a blank notebook of his own, his old compass tucked between the first page and the cover.
“We’re lucky Baekhyun has something he loves,” says his dad, smoothly, when he can get a word in. “We all know Baekhyun would be getting into a lot of trouble without the ocean to entertain him.”
“He gets into enough trouble with the ocean to entertain him,” Baekbeom teases, and Baekhyun scowls at him. “Don’t make that face at me, little brother. I’ve picked you up drunk from way too many bars to get any sass from you on the subject.”
Baekhyun’s father laughs. “Well, you’re my son, after all.”
“You grew out of it!” Baekhyun’s mother says, slapping her husband’s arm as he laughs.
"Baekhyun’s still young," he replies.
“Aren’t you supposed to keep stuff like that between us, hyung?” asks Baekhyun, shifting the weight of his backpack. He’s not taking much with him—just his old laptop from 2008, and enough clothes to last a week. Other staples have been packed into Lightrunner’s belly, waiting for him in the harbor in Newport. Baekhyun’s ready.
“Only when you’re not about to go so far away that I won’t be able tease you for months.” His grin is conspiratorial, just like when they were kids. They’re night and day, personality-wise, but they’ve always met in the middle with each other. “Who’s going to be my punching bag?”
“Kyungsoo is still around.”
“Do I look like I want to get my large intestine ripped out via my anus and then get used to strangle me?” Baekbeom lifts one eyebrow incredulously.
“His bark is worst than his bite.” Baekhyun laughs. “Mostly.” He shrugs at Baekbeom’s disbelieving stare, not bothering to hide his amusement, and then turns to his parents. “I’ve got to go,” he says, distracting them from their bickering. “Takes thirty minutes to get through security.”
“When you come back,” his mother says, “you’ll have to start thinking about settling down, Baekhyunnie. Find a nice girl, and get a stable job…”
Baekhyun considers explaining how, if he does well, he’ll get paid in sponsorships, and invited to other races. How he could maybe spend his whole life out on the water, if he plays his cards right. He knows she doesn’t want to hear it, though, so he smiles at her with no teeth and fingers the unfastened waist strap of his backpack.
“I know, I know,” he says, eventually, when the silence gets heavy, wishing the words didn’t feel like a ball and chain she’s constantly reattaching to his ankle every time he manages to slip it. “I love you. I’ll bring home a trophy!”
Baekbeom laughs. “Yeah, sure you will, kid,” he says, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a small brown paper bag. He tucks it into the mesh water bottle pouch of Baekhyun’s backpack, and Baekhyun looks at it curiously before shrugging. “This isn’t the short distance sailing you did during high school.”
“You’re right,” Baekhyun says, grinning. “It’s better.”
The first time Baekhyun went out on a single-handed sailboat on the East Sea, he’d been thirteen and a storm came in unexpectedly from the south. Baekhyun had come home with rope burns on his palms, skinned knees, and soaked in seawater. His mother had screamed at him for a good hour when he’d gotten into port, running her hands up and down his legs and arms as if making sure he was really there, kissing his cheeks and his eyelids in relief after she’d gotten the yelling out of her system, but Baekhyun… Baekhyun had only fallen more in love.
Even after, when Baekhyun learned how it feels to have your chest fill with brine, he still loved it, still went back out into the waves that constantly threaten to snatch him under.
Sailing is the kind of thing that takes all of Baekhyun’s energy, and the ocean is so alive and changing that it’s impossible for him to get tired of it, of watching the waves crash against the hull and listening the the sails flapping in the wind.
The freedom offered by the open sea is something Baekhyun’s constantly longs for, wanting to experience it again and again. He loves it. He lives for the cracked stinging of his lips and the sun beating down too hard on his cheeks, the uncovered deck leaving him with nowhere to go for shade. He loves the winds and the waves and the stagnant waters in equal measure, and more than all of those things, he loves the salt in the air.
Baekhyun’s father claps his shoulder as a flight to Kuala Lumpur gets announced for boarding over the intercom. “Have a safe trip,” he says. “We’ll see you next year.”
“Thanks,” Baekhyun replies, and he wants to ask about his aunt, but thinks better of it, stepping backwards twice, then turning away, marching toward security with a lightness to his step.
He checks his phone once more before he turns it off for good.
If you die, I’m definitely going to insult your intelligence and general quality of character at your funeral, reads a text from Kyungsoo, and Baekhyun smirks. He’d drunkenly told Baekhyun he was going to miss him last night, at the tail end of his goodbye party, and he probably regrets the uncommon show of emotion.
Morbid. Love you too, bro, Baekhyun texts back, and then tucks the phone away. His eyes fall on the small paper bag, and he pulls it out of the mesh pocket and opens it. Inside is a simple little keychain with a tiny black cat hanging from it.
”Black cats,” he hears in the back of his mind, in his uncle’s warm tenor, ”are lucky for sailors. They protect ships from dangerous weather.” It’s not something he’d have thought Baekbeom would remember, but he did, and all through the first hour of his flight, Baekhyun is grinning.
Finally, Baekhyun thinks, his hands shaking as he copies his passport number onto a landing card that the flight attendant has just handed him, blue ink from his gel pen blotting in the small boxes. Finally.
Newport, Rhode Island, United States
The air at the harbor is salty, and in the early morning, the wind cuts through the layers of clothing Baekhyun’s wearing, dragging on his windbreaker and puffing it out like it’s a sail.
Still, it’s better than being inside the hotel. Baekhyun feels sort of alienated from the other competitors. The majority of them are from France and Australia, and Baekhyun’s English, the official language of the entire Velux 5 Oceans, is too terrible to manage anything beyond empty platitudes and emergency distress calls.
And for all that he’s not the first racer in his family, he feels distinctly other here, with his colorful hair and tight jeans. He knows he looks different, and sounds different; he did, even back in Korea, where he fit in at the nightclubs and stood out like one of the neon lights from the bar district on the docks. It just feels stronger, out here, where he can’t diffuse the situation with a joke or a comment about the currents, or sail height, or something else that says hey, I belong here, too!
So instead of lingering in a too-posh lobby pretending, he’s out here with Lightrunner to check her rigging, making sure nothing was damaged or dislodged in transport. She’s come a long way since Kyungsoo saw her last, cleaned and polished, the paint gleaming in the early dawn sunlight. From where he’s suspended from the sail, he can see the whole length of her. She’s gorgeous, and narrow, and from the practice runs he took her out on right before she was loaded up on the Sevenstar, she’s fast, too.
“Is that who I think it is?!” Someone is yelling excitedly up at him from the wooden deck in Mandarin, standing next to Lightrunner’s anchor peg, balanced against it.
Startled, Baekhyun leans back into his harness, letting the slack in the line pull taunt to support his weight so he can see who’s talking to him. It’s a man around Baekhyun’s own age, probably, with long dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. He’s smiling, with deep dimples, and watching Baekhyun with amusement.
“Well, well, well.” He grins, fumbling over the Mandarin. “If it isn’t Zhang Yixing!” He gets the tones wrong for sure, and Yixing just grimaces comically.
“It’s been a long time,” Yixing says, switching to Korean. “I saw the flag on your yacht yesterday and thought, somehow, that it might be you.” He runs his hand along Lightrunner’s fresh golden gloss coat. “I didn’t realize you were going to make it out this year, Baekhyunnie.”
“Your Korean’s really improved, Yixing,” Baekhyun lowers himself back down slowly, sneakers hitting the deck with a squeak. He quickly undoes the lobsterclaw attached to his harness, and crosses over to the edge of the deck, so he can rest his weight along the guardrail. “My Mandarin, on the other hand...”
“That’s okay,” says Yixing. “I work with Koreans every day. I do fishing rig repair on East Sea transport ships these days.” He holds up his hands and wiggles his fingers. They’re littered with the tiny scars that come from handling the net-cranes. “When I’m not racing.”
“That’s where I’ve been sailing, mostly,” replies Baekhyun. “Or, well, there and the Pacific. When I’m racing or not racing.”
Yixing smiles. “You’ve been winning lately, right? I think the last time we raced each other was back in 2010? But we had hydraulic winches powering things along.”
And yeah, Baekhyun remembers that race. The last time he saw Zhang Yixing, the other man’s hair was an awful straw-colored blond, and he’d been wearing a tank shirt with a collar that dipped so low Baekhyun thought that wearing it at all was an exercise in futility. Baekhyun had started to put some distance between them, after that, because he’d sort of… wanted to touch, and he knows that’s not anything good.
Another thing that doesn’t matter, that isn’t so bad, when Baekhyun is out at sea.
“This baby is large-sails only,” says Baekhyun. “She’s new; I named her Lightrunner.” He hesitates. “Want to come up?”
“Sure,” says Yixing. He steps aboard easily, swinging one long leg over the rail, and then immediately squats down to touch the baseboards. “You do this yourself?”
“Yep.” Baekhyun grins. “Sponsorship dollars went mostly into getting her here for the race, and for the satellite stuff—the Argos, the GPS, the internet. Chanyeol’s work.”
“I know how that goes.” Tiny pieces of Yixing’s hair are escaping his ponytail and falling into his face. “I ended up sinking a lot of my own money into my yacht, too. It’s an Eco 60 class, a little bigger than Lightrunner.”
“Nice,” Baekhyun says, as Yixing comes to stand next to him. “This your first long-distance race, hyung?” He hadn’t kept up with Yixing’s schedule the past couple of years, after they’d fallen out of touch.
“I did the Vendée Globe,” Yixing says. “A couple years ago, 2013. I didn’t finish—Guess I need more experience picking routes.”
“A nonstop? How was that?”
“It seems a shame to travel the entirety of the world in such a hurry.” He laughs. “I’m a guy that likes to let myself be distracted. This way, we get to stop, live a little, have slightly less wobbly legs at the end of it.”
“The record for this course is about 130 days.” Baekhyun stretches both of his arms up above hi head. “Almost five months on the water? I might forget how to walk.”
Yixing laughs. “You don’t look like you mind.”
“Life’s easier, out on the water. Simpler. The ocean doesn’t, you know, expect things from me.”
“I do know,” says Yixing. “And I feel the same way.” He looks at Baekhyun, then. “I’m sorry about your uncle, by the way. Don’t know if I ever told you, but I’d known him about ten years. Met him when I was fifteen and first getting into crewed racing.”
Oh. Baekhyun curls his fingers around the metal bar. He supposes the subject is always going to come up. It was a high profile incident, after all, and he can’t expect someone like Yixing, who’d once been a pretty good friend, to ignore it like an elephant in the room. “I didn’t know that, actually.”
“Yeah. I… You check your rigging like he did. I’ve never seen anyone else do that kind of one-armed swing.” Yixing swallows. “Sometimes, the weather can be unpredictable.”
“That’s what makes it interesting,” says Baekhyun lightly. “Not knowing what’ll happen next. Isn’t that why we do it?”
“I almost drowned when I was ten, from falling off a boat.” Yixing’s hair blows across his face, and slush water crashes into Lightrunner, making her rock uneasily. “So I got into sailing to overcome my fear. Never expected to like it so much.”
“The ocean’s kind of seductive,” muses Baekhyun. “Never wants to let anyone go.”
Yixing tilts his head, and looks away from Baekhyun, out at the water. The sun’s higher overhead now, and the water has gone from murky gray to a deep blue. “It’s cool that you named your sailboat after Waverunner,” he says. “Your uncle would have liked that.”
“I think so, too,” replies Baekhyun, and, at Yixing’s dimpled grin, thinks it’s like no time has passed since they last spoke. It’s… nice, and Baekhyun’s grateful that they fall back into easy conversation without the flutter in his chest that used to come with every look Yixing sent in his general direction.
They end up getting breakfast together, unfamiliar scrambled eggs, potatoes, meat and toast heaped way too high at a local breakfast cafe just past the stacked boathouses, down on Washington Street. It’s nice to speak Korean again, after days of fumbling through all his interactions with race officials and shop owners in English. Besides, Yixing has always been just interesting in general, if a little spacey, and Baekhyun ends up accompanying him on several errands, to pick up several lengths of rope and other miscellaneous supplies.
“Wouldn’t want to get stranded without a replacement,” Yixing says. “I’ve totally done it before.”
“How’d that work out?” Baekhyun asks, jokingly. “Was it during the nonstop?”
Yixing’s chuckle is sheepish. “It was a real mess. A miracle I even finished, Baekhyunnie. I’ve learned to make written lists of what I need, these days.” He smiles. “You run into trouble out there, you send out a signal for me, or contact my phone.” His eyelashes flutter. “If I can find it, I’ll answer.” He nudges him gently. “Old friends need to look out for each other.”
“Same to you,” Baekhyun says, relieved that Yixing, this whole time, has never asked why Baekhyun pulled away from him, and doesn’t seem to hold it against him, either. It could be that Yixing’s always been so laid back, but there have to be limits. Still, a familiar face amongst all the people heading out tomorrow takes a weight off of him he didn’t even know he was carrying.
He walks back with Yixing to the hotel and then continues on, back down to the docks, back to Lighrunner.
Now it’s late morning. The race doesn’t start until tomorrow, but plenty of people have started coming out to work on their yachts. They’ve cleared out a whole stretch of the harbor for competitors, and most of them have had their ships transported into port, so there’s plenty to do making sure nothing has happened before they’re all out on the water, cut off from help.
Lightrunner looks good, though, on deck, so Baekhyun’s got to double check inside. He heads into the covered quarters of the sailboat. His brand new satellite system gleams, and Baekhyun runs his fingers over the controls. He’s never been able to afford one of these before, and he loves it as much as it makes him wary.
He’s bought course maps for the first leg of the trip and plotted his route manually, using a compass and a pencil, in case anything goes wrong, just like his uncle taught him when he was little. He and Baekbeom used to spend hours on their bellies learning to read and plot maps, their uncle checking their work and rewarding them with abalones cooked in pig fat at the end of the day if he declared them “capable of not getting lost in the Indian Ocean.”
Baekhyun is confident that he can always figure out where he is and where he’s going, now, at least physically.
He also has satellite Iridium internet, connecting him to the rest of the world from anywhere out on the ocean. His eyes drop to the phone, a big, clunky white thing that weighs about ten times the size of his now-useless Samsung.
Baekhyun checks his watch. The time’s still set to KST, and it reads 10PM. Not too late, he decides, to call home.
He almost calls Kyungsoo, just to hear his best friend’s voice insulting him from another continent. But then his gaze drops to the business card taped to the phone. Kim Joonmyun, the Chosun Ilbo reporter.
Kim Joonmyun had wandered into Baekhyun’s job unannounced just to meet him, and though Baekhyun had been surprised, he’s kind of glad he got to put a face to the name. Joonmyun is classically good looking, and a little stiff, but his laugh when he’s embarrassed is really…
Well, Baekhyun’s glad he’s got an excuse to talk to him again, because normally he’d never cross paths with a straight-laced guy like that. Kyungsoo’s the closest he’s ever come, and Kyungsoo’s civility is like a shoddy paintjob to cover up bad repair work— under the slightest duress it starts to peel away, revealing the delinquent hiding underneath. Despite the fact that Kyungsoo grew up into a sharp-minded businessman, Baekbeom had dragged them both home from the clubs more nights than Baekhyun can remember, and they’d both ditched school so much in middle school that their second-year homeroom teacher couldn’t match their faces to their names.
Kim Joonmyun, on the other hand, seems like he was born polite. Even in Sparky’s, with his shirt undone and a fruity drink in his hand, he’d looked buttoned up, at least until he and Baekhyun had really started talking and he’d forced himself to relax. He is, in Baekhyun’s opinion, the opposite of Kyungsoo. Kim Joonmyun’s shoddy paintjob is probably that initial false un-tensing of his shoulders, pretending to be comfortable without honorifics when really he’s biting back the impulse to say everything in formal Korean like he’s in a chaebol drama.
It’s… Baekhyun’s intrigued, maybe, by Kim Joonmyun. He hadn’t expected that, when he’d offhandedly agreed to do this whole column thing, in exchange for a sponsorship from the newspaper. Joonmyun’s short follow-up call had been over a bad connection while Baekhyun was out on the water, far away from a cell tower, before he’d put in the satellite equipment. Joonmyun’s voice had broken up, and Baekhyun had been hard-pressed to even get the gist of what he was saying.
Meeting Joonmyun, though, that had changed things. Baekhyun’s stomach clenches in on itself, and he pushes aside wherever that thought had been going immediately, before it can sink anchor into him.
Without really thinking about it, though, he finds himself dialing the number. It rings three times before the call picks up, and Baekhyun’s brain catches up with him right as Joonmyun’s voice calls a gentle “Hello?” across the line.
“Hi,” he says, curling his fingers around the phone as he hears the sound of typing. “This is Baekhyun.”
Joonmyun makes a tiny, adorable noise of surprise. “Oh! Are you calling from Rhode Island?” Overly formal again, automatically shifting into the distant tones of a stranger.
“Yeah,” says Baekhyun, purposefully shifting to casual speech as he sinks down onto the bench behind his table, resting his elbows on his stacked piles of maps. Joonmyun’s fingers must pause, because the tapping stops for a very noticeable second. “I am. It’s the last day before the start. I got in yesterday.”
“Last day on land, huh?” Joonmyun’s voice is a little timid, but he’s switched back to the easy neutral level of formality he’d fallen into with Baekhyun at Sparky’s last week as they sipped identical gin and tonics, and the clacking of computer keys starts up again. “So you’re busy?”
“Not really.” He stares down at the map of the Atlantic on top of the stack, and pulls it closer to him The sextant had marked off the weather predictions in purple graphite for him and shaded the warning zones while Baekhyun had tried his best to communicate his course preferences in fledgling English, and he thinks it went fairly well, because the map looks good. “I’ve gone over the sailboat, and she looks undamaged. I’m provisioned, and my repair kit is fully stocked. Now I’m just going to finish charting my course, and call it a day. Might go sightseeing or something.”
“Doesn’t a computer do that?” Joonmyun hits another key on his computer, then there’s the sound of the laptop closing. “Chart your course for you, I mean. I’ve been trying to read the appropriate literature about those Argos systems, and they seem state-of-the-art.”
Joonmyun, Baekhyun decides, talks a little like the overeducated host of an SBS documentary, only gentler. A voiceover narration just for Baekhyun. “The appropriate literature?” Baekhyun teases.
Joonmyun hums. “Ah, yes, I mean…” He clears his throat. “I read blogs and the like, and a few primers on the sport, and they mentioned that the Argos rendered paper maps obsolete.”
Baekhyun splays his hand out, covering most of Europe with his palm, his thumb forming an isthmus between Greece and Libya across the Mediterranean Sea at the far right edge of the map. “Sure, the Argos is amazing,” he says. There’s a shifting of fabric, now, over the line, and Baekhyun wonders if Joonmyun is in bed. “But what if you lose power? Better to have physical maps, too. It’s a comfort thing. I always chart the course out myself. I wouldn’t want to forget how to do it. I might be old-fashioned about this, but when you’re out on the water, trusting entirely in something electronic is a scary proposition.”
“You, old-fashioned?” Joonmyun chuckles honestly, and it makes Baekhyun’s toes curl in his sneakers. It shouldn’t because it’s an awkward laugh, but something about it, ringing in his ear, makes it sound strangely good. “You’re very unexpected, you know that, Byun Baekhyun? Purple party-boy hair and a wariness about technology that leads to keeping paper maps.”
A rustle of what’s definitely, Baekhyun thinks, sheets. It strikes him, all of a sudden, how startlingly intimate this is; calling someone who’s a virtual stranger while they’re in bed, just to talk. Baekhyun doesn’t chat with too many people on the phone, anyway. He’s always preferred face to face, so he can see how his jokes go over and feed off the energy of his conversation partner. He’s famous amongst his friends for not answering calls, and he rarely makes them, preferring to just show up with an offering of coffee or beer or whatever when he wants to talk.
He has exceptions, of course, like Kyungsoo, whose mood he can read in a single word, but Joonmyun… he doesn’t know Joonmyun. He only has a few scattered impressions of his handsome face and the way he looks when he licks orange juice from the corners of his mouth.
Baekhyun swallows, mouth dry. “I get that a lot, from fellow sailors. Guess I don’t look the part of a weathered seafarer.”
“You live it, though,” replies Joonmyun. “That’s more than enough.” A tiny cough. “You’re not likely to lose power in the middle of the ocean, though, right?”
He sounds so genuinely alarmed at the idea that Baekhyun snorts. “You don’t have to worry about me, Reporter-ssi. I’ll be just fine out there, even if I do.”
Joonmyun’s laugh is lower this time. Baekhyun bets his grinning, now; that warm, focused one that Baekhyun had found at the bottom of Joonmyun’s second drink. “I thought it was Joonmyun-hyung, Baekhyun.”
“Only if you don’t mind.” Baekhyun catches himself thinking about the way all of Joonmyun’s grins had shown off his pretty, straight teeth. He focuses on the map instead, trapping the phone between his ear and shoulder and picking up his pencil to dot coordinates one by one for his arrival into Cape Town. “I suppose it isn’t very professional, to call me by my first name.”
“I don’t,” says Joonmyun. “Mind, I mean. You’re right that it isn’t professional, but this isn’t my usual interview.”
“I’ll bet you just like being called hyung.”
“Sometimes,” admits Joonmyun. “I also like the way you say my name.”
Baekhyun almost drops the pencil. “You do?” His pulse is racing too fast, and Baekhyun concentrates on the soft rocking of the sailboat on the choppy October waters to make it slow down. “Why?”
“I’m not sure. I guess it’s kind of… well, cute, like you are.”
“I’m not cute,” Baekhyun replies, and inexplicably, he’s blushing. He picks up one hand and covers his face with it instinctively, but luckily, there’s no one here to see the color he turns at Joonmyun’s teasing. “That’s no way to talk to a grown man, Joonmyun-hyung.”
“You’re right.” Joonmyun laughs. “My apologies, Baekhyun. I’ll do my best not to tell you you’re being cute.”
“Or write about it in that column of yours,” adds Baekhyun. “Kyungsoo would never let me live it down if I got called cute in the newspaper.” Baekhyun sighs, feeling his blush start to fade. “I’d hope for lost power, then, just to avoid him sending his own sarcastic annotations in my e-mail.”
“What happens, if your power goes out? Is there a way to fix it, or are you just out of luck until you reach the end of the leg?”
“You really are worried about that?” Baekhyun’s laugh burbles out of him. “I swear, when I was a kid, I went on so many boats with jury-rigged electrical systems that I’m pretty much prepared for anything that could possibly go wrong with the wiring…”
He tells Joonmyun about a time when he was nine, and he and his uncle went out on a two-day fishing trip with a friend of his uncle’s, on the friend’s boat. The boat’s electrical system had been designed and executed by a man used to doing houses, and the whole thing had quit on them only a few hours into the trip, and they’d just roughed it until they’d caught enough fish to go home without their tails between their legs.
From there, Baekhyun doesn’t know how the call somehow turns into a two-hour conversation on how to repair a boat while still out on the water, but it does, Joonmyun wrapping Baekhyun up in giving explanations that get more complex than he means them to, and asking all sorts of questions about safety and stuff like that, reminding Baekhyun of his mom, kinda, but in a way that doesn’t have him flinching away from it.
Finally, Joonmyun is yawning more than he’s talking, and Baekhyun’s stomach is growling at him, demanding lunch.
“Baekhyun, I don’t think I can stay awake much longer,” says Joonmyun, his words slightly slurred. “It’s almost one, and I’ve been up since seven this morning.”
“I guess it’s a little past the well-behaved reporter’s bedtime.” Baekhyun bites his lip as soon as he’s said it, not having meant for it to come out quite like that. That’s the way he talks with Kyungsoo, bordering on flirtatious. He knows Kyungsoo won’t take it to mean anything, but Kim Joonmyun…
But Joonmyun just laughs. “Definitely,” he says. “I didn’t anticipate that you would call tonight.” A soft sigh. “I learned a lot about hull repair though.”
“I can get passionate about boats,” admits Baekhyun, borderline sheepish.
“Something tells me you get passionate about a lot of things.” Joonmyun yawns again. “I’m really sorry, but I have to go to bed.” Baekhyun’s not entirely sure why Joonmyun is apologizing, when Baekhyun called him out of the blue, days before he was supposed to. “Are we… can you still call me on Friday?”
“Yeah,” Baekhyun says, embarrassingly quickly. “I was just, um, testing my equipment.”
“I guess we gave it a thorough test.” A long silence. “Good night, Baekhyun. Or good afternoon, perhaps.”
“Talk to you soon,” murmurs Baekhyun in reply, ending the call. The phone’s battery light is blinking at him ominously, and Baekhyun just stares at it for a long moment, like it’s an alien creature.
“You’re still here!” Baekhyun barely avoids dropping the phone as Yixing dips his head down to peek into the cabin. “I thought you might have gone back to the hotel, but I forgot to ask which room you were in.”
“I’ve been here all morning.” Baekhyun runs a hand through his hair. It feels dry, and he knows it’s only going to get drier while they’re out at sea. “Finishing up a few things.”
Yixing comes down into the cabin. “You still chart your routes by hand, I see.”
“You bet,” Baekhyun replies. “You need a hand over on your sailboat, or something?”
Yixing shakes his head. “Nope, just hungry.” He casts one more glance around the interior before fixing his gaze on Baekhyun. “Have you gotten lunch yet?”
“No.” Baekhyun rubs at his stomach. “I’ve been on the phone.”
Yixing’s hair has all escaped the ponytail holder, now, and it hangs messily around his face. He looks like a Chinese pop star. He’s always had the looks. “It’s getting pretty late in South Korea.” His whole face scrunches up. “Calling your family? Or Kyungsoo?”
“No,” says Baekhyun. “A… well, a reporter from the Chosun Ilbo who’s going to be keeping tabs on me during the race.”
“A reporter, huh? So what, they wanted to ask you stuff before the race started?”
“Actually, I called him.” Baekhyun shrugs. “I don’t know why. I wanted to test the satellite system out, and I’d taped his card there, so I just… called him. Then we ended up talking for a few hours.”
“That’s not like you,” Yixing says, giving him a curious little grin. “Getting you on the phone is like pulling teeth, if I’m remembering right.” The last bit is a little wistful, and Baekhyun feels a tickle of guilt before he pushes it down.
“You’re not one to talk,” he retorts belatedly. “You get so distracted when you’re on the phone that no one wants to call you!”
“Still, he must be pretty interesting to keep you on the line.” As Baekhyun searches for a reply that doesn’t mention the cadence of Joonmyun’s voice, Yixing claps him on the shoulder. “Can we get french fries for lunch?”
“Saying farewell to deep fried foods?” Baekhyun grins. “Sounds like a plan!”
“We’re going to weigh down our yachts,” Yixing says with a laugh, and Baekhyun shrugs.
“French fries are worth it.”
This flagship single-handed globe race had started as the BOC Challenge, back in 1982, before it became the Around Alone in 1988, and then, finally, in 2006, the Velux 5 Oceans Race.
This year’s course is just like that famous first one, won by Philippe Jeantot from France, in 159 days, before Baekhyun was even born. Before Baekbeom was even born, because Baekhyun’s mom was still in high school and hadn’t even met his father yet.
Newport, to Cape Town, to Sydney, to Punta del Este, then back to Newport. The classic race, back in Rhode Island and pushed a month later to end head-to-head competition with the Route du Rhum.
It seems fitting, Baekhyun thinks, that he’ll get to take on the exact same course that his uncle never finished, back in that very first race in 1982. ”It’s harder than you can possibly imagine,” his uncle used to say, when Baekhyun would ask him what it was like. At that point, Baekhyun had never been out on the water by himself yet, his mother having forbid it. ”But I’d have given anything to finish that race.” A broken wrist from hauling in the sail during a storm had knocked him out in the third leg of the course. ”Don’t worry, though, Baekhyun, I’ll take that race on again someday, and win the whole thing!”
Baekhyun had believed him. They’d watched recaps of races together, footage from onboard cameras and arrivals at the different ports, and long after Baekbeom had begged off to go play with his friends or, eventually, to go on dates with pretty girls that their mother had approved of, Baekhyun would sit in the living room at his uncle’s house and talk racing strategy late into the evening, as his aunt sliced cubes of spam for the kimchi jjigae bubbling on the gas stove.
Baekhyun’s uncle had always simmered with the desire to complete this race, and he’d never gotten the chance.
Part of the reason Baekhyun is competing is for his uncle. It hadn’t been, when Baekhyun had first gotten interested, but after the accident, it had burned like a fire inside of him, so hot and bright he’d thought the ocean might be the only thing that could possibly put it out.
The other part, though… That’s for Baekhyun. He’d dreamed about it, when he was little. About looking out over the guard rail of an Open 60 yacht and seeing nothing but ocean and sky in every direction. About speeding through the waves, the hull of his sailboat cutting through smooth Pacific waters as he hurtled toward South America with only the strength of the wind pushing him along.
The ocean has always been a safe place for Baekhyun, because even at its most treacherous, it’s still less dangerous than all the things he’s afraid of on land.
Baekhyun has never been exactly ambitious. It’s always been, for him, about stealing pockets of happiness where he can find them, and accepting the rest. When he’d realized, at thirteen, that girlfriends weren’t going to be in the picture for him, he’d thrown himself fully into sailing, and deciding it would be more than enough to spend forever out on the cresting ocean, discovering dolphins and whales and all the different colors the water can turn with a change in the weather. He’d never need anything else.
It’s October eighteenth, high wind-chill, and the water’s frothing. There’s a small crowd gathered at the docks to cheer for this year’s twenty-three competitors.
Baekhyun’s wrapped up in layers of clothes to combat the New England fall, and he’s hoisted his sails. They ripple proudly, white and gold and yellow-orange, shimmering in the morning sunlight stretched out all the way up to the top of the mast.
Baekhyun ties his black cat charm from the steering shift, and then heads toward the back of the boat to start untangling the anchor rope. He holds the rope and looks down the line to catch Yixing’s eyes.
Ready? he silently asks, and Yixing gives him two thumbs up and dimpled smile.
“Racers at the ready!” It calls out into the brisk morning air, and Baekhyun gets shivers down his spine. Unlooping the rope, he pushes off the dock with one leg.
And amidst clapping and cheering, Baekhyun sails out into the Atlantic, letting the wind urge him out into the open water at a speed already approaching 20 knots.
We’re off! he e-mails to Joonmyun an hour later on a whim, for reasons he can’t really pinpoint. Baekhyun guesses, really, that he’s just thinking about the conversation they had yesterday, and being polite, since Joonmyun seems like the kind of guy who’d appreciate that.
Four hours later, he gets a reply that says Good luck!!!!! :D , and the smiley face after it causes the tiniest of flutters in his belly.
North Atlantic Ocean
Baekhyun is social, and the life of the party back in the nightclubs edging Haeundae’s boardwalks, but despite all that, he hardly ever feels lonely at sea.
There’ve always been the memories of his uncle and Baekbeom laughing and leaning too far over the guard rails, skimming their fingers along the surface of the water, and of Baekhyun getting carelessly freckled under the sun as Kyungsoo curled himself up under an umbrella because even the slightest of sun exposure turned him into an angry boiled king crab. There were the times they didn’t race or sail out far at all, too, and instead dragged nets behind the boat to fish for deep sea bass, catching too many soda cans instead of anything edible.
The memories are like friends, living and breathing and taking up space on his boat, and it’s impossible for Baekhyun to miss people when he’s surrounded by them.
But there are times when the quiet starts to stick to Baekhyun’s skin, thick like a layer of molasses, and it weighs him down until all he can do is stretch out on the open deck and listen to the waves.
Those times, Baekhyun longs for the easiness of the summer fishing trips his uncle took them on when Baekhyun was in the fifth grade, chubby-cheeked and unafraid to grab a tuna half his size and wrestle it to the deck. If he were home, he’d maybe put out a line to kill the nostalgia, or untangle one of the nets they still keep in the basement and bring home enough sea creatures to make a big pot of maeuntang, which Baekbeom hates because his mom never de-heads the shrimp it freaks him out when they still have their eyes.
It’s impossible to fish during a race, though, and Baekhyun tells Joonmyun that when he asks about what he’s been eating over the past couple of days. “The boat is moving too fast. Didn’t you do your research? We’re going 25 knots at top speed, and usually at least 15 when we’re not, depending on the displacement.”
“The only boat I’ve ever been on is a cruise ship, back when I was in the third year of middle school.” Joonmyun laughs. It’s a nice laugh. Baekhyun had thought so back when they were both in Busan, when Joonmyun was sleepy and wearing a suit rumpled from travel. Now, it comes across clear over the satellite internet, and it’s just as pleasant as it had been face to face. “I guess I’ve also read Moby Dick, but in that one, it’s more like the fish eats you instead of the other way around.”
He titters, then, and it cause Baekhyun to break out into a real belly laugh. “You’re so weird,” he gasps out, and then quickly adds: “It’s good, it’s great, if you weren’t this whole reporter thing would be boring. I get bored easily. You might have guessed.”
“I might not have guessed, if I’m honest,” Joonmyun replies. “You don’t get bored trapped on that boat, do you?”
“When you’re racing, you have very little downtime. Maybe if you get lucky winds and smooth waters, like now, you can put the boat on autopilot. But it can be very active. There’s always anticipating problems, maintaining different parts of the boat. The sails have to be handled personally if your jammers or winches get effected by the weather. High waves, and strong gales can really mess things up. Then you’ve got to work double-time to keep from getting turned over.” Baekhyun looks down at his hands. “Yesterday’s rain storm gave me rope burn, but I also saw a pretty awesome school of Atlantic sea bass. The ocean’s really unpredictable. I like that.”
“What got you into racing?”
“My uncle,” says Baekhyun, after a moment’s hesitation. “When my brother and I were kids, we used to spend days out on the water with him, just learning how to sail. He liked to go fast though, and when we got older, it was me that he taught how to adjust the sails and urge a yacht a little faster across the waves. He had to drop out of the race back in ’82, and he never really forgave himself for not trying again. I’ve got his logbook.” Baekhyun’s been keeping track of his own progress in post-it notes in the thing, sticking them next to his uncle’s times and speeds and weather observations.
“Is your uncle impressed, that you’re participating?”
“I think he would have been.” A telling silence, and Joonmyun makes a soft, understanding noise that has Baekhyun quickly following up with a question of his own just to change the subject. “What about you? What got you into journalism?”
“That’s a pretty boring topic,” answers Joonmyun. “Wouldn’t you rather talk about something I can use in my column?”
“If I’m talking to you so much about me, I want to know about you.”
“But I’m the reporter, not the subject.”
“I’m not a subject,” Baekhyun teases him. “I’m a boy on a boat in the middle of the ocean. So you’re a reporter and I’m a sailor. We’ve already shared a drink, so now you tell me how you got into reporting.”
“I wanted to be a news correspondent,” says Joonmyun, after a long hesitation. “You know, the person that follows the story, wherever it ends up being. A television personality.”
“Really?” Baekhyun laughs. “I can see it. You’ve got those overly polite manners and stuff.”
“My parents are strict.” Joonmyun laughs too. “I talk this way at home, too. I assure you I can’t turn it off.” A small huff of breath, and then, in a lower cadence, he says: “I’m trying not to be too formal with you, though, Baekhyun.”
Baekhyun’s mouth is so dry, but he wants to hear more.
“Do you ever swear?” He stretches out on his bed, the computer hot on his lap. “I can’t picture you swearing.”
“I can picture you swearing.”
Baekhyun laughs at Joonmyun’s tone. “I was swearing ten minutes ago. A seagull tried to eat my lunch!”
“Did it succeed?” A lilt to his voice that Baekhyun’s learning to associate with joking. Most of Joonmyun’s jokes are pretty reserved, but occasionally he drops these terrible jokes that remind Baekhyun of the middle-aged women on daytime television. “I can’t figure out if you sound hungry right now.”
“No comment,” Baekhyun replies. “Let’s just say that I don’t think that seagull will be coming back to visit Lightrunner again.”
“Should that be the title of my next article? Byun Baekhyun defeats dangerous, hungry seagull to remain in second place in the Velux 5 Oceans?”
“Don’t you dare!” Baekhyun imagines Kyungsoo’s reaction. “I think my best friend would frame that article. I don’t want to give him the satisfaction.”
“Ah, Do Kyungsoo, right?”
“That’s right,” Baekhyun says. “And your best friend is named Jongdae, right?”
“That’s right,” Joonmyun echoes, bemused. “Wasn’t expecting you to remember that.” He clears his throat. “So what kind of tactics does one use to get ahead in a sailboat race that takes place over such a long distance?”
“Course plotting, and careful wind judgment,” replies Baekhyun, letting Joonmyun drag him into explaining more about sailboat racing to him, and tucking his questions about Joonmyun aside for another day.
When the satellite modem stops glitching that night, Baekhyun sends Joonmyun a short video from his camcorder of the seagull, with the crust of a sandwich hanging from its beak and a corner of Baekhyun’s angry, pouting face at the corner, mostly off-camera. Just between you and me, the seagull won, he types at the bottom of the e-mail, and in the morning, he gets a picture back, of Joonmyun’s hand offering some kind of pastry to a pigeon.
Solidarity, Sailor, is the post script, and Baekhyun smiles the whole morning through.
And Baekhyun’s only supposed to talk to Joonmyun once a week, but he finds himself calling him every other day. Joonmyun always answers, and lets Baekhyun ramble on about water clarity and dead winds.
“The boat’s not moving at all today,” Baekhyun says. “Not a single gust. I’m just floating in place.”
“What do you do on a day like this?” Joonmyun asks.
“Nothing,” Baekhyun says. “I took a dive into the water to investigate the keel and the router. The router’s a little damaged, and I won’t be able to fix it until I get into Cape Town, though.” He hums. “Then I tried to clean up in my cabin, because it’s an absolute mess. I’ve been bad about tying things down in this lull.
“I’m messy too,” Joonmyun says. “Only I have no excuses for it.”
“Do you live in a fancy apartment in Seoul?” Baekhyun reclines back against the rope latticework that supports the sail when it’s unfurled. “Do you live on the top floor?”
“I don’t,” Joonmyun replies. “I live on the fifth floor. I have a terrible view.”
“It is fancy, though, isn’t it?”
Joonmyun laughs. “Sort of. Only because I’m here so much.”
“Not getting out a lot?”
Joonmyun’s laughter seems to slip out through the phone and curls around Baekhyun like a blanket. “One of us is stuck in the middle of the ocean in a boat with no wind to push them.”
“I don’t know, it’s not all bad. I think that seagull and I might be becoming best friends. Kyungsoo is going to be really jealous.”
Joonmyun laughs at all his jokes, and makes really gruesome ones of his own, and Baekhyun thinks it’s adorable, the way Joonmyun seems so pleased every time one of his awful puns passes muster.
“Jongdae always tells me my puns are terrible,” Joonmyun informs him one morning, when it must be late, late, late in Seoul. Joonmyun had still answered, though, and Baekhyun tried not to feel the thrill of that in his chest.
“They are,” replies Baekhyun. “Sorry to have to confirm that for you.”
“You call an awful lot for someone who finds my puns to be terrible,” says Joonmyun quietly. “More than we agreed on, when I asked if I could interview you weekly for the sports section column to introduce yachting.”
Baekhyun licks his lip. “Yeah,” he says. “I do. You mind, Joonmyun-hyung?”
“I originally wanted to be a news correspondent because I wanted to travel around the world and see things first.” Joonmyun’s breath is quick, and Baekhyun can’t help but notice the way it stutters a little. “But it’s dangerous, and my parents talked me out of it.”
“Do you regret it?”
“Sometimes,” Joonmyun says. “I’ve always really wanted to experience something more. I doubt I’d ever have the courage to just pack up my life for six months and sail.”
“I don’t have a lot of life to pack up,” Baekhyun tells him. “I’ve been pretty careful about that.”
“I often think,” replies Joonmyun, sounding… almost lost, “that I don’t really have a lot of life to pack up, either.”
Baekhyun thinks the best part of being out on the water, when there’s no wind, is that he can stare up into the sky and think about how big the world is.
There’s no one to care about what he does or doesn’t do, or to watch him get things right or mess up. It’s just him and endless possibility, and the sun warm above him.
The worst part is how much it feels, when the boat isn’t moving, like being on land, where Baekhyun can only think about how small the world is, instead.
South Atlantic Ocean
Things get warmer as he crosses down into the southern hemisphere. Baekhyun’s got rope burns up and down his hands and arms as he constantly adjusts the sails for maximum speed, and his thighs and forearms are sunburned from hours hanging off the mast, staring out into the horizon.
He calls Kyungsoo after he checks in with the race committee.
“I bet you look like a tomato,” Kyungsoo says derisively over the line. “Baked because you can’t bother with sunscreen.”
Baekhyun doesn’t bother to tell him he’s right when he already knows he is. “The view is amazing,” he says instead, flicking the cat charm still hanging from the steering shift. “I’ve never seen water this blue.”
“Not even in Jeju?”
“Seaweed’s changed the color of the water there,” Baekhyun replies. “I’m in the Tropic of Capricorn right now. This morning, the sunrise turned the water gold, but as day broke, the blue, Kyungsoo, you wouldn’t believe it! I took a video for Joonmyun-hyung, and I can send it to you too, if you want.”
Baekhyun blushes. “Yeah,” he says. “The reporter from the Chosun Ilbo?”
“He’s a hyung, now?” He can hear the blatant curiosity in Kyungsoo’s tone. He knows the face Kyungsoo’s making, pursed lips and lifted eyebrows: his interrogation face. “Since when?”
“He was kinda stiff, so…” Baekhyun shrugs, knowing Kyungsoo will hear it even if he doesn’t see it. “I was just teasing him a little, and it stuck.”
“It stuck.” Kyungsoo sighs. “How do informal address terms have time to stick when you talked to him, what, twice? Three times?”
“Well...” Baekhyun curls his hands around his mug of tea. “More like… uh… twenty?”
“Can you just explain this whole situation at once so I can stop parroting shit back at you, Baek?” Kyungsoo sighs again. “Please just assume that everything you’ve said in the past five minutes is ridiculous.”
“I sort of became friends with him. Over the phone. We talk about boating and I tell him about the course and he tells me about the news and about what’s happening with, you know, music and movies and stuff.”
“You actually talk to him every day? On the phone?” Kyungsoo is clearly incredulous. “Are you even Baekhyun? How does a phone-phobe make a phone buddy?”
“I don’t know,” mumbles Baekhyun. “I just find him easy to talk to. And he has a nice voice.”
“Oh, I see,” says Kyungsoo. “You have a crush.”
“No,” Baekhyun says. “I don’t have a crush. That’s… impossible, you know?”
“It’s not impossible,” Kyungsoo replies. “You just don’t like having crushes because you’re—“
“Stop,” Baekhyun says. “What if someone hears you?”
“I’m alone in my apartment, Baekhyun. No one is going to hear me. And you’re in the middle of the ocean. I doubt the Atlantic cod care if you’re into boys or leprechauns or whatever.”
“Zhang Yixing is out on the ocean with me somewhere,” mumbles Baekhyun.
“Speaking of crushes.”
“I don’t…” Baekhyun squints up at the sky. “I don’t think about that kind of thing. It’s easier not to, when you’re out in the middle of nowhere by yourself.”
“You just going to ignore it until your mom corners you with seven potential brides and an ultimatum?”
“Maybe I just won’t go back,” answers Baekhyun, and Kyungsoo sighs.
“That’s not how you handle a problem.”
“No,” Baekhyun corrects, “that’s not how you handle a problem. I’m an expert in avoidance.”
“You are,” Kyungsoo says. “I’ve got your back, though.” He pauses. “Even if you’ve got a phone crush like some shitty movie from the 90’s.”
“I’m hanging up,” Baekhyun says, and Kyungsoo laughs until Baekhyun ends the call.
The first time Baekhyun kisses a boy, he is on a boat. The boy is named Huang Zitao, and he’s an open water rower, with thighs as thick as Baekhyun’s body and a mouth that’s softer against his own the the waves pushing at the hull of a sailing yacht during falling tide.
Afterwards, he feels… like he’s been set adrift, happiness and guilt making him sink and float all at once. He curls up on Kyungsoo’s bed later, and lets Kyungsoo pet his hair, and lets Kyungsoo anchor him.
“You need to use shampoo more often,” he tells Baekhyun, after Baekhyun has spilled the whole story. “Your hair smells terrible.”
“Weren’t you listening?” Baekhyun asks, voice barely a whisper. He knows it’s weird. He’s heard his brother making rude jokes with the other boys when they’re out playing baseball, and once, late at night, he’d heard his dad make a thoughtlessly cruel comment about people like that.
Baekhyun has tried really hard to like pretty, pretty Kim Taeyeon in class 3C, but his eyes have always drifted more toward Zhang Yixing, the guy that’s just as into sailing as Baekhyun down at the docks.
Kyungsoo sighs, fisting a handful of Baekhyun’s hair too tight. That’s proof, Baekhyun knows, that he’s distracted thinking about something. “Yeah, I was listening. You’re still my best friend, and as my best friend, I can’t let you go outside with your hair smelling this bad.”
“It’s a waste of time, since it’ll get sea-water rinsed anyway,” says Baekhyun, looking up at Kyungsoo with wide eyes.
“Sacrifices must be made.” Kyungsoo shifts, settling Baekhyun’s head more carefully in his lap. “And you can kiss as many boys as you want, and it’ll be fine with me.”
Baekhyun doesn’t kiss any boys after Huang Zitao, though. Instead, he stops talking to Zhang Yixing, and while his classmates go on dates, Baekhyun learns how to repair sailboats, and survive the East Asian Sea.
He does, though, tell his uncle, who smiles at him grimly. “The water will treat you the same no matter what,” he tells Baekhyun. “You can tell it all your secrets.”
“I know,” Baekhyun says. “Just something else to love about sailing.”
“If I’d ever had kids,” he tells Baekhyun then, “I’d have wanted them to end up just like you.”
“I got your video of the sunrise,” Joonmyun says. “It really is beautiful. You make me want to learn how to sail.”
“I could teach you,” Baekhyun offers. “It’s not that hard.”
“You say that like more than twenty-five people are doing what you do.”
“Racing is hard,” Baekhyun replies. “But not sailing. If you’re cruising, mostly you let a boat like this handle its own navigation, and just enjoy the ride.”
“Still,” says Joonmyun, “just getting on a boat and going? Sounds like a fantasy. A lot of people are writing in to tell me they love the pictures you send, and I put that little mini-introduction you sent up on the website and it’s received a lot of positive comments as well.”
“It’s gotta be the hair,” jokes Baekhyun.
“It’s you,” replies Joonmyun. “It’s obvious you’re out there doing what you love, and it inspires people to want to try it.”
“Yes.” Joonmyun swallows. “You’d really teach me?”
“In March,” says Baekhyun, “if the waters aren’t too rough. Come down to Busan, and I’ll show you the ropes.”
“Maybe,” Joonmyun says. “I wouldn’t want to bother you.”
“I’m not really the kind of guy who offers to do things if they bother me.” Baekhyun gets out of bed at a beep of the Argos. It’s found a new current, and that matches the direction of the wind Baekhyun’s been tracking. “I’m the kind of guy that sails away into the Atlantic to get away from obligation.”
Joonmyun laughs. “And here I thought you liked racing. Are you running away from a particular obligation, right now?”
“Several.” Baekhyun cringes as his boat gets blown left, water splashing on him. “Steady employment with ‘career growth potential’, the matchmaking my mom is up to, the way my aunt looks at me like a ghost…”
“Do you look like your uncle?”
“This isn’t for your column, is it?”
“Of course not,” says Joonmyun. “It’s not even Friday. Plus, it’s two in the morning. Not even I do work at two in the morning.”
“Shouldn’t you be asleep?” Baekhyun licks his lips, and it tastes like salt.
“I’d rather talk to you.” With a tiny chuckle, he continues: “It’s funny, but it feels like I’ve known you longer than a month.”
Baekhyun agrees. He might not know every expression Joonmyun makes, but he can read his mood in the tone of his voice, and in the sharpness of his breath.
“I don’t look like him,” says Baekhyun. “My uncle. But I act like him, and I have the same dangerous hobby.”
“Sailing’s not inherently dangerous, is it?”
“No, but single-handed long distance racing is.” Baekhyun rubs at his face. Grains of salt stick to his burned skin. “She looks at me sometimes and just sees him, and probably wonders a lot if I’m going to go out on a trip and never coming back. I think my mom agrees, and that’s why she wants to marry me off.”
“You don’t want that, I presume.”
“It’s not the life for me.”
“Ever,” confirms Baekhyun. “I’m never going to get married, settle down, have kids. And don’t you dare say I’m too young to know what I’ll want in ten years.”
“I’m only a couple of years older than you, and I don’t see that for myself, either,” Joonmyun says, after a long minute. “My brother already has two kids. I have trouble… dating.”
“How? You’re good looking and smart and pretty successful, right?” Baekhyun had looked Joonmyun up. He’s written books and stuff. He’s not just a newspaper journalist, like Baekhyun had thought. Baekhyun has no idea how he got stuck with this project. “Seems like plenty of people would want—“
“I don’t want the kind of people that want me.” Joonmyun’s words are a little wobbly, and Baekhyun licks his lips again.
“I bet the sunset is going to be just as pretty as the sunrise was, tonight.”
“Make sure you send me a video,” says Joonmyun, and then Baekhyun babbles on about water clarity and the likelihood of spotting whales and anything to make that weird echo in Joonmyun’s voice go away.
His aunt moves in with them fifteen and a half days after the accident, bringing only two suitcases and a box of trophies. Baekhyun feels like he’s been awake ever since the parts of Waverunner washed into the bay, unable to fall asleep for fear that he’ll remember how loud the thunder had been that night over the satellite phone, or that he’ll wake up sweating with worry and despair all curled up together in his gut, scraping at the sides like rough coral.
So Baekhyun just stays awake, and brings tea to her door every morning, and waits for her to open it and look at him with eyes as dark as the sea at night.
Nineteen days after the accident, he sneaks out after midnight and winds his way down to the docks. He falls asleep on the deck of his uncle’s old guppy boat, and doesn’t wake up again until Kyungsoo finds him the next afternoon and shakes him awake, face all twisted up with unusual amounts of worry.
“Should have fucking known I’d find you here,” he says. “You still want to be out on the water, after all this?”
“Yeah,” replies Baekhyun, “I do.”
When he gets back to the house, his aunt has come out of her room, and she stands next to his mother in the kitchen, both of them chopping cabbage for kimchi together with shaky hands. She looks up to stare at Baekhyun when he hovers uncertainly in the kitchen doorway, surprised as her presence.
“You smell like ocean water,” she tells him, in a flat voice.
“Slept out on the boat.”
For the first time in weeks, a smile pulls up on the corner of her lips. “I guess even though we never had kids, a little part of him lives on in you.”
“I hope so,” replies Baekhyun, and when her smile gets a little larger, a little firmer, he lets out a deep breath of relief, and offers to go dig out the fermentation jars from the basement.
Cape Town, South Africa
It’s exactly thirty days after he left Newport that he arrives in Cape Town. The official waiting for him in the drag-in raft tells him he’s currently in fourth place. “A lot of people got caught up in that dead wind up before the Tropic of Capricorn. Only one retired, though.”
“So did I,” Baekhyun explains, struggling to find the English words to tell her that he’d veered a little further south than he’d planned, to catch the wind. “Adds two days,” he concludes. “But not if the short way has no wind.”
“Good thinking,” she says, when she pieces it together. “You’ve probably shaved days off your time by taking a longer route.”
That leaves Baekhyun in a good mood as Lightrunner is hefted out of the water by a crane so it can be inspected. He hopes they check out the router, because it’s been feeling a little off. It’s strange to see a team of eight descend on his ship, that he mostly, save for the two or three experts he brought in, outfitted by himself. In races like the Vendée Globe, a yacht is produced and put in by a team, with a chosen skipper to sail it. But the 5 Oceans has always been a race for the lone ranger, and Baekhyun had taken that to heart, relying on his own skills to put together a racing boat that would allow him to finish the race.
He isn’t low on food, which means he’s probably not eating enough, and he needs a lot more synthetic rope than he’d planned on buying, to replace his lattices. He’s also probably going to want to pick up a new filter for the desalinator, because even if the water coming out is fresh, it’s been tasting strangely like pickle juice.
He has the second half of the day to wander away from the port before he has to get back out on the water. He winds up buying far too much fresh fruit, carrying it in his arms back toward the docks so he can watch for anyone else coming in, and trying not to let it spill out of the paper bags. He’s been craving it for a few days, and the markets had plenty to offer—with no refrigerator, he’s been mostly eating foods with a ton of preservatives. Besides, none of this stuff had been in season in Rhode Island. Here, in Cape Town, it’s the middle of spring.
“Need some help?” Yixing asks, and Baekhyun startles in surprise before he grins and offers Yixing one of the bags. “I got in about an hour after you, if you were wondering.”
“You cut south early, too?” Yixing is as burned as Baekhyun is, and back to wearing an undershirt with a deep neck that shows his entire roasted chest. “You’ve been hanging out up on the mast with no shirt on since we got past the equator, haven’t you.”
“How did you know?” Yixing sheepishly shakes his hair out of his face. “Yeah, I fell asleep talking to my fiancé while I was out lying on the front of the boat.”
Fiancé. Baekhyun processes that. “I hope you were harnessed to the mast, at least.”
“It was more of a doze,” says Yixing. “I would have woken up if the wind had gotten out of hand.”
They end up spending the rest of the afternoon together, feet hanging off the edge of the dock by smaller moored cruiser sailboats, eating fruits and spitting the seeds and pits out into the cool blue water.
“Even when we’re given time on land, we end up dipping our toes in the sea,” Yixing says. “Guess that’s the kind of guys we are.”
“True sailors,” agrees Baekhyun, and he laughs, pulling out his camera to take photos of the pits floating away in the water. “So, you’re getting married?”
“Next year,” Yixing says. “After the race, in March. I won’t be able to do this as often. Go on these months long trips. She like the water, though, so we’ll still go sailing.”
“Anyone special in your life?”
Baekhyun’s thoughts flit, inexplicably to Kim Joonmyun, and the way his voice sounds when he’s sleepy. “Not really,” he says. “Just me and Kyungsoo and Lightrunner.”
“Duh,” replies Baekhyun. “Don’t tell me you don’t talk to your boat, because if you do, I’ll know you’re lying.”
Yixing laughs at him, all dimples, his full lower lip chapped so much the skin has cracked, and Baekhyun grins back. “Not all of us are chatterboxes like you, Baekhyunnie.” He snags another Naartjie from the bag of them. “I’ve never had a problem just getting lost in my thoughts.”
“Just make sure you use that extra rope you bought to tie yourself down when you’re messing around,” replies Baekhyun. “So you don’t get so lost in your thoughts you get lost in the ocean.”
“I’m not that bad! I’ve grown up, Baekhyun.”
“I haven’t.” Baekhyun picks up a handful of gooseberries and shoves them into his mouth.
He sends postcards from Cape Town, to Sehun, to Jongin, to his family, to Kyungsoo.
He sends one to Joonmyun, too, after a few minutes of dithering, to the Chosun Ilbo office listed on his business card. He doesn’t know how long it’ll take to get there, but he’s somewhat amused that it’s going to be sent to South Korea by boat instead of by plane.
He calls Joonmyun from Cape Town that first night, long distance from the hotel phone after a hot shower. “I haven’t been this clean in a month,” he tells Joonmyun. “And I don’t know what to do with myself until the twenty-sixth.”
“The race restarts then, right? You want to be back out on the water that bad?”
“Yeah,” says Baekhyun. “A new city is good, too, though.”
“I’ve never been there,” says Joonmyun. “Take a lot of photos?”
“What are you going to right about for the week I’m stuck here? For your column?”
“Possibly the history of sailboat racing. What do you think I should write about?”
Baekhyun rolls onto his back on the too-soft hotel bed, staring up at the decorative ceiling. The stars, he thinks, are prettier, and it’s too quiet, in here. “How navigation used to work. That could be interesting.”
Joonmyun makes an “oh” sound, and Baekhyun wonders what it looks like, on his face. He wants to ask Joonmyun to video-chat him, or something, but… at the same time, it feels more invasive than the calls do and…
In the end, he just explains to Joonmyun the stories his uncle used to tell him, about how ancient Korean fishermen found their way home by tracking the wind and the stars.
Baekhyun and Yixing go out diving in shark-infested waters, and eat their weight in lamb. Yixing’s fiancé, Jia, has flown in from Beijing to spend the week, and Baekhyun ends up spending a lot of time with them both, exploring beach coves and hiking up Table Mountain, taking the abesail back down to get a great view of the City Bowl.
They’re affectionate and cute with each other, holding hands and teasing each other, and Baekhyun feels a little jealousy, that he’s never had something like that, before he buries it, and smiles at them, and talks them into the Long Street bar scene with his spot on drink recommendations and a good amount of baiting.
He watches them kiss each other secretively over the lip of his martini glass, and can’t decide if it leaves him warm or cold.
Yixing’s eyes are glassy when they say goodbye at the end of the week, and Baekhyun wonders if he’ll ever know what it is to miss someone like that.
Sailors are finally allowed to head out again on November 26, at ten in the morning, once again a fleet of single-handed sailboats heading out into open water. There is one fewer ship, leaving just twenty-two boats headed toward Sydney. The wind is an easy 30 knots, and Baekhyun feels himself relaxing at the familiar sound of waves hitting the sides of his boat, and the squawking of water birds circling overhead and floating alongside the boat until he can’t see land anymore behind him.
South Atlantic Ocean
He spreads out all the fruit he’s bought on every available surface in the cabin: Guavas and papayas and nectarines, along with a huge sweet melon and a pile of dates he plans on stringing up to dry. Then he takes a photo of it to send to Joonmyun, along with the caption Departed safely from Cape Town.
He eventually calls Joonmyun, after he’s listened to his mother ask him about five times if he’s sure he doesn’t just want to come home, and checked in on Kyungsoo.
“It feels like I’m going around the world with you,” says Joonmyun. “or reading your diary.”
“You are,” Baekhyun replies. “This is my liveblog, straight to you.”
“My column about you is one of my most popular ones,” replies Joonmyun. His voice is static-y. “Every time I pass on some of your photos or jokes or little notes, people write tons of e-mails asking for more.”
“The more would be me complaining about the cramp in my back from sitting at the navigation station, or how the Cape Town sextant doesn’t use purple to mark the currents so my eyes are having trouble with plotting my course to Sydney.”
“That kind of thing is interesting, too, you know.”
“It’s not,” replies Baekhyun, thinking of the way Joonmyun had come to mind, when Yixing had asked him if he had anyone special. It’s stupid, Baekhyun thinks, to get so attached to someone who only started talking to him because he had to. “You don’t have to answer my calls all the time if you get tired of them, by the way. I know I’m just supposed to check in once a week.”
“I like getting calls from you,” says Joonmyun. “You might not believe me, but hearing about your day makes mine feel like it was just a little more exciting. You’re… well, maybe you’re my sailing trip.”
Warmth surges up through Baekhyun, to settle in his chest and in his cheeks. “That’s…”
“Sorry, I’m a little cheesy. Jongdae always groans, when I say stuff like that.”
“It’s all right.” Baekhyun swallows. “Because I can’t see you, and you can’t see me, so… you don’t get to know if it embarrassed me or not.”
“That makes me really want to see your face,” Joonmyun murmurs, and Baekhyun’s stomach ties up in knots.
The last thing he does, before he curls up in the navigation seat to take a nap that night, wary of getting in his bunk when the waves are so rough, is take a photo of himself. His hair has faded to lavender, the roots a dark black, and freckles have consumed his cheeks unevenly. He grins anyway, sleepy and silly and eyelids heavy.
Not embarrassed he types in an open e-mail to Joonmyun, and attaches the image.
He wakes up to a reply four hours later. It’s picture of Joonmyun, a cup of coffee obscuring the lower half of his face. His eyes, though, are all crinkled up, and Baekhyun, with a clarity he shouldn’t have, remembers that’s what they do when Joonmyun is smiling. I won’t call you cute, but… is the message underneath, and without thinking too hard about it, Baekhyun saves the image to his laptop desktop, so he can look at it whenever he wants.
It’s a good picture, that’s all.
Baekhyun still keeps up with his uncle’s logbook, from back when he did the race. He doesn’t have to; it’s not like when they were manual in the 1980s, and the Argos keeps careful digital records that get sent on frequent relay back to the race officials keeping watch over them.
He wonders what it was like, back then, to be out on the water without being able to call for help or even to call home, or talk to anyone. His uncle has left notes in the margins of his logbook, beyond simple things like weather notation and coordinates. Things like remember to tell Soohyun about the dolphins! or someday, when I have kids, I’ll take them here.
He’s outpaced his uncle by sixteen days already, and he hasn’t even finished the second leg of the race. He doesn’t know why he keeps checking the logbook
He’d sailed past Mauritaus in the night, and this morning, he’s still in the range of fishing boats. He expects that’ll change soon, because there this is an area of strong trade winds. Baekhyun had changed his sails to accommodate them this morning, hanging out from the mast as the boat rocked to-and-fro beneath him. He’d taken the chance to videotape some, too. He wonders if his parents and his brothers will want to watch this footage with him. Baekbeom probably will, at least. He’d liked sailing well enough, even if he’d never managed to fall in love with it.
The thought of going home, though, peeking in through his worries about navigating in to the port in Sydney, fills him with a sick kind of dread. “What do you want to do after this?” Joonmyun had asked him, that night in Sparky’s. Baekhyun still doesn’t have anything like an answer. Most of him wants to get off of Lightrunner, shake some hands, and then get right back on, sailing into the sea and never looking back.
Real life doesn’t quite work like that, though. He’d probably be able to get work on a fishing rig, like Yixing does, or… He pushes the thoughts away as long as he can, knowing he’ll eventually have no choice on the matter.
“We’re thinking of flying out to Sydney to see you,” Baekbeom says, the next time Baekhyun calls him. “Do you know how far out you are?”
“About twenty days if all goes well.” He consults his map. “This is a rough time to travel this route. If I go north, I’ll have trouble with pirates, but down south, the weather and the water currents are unpredictable. I’m taking the southern route, which is longer and significantly more difficult, so…”
“Just… be careful. If anything happens to you…”
“This is turning into a broken record.”
“Couldn’t you have liked baseball, Baekhyunnie?”
“You know, today I saw a whole group of pilot whales.” He curls his toes in his sneakers. “And yesterday, I shared my dinner with an African skimmer, and had a conversation in signal lights with Zhang Yixing until two in the morning. Tomorrow, I’m going to catch sight of the Cocos, and watch the sunrise as I switch my sails, and then I’ll probably pull out a map to check my course.” Baekhyun laughs. “This is all I want. It’s perfect. Maybe it wouldn’t be for anyone else, but for me, it’s perfect.”
“Yeah,” says Baekbeom. “Even mom knows that, she just won’t admit it.”
“Can you tell her,” says Baekhyun, “that Uncle left a note for her, in his logbook? About the dolphins.”
“Yeah,” Baekhyun says. “Dolphins.”
“You see any, yet?”
“No,” Baekhyun says. “But I’m sure I will.”
“I come from a family of sailors,” says Baekhyun, as he stirs the soup in the pot on his single gas burner stove. “Not just my uncle, who’s my mom’s brother, but her parents, and their parents.”
“I didn’t know that,” Joonmyun says. “I didn’t really research your family very much. I was really more interested in racing as a sport, for the article.”
“Ah,” says Baekhyun. “Does that mean you don’t want to hear about it?” His voice lilts up on the end, in teasing.
“No,” Joonmyun says. “I want you to tell me everything. You’ve told me a lot that will never be put in any of my articles.” He’s more awake tonight. Baekhyun’s crossed a lot of time zones, and right now, he’s not so far off from Joonmyun’s. It’s close enough that it’s daylight for both of them now, at the same time. Joonmyun had been at work when he’d gotten Baekhyun’s call, and Baekhyun had offered to call back later but Joonmyun had just excused himself, and wondered out into what Baekhyun thinks must be a lobby, because there’s a slight echo. “I like hearing about that kind of stuff.”
“My uncle was born on a boat, while my grandparents were sailing through the Panama Canal.”
“What about your mom?”
“She was born in Busan, where they settled down a few years later. She likes boats, but not nearly to the degree my uncle did.”
“Or me.” He pours the now warm soup from the pot into a mug. It’s just a simple tomato, the sort of stuff with too much salt that Baekhyun would never eat at home but enjoys way too much when he’s out on the water. “My dad jokes that it’s thanks to them I’ve got salt-water running through my veins instead of blood.”
“My dad is the president of a university, and my mom is a professor. I don’t know what’s running through my veins. Maybe books?” He chuckles. “The metaphor isn’t as pretty, is it?”
“Definitely not,” Baekhyun says. “My mom would like you, though, because you’re so calm and polite.”
“Except when I’m talking to you.” Joonmyun sighs.
“I’m such a good influence on you!”
“You make me want to run out of my office and do things,” Joonmyun says. “It reminds me of when I wanted to go everywhere.”
“You’re not old, hyung. It’s never too late.”
“To pick up sailing?”
“To find your passion,” Baekhyun says. “Mine is sailing. I’ve never wanted to do anything else. I’m not doing this race to win, even if I joke about it. I’m doing it to complete it, yeah, because my uncle always wanted to complete it, and I’d like to do it in his stead. But for me, it’s about the experience of doing it. I wanted to sail the world for the sake of sailing the world.”
“You’re a little amazing,” Joonmyun tells him, and Baekhyun swallows. He’s remembering Joonmyun’s smile again, and it’s awful, that he’s always thinking about it.
“Not really,” Baekhyun says, his heart racing more than it had when he’d almost toppled off the support bar for his main sail this morning as he’d checked the ropes. “Well, yeah, okay, maybe a little.”
Joonmyun laughs, and Baekhyun swells with it, like a wave about to curl, fall, and crash.
The tricky part of navigating the Indian ocean in November is that it is right at the start of cyclone season. The waves are choppy, and though Baekhyun takes care to catch the SE trade wind belt, it’s still a rough ride. The weather isn’t too bad, since most of the storms are up further north, but Baekhyun’s days of letting the autopilot take the helm through smooth, easy ocean are over. He rides the steering shift, and doesn’t take calls, keeping his eyes on the GPS radar to check for high reef and land masses. He checks in every forty minutes with the race committee for the first day or so, and then once every four hours as he settles in for a long danger period.
“I haven’t heard from you in a while,” Joonmyun says softly, three days into the most exhausting and hazardous part of his trip to Sydney. “Is there something going on?”
“Haven’t slept since Tuesday,” admits Baekhyun. “You hear about the accident last year during the Volvo Ocean Race?”
“No,” Joonmyun admits. “I don’t know anything about racing, still. That’s one of the crewed races, right?”
“Right,” Baekhyun says. “They got into a huge crash right through this stretch of the Indian Ocean, during this time of year. It might’ve been a little later in the month, actually, but the point is, there’s tons of reef out here waiting to rip the bottom off of your boat.”
“Didn’t you tell me your boat had a really low… displacement? That it didn’t go very deep into the water, I mean.”
“Yes, but no boat can stay completely above the water, and for kilometers and kilometers around some of the islands, the reef is so high in places that you can use it as stepping stones out into the ocean.”
“Wow,” says Joonmyun. “But how long can you go without sleep?”
“I’m almost through the rough patch.” Baekhyun laughs. “I’m not very cute right now, I promise.”
“I would never dare to call a grown man cute,” replies Joonmyun. “I’m not distracting you right now, am I?”
“You’re keeping me awake. I was afraid I might fall asleep, and I didn’t want to worry Kyungsoo or my brother, let alone my parents. I guess I could have called Sehun, my friend from Sparky’s, but he would have been too distracting.”
“I’m not too distracting?” Joonmyun’s voice curls around the words gently, and Baekhyun runs his tongue over his teeth.
“No,” says Baekhyun. “The way you talk is like… I don’t know, a cup of hot chocolate, or something. I’ve never been much for the phone, but you… When you’re not doing that manners thing, everything’s spelled out in your voice well enough that it feels like you’re standing right next to me.”
“Sometimes I wish I were,” says Joonmyun. “I really wish I could have seen the whales you sent me that video of last week in person.”
“I have so many pictures and videos I haven’t sent.” Baekhyun adjusts his course to give the Cargados Carajos Shoals an even wider berth. He just has to get past this last stretch. “When I get to Sydney, I’ll send you more you can use for your work. I forget, you know, that you’re talking to me because of your job.”
A long stretch of quiet, and Baekhyun almost thinks they’ve lost connection. “Will you stay in Sydney long?”
“Not really,” says Baekhyun. “Yixing and I will probably tour the city while both of us get our sealant reapplied. It’s important to prevent water leakage, and it’s worth the hold up to make sure it’s completely dry.” Baekhyun stretches his arms over his head, and takes another sip of coffee. It’s long gone cold, but it doesn’t matter that much. “It’s a spectacle. All the boats get lifted into the air by cranes and are left up hanging to dry. So it looks like a whole cluster of flying sailboats.”
Joonmyun obviously hesitates. “Is Yixing a friend of yours from before?”
“We met when I was in high school,” says Baekhyun. “Used to do the same beginner’s races, using sailboats with a little extra oomph. I used to think a regular sailboat wouldn’t go that fast, but 25 knots is no joke out on the open water. We fell out of touch, but it’s nice to have a friend in the race.”
“Do you even remember how to walk, or have you turned into a barnacle on your boat?”
“I’m definitely going to wobble around for a while, like I’m still out on the water. The world always feels painfully still for a while when you first get back onto solid ground.”
“Sea legs?” Joonmyun offers, and that has Baekhyun choking on his coffee.
“No, no,” Baekhyun says around a chuckle. “Sea legs is… how well you balance and don’t get nauseated while you’re out on a boat, not the trippy feeling when you get off.”
“What’s that called, then?” Joonmyun sounds delighted, and it takes Baekhyun a minute to realize that it’s probably because he made Baekhyun laugh. “I told you I don’t know anything about sailboats.”
“You think you would have learned a few things, over the past couple of months.” Baekhyun sighs. “Some people call that sea legs, too, but that’s just people carrying on the same mistake. It’s really called dock rock.”
“I have learned a few things,” says Joonmyun, with amusement. “I’ve learned that you have to wear a harness tethering you to the boat when you’re out on the deck, and that there are different sails for different conditions, and that there are different parts on the bottom of the boat that control the direction, and they’re easily damaged.” He makes a thoughtful little hum that, even when Baekhyun is this tired, make him shiver. “And that there’s coral underneath you right now that could sink your sailboat.”
“Very good,” Baekhyun tells him. “I bet you were an ‘A’ student in high school.”
“Yes,” says Joonmyun. “And I went to Seoul National and got straight ‘A’s there, too.”
“I barely got into college,” says Baekhyun. “Then I dropped out. Didn’t have the prerequisite grades to declare oceanography, and couldn’t stand being in a classroom anymore if I wasn’t even going to get the degree I wanted.”
“Oceanography, huh?” Joonmyun laughs. “Seems like you’d be good at it.”
“I am.” He studies the terrain. “But that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to do it, a lot of times. Especially in school. Competence is second to how well you can do sitting in one place and listen to someone lecture you, I guess. I always hated school because I can’t learn that way. No attention span.”
“You pay attention when it counts,” says Joonmyun. “Like when you have to stay awake for three days to make sure you don’t crash.”
“I even use math, when I’m calculating routes. Never learned it in class, though. My uncle let me plot speeds wrong on maps a bunch of times and showed me what happened if I wasn’t careful.”
He gets a surprised laugh out of Joonmyun for that. “What an unusual tactic,” he says.
“I was an unusual kid.”
“You’re still pretty unusual,” replies Joonmyun.
“You like it,” says Baekhyun.
“I do,” says Joonmyun, and Baekhyun, unsure how to reply, starts explaining all the repairs he has to get done in Sydney, and lets Joonmyun ask him silly questions about the races he participated in when he was younger.
Joonmyun stays on the phone with Baekhyun for the next four hours, until the water beneath him runs clear and he can finally, finally go to sleep.
Baekhyun’s parents and his brother wave from amongst all the people clustered along the harbor rails as Baekhyun sails into Sydney twenty-nine days after leaving Cape Town. The Sydney Opera House glows in the dying sunlight, the inside lights already on, and the base lit up gold like a beacon calling him in to land.
The ships are being berthed at City West, in Pyrmont, on the edge of downtown Sydney, and his parents are waiting for him again outside after he’s finished his security precautions and pointed out areas he’s already identified as in ned of repair to the officials and the tech crew.
“Third place, Baekhyunnie! You were the third to arrive!” His mother hugs him so hard he feels like a bottle of toothpaste being squeezed out, and his brother stage whispers ”we’ve been here two days, and she was getting impatient” to him as he pats her back and tries to control her tears.
“It’s been a pretty easy journey so far,” Baekhyun tells his father and Baekbeom when they get back to the hotel. His mother is in the bathroom reapplying her make-up, and Baekbeom is already sprawled out on Baekhyun’s bed, looking for all the world like the starfish Baekhyun peeled off Lightrunner back when she was still floating in port in Busan. “I was trying to get in before the Hobart tomorrow.”
“That’s the day after Christmas, right? That’ll be fun to check out.” Baekbeom grins. “Mom’ll want to do something for New Years’ too, since you’ll miss Seollal.”
Baekhyun runs a hand through his hair. “Yeah, you’re right,” he says. “But first, what are we going to get for dinner?”
“Hungry, sailor?” His dad laughs. “You remind me so much of your uncle. He used to say the same thing to your mom, when she’d start making plans.”
“You don’t look like him, though,” she says, from behind him, and he turns to look at her. “It’s for the best. We have some real noses on my side of the family!”
Baekhyun grins, but then it falters as he looks from her to his dad to Baekbeom. “Auntie didn’t come, did she?”
“No,” Baekbeom says. “But I bet she’ll come when we meet you at the finish.”
“I’d like that,” says Baekhyun. “Seriously, though, can we get food?”
“Yes, Baekhyunnie,” his mom says. “And I can tell you all about the new family that moved into our neighborhood.”
“They have a daughter your age,” Baekbeom says, as Baekhyun ties on a clean pair of shoes, in a low enough voice that no one will overhear.
“Oh great,” Baekhyun says. “Maybe I can start the next leg early and escape.”
Baekbeom gives him a considering look. “I’ll keep her off your back,” he says, and Baekhyun gives him a thankful smile that Baekbeom returns cautiously.
Dinner is all Baekhyun telling carefully chosen stories about meeting different marine life, and about his uncle’s logbook.
“He did tell me, by the way,” his mother says, twirling pasta around her fork like a real expert, “about the dolphins. When we were little, we once saw thirty dolphins together sailing in the Pacific Ocean. My father said that it was a once in a lifetime experience. When your uncle was out doing the BOC Challenge, he saw an even bigger group of them. There’s a picture somewhere, in my scrapbooks. I’ll show it to you when you get home.”
They go back to the hotel after dinner, because Baekhyun wants to sleep and maybe call Joonmyun.
Right before he gets into bed, someone knocks on Baekhyun’s door. It’s Baekbeom, and he’s holding a big manila envelope.
“What’s this?” he asks, and Baekbeom shrugs.
“It’s from Kyungsoo,” he replies. “I don’t know what it is, exactly, but he said to tell you he’s anticipating your memoirs.”
Baekhyun looks down at the envelope suspiciously. Opening it, he sees it’s full of cutouts from the Chosun Ilbo. “Joonmyun-hyung’s articles!”
“Joonmyun-hyung?” Baekbeom raises an eyebrow the same way Baekhyun does when he’s curious.
“The reporter who’s been keeping up with me. He’s really great. He writes books, too. I hadn’t paid attention to what he’s been publishing about me, though. I’ve told him so much stuff I wonder how he decides what to include.”
“You said you were going to call him tonight.” Baekhyun coughs. “You talk to him a lot?”
“Yeah, most days,” is Baekhyun’s absent reply. “Not always about stuff for the column, but…” Baekhyun picks through the articles, and finds one that mentions that he’s been getting along with the animals he meets along the way that has him cracking up, remembering the seagull picture.
“What’s so funny?”
“He kept his word, that’s all. Kyungsoo would have flown out here just to give me an unimpressed look if he hadn’t.” Baekhyun looks up again to his brother, only to see a pensive look on his face. “What?”
“You… do you like him?”
“Sure,” says Baekhyun, blinking at Baekbeom in confusion. “Didn’t I say that?”
“No, I mean, you…” Baekbeom rubs at the back of his neck. “I saw you, that time. With that Chinese kid that used to live nearby.”
Baekhyun’s heart stops, and then starts again, too fast. “Zitao?”
“Yeah,” Baekbeom says. “I waited for you to talk about it, but… you never did, so I figured you were just, I don’t know, figuring things out. Then you never went out on dates, and Kyungsoo started playing buffer for you whenever mom started in on girls and stuff, and I realized you just…”
“Uh,” says Baekhyun. “I… Oh.” He’s crumpling the articles in his hands. “Do we have to talk about this?”
“No,” Baekbeom says. “We don’t have to. I’ve just been meaning to tell you that… I’m here? Or something.” Baekhyun stares at him, his mind empty, and Baekbeom shifts his weight from foot to foot. “Because I love you, and you don’t need to hide something like that from me if you don’t want to.”
“I...,” Baekhyun says again. “Hyung, I’m…” He looks down at the articles again. “I only talk to Joonmyun-hyung on the phone more because I won’t make him worry if I say the wrong thing.” Then he takes a deep inhale, but can’t get enough air to fill his lungs. “The other thing, about Zitao… Can we put that off?”
“Okay,” Baekbeom drawls. “I’m not exactly sure what I should say or do right now, and I guess it can wait. We can go out on a fishing trip, or something, when you get home, and talk or not talk. Definitely catch fish, though.”
“A fishing trip and dolphin pictures. I’m building up quite a to-do list,” teases Baekhyun. His pulse is still too fast, but he can breath again, and that’s nice. Much less like drowning. “Thanks.” He grabs Baekbeom’s shirt sleeve to keep him for a moment. “I still have the black cat, too.”
“Yeah?” Baekbeom grins. “I’m still jetlagged, so I’m headed to bed. You can, you know, call your reporter.”
Baekhyun flushes. It sounds worse when Baekbeom thinks… Baekhyun looks up to the ceiling until his ears stop burning. “Go away,” he whines, and Baekbeom laughs.
When he’s alone again, Baekhyun lies back on the bed in a mimicry of Baekbeom’s position earlier, and waits a good twenty minutes before he calls Joonmyun.
“We’re down to a one-hour time difference,” Joonmyun says in lieu of a regular greeting. “I’m an hour behind you.”
Joonmyun sounds pleased, and a little like he hurried to answer the phone, breathless, rushed.
Do you like him?
“I know,” replies Baekhyun, strangled. “Convenient, right? Now I won’t wake you up!”
“Are you all right, Baekhyun?”
“Fine.” Baekhyun curls his hands into the thick down comforter. It’s too hot for anything like a blanket, even this close to the water. “I saw the Sydney Opera House as I was coming in.”
“I’ve been there,” says Joonmyun. “My mother and I saw The Magic Flute.”
“Is that an opera?”
“Yes,” laughs Joonmyun. “A prince has been ordered to go rescue a princess by a queen.”
“What does that have to do with a flute?”
“The queen gives it to him to help on his quest,” replies Joonmyun, still laughing. Baekhyun smiles, letting the tension seep out of him.
Do you like him?
And as Joonmyun tells him the entire plot of some German opera he’ll never watch, and gives him recommendations of places to go in Sydney with his family, Baekhyun thinks how could I, when we’ve only met in person once?
New Year’s in Sydney is bright down at the harbor, the fireworks lighting up the entire night sky for hours.
“Don’t get to see something like this every day,” Yixing says to Baekbeom, and Baekbeom laughs.
“Worth the whole trip down here,” he agrees.
“Seeing me wasn’t?” Baekhyun asks, pretending to be offended. Things between himself and Baekbeom have been strained, but not… Baekhyun almost wants to say ‘not in a bad way’, because at the same time, Baekhyun feels closer to Baekbeom than he has in years.
“You’re face is not that different from mine,” replies Baekbeom blithely. “I can see that in the mirror.”
“You’re close,” Yixing whispers to him, later. “You and your brother.”
“Yeah,” says Baekhyun. “We are.”
“That reporter guy didn’t come to see you?”
Baekhyun is taken by surprise, again. “Why would he?”
Yixing’s eyelashes flutter, his face cast yellow and blue by the fireworks. “Thought you were close with him too.”
“That’s…” Baekhyun laughs. “Maybe.”
“Hmm,” says Yixing, then, as usual, flits off to another conversational thread without pause or reason. “Feels strange to watch fireworks in the middle of the race. In the Vendée Globe, it was just constant go, go, go.”
“We’ll be back out in two days,” says Baekhyun. “Can’t wait.”
“Me either,” replies Yixing, and they share a smile as Baekbeom throws an arm around Baekhyun’s shoulder and tells him to look up and pay attention for once in his life.
The day before he leaves, he sends post cards to Kyungsoo and Joonmyun from Sydney.
He signs them both Baekhyunnie and doesn’t think about the fact that the one to Joonmyun is filled to the brim on the back with his chicken scratch handwriting.
“Stay safe,” his mother commands harshly, as Baekhyun hugs her goodbye.
“I will,” Baekhyun says. “Promise.”
“You’re not the first person to promise me that,” she says, kissing both his cheeks roughly. “But you’d better be the first to keep it.”
Southern Pacific Ocean
The Southern Pacific in November is a nightmare on the best of days, and Baekhyun begins the treacherous string of coral reefs and shallow depths on a day that’s gloomy and rainy.
It poured all day, and it’s still pouring now that night has fallen completely. The boat is tossed back and forth on the rough waters, and the wind is fierce. It’s smack-dab in the middle of cyclone season, and Baekhyun wishes he could have bypassed the mess of it completely, but he can’t, and everyone else has to struggle through it all the same. It’s not enough to capsize him, just enough to make him stay wary of being pushed too far off course and into the reefs.
He calls Joonmyun to stay awake. Joonmyun giggles when he answers, and Baekhyun’s so surprised that he nearly falls from his navigation bench. “Are you drunk?”
“Slightly,” Joonmyun says. “Or very. I am not entirely sure, though Jongdae says—“
“That’s me,” says a new voice, that Baekhyun’s never heard before. “I’m Jongdae, and you’re Baekhyunnie.”
“Are you drunk too?” Baekhyun’s in the middle of a storm pushed by the roaring forties wind current, and he’s smiling.
“No,” says Jongdae. “But Joonmyun is very drunk. He had six margaritas during dinner.”
“I am not very fond of company parties,” Joonmyun whispers, at a loud volume, and Jongdae laughs.
“Oh boy,” says Baekhyun. “This is gonna be a late Christmas present, isn’t it?”
“Absolutely,” replies Jongdae. “I’m going to go to bed, but I just wanted to know what you sound like, since Joonmyun seems to think your voice is really cute—“
“Don’t tell him that!” Joonmyun’s still speaking formally, even drunk, and Baekhyun’s smile turns into a full grin, even as he watches the suspiciously sluggish readings from his wind sensors. The right one might be damaged. “Baekhyunnie, I would never, ever tell Jongdae that.”
“Nothing about me is cute,” Baekhyun says. “So, a party?”
“For the newspaper.” Joonmyun sighs. “They always sit me between two women who are contributors and I have to spend the whole night being charming.”
“Lucky you!” Baekhyun says. “Did you make them both fall in love with you? Which one did you give your coat out on the balcony as you both sipped glasses of expensive champagne?”
“You make me sound like the hero in a Korean drama,” Joonmyun says. “I’m not. And I was drinking margaritas.”
“You’re definitely a Korean drama hero,” replies Baekhyun. “Handsome and charming and smart. Meanwhile, I don’t wash my hair and I can’t even make boxed mac and cheese without burning it, sometimes.”
“Really? You can burn that?”
“Did it yesterday,” Baekhyun admits, and the drunk laughter he’s rewarded with is worth it. “Still smells like it, in here.”
“I bet girls prefer you, though.” Joonmyun laughs again, soft and silly. “I mean, I bet you’re popular with them.”
Baekhyun shrugs, before he remembers Joonmyun can’t see it. “Doesn’t matter much if I am.” He rubs at his cheek. “Not my thing.”
He bites his lip. He hadn’t meant to say that, but Joonmyun, drunk with his voice husky, has Baekhyun’s guard down.
“What’s not? Relationships?” Laughter trickles across the line. “You’re really not into putting down roots, huh? Roaming the ocean forever.”
Baekhyun looks at his physical map, checking his course, his thumb dragging across the paper to make sure the calculations match the one on his Argos. He feels a little like he’s drowning as he looks back up at his screen, and the readings get blurry as he considers what to say.
“Baekhyun? Did I lose you?”
“Not relationships,” Baekhyun replies, like he’s deep under the water. “Girls. Girls are not my thing.”
“Oh,” says Joonmyun. “Oh.”
“Yeah.” Baekhyun swallows, lightheaded. He’s hyperaware of the feel of the paper under his fingertips and the thrum of his heart in his chest and the loud rain outside. The signal is going in and out. “That probably shouldn’t go in your column.”
Joonmyun’s next breath is wavering. “No, I guess not.” Then, after a hesitation: “That can be a secret between you and me.”
“We have a lot of those, now,” Baekhyun says, lungs finally filling with air, the world slipping back into movement. The waves outside are so loud. “You might know more about me than anyone but Kyungsoo.”
Joonmyun chuckles, low, unsteady. “Me too.”
“You might know more about me than anyone but Jongdae,” Joonmyun replies. “And… the other thing, also. Me too.”
Baekhyun’s lips part, and he’s glad Joonmyun can’t see his face right now, because he’s sure that it’s one of those faces that Kyungsoo makes fun of him for. “Yeah?”
“Yes,” says Joonmyun. “It’s getting late, for me, and I have an interview in the morning for work.” Joonmyun laughs. “And I’m drunk. The verdict is in. I’m very, very drunk.”
“Right,” says Baekhyun, chest tight. “You gonna remember this conversation when I call you tomorrow?”
It’s weird, how he always wants to keep talking to Joonmyun. To hear more of his calm, pretty voice, inflections tightly controlled until the moment he gets to sleepy to keep his feelings out of his tone. He likes it when Joonmyun talks until he’s almost asleep, grumpy and silly and willingly talking about operas.
“Why wouldn’t I?” Joonmyun asks, tentatively. “Or did you want me to forget?”
“I don’t want that,” he interrupts, closing his eyes, clenching his hands into fists on top of his map. “I’ll try to remember we’re almost in the same time zone.”
“Perfect,” Joonmyun says. “Sleep well, Baekhyun.”
“You too,” Baekhyun replies, and wishes more than anything that he’d been able to see Joonmyun’s face as his voice curled around the words sleep well.
Baekhyun falls asleep a few hours later, when the storm has calmed, on his bunk underneath the maps of the Atlantic still tacked to his ceiling, smiling, and feeling lighter than he has in years.
The South Pacific is beautiful, blue-green in every direction once he’s clear of the storm winds. It’s warm, and the breeze ruffles his hair, and he unfurls the sails and lets the boat accelerate to 20 knots in a straight path toward South America.
He passes other boats out on the water here, exchanging warnings and greetings with a couple from Canada going in the opposite direction in improving English, and sailing alongside a Japanese sailor headed to Brazil to meet up with her husband, talking in a mix of Korean and Japanese about all the foods from home they miss.
“Nothing’s better than sailing, though!” she yells, the four meters between their boats better traversed with their radios than their voices, and Baekhyun offers her two thumbs up back.
He’s ahead of his uncle’s time by nine days now, and every time he posts a sticky note into the logbook, he gets a little closer to running out of pages.
He reads through it over and over again lying outside on the stern, one arm pillowing his head and the other turning the pages as it rests up on a bookstand formed by his bent knees.
He wonders if he should start writing in the actual book when he gets to the point that he runs out of comparisons. He asks Kyungsoo for his opinion, and Kyungsoo grunts.
“You mean, like, finish his trip for him?”
“Yeah,” Baekhyun replies. “Is that what I should be doing?”
“I don’t know.” Kyungsoo huffs. “Which one will make you more, I don’t know, emotionally fulfilled or whatever?”
“Not sure,” answers Baekhyun. “I guess I’ll figure it out.”
“I hate to say this, Baekhyun, but…” Kyungsoo sighs. “You’ll make the right decision. You always make your best calls out on the water.”
“Because I’m paying attention?”
“Exactly,” says Kyungsoo.
The sail is too calm, too easy, for a long stretch of ten days, and it gives Baekhyun too much time to think, when he’s not doing his daily tasks.
Time he spends accidentally pondering what he’ll do when this race is over, and fishing with his brother, and Kim Joonmyun.
Two days until he predicts he’ll land in Punta del Este, circling around the Falklands and crossing back into the Atlantic, is when he passes a huge school of dolphins.
He’s on autopilot, and fixing the jammers when he catches a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye. First he only sees a few, but then more and more of them surge up above the surface of the water. They’re moving closer to him, and Baekhyun gasps loudly enough to catch Joonmyun’s attention, interrupting his rambling about some boss guy in his office who’d left him about fifty questions for Baekhyun on his desk on individual notecards.
“How many of them are there?” Joonmyun asks. He sounds sleepy, but Baekhyun knows he’s working, too, the clack of his laptop keys a steady presence along with the flap of his sails. “I’ll put it in the column this week.”
“At least twenty,” he says. He cradles the satellite phone between his shoulder and he cheek, and tapes the spouting water and loud chattering cries. “I heard this is a once-in-a-lifetime event, so I’m trying to make sure I record it.”
“You going to make a documentary of all this stuff someday?”
“That’s right,” Baekhyun replies. “I’m only going to show it to Kyungsoo’s kids, though. I hope he has twelve of them, so I can teach them how to crew a multihull ship.”
“You hope your best friend has twelve kids?” Joonmyun laughs. “That’s a little cruel.”
“He deserves it,” says Baekhyun, and then the dolphins get closer, swimming alongside Baekhyun’s boat. He bets, if he wanted, he could reach out and touch. He turns off the camera, and lets it hang from his wrist. “I wish I could show you this so damn much.”
“I wish that a lot, actually. That you were here with me, instead of just on the phone. I know that’s weird, because a few months ago, we were strangers, but we’re not strangers anymore, and I want to show you these dolphins, and African skimmers, and the view from Table Mountain. I want to take you out into the water and show you how to check the router, and I want you to dry out next to me on the deck, too. I want you to feel the difference between sailing and being on a big cruise ship. I want to teach you how to secure the sails and how to draw maps by hand. I want… “
“Yes,” Joonmyun says. “I… Someday, right? You promised you’d teach me how to sail.”
“When the race is over,” says Baekhyun, gripping the guard rail, “it’s fine if I still call you, right?”
“That’s… I was sincerely hoping that…”
“You don’t have to be formal with me, hyung. I’m not so good at formal.” Baekhyun laughs, and thinks maybe…
“If you don’t keep calling me, I’ll call you,” says Joonmyun. “I’d like to think that we… Well, we get along well, don’t we?”
“Yeah,” says Baekhyun. “We really do.” He has so much more he could say, but it’s easier, simpler, to tell Joonmyun about the way dolphin skin looks up close, and stares out across crystal clear waters wondering what it might be like to be as brave about this as he is about taking on mother nature and the sea.
Punta del Este, Uruguay
On February 3, Baekhyun arrives in Uruguay. He docks at the YC Punta del Este amidst a gentle rain that does nothing to cool down the 28 degree afternoon.
Yixing doesn’t arrive until seven days later, having got caught up in the bad weather in the straights and deciding to wait it out by setting anchor down New Zealand until the cyclone cleared. “Lost a lot of time, but didn’t want to take the risk,” Yixing says, as the walk along the windy, Atlantic-side beach. “I can’t believe you just sailed through it.”
“I took my sails down,” Baekhyun says. He shows Yixing his bandaged hands. “It was not my best moment, but I thought it might be more dangerous to risk the coral closer to the islands.”
“Might have been,” Yixing says. “We both made it, though. Four more boats retired, apparently. We’re down to eighteen.”
“Huh,” says Baekhyun. “And now we’ve got two more weeks to kill here.”
“Oh no,” Yixing says. “What will we ever do in a beach resort town?”
They end up going out fishing on a local’s boat and pulling in Argentine hake and tuna and bluefish and then cooking them over an open pit fire on the beach for the first three days together. They bar hop and eat shellfish from seaside vendors and take pictures in front of the Cathedral of Saint Fernando.
Baekhyun sends photos and videos to Joonmyun every other day, enough that Yixing points it out.
“It’s like we both have fiancés,” he tells Baekhyun, and Baekhyun blushes.
“Not funny,” he says, and Yixing elbows him.
“Maybe I should tell that joke to Kyungsoo instead, then. He’d laugh.”
“Probably,” Baekhyun replies. “He’s a sadist like that.”
Baekhyun gets some of the photos developed at a local drug store, and turns a photo of himself eating a lobster into a post card for Kyungsoo.
Finally getting that lobster.
Love, the successful friend.
He presses a kiss just under the letters in butter, knowing it’ll gross his friend out.
“Last leg,” Yixing says, on February 28, the day before they head out. “You nervous?”
“No,” Baekhyun says. “I’m impatient.”
“Nothing new there,” says Yixing, dimples and all, and Baekhyun’s heart doesn’t flutter. Instead, he wonders what Joonmyun is doing right now. “Maybe you were destined for races.”
“Tell that to my mom,” Baekhyun whines, and Yixing laughs, and they both dig their toes into the sand as they stare out at the Rio del Plata.
The Brazil Current drags him up around the easternmost tip of South America, like it’s ushering him up toward the end of the race faster than he wants to get there.
“You’re making ridiculous time,” the race official he’s in contact with for this leg of the race says. “You’ve moved up into second place. This is your first year competing, right?”
“And my first long-distance,” Baekhyun says, in careful English. “I did do a two-week trial to test the boat before I came.”
“Impressive,” he says. “You’re going to have to be careful coming up in the next few days, because the Northern Trade Winds are going to try to push you east, Byun.”
“Thank you for the warning.” He runs his fingers over the logbook next to him. “I’ll watch out.”
The Northern Trade Winds had been the end of his uncle’s race, back in ’82. The mast had broken, crushed in an unexpected storm. He’d gotten out fine, but the boat had been damaged beyond repair. “It was my own inexperience,” he often told Baekhyun. “I wasn’t vigilant about the sails. If I were in that situation now, I’d get out unscathed.”
Baekhyun’s careful with his sails, and over the next couple of days, he passes Barbados and Grenada, then Antigua and Barbuda, before leaving the Caribbean behind him.
“You’re quiet today,” Joonmyun says, as Baekhyun sits in the cockpit, fussing with his sail controls.
“I passed the place where my uncle retired from the race,” Baekhyun says. “It feels strange. I don’t know how I thought it would feel, but I wasn’t expecting this.”
“Mast broke, and he took enough other damage that it would have taken too long to fix it.” Baekhyun closes his eyes and leans his head back. “It’s funny, cause one of the only parts we ever found of Waverunner was the mast.”
“I looked it up,” Joonmyun says. “What happened to your uncle.”
“The STAR,” Baekhyun says, eyes still closed. “Trans-Atlantic race. He’d sailed the Atlantic probably a hundred times before.”
“That storm damaged a lot of boats,” Joonmyun says. “It wasn’t something he did wrong, according to all the articles.”
“He was on the phone with us that night. Over the satellite. He was laughing about how the storm was like a free roller coaster, and he couldn’t figure out why people paid to go to amusement parks. We could all hear the thunder, but you know thunder is just the sound; it’s the lightening that’s dangerous, and he kept saying there wasn’t any.”
“We lost the signal then, which happens sometimes with us, you know.”
“It happened yesterday,” Joonmyun jokes, but it’s flat, and for once, Baekhyun doesn’t laugh anyway. “So you waited for him to call back?”
“Yeah,” says Baekhyun. “He was only three days from land, so we figured, when we didn’t hear from him within ten hours, that the satellite equipment on his boat got damaged.” Baekhyun opens his eyes, and above him are all his marked up maps, done just the way his uncle taught him. “It had. Along with the rest of the boat. Torn to pieces. They never…” found the body, he thinks. The sea ate him up and Baekhyun came back to it anyway.
“I’m sorry,” says Joonmyun. “This just makes me think you participating in this race is all the more amazing, though.”
“Sailing isn’t always dangerous. Sailing is wonderful. Freeing. Beautiful. No one will ever see the ocean the way I’ve seen it, on this trip, and I’ll never see it this way again, either, even if I try to sail the same route.”
“Like I said,” Joonmyun’s voice drops down low, “amazing.”
Baekhyun’s heart is beating so loudly he can’t hear the waves. “Tell that to my mom.”
“Maybe I should,” Joonmyun says, and Baekhyun laughs, choked, and if it sounds a little like he’s crying, Joonmyun’s too polite, too kind, to say anything about that at all.
“Did you write in the logbook?” Kyungsoo’s disinterested tone is obviously fake, and Baekhyun chuckles.
“No,” he replies. “It’s okay for things to remain unfinished, maybe. I’m still working out my own logic.”
“As usual,” Kyungsoo replies, but his tone is warm, fond. “By the way, how is your reporter.”
“Joonmyun-hyung?” Kyungsoo hums. “Wonderful.”
“Admit you’ve got a crush, yet?”
“How can you have feelings someone you’ve only met once?”
“You think the only way to get to know someone is if they’re sitting right next to you?” Kyungsoo snorts. “You talk to the guy a million hours a day. You probably know everything about his life, without ever having been distracted by other things.”
“I’m probably…” Baekhyun studies the jagged remains of his nails. “It’s probably not just a crush,” he admits, and Kyungsoo is so quiet on the other end of the line that Baekhyun thinks he’s lost the call.
Eventually, Kyungsoo speaks. “What about him? Does he…”
“It’s possible,” Baekhyun says. “But even if he does… what’s the point? Would it even…” Baekhyun sucks his lower lip into his mouth. “Besides, he’s smart and educated and well-off, and I’m a sailor who bartends to pay the bills. When I met him, he was wearing suit that cost about as much as a month’s worth of my paycheck’s from Sparky’s, and I’ve got purple hair and dropped out.”
“You really think he cares about that?”
“No,” says Baekhyun. “But maybe I do. And it’s not like I could offer… well, I can’t see myself ever being happy in one place, and if I could, it wouldn’t be Seoul.”
“You might be right,” Kyungsoo says. “That all sounds very practical, though, and the Baekhyun I know would never get held up by something silly like that.”
“Yeah, yeah,” says Baekhyun. “I know. I have to go now, my radio’s blinking.”
“See you at the finish line, Baekhyunnie,” Kyungsoo says. “Don’t hurt yourself thinking too hard.”
“Fuck off,” laughs Baekhyun, ending the call to go over to his radio. “This is Lightrunner,” he says. “Lightrunner, over.”
“Lightrunner, this is Ocean Dancer,” comes Yixing’s clear voice. “Do you copy?”
“What’s up?” Baekhyun asks, switching to Korean. “Everything okay?”
“Storm up ahead of you,” he says. “Severe.”
“Shit, really?” Baekhyun turns to his GPS. “Are you sure? It’s clear skies for me.”
“Off-season cyclone headed toward where you’ll be in an hour or so headed in to you from the East. It’s expected to strike Bermuda. So, uh, be careful?”
“Right, yeah,” says Baekhyun. “No problem.”
He spends the next hour locking everything down. He turns his radio up as loud as it will go, and just like Yixing warned, the storm reports start rolling in from nearby ships and sailors.
He goes out onto the deck, and looks up at the sky. Now he can see the storm-front moving in, gray so dark it’s almost black moving in from the east. He can feel the electricity in the air, and it sends a cold shiver of fear down his spine.
He goes back inside and double checks his router and all his system settings. His regular sails are down, tied and double tied, and replaced with the heavier storm sails, and everything but his radio and his signaling beacon on Argos feeding back to race headquarters is off. Baekhyun fastens himself into his harness.
He does all of it without thought. His uncle had taught them this procedure back when he was still too young to even really get what it was for.
The storm rolls in so fast that it feels like one minute, the world is still, and the next, it’s raging. Baekhyun settles himself in the cockpit, closing the door to his cabin to protect all the electronics inside, and harnesses himself to the outside steering bench, sitting on the windward side and grabbing the shift.
The black cat bounces off his arm as he heave-to’s, turning the boat toward the wind and backwinding the jib. When he’s sure the helm is locked in place, he scoots himself under the protective dodge. He’s soaked from head to toe from the water crashing up on him from the ocean, and as the rain starts to pelt Lightrunner, he doesn’t get any drier.
The storm lasts for several hours, and adrenaline is the only thing keeping Baekhyun focused as he constantly keeps reducing the sails and watching the trysail for breakage. It’s leaning at an awkward angle, and it’s all he can do to pray that it won’t snap under this constant strain.
The mast groans loudly enough that Baekhyun can hear it over the howling winds, and that’s enough to stop his heart for a moment until he realizes it’s just one of the upper support joints, which Baekhyun knows how to repair on his own when the storm ends, and not the mast itself, which would spell not only the end of the race, but also the end of Baekhyun’s yacht in general in a storm like this.
The waves get bigger and bigger, unruly and frothing as they crash down onto the boat, soaking Baekhyun again and again. It’s warm enough that right now he’s not worried about hypothermia, at least, but he’s uncomfortably chilly anyway, and thirsty, and he’s afraid to move from his spot for fear he’ll be thrown overboard, harness or not.
Lightrunner starts pitching treacherously left and staying up, turning sideways as Baekhyun slides back to press into the back of the steering bench. Eyes wide, Baekhyun looks out at the water and, for a brief moment, wonders if he’s going to get eaten up by an Atlantic storm as well.
With the boat threatening to capsize, Baekhyun thinks a million things at once. He thinks: not like this, and wouldn’t it be ironic? and is the mast holding?. He thinks about his mom’s kisses to his cheeks and Kyungsoo sitting on his bed talking about how they’ve already lost someone important to them in yacht racing, and Baekbeom clapping him on the shoulder and telling him it’s all right that he’s into guys. He thinks about his aunt handing him the logbook and finally, he thinks about Joonmyun, who he promised to teach how to sail and who he wants to see again before…
Reminding himself that he has a race to complete, and so much to figure out, after, Baekhyun manually forces every bit of the steering system right, giving that side of the boat just enough weight to push back down into the water. He shifts the boat downwind and completely collapses the sails, then, running off course at a dangerous speed, letting the storm winds pull him through the water wherever it wills.
Baekhyun has his family and Kyungsoo and his friends and Joonmyun. He has Joonmyun, who he’s met in person one time, but thinks he might be fucking in love with, and he’ll never find out if he is if he drowns here, like his uncle did. He’s not going to let an unexpected storm take anything else from him.
The salt-water gets in his eyes and his sail rips away from the mast, but Byun Baekhyun, with a swamped deck, a twisted guardrail, and a flooded deck, survives the night.
Tied to the sailboat, worn and exhausted, Baekhyun watches the sun rise, hair stringy and sticking to his cheeks. He’s never felt more alive.
Hey Uncle, he muses, this really is some terrible weather. Then Baekhyun smiles, letting the sun dry him off and bleach him out.
The black cat charm is still hanging from the steering shift.
He uses his foot to kick at the radio, activating it. “Lightrunner, this is Lightrunner, over.”
“Lightrunner, this is 5 Oceans Command, what is your condition?” The voice is speaking Korean, and Baekhyun is so thankful no one expects him to speak English right now.
“I’m alive, no injuries. As soon as I’m able, I will assess the condition of the boat, but I didn’t dismast and I think the hull is intact.”
“Thank goodness,” Command says. “We lost your signal from Argos for a good four hours, Lightrunner.”
“Some storm,” Baekhyun murmurs, and then he sits up, wiping his face and pushing his hair out of his eyes. Out just beyond the boat is a huge, iridescent rainbow.
The first person Baekhyun calls is his mother. “I’m fine,” he says, before she can start hyperventilating into the phone. “Lightrunner is fine, too.”
“Come home, Baekhyunnie,” she says. “Just… stop this. I don’t want to lose you to the ocean, too.”
“I’m so close,” he replies. “And I love it, mom. I love being out here, even when it’s scary. Even if the wind is so loud I can’t hear myself think and the water’s higher than the windows of my cabin.”
“I know you do,” she says. “Hurry up and finish the race, Baekhyun. We all miss you.”
“I miss you too,” he replies. “Can you… can you call Kyungsoo?”
“Oh, honey, I don’t have to,” she says. “He’s already here. We’ve been hoping to hear from you for hours, ever since we saw the storm footage from one of the other competitors online. Your boat disappeared from the map online for several hours.”
“I know, the satellite wasn’t receiving the signal through the storm.” He clutches the phone tightly. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Of course you didn’t,” his mom says. “Sailboat racing is just one of those things that’s inherently a little scary for the people watching.”
And he has to end the call because he can’t talk around the lump in his throat. He stands staring at the phone for a long while after, just listening to the sound of his heart in his ears.
Then he takes a deep breath, and lets himself think about Joonmyun. In the light of day, with the sun shining down on him again, Baekhyun is forced to confront what he’d admitted to himself fully for the first time during the storm. That he wanted… That he wanted, in general. Wanted Joonmyun, who isn’t a stranger, even if Baekhyun doesn’t know what it feels like to hold his hand.
“You’re a day late,” is the first thing Joonmyun says, when Baekhyun finally calls him, fingers trembling as he punches in the now-memorized number. “It’s Saturday, and you’re supposed to call on Friday, Baekhyun.”
“No choice,” Baekhyun rasps back. “Weather has been a bit rough.”
A long silence. “Three contestants dropped out of the race over the past couple of days,” Joonmyun says quietly. “Wrecked boats. When I didn’t hear from you…” He clears his throat. “Well, our readers were worried.”
“And what about you?” Baekhyun asks.
“Of course I was worried too.” Joonmyun’s breath hitches. “Baekhyun… I…”
“I’ll be in Rhode Island in ten days,” says Baekhyun. “Do you think… do you think you could be there, too?” Joonmyun is quiet, but Baekhyun doesn’t mind. He thinks they both understand what he’s asking, and it’s not something simple to respond to.
“I’ve only ever met you once,” Joonmyun finally says. “Once, Baekhyun, but I felt—“
“Me too.” Baekhyun curls his hands up into his damp sweatshirt. “I thought the boat was going to capsize, you know, and the last thing I thought was that I’d never get to—“ to kiss you he finishes in his head. “So.”
“This is ridiculous.”
“Yeah,” replies Baekhyun. “It is. Will you come?”
“Yes,” Joonmyun says. “I will.”
Newport, Rhode Island, United States
Baekhyun pulls into Newport one-hundred-and-eighty-four days after he left.
Kyungsoo is the first person he spots, dressed in a thick wool hat and looking generally displeased in a black windbreaker that makes him look as pale as a vampire, and it’s such an achingly familiar sight that Baekhyun laughs.
“Told you I’d come back just fine,” he tells Kyungsoo over his mother’s shoulder, as she buries her face in his neck and berates him for giving her gray hair when she’s still so young.
“I did not appreciate the death scare in the final leg, Baekhyun,” he replies primly, before offering up a heart shaped smile. “Second place is not to shabby, though.”
“No,” Baekhyun says, “it’s really not.”
He hugs his dad and brother, and then turns to his aunt, who looks tired and pale but also desperately fierce as she meets Baekhyun’s eyes.
He hands her the old logbook. “Finally made the whole trip,” he says, and when she takes the logbook from him, she stares down at the mess that is his hands. “So you can have this back.”
“Those are the hands of a stubborn seaman,” she says, and Baekhyun’s mom is choking up as his aunt continues. “We’re not going to be able to talk this one out of sailing.”
“Probably not,” his mother agrees, oddly resigned, and Baekbeom smiles. “Second place comes with prize money, champ! What are you going to do with it?”
“Fix Lightrunner,” he replies immediately. “So she’s ready to race again.”
“Of course you are,” Baekbeom says.
Kyungsoo rolls his eyes. “The 5 Oceans has created a monster,” he says.
“No,” Baekhyun says, “I think most of us were all monsters to start with. The race just gave us the opportunity to show off.”
He speaks to a few reporters that approach him, and none of them are Joonmyun, who’d said he’d be here. “What are you looking for?” asks his dad. “Another sailor?”
“Nothing,” he says, and then squints out at the horizon, instead, so he can see if that pastel green sail is anywhere close to coming in behind him in the rankings.
Yixing does manage eventually, squeaking in at just two days over Baekhyun’s time. Jia kisses him deeply like a romance novel when he gets down from the boat, and Baekhyun checks one more time for Joonmyun before he manages to focus back in on Yixing and Jia.
“You okay?” Baekbeom asks him, and Baekhyun smiles.
“Yeah,” he answers. “I’m great.” He rubs at his face. “The cat saved me, by the way. So thanks.”
“I thought it might come in handy,” Baekbeom says, and he grins, wrapping his hand around Baekhyun’s wrist and pulling him back toward his waiting family.
Three days later, Baekhyun goes back out to the docks to check on his boat.
“Very little damage,” the technician says, finished packing up. “Just a few minor things I can take care of tomorrow. You did some really excellent steering. Amazing.”
He waves, leaving Baekhyun alone to stare at Lightrunner, and wanting to get in and never look back.
“Told you that you were amazing,” says Joonmyun, and Baekhyun turns around so suddenly he loses his balance. Joonmyun reaches out and grabs his arm just above his elbow to steady him, and the warmth of his palm burns all the way up Baekhyun’s arm to fill his chest with that lava-like heat. “You all right?”
You’re here, Baekhyun thinks. “Feels like the world is still shifting under me,” is what he says. “Like I’m still on Lightrunner’s deck.”
“Sea legs,” replies Joonmyun, hands in his pockets. He looks small in his thin vintage-style Around Alone sweatshirt, jeans loose on his thighs. Baekhyun had never imagined him in jeans, but it’s perfect. “Right?”
Baekhyun clicks his tongue against the back of his teeth before he grins, shaking his hair out of his face. “Not right,” he replies. “Haven’t you learned anything in six months, Kim Joonmyun?”
“Maybe,” Joonmyun answers. “I think I have, anyway.” His gaze turns out toward the line of race yachts still lingering in the harbor, bright against the blue-gray spring ocean waters of the Atlantic.
And Baekhyun thinks about how he’s never felt as whole as he did out on the water, with the world as his fingertips if he would only pull the shift, and how much he’d wanted to share it, in words and pictures and moments, with this man in front of him. “I think I have too,” he says.
“What are you going to do now?” Joonmyun smiles at him, eyes soft and vulnerable. “Are you ready to get your feet back on to solid ground?”
Baekhyun stares at him, and then back over at Lightrunner. She’s not shiny anymore, her white paint skinned by brine and salt, and the sail bleached ombre from the sun. “I…”
“You what?” The wind catches in Joonmyun’s hair, tousling it. He looks good like this, casual and easy and a little mussed. Baekhyun bets he’d look even better leaning against the railing of Lightrunner, or curled up on Baekhyun’s bunk that’s too small for two, looking up at his messy maps.
“I’m not,” Baekhyun says, then, and it’s true. Back at the hotel, his parents are already packed for home, and they’ve bought an extra ticket for Baekhyun. Kyungsoo had left yesterday, back to his high-powered office job, preparing for his bid at world domination. Yixing is gone too, halfway to Changsha on a plane with his fiancé, his boat loaded up on a Sevenstar and his race behind him as he plans for a wedding. The whole world is moving on around him, but Baekhyun doesn’t want to move with it. “I’m not ready to get my feet back on solid ground.”
“Oh?” Joonmyun chews on his lower lip. “What are you going to do now, then? Race around the world again?”
Baekhyun takes a deep breath. “Hey, Kim Joonmyun,” he says, and reaches out to cross a distance he’s never been able to before, Joonmyun here and real and not thousands upon thousands of kilometers away, across five oceans and seven continents and a patchy internet connection. He grasps a handful of shirt and pulls, Joonmyun falling forward into him, chest resting up against Baekhyun’s bruised knuckles and eyes wide. “Want to see the world with me again?”
“What?” Joonmyun’s voice is raspy, and good, and Baekhyun loves the way it sounds even better when it comes with Joonmyun’s breath blowing hot against his chin and Joonmyun’s hands wrapped around his forearms for balance. “Baekhyun?”
And Baekhyun tilts his head slightly to the right, (like the hero in a Korean drama), and kisses him. Joonmyun melts into it, mouth soft and warm, lips parting slightly to moan into Baekhyun’s mouth. Baekhyun’s other hand tangles up in Joonmyun’s hair, to keep him close, and deepens the kiss, curling in with tongue and heat and sixth months of longing.
Joonmyun moans, and Baekhyun presses in, until they’re chest to chest and there’s no space between them at all. He can feel Joonmyun’s heart beating too fast in time with his own.
When they part, breathless and pink, Joonmyun smiles at him so broadly that Baekhyun can see every one of his perfect teeth. “You taste like the ocean,” he says, and Baekhyun laughs. “I always thought you would.”
“You thought about it?”
“A lot,” Joonmyun says, blushing. “More than I should have, considering.” Joonmyun smiles up at him, all crinkled eyes. “I wanted to be out there with you.”
“Then we should go,” Baekhyun replies, grabbing Joonmyun’s hand. “Let’s sail back to Busan.”
“Now?” Joonmyun is wide-eyed.
“Maybe not now,” says Baekhyun. “But tomorrow? Good weather, tomorrow. So come with me.”
“You just got in,” Joonmyun says faintly, an unreadable expression on his face.
“We can go eat fruit in the southern hemisphere and I can teach you how to fish.”
Joonmyun is quiet for a long moment. “I didn’t bring anything with me,” he says. “All I have is a week’s worth of clothes and my laptop and—“
“Come with me,” Baekhyun repeats. “My bunk is barely big enough for one so we’ll have to squeeze in tight, but I’ve got maps of the whole world, and enough food for sixty days, and a boat that can take us anywhere we want to go. You said you felt trapped, once—That you wished you could have seen the world. Then let’s go see it, Reporter-ssi.”
“Okay,” Joonmyun blurts out, and then he blinks, like he can’t even believe himself. “Do you really want me to--“
“I want everything,” Baekhyun says, looking out over the ocean, and then back at Joonmyun. His hand fits wonderfully, when Baekhyun laces their fingers together. “What about you?”
“I want to see if you really can burn boxed macaroni and cheese,” replies Joonmyun, and at that, Baekhyun’s laugh carries all the way down the dock, and neither of them care even a little.
“I’ll show you dolphins and African skimmers and how clear the water is in places people barely touch.”
“Yes,” Joonmyun says, wide-eyed and lovely and warm in his arms. “I’d like that, Byun Baekhyun.”
“I think I’m doing the calculations wrong on this map,” Joonmyun says, sprawled out on his belly on the deck, legs kicking in the air. He has a tan on his face and arms, and his hair has grown as shaggy as Baekhyun’s, flopping down across his forehead.
“That’s all right,” Baekhyun tells him, lying down beside him, on his back. “We’re almost to the East Asian Sea. When night falls, I’ll teach you how to find your way to Busan by looking at the stars.”
Joonmyun smiles at him softly, then puts a hand to Baekhyun’s cheek, pulling him in for a kiss.