Jonghyun just keeps falling.
Hard, fast, endlessly.
He passes floor after floor, barely catching glimpses of shocked faces through the glass walls. He doubles over, gravity aiding along until there is no telling between the ground and the sky, until he somersaults at least twice.
And then he's falling head-first again, the buzz of life underneath him getting closer, but it all ends up to be unimportant as soon as a breath hits the shell of his ear.
"Quite eager," he hears, and the cold fingers on his chest make him shiver, like his body falling off a skyscraper is nothing. The body wrapped around him squeezes tighter, and he can feel that familiar smirk against his skin. His adrenaline hits a whole new high.
A hand momentarily leaves his torso to point at the traffic below, quickly approaching. Jonghyun would be able to hear the hustle and bustle if his senses weren't so focused on the light-haired entity on his back.
"Ready to go, then?" Kibum asks, and he knows his name is Kibum because he'd managed to ask back then, when all he could see was fire and smoke.
And Jonghyun would reply with something witty, ask Kibum if he really believes it anymore, if he really has all this time to waste on him, but the lack of time alarms him.
He simply smiles and shakes his finger, and that's all that he registers before the warmth on his back is replaced by cold air, the shape of two hands imprinted on his shirt, the burn of a phantom kiss on the back of his neck.
He comes to a hard stop.
Next time he opens his eyes, it's in a trunk full of orthopedic pillows. Aggravated drivers shout and swear in the background, and his heart won't stop trying to break out of his ribcage. He grins.
Jonghyun remembers his first time (almost dying).
It's weird, because he never wrote it down, recorded it, or even told anybody. Not the whole story, anyway; he doubts anybody would actually believe him. Sometimes, he doesn't even believe himself.
He was six, and his house was intent on burning him alive. Technically, it wasn't his house that wanted to kill him, but his mother's cigarette. And if he follows the cycle of blame, it wasn't the cigarette, but his mother — or, rather, the alcohol inside her. To this day, he has not decided what or who to resent for all of this.
Bottom line is, the cigarette on his mother's lips had fallen onto her blouse, and she would have done something about it, had she not passed out right on her chair. The fire fed onto her and the cushions around her, and had spread throughout the room in a matter of minutes. Jonghyun considers himself lucky to not have directly witnessed any of it.
He woke up coughing, lungs straining to function, only to realise the bright, flickering light coming down the hall and into his bedroom was not artificial, and the smoke creeping up his ceiling was not some sleep-induced hallucination.
He got up in a hurry, brain still hazy, and took in his surroundings. Calling for his mother turned out to be fruitless, as did trying to find a way out. The hall was being steadily devoured by flames, and the window in his room had been stuck since he could remember himself.
That was when the presence behind him startled him.
What surprised him, though, was that he was not afraid of it. He couldn't find it in himself to be scared of the man's rainbow-coloured hair, or his numerous bug earrings. Matter of fact, he couldn't even start wondering how he had gotten there. The only thing that mattered was somehow getting out.
"The fire, it—" he coughed, "my mom and— need to get out," he remembers babbling in a frenzy, but not getting any reaction out of the man. He just stood there, face unreadable and body unmoving, covered in a long, black cloak. Which, hey, weird.
And after a couple of seconds, the man's eyes moved. They trailed off to the side, and when Jonghyun followed the stare, something clicked in his brain. The air vent.
His body jumped into action, adrenaline taking over, but not before backtracking, arm reaching out and palm closing around the cord lying on his nightstand.
Poking the corners of the vent at all the right places, he pulled the cover and pushed all the items stashed there aside, pocketing a rolled-up wad of bills. "Hey, what's your name?" he asked in a hurry, climbing into the vent.
"Kibum," came the response, the man's voice clear with a certain quality to it. He liked it.
"Aren't you coming, Kibum?" he asked before turning around, legs resting on the cool metal and body clinging to the edge of the wall.
Kibum wasn't there.
Jonghyun doesn't pay any particular attention to the memory for the years to come. He reads somewhere that the most visited memories are also the most inaccurate ones, what with the brain changing details every time it remembers an event. He doesn't want to risk it.
Going back is inevitable about a decade and a something after the original incident, when the motorbike Jongjin is driving hits a lamp post, with Jonghyun on the back.
Jonghyun comes to in the hospital, nurses and doctors buzzing around him, an unsteady beep beep ringing in his ear. He doesn't feel anything at all, apart from something that may be pain intense enough to not even feel like pain anymore. He doesn't know.
He spots the mismatched silhouette a couple of hazy minutes later, standing above his shoulder.
Eyes barely focusing, he catches sight of a bright, orange head of hair, a pair of eyes staring directly into his, mouth a straight line. He may or may not mutter a name he doesn't recognise under his breath. The hospital staff around him pays no attention.
He can see a pale hand rise, some weird sort of ring on its middle finger, extending beyond the tip of the finger and curling around the air sharply.
It's a few seconds away from making contact with his throat when his eyelids start feeling exceptionally heavy. All he can think of is negative exclamations, up until the moment he hears, "Doctor, he's coming back!"
And he does.
When he wakes up what he presumes is the next day, he's alone in the room. Not that he's surprised.
He gets a call from Jinki about a week later, raving about how there's only one thing it can be, and Jonghyun finds himself caught between snorting or saying see, I knew it.
And the thing is, well, he did know.
It's the only thing he can think of, even as he waits tables at the nearby café.
So he starts a blog.
"Don't Fear the Reaper? Really?" Minho asks amusedly before pocketing his mobile. He slips his vest on and pins his Supervisor pin on it.
Jonghyun huffs and turns the cash register on. "It's legit," he insists, punching in the code to unlock the machine, "plus, people want to hear about it."
The staff keeps trickling in and the lights in different corridors of the super market go on, as they're being cleaned. There's more talking in the background. Minho rolls his eyes. "People want to hear stories," he says, "and that's exactly what they hear," he puts his hands on his waist.
Jonghyun knows a lost battle when he sees one. "I don't see you making any money off of telling stories," he says with a smile and a lift of his eyebrows.
Minho chuckles. "Bastard."
And even though the extra money isn't even his motivation behind the blog, and he knows it well enough, Minho doesn't need to. He's welcome to consider it as Jonghyun's third job.
"Kim, all okay?" the pretty cashier in the nearby booth asks, showing off her pearly whites. Jonghyun sighs internally.
"Good to go!" He claps a hand on the machine in front of him.
Now, to preparing his next post...
"You're going to do what?" Jinki's eyes go round like saucers as he gapes at him from across the couch.
"Find him," Jonghyun answers like it's no big deal, fingers flying over the keyboard of his laptop. Until the screen closes in on his hands like a clamp, that is.
Jinki keeps his palm flat against the cover, now kneeling on the cushion in front of Jonghyun, remote control on the floor. "It's not a game, if that's what you think it is!" His voice sounds like it's bordering on hysterics. Jonghyun pities him, sometimes.
"I've done it twice already; that's two more times than the average living person has!" he justifies, and Jinki closes his eyes slowly. He breathes in and out steadily, and sits back calmly.
"That's because everybody else who has is dead, Jonghyun."
Jonghyun smiles and opens the laptop's cover once more, backspacing on the skafjfslkadf he accidentally typed. "My point exactly," he replies, and hears Jinki sigh.
"I'm not coming to your funeral, just so you know."
It doesn't work.
Failure flows through his veins, where oxygen used to be, as he grips the edge of the bathtub and pulls himself up, gasping for air. Jinki stares at him from his spot on top of the toilet seat cover.
"I don't even know why I was scared for you," he states flatly.
"Why didn't it—" he stops speaking in order to breathe and continues, "I mean, it—" more gasps. He gives up. His clothes are sticking to his skin.
"It's physically impossible to drown yourself in a bathtub, coming up for air is instinctual," Jinki supplies, arms crossed in front of his chest.
Jonghyun wastes no time. "Keep me underwater!" he shouts excitedly, heart beating like crazy.
Jinki stares at him for a few seconds, before standing up and crossing the distance to the door. "You are insane."
It takes Jonghyun about ten minutes to realise someone is staring at him.
He pauses mid-step with a tray full of empty cups and glasses, eyes fixed on the figure outside the large window of the café. What the ever-loving—
"Kim?" his manager asks, head popping up in attention.
"Right away, sir!" Jonghyun replies before getting back on gear, moving swiftly around the tables and into the kitchen.
To his surprise, when he comes back out, the boy is still there.
It's weird, because he's just standing outside, on the street, leaning against the lamp post, not even trying to look like he's not just blatantly staring at Jonghyun. He'd say he's being checked out, but he isn't. He's being studied.
The boy is lean, looking like he's been poured into his colourful, tight-fitting trousers, shirt loose on one of his shoulders, thin, double belts low on his hips and enough bracelets on both his wrists to cut off his blood circulation.
Jonghyun knows he's gaping, simply because he doesn't know how to respond to any of this, so he slowly retreats behind the counter.
The boy smiles just a little, maybe even knowingly, and cranes his head, ponytail swinging slightly.
Jonghyun nervously looks around, wondering if anyone's watching.
As expected, nobody's standing outside when he looks back out.
Next time he tries, it works.
Just not quite in the way he thought. Actually, scratch that, he doesn't even know what he thought before. He can't even go through the process of remembering his name, right now. He's too busy driving his wreck of a car dangerously close to a cliff at top speed.
Because, you know, he's just that clever.
That's when he appears, riding shotgun. And everything literally freezes.
"We gotta stop meeting like this," Kibum says, and it takes Jonghyun a few crazed heartbeats to realise his hair is different again, brown and shaved on the side, bleached blond. His earrings are all connected with a chain, his cloak the only thing unchanged. The point of that thing he wears as a ring is teasing the worn leather of the armrest to his right.
Jonghyun rests his head back against the seat and drinks his face in with hooded eyes. Jonghyun is not even going to lie by denying Kibum is probably the most attractive male he's come across. Human or... not? "It's your job, isn't it?" he challenges.
He squints his eyes slightly, in response. "It's not your job to tell me when to come, though," he says, not once breaking eye contact.
"But still, you keep coming," he says, because he's done his fair share of research, and his brain may have been fried by the adrenaline, but that doesn't change the fact that there are more reapers in existence than you can count till it's time for one of them to get you.
Kibum only lifts one corner of his mouth in response, eyes somewhat shining in the dim lighting of the car. It's a few seconds later that he actually speaks. "So I guess you want me to take you?" he asks, right hand hovering over the armrest now.
"Not really," he replies, eyeing the other's middle finger cautiously.
To his surprise, Kibum leans in rather unexpectedly, breath hitting his face. "Then why would you tease me like that?"
And, well, it's not his fault if Jonghyun's eyes travel down to Kibum's full lips, or if his jeans start feeling just a bit too tight. Aroused by a reaper. That's going to look impressive in his résumé.
"In a few seconds," Kibum starts before Jonghyun gets to even think of an answer, "I'm going to turn everything back to normal. You," he says, and his left hand finds its way onto Jonghyun's thigh, "are going to hit the brakes and turn to the left as fast as possible. Don't make me write you in when it's not your time yet." His lips close in dangerously close to Jonghyun's ear. "Understand?" he asks, and Jonghyun hums positively. He taps his thigh twice and draws back. "Good."
Jonghyun has never reacted so fast in his life.
Jinki puts Jonghyun under just about a week later. If anyone ever asks, he won't be able to tell what Jinki used, but he will be able to bet his car on the fact that it was illegally obtained. Jonghyun finds it oddly comforting that Jinki consults his textbook once every five seconds.
"All right," Jinki exhales, palms obviously sweating, and sets the small vial he was holding aside.
It doesn't take Jonghyun all that much time to feel the kick. "Y'should get me a couple more of these, J," he says, not really making much effort to sound sober, and he feels a slow grin make it onto his face. It kind of feels pleasantly weird, shutting down so slowly. Like a city's lights going off once the night settles. Poetry.
"Gonna be a hell of an article," he hears himself mutter, unknown seconds later, and everything drowns out until he can only hear his heart beat, and then more some, until he can't hear that, either. His eyes close.
But not really, he realises, because his eyelids become transparent, or whatever, and he's there while he's not.
Jinki is muttering a litany of okay, okay, okay, while taking his watch off, and Jonghyun— Jonghyun doesn't feel all that much.
A cough coming from his right attracts his attention, and he can't quite turn, but his eyes can. It's the skinny jeans boy; except his form is covered by a long, black cloak, ponytail hidden inside an equally dark cloak.
The boy smiles and links his hands behind his back, balancing on the balls of his feet.
Kibum finds her curled up in the far corner of her tiny room, face hidden behind her knees and trembling, bloodied hands tight around her shins. Her breathing is laboured.
It's unfair, he thinks, it's unfair because her ninth birthday is only one week away — although he doubts that anyone would remember. Moreover, it’s aggravating, because she doesn’t deserve this. The person who does, however, is in the adjoining room, getting high and promiscuous. Kibum would rather not dwell on it any further.
“Hey,” he whispers as he inches closer, knees bending slowly. “Hey, pretty,” and he’s on her level now, crouched right in front of her. His left hand softly touches her ankle.
She seems to be putting up a struggle to even lift her head. When she finally does, Kibum feels his non-functional heart break; he doesn’t know if it’s the blood covering half her face or the dim look in her eyes. Either way, he’s reacting, and he knows he shouldn’t be. Not after all the centuries of doing this.
“I know it hurts now, but soon it won’t, okay?” he hears himself say, and feels her heart-rate go down. The blood on her cheeks is being mixed with salty tears as she nods.
His right hand comes up to draw two dark strands back, oily or bloody or both, and tuck them behind her ear. He shushes her the moment she tries to open her mouth.
“It won’t, I promise. You’re so brave,” he tells her, voice still low and cautious.
Familiarly blinding light spills out as soon as he touches her neck, the silver claw reflecting and absorbing it all at once. He thinks he can see her smile a little as he crosses the distance from one side of her throat to the other.
It takes less than a second, but it feels like it lasts much longer.
When he gets up to leave, a part of him catalogues this as one of his least professional performances.
He leaves before he lets himself do anything stupid.
“Your friend looks like he knows his stuff,” the boy smiles, and Jonghyun turns towards Jinki in a dizzying motion. He distantly realises it wasn’t his head that moved, but rather his whole... existence?
Well, that isn’t worrying at all.
“It’s good that at least one of us does,” he feels himself reply, and the boy chuckles. His focus shifts towards the unknown reaper. The latter is already speaking before Jonghyun even voices his thoughts.
“It doesn’t really matter who I am, but who you are, does,” he says, and Jonghyun would have raised a questioning finger towards his own chest, had he been sure that he’d be able to control it. “And who you are, is somebody who keeps messing with our paperwork, to be honest,” the boy says, smile still intact, albeit a bit different in its nature. “Do you want to know what happens to humans who mess with our paperwork, Kim Jonghyun?” he asks, hands coming out from behind his back to rest crossed against his chest, that weird ring thing tapping a rhythm against his arm. If he’s blatantly eyeballing it, it’s not his fault.
He doesn’t even need to shake his head negatively, if the reaper’s laugh is anything to go by, so he doesn’t.
“You’ve got two minutes, according to your friend,” he says, and... dissolves?
And then the black almost-smoke left in his wake gathers right back again to form a rather familiar form. A form one probably shouldn’t be familiar with, but whatever.
He thinks he’s smiling from his spot on the bed, but feels the sensation dissipate when he takes in Kibum’s expression; it’s unreadable, but not in the usual way. This is different.
“Honey?” he thinks he asks weakly, and the reaction he gets is a stony expression.
“Stop this,” Kibum says, coming to stand right by the bed. His hand rests onto Jonghyun’s chest like a sudden burden, but it’s not the weight that does it — Jonghyun can’t even properly feel that — it’s the lick of fire that alarms him. “Do you know I’ve committed so many people today, that this thing is burning?” he says, and emphasises by pressing his middle finger into his chest, the burn more intense than before, piercing into him like a flaw of fire.
And then Kibum is leaning down, down until his lips touch Jonghyun’s but not really, because Jonghyun is nothing more but a thought at this point. Still, it feels like it’s there, and he maybe gets the impression that Kibum could suck his soul in just like that, when the other draws back.
“Stop trying to die,” he says, and his eyes feel so heavy for a second or two.
And then the burn on his chest is gone, as is the presence above him.
He hears Jinki fret in the background.
When he comes back up, he’s not sure what has happened.
His hands work separately from the rest of his body for the entire duration of the day after.
He goes to the super market as usual and even does an extra hour at the café, but his brain’s not in it. He’s on autopilot the whole day; to such an extent, that his last actual memory was tumbling into bed last night, he realises during his smoke break.
Then he realises that he doesn’t actually smoke.
He crushes the remainder of the cigarette with the heel of his shoe and exhales, lungs burning in the aftermath of his absentminded actions. Who did he even bum a smoke from?
His eyes sting as they follow a single bird zipping through the darkening sky. It’s dark, characteristics difficult to tell, as it’s backlit by the dying light of the sun. He doesn’t even realise he’s staring until it’s out of sight.
Shaking it off, he takes his mobile out of his front pocket, checking the time.
Two hours, twenty minutes.
Two hours and twenty-two minutes later, his laptop roars into life.
An hour and thirteen minutes after that, his fingers catch a break for the first time, and his screen is filled with text.
One and a half minute later, his screen is blank.
His blog stays online but is never updated again. Not that he checks, but most people consider him dead. They wish him a pleasant journey and thank him for his generous sharing.
He’s thirty before he realises. He’s thirty and still alive.
He still gets the odd thought while waiting for the pedestrian lights to go green, or when hanging out the laundry on the rooftop of his ten-storey apartment building, but, other than that, he’s rather okay.
He meets a girl at his birthday party. They never get married but they have a son. They have a good time for the following years, the sort of good time that comes after living with a person for an extended amount of time, up until she decides that a younger man would spice things up for her.
Their son trails after her, and Jonghyun doesn’t have much will to rebuild his life after that.
His internet-based business has enough success to fund his travels, gift him with unusual sights and strange experiences, throughout the years.
He has a good life, more or less.
Jonghyun dies at the age of 56.
He’s young and in surprisingly good health, which undoubtedly baffles whoever hears about it, but he at least doesn’t go through much, when his heart fails him.
Next thing he knows, there’s a sensation of euphoria washing over him, apparently stemming out from his general head area. He realises, dimly, that it’s specifically starting from his neck, but it’s over just as it’s started.
When he comes to, the feeling of déjà vu is strong.
He’s transparent, a light breeze, barely there. A thought.
He’d say he’s fooling himself, that this is a dream or a hallucination, maybe he ate too much before going to sleep, but he realises that’s not the case, when his eyes focus onto another pair of dark orbs.
There’s some feeling there.
“Honey?” he thinks he says, and the skin around the eyes crinkles. He follows the movement right down to the pull over cheeks, down to the corners of a smiling mouth. He’s not sure, but light bounces off the small patch of skin above the lips, as if it’s wet.
“Talk later,” goes a familiar voice he hadn’t heard in so long, and then it all makes sense. The fingers closing in on the cord around his neck, the material old and worn, the smell of smoke still faintly on it. “Pleasant you still wear this,” the voice says, and the tug that follows springs him to life. Almost literally.
Again, it starts from his neck. It runs up his head and down his torso, off to his limbs, fingertips tingling, joints lightening up.
And from barely there, he’s there.
His muscles ache with the urge to move, and his mind goes crazy with realisations; he’s 22. Not really, but he is. Not nearly, but quite exactly.
His move to get up is halted by hands on his shoulders. He looks up at Kibum.
“Don’t push it, just yet. Take a moment or two. Come to find me when you feel it’s time,” he says softly, and leaves at Jonghyun’s perplexed nod, actually walking out the room.
When Jonghyun gets up to follow him, an unknown amount of time later, the click of the door opening is different. His bare feet, instead of stepping onto soft carpet, touch rough, splintered wood. His eyes follow up on the discovery when they take in the sight of his childhood bedroom. Post-fire.
The stench of smoke and burned flesh fills up his lungs. It’s almost like that break he had years ago, minus the gore.
Kibum is sitting on what remains of his single bed, looking up at him. He pats the mattress next to him. “Come here,” he says, and Jonghyun complies, eyes fixed on him as if to avoid the sight around him.
Only when he sits down, it’s the soft, worn leather of his first car, that he lands on. He’s driving at a dizzying speed, and his fingers find their way around the steering wheel in a daze.
He realises he can’t control the car just a few chaotic seconds later, with a calming hand on his thigh and Kibum focusing all his attention onto him, it seems.
“I got it this time, too,” he teases, and Jonghyun is about to say that this is not particularly funny, but he laughs, despite himself. He throws his head against the headrest and laughs, laughs until he feels his head bubble up. Until the feeling boils over and fizzes away. Until his mouth hangs open.
“Do you realise what’s going on?” he hears Kibum ask, and he would laugh again, if he had any energy left to do so.
“I do think I catch the drift,” he replies, and hears Kibum hum. He turns his eyes his way. His hair is different yet again, he notices, total black and asymmetrically cut. It’s a good look on him, but what isn’t?
“I think we should get that out of the way first, before you start checking me out, no?” he asks, and lifts a corner of his mouth.
“Can you blame a man?” is what Jonghyun shoots back, and maybe it was the wrong thing to say, if the way the car brakes without warning is anything to go by. Next thing he knows, he’s flying right out the windshield, though he feels like the broken glass is nothing but drops of water on his body. He’s horizontal, only to find himself vertical right the next second, heading right into traffic. He’d panic, but then again he’s done this once before, hasn’t he.
“My lieutenant retired just yesterday,” Kibum says right against the shell of his ear, and the fact that the fingers on his chest make his head dizzier than the motion of falling down a building is a surprise to no one. “Fine guy, he was. You met him once,” he continues, and Jonghyun gets flashes of colourful bracelets and ponytails.
“I was promoted, naturally, ” Kibum goes on, “so as you’d expect there’s an opening in positions. Obviously nothing highly ranked, but it’s something...” he trails off, and Jonghyun’s brain needs a few seconds before it catches up.
Until it does. “Wait, what?”
They crash hard.
Except the orthopedic pillows in the back of the truck are his bed. The one in the apartment he paid with the money from his two jobs.
Kibum’s knees are barely caressing his sides, feet by his thighs.
“There’s an opening,” he repeats slowly, as if talking to a child. Only he apparently isn’t, because his hands are on Jonghyun’s chest just a moment later, warm and firm. “In case it hasn’t been clear enough already,” he says, “That position is up for taking.”
Eyes never leaving his, Kibum’s mouth moves without making any sounds. Say yes.
“It’s really tough,” is what Kibum actually says, “By far one of the most unpleasant jobs you’ve ever had and definitely not for everyone, but it’s there.”
And Jonghyun can’t be blamed if he does.
As he can’t be blamed for kissing right back when Kibum leans down in a haste, lips crashing harder than their bodies at the end of their previous fall. It’s fast and almost desperate, and Jonghyun’s fingers card their way through Kibum’s hair in need. Nails (and a claw) are digging into his skin. He’d say he’s actually sucking his soul out just like this, if he thought he still had one. Actually, he’s gonna have to look that up. But only after they’re done. Which, sadly, happens way earlier than he’d prefer.
“Was that some part of initiation, was it necessary, or—”
“No, I could have just used the claw,” he replies.
“Yeah,” and they’re kissing again, and all Jonghyun can think of is cold heat and how fast his heart would be beating right now, and how impressive his résumé will actually look in the future.
How everything in his ex-life had most probably led to this. How much he’s experienced and how much more there is ahead.
“Stop thinking and kiss me.”
Well, all right.