Survivability 03 [DBSK / Super Junior / Big Bang / Bleach universe] Part 1
Fandom: Super Junior / Dong Bang Shin Ki / Big Bang / Bleach
Featuring: EunHyuk, RyeoWook, JunSu, DaeSung. (DongHae makes a cameo)
Pairings: None. Friendship and camaraderie all around.
Genre: Action and Adventure, ahoy!
A/N: Constructive input would be most welcome. I proofread this several times, but there may still be typographical errors here and there. Please bear with it.
Summary: EunHyuk and RyeoWook are a couple of 4th Division trainees when they get roped into something way beyond their depth.
Word Count: around 15,500 words
If this were a real emergency situation, EunHyuk would be so screwed and his patient so dead.
Good thing it was just a test dummy.
He squinted at the books of healing spells scattered around him on the floor, despaired on where to look first, and mentally flailed about helplessly with the acceptance that he was way beyond his depth. Why were there so many theories! Why couldn't they simplify healing? Just shove spiritual energy at an orifice or something and let the spell do its job! Healers had no time to recall dozens of theories, procedures, diagrams, energy pathways, incantations, forms, and whatever else when they faced a patient dying of some unknown effects. Or bleeding out of a large gash across their torso, like the one he faced now... No wonder the 4th Division healers were seen as deadweights.
Still. He was proud of his new division. After all, your division was like your family, and there was no division warmer and tighter than the 4th. Maybe the constant bullying from the rest of Soul Society helped knit such tight bonds. (Of course, EunHyuk hasn't been bulled ever since he got in. But that didn't mean the other members were also spared.)
EunHyuk tried to look as nonchalant as possible while looking out of the corner of his eyes at the empty classroom around him. He saw no one, but then there were ways to fool the eyes. He let his spiritual energy creep out of him slowly, let it crawl across the floor like oncoming mist. He let tendrils of energy seep through the cracks beneath doors, let them climb walls and peer out windows into the night for any interference. Soon he felt his classroom as if it was his own body. He discovered what it felt like to have a blackboard for a face, to have bookshelves weighing down his back, to have windows open at the sides of his torso, to have moonlight reflected on his glass panes.
He couldn't feel anyone nearby. Good.
With a final furtive glance at the closed door, he gathered a great deal of spiritual energy at the creases of his palms. Too much energy even for any of the advanced healing spells he still didn't comprehend after three years of training. Certainly too much for any of the very few basic spells he could pull off properly. And certainly far too much energy than expected of any trainee of his rank. But if this were a real battle situation that required emergency action, he would need to heal the injured by any means necessary. He didn't know how well his highly personalized healing technique would work on another body; what better way to find out than by testing it on a dummy designed to react to spiritual energy and spells the way a real soul would? It's fortunate that no one's around to see him test it.
(Not that he was given this opportunity by choice. Mostly he was made to stay until he healed his dummy, a feat all of his classmates finished at sunset despite their youth. Still, opportunities were opportunities...)
He reached out to press his hands against the wound-
-and stopped. His instincts were on alert. He'd learned to trust his instincts to analyze his surroundings much faster than he consciously could.
He let the energy in his hands fade.
If his instincts were on alert, then he must have sensed something without realizing it. Not visually, not spiritually. In the absolute silence of an empty Division compound he didn't hear anything alarming. Maybe he smelled something? A trace scent or-
Tactile. There were vibrations climbing up from the floor. Very minute vibrations. Too faint even for someone sneaking around stealthily. These were the vibrations of someone staying stock still but breathing freely. He was the only person in Soul Society this attuned to his own body when scanning for his surroundings.
"I know you're there," he called out and mentally adding, even if I don't know who you are and where you're hiding. "You can come out, I won't mind," he added kindly.
The vibrations strengthened, this time accompanied by the sound of rustling cloth from the back of the classroom.
EunHyuk turned around and saw a short boy climbing to his feet at the corner of the room. A familiar face. One of his classmates.
"I'm sorry," the boy bowed. "I hope you don't mind that I was watching."
"That you were spying on me?" EunHyuk said lightly. "It's not a big deal. How long were you hiding there?"
"Since we were dismissed. I didn't leave the classroom." The boy couldn't possibly look more contrite.
"It's okay, no big deal," EunHyuk repeated. He pushed some of his textbooks aside and patted the floor beside him. "Come over here. RyeoWook, right?"
The boy – RyeoWook – grinned at him. "Thanks for remembering my name! I know who you are, of course." He approached and sat on the floor.
Infamy or popularity, EunHyuk didn't care. "How come I didn't sense you earlier? You must be hell with the demon arts."
"Oh, it's nothing. Just a stealth spell. And staying perfectly still."
EunHyuk nodded. That was probably only partially true: the boy had skill or potential, but EunHyuk didn't need to point it out. "I guess it worked. I was so focused on these books that I didn't notice you were there. Since you're here anyway, can you help me? I think I'm completely lost." EunHyuk's smile was usually not one to put sunrise to shame. His teeth were too small, his gums too visible, his grin too wide... it wasn't something admirers would write home about (positively, at least, unless serious rose-tinted glasses were involved). But a smile was a smile, and EunHyuk was sincere and generous with his smiles. He and his best friend always felt the world would be a better place if more people smiled all the time.
RyeoWook blushed, but only because he was the type who blushed all the time. "It's... kind of complicated, really."
EunHyuk laughed. "Yeah, I noticed."
"There isn't a trick that works every time, so you can't cheat and remember only one method." He lifted an open textbook from the floor and flipped to one of the earlier pages. He stopped at a diagram showing the structure of skin-level spirit cells. "You have to approach healing from different perspectives at the same time."
EunHyuk tilted his head. "I think I remember that part. Each system has its own optimal form of healing, right?"
"Exactly. So the wound you have here-" RyeoWook poked at the dummy and opened the gash wider to show synthesized internal organs "-runs across the skin, some muscles, it hit the stomach – that's important to heal quickly, or else it'll leak acid into the body – fractured a bone, and of course the arteries and veins, the nerves..."
EunHyuk sighed. He didn't even think of those. He just saw a wound that needed some stitching.
"So you need to find a healing approach that will work properly with all these damages. Once you find it, you just apply it and you're done!" RyeoWook clapped his hands gingerly as though something had already been accomplished.
EunHyuk leafed through his notes for anything useful. He found nothing. "So what spell do I use?" he asked bluntly.
RyeoWook sagged in no visible way, but his over-all demeanor seemed less bright. "Well. I'm not sure. I wasn't sure of the one I used in class, but it got the job done at least."
"Which is...?" EunHyuk lead on.
"I focused on healing the blood vessels, so I used a spell for them that also had secondary effects for healing muscle tissue and the stomach." RyeoWook took a brush and inkwell from the pile of EunHyuk's stuff and drew a chart on a scrap piece of paper. "Then I overloaded it with energy and overlapped with a wide-area technique that affects the skin. Then when the stomach is fully sealed I shifted techniques to reinforce the bone so it won't break, but I can't think of any way to heal fully with just one spell-"
"There's nothing like that in here," EunHyuk said, perusing his notes deeply. "And I take notes really well. Or did I fall asleep in class without noticing? If I fall asleep in the future, I give you permission to poke me awake."
This time, RyeoWook's blush was deeper. Genuine. "Well. We... sort of didn't learn about it in class. I took apart some of the spells we were taught, then pieced them together with supplements from other spells. So the spell I used was really a combination of three." RyeoWook's brow furled with worry. "Please don't tell anyone. I'm not really sure if it's allowed."
EunHyuk stared at him. "I think the teachers can figure out what you did. They're pretty good at this kind of thing."
"It's just that none of the spells we were taught seemed right for the test, so I combined them. But if it's not allowed... I guess I'll just fail this class and take it again next time." Although he tried to be light-hearted about it, the apprehension still showed.
EunHyuk took him in a sideways hug. "Hey, if you fail, we'll still be classmates next time."
"But you could still-"
"Do you really think I'll pass this class with how I've been doing so far?"
RyeoWook grinned instead of answering honestly. "Better if we both pass. Right?"
EunHyuk sighed audibly, intentionally more dramatic than sincere. "If I knew how to pass, I'd have done so the first time."
"Oh." RyeoWook considered at the books scattered around them and decided that schooling was very different from education. "How about we do the same thing? So either we pass together, or we fail together?"
EunHyuk found himself amused at RyeoWook's audacity. "You're awfully nice to someone you talked to for the first time."
"I like being nice," RyeoWook replied. "You'll remember what I'll teach you, right? So if the teachers ask you to do it again I won't have to save your name?"
EunHyuk rubbed his hands together and reached for his ink brush and notebook. "I'm good with processes, so if you show me how I'm pretty sure I'll remember. It's always the theories that get to me."
"Okay, here's what you do first..."
In the end, EunHyuk was able to heal the dummy half as well as RyeoWook did with his. But since it's more productive than any he was expecting to do by himself – he doubted his personalized healing technique and all its side-effects would be welcomed more than RyeoWook's mix-and-match method – he counted it as a victory. And victories called for celebration.
"You don't mind eating street food, right?" EunHyuk asked brightly. Walking home alone had become a ritual in itself: he finds the time to recall the events of the day and make peace with them. EunHyuk had no problems walking home alone, and over the past years he grew to like it, but he did miss having company. RyeoWook was a welcome change.
Soul Society at night was much darker than daytime, but by no means was it dark. The walls were white enough to reflect moonlight, and there were the occasional torches for night-challenged travelers.
"Food is food," RyeoWook answered simply. "If I don't have time to cook for myself, I just buy food from the vendor near my dorm." It was only partially true: RyeoWook always found time to cook, but he knew that if the time comes that food must be bought he wasn't going to be prissy about it.
As both were still trainees (or, in EunHyuk's case, a trainee again) they lived among the civilian layers of Soul Society: the district of homes and small-time businesses near the great walls that separated the city from the outside towns of Rukongai. It was inhabited mostly by non-military staff and some aspiring entrepreneurs, or civilians hoping to build a career as a death god.
They talked as freely while walking as they did while working. Neither boy found it awkward to share his past, while the other listened with keen interest.
RyeoWook came from one of the more stable towns outside the city, and he was the first in his family to manifest any form of spiritual pressure. He was raised to be a musician, not a fighter, which explained his almost complete absence of combat prowess. But he realized that having spiritual pressure put him in line to help people, if not to protect them, so he applied for post-Academy training in the 4th Division and got accepted. He told his parents only after he was sure, and thankfully they understood and let him pursue a career different from his upbringing.
The years in the Academy were tough. He did far better with the demon arts than at sword fighting or hand-to-hand combat, and he avoided being bullied by staying as under-the-radar as possible. He saw his parents again during graduation, which he celebrated only as a small victory. He knew 4th Division training would be much tougher. The day he entered the 4th Division compound was, to him, more cause for celebration than leaving the Academy. Every once in a while he'd go home to visit and assure them that things were going well and he was learning to heal people faster than he learned music.
In return, EunHyuk told him about life in the poorer districts of Rukongai. He was fortunate enough to avoid being born in the farther areas – where poverty and anarchy were rampant and people breathed fear and despair for breakfast – but he knew enough to want more. He lived with his best friend's family after his parents, both death gods, 'disappeared' during a mission. When his best friend manifested spiritual pressure, he cried because they had to part, but fortunately he was able to manifest his own pressure soon after. He started his reminiscence with the entrance ceremony into the 4th, but they reached his favorite food stall before he could say more.
EunHyuk rapped a knuckle on the makeshift bar/table and sat on a stool. "I'll order for us, okay? Their breaded pork cutlets are the best when you eat them with sweet bean dumplings." The vendor, long familiar with his usual order, began preparing a meal for two.
RyeoWook climbed into the seat beside him. "You mean we eat dessert as a side dish?"
EunHyuk waved the protest away. "Yah, don't even think of it as a dessert. Just a sweet side-dish. Trust me, it works. How about some rice wine?"
"Oh," RyeoWook squeaked shyly. "I don't drink alcohol..."
"-and that's good. Because alcohol can be bad for you," EunHyuk went on, visibly covering for thinking the complete opposite. He couldn't do anything about the vendor putting a small bottle of rice wine and a drinking saucer in front of him, though.
RyeoWook took it in good nature and didn't comment.
Their food was cooked surprisingly quickly. EunHyuk clapped his hands in gratitude and both trainees dug in.
"Hey. Thanks for helping me out," EunHyuk said around a mouthful of rice and pork. "And for waiting for- wait. Why did you wait for me?"
RyeoWook covered his face in embarrassment. He chewed slowly to buy time, but it was too transparent an action.
"Come on, just tell me the truth." He'd have smiled, but he was aware of bits of food still in his mouth and showing them to someone as poised as RyeoWook felt a bit too crass. "Did I look lonely?"
"Well. Not lonely. You didn't look sad or anything, but you still looked like you could use some help."
EunHyuk narrowed his eyes and nodded in amusement. "So you decided to help me by hiding your presence?"
"I mean, I saw you needed help, but I didn't actually have a way to talk to you. And if I volunteered to help you might have been insulted..."
"So you hung around and... what, waited for me to finish?"
RyeoWook grinned sheepishly. "Something like that."
EunHyuk let his silence prod RyeoWook to keep talking.
"Actually, I was waiting to see if you'd come up with anything. If not, I planned to show myself and help you out. But you were going to take action anyway so you probably didn't need my help after all." RyeoWook raised his chopsticks at him and pointedly went back to eating. EunHyuk took the hint.
"So this is your new best friend?" a raspy voice said from somewhere roughly above them.
The new voice startled RyeoWook into dropping a slice of pork. It did absolutely nothing to EunHyuk, who just kept on eating as usual. He rolled his eyes at RyeoWook to say that it was nothing to worry about, or maybe it was something to be dismissed if it persisted, which it mostly likely might. RyeoWook nodded and went back to eating.
Silence stretched for a few seconds before the speaker made himself known. (Well, EunHyuk knew who he was anyway, so it's more for the other one's sake.) JunSu somersaulted from the stall's wooden roof and landed by the vacant seat on EunHyuk's other side. A small silver bell attached to the hilt of his sword clinked merrily as he landed.
"Lieutenant!" RyeoWook stood and bowed the moment he recognized who it was.
(All the trainees knew each captain and lieutenant. A part of the process of choosing one's division was knowing about the leaders and finding out under which one would rather work for. The Captains' and Lieutenants' personalities were as influential as their Division's specific purpose. It was actually expected of trainees to rifle through the top brass's dossier at least once before graduation.)
EunHyuk watched RyeoWook's capitulation with amusement. "JunSu, your reputation really precedes you."
RyeoWook raised unbelieving eyes at this familiarity. Trainees were supposed to treat lieutenants with respect and admiration!
"Is it too much of a superior to expect his subordinates to treat him with respect? Why can't you be like that kid there," JunSu asked as sternly as he could manage. Even the vendor, who had no spiritual presence whatsoever and thus would have been blown away by the simplest kido, was less than intimidated.
"I haven't treated you with respect since the day you started training; be a shame to start now." EunHyuk speared a sweet bun with a chopstick and ate it whole. He turned to the obviously flustered RyeoWook and said, "Don't you get tired bowing like that?"
RyeoWook glared at him and gestured at JunSu with his eyebrows. It was a rather impressive feat for someone whose eyebrows were so shapely.
"JunSu, come on. You're making my friend nervous."
"Aw, you're no fun." He reached out and tousled RyeoWook's hair. "At ease, kid. I'm not even your officer. But that doesn't mean you should start acting like Hy-"
EunHyuk's glare could have carried the destructive force of a level 70 Way of Destruction.
"-like EunHyuk here." He winked at EunHyuk, an act akin to saying 'Will you chill already? I didn't spill who you are.'
EunHyuk relaxed about three hairs. "I'm not disrespectful to lieutenants," he clarified. "Just those whom I've seen vomit their guts out after eating too many rice cakes on a dare."
RyeoWook stood straight, but that doesn't mean he's relaxed.
JunSu turned to the vendor. "I won't have any tonight, sorry," he said. "I just have to fetch loverboy here."
EunHyuk froze in mid chew. JunSu only used that nickname if he was trying to ease the discussion towards serious grounds. He turned to look at JunSu, his cheeks bulging with food.
JunSu spoke the words that EunHyuk hadn't heard since he transferred.
"I have a mission for you."
"But we're still trainees," RyeoWook protested. RyeoWook's eyes darted to the walls around him, hoping they were thick enough to stop sound from crossing.
EunHyuk nodded at those words, eyes serenely shut. He looked like he was meditating, not partaking in a meeting.
They had transferred to EunHyuk's apartment after deciding that a food stall in the streets couldn't exactly be considered a private meeting area. EunHyuk volunteered his home as it was much closer than JunSu's, and it was probably the safest and most private unit in the district. RyeoWook readied to say goodbye but EunHyuk insisted that he come with them, both to his and JunSu's surprise.
"He's the brightest kid in our class," EunHyuk had explained to JunSu, "and I trust him."
"Whatever," JunSu had responded. "You just want another brain to think for you in case I try deception."
"That, too," EunHyuk answered truthfully and nonchalantly. "RyeoWook's much smarter than I am. And I trust him."
And that was that. JunSu agreed to let RyeoWook come along, while RyeoWook himself felt he was suddenly dragged out of his depths. But lieutenant JunSu treated him more with more warmth after that. He later explained that EunHyuk was a good judge of character, and if he couldn't trust EunHyuk's judgment then he couldn't trust anything.
EunHyuk's one-room apartment was bare and unbelievably tidy. It gave the impression that whoever lived there (for despite the tidiness there was no doubt it was also inhabited) believed that everything had its place, and he extended that philosophy to the smallest detail. There was no clutter to be seen, or if there were, they were arranged so neatly that they didn't seem like clutter at all. A futon was rolled tightly against the corner with a smoothed-out pillow and a folded blanket beneath it. There was nothing scattered on the floor. A small dresser contained possibly everything personal that EunHyuk needed, save for a couple of framed pictures hanging on a wall. EunHyuk's healing books and medicine bag were arranged neatly on the floor beside the door.
"Exactly what I need," JunSu said in response to RyeoWook's protest. He ignored the furtive glance at the walls: they may appear thin, but they vibrated with energy; JunSu's housewarming gift to EunHyuk when he moved in was to cast spirit barriers along the walls so EunHyuk could be assured privacy. "And it's not really a mission, but it is official."
RyeoWook gave the walls one more glance before deciding that if the lieutenant wasn't concerned about them, then it was pointless for him to worry.
EunHyuk nodded at JunSu's words with closed eyes. "So what is it? Will this go on our record?"
"Of course. It's just a diplomatic visit to one of the districts of Rukongai. Three days, no biggie. I'm actually supposed to bring students as part of their learning experience. Along with another lieutenant."
For the first time since they resumed the conversation in his apartment, EunHyuk opened his eyes.
JunSu knew him well. "It's not our district," he clarified, "but it'll be close enough that if we finish the visit early we may have time to swing by home."
"Ah." It was a good idea as far as EunHyuk could see. He hasn't been to visit home in years, and he definitely needed a break. But then again, he brought RyeoWook along because RyeoWook's sight was better than his. "What do you think?" he asked his fellow trainee.
RyeoWook blushed at the attention both EunHyuk and JunSu trained on him. "I think... this is a personal matter?" he volunteered. "So I really shouldn't say much."
"He can come with us, right?" EunHyuk asked JunSu without taking his eyes off RyeoWook.
JunSu leaned against the wall behind him. "Of course. I can excuse you from your classes but you'll have to make up for the lessons on your own. Plus the teachers will probably give you assignments."
"That's okay with me, and I'm sure RyeoWook won't find the assignments too challenging."
"Wait, don't you think he should decide for himself?"
"... You're right." EunHyuk smiled at him. "Come on, RyeoWook. A nice field trip outside the division! And if we're lucky I can tour you around my hometown, and you can meet JunSu's parents and they'll tell you things you can use to blackmail him later on."
JunSu just laughed at this without taking any offense.
RyeoWook blushed. He didn't expect anything like this when he decided to stay behind this afternoon. "Well... it would be nice to meet your family."
JunSu looked at EunHyuk, asking how much the boy knows with a single glance. EunHyuk's slight nod affirmed him that everything was okay. RyeoWook saw this exchange and tactfully ignored it.
The lieutenant snapped his fingers. "Ah, well! Mom and dad would be thrilled to meet any of EunHyuk's friends. At least they'll know that I'm not his only friend and he's not as much of a social misfit as we thought he'd be." He blocked EunHyuk's kick without even looking at it.
RyeoWook raised a hand. "But why will we visit that district?" he asked tentatively. "I mean, why do two lieutenants have to go there in the first place?"
EunHyuk's head turned so fast he almost suffered from whiplash. He knew he was right to bring RyeoWook along.
JunSu's demeanor remained perfectly calm. "It's just a routine visit. Just to check if things are going okay in the area, and if the locals have any concerns that we can address."
EunHyuk wasn't fooled. By the way RyeoWook's eyes narrowed for a microsecond, looks like he didn't buy it either.
Even among the lieutenants the distribution of bureaucratic influence was unequal. The new ones, like SungMin from the 8th, had to grease the secretarial wheels with packed lunches and bottles of liquor before anything he requisitioned was granted. Senior lieutenants (and those who knew how to use their charms) just had to file one duplicate form detailing what they want and things just went along.
JunSu was special: he simply strode into whatever office was involved in his project, smiled and cajoled with the staff, maybe mention what he needed, and by the time he walked out he had all the permissions required. He never had to fill out forms or write reports, which was enough to make the other lieutenants conspire that JunSu already achieved ban kai secretly and the spirit took the form of a secretary.
JunSu doesn’t think about it much. Mostly because it always works.
That was how EunHyuk and RyeoWook very quickly got clearance to take a special practical leave the very next day. The teachers didn't even have time to formulate their extra credit work before they had to leave, but the two trainees knew that they'd have a lot of essays and reports to write as soon as they returned. Still worth it, though.
Meet-up was at the north gate. JunSu was already lounging atop a wall and enjoying the early morning sunshine when the trainees arrived. EunHyuk mentioned filing complaints for displaying conduct unbecoming of a lieutenant to get JunSu to sit up.
"You know damn well that we lieutenants can behave however we want," JunSu said while dishing out a 'goodmorning!' kick to the face from his superior altitude.
"Who's the other one coming with us?" EunHyuk asked, greeting back with a punch. He had a makeshift bag made out of a rolled blanket slung over his shoulder.
"Lieutenant," RyeoWook ventured, "I never knew you had twin swords."
"Oh, this?" JunSu pulled the covered katana from his belt and held it up to the light. There was a small wind chime attached to the hilt, which clinked merrily along with the silver bell on his other sword. "Just an extra one I use for training. I figure double-wielding is a handy skill to invest in, yeah?"
RyeoWook makes a sound of perfect admiration that EunHyuk's pretty sure he's never heard before.
"Show-off," EunHyuk said under his breath. "Where's the other guy?"
"Hello!" a new voice said, right on cue. The owner approached them from atop the opposite wall.
"Is it part of the lieutenant's code to treat walls like roads?" EunHyuk asked RyeoWook. "Because, honestly, that sounds like a benefit that may make the effort worth it."
"But that would make the walls dirty," RyeoWook opined. "And if an earthquake hits you'll fall from a higher distance."
"Took you long enough," JunSu said to his colleague.
"Yeah, sorry about that. I'm still not late, though," DaeSung said with a full-out grin that reduced his eyes to mere slanted lines. He sheepishly rubbed the back of his head. "Captain YunHo somehow misplaced his haori when he went to the baths. Had to search the entire division."
JunSu cocked his head. Captain YunHo was notorious for having a very flawed memory when it came to his personal effects. Forget his own soul blade next if it weren't tied to his belt. Except that he sometimes lost his belt. "Where'd you find it?"
"Oh, it turns out he left it on the benches in the locker room and the cleaning staff thought he wanted it washed. At least we didn't have to drain the koi pond this time!" DaeSung turned to EunHyuk and RyeoWook. "Hi! I'm DaeSung, 7th division lieutenant. You must be the 4th Division trainees JunSu spoke of."
RyeoWook bowed immediately but kept his silence.
EunHyuk was secretly contemplating the possibilities of becoming deaf during their trip. If lieutenant DaeSung was as loud as JunSu... but that was a thought for later. EunHyuk bowed, too. "Good morning lieutenant," he said formally. "My name is EunHyuk. I'm in my third year of training in the 4th Division."
JunSu piped in. "Yah, EunHyuk, why can't you ever show me that kind of respect?"
"Fuck off, JunSu," EunHyuk replied, still bowing to DaeSung.
"At ease, at ease," DaeSung said easily. "I don't like these formal greetings, anyway. This is a casual trip, right? So let's all just be casual."
EunHyuk straightened up. RyeoWook followed his cue. "Lieutenant, my name is RyeoWook. I am in my second year of training in the 4th Division." Although his stance was relatively relaxed, his voice still carried stiff formality.
DaeSung jumped down from the wall, peered at RyeoWook up close... and winked. "Don't worry, we were all trainees sometime. No need to treat me any different. Let's be off, then? Oh, and I brought this." He pointed a finger at the sky. Three heads tilted upwards and saw a hell butterfly fluttering lazily high above them.
"What do we need that for?" EunHyuk asked, entering the casual tone easily.
JunSu jumped down from the wall and lead the way out the gate. "Because you never know what will happen."
The main road to the district was long considered the safest path, but it went a considerable distance to loop around a finger of the northern forest. That was the price travelers paid for safety. But since these travelers were death gods, and two of them high-ranking ones, they carried their own protection and decided to cross the forest to save some hours on foot. And if two hours in the forest already felt like a thousand, EunHyuk thought, then how long would five along the main road feel?
This relative dilation of time was due mainly to JunSu's and DaeSung's persistence in talking about everything in code, and EunHyuk's natural curiosity made him silently attempt to figure out what, exactly, they were saying. And when he pieced together some of their conversations, he realized that the two were simply gossiping. What EunHyuk thought were objective and insightful analyses about each captain's performance against undisclosed standards turned out to be a game of My Captain Is Way Cooler Than Yours, Oh Yeah, You Bet.
And they didn't stop at their own captains. The two lieutenants passed the time by figuratively stepping into the other lieutenants' shoes and role-playing what they would say about their own captains. EunHyuk admitted that JunSu's impersonation of the 3rd Division's ChangMin fawning over his captain behind his back was both hilarious and annoying at once.
RyeoWook, throughout all this, hummed several complicated tunes to himself or recalled incantations for the few demon art spells they were already taught. He knew that EunHyuk's mind was preoccupied and didn't distract him with conversation. Mostly because he was humming and chanting to distract himself from what he knew lived in the forest and could be creeping up on them this instant.
The forests of the spirit world were home to many creatures. Some were mere critters, trying to live their nature. Others were predatory yet small, and thus hunted only the critters on lower ranks of the food chain. Some were stronger, larger, and definitely aggressive enough to attempt climbing the food chain one link at a time.
And then there were the hollows.
Most of them were weak, just nuisances for traveling death gods. Some of the stronger ones quickly learned that aggressive hollows usually met the business end of a death god's blade and thus didn't mess with anything humanoid. By great fortune, hollows were naturally solitary in the spirit world; a pack of hollows was a different threat altogether.
He knew that few would foolishly dare attack a party of four; the lieutenants could dispatch most threats easily. That was the reason why, RyeoWook figured out, JunSu and DaeSung spoke loudly and obnoxiously: to warn that they were just crossing through the forest and didn't want any trouble.
(In fact, there were a few who tried to approach. JunSu or DaeSung just casually flicked a wrist in their direction, followed by the impact of unconcentrated yet agitated spiritual energy slamming against a random tree, and the ambitious hollows took the hint.)
RyeoWook steered his mind away from tales of hollows that could give Captains a decent run for their money. For him, it was a tense couple of hours.
But eventually they saw brighter sunlight ahead of them and reached the last line of trees with disorienting suddenness – one moment they were surrounded by tree trunks, then the next step there were none, like the forest just stopped. The main road was nothing but a wide dirt path with a series of wooden wards staked at the center to maintain massive hollow repellant spells. It was only when RyeoWook saw them did he relax; they were a welcome and recent innovation.
"It's lunchtime," EunHyuk said, looking up at the sky. "Do we eat?"
DaeSung threw his arms up excitedly. (So far, EunHyuk hasn't seen him do anything without excitement or a smile on his face.) "Of course we eat! Hey, JunSu, you're the mission control; we can eat here in the shade, right? We're close enough to the road anyway."
JunSu had the decency to look affronted. "So you decide that we are going to eat, but you defer the location to me?" But he wasn't fooling anyone: they all knew he would have made the same choice.
EunHyuk sat down. "You can go ahead if you want. The rest of us are eating here."
JunSu flailed. "I didn't say I didn't want to eat-"
"Then shut up and sit. Right, RyeoWook, lieutenant DaeSung?"
DaeSung clapped him on the shoulder as he sat down as well. "Yeah, listen to the man: just a trainee but already making a lot of sense. You'll go far!"
JunSu wasn't actually upset. It was just the principle of the thing. And it appears his only ally was RyeoWook, who was still standing and watching him. A particular meaty smell reached his nose. "Is that... yakitori?" JunSu licked his lips. Persuaded by food, he finally sat down with a loud squeal and RyeoWook followed immediately.
"RyeoWook's cooking," EunHyuk said plainly. He unfolded his makeshift knapsack and extracted a couple of bento and gave one to RyeoWook.
"I cooked lunch to thank EunHyuk for dinner last night," RyeoWook explained. "You can have some, lieutenant JunSu, lieutenant DaeSung."
DaeSung thanked him but indicated his own lunch: a couple of well-stuffed sandwiches. "It smells excellent, though. You must be a really good cook." His eyes shifted to the line of forest behind JunSu. An indefinable yet visible part of his expression hardened.
JunSu straightened his posture but kept his smile as warm as possible. His hand hovered near the hilt of his sword as he concentrated on the energy behind him. It was... faint. But strong. The source wasn't trying to conceal itself; it was just too distant to leave a stronger trace. It eventually faded, but JunSu kept his hand where it was.
"I had a lot of practice," RyeoWook said humbly, inspecting his and EunHyuk's bento for freshness.
JunSu decided RyeoWook didn't notice anything. Same with EunHyuk, who was persuading him that just because JunSu was a lieutenant didn't mean RyeoWook had to accommodate him in everything.
After a while, DaeSung bit into his sandwich and JunSu withdrew a bag of squashed rice balls from inside his uniform.
"Let's eat quickly," JunSu said. "The sooner we reach the district, the sooner we can have fresh meals. I heard they make excellent sukiyaki there."
DaeSung agreed. So did EunHyuk. RyeoWook, after seeing the sorry fare that passed for JunSu's lunch, agreed only if lieutenant JunSu agreed to have some yakitori despite EunHyuk's protests.
Back on their feet and reenergized by their meal, the group continued their trek.
EunHyuk waited until RyeoWook and DaeSung were deeply engaged in discussion about sandwich-making and which ingredients went with which before he and JunSu peeled back subtly. The empty bento were wrapped in the blanket once more and thunked dully against his hip. The bell and chime on JunSu's swords pealed merrily as they walked. They waited until the other two were a bit farther ahead before EunHyuk spoke.
"Back there... You felt that too, right?" EunHyuk muttered under his breath so the sound won't carry.
JunSu didn't look troubled. "Of course. If it attacked, I'm pretty sure DaeSung and I could have dispatched it, anyway."
EunHyuk nodded – JunSu was good at measuring other creatures' strengths.
"You're not worried, are you?" JunSu asked, glancing at RyeoWook's back.
EunHyuk followed his glance. "He's the only real trainee here. And I think he's tough, anyway, despite his size."
"Yeah. There's this kid, SeungRi, who's rising in my division's ranks. And a lot stronger than he looks. Almost the same height as RyeoWook."
They walked in silence for some time. EunHyuk turned his head this way and that but his eyes were unfocused and preoccupied. JunSu just walked along steadily, watching DaeSung explain something with a lot of hand gestures and RyeoWook's shoulders hunched and trembled as he laughed.
Eventually, JunSu voiced his thoughts. "You know he's the first friend you made in the three years since you transferred out of our Division?"
EunHyuk pulled himself out of his contemplation. "You've been keeping an eye on me?" He was touched, but he would never admit it.
"Of course, moron. We don't see each other much anymore, but that doesn't mean I can't look out for you. So do the others." JunSu reached into his uniform and withdrew an unevenly folded letter. "From DongHae. He really misses you, you know."
EunHyuk tucked the letter in his own pocket. He'd read it later. "How is he?"
"Sharpening his skills in shunpo. He can already use flash steps, but only over short distances. His swordsmanship still needs discipline and his kido's slowly coming along."
EunHyuk nodded. He wondered if he could buy an ink brush and some paper in the district.
"RyeoWook seems like a nice guy," JunSu offered. "You'll keep that friendship, right?"
"I'm not anti-social. Of course we'll be friends. Besides, he could tutor me on healing and I could help him with shunpo." EunHyuk's caught sight of JunSu's extra sword. His expression quickly turned wistful.
JunSu saw the change. He pulled the sword from his belt and stretched the weapon to EunHyuk.
EunHyuk's hand drifted to it, but he caught himself. He had the expression of a man who stood at his brother's grave. "No. That life's behind me." His hand fell back to his side.
JunSu shrugged and hung the sword back on his belt. "I'm only keeping it safe. It's still yours, HyukJae."
"I buried that name when I left the Division."
"I know. I just wanted to remind you who you are." JunSu walked faster to catch up with DaeSung and RyeoWook, who were engrossed in talk about the pros and cons of using starfish to catch an octopus.
After another couple of hours on foot, which seemed a far shorter duration to EunHyuk now that DaeSung and JunSu no longer spoke so loudly and RyeoWook agreed to teach him a few songs, they reached the district's pitiful attempt at a wooden gate.
DaeSung poked it apprehensively. "I don't think this can keep out a horde of stampeding rabbits."
"Especially since the rabbits can just stampede around it," RyeoWook commented on the absence of any kind of wall on either side of the gate. "But I guess it serves some purpose?"
JunSu shrugged and pushed it open. The old hinges creaked very loudly. Loud enough, in fact, to agitate the ears.
"Maybe this gate is their doorbell? In a manner of speaking," EunHyuk volunteered. The creak was certainly loud enough to reach the village.
JunSu shrugged once more and strode past. The others followed, feeling a bit foolish.
The first thing EunHyuk noticed about the district was that all the structures only had one floor. The second was that it wasn't as poor as he expected. In his mind he pictured cracked walls, roofs in need of repair, dirty gutters... malnourished occupants waiting idly by in resignation, the smell of human excrement, maybe the air itself carried the depression...
What he found, in fact, was a moderately well-to-do set of buildings. The walls were coated with paint (some were chipping, true, but they were a minority), the roofs were still intact, the gutters were hidden, and the road was clean. The people they came across were busy and smiled curtly at them; the most powerful smell was that of the stall selling freshwater fish nearby...
... and instead of depression, there was caution in the air. The type of caution, EunHyuk identified, that came with people trying to move on from some form of trauma. The decrease in JunSu's and DaeSung's ebullience meant they also noticed, but then again they were probably expecting it. Even RyeoWook was taking in the details with guarded eyes.
"Well," JunSu said, bringing back the cheer in his voice. "We better find the district's main office, then."
They found it with the help of a very vocal boy who openly ogled JunSu's and DaeSung's swords. The office's paint was fresher than most, but apart from that it blended in very well with the rest of the district. Being that they were death gods in a civilian location, they were welcomed very warmly. JunSu didn't even have to use his supposed ban kai on the secretary.
"I didn't quite expect the contingency I requested to arrive so soon," the town's sole official told them, surprised and pleased at the turn-out. "I sent the letter only two days ago."
"The Divisions are working very hard for your district's safety," JunSu reassured him smoothly.
The official looked at the rest of the group. "Two lieutenants and two trainees. A good start, I suppose. Most of the people here have moved on with their lives after the attack. The Research Institute's barrier wards are doing the trick quite well. Not a single hollow's shadow has darkened any part of my district's territory since we installed them. You will send the head researcher my gratitude and commendations?"
"Of course, sir," JunSu said amiably, a perfect picture of diplomacy. EunHyuk wondered what troubles the 1st division took to teach JunSu that. By the way DaeSung also sat perfectly still, it was possibly a required course for all lieutenants.
EunHyuk felt RyeoWook's look. He turned to face him and RyeoWook weakly mouthed, "attack?" EunHyuk shrugged in response.
The official rummaged through a pile of papers on his desk. "Very well. I should let you to your jobs. I've instructed my secretary to book two rooms in the nearby inn for your lodgings, and all expenses you need to make will naturally be covered by my office."
JunSu bowed. "We are very grateful for your hospitality, sir. We will perform our duties as efficiently as possible so we may bother you no longer."
If I ever become the 4th Division's lieutenant, EunHyuk vowed as they filed out the office, I will never apply for diplomatic missions.
"So what are we really here for?" EunHyuk asked loudly over dinner.
They had spent the rest of the afternoon trying to fulfill JunSu's vague instructions to 'look for anything out of place'. EunHyuk communicated RyeoWook's point that they were out of place: a group of death gods followed by a black butterfly had no business scrounging about in a peaceful civilian district without any specific objectives in mind. JunSu clapped at this thought with much enthusiasm and noted that it 'takes one to know one'.
They wandered the town aimlessly. RyeoWook paused to buy a handcrafted pair of chopsticks with a uniquely elegant design, while EunHyuk purchased writing materials from a side vendor. They didn't really make much progress. EunHyuk wondered if there was any progress to be made at all.
Night eventually came with EunHyuk hoping against common sense that something exciting would happen. Anything. Maybe some of the more prideful villagers could attempt to challenge their authority. Maybe a traveling carnival was in town. Maybe they arrived in the middle of a village feast. Maybe even just a holiday, where there could be singing or dancing in the streets.
No such luck. The village had a perfectly ordinary day, followed by what appeared to be a perfectly ordinary night.
A perfectly ordinary night turns out to be for the villagers to gather as one in several taverns across town.
And so the four death gods found themselves sitting around a table at the corner of one of the noisier eateries in the district. Around them were all sorts of people: office workers gathered together complaining about the monotony of their jobs; tired farmers who specifically set aside enough energy to socialize with jugs of sake; pig sty attendants who had to bathe first before being allowed in; freshwater fishermen who apparently tended a series of ponds on the eastern side of town; artisans who grouched about inept assistants; assistants who grouched about heartless seniors; even a bunch of midwives reminiscing who gave birth to the baby with the biggest heads.
With all these talking, complaining, socializing, grouching, and reminiscing in the background, the four death gods found ironically public privacy.
DaeSung had gone to the bar to place orders for a meal. The other three were resting aching feet. The hell butterfly hid underneath their table.
Their natural inclination was to talk in whispers. This turned out to be a futile effort.
"We are here to set people's mind at ease," JunSu answered EunHyuk. He spoke louder than usual, but the other two could still barely hear him.
EunHyuk saw RyeoWook's mouth move but heard nothing from him.
"Come again?" JunSu asked.
The vocal explosion that followed defied all expectations. "I SAID, HOW ARE WE..." RyeoWook trailed off as the conversation around them were cut short. From across the room, DaeSung was staring at him with his mouth open in amused shock. RyeoWook stood and bowed repeatedly to the patrons at large, chanting apologies as he bobbed up and down. Eventually the noise around them built up to its former level.
"That was amusing," JunSu said around a smirk.
"And highly surprising," EunHyuk added as he watched a red-faced RyeoWook return to his seat.
"I'll compliment you on your voice later," JunSu said to RyeoWook. "What did you want to say?"
Exerting more control on his voice this time, RyeoWook continued. "I said, how exactly are we putting their minds at ease?"
JunSu grinned his widest. "By simply being here."
The smell of stir-fried beef and vegetables announced DaeSung's return. "Here we go! Two massive orders of sukiyaki, lots of toriniku, all the karaage we can possibly eat, a huge bowl of rice, three jugs of rice wine, and peach cider for the kid who swallowed a megaphone!"
"Megaphone?" RyeoWook asked.
"Something they use in the human world to make voices louder," DaeSung explained. RyeoWook turned a deep shade of red. "So what are we talking about now?" Somehow, DaeSung seemed to be the only one who didn't need to put any effort into being heard over the din.
EunHyuk turned to him in hopes of getting a decent answer. "Lieutenant, what's our purpose here in the district?" JunSu kicked him under the table.
"Our purpose? We're just here to be here," DaeSung answered as he spooned large amounts of sukiyaki on his rice.
EunHyuk groaned. At least it was a worthwhile effort. He turned to RyeoWook and was surprised to see him unconcerned by the vague and pointless answers; RyeoWook tried some karaage and nodded with emphasis. EunHyuk grabbed his wrist. "Don't tell me you're turning into one of them," he implored, making the last word sound vile.
"Huh?" RyeoWook asked him, puzzled. He put some rice on an extra bowl and topped it with some sukiyaki, added a few skewers of chicken meat and vegetables and put it in front of EunHyuk.
"I could have gotten this myself, you know," EunHyuk pointed out. He took a bite of toriniku and paused in amazement at the taste.
RyeoWook was adding vegetables to his own bowl of rice. "I know. But that doesn't mean I can't get it for you."
"Hey, EunHyuk, never let this one go," JunSu teased. Half his food was already gone. By instinct he dodged a kick that he knew was aimed at him beneath the table. EunHyuk glared at him.
"Getting back on topic," EunHyuk said. He turned to RyeoWook. "Aren't you upset that they didn't answer your question?"
"But we did!" DaeSung said, full of playful indignation.
"Yes, they did," RyeoWook said after a sip of cider. "Let's bring some of this home."
"I knew you were a smart kid," DaeSung said proudly.
"Yeah," JunSu agreed. "How did you end up hanging out with EunHyuk?" He dodged another kick.
One of the tavern's overworked waitresses brought a plate of taiyaki. "Complements of the boss, sirs," she said, managing a smile despite the exhaustion before returning to the bar.
"See, it's working already!" DaeSung crowed. He took a bite of cake and beamed, which caused his eyes to disappear once more. EunHyuk concluded that DaeSung must have developed a fighting style without eyesight, and all this smiling was actually a form of training.
EunHyuk stared blankly at the cakes. "I still don't get it."
"That's not a surprise. Hey, RyeoWook," JunSu called across the table. "One of the first things you have to learn about EunHyuk is that he's really slow on the uptake." He dodged another kick but didn't account for the following punch.
"Yeah, I kind of noticed already."
Link to Part 2