Fandom: 2PM / Beast / 2AM / SHiNee / Super Junior / Brown-Eyed Girls
Featuring: so many characters...
Pairings: everything's in the subtext
Rating: PG-13 for violence and swearing
Genre: Action and Adventure, AU/Canon mix
Summary: In which people are trying to get used to life after the end of the world.
Word Count: 12,223
[- Part 1 -]
All things considered, Seulong wasn't having a good day.
That morning, his voice coach scolded him for relying too much on the natural quality of his voice that he didn't employ the many techniques needed to successfully perform a ballad. He saw their point, of course. Ballad singers had to be very flexible, and if he wanted to blend with the rest of the band they had to use the same singing styles.
But the soloist in him wanted to be recognized. The soloist in him wanted more share in the spotlight. The soloist in him wanted to be recognized as Im Seulong, not just Seulong from 2AM. That wasn't such a bad thing, right?
Then he received an e-mail from a casting agency thanking him for his audition, but the director decided to go a different way for the character he had in mind. Seulong sent a generic I'm-just-glad-to-have-been-considered-pl
Then his supposed meet-up with Shin Minah was spoilt yet again by – surprise, surprise – busy schedules and extended shoots. But a real man never gives up, he reminded himself.
Then Taecyeon backed out of their plans for a night of drunken griping, stating that his shoot had been moved to way-too-early-in-the-morning-how-can-it-n
So Seulong decided to hole himself up on the rooftop with a six-pack of soju and his phone turned off. If the rest of the world didn't want to get with him, then fuck them. For tonight, at least. He was realistic enough to know that the world went on. He contented himself with being too high to notice and too tipsy to care.
As it happened, due to his altitude, isolation, and over-all ill-fortune, the bad day wasn't over yet.
Seulong was the first to see a wisp of the overcast night sky fly down, gentle as a fairy in the breeze. It hovered in the air before him. His eyes insisted that, yes, he was drunk, but no, he was not seeing things. There really was a ring wraith floating very close by. Or perhaps a dementor.
As it happened, Im Seulong was the very first to be Audited into the new world.
"Why is it that every single date you plan always turns into a disaster?" Gain scolded as she and Jokwon cowered behind an overturned dumpster in a dark alley in Seoul's suburban district.
"This is not my fault!" Jokwon insisted. Despite knowing that silence was the better part of stealth, he and Gain just never learned to incorporate it into their dynamics. They were loud and brash and confident except around Seulong, during which Gain shut up because she was actively trying to stop herself from strangling someone who was supposed to be her friend.
"It keeps happening. It has to be your fault! Why can't I just date someone with more fortune in his life?!" Gain wailed.
A sound of cloth flapping in the wind silenced them both.
"We should run," Jokwon whispered shakily.
"It's a dead end," Gain noted and Jokwon whimpered.
The sound thickened and came closer. Gain peeked around the dumpster despite her better judgment and saw a triad of gray-robed figures coming closer.
Gain couldn't help herself.
She screamed. She screamed like she'd never done so before in her life, knowing it could well be the last time. Her voice reached octave higher than she ever hoped to. And something in her just... snapped.
The world detonated.
It took her a minute to gather her wits. The first thing she noticed was that the alley walls were no longer as confining as before. And that, strictly speaking, they were less 'walls' and more 'powdery pile of debris'. And third, there were no robed figures about anywhere. "Yeobo," she asked tentatively, her ears still ringing. "Yeobo!"
"You are never to speak loudly, ever again," Jokwon groaned, clutching his head delicately.
"You two!" a new voice called out. "Get out of there, it's not safe!"
Their fellow idol waved frantically at them. "Let's go! Before more of them come!"
"What are you doing here?" Gain asked, but Jokwon pulled her to her feet.
"Interview later. Stay alive now," Jokwon said. They ran towards Kyujong, who led the way out of the suburbs through a complicated network of alleys and sidestreets.
They were at the very edge of suburbia and near the first line of trees when they encountered their first group of Auditors.
"Damn it. So close," Changmin muttered angrily as he stepped on the brakes and the car slid to a stop. The headlights illuminated a crowd of gray-robed figures blocking the way. "You two stay here until I get back."
"Hyung, are you gonna pick a fight?" Jinwoon reprimanded. "Remember Jokwon-hyung's rules: peaceful negotiation before anything else. Do you want to get lectured on the Hundred Rules for Living again?"
"Peace isn't one of their options," Changmin said as he got out of the car.
"We should back him up," Chansung said, soberly. Even if he thought Changmin had gone over the deep end, he was still a hyung and Chansung was still loyal. Besides, he was a martial artist at heart, not a performer. He was bound by oaths of peace, but he was sure he could find a loophole somewhere after the fact. He counted the gray robes on the road. There was nothing peaceful about an eighteen versus one fight. "On second thought, you stay here, Jinwoon. You fight like a big girl anyway." Chansung unlocked his door, pulled on the handle... and froze at the scene that unfolded.
Changmin had been walking calmly towards the group of gray when he just... casually drew his hands behind him. The air between his fingers rippled, but before either Chansung or Jinwoon could make out if it was a trick of the light, Changmin flicked both hands in the direction of the blockade. And suddenly six figures fell to the ground with daggers poking out of their hoods.
"Holy freakin' fucktard!"
The remaining figures registered the attack, but they weren't quick enough to evade Changmin's second volley, all of which struck home. Suddenly, six versus one didn't seem so bad.
The six remaining enemies drew daggers from their robes and lunged. Changmin, who still hadn't broken his stride, just walked on calmly. He extended his arms beside him and the air rippled by his hands, leaving a plain gray scimitar in each grip. Changmin twirled his swords when the robes approached-
Light danced around them as the headlights flashed against the flat of Changmin's twin swords. Chansung expected to hear the glints of metal against metal or the sharp whistle of a breeze being cut in two. After all, that was what you got from Wuxia flicks, right?
Not this... blurred scene of air rippling all over the place and various weapons materializing out of nowhere. Chansung couldn't swear by anything he saw, but he was pretty sure an axe as tall and broad as Seulong-hyung swung a large arc through the air. And there was a gigantic hammer that caused a noticeable tremor when it hit the ground. A wayward throwing knife flew from the scuffle and embedded itself in the windshield.
A moment later, the air cleared and Changmin was walking back to them, slightly out of breath and his clothes worse for wear. Behind him were a small arsenal of gray weaponry and a complete absence of gray robes. "Ditch the car," he instructed as he opened the driver-side back door. He grabbed their bag of supplies and tossed it to Chansung. "We'll travel on foot from now on. The forest should provide us ample cover."
The knife buried hilt-deep in the windshield still held Jinwoon's attention.
Chansung took it upon himself to break the tension. "Hyung, back when I said you were crazy. You know I meant that positively, right?"
Changmin winked at him and tossed the bag at Jinwoon to jostle him awake. "I knew there was a reason why I kept you around, Chansungie. Jinwoon, come on. Turn the headlights off and let's go before another squadron finds us. Chansung, you know how to fight, right?"
"Yes?" Chansung answered nervously as he stepped out of the car.
"Then whatever you do, master your impulses and don't join in. Leave the fighting to me." Changmin snapped his fingers at the mess he made, and every trace of weaponry vanished in a ripple of air.
"Hyung, what the hell were those things?!" Jinwoon shrieked, finally rejoining reality.
Changmin lead the way to the forest, walking so fast that the younger two still had trouble keeping up despite their advantage in leg length. They walked on in darkness and silence, one in confidence and the other two in shock and awe.
"The Auditors of Reality," Changmin said only when they were deep in the trees. "Creatures intent on removing every trace of belief from the multiverse. It looks like they finally found our little corner and they intend to wipe us out."
"You mean these were the things Junho wanted to run away from?" Chansung asked, disbelief added to his melting pot of unsorted feelings. "Shit. I fucking owe him one hell of an apology."
"Let's hope they don't kill us first," Changmin told them. Ignoring the shrill 'eep!' from Jinwoon's throat, Changmin decided that his adopted brothers were holding up better than he expected.
"You took down about twenty of them by yourself," Jinwoon pointed out. "In less than a minute. They can't be that bad. Right? I mean, our military should be able to do much more..."
The way Changmin chose not to answer was revealing in its own way. No, Jinwoon, it seemed to say. This rabbit hole runs deeper. Don't be so naïve.
Jinwoon was no stranger to disillusionment. Realizing that a lot about being an idol relied on stage magic and an unstoppable army of specialized trainers and coordinators downsized every illusion he had about his success being merely his own. He had the face, he had the voice, he had the marketability, and he had been lucky; that was it, and he'd accepted it ever since Daehun left, ever since before debut.
So this heartbreak felt familiar. The acceptance that even the military, the great rite of maturity for all Korean men, was not invincible... it carried the unwelcome familiarity of faith being lost, of a cherished guitar falling down the stairs because of a careless accident, of a god pulled down and torn to pieces before his eyes.
Back to now, but let's start somewhere different this time.
Kyujong, being one of the saner minds of the idol industry (or so he liked to think) had always known that rivalries existed deeper than idol groups showed. On the surface they were all about camaraderie and dynamics, but deep down, he knew that everyone thought the same thing: if he wasn't here, they'd be paying attention to me. It was inevitable, really. An unnatural mix of adolescent hormones, stress, compensation, and learned competitiveness.
Some groups handled it better than others. SS501, for example, didn't delude themselves into thinking they were a family. At best, they were allies who became colleagues and friends, and they learned to live with each other but not for each other. And when the inevitable end came, they separated gracefully with wishes for success in each others' hearts and the openness to working together in the future. Comparing that to the mess that was left of the supposed Gods of the East, and the slow disintegration of Super Junior...
He froze the train of thought. Now was not the time. Even if the situation really called for it.
"He's getting closer!" Gain shrieked, running as fast she could just behind Kyujong. Which, given the circumstances, was commendably fast. Kyujong was just surprised that the shrieking didn't come from Jokwon.
"We're near the end," Kyujong panted, his eyes fixed on the end of the bridge. Beside him, Jokwon was bearing the strain of sprinting quite well. "Just a... few... -- now now now!!!" he screamed as soon as he and Jokwon hurled themselves over the last few feet.
Gain jumped and twisted in mid-air. She opened her mouth and screamed at a frequency far too low for any human ear to pick up, but Kyujong still felt the second-hand vibration in his bones. The bridge they had just crossed collapsed as the very concrete it was made of rumbled, cracked, and broke off in chunks. The pieces splashed loudly in the river below.
Gain landed exactly on top of Jokwon, who took the impact of her weight with a pronounced "oof!"
Kyujong ignored his bruises and pushed himself back up on his feet to watch the person looking at them from across the river. "Come get us now, you bastard!" he yelled, still full of adrenaline.
"Don't... taunt... him!" Jokwon panted weakly. He helped Gain up and checked her legs for breaks on the skin. The red welts contrasted angrily against her natural paleness, and Jokwon almost scolded her for her taste in non-protective clothing.
"He's... still there?" Gain asked with her normal voice, still trying to get her breath back.
The voice that spoke up from across the river answered her question. "You can't run away forever," the man yelled, the distance in no way weakening the conviction in his voice. "I'll find you and make you so very dead."
"Cheap words, you fuckin' psycho!" Kyujong answered equally loudly.
And even though he was too far to be sure, Kyujong just knew Donghae was smirking at them as the rest of the New and Improved Super Junior ™ lined up behind him, with the unconscious Henry Lau in one of their arms, against a background of destroyed suburbia. There was a music video in there somewhere, but neither Super Junior nor SS501 had the right image for it.
"Kyujong, come on!"
He felt Gain's sharp fingers digging into his arms and pulling him away. He shot a last venomous look towards their pursuer before letting himself be dragged off, down yet another road that lead to nowhere. From one ruins to another, the difference between them barely discernable at all. And just to avoid the reach of a madman, they'd just added to the destruction. Even Jokwon wasn't raising a fuss despite his opinion that they not touch anything in case the city could be rebuilt.
They needed that. They needed the hope. It anchored them to sanity. It controlled the ease with which they adapted to this new world. They didn't grow too comfortable too quickly, or deny everything too brashly.
And even if they followed the road without any sense of where to go, or what to do at all. They were at a road, and roads were meant to be followed. So they did. It gave their days meaning. Shallow meaning for now.
But meaning, still.
It had been a while since Kikwang last woke up to sunlight, and he did so feeling more refreshed than he'd ever been in months. Although he was an early riser by nature, he usually kept his morning activities indoors, preferring the treadmill over the crowded streets of the city. And although they sometimes ventured outside at night (mostly at Nichkhun-hyung's insistence in his guard against cabin fever, and only when Junho said it was safe), everyone always crept back inside their cave for sleep, particularly Wooyoung when he realized that now was not the time to celebrate being a loner.
On top of that, Kikwang never allowed himself to sleep too deeply in case the Auditors found them. It was a pain, being the only one capable of fighting in a group, but he knew his place. And any resentment that threatened to form was squashed down with guilt when he thought of Junho, who slept only when everyone was awake, in good spirits, and promised not to wander off. Those times were too few and too quick, but Junho held up. Being trained as an idol gave someone unexpected endurance.
"You're awake!" a far too cheerful voice greeted him.
Kikwang found it odd. That didn't sound like Yoseob...
"I was so worried! I'm sorry I didn't warn you. you were running so fast that I forgot to say anything, and there were a couple of explosions so I was kind of preoccupied and-"
Kikwang let the voice ramble on, and now that the speaker mentioned it, he remembered why he was out in the sunlight in the first place. A rescue mission. SHINee's Onew. A wall.
"Ow," Kikwang moaned at blurred the memory of the impact. He opened his eyes to see Onew fidgeting frantically on the balls of his feet a few meters away.
"Does it hurt? Still?" Onew said with worry etched on every inch of his face. "I really hope you didn't break any bones. I don't think we'll manage to find anyone who can set them."
"I'm fine, hyung," Kikwang assured him as he sat up. He stretched his arms as if he'd woken from nothing more than a quick nap. "I'm pretty hard to hurt." And now that he was in a position to observe, he noticed that Onew looked a lot less worn out than Kikwang assumed he'd be.
For one thing, Onew didn't have a single scratch on him. And for another, although he looked thinner than Kikwang remembered, Onew didn't look starved; the round cheeks had hollowed out and brought his jaw line to sharp focus, and he was moving healthily and with energy. Not any worse, in other words, than Kikwang himself.
"Do you want breakfast?" Onew asked, still not moving any closer.
"Breakfast?" Kikwang repeated, dumbfounded.
"Yeah, I still have some bread and stuff. I think. Wait, let me check." Onew sat back down and reached for a dusty duffle bag, laying out its contents for Kikwang to see.
Bread. Several sandwich spreads. A few cans of tuna and sardines with pull-off lids. Two large bottles of water, one of which was only one-fourth full. A bottle of some hand sanitizing gel. "I used to have vegetables," he said sheepishly. "But they go bad too quickly. So it's processed food from here on out."
"Where did you get all that stuff?" Kikwang asked as he tried to crawl closer... and hit his head on a wall that wasn't there.
"Please don't come any closer!" Onew said urgently. "Not that I don't like company. But. I just."
"There's this?" Kikwang asked, laying a palm flat against what looked like thin air but felt like very solid glass.
"Yeah, that. I can't seem to make it go away. It's been around since... It's been around for a while. It goes wider and narrower randomly so I don't know." Onew grinned in apology. He squeezed a glob of gel on his hands and rubbed them vigorously together. "I'm not surgically clean, but we'll have to make do for now. How's tuna and cheese sound?"
Kikwang thought against asking about Onew's state of mind. He figured the rules of sanity had been breached long ago. "I'll have whatever you're having, hyung."
"Hmm. Then I think I'm in the mood for spiced sardines." Onew picked an olive-colored can from his stash and pulled it open. "I'll just walk away when I get my share, okay? The wall will move with me so you can get to the food."
It wasn't gourmet and the bread was going stale, but it was different enough from what Kikwang had gotten used to. Dongwoon was very smart, earnest, learned very quickly, and Kikwang loved him to his bones... but his cooking really kind of sucked. And they had been stretching their supplies by living off the land, which was great as long as you never got tired of fruit. But this... bread and spiced sardines... it tasted like a gastronomic reintroduction to the wonders of preservatives and Kikwang was very happy to reenlist. Which begged the question...
"How did you get all these?" Kikwang asked again, remembering that he didn't get an answer the first time.
"I dug around," Onew answered around his mouthful. He wiggled his fingers at Kikwang, showing thick calluses that shouldn't have been there. "I used to go around the city a lot even as an idol so I have a pretty good lay-out of where everything used to be. Like restaurants, convenience stores... it's really just a matter of deciding which ones wouldn't be buried deep in rubble."
"Oh." That made sense. But then again, Onew had always been seen as the smart and somewhat depressed member. Odd that he seemed so relaxed now. Kikwang knew how to read people's moods, but the deeper psych stuff was beyond him. This could be one for Nichkhun-hyung.
On the bright side, he and Onew could stop for a supplies run on the way back and Kikwang had a lot of experience in digging, not to mention the strength, speed, and endurance that went along with it.
"We should get going," he said after a few minutes of silence.
"We have a schedule to keep?" Onew asked, ironic and (did Kikwang hear that right?) slightly put out.
"I just think the guys miss me already," Kikwang explained with a wink at Onew's dawning realization. "There's a bunch of us camping out about seven miles or so from here. If we leave now, we could be there by noon and Junho can work his magic on this wall of yours. He helped me figure out stuff about mine so he could also be great help."
"You should have said so earlier! I just assumed you were wandering alone like I was! Come on!!" Onew hefted his bag and ran over to drag Kikwang to his feel, but the wall made itself felt again and knocked Kikwang over, causing a brand new wave of apologies to fill the air.
"Dongwoon, I'm not exactly a psychologist," Nichkhun said, exasperated.
"Maybe not, hyung, but you're the closest we have to one," Dongwoon defended as he carved two notches on the side of a tree trunk facing the cave mouth. Each notch meant about ten steps to the next marked tree, which eventually lead anyone following them to their camp. It was Dongwoon's idea for making sure nobody got lost, and one of his most brilliant ones at that. They'd started notching a couple of days ago, but they could only cover so much of the forest at once."Your guess would be more educated than any of ours. Please?"
Nichkhun, who knew how expressive eyes could be, carefully avoided looking at Dongwoon's. He'd used that advantage too often to fall for it himself. "Dongwoon. Psychology, particularly its fields of counseling and therapy, isn't an exact science. I can't just diagnose something out of the blue. And I repeat: I'm not a psychologist."
Dongwoon pouted in the direction of the cave entrance even though they were a few hundred yards away and surrounded by trees on every side. They left Junho and Yoseob to watch over Hyunseung when he returned to his non-responsive catatonic state after breakfast. At least he still eats, Dongwoon reassured himself. At least Hyungseung still has the will to live. At least Hyunseung still has an idea of what's good for him. Dongwoon just wished he knew what caused his hyung to barricade himself from the rest of the world when the rest of them were dealing fine with the isolation. "Just give me your best guess, hyung."
Nichkhun looked doubtful, but before he could turn away Dongwoon blasted him with the full force of the magnae pout Kikwang-hyung had helped him develop.
Nichkhun gave in. "The closest I can come up with is PTSD. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder."
Dongwoon nodded. Trauma snuck up on people in different ways.
"But it's not definite," Nichkhun emphasized. "I'm working on stock knowledge here, and I don't know Hyunseung that well at all."
"Does knowing him matter?" Dongwoon asked. He led the way deeper into the forest, counting steps in his mind.
Nichkhun frowned thoughtfully as palmed their camping knife. "It should. It would give me an idea of his coping mechanisms, at least. And what the signs are of his emotional health. Which is why my guess is worth less compared to yours."
"Not really," Dongwoon admitted sheepishly. "I never understood Hyunseung-hyung either. I just... knew when he was okay and when he wasn't. But I didn't understand him. I don't understand him."
"Maybe Yoseob, then? Or Kikwang?"
"Thirty steps," Dongwoon said thoughtfully. They stopped beside a tree and Nichkhun carved three notches on the trunk. "I doubt Yoseob-hyung understood him either. Or Kikwang-hyung. I think the only person who ever understood him at all was--" and the dam broke.
Dongwoon leaned heavily against the tree and slid down. He fought the wave of nausea and cursed himself for losing. He cupped his head in his palms, trying hard to at least fight back the despair. Nichkhun sat down and pulled him close to his side.
"It's okay," Nichkhun murmured soothingly out of habit. "We'll get through this. Hyunseung will be okay."
Dongwoon wanted to believe Nichkhun's sincerity, but he still hasn't made sense of this new world and he's tried being brave for his hyungs but it was so tiring and he couldn't believe he was acting like such a kid. He tried to keep his sniffling quiet, but he couldn't do anything about the sobs or the shaking of his shoulders. "I just... Just. I wish Doojoon-hyung and Junhyung-hyung were here. They'd know what to do. They wouldn't have let any of this happen."
Nichkhun's sigh was a little too understanding, his touch a little too comforting. Dongwoon swore he heard the words Nichkhun tried to keep quiet beneath his breath.
"I know, Dongwoonie. I feel the same about Jay."
His head was nothing but a huge mass of pain.
Henry groaned and tried to ease the throbbing with his hand. It reminded him of that time he thought he drank a pitcher-full of chocolate milk, and Zhou Mi told him the day after that it was home-mixed mudshake. That had not been a pretty day.
"Henry! You're awake!"
"Hyung. Shut up and let me die in peace."
"Now's not the time to joke about dying, Henry!" Donghae's voice scolded, and Henry opened his eyes to see his hyung's concerned expression hovering just an inch away. "I've chased that fucker Kyujong and his friends away. We should be alone for now. Wait 'til the others hear you've come around! They've been really worried, Henry."
Henry decided against insisting on personal space. After everything they'd been through, he figured Donghae needed the proximity, the intimacy. If only to remind himself that he wasn't alone.
But everything else about the guy was seriously starting to bother Henry.
"You should get up now," Donghae insisted, though not relenting in any way. "Ryeowook's making lunch and I should probably help him. Jungsu-hyung and Han Geng-ge should be back with the firewood by now, so why don't you go help them out? They're getting really protective of our baby magnae. And I have to say, this camping trip's turning out even better than I thought!" Donghae pinched him on the cheek for what felt like the millionth time before standing up and skipping – skipping – over to the shade of the next waiting shed a few meters down the road. Henry slowly sat up, making sure not to agitate the elephants tap-dancing on his head, and saw Donghae help 'Ryeowook' boil some instant ramyeon.
'Jongwoon' and 'Hyukjae' were adding to their crude shelter by digging more holes for posts and extending their ceiling. 'Jungsu' was piling the firewood that 'Han Geng' carefully broke into manageable pieces with his precise karate chops.
Was this what Donghae had been living for all along? Was this how Donghae saw Super Junior in his head? Just a bunch of people living their lives anywhere, any way? Was this Donghae's sense of normalcy, horribly disfigured but rebuilding itself?
Henry wasn't an expert, but the conclusion was very obvious.
He needed to get away as soon as he could. It was just too bad that 'Kyuhyun' had knocked him out before he could convince Kyujong, Gain, and Jokwon to take him with them for the sake of his life.
They actually had rice and kimchi for lunch. And they weren't skimping, either. They had enough rice and kimchi for everybody.
"If this isn't enough to convince you to move camps, I don't know what is," Wooyoung said, his cheeks bulging more than usual.
"No one's saying we shouldn’t move, Woodong," Nichkhun tried to chide him, but the flecks of rice around his lips ruined any aura of authority he thought he had. "We're just trying to be cautious about everything."
"There hasn't been anything to be cautious about since the invasion," Taecyeon pointed out. "And don't get me wrong, I like staying alive as much as the next person, but if we keep living like this, sooner or later someone's sanity is going to snap."
"Sooner, rather than later," Wooyoung said not quietly enough, earning him a dirty look from everyone with the dirtiest coming from Yoseob. Wooyoung looked the least bit affected.
"And Junho said he hasn't sensed anyone else in days, human or Auditor, apart from Onew, so we know we're safe within a ten-mile radius, right?" Taecyeon asked, glossing over Wooyoung's indiscretion.
"Then a two kilometer displacement won't be much of a change," Taecyeon concluded.
"And it's more or less in the direction of the city," Yoseob added. "In case that's worth anything to anyone."
"It might be," Nichkhun said, glancing quickly at their youngest. "Dongwoon and I need to go to the city," he announced to everyone's general surprise.
"Khun, for the last time, it's a worldwide network shutdown," Wooyoung said with emphasis. "There's no internet anywhere."
"We need books." They turned to look at Dongwoon, who bore their gazes without flinching. "Nichkhun-hyung and I need to figure out how to bring Hyunseung-hyung back. That means we need knowledge about counseling techniques and therapy. So we need books."
That got him silence for a while.
"That means a library or a bookstore, at least," Junho said thoughtfully. "And not just any library or bookstore, either."
"A university would be their best bet," Taecyeon offered. "And as your resident nerd, I'll have to insist on going with them."
"No internet," Wooyoung repeated.
"Heard you the first time," Taecyeon assured him. "But guys, we need math."
The silence he got was the loudest one so far. Even from Wooyoung, who couldn't accept this blatant act of nerd-assery.
"Applied math. Like the kind that's used for optimizing systems or organizing probability matrices. Ever heard of those things?" Everyone shook their heads except for Dongwoon, who nodded thoughtfully. Taecyeon continued, buoyed by the understanding that was dawning in Dongwoon's eyes. "Listen, I know a lot of you think I'm just a big geek, and I won't deny it because it's partly true. And I'm geek enough to know that we're just scraping along on a case by case basis. We need structure, guys. Even if there are only eight of us. And I have a lot of faith in Junho's power, and I know he's smart enough to have explored his limits by himself. But guys. We can't keep relying on him if we're here as a team. We need to create our own systems for dealing with things. Which is what applied mathematics is for."
"Now that you mention it, hyung," Dongwoon said quietly, "our emergent group behavior could be more definite-"
"Stop encouraging him!" Wooyoung interrupted, which cause Yoseob to break into a grin.
"I can speak on behalf of Dongwoon's smarts," said Yoseob. "And we're not giving it any justice by just cooping him up here and putting him in charge of the food. If there's any way to make things better, I'm sure he and Taecyeon-hyung can find it."
"Do I have to remind you that we could very well be the last people left on the entire planet?" Wooyoung asked, his voice tinged with slight hysteria. "Who cares if we 'optimize our group dynamics'? Who cares if we 'solidify our emergent behavior'? We just have to stay alive in case there's any chance - any chance at all - that there's someone else to save us from this hell hole!"
Wooyoung stomped off into the cave.
"And you! Stop staring at me!" they heard him yell and there was silence after that.
"Junho," Nichkhun prompted. "We need a library."
"I'll find you one later," Junho said. "I'm keeping an eye on Kikwang and Onew."
"Where are they?" Taecyeon asked.
"About a mile from here. They'll hit the first line of marked trees in a few minutes." Junho set aside the rice and kimchi they saved for their missing member and his guest. "You guys go ahead and start packing up for the move; I'll wait for Kikwang and Onew here. And Wooyoung's right. At this point, I'm just being overly paranoid."
"Your paranoia kept us alive," Yoseob remarked.
"No. Kikwang's proactivity kept us alive," Junho said smoothly. "I just held things together as much as I could."
Any response to that would have cheapened Junho's sentiment; everyone wisely said nothing, but Nichkhun hugged him anyway. Junho remembered something he wanted to say as the four headed for the cave.
"Oh, and Taec-hyung?" Junho called after them.
Taecyeon stopped in mid step, but he gestured for the others to go on.
Junho waited until they had as much privacy as they could get. "Thanks," he said, and he was amazed at how much sincerity could fit in just one word.
Taecyeong grinned. "No problem. Don't forget: I was a leader, too. Once upon a time. I know how it is." He winked at Junho and left quickly. Some moments, he'd learned long ago, could be treasured best when they ended sooner, before awkwardness had any chance to seep in.
A short glimpse, a few years earlier.
"We're not superheroes," Junho said calmingly.
"But I'm strong! And fast! You saw it yourself!" Kikwang said, giddy with adrenaline. "And you can see things, like crime happening somewhere that I can stop while wearing a cool mask and-
"That doesn't mean we're superheroes," Junho interrupted, insistent. "There's no space in the world for superheroes. You know better than to believe TV shows and movies, Kwangie. We'll just end up hurting more people than the ones we help. The world doesn't work like a cartoon."
"I know," Kikwang said, toning down the excitement. "It's just... It's nice to dream again, for once. It's nice to want something without being disillusioned about what it entailed."
"I'm not telling you to stop dreaming. I just want to make sure that you know to keep it just a dream."
"Dreams can come true, hyung," Kikwang said with a soft smile.
"Nightmares are dreams, too," Junho shot back.
And they both knew he was right.
[- Chapter 2: Reveille -]