Pretentious fanfic writer (verocity) wrote,
Pretentious fanfic writer
verocity

Aleph 01: Primacy

Title: Aleph 01: Primacy
Author: verocity
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

[- Prologue -]


Now.

"Onew's out there."

Kikwang snapped out of his sleep the moment Junho's words registered. "Onew? SHINee's Onew? Where? How can he still be alive?"

"No idea. But you need to get him before the Auditors do. The idiot's out in the open and he doesn't even have any weapons."

Kikwang rushed to put clothes on even as he listened to Junho's instructions. "He's about seven miles away southwards. He's wearing green and –" Junho squinted, trying to make sense of things being seen from so far away "—he's not injured. I don't know the fuck that's possible, but he's not wounded at all. Just dirty. And weakened, by the look of things."

"Hunger. Desperation. I'll find him. If I can."

"You probably can't."

"I should still try."

"I know. Be back before sundown." Leave him if you can't find him. You're more important. The thought didn't need to be expressed. It hung in the air between them.

"I will. Keep everyone safe."

Junho nodded. Kikwang found his inner strength and vanished in a too-fast blur of movement, leaving a small windstorm in his wake.

~*~



Around a week or so before now, during the morning of the invasion.

It was fast, it was bloody, it was disturbingly efficient, and nobody had any idea how it happened: the first things the invaders crippled were the world's orbital communication systems. They took those down so thoroughly that even up to now Kikwang had no idea whether the invasion was just in Seoul, or just in Korea, or if they staged a worldwide coup.

All Kikwang knew was that he and seven of his friends – the only ones he had been able to save – were hiding out in an underground base he'd dug out by the foot of a mountain. It was a project he'd worked on with superhuman speed and strength since the night before the invasion. His powers were awesome.

Not that his plans were perfect since he'd never been interested in architecture, but the moment they arrived Yoseob had pointed out that they'd need an air hole and Hyunseung (after he stopped freaking out and whining like the big girl he was) kept a very tight guard over their supplies because he didn't know how long Kikwang's craziness was going to last. Dongwoon arrived an hour later fresh from a photoshoot and optimized everything: from pointing out where a second air hole could be made based on prevalent wind conditions, to arranging their sleeping positions and where they should light the candles, to maximizing their rations through solid meal plans. He even managed to set up a small water purification system through controlled evaporation because apparently someone didn't think they would go thirsty as long as they had watery food.

Kikwang smiled the whole time because, apart from having awesome powers and awesome friends, he never actually told them that the world as they knew it was going to end. Survival training! For a new reality show! was how he explained this sudden trip, along with the grins and aegyo that let him get away with almost everything.

Then Junho arrived with Nichkhun, Taecyeon, and Wooyoung, and Kikwang was just glad he'd dug such a big hiding place. At least with Junho around, they'd know what was happening outside.

So they sat around in the dark, taking the weirdness in like a game. A new experience and no one can force us into schedules if they can't find us, Nichkhun had pointed out the bright side of things. They kept sending messages to everyone else to come follow them... but all the phone signals blanked out sometime around midnight.

Kikwang took that as his cue to shut them in, using a boulder that the others had no strength to move even if they worked together. That shut everyone up. That caught their attention.

That was when things got real.

It wasn't Kikwang's display of superhuman strength or Junho's admission that he could see through obstacles and over distances, or his display of this ability by telling everyone what they did that noon even when he wasn't around. It wasn't even Wooyoung's freaking out that Junho had been peeking at them in the shower or Taecyeon's perturbing nonchalance at Wooyoung's insight or Junho's insistence that he had too much self-respect to do anything like that, damn it. But things got real, no matter how hard they tried to block it out.

From there on, it was easy to suspend two things: logic, and disbelief.

Beast was used to weirdness. After all, they had Kikwang and Hyunseung. But 2PM (who knew?) was too sane.

Junho narrated what was going on outside. The leveling of the city through systematic explosions. The Auditors' death march and razing of the population. The efforts of individual military units to rally against the sudden attack, all futile in the end. The bloodbath that followed. Junho's breakdown because he can't watch anymore, and the rest of them were spared from the knowledge.

Then came the suspension of sensibility. They had seen Kikwang effortlessly block the entrance with a piece of rock thrice his size. They knew of Junho's genuine integrity and his aversion to lies. It was an easy leap in the imagination.

Then came the anger and the breakdown. The insistence that Kikwang let them out so they could find loved ones. So they could do what they could. Kikwang's refusal because there was nothing they could do anyway. Wooyoung's punch at Junho's stomach, Hyunseung's attempts to strangle Kikwang, Dongwoon's sobs at their helplessness, Yoseob's disbelieving silence, Taecyeon's tearful pleading, Nichkhun's catatonic response to reality... But Kikwang refused to give in.

There was nothing they could do. He and Junho told them over and over again until their words were echoes of themselves. There was nothing they could do.

Kikwang and Junho had taken the responsibility upon themselves to decide whether they lived or died. And they'd chosen to save those few they could reach instead of everyone dying altogether. Because there was nothing they could have done against the invasion, but this was something they could do to save their friends. It was their decision. They'd been carrying the burden of their powers for too long. The world gave no place for idealism. The people who filled this hand-dug cave were theirs, and Kikwang and Junho were no strangers to responsibility.

But, likewise, were the ones who weren't here: the absences were weights on their shoulders. And in one case, in a way Kikwang couldn't define, the other members carefully avoided mentioning Chansung at all. And he didn't miss the way Junho's face froze whenever they did.

But there was nothing else they could have done. Except this. And they could hope that maybe this will matter in the end. That maybe their friends could forgive them in the end.

~*~



Back to now.

Kikwang never realized before how challenging navigation was without a GPS system. He knew where south was, but only in an academic look-towards-the-sunrise-and-turn-right kind of way. Putting it in practice wasn't quite as clean cut even if he already made adjustments for the coming sunset. (That meant you faced west and turned left, yeah? Yeah.) Against everything he learned in school, it looked like his whole field of vision was 'southwards'.

This was gonna be harder than he thought.

At least he had a gauge for distances, having jogged more than a fair bit during the pre-invasion days. Although... judging distances became a bit tougher when the ground wasn't flat, and he had to climb up and down debris of cement and metal.

By his best estimates, he was maybe four and a half miles away from base. Another two and a half to go, assuming he'd been facing the right direction. But two and half miles were practically nothing to the speeds he could reach.

~*~



"Where's Kikwang-hyung?"

Junho turned to face the only person among them who still had to use honorifics with Kikwang. Strictly speaking, Junho could already see Dongwoon even without turning, but old habits were hard to break. "On a rescue mission."

And before the look of hope on Dongwoon's face could turn any brighter, Junho added, "It's Onew."

"Oh." Dongwoon deflated, but immediately he felt guilty for being disappointed. A life was a life. Every life was important now. And if there were no fans and no management, then there should be no names to separate them arbitrarily into groups. And because they were talking about Kikwang... "Is he going the right way?"

Junho shrugged. "More or less. He's veering a few degrees to the west, but he should still reach the right area. Things will be easier once he's there; Onew's not making any effort at stealth. Kikwang has a few minutes of light left before sundown."

Dongwoon sat on the dirt beside Junho. "Kikwang-hyung won't give up. He's very determined."

"He's stupid if he thinks he can find Onew in the dark that easily."

"I didn't say he was smart," Dongwoon defended himself and Junho cracked up. Humor wasn't something they had gotten used to yet. "The others should be coming back soon. So I have to start making dinner. Would you like anything in particular, hyung?"

"You mean you can make anything other than fruit mush and reheated canned goods?"

"No. But I thought it would be polite to ask."

It was amazing how some things never changed, Junho mulled. He'd never been close to Dongwoon at all. Kikwang and Doojoon were old acquaintances, both having trained under JYPE for a while and Doojoon had been there during Hot Blood. But the first time Junho met Dongwoon was after Beast debuted, and they never really had the chance to form anything real. But Doojoon had told good tales of group magnae and the man who sat with him now was readily recognizable as the same man in Doojoon's stories.

The flip side, the dark side, was that it just could be Dongwoon's way of coping with the shock. A week, after all, was a short time.

"How's Hyunseung-hyung?" Junho asked even though he didn't have to.

Dongwoon's expression darkened quickly. It had been three days since he last burst into tears, which was something Junho counted as a win. "He's awake. And I know he can hear me because his eyes move when I talk to him. But he still won't speak even if I keep prodding him about anything."

Junho didn't know much about psychology. Most of what he knew came from Nichkhun, who had for a time been obsessed with group dynamics and counseling techniques.

But something like this was beyond them all. They'd come to the consensus that the best they could do for Hyunseung was to leave him alone. At least Hyunseung ate his meals. It meant he wasn't a lost cause. Yet.

Junho twitched his head towards the cave entrance. "Taec-hyung and Khun-hyung are back."

And a split-second later, Taecyeon's rich voice boomed into the cave. "I come bearing round fruits of nutrition and sweetness!"

"Mind you, he only carried them. I had to climb the trees."

"Hush, Nichkhun! Nobody needs to hear excess information!"

"That takes care of dessert, at least," Dongwoon said with the beginnings of a smile on his lips. He stood up and went to greet the eldest members of their little band of misfits, with Junho following closely.

"Dongwoon! Maknae!" Teacyeon said cheerfully as Nichkhun walked past them to check on Hyunseung. "I entrust this treasure we found to your care."

Dongwoon held out the belly of his shirt like a basket to receive the pile of fruits and vegetables in Taecyeon's arms. "These should be enough to last us until tomorrow, hyung," Dongwoon said appreciatively. "If you can find some mushrooms I can cook the stringbeans with soup for dinner. But these peaches should be fine for tonight."

Taecyeon's smile never wavered. "If you can find a way to do so, I would be very grateful for some pie."

Dongwoon glanced at Junho, unsure of how to react. Given the circumstances, a week wasn't nearly enough to get used to Taecyeon.

"Hyung, he's a fast learner, not a miracle worker," Junho chided with a slap at Taecyeon's arms.

Taecyeon's shoulders drooped almost comically. "Oh. That's too bad. I guess I shall live with the disappointment, then, if it's not too much to bear. But in the meantime the firewood needs preparing. To work!" He lumbered out the entrance with a spring in his gait that, to Junho, seemed a little bit forced.

"Is that normal for Taecyeon-hyung?" Dongwoon asked with wide eyes.

Junho prodded thoughtfully at his lip. "I'm not sure. I mean, Taecyeon-hyung's always been cheerful but..."

"He just has something to say," Nichkhun interjected by the candlelight from the other side of the cave, kneeling by Hyunseung's cot. "You know Taec. He's either loud or articulate, but never both at once."

Junho watched Nichkhun press his fingers against the side of Hyunseung's neck with his eyes on his watch. Thirty seconds. Junho let Nichkhun finish, satisfied, before speaking up. "Is it important?"

"Important and serious, yes. But not grave." Nichkhun wiped his hands on his pants, more out of habit than an achievement in hygiene.

"I should start prepping dinner," Dongwoon muttered. "Yoseob-hyung and Wooyoung-hyung will be back soon. Right?" he added with a worried look towards Junho.

"They will," Junho assured him. "They're still ten minutes away, but everything looks fine."

Dongwoon nodded, satisfied, and headed for their diminishing stack of supplies. He started sorting through the foragers' bounty while muttering about half-learned recipes and knives that needed sharpening. Junho saw him set aside a can of tuna from Kikwang's bag. Jjigae for dinner tonight, it seemed.

"So what's Taecyeon-hyung's news?" Junho asked Nichkhun.

"It's not news, per se," Nichkhun said. "We just have a suggestion. You haven't seen any sign of an Auditor for three days now, right?"

"Four," Junho corrected. "I've been counting. They only stayed for three days."

Nichkhun nodded. Then he gestured at the cave walls surrounding them. "Kikwang did a good job with this place. Big and roomy enough to hide in. But we can't live here forever."

"I think we're doing okay," Junho lead in, unsure of where Nichkhun was going.

"For now, yes, we are. But we can't stay like this for long. Junho, I'm actually surprised we staved off claustrophobia as long as we have, but keeping us cooped together like this doesn't bode well."

"Oh." Claustrophobia, Junho thought slowly. Of course. It didn't even cross his mind since his eyes weren't confined to this confining hole in the earth. Junho's world hadn't been limited at all. But for the others... Of course. "Oh. You think we should move out?"

"If you think it's safe," Nichkhun added quickly. "You're the one who knows the most about what's happening. So your input will be the heaviest."

Junho shook his head slowly. He wasn't saying no; he just needed to jog his head a bit to help the thoughts along. "Let's talk about it with the group after dinner. That way we won't be thinking on an empty stomach and everyone can have their say."

"Understood," Nichkhun said with a small, mysterious smile.

"What?" Junho asked. He should have been discomforted. But Nichkhun always meant well.

"Nothing," Nichkhun said, heading for the cave entrance. "It's no big deal."

Junho laid a hand on Nichkhun's shoulder before he got too far. "Tell me," he insisted. "Even if it's no big deal."

"It's just..." Nichkhun said with a shrug. "For a while there, you reminded me of Jay. Come on, let's help get dinner ready. Before Taecyeon takes it upon himself to prepare the food."

Junho couldn't argue with that. He wanted to push Nichkhun's words out of his mind, unsure of what to make of them in this context. But he didn't want to take the sentiment likely. Comparing him to Jay... was perilously close to the highest praise Nichkhun could give anyone in the world.

~*~



Back then, a few short moments before the invasion.

There was no end to craziness, Changmin decided. If he learned anything from his brief forays into English fairytales, it's that craziness always went on and on even if you thought the world was finally being sensible. And things liked to happen at midnight.

The waft of beer that greeted him as soon as he opened the apartment door meant only one thing. "Good evening, Chansungie," he greeted loudly as he boldly stepped into the apartment.

"Hyung~" two voices greeted him, one weary and the other cheerfully tipsy. It wasn't hard to distinguish between Jinwoon and Chansung.

"Don't you have class tomorrow, Jinwoon?" Changmin asked as he surveyed the wreck that always became of their apartment whenever these two got together for a convivial drink. Crushed cans of beer scattered all over the floor, empty packets of roasted seaweed and dried squid piled haphazardly near the trashcan, the furniture twisted or tilted at odd angles, and, against all logical reason, the flat screen TV was lying screen-down on the floor but otherwise untouched. Yes, another typical night between these two friends.

"That's tomorrow! A few hours from now!" Jinwoon cheered carelessly. "Way too far into the future for me to worry about!"

"Have a drink, hyung!" Chansung offered enthusiastically.

Changmin reeled back from the assault of exclamation marks. He headed for the kitchen to make sure their food wasn't rotting from the stench of beer and body gases. "I assume Jokwon and Seulong are sleeping elsewhere tonight?" Because you wouldn't drink here otherwise, not that I mind, Changmin didn't add. Better for Jinwoon and Chansung to drink in private where he can watch over them than in public and be totally out of control.

"Seulong-hyung said something something something Sun Min Ah something something something," Jinwoon said dismissively. "I tuned him out after a while. You know how he gets."

"Yeah," Changmin said with a cringe. Seulong can get very passionate about that particular topic.

"And Jokwon-hyung wanted to spend some time with Gain-hyungsunim."

"Hey. You think you're up for nephews anytime soon?" Chansung asked, suddenly serious.

It was almost enough to sober Jinwoon up. "I will love him as if he were my own," Jinwoon answered with a sincerity that almost moved Changmin if he didn't know it would be gone again tomorrow. "The first thing he will ever learn will be how to play the guitar and he will be a prodigy of rock and roll."

"As if Jokwon-hyung will let you anywhere near his children."

"Hey! I'm a better influence that Seulong-hyung. You can't teach a kid how to be tall."

"Just keep him away from Junho," Chansung said knowingly. "Crazy bastard. It's always the last people you expect."

"What was it this time?"

"He wanted us to go to the mountains. This late at night! And he even got Nichkhun-hyung to play along. Ha!" Chansung took a swig of his beer and wondered if he had the authority to make Jinwoon get some more. Maybe if he got into the swing of things... "Fuck him and his being audited to death and shit-" A loud cascade of metal pans crashing on the floor interrupted Chansung's colorful litany.

"Need help, hyung?" Jinwoon asked as he got on wobbly feet.

Changmin ignored him. "Say that again, Chansungie," he said, his face deathly white.

"What, Junho's craziness? Just something about auditors and getting as far away as we can. Maybe he has some money laundered somewhere, but I don't fucking get why he's dragging us into his mess- hyung, what the fuck?!"

"Hyung!"

Their latest bout of exclamations was justified when Changmin dumped the contents of Jinwoon's schoolbag on the floor, atop the pots and pans he'd earlier dropped in shock. He opened the fridge with such energy that a few jars from the door fell and broke messily. But Changmin didn't care; he was too focused on packing every single preserved food item they had into Jinwoon's bag. "Jinwoon, get our camping equipment and as much stuff as you can three minutes."

"Hyung-"

"Don't argue and just go!"

Changmin never yelled. So Jinwoon knew it was a good idea to shut up and go to their room and jam as much clothes as he can into whatever bag he could find.

"It's always the last people you expect," Chansung grumbled rebelliously as he drank another mouthful from his can. A swift movement at the corner of his eye caught his attention, but then something hit his head hard and everything suddenly blacked out.

"Sorry, Chansungie," Changmin muttered, preoccupied, "but you'll be easier to deal with this way." He rummaged through their cupboards for anything that looked useful for a sudden camping trip. He only stopped when Jinwoon's bag was bursting hard at the seams.

Jinwoon emerged from their room carrying their outdoor bags shortly after. He looked at his best friend, knocked out cold on the floor, a bruise forming on the side of his forehead, and a jar of pickled herring lying desolately a few feet away. Jinwoon didn't even need to ask what happened.

"Come on," Changmin said with a grunt as he lifted Chansung into his arms with considerable effort.

Jinwoon just nodded dumbly and followed his hyung out the door.

~*~



For now, let's go back to now.

Moving very quickly was well within the reach of Kikwang's powers. Realistically, if he truly applied himself, he could have found and returned with Onew long before sundown, even if sundown had been only five minutes away when Junho broke the news. But although having an excuse to use the higher reaches of his ability was entertaining, having a reason to spend time away from the cave was fun, and fun triumphed over entertainment any day of the week. So he took his time.

Of course, now that he thought about it, did he actually make a promise to Junho that he'd be back before sundown today? He couldn’t remember clearly... They just agreed that he should be back before sundown, but if no particular date was provided then it should be up to his discretion, yes? Yes. Totally. In fact, it would be "a manifestation of individual sovereignty intrinsic to the rights ascribed to his human free will" and Nichkhun-hyung would be so proud of him for actualizing his individuality. Right?

Right.

Besides, realistically Junho wouldn't have told him about Onew at all if he didn't expect Kikwang to search for him through the night, or if there was danger lurking about. Junho probably just said those things about being back before sundown so he could ease his own conscience, so he could remind himself that he warned Kikwang so it wasn't his fault if Kikwang never returned. Junho was pretty smart, and over-all he was a nice guy. But his abilities made him the logical choice to become the group's unofficial leader, even if no one really thought about it out loud, even if nobody actually put it in words.

Kikwang was just the muscle. The strongman. The get-things-done guy. He didn't mind.

The night wasn't as dangerous these days, now that the worst of the invasion had passed. Junho didn't tell them the nitty-gritty details. The rest of them never found out what the auditors did to people. Kikwang wasn't sure if he preferred it that way. But Junho had decided for him- for all of them, and he trusted Junho. Because that was what a leader did. That was what mattered in the end, right?

Now if he could just find Onew...

Altitude. He needed altitude.

Kikwang climbed the highest pile of concrete and steel he could find, making sure not to think too hard about the origins of the wreckage. And how many people were buried beneath it. No. He didn't need to think about that. It was a short step away from wondering about-

No. Now was not the time.

He scaled a jumble of twisted metal that had once upon a time been a billboard. He wondered if it was one of his advertisements. He took a deep breath and surveyed the surrounding destruction.

Soom. He was standing on the set of their Soom video, but this one was... more extensive. More real. And there were no lights anywhere.

He wasn't bothered about that last part. The rising moon was bright enough in the absence of city lights.

And without the bustle of the city, the absolute silence of the area was suffocating. That would serve his purposes now. Dongwoon told him that sound carried farther than most people thought. Kikwang just had to focus on his ears.

Times like these, he really loved being Lee Kikwang.

He only had to use Rank 4 to move the boulder that served as their cave door, and he used Rank 6 to travel seven miles in the minutes of sundown. But once he was there, he let go of everything and just returned to being Lee Kikwang, although he did have Rank 2 active just out of caution. But apart from that small concession to the danger that probably surrounded him, Kikwang took his time. He was in no rush.

Although...

He hadn't used Rank 8 in over a year now. That would be fun. And now was as good a time as any.

There was no flash of light, no sparkle in the air, no extensive transformation sequence full of special effects and upbeat dance music, and more importantly, there were no skirts involved. This wasn't Sailor Moon.

But around him, the night began to brighten. It almost turned blinding, but his natural limitations kicked in and the brightness stopped just short of daylight: he could enhance how his mind processed visual input, but there was nothing he could do about the actual eyes with which he was born. Same with his hearing: he became aware of the mild vibrations in the air that, earlier, he never even registered. These were ambient sounds, all within frequencies too low to actually be heard. But now that he was extending his senses, they became completely audible.

He could see details where there was once nothing but blur. He could hear sound that came from farther away. He wondered if this heightened state of mind was anything like how Junho experienced the world. It was like he lived whole life in a single room, and suddenly the walls vanished and the world showed itself to him…

And when he focused just right...

There it was.

Somewhere to his left and still very faint even now: ragged buzzing spaced minutes apart to his perception. But Kikwang was familiar with the nature of his powers, thanks largely (almost exclusively, really) to Junho's insight.

According to Junho’s theory, Rank 8 meant he was worth two hundred and fifty-six Lee Kikwangs concentrated into one body. His mental processes had been speeded up by that much, making everything he perceived around him, even the vibrations of sound itself, appear slower and more intense. Superhuman hearing.

And right now, that evenly spaced buzzing he picked up from far away was actually the sound of someone else's breathing.

Kikwang grinned. This was more like it! He loved his group, and he'd grown to love the members of 2PM who lived with them, but being cooped up for a week with no one else for company got a little bit stifling. Talking to a new person would be much more fun!

Kikwang gathered his feet beneath him and leapt with the leg strength of two hundred and fifty-six of himself. He didn't know the physics behind it, but he anticipated his foothold's reaction to his leap: the mass of metal and concrete exploded away from him in a burst of dust and debris. But he wasn't concerned; he was already airborne by the time the first shockwaves rippled outward.

Of course, that made it impossible to listen for Onew's breathing. But he had a general sense of his location now, and that was enough.

There. A lump in green clothes crouched by the foot of another pile of rubble, half turned towards the source of the explosion. Moving extremely slowly.

Kikwang overshot his mark and landed about a kilometer away, causing another shockwave in the pile of rubble that failed to absorb his impact. But what was a kilometer to him at this state? What were a few sharp edges to his skin that only a needle of diamond could pierce? Kikwang unburied himself from the wreckage and ran with the speed of two hundred and fifty-six Kikwangs towards Onew.

He didn't even notice the distance.

All he knew was that Onew was still turned towards the first explosion when Kikwang saw him. And Kikwang lowered his powers to Rank 4 so he wouldn't leave a wake of additional destruction behind him.

A wise decision, it turned out, because although a Rank 8 Lee Kikwang was pretty hard to kill, one of the things actually capable of harming him was the impact of a Rank 8 Lee Kikwang running at full speed and slamming face first into the unseen and impenetrable wall that surrounded the leader of SHINee.

Ow, was all Kikwang could think in his daze as he fell to the ground. The last thing he saw before he slipped into unconsciousness was Onew's emaciated face mouthing the words, "I'm sorry!"

~*~



Junho put down his half-eaten pear with a sigh.

"Not ripe enough?" Wooyoung asked with a raised eyebrow. Everyone else around the campfire stopped their conversations to watch Junho just in case.

"Kikwang's fine," he told the group at large. Dongwoon and Yoseob visibly relaxed. He let his vision enter the cave to check on Hyunseung, who didn't appear to have heard (or just didn't care) but was at least eating his can of jjigae with more fervor than days before. "He'll be back tomorrow. So let's wait until then?" he asked the last part while looking at Nichkhun, who nodded sagely and resumed eating his soup out of a recycled can of tuna. Everyone else followed suit, but a sense of doom lingered: it was the first time they'd spend a night incomplete. The pain of loss fed the worry of losing one more.

"Did he find Onew-hyung?" Dongwoon asked.

"Yeah. But given Onew's condition, I won't expect them back until noon." Junho bit into his pear again and let his vision roam. Nope, still no Auditors around. No other people either.

"Anyway, as I was saying," Yoseob broke in when Junho wouldn't say any more, "Wooyoung and I explored that abandoned cottage Junho found about two kilometers or so from here. No running water, no electricity, but there's a deep well and they have some actual food we can cook. I really can't emphasize this enough, but they have rice. And a deep well. That means fresh water and actual food. Are you all as excited as I am?"

"More excited when I mention that a deep well also means bath water," Wooyoung added. "And although I won't mention any names, some of us are starting to smell." The last part was said with a very deliberate turn towards Taecyeon, who looked affronted then embarrassed when everyone else either averted their eyes or nodded unabashed.

Nichkhun raised a hand. "Is there a toilet?" Wooyoung and Yoseob nodded, and Nichkhun looked like he was about to cry in bliss.

Yoseob continued. "And I'm not a hundred percent sure, but I think I smelled sweetened spices when I checked their basement. Which could mean fresh kimchi, but don't get your hopes up yet," he added quickly when everyone's shoulders hunched in excitement. "They could still be fermenting, or the owners could have just stored spices there when they, erm... left." Nobody reacted to the euphemism. They all just turned to Junho.

"I could protest that my powers have far better use than for gastronomic reconnaissance." He was met with blank looks (and a cynical smirk from Wooyoung who knew him too well). Junho sighed. "But honestly, I'd give it all up for a good bowl of kimchi right now." He knew he shouldn't, knew it was dangerous because focusing his attention enough to see details in just one area meant his range of awareness would go drastically narrower. That was why he'd sent explorers to the cottage in the first place. He directed his discarnate vision towards the area mapped by their two explorers (dubbed 'Dora' and 'Boots' by the ever helpful Taecyeon, but he didn't specify who was which). He found the cottage like he did once before. He found the basement at the cost of a three-mile radius of awareness. A further sacrifice let him focus on the jars.

Everyone got their answer when Junho started licking his lips.

Yoseob took a bite from his fruit to tide over the imaginary taste of kimchi. "How's Hyunseung?" he asked instead.

That, at least, brought everyone back to the present.

"He still won't talk to anyone," Dongwoon said, worried. "I know he can hear us just fine because I watch his eyes, but he just. Won't."

"Calm down, Dongwoonie," Yoseob said soothingly as Nichkhun wrapped the youngest in a one-armed hug. Junho glared at Wooyoung when he sensed that a sardonic joke was forthcoming, and Wooyoung let the moment pass with a roll of his eyes.

He'd have to the watch that. Wooyoung, who had always been mentally strong, whose sanity was practically invincible, never understood weakness in others.

And to hell with numbers and comparisons, Junho thought. Beast lost more than 2PM did. Junsu's role in the group was more musical than dynamic, and that bastard Chansung was peripheral; as long as Taecyeon and Nichkhun were around, the heart of their group was intact and 2PM would carry on. And bitter as the topic may still be, 2PM had already coped with loss before. They weren't strangers to heartbreak as a group. But Beast... they lost their leader and their disciplinarian, their two solid minds. The group mom and dad, the two people who anchored them to the ground.

And there was no getting around the fact that had it not been for Beast, had it not been for Kikwang's preparations and generosity, 2PM wouldn't be alive at all.

Was this how Jay thought behind that face of talent and confidence? Always assessing his groupmates, always ready to pass judgment if only to himself whether or not someone was furthering the group's goals? Was this how leaders thought?

Junho fought down the disgust at his own cold judgments. But they were needed. They weren't working together for awards and recognition anymore. This time, everything was about survival. It may have been a while since he last saw an Auditor, but there was no denying the fact that their presence still lingered. In the silence, in the darkness of the night, in the absence of anyone else to talk to, the Auditors were there.

And the bad thing was that Junho wasn't waxing poetic. He truly could still feel them, just beyond the limits of his extensive vision. He could sense them. Working towards a goal. Meaning they weren't through with screwing the world yet.

Meaning no one was safe, and it was up to him and Kikwang – and if they played their cards right, maybe Onew as well – to keep everyone alive.

~*~



Back to then, just before everything changed.

"No response still?" Changmin asked tersely with his eyes fixed on the road.

"None yet," Jinwoon said with more than a note of nervousness. "Hyung, we really should just go back and tell the managers."

"What, that Junho and now Changmin-hyung have gone crazy?" Chansung laughed cynically from the backseat. The lump on his head was throbbing painfully, and he felt thoroughly justified in being as scathing as he possibly could. "Yeah, go do that, Jinwoon. Let's see if they care."

Changmin ignored the jibe. A lot of things were more important than Chansung right now. At the top of the list was getting them out of the city before they arrived. But now that he was aware of them, now that he knew he should be on guard, he could feel their presence at the back of his mind. He cursed himself for being careless. For allowing himself to be distracted by success in the entertainment industry. For not noticing that the Auditors were acting up. For forgetting why he entered the military at a young age. For forgetting why he agreed to return to Korea in the first place.

There wasn't time to do anything about it now. If the tacticians were right in predicting the invasion sequence, most of mainland Asia was about to be harrowed to a wasteland. And since the Auditors were attacking three years earlier than the tacticians expected, they would likely succeed. So Seoul was about to be lost, along with all of Korea. But even the Auditors couldn't comb through every square inch of land.

There wasn't time, but there could still be hope. Changmin just had to get away from the main population. He had to survive. He had to be there when the Underground mounted their counterattack. Late as they may be. An unexpected agent at the right place and the right time could mean a world of difference.

And maybe he could find out why Junho knew about the Auditors in the first place.

There was still hope. Not for everyone... but there was still hope.

"Hyung," Jinwoon said delicately. "I think my phone's signal just went out."

Which meant they've finally started. "Then throw it away. We won't need it from now on."

Jinwoon looked scandalized enough to widen his eyes. He cradled his phone to his chest and silently agreed with Chansung's assessment.



[- Part 2 -]

Tags: 02 fandom: 2am, 02 fandom: 2pm, 02 fandom: beast, 02 fandom: shinee, 02 fandom: super junior, 03 universe: aleph, changmin*2am, chansung, donghae, henry, hyunseung, jinwoon, jokwon, junho, kikwang, nichkhun, onew, seulong, taecyeon, wooyoung, yeoseob
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