jongin/joonmyun, minseok/luhan, mild chanyeol/baekhyun
oneshot length, split into two posts
my entry for aideshou's third challenge! please vote here if you liked it? :)
also, happy birthday to emmyxogast~
The world rises from its end in bright, gentle ways, and Joonmyun and Jongin aren’t at the center of it all, but they’re close enough to be surrounded by the lights.
Jongin wants to believe that it wasn’t very long ago.
He doesn’t let anything get into his father’s house – a little, leafy tendril sneaking past a crack in the wall or a cat making its way in through the window are signs of neglect, and it’s not good to neglect the house of someone who had taken care of you, even when the rest of the world was busy trying to gather itself together.
But it used to be father and son keeping the walls clean, the pipes in order, the yard from getting overgrown. Now it’s just a boy and a thermos of coffee brewed exactly the way dad liked it, a ratio of ground beans and sugar and milk and effort found after a number of trials, all as a small way to say thanks. A thermos of coffee that will never be emptied.
He buries his dad in the yard with a thermos of coffee, brewed just the way they both liked it.
(His sister’s and his mother’s mugs are buried, too, so that they can all share.)
Jongin wants to believe that it wasn’t very long ago, because that means he has an excuse to stay. He has to keep the vines from covering the walls. Keep the weeds from choking his mother’s bed of aster. Keep the house clean and dust-free, because his older sister tends to sneeze all over the place with just a hint of it, or keep his room tidy and his desk messy with textbooks so that he can tell his parents that he studied, when all he had actually done was play video games for hours.
But even if Jongin's lost track of the days, the pipes have already rust, the grass is already up to his knees, and the vines are on everything, now, crawling over the bikes he and his sister would use to race through the neighborhood, or climbing on the porch from where his parents would chat with each other over a piece of toast or a newspaper. These things are already gone.
It’s been too long, and Jongin knows he can’t stay anymore.
He packs a bagful of food and clothes, a few batteries, his smallest flashlight, and then a pocketful of pictures and little things that Jongin knows he won’t find anywhere else, like the bookmark his dad always used or the ribbon that was always in his sister’s hair. And he knows that, one day, he might forget what these things mean, or that he might even forget himself, but he brings them because. Because.
He locks the front door, turns around, and walks a few confident steps forward –
But when he makes it onto the pavement, he finds himself looking back.
His gaze lingers, and although he hates to admit it, there’s a small part of him that's waiting for his family, or his home, or even just his father’s arms reaching out to him because his mother and his sister and all the world have been swept away. But this is just a house and a yard that have been lost in the tide, and Jongin knows that he won’t see anything here.
He turns around and finds the world, still and quiet and vast. It's intimidating to think that Jongin will have to wander out there, but maybe, if he starts small, he’ll find something.
Jongin’s learned not to look for well-trimmed gardens, or expect toast and milk when he wakes up, or a dinner table that has more than one plate. He’s not searching for someone who will take care of him just as his father did, unconditionally and unceasingly until what ceased was him. All he is looking for now is a voice that isn’t his own.
So he closes his eyes, listens to what’s left behind, and starts walking.
in the gaps between the fireflies
He goes to the train station first. Maybe it works. Maybe he can go to deeper parts of the city, or maybe go right to heart of the capital, and surely, surely, someone will be there.
Of course it doesn’t work.
He leans against the railing and looks down at the tracks – they’ve become the path of a river, shallow and clear and keeping a number of pads afloat. No fish, no dragonflies; only two fireflies skimming along the surface, illuminating the metal rails sunken beneath. The only thing floating along the undercurrent is a plastic bag and an overturned paper boat that’s already as brown as the roots tangling around it.
Jongin leans a bit more forward and squints to see the beginnings of a white lily nestled between two leaves.
It’s already dusk and Jongin’s only bag is lying at his feet, a sleeping bag in it waiting to be unfolded. On the other side of the track is a thicket, not too dense but dark and deep anyway, and Jongin realizes with a bit of a start that he has to go in there – the station is all steel beams and wires but a fire needs wood to last into the night, even if it’s one that just needs to burn long enough to lull Jongin to sleep.
He makes his way across the railroad, stepping only on the tracks as if he’s crossing a bridge of half-submerged stones, and turns on his flashlight just as his shoes crunch on grass. The beam of light is solitary, too bright, and a necessary eyesore.
It’s hard to find dry wood near a creek, so Jongin goes deeper until the trees start to grow taller and denser, tangling their branches right above his head like nervous fingers. But even though his light’s starting to reach shorter and closer, it’s more peaceful than he thought it would be, maybe because he knows that anyone he’d find won’t try to harm him. They’d both be survivors, after all.
When he sees an orange light flickering from between the trees, however, the only part of him that doesn’t freeze is his heart, beating so hard against his breastbone that Jongin feels like it’ll break. What is that? Can’t be a firefly; Jongin hasn’t seen one as big as a baseball –
The words are too far away for him to make out, but from the light’s direction is the steady, lilting hum of a song.
Jongin’s heartbeats leap into his throat and he runs.
For a moment, the light stops, and Jongin’s about to smile, but then it suddenly starts moving farther away and deeper amongst the trees – Jongin cups a hand around his mouth to yell but the distance between stretches longer and longer until the light’s completely gone from his vision, taking the song with it. Taking the voice with it.
Grinding the soles of his shoes into the soil, Jongin tries to bite down any sounds of disappointment, listening to the last wisps of the notes as they fade away. He’ll find that voice, one day. It’s all that’s left.
He sets up a fire at the train station and eats half a can of tuna before falling asleep.
(Memories of his sister freshen themselves in his mind, singing and laughing, and he repeats them to himself until he’s almost sure that he’ll never forget them.
He gets two visitors, that night, both lonely in their own ways; one who wants to be listened to and one who is looking for food.)
Jongin wakes up to find a cat rummaging through his bag, trying to bite through a can of sardines.
He pulls the can open, but brings it up with him as he stands, and the cat starts clawing at his pants. Jongin feeds it a fish but it keeps scratching his leg and asking for more.
Because he has nothing better to do, he just resumes his journey with the can in his hands, the cat trotting next to his feet as it trails after. He feeds it, dangles the food above its head sometimes, amusing himself with its reactions.
And maybe he’s a bit lonely.
Eventually, he finds himself out of the thicket and in a small expanse of concrete Jongin eventually identifies as a parking lot behind a mall.
He makes his way around the building, looking into the shops and displays lining the outer walls. The lights are all shut. He hasn’t found a door to enter, yet, but even if he finds one, he’s not sure if he’ll go in – he doesn’t like malls when they’re big and empty and remind him how alone he is.
The cat meows up at him again, and maybe he’s not.
With a flick of its tail, it suddenly turns and starts leading the way with all the flair of a princess. Jongin just follows, flashlight strap looped around the wrist of one hand a can of sardines in the fingers of the other, feeling like a butler.
The cat then walks up the mall’s front steps, stopping right outside two glass doors.
Jongin pushes them open and enters.
He finds himself staring into a pair of wide eyes and he almost runs, but the cat’s practically climbing up his leg, and this is not a monster, he reminds himself. This is a person. But he ends up having a staring contest anyway, only broken when the cat mews again, waving a paw at the can in Jongin’s hands.
Jongin drops a sardine in its mouth and the other man quirks on a smile, his tense shoulders relaxing and leaning back onto the bench’s backrest. “Man, I wish I had a pet with me now, too.”
The first thing that comes to Jongin’s mind comes out of his mouth with little thought. He hasn’t used his own voice in a while, after all. “She’s not my pet, but survivors have to stick together.”
The other man’s smile broadens and Jongin takes this as a good thing, so he decides to take a few steps closer.
He finally gets a proper look at this stranger: dressed in medical school whites, face sickly and gaunt, a bag at his side and an I.D. draped around his neck. Byun Baekhyun.
Jongin feels like he has to introduce himself back, seeing that, and so he does.
Baekhyun smiles a bit wider and pats the empty space next to him on the bench. “You can sit, you know.”
Slipping his bag to the floor, Jongin takes a seat, and the cat climbs onto his lap to gobble the rest of the sardine can’s contents. He strokes its fur and realizes that asking someone if they’ve seen a voice is not a very good idea, so he says instead, “Why are you here?”
Baekhyun hums before he responds, looking out the mall’s transparent front doors. The weather’s clear and bright. “I’m waiting for someone.”
“We meet up here after our classes, since we study in different med schools.” Baekhyun reaches over to scratch behind the cat’s ear, and it drops the fish in its mouth back into the can to snuggle up to Baekhyun’s long, graceful fingers. “I usually arrive last, though. Have you seen any incredibly smiley people with ugly green jackets?”
A smile forms on Jongin’s face, but he shakes his head. “Sorry, haven’t. How long have you been here?”
And Baekhyun’s eyes turn glassy. “…A while.”
Jongin looks away.
The cat eventually pushes the empty can off of Jongin’s lap and rolls into a ball.
Baekhyun strokes its fur again and a grin bubbles on his face, trying to fit into it, and much too weary to do so. But it’s bright enough in the mall’s shadows. “How about you? Why are you here?”
“I’m looking for someone,” Jongin says, but then his hand pauses over the cat’s fur. He’s not really sure what to say about a person he hasn’t even seen; there’s so little to work on. “That person… hums. Has an orange. Never mind.” Gathering the cat into his arms, he stands. “I’m looking for other people in general. And like I said earlier, survivors have to stick together, so.” He shifts the cat onto one arm and stretches the other in Baekhyun’s direction. “Let’s go?”
For a moment, Baekhyun looks up, expression betraying absolutely nothing and yet saying everything. He only claps Jongin’s outstretched hand and puts on a small, sad smile. “Thanks, but I… I’m waiting for someone. Maybe, I can – we can meet up with you.” His voice shrinks. “Later.”
Something comes to Jongin’s mind, then – the days where he would set four plates on the dinner table and end up only cleaning one, the times when he'd gather his family’s dirty clothes baskets, even though they’re only ever empty, empty, empty anyway. It’s not easy an easy feeling to get over, and with a bit of a heavy heart, he realizes that Baekhyun hasn’t managed to, yet. Jongin might have to continue on his search without him.
But what if Baekhyun won't be alone, after all?
Jongin lowers his hand and puts it in his pocket instead, fingers searching. Eventually, he finds a thin length of fabric, and although the part of Jongin that doesn’t like change is clamoring to stop stop stop, the world has already changed irrevocably and Jongin pulls it out, raising it in Baekhyun’s direction. His sister’s hair ribbon is a yellow that’s as lively as always. “Get this. Now you owe me, and you’ll really have to meet up later.”
With wide, confused eyes and an insincere smile, Baekhyun gently tugs the ribbon into his own palms, and Jongin looks away as he continues speaking. “Girls like that kind of thing, right? Just don’t tell her I gave it to you.”
A pause, and then Baekhyun’s eyes widen.
Suddenly he’s chuckling, the sound a bit more loud and clear and real, and Jongin fights down a mortified blush. What’s so funny?
“I’m waiting for a guy,” Baekhyun says, hands in his lap and feeling the ribbon with his fingers. Jongin finds his eyes screwing shut in embarrassment but a fond smile comes onto Baekhyun’s face, thoughtful, wishing, and lost. “I’m sure he won’t mind – he’s already crossdressed anyway.” The corners of his lips tremble downward as he chuckles. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” Jongin tries a small smile of his own. Angling himself slightly away, he makes an awkward bob of his head and slings his backpack over his free arm’s shoulder. “I have to continue searching, though. It was nice talking to you.”
Smiling a bit better, Baekhyun waves a goodbye, and Jongin leaves.
He already has a hand on the door when he hears a sob coming from behind him, quiet and muffled.
Jongin just closes his eyes and continues on his way.
For the night, he settles somewhere along the only path leading from the mall, a long road winding through a thinning forest and toward a familiar suburb Jongin knows to be where he went to for school. It’s the next morning when he arrives and his feet automatically start tracing his old routine, starting from the bus stop; from there, he'd drop by the cafeteria for a bit of a snack, then laze around in one of the outdoor gazebos until first class began…
None of the doors are locked, but Jongin never goes inside, not until the cat suddenly wakes and slips out of Jongin’s arms to enter the library.
A shiver crawls up Jongin’s spine and he makes his way after, dodging past woody vines stringing themselves between bookcases and a few puddles of water that have gathered on the tiled floor. The cat has little difficulty getting past these things, but Jongin is a human, managing to keep up only until the cat leaps into someone’s arms –
Jongin stops right in his tracks, not staring into surprised eyes, this time. They’re round and crinkled in a smile that’s directed at the cat, and then at him, their owner half-crouched to pat the kitten on the floor. “Well, hey! I was about to accept that the only faces I’d ever see again are the ones on the book covers. Pretty glad you came.”
It turns out that Kim Minseok isn’t a chemistry student like Jongin thought he’d be, considering how the other man’s wearing a lab coat. He’s shorter than Jongin but a few years older, and this shows in the way he forms his words, well-thought yet warm. Neither of them are particularly talkative but Minseok asks and listens and Jongin finds himself speaking anyway, eventually talking about an encounter with a light and a voice which had spurred him into his search – silly, and maybe a bit embarrassing, but Minseok only smiles and says, “I can look around with you, if you want.”
Jongin’s ears flush at his own stutter and Minseok chuckles, replying with a yes.
Maybe it’s because this is the first happy conversation he’s had in a while, but they end up talking until the sky’s already turning a dark blue, and Jongin thinks to set up camp on one of the library’s more open floors. There are books all around them and maybe he can take advantage of the ones with multiple copies to keep his campfire burning longer.
But it turns out that the library has a fireplace surrounded by couches someplace near the back, and that’s where Minseok’s been sleeping all this time, which is just as clever as him living off of the instant noodles from the cafeteria or using the gym’s poolside showers when he needs to wash. A huge pile of books are already in the hearth, and Jongin sets them aflame with his lighter before falling onto one of the sofas with a satisfied stretch – sleeping outside of a sleeping bag is always a nice change.
He’s already dozing off when he hears a soft, low hum of notes in rhythm and Minseok’s voice, sleepy and muffled into a sleeve. It’s been a while since someone’s bid Jongin goodnight, and in the back of his mind is something of a lullaby – Jongin can’t help his eyes contentedly sliding shut as he says a goodnight back, and he falls asleep.
This time, the song continues into his dreams, and it sounds from so close and yet so far that Jongin wants to look and search. He tries to open his eyes, but he can’t, and so he frantically reaches out – where are you? Where are you? He stops following with his senses and listens with his soul, but then the world starts to shake and –
“Good morning,” Minseok says, a hand on Jongin’s shoulder.
Jongin squints and sits up through the pounding in his temples. It takes him a while to calm his heartbeat and his voice. “Was I having a nightmare?”
Minseok tilts his head, a worried narrow to his eyes. “It didn’t seem like you were, but I think we should get going while it’s still bright out.” He angles his head toward the window a few feet behind him, and the sky’s a light, waking orange, blending into a faint blue.
After a brief restocking of supplies and Minseok packing his own bag, they’re off.
They find themselves in a modest residential area of bungalows and low-lying houses, and Jongin wonders if he would’ve wanted to live there, if he had seen it before the roads and sidewalks were broken by shallow lakes of rainwater and sprawls of flowering grass. Each doorstep they pass reminds Jongin of his own home, covered in just as much vines and worn by just as much time, but Jongin strives to keep going and so he swallows, resolutely looking forward.
Minseok suddenly stops to stare at a house to their right.
Jongin backtracks a few steps and follow Minseok’s gaze – all he sees is the decrepit, holed wall of a wooden shed in someone’ yard, almost obscured by unruly shrubs. “What? What’s up?”
“Looks like a gas-powered generator,” Minseok says, turning towards it and making his way past the drooping branches of a short tree to inspect it closer. Jongin’s follows after, letting Minseok poke at the generator and keeping watch instead – the hairs on his neck are rising oddly. Is there someone here?
From behind him, Minseok says, “I hope these LPG tanks aren’t empty…”
Jongin’s about to turn and offer help when Minseok suddenly pulls something and the house next to them buzzes to life, the lights flickering on and the television turned to a never-ending buzz, but working all the same. It’s like a revival.
For a moment, Minseok and Jongin are at a loss.
Then the cat’s already clinging onto Jongin’s pants when he realizes that he’s already halfway through the yard, dashing for a warm shower, and he stops and turns around to see Minseok’s unimpressed face. “As I was saying, I’m turning this off to save the gas for emergencies.”
“Isn’t this an emergency?” Jongin says back, but he’s already ambling towards Minseok in defeat, limping with a cat on his leg. “A nice shower every once in a while would be – ”
The door behind him suddenly slams open and Jongin whirls back around, hands up and covering his face –
There’s a bit of a pause, and then the cat on his leg detaches itself to strut over to Minseok’s feet.
Jongin cracks an eye open to see a man with tired, confused eyes and shaggy black hair.
“Um.” Jongin lowers his hands slowly. “Hi.”
Minseok smiles from behind him.
The house they had just suddenly powered is not Huang Zitao’s house, but the house of someone who is gone. However, it’s the only house along the street that has a gas-powered generator, and the tanks aren’t exactly hard to find around the neighborhood, so had Zitao figured, why not settle here? He’s always known how to live on his own, and although he hasn’t actually experienced it until now, it’s not very hard.
And he hates it.
He has half of a living room wall dedicated to posters of missing people, and then the entirety of another covered with newspaper clippings, magazine cut-outs, book pages. There’s a single phrase common in all of them.
Minseok briefly scans them with a resigned, weary eye, but Jongin has never seen any of these before and he approaches the walls with apprehension bubbling in his chest – just about every word is optimistic in nature, with headlines like Activation of the Eudaimonia Chambers, the Most Anticipated Event of the Century, or A Real-life Utopia: The Eudaimonia Chambers’ Goal, and so many, many more. It’s much too dizzying to look at and Jongin wants to read but he doesn’t, because what will he find? Jongin’s already disappointed enough.
“Did you gather all these?” Standing a distance away with his lab coat folded in his arms, Minseok’s eyes briefly linger on the articles before turning away, instead wandering to the posters. They stay rooted to one of them in particular but Jongin’s skimming the paragraphs and finding words like ‘synchronicity’ and ‘world solidarity’ and ‘absolute trust’ – everything is too miraculous. It’s almost propaganda.
“Yeah.” Zitao places a few bottles of water on the coffee table, briefly pushing one each in Minseok’s and Jongin’s directions, and sits on the couch. Minseok sits on the opposite armchair after and Zitao continues with clenched fists, looking too tightly wound into his own body. “I’m trying to find out who did it.”
Minseok gives Zitao a brief, sympathetic look but turns to the wall, then at Jongin. Everything is still.
On the wall is a poster that begins ‘Missing: Huang’ and ends half-hidden beneath the borders of another.
Jongin looks outside the window, and the sky seems clearer and brighter than it had been before the end, and the grass more verdant and crisp. There is nothing else alive but that and them and Jongin doesn’t want to think about the reasons. Maybe this is already a utopia all on its own, except that they just haven’t been able to tell, yet. Maybe they can end it with that.
But they can’t.
Zitao is an incredibly lonely person, Jongin and Minseok soon realize, living only a life of sleeping and eating and breathing and searching for what he calls leads, but what Minseok calls memories and what Jongin acknowledges as memories that hold him back. Zitao brings them along, sometimes, when he goes searching buildings for any evidence, but they don’t stay with Zitao to find out who caused the end – Jongin stays because he doesn’t want to leave someone behind again, as was his mistake with Baekhyun, and Minseok stays because he simply doesn’t leave people behind, period.
His words are subtle tries to pry Zitao off of his desperate search but Zitao only ends up holding tighter, thinking their presences to be encouragement. There’s nothing they can do but stay a bit longer. They end up staying until they become close enough to share things like how Minseok used to be considered a genius in his school years, or how Jongin used to be a dance major and a trainee at an entertainment company, or how Zitao used to take walks on the beach – just the little, small things that all begin with ‘used to’. There’s not much ‘now’ to talk about, after all.
Still, Zitao’s scavenging sessions get shorter with each passing day, with him shaving off an hour to play with their pet cat, and then half of another to talk a bit more over dinner. One more half hour to talk with them after, when they’re just lying in grass and well aware that they won’t be bitten by anything. Eventually they fall into a routine and maybe, they really can end it, just like this.
Jongin is almost fooled.
He falls asleep one night to a lullaby and it carries over into his dreams, as usual. He already knows that he can’t ever open his eyes in them, and he already knows that any attempts to follow the voice will only end with him jolting awake. The longing is a familiar, almost frantic sensation.
But tonight, something in Jongin keeps him calm, a warmth wrapped right around him just as the voice is. Soothing and safe. It’s right here. He doesn’t need to go looking because it’s right here. His skin tingles comfortably as he floats in the invisible hold, and hears a voice, gentle, happy. You heard me.
The first thing he does is pack his bags, and Minseok awakens a bit later, the clinks and rustles rousing him. The sky’s just a transitioning periwinkle but Jongin’s already dressed when Minseok finally opens his eyes and speaks. His words are soft, sleep-logged, and low. “Jongin? What’s wrong?”
But Zitao stirs on his bed and Jongin repeatedly flicks his gaze to the door instead, shouldering his bag. With a small exhale, Minseok stands from his mattress on the floor and follows Jongin out of the room, stretching sleep out of his bones.
The moment they’re in the living room, Jongin turns around and says, “The voice spoke. I think I’m the only one who can hear it, but it did, I swear.”
“What voice?” Minseok replies, syllables fairly slurred and his head lolled against his own shoulder. But after only a few moments, his eyes begin to widen and the rest of Minseok’s face starts to wake up, too. “The voice you’ve been talking about? The one you've been hearing since last week?”
Jongin’s about to nod, but something like ice settles in his chest, cold and not quite fitting there. “We’ve been here for that long?”
At the tone of Jongin’s voice, Minseok’s expression slightly softens. “We’ve stayed for a week, but I’m sure the person who owns that voice is still fine.”
Surely, please, surely. Jongin goes back to packing again, this time his food, and Minseok retreats to the bedroom to get his own bag. But Minseok takes less time trying to fit his clothes in a single place than Jongin does and he ends up making breakfast, too, for all three of them – heated canned steaks and fried eggs that smelled okay and looked okay when Minseok had cracked them open. A special meal for their departure, bigger than their usual ones.
Zitao wakes and the conversation’s not as bad as Jongin thought it would be, but still a bit messy.
The first things Zitao sees when he goes to get food are Minseok’s and Jongin’s bags, leaning against his wall of newspaper articles. He immediately reacts with wide eyes, shoulders curling. “Are you guys leaving?”
Jongin finds himself stilling, and it’s Minseok who speaks, trying to pacify by pushing a paper plate of food in Zitao’s direction. “I’m sure you know that we can’t just stay in a single place. There might be others like us out there.” He sits and takes a bite from his own breakfast, smiling in Zitao’s direction. “You can come with us if you want.”
Something heavy tugs on the corners of Zitao’s lips, dragging them downward into a thin, disappointed line. “So you’re really.” He swallows. “Leaving.”
Minseok opens his mouth to respond but Zitao speaks first, fists balled at his sides. “Weren’t we looking for the ones behind all this?”
“We were, but we have to move on.” Minseok nibbles on a piece of slightly burnt steak and looks at Zitao’s direction, but not quite at his face. He’s still smiling, telling Zitao that it’ll be fun, that they’ll be looking for survivors together and traipsing all over the country like in a movie, but Zitao only responds with a sharp stare directed away.
Jongin doesn’t look at either of them and finds his eyes fixing onto Zitao’s newspaper-covered wall, brushing over the headlines. A World Without Conflict. Global Empathy. Things they aren’t any closer to.
They’ve already settled into an uneasy silence when Zitao speaks again, syllables sharpening. “Who are you guys looking for?”
Jongin still doesn’t speak and Minseok’s shoulders slightly deflate in exasperation, but he replies anyway, same smile on his face. It’s starting to look manufactured. “We’re just looking for other survivors, not really anyone in particular. Sure, we have particular people we want to see, too, and we’d want to find them – ”
Zitao’s voice is soft, but his words are edged with something harsh. “You’re just trapped in the past.”
Face slowly melting into a blank, Minseok only exhales before he turns and picks up the cat from the floor, settling it into his lap and feeding it a small chunk of meat. Zitao then turns to Jongin instead and Jongin looks back, steeling his own gaze as Zitao speaks. “Are you hoping to find someone you know, too?”
Jongin swallows, and his own words almost surprise himself. “Should it matter? We find who we find.” A few, soft notes echo from within his head, and Jongin stands. “And the one trapped in the past is you.”
When Zitao looks down to his lap, his eyes are wide and betrayed and Jongin almost feels guilty. But then Zitao mumbles, “Trying to find out what happened is better than trying to look for people who are probably already dead.”
Minseok frowns, and Jongin leaves the table.
The voice rings again, real and surely, surely alive, and he crouches to get his bag. “Then stay. We’re not forcing you. Go looking for articles if you want, or names you can blame, if it helps you sleep at night.” As he turns around, his eyes find the only missing poster on the wall that’s partly hidden from the rest, and he says, “All our families are gone, but the only one who’s staying behind to find an explanation is you.”
Zitao stands too, and – “But we might find a cure!” His eyes shine as he runs a hand over the wall of articles and headlines and the ink smudges all over the surface, all the idealistic words and hopeful declarations wiped over. “And m-maybe, maybe everyone can go back, and…”
Jongin remembers how they all left him, pale fingertips and closed eyes that faded into fireflies, one for each of them. He remembers the soft, gentle glow in the air where his mother was, and the bright, exuberant light in place of his sister. He remembers how his father left too, a taking a bit longer, a firefly that rose from a patch of overturned dirt and twirled over his head before disappearing into the sky. There were bodies gone, and a body buried.
That was not just sublimation into light, and not just an illness – Jongin turns to leave and says, “When someone finds a cure for death, maybe I’ll believe you.”
The hand Zitao has on the wall jolts to a stop, fingers resting above a headline. The Eudaimonia Chambers: Changing Impossibilities to Realities.
With a worried glance in Zitao’s direction, Minseok stands and slings his own bag over his shoulder.
But Jongin doesn’t look back as he opens the front door, and the view is the same, no matter where he looks or which house he looks from – vines, plants, water, all left still and pristine except by the wind and a path of grass creased by their footprints. “It’s already done.”
Minseok inclines his head in Zitao’s direction, and with a small “Stay safe,” he walks towards the front door as well. The cat follows after him, fur lightly stirring in the breeze.
Jongin’s strides past the yard are much too long, hurried, and his legs and arms tremble. But when his shoes meet the pavement, this time, Jongin only continues walking.
It’s the middle of the night and the humming is still there, but the song is different. It’s more comforting, this time around. More quiet.
He tells this to Minseok, and the other man turns, lying on his back and closing his eyes. His words are only half-serious, but. “Maybe it’s trying to soothe your guilty conscience.”
Jongin covers his hands and rolls on his side with a sigh. Half-serious, sure, and half-joking, but it sounds plausible.
Momentarily, the song pauses, and then there’s a tinkle of a bell, almost a small, soft laugh that echoes from all around him.
They’re already falling asleep when there’s an approaching rustle of shrubs and both Jongin and Minseok sit up in alarm, but then the bushes part way to show Zitao, breaths harsh, dried streaks running from his eyes, and a bag resting on his back. His eyes are wide, and they’re guilty, too.
Of course they let him stay.
His dreams are the same as always, but he’s much, much closer, this time – the warmth is solid, now, leaning against his back. It moves in time with the pauses in the songs, rising with inhales, gently thrumming with heartbeats, dipping with exhales.
Jongin listens closely, and thinks to speak, once, but the voice seems so fragile and somehow still so far away that Jongin doesn’t want to break the melody. He listens closely, only listens, and lets himself sink into the sound.
One day, he'll find it.