All the strangers came today
And it looks as though they're here to stay.
Times were hard. They had to scrummage for food in the food depots, even though everyone knew the depots were useless. You could go there, before the trucks came with ration packets, at 3.48 a.m., with dust and gunk in your eyes and sweat sticking your shirt to your back in itchy folds, and wait, and you'd still never get a full ration packet. Jonghyun remembered the first time he'd gotten a full one - he was twelve, he'd been in line for four hours, and the bangs over his face were red from some spray paint can he'd found in an abandoned basement. It was probably one of the best days in his life. It was six years ago, and he'd never gotten a full packet again.
The reason for this wasn't as shrouded in mystery as a stranger to the situation might think it to be. It was simple: the rich had a lot of money (that is, primarily, the reason they were - and are - labelled as 'rich'), and do whatever they want with it to get anything they want. In this particular case, the vast 'anything' is replaced by a particular subcategory, 'food', adjacent to an adjectival phrase 'a lot of', which results in the want of 'a lot of food'. This they paid scandalous amounts for, without care of (although, in some odd cases, with the particular intention of cutting off means for) others. Anyone without wealth automatically had to resign to a lack of food also.
The government's eternal clamouring advertisements of free education were mostly ignored. Survival mattered, not civilisation. The quickest means of getting food was stealing, in itself a laborious task. Nobody in their region of the city - nobody had anything. You had to scale walls festered with ivy and barbed wire to get into the suburbs, where there was anything worth stealing. A successful day might get two bagels and a half-empty glass of milk ("Half-full," Jinki insisted). The milk always went to the youngest in the family. Jonghyun never really got the point, but it seemed some sort of unspoken law amongst everybody, and Jinki had a lot of long-winded passages about morality and calcium and the betterment of the majority or something to back it up, so he didn't really mind.
Times were hard, and there was next to no hope of things getting better.
The boy in front of him turned to his left and walked away, head down. It was Jonghyun's turn. The machine whirred and bent down over a great heap of shining black plastic, plucked something and placed it in front of him. It looked suspiciously devoid of substance. But it could be water. Sometimes the packets just had water. He stared hard at it for a few seconds, then shrugged and grabbed it, walking away in his own turn.
The day was grey, like everything else in the city. The sky was bleak, hopeless, the buildings tall and dead. The wind blew over his ears and into his hair. His bangs were blond and brown. Bleach wasn't that hard to come by.
The gravel caught in his toes. He frowned as he pushed past warmth and flesh, the surging walls of people. They were all waiting, scrambling, yelling for food. Everyone knew the depots were useless, but they had no other option. He stuffed the packet in his pocket, away from grimy, grabbing hands. It made a reassuring bulge on his waist, and fingered the shape of it as he made his way home.
Home was a mile away. He usually took around three quarters of an hour, tops. (It was something most people were surprised by - his being short, and fast anyway.) Something was very bad about the day, though. Hopelessness and grey and dirt and heat - he knew them, and knew them well. But there was a smell in the air, a tint to it that he couldn't understand. Not dangerous, but potentially... potentially something. Unknown. He was wary.
He cleared the crowds in fifteen minutes, and looked up at the heavy, red sun. It looked fat, as if it was feeding off the hunger of everyone in all the half-starved places. Probably around ten million. Then he noticed something strange about it that he couldn't recall seeing before - the egg-yolk in the sky was frying - something he'd only seen twice before in his life, in a pan, and never before in the sky. The thing was wavering around its rusty edges, its circumference shrinking and growing infinitesimally. As he squinted at it, brows knit together, he felt something like cold water water drip onto his forehead, and batted at the sudden invasion quickly. The only moisture he saw, as he lowered his hand to his eyes, was sweat. But there was always sweat! And it never appeared suddenly. It squeezed out the skin in tiny beads that grew larger and larger until they trickled down.
Strange. He shrugged it off, still frowning.
Nothing else happened by the time he reached. The good window was shut and the broken one faced an impossibly tiny cranny, so he couldn't tell whether or not anyone was home. 'Welcome' said the semicircular mat outside the bent door. 'Dust off your Godforsaken dirty feet over here before entering, you little twit,' it meant. Jonghyun smiled and jumped lightly over it.
Only Jinki seemed to be at home, and he had that metal thing turned on, as usual. He was looking worried. "What's that again?" Jonghyun nodded casually towards it, making for the sink to wash his hands. "Oh, and morning," he added, as Jinki only nodded absently and leaned closer to it, fiddling with a knob. A shrill, whirring sound came from it. "TURN IT OFF!" he yelled, and Jinki looked at him with surprise, as if only then realizing that he'd arrived. His fingers snapped the knob the other way quickly, and it came out in his hand. He hissed, but waved at Jonghyun. "Good morning," he smiled quietly, as he struggled to put it back in. "Got food?"
"Mm. Don't think so. Maybe just water." A few drops hustled quickly out the tap, and he wiped them up to his wrists. Jinki nodded again, sitting back on his haunches and looking at him properly. "It's good. We need clean water."
"Clean," Jonghyun repeated, thickly. He didn't really care about clean. He'd rather it was simply there, and drinkable, and didn't make any of them sick. The only things he liked clean, if he was honest with himself, were hands, and hair. Not to eat, but to look at. Touch and feel with. Jinki's hair were soft, and dark, mousy brown. He'd never spray painted his hair - although he spray painted everyone else's. Kids around the area would save up on little tidbits or metal scraps to come get their hair sprayed. Taemin wanted his own done, but they'd told him to wait a year. Then he'd gone off in a sulk.
"Well, let's see the packet, then," Jinki said, breaking into his thoughts. Jonghyun wrinkled his nose in distaste. He hated 'seeing it'. It filled his appetite better just to rest his eyes on those black polythene bags and imagine what was in them. Their actual contents never failed to dismay. He brought the packet out anyhow, and sniffed. There the smell was again, only much fainter. Perhaps it was just the packet, after all.
Open here, the white letters said (they'd all learned to read), as usual, and so he opened there. The zip lock popped apart, and the two boys peered inside. Then they sat back.
Jonghyun's face was nonplussed, but Jinki was clearly affected. His muscles couldn't settle on an expression. Finally he let out a breath and said, "What."
"Told you they'd sink that low."
Hinges shrieked and Minho slouched in. "Got an empty packet."
Jinki stood up in astonishment, Jonghyun dragged him back down.
"Same," he replied, and Minho just shrugged and lay down on his mat.
"What are we going to do?" Jinki stared at the floor, blankly. "This hasn't happened. Ever."
"We haven't gotten packets before," Kibum piped up from his corner. Jonghyun started. He hadn't seen him when he'd come in. Kibum peeked out from under a pile of sheets, in a fever for the past two days. His face was flushed and his eyes too bright. "That's basically the same thing. Right?" he argued, then sneezed.
Jonghyun looked at Jinki, but he'd retreated to the cabinets, avoiding everything.
"They've stopped trying to provide us with anything, that's the point," Jonghyun supplied, and Jinki just shook his head, disbelieving.
"Hyung," Minho mumbled, eyes closed. "It's happened. There's nothing we can do about it. But it's going to be okay. Something else will come along. That's the way it's always been."
Jinki didn't seem to take notice. When he guessed everyone else to be asleep, he squeezed out through the broken window. Jonghyun was trying hard, but it had always taken him longer to drop off. He watched him through half-closed lids and sighed when Jinki left, facing the ceiling.
The dude was going to go and do something stupid, he could feel it in his bones. There was no doubt about it. The question was: should he go after him, or shouldn't he? He turned around to look at Kibum. Pale brown lashes curled onto soft, babyish cheeks. The kid gave a snore, and his forehead creased. Jonghyun reached out and smoothed the wrinkles, then shook his head and got up. Within a minute, he'd left, too.
As it turned out, Jinki didn't actually do anything dumb - he'd just went to the depot to wait. Jonghyun could make out his bright red T-shirt from a distance. Shoving his way past a bunch of rowdy fifteen year olds, he joined him,
"Thought I'd try my luck," Jinki whispered, oddly audible through the din.
"How do you always know when one of us is around?" Jonghyun whispered back, grinning. "You didn't even look at me."
Jinki reached up and tapped his nose meaningfully, then gave an exaggerated sniff. "The stink."
Jonghyun shook his head, chidingly. "Your luck is as good as it can get, hyung. Don't push it."
Jinki just made a face.
It took them two further hours to get near the front of the line. Jonghyun somehow managed to catch snoozes standing up, on Jinki's shoulder (which, by then, was generously wet with drool).
"Here goes," Jinki whispered, patting Jonghyun's hand and stepping forward. Jonghyun stumbled, half asleep.
"Huh?" Then he straightened up at once. That smell. It wasn't really unpleasant, but still. Then Jinki grabbed his hand and made a dash for it, back through the crowds.
"Trying to beat me?" Jonghyun yelled, over everyone else's noise.
"Trying? Really? This isn't even close," Jinki shouted back to him, and suddenly the strange smell made him feel exhilarated, not wary. He gave a short laugh, and the wind went up against his face, cold, spiking through his eyes and rushing into his ears. He felt nothing but his feet, pounding against the open road.
"Wait up!" he hared Jinki say, faintly, so he slowed down.
They reached the 'welcome' mat at the same time, panting. "That was great," Jonghyun thunked his head back against the door frame, breathing heavily.
"Got something better," Jinki wheezed, bending down and leaning on his knees.
"Milk?" a boy stuck his head out the window, but Jonghyun pushed his little face away.
"No, really," Taemin greeted them as he opened the door. "Is there any milk?" He batted his lashes for extra effect.
"You're fourteen," Jonghyun told him seriously. "You ought to learn your place." Heedless, Jinki ruffled his hair as they walked in. Jonghyun's eyebrows sank an impressive distance. "Why do I bother."
Kibum rasped senselessly from under the window, then cleared his throat and tried again. "Hey, you two."
Jinki delved into his jeans' pocket and waved a packet in reply.
"This has got stuff, guys. Promise."
"Gimme," Jonghyun made a grab for it, but Minho got it first. He had it open in a second, then hesitated.
"Well, go on," Taemin prompted, so Minho tentatively lowered a finger inside. Then he stopped and took a deep breath. Jinki, despite his confident promise, eyed him fearfully. Kibum just smiled, tired.
"There is indeed stuff," Minho proclaimed, importantly, and Taemin let out a whoop.
Since it was Jonghyun's turn to take out the contents of the packet that day, everyone else joined Kibum and sat in relative silence. Except for Jinki. "Now, don't think there's milk in there, okay, because there mightn't be any. There's probably no chocolate, because we haven't had it since last year. Plus, we'll need to give a lot to Kibum, because he's sick. Okay?"
Taemin sulked, silent.
"You don't have to," Kibum commented, and that, as everyone could correctly predict, settled it.
"Who said I was going to say no?" Taemin fired back at once, sitting up straight. "Of course I will!"
Jinki quietly patted his back, and Taemin tried not to let a pleased look steal over his irritated expression. They waited some more, listening to Jonghyun as he hummed and put everything in plates.
Taemin let out another whoop when he saw his share. "Full packet," Jonghyun whispered to Jinki, as they nibbled on their biscuits (2 pieces each), and Jinki beamed. "Look where pushing my luck got me."
By the time dinner was over, though, he was looking slightly upset again. Again he left through the window when everyone had dozed off, and, after a while, again Jonghyun followed him. Jinki was sitting on the welcome mat, hugging his knees.
"There's a smell, did you notice? And today was hot, then suddenly cold."
Jonghyun nodded, but shrugged. "Could say the same about Taemin. His showers are shorter and scarcer than mine, and then he goes all hormonal and - and mood swung."
Jinki gave a little laugh, carefully low. It carried on the wind and echoed softly. Jonghyun closed his eyes and leaned his head on Jinki's shoulder.
"Do you think I'll grow taller than you?"
"I... honestly? Don't think so."
Jonghyun rubbed his head sleepily against the familiar arm. "Good."
Jinki gave another small laugh. "I thought you want to be tall."
"No," he mumbled, shivering slightly in the breeze. "Much better like this. Comfortable, when I'm smaller."
Jinki didn't say anything, but he covered Jonghyun's hand with his, leaning his cheek on the other's head.
They stayed liked that, in hazy, dim silence for a while. It really was comfortable. Jonghyun was about to battle against the weight of his sleep-heavy tongue and reiterate the fact, when a sudden plop of cold landed on his forehead. He gave a yelp and sprang to his feet. Except for Jinki, blearily opening his eyes, nobody else was around. Another plop plopped on his right eyebrow, then on his head, two on his shoulders, in quick succession. Before he knew what was happening, he was half-soaked, and there was a soft roar in his ears, water rushing down to him in truckloads.
"The hell?" he shouted, and hurried back inside through the door. Jinki stood up, slowly, a wondering smile on his face.
"Jinki, get out of there!" He made a grab for his arm, but Jinki stepped away into those curtains - for curtains is what the water had become - at that very moment. Then something terrible rolled all around him - a giant sound, some kind of tremor. Minho sat up straight with a grunt. Kibum peered through his coverings.
"What's going on?" Minho yawned.
White light screamed in the sky - at least, that's what Jonghyun thought. It didn't make any sound, but it looked angry, with the sudden spikes that flashed everywhere. "Jinki," he called, desperate. His voice was drowned by the noise.
But Jinki turned around. His shirt clung desperately to his skin, his hair glued to his face. He spread his arms and grinned, said something that Jonghyun couldn't make out.
Taemin stirred. "What's up?"
Kibum shushed him quickly and pulled himself up by the windowsill to look out. His eyes narrowed first, then widened. "What is it?" Taemin hissed, and jumped up himself. Kibum barred the way to the window, so he shot out the door. Jonghyun made a futile grab at him.
The sonorous noise came again, the clumsiness of the sound making him think of great rolls of carpet tumbling about over the sky in a ruckus.
Taemin bolted back inside, wet and shivering. Minho frowned, his drowsy mind slow on the uptake. "What made you think slipping into the water reservoirs was a good idea? Now we don't have any clean water at all, and you probably sick besides."
Kibum clicked his tongue impatiently, but didn't bother to correct him. Taemin just stood in the middle of the room and sniffled. Minho shrugged, stretched and mumbled something about changing shirts. Taemin shook his head, and Minho went back to sleep. Jonghyun glared at his feet for a few seconds, then took a deep breath and stepped out.
At once he was peppered with a thousand kisses from the sky, little water droplets pattering on his arms and landing in his hair. They snuck onto his nape and under his shirt, bounced on his nose and splashed around his ankles. And above all, he felt cold. His muscles spasmed, unaccustomed. Still terrified, he slowly lifted his face up, vulnerable to whatever decided to attack him. The water kept pouring, seeping past his lips, wetting his brows, flitting over his cheeks. Nothing else happened. There was no more noise, no more white spikes in the sky. It was almost calming. His jaw gradually unclenched, his hands relaxed and hung loosely by his sides. He still did not trust it fully, but so far it hadn't done him much harm.
"Hey," something whispered in his ear, and he shrieked and fled back inside.
Kibum fell down laughing, and Jinki smiled at him sheepishly.
"For God's sake," Jonghyun waved his fist threateningly, then dropped with a sigh. "What is that?"
"Water, I think," Kibum said, holding out his . He'd stuck it out the window, and now it was wet, droplets streaming down and pooling on the floor.
"Cold," Taemin added, pulling on a new shirt.
"Precipitation," Jinki pronounced, carefully. They stared at him. He stared back, puzzled. "What?"
"Every now and then you come up with a new word you've from school that we've never heard of, and then you teach it to us and it takes a very long time for us to get it."
Everyone now stared at Minho, who opened his gunky eyes with a defeated expression. Kibum began a slow clap which nobody else joined in on because they were still digesting what Minho had said.
"Well..." Jinki started, uncertainly. "People also call it 'rain' for short, and it wasn't harmful, most of the time. It's just water from clouds."
Jonghyun felt relieved. "But the noise, and the lights?" Taemin prompted.
So Jinki had to go on and tell them about thunder and lightning, and static electricity. Most of it flew over their heads, but Taemin seemed terribly interested anyway. The sky outside changed from light grey to dark grey to purple.
Gradually, the others fell asleep, and still the rain fell in a friendly whisper. Jinki stared up at the ceiling, then at the boys, lying all around him. He smiled, and curled up. He was dreaming of kites and lightning within minutes.
Jonghyun woke because of the scream. He jumped up, slipped and fell back with a splash. His head hit the ground, and water smoothed over his face, going into his nose and stinging his brain. He grabbed at the door frame and pulled his head up.
Outside, the rain was no longer soft and welcoming. It spoke with a continuous harshness that had none of the comforting tones of the day before.
A hand beat wildly against his knee. Taemin was suffocating. He pulled him up at once, and the boy clung to him, spluttering and choking. They waded to the other side of the room, where Kibum was sitting up, shaking. "Hey, man," Jonghyun took his hand. "Come on."
Kibum stared at him for a while, as if he was looking at the wall behind him. Then he cleared his throat. "Yeah," he nodded, swallowing. "Yeah, okay." He squeezed Jonghyun's hand, fingers cold, as if asking for reassurance.
"Come on," Jonghyun said again, squeezing back, and Kibum attempted to smile.
They got up, and walked out into the rain. It beat down on them, making Taemin shrink miserably against the wall. Jonghyun couldn't blame him. He was surprised, though, by Kibum. Wrapped in sheets and a mat, looking little more than a bedraggled bundle of cloth, he stepped into the middle of the street and sat down, arms spread out before him, face turned up to the sky.
"What's going on," Taemin mumbled. His tone wasn't questioning; he was merely commenting on the stupendous circumstances in a vague way. "Everything's crazy," Jonghyun shrugged, gripping his spindly arms and holding him close.
"Everything's always crazy," Taemin nuzzled into his side, eyes screwed shut. Jonghyun didn't have an answer. Then again, it wasn't like Taemin needed one.
He hummed to himself a little, not caring if he sounded toneless or off key - the rain tattooed itself onto his shoulders and into his hearing, and he could barely perceive anything else. Taemin didn't speak anymore, and Kibum slowly took off his shell in layers, folding each sheet neatly, soaking wet. Then he stumbled quietly about, walking in circles. Their neighbours, Jonghyun figured, were probably at the depots, or locked up inside their homes.
Eventually, two brown figures huddled onto the far end of the road. Taemin stirred, and ran to meet them, the water splashing up to his knees. Jinki reached them first. He rubbed Kibum's back and waded over to Jonghyun. He looked calmer, Jonghyun realized, than he had in years. Probably in twelve years, the day he'd met him. The best day of his life.
He watched Jinki ruffle Taemin's hair and say something, and smiled.
"Yo," Jinki snapped his fingers. "Can't have you zoning out, man, you're my rock here."
"You're not the only one with a rock," was his annoyed rejoinder. "I have a rock, too." Then he realized it sounded nice, and quickly added, "I should throw it at you, for not being there when we nearly died today."
"You what." That wasn't a question. It was shock.
"The water's really high, I'm sure you can see," he explained, wearily. "Taemin almost suffocated. Been waiting out for you two to come back so we could find another place." He glanced at the clock tower in the distance. "About an hour. Kibum's just sat around or walked around in this rain thing. Dunno if that's good for him or not."
Jinki looked haggard, now. Jonghyun almost regretted telling him anything. Still, he defended him silently, he'd have to learn of it sooner or later.
"It's good for Bum," Jinki ran a hand through his hair, voice cracking with strain. "Minho and I actually left early to look for a new place, you know? I'd figured it'd rise, but I didn't know it would... happen so fast." He blinked and looked out at Kibum, who was angrily saying something to a sheepish Minho. Taemin was on his backing, splashing the water with his hands.
"Well, then," Jonghyun said, softening, "You've got a place, and we're all okay. That's good, right?"
Jinki nodded, waded inside without a word. Jonghyun sighed and followed him.
Their mats were floating a few inches off the ground. Jinki's bag was safe, up on the shelf over the sink. Their shoes were soggy. The bag where they kept their clothes was, thankfully, waterproof. It bobbed morosely in a corner. Jonghyun realized only now the importance of its covering.
"Not much to pack, huh?" he said, and Jinki nodded again, grabbing the clothes bag first. He reached for his own, but Jonghyun sloshed forward and got it first. "Okay then," he said, ignoring the look of surprise on the other's face, "To this new place we head."
Jinki opened his mouth, then closed it. "Well, I mean... yeah, I guess?"
Jonghyun nudged him, and he turned around and lead the way out. The other three were waiting by the door. Minho had probably filled them in.
They fell in line on the road, Minho leading, Kibum and Taemin behind him, Jonghyun making sure Kibum didn't fall, and Jinki at the rear. "You don't have to be all that far back," Jonghyun said to him, but Jinki mumbled something about intruders from behind and having a lot to think about.
"We're moving pretty far," Jonghyun noted, looking over his shoulder.
Jinki chewed his lip, looking preoccupied. "Hmm."
"Reminds me of something," he added.
Jinki looked up, smiling shyly. "Does it?"
Jonghyun slowed down to walk in step with him. "Sure. Something about a bunch of babies playing at men."
Jinki grinned, and the stretch of his mouth was slightly lopsided, the way it was when he felt nostalgic. "Taemin was the only actual baby, then."
"You were seven."
They both chuckled.
"Have we changed, though? At all?" Jinki asked, squinting up at the sky. It answered with petting drops that made him squeeze his eyes shut and yelp.
"Well," Jonghyun pretended to think hard, "Maybe you've gotten better at banging."
Jinki scoffed. "There was no scope for improvement, please. I was born perfect in that area of life." They both laughed again. Up ahead, Kibum sighed and rested his head on Minho's shoulder as he rode on his back. Taemin rolled his eyes, left alone in the middle with the mountain of Kibum's coverings.
"But I mean," Jinki sighed, "Aren't we still just playing at men?"
Jonghyun stayed silent, and they bumped shoulders.
It was what Jonghyun had guessed - they had returned to their oldest home.
Way back when, there had been hundreds of children in the high-rise apartment buildings, five to a dilapidated room The babies that turned up on doorsteps were gathered onto the roofs, for fresh air and sunlight. The whole district used to echo endlessly with their wails. Now, as they traipsed through little streams that were streets, there was no one. Not a single shirt hung outside the windows, and all the graffiti was faded. Wistfully the five looked all around, remembering times spent and emotions felt.
"Remember?" they whispered to one another, and Taemin played hopscotch by himself on the pavement. Kibum slid off Minho's back and ran towards him to join in. "Wait, where is it?" he frowned.
"It used to be there," Taemin mumbled. "I remember." He went back to the others.
Kibum bit his lip, then sighed.
"Is it just me, or have our hands been colliding frequently in the past few minutes?" Jonghyun whispered, and shook his head as Jinki's hand finally grabbed his, none too gently.
"What's there to shake heads about?" Jinki retorted, staunchly, and almost tripped over the oncoming steps.
"Your general idiocy," Jonghyun shook his head a second time.
"I'll leave your hand if you do that again," Jinki told him, seriously.
"You won't," Jonghyun shook his head. Jinki didn't. (He did, however, manage to sneak in a miscalculated peck on the rim of his ear.)
They bumped into Taemin, who bumped into Kibum, who squawked into Minho, who stumbled on the steps of the building, and slipped. They all swept down with him, and landed in a bruised heap on the road.
"Remember when something like this happened to us around New Year's?" Kibum was the first to detach himself and (uselessly) pat himself down. "Ugh, I'm filthy and wet."
"Wow, tell me more," someone muttered, but nobody could figure out who.
"I missed the fireworks up on the rich end, then," Taemin complained.
"Yes, we all did," Minho reminded him, dragging him onto his feet.
"And the government's building-scaling law was rendered obsolete," Jonghyun joined in, proudly, as if he had brought that revolution about. "I scaled ours in, what, four hours?" He flapped his arms around, to feel warm. Jinki hugged him from behind. "Nope, six."
"Let's leave them to their procreation!" Kibum yelled, and the other three raced up the stairs and went inside.
"You're embarrassing," Jonghyun sighed, patting the chubby fingers at his waist contentedly.
"That sounded like a compliment."
"Perhaps it was."
They rocked around, from side to side, the water up to their knees. "What floor are we staying on this time?"
"Fifth. All the other rooms are inhabitable."
Jonghyun slipped slightly. "Wait, wait. You mean uninhabitable."
Jinki stopped moving, and stayed still for a few seconds as Jonghyun regained his balance. "Oh, right. Yeah."
Jonghyun hitched his bag further up his waist, so it wouldn't get wet. "Think we should get going, then."
Jinki made a face into his hair.
Reluctantly, hands slid off Jonghyun's waist and they made their way up, silently.
Jonghyun tilted his head, remembering, remembering...
He hid underneath the nearest table, tucking his legs underneath him. Footsteps padded quickly by, then retraced themselves and paused by the table. He held his breath; a big toe reached out and nudged his thigh. He let out a sigh of relief. All the grown-ups wore shoes. Besides, the big toe wasn't really big. It was probably as big as his own.
Then the toe withdrew, two feet came into view, then two shins and knees, two palms, and finally a very friendly, small head. The eyes were as small as the grin was wide - and the grin was really wide. Jonghyun felt happy just staring at it. "Hello!" a soft voice called.
Jonghyun whispered back. "Hello!"
And that was how they both got caught.
They both jumped guiltily, and Jonghyun's head hit the underside of the desk. He wondered how anyone could have seen him, then realised, despite his smarting head, that his own toes were sticking out.
They were pulled to their feet by their ears, boxed, and lead to the dorm they have been surreptitiously avoiding - the seven year olds' floor.
"You are in disgrace," the stern old woman spoke, in a clipped accent. "This town has never seen such misbehaved children - hiding from growth! Escaping your elders, for months on end!" Here she gave Jonghyun's new friend, Jinki, a particularly vicious tug on his ear. "You will not room with the other seven year olds. You will stay in a room with some other children who could not fit in due to numbers."
'Due to numbers' meant there hadn't been space on their respective floors. Jonghyun hoped fervently that there were younger kids, not terrible, bossy elder ones.
When he was steered into a plain, empty room with a dilapidated cot and two beds with rusting posts, he thought there had been a happy mistake - perhaps they were to live alone! But over the following week they were joined by two three years old, perpetually asleep babies who resided in the cot, a quiet-voiced, wide-eyed boy of five who sucked his thumb, and, finally, another boy who never spoke and scrawled on the walls in crayon.
"Hey, remember the second boy?" Jonghyun mused, and suddenly realized that his shoes were squelching. Finally, they were on dry ground. Although, he realized, as he reached out a hand to lean on the wall, moisture seeped from everywhere else. Jinki slowed his steps. "The second baby? The one who looked like a relative of Taemin's?"
"That's the one."
"His name was Jongin, I think. His mother came for him."
Oh, yes. She'd come for her child. Those ones were rare. And wealthy.
You're pretty," Kibum whispered, for the fifth time. She smiled, kindly, and drew a little blue flower on the wall, next to his purple one.
"When will my Jongin be fed?"
"Noon," Kibum replied, staring at her hands. Her fingers were long and pale. He scrawled over his flower in blue, too. "Are you Jongin's mumma?"
"Yes, I am." A butterfly was quickly sketched, with yellow wings polka-dotted in pink.
"Are you my mumma?" His hand stopped drawing, and he stared at her very hard.
The smile turned small. She looked sad, now. "I don't think so, honey."
"You can be my mumma, if you want," Kibum offered. He began to draw again, but the lines were shaky - shakier than usual. "I can love you a lot." It was the first time Jonghyun heard him talk so much at once. The lady stayed silent. She smiled a little wider, but still she looked sad. "I don't know," she said, quietly. Jinki stirred from his story book and looked up, expression searching.
"I want you to be my mumma," Kibum stuck his lower lip out. He took up a red crayon and scrawled over his own work, reached for her hand and held onto her little finger. "Please be my mumma," he whispered. "Please take me away."
The lady pulled him on her lap, and rocked him back and forth. But even Kibum understood her silence. He hid his face in her shoulder and sobbed. He called her his mumma and wailed, and his little feet kicked her as he rubbed his face in her shirt, fists clinging around her neck.
Jinki stood up and walked over to them, pulled him away.
"Shh," he said, not that it made a difference.
Kibum kept crying loudly until a man came in, holding the baby. Then he fell silent and stared at the other child, anger in every feature of his face. Still tears kept fighting to fall. Jonghyun held his hand as she got up and went away, carrying Jongin.
"That was my mumma," he whispered stubbornly, as they settled down to sleep, hours later. "She'll come back." His face was pale and drawn, eyes red from crying. His hands trembled with effort as he pulled the blanket up to his chin. Minho turned on his side and hugged him. Kibum sniffed and hugged him back.
"She never came back, you know," Jonghyun sighed, legs weary as they climbed up a seemingly infinite number of steps.__
"Oh, well," Jinki readjusted the straps of his bag. "We did kind of know she wouldn't."
"You think Kibum remembers?"
"Maybe, maybe not. Chances are he's forgotten it on purpose. Minho might, though."
They paused to take their shoes and socks off, and roll up their pants. "Our feet are getting dirtier by the second," Jonghyun noted, finally.
Jinki couldn't reply - they had reached the fifth floor, and a great deal of yelling was going on in all the rooms. Kibum skidded into them. "Eons later you guys arrive!"
"Grandfathers, both of you," Taemin rushed up as well, panting.
Minho peeked from behind a door. "They don't understand, hyung. They want separate rooms for themselves because they think they're kings when they're actually spoilt brats."
Kibum threw a shoe at him. It missed, but he looked very satisfied, anyway. Jonghyun shook his head and dragged Taemin along to the room Minho was in. Jinki stayed behind to explain the problem to Kibum.
Quietly sorting through the bag and placing its contents on top of a rickety shelf, they heard voices outside rising. "What d'you mean, we can't live in the other rooms? They're all fine, perfectly fine!"
Jinki's voice was lower and more muffled, but in the end Kibum stepped in, looking disgruntled. "If the roof falls in here, I am through with you all."
"Now then," Minho widened his eyes, "You don't mean that."
Kibum shot him an annoyed look. "Why do you always take me so seriously? Nobody else does."
There was an awkward silence. "Now then," Minho said again, uneasily. "That's not true." He nudged the ground with his foot.
"If the roof falls in," Taemin added, breezily, "There will be nobody to be through with. We'll all be - " and he drew a finger across his neck with an expressive look on his face. Apart from Jinki clearing his throat and dumped Kibum's blankets on him, he was ignored.
Jonghyun passed a hand over his forehead. "Nearest depot, anybody?"
"Don't care," Taemin groaned, managing to poke his head out of the heap. "Wanna sleep."
Minho nodded in agreement.
"I'll go," Jinki said, feeling Kibum's wrist. "Jonghyun, you already went twice yesterday. You stay." With that, he left again.
Taemin had enough wits left to snicker. "Dissed," he whispered, dramatically, and began to snore.
Outside the barred window, Jonghyun could still see the rain, pouring, pouring, pouring.
It went on for three more days, a week - Jonghyun stopped bothering to keep count. They got food more often, and more wet - Minho took to stealing. Jinki frowned and never ate it, but he kept silent. Taemin ingested everything ravenously.
Kibum, on the other hand, couldn't care less. He sat on the windowsill, skinny legs fitting between the bars and dangling outside, one arm always stretched out to catch the rain.
"It's actually lowering his temperature," Jinki confided to Jonghyun, as they lay side by side in the attic, watching the rain fall through the slanted glass wall.
Jonghyun nodded absently, surveying the city. It lay in ruins - trees floated about in the streets and the paint on the building in front had completely peeled off. The water had turned the cement to a sodden, hideous greyish-beige, and its grimy, cracked windows stood out like so many broken teeth.
Traffic signs and advertisements and campaign boards bobbed by daily, and presently a long white one came into view. The lettering was such a light yellow that he didn't bother trying to read it, but he caught Jinki looking at it and inhaling sharply. When he turned to read it, Jinki clapped a hand over his eyes before his eyes could get past the letters 'O v e r p o'. "Don't," Jinki said, voice shaking. "Please don't."
"I can't, anyway," Jonghyun replied, matter-of-factly.
"Right," Jinki swallowed, and let his hand fall. Jonghyun looked for the board again, but it was gone.
"What was on it?" he asked, knowing it was useless. Sure enough, Jinki just shook his head and held his hand, thumb drawing circles into his wrist. They didn't say anymore, and as the minutes rippled forward, the way the dimples in water spread outside in the street, Jonghyun stowed the strange moment away and thought instead of how silences were some of the most important and sacred privilege they had, together. No pressure, no one to think of, just plain old them, being comfortable, and living. Sometimes Jinki would have a book and Jonghyun would read over his shoulder, or lie down nearby, sometimes Jonghyun would clean and Jinki would help out, sometimes it was the way they were right now - just breathing, barely touching.
He propped himself up on his elbow, stared at Jinki staring out with his lips pursed, eyes blinking slowly. Eventually, Jinki turned and stared back, his pucker turning into a grin. "Hello," he said.
"Hello," Jonghyun said, grinning back.
Jinki wiggled closer, nose brushing against his cheek. "Hello," he breathed.
Jonghyun laughed, shoulders shaking, not making a sound. "Hi there," he murmured, reaching up a hand and placing it on Jinki's back. "How're you doing?" Jinki laid his leg over Jonghyun's, tracing his jaw with soft pecks.
"Very good, actually," Jonghyun sat up straight, pulling Jinki onto his lap. "And you?" he added, courteously, raising his eyebrows, before Jinki leaned forward impatiently and crashed their mouths together. Jinki felt Jonghyun's laughter ringing into his own mouth, and closed his eyes, tugging at the neck of Jonghyun's shirt.
"I'm good," he gasped, when they pulled apart. "I'm - I'm -" he leaned his forehead against Jonghyun's, breathing hard, "I'm awesome."
"Mhm?" Jonghyun didn't have a chance to say much else - Jinki's hands crept under his shirt, nails grazing lightly across his stomach. Jinki gave him a little smile, looking at him from beneath his lashes. Jonghyun grabbed his face again, trying to drown out the sounds rising to his throat. They tumbled out against Jinki's tongue anyway, what with one hand over his briefs, and the other still ghosting over his stomach.
It was as if Jinki was bringing about a wordless, sustained explosion against his senses, every inch of his skin singed with a sudden realization of heat and the ripple of skin over skin.
"Hi," Jinki kept murmuring against his teeth, quietly, like so many soft little promises of I don't want to ever hurt you.
Jonghyun's legs closed together around Jinki's back, unfolded and folded and straightened out, back arching brokenly. His heart hammered and sought for comfort and weight and warmth and more warmth, heat that would incinerate and spread through his lungs and explode. "I've missed you like this," Jinki whispered, thickly, and he choked on Jinki's name, one hand pulling him closer, the other pushing him down. Jinki smiled again. Jonghyun rolled his head back, thunking it against the glass. Part of a pane broke with a grating /chink/ and fell to the hungry water in the streets below. The rest of the glass creaked ominously.
"We're going to fall," Jonghyun gasped out, but neither of them really cared. Jinki pulled up his knee between Jonghyun's thighs. "Come on, Hyunnie," he said, voice lowered to a throaty purr, and the rain let out a fine spray over them through the broken glass.
It was molten, metal or lava or rock he couldn't tell, couldn't bother recalling from science classes, didn't care about, but it was liquid and sticky and searing hot, every inch, every goosebump on their bodies, the feeling, the look in Jinki's eyes. Jinki's hands gripped him tightly as Jonghyun slid closer and ground down on him, as earthquakes shattered and remoulded their balance a million times a second. There was a flurry of words, of do-you-like-its and God-don't-stops, of fingers and sweat and water falling on them heavily. The panes groaned under their weight. They linked hands and Jinki squeezed his eyes shut, biting into Jonghyun's shoulder. "Hey," Jonghyun whispered, shakily. "What d'you see?"
"'m falling," Jinki's voice was trembling with effort. "Falling, and you're everywhere."
Jonghyun smiled and closed his eyes.
It was lava, probably, swirling everywhere, thundering and spiking across his stomach, raging out in a wave from his ears to his lungs to his legs. His back was arching, and his throat contracted, doubled in on itself. For a moment he couldn't breathe, and then Jinki's lips brushed his ear. His vision suddenly became embossed over in stone, and they collapsed.
The floorboards underneath squealed in protest, so they rolled over, damp with perspiration.
"How fast is your heart beating?" Jinki asked, panting still.
"Dunno. Pretty fast."
"Hmm." Jinki rolled over again, so he lay on his stomach. He turned his face sideways to look at Jonghyun. Idly, he ran a finger down the other's forehead, up his nose and down his chin, over his neck, pausing at his heart.
"You look beautiful," he mumured, drowsily.
Jonghyun found himself falling asleep to Jinki's measured breaths and the warm hand that now lay at his ribs. "You know," he muttered thickly. "Trying is a lot stronger than being. It's a lot more important. Babies, you know... you said they have to try to... breathe and." He fell short of breath and fell silent, a delicious snugness enveloping his brain. "And if they don't," he drawled, after a minute or so, "They die. But if they do, then they don't."
He squirmed, and inched slightly closer to Jinki's sleeping form. "I guess what I'm trying to say is, that the baby's existence depends on him struggling for that first braeth. Now, you wouldn't say..." he trailed off once more, busy tucking Jinki's hair behind his ear. He stared at the calm, sweaty face with a small smile. "You wouldn't say," he repeated, words slurring together, "That the baby is playing at living. The baby is actually, y'know, probably living more than he ever will, again, you know, and struggling for it. For, like, getting a life. Whatever." He yawned again, overwhelmingly tired.
"Don't even know if I'm sensing, man." He paused. "Wait, I meant making sense, not sensing. Goddamn." He closed his eyes, and sank comfortably into darkness. "So, basically, trying to be men equates at least half of being men, at this stage, in our circumstances. And try harder is - I mean, trying is harder, in some ass specks. Crap, aspects." He pulled Jinki closer and burrowed his head under his arm.
Jinki mumbled something and held him protectively. "Mm," Jonghyun mumbled, happily, then struggled to continue talking. "Trying's harder because there's this thing called transition, like adapting. I don't know if I'm using these words properly, God. When you be, then you be, and you grow soft and silly with just being. But when you keep tryin' 'o change, that's hard. That's tough. Strong, okay? You're strong. We're strong." He sighed, slinging an arm around Jinki's waist. "'m proud of you."
Then all his strength seemed to sap out, his shoulders sagged, and he fell quickly to sleep.
The rain was very soft the next day, barely there. Jinki called it a 'drizzle'. He also called Jonghyun 'jagi' at least three times an hour. By midday, Jonghyun was perpetually stuck at a shade of dusky pink. "Pretty," Jinki teased, and insisted on feeding him lunch (half a biscuit, a two tablespoons of fried rice, and very, very dilute tea).
After lunch, Kibum and Taemin decided to go out in the rain. Minho chose to stay in, and Jinki made his way up with the metal box to the roof. "Want to come?" he asked. Minho said he was sleepy, but Jonghyun agreed.
"What're you going to do with this thing?"
Jinki shrugged. "Listen to news and events, as usual. Sometimes they talk about the people here, too, and I want to hear what they have to say, you know?"
The effort needed to reach the roof was so much, it was 'blasphemous', Jonghyun whined, after climbing to the eleventh floor. "Just two more floors," Jinki coaxed. "Then when we go down we can slide on the railings. Besides, we went up this way yesterday! What's up?"
Jonghyun honestly didn't know himself. Maybe it was a smell, but somehow he was sure that wasn't it. Something was going terribly wrong, he was convinced. "Gut," he mumbled, dismissively, and pressed on.
The trapdoor to the roof was in the ceiling of the attic. The lock was so rusted that it would be impossible to unlock. Jinki stared at it unhappily, arms folded across his chest. Jonghyun picked up a loose bolt on the floor and knocked it against the metal. Both pieces crumbled at once. He laughed at the look of shock on Jinki's face.
"I - wow. I just. Okay!" Jinki gaped. "I wasn't expecting that, okay."
Jonghyun climbed up first, on Jinki's shoulders, then pulled Jinki up. They say on the edge of the trapdoor, legs dangling into the attic below, frowning at each other. "Is something off?" Jinki mumbled, staring around.
Jonghyun cocked his head, then stared at the sky. It was clear, an uplifting blue. Nothing fell down from it to meet him. "No rain!" he yelled, and ran about, waving his arms madly in the air. He slipped on the slanted glass and almost fell. Jinki grabbed a hold of him and glared.
"Sorry," Jonghyun mumbled, but was soon running again. "No rain," he repeated, and a small sound came from below. Jinki and Jonghyun leaned over the low wall. Two little figures jumped about at the front of the building. "Hey," Taemin yelled, cupping his hands over his mouth, and Kibum waved wildly.
"No rain!" Jonghyun called, and Kibum shouted something incoherently back. Then the two made to go inside.
"Roads are still flooded," Jinki said, setting up the radio. Shrill static yoddled into their hearing. "I guess it's a good thing there's no rain," he added, a little later. There was no mistaking the regret in his voice. "Otherwise, I mightn't be able to fix this up."
Jonghyun ambled over and sat beside him. The static lowered to a whisper. "You really like rain, don't you?" he asked, eventually.
Jinki raised his head from the controls. It was such a complicated thing, the radio. And Jinki was complicated, too. "Learned about it in fifth grade, the day you decided to leave school. Guess that's the reason I never really forgot it? And I've always... wanted it to happen, anyhow. God giving us a shower, 'cause He cared about us. And stuff," he smiled, a little wistfully, then bent his head again. "You don't like it that much, though, do you?"
Jonghyun looked up at the sky again. The sun was a vague white circle behind the curtain of blue. "I was getting used to it, and then it stopped."
Another voice spoke, accent as clipped as that woman's, who dragged him to his room when he was seven. But this voice was a young man's. "We are expecting clear skies from Monday to Wednesday, a steady temperature of ninety degrees Fahrenheit throughout the week, and light rainfall again next week." The static crept into the words and muffled the voice completely.
Jinki made an exasperated sound and shook the radio. "Kim Joonmyun. Now onto Today In Progress." There was an interval of scratchy music.
Jonghyun looked up sharply. "Joonmyun? Wasn't that - ?"
"No," Jinki shook his head. "The kid was Jongin. And anyway, he'd be around Taemin's age by now. They don't set anyone to work 'til nineteen."
"Wasn't it eighteen?"
"Nah, that was a few years ago. Their side's improved, since then." Jinki shifted uncomfortably, and Jonghyun felt little itchy pinpricks of heat on his own back. "It has, has it?" he murmured, staring at the other buildings. "Fat lot of good it's done to us."
The music stopped, and another voice started talking. The sound kept fading in and out, and they only caught snatches of what was being said. No matter which way Jinki turned the dial, or however many buttons he pressed, there was no difference. Jinki looked worried. "The receiver's gone bad, maybe? Or the signals are bad here."
The sun beat down with its usual strength, now, and Jonghyun followed a trickle of sweat fall from Jinki's temple, straight to his shoulder, with his eye. They stayed still for a few minutes, air thickening with humidity and solidifying on their shoulders, like a heavy weight.
Jonghyun closed his eyes and thought of when he was ten. He hugged his knees. "Remember when you first found it? You'd gone out salvaging and brought back a ton of clothes - and this." He opened his eyes and tapped the aerial affectionately. It gave a sharp twang, beginning to oscillate. "Some song was playing when you turned it on. It was nice, man. Wish we could listen to music more."
Jinki nodded, mouth in an absent-minded pout. He leaned back on his elbows.
"But, like," Jonghyun stretched his legs, "The song was loud. And we listened to it right here, you know, give or take a few feet. So it's probably the receiver that's bad."
"The band had something to do with jumpsuits, didn't it?" Jinki stared upwards, squinting against the sun.
"Yeah, red jumpsuits."
"One day," Jinki promised, "We'll listen to it again."
Jonghyun smiled at him, sideways, eyes crinkling crookedly.
The dark circles under Jinki's creased upwards in reply.
The moment stilled, Jonghyun's heart beat twice, thrice, and then words broke in and shattered over them in a delicate voice.
"The government's rainfall experiments seems to have gone better than expected! But with so much precipitation all of a sudden, with barely any warning to the poverty-stricken areas of the country, then, surely, there must be some drawbacks - some, you could say, negative effects?"
They froze, stunned.
Another voice joined the first. There was embarrassed throat-clearing, and then, "Well, that is something we're not exactly sure of. Every human has its pride, you know - " a nervous laugh " - and since our relations have been rather rocky in the past decade and a half or so, we don't really know how they're doing."
An awkward pause, then more laughter. "They're always like this," Jinki hissed. "First driving us away, and now this? Rocky relations? What did they expect? Barely any warning! We had none!"
"But - " Jonghyun broke in, before the voices started again.
The girl spoke. "True! But it does seem that pretty much all civilians were treated equally in this case - although I said earlier that the poorer citizens had barely any warning, the truth is, I doubt even most aristocrats knew. I, at least, had no idea! Was this a cabinet secret, or something of the sort?"
Jinki frowned. "This sounds so odd. A botched up job."
The man stammered a little. "A-Ah, well, I wouldn't call it a cabinet secret, as much as a joint parliament and military one. It is true that many civilians had no... no idea that this would occur, but, ah, to be completely honest with the public, although we had been working on this for some time, we did not expect it to be... to be realized, so soon. It was kind of an accident."
"That's an important senator," Jinki whispered. "And like all the rest of them, he's probably lying through his teeth."
Jonghyun ran a hand through his hair. "Is anyone honest?"
"Not at the top."
The girl had put forward another point. "If only the political side of the country's leaders knew this, then it means that other important sectors of our country's economy and such, did not know this, am I correct?"
Jinki bit his lip. "She's cornering him to a point, but it might be all scripted anyway."
The senator acceded. Instinctively, Jinki moved closer to Jonghyun. "I don't want to hear," he shook his head, vehemently, but grabbed his hand when Jonghyun made to turn the dial. "No, no no no."
"So," the fresh voice needled, "The media companies weren't prepared for this?"
"No," Jinki swallowed. Bewildered, Jonghyun held him close.
"I see. Sir, I hope you don't mind - but I, uh, actually have a list here, and I just want to check off - precisely, you know - which sectors were and were not aware."
"Yes, of course." A hint of nervousness touched those words.
"Right, then. So, academics sector?"
"No knowledge, and most institutions persisted throughout. Some universities, however, gave students a weather break."
"This was the first weather break executed due to cold weather, wasn't it?" she laughed. Jonghyun felt irritated.
"It was indeed, yes."
"And the research departments? The various outlying meteorology and medical establishments across the country?"
"Sir, whoever devised this experiment, the group of scientists who worked on this - were they also unaware that this could, how shall we say - show positive results too early?"
"They did not tell us that any such thing could happen. We were informed that it could backfire, but that was all."
She inquired his meaning to backfiring. Still Jinki stared at the radio, terrified. "It's no good," he croaked, throat dry. "It was never any good. Idiot, I was a shithead. That's it, that's it. No no don't turn it off," he pleaded Jonghyun, and snatched the radio away.
At once, the static melted over the voices and crackled painfully loud. Jinki clapped his hands over his ears, trembling. He offered no resistance when Jonghyun gently pulled him away.
"You know too much," Jonghyun tried to make light of it. "Like as not, whatever you're thinking in your head could only happen in another dimension." Jinki only pressed closer, not saying a word. Jonghyun tried again. "Or if whatever you're thinking is possible, then it probably already happened in the past. But if we're alive now," he prattled, breathlessly, "Then even if history repeats itself, like you're always saying, it'll be fine because we're here and living proof that the past survived. Right?"
Jinki just blinked.
"Okay, well, I'll go down first, then I'll pull your legs. Okay? Don't get scared." In truth, Jonghyun was scared, himself. Jinki had never been like this before. He'd always shouldered bad news best among all of them. Jonghyun didn't even know how to help - he had no idea why Jinki'd gotten so shaken up.
Think, he told himself, furiously. Think. He let himself down through the trapdoor and tugged at Jinki's knees. The older boy slid down obediently, landing with a thud. "Okay, bud," Jonghyun threw an arm around his shoulders, feigning cheerfulness. "Down the bannisters we slide."
Jinki made no sign of complaining, or protesting that they'd left the radio out on the roof. Quietly, he followed Jonghyun out the attic, and they took turns sliding down, floor by floor.
The closer they approached their landing, the louder the others' shouts became. They seemed to rouse Jinki, and as he had Jonghyun finally stepped on the fifth floor, he shook his head slowly. "Whole other world up," he mumbled. "Was kind of scary."
Jonghyun gave his shoulder a squeeze.
"I'll try and get that song," Jinki told him, seriously, and it was only when they'd all settled down to sleep, hours later, that Jonghyun understood what he'd said.
The heat was so great that the water levels sunk quickly: where a few days ago they had to wade thigh-deep, now little rippled lapped meekly around their ankles.
Kibum had fully recovered. They didn't have much to celebrate, or treat him with, but Jinki managed to tune into a music station, and they danced to polka for the greater part of the day.
The weather break over, Jinki made his way to campus in the evenings, amidst complaints and attempts at bargains to keep him in. Jonghyun saw him daily to the ground floor. "One day," Jinki started, on the third day, then stopped. He leaned his head against the wall, hesitant to take a step forward. "One day, I'll be able to get a house for all of us, you know. And we'll be able to have lots of company and people over, and someone for Taemin so he can get a girlfriend like he's always dreaming of. You know? You don't just get a house of the blue," he sighed, and sat down on the floor suddenly. "You work for it. You work for money, and honest food, and a proper address. I want..." Jinki trailed off.
"I want you all to be happy, get what you want. I want Kibum to get his easel and Minho to get a workshop, with gear and accessories and a whole line of customers with their cars. I want Taemin to get proper hair dye - not spray paint cans like we did - and a purpose in life. He cries, you know. He feels so useless and I want him to know that he isn't, but he'll never listen. When do kids listen? When did we listen? Do we listen now?"
"Who's there to listen to?" Jonghyun whispered, and rested a hand on Jinki's head.
"I want to have a house for you," Jinki said, thickly. "And a bed with a mattress, so your back stops hurting, and a computer, or at least books, so you can try your hand at writing, again."
"Every single person in this district, Jonghyun, I want every single person brought to justice. I'm going to get us somewhere, somehow." And yet Jinki blinked distractedly throughout, as if unsure of something, as though there was a piece to some jigsaw that was either lost or didn't fit as he'd thought it would. He frowned at his shoes and cleared his throat, getting up.
"You will," Jonghyun said, quietly, and clasped his hand.
Jinki looked at him, trying desperately to believe him, and chewed his lip, walking out the glass door.
The light that trickled through the curtains hesitantly informed him that it was probably four in the morning. Jonghyun frowned sleepily, shivering in the sudden cold. What had he woken up? No one else stirred. He glanced at Jinki's bed (empty), and let out an exasperated groan. Struggling momentarily with the tangled sheets, he padded quietly past the mats.
Then he stopped. Jinki could have gone either down or up. He stepped back in, and looked sharply about. Jinki's bag hung on a hook next to the shelf, but the radio was missing from its place. Jonghyun resigned himself to the roof.
Indignant from his lack of sleep, he opened his mouth the second he spotted Jinki on the far side of the landing, huddled next to the radio. Ready to spew a lecture on morals and letting sleeping dogs lie even though he wasn't a dog - and neither, if it came to that, were Minho and Kibum and Taemin, but they could be treated as dead logs, considering how they barely ever stirred, but that was besides the point, because the point couldn't Jinki, the confounded Neanderthal see, was that there was no reason on earth for him to always have his thoughtful fits at four in the morning, and wake Jonghyun, who had never purposely harmed a hair on his head - except for when they were twelve, and, well, Jinki was being a prude and not letting him spray paint his hair because of bald patches or something at seventy - whenever he did so, besides. But he heard the radio, blasting out hurried music and a man's voice boasting 'News Flash', which then echoed and re-echoed. So Jonghyun closed his mouth, warily.
Jinki raised his head, slowly, as if it were a weight, and stared at him. Jonghyun didn't know what the stare was. It could have been blank, or weary, or thoughtful, or searching, or worried, or hostile - he had no idea which. Then Jinki blinked, and rested his head on his arms again.
"The well-known rainfall having obliterated most of the low-lying parts of the country," a smooth voice pronounced every word carefully. "Although supply from farms was thought to be blocked due to road blockage, it has been found that most of the farms have, also, been flooded. Crops and soil are damaged, and animals escaped. Reports say that stampedes had occurred days prior to the first day of rainfall that South Korea has seen in more than forty years. The effect of this on the rest of the country's economy and population will, incidentally, be discussed on Kim Talks, at twelve fifteen p.m., today."
Jonghyun vaguely realized that he had somehow fallen to his knees. Jinki's shoulders were shaking, his head still resting on his arms.
"In other news, five more bodies have been found dead in the eastern region, and twenty injured, bringing the total casualty count to two thousand and fifty eight.
"The government has decided to suspend elections until June, and the country, sources say, may very well be on the verge of martial law, under emergency. This is due, mainly, to the rioters that have started looting and burning small branches of chain stores down at the capital, and their activities are predicted to spread quickly throughout the province.
"And that is all for now. This has been the four fifteen news break, our next news break will be at six fifteen, followed by This Day in History from six thirty to seven thirty..."
"Jonghyun," Jinki called, urgently. His vision was shaking. Something strong had hold of his shoulders.
"Th-this," he managed, and Jinki's face was blurred. Was he crying? Why couldn't he see properly? "You were worried about this." His throat was dry, he hung limp in Jinki's hands. It was difficult to breathe.
"Hey," Jinki whispered. "Don't, don't." He shifted so that his arm was around Jonghyun's waist, supporting him, and sat down next to him. They stayed like that, silently, and Jonghyun hit Jinki's shoulder with his head. "This wasn't supposed to happen," he squeezed his eyes shut. "This wasn't supposed to happen."
The wind whipped around them, flapping through their pyjamas and ruffling their hair, freezing the spaces between
them. Jonghyun shivered, and Jinki held him tighter.
"Jinki," he said.
"Just... I just like your name."
"I like your name, too."
"Are we going to die?"
"I don't know." (Jonghyun felt Jinki's pulse sky rocket against his wrist.)
He closed his eyes, and felt Jinki press his thumbs along his forehead, pressure evening out over his skull. "Thanks," he mumbled, and his breathing slowed. If only he could run away forever from the world. Did other people experience this? Did they experience this? Population, they had said. And the farms shutting down... No food.
Jinki's thumbs ceased all thoughts. It felt good. It was the only nice thing at the moment. He could sleep. Sleep would solve everything. Everything would go away, like it needed to do. Everything needed to go away.
Reality shuffled quietly away, and he slept fitfully, the sun climbing up his back with comforting, dawn warmth.
When he woke, his neck was sore from some wrong angle, and his perception was all wrong. He opened his eyes and screamed silently, sure he would fall into the sky any second. Then he caught sight of Jinki's face. His eyes were closed, his mouth slightly open, tiny snored sounding out from time to time. He shut his eyes, went back to sleep.
He woke again, some time later, the sun no longer comforting, the ground under his stomach (he was sleeping on his stomach?) was, somehow, Jinki's back. Jinki himself was awake, listening closely to the radio.
Jonghyun's eyes widened, and he stumbled to his feet and away from Jinki.
"Jonghyun?" Jinki asked, and Jonghyun vomited. The bile tasted bitter and seared at his throat. He choked on the fluid, hot tears forcing themselves out of his eyes. He felt a reassuring on his back, another holding his head, carefully.
He finished up on his knees, arms and legs trembling. Jinki wiped his mouth and made him lie down on the other end of the roof.
"Jinki," Jonghyun shouted, syllables melting into one another with exhaustion, "Turn up the voice. Make it louder. Want to hear."
"Jinki," he yelled.
"It won't make you feel better."
"Don't care. Look at me. Do I look like I care? No. Turn it up." He saw stars, black stars and ugly, dirty yellow neon stars. "Please."
Jinki didn't say anything as he turned the dial completely around. This time the voice was thick, friendly. Jonghyun heard it in the middle of a laugh.
"But no, really," it said. "All puns aside, is it true, then, the news that has been spreading across the nation like wildfire?"
"Most definitely," a second voice supplied. "In fact, the resources are so low that we, as a complete parliament, have unanimously voted for the opting out of government trucks from food depots. Most of the civilians who rely on them have, regretfully, shown little or no signs of recovery. A handful of the students have been picked - " here Jinki tugged at his hair " - to transfer, but otherwise, we do not see further use in providing food that will probably not even be received."
Jonghyun shut his eyes once more. Times were hard, he remembered thinking. Now there was no hope. No hope at all.
When he opened his eyes, he was lying on a mat. Taemin was sitting at his feet, blinking hard at the wall opposite. Minho and Kibum were not in the room. Jinki was gone as well.
Was it a dream?
"Hey," he waved his fingers.
Taemin started. "Hyung! You okay? You feeling better? I have some milk, I saved it! Jinki said you vomited, like, a crap ton."
So it wasn't a dream. "Keep the milk," he shook his head, voice cracking obscenely and coming out three octaves higher than normal. "I just want to sleep."
"We're all going to die," Taemin said, and Jonghyun's eyes flew open wide.
"How...?" he rasped.
"Trucks left. For good. They took all their equipment and everything. I went with Minho, we asked the guards. They spat at us, that's all. And these past few days, Jinki was so closed up, and then you were, too. You guys kept disappearing, with the radio, and you were never happy, when you came back," Taemin sighed, and drew up his legs. "I'm not dumb. Here we are, trying to survive, celebrating if one of us so much as recovers from a fever, and then suddenly the ones who smiled the most," Taemin stared at him from over his knees. "Cried themselves to sleep. Or didn't sleep," he added, with a glance at Jinki's mat, neatly rolled up, a pillow placed on top.
"Did you sleep?" Jonghyun commented at length, shocked.
"A little," he got in reply. "More than enough. Now here, have some milk."
Jonghyun coughed most of it up, violently, but he smiled back at Taemin, anyway.
"I'm sorry for bossing you around," he confessed awkwardly, after some heavy silence.
Taemin, rifling through the contents of Jinki's bag, looked up. "Nonsense," he said, coolly, kicking his legs against the floor. He'd always been restless. "If you didn't, I'd be terrible."
"Still," Jonghyun whispered, and closed his eyes again.
He didn't wake up next time, not properly. He opened his eyes, and saw a great big wall, curling and twisting and jumping. It moved forward, to dance over him and crush him, and he gave a yell. Something dragged him out of the way, and he had a curious feeling that Taemin was walking beside him, holding his hand. He was being lead into darkness. "That's the Great Wall of China," Kibum's voice boomed into his hearing, and he slept again.
He woke up and saw Taemin sitting beside him, smiling tremulously. "Hold it," he said, and forced something into his hand. The smile was so familiar and sad. "You sure you're not her son?" he shouted, loudly, because when he tried to talk normally, no one seemed to hear. "Son?" Taemin's smile faded, no longer familiar. "Whose son? Hyung?"
Jonghyun frowned, squeezed the bar in his hand. That was what it was, right? A bar? A spraying sound resounded around and inside his head, he gave a yelp and all the lights in the world flickered off.
He was being carried on someone's back. A broad, friendly back that he had memorized. He knew the knobbly little bumps that made up the spine, he knew the shoulder blades, the skin stretched scantily over them, the marks on the neck, he knew everything but the name. "Hello?" he croaked, and the back stopped moving. Other figures came into view, and their names rose to his tongue before he could think.
"Minho," he groaned, with effort. "Kibum, Taemin." Speaking taxed too much on his strength. He buried his head in the hair in front, and the smell of cold, clear water and burn sugar slipped shyly into his senses. "Jinki?" he mumbled, and wanted to cry. His lungs hurt so, so much. There was an answering pat on his knee, where a hand that Jonghyun remembered had been much chubbier once, held it in place.
"It's me," said a familiar voice, and Jonghyun wanted to cry, again. His lungs hurt even more.
And then many wet, soft little fingers threaded through his hair, like a time he recalled before, a time that seemed ages ago.
"Rain!" Taemin yelled. Jonghyun paid no heed. He was tired.
The last thing Jonghyun remembered was sitting up against a tree, which was odd because most of the trees has been uprooted. A head of shocking red hair lay on his lap, two figures sat at his feet, and someone sat next to him, holding his hand.
Taemin's voice was coming from underneath the red hair. Wonderingly, Jonghyun pushed the hair softly away. Taemin's eyes were closed,his mouth was moving. Jonghyun strained to listen.
"It's like that boy, Peter Pan, that Jinki told us all about when we were younger," he was saying. "He stayed young forever, and said death was just an adventure. Isn't it fascinating?" Taemin's eyes opened and he sighed. They all sighed. "He went through so many adventures, and came out of them alive, fought with that pirate and his littler pirates, and all. But still, death was another adventure. And it was the biggest of all, because you can't come alive out of it. You're caught up in it for the rest of forever."
"The next big adventure," Jinki corrected, gently, and Jonghyun leaned his head on that shoulder, world spinning although he only sat still. "Exactly," Taemin said. "The next big adventure."
Jinki wrapped an arm around his shoulders, and Minho and Kibum came to sit on Jonghyun's other side. Taemin stretched an arm.
"What're you doing?" Kibum mumbled, his leg over both of Minho's.
"Saluting the sky."
The rain fell down on them again, and Jonghyun gave a soft laugh.
"I finally like it," he said. "Finally like the rain."
"Still haven't listened to that song. 'm sorry," Jinki apologized, feebly squeezing his hand.
"Oh, come on," Jonghyun shrugged. "There's time enough."
An hour later, or maybe a day or a week, Jinki whispered in his ear. "I love you."
Wake up you sleepy head,
Put on some clothes, shake up your bed.
Put another log on the fire for me.