sechen & xiubaek
- post apocalypse!AU
In the early morning, when there's dust in the air and the rancid smell of oil seeps through cracks in the walls, Sehun likes to close his eyes and imagine how it was. He's heard it from Baekhyun so many times that the images come to him easily. Against his closed eyelids he sees the way the skyscrapers crumbled, how the government buildings were eaten and all the ground coughed up was a cloud of smoke. He pictures the slide of houses as they collide into each other and the elevated expressway slumping as the concrete bends in the heat. He wonders how it would feel to watch the world warp before his eyes, colors changing from familiar to strange in a badly developed photograph.
You might not remember, Baekhyun often tells him, but that day the stars were overtaken by a flash of light and the earth rumbled as if thunder was trapped underneath. Baekhyun lies a lot, and at first Sehun doesn't believe him. He might not remember life before The Change, but Sehun would have remembered if something like that happened. He would have.
But after a year of living with them he notices more. How Baekhyun's fingers inch towards Minseok's each time Sehun makes him repeat the story of that day. How Baekhyun's knuckles become white and his voice wavers slightly.
You don't remember, Baekhyun always tells him, but that was the day the world ended.
And that's when Sehun replies that the world hasn't ended. At first he was just trying to make Baekhyun accept the present, childishly trying to force Baekhyun to admit that he's right. But after awhile his protests grow softer, and the faraway look that submerges Baekhyun's gaze scares Sehun into thinking that maybe the world has ended, for Baekhyun if not for anyone else.
There are days that Baekhyun gets lost in his head, but it never takes much more than a gentle touch and a word from Minseok to bring him back. He resurfaces slowly, then smiles at them. He wanders to the marketplace and finds his way back.
But then one day he doesn't.
Everyone hears stories about the marketplace. Its stalls blend together in a mirage of treasure and trash, and the pathways that snake into it hold no promise of coming out. He's heard people say that the market is as alive as any of them, and as he watches the covered stalls inhale and exhale with the push of traffic, he's inclined to believe it. Sehun waits at the fringes, staring down dark tunnels made of walls jagged with junk. He sucks his lip between his teeth and gnaws on it, considering. Perhaps the people who never leave the market wander until they become a part of the pulse itself.
"Lost?" Whispers a voice from his right and Sehun flinches away, eyebrows furrowing.
"How can I be lost?" He asks incredulously. He's still outside the labyrinth.
The newcomer shrugs. "Well, you didn't look like you were found." The young man's mouth quirks up, silently enjoying his own joke.
Chen is a wanderer. He lurks around the edges of the market, looking for clients to guide into the heart of the sprawl. He calls himself a tour guide, but Sehun considers him more of a con artist. His relaxed confidence might lure customers into thinking that he knows his surroundings, but no one can know a changing organism like the market. Sehun has watched Chen lead people into the market, but he's never seen them coming out.
The sounds of the marketplace are beginning to pick up, and a few people push ahead of him to duck underneath the hanging wires and pans. Sehun watches them haggle with shopkeepers until they vanish from his sight. Was Baekhyun the same? One star swallowed up by the darkness?
"Baekhyun's gone," Sehun says simply and when the other asks where he just points to the path before them.
Minseok didn't cry or break down when Baekhyun went missing. Instead his mouth became more rigid and his words more hesitant. The silences were longer and the meals were shorter. Sometimes his eyes were vacant and Sehun wondered if - the same way that Baekhyun had never forgotten the crush of buildings and the wave of light - Baekhyun's disappearance was the way the world ended for Minseok.
Minseok and Baekhyun complimented each other. Sehun was close to both of them (Baekhyun used to say that the three of them were family), but the bond between Minseok and Baekhyun was stronger. They had known each other since before The Change and for months afterwards it was just the two of them struggling to survive. Without Baekhyun, Minseok was off-kilter. He orbited around nothing and even Sehun couldn't hold him in one place. It seemed natural that Minseok would follow Baekhyun's pull.
It was barely more than two days before Minseok slipped a rucksack over his shoulder. His tightly laced boots sent heavy reverberations through the room and when he opened the door a burst of wind scattered dust over the floor. Even though Sehun didn't like that Minseok's I'll see you later had sounded more like goodbye, he didn't feel any resentment either.
And that day Minseok also disappeared into the market.
There are ways that one learns to survive after the end of the world, and Minseok has taught Sehun all of them.
He knows to avoid the snapping turtles living in the shell of the aquarium, and he knows that at night the dust rises up more thickly. He knows what types of flowers grow in the old town hall and which of them are poisonous. He knows that the generators will pause in the evening just long enough for the silence to be deafening. He knows how to peel the cancerous skin off fruits he finds near the river.
There are seven different ways to capture a soul, and Sehun has heard them all.
So when Chen leans towards him and suggests that he guide Sehun through the market, Sehun smiles and flicks open the locket in his hand. He watches as Chen's face takes on an unearthly pale shimmer, and the sounds that peel from his throat are sucked into the small brass container.
At once, Sehun snaps the locket shut. He knows that within the metal case the sounds are rearranging to make Chen's name. His true name. Not that Sehun knows what it is.
"You-" starts Chen, before his voice squeaks. He swallows hard and attempts to speak again. "You took my soul."
"Collateral," Sehun tells hims. Bringing his hand up, he whispers a few words to the locket. Instantly the metal turns black, the two halves fusing into one. "I hope this means that you'll provide me with safe passage." The locket is warm in his hands, and it pulses like a heartbeat.
"Did you just... seal it?" Chen blinks, and Sehun has never seen him look this surprised. The pulse of the locket quickens and even though the soul can't escape, Sehun holds it more tightly.
"Yes." Sehun slips the locket around his neck. The flutters of Chen's pulse tickle and he plays with the chain of the necklace to distract himself. It's strange to feel the warmth of someone else's life against his skin. "Now it won't open until I tell it to. Not even if I die."
"Not even if you-" Chen stares in astonishment. "Aren't soul-keepers hard to find? Where would you get a thing like that?" The business man in Chen is starting to show, and Chen's gaze is approving.
"Secret," Sehun responds, grinning when Chen pouts. He pulls his hand away from the necklace and the locket settles back against his chest, the faint murmurs of movement sending a shiver down his spine.
Sehun thought it would take a few days to prepare, but Chen assures him that he can get everything ready by tomorrow morning. He's not sure if that means that Chen is better or worse at his job than he expected.
Now that Sehun has Chen's soul, they have to stay within a kilometer of each other and Sehun is forced to trail after Chen as he stocks up on supplies. Usually, Chen makes him wait outside and Sehun is left staring at the fading posters plastered over the front windows. The few times that Chen lets Sehun follow after him, they go into stores he's been to with Minseok before. All of the stores belong to the odd assortment of food shops that have cropped up over the years, and Sehun watches Chen haggle over the prices of protein bars and packets of instant mix.
The sun is already beginning to set by the time that Chen tells him to go home and pack.
"Alone?" Sehun reaches up to hold onto the locket instinctively, rubbing his thumb over the edge to check that the seal is still in place. "What about your soul?"
Chen's gaze flickers to the locket, his mouth curling into a smile as he pulls his drawstring shopping bag higher on his shoulder. "My house is less than a kilometer away from yours. Just stay at home and I'll be fine."
He's not surprised that Chen knows where he lives, although he can't help but wonder how he knows. Does Chen also know what will happen if he leaves the kilometer-wide radius? Does he know that his heart will stop beating and his lungs will collapse inward? Does he know that his vision will black out and his muscles will seize up?
But in the end, Sehun only says, "Don't die before we even start."
Chen is already turning down a side street, shrugging off Sehun's words with a breezy laugh. "I don't plan on it."
Sehun spends the hours before the journey combing through his home for the last two years. There are plenty of abandoned buildings around the city, but most of them are unsafe and liveable buildings rarely stay empty for long. It wouldn't surprise him to find other scavengers sleeping in their beds when he returns. Not that he would fault them for it, everyone just wants to survive.
Before The Change, their house had been a cafe. Sehun doesn't know what it looked like before Minseok and Baekhyun made it into their home, but Minseok used to work there and Baekhyun said it wasn't far from where he used to live. He often wondered if it was hard for them to live in a reminder of their past, but they never mentioned it and he didn't ask.
There must have been tables but most of them were gone by the time Sehun moved in. The front windows were covered with boards and the counter was converted into Minseok's workbench. Worn out couches against the wall were piled with equally ratty blankets and pillows. Missing lampshades had been replaced by crudely cut pieces of plastic. In fact, the only indicators that it had been a cafe are a fading mural covering the walls and the sour smell of old coffee that permeates the room on more humid days.
(Not that Sehun even knows what cafes are. He's just repeating what he's been told.)
The past few days had felt so empty that Sehun didn't think he'd feel sentimental about leaving. But he'd forgotten that some memories are engrained in the room itself. His fingers drag down the counter, passing over the burns and nicks they'd left in the cracked wooden surface over the years. Most of the things in the room have been collected through months of hunting and Sehun smiles slightly as he remembers the day that Baekhyun found the coffee maker and how proudly he'd presented it to Minseok before they remembered that they had neither electricity nor coffee.
They had been so busy just living day to day that they hadn't had time to acquire many personal things, but there are still some things he doesn't want others to find. Like the polaroids from the time that they found a camera in the remains of a department store. Shuffling through the photos he notices that a few are already missing and he wonders who took them: Baekhyun or Minseok?
When Chen knocks on the door, Sehun is already awake, sitting on the floor and listening to an old trot song on Baekhyun's tape recorder. They had teased Baekhyun over his hoarding tendencies but even Sehun couldn't deny that it had been nice to have music to drown out the wailing dust storms. Even now the song helps him forget about the journey ahead.
After a few moments of waiting, Chen pushes open the door and wanders in. Sehun's expecting Chen to be impatient to leave but he sits on the floor beside him without a word of complaint. Dropping his backpack to the floor, he leans back against the wall and the steady beats of the soul-keeper grow a little stronger as Chen begins humming along to the scratchy recording.
Sehun wonders if Chen remembers the end of the world.
It's not until the song fades away, the recorder whirring to a stop, that Chen speaks.
He busies his hands with the tape recorder, trying to hide the way his fingers are shaking. He's glad that Chen doesn't have his soul, glad that Chen won't feel the way his heart is thumping with fear. "Yeah."
Sehun hides Baekhyun's tape recorder and the small collection of tapes in the back of a cabinet. He pauses before he closes the door, reaching down to take one of the tapes. Chen's eyebrows raise as he watches Sehun slip the tape into one of his backpack's many side pockets, but he doesn't say anything.
Looking around the room, Sehun tries to burn the memories of the room into his mind. Finally he turns to Chen, taking a deep breath to calm himself.
When they leave the cafe, the dust is suffocating. Even with the gas mask Chen gave him it's difficult to breathe. The wind presses down on them from all sides and Sehun struggles to keep his heavy pack from pulling him over. Chen walks in front of him and after every few steps he checks to see that Sehun is still following him. With the pale morning light behind him, the gas mask casts shadows on Chen's face that make him look older and more vulnerable. Sehun wonders if he'll lose years to the market the way others have lost their lives.
And then the market is glittering in the distance. Its ragged roofs and jagged spires poke into the smog and Sehun thinks to himself this is it. The walls pulse with promised bargains and curious inventions. Most places might be still asleep, but not the market. It never sleeps, so it can never be caught unawares. Lights flicker from the stalls and Sehun lifts a hand to block the blaze of colors. The market might be dazzling, but the glow only reminds him of the dangers lurking within, not unlike the glowing lure of an angler fish beckoning them into range of its jaws.
The locket thrums and he reaches up with a hand to quiet it, drawing comfort from the vibrations that sink into his skin.
It's not the end of the world yet.